Friday, March 21, 2008

Timeline (2003)

Directed by Richard Donner
Starring Paul Walker, Frances O'Connor, Gerard Butler

Yes, it's been a while. Yes, I've got 3 movies to write reviews for. Yes I've been sitting on the next two I need to watch for a while now. You try having a kid and keep up with your Netflix queue... I'd like to see it.

Well maybe not... I'd really rather see you spend some quality time with your kid.

Funny that I should mention Jurassic Park and Hollywood's treatment of technobabble in movies in my review of Primer...

I've long been a fan of Michael Crichton's writing (well, except for Congo) and Hollywood has smiled favorably on him with hits on both the big and small screens (he's one of the creators of "ER" in case you didn't know). Unfortunately, Hollywood has a way of completely sucking the life out of most of his stories, mostly by removing the science (or quasi-science) that is such an integral part of the story.

Yes, there are times - like in Jurassic Park where a few chapters on Genetics and Chaos Theory are reduced to a few lines and a 30-second "Mr. DNA" cartoon - where the science isn't really all that important and it's really the spectacle of what's made possibly BY that science that's on display. This works if you're talking Dinosaurs... not so much for time travel. If they ever turn his novel "Prey" - about sentient nanomachines that evolve the ability to not only combine to replicate the appearance of humans, but also weave a skin around actual humans to mimic them while simultaneously feeding off of them - into a movie, it will probably do well as a horror/shocker type film and the science will be secondary, but when you're talking about Time Travel... that's the gimmick... and if you're not going to get into the science, then why make a movie at all.

Hollywood also likes to sugarcoat Crichton's darker moments when they convert to film. John Hammond, the billionaire owner of Jurassic Park, gets eaten by Procompsognathus (Compys) in the book, but in the movie he lives and we don't get to meet this little killer dino until the second film. In the Timeline book, the owner of the company that made the Time Machine is more sinister and what happens to him at the end is also darker. And don't get me started on how they RUINED the ominously dark ending of Sphere.

Watching this movie all I could see was the guy from The Fast and The Furious trying too hard to win the affection of the girl from Bedazzled (no, not Liz Hurley... the other gal, the one that Brendan Frasier sold his soul for which introduced him to Liz Hurley... where do I sign?...) Their chemistry is awkward and they also just felt out of place in the movie.

It was like when you hear that bit of trivia about other actors that were considered for a famous part (Christopher Walken as Han Solo anyone?) and wonder how oddly different the entire movie would have been... well, in this case, in some alternate reality, there's this kick ass movie called Timeline and can you believe that they were originally planning to cast Paul Walker and Frances O'Connor? How oddly different would that have been? Oh, right.

That, and after seeing "300" I just get disappointed when I see Gerard Butler not shouting all his lines.

"THIS ... IS ... THE PAST!!!"

Amazingly, there really isn't much in the way of effects here, which is quite an accomplishment. Most of the Time Machine effects are achieved by mirrors and camera angles and having the actors fall or drop down followed by underwater shots for maximum disorientation. Nothing quite as cheesy as Star Trek IV though. The rest of the movie takes place in 12th century France, so there's not much in the way of effects that's necessary, except for some cool flaming trebuchets during a battle sequence.

Atmosphere and Immersive Detail
It's hard not to see that you're watching a period piece, though there are a few things that irked me. The budget of the film had to have been hurting based on the minimal special effects, but especially the fact that several scenes where the characters are escaping from hostile forces all seemingly take place from different angles of the same few houses while trying to look as if there was a small town outside the castle walls. I can only imagine what it must have looked like to anyone watching on set without the benefit of editing.

Otherwise, the English are savagely barbaric and the French are aristocratically barbaric, which gels with the stereotype from Braveheart and so many other period movies, so why not run with it.

Not the best "Crichton" movie, but not the worst (Congo's still a loser in both book and movie form as far as I'm concerned). I'll need to read the book-version of Timeline to decide how it plays out as an adaptation, though various online summaries that I've seen would seem to indicate that the movie's pretty close to the book plot-wise. Ultimately, I liked the film because it connected all the dots well with a relatively satisfying ending and because they weren't afraid to kill characters you'd become invested in, making it more uncertain who would really make it to the end of the film. But it's not going to change your life or send you on a non-stop roller coaster of action and adventure. If you're a Sci-fi or Crichton fan, I'd suggesting renting it just to be a completist. Otherwise, you can safely skip this one without wondering "what if..." for the rest of your life.

Unless you've got a thing for Medieval re-enactment...

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Primer (2004)

Directed by Shane Carruth
Starring Shane Carruth, David Sullivan

Before I begin, let me start by saying that this film was made for a grand total of $7,000, most of the crew seems to consist of the actors' family members (including special mention in the credits to the Carruth family caterers) and yet won the Grand Jury Prize in the Dramatic Film category at Sundance Film Festival in 2004.

The movie's story begins simply enough, assuming you're an engineer. Aaron and his friend Abe are engineers, working at home in the garage to try and find the next big discovery without having to surrender it to their company, thereby losing the opportunity to cash in on the new technology.

One of their devices - quite literally a black box - has the immediately observable effect of reducing the weight of any object placed inside it. They're not sure how it does that, only that it does. But the more they experiment with the box, the more mysterious it becomes. It runs without power; it collects mold faster than it should; a watch placed inside it comes out telling the wrong time. Yes, Aaron and Abe have made time travel possible. So they build a box big enough to climb into and then the fun begins.

The movie progresses steadily from this point, examining the potential for exploiting such a technology in multiple ways and the steps one must take to avoid disrupting the standard flow of time. There's not too much damage that can be done since the box can't send you back to a time before you turned it on and you're limited by the amount of oxygen in the box (which can be supplemented by bringing along a canister of compressed oxygen).

I don't want to give too much more away, but suffice it to say things start to get a little confused (one of the characters remarks that he hasn't eaten since "later this afternoon"), a little personal, a little paradoxical, and a lot paranoid.

By the time the movie is over, the physical and mental stresses of such an existence catch up with not only the characters, but also the audience. You may need to watch the ending a few times to figure out exactly what's going on, and even then you might not be right.

Considering the budget for this film and the fact that the writer/director was also the lead actor (and that members of his family are credited as the caterers), you'd expect that the acting would suffer. Well, while it's not something to write home about, it certainly wasn't phoned in. You can see that the actors did make an effort to learn their lines and deliver them well. Everyone with lines does a good enough job to make you forget that this is a low budget film festival entry. Also, they acted better than I ever could, so I salute them for that.

Not much in the way of effects here. Even the props are pretty low budget. I'm pretty sure that they used CDs to construct the large version of their invention.

Atmosphere and Immersive Detail
Over the course of the film, the characters display a sense of displacement, never quite being comfortable with which timeline they're in, what they need to do to avoid a paradox, what happens when 2 copies of the same cell phone receive a phone call, etc. Their disorientation helps, but isn't completely necessary, to make you feel just as turned around and upside down as they are.

A good - albeit confusing - film. Not something I'd recommend for everyone though. If you subscribe to a science magazine or have ever read a book on physics, you're likely to enjoy this film. If your idea of science is something nerds do, then I'd skip this one. This film is my answer to why Hollywood always glosses over science, even when it was central to the source material (i.e.: Jurassic Park)