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DVD Review: The Weathered Underground

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Since the early days of DVD people have been trying to figure out ways to take the adaptable format and turn it into something more interactive. One experiment that gets a revisit every now and then is the "Choose Your Own Adventure" format. The Weathered Underground is the newest addition to this particular experiment. It claims to be the first interactive film. It's not. It may be the most enjoyable, though.

The movie(s) always begins in the same place: Eric gets a phone call. He can either go out with his friends at a local bar or go to work. Choice number one. From there the viewer goes on to make a plethora of decisions for Eric, watching him cascade through outcomes as various as getting into a gunfight, rescuing a woman from domestic abuse, stabbing his boss with a fork, or possibly falling in love.

The process for maneuvering the story, executable by any DVD player, works as follows. Eric, the protagonist, will take part in a scene, usually fairly short, which climaxes in a decision with two or three options. For example, talk to which of these three girls at the bar, call your friends or call your ex-girlfriend, etc. The options are displayed in text boxes you select with the menu select buttons that come standard on DVD remote controls. The screen waits for you to make your selection, then whisks you away to whichever storyline you choose.

The movie has a lot going for it. A hefty amount of credit goes to star Michael Ciriaco. He's got a lot of charm — his voice-over, boyish good looks, and affable goofiness call to mind Scrubs' Zach Braff. His ability to move fluidly throughout all the various storylines is impressive and makes each diversion feel as authentic as the others. The rest of the cast is equally enjoyable, a lot of unknowns who get their own little story to shine in.

The problem with these kinds of discs is that, at the end of the day, most people enjoy being told a story, not choosing it themselves. Part of the joy of reading or watching a story is being surprised and learning more about the characters as you go. If it comes to the moment where the protagonist has to decide whether he's going to try and climb out a window or run out the door with guns blazing, it isn't that much of a surprise what happens if you're the one making that choice. It takes some of the thrill out of the viewing experience.

It also requires that the characters and the setup be loose enough that such wiggle room is possible. It's often said of the greatest films and stories that they keep you guessing up until the very end, but once it finishes it's as though it couldn't have possibly finished any other way. There's that incredible cathartic release of watching an extraordinarily tightly plotted story that you simply cannot get with a DVD like The Weathered Underground.

I don't want to be too hard on the filmmakers, though. Writer/director David N. Donihue deserves some applause for knowing exactly what kind of product he was making. Each storyline moves quickly; even within the more serious storylines there's a kinetic movement that keeps you invested through each moment of decision. They've also shot the film in a kind of low-res digital world filled with fake backdrops and loopy effects, which helps keep the film within a world of hypothetical musings and easy tonal shifts. They seem keenly aware of the limitations of the kind of project they're working on and adjust their story accordingly.

It's a shame the film has some of the language that it does, as it seems to me the best place for this DVD would be in a young writers' workshop. It's a perfect tool for showing aspiring writers the importance of having characters face dynamic choices in their narratives, and indeed how many avenues are open to the storyteller.

All in all, it's a fun disc, and if you're at all curious, you'll probably have a good time giving The Weathered Underground a go. You can also get it for your ipod or iphone. Check it out. If you're curious about how it looks and works, here's an interactive trailer:

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