(Second viewing, on TV, July 2018) I have dim memories of seeing Universal Soldier on VHS back in high school, and I particularly remembered the farm-set climax. I thought it was a below-average film then, and a second viewing doesn’t necessarily improve things. Jean-Claude van Damme is a gifted physical performer (and he was near the peak of his physical form in 1992), but his career was badly damaged by a string of second-tier, nearly undistinguishable action movies. Universal Soldier manages to be a bit more memorable than the others by dint of its science-fiction high concept, having a strong antagonist (Dolph Lundgren), featuring better-than-average action direction by Roland Emmerich, and starting with a great early sequence at the Hoover Dam. Still, it doesn’t really become anything but a generic action thriller in which two muscled guys beat each other up. A tepid romance doesn’t really distinguish itself despite Ally Walker’s attempts to bring some humanity back into a superhuman film. I may remember it now because I was around and part of the film’s target audience at the time, but I didn’t exactly love it then and I can barely even tolerate it now. I suspect that without its easy narrative hook, the film would have not led to any profile-raising sequels and would be long forgotten today. Who else but van Damme fans remember near-contemporaries Double Impact or Nowhere to Run? Exactly.
(On Cable TV, March 2017) I will reluctantly concede a certain audacity in drafting a follow-up to Independence Day twenty years after the first film. In positing a fictional universe advanced by twenty years of international co-operation and repurposed alien technology, Resurgence takes us in relatively new territory as far as alien invasion films are concerned: As much science fictional on the human side as the alien side, rebalancing the usual power dynamics of the situation. Unfortunately, this ends up being largely window-dressing for bigger action sequences: the lunar tripwire gets ripped quickly, and it doesn’t stop a spectacular disaster sequence from picking up Abu Dhabi and dropping it on London (no, really). Twenty years later, advances in special effects technology do look like alien technology to 1996 state-of-the-art, and if Resurgence definitely has something going for it, it’s the quality of its special effects. As anyone would have anticipated, however, this doesn’t necessarily mean that the rest of the film is as good. While the script does acknowledge its own absurdity (“They do go for landmarks”, says Jeff Goldblum as famous monuments are destroyed), it doesn’t quite manage to build an interesting cast of characters, nor take us on a steadily engrossing adventure. In fact, the fan-service calling back the first movie does get annoying at time, hampering the film from managing something better than another battle on the desert flats. Among the cast, Jeff Goldblum is very enjoyable as an older but just as cynical version of his character in the first film, William Fichtner is exactly what’s needed as a solid military figure, Maika Monroe almost makes us forget that she’s taking over Mae Whitman’s role. Will Smith is sorely missed, with no one quite managing to step up as a replacement. As a catastrophe movie, the large-scale destruction is what director Roland Emmerich usually does best, and so Resurgence at least delivers on those expectations. Still, it does have enough promising elements to be disappointing in the way it puts them all together. There may or may not be another sequel, but the movie works hard at ensuring that we wouldn’t care one way or the other.
(Second viewing, On DVD, March 2017) Hoo boy, Independence Day. I first saw it on opening day back on July 4, 1996, and the whole thing remains vivid in my mind, from the time (at my uncle’s farm, lying down in the muddy straw, doing mechanical repairs on a baling machine) that I decided that I was going to see the film that evening to my naively infuriated reaction to the film’s scientific absurdities and self-satisfied stupidity. (I used to have a nicely hysterical 1996-vintage review of the Independence Day novelization on this site, but I did the world a favour since then by taking it down when I purged some of my more juvenile content.) For years, Independence Day (or, eek, ID4) was my go-to reference for “dumb Hollywood SF movies” in my smarter-than-thou rants. I may not have matured much since then, but I’d like to think that I’m slightly less deliberately abrasive—I was bizarrely looking forward to re-watching the movie, and not just as an exercise in checklist-marking before watching the sequel. Upon re-watch, you can’t exactly mark me down as a fan of the film, but I think I’m better able to see its strength and place in history. Perhaps the best thing it did was update a classic SF trope for a new generation of special effects. The alien-invasion story has been done many times before or since, but Independence Day takes a refreshingly blunt approach to it, with a large cast of characters reacting in their own way, still-spectacular destruction sequences and plucky humans mounting a satisfying revenge upon the invaders. Independence Day still doesn’t make a shred of sense (I spent much of the first half-hour muttering, “no, that’s not how it would happen. That’s not how any of this would happen.”) but I will reluctantly admit that it’s clever. Clever in how it moves its pieces, clever in how it acknowledges that the audience is in on the joke (there are at least three moments in which the film cuts to something, except to reveal that it’s not what we’d expect) and clever in how it maximizes every single opportunity it has for spectacle or overwrought drama. I still think the presidential speech sucks. I still think that the dog should have died. The special effects are dodgy, but there are a lot of them. I still think that as a Science Fiction film, it’s a blunt instrument at a time where we could use more scalpels à la Arrival. But Bill Paxton, Jeff Goldblum and Will Smith deliver persona-defining performances, the film moves at a decent pace once the throat-clearing ends, and writer/directors Roland Emmerich and Dean Devlin understood what audiences wanted from a summer blockbuster. In some significant ways, it seems obvious that Independence Day revitalized movie SF for a few vital years, playing with new special effects technology and proving the box-office potential of the genre for a few good years. I’ll even go as far as identify the quasi-nostalgic hunger for an Independence Day-style movie experience as a driver for the 2010–2014 resurgence of alien-invasion movies, the best of whom were good SF movies in their own right. Over a sufficiently long time, I think that most critical opinions reverts to the mean (either a tempering of praise, or a softening of condemnation), and Independence Day illustrates this better than most other movies I can think of at the moment. While I may have been willing to burn the movie poster in a one-star rant back in 1996, by 2017 I’m okay with a measured middle-of-the-road three-star critical essay.
(Second viewing, on TV, July 2016) I remember seeing this in theatres (opening week!) and feeling let-down by the way a first act promising the mysteries of the universe led to an underwhelming film about primitive tribes rushing into revolution with our band of heroes. Watching it again twenty years later, with adjusted expectations, I’m still disappointed. I suppose that if it’s space opera that I want, the subsequent TV series and novelizations will suffice, but it doesn’t make the original film much better. And yet, there are a few things to note here: James Spader as a likable nerd, a prime-era Kurt Russell acting tough as a military operative, an early eye-catching role for Mili Avital, and primitive CGI being used in obvious ways. The familiar triumphant-rebellion angle is guaranteed to be rousing, and director Dean Emmerich does manage one or two interesting visuals. Historically, this Emmerich/Devlin production works best as a bit of a bigger-budget rehearsal for the more accomplished madness that was Independence Day. Even with good intentions, I still feel underwhelmed by Stargate.
(Video on Demand, January 2014) Director Roland Emmerich is a consummate entertainer, and showing White House Down alongside Olympus Has Fallen, the other great White-House-siege film of 2013, only serves to list why he’s so good at what he does: Good balance between action and humor, clean editing, just-enough character development and a willingness to go insane at appropriate moments… along with self-acknowledgement of outlandish material. The numerous points of comparison between both films only serve to highlight what White House Down does best: Channing Tatum is credible enough as the accidental hero (he’s got confidence without swagger, making him relatable), Jamie Foxx is just fine as a “47th president” clearly modeled after the 44th one, the “threat matrix” idea for the antagonist is ingeniously-executed, the action sequences are vivid without being gory, and the film manages to navigate a tricky line between national symbolism and overblown jingoism. White House Down‘s crowd-pleasing dynamism means that the film as a whole feels like one big competently-executed formula and that’s just fine: the film is easy to watch and enjoy, the only sour note coming late in the conclusion as another wholly-unnecessary antagonist is revealed with a Scooby-Doo-level lack of subtlety. The film is possibly never better than when it acknowledges its own presidential-lawn car chase absurdity with a well-placed “Well, that’s not something you see every day.” –although the “just like in Independence Day” quote comes close. Good turns by numerous supporting players (Maggie Gyllenhaal, Richard Jenkins, James Woods and a remarkable Jason Clarke whose character is best imagined as being exactly “that guy” from Zero Dark Thirty) add just enough to make the film even more enjoyable. While White House Down comes with the usual action-blockbuster caveats (formula all the way, and don’t think too much about it), it’s a remarkably successful example of what it tries to do, and it’s hard to give a better recommendation for this kind of film.
(On Cable TV, October 2012) My appreciation for Anonymous is severely limited by my lack of interest regarding the Shakespeake Authorship question. Call me a Stratfordian, if you think I care: I’m not a good audience for conspiracy theories, and the one featured in this film is so ludicrous that it repeatedly challenges any suspension of disbelief. But let’s give Anonymous the benefit of its premise, which is to say that Shakespeare’s plays were truly written by a nobleman who wished to conceal his identity: How well does the film manage to execute this idea? At first, not very well: while the film begins with a superb framing device seamlessly taking modern audiences back in time, it quickly hobbles itself with confusing character introductions, blunt nestled flashbacks five-then-forty years earlier and a lack of grace in the way it sets up its plot elements. Fortunately, the ride gets smoother once the premise is established and the pieces finally start moving in the direction of a political thriller. Still, the ending will challenge viewers, as every-harder-to-accept revelations are piled on until credulity snaps and even viewers without deep knowledge of the period will understand that it’s all fantasy. (For a so-called virgin queen, Elizabeth I in this film had enough illegitimate kids to keep a daycare facility busy.) While the structure of the plot is distinctively unusual, there are still a lot of unpleasant edges in the script that could have used some polishing. Fortunately, Anonymous isn’t all about the writing: The biggest thrill of the film is a gorgeously presented Elizabethan-era London, including a convincing re-creation of the Globe theater. Director Roland Emmerich may have issues with scripts (see; well, his entire filmography) but his eye for striking cinematography remains intact. He also lucked out with a few capable actors in key roles: Rhys Ifans becomes a fascinating Edward de Vere, a complex figure who never manages to reconcile his desires with what is expected of him as the Earl of Oxford. (He gets the film’s best lines as he explains his compulsion to write.) Elizabeth I is also cleverly incarnated by a mother/daughter pair: Vanessa Redgrave as the elder queen comfortable in the power of her station, and Joely Richardson as her red-hot younger self. It amounts to a surprisingly engaging film despite the imperfect, perhaps fundamentally flawed film. Anonymous works quite a bit better as a gonzo historical fantasy than an attempt to tell a true story –you don’t have to look long to find accounts of historians laughing themselves to tears over the film. Historical accuracy aside, it’s a film with a surprisingly strong list of assets, and I won’t let my basic disagreement about its premise blind me to its merits. Have a look… but don’t believe a single word of it.
(In theatres, November 2009) It’s not much of an exaggeration to say that Roland Emmerich’s 2012 tries to ape and one-up much of the disaster-movie genre. Where else can you find a 10.5 earthquake, a super-volcano and a mega-tsunami in the same movie? As such, it demands to be considered according to the particular standards of the disaster movie genre, and that’s indeed where it finds most of its qualities. The L.A. earthquake sequence is a piece of deliriously over-the-top action movie-making (I never loved 2012 more than when the protagonists’ plane had to dodge a falling subway train), the Yellowstone volcano sequence holds its own and those who haven’t seen an aircraft carrier smash the White House now have something more to live for. The problem, unfortunately, is that those sequences are front-loaded in the first two-third of the film, leaving much smaller set-pieces for the end. This, in turn places far more emphasis on the characters, dialogue and plot points, none of whom are a known strength of either the genre or 2012 itself. Sure, the cast of characters is either pretty (Thandie Newton! Amanda Peet!), competent (Chiwetel Ejiofor, Danny Glover) or entertaining (John Cusack, Oliver Platt). Of course, we want to see them live through it all. But as a too-late consideration of ethical issues bumps against less-impressive sequences and significant lulls (including a 15-minutes-long prologue), it becomes easier to see that this 158 minutes film is at least 45 minutes too long and suffering from a limp third act. The defective nature of the roller-coaster also makes it less easy to tolerate the hideous conclusions, screaming contrivances and somewhat distasteful ethics of the screenplay. While the clean and sweeping cinematography (interestingly replaced by a hand-held video-quality interlude during one of the film’s turning points) shows that 2012’s production budget is entirely visible on-screen and will eventually make this a worthwhile Blu-Ray demo disk, there isn’t much here to respect or even like. At least special-effects fans will be able to play some destruction sequences over and over again.
(In theaters, May 1998) First things first: Godzilla stinks. The dialogue is beyond horrendous and well into inanity, the story has gaping holes, the pacing could -should!- have been improved, the characters aren’t very interesting and the attempts at “humor” are embarrassing to watch. (Especially the awful “Siskel and Ebert” bits.) In retrospect, Godzilla stands as a particularly irresponsible waste of good money and even better talent on a more than sub-standard script. If only someone with any storytelling sense had rewritten this script in the vein of Moby Dick, then we could have had a killer movie to watch. Alas… But, to paraphrase Spice World, it was quite entertaining without actually being any good. The setup is intriguing. Some of the set-pieces are a lot of fun to watch. Jean Reno is a delight (but then again, he speaks French most of the movie, which is huge plus for my French-Canadian ears.) The ending car chase is pretty spiffy and the final battle against Godzilla is spectacular. In the meantime, most of New York’s landmarks get trashed quite thoroughly and we get to see some pretty special effects. (It’s a shame that they had to use darkness and rain to cut CGI corners, but we’ll see about that in the sequel.) In the realm of the usually-stinky monster movies, Godzilla stands as a more polished (if not necessarily better) species. Trashy B-movies adapted to contemporary standards. Whether or not you’ll like it still depends on your tolerance for trash…
(Second viewing, On VHS, August 2000) I stand by my original review: Godzilla as made by the “American” team of Emmerich and Devlin definitely has its moments, but they’re constantly dogged by uneven pacing, a script that should be taken out and burnt, below-average acting and too-expensive CGI effects. Compare and contrast with the Japanese-made Godzilla 2000 to see a film made with a lower budget, but whose willingness to trade perfection in effects shot allows for more exciting directing and more storytelling possibilities. Still; the set-pieces here are exciting and if you’re willing to gloss over the pacing in-between Godzilla’s presence on the screen, it’s a pretty good monster movie. Vicki Lewis is absolutely delicious -not to mention underused- as a flirtatious scientist. And Jean Reno is cooler than the sum of the rest of the film.