When you’re a veteran director who’s never made a fake documentary or a work of true science fiction or an ecological screed, I imagine there’s still a way to make a single movie of all three, a movie that scares, informs, and entertains, a movie that makes you bite your knuckles while robo-dialing your senator. That’s the movie “The Bay” would like to be: a righteous freak-out. The movie recalls incidents in which tons of fish have washed up dead on the shores of the Chesapeake Bay (in 1976 the death toll was about 15 million). The cause was severely cold water and algae bloom. Barry Levinson imagines the worst-case pollution scenario and coughs up a flesh-eating parasite in “The Bay.”
A young reporter named Donna Thompson (Kether Donohue) sits in front of a laptop camera and talks to unseen men about the footage she’s assembled from one particularly disgusting July Fourth in 2009. She was a broadcast intern covering the local parade when a woman with blistering skin disrupts the festivities to beg for help. The crowds scatter, but soon a lot of the 6,200 residents of a small Maryland town have moist pustules, mysterious growths, and missing tongues. Some of those people are dropping dead; some are eating themselves. The Centers for Disease Control and the Federal Emergency Management Agency prove uselessly bureaucratic, though maybe they know that some of this has to do with a faulty desalinization system and the tons of fowl fecal matter being dumped into the bay. Throughout, Donna remains cluelessly on the case.
Levinson structures the movie from mediocre digital camerawork that Donna more or less self-consciously narrates: “Every time I watch these FaceTime videos. . .” or “sometimes when I watch this footage. . .” She was a bad journalist then. But some hindsight, a better haircut, and a blog improve her skills: Now, she’s a filmmaker who makes her own “Paranormal Activity.” (For what it’s worth, one of the producers of “The Bay” is Oren Peli, the software engineer who begat that franchise.)
It’s my deepest wish for the found-footage genre that having the director of “Good Morning Vietnam,” “Rain Man,” “Bugsy,” “Toys,” “Disclosure,” and “Wag the Dog” make his own found-footage movie frees the genre to self-destruct. Levinson researched “The Bay” with Michael Wallach, who wrote the script. They might have turned to this genre because it’s cheap, because it seems real, because his grandchildren love it. But his movie lacks the creepy immediacy of even the most misbegotten of the found-footage genre. The movie might have a point (hey, Environmental Protection Agency, do something!), but it has no dramatic structure or sense of suspense. Levinson can’t even resist frills. When a doomed well-to-do couple that, for some reason, has filmed its mundane boat trip across the bay, starts noticing strange growths, Levinson insists on impossible reaction shots. For panicking sick people, these two can really hit their marks.
The model for what Levinson’s after with “The Bay” might be a movie like “The Cove,” an ugly-looking but effective enough nonfiction thriller about dolphin-slaying in Japan from 2009. (It won the documentary Oscar.) The model might also be Steven Soderbergh, the sort of shapeshifting director who can make both a frightening pandemic superentertainment (“Contagion”) and a seemingly budgetless oddity like “Bubble.” Levinson has one shape: Hollywood. Why not take the same conspiratorial idea and go for something larger and more dramatic, something more him?
It could be that the current financing options for a director like Levinson, someone older who’s always made movies for adults but is well between hits, leaves him with no choice but to try quasi-commercial, misbegotten experiments like this. When I wrote that he’s never made science fiction, I wasn’t entirely correct. His best movie, “Avalon,” is both about his Baltimore childhood, the death of the American family and possibly of the movies. The virus wasn’t skin-munching bacteria. “Avalon” was much more persuasively worried than that. The virus was television.Wesley Morris can be reached at email@example.com.