Monday, April 16, 2007

Someone Should Have Yelled "Cut!" On "The Reaping"

Sometimes you go to see a movie as a favour to someone else because they want some company. And when it’s a favour, it’s very often because your gut’s telling you ahead of time (based on previews and whatever buzz you’ve soaked up) that for whatever reason, this flick is gonna be a disappointment. To be sure, you can be surprised and enjoy your cinematic experience. But even if you’re instincts are right and the movie is a stinker, there’s no joy in telling the other person “I told ya so” because you’ve voluntarily wasted an hour-and-a-half to two hours of your life (and possibly some cash for the ticket and snacks) by going along. Last weekend was just such an occasion. My wife asked me to see the new Hillary Swank movie “The Reaping” with her, and sure enough, my gut was right: the best part of that show was the stale popcorn I sucked back waiting for the flick to end.
“The Reaping” is so unoriginal it’s not even worth talking about all of its flaws in detail because you’ve already seen all of its elements at some point or other. Combine your favourite (or at least the first that comes to mind ‘cause it’s hard to find one good enough to call a “favourite”) one of each of the following cliché suspense/horror movie categories: satanic cult, demon-child, pleasantly-bumpkinish-on-the-surface-but-in-fact-somewhat-creepy backwoods village, or world’s about to come to an end in a wash of hellish or vengeful heavenly fire – you’ll end up with “The Reaping”. If there’s a suspense/horror trope that’s been overused to the point of near irrelevance, this film will flog it a little more.
(And now for the totally unapologetic spoilers:) This is a movie so clichéd they even killed the sidekick black guy! You would have thought that being an intelligent scientist/investigator, this fellow would have said: “Hmmm. I’m knee-deep in a river of blood outside a town beset by biblical curses, with a reportedly evil child skipping through the bog somewhere just behind the next bush on her way back to her mom’s biker flop-house, the food’s rotten and maggoty, the cows are psychotic, later on I’ll be crawling around a ruined church and a mausoleum, and they’re asking me, a black guy, to spend the night in a dilapidated old Southern plantation house – on the uncomfortable hide-a-bed couch in the den no less! Something bad may just happen on this trip, and I think it may just happen to me. If you’ll excuse me, I’m taking the truck and going home. Best of luck, Hillary, and I’ll see you next semester (hopefully).” But, of course, that doesn’t happen.
Really though, I think the scariest thing about “The Reaping” isn’t all the hoary old tricks they use to try to make you jump in your seat, it’s the fact that the hereditary leader of the satanic cult that’s brought the wrath of god down on that forgotten hunk of bog is the town school’s science teacher. In an era where science seems to be held in suspicion by a frighteningly large number of Americans, I would worry that this turning away from rationality does not need to be reinforced by the movies – especially by one as bad as this. You might argue that the filmmakers did this on purpose to in some way satirize this apparent growing distrust of science, but I would caution that even if this is the case (and I’m not sure that it is) that too many people in the audience would have that distrust reinforced by the choice of the bad guy’s occupation, rather than see it for the intended satire. Will this film cause Americans to run into the street demanding that men of science be burned at the stake or that Galileo be re-excommunicated? No. But sociologists and psychologists have long warned that pop culture does have an effect on people’s perceptions, and this movie’s depiction of the town’s only scientifically educated person (someone who possesses what to the “simple” townsfolk must be arcane knowledge beyond their reach, and one who is a teacher and thus more powerful shaping the minds of the young) as someone with malicious intent, might at least subtly bolster the subconscious fears of some members of the audience.
Moreover, it isn’t Swank’s rationality or scientific knowledge that saves the day, it’s a leap of faith and trust in the ability of the almighty to shoot straight and hit the right target. Certainly not an original ending, nor one that will help turn the tide of suspicion of science that seems to be growing.
Why can’t science help the good guys win? I remember the climax of the 80’s animated movie “The Flight of Dragons”, where the hero counters the evil wizard’s summoning of various fell monsters with a roll-call of the sciences. What about the “Ghostbusters”, who used their “unlicensed nuclear accelerators” to blast a surly demi-god/100-foot-marshmallow-man back into “the nearest convenient parallel dimension”? What about “The X-Files”? Even though Mulder often followed his hunches and held a great store of faith in the existence of various critters of the unknown, it was always his cooperation with Scully, the doctor (read scientist), and their use of rationality and science that allowed them to uncover the truth, survive and, on occasion, triumph.
“The Reaping” could have shown some smarts and learned a lesson from “The X-Files” and maybe turned into a success. Instead, it put its faith in Hollywood horror clichés and failed utterly. If you really want to waste your time on this movie, be smart about it and wait until they show it on TV – at least then you won’t waste your money.

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