400 Days is the first theatrical release film from a company (SyFy) that’s been cranking mediocre to howlingly (we hope intentionally) funny terribad movies out onto its cable station for years. Getting in to movie theaters is a big deal, a major investment, but doesn’t necessarily guarantee a movie’s actually good, right? Let me tell you, I’d rather watch a SyFy offering any day than Transformers 4. But is this Syfy going legit, so to speak?
Imagine the wiggly hand gesture here. Yes and no. I’ll be the first to admit I’m a tough sell when we’re talking relatively small/low budget independent scifi, because we’ve seen some amazing shit in the genre recently, mostly dominated by the UK. So I’m probably a harsher judge than I could be. On the other hand, I really, really want SyFy to succeed, because I want to see more small, weird, good genre films. And SyFy’s generally got the weird part down at least. I went in to 400 Days wanting very much to like it and wanting it to succeed.
Spoiler: I was disappointed.
The movie’s got a pretty straightforward plot: A sleazy corporate dude in a suit, representing a private company that’s breaking in to space exploration, puts four astronauts in an underground bunker for a 400 day experiment to simulate a long term space voyage and ascertain the psychological effects. The simulation astronauts are named Bug (Ben Feldman), Neil (Brandon Routh), Dudebro (Dane Cook), and Emily (Caity Lotz).
(Okay, actually, according to IMDB they’re Bug, Theo, Dvorak, and Emily, but I swear to god for the first half of the film everyone sounded like they were saying Neil instead of Theo.)
Not long into the experiment, the crew loses contact with their corporate, simulated ground control. They assume it’s part of the simulation and keep going, at which point things get increasingly weird in a way that indicates the film really wants to be a psychological thriller.
The sets (and filming style) all have that faintly unreal, cardboard-y look to them that seems endemic of SyFy movies, but in this case it actually works for the film, since the crew isn’t actually in a space ship–just an underground bunker that’s been tarted up to look like one. We’re always supposed to be in doubt about what is actually real, so everything looking a bit fake does lend itself well to that. Nothing too remarkable in the filming style, standard teal and orange color grading. Sound was… all right, though I had a hard time understanding the actors now and then, which is why I was convinced for about half an hour that Theo was actually named Neil. I thought the actors turned in decent performances, though Tom Cavanagh (playing Zell, creepy survivor guy and possible cannibal) was over the top in a way that really clashed with the rest of the film leading up to him. I also had a hell of a time telling Brandon Routh (Theo) and Ben Feldman (Bug) apart.
What let 400 Days down wasn’t the acting or the direction or even the fact that Evil Co apparently buys their space ship trash cans at Target, but the script. The characters (except for Bug) were cyphers with no past and no real internal emotional life to feed what they were doing or make their decisions sensical. This could have been forgiven in scifi/horror fare where you just sit back and watch the blood spray and CGI aliens gorge themselves on livers or pituitary glands or what have you, but not when we’re supposed to actually care about the struggle of these supposed “ordinary” characters against the unseen forces that seem to manipulate them. Worse, what starts as a decently solid plot unravels completely by the end. I’d recommend not bothering with this one until you can just watch it on the Syfy channel.
Spoilers as I get a bit more detailed into the plot.
The trailer makes it pretty clear what 400 Days wants to be: a scifi psychological thriller where the audience, like the characters, isn’t quite sure what the fuck is going on, but is sure that it can’t be good. But it simultaneously does too much and not enough to hit the golden zone Philip K Dick levels of oh shit that it seems to be reaching for.
Throughout the film, we see Emily popping pills. Dudebro starts receiving transmissions via the computer telling him that Emily is poisoning him and that everyone hates him, and we can never be sure if they’re real or not. Bug inexplicably draws a maze on the walls of his room in sharpie, leaves a jar of pee sitting in the hall outside his room (no really), and then hallucinates about his dead kid. Theo is… uh. Theo? Perennially mopey because Emily dumped him; honestly, he never really stops acting like he has the hangover he claims to be suffering from at the beginning. Between their manufactured angst and Dudebro creeping on Emily, I had to apply some beer to my brain.
Anyway, except for Theo being the King of All Mope, these are some decent building blocks, particularly since the whole point of the setup is that these people are locked in an underground bunker together and they don’t get out for 400 days. And apparently if they do have to call it quits early, even for a medical emergency, Corporate Douchebag overlord is going to kick them out of the astronaut program; it makes narrative sense for the crew to keep going even when shit starts getting weird. It even makes sense to question if Emily has been ordered to give everyone psychotropic drugs to see what happens; she and Douchebag have a whispered conversation right before the experiment begins. It’s actually a decent setup, and I was engaged and figuring the movie would end with these obviously unstable people who couldn’t have been realistically picked to be astronauts in the first place murdering each other in some kind of company-run Hunger Games. I could have gone with that, even if I found Bug charming enough that I wasn’t looking forward to his inevitable, gruesome stabbing.
Then a refugee from a Mad Max movie, clad in only his underpants, breaks into the experiment bunker to steal food and gets caught by Theo. The crew decides to look outside and finds a blasted wasteland covered with what is, according to Bug, powdered Moon dust. They wander around on the windswept surface in their fake spacesuits, with Dudebro insisting that this is obviously more fakery, and get led to a town by a conveniently placed map. In the town, they meet up with the head weirdo, Zell, who feeds them some soup that may or may not be people. Bug and Dudebro disappear, never to be heard from again, and Emily and Theo are forced to leave town and go back to the bunker. (On the way there, they reconcile, and I honestly could not have cared less.) Zell pursues them, and Theo kills him off just as the simulation rolls into its 400th day. A recorded(?) message from Corporate Douchebag plays, and someone begins knocking at the hatch. That’s where the movie ends.
The final act, when the crew leaves the simulator, is where the film veers completely off the rails and starts feeling like a made for TV movie as opposed to an okay small budget scifi theatrical release. 400 Days has a very slim running time: 91 minutes. This final act dragged in a way that had me longing for commercial breaks and wishing I wore a watch so I could glance at it meaningfully. Not a lot happens while the crew stumbles through the bleak landscape, with long scenes of silence that aren’t tense, but rather feel like the director was desperately trying to pad the film out to an hour and a half.
The script plainly wants us to feel the tension between the three main possible realities. Is this a) all a mass hallucination brought on by psychotropic drugs, b) actual reality, in which a disaster has struck the Earth while the crew has been underground, or c) a continuation of the experiment? The problem with the last act is that options a and c are rendered entirely implausible, and so the clues pointing toward them just make no sense.
For example: since the movie is set up as fairly hard scifi, C becomes implausible once they leave the bunker because of the amount of distance they traverse, and the fact that at the end Theo literally murders Zell. With a real knife. Which is fair since Zell is trying pretty hard to murder him first, with a different very real knife. There’s no narrative plausibility as to why the company would want the simulation to be that elaborate, which is a shame; all that would have needed were some hints dropped earlier on that, say, the company also has interests in social experiments and psychological testing, and then I maybe could have suspended my disbelief enough to argue that sure, the space flight is a ruse and this is actually some next level weird social engineering shit. (Honestly, I could have bought that more than the space flight thing considering the only character I could actually believe being in an astronaut program was Bug.) But there isn’t enough there to make that a decent argument, so all the little hints that are supposed to make us think C is real (views through night vision cameras, Dudebro claiming all the people in the town’s bar are journalists and the models from his softcore porn mags) just make no goddamn sense and becomes actively annoying. Dudebro and Bug vanish, presumably dying off screen, but there’s no set indication of what happened to them. That makes the knocking on the hatch at the end while Theo and Emily hang out with Zell’s corpse not an oh shit moment, but a nah, brah, nah moment.
Not every thread needs to be tied up neatly in a film like this, but this one had so many dangling ends that the story was an ugly, textured carpet, not a carefully woven tapestry. I wanted this movie to succeed. I’m sad that it didn’t, and frustrated by the writing. Hopefully SyFy tries again, and picks a better script this time.
(PS: SyFy, next time could you please also not cast all white people? Especially not white people who look the same? Kthx.)
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