(On Cable TV, June 2019) The most common criticisms of 2010: The Year We Make Contact usually compare it to its illustrious predecessor and find it wanting. This, of course, is damning a film with excessive expectations: While 2010 is no transcendental experience like 2001: A Space Odyssey was, it’s a terrific science-fiction adventure with one heck of a send-off. It has the joy of the kind of nuts-and-bolts hard Science Fiction that I used to read by the truckload a decade or two ago—starting with the Arthur C. Clarke novel from which the film is adapted. Even the mid-1980s visual sheen to the film, grimy and realistic in the tradition of somewhat realistic Science Fiction, is a welcome sight. The plot takes a while to get going and usually operates at half-speed, but it does blend a delicious mixture of mystery, suspense, Cold War stakes and mind-blowing concepts. I particularly enjoyed the suspenseful sequence midway through in which two astronauts board the deserted Odyssey from the first film, their breathing setting the pacing of the action. The special effects are still good, even incorporating early photorealistic CGI in portraying the transforming Jupiter. The lead cast is star-studded, from Roy Scheider as the protagonist scientist, Bob Balaban as an AI expert of dubious loyalties, John Lithgow as an engineer pressed into service as a space traveller, and the timelessly beautiful Helen Mirren as a Soviet commanding officer. Writer-director Peter Hyams is near the top of his filmography here, keeping action going at a slow burn. The film’s science is not bad at a few gravity-related exceptions, but then again those effects were nearly impossible to do convincingly in a pre-CGI era. All in all, I really enjoyed 2010—it’s not 2001, but then again only one movie is 2001. This is an entirely acceptable follow-up, and a solid space adventure in its own right. There are even no less than two Arthur C. Clarke cameos!
(On Cable TV, July 2017) You say “dated”, I say “period piece”. You say “techno-thrillers age poorly”, I say, “techno-thrillers preserve the obsessions of the time”. But mostly, I say that Blue Thunder remains far more relevant today than anyone would have expected. It is, for sure, a movie of its exact time: In 1983 Los Angeles, the police force experiments with a high-powered helicopter for crowd control in anticipation of the 1984 Olympic Games. The fancy titular helicopter brings together a package of high technology such as on-demand access to police databases, pervasive surveillance technology, stealth features, deadly weaponry and primitive augmented-reality targeting. Hot stuff—even if today, you could get nearly everything in that list in your average phone save for the weaponry. If the evolution of technology in older movies fascinates you, then Blue Thunder ought to be on your list of movies to watch given how clearly it exploits 1983’s cutting-edge … yet has quite a bit of relevance to today’s hot-button topics of government intrusion in private lives, and indiscriminate targeting of civilians in the name of security. You may want to ignore the plot along the way, though, given how many contrivances are required to set up the action sequences. On the other hand, come for the technology and stay for the action sequences, because Blue Thunder does eventually work its way to a spectacular prolonged action sequence above the skies of downtown Los Angeles, between helicopters and military jets, buildings and police cars. Director John Badham shows his mastery of action sequences here, to the point where they still compare well to contemporary movies. Roy Scheider is sympathetic enough as the protagonist, while Malcolm McDowell almost earns hissing as the villain. I expect a drone-centric remake any time soon. In the meantime, Blue Thunder is well worth revisiting, both for what it has to say (usually against its titular helicopter) and for the way it illustrates its message with well-executed action sequences.
(Netflix Streaming, April 2017) It would be easy to be too hard on Jaws 2 for not being as good as its predecessor. But given that the predecessor was one of the most famous movies of its era, helmed by a young and hungry Steven Spileberg, it’s not a dishonor to say that Jaws 2 is merely a competent blockbuster film. It doesn’t mess with the formula set by the first movie, what with its sadistic shark steadily cranking up the death count, and a third act largely set on water. There’s a nearly-interesting bit about Roy Scheider’s character being driven mad by the same situation happening all over again, but that’s largely avoided in the last third of the film. Less interesting is the film’s insistence on featuring teenage characters as protagonists and shark chum—part of the first film’s appeal was its adult nature, and targeting it to teenagers does smack of commercialism. Even as a step down, though, Jaws 2 holds up decently today. Cut away some of the dumbest, most overdone sequences (including the final shark fry, but also the shark-versus-helicopter moment) and it’s still a reasonably good blockbuster film. Ultimately, though, it avoid greatness, and that’s part of the game in coming up with a sequel.