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Hokey Ideas Meet a Flimsy Plot
Several years after this movie came out, the same director made a film called Ultraviolet. The movie was mostly about Milla Jovovich, who is some kind of vampire super fighter with a fatal disease, trying to find a cure for her before the fascist government tries to round her up. This film was a mess of unconvincing CGI, silly philosophical posturing, overblown fight scenes, and dumb acting. People saw this film, and if they were of a certain opinion, shouted afterwards "The director of Equilibrium made THIS??"
Well, it's not that surprising, because Equilibrium basically had all the same problems.
Libria is a dystopian fascist city-state, equal parts Nineteen Eighty-Four and equal parts Brave New World, which believes that wars aren't caused by competition for resources or ideological differences, but because of "emotion". Not any PARTICULAR emotions, just... emotion. In general. In that spirit, all the citizens take emotion-numbing drugs (cough, THX- 1138), and a secret police called the Tetragrammaton Council ("Tetragrammaton" being the term used in Judaism for the true, unpronounceable name of God), staffed by people in dark trench-coats called Clerics, who prowl around the city killing emotional people, and destroying art and books that they regard as "emotional content". One of the first scenes in the movie has John Preston, a high-ranking Cleric played by Christian Bale, finding the Mona Lisa under a trap door (is Libria in France? What is it doing there?) and ordering them to "burn it". Also, the head of the government is named "Father".
So... a grey dystopian city policed by a quasi-religious group (that doesn't really need to be quasi-religious except for Kurt Wimmer to make an obtuse point) that repress original expression because it will make people feel things that aren't in line with the ruling fascist government? We're not even past the premise yet, and already the film is beating us over the head with a Symbolism Stick.
The Clerics are so successful because of a radical martial arts discipline called "Gun Kata", which basically assumes that if a person stands in one place, with a pistol in each hand, and strikes a certain series of dramatic poses, he will be able to shoot everyone in a room, if they all stand in the right place, and if they are totally unable to shoot anything right in front of them.
John Preston has an old partner, who he shoots in the face for reading a book of poems by William Butler Yeats, because he thinks that means he's become emotional. Keep this in mind.
He gets a new partner, a fellow named Brandt, and is quickly rising in the ranks of the Tetragrammaton Council. Later, they find a fenced yard with some puppies in them, and the armed guards ask Preston what they want to do with them. Preston picks one of these puppies up, who licks him in the face. Aww. Preston looks like he's about to cry, and stammers that, rather than shoot these puppies, they should be "taken away and tested for disease".
Now, I remind you, John Preston's last partner was SHOT IN THE FACE for reading poetry. I doubt his new partner is any softer, so why did none of them notice when this high-ranking Cleric almost dissolves into a blubbering basketcase because he held a puppy?
He tries to free the puppies, but is caught by armed guards. Preston shoots them in the face with their own guns, to which they yell "AAH! F***!!" ...Isn't surprise an emotional response?
Later, they find a room full of old, nostalgic crap, like an old gramophone with classical music records, and a bunch of posters from the '20s and '30s (where are the rest of the Louvre paintings, all of a sudden?), and the room had gaudy paisley wallpaper. Apparently nostalgic crap is "emotional".
After a long and drawn-out plot that involves John Preston having more improbable gunfights where he dances around and no one ever shoots him, and talking with members of the "Resistance" (because there's always one) about the nature of emotion, which doesn't seem to address the belief that it's the foundation of all human conflict (because it isn't), he's finally caught by Brandt, who angrily declares that he is "feeling".
Wait, ANGER IS ONE OF THE STRONGEST EMOTIONS PEOPLE HAVE!! THIS DYSTOPIA'S PHILOSOPHY IS NONSENSE!! WHY DO PEOPLE LIKE THIS MOVIE??
You might be thinking that maybe John Preston was led along until he was caught in a more sudden emotional outburst, as more solid evidence. You might also argue that Brandt doesn't really care that Preston is "feeling", because throughout the film, he says he wants to "rise in the ranks", and that Preston is his biggest competition. All fair points, but WHY IS HE STILL ANGRY?? Also, the Tetragrammaton Council acts without mercy. Brandt could rise a lot faster by SHOOTING PRESTON.
So he's taken before Father, and through yet more improbable gunfights, he eventually gets a couple of swords and cuts off Brandt's face. No, literally, like, as if your face is a solid piece on the front of your head, and can be cut as cleanly as scissors cut paper. What was that about Ultraviolet's awful CGI?
So he kills Father, somehow collapses the government, and we have basically watched a Nineteen Eighty-Four ripoff with no social value, didn't follow its own rules, beat us senseless with its crass egalitarianism, and was basically stuffed with staged, unconvincing gunfights. This was basically a more pretentious Ultraviolet.
A good dystopia is built on something which is seen as a problem in current society, like loss of personal freedoms in Nineteen Eighty-Four, rapid consumerism in Brave New World, or soul-crushing bureaucracy in Terry Gilliam's Brazil. "Emotion" was never a big problem with human society, so to hang a whole dystopian society on it seems really uninformed. You want a great dystopia movie, go watch Brazil.
Gin-iro no kami no Agito (2006)
Follows Convention, but Does More With Them
I came across this animé on Netflix, and thought it looked interesting, so I gave it a watch. When the movie begins, large dragons that seem to be made of leaves strike from the moon and attack the earth, shattering the moon to pieces and leaving earth devastated. We then join the main action, some centuries later, and man lives in the ruins of the old world. The main character, a young boy named Agito, is swept away to an underground chamber while scavenging for water. A large, complex machine lies inside, containing a young girl woken from stasis, named Tula.
If you're unfamiliar with animé, this plot sounds nice and simple, but if you are, then you know you've seen this before. The plot of a boy from one place, either a different world or the distant future, finds a mysterious girl from another place, and she turns out to play an important part in the world's destiny. It's been seen in Hayao Miyazaki's "Castle in the Sky", Osamu Tezuka's "Metropolis", Mayumi Azuma's "Elemental Gelade" and others. Often, the boy's world is a more ragtag, harsh world, and the world the girl comes from is usually considerably more advanced.
The setting we find ourselves in is subject also to the cliché of nature and technology out of balance and at war ("Princess Mononoke", "Nausicäa of the Valley of the Wind", "Blue Gender"), and our main cast lives in a place called Neutral City, between The Forest, populated by superintelligent plants, and Ragna City, basically a giant military base. The plants in the Forest can bond with humans, giving them great strength and wisdom (and white hair, which makes them easy to identify), but if they overuse the Forest's power, it consumes them. This happened to Agito's dad, who when we see him, is covered in vines. There are other supporting characters, including Yolda, the silver-haired matriarch of the city, Minka, the crazy redhead that likes Agito, and so on. Most of these characters don't do much, but they're fun additions to the story.
This film plays with the conventions of this genre, though. For instance, "the girl" in this sort of story is usually very wise, stoic, powerful, special, meek and vulnerable, and is the key to everything. Tula has most of these qualities, but a key few are missing: she's not all that wise or stoic: in fact, she's incredibly normal and can be kind of a bitch sometimes. She feels threatened and confused by this world she's woken up in, and in a twist uncommon to this genre, goes to the villain's side willingly, as soon as the second act starts. The leader of Ragna City also has silver hair, and is from the past, like her. Her father developed a weapon that could take out the forest and allow the earth to "return to normal", which to us sounds like a perfectly obvious bad idea, but Tula, in a uniquely naïve way, wants things as they were.
In another twist, Agito wants to save Tula from the military city. To do this, he goes into the Forest and asks for its power, like his father did. The leader of the forest are two small girls, who speak without moving their mouths and dart in and out from behind trees, speaking with a childlike sense of urgency. It was disappointing that we didn't see more or find out more about them, because they were a unique addition, but they give Agito the power of the Forest, which turns his hair from red to white.
Spontaneously, he develops extraordinary powers, including superhuman agility, incredible strength, and so on. His action scenes as he flies around and punches trains in half (which, hilariously, start as SOON as the Forest gives him the powers, not even giving him time to find out what happened) are amazing to watch, but it makes his character takes an unfortunate turn, and I'm not even entirely sure why. The hero of this genre is usually incredibly courageous (usually without superpowers), but when Agito gets the power of the Forest, it turns him from the likable, playful scamp at the beginning to a dead-serious zen master, still perfectly likable, but the change was so jarring. He bounces back a tiny bit at the end, but I never quite got the impression that he became "fun" again.
This all sounds well and good for him, as now he can get shot in the chest by a tank and not feel a thing, but he must remember what happened to his father: he let the Forest overcome him. If he's not careful, he will lose his human form. Some of the transformations he undergoes look uncannily like the end of "Akira", and the power gradually consuming him resembles Ashitaka's cursed arm from "Princess Mononoke". These similarities are mainly visual, though, and don't come off as a knockoff.
Agito's power is a dangerous balancing act, however, as he must use all the power he can to save Tula from the clutches of the military, and stop her from activating their superweapon. The villain has the same power he does, though, which could have been a more interesting conflict than what we got. Interestingly, he's not as unscrupulous as the villain often is in stories like this, which is novel.
Tula grows as a character from her somewhat bland and timid beginnings, especially near the end when things really start going nuts, and her character development is probably the most satisfying of the movie.
This movie doesn't have the emotional depth of other movies of this genre, like Castle in the Sky and certainly Metropolis. It is, however, visually spectacular, has some unique things about its story, and though a lot of it is things animé fans will find familiar, it still offers new and incredible sights and sounds that make it well worth seeing.
Ginger Snaps 2: Unleashed (2004)
Required watching for any werewolf fanatic
It's impossible to not talk about Ginger Snaps II without spoiling Ginger Snaps 1. If you don't want that, stop reading and go get Ginger Snaps 1. Go ahead, I'll wait.
Ginger is dead. Brigitte (more often called "B") has become infected from exchanging blood with Ginger. A werewolf is after B, so she's on the run. B is haunted by the spirit of Ginger, who recounts tragic stories of their childhood, taunts her, and insists she just let go and let the werewolf take over. Oh, and the werewolves look a LOT cooler!
In the first movie, B thought she could cure her lycanthropy by injecting extract of wolfsbane, an extremely poisonous flower. She has to take it every day, and it's weakening. One night, she takes it twice to get rid of Ginger, so she passes out in the snow.
The next morning, she wakes up in the Happy Times rehab clinic for women. She's back in a sweetly sterile environment like her old home in the suburbs, thanks in no small part to a t-shirt with a smiling wheelchair on it. Across the hall is Ghost, keeping her grandmother, who's whole body is bandaged, company.
Ghost is a little girl, blonde, bright and chipper. She's considered an odd duck in the clinic since she's so annoyingly peppy and a bit nosy. She's not much so far, but for some reason, her grandmother's eyes look worried whenever she enters the room.
Since it's a rehab clinic, B got her wolfsbane taken away. As she participates in inane activities in the clinic such as group meeting and masturbation class, she starts seeing Ginger much more frequently and her transformation is speeding up. Ghost takes great interest in B, so they soon become friends.
Ginger Snaps II, it should be noted, is not as brutal and remorseless as the first movie, but rest assured it's still dark as ever. Brigitte needs her wolfsbane. Jeremy's in charge of the drugs, and he passes them out for sexual favours. B has to hide her transformation for some reason (it's annoying that she didn't just fess up, but then there wouldn't be a movie), so she cuts off the pointy part of her ear, which grows back over and over, and flushes it down the toilet. She cuts up her arms to see how severe her lycanthropy is getting by checking how fast the cuts heal, but all the other girls think that she's just bad at suicide.
Ginger Snaps II is split into two distinct halves. The first half is the dry humour in the rehab clinic, including silly group meetings where B graphically describes turning into a werewolf, and the group moderator writes "LESBIAN?" in her notepad, and masturbation classes where Ginger pops up and says "Good form, B." The second half begins when the werewolf from the beginning breaks into Happy Times through the crematorium (a crematorium in a rehab clinic... that's comforting). After a claustrophobic chase scene, Ghost and B get out and haul ass to Ghost's old place, and then the second half of the movie starts: Ghost's half.
Ghost's house is in the middle of the forest. It's a shambles. The plumbing doesn't work, there's old Christmas decorations everywhere, and the room where her grandmother almost burned to death is still burned. B feels that she's safe with Ghost, who sets up an explosive scarecrow she named "Polly Ester" to catch the werewolf that's after B. It ends up killing a deer that Brigitte eats. She needs her wolfsbane.
At this point, the movie kind of hits a lull of unmotivated action, but fortunately, Ghost's true colours start to emerge at this point. For the sake of spoilers, I won't go into specifics, but I will say this: we'll hate Ghost at the end.
Ginger Snaps II doesn't hold up the same energy that the first movie did, since it doesn't have a central idea and changes themes so abruptly in the middle of the movie, but as a standalone movie, both themes still work because of Ghost. She's a secondary theme at the start of the movie and steadily gains importance leading to the second act and then becomes much of the second half's focus (but of course, the movie is always about B), so we're eased into Ghost's importance instead of forcibly dropped in before we know her.
Ghost makes us connect with the movie. She's a cheery little scamp and remains so throughout the film, but as we find out more about her, even though her mood really doesn't change, we find out more about the reasoning behind her mood. At first, we think that her cheeriness is what makes her bullied and weak, but as the events of the movie's second half start to unfold, we find out that she is actually a very strong, manipulative psychopath who uses her "weakness" to her advantage. I've never seen a character change so much without acting any differently.
I should mention that the end is one of the biggest cliffhangers I've ever seen, and given that there probably won't be a Ginger Snaps IV, the story will be stuck hanging off that cliff forever...
Ginger Snaps (2000)
A tough-as-nails werewolf movie that every lycanthrope fan needs to see!
15-year-old Ginger and Brigitte "B" Fitzgerald are going outside to do a school project, where they photograph themselves impaled on white picket fences, with rakes in their backs, daggers through their chests, run over by cars... yes, Ginger and B are fascinated by death. They resent their spic-and-span suburban life (their sugary-sick mother doesn't help matters) and have a strong sisterly bond. They have an oath that they hold sacred and defines the movie's essence: "Out by sixteen or dead in this scene, but together forever. United against life as we know it." As Goths tend to go, they're teased relentlessly in school by preppy cheerleaders, Trina in particular. They want to kill her dog to get back at her, but it seems someone beat them to it, and they quickly and painfully find out it was actually "something".
Ginger is ravaged by some wild animal. B beats him off with a bat and they run away. We see the animal caught in the headlights for a split second. It's a sickly brown thing with a manlike shape walking on all fours, but it is also wolf-like with its long muzzle, bony tail and patchy coat of tangled fur. It's then run over by the local drug dealer, Sam. It begins.
Ginger's severe wounds heal overnight and she starts bleeding out of her crotch. That's her body trying to remove toxic werewolf blood, but everyone thinks she's having her first period, so they visit the school nurse who cheerfully presents them with condoms and advises "Play safe!"
This is the underlying theme that differentiates Ginger Snaps from other werewolf films: lycanthropy becomes a metaphor for puberty and teenage independence. When it begins, this point is humorously forced when Ginger awkwardly goes to buy tampons (which conveniently come with a calendar that says when the next full moon is), but soon it becomes cleverly integrated into the movie: Ginger's body and personality begin to change, she starts to grow a tail, which she takes pretty lightly (B has to tape it down for her when she plays field hockey), she starts indulging in more exhilarating thrills (from getting a belly button piercing early on in her transformation to eating a guidance counselor near the end), and she has violent unprotected sex, infecting a guy with her lycanthropy. Her wild side is taking over. This might be because of the lycanthropy, it might not be.
But of course there will be room for the horrors of a werewolf fable. After Trina nearly gets killed in a field hockey game, she goes to attack Ginger, but she ends up stabbing herself accidentally in Ginger's kitchen, so they hide her body in the deep freezer. They lose one of her fingers in the yard, but Mrs. Fitzgerald think its just for one of their "death projects". The guy that Ginger infected is also feeling the symptoms, too: growing a tail, becoming more violent and temperamental, urinating blood.
Yes, this is a dark film in every sense of the word. It's not a campy werewolf movie like An American Werewolf in London, it's not an action special effects demonstration like The Howling; it's a bitter, ruthless, no-holds-barred horror. Ginger may just be a good-looking rubber werewolf suit by the end of the movie, but that's another difference between this werewolf movie and any other ones: Ginger's transformation is gradual rather than sudden and immediate; thanks to convincing makeup, twisted behaviour, and Ginger's openness and musing about killing things, we don't believe that that's a rubber werewolf suit, we believe that's the werewolf Ginger has been turning into.
But the film never loses sight of its underlying tone: Ginger and B are still sisters that care about each other, but they have differences about their pact. Ginger wants to infect B so that they can be together as lycanthropes forever, but B thinks Ginger's lycanthropy/puberty is forcing them apart, and she doesn't want their togetherness to come at the cost of blood. Right up until the last shot, though, the movie never descends into mayhem; the Fitzgerald sisters make certain that it doesn't need it. They're out by sixteen or dead in this scene, but together forever.
Bicentennial Man (1999)
A maudlin film.
This review contains spoilers because I don't want you to see this movie. It's not worth it.
Through a quirk in his programming, a robot slowly turns into Robin Williams over the course of two centuries.
In 2004, this robot rolled up to the Martin family's front door and does the obligatory explanation of Isaac Asimov's "Three Laws of Robotics". At first assigned to menial housekeeping, his interaction with the family (especially "Little Miss" Amanda Martin, the younger sister) causes some creativity to spring up in his quirky little brain. The father, Richard Martin, wants to nurture this, but the robot's manufacturer wants to deactivate him because his whole imagination is a programming bug. This is quickly dismissed and is never mentioned again. So much for the villain.
The robot is eventually nicknamed "Andrew". He starts to become more human over the course of time. He starts making things out of wood. He builds a house. He gets skin and clothes. A random puppy appears for no reason, upping the schmaltz to ridiculous levels and dropping the feasibility to an all-time low.
Andrew goes on a quite literal soul-searching journey to find any others of his kind and see if they have souls too. None of them do, but by some absolutely tremendous coincidence, he meets the guy that will manufacture his skin and clothes, but Andrew just won't stop pushing! Soon he gets nerves to feel pain, a digestive system, fully operational organs (which, coincidentally, revolutionize medicine and make Andrew very rich), but even after a number of legal battles, he's still a robot!
SPOILER: There's one last thing he needs: blood. Now he will age, decay, be mortal, be human. He's declared the world's oldest living man either before or while he's dying. Figures. END SPOILER
All sorts of hilarious things happen during Andrew's 200-year life. Grace Martin, the older sister, resents him and asks him to jump out the window. When Grace becomes a biker tramp, Andrew tries to intervene. Andrew becomes Mr. Martin's camcorder. Andrew becomes frustrated with an old gramophone, calling it "a piece of fecal matter". He asks Little Miss' granddaughter to slap him, and he screams "IT WORKS!"
SPOILER: Andrew eventually marries. He and his wife are lying on their deathbed together. He dies first, his wife says "See you soon," fade out on a shot of two hands holding. END SPOILER
You can guess, like many a Chris Columbus film, it grabs for every sentiment that can be crammed into two arduous hours. I'm all for sentiment, but only when it happens, not when its thrust upon me without motivation. Never mind that there's no conflict except for dull legal battles; we don't want anything to get in the way of the "awwwwww..." The film presents interesting spiritual questions; is a soul created by emotion and kindness, which would mean that anything that exhibits these can earn its soul, or would the presence of emotion and kindness mean that the thing's soul existed to begin with, even if it's trapped in an immortal shell that could never release it, or is the supposed "soul" just emotion and kindness and isn't a real thing?
Unfortunately, these ideas drown in romantic nonsense and is hardly explored. The film sets up how Andrew's imagination came to be reasonably well, but when we saw the still-robotic Andrew wearing a tux at Richard's second wedding, that was it. It's ironic that the film becomes more mechanical and rusty when Andrew becomes less so.