The most interesting episodes of The Twilight Zone are those that have some sort of social commentary, that use their bizarre premises to explore parts of human nature that tend to stay buried beneath the various facades we adopt. These sorts of allegories are tricky though — if not handled with intelligence and nuance, things can get silly (or embarrassing) pretty fast. For much of its running time, director Yoshio Kato’s 3FT Ball & Souls manages to walk the tightrope well enough, but some serious miscalculations of tone and intelligence toward the end fall so flat that even Rod Serling would grimace at the emotional over-simplification.
Things start off with a nice mystery though, as four people randomly arrive at a small shed in the middle of the forest, part of an online suicide chat group that has decided to meet for the first time in order to end it all. One of them has some skill in constructing fireworks displays, and so they have opted to die in a towering, sparkly blaze of glory. When it’s discovered that one of their members is a young girl only in high school, a wrench is thrown into the plans that rockets the four into a time loop that will see them living out their introductions and fiery deaths over and over again, until something has changed. What exactly is that something? Well, you can probably guess. Yes, the central mechanism can be compared with Groundhog Day, but with its small scope, open demeanor, and focus on issues instead of people, 3FT Ball & Souls still feels more like a 90-minute episode that takes place in a dimension of sight and sound — and for a while that’s enough to keep it interesting.
The story unfolds in a slow, deliberate way, introducing the awkward participants with an off-kilter sense of humor that works just right, setting the stage for something trippy and existential. The way each person both dances around the subject at hand, yet also speaks plainly gives conversations a pleasantly odd tilt, and that they do this while sitting around the titular white orb only enhances the uncanniness of it all. Kato also makes the best of the small space he has chosen to work with, utilizing physical closeness to emphasize their emotional distance from one another. They may be strangers, miles apart inside, but they are also the only ones near enough to help each other. Again, it’s a nifty setup that promises some diverting sci-fi entertainment. Unfortunately, 3FT Ball & Souls has bigger things on its mind.
When the script concentrates on the puzzling aspects of its premise, 3FT Ball & Souls seems like it’s going to be more on the fun side; early scenes are peppered with dark comedy, and the characters’ frankness in this absurd situation is often played for chuckles. However, there comes a point when the film thinks it has something important to say about suicide in general, and that’s where it blows itself up. The tone shifts to what it thinks is more serious, but does so in such a ham-fisted way that it feels like a betrayal. The initial mystery and quirkiness are abandoned in favor of by-the-numbers plot points that attempt to get at the heart of why these people have decided to check out early in the first place in the hopes that those stories can be mined for a one-size-fits-all answer. The back stories have been pulled from The Scriptwriter’s Handbook, offering the kind of shallow look at reality that comes from someone who seems not to have experienced it, and a conclusion is bungled from the most unimaginative solution to the problem that could possibly be managed. It’s hard to understate just how ultimately childish the film’s view is of its subject, and of people’s minds in general.
The cast can be applauded for doing their best to sell those moments, but also for the successful vibe of the first half. The stuttering chemistry works wonderfully between the various age groups and social classes, and simply watching their interactions is fascinating stuff. And when they are eventually asked to run a gamut of emotional extremity, they do the best one could hope for with such hackneyed material. The cardboard thinness of the stock characters they eventually wind up playing can’t be overcome though, to no fault of their own. This script was built on ideas, not people.
So, just like many episodes of The Twilight Zone crumbled under the weight of their own fumbling attempts at lofty ambition, so does 3FT Ball & Souls drop a bomb of naivete with a final message that could be summed up by an office inspirational poster. Though it’s good intentions do seem genuine, the way in which it mishandles its subject by sacrificing a solid, quirky opening to make sweeping and gross generalizations elicits a less desirable kind of humor — one that also produces groans, which is a shame.