As Above, So Below should've stayed below
“Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.”
Apparently, that’s the inscription marking the Gates of Hell, deep down in the haunted catacombs of Paris, according to the filmmakers of As Above, So Below. Unfortunately, that should have been the cautionary tagline for this movie and for the poor souls who wasted $10 to watch it.
The film starts when Scarlet, a ruthless alchemy scholar, flips open a video camera to introduce herself and to explain why she is in Iran. Wanting to fulfill her late father’s quest to find the Philosopher’s Stone (yes, the same stone from Harry Potter), Scarlett is in the midst of an overly reckless task to find a cipher key that will help her find the stone, located in Paris. Finding the key entails traveling to underground ruins that will literally blow up in two seconds, yet she decides to go ahead and search for the key, all the while recording everything. She even sees an apparition of her late father in the ruins and, instead of bolting out of this creepy underground cavern, holds the camera up to him as the ruins explode. That’s the first warning for this careless flop of a film.
Despite the obvious hatred of this movie seeping through this review, it is refreshing to see a protagonist who is intelligent and has a genuine motivation to carry out an expedition at any cost. Her determination to find the Philosopher’s Stone is so fixed that she attracted the attention of a documentary filmmaker, providing a flimsy excuse for the found-footage style that has to be endured for the next 90 minutes. She then recruits her sidekick George to help discover the stone and, after recklessly destroying museum artifacts (while filming her act of criminal mischief), partners with a Frenchman named Pap, who promises to guide her through the catacombs beneath the streets of Paris, where she believes the stone is located.
Early into the journey, the group stumbles into trouble as Scarlett wants to go into a forbidden section of the catacombs but Pap resists, warning that those who go in never come out. Fortunately for Scarlett, the catacombs collapse and seal off their escape, trapping them in the only undiscovered section of the catacombs. Scarlett, unfazed by the creepy female satanic cultists and the other highly-visible warning signs of death, encourages the crew to venture further underground, suggesting that the only way out is to go deeper. It’s kind of surprising that the rest of the group actually believes that going deeper underground will lead them back up to the streets of Paris. But, it is a horror movie, and the director probably thought that stupidity is required for such a genre.
As they crawl deeper and deeper into the catacombs, a series of things start to happen. Unfortunately, these “things” are barely enough to give you the creeps, let alone a good, old-fashioned scare. The characters start experiencing apparitions from each of their tormented pasts. Scarlett, again, pays no mind to these apparitions and pushes the group onward. Eventually, as they are about to enter through the Gates of Hell, the group faces a multitude of supernatural forces. Despite this promising plot twist, the rest of the film carries off like a pointless video game, with no real scares or psychological trauma. By this time in the film, the only important objective is to wait for the film to end so this vomit-inducing journey can be over with.
You would think that when a group of people are about to enter the Gates of Hell, their priorities, such as carrying around a heavy film camera for the purpose of making a documentary, would change somewhat. Fortunately, the crew eventually decides to ditch the camera as they finally realize it’s just one big burden and is recording something they most likely won’t want to re-watch on a Friday night with a glass of wine. Smart decision. But, strangely enough, the film continues with the found-footage style .... with no camera. The story continues to be told through the point of view of person holding a camera and, if they stumble or fall, it’s as if the camera falls to the ground and we, the audience, are forced to view the film in the perspective of a nonexistent video camera. What’s the point of such a meaningless medium?
Found footage filmmaking is, for the most part, a nauseating artistic effect. Cameras are meant to be an invisible, yet active spectator. They are a part of the characters’ universe and the journey they take part in, and we are the natural force that accompanies them. A camera can also establish the space of the world and help the audience see what the characters cannot, establishing elements such as tension, suspense, and irony. But, when a director decides to throw in a camera that the characters must tote around, the medium becomes forced and constricted. We are limited to seeing only what the digital camera can see. Instead of advancing the plot, the camera now becomes a burden for the characters at all times, even during situations when they shouldn’t worry about carrying a camera.
As Above, So Below had an interesting premise that could have made for a unique film. Setting the film in Paris and exploring the underground world below had the potential to be a very enjoyable experience. But, while the director thought a found-footage format would make the film stupendous, it just became stupid.