The Tony and Ridley Scott crowd-source project, Life in a Day, is a documentary rife with so many possibilities that it seems almost inevitable that the filmmakers would’ve stumbled upon something that might have resonated. And yet, they do not. Documentarians typically have tens to hundreds of hours to sift through to fashion fascinating and compelling narratives. Here, Kevin MacDonald (The Last King of Scotland) had more than 4,400 hours of footage and yet couldn’t find enough to sustain a single 95-minute film.
The idea was this: Tony and Ridley Scott, in partnership with YouTube, asked participants to record their lives on a single day, July 24th, 2010. Footage was collected from over 120 countries, and Kevin MacDonald presumably went through the painstaking effort of cutting and pasting hundreds of scenes into Life in a Day. Or, as the documentary more likely suggests, he simply grouped the footage by theme and time of day, threw in some music, and let a computer program do the rest.
There are brief snatches that are occasionally interesting: A man and his son praying to a picture of the son’s mother; an Asian man who has spent 10 years bicycling around the country; a brutal, hard-to-watch scene in which a man stun-guns a cow and slices his throat; and a woman, with cancer, checking in with her doctor to see if it’s OK to take a shower. But mostly, it’s a cross-cultural examination of the tedious, day-to-day experiences of the world, often reduced to a musical montage devoted to, say, teeth brushing. The fact that the footage is essentially staged — all the participants voluntarily video-taped themselves — removes even the possibility of honest, candid moments.
Moreover, because the film splices together two or three hundred moments and scenes, no single person remains onscreen long enough for us to become invested. If you can’t invest in characters and if you can’t invest in a story, all that remains are the themes. But even those are introduced and then dismissed, almost arbitrarily. While I’d hoped that hundreds of these dull moments would accumulate into something profound, that moment of catharsis never arrives. The last few minutes of Life in a Day only serve to highlight the crushing boredom of the previous hour and a half. The result is something you’d expect from two filmmakers who have sold out their younger careers and joined forces with the largest video-service on the Internet: An hour-and-a-half tone-deaf Hallmark card lacking sound and fury, signifying nothing.
Indeed, with 4,000 hours of footage and hundreds of lives to choose from, in an hour and a half, Life in a Day fails to approach anything close to the emotional wallop that one goofy dude dancing for four-and-a-half minutes managed in this video three years ago: