Urban Explorer (2011)

OCTOBER 18, 2011


As I seemingly had a psychological need that makes me go out of my way to look for ways to stick my foot in my mouth, I agreed to do a Q&A for the movie Urban Explorer after its late (10:30) screening at Screamfest. You all know I fall asleep all the time watching movies, but just a few hours before I had posted an article on Badass Digest about lame, thoughtless Q&A questions, and thus I might have ended up asking some myself if I fell asleep and didn’t have anything else to go with.

Luckily I managed to stay awake! I know, I’m as shocked as you. Even with a technical snafu resulting in us watching about 5 minutes of the movie over again (a perfect excuse to “rest my eyes”), I never once dozed, thanks in part to the film’s quite successful emphasis on suspense and exploring its unique setting over the sort of generic chase/kill scenes that you know will come eventually (and even those are pretty good). The title refers to an activity in which thrill-seekers go under the grounds of Germany and explore its vast tunnel system that houses (amongst other things) Nazi bunkers where experiments were conducted, plus shooting galleries, giant murals, and even a room with a piano that ties into some of Hitler’s more batshit plans involving outer space.

As you can expect, our group of five college-age youths run into trouble; one is hurt, the group splits in order to send for help while others tend to the wounded… and then things get worse. There’s nothing too surprising about the chain of events if you’ve seen movies like The Descent (or Raw Meat/Creep, given the tunnel setting), but that doesn’t make it any less valid a survival thriller. For starters, the group is quite likable – one guy does something that you will probably cause some groans early on, but ultimately he becomes the only one not directly responsible for the bad things that happen. He speaks German, he fights back when necessary, etc – in other words, he’s not a schmuck who goes out of his way to make the situation worse for the group, like some of his fictional peers.

Speaking of the German, inadvertently adding to the experience was the aforementioned snafu – the subtitles wouldn’t work. They stopped the movie trying to correct it after a quick scene went by sans subs, but then a lengthy section of the film (involving the film’s villain) played almost entirely in German, still without the subs. For the most part it wasn’t really an issue – while some of the specifics were obviously left unknown to the audience, we could get the jist of what was going on just from the tone of voice, body language, and occasional “sum up” lines (in English) from the hero who could understand German to his girlfriend, who could not. Kudos to director Andy Fetscher and the actors for being skilled enough to allow the conversation to register even though we couldn’t really understand a single word – believe me, I’ve seen foreign films where this sort of issue would leave us completely in the dark.

And for the most part it sort of added to the film’s overall emphasis on the fear of the unknown and such. Be it a line of German or a confusing path of tunnels, our heroes spend most of the film being unsure of what is happening around them, so by removing this device, the audience could feel some of that unease. Not that it was necessary, mind you - as with The Descent, the film would work even without a tangible villain, since the claustrophobic setting (and the fact that they get hopelessly lost within it) was scary enough for a movie.

In fact, it actually has one up on The Descent in one respect – the location offers a lot of variety. Submerged pathways, bunkers, fully functioning emergency stations, pipe/ladder filled passages, the actual subway tunnel… the layout may never be clear (intentionally so, I assume), you can tell one room from the next, unlike Descent where it was mostly just the same sort of caverns with stalagmites everywhere. Minor light sources also provide a variety of lighting schemes – green hallways, red rooms, etc. It’s definitely one of the more visually interesting films of this type, and that is because Fetscher and his crew got the most out of the numerous “sets” at their disposal.

And he did so at the expense of his own safety and criminal record! He and a crew member spent a night in jail for one trespassing incident, and an encounter with a local almost resulted in stabbings on another night. Due to the film’s Nazi back-story and other factors, he received no help from the German film offices and had to film the movie entirely “guerilla style”, which is admirable (if not too bright – unless you’re making a documentary about the government killing innocent people or something, I can’t really see the point in risking jail time to make a movie). They also really were 60 feet underground in locations that couldn’t fit more than a handful of crew members (he estimated that 10 was the max he ever had at once), so it should be mentioned/lauded that they found a group of actors who were not only game for the potential danger of shooting the film, but that they found ones that were good as well. Two of the girls take off to get help at the halfway point and thus never get as much to do as the others, but they’re all believable and distinct enough (after Wrong Turn 4 borderline confused me at times with its vaguely similar characters, this was much appreciated), and again – likable. Without getting too spoiler-y, this IS a German movie after all, and thus the downbeat turn of events wasn’t exactly unexpected, but I was still a bit sad to see certain characters get taken out.

Despite the fact that Fetscher is “hated” by the German film folks, the movie opens there this weekend, and has been picked up in other territories while it continues its festival run in order to hopefully secure others (including the US). The days of movies like The Descent and High Tension landing wide theatrical releases in the States are long gone (even the perfectly accessible and fun Attack The Block couldn’t get much of a release with a few names involved), so I doubt its US release will be impressive when it gets one, which is a shame as the widescreen visuals are well suited for the big screen. Hopefully IFC or Magnolia will pick it up as at least they will put it in a few cinemas in the bigger markets, unlike Lionsgate who only buys movies like this in order to dump them onto DVD with no fanfare. On the other hand, it is left open for a sequel, so maybe that will make it more enticing. Either way, it’s a damn shame how the current theatrical market is looking, especially for stuff like this, where it’s merely a solid movie and not a HOLY SHIT THIS IS THE BEST FUCKING MOVIE EVER MADE! type attention-grabber. Christ, I saw High Tension at the multiplex inside a mall and that was only 6-7 years ago!

What say you?


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