'[REC] 4: Apocalypse' has the feel of a series on its last legs
[REC] 4: Apocalypse Magnet Releasing
Director: Jaume Balagueró
Screenplay: Jaume Balagueró and Manu Díez
Starring: Manuela Valesco, Paco Manzanedo, Héctor Colomé, Ismael Fritschi, Críspulo Cabezas and María Alfonsa Rosso
Rated R / 1 hour, 35 minutes
Now playing in limited release and VOD
(out of four)
[REC] 4: Apocalypse plays like a movie made out of obligation rather than inspiration. As the fourth entry in a franchise, perhaps this goes without saying. And, to be perfectly fair, there are many, many fourth franchise entries that are a whole lot worse than this one.
But this is the first [REC] movie that noticeably lacks its own identity. The first two were early adopters of the found-footage trend and, while I may have been lukewarm about the necessity of the format, there was at least a recognizable design and purpose to them. The same was true of [REC] 3: Genesis, which brazenly and self-deprecatingly upended the series' aesthetics and genre style (from straight horror to farcical, meta horror-comedy). The result was largely maligned, but I, for one, thought it was terrific.
But Apocalypse has no such character, abandoning both the stylistic technique of the franchise's early days and the third installment's playful sense of mischief. Instead it's a painfully straightforward, shakycam-heavy zombie thriller whose only defining characteristic is that it takes place entirely on a boat. The sudden lack of aesthetic definition is strange only because it puts the onus back on the story itself. But that was never exactly important in the first place, was it? Stripping everything else down to focus on the story is playing right into the series' weaknesses. This movie is basically just The Continuing Adventures of That Zombie Virus from Those Other Movies. But is there really anything left to say or do about that virus, or the walking undead it creates, that the first three movies didn't already do more uniquely? Is there really much more to tell? Love or hate the first three entries of the series, at least they all had a commitment to their own vision.
It's a disappointment coming from [REC] co-creator Jaume Balagueró, who most recently directed the deliciously twisted thriller Sleep Tight. Stepping back behind the camera for Apocalypse, he displays little of the audacity and sharpness that made his last effort so memorable (particularly its overall tone and attitude), nor the verve of the filmmaking itself. Perhaps another radical departure like Genesis would have been a tough sell for producers, but a tame in-betweener like this is disheartening and pointless.
But at least Apocalypse has the good sense to change its location again, rather than simply returning to the apartment complex where the first two films took place. (The third movie took place at a wedding reception, but those who have seen it will know there wouldn't be much left for any future movies to return to.) The newest film actually does begin in that familiar apartment stairwell, but only to show our heroine Ángela (Manuela Valesco) getting safely out of the there, along with the special ops team that proceeds to detonate the building to prevent further outbreak.
Soon afterward, they awaken as apparent captives in what appears to be a top-secret medical facility, tied down with restraints, injected with tubes and needles and deprived of any answers as to the circumstances of their confinement. But, the movie only being 90 minutes and all, it's not long before they figure out where they are (a ship in the middle of the ocean) and what's going on (the team of doctors running the ship is trying to create an antidote to the virus, and using everything at their disposal - including the rebuilt video footage from Ángela's camera - to determine the genesis of the contagion).
Alongside Ángela are two of the officers who rescued her, Guzmán (Paco Manzanedo) and Lucas (Críspulo Cabezas), as well as the lone survivor of the wedding party, an elderly woman suffering from some sort of dementia, completely unaware that virtually her entire extended family is dead via zombie attack. All are under the apparent authority of Dr. Ricarte (Héctor Colomé), who is sincere in his intentions but secretive in his methods. This is one of those movies that insists on treating a certain character (or set of characters) as the "villain" no matter what - even when he is ostensibly correct. Ricarte is that character, always treated as a nefarious crook even when there's no malice or irrationality involved. It's a lot easier to position certain people (Ángela and Guzmán, in this case) as the heroes and someone else as the bad guy without ever considering the logic - the rightness or wrongness - of any of their respective behaviors.
The laziness of the character dynamics only further exposes the perfunctory nature of the whole exercise. An entire screenplay was written seemingly only out of the desire to continue building a narrative - or worse yet, a mythology - that never really had much going for it in the first place. [REC] was built on a filmmaking gimmick that helped set it apart. [REC] 2 continued the experiment. [REC] 3 self-consciously reversed it. And now that we've gotten to [REC] 4, the series has lost anything and everything that made it stand out. Now it's just another run-of-the-mill zombie movie, and frankly we've got more than enough of those already.