Wednesday, October 5, 2016

The Last Descent Review

It's time for a small, local movie! If you've never heard of The Last Descent, don't feel too left out. This is a movie that opened in select Utah theaters a few weeks ago, mostly just the Megaplex theaters throughout the Wasatch Front. Quite honestly there wasn't a huge advertising push for it, so it kinda just showed up almost unannounced. But I personally was curious when I learned of it. This is the story of John Jones, who got trapped in Nutty Putty Cave in Utah County on the day before Thanksgiving in 2009 and never made it out. Movies similar to this are made all the time, but this specific story seemed like an odd choice for a movie. This was a very sad, tragic event. What angle were they going to take with this to make it either an enjoyable or powerful film? What was their motivation behind making it? Was there some sort of message they wanted to teach us or were they going to just force us watch a good man slowly die for 105 minutes? And what are they going to do to keep my interest given that this is about a man who gets stuck in a dark cave? If done right, movies like this can be incredible. But there's always a risk that you could accidentally hit all the wrong notes and be a disaster. Unfortunately this is an example of the latter and thus if you haven't seen this movie, I would recommend you keep it that way. This is not worth your time and money.

The Last Descent is directed by a man named Isaac Halasima Not only did he write and direct the movie, but he also did the cinematography and editing. While that may seem impressive on paper, after watching the movie I think he should've shared some of those duties, but we'll get to that in a second. The first challenge when you're making a movie about a guy who gets trapped in a dark cave is to keep my interest for 105 minutes, because there's not a lot to work with when it's a story about a man trapped in one position. You need to have a well-written script, good acting, and a story that successfully builds up to the final emotional moment. Unfortunately it feels like Halasima had an interesting idea, but had no idea how to successfully turn this into a full-length movie. This is his first time writing and directing a feature-length film. Apparently he previously worked on some Imagine Dragons music videos and done some editing and cinematography work for a few documentaries, but that's it. This time the lack of experience shows. Not only is this movie emotional for all the wrong reasons, but the cinematic, filmmaking elements of this movie are just plain awful all around. It felt like he wrote a rough draft of a script, grabbed a cheap camera, shot a bunch of random footage, and lazily edited it together into one giant mess of a film.

Let's talk about the specifics with this. First off, I don't want to put any blame on the actors here. They did the best with what they were given. But the dialogue on the movie was so painful to listen to. The script is just bad. The editing and camera work as they are driving to the cave is atrocious. And the cinematography throughout is an absolute mess. The camera work is not good. The lighting is awkward. The editing is choppy. It literally looks like a movie that made in an amateur junior high film class. Like seriously. I think I've seen higher quality films made my my friends and classmates for various school projects. Then we get to our cave. And of course John gets trapped in a really awkward spot and rescue workers come to try to save him, but he's in such a rough spot that they have a hard to figuring out what to do. So while they're figuring things out, one rescue worker goes down to keep him company. This is all fine and dandy because that's what happened in real life, but I'd be willing to bet that over half of this movie is of these two men down in that cave talking. Most of it is small talk that isn't super pertinent film. This makes sense in real life because a rescue worker in this situation needs to keep the trapped person awake and talking, but with such poorly written dialogue, it makes for one heck of a boring movie. There's no building up to an emotional climax. There's just aimlessly wandering through the movie trying to fill space.

Speaking of aimlessly wandering, one of the conversations that John and the rescue guy have is about how John met his wife. I'm sure they probably had this conversation in real life and I was expecting some flashbacks to tell John's backstory, but I wasn't expecting nearly half the movie to be a romance drama about how John met his wife and their dating stories. A few minutes of this would've been fine. But they spent way too long on this. And why? They needed to fill space, I suppose. Because this is about a man trapped in a cave. And they didn't seem to know how to turn this into a feature-length film, so they decided to go with the dating stories. And did I mention that when we were in the cave that we kept awkwardly jumping back and forth between two weird camera shots? One shot was a close-up shot of John's face. The other was a worm's eye view of the rescue worker. Neither were good shots and the editing between two shots was bad. Then we'd occasionally go above ground to see what the crew up there was doing and spliced into that were what I believe were real-life news footage back from 2009 of the police chief and other people telling the press what progress was being made. This can work in movies, especially when it's a recent news story. This time those shots felt out of place and awkward. Overall it was a slog getting to the climax.

Then we have the emotion. I'm not opposed to tragedies on film. I don't think every movie ever made needs to be wrapped up in a pretty little bow. But when you are making a movie where your main character dies, you should have some pretty good reasons for why you doing this and some good messages or themes to go along with it. A movie like The Fault in Our Stars is a good example here. You know the movie isn't going to end in a happy way, but it tells some great themes about living life to the fullest, thus making for a beautiful film. It's OK if you know the ending of a movie as long as the journey to that ending is a good one and the themes are strong. The Last Descent does none of that right. Being that this is a local movie, they could've pushed the faith-based angle. In fact, they should've. If this was an emotional, spiritual movie that told us that life isn't the end and we'll all be together again soon, that would've worked. Thus in the hands of someone like T.C. Christensen, this could've been a beautiful, emotional film, especially since the guy's wife has an incredible story of faith with how she's dealt with it all and what it taught her. This movie does none of that. Instead we get to slowly watch a guy die with no real purpose or direction. Instead of making me sad, yet inspired, this made me angry because it started digging up personal memories for me of people I have lost and I started to hate this movie for taking me through all of that.

As I said, the wrong type of emotions. There's no spiritual message here. There's no point to this film. I don't know how the family and friends of this man feel about this movie, but I would be angry if I had to watch a movie about how someone I cared for passed away without there being any purpose to it. It would be like reliving the worst day of my life for no apparent reason. Not cool. It's not even put together well cinematically. This movie needed several revisions to the script by someone with more experience in writing  and probably could've used a more professional cinematographer and editor. I do kinda feel bad trashing a local film like this because sometimes the people involved might actually read my review. If that's the case, I hope they can appreciate my honesty and use this as constructive criticism. Often in life you need to make a big mistake so that you can learn from it and do a better job next time. No actor is at fault here, especially not Landon Henneman who played our main rescue worker. Being that the writing, directing, cinematography, and editing were done by one man, I have to point the finger of blame at him. Sorry Isaac Halasima. Better luck next time. I can't recommend anyone see this film. Not only is it not worth your money, but it's 105 minutes of your life that you will never be able to get back. My grade for The Last Descent is a 3/10.

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