Initially looks to develop both its characters and its setting, but settles for mediocrity in the end
Upon seeing Jason Zada's "The Forest," I feel like I'm at a point of indifference I have never been at before when it comes to watching and reviewing films. Normally, I emerge from films eager to talk about some aspect, or feel empowered to emphasize details or things in the film I wouldn't have thought general audiences might have noticed themselves. With "The Forest," I emerge with depressingly little to talk about. It's become far too common to kick off a new year with an underwhelming horror film (2012 had "The Devil Inside," 2013 had "Texas Chainsaw 3D," 2014 had "Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones," and 2015 had "The Woman in Black 2: Angel of Death"), and if nothing else, that seems to be the only constant in American cinema alongside with a surefire hurricane of blockbusters starting in May and continuing through July).
"The Forest" is set in the Aokigahara Forest, located in Japan's sacred Mount Fuji. It is a forest that was once known as the place where family members would leave sick, crippled, or disabled loved ones to die during times of famine and war, and in present day, is a popular suicide location. We focus on Sara Price (Natalie Dormer), a young woman who gets a call from the Japanese police telling her that her missing twin sister Jess (also played by Dormer) is dead after she was seen going into the Aokigahara Forest. Knowing her sister all too well, and knowing that she is unstable but not suicidal, Sara commits to flying halfway across the world to try and find her, as a strong part of her believes she is still alive.
Sara's belief is only strengthened when she sees that the body discovered is not Jess, leading her to believe that her sister is still somewhere deep in the forest. At a bar one night, she meets an Australian reporter named Aiden (Taylor Kinney), who decides to do a story on her and her quest to find her sister. She tells him how Jess was always the one that looked toward danger, when she turned her head; she recalls when their parents were killed by a drunk driver and how Jess saw the bodies while she closed her eyes. The next morning, the two venture into Aokigahara with a park ranger named Michi (Yukiyoshi Ozawa), in efforts to try and find Jess.
The idea of the forest, as explained in very disjointed and vague manners by the locals throughout the course of the film, is that if there is an inkling of sadness in your heart upon entering Aokigahara, it will be exploited through things that you will see in the forest to the point where you'll believe the only way out is suicide. Michi explains to Sara upon entering deep into the woods that anything she sees from here on out is a result of hallucinations and her own mind playing tricks on her. The natural world leaves as soon as you abandon the trail of the forest.
"The Forest" is marginally effective in creating atmosphere, especially during the late night and early morning scenes when the forest becomes less a collection of trees, branches, and leaves and more of an abstract maze. The issue the film has is rooted in the screenplay, penned by Nick Antosca, Sarah Cornwell, and Ben Ketai. In order for the character relationships and the setting to be simultaneously successful, or at the very least harmonious, they need to be equally developed. Initially, the trio of screenwriters do this right by giving Sara enough time before she has to go in the forest to allow her personality to be open to us to get to know. We get to know about her and her sister's backstory after she meets Aiden and we get a hold on their characters quite nicely.
The problem is that once Sara, Aiden, and Michi go in the forest, the focus should shift on the forest being the character in the film, which it really isn't. Nothing about this forest feels that eerie, except for the music and the jumpscares we experience when we are immersed into it. The feeling of being trapped in the forest with the characters is there, since there is no cutting to a search party or Sara's fiancé, but there is still no real involvement or characteristic with this forest aside from ropes and the occasionally successful jolt.
Because of this, "The Forest" grows repetitive, and at the end of it all, we have a conclusion that doesn't answer any of our questions about who Jess is as a person and why she would have wanted to go into these woods in the first place. This is especially frustrating since, from the beginning, Zada and company make it seem like they will develop the story in a manner that's focused on the characters, only to leave the most intriguing soul of the entire film undeveloped in her motivations and her intentions.
Well-shot, but lacking sustenance and the graceful blend of character and location, "The Forest" is a mediocre horror film, though its PG-13 makes it perfectly acceptable for the middle school/high school crowd to experience a Friday night scare. It's a bit humorous to think that the path the film took is the same the film's characters took upon entering Aokigahara. Instead of following the path that would've keep them safe (the filmmakers keeping both the characters and the location in mind), they took a wrong turn and ended up losing themselves in a sea of unfortunate circumstances.
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