As Above So Below

By Kelan Young

Mailed on September 04, 2014

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Dear Eric Viellerobe
Set Designer

Dear Eric,

I'll admit it was a bit disappointing to learn that, contrary to what the promotional materials told us, the bulk of action in your new film As Above, So Below took place not in the famous Paris catacombs, but rather a series of offshoot tunnels.

As a set designer, it must come as a blow when you come onboard a project only to be told there will be no need for the liberal use of skulls as a decorative feature. Which, for this movie, feels especially like a missed opportunity. That said, like the oppressive stone labyrinth our protagonists find themselves trapped in, the whole film feels remarkably solid.

Once you get over the lack of skulls, one of As Above's greatest strengths is the constant sense of unease and claustrophobia evoked by your sets; everything feels appropriately dark and cramped. Unlike past efforts like, say, The Cave, which was home to an underground system so spacious and well-lit there could have been a Starbucks tucked inside it. Also worth noting is the creepiness generated by the increasingly confusing geography of the tunnels as they begin looping back in on themselves—and even breaking all rational laws. The surviving leads are faced with the realization that the only way of reaching the surface is heading ever downwards. It's a pretty dynamite setting for a horror movie, and despite the lack of elaborate set decoration, it never feels cheap. You can definitely pat yourself on the back for that.

But I have to say that I was a bit surprised by how downplayed the actual horror elements are. It feels like a spiritual successor to Indiana Jones more than anything. We get an opening scene establishing our heroine as a borderline lunatic willing to risk her life exploring a tomb set for demolition, then plenty o' cryptic riddle-solving as a documentarian films her team in their search for the Philosopher's Stone, an artifact of untold power in the field of alchemy. It's a good setup, and combined with the likeable (though admittedly one-dimensional) characters, it's just enough to keep our attention before the scary shenanigans get under way.

I don't know about you, but I appreciated that the filmmakers didn't needlessly explain the nature of the threat facing our intrepid explorers. There is mention of past sins coming back to haunt them, and the possibility is raised that they are, in fact, traversing Hell—but other than this, there's no needless exposition. In fact, the horror here is most effective when it’s at its quietest: childhood items inexplicably appearing in the depths, creepy calls on rotary telephones, half-glimpsed apparitions, etc. Too bad that the final twenty minutes or so devolve into the worst attributes of a found footage film, with lots of confused running around and the sudden appearance of hooded weirdos. This loses much of the goodwill the film earns—though at least you make up for it with a satisfyingly non-tragic ending.

One last thing I'd like to mention, because I'm very curious as to what happened on the set during that particular bit where a certain someone gets trapped in a crevice and has a prolonged panic attack before it begins to cave-in. It's certainly uncomfortable to watch, but also very clearly lifted from The Descent. Is this a case of cinematic plagiarism? Or perhaps an homage of some kind? Whatever the case, it's incredibly distracting for anyone who has seen both films. I’m curious to know what your thoughts are.

Ultimately, I'd say this film belongs squarely in the realm of in-one-ear-out-the-other entertainment, but it's certainly watchable, and you can definitely do worse when it comes to end of summer fare.



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