Ridley Scott’s follow up to the gentle comedy of A Good Year and the crime drama American Gangster (partly modeled, I think, on Michael Mann’s epic Heat), returns to the politically-themed yet still action-oriented territory he first visited in Black Hawk Down. The key difference here is that, like Peter Weir’s The Kingdom and Pete Travis’ Vantage Point, Body of Lies is set in a fantasyland safely divorced from the very, very real events that inspired Black Hawk Down. All of these films have the air of gritty realism, but still indulge in the wish fulfillment of a very cinematic war on terror.
Body of Lies can be seen as completing a kind of Middle East trilogy for Scott, after the aforementioned Black Hawk Down plus the Crusades epic Kingdom of Heaven. Screenwriter William Monahan wrote both Kingdom of Heaven and Body of Lies (adapted from the novel by David Ignatius). But of the three, Body of Lies is clearly the least serious.
No doubt movie studio executives have calculated down to the last cent that world audiences are still too sensitive to actual terrorist attacks like London and Madrid in order to buy tickets for dramatic recreations on the big screen. Instead, most mainstream terrorism-themed movies are basically entertainments that only have the feel of serious import, and none of the substance. Body of Lies invents analogous terrorist attacks such as a sleeper cell blowing up their London flat, and later, the bombing of a U.S. marine base in Turkey (I hope O’Neal – Demi Moore – from Scott’s G.I. Jane wasn’t stationed there). Vantage Point is a little more creative in imagining a worst-case-scenario of a presidential assassination, but has no interest in the repercussions beyond a Rashomon-like recounting of the immediate aftermath.
So audiences get films like this, where shadowy CIA operatives sneak around Iraq and Jordan, saving the world from Islamic fundamentalism. They have seemingly limitless resources but no government oversight, and anything is possible with a little computer hacking. Meanwhile, more serious and realistic movies are ignored, like In the Valley of Elah and the truly excellent but emotionally devastating United 93. In comparison, Scott’s Black Hawk Down was unafraid to recreate actual events still raw in the American public’s memory: the catastrophic marine incursion into Somalia in 1993. And even to limit the scope to Scott’s own oeuvre, Kingdom of Heaven is a much smarter consideration of the clash of faiths in the Middle East.
Body of Lies is Russell Crowe’s fourth film with Scott, following Gladiator, A Good Year, and American Gangster. Here, he packs on some serious poundage to enter the same schlubby mode he debuted in Michael Mann’s The Insider, seasoned with a little of the crass bastard he played in A Good Year. Leonardo DiCaprio, on temporary loan from Martin Scorsese, sports a scrappy beard but still looks like a teenager. The pretty boy is constantly getting beaten up, cut, bruised, and losing fingers. But he meets cute with pretty Iranian nurse Aisah (Golshifteh Farahani), so that’s alright, then.
Scott returns to France for the first time since his 1977 feature film debut The Duellists for the fluffy soufflé A Good Year. Maximillian Skinner (Russell Crowe) – hardly the most subtle of names – is a self-proclaimed asshole that inherits his uncle’s winemaking estate in Provence. His Uncle Henry (Albert Finney, who also appeared in The Duellists) raised him there, but evidently failed to impart the kinds of life lessons that would have moulded Skinner into a decent human being capable of savoring the joys of life. The ideal life as defined in the film is essentially everything that a life of leisure in Provence provides: namely, wine and women. But Skinner’s life in London is made up of much of the very same, so the solution to fixing Skinner’s poisoned soul is not to add something that is missing, but rather to subtract something: his assholeness. Skinner does sometimes manifest some self-awareness; one moment he seems to genuinely relish his life as the most venal of London stockbrokers, but the next he professes a love we’ve never before seen for his uncle and the simple life of Provence.
Skinner’s wavering character complements a number of confusing plot holes. A running mystery is the mysterious provenance of an exceptional “garage wine” (limited batches by tiny operations, sometimes literally in a garage). Didier (Francis Dulot), the longtime tender of the Skinner vinyard, admits to deliberately producing undrinkably vile wine under the vinyard’s banner, in an attempt to run down the value of the place and hopefully disinterest Skinner in selling it. But is he simultaneously directing his real talents into the making of the mysterious garage wine? The plot thread is dropped and we never learn for sure. The cool closing credits make the film seem more entertainingly screwball than it actually was, and there’s also an utterly bewildering coda involving Skinner’s snarky assistant Gemma (Archie Panjabi) meeting a rapper and his agent. Huh?
I’m not sure if Crowe has the same sort of Cary Grant-like appeal for women that George Clooney has in spades, but there is plenty of eye candy for male viewers. The luscious Californian backpacker Christie (Abbie Cornish) appears on Skinner’s doorstep claiming to be his only blood relative, and thus a rival to his inheritance of the estate. French actress Marion Cotillard would later disguise herself very unflatteringly to play the frail, sickly Edith Piaf in the turgid biopic La Vie En Rose, but here she uncorks her full-on Gallic gorgeousness as Fanny (again, another of the movie’s unsubtle names – for she rather spectacularly lifts her skirt in an outdoors cafe, to the delight of the entire town and, admittedly, this Dork Reporter). One of the funniest recurring gags is the priapic Skinner’s helpless doubletakes to any of many displays of ripe breasts and bums. But unfortunately, one of the other recurring jokes is his repeated involuntary exposures to animal dung.
A Good Year takes quite a long time to get going, but does seem to pick up some comedic energy once Skinner’s cold London heart defrosts while courting Fanny in the second act. Ridley Scott can always be counted for fine art direction and cinematography, but here he wields his talents bluntly. Even the color temperature is clichéd, lest any viewers miss the point; Provence is amber-hued, and London is steely electric blue. The right choice for Skinner is never in doubt; living on a winemaking estate in Provence with a beautiful French girl is a fantasy probably every human being on earth shares, asshole or not.
Ridley Scott’s video introduction to the Director’s Cut of Kingdom of Heaven claims it is more than a merely extended version of the film. The Director’s Cut represents his intentions, and is “the best version” of the film. The most significant restoration he singles out is a subplot involving Princess Sibylla’s son. This version is long, yes, but always engrossing and interesting. It’s incredible that this much material was shot for one movie. It must have been clear from the length of the script that much of it was going to have be cut, but the expense and dedication was there to shoot more than was needed in order to be able to shape the story later in the editing room. I might have lost my patience with a three-and-a-half hour long movie in the theater, but it’s perfect for home viewing.
Kingdom of Heaven opens in France in 1184. At the time, Jews, Christians, and Muslims were sharing Jerusalem not quite in peace, but in relative stability. The wise King Baldwin IV and the cynical but basically decent Tiberias (Jeremy Irons) are barely preserving the fragile stalemate. By and large, Muslim characters are presented as more sane and civilized than the Christians. Interestingly, Jews are mentioned but are absent from the proceedings – evidently to this Dork Reporter unschooled in the relevant history, they had little political power at the time. Indeed, Christian holy men come across the worst of all. Early in the film, a preacher in a ramshackle European layover camp along the route to the Holy Land proclaims to prospective Crusaders that “To kill an infidel, the Pope has said, is not murder. It is the path to heaven.” Later, as the Christian army is about to be overrun by the Muslim army, one priest advises everyone to “Convert to Islam. Repent later.”
Balian de Ibelin (Orlando Bloom) is a widowed French blacksmith swept up in vast historical events. Bloom’s performance as the real-life historical figure isn’t bad, exactly, but he’s deadly dull. He is certainly earnest and handsome, but without the sympathetic starpower of a true leading man. Balian is a largely passive man caught up in key moments of history by the arbitrary whims of birth and luck, not unlike Forrest Gump. A plot not driven by the actions of the protagonist could be seen as a sign of bad screenwriting, but I’m prepared to accept the basic arc if it means it can hold such an interesting core concept together.
Balian discovers he is the illegitimate son to the Knight of Jerusalem Godfrey de Ibelin (Liam Neeson). He inherits the mantle and is launched on a journey that makes him a knight, friend and counselor to the wise King Baldwin (Edward Norton), lover of his beautiful sister Princess Sibylla (Eva Green), and leader of the doomed defense of Jerusalem. But what’s most implausible is his sudden emergence as a master swordsman, military strategist, architect of fortresses, civil engineer of irrigation systems, and honorable lord who treats his subjects fairly. True, he is established early on as an “enginer” who despairs have having fought in meaningless conflicts and designed war machines for the slaughter of innocents. But it is absurd for this largely uneducated man to wield such knowledge and wisdom.
Moreover, Balian arguably causes more harm than good. His pride in being a good knight (as per his father’s dying instruction) leads to the slaughter of an entire army and to an evil man becoming king of Jerusalem. His piety doesn’t stop him from sleeping with a married princess, but he later hypocritically decides sleeping with her is no longer morally acceptable when her husband Guy of Lusignan (Marton Csokas) becomes king. And what kind of man would kick Eva Green out of bed?
The villainous Guy is cartoonishly fey and sneering, and probably not coincidentally the most obviously French of all the characters (perhaps for the best, few other cast members attempt to affect French accents). It is suggested that he knows his son has leprosy, and callously banks on him dying and thus allowing him to be king. But what exactly does he want? If power, he gets it. So why then spark a holy war? The filmmakers’ intentions may have been to draw an analog to Bush’s misadventures in the Middle East, but Guy doesn’t seem to be the pious sort who believes it is his duty as a Christian to purge the Holy Land of infidel Muslims.
Special mention must go to Edward Norton, excellent as King Baldwin IV, whose advanced leprosy left him a faceless man in an iron mask. I don’t mean this praise as a backhanded slight to Norton; he expertly conveys intelligence and wisdom through his voice and body language alone.
Interestingly for a Hollywood epic, Kingdom of Heaven actually features very few of the grand battles usually required for the genre. The tension-and-release structure of William Monahan’s screenplay is almost musical. After a long buildup, the first conflict is curtailed before it begins. King Baldwin cannily negotiates for peace by personally showing up despite his advanced (and known to the enemy) illness; also, his reputation as in intelligent man precedes him. The second battle happens mostly off-screen. Finally, very late in the film, we see the spectacular defense of Jerusalem against the Muslim army. Other directors might not have been able to resist wowing us with spectacular battles for so long, but Scott and Monahan’s interests are admirably elsewhere: in the characters.
On release in 2005, Kingdom of Heaven was lumped in with Wolfgang Petersen’s Troy, only insofar as they were both historical epics. It’s a doubly unfair comparison in that Troy, a far inferior film, is set hundreds of years earlier and based on a work of literature. Kingdom of Heaven was interpreted as a direct commentary on US incursions in the Middle East, not least because one of George W. Bush’s most breathtaking gaffes (in a presidency full of them) was to cast his war on terror as a “crusade.” If he ever screens Kingdom of Heaven, perhaps he will gain a little perspective and be inspired to read up on the long, complicated three-way religious conflict in The Middle East.
Ridley Scott has made his share of testosterone-laden Hollywood flicks, ranging from his very first feature The Duellists, through Black Rain, and finally blowing the top off the scale with Gladiator. But unlike many of his contemporaries (Michael Mann and Michael Bay come to mind), a surprising number of feminist-themed films with strong female characters are scattered amongst his oeuvre: Alien, Thelma & Louise, and G.I. Jane.
For Alien’s protagonist Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) to be female was not just a bold choice for a horror / science fiction film, but an utterly appropriate one. Alien is loaded with symbolic fertility imagery and metaphorical childbirth. Ripley grapples with the themes of reproduction (and, arguably, abortion) anthropomorphized as a carnivorous monster with an erect penis for a head. Thelma & Louise had an explosive impact upon its release, and this Dork Reporter recalls seeing it on the cover of Time Magazine. A common theme in the press’ coverage of the controversial film was that such a story of female empowerment was in fact directed by… gasp… a man! To oversimplify, the film considered the relative morality of violence when perpetrated by an oppressed gender. Thelma & Louise packed pistols a decade later than Ripley aborted her alien baby with a phallic flamethrower.
Thelma & Louise may have raised hackles and inspired countless op-ed pieces about gender equality, but I recall Scott’s G.I. Jane not being taken seriously at all upon release. Its premise was its worst feature, and indeed one might compare it to Goldie Hawn’s Private Benjamin, except for the minor detail that it’s not funny. Craven politician Lillian DeHaven (Anne Bancroft) talks a rising female Navy lifer Jordan O’Neill (Demi Moore) into competing against a bevy of men in the most grueling and gender-segregated type of military training ever devised: the Navy SEALs (in the real world, SEAL training is expressly limited to males, and no woman has yet been allowed to attempt it). DeHaven manipulates the resultant media circus to gain votes and save the military bases in her state from closure. O’Neill faces off against Master Chief (Viggo Mortensen), a closeted sensitive guy who repurposes a D.H. Lawrence poem to initiate his standard ritual of humiliation and dehumanization.
Beyond the contrived premise, G.I. Jane was obviously a vanity star vehicle for an overreaching actor known more for her considerable beauty and fitness and than her acting chops. It didn’t last long, but Moore was one of the biggest Hollywood stars of 1997. Here, she shows off her muscular physique in scopophilic workout and shower sequences, and famously shaves her head live on film. It’s a weak form of feminism for O’Neill’s greatest triumph to be her triumphant exclamation “suck my dick.” She transforms herself into just one of the guys rather than proving herself as a human being of equal standing, be she male or female.
Now having finally seen G.I. Jane as part of our Unseen Ridley Scott Film Festival, the best I can say is that it’s not as bad as I would have imagined. If Black Rain found Scott in Michael Mann territory, G.I. Jane places him squarely in Michael Bay country. SEAL training is shown in great detail, with all the fetishized military hardware and windblown American flags one would expect in a Bay hagiography. But most shocking to a viewer in 2008 is a sequence in which O’Neill is subjected to waterboarding. It cuts through the nauseating patriotism like electrodes to the genitals.
By 1996, Ridley Scott had worked in almost every typical feature film genre: most notably historical drama (The Duellists, 1492), science fiction (Alien, Blade Runner), and police thrillers (Someone to Watch Over Me, Black Rain). But White Squall straddles several genres, sometimes all at once: coming-of-age melodrama, adventure, courtroom drama, and disaster on the high seas (like later peers Titanic and The Perfect Storm).
Aside from the rare exception of the fantasy Legend, Scott’s films are always about adults. But White Squall features teenage characters and is relatively mild in terms of violence, profanity, and sex (no bloody gunplay or slimy extraterrestrials here). The frequently shirtless young male cast, including star-to-be Ryan Phillippe, provided lots of beefcake that probably attracted a large teenage girl audience at the time. But the core of the story is still about male bonding, duty, and honor, placing it somewhat outside the bounds of a chick flick.
It’s also unusual in Scott’s oeuvre for being based on actual events. The screenplay by Todd Robinson is based on the nonfiction book The Last Voyage of the Albatross by Charles Gieg Jr. and Felix Sutton. In the 1950s, Captain Christopher “Skipper” Sheldon (Jeff Bridges) and his wife Alice (Caroline Goodall), a doctor, ran a series of boating excursions on the Caribbean Seas for young men. The trips, for school credit, provided a kind of high seas liberal education focusing on self-reliance, teamwork, and literature. An onboard English Literature teacher (John Savage, who resembles Ridley Scott) was always on hand to be generally annoying and pompously spout quotations. Unbeknownst to the boys’ parents, Sheldon’s concept of liberal education also included shore leave with abundant alcohol and the opportunity to meet hot young female exchange students the boys would never have to see again. This was a quaint time when sexually transmitted diseases were more of a rite of growing up than a life-threatening risk.
The physical task of operating the boat could be seriously dangerous, but one particular trip in 1960 became especially so in more ways than one. The Cuban Missile Crisis erupted while they were out to sea, and they were boarded by militant Cubans. After a narrow escape allowed as much by chance as by Sheldon’s quick thinking, they encounter an even bigger problem: dealing with a spoiled rich kid (I can’t figure out the actor’s name, but he looks for all the world just like Cillian Murphy). The seemingly cursed voyage ends in a mythical “white squall,” a freak weather event in which a sudden windstorm appears without the traditional warning signs such as dark clouds. The voyage ends in utter tragedy, and segues into a courtroom drama bogged down by speechifying.
The end titles reveal that Sheldon overcame his personal grief and professional discredit to become the first Peace Corps Director in Latin America, before dying in 2002.
Ridley Scott’s police thriller Black Rain (1989) opens in New York City at a time when The Meatpacking District actually was a meatpacking district. Tough cop Nick (Michael Douglas) is a ridiculously aggressive, foul-mouthed tough guy who tools around the city astride his crotch rocket. The despised Internal Affairs department suspects him of being a bent copper (spoiler alert: rightly, it turns out!), and pressures him to name names. By sheer accident, he and rookie partner Charlie (Andy Garcia) witness a Yakuza assassination in a Meatpacking District bar. After a thrilling chase through some vintage Manhattan locations since replaced by nightclubs, luxury condos, and The Apple Store, they manage to apprehend the perpetrator. The Yakuza assassin Sato (Yasaku Matsuda), being Asian in a Hollywood movie, is of course a martial arts expert. Contrived plot machinations result in Nick and Charlie escorting Sato back to Japan, whereupon they immediately and embarrassingly lose him. By this point, the plot has been constructed in such a way as to raise Nick’s stakes to the highest level possible: the only two things that matter to him, his honor and job security, depend on one task: catching or killing the bad guy. If he returns to the States empty-handed, he’s almost certainly to be disgraced.
In his Tokyo downtime, Nick entertains an unconsummated romance with gaijin Joyce (Kate Capshaw). The subplot is a boring distraction. Joyce is a mere love interest in the worst storytelling sense: her character is not integrated into the main thriller plot as is the female lead in Scott’s Someone to Watch Over Me. It strikes this blogger as something of a copout on the part of Scott and screenwriters Craig Bolotin and Warren Lewis that their protagonist Nick goes all the way to Japan but doesn’t do as the Japanese men do (which is to say, Japanese women).
Nick and Charlie partner with upright Japanese cop Masahiro (Ken Takakura). Cultures clash, and the suave Charlie teaches the uptight Masahiro to party hearty, beating the Japanese at their own game (that being karaoke). When Nick’s moral ambiguity becomes known, the righteous Masahiro seems to convince Nick that theft of any sort is shameful. But in the end, it is Nick that teaches Masahiro that it’s OK to steal from criminals (in the moral universe of this film, at least). I’d never say that any work of fiction has an obligation to present morally-correct behavior (the kind of censorship that Hollywood theoretically left behind with the demise of the Production Code). But Black Rain seems to present Nick’s amoral behavior as The Right Thing, instead of the complicated actions of an interesting complex character.
Scott stages a huge shootout sequence at a refinery, seemingly chosen for maximum visual appeal (picture the clouds of steam, showers of sparks, bursts of flame, etc.). In a kind of self-referencial closed circuit, Scott’s aerial shots of Japan look just like Blade Runner’s futuristic dystopian Los Angeles, which was itself inspired by Tokyo. Another direct lift from Blade Runner: Nick discovers sequins from Joyce’s dress at a crime scene, recalling the sequence in Blade Runner in which Deckard tracks down the origin of synthetic snake scales — belonging, of course, to one of cinema’s most famous femmes fatale.
The opening credits state “In association with Michael Douglas.” Douglas is of course a successful producer (for instance, One Flew Over the Cuckoo Nest), but Black Rain has the feel of an ego trip. More trivia: the director of photography Jan de Bont was later to direct Speed.
One final cheap shot before I go. I don’t know what has dated more: the cheesy music or Michael Douglas’ big hair.
Ridley Scott’s Someone to Watch Over Me (1987) is more of a drama than a police thriller, refreshingly focused on its characters over suspense and action alone. Mike Keegan (Tom Berenger) is a salt-of-the-earth Queens detective assigned to protect material witness Claire (Mimi Rogers) from assassination. Keegan is a modest family man, recently promoted to the second rung of the police hierarchy. It’s no glamorous job; he spends most of his working hours just sitting around not finishing crosswords. He’s utterly unlike the over-the-top testosterone-laden cop character played by Michael Douglas in Scott’s other police thriller, Black Rain.
Keegan is more-or-less happily married (to Lorraine Bracco as Ellie), but a man like him would never otherwise come into contact with a beautiful uptown girl like Claire. Cooped up in close proximity to each other every night, they inevitably lapse into an affair. Her effeminate but wealthy and powerful husband senses that Keegan is a romantic rival, but he is an effectively impotent character and frequently disappears from the film altogether. Also notable is song-and-dance man Jerry Orbach already typecast as a detective in a small role as Keegan’s tough Lieutenant.
One of the guaranteed pleasures of any Ridley Scott film is the visuals. Someone to Watch Over Me’s opening credits feature the namesake song by George Gershwin sung by Sting over beautifully sleek aerial shots of New York City at night. The final shootout is perfectly staged in a claustrophobically enclosed space, with huge mirrors placed for maximum dramatic impact. The principals stalk each other in near silence, punctuated by the wide dynamics of sound design. Perhaps Scott was competing with that other upstart master of cinematic shootouts, Michael Mann (in particular, the similarly explosive conclusion to the contemporary thriller Manhunter).
Ridley Scott’s 1986 fantasy experiment Legend features a very young Tom Cruise (before he was “Tom Cruise”), costarring opposite vats upon vats of glitter. Cruise’s performance is bizarre and high-pitched, composed of crouched poses and unfocused stares. But to be fair, how else would any actor portray an uncivilized wild-child with a weirdly mundane name like Jack? Mia Sara is unmemorable as Princess Lily, save for the spectacularly plunging neckline she sports in the second half of the film (during which many parents were no doubt covering the eyes of their innocents).
There is plenty of very pretty cinematography to be enjoyed, but This Dork Reporter regrets to report that Legend is awful and almost painful to sit through. I recall loving the roughly contemporary fantasy film The Dark Crystal (1982) as a child, but ruined the pleasant memory by watching it again as an adult and discovering it to be tedious and condescending (with, granted, some incredible puppetry and art direction). Perhaps if I had seen Legend as a kid I might feel similarly.
The entire plot hinges on the kinds of typically arbitrary rules that characterize the fantasy genre. Pay attention, kids: only a virgin can touch a unicorn, it seems, but alas, they should never do so, lest the sun set forever and the world be consumed by The Lord of Darkness (Tim Curry). What’s a virgin, you ask? Shush. Not inconsiderable running time is taken up with awkward slapstick involving midgets, de rigueur in every movie fantasy since Terry Gilliam’s Time Bandits. Speaking of, Gilliam’s dark romp is by far the best of the 1980s heyday of fantasy movies – a genre not to return to prominence for almost two decades until the lucrative franchises Harry Potter, The Lord of the Rings, His Dark Materials, and The Chronicles of Narnia.
Even the old-school optical special effects are crummy, for which it is no excuse to say the film came before the age of CGI. The unicorns’ rubber horns visibly wobble, and a fluttering Tinkerbell-like fairy creature is a painfully obvious little lightbulb mounted on a wire discernible even on a low-resolution TV screen. No inch of skin is left unpainted with glitter, and never have bubble machines worked so overtime since The Lawrence Welk Show. But perhaps the most puzzling detail of all is in the sound design: unicorns sing whalesong, evidently.
All sorts of questions arise as screenwriter William Hjortsbertg’s plot comes to its trainwreck conclusion: What happens to The Prince of Darkness’ evilly goading mother? Roger Avary and Neil Gaiman’s brilliant Beowulf script did not fail to explore the vast Freudian story potential of a monster’s manipulative mother. And where did the last surviving unicorn find its mate at the end? Did the unicorn killed earlier in the film revive somehow, and if so, why? Even Disney’s Bambi didn’t chicken out by resuscitating the murdered mother.
Ridley Scott’s first feature film The Duellists (1977) is based on the Joseph Conrad short story “The Duel.” Feraud (Harvey Keitel) and D’Hubert (Keith Carradine), two French soldiers serving under Napoleon, become loyal enemies locked in a lifelong adversarial relationship. D’Hubert, eager to appease his superiors and advance his career, volunteers for a mission in which he obliviously humiliates Feraud. Both men are at fault: D’Hubert for his ambition, and Feraud for obsessively nursing his perpetual grievance. Their personal battles supersede French history, with even the reign and fall of Napoleon a mere backdrop to their personal feud.
The Duellists is respected for the historical authenticity of its French military uniforms and depictions of period wartime conduct, but Keitel and Carradine’s flat American accents threaten to undo its achievements in verisimilitude. Luckily, the important bits, the duels, are staged silently. Scott, with his background in advertising, films everything beautifully, although one does catch glimpses of the occasional lamp and smoke machine. The landscapes during the final duel are especially breathtaking.
I’ve seen hardly any of Carradine’s movies, but I do have great respect for his brilliant portrayal of one of America’s first celebrities, Wild Bill Hickok, in the HBO series Deadwood. And Keitel gets to show off his serious muscles in a gratuitous arm-wrestling sequence.
Michael Crichton’s original novel The Andromeda Strain was first adapted into a feature film in 1971, and now into a television miniseries from executive producers Ridley and Tony Scott. This 2008 incarnation is part feel-bad thriller, part wish fulfillment. As we thrill to the speculative illustration of how civilization might suddenly come to an end, we also can only hope the government does in fact have such an elaborate and high-tech procedure in place for identifying and containing new contagious disease outbreaks.
The original book is only nominally about a supervirus, evidently of extraterrestrial origin, that threatens the human race. It is actually more about how intelligent, well-meaning people can make subtle errors of judgement that may cascade into catastrophe (Chrichton would also employ Chaos Theory as a key theme in his Jurassic Park novels). But the miniseries complicates this interesting theme with added government venality (a basically honorable president is undercut by a corrupt chief of staff), the media (a drug addicted reporter breaks the cover-up), and the environment (strip mining of the ocean floor leads to the crisis). To give but one example of the diminishing returns: in the book, a simple unnoticed glitch in a supposedly perfect computer system causes a dangerous communication blackout at the worst possible time. It’s both more plausible and more suspenseful than the miniseries version of events, in which General Mancheck (Andre Braugher) deliberately creates the blackout, to everyone’s mild and temporary frustration.
The book is not without its flaws, particularly an undramatic ending in which the continuously adapting virus eventually mutates into harmlessness. But the miniseries disappoints by giving the virus a definitive origin, indicating it is expressly targeted towards humans, and showing its definitive defeat.
Miscellaneous other thoughts:
• Mikael Salomon’s direction is very boring and staid, except for a wildly over-the-top decontamination procedure that is filmed in a stylized, almost erotic fashion.
• The miniseries is probably one of the talkiest sci-fi movies and/or TV shows I’ve ever seen. The bulk of the action is set in a single interior location, and nearly every scene comprises heated conversations in laboratories or over teleconferences.
• The miniseries is laden with even more pseudoscientific bullshit than Crichton’s original novel: wormhole-enabled time travel and nanotech buckyballs from the future are the order of the day. The whole thing ends in the kind of temporal paradox that typically makes a plot point in shows like Doctor Who and Star Trek.
• The miniseries updates the book’s euphemism of “unmarried man” into “don’t ask don’t tell” territory. It seems fabulous Major Keane (Rick Schroder) is a friend of Dorothy.
• Spot the homage to Hitchcock’s The Birds!
• Why does the underground facility begin to disintegrate during the run-up to setting off an atom bomb? Wouldn’t there just be a countdown and then an explosion?
• This blogger, a longtime fan of the TV show Lost, is happy to see Daniel Dae Kim in a starring role. But the Korean actor is unfortunately cast as a Chinese stereotype.
• Benjamin Bratt is really terrible, giving the proverbial phone-it-in performance. He delivers every line with the same intonation, whether it’s saying goodbye to his family for possibly the last time or announcing humanity’s first discovery of an alien life form.