Saturday, December 05, 2009

Over There: Horror films and the War in Afghanistan - Part 3: The Objective

Before we make our third and final stop in this short tour of horror films set against the backdrop of our now rapidly escalating war in Afghanistan, here's links to the first two films in this series. In case anybody needs a refresher before we push on:

Part 1: Sand Serpents
Part 2: Red Sands

Our final film, The Objective, a 2008 genre-stew film by Blair Witch Project co-director Daniel Myrick, was the first of the three Afghanistan set flicks to get made. Set just two months after the 9/11 terror attacks and one month after the beginning of Operation Enduring Freedom, the film follows a CIA operative and his special forces escort into the Southern Provinces (currently the operational theater of Canada's military forces in Afghanistan) on the search for a mysterious radiation source.

The film's central protag is the Agency spook. He provides a affectless running narration that lets us know from the get go that this operation is not what it seems. He serves as the squads Ripley (the outside consult with a potentially different agenda). The soldiers accompanying him are, as in the other films, familiar types. His unit includes a Rock, a Vig, a Lemchek, and a couple of Fodders. We also get a pick-up Benny Fish to act as a local guide and an inexplicable Australian sniper. Even odder, the sniper later drops a significant bit of esoteric knowledge regarding the 19th century British Afghan War debacle, making him a sort of stand in for all the other white components of Bush's Coalition of the Willing.

Our crew is choppered into the badlands and, before you can turn a video camera on yourself and say you're so sorry, things start to go wrong in strange and unexplainable ways. Radios cease working. The squad is ambushed by Taliban fighters who vanish, even after after taking shots to the head. Soldiers fall victim to mysterious illness and seeing ghostly assassins through their night vision gear. Compasses go on the fritz. The land seems to be morphing around them - putting mountains and deserts where satellite photos show grassland. Even their trusty Benny Fish gets lost and, eventually, so spooked that he commits suicide.

The cause of all this, we later learn, are invisible ancient pyramid-shaped UFOs. Just what these things can do is never defined, so its best to assume that their uncanny radiation can make whatever screenwriters Myrick, Mark A. Patton, and Wesley Clark Jr. need to happen materialize. The whole mission was a ploy to get a bunch of troops to engage these things just to see what would happen when a bunch of panicked special forces guys shot at them and got their dander up. The answer, it turns out, is the special forces guys get screwed.

The Objective is an intermittently ambitious mess of a flick. Myrick started on familiar ground - the lost on mission plot is close enough to Project that one feels the flick should be in Myrick's wheelhouse - but rapidly loses his way. In BWP the sketchiness of the characterization was thematically supported by the found-films backstory. Furthermore, the thin characterization actually helped to make the unlucky students objects of identification. They didn't have any opaque fragments of personality that would stop the viewer from projecting their own personality onto the screen. Here, the soldiers are too alien - with their jargon, their easy recourse to large amounts of tremendous violence, their (remarkably sloppy and non-standardized) uniforms, their chain of command - to embody the average viewer, but too half-finished to feel like complete humans. The odd exception to this is the CIA operative. Though his voice-over is often tedious, as the film progresses it becomes clearer and clearer that he's a grade A sociopath. Not a foaming at the mouth slasher type, but a genuine a-emotional manipulator who can look a dying man in the eye and, before abandoning him to his fate, say, "Your country is proud of you." The CIA spook is the kinda guy who refers to soldiers as "assets" and says this to their face. While this kind of character is hardly a novel creation, Myrick gets points for making this vile jerk the central character of the story. It's a bold move that actually pays off in several key scenes.

Visually, without the found-film conceit as a cover, Myrick proves hesitant to go verite but unable or unwilling to commit to a more efficient, effective narrative filmmaking style. The result is neither fish nor fowl: An awkward fusion that never feels raw enough to sell as unmediated nor tight enough to drive home the story. The result is decidedly uneven. For every intriguing visual Myrick crafts, there are inert, artless stretches of what occasionally feels like lazy filmmaking. Which is ironic if you consider that they were filming in pretty brutal desert conditions. A lot of hard effort went into this film, I'm sure. I simply wish more of it was visible on the screen.

Finally, the plot derails in the last quarter. Once the viewers figure out that there's no "unified" explanation for why ghosts, and vanishing Taliban, and 100+-year-old British soldiers, and so on are all happening to our protags, the film loses momentum and becomes a collection of strung together set pieces, none of which particularly hang together in any narrative sense. The conclusion, a nod to 2001, feels more like a cop out than a wrap up.

Aside from it's obviously fictional genre trappings, The Objective is only barely a movie about the War in Afghanistan. Like Red Sands, this is a curiously American-centric flick. Again, not in a specifically jingoistic way. The Objective presents Americans as the biggest threat to Americans. Rather, this is a film about the post-9/11 mentality of America. It is, of course, a critique of the blood-soaked hubris of the Bush administration. The CIA protag's delusional willingness to march into the "graveyard of armies" on what amounts to a suicide mission for objectives that can't even be described is a fitting avatar for our post-9/11 adventurism. But the toxic, conspiracy choked atmosphere of dissent is just as much a target. The plot of The Objective sounds like a subplot of the unhinged film-rant Zeitgeist or the basis for a particularly juicy post on Alex Jones's site. I remember when, leading up to the '08 election, a blogger I know and respect posted - I believe in all seriousness - a post detailing how Bush and his cronies would seize the reigns of power permanently through false flag terror scares. These scares would give them the power to cancel the upcoming election and establish marshal law. I don't bring this prediction up to measure its accuracy (happily, it was off base), but rather to point out that in the American political culture of the mid-00s this sort of thinking was relatively unremarkable. This movie seems very much a product of those grimly anxious years.

To a degree, all the films in this mini-genre are less about the status of the War in Afghanistan than they are about our own image. To one degree or another, they're all thought experiments of Nietzsche's famous hypothesis regarding those who fight monsters. In Sand Serpents, the filmmakers assume traditional heroics - complete with noble sacrifice - will win the day. Though the fact that their hero's final courageous act is essentially a suicide bombing does little to convince us. Red Sands more pessimistically posits that we won't survive this encounter intact. It's difference between that film's djinn baddie and soldier heroes dissolves quickly, leaving behind a single soldier who is, literally, the monster he fought. The Objective suggests that we probably wouldn't be out looking for monsters if we weren't already a bit twisted inside.


Steampunk said...

Hey, thanks for an interesting and informative introduction to this sub-sub-genre! I enjoyed all three articles, had never heard of any of these movies before. I may have to track em down and have an Afghan war binge some night.

Book Nerd said...

Nice summation. There's a distinct pleasure in looking at three texts that seem to be doing the same thing and delineating the thematic divergences. Thinking of them as coming at a common idea from different angles illuminates meanings they wouldn't have in isolation.

I'm almost sorry I didn't watch all of these with you. But not quite.