Found-footage eco-horror cheapie The Bay — in which a previously harmless waterborne parasite mutates into an unstoppable human-flesh-eating scourge thanks to the march of progress and attendant environmental carelessness — is not the cash-in you might expect from a Halloween-week release from the producers of Paranormal Activity. Directed by Barry Levinson (Diner, The Natural, Wag the Dog), it's the result of a sincere effort by a 70-year-old veteran filmmaker to speak about the world we live in now, in what he perceives to be the language of his audience. Give him an A for good intentions and for daring to attempt the unexpected.
And then there's the movie.
Starring mostly unknown actors and shot entirely on consumer-grade (or lower) video, The Bay apes a hypothetical work of citizen journalism released on a WikiLeaks-style exposé site, documenting a fictional disaster that killed off most of the population of Claridge, Md., over the course of about 12 hours on July 4, 2009. Donna (Kether Donohue) was a college student interning at the local TV station on the tragic day; three years later, she's a shell-shocked survivor, guiding us through what she describes as a collage of footage that was confiscated by authorities to keep the general public in the dark about the catastrophe.
That footage includes material captured by security cams, the TV station's cameraman, the camcorders of a tenacious emergency room doc and a couple of beautiful young couples, and ample Skype and FaceTime exchanges. (That there is such a wealth of video-chat footage owes to the fact that, over the course of the day, no one was able to make old-school phone calls because the FBI shut down the local cell phone towers in order to contain the panic; apparently those federal dinosaurs didn't think about shutting down Internet connections.) Occasionally, Donna brings in two strains recorded prior to the big day: a video blog from an indie muckraker concerned about the amount of steroid-rich chicken shit being dumped by local factory farms onto the banks of the Chesapeake Bay, and the research recordings of a couple of oceanographers who had been investigating the isopod parasites — until they were eaten alive.
For better or worse, aping the format of an amateur documentary designed for web streaming allows Levinson to upend the typical structure of the disaster movie: We're told fairly early on what the scourge is and also the extent of the damage. From that point on, there's nothing to do except watch as the characters (none of whom register as protagonists in a traditional cinematic sense) drop off one by one. When one infected townsperson dies, another trains the camera on the corpse; when the last character alive leaves town, the movie is over. It's the video-or-it-didn't-happen ethos turned into a narrative strategy.
The Bay might reflect a moment in which humanity is driven to document life as proof, but, of course, this type of spontaneous footage looks nothing like life as we see it — in terms of fidelity to the real, these formats are somewhere between celluloid and watercolor. The paradox of using the tools and tropes of pedestrian video capture is that the imagery is far less visceral than it would be if produced through more classical methods, even if on a B-movie scale (which would be a generous way to describe the quality of The Bay's gruesome but not particularly convincing makeup effects).
The Bay is less adept at manufacturing "reality" than it is at mocking the ways in which amateur propaganda tends to be shaped for peer-to-peer consumption. The film's heavy-handed score is a pretty good joke about the average web media producer's grasp of subtlety, the narrator's self-conscious lack of charisma and weird lack of convincing affectation is a fair reflection of some YouTube talking heads, and the montages that recap story beats we've already seen replicate the result of a collision between iMovie and a untrained filmmaker who associates truth with reality TV's idea of expository storytelling. Is a good fake of a bad movie better, or more than, a bad movie? The Bay's taste-blind aesthetics might be a brilliant mimicry of crowd-sourced amateur media-making as it proliferates online, but you have to distance yourself from the spot-on simulation of kitsch in order admire it, and that process precludes engagement with it as drama.
Levinson pokes at the idea that we are so deeply immersed in digital environments in which fake and real are indistinguishable that actual reality has lost its ability to impress. As two CDC agents look at a photo of a mutant specimen of the isopod, one says: "Are you making this up? It looks Photoshopped." The other guy inhales in impatience, as if this question comes up all the time: "No, it's real."
The second guy could be assuming the voice of the filmmaker. Levinson has claimed that "85 percent of the stuff in the film is factual" — by which he means that isopods really exist, chemical pollution is out of control, water filtration is broken, the government agencies that are supposed to keep us healthy and safe are a joke, etc. In other words, The Bay's horror is theoretically plausible. In practice, despite a handful of legit creepy moments, the film's concern with superficial realism prevents it from really hitting home; its fuzzy, fractured depiction of disaster never comes close to conjuring the "holy shit it could happen here don't touch that doorknob" real-world paranoia of last year's artfully Hollywood-ized disaster film, Contagion. Tapping into authentic fears is not beyond the capabilities of the faux-found-footage genre — Sinister is an example of a recent film whose synthetic snuff interludes use aesthetics that read as "real" to activate repressed nightmares. But both Contagion and Sinister terrify by compelling us to use our imaginations to fill in the blanks, and that's a feat beyond The Bay's reach.