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The Atticus Institute (2015)

Anchor Bay Entertainment
Blu-ray Disc Released: 1/20/2015

All Ratings out of




Review by Mike Long, Posted on 1/16/2015

As far as movie genres go, the faux documentary, or "Mockumentary", as it is often called, is an odd one. While all fiction films want us to believe the story on some level, a faux documentary presents a false story as if it were real, using documentary tools, such as interviews and file footage. Many point to This is Spinal Tap as the birth of the modern faux documentary and there's no doubt that Rob Reiner's film showed us just how real something fake could seem. In recent years, the rash of "found footage" movies has somewhat sullied the faux documentary genre, as many of these efforts purport to be taken from a real event, and many of them aren't worth watching. The Atticus Institute brings some much needed new blood and energy to the sub-genre.

The Atticus Institute recounts the events which surrounded the eponymous laboratory, which was founded by Dr. Henry West (William Mapother) in the early 1970s. Dr. West and his colleagues wanted to study psychic phenomena, such as ESP and telekinesis. They studied many subjects and had some promising results. Dr. West was contacted about Judith Winstead (Rya Kihlstedt), whose odd behavior had caused her family concern. Dr. West and his team begin to experiment on Judith and they are delighted to find that she has genuine powers. But, they can't ignore her odd behavior. When it becomes clear that Judith is dangerous, the government is called in, but they too will soon learn what Judith truly is. Told through footage from the experiments, and interviews with the research team and Dr. West's family, the film attempts to explain what happened at the Institute.

Writer/Director Chris Sparling helms his first big(ger) budget feature film with The Atticus Institute, and we shouldn't judge him by his resume before diving in. He wrote Buried, the very clever Ryan Reynolds vehicle which all takes in one single cramped location. But, he also wrote ATM, one of the dumbest movies in recent history. Now, we all know that scripts go through changes once they go into production, so Sparling can't be praised or blamed for the success of those films. But, it's OK to assume that going in, The Atticus Institute has a 50/50 chance of being good.

Not surprisingly, the film winds up falling somewhere in the middle. On the plus side, Sparling has done an amazing job creating a documentary feel. The story is told through interviews and the use of footage from the lab and old photographs. The lab footage looks very authentic and doesn't have the "staged" feel which so often hinders "found footage" movies. The use of the photographs, which are often bent and damaged, really helps to add to the authentic feel. The actors involved in the interviews, namely the research team as played by John Rubinstein, Sharon Maughan, and Harry Groener, all do a great job of not only making the story seem legitimate, but also exhibiting the emotion involved. If not for the fantastic nature of the story, one would think that this was a real documentary.

Given that Sparling has more work experience as a writer than as a director, it's surprising that the story would take a backseat to the filmmaking here. The first half of the film works quite well. We are introduced to the story of the Institute and those involved and we get a feel for the work which was being done there. The introduction of Judith brings a change to the story, as it becomes clear that something odd is happening with her, but the script is still intriguing and engrossing. It's when the government is brought in that things begin to go awry. What had been a somewhat original story suddenly becomes very cliched, as we get the military men who take over the lab and the idea of weaponizing something which hasn't been fully tested. The second half of the film really suffers as the familiar faces from earlier take a backseat to the government characters and the story becomes more and more far-fetched. Things reach a low-point in the finale, where the military characters suggest an idea which is so stupid that it pulled me out of the movie. I think that's Sparling's goal here was to illustrate that the government had no idea what they were doing, but the notion is so ludicrous that it hurts the film. The very ending is far too similar to the conclusion of Paranormal Activity, which seriously hurts the original vibe which the film had going in the first half.

Sparling's biggest mistake was putting complete opening credits on the movie. It should've simply started -- That would have really helped to capture the idea that what we were about to watch was real. As it stands, the movie is truly a mixed bag. The work which making the film look authentic really shows up on-screen and the attention to detail should be applauded. Psychic powers is a plot-device which is largely ignored in modern horror films, so it was good to see this being used. But, the movie turns into something which reminded me of an episode of The X-Files, but without the cool factor. Maybe Sparling should turn his visual talent to a script written by someone else.

The Atticus Institute will undoubtedly make you think of Ghostbusters on Blu-ray Disc courtesy of Anchor Bay Entertainment. The film has been letterboxed at 1.85:1 and the Disc contains an AVC 1080p HD transfer which runs at an average of 25 Mbps. Given the style of the film, we are privy to several different types of video. The modern interviews are very sharp and clear, showing no grain or defects from the source materials. The file footage shows scratches and is blurry at times, but this is to be expected and has nothing to do with the transfer. While the medium changes, the differences in the video isn't jarring. The Disc carries a Dolby TrueHD 5.1 track which runs at 48 kHz and an average of 1.5 Mbps. The track provides clear dialogue and sound effects. The third act shows off some nice subwoofer effects and the surround sound effects help alert us to audio coming from off-screen.

The Atticus Institute Blu-ray Disc contains only two extras. "The Making of The Atticus Institute" (9 minutes) offers comments from Writer/Director Chris Sparling and Executive Producer Dan Clifton who essentially describe the story and themes of the movie. We also hear from actors William Mapother and Rya Kihlstedt who describe their experiences working in the film, given the unique structure. The Disc contains four DELETED SCENES which run about 7 minutes. This sheds some light on the aftermath of the events, as well as some info on the founding of the Institute.

Review Copyright 2015 by Mike Long