The Terminator franchise is cooked from a core recipe of cyborgs, time travel, bullets, and explosions, seasoned with themes of destiny, paranoia, and technophobia. Subtract or substitute too many of these ingredients and you wind up with something not-Terminator. Terminator Salvation is the first episode to dare to omit the foundational time travel element. Its “present” is the post-apocalyptic future we only glimpsed in the previous films, and the closest thing to time travel is the very conventional storytelling conceit of a flashback. It’s curious that in a media landscape where fractured, non-chronological narratives are the norm (particularly on television, most notably in Lost and Breaking Bad) that the Terminator series would retreat to a safer, more linear narrative structure.
While one might imagine that would result in a more straightforward continuation of the saga, I found it raised more questions than it answered. I’m either over- or underthinking things, or more likely expecting too much of a post-exhausted escapist action franchise, but the Terminator chronology seems more entangled with paradoxes than ever. Let’s start with a condensed overview of the four feature films to date, compiled from Wikipedia, Empire Online, io9, and the Terminator Wiki. For simplicity’s sake, I’m omitting The Sarah Connor Chronicles TV series and any other spinoff comics, games, novels, or whatever other assorted ephemera that has since only muddled things further:
1959 (T1, T2) or 1965 (T3): Sarah Connor born
The Terminator (1984)
The present: 1984 (Los Angeles)
Judgement Day: August 29, 1997 (specified in T2)
The future: 2029
1985: John Connor born
Terminator 2: Judgement Day (1991)
The present: 1995 (John Connor is 10)
Judgement Day: August 29, 1997
The future: 2029 (same date given in T1, but SkyNet is markedly more advanced)
1997: Sarah Connor dies of leukemia (T3)
Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines (2003)
The present: 2004
Judgement Day: July 24, 2004 (delayed from 1997 by events of T2)
The future: 2032
Terminator Salvation (2009)
Prelude: 2003 (Texas death row, prior to the events of T3)
Judgement Day: July 24, 2004 (not specified; I’m assuming it’s the same as predicted in T3)
The present: 2018 (the earliest vision of the future seen yet)
So across four films, our heroes succeed in delaying the dread Judgement Day only once, and never outright prevent it. Perhaps the supremacy of artificial intelligence is inevitable, like Ray Kurzweil’s predictions of the coming Technological Singularity.
Perhaps easiest to straighten out is the evolution of the villainous SkyNet’s footsoldier: the titular Terminator. At the time of Terminator Salvation, SkyNet has only deployed the crude T-600, basically a tank on legs that could be mistaken for a human only at a great distance. Terminator Salvation also shows an intermediate stage in SkyNet’s plan to create “infiltration units”, cyborgs that can ingratiate themselves into human enclaves. The prototype turns out to be not very reliable — far more human than machine — so SkyNet’s skunkworks are already mass-producing all-machine successor, the T-800. Sarah and Reese successfully destroyed one of these in The Terminator, but fragments survived destruction and were (paradoxically) used to create SkyNet. So, not only is Judgement Day not averted, SkyNet is even more advanced in the version of 2029 seen in Terminator 2 than the 2029 we see glimpses of in The Terminator. Sarah and Reese arguably made things worse, for SkyNet developed the more high-tech liquid metal Terminator model T-1000. The events of T2 delay Judgement Day until July 24, 2004. Around 2032, SkyNet developed the even more advanced T-X (a hybridized model utilizing both an endoskeleton and a liquid metal skin) seen in Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines. SkyNet also evidences an enhanced sense of aesthetics, as the T-X is markedly more sexy.
The adult John Connor we see in Terminator 4 has not yet become the leader of the resistance that nearly defeats SkyNet in the future of The Terminator. So, in Terminator Salvation, what does he think when he’s presented with a plan to permanently defeat SkyNet? Does he know the plan is doomed to fail because he knows his future self will still be fighting SkyNet in the future? In which case, why bother to help? It might be in his best interests to actively thwart the plan.
Also, how does SkyNet know in 2018 that John Connor and Kyle Reese must be assassinated? Neither has yet become a leader. Neither has time travel been invented (yet), so SkyNet can’t know (once again, yet) what these two humans will become, or that SkyNet in the future will try at least three times to kill John before Judgement Day.
The easy way out of these questions already exists in the Terminator canon: according to the rules of time travel as established in the Terminator universe, the timeline is not fixed, and may be altered. This conceit only raises more questions: if the plan succeeds, he will never become the leader of the resistance. He will never send Kyle Reese back in time to become his father, and he will have never existed to put in motion his plan to save humanity. If he succeeds, will he be erased from history? If so, why do we not seem him grapple with this interesting existential question onscreen? Would this not be the entire point of finally revisiting the long-running character of John Connor as an adult? It would seem the filmmakers are more interested in special effects spectacle than character or deeper themes.
All of which brings me to my biggest philosophical problem with the core of the entire Terminator concept: what makes John Connor so important? Terminator Salvation is the first installment in the story to finally depict him in action as the mature rebel leader SkyNet is so afraid of. But the most influential acts of leadership we see are mere motivational radio addresses meant to inspire a defeated humanity to keep fighting, a far cry from the messianic military commander that will supposedly lead humanity to its salvation. His supposed destiny is described by the cynical General Ashdown (Michael Ironside) as a religious prophecy. I would have liked to see more doubt on the part of the resistance that he’s anything special, at least yet. But instead, he inspires blind loyalty (except for a colleague’s act of spectacular treachery in releasing a cyborg mole, whom they have every right to believe is a SkyNet agent). Also, why doesn’t anybody just call him “John” or “Connor” or “hey you”? He’s apparently so important that everyone always refers to him by his full name, perhaps so the audience is perpetually reminded of his portentous initials, which rather obviously reflect the character’s creator James Cameron, as well as another mythological savior of humanity from two millennia past.
Terminator Salvation was released in a year curiously rife with apocalypse porn. The visions of world’s end in theaters that year varied wildly in tone: everything from illuminating art to alarmism to escapism. The competition to bum you out included Roland Emmerich’s 2012, which utilized the best special effects technology money could buy to depict the systematic destruction of international landmarks, and John Hillcoat’s The Road, which imagined the scattered remnants of humanity scrabbling to survive in a world they may have themselves decimated, but long past a point where blame had any meaning. Technology is both destroyer and salvation in Terminator and 2012, but largely irrelevant to the stragglers clinging to life in The Road. All of humanity’s inventions are gone, and give neither aid nor harm.
For the Terminator series to be such a long-lasting mass entertainment is odd, considering it is set in a desolate, post-nuclear-war world ruled by a self-aware artificial intelligence. It would seem that a distrust of technology and fear of world war is a perpetual motivation to go to the cinema. James Cameron’s original science fiction nightmare is vintage 1984, with old-school optical special effects and stop motion animation that, depending on your point of view, are either quaint or relics of a lost era of handmade moviemaking. But its core concept was strong enough to become archetypal of an entire genre, inspiring countless derivative works. The Wachowski Brothers stole it outright for The Matrix, where self-aware computer programs turn against the human civilization that created them, like the Terminators before them. The Terminators stage a malicious holocaust of pure extermination, but the Matrix programs instead virtually enslave the human race while they feed on giant electrical batteries comprised of farmed human bodies. While the eponymous Matrix was a weapon of fratricide, The Terminators were instead locked in a game of time-travel chess. But in each case, the offspring of humanity are afflicted with profound Freudian complexes: they are fixated on consuming their parents.
The cast of Terminator Salvation was more populated with famous names than it needed to be. Christian Bale is now the fourth actor to play the role of humanity’s savior John Connor, and with apologies to Edward Furlong, Nick Stahl, and Thomas Dekker, the first marquee name. One need look no further to spot the biggest gamble this film makes: nobody went to see any of the previous three Terminator films because they were fascinated by the good guy. From the very beginning, the big draw for audiences (and the plum role for any actor looking to make a splash) was the villain. The eponymous cyborg antagonist James Cameron created quickly became iconic and launched bodybuilder Arnold Schwarzenegger to Hollywood stardom and, even more implausibly, a political career.
Bale is coming from an entirely different place than a ‘roided-up Austrian amateur thespian in 1984. Bale is a capital-S Serious Actor, from the very beginning of his career as the child lead in Steven Spielberg’s still under-appreciated Empire of the Sun through to his modern resurgence in Mary Harron’s controversial American Psycho. Like Brando and Crowe before him, Bale comes across as an angry and humorless guy — possibly even unstable — in most of his roles and even his public persona. Indeed, rumors of his ill temper were seemingly confirmed by his infamouseruption on the set of Terminator Salvation in July 2008.
A pessimist might even imagine Bale’s histrionics part of a publicity campaign to create awareness and positive buzz — not just for a movie that studio executives might consider an unsure prospect in need of a marketing boost, but even to cement his own sexy reputation as a loose cannon or Hollywood bad boy. In the end, a hissy fit thrown by a handsome and overpaid celebrity wasn’t enough to prevent minor box office disappointment and tepid reviews, (a modest 52% on Metacritic). At the very least, Bale’s tabloid presence helped most of the celebrity obsessed world become aware that there was a new Terminator film coming out, when previously only Comic-Con attending sci-fi geeks had been paying attention. Personally, knowing about Bale’s tantrum beforehand actually took me out of the experience of watching the film on its own merits. I was continuously distracted by wondering which particular scene stressed him out enough to blow his top.
Bale’s prickly persona might make him eminently suitable for roles like the driven resistance leader John Connor, but it makes his range seem quite limited. He employs the exact same set of mannerisms he used for Bruce Wayne in Batman and The Dark Knight: a hoarse voice, tensed posture, and lowered-head thousand-yard stare. Bale may play the top-billed role in The Dark Knight and Terminator Salvation, but he is arguably not the real protagonist in either and is overshadowed by Two-Face (Aaron Eckhart), The Joker (Heath Ledger), and Marcus Wright (Sam Worthington) — both in terms of screen time as well as actorly showiness. Perhaps it’s a deliberate choice on Bale’s part to seek out essentially supporting parts in which he allows his character to be subordinate to a cast ostensibly billed below his name. Fittingly, Bale was to earn an Oscar the next year for an actual supporting role in David O. Russell’s The Fighter, so at least in one case his real-life persona completed its redemption arc, if his Terminator role John Connor didn’t.
I have nothing to back this allegation up, but I’ve heard rumors that the original script for what became Terminator Salvation centered around the characters of Marcus (Worthington) and Reese (Anton Yelchin). Worthington and Yelchin would have shared the focus, while the character of John Connor was relegated to a cameo appearance, but the role was greatly expanded when Christian Bale became attached. This rumor could account for the relative richness (albeit truncated) of the Marcus character arc, as compared to the one-note Connor. It would have served both characters better had the movie focused on just one tortured male savior.
Director McG’s Terminator Salvation is by no means equal to James Cameron’s two original films, but it’s really not all that terrible, and certainly better than Jonathan Mostow’s Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines. My theory is very simple: it’s too grim. The first three movies all had some degree of humor, but Terminator Salvation’s trailers and TV commercials made no attempt to tart it up as a good time. By far the highlight for the audience I saw it with was the sudden appearance of a famous T-800 model Terminator, not entirely successfully realized by applying a CGI Arnold Schwarzenegger head atop bodybuilder Roland Kickinger. If a little less than convincing, it at least provided some relief from the oppressive apocalyptic despair. Also, a newly recorded voiceover cameo by Linda Hamilton was a nice touch for nostalgic fans. The always entertainingly eccentric Helena Bonham Carter appears in an significant cameo, with Bryce Dallas Howard in a totally inconsequential part that could have gone to a newcomer. Following the established rules of action flicks (perhaps best exemplified by Cameron’s Aliens), the cast includes the requisite cute kid, but thankfully she’s mute.
I was able to go along with the plot for the most part, but found the reduction and oversimplification frustrating. A global war against artificially aware machines is condensed down to a hand-to-hand battle with a single T-800 on a factory floor — a self-conscious retread of the climax of the original film. But perhaps this is a better dramatic choice than what Cameron did in Aliens, which excessively multiplied the single alien threat of Ridley Scott’s original, effectively diminishing the core premise that was appealing in the first place: an almost indestructible creature driven by pure biological instinct, not malice.
Another fatal flaw with Terminator Salvation is a consistent problem with many characters’ comically blasé reactions to extraordinary situations. Connor’s right-hand man Reese rescues a guy who claims never to have seen a Terminator before, or even know what year it is. But Reese simply answers his questions, and never wonders just where the hell this weirdo’s been the past few years. Also, I understand Williams (Moon Bloodgood) bonding with Marcus after he rescues her from gang rape, but she risks the safety of an entire human outpost when she decides to free him. This choice goes beyond understandable impulsiveness and into the realm of lunacy.
Also curious is an apparent lack of imagination in realizing futuristic technology. We’re told the Terminators communicate over old-school shortwave, so evidently SkyNet hasn’t taken over the satellite network and blanketed the planet in Wi-Fi or 3G. Maybe the robots found their reception was as bad as Manhattan AT&T subscribers. I won’t go into how the gleamingly sleek SkyNet HQ includes fancy touchscreen graphical user interfaces designed for humans, or how Connor miraculously witnesses a nearby nuclear explosion without being atomized by the shockwave, or at least going blind or contracting radiation sickness. Such a thin line between suspension of disbelief (for the purposes of thrills & spills) and sheer stupidity would bother any viewer with half a brain, whether the other half is cybernetic or not.
Khoi Vinh rightly observes in Minimalism, Michael Mann and Miami Vice that “Mann has produced a taut, stylistic and often brutally impersonal filmography that seems most interested in the concept of work” (via Daring Fireball). I wholly understand and laud the aim of a minimalist, “relentlessly withholding” narrative, but I don’t believe it’s ignorant or populist to demand more. Mann has proved again and again to be a master at managing both character development and cold hard plot, particularly in his masterpiece Heat. So to my eyes, Public Enemies marks a regression. The danger in perpetuating multi-million dollar movies without an interest in human beings is entire multiplexes full of soulless special effects showcases like Transformers. Vinh goes on to appreciate Mann’s construction of the film as a form of design, not least because Mann commissioned Neville Brody to design a typeface New Deal, and the whole article is a must read.
The curse of avidly following any particular artist is that one is set up for disproportionate disappointment whenever their latest work doesn’t measure up to their very best. Mann is one of my own personal favorite filmmakers, and for the record, I would cite Thief, Heat, The Insider, and Collateral as his best and some of my favorite movies overall. As for the rest: Manhunter suffers from the usual criticisms levied against Mann (dated, stylized, and overserious). The Last of the Mohicans is overrated (famous mostly for its catchy score and capturing Daniel Day Lewis on film at his most hunky). Ali was a relatively conventional biopic. And finally, I was downright shocked by how garish, empty, and, well, just how bad Miami Vice was (on first viewing, at least).
Atypically for the genre, all three of Mann’s biopics are focused on a limited timeframe. The Insider, Ali, and Public Enemies all examine famous figures as adults, during the most active and famous portions of their lives. Public Enemies can’t help but be hamstrung by the rules of nonfiction, which is by definition less dramatically interesting than fiction. Fiction is carefully crafted by an author, and nonfiction is messy serious of events that won’t slot into Aristotle’s Poetics, Joseph Campbell’s The Hero With a Thousand Faces, or Robert McKee’s screenwriting formulae that we as a culture find cathartic in art almost by detault. Ali is also a casualty of this equation; it’s a biography, not a narrative. That doesn’t explain the brilliance of The Insider, which I consider a triumph. Perhaps it’s because its subject Jeffrey Wigand is not in the same league of fame as Muhammad Ali or John Dillinger, allowing the audience to discover more than they may already know. I would argue that The Insider is actually about something bigger than the life story of one man; it questions whether integrity, purity, and honesty have a place in a modern world run by corporations.
Before I enumerate my complaints about Public Enemies, it must be said that it’s wholly engrossing. Mann’s customarily deep research results in a characteristically high level of verisimilitude throughout. Many sequences were shot in the actual historic locations, including a raid on a safe house at Little Bohemia Lodge in Manitowish Waters, Wisconsin, a jailbreak from Lake County jail in Crown Point, Indiana, and Dillinger’s death at the Biograph Theater in Chicago. The action is visceral and the suspense is nail-biting, especially a sequence in which John Dillinger (Johnny Depp) brazenly strolls through the Special Crimes Unit offices the day before he is to die. One might assume this astonishing event to be a fabrication for dramatic purposes, but Roger Ebert says it’s “based on fact”).
Any follower of Mann’s work will be unsurprised to see that Public Enemies is visually beautiful. Cinematographer Dante Spinotti previously shot Manhunter, Last of the Mohicans, Heat, and The Insider on film — how quaint! — but here turns to digital video, with which Mann and Dion Beebe experimented on Collateral and Miami Vice. The scenes set in a dimly-lit F.B.I. telephone surveillance office look particularly striking on digital video. Stanley Kubrick sought natural light so dearly that he famously helped develop special lenses capable of shooting by candlelight for Barry Lyndon, so one suspects he would have loved the technology now available.
Terrifying, petrifying gunfights have been a trademark of Mann’s since his earliest feature The Keep. He has perfected it by Public Enemies, in which the tight choreography and extreme violence is matched only by the concussive sound design. These sequences hark back to the innovative urban firefight in Heat, when to the filmmakers’ happy surprise, the actual production sound proved more earsplitting than was possible with post-production foley effects. When I saw Public Enemies in the theater, the first reel was marred by terrible sound (an improvement over my first viewing of Miami Vice, which was almost inaudible throughout). Once resolved, the volume was loud enough to almost physically feel the force of bullets splintering walls, tree trunks, and background performers. Mann used to reserve his epic gun battles for climaxes, such as when Frank (James Caan) raids the mobster’s house in Thief, and Graham (William Peterson) single-handedly attacks The Tooth Fairy’s (Tom Noonan) lair in Manhunter. The shootouts grew to massive scale and epic lengths in the later films, like the unnerving nightclub raid in Collateral, and especially the cataclysmic downtown LA shootout that occurs roughly in the middle of Heat, which the film remorselessly builds towards and then thoroughly explores the ramifications.
In contrast, much of Public Enemies is a long, sustained chase — a structural conceit Mann seems to have been embracing ever since Collateral. As Fernando F. Croce observed on The Auteurs, “Mann has gradually shifted from an image-based artist to a movement-based artist. Make that a sensation-based artist” … “Mann’s characters are dreamers posing as tough guys.” Mann punctuates the constant forward motion of the plot with action set pieces including at least two jail breaks, several bank robberies, and a chaotic raid on a safe house. Both jail breaks are clever, in which the audacious Dillinger largely exercises brains over brawn, and designs each at least partly to humiliate the lawmen. In the first, Dillinger gets himself deliberately locked up in order to bust his associates out. In the second, they make their getaway in the sheriff’s own car.
Dillinger died in 1934, marking the twilight of the classic gangster era in more ways than one. His activities instigated the creation of the F.B.I. and the passing of laws that inhibited criminal enterprise, making him very unpopular with the organized crime families that were happily operating with relative freedom before he started showboating and stirring things up. His criminal career coincided squarely with the Great Depression era. Mann refrains from showing the stereotypical Hoovertowns or desiccated farmsteads directly, but the largely unspoken economic strife hangs over everyone nevertheless. One of the reasons Dillinger became such a folk hero is that he carefully cultivated a Robin Hood persona by very deliberately taking care not to rob individuals, but to steal from banks and, by proxy, the vilified federal government.
Contemporary media hype made Dillinger a celebrity, and ultimately one of the last romanticized criminals to be able to hide out in public. Mann depicts this idolization subtly. For instance, when the gang refreshes themselves at a farmhouse after breaking out of jail, the woman of the house quietly begs Dillinger to “take me with you.” Note she specifies “me,” despite having children in tow. Most people still know his name today, despite him lacking a memorable nickname like his peers Pretty Boy Floyd and Baby Face Nelson. Incidentally, Baby Face portrayed in Public Enemies by actor Stephen Graham as dangerously unhinged and murderous. He has the criminal mind, but unlike Dillinger lacks the discipline to make it work for him. The dynamic is similar that that of Neil vs. his wayward henchman Waingrow in Heat. Dillinger can’t do what he does alone, but any association with a man like Baby Face courts disaster.
In Knives Out for Michael Mann, Kim Masters dishes the latest dirt on Mann (via In Contention). Anonymous gossip has him as one of the most difficult and even irresponsible directors working today, and studios may no longer wish to front his high price tag for movies that aren’t profitable. I usually protest when I hear studio executives complaining about “difficult” filmmakers — of course filmmakers are difficult — they’re the artists and studio executives are businesspeople. Without difficult artists, the accountants and MBAs that run the movie industry would have no “product” to sell. I usually dismiss the comments of executives that get paid more than the artists they supposedly enable to express themselves. But if the rumors about Mann are true, he’s more than just difficult. In the case of Miami Vice, he reportedly disregarded the safety of his crews by filming in the Gulf Coast as Hurricane Katrina bore down — followed by an actual gun fight on the set. Conditions were so bad on the set of Public Enemies that Depp reportedly stopped speaking with Mann.
According to Scott Shoger’s Hollywood Goes Gangster, Dillinger was a movie buff, and was even semi-seriously planning a movie about himself not long before his death (an intriguing fact we don’t see in Public Enemies). The last movie he saw was Manhattan Melodrama, for which Clark Gable he won an Oscar. Being Dillinger’s last movie ticket gave the film an undeniable marketing boost. Mann shows Dillinger in a state of reverie as he watches key excerpts that had some personal relevance to how he saw himself. Shoger also states post-Hays Code Hollywood had an unwritten agreement to not produce explicit biopics of actual gangsters, lest they contribute to their celebrity and glorify the criminal lifestyle. This self-censorship more or less held until Arthur Penn’s Bonnie & Clyde (1967). As such, only a few movies have told John Dillinger’s story, including The FBI Story (1959, with Jimmy Stewart), The Lady in Red (1979), and at least two simply called Dillinger (1973 and 1991).
In thinking about Public Enemies, I can’t help but keep going back to Thief and Heat, and it doesn’t survive the comparison. Maybe the real John Dillinger just isn’t as interesting as two of Mann’s previous fictional thieves (or in Mann’s parlance, “guys that pull down scores”): Neil (Robert De Niro) in Heat and Frank (James Caan) in Thief. Public Enemies is all surface, without the rich characterization of Thief and Heat. Public Enemies left me grasping at the tiniest of fragments in search of depth or subtext: a little look by an actor, a telling line of dialogue, anything. But there isn’t much there. Roger Ebert appreciates the refreshing lack of backstory conventional in both the biopic and gangster genres. I agree with him in principle, but would like to point out that neither Thief nor Heat features backstory — both flesh out its characters with what you might call “now-story.”
While Public Enemies often feels tragically lacking in dramatic interest, virtually every single character in Heat has a backstory, even the getaway driver Donald (Dennis Haysbert) that dies before the car goes one block. Here, we don’t learn anything about anybody. Aside from Dillinger himself, the one character we probably needed to learn the most about is Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale). Purvis is a cold fish outwardly, such as when we dispassionately guns down Pretty Boy Floyd (Channing Tatum) after giving him one last chance to surrender. We can infer that he’s a cold, steely G-Man with a particular expertise in sharpshooting. Bale’s performance conveys sadness and guilt over what he’s doing — the questionable morality of defeating gangsters with torture and often even outright summary execution. Heat’s cops and robbers are both fascinating, but who cares about Purvis’ safety, or if he achieves his aims? The only scene in which Bale and Depp share the screen marks one of the few sparks of life in the entire movie, but it’s frustratingly brief and unfortunately visualized through the old cliché of characters speaking through bars. The old Mann would have turned it into a several minute long conversation, a centerpiece of the film.
Another frustrating cypher is the man Purvis drafts as as controversial expert on Dillinger. Charles Winstead (Stephen Lang), was an actual historic Texas Ranger, but unless I missed something, the movie doesn’t identify him at all, and in fact suggests that he’s from the wrong side of the law, being that he’s so familiar with organized crime and the archetypal gangster mindset. We learn nothing of him aside from the fact that he’s clever and suspiciously insightful at predicting Dillinger’s behavior. He’s a bit sinister, and rough and streetwise in manner and dress, so perhaps the point is just that he’s not the type that J. Edgar Hoover (Billy Crudup) would consider good G-Man material: young, clean cut, college educated sorts like Hoover’s man-crush Purvis.
What do we learn of the main man himself? Dillinger was a self-created celebrity ahead of his time: media-savvy and always ready to produce a good, concise catchphrase at the drop of a hat. The most telling revelation about his character comes from a dying colleague John “Red” Hamilton (Jason Clarke), who, in his dying moments, chooses to armchair psychoanalyze his partner in crime, saying he’s unable to let anyone down. Really? When did the film illustrate this aspect of his character? All we can infer from his onscreen behavior is that he’s loyal to the woman he loves (although not so loyal that he doesn’t later go out on a date with a hooker while his girlfriend is in prison — although to psychoanalyze him ourselves, this action is probably a not-very-subconscious decision to allow himself to get caught, AKA “suicide by cop”). Just as he was able to casually stroll through his to-be captors’ offices without being caught, Dillinger is a ghost that goes through life without making any kind of impact. Neil in Heat may have had no friends, family, or even furniture, but he had a code: “Don’t let yourself get attached to anything you are not willing to walk out on in 30 seconds flat if you feel the heat around the corner.” Like Neil in Heat and Frank in Thief, Dillinger doesn’t have an exit strategy from his lifestyle until he meets a woman. Neil found love and wanted to pull a final score and then disappear forever. Dillinger wants the girl and an ongoing crime spree. Only when she is taken from him does he consider a final score to retire on.
A surprising number of name actors appear in tiny roles, including David Wenham, Lily Taylor, Leelee Sobieski, Stephen Dorff, Emilie de Ravin (from the TV series Lost) and even singer Diana Krall in a cameo. One possible explanation is that they simply wanted to work for Mann in any capacity. Or maybe their roles were larger before the editing process. One in particular that stands out is Giovanni Ribisi as Alvin Karpis, a high level fixer and organizer, sort of like the skeezy but coldly professional Nate (John Voight) in Heat.
Mann often catches a lot of flak for his typical paucity of female characters, but also for the few he does feature being rather problematic. It’s obvious that Mann is interested in stories about men (gangsters, cops, thieves, etc.). In my opinion, it doesn’t necessarily make him a misogynist if his stories don’t always feature full, richly drawn female characters. But curiously, Billie in Public Enemies may not be one of Mann’s most interesting female characters across his body of work, but she is more complexly drawn than any of the male characters in Public Enemies. We learn a little about her, certainly more than we do about anyone else, but I still don’t get why she would drop everything and run off with a gangster. Billie remains in love with Dillinger and faithful to him even when tortured and sentenced to a two-year jail term. True, she’s a young woman trapped in a dead-end job and the subject of racism (she’s part Native American). A good contrast is the character of Eady (Amy Brenneman) in Heat, whose complex relationship with the criminal Neil I found not only plausible but sadly moving. Cotillard is fine, but I think Brenneman’s touching performance as a crushingly lonely woman vulnerable to a charismatic but controlling older man really helped me understand her desire to run away. Both Eady and Billie are willing to abandon their lives, such as they are, or even implicate themselves for a man that could be arrested or killed at any moment.
It’s tempting to throw up one’s hands in despair that the brow level of source material for movies has dropped this precipitously low. To be fair, trash (escapist or just plain trashy trash) has existed since the very first days of the medium. But cinema’s early conception as a theatrical presentation made before a paid seated audience associated it with plays, and many early narrative silent filmmakers looked to plays and literature for source material.
Over 100 years later, no amount of original material, adaptation of great works, or repeated remaking of other movies could be enough to feed movies’ hunger for story. It took almost 80 years for Hollywood to draw upon comic books for anything beyond cheap serials. The success of Richard Donner’s Superman (1978) reverberated for years, leading directly into other seriously budgets prestige productions as Tim Burton’s Batman (1989) and Warren Beatty’s Dick Tracy (1990).
At the risk of sounding like a curmudgeon, something has changed. Drunk on the proceeds of a second wave of comics movies (particularly Bryan Singer’s X-Men and X2: X-Men United and Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins and Batman: The Dark Knight), Hollywood burned hundreds of millions of dollars on failed projects based on comics properties that even many comics fans might not be terribly familiar with, including Tank Girl (1995), Elektra (2005), and Jonah Hex (2010). With popular comic books exhausted for now, Hollywood is quickly turning to toys and even from board games (Peter Berg’s Battleship and Ridley Scott’s Monopoly are coming soon to a theater near you).
G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra is based on the eponymous line of plastic action figures and accessories marketed to boys in the early 1980s by toy company Hasbro. No doubt it was rushed into production after the massively lucrative success of Michael Bay’s two Transformers films, which were based on a contemporaneous toy line. The Rise of Cobra’s critical reception was all but assured as soon as it was announced; it was of course widely and justly panned. But I happened to see it in quick succession with Transformers: Rise of the Fallen and X-Men Origins: Wolverine. In such company, it is a masterpiece, if for no other reason than its logic is internally consistent (if stupidly implausible).
Although possessed of a certain degree of deliberate camp not seen since Burton and Beatty’s comics-based films, the movie seems bizarrely unaware of spoofs that came before it. Echoing the Mystery Science Theater 3000 theme song, a title card announces the story is set in the “Not too distant future” — which, as any MST3K fan knows, promises little but cinematic crimes against humanity. The futuristic settling weakly explains away the advanced weapons and transport technology readily available to G.I. Joe, an elite transnational military force with seemingly unlimited funding, and its nemesis Cobra, a terrorist organization enamored of teleconferencing. Traditional ballistics are deprecated in favor of cheesy laser blasters that provide for lots of death, all of it bloodless. To be fair, this is relatively more realistic than the comics and cartoons, where every shot simply missed and nobody was maimed, disfigured, or killed despite a constant state of war. The other major head-slapping moment of cultural deafness comes when a major action set piece is staged in Paris, as Cobra disintegrates the Eiffel Tower. Does no one involved remember Team America: World Police?
Its structure is a strange and confident gamble; rather than start the story in the middle, with its heroes and villains established and locked in perpetual battle as in the source material, we start before Cobra even rises. The movie makes plain its intentions to set up a franchise, not even giving birth to two of its most iconic characters until the final moments.
The entire movie is designed as one giant origin story hobbled with numerous flashbacks. First off, a prologue set in 1641 France features an ancestor to Scottish weapons dealer James McCullen (Christopher Eccleston), with little benefit beyond providing a framing device. Other flashbacks tell us more about the rivalry between dueling ninjas Snake Eyes (Ray Park) and Storm Shadow (Lee Byung-hun), and the relationship between Duke (Channing Tatum), The Baroness (Sienna Miller), and her brother The Doctor (Joseph Gordon-Levitt, hilariously full of himself in promotional interviews, citing the art of kabuki as his inspiration for acting much of the film behind a mask). The Baroness and The Doctor (not to be confused with Eccleston’s most famous role) are siblings, Duke dated The Baroness, and was once responsible for protecting the young Doctor. Got all that?
None of these tangled family ties figure into the original mythos established in the 1980s comic books and animated television series, which existed in service of promoting the toy line. The ancillary media provided characters and scenarios for play, all with the aim of inspiring kids to want to collect the whole set and stage epic battles in their parents’ basements. The stories provided by marketers arguably reduced the element of imagination in children’s play. But looked at another way, the entire G.I. Joe package could be seen as a large-scale multimedia act of world-building. Over time, the brand accumulated an epic story with a giant cast, and may have helped set the stage for later ambitious serialized popular fiction of the 21st century, like Lost.
The story ultimately centers around Duke and his pal Ripcord (Marlon Wayans), implying the filmmakers failed to poll fans to find out what exactly it was they found appealing about G.I. Joe as kids. Ask anyone who actually read the comics, watched the cartoons, or played with the toys, and they will tell you Snake Eyes was always the most popular character. His unrequited love for the Joes’ sole female operative Scarlett and complex relationship with “brother” Storm Shadow provided most of the longest-running storylines. Sommers’ movie minimizes the disfigured, mute ninja commando (despite the perfect casting of Park, famous as Darth Maul), and inexplicably costumed with a mask incorporating a mouth. Scarlett’s affections are here transferred to Ripcord, and Storm Shadow is more overtly evil, whereas I recall his loyalties being more interestingly ambiguous in the comics. His apparent death is an obvious homage to Star Wars: The Phantom Menace, as is an underwater submarine battle lifted from any number of other George Lucas space battles. In the exact inverse to Storm Shadow, the purely villainous Baroness is here transformed into a fixer-upper.
One flaw the movie retained from the comics and cartoons: while each “Joe” has a distinct codename and personality, most of Cobra’s forces are nameless and faceless drones. Indeed, their stormtrooper brains have been surgically modified to turn them into obedient zombies. Some meager drama is derived from The Baroness’ potential rehabilitation, but her villainy is defused by making her another victim of mind control. Leaders Destro and Cobra Commander are classic examples of the grotesque figure in literature — like Gollum and Richard III — where physical deformity is an outward expression of evil.
Following the overt racial caricatures in Transformers: Rise of the Fallen, I feared the worst for Marlon Wayans as Ripcord. Indeed, the trailer made a point of highlighting his clowning around. Surprisingly, one of the few areas in which the film managed to outperform expectations was its treatment of its non-white characters. Wayans was given the opportunity to be often genuinely funny and not nearly as annoying as I suspected he might have been. Ripcord gets real chances to prove himself, succeeds, and even gets the girl in the end. Further proving The Rise of Cobra’s bona fides as a surprising source of affirmative action is seen in Saïd Taghmaoui as the heroic Breaker, finally breaking out of his terminal stereotyping as a generic Middle Eastern terrorist / enemy combatant (q.v. Three Kings, Vantage Point, and Traitor). Now if we could just do something about Cobra being made up of evil Brits, Scots, Japanese, and Eastern Europeans.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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 Wachowskis’ Speed Racer or even Dodgeball did.
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.
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.
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?
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).
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?
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.
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.
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.
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?
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 disappointingly 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, 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.
Paradoxically for one of the freshest James Bond films ever made, Martin Campbell’s Casino Royale (2006) is actually the third adaptation of the character’s debut in Ian Fleming’s 1953 novel. After a largely forgotten 1954 TV movie in which “Jimmy” Bond was awkwardly Americanized, the same premise was parodied in a 1967 farce bearing the same name, a expensive all-star disaster featuring good sports David Niven, Peter Sellers, Orson Welles, and Woody Allen. Meanwhile, the parallel and ongoing flood of proper Bond films abandoned the tainted Casino Royale, leaving it never satisfactorily presented on film. For most, Bond seemed born fully-formed as Sean Connery’s supremely suave secret agent in 1962’s Dr. No. But where did Her Majesty’s most ruthless servant come from?
By 2006, the James Bond franchise had endured 20 movies and five lead actors (and that’s just counting the canonical installments), testament enough that it has been no stranger to innovation. The most recent overhaul was Goldeneye (1995), which introduced Pierce Brosnan alongside an incrementally more progressive attitude towards women. New-style “Bond Girls” like Michelle Yeoh were still dangerously sexy, but as adept with salty dialogue, grappling hooks, and AK-47s as the title character himself. Bond could no longer cheerfully ignore his stuffy bureaucratic boss M when played by the imperious Judy Dench, and Miss Moneypenny (Samantha Bond) was no longer a frump longing for Bond from afar, but rather a sassy foil rocking the sexy secretary look. Significantly, the one thing that didn’t change much at all was Bond himself. The many women in his life may have gained greater leeway to sass and kick ass, but he himself was still the same old sexist dinosaur. In retrospect, the Brosnan films now look like just more of the same.
Proper Bond films enjoyed many high points over the years, but the franchise was very nearly rendered obsolete by two very different spy trilogies: Austin Powers (whose satire was wholly redundant after the 1967 Casino Royale) and Jason Bourne. Starting in 2002, the latter did Bond one better, permanently supercharging the secret-agent genre with visceral urgency, persistent action, moderately realistic psychology, and most crucially, granting the main character a capacity for love. Bourne (Matt Damon) was a man of conscience, wracked by crippling self-doubt and guilt. He may have been capable of spectacular feats of killing, but resented the circumstances that forced him to use those skills in order to survive, or more importantly, to protect or avenge his loved ones. He didn’t manipulate women for intelligence and sexual gratification as Bond routinely would, but rather formed an emotional attachment with one in particular that would motivate his actions for an entire trilogy.
Once the definition of high-gloss action thrillers, Bond was now on the defensive. The time was right in 2006 for its most radical reboot yet. The producers retired Brosnan (The Man With the Golden Parachute?) and underwent an extensive retooling of not just the series’ visual style but its core characters and mythos. But how much can you tweak Bond until he’s no longer the spy we love?
The traditional pre-credit action sequence still exists, but Casino Royale discards candy-coated Technicolor for a grainy, stylized black-and-white noir style. Starting chronologically at the beginning, we see Bond execute his first two kills, fulfilling his final qualification for “double-oh” MI-6 status. Longtime Bond fans were also mollified by another grand tradition that immediate followed: a motion graphics title sequence featuring a bevy of semi-nude female silhouettes. This particular animation, with its stark red and black vector graphics, may have provided inspiration for the opening titles of the 2007 television series Mad Men. Unfortunately, Chris Cornell’s lame, tuneless song “You Know My Name” nearly ruins it.
Further comforting continuity with the previous installations comes via ridiculous amounts of high-end product placement (cars, watches, sunglasses, etc.) and a globe-trotting series of locations (Uganda, Madagascar, Bahamas, Miami, Montenegro, and Venice). Casino Royale also doesn’t fail to over-egg the pudding in terms of its villain. Le Chiffre (Mads Mikkelsen) is scarred and asthmatic, with irritated tear ducts that seep blood. It was enough to signify evil in the old days that the baddie merely have metal teeth or a fluffy kitty cat.
But that’s where the concessions to Bond tradition end. To discuss what’s new, let’s start with Bond himself. No matter how much testosterone fan-favorite Sean Connery exuded, he could still be slightly effete, fussing over vanities and creature comforts like a well-prepared martini. The Roger Moore era played up the tongue-in-cheek aspect of the series, but gorgeous women falling into bed with the frankly rather old, limp Moore was implausible at best. The suave Brosnan was born to play the classic version of Bond, but he wasn’t getting any younger as his films became as overblown and science-fictiony as the worst excesses of the Moore period. (I haven’t seen any of the Timothy Dalton or George Lazenby films, so I can’t comment on them.) Daniel Craig may not be the most macho Bond (Connery remains fandom’s favorite, for good reason), but he is clearly the most brutish and masculine. Younger, furious, and buff, he’s a giant slab of man. In a hilariously clever inversion of tradition, Bond now bares more flesh than any of his female companions, especially in an instantly iconic shot of him striding out of the ocean just barely wearing a scanty swimsuit. This Bond is almost absurdly physically fit, a parkour expert, and gets painfully bruised and scarred in fights. The days of Bond walking away from fisticuffs and fireballs with nary a hair or bowtie astray are over.
21st Century Bond Girls are smarter and more proactive than ever, but not at the expense of being drop-dead gorgeous and at least half the age of the current lead actor. In this Dork Reporter’s estimation, Eva Green as Vesper Lynd ought to go down in history as one of the greatest yet. She may not be as physically adept at action as Michelle Yeoh, but she is one of the most beautiful. Best of all, she’s enjoyably conceived by writers Neal Purvis, Robert Wade, and Paul Haggis as a true foil for the naughty double-entendres that still roll off this Bond’s tongue. She made such a strong impression on me, that when rewatching the film on DVD, I realized I had forgotten all about the other Bond Girl, Caterina Murino as Solange Dimitrios. Her character provides for a quick throwback to retro Bond; he flirts with her solely for information and then cruelly abandons her to certain death.
The thrilling film downshifts for a long poker sequence, with no mercy shown for anyone who doesn’t understand the game (like, say, me). There does seem to have been a miscalibration however, during one scene where even I could sense Le Chiffre was double-bluffing an oblivious Bond.
Dench is the only returning player from the Brosnan era, but her character is now part ruthless boss and part tough-love mother figure. The one convention of the classic, sillier Bond stories that I do miss is Q (Desmond Llewelyn) and his wonderful inventions. The highlight of every Connery, Moore, or Brosnan film for me was always the customary stroll through Q’s lab as his latest prototypes malfunction in amusingly lethal manners. I would cheerfully recite along with Q’s scolding catchphrase “Oh Bond, do pay attention.”
Whenever I see any Bond film, I’m always surprised at how enthusiastically he lives up to his “license to kill” reputation. The body count is always high, but Casino Royale is even more violent than most. What differentiates it is the time spent dwelling on the aftermath, including Bond having to hide bodies instead of simply strolling away from the carnage without repercussions. There’s also a fleeting dash of crude morality rarely if ever seen in the series; Bond must awkwardly comfort Vesper, traumatized by her culpability in one of Bond’s kills. And whereas old-school Bond villains would merely threaten bodily harm with laser beams and tarantulas, Bond must now must face ugly, raw torture (which is A-OK with the hypocritical MPAA’s notion of PG-13 movies, apparently – but that’s a rant for another time).