Thursday, February 12, 2009

QUARANTINE (2008) d. John Erick Dowdle

Reviewed by Rick Trottier

The rotting fingers of pestilence continue to be one of the most terrifying specters of death to confront mankind. It is possible that Edgar Allen Poe best captured the horrors of disease and its ruthless rampage in his short story Masque of the Red Death. Since then, film and television have done an admirable job at times of retelling the tale of the unstoppable microbe as it lays waste to civilization. Infection movies can have gripping plots that can conclude on somewhat positive notes like 28 DAYS LATER or they can be unrelentingly dark tales that end in an emotionally ravaged fashion like NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD. Whatever the tone of the story and however well that story is scripted and paced, the viewer has to feel as vulnerable and as susceptible to the dangers of the plot as every character within the film’s narrative. In the case of QUARANTINE, a remake of the 2007 Spanish film REC, some key conceptual elements and methods of execution fail to create that connection between the “fantasy” of the story and the “reality” of the terror, leaving QUARANTINE feeling like a promising experiment that did not come to fruition.

QUARANTINE is the story of investigative news reporter Angela Vidal (played by Jennifer Carpenter) and her camera team, who are embedded within a city fire department, creating a story about the men and their mission. A routine call for medical service leads them to an old apartment house where a resident has phoned in a disturbance. Upon arrival, the firemen meet up with police officers on the scene there to assist in the emergency. During their investigation, one of the policemen is attacked by a resident who is drooling, covered with blood and acting feral. In an attempt to extract the fallen lawman, the building is sealed by armed government soldiers and officials, leaving the camera crew, police and fire and all the remaining residents trapped in a building where events soon spin out of control due to a spreading contagion. People struggle to get answers, dodge monstrosities and find an exit from their surroundings even as their physical and emotional conditions rapidly deteriorate. It is only at the very end of their rope that secrets are uncovered and final judgment is meted out.

For some reason, film makers still believe that they can “make a film about making a film” and have it work. Possibly it is that enthralling “marsh light” belief, much like the fabled Seven Cities of Cibola that if the film makers create as realistic a story premise as possible, it will lead to the most brutal and matter of fact presentation achievable. Much like “the New Coke” once was, this is an experiment that can be repeated again and again and it will continue to fail. Maybe there are some people who are drawn into this method of story-telling, but most of us react in the same fashion. The documentary-style approach to a fictional story takes you out of the fantasy because you are not being immersed in the characters and their circumstances; you are forced to react to entirely “constructed” stimuli, much of it totally implausible. What makes the situation worse is that most of the character interplay and dialogue exchanges are meant to pattern realistic conversation or emotional reactions, but in the end they don’t drive the story and so the conflict becomes even more dependent on what we see and how we see it. Therein lies the greatest weakness of QUARANTINE.

So very typical of most film makers today, the people who brought us QUARANTINE felt that filming the story using handheld camera techniques, steadily deteriorating lighting and equally increasingly shaky photography methods will intensify the "realism" of their motion picture. This means that we start with an introduction that looks reasonably good despite the slow, forced feel to the plot but then the downhill slide begins. As the drama starts to unfold and the pace picks up, we enter a visually dynamic interior setting that could be relatively gripping and we see potentially frightening feral humans that might end up being chilling, but it isn’t easy to truly “see” any of this, for the camera is moving constantly, shifting angles, altering focus and adopting different perspectives. As the film accelerates and the mood becomes darker and scarier, what could have and should have been a terrifying crescendo towards bloodier and more gut-wrenching imagery became an appalling slide down a muddy and miserable visual slope. What was interesting was that the decline in image quality was the mirror opposite of another movie that failed of its promise, IRREVERSIBLE. Over the last one-third of QUARANTINE, the camera motion became progressively more erratic, the light faded little by little until we are treated to “night vision” scenes or blackness or impossible angles, and between a “reality” that isn’t as absorbing as it should be and imagery that is nearly impossible to ascertain in a comprehensible fashion, we are left asking, “why am I watching this”?

The answer is simple; the underlying concept of QUARANTINE is an excellent one. Trap normal people in a dark building with an unstoppable disease laying waste to the minds of those infected, create a situation where the ultimate bad guys are the government functionaries who create lab rats out of the building residents and then build a growing feeling disaster that is inevitable and you’ve got a recipe for a potential home run. That is the tragedy of QUARANTINE, it should be a slam dunk and there are times when it does work. There is no musical score to this motion picture, which is a rare occurrence and shows some real courage, but to take its place there are legitimately frightening sound effects that are carefully modulated and accented to be that much more dreadful to the senses. There are a few scenes where genuinely unsettling and creepy mood lighting, makeup effects and surprisingly steady holds on the “monsters” produce some deeply disturbing sequences. At these moments when the onus is on developing a sense of story and narrative conflict, a degree of momentum and actual intensity develops, but this does not happen often enough. Too often, QUARANTINE depends on jump scares and very rapid shock techniques, all of which are mere cheats instead of using much more effective methods of forcing the viewer to internalize the scares. Over the last acts of the movie, the conflict is engineered around screams and shrieks, frantic dashes across rooms and up stare cases and fumbling gropes along darkened walls in even blacker rooms. While these kinds of scenes are certainly visceral, they do not tell a story, do not assist us in gaining any deeper awareness of the characters or the ability to relate to them. The characters become simple pawns in a cinematic chess game that has little or no drama and as a result, I simply endured the assault on my eyes and the affront to my intellect and waited patiently to see how the film would end. It ended on the grim note that I expected it to end on, a conclusion that was ham-handedly foreshadowed earlier in the narrative. In the end, I wasn’t angry and did not feel soiled, for QUARANTINE is not a train wreck. I felt deeply saddened by the lost opportunity that this film was. QUARANTINE could have and should have been a great set of scares like 28 DAYS LATER was, and it certainly didn’t have to go down the same path. It could have easily blended the better camera work of that effort with the simplistic dramatic elements of THE MIST and told a story about people put into an impossible situation and how they deal with defeat and eventual death. Unfortunately, the desire to subscribe to failed modern methods of film making and the need to follow that herd of lemmings over the theatrical cliff won out.

QUARANTINE has a medium-sized bonus features menu that may be of interest to those who found themselves positively impacted by this project. There is an audio commentary with director John Erick Dowdle and writer/producer Drew Dowdle. There is also a 10 minute featurette called “Locked In: The Making of Quarantine”, which is a fairly typical but still interesting mix of cast & crew interviews blended with “behind the scenes” footage of QUARANTINE. Between these two extras, I came to understand that my way of looking at what I consider to be a failed filming technique is truly a philosophical and artistic impasse with those who see that methodology as sincere and successful. I respect artistic differences just as I hope that those who create their own forms of artistic expression will respect my right to intellectually critique their efforts. The 7 ½ minute featurette “Dressing the Infected: Robert Hall’s Makeup Design” was the jewel of this set of bonus features. It was a thoroughly fascinating expose of the conceptual efforts of the effects design team and how they wished to portray an engrossing and yet slightly different take on the contagion and its impact on the people exposed to it. Lastly, there was the “Anatomy of a Stunt” featurette, which is exactly what it sounds like. Viewers are treated to a cinematic autopsy of how one of the more impressive set pieces in QUARANTINE was engineered. At the end of the extras menu is a rather extensive vault of Sony Pictures trailers, different from the auto-play trailers at the head of the Main Menu.

I once tried to make a pasta sauce without oregano and instead of just scrapping my efforts until I had procured this essential spice, I substituted double the amount of marjoram. The resulting trial was not successful and I learned a valuable lesson about what happens when an experiment fails. We should not emerge from such failures feeling down-hearted and negative, but take all such disappointments as a chance from which to grow. QUARANTINE was a film with a great deal of potential. The general premise and some of the imagery worked very well. Just as Ford Motor Company had to admit that the Edsel was not going to work, I want to see QUARANTINE’s film makers abandon hand held camera techniques, tell a story that subscribes to some of the more traditional narrative principles and then come back guns a blazin’ to do another motion picture that I can rave about. I bet it’s a possibility and I would dearly like to see it happen.

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