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Movie Review: The Forest

January 8, 2016
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We know a remote forest in Japan, where Sara Price’s (Natalie Dormer) twin sister has disappeared. Every July, as well as the surrounding months, people kill themselves there. We also know that Sara has a special “twin bond” with her sister, going back to when the two were orphaned. This bond lets Sara know her sister is alive, and it’s a welcome innovation because it gets Sara to Tokyo and on with her investigation within the first five minutes.

Lisa, the sister (and also Dormer), apparently has always been the wilder of the two, a point that’s often reinforced, though one that I’m not quite sure why I brought up other than to find some way of leading into the fact that she teaches English at a Japanese school. And I bring that up because it gives director Jason Zada a chance to have all the pretty schoolgirls scream at Sara because they think she’s a ghost.

And I say that because Zada must think it’s important, and one of the schoolgirls does show up later, but we spend a lot of time there and don’t learn much other than what we already knew. And from there we trek to Aokigahara, the forest that, as the marketing for the film will continually remind us, is indeed a real place. And the script takes a lot of inspiration from Aokigahara’s mythology – it is said to be haunted by the angry spirits left to die there; it is filled with tape left by trekkers who use it to find their way back to the trail; it is also referred to as the “Sea of Trees,” as we learn from Aiden (Chicago Fire’s Taylor Kinney), the Australian journalist who attempts to pick up Sara in a bar and settles on writing her story.

What it probably does not have is the litany of ghosts who cut out the sound, lengthen the takes, and leap toward the screen. And there’s a lot of them. So many, in fact, that Zada doesn’t really know what to do with them other than have them cut the sound, lengthen the takes, and leap toward the screen. Say what you will about the Insidious series, but at least its jump scares have a little variety. The Forest, on the other hand, never strays from the recipe, and in doing so, it announces every scare. By the end, the audience was laughing.

This is a fault of the director, but he’s not aided by screenwriters Nick Antosca, Sarah Cornwell, and Ben Ketai either. Antosca has at least worked on the TV series Hannibal, and should presumably know better, but even still there’s not much depth here: Sara’s investigation relies almost exclusively on her “twin sense,” which doesn’t turn out to be the best of guides; Aiden’s designs on Sara are never quite clear; and the big reveal at the end amounts to nothing more than another silent, lengthy, jumpy scare.

It’s too bad, because there’s a lot of elements in place to make the film work: Dormer and Kinney are good actors; Mattias Troelstrup’s cinematography captures not only the splendid loneliness of the forest but also the isolated vibrancy of Tokyo. The premise alone is solid ground for a compelling drama, and while here there’s a few nods toward resurrecting old ghosts, any resonance to that theme is muddled by yet another cheesy jump scare. Even the damn poster is good! And Dormer, who’s no stranger to family drama, is made to do little else other than scream, run, and scream again. Kinney, another good actor, is prized for his looks and that’s about it.

Doubtless other reviewers will mention that Zada’s claim to fame is masterminding the “Elf Yourself” marketing campaign for Office Max — that thing we all saw everyone post on Facebook a few years ago and which was cute until every damn person did it and then it got real tiring real fast. I won’t be so blunt as to spell out the comparison, but it is an apt one.

1.5/5

The Forest is rated PG-13. Running time: 95 minutes. Directed by Jason Zada. Written by Nick Antosca, Sarah Cornwell, and Ben Ketai. Starring Natalie Dormer, Taylor Kinney, Stephanie Voigt, Osamu Tanpopo, Eoin Macken, Yasuo Tobishima, Ibuki Kaneda, Yuho Yamashita, Noriko Sakura, and Akiki Iwase.

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