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Wednesday, June 2, 2004
Insatiable appetite for destruction
Hollywood works in deep and mysterious ways. I mean, who exactly do they think is the audience for a remake of "The Six Million Dollar Man" starring Jim Carrey? But some days the industry's thinking is positively inscrutable. Just consider "The Day After Tomorrow," this summer's first kazillion-dollar event movie, which offers up for our entertainment . . . the complete and utter destruction of New York City.
Hold up. Wasn't it mere months ago that the industry was wringing its hands over how sensitive audiences had become after bin Laden's little show-stopper at the World Trade Center? Audiences were supposedly so traumatized that they couldn't even bear to see an intact NYC, which led to delayed releases for films like "Spider-Man" as the Twin Towers were digitally erased from every frame.
Well, Roland Emmerich -- the man who death-rayed the White House in "Independence Day" -- doesn't seem to have lost his appetite for destruction. In "The Day After Tomorrow" he wipes out the entire Northern Hemisphere in an environmental catastrophe of tidal waves, tornado flurries and killer hailstones the size of baseballs, capping it all off with a new ice age that renders New York extinct. ("In'shallah," I hear someone murmuring in a cave on the Afghan-Pakistani border . . . )
How quickly we forget. Even as America's security services warn of a "spectacular" and "catastrophic" terrorist attack in the near future, American moviegoers flock to see the spectacularly catastrophic destruction of every major landmark in the Western world. But let's face it: The United States is a country that worships destruction. It's reflected in the billions of dollars spent on weaponry to commit the laser-guided devastation of places like Iraq, Afghanistan or Panama, vs. the paltry sums contributed to rebuilding functional and stable societies. And it's certainly reflected in disaster films like this one, which has a budget ($125 million, not counting probably another $50-60 million in promotion) that dwarfs the money allocated to scientific research on climate change in any given decade.
That's a liberal-leftie cheap shot, but true nevertheless.
Ironically enough, the film has been somewhat championed by environmental groups, both for its depiction of global warming as an actual threat -- however exaggerated -- and its depiction of the U.S. vice president, obviously modeled on Dick Cheney, as an energy-industry stooge.
To take this film seriously, however, is a mistake. Emmerich's latest is a piss-poor B-movie writ large, rather like his remake of "Godzilla," come to think of it. It's got a what budget and painstakingly crafted effects that scream "take me seriously" combined with acting that makes you groan. This ponderousness, most apparent in climatologist Dennis Quaid's earnest attempts to rescue his son Jake Gyllenhall from the snowy tomb of Manhattan, denies us even the pleasures normally found in the cheesy Bs.
Far, far more entertaining is the lower-profile "Starship Troopers 2," a particularly dumb sequel to what was a pretty silly film in the first place. Connoisseurs note: This is no smug, po-mo B-flick like "Kill Bill," wearing its references on its sleeve. This, my friends, is the real thing, where storylines are written to keep all the action on one set, where a dust storm is conveniently used to avoid paying for expensive CG-landscapes, and actors tear into lines like "Poor creatures. Why must we destroy you?" with disconcerting zeal.
Gone is director Paul Verhoeven and the blockbuster budget he commanded for the original film, based on Robert Heinlein's old-school sci-fi novel of human supersoldiers battling a race of giant malevolent bugs. In his place is the wizard of stop-motion animation, Phil Tippett (who did the SFX on the first film), and a budget that wouldn't even get you lunch on Emmerich's set. Tippett went with a no-name cast (Richard Burgi? Colleen Porch?) and spent what he had on creating hordes of his clattering, spiky insects, some of the better screen creatures since "Alien." The story plays like a William Burroughs cut-up experiment: "Alien," "Species," "Fort Apache" and more are recycled with a shameless sense of deja vu.
Like any good, bad B-movie, "Troopers 2" is filled with laughs, both intentional and otherwise. The force-field protecting the soldiers' outpost turns out to work just like the bug zappers you'll find on any old porch. The dialogue is particularly choice: "What kind of bug is that?" asks an incredulous captain, as he watches a metallic insect squirm out of a dead trooper's brain. "The kind that gets inside and takes over," replies a private. Well, duh.