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Urban Explorers: Into the Darkness
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by Jay Seaver

"Too bad that theater underneath Paris is no longer around to show this."
4 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2007 BOSTON UNDERGROUND FILM FESTIVAL: We've all wondered, at some point, just what was behind a closed door, especially if we had never seen anyone else use it. We don't really know, of course, since most of those doors say "keep out" and most of us are willing to follow those instructions. Urban explorers are the people who don't, instead seeing a potential adventure in every locked door, abandoned building, or manhole cover.

A montage of news reports about urban explorers who got caught - occasionally spending a few days in jail, since people loitering around abandoned buildings and infrastructure with caving equipment raise a red flag to law enforcement - suggests where Minneapolis-based filmmaker Melody Gilbert became aware of the phenomenon. She initially follows explorers in the Midwest, but soon branches out to other locales, such as Florida and Paris, with a stop at an explorers' convention in Glasgow along the way. The explorers in each area are loosely tied together via the internet, but certain ground rules are nearly universal: Theft and vandalism are frowned upon, and safety is important

Some of the places she takes her camera are very cool indeed. In Minnesota, we get to the tops of abandoned buildings and into sewer tunnels. We also go underground in Paris, to its famous catacombs. Scotland offers castles, churches, and abandoned mental hospitals, while Florida offers Xanadu, an abandoned "home of the future" (which now merely houses a vagrant), and most intriguingly, a former NASA test site in the Everglades which houses a gigantic rocket engine. We're also given photos of trips that Gilbert didn't take, including a harrowing trip through Minneapolis's sewers where the members of the party nearly pass out from the fumes. Paris is a trip, as explorers camp out underground, run into other groups, and walk around bone-filled crypts.

Photographing these expiditions has its difficulties; the film isn't subtitled "Into the Darkness" for nothing. In many cases, the still photographs taken by the explorers give a clearer picture than Gilbert's videography - some of these guys are packing pretty serious cameras. Most of the time, she's able to get right in there and show us the tight spaces and harsh illumination that comes from using just a flashlight to look around, only going to complete blackness a couple of times. She can't get many good shots of the rocket test pit, unfortunately - it's a hole 120 feet deep in the Florida Everglades, the bottom thirty filled with water that has been stagnant for decades, and she's just one person with a camera - and some of the more interesting adventures come second-hand.

The people telling those stories are fairly entertaining personalities, though we learn very few actual names, instead going by the screen names they use on their various websites. "Max Action" is a brash young man who looks much more at home in a punk bar than the small-business IT job he spends his days at; he was one of the first to have his own website and promote himself as a personality. He's occasionally half of an entertaining odd couple with "Slim Jim", a fit-but-nerdy guy from Iowa whose apartment is packed with boxes full of maps. It will, of course, be highly entertaining when the locals get him drunk on the trip to Scotland. We don't see a lot of "Katwoman" doing anything particularly crazy, but the sort of giggly college student with an infectious smile is a nice contrast to the various "outsider" types who we spend time with.

One of the threads that connects all these characters is that they all see it as an outgrowth of how they behaved as children - asking questions, wanting to know how things work and what's behind the curtain. As you become an adult, exploration becomes less acceptable, which is a shame. A film can't quite give the audience the experience of going into forbidden or abandoned spaces, but "Urban Explorers" does a good job of whetting one's curiosity.

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originally posted: 03/28/07 02:33:57
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2007 Boston Underground Film Festival For more in the 2007 Boston Underground Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

1/07/10 Lohfrum Faleign Definately worth seeing. 5 stars
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