Directed By: Barry Levinson
Written By: Michael Wallach
Starring: Kether Donohue, Kristen Connolly, Anthony Reynolds, Will Rogers, Frank Deal
MPAA: Rated R
There are too many found-footage films. 1999’s Blair Witch Project started the trend, but most blame goes to Paranormal Activity, an infamous garbage heap of a movie that showed studios how to turn major profits from micro budgets. Incohesive narratives just sort of became an inherent quality for most of them; filming barely costs a thing, so why not keep the playing field level with an equally cheap script? Audiences pretend to love them, people see them, producers and investors get rich. It’s an economic equation that makes a lot of sense.
The Bay is a little different, though. It retains qualities that exemplify most films in the found-footage genre–think shaky-cam, meta-acting and a plethora of “what the hell is that?” moments–but mixes things up in a documentary-style format that allows for several different points of focus. It’s sort of like a mishmash between Quarantine and 60 Minutes. For better or for worse, The Bay dares to do things a little differently within the found-footage genre, and its risks are commendable. There’s almost a good movie here.
The Bay creates an ominous tone immediately, with news reports detailing an abundance of dead fish and birds, never a good sign for anyone involved. It revolves solely around Claridge, a small town in Maryland that quickly loses its good-ol-boy charm as soon as the proverbial feces hit the fan. There’s something wrong with the water coming from the bay, and it’s making people sick–grotesquely so, in fact–and nobody’s really sure as to what exactly is going on.
Nobody except the government, of course. Town Mayor John Stockman (Frank Deal) claims to know nothing, but this is clearly a lie. Representatives from the CDC are predictably inept and cold, suggesting escape to a town doctor hell-bent on helping a gravely ill populous. Shades of Wikileaks style “truthing” websites are given a bit of screen-time, further enhancing the notion of an evil bureaucracy more intent on covering up the truth than actually helping anyone.
So what is the “truth” then, exactly? To detail that would be a disservice to interested movie watchers, not because it truly reveals anything groundbreaking, but mainly due to the fact that there isn’t a whole lot going on here. What little narration we have is provided by Donna Thompson (Kether Donohue), a communications major working as summer intern for a small news channel. The Bay mainly consists of her alluding to upcoming dread, and Donna is quick to give her spin on several of the “found” pieces of footage detailing the horror. Donna doesn’t play an integral role, but instead happens to be a rare witness willing to help uncover the lies and Orwellian tactics used to keep the events of The Bay on the down-low. Somebody really ought to give her Fox Mulder’s numbers.
What The Bay lacks in narrative originality it makes up for with several creative flourishes keeping it safely out of trashy Blair Witch depths. The quick cuts and documentary-style editing allow several different characters to share screen time, the best of which feature a group of oceanographers trying to get the bottom on the mystery. While everyone in town is too busy freaking out about impending doom, the oceanographers use playful banter as a form of exposition, giving them a human quality that isn’t well exploited anywhere else. The cast of recurring characters is rather long for a film that clocks in at a lean 85 minutes, but it’s kind of an ingenious tactic: most characters in found-footage films outstay their welcome well before the halfway mark, but those in The Bay don’t have that luxury. It’s one of the only times where a lack of character development is actually welcome.
Director Barry Levinson is probably best known for his work in the satirical genre with films like Wag the Dog and Bandits, but he has dabbled in sci-fi before: his rendition of Sphere was pretty awful, so it’s a blessing in disguise that he chose to spice things up in the narrative department with The Bay. Had he told this story the traditional way, chances are it would have been completely boring and all to similar to other, better films like Outbreak and Contagian.
As it stands, The Bay is a creepy little film with a few jolts and a mildly thought-provoking set-up. It’s bound to please fans of paranoia, and its well made enough to recommend it over a slew of other, far inferior found-footage films. It loses a little bit of steam around the halfway mark, but the short running time makes this forgivable.