I was actually somewhat interested in seeing "The Reaping" after seeing the trailer in a movie theater. It appeared at first glance to have some interesting things going for it, and I must admit I am something of a fan of the whole end-of-the-world scenario in films, even when they are bad. And don't get me wrong, this one is as bad, or worse, as "The Seventh Sign" and "End Of Days". Stephen Hopkins directs this feature for Dark Castle Entertainment. He has done some very good television work and also directed "The Ghost In The Darkness" and "The Life And Death Of Peter Sellers". While the film has a lot of talent going for it, and some interesting effects sequences, it eventually goes off into so many ridiculous areas it is simply unredeemable.
Our film starts off by introducing us to Katherine Winter (Hillary Swank), a scientist whose job seems to be traveling the world debunking superstitious myths. An ex-Catholic missionary, she has become almost fanatically scientific and vengefully anti-religious after losing her husband and daughter to some townspeople in Sudan after superstitiously being blamed for a drought in the village. She gives well researched speeches in classrooms at her LSU campus that reveal scientific explanations for almost every strange occurrence under the sun. Along with her top (yet open minded) student turned personal assistant Ben (Idris Elba), she is eventually approached by a man named Doug Blackwell (David Morrissey) from a town called Haven who offers something she can't ignore, a chance to be first on the scene to a mysterious river turned to blood after the murder of a young man, which the local townspeople seem to think was caused by a girl from the swamp, Loren McConnell (Anna Sophia Robb).
So off she goes into the Louisiana swampland to doubt away with her assistant Ben. The town of Haven is a predictably strange one, like something from an episode of the Twilight Zone with a kooky cast of religious fanatics trying to pretend they aren't utterly insane by being friendly to the investigators. After taking samples of the river, Katherine stumbles upon young Loren in a bayou, in a cheap shot scare tactic that they repeat over and over again in this movie. It takes no talent to turn the music up and have something jump out at you from nowhere. I can't stand it when movies overdo this and this one is guiltier than most, and let me tell you it gets old quick. Any hack can achieve scares doing this. After the girl almost runs her into a swamp of blood she has a series of MTV-style edited freaky visions. The whole town is after this strange animal like girl with digitally altered eyes, they believe she is responsible for biblically cursing them. Is it the return of the biblical ten plagues, or is the town just having a good old fashioned bad trip because of ergot poisoning?
After things get stranger and stranger, it becomes apparent that something supernatural is going on. It rains frogs, birds and insects are cut off instantaneously, the townsfolk are becoming covered in boils, there is a lot of debunking to be done. These poor characters can't even have a barbecue without something supernatural happening, let alone go about debunking anything. But, you may ask, when the river is turned to blood, how can you even have the thought to have a barbecue? Especially when the cows are becoming superhuman in strength, and freaking out all over the place, acting very uncowlike. But she is the queen of all doubters, enough to make Scully look like a religious nut. And her assistant Ben trying to convince her gets old quick as her laughably bad dialogue tries to desperately explain away all of the events.
So, while the performances of Swank and Elba are admirable, and it is painfully obvious that they think they are in a good movie, and while the cinematography and special effects can be quite good, this film is terribly written and completely stupid. The kind of movie that insults your intelligence for days afterward. If you can't get an end of the world movie right in this day and age, then something is wrong. I mean just look at the news. If this movie wasn't so terribly written it would have had a chance, because it is really a nice looking film when all is said and done, but in the end it is simply awful. A bad movie, and one to avoid at all cost. And really, I wanted it to be good. Maybe the problem in some of these over-budgeted horror flicks they crank out these days is that there just isn't any heart in the projects to begin with, because I can name several low budget titles even recently that far surpass this unintelligible 'horror film'.
And now for something very surprising. I'm sorry to report that the video on this HD-DVD just isn't quite up to snuff. Presented in 1080p using the VC-1 codec the film is presented in the aspect ratio of 2.40:1 and shows promise in the opening shots. I expected crystal clear clarity for a high profile release like this one. Some scenes definitely look wonderful, and the effects sequences generally stand out. But of the many dark scenes in this movie, most fall flat. The darker scenes have a distinctive crushed feeling to them, and it can actually be quite distracting. The daytime scenes fair better, but even many of those scenes aren't as detailed as I've become accustomed to on a brand new high def release. It jumps around from superb to low quality a lot. We also notice some instances of edge enhancement. Not very consistent. Not the worst I've seen, but just not quite what you may expect from a higher profile release. Truly the visual quality of this release leaves a lot to be desired.
Now on the audio side of things I am pleased to report it is top of the line Dolby Digital TrueHD and it sounds amazing. The sounds of the insects in the swampland and the effects and action sequences are stunning and quite well recorded. The surround field is very aggressive and the film score by John Frizell is very effective. The dialogue is also always crisp and clean and easy to understand. The LFE even gets a workout and I am very impressed with the audio presentation. It's about as good as you could possibly want, although those cheap shots the director uses to scare us can be quite annoying and very loud, be prepared to go for the remote a few times with this one.
As for the special features, none are in high def. And none are really worth mentioning either. This supplements package is very sloppily put together, not to mention devoid of any value whatsoever. Thank goodness they are all very limited in length. First, and probably most interestingly, we have a fifteen minute featurette called 'Science Of The 10 Plagues' that examines the ten plagues of the Bible recorded in Exodus and offers scientific explanations. It's okay I guess, but let's just say we aren't in National Geographic territory either in the production or in the 'historians' involved in this half hearted attempt at a history lesson. Still, it's the cream of the crop as far as this release goes. We also have a piece called 'The Characters' that examines the people from the script from the perspectives of those playing them. Boring as it gets, it only lasts about seven minutes. 'A Place Called Haven' about the fictitious town this film takes place in. Louisiana is so beautiful, though, really. Still, pretty average. 'The Seventh Plague' is only two minutes and shows us what was behind the films most impressive effects sequence, the thousands of insects terrorizing the stupefied characters.
And to round out this torturous set of 'bonus material' we have an HD-DVD/Blu ray exclusive 'AnnaSophia Robb's Scary Story' which is just unbelievably pretentious and I can't believe it's on here. It is the actress who plays Loren reading a scary story as we watch film school quality montages of the action she describes. Now, she could have probably written a better script than the one hacked out by Carey and Chad Hayes for "The Reaping", but that is faint praise at best. These features are mind numbingly awful. This is also an HD-DVD/DVD Combo release, so if for some reason you want to watch the standard version, feel free.
So, that sums it up, "The Reaping" was a film that showed promise at the beginning and has a lot of talent behind it, but just goes in too many wrong directions. Some of the special effects sequences are fun, but the writing is awful. The HD-DVD presentation doesn't help things either, because other than the excellent audio presentation, the quality isn't as good as we are used to from new releases.