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Review of Movies of Summer 2001
It seems strange and unfortunate to me that the science fiction movies of 2001, of all years, would be incredibly disappointing. In fact, 2001 seems to be the year of the fantasy, which is a remarkable turn of events considering the genre's poor track record. Shrek is the biggest box office hit of the year, as of writing, and it was a strong film that inhabited and parodied the genre of fantasy quite successfully. Monsters Inc. is also an excellent film, also looks to rack up big box office numbers, and while it has less of the trappings of fantasy, neither does it fit comfortably in the genre of science fiction. And the merchandise juggernauts are in full force for two fantasy films, Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, already breaking box office records, and the upcoming The Fellowship of the Ring. I won't take the time in this review to examine why 2001 might be the year for fantasy's comeback; suffice to say that in the absence of any commercially or artistically successful science fiction films, the presence of fantasy films is a notable event. I said that it seemed strange and unfortunate that SF movies in 2001 disappointed: unfortunate because this is one of the most famous years in the genre, and in this year we have seen nothing that remotely approaches the intelligence and sophistication of Clarke and Kubrick's space odyssey. I say strange because science fiction has developed an uneasy relationship with the summer blockbuster; usually such movies have a colossal amount of money thrown at them, and while this has no correlation with artistic quality, at least some form of commercial success seems to follow. Yes, some SF movies of 2001 made some cash, but grosses dropped quickly (unlike the case of Shrek) or bombed spectacularly. Worse, there's hardly anything of artistic excellence to be found in any of them.
So let's examine the evidence against the movies of summer 2001.
Evolution, written by David Diamond, David Weissman, and Don Jakoby, directed by Ivan Reitman, 2001, 110 min.
Evolution falls in the category of science fiction comedy, but it's not funny and it's not good science fiction. Reitman seems to be channelling the spirit of his own Ghostbusters, a film which I consider to be overrated but some have argued persuasively for its fame. Evolution, however, is in no danger of being overrated: it's clunky, poorly written, illogical, and wasteful of the talents of its cast.
A meteorite lands near a small town in the United States. Among its first discoverers are two profs at a local college, played by David Duchovny and Orlando Jones. Before they can do much, the military has moved in, bringing along their own expert, played by Julianne Moore. These three are joined by a local slacker (Sean William Scott) to form a team once events begin spiraling out of control. The life forms on the meteorite can evolve at a dizzying rate, hence the title, but they are confined to the cave in which the meteorite landed. But that barrier too is soon broken by rapid evolution, and all life native to earth is soon under threat. As the movie draws to a close, it becomes obvious to our heroes that the drastic solution being put into action by the military is the worst possible idea. What to do?
The movie is simply not funny. David Duchovny has always had a sly way of delivering a line that consistently tickles the funnybone. Here he is saddled with the clunkiest dialog imaginable. The movie seems to think that baldly stated innuendo with no context is funny, not just once but over and over again. For example, as the two profs approach the crash site, they talk about how the meteorite "penetrated" the "hole." No buildup, no follow-up, no context, and disastrously lacking in comic timing. Julianne Moore plays a scientist who falls down a lot, as if a being klutzy woman is funny in and of itself. And Scott's slacker routine grates on the nerves even within the span of its first few iterations.
Evolution had potential, which it quickly squandered with poor comic timing, dreadfully unfunny jokes, and situations that depended on a certain type of science fiction based speculation which was not provided. Those looking for witty, well-written science fiction need to look elsewhere.
AI: Artificial Intelligence, written by Ian Watson and Steven Spielberg from the short story "Super toys last all summer long" by Brian Aldiss, directed by Steven Spielberg, 2001, 140 min.
Note: This was a project that Stanley Kubrick worked on for many years. He passed it along to Spielberg before his death.
I recently subjected myself to two dreadful movies, Hook and Barry Lyndon. Each movie is, in its own way, symptomatic of the worst flaws of its director, Spielberg and Kubrick respectively. Hook is a profound trashing of a beloved classic, so much a betrayal of its source that it makes Disney's typical grab-and-run raids look like artistic genius. Spielberg has always had a tenuous grasp on the idea that economy of emotion, not excess, can be more effective, and Hook wallows overlong in its own saccharine facsimile of human feeling (of course, the presence of Robin Williams, a usual suspect in such cases, doesn't help). I had not believed such a thing possible, but AI is worse than Hook in this regard. Kubrick, on the other hand, has rarely been accused of an excess of sentimentality. His cold-eyed regard served him well through such films as Dr. Strangelove and 2001, both of which had sufficient scope to contain a message about humanity, however debatable. Barry Lyndon is a film in which Kubrick's typical approach simply can't gain any traction; "big" ideas about the human condition are certainly present, but they don't work together or against the narrative in any coherent or interesting way. Again, I had not believed such a thing possible, but AI is more boring and pretentious than Barry Lyndon.
So it was with some trepidation that I went to see AI. I had hope, considering some of Spielberg's early successes like Close Encounters and Kubrick's entire oeuvre, a series of films which outranks the contribution of virtually any other director. I also had the vague notion that, with Spielberg and Kubrick as opposing ends of the spectrum between sentimentality and ultra-cerebrality, there would be balance, or at the very least, only one of the two problems. Astonishingly, AI manages to both drip with sap and be too remote, an achievement which would be laudable if only it had any positive elements! This would be an appropriate point to remove Kubrick from the discussion and lay the blame entirely on Spielberg -- Kubrick continued to fiddle with the project, and not proceed to filming, for many years because he couldn't get it right, and Spielberg is ultimately responsible for bringing the film to completion. Beyond these errors of conception, AI forgets basic rules like show-don't-tell. This movie makes so many narrative mistakes that the mind boggles at the colossal ineptitude on display. The result for the viewer is the sheerest boredom, the kind that stretches 140 minutes to an infinity of wasted time.
The movie begins with a sequence that had me checking my watch in the first 10 minutes. A class has gathered to discuss advances in robotics, and the students and teacher are trying to understand what such advances might mean. With no sense of who these people are and why we should care, they proceed to talk about the issues in the driest manner imaginable. What is the human responsibility to our creations once those creations have the capability to love? This question is the basis for the movie conceptually, but why include it in such an overtly stated and boring manner? Does Spielberg not trust his own material to convey this in the course of the story? Or does he not trust the audience to get the drift? It's not as if this is a groundbreakingly original idea; science fiction has saturated popular culture with stories similar to what follows.
From here on in, the movie is divided into three acts, and it's hard to tell which of the three is more objectionable, although the sum is more objectionable than the parts. In Act 1, a mother and father buy a robotic boy named David to replace their own son who is in a coma. The mother is understandably a little freaked out at first, but eventually decides to program David to imprint his "love" on her. David tries to fit in, as much as his differences allow, but things take a turn for the worse when the real boy regains health. David is tormented, reacts unnaturally (as is his nature), and is left to fend for himself in the woods. In Act 2, David wanders the fringes of society, at first only trying to survive. He meets up with Gigolo Joe, and they are both rounded up and set to be dismembered in front of large crowds of cheering rednecks (in a scene worthy of John Carpenter, but more on that in a minute). David and Joe escape, and David goes about trying to find a way to make himself a real boy. Act 3 is essentially an overlong epilogue, in which David survives an ice age and has an encounter with some strange lifeforms.
Act 1 is beautifully filmed, with lovely use of light, but the camera moves too slowly and reverently, and so the already dry and dated material gives us too much time to ponder its shortcomings. Act 2 is not beautifully filmed, and the acting takes a similar nosedive in quality. Worse, the whole section makes little sense; there's no sense of transgressive fun in the rip-up-the-androids scenes, and when David goes on to obsess about the Blue Fairy making him a real boy, he loses all sympathy. Instead of a wistful yearning for humanity, his actions represent a computer program trapped in a loop and in desperate need of a reset. Act 3 is once again gorgeous to look at, but it's by far the worst offender on all other accounts. David has been frozen for many years and all human civilization has ended. He is broken free by his own descendants, advanced mechanical life (I know that some people have been baffled by the nature of these beings, but it struck me that the movie is quite clear about this). These beings tell him that they can fulfill his wish to be a real boy and spend some time with his mother, but only for one day. This perfect day of David's is quite possibly the most painfully saccharine scene ever committed to film. It makes no sense within the context of Act 3, and Act 3 itself contradicts everything that has come before. How are we supposed to regard David, with sympathy, with remoteness, or with intellectual engagement? Each element of the film that tries to create ambiguity instead only helps to tear down the structure. Sympathy is countered by his machine-like actions in nearly every instance, but any kind of intellectual response is rubbed out by AI's insistence on madly grabbing for the heartstrings, like some form of emotional harassment. A movie would have to have a much stronger conceptual foundation to pull off the balancing act that AI attempts. Even a minimal sense of subtlety would help too.
DVD Note: AI is available in a 2-DVD Special Edition. The movie itself is presented in gorgeous detail, with a number of audio options but no commentary track. The second DVD has a number of short documentary features (about 90 minutes in total) that cover different aspects of the movie's productions, as well as trailers and galleries of art and photographs. Spielberg himself gives a personal message on "Our Responsibility to Artificial Intelligence," for what it's worth.
Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within, written by Al Reinert and Jeff Vintar from the story by Hironobu Sakaguchi, directed by Hironobu Sakaguchi and Motonori Sakakabara, 2001, 120 min.
Final Fantasy tanked so badly at the box office that the studio that produced it is now out of the movie business, a similar story to what happened last year's bomb, Titan A.E. Final Fantasy has amazing special effects but only the faintest clue what to do with them. The story is weak, the characters are stock, and the movie as a whole rivals AI for the summer's most conceptually uneven.
Earth has been invaded by strange, non-corporeal beings. Most of our civilization is in ruins, and the humans left alive are bunkered down inside heavily fortified dome cities. Dr. Aki Ross is trying to solve the problem in her own way: finding a certain number of indigenous lifeforms that have survived out in the desolation, hoping that together they will form a solution. A powerful faction led by a villainous general does not believe in such mystical mumbo jumbo, and plans to use an orbiting death ray as soon as it is operational. Ross teams up with some soldiers who have met up with her on a mission; they go on several missions together, and they happen to be back in base when events take a turn for the worse. The villainous general decides to let just one entity into the city, in order to convince the powers that be that his plan is necessary and urgent. Unfortunately, the non-corporeal lifeforms flood into the city, and what follows is my favourite segment of the movie. Ross and her band of friends have to escape the city, evading various perils as the city falls apart and fighting against ever more menacing creatures. Things explode, people die, and the tension ratchets ever higher.
Of course it doesn't say much about the movie that I was grateful for about 20 minutes of edge-of-the-seat storytelling. The rest of the movie is quite dull and nonsensical. The non-corporeal beings contribute most to the movie's unevenness. Sometimes these evil creatures are invisible, sometimes visible, and their capabilities and threatening aspects change from scene to scene. Worse, I had little faith in Ross' plan; in the context of what was actually presented, I was voting for the death ray plan. The ending is overblown and contradicts large swaths of what came before.
The characters might not be photorealistic, but they were awfully close. The advances in special effects represented by this movie are astounding but it was all for naught. The dialogue and character development were so pathetic that the filmmakers may as well have used cardboard.
In the end, Final Fantasy stands more as a curiosity piece than a movie worth watching in the typical sense. The novelty value will soon disappear in the wake of next year's special effects triumphs, whatever they may be.
Jurassic Park 3, written by Peter Buchman, Alexander Payne, and Jim Taylor from the original characters created by Michael Crichton, directed by Joe Johnston, 2001, 90 min.
It's a sad thing for me to say, but Jurassic Park 3, a mildly competent monster movie, is the best of a bad lot, the best of the movies of summer 2001. But not by much! The movie is unambitious, lazy, and suffers from a case of redshirts-die-quickly and stars-survive-no-matter-what. For a portrayal of dinosaurs, it doesn't come close to Walking With Dinosaurs, a recent BBC special with a far smaller budget and many more wow moments. However, Jurassic Park 3 is not a pretentious movie, which is more than AI could say. Jurassic Park 3 also does its job -- namely, showing a bunch of dinosaurs jumping out from the trees and biting people -- with, at times, gleeful abandon. The fast pace of the movie saves it. What is tolerable, perhaps even somewhat likable, at 90 minutes would be beyond bearing at a length like AI's 140 minutes.
The movie begins with a father and stepson parasailing near the infamous Site B Island, hoping to catch a glimpse of some dinosaurs. They go through a low-lying cloud, and on the other side they look down to discover that the people in the boat have been massacred and their bodies are gone. The man and boy crash. Cut to our old friend, Sam Neill the paleontologist. He gets hired to go back to Site B by a husband and wife team, but the reasons for going quickly turn out to be spurious. They are actually divorced, and it is the son from their marriage who is stranded on the dinosaur island. The search for the boy transforms into a struggle for survival within a few moments on the island: their mercenaries are quickly slaughtered, and the plane doesn't even make it off the runway, crashing into the trees. They are running from a spinosaurus, bigger and nastier than a t. rex. The supremacy of the spinosaurus is proven by an epic battle with a t. rex, quite a big battle to throw into the movie in its first third. What follows is a lot of running and screaming on the part of the humans. There's also some not entirely convincing plot business with Neill's assistant and some stolen velociraptor eggs. A sequence in an "aviary," long held over from the first Jurassic Park book, finally makes it onto film.
I don't have much to say about the characters. As I said, the people who are played by actors with recognizable names survive, even if the stupidity of their actions would have otherwise resulted in gruesome deaths. The boy who has been stranded on the island for so long also survives; no surprise there either. It's nice to have Sam Neill back, but his character usually joins the general idiocy. Most of the time, he doesn't even heed his own wise advice.
Jurassic Park 3 arrives in an era far more jaded and demanding than its original predecessor enjoyed. There were no real problems with the special effects in this movie, but neither were they inspiring or frightening. Part of that has to do with the feeling that the franchise is tired and worn out; the clichés of the series -- like humans running and screaming -- simply don't compare well to a breath of fresh air like the nature documentary approach of Walking With Dinosaurs. The storytelling in Jurassic Park 3 is notably flat, which is not a surprise for the genre, of course. But the movie suffers by another comparison, perhaps inevitable by the inclusion of the fight scene with the t. rex: King Kong fought a t. rex in 1933, in a scene that is far more exciting than anything in Jurassic Park 3. Not all monster movies have to be poorly written and derivative! This movie tries hard, fails here and there, and walks away before wearing out its welcome. This is more than can be said about the other science fiction movies of summer 2001.
DVD Note: Jurassic Park 3 is available in several different DVD editions, including a box of set of all the Jurassic Park movies so far. The separate DVD has an audio commentary by the special effects team, a 20-minute making-of documentary, and a bunch of shorter featurettes that mostly focus on the special effects. As the DVD extras indicate, the movie was probably seen as an excuse for special effects by the filmmakers. Jurassic Park 3 is also available in a 4-DVD set that includes all three movies and a fourth bonus disc with even more extra material. The box itself looks nice, for those who care about such things, and the bonus material, while skimpy for the first movie, cover the second and third ones quite extensively.
Planet of the Apes, written by William Broyles Jr., Lawrence Konner, and Mark D. Rosenthal from the book by Pierre Boulle, directed by Tim Burton, 2001, 120 min.
Planet of the Apes is the most visually distinct movie of the summer, as might be expected from Tim Burton. As is also expected from Burton, there's not much of a story. There's no improvement over the original in anything but special effects, and say what you will about Charlton Heston's politics, he was a better anchor point for the 1968 version than Mark Wahlberg is for the 2001. Like Final Fantasy, Planet of the Apes suffers from a fatal ambiguity over the capabilities of its villains (as in Final Fantasy). Here, the gorillas can sometimes leap 30 feet and other times they can be knocked unconscious by a human fist. Burton's movie also suffers from two ludicrous and wrongheaded climaxes.
Mark Wahlberg is a researcher on a space station, part of a team studying an anomaly in space, and using primates for missions too risky for humans. A mission goes wrong and our plucky hero disobeys orders and heads off into space. He crash lands on a planet on the other side of the anomaly, and he soon discovers that this is a planet where humans are not the dominant lifeform. In fact, humans are hunted and enslaved by apes, and the scientist soon shares the fate of the other members of his species (of course, he is busy working on an escape plan). The apes themselves are divided into factions according to their beliefs about appropriate treatment for humans, which our hero takes advantage of. As I said, the movie has two climaxes. The first one happens after the epic battle between human and ape, and this ending is particularly galling in its straight-faced presentation of the most obvious deus ex machina solution I've ever seen. Sheer coincidence. The second ending comes in the final seconds of the movie and is also galling in its misapplication of a Twilight Zone-type twist. A movie that is already floundering story-wise cannot make all its problems go away by a final jolt; such a jolt only works when more firmly grounded in preceding context than what happens in Planet of the Apes.
The slightest hint of interesting characterization comes between our hero and an ape played by Helena Bonham Carter. They are thrown together by circumstance, and initial hints of a meeting of minds do occur. Instead, the movie puts Wahlberg together with bland supermodel Estella Warren, who is either incapable of acting if her life depended on it or chameleon-like in her ability to portray vapidity (not to say that Wahlberg has a great role or displays great acting as the male lead). Planet of the Apes is not the first movie to suffer from the casting of looks over ability by any means, but in this case the audience is teased by potential denied.
And so we come to the end of the big budget science fiction blockbusters of summer 2001. One film remains to discuss, Ghosts of Mars, but it is a relatively low-budget film that arrived in theaters with very little in the way of expectation of success. The movies that I have reviewed so far, Evolution, AI, Final Fantasy, Jurassic Park 3, and Planet of the Apes, were all products of a rich and immensely powerful entertainment industry, and all were disappointing. If these are the most entertaining and clever films on offer, then all the money thrown at the problem simply isn't enough.
John Carpenter's Ghosts of Mars, written by Larry Sulkis and John Carpenter, directed by John Carpenter, 2001, 100 min.
Ghosts of Mars is an unpleasant coda to a disappointing summer. I wasn't anticipating a masterpiece, only hoping for, maybe, some low-brow fun. Is that too much to ask? In a summer of atrocious movies, Ghosts of Mars is the worst, an offense on every level and a new low in the downward spiral of Carpenter's career. However, I can hardly summon the energy to say witty and harsh things about the movie. It's not worth expending much venom on.
Humans have lived on Mars for a while, colonizing, exploring, and mining the natural resources. A group of police is sent to a remote town for prisoner transfer, bringing the most dangerous prisoner on the planet back to the capital city. On arrival, they find that the town is deserted, the population most likely massacred, based on all the bloodstains, but the prisoners are all still safely locked away. From this point on in the story, the members of the police team get picked off one by one until they are forced to work with the remaining prisoners in a desperate struggle for survival. It seems that the ghosts of Mars were awakened from their long slumber by mining, and these ghosts protect their planet by possessing visitors and driving them into murderous frenzy. All of this is told in flashbacks by the only survivor.
My dry recitation of plot points has already made the movie sound better than it is. The flashbacks are handled clumsily and used excessively. The ghosts of Mars might be protecting their planet from the ravages of capitalism and those humans who would like to terraform, but the ghosts' "pragmatic" solution to the problem resembles just about any horror movie. The police team is filled with incompetent fighters -- the opposite of sharpshooter, if there is such a word -- who have nothing in the way of a well-honed sense of danger and who can't seem to learn from the events right in front of their eyes. In other words, stereotypical horror movie characters.
Carpenter has done a small amount of interesting speculation here. So Mars is an industrial planet, grimy, utilitarian, somewhat of a big frontier town, and contrary to expectations of a frontier, run by a matriarchy. But all of this is thrown into a poorly written story, conveyed by cardboard characters, and in the service of horror clichés (themselves not conveyed with much conviction or enjoyment). Ghosts of Mars has the dubious distinction of being worse than Red Planet and Mission to Mars, two other recent Mars movies, both in terms of storytelling and ideas about the planet. Avoid at all costs.
DVD Note: John Carpenter's fans, if there still are any, can find Ghosts of Mars in a nicely packaged Special Edition DVD. The best part of the DVD is audio commentary by Carpenter himself and star Natasha Henstridge. The other extras cover the special effects and music, and also included is a video diary of the movie's production. No one seems to have any idea of how bad the movie is.
First posted: November 19, 2001; Last modified: August 18, 2004
Copyright © 2001-2004 by James Schellenberg (firstname.lastname@example.org)
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