400 Days Dir. Matt Osterman

[SyFy Films ; 2016]

Styles: sci-fi, psychological thriller
Others: Ghost from the Machine, Moon, Event Horizon

400 Days opens with a sequence that highlights the ugly side of space exploration. Theo (Brandon Routh) is an astronaut about to set out on a mission, but when we first meet him, he’s being released from the local drunk tank. As if this wasn’t enough to bring the astronaut down to Earth, this sequence is interspersed with crackling documentary footage of syringes, caged rats, shirtless men harnessed to machinery, and rockets erupting in flames. These shots recall the sacrifice that has paved humanity’s way to the final frontier, setting the tone for the expedition that follows. Against this historical backdrop Theo emerges from jail: a wan-looking young man with a five o’clock shadow, down to his last cigarette. He doesn’t look like much, but he’s the next in the line of men to boldly go where no men have been before, whatever the cost.

Matt Osterman’s second feature follows the story of four astronauts who undergo a psychological test that will lock them together for a period of — you guessed it — 400 days. Despite the celestial allusions that introduce the film, the entire narrative takes place on earth. In fact, it mostly takes place below the earth’s surface, where the astronauts will descend into an underground bunker to test their mental readiness for real space travel.

Along with Theo, the ship’s captain, the other crew members include Bug (Ben Feldman), Dvorak (Dane Cook), and Emily (Caidy Lotz). Their commander, Walter (Grant Bowler), warns the test subjects the simulation will throw them curveballs. In all respects, they will feel as though they are in a ship hurtling through the galaxy, with all of the unexpected challenges that might come with it.

“Let’s just say, anything could happen,” Walter says. “Anything,” being the operative word. He then gently reminds the group that anyone who quits early can forget about a career in space.

With the stakes thus established, the group enters the bunker, ready for isolation, darkness, and the unknown. Early on, the ship loses contact with its command base. Believing this must be part of the experiment, the crew soldiers on, despite dwindling resources and morale. After a while, it becomes unclear whether the increasingly strange incidents are actually part of the simulation, or whether they are real in any sense. Would Walter go so far as to plan all of these bizarre events, as Dvorak suggests, or has the team stumbled onto something stranger than their commander’s fiction? How far would he go to test his subjects, and at what point should they lose faith in his game?

400 Days marks the first release from SyFy’s new film division. At times, these origins are transparent, harkening back to the kinds of content we’ve come to expect from the television channel, which is better known for creative ideas than execution. The film is clumsy in places, and introduces a few lazy character backstories that would be better left out. It also leaves many loose ends and answers few questions. As it is, there are missed opportunities that would have resulted in a more memorable film had they been explored.

On the other hand, that Osterman resists the urge to tie everything up in neat package inevitably works to the benefit of the film. He succeeds in creating a palpable sense of unease and confusion that will keep viewers wondering until the credits roll. The film presents a stark portrait of humanity’s search for the unknown, but in the end, this search is fruitless. When the unknown finds you, there is no way to prepare.

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