Countdown is a horror movie about a phone app which, when activated, announces its user’s time of death, and will then go to any means necessary to ensure that the prediction is accurate. That’s basically all you need to know. If that premise sounds too ridiculous, there’s almost no point to watching the film at all. You need to buy into the premise on some level to get any enjoyment out of it. Those who can’t need not apply.
For those along for the ride, Countdown follows an impossibly kind nurse named Quinn (Elizabeth Lail, You) who decides to download the titular app after her coworkers discuss a patient’s obsession with it. While many of the other nurses on her floor are told they have years to live, Quinn learns that her life will end in a matter of days – a revelation that unnerves her, but one that she can disregard. That is, until the patient who first mentioned the app dies at the exact time his phone predicted. Suddenly, Quinn is in a race against time with her estranged sister (Talitha Elaine Bateman, Annabelle: Creation), another person with mere hours to live (Jordan Calloway, Black Lightning), and a hip priest obsessed with demons (P.J. Byrne).
The premise is silly, yes, but director Justin Dec’s screenplay at least has the intelligence to know that even excited audience members will approach this with a sense of humor. As a comedy, the film weirdly works—and not in a “so bad it’s good” way. The film has a lot of fun making fun of its own premise and the state of mobile tech today, and all the outrageous moments (including demonic coding and scary ringtones) are handled with the appropriate levity. The film’s best sequence involves the characters having to reread the Terms and Conditions for the app, which is both a hilarious comedic bit and actually forwards the story in a compelling way.
The script is also surprisingly perceptive as to what online culture is like today, and while the characters are often flatly written and decidedly artificial, there is something relatable to the world they inhabit. The cold open, in which a group of party-goers download the app, feels like a real example of how the hot-app-of-the-moment spreads through social circles. There’s also one effective moment in which a YouTuber documents their demise via the app on their channel, which feels like something a real star on the site would do, made all the more realistic by the horribly cruel comments below the video.
Where the film doesn’t work, however, is as a horror movie. Which, of course, is pretty upsetting. for all the care given to creating an interesting universe, the scares are all awfully basic in their execution. There’s a way to do jump scares well, but the film telegraphs them all to the audience full minutes before they’re actually executed, and almost never play against audience expectation. There’s also very little imagination to the villains depicted onscreen and tension is always at a minimum. It’s just not effective on any level—which is a shame because the film did so much work to actually sell its premise as a concept.
The movie also makes some questionable storytelling decisions in its last third that totally suck the interest off the screen. Dec’s screenplay tries to incorporate a #MeToo subplot that totally falls flat, never committing enough to the story to give it any real meaning while giving it enough attention that it almost feels cheap in the way it’s incorporated. The movie’s conclusion is also needlessly convoluted, with the mythology of the film allowing a bizarre loophole that feels inconsistent with the rest of the movie. By the time the movie teases an inevitable sequel, any real sense of suspense has been diminished.
There are more interesting ideas in Countdown than one would expect. The premise works, and doesn’t try to tack on a message about relying too much on technology that would absolutely be worked into a sillier film. But it’s a movie that fails to meet the standard it sets for itself by not delivering on the basic promise of scaring its audience. Justin Dec has a lot of potential as a writer/director, but the scares have to be there for this to work.