Aokigahara Forest, also known as the Sea of Trees or the Suicide Forest, located at the base of Mount Fuji, has become a fascination for many. The dense woods are the most popular place in Japan for people to take their own lives, and reportedly one of the three most popular suicide destinations worldwide. Between that fact, the stunning natural geography that features unexplored ice caverns, and a historical link with demons and spirits in Japanese mythology, Aokigahara was ripe for a supernatural horror film. Director Jason Zada’s The Forest is that movie, and it squanders an interesting set up with a wealth of potential on a flat, bland, by-the-numbers genre outing.
The Forest isn’t particularly egregious, it’s not the worst movie you’ll likely see in 2016, but the simple fact is that there’s nothing even remotely unique or interesting about it outside of the setting. Plot twists occur precisely where every horror fan knows they will, every jump scare leaps out at the audience from behind the expected corner, the pacing is all over the place, and there is a lack of energy or urgency starting with early images of the protagonist listlessly riding through the neon-soaked streets of Tokyo in a taxi as voiceover and flashbacks dump all the information you need right at your feet.
Sara Price (Game of Thrones’ Natalie Dormer) has a preternatural connection to her twin sister, Jess (Dormer with her hair dyed black to imply witchiness and mysticism). Sara is the responsible sibling, while Jess is has always been the wild child who needs to be bailed out of trouble, the one who “looks at the darkness.” When Jess, an English teacher living in Japan, disappears in Aokigahara on a school field trip—because why wouldn’t you take a bunch of school girls to the Suicide Forest?—Sara can feel she’s still alive and heads out to track down her missing twin, despite everyone she meets telling her it’s a bad idea.
Like every into-the-woods horror movie, Sara encounters a series of ominous signs and the Japanese version of backwoods yokel harbingers of doom along the way. When she meets hunky travel writer, Aiden (Taylor Kinney), in a bar, he offers to take her into the forest, where Sara encounters visions and hears echoing voices and whispers that sound like leftover sound work from the Ring Wraiths from Lord of the Rings.
Of course there’s more to Aiden than meets the eye; of course Sara wonders if she’s going crazy or not; of course there’s a tragic, mysterious backstory doled out sporadically; of course there’s a groan inducing, completely unearned twist to wrap things up.
More than anything, The Forest is a missed opportunity. Zada, making his feature directorial debut, working from a script by Hannibal’s Nick Antosca, Sarah Cornwell, and Ben Ketai, occasionally uses the unique natural scenery to enhance the portentous, threatening mood. Close ups of jagged roots, a snail slowly inching across a log, and shots of a sharp blue river cutting through the lush green, create a temporary otherworldly feel. Unfortunately, these moments are few and far between, and he more often opts for cheap tropes, like flickering lights, eerie sound effects, and a mysterious breeze blowing down the path.
Aokigahara is such an interesting phenomenon, with so much history and ties specifically to Japanese cultural, that it’s a shame The Forest almost completely ignores all of that. There are hints of a larger societal connection, like a sad-eyed businessman Sara sees on the train—the immediate implication is that he’s on his way to the forest to kill himself—or a man they encounter contemplating suicide, who their guide speaks to off camera. Instead of serving to ground the story in a unique, intriguing place and time, you get two white people wandering around the wilderness with blank expressions. Exploration of the Sea of Trees and the surrounding culture doesn’t go any deeper than Sara’s early-in-the-movie Google search, and the film has received criticism for sensationalizing a national epidemic in Japan—this is after all a real place where dozens of people really take their own lives each year—and for whitewashing over the issue.
For all of the supernatural trappings—the locals repeatedly tell Sara about the angry ghosts and spirits of the dead—The Forest works best when it eschews these elements. The ghostly voices and nonspecific bond between twins are generic and dull, but when Sara, and the viewer, starts to wonder whether this stranger she’s alone in the woods with is a psycho or not, The Forest is at its most compelling. It’s nothing you haven’t seen before, but it is reasonably tense in these scenes. This, however, comes and goes without leaving much impact, almost as if Sara forgot that just a moment ago she thought Aiden might be a murderer.
There is potential in The Forest, but the resulting film never capitalizes on the inherent intrigue in the set up. Instead of an exploration of Japanese history and culture, the narrative is filtered through white, western eyes; the performances are flat and consist of little more than Dormer and Kinney looking vaguely distressed; and there is no stylistic energy or innovation to drive the pace. The Forest is plodding and uninspired, not particularly frightening, and worst of all boring. [Grade: C-]