Tuesday, December 13, 2016

400 DAYS (2015)

Originally published in Cinema Knife Fight, December 13, 2016.

 The trailer for 400 DAYS (2015) inspired me to rent this film on Amazon, showcasing it as a cerebral science fiction story about astronauts training for a long-range mission in space, and the mental toll it takes on them. I was worried seeing “SyFy Films” in the credits. My experience with their movies has mostly been SHARKNADO (2013) and other low-budget goof-fests. 400 DAYS, written and directed by Matt Osterman (GHOST FROM THE MACHINE, 2010), takes itself seriously and does a decent enough job, considering its low budget (what we used to call “TV movies”) compared to its big screen cousins. The film tries to be cerebral—trying not to spell out every answer for the viewer—depending on which character you decide to believe.


When the final credits rolled, however, my first reaction was to Google “What does the ending of 400 DAYS mean?” I found a blog entry which began, “I’m guessing you just finished watching 400 DAYS and immediately jumped on Google to find out what just happened.” I’m paraphrasing a little but, yes, this is one of those onion films—it has layers, not all of them obvious. I’m reasonably sure writer/director Osterman was making an entirely different movie than the one my wife and I saw. She was annoyed at the end. I was intrigued. Overall, though, I don’t think the filmmakers carried off these layers as well as they could have. I say all this up front not to give anything way, but to warn you.

1.  If you like your films neat and tidy at the end, this one is not for you
2.  If you like your films to leave much more to the imagination than usual, this still might not be for you because its execution is a little shaky, and
3.  It’ll be hard to write a review for 400 DAYS without dabbling a little in what goes on in the latter part of the movie. I’ll warn you when I’m getting to that.

The premise: NASA is performing an experiment on potential crew members for a future expedition to Mars. A reproduction of the proposed ship’s interior is built underground. A crew of four will stay there for over a year to gauge repercussions of living in close quarters over an extended period of time. The chosen crew consists of three men and one woman. Brandon Routh (SUPERMAN RETURNS, 2006, LEGENDS OF TOMORROW TV Series) is Theo, the assumed leader (not sure why, except that he’s the first character we meet) who spends the night before in a drunk tank mourning a breakup with his fiancĂ©. Said fiancĂ©, Emily, is the medical officer on the ship. She’s played by Caity Lotz (White Canary from the ARROW and LEGENDS OF TOMORROW TV Series… I wonder about a connection between SyFy and Warner Brothers considering the plethora of DC Comics actors). Dane Cook (DAN IN REAL LIFE, 2007, PLANES, 2013) is one of the strongest (performance-wise and physically) characters, engineer Dvorak. Rounding off the crew is a man named Bug (Ben Feldman of CLOVERFIELD, 2008, and the SUPERSTORE TV Series). At one point, we glimpse their personal records. His name is Bug. That should have been a warning to anyone vetting possible astronauts.

Here’s where the realism (or deception, depending on how you watch) of the plot gets wobbly. Aside from Routh, who has retained a bit of his physical shape from playing a superhero, most of the crew looks like they need to hit the gym for a few months before attempting long-term space missions. How these four got a berth on what should be an historic moment for mankind is a mystery. Unless you watch the events play out as I think you should: an experiment, not a dry run for a future mission.

The opening credits show clip after clip of government experiments performed on astronauts during the pre-space program era, and other, hapless-looking people from the fifties who’d probably been paid five dollars to have their veins filled with hallucinogens. It’s creepy (and, to be honest, goes on a little long), but this sort of visual isn’t put into a movie without significance. Not long after the four “undergroundnauts” climb into their home for the next four hundred days, the camera lingers a bit long on three syringes Emily administers to her compatriots—their “vitamin” injections.  We never see her get a shot, though she pops pills in a few scenes. This, plus Emily and mission leader Walter (Grant Bowler, DEFIANCE TV Series), whispering about some secret agreement before this all begins, point to something amiss. She gives Theo an explanation near the end, but at that point things are so upside-down, one isn’t sure whether or not she’s lying.

The first half of the film takes place over their first three hundred and ninety-eight days underground. With one exception, nothing major happens, aside from people sitting around pushing buttons or running on treadmills. There’s very little character development, aside from an occasional argument. Theo pines over Emily’s rejection and Bug gets twitchier as he draws weird maze patterns on his bedroom walls. From the get-go, aside from Cook’s gruff engineer Dvorak, these are not the most interesting characters to watch for half of a movie. The plot hurries through this section to get to the last couple of days, where things get more interesting.

I admit to being disappointed in the first half. The premise of isolation for so long, and the strain on psyches, was where I hoped the film would go. The people making this movie had a different plan on what was going on. In retrospect, some of it worked quite well, because I’m still thinking about it as I write this review with more thoughts occurring to me. Remember what I said, you have to like movies that don’t spell everything out to appreciate what they’re trying to accomplish here.

Early in the experiment, alarms shriek and the entire compound shakes violently. This rattles the crew, not only for the surprise factor, but the fact that the underground complex is able to shake at all. Solar panels up top have dropped to minimum output. The crew can continue with what they have, but need to conserve energy. With the alarm and initial shaking come heavy, lumbering explosions above-ground for days. It sounds like a nuclear war going on. Before going underground, each of them had been warned: do not leave the bunker for any reason, until the end, or else their careers are over. So, no one leaves. They listen, and wonder—to themselves. Dialogue is sparse, but this particular moment could have worked better with more talkie parts. Something big was going on, but no one is wondering, openly at least, what. Moreover, they’ve lost communication with Mission Control. It is never regained. At this point they still have a year left, and most agree it’s probably part of the simulation. They do nothing, try and communicate with the surface, and hang around, waiting.

Over a year later, with no communication with the outside world, Bug is getting twitchier. He sees visions of the son he left behind and, with one exception, seems to be the only person having hallucinations. Dvorak has one early on, where his face is bleeding, but nothing comes of it. On Day 398, someone finds an emaciated, post-apocalyptic man sneaking about the complex. He’d found a way in from the surface. With only two days left before their mission is complete, they decide to sneak up top to find out what’s going on, against the desperate objections of Dvorak, the voice of reason who insists this is still part of the experiment.

On the surface, everything is desolate and dark. The world is covered in grey, fine dust, as though it has been decimated by a nuclear war. There is no radiation, no scorched earth. The air, however, is contaminated and oxygen levels have been severely depleted. They explore the world wearing their suits.

(WARNING: SPOILERS)

Here’s where the story takes a dream-like turn, gets more interesting, and more questions than answers begin pummeling the viewer. As mentioned, it would be hard to review this film without a few plot spoilers, so be warned. The only way I’m able to review 400 DAYS is to talk about the ending at some level. If you’d rather watch this movie yourself with your own theories and unanswered questions, jump to the end. Otherwise, here we go:

Our four explorers wander through what seems like an eternal night. The sun never rises, or if it does, they don’t see it. Everything is dark, the air full of dust. They come upon a small town reminiscent of an Old West ghost town. Dvorak continues to insist it’s all staged, part of the illusion. No one has a better explanation, but they keep quiet, preferring to decide for themselves without rushing to conclusions.

Buildings along the street are ablaze in electric light. The residents rarely speak, are dirty and sickly-looking. No one speaks but one man, their presumed leader. One of the best characters, Zell, is a man barely-restrained from violence, played with strained intensity by Tom Cavanagh (THE FLASH and ED TV Series). Cavanaugh does anti-hero/evil geniuses well. Zell knows more than he lets on. His explanation as to what happened is masked in an “I don’t know for sure, but here’s what I saw” ambiguity. Something crashed into the moon. Not long after, the Earth was coated in dust. The moon is gone, and the Earth is poisoned. They haven’t seen anyone else since. So they say. His interaction, and the way the silent townspeople watch our intrepid explorers, reminds me of the townspeople of Terminus in that skin-crawling WALKING DEAD storyline: intelligent, scheming cannibals. In fact, that is implied a couple of times. But there’s more to this.

Dvorak is the first to point out one major flaw in this place: the townspeople are the same newspaper and media reporters who had attended their “launch” three hundred and ninety-eight days earlier.

The film ends back in the bunker as the clock winds down to 400 with a violent confrontation between Zell and another townsperson, and Theo and one of his gang. When the end happens, you are left both excited at the twist—if there is one—and annoyed. As I stated in the beginning, you are given a mystery. What exactly happens at the end and, answering that, what has happened during the entire movie, are questions needing to be asked.

Personally, I have two theories. The first is that they weren’t underground for four hundred days at all, but the daily injections and some tinkering with the clocks allowed the experimenters to fool them into thinking so. Enough time to create the illusion of a major disaster aboveground. My second theory is that everything was a hallucination, either by everyone, or only Theo. If this is the case, the ending is far more tragic, especially when you do a bit of math. That’s all I’ll say about that. Either way, don’t be surprised if you watch 400 DAYS, then come back here to reread what I deliberately didn’t say or simply Google “What happens at the end of 400 DAYS?” on your phone.

The acting is decent—stronger in Cook’s Dvorak and Cavanaugh’s Zell—but kudos to Feldman’s twitchy Bug. I wasn’t won over by Caity Lotz’s performance, however I reserve the possibility that everything her character said and did was play-acting towards another goal. I rarely see actors playing characters, who themselves are acting, done convincingly. Routh was the solid anchor character Theo, but he—and admittedly everyone else—didn’t act with convincing motivation. Four hundred days underground should bring out one’s quirks and eccentricities. This didn’t happen, occasional hallucinations notwithstanding. These characters were simply too mundane and flat to bring us through the story entertainingly. For comparison, I point to Sam Rockwell’s portrayal of Sam Bell in the incredible indie film MOON (2009). There, the cast is pretty much Rockwell alone on the moon but he, and the script, carries that movie easily to its conclusion.

400 DAYS does not. “TV movie” it might be, but it could have been clearer, or more gripping in the first half. The second half is an improvement, but—with wooden characters caught in this storyline—the viewer likely stays to the end only to see what the pay-off is. Unfortunately, 400 DAYS insists we write the pay-off ourselves, by Googling our questions, writing a film review, or both.

I give it two knives, because I’m a generous sort and the movie did have ambition.