The Forest (2016) Explained

An Average Movie-Goer’s Review

Spoilers! If you don’t want spoilers – check out the Spoiler-Free post

The Forest 2016 Explained poster

I love horror movies and if I’m going to watch them anyway, why not write an entertaining/funny review from the POV of an average movie-goer and not a professional critic.

Today we’re looking at 2016’s The Forest

When her twin sister goes missing in the infamous Aokigahara Forest in Japan, a woman (Natalie Dormer) travels to the ghost-riddled forest to find her and prove she’s still alive.

Is it Scary?

There are a few jump scares in the first half but they’re extremely cheap, as in they serve no purpose to the story and you might be more annoyed they’re even there. The second half doesn’t do a good job of building up tension or creating a horror-like atmosphere.

In the end, you won’t be scared of The Forest unless you’re YouTube and you just heard Logan Paul is taking another trip to Japan.

Detailed Plot:

The film opens with a woman running through a forest yelling for help. This turns out to be a dream by our main character, Sara (played by Natalie Dormer) who quickly packs up some items and rushes to the airport.

Arriving in Japan, and getting in a cab we see several flashbacks filling us in on what Sara is doing. Sara’s twin sister, Jess, who lives and teaches in Japan, has been reported missing and was last seen entering the Aokigahara Forest.

The police inform Sara that the Aokigahara Forest is an infamous forest where many who enter do so with the intention of committing suicide, hence its nickname ‘the suicide forest’.

Believing Jess is still alive and because the police have given up their search, Sara heads to Japan without her husband to find her. Back in the present and in the cab, there’s a random jump scare when a random guy slams on the window and laughs.

Natalie Dormer as Sara in 2016's The Forest
Fucking why?

There are a couple of scenes of Sara walking around the city, going to a restaurant, and researching the Aokigahara forest. None of these scenes amount to anything and mostly feel like filler. 

That night, Sara has a dream where she walks down into a basement and sees a child inside a yellow tent. When she opens the tent, the girl stares at her before it becomes a jump scare where the girl screams and her face distorts. 

The following day Sara visits the school where Jess used to work… and she just waltzes into the class Jess used to teach without warning.

Do the students know that Jess went into the suicide forest? Yes.

Do they think she’s dead now? Of course.

Do they know Jess has an exact twin? Absolutely not.

Will the kids in the class freak out, assuming Sara is a type of ghost known as a Yūrei?

Jess's students freak out when they see Sara entering the classroom
One particular student freaks out a bit too much

Sara requests to see Jess’s room where we find out Jess was looking into the Aokigahara forest and taking medication to help her sleep. While Sara rides a train to the forest we see a flashback of her encouraging Jess to move to Tokyo to restart her life.

This, plus an earlier comment from Sara’s husband mentioning that Jess has tried to kill herself before, is really just to emphasize that Jess has had a troubled life.

Arriving at a rest stop outside of the forest, Sara asks the owner whether she has seen Jess. To her surprise, she tells her they found Jess and they have her in the basement. The owner tells her whenever a body is found in the forest, they are brought to the rest stop until they are claimed. According to her if this is not done then the spirits will scream all night.

In the basement Sara finds several bodies covered in a blanket. The owner excuses herself for a moment leaving Sara alone… which means it’s time for creepy shit. One of the bodies starts to lightly breathe, which is a clear sign to run, but Sara decides to look under the blanket instead. Pulling the blanket back reveals a decaying body… so I guess the breathing wasn’t real? 

Sara (Natalie Dormer) investigates one of the bodies at the rest stop
“This dead body just moved… I should investigate.”

Sara heads back upstairs and informs the owner that it’s not Jess and wants to know if she can hire a guide to help her search the forest. The owner tells her no guide would willingly go as it’s too dangerous.

Outside a woman, maybe the owner’s daughter, warns Sara that she must stick to the path or else the Yūrei will feel her sadness and use it against her. Apparently, they can use it to create hallucinations that will make you want to die. The woman telling Sara this is weirdly smiling as she relays this information.

Pretty sure the character is supposed to be a reference to the weird character that warns the teens of impending danger in movies like Friday the 13th but it doesn’t really work here.

While Sara makes her way to a hotel on the outskirts of the forest, a group of school girls randomly pass her and walk into the forest. Though Sara stares at them she doesn’t attempt to stop them or question them or anything. 

At the bar in the hotel, Sara meets Aiden (played by Taylor Kinney) a journalist who just happens to be writing a story on the Aokigahara forest for an Australian magazine. Immediately, I am suspicious.

Sara tells him she is looking for her sister and plans on going into the forest alone to search. Aiden warns her she’ll get lost but also offers her to join him tomorrow as he is going with a park nature guard to tour the forest. Again, how convenient.

Natalie Dormer as Sara and Taylor Kinney as Aiden in 2016's The Forest
“It’s not weird that I have a convenient timely solution to your random problem.”

Naturally, Sara agrees but Aiden tells her the only condition is that she lets him write a story about her search. Sara shares a bit more about her past and, we learn, as children while Sara and Jess were staying with their grandmother, they heard a crash coming from outside. 

When they went to investigate, they discovered a drunk driver had crashed into their parent’s car killing them both. Although Sara didn’t see them, Jess saw their bodies before their grandmother could rush them back inside.

Interestingly, as Sara is telling Aiden all of this, we see a flashback and what we see does not match what Sara is telling him. In the flashback, we hear a gunshot coming from the basement and moments later we hear another. Sara, Jess, and their grandmother go to investigate and, in reality, their father had killed their mother before killing himself.

Sara didn’t see the bodies but Jess did and it’s hinted that this event traumatized Jess. Since Sara gave Aiden a fake story, it seems I’m not the only one who doesn’t trust him.

That night while Sara is walking through the hallway of the hotel there’s a cheap jump scare when an elderly woman jumps out at her. Why? Because when your movie isn’t scary you throw in some random illogical jump scares and call it a day.

The following morning Aiden introduces Sara to Michi (played by Yukiyoshi Ozawa), the park nature guard who will be helping them in the search. Michi tries to warn Sara about entering the forest especially since she’s sad. She disregards his warnings, telling him she knows Jess is still alive because she can feel it.

Yukiyoshi Ozawa as Michi meeting with Sara and Aiden
“Cool, how about your feelings produce some tangible proof then.”

The three head off into the forest and we get some pretty dramatic slow-motion shots of Sara crossing the chained-off path. A little while later we get some super zoomed-in shots of Sara’s eyes and random parts of the forest. We get it, she’s going to be affected by some ghost stuff. 

Going through the forest the group spot a man with a tent several feet away. Michi tells them when someone brings a tent, it usually means that person is unsure and debating if they should go through with the suicide. He tells Sara and Aiden to wait as he goes to talk to the man in order to convince him to not go through with it.

While they wait, Aiden pulls out his phone to record and asks Sara what she’ll do if they don’t find Jess. Sara adamantly responds that she’ll keep on trying every day. Aiden stops recording and Sara reveals that Jess has attempted suicide twice before with pills.

The group continues on the path eventually stumbling upon a dead body that Michi and Aiden cut down. Nothing really happens for a few scenes besides Sara hearing some strange sounds but not saying anything about it. As they continue to walk, the wind seems to blow for Sara, pointing her in a certain direction. Is it the spirit of her sister? Does that mean her sister is dead?

Either way, the group head in that direction and find a tent that Sara confirms is Jess’s. Believing this means Jess hasn’t gone through with it, Sara believes they’re close to finding her. The three then debate what to do next as Michi says it’s almost dark and they can return the following day but Sara refuses.

The group find proof that Jess might still be alive
“What’s the worst that can happen in a haunted forest at night?”

Sara tells Michi and Aiden to leave and that she’ll sleep in Jess’s tent just in case she returns but Michi tries to convince her otherwise, warning her of Yūrei that come out at night. Aiden reluctantly decides to stay with Sara and Michi tells them to stay at the tent until he returns the following day at noon.

That night the two build a fire and Sara tells Aiden she can feel when Jess is in trouble, attributing it to it being a twin thing. Aiden says he understands the need to help her as he would do the same for his younger brother.

He shares that he once chose not to help his brother in a fight that eventually left him deaf in one ear. Ever since then, he has promised to always drop everything to help him. Later, Sara heads into the tent to sleep while Aiden lays by the fire and ominously watches Sara. 

In the middle of the night, Sara wakes up to the sounds of someone running passed the tent. Calling out to Aiden, she gets no response but continues to hear someone running around. We then see the shadow of a hand reach out and touch Sara causing her to scream. Sara unzips the tent and sees three women in white, possibly Yūrei standing in front of her. 

The Yurei appear to Sara in the middle of the night
“You three wouldn’t happen to NOT be the ghosts haunting this forest?”

One of the Yūrei lunge at Sara and… she wakes up. Sara exits her tent and hears someone walking around hidden by the trees nearby. Using her phone as a flashlight she searches for the person like she didn’t just have a nightmare of ghosts attacking her.

The person in the forest starts running and Sara gives chase. Catching up to the runner, it’s revealed to be one of the school girls Sara saw earlier. The girl says her name is Hoshiko and warns Sara to not trust Aiden.

She tells Sara she found Jess in the forest and Jess asked her to find Sara. The only thing I know for a fact; is that you should always trust random strangers in a haunted forest.

Back at camp, Aiden has woken up and calls out to Sara, causing Hoshiko to run away. Sara chases after her but falls and cuts her hand pretty badly. Aiden eventually finds her and although Sara tells him about Hoshiko, she doesn’t tell him about her warning.

“She also said I shouldn’t trust yo- I mean, yogurt. I shouldn’t trust yogurt, I think she was lactose intolerant.”

The two return to camp and as the sun starts to rise, Aiden decides they should head back on their own as Sara needs stitches. Sara tells him they should wait for Michi but Aiden says that would take too long. He also says if they report the teenage girl in the woods then a search party would be sent immediately that could also find Jess. 

Several hours later as they’re walking, Sara sees a river several feet below them and points out they didn’t pass one on their way into the forest with Michi. Aiden agrees but says as long as they follow it down they’ll eventually reach civilization. Weird that he wouldn’t mention their change in course.

If Aiden wants us to trust him, he’s gotta start acting less creepy.

Sara then spots a body floating down river and gets close to the edge but Aiden pulls her back. As he starts walking again Sara freaks out a bit when she says he’s walking in the opposite direction. 

At first, I thought “Oh shit, he is leading her back the other way!” but then I realized there’s some camera trickery here. When Sara stops to see the body, the camera flips directions so we’re seeing them from the opposite direction from when the scene started.

For Sara, the reality is the forest is starting to play tricks on her. This is further emphasized when Aiden points out they’re following the river down and when Sara looks back towards the river, it has flipped directions.

To be fair, it’s hard to trust someone when this is their ‘ you can totally trust me’ face

A little while later as the two continue to walk, Aiden’s phone starts playing his recordings revealing that he secretly recorded the previous night’s conversation. This is apparently not the forest playing tricks on Sara despite it being pretty difficult for a phone to just start randomly playing a recording on its own.

With Sara’s distrust of Aiden reaching a crescendo, she confronts him and asks him if he even has a brother. Turns out Aiden lied about the brother and made up the story to get Sara to talk more about her story for his article.

Sara accuses him of having met Jess before but Aiden denies it. The two argue and Sara demands his phone to delete the recordings. Although hesitant, Aiden gives her the phone, and while trying to delete the recordings Sara finds a picture of Jess.

I don’t know what’s real anymore

Sara demands to know when Aiden met Jess and what he plans on doing to her but Aiden tells her he doesn’t know what she’s talking about. She says there are pictures of Jess on the phone but annoyingly doesn’t turn the phone around to show him. 

Even more irritating, Aiden doesn’t deny, question, or confirm the pictures being there and simply demands the phone back. So, if Aiden is innocent then this whole movie is being driven by a simple lack of communication which is just lazy writing.

Sara throws the phone and runs off while Aiden shouts at her to stop or she’ll get lost. Meanwhile back at camp, Michi finds the tent empty and no sign of Sara or Aiden. 

After running through the forest for some time, Sara finds some twine and uses it to create a trail in case she gets lost. She also starts to hear a ghostly voice that sounds like Jess (and herself) telling her to turn around, but she refuses, yelling out that she knows it’s not real. 

As she walks through the forest we see the voice coming from someone or something in tattered clothing randomly appearing in the background. It finally appears behind her and its voice turns demonic telling her to turn around.

A spirit haunts Sara (Natalie Dormer) in 2016's The Forest
Repeating turn around in a demonic voice is a surefire way to ensure no one turns around

Shocked, Sara drops the twine and runs off but falls into a hole, dropping her into some underground caves. Back with Michi, he is now at the entrance to the forest setting up a search party joined by Sara’s husband, Rob. How the hell did he get there that fast? Michi only found out they were missing at noon and the sun hasn’t set yet so it was still the same day.

Sara wakes up in the cave and, using her phone’s light, finds an opening leading her deeper into the cave. In the distance she can hear, what sounds like, someone creepily singing and horror movie protagonists are going to do what they do best, so she continues walking towards it.

Suddenly Hoshiko appears and says she can take her to Jess. Although Sara does ask why Hoshiko is in the random cave, she immediately stops caring about the answer when Hoshiko mentions Jess. So she’s totally a ghost.

As they walk, Sara questions what the weird sounds around the cave are but Hoshiko tells her it’s just an animal. When Sara asks what Jess is doing in the cave, Hoshiko simply smiles and runs a bit further. Catching up to her, Sara shines the light on her face and she’s revealed to be a freaking demon.

Everyone except Sara saw this coming

Sara runs back to the opening where she fell through and screams for help. Luckily… or maybe unluckily, Aiden hears her and comes running, he then goes off to find something to help lift her out. While she waits, Sara reminds herself that anything bad she sees is just in her head and caused by the spirits of the forest.

She then spots a viewfinder toy on the ground and looks through it despite just reminding herself that the forest is trying to trick her, but okay. Flipping through the images she sees the memories of the night her parents died. There’s then a jump scare when her dead father appears and screams.

Sara screams and throws the viewfinder like she should have done in the beginning. Aiden arrives, throws down a rope, and lifts Sara out of the cave. He tells her he found an old ranger station where they could possibly find a radio to call for help. Sara is a bit suspicious that he just randomly found a ranger station and Aiden gives her his knife in an attempt to gain her trust.

“I know the forest is in your head showing you fake scary things but take this deadly weapon that will in no way backfire on me.”

As night falls the two reach the ranger station. While Aiden works on getting the radio to work, Sara spots several chocolate bar wrappers on the floor of the exact candy Aiden was eating earlier. Aiden then asks for the knife so he can open up the radio and, though hesitant, Sara gives it to him.

She continues to explore the cabin and finds a locked door she believes leads to a basement. Jess calls out to her from behind the door and slips a paper through the bottom gap of the door asking if Aiden is there. Responding ‘Yes’, Jess writes on the paper that Aiden is planning to kill them both and Sara needs to find the key.

Sara finds a knife in one of the drawers and puts it to Aiden’s neck demanding he let Jess out of the locked room. Instead of saying ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about’ or ‘Jess is not here’ or literally anything else, Aiden yells that Jess is dead since she’s been missing for 5 days. 

“Let me respond with things that will throw more doubt into my innocence.”

Sara threatens him with the knife again and Aiden relents, telling her he’ll let her out, he just has to get the key out of his boot. But it was a trick! As Sara lowers the knife, Aiden lunges at her, and the two struggle, ending when they fall to the ground with Sara plunging the knife into Aiden’s chest.

As Aiden slowly dies, the door to the basement creaks open, and Sara calls out to Jess. In his final breath, Aiden tells her Jess isn’t there and Sara starts to realize she was tricked by the forest. Meanwhile, we were tricked into thinking this movie might have good writing all the way through.

Sara walks over to the basement door and opens it, transporting her to the basement the night her parents died. She sees the child version of Jess and rushes over to cover her eyes before she can see her dead parents. Her dead father wakes up and lunges at Sara, grabbing her arm. Using the knife, Sara cuts away at his fingers holding her arm.

Meanwhile, somewhere in the forest, the real Jess senses a great disturbance in the twin force. We cut back to Sara running out of the ranger station followed by multiple ghosts.

Honestly, this movie is so visually dark in some places…

As Sara continues to run, her screams are heard by Jess who then sees something coming out of the forest. It’s honestly really hard to tell what she sees because the movie is so dark at this point, even with my brightness completely up all I can see is a shrub moving. Either way, this freaks Jess out and she starts to run calling out for help.

Jess’s cries for help are heard by Sara who runs towards them as the ghosts continue their pursuit. Before Sara can reach Jess, Hoshiko appears in front of her and stops her. Meanwhile, Jess reaches the entrance of the forest where Michi’s search team has just called the search for the night. She safely reunites with Rob who questions where Sara is. 

Back with Sara and Hoshiko, Hoshiko gestures to Sara’s arm, and we see multiple deep gashes. We see a quick flashback to when Sara was cutting away at her father’s hand back at the ranger station and Sara realizes it was a trick of the forest. She was actually cutting into her own arm.

We see the real Sara, still at the ranger station and at the foot of the stairs now dead. The Sara that ran out of the ranger station was actually her spirit. 

The ghosts of the forest reach out from the ground and drag Sara down.

This is what happens when you ignore warnings of a haunted forest… don’t be like Sara.

Back with Jess and Michi’s search group, Jess attempts to run back into the forest to search for Sara but she’s held back. Her demeanor changes when she realizes the twin feeling Sara referenced earlier is gone, meaning Sara is dead.

In shock, she’s loaded into a car and driven off. As the cars leave Michi stays behind and looks out towards the forest. The film ends as he sees a demonic Sara standing at the entrance, her soul now a part of the forest.


The Forest is not good all the way through, which is a shame because it has an interesting premise.

First, some quick positives: the acting, most character motivations, and dialogue were all pretty good. The plot, despite being pretty simple, did a good job of creating distrust between characters and making you question whether the supernatural was even real. Unfortunately the interest and questions these plot points create don’t last too long.

One of the main problems the movie has is pacing, the first 45 minutes of the movie could easily have been condensed into about 15 minutes. For example, Sara arrives in Japan within the first 5 minutes of the movie but it then takes her about 30 more to even enter the forest. Annoyingly, this horror movie about ‘ghosts in a forest’ doesn’t include the forest for the first 30 to 40 minutes so it has to add in some very cheap jump scares.

One of the saving graces of the movie is the twists, there are multiple story and character twists and most of them are done effectively. A big part of the movie is trying to figure out what is real; can we trust Aiden, has Sara lost her mind, are the ghosts real, etc? For a good portion of the movie, you’re sucked into trying to answer these questions… and then the ball gets dropped.

Despite being the best parts, how the twists are handled are also the worst parts. Had the characters just talked or asked very obvious questions, the mysteries or twists would have been solved. When Sara saw Jess’s picture on Aiden’s phone and confronts him about it, why didn’t she just turn the phone towards him and show him while asking? Why did Aiden attack Sara at the cabin in the end instead of just saying that Jess isn’t there? It’s clear the writers didn’t want logic so they could keep the mystery going. It’s just poor writing and, in this case, it was very apparent.

Also, what was the point of making Sara and Jess twins? Was it just so Sara could have that ‘twin feeling’ that drives her to believe her sister is still alive? Does someone need to be a twin to believe their lost relative is still alive? Maybe if Sara and Jess were able to communicate or send vague messages to each other because of a twin psychic connection, it would have made the twin thing more important to the story.

My final small gripe with the movie is the lack of character development for Jess. There was one flashback where we learn a bit about her and then nothing else. Even when Sara went to the school and searched her room we didn’t learn anything new about her character. It caused the movie to be about Sara’s time in the forest instead of Sara finding Jess.

Fortunately, at its root, the movie has a simple story: someone looking for their lost relative. It’s something almost anyone can empathize with so the lack of character development isn’t a big deal.

Overall The Forest is okay, it’s firmly at the top of the “would recommend if you have absolutely nothing else to watch” list.


Stuff to Ignore

Rotten Tomatoes – 10%

Metacritic – 34

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