Posted tagged ‘science fiction’

Babylon A.D.

September 1, 2008

There’s not much I can do about Babylon A.D. except to advise you not to see it until there’s an uncut DVD, if even then. Anyone who cares about this Euro-scented, nonsensical movie has heard by now that it’s a mess, and that the blame should not be laid at the feet of star Vin Diesel or director Matthieu Kassovitz. Regardless, the version that’s in theaters is the version that the meddling studio, 20th Century-Fox, expects you to pay to see. As it stands, watching it is like trying to take in a late-night double feature of The Fifth Element and Children of Men while nodding off every ten minutes.

The film begins promisingly: disgruntled mercenary Toorop (Diesel) slouching through a rainy gun marketplace and clobbering some poor sap who sold him a bum weapon. We’re in The Future, Sometime, and Toorop gets tapped to escort mysterious young woman Aurora (Mélanie Thierry) to America along with her protector, Sister Rebeka (Michelle Yeoh). Why? Aurora is carrying something in her body; it could be the salvation or the doom of mankind. Based (loosely, I suspect) on a French sci-fi novel, the film takes the trio all over the globe without seeming to move. Bad men are after them, commanded by someone named the High Priestess, played by Charlotte Rampling, who has played high priestesses one way or another throughout her career and finally gets to be one officially. Her scene with Gerard Depardieu, though brief and conducted via video screens, will be good news for fans of art-house fare; it seems impossible, though, that this is indeed the first film in which both have appeared.

Word around the campfire is that Fox ordered Babylon A.D. trimmed by fifteen minutes to avoid an R rating. Who recut it, Stevie Wonder? The action sequences set a new standard for incoherence — at no point do we understand or even clearly see what’s happening, a disappointment for Michelle Yeoh fans looking forward to watching her show her stuff. It would take a committee of devout logicians to make sense of what’s left of the plot; much more than fifteen minutes seem to be missing, since the film proceeds in an almost non-sequitur fashion. (And people say David Lynch movies are confusing?) The annoyed director has complained in the press about what the studio did to his baby, though his name is still on the film and, one assumes, his paycheck.

The suspicion arises that Babylon A.D. was never going to make much sense or to be much good. Matthieu Kassovitz is on record, but I’d like to hear from his credited cowriters, Eric Besnard and Joseph Simas, or from one of the many executive producers. I’d like to read the panicked memos written when the film reportedly went well north of its budget and its schedule. I’d like to see the international cut, which supposedly runs 101 minutes. Mostly, I’d like my 90 minutes back.

The X-Files: I Want to Believe

July 26, 2008

At first, the new X-Files movie confused me: Where was the paranormal creepiness? There’s a man who may or may not be a psychic, but otherwise, to paraphrase John D. MacDonald talking about one of Stephen King’s “straighter” stories, there’s nary a rustle nor breath of other worlds in it. That’s not to say there’s no creepiness, though: pedophiles and organ harvesting — are those creepy enough for you? Ten years after the last X-Files film, and six years after the show excused itself from Fox’s schedule, director/cowriter Chris Carter has brought former agents Fox Mulder (David Duchovny) and Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson) out of mothballs in order to tell a psychologically and ethically twisty yarn about faith (check the subtitle).

The alleged psychic is Father Joe (Billy Connolly), a pedophile priest who has visions connected to various missing people, including an FBI agent. Scully is pulled away from her physician gig (where she’s trying to get stem-cell therapy for a dying little boy in the face of the Catholic bureaucracy at her hospital) to go fetch Mulder, who sits in his clippings-covered hiding place wearing what I guess we’re supposed to take as a real beard. ($30 million doesn’t buy much these days.) Soon enough the duo are back in the thick of weirdness, as body parts turn up and Father Joe bleeds from his eyes, and people are always waddling around in deep snow or getting snowplowed off the slippery roads in their cars.

The consensus is that I Want to Believe feels like an episode (or a two-parter) of the medium-budget show, and in a way that works for it. The smaller scale allows Duchovny and Anderson to work together quietly — the movie is unexpectedly hushed and emotional. There are no explosions, no vast black-oil conspiracy or mystification accessible only to those who’ve memorized every episode (a big problem with the previous film). What the movie boils down to is a rather queasy rumination on good science vs. bad science, good faith vs. bad faith. This being an X-Files film, it involves, at one point, a team of surgeons preparing to graft a gay man’s head onto a woman’s body. (I don’t even really feel like unpacking whatever Carter and cowriter Frank Spotnitz think they’re saying about homosexuality and gender.)

Dark and steamy as the plot is, there’s a good dollop of humor, mostly emerging from within Duchovny’s beard (and, later, his clean-cut mug). There are a couple of callbacks to Mulder’s eternal search for his alien-abducted sister, but most of the subtext falls heavily inside Scully’s gut. She has lost one child and does not want to lose another; she may also be aware that the authorities at the hospital (who run their decisions past a Higher Authority) possibly consider her surgical experiments as barbaric as those of the organ harvesters. Scully, a drifted Catholic herself, may also see herself in Father Joe, the ultimate drifted Catholic, and doesn’t much enjoy what she sees (does God hold her and him in equal wrath?). I don’t think Carter is drawing a moral equivalence in either case — it rhymes literarily, not literally.

So here’s an X-Files adventure without aliens or snot monsters who can fold themselves into origami, or whatever the early Creature of the Week episodes spooked us with. It’s pretty light on action, too. Yet I was compelled by the lurid storyline and its impact on our old friends Mulder and Scully. This is a solid character piece, of the sort that I’m surprised 20th Century-Fox was willing to finance (albeit for a relative pittance). It reminded me why I liked these two when I was sampling the first season. It will, no doubt, disappoint fans who were hoping for the Dark Knight of X-Files movies, a soaring epic tying up the entire show and paving the way for more sequels. But for casual viewers like myself, it’s a compact and unusual thriller with two underrated actors climbing comfortably back into old skins. It could’ve been a whole lot worse.


June 28, 2008

Even a robot can become human by watching old movies. Specifically old musicals in which people dance and hold hands. WALL•E, a determined little trash compactor on wheels, diverts himself all day finding bits of debris left behind by the humans who departed Earth 700 years ago. But really all he wants is someone’s hand to hold. WALL•E is a thoroughly charming and intensely moving film about loneliness and devolution, and how both conditions can be corrected. I don’t know if it’s a masterpiece; what I do know is that it is perfection. The movie has a strong simplicity that rivals, and sometimes equals, Steven Spielberg’s E.T. It’s E.T. for the iPod generation.

WALL•E’s routine is broken one day by the arrival of EVE, a sleek robot who looks like a first-wave iMac crossed with an owl. EVE zips around the barren planet, scanning for signs of organic life. WALL•E shows her a plant, which he’d found still miraculously alive inside a refrigerator. (Between this movie and the fourth Indiana Jones film, wherein Indy rode out a nuclear bomb blast inside a fridge, it certainly is the season for this heretofore unheroic appliance.) Her directive is to take the plant back to the massive spaceship Axiom, where bloated humans suck up liquid meals and are catered to by machines. By then, though, WALL•E has already fallen hard for EVE. She nearly kills him a few times, of course, but eventually she calms down and is intrigued by this skittish, humming little packrat.

Directed by longtime Pixar animator Andrew Stanton (Finding Nemo), WALL•E gets a lot of mileage from slapstick but is just as capable of almost indescribable beauty. Consider the sequence in which WALL•E and EVE float in outer space. He’s propelled by a fire extinguisher; she zooms around on her own power. Earlier, in WALL•E’s cramped hidey-hole, they try to dance along to the musical playing on WALL•E’s videotape but can only manage a clunking, floor-shaking parody. Here in weightless space, their dance becomes a pursuit-and-retreat mating ritual, and when they face each other on opposite ends of the wide frame it’s like the old scene with lovers running towards each other across a field. Stanton suffuses the movie with love of movies, and love as seen in movies. It’s a true all-around valentine.

Some have called the satire of oblivious, hapless consumers — and the corporation that dictates their lifestyles — a bit heavy-handed. I didn’t find myself noticing it much; I imprinted on lonely little WALL•E early on and never lost his emotional thread. Once he sees EVE, nothing will keep him from her. This faceless robot, with camera eyes that tilt upward in despair or wistful hope, is the most expressive character we’re likely to see at the multiplex this summer. Veteran sound man Ben Burtt is the voice of WALL•E, ringing endless joyous or crestfallen variations on one or two words; he’s matched beautifully by Elissa Knight, who as EVE manages to invest a word like “Directive” with volumes of regret and apology. I can see why some people will prefer the first third and grow weary of the more conventional hijinks aboard the Axiom; perhaps it’s because WALL•E and EVE are so magically right together that one wouldn’t mind turning the entire 97 minutes over to them cooing and bleeping at each other.

Movies by their very nature are manipulative. WALL•E comes honestly by the tears it earns, not just in the sad moments but in the moments of bliss. Past a certain point I’m not really qualified to review the film as an adult, since I quite readily regressed to about six years old through most of it. I can tell you that the six-year-old laughed and cried and was with WALL•E every step (or roll) of the way. But the adult also found things to love. Among other things, WALL•E is a testament to the human ability to improve and transcend: even 700 years after Earth became too toxic to sustain life, there’s still hope. And if you’re a stinky little trash compactor on wheels who just wants to hold someone’s hand, there’s hope for you, too. WALL•E is the most generous and romantic vision to hit mainstream movies in a very long time.