Vanishing on 7th Street

I would’ve expected more from Brad Anderson. The director of the overrated but effective “Session 9” (2001) and “The Machinist” (2004), Christian Bale’s most impressive vehicle since “American Psycho,” knows how to create a creepy mood and ratchet up the tension bit by bit. But the premise of his new film, “Vanishing on 7th Street,” doesn’t lend itself well to subtlety or sophistication: people suddenly begin disappearing as soon as they become engulfed by the dark—which is unfortunate, since the city the film is set in (Detroit, in real life) has just lost power.

Hayden Christensen stars as Luke (no, really) in an attempt to recast himself as a hardened, manly sort, which isn’t terribly successful. Soon after the city loses power and everyone disappears, Luke finds his way to Sonny’s bar, where somehow the neon lights are still flashing—an oasis in an ocean of blackness. Once inside, we meet the other protagonists: James (newcomer Jacob Latimore, the best of the lot), Rosemary (Thandie Newton), and Paul (John Leguizamo). We get flashbacks of everyone’s lives, and get to witness their devastation at the loss of parents, children, lovers and friends. These parts of the story are bleak to be sure but, like the characters, not very inventive.

Once the players are in place the film turns from a melodrama into a straight survival story, at which point it begins steadily losing momentum. Eventually almost all the characters are dispatched by the monstrous darkness, and the film devolves into a mildly evangelistic, existential passion play. The film’s failing is a common one: it doesn’t really know what it wants to be. It’s not really a horror film, because it’s not terribly scary; the thing we’re supposed to be afraid of—the wandering souls in the darkness—aren’t well-defined enough to really chill us. The film’s philosophical message, which somehow involves a centuries-old conspiracy theory, is similarly bungled. It seems that Anderson is longing to either confront God and the afterlife head on, or debunk those concepts all together. The problem is, you can’t tell which.

Christensen gives this new, adult type of role a good try. It’s refreshing to see him lash out and curse at people while he’s not in outer space, but he’s unconvincing as a hardened survivalist. Newton is similarly disappointing in her ultra-stereotyped role of the bereft mother. The children in “Vanishing” are by far the most compelling—and perhaps that’s a good way to tell when you’ve wandered into a film that is aiming for an adult audience, but not really getting there — OUT ON DVD NOW.