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Classic Movie Review – The Chronicles of Riddick

You could be forgiven for not knowing that this film is the sequel to the 2000 cult (honestly, I think I’m just euphemising for “little watched”) sci-fi flick Pitch Black. The two things that Pitch Black had going for it were a fun Aliens-inspired plot and Vin Diesel at the height of his powers: when Diesel flexes his muscles and mostly refrains from speaking, he’s fantastic. When he tries to adopt a personality (see, for example, xXx) he’s woeful.

So, the thinking obviously went: revive Riddick, throw a lot more money at this one, get a decent backup cast (Judy Dench, Thandie Newton, Colm Feore) and we’ll have a sure fire hit. The main problem with this theory is that the joy of Pitch Black was watching the slow development of Riddick: at the beginning he was the dangerous and mysterious convict before a crash landing forced him and the crew to rely upon each other to defeat the aliens. We were never really sure if he was good or bad (OK, so we had our suspicions, but work with me here) and it was only at the end that the warm and fuzzy Riddick came out to play.

This time around we know from the beginning that Riddick has a heart of gold, and where’s the fun in that? Compare the identical scenes in the two films where Riddick is chained up inside a space ship. In Pitch Black it is near the beginning and his brooding face, his muscular body, the dark goggles, the mystery as to who he is, all combine to have us believing that any minute now he’s going to break out and do something really nasty to some poor, cowering crew member. Maybe the death will even be slow and painful. This time around we know our man won’t harm a fly unless he absolutely, positively has to (having already let some bounty hunters off lightly at the beginning of the film) and so, after a while, Riddick actually tells us that he doesn’t think he’ll bust out of his chains right now because it’s not part of his plan: not exactly edge-of-your-seat stuff.

For the most part, the best characters in this film are the women. Alexa Davalos, upon entering proceedings halfway through as the grown-up version of the little girl who survived Pitch Black, almost steals the limelight away from Vin, with some fairly impressive spinning back-kicking and quality trash-talking: not bad for a former model with a resume briefer than the outfits she dons. Seeing Judi Dench in this film, on the other hand, is a little like seeing your mother in a nightclub. Mum! What the hell are you doing here? She is very wise, however. We know this because she sounds like the Queen of England, and she brought Thandie Newton with her which is a very wise move. Thandie would not look out of place in any nightclub and neither does she look out of place playing Dame Vaako, the resident Sexy Evil Chick, with a healthy streak of Lady Macbeth.

I must say that I enjoyed Twohy’s decision to get a little Shakespearean on our resident bad guys, the Necromancers, and develop at least a smidgeon of depth. Yes, the word “Shakespearean” may be a little OTT but at least Twohy – who also wrote the script – does his best to inject some personality into the dark side. Films like Independence Day would certainly have benefited from the same approach. These Necromancers are at first glance a homogenous mass of Gladiator-looking types, obliterating life one planet after another and giving those who surrender the option to have their brains re-worked so that they’ll follow the Necro faith, or to have their souls ripped out of their bodies. Very Ghost. Before long the Necros are succumbing to the plotting of Dame Vaako, who is constantly telling her man, Vaako (Carl Urban), that the boss is overlooking him for promotion. Meanwhile the mental makeovers they give their underlings don’t seem to be ensuring that everyone toes the company line and at least one of the leaders does some “thinking outside the box” as they say.

Perhaps the biggest disappointment of this film is the lack of hand-to-hand combat action. Diesel has been around long enough not to have to resort to cut-and-move tactics from the cameras, and yet this is what we get: very few properly choreographed fighting scenes. Instead we have the tell-tale close ups of fists connecting with faces and lots of rapidly-moving cameras obscuring what’s actually happening. For a $100 million action flick starring the genre’s then pre-eminent man (I know, slim pickings back then) this is simply unacceptable.

All-in-all, this is a middling action sci-fi work-out but it certainly didn’t bore me. Rather the cinema seat engulfed me lovingly and we were given what we demand as an absolute minimum: enough colour and oomph to keep us contented, if not quite ecstatic.

Highlight: Riddick’s narrow escape from a crash-landing space craft. That’s where all the money went.

Lowlight: Twohy’s attempt to flip the premise of Pitch Black on its head in a scene where it’s deadly to be out during the day, instead of the night. The sun is so hot that you’ll spontaneously combust if it touches you, but you’re safe in the shade of a rock? Please. This is not Buffy.

Stereotype Watch: The guards running the prison we visit at one point in the film are all Russian, so you can pretty much guess the rest: they are bad, they are corrupt, they are very dirty and they drink a lot of wodka. By contrast, the female characters are strong, but they mostly know to stay back and watch when the boys have to settle the score.

Verdict: 52/100

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Jim Schembri’s lame Avatar “plot holes”

Really, I’m not obsessed with Avatar and will be moving on to new movies shortly, but I couldn’t resist this lame piece of work from Jim Schembri, who has allegedly poked 20 holes in Avatar’s script. I’m on record as saying that Avatar’s storyline is not great, but it doesn’t excuse this piece of trash from Schembri. But then again, maybe I’m biased. Schembri, who writes for the Age newspaper in Melbourne, Australia, is exactly the kind of person who gives movie reviewers a bad name among the action/sci-fi set. He wouldn’t recognise an A/SF movie if it delivered a spinning back kick to his head.

I’ve listed Schembri’s 20 “plot holes” in bold, but you can read the full article here: http://blogs.theage.com.au/schembri/archives/2010/01/fingering_avata.html (the shorter print version is here: http://www.theage.com.au/news/entertainment/film/problems-with-pandoras-box/2010/01/28/1264268045785.html)

* Why use avatars if you’re not going to keep them secret?

It seems like a fairly reasonable anthropological tactic: the Na’vi are 9 feet tall and move like the wind, you can’t breathe the air, and it’s incredibly dangerous out there, so you could get killed by any of the many animals you’re unfamiliar with. The avatar allows you to keep up with them, breathe and not die if you get into trouble. Seems like a very good idea to me, Jim.

Fail.

* If the Na’vi know from the get-go that these “Dreamwalkers” are biological shells remotely controlled by humans, why do they trust them?

Well, generally it seems they don’t. They’ve come to trust Dr Augustine (Sigourney Weaver)’s avatar over time, but even after his initiation some of the Na’vi have suspicions about Jake Sully (Sam Worthington).

Fail.

* What is the deal with the Eywa? Shortly after Sully (Sam Worthington) and Na’vi girl Neytiri (Zoe Saldana) meet, these spirits of the forest float down and determine that Sully, despite being human, is pure of heart. Then he tells his commander (Stephen Lang) about how to destroy the sacred Hometree, thus proving the Eywa are lousy judges of character. Yet the Na’vi, knowing all this, stick to their beliefs. Why don’t they take the Eywa back to where they bought them and demand their money back?

Eywa sees Sully’s good side before he sees it himself. The true test of any oracle. Sully saves the Na’vi, Eywa is proved right.

Remember, had Sully not gone to the Na’vi in the first place, Quaritch and Selfridge would have blasted them out anyway.

Fail.

* Why, exactly, is the Unobtainium so valuable? It’s never explained.

The way that Cameron handled the state of Earth was one of the things I really liked about the script. Earth is dying, it’s lawless (Jake’s brother was knifed there for “the paper in his wallet”) and it needs unobtainium to survive. We simply don’t need to know any more than that. It’s a pretty basic tenet of tight storytelling.

Fail.

* Why send in avatar ambassadors to negotiate and “make friends” with the Na’vi if you’re just going to go ahead and bulldoze their forest anyway?

I thought the tension between the do-gooding avatar program and the evil corporate arm was pretty clear. As I said in my review, it’s a little like an anthropologist working in the Niger delta with Shell. The anthropologist is the veneer of goodness that will be cast aside if self-interest deems it necessary.

Fail.

* During the Hometree attack chopper pilot Trudy (Michelle Rodriguez) opts out and flies off. Why doesn’t her crew object?

It’s possible that her crew have similar feelings (did she have a crew? I can’t remember).

Possibly a reasonable point.

* Why doesn’t anybody give chase?

People have been deserting in the heat of battle for as long as there has been war. Their colleagues are often quite distracted at that moment.

Fail.

* And why doesn’t the commander, who has just lectured us about how highly he values loyalty, tear her a new one?

Aha! I agree with this because, surely once the dust has settled, someone would have noticed. But then again, it was such a rout that it’s also possible that no one would have noticed because – let’s face it – the job could have been done by one person, so accountability may not have been high on their agenda.

A good point.

* This makes her appearance in the brig to free Sully & Co implausible.

You’re just making the same point in different words.

Fail.

* And when she steals the helicopter, why doesn’t anybody chase her?

They try to shoot at her as she’s getting away. Obviously it would take a while for anyone to actually scramble another helicopter (it took her a fair while), by which time she would have been clear of the base.

Fail.

* Though central command can tell when she turns the helicopter on, they somehow can’t track where she goes.

Maybe it’s a stealth helicopter, maybe this is a legitimate gripe. Either way, it ain’t exactly Watergate.

Possibly a good point.

* Or determine the location of the portable lab she picks up.

The fact that they aren’t followed up there is explicitly explained – it’s just too dangerous. That’ll do for me.

Fail.

* After Sully is put into his Avatar body he runs out into the compound, where we see a whole lot of other avatars. What happened to them?

I thought they were actual Navi who were being “domesticated” or similar. Colonisers have engaged closely with natives for as long as colonising has been going on – there are always native turncoats. Remember, some of them were kids and there were no kids in the avatar program, so my explanation clearly makes more sense than yours.

Fail.

* Why does the company maintain no control over the Avatar program, even though they own it?

Coming back to the analogy of the Shell anthropologist in the Niger Delta, of course they’d be given autonomy to do their boring do-gooding work. Quaritch, remember, is not the company. He is merely a foot soldier. Selfridge runs the company. And once Selfridge thinks the Avatar program needs to be controlled, Selfridge lets Quaritch shut it down.

Fail.

* If Dr Augustine (Sigourney Weaver) is so intent on preserving Na’vi culture, why doesn’t she tell her corporate boss (Giovanni Ribisi) about the miraculous, money-printing healing properties of Na’vi medicine?

Jake is told that he can be sent back to earth to have his spine healed so that he can walk again. Sounds like the ability to heal someone is not actually a priority back on earth. Remember that the Na’vi couldn’t save Sigourney when she was dying, so the difference between their life-saving abilities and those back on earth don’t seem that great. The Na’vi are just cooler at it.

Fail.

* Where are all the military drone weapons? Though humans can remotely control an organic being, they apparently can’t do the same with a simple gunship or walking tank.

The answer, obviously, is “remote-controlled machines mowing down natives is just not very exciting.”

A good point.

* Why do the walking tanks carry weapons with two arms, like a regular soldier? As Robocop, Terminator Salvation and Transformers show, they should have dedicated, in-built weaponry.

When your robot is 10 years old, you can retrofit the latest weaponry to him, thereby expanding his life very cheaply.

Fail.

* In the film’s final battle, the big ship is said to be “four clicks” – that is, four kilometres – from target. The time it takes to cover that distance doesn’t match the speed we see in the film.

In imperial times, they used the word “ton” for a very large mass (about 2200 pounds). Then when the metric system was introduced they called a similar weight (1000kg)* a “tonne”. Then over time the word tonne fell out of use and now 1000kg is often just called a ton because it’s a much better word. Do you think it is possible that – by 2154 – the military might have a different use for the word “click”?

Fail.

* And why do the Na’vi shoot arrows at the ships? Haven’t they figured out by now that they might need a bit more firepower than that?

Yeah, why don’t they build a factory and start making some real weapons? The fact that they sometimes manage to break windows or to hit soldiers who are hanging out of hatches is obviously beside the point.

Fail.

* Knowing he’s not real, why would Neytiri have sex with Sully? Shouldn’t she have saved herself until after he had committed? Or is she the Na’vi version of a slag?

Trying to sound young, Jim?

Fail.

Which makes 16 fails.

* Original post mistakenly stated “100kg” instead of “1000kg”.

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James Cameron’s World View
January 14, 2010, 10:22 pm
Filed under: Comment | Tags: , ,

The New Yorker took the slow boat to Australia, and I just got the chance to read its profile on James Cameron from the October issue in hard copy.  Here’s the online version: http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2009/10/26/091026fa_fact_goodyear

As everyone knows, it is more than a decade  since Cameron’s last movie and if you don’t believe me you can compare photos from his past two films:

The man is getting old, and I reckon he’s getting mellower too.  Once upon a time, to be in a Cameron film was to spend months in a pitch black tank of water or sleeping on your feet in between takes on a tilted replica ship, but now you just don a black suit fitted with all sorts of gizmos, hook yourself up to a trapeze and get it on in a nice warm studio.

Nevertheless, Cameron is still very combative. As the New Yorker article points out, he seems to revel in having people hate him so that he can shove it up them when he succeeds.  Is it too cynical to suggest that that’s ultimately why he goes for twee storylines now?  The special effects and the sappy endings make vast masses of humanity happy while simultaneously infuriating film critics and those of us who think that Aliens and Terminator are among the finest sci-fi films ever made.

Of course we know that the reality was a little more conventional:  Cameron was setting out to do things on celluloid that no one had ever done before. Storyline be damned.  The other thing that he wanted to do, as George Lucas points out, was to create his own universe.  The greatest ever fictional universe was created by JRR Tolkien (not George Lucas, as Lucas immodestly implies), and so Cameron copied Tolkien’s playbook and created (or had created for him) a whole language for the Na’vi.  He also created beings seemingly very different from us: they were in tune with nature, had tails and could control animals with their minds. And yet there is something derivative about these massive blue people. Almost all of the main Na’vi characters were portrayed by black or Native American actors.  Seeing as these humanoid characters were inevitably going to have similarities with humans (they are, of course, played by humans), it is interesting that Cameron did conceive of an “uncivilised” race as one with a more white sensibility.  Now that would have shown some originality.  Instead he just made them all left handed. Perhaps, though, Cameron felt that – to make sure that we got his  anti-colonialism message loud and clear – he needed to make all the managers and leaders white men and all the natives non-white. Just like the old days.



Movie Review – Avatar
January 5, 2010, 10:20 am
Filed under: Movie reviews | Tags: , , ,

Spoilers in orange.

When you’re handed a $400-million movie budget, the possibilities must seem endless, but you still have to follow the first commandment of Hollywood blockbusters: give ’em good and evil, and lots of action.  It’s a lesson James Cameron learned the hard way long ago when he made the action-free big-budget flop The Abyss, and one that he applied in Titanic by working a gun-wielding terrorist into a movie about a ship that hits an iceberg.  But that’s nothing on the trailblazing Avatar, in which Cameron wraps cinema’s most extraordinary technological experience around a hackneyed story you’ve seen countless times before.

The plot revolves around Private Jake Sully, a foot soldier whose life has been ruined by the death of his twin brother and his own war injury, which has left him a paraplegic.  Jake’s brother had been a scientist in the groundbreaking Avatar program, which makes creatures who look almost identical to the Na’vi, the huge, light blue beings who live on Pandora. Each avatar is matched by DNA to its human pilot, who controls it while lying in suspended animation, feeling, seeing, hearing and tasting whatever the avatar does.  The Avatar program works from within the heavily fortified base camp of the huge mining operation set up by humans to extract a rare mineral from the ground.  The program is designed to build trust with the Na’vi but the miners are systematically destroying it, kind of like anthropologists working with Shell in the Nigerian oil fields. Since Jake’s brother has died back on lawless planet Earth, Jake is the only person capable of driving his new avatar because he has the same DNA.  So it is that a paraplegic man gets to walk again, albeit while lying in a trumped-up coffin.  Jake’s first moments in control of his avatar are quite beautiful as he clumsily breaks out of the lab to sprint through the grounds of the compound, stopping to feel the dirt between his toes and marvel at the sensation of walking again.

There is a clash between those who believe that Avatar is the most amazing cinematic experience of all time and those who think that it is a cliché-ridden farce.  In many ways, both are right.  The last 20 minutes are depressingly formulaic, but this movie is really about experiencing the stunning world of Pandora, a planet so richly conceived that it takes your breath away.  What’s most amazing is that Cameron has created an entire jungle on his computers and made it feel real.  He has not filmed it in the Amazon or the Congo and he hasn’t used a single plant from planet Earth. Instead there are giant parasol-shaped flowers that retract at a touch, and others that light up when stood on; the animals range from flying dinosaurs to six-legged horses.  Like the language of the Na’vi, Cameron has created the whole world from scratch in minute detail.

Cameron spent over a quarter of a billion dollars on the production budget and you should do him the courtesy of seeing the film in 3D.  The field is like none you’ve ever seen; the picture extends deep into the screen, allowing you to focus on the foreground or the background, which obviously works best during the all-important action scenes.  The film will undoubtedly age well.  Just like Star Wars now, we’ll watch this film in 30 years’ time and marvel at how beautiful it looks, even if by then we’ll be able to pick up plenty of technological flaws.

But not even Cameron’s techno tricks can stop us from needing to bond with the storyline, so soon enough the landscape recedes. During his first sortie, Jake is separated from his companions and saved by the blue bombshell Neytiri, who reluctantly introduces him to her tribe.  This is where Cameron goes mainstream, employing a narrative that could be labeled “Going Native” (or what about “Blue Love”?).  Think Tarzan meets Dances with Wolves.

While Sam Worthington channels Russell Crowe (which isn’t high praise on this blog), Zoe Saldana puts in one of the stronger performances as a hissing, high-maintenance feline lead.  She is one of a host of gutsy women, including the scene-stealing Michelle Rodriguez, who basically reprises her Lost role, and Cameron favourite Signourney Weaver. Weaver has done more than any woman to put strong female characters on the sci-fi map and everyone from Linda Hamilton to Jennifer Garner should bow down before her. She seems to be loving this role as a benevolent mother figure who battles the meatheads trying to wipe out the native population.

The lead meathead is Colonel Miles Quaritch, who Stephen Lang seems to have leaped into after watching Full Metal Jacket one too many times.  In James Cameron’s 3D universe, Colonel Quaritch struggles to give us two dimensions.  Unfortunately he becomes the lead nemesis of the Na’vi, but Cameron would have been better off investing more screen time in Parker Selfridge, the head of the mining operations on Pandora.  Selfridge, played by Giovanni Ribisi, is the archetypal weak leader who ends up trying to project strength through violence.  Cameron could have infused more nuance into the script by making Selfridge the chief head-kicker, but with Quaritch in that role there could only be one ending.

Nevertheless, what most people will take away from this film is the feeling that they’ve just watched cinematic history. And a message.  As for what that message is, it doesn’t seem like a commentary on the Iraq war to me.  On imperialism? Sure. On environmentalism? Obviously. But the real value of this film is that it uses an imaginary world to critique the real one. In this age of feuding culture warriors, the preferred method of warfare is to undermine your opponents by picking pedantic holes in their books or movies. That strategy was effectively used five years ago against Al Gore’s film, An Inconvenient Truth, to cast doubt over global warming, and has been repeatedly used against those who have criticised the historic oppression of Australia’s Indigenous people.  In Avatar, Cameron has laid bare the exploitation and destruction of an indigenous population, but no right-wing academic will be able to quibble that the Na’vi couldn’t really control horses using their minds, or that they were adequately compensated for their lost lands and treated with humanity.  His overarching message that human progress bows before no one may therefore prove more durable than many rigorously researched documentaries about real-life events.  If so, that may be as impressive an achievement as the special effects.

78/100

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Welcome to Action/Sci-Fi
January 5, 2010, 10:18 am
Filed under: About Action Sci-Fi | Tags:

Loving Big-Budget, Low-Brow Movies

As a grown up who never stopped liking trashy action and sci-fi flicks, I decided I needed somewhere to finally channel the energy, hence this blog.  I’ll post reviews of action and sci fi films on here when I get the chance.  Because kids tend to stop you from pursuing such interests with as much vigour as you’d like, I’ll only be posting when I get the chance to see a film.  Which means the occasional new release at the cineplex plus whatever bobs up on TV or catches my attention at the video store.  As a result, the movies I review may make a pretty odd collection. Bear with me if you’re enjoying the ride.

There are just two things to note: spoilers are in orange and scores are out of 100.

Les Argen