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Default: Cartagena Review

Default Film Still - H 2014
Five 7 Media

The Bottom Line

Though it's sometimes exciting and thought provoking, there are basic design flaws in 'Default' which prevent it from taking off.

Venue

Cartagena Film Festival (Special Presentation)

Director

Simon Brand

A found footage throwback, set aboard a kidnapped plane, to the days of disaster movies -- but this time with heightened authenticity and a social conscience.

Inevitably inviting perhaps unfair comparisons with Captain Phillips, which as a project it apparently predates, the extremely high-concept Default locks a gang of pirates/terrorists (the distinction is key to the plot) into an airplane on a runway with a team of media types and watches what happens. What happens is exciting in stretches earlier on but often absurd later; thought-provoking in the way it wants to be, the film let down by a lack of solid characterization and some plot contrivances that badly betray the authenticity at which it's so clearly straining, lending it the air of a classily put-together B-movie

Nevertheless, as Wild Bunch have spotted, it’s basically a pretty exciting ride, while the highly contemporary subject matter of Colombian Simon Brand’s third feature should have the commercial wings of his last, Paraiso Travel, particularly throughout Latin America.

Ambitiously, the entire film is done as footage, either found or otherwise. Frank Saltzman (Greg Callahan), an over-the-hill Dan Rather-type presenter for the American News Corporation, is in the Seychelles shooting his 100th show along with his crew -- Liverpudlian Kane (Stephen Lord), and Americans Marcela (Jeanine Mason), Kane’s partner Juliana (Katherine Moennig), and cameraman Pete (Connor Fox) -- who, although he barely speaks throughout the film, will be key.

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Much of the character work is done over the first ten minutes, when the gang comes over as just a bunch of spoiled creative types. Unfortunately that's not enough character work to sustain interest even in the music videos for the likes of Shakira and Ricky Martin that have made Brand’s name.

Right after they board their flight to Nairobi, they witness a brief runway scuffle and then some men with guns, led by Atlas (David Oyelowo), join them on board to take over the flight and crew, including the stewardess (Peres Owino). From now on, Default will sacrifice its interest in character almost entirely to the question of those characters' survival. After some business involving mobile phones, the victims are able to alert the military, who surround the plane but retreat on hearing that there is a bomb on board.

Luckily for the viewer and indeed the entire project, Atlas insists on Pete video recording the entire hijack, because he wants the ANC (some play by the writers here on the idea of the African National Congress?) to broadcast the whole thing live. Just why Atlas has chosen such a roundabout manner of achieving his goal, rather than say just kidnapping a couple of media execs in the street, is never addressed.

Atlas also starts to record an interview with Frank which at first, strangely, seems to have only to do with Atlas' semantic disappointment at being called a "pirate" rather than a "terrorist". It’s a slim premise on which to hijack an airplane, perhaps, but then Atlas' true reasons for taking this on are kept under wraps until the final half hour.

Dramatically, there's one big question, for both characters and audience – which people will die? The script struggles to keep interest in this issue alive via a series of twists and turns that start to look oh-no ridiculous, with Atlas, implausibly under the circumstances, setting live-or-die challenges to Frank as the clock ticks. Even more implausible, given what we later learn, is that Atlas could have carried out his monstrous plan at all.

The technically slick film moves between the plane, televised images of it, the ANC studio and the runway: later on, as cameras are handily left running in just the right places, the device starts to feel forced and tricksy, to the extent that Default’s search for ultra-realism ironically starts to make it look ultra-artificial.

The performances are energetic and convincing in a limited way, with the victims’ sufferings coming over loud and clear as they shuttle back and forth between the twin registers of horror and hopefulness, as hemmed in as surely by their roles as they are by the plane.

Default seems to have been made for people who still don’t believe that terrorists/pirates can be human beings too -- but that seems banal coming in the wake of the many fine films that have taught us this already. More interestingly, the film’s multiple cameras make it a critique of media (mis)representations, of the default positions that the media fall into when reporting terrorism -- but it’s handled clumsily, through leaden dialogs between Atlas and Frank that, through stretches, pull off the seemingly impossible task of making a movie set aboard a kidnapped airplane look boring.

Some of the African roles are played by Somalian taxi drivers who have little to do except look menacing and wave weapons around, opening the problematic question of whether Default, in its lack of attention to the details of character, might even be an example of the very misrepresentations it’s criticizing.

Production: Amazonas Films, Five 7 Media

Cast: Katherine Moennig, David Oyelowo, Jeanine Mason, Stephen Lord ,

James C. Victor, Connor Fox, Greg Callahan, Peres Owino.

Director: Simon Brand

Screenwriter: Jim Wolfe Jr., Dan Bence

Producers: Julian Giraldo, Mauricio Osorio

Director of photography: Gerardo Mateo Madrazo

Production designer: Thomas Spence

Editor: Ricardo Javier

Music: Xander Lott

Wardrobe: Leah Butler

Sales: Wild Bunch

No rating, 88 minutes