Try digitalPLUS for 10 days for only $0.99

Movies

Entertainment Movies

Review: 'As Above/ So Below' ★★

Beneath the streets of Paris lies a vast network of tunnels just waiting to be exploited by an enterprising found-footage film crew. Imagine the excitement of the rolling-boulder opening scene in "Raiders of the Lost Ark" stretched to feature length, then subtract such vital ingredients as John Williams' pulse-elevating score, Douglas Slocombe's visceral cinematography and Harrison Ford's wry charisma, and you get "As Above/ So Below," in which a Lara Croft-like heroine assembles a team of expendable "cataphiles" (as catacomb obsessives call themselves) to locate the Philosopher's Stone.

Returning to the faux-doc format they helped innovate in such pics as "The Poughkeepsie Tapes" and "Quarantine," the Dowdle brothers, John Erick (who directs) and Drew (his fellow producer), are by now experts at creating suspense within narrow confines. Their previous feature, "Devil," took place almost entirely in an elevator, and considering all the challenges that the Paris catacombs would pose a traditional camera team, they've managed to generate some genuine tension without straying too far from the realm of the real.

That means nearly all the thrills come either from things that could actually happen (claustrophobia, cave-ins and encounters with the various weirdos you might expect to meet underground) or directly from the characters (who all have deaths of friends or family members unresolved in their pasts) — the idea being that venturing down certain corridors of the catacombs is a bit like spelunking in one's own subconscious. Here, in a calculated yet nevertheless welcome twist on traditional gender roles, it's a young woman who emerges as the fearless and resourceful leader of the expedition.

British actress Perdita Weeks plays Scarlett, a woman who will stop at nothing to get to the "truth." Fluent in six languages and a black belt in karate, this ready-made heroine probably came preloaded with the Dowdles' screenwriting software, taking over her alchemy-expert dad's search for the Philosopher's Stone after his suicide. Scarlett doesn't have many distinguishing characteristics beyond that, just a penchant for spouting exposition and a lingering crush on sometime-sidekick George ("Mad Men's" Ben Feldman), whose hobby involves breaking into places and fixing old monuments.

Once Scarlett gets going, there's nothing stopping her, whether it's infiltrating booby-trapped caves in Iran or dousing museum treasures with flammable compounds in search of clues, and Elliot Greenberg's jump-cutty editing style keeps the adventure going at roughly the rate of Scarlett's intellect — which makes her wild "Da Vinci Code" ramblings sound more impressive than they actually are.

As the implied dangers start to become real, however, the movie feels as though it's moving too fast, abandoning fallen team members with no time to mourn and plunging forever forward, even when signs — "Abandon hope all ye who enter here" — call for a modicum of caution. Cheating the geography, the Dowdles create the illusion that, as a feral character called "the Mole" (Cosme Castro) puts it, "the only way out is down," despite the fact that they're basically taking us in circles around the same locations.

When Scarlett finally does uncover the solution to the Philosopher's Stone — this legend of alchemy rumored to possess healing powers and the ability to turn ordinary objects into gold — the final reveal is unspeakably corny, suggesting that an hour of therapy might have delivered the same advice. For those hoping to find some truly disturbing secrets buried for generations beneath the surface, track down Gary Sherman's 1972 "Death Line" (aka "Raw Meat") instead.

"As Above/So Below" - 2 stars

MPAA rating: R (for bloody violence/terror, and language throughout)

Running time: 1:33

Opened: Friday

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
Related Content
  • 'Aloha' review: Hawaii so-so

    'Aloha' review: Hawaii so-so

    For context's sake, the new Cameron Crowe film "Aloha" is a tick up from the dregs of "Elizabethtown" and a tick down from "We Bought a Zoo." The Media Action Network for Asian-Americans calls it a "whitewashed" version of Hawaii, a state that is roughly 30 percent Caucasian in real life and, as...

  • 'Yves Saint Laurent' review: Haute drama

    'Yves Saint Laurent' review: Haute drama

    Even in a contemporary film culture where no idea seems too thin to try twice, the arrival of two Yves Saint Laurent biopics in the space of five months counts as a distinct curiosity: The enduring influence of the French fashion god, who died in 2008, is beyond question, but his life doesn't seem...

  • 'Good Kill,' with Ethan Hawke, targets human costs of drone warfare

    'Good Kill,' with Ethan Hawke, targets human costs of drone warfare

    Form matches content in "Good Kill," a movie about the desensitizing effects of drone warfare. Repeated, suffocating scenes of remote warfare make you acutely aware of the soul-draining despair felt by its pilot protagonist.

  • 'Slow West' review: Novel gunslingers

    'Slow West' review: Novel gunslingers

    There's an alien feel to "Slow West," an unconventionally conventional Western about a romantic tenderfoot provided safe passage to the frontier by a grizzled, unsentimental gunman.

  • 'Tomorrowland' review: Clooney imagineers hope

    'Tomorrowland' review: Clooney imagineers hope

    By now you probably heard that the series finale of "Mad Men" ended with adman Don Draper dressed in loose-fitting whites, chanting "om" on the lawn of a commune in California, perched at the edge of the Pacific, the 1960s having slid into the 1970s. Then, just as we assumed Don had found spiritual...

  • 'Poltergeist' review: Spiritless reboot is heeeere

    'Poltergeist' review: Spiritless reboot is heeeere

    The closing credits for Gil Kenan's remake of the 1982 horror classic "Poltergeist" feature the band Spoon covering the Cramps' 1980 punk classic "TV Set." Spoon is a tasteful, studious yet largely anodyne indie-rock outfit that has become an NPR staple; the Cramps were a scuzzy, unhinged psychobilly...

Comments
Loading

59°