The Bay fails to provide a shrewd balance of story and scares and, instead, it's two-thirds of a captivating found footage outbreak movie that's crushed under the weight of lofty ambition.
Joining a growing list of films that attempt to put a unique stamp on found footage horror, The Bay is ambitious in its efforts - attempting to deliver a frightening movie experience interconnected with a precautionary tale about environmental irresponsibility.
Director Barry Levinson is well-known in Hollywood for a long line of classic character-focused films including Good Morning, Vietnam, Sphere, Wag the Dog, as well as Rain Man, and, in recent years, the Oscar winner has dedicated the majority of his effort to TV projects and documentary films. As a result, when it was revealed that Levinson would helm a fictional eco-horror film (shot as found footage), more than a few eyebrows were raised. Given the politically-charged setup for The Bay, many movie fans wondered if the esteemed director would be able to find a competent balance of scares and social commentary, in service of a good film experience, not just an on-the-nose lesson about treating mother nature with respect.
The result is a mishmash of captivating drama, disturbing (but not scary) riffs on familiar horror tropes, and tragically uneven storytelling. For every interesting element of the plot (such as unfolding drama at the county hospital and, subsequently, the CDC), there are a handful of thin story lines centered around one-note townspeople. In an effort to chronicle the unfolding horror from a variety of perspectives, The Bay is crippled by its enthusiasm - resulting in a jumble of unsettling set pieces, based on a terrifying premise, that don't build to a particularly interesting, frightening, or profound conclusion.
As indicated, the film is a composite of found footage from fictional Claridge, Maryland where during a July 4th celebration, townspeople begin to get very sick, very fast, suffering from throbbing lesions on their skin and painful abdominal cramping. Former student journalist Donna Thompson, a survivor who was covering the celebration, is the narrative center of the movie, appearing both in the archive footage (naive and in over her head she attempts to shed light on the unfolding crisis) as well as guides the larger found footage film years later - reflecting on the experience, educating viewers on the behind the scenes misgoverning of the Claridge community (which includes dishonest politicians and loads of government finger pointing), and sets up the various standalone character stories (including a young girl who records video of her escalating affliction on a smartphone). In addition to Thompson's testimonial, The Bay relies heavily on fieldwork footage from a pair of oceanic researchers who, until they turned up dead, were studying the potential effects of unprecedented pollution levels in the water surrounding Claridge.
The two threads weave together for a compelling, and surprisingly believable, set-up; however, instead of successfully capitalizing on the fully-formed real world horror, the resulting course of The Bay is full of plot holes, abandoned characters, and underwhelming payoffs. The grounded approach is simultaneously the film's strongest element and its downfall - since, once the true nature of Claridge outbreak is revealed, there just aren't many interesting directions for Levinson to take the story. While the film presents a relatively "realistic" story about how a similar situation might actually play out - that doesn't mean that, as a movie, it's very entertaining to watch.
Performances are generally solid - with a number of actors (Donohue and Stephen Kunken as Dr. Jack Abrams) helping to keep things grounded amidst the chaos. Unfortunately, for all the time that the film spends introducing viewers to personal stories, most characters outright disappear with a casual line of dialogue, "he wouldn't make it through the night," and the ones that do stick around usually devolve into relatively standard horror tropes. As a result, instead of a nuanced account of everyday townspeople contributing to a biological pollutant soup, the ultimate blame for the Claridge event falls on a few greedy souls who knowingly ignored warnings in favor of profit. Shifting the focus away from individual character stories onto reckless "bad guys" is certainly a realistic story choice but isn't likely to cause audience members any real introspection about their relationship with the environment.
Any chance of reflection is further muddled by the film's understated finale which, in spite of all the science talk that dominates the first two-thirds of the film, essentially convolutes any takeaways from the resulting aftermath. Once the source of the outbreak is revealed, several scenes are included solely to elicit foreboding in viewers and set-up horrific events down the line but few of the individual plot threads payoff with onscreen drama and others are merely abandoned with nothing but bland assertions "no one knows why some people survived." The lack of tangible answers in the last few minutes of the film entirely undermines the carefully crafted premise - making it hard to excuse how manipulative the film can be from time to time in its effort to cause anxiety.
Regardless of the muddled story, Levinson does succeed with a number skin-crawling moments that, compared to the countless supernatural entries in found footage, offer a subtle and grounded approach to terror. As a result, it's easy to imagine that viewers who go into The Bay expecting a gory drama with limited scope, not an outright horror film, will be captivated by the director's effort - even if not every element of the project comes full circle.
Whether or not Levinson intended to craft a horror film, rooted in environmental issues, or a cautionary tale about ignoring nature that just happens to come attached with a horrific set of consequences, is up for debate. That said, separate from the director's intentions, The Bay fails to provide a shrewd balance of story and scares and, instead, it's two-thirds of a captivating found footage outbreak movie that's crushed under the weight of lofty ambition before completing its runtime.
If you’re still on the fence about The Bay, check out the trailer below:
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The Bay is Rated R for disturbing violent content, bloody images and language. Now playing in theaters.