Revenge of the Chesapeake “Bay”

In the wake of Hurricane Sandy, 2012 may be remembered as the year that we decided to take environmental concerns more seriously. If that is the case, the movies of this year have reflected this change in consciousness. Films as diverse as The Lorax, Beasts of the Southern Wild, and the upcoming Matt Damon vehicle Promised Land address air pollution, the impact of global warming on the poor, and natural gas extraction, respectively. Now we have The Bay, which examines the real-life problems associated with pollution in Maryland’s Chesapeake Bay and imagines the not-too-implausible horrific consequences if we fail to act.

The Bay is practically a new genre unto itself: eco-horror. The film takes place mostly over a single day in a sleepy little (fictional) town, Claridge.  Like many coastal towns, Claridge is completely dependent on tourism, which is why local elected officials are reluctant to warn the townspeople when a couple of oceanographers from the University of Maryland turn up dead with mysterious wounds. Three weeks later, a mysterious virus (or bacterial infection or something else entirely) spreads quickly through the town during Independence Day festivities, killing the infected in gruesome ways. The story is told through more than a dozen characters, and nearly everyone ends up dead.

The thrills build slowly, as they should in a film of this type. There are very few cheap scares here; the groundwork for the horror is laid simply through a series of true facts about water pollution. Director Barry Levinson, who grew up in the Baltimore area, was originally approached to make a documentary about pollution in the bay; instead he made this film, but it is seems just as real. The cause of the epidemic is chalked up to a combination of nuclear waste, run-off from poultry farms, and government corruption, all of which are real-life problems threatening the Chesapeake and its coastal communities.


Levinson uses a contemporary style to dramatize the immediacy of the threat. Every shot in the movie comes from a diegetic source – a public security camera, personal home video footage, an IPhone, or Facetime. This use of “found footage” is not a new trend – The Blair Witch Project invented it in 1999, and the Paranormal Activity movies institutionalized it in the last decade – but it serves a greater purpose here. The Bay uses it not only to create thrills, but to underline the immediacy of the threat. If Levinson’s purpose is to alert us to the very real problems associated with water pollution, the “found footage” genre brings the message to our doorstep.

Since its aim is to educate and inspire action, The Bay should not be judged against other horror films. If it were, it would probably be considered a failure. Its whopping $30,000 (that’s thirty thousand, not million) box office gross is a testament to that. But to those interested in politics as viewed through the prism of art, its value lies in its context. When the Obama rode into office in 2008, many environmentalists were hopeful he would usher in a new era of clean energy. Instead, he lifted the moratorium on drilling in the Gulf of Mexico just six months after the BP disaster began and ran for re-election on an environmental platform of expanded oil drilling and natural gas extraction. The Bay, along with the other films released this year with pro-environment messages, reflect the immense environmental challenges to our civilization, as well as the failure of the Obama administration to address those challenges. In essence, Hollywood is picking up the slack where Obama has left it. Films like The Bay, which succeeds as art but will not turn a profit, may lay the groundwork for more films on the subject and, one day, real action on theses issues. Now, we just have to get people to see it.

My Rating: See it in the Theater

Note: The Bay is currently in theaters and available on Video on Demand.

Note #2: If you have further questions about efforts to protect the Chesapeake Bay, please visit one of the following sites:

Chesapeake Bay Environmental Center

Chesapeake Bay Foundation

Chesapeake Bay Program


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