Sunday, January 27, 2013

The Cinema File #96: "Crawlspace" Review

So...was the giant ape a hallucination, or a mutant, or a mutant hallucination, or what? Can you blow up hallucinations with grenades? I don't know, but I watched the Australian sci-fi thriller Crawlspace recently, and while its a bit muddled and more than a bit derivative of science fiction movies past, I found a lot to like about it nonetheless.

Crawlspace follows a group of military grunts sent into the Aussie equivalent of Area 51 to rescue a group of scientists experimenting with turning psychics into tools of international espionage, only to find the experiments have run amok. Things go awry when the leader of the team finds one of the psychics to be the spitting image of his dead wife, convincing him to protect her even at the expense of his men and his own life. Crawlspace is basically Aliens meets Scanners, with a little bit of Species thrown in - a bunch of hard bitten merc types exploring dark and confined corridors under threat this time from mind controlling, head exploding psychopaths, with a girl in tow who we quickly ascertain has become something other than human. If you're looking for something brand new, this film will definitely disappoint you, but for my money, what it does, it does right.

I've always been partial to the psychic bad guy, someone who can make you do things, make you see things, and get at you on a deeper level than any axe wielding maniac. The world of Crawlspace is one where every world leader is said to have a round the clock detail of psychic protection, as each nation weaponizes paranormal abilities for the most clandestine of warfare, and while I wish we would have seen more of that rather than staying stuck inside a cramped bunker for much of the movie, it set the stage for an intriguing premise that had just enough twists to make it engaging without being overly complicated or silly. The depiction of psychic abilities is very stylish and never dumbed down to the point where someone has to explain what each person does every time. We get an apparent mute who can induce suicidal paranoia and several psychosomatic deaths where people are literally killed by their own imaginations as their bodies trick them into believing to death. While again I can't say it was particularly original or innovative, the producers of this film clearly know their audience, from a forced suicide by cranial saw to the aforementioned head explody.

Much of the film deals with the limitations of human memory and how it can be manipulated when someone gets inside your head, psychically or otherwise. The main characters' shared history is shown through flashbacks, but right away its clear that not all is as it seems, as the flashes of what we're supposed to take as the past between these two people quickly takes on a dream-like quality. There are two major twists related to this narrative device, and you'll probably guess both of them well before the movie outright tells you what's going on, but even so I thought it was structured very well, to the point where I never felt like I was being manipulated like the characters are in the film. Its kind of hard to explain a movie that's so clever in execution while at the same time lacking so much in ingenuity. In a way, I feel like this is the kind of movie that Pandora Machine keeps trying and ultimately failing to make due to their lack of technical ability. All the well known beats of the genre are there, framed with a keen eye towards tension and suspense, pulled off so well that I for one didn't care that it was becoming increasingly predictable.

The film comes together so well thanks in large part to the strength of its two leads, who both turn in great performances of surprisingly complex characters. Both of our heroes prove to be much darker as the film goes on, one through a revelation of his tragic hidden past, and the other through her own choice to maintain her humanity or give in to the inhuman nature implanted inside her against her will. Both of their paths are allowed to play out, with no last minute take backs to make them more likable or provide a happy ending, and they each get an appropriately grim and foreboding send off respectively. The final reveal as to the secret origins of these psychic powers is as cliched as anything else, but I just absolutely loved the way it was shot, with blurry first person recollections, quick cuts, and visions of strange things in reflections, so that we're given just enough to hammer the point home without ruining the moment by lingering and dwelling on the absurdity of it.

Unless you're so claustrophobic that your fear extends to cinema, I think Crawlspace is a pretty safe bet for any sci-fi fan, especially if you grew up in the 80's or 90's where the line between sci-fi and horror was a bit more twisty. Its fast paced, never boring, tense and even creepy when it needs to be, and most of all just a very fun way to spend an evening. You've probably seen all the elements before, but if you keep an open mind I think you'll ultimately enjoy the way they're all pieced together this time around.

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