Birdemic: Shock And Terror

By Josh

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2008, Directed by James Nguyen

Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds is a seminal classic of both horror and Hollywood’s golden age of cinema. Bursting at the seams with iconic imagery and a mythology behind the production that would serve as the basis for heated debate regarding Hitchcock’s general decency and the means one resorts to in order to create art, The Birds set a new standard for visual storytelling in general.

So this movie’s basically like that but exceptionally awful.

What one must do in order to fully grasp the experience of watching Birdemic is a bit more than pondering. I ponder what to get on one of those suspicious looking hot dogs outside of Union Station. What I do there and what I do with Birdemic can’t be the same thing. No, this is something closer to exegesis.

James Nguyen created the film with an earnest adoration for all things Hitchcock. As a Vietnamese immigrant with a career as a Silicon Valley software salesman, Nguyen financed the film entirely on his own over a period of four years in between shifts and on weekends. It’s not difficult to surmise that Nguyen loves movies. He just didn’t seem to retain very much information about them that would serve to be useful in the creation of his own feature.

It needs to be understood that the most typical of defences against the criticisms of art must be dispensed with immediately when dealing with Birdemic - “if it’s so bad, why don’t you make something better?”

Do you have a video camera? Are you reading this blog on a Mac with iLife installed? Open iMovie. You now have sufficient resources to make something better than Birdemic, both in technical construct and narrative. I made better movies than this is Mrs. Mooney’s 8th grade Media class. One time we blatantly ripped off the plot of Freaky Friday for a group project. It was great.

The film opens with perhaps one of the longest and more uninspired title sequences in contemporary moviemaking, accompanying the main protagonist Rod (portrayed by an actual Blade Runner replicant named Alan Bagh) on a seven minute (at least) drive while the same forty second loop of canned royalty-free music plays over and over. There are no birds yet.

This essentially becomes par for the course for the first 47 minutes of the film. Endless, overly-established travel scenes, poor technical composition of any given shot, awful sound editing, and no birds. The premise of the first half of this film is that Rod, a successful Silicon Valley software salesman (it’s not narcissistic if the real life you as a storyteller are allowing to bleed through is boring as shit), has managed to successfully reconnect with an old high school colleague, an aspiring supermodel named Nathalie (portrayed by Whitney Moore, who comes away from the film probably looking the best and in the wake of Birdemic's cult success is an almost saintly good sport about all of this) and subsequently pursues a romance with her.

We follow these characters (and I really do mean follow, as the film often forces us to witness entire commutes down to gas station pit stops and traffic jams) around their day-to-day disproportionate successes. Rod closes a million dollar deal (which, after finalizing the agreement but before announcing that the deal was for a million dollars, he takes off 50% from, effectively costing his company a million dollars). Nathalie receives word from her agent while at a modeling gig that she has been signed to do a Victoria’s Secret covershoot. Rod and Nathalie have a great first date during which Rod lists all of his banal interests and the hit-for-hit account of how he got into software sales and Nathalie tells Rod about how unsupportive her mother is, even though when we are introduced to said mother, she is the friendliest, most amicable old lady on the planet. She’s my favourite fucking character. She’s so great. They let her talk for five minutes about how much she enjoys being retired. Then Rod and Nathalie dance in front of a green screen. There are no birds yet.

It is around this point in the film that two truths become glaringly apparent:

  1. The budget for Birdemic was about as minimal as feature-length productions can ever get, but it’s not so much due to lack of faith in the project as it is that Nguyen knows next to nothing about the process of making a movie
  2. There’s supposed to be an environmental message in this film, but Nguyen’s grasp on the topic is so tenuous that it never successfully expands beyond “pollution: possibly not a good thing”

The former of these two truths is dealt with so gracelessly that it actually  effectively removes you from the narrative to take in the absurdity of everything you are being expected to accept as truth. Nathalies aforementioned photoshoot takes place in a 1-hour photo shop. Looseleaf sheets of paper with location names printed in helvetica serve as the focus of establishing shots. The film credits a composer, but the only piece of music in the film that isn’t a canned royalty-free loop is a MIDI ripoff of John Lennon’s “Imagine”, shamelessly titled “Imagine Peace”.

The latter of these truths is beaten into your head senselessly at every possible opportunity when Rod and Nathalie aren’t fizzlessly flirting or displaying how great their lives are. Rod watches a newscast where a reporter, hilariously framed in the far bottom left of the television screen she’s being displayed on, goes on at great length about how polar bears are dying because of global warming and a depletion of their food supply “such as seals” - just in case you forgot what polar bears eat. Rod promptly outfits his house with a solar panel array and then the next day, successfully attains several million dollars in venture capital for a green technology startup. Rod and Nathalie go on a double date to see An Inconvenient Truth and all parties present have an entire turnaround about how great caring about the environment is. There are no birds yet.

It seems like nothing can go wrong for our heroes, and after an amazing and wooden dance sequence set to a song that sounds a bit like an odd cross between Stevie Wonder and a Lil B based freestyle that gets way too much focus (or, arguably, not nearly enough focus), Rod and Nathalie go to a motel rather than either of their own houses, and consummate their love in a mostly-clothed sex scene full of horrifically loud kisses and lots of elbows.

It’s an odd but somewhat sweet little payoff to this tedious character study that HERE COME THE FUCKING BIRDS THEY’RE EVERYWHERE THEY CAN SPIT ACID AND DIVEBOMB AND EXPLODE ON IMPACT AND THE ENTIRE CITY IS SWARMING WITH THEM AND EVERYONE IS FUCKING DEAD

Hold on to your butts because this movie has decided to go completely bananas on you.

Rod and Nathalie awaken in the afterglow of their night together to discover what Nguyen wants you to believe are violent swarms of eagles and vultures trying to get into their motel room, but what are actually clearly 2-frame animated gifs (or “gifs”, if that’s how you choose to pronounce them) awkwardly superimposed over the shot.

Rod and Nathalie respond to this horrifying reality the way any rational humans would - by running outside, hooking up with two other motel guests named Ramsey, a former marine, and Becky, a former nobody fucking knows or bothers to find out, running to Ramsey’s van (which happens to be full to the brim with automatic weapons) while fending off the birds with coat hangers (seriously) and then driving out into the open country.

Nothing any of these characters do from this point on make any sense at all (as if to imply that anything previous to this operated on any sort of rationality). The gang rescues two children orphaned by the bird attacks and subsequently feed them nothing but candy and slim jims. They never go inside unless it’s to get more supplies. The sheer volume of food everyone eats makes it nearly impossible to establish any sort of timeline regarding how long they proceed to deal with the attacks. Nathalie goes shopping for champagne. They have several picnics in open fields. Becky takes a shit in an open field and gets killed. Rod agrees to pay $100 for a container of gas from an enterprising attendant, and then subsequently leaves it on the side of the road after a fellow traveller attempts to steal it before getting his throat cut open by  the wing of an incredibly precise eagle. Ramsey gets killed trying to rescue a family from an immediately apparent lack of danger.

The film attempts to argue that this feathery apocalypse is the direct result of the scars mankind has left on the earth, but doesn’t really seem to know how to make those dots connect. The gang meets a professor of science who suggests that global warming kills off vital links of the foodchain which somehow causes bird flu. And that there exists prehistoric evidence of cavemen that ostensibly got their eyes pecked out, probably by birds. Maybe.

After another stop for food and water, our heroes decide it’s a good idea to walk into a nearby forest and fill up hundreds of water bottles at the side of a stream. When Whitney Moore suggested to Nguyen that this made absolutely no sense, Nguyen explained that the characters would do this “because it’s a movie”, then proceeded to refuse to speak to Whitney for almost two weeks (seriously). A “treehugger” comes out into the clearing and spews a bit more pseudo-environmentalist bullshit before running off, claiming to have heard a mountain lion.

And then Rod, Nathalie and the orphans go fishing on the beach in a scene notable for its awful sound especially since prior to this Nguyen didn’t seem to have any reservations at all about slathering every shot with unnecessary automated dialogue replacement. It is at this point that the birds, conveniently absent during any other moment of unadulterated vulnerability, descend upon our heroes and contemplate attacking before inexplicably leaving. And by that I mean, the threat unceremoniously ends. The birds fly back across the ocean to wherever they came from, and Rod, Nathalie and the orphans just stand and watch them.

And so do you.

The birds aren’t just leaving the scene. They’re leaving the experience. They’re leaving you. And they’re not doing so empty-handed either. This film takes something from you. It asks the world of you and shames you for not trying hard enough. For not getting it. What the fuck is wrong with you? What’s wrong with me? Why am I here? What compelled me to watch all of this? What compelled you to read this? Why are you entirely sold on this movie, and are now contemplating watching it? Why are you searching for it on Google to watch in its entirety? Who ate all my pudding? Why am I genuinely excited for the sequel Nguyen’s already working on? WHY DID THE EAGLES AND VULTURES ATTACKED