Over the last few years, director Brad Anderson has steadily crept into my cinematic consciousness with his limited but impressive filmography. The first film of his, that I saw, was Session 9 (2001), a micro-budgeted psychological/haunting thriller that was better than it had any right to be. The next film I took in was The Machinist (2004), another impressively effective psychological thriller that REALLY showed how dedicated to his craft Christian Bale was. Then came Transsiberian (2008), a solid, but bleak Hitchcockian crime thriller starring Woody Harrelson that managed to hit most of the right notes. Scattered in with these well-crafted films was a slew of quality television, in the form of episodes of The Wire, Fringe, Treme’ and Boardwalk Empire…just to name a few. So, with all that being said, it’s time for a small dose of reality. NOBODY’S perfect. Every director has, at least, one stinker on their resume. Hell, even Film God Spielberg himself has the (self admittedly) atrocious 1941 (1979). Which brings me to THIS film. This is easily the worst thing that I’ve seen from this particular director. Which is too bad because the premise is loaded with promise. The story follows a group of survivors as they struggle to make it through the effects of a bizarre phenomenon that unexpectedly falls across their city. A power-sucking darkness, inhabited by sinister shadow figures, spreads inexplicably across the land, vanishing people from existence on contact(*poof!*), leaving behind only a pile of empty clothes. So far, so good, right? Once the tiny group, consisting of Hayden Christensen, Thandie Newton, John Leguizamo and some young black (or African American, if you want to be all ‘PC’ about it!) kid, hole up in a convenient bar/survival bunker, complete with a generator and provisions, things for the characters (and the film) take a turn for the worst. Issue #1: The Budget. Obviously Anderson was NOT given a Scrooge McDuck-sized pile of cash to breath life into this movie, given the surprisingly cheap-looking effects. The creeping fingers of darkness and the ominous shadow figures look hokey, which I found removed me from the moments when I think I was supposed to be feeling tension. Issue #2: The Story. Sometimes ambiguity can go a long way in a films overall ‘charm’ and quality. Unfortunately, this is not one of them. We have ZERO explanation as to what has given rise to this malicious ‘happening’. None at all. It simply starts. As I said, sometimes this approach can work well, such as the case of the 2004 remake of Dawn of the Dead where we never find out what sparked the zombie apocalypse. But in THAT instance, we didn’t need to because we found ourselves thrust into a ‘world’ where the rules quickly became clear. Here? Not so much. We never find out the cause, the motivation or the devious machinations behind the evil force that has shrouded Detroit in this badly CG’d and threatening darkness. Issue #3: The Redundancy. This flick seemed intent on showing us terrified and desperate people struggling to cling to whatever source of light that was available to them as the inky shadows slowly closed in. Over and over again, we saw this same scenario play out with nothing new being added to the proceedings in the process. Issue#4: The Characters. None of the survivors are given much in the way of depth, which makes rooting for their survival a lil challenging. Hayden Christensen is a field reporter for a small Detroit news network and he just wants to get to Chicago for a reason that makes nearly no sense. Thandie Newton is a physical therapist who spends most of the film either borderline catatonic or over-reacting emotionally to ANYTHING that MAY lead her train of thought back to her missing baby…who has evidently met with the same fate as the vast majority of the population. John Leguizamo is a theatre projectionist who mysteriously (and annoyingly) just appears in the street with a nasty concussion after being supposedly abducted by shadow people. This abduction is NEVER touched upon or exploited after Leguizamo huffs and puffs out his explanation. And the kid…he’s just kind of annoyingly there. The actors did what they could with what they had, but unfortunately what they had clearly wasn’t much to begin with. The main annoyance though really has to be the lack of explanation for what is happening around these characters. Rules are needed. Motives are good to have on deck too. Maybe possible solutions to the overall challenge might help. Some kind of hope that the audience can bestow on the characters if we’re let in on some of the ‘facts’ of what is causing the horror. But no…Anderson and Co. clearly didn’t get THAT memo. So overall, needlessly dense ambiguity (or laziness, if you prefer) and rampant redundancy hobbled the flick pretty effectively. This story would have been FAR better if presented as a one hour episode of The Twilight Zone or The Outer Limits. As a feature film, it’s a failure…mostly. I feel NEARLY bad about giving this one the ole ‘thumbs down’ (High-5, Siskel and Ebert!), given the impressive qualities behind Andersons other films. But sometimes a film just isn’t meant to work, despite the best of intentions and effort. It’s not that Vanishing on 7th Street is Howard the Duck-terrible or anything. It’s just kind of …useless. Feel free to give it a ‘pass’…and check out one of his other films instead.
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