I sat down to screen Chris Mul’s Astral after sundown with the lights off which, initially, was a big mistake. The first few minutes of this film (a sort of prologue to the rest of the movie) left my heart fluttering in suspense, giving it a workout even before the opening credits. The opening sequence depicts a young wife and mother being released from a psychiatric hospital and her eventual suicide by hanging.
Even before our brief introduction of the now-deceased woman, the film greets us with a chilling message:
Astral projection (or astral travel) is an interpretation of an out-of-body experience (OBE) that assumes the existence of an 'astral body’, separate from the physical body.
Whilst the events herein are fictionalised for the audience’s entertainment, the premise is very real.
The filmmakers in no way condone any behaviour or action that might endorse the undertaking of astral projection.
It’s jarring to start a film with a warning and immediate death, and in the case of Astral, I was expecting the rest of the film to be a rollercoaster ride of suspense, action, and straight-up horror.
But after the credits, we fast-forward 15 years and meet up with the woman’s now-adult son in university — and the story instantly begins to slow down. While the film initially felt like a could-it-be-true nightmare, it quickly became flat-out boring.
So after the gut-wrenching opening sequence, I was then faced with other questions:
Why are they casually discussing this otherwise off-limits topic in class?
Why do they talk about YouTube so much?
Why does Alex wear his jacket zipped up all the way?
The Characters & the Plot
Alex is a strong character. His mother’s death is motivation enough for his interest into the unknown (or astral projection) and it’s enough to make the viewer jump on board with his journey.
However the rest of the characters lack the same depth and likability; with the exception of, perhaps, Dr. Lefler. Alex’s university friends are tired and clichéd tropes of what films think young people are like. The overly snarky and scripted banter amongst the group makes them seem more like caricatures than relatable people. In fact, Alex’s friends all kind of seem the same to me, with nothing setting them apart. Except for the blonde girl who is always filing her nails — every friend group has one… right?
But the lack of interesting supporting characters can be forgiven with a stimulating plot. Instead, Astral’s plot crawls along a bit too slowly to keep a tight grip on the viewer’s attention. I found that each scene gives the illusion that there is a lot going on, when in reality there is not much to actually digest.
Though the entire film focuses on astral projection, we rarely get insight into the experience. Aside from the shadows Alex and his flatmates witness, the viewer gets little to no insight into what projecting might look and feel like.
In the end, it’s frustrating — I felt that Astral had copious amounts of potential. The story piqued my interest and the opening scene hooked me instantly but the rest of the film just couldn’t live up to my expectations.
The Sights & the Sounds
Though I felt the plot failed me at times, I was truly happy with the film visually. The eery hanging of Alex’s mother in the beginning was beautifully tragic and could give anyone a visceral reaction upon viewing. It’s not easy to make a viewer’s heart sink within five minutes of a movie starting, but Astral succeeded.
The mysterious shadow people alone were enough to send chills down my spine — especially when they appear upon characters turning the lights off. These moments are genuinely terrifying and perfectly demonstrate the awful dread of the unknown. The vague and almost inky shadow figures are creepy because it’s unclear what exactly they are, but the true terror sets in as they begin to look more human.
Visually, Astral is striking and certainly what you would and expect from a horror film. Even the video footage of Alex sleeping gives off an incredible found footage vibe and makes you stress as much as you would watching a film like Paranormal Activity.
But the music managed to kill some of the more striking scenes. The music was not consistent enough for me, often being too loud in seemingly insignificant spots and entirely absent during important ones.
ASTRAL is worth the watch
Mul’s Astral is a visually well-done horror flick with untapped potential to have a more robust storyline. I’d love to know more about Alex’s mother, and Alex, and I crave supporting characters that don’t adhere to typical young adult film tropes. Though Astral certainly had its scary moments, the lackluster story left me longing for something more complex.