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Friday, May 2, 2014

DVD Review: Tentacle 8

Tentacle 8 is film about an NSA agent, Ray Berry (Brett Rickaby), who is caught up in some political intrigue after a computer virus knocks out the systems in the intelligence community and causes several hundred personnel files to disappear.

It opens with a few title cards letting us know that “The National Security Agency (NSA), formed in 1952, is considered to be the most powerful and secretive intelligence gathering operation in the world” and “Recently, the entire computer systems and networks at the NSA crashed unexpectedly, and went dark for nearly three days.”

The film has an intriguing opening. We’re introduced to Ray Berry, who packs his belongings, then lies down on his bed. A close-up shot of the clock tells us it’s 4:45 a.m. The clock and the screen then go dark for a moment. Then the clock flashes “12:00,” as if the power has gone out. It’s a really interesting way of letting us know something has happened. Ray then wakes up one minute later (the clock is flashing “12:01”), and rushes out of the room.

So right away it feels like one of those films that is full of details that may seem insignificant, but which you feel will later prove to be important. After passing by a homeless man, he goes into a store, where he asks for Ahmad. The cashier then tries to rip him off. Meanwhile a woman is stealing something from the store. And there is a slip for a book store on the counter, which causes Ray to run outside. There he is jumped and pushed into a van. Later we’ll learn more about Ahmad and the homeless man and the book store.

Meanwhile two officials are discussing the computer systems crash. The scene is fine until the older of the two men takes off his glasses, stands up, and spouts: “But if this turns out to be an attack, we must be very clear: No one fucks with the United States of America.” Geez. There is some bad dialogue like that throughout the film. In the very next scene, two soldiers approach Ray Berry, who is a prisoner, and one says, “Another day in paradise.” (They then begin beating him, but we don’t know why, or even who these soldiers are.)

But bad dialogue is not this film’s man problem. The main problem is that it’s confusing, and it seems pointedly, purposefully confusing. The film’s chronology is something that is left for the viewer to work out. For example, you’d think that the after Ray was shoved into the van, he was taken to that cell where he was beaten. But it turns out the scene with the soldiers takes place long before the scene where he is shoved into the van. In fact, I don’t think we ever learn how he got into the cell with the soldiers.

The film then takes us to a book store, where Ray is working. Tabitha Lloyd comes into the store, and Ray talks to her about his childhood and his father ("My father wasn't around much, but he'd always bring me a book from my travels, and they kept me company...Then one day my dad stopped coming home and all I had were these books"). It seems way too early to be getting this sort of back story. After all, we don’t even know what he’s doing in the present, or who this woman is yet. It’s an odd and infuriating way of presenting information. (It turns out this woman works for the CIA, and she and Ray are dating – though they don’t seem very close yet in this scene.)

From there we go back to Ray in a cell. A man comes in and writes some numbers on the wall. This turns out to be the man posing as homeless earlier (or, later) in front of the store. How did that man get in there? We don’t know. We never know.

There is more bad dialogue as a man named Rolland Towne, holding his cell phone at an odd angle several inches from his face (the whole scene I kept wondering why he was holding his phone like that), says, “Tell me some fat fuck in a sumo suit is going to jump out of my trunk and say something funny because I am very close to going nuclear.”  Yeah, he actually says that, so you immediately hate this guy. He’s annoyed because he’s losing his job. But of course we don’t even know who this guy is, or what his job is, or anything. He does some drugs with a woman that he is apparently having an affair with, but another man is in the room, ready to discuss his severance package. Rolland talks about how the truth will come out, a noble enough idea, but we’ve already had such a bad first impression of this guy that we can’t possible root for him. But no matter, as he then disappears from the film for a long time.

Anyway, Tentacle 8, as it is explained to us, is a rogue group within the intelligence community that might be responsible for the network breaches. A man is sent to the military installation, is handed two stacks of folders and immediately pulls from those files a photo of Ray Berry and asks about him. Meanwhile Ray is in the cell, and he starts talking about his father again, this time to a female soldier who does him the kindness of ordering another soldier to get him some water. As he talks, the camera remains close on the woman’s reaction in the foreground, as if we’re supposed to understand and care how his speech is affecting her. But we’ve never seen this character before. We have no knowledge of her. So why would we care how Ray’s tales of leaving home and returning for his father’s funeral affect her? This film seems to have no center whatsoever, and no idea of how to present information and characters so that we care at all about them.

And of course the scene has more bad dialogue. Ray tells her (as she faces the camera in the foreground): “This is no place for a lady like you. The only difference between you and me is my hands are tied.” He gives her the series of numbers from his cell wall, and that magically frees him, and we next see him getting into a car, where he is then drugged and given a big wad of cash and dropped off at home. Nothing makes any sense, and after a while you sort of give up trying to sort it out.

Later while at a pay phone, a man comes out of a store and offers him some water and crackers. Then for some reason this guy waxes all nostalgic, telling Ray where he’s from and so on. But why? Who is this guy? Are we supposed to care about him, and whether he can return home? Well, it turns out his Ahmad, the man Ray wanted to see in the first scene. Ray gets a phone and gives Ahmad some money from his big wad.

At some point, Ray learns that Tabitha Lloyd’s job is somehow related to Tentacle 8, and is not what he first believed. And then when he sees her, she’s pregnant. So apparently seven or eight months have passed. But he doesn’t ask her about her job, or about Tentacle 8. Instead he tells her he doesn't know what she wants from him. She says: “It’s real life, Ray. It’s messy and inconvenient. It’s not a little blip on your map you can just erase.” That wasn’t a response to what he had said, and also feels like dialogue from another film. Is she working against him? At moments it seems so.

She hands him an envelope that says, “Open if you change your mind,” an envelope we saw at the beginning. But they are planning on meeting each other in Montreal. So is he to open it if he changes his mind and decides not to meet her? I don’t know.

Usually when a film is confusing, I feel confident that the filmmaker has a reason for it, and that it will all come clear at just the right moment. So for a long time, I held out hope that the filmmaker was taking us on this particular journey for a very precise purpose, and there would be an “ah-ha” moment. But there isn’t. The director posted a message on the film’s IMDB message board, which reads in part: “Questions are good things, and I trust that upon repeated viewings, more things will become clearer. I too hope that as more and more people get to see the film, they will exit wanting to talk about it, what it's about, what they understood and what they didn't.” Really? It’s as if he expects people to not understand his film, even desires that. That’s not going to make people want to see it again. I’ve watched many films more than once, and yes, sometimes it was to see more clearly how the filmmaker had created tension, or to see the pattern of how information was given. But with all of those films, I enjoyed them the first time, and so wanted to see them again.

We eventually get back to the beginning of the film again, with Ray packing up, and the clock suddenly reading “12:00.” But guess what? We still don’t see what caused the power outage, and what effect it actually had on what Ray was planning to do. Ninety-three minutes into the film Ray asks the homeless-looking guy, “What’s this all about?” Yeah, we still don’t know, but I really want it to make sense, especially because of its 9/11 angle.

Other than the film’s trailer, the DVD contains no special features. If ever a film needed a commentary track from the director, it would be this one. Give us some explanation of what he believes is going on, or what he intended to have happening in the film. Then we can figure out just where he went wrong.

Tentacle 8 was written and directed by John Chi, and was released on DVD on March 18, 2014 through Grand Entertainment Group.

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