As a filmmaking technique, found footage is dead. What once seemed like a comment a technologically obsessed, intellectually deficient generation has been transformed – aptly enough – into a shallow delivery system for cheap thrills for low-budget filmmakers. Don’t have enough money for lights? Low light cameras are a dime a dozen. Production design? Who needs it when you’re striving for “realism”? Special effects too expensive? Just shake the camera around so the audience has no way of knowing what’s happening. Since aliens are the monsters of choice this time, the audience can project their own fears – or prejudices – onto the screen based on decades of Area 51 clichés.
I’m a big fan of the “show as little as possible” horror storytelling. The unknown is the most frightening aspect of anything supernatural. Matty Beckerman’s directorial debut Alien Abduction really stretches my patience for what someone can get away with not showing. The lighting is so dark it’s impossible to tell what’s going on; the movement is so shaky it makes my eyes hurt; and the editing is so jarring that it’s obnoxious at some points and unintentionally hilarious at others. Instead of the desert of New Mexico, we have the hills and forests of North Carolina, and while that is a welcome change, Beckerman does little with it. Most of the action takes place at night, and the colors switch from endless black to blaring white with the delicacy of a strobe light.
Alien Abduction is bookended by interviews with people who appear to be real, although The Blair Witch Project long ago challenged what viewers should accept as truth, doing more to challenge the authenticity of documentary filmmaking than any mockumentary. Interviewees include local witnesses, a paranormal researcher, and a physics professor who bears an uncanny resemblance to Ted Nugent. Whether you believe their talk of lights in the sky, abduction experiences, and hints of government conspiracy will determine just how laughable you find Alien Abduction to be. I believe none of it, so my only hope was an entertaining horror movie experience, maybe some added subtext about a current hot-button issue – illegal immigrants, perhaps.
Peter and Katie Morris, along with their three children Corey, Jillian and the autistic Riley, drive out to the countryside for several days of camping in Brown Mountain, NC. Peter and Katie are just the type of parents who would look for adventure in the great outdoors while driving their SUV packed to the brim with GPS devices, cell phones and camcorders, not to mention charging cables for each. Riley obsessively documents every waking – and sleeping – moment of their trip, complete with establishing shots, close-ups and three-act structure. Granted, this parody of a generation of narcissists was handled far more effectively in Blair Witch, but I’m always open to updates if handled appropriately. Unfortunately, the notion of alien abductions is slightly less preposterous than the situation Peter drives his family towards: a tunnel filled with abandoned cars, SUVs, and even a police cruiser. Rather than, say, getting the hell out of there, Peter decides to investigate with his two sons. After all, this is about the adventure… and they’re almost out of gas, because who pays attention to such trivialities on long-distance trips?
Found footage movies generally rely on main characters that are self-centered and delusional, the type who would document their lives with the zeal of an embedded journalist. In the face of such life-threatening circumstances, the first and only thought is to get it all on tape, so future generations will know how they screeched and whined like the Real Housewives of Brown Mountain Ridge. As the autistic boy who now fills this role, Riley is even more of a non-entity than the aliens his family runs from. There is a throwaway line his mother gives to an uncharacteristically helpful hillbilly about how filming allows Riley to communicate, but he never exhibits any symptoms that don’t already define other boys his age. Riley exhibits a thousand-yard stare and at one point repeats “31” to himself (it’s the hillbilly’s address), but, for the most part, the camera is his autism. It could be offensive had it not been done out of sheer laziness.
Then, of course, there are the aliens themselves, which are creations straight out of the imagination of a 1950s adolescent boy. They have bulbous heads and gangly bodies; they speak in shrieks and hypnotize their prey with sonic weapons and blinding lights. Their sense of self-preservation is as careless as the Morris’ since they attack during daylight (yet, mysteriously, are never seen), abduct Riley while he’s still recording, only to discard him without erasing any of the footage. The most advanced life form in the galaxy and they don’t understand horror tropes that any basement dweller could recognize. The tape will just be discovered by police, confiscated by the government, redacted down to an 80-minute narrative by the US Air Force, and leaked by the press straight to video-on-demand for your viewing pleasure. Do they probe him? Steal his memory? Harvest his body for food? Alien Abduction isn’t interested in these – or any – questions. The first time in history a camcorder has been brought on to an alien spacecraft and the scene lasts less than a minute. After all, it doesn’t matter what happened, just that something happened. Maybe next time the Air Force will redact something more compelling.