It is popular to bag on the 'found footage genre' as a whole while ignoring that it's not really a genre. For better or worse, 2012 is the year that found footage truly became a tool that could be used to tell a wealth of stories in a different fashion. Found footage, by which the story is told from the point of view of someone videotaping 'as it happens' events, is neither good nor bad. It is a filmmaking choice that can be applied for good (Chronicle) or evil (The Devil Inside). But one thing a found footage film must do above all else is present the idea of seeing something interesting. The low-tech intimacy of video footage filmed as if it were a home movie presents a certain authenticity, as anyone who jumped at the fleeting glimpse of an alien figure stalking a random kid's birthday party in Signs can tell you. But you have to be in a position to actually deliver on something worth seeing.
Amber Alert, among its many problems, presents a scenario where we are pretty much guaranteed not to see anything that will jolt or excite us from the very beginning. Ironically, in a more traditional film, its story could have brought about a jolting suspense thriller. But as a no-budget found footage exercise, it's a long slog through utter tedium.The story is quite simple. Two young people (Sam and Nate), and a third unseen videographer (Nate's brother) are driving on the freeway when they spot a car that has been flagged via a recent Amber Alert. For the next hour or so, they dutifully attempt to follow the car while they keep the police periodically apprised of their progress. It's a decent premise, one that plays off both a certain plausibility and a 'What would you do?' appeal. But with no budget and no time or money for ambition, the picture is simply two people arguing in a car about who cares more about missing children for nearly the entire running time. Its two leads, Summer Bellessa and Jasen Wade, aren't so much bad actors as directed to be consistently annoying for most of the slim running time. Amber Alert is the kind of movie where you think that you're at the halfway mark only to discover that you've barely passed act one and are left wondering how they are going to drag this out for two more acts.
The film is arguably successful in its bare-bones intentions, but those goals offer little rooting interest, no suspense, and an outright advertisement that nothing exciting or shocking will occur until, at best, the final thirty seconds. Very very longtime readers will remember that I lodged similar complaints about The Blair Witch Project twelve years ago. Time has made me realize that I somewhat punished the film for not being scary, expecting the film to live up to pre-release hype as a bone-chilling horror film, as opposed to judging the film for what it was. Removed from the 'scariest movie ever' hyperbole, the film mostly works as a psychological portrait of rising terror and desperation under frighteningly plausible circumstances. But even taken on that curve, Amber Alert is a failure. It lacks compelling psychological insights and its premise stretches credulity as hours go by without any real police presence. Bellessa and Jasen's characters do not grow or change or experience any kind of psychological trauma other than rising/falling levels of personal anger at each other. And most importantly, for what is technically a suspense thriller, the film offers no promise or hope of seeing anything frightening or disturbing, thus making the film into a giant waiting game as we merely bide our time before witnessing whatever the final few moments have to offer.
Amber Alert is the kind of film that makes the 'found footage genre' look bad by default. It tells its story via the format purely because it is the cheapest way to do so, thus forsaking any real narrative progression and compelling imagery. The film peaks around the first reel and goes steadily downhill from there, lacking interesting characters, memorable dialogue, or any truly worthwhile story turns. It is perilously close to a worthless film. Amber Alert arguably thinks it deserves credit for attempting to tell its story with a single camera and no actual production values. But it squanders a theoretically interesting story and fails to deliver on much in the way of simple entertainment value. In this 'do it yourself' era of HD-video fueled distribution, you can skimp on a lot of things. But actual talent and entertainment aren't among them.