It must have sounded great in the pitch meeting: It’s about an app you download to your phone that tells you how long you have to live. For most people it’s good news — “I’m gonna live to be 98!” – but one girl finds out she’s going to die in 2 days and so she tries to stop it before her time runs out. We’ll call it Countdown because that what the app does; it counts down to your death.
It’s a cool idea. So what happened? How did an idea with such horror movie potential end up being such horror-free pablum? The answers are all up there, or more honestly NOT up there, on the big screen. A cool idea pitched in a few sentences is one thing, but developing it into a 90-minute feature film is a much bigger challenge, one that the makers of Countdown just didn’t seem ready to face.
Let’s start with the first kill. A number of 20-somethings are playing poker at a house party when one of them finds the countdown app on her phone. They all download it and, while some of them discover they will live to a ripe old age, one of them finds out she’s gonna die in a few hours. She freaks, goes home and…dies…in a completely unbelievable and unimaginative way by getting yanked up into the air by some unseen force and dropped so her neck breaks on the tub. Yawn; it doesn’t even work as a cheap jump scare because it’s in the trailer.
And so the film moves on through a series of random encounters to show our hero, Nurse Quinn Harris (Elizabeth Lail), downloading the app with coworkers and the same thing happens. Some people get to live to a ripe old age and some, like Harris, are doomed to die in days. Unlike others who have fallen prey to the app, though, Harris has a plan: She goes and buys a new phone with a new number and no countdown app. It works, for about 2 minutes. Then the app, using some supernatural GPS system, finds her new phone and downloads her time-to-die clock again.
It may be early in the story, but instead of filling the audience with a sense of dread it’s more likely they will experience a sense of deja vu watching Countdown because the same thing keeps happening over and over again in pretty much the same way. The kills may look different but they all feel like you’ve seen them before in other (and better) movies. There’s a CGI demon that starts showing up, but not even the cheesy explanation that Harris gets from a nerdy priest makes the demon more believable or scary. And there are literally dozens of shots of cell phones with the countdown app counting down and none of them add to the tension of the story. They only make you want to pull out your own phone to see how much longer Countdown will go on.
That’s the problem with a cool idea that isn’t fully developed: it’s not enough to carry a film. And so writer/director Justin Dec starts padding it out. He adds a tawdry subplot about a sleazy doctor (Peter Facinelli) who corners Harris in an empty office and assaults her. Before she can go to her supervisor and report him, the doc goes and files a complaint that she tried to attack him. Given the #metoo times we are living in, scenes like this, especially underdeveloped ones that add nothing of value to the story, simply have no place in this or any film. It’s creepy, but for all the wrong reasons.
Dec’s lack of awareness of the modern world shows up in the scenes where Harris goes to get her new phone, too. The clerk at the store, played by stand-up comic Tom Segura, is far too old for the ‘hipster/hacker’’ attitude the character spouts back at customers. To be fair, the dialogue feels pretty old, too, like it was written for a time when cell phones were new technology and the size of bricks.
As badly as their characters are, at least Facinelli and Segura put some effort into bringing them to life. The rest of the cast seems content to do things only because it’s written in the script, and even then they don’t give it much effort. Lail, whose career experience has primarily been on TV (Once Upon a Time, You), struggles to find a way to project herself characters on the big screen. She just looks lost at the beginning of Countdown and just overwhelmed by the end, but not by the demon or his killer app.
Of course, a lot of the nuisance of Countdown, if there is any, could have been lost in the darkness of the film, much of which looks like it was filmed using available light when there wasn’t any. Granted, the film was shown in 3D, which means the audience was already wearing sunglasses inside a darkened theater, but there are scenes in Countdown, particularly in the climactic final battle between Harris and the code-writing demon, when it’s almost impossible to see anything that’s happening on the screen. It might have been a problem with the projector at the theater; it’s difficult to believe cinematographer Maxime Alexandre, who did such an amazing job filming those dark and creepy shots under the house in Crawl, made a conscious decision to make a movie you can’t really see. But then, taking the 3D shades off didn’t make much difference.
- John Black, Countdown