Toronto: Hayden Christensen and John Leguizamo star in disappointing 'Vanishing On 7th Street'
I don't know that I'd call Brad Anderson a strong narrative guy so much as he's a guy who knows how to evoke a mood and how to pull an audience into a specific place. He's not a "horror director," per se, but he's certainly made his share of horror films, and quite well in some cases. I love "Session 9," and I think "The Machinist" is a great slow burn. When I was on my way up to Toronto for the film festival, "Vanishing On 7th Street" was one of my most anticipated titles just because of Anderson's track record.
Let's just call this one a disappointment. I wasn't a fan right after the screening, but upon reflection, I'm even less satisfied with it, and it doesn't help that a screening of "Devil" reminded me of how much life you can still wring out of even the simplest formula as long as you approach it in the right way. Anderson's film is a conventional genre exercise, but the choices he and screenwriter Anthony Jaswinski make cripple the exercise right off the bat, and the film never overcomes the built-in handicaps. In short, the menace the film is built around is never menacing, and that's not because of the concept so much as the execution. There's something creepy about the notion of evil that hides itself in any shadow in a world where light is slowly slipping away, and there are a few moments in the film that suggest just how a subtle, creepy version of that film might play.
This is not that version.
The decision to use CGI to create the shadows throughout the movie seems like an obvious one, but having seen the film now, it's a mistake. The shadows are too liquid, too pure black, too weightless. In scene after scene, the shadows pour into rooms until the last possible second, and then pull back just before they actually do anything. Scene after scene after scene of that. The most effective shadow gags in the film are the most subtle, the ones that don't really announce themselves. And although I'm not really the sort of person who harps on about CGI as a tool, in this case, it would have been way more effective if Anderson and his cinematographer Uta Briesewitz (who also shot "Session 9" for him) had played games with practical shadows. The organic nature of the trick might have really upped the scare factor significantly.
A bigger issue is the film's mythology or lack thereof. I don't mind some ambiguity in the film, but I need to feel like the writers understand what's happening even if the audience doesn't, and in this case, there is so little that's explained or justified that it never really works for me. The menace is so vaguely defined that it's not scary. And the structure of the film is downright odd, with backstory for each character held for a reveal that doesn't actual reveal anything. When you're going to play with time and structure this way, it should pay off somehow. "Vanishing" is basically a siege piece, with a group of survivors meeting in a bar that is one of the few places to still have power and, as a result, light. Tensions play out, people get picked off, and eventually it becomes a question of who's going to survive. Very familiar stuff, right?
The hook here is a good one. There's a momentary event, and 90% of everyone vanishes right away. The rest of the world then watches as shadows take over the world and eliminate everyone they touch, leaving behind a pile of clothes and little else, a la The Rapture. There are religious undertones to the movie, but since no one feels the need to resolve anything, you can read whatever you want into it, right down to a ham-handed Adam-and-Eve reference in the closing moments. If they'd constructed the film so it was building towards something about either the characters or the world, then it would be worth the ride, but as it is, it's really just an excuse for one gag involving shadows over and over.
Hayden Christensen, Thandie Newton, and John Leguizamo are the leads in the film, but they all get upstaged by Jacob Latimore, who plays the youngest survivor, a 12-year-old named James. The four of them do what they're asked to do, but they're not really playing characters. They're playing types, and so little of the film adds up narratively that there's nothing for them to hold onto from scene to scene, moment to moment. I wish I could be more positive about the film, but it just feels like a case where all the elements are worthy, with a final result that fails to bring those elements together into a cohesive whole.
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