For anyone whose experiences with the last few films from Japanese director Kiyoshi Kurosawa have proven frustrating (and his recent run of form suggests the heady horror days of “Cure” and “Pulse” are long gone), the English title of his latest project may sound rather appropriate. And you’d do well to be wary: “Foreboding” plays like an unwieldy summary of Kurosawa’s gloomy thematic preoccupations and his worst formal tendencies: It’s overlong and lacking focus, and the underwater pacing and dissociative, somnolent acting style make it hard to invest in the human characters even before they’ve been partially zombified.
Condensed erratically, and not nearly enough, into a 140-minute film from a five-part TV show, “Foreboding” has already had a Japanese release, and is based, confusingly, on the play “Before We Vanish,” which was also the title and the source material of Kurosawa’s last film. It’s hard to see what so attracted Kurosawa that he’d want to shoot it twice: While the current movie does boast intermittent sequences that are fun or at least visually inspired, they’re packed among so much wadding that the effect is entirely undercut. Indeed, Kurosawa’s conception of this unlovely world and the humorless, rudderless creatures who inhabit it is such that the intergalactic invasion it listlessly imagines is less chilling than simply baffling: Why would the aliens even bother?
Akiko Ashizawa’s grayish photography, under a burbling score from Yusuke Hayashi that only later develops its full-on monster-movie motifs, introduces Etsuko (Kaho, of “Our Little Sister”). She’s worried on two fronts: A friend at work has suddenly developed an irrational, blinding fear of her own father, and Estuko’s nursing-orderly husband Tetsuo (Sometani Shota, “Lesson of the Evil”) has taken to staring vaguely into the middle distance. With glacial slowness, a flashback or two and a lot of scenes of Etsuko waiting in hospital corridors and overhearing things through hastily pulled curtains, these two conditions are revealed to be related.
Her friend has been visited by Dr. Makabe (Higashide Masahiro, much better than he should be given that he’s apparently been directed to move no part of his face, ever). Makabe is actually an alien in disguise and, like all aliens, he apparently lives for a good probing: Here, however, he uses his finger, pressed hard into the victim’s forehead, to remove “concepts” fundamental to the human experience. The friend’s concept of “father” had thus been removed, and hence her panic at the sudden stranger in her house.
Worse still for Etsuko, Makabe, like an alien Dracula, has recruited Tetsuo as sort of Renfield, and unless the earthling abets his increasingly sordid plans by bringing him fresh victims, Makabe causes him crippling pain. This, and not the imminent end of humanity, becomes Etsuko’s main focus when she discovers herself immune to the alien’s influence. She’s eventually recruited by the authorities to try to communicate with the invaders, like an irritatingly passive version of Amy Adams’ character in “Arrival.”
What’s especially aggravating about “Foreboding” is that it’s by no means short on ideas, and every now and then, a scene such as that of Makabe strolling through the crowded hospital and everyone falling into a dead swoon where they stand, points to the creepy, clever film or six that exists within this one. Yet however striking particular moments may be, the transitions grate. Too many things happen and too little thought has gone into what any one of them could mean. The film never even capitalizes on the idea of robbing individuals of particular concepts, a fertile conceit that might have been used to prise open character psychology or, better still, investigate general human nature.
But “Foreboding,” for all its sci-fi high-concepting, suffers from a terminal lack of scale. This is a hermetically sealed urban Japan in which an interplanetary invasion culminates in a three-way standoff in an abandoned warehouse, before a climactic pulley-related coup de grace that couldn’t be more cartoonish if it were delivered via ACME anvil. Instead of breadth, we simply get length, interminable and unevenly paced length. The “foreboding” that Estuko says she feels at the outset is clearly about the coming Apocalypse, but the greater sense of doom one feels in watching Kurosawa’s film is that it, unlike the world, might never end.