Roland Emmerich produces a visually striking sci-fi that makes a few poor story decisions.
A German post-apocalyptic science fiction film, Hell is produced by that well-known harbinger of destruction, Roland Emmerich, but is actually a far more methodical, thoughtful piece of work than we have become accustomed to. Directed by Tim Fehlbaum, the film fights hard against comparisons to similar works (most notably John Hillcoat’s The Road), but is certainly not without its merits.
Set in the near future, the Earth’s temperature has been driven up to dangerous levels, caused by some form of solar phenomena. The majority of the population have perished in the blaze, but those that have survived are faced with an intense daylight, making the outdoors uninhabitable. Moving under cover of darkness, or in a blacked-out car, a small band of survivors head for the hills on the rumour that they may still be water in that part of the world.
The first thing to say about Hell is that in terms of cinematography, this is a seriously striking film. The dusty, ash-caked night scenes may be well realised, if nothing new, but it is when the characters occasionally venture out into the full glare of the sun that the film maximises the potential of its setting. The bright sunlight is an elegant, distinctively alien visual motif that gives Hell a truly threatening look. If one criticism can be made of the visuals here, it is that not enough is made of the scorching light, but this is more of a plot point than a technical criticism – Hell is a genuine triumph of cinematography.
It’s a shame that the plot of the film can’t keep up. The first stumbling block we encounter is the lack of any compelling characters to identify with. The four travellers are Maria and her little sister Leonie, sometime lover Phillip and a mysterious stranger named Tom. For the first half a vaguely interesting group mechanic is hinted at, but the characters are split up far too early for any of them to have much of an impact on each other. The film eventually settles on Maria as the lead, but she is something of a two-dimensional character by this point.
The first half certainly grabs the interest as a kind of disaster-cum-road movie, but the plot then settles down at around the halfway point into a different groove altogether. Becoming far smaller in scale, the intensity of the threat is ramped up, but once again the uninteresting characters give us little investment in their plight. If only the story had retained the slow progress of the first half, rather than switching to a single location for much of the second, and given more attention to the characters’ complex relationships whilst maintaining the high concept, Hell would have been a far better film as a whole.
A bleak but gorgeously shot sci-fi/ disaster film, Hell suffers from some poor script decisions, and a rather jarring change of pace around the halfway mark. There is plenty to enjoy about the film overall though, and for the great visuals alone is well worth a look.