Friday, October 21, 2016

The Human Race: Hate The Game, Not The Player

I don’t have a lot of patience for horror films about “games” or “experiments.” Mostly because they end up never being as revealing of human nature (or horrifying) as actual real life is, and the vision of the antagonist who forces people to play these games or participate in these experiments is usually really banal. It’s teen-boy philosophizing, arriving at the conclusion that people are...bad! And...selfish! Woo! Mind fucking blown! We’re expected to care about the people forced to play this game, to care about which ones will survive and which won’t. We’re expected to be curious as to what the rules of the game are and the rationale for the game. And so at least one of these two things needs to be compelling - the players, the human interest factor, or the game, the puzzle and mystery factor.

The Human Race is a weird little film about people forced to play a game. There are some interesting choices made (to varying degrees of success), but ultimately the film doesn’t quite hit its marks, and part of that is because neither the game nor the players really seem to be all that important.

It’s a cold open on a series of instructions, given by a robotic voice and accompanied by still shots. Follow the arrows, stay on the path. The house is safe. The school is safe. The prison is safe. Step on the grass and you die. Leave the path and you die. Get lapped twice by another racer, and you die. Now race. And then we cut to a young woman, who is visiting her sick sister in the hospital. The doctors aren’t hopeful, but she’s holding it together, until her sister is gone and she’s burying her alongside her parents. It’s done economically to great effect. And then she gets some bad news of her own. So she starts running. She runs, and runs, and runs. She flips off an uncaring sky, tells an invisible God “fuck you.” And then she gets some good news, and she smiles to an uncaring sky, tells an invisible God “thank you.” She gets a reprieve.

And now here she is, suddenly elsewhere, in the middle of a crowd of people, all of whom hear the same thing she does in her head: Follow the arrows, stay on the path. The house is safe. The school is safe. The prison is safe. Step on the grass and you die. Leave the path and you die. Get lapped twice and you die.

Now race.

And so the crowd of people begins to move - almost all strangers to each other, suddenly displaced from a city block in Los Angeles to a deserted neighborhood marked by ominous, spiky, steel arrows. There is a path, and now the people race. The ones who break the rules - who step on the grass, who stray from the path, their heads explode in a shower of blood and brain matter.

Now race.

And this is all we get - the rules, and that a lot of people have been suddenly transported to someplace else, someplace with rules and dire penalties for breaking them, and all that’s left is forward motion. There’s the young woman from the hospital, two war buddies back from Afghanistan for awhile, a couple of deaf joggers, a bicyclist, the list goes on. We learn some of their stories, they run. They ask why they are there, and they run. Some die, others continue to run, trying to figure out why they’re here and what it means, all while still trying to stay alive.

There are some interesting directorial choices here - someone who is set up to be a sympathetic protagonist and given extensive backstory dies a quick and messy death early in, the action is periodically broken up by flashbacks or conversational detours into the lives of the people caught in the race, and it makes good use of split-screen and numbered intertitles in ways that you usually don’t see in small-budget independent films. It sort of reminds me of Mockingbird in that respect - the premise is one of unrelated people caught in a mysterious game in both cases, it doesn’t really look like most horror films getting made, and it’s just enough off-center to give it some character.

Where it probably most falls down is in its (ha-ha) pacing. We’re aware of the rules - stay off the grass, stay on the path, there are three safe places, and if you get passed twice, you die - but the way a story like this would work best, you’d think, would be as one that emphasizes the crushing relentlessness of these things and the way they strip people of their humanity. Except it doesn’t really feel especially relentless here - we’re aware that people die, but it doesn’t feel like people are so much being pushed to their breaking point because the race itself doesn’t necessarily get that much screen time. And I’m not sure I blame the filmmakers - it’s hard to make something that potentially monotonous very compelling, not impossible, but tough. But the end result is that everything sort of feels like it happens in a vacuum, there’s little sense of time passing or people really being put under strain. There are some scenes where some people try to do the right thing, others where people try to figure out why and how this is happening, others where alliances and cooperation break down, but they’re all sort of isolated from each other rather than being part of a continuous whole.

And even this sort of falls apart about two-thirds of the way into the movie as people sort of switch over from “terrified and confused” to “gratuitously homicidal” without any real warning. At this point the film becomes even less of a story about ordinary people being put in an impossible situation and basically becomes a gory free-for-all, which, after dealing with a large number of people dying by exploding head, starts to lose its impact. I’ll give the film credit for not always keeping the most sympathetic characters alive (or even keeping them sympathetic), but when it sort of becomes “everyone starts to murder everyone else” there’s just not a lot there. Especially since we have very little insight into the majority of people in the film and so they aren’t especially well-developed characters. That means it’s hard to invest much in their success or failure, or in their life or death. One group of three people most egregiously sort of become giggling sociopaths out of completely nowhere, and it borders on cartoonish. 

And all the time, the constant is death. There’s stabbing and bludgeoning and heads popping like swollen ticks, and it isn’t until there’s only one left standing that we get any sort of answer as to why this is happening, and it’s...well, it’s not terrible, but after the overload of violence visited upon and by people we don’t have much attachment to, it just sort of falls with a thud, like “oh, okay, that’s why. Well, whatever.” Part of the problem with stories where people are subjected to bizarre, fatal competitions is that invariably the reason this is happening is going to be disappointing. It’s probably better to leave it mysterious, but it’s also hard to do that without it feeling like a cheat. So ultimately the game needs to matter less than the people playing it. For this film to work, it needs to get us to identify with the people in the game and then to get us rooting for or against them. This is something reality television figured out a long time ago, but fiction here is less concerned with character than ostensible reality. There’s no real arc - there are people who are good until they’re bad, or completely irrelevant until they’re killers, people who develop personalities out of nowhere. And pretty much all of them die. There’s no tragedy, no triumph. Just another meandering lap around a blood-soaked track.

Available on Netflix (DVD only)

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