"Dead Space Aftermath" Mostly Dead on Arrival
The best thing I can say about Dead Space Aftermath is that it’s not a bad movie. It’s not a terribly good movie, either, but since much of the major creative staff was also responsible for the Dante’s Inferno direct-to-video movie, even that represents a pretty substantial step up. Dead Space Aftermath definitely demonstrates much stronger fundamentals of cinematic storytelling than Dante’s Inferno, and avoids the problem Halo Legends suffered from by remaining mostly accessible to people not familiar with the video games. However, Dead Space Aftermath is also happy to pay homage to the other works that inspired it, but only succeeds in reminding us repeatedly that it’s treading extremely well-worn ground and doesn’t measure up to the giant footprints of those that have come before.
Dead Space Aftermath promises to fill some of the gap between the first Dead Space game and Dead Space 2 (which was released on the same day as this DTV movie). Dead Space Aftermath is told in flashback, as the only four survivors of the rescue starship USG O’Bannon explain what went wrong during an operation to the planet Aegis VII. Their ostensible mission was to hold the planet together long enough for rescue and salvage operations, but a smaller, more trusted segment of the crew was sent to scour the planet’s surface for remains of some strange alien artifact. The promises of fabulous riches for each intact fragment can’t balance out the high price to pay once a chunk of that artifact is finally found: everyone who comes in contact with the artifact soon has a severe mental breakdown, suffering from severe hallucinations and visions. Even worse, the chunk of the artifact soon demonstrates the power to revive the dead into taloned monstrosities, who are soon overrunning the ship and slaughtering its crew.
The plot driving Dead Space Aftermath is a rehash of a lot concepts borrowed from the Alien movie franchise: hostile extraterrestrial encounters; survival horror as characters drop like flies; and a big, sinister conspiracy driven by human monsters from the military-industrial complex. It also borrows technique from zombie movies and even Rashomon with its four narrators detailing many of the same events from slightly different perspectives. Unfortunately, even at its best, Dead Space Aftermath doesn’t do very much with these bits lifted from other, better movies. It’s not that it uses these elements badly or that it doesn’t tell a reasonably interesting story with them. It’s just impossible not to notice all the bits that Dead Space Aftermath has cribbed from other movies, especially when it goes out of its way to toss references to those movies in our way. In the end, Dead Space Aftermath is just inviting comparison that leaves it looking rather lacking. It’s just pouring old wine into new bottles. It also suffers from an unoriginal story and a large cast of cardboard cutout characters whose names barely register even after having watched the movie. Not that they end up mattering much anyway; the entire film seems to be a build-up to a final reveal that will only have meaning if you’ve played the video game. The end result is something that’s reasonably watchable, but also completely forgettable.
Like Dante’s Inferno, Dead Space Aftermath was animated as an anthology film, with different hand-drawn animation studios and directors handling each of the 4 sequences detailing the survivors’ experiences, with one over-arching framing device holding them all together. Individually, each of these chapters is quite well-done; as with Dante’s Inferno, I hesitate to call it “beautiful” mostly because they are often quite gory or depicting extremely unsavory events. However, this multiple director approach ends up working against the film because it causes a jarring lack of consistency. The Animatrix and Halo Legends made this multiple-director approach work because none of the stories had very much in common. Batman Gotham Knight made it work because Batman is an instantly identifiable character, and because the script limited the number of new characters introduced in any single segment. Dante’s Inferno made the multiple directors work because each circle of Hell is supposed to look different from all the others. Despite its multiple viewpoints, Dead Space Aftermath is still telling a single story and with a rather large cast that’s new to the audience. As a result, the visual inconsistency between each chapter works against Dead Space Aftermath rather than for it. The same character will change appearance rather drastically from one segment to another. The same scene played out two different ways was staged entirely differently, and one of them didn’t even dress the characters in the characteristic space suits of the game. The end result is a small but non-trivial amount of confusion with no real benefit. The Rashomon conceptual hook of each character recounting the same events from a different perspective might have justified the radically different visual style caused by multiple directors, but the script is too simple-minded and direct to play around with alternate perceptions of the same event. The same scenes play out almost identically between two different people, except in one case where the whole point is that one character is very obviously hallucinating.
However, these aesthetic issues are miniscule compared to the problems with the truly awful animation of the framing story. It is rendered in laughably crude CGI that is so abysmally bad that it will yank you right out of the movie experience. Everything is smooth, hard, and clean with no textures. If you’ve watched a bonus feature where Pixar or DreamWorks shows you the many stages a CGI frame goes through from wireframes to final render, Dead Space Aftermath looks like it stopped 2 or 3 steps too early in that process. It’s truly an embarrassment that the trailer for Dead Space 2 that runs before the movie starts has markedly better visuals than the framing sequence. There are even better graphics in the iPad version of the game. I think it would have looked better if they had used their own game engine to do the framing animation as machinima.
The Dead Space Aftermath DVD comes with just the movie. The only bonus features are trailers for Dead Space 2 and the Dante’s Inferno animated movie. The DVD looks pretty good and the 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtrack is appropriately atmospheric, even if it doesn’t seem to give the surround speaker or sub-woofer quite the workout it deserves.
Dead Space Aftermath does a lot of things right (certainly more than Dante’s Inferno) and it is perfectly accessible to those unfamiliar with the video game it is based on. Unfortunately, it’s also just not a very good movie. Fans of the Dead Space video game might find it worthwhile, but otherwise I’d suggest something like Tokyo Majin or Ghost Hunt for better animated spooky thrills.