Friday, September 2, 2011

How much footage is there left to find?

I have been excited to see Apollo 18 ever since I first got a glimpse of this poster and first got a hint what it was about.

This, despite the fact that the found footage genre has steadily been wearing thin with me, to the point that it culminated in a really disappointing experience earlier this week.

In order to account for how I went from excitement to wariness regarding found footage, let's start at the beginning. Not the beginning of the genre -- if I'm not careful, someone will tell me in my comments section about how the first found footage movie was made in 1959. The beginning for me, which was about a dozen years ago. (And thank goodness wikipedia has a comprehensive page on the found footage genre, which should make this easy for me.) Since we're starting at the beginning for me, these films are not listed in the order of their release, but rather, the order that I saw them -- which makes more sense as a way of documenting my own personal experiences with found footage.

The Blair Witch Project (1999, Daniel Myrick & Edward Sanchez). How you reacted to Blair Witch was a function of when you saw it within the hype cycle. Since I saw it more than a week before its release date, you better bet I was trumpeting its greatness to the skies. I clearly remember, as we left the theater, my friend saying to me "That's the scariest movie I've ever seen." I wasn't willing to go that far, though it had definitely disturbed me -- in part because it felt so fresh. I loved the conceit that a video camera had just been found containing this footage. I don't think they went so far as to say that the people in it hadn't been identified -- but that wasn't necessary. The people had been identified, they were missing, and this is the only footage that gave any clue what happened to them. And it ends when the last person is no longer able to push the record button on the camera. Simple, beautiful, frightening. And a seemingly insatiable appetite for found footage is born.

The Last Broadcast (1998, Lance Weiler & Stefan Avalos). While I was still in the dizzy spell of Blair Witch, I saw a movie directed by a couple guys who claimed that Blair Witch had ripped them off. I know this not only because of what they said publicly, but because I interviewed Lance Weiler and Stefan Avalos (actually, just one of them, but I can't remember which -- I think it was Weiler) for a piece I wrote in Time Out New York. Their story involves filmmakers getting lost in the New Jersey Pine Barrens while searching for the Jersey Devil. There are similarities to Blair Witch, sure, but the main reason I'm including it here is because wikipedia's found footage page reminded me of its existence. It's not strictly a found footage film because it also includes interviews taped after the fact, giving it the structure of a more traditional documentary (albeit a fake one). Also, it's not very good -- the main reason I didn't buy it when these guys said Blair Witch ripped them off. It's kind of like those persistent accusations that J.K. Rowling ripped off the idea for Harry Potter. Okay, but who came through with the execution to make it a worldwide phenomenon?

Cloverfield (2008, Matt Reeves). Given the phenomenal success of Blair Witch, it's kind of hard to believe that found footage kind of went into hibernation for almost a decade. According to wikipedia, there were movies made in this genre, but you tell me if you've heard of any of them: The St. Francisville Experiment (2000), The Collingswood Story (2002), August Underground's Mordum (2003), September Tapes (2004), The Zombie Diaries (2006). No? Me neither. But found footage came roaring back, somewhat literally, with Cloverfield in 2008. What I appreciated so much about Cloverfield was not only that it did what Blair Witch did -- giving us a bunch of footage that, while amazing, seemed like something somebody could have actually shot with one video camera -- but it seamlessly introduced special effects into the equation, giving the monster an undeniable verisimilitude. I loved it so much that I saw it twice in the theater -- which I also did for Blair Witch.

Quarantine (2008, John Erick Dowdle). I was still high on Cloverfield when I saw Quarantine, and liked it so much that I wasn't sure, while I was watching it, which film was better. Since then it has become crystal clear, as I've seen Cloverfield a third time and given Quarantine less and less of a thought with each passing year. Still, the found footage genre was honored quite well with this entry, which I didn't even know at the time was a remake of the Spanish film REC. To my great shame, I still have not seen REC or its sequel, otherwise those would certainly be discussed here. (Wikipedia actually shows REC as having two more sequels scheduled for the future, so you could probably write a diminishing returns post about just the REC series.) Anyway, I thought the zombie movie was a good next place to go with the found footage genre ... even though it had already been there with several entries that I hadn't seen.

Diary of the Dead (2008, George A. Romero). Such as Diary of the Dead, George Romero's requisite dalliance with found footage, released earlier in the year and seen by me a couple months after Quarantine. This film was an almost unqualified disappointment for me. A key ingredient in selling us a found footage film is that the actors can make us believe they are real people -- the video camera medium has an extremely exacting standard when it comes to acting. The actors just didn't pull it off here, and moreover, I found the zombie stuff to be unexciting. Diary of the Dead is not terrible, but neither is it worthy.

Paranormal Activity (2009, Oren Peli). Remember what I said about the Blair Witch hype cycle? I saw Paranormal Activity after it had been the theaters for a couple weeks, and after they'd already started showing footage of Micah Sloat's body being hurled at the camera in the TV commercials. (Talk about spoiling a movie in the ads -- that's one of the last things to happen in the narrative.) I was occasionally impressed and a bit scared, but ultimately disappointed in Paranormal Activity. I wouldn't say that my wariness with found footage was increasing, although it could have been ... but my next two experiences were quite good ones.

The Last Exorcism (2010, Daniel Stamm). Quite simply, I loved this movie. It didn't get lots of love from critics, but I loved the idea of a charlatan exorcist setting out to make a movie to debunk his own scam -- and then happening upon a real case of devil possession. The effects were very credible in this film, and it chilled me. Plus, Stamm gets a really charismatic lead performance from Patrick Fabian. I guess the ending left a little to be desired, but until then, this movie completely had me. Although the subject matter is somewhat similar to Paranormal Activity, the approach is entirely different and it worked a lot better for me.

Paranormal Activity 2 (2010, Tod Williams). Even though I'd been somewhat non-plussed by Paranormal Activity, I knew I would eventually be seeing its sequel, and that eventuality arrived sooner rather than later, only a couple months after it arrived on DVD. And for reasons I can't entirely articulate here, I liked it a lot better than the first. Maybe there was less hype and maybe they spoiled less in the ads, but I was really on board with this movie the whole time. And liked the way it ultimately tied into the narrative of the original. Doesn't mean I'm going to be lining up for PA3 this Halloween.

Trollhunter (2010, Andre Ovredal). I've seen this title also written as The Troll Hunter and Trollhunters, but I'm going with one word and singular. And I guess I might have been that much more excited about Apollo 18 if I hadn't just seen Trollhunter on Sunday and Monday nights. (We had to continue it to the next night because it was putting us to sleep). I feel very uncharitable saying this, because Trollhunter should have been great, and I really want to champion a little underdog Norwegian film that uses believable CG trolls to convince us of the authentic nature of the footage. But Trollhunter helped me recognize two other crucial elements of the found footage genre beyond those I've already discussed: 1) There has to be a story; 2) You have to care about the characters. It's kind of odd to say this, because in theory, a bunch of found video tape footage only contained whatever the cameraman happened to record during the days and weeks of time from the first bit of footage to the last. All the character development could be occurring off camera and we're just not seeing it. But found footage films need to be clever enough to get the character development on camera, as well as including enough of a narrative arc to make us want to know what happens next. As much as I enjoyed the idea of three intrepid film students following around a mysterious man who's posing as a bear poacher, but is actually killing trolls with giant concentrated beams of UV light, it just didn't play out on screen the way I wanted it to. We never got to know the characters any better and their interactions with the trolls were not building toward any kind of climax -- except for the fact that you know they have to disappear eventually, else their footage would not have been "found." I so wanted to like Trollhunter better -- instead it left me feeling a bit despondent about found footage as a genre.

And so that's where the release of Apollo 18 finds me. On the one hand, I'm excited to see a found footage movie set in space, because to my knowledge, that hasn't happened yet. (You could set a found footage movie in the future, but that would take away from its sense of immediacy, which is key to the effect it's supposed to have on us.) On the other, I'm freshly wary of this type of movie and sort of doubt that the surprises it contains will knock my socks off. In movies like this, it helps to see what the studio thinks of it -- and the fact that they're releasing it on the Friday of Labor Day weekend, the same day that the hilariously titled Shark Night 3D is also being released, gives me plenty of doubt. Besides, how was this footage "found," anyway -- did some other astronaut stumble across a video camera half-submerged in moon sand? (Kidding -- "found footage" is not quite so literal as that.)

In a way, it seems a little unkind to the found footage genre to have written this post. As I've gone through writing about the nine films mentioned above, I realize that I have quite positive things to say about five of those nine, and two of the last three. Not great proof of a downward trend, ultimately. However, it's not always possible to tell in advance when your saturation point will be reached on something. You may think you're fine with a particular cinematic trend, then one day you just decide you've had enough. Like, I didn't realize I was over Zooey Deschanel until I started seeing ads for her new Fox show, New Girl. Then I decided instantly that she was played out.

I'm probably going to see a movie this afternoon, after I've been on baby duty for a couple hours following my anticipated early release from work. I could see Apollo 18 -- I could easily see it. But maybe I'll wait. Maybe today I'll let a different "gimmick" -- although I hesitate to call it that -- get me in theater, as I see Circumstance, the drama about Iranian lesbians.

I'm worried they'll disappear at the end of the film for an entirely different reason -- one that's sadly based on the realities of our world, rather than fantasy.


Thaddeus said...

I watched REC. It was actually pretty good most of the way through, but it really lost steam. It also had a ridiculous ending that was supposed to be shocking but didn't work for me. I wasn't sure which was worse - the lack of any logical explanation for most of the running time, or the sudden attempt to add one.

Apollo 18 looks like it'll either be super super cool, or just another bad idea played out again.

You wisely protected yourself from the "there were way earlier found footage movies, dude" claim. But am I supposed to believe you never saw The Texas Chainsaw Massacre?

Vancetastic said...

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre doesn't qualify. It's not supposed to be shot by one of the people it's happening to. Is it? I don't think so. I'm pretty sure all the shots are "omniscient," if you will.