Wednesday, August 21, 2013

The Bay: Brackish Water

The Bay
US, 2012
Directed by Barry Levinson

The fever of found footage films that followed in the footsteps of Paranormal Activity's revival of the genre had mostly run its course by the time Barry Levinson's The Bay came out last year. Despite its late arrival, The Bay does attempt to do something different with the conceit, crafting "found footage" culled from a range of sources into an issues-based "documentary" with clear authorial intent. It also manages to credibly turn the sight of water into an anxiety-laden potential threat—something The Happening never pulled off with its killer plants. Unfortunately, that's where the positivity ends. Though shot and put together well enough to overcome the audience's genre fatigue, The Bay squanders its potential, suffering from a lack of focus and a repetitive, over-obvious script.

The Bay depicts a small community on Maryland's Chesapeake Bay, where a summer festival is interrupted when residents suddenly start displaying mysterious symptoms—from rashes, boils, and intestinal distress, to severed tongues, bites that seem to come from within, and even death—in numbers that indicate a major outbreak is underway. While many films would have been content to let the cause of this illness remain mysterious, stretching out the suspense by tying their scares to our fear of the unknown, The Bay begins doling out evidence fairly early on. Our primary source for this information is Martha (Kether Donohue), a cub reporter on the scene who also narrates and frames the film's mockumentary in a post-event video "confessional." We also cut back and forth between a number of other video sources, like FaceTime chats and police dash cams, with the vacation film from a young couple (Kristen Connolly and Will Rogers), video conferences between the CDC and a local ER doctor (Stephen Kunken), and research footage from a pair of activist oceanographers (Nansi Aluka, Christopher Denham) becoming our primary throughlines.

Much of this cross-cutting makes sense, given the film's faux-documentary pretensions, in that it mimics a documentarian constructing an argument from the available source material. But from a narrative and tension-building standpoint, this scattershot approach simply knocks the air out of The Bay's sails. None of the stories or characters is interesting or fleshed-out enough to sustain our attention, and cutting from one to another, even with Martha's narration holding the stories together, just lowers the stakes for all. The onset and scale of the outbreak are independently established so many times, our sense of shock gives way to numb familiarity or, worse, frustration. The first time Martha intones that an on-screen character "died later that day," we feel justifiably upset. By the umpteenth time she says it, about yet another irritating, half-drawn person we see via cell phone footage, we just yawn. Plus, there's something of the Mondo movie in The Bay's tone, as its found footage frequently reminded me of the shoddy recreations and gussied-up newsreels used in the later Faces of Death sequels, hardly a favorable point of reference.

The film also pounds home its ecological message with ham-fisted abandon, both in the real reportage of recent animal die-offs and fish kills it incorporates into its intro, and through repeated finger-pointing at government officials and capitalist interests. The issue here is that by inventing a danger and attacking it with everything on the environmentalist movement's hit list—global warming, factory farming, nuclear energy, illegal dumping, shoddy government standards, and even vaccines all wind up implicated at one point or another—The Bay reduces its activism to an easily-dismissed stereotype. Even I, who typically agree with those who want better environmental regulations, was rolling my eyes by the end. The way Michael Wallach's script keeps coming back around to hit these same points, with Levinson even reusing footage from earlier in the film to make sure we get it, just made me feel like my intelligence was being insulted.

But ultimately, The Bay is a horror film, so what matters is how scary it manages to be. While it is intermittently upsetting, the film never seems to decide whether the majority of its scares should come from the conspiratorial tactics that enabled the outbreak, or from the gore and terror of the outbreak itself. Because carrying the bulk of screen time causes the conspiracy angle to go waltzing off into self-parody, the burden of instilling fear shifts to the outbreak. A few gross moments aside, what we see of that just isn't strong enough to carry such a weight, something made evident by the film's over-reliance on a chintzy sound effect to signify an imminent "infection." Instead of playing its subtext with a subtler hand, letting the audience wonder "Could this really happen?" The Bay picks up a megaphone and shouts "THIS COULD REALLY HAPPEN!" In refusing to drop the latter's heavy scaremongering to grab the former's free-floating psychological terror, The Bay drowns in its own portent.

If you want to judge for yourself, The Bay is streaming on Netflix in the US.

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