On Incarnate, the human subconscious as a banal existential battleground, and a strong nominee for the world's worst director
Incarnate BH Tilt
Director: Brad Peyton
Screenplay: Ronnie Christensen
Starring: Aaron Eckhart, Carice van Houten, Catalina Sandino Moreno, David Mazouz, Keir O'Donnell, Thomas Arana, Emily Jackson and Matt Nable
Rated PG-13 / 1 hour, 31 minutes / 2.35:1
December 2, 2016
(out of four)
If movies were home decor, Incarnate would be the aisle of picture frames with the mundane stock photos already in place. It feels like the filmmakers snuck onto some abandoned Hollywood backlot after hours and simply used whatever pre-built, pre-dressed stock locations were ready to go, fashioning their narrative around whatever types of sets happened to be available. Saves money on location scouting, I suppose.
This would be a credible explanation for why the film's dingy apartments look exactly like every other dingy movie apartment you've ever seen, and why its nightclub looks exactly like the most generic possible version of a nightclub - yeah that's right, the one from all the late-night commercials for call-in dating services, the one with all the blue fluorescent lights - and why the park and the fair and the dive bar where certain crucial scenes take place all look like the most basic incarnations of those places. No actual design required.
For that matter, it seems there were some popular story ideas left lying around on that backlot, too, because Ronnie Christensen's screenplay is basically the same possession drama that gets made 10 times a year, but injected with pieces of Inception and The Matrix and Dark City and even a little bit of Avatar. A faithless, paraplegic pseudo-exorcist with nothing to lose enters the minds of the possessed, hacking into the matrix controlled simulation of their subconscious and using totems items of particular significance to wake them back up to reality. There's also sort of a revenge angle, as our hero has been chasing one particularly troublesome demon ever since it caused the death of his wife and child.
Now about those memories. Or, more broadly, about the subconscious in general. We're told that the demons possessing the film's victims create an idyllic reality in which their purest hopes - often romanticized reconstructions of cherished memories - come true. These hopes and memories should, like any individual's hopes and memories, be very specific to the person in question. Deeply personal, and precise, and maybe even strange to the outside observer. We're talking about the very centerpiece of a person's sense of hope. Which makes the utter lack of specificity in Incarnate's subconscious simulations so inexcusable. Have Christensen and director Brad Peyton never dreamed? Have they never experienced a unique longing, or made a specific connection with a person or place or moment? Because what they give us - both in concept and execution - are memories that are about as personally specific as a form letter. << Insert Cherished Memory Here. >> If I didn't know any better, I'd assume Peyton was trying to say something about the banality of people's hopes and dreams. But for that to be true I'd have to first give Peyton credit for trying to say something at all.
A middle-aged man dreams of being fawned over by beautiful women at a trendy club. A young boy dreams of having a game of catch with his absent, alcoholic father. This is the kind of stuff I'd expect to get in a first-time writers' workshop - and from the least imaginative participant in the class. A dude who wants to get laid? A kid who wants to play catch in some boring-ass city park? That's the best anyone could come up with in a movie about gratifying one's deepest emotional connections or desires? When we get to actually see that dreamed-of moment, the son playing catch with Dad, it looks like a commercial for prostate medication or something. The film doesn't have a single moment of visual or atmospheric distinction; the moments that take place inside the subconscious make that fact painfully clear.
It's that kid - Cam (David Mazouz) - whose possession drives the action, as his case attracts the attention of (for some reason) the Vatican, who in turn brings it to our tortured antihero, Dr. Ember. (I know his name has hackneyed symbolic meaning, but look, I just don't have the patience to go there right now. I've gotta pick my battles with this movie.) Ember is played by Aaron Eckhart, doing an impression of Thomas Jane doing a rendition of his Peabody Award-winning performance in Homeless Dad. Once the Vatican's liaison, Camilla (Catalina Sandino Moreno, an actress of talent far beyond a movie like this one), explains that the demon haunting Cam is the same one that took Ember's family from him, he accepts the case. His job consists of subconsciously accosting the possessed and trying to convince them that their reality isn't real. (There's no effort on the film's part to make this task convincing; neither the character nor the actor is a persuasive presence. He's apparently an expert at doing this, but all he really does is walk up to people and tell them, essentially, that they're crazy, then act indignant when those people don't believe him. And then, somehow, winds up quickly convincing them anyway.) From there, it's essentially a subconscious battle of will. Emberhart makes sure to perpetually remind us how angry he is at the world and God and the devil, the possessed body of Cam pulls a few gravity-defying tricks to scare us, and his mom (Carice van Houten, also punching far below her weight) looks on in fright in the other room. That's the movie.
Having seen both this and last year's San Andreas, I'm prepared to officially declare Brad Peyton the world's worst living director. It's not that he had a lot of help from the script he was working with, but there are at least enough basic ideas here for any interesting filmmaker to do something with the premise, on some level. Peyton shows no evidence of having a single imaginative impulse. His canvas is no less than the human subconscious itself, and he gives us stock footage. Top to bottom, this movie does the barest of the bare minimum.