Monday, April 14, 2014

Offspring: Like An Actual Movie, Except Not Actually Good

I don't like binary or otherwise quantified criticism - thumbs up and down, three out of four stars, crap like that. First, it's really subjective and takes a single viewer's experience and reduces it to a yes/no verdict, and no two people necessarily watch a film the same way. Second, it's reductive and doesn't communicate the strengths or weaknesses of a creative work at all. Why does it work or not work? What elements contribute to its success or failure, and how? To what degree is that assessment a product of the viewer's own perspective and ideological stance? I mean, I guess if you're just approaching it as a consumer and trying to rate your experience of the movie as you'd rate any other commercial good that you'd consumed that'd be okay, I guess, but it strikes me as a little too trite to call it "criticism."

I'm only on and on about all of this because sometimes I find myself at a loss as to how to talk about something I've just watched. Is my appraisal thematic? Narrative? Technical? Ideological? What's my way into this film, if I'm going to devote page space to it? Some posts come to me almost fully-formed, sometimes spilling over with enough ideas that I have to write about them more than once. Others take a little longer to work up, and sometimes the film is just elusive enough that I find myself at a loss, and I end up engaging in exactly the sort of self-reflexive navel-gazing I'm doing right now.

Folks, I am just going to have to be straight with you. Offspring is one of the worst movies I've ever seen. It is amateurish in its execution, gross, cheap and pointless. I am going to try and dissect exactly why that is, but it's not going to be pretty.

The problems with this film are not apparent right away - the opening credits play over a series of newspaper articles about mysterious disappearances along coastal areas in New England and Canada. It's a timeline of about 120 years, and as a narrative device, it's not especially innovative but it gets the job done. It's an efficient way to communicate the premise. No, it's after the main credits that the problems begin. A woman comes home (from what is apparently a long night of being a drunken slattern), and there's a certain…cheapness…to the camerawork, as if it's been shot on home video. It's not especially well-lit, and the woman is pretty obviously doing her best impression of someone who is drunk without being believably drunk. It's almost silly in its exaggeration. Now, I'm not a big-budget film snob by any means, but I've seen enough low-budget films to know that it's possible to make something look good without it necessarily looking expensive. This establishing scene doesn't look expensive, but it doesn't look good either. The first impression is "enthusiastic amateurs with a camcorder."

So our drunk lady staggers up to her house, only to find it silent. She keeps yelling for the babysitter, but nobody answers, and her noisy stumbling through the house brings her to the kitchen, where she discovers that her babysitter has been butchered. It's handled reasonably well at first - she's drunk enough not to notice the bloodstain on the doorframe, but we do, and as she enters the kitchen we see a bloody leg in frame just before it registers with her. And she discovers the body and we tilt up to, well, we tilt up to a bunch of kids in loincloths and crude tribal paint. The effect is less "terrifying" and more "who let the summer stock production of The Lord of the Flies in here?"

That's the moment when I realized that this was probably not going to be a good movie, because the reveal of the antagonists is so underwhelming that any tension built up by the previous scene is completely lost. I actually almost laughed out loud, and that's when you know you've lost your audience. The woman screams, she is killed, and up comes the title. Any goodwill this film built up in its opening credits is gone in mere minutes because it's asking us to believe that a bunch of kids playing dress-up and sort of sitting there without any visible emotion (except maybe awkwardness at having found themselves in this situation) are feral cannibals, and we just…can't. There's no energy or conviction at all. In fact, it's silly. It's also problematic because the film has tipped its hand early - there's no sense of mystery now, nothing for us to wonder about. We know what the threat is, and any shock associated with it is lost before it even has a chance to accumulate.

So, having blown it on two fronts by the end of the opening credits, we're introduced to our protagonists - an artist named David, his wife Amy and their little baby Melissa. They have a cute little house in a small town in Maine, and one night David is out in his home studio, looking out the windows into the country night, and he sees a scantily-clad young woman standing off in the distance, watching him. She drops something on the ground and vanishes into the tree line. And see, that's how you open a movie - establish a mood of idyllic rural life, and then drop something weird into the middle of it. Except we've already got a pretty good idea of what’s coming because we already saw a bloodbath before the damn credits were done.

But anyhow, day breaks, and David’s family is joined by Amy’s sister Claire, who is in the middle of a messy (and exhaustively exposited) divorce, with her son Lucas in tow. It is made very clear that her soon-to-be-ex is a very bad man (Amy begins a conversation with her sister by saying “so let me get this straight...” before laying out paragraphs of everything that’s happened to her sister, to which her sister responds with paragraphs of her own, both of them speaking in ways that only poorly written characters speak), and he’s skipped town, vanished with a ton of money that he embezzled...except he’s on his way here to the small Maine town for reasons. There’s no point for the ex-husband to be in this movie, and there’s no point to the scene in which he’s introduced - he damn near rapes a hitchhiker after delivering another mouthful of awkward-as-fuck dialogue, and we never see the hitchhiker again, and it’s just there to tell us that he is a bad man, which we already know. There’s no reason for him to be headed to the island, he’s just one more body to put in the way of the events that are about to occur and to serve as a catalyst for some pointless cruelty about which more later maybe.

So we've got our good guys (David et al.), our coked-up wild card (the ex-husband), and a bunch of local cops and people from the sheriff’s department, who appear to be mildly concerned with the abattoir they find in the unnamed drunk lady’s kitchen. They go off to grab Stock Old Drunk Guy Who Used To Be A Good Cop But Saw Too Much #436 from his house so they can all go on a manhunt looking for the people who did this.

And then there’s the cannibals in their cave, grunting and hooting and speaking gibberish, with us having absolutely no insight into who they are, why they are like they are (they’re the descendants of some Scottish lighthouse keeper, but that means they’re cannibals why?), or why they’re doing any of what they’re doing. They only make sense if you assume they're a bunch of kids playing at being feral cannibals, rather than actually being feral cannibals. In fact, that's kind of how the whole movie feels - it's cheap, shallow, and juvenile, like a bunch of teenagers playing at making a movie, rather than actually making a movie. The young woman we spotted outside of David’s house says some nonsense and two others whip her with branches. Why? So she can pretend to be hurt and stumble into David’s house - a clever ruse that should make it easier for the other cannibals to sneak in and take everyone unawares, except it’s immediately followed up by all of the cannibals breaking the windows and storming in all at once, through everything BUT the door David opened for the girl. Then a bunch of gore happens, and the ex-husband shows up, and survivors and cannibals and cops and the ex-husband all sort of go running in different directions, and the rest of the movie is just these groups sort of wandering around unspecified parts of the Maine coast.

And that’s the next problem - there’s no clear sense of time or geography. People are over here, and now they’re over there, and some people go one way, others go another, in a way that feels a lot like the filmmakers organized the whole thing around specific scenes and then stitched it together in something resembling temporal order without giving any consideration to why people do the things they do or even thinking in terms of cause and effect. This wouldn't be a problem if I thought we were intended to feel dislocated or disoriented, but this doesn't play like a movie about people caught in a nightmare where time and causality are suspended. This plays like a movie where real people are supposed to be caught in a real predicament, but none of it feels real at all. It’s just a bunch of scenes that I suspect someone thought would look cool.

And what a bunch of scenes they are. Lots and lots of pointless gore and violence - beatings, eviscerations, people getting shot, stabbed, decapitated, and impaled without any sense of narrative logic or pace or rising tension. Some dudes over here die in bloody ways, then some dudes over there die in bloody ways, the women are spared only to be terrorized at creepily gratuitous length (the smarmy estranged husband sells everyone out immediately even though there's no apparent benefit to it, he just seems to get off on cruelty even when his own life is threatened), someone we thought died didn't, and then they go kill some more people and then they really DO die, and then there's even more violence - and violence per se isn't the problem, but the violence here communicates nothing. It's not the result of someone's actions or decisions, it's not a way to convey what's at stake, it's not a way to raise the tension, it's just a bunch of horrible shit that happens, free of implication or context, until it stops happening and then the credits roll. We’re supposed to empathize with the protagonists, we’re supposed to root for the good guys, we’re supposed to be afraid of the cannibals (or maybe we’re supposed to understand them? It’s hard to tell when they’re played as nonsense-spouting cartoons), but none of it works because none of it attempts to connect on a human, empathic level. These aren't people, they’re cliché-spouting types and poorly defined at that. Wooden characters saying wooden things, speared on cheap-looking weapons in sprays of the cheapest-looking fake blood I've seen in ages, to no apparent purpose.

I suspect this isn't my most thoughtful or insightful post ever, but watching Offspring was exhausting in the degree to which it tested my goodwill. Everything looks cheap, everyone sounds and acts fake, nothing makes any sense, there's no real reason to care about anyone, it's devoid of mood or atmosphere, it's devoid of tension, and it all ends on a fairly nasty note that only highlights the pointlessness of the whole affair. It's not even funny or absurd in its ineptitude. It's just shit.

Unavailable on Netflix Instant (Available on DVD)

1 comment:

  1. All those Jack Ketchum's adaptations are utterly crap (except Lucky McKee's Red... which is just plain correct)