Wildly Uneven UNIDENTIFIED Mixes Comedy With Tragedy To Disastrous Results
Feb 1, 2014
Look, I’m going to be perfectly honest with you: I am one of those rare knuckleheads who still actually finds something worth enjoying in practically every found footage film that gets released these days. As a consequence, I may’ve found something a bit more worth enjoying than the next critic. Still, I’m inclined to admit that the format has its limitations – restricted perceptions, truncated storytelling, single point-of-views, etc. – and, every now and then, the source material manages to rise above those shortcoming and turn out something worth a mention.
However, as much as I wanted to like UNIDENTIFIED – it’s got a sci-fi theme, with aliens, a secret military base, and some nifty yet low-brow special effects – the film just didn’t work as a whole. I’ve identified (get it?) precisely why I think it failed to strike a chord below, so I hope you’ll pay close attention.
UNIDENTIFIED  is produced by Unidentified Productions. DVD distribution is being handled by Dark Sky Films. As for the technical specifications, the film looks and sounds mostly very solid – it has the usual herkyjerky quality to some of the lesser found footage flicks, so be prepared to look away every now and then (unless you’ve had a Dramamine). If it’s special features you’re interested in, then the disc actually ponies up a nice collection: there’s an audio commentary from writer/director Miller, an assortment of ‘Jodieman’ YouTube shorts, some space cam footage, and the theatrical trailer. (Sorry, I didn’t have the strength to sit through the commentary, but, if I do in the future, I’ll post some additional notes.)
Four friends are heading away for a somewhat secret excursion to the legendary sin city, Las Vegas, but a side route diversion to a condemned military installation has then questioning what our government may really have been up to. Still, they manage to make it to the great city of lights, but their trip home would show them once and for all that we, indeed, are not alone.
Ok. I’ve already established what you need to know most about UNIDENTIFIED, and that’s mainly that it’s a found footage film. That’s only the start of the problem because UNIDENTIFIED is actually two found footage films crammed together into a single narrative, and, as hard as it tries to mesh these two storylines, they just don’t. Tonally, they’re at opposite ends of the spectrum: the UFO-themed stuff is very grim, very dark, while the Vegas vacation stuff is comic and self-absorbed. Because these two halves never quite mesh (and, yes, at 90 minutes, each segment gets about 45 minutes a piece), the typical audience probably suffers as many “what was the director thinking” moments as I did.
Writer/director Jason Miller did ambitiously try to do something different here by welding two disparate genres into a single tale, and therein may lie part of the problem: being so closely attached to his written material, he possibly never realized the narrative break. In fact, the really good stuff never takes off until the latter half (so far as this reviewer is concerned), when these four friends do come to grips with what seems to be a variation on the standard alien abduction plot. From this point on, the film works quite well – though with some middling quality to its cinematography – and I found it very disconcerting that Miller troubled all of us with the macabre Vegas storyline at all, which involves some personal drama about gambling addiction, general male debauchery on the streets, and a high stakes poker game focused on Downs Syndrome sufferers. That first half – the inferior half – seems as if Miller and his cohorts wanted to make an even darker version of those big audience comedies exploring the misadventures of the Wolf Pack; instead, what he serves up feels like dramatically watered-down psychodrama even David Lynch would’ve excised from the final print.
Now, that isn’t to say that the actors don’t each give some terrific performances. They do. In particular, Eric Artell – looking an awful lot like a younger, pimplier version of Topher Grace – is winning here as a maniac would-be YouTube sensation who finds some very dark and disturbing truths waiting for him in the Nevada desert; it’s too bad all of its wasted in a film I suspect most folks won’t finish. And there’s no person more to blame for that than Miller who populates their time in Vegas with only a handful of meaningful scenes and a whole lot of garbage he must’ve thought was “cool” yet meaningless to the sum of their evening experiences.
To further compound the error, I’ve even seen some of the film’s packaging and promotion materials making the alien abduction storyline look almost buffoonish in a National Lampoon’s kind of way. The truth is that it isn’t. There’s nothing all that funny about what they go through once that chapter of their lives begin, but you certainly wouldn’t know it by looking at the theatrical release’s one sheet.
Better luck next time, Miller. And settle on one story to tell when you do.
RECOMMENDED only to die-hard fans of found footage films; otherwise, methinks you’ll wish much of UNIDENTIFIED remained unidentified. I couldn’t begin to cite all of the problems I had with the film – two incongruous halves, scenes thrown in that make little sense to either narrative, why someone would seemingly think you could repair a digital camcorder while it was recording, etc. – but let’s just agree that it had problems. And that’s a shame because the actors turn in some nice performances that deserve to get noticed. I’m not sure most folks will hang with this one to the bitter end, but, if you do, make sure you listen as the credits roll as the story even gets yet one more layer it just didn’t need.
In the interests of fairness, I’m pleased to disclose that the fine folks at Dark Sky films provided me with an advance DVD copy of UNIDENTIFIED by request for the expressed purposes of completing this review.