Countdown relies too heavily on jump scares, but still fails to distract from a gimmicky premise, a poorly developed script and thin characters.
As technology has evolved, so too have the horror movies attempting to tap into society's technophobia. The most recent tech-reliant horror movie is Countdown, writer-director Justin Dec's feature-length directorial debut. This PG-13 horror-thriller sees its characters battle an app that predicts their exact time of death; when they change their course of action, it haunts and tortures them to death. Bizarrely, and for no apparent reason, the movie also includes a Time's Up/#MeToo subplot that adds nothing to the film and is so badly implemented as to be insulting to viewers. Countdown relies too heavily on jump scares, but still fails to distract from a gimmicky premise, a poorly developed script and thin characters.
Countdown follows young nurse Quinn Harris (Elizabeth Lail), who downloads the app with her coworkers after they get a patient who said his girlfriend died exactly when the app predicted. However, while the app tells her coworkers they'll live for many years, Quinn only has a few days. Freaked out, she cancels plans with her sister Jordan (Talitha Bateman) and their father, only for the app to tell her she violated the terms and conditions of its user agreement. Quinn starts being haunted by a menacing figure and attempts to get a new phone in order to remove the undeletable app. At the store, she runs into Matt (Jordan Calloway), who's also attempting to escape the fate predicted by the app. Together, they seek out potential solutions, going to a priest named Father John (P.J. Byrne), who has a theory about what's really behind the app. Still, with their time ticking down, it remains to be seen if Quinn and Matt can beat the Countdown clock or die exactly as predicted.
While the premise could have made for an intriguing horror movie, one that examined our reliance on technology and had something to say about fad trends like popular apps, Countdown seems more preoccupied with delivering jump scares - of which there are plenty. There is some discussion in the film, mainly had by the characters, about how much control we have over our fate and the fates of others. But Countdown doesn't seem to have anything to say with regard to those themes, it's simply something to talk about in between jump scares. To the film's credit, some of its jump scares are genuinely surprising and terrifying, which feels like an accomplishment with its PG-13 rating prohibiting the use of too much gore or violence. But even the movie's better jump scares wind up feeling more manipulative than anything else, especially since that's where all of Countdown's horror comes from.
To make matters worse, Countdown doesn't seem to care much about its characters unless it's torturing them. Any and all development comes as a means of explaining certain story choices, like why Matt's being haunted by a little boy (the film plays fast and loose with its own internal logic about what forms the hauntings take). But the most egregious character arc has to be the one involving Quinn and her supervisor, Dr. Sullivan (Peter Facinelli). It's ostensibly meant to be a timely inclusion of a male superior sexually assaulting his female junior, but the fact alone that the assault and its aftermath play second-fiddle to a killer app would be laughable, if it didn't make light of a very serious issue. And that's to say nothing of the fact that Dec's script and directing is utterly incompetent in actually handling the sexual assault with any kind of thought or sensitivity. Adding insult to injury, Countdown also manages to include what has to be the worst use of "Time's up" in a script since the movement launched.
Ultimately, Countdown has little to offer the larger lexicon of tech-based horror movies, aside from proving once again that a gimmicky, relevant premise doesn't necessarily guarantee success. The script is lacking, Dec's directing is serviceable but uninspired, and the characters are awfully underdeveloped. The one single highlight of Countdown is a line delivered by Calloway's Matt, but even that feels out of place since it belies a much better horror movie, which perhaps Countdown could have been in someone else's hands.
Viewers interested in the premise of Countdown can skip this one; the movie might technically be about a killer app, but it's really a generic ghost/demon horror story. There's no real examination of the technology or how it can be used to terrify people. Viewers looking for a schlocky (but not in the fun way) horror movie filled with jump scares might be satisfied by Countdown, but the scares grow tedious at times and the movie in between scares is downright boring. With plenty of horror movies out for the Halloween season, there's bound to be something scarier, or at the very least, more entertaining than Countdown at the theater.
Countdown is now playing in U.S. theaters. It is 90 minutes long and rated PG-13 for terror, violence, bloody images, suggestive material, language and thematic elements.
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