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The Bubble (2022)/ Moonfall (2022)

What to do with a comedy that just isn’t that funny? I come to co-writer/director Judd Apatow’s The Bubble with a rhetorical surgeon’s scalpel ready to figure out this conundrum. There are plenty of funny people involved with this Netflix project. Apatow has been an industry unto himself in developing comedic talent going back to his Freaks and Geeks TV days and with such heralded twenty-first century comedies to his credit like The 40-Year-Old Virgin and Knocked Up. The cast assembled for The Bubble has great comic potential. Even the premise is fun, a group of spoiled actors trying to film a bad sci-fi action movie under the challenges of the COVID-19 quarantine. So what went wrong here and why is The Bubble Apatow’s least engaging and least funny movie to date?

We follow the Hollywood production of Cliff Beasts 6, filming in rural England under the supervision of studio execs trying to keep the secluded production as problem-free as possible under the 2020 COVID outbreak. Karen Gillan (Avengers Endgame) plays Carol Cobb, an actress returning to the franchisee she had once left behind to star in a misguided Oscar bait movie where she, a white woman, was the solution to solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. She’s hoping to save her career, while her coworkers are just hoping not to go insane with the forced isolation and new safety protocols during their film shoot. 

So let’s circle back to the central question of why The Bubble isn’t funny, and I think I have some theories. First, we can acknowledge comedy is subjective but at the same time also acknowledge that the construction of good comedy can be academically identified and appreciated, that there are tenets that hold and maintain, like setups and payoffs, rules of threes, etc. I think one of the big problems is that nothing is really that surprising throughout the protracted and unfocused duration of The Bubble.

The characters are intended to be shallow but are too shallow to even register as distinct comedy types played against one another. There are levels of general buffoonery, but so many of these characters are missing out on a more definite angle or perspective. Take for instance the smug movie star (David Duchovny) who takes it upon himself to rewrite the script. This should be an obvious route where the story comes undone or character actions are inconsistent or that other characters, especially those who had larger roles, become subservient to the star and his ballooning ego. There needs to be distinct differences for the comedy to land and be an indication of his ideas about what he thinks would be an improvement. This doesn’t really happen. Take the recent Oscar winner (Pedro Pascal). He’s not haughty and pompous, thinking himself beneath this kind of genre filmmaking. He’s simply a dumb hedonist who is seeking out pleasure he is denying himself. That’s fine, as at least one character is set up to be more of a wild card to stir trouble. This character spends the entire movie whining and having unfunny fantasies when they should be the one causing havoc and unexpected consequences from their behaviors. What a waste. Every character falls into this nebulous underwritten area without being distinct enough to be considered stock and ultimately useful for comparisons and generating comedic conflicts. 

Another lack of surprise is how every character is exactly how they are presented, so with no points of change it all gets very redundant. If this was going to be the case, Apatow needed to be far more exacting with his satirical barbs. If he wants to really send up the industry and self-absorbed actors, we need something akin to 2008’s Tropic Thunder, which, by the way, had very distinct character differences it used for maximum comedy. This movie feels more like an extension of the privileged world populated by the bourgeoisie characters from 2012’s This is 40, a marked misstep for Apatow and his idea of recognizable midlife struggles (“Oh no, we’ll have to move from our ridiculously large house to… just a very large house!”). It’s the same pitiable rich people whining about their lives while they quarantine in luxury. Watching montage after montage of them being bored in their private hotel suites is not funny. It doesn’t even work as a criticism of the characters on display. They aren’t doing anything out there or particularly telling, they’re just being bored, and just watching bored people is boring. 

The moviemaking process and the film-within-a-film itself is also shockingly unfunny. Apatow has worked in Hollywood for decades, so I was expecting harder-hitting satire of the moviemaking industry and the way that films are continuously compromised. As another example of shallow character writing, take the director (Fred Armison), a Sundance award-winning indie artist tackling their first studio project. The expected route would be to start with this character having big ideas about a grand artistic vision, taking real chances, and trying to do something different and compelling within the realm of giant dinosaur action movies, and then little by little, they have to compromise and delete this grand vision, taking studio notes, limitations from the actors, and bad luck. This would provide a foil for every bad item complicating the production, the artist struggling to watch their dream die piece-by-piece. This doesn’t happen and the director’s indie background is never utilized as a contrast for comedy. 

Apatow plays the same trick over and over with the film-within-a-film. It will be a dramatic sequence and then cut to the actors running on a treadmill or swinging behind a green screen, the same undercutting gag on repeat. It’s not funny and, frankly, gets tiresome. The ridiculous nature of blockbuster filmmaking should be ripe for satire (again, Tropic Thunder did it) but Apatow never pushes too hard, settling on the same soft-pedaled jokes on simple characters. Pascal is left to practice funny accents, but none of what they say within the movies is funny-bad; it’s just tin-eared dialogue that is merely bad only. The only segment that genuinely had me laughing was when the young actress (Iris Apatow) teaches a raptor how to do the latest TikTok dance. This is the only moment that feels biting on the out-of-touch desperation of modern moviemaking to chase and incorporate vaporous youth trends to remain hip. The Hollywood film gone awry should feel like a mess, it should be getting progressively worse or more out of control or at least something so outlandish it separates itself from its targets. I suppose shooting the CGI genitals off dinosaurs is something you don’t see every day but it too gets old fast. 

Fortunately, these actors can still be charming even with lesser material, but you’ll simply walk away feeling enormous sympathy for them. Everyone is trying to do so much with so very little, and it can get painful at points, like Pascal’s character clinging to an amorphous evolution of an accent. There are very funny people here. Keegan Michael-Key is very funny, but he gets nothing here, especially with a ripe subplot where he might be starting a self-help cult. Maria Bakalova is very funny, and was even nominated for an Oscar, a rarity for a comedian, but she gets nothing here, being a horny hotel worker. Gillan is very funny, but she too gets nothing here as a slumming actress desperate to rehabilitate her career. It’s remarkable considering she’s the main character but really just an insecure straight man role. The main character needed to be Gavin (Peter Serafinowicz), the producer on location doing his best to herd all these spoiled and irresponsible people into getting this movie made and on time. You want to focus on the character with the most chaos to try and control, and that’s him. It just feels criminal that a cast this good, with fun supporting players like Samson Kayo (Our Flag Means Death) and Harry Trevaldwyn (Ten Percent) to round out the more famous faces. 

This also made me think to reflect on the recent release of Moonfall, which looks like the big, schlocky sci-fi disaster movie that Judd Apatow would be satirizing with The Bubble. It’s a Roland Emmerich disaster movie where he does exactly what Roland Emmerich does best: expansive scenes of cataclysmic destruction on the biggest scale possible. It was believed by industry watchers that Moonfall would be the kind of epic that people would go back to the movies to experience, watching the scale of destruction on the biggest screen and cheering along. It didn’t work out that way and Moonfall reportedly will lose over a hundred million dollars for its investors. It seemed like a smart bet as disaster movies have performed well for Emmerich, like 2012 and The Day After Tomorrow. In times of struggle, human beings enjoy fantasies about surviving fantastic odds, or at least that was the established way of thinking. After two years of life during COVID-19, maybe our idea of sci-fi escapism isn’t quite what it used to be. 

I watched Moonfall with general indifference. It felt like a mediocre hodgepodge of other Emmerich disaster movies and veered into campy nonsense at many points. It’s the kind of movie that demands you shut off your brain and just go along with the scientific gobbledygook, especially once the moon begins making Earth’s gravity go all haywire. At that point the movie becomes an inconsistent video game with its liberal use of physics. It doesn’t seem like it matters, but watching characters do Super Mario Brother-level jumps has a fun appeal as well as being impossibly goofy. One character says, “The moon can’t do these things,” and another character waves away that pertinent thought and says, almost directly to the audience, “Yeah, but this isn’t a normal moon, so forget everything.” The special effects are also quite hit or miss. Plenty of the larger effects are quite awe-inspiring and suitably terrifying in depicting an awesome reality, and then others look like they didn’t quite have enough money when it came time to render. Some of the CGI reminded me of moments from 2008’s Torque, where the high-speed backgrounds resembled badly composited video game texture blurs. If your movie is going to exist primarily in a junk food realm, then you need to either have as minimal distractions as possible to rip you from the believability of this world, or you simply need to veer into it and accept that the instability and chaos will be part of the general appeal. Provide the goods, and Moonfall just doesn’t.

The movie also takes an inordinate amount of time to get back to space after a prologue, almost halfway through its two hours. This first half stalls with setting up so many characters to follow that you simply won’t care about. I didn’t care what happened to anyone back on Earth. When the rednecks found our party (again!) in a petty car chase, I literally laughed out loud. The alien/moon mythology is also convoluted and vague enough to simply apply a good versus evil designation for technology, and the big sacrifice doesn’t feel so big when you find that character to be annoying for the duration of their grating screen time. It’s another movie tipping you off about a possible linked sequel and one that appears more appetizing than the film we just witnessed (just like Emmerich’s 2016 Independence Day sequel). In short, Moonfall is a bit of a mess, a mess I can imagine others enjoying and laughing with, but definitely one of the lower outputs in Emmerich’s long career of destroying global landmarks and formerly pristine vistas. 

I found Moonfall and The Bubble to both be poor examples of what Hollywood thinks audiences will desire as escapism in the wake of COVID-19 disrupting routines and lives. Each of the movies is disappointing because it doesn’t fulfill what it promises. The Bubble has a bunch of combustible characters in a combustible scenario and squanders its time with weak satirical gags and lazy characterization. Moonfall wants to be the big, fun epic of Emmerich’s past, but it takes its sweet indulgent time with uninteresting characters, convoluted and underwritten lore, and a plot that would have been more entertaining had it better embraced the absurdity of its implications. You may likely have an enjoyable time watching either movie, and they’re almost the same length too, but I found both to be middling examples of Hollywood’s attempt to try and give the people what they think they want and missing the entertainment mark. 

Nate’s Grades:

The Bubble: C

Moonfall: C+

Independence Day: Resurgence (2016)

independence_day_resurgenceI can recall actively counting down the days until Independence Day was released in 1996, gobbling up every newspaper clipping and magazine article I could. I was a big fan of director Roland Emmerich’s Stargate, which is still a terrific movie, and I was eager to watch the end of the world, as we know it, in the privacy of my local theater. It was a blast, no pun intended, and one of the biggest box-office successes at the time. Surely there would be a sequel, especially after it helped launch Will Smith into another level of stardom. Flash forward twenty years, and here comes Independence Day: Resurgence, a sequel that misses what marked the original as escapist entertainment.

Twenty years later, human beings have been planning for the eventual return of their intergalactic invaders. Former president Whitmore (Bill Pullman) and CIA director David Levinson (Jeff Goldblum) have been trying to get the world prepared and studying our alien enemy. A psychic link is still formed from Whitmore’s brief bond in the first movie, and he keeps drawing mysterious symbols. Whitmore’s daughter, Patricia (Maika Munroe), is a former fighter pilot who works for the current president (Sela Ward). Patricia’s boyfriend and fellow fighter pilot, Jake Morrison (Liam Hemsworth), is stationed on the moon building a defense system. Then the aliens come back and pick up where they left off, annihilating Earth’s landmarks and population centers. It seems that their spaceship is going to suck out the Earth’s molten core, and by all accounts, that’s bad. Our ragtag group of characters must come together and overcome substantial odds once more to save the Earth from certain doom.

So where exactly did things go wrong? I’m not one to simply state that the filmmakers missed their window of making a quality sequel. While twenty years is a long time in between outings, it doesn’t mean that you will fail to come up with a compelling movie. Mad Max was 30 years between movies and this didn’t stop Fury Road from being a masterpiece. By most accounts, yes, there is certainly less of an appetite for an Independence Day sequel in 2016 than there would have been in 1998, but the first film is still fondly remembered and a worthy sequel would be welcomed regardless.

746I think one of the bigger causes to Resurgence not working is the fact that the rest of the moviegoing world has caught up when it comes to big screen spectacle, therefore spectacle by itself is not enough without a zeitgeist edge. In 1996, cutting-edge special effects-laden destruction on a global scale was reason enough to buy a ticket and the largest tub of popcorn. In the ensuring two decades, large-scale cataclysm has become commonplace on the big screen; just about every climax of a Marvel movie involves some world-devastating threat. What once quickened pulses has now become ho-hum. Emmerich himself has become a modern-day Irwin Allen since the first Independence Day, almost specifically focused on global disaster movies. I honestly don’t think there’s a better director working in Hollywood for that gig (his next movie is about the moon crashing into the Earth, so “familiar” territory). I think Emmerich’s skill and vision for big screen spectacle goes unheralded too often and he gets lumped in with empty visual stylists like Zack Snyder and Michael Bay. He’s better than that. However, the tide has turned, and audiences have become sated from empty spectacle. They need something more, or at least something compelling, and Resurgence struggles to achieve this. It feels like the aliens are back and they’re bigger, and that’s about it, folks.

Disaster movies are generally judged by their set pieces, and what is most surprising about Resurgence is that it really doesn’t have action set pieces as it does skirmishes. The movie is only two hours long, which seems like a rarity nowadays, but this is one of the few movies I think could have benefited from some extra breathing room. It feels too rushed, its internal logic often forcibly contrived, and this is evident most in its action sequences. A better term would be “skirmishes” because the sequences themselves are so curiously brief save for the climactic fight during the third act. We’ll get bursts of intensity or dread that comes to a head with violence, but then that’s it and the movie moves along. It’s usually mere moments of brief alien destruction. The action lacks proper development. One of the keys to great action sequences is naturally complicating and developing the events. Resurgence doesn’t even change gears. It provides exactly what you expect, and then it’s over, the surprise being how unsatisfying and short the unimaginative experience was for all parties. It’s a long wait until the third act where the alien queen comes outside to play. The movie shifts into a giant monster melee and it’s the one time where Resurgence feels most lively. It still follows a contrived logic (the Queen has a shield… now she doesn’t…) but I’ll credit the movie with at least saving the best for last and finally letting the action expand. I had enough fun with the final act of Resurgence that I was able to forgive some of its early transgressions.

The first Independence Day wasn’t by any means a cinematic milestone but it was fun and had a clean enough throughline. We spent the first hour in typical Emmerich fashion being introduced to the different characters and then watching the dispirit elements come together. The mystery of what was out there was intriguing and it became a step-by-step process of deducing how mankind should respond. When their hostile intent was revealed, it then became a learning experience as to how to fight back. Aerial dogfights won’t work. Nuclear weapons won’t work. It was a simplistic examination of the threat. While the solution of giving an alien operating system a virus is still a head-scratcher, at that point the movie had earned its ham-fisted solution because it had followed a logically satisfying path of discovery and response from the moment of first contact. Resurgence lacks any real internal logic. Things just sort of happen when the plot requires them and then don’t. If you’re establishing a science-fiction landscape, establishing the rules of what is possible and allowable is essential to the audience’s understanding and enjoyment. Otherwise it feels arbitrary, much like Judd Hirsch driving a school bus of children across the salt flats into danger. This literally happens in Resurgence.

Also fighting for time is a slew of new characters that are charisma-free and contribute little to nothing to the larger story. The biggest offender may be Dylan Hiller (Jessie T. Usher), the son of Will Smith’s character. What does Dylan offer as a character? His entire characterization is, and I kid you not, that he’s upset with Jake over a training accident. He punches Jake in the first act and then… he just sort of pilots ships and shoots things in the sky. That’s it. He doesn’t feel the burden of living up to his father’s reputation, or trying to make his own name for himself. He just has a quarrel to settle and does and then he still just sort of exists in the movie and the screenwriters were like, “Oh right, he’s still here. Well, have him fly something.” Jake and the rest of the young pilots don’t fare that much better as characters. Besides superficial distinguishing characteristics, they’re all variations on the same person. They’re a multi-ethnic collection of vacuous character placeholders; it’s like you took Randy Quaid’s kids from the first movie and made them on par with Smith and Goldblum. These bland characters inspire little love and are often boring with little investment. If the next movie started with them in a car and a giant pillar crushing it, I would not mourn their cinematic loss.

independence-day-2-resurgence-trailer-breakdown-easter-eggs-753096There are some familiar faces returning but none of them are able to compensate for the deficit of charisma and screen presence that is Will Smith. Goldblum is on autopilot and doing his stare off into the distance and talk deadly serious thing. Pullman shows up again as a warning of what was coming, though a superfluous one at that. The biggest screen presence from the first movie belongs to Brent Spiner (TV’s Star Trek) as the Area 51 scientist who conveniently has also been in a coma for twenty years. Some of his comic relief is rather labored and cheesy, but it’s at least something. Charlotte Gainsbourg (Nymphomaniac) collects a check as a psychiatrist who has little bearing other than to be Goldblum’s ex. The most interesting new character feels like he stepped out of a Street Fighter arcade game; he’s an African warlord (Deobia Oparei) who likes to use a pair of machetes to kill the aliens. “You have to get them from behind,” he keeps insisting, and I keep snickering. There’s also that Emmerich staple of an officious government weakling who comically grows a spine. It just so happens this part is played by one of the screenwriters of Resurgence, Nicolas Wright. He studied, apparently.

The best thing Resurgence has going for it is the expansive world building, one of the few aspects of the movie that shows actual thought and care. This is one of the few movies I can recall where people actually try and use the technology of their defeated invaders. Rather than just throwing all those dead spaceships on a junk pile, mankind has decided to backwards engineer technological advancements. As a result, the contemporary feels like a sci-fi hybrid of humanity and the alien technology. It’s interesting to see what advancements have been made and how these have been integrated into regular society. I do question why we only have one defensive weapon/colony on the moon when there’s also one as far as Saturn. I wanted a bit more of a sociological examination on what life post-War of 1996 means. Life would be so fundamentally altered by the realization we are not alone in the universe, and not only that but that we need to play catch up fast to survive. The assumption would be that they will be back. The threat of annihilation unifies the world but what are those consequences? What are the consequences of living in a permanent military state of readiness and anxiety, wondering is it all going to be enough?

If you have fond feelings for the original Independence Day, there may be enough good will with the sequel to appease your demands, though probably only barely. Resurgence suffers from CGI-heavy spectacle that has long lost its appeal without supplying helpful additions like characters to care about, exciting action sequences that develop and impact the plot, meaningful plot turns, and a story that follows some form of logic. It’s not a disaster in all senses of the word. In a summer that’s already building a reputation for its mediocrity, I think there may be enough that Independence Day: Resurgence has to offer that select moviegoers will walk away feeling momentary entertainment. It’s not that the first film was intellectually rigorous sci-fi, but it went about its destructive business with a satisfying precision. This movie all too often just feels like things happening, then not happening, and with characters that are there but without any compelling reason beyond survival. The end of the movie sets up an intended sequel and possible extended franchise of sequels with a larger galactic war against the alien invaders. It’s both hopeful and naïve, dangling the promise of another tantalizing humans vs. aliens throwdown. It’s also a bit aggravating because the premise of the hypothetical sequel (I’m going on record saying it won’t come to fruition for another 20 years) is much better than the “they came back again” sequel we get with Resurgence. Don’t make me pay my money and then tease me with a better movie down the road. Nothing should be taken for granted. Independence Day: Resurgence takes too much for granted, and that’s likely why this resurgence will stop with one entry.

Nate’s Grade: C

White House Down (2013)

white-house-down-poster2Director Roland Emmerich, the maestro of the dumb fun blockbuster, is never going to get the credit he deserves but the man is something of a mad genius when it comes to putting together spectacle-rich, low-calorie but still satisfying summer entertainment. Take White House Down, the second of 2013’s Die-Hard-in-the-White-House movies. It’s really more of a buddy film contained to that famous structure. It’s not a smart blockbuster by any means but it makes up for any and all flaws with its sheer overpowering sense of fun. Stuff gets blown up real good, the action is brisk, and there are satisfying payoffs for story elements that felt like they were, at first glance, merely thrown together. You may walk away surprised at how much you’re enjoying the comedic interplay between Secret Service agent Channing Tatum and president Jamie Foxx. Plus it’s fun to see the president in on the action instead of merely as a hostage, like the earlier Olympus Has Fallen. In direct comparison, I’d have to say White House Down is the better of the two movies, both in payoff and action. It’s nice to have a movie that’s just fun to watch, that goes about its blockbuster business with precision, supplying a few decent twists, and giving us heroes worth rooting for and action sequences that are well developed and that matter no matter how ridiculous. Emmerich movies are blissfully free of self-serious malarkey, though his weakest hit, 2004’s Day After Tomorrow, got a bit preachy. His movies know what they are and know the demands of an audience. What I needed this summer was a movie designed to make me cheer the impossible. White House Down is a romp.

Nate’s Grade: B+

2012 (2009)

Let’s get this out of the way. The world isn’t going to end in 2012. Well, it might, but it won’t be because the Mayans said so. Because truth be told, the Mayans didn’t say anything about the world ending. The Mayan calendar exists in large circular amounts of time, and the largest period of time is called a bactun. An epoch, 13 bactun, will be coming to an end somewhere around December 21, 2012, but this in no way is a signal for the end of days. It just means that one cycle of time has come full circle and we begin anew. This is entirely a Western invention. If you learn nothing else from this review, know that the world will be fine come 2012. At least in this regard. Who knows about nuclear holocaust, biological warfare, religious fanatics bringing about the end of days, Sarah Palin running for president. The world could still end, but don’t blame the Mayans. They’re already dead anyway. They didn’t see that one coming, either.

2012 is the latest disaster movie from director Roland Emmerich, who fondly destroyed the world in Independence Day and The Day After Tomorrow. In news interviews, Emmerich has insisted that 2012 will be his last disaster movie (yeah right!), so he wanted to pull out all the stops. And he does. 2012 is like the disaster movie to end all disaster movies. It’s great escapist fun but it’s also silly and cheesy and hokey and all things a great memorable disaster movie should be. The movie packs so much that you may likely experience fatigue by the end.

Like previous Emmerich movies, we follow a dispirit group of people from all walks of life who coincidentally come together. Jackson (John Cusack) and his wife Kate (Amanda Peet) are separating. Kate is currently seeing a new guy, Gordon (Thomas McCarthy, the writer/director of The Station Agent), and Jackson’s son thinks highly of new dad (maybe he saw the excellent Station Agent). Jackson is trying to become a better dad and take the kids camping to Yellowstone National Park. It’s there that he runs aground with government officials and a conspiracy radio host (Woody Harrelson) warning about impending doom. He puts enough pieces together to hatch a plan to save his family and escape. The government was alerted by a geologist (Chiwetel Ejiofor) in 2009 and has been preparing for massive seismic shifts. The president’s chief of staff (Oliver Platt) has been planning the “continuity of our species.” The elites have secured a place on massive arks built in the Himalayan mountain range. Jackson and his family must find a way to reach the arks in China for any hope of surviving the next chapter in human existence.

Emmerich packs so much earthly chaos into this movie that it can get flabbergasting. It’s not enough that California is upending by earthquakes and gaping chasms, it has to be thrown into the sea city block by city block. It’s not enough that Yellowstone National Park emits a thunderous volcanic discharge; it has to explode with the might of three mushroom clouds. It’s not enough that a 150-foot tidal wave strikes Washington D.C., it has to drag along a U.S. aircraft carrier that topples the memorable architectural sights of the city. It seems like Emmerich is trying to one-up everything that has come before in disaster cinema, but beyond the cheesy Irwin Allen movies of the 1970s, his only real competition is himself. No one wreaks havoc upon the world like Emmerich. He has the same destructive tastes of a mad scientist of Godzilla. He’s a big kid that likes to see things fall down and go boom. And in that regard, Emmerich has no equals. Not even Michael Bay, who certainly has panache to his record of ruination, can compete with this German master of disaster. No one can do enjoyable cheesy entertainment on such a mass scale like this man.

The special effects in 2012 are first-rate and the true draw to see this thing on the big screen. Large-scale global devastation has never looked so pretty. This is a full-blown summer movie in the midst of the fall prestige season. The destruction is often awe-inspiring thanks to Emmerich and his team of visual wizards, and the buildup of suspense can be palatable as well. The pacing is better than you would expect for a movie that runs over 150 minutes, but that didn’t stop the contingent of teenagers in my theater from standing up and leaving whenever there wasn’t violent death. At least Mother Nature wasn’t taking out specific monuments with pinpoint precision like She normally likes to do in these things. And just like in disaster movies, the “chosen few” are gifted with the amazing ability to outrun fireballs, earthquakes, falling debris, falling buildings, and just about everything falling at high velocity. Sure the immediate heat from an explosion at Yellowstone would instantly fry the characters, and sure an airplane can?t fly through a pyroclastic cloud, but it’s all part of the territory for the genre. If it was really true to life than we’d all be dead and the movie would be considerably shorter.

So what is the protocol for enjoying mass entertainment that coincides with massive death? Emmerich is usually very good about his disaster sequences to keep his focal point at long distance angles, both so that the audience can get a full vision of the mayhem and also to make sure that we cannot concentrate on the little people fruitlessly scurrying away for their lives. If you stop and think, practically every second of on screen destruction in 2012 involves thousands of nameless, faceless people dying horribly, and these are the big moments when the audience chows down on greasy fistfuls of popcorn. It reminded me somewhat when the news kept repeating the planes crashing into the World Trade Center towers as pieces for their 9/11 segments, and I’d stop and think, “You know, you just paused an image and in that image is the reality that hundreds of people are dying.” It’s a strange thing to contemplate, which is probably why Emmerich overloads your senses with (safe distance) disaster carnage. There is an image that does cross a line, where we witness office building workers tumbling out of the crumbling high rise. That’s one 9/11 image that’s just too distasteful even for a disaster flick.

Naturally the reason to see these kinds of movies is the big bangs for your bucks, but what happens during the downtime? I was genuinely surprised how involved I became with the collection of characters. I’m not saying that this is deep, penetrating writing, but it’s easy to wring some pathos out of a story when you have one character after another delivering a teary “Goodbye, I always loved you” speech to their soon-to-be-dearly-departed relatives. I cared about these characters enough to wince when they began being picked off one-by-one when the script called for heroic sacrifice upon heroic sacrifice. Burrowed beneath the avalanche of special effects, like really really buried in there, is an interesting philosophical argument about how people would behave during the end of the world. Would they be selfless or selfish? Would they step on their neighbor’s neck for another minute of life or would people sacrifice? Personally, I’m a bit of a pessimist, but the debate is intriguing. I also thought that 2012 had a vital conversation about who exactly gets to survive. In the story, a seat on the super arks are a billions Euros, which gives the insanely rich a huge advantage, but it’s because of the insanely rich private sector that the world’s governments are able to build these massive arks and plan for a future. So there you have it: a future world with the likes of billionaires and politicians. Who will get them all coffee? Who will pick up their dry cleaning? Who will take their calls? Is this even a world worth living in?

2012 is dopey and self-serious and way too long but man is it entertaining. The fabulous special effects are the real star of the movie, though the assorted cast does well. 2012 is deemed Emmerich’s last disaster picture, and if that holds true then he’s making sure there isn’t anything left to destroy. This is disaster pornography on a scale rarely seen in the movies. It deserves to be seen on the big screen for maximum enjoyment of maximum destruction.

Nate’s Grade: B

10,000 B.C. (2008)

Roland Emmerich is a director used to making big budget, effects laden mainstream blockbusters that baffle film critics. I enjoy some of the man’s output but hold little pretension that Emmerich is not a filmmaker who knows the terms “nuance” and “subtlety.” 10,000 B.C. is another Emmerich flick in the would-be blockbuster mode. It has magazine cover leads, large-scale action set pieces, and a familiar rescue plot route. It also happens to be as dumb as rocks.

Way back in 10,000 B.C., life is more along the lines of nomadic hunting and gathering. The featured tribe has the old staple of the spiritual guide who lays out prophecies. This prophet foresees great calamitous change for the tribe. “Four-legged devils” will bring about destruction. But there is hope. D’leh (Steven Strait, Sky High) will save his tribe from annihilation. He is also destined to love Evolett (Camilla Belle, When A Stranger Calls), who is coveted because she has blue eyes. This, we are told, is a fortuitous sign. One day after a successful mammoth hunt, the tribe falls prey to raiders on horses. These raiders raze the huts and slaughter the people. They cart the rest, including Evolett, off to work as slaves building what appear to be pyramids or ziggurats in Egypt. D’leh must regroup and travel with Tic’tic (Cliff Curtis) all across Africa to save his loin-clothed love.

This is a colossally stupid movie. Emmerich spins a host of clichés and prays it’s enough to stage some pre-history visual wonders. The movie’s visuals are certainly pleasing to the eye, but the plot and characters are totally vacant. The characters are one-dimensional morons. It’s not even worth mentioning what the numerous historical inaccuracies are (Egypt wasn’t even settled until 7,000 B.C.) because it would be less time consuming to simply state the historical accuracy the film presents. 10,000 B.C. makes Quest for Fire look like a documentary. The plot framework is your usual hero’s journey pastiche, where our lead must accept the responsibility that goes with being a leader. There’s also familiar plot turns like rescuing the damsel in distress, learning important back-story about an absent father, and finally, a slave uprising. 10,000 B.C. is a rip-off of Apocalypto and generally every historical uprising movie where the people band together under the leadership of an individual to tackle an antagonistic authority. This movie feels like it is barely held together by its plot threads, and those threads merely link to tired, groan-inducing clichés that act as placeholders for an actual plot.

What is even worse, 10,000 B.C. is a total bore. The only way something this silly and gleefully historically inaccurate could work is if it offered some adventure thrills. 10,000 B.C. seems to sputter for long stretches, having characters assemble and depart and walk and speak their ridiculous caveman speak. The pacing is rather slack and the action sequences, when they do occur, aren’t very well developed, hoping to leave their mark with plenty of long shots. Several action sequences are doomed from their very conception, like the laughable giant ostriches eating people. The action is just not good at all. Emmerich can generally pull out an exciting, functional action sequence even if it requires you to officially turn your brain off to enjoy. The first half of 10,000 B.C. has a few limited action sequences but they are brief and poorly staged. The second half has one climactic action sequence but it’s hard to tell what the hell is going on. Emmerich does not setup his climax and allow the audience to understand the attack process. When the climactic attack does occur it feels overly chaotic and senseless. How can the audience enjoy the progress of action if it cannot even verify what is happening? If I can’t follow what’s happening then I can’t enjoy it. The equation is that simple. The end of 10,000 B.C. is a big, mammoth-filled mess of a sequence that fails to serve as any payoff.

The movie is so serious that the silly adventure heroics come across as downright insufferable. I cannot possibly sit through a 1 hour 45-minute film that deals with pet saber tooth tigers, traveling across the entire continent of Africa by foot at record speed, and giant freaking killer ostriches and have the movie try to uphold a serious reality. No movie in the history of mankind will ever be serious as long as it has a killer ostrich. 10,000 B.C. would classify as camp if it weren’t so resoundingly boring. I think Emmerich really stuck to his initial concept and decided somehow the movie would form by itself. He shows a definite interest in recreating sprawling vistas of a time long ago, but he shows barely a whiff of interest in depositing a story to go along with those oh so pretty pictures and ancient landscapes.

The film also feels eerily semi-racist. The good guys are slightly tanned but mostly Anglo-Saxon in their appearance. They even speak English, though really terrible monosyllabic English. Note to all filmmakers: if you are going to make a movie that predominantly features cavemen then do not give them any speeches. They sound absolutely hilarious trying to deliver a rousing speech in their stilted, monotone voices. The villains are outsiders who look very Arabic and Middle Eastern. They speak a different language. They come to terrorize the God-fearing hunters and gatherers, enslave their people, and drag them to a giant temple to be killed in the name of a competing God. I don’t know if the movie is necessarily anti-Arabic but I was given the opportunity to contemplate this subject with all the downtime 10,000 B.C. afforded me.

The special effects are bad. The acting is bad. The story is dreadful. The action is poorly planned and sporadic. And every aspect of this movie radiates stupidity. I suppose some moviegoers can discover some derisive pleasure from watching a really terrible movie about a dreadlocked boy trying to reclaim the only girl in 10,000 B.C. that vigorously tweezes her eyebrows. For me, the movie was far too stagnant and boring to enjoy derisively. 10,000 B.C. takes itself far too seriously for something far too silly. Emmerich has created a movie that manages to be dopey even by caveman movies standards, and this includes a 1981 movie actually called Caveman featuring Ringo Starr. My biggest question after the movie concluded was, “How in the hell did they get Omar Sharif to narrate this stone-age turkey?”

Nate’s Grade: D

The Day After Tomorrow (2004)

I must confess a giant moment of geekery: for a month or so I waited patiently until the Wednesday before the new disaster opus The Day After Tomorrow opened so I could finally say, “The Day After Tomorrow opens … the day after tomorrow.” I’m surprised the marketing department didn’’t beat me to that punch.

Jack Hall (Dennis Quaid) is an environmental scientist concerned about global warming trends and the chaos they could cause. He tries to alert government officials to these dangers but is met with a cold shoulder. Jack’s son, Sam (Jake Gyllenhaal), is traveling to New York for a school quiz tournament on the slightly less grave mission of earning the affections of one of his classmates. Somewhere between the establishment of these two stories, all hell breaks loose. Jack and another researcher (Ian Holm) share data and discover that the world is headed toward a gigantic climate shift, a new Ice Age. While the world is crumbling, Jack is determined to reunite with his son, trapped in New York.

The special effects of The Day After Tomorrow are indeed awe-inspiring, but once they finish the viewer is left with a story that is, shall we say, overcast. Unlike director Roland Emmerich’s other disaster films with aliens or giant lizards, a cataclysmic climate shift is not a beatable foe, so the story is left without resolution. It’s kind of hard to vilify the weather.

What do you do once the world starts another Ice Age? Not much besides keeping your butt from freezing off. So this means that the crux of the “after” scenes revolve around Jack trying to reunite with his son. Jack tells his son to hole up where he is and, cue heroic music, he will come find him. Sure. Does anyone stop and question, “Why?” I know why Jack treks, on foot no less, from Philadelphia to New York, but it isn’t even necessary. His son and their friends are fine where they are and the only severe threat they face is when the giant frosty eye of the storm looms overhead. Quaid’s character has no opportunity to assist them during even that scene. I’m sure someone thought it would be a touching display of a father’s love for his son, but it’s really just winds up looking foolish. He tells his son not to move, then disobeys his own advice to venture out. Nothing of significance happens because of Jack’s journey. He might as well have stayed home and read a book.

The acting of any disaster flick is really confined to yelling and … panting, I suppose (which could also accurately describe the acting prowess of the late night programming of Showtime). Quaid is a sturdy hero but seems to look ten years older than normal. Gyllenhaal is one of my favorite young actors (I adore Donnie Darko) and, to his credit, he does a suitable job of running around and yelling.

Perhaps the funniest thing in The Day After Tomorrow is a Vice President who refuses to listen to environmental concerns that looks a heck of a lot like our current VP, Dick Cheney. The timeliness also extends to a somewhat witless president who, when faced with a crucial decision, turns to his VP and asks, “What do you think?”

The necessary scenes of planetary and civilization destruction are first-rate in the film. Emmerich is our premiere master of laying waste to the world, particularly New York City. Emmerich keeps our view of the carnage mostly restrained to long shots where we can witness the full magnitude of devastation he is trying to put forth.

The weather effects are top notch, especially a series of tornadoes that devastates downtown Los Angeles. There are some beautiful visual moments, like seeing thousands of birds migrating from impending doom, or a final image from above of the iced Statue of Liberty. Tomorrow also has a clever moment late in the film when the frost storm hovers over New York and forces characters to outrun advancing … frost. It’s not as stupid as it sounds. And, as per usual in disaster flicks, Mother Nature always knows where to strike – landmarks. How else does one explain the precision of taking out the Hollywood sign?

For a good hour, The Day After Tomorrow is great escapist entertainment. The scenes of destruction are riveting, and the moments leading up to them have great suspenseful pacing. The film’s climax is its half-way point, which is never a good sign. After all the floods, rain, snow, twisters, and everything Mother Nature has in her arsenal, we are left with characters scrambling around running from … wolves. Going from tidal waves to wolves is not exactly an increase in suspense.

There is a hilariously awful moment in the film involving Sam’’s wife, played by Sela Ward. Sela is a nurse at a hospital watching over a child with cancer. She refuses to leave him alone and waits for an ambulance to arrive, because, for some reason, the cancer kid can only be transported by ambulance. It’’s just distasteful and dumb that this storyline even exists: brave woman determined to stay by the side of cancer child.

The Day After Tomorrow is an exciting diversion that doesn’’t know what to do with itself after all the big money shots are spent. It’s like a balloon once the air is all out. Perhaps the creators should have consulted any prior warning about stranding an audience in a story that no one cares much about. It’s worth seeing, but it’s also worth leaving after Mother Nature unloads her goods.

Nate’s Grade: C+

The Patriot (2000)

For all the controversy this flag-waving picture is garnering over historical accuracy, turning British commanders Nazi-like, ignoring slavery like Spike Lee said, people forget it’s a well tuned and fairly touching and always exciting movie.

The battle sequences are shot with great suspense and visual expertise. The gore flies often, as this would be a very gory war indeed. On a personal note this movie has had the best squib hits (blood shot explosions for those who don’t know) I’ve ever seen. But the main focus isn’t the war, it’s merely a back drop for the story of a family man Benjamin Martin (Mel Gibson) avenging the death of one of his sons and being pulled into the war fighting for a purpose. Mel Gibson gives a wonderful performance as the troubled father man afraid of his past sins and what the future may bring. His thoughts are never on the enemy but on his children he loves dearly. Heath Ledger (10 Things I Hate About You) plays Gibson’s oldest son Gabriel and is the break-out star. His acting is as sharp as a bayonet and the future looks very promising for this Aussie actor.

The most necessary quality a movie must have to pull for the hero is a hissable villain, and The Patriot has a villain that will likely be the best (worst?) of the summer and possible year. Well known British stage actor Jason Isaacs gives such delight in every snarl and evil grin that Tavington, his character, exudes. You can peer into his eyes and see evil — and that’s great acting. He truly relishes his actions. With a wonderfully bad villain it only pulls more emotional heft to the story written by Saving Private Ryan‘s scibe Robert Rodat on a personal mission to pen a movie about every major American war.

The Patriot isn’t spot free, especially after a multiple tomahawk attack. Some of its characters are sloppy and the end is rather predictable and somewhat cheesy that the two men do battle as the focal point of the entire war. And you might just laugh when Gibson races back to the front of a quivering line and waving the flag to inspire the troops. There’s also many unnecessary and stupid sub-plots. Some work like Gabriel’s love story, some don’t like the one black man entering the unit to fight for his freedom met with the usual hostility.

The Patriot is a movie filled with excitement, great direction, and worthy characters. So do something for your nation and plop down seven bucks and see this movie.

Nate’s Grade: B

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