Posted in Science Fiction on January 2, 2008 by michaelaworrall

(2001, 1:85, Ringo Lam)
*** – Recommended, a strong film

Poor Jean Claude van Damme. He struggled and climbed his way out of hack-work Cannon kickboxer films to work with the cream of the crop of Hong Kong action directors, which yielded three extraordinary but underappreciated action films; “Maximum Risk”, “Double Team”, and “Knock Off.” The last film, “Knock Off,” was dumped by the studio with no support and Van Damme’s next film, “Legionnaire,” an ambitious and entertaining homage to 20’s and 30’s adventure/romance films, went straight to video. Add to that another straight to video release, “Desert Heart”, and a theatrical release of the sequel to “Universal Solider” that, according to a studio executive, tanked at the box office, and Van Damme has now found himself in the straight-to-video/cable hell of long spent (box office wise) action performers. I cannot attest to the virtues of “Desert Heart”, but “Replicant”, Van Damme’s continuing work with director Ringo Lam (Maximum Risk), is a film that deserves a better fate than a premiere on a video shelf. Though the storyline of the film once again concerns itself with Van Damme and a doppelganger (what is his obsession with that?), what makes “Replicant” more interesting and watchable than, say, “Double Impact”, is the use of Van Damme’s screen persona and Lam’s tight direction.

“Replicant” begins with Van Damme as an elusive and meticulous serial killer who, in leaving some hair follicles at the scene of the crime, inadvertently plants the seed for his own capture. Long frustrated and baffled with trying to catch the killer, the police give the follicle to a top secret and technologically advanced security agency for cloning. Cloning, the agency hopes to prove, will produce a double that will share the same thought-patterns as the killer and therefore allow them to easily track him down, not to mention giving the agency a large share of the market in man-hunting. Yet rather than being born with the full mental capacity of the killer, the clone is literally an infant in an adult body. Hired to extract information on the killer’s whereabouts from the clone is a retired detective, played with utterly annoying but effective macho sadism by Michael Rooker, who has been tracking the killer for years.

The bulk of the film focuses on the relationship between the clone and detective, and while it would be easy to make the film an action buddy movie with a sci-fi twist, Van Damme and company aspire to make it more. I, for one, have always liked Van Damme’’s screen persona: he always appears to be a reluctant hero, who must mask his pouty face and sad eyes with a he-man’s veneer. Out of all the current action film performers—Segal, Schwarzenegger, Stallone, etc.—he is the most open to letting his body be eroticized for both female and male viewers—Van Damme has acknowledged his gay audiences in various interviews—and like his persona, his body alternates between a hard weapon and a gentle embrace. As the clone in “Replicant”, Van Damme is at his most vulnerable and sympathetic, a literal man-child who is born into a world of violence and ruthless determination. The clone is everything the killer is not—trusting, protective, and able to empathize. As both the killer and the clone, Van Damme is a duality of masculinity, a sci-fi Jeckyll and Hyde.

These undercurrents of masculine duality also appear in the relation between the detective and the killer, for the detective is just as brutal and self-obsessed. His treatment towards the clone is sadistic and contemptuous, like that of a father venting out his frustrations on a guiltless son. Ironically, as the clone becomes closer to identifying with the killer, the detective is able to humanize the replicant. The male psyche shifts from destructive to nurturing in the film and hovering over these shifts is a sense of fear that the detective’s abusive and bullying behavior will push the clone into madness and produce another killer.

Ringo Lam directs all of this with a solid and sure hand, proving again that he is a capable, if not original, director of clean action and effective drama. While Lam’s sober approach can be problematic in his work, here it helps realize the material’s ruminations on the duality of masculinity without making the whole premise seem silly. Lam utterly fails, however, when he tries a jokey or satirical jab—such as when the detective’s mother finds him in the bathroom with the replicant handcuffed to the toilet. The homoerotic aspect of this situation is tossed off with a few clumsy lines of dialogue. Though Lam shies away from expanding the material into a deeper examination of masculinity, he never dumbs down the material into a routine action flick.

Jean Claude Van Damme has been trying to push his screen persona and vehicles into new territories, and while he has limitations as an actor –his turn as a serial killer is just as ill-conceived as Keanu Reeves’ in “The Watcher” — his attempts to deliver dynamic films that rework the action genre should be acknowledged. Yet these films are treated like rotten fish by the studios, which throw them to a hostile and cinematically illiterate press and a pacified public.

One of the most dumbfounding viewing experiences was watching the number of people who walked out of the theater during “Knock Off”, a film that delivers non-stop inventive action without being bogged down with romantic sub-plots and character motivation that I guarantee few care about. (“Die Hard” immediately comes to mind.) Yet this is what Van Damme and his career have wrought—an empty theater with “Replicant” only continuing the series of straight-to-video releases.

All in all, it’s a shame that this film will get buried in the previously-viewed bargain bin, while unremarkable or cinematically incoherent studio action films open on 2,000 screens every week.


The Black Hole

Posted in Science Fiction on December 31, 2007 by michaelaworrall

The Black Hole
(1979, 2:35, Gary Nelson)
* – Moments of Interest

A strange, confused and ultimately absurd Walt Disney production, “The Black Hole” reworks Disney property “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea”, telling the same story of a mad captain and the a crew who stumble upon him, this time in outer space rather than at sea. With the seal of Nemo’s Nautilus now replaced by a cute robot and the captain’s crew resembling Jawas and Stormtroopers, the main point of reference and the target audience is that of “Star Wars”, a film whose success Disney hoped it could match.

The late 70’s were a dismal time for the Disney studios, their automated mode of production made every film look like it was directed in 1973 by their in-house workhorse Robert Stevenson, and so the studio set out to make contemporary pictures with an edge(read: rated PG) to prove that it could be a player in the new Hollywood of Lucas and Spielberg. Thus “Escape from Witch Mountain” became “The Watcher in the Woods” (which, ironically, was recut in post-production because Disney feared
that the occult theme was too strong and would scare away their family audience) and “The Cat from Outer Space” morphed into “The Black Hole”, which was heralded as the new beginning of the modern Disney film.

Technically, the film may match or even excel the special effects of “Star Wars” and its imitators but the sequences between these attractions still have the stolid and flat feel of older Disney films, as if the studio were afraid of or reluctant in entirely retooling their production process. Much of the design and lighting of the film retains the look of their Fifties to Seventies live-action pictures, thus almost rendering the film outdated. A sequence taking place within a stunning set of a large control center with the cosmos stretching outside is followed by a dinner scene that looks and plays like it was lifted directly from the 1952 “20,000 Leagues”. The characters are carbon copies of those in any 50’s sci-fi film: while these characters may be a genre convention, they are written and played with no attempt to expand upon or update them from that era (though Ernest Borgnine does say damn a few times, assuring the film would get a PG rating back then). Disney may have wanted to have it both ways, telling young audience members that they could be hip but assuring older generations that they haven’t gone too far out.

The shifting from the shopworn to the latest fad is reflected in a conflict and/or confusion in the film’s style, and the many borrowings of past science fiction films further deter it from having much of an original vision. Yet, there is something oddly compelling about the film. The visual anachronisms do not entirely override the sense of scope and awe in some sequences and while the script is mostly compost, it does have some of the strangest subtext of any Disney film. There is an undercurrent of homoeroticism between the captain of the ship, Dr. Hans Reinhardt (played with effortless pomposity by Maximilian Shell), and one of the captive crew, Dr. Alex Durant (played by, of course, Anthony Perkins). The glances and mutual remarks of recognition between the two doctors, along with the almost drooling admiration of Reinhardt that Perkins imparts in his performance, makes one wonder what the folks at Disney were intending or just oblivious to.

As if the homoerotic aspect of the film is not baffling enough for a Disney film, there is the matter of the ending. While Dr. Reinhardt is hell bent in seeing his large ship travel through the black hole, the remaining captives slip out via an escape pod. It seems the path of the black hole literally ends in heaven or hell, and depending on the characters’ morality, that’s where they end up. So, while the “good guys” find themselves in an atmosphere of bright light reminiscent of the ending of “2001” — with soft focus angels filling in for the Starchild — Dr. Reinhardt and his evil, robot henchman crash-land in hell. In this extraordinary sequence, the camera tracks across a giant miniature of hell complete with burning flames, cavernous mountains and tortured souls, and ends on the doomed villains.

After the financial failure of “The Black Hole”, the teen comedy “Midnight Madness” — which was released under the banner of Buena Vista Distribution because the folks at Disney were embarrassed by the film — and “Tron”, Disney created Touchstone Pictures so it could venture more freely into PG and R-rated features without hurting Uncle Walt’s reputation. It is also worth noting that the release of “The Black Hole” on DVD was spearheaded by the independent company Anchor Bay — who also produced the DVD–indicating how little Disney wanted anything to do with their own production or thought that it had any audience. With its mixture of 50’s science-fiction films, “2001”, “Star Wars” and the generic style of Disney live-action films, “The Black Hole” may be an ill-conceived venture into contemporary filmmaking that some feel should be forgotten, but a Disney film that literally takes the audience to hell is a unique experience.