Conspiracy theories are a phenomenon capable of both intriguing and entertaining an audience regardless of actual belief. The key is in the ‘what if?’ scenario that the best ones present. Of course we don’t believe them, but what if? That tenuous line between fact and fiction nags at our imagination and pulls at the loose strands of doubt in our otherwise level-headed minds. It’s fertile ground for film and TV with some of the finer examples including The X-Files and Oliver Stone’s JFK, and now one filmmaker has come up with the idea to mix conspiracy theories with the faux documentary genre.
Unfortunately that marks both the beginning and the end of the creativity Christopher MacBride applied to The Conspiracy.
Jim (James Gilbert) and Aaron (Aaron Poole) set out to make a documentary about a man named Terrance (Alan C. Peterson) who spends his days shouting theories on a street corner and his nights discussing them in an online chat-room with other believers. Terrance disappears one day leaving no trace as to his whereabouts, and as the two men struggle with what to do with their doc Aaron (very quickly) finds himself picking up the pieces of Terrance’s obsession. He connects the dots between news clippings and historical events and discovers, wait for it… a motherfucking conspiracy.
The remainder of the film sees them followed by suspicious men on bikes and black SUVs, meeting a mysterious insider and planning a trip to a secret retreat where elite members of the shadowy Tarsus Group meet to plan their continuing world domination. It may not be a sexy conspiracy theory, but if it’s good enough for Alex Jones it’s good enough for MacBride.
The idea here is a good one. It’s easy to picture a “documentary” that begins as one thing then slowly shifts to focus on the filmmakers themselves when they get too close to the truth they were seeking, but The Conspiracy is not that film. Nailing down exactly what kind of film it is though is difficult. It makes the token pretense of being a “real” doc including talking heads, text updates on a black screen and the lack of anything resembling opening credits, but the layer below the surface begs the question as to who exactly made the film. It’s either Jim and Aaron or it’s an unnamed someone else, but both options are unconvincing and riddled with logic problems.
In deference to the spoiler-averse most of those problems won’t be mentioned here.
Eventual takeaways and post-film questions aside, the movie has other issues that speak more to it being a piece of narrative entertainment. Viewers never get the chance to get to know Terrance before he disappears leaving behind a pile of newspaper clippings covering every single conspiracy of the past century. The film’s public sees him as a nut, and with the short amount of time we have with him that remains the only viable conclusion for the audience too. And the details of the conspiracies are glossed over, even when Aaron picks up on them and almost immediately falls under their spell, leaving us again with no reason to grant them any real weight. Vaccines, pesticides, 9/11, the Kennedy assassination… we only know they’re connected because of the strings on the bulletin board.
Viewers having to fill in gaps and connect the dots is not a bad thing, but here they’re forced to do all of the heavy lifting. How are these incidents connected? What compelled Aaron to believe these things so quickly and easily? Why abduct a conspiracy theorist who clearly appears crazy to all who see and hear him? Why do secret organizations insist on using black SUVs as their surveillance cars? If the hidden camera is in a tie tack sitting roughly four feet off the ground why does all of the footage show a POV at other people’s heads?
And don’t get me started on the footage from that camera during a game of hide and seek in the woods.
The Conspiracy leaves viewers with a clearly intended conclusion as to the events behind the film, but the film itself fails to support it. Ominous statements made by at least two characters imply something that doesn’t mesh with the end result… unless the end result is not what’s intended. Either way, the movie doesn’t work. “We made a mistake,” says one of the filmmakers. “We made a huge mistake.” And there lies the only real truth of the film.
The Upside: Initial setup implies something interesting; third act has something resembling suspense
The Downside: Intended conclusion fails even a cursory glance back at the film itself; hidden camera logistics are laughable; unsure of its commitment to being a faux doc; chosen conspiracy is generic and bland; clear early on how things will end
On the Side: Aaron Poole’s first credited acting role is in an episode of The X-Files. Make of that what you will…