Filmmaker Michael Clinkenbeard’s Nightfall is a familiar tale told in a familiar way. Opening with a notice of government evidence, this “found footage” film chronicles the last hours of a group of friends at a Memorial Day get-together when aliens decide to invade.
At first it’s news reports of meteors falling followed by some earthquake activity. Soon, alien vessels are roaming the world destroying whatever they come across. Meanwhile our group goes through the normal motions of such a scenario: Should they stay or go? Check on loved ones? How can they protect themselves? Who is in charge? What do they do?
As the invasion intensifies closer to home, disagreements abound, emotions get high and the group slowly gets smaller and smaller. The arrival of a wounded army lieutenant fills them in on how ineffective their defenses are, and the remaining group needs to decide where to go and what to do next.
I’ll be the first to admit that it is unfair to compare this film with its obvious low budget to something like Spielberg’s War of the Worlds, but then again, with all the obvious similarities, it’s not like the filmmaking team did very much to avoid the comparison. My criticisms ultimately are not based on that comparison, however, I’ve taken the film for what it is, and what it presents; I just don’t think you can discuss the types of plot developments in this film without thinking of other films, mainstream or independent (Nacho Vigalondo’s recent Extraterrestrial, for example).
For Nightfall to work, at least one of the following needs to happen: you need to care for the characters (enough to care what happens to them), you need to believe that the characters would behave the way they behave and/or you need to be somewhat interested in the overall phenomenon at hand. Unfortunately, for me, it struck out on all three.
I didn’t find any of the characters’ motivations particularly interesting, and by the time things started to get more intense, it was hard to believe the acting on display. It’s difficult to explain, because inevitably all acting in a movie is acting, but when it’s done well, it doesn’t seem like a performance. Often, this film felt like people trying to get out their lines while attempting to be frightened, or angry, or whatever emotion the scene called for them to deliver. I don’t think they’re bad actors, because there are fleeting moments where they were convincing; pre-dramatic events early in the film shows the group at their acting best, but those moments were too few, unfortunately.
As for being interested in the overall phenomenon of an alien attack, this was just a case of the film’s ambition over-reaching its resources. For the first 30 minutes or thereabouts, most of the dramatic tension is set up by the group watching news reports on what’s going on. In other words, that’s a lot of film to be watching people watch and react to TV, but the look of the news, with an extremely young-looking anchorman, is continually exposed for what it is: a not-so-good attempt at a news desk. Beyond that, as meteors fall and the aliens attack, there is a weird static effect that goes across the image from time to time… but it doesn’t work with the quality of the footage, and doesn’t look like on-tape or in-camera static, it looks like a bad effect.
All that said, what the film gets right is when it utilizes menacing sounds and lights to give the impression that the invading aliens are at hand, and working their way through the neighborhood. While not wholly original, it at least works because it allows the imagination to do all the work. At a certain point you do start to feel that the reason you’re not seeing things is because the budget isn’t there to show them to you, but at least that is more forgivable and understandable than had you seen a really awful alien effect and been taken out of the film altogether.
In the end, Nightfall isn’t the worst “found footage” film I’ve seen, or even the worst lo-fi film about an alien invasion. Unfortunately, in a situation where you’re going to take a common filmmaking aesthetic these days, “found footage,” and tackle an alien invasion that’s been done quite a bit in cinema, you need to have a unique voice or execute the story flawlessly. Nightfall, unfortunately, falls short in both areas.
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