Faith has failed us.
One branch of theological debate tries to square the existence of God with our increasing knowledge of the universe through science. Called “The God of the gaps,” the theory suggests that God is to be found in those things that science can’t explain. Of course, as luminaries like Neil Degrasse Tyson are fond of pointing out, that means that the room for God in the universe is shrinking all the time as scientific knowledge advances. This points to one aspect of the science/religion debate that is often overlooked: science is constantly advancing, while religion is largely standing still. Who knows what science will be capable of in 50 years, let alone 500. Incarnate takes a peek at the religion/science divide using a typical story of demon possession but adding a bit of a scientific twist. It’s a decent little supernatural thriller, though it never quite revs up enough to be a classic.
Dr. Ember (Aaron Eckhart, The Dark Knight) is a man of science haunted by darkness in his past. He’s also an exorcist. But instead of calling on God, he enters the subconscious of those who are “possessed” and uses his own brand of mental kung-fu to banish the demons. But a new case with a boy showing remarkable powers might test Ember’s limits.
At this late date, the Blumhouse formula for horror film success is well-established. Take a script that offers a slight twist on a genre formula. Give it to a veteran director who can deliver good visuals on a small budget (almost always in the single-digit millions unless it’s a sequel to an already-successful franchise). Get a big-name actor to star for the promise of a healthy portion of the backend profits.
Incarnate follows the formula by starting out with a twist on the exorcism film that has peaked in popularity in the past decade. This is, if I’m not mistaken, the first foray Blumhouse has made into the genre (Though the Insidious and Ouija franchise are closely related as possession but not really exorcism films). Rather than presenting us with a typical cassocked priest to rid some young girl of evil, we get a scientist who can enter people’s minds and do literal battle with demons (or as literal as any battle inside your head can be). It’s a compelling twist on the formula, a bit like The Matrix meets The Exorcist.
The film’s Matrix-style visuals are helmed by director Brad Peyton, who previously directed the 2015 blockbuster San Andreas. It’s difficult to imagine going from that film’s huge budget to basically 1% of it with Incarnate, but Peyton makes it work. The budget shows in a few places, for the most part Peyton sells the transitions from the “real world” to the interiors of the “subconscious.” There’s some good make-up and effects in the film, and it doesn’t rely too much on jump scares or sonic shocks to keep the audience on their feet.
Which brings us to the film’s star, Aaron Eckhart. Like Patrick Wilson and Ethan Hawke before him, Eckhart’s job is two-fold. As a “name” actor he’s charged with getting butts in seats, or putting eyeballs in front of the screen. In that sense he didn’t do too well – Incarnate made less than 10 million on a budget of 5 million. But his second obligation is to use all his serious acting chops to sell the script. At that, he definitely excels. He’s playing a haunted guy with a dark past. He makes the outbursts of emotion believable, and more importantly helps the audience to buy that a guy could jump into someone else’s mind and rummage around.
One place where Blumhouse releases don’t shine is in their home video formats, and Incarnate is no exception. Luckily, the film does get a solid transfer, the 2.39:1/1080p image generally looking clear and detailed. The source is digital, so expect plenty of sharpness. Colors are well saturated and blacks appropriately deep. There’s a bit of noise here and there, but it’s never particularly distracting. The film’s DTS-HD 5.1 surround track is even more impressive. Dialogue stays clean and clear, but the track excels at dynamic range and offering an immersive sonic environment. It’s often hard to buy possession on film, but the audio here really sells it.
Extras are limited to a seven minute making-of featurette, and the inclusion of a slightly longer (< 1 min) version of the film, along with DVD and Ultraviolet copies of the film.
If possession films aren’t your bag, there’s very little about Incarnate that will likely change that. The film is slightly above-average in the current landscape of demon-haunted children, but the bar is generally pretty low. Essentially, the film excels at hammering the same notes as more mediocre films. At least when Mike Flanagan helmed Ouija 2 for BLumhouse he tried to do something very different. Incarnate offers the same tortured characters going through the same motions. The gamble is you won’t notice because it’s Doctor Ember instead of Father Ember who goes down the dark path.
For fans of Blumhouse and possession films, Incarnate is a decent way to spend 97 minutes. It’s not a particularly memorable film, but it does offer a few twists on familiar formulas. This Blu-ray release does a fine job presenting the film, but the lack of supplements makes it hard to recommend.