Movies try to evoke a wide range of emotions and reactions from their viewers. Shock, delight, sadness, joy, despair — in the century or so that humans have been making movies, the bag of tricks film makers use to manipulate our emotions has become large indeed, and the range of emotions and experiences movies seek to simulate has grown to encompass pretty much everything we’re likely or unlikely to ever encounter in real life. There are, however, a few mental states and experiences that, while a movie could potentially ask us to invest ourselves in, it probably shouldn’t. At the top of my list of experiences I don’t need recreated for me by a movie would be the frustrating tedium of phone-based customer support.
I tried real hard, Circadian Rhythm. I tried real hard to like, then tolerate, then at the very least, appreciate on some level what you were doing. But in the end, I just couldn’t pull it off. There just wasn’t any salvaging this date, and although you were cute and I liked your glasses and haircut, and I respected that you were trying to be sort of weird and different, I don’t think we should have a second date.
If Neon City is an example of American-made post-apocalyptic science fiction that strives for a more realistic, bleaker tone than is usually seen in Road Warrior rip-offs, then Cherry 2000 is a very interesting companion piece that comes from the opposite end of the spectrum. It envisions a future not terribly different from the one in Neon City — in which some manner of apocalyptic disaster has left large swathes of the United States lawless and scoured, while pockets of urban civilization seem to chug along despite the blight surrounding them — but where Neon City is an exercise in bleakness and some cursory attempt at realism, Cherry 2000 gleefully embraces all the excess, quirks, and questionable art and design decisions that embodied the 1980s, resulting in a film that comes across sort of like a post-apocalypse film as imagined by Patrick Nagel.
The future of Cherry 2000 is the future that could only be imagined in the 1980s, when we were all pretty sure we were living in the future anyway. This means lots of neon, random tube lighting, exaggerated eye make-up, metallic spandex, guys in baggy suits with square-bottom ties and women in short skirts and long jackets with oversized shoulder pads. In other words, the future of Cherry 2000 is the 1980s, only with robots — but not just any robots. As we all know, the evolution of robots goes a little something like: car manufacturing robots, followed by robot dogs, followed by fully human looking sexbots, followed inevitably by murderous killbots determined to eradicate humanity until we defeat them with that “this statement is a lie” conundrum. With Cherry 2000, we’re in the sexbot phase of development, that glorious time when we could built robots that look, feel, and act almost entirely human, but we still have 8-bit graphic displays on all our other computers.
Diligent office worker Sam Treadwell (David Andrews, who went on to work with a robot policewoman in the very short-lived series Mann and Machine, then had a decidedly different experience with female robots in Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines) isn’t down with the bar scene of the future, where casual sexual encounters involve attendant lawyers and complex contracts negotiated by a still unestablished Lawrence Fishburne. Despite the ribbing Sam takes from his friends, he’s happy to go home every night to Cherry (Pamela Gidley, “hot” off her turn in another giant of the 80s cult movie scene, Thrashin’), his top-of-the-line fembot. Although she’d definitely there to satisfy his hankering for hanky panky, the relationship between Sam and Cherry seems substantially more committed than is usual, something as close to love as you can expect from a man and his robot girl — not unlike those crazy Japanese guys who fall in love with and marry their anime hug pillows or favorite video game characters. Hey, Teleport City says, “whatever makes you happy, man.” And while Sam’s friends may wonder what he has against relationships with real women or how he can find fulfillment in the companionship of a robot, the fact is that he does.
At the same time, however, his relationship can hardly be called “healthy” in that it is sort of one-sided, the embodiment of the 1980s “me generation” ethos. While Sam seems happy, and Cherry is a computer that feels however she’s programmed to feel, the fact is Sam’s happy largely because he has a pre-programmed partner who is going to be totally satisfied with him no matter what he does. Thus, the relationship is ultimately only about Sam making himself feel better. Unfortunately, Sam soon discovers that Cherry — built to look and act like a human, including partaking in sexual intercourse — has one fatal flaw: no one thought to make her waterproof. Or even water resistant. While the happy couple are writhing about a pool of overflowing sink water, in the throes of clothed ecstasy, Cherry suffers a fatal short circuit. Which, at least for me, begs the unsavory question — how has Sam been cleaning his Cherry 2000 if even the slightest puddle of water causes her to explode?
Distraught Sam takes Cherry in to the local fembot repair shop but discovers that the Cherry model is just too advanced. Since society has largely collapsed, there’s no way to get parts to repair her anymore. The shop owner tries to interest Sam in a new model — just as lifelike, but not quite so state of the art. But proving once again that his relationship with Cherry, though unorthodox, was something more than that between a man and his sex doll, Sam refuses. He loves Cherry, after all, and he’ll only be happy with a model that can accept her memory disc. When he hears there’s a place somewhere out in the wasteland that might still have a stock of new Cherry bodies, he packs up and heads out of the relative safety of future Anaheim and toward the rough and tumble frontier. He’s been told to seek out a tracker named E. Johnson — the proverbial “best in the business.”
E. turns out to be Edith (a young Melanie Griffith with awesome red hair), proving that decades after it should have died, someone still thought the “but…you’re a girl!” gag was hilarious. Sam doesn’t believe that a woman could be a competent tracker. Plus he seems slightly squirmy around non-robot women, so he decides to seek help elsewhere. He meets a couple of would be trackers (one of whom is Brion James) who agree to take the job, or take him to Six-Finger Jake, the most legendary tracker of all time. But it turns out they’re just a couple of scam artists. Sam ends up hiring E. after all, so the two load up in her cherry red Mustang and head for the economical desert wasteland where all low budget post-apocalyptic movies spend most of their running time.
It turns out the “robot graveyard” requires they cross the most dangerous part of America, an area controlled by a ruthless warlord named Lester. OK, so it’s no “Lord Humongous,” but since Lester is played by Tim Thomerson, there’s no worries. Lester and E. both suffer from the same basic problem — the “informed attribute.” That’s when a character in a movie is put forth as having some particular trait or skill — “he/she is the best of the best” — despite the fact that the movie never once shows us anything to justify the claim. The character is “the best” because other characters keep talking about how good he/she is at whatever. In the case of Edith, we’re constantly told that she’s the second best tracker to ever work the wasteland — second only to the mysterious Six Fingered Jake. However, no matter how many times we’re told how great a tracker she is, Edith never does anything to show that she’s anything other than largely incompetent or that she could have ever survived more than an hour on her own out in the wasteland. From the very start of the journey, when she and Sam have to run a barricade set up by wasteland brigands, she seems to have no idea how to do anything. I mean, the barricade is a pile of stuff blocking a two-lane highway, manned by maybe half a dozen guys. She could just turn the headlights off and drive around it. The terrain off-road is flat and easy to navigate. Instead, she has to ram it head on while everyone shoots at the car. Everything else she does is accompanied by dialog where she says “I’ve done this dozens of times” then when asked if she knows what she’s doing, says “I’m making it up as I go.”
Similarly, Lester supposedly rules the wasteland with an iron fist, commanding an army of murderous thugs who prowl the desert roads in search of unlucky travelers who thought they could make it across Lester’s domain. But when we meet Lester, he’s a big goofball in a Hawaiian shirt, with maybe twenty guys at his disposal. How the heck do a few guys with an RV and an ice cream truck rule the entire American Southwest? It doesn’t matter, I guess. Cherry 2000 never really puts any sort of thought at all into the structure of the society it proposes. It mostly just throws things up on screen that the writer and director thought would be quirky. Lester, for instance, is obsessed with recreating the mythological idyllic existence of 1950s suburbia in the desert. So he and his men dress like they’re on their way to a backyard BBQ — which they frequently are. The women in his tribe are done up in cocktail dresses and pearls. Tim Thomerson’s character may not make a lick of sense, but he’s totally awesome regardless. I love Thomerson, and this is a role that lets him really ham it up and go all out. But amid all that silliness, there really is something kind of creepy about him, like realizing your jovial, friendly suburban neighbor who, during some innocuous BBQ, leads you down into his basement, where he has a bunker full of weapons and is planning for the coming race war.
The rest of the cast is a mixed bag. Melanie Griffith looks fantastic but is totally unconvincing as a tough as nails wasteland tracker. She turns in what might be the worst performance in a career that is pretty much defined by worst performances. David Andrews is bland but adequate. The chemistry that supposedly develops between him and Griffith is another of the film’s many “informed attributes,” because it’s certainly not communicated on screen. Robert Z’Dar shows up briefly wearing really disturbing booty shorts, and fans of direct to video action and sci-fi fare might be left wondering, as I was, why you’d bother to hire someone as distinctive as Robert Z’Dar then have him be little more than a background extra. Pam Gidley is supposed to be a vacant representation of a humanoid robot and, if nothing else, she does that well. In fact, outside of Griffith’s truly terrible (though still somehow endearing) performance, this movie is filled with seasoned vets and character actors who do a proper job of delivering a totally silly movie.
The direction by relative newcomer Steve De Jarnatt is solid enough. Unlike more recent directors who are new to the job, he doesn’t overcompensate for his inexperience by cramming the movie full of gratuitous, meaningless editing and camera tricks (and CGI, but that wouldn’t have been an option in 1986 regardless). Instead, he just points the camera in the right direction, keeps everything in focus, and lets the rest of the movie do its job. Screenwriter Michael Almereyda went on to a career that garnered him a few awards, mostly for his work on arthouse vampire film Nadja and Wim Wenders’ Until the End of the World. Cherry 2000 finds him on his first big gig, and his screenplay is full of offbeat, interesting idea that are never fully baked. If he can call me up and tell me some day what the hell was going on during the crane scene, I’d appreciate it.
Cherry 2000 is a sloppy movie with very little internal logic, but that doesn’t stop it from being a fun time. Despite never really coming together into a cohesive whole, it still has a lot of fun ideas and tries, with varying success, to insert a few speculative thoughts and ideas about modern/future society and human relationships into the mix, and I admire its ambition. Ultimately, it’s pretty easy to roll with it. Once you get to the mildly infamous crane scene, the movie becomes so nonsensical, the actions on screen so impossible to decipher (just what the hell is going on in that scene anyway? Who controls the crane? Why is anyone …oh, to hell with it), that you realize you’re better off throwing up your hands and surrendering to the film’s goofball charms. At least, that’s what I did, and I was pretty happy with the results. And even if it’s impossible to figure out exactly what’s going on during that scene, the stunt work performed during it is utterly fantastic. Oh, for the days when you could pay an actual human to dangle from an actual car suspended from an actual crane over an actual ravine.
By the time the 1990s rolled around, I think everyone had given up on Rutger Hauer becoming some awesome super cool megastar, and “everyone” included Rutger Hauer himself. On the one hand, that’s too bad, because there for a while, he was a genuinely cool dude, good looking and charming but with something cruel and disturbing about him. There was no wonder a lot of the spooky ladies (and a fair number of lads) with whom I hung out with back in the day were loopy for Rutger. I’m pretty sure we had plans, at some point, to make a movie featuring Roy Batty in his little leather booty shorts from Blade Runner teaming up with Sting’s Feyd Rautha in his little metal thong thingie to… I don’t know glisten as they traveled from town to town, solving people’s problems.
I’m not saying we really thought the whole thing through. And anyway, Sting eventually bought himself a lute and became really boring, so I’m sort of glad we never made the movie anyway. But if we had, we totally would have made Sting recreate his Ace Face dance scene from Quadrophenia, only wearing his Dune thong. Well, whatever the case, those jerks in Hollywood would never give me the funding, and as a result, Rutger Hauer never became the mainstream icon he should have. On the other hand though, Hauer never bought a lute, and he did go on to do a lot of entertaining work, especially in the field of “low budget straight to video science fiction,” which happens to be one of my favorite fields of study, so I can’t totally bemoan the turn his career took. And now that he seems to be enjoying one of those late-stage career revivals, mostly by getting cast as a guy who is irritated by superheroes, I’d say things turned out OK.
But back in 1992, Rutger Hauer might have been bitter about mainstream success slipping through his grasp, though when I think about it, probably not. His biggest movies up until that point weren’t exactly mainstream. Ladyhawke was a quirky sleeper hit of a fantasy film, but I don’t think it really gained much of a following until it hit the newly forming home video market. Blade Runner was a movie everyone hated until it was heralded as a visionary classic years later, forcing people to pretend like they’d loved it since the day it was released and flopped at the box office because Harrison Ford wasn’t enough like Han Solo in it. Most of Hauer’s roles other than Ladyhawke were designed to creep you out — from Nighthawks to Flesh+Blood to The Hitcher. And heck, he was even kind of frightening in Ladyhawke, now that I think about it. If you weren’t terrified by Rutger Hauer by 1986, then something was wrong.
While he was honing his skills as a guy you’d fall for even though you knew at the end of the day he’d probably cut out your heart and eat it while saying something spooky and profound, he was also working diligently on a second persona: that of a cranky, world weary hero who seems to mutter or sigh all his lines. His first big stab at this was in the do-nothing 1980s actioner Wanted: Dead or Alive, best known — if it is known at all — for being the movie where Rutger Hauer blows up a guy from KISS. In 1989, he took his world weary sighing hero act into the near future for Blood of Heroes, a movie where he got to make out with Joan Chen and slam skulls onto spikes. By 1992′s dystopian futuristic serial killer alien (!) movie Split Second, he had either become so good at acting bored that he seemed totally bored with the movie, or he was totally bored with the movie.
Hauer stars as Harley Stone, a cop with a chip on his shoulder in the near future London of 2008. As we suspected would happen, 2008 is a mess. Global warming has wreaked havoc with the planet’s weather systems. London is in a state of perpetual flooding to which the people of the city, ever stolid and with stuff upper lips, have adapted by simply buying heavier galoshes. Harley spends his days plodding through the dirty, waterlogged streets during what seems to be perpetual night, hunting down a brutal serial killer who likes to cut out the hearts of his victims, which he politely mails to police because this movie is all about a big misunderstanding over the true meaning of Valentine’s Day. Harley is determined to catch the murderer since, as is usually the case with such plots, the maniac killed Harley’s partner, sending the high-strung cop into a spiral of self-destruction and obsession that manifests itself mainly in the form of Rutger Hauer wearing a big black trench coat and showing up too late to stop another murder. This is at least the third time Hauer has worn a big, bulky, black trench coat in a movie, by the way. This is the internet, so I’m sure someone has a website about it.
Harley’s superiors aren’t happy with his methods — you know how superiors are — so they take him off the case even though no obsessed lone wolf cop who plays by his own rules has ever, in the history of movies, been taken off a case and not gone right on working that case, especially if the reason he’s taken off is because “you’re too close to this case!” To this film’s credit, at least the cranky police captain realizes this and eventually reinstates Harley, albeit with a bookish new partner named Dick Durkin (man, if Dick Durkin and Harley Stone weren’t Tom of Finland characters…) even though, being a lone wolf cop, Harley naturally wants to work alone. Durkin (Alastair “Neil” Duncan) is, of course, an Oxford-y egghead who spouts off a lot of intellectual and psychological profiling nonsense, since in the 1990s serial killer profiling had suddenly become en vogue. Durkin assumes they can out-think the killer, use the powers of reason and deduction to detect a pattern and cut the killer off by understanding his psychology. Harley thinks they should just splash around seedy London strip clubs at random until something shows up that he can shoot.
It turns out, we learn, that Hauer also has horrible nightmares about the killer, and that in fact, they’re not nightmares so much as they are psychic glimpses through the killer’s eyes at the moment the murderer is about to strike. So I guess he wasn’t just wandering around at random after all. The movie then sees fit to sprinkle even more convoluted nonsense into the mix, as the killer seems to have a Satan fixation, may or may not think himself the Devil, may lead a cult, and other stuff meant to make things more complicated. That, in the end, the killer actually turns out to be a toothy eight foot tall space alien and/or genetically modified demon almost seems, after so much profiling and psychoanalytical babble, the most mundane and reasonable of explanations.
If he’s not busy walking around or having psychic flashes, Harley likes to retire to his squalid apartment, where he lets pigeons nest in his hair and does his awkward, tasteless best to sort of romance his dead partner’s wife, Michelle (Kim Cattrall, still sporting her beautiful jet black bob haircut from Star Trek VI). I know Kim has done, currently does, and probably always will do movies that I loathe, but none of that kills my adoration of the woman, which is based entirely on the only three movies of hers I’ve actually bothered to see — this, Star Trek VI, and Big Trouble in Little China. There’s no arguing with that pedigree, even if she’s more famous for something else. And hell — have you seen her lately? She’s still fabulous, and I appreciate anyone who is in their 50s and can still strut their stuff. I’m only forty, and the world has decided is is better off when my clothes remain donned.
No one really knew what to make of Split Second upon its release, including the movie’s own marketing department. Was it a cyberpunk tale set in a dystopian Blade Runner future, only with less money? Was it a mismatched buddy-cop movie? Was it an Alien rip-off? A Predator rip-off? A gory horror film? The answer to all those questions is “yes,” but that’s a hard movie to sell to people. As such, Split Second did nothing at the box office. In fact, so dismal was its showing that most people assume it was just a direct to video release. However, not all of the film’s misfortunes can be laid at the feet of its multi-genre approach to storytelling. No, at least some of those woes can be blamed on the fact that this movie also happens to be a joyless, somewhat listless mess.
For the most part, I remember the marketing being very sci-fi heavy, pitching the movie as sort of a rainier version of Predator 2. While there is some cross-over between horror fans and science fiction fans — especially after Alien — there’s also a lot of sci-fi fans who don’t care for gore and grue. But gore and grue is exactly what Split Second serves up, in fairly generous amounts, and I can only imagine how off-putting that must have been to people who expected something a little more light-hearted. The gore is made even more intense by the oppressively grim tone of the film and by the general air of sleaze that permeates this and pretty much any other movie that involves heart-ripping mass murderers and strip clubs. This movie, along with 1985′s Lifeforce and 1997′s Event Horizon serve in my mind as a sort of unconnected trilogy of “horror films that everyone thought were science fiction films when they walked into the theater,” though to be honest, I don’t think many people walked into the theater for any of those three movies.
Despite the fact that Rutger Hauer drifts through the movie with an endless supply of quips and one-liners, as was the style in the day (after all, the least you can do is give them a little something to smile about before you pummel them), there’s very little in the way of levity in this film. It takes the violence of an ’80s action film and strips it of the comic book sense of silliness, almost resulting in a satire of the tendency to crack wise while committing acts of unspeakable violence. Hauer mouths the jokes, but they’re infused with such an undercurrent of bitterness and cynicism that they’re more awkward and scary than they are funny — but that’s Rutger Hauer for you.
There were a lot of movies of this ilk released in the 1990s, as the shiny neon veneer of the 1980s wore off and gave way to grungier, more hopeless visions of the future informed by the popularity of cyberpunk literature, which by the 90s had become cyberpunk culture and was ripe for being appropriated, misunderstood, then misappropriated by film makers. The days of rollicking space adventures gave way to smaller-scale, much more pessimistic films like Split Second and Hardware. It’s odd, at first, to think that the ’80s were so full of gloss and glam despite being a decade in which we all thought we were going to get fried in a nuclear war, fried by the disintegration of the ozone layer, or just crushed by relentless economic bleakness. Then the 90s roll around, we get Bill Clinton in office, and suddenly the country is in pretty good shape. We got jobs, the Cold War was over, our president was into fat freaky chicks, and things were rolling along. But the entertainment of that era was relentlessly downbeat, from grunge rock to Alice in Chains style new metal to cranky science fiction movies, you’d think that the entire country had fallen apart.
But that’s the way the world works. Even though the ’90s were a safer, more peaceful, more stable time for us Americans, we still had to deal with the emotional backlash of what we were desperately trying to ignore during the 1980s. It wasn’t until we emerged from those days that we realized how screwed up everything had been, and with that revelation, a sort of general malaise settled in on society. We started griping and grousing even though things had gotten a lot better. The tone of Split Second is a direct result of the lingering deep blue funk that infected a lot of people. It’s mean and grumpy and largely misanthropic, but it overplayed its hand a little bit and was a little too much for a lot of people. There were also a lot of people who didn’t dislike the movie because of its misanthropic tone, but instead hated the movie because they thought it was terrible. And while I, perhaps predictably, liked the movie (I also liked Event Horizon and Lifeforce, as it happens), it’s not as if there’s much denying that it gives people plenty of critical ammunition.
For starters, there’s Rutger Hauer. His performance is, in a way, the embodiment of this movie’s overall tone — not misanthropic, in my view, so much as it is simply exhausted. I can’t tell if Hauer is doing a really good job or is simply sleepwalking through a movie in which he has no interest. Whatever the case may be, the end result is that he turns in a bored looking performance that creates a sort of bored atmosphere. A movie about a Satan-worshiping killer alien preying on strippers and with a psychic link to Rutger Hauer shouldn’t be this lacking in energy, but Hauer handles the whole thing with an overplayed world weariness that borders on lethargy. I understand he’s a man whose seen it all, but if we’re to believe him as obsessed and on the edge, we need to see a little more oomph put into his obsession. As played, he seems as dedicated to catching this killer as I am to trimming an inch or two of fat off my waist. Yeah, sure, I want to do it I guess, but you know, whatever. I also want to eat apple cider doughnuts.
Then there’s the case of the script, which starts out with a rote but dependable “cop tracks serial killer” plot, becomes a still somewhat rote but dependable “cop tracks monster” plot, and then all of a sudden is cramming in all sorts of ridiculous shit, most of which is half-baked and never really seems to have much to do with anything. Generally, I like when a screenwriter or group of screenwriters start to lose control of their own creation. As viewers we get to watch the thing grow more and ridiculous and nonsensical, until it seems like whoever was writing it was either simply holding on for dear life or was sitting in a room with a bunch of other people, smoking pot, and coming up with things like, “No, dude, check it out. What if it’s a DNA thief, and it’s got some of Rutger Hauer’s DNA? And that’s why they have a psychic connection, because like, you know, your psychic powers are stored in your DNA.” And then everyone exhales and bongs have written another goofy science fiction horror movie plot twist.
Thing is, as much as I appreciate the fact that the script for Split Second seems to go off the rails and meander farther and farther away from a point where it might have been thought out, it unfortunately goes about its descent into madness with all the energy of…well, Rutger Hauer’s performance. As nutty as it gets by film’s end, there’s too much between the opening and ending that seems like the movie is just spinning its wheels and trying to think of something to do next. It gets to the point at times where watching the movie is like being stuck in that same room of stoned writers while they spend ten minutes doing the “What do you want to eat/I don’t know. What do you want to eat?” round and round.
Much of the stuttering pacing is probably attributable to the inexperience of screenwriter Gary Scott Thompson, who would learn to pace his scripts more expertly by the time he was raking in the dough for the Fast and the Furious movies he wound up writing. 1992 sees him pretty early into his career as a screenwriter, and the lack of seasoning is likely why the movie ends up being so unfocused and susceptible to needing to pause and figure out where it’s going.
On the other hand, Thompson’s screenplay offers enough meat so that a talented director should have been able to stage a more exciting movie than the one we got. Tony Maylam wasn’t the man for the job, though. Despite his first directing job coming in the early 1970s, Maylam worked infrequently and then primarily on small-scale television projects and documentary films. He brings a decidedly plodding style and small-scale feel to Split Second, a movie whose ridiculous plot demands a much more robust job at directing. I don’t know what Maylam’s deal was, if this was the best he could do or if he just didn’t care. It hurts the film whatever the case, and Maylam himself wouldn’t work again until 2001′s Phoenix Blue, and after that he seems to have occupied himself mostly with making documentaries about automobile design.
Other aspects of the film aren’t as dull as Maylam’s direction, though. For the most part, the cast gives it their professional best effort — most of them are British, after all, and Brits rarely seem to half-ass it, no matter how silly the material. The supporting players and extras chew scenery, bellow, grimace, shout, grumble, and get choked by Rutger Hauer with admirable gusto. Kim Cattrall also turns in a good performance and radiates charm, even though she ultimately gets relegated to the unenviable “damsel in distress” role. And you know, even when Rutger Hauer seems to be only half present, he still brings a dangerous charisma and undefinable something to the role that makes him worth watching.
The performance of the movie has to go to Alastair Duncan though, whose sidekick character is given some truly unwieldy technobabble and psychobabble to spout. Somehow, he manages to mouth it all and make it sound convincing. His transformation from skeptical academic egghead cop to wild-eyed soulmate for Hauer’s Harley Stone may not be the height of originality, but Duncan makes it work wonderfully and provides the movie with one of its only moments of genuine humor that doesn’t involve pigeons sitting on Rutger Hauer’s head. These days, Duncan’s doing a lot of video game and cartoon voice acting, including doing the voice of Alfred on The Batman. What are the odds that both Harley Stone and Dick Durkin would go on to play roles in the sundry Batman franchises?
And the alien, or genetic mutant, or psychic freak, or whatever the hell the monster is, is also a great design. Obviously, though its behavior is all Predator 2, its look is a straight up rip off of the creature from Alien. Thing is, though, it’s a very good rip off, with lots of the drooling and sliminess that you expect from such creatures. We’re still solidly in the era of man-in-suit monsters, and at least by my standards, that makes for a much more interesting and menacing monster than could have been realized by CG — and I don’t just mean 1992 CG. Although I have made my peace with CG for the most part, I still have lingering disapproval for CG blood effects (juicy squibs are so much cooler looking) and for human-size, human shaped monsters rendered by computers rather than being played by a man in a rubber suit. Split Second‘s killer creature is no Pumpkinhead, but it’s a respectable beastie never the less.
It’s certainly weak enough in parts to disappoint more discerning viewers, and the gore and sleaze is copious enough to turn away anyone who got suckered into thinking they were going to get a straight sci-fi film or “Blade Runner but with a monster.” But I’m a pretty undemanding viewer, and the gore didn’t phase me, so I was able to chalk up enough enjoyment out of the film to like it, even though I wanted it to be better than it was. What couldn’t possibly be better, however, is the ending. There’s really no way to top Rutger Hauer pulling a monster’s heart out of its chest, then topping that off by shooting the heart with a giant shotgun, just because the monster pissed him off that much. Split Second isn’t necessarily a film I feel like I need to champion. It’s not a lost classic or a work of maligned and misunderstood genius. I wasn’t overjoyed with it, but I was pretty happy. If, like me, you have a certain tolerance for the unruly, low budget, cynical sci-fi films that came out in the early 1990s, you can probably wring at least as much entertainment out of this hateful little piece of sci-fi horror as I did.
Release Year: 1992 | Country: England, United States | Starring: Rutger Hauer, Kim Cattrall, Neil Duncan, Michael J. Pollard, Alun Armstrong, Pete Postlethwaite, Ian Dury, Roberta Eaton, Tony Steedman, Steven Hartley, Sara Stockbridge, Colin Skeaping, Ken Bones, Dave Duffy, Stewart Harvey-Wilson | Screenplay: Gary Scott Thompson | Director: Tony Maylam | Music: Francis Haines, Stephen W. Parsons | Cinematography: Clive Tickner
The Greatest Movie Ever! podcast invited me on to stammer and giggle and eventually be edited into some semblance of coherence — or at least as much coherence as can be wrung from the colossally oddball Howling 2: Your Sister is a Werewolf, movie as famous for it’s depiction of Christopher Lee in new wave sunglasses as it is for Sybil Danning’s werewolf orgy.
Ahh, Ruggero Deodato. Is there anything he can’t make weird? Although best known for cannibal atrocity films like Cannibal Holocaust, Deodato was no different than any other workhorse of the Italian exploitation industry, in that he worked in pretty much every genre that required exploiting. He made cop films, kiddie films, sword and sorcery films, horror films, sexploitation, and in the case of Raiders of Atlantis, a film that manages to steal from both Road Warrior and Raiders of the Lost Ark, and maybe a bit of Seatopia from Godzilla vs. Megalon, in a way that keeps the end result unique despite the lack of originality in its individual parts. Deodato certainly keeps his genre films offbeat, if nothing else.
A salvage operation attempting to raise a sunken nuclear submarine is interrupted by a sudden onslaught of bad weather and tsunamis. The crew of the salvage vessel find themselves stranded (except for their helicopter) in a seemingly deserted coastal town, and by seemingly, I mean that there are plenty of corpses placed in various humorous and surprising “tumble out at ya” locations. Generally, once someone has committed a massacre, they don’t stick around long enough to position the corpses of the slain in places that will provide a cheap shock to anyone who happens by and opens a cupboard or something, but whatever. When the salvage crew finally discovers some living people, they learn that the bad weather they encountered was caused by the rising of the lost continent of Atlantis (last seen beneath the Sahara Desert in Conquerors of Atlantis, being hassled by Hercules). The corpses, in turn, are the first victims of the Atlanteans attempts to reclaim their previous position as masters of the world.
Atlanteans dress like background dancers from that “Shootin’ at the Walls of Heartache” song, and their plan to reconquer the Earth involves a lot of hair teasing, new wave outfits, and a couple dune buggies. As far as impressive military showings go, this one falls somewhere below all those third world militias that go to war in Hawaiian shirts and Chuck Taylors. Really, dune buggies? Those haven’t been important military vehicles since the government disbanded Megaforce.
Although Raiders of Atlantis is not a post-apocalypse film, it certainly draws its villains’ fashion sense from such movies, most of which assume that after the fall of civilization, there will be a shortage of food, water, and gasoline but an abundance of shoulder pads, assless leather pants, zany hair and eye make-up, and dune buggies. I’m not exactly an ancient, but I’ve lived a good many years and have yet to ever see a dune buggy. Somehow, according to these movies, dune buggies will be the primary form of transportation in the future, and they will show up in hitherto unimagined quantities.
Despite their similarities to the future people of Billy Idol’s “Dancin’ with Myself” video, the Atlanteans prove to be fairly lame opponents, and a few adequately-trained surface-dwellers with shotguns show everyone why Aquaman was considered such a wuss. Not satisfied with beating up on the Atlantean advance guard, the salvage crew heads into the very heart of Atlantis to rescue a kidnapped scientist and kick a little more ass. In the couple thousand years since we saw Hercules beat up the Atlanteans, their fighting skills, technology, and sense of dress has not improved.
The main short-coming of this film is the budget, which results in some rather lame “toy boat, toy helicopter” effects, but other than that, Deodato manages to turn a goofball script into a bloody, action-packed adventure film that is equal parts Indiana Jones and Mad Max without being the actual equal of either. While the film fails with some of the more ambitious special effects, the stunts are superb. Also helping the film rise above its meager budget is the acting, which is high quality for such a low quality film. No one is going to win any awards, but for the most part, everyone turns in a solid performance. As outlandish as the script is, this is still an amusing high-octane action film that has more than enough thrills, violence, and rolling dune buggies to keep it fun.
These days, it seems like Japan makes about five zombie movies a week, each one more half-assed and dreadful than the last. Once, long ago, when Italy and the United States had lost interest in the zombie film, Japan decided to start cranking a few out. They started out modest but promising, and by the time we got to Wild Zero and Versus, I do believe that I naively exclaimed that the zombie film was well served by Japanese stewardship. Then they made Stacy, and I started to wonder if maybe I had celebrated prematurely. A few years ago, the United Stated rediscovered the zombie film, and zombies themselves became a pop culture phenomenon that ultimately degenerated into hipster zombie parties and zombie olympics and such. Japan wasn’t going to miss out on things, and a whole slew of cheap, new Japanese zombie movies were soon flooding the market. They were and continue to be high on wackiness and low on watchability, pretty much like their microbudget counterparts in America.
You would assume upon hearing the title that Zombie Hunter Rika is yet another entry in the seemingly never-ending parade of disappointing slapstick splatter movies that are getting pumped out of Japan at a remarkable rate. While it does contain some material that would be at home in a film by Noboru Iguchi, Zombie Hunter Rika is actually more of a straight-forward zombie film — or as straight-forward as Japan has ever made them. Think less Machine Girl, more Junk. It’s also kind of lame, but not so lame as to become totally unwatchable, which already makes it one of the best Japanese cult films in years. It’s a sad statement on the merits of the Japanese cult film when “I really only wanted to gouge out one of my eyes to escape it, rather than both of them” is seen as praise. But really, Zombie Hunter Rika isn’t even that bad. I still had both my eyes by the time it was over. It’s sort of bland and lacks energy in spots, and like all recent Japanese cult films, it has a stuttering, awkward pace. However, it also has just enough inspired moments to make it worth watching if you’re already a seasoned viewer of crappy zombie movies.
From what I gather, Zombie Hunter Rika is supposed to be the third film in a loosely related trilogy, but this is a trilogy only in the same sense that, say Dawn of the Dead, Zombie, and Zombie 3 form a trilogy. I have scheduled but have not, as of this writing, watched Zombie Self Defense Force, the supposed first film in this “Nihonbi” series. The second film, The Girls Rebel Force of Competitive Swimmers, is a largely a pinky sex film that has zombies thrown into the mix. I guess Zombie Hunter Rika falls closer to the Zombie Self Defense Force end of the spectrum, but with a little nudity thrown in to make the kids happy. I guess I will eventually discover what’s expected to link the three together, beyond them being about zombies eating Japanese people. It’s the sort of Bob Woodward-esque commitment to uncovering the story that keeps me going.
Rika and her best friend live in a world that makes almost no logical sense. There are apparently zombies, and the killing of zombies is a sport that creates pro wrestling style internet superstars like the famed Zombie Hunter (one of the worst white guy actors in Japanese movie history — which is a tremendous claim, I know). At the same time, life seems to go on as normal, and when zombies attack a small town, no one else seems to notice or be prepared for it. Some zombie films bend over backward to explain why it’s all happening. Others go with “we will never know what caused this.” Zombie Hunter Rika seems to be taking the approach of “whatever, man.” Rika and her friend fin themselves trapped on the wrong side of zombie gut munchers with her semi-catatonic sword master grandfather, his conniving new wife, her conniving rockabilly-esque brother, a few couple slapstick locals, and a benevolent zombie who has strapped a metal grate to his face to stop himself from eating people. When Rika loses her arm, they conveniently find the big muscular arm of a slain zombie hunter, graft it to her, and thus is born the world’s most powerful schoolgirl zombie slayer.
Shot on video, amateurishly made, but decently acted, Zombie Hunter Rika benefits greatly from diminished expectations. That it managed to be even moderately entertaining makes it seem like some great accomplishment. Some of the jokes are actually kind of funny. The conniving brother has a great fight scene against a gang of zombies in which he…well, it’s really hard to describe. But let’s say you had a friend who was actually kind of good at martial arts, and he got in a real world version of a Tony Jaa fight. It’s like that. There’s an air of competence about it, but without precision choreography, there’s also a lot of awkwardness, falling down, and flailing about. It was probably the best art of the movie, and it comes pretty early on. Action direction was done by Tak Sakaguchi, best known as the mysterious anti-hero in Versus but also one of the crew along with Noboru Iguchi responsible for the wave of aforementioned slapstick splatter movies. There’s an obvious jump in the energy level whenever Tak steps behind the camera to take over for regular director Ken’ichi Fujiwara.
The rest of the film follows the standard zombie film trajectory of a group of people holing up in a house to defend themselves. For the most part, the writing is really dumb, and the way the script has its character act in the middle of a zombie apocalypse just doesn’t make a lick of sense. Things start to drag during the second act, but no sooner are you starting to feel your patience wearing thin than they graft that arm on Rika and the film wakes up again for the finale. Things get insane in that way that seems unique to weird Japanese films but common to them all, if that makes any sense. A sort of predictable unpredictability, where you don’t know what crazy shit they’re going to make up, but you know they’re going to make up a lot of crazy shit. It’s film writing via getting a bunch of cult movie nerds drunk then letting them finish a script. Throw in a lot of zombie gore and some gratuitous boob shots, and you have a film that manages just barely to be on the enjoyable end of the bell curve.
Release Year: 2008 | Country: Japan | Starring: Mina Arai, Lemon Hanazawa, Kotaro Kamijo, Ryunosuke Kawai, Eiichi Kikuchi, Risa Kudo, Yuya Matsuura, Mai Minami, Tsugumi Nagasawa, Akina Serizawa, Takeshi Yamamoto | Screenplay: Ken’ichi Fujiwara, Takeyuki Morikaku | Director: Ken’ichi Fujiwara
Goro Miyazaki, son of famed Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki, has achieved with his debut film, Tales from Earthsea, the same sense of profundity as his father. Unfortunately, while the elder Miyazaki’s profundity usually came from things like wonder, imagination, inspiration, wit, emotion, and beauty, Miyazaki the younger’s effort is one of profound tedium and disappointment. Some might defend the poor lad, saying that the shadow of his father is long indeed, and Hayao Miyazaki has set a standard for animated film making that his son, and indeed the entire Japanese animation industry, could never live up to. Of course, you could also say that Goro Miyazaki would be working at a Lawson’s Food Mart if not for his last name getting him a job. So, let’s call it even.
Tales from Earthsea had a lot of hurdles to clear. First, it was based on a sprawling epic fantasy series by Ursula K. LeGuin — a huge undertaking for even a very experienced screenwriter and director to adapt, let alone a guy trying to do both, and for the first time on top of that. Maybe Goro’s dad could have pulled it off, and indeed, rumors swirled that Goro was having such a hard time with the project that Hayao had to swoop in and clean up some of the mess, though I have no idea if any of that was anything beyond idle fan speculation. I don’t know if Studio Ghibli would want to use Hayao to get people to see this movie, or whether they’d want to distance from him as much as possible.
Eventually, Goro wrangled the books into this movie, only to discover that the US market was closed to him. It turned out that the Sci-Fi Channel had been working on their own Earthsea adaptation and was keen to make sure that their Earthsea was the only Earthsea. Or to be more charitable, they wanted to ensure that us poor, dumb viewers didn’t get confused by something as complicated as different movies based on the same source material, even though one ws a cartoon and the other starred Kristin “Chun Li” Kruek. As a result, the release of Tales from Earthsea in the United States was blocked, at least until such time as the Sci-Fi Channel mini-series vanished from the public consciousness (which, to be honest, probably happened a week after it aired). Despite legal wrangling, however, most of the people who wanted to see Studio Ghibli’s take on the material managed to see it anyway. And the word spreading through fans was that, to be frank, perhaps the Sci-Fi Channel was doing Studio Ghibli a solid.
I withheld judgment. After all, my standards are often vastly different from the average anime fan, so my expectations of what would make the movie good might be very different than those held by, say, someone who gave four out of five stars to Elfen Lied. In addition, I am not completely reverent toward Old Man Hayao. He’s made stuff I love, stuff I like, and stuff I didn’t really care about. He probably deserves all the hype he’s amassed, but I don’t really think that any artist is infallible. Similarly, I didn’t expect Goro to be the same as his dad, nor did I find the nepotism all that offensive. So despite the growing trickle of reviews ranging from lukewarm to deeply offended, I went into the movie with as close to an open mind as an old man such as I could ever hope to have.
What I found was that, as bad as some of the reviews made the movie out to be, I actually thought it was a whole lot worse.
Tales from Earthsea fails as a movie on pretty much every level other than background painting. Because I try to be positive, I will say that whatever slave wage artists Goro had drawing the backgrounds, especially in the city scenes, earned their paycheck. Everything else is a boring wreck. The screenplay tries to jam and juggle several of LeGuin’s novels into a two hour film, and it fails miserably. Plots, characters, and events are picked willy nilly from thousands of pages, and remixed into a tedious mess of a movie that seems designed to maximize the time we spend on the mundane (Goro Miyazaki must absolutely love watching people plow and walk through fields) while reducing anything like action, tension, emotion, or character development into as small an amount of time as he could get away with.
What we are left with is an unengaging, soulless story about a young prince named Arren, who one day stabs his father (hmm…symbolic, Goro?) and runs off. If there was a reason for this, the movie never really cares about explaining it. Arren ha a mysterious split personality, though why and what it means is something they feel doesn’t need to be examined. The wandering lad is soon taken under the wing of a wizard named Sparrowhawk, which is a better name than, say, Orcaseal. The two of them take us on a bored tour of assorted villages as they ride across the land. Eventually, Arren pisses of some slave traders, rescues and pisses off a girl named Theru, and gets himself caught in some ill-defined catfight between Sparrowhawk and his arch-nemesis, the Ziggy Stardust-esque wizard Cob. Eventually, a dragon shows up, because, why the fuck not?
The script puts almost no effort into explaining anything that’s going on or making us care about any of the characters. Things happen because the script says they have to. Characters sleepwalk through actions that don’t seem to have any real motivation. The entire muddled mess is devoid of any emotional hook, dramatic tension, or reason to give a crap about anything.
In my book, the idea of a “good” movie or a “bad” movie is unimportant. All that matters to me is, “Was I entertained?” And a film can, in my eyes, commit no greater offense than being boring. That doesn’t mean slow-moving. That doesn’t mean low key. You can be those things and still be interesting, entertaining, tense, what have you. Tales from Earthsea, however, is boring. Boring, spiritless, and just plain crummy. It’s a movie I wanted to like. I thought the subject matter would be interesting through the eyes of Studio Ghibli. Plus, I always like to champion and enjoy movies other people hated. I thought the potential for a great, sweeping epic was there, or for that matter, for a smaller, more personal story set against a larger background. I got none of that. I don’t doubt that Goro tried hard. I don’t doubt that he was under a lot of pressure. But hey — it’s a big game, and if he couldn’t play it, he shouldn’t have been allowed onto the field just because his dad’s a legend.
This movie was treading into precarious territory before I even saw it. Hidden Fortress is one of my favorite movies and not one I felt was in any need of being updated or remade. Still, I’m nothing if not fair-minded and bored late at night, so I decided to give this remake from 2008 a chance. While I told myself that I was going to judge it fairly, by the measure of it’s own merits rather than through the rosy lenses of my bias, I have to admit that i probably went in with a small chip on my shoulder regardless. Journalistic objectiveness is, after all, a myth. But I’m also not someone who is instantly offended by modern film makers remaking a classic, or what I consider to be a classic. To say The Last Princess is not as good as the original is, I think, fairly obvious. But the original notwithstanding, The Last Princess managed to be entertaining, if unspectacular. The very definition, I think, of adequate film making.
The new movie is a mixture of faithfulness to the original and material revised or creating anew for younger, more modern audiences who probably have no idea who Akira Kurosawa was. The basic premise remains intact. A hairy samurai (Hiroshi Abe, with unenviable task of stepping into Toshiro Mifune’s woven sandals) and a princess (played by tempestuous pop star Nagasawa Masami) are in hiding after a disastrous defeat at the hands of an enemy army. They also happen to be in possession of most of the gold from the royal treasury, hidden inside innocuous looking bundles of sticks, which they need to transport across the warzone and into the territory of an allied clan.
That much remains the same. But here, things begin to diverge from Hidden Fortress. In the original, they are accompanied by two bumbling, dishonest, occasionally backstabbing rednecks who offer to guide them to safety but mostly just want a share of the gold (or all of it, if they can steal it). In the remake, only one of the duo is a bumbling, dishonest, occasionally backstabbing redneck. The other is a hustler of questionable morals, but he’s also young and handsome, possessed of a certain tendency toward honorable behavior, and is played by boy band pop star Matsumoto Jun. In a nod perhaps toward focus group style filmmaking, The Last Princess devises a romantic subplot for the prickly peasant and the noble princess. I can’t claim much familiarity with either of the young stars, but my impressions based on this movie are that Matsumoto Jun might be a boy band member, but he’s also pretty decent an actor. You know, like Justin Timberlake, but with more unkempt facial hair. Nagasawa Masami, on the other hand, seems to struggle to keep up with both her surprisingly passable young co-star as well as the solidly talented Hiroshi Abe. Abe, for his money, is doing the best Toshiro Mifune impersonation he can, and he pulls it off pretty well.
Rounding out the cast of heroes is Japanese comedian Miyagawa Daisuke. With the one scheming peasant transformed into a dashing hero-in-waiting in need of a shave, the full weight of odious comic relief falls upon Daisuke’s shoulders. I’m not a particularly big fan of comic relief characters, partly because they’re almost never funny. Even in the original Hidden Fortress, the bumbling hick shtick was prone to wearing out its welcome and becoming abrasive. Daisuke still tends toward the irritating, but he’s a fairly adept performer and manages a few funny moments, so that already makes him better than most comic relief characters. Still, at least for me, the moments of the film where his character disappears were welcome.
Hidden Fortress was the closest thing Kurosawa ever made to a straight-forward, swashbuckling adventure film, and The Last Princess is similarly filled with sword fights and feats of daring. Yeah, a good portion of the adventure is marred by the over-use of CGI (the director was previously an effects supervisor), but at least it throws itself into the action scenes with energy and gusto. The finale is pretty fun up until the moment it feels the need to deliver a gigantic computer-generated explosion (which, apparently, manages to kill almost no one despite demolishing an entire mountain). Ending with a giant explosion was maybe effective back when movie makers used actual explosions, but climactic CGI explosions are considerably less thrilling. Still, the movie has enough other thrills to make up for it.
All in all, even given my initial hesitation to embrace a remake of one of my favorite movies, I thought The Last Princess came down solidly on the side of entertaining. It’s well paced, decently acted, and mostly fun. It even manages to have a human moment or two, which is rare in rollicking special effects blockbusters. In fact, despite the spectacle and sword fights, the film’s best moment is one in which defiant farmers refuse to stop their joyous celebration, even though the killjoy evil samurai demand all fun cease. I could have done without as much CGI, but that’s something all us old timers say about every movie. It doesn’t aspire to be anything more that adequate adventure cinema, and that’s what it is. Which was OK with me, because that’ really all I was asking of it.
If you ever wondered what Jet Li would look like as a giant armored pine cone, this is the movie for you. Hong Kong, which I guess is now Hong Kong/China, has been on a “Warring States Period” kick for a couple years now, thanks in large part no doubt to the success Zhang Yimou has had internationally with the genre (and yes, I know his films were set long before the Warring States). I’m not one to complain. Hong Kong has always made a lot of period piece films; it’s just that now that have somewhat more historically accurate costuming and sets than they did in Half a Loaf of Kungfu. This sudden re-emergence of the period piece probably also has to do with mainland China’s willingness to throw money into the projects, not to mention actors and all the landscapes one of the biggest countries in the world can provide. Given the access, how can a filmmaker resist making a movie in which a guy in armor stands atop some impressively craggy peak and surveys a field of soldiers below him?