Sunday, October 26, 2008

DEAD SPACE: DOWNFALL (2008) d. Chuck Patton

Reviewed by Rick Trottier

Animated features sure have changed a lot over the years. I was introduced to “anime” long before it was ever called that, when I saw Speed Racer at the time it hit U.S. television in the 1960s. It was an exciting alternative to The Flinstones, Yogi Bear and Underdog, all of which were enjoyable in their own fashion, but “Japanimation” offered intensity and realism that was unique in that era. By the time I was a teenager and was watching Battle of the Planets (aka Gatchman in Japan) in the 1970s, my thirst for science fiction and animated adventure was unquenchable. By the early 1980s when I had reached young adulthood, Starblazers and Force Five helped to sate my desire for action and incredible technology and far-fetched worlds of the cosmos. The one characteristic that united these disparate experiences was that “anime” never lost its innocence and all-ages appeal, but that was to change. Since the 1990s and the full-scale assault of video game-based anime, all of what made Japanimation of bygone days seems to have disappeared. Modern anime is harsh, gloomy and incredibly violent and lacks the charm that it once exhibited. DEAD SPACE: DOWNFALL is nothing like the cartoons of my youth, but it tries very hard to create a mix of cerebral science fiction and the bloodthirsty nature of horror cinema and has a degree of success doing it.

DEAD SPACE: DOWNFALL is the story of the “Planet Cracking” starship Ishimura and its doomed voyage to planet Aegis in the 7Cygnus System. Upon reaching Aegis and its mining colony, the Ishimura discovers that a sizable number of suicides and homicides have occurred on the planet and an ancient and enigmatic artifact is believed to somehow be to blame. Death reaches out its skeletal claws and grasps the Ishimura and before long crew members are dying horribly and then return as horrendously disfigured monstrosities, animated by an alien life form that needs human bodies. It is up to Ishimura’s fiery security chief to raise the alarm and stop the resistless tide of mindless savagery before all humanity falls prey to this scourge.

DEAD SPACE: DOWNFALL is an attractively animated film in many ways. The backgrounds and visual supporting details are quite impressive and lend an atmospheric aura and a darkly ominous appeal to each and every scene. I found most of the scenes far easier to visually comprehend and appreciate than the vast majority of modern “live-action” horror films. What I liked less was the highly stylized animation of the characters with their angular features, elongated limbs and awkward look. For a long time now, that trend of animating humans has been intensifying so that someday, animated people just won’t look like people anymore. It is nothing new, Derek Wildstar and Nova of Stablazers were stylized to a great degree, but there was a cartoon-ish quality to their look that left their human imagery intact. Modern anime tends to overdo stylizing to the point where I find the characters unappealing physically and this makes it hard to identify with them. What helped were the excellent voice-overs done by the actors of DEAD SPACE: DOWNFALL. The emotionally delivered lines, even when they were far too heavily laced with profanity, aided in pulling me into the story even against my will.

DEAD SPACE: DOWNFALL has a very good premise and the story elements are dependent and derived from some illustrious predecessors. The idea of a ship reaching a doomed planet and trying to carry back something deadly, all the while keeping most of the crew uninformed or poorly informed is straight out of ALIEN. Add to that plot components about absolutely appalling alien life forms trying to take over crew members (Star Trek the Original Series-Operation Annihilate), and turning them into zombie-like creatures (LIFEFORCE) as well as chewing them up in the bloodiest of ways (Space 1999-Dragon’s Domain) and you have a tale that has a lot to attract and entertain those who like science fiction and horror. Having said all this, I found the narrative choppy for a wide variety of reasons. First, it felt like I had stepped into a story that was already part way through its rising action. This is probably due to the fact that the writers likely assume that the majority of the viewers of this DVD are probably fans of the video game and have some history with it. In addition, the story seemed to sway back and forth between trying to tell a good yarn about horrors stalking defenseless people, religious artifacts and the madness spread by alien infection of the mind and soul, but on the flip side endless images of carnage that was as gory as anything I’ve seen. I wanted more complex narrative, character development and carefully crafted mood, but I fear I am barking up the wrong tree. The 74 minute runtime of a film based on a video/computer is likely to be supremely short on fully formed story lines and long on adrenaline-raising action, and that is what DEAD SPACE: DOWNFALL is about. In the end it is too bad for I liked this DVD after a fashion and may have liked it even more had it not been marketed to another crowd. I suppose it is understandable though, for I am fairly certain that there are fewer of those folks of my advancing age likely to purchase this disc and probably quite a few youngsters who will. They are the ones who the film makers are trying to satisfy, and my disdain for their tastes is probably no different from those adults who derided my love of Speed Racer 40 years ago.

DEAD SPACE: DOWNFALL has a reasonably sizable bonus features menu. In addition to four auto-play trailers that precede the main menu, the extras section contains an “isolated soundtrack”, one deleted scene called “Graverobbers”, a photo gallery called “The Art of Dead Space” which was quite intriguing and trailers for both the movie and the game. I would have welcomed a bit more from this disc and would have liked to have heard from the director, writers and producers about their inspirations for the story and the imagery. While this was not the finest bit of animated film I’ve ever seen, it kept my attention and engaged my mind and emotions to a lesser degree. That is a lot more than I can say about a plethora of theatrical and big-budget DVD releases. A few interviews with the crew or a “making of” would have possibly lured me deeper into this unfamiliar camp and made me think even more of it.

As each year passes and I take a larger number of steps down the path of being an oldster who has less and less connection to the interests of today’s youth, I realize that my experience is no different than all the older and younger people spanning an endless expanse of generations. Just as those folks who grew up worshipping radio dramas and looked askance at “TV-loving” youth, so too did those who appreciated live performances at The Music Hall show scorn for the admirers of that “wireless Marconi device”. I enjoyed DEAD SPACE: DOWNFALL to a degree and had I been 15 or 16 I would probably be raving about it. I would probably have played the video game and have a profound understanding of the related stories of many other games. Instead, I look at this film through the eyes of a man who has watched cartoons, horror films, science fiction and action flicks and their TV Show cousins for more than forty years and even though time may be passing me by, I am wise enough to know something that has some value and appeal even when it isn’t really for my generation. I wonder what the young people who love games like Dead Space will say about entertainment in 30 or 40 years.

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