An Archaeologist reviews As Above So Below

My new series is An Archaeologist Reviews, in which I watch terrible (sometimes good) archaeology movies in order to get a better perspective on what the media portrays vs the reality. First up is As Above So Below, starring Perdita Weeks, which was released in 2014.

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I am a huge addict for dramatically fictional accounts of archaeology-gone-wrong. The discipline had been romanticized with grand ideas of treasures, unleashed curses, and  demons concealed for millennia being awoken by archaeologists exploring uncharted territory.  It makes for some exciting cinema, despite the reality being oh so much different. But, let’s be honest the archaeology/adventure genre in movies has been kind of crap of recent, apart from the Indiana Jones series (minus Crystal Skulls) this particular area of cinema has been a let down over and over again. So when I found out about As Above So Below, a horror movie set in the Paris Catacombs I was again skeptical.  Archaeology and horror is not a new concept, movies featuring ruins, mummies have been around since the dawn of cinema.  Despite the constant stream of disappointment I jumped at the chance to see this in the cinema.

Set in the style of a found footage documentary the movie follows Scarlett Marlowe continuing her late father’s work searching for Nicola’s Flamel’s Philosopher’s Stone. The location of the stone is within the Paris catacombs (of course it is!), and despite the dangers of running around in uncharted territory, Scarlett or Dr.Marlowe jumps at the chance of getting her ill-prepared footwear a little wet. The opening scene sees us introduced to archaeologist Scarlett (excuse me Dr. Marlowe), a university professor of a mere 30 years old with two PhDs, and the ability to speak 6 languages and two dead ones (of course!) and an expert in Krav Maga, because she must have ample of times preparing for her illegal adventures and not you know doing any actual research or teaching.  One of these PhDs is in urban archaeology, a master’s chemistry, and a second PhD in the fictitious symbology.

The movie moves along to George, who she enlists to help her uncover the whereabouts of the Philosopher’s Stone, further complicated with their unresolved sexual tension, and that time she left him in a Turkish police station. Charming this Scarlett, I mean Dr. Marlowe. Together they break into churches, defaces archaeological artifacts, and generally cause mayhem around Paris until she makes it illegally into the catacombs.

In the catacombs, the story changes from adventure movie to straight up horror.  As they venture further into the weaving tunnels of the catacombs a strange, singing cult can be heard; a ringing telephone deep underground echoes throughout the tunnels, and ghastly apparitions start appearing.  “The only way out is down,” says La Taupe’, a former friend of their guide who disappeared two years ago after going to explore the catacombs they now find themselves trapped in. They do as he says.

After a number of puzzles and trials, (to be honest too boring to actually write about) they finally find themselves The Philosopher’s Stone! Finally, Dr, Marlowe can vindicate her father, who spent years, writing questionable research papers for reputable academic journals!

But of course in Tomb Raider style, an important magical artifact is of course not what it seems; “it’s a trap!”, and they find themselves cornered with only their smarts and wits to escape. Scarlett figures out ‘as above, so below’. As they descend, they are faced with the same catacombs but reversed. It’s here, in this labyrinth mirror-world, that the deaths begin as they continue to descend over a thousand feet down.

One girl is murdered pretty horrifically by the rabid La Taupe. Benji the cameraman falls down a shaft after a woman lunges at him from the darkness mirroring an earlier, non-fatal tumble. George sees his little brother, who drowned in a cave when they were young, drowning again. Everything becomes a tense maze of ghosts of regrettable secrets that the characters have trouble letting go of.

As a horror movie, there are some genuine scares especially near the end of the movie, when three of the remaining characters are confronted by what is supposedly the devil. The movie uses the jump scare tactic, but also allows for quiet moments where filmmakers leave some points to the imagination. The movie deals with regret and grief much more efficiently than its use of archaeology, allowing the characters to move on physically from their own literal and metaphorical hell.

However, the movie’s main issue is its characters. Firstly, the protagonist Scarlett Marlowe is a questionable archaeologist, much like any media portrayal of the profession, she’s reckless, intrepid and obnoxious. “I’m not doing this for financial gain,” Scarlett says in some interview footage that plays at the end of the film.  Obviously not, because if she tried to get this little adventure published, her professorship will be in the dirt much like the friends she took down there in the first place. Unfortunately, we never get delve into Benji’s regret, and many of the characters apart from George and Scarlett (I mean Dr. Marlowe) are used as death fodder.

Overall, As Above So Below is a semi-decent horror movie with a tense creepy atmosphere.  However, the use of  predictable archaeological tropes to progress the story fails to allow the movie to embrace its weirdness. While Scarlett makes for a decent horror-film protagonist, she has the attributes: resourceful, intelligent, brave, and of course a complex relationship with her father (Indiana and Lara I’m looking at you)  – I doubt she’d make a very able archaeologist.

Why we need Indiana Jones

The media is often our strongest ally and often our greatest enemy. Drones of students decide to follow the footsteps of their heroes (Richard O’Connor, Lara Croft, Indiana Jones), allowing them to break the norm and enter a world quite unlike their own.  The media has painted archaeology as a profession of discovery, uncovering visually attractive finds, sites and civilisations. But often the journey to find our truths leaves many unanswered questions and because of this archaeology is often linked to mysticism and mystery. These mysteries are often supernatural in nature and it’s often up to the archaeologist to figure them out, think Relic Hunter, Bone Kickers, and of course Tomb Raider. It’s a victim of the Bond-effect creating a powerful brand for the the archaeology profession but posing no resemblance of reality. 

I suspect not many people watched Indiana Jones believing that archaeologists went around destroying archaeological sites and shooting sword wielding henchmen, but you’ll be mistaken if depictions like Indiana have little impact on the profession. Despite producing a sharply divided reaction among archaeologists, media representations of us are some of the most powerful. 

These stereotypes allow for more than just an appealing career, they form the public opinion on the profession. You can often find TV programming which focuses on the words like Ancient Lost Secrets Reveal the Hidden Mysteries of the Dead. There is a reason for this, if archaeological programming used words which reflected the profession it would be along the lines of Excavations Identify Farming Tools Reflecting Migration Patterns which of course sounds far less sexy.

However, these depictions of archaeology inspire real interest across the world. We want people to be motivated by the past, enough to support our work or even venture into the profession themselves. Even if these embellishments are far from the truth, they are the catalyst to get interest in the human past. And no matter what my colleagues might say, Lara Croft will always be my favourite archaeologist.

Passion is useless without strength

The depth and strength of a human character are defined by its moral reserves.
People reveal themselves completely only when they are thrown out of the customary conditions of their life, for only then do they have to fall back on their reserves.
– Leon Trotsky

There were so many times in my journey where I reflected on my actions and my thoughts and wondered am I a good person? The journey that I’m talking about isn’t a literal one. It’s a journey that a lot of people go through; its one of changing careers. I wasn’t happy being a journalist, that’s why against my better judgment I decided to pursue the idea of becoming an archaeologist, a process which took almost 4 years. When I begun the journey I was filled with a lot of anticipation, aspiration and excitement. I was going to the university of my dreams, I was pursuing the career of my childhood. I’ve heard that saying so many times, “it’s the journey there that counts”,  but is it really? Did I go through so much anxiety, stress, regret, depression, self-loathing for the end goal, to achieve my happy ending?

It was a journey that had been delayed for so long, while I travelled, dabbled in pursuing a writing career, settling down with my boyfriend. But despite this acknowledgement of time wasted, I still wish I had gone about things slightly differently. There were times where I almost had forgotten why I took the journey to begin with, as I fell in out of love with the subject (and with people). I dragged myself along at the worst of times I’m not even sure if it was the PTB or god sometimes, but I often felt like I was being tested; there were plenty of tears, plenty of agonising decisions, insidious thoughts. The problem was someone had stolen my strength, I had lost it and without it I had become a bitter and resentful person.

‘Tis true; life happens, things change. While I was in the most distressing time of my life, I’d lost that focus, the drive, hell I’d even lost the will to wake up in the morning. I wanted to avoid everyone, and all responsibility, and even worse I didn’t want to do archaeology anymore.  The quest had almost stopped, the drive within me had died.  Despite the bitterness I harboured towards many people, there was one person who made sure that drive didn’t die completely that anger and resentment didn’t fully consume me. He would accompany me to study at the British Museum, he would make sure that I had completed my assignments, he even helped me submit my dissertation. I relied on his support because I knew deep down strength isn’t something you are naturally affiliated with. Strength is something you earn, something you gain. Something you have to go through hardship to achieve.  I needed someone who could allow that strength and perseverance to emerge once again.

When I look back even as recently as this year I wonder if the journey had changed me, am I worse person than before? During the hardest of times, my passion and strength were replaced with anger and resentment.  It takes another sort of enemy – yourself – to make you change. While I blamed another person and  drowned in self pity, almost allowing myself to be yielded to it.  My support structure, the one person who had made me realise my own potential, who encouraged me, once told me, “Nothing can bring you peace but yourself.”  He was right, there is great strength in allowing yourself peace.