Tsui Hark’s one modest ambition in life was to forever change the way movies were made in Hong Kong. Just that. A small order, right? The amazing thing is that he managed to pull it off. His work in the early 1980s served as one of the foundations of what would become known as the Hong Kong New Wave — that heady period of filmmaking from the 1980s through to the middle of the 1990s when new filmmakers and new styles of filmmaking were running rampant and turning Hong Kong into the most interesting movie making mecca in the world. It’s no accident that Hark found himself in the middle of this cinematic upheaval, just as it’s no accident that what happened in Hong Kong then so closely mirrored what had happened with American filmmaking in the 1970s. The old guard was puttering along, making movies that were out of touch with what young filmgoers wanted. The hungry new generation was waiting to bust out from under the thumb of their mentors and flood the market with bold new approaches and ideas. And finally it got to the point that the next generation could not be contained. They took control, and nothing was the same again.
Kaiju films were old hat in Japan by the 1970s, but elsewhere in Asia the giant monster film industry was only just getting going. Inspired by Japanese movies like Godzilla and, even more so, television shows like Ultraman and Kamen Rider, aspiring (or canny) filmmakers (or hucksters) in Thailand, Hong Kong, and Korea decided they too would pit their cities against giant monsters and invading aliens against super-sized superheroes. South Korea was among the first kaiju copycats out of the gate with 1967’s Yongary. Because it’s Asian and features an irritating little kid in tiny shorts and a dinosaur-like giant monster, most people chalk it up as a Godzilla clone. It has far more to do, though, with that do-gooder crusading giant turtle Gamera and, in my opinion, even more to do with Western rip-offs of Godzilla and Gamera, like 1961’s Gorgo. Eh, whatever the case, a dude in a rubber suit was kicking over buildings and swatting model jets out of the matte painted sky much to the delight of all.
Sompote Sands is one of those figures in cult cinema who casts a long shadow. Granted it’s a shadow that twists around and warps into a demon like Calibos’ shadow in Clash of the Titans, but it’s a shadow never the less. Regarding the origin story of this supremely interesting and bizarre film maker, that was spoken to when we reviewed his Ultraman-meets-Hanuman epic Hanuman and the 7 Ultramen, so rather than paraphrase here, I encourage you to mosey on over and check that one out. The twisted saga of Sands’ relationship with and claim of stewardship over the work of Japanese effects pioneer Eiji Tsuburaya is one of my favorite film stories. For our purposes here, let us fast forward a decade or so, into the 1980s and a point where Sands had moved on from remaking Japanese superhero properties for the Thai market and had decided to indulge more substantially in his fondness for Thai mythology.
Simply calling Da Khwar Lasme Spogmay “a Pakistani film” would likely send any serious minded booster of that nation’s cinema into paroxysms of despair. The Pashto language film industry that produced Da Khwar Lasme Spogmay, which serves an overwhelmingly male audience in the country’s northern border region, is considered to be pretty much the absolute gutter of Pakistan’s film making culture. For Americans, you’d have to imagine meeting a person from a foreign country whose only exposure to American cinema was through seeing Manos: The Hands of Fate, and who tried to characterize the whole of the U.S.’s filmic output based on that.
Thai filmmaker Sompote Sands’ Magic Lizard has rapidly become something of a legend among those of us for whom such things are prone to becoming legends. Not quite on the level of Shaitani Dracula perhaps, but an experience in deep and scarring pain never the less. I’d seen this movie damage even some of the stoutest viewers of global cult cinema. So when it finally came time for me to watch it, considering it had already been reviewed properly by Die Danger Die Die Kill, WtF Film, and Ninja Dixon, as well as discussed on the Infernal Brains podcast, I thought I might try something a little different. And so I enlisted The Cultural Gutter to partake in a coordinated viewing with me, with our reactions being recorded via Twitter as we were in different states and I was too lazy to try and set up some sort of Skype thing. To sweeten the experience, we would be joined by a couple people already bearing the Magic Lizard Red Badge of Courage — Die Danger Die Die Kill and WtF Film — to act as Sompote Sands sherpas.
The fact is that, when I’m writing about a movie, I’m much less interested in telling you how good or bad it is than I am in justifying the time I spent watching it. As such, I’m looking for those points of interest — either contained in the film itself or in the circumstances of its production — that will make the whole endeavor seem worthwhile, and prevent me going to my grave fretting over how I could have better spent that six hours I invested in repeat viewings of Tahalka. Providing a break from the rigors of that approach are those occasions on which I encounter films whose WTF quotient is so high that they exist on a plane beyond simple judgments of good or bad–the mystery of whose very existence overshadows any questions of quality. Hanuman and the 7 Ultramen is such a film. And like another fine example of the species, the Turkish superhero mash-up 3 Dev Adam, Hanuman achieves that rarified WTF air by means of positioning some very familiar elements within a very foreign context. It’s just hard to dismiss a shockingly gory movie that teams the world’s most beloved giant Japanese superhero with the Hindu monkey god for not measuring up to some notional standard of “coherence” or “watchability”. That’s not to suggest, of course, that there aren’t those who consider Hanuman and the 7 Ultramen bad — or who, in fact, revile it. None of them, however, are going to argue that it’s not one weird little foo dog of a movie.
I’ll be the first to admit that I’ve been pretty hard on the whole concept of CGI in movies. Part of this, as I’m sure you can surmise, is the old crank in me who still thinks special effects should be executed with miniatures, and stunts should actually be executed by living stunt people. But more than it simply being a reactionary current running through my brain, my distaste for CGI stems simply from the fact that it is so colossally overused. Movies like that Van Helsing thing or those wretched Star Wars prequels or the new Die Hard movies stick it in anywhere and everywhere, making their films so artificial while striving for some sort of sweeping realism that the end product completely loses the ability to astound or engage on even the most basic of levels. In effect, the movies mimic the experience of watching someone else play a video game. Plus, a lot of the effects just look crummy.
As I’ve gotten older, I’ve softened in some ways to certain uses of CGI. Used properly, it’s quite a potent brush in an artist’s arsenal, especially if it’s employed to detail or augment rather than dominate a scene. Alternately, some film makers have gone the opposite route and rather than making films that fail to be realistic because they employ too much CGI, they disregard any pretensions toward realism by using computer generated sets, characters, and effects to create a completely alien world in which special effects don’t have to worry about mimicking real life. Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow is one of the first films to employ this style of film making, and since the aim is to create a world that is pure fantasy, even if it’s based on something recognizable as some concept of the real world (or in the case of Sky Captain a well-documented future that never came to be because we were too anxious to walk around with our gigantic t-shirts and pants down around our knees), I don’t really have any problem with the CGI.
Vying for the right to claim the title of “first CGI-staged adventure” is the French production Immortel, based on a comic book by Yugoslav-born graphic novelist Enki Bilal. Bilal, who moved to Paris when he was a lad, became a mainstay in the world of French science fiction comic books during the fecund decade of the 1970s, when artists like Moebius and many others were creating something of a renaissance around science fiction and comic books. Bilal’s first substantial work as a comic artist was Legendes d’Aujourd’hui written by Pierre Christin, a trilogy that was published between 1975 and 1977. He worked steadly as an artist and in 1980 began publishing his next notable trilogy, The Nikopol Trilogy, which he both wrote and drew. As I am an illiterate, the original graphic novels are a complete and utter mystery to me (they’re on the list to read, but so are so many other things), and so I’m left to judge this computer-generated science-fiction adventure purely on it’s own merits, and let me just say that despite some truly gorgeous art design (which is becoming a staple of CGI adventures and thus, less of an excuse for glossing over other short-comings), the merits of Immortel are few and far between.
Like Sky Captain, which for the record I loved, Immortel places a cast of live actors in a CGI world, in this case the New York City of the future where city planners and automobile manufacturers seem to have been heavily influenced by the Moebius designs used in Luc Besson’s The Fifth Element. As is often the case with comic book adaptations, we’re given almost no background as to how the world has become the way it is or why anything that is about to happen is going to happen. As viewers can discern from holographic graffiti that shows up from time to time, there’s apparently some sort of revolution against the growing ubiquity of genetic engineering, but this conflict seems woefully underrepresented in the movie if it is meant to be some sort of motivating factor for any of the action. Instead, we seem dropped into the middle of the story and expected to either already be familiar with everything because we read the comic, or we’re expected simply not to care because hey, pretty pictures. If it’s the former, then all I can say is why bother making a movie, especially one as expensive as this one apparently was, if no one is going to care about it except people who are already fans of the graphic novels? If your defense of the film’s atrocious writing is that you have to read the comic first, then the screenplay has failed. You should be able to construct a story that covers the basics.
We learn that for one reason or another a giant floating pyramid has appeared over Central Park, and everyone wonders what it could be. Inside, three very poorly rendered CGI Egyptian gods lounge about until one of them, Horus, departs for the mortal realm for reasons that aren’t entirely clear — though they seem to mostly involve him trying to get laid. I guess that’s as noble a motivation as any. Meanwhile, a blue-haired amnesiac named Jill (Linda Hardy) who we keep getting told isn’t human arrives in the city and is cared for by research scientist Dr. Elma Turner (Charlotte Rampling). Exactly who Jill is — or who Dr. Turner is — seems not to be important enough for the film to care very much about developing. All we know is Jill can’t remember something and a guy who dresses like Darkman shows up from time to time to utter those inane cryptic statements that are supposed to pass for wise and knowledgeable. Eventually, some guy named Nikopol (Thomas Kretschmann) falls out of a passing cryogenic prison barge and is revived by Horus so that Horus can use Nikopol’s body to go searching for a little sexy action.
And meanwhile still, some terrible-looking computer generated cop is investigating a series of serial murders, but I can’t remember exactly what the hell was going on with those. I think they were supposed to be people with whom Horus tried unsuccessfully to merge, resulting in their heads exploding. Horus/Nikopol eventually stumbles across Jill and decides she’s the one, which leads to a series of fairly casual rape scenes that aren’t played with nearly the gravity they should. As is often the case in movies, the woman who is raped ends up falling in love with the rapist, in this case Nikopol, who at least manages to convince her that it’s not entirely his fault since he has the lustful spirit of an Egyptian space god in his head. She falls for him despite the fact that he shows absolutely no personality whatsoever, and never once does anything interesting other than look good with his shirt off. Eventually, a hammerhead shark hitman tries to kill Nikopol, and everything ends with a big flying car chase and journey into some “cross-over point.”
The film is, to be kind, a disaster, albeit a somewhat attractive and interesting one. Sky Captain proved that you needn’t jettison a coherent story to have a beautiful movie, and it also proved that even one-dimensional characters can be fun. The characters in Immortel don’t even have one dimension. There is absolutely no depth to any of them, and we’re never given any reason to care about them or understand their motivations. They simply progress through the mess of a narrative because that’s what they have to do in order to get to the end of the movie. Who the hell is this John guy with the bandaged face? Who is Jill? What’s the deal with Horus? Don’t bother wondering, because the film never gets around to even providing a hint about any of the characters. About the biggest amount of development comes after Horus has raped Jill a couple times and, upon deciding it’s about time for him to hit the ol’ dusty trail, says something to the effect of, “Yeah, that was kind of dickish of me, wasn’t it? Oh well!” And then we’re supposed to maybe even like the man-god after that.
The best thing I can say about any of the characters is that Linda Hardy, who plays Jill, is beautiful. Not the best actress, but this probably isn’t the sort of movie by which to gauge her talent. Even experienced actors have a hard time performing in green screen CGI movies, and Hardy wasn’t a very experienced actor. But man is she gorgeous. I admit though that I have a thing for chalky white women with blue hair and lips. Admittedly, a fetish that does not find much of an outlet in the real world. I already had a thing for that gal on Farscape, a show that actually gave me two blue women. I guess that guy who plays Nikopol is all right too, but man alive is his character ever a drip. He’s the most boring and uninspiring revolutionary leader I’ve seen in many a film. He’s adept at reclining in bed and in bathtubs, which is probably what he should stick to.
One hot chick and one hot but boring guy can’t save a film this sloppy. With a hopelessly muddled and half-baked story (adapted and directed by Bilal himself, who should probably stick to writing comic books if this is an example of his skill as a script writer and film director), one can at least hope for some eye candy, and I mean besides Jill’s breast-revealing mesh top. The art design, as I alluded to earlier, draws heavily from The Fifth Element, which in turn drew heavily from Blade Runner and, given that Fifth Element director Luc Besson is French, probably just as heavily from the original Nikopol comic books. Immortel takes the same basic look and feel as the Luc Besson film but drains it of most of the color in favor of an icy blue palette. The backgrounds, vehicles, and Blade Runner wannabe costumes are all pretty good, but there are also a lot of CGI characters in this film, and they represent a major stumbling block in the overall visual impact. CGI work was apparently farmed out to a bunch of different studios, and the result is an uneven mishmash of skill levels that range from wonderful (sets), to average (the CGI detective, shark headed hitman, and a bartender) to downright embarrassing (a fat mayor and his assistant, plus Horus and the other Egyptian gods, who look like something out of an unpopular Playstation game circa 1996). Unfortunately, the worse the realization of the CGI character, the more time they seem to spend onscreen.
It probably goes without saying, but the conversion of French comic book dialogue into English language movie dialogue makes for some ripe lines, my favorite being Nikopol’s limply delivered hissy fit toward Horus. The closest thing I can think of to describe the dialogue is in some of those late 1990s Hong Kong films where they were fond of performing a lot of lines in English, but without a script written by someone with a native grasp of the language. As a result, everything sound stilted, much sounds laughable, and some things are just downright puzzling. In other words, it sounds just like that weird, awkward dialogue characters mutter to one another in video games, and is delivered with much the same listless lack of enthusiasm.
So what, if anything does this movie have going for it? Well, in its own deeply flawed way, it’s a fascinating failure. There’s certainly a lot at which to gaze, not the least of which would be the character of Jill herself. It’s an ambitious, far-reaching movie where just about nothing works. The dialogue is awful, characters are all but non-existent, and attempts at philosophy and meaning come out sounding even more half-baked than that new age hokum they spewed out in the second Matrix movie before everyone prepared for the life-or-death war by raving all night long. Immortel proves that a much-revered graphic artist doesn’t necessarily make a good filmmaker. I really don’t know what fan reaction to the film was, though I’d have to give them the benefit of the doubt and say they must have seen what a mess it was along with the rest of us. I gather that not much from the original graphic novels made it into the “story” of this film, but since the graphic novelist himself is the creator of the movie, there’s no one to blame but papa. He showcases a keen eye for design and some truly gorgeous shot composition, but it takes more than that to make a movie.
And yet, as you’ve probably guessed, I still lean toward saying you should check it out. I’m always fascinated by ambitious films that fail utterly to achieve the lofty goals they set for themselves. And what better place for poorly realized grandiosity wrapped in pompous claptrap and aspirations of greatness than a big, expensive sci-fi CGI film based on a supposedly important comic book by a French guy? But you know what? They gave it a go, and the train wreck they produced is an interesting train wreck to explore. It’s frustrating that a potentially great movie is buried somewhere amid this mess, but you can at least spend some enjoyable time sifting through the pieces. And heck, if nothing else, you can treat the whole movie as some really boss van art, or just sit and stare at Linda Hardy.
Release Year: 2004 | Country: France | Starring: Linda Hardy, Thomas Kretschmann, Charlotte Rampling, Yann Collette, Frederic Pierrot, Thomas M. Pollard, Joe Sheridan, Corinne Jaber, Olivier Achard, Jerry Di Giacomo | Screenplay: Enki Bilal, Serge Lehman | Director: Enki Bilal | Music: Goran Vejvoda | Cinematography: Pascal Gennesseaux | Producer: Charles Gassot