What I'm Watching: Occupants
Sometimes in my wanderings, I come across a movie that is just so damned unique and intriguing, that even if the production values look to be lacking, I'll get it anyways. That's how you can stumble into something great, or at least interesting, and I like to support movies that are genuinely trying to be different.
And that's how I came across "Occupants". The trailer really grabbed me, and even though it looked a little cheesy, very low budget, and like it was filmed on whatever cameras were handy instead of looking more 'filmic'...well, the story was something that such an idea might work for, so I took the plunge.
The movie is about a couple who decide to go on one of those fad detox diets, to get rid of all the 'toxins' in their bodies that some believe we take in with junk food, processed meat, etc etc. The wife, Annie, is a budding filmmaker, so she decides to turn the experience into a documentary, since people going through meat sweats and munchie withdrawals could be entertaining and make an interesting movie.
So she peppers the house with cameras (Save for the bedroom, bathroom, and a few other places) and starts filming their lives as they try the all organic way.
Aaaand that is when things get *interesting*. Because what sounds like it is going to be a boring look at a couple eating rabbit food, instead turns into something else entirely. Annie soon discovers that the cameras are picking up other footage of her and Neil. And yet still of her and Neil. It's them, but a different version of them, you see. A version of them from an alternate reality is occasionally being recorded by the cameras.
When I realised that's what the movie was doing, I was sold. 100%. That is one of the most brilliant, original ideas for a found footage flick, and absolutely justifies telling the story that way, since the cameras are what is picking up the paranormal activity.
I started out poking fun of the movie, as I tend to do (Although always lovingly), but the more I watched, the more I was sucked into where this was going.
Annie and Neil watch their otherworldly counterparts, and they watch as things take a dark turn. Neil wants to cut off all interaction, Annie can't let what she's seen go, and finds a way to communicate with her other self.
Things do NOT go well. And in some ways, this is where the movie starts to fall apart for me. The weakest part of the movie is how underdeveloped the Otherverse is, which is as much by design, as by storytelling limitations. Is Anne's world fundamentally broken and worse than ours? Is it like Earth-2 in that regard? Or is it just that the different experiences she has gone through being a lawyer and with a more strained relationship with her Neil that has made her a different, darker person? We don't really get those answers, or why she is able, out of all four of them, to walk between worlds? I do really like how CLEVER they make Anne. Annie is smart too, and once our world starts interacting with the Darkest Timeline, she figures out what is going on VERY quickly. And even though we don't spend a lot of time getting to know her, it's all very believable with the clues she's given.
Still, even thoughthe movie may end with a typical found footage non-ending, it does succeed in making me want to know more. I'm not so much frustrated by a failure to deliver a story, as legitimately wanting MORE story, which is the way to leave me if you're gonna deliver an ending that doesn't quite land.
The first act of the movie is a little bland, with only the briefest hints of something strange going on, and the movie takes awhile to really get going. But you do get to know the couple really well, which is absolutely rock solid essential when you meet the other versions. You can instantly see just by their body language that they're a different couple, with a different relationship, than Neil-Prime and Annie-Prime. And you can tell it's not just different, but downright strained between them. Kudos on the acting there, and taking the time to let us get to know the 'Prime' versions of the characters. Seriously, Briana White and Michael Pugliese really sell both versions of the characters, and the ones we focus on are just so damned likable, it is easy to get sucked in when things start getting dangerous.
Once the other world is introduced, the movie kinda skirts around delivering any answers on all the whys of what is going on, and why there is a portal opening. It throws out a bunch of ideas, but leaves it up to the audience to come up with answers, which I am more than fine with letting us do the leg work. But when the movie then proceeds to not offer much insight at all into the plot mechanics whatsoever, it does seem like they just didn't care, or have good answers. And when I start thinking about the filmmakers' intent while watching the movie, I feel like something isn't working.
The answers we do get are delivered by Robert Picardo, who appears to be pulling an Eric Roberts and Skyping it in, but he was actually there, and I think it shows in the performances. Also, even if he was doing it from a remote location, the difference here is, he's integral to the plot and not just talking at the camera. Also, such a role is perfect for Picardo, and he brings a lot of weight to a small part that has to really sell you on the high concepts in a short period of time.
For a movie that is largely one couple sitting around and watching another couple doing stuff, the third act is *amazingly* tense. I was on the edge of my seat wanting to know how this was all going to play out, what was going to happen, and what everyone's fate would be. It's not very action packed, but there is a palpable sense of danger as the story unfolds, and concern over what's going to happen. This is only helped by the fact that we don't have a constant feed into the otherverse, or cameras in every room. Since we're only shown fragments of what is going on there, we are kept wondering, and that adds to the tension.
I kept checking my watch as time ran down, dreading that there wasn't going to be wrapped up properly, because by this point, I was LOVING this movie, and didn't want them to botch the ending, which happens far too often with found footage movies.
Dear found footage writers and directors, you do not have to give us an ambiguous non-ending to your films. This is actually not a requirement of the style of film making. It may surprise you to learn that you can actually craft an ending and not just slam cut to black with everyone in danger or in unknown states. It's true!
And while the ending for "Occupants" is far from the worst ending to an FF movie I've seen, it's also far from the best. But, it at least didn't do something so mindbogglingly random that it ruined the whole movie. Far from it. Instead it works within the rules of the movie, and like I said, it just left me wanting more, not really wrapping things up. I genuinely would watch a sequel to this, and actually quite want one to be made, just to know what happens next.
I love the design of the movie. A movie like this lives or dies by how well they sell the different worlds, the different lives, and with so little time to get to know the alternaverse Neil and Anne, a lot of that work has to be done visually. I already gave a lot of props to the body language and skills of the actors, but the set design also really sells the differences between their lives. The other versions are very similar, but things seem more professional, more upscale, but also more cold and distant. The simple act of them having an extra leaf in their dining room table, making them sit in different spots, further apart from each other, speaks volumes more than a line of dialogue saying they no longer love each other ever could. Conversely, the Prime versions are filmed in warmer lighting, the decor is more colourful, vibrant, and cozy. You legit believe that they love each other more than their other selves do, and would never commit the acts we see those versions committing. All because of the acting and subtle cues.
Another thing that works well with this being found footage, is that the characters make this feel real through dialogue. There are several lines where they highlight the absurdity of this, and if it was going on, well...what WOULD you do, what *could* you? They're great moments of humour while also being how some people would react in a similar situation.
I started out loving the ideas presented in the trailer, then gently poking fun at the movie once I started watching it, then got totally sucked in and loving the story, and only lost a little love once it got to the conclusion. "Occupants" isn't a perfect movie, or even a perfect found footage movie. But it does deliver an absolutely unique and original story, doing a whole new twist on found footage films, and gives you a very tense third act. I give this a very high recommendation, and need to show this to my friends. It's not my favourite found footage movie, but I would definitely put it in my top five.