The Bay is Barry Levinson’s most engaged and entertaining movie since Wag the Dog, which isn’t to say that he’s given up his irksome predilection for a certain bullish type of liberalism. Levinson’s latest is aesthetically adventurous, if not terribly original, using a mockumentary conceit and employing an assemblage of various types of footage (video from cellphones and security cameras, B-roll from news reports, digital news cams, and so on) to create a supposedly realistic vision of ecological horror and bureaucratic indifference run amok. If nothing else, the overgrown, mutant isopods that chow down on the innards of the residents of a small coastal town off the Chesapeake Bay are more genuinely unsettling than the paranormal hissy fits found in The Possession or The Apparition.
Created in lieu of an abandoned documentary on the dire environmental conditions of the Chesapeake Bay, which is essentially 40% dead thanks to various contaminants, Levinson’s radical abstraction centers on the grisly events that unfold over a July 4th celebration, with a young newswoman’s (Kether Donohue) coverage of the events—and her subsequent Skype interview—serving as the story’s anchor. At different points in town, teenagers are devoured in barely 10 feet of water, isopods rip through faces, stomachs, and limbs in the middle of the street, and the local hospital is overrun by cases of what seem to be violent blood blisters. Night-cam footage of an eco-blogger suggests that the mutation of the isopods is from a mixture of chemical waste and chicken droppings seeping into the bay, unregulated due to a seemingly amiable yet uncaring mayor (Frank Deal).
At once impassioned and wholly manipulative, The Bay is a ruminative worst-case scenario as genre piece, less interested in the implications of its aesthetic means in terms of the future of filmmaking than in creating a “realistic” vision of a severe nightmare scenario. Suffering is paramount over any sense of satire and, naturally, the government has a hand in covering up crucial data from doctors, nurses, scientists, and police officers who only want to help. It relies on the same unfairly cynical concept that many “issue” films are built on, that the indulgent corruption of certain government officials would naturally lead them to adopt a tone of bottom-line heartlessness if the dreadful outcome of such actions threatened to reveal their base greed and ignorance to a voting public. As honest and realistic as its depiction may be, The Bay is bitter and condescending. In terms of sheer horror, it’s legitimately scary and concise, but its filmmakers’ earnest ambitions to craft a call to arms render the underlying, disturbing facts as believable as Sharktopus.