You've probably spotted the articles floating around over the past couple of weeks quoting Warner Bros. president Jeff Robinov as saying that "We are no longer doing movies with women in the lead." The studio immediately backed off on that, but after suffering through The Reaping, I halfway wish that uninformed, misogynistic line of thinking had kicked in a year earlier. The Reaping is a supernatural thriller based around the ten Biblical plagues, but the closest thing to a religious experience that I had watching the movie was thinking, "Christ, this is awful."
Fresh off the double-barrel disasters of The Black Dahlia and Freedom Writers, The Reaping gives Hilary Swank a shot at squandering whatever tattered shreds of goodwill were left after taking home her second Academy Award. Swank stars as Katherine Winter, an LSU professor who's earned a reputation for debunking what'd appear on the surface to be miracles. The sleepy town of Haven turns to Winter and her heavily-tattooed sidekick Ben (Idris Elba) for a scientific answer when their lives are upended by one Biblical plague after another. Many of the townsfolk blame their misfortune -- a river that runs red with blood, lice infestations, herds of cattle keeling over...you know the drill -- on a near-feral, barely pubescent girl named Loren (AnnaSophia Robb). Her brother had died on the banks of the river around the time the plagues began, and believing Loren to be the vessel of Satan, they're out for blood. Winter's faith in the Almighty was so shaken after her husband and young daughter were butchered as human sacrifices in the Sudan (?!?!) that she refuses to accept that there even is such a thing as a Devil to possess young Loren, but as the number of plagues continue to devour Haven, she's forced to...look, just forget it. There's a twist in the last few minutes, yeah, but you know it's really an earth-shattering religious event. I know it's really an earth-shattering religious event. It just takes a while for the widow Winter to warm up to the idea.
Forget a plague of frogs; God reaching into his divine gunny sack and peppering the countryside with a few hundred thousand copies of The Reaping on DVD would be a hell of a lot more catastrophic than a gaggle of dead amphibians. It's the meekest of Dark Castle's flicks to date, barely qualifying as horror. There's never any sense of persistent dread or, up until the climax, a single scene that manages to get the pulse racing. If a slew of booming stings in the score, a window abruptly slamming shut, or people being grabbed on the shoulder for no reason in particular do it for you, then maybe your mileage'll vary. Its cardboard-cutout characters unwaveringly hit all the predictable Religious-Themed Thriller stops as if they're running on rails, and it's never really in doubt what's going to happen next, how Ben and Katherine are going to suffer through whatever the next plague happens to be, who's inevitably going to double-cross 'em, or whether or not Katherine will rediscover her faith. There's even a priest on the brink of insanity who frantically calls Katie with messages of doom and tales of ominous symbols just 'cause that's all part of the same stale formula. The cast is okay, but no one really stands out. Hilary Swank gives the role a legitimate effort instead of listlessly phoning it in, but The Reaping stomps on anything she tries to lug over to the table. AnnaSophia Robb -- the young actress who was so endlessly charming in The Bridge to Terabithia -- sees her talents shrugged off. For far too much of the movie, she's not given much of anything to do but pop up ominously, stand still for a moment or two, dart off into the forest, and...oh, break into a scowl every once in a while.
The Reaping takes events as devastating and awe-inspiring as the ten Biblical plagues and finds a way to make 'em agonizingly boring. Up until the swarm of locusts as the movie slowly lurches towards its climax, the plague scenes feel more like the writers are disinterestedly working their way down a checklist rather than penning any sort of vaguely intense horror flick. The Reaping makes a halfassed attempt at sidestepping its turgid pace and overreliance on clunky exposition by leaning on some choppy overediting -- and, oh, just for the hell of it, throwing in a few gimmicky, dreamlike, completely outta left field transitions -- but all of it sputters and stutters. The Reaping only musters any sort of spark twice in the entire movie, although even the flesh-nibbling battle royale with a swarm of locusts still manages to feel kind of routine. The movie only really seems as if there's a glint of imagination during the climactic twist, but it's not worth having to wade through an hour and a half of tepid schlock to get to that point. Skip It.
Video: I'm all for stylized photography, but The Reaping just seems as if it's going through the motions with its skewed visual style, and it doesn't leave much about this VC-1 encoded, 2.39:1 image to impress. The photography flattens out the contrast more than any of the hundreds of other movies I've watched over the past couple of years, and the image is exceptionally grainy with middling detail. Admittedly, the image is too detailed to be mistaken for a DVD, but it's rarely eye-catching; only some of the sunnier, more brightly lit scenes -- most notably the distinctness and clarity during the plague of locusts -- stand out. Detail is further devoured by black crush in some of The Reaping's darker moments. The photography dials down its colors, spewing out everything in a bile-drenched yellow. The low score in the sidebar isn't meant to reflect Warner's authoring or compression houses dropping the ball, but this Blu-ray disc isn't up to the standards gearheads usually have in mind for a high-def release.
Audio: The Reaping sounds quite a bit better than it looks, sporting a 5.1 lossless soundtrack encoded in TrueHD. It's an atmospheric mix, with ominous chants, the buzzing of flies and locusts, sloshing water, and lapping flames roaring from all directions. The lower frequencies are hefty as well, particularly the deep, punishing stings that punctuate the movie's jump scares. Dialogue emerges cleanly and clearly throughout, not leaving much for me to gripe about.
This Blu-ray disc also includes Dolby Digital 5.1 tracks in English, Quebecois-French, and Spanish alongside subtitles in English, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Chinese, and Korean. For what it's worth, the titles in the movie itself -- noting that the opening sequence is set in Chile, for instance -- are rendered entirely in the letterboxing of the 2.39:1 image, and that could be an annoyance for viewers with constant image height projection rigs.
Extras: At least there are only a couple of extras so I can get this disc out of my way as quickly as possible.
"Science of the Ten Plagues" (16 min.) expands on the more coldly scientific explanation for the plagues in Egypt that Hilary Swank quickly rattles off in the movie, featuring religious scholars, a paranormal investigator, and a parade of scientists. I prefer featurettes like this over the usual rote making-of pieces, and it's by far the best of the disc's extras. There's also a lightweight seven minute featurette on the film's characters, a five minute piece briefly touching on The Reaping's set design and muggy Leeziana locations, and a minute or two bit grousing about bugs. One Easter egg on the DVD is more readily available here as AnnaSophia Robb spends a few minutes reading a creepy short story she wrote while making The Reaping, and...gotta say, I'd have rather had her take the reins as screenwriter than the, um, Baywatch Nights alums that penned this abortion.
Conclusion: It's a cautionary tale, kids: don't get romantically involved with your agent or you run the risk of seeing your once-promising career spiral into mediocrity the way Hilary Swank's has. The Reaping is the sort of tepid, lifeless thriller that I'd expect to flip by on Sci-Fi at 3 PM on a Sunday afternoon rather than see splashed across a couple thousand screens. Skip It.
The images scattered around this review are promotional stills and aren't meant to represent the way the movie looks in high definition.