Writer-director Julia Lotkev’s The Loneliest Planet is based on a short story, and you can tell. Throughout most of this drama about an engaged couple touring the Caucasus Mountains, nothing happens. Then something happens, ever so briefly. But it’s enough to alter the dynamic between the two lovers and their guide, and the change is as sizable as the mountain range itself.
Alex (Gael García Bernal) and Nica (Hani Furstenberg) are a young, handsome pair vacationing before their wedding. They’re playful, athletic, and obviously in love, making games out of standing on their heads, coiling themselves around the poles of an abandoned bus, running up and then rolling down hills. She has him test her Spanish by giving her verbs to conjugate. It’s all pretty adorable, and they don’t damper their friskiness even when they’re joined by a local guide, Dato (Bidzina Gujabidze). They just put a bit of distance between themselves and Dato and return to flirting in their own little world.
For most of the film’s nearly two hours, the three travelers are the only characters we see—often, their tiny figures are set against wide shots of enormous green hills, highlighting their isolation. But suddenly some other men appear, seemingly arguing with Dato and then pulling a gun on the couple when they dare move. What happens next is so unexpected it may make you gasp.
Before the incident, Alex is loving and attentive, while Nica exudes an I-am-woman confidence. (“I’m strong,” she says at one point, when they have to carry stuff. And later when they’re crossing a ravine on a veritable tightrope: “I don’t need help, I’m fine.”) Dato tells jokes and personal stories. Afterward, however, all three may as well be on separate continents, with Alex turning sheepish, Nica doubtful, and Dato just staying out of it.
Lotkev stretches the material as far as it can possibly go, and, somewhat remarkably, it works. The tone is almost lulling as we watch these three hike quietly among the hills, as though it’s a Eurasian Meek’s Cutoff. You feel the affection between the couple before pre-Event and the awkwardness between them post-. And though the action doesn’t exactly pick up in the film’s second half—except for Dato’s somewhat uncomfortable opening up about his personal life—the very nothingness that continues amps up your anticipation about what will happen, because something’s got to, right?
Well, not really. The film ends with less flair than it had at its beginning (much less, actually, considering that the opening scene is Nica soaped up, naked, and jumping up and down to keep warm), and though the closing shot still leaves us wondering about the fate of the couple, it caps a satisfying-enough experience. If nothing else, The Loneliest Planet offers you a leisurely, intimate look at nature, both of the Earth and of humankind itself.
The Bay Directed by Barry Levinson
Of all the bodies of water in all the country, why did Barry Levinson’s eco-thriller The Bay have to be about the Chesapeake Bay? Worse: The creatures that terrorize a small Maryland town in the film actually exist. The real things prey on fish; the fictionalized versions kill people. Gruesomely. And quickly.
These creatures are called isopods, and they are crustaceous parasites that have been known to grow up to two-and-a-half feet. But no one knows about them on July 4, 2009, when the citizens of Claridge, Md., are celebrating Independence Day in and on the bay in blissful ignorance. Donna (Kether Donohue), a cub reporter from American University, is covering the event for a local TV station, botching dull man-on-the-street interviews as only a newbie can. But then a baffled woman starts wandering the celebration area, covered in boils, lesions, and blood, screaming that she needs to get to a hospital. Soon the local hospital is flooded with similar cases, and the lone doctor on duty doesn’t know what to do but call the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for guidance. They can’t supply any.
The Bay takes place in the present, with the 2009 videos (there are more from diary-keeping oceanographers and laypeople) only being seen now because of—you guessed it—a government conspiracy. Donna had been uploading footage to a blog all day, but halfway through the G-men shut it down. Any similar evidence of what was going on, even though none of it offered any answers, had been confiscated. But now Donna’s talking to someone of importance via Skype: “I can’t move on with my life until this story is told.”
Levinson, a technology geek, reportedly used more than 20 types of cameras to film The Bay, including iPhones (one victim shows her symptoms to a friend via FaceTime) and Skype. This at least lends a little variety to the tired found-footage gimmick, though the film is also a bit fresher than its counterparts simply because it’s not about bumps in the night. There are a few scares—say, some leechy-looking thing jumping out of a dead fish’s mouth, or an infected woman popping up in the backseat of a car and, nearly zombielike, attacking the driver—but most of the shivers come from the scourge itself, and the graphic ramifications it has for anyone with whom it comes into contact.
In this way, The Bay is very much like Steven Soderberg’s Contagion, starting with the worst of a lethal illness and tracing its origin. Donna’s present-day commentary may be necessary to lend structure to the story, but it occasionally veers toward dull and obvious. (“Every time I watch these FaceTime videos, it makes me feel sad.”) Overall, though, the acting, all by no-names, is rather realistic, from the cop who is traumatized by a victim begging him to shoot him to the couple that arrives in Claridge late in the day to find a town full of dead people. Even though the film is being released after swimming season, its message is Jaws-esque: Don’t go in the damn water.