Sector 7

Sector 7 is the very worst kind of movie with which to be confronted. OK, maybe not. Maybe What Happens in Vegas is the very worst kind of movie with which to be confronted, but since that’s not the sort of movie I seek out, and Sector 7 is, then the wounds I suffer at the hands of Sector 7 leaves a much deeper scar than any injuries I may have suffered while confined to a seat in a bus where they were playing What Happens in Vegas. Sector 7 is the person who should be your friend, but when you are dangling over the precipice and it is holding on to you, it suddenly flashes an evil grin and lets go, allowing you to fall to your death puzzled by this betrayal. Also, you are falling into lava. Sector 7, you were a flashy, big budget monster movie set on an oil rig and fronted by a wickedly cute actress with decent biceps. How could you do this too me? How could you be so very bad on pretty much every single level?

Let’s re-establish the fact that despite my propensity for lingering in the more obscure reaches of the cinematic landscape, I have nothing again glossy, big budget, even soulless movies so long as they are in a genre I’m prone to liking. It doesn’t matter to me. I’ll give you a fair shake, and I’ve walked away from more than my share of such films with the feeling that I have been satisfied. Unlike a lot of cult film commentators, I don’t have a grudge against $250 million blockbusters. Nor do I have anything against movies that are generic or formulaic provided, as I’ve said before, that the formula is well-executed. In the past decade, few countries have proven to be as adept as South Korea at executing formula. Starting more or less with the espionage/action film Shiri, South Korea became a powerhouse for producing slick, formulaic cinema that didn’t do much that was original but still pulled off its cinema with a polish and eye for detail that made for pretty fun, if somewhat emotionless, entrainment. They also made D-Wars.

So a big-budget Korean movie about a monster running amok on an isolated oil rig? I’m your target market, from top to bottom. Pile it on by making sure the lead is an attractive female bad-ass who has nice biceps and looks good in a tank top, and I’m practically eating out of your hand like a well-trained circus chimp. But like a well-trained circus chimp, if you betray me I will turn on you, bite your finger off, and smoke it like a novelty cigar while I roller skate away, doffing my comedy derby at passersby. And you, Sector 7 — I want to bite your finger off so bad! You didn’t have to do hardly anything. You’re a big budget rip-off of a medium budget rip-off of Alien. Pretty much all you had to do was remake Leviathan with Ha Ji-won in the Peter Weller role, and I was going to walk away happy. Instead, you managed to cock things up at every turn, making a film that is as boring as it is disappointing, with terrible CGI, idiotic writing, and a cast of characters almost as annoying as Daniel Stern’s Sixpack from Leviathan — only more numerous.

The plot of the movie is simple enough and nothing original. A group of workers on a jinxed oil rig finally get a break when they strike oil. Unfortunately, their good fortune corresponds with a strange little deep sea beasty getting lose on the rig and, in no time flat, mutating into a giant murderous creature that forces humans to scream and run down dimly lit metal corridors. And of course, in line with the template that was established with Alien and reinforced by countless movies there after, there is a company man with mysterious knowledge of the beast, a cowardly dude, and a whole bunch of desperately trying to close doors while the camera zooms toward you. This is not a hard kind of movie to make, and like I said, I don’t really demand any originality from such films. Leviathan is so much like Alien (but underwater) that it’s ridiculous — but that doesn’t stop me from loving the hell out of Leviathan. Sector 7 hits all the beats, but none of it ever clicks.

For starters, half the cast overacts to a stunning degree. The amount of screaming, falling down, flailing, and gibbering on display far exceeds my admittedly low tolerance for such histrionics. It’s like a movie comprised entirely of over-the-top odious comic relief characters, except instead of being odious comic relief, they are trying to be dramatic. Nothing good comes of their presence. Ha Ji-won does what she can to soothe the impact of these buffoons, but she can only do so much despite playing the tough, take-no-crap final girl with aplomb. She looks great in action and has plenty of attitude, but when you’re surrounded by so much crap, you can’t be expected to salvage it all. The rest of the cast — a boring doctor, another boring doctor, Ha Ji-won’s uncle, a bland male love interest — is OK if somewhat forgettable. If they were just monster fodder, that would be acceptable, but we are actually forced to spend a substantial amount of time with them all in “character building” dramatic scenes that do not build any character and are not all that dramatic. If this film was trying to make you feel what it’s like to be trapped on an oil rig with a bunch of people who are either tedious or obnoxious, then I guess mission accomplished?

But the film’s real problem isn’t with the acting. Hell, you’d be hard pressed to find a worse character in these types of movies than Daniel Stern in Leviathan, but that movie survives despite his contributions. Sector 7 could have similarly survived its terrible characters if the rest of the film had been fun, but it’s not. It drags on forever, even when the monster starts its rampage. When your monster rampage scenes are boring, then your “monster on a rampage” movie is really in trouble. Sector 7 sends its characters running around in circles with no sort of tension, and we’re forced to watch them do the same things over and over. The amount of punishment the monster endures and survives stretches from absurd to repetitive to just plain irritating. There’s no real in-film reason for it to be indestructible. It just is, which means we have to watch like half an hour of “it’s dead…no it isn’t! OK, for real it is this time…no it’s not!” nonsense. It just never ends. The monster at least looks OK, despite being all CGI, but it’s another one of those all-CGI monster designs that shows no real creativity or menace. It looks like a bunch of other CGI monsters. Why do they all have infinitely long killer tongues?

But still, the monster is mostly OK at least when measured against the standard Syfy channel movie monster — which counts for something because that’s more than can be said for the rest of the movie’s CGI, which ranges from bad to shameful, especially for a film with this large a budget. And the CGi is used, like it was in Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, for no reason in scenes where it has no business intruding. Sunsets and “folks staring out at the sea” shots look like cartoons, but the most egregious example of terrible CGi where no CGI at all was needed is in a pointless motorcycle race Ha Ji-won and her co-worker/love interest have. You couldn’t just get a couple motorcycles and ride them around? No. Instead everything is done in terrible computer animation with bad backdrops and unconvincing motion. It’s a classic example of the old adage that a movie can ask us to believe the impossible bot not the improbable. A monster ripping through the corridors of an oil rig? I can accept that. But fakey looking computer animated motorcycle races? That torpedoes any sort of involvement I have felt with the film, and I was already feeling sketchy about it.

The look of the rest of the film is OK. Just as it’s lifting the plot from Leviathan/Alien, so too does it lift the overall production design of those films, with a bit less of the grittiness that both those films so perfectly attained. Even when it is covered in grease and muck, this movie still looks polished and clean. But the crew looks good in their industrial cover-alls, and the sets provide a suitable environment for lurking monster action. I’ve always thought that oil rigs are excellent settings for horror/monster movies, and even though Sector 7 fails at being a good monster movie, it’s not the fault of the setting. One of the things that works well is that the average person has no idea what the inside of an oil rig looks like, which means this movie can throw as many dimly lit labyrinths, murky pools of water, and scary dark storage spaces at me as it wants, and I’ll not have any cause to call foul. It all seems plausible enough to me. Sadly, even though the oil rig provides the movie all the isolation, darkness, and nooks and crannies any stalking monster could ever hope for, the pace and execution of the movie fails to put them to effective scary use.

I’m pretty comfortable lying the blame squarely at the feet of director Kim Ji-hun. The script may be spotty, but that’s never stopped a monster movie from being good if it was properly paced. And there may be some serios overacting, but again, a decent (or even workman) director can reel in an out-of-control actor. Kim doesn’t reel in the screeching, and he has no idea how to pace the movie. Not surprising — before being handed the reigns to Sector 7, he’d hardly done anything. So why did someone think it was wise to give an inexperienced director control over such a big movie full of complicated situations? Most likely because he directed May 18, a political drama about the Gwangju massacre in 1980, during which thousands of students and protesters were killed by soldiers during anti-government demonstration.

It was a big movie and critically acclaimed, so I guess they thought Kim was ready to handle anything. But making a successful monster movie is a very specific skill. Just because you can direct a big movie doesn’t mean you can direct a big monster movie. And that certainly turned out to be the case with Kim Ji-hun. He doesn’t get anything right. Scenes that should end go on forever. Scenes that need more tension are abandoned. And when he shoots for a dramatic death near the film’s end, the result is embarrassingly hilarious — less like the death of Quint in Jaws, more like Will Farrell pole vaulting into a dinosaur’s mouth in Land of the Lost.

Writers are required by law when writing about any Korean monster movie to mention The Host, so let me get that out of the way real quick. I don’t think there’s any reason to mention The Host when reviewing Sector 7, even though everyone does (and I guess I just did as well). Yes, they are both Korean movies, and yes they both feature monsters. But those are superficial similarities. The Host is a subversion of the classic “giant monster attacks a city” movies, while Sector 7 is a “medium size monster stalks a group of isolated individuals” sort of deal and has no aspirations of being subversive or in any way thumbing its nose at the genre in which it has placed itself. Let me also log the fact that I’m one of like five people in the world who didn’t actually like The Host very much. I much preferred Chaw, the Korean horror-comedy take on Jaws type movies with a healthy dose of Razorback remake. But that’s neither here nor there, because despite both being monster movies, Sector 7 and The Host are no more comparable to one another than Alien is to Godzilla.

So anyway, there’s that done. Sector 7 has very little to do with a film like The Host, and as I’ve mentioned it’s basically Leviathan, which was basically Alien. The difference is those two movies are either entertainingly suspenseful (Alien) or exciting (Leviathan), and Sector 7 fails to be either of those. When the final credits rolled, my reaction to those film was nothing more than a disappointed sigh and wonderment at how long it took to get to the end. I did not demand much from it, but it still managed to let me down. About the only positive things I can say is that it made me want to watch Leviathan again (and that gets more entertaining every time) and that Ha Ji-won is a pleasure to watch in action — but she’s not enough to rdeem an otherwise boring movie. I went in armed with moderate expectations, a certain degree of excitement, and a tendency to like even the bad films in this genre. That wasn’t enough to get me through. Even Deepstar Six is a better example of the genre than this flat-footed letdown.

Release Year: 2011 | Country: South Korea | Starring: Ha Ji-won, Ahn Sung-kee, Oh Ji-ho, Cha Ae-ryeon, Lee Han-wi, Park Cheol-min, Song Sae-Byeok, Park Jeong-hak | Screenplay: Yun Je-gyun
Director: Kim Ji-hun | Original Title: 7 gwanggu | Availability: Blu | DVD (Amazon)