What I'm Watching: Circadian Rhythm
Let me tell you the story of me finding this movie, as it sets up a lot of stuff. As I'm sure people can imagine, I spend a lot of time trawling around looking for movies, both good and bad, and everything in between, that might be fun to watch, or make good fodder for Trisk.
I was looking up something on Amazon, couldn't find it, but there was Circadian Rhythm staring at me, so I clicked. The cover art was terrible, right off the bat. Photoshopped to hell and back, and it looked it, in all the worse ways. But the plot...well, the plot actually sounded interesting.
Circadian Rhythm centers around Sarah Caul, a young woman who wakes up one day in a vast, infinite whiteness, with only a single doorway out. Oh, and also, she has no memory of who she is. (She finds her name later.) From there it dives into paranoia, thriller, and conspiracy, as Sarah is handed some guns, sent off to kill some 'enemy agents' and then begins to question just what's going on and if she should be following these orders blindly. Movies with conspiracies and identities and mucking about with just what's real and what isn't, well, I live for those kinds of stories. I love anything that deals with questions of identity and self. Dark City is one of my favourite films, and this could easily have been an action oriented, female-led Dark City.
And what's this? It stars Rachel Miner, whom I've loved in so, so many other projects? And Sarah Wynter, who is also quite good? AND David Anders, from Alias, and Heroes, and Vampire Diaries and pretty much everything, and is ALSO awesome?
All right, okay, you convinced me! I was SOLD. But...but let's just watch the trailer first, Jason, let's make sure this is worth my time. Feel free to watch it right here and see for yourselves. In fact, I encourage it, because, man. What a trailer. And it will give people perspective into everything I'm going to get into.
On one level, that trailer actually intrigued me. I could see what they were going for, and it delivered on some of the promises of the plot descriptions I'd read. On another level...*sigh*. The editing is terrible, and I couldn't tell if that was movie or trailer editing. It's just a mess of things happening, and everything is so blown out, and looks like it was filmed with a cellphone from 2005, the year this was made.
Still, there was some good, some bad, and I may have laughed awkwardly with my hand over my mouth at how terrible the marketing was for this. From the trailer, to the DVD art, and just...everything. It's like they actively *wanted* people to never see this, and did everything possible to drive people off. But oh no, not me. That stuff is like a candle and I'm a moth. I see it as a *challenge*, like I'm being *dared* to watch and like their movie.
Which yes, I will admit, may be a problem.
I assumed the trailer was just, I dunno, some bad copy, a poor transfer to the internet, too compressed, ANYthing. The movie surely wouldn't look that bad. How could it? Also, even if the movie was terrible, it would make a good review.
And oh look, here we are!
Where to even *begin*?!
First of all, my thoughts that the movie couldn't look as bad as the trailer? Was I ever wrong. That is *exactly* how the entire movie looks. Bleached out, over saturated, and low quality. Even just putting this out in a proper widescreen format, with the bare minimum of definition would have at LEAST given it some level of looks and style to it. Even if you wanted to stick with the option to blow out everything, at least make things look good. You can make it feel like reality stops amidst that glow outside the windows, but at least let the foreground sing with style.
I can even respect going for the overexposed look, since the movie plays with reality. Let's make things as unreal as possible. I can totally go with that style. But there needs to be balance, and good video to help things out.
On top of that, where the heck are all the *people*? Everything happens with ONLY the people directly involved in the scene. There is like zero extras. Maybe two. Again, I can roll with that on a 'questioning reality' way, but it just continues to push the unreality of things too far. Once more, it's a question of balance, and not tossing every single thing you can do to make things seem fake. At least this is the kind of story where one can just about get away with that, but still.
I've seen other reviewers rag on the fighting, and they're not wrong, but I actually think they're too harsh. I genuinely liked the fighting, for the most part. But it falls apart from the hectic editing style. Punch block cut! Kick parry cut! Kick cut! Pu...CUT! GAH. If they let us live in the moment a little more, let us marinate in the action, and once again, if everything wasn't so overexposed and too contrasted, it would be decent enough. But instead it's one quick cut to the next, mixed in with being in deep shadows or blinding white light. If you're going to give us quick cut action like you're trying to be Michael Bay, at least let us SEE what we're briefly experiencing. (Which, to be far, is a lesson Bay needs to remember sometimes, but that's another series of reviews entirely.)
So, we've established the filmmaking side of things ain't too hot, but how's the story?
Conspiracy stories and thriller stories where the nature of reality is up for grabs often fall into the same pit of problems, and that can be summed up by the narrative getting away from the creators. Things can often become too complex, and come back around and start devouring themselves. And when you're presenting wheels within wheels, it is all too easy for those wheels to shear right off and go bouncing down the embankment into a river. But if the story has a strong vision and person guiding it, it can manage to be twisty and still coherent.
Guess which route Circadian Rhythm takes?
Going back to the trailer, you actually get a large chunk of the narrative in those 90 seconds or so. The movie cycles around the same locations and scenes retold far too often. Sarah Caul keeps going to the same three or four or five places, and it's like echos, but just ends up being tedious because of the lack of real progress. The movie wants to have circles within circles of plots and groups, but instead it just GOES in circles. I'm sure that's all deliberate, because the goal of the people messing with Sarah is to, well, MESS WITH SARAH. But it's little more than just doing and seeing the same things, or going to the same places, with no real momentum, and no idea what anyone's goals are.
The one time that really works is about halfway through, when Sarah seems to be back in a normal level of reality, where there's no conspiracies, no killing, no agents hunting her, and she's going about her day, to all the same places, and runs into a cop. She drags him around town to exactly the same locations she's already been, trying to explain what she's going through with her memory loss and the murders and conspiracies and everything. But surprise! There's zero evidence of anything going on, and that absolutely works for breaking down Sarah, and keeping the audience guessing. But the movie overdoes it just as much as they nail that one group of scenes.
Eventually, the endless chasing and running and punching and knocking out of Sarah lead us to the dueling agencies' representatives standing over her in the infinite whiteness of being, and they get killed by a third party we have not seen up to this point. Well, save for very brief flashes in Sarah's memories.
I won't ruin the final twist of who he is, and why this all happened, just in case someone actually wants to seek this thing out, but suffice to say...I genuinely liked the twist. It's not great, it's poorly set up, but there ARE hints, and they make more sense once the entire movie has played out. With a stronger vision and more focus, it could have been decently paid off. As it is, its a bit deus ex machina to have Sarah saved by this new player, who takes her away and tries to explain the plot to her and the audience. Not to mention that doing this robs Sarah of ANY sort of agency she may have had, and instead transforms her character entirely into nothing more than a delaying tactic to keep the bad guys distracted until the real hero can show up.
Which doesn't quite work. I kinda get what they were going for, with sending Sarah in as bait to draw out these agencies seeking the third party because of reasons, which would let him come and take care of these people looking for him. Somehow. We never get told how.
We don't get told a LOT of things. Was Sarah in a VR simulation a la the Matrix? Was everything an elaborate shadow play put on by the evil agencies? It's never clear, and they seem to be both true and not true at the same time. It's clearly ALL a con being put on by these groups, but it's just a question of how real everything was. It's also never made clear if Sarah *really* lost her memories, if the agencies did that to her to disorient her, or if the guy did it to her so she wouldn't give up secrets before the plot was ready...er, he was ready for them to be given.
Also, was any of this REALLY necessary for the guy to find these groups and take them out? And just how was he contacted and knew when to show up? Especially if it was all in some sort of VR simulation?
The final insult is that after he explains the plot to Sarah/Us, you know what the movie does? It cycles right on back to the beginning, in a long, loong, LONG sequence to show us how Sarah and the guy set everything up and maybe reprogrammed her, and got the ball rolling. I thought the movie was about to go through even more reveals or something, but no, it was just once again revisiting the same things again, with a slightly different spin now that we 'really' knew what was going on.
Well, we *didn't*, but the movie kinda tried. Someone was trying to pull a Shayamalan style "Sixth Sense" ending to show how everything added up, but boy did it not work. I actually had to run the movie back and rewatch the last few minutes to get a sense of clarity. Which DID help. Once I knew the major twists, and I kinda got that was replaying some earlier scenes from a more knowing perspective, it worked a lot better.
The single best thing about this movie are the actors. Rachel, Anders, and Wynter actually give some solid performances. They may not be something to write home about, but by damn I am going to say something good and redemptive about this movie. Miner plays the confused and memoryless Sarah very well, and has some good shifts when they flash back to more knowing moments. Anders is bizarre in some fun ways, and Wynter is mysterious in the lone voice trying to help Sarah find her way through this plot. I want to know how they got actors of this caliber in this thing.
So yeah. Heavy sigh. Circadian Rhythm is one giant mess of a movie. I wasn't expecting much, but even with low expectations, I still feel like it kept punching me in the gut. It is a mess of a narrative with bad filmmaking decisions, and just everything besides a decent main cast being completely off.
AND YET, I want to like this movie. I so desperately want to like it. The cast is there, the plot is there, the action is trying... You can see this movie from afar, and if you squint, you can see what they wanted to do. If they had more money, more time, more focus in the storytelling, more *everything*, they actually could have had something here.
Instead, Circadian Rhythm is a noble attempt to tell a complex story that reaches for the sun, and ends up getting burned. Lofty goals and good ideas do not a great movie make, and they simply tried too hard beyond their means to really pull off what they WANTED to tell. I may not have become a champion of some hidden scifi thriller gem I found, but I will absolutely defend this movie for having its heart in the right place, with some good ideas, that just absolutely got away from everyone.
Should you watch it?
It does start to scrape that area of "so bad it's good" films, but never quite even reaches THAT. I genuinely *do* want to watch it again, to see if maybe a bit more focus and preparedness can make the story come out any clearer, and that's something. There is entertainment to be had in the badness, Rachel Miner is *almost* worth the price of admission, and if you want to see a noble attempt at a film that crashes into a spectacular mess, then sure, I can see checking this out for fun. But be well aware of what you are getting into.