Review: ‘American Blackout’ will scare you silly, then make you think

10.26.13 4 years ago 36 Comments

Nat Geo

I’ll say it right up front. Nat Geo’s new movie, “American Blackout” (Sun. Oct. 27 at 9:00 p.m.) is the scariest movie I’ve seen all year. All. Damn. Year.

In some ways, this basic cable entry may be the scariest movie I’ve ever seen. No, it’s not at all gory (though there is a body count). It’s not even entirely successful as a film (we’ll get into the flaws below). But as a plausible portrayal of how wrong civilization might go after the lights go out (I do not include “Revolution” in the pantheon of plausible portrayals), this movie is going to keep me up late tonight. 

While films like “28 Days Later” and “Night of the Living Dead” (I’ve been on a zombie kick) have scared me senseless, I’ve never checked my closet or under the bed for errant zombies. I’ve never worried much about mask-wearing serial killers or possessed children, as scary as they are (and yes, they are terrifying). What I consider truly unnerving are films that seem just one notch away from reality. “Contagion” made me think twice about sitting next to the sick guy on the subway. I’m glad I only saw “Open Water” after I’d tried scuba diving. Now, “American Blackout” has made me think that all of those nutjobs we see on “Doomsday Preppers” (another Nat Geo property) may get the last laugh, if anyone laughs at all.

“American Blackout” is scary, but that doesn’t mean it works completely. Clearly, Steven Soderbergh isn’t at the helm. The structure is largely built around real video footage from recent natural disasters along with pseudo-documentary style storylines. The first element works brilliantly. The part that required a script or an outline? Not so much.

As I’d expect from the largely reality-based Nat Geo, the way the real video footage is built into the movie is remarkable. At first I tried to play a game of “spot the calamity.” Some of the footage might have been post-Katrina, some post-tornadoes, some from standard building fires or post-game looting. But after the first half hour, it didn’t matter. When we see Obama address the nation, asking for calm, I know it’s careful editing but it’s still chillingly effective. The newscasts we see are clearly fake, but the talking heads could pass for mid-market newscasters in any number of cities. All of this worked exceptionally well, as did the real statistics on how much electricity we use, how much milk and bread we consume, how impossible it is to get basics like water to people trapped in tall buildings when the power is out. 

What didn’t work, or at least didn’t work as well, was the smorgasbord of storylines focused on “real” people surviving the crisis. We get four college students trapped in an elevator, a married couple trapped in a Manhattan skyrise, a pimply-faced teen whose mom has left for work, a family of doomsday preppers and a small family starring a pregnant mom, among others.

To the movie’s credit, this isn’t necessarily family fare. It isn’t all Disney-esque happy endings here, and not everyone survives. While the violence isn’t necessarily on screen, you may not want to watch this with the kids. Unless, of course, you want to inspire the kids to start hoarding water.

What makes this element less than convincing overall isn’t the plotting, but the characters and the performances. While we need these storylines to flesh out all the many ways our lives will fall apart once the power goes out (note to self: always have a manual can opener), it doesn’t help that so many of the people we see are either annoying or stupid. When you’re tempted to yell, “DON’T OPEN THE DOOR, YOU IDIOT!” at the TV screen, you’d better be watching a lame 1980s horror film, and the bad guy better be wearing a mask. When the point is to deliver verisimilitude, a movie shouldn’t ask us to root for the people most likely to win Darwin Awards. 

Opportunities are also missed in the stories threaded through the reality footage. The pregnant woman goes into labor on the way to the hospital — cut to Mommy beaming in the middle of a park, holding the baby she just pooped out already wrapped in a blanket with a little knitted cap. Really? I would have been more interested to see what happens when she gets to a hospital running on generated power and suffers unexpected complications. When a little girl disappears, I’m wondering if we have enough time for a Jodie Foster movie in the midst of the chaos, but the twist is resolved without explanation. Only once does the movie’s decision to walk away from a plot twist work effectively — when one woman meets what we assume to be a grisly fate, I’m happy that her camera gets left behind. 

I would have been glad to ax some of the weaker storylines altogether (the pimply teen wandering around his house added little to the plot) to focus on ones that were truly interesting (and scary). The four college students trapped in an elevator demand our attention, but we don’t get as much of their story as we really want. It takes ten days for the power to go back on, and in those ten days, the students never stop fighting to survive — and never stop thinking creatively about how to do it.

The other storyline that I’m still pondering is the one about the prepper family. It turns out that you can prepare for the end of the world, but little problems — variables you didn’t plan on facing, loopholes you didn’t close — can leave you in just as much of a hole as everyone else. 

When preppers can’t even count on surviving the apocalypse, we’re all in trouble. That’s the ultimate message of “American Blackout” (beyond, you know, get some canned food and stuff), and though the power in the movie goes back on (and hopefully, it will never go off to the extent we see here, if at all), we all get to go to sleep tonight knowing that no one is safe. Sweet dreams!

Will you watch “American Blackout”? Are you ready for a catastrophic event like this? 

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