Aurora is a particular kind of letdown. Its excellent premise and relevancy to a specific national event means it isn’t something you can just run back and do-over in a couple of years to get it right. If a future Filipino director wants to try his or her hand at this, it might have to be one from their next generation of filmmakers.
About that premise: Aurora is the name of the film and of a wrecked ship that sits ominously off the coast for most of the film. Based on the Doña Paz disaster–the deadliest peacetime maritime accident in history, and by a considerable margin–the Aurora‘s wreck causes considerable death and suffering. More than you might initially suspect, in fact, unless you’re like me and you’re already fairly familiar with the Doña Paz and how it managed such a heavy death toll. In that case the film’s ultimate “revelation” won’t be much of a revelation at all. And I say that as a man living half a world away. I imagine for Filipino audiences it must have been even less surprising.
But here I am, straying away from the premise. Back to that. The shipwreck sits off the coast like the corpse of some giant old sea creature. It looks a lot like the infamous images of the partially sunken Costa Concordia. It’s a strikingly unsettling thing to center your horror movie around, especially when you consider, as it was with the Costa Concordia and as it is with almost all fatal shipwrecks–at least for a little while–there are bodies inside. The Coast Guard claims that all the dead have been removed from the Aurora, but the host of relatives still searching for loved ones who they are sure were on the ship say otherwise. They’ve gathered at the dilapidated beach-side inn that faces stranded hulk, and the owner of that failing establishment–Leana–is presented with a grim opportunity. Travel out to the ship, retrieve any bodies she can, and she’ll get $50,000 for everyone she finds.
You could go a few different directions with an idea like this while still keeping it in the genre. You can eschew the supernatural altogether, or leave it ambiguous, or launch headfirst into it. Maybe you could say that about most horror story ideas, but this one seems particularly flexible. So it’s not the fact that Leana can see spirits, turning Aurora into a ghost story, that dooms the film. It’s not the acting either; that ranges from “serviceable” to “This guy is incredible, why isn’t he in more of the movie? Why isn’t he in all of the movie?” It’s not even the effects, inadequate as they are at times.
This movie just isn’t executed well. It has strange pacing issues, particularly for a 98-minute film that should have more than enough plot to carry it. There’s an unduly long stretch of the film where nothing much seems to happen, and not because the film is trying to take its time, set on eventually rewarding your patience. No, it thinks it has things going on, but it really doesn’t. In fact, if anything, it would have been better off actually having less happen; having fewer direct sightings of ghosts so early on. Fewer trips out to the ship, perhaps. Fewer prophetic dream sequences. Either let things build–let the dread and anticipation rise–or actually do something with all of the spectral happenings that are otherwise amounting to nothing. It’s like watching a comedian deliver one punchline after another without bothering to set any of them up. Rapid-fire jokes can be great, but some structure and progression is still required, even if it’s accelerated. The same goes for scares.
The movie also makes some poor choices regarding music and even transition shots that feel forgivable at first, but become harder to overlook as the minutes creep by. The soundtrack is stunningly generic. It sounds like it was cobbled together by picking some of the first “Free Scary Stock Music (just credit me however you use it)” clips they found on the internet. And we get shot after shot after shot of the ship lingering off the coast. And I get it, it looks great and appropriately haunting, but I think we get a movie’s worth of these shots within the first twenty minutes. At a certain point it almost comes across as a parody.
Except, of course, it isn’t, because the subject matter is so very real and tragic. And, listen, I’m obviously not from the Philippines, so I can’t say how appropriate it is or isn’t to inject the idea of a curse into this event, but from my limited perspective I didn’t think it was a bad fit. The small backstory of the curse was one of the bright spots of the film, I thought. Still, even that felt underdone, oddly paced and eventually out of place once the climax finally rolled around to put the audience in the same position as the people who died on the vessel. The awful sadness and fatalism of those trapped onboard is undeniable, but it also deserves to be represented in a better film.
Final Verdict: A missed opportunity.