I don't know what's wrong with me. I think over the last few years I've acquired some kind of disease that prevents me from enjoying blockbuster movies. For one reason or another, I was roped into seeing four such movies this summer: Proof of Life, Pearl Harbor, Jurassic Park III and Planet of the Apes. I spent all of them in varying degrees of agony.
Proof of Life was probably the most despicable: pernicious US propaganda welded to the most lopsided love triangle you're ever likely to see. Russell Crowe, bearing his mantle of stardom quite heavily, is a professional hostage negotiator, hired to recover Meg Ryan's kidnapped husband from a band of nasty South American guerillas. Along the way, Meg and Russell fall for each other. Or at least I think that's what was supposed to happen: on screen, they displayed about as much chemistry and attraction as two blocks of lead. When they eventually kissed, my reaction was "Huh? Why did they do that?" Of course, this being a Hollywood family-values movie, Meg gets back with her hubby in the end, and everyone's happy. Isn't that great?
Like so many aspiring blockbusters, Proof of Life tries to maximise box-office by being both a sensitive, romantic chick-flick and a macho guns'n'action movie. On both counts, it fails. The romance aspect is clumsy and unsubtle, the script clearly written by a script-clanking machine. Crowe's character is that most tedious of cinema cliches - the 'sensitive tough guy', who can have a good old cry with the gals and then tough it out with the guerillas (yawn). In an egregious bit of character-development padding near the start of the movie, he meets his son at boarding school, where we learn that he has separated from his wife (yawn), and has difficulty communicating with his son (yawn). Meg Ryan is a timid wife (yawn) who is having marital difficulties (yawn). We know this because Meg and her husband have an argument at the start of the movie (I would have yawned, but their argument was so unrealistic and badly-written that I had to watch in riveted horror.) If the screenwriters don't care about producing anything other than stock characters, why should we care either?
From here on, things proceed in an unsubtle and entirely predictable fashion: husband gets kidnapped, Russell doesn't want to take on the job but there's-something-about-Meg that makes him decide to, Meg worries about the last thing she said to her husband, she comes to depend on Russell, heart-pouring scenes, etc. The only thing unpredictable is the extremely bad pacing, which makes the film seem about four hours longer than it actually is. Everything takes an age to happen, and yet at the same time nothing seems to happen at all. The plot has no momentum to keep it going: the only way the filmmakers know how to denote the passage of time is to throw up captions like 'Day 52' and 'Day 127'. I greeted all of these with bafflement. "Huh? Thirty days have passed?"
On top of this dreck, the film is busy selling the official government-approved line on South America. The 'war' against Columbian guerillas is all about stopping drug-trafficking, and nothing to do with imperialism at all, no sir! Russell and pals are knights in shining armour, and other characters are depicted with the kind of lazy racism which I thought extinct since Edwardian times. Everyone outside the Anglo-American continuum is weak, violent, and thoroughly untrustworthy. More justification for US foreign policy. Go Russell - take up the White Man's Burden!
The last scene of this awful film consists of Russell staring after Meg's departing car, for what seems like five minutes. It is probably an attempt to ape the masterful final scene of The Third Man, but instead of a sense of poignancy and loss, you just get a sense of someone staring for five minutes. As with the rest of the film, the makers are depending on the audience to fill in the emotion that just isn't there on the screen.
Racism and US propaganda also abound in Pearl Harbor, an interminable three-hour exercise in anti-history. And did I say Proof of Life had the clumsiest love-triangle I had ever seen? Well, I take it all back, because compared to the proceedings here, Proof of Life was a model of subtlety and human insight. This is in every respect a crass, stupid, insultingly bad film.
Ben Affleck and Josh Hartnett are US Air Force Pilots on the eve of US entry into World War 2 - or rather, they are well-paid 21st-century Hollywood actors pretending to be US Air Force Pilots on the eve of US entry into World War 2. We are unable to suspend our disbelief that they are historical characters because the filmmakers have simply no sense of what history is. Ben and Josh are not the lean, wiry sons of Depression-era America, but instead comfortable 90s types, cloaked in complacency and puppy-fat, with a stale set of 90s attitudes to match. Kate Beckinsale and friends sound less like nurses from the 1940s and more like they're auditioning for Sex and the City. Instead of working to create a genuine historical vision, the filmmakers, to quote David Walsh, 'have transported their own philistine selves back in time'.
In the script, we are spared the anachronistic excess of 'You are like, so over', but spared little else. Which should come as no surprise, since screenwriter Randall Wallace, who also wrote the execrable Braveheart, is no stranger to unhistorical hokum. The script is vulgar and patronising at every turn, telling a trite, predictable story, which had probably been filed away somewhere as 'Love Triangle #73'. One scene stands out as being particularly revolting. After the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Kate tells Ben that's she's going to marry Josh. She would have told him earlier, 'but then all this happened', she says, throwing up her arms. All this? The bombing of the harbour, the deaths of over 2000 people, the US entry into the war? Isn't it terrible how these little inconveniences keep popping up to ruin someone's self-absorbed little drama! And as if that wasn't bad enough, the scene ends with the immortally bad line 'I'll never be able to look at another sunset without thinking of you.'
At this I laughed out loud, but it was sad laughter, for I realised that no-one would write such a line unless they had absolute contempt for their audience. Everything about Pearl Harbor - the crude and slovenly script, the slack-jawed direction, the vacant acting, the syrupy orchestral score - shows the low opinion the filmmakers have of their audience. They think cinema-goers are too stupid to recognise third-rate rubbish, too disillusioned to expect any better, and too powerless to resist their studio marketing machine. They will continue to line their pockets with the proceeds of bloated and puerile spectacles like Pearl Harbor, and keep on going as long as they can get away with it.
If there is one consistent thread that runs through this film, and indeed the other three films in this review, it is an unquestioning worship of everything military. Has there ever been a film that had such fanatical respect for military authority? Alec Baldwin has a ludicrous turn as an inspirational All-American air force colonel whom the men adore. The awful Jon Voight is wheeled out yet again, this time literally as wheelchair-bound President Roosevelt, to deliver inspirational speech after inspirational speech. The 'top brass' scenes display a morbid reverence for hierarchies, leadership, the protocols of command.
While the clean-cut Americans are busy saving the world, others are swiftly dealt with in racial or national stereotypes. The Japanese are innumerable milling automatons, apparently emotionless, accompanied by evil-sounding music. The sole Brit who appears is laughably stiff-upper-lipped. There may have been simple, innocent, garlanded Hawaiians somewhere along the line, but if so, they are now lost in memory. Would that I could forget the rest of the film too.
I have, mercifully, almost forgotten Jurassic Park III, the sad and unwelcome extension to the Jurassic Park franchise. The film is as insubstantial and unpleasant as lizard-flavoured candyfloss. The previous films in the series, awful as they were, at least benefitted from the technical competence of Speilberg; beside them, the third JP outing is a lame and sorry specimen, which one can only hope ensures the extinction of the species.
Watching this film, I got the impression that it was created by marketing momentum rather than human invention, put together with technique rather than thought. The script has a perfunctory, 'whatever' feel to it: the exposition is as sketchy as possible, and from then on it's all screams and platitudes, with plot elements that are absurd even within the absurd JP universe. Sam Neill, looking a bit embarrassed, is the paleontologist from the first movie, whose research dig is short of funding because no-one is interested in fossils anymore. Along come supposedly wealthy couple William H. Macy and Tea Leoni, who want to use him as a guide for an adventure holiday on the dino island. In a scene that must have mirrored his real-life film negotiations, Neill refuses to go back to the island again, only to change his mind when he hears the amount of money they're offering.
Next time we see them they're flying over the dino island, together with a bunch of edible extras. To keep teenage girls interested, Neill brings along Alessandro Nivola, one of his hunky students. (We see a ten-second snippet of Nivola's girlfriend near the start of the film, presumably to show that despite all appearances to the contrary, he isn't gay). The plane crashes, people get eaten, and we find out that Macy and Leoni aren't rich after all, but are just looking for their lost son, missing after a paragliding accident eight weeks ago. And from then on things get even more ridiculous. A young boy survives for eight weeks in a place where adults have difficulty surviving eight minutes. A mobile phone (I forgot to notice which brand name) survives the digestion system of a dinosaur. Velociraptors can talk. And so on.
Many people will think it ridiculous to apply any critical standards to a film like Jurassic Park III. After all, it's not meant to be an artistic masterpiece. It's only a fun summer movie, simple mindless entertainment for the whole family, etc. But even as simple mindless entertainment, JP3 has problems. First of all, while it succeeds in being mindless, it does not succeed in being entertainment. The shocks are not shocking because they are all signposted about ten seconds in advance. Frequent 'character development' interludes make the action seem scattered and intermittent. The film just doesn't have any rhythm - everything that happens on the island seems stupid and random, there is no build-up of tension or dread, and the ending is a damp squib.
Secondly, even mindless entertainment is not above having certain subtexts, encouraging certain modes of thought. The subtexts in Jurassic Park III are particularly insidious. Like other recent Hollywood films (Castaway, Fight Club), this film advances the reactionary notion that modern life has abstracted people too much, that 'natural' humanity, and particulary masculinity, have been compromised, and that we need to get back to our 'roots' to find it again. Macy and Leoni are a divorced couple, united in looking for their son. The main reason for the divorce, apparently, was that Macy was a bit of a wimp, not man enough. In a shockingly unmotherly moment, Leoni complains that her son "was always too safe" with him. Never fear: on the jungle island, Macy proves himself and becomes a real man. The couple can now happily get back together and lead a profitable life in corporate America.
Like all the other films in this review, JP3 manages to work in a little racism and respect for the military. The racism here is more of the unthinking tokenist kind often seen in Hollywood. Roger Ebert, in his suspiciously positive review, praises the film because "for a change, the black character is not the first to die." Well I don't know what films he's been watching, but has a black character been the first to die in any film since 1968? Now, we live in more enlightened times, and the black character dies second.
To keep up the military side of things, the US marines arrive in the end to save the day, to the strains of patriotic music. This raised a few laughs. Actually, to say one positive thing about this movie, I laughed all the way through it, though not at the funny parts. And to say another positive thing, it's over very quickly.
I have a confession to make: I went into the previous three films expecting them to be bad. As it happened, my expectations were confirmed, but some people might argue that I had decided what to think before I had even seen the films. To these people I say: I didn't expect Planet of the Apes to be bad. And it was.
Actually, I wasn't sure what to expect from Planet of the Apes until I noticed that Tim Burton was the director. "Ah, Tim Burton," I said to myself, "at last, a guarantee of some quality." For I know from experience that Tim Burton can direct films I like (Ed Wood), and that even his films I don't like (Beetlejuice, Batman, Mars Attacks) have their moments. At the very least, I expected Apes to hold my interest.
So I was thinking positive thoughts as I watched the first few minutes of the film. Mark Wahlberg is a gung-ho pilot on a space station (classic pulp space-opera character, I was thinking) that sends out intelligent chimps to probe space phenomena. Within what seems like seconds (fast, efficient exposition, I was thinking) one of the chimps disappears in a nebulous magnetic anomaly (witty send-up of Trek jargon, I was thinking) and Marky breaks orders and flies out after him. He then gets sucked into the nebula and spat out onto the Planet of the Apes (entertaining, unpretentious fun, I was thinking).
After a few minutes I realised that everything I was thinking was rubbish.
My mistake, you see, was thinking at all, when instead I should have been sitting prone on my chair with a drip-feed of Coke, letting it all go by like lights on the highway. This is just a loud, silly and incoherent film, with no redeeming features. Yes, after threatening to do so for many years, Tim Burton has finally gone ahead and made a film that is 100% dreck. By the end - in fact, long before the end - I felt deeply embarrassed for everyone involved.
It feels pointless to describe the plot of the film, but since I've undertaken to review it I'll go ahead. The Planet of the Apes is ruled by intelligent but barbaric apes, who hate humans and treat them as slaves. This is clearly a heavy-handed metaphor for racism, sexism, commercial TV, or any other injustice you care to peg it on. Anyway, Marky and a bunch of human companions are captured by the apes, then they escape, then the rest of the film is a big chase until Marky finds his ship and goes home. In the meantime, he helps the humans overthrow the rule of Apes and replace it with a system where everyone lives together in happiness. What this system is, we never find out, but it's a safe bet that it involves corporations.
The apes come in a few different flavours. Tim Roth is evil psychotic ape, Paul Giamatti is bumbling comedy ape, Helena Bonham Carter is sensitive ape, and Charlton Heston (who, in the film's only moment of irony, is seen advocating the use of guns) is just ape. All of these performances are embarrassing to some extent, but especially that of Bonham Carter, who tuts and simpers her way through some really excruciating scenes. Oh, was she embarrassing. I mean, I was wincing so much that I had to suck a lemon to relax my face muscles.
At least the apes come across with some differentiation, however: the human characters come across as wooden and anonymous as the leading man himself. Mark Wahlberg, in what could be a career-threatening role, is yet another 'sensitive tough guy', apparently. We know he's sensitive because Helena Bonham Carter's character says so, even though he has been nothing but stupid and violent in the movie so far. Throughout the movie it's difficult to identify with or care about him, and after the movie it's difficult to remember anything he did.
The other humans are even less distinguishable. The incongruous Estella Warren, looking like she has mistakenly wandered in from Planet of the Supervixens, does little apart from stand around and look out of place. Kris Kristoffersen barely says a word and gets killed after twenty minutes. There are plenty of other human characters who say nothing and play no role in the story, making you wonder why they are there all the time.
Much has been made the 'reimagining' of the original film (which I haven't seen), and of Tim Burton's prodigious imagination in general. However, having seen this film, I find it difficult to identify a point where imagination could have entered. Sets, visuals, costumes, script, acting, direction: there is something curiously dead and sterile about the whole experience, as if no-one cared. The storyline is choppy and disjointed, with threads that go nowhere (the child at the start), threads that come from nowhere (Marky and Estella's final kiss) and too many holes to mention. The film just doesn't come together convincingly: in fact, it barely seems to happen at all.