Wednesday, December 7, 2011
Isolation Movie Review: When Genetically Modified Meat Goes Rancid
One of the best things about the horror genre is its ability to approach certain subject matter in ways that no other genre would. Because of its richness of symbolism and metaphor, horror can explore the irrational and insecure psychological landscapes that lurk underneath topics and events that appear rational, civil and mundane on their surfaces.
Along such lines is Isolation, a 2005 horror movie from Ireland that was written and directed by Billy O'Brien. By borrowing some of visual and thematic cues from Alien and The Thing, Isolation explores the nervous uncertainties behind the application of genetic engineering to livestock farming. The end result is uneven, but it's provocative and stylish enough to recommend to anyone who is looking for a new kind of contemporary body horror. Read on for my complete review, which contains some minor spoilers.
Isolation takes place on a small Irish farm that has seen better days. To earn some extra money to keep his farm afloat, Dan (John Lynch) allows two of his cows to become test subjects for cattle fertility research conducted by a company called Bovine Genetics Technology. The intent behind the research is to speed up the growth rate of cattle so that more cattle can be produced in a shorter amount of time than the normal maturity rate. When one of the cows has trouble giving birth, Dan and veterinarian Orla (Essie Davis) discover that the cow's genetically modified newborn calf is already pregnant with a new kind of organism that poses a contagious risk to humanity.
Before I continue my review, I want to share some of my own experiences with Alien/Thing imitations. Since I grew up during the heyday of home video rental stores, I saw plenty of cheapjack Alien and Thing rip offs, with poor acting, poor writing and poor special effects. The set designs (which were usually laboratories and space ships) were unconvincing, and the creature designs looked like shoddy copies of better, more memorable monsters. Since the rip offs wanted to copy the gooey, icky inter-species biological aspects of Alien and The Thing, they often had monsters that wanted to mate with human women. Not only did this serve as an excuse to put exploitation-style sex and nudity in the movie, but it also saved money on additional creature effects that are often involved with species-hopping parasites.
In contrast to these other Alien and Thing imitators, O'Brien wisely uses the actual practice of livestock breeding as the backdrop of his story. Isolation's production budget was small, so having scenes involving veterinary care of pregnant cows and cattle autopsies add tremendously to the movie's organic, visceral feel without having to spend lots of money on creature effects. Many of these sequences have a feel similar to those in The Thing, particularly Thing's dog kennel attack scene.
The livestock breeding plot enables Isolation to exploit modern fears about the possible dangers of using hormones in livestock and genetically modified foods, as well as the possibilities of foodborne illness epidemics that are spread through careless factory farming and food production practices. Isolation was released four years after the 2001 foot-and-mouth outbreak in the United Kingdom, which spread to parts of Ireland and Europe; I would guess that O'Brien's decision to make a movie that centers on a lethal outbreak on a farm was inspired by this incident.
Smart plotting aside, where Isolation really shines is in its overwhelming mood of dread. O'Brien shoots the farm setting so that it feels like the home of unspeakable horrors, and the performances he gets out of his small, talented cast keep the film's level of tension high throughout the movie. Many horror movies have been unable (or unwilling) to build a mood of unease to enhance their tales of terror, so I'm willing to recommend Isolation for its pervasive and vivid atmosphere alone.
Where Isolation falls short is in its monsters. I could follow some of the ideas of how the monsters came to be, how they reproduce and why they need to be destroyed, but they are nevertheless vague in many of their other attributes. They don't appear on screen much and what little is seen is little more than an indistinguishable, slithering mass of blood and bony spikes. It was suggested at times in the script that these monsters are some kind of severely deformed, blood-thirsty calves, but nothing in their appearance would indicate that at all. While I agree with the approach that keeping the monster unseen is an effective way to maintain suspense (particular in movies where the creature effects are limited), I would also argue that showing too little of the monster can cause suspense to wane; Isolation comes very close to doing just that.
Here's what I was able to understand of the monsters' biology, and this is where I reveal minor spoilers. I don't like to add spoilers to my reviews, but I think that in this case they're integral to appreciating the movie's overarching concept. The monsters are parasitic in nature and they feed on blood, both animal and human blood alike. They emerge from the genetically modified calves, but they themselves cannot reproduce by themselves or with each other. Instead, when they bite their prey, they pass along a pathogen that alters the DNA of the prey so that the prey give birth to offspring similar to the calves--namely, deformed offspring that are born pregnant with more monsters. Thus, someone who is attacked by a monster can survive, but his or her offspring will be deformed carriers of disease-ridden monster larvae. It doesn't matter if the attack victim is human or animal, the outcome is the same. So while the monsters in Isolation aren't as virulent and apocalyptic as the monsters in Alien and The Thing, they have the potential to, as one character puts it, "wipe out a generation".
For me, this concept of corrupted science creating a threat that jeopardizes the genetic health of the next generation is what sets Isolation apart from most Alien/Thing clones and other science-run-amok stories. By reducing its scale of damage away from the world-ending threat that many horror films and TV shows use, Isolation is able to end the story--both in terms of narrative and theme--that it started with the idea of genetically modifying livestock. The world doesn't come to an end for the survivors in Isolation because of bad science, but it still changes their lives for years to come.
It is not without precedent in the real world for industry and/or the military to produce something that causes fatal defects and ghastly deformities in the offspring of those who are exposed to it. It has happened with nuclear radiation, thalidomide, DDT, and Agent Orange, and it continues to happen today. (It should also be noted here that bovine somatotropin, an artificial growth hormones for cattle, is banned in the European Union due to various human health risks associated with the hormone.) O'Brien's decision to couch this topic in a movie monster narrative yields mixed results, but basing Isolation on a real issue and the anxieties surrounding it makes this movie stand out in ways that most other monster movies do not.
As one of the many films that were influenced by Alien and The Thing, Isolation stands alongside Slither and Splinter as one of the better examples. While it may seem formulaic at times, O'Brien provides enough creativity, style and intelligence into his movie to make it a worthy viewing for monster movie fans.