Director: Justin Dec
Screenwriter: Justin Dec
Starring: Elizabeth Lail, Jordan Calloway, Talitha Bateman, Tichina Arnold
How often do you go to a movie and come out with a hot take? It’s pretty easy when it’s the center of controversy like Joker, or clearly in poor taste and objectively poor like Slender Man. Seeing Countdown wasn’t anything like that – it was a thoroughly whelming experience with just enough good and not enough bad to really merit much more than the paragraph you just read.
Countdown tells the story of a nurse who downloads an app that tells you when you’re supposed to die. For some it’s great, they’re going to make it to 98; others only have 3 hours or 2 days. Naturally, the protagonist is going to try to find a way to not die.
The script is pretty tight overall. Every plot event that occurs has a purpose without being an obvious Chekov’s gun, and this is even the case for stupid side characters. For example, there’s a phone store the protagonist goes to so she can get a new phone – the store’s only worker is a tech genius she can go back to later so he can hack the app and see what the code looks like. There’s also solid skepticism and logic to most of the characters’ actions. A teen refuses to get in the car with her drunken boyfriend, completely unmotivated by the app that says she’ll die in 7 minutes. When said boyfriend tells the protagonist he’s going to die because an app says so, the protagonist says that’s dumb.
At the same time, there are negative standouts from the script. There are too many moments of levity/humor that induce an eyeroll, such as a wacky priest who orders GrubHub, vapes and listens to rap. The Exorcist has Father Karras who is tortured by his doubt, and this guy is a punchline whose primary purpose is to deliver exposition. Expository moments are telegraphed by the dialogue, like (near-verbatim) “What morbid backstory compels us to know when we’re going to die?” Watching the film, there was no inner compulsion that caused our protagonist to download the app, it was peer pressure.
Then there’s the actual what/why/how of the app. There’s a Latin incantation written in the app’s code. When our protagonist visits the priest, he reads it and relates it to a story about a prince that went to a magic Romani woman who showed him a scroll that was strikingly similar to the Countdown app (literally the two digit Years, Days, Hours, Minutes, Seconds format on the phone app, which was silly). Then there’s a demon and I think we’re led to believe that this demon (Ohzin) created the app. Now that’s a scene I want to see; the demon sitting at his computer, writing a tricky user agreement for his timer app that tells people when they’re gonna die. What was his development process like? Did he consult with formerly human lawyers in Hell? Why didn’t he include “months” as a time category since “days” only has two digits? Why did he even adapt it to human construction of time when he’s an immortal spirit that can’t perceive time (which is relative on a universal scale to begin with)? Does he have an updated human clock/calendar for every culture in human history? Does it take Daylight Savings into account? The film introduces too many questions for me to really take this premise seriously once the demonic aspect is introduced. Side note: the app has a 3.6 on the app store, I really wish I could’ve seen the 5-star reviews…
Visually, the film offers little of note. It doesn’t fully rely on jump scares, but it does still lean on them at times. Small moments like a kid’s feet bending the wrong direction or a dead body’s weight moving it are pretty interesting, but then you have the sequences of tension-building that an experienced horror viewer can predict with little effort. The beats in music, editing, and even visual cues aren’t much different than you see in standard horror fare these days, and the logic of how those sequences are cut short leaves a viewer unsatisfied more than relieved. If a demon grabs someone and pulls them under a blanket, just remove the blanket and the problem is solved. That’s not as scary as the demon not caring about having the cover of a blanket to operate.
Where the film shines is in its human scares. There’s a doctor that confronts and sexually harasses our protagonist in the workplace, and that scene is terrifying to watch. Perhaps the countdown is a symbol of the Time’s Up movement, since the harasser gets to live a long life while his victim is doomed. In our reality, how many men are still getting away with it despite public knowledge and outcry? How many continue to be allowed to live their long, happy lives in peace? Probably a lot. And the predator comes forward to use lies and his power to shield himself, even further damaging the woman and her reputation. Putting the focus here, rather than on a countdown app created by a demon, would have made for a much more effective movie. The demon doesn’t feel like a spectre of workplace harassment, it feels like The Conjuring’s nun with a slightly different appearance and more tech skills.
Countdown isn’t completely empty calories and is fairly competent, but it leaves the viewer wanting more of some things and less of others. Getting the reality of sexual predators in the workplace in front of an audience is great, but the lack of unique, novel qualities around its better aspects holds it back. This is exactly the kind of thing people will watch on Netflix around Halloween, so look out for it around this time next year.