Friday, May 08, 2015

Found Footage Friday: The Pyramid (2014)

(Watch out for spoilers!)

I generally don’t pay a lot of attention when mass media, front-line movie critics review new horror movies.

This is so because many of those critics either don’t appreciate horror as a form, or simply don’t understand the horror genre well. In just the last year, for example I read egregiously over-the-top negative reviews of Annabelle (2014) and Ouija (2014).

But when I watched those films, I found that they weren’t actually awful.  They weren’t the “worst” films of the year, as advertised. The story was much more nuanced than that. They weren’t great; but the films showed promise, and featured some good scenes. At worst, they were mediocre efforts.

Long story short: I ignored the negative mainstream reviews for the new found-footage horror film -- and major studio release -- The Pyramid (2014) and watched the bloody thing anyway.

In this case, the mainstream critics were absolutely correct (demonstrating to me why I should never consider a rule or behavior an absolute…). 

It’s difficult to know what’s worse about The Pyramid: the incompetent execution, the bad CGI, or the hopeless, half-enunciated script.

I’ve watched many found footage films -- including the love it/hate it disaster/masterpiece micro-budgeted Daylight (2013) -- and few can hold a candle to The Pyramid in terms of pure unadulterated wretchedness.  

It isn’t just bad…it’s Jaws: The Revenge (1987)-level bad.

All the stereotypes viewers think of when they hear the words “found-footage” -- and which I have tried here on the blog so hard to dispel -- are abundantly true of The Pyramid.  The acting is lousy, the cinematography is bad, and the film, finally, makes no sense at all. Characters don’t just make bad choices, they’re dumb as stumps.

If you’re a regular reader here, you know how much I hate to write negative reviews. I would much rather appreciate a movie than tear one apart.

But The Pyramid?

Too bad it didn't stay buried.

“This is the find of the century…”

In Egypt in 2013 -- at the height of political unrest in Cairo – a team of archaeologists unearth an ancient three-sided pyramid. This lost structure is 250 miles from Cairo, and is believed to be colossal, with much of its structure still underground.  When the pyramid, toxic fumes are expelled, but the choice is made, nonetheless, to explore it.

Leading the team are Dr. Miles Holden (Dennis O’Hare) and Dr. Nora Holden (Ashley Hinshaw), who differ dramatically about the role technology should play in archaeology.  Filming them is a documentary crew led by producer and rock climber Sunni (Christa Nicola) and camera-man Fitzie (James Buckley).  The last member of the team is a robot wrangler, Zahir (Amir K.)

After Zahir loses contact with his NASA robot, Shorty, inside the pyramid, the Holdens decide they can’t obey government orders to evacuate (because of the unrest) and go anyway inside the structure to find it.  

Almost immediately however, the team finds danger within the pyramids walls; dangers including collapsing floors, sand-traps, and the pyramid’s dark, cannibalistic inhabitants.

But ruling over all this chaos is a God of the afterlife (or is it the underworld?)

“This asshole has led us into a death trap!”

The Pyramid violates one of the key qualities of the found-footage format.  The movie starts out as found-footage in nature, showing audiences material from the robot Shorty’s camera, and from Fitzie’s camera too. 

Then, at some point -- once everyone is inside the pyramid -- the found-footage aspect of the film just ends.  Without comment, without note.  

Suddenly, while watching, you’re realize that nobody in-story can be filming this material. The angles are wrong. All the character are on screen.

Now, I don’t object to a film that features two distinct visual approaches. Efforts such as Lovely Molly (2012) and REC 3 (2012) create a nice blend of approaches, sometimes harnessing found-footage style, and sometimes going a traditional film-grammar route. 

But in those cases, it is clear instantly when the in-world camera view goes out (a camera is de-activated, for example).  

In other words, there is a delineation in approaches that we recognize with our eyes. Not so here.  The film looks exactly the same, visually-speaking, when it is found-footage and when it is not found-footage  There is not a visual palette or color change, for example, to suggest we’re no longer gazing through Fitzie’s camera;  and no “stopping” point that tells us he has stopped filming, either.

Instead, this shift just happens, without comment, without note, without any kind of change at all. The whole found-footage approach just gets dropped unceremoniously, and the filmmakers can’t be bothered to provide a visual or contextual clue about that fact. The sudden realization that the movie’s central format is dropped without warning will hit you like a brick, and take you right out of the narrative for a good minute or two.

And that narrative, from which you are rudely kicked, is no great shakes either. It starts out promisingly, as the writers set up this interesting generation gap approach to archaeology. Miles and Nora argue about how to undertake their chosen field of study. 

Miles -- a traditionalist – believes that nothing can beat a hands-on, physical approach. 

Nora, by contrast, prefers to rely on high technology: satellites, roving robots and the like.  We get at least two scenes in the first act where this matter is intensely discussed…and I thought it was worthwhile and interesting.  I wondered where it would go.

And then I got my answer.

Like the found footage visual approach, the whole subplot about archaeology is just dropped…ignored or forgotten. It ultimately has nothing to do with what occurs in the pyramid, or how the people inside either escape or killed. It’s just an intellectual exercise promising something interesting, and an unfulfilled promise.  

Alas, the script makes the characters stupid too. Early on, Zahir finds one of his legs trapped and crushed under a very heavy rock. The rest of the party tries to move the rock with their bare hands, but can’t save him. The stone is too heavy. 

Yet in frame in some shots -- just feet away -- are several long logs braced against a doorway to another chamber.  

Apparently nobody – not a TV producer, a camera-man or two highly-educated archaeologists (even one who likes a “hands-on” approach) -- think for a second that they can use these logs as a lever to lift the stone off Zahir’s leg.  Ever heard of Physics?

Nope, they just move the logs out of the way, and leave Zahir there, in the hope that they will find help for him.

Not great thinkers, these folks…

Later in the film, the protagonists are confronted with a murderous creature in the pits of the pyramid: Anubis himself. This half-man/half-jackal is rendered with the worst CGI you’ve ever seen in a major release (arguably the worst since An American Werewolf in Paris [1997]). The dimensions of his waist are so patently unreal, so phony, they make “waif” Kate Moss look fat by comparison. 

And Anubis's face looks like something straight from a Warner Bros. cartoon.  Unfortunately, the monster is seen on screen, for a good amount of time, so your eyes can take in his full, fake, digital appearance.  

This is an example in which practical effects (a costume, like the one seen in Stargate [1994]) would have been infinitely preferable.  

Or, like the much-derided Blair Witch Project (1999), The Pyramid could have kept Anubis hidden all-together. Some combination of approaches -- keeping him in the shadows and showing only pieces of him -- would have been far preferable to what we get here. Anubis is a big, waif-ish computer-created avatar with big cartoon eyes. He lives gravity-free, Physics-free through the film's frames and destroys any sense of reality the film has attempted to create.

The whole story involving Anubis makes no sense, anyway. He has just been sitting inside this pyramid for something like 3000 years, so he can rip out of the hearts of any eventual visitors?  

Talk about dedication to the job....

The film makes a half-hearted attempt to suggest that Anubis was actually trapped here in a prison (the pyramid) by those who worshiped him, yet the end of the movie shows that the exit to the “after life” -- a critical aspect of his test of “virtue” for those Anubis punishes or rewards -- is right in the burial chamber where he operates!  

So in 3,000 years, he never figured out how to climb up a hole, but was able to navigate sand-traps, collapsing floors, and spike-rooms?  

Not to mention cannibalistic cats (which, I presume, is what he feeds on…)?  

With the strength he demonstrates throwing a stone on Zahir early on, it is perfectly natural to assume Anubis could built a rock platform, and exit the pyramid any time he pleases.

Furthermore, The Pyramid never really makes a case (at least in the consistent way that As Above, So Below [2014) did) that the central structure is supernatural in character or nature.  The team gets lost early on, but is the pyramid shifting and changing on them, or are they just incompetent?  

It’s tough to say, since a soldier manages to find the way in and out (and drop a ladder down for the team).  How come he can do this, but the team -- of brilliant archaeologists, remember -- gets turned around and can’t find a way out?

The deeper one moves into the creative mess of The Pyramid, the less sense it makes. Everyone decides to go into the weird structure -- when they have been ordered to evacuate -- because the robot, Shorty stops transmitting.  

Wouldn’t you just send the robot wrangler, and maybe one archaeologist in, first?  

Why does the producer need to go at all? (Answer: fodder for violent deaths). Presumably, Sunni could watch the whole thing from the comfort of her tent, on a video monitor. 

Still, the first twenty minutes of The Pyramid are probably the best in the picture.  That’s when there’s still promise that the movie could follow through on the values of the found-footage visualization, or the thematic terrain: using the future to understand the past.  

Instead, all the good stuff just gets dropped, and we are dumped into a CGI-heavy monster movie that makes no sense and insults the intelligence.  

Shockingly inept, The Pyramid lives up to the press reports about it. 

Per Dr. Holden's dialogue, we probably shouldn't “mention the word ‘curse.' in relation to The Pyramid.

But what the hell? This movie is cursed.  

Caveat Emptor.

1 comment:

  1. I usually find at least one redeemable, unnerving moment in most found footage films, which means I watch a lot of bad found footage films. But the changing of the format is a non-starter for me, I will not be watching this film.