'Don't Look Up', Look Away

Don't Look Up, Fruit Chan's English language debut, has a world of potential -- potential that is squandered at every turn.

Don't Look Up

Director: Fruit Chan
Cast: Reshad Strick, Henry Thomas, Kevin Corrigan, Eli Roth, Zelda Williams, Carmen Chaplin
Distributor: E1 Entertainment
Rated: R
Release Date: 2010-07-27

Don’t Look Up is a horrible disappointment. It's a remake of the 1996 Japanese horror movie of the same name by Hideo Nakata, creator of Ring, Ring 2, and Dark Water. The first version is eerie, atmospheric, and genuinely frightening. Don’t Look Up also marks the English language debut of Hong Kong horror director Fruit Chan, who is responsible for films like Dumplings, Finale in Blood, and Three Extremes.

This movie has a lot going for it. The potential is there for it to be completely awesome, and I’ve been eagerly awaiting the DVD. Now, after watching it, all I can do is shake my head and think of all the wasted opportunities.

Don’t Look Up begins with an account of Matya, a young gypsy girl. Her mother makes a pact with Beng, the gypsy devil, and essentially sells her daughter to him as a bride. When the Matya, played by Zelda Williams, is born she bears the mark of this deal, and the townsfolk murder her in a brutal fashion. Her spirit is understandably pissed off, and seeks revenge.

In 1928, filmmaker Bela Olt (Eli Roth) attempts to make a silent film version of the legend. Olt is besieged by visions of the girl’s violent end, the Hungarian set is cursed, and the production shuts down, leaving the film unfinished and never to be seen.

Marcus Reed (Reshad Strick) is a modern day horror director, whose first film was a roaring hit, but suffering from mental health problems, he has been unable to duplicate his initial success. Like Olt, he is also plagued by fits and visions and what look like seizures. Along with his bottom-line producer, Josh (Henry Thomas), Marcus sets out to film a pseudo-remake of Olt’s film. Of course, as Marcus says in an interview, it isn’t really a remake since the original was never finished or seen.

Get it, it’s clever, this film is a remake of another movie, but is about a film set where they are filming a remake. More than likely you would make this connection on your own without it being overtly stated, but I want to illustrate a point.

One of the main reasons Don’t Look Up fails is because of this sort of obviousness. Instead of being subtle, mysterious, or letting you figure out things for yourself, the script by Brian Cox (and not amazing Shakespearian actor, Brian Cox) endeavors to explain everything in explicit detail; thus, it's heavy-handed and condescending. It would be easy to go on a diatribe about how American remakes of foreign films tend to dumb things down for the audience, but that’s already been written many times over, in many places, so you can take it for whatever you like.

As you can imagine, the set of Marcus’ film, which is the same one used by Olt’s ill-fated production, and hasn’t been used since, is all sorts of haunted. The filmmakers see shadowy figures in the camera and the wrong images in dailies, the power goes out, they hear creepy sounds, there are swarms of flies, and a weird guy with a goiter and a hook-bladed knife is hanging around.

For the most part the cast does a solid job, with one glaring exception: Strick, as Marcusj, is not good. His chief expression is wide-eyed, slack-jawed awe, which he does mercilessly. His performance is never natural, and in the moments that are supposed to be the most gripping and tense, his overacting is comical, which destroys any potential drama. In any other role in the film you could get past this, but since the movie belongs to Marcus, it's really self-defeating.

You get the sense that Don’t Look Up could have been creepy, that it could have approached the original in atmosphere and feel, but the potential is squandered. The sets and settings have a lot of promise, the score is full of eerie gypsy strings and ominous tones, and the elements are all in place to make a scary movie, but it is too obvious, and fulfills none of the initial promise.

The production relies on CGI instead of more practical effects, and the images wind up like something you would see on SyFy on Saturday night. The swarms of flies are laughable. When the filmmakers don’t rely on schlocky computer graphics some of the gore is pretty well done, as when Matya is murdered, but these moments are few and far between, and only prove to be too little, too late.

Sure Don’t Look Up is fraught with problems, but these, and more, could have been forgiven if the story itself were better. Instead of spending time developing characters, the script spends too much time on bland, Hollywood in-jokes about things like residuals, nets, and interfering producers -- all the while completely ignoring personality. After the pathetic attempt at a twist ending, as the credits start to roll, you realize that you never cared about anyone, that you never felt anything for the characters in this film.

The DVD of Don’t Look Up comes with an extensive collection of behind the scenes footage that looks exactly like what it is: someone wandering around videotaping the set. Only it isn’t that interesting. Even when people talk the sound is so muddy that you can’t usually understand them. If you have a deep interest on what a film set looks and feels like, you might want to watch it, but even then, 20 minutes of it goes on too long.

The making of feature is pretty standard fare. You learn things such as Grigore (Lothaire Bluteau), the Romanian locations manager in the film, is supposed to be funny. There are interviews with staff and crew, the dissection of a stunt sequence, and a quick conversation with the FX staff, that are fairly interesting but, like the behind the scenes material, it goes on for too long.

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