September 27, 2009

[REC] 2 (Review)


[REC] 2 (2009)

Directors: Jaume Balagueró and Paco Plaza

2.5 / 5 zedheads

Because I never reviewed the original [REC] (2007) here on The Zed Word zombie blog, many of you probably will not understand why I found [REC] 2's much anticipated screening at the Toronto International Film Festival to be a complete let-down. A tired, noisy, charmless let-down.

The original [REC] worked because the audience had time to bond with some truly likable characters before those characters found themselves quarantined in an apartment building inhabited by violent residents who had turned into infectious crazies. The original film is presented as footage shot POV-style by the camera of a TV crew -- it's a style that the directors utilized expertly to put the viewer right in the heart of the terror. Although we've seen running, red-eyed quasi-zombie crazies before, [REC] felt fresh and truly frightening. [REC] had its fair share of slightly cheap jump scares, but there was always a distinct and complex atmosphere of pulsating dread that pushed the film forward into its shocking and ambiguously religious climax.

[REC] 2 starts about 15 minutes after the first movie ended, but it never manages to capture any of the things that made [REC] great. Once the opening scene concludes, it's clear that [REC] 2 has sacrificed atmosphere for action, realistic and likable characters for bland stereotypes, mystery for exposition, and innovative uses of the POV camera for a predictable pattern of camera moves that quickly loses its appeal.

One interesting innovation that the film does offer is that the narrative is told from multiple cameras instead of one. First, there is the group of Spanish SWAT members who start off the film rushing to the scene of the apartment quarantine. We see most of the action through the main feed from one of the SWAT members' helmet cams. Each member of the small team, however, has the ability to patch-in to the main feed to give the audience multiple points of view at once via picture-in-picture. While novel, this technique wears thin not long after it's introduced. Things are scarier when you can't see everything, not when you can. Later in the film, the narrative is taken up by the footage from a camera carried by three annoying teenagers while the last third of the movie is shot by the same TV crew camera as in the original [REC]. And yes, you see footage from the original [REC] and find out exactly what happens after Ángela (Manuela Velasco) is pulled off into the darkness at the end of the first movie.

Unfortunately, the film's characters are not as interesting as its narrative structure. The SWAT team members are one-dimensional men of action who do a lot of shouting, shooting, and macho posturing but little else. I don't even remember their names. They accompany into the building a medical official with a secret identity, but once his identity is revealed he too loses much of his depth. Later, when the teens are introduced, the audience has the pleasure of watching them whine and snivel and complain and contribute nothing to the overall story. I hated these kids and every minute of the film spent with them. The most delightful character in the film is a returning character from [REC], but this character has changed subtly (although this change is related to the plot and not poor acting / pacing / scripting). In short, I didn't give a damn about any of the characters and didn't care whether they lived or died. For a film that relies on the audience's identification with the characters through their cameras, [REC] 2 never hooked me.

I was also unimpressed by the camera work. Unlike [REC], [REC] 2 feels less like a horror movie and more like an action movie. People do a lot more running and fighting; unfortunately, this means we get a lot more shaky-cam. I don't remember the shaky-cam being so bad in [REC], but here it seems like every time someone is attacked the camera spins wildly and you never see anything clearly. Add to this an incredibly loud soundtrack of screams and yells and the film felt like a total sensory overload. The only time the camera seems to show anything clearly is when one of the "zombies" is about to be killed in some excessively elaborate way. You can almost predict when this is going to happen based on the camera's steadiness. Also tiring is the number of times cameras are dropped to the ground during tense moments so the audience is forced to see only a fraction of what is occurring from the vantage point of the floor. Although dropping one's camera would seem like a natural event when attacked my savage creatures, the way it was used at least once during every one of the three segments of the film felt like a poor contrivance. By the end of the movie, I was just bored of it.

Zombie fans may also be turned off by the continuation of [REC]'s story if they expect the sequel to be a confirmed zombie flick. While I still consider the crazies in [REC] and [REC] 2 to be minor zombies of a sort, it is quickly explained that we are not dealing with a 28 Days Later virus or George A. Romero undead. Those hints at Catholic spirituality at the end of [REC] are completely explained no less than 15 minutes into [REC] 2, and after that there is no doubt about what is causing the "infection." Let's just say this is a movie where you'd be more likely to find Linda Blair than Ken Foree. I actually liked this element of the story because it eventually pays off in a great twist at the end, but I never felt that the twist or the series of events leading up to it were good enough to justify a sequel. For the majority of its running time, [REC] 2 didn't show me anything I hadn't seen before.

My review of [REC] 2 may be a victim of [REC]'s success, but I don't think I had unrealistic expectations for the film. What directors Jaume Balagueró and Paco Plaza give us is a mildly amusing film full of jump scares and loud scary noises, but it lacks the charm, likable characters, and claustrophobic dread of the original [REC]. I think [REC 2] (like Quarantine) is a film that really didn't need to be made.

Seeing as how Quarantine (2008), the American remake of [REC], failed to capture the essence of the original Spanish film, could irony throw us a curve ball with an American remake of [REC] 2 that actually improves on it?