Aokigahara Forest, also known as the Sea of Trees or the Suicide Forest, has become something of a fascination for many. Located at the base of Mount Fuji, the dense woods are the most popular place in Japan for people to take their own lives, and one of the three most popular suicide destinations worldwide. Between that fact, the stunning geography and a 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, which squanders an interesting setup on a 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 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’s a lack of urgency from the 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 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 search for 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. She meets hunky travel writer Aiden (Taylor Kinney) in a bar and he offers to take her into the forest—cue visions and echoing voices and whispers that sound like leftover effects work from the Ringwraiths in 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 backstory doled out sporadically; of course there’s a groan-inducing, completely unearned twist to wrap things up.
More than anything, The Forest feels like a missed opportunity. Zada, making his feature directorial debut and working from a script by Hannibal’s Nick Antosca, Sarah Cornwell and Ben Ketai, occasionally uses the unique natural scenery to enhance the portentous mood. Unfortunately, these moments are few and far between. More often he 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 culture, it’s a shame The Forest almost completely ignores all of that. There are hints of a larger 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 whom their guide speaks to off camera. But instead of grounding the story in a singular place and time, you get two white people wandering around the wilderness with blank expressions. Exploration of the Sea of Trees and its surrounding lore doesn’t go any deeper than Sara’s early 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—and for whitewashing over the issue.
For all the supernatural trappings—the locals repeatedly tell Sara about the angry spirits of the dead—The Forest works best when it eschews such elements. The ghostly voices and nonspecific bond between twins are generic, 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. This, however, comes and goes without leaving much impact, 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 of its premise. 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 little-to-no stylistic energy or innovation to drive the pace. The Forest is plodding and uninspired, not particularly frightening and, worst of all, boring.
Director: Jason Zada
Writers: Nick Antosca, Sarah Cornwell, Ben Ketai
Starring: Natalie Dormer, Taylor Kinney, Eoin Macken, Yukiyoshi Ozawa
Release Date: January 8, 2016