Hey all. It seems my bud, David Lim, over at Ellipsis Media has come out with a review for the new Judge Dredd movie. Overall, he was pretty impressed with the result, likening it to the Batman franchise in that this new look has updated the look and feel and made it a hell of a lot darker and grittier than the original. Ah, listen to me prattle on! Click the video below for his full review.
Here is a recent media posting by a friend and colleague of mine, named David Lim. His website, Ellipsis Media, is dedicated to the latest in entertainment and once in a while, I like to hear his opinions on the latest releases. They help me to decide whether or not I’m going to shell out the exorbitant amount of money that it takes to see a movie live these days. Earlier today, he helped me make up my mind on a somewhat contentious issue: whether or not to see the reboot to Total Recall.
Naturally, I had little desire to see this movie since it seemed to me that there was nothing wrong with the first one. And second, there didn’t appear to be much to this one beyond some A-listers who were cast solely for their looks. Third, they did away with the Mars angle which, though they differed drastically from the original PKD story, was still intrinsic to the first adaptation. But to hear that there was absolutely nothing original about it on top of all that, that pretty much clinched it for me.
In short, Total Recall looks like a good candidate for download!
Here’s a cult classic you don’t hear about often. But that’s the way of cult classics, isn’t it? You never hear about them until you stray into the fan community and they insist that you have to see it. You finally do and then maybe, just maybe, you yourself become an accolade. Once that happens, you might eventually become aware of the community of fans that’s out there – most likely they have an internet fansite going – they spread the word and make sure the movie is listed as a “sleeper hit” or a “hidden gem”.
Yeah, that’s about how I came to see the movie Strange Days. I can remember when it came out back in 95, how little fanfare and attention it got and how briefly it was in theaters. In fact, I didn’t even hear about it again until recently when it turned up on somebody’s top ten lists of the best sci-fi movies. Upon further investigation, I found that this movie made it onto a lot of people’s lists, even a few professional ones. And since I committed to covering sci-fi cult-classics awhile back, I thought I’d check this one out. And, I am pleased to say, I was pretty impressed.
In spite of being well-received by critics, this movie did quite poorly at the box office. Surprising, considering the all-star cast and the fact that James Cameron co-wrote and produced the thing. And when I stay all-star, I mean all-star! Ray Fiennes, Angela Basset, Juliet Lewis, Tom Sizemore, Vincent D’Onofrio, and Michael Winscott all had main roles in this movie (this last guy you may remember as the creepy villain from The Crow, and every other movie he’s ever done for that matter!)
However, as is often the case, the movie went on to attract a cult following who enjoyed the movies cyberpunk elements, its millennial theme and dark, paranoid feel. And with few exceptions, the acting and delivery was quite good. Ray Fiennes excels at being the sleazy but redeemable huckster, Basset as his concerned and beleaguered friend, and Winscott as the creepy, paranoid control-freak. Juliet Lewis came off as a little labored, but then again, her dialogue was kind of the cheesy, looks good on paper stuff. Still, she manages to pull off the abused, damaged damsel quite convincingly (draw whatever inference you will from that ;)).
In addition, the movie did a good job of capturing that pervasive sense of millennial madness that was beginning to manifest around the early-mid nineties. While things like the Y2K virus quickly became a cliche, especially after they proved baseless, the years leading up to the millennium were not without their share of fears, concerns and a general sense of imminence. Many people, both religious and secular, predicted doom, thinking the world would end. Others predicted a sort of social cataclysm, that mobs and rioters would take to the streets and begin looting, especially if all the grids went down. But most, I think, were just worried that the madness and hysteria would be self-fulfilling, that some riots and crackdowns might happen before everyone realized that the world wasn’t ending.
Also, the technological aspects of this movie were quite interesting. Mainly, they centers on a form of virtual entertainment known as the SQUID (Superconducting Quantum Interference Device), a device which can record and playback events directly from the wearers cerebral cortex. This predicted the internet phenomena in many ways, the concept of “viral videos” and snuff films being the main plot device in the story. And one of the major events in the movie, the murder of an outspoken hip-hop artist and the controversy surrounding it, predicted the death of Tupac Shakur, which took place around a year later.
The movie opens on the last days of December, 1999. Violent crime and gang warfare are getting out of control, and in the midst of all this, a major recording artist and activist named Jeriko One (Glenn Plummer) is killed. Meanwhile, a woman is being chased by two policemen, played by Vicent D’Onofrio and William Fichtner, who clearly want to kill her. Seems she saw something and was wearing a SQUID at the time, and when she gets away, the policemen retrieve the device and realize she got it all on tape (disc, whatever!).
Meanwhile, we meet Lenny Nero (Ray Fiennes), a former LAPD officer who has since turned to the world of contraband and sleaze, selling SQUID tapes to anyone looking for a break from reality or themselves. However, Nero has a rule that he never sells “blackjacks” (i.e. snuff films), because he considers himself a purveyor of experiences, not a peddler of smut! His friends, Lornette ‘Mace’ Mason (Angela Basset) and Max Peltier (Tom Sizemore) are also former LAPD officers who have since retired. Mason now does private security while Justin is a private eye. They don’t approve of what Nero does, but stick by him because of their friendship, and in Mason’s case, feelings of unrequited love.
Things begin to unfold when the woman who was being chased, named Iris (Brigette Bako), finds Nero at a bar. She claims someone is trying to kill her and has to flee, but that she recorded the entire thing on a disc and dropped it in his car. However, his car is soon towed and he’s unable to figure out what she was talking about. Shortly thereafter, a “blackjack” is dropped off at his house that shows someone killing her. Nero is freaked, especially since when he last saw her, Iris also told him that their mutual friend and Nero’s former lover, Faith Justin (Juliette Lewis), is in danger as well. This presents Nero with an opportunity to see her, only to be told by her and her manager that he’s not wanted. In between telling him that they are through, Justin is sure to relate that she’s also afraid because her manager, Philo Gant (Michael Winscott), is becoming increasingly paranoid and controlling. Spurned, Nero shows Mason and Peltier the blackjack and they are similarly shocked.
Shortly thereafter, Nero and Mason go to pick up his car so they can see what Iris dropped off and run into the same two officers who were chasing Iris earlier. They narrowly escape them and then view the tape, where it shows these same officers murdering Jeriko in cold blood. Shortly thereafter, Nero finds his supplier, Tick (Richard Edson), dead from an overdose of the SQUID. It looks like an accident, but Peltier suspects foul play since what appears to be an isolated case of murder might have something to do with a larger conspiracy he’s been hearing about. According to Peltier, there is a militant movement coming from City Hall and the LAPD who are determined to bring the city under control, even if it involves death squads! Because Jeriko was a major activist who was bringing the gangs of LA together to reign in the LAPD and the cities politicians, these squads would have been targeting him.
They then go to pick up Faith who is at a New Years party being hosted Philo. She reveals to them that she knows what going on, that Philo has become a total “wirehead” (i.e. SQUID-addict), who’s in the habit of having his artists followed because of his increasing paranoia. Iris was his mole and was tailing Jeriko, and was therefore with him when he was murdered. When she showed the tape to Philo, he feared for his business, beat her up, burnt the tape and told her killer where to find her. However, she made a copy in advance which she then put in Nero’s car. They now understand why Faith was afraid and trying to keep Nero away. Clearly, she feared for her life as well and didn’t want him getting involved. They all agree they should release the tape, but both Peltier and Nero worry about the impact it will have – i.e. a full-scale war between the gangs and the LAPD.
However, their rescue attempt is thwarted as Philo and his thugs intervene. Faith is then taken to his suite where she expects to die. After arguing and regrouping, Nero and Mason decide to attempt to rescue her again. Meanwhile, the streets are filled with people celebrating, rioting, and signs boasting “2K”. In the midst of the rowdy chaos, Mason and Nero manage to sneak into Philo’s party, Nero attempts to rescue Faith while Mason confronts the police commissioner and slips him the disk. Mason gets into Philo’s suite but finds him dead, and that Peltier, his friend, is the one who killed him. Seems he and Faith have been having an affair, and that HE was the one who murdered Iris and sent the tapes to Nero. He also confesses that the whole conspiracy theory was just his way of keeping Nero away from the authorities. In the end, it was all just a “traffic stop gone wrong”.
While this might seem like a letdown, I actually preferred it to the alternative. Rather than there being some big conspiracy that goes all the way to the top, the real motivating factor in all this was just random violence. And it is for this reason that Peltier did what he did. In a world as messed up as theirs, he believes what matters most is getting what you can before you’re murdered senselessly. In any case, Faith comes in and distracts him long enough for Nero to get the upper hand and they fight. Nero gets a knife in his back (symbolic since his friend betrayed him) but manages to toss Peltier from the balcony in the end.
Down below, Mason has been forced to flee the party when the two crooked officers spot her and begin chasing her through a crowd. She subdues them, but then is set upon by several riot cops. She is cornered and beaten, and it looks like its all over until a number of people in the crowd decide to help her out. A big fight, symbolic of the war they were anticipating, begins, but is broken up when the commissioner arrives and reveals he’s seen what’s on the disc. The two officers are arrested, one eats his gun while the other – D’Onofrio, in true psychotic form – tries to shoot Basset and is gunned down!
The movie ends with the New Year being rung in. Yes, in spite of the shooting, several deaths and a near riot, the countdown happens as planned and people cheer. Ah whatever, it’s New Year’s right? No sense letting a few fatalities ruin the biggest party of the millennium. Everyone is merry, people kiss (even some riot troops and civilians), and of course, Nero and Mason hook up! Seems he’s finally taken the hint and broken it off with Faith who, let’s face it, is more trouble than she’s worth. War is averted, the New Year arrives without the apocalypse, and there’s resolution all around!
Overall, I can see why this movie was a cult hit and why it didn’t do so well in theaters. For one, it wasn’t the usual big-budget splashy action flick Cameron is famous for, and it didn’t have a faithful marketing effort behind it. And that’s to be expected from a noire, cyberpunk thriller such as this, studios just don’t seem to know how to peddle and pigeon hole it. However, given its obvious depth and signs of quality, I think it was inevitable that audiences would take notice of it, adding it to their lists of favorites alongside movies like Blade Runner and Akira.
For one, the movie managed to capture, years in advance, the feeling of paranoia that surrounded the actual millennium. Ultimately, these fears proved to be baseless (just like in the movie!), which was one of the things I found subtly brilliant here. Long before the myth of Y2K began to circulate, it was easy to see how people would treat the millennium with a certain degree of paranoia. The religiously minded would fear that the apocalypse was at hand, the paranoid would expect riots, and others believed the world’s infrastructure to all go down! But of course, the clock struck twelve… and nothing happened. And, the plot where a hip-hop artist/activist is murdered in many ways predicted the feelings of loss and suspicion that followed Tupac’s death. Many of his die-hard fans continue to say he was assassinated, some even that he’s still alive!
In addition, the concept of VR technology and human experience was explored in depth and I found this very effective as well. On the one hand, the SQUID technology is just like a drug, something people do to escape their daily lives. On the other, there’s a lot of time dedicated to showing how something like this would have a negative impact on people’s memories and experiences by depriving them of authenticity. On several occasions, Nero is criticized for not being able to let go of the past, mainly because he keeps reliving it with his SQUID. The character of Mason says at one point that memories are meant to fade. Ergo, reliving his old experiences is depriving him of the ability to move on.
But what was best was the twist at the end. Ultimately, the threat came from close to home rather than from death squads or in the form of some big, shadowy conspiracy. All along, the characters are moving about thinking that they are witnesses to an assassination and that they can’t trust the authorities. But in the end, it turns out that the “assassination” was just a random act of violence – albeit with disastrous consequences if it went public – and that it’s their best friend they can’t trust. All of this is in keeping with the central theme and setting of the movie, which again, is millennial madness and an impending set of doom, all of which proves baseless in the end.
Movies like this one remind me that Cameron had a keen mind and some pretty cool ideas way back when. So… what happened? How did he go from Aliens, T2 and Strange Days to “I’m king of the world” and “Unobtainium”? Was it the money? Must be the money. Screws up everything!
Entertainment Value: 7/10 (admittedly, not the funnest movie around)
Round two! Having done a few more reviews, I’ve come to find new instances where plot muck-ups and weak writing made a movie glaringly bad, or just brought down an otherwise good effort. Here’s what I got this time:
Yeah, I’ve come to decide that Michael Bay is my least favorite director of all time. Not only is he responsible for creating crappy movies that are all form, no substance. He’s also guilty of completely objectifying women, reducing people to caricatures that are annoying and often racist, and just generally insulting our intelligence. And when it comes to his style, the Transformers trilogy stands out as a perfect example. In addition to being racist, sexist and low-brow, it was also full of plot holes. Here are some of the biggest that I could find:
1. Megatron’s Dead… Sort of:
Remember in movie one where Megatron was destroyed, and how they dropped his body into the Laurentian Abyss where the pressure and heat would make it impossible for him to be rescued or resurrected? Well in movie two, Bay disregarded all of that in order to bring the chief villain back. Basically, a couple bad guys swim down there, plug his body with a fragment of the All Spark, and he flies out. Here’s a thought: if you’re planning on making sequels, don’t write yourself into a corner by killing off the lead bad guy and making it impossible to bring him back!
2. Continuity Error:
This hole actually runs through all three, so you might say its more like a plot tunnel. In movie one, we are told that Megatron came to Earth in the 1930’s seeking the All Spark and then got frozen in the Arctic. It wasn’t until almost 70’s years later, in 2007 when the first film is taking place, that the Autobots and Decepticons came to Earth seeking the same thing. So… no other Transformers were on Earth between the 1930’s and 2007, right?
But then, in movie three, we’re told that the Ark crashed on the Moon in the early 1960’s, thus prompting the Space Race, and immediately thereafter, people and governments began collaborating with the Decepticons. They did this mainly by putting a stop to all subsequent Moon missions, mainly by lying and saying that it was suddenly too expensive (actually, it was!) But according to movie one, Megatron was the only Decepticon to visit Earth before 2007, and he was frozen and in government custody. If the other Decepticons didn’t come to Earth until the first movie in search of Megatron and the All Spark, then who the hell were these humans collaborating with? In other words, who were they taking their orders from if no Decepticons were even on Earth yet?
Ah, which brings to mind movie two. After Megatron was brought back to life, he flew out to the edge of the solar system where a big Decepticon ship was waiting. According to Wikipedia, this ship is called the Nemesis, which is taken from the original animated series. In any case, the Fallen guy is on board and they’ve been breeding “hatchlings”. This sets up the plot since the Decepticons want the Sun blower upper so they can harvest energon and power the things, thus making a new army. Hold on, if they’ve got some huge, badass warship out there, why not just attack Earth with it? And when did it show up in the first place? Didn’t the Decepticons fly in some comet-like spaceships in the first movie? So it had to have arrived between the first and second…
But if that’s the case and they have this big spaceship on hand now, why go through the whole convoluted process of searching from stupid harvester and building an army? Why not just level Earth and the Autobots from orbit? That makes a lot more sense than actually going down there and fighting them face to face. Another thing, where did it go after movie two? In movie three, there’s no trace of this spaceship and Megatron and his crew are hiding out in the Serengeti. That seems awfully stupid if they’ve got a couple megatons of firepower out in space.
But I’m getting distracted here… The main thing is that the whole sun-harvester/hatchling thread doesn’t square with what happened in the third movie. There, they reveal that they’ve had reinforcements on the dark side of the moon for decades who were laying in wait for some big attack once Sentinel was reactivated and set up that transporter gate. But if that’s so, why was anyone bothering with making all of these hatchlings? If you’ve already got reinforcements on hand, why not just call them in and end the war sooner? Sure, movie two was kind of a write off, but you can’t just pretend it didn’t happen! And it was movie three, supposedly the best in the series, that shot the premises of the first two to hell. Once again, if you’re going to make sequels, try to make sure they’re consistent with the other ones!
3. Symbols and Clues:
So if I remember the plot of the second movie right, Sam got his brain zapped by a piece of the All Spark, which made him see symbols. This in turn gave him the knowledge of the last known location of the Matrix of Leadership. Hold on, why the hell would the All Spark have the location of the Matrix encoded into it? The All Spark was the mysterious alien thing that created the Transformers while the Matrix of Leadership was the start-up key to the big Sun Harvester. One was created by forces unknown millions of years ago and the other was created by the Primes thousands of years ago.
In short, these things had nothing to do with each other, so why would the All Spark have that information on it? Doesn’t make sense, but then again, it wasn’t really meant to. It was only meant to serve as a deus ex machina to get the plot rolling in the first place.
Speaking of which, what was the deal with all those clues that lead them to the Matrix near the end? These took the form of symbols (the Primes ancient language) which were scrawled on various historic monuments, and which Sam could now read since his brain got zapped by the All Spark. Again, makes no sense, just there to move the plot along. I mean c’mon, why the hell would the Primes put clues to the location of the Matrix out there for people to see? Wasn’t it said that they were trying to hide the Matrix so it wouldn’t fall into the wrong hands? Wasn’t that why they sacrificed themselves and created that weird-ass cage out of their bodies to house it? Yes! So why would they leave clues around like they are hoping for someone to find it?
Oh yeah, and if the thing falls to dust unless its being handled by a “true leader” – you may recall that Sam had this explained to him when he went to robot heaven (holy shit, that was dumb!) – why bother even hiding it? Wouldn’t it be useless to the Fallen or any other Decepticon if they laid their hands on it? But again, I’m expecting too much if I’m asking this movie to make sense aren’t I? Moving on…
The Matrix Sequels:
The first movie in this trilogy was pretty seamless. And by that I mean I can’t think of a single plot hole off the top of my head. The sequels, however, are another matter entirely. Given the complicated and convoluted plot, it was somewhat inevitable that holes would open up. I think I covered most of them in my previous review of the trilogy, but I never get tired of criticizing flops!
1. Neo’s Powers:
The big mystery after movie two was how Neo managed to destroy machines in the real world with his mind. The explanations was one of the things that made the third movie a big letdown. According to the Oracle, the power of the One goes beyond the Matrix, right to the Source, from where it comes from. What the hell does that even mean? Is she implying that the Source CREATES the Ones? Why on Earth would it do that, create its own worst enemy over and over? Is that supposed to be like some Judea-Christian mystery, like why would God create the Devil?
The way the Architect put it in movie two, the Ones are a natural occurrence, much like the 1 percent of people who can’t accept the program because they are somehow more adept than the rest. But how would this person who can not only reject but control the Matrix bring that control into the real world? Who knows? It’s never explained. And any way you try, it ends up not making much sense.
2. Neo in Limbo:
Another thing that was never explained was why Neo went back into the Matrix when he went into a coma. How did he do this if he wasn’t even wired in? Again, the Oracle gives what clearly is meant to be a mysterious answer, but actually is just weak. Apparently, that’s just something the One can do. He can control machines and go in and out of the Matrix without the need for a plug-in. Really? Does the mind of the One operate like wireless internet? Can he interface with machines and hack into the system without DSL or a Modem? Like I said, never explained, but that’s probably because no explanation would make sense. It’s just weird, ethereal stuff that’s meant to advance the plot.
3. Why did Neo go to the Machine City?
So movie two ended with Neo realizing he could destroy machines in the real world. Sure, the experience kind of left him floored, but once he got all better, he was up and kicking machine ass. Hell, all he had to do was raise a hand and squiddies went boom by the bucket load! So why was Neo’s next move to go to the machine city? Because he was having dreams about it? Or because he figured he could save Zion by making a deal with the Source to stop Smith? Okay, seems a bit contrived, but okay. Still, why would he do that when he could have saved Zion on his own terms? If he can blow up machines with a thought, all they would need to do is fly him to Zion where he could unleash hell on the squiddy army. Zion army almost stopped the machines as it was, but with Neo they could have mopped the floor with them!
And didn’t the Architect say that the Matrix was on the verge of crashing? Yes, that was part two of the whole plan that kept the Ones in line. Blow up Zion, threaten to crash the system, thus threatening all of humanity and forcing the Ones’ compliance. But if Neo managed to use his abilities to save Zion from the attack, and the Matrix crashed as planned, that would mean the machines would lose their power source and die, wouldn’t it? Sure, millions of humans would die too; but as Morpheus said, as long as they’re still wired into the system, they’re the enemy! So yes, lots of blood would be on his hands, but in exchange for that one act of unsentimental ruthlessness, the machines would be licked good!
4. The Treaty Thing:
By the end, we’re told that a treaty is in place between humanity and the machines, as a result of the deal Neo cut and the sacrifice he made. Just one question, why are the machines going along with this? Once Neo did his thing and ensured Smith’s destruction, the squiddies just up and left Zion for good. Why? They were on the verge of wiping it off the face of the Earth. Why not follow through and finish the job?
What’s more, why did the Architect promise the Oracle that all humans who couldn’t accept the program would henceforth be set free? That was never part of the deal! Neo just said he wanted peace, he never said anything about the “red pills” henceforth being released. Sure, it seems like an elegant solution to the problem of what to do with them in the short run – just let them go and join Zion – but what about the long run? The more people the machines let go, the larger Zion gets. What’s going to happen when they get too big for their britches and start encroaching on machine territory?
Surely, the machines would have been able to foresee this, so why did they go along with it? Are we really to believe that within all their programming, machines believe in such a thing as keeping their word? The Architect seemed to think so… he gave HIS word that from then on, the unruly humans would be set free and got offended when the Oracle questioned him on that. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I was under the impression that honor is a human thing, based on ethical insight and emotion, and not cold, hard logic. And as we saw repeatedly in the Matrix, emotion is something the machines don’t care for. So really, once they realized they were in a position of power, wouldn’t the rational, MACHINE thing to do be to keep going and wipe Zion out?
Don’t get me wrong, I liked the ending they went with better. But it didn’t really make a whole hell of a lot of sense. And the Wachowski’s seemed to acknowledge this too, since they wrote in the bit where the Architect asks the Oracle: “How long do you think this treaty of yours can last?” Sure, it was meant to sound cynical and machine-like, but it was also true. If the Architect could see how little sense this made, surely the rest of the machines could too!
5. The Big Climax:
I saved this one for last because its the one I'm the least clear on. The way the movie ended, it seemed like a culmination of various things. But almost immediately after I saw it, the logic began to escape me. Let me see if I can recap it. Neo promises to deal with Smith, the Source plugs him in, he and Smith have their big fight. It ends when Neo realizes that he and Smith are destined to come together and cancel each other out. Like the Oracle said, "he is your equal, your opposite", and once Smith blows up, the Matrix reboots because Neo still was carrying the reboot codes he picked up when he went in and met the Architect. It's poetic and wraps things up; but really, how did Neo letting Smith merge with him destroy the guy?
On the one hand, it might be that what the Oracle said was meant somewhat literally. Having Neo merge with Smith, his equal and opposite by this point, might have just overloaded Smith's program, but if so, why did he assimilate Neo? He had JUST taken over the Oracle and was now in possession of her prescience. If he saw what she saw, why do the thing that would guarantee his destruction? However, there is an alternative explanation, one which I came up… with all by myself!
My personal impression was that the Smiths blew up because the Source killed them. Or rather, it killed Neo for failing. That's what appeared to be the case, at any rate. The Source was pissed and zapped his body, but since he was now indistinguishable from Smith, it was really Smith who got zapped and this overloaded him and destroyed him. Still, this idea also presents problems. If zapping someone wired into the Matrix was all it would take to kill Smith, why didn't the system do that the moment he started copying himself onto people? Seriously, by the end, he had copied himself onto every single person within the Matrix. That’s a couple million opportunities to kill him!
Or, here’s another idea, the Source could have started unplugging everyone Smith copied as soon as he started doing it. At the same time, corner him some agents and shoot the original Smith, then boom! He’s contained, Neo’s help would have never been needed, and the machines would be free to wipe out Zion. Again, I’m overthinking things, but that tends to happen whenever movies stop making sense.
More in part II, coming up next…
Ah yes, another classic guilty-pleasure movie! At least, that is my enduring opinion of this film. When I first saw it as a surly teenager, I thought it was a good shoot-em-up. As I got older, I recognized the satirical elements in it – or rather, the attempts at them – and concluded that they fell short. Now I know for a fact that there are those who disagree with me on this point. Hell, there are even some who might say that this movie was a smart, satirical take on the PC age or an re-imaging of Brave New World for the early 90’s. I, however, don’t happen to be one of them! While I did get the allusions to BNW, I simply cannot bring myself to see how this film could possibly be compared to the brilliant and seminal work of Aldous Huxley. But as usual, some background info is needed before I get into all that.
Ultimately, Demolition Man was a story about social engineering and control, but at the same time was marketed as an action movie. Fittingly, Sylvester Stallone and Wesley Snipes were brought in to the play the leads, both of whom were A-list action stars at the time. In the end, this combination of action-satire received mixed reviews, with Gene Siskel gave the movie a thumbs down for its violence and Ebert (as usual) praising it for it’s “satiric angle”. Rotten Tomatoes rates the movie as “fresh” with a 63% approval rating while on Metacritic, the movie scores a meager 34/100. In addition, Hungarian sci-fi writer István Nemere claimed the movie plagiarized the vast majority of his novel Holtak harca (Fight of the Dead), which was published in 1986. Regardless, audiences seemed suitably impressed. The movie did make over 50 million domestic, and 150 million foreign. Unfortunately, the director, Marco Brambilla, has gone on to do very little since. If this was the high-point in his career, all I can say is “tough break, man!”
The movie opens in 1996, on a Los Angeles that is literally on fire. The opening scene where the Hollywood sign is burning is a pretty good indication that society has gone to hell at this time. It’s possible that it was even meant to call to mind the LA riots of 92. Enter John Spartan (Stallone), aka. “The Demolition Man”. At the movie’s opening, he is on his way to bust a domestic terrorist with the equally ridiculous name of Simon Phoenix (Snipes). The latter has commandeered a building and is holding hostages while his men are in a standoff with police. Meanwhile, Spartan, air cavalry-style, jumps from a helicopter, shoots some guys, and then takes down Phoenix in a hand to hand fight. But of course, the building was wired to blow, and the whole place goes up just as Spartan jumps out with Phoenix over his shoulder. Seems blowing shit up is what he’s famous for, hence the nickname!
Then, after the blow-up, the clean up crews find dozens of bodies – apparently, the remains of the hostages! Spartan claimed they had to be somewhere else since he did a thermal scan on the place and saw only Phoenix’s own men, but dead bodies don’t lie! Alas, he and Phoenix are both sentenced to cryogenic freezing for their crimes, since in this day and age (only three years from when the movie was released!) the penal system is no longer in use. Criminals are put in deep sleep and have their brainwaves altered using synaptic suggestion (kind of a neat idea!). His freezing scene is little more than an excuse for Stallone to show off his ass, but whatever.
Okay, first impressions? Well for starters, nothing about the opening sequence is believable, and the hints its dropping are pretty damn obvious. For one, the images and action call to mind things like Beirut and Baghdad more than downtown LA, the tracer fire alone in the opening shots are clearly meant to make us think of a war zone. And last I checked, police didn’t have access to military helicopters or were cleared for aerial insertions. But this is the future right? Sure, but only three years from when the movie was made! Did they expect society to go to hell in that amount of time? Well, it IS LA… Oh, and another thing about the tracers: with all the flak they were putting up, how is it the one thing they didn’t seem to be firing at was the one helicopter that was flying above them? Ah, who cares?
Fast forward to 2032. San Angeles (Los Angeles and San Diego merged after the Big One), is a peaceful, sterile, happy-faced place where violence is obsolete, swearing is illegal, and everything and anything unhealthy has been outlawed. But we quickly see that there is dissent; underground people’s who spray paint messages of resistance here and there and occasionally conduct raids. Enter Lenina Huxley (Sandra Bullock in her debut action role), a young cop who is curious about the past and longs for some action. Hm, no ironic foreshadowing there! In any case, in what appears to be a mix-up, Phoenix is awakened over at the cryo-facility for a parole hearing. In a scene that definitely tells us something is up, he escapes from his cage, kills the guards, escapes from the facility and begins spreading chaos in his wake. And when the police confront him, Phoenix whoops out some badass martial arts skills and kills a few. The police are frightened, and for good reason!
Naturally, they appeal to the man who runs things in San Angeles, Doctor/Dictator Raymond Cocteau (played by British actor Nigel Hawthorne), who just happens to be the inventor of the cryoprison as well. He says “do what you will”, but its clear he’s got something up his sleeve. The cops got nothing, and its clear they are unequipped to deal with such a violent criminal. But it just so happens that someone on the force is old enough to remember the man who brought Phoenix down the first time… John Spartan! They commence defrosting, and some expository dialogue lets us know some pertinent facts: the merger that created San Angeles, the Big One (which coincidentally claimed Spartan’s wife), and the fact that smoking, alcohol, red meat, contact sports, salt, etc etc are now illegal. A brief encounter between Spartan and a swear monitor also lets him know that swearing results in a fine!
Now this is a part of the movie I actually liked. It’s been established at this point that the new age folk are completely helpless in the face of a violent convict. They fear and revile Phoenix, but they’re impressions of Spartan are not much better. Essentially they think he too is a barbarian, in part because he’s a convict, but mainly because of where and when he comes from. This is a realistic touch and something that’s consistent throughout the movie. However, this is still an action flick and things quickly move to the first post-thaw confrontation between the two titans, and at a museum of all places! Seems Phoenix went there to find a gun, which is the only place one can even see a gun in the future. Spartan shows up, and two begin using the museum guns to shoot at each other. Yes, it seems the guns in this particular museum are kept loaded. Uh… okay! Makes absolutely no sense, but okay…
Phoenix escapes, and runs into Cocteau outside. He tries to shoot him, but cannot and is forced to flee. At this point, we are made aware of the fact that there’s some sort of conspiracy between them. Prior to this, it was obvious that someone has been pulling Phoenix’s strings since he got out of cryogenics. He’s obsessed with the name Edgar Friendly (played by Dennis Leary), another absurdly named character who just happens to be the man running the dissidents. What follows is some filler and background scenes where Spartan is invited by a seemingly grateful Cocteau to dinner (at Taco Bell, the only restaurant to survive the “franchise wars”!) he is subjected to more bigotry from the San Angeles folk, and is in the right place at the right time to stop a band of Friendly’s men from raiding the restaurant for food. Afterward, he and Lenina go back to her place where she asks him to have “sex”, which consists of wearing helmets that simulate sex-related sensations. Seems real sex has been banned due to STD’s! Bummer…
Anyway, irked and unable to adjust to this new form of “sex”, Spartan retires to his flat and begins looking at security footage from the museum. Upon seeing the clip where Phoenix couldn’t shoot Cocteau and the short conversation that ensued, he becomes highly suspicious. He looks up Phoenix’s file and finds that in addition to being thawed “accidentally”, he was programmed for mass destruction. Remember the bit about synaptic suggestion? Well, it seems that while Spartan was encouraged to knit (no joke!), Phoenix was encouraged to kill! At this point in the movie, things begin to revolve around Cocteau as both Spartan and Phoenix take turns confronting him. Spartan does so to get answers, but is told to get lost and that he’s going back into the freezer. Phoenix does so to find out why the hell he was thawed and why he’s been programmed. You see, in addition to being fixated on killing Friendly, he can access any computer in the city and seems to instinctively know his way around. He, in turn, is told everything, as is the audience!
Essentially, Cocteau tells him that he let Phoenix out of cryoprison and programmed to kill, be able to access any computer in the city and find his way around San Angeles with ease so that he would kill Friendly, the only remaining obstacle to him creating a “perfect society”. In exchange for this, Phoenix will get whatever he wants, and he even promises to put Spartan back in the freezer for him as “a guarantee”. Phoenix however, says he will take out Spartan himself, but will need the help of a dozen or so additional convicts from his past to complete these various tasks. For whatever reason, Cocteau consents and gives him his access to his old buds. Cue tense music!
Okay, two things! One, are we really to believe that this Cocteau fellow would thaw the most dangerous criminal of the 20th century just so he could deal with some meager political dissident? Why not hire some mercenaries from out of state, or out of the country? And its not like Friendly is a threat really! All he does is spray paint things and raid Taco Bells! Seriously, in what world is it smart to unleash a psychopath to deal with a simple political protester? That’s like unleashing a poisonous snake to deal with a rodent. Second, did he really believe he could control Phoenix simply by putting some kind synaptic block on him? Sure, Phoenix was unable to kill HIM, but what about everybody else in the city? Moreover, how was he planning on controlling him once he was finished with Spartan and Friendly? Cocteau had obviously given no thought to that since he had nothing in mind to offer him. Last, are we really to believe he would agree to thaw more psychos without bothering to take ANY precautions with them? With Phoenix he at least did something, but with these other guys, he does nothing! How stupid is this guy?
Alright, lets move on! Despite being told he’s going back into the freezer, Spartan is still walking around. He even leads Huxley and her partner Garcia (Benjamin Bratt) on a manhunt for Phoenix, a search which takes them into the sewers. Coincidentally, they run into Simon Friendly’s people, because the sewers are where he and his band of dissidents/thieves/scavengers live. Oh yeah, and they have guns too! They must have raided a museum at some point… Meanwhile, Phoenix is plotting with his psychos (duh!) to take over San Angeles society by killing Raymond and Spartan. After Spartan explains to Friendly what he thinks is going on (i.e. Cocteau wants to kill you and thawed a mass murdered to do so), Phoenix and his gang show up and a gunfight ensues. Spartan and Phoenix fight their way across town with an obligatory car chase, during which time Phoenix tells him that all those hostages Spartan allegedly killed in his capture attempt were already dead; or as he puts it, “Cold as Hagen Daas!” Well, as the Joker said to the Batman, “even to a guy like me, that’s cold!” Okay, nuff cold-related puns! Phoenix escapes again, and has his men kill Cocteau. Wow… didn’t see that one coming!
The police and Friendly’s scavengers then come together, with Spartan asking for their cooperation. They then march on Cocteau’s office where they find him dead and see that Phoenix and what remains of his thugs have taken to the cryogenics facility where they are planning on thawing all the convicts there. A final showdown takes place between Spartan and Phoenix and Spartan manages to (you guessed it!) blow up the place in the process! He escapes in the nick of time as the place is exploding all around him, all the while doing the Stallone signature grunt/yell. The movie ends with the uptight police chief fearing for the future, Friendly suggesting they all get drunk and “paint the town red”, and Spartan suggesting they find a middle path. Then, of course, Spartan kisses Huxley, and they agree to have sex the old fashioned way. Cue theme music by The Police!
Of the top of my head, I can think of several things that were good about this movie. For one, they actually did bring some satirical elements to the screen. The way the future citizens of San Angeles saw Spartan as a brute, for example. “Cro-Magnon”, “primate”, “caveman”; these are how they describe him, and to his face! And the paradox is quite clear: on the one hand, their values demand that they reject a man like him. On the other, they make them hopelessly dependent on him. Also, the nature of the “utopian” San Angeles society seems like a pretty fitting commentary on the PC age: how taken to its extreme, censorship and repression – even if its well-meaning – will lead to a society of stunted, helpless virgins. Though the entire plot may have been lifted from a Hungarian sci-fi novel, this aspect of the movie was kind of fitting given the year of its release. The early 90’s were kind of the dawn of the PC age, and it only made sense that there would be those who would want to warn people about the potential for danger before it had a chance to get in full swing!
There were also several funny moments I feel the need to acknowledge. Snipes manages to pull off the psycho quite well and has some downright funny lines. “Cold as Hagen Daas” was one, as was his Scarface imitation. Also, the joke about President Schwarzenegger wasn’t bad. One might get the impression that he and Stallone have some kind of agreement where they’re required to give a shout out to each other every few years. And how about the running joke about “the three seashells”? And the swear detectors were not just satirically apt, they were a pretty good comedic tool.
And now for the bad stuff… First off, the totally contrived, unthought-out nature of the plot! Again, are we really to believe some conniving future dictator would unleash a mass murderer to kill ONE MAN and expected he could control him? Wasn’t this guy supposed to be the leader of San Angeles and the creator of their entire way of life? Did he get to where he was by NOT planning ahead like this, or is he just this stupid? Also, the fact that people are able to get both guns and ammo in a future where there are supposed to be none made no sense either. I know, if you remove these elements, there’s no movie. But a few lines of dialogue would have patched this movie’s biggest holes, but no explanations were ever given! Hell, they could have even done a thing where Spartan and Phoenix were forced to improvise their weapons, showing how they had to resort to classic ingenuity in an age where mass-produced firearms were no longer available. I’m just saying…
There was also the small plot thread about John’s daughter that went nowhere in the movie. We learn that he had a wife and child before he went into cryosleep, and that his wife died in the Big One. But his daughter apparently survived and despite missing her, he doesn’t even bother to look her up. They do make a point of having Spartan say that he’s not sure if he wants to see her since she grew up in this new society and he fears she won’t be able to relate to him. But when Huxley offers to look her up, he says no and then the whole thing is just dropped! Seriously, if he had a daughter, I would think he’d want to reunite with her, and that this reunion would be intrinsic to the plot in some way. Say, for example, that after he’s finished killing Phoenix he decides to look her up and that’s how the movie ends; you know, as opposed to him and Huxley having sex and him learning how to work the damn three seashells! Or, she could even be central to the plot by having Phoenix abduct her in Act III in order to lure Spartan into a trap? Hell, either of these ideas would have been better than bringing the daughter up and then just writing her off like that. Why bring her up if she’s going to serve no purpose whatsoever?
Also, there’s the idea that this movie managed to adapt elements of Brave New World to the big screen. Sure, that was the aim, and the references were certainly clear enough. But that was the problem, in my opinion, and the reason for its failure. For one, the name of Sandra Bullock’s character is an obvious allusion to BNW. Her last name is Huxley (aka. Aldous), and Lenina is the name of BNW’s main female character (Lenina Crowe). And at one point, Phoenix even yells out, “Its a Brave New World” before firing off his weapon. Now that was just plain unnecessary! I mean, if you’re going for literary allusions, try some subtlety! Don’t just announce what you’re trying to emulate! It comes off as obvious, and its not like people aren’t going to make the connection anyway. In any tale of social engineering where freedom is being killed by soft measures, the inevitable connection is to Brave New World!
But then again, this was in keeping with what brought this movie down for me, which was its watered down character. Putting aside the fact that this movie was possibly a total rip-off, there were still the basic outlines of a decent plot before Brambilla and whoever else decided to turn it into an action movie got their hands on it. Once that was done, the potential for real satire and social commentary was pretty much lost. In the end, all that stuff just seemed like it was thrown in to give a feeling of depth to an otherwise cheesy action flick, which really wasn’t the case. The movie started out as a tale about a dystopian future borne out of the violence and chaos of the present, but was dumbed down in order to make it accessible to Hollywood audiences. And that’s a shame man! Consider how many otherwise decent movies or original novels have been ruined simply because of the director’s, producers and industry’s lack of respect for their audiences.
But that’s something for another time and I’m starting to get that preachy feeling again. And like I said, this really isn’t a bad movie, just one that requires a little brain-checking if you don’t want to come away disappointed. Overall, I’d say it belongs in the fun but kinda stupid bin, next to the other guilty pleasures that DON’T make you think!
Entertainment Value: 7.5/10
Before moving onto the final installment in the Matrix trilogy, I thought I’d tackle the big glaring issue that stood out during Reloaded. And that would be that whole subculture that came out between sequels, the one where people seemed to think they knew what was going on, but really had no idea. That was the rationale I asserted in my last review, and yes, its based in part on the fact that I never agreed with them. And that they were WRONG! Yeah, I was too; the theory I came up with to explain how Neo could have neutralized those squiddies in the real world and how it was all going to end… WRONG! That’s the consensus that that friend of mine and I came to once we both saw Revolutions and reconvened. But it just goes to show you how little sense a movie can make when everyone who went to see it had to make up their own ending, only to come away disappointed by the actual one.
But I digress. Allow me to recap on what happened during that eventful summer when Reloaded came out and fans everywhere showed up at the theater to see what was going to happen, only to leave confused and bewildered. Given the need for some brevity, I was only able to gloss over what actually happened in the movie and why it confused the hell out of people to the point where they had to make up their own plot. So to recap, here is what happened:
Reloaded: Okay, now this movie takes place about six months after the first movie. Neo is at the height of his power and is beginning to have prescient nightmares. He sees Trinity die, and is haunted by the feeling that even though he is the One and has realized his potential, he has no idea what he is to do now. Solid, it makes perfect sense that a messianic figure, once they’ve realized their role, would not know how to proceed. After all, the prophecy that was alluded to several times in the first movie never gave any details as to how the One’s arrival would end the war. Just that it would…
We also learn that the machines are tunneling to Zion. This was first mentioned in Final Flight of the Osiris, the animated short that was part of the Animatrix. It is also recapped during the opening expository scene where the Captains of the various hovercraft meet up inside the Matrix, which is difficult given all the squiddy activity of late. Question! Why not just meet up in the real world if its so dangerous? Is it just so they can all be decked out in their leather outfits and shades and Neo can have his big fight with the agents? Who cares? Point is, Morpheus attributes this attack to the success they’ve been enjoying of late. Neo’s powers seem to be a decided advantage now that they don’t have to run and hide from the agents but can actually face them.
So, Neo goes to the Oracle, who tells him that the One must go to the Source. That’s where his path will end and the war too. But of course, there’s cryptic, convoluted answer shit to be sure! He’s also told that his dreams, after a fashion, are true. Once at the Source, he will have to decide between saving Zion or Trinity. Tough call, but one he must make! Why? Because he’s the One. Harsh shit, man! But it sets up some obvious tension. But, wouldn’t you know it, there’s a snag! Smith is back! And he’s brought friends. Like a perfect metaphor for a virus, or “ego” as Hugo Weaving described it, Smith is expanding, copying himself onto other programs and absorbing their powers. That much is cool because it means he’s able to upgrade his software and is becoming more and more of a threat to Neo and the system. And it kind of fit nicely with what the Oracle rambled on about sentient programs running around the Matrix in defiance of the system. Sure as shit, we didn’t get anything else from that speech, like what the hell it meant or how it was significant! She just says it in passing as if it was a segue into the bit about how Neo must go to the Source and how he’s haunted by dreams about it.
Getting back, Neo and his buds, after a long, convoluted series of events, get the Keymaker, who is the key (sorry!) to getting to the Source. He is just one in a long list of characters who we get the feeling were supposed to be complex and inspired, but ultimately served no real purpose other than being stand ins that advanced the plot. Seriously, all they do is show up, make a big speech, and then go! But anyway… the characters do more action-shit to make sure Neo can get to the Source and – wouldn’t you know it?- Smith shows up! Seems that he too has access to the backdoors of the Matrix, he wants everything, he says, and is getting more powerful. They escape him, and make it to the Source where (wait for it!) another character is introduced, makes a big speech, and we get the last, confusing explanation we need.
So here’s how it is… The Matrix is many centuries old. It was, as Smith said in movie one, originally meant to be a perfect world but humanity wouldn’t accept it because the human cerebrum is designed to expect suffering, misery and conflict. That was a cool idea, but here it just gets convoluted like everything else! The solution, after some trials, was what the Architect described as the “choice” option. The Oracle, an intuitive program created to study human feelings (holy obvious case of pairing here!) designed this concept where humans were given an unconscious choice to either accept the programmed reality or reject it. 99 percent of subjects did, but the remaining one percent were like Neo and the rest – they could not bring themselves to embrace the delusion. And of course, every so often a One would emerge who not only rejected it, but could manipulate it to his advantage.
These two phenomenon represented an “escalating probability of failure”, as the Architect said, so something needed to be done. Basically, this was accomplished by a one-two punch. One, force the One to comply by threatening to crash the system and take out every human being wired into the Matrix. And two, sending the squiddies out to destroy Zion. The Matrix would then reboot, the One would take a handful of humans to start a free colony (aka. Zion) where the “red pills”, the one percent who wouldn’t accept the program, would be sent off to. When a new One would emerge, the whole thing would start over again. The machines would head for the new Zion, the system would lurch towards crashing, and the One would be driven in the direction of the Source where he would be given the same choice. Reboot the system and restart Zion, or watch humanity die! Naturally, all the Ones prior to Neo complied…
What was brilliant about this was it successfully managed to subvert everything we saw in movie one. The One seems invincible, but when confronted with this problem, he essentially becomes helpless. Really, what good can such powers do someone when all of humanity is held hostage? Second, the weapon at humanity’s disposal is a prophecy that foretold of victory, but it was essentially a lie. The war would “end”, it said, but it never specified how. In truth, the entire war and ongoing nature of the struggle between free humanity and the machines was something designed by the mathematical genius of the Architect. It serves the sole purpose of keeping the Matrix running and the machines functioning. Very 1984! Whereas humanity believes its been fighting the AI war for over a century, the sad truth is they lost, and what they’ve been doing ever since is been playing a part in play much bigger than themselves. No one knows the truth, because no one is old enough who remembers. Seriously, 1984!
And if you think about it, it was all hinted at throughout the movie. Speech One, where the Oracle says the war would end and how she’s a program and there are others like her who defy the system. Speech Two, where the Merovingian tells them that the true nature of life is cause and effect, and we are all out of control. Speech Three, where the Architect explains how Zion and the One represent a “systemic anomaly” which is the only remaining exception to what is otherwise “a harmony of mathematical perfection” or some such shit! It essentially comes together in the end. Only problem was, NOBODY GOT IT! It was told in such a quick, rushed way between action sequence and using cryptic, expository dialogue that everybody just gave up and accepted the last few minutes of the movie as their truth of what was going on. Which brings me to phase two… what fans thought was happening.
“Matrix within a Matrix:” So like I said, in the months between the release of the second and third movie, fans everywhere formed up and began detailing what they thought was the coolest idea ever proposed! Far from being based on the many, many, big speeches in Reloaded, it was based entirely on the last few minutes and the assumed significance thereof. Perhaps I am being harsh. In truth, it was a cool idea.
To recap! Neo managed to stop those squiddies because they were STILL in the Matrix! Neat! But what would this mean? Well, according to the theory, the Matrix exerted control over the free humans by ensuring that once they broke free from the first Matrix, they were still contained in a second. Some went so far as to say that there were up to seven or more layers of the Matrix, like it was based on some variation of the Superstring Theory or something! Also neat, and years before Inception! One problem… makes no sense! If there were multiple layers of the Matrix keeping humanity controlled, what the hell was the point of everything we’ve been told up until this now. The red pills are controlled by allowing them to form a colony, then periodically destroying it. The One is controlled by crashing the Matrix in time with Zion’s destruction and making him reboot it so that humanity will continue to live.
Why do all that if they’re all still in the Matrix??? If they’re just part of a delusion no matter what, let them have their victory! But even more to the point, if the red pills – i.e. that one percent that was always aware that they were living inside a program – couldn’t bring themselves to accept the program, what were the odds they would accept the program within the program (or any other layer of it for that matter)? It was a cool idea, but in short, it negates EVERYTHING the movie was based on up until this point. But asking the fan community for perfect consistency is even worse than asking it from a writer/director, or worse, two of them!
My Idea!: Lastly, let me get to what I thought was going on. It’s short, so bear with me just a little longer. Basically, I thought Neo stopped those squiddies because his contact with Smith meant that HE was changed too. Smith said his destruction in movie one changed him, and we all saw it in action. So why couldn’t the same be true in reverse? It too seemed hinted at, Neo was always somehow aware of Smith’s presence, as well as the “connection” Smith mentioned. I thought that this would be the means through which Zion would be saved and the war would be won in movie three. Neo would be given insight into the machine’s minds, how they functioned. He would be able to stop them in the real world just like he did in the Matrix. I admit, it was thin, but as far as the rest was concerned – what did this mean, what did that mean? – my answer was, who the hell cares? We’ll find out in movie three. As for what’s happening, the only people who knew that were the Wachoswki’s, and of course the actors and set people.
But of course, that wasn’t going to stop us armchair critics from speculating. And here I am still talking about it now, even though the movie came and went! But what the hell, it was fun while it lasted! And considering how we all ended up disappointed by the real ending, I’m thinking maybe some armchair critics could have done a better job of writing the ending! Speaking of which, stay tuned for the final installment, The Matrix: Revulsions!
Last time, I believe I left off with a passing mention of how the Clone Wars weren’t exactly given their due in Lucas’ prequels. Correct me if I’m wrong, but it was my understanding that that was what they were supposed to address, and with a name like Attack of the Clones, I don’t think that would be an unrealistic expectation. But Lucas seemed more concerned with addressing the back-story of Anakin’s fall to the dark side and the love story between him and Padme/Amidala. Everything else was pushed to the side or parceled out between obligatory scenes of (ahem) romance and Anakin bitching about how angry he was and unfair his life is. The end result was a movie that hopped all over the place, moving along with a sense of duty rather than an intriguing story that took its time to build, and with dialogue and character development that was basically info-dumping and pure exposition.
In short, it sucked! But between movies two and three, Lucas appeared to sit up and take notice. Whereas Phantom Menace and Clones were chock full of indications that Lucas held the fan’s feelings in contempt, Revenge of the Sith seemed to contain within it a feeling of humility. It was as if Lucas saw the writing on the wall and realized that if the third movie was to be a critical flop, the Star Wars franchise might forever be ruined. That, I think, was enough to get him to realize that he was still mortal.
Still, the final entry in the franchise suffered from the same weaknesses as the rest. Nobody missed Jar Jar Binks, the cheesy romantic element was toned down (somewhat), the action was a lot better and more relevant, and the motivation was a lot more believable. But the same basic problems of duty, pacing and rushing were there all around. About the best thing you could say about it was that it was salvageable. Not great, but enough to ensure that the whole trilogy didn’t totally suck. But I’m getting ahead of myself here…
Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith
Prior to the movie’s release, Lucas did his usual round of interviews and gave the fans a bit of an inside look at the plot and his process. In the course of this, he admitted that he had to force himself to commit to writing every day, eight hours at a stretch, in order to get the script banged out on time. Now that’s not something you EVER want to admit to as a writer! Automatically it makes people think that what they are about to see is a second-rate effort, done out of a sense of obligation and devoid of any heart. And yet, it was better than the first two, even if it managed to retain their weaknesses.
The War: As I said in the last review, the war happens between movies. We catch the very beginning of it in Clones and the tail end of it in this one, but that’s it. Despite the fact that they are of extreme importance to the story, the war (or wars) are really more of a backdrop against which the main story – Anakin’s fall to the Dark Side, takes place. That only drives home the point of how the prequels are dominated by a sense of duty, meant to explain rather than tell their own story. If anything, it should have been the other way around. The war happens, it is the means through which Palpatine seizes power, and in the course of it, Anakin becomes a great hero, falls in love with Padme/Amidala, and then succumbs to temptation. It’d be a lot more fun, more subtle, and more entertaining that way.
Anakin and Dooku, take two: Here was a fight scene that was due, and it was enjoyable to see Anakin take down Dooku. But it was pretty much a total rehash of the first time these two fought, sans the ridiculous walk-on by Yoda. As predicted, Dooku has to take out Obi Wan in order for him and Anakin to duke it out between themselves. And its perfectly contrived, the way he tossed him aside with the Force and uses a gangplank to pin him down. It’s also perfectly contrived that Obi Wan would thusly be unconscious and totally unaware of how Anakin kills Dooku. That was another problem I had with this fight scene. After cutting off Dooku’s hands, Anakin is told by Palpatine to execute him. This is in keeping with the whole Sith thing: “you beat my apprentice, now take his place”. But what is so stupid about it is how Anakin beheads him with barely a second thought.
It’s like “You know, I really shouldn’t…”. “Do it, Anakin! He’s too dangerous.” “Okay!” Slit! “Gee, That felt wrong.” “It’s okay Anakin, he had it coming!” And then, barely another word on the subject. As if to remind us how this has happened before, Palpatine brings up how Anakin wiped out all those Sandpeople. Once again, it seems like the Jedi have no clue and Anakin has got away with cold-blooded murder.
The Love Story: We’re fortunate not to get an earful of awful, cheesy dialogue between Anakin and Padme in this one, but there’s still enough to bring the bile to the edge of your throat. For what its worth, the two seem to have a little more chemistry in this one, but it still feels forced. “You are so beautiful” says Anakin. “That’s because I’m so much in love,” she replies. Ugh!
Grievous: Here is a character who is not bad, as far as conceptuals go. But the fact that he’s introduced in this last movie where he then dies, that’s kind of weak. You can’t expect to introduce characters who are central to the plot in the third act and expect people to develop some kind of attachment to them. What’s more, in this movie, Grievous sounded oafish and really wasn’t that threatening. In the Clone Wars cartoon (the original by Genndy Tartakovsky, not the crappy Lucas remake!) Grievous was a frightening, bad-ass mutha who took down multiple Jedis at once. His voice was deep, cold, and metallic, and he had some truly bone-chilling lines! “Run, Jedi run! You have only prolonged the inevitable. But I will give you the honor of a warrior’s death.” Did I mention he’s also a master of psychological warfare?
Yes, that’s what’s wrong here! Between the cartoon and the third movie, Grievous goes from being an unstoppable malevolent force to a veritable heel! This was the guy who cut his way through clone troopers and Jedi alike and even managed to kidnap Palpatine in his own capitol building. And yet, we’re to believe that Obi Wan is able to take him down all by himself. There’s even a joke that fans made about this: Right before their big fight, Grievous turns to Obi Wan and says “It’s a good thing this is the movie and not the cartoon version, otherwise you’d be right fucked!” Ha! It’s funny because it’s true.
Anakin kills kids: Okay, really? I mean I know Lucas is trying to establish that Anakin’s turned evil, but are we seriously to believe that he’s gone from being conflicted and afraid about joining Palpatine to murdering children? How exactly does the Force work? Do one bad thing and BOOM! You’re an evil psychopath? If it’s that easy a transition, no wonder the Jedi are so pedantic. What’s more, I loved Padme’s reaction when she finds out about his crime. “No! Not Anakin! He couldn’t…” she says. What, this surprises you? You barely batted an eye when he told you that he slaughtered women and children, now you’re surprised he murdered some Jedi younglings? A more fitting reaction would be, “Not again! Christ, that boy’s incorrigible!” Not saying I approve, but if you’re going to have such a casual attitude the first time your hubby commits mass murder, you kind of forfeit the right to be surprised when he does it again. Or is Lucas trying to say indiscriminate murder is okay when it’s Sandpeople? Dude… that’s racist!
Anakin and Obi Wan’s big fight: Now, it’s been well-established at this point that Anakin is a better swordsman than Obi Wan, right? I mean, Dooku kicked Obi Wan’s ass twice with little effort, and Anakin kicked Dooku’s ass with energy to spare. So… how is it that Obi Wan was able to stand toe-to-toe with Anakin for like ten minutes straight and then beat him? Seriously, this fight scene makes no sense! Just like with his one-on-one with Grievous, Obi Wan, who’s been a bumbling dope up until this point, seems to suddenly acquire some mad fighting skills and saves the day. What’s more, this fight scene drags on forever! The choreography is beautiful, like watching fire dancers do their thing, but there’s no real tension. Not like there was between Vader and Luke in Empire. That fight scene went on for awhile, but it was well-paced and punctuated by terror. You could see how Vader was slowly beating Luke down and you feared for him. This time around, it was just a lot of visuals with little to no emotional content. And the fact that we knew ahead of time that Obi Wan would win removed any sense of anxiety from it.
“Nooooo!”: Now I know for a fact that few among us thought Hayden Christensen could possibly fill Vader’s shoes. The whiny, bitchy stride he struck in movies two and three hardly seemed consistent with the Darth’s deep voice or malevolent nature. Still, that scene at the end, where Anakin/Vader asks the whereabouts of Padme and then emits a pained shriek when Palpatine tells him she’s dead… painful! Not to mention kind of dumb. It goes without saying that if Anakin is truly going to cross over, Palpatine needs to make him sever all ties to his past. But telling him he killed his own love, strange, but I’d think that’d have the opposite effect. The whole reason he sided with Palpatine was to save her. Now that she’s dead, there’s really nothing to hold them together. Not only that, but in light of Padme’s death, all the sacrifices he’s made to earn Palpatine’s help would seem like they were done in vain. Personally, I’d be pissed! Rather than commit wholeheartedly to Palpatine’s plan, I’d want to kill Palpatine and take his whole plan apart piece by piece! Or, in keeping with the whole Sith thing, kill Palpatine and take over the whole operation myself. That’d make way more sense than serving him like a slave, “I must obey my master,” and all that. Really, what’s he done for you Darth?
Well, that about covers it. To be fair, I’d like to point out that there were some things I actually liked in this movie. Unlike the others, it wasn’t saved merely by its action. No, this one actually had a little depth that managed to justify the expense of seeing it. The fact that Anakin’s fall was born of fear, that he did it because of the promise of powers that would make him what he wanted to be (powerful enough to prevent death) actually made sense. Knowing that Lucas had to force himself to get this script out didn’t help things much, I knew in the back of my head as I saw it that he kind of pulled it out of his ass. But like most critics, I was willing to forgive this. It seemed like we were all pulling for him because we didn’t want to see Star Wars fail. After growing up with it and spending so much time and money on the toys, books, etc, we just weren’t prepared to abandon ship!
However, I personally feel that enough time has passed so that we might finally able to put the prequel trilogy and everything else Lucas has done in perspective. Despite his weaknesses as a writer/director, Lucas has an undeniable talent for borrowing elements from different genres and combining them in just the right way with some classical mythology and history to create an enjoyable experience. The original movies called to mind all kinds of things that the audience could relate to. The Battle of Hoth was like Dunkirk, the (first) assault on the Death Star like the Doolittle raid, and I don’t think anyone wasn’t on the edge of their seat with the final battle! Luke’s journey to find himself and learn the truth of his ancestry was like the Odyssey, the redemption and sacrifice his father made like something out of Greek tragedy.
It’s ironic then that Lucas himself would succumb to the temptation and allure of money, fame and power. In the end, they led him to believe that he was the master of Star Wars and that he alone knew what it was all about and what made it great. He was wrong, of course. One of the most enduring powers of Star Wars was its mass-appeal, how it could snatch up the youth and adult vote in one swoop. By snubbing advice and letting his age-old fans know that he didn’t care what they thought, he ended up churning out two movies that were almost universally panned and nearly cost him his legacy. It was only in listening to the critics and accepting his limitations that he was able to create a passable third and thereby “redeem” the franchise before it was too late. Yeah… irony!
But alas, Lucas appears to be up to his old tricks again. No sooner had Tartakovsky’s Star Wars: Clone Wars begin to garner critical acclaim that he snatched it up and began making his own version. It seemed that he was perfectly happy to let someone else tell the story of the Clone Wars until they began to do a better job of it than him. Then, I’m guessing ego or greed got the better of him and he came out with a cartoon movie and a series! And of course, they are just like his first two prequels – kiddy, cheesy, and razor thin in terms of plot. And it seems as though he isn’t finished just yet. Word is, he’s thinking of making sequels; that is, movies that pick up where the originals left off! If so, I’d say he has an opportunity on his hands to do what all the fans want – i.e. get back to what made the originals great and stop churning out the kind of crass, commercial crap that’s been spewing from Lucasarts for so many years.
So on behalf of all fans everywhere, I’d like to make a plea to Lucas. Dear Sir, I urge you to consider the lesson of the prequels and incorporate it into your future work. First, check your ego at the door. You created Star Wars, but that doesn’t mean you’re infallible. Second, ditch the adulators who are keeping you from hearing the truth. It’s always a true friend who’ll tell you what you need to hear even if you don’t want to hear it. Those who tell you flattering things with shit-eating grins plastered on their faces will only bring you down. Third, your foresight to retain the merchandising rights may have made you filthy-fucking-rich, but it’s also what’s been polluting your mind. There are things more important than money, merchandise, spin-offs, re-releases, and digital remastered editions! In the end, it should be about the story, not the returns. Fourth, get back to your fan base and really try to connect with them. I know, who are they to question you, right? Simple, they’re the ones who grew up watching Star Wars and made it the success that it was. Had they not paid their hard-earned money to see your movies and buy your paraphernalia, you’d have spent the last thirty years writing fan fiction and paperback space opera out of a studio apartment in downtown LA. Whether you like it or not, the franchise does in part belong to them. As its creator you can make it good, but only they can make it great! Without your fans, there is no phenomenon, so take what they say seriously.
That’s all! And as cheesy finish, let me just say “May the Force be with you” and not worry about reprisals ;)!
Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith
Entertainment Value: 6/10
Not long ago, I reviewed a movie that had the honor of being not only one of the best sci-fi movies of all time, but one of the best movies period. That movie was Blade Runner, one of Ridley Scott’s most enduring classics. So it is with great pleasure that I dedicate this next review to another one of his masterpieces, the cult classic known as Alien. However, one can scarcely get into this movie without at least mentioning the franchise it spawned. Indeed, Alien went on to become not only a commercial success, but a cult-hit that inspired three sequels, two cross-overs, several video games, and even books and comics. Many of said sequels sucked, the less said about the crossovers the better, and Scott himself was not attached to any of the sequels as director. But that does not change the fact that the Aliens franchise was, at it’s core, one of the most original and inspired science fiction franchises of all time.
Over the years, this movie inspired lasting praise, not the least of which came from literary critics who drew parallels between it and classical literary sources. These included H.P. Lovecraft’s At the Mountain of Madness, not because the movie was similar in terms of storyline, but in terms of its “dread-building mystery”. Upon the release of the Director’s Cut, Roger Ebert listed the movie in his Great Movies column, calling it “one of the most influential of modern action pictures”, and praising it for its pacing, artful direction, and how it took its time to build tension. It was also a commercial success, something many classics don’t see until years after their release. But enough of what others thought about it, let’s get to what I thought about it! Cue the opening sequence!
Alien opens on the scene of a massive vessel traveling through deep space. The passengers, haulers who work for the mega corporation Weylan-Yutani, are in deep sleep and awaiting their safe return to Earth space with their shipment of ore. However, a distress signal from a neighboring planet brings them out of deep-sleep and sets them on course for this planet. Upon waking, they learn of the signal and their change in course, and are quickly told that company policy demands that they answer the call, otherwise they will lose their “shares” when the shipment is brought in. Through all this, we are immediately made made aware of two things: One, corporate monopolies control all shipping and mining in this universe; and two, that the company maintains loyalty by appealing to their employees greed. Another thing which we are made aware of is the concept of cryogenic-units which are used to keep people preserved during deep space travel in this universe. While the Alien franchise didn’t invent this concept (I believe Arthur C Clarke has that honor) it did much to popularize it. One can scarcely pick up a hard sci-fi book without reading a bit about “hypersleep”, “cryosleep”, “reefersleep”, and the like.
Skip ahead to the planet where the distress signal is originating from, and we are confronted with an alien derelict which I can only describe as awesome! Really, truly, alien looking! In the course of spelunking through the cloudy and oddly shaped interior (you can feel the tension building!), they encounter a field of eggs. One of these eggs opens up when the XO – Kane, played by John Hurt – gets near, and let’s lose a spidery parasite that attaches itself to his face. After he’s returned to the ship, the crew learns that there’s nothing they can do for him now, since the parasite will kill him if it’s disturbed, and that it has acid fpr blood and therefore can’t be removed without causing serious harm to the ship. They learn this second fact the hard way, giving the thing a tiny cut causes an acid spill that melts through two decks! And in a space ship, holes are not something you want! But, as luck would have it, the parasite falls off and dies all by itself. Problem solved, right?
Well, no… shortly after losing the spidery thing and waking up, Kane ups and dies, in the most graphic and horrible way imaginable! This is another aspect of the movie that was both novel and original for its time, the concept of the chest exploding alien! They gestate inside you, scary enough, and then emerge as this nightmarish, toothy thing with spindly arms and a long, segmented tail. In any case, the crew jettisons Kane’s body and is just beginning to breathe normally again when the fully-grown thing of nightmares kills another member of their crew. What follows is a claustrophobic, mad rush to kill the alien, but those attempts quickly fail. The ships Captain (Tom Skerritt) is one of the first to fall, leaving Lt. Ripley (played by Sigourney Weaver) now in charge. She soon realizes that the company wants the alien taken alive, and is even willing to sacrifice the crew to get their hands on it. She further learns that one of crew – Ash, played by Ian Holm – is a corporate mole who’s job, it now seems, is to make sure this directive is followed to the letter. Oh, and did I mention he’s an android?
As soon as he’s found out, Ash tries to kill Ripley, but she and her crew manage to take him down and get some answers from him. He confirms that the company wants the alien and the rest of them are expendable, and is also sure to leave them with some cryptic words: “You still don’t understand what you’re dealing with, do you? Perfect organism. Its structural perfection is matched only by its hostility.” “You admire it,” says one of the crewmen, to which Ash replies: “I admire its purity. A survivor… unclouded by conscience, remorse, or delusions of morality.” Classic lines! Then, just to be prick, he let’s them know exactly how slim their odds of survival are: “I cannot lie to you about your chances, but… you have my sympathies”. Naturally, they say “screw it!” and decide to scuttle the ship. But the alien creature is no slouch and manages to kill all but Ripley and the ships resident cat. To this day, I am not sure what the point of the cat was. Maybe to provide some tension; I mean nothing is more scary than a cat jumping out of nowhere during an already tense scene, right? In any case, she finally kills the alien by blasting it out the airlock of her shuttle and burning it with one of the ships thrusters. She is then left alone to drift home, and files a heartfelt report of how all her friends were killed in deep space by a hostile creature of unknown origin.
To be honest, this movie was a tad uncomfortable at times, at least when compared to the sequel. But then again, that was the whole point of the movie, wasn’t it? It was meant to feel uncomfortable, claustrophobic, and paranoid, because that it exactly what you would expect to feel if you were in that situation. Put yourself in a spaceship, surrounding by vacuum, then imagine you have a hostile organism on your hands that has the run of the place, and is both an expert hunter and hider. What feelings come to mind? Claustrophobia, since you’d feel like your trapped with it, and agoraphobia because you know you can’t just open a door and run outside. For these reasons, and because of the amazing artwork, set designs, the concept of the aliens, and of course the theme of personal and corporate greed, Alien deserves full credit for getting the ball rolling on the whole of the franchise. But really, it was never meant to be a standalone piece, so comparing it to the sequel is not really fair or warranted. If anything, this film and it’s sequel are companion pieces, Aliens picking up where Alien left off and expanding on it, something which it did very well. But more on that next time, stay tuned!
Entertainment Value: 8/10
Welcome back! For my second review, as promised, I will be covering the enduring (ahem) “classic” of Independence Day. Though it has been repeatedly panned by critics, is an undoubted cheese-fest and full of plot holes and Deus Ex Machina plot twists, I have to admit that I actually liked this movie when it first came out. Years later, it remains a sort of guilty pleasure for me, something I routinely poke fun at, but will still sit and watch. If nothing else, its rah rah tempo, stupid one-liners and over the top action are good for a laugh, and maybe a little excitement. Just be advised, taking this movie seriously is not advisable… But, since I gotta review it, I’m going to have to do just that. Wish me luck!
Not that long ago, while discussing this movie over dinner, some friends mentioned that they thought this was a Michael Bay movie. They were wrong, of course. In truth, Roland Emmerich directed it, but the mistake was understandable. Much like Bay, Emmerich has a reputation for making movies that are all form and special effects, always lacking in depth, plot and character development. To illustrate, here are some of the movies he made after Independence Day: Godzilla (1998), The Patriot (2000), The Day After Tomorrow (2004) and 2012 (2009). In addition, he’s also been known to rip off other movies from time to time. Consider the Patriot, which was basically Braveheart meets the American Revolution, or Independence Day’s constant borrowing from other sci-fi movies: Star Wars, Close Encounters, War of the Worlds… the list goes on. And in many respects, his later directorial ventures were obvious attempts to recreate the cash cow that Independence Day turned out to be. Still, one can’t deny that things kind of came together for him with this movie. But putting its commercial success aside, let’s get down to dissecting this bad boy!
The movie opens with a shot of the Apollo landing site, where a shadow slowly covers Old Glory. The shot then pans to Earth where alien ships begin to slowly move into the frame. With this one shot, the audience is exposed to two of Emmerich’s characteristic moves: using landmarks every chance he gets, and ripping off other franchises. Star Wars fans will immediately know what I’m talking about, remember how all the originals began with ships moving into frame from behind the camera? Yeah, well the same thing is happening here. Cut to Earth where dozens of characters, most of whom we’ll never see again, are busy talking about the objects moving into Earth orbit. Will Smith (a marine fighter pilot) the president (a former fighter pilot, played by Bill Pullman), and the crazy alcoholic played by Randy Quaid (another former fighter pilot!), and all his other characters are hurriedly introduced, showing how this event is being perceived by the different people all over the country. Here is yet another characteristic Emmerich move, putting way too many people into a movie, most of whom do nothing except say a line to move the plot along, then either die or are never heard from again.
Moving on, the tension begins to build as everyone begins to ask the obvious: what are they doing here? Naturally, we are shown multiple shots of people all over the world reacting, all of them stupid and cheesy. Some people are thrilled, some think they’ve brought Elvis back, and of course Quaid launches into a drunken rant about how they abducted him way back when (which is apparently why he’s a drunk in the first place). Then, in the movie’s first totally implausible twist, a cable repair man played by Jeff Goldblum discovers that the aliens are using Earth’s satellites to broadcast a countdown signal to all their ships, which are at that moment poised over Earth’s major cities (fans of the V series will recognize this is another case of Emmerich ripping off a respected sci-fi franchise!) Anyhoo, Goldblum discovers this, and brings it to the president, who he just happens to have an in with because he ex-wife works for him. He has to, you see, because somehow the government has missed all this. Yes, that’s right, the US government, in possession of the best scientific minds and cryptologists thanks to NASA, the NSA, the CIA, etc, failed to notice something a cable repair man picked up on. Emmerich himself seemed to recognize the implausibility of this and wrote in an explanation of sorts. Apparently the signal was “subtle”. Yeah, good to know the guy who installs HBO on your home entertainment system is smarter than the guys who send rockets into space and hunt terrorists for a living!
Incidentally, I should take this opportunity to mention all the expository dialogue which takes place within the first thirty minutes. As if it wasn’t clear already, we are made blatantly aware of the fact that Goldblum and his ex-wife still love each other, Will Smith is planning on marrying Vivica A Fox, that he wants to go into space (hint hint!) and that the president is a former soldier who can’t tell a lie! You know, when you have to actually tell the audience what they are supposed to be feeling, it kind of comes off as lazy. But that’s in keeping with Emmerich’s style I guess, pictures instead of words and a few quick and cheesy lines instead of slow, gradual character development. Always taking the short route, eh Emmerich?
In any case, Goldblum warns them, they take him seriously, and the countdown is on! The aliens are clearly going to attack… and then they do! Boom, blam, kapow! The aliens blow up all the landmarks they’ve chosen to hover over and that we are so familiar with. The Chrysler building, the White House, and… I dunno, downtown LA? Yeah, that shot was kind of devoid of landmarks, but I’m guessing blowing up the Hollywood sign just seemed too over the top for this movie. But showing the Statue of Liberty wrecked and toppled over into New York Harbor in the very next shot did not, apparently. What follows is a desperate fight scene where Will Smith’s fighter squadron attacks the LA ship, and in a scene totally ripped off from Star Wars: Return of the Jedi, the entire squadron has to do the whole “pull up, all craft pull up!” thing. Why? The ship has shields, wouldn’t you know? And they are about to fly right into them! Naturally, Smith survives, even if his whole squadron, including his wisecracking friend (played by Henry Connick Jr) gets killed. He even manages to take an alien prisoner, knocking him out between one-liners. “I wrecked your plane!” Whack! “Welcome to Earth!” “Now that’s what I call a close encounter!” One would think he would be a bit sad that all his friends and comrades just got their asses shot to hell, but whatever man, its Will Smith! People expect a certain amount of cool catch-phrases from the man and he has to deliver. It’s in his contract…
Back to Airforce One, where the president, Goldblum, his ex-wife, stereotype dad, and about a half dozen other cardboard stand-ins are talking, we learn that some people knew about these aliens already and kept quiet about it. Even as a teenager when I first saw this, I began thinking to myself “Oh God no, they wouldn’t!” But then, they did! Turns out, and in keeping with Emmerich’s tendency to take the quick and easy road, Area 51 really does exist, and that it really does house the bodies of those aliens who crash-landed at Roswell in 1947, along with their spacecraft. So naturally, that is where they go. Which also happens to be (holy coincidence!) where Will Smith is heading to at that very moment. Why he would be doing that is something not worth considering, that’d just complicate things at this point. I mean, its not like LA and Area 51 are that far apart, right? Actually, there’s about 400 km (or 250 miles) between them. And, as all Marines know, if you get into a dogfight with an alien and happen to take it prisoner, no matter where you are, you should start dragging its carcass to the secret airbase in the middle of the Nevada Desert. Just makes sense! Okay, and in another act of total contrivance, it just so happens that Randy Quaid and a caravan of Winnebagos are heading that way too. So basically, all of the main characters are converging on this one place! How convenient! As if that wasn’t enough, as soon as they all get there, Will Smith steals a helicopter, flies back to LA (what happened to all those alien space craft that were shooting their planes down?) and just happens to find Vivica A Fox and the First Lady, who just happened to find each other after the city got flattened. Just how small is LA anyway?
Then, more expository stuff happens. The prez talks to the weird scientist in charge (played by Brent Spiner, aka. Data from Star Trek TNG) about the aliens and their gear. They then do an alien autopsy on the one Smith captured, which goes horribly wrong when it wakes up and has no restraints to contend with (c’mon people!). And the prez talks to it and finds out they want Earth’s resources because “they’re like locusts”. This is just one of many shallow environmental statements made by this movie, but I digress. This prompts them to try and nuke one of the ships, but wouldn’t you know it, those darn shields are impervious to thermonuclear weapons too! So Goldblum, after yet another expository speech where Judd talks to him about keeping the faith, comes up with an idea. He decides he’s going to infect the alien ship with a computer virus! Not only that, he’s going to fly into the alien mothership, Trojan Horse style, along with Will Smith who just happens to know how to fly the recovered alien spacecraft now (for no other reason than because he saw one in action) and upload the virus there and then set off a nuke to disorient them. Where do I start to explain all the things that are totally weak and crappy about this climax?
Well, for starters, it’s yet another rip-off, this time of HG Wells’ War of the Worlds, where the alien invaders were brought down by actual viruses. But more importantly, there’s the sheer implausibility of the whole idea! For example, are we really to believe that a cable repair man, regardless of how much time he spent at MIT, could design a computer virus that would be capable of disabling alien technology? And are we really to believe that Will Smith can fly an alien spacecraft simply because he saw “how it maneuvers”? And let’s not forget, the ship is 50 years old at this point, you gotta figure the aliens have transponders or some such thing on their ships. How else would they keep track of them? You’d have to think that they’d see it coming and notice it was reported missing 50 years ago and get a little suspicious. But to ask these questions at this point in the movie would be pointless. Hopefully everyone has realized its just easier not to take it seriously. In any case, everything hinges on their ability to get onto the mothership and upload this virus (wait, how did they even know they could get onto it? Never mind!) and on the ability of the US to coordinate a worldwide counter-attack while the shields are down. Again, Emmerich manages to acknowledge the absurdity of all this by having one of his characters (in this case, the jagoff Secretary of Defense) expresses all kinds of doubts. Emmerich promptly shuts those down by having the prez fire the man, mainly because he’s a jagoff! But then again, even Goldblum has his doubts, but Emmerich dismisses them too: “You really think you can fly that thing?” he asks. “You really think you can do all that bullshit you just said?” Nuff said!
In any case, in spite of some predictable road bumps designed to keep the tension up, the plan works. The prez decides to lead the attack… Why? Because he’s a pilot, remember? Not to mention a cardboard cut-out hero. Naturally, he gives a speech that is blatantly American, though it attempts to be international in tone. Yeah, America’s saving the world, so from now on July 4th will be a global holiday. Yay, American culture conquers the world by saving it! Woo… Oh, and Quaid will be flying too, mainly because all the characters have to be swept up in the same plot tsunami again. Everything seems like it might fail when, whattayaknow, Quaid flies his plane into the alien ship’s gun. He gets some personal and comical revenge by killing the bastards that abducted him, and the ship blows up. Now forgetting how stupidly implausible this is (the way to bring down the alien ship is basically the equivalent of plugging the barrel of the gun with your finger???), its also horribly over the top. Of course its the guy who has a family and has been a deadbeat dad up until this point that’s going to redeem himself in a final act of self-sacrifice! But the funniest thing is, how quickly everyone forgets about him. “You should be proud of your father,” says one of the military men. “I am,” says the eldest son, and that’s it. No grief, no anger, no denial. He’s gone, I’m cool!
To make matters even more implausible, Smith and Goldblum somehow manage to survive, despite the fact that they blew up the alien mother ship with a nuke that sent them hurling towards Earth from the resulting shock wave. And then, in the desert, the balance of the main characters watch flaming debris fall through the atmosphere and Will Smith says to his new son: “I promised you some fireworks, boy!” Yeah, nothing like genocide and falling debris, some so big it could take out an entire city, to put you in the festive spirit! I mean c’mon, I know they were trying to exterminate you, but you don’t wipe out an entire race and not feel just the slightest degree of regret or remorse in the process! But again, I’m making the mistake of taking this movie seriously. The big, over the top ending is entertaining, if nothing else, and the big fireworks display only drives the blatant Americanism home. So what the hell! Cue over the top music, and roll credits…
As I’ve said already in this review, this movie is a guilty pleasure for me. It’s fun, rewatchable, and always good for a laugh. In fact, you might say it was a success for exactly those reasons, and maybe that’s what Emmerich himself was going for. Even if the plot is thin as paper, the characters cardboard cut-outs and the dialogue so cheesy it makes you want to laugh out loud, no one can deny that it was some pretty harmless fun. But if his subsequent movies are taken into account, you begin to see a certain pattern in Emmerich’s movies that are genuinely bothersome. For instance, his constant use and destruction of famous landmarks and his far too many characters – most of whom are, at best, one-dimensional, at worst, total stereotypes.
There’s also the massive plot holes, contrivances, and over the top action sequences. But worst of all, it just seems like all of these are shallow attempts at evoking emotion and the goal is just to get to the next action sequence. Every movie he’s made since has these exact same elements, and it just seems lazy. Everything always feels rushed, minimal time being dedicated to establishing tension, developing characters, or creating back story before something blows up and people start to die. The destroying of landmarks, killing off hundreds of minor characters at once, relying on one-liners and cheesy dialogue to make people care, it just seems like he’s just taking the easy route.
In addition, all his movies have the same central theme to them: the lone hero, the outcast or underestimated soul, who somehow knows more than all the experts and manages to see the threat coming, but is ignored. Ultimately, he saves the day, and course, there’s always the bit about the girl he loved, lost, and will win back once he saves the day. While this is a rather weak basis for a main character, they are typically the only one in his scripts that ever rise above the status of total caricature.
So, go ahead Emmerich. Count your millions and keep making crap fests. You’re hurting no one, so I can bear you no ill will. And besides, you made me laugh and kept me entertained with this first crap fest, so I guess I owe you something. Independence Day: harmless fun, but check your brain at the door.
Entertainment Value: 8/10!
Hello and welcome to my first film review! Yes, much like my idea for a beer blog and my desire to write, it seems that a forum and an idea have once again come together to give me a chance to express my inane thoughts. Funny how that works, I guess the universe really does have a sense of humor! And as with all those other things, I value feedback and other opinions highly, so please feel free to drop a line and offer your own thoughts on all the subject matter I choose to review. After all, good films and cult classics need to be praised, or trashed, as the case may be. Furthermore, I would welcome suggestions as to what movies people would like to see reviewed. After all, what constitutes a cult classic is open to interpretation, and I’m currently looking for ideas for what to do down the road. That being said, let’s get to my first review…
As promised, I’ve decided to dedicate my first post to the relatively recent movie Terminator: Salvation, the fourth and most recent installment in the Terminator franchise. I say most recent (as opposed to say, last) because of the rather shameless hints that were dropped at the end of the film, but more on that later… And, just to be a nice guy, I’ve also decided to throw in some headers that looks like this (Background—>), (Content—>), and (Synopsis—>). This way, people can skip whatever sections they don’t want to read, cuts down on reading time. Yes, I am verbose, but at least I admit it! Anyway, it’s time to get down to business! Terminator: Salvation!
When I first heard the film was coming out, I was hopeful. In fact, I was downright excited, seeing as how the last installment (Terminator 3) was a relative flop-fest that seemed totally unnecessary and was generally panned by critics and fans. And the way I saw it, this movie was supposed to do for Terminator what the Dark Knight (also starring Christian Bale) had done for the Batman franchise. My hopes were high, and I can honestly say I was genuinely impressed with the movie for the first hour or so. As hinted at in the previews, it was action-packed and pretty gritty, presenting the world of Judgement Day and the Resistance. And since that’s what fans came to see, I went in thinking that the movie would make good on these promises.
Then, the climax came… and all those hopes fell to pieces. Yep, the movie had the dubious honor of being pretty good up until the ending, at which point the audience is left with a contrived explanation for everything that’s happened and leaves the viewer thinking: “Really? That’s what they decided to do with this? REALLY?” Yes, the ending left a bad taste in my mouth that only seemed to get worse the further I got away from the movie theater. What should have been a fun movie that ended the franchise on a high-note was instead a contrived, forced story with a heavy-handed message about sacrifice and redemption and an over the top, totally implausible climax that was also meant to be open-ended. This last aspect of the film was especially bothersome, since it felt like this was a rather crass attempt to hedge the movie’s bets, letting the audience know another movie could be coming, if only this one made enough money!
But I digress… To recap, this movie was supposed to explain how John Connor and the resistance took down the machines in the future. This is pivotal to the entire plot of the franchise, the very reason why Skynet began sending Terminators into the past, to kill John Connor, the man who would lead the resistance to victory. Similarly, it is why Connor and the resistance began sending back their own people, to ensure Connor exists so that their victory will be assured. In the course of all this, we are treated to a temporal paradox. By trying to protect the future, they essentially created that future. Kyle Reese becomes Connor’s father and the remains of the destroyed Arny machine are found and become the basis for Skynet’s development; hence Judgement Day and the victory of the resistance over the machines becomes inevitable. Then, in movie two, the characters try to break this paradox by destroying the company that invented Skynet and every trace of its research. And, once they’ve killed the evil T1000, Arny sacrifices himself in order to ensure that no trace of the technology will ever fall into the wrong hands. Cool, smart, and virtually seamless. Since the rise of the machines was not totally ensured until Arny himself was destroyed, no obsessive critic could say “if they blew up Skynet, shouldn’t that be the end of the movie? Would Arny and the T1000 just, like, disappear?”
But of course, the studios decided a third had to be made. I mean, no sense retiring a franchise just because the story ended, right? Not when there’s still millions to be made! Naturally, this would prove difficult since the third movie took place after Judgement Day was supposed to have happened (Aug 29th, 1997). How were they to explain this, you might ask. Well, simple! The main characters didn’t stop Judgement Day in movie two, they only postponed it. It’s inevitable, and everything they do in the third movie only ensures that it happens as foretold. Not so smart and seamless, kind of flaccid really, but what the hell? If nothing else, it opened the franchise up again, which was what many fans wanted. Terminator 1 and 2 were box office smashes and critical delights, cult classics and just downright awesome! The studios couldn’t end it all there, so one crappy movie to get things rolling again could be seen as forgivable, provided the fourth one put things back on track.
Yeah, well… that might have been the case had the movie delivered on what was supposed to be its aims. One, show the world of the future, post-Judgement Day, where the machines and resistance are battling. Two, explain how Connor and the resistance brought them down, bring us to the point where the Terminators were sent back in the first place. That’s all… just work within the framework established by the other movies, and don’t do anything stupid like try to throw in another paradox or up the ante with an even bigger crisis. But of course, that’s what they did…
At the very beginning, the movie introduces us to Marcus, a convict who gave his body to science via the Skynet corporation. Then, we are quickly brought to the future where Connor is a player in the resistance, but not yet its leader. He stumbles onto a facility in an opening action sequence that is cool, but kinda inexplicable (why, for example, did the machines set off a nuke in the distance?) Then, in the ensuring sequences, we are fed two plot tidbits. One: the raid put the resistance in possession of a master list the machines have been compiling, a list of everyone they wanna kill! The name at the top of the list, followed shortly thereafter by Connor’s and the names of all the resistance leaders… is Kyle Reese! Cue scary music! You see, Reese is still a boy at this point in the story and has not yet joined the resistance. If he were to die, Connor would cease to exist, and the resistance would be screwed. Oh, and the other tidbit, the resistance has figured out a way to shut the machines down using some kind of high-frequency thing, and they are planning their final strike with it on Skynet itself.
Then, out comes Marcus, the confused and obvious man-machine hybrid. The audience has the benefit of knowing this already thanks to all the trailers and spoilers. The only question is, what the heck is his purpose? Why was he created and what is he going to do? Well, after wandering from the facility the resistance just attacked, he runs into (of all people!) Kyle Reese. Through him he learns of the resistance and Connor, and then the boy and his little mute friend are captured. He then runs into a resistance fighter, played by the always smoking Moon Bloodgood! A budding romance forms, even though the two have absolutely no chemistry and the whole thing feels forced (but on behalf of men everywhere I think I can safely say, that shower scene was pretty damn hot!) Oh, and speaking of forced, were also treated to some obvious hints that Marcus is, despite his past, a nice man who’s looking for redemption. Then, of course, the wandering continues and they get back to the resistance base, where Connor just happens to be in charge. Shortly thereafter, Marcus steps on a land mine, and his secret is out. HE’S A MACHINE! (more scary music!)
Now Connor is left to ponder over the mystery of the man. Here we have a Terminator that walked right into his lair, has no idea he’s a Terminator, and is telling him he needs their help to rescue the kid who will grow up to be Connor’s father. The kid is currently in the machines HQ, and an attack on that place is impending. We can smell the tension at this point, as we are all well-aware of the fact that if the attack is carried out and Kyle Reese dies, that Connor will never exist and the machines will win. Things are beginning to make sense. So what does Connor do? Let’s Marcus go because he thinks he has a shot at getting into Skynet’s base, and follows him in himself, but only after he’s given all the resistance cells who listen to his pirate radio broadcasts the message that they are to disobey their orders and hold off on the attack. And with Marcus inside the facility, things finally come together. Some programming things takes over, he wakes up after being repaired by the machines, and the big, mean Skynet computer lets him in on everything.
And, as I said before, the explanation is bunk! The part about the “signal” was kind of neat. It’s a Trojan Horse, you see. Instead of shutting down the machines, its actually a tracking signal which the machines are now using to locate all the resistance’s positions and destroy them. But the rest? Bunk! I know at this point they want to make us think that all hope is lost so we start caring and get all emotionally involved, but man, what a stupid attempt at trying to tie all the loose ends together! In essence, Marcus was designed with the foresight that a man-machine hybrid would somehow manage to wander the desert, find Reese, find Connor, and deliver them both to Skynet so they could be killed. That was his purpose from the beginning, and what seemed like coincidences was in fact Skynet pulling his strings.
Really? I mean, aside from seeming highly contrived and way too convenient, the explanation is devoid of any and all logic! If the machines wanted to do what they’ve done many times over now and send out a machine to get Connor, and by extension Reese, why not just program him to kill them? Hell, Marcus had Reese at gun point twice in the movie, within the first half hour! If he was under Skynet’s control, why not just tell him to pull the trigger? Second, he was well within range of John Connor on multiple occasions too. If his death is what Skynet wants, why not let him kill him? Why the stupid game of cat and mouse, luring him to the base and all that? One shot, bang! and the movie’s over. I know, then the movie would end abruptly. But I mean c’mon! Both these people are supposed to be at the top of the machines hit list for Christ sakes! And as Connor’s father, if Reese were to die wouldn’t that make Connor disappear from the face of the Earth, thus taking out both of their biggest worries and making their victory inevitable?
But even more nonsensical was the fact that Marcus, now supposedly under Skynet’s control at this point, just reaches into his neck and yanks out the chip that’s in there, cutting off Skynet’s control over him, and goes off to save them both. A chip in his neck? That’s how Skynet was controlling him? Why not his brain? Why not somewhere where he wouldn’t be able to get at it? In fact, what the hell was the point in letting him keep his brain and heart but turning them rest of him into hardware? The flesh I can understand, you gotta put a facade on his exterior so he can get past the guards. And even the brain bit I could understand, that could be seen as a way of making sure he retained his humanity, so no one would guess he was an AI by his total lack of feeling… but the rest of him? Hell, the heart was just an obvious Deus ex Machina which comes out at the end. The rest served no purpose! But once again, I’m getting ahead of myself…
The other problem I had with this climax was obvious. How does Skynet know how things are supposed to unfold? I know that at this point in the story, everyone knows about the prophecies and the future, as told by Connor, but he has all this knowledge because he was told about it by those who were actually THERE! Kyle Reese told his mom what was going to happen and she told him, simple! The machines? They got no crystal balls, they got no people from the future telling them how its going to be. So how do they know Reese is Connor’s father? How do they know Connor is the one who will destroy them? How, for that matter, do they know that they’ve repeatedly failed to “get John Connor” as Skynet puts it? It wasn’t until Connor and the resistance had them on the ropes and were delivering the death blow that Skynet even decided to send Terminators back in the first place, as we are told in the first movie. So really, how does Skynet know anything? Some explanations of how they figured this out might have actually helped tie things together more plausibly. Like, “we interrogated people and they told us about Connor and who his father was. We did some calculations using higher-order mathematics and temporal theory and established that they needed to die!” Just a thought. Also, some indication of how the machines were building a time machine in the first place so they could send Terminators back in time to kill Connor and his mother. It’s been established that they were doing this in the earlier movies, so shouldn’t the machines be actively working on that by this movie? Wouldn’t now be the time for them to send Arny back to kill him and his mother? Wouldn’t now be the time for Connor to send Reese back so he can do what he’s supposed to do, i.e. save his mother’s life, knocking her up with him in the process? Temporal paradox people, these things need to happen in the past so things will unfold in the future…
Ah, whatever, there’s enough wrong with this movie without over-thinking things. So, to summarize, Connor rescues Reese, Marcus rescues Connor, and they decide to set some of the machines fuel cells to explode. These just happen to sitting around since the base is also a factory where the Terminators are built. And to top off this unlikely ending, the resistance flies in to their rescue and pulls everyone out before Skynet goes boom! Uh, really? If it was this easy to get into Skynet, why the hell didn’t they do it sooner? Shouldn’t this big, important base have some kind of… oh, I don’t know, defenses??? In fact, we already got to see these big gun towers protecting the place when Marcus walked in. What the hell happened to those? A quick scene or one line of dialogue would have solved that, say you had a hard time punching through and lost a lot of men, or have Marcus and Connor say they managed to disable them from the inside! Show some people dying or some such shit, it’s not that hard!
Then, back at the resistance base, the medics declare that Connor will die. Hold on, I thought, were they really going to kill him off now? Now that they won, were they going to sacrifice their main character? Such a move could only be considered risky and respectable, but of course, they didn’t! Remember Marcus’ real human heart? Yeah, well, he decides to commit the ultimate act of sacrifice by giving it to Connor, thus fulfilling the whole redemption angle of this movie. Personally, I would have thought saving Connor and Reese the first time around and ensuring that the machines lost the war would have done it, but what do I know? Then, in a final scene, Connor has a voiceover explaining that in spite of the fact that the big bad machine is dead, there is still danger because Skynet’s “Global Network” is still out there. What the hell man? Wasn’t the whole idea that taking down the central AI would knock out the machines everywhere, or at least leave them disorganized and easy pickings? Why is there more to do if you just whacked their nerve center? Did you really think the audience would be screaming out for more, or was this just in case the studio decided to squeeze the franchise for more blood down the road?
Okay, to be fair, there were some things I liked about this movie. The action sequences, for one. We did get to see some pretty cool scenes where Gatling-gun toting Terminators shot up the streets, HK’s were doing aerial combat and big towering tanks blew shit up. And the robot bikes and other assorted killing machines were neat as well. But those strengths were not played upon nearly enough in this movie. Also, the homages that were paid to the originals: Marcus doing the whole “you hit me, I look at you angrily before taking you down” thing that Arny perfected in the second movie, Bale saying “I’ll be back”, the scene with Guns and Roses playing while he hijacked a bike, the cameo by the Arny-bot; those were all pretty cool too. But none of that could save this movie from its forced ending, its heavy-handed theme of redemption, or the fact that the movie should have ended with Skynet being destroyed.
The romance story is also pretty stiff, the actors themselves just don’t have the right kind of chemistry to sell it, and the dialogue between them is pretty damn cheesy. Marcus: “I’m not a good man!” Moon Bloodgood: “You are, you just don’t know it yet.” Yeah… yeah. But what was most disappointing about this film was the fact that instead of redeeming the franchise after Terminator 3, the movie ended up doing the same thing it did: cash in on the franchise with a movie that was all flash and little substance, not to mention full of plot holes so big you could drive a truck through em! I could be wrong, maybe that was their intention from the beginning. But it seemed to me that the whole point of making a fourth movie was to end the series with a bang. Instead, we got a whimper and were openly told we could expect more, should they decide to make another. I don’t know about you, but if they do decide to make T5, I’ll wait to download. That’s right, I won’t even rent it! Take that, money-grubbing studios!