THE PATRIOT: an entertaining, if troubling, slice of jingoistic, historical fantasy (2000 in Film #25)

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 June 30th, Roland Emmerich’s The Patriot

If we have seen American cinema across the year 2000 attempt in some way to reconcile America’s place in history as we enter a new millennium, The Patriot is heavily concerned in re-writing and re-conceptualising it.

The Patriot wasn’t actually the biggest box office hit of this weekend, coming in a little short (unexpectedly) of Wolfgang Petersen’s The Perfect Storm. Though both are highly different movies playing in different eras with very different concepts, both do share a particular, definable ‘Americanism’ that even for Hollywood is powerful and potent. The Perfect Storm, telling the story of the Andrea Gail, a commercial fishing vessel out of Massachusetts that sank during the so-called ‘Perfect Storm’ of 1991, boasts a tremendous cast of character actors spearheaded by a grumpy George Clooney and hot-headed Mark Wahlberg but suffers under the weight of melodramatic exceptionalism, overblowing a far more tragic real life story for rousing, heroic and ultimately bittersweet Hollywood effect. Jaws by way of Twister and saccharine, Lifetime drama.

Both this and Roland Emmerich’s take on the American Revolutionary War share a dubious claim on historical accuracy in the same vein of U-571 earlier in the year, and to an extent Gladiator, except the latter looked more inside out on what American exceptionalism actually means at the turn of the 21st century than either of these two films. The Perfect Storm, which—in a very local side note—had its UK premiere at a recently opened Midlands entertainment centre called Star City, with Clooney and Wahlberg in attendance, is now remembered more for the nautical effects—particularly the gigantic wave that sinks the Andrea Gail—than the overwrought script and performances, which pitch these real-life sailors as reckless, masculine sea lovers who needlessly throw themselves into the eye of the storm not just for bounty but for male obsession. It may have performed more strongly at the box office but The Patriot lingers further in the minds’ eye, serving as the first significant Hollywood take in some years on America’s bloody, foundational history.

In truth, the timing of The Patriot, and what it brings to 2000’s ongoing exploration of America’s past and future, is especially timely.

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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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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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