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Antebellum (4K Ultra HD)
Gerard Bush and Christopher Renz's Antebellum is a provocative film with some big ideas that unfortunately offers very little substance to back up its controversial plot devices. This review is going to contain massive spoilers, as this is a movie I cannot imagine discussing without diving into the plot's hardly kept secrets. The directors also wrote the screenplay, and one of the film's six (!) producers worked on Get Out. This movie would not exist without Get Out, which it basically rips off, with plot points also similar to this year's The Hunt. From what I recall, the studio put the tell right there in the trailer, which is a shame, but Antebellum blows its cover less than halfway in anyway. Lead Janelle Monae struggles to sell the more dramatic scenes, but I enjoyed supporting performances from Gabourey Sidibe and Jena Malone. I am not a PC warrior, but I could not help but think of one word when watching this misfire: exploitative.
The film opens with a stylish tracking shot across a Louisiana plantation run by Confederates during the Civil War. Sadistic Jasper (Jack Huston) initiates new slave arrivals to the rules of the plantation, and shoots one woman in cold blood for fleeing. Eden (Monae) tries to fly under the radar when transferred to the home of General Blake Denton (Eric Lange) and his wife Elizabeth (Malone). She is beaten and raped and tells fellow slave Julia (Kiersey Clemons) that nothing good comes from resisting. And it doesn't; Antebellum offers brutal, hateful prejudice toward its black characters in the opening third, garishly depicting one of America's greatest sins. Then Eden wakes up. She is now author and activist Veronica Henley, with a husband (Marque Richardson) and young daughter (London Boyce). On a work trip, Veronica dines with friends Sarah (Lily Cowles) and Dawn (Sidibe), then leaves early in her own Uber to catch an early flight. She soon discovers the driver of the SUV is Elizabeth, and Jasper knocks her out cold. Antebellum then return s to the plantation, where most of the film's problems become apparent.
What is going on here, you ask? Well, turns out the "General" is really a wealthy senator and Elizabeth is his daughter. They have enslaved a large number of African Americans on a mock plantation and go through extended, murderous, terrible rituals to "preserve" their culture and heritage. So, all this is beyond fucked up, and might have made for the foundation of a provocative, thrilling horror movie if the screenplay had anything to say. It largely doesn't, and Antebellum exploits the horrors of black history in a poor attempt to create tension for its kidnap-and-enslave storyline. I get that this film was made on the eve of an election in which we seem to know the fate of division leader Donald Trump, but so much of the unpleasant storyline fails to connect. I doubt anyone watching this film will have a revelation about how terrible racism is; unless they also waver on the merits of murder and sexual assault.
The film also suffers from paper-thin characters. Eden/Veronica barely speaks on the plantation, and the writers make her the most generic activist ever. Veronica talks in circular nonsense about her novel, and her speech feels like someone copy and pasted keywords after searching "black issues" or "racism." She is also not particularly likeable. Seeing the horrors Eden is subjected to is unsettling, but you never make a real connection to the character. Sidibe steals the show with a flirty dinner conversation that is ten times more enlightening than any of poor Eden/Veronica's character development. Malone is another bright spot as the acidic, bigoted Elizabeth, who clearly leans on "Karen" stereotypes to mix in with old-fashioned racial prejudice. This character feels dangerous and alive, which is more than I can say for Antebellum as a whole.
The film wavers between stylish photography and amateur staging and acting. The climactic face-off between Eden and Elizabeth is distractingly color graded and poorly edited, robbing the film, yet again, of any tension. Monae stumbles here, performance-wise, too. The singer/actress offers some very awkward delivery at key moments when genuine emotion is needed, but she better sells an early scene where Eden is brutalized for refusing to speak her name. There are many other illogical, problematic things about Antebellum: Does no one notice a large number of black citizens being kidnapped and enslaved on a replica plantation that is apparently mere feet from a public gift shop and ticket booth? It is also unclear if the enslaved are supposed to know they have recently been kidnapped. The film dances around that topic and suggests that they do, particularly Julia. Of course these poor souls would try to avoid murder and escape, and I just do not buy the film's narrative that large groups of people would be tending the fields as if it was actually the 1860s. These narrative hiccups further highlight my biggest problem with Antebellum: It does not ea the horrors it depicts. The film's cookie-cutter cutdowns of racism are as generic as they come, and the whole affair is kind of off-putting.
THE 4K ULTRA HD:
Lionsgate provides an upscaled 2.39:1/2160p/HEVC/H.265 transfer for Antebellum that offers Dolby Vision and HDR10. It is clear this is a digital production, for better or worse, so this transfer is often quite impressive. The increased resolution and clarity also highlight some of the film's weaker technical aspects, and several shots have that plastic, unnatural look that tends to plague digital photography. Fine-object detail is generally pleasing, as is the texture present in costumes and on sets. Outdoor shots keep highlights in check, with gorgeous natural shadows and excellent color saturation. Black levels are generally good, though there is some moderate black crush and digital noise in nighttime scenes, with haloing present around bright elements like fire. Despite some quirky choices, like the odd grading in the climactic scene I mentioned, much of Pedro Luque's cinematography is quite stunning, and the HDR pass on the 4K complements his style with bolder colors and more lifelike depth.
The disc offers a Dolby Atmos mix, which I sampled as a 7.1 Dolby TrueHD offering. This surround mix really highlights the interesting orchestral score from Nate Wonder and Roman GianArthur, and gives subtle, ambient effects due diligence. Many of the film's effects are delicate, like approaching footsteps and unwanted noise during an escape attempt, and these make use of the entire sound field. Dialogue is crisp and clear, and the LFE rumbles to life where expected. French and Spanish 5.1 Dolby Digital dubs are included, as are English SDH, French and Spanish subtitles.
PACKAGING AND EXTRAS:
This two-disc set includes the 4K disc, a Blu-ray and a digital copy. The discs are packed in a black 4K case that is wrapped in an attractive, glossy slipcover. Extras include The History in Front of Us: Deconstructing Antebellum (1:07:06/4K), a solid, two-part documentary that covers the film's production and themes. You also get A Hint of Horror: The Clues of Antebellum (6:13/HD), which discusses some of the film's hidden Easter eggs; Opening Antebellum (4:46/4K), about the opening tracking shot; Deleted Scenes (7:59/HD); and Theatrical Trailers (3:11/HD).
It boasts provocative plot devices but fails to earn them. Antebellum offers a queasy experience light on substance and thrills and high on historically based brutality. Big ideas and stylish photography do not a great film make. Skip It.
William lives in Burlington, North Carolina, and looks forward to a Friday-afternoon matinee.