Monday, 9 March 2009

Sci Fi Through Space/Time: Push

It's a testament to the success and widespread acceptance of the superhero genre in recent years that David Bourla and Paul McGuigan's Push has been derided as a second-rate superhero movie and not a second-rate rip-off of Scanners and The Fury. To be honest the idea of a group of psychic-powered individuals hiding in plain sight from dubious governmental agencies certainly is a staple of superhero stories, but this feels more like the kind of thing Stephen King touched on in Firestarter, Carrie, or The Dead Zone. The major difference is that now we are able to leapfrog past the long set-ups of those late 70s / early 80s stories - as we already accept the conventions of this sub-sub-genre through over-exposure - and can instead tell stories with large and complicated mythologies. A billion comics, usually in lower-tier comic universes separate from the big two of Marvel and DC, have taken this approach, and now we see it in a brand new potential franchise.

The question is, have Bourla and McGuigan brought something new to the table to justify investment in that potential franchise, or will this fade into the background like some Hong-Kong-based Misfits of Science? The backstory, blasted through in hyper-exposition-mode during an inventively created title montage, sets out a humdrum universe of scientific experimentation into creating psychic soldiers, based on Nazi research during the war. The powered types can be divided into different groups based on their powers. From what I can remember, Pushers are able to manipulate people's minds (though not read them), Watchers can see the future, Sniffs have a kind of psychometric power that regrettably manifests only when they sniff objects (there's no way to make the act of intensely smelling something look anything less than stupid), Stitches can manipulate living tissue, Shadows are able to hide powered individuals just by hanging around them, and Bleeders have a scream that can demolish things (and makes their eyes go lizardy for no apparent reason). Thankfully most of this info is revealed as we go along, interspersed throughout the mostly dreary back-and-forth of much of the movie's running time. Here is a list of them if you're desperate to know more.

All of this is surface dressing on a predictable story about psychics on the run from the evil government psychic division, known as Division (not to be confused with the inept bureaucratic jerks in 24, also known as Division). This sort of thing has been done before, and I have to admit, I've been in two minds about seeing Push for exactly that reason, and not because it looks like Jumper, as pointed out by Masticator. That, too, had the plot of powered individuals chased by shady operatives of a mysterious organisation, which just goes to show that it is a very appealing kind of story on a deep level. Who hasn't fantasised that they are somehow special, and yet misunderstood and persecuted by a force greater than themselves? (Please don't tell me that's just me and a lot of Matrix fans!)

Luckily, Push has more up its sleeve than just having a bunch of photogenic people with Amazing Powers of the Brain trying to elude The Man. Those photogenic people with Amazing Powers of the Brain are also trying to elude a power-crazed Chinese gang who also have Amazing Powers of the Brain. The film tends to get rather busy with the powered people a la Heroes, though sadly we don't get those powers used willy-nilly as in Jumper.

Our hero, Nick, played by Chris Evans, is a loser whose psychic powers (he's a telekinetic, or Mover) have done nothing to stop him being a jerkoff dropout living in Hong Kong and getting into trouble with gambling debts, as people do in the movies (though they don't usually look as hott as Chris Evans). His loser status is attributed to the trauma of seeing his psychic father murdered by a dastardly member of Division played by Djimon Hounsou, wearing an evil goatee. Haunted by relentless Flashback Syndrome in times of great stress, Nick is a burnout, and to make things worse, his Amazing Powers of the Brain are actually very Mediocre.

Into his life comes Cassie, played by a pubescent Dakota Fanning wearing punkish gear and a skirt so short Canyon exclaimed in horror upon seeing the trailer. It fits the character, weirdly. She's older than her years, bossing people about and getting hammered on cheap booze to "improve her powers", though really she's just being a brat. Her past is also filled with that screenwriting staple of emotional pain caused by the fate of her parent, this time her super-Watcher mother, a woman of immense power who has been captured by Division.

Eager to save her, Fanning enlists the help of Evans in the search for Kira, a Pusher played by Camilla Belle (winner of 2008's prestigious Caruso Award for Most Improbably Styled Hair as well as a Worst Actress Dishonourable Mention, thanks to her mystifyingly poor performance in 10000 B.C.). Belle is on the run from Division after absconding with a MacGuffin; a syringe filled with a drug that causes Amazing Powers of the Brain, as well as Not So Amazing Side Effects of the Death, except in certain arbitrarily determined circumstances.

In order to prevail against the machinations of Division, Evans and Fanning enlist the help of various other psychics dotted about Hong Kong. Cliff Curtis, Ming Na, and Nate Mooney (as a nine-fingered sleaze called Pinky Stein) get dragged into the proceedings with varying degrees of enthusiasm. This sadly does not mean we get to see a lot of exciting action, but then the movie has other ideas on its mind. We also don't see the psychics here use their powers to help people, which I've banged on about before. Okay, so I'd argue this doesn't really count as a superhero movie, so these guys have no real narrative obligation to do it, but any conversations within the film about stopping Division from creating an army of super-soldiers seem even more feeble than usual when the two main characters are more interested in gaining some kind of leverage over Division in order to settle their old scores / parental issues.

Okay, sorry, bugbear rant over. As I was saying, in addition to the cliched shady operative antagonists, our heroes also have to contend with a ruthless clan of cliched Chinese gangsters who are desperately seeking the MacGuffin. The number of confrontations between good and bad guys is minimal, which is probably down to the low budget (about $38m; it looks fantastic for the money), and is thus understandable. Instead, for the most part Push features our photogenic heroes meeting a variety of powered people to find other powered people who will help them find their MacGuffin in order to something something. One of the posters for this movie shows someone using telekinesis to blast a car into the air. Trust me, no cars get blown into the air. There are lots and lots of sarcastic conversations, but that's a little harder to dramatise in a poster. Also, who wants to watch a film like that? Other than me, obviously.

There are a couple of action sequences, but sadly they're cut with such a shockingly poor understanding of how editing should work that I silently raged in my seat. McGuigan does such a piss-poor job of cutting these sequences that he makes Quantum of Solace look like it was directed by Tarkovsky. Any joy I might have had at the sight of faceless goons getting thrown through the air with telekinesis was totally scuppered. This scene, from the big finale, is cut and shot so unclearly that you can't tell who is getting hurt, and how. Are the light FX denoting energy in the punches, or deflections? I've watched it a number of times and I just don't know what the hell is going on. I do know it looks as goofy as hell, though.

What does set Push apart is that it evolves into a peculiar hybrid of the usual psychic runaway blah blah as described above, and stern Ocean's Eleven-style con job japery. Again, this is very hard to communicate through trailers and posters, and so I was taken aback as the final half of the movie becomes a chaotic and barely logical series of tricks, counter-tricks, and final act twists, except here the con is complicated by the various superpowers of all the major players. And believe me, when I say complicated, I really really mean complicated.

Complicated is fine if the con has been worked out properly, but regrettably the con makes very little sense. Our heroes -- who, in a nice touch, are not all that great a bunch of psychics compared to the professionals -- need to get hold of the MacGuffin, but not only do they need to figure out where it is, they also have to do so without alerting the various Watchers who are monitoring the future for signs of alteration. The precognition powers are the ones given the most attention and exposition, which was gratifying. Most tales featuring precognition tend to fudge the details of how such powers would affect the actions of everyone involved, or get tangled up in messy continuity. For the most part, Push gets it right, setting out some solid ground rules early on, and sticking to them for much of the film.

Especially interesting is Fanning's explanation of how the future is so malleable even talking about her predictions can often change the future again. So often people hear about their destiny and either do nothing about it, or make it come true through their attempts to avoid it (a million bad stories have ended that way). Push at least accepts that the future is not set in stone, which creates new storytelling opportunities, as every move they make changes something in the future, until at some point they seem doomed thanks to the intervention of a super-Watcher, a Chinese gang-member who apparently has no name, if IMDb and Wikipedia are anything to go by.

This Watcher, focused only on our band of sarcastic heroes, is predicting every move they make, so they have no hope of changing their destiny. Bourla has decided that the future actions of a person can be deduced as soon as they make a decision to do something. It's as if their precognition is linked to some kind of telepathy. It's this conceit that allows Evans to come up with his too-complicated con plot, which involves giving sealed instructions to his group of psychics and then getting his memory wiped so as to confound The Pop Girl (seriously, that's what she seems to be known as). As no one knows what they are going to do right up until the moment they are going to do it, The Pop Girl can't predict what is going to happen.

That's a pretty cool idea, and seems to make some kind of sense within the parameters set out earlier (as well as making the most of the heroes' ingenuity in the face of superior brainpower), but the execution is confusing. Evans' mind gets wiped after three of the envelopes are opened, which seems to contradict those rules. Even weirder, The Pop Girl is already sketching her vision of the future when this happens, and then makes a big fuss about losing that image.

What, she can't remember what she was drawing two seconds earlier? I guess that's the downfall of this new sub-sub-sub-genre; cons work fine onscreen when it's all crafty hand-offs, rigged props, and Matt Damon in a fake nose. As soon as you bring metaphysics into the equation, that flow of set-up / con / "prestige" falls apart.

There's also a lack of rigour to it, especially as the twists and deus ex machina of the final act start happening. One is kinda clever: Fanning is saved from the death she has been predicting since the start of the movie by the intervention of the creepy brainsuck guy who has been hovering around in the background for a while. He has been hired by Fanning's mother, who has seen so far into the future that she can maneouvre people into place years in advance. It's a cute twist, though having an offscreen character influence the plot in such an extreme way inevitably feels like a cheat, no matter how well it has been set up.

There is also a lot of back and forth between Evans, Belle, and Hounsou about whether Belle was his former girlfriend or a sleeper agent from Division that goes through several complicated twists, all of which contradict each other. The only way the final scene could possibly work is if you fanwank like crazy, assuming that Fanning's previous vague predictions were suddenly incredibly precise, or Evans' written instructions to Belle were very complex and called for her to Push Hounsou the moment she meets him, though even that would require yet more contrivance and fanwanking.

That final scene seemed very clever when I first saw it, but by the time I had returned home it had started to fall apart with even a tiny bit of scrutiny. Much of the rest of the film seemed hollow too, suggesting the script wasn't thought through enough during writing, and the filmmakers figured no one would notice, or there were reshoots and rewrites that rendered some of those twists incomprehensible. It's a shame, because the idea of creating a movie like this is very appealing. Yes, I like to see psychic action scenes, but this felt like there was a fresh idea trying to break out from all of the intense concentrating, elaborate gesturing, and eye-morphing effects.

It wasn't all bad, though. Chris Evans has long been a favourite in our house, thanks to his pitch-perfect work on the otherwise risible Fantastic Four movies, as well as his charming performance in Cellular and his intense grouchiness in Sunshine. Watching him turn up in forgettable dreck like The Nanny Diaries (as, I swear to God, Harvard Hottie) has been dispiriting, and then appearing in an underpromoted action film like Push makes things worse. When is he going to hit big? Does anyone else even care? His Wikipedia page hasn't even been updated with the news that he's going to be playing one of the evil ex-boyfriends in Edgar Wright's adaptation of Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World. Am I going to have to join to update the damn thing myself? I could be Keeper of the Flame, I guess.

He's predictably terrific in Push, playing a stock character (the lovable and acerbic loser) with much charm and conviction. Even better, he's paired up with Fanning, who does a great job as the old-beyond-her-years Cassie. Plagued with visions of her own death, she's a nihilist and alcoholic 13-year old who sasses everyone. I gather I'm supposed to dislike her because she's precocious, and yes, I usually have a problem with child actors, but I thought she was one of the best things about War of the Worlds, and the same thing applies here. Her chemistry with Evans is one of the things I enjoyed the most about Push, their snarky paranoia tempered by growing affection and concern.

Much of the supporting cast are entertaining too. Cliff Curtis can be variable, depending on the movie he is in. I was deeply disappointed by his work in Fracture and Die Hard 4, but he was great in Three Kings and Sunshine. Here he's light and charming, which is a nice departure from his more serious roles. Nate Mooney, as Pinky, is also very likable, and won over the group of teenage girls sitting at the back of the cinema when I saw it. Everything he said was greeted with a delighted cackle. Ming Na gets little to do other than be cynical about everything, which was a bit of a waste. Hounsou glowers a lot. There's not much else for him to do, I guess.

In an improvement on her performance in 10000 B.C., Belle adds a third expression to her repertoire. As with the caveman movie she has happy and scared down-pat, but now she has intense focus mastered too. At this rate, she'll be a watchable actress in about 30 movies. She was recently featured in a Glamour magazine photoshoot of up-and-coming talent pretending to be icons of fashion and female empowerment, for which she should thank her publicist with diamonds and unicorns and suchlike. Nothing she has done on film to date has warranted any attention. Maybe there are hidden depths there, but they are really really well hidden so far.

(N.B. I appreciate that picking on Belle for being out of place in that photoshoot is a bit rich, as the equally micro-talented Hayden Panettierre, Alexis Bledel, and Odette Yustman are also in there too. Basically, except for the inclusion of America Ferrera, the whole thing is an embarrassment.)

McGuigan may fluff the action scenes, but there is other stuff to enjoy there. The Hong Kong location shooting is interesting, only occasionally succumbing to the temptation to postcarditise the city. I also liked his use of pastel colours. It's possible he did that annoying thing of using colours like this because that's what comics do (seriously, only Warren Beatty made that work in Dick Tracy, and only because he went all-out), but nevertheless, it made my eyes very happy. The annoying flashy over-editing irked, though, and not just in the action scenes. At times it feels like Slumdog Millionaire, if Slumdog was about psychics and not implausible fairytale gamepieces.

One decision he has made doesn't work as well as he would have hoped. Turning his back on digital effects (except for where they are necessary), McGuigan fills the screen with physical effects, with the powers having a visceral effect. When people are being thrown around using wirework, that decision pays off, but a floaty gunfight between Evans and Hounsou's Mover right-hand man (played with silent scowly menace by Neil Jackson) rapidly become ridiculous. Seeing two guns hover through the air, obviously stuck to the end of green sticks removed in post, is unintentionally hilarious. Seeing one gun pressed against Hounsou's temple totally broke the spell. I didn't bother to check the credits to see if there was a gun-pole wrangler, as his/her work was terribly unconvincing.

So is it worth watching? As a rental, maybe so, even though that labyrinthine plot is contrived and filled with illogicalities, and the finale hints at future installments that will almost certainly not happen (even with a small budget, it's not going to make a profit, unless there was an amazing deal made for post-theatrical rights). Considering the interesting additions made to the stock plot, it still feels humdrum, and would only really appeal to fans of Chris Evans, psychic-story completists, and people who enjoy seeing things fly through the air because some guy is gesturing like someone infected with Ultra-Vogue Fever. So that's probably just me and three excitable girls who liked Pinky. I will say that even though Franklyn was an underdog film with lots of ambition, I got more out of this psych-heist flick, though again that's mainly because I get a thrill from this kind of thing. Nevertheless, I'm not going to lie to myself and everyone else and act like it's a good movie. It's not even as good as Jumper. I can imagine that anyone reading this it not about to rush out and rent it now. Oh, Chris Evans! Forgive me!

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