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By Mariko McDonald | July 21, 2008

With a plot the sounds like a cross between Michael Bay’s “Armageddon” and a Spanish soap opera, F. Javier Gutiérrez’s feature film debut is an interesting, if uneven, twist on the standard end of the world drama. Set in the sleepy Andalucia town of Laguna, the film opens with local handyman, Ale (Víctor Clavijo), going about his daily rounds of TV and washing machine repair. Ale is a classic under achiever, still single and living with his mother, his best friend still picking bar fights with the absolute wrong people. And while he obviously isn’t satisfied, he seems resigned enough to his fate, preferring to wallow in his bitterness towards his brother than even admit his crush on the neighborhood hottie whose last boyfriend left her barefoot and pregnant. His brother is the town hero, having helped to bring down a notorious child murderer, while Ale is better known for his crippling fear of heights.

But none of that matters in the long run, now that the long run has been reduced to a mere three days. According to an announcement by the UN Secretary, that’s all the time that’s left before a giant meteor, bigger than the one that wiped out the dinosaurs, collides with earth. Secret missions to destroy or deflect it have all failed, all that is left is to watch and wait. Predictably, panic erupts on the street with residents either heading for the hills or holed up in church. But the chaos extends even further than Laguna, prison riots have swept the country and inmates have fled in all directions in stolen cars. This news sends Ale’s mother into a panic because the child killer Ale’s brother put away had sworn bloody vengeance on their family and her grandchildren have been left all alone in a house on the outskirts of town. It is now up to her and Ale to protect the children, even if everyone’s fate has already been sealed.

The film brings up some interesting questions, like how far would you go to protect something you knew was already lost and actually plays more like a modern western than an apocalyptic epic. Yet despite the fascinating premise and a slew of good performances much of the film ends up playing like your standard pessimistic serial killer flick. The villain is supernaturally calm and evil and the hero is so clearly outmatched that his bittersweet victory feels more perfunctory than triumphant. It is a testament to Víctor Clavijo’s natural charisma that we feel anything for his character at all. Perhaps if the filmmakers had taken the time to better develop his character before dropping him into this action movie plot, but as it is he is merely another slacker in over his head and his greatest achievement seems to realizing that ignorance is bliss. Not really that comforting a message in these strange times.

What elevates the film, in addition to the child actors who are all natural and sympathetic, is the cinematography. The dusty Andalucia countryside is used to great effect, and even a sky full of stars starts to feel menacing in light of the plot. It is a shame that the editing does not share this quiet dignity, frantically cutting in an attempt to build suspense. In the end, “Before the Fall” is another case of the sum being less than the parts with sci-fi clichés being replaced with crime thriller clichés.

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