Dir. Nacho Vigalondo
Writer/director Nacho Vigalondo was immediately hailed as a next-big-thing when he debuted his first feature, Timecrimes, at Austin, Texas' Fantastic Fest in 2007. Indeed, it is a brilliantly twisty little time-travel film that dishes out equal measures of laughs and thrills. In 2011, these two elements were still present, though a bit more subdued, in the long-awaited follow-up Extraterrestrial. I believe the long wait and expectations have something to do with it's mild reception upon release. It might not be as funny or thrilling but it's still plenty clever in its story of a one-night stand interrupted by the arrival of a gigantic UFO. Now, three years later, his third feature, Open Windows, raises the question of whether we should continue to expect diminishing returns after the high of Timecrimes or if this film will just go down as his worst - simply a failed experiment that will end up as a footnote in an otherwise distinguished career? Let's all hope for the later as this is a real disappointment - so much so it has me questioning whether Extraterrestrial's detractors were on to something.
Open Windows is a gimmick movie - and as with such films, it really lives or dies on the strength, and in this case execution, of the gimmick. It's an interesting one to contemplate: everything we see in this film is supposed to be coming from the screen of a laptop - one with many open windows on it. Got it? During the film we pan from one window to the next - or sometimes zoom in or out to see multiple windows composing a sort of modern day split screen experience involving spy cams and forced perspective. Done well it could provide for a suspenseful experience making it the quasi Rear Window update it appears to be attempting. Done wrong it could be a logic-defying, technologically infeasible cringe-fest.
The cringing starts in the first few minutes as Nacho Vigalondo himself (as a director named Richy Gabalondo) is on the stage of Fantastic Fest getting praise heaped on him after a teaser for his forthcoming movie just played. The teaser is for a (purposefully) goofy, badly acted, poorly dubbed zombie/alien movie that in retrospect I would much rather have watched instead of Open Windows. This film's star is Jill Goddard (Sasha Grey), and as she takes the stage the plot kicks into motion.
We're witnessing all this on the laptop of Nick Chambers (Elijah Wood), the webmaster for Jill Goddard's fan-site. He's in Austin, in a hotel room, waiting for the Fantastic Fest panel to wrap up so he can have diner with Jill - something he won through an online contest. But once she gets onstage, he gets a Skype-type message from a mysterious online presence named Chord that the dinner has been cancelled and he quickly becomes entangled in Chord's insanely elaborate plan to abduct Jill and have him take the fall for it.
[Caution - it's impossible to get into the many reasons this movie is so infuriating without gently touching on some spoiler territory. I won't go into specific details below but we warned or skip the next two paragraphs. ]
What follows is one of those evil mastermind plans that only happen in bad movies. It's one of these plots that hinge on impossible coincidences happening constantly that makes for really frustrating viewing. We're supposed to believe Chord is everywhere - intercepting phone-calls hacking surveillance equipment and monitoring Nick at all times. But of course, once Nick is put in a car and sent to spy on Jill, he conveniently cuts his connection to Nick every so often so he can get help from some hackers who appear unprompted and at the ready at just the right time and think Nick is some hero of theirs. These connection interruptions make less sense when it's later shown that Chord has a portable device of seemingly infinite power - and of all the gadgets he has, a bluetooth headphone to at least keep an ear on him while he's busy seems like it might find its way into his supply.
Even if Nick's laptop were powerful and crash-resistant enough and had the best wireless internet connection and most reliable GPS money could buy, what happens in this movie takes more power-of-disbelief than I can imagine anyone who's ever checked their email could muster. Still, I'd be willing to accept most of it, however nonsensical it may be, if the story didn't throw in a last act reveal that causes everything that happened before it to be turned on its head. While some of the effects of this reveal give a few earlier facepalming moments some sense, it opens up so many plot-holes and raises so many more questions than are even bothered to be acknowledged that I couldn't help but feel insulted and overwhelmed with distaste for the movie during the closing moments.
[End of not-really-spoiler territory.]
After Timecrimes and Extraterrestrial, I pegged Nacho Vigalondo as an intelligent writer with an equally smart cinematic eye. While there are some nice images in Open Windows - especially a "ping-pong" digitization technique that, while just as questionable in reality as the rest of the film, is nonetheless cool looking - the story is so illogical that it bears no resemblance to the person who made those films. The structure disallows any real memorable shots or sequences - the kind of stuff that his previous films were made up of. Everything is so chopped up that the whole thing begins to feel like it's an exercise in digital editing more than telling a story. It doesn't even allow for any of the actors to ever deliver a line while not staring into a camera, which makes for all the acting to be as off-putting and stiff as it sounds. (Even Elijah Wood's giant eyes can't be expected to pull off that kind of magic.) I guess it's a testament to his previous work that I'll continue hoping this was some experiment gone awry and not a sign of things to come.