DirectorJohn Erick Dowdle
Release Date(s)2014 (December 2, 2014)
- Film/Program Grade: D+
- Video Grade: B+
- Audio Grade: A
- Extras Grade: D
My definition of melodrama is a dramatic work that takes itself way too seriously and yet is done so poorly that others can’t take it seriously at all. Alas, that’s we have here in As Above So Below, a technically creative horror film that centers around a deep and endlessly fascinating topic (the Philosopher’s Stone of alchemical legend), indeed one that’s attracted obsessive attention for centuries, but doesn’t develop a premise that’s worthy of its subject. To a person its characters aren’t remotely believable in any way (especially their vocations, which are beyond ludicrous), and worse, they are so unfailingly shallow that they’re easy to root against once they begin getting picked off one by one.
So, the base plot point is that a 20-something Lara Croft wannabe named Scarlet is following in the footsteps of her father, dead by suicide wouldn’t you know, in tracking down said Philosopher’s Stone. She coerces the help of another neat-o 20-something named George, who apparently breaks into and fixes ancient clocks for fun and spends his spare time translating ancient Aramaic for Scarlet(!). Their search leads them into the freaky catacombs below Paris, home to the bones and skeletons of millions, where they hire a group of other 20-something catacomb spelunkers as guides, so it’s kind of like illegal zip lining but for centuries-old artifacts.
Scarlet apparently wears a GoPro all the time and also has some guy named Benji following her around with a camera documenting her quest just because she’s super interesting, I guess. Honestly, the real mystery of the film is wondering what any of these people do for gainful employment because it’s hard to believe that their gigs pay for their travel let alone living expenses.
This means of course that we’ve essentially got another totally implausible “found footage” movie, which is unnecessary and lame as far as the narrative goes, but is visually the best thing about As Above So Below. Although he carries a normal video camera Benji plants button cameras on everyone’s headlamps, and there’s some real creativity in how the shots are planned and edited and move the action along by bouncing from one POV camera to another (the narrative of course never addresses who could have edited the footage we’re watching so neatly; Nicholas Flamel I suppose). I also have to note that we again see the fatal flaw of every “found footage” movie I’ve ever seen: the idea that when the shit really starts to hit the fan there’s one idiot who doesn’t just wise up, drop the camera and make a break for it.
Anyway, the best moments are in generating claustrophobia and then the feelings that the spelunkers are in a space beyond the catacombs and yet still trapped within them as phones ring, voices are heard, and they are led and re-led into the same chambers over and over (the expression “As Above So Below” can be interpreted as referring to travel between or even the melding of the realms of heaven and Earth). And there’s a genuinely freaky guy, presumed dead, who shows up and starts walking around with the group, which is surprisingly ok with that until he beats one of them to death. However, just as some momentum starts to take hold, it becomes a kind of by-the-numbers Solaris rip-off where the characters must make emotional amends for lost loved ones for whose deaths they feel responsible. By the end it feels entirely perfunctory and predictable as the characters are snuffed out one by one.
The failures of this movie start with Scarlet herself, a female lead who is supposedly smart and highly educated and yet has acquired nothing in the way of common sense or wisdom, and is brazenly disrespectful of the antiquities she’s allegedly spent her lifetime studying. The second is that while the Philosopher’s Stone (or the Emerald Tablet, it has many names) is a fascinating legend that’s enriched by centuries of fantastic tales it is given no real weight or gravity in the script. Other than its power to heal, Scarlet never really expounds on why alchemy and the stone have remained a fascination among the world’s best minds for centuries or why she wants it. It’s presented here as something she wants, apparently just because her Daddy failed to get it for her. Also problematic is that when she and George solve its riddles their mumbo-jumbo makes about as much sense as the rationale for burning the witch in Monty Python and the Holy Grail (“We know she’s a witch if she’s made of wood. How do we know she’s made of wood? If she floats. What also floats? A duck! Precisely! Therefore if she weighs the same as a duck she’s a witch!”) Anyway, yes, I found my mind wandering during this movie.
Universal’s Blu-ray transfer is of course superb, although the shaky GoPro-style personal photography dictates that visual perfection is not a goal. Nevertheless the scenes above ground and many below are strikingly detailed and sharp in a video-ish way. As mentioned the visual device of the story being told through personal cameras is well devised and executed, and the video here doesn’t let it down in any way. While it’s not real eye candy there’s nothing to point to in the way of artifacts other than some occasional banding in the underwater sequences, which is always hard to nail down as far as it being inherent in the Blu-ray source or the display on playback.
The sound design is wildly inventive and startlingly effective! Convincing sound effects and dialog consistently pan throughout the soundfield in an expansive, and aggressive 360 degrees, mirroring the characters’ movement and doing much to create the environments of the catacombs and driving what suspense there is. It’s reminiscent of the precision and craft heard in Gravity, which is mighty praise. There are freaky sounds and voices at every turn, and they are genuinely unsettling at times. My theater room is in the basement of a three-story house and several times I’d have sworn what I was hearing was coming from upstairs! The bass is punchy, with real authority when called on. This is truly excellent sound design, showy and flawlessly executed. The only extra is a typically self-serving 4-minute EPK type thing.
I’m generally a person who gives horror movies more of a pass than critics do. To know where I’m coming from with that, recently I liked Deliver Us From Evil a little, The Conjuring and Insidious a lot, and regard Sinister as a recent classic in the genre. This is not in the class of any of those films, and other than the sound design is not worth the time, even for a rental. Move along people, nothing to see here …
- Shane Buettner