Wednesday, April 18, 2012

The Bad Sci-Fi Movie

Sometimes, when it comes to what I want to see in the theater (and when it is an option), the Bad Sci-Fi Movie will win out.

It happens more often than you'd think. You haven't been to the theater in a while, and you're conflicted about what you want to see. There's also no shortage of new material to take in. The slapstick comedy? The 3D re-release of an Oscar-winning film? The sequel from a trilogy from so long ago you've forgotten many of the franchise's details? The horror spoof? Well, okay, that might have won out, were I not to see it with Todd the next day. When you go to the movies as often as I do, you get used to seeing most of what is on the big screen by yourself. And the benefit of the Bad Sci-Fi Movie is... nobody you know wanted to see it with you anyway. That was certainly the case with Lockout, the latest action film produced by French filmmaker Luc Besson. Everything about this film, from the cheesy special effects to the snarky dialogue, screamed of cheap science fiction schlock. While that would (and did) turn off most moviegoers, it didn't stop me from purchasing a ticket to this show last week. After all, sometimes a silly, laughably bad sci-fi film is exactly what one needs to get back into the swing of things.

Guy Pearce: you're new action hero?
Guy Pearce stars as a former CIA agent named Snow, wrongfully convicted of murdering another agent and sentenced to imprisonment in MS One, a prison in Earth's orbit that is relegated for the world's worst and most dangerous criminals. However, before he can be transferred, a massive breakout occurs on the station, trapping a number of hostages with an army of murderers, rapists and psychopaths. Among the hostages is Emilie Warnock (Lost and Taken's Maggie Grace), social worker and daughter of the US President. Sending the marines in to save all the hostages is deemed impossible, but the Secret Service argues that sending one man in to rescue Emilie is possible, and tap Snow for the mission. Hours later, he finds himself attempting to break into the world's most impenetrable prison. With no support, few weapons and little chance of success, Snow attempts to complete his mission while searching for a way to clear his name at the same time.

"Now, am I going to have to shoot you or will you eat your snack like a big girl?"
Let's face it, the only reason I really wanted to see this film was Guy Pearce. Pearce is one of those actors where you look at his career and wonder where it all went wrong. Not that he hasn't enjoyed a decent run, starring in The Adventures of Priscilla; Queen of the Desert, L.A. Confidential, and Momento, and carrying supporting roles in The Hurt Locker, The Road, Animal Kingdom, and The King's Speech. He even has a role in what is likely my most anticipated film this year, Ridley Scott's Prometheus. Yet I witness his monumental talent and have to wonder: why isn't this guy a big Hollywood star? He's certainly got the chops to make it as a leading actor, certainly more than many of Hollywood's imports over the years. Yet every time it seems he's about to break out, he vanishes into indie and Australian cinema, where the films barely contain his seemingly limitless potential. Here he does a nearly perfect job playing with anti-hero Hollywood persona, made popular over the years in the characters of Snake Plissken, Max Rockatansky, Tyler Durden and Dominic Toretto. Snow would be in some fine company would the script have been better; written by Besson and directors Stephen St. Leger and James Mather, the screenplay gives Snow plenty of funny one-liners and clever dialogue, but rarely does it  actually let him engage in anything resembling normal conversation.

Milk: it does a paranoid schizophrenic's body good!
The rest of the actors are a mixed bag, bringing in some talent but ultimately failing to capitalize on it. Maggie Grace is NOT a great actress. She's not even a particularly good one. Here she shows no difference in her delivery, tone or facial expressions since her time on Lost, and she left that show way back in 2005. As the daughter of the President, Emilie undergoes a journey on the station that would physically and psychologically change the character for most actresses, but not Maggie, who remains defiantly the same throughout. It's not that she's a BAD actress, just an incredibly vanilla one, unable to play more than bit, samey roles. Better are the main bad guys, especially Joseph Gilgun as a psychotic murderer who stalks Emilie throughout the station. Gilgun has not had much exposure in the world of cinema, but the depth of his performance knows no limits, even if you can't always understand what he's actually saying. Also good are Vincent Regan as the leader of the prison revolt and Peter Stormare as the head of the US Secret Service. Lennie James is one of my favorite discoveries of the past few years; the British actor has appeared in a number of film and TV shows as a strong supporting actor and filler, but has never broken out as a star himself. The same holds true here, and you can't help but wish there was more for this talented performer to do.

Smoking: still not as fatal as gunshot trauma.
If you were in theaters some months ago, you might have seen a "making of" preview for Lockout, discussing how the film came to be. One of the filmmakers - Besson perhaps - comments that the company designing the special effects was built specifically for the film. I remember turning to my family (we were seeing The Descendants at the time) and commenting that the reason for that was that they couldn't afford any of the big boys to do it for them. Four months have passed and I certainly don't feel that I've been proven wrong. While, like Grace's performance, the special effects were not too bad, the limitations are immediately visible to anybody with moderately healthy vision. The scenes in space look especially fake, and it's terribly obvious when wire work and CGI are in use. Lockout does make a lot work through sheer workmanship, but never does it feel like anything more than a cheap B-movie posing as though it were a blockbuster.

Pip pip! Tea time!
Even if Lockout is not a great film, I would love to see an expansion on the character of Snow, as a series starring the foul-mouthed, snarky anti-hero would make for a great series of moderately-budgeted action flicks in the vein of Richard B. Riddick or Mad Max. This film however was a wash, with too much in the poor script, mediocre effects and amateurish directing (the only other film directed by Mather and Leger is the short film Prey Alone, which looks to have the same overall budget as Lockout) dragging down what could have been at the least an interesting effort. There's a reason we call it the Bad Sci-Fi Movie, and Lockout lives up to a low threshold by at least being marginally entertaining while at the same time shallow as a mud puddle. The best part? You can safely watch this on DVD in a few months and lose none of the effect of seeing it on the big screen. In fact, skip the theatrical run entirely; there will be better Bad Sci-Fi Movies to waste your money on later.

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