Sunday, January 25, 2009

“You can feel it. That cold ain’t the weather. That’s death approaching.”

I've never read the 30 Days of Night comic book, but I've heard that it's fantastic. At the very least, I've seen some of the art work, and it's pretty amazing. I'm not sure if I'll ever get around to reading it, but seeing the movie adaptation certainly isn't motivating me.

30 Days of Night starts with a pretty awesome premise. Every winter, the town of Barrow, Alaska experiences 30 days without sunlight. The small town is so remote that there are no roads in or out, and the flights to and from civilization halt during the month-long darkness. On the eve of final sunset, a rash of vandalism besets the town. Power and phone lines are severed, sled dogs are viciously killed, a commercial helicopter is stripped, and a mysterious stranger (Ben Foster) appears. Shortly after the sun sets, the town is overrun by a pack of vampires, signaling the start of a month-long siege. The story follows the attempts by a small group of residents to hide and wait for the eventual sunrise. Among the residents are Sheriff Eben (Josh Hartnett), his estranged wife Stella (Melissa George), and a handful of other locals.

Though 30 Days of Night may have a few things going for it, overall it's, at best, a by-the-numbers horror thriller. Hartnett is terribly bland as the typical horror movie hero, specifically the calm, competent, self-sacrificing, All-American-Boy variety. George's Stella is essentially the female version of the same archetype, she has all of the same characteristics as Eden, just to a lesser degree. It isn't even worth talking about the other residents; they're not even fleshed out to the point of being archetypes. They're just sort of there to be picked off, one by one. Even Ben Foster (Six Feet Under, 3:10 to Yuma), who generally impresses me more every time I see him, is almost laughable as the Stranger. He talks in a strange and strained accent, speaking in riddles that are supposed to be eerie or terrifying, but are mostly just irritating.

One glaring problem with the movie is the pacing. The vampire siege don't build or escalate, it sort of lurches forward in abrupt leaps. It jumps from build-up, to full on war, to cat-and-mouse hide-and-seek, to confrontational resolution in near transitionless scene changes. On top of robbing the movie of what could have been a slow, suffocating sense of tension, I was also left with the impression that without the subtitles announcing "Day 7" or "Day 18," I probably would have completely forgotten about the 30 days without sun concept, assuming this was all happening over the course of a single night. Hartnett's single proclamation that being rough, pioneering Alaskans, they know how to deal with the cold and ration food appropriately robs the movie of getting any tension out of the 30 days gimmick. A single night, a week, a month, or even a year, there is no tension in how long the vampire siege lasts. No one seems particularly worried about supplies or how long they have to last in the Arctic cold without power.

30 Days of Night's main problems are its combination of genericness, erratic pacing, bland acting, and missed opportunities. Which is not to say the movie is a complete failure. There are a few things that it manages to do well.

The movie's take on vampires, for instance, is initially exciting. These vampires are much more animalistic than most representations. With the exception of a few locals-turned-vampires, the only vampire to speak is the leader (Danny Huston), using an archaic language. The rest of the pack communicates through bird-like chirping and screeching. They behave like a pack of well-organized wild animals. The vampires are reminiscent of the infected of 28 Days Later, just with a bit more self control. There is some every effective use of fast-motion early on, when the vampires are seen only as blurs of dark colors on the white snowy background, picking off residents, who seem to fly off the screen. As with most monster movies, though, once the vampires come out of the shadows, they get progressively less scary.

The residents soon realize that their attackers can't be stopped with bullets, and discover that decapitating them is the most effective way to stop them. This leads to a few gory scenes in which Hartnett graphically chops the heads off of some vampires and some bitten locals (usually taking two or three whacks to do it). The first time around this is a jarring and horrifying sight, but as with the vampires themselves, it is used more and more with diminishing returns. (It also seems oddly timely, given the conversation I had had at a party the night before about real life decapitations like this one and this one.) Along the same lines, there are a few scenes that should have been much more upsetting, but movie simply didn't earn the right to elicit any real emotion from the audience (such as when they're forced to kill a little girl vampire, who inexplicably has an Einsturzende Neubauten tattoo, or when Eden discovers that his deputy has murdered his entire family rather than let the vampires get them).

There are a few scenes that are done well. The vampires' first full-on assault on the town is shown using aerial shots of the town's streets. We see the chaos spread out over a few city blocks, as people scramble through the streets, vainly shooting at the vampires as they are chasing them. Or a husband's vain attempts to chase his wife from crawlspace to crawlspace, as the vampires drag her through the snow and under houses. As the vampire leader, Marlow, Huston is somehow both animalistic and somewhat debonair, almost like he's constantly struggling to remember what it was like to act human. I'm sure there are others, but I'm at a bit of a loss trying to remember them.

Ultimately, 30 Days of Night is a fairly bland, by-the-book movie. I certainly wouldn't recommend renting it. It's the kind of movie that might be worth watching if it's on TV and you have nothing better to do, but that's really the only circumstances I can imagine where watching this movie wouldn't seem like a waste of 2 hours.


Brad said...

While there's no way around the fact that Josh Hartnett is miscast as the hard-bitten Alaskan frontier sheriff who can't stay married (?), still, he was a nice and genuinely pretty cool guy when I waited on him at that restaurant. He likes omelettes and dark roast coffee and he's really good looking.

Scott said...

Hey, I like omelettes and dark roast coffee! Do you think he would want to be my friend?

He was good in the Virgin Suicides, as I recall. And really, to be honest, there isn't that much difference between the Virgin Suicides and 30 Days of Night. They're practically the same movie.

Brad said...

Yep, just about.