400 Days, directed by relative newcomer Matt Osterman, is outwardly a science fiction suspense film, but at its heart is a mystery. The mystery extends beyond the usual matters of guilt and motive; everything, even such basics as the motives of the characters or the real intention of the movie itself, is up for question. Mystery lovers will enjoy the endless barrage of clues and red herrings and still more clues, while those who prefer a good, straightforward drama may find the film’s ambiguity frustrating.
A montage of slightly disturbing film clips over the opening credits introduces the idea of some kind of behavioural experiment, and finally makes clear that the focus is on space travel. The basic story, set a few years in the future, is of a group of four potential astronauts who have been chosen for a study to determine the possible effects of extended space travel on the human mind and overall condition. The four subjects will spend 400 days inside a small, locked underground ‘pod’ containing the basic requirements for life and health, but little more. There will be no contact with the outside world apart from periodic interaction with the test’s overseers, except in case of emergency. The four subjects will be monitored remotely for signs of disorientation, depression, or other negative changes, and the one crew member with medical training will assess their condition regularly.
At a press conference just prior to entering the pod, the respective personalities of the four crew members is established, indicating a fairly formulaic selection of types.
– Dvorak (Dane Cook), the oldest of the four, is a hearty, boyish, rather crude man with a simplistic approach to most problems.
– Emily (Caity Lotz), the requisite female crew member, has a medical background and a calm and logical mind.
– Theo (Brandon Routh) is bright and rational but a little oversensitive. Emily recently ended a relationship between the two of them, adding personal drama to the collective.
-Finally, ‘Bug’ (Ben Feldman) is a clever but inexperienced young scientist who serves as the group’s collective kid brother. The characters are not very well-developed, which might normally be a serious flaw. In this case, the lack of clarity about each character’s personality allows their possible motives to remain unknown, which supports the mysterious tone of the story.
The introductory press conference also makes a point of discussing the purpose of the experiment, pointedly mentioning that psychological changes, paranoia or even hallucinations, can result from extended confinement of this kind. The study’s leader, Walter (Grant Bowler) adds that the study’s designers may provide the crew with some unexpected mock-problems, in order to better assess their ability to respond. The stage is set for trouble of some kind, as the four subjects are locked away in their underground cell.
Onscreen subtitles indicate the number of days which have passed as the story progresses. Almost immediately, minor problems with the power source, and apparently contrived outside noises accompanied by the entire pod shaking, occur. The crew takes these events as part of the test they are undergoing, but small events hint that there may be more going on than they realise. When outside communications abruptly cease, the crew are forced to assume that this change is yet another test of their stamina.
As days pass, the crew gradually begin to experience feelings of anger, hostility, restlessness. Conflicts arise between the crew members. Dvorak begins to experience events which may be delusions; he grows paranoid, and even becomes involved in a physical fight with another crewman. Other crew members have lesser, but still worrisome, mental lapses. The film seems to be moving toward a predictable dramatic arc in which confinement causes relations among the crew members to break down, perhaps to a dangerous extent. But this film is nothing if not unpredictable, and it takes an entirely unexpected direction, which ultimately leads to all four leaving the pod prematurely.From this point, any description of the actual storyline would spoil the film, as the elements of surprise, uncertainty, and building suspense are particularly crucial to 400 Days. The story is handled to allow multiple interpretations of events at nearly every stage. The carefully planted idea that confinement may result in an altered sense of reality leaves the viewer unsure of what is wholly or partly real, what may be a delusion, what may be deliberate deception by the programme’s handlers – just possibly, it is vaguely suggested, with the assistance of a crew member. The plot does not allow the audience to rest for long on one theory or certainty, any more than the characters can; even when matters seem clear, there are constant hints that seemingly obvious assumptions may be wrong. Some of these clues are themselves red herrings, keeping the audience continually off-balance. Finally, just when the facts appear to be established, the film concludes with uncertainty, allowing a hint of mystery to remain.
The film’s strong points are its good ensemble cast, including a small but brilliantly creepy performance by usual good-guy actor Tom Cavanaugh; and the painstaking care taken to sustain the sense of confusion that drives the action. Without this element of mystery, the film is a fairly ordinary sci-fi horror story. Its greatest weakness may the subtlety of its hints and misdirection, many of which are so carefully camouflaged, or so seamlessly inserted into the action, that their significance is easy to miss on the first viewing, and are therefore wasted.
400 Days should not be taken as a suspense film with the incidental trappings of science fiction. It embraces its science fiction genre, including references to both real science (a fictional town is named after the site of the first moon landing), and fictional science (an increasingly unstable Dvorak singing “Daisy, Daisy…” to himself, like HAL the computer). Scientific observation remains one fairly reliable constant in the film, even as the characters’ situation becomes chaotic. However, the film would be far less interesting as a straightforward sci-fi story. It is the constant play with uncertainty that makes the movie worthwhile.