While convolution in a murder mystery is nothing new, a film usually pays dividends if, in the end, a semblance of coherence can be deciphered from even the most labyrinthine of evidentiary bread crumbs trails. (The exception of the eternally baffling Howard Hawks production of “The Big Sleep” whose exclusion to the rule has more to do with the entertaining distractions of Hollywood star power and breezy stylishness, along with a critical Get Out of Jail Free card for virtually any film from a filmmaker included in the Auteurist Pantheon.)
In “Jade”, William Friedkin seems to delight in his camera gliding over the ornate mise-en-scene with a fetishistic compulsiveness of a impassioned lovers caressing (if the point of this tactile stroking is lost, the orgasmic crashes of James Horner’s overheated scoring may yet result in the audience absently reaching for a cigarette). It is a type of hyper-eroticized teasing that conveys a particularly disreputable surrender to the lurid when a carved banister is meant to convey all of the seductive properties of a high society escort. Yet for all of its labor intensive attempts at artfully steamy sexiness, “Jade” fails to conjure the merest seismic flutter on the sensuality meter, a crippling enough failed standard for what has been euphemistically (if not optimistically, according to the whims of studio marketers) referred to as an “erotic thriller”, but less impactful when taking into consideration that absolutely nothing which transpires in the rest of the film makes a bit of sense.
Assistant District Attorney David Corelli (David Caruso) is called to investigate the murder of millionaire businessman Kyle Medford; his first move being to conceal a piece of evidence and inflame the Governor of California, Lew Edwards (Richard Crenna), with a collection of photographs showing the Governor engaged sexually with prostitute Patrice Jacinto (Angie Everhart), who will later be publicly dispatched by a black Thunderbird in a particularly brutal fashion (run over twice), initiating a spectacular (albeit in an absurd way) car chase over the hills of San Francisco (the vehicles reach heights that make one suspect they were launched from a cannon) and through the packed streets of Chinatown during a celebratory parade. (A sequence which is so necessarily extended, one can’t help but wonder why the pursuing Corelli simply doesn’t circle around the adjoining block and wait for his prey at the other end of the street?) This second of two auto sequences (a Friedkin signature which, at this date, might be creatively fruitful to retire in order to allow for more pre-production scrutiny to be paid in the development of coherent scripts), is relevant (though criminally reckless) to Corelli only in that he believes it belongs to his chief suspect in the case, a former flame-cum-psychologist Katrina Gavin (Linda Fiorentino) who happens to be married to powerful defense attorney Matt Gavin (Chazz Palminteri), one of Corelli’s best friends.
The intimacy of this character dynamic which is exploited through most of the film is nevertheless explored only superficially and, surprisingly, has nothing to do with the actual series of murders that appear to be connected in concealing the original killer’s identity. Nor are any of the investigative threads consistent with the extremely confused denouement in which half of the supporting cast suddenly appears in a dank attic to engage in a twisty comeuppance for perpetrators almost impossible to identify. The film is sated with trivial red herrings which are never refuted with explanations nor even acknowledged (the actual identity of the driver of the aforementioned death vehicle is never revealed) and several extended sequences involving Katrina and Matt at work fail to demonstrate and expository usefulness for their inclusion. Even the film’s hurried explanatory unraveling makes little sense as Corelli’s initial concealment of evidence consciously negates the entire course his investigation and thus the film mystery.
Much has been made of the extensive interference of director William Friedkin’s reported interloping onto the integrity of another purported mishandled masterpiece of screenwriting by Joe Esterhas (unsurprisingly by the humility deficient writer himself), yet the boorish cocktail of tawdry sex and cloddish violence wrapped in sledgehammer bow of vacuity has the sleazy imprints of Esterhas’ fingerprints all over the screen.
In George Stevens’ film “Shane”, when excitable homesteader Frank Torrey (Elisha Cook Jr.) is gunned down by the enigmatic hired killer Jack Wilson (Jack Palance), the director deliberately amplified the volume of the shot to emphasize the violence inherent in a death by gunfire. By using a subtle but simple sensorial shock technique, Stevens was able to momentarily stir the audience from their complacency as passive spectators to make the lethal act more disquieting and thus invest the likelihood of similar consequences for other innocents with an intensified emotional immediacy.
In “Tombstone”, director George P. Cosmatos takes a similar but more extreme approach, by continually pummels the viewer with seismic storms of thundering hooves and explosive gunplay, almost continually abetted by Bruce Broughton’s muscular scoring which sings out with the dramatic import of what has or is about to occur with all of the subtlety of a claxon horn. Whether this approach is meant to immerse the viewer in the intensity of the violent confrontations, the results continue the fascinating confusion modern cinema has in conflating brute intensity with excitement. While it is possible to find immersion with the film’s reckless momentum, it is a strenuous form of pleasure. There is no question that one may emerge with the feeling of having been physically worked over by the film’s aural assault alone.
“Tombstone” doesn’t tread any particularly new territory that hasn’t already been steeply embellished by previous versions of the story, though in relating the familiar story of Wyatt Earp (a slightly inconsistent Kurt Russell, but with genuine highs), his brothers and Doc Holliday (an astonishing career performance by Val Kilmer) against Ike Clanton) an unrecognizable Stephen Lang) and the Cowboys, the carnage has been elevated to an absurdist level. One would have to reach back to Roger Corman’s “The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre” to find a find a movie comparable in its willingness to undercut the visceral potency of its own historical highlight merely by a miscalculation of the overabundant quantity of bloodletting featured throughout the entirety of the film, producing a literal numbing of the senses from overstimulation.
Wyatt Earp’s arrival in Tombstone, Arizona initiates a succession of events from a certain legendary disagreement at the O.K. Corral to the Earp Vendetta Ride; all staged with a blunt proficiency that continually ramps up every drop of sweat to be squeezed from the unrelenting action, but absent of a single believable moment of humanity or poetry. In the service of relating an epic tale of good versus evil, the film conveys every permutation of the corrupted spirit, with the most murderous actions enacted under the guise of misplaced righteousness. (The ultimately blurs the distinction between the lawmen and the Cowboys.) This portrait of Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday is primitively exciting in the same way a noisy fireworks display may generate brief attention, but it is also, more importantly, dramatically hollow. Every action of every (male) character is instinctively predicated on a reliance of violence as a cure for any but the most casual interaction; which may explain why the few moments set aside as reminders of an imperfectly resolved domestic side to Wyatt’s life feel out of synch with the rest of the film. The romantic subplot between Earp and the showgirl Josephine Marcus emerges as formulaically tacked on and perfunctory. Comprised entirely of one climax after another, “Tombstone” marks all of the story’s more familiar highlights, but is wholly insufficient in incorporating any of the necessary intermediate human connections which would allow for satisfying emotional resonance.
Characters who should be important to the narrative flicker by briefly in scenes without any suggestion as to who they are and why they should be important to the story. This causes the film to give the impression of being a Greatest Hits reel, with all of the quiet, expository moments excised. Thus, Big Nose Kate, Holliday’s common law wife, appears tableside in several gambling scenes but is given no importance to the story outside that of an occasional, unexplained decorative appendage. The Earp women are interchangeable to the point of irrelevancy. Only the aforementioned Josephine Marcus (Dana Delaney) is afforded any prominence greater than window dressing and her scenes are intermittently scattered as apparent afterthoughts, with one rather cloying romantic idyll awkwardly inserted solely as a nostalgic reminder of a virtually identical rendezvous in John Sturges’ “Gunfight at the O.K. Corral”. Again, the piecemeal nature of the film denying an organic flow to establish the simplest of relationships between the characters. The more film’s most prominent bond, that between Wyatt and Holliday, is taken for granted not through any revealing interplay, but simply through a familiarity born from repeated exposure in popular culture. Seldom has an historical film relied so heavily on the past work of others to do its heavy lifting. Even the antagonists of the film- the Cowboys -are given little dimension beyond the thinnest portrayal of merciless killing machines with even the hierarchy within the group confused by the film’s generous laxity in confusing myth with history with borrowed cultural reference.
“Justice League” (2017)
If “Justice League” proves anything it’s that any pretense of the inclusion of genuine human heart in the halting but expanding collection of high-powered missteps known as the DC Extended Universe is provided solely by the presence of Diane Lane as Superman’s adoptive mom, Martha Kent.
Alone in this cinema cycle of whose entire modus operandi is predicated on the presumed excitement surrounding operatic violence and a fervent argument promoting the basic irrelevance of humans without the advantage of supernal abilities or (in the case of Batman) resources, the figure of Martha Kent stands alone as a beacon of devotion unencumbered by any motivation save as the torchbearer for the purity of traditional maternal affection. (Kevin Costner provided a well-matched partner with his portrayal of spouse Jonathan Kent, but his early exit, though occasionally referenced, presence in the franchise contributes a philosophic but strained emotional reach.)
The architects of this extended franchise were certainly aware of this in “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice” when they needlessly and sadistically exploited the fragility of this character in keeping with DC’s post-Frank Miller/911 era fascination with nihilism as entertainment rather than good old-fashioned adventure stories demarcating the forces of good from those of the reprehensible. One of the reasons for the failure of “B v S”, is its total rejection of the human factor. In the end, what is celebrated and what loss is mourned at the conclusion of that film are not the untold thousands who suffered as casualties of the crossfire between interplanetary interlopers, but of the singular death of a super-powered alien who, for the better part of the film, has been treated with suspicion and something indistinguishable from animus. This last minute reversal of sentiment represents the surrender of the people of modern civilization to finally unite not in a harmonious brotherhood of global understanding, but as sheepish submissives alarmingly eager to fall subordinate to unquestioning preternatural idolatry.
“Justice League” advances this surrender of human dignity by dispensing with homo sapiens as retaining only a minor significance by acting as the source of incredibly offensive and dumbed down portraits of oafish low comedy in their paltry attempts to avoid the further death throes. This fate is callously designed to be administered less by invasionary aliens or criminal masterminds than by a cynical and wholly unimaginative world of comic book thinking whose lack of inspiration degrades the capacity for a character to be comprised of critical worth unless they be emblazoned with a franchise insignia or accessorized with a cape. Within the stunted world view given humanity in mainstream modern comics, any interest (and thus value) to which attention or empathetic interest is seriously applied is measured primarily to those with the ability to defy gravity or becoming, in essence, a menacing vigilante whose sole motivation is satisfying the blazing rage of a deeply rooted psychological grudge, No one is going to headline a seventy issue crossover story by simply being a good natured store clerk.
So is it any wonder that within the fragile fraternity comprising this germinal version of the Justice League, the conversation rarely rises above self-absorbed bickering over petty slights of egoism? This strained banter is meant to provide an elusive sense of fun while the rather pathetic Steppenwolf, the film’s villain-with-delusions-of-world-conquest du jour, is focused on setting up the mechanics for his global smash and grab. Meanwhile, while the latest pending doomsday is announced right up front (actually it is clearly enunciated way back in “B v S”), any preparatory stratagems are preposterously delayed (there is never any suggestion that mere humans might assist and that international defenses might be employed). If superhero movies are familiarly bogged down with an abundance of origin information, “Justice League” carries this to insane proportions, with the proper introduction of no less than three major characters each of which is subject to sizeable chunks of poorly defined exposition. Yet, despite the ill-considered direction of narrative priorities achieves little in achieving substantially clarified characters, but mightily inhibits any chance for the central conflict to assume a satisfying immediacy. Disjointed focus and a slack pacing perpetuates one of the core hazards of all comic book movies, and that it a heightened transparency of the inevitabile display of the unimaginative. Why is it that regardless of the abilities of the metahumans (in either the role of savior or villain), conflict resolution is always specifically limited to the latest and most structurally destructive version of a fistfight? The multi-billion comic book movie industry seems to be in the business of merely making the most expensive Republic serials ever.
Hundreds of millions of dollars are poured into these “epics” (despite the barely serviceable and unaccountably cheap special effects), but no effort is made to explain the simplest of questions about the characters inhabiting them, such as: If Aquaman is invincible, who provides the tattoo needles strong enough to decorate his invulnerable hide?
“Rambo: Last Blood” (2019)
By this point in the increasingly indefensible gorefest known as the Rambo franchise, having abandoned the original novel and film’s conception of a man irretrievably changed and haunted by Vietnam (the War, not the tourist trap), “Rambo: Last Blood”, the latest excuse for an emergency manufacturing of body bags, is bereft of even the slightest hint of social commentary and aims strictly down the path of the revenge spree in the Jason Voorhees tradition. The film wastes no time showing it intends to match its testosterone fueled hero grunt for grunt by blasting Brian Tyler’s clamorous score over the most innocuous of incidents. Thus an undramatic scene of driving down a rural highway takes on unwarranted portents of imminent violence simply as an aural gut punch designed to work the audience over and exhaust visceral resistance.
The film operates on the Let’s Do the Stupidest Thing Possible to Put Ourselves in Danger Principle, so when Rambo’s strenuously advises Gabrielle, a friend’s granddaughter whom he has adopted as his own, to resist crossing into Mexico to seek out the no-account scoundrel of a father who abandoned her, she naturally ignores the wisdom of not naively diving head first into a den of drug cartels and sex traffickers. Rather than smartly assessing the number and strength of his opposition, Rambo bluntly walks into a cartel stronghold to rescue Gabrielle, resulting in a savage beating, but incredibly not in his own murder. Realistically, the only possible motive for this bloodthirsty criminal class not to butcher him is that is would bring an abrupt end of the picture rather than allowing Rambo to recover sufficiently to exact several tons of their flesh. Then again, had Rambo decided to use common sense and eventually rush Gabrielle to a hospital for medical attention rather than just driving her home, he would have avoided the ignition of his irresistible impulse toward further violent action.
However, the entire film contorts logic to a singularly directed perspective of life as an extended psychotic episode, with catharsis attained only through acts of homicidal brutality. Yet for all of the grim carnage, perhaps the most nauseating aspect of the film are the insultingly condescending insertions of forced sentimentality designed to convince the audience that Rambo is a contemplative soul with a desperate hunger for peace and solitude on his remote ranch, though this fails to reconcile his idea of idyllic sanctuary featuring a personal subterranean theme park modeled on the tunnels of Củ Chi; hardly the environment one might construct to aid in the search for universal harmony. Nor does this purported pacifist soul searcher explain his handy arsenal of weaponry complete with Claymore mines. (Yet, not a copy of Kahlil Gibran in sight.)
The film has been widely castigated with accusations of racism in its depiction of member of Mexican cartels as unsavory and irredeemable (One wonders where these hyperventilating social watchdog defenders of the morally challenged were hiding when the villainy of SPECTRE was afoot?), yet there is little mention from this same camp concerning Rambo as symbolizing all Americans as disturbed killing machines. The one unfortunately underdeveloped character in the film (they all are, but this is the sole figure who might seem interesting as a human being) is an investigative journalist played by the normally capable Paz Vega, who rescues and tends to Rambo only to be emotionally betrayed with his exploiting a painful wound she reveals to him, only for the sake of achieving his own bloody ends.
“San Andreas” (2015)
SPOILER ALERT: There is a reference in the following piece, which reveals climactic events in the 1970’s disaster films “Earthquake” and “The Poseidon Adventure”.
California is hit by a series of catastrophic earthquakes. Appropriately large numbers of helpless extras die for your entertainment. Hitchcock was right.
“San Andreas” is essentially an undated version of Mark Robson’s “Earthquake” only with enhanced CGI effects substituting for the much ballyhooed sensorial experience to be had with Sensurround, but in relieving the viewer of the earlier film’s cranial shaking, “San Andreas” presents an emotionally barren panorama of tectonic plate movement rudely dismissing the surface squatter’s rights asserted by mere humans. What transpires is a visual smorgasbord of devastation of such unrelenting, unfeeling efficiency that boredom quickly sets it; after all, when you’ve seen one skyscraper fall, you’ve seen them all, and it’s this apathy inducing causality that is the unhesitatingly squirm inducing problem (well, one of them anyway) with the film.
In essence, this colossal apocalyptic vision of cities dissolving into so much pixilated dust is simply the latest and deadliest steroid driven version of “Son of Lassie”, though that children’s film’s demonstration of honor and loyalty in a perilous journey to save a loved one has been perverted into an ugly pseudo-epic, in which the deaths of millions are callously dismissed as long as the cutest featured player is pulled from the well in time for hugs, kisses and insanely myopic jubilation (always accompanied by a blast of shamelessly sappy musical scoring, just in case you don’t get the point) at the fade out. That the intended (though fraudulently sought) sentimentality at the finale utterly fails to move is a testament to the rest of the film’s designed emotional distancing in which the filmmakers demonstrate a remarkably singular dedication to cold-bloodedly depicting as many ways for urbanites to be turned into jelly as possible, without raising an eyebrow of empathy.
“San Andreas” is the latest of a growing trend toward a disturbing “purge cinema”, in which whole peoples are blithely wiped from existence (intended for the amusement of the audience) in the service of a barely threadbare narrative masquerading the film’s genuine intentions as two hours of glorified thrill kills (superhero films count on this nihilistic aversion toward the sanctity of collateral human life; it’s their bread and butter). The films differ radically from the prototypical disaster films popular in the early 1970’s in that the current incarnations promote the emergence of a Nietzschean Übermensch who walks through the escalating chaos with nary a sweat stain, while the vintage examples of the genre, no matter how clunky their narratives, at least had the good sense to recognize the fragility of human life (Hollywood-style, anyway) to the point where stalwart heroics were still vulnerable to premature mortal expiration (hence the novel deaths of the lead characters played by Charlton Heston in “Earthquake” and Gene Hackman in “The Poseidon Adventure”). However, the post 9/11 emergence of the cinematic invulnerable man of action is a vulgarization of the very concept of heroism, for if a character is unstoppable and resistant to death (or even serious damage), then where is the danger faced by such an individual that they might consider self-sacrifice in the interest of others?
Bizarrely, the film is padded with a forced subtext with the hero brooding over his conflicted hesitancy in healing his marital and parental wounds; the type of material which might have been approached by a Paul Mazursky with amusement and insight, rather than a reliance on balancing the tribulations of personal relationships with gleefully presented graphic carnage. Was the film intended as a psychotic’s revisionist version of couple’s therapy? Where is Rod McKuen when we need him?
“Bride Wars” (2009)
Women haven’t fared particularly well in the realm of recent American film comedies; the occasions for a revision in the cinematic perception of the post-feminist woman being a rare species, as the gentler sex is perpetually relegated to the diminished stature of a driven career woman willing to drop all personal aspirations at the drop of a hat in order become the idealized subservient (think office pool Stepford Girlfriend) in order to win their dream man, or, worse yet, degenerate into the most odoriferous level of sophomoric crudity in mirroring the lowest possible standards of hijinks (in which the inclusion of a high volume of flatulence, vomiting and a host of scatological disfuntion signals a guarantee for the studio to open the film at a minimum of 2,500 screens) of their male movie counterparts.
The cynical, self-righteous absence of wit that has become signatory of the SNL set has become the standard to which almost all contemporary movie comedy has declined: wit has been replaced by an aggressive dare: that to find the film unamusing is a sign of being lethally unhip with the times. After all, the popularity (in box office numbers) announce triumphant success with the public’s taste; though this is only the result of decades of formulating opening weekends as opposed to the tried and true method of success being a film with longevity.
What is generally missing in women’s comedies is a sense of sincere bonded sisterhood woven with an independent spirit existing beyond the influence of the male gender, giving bold definition of the woman as as both a member of a self-sufficient social sorority and as her individual self. This would also extend to reaching beyond the examples of behavior defining the current male movie role models. (As antiquated as young audiences might find the comedies of Doris Day, there is a defiant individualism at work even in the most domesticated of scenarios. One does not acquire the image of a professional virgin without thinking for one’s self.)
Much of this is hinted at. and actually is the thematic fulcrum from which springs the cinematic trifle known as “Bride Wars”, a trivial, insubstantial comedy made all the more frustrating by it’s unwitting opening of a few fresh veins of insight that not only go unexplored, but are unacknowledged by the filmmakers. (Haven’t they heard the criticisms of the film industry?) Rather than demonstrating the usual cynical prefabrication by which most contemporary American comedy is mired, there is a stubborn insistence at work, subverting the embracing of a fresh women’s perspective, instead substituting the use of the overly familiar tactic of having characters lose all sense of proportion in their motives and subsequent behaviors for the sake of contrived audience amusement; most troubling when the film cascades down the tired path of escalating revenge tactics which require knowledge beyond their limited skill sets and preposterously convenient access to locations to which they would have little or no undetected presence anywhere but in a desperate script. Originality be damned when a lazy continuation of desperately strained cliché will do.
The premise of the film- the breach of a lifelong friendship between teacher Emma (Ann Hathaway) and attorney Liv (Kate Hudson) and subsequent attempts to sabotage each other’s wedding, having it’s basis in a perceived minor perceived infraction of loyalty that balloons out of proportion, with the film unwisely moving from light comedy that flowers naturally from the story line to less effective, strained slapstick, in an obvious attempt to replicate the frat boy level of comedy prevalent with the rise and fall of such resistible farceurs as Vince Vaughn and Will Ferrell. Playing with the comic possibilities inherent in the unconscious enmity existing between even the best of friends, the film’s conflict is ignited by a simple clerical error in a wedding planner’s office; a plot point that in reality would be resolved in a more professional manner adhering to contractual obligations, rather than involving the friends in an escalating campaign of mutual humiliation, neither of whom is responsible for the situation. However, for the purposes of ill-conceived comedy isn’t it far more plausible that the two friends would choose to viciously turn on each other despite the fact that the film has taken great pains to portray the pair as inseparable to the point of the pathological?
By the film’s contrived conclusion (a reconciliation which could have occurred far earlier in the film), the bonds of friendship (and literal sisterhood) are even more pronounced with a denouement that oozes treacle. Outside of their proclivity toward polar extremes in loyalty, the characters remain ciphers, reacting only to the demands of the script’s shaky premise and ultimately adhering to an antiquated ideal of career woman as housewife/mother. The helium voiced squeals that signal the pair’s delight in the abandonment of a feminist voice are a primal scream signifying the latest peal of the Hollywood death knell of Ms. Friedan’s cautionary mystique.
Sometimes you get the opinion that certain directors watch far too many films and that they just cannot restrain themselves from emulating what it is that has already excited them on the screen. If one is in the mood for a smattering of John Woo’s “Hard-Boiled” mixed with lesser parts “Altered States”, “Koyaanisqatsi”, “Scanners”, “2001: A Space Odyssey” and “D.O.A”, then “Lucy” might be your particular blend of intellectual hemlock. French director Luc Besson continues his fascination with the empowered woman who is simultaneously emboldened with both superhuman abilities and high powered weaponry; a partnership that might seem either unnecessary or contradictory, but certainly makes for a stylish, if predictable, brand of mayhem.
In Besson’s universe, violence isn’t an eruption, but a kinetic ballet; though in lacking a resonant aesthetic shaking core comparable (even in ambition, if not execution) to Peckinpah’s seminal ballets of bullets and blood in “The Wild Bunch”, it fails to elicit little more than comparisons (especially in this case considering the ethnicity of the lead criminals) to the run of the mill Hong Kong shoot-em-up, violence in a Besson film is not used as a means to an end, but simply as a substitution for more intellectual pursuits; which is odd considering the consistent window dressing of tacked-on grandiosity mated with criminally undeveloped philosophical ambitions.
Scarlett Johansson plays the eponymous character, a relative innocent who conveniently (for the plot, anyway) has a close associations with an extremely shady character, resulting, through rather contrived circumstances, in finding herself forced into the role of a surgically implanted drug mule for a shadowy Korean drug cartel run by the odious Mr. Jang; the kind of conspiratorial invention of the movies which purports to operate in secret while flamboyantly laying waste to whole blocks of urban areas with exaggerated gun battles of which even the most narcoleptic of law enforcement agencies would be bound to take notice. Lucy’s internal baggage is a sealed quantity of a state-of-the-art drug which, for no apparent reason except to get the plot moving, is ruptured when one of Mr. Jang’s henchmen decides to practice Rockette high kicks into Lucy’s abdomen; releasing the narcotic into her bloodstream, triggering transformative psychic and physical abilities that are meant to coincide with a continuous sliding gauge of brain usage, until the mystery of what might occur if a human reached full 100% capacity is revealed. SF films (or in this case, action/SF hybrids) have a peculiarly dispiriting habit of failing to capitalize upon the public’s collective curiosity toward the unknown; the banal limitations of the screenwriter’s imagination more often than not revealing itself to be perfectly at home with the most trite of conceptions as long as they are magnified through the cinematic cosmetics of blaring scores, frenetic editing and pyrotechnic special effects; an empty sensory beating.
Besson’s film is even more problematic in that it suffers from a cerebral example of might well be best described as the Brooks Syndrome; a failed reactive dichotomy in which the audience reacts at odds with what is being presented onscreen; best exampled in Mel Brooks’ 1968 comedy “The Producers”, in which the onscreen audience begins roaring with hysterical laughter over the stage production ofSpringtime for Hitler(though, curiously, not during the genuinely funny musical numbers), showing a far more enthusiastic response than the actual one in the movie theater. In this case, the film promises the escalation of intelligence while simultaneously dumbing down to almost unfathomable levels. What begins as a bizarre hybrid of (even if the presented science is a bit of hoodoo) overheated Hong Kong crime drama and unfocused faux theoretical science documentary clumsily blended, though, even from the start, there is clearly a collision of purpose within the film’s design, that is intended to set the stage for a collision of these insoluble genre elements, though it proves to be an insoluble concoction; at least in the conceptual methods of the director. Certainly there have been many prior examples of SF films which have merged unlikely genre tropes, yet few have attempted such a humorlessly straightforward introduction of pop art kineticism (the now overly ritualized Hong Kong bullet battles) and dry academia (no matter how screwball the concepts), intended to veer onto a radically abstruse ontological path; all intended to be taken seriously while each intrudes upon the central thread of the film: the ascent of Lucy to an improbable (even in the context of trashy science fiction) form of transmundane entity.
Certainly, this set up of fractured circumstances falls flat in its reach to justify the kind of Kubrickian metaphysical leap that the film rather clumsily inserts in between bout of hyperbolic high caliber athleticism, nor does the movie achieve greater intellectual legitimacy through the pedantic academia presented by none other than Morgan Freeman (blurring the lines of his frequent authoritatively toned documentary narrative voice, which becomes peculiarly reminiscent of such pop culture family fare as “March of the Penguins” rather than associative with transcendent deep thinking). Freeman portrays Prof. Norman, a fictional renowned expert on the generally discredited 10% human brain usage theory, but his role is almost scandalously decorative- neither his nor his endless, empty Spielbergian stares of awe contribute the slightest to the film. Freeman is a supremely talented actor who seems to be willingly engaged in roles which use his mollifying manner and voice as an increasingly generic brand of thespian sedative, yet beyond the posture of a kindly figure of dignity, there is little to justify his presence. To be fair, in this instance, Besson’s script gives him absolutely no wiggle room in which any idiosyncratic depth might be attempted; the character is essentially a walking dissertation. Still, the actor must have seen this before the cameras rolled. Which leaves any semblance of empathy to be the burden of the lead character Lucy, played by Scarlett Johansson, who, despite an unfortunate creeping apathetical transmutation, manages skillful shadings with a role inexplicably calling for fewer degrees of humanity as her character’s mind reaches its fullest human potential.
The resultant metaphysical mumbo jumbo turns out to be merely a smokescreen to divert attention away from one of the most deplorably illogical crime movie plots in recent years, not to mention the absurdity of the credibility deadening (again, even taken within the context of nonsense science) incomprehensibly spot-on bursts of insight by Prof. Norman explaining to his fellow scientists the significance of Lucy’s rapidly escalating transmogrifications (always a sign of creative insecurity, when a director feels obliged to italicize the meaning of the obscurity they are presenting), despite the fact that he would have no prior knowledge of such seemingly random special effects parlor tricks.
What could Besson have been thinking?
The movie ends with an absurdly meaningless utterance: “Life was given to us a billion years ago. Now you know what to do with it.” If that rather deliberately enigmatic quotation (a quixotic obtuseness which the film hasn’t earned) is meant as a pretext to overreach and produce patently silly movies, then mission accomplished.