Friday, 21 June 2013

Dead Space: Downfall (Film Review)

Dead Space has always seemed to be an strange franchise on the whole. Between its non-traditional style of zombie survival, gradually shifting genre from horror to action and oddly placed characters it never seems to quite know what it wants to be. Sometimes it's trying to be a blockbuster action piece, in others a Lovecraftian cultist tale of alien influences and mind control, and once in a while it's trying to be an up and up zombie survival title. Long term tonal consistency is a surprising rarity within the series and it can be very quick to jump tracks. What's truly surprising however is that the one installment of the franchise which manages to actually nail horror and stick with it is a spin off, Dead Space: Downfall.

Released on DVD and the SyFy channel, Downfall is the story of the U.S.G. Ishimura's decay and loss to the necromorphs. Arriving above Aegis VII, the ship performs an illegal planet crack to take resources from the colony below in a secret arrangement. Unbeknownst to many of the crew however is the Unitologist influence over the captain and their secret goal of recovering an alien relic from the planet.
As a surge of violent outbreaks and murders which started on the colony begins anew on the ship, Head of Security Alissa Vincent finds herself facing things far more dangerous than humans...

As a prequel to the original game, Downfall has the job of setting up events and explaining a number of specific instances on-board the ship. Along with having to stick to certain, half seen, events and leave the plot open enough for the game to follow it had quite a job of standing out on its own. Despite all difficulties however it manages to just about do this.
Many elements crucial to the games' mechanics are explained here but are progressively detailed rather than info-dumped. How the necromorphs increase their numbers, their weaknesses and how the Marker influences others are all introduced as plot elements and explored over time, with the characters naturally learning of them through experience.

Many characters crucial to the game's plot are given enough of an introduction to make them relevant to the film, but never tries to foreshadow their greater roles within the game. Returning figures like Mathius and Kyne are utilised only as much as they need to be and . Furthermore, the film doesn't waste time with showing the colony going to hell and skip to the end of events there. Showing audiences just enough that they can understand what's going on and how everything began to go to hell on the ship before moving onto the ship itself. 

The plot actually understands why keeping things simple is a good thing and unlike many other tie-ins, goes out of its way to keep things relatively self contained. The few times the plot does need to link into the game by setting things up are woven into events well enough to be put down to one character's fearful insanity.

Many of the horror elements mentioned are built up over time. Unlike the games themselves, the film has the luxury of not being required to throw blade armed zombies into the mix within the first couple of minutes. As such the first signs of things going wrong are surprisingly human, beginning with those suffering from psychotic breaks in increasingly severe degrees before introducing the monsters at about the half-way mark. By that point the atmosphere has been built up so their appearance as real meaning, emphasising upon the severity of their threat.

The unfortunate thing is that while Downfall handles the video game characters and villains with expertise, the writers just couldn't handle compelling heroes. Many of those which are followed are cannon fodder and the few which are not are average at best, doing just enough for audiences to remember their actions but not their names. Even when the otherwise decent character designs go out of their way to give them distinctively memorable looks, they look more ridiculous than interesting.

A further problem comes in the form of the actual disaster itself. Dead Space's audio logs suggested the ship was overtaken after prolonged months of isolation while here everyone dies within a few hours at best. Even taking Kyne's actions into account, it's an insanely fast speed and makes the humans look more incompetent than anything else. This isn't something which can entirely be excused by growing insanity or mental influence either, as the film makes it clear when someone is being influenced.

At the end of the day Dead Space: Downfall is an enjoyably average horror animation. It doesn't stand out from the crowd, but it has enough tension and gore to satisfy anyone wanting a quick, enjoyable horror film. If you can't find anything better to watch then you won't regret wasting seventy-five minutes on it, but you'd do better to find something else.

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