Friday, 5 September 2008

Dystopian Sci Fi Movie Face/Off! (Results)

As ever, my trawl through two similar movies eventually leads to this, an arcane and overcomplicated scoring system designed to show which movie is better on the basis of performances, liveliness (a term I used to describe a theory of film assessment that I have never fully articulated, and so remains semi-mysterious), and six arbitrary criteria that are specific to each different Face/Off. This time around I was considering just saying, look, I got all bummed out when I read The Road as it is miserable and depressing and miserable and really depressing, and the only thing that made me feel better about life was watching a movie that featured several graphic examples of violence to the head, and so plaudits and awards and telepathically-delivered love to all and sundry, but hell no. I have to categorise and quantify everything in life. If I were a Greek God, I would be the God of Filing Cabinets.

Babylon A.D.

Cast: Vin Diesel: -5
Michelle Yeoh: 2
Mélanie Thierry: 2
Mark Strong: 2
Gerard Depardieu: 2
Charlotte Rampling: -7
Total: -4

Much as it pains me to say bad things about Vin Diesel, there's no getting around how unconvincing his performance is. As I said in the previous Babylon A.D. post, it could be a consequence of the post-production interference, but his flat line-readings wore me down by film's end. Those editing rumours make it hard for me to assess any part of the movie, which makes this a frustrating experience. As for the rest of the cast, most of them were competent but unremarkable, making enough effort to keep the film afloat but doing nothing to distinguish it. I'm particularly aggrieved by Michelle Yeoh's lacklustre performance; I never thought I would give her such a low rating. Charlotte Rampling, on the other hand, deserves that mark. She might win a Best Supporting Actress Oscar on Mars, but not on this planet.

Elements specific to these films:
Convincing future vision: 5
Coherence: -7
Badassery: 3
Competence of action scene filming and editing: -1
Funky sci fi concepts: 4
Hair styling: 2

Total: 6

Yes yes, there is a category for hair. I had trouble coming up with six categories that applied to these two movies, and this filled a gap. Obviously, low marks for Diesel, who has none, and a shaky finger of disapproval at Mark Strong's latest distracting wig, but the day is saved by some lovely styling on Mélanie Thierry. Obviously being on the run via submarine, snowmobile, and Hummer is no impediment to a pretty 'do. I've already railed against the poorly constructed action scenes (it's the first movie to make Parkour seem mundane), and won't repeat myself regarding that stupid final act, but I will once more stress that the future is depicted with great rigour.

As for badassery, Diesel does have a cool moment avoiding death by Diesel-seeking missile, and Michelle Yeoh always adds to such a total just by turning up and kicking a couple of faces into mush, but overall, it's low on proper action beats. The same goes for future concepts. Memory-readers? Cybernetic arms (that look like plastic wrist-guards with some wires glued on)? Only the genetically engineered messiah idea works at all, and even then only in a limited way, i.e. if you don't think about it at all. I mean, putting artificial intelligence into babies? I suspect they mean putting extra intelligence into them, like topping up their IQs, but AI is a different thing. It's not like computers are already 30% smart, and AI designers and scientists are trying to make them 100% smart. It's about sentience, if you'll forgive me for reducing the definition so far. I'd wager that babies tend to gain sentience on their own without the help of science, you know. The misunderstanding of what AI boggles the mind. The mind which is naturally sentient without needing the help of a plastic-coated Lambert Wilson, I should say.

Originality: -4
Liveliness: -6
Enthusiasm for project: 5
Avoidance of cliche: -4
Unique Selling Points: -5
Production values: 3
Total: -11

Though I feel it only right to knock a couple of points off for originality as it is an adaptation, Babylon A.D. still rehashes and remixes familiar genre tropes and imagery, pilfering ideas from cyberpunk books and films, to such an extent that very little about this feels fresh. How much of that is down to Dantec's novel and how much is the fault of Kassovitz, I won't know until I've read Babylon Babies. Even before that, there are dozens of brazen lifts from Minority Report and Children Of Men. Cliches riddle the movie, with Diesel's dialogue in particular sounding like a compilation of hardboiled cheeseball bluster. To make things worse, the pacing is off, scenes begin and end with little explanation, and nothing seems to matter. It's a hot mess. It's a genre film made by Fox. What did you expect?

Babylon A.D. overall total = -9

I keep coming back to the question of what a director's cut would be like. As it is, there's a lot of fail here, and I can't call it a good film on faith. For all the occasional glimmers of promise, the soul of the movie appears to be missing. The addition of a couple of extra scenes, or even just some extended versions of what is already onscreen, would go a long way toward enhancing the film, but we might never get to see that. There's a silver lining, though. That dreadful incoherence in the last twenty minutes means that Hancock no longer has the most exasperating final act of the year. I guess that counts for something.


Cast: Rhona Mitra: -2
Adrian Lester: 5
Craig Conway: 5
David O'Hara: 6
Bob Hoskins: 6
Malcolm McDowell: 2
Total: 22

I feel like a big meanie picking on Rhona Mitra, as her uninspiring performance could well have been the fault of Neil Marshall, who cut a lot of humour from the shooting script in order to make Eden Sinclair tougher without realising that that just makes her dour and uninteresting. Nevertheless, she is completely overshadowed by the rest of the cast. Reasonably good marks for everyone, with special kudos to Hoskins and O'Hara, both of whom commit to the film with enough conviction to give the entire film a lift. Though I've not yet mentioned them, I also enjoyed the supporting performances from MyAnna Buring and Darren Morfitt, whose onscreen relationship was endearing, and judged well by Marshall, who sidelined it while not removing it entirely and thus maintained the aggressive tone of the film at the same time that he made the goal of the protagonists (finding a cure) more resonant.

Elements specific to these films:
Convincing future vision: 5
Coherence: 6
Badassery: 6
Competence of action scene filming and editing: 5
Funky sci fi concepts: 2
Hair styling: 6

Total = 30

Doomsday gets points for depicting a decrepit Britain, though it would have been marked higher if it had spent more time showing what English society was like as a result of its pariah status. The one thing Babylon A.D. did well was give the audience a long look at the potential future of Eastern Europe, but then the meandering pace of that film allows for interesting digressions, whereas Doomsday's action plot needs to keep moving forward. Speaking of action, the score for it would have been higher if Marshall (co-editor with Andrew MacRitchie) had resisted the temptation to cut every second during the most hectic moments. While they still work well, none of the later action scenes are anywhere near as well-constructed as the hospital siege and rescue, which is taut and exciting.

Lots of score-defying short hair for many of the cast, but some entertaining mohawks on the punks raise the bar just high enough for the unevenly cut chaos on Mitra's head to knock that bar to the ground. Though I'm glad to see an action heroine look unkempt for a change, a mess is a mess. It seems longer on one side than the other. Intentional? Who knows? This is the future, after all. Low marks for futuristic frippery, sadly. There's little in the way of sci fi cleverness, other than Mitra's removable remote control camera eye (though it doesn't really do much new), but the amount of badassery makes up for that. Much graphic and gratuitous gore fills the screen almost from the first frame. I can imagine Fangoria readers will adore it.

Originality: -8
Liveliness: 6
Enthusiasm for project: 8
Avoidance of cliche: -3
Unique Selling Points: 6
Production values: 6
Total = 15

There is no way I can give Doomsday a high score for originality, even if it tries very hard to do new things with the stolen bits of narrative and iconography. Marshall is unrepentant about what he is doing, even going so far as to list his influences and homages. It seems churlish to criticise the film for doing what it set out to do, but the impassive soul of the Score System does not care. It must be obeyed. There is also a reliance on cliche, again something that can't be avoided when making that hews so close to the traditional conventions of a genre, but a bit more effort could have maybe subverted some of those familiar moments. However, it looks great, it is well-paced (after a shocking opening it slows down until chaos breaks out about thirty minutes in, that delay in kicking off reminiscent of Aliens), and you can tell Marshall was having the time of his life paying tribute to his heroes. If you're willing to be forgiving, it's easy to fall under the spell of that enthusiasm, as I did.

Doomsday overall total = 67

Doomsday was just the tonic for my frail psyche, replacing images of the horror of post-apocalyptic desolation with images of the fun of post-apocalyptic desolation. Where Babylon A.D. almost totally failed to grab the attention of the audience, Doomsday screams in your face, pulls your hair, spits in your drink, and then runs away. Naked. Many thanks to everyone involved for dispelling my funk with crazy violence. Hopefully memories of its anarchic exuberance will keep me going through John Hillcoat's adaptation of The Road, which will probably trigger seismic emotional turmoil in me. I don't expect to be seeing anything as peculiar as Malcolm McDowell playing a scientist turned feudal lord in that bleak endurance test. Just ash. Lots and lots of ash. And death. Ash-coated death. ::shudders::

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