I grew up on the Texas coastline, mostly skipping school, surfing the Gulf of Mexico, and heading back inland to my safe, convenient town with plenty of running water. So, for me, the prospect of being lost in the desert is both fascinating and frightening. Any horror film that explores the depths of madness created by the unforgiving terrain and scorching sun-dry misery has a difficult task laid out for itself and its characters. It’s an impressive challenge – one that got me immediately on board as soon as I heard the Hollywood shorthand pitch for The Objective – Blair Witch in the desert.
But The Objective is an animal not too closely related to Blair Witch. The camera work is sprawling, the budget clearly bigger, and the script is a good bit tighter. Still, it’s actually the remnants of the Witch-style storytelling that actually drag the film down.
Benjamin Keynes (Jonas Ball) is a CIA spook who’s returning to Afghanistan to meet up with several Special Ops Reservists to set out into the mountains in search of a religious leader and what appears on satellite imagery to be a nuclear weapon in the hands of the Taliban.
As you can tell by the synopsis, it seems like a closer relative to the recent batch of failed quasi-war films. Something like The Kingdom meets Broken Arrow. But writer/director Daniel Myrick (The Blair Witch Project, surprise!) slowly builds and develops unexplained elements that escalate until reality is completely skewed out in the desolate landscape. Men are driven insane, million-dollar equipment is useless, and the nuclear weapon might turn out to be something far more dangerous. Something mythic. Something devastating and ancient.
The film is served incredibly well by its cast. Jonas Ball looks like a blend between Daniel Craig and Cillian Murphy whose inherited the baritone narrating voice of Billy Crudup. He plays a tricky blend of stoicism and reverence for the spiritualism of the land that bounces off the gruff, father-figure of Matthew Anderson’s Chief Warrant Officer Wally Hamer. The rest of the team is a solid support staff, and the script gives them a few true character-building moments while stealing heavily from The Handbook on Introducing and Offing Military Team Members (This is X, our Y specialist. His wife is pregnant).
The film lags in four of five places, sometimes adding to the desolate mood and sometimes simply dragging. The other main problem is that the scope of the shoots made it confusing, made it difficult to know what creepy thing I was supposed to be seeing. As a result, I was never really scared. Although, there were several solid freak-out moments and a lightning-quick Oh-Shit Moment that will make me never walk toward a mysterious light in the desert. Mostly, it’s a lesson that the same camera technique that worked to build a mood in the tight spaces of the forest doesn’t work in a landscape of big sky and earth. The mood that had been worked so hard to achieve was lost whenever I had to peer through Keynes’s heat-vision camera or when a vague image was stared at off in the monochrome distance.
The only other element keeping this film down is that the ending goes way out to pasture and never comes back. That should appeal to a decent amount of fans, but I felt like the mystical elements weren’t presented skillfully enough or at the right times to build properly to what was a very open ending.
Really, it’s almost nothing like Blair Witch of Arabia. It’s a suspense film that never builds the type of mood that Blair Witch builds. If that’s a problem, skip it, but what the film does do is boast a strong script, some memorable moments, and the slow social and psychological breakdown of a group wandering lost in the desert. As if running out of water weren’t enough, facing the ancient ghosts of the Afghanistan should be.