MISSION TO MARS: a sedate, mournful, yet optimistic journey to the stars (2000 in Film #10)

This year, 20 years on from the year 2000, I’m going to celebrate the first year of cinema in the 21st century by looking back at some of the films across the year at the turn of the millennium which took No #1 at the box office for their opening weekends.

This week, released on the weekend of March 10th, Brian de Palma’s Mission to Mars

At the tail end of the 90’s, and before the rise of the dominant multi-picture franchise, every year was marked by films which covered similar blockbuster ground. 

1996 had aliens with Independence Day and soon after through a comedy lens in 1997’s Men in Black or Mars Attacks! That same year brought us the ‘volcano’ movies – Volcano and Dante’s Peak, both front-lined by rugged men of action. 1998 was the ‘asteroid’ year, marked by Michael Bay’s excess in Armageddon and the more philosophical (and far superior) Deep Impact. 2000’s variant on this trend was the Mars mission, with critical misfire Red Planet dropping at the tail end of the year, and before it Brian de Palma’s Mission to Mars, arguably the superior of two films which projected humanity forward deeper into the 21st century and toward the next frontier. We remained hopeful, back then, that humanity might reach for the stars. Twenty years on, the best we can hope for is that Donald Trump’s vaunted ‘Space Force’ ends up with eggs on its vacuumed face.

Mission to Mars, in a quirk of fate, actually takes place in the year 2020. The Mars mission, in an even stranger quirk, launches in the film on my birthday. With significant confidence, I am pretty sure that my 38th birthday this year will not be marked by another giant leap for mankind, which places Mission to Mars even more firmly into the science-fiction territory it already covers. Mars missions are promised or hoped for perhaps in the 2030’s, and now Red Planet’s 2056 looks far more likely (if we even have a habitable planet to launch from by then).

Mission to Mars, as a result, is hopeful and optimistic about our chances as a species, in a similar vein to its tonal bedfellow, 1997’s Contact, from Robert Zemeckis. They are films with different journeys but similar destinations. Both are riding the crest of Western hopes in the 1990’s that we may be about to embark, in the 21st century, on a great new adventure. That makes it all the more disappointing that Mission to Mars, the first significant high-concept blockbuster movie released in 2000–it’s only real challenger on opening weekend being Roman Polanski’s Johnny Depp-starring slow burn horror The Ninth Gate–is an underwhelming, strangely mournful and frequently corny experience. Continue reading “MISSION TO MARS: a sedate, mournful, yet optimistic journey to the stars (2000 in Film #10)”

Blu-Ray Review: UNIVERSAL SOLDIER (1992)

Andrew Davis, director of The Fugitive most notably, was the original choice to helm Universal Soldier but was replaced by Roland Emmerich, in his first Hollywood picture alongside co-writer Dean Devlin, and you sense had Davis helmed what stands as a textbook example of the high concept 90’s action thriller, it might have ended up a very different film.

Emmerich, who has made some terrific pieces of popcorn entertainment over the years—among his best arguably Independence Day and Stargate—is not exactly the most subtle of auteurs and that is evidenced as early as Universal Soldier, after he and Devlin originally were slated by super-producer Mario Kassar to make a science-fiction film called Isobar (eventually shelved). Universal Soldier isn’t the most exuberant film Emmerich has made to date but it could well be the silliest, the most empty-headed, and is without doubt the most homoerotic, and given Emmerich is known as a modern day Irwin Allen making crowd-pleasing, world landmark trashing, CGI-fuelled epics, that is quite the statement. It was always going to be this way when you throw in, as your leads, the double sucker punch of Jean-Claude Van Damme and Dolph Lundgren.

Truthfully, Universal Soldier is not a film that is ageing particularly well but with a beer in one hand and a pizza in the other, you would be hard pressed not to find some enjoyment in the hammy theatrics and ridiculous action set-pieces.

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GEMINI MAN: A 90’s sci-fi action thriller that fell through a time vortex

Somebody on Twitter suggested the tagline for Gemini Man should have been “where there’s a Will, there’s a Will” which not only made me laugh but also could aptly describe Ang Lee’s rather uncanny picture.

Gemini Man infamously resided in Hollywood’s so-called ‘development hell’ for two decades, with Darren Lemke’s idea snapped up by producer Jerry Bruckheimer as far back as 1997. It filtered through multiple directors over the years such as Curtis Hanson and Joe Carnahan, not to mention a galaxy of Hollywood megastars including Arnold Schwarzenegger, Harrison Ford, Tom Cruise, Clint Eastwood, Mel Gibson, even at one time, err, Chris O’Donnell. The list goes on. It even cycled through half a dozen writers – Billy Ray, Andrew Niccol, Brian Helgeland. Gemini Man, in other words, has been through the wringer across twenty years in which mainstream cinema has significantly changed, not being made principally because studios didn’t believe the technology to duplicate a younger version of their headline star was quite there.

Fast forward to the late 2010’s, a world of VR headsets, advanced home computer devices and CG technology which can paint a picture like Avengers: Endgame, in which a legion of superheroes go to war against a super-villain and his space army. If ever there was a time to make Gemini Man, it was now, yet who two decades ago would have imagined Ang Lee—principally a darling of thoughtful character-driven deconstruction—as the director to develop such a high concept as international assassin Will Smith doing battle with his younger, cloned self, all part of an insidious conspiracy within the Defence Intelligence Agency to develop the next generation of soldier hardware. This might have ended up in the hands of a Tony Scott or Roger Spottiswoode had it been made earlier.

The answer lies in the fact Gemini Man, for all it’s action thriller trappings, secretly wants to be a philosophical family drama. It just spends much of the running time trying to convince you otherwise.

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Forget the Past: MEN IN BLACK and Neutralising History

If we are great at one thing as a collective human species, it is forgetting our own history, often by choice.

It is easy to forget how Men in Black, one of the breeziest, cheeriest examples of B-movie science-fiction updated for a big-budget late-1990’s audience is built on one of the darkest and more sinister aspects of American folklore, urban myth and conspiracy theory. If you’re over 35, chances are you fondly recall the days when Will Smith was at his jaunty, Fresh Prince-coasting heyday as one of Hollywood’s biggest action stars, laying down hugely popular and catchy rap tunes to fun, explosive tentpole movies or, as in Independence Day, greeting an alien invader with a right hook and a pithy “Welcome to Earth!”. Building a franchise around Smith as the hip, young, cool streetwise guy who becomes a ‘galaxy defending’, super slick government agent made a world of sense, and serves as the perfect way to cloak how disturbing the legend and myth behind it all is.

In reality, the legend of the ‘men in black’ is one of the most pervasive and ongoing representations of an oppressive, repressive American underbelly which wants us to forget the sins of their forefathers.

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Last Action Hero (1993)

Last Action Hero is both ahead of its time and perfectly positioned *within* the era it was made, such is the paradox of a forgotten curiosity of 1990’s action cinema and the stratospheric career of Arnold Schwartzenegger.

Here’s my story and why I’m writing about Last Action Hero some twenty five years on from its release. I was 11 years old when Last Action Hero was released in cinemas, in the US one week after Steven Spielberg’s decade-defining Jurassic Park. In theory, I was the perfect age to consume a film which is entirely about the youthful obsession of a similarly-aged child, Austin O’Brien’s Danny Madigan, with action adventure cinema. Jurassic Park I badgered my parents to take me to see three times yet I didn’t go anywhere near Last Action Hero. It didn’t even register with me. It has taken me until age 36 to actually sit down and watch it, and this is after spending at least the last twenty years being an enormous fan of Schwarzenegger’s movies and career. Last Action Hero was always the Arnie film I missed.

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Waterworld (1995)

Excess is probably the word to best associate with Waterworld. The excess of Hollywood in the 1990’s. After the blockbuster formed at the tail end of the 1970’s thanks to the efforts primarily of Steven Spielberg and George Lucas, the 1980’s saw the phenomenon largely dominated by Olympian action heroes or stars whose names towered on the poster above the title – Schwarzenegger, Ford, Willis, Stallone, Snipes. Alternatively, sequels and franchises began to form and dominate – Bond continued making money, joined by Indiana Jones, Star Wars of course, Star Trek back from the dead, and a whole surfeit of sequels which evolved into trilogies, and continued the trend into the 1990’s. That decade, nonetheless, added an extra dimension.

Waterworld is indicative of the mega-budget ‘high concept’ which had crept in over the last decade and really bore fruit during the 90’s. A high concept movie, essentially, was a picture you could boil down in one, easy for a movie studio executive to understand soundbite. Waterworld’s, without question, would be ‘Mad Max on water’. Simple, clear, readable. Everyone had heard of Mad Max, a successful trilogy itself early in the 80’s. The idea of trying to replicate the success of George Miller’s desert-based post-apocalyptic action series would have seen the bean counter’s eyes kerching with dollar signs. Waterworld smacks of a high-concept, money-making exercise, taking this one-line idea and bulking it out into an event blockbuster.

The irony, of course, was how expensive Waterworld ended up being. A year later, Independence Day revitalised the alien invasion B-movie with a high-concept, simple idea which, schlocky as it may have been, reaped the rewards in dividends. Though chock-full of CGI, some of which at the time was stunning to audiences, it wasn’t nearly as expensive as Kevin Reynolds’ fourth collaboration with star Kevin Costner, given the amount of water-based sets which needed to be constructed in order to adequately sell the idea of a futuristic world where the polar ice caps have melted, consigning the ‘ancient’ world we live in now to the sea bed. Though a picture designed to make big bucks, Waterworld ultimately became one of the biggest critical and financial disasters of its decade, or indeed any decade.

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The Handmaid’s Tale: Has 1990’s TV Paranoia Returned?

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Have you been unsettled lately watching The Handmaid’s Tale? Margaret Atwood’s 1985 dystopian novel, a set text certainly in the UK for English A-Level students which has never entirely left the academic consciousness, is now being talked about everywhere. Why? Because it’s scaring people half to death.

Not many people may be aware that it had been adapted before Hulu turned it into a hit TV series. In 1990, German filmmaker Volker Schlondorff—one of the New German Cinema wave of the late 60’s and early 70’s which included better known luminaries such as Fassbinder, Wenders and Herzog—directed a cinematic version with the late Natasha Richardson in the central role of ‘Offred’, the titular handmaiden forced into indentured sexual slavery in the largely infertile Christian hegemony of Gilead, formerly the United States. Harold Pinter wrote the screenplay, no less, but later worked to have his name removed from it.

What matters is that very few people remember The Handmaid’s Tale has ever been committed to celluloid before Bruce Miller’s adaptation for Hulu, which has very quickly gained critical and commercial traction on both sides of the Pond. If it’s not quite water-cooler television on the level of Game of Thrones, for example, then it’s gaining viewers and significant commentary amongst people as it airs. In the US, Season One ended in June and in the UK, it’s about to end next week. The response has been the same: a deep sense of unease.

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