Review: POV Thriller PANDEMIC

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Director John Suits gets his gaming geek on in the first-person perspective pic, PANDEMIC.

By and large, the gaming industry remains hopelessly devoted to feature films and TV shows, subserviently (albeit effectively and oftentimes more competently) emulating everything there is to love about the big and small screen; whether it be the visuals, the narrative, the characters, and a seriously long list of etceteras. Despite such a clear trend, as games are constantly starting to offer that much more bounce for the ounce, the tide is beginning to turn as film-makers are now harnessing the benefits of go-to gaming mechanics in an attempt to forge the ultimate immersive cinematic experience.

Ilya Naishuller’s HARDCORE HENRY certainly sparked buzz aplenty after its TIFF premiere last year given the fact it was billed as the first ever first-person actioner “a la Call of Duty,” and now there’s another POV beat ‘em up-cum-shoot ‘em up about to hit the scene with this week’s Film4 FrightFest world premiere of John Suits’ (THE SCRIBBLER) PANDEMIC.

Whenever I can, I’m game for shooting off a few CoD rounds on the Playstation so the burning question before I even sat down to watch this one ran something along these lines: Is what is essentially a live action co-op rail shooter capable of captivating even the most seasoned console connoisseurs?

You’ll be glad to hear that, bar one particularly blighting flaw, there’s actually a whole lot to like and PANDEMIC’s POV ploy proves a lot less gimmicky than this reviewer expected. It holds up that much more than anticipated, largely down to the fact that scribe Dustin T. Benson clearly went beyond the call of duty in the writer’s room to bang out an intelligently devised storyline that boasts some surprisingly copacetic characters, all played by a more than capable cast of seasoned thesps.

Pilfering the most addictive strategies from the big-guns of the gaming world, ranging from “The Last of Us” and “Dead Rising” through to “Left 4 Dead” and “CoD,” Suits and Benson muster up a far-from-shabby POV perspective of a pandemic-ridden wasteland, where most moral boundaries have been torn down in the light of a deleterious Filovirus.

Bar a brief “happy family” scene-setting intro, PANDEMIC eschews divulging in the downfall of civilization and catapults us straight into Lauren’s (Rachel Nichols) cam-equipped hazmat suit. Everything suggests her daughter and husband have fallen victim to said new strain of virus and we now find her hammering home the instructions she’s received for an impending mission, repeating them over and over like a mantric chant:

“Locate Filovirus survivors.
Administer mosquito.
Red retrieve, black leave.”

Cue CSI’s very own Paul Guilfoyle as Gunner, the militant mastermind of a handufactured citadel fenced off from the infected. Gunner could have been ripped straight out of the tutorial level of pretty much any first person shooter as he ushers us past captured humans suffering varying levels of the “zombie infection” before introducing us to the band of freedom fighters Lauren is about to venture outside the perimeter fence with on a school bus in an attempt to locate a previous search party that went MIA. And it’s this band of disparate passengers that makes the film worth indulging in as the chemistry, or lack thereof, between these players is the key to keeping the audience mentally checked in for the film’s duration.

Trust and faith are in much shorter supply than food and medication – perfect for effective team work, right? – and this paves the way for some engaging, and more importantly, convincing interactions – something you don’t often come across when it comes to films of this fabric.
Mekhi Phifer puts in a solid turn as Gunner, the hard as nails soldier who is anything but interested in bonding with Lauren, yet at the same time you can tell behind that grimace of his that they both share one thing in common: god-awful destructive memories of having lost those they loved the most.

Then there’s Alfie Allen as Wheeler. This Joel Kinnaman act-alike could easily outtalk the gabbiest of door-to-door salesmen and serves up the films more provocative – yet at times goofus – moments, essentially consisting of barrage upon barrage of obscenities that he spits out at his new friend, Lauren. He’s pretty despicable at first but he strangely grows on you and you’ll even be rooting for him when all hell really breaks loose – further testament to just how well-written the characters are.

The only player that felt somewhat redundant was Missi Pyle as Denise. Her performance was as correct as they come but the character just felt as if she’d been ushered into the bus to balance the male/female scales.

In terms of Suit’s first-person shooter game plan, when it works it works remarkably well. This POV approach had a superb habit of overshadowing everything with a sense of imminent evil lurking around every corner. I also mentioned “Dead Rising” earlier as the action choreographers stirred in a plethora of makeshift weapons to the mix to make for some exceedingly violent splatterpunk melee takedowns. It’s all emotionally taxing – just as I hoped it would be.

There was just one problem though, and sadly a pretty hefty one. The editor went slightly overboard with the scissors when it came to some of the more riotous scenes. To cut a long story short (no pun intended), some of the editing seemed far more interested in making everything as ruthless and frantic as possible to shake the audience up and the end result is far from fathomable. If you can make head or tail as to which protagonists get bitten or injured when attacked by hordes upon hordes of disease-ridden zombies then answers on a postcard please.

Should you manage to put that bitter pill behind you, something I’m confident the characters will help you pull off, PANDEMIC ends on quite the high note, throwing in some pretty inspired curveballs. And when Lauren’s time to cross the Rubicon finally comes, it was a nice touch NOT to see her go from maladroit medic to butt-kicking bimbo in nothing flat.

All in all, PANDEMIC is a pretty nifty package that should go down well with gamers and non-gamers alike. Suits, and more so Benson, paid close attention to what really needed mollycoddling and that’s what pays off in the end. Relying that much more on the narrative and players involved than POV “gimmickry,” PANDEMIC succeeds in keeping its audience invested and entertained. It’s no game changer by a long shot and something tells me we won’t be seeing that many more directors jumping on this first-person shooter movie bandwagon. But if you can, put that controller down for 90 minutes as this is by no means a modern snorefare!

Xlrator Media is releasing the film in cinemas on April 1st then on VOD and iTunes the following Tuesday, April 4th.

 

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Weekend: Nov. 15, 2018, Nov. 18, 2018

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