Editor’s note: The Objective is part of IFC’s “In Theaters + On Demand” programming, available on demand as of 6 February.
Assuming that Dick Cheney is in fact Darth Vader, the premise of The Objective hardly seems farfetched. That premise, an alien invasion of earth by way of Afghanistan, U.S. military shenanigans, and a CIA cover-up, is also not especially new, or scary, or compelling.
The film begins with a weary voiceover by one CIA operative, Benjamin Keynes (Jonas Ball). He’s headed back to Afghanistan, he laments, where he notes “we” were fighting the mujahedeen during the ’80s (though if he means that literally, he was on leave from elementary school at the time). Now, as his chopper heads toward the Moroccan rocky mountains passing for the Ghazni Province in November 2001, he says that while the Agency is worried that a “radioactive heat signature” means the Taliban has a nuclear device, he knows better. Or different, anyway: he has information from a trustworthy source named Muhammad that the source “may be something much more powerful.”
This something is associated immediately with the brutality of the landscape (wind, heat, sand, and rough terrain) and the grimacey distrust from his new teammates, a U.S. special forces unit with the usual array of gnarly types. These are introduced summarily — with name and thumbnail description — by the CO, Hamer (Matthew R. Anderson), who makes clear his instant and righteous misgivings regarding any civilian-directed mission. His is a “shit hot team, you won’t find any better,” he boasts, as the man with the baby on the way is plainly marked as the first dead meat character and the good-humored medic (Jon Huertas) is set up as the one we’ll miss most of all.
The men look askance at Keynes as they all board a chopper bound for… hell. This point is underscored frequently by the recording device he brings along, which reframes POV images in a red-lit, demonic register, and by the helpful commentary of these hard and tough men, who repeatedly call their new environs “hell.” Almost as soon as they’re deposited in the desert, they run into a mysterious, ingeniously low-budget effect — chopper sounds without a visual and, soon enough, a body splatted on a rock, insides out. “Somebody’s trying to fuck with us!” ascertains one of the guys. Indeed, nods another, their unseen opponents are “Fuckin’ savages.”
All this hubbub, occurring within two or three minutes, sets up the film’s relentless and deeply uninteresting pattern: the men encounter an inexplicable phenomenon, they shoot a bit and curse their luck, lose one of their number, then discuss what just happened, to the best of their ability. Keynes maintains a Marlow-like distance from the team, his voiceover mimicking the somber tones of Martin Sheen’s back in Apocalypse Now, but lacking even his meager philosophical weight. The script, group-written by director Daniel Myrick (who brings to bear his Blair Witch experience in a few hand-crafted stick structures looming on shadowy hillsides), Mark Patton, and Wesley Clark, Jr. (whose paternal influence can only be guessed at), is a hodgepodge of horror and war movie clichés, unleavened by the poor production values and unconvincing performances by military vets.
The storyline is bolstered by a legend about “the Hill of Bones,” essentially a scary story told one evening, in which an 1842 British regiment goes into a pass with some 16,000 refugees — and only one survivor emerges. His version of events is sketchy, of course, which means that “what happened” remains unknown, hence Keynes’ obsession with recording every step of his current journey, to send back “verifiable proof” to Langley even if he doesn’t make it back himself. When the straggling survivors learn they — along with their mystical Afghan guide, Abdul (Chems-Eddine Zinoune) — are expendable in this pursuit of data (again, regarding a likely weapon of “unimaginable power”), they are also, much like the Nostromo crew, upset.
That Keynes rationalizes his deceit and more or less willful ignorance with a mantra of patriotism (“I’m willing to die for my country”) is the film’s most noteworthy point. When Hamer complains they have been sent on a suicide mission without being apprised ahead of time, Keynes notes, “There is a big difference between suicide and sacrifice.” Hamer doesn’t let up: “Truth! That’s the fucking difference!” When Keynes submits that his now dead men were patriots, Hamer explodes again. “They were my friends!”
Poor lunkhead. In its fundamental betrayal of Hamer and his men, the bad-CIA-designed mission is consistent with any number of stories that pit the hardworking military against the insidious civilian government. Keynes doesn’t quite embody all the malignancy usually associated with such conniving, as he seems quite completely to have drunk the koolaid, reiterating his belief that his mission is worthy. That his documentation of the mission is, in fact, the mission, is a bit of meta-business that doesn’t work so neatly or immersively as, say, Blair Witch, but it does lead to a better-than-expected ending, which lasts but a minute under the closing credits. His story is not, at last, the story released to the public, of course. Instead, his wife appears in a “news” interview, extolling his loyalty. “He was dedicated to his country,” she insists. Such delusions allow wars to be fought.