The word “ambitious” has been used to describe Christopher Nolan‘s The Dark Knight Rises, almost as an apologia. In a summer containing superhero epics that’ve conquered the globe through a combination of charm, polish, and weightless fun, a glum, glowing Batman film can’t help but feel like a party-crasher, a mirthless rebuttal to the joyful hedonism proffered by Marvel Studios. It just so happens that Nolan’s third and final Batman film is ambitious. Functioning as a third act, it introduces a slew of new characters, expounds upon ideas Nolan subtly presented behind the smokescreen of Heath Ledger‘s mesmerizing performance as The Joker in The Dark Knight, and brings his massive, decade-spanning and character-defining story to a close while leaving the door slightly ajar, suggesting both a Gotham without Batman, and a Gotham that can’t survive without one. It’s an audacious juggling act that’d succeed on the merit of sheer scale were it not for the fact that The Dark Knight Rises is just as successful as its predecessors in painting an only slightly-warped representation of our society, gently nudged to its extremes. If The Avengers and The Amazing Spider-Man were long on great power, trading in narrative subtly for titanic struggles between Good and Evil, The Dark Knight Rises is a sobering reminder that any struggle, no matter how titanic, is a grey affair, that the people who fight with the greatest power also have the greatest responsibilities and, ultimately, should make the greatest sacrifices. Its ambition is to hold its characters up to the audience as a mirror. Read more
The first thing you notice about Battleship is that it, unlike the three Transformers movies and one G.I. Joe film that came from the same Hasbro toy universe, features real characters. Archetypes who travel well-worn, shamelessly-predictable arcs, maybe, but characters nevertheless. This happens to be the film’s chief achievement. A movie based on a board game where the only “characters” are the people playing it has somehow spawned more recognizably emotional beings than films centering on a clans of Earth-protecting robots and soldiers, both of which had an inherent advantage over this toy-turned movie: Their characters already had names and built-in fanbases.
But maybe that’s part of the reason why I enjoyed Battleship more than its action figure counterparts. Biblically speaking, to know a thing’s name is to own and hold dominion over it, and while I was never a great fan of the Transformers or their flesh-and-blood cousins-in-arms, the Joes, one expects more from an “Optimus Prime” or a “Cobra Commander” than can be reasonably expected from “Alex Hopper.” All you can say about Alex Hopper is that he’s got a clean-cut, all-American action hero’s name if ever there was one, rivaled perhaps only by his brother’s: Stone.
I mention that Battleship features two brothers, and you can likely guess from the movie’s rather unambiguous title that the Navy is involved. Based solely on their names, you can likely surmise that Stone (Alexander Skarsgård) is the family’s resident hero, a stalwart defender of America’s seas, and that Alex (Taylor Kitsch), while a nice guy, is a bit of a screw-up. One night, the two brothers are hanging out in a bar when the incredibly attractive Samantha (Brooklyn Decker) walks in, hungry for a chicken burrito. When the bar refuses her service, Alex, already in full-blown puppy love with her, dutifully breaks into the convenience store across the street. His brother gives him an ultimatum: Clean up and join the Navy, or drift. He chooses the Navy, little knowing that—surprise!—the admiral (Liam Neeson) is Samantha’s father.
But life—and extraterrestrial, extinction-level events—has a way of interfering with American love stories, and when a signal is beamed into deep space, an alien armada responds. Lacking the means to communicate back to base, they set-up shop around the Hawaiian island upon which the deep space satellites are installed. A force field goes up, cutting a number of ships off from the main fleet, who’d conveniently been participating in a series of war games. Also trapped in the field: Samantha, who is a physical therapist assigned to the rehabilitation of a double-amputee Iraq War veteran (played by real-life veteran Gregory Gadson). The aliens, firing their seemingly unstoppable arsenal at anything that moves, manage to kill Stone. Samantha and the vet, hiking up the mountain, discover the aliens in the midst of their taking over the satellite. The goal here is pretty obvious: Stop the aliens from destroying the planet.
And really, there’s not much keeping the heroes from doing just that. Sure, the aliens have superior technology and aren’t above sending their spinning engines of death onto the highways and little league baseball fields of this great land, but Battleship is a big believer in American resiliency. Outgunned, outmanned, and with several clear disadvantages, the heroes merely need to survive until the inevitable point where the invading force realizes its role as Hollywood’s number one metaphor for American superiority and summarily allow themselves to get blown up real good.
Taylor Kitsch, as he proved in the better, similarly unseen John Carter, is a perfectly good action movie hero. Battleship gives him less to chew on than John Carter did, settling to throw narrative softballs his way, but it is hardly his fault that the film cozies up to the Art of War, leaving him to misinterpret its meaning while abdicating his responsibilities to other sailors. Those around him consider his actions great leadership, but it’s pretty clear that Alex Hopper has been giving up responsibiltiy his whole life.
Kitsch fares better than the rest of Battleship’s cast, with the exception of the disabled veteran and the surprise that enters the film in the third act, ready and willing to save the day. Liam Neeson, as is becoming commonplace in this sort of bloated faux-epic, stands there, grim and imperious. Rihanna is the movie’s token badass. When a skeleton crew take a rubber boat out to a wrecked alien warship, she’s there. When a missile is fired or a trigger is pulled, she’s the one with something cool to say, her expletives drowned out by explosions, of course.
It’s merely a guess, but I suppose the characters in Battleship are vacuous on purpose. If you’re the kind of person who shows up early enough to movies to catch the near half-hour of commercials that get played before the trailers, you’ve no doubt noticed the ad that thanks the Navy on behalf of the cast and crew of Battleship for their assistance in the production of the film. Despite the fact that we’re dealing with a board game adaptation involving extraterrestrials with impossible weaponry, every effort was made to present the naval combat within the movie as the real deal because Battleship, like many recent films and first-person shooters involving warfare, serves more as a long-form advertisement for the armed forces than as a mindless, harmless summer entertainment.
Battleship supposes that you, the virile young man, may be a good candidate for the United States Navy. You may have screwed up somewhere in life. Dropped out of high school. Stolen a chicken burrito. But you are strong. You can change. You are more than capable of fighting The Enemy. It’s good work. It will teach you responsibilities. Respect for your superiors. It can be fun, Battleship says, even when the work is deadly serious. You can be Alex Hopper, ex-screw-up. Respect and love from the Liam Neesons and Brooklyn Deckers can be yours, supposing you want it.
But this is where Battleship falters, as its gung-ho patriotism is the sort of thing that’ll sink even the best action movies, regardless of the cast, direction, or staging involved. Americans have had it pounded into their heads for over 200 years now that we’re the world’s last and best defense, and if this hasn’t been something overtly stated by a President, it’s been the message of our action movies. The genre was once dominated by lone wolves with personal vendettas, impossible musclemen with a strange charisma and an unlimited arsenal. Now action films have an increasingly blander template. They want to deal with terrorism but can’t do so implicitly, as the middle east increasingly becomes a place to market films. They involve characters from the countries most likely to see the film, but they come from the same stock and act the same way that the film’s white protagonist does. If the movie has any room for civilians or academics, they are almost always weak and in need of rescue.
That’s not to say that Battleship revels in these stereotypes, because it isn’t. The movie is too preoccupied with blowing things up to notice that it is marching in lockstep with the other Hasbro movies and other alien invasion films of its ilk. It is a louder, brasher take on Skyline and Battle: Los Angeles and, as such, manages to be more entertaining than its predecessors on the assembly line. I consider myself, perhaps egotistically, a pretty smart person, and figure that most audiences are, in fact, smarter than Hollywood figures. The past 100 years have proven that we’re more than willing to put up with a little propaganda in exchange for a few hours of entertainment. I just wish movies like Battleship weren’t so blatant about it. Were the whole movie as loose and fun as its third act reveal, we’d be getting somewhere. Instead, here is the same army movie you see every year, this time on boats. The formula doesn’t work like it used to.
Battleship. Directed by Peter Berg. With Taylor Kitsch (Alex Hopper), Alexander Skarsgård (Stone Hopper), Brooklyn Decker (Samantha), Rihanna (Petty Officer Raikes), and Liam Neeson (Admiral Shane). Released May 18, 2012, by Universal Pictures.
Much like its predecessor, Wrath of the Titans has, as it’s title, a misnomer: The only Titan here is Cronus, who, I’ll grant, is the Titan and is rather quite wrathful. In the Titans franchise’s continuing effort to streamline the whole of Greek mythology for the sake of added explosions, Cronus is much lesser a god than previous, here being a giant demonesque thing made of molten rock. As he spits words like “Zeus” and “Hades” at his children—who, as Zeus helpfully points out, he tried to kill many years ago—it’s hard to imagine the guy fashioning the universe, let alone concocting a successful, treacherous plan to spring him from the eternal prison of Tartarus. But, with the Olympian gods weakened from a lack of prayer and sacrifice, even the likely false promise that his accomplices will be allowed to keep their immortality is enough for the ruler of the underworld to take a flier on the guy who, tens of thousands of years ago, ate him fresh from his mother’s womb.
But, Wrath of the Titans would surely insist were it able, this is decidedly not a movie about the gods, whose time is ending. It’s about men, heroic men, men like Perseus (Sam Worthington), who will outlast the gods and forge new destinies without them. Perseus, last seen slaying the Kraken, is now a simple fisherman, a father hoping his son will never know war or pick up a sword. That dream ends as soon as Zeus (Liam Neeson) pays Perseus a visit, telling his son that the walls of Tartarus are falling, asking his assistance in rebuilding them. It’s a good thing Perseus doesn’t go, as Hades (Ralph Finnes) and Ares (Edgar Ramirez) double cross Zeus as soon as they arrive in the underworld, imprisoning him and killing Poseidon (Danny Huston). They hook Zeus up to Cronus somehow, intending to jumpstart the Titan as one would a car battery.
Meanwhile, the walls between this world and the underworld begin to crack, allowing demons to spill out from Tartarus and cause all manner of havoc. One of them visits the town Perseus lives on, a three-headed, fire-breathing monster whose anatomy is impressive if impractical, and, after killing it and finding a dying Poseidon, he knows he must set things to right. Pegasus spirits him away to the frontline of a hopeless war, where the warrior queen Andromeda (Rosemund Pike) grants him an audience with Agenor (Toby Kendall), who is not only the son of Poseidon, but who knows how to reach the island where Hephaestus (Bill Nighy) lives, Hephaestus being the god who forged the weapon that allowed the Olympians to defeat Cronus those many years ago. The three set off to seek his aid, the fate of the universe upon their shoulders.
Clash of the Titans, the remake of Ray Harryhausen’s homespun cult epic, is a movie that grew on me over time and repeated viewings on HBO one bored summer. I doubt Wrath of the Titans will do the same, as director Jonathan Liebsman just smooshes together various elements of Greek myth with no thought given to plot or pace. His band of warriors move from demons to a tribe of cyclops to the minotaur to a rather poorly-planned battle against Cronus and his sparsely-populated army, and while that looks like a lot of cool, eye-poping, dumb fun, the movie plods along, cutting short battle sequences and focusing instead on trite dialog between Perseus, Andromeda, and Agenor, who are all of a type, even when what they have to say is somewhat witty.
I wouldn’t mind any of that were the plot not so lazily conceived. True, Greek epics tend to begin in media res, but the human characters of Wrath of the Titans, Perseus and Andromeda in particular, seem to have a sprawling relationship built upon events the movie never hints at. Yeah, it’s obvious where the movie is going the moment Perseus buries his wife, but it’d be nice if the movie treated its characters like characters, didn’t excuse a prior history with a curt “It’s so good to see you again,” actually showed a budding romance. That Liebsman has the audience fill in the blanks contributes to Wrath of the Titans feeling brief, incomplete, but still somehow padded at 99 minutes.
All of this is too bad, because Wrath of the Titans does have a good cast slumming as Greek gods, with Bill Nighy adding some much-needed levity to the old routine of long beards and deep, bellowing voices. In a different movie, the aging and de-aging and aging of the gods would have been an effective bit of camp. Impressive, too, are the special effects, though it’s still hard for me to be charmed by an army of artists strapped to their computers, having been raised on a steady diet of clay and men in rubber masks. The labyrinth, which is the movie’s most stirring set-piece, is appropriately exciting, if easily solved.
I get the feeling, however, that these movies, like a great many in its genre, are only as good as its villain. Clash of the Titans had a CGI monstrosity so well-marketed its heralding became a catchphrase. Wrath of the Titans could have used something like “Release the Kraken!” Cronus—who, again, created the whole universe—could have been an effective, compelling villain, a being of unimaginable power and intellect. Instead, he’s a lava-monster, prone to blowing up the same mountain. The film hopes that we, like so many helpless virgin sacrifices, will find ourselves chained to that mountain. Unfortunately, Wrath of the Titans gives one little to believe in.
Wrath of the Titans. Directed by Jonathan Liebsman. With Sam Worthington (Perseus), Liam Neeson (Zeus), Ralph Finnes (Hades), Bill Nighy (Hephaestus), Rosamund Pike (Andromeda) Toby Kendall (Agenor), Edgar Ramirez (Ares), and Danny Huston (Poseidon). Released March 30, 2012, by Warner Bros.
Perhaps it’s just the pattern Liam Neeson‘s established with his last few action thrillers—films like Unknown and Taken, where he’s a middle-aged man driven by revenge and/or the urge to save his family in killing as many gun-toting men as possible in ninety minutes—but if there’s something I didn’t expect from The Grey, which promised Neeson going through a Predator-like plot where he and his compatriots are assailed and picked off by creatures beyond their comprehension, it was a theological discussion about the absence of God, or at least a God who cares.
Neeson plays John Ottway, a troubled man whose job is to protect the men hired to do work on arctic pipelines from the wolves who stalk the land. It’s obvious looking at him among these rough men, who drink and brawl and whore, that Ottway carries a massive guilt, an incredible grief. It’s clear that, when he leaves the bar, rifle slung across his back, he’s doing so to end his life. Ottway kneels down in the snow, buts the rifle’s barrel into his mouth, but can’t bring himself to shoot. The next day he’s on the plane with the unsavory crew hired to work in the arctic. The plane goes down, and Ottway is one of a small band of survivors left in the middle of an empty, threatening snowscape.
Immediately, Ottway becomes a survivalist. This is good for the group, because left to their own devices, men like Diaz (Frank Grillo) and Talget (Dermot Mulroney) wouldn’t stand a chance, divided by background and personality. Not that they think Ottway is the best man for the job, but at least he knows about wolves, and at least he’s interested in surviving. So they trudge across the snow hoping to find shelter, to at least get far away enough from the wolf den that they’re no longer an issue. Infighting and exposure are also a source of problems for the group, who dwindle in number not knowing if they’re closer to their goal, not knowing how many things lurk beyond their vision, poised to attack.
Thankfully, the wolves don’t act as a kind of convenient metaphor, they’re no signpost, no means to the film’s message. They’re a force of nature, doing what they do because, hey, that’s how they are. Because The Grey has no villain, the film avoids the pratfall where the group rises above evil, instead becoming a show of how desperate or crazed or lonely human beings can find themselves. Diaz, for example, sees the moment where he cuts off a slain wolf’s head to chuck it back into the forest as revenge for the men who’ve died. The other men, who see the killing as a fact of their continued survival, look on as though Diaz were deranged. Maybe he is. Or maybe he’s just working out his frustrations. All of the men stranded out there have issues to deal with. The wolves just put things in perspective real quick.
The lack of a specific villain also allows director and co-writer Joe Carnahan to get creative. Instead of relying on the wolves as a jump scare or singular cause of death, the men are faced with decisions that may help or hinder their progress: Do they create a rope bridge to cross a chasm? Do they follow a river? Do they know where they’re going? Do they drink all the alcohol, or do they save some for later? Do any of their decisions matter, or are they merely prolonging the agony? These questions, and the way they’re answered, have a profound impact on Ottway and his crew’s ability to survive.
And then there’s the question about God. Not all of the men on the airplane are as harsh or bitter as it would seem. Some of them, in fact, are pretty spiritual. Talget, for example, wishes to say a prayer for the men who had the good fortune to die in the crash. He believes that the group survived for a reason, that their trek across the wilderness was ordained and purposeful, even if that purpose isn’t clear. Talget has a daughter at home, who he promised to see again. Maybe that’s what this trek is about, making those left alive more appreciative of what they have, despite the three men the film comes to focus on having very little to live for, not like the oil executives who’ll be minorly inconvenienced by the crash. Talget has family. Diaz has freedom.
Ottway, though, appears to have less than even these men. His wife (Anne Openshaw) is dead and he is days removed from trying to end his own life. He does not believe in God, grounds himself in reality. His reality is quite dire, indeed. There’s him, the group, the weather, and the wolves. Benevolent or not, few gods would hurl their creation into such a horrible fray. Few men would survive as long as Ottway, who doesn’t believe in fate but will meet one anyway. The debate is left to be resolved by the viewer, but one has to wonder why he persists when the situation is admittedly so hopeless. Perhaps Ottway carries on hoping for an honorable way to die. Maybe giving up would dishonor his wife. Could be, but the movie draws a pretty distinct line between the wolves and Ottway. They kill because they need to, because that’s their purpose. Ottway survives because he, too, feels need. In the wolves, he finds purpose.
The Grey. Directed by Joe Carnahan. With Liam Neeson (Ottway), Frank Grillo (Diaz), Dermot Mulroney (Talget), Dallas Roberts (Hendrick), Joe Anderson (Flannery), and Anne Openshaw (Ottway’s Wife). Released January 27, 2012, by Open Road Films.
To put it bluntly, Clash of the Titans was boring. So boring, in fact, that Liam Neeson bellowing something like “RELEASE THE KRACKEN!” is less the brassy trumpet blast heard on TV than it is muted background noise. It’s like an egotist taking off his pants in front of some girl in the dead of winter, blissfully unaware of shrinkage. It ain’t funny. It ain’t pretty. It’s mostly sad. Tiresome, even.
The deal is this: It’s ancient Greece, and humans have gotten around to being upset that they have to sacrifice the best parts of their food to the gods who, in turn, reward them with famine, pestilence, and war. Perseus (Sam Worthington) is just a guy on a fishing boat until some humans get the bright idea to push a statue of one of the gods into the ocean, which royally pisses off Poseidon, who sends a bunch of waves and sea creatures to attack in retaliation. Perseus’ adopted father dies when the boat is wrecked, he washes ashore, and you’ve got a pretty willing combatant against the gods.
The problem here, shrugging off the notion of Zeus simply zapping Perseus and his buddies with a lightning bolt and calling it a movie, is twofold. First, this whole man vs. gods thing is an elaborate ploy by Hades (Ralph Fiennes), who feels that he should be the ruler of the gods. He figures that he can turn humans against Zeus, who apparently needs their prayers and sacrifices to keep up on the house payments and the nectar and ambrosia budget. Hades doesn’t need people, having learned how to survive on fear.
Second, Perseus is a demigod, meaning that, wouldn’t you know it, Zeus had sex with his mom. That means that Zeus, even though he’s raging over the indignities paid him by humanity at large, is willing to bequeath Perseus with a magical sword that Perseus doesn’t want to use because he’s human, dammit, and he’s not about to start listening to his absent father as a 30-year-old action figure. So he tries to fight the CGI machinations of Hades on his own until his human friends get tired of his tough guy act and tell him to pick up the damn sword and be useful.
And that’s your movie. The kraken is eventually released, but he’s a big brown mess of teeth and testicles and not much else, and there’s really no way to stage an effective action sequence between Sam Worthington and a giant plastic bag, so I suppose its to the credit of the filmmakers that they didn’t even try. There’s a subplot involving an ultimatum that the city of Argos give up its princess or be devoured, but if you think the beautiful girl is going to be swallowed by the ugly plastic bag, you must be new here. And I think that Io (Gemma Arterton) is a muse who follows Perseus around so that future poets will have something to write about, but this is a movie so devoid of poetry that I may have been inventing things to keep myself interested.
Sam Worthington is all gritted teeth and shouting, and Liam Neeson is firmly in victory lap mode. I wonder what pressing need overtook Warner Bros. that they just had to remake the goofy, endearing 1981 film (featuring the stop-motion animation of Ray Harryhausen, for the uninitiated) instead of doing something unique with the Greek gods, like portraying them trying to find purpose in a world that no longer needs or wants them. As an action movie, this is a decent timesucker, but if there’s something I learn every time I turn on the TV, it’s that the world is ending soon and there’s not much time left to suck. I just hope that whatever’s coming for us is more compelling than the Kraken, and that future civilizations at least get antagonists right when they’re making their uninspired movies about our clash with the inevitable. I didn’t see a single titan in the whole damn movie.
Clash of the Titans. Directed by Louis Leterrier. With Sam Worthington (Perseus), Liam Neeson (Zeus), Ralph Fiennes (Hades), Jason Flemyng (Calibos/Acrisius), Gemma Arterson (Io), Alexa Davalos (Andromeda), Pete Postlethwaite (Spyros), Elizabeth McGovern (Marmara), and Danny Huston (Poseidon). Released April 2, 2010, by Warner Bros.