Mummy’s Boy: The Mummy 3: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor

The Mummy 3 Tomb of the Dragon Emperor movie poster

 

Perhaps it was the mood I happened to be in the day I saw it in 1999, but I will freely admit I loved The Mummy, the first film in the latter day incarnation of the 1930s MGM horror franchise. In concert with Simon West and Jan De Bont’s pair of Tomb Raider films, The Mummy picked up the period-piece action/adventure mantle left dormant since the last Indiana Jones in 1989, and perhaps contributed to the fedora-clad adventurer’s return for The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull almost 20 years later. It struck me as exactly what all big-budget action blockbusters should aspire to be: good fun, with genuinely impressive special effects, thrills, a little romance, and a few laughs. Not a little of its charm came from the self-deprecating Brendan Fraser, a decidedly different kind of character compared to the arrogance and near superhuman capability of Lara Croft and Indiana Jones.

The franchise proved unusually fertile, spawning an inevitable sequel (not really terrible, but still nowhere near as fun as the original) and even two prequels starring The Rock: The Scorpion King and The Scorpion King 2: Rise of a Warrior. The Mummy 3: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor (2008) came as something of a surprise when the series had seemed to have petered out. Original director Stephen Sommers had since moved on to G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra (2009), leaving it up to Rob Cohen (The Fast and the Furious, Stealth), to see if there was any freshness to be found.

Maria Bello and Brendan Fraser in The Mummy 3: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor“Sorry pal, there’s a mummy on the loose.”

Some time has passed, and Rick (Fraser) and Evelyn (Maria Bello) have retired to a staid English manse. Evelyn earns a living from transforming her past adventures into the form of a popular series of swashbuckling adventure novels, while Rick does, well, nothing. Both find their lives unfulfilling and yearn to return to adventuring. The youthful Fraser hasn’t even grayed his hair, but if Evelyn looks like an entirely new woman, it’s because she is; Bello replaces “thinking man’s sex symbol” Rachel Weisz, who likely had higher aspirations. Their son Alex (Luke Ford), now a rogue archeologist in his own right, forms a contentious relationship with Lin (Isabella Leong), a girl with a considerable secret — she and her mother Zi Yuan (Michelle Yeoh) are immortal (but she doesn’t seem to have matured her emotionally or intellectually over her long life). The slightly fey John Hannah is back in the role of gentle comic relief.

The enemy this time is China itself; the government conspires to awaken the cursed Emperor Han (Jet Li), possessed of supernatural powers but encased in stone for all eternity. With its modern military at the service of a superhuman immortal emperor, China plots nothing less than world domination. The Emperor’s powers also seem to be pretty vaguely defined, and he rarely uses them to best effect. Jet Li rarely appears onscreen in the flesh, leading me to guess he probably did a lot of motion-capture work a la Andy Serkis in the Lord of the Rings and King Kong. He spends much of his time made of indestructible molten rock, but can transform into a fierce dragon at will. Nonetheless, he spends more than a few scenes standing back as his minions fall before his foes, when he could simply sweep in and kill everybody whenever he wanted.

Michelle Yeoh and Isabella Leong in The Mummy 3: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor“Here we go again!”

The movie produces obstacles as it goes along, and you have no choice but to shrug as one MacGuffin piles up atop another. To wit: a special diamond needed to awaken a mummified Chinese Emperor, the blood of someone pure of heart, a drink from Shangri-La, and the sudden appearance of the sole dagger capable of killing the revived Emperor. Capping it off is a trio of benevolent yeti, but the Emperor is eventually defeated with the aid of a literal ghost in the machine: General Ming (Russell Wong), vanquished earlier by the Emperor. The moral of this story seems to be: the enemy of my enemy is my friend.

Like a lot of contemporary effects-oriented features (including Watchmen, Sin City, The Spirit), the best thing about it are its excellent closing credits.


Official movie site: www.themummy.com

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Gritty, Grimy, and Graffitied: The Taking of Pelham One Two Three

The Taking of Pelham One Two Three movie poster

 

Plenty of genre movies have been set in New York City, such as Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby (devilry on the Upper West Side), Walter Salles’ Dark Water (ghosts on Roosevelt Island), Guillermo Del Toro’s Mimic (vermin in the subway), and Spike Lee’s Inside Man (thievery on Wall Street). The Taking of Pelham One Two Three, directed by Joseph Sargent from the novel by John Godey, is one of the few of these New York movies seemingly made for New Yorkers. Plenty of the world’s cities have underground transit systems, but this particular story could be set nowhere else. It’s a potent premise that has been remade twice, first as a TV movie in 1998 and again in 2009 by Tony Scott as a big-budget star vehicle for John Travolta and Denzel Washington. It was even an indirect inspiration for the famous color-coded criminal aliases used in Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs.

The Taking of Pelham One Two Three is a time capsule, full of curiosities about how the New York City subway looked and functioned in the 1970s. It also reveals a great deal about how the city itself was perceived and portrayed in popular cinema at the time. The cityscape is gritty, grimy, and graffitied. Women are just now begrudgingly being let into the M.T.A. workforce. A cynical City Hall is willing to negotiate with terrorists if it means more votes in the next election. Hookers and pimps share the subway with drunks and robust ethnic stereotypes. The unhealthy filth of millions of people living in close quarters is symbolized by a cold going around (which becomes a key plot point).

Walter Matthau in The Taking of Pelham One Two Three“Somebody down there knows how to drive a train. You don’t pick that up watching Sesame Street.”

The movie’s racial politics are dated, but perhaps more honest towards flawed human nature. Lt. Garber (Walter Matthau) is openly condescending towards visiting Japanese officials studying the M.T.A. He’s flatly racist in a way no hero in a modern film would ever allowed to be (he calls them “monkeys”). But in fact, he actually does get his comeuppance. Matthau is, to say the least, an odd casting choice for the hero of a thriller. But he was probably about the correct age for a Transit Authority detective, and had the right air of sardonic disillusionment for a believable lower-level civic employee of the bleak New York City of the 1970s.

Speaking of roles that would never be conceived the same way in today’s Hollywood, the bad guys remain very effectively disguised throughout. Character actors Robert Shaw and Martin Balsam were never exactly superstars, but how many actors today would willingly disguise themselves for most of a movie? I can really only think of Clive Owen in Inside Man and almost anything Gary Oldman does. Unsurprisingly, no attempt is made to obscure the very expensive face of John Travolta for one frame of the 2009 remake. Note that Shaw’s unmasking is spoiled by his prominent appearance on the DVD sleeve.

Robert Shaw in The Taking of Pelham One Two Three“Excuse me, do you people still execute in this state?”

Made decades before 9/11, The Taking of Pelham One Two Three is nevertheless a miniature nightmare scenario of one of the Manhattan’s myriad vulnerabilities to terrorism. In the 1970s, the familiar form of terrorism was to hold hostages for remuneration or to espouse a cause. Scott’s 2009 remake had to face 21st century audiences (many sitting in New York City movie theaters) for whom terrorism means mass murder. But Scott takes the conventional route and boils down the plot into a conflict between two men, on a personal level. Scott’s choices highlight how much the original actually bucks cliche.

In the original, we know practically nothing about the personal lives of Garber or the villainous Mr. Blue (we may guess he’s some sort of ex-mercenary or soldier of fortune, but he gives no hint of his ideology or motivations). In contrast to the ice-cool Mr. Blue, Travolta’s character is manic and unhinged, and rants in a barrage of f-bombs. Just as Sargent’s old school runaway train sequence is more thrilling than Scott’s rapid-fire editing and CGI flair, the original also outscores on pure cynicism.


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A Man Alone: Babylon A.D.

Babylon A.D. movie poster

 

Vin Diesel has made something of a specialty in dystopian science fiction movies possessed of astonishing visuals but horrifically bad scripts (I’m looking at you, Pitch Black and The Chronicles of Riddick). Does he seek these kinds of projects out, or has he been typecast as a weary but action-ready man of the future? Mathieu Kassovitz’s Babylon A.D. is yet more sci-fi trash with an international feel, not just in the spirit of Diesel’s own oeuvre, but also very much a direct descendent of Luc Besson’s The Fifth Element. The presence of Michelle Yeoh promises martial arts asskicking that never really materializes, and the proceedings are given a measure of class by Gerard Depardieu and Charlotte Rampling.

Vin Diesel in Babylon A.D.The goggles… they do nothing!

The movie predicts an especially bleak future for Europe, wracked by perpetual war and terror attacks that leave the urban landscape looking like Chechnya and Bosnia. Toorop (Diesel) is a reluctant mercenary warrior, something like a masterless ronin from old samurai movies. I was prepared to like his character until he shoots a disarmed man in the face and makes a lame Die Hard-like quip. I watched the extended unrated cut on DVD, which may explain why a full 22 minutes lapses before the hero finally undertakes his task: to escort the genetically engineered girl Aurora (Mélanie Thierry) from the war-torn wastelands of “New Serbia” to New York. The persistent tone of a-man-alone cynicism is something else Babylon A.D. shares with many of Besson’s anti-heroes, especially the Transporter films: Toorop knows he’s being used, but not by whom or why.

Michelle Yeoh and Melanie Thierry in Babylon A.D.

Some of the genuinely incredible shots and sequences to watch for, none of which are reflected in the promotional stills:

  • The opening sequence is an unbroken shot zooming straight down on planet Earth, homing in on Manhattan and into Diesel’s eyeball
  • A 270-degree camera move incorporating a CGI helicopter and an ancient convent carved into a stone cliff
  • An establishing shot of an unspecified Russian city built around a giant crater, its origins unexplained (but a likely allusion to the post-WWIII Neo-Tokyo of Katsuhiro Otomo’s Akira)
  • The entire island of Manhattan lit up with a grossly expanded Times Square and completed Freedom Towers

The Manhattan of the Future Babylon A.D.The Freedom Towers dominate the Manhattan of the future

Movies like Babylon A.D. always fall apart at some point, and this one finally succumbs when the refugee party arrives in New York City. Aurora’s father suddenly materializes, apparently solely to provide a massive infodump of exposition. The long, complicated backstory was barely hinted at before, if at all: Aurora is the product of an incorporated religion whose CEO and High Priestess (Charlotte Rampling) hopes to manufacture a miraculous virgin birth. All of this is told, not shown, which only creates frustration and confusion, and little emotional response.


Official movie site: www.babylonadmovie.com

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Apocalypse on Wheels: Death Race

Death Race movie poster

 

Death Race evidences a cynical, shallow, indiscriminate outrage at… everything. In this future dystopia, the U.S. economy collapsed in 2012, followed by soaring unemployment, crime, and incarceration. Echoing Rollerball and Running Man, professional sport has merged with the penal system, providing both televised entertainment and a justice system in one neat, cost-saving package.

In the key incident that illustrates the extent of this fallen society, the government manufactures a riot by shutting down a manufacturing plant and laying off all its workers. The incited rioters make convenient scapegoats for society’s shortcomings, ultimately benefitting the government. One of these innocent blue-collar laborers is Jensen Ames (Jason Statham), a former crook trying to make an honest living as a family man. Like his character Frank in the Transporter films, his criminal forte was driving. Driving very fast. Unjustly imprisoned at Terminal Island Penitentiary, he’s made an offer he can’t refuse; die or be drafted into the role of Frankenstein, a masked fictitious racer in the titular Death Race. As with professional wresting villains and the Yankees, Frankenstein is a villain perfectly designed for the public to root against, and they don’t need to know that the real Frankenstein died long ago.

Jason Statham and Natalie Martinez in Death RaceThis ain’t your daddy’s prison movie

Death Race was originally conceived as a higher-budgeted vehicle for co-producer/star Tom Cruise, but was gradually downgraded to this video game pastiche helmed by Paul W.S. Anderson. It’s a dubious choice of source material, considering that the original Death Race 2000 (1975), starring David Carradine and Sylvester Stallone, is one of the lesser-known apocalyptic sci-fis of its era. Peers Soylent Green, Rollerball, Logan’s Run, and The Ωmega Man) are all better-known and most were in line to be remade earlier. Carradine makes a voice cameo as the previous bearer of the Frankenstein mantle.

Since The Dork Report is never above pointing out the crushingly obvious, Death Race the film is only a few degrees removed from the “Death Race” it depicts: both are escapist entertainments built upon brutality, sexism, and shaky moral ambivalence. The ostensibly hellish Terminal Island Penitentiary actually appears rather chaste and peaceful, making the scenario less distasteful to audiences. Rape is never a worry, and racially motivated conflict is only faintly alluded to by the presence of ethnic gangs (white supremacists are obliquely referred to as “The Brotherhood”). The drivers’ copilots are “Navigators” recruited from the neighboring women’s prison. These stunning model-quality lovelies were cherry-picked to titillate by the Warden (Joan Allen), in service of greater ratings. Speaking of, Anderson misses an opportunity to satirize televised sporting events as well as The Wachowski Brothers’ Speed Racer or even Dodgeball did.

Jason Statham and Joan Allen in Death RaceGravitas or Botox?

Death Race is mindlessly entertaining enough, until we’re asked to forgive unrepentant murderer Machine Gun Joe (Tyrese Gibson) solely because he lends a hand to our hero Jensen. The logic is confused: given an unjust prison system that exploits the guilty and innocent alike, should the guilty also be allowed to walk free? If truly guilty prisoners like Machine Gun Joe are so plentiful, why does the warden have to go to the bother of framing innocent people in the first place?

Statham supplies his usual persona of buff, terse, reluctant hero who has no time for girls (seriously, what is up with that? Transporter 2 even flirts with the notion his character Frank might be gay). Attempts are made to class up the joint with the bizarre miscasting of Joan Allen, a fine actor that here seems wooden and inexpressive (literally so — a case of too much Botox?). Worse is the criminal waste of the powerfully imposing Ian McShane. He was nothing less than awesome in Deadwood, bringing to life a crime lord more interesting than even Tony Soprano. McShane also elevated the short-lived TV series Kings, playing his part like he was in Shakespeare while everyone else was trapped in an elementary school play. But even he can’t do anything to rescue this mess.


Official movie site: www.deathracemovie.net

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Solitary Confinement: Moon

Moon movie poster

 

Moon is a rare science fiction thriller that doesn’t derive its tension solely from the spectacle of spaceships, robots, or offworld locale. Rather, it’s a psychodrama about paranoia, in the Philip K. Dick tradition of Blade Runner, Minority Report, and A Scanner Darkly (not to mention the countless movies Dick indirectly inspired, such as Dark City, 12 Monkeys, and The Matrix). Moon’s futuristic trappings hide several onion layers of deeper themes: bioethics, torture, labor exploitation, and questioning the nature of the self and one’s perception of reality.

Director Duncan Jones (aka Zowie Bowie, son of David Bowie), shot Moon on an extraordinarily economical budget of $5 million, achieved largely by restricting production to soundstages and substituting practical miniatures for costly CGI. A beneficial side-effect is a pleasing tactility lacking in most contemporary sci-fi films, where entire characters and environments are now routinely virtual. As a beat-up moon rover slowly trundles across the uneven lunar surface, kicking up dust, bumping and rattling all the way, it feels real because it is.

Duncan Jones' MoonOur circuit’s dead, there’s something wrong

As his character’s name Sam Bell implies, Jones conceived the role with Sam Rockwell in mind. Rockwell was great in Confessions of a Dangerous Mind and Matchstick Men, and is great here. He must hold the screen virtually alone for most of the film, and Jones was right to hype him for an Academy Award nomination.

Sam is a blue-collar miner and the sole occupant of a partially automated base dedicated to strip-mining the dark side of the moon for a compound needed back on earth for clean power. It may sound like technobabble but in fact the science is sound: Helium-3 is a real element believed to be plentiful on the moon and theoretically may someday provide a sustainable source of energy. But in the true sci-fi dystopian tradition, Sam’s employer Lunar Industries turns out to be as insidious as the Weylan-Utani corporation that exploits the Nostromo mining platform crew in Ridley Scott’s Alien.

Lunar Industries boasts of profitably saving the Earth’s environment by providing clean power on the cheap, made possible by engaging in practices that are arguably immoral but commonly accepted. The exploitation of cloned life is a direct parallel to today’s outsourcing of labor to developing countries with more lax human rights. If one wonders how a future society might be so inured to cloning that they would condone Sam’s servitude, media broadcasts overheard at the end of the film spill the beans: no, they don’t (that is, if we’re optimistic and assume what he hear is real – it’s possible they’re the fantasy of a dying man imagining his moral victory). But perhaps it’s like how many in the western world live now; we enjoy affordable consumer electronics and clothing manufactured by workers that literally live inside their factories, and don’t ask why our purchases don’t cost more. Jones told Suicide Girls that Moon is the first part in a projected trilogy, so perhaps we will see prequels or sequels that flesh out a world where human cloning is a fact of life.

Kevin Spacey in Duncan Jones' MoonGERTY ROTFLMAO

Sam’s madness and physical deterioration is partially explained within the science fiction context as a result of the inherent instability of cloned life. Apparently, like early experiments with animals like Dolly the sheep in 1996, clones are more prone to disease, organ failure, and premature death (Dolly survived about half the normal lifespan for a sheep). Like the “replicants” in Blade Runner, these clones come with built-in expiration dates. But then, don’t we all? While Blade Runner’s Dekker comes to terms with his true nature through escape, Sam instead chooses to confront.

Discovering he is merely a commercial product with inbuilt obsolescence is just one of Sam’s problems. His quarters and workspace look like they might have once been as clean and white as 2001: A Space Odyssey’s Discovery One vessel (or the inside of an Apple Store), but have long since become stained and soiled with the filth and grit of the many Sams that came before him. Also like the Discovery One astronauts, Sam periodically receives prerecorded video messages beamed from earth. These asynchronous conversations are not unlike email, and a poor substitute for real human interaction.

You don’t have to look far for a metaphor: the common practice of solitary confinement is increasingly recognized as a form of torture. The harrowing New Yorker article “Hellhole” by Atul Gawande recounts how a psychologically stable person can go mad in a matter of weeks or even days without human contact. We first meet Sam three years into his tour of duty.

Sam Rockwell in Duncan Jones' MoonI am obligated to make a lame “Sam I Am” joke somewhere in this review, so here it is

Sam’s interactions with the base’s computer GERTY (voiced by Kevin Spacey) are likewise reduced to the rudiments of online communication; its “face” is comprised of happy/sad/neutral emoticons. GERTY is a rarity in science fiction: a compassionate example of artificial intelligence. Countless movies (including 2001: A Space Odyssey, The Matrix, Wargames, The Terminator, I Robot, et al.) have trained us to expect artificial intelligences to be inherently evil or, at least, dangerously unstable. But GERTY is more like David (Haley Joel Osment) in A.I.: Artificial Intelligence, Robby the Robot in Forbidden Planet, or Wall-E: an artificial creation that rigidly follows its programming, but whose parameters allow it to exhibit genuine compassion and caring for its charge.

I loved the movie overall, but was disappointed by the lack of ambiguity in its storytelling. The trailer reveals more than I would have liked to know if I had watched the movie cold, and the movie itself reveals its secrets very early by quickly dropping the word “clone.” Would it have been more interesting had there been hints of a possibility that Sam might be delusional, hallucinating a clone, and was in fact alone the whole time? Maybe I’ve been conditioned by too many Twilight Zone episodes, Fight Club, and M. Night Shyamalan movies, but I expected a twist ending that never came.

I’ve touched on several of Moon’s more obvious inspirations, but I’m also reminded of Steven Soderbergh’s Solaris remake, in which a clone-like creature murders his original. Cloning is just beginning to enter the zeitgeist, having recently figured into the braindead actioner The Island but also the more contemplative Never Let Me Go, based on the highly regarded novel by Kazuo Ishiguro. Clones may very well prove to be the next zombies or vampires.


Official movie site: www.moon-movie.com

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The Best of Inception Online

To follow up on my recent review of Inception, here’s a collection of the best online coverage I’ve seen elsewhere:

Devin Faraci’s Never Wake Up: The Meaning and Secret of Inception is the best thing you will read about Inception, an opinion shared by The Awl. “Inception is about making movies, and cinema is the shared dream that truly interests the director.”

“You have three minutes to make a PowerPoint presentation that will take me three hours to click through.” Christopher Nolan’s Implementation, from The New Yorker, by Gideon Lewis-Kraus. Via Kottke.org.

The Cobol Job, the official prequel, in comic book form.

Al Gore, Leonardo DiCaprio’s pal and fellow ecowarrior, gave Inception a rare endorsement on his blog.

An appropriately Escher-esque infographic by Last Exit To Nowhere.

Cinema Blend provides a very handy F.A.Q.

Prepare to have your mind blown all over again by this key musical cue clue discovered by YouTube user camiam321, drawing on hints dropped by composer Hans Zimmer in the L.A. Times:

Christopher Nolan’s Fugue State: Inception

Inception movie poster

 

In his 1999 essay Celluloid Vs. Digital, Roger Ebert cites studies equating the experience of watching a movie to entering a fugue state: “film creates reverie, video creates hypnosis.” In other words, experiencing a film in the traditional manner, projected at 24 frames per second in a darkened theater, affects the brain in a way akin to dreaming. Inception is far from the first movie set in dreams, but it may be alone in attempting to encode the experience into the architecture of a film itself. Whether you compare it to onion skins or a puzzlebox, the form follows the content.

The bar has been set very low by the likes of Avatar, but Inception is finally proof that movies with budgets in the hundreds of millions need not be moronic and disposable. Yes, Inception is a sci-fi action movie full of well-tailored outlaws, guns, fight sequences, and exploding mountain fortresses, but it’s also an intelligent, complex experience for adults. If it took a weak remake and two movies about a vigilante in a rubber bat costume for Nolan to get here, then so be it.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt in Inception“It’s not, strictly speaking, legal.”

Inception is the natural progression from Following, Memento, and The Prestige, Christopher Nolan’s quartet of wholly original visions. Insomnia, a safe remake of the far more incendiary Norwegian original, now seems like a detour, a paying of dues to enter the mainstream. His pair of Batman franchise entries injected a modicum of psychological realism into the pulp source material, but the grimly ponderous weight of it all was perhaps more than it could bear. For my money, nobody other than Tim Burton has managed to find the right mixture of camp and solemnity that makes up Batman.

While Inception may have some surface resemblance to numerous heist, caper, long con, action, and science fiction films, it is nevertheless a very welcome New Thing. Its deepest thematic links are probably to cerebral sci-fi meditations Solaris and Until the End of the World. The nightmare planet in Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris haunted visitors with imperfect reincarnations of their most emotionally significant others. When a grieving astronaut is reunited with his ersatz wife, long dead of suicide, is it a blessing or a curse?

Inception“A single idea from the human mind can build cities. An idea can transform the world and rewrite all the rules.”

Wim Wenders’ Until the End of the World posits a future in which dream-reading technology would be enormously addictive, psychologically damaging, and permanently alter society. If a technology is ever invented for a group of people to not only enter an individual’s dreams but also to construct the dreamworld itself, how plausible it is that society would not be radically transformed? In Inception, Dom Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) is a master at corporate espionage. His expertise is with a process normally utilized for the “extraction” of trade secrets, but inverted to inception: to implant an idea, a task which proves to hold massive significance to Cobb. Like a drug, we’re told, these machines gradually seep away users’ ability to dream on his or her own. We glimpse a sort of opium den in which burned-out dream junkies go to re-experience the normality of not only dreaming, but more importantly, waking up from dreams. Wenders’ The End of Violence would similarly look at another dystopian future in which global surveillance is taken to its logical extreme.

Inception’s action sequences beg comparison to everything from James Bond, Jason Bourne, and Mission: Impossible. Its creative fight sequences, taking place in virtual arenas in which the laws of time and gravity are fluid, recall The Matrix. But the true narrative and structural template is much more along the lines of long-con tale much loved by David Mamet (particularly Homicide and Redbelt) and heist films Rififi, Thief, and Heat, in which a crack team of criminal experts work with a psychologically damaged leader on a high-stakes One Last Job.

The bloodless massacre of hordes of armed thugs seems designed to resemble video games. The obliquely portrayed violence is partly explained by a PG-13 rating that hypocritically permits dozens of onscreen shootings, but disallows blood, and thus any sense of the repercussions and ramifications of violence. But in the world of the film, the thugs are explained to be manifestations of the subconscious. A slight-of-hand morality magic trick that makes it OK for our heroes to mow them down with machine guns and grenades (again, this flashes back to The Matrix, in which the good guys rationalize away their mass killing of virtual avatars).

Marion Cotillard in Inception“You mustn’t be afraid to dream a little bigger, darling.”

Inception had already developed a reputation as a mind-bender even before release, but I found it to be surprisingly straightforward if you pay a little bit of attention. If you choose to take the film at face value, pretty much everything you need to know is spelled out for you, often in frankly literal exposition (usually in exchanges with Ellen Page’s inquisitive character). The key ambiguity is a simple but profound question raised in its final moments. Interpreted one way, the film neatly wraps itself up in an airtight box (which is extraordinary in and of itself, when most big-budget movies often fail to make logical sense). Interpreted another way, it calls into question everything you’ve seen.

This moment hinges on Cobb’s totem, a personal item that each dream-traveller must rely upon to detect whether or not they are awake. Both Cobb and Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) warn Ariadne (Ellen Page) to never allow anyone else to touch hers. But Cobb also freely admits that his totem first belonged to his wife Mol (Marion Cotillard). Complicating matters, unless I missed something, we never see her with it outside of the dream world. The top had symbolic meaning to Mol, for she locked it up in a metaphorical safe in her dreams. Cobb then uses it to plant the notion in her head that the dream world is not real, in order to encourage her to break her addiction and wake up with him. If the top was real, would she not be able to test herself with it when she woke up?

One further clue that suggests much of what we saw may be Cobb’s dream: if he and Mol lived the equivalent of 50 years in Limbo, several levels deep into their subconscious, why do they seem to only wake up through one level of dreaming? Is Cobb still trapped a few levels down?

Ellen Page in Inception“Dreams feel real while we’re in them. It’s only when we wake up that we realize something was actually strange.”

And one wonders about the implausible dream technology itself. It’s offhandedly said to have been developed by the military for training purposes, but very little time is spent on the mechanics of the technology. Some sort of IV is involved in the process of linking people together, but how exactly does an Architect create and realize the world? We see Ariadne fiddle with papier-mache models, and verbally describe the world to the participants, but we’re also told that the architect need not necessarily enter the dream personally, so it’s not her mental map that makes things possible. If the agents are able to conjure things on the fly (Eames produces a grenade launcher out of thin air, and Ariadne folds a city in half), why do they not take more advantage of their effectively unlimited abilities during the heist? Cobb makes a big deal out of a prospective architect being able to devise labyrinths, something like a video game level designer. But Ariadne’s work is literally short-circuited and we never see a dramatic payoff to the theme of mazes.

Ray Bradbury once said that he was not concerned with the mechanics of interstellar travel; if a story he wished to tell required a rocket ship to ferry characters to another world, that was good enough for him. So is it pedestrian of me to wonder about these practicalities, or do these questions actually matter a great deal? Is the lack of specificity about how this miraculous technology actually works a clue? I believe it is linked to the troubling ambiguity of Cobb’s desire to “go home.” Does he simply want to clear his name so he can re-enter his home country, or does he want to plunge deeper into his fantasy? Is he actually guilty of a crime like Roman Polanski, or merely obsessed with indirect culpability like Kelvin in Solaris or Teddy in Shutter Island? Either way, he may have the opportunity to construct a false reality in which he can absolve himself.

I believe Inception is one for the ages, and not just because it has been endorsed by Al Gore. Like 2001: A Space Odyssey and Blade Runner, it’s the rare science fiction film likely to remain well-regarded for years.

Random Observations:

  • How many heist movies have you seen in which the master thief attempts the mythical One Last Job before retiring?
  • Despite Leonardo DiCaprio sporting Nolan’s own haircut, Inception might suffer in comparison to his somewhat similar character in his most recent film, Shutter Island. Two thrillers in a row about a man wracked with guilt over his dead spouse.
  • Wikipedia puts the budget at $160 million, plus a $100 million publicity campaign. As usual, these numbers make my head spin. But at least this time the result is a strong movie.
  • Like Paul Thomas Anderson, Nolan has developed his own personal actors’ troupe. Inception features return appearances by Michael Caine, Ken Watanabe, Cillian Murphy.

Official movie site: www.inceptionmovie.com

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The Mutant Menagerie: X2: X-Men United

X-Men 2 movie poster

 

In retrospect, the first X-Men movie did an incredible job of managing the introduction of a wide array of characters to mass audiences likely unfamiliar with the decades’ worth of continuity established in its comic book source material. But the sequel X2: X-Men United crowds the stage with too many new faces in addition to the returning original cast. In short order, audiences not only have to recollect the original characters but also learn how Stryker (Brian Cox), Iceman (Shawn Ashmore), Pyro (Aaron Stanford), and Lady Deathstryke (Kelly Hu) fit in to the mutant menagerie. X2 also expands the ranks of the Blue Man Mutant Group, with Nightcrawler (Alan Cumming) joining Mystique (Rebecca Romijn-Stamos) in head-to-toe body paint, later to be accompanied by Beast (Kelsey Grammar) in Brett Ratner’s risible X-Men 3: The Last Stand.

Alan Cumming in X2: X-Men UnitedNightcrawler auditions for a spot in the Blue Men Mutant Group

Holocaust survivor Magneto (Ian McKellen) is still just as genocidal as his former Nazi oppressors, an irony he fails to perceive despite it being pointed out to him repeatedly. His aims and obsessions make for a very good villain, but also for a virtual repeat of the previous movie’s plot. In the original (read The Dork Report review), Magneto built a device to forcibly mutate homo sapiens into homo superior, the arising species known as “mutants” to which both The X-Men and his Brotherhood of Evil Mutants belong. The weapon turned out to be faulty and instead simply killed every human within range. To a man like Magneto, said glitch was not a bug but a feature. Nothing if not persistent, he employs basically the same scheme in X2. New baddie Stryker has reverse-engineered Professor X’s mutant-detection device Cerebro into a weapon capable of killing all mutants en masse. Magneto plots to repurpose it to kill all humans instead.

Also recycled from the previous movie is the fact that Magneto is again not the movie’s true villain, despite long holding the rank of the X-Men’s official nemesis. The real antagonist last time around was intolerant politician Senator Robert Kelly (Bruce Davison). Now the foe is another powerless human, Colonel Stryker, a warmonger with a private army. Like Kelly, he’s a fervent speciesist, so enflamed with passionate hatred of mutants that he transforms his own mutant son Jason (Michael Reid McKay) into a component in his genocidal weapon.

Hugh Jackman in X2: X-Men UnitedWolverine babysits The New Mutants

One notable tweak to the original recipe is a healthier dose of violence and killing perpetrated by the fan-favorite Wolverine (Hugh Jackman). As a character, Wolverine is capable of both berserker rage and human empathy, but his movie incarnation seems to be able to turn it on and off at will. Coupled with a PG-13 rating dictating that his slaughter remain bloodless, this negates one of the tragic flaws of the character I recall from reading the comics as a kid. The Wolverine I remember constantly struggled to keep his animalistic side in check in order to live among his friends, lovers, and allies. The movie Wolverine is a little bit of a softy, actually, spending much of film babysitting mopey teen trio Iceman, Pyro, and Rogue, the latter still harboring an unrequited crush on a dude way too old, hairy, and Canadian for her.

X2’s biggest problem is that it has no sense of humor, allowing the grimness of the scenario to drain most of the fun out of the experience. The original had only a single credited screenwriter, David Hayter, but the sequel teams him with Michael Dougherty and Dan Harris — hinting that the crowded stage of actors was paralleled by a few too many cooks in the kitchen backstage. One good scene, at least, provides a reminder of what the first film got right: when the teen Iceman reveals his superpowers to his parents for the first time, his mother asks “Have you ever tried to… (awkward pause) not be a mutant?” It’s an excellent scene that uses humor to employ the sci-fi conceit of the mutant experience as a metaphor for a minority’s troubled coming of age.


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Surrogates

Surrogates movie poster

 

Surrogates is an elegantly literal twist on the classic sci-fi theme of living through avatars. Cyberpunk writers William Gibson and Neal Stephenson pioneered virtual reality as a setting for the dramatic exaggeration of issues first sparked by the very beginnings of internet chat rooms. Their predictions have already come true, in part, in the form of social networking and immersive games like Second Life and World of Warcraft. Surrogates takes this conceit one step further, but fails to address moss of the questions it raises. To look deeper than I think the film supports, you might start to think about the personas we craft for ourselves in different contexts, how we dress and behave in the privacy of our homes versus how we do at work or play.

Rosamund Pike in Surrogates

Directed by Jonathan Mostow (of the excellent nail-biter Breakdown, but also the dud Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines), the film is based on the comic book The Surrogates by Robert Venditti and Brett Weldele. The premise requires a long, involved prologue necessary just to explain it. This very near future is defined by the technology for remote-controlled androids, which are not unlike cars: affordable enough for the majority of the population to own one, available in tiered models that reflect your income and taste, and a way of life ingrained into society just as much as cars have shaped cities and the highways that network them together.

Taken to its logical extreme, a world populated by remote controlled robots affects everything from the workplace to warfare. Beauty parlors have morphed into something like hi-tech auto repair shops, where people trick their surrogates out with new rubber faces and super-strong limbs. Patriot Act-like mass surveillance is conducted through the robots’ very eyes, without their owners’ permission, in an impossible-to-miss metaphor for Bush-era warrantless wiretaps. War is now a deathless abstract resembling a computer game: faceless drones teem distant battlegrounds in a sick parody of today’s airborne Predator drones and precision-guided missiles. Notice also the spotless art direction: everything is clean because robots don’t eat or litter.

When so much of the fictional ramifications are thought out, it’s disappointing when so many other obvious implications are left unclear. We’re told the crime rate has fallen dramatically since most people started living through robot surrogates, but why, necessarily? Perhaps because there’s no such thing as raping or murdering a robot. But why do FBI agents have such luxurious homes, if their jobs are less necessary in this utopia?

Radha Mitchell and Bruce Willis in Surrogates

One interesting wrinkle barely touched upon is that some characters, including Greer (Bruce Willis) and his wife Maggie (Rosamund Pike), have selected surrogates modeled on their own natural physical appearances. Younger, stronger, and more virile, perhaps, but recognizably their idealized likenesses. There are only a few examples of users that opt to mix race and/or genders, let alone go to further extremes. The most outwardly unusual looking surrogates we see merely have impossible complexions. Perhaps the Greers are not fully committed to living this way. Why not explore this point more? A failure of the imagination.

But by far the biggest absurdity is the claim that 98% of the population lives through surrogates. The film would have been better off by sidestepping the question of whether or not much of the population could afford state-of-the-art consumer electronics. If only a portion of the population in 2010 has access to things like health care and broadband, it’s certainly absurd to pretend for even a silly sci-fi movie that we all might some day be able to afford personal robots. But then again, there are hundreds of millions of cars in use worldwide today, so perhaps it is not that outrageous to hypothesize that someday we all might be remotely piloting some kind of robot around all day every day.

While many other people, including his wife, choose to live life through their surrogates, FBI agents are given turbocharged loaner models in some kind of perk akin to today’s company cars. Greer behaves differently as himself or when working through his surrogate. He spouts tough, sarcastic, noir-ish detective dialogue when working, but turns meek and emotional when living as a “meatball.”

Ving Rhames and James Cromwell appear in disappointing fleeting roles. Rosamund Pike is obviously very beautiful, but her wide circular glassy eyes frankly look slightly odd from certain angles, making her an excellent casting choice.

There are fewer android-related special effects than you might imagine, especially when compared to Westworld (read The Dork Report review), The Stepford Wives, Alien, and A.I., all of which revel in revealing robotic guts beneath rubber skin (images one might even fetishize as a literal “cyberporn”). Rather, the film’s best special effect is when a surrogate deactivates and comes to a complete halt. I can’t guess how it was done, but it’s clearly more complicated than simply freezing the frame. It’s very eerie to see a person, however artificial-seeming, simply and silently freeze as the light of life goes out of their eyes.

A ostentatious dangling plot thread about Greer’s dead son goes nowhere. Even the revelation of what caused his death is a misfire, and has no impact upon the story. Why would a painful loss in the family compel the Greers to live virtual lives? Everyone else is only doing it because they want to appear attractive.

The final moments are lame and non-dramatic, relying on unseen newscasters to explicitly outline the themes of the movie, for the slower members of the audience, perhaps.


Official movie site: www.chooseyoursurrogate.com

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Westworld

Westworld movie poster

 

The late Michael Crichton is primarily known as a bestselling novelist, but somewhat less so as a screenwriter, feature film director, and television producer (he was one of the co-creators of the blockbuster series E.R.). Characteristic novels Jurassic Park and The Andromeda Strain are built upon fascinating speculative science with thrilling story potential, spoiled by wafer-thin characters and simplistic plots. His 1973 thriller Westworld suffers from the same syndrome. Despite its high-minded origins in speculative science, the movie is simple in structure and theme. It’s not unusual for science fiction films to be overtly based on Western tropes (the best example that comes to mind is Outland), but Westworld is a hybrid with equal parts of each. The second half is basically an extended chase sequence, punctuated by a few classic horror movie tropes.

Yul Brynner in WestworldThere’s a face off in the corner

Westworld posits a future in which robotics and artificial intelligence have advanced enough to enable a new market for entertainment and leisure. The futuristic vacation resort Delos is a forerunner to Jurassic Park: an experience adventure for the affluent, powered by untested advanced technology. Imagine Disney World-like animatronics taken to the next level: semiautonomous robots roam an immersive environment to serve as interactive servants, sex toys, and target practice.

Crichton skips over the entire issue of how these machines achieve consciousness, making the common movie fallacy that robots = artificial intelligence. If they are basically animatronic machines, how did they evolve an instinct for self-preservation? If these droids are not feeling actual rebellion and murderous vindictiveness, is it a virus or malfunction? On a more practical level, there appears to be a plot hole in how all robots but The Gunslinger (Yul Brynner) appear to completely vanish after murdering the Delos’ staff and visitors.

Richard Benjamin and James Brolin in WestworldJames Brolin & Richard Benjamin take the vacation of the future, today

Brynner’s may wear the same costume as in The Magnificent Seven (read The Dork Report review), but The Gunslinger’s true analog is closer to Jaws and Moby Dick. He pops up again and again, seemingly unkillable, possessed of an unexpressed, inexplicable motivation to hunt one single man. He fixates on tourist John Blane (James Brolin) and remorselessly pursues him to the death, not unlike the implacable demons that haunt Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men, All the Pretty Horses, and Blood Meridian. Brynner isn’t given much in the way of dialog or character, but you can see he worked very hard on his physical performance. His bearing, posture, gait, and gaze are all unsettling. Far from a cartoonish robot figure, The Gunslinger is really inhuman, weird, and creepy.

Westworld, like Jurassic Park, seems to be a vague cautionary tale against toying with advanced science. The famously science-minded Crichton (an M.D.) is not simply demonizing science itself, but rather its arrogant misuse. If the first mistake is to build machines more complex than the human mind can understand, the second is to bet our lives upon them.

Delos is a fantasy world where people can kill or fuck anything they want. In other words, a recipe for disaster. Later science fiction stories like Tron, The Matrix, and Caprica (read The Dork Report review) would typically stage similar morality plays in virtual reality. But I don’t get the sense that Westworld is criticizing the indulgence of humanity’s worst tendencies. Is it instead focusing on the mistreatment of semi-sentient beings as slaves? When the park is in working condition, the robots are prostituted and murdered over and over for humans’ entertainment. After they become conscious, we see one “female” robot reject a human’s sexual advances, while another is cruelly chained up in a dungeon. Neither seems to be expressing much in the way of grief or resentment. Instead, we are perhaps meant to see them as innocents that are simply seeking a little dignity.

Stray observations:

  • The sequel movie Futureworld (1976) and TV series Beyond Westworld (1980) are not available on DVD or online at this time of writing.
  • Young James Brolin looks so much at times like Christian Bale does today that it’s almost creepy.
  • Even Delos’ animals are robotic, perhaps alluding to the moral tests regarding the treatment of animals (robotic or real) in Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep. Even more on the nose, Blane finds a robot snake in the desert, foreshadowing the ones we see for sale in Blade Runner.

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