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