The Bay Movie Review
Written by Karin Crighton
Released by Lionsgate
Directed by Barry Levinson
Written by Barry Levinson and Michael Wallach
2012, 85 minutes, Rated R
VOD released on November 2nd, 2012
Nansi Aluka as Jaquline
Christopher Denham as Sam
Stephen Kunken as Dr. Abrams
Frank Deal as Mayor Stockman
Kether Donohue as Donna
Kristen Connolly as Stephanie
Will Rogers as Alex
I was living in Maryland during the massive fish kill of 2009 that inspired this story. It was harrowing when the news first broke; the follow up stories from around the world of unexpected mass bird deaths and additional fish kills were nerve-wracking. Over the next few weeks, after the “this-is-a-sign-of-the-apocalypse” hysteria died, this story disappeared into oblivion. Much like all news stories of importance in the minds of Americans.
In that same vein, The Bay loses its steam partway into the movie and fails to recover in time to make a great impact on its viewer. Being from Maryland and knowing the name Barry Levinson from Avalon, Rain Man, and High Anxiety, I was expecting something great. Unfortunately, this movie doesn’t live up to the talent attached to it.
The Bay starts off with a sunny Fourth of July in the fictional town of Claridge, Maryland. Before the blue crab eating contest is over, most of the town is suffering from boils, internal bleeding, and poor governmental oversight. The local hospital is quickly overrun, the CDC drags its feet running tests, and law enforcement can’t handle the number of distress calls. Without help and a way out of town due to road closures, the citizens scramble to find out what’s happening before it’s too late.
It’s a great idea. I know because it’s been done.
I find the best way to look at The Bay is through the lens of other movies. In 1999, The Blair Witch Project brought first-person POV format to the mass public and its popularity exploded. Since that well-known film, everyone on God’s green earth is giving it a shot. Sometimes it works: Cloverfield, The Fourth Kind, The Last Exorcism, even a little 2006 movie called Invasion. Sometimes it doesn’t: The Bay. Producer Oren Peli launched his career with Paranormal Activity, and he’s kept with the first-person trend with Chernobyl Diaries and the inserted hidden camera elements into the otherwise boring Insidious, so it’s not surprising he attached himself to the The Bay. [Editor’s note: I loved Insidious. Karin can go to hell.]
Cloverfield, Blair Witch, and Exorcism work because they hold true to the format of one story, told by one camera wherever possible, with only a few snippets from planted CCTV or a hidden camera. Invasion was surprisingly dead-on using one single police cruiser camera for the entire film; the feeling of isolation and hopeless was significantly amplified when the characters and audience felt they were entirely alone in their struggle. The Fourth Kind varied on this rule but kept the recordings focused on a smaller pool of locations and characters to separate the afflicted parties from the disbelieving neighbors to salvage the friendless feeling.
The Bay has too many stories, too many settings, too many cameras and not enough reasons for people to be using them. It stretches its limits and the story becomes thin and translucent and loses the viewer’s interest about thirty minutes in. The main character, used as narrator, is a plucky American University journalism student named Donna Thompson, played blandly by Kether Donohue. I guess screenplay writer Michael Wallach didn’t remember Quarantine, itself based on the Spanish language movie Rec. And Jennifer Carpenter nailed the plucky reporter bit in the former. Donohue hammers away for 85 minutes without hitting the mark.
For that matter, most of the acting misses the mark; it seems these actors have no clear picture of who they are. Young couple Tom and Stephanie (Will Rogers, a current Broadway star, and Kristen Connolly, the worst part of The Cabin in the Woods), get into a bizarre fight when they arrive at night to discover the dead and dying on the street. If you found a dead teenager on the dock, would your first reaction to be to antagonize the one person you can trust? The extras have no idea what’s happening, the cops can’t even banter like cops, and you will never convince me an established female news anchor would be pleased her younger competition has gotten a big break with this mysterious illness plaguing the town. She’d be calling her a tramp off-air and you know it.
Frank Deal as Mayor Stockman is one of the exceptions to the wishy-washy acting parade; his lines dismissing the environmental concerns of Claridge may be absolutely ridiculous, but he knows who he is. The other exception is Christopher Denham as Sam the oceanographer. He’s incredible. He’s created a life in Sam that is full and rich and leaves you wanting to know more. That’s why he’s in Argo, a brilliant and breathtaking film on the shortlist for an Oscar nomination.
I have a few qualms about their science. The claims are fantastic, as they must be for an eco-thriller, but some things just don’t sit right. An off-handed claim that bull sharks don’t attack the abdomen seems misleading. Bull sharks frequent warmer, shallower water where it’s more likely you’ll be standing. Does that make it less likely that the abdomen would be attacked simply because it’s out of the water? I actually am curious about this claim, so please comment if you know about bull sharks. Would the CDC really Skype with a doctor before taking a simple phone call? After seeing the symptoms, are we really to believe the National Guard wouldn’t have shut down this town in a heartbeat? This is Maryland, a stone’s throw from Washington, D.C., and the most politically valuable people in the country! And the Cymothoa exigua, the isopod upon which the creepy critters in this film are based, doesn’t actually injure or kill of the fish it attacks. It just...eats its tongue. After doing a bit of NatGeo research on the Fukushima power plant leak, I’m not sold that a leak from Calvert Cliffs, the nuclear power plant inferred in The Bay, would cause so rapid a change in genetic traits that swimming roaches would become piranha in just seven years. If you haven’t guessed, you probably want to skip the snacks while watching this movie. Gross.
The plot is a good idea. First-person storytelling is a good idea. Not royally screwing with the Chesapeake Bay is a good idea. But those ideas never come together with one great idea.
I’ll close out this review with a reference to Skyfall, which I hope will make Steve groan since I wanted to do my Top Ten for 2012 with ten different reasons why you should see Skyfall. He said no. Dick.
Anyway, during a particularly luminous moment Dame Judi Dench quotes Alfred Lord Tennyson’s poem Ulysses, an allegory for that movie’s theme. The poem states that while time has diminished the strength of the King, he is still strong of heart and will and ready to take on one last voyage into the unknown world that lies beyond the ocean. A beautiful analogy for how the Bond movies have recently weathered and adapted to the test of time, and equally appropriate for the man who won an Oscar for Rain Man.
At 70, Mr. Levinson has accomplished great feats throughout his body of work. Rain Man gave him an Oscar; he gave the world Good Morning, Vietnam, Avalon, Silent Movie, Diner, Wag The Dog, Homicide: Life on the Street, and much, much more. The producers and screenwriters working with him in this film are of the new school: ultra-low-budget, first-person camera, improv and ad-libbing over meticulously typed and revised scripts. But if Skyfall strived to teach us anything, it is that sometimes the old ways are the best ways. A plot fully realized. Characters well drawn. Actors well coached. A message that reaches inside the viewer and takes hold with a vengeance and refuses to let go long after the credits have finished.
Hollywood, and all the new filmmaking cities popping up around the world, are finding new ways of storytelling. Small-time talent becomes big-time famous overnight. But underneath all this whirlwind of technology and innovation one cannot forget that, underneath the gadgets, underneath the gimmicks, underneath the shoestring movie making a billion dollars, the point is to tell a really, really great story.
Don’t forget that, Mr. Levinson.
Video, Audio and Special Features:
Video, audio and special features will not be graded as this was a movie screening.
*Note: The pictures are publicity photos and/or taken from The Bay's official Facebook page.*