Thursday, December 18, 2008

Ham (Handed) On Wry

Knox, with her vague recollections of The Patriot, nails the movie better than I did in my harangue: It's ham-handed.

In the '90s, after the relative successes of Universal Soldier and Stargate writer/director/producer combo Dean Devlin and Roland Emmerich were hot properties. (Unlike a lot of people who apparently went to see Stargate with really low expecations, I saw it years later with high expectations and was quite disappointed.)

The two caught my eye because of their interest in the disaster genre. The '70s disaster genre. Actually, to get really specific, they were interested in the Irwin Allen disaster genre. (A genre that my cousin, who actually co-owns all or most of the Irwin Allen properties and is remaking them doesn't seem to be that interested in.)

This is not a genre that produced great movies, even if you'll sometimes see Earthquake and Towering Inferno given four-stars in the movie listings. (Earthquake isn't Irwin Allen but I'd guess most people from the '70s would be surprised by that, since it was a direct mirror of the Allen formula.) They weren't good, but they were successful.

The original Poseidon Adventure grossed 85,000,000 (1972) dollars on a 5,000,000 budget. According to Box Office Mojo, it was the 36th highest box office film (adjusting for inflation) in 1982. Currently it stands as the 74th highest domestic grossing film (adjusting for inflation).

Or, just to put it another way, my cousin's $160M remake would have needed to make 2.72 billion dollars in box office to get the same return that $5M did 35 years earlier. And the remake is an utter disaster. (Now, my cousin is a bright and talented guy who got where he was by working at it from the time he was eleven, so I fully expect him to hit one out of the park pretty soon.)

But when the remake was coming out the Fox Movie Channel did a marathon of the original. And as bad as it is, it's not quite as bad as it was, if that makes sense. The original is a melodrama--or series of melodramas--that happens against the backdrop of a disaster (the ship sinking). This was the Irwin Allen formula, put a bunch of people with issues together in a burning building, and also throw people from different social strata together, and get them to where they resolve the issues with each other through the disaster.

As a formula, it's positively ludicrous. But it's also kinda fun. That's what surprised me about watching the original: How much fun it was. (I mentioned to Knox in the Patriot thread linked at the top here that it's not always the great movies that are re-watchable.) Ernest Borgnine as the cop married to hooker Stella Stevens (with Stevens being almost completely gone from the original TV cuts of the movie, and slowly re-emerging to find a new fan base over the years). Shelly Winters as the fat former swim champ.

And of course, Gene Hackman as the priest who's mad at God. Talk about ham-handed! The parallels between Hackman and Jesus are not subtle. Toward the end of the movie, he's actually yelling at God!

It's easy to see why the remake of Poseidon fails: It lacks any of the fun. It's super-"realistic". The characters are more carefully, and less broadly, drawn and consequently completely forgettable. The effects are spectacular enough but I'm pretty numb to CGI effects these days. (For me, CGI effects peaked in '94 with the original Jurassic Park.)

What's more interesting, though, is to look at the Emmerich/Devlin films that were in the same mold and ask why don't they work? They did four movies in the Irwin Allen style: Independence Day, Godzilla, The Patriot and The Day After Tomorrow. (You can, at least, give them credit for applying that style to the sci-fi invasion, rubber monster suit and historical drama genres!)

ID4 and Patriot get a lot of oomph out of the actors: Will Smith has made himself a career out of carrying fairly mediocre movies into realm of the watchable. The weaker movies (Godzilla and Day) have less star power. (Recall that in the '70s, disaster movies had Steve McQueen, William Holden, Paul Newman, Fred Astaire, Henry Fonda, Ava Gardener, etc.) But even so, do you remember who Will Smith was in ID4? I don't. I think he had to have been military--but he's so unmilitary it's hard to imagine that's true.

Jeff Goldblum was a nerdy scientist, I think, but isn't he almost always a nerdy scientist? In Day one of the Bills (Pullman? Paxton? No, wait, it was Dennis Quaid!) plays the scientist with foreknowledge and Jake Gyllenhall is his rebellious (I think) son.

In other words, maybe the weaknesses have to do with characterization. I can remember Charlton Heston scowling about building codes--and Paul Newman scowling about building codes--in Earthquake and Towering Inferno respectively. But I can't place Quaid's face at the meeting where he tells the President about the perils of global warming. I mean, I can, but I can just as easily put one of the Bills there. (Wait, maybe I'm thinking about The Core. Din't that have a Bill in it? No, that was Aaron Eckhart. Huh.)

I think it goes back to a common theme here on the 'strom: Inability to perform without irony. I mean, can you imagine it today: A cop married to a hooker and the two of them in constant battles, raking each other over the coals over it? It's positively "Honeymooners"!

Of course, the priest who hates God but is a heroic figure--very '70s. Now the priest would have to be a pedophile and personally involved in sinking the boat. The young girl coming of age and finding herself attracted to the priest (and the priest being the balding Gene Hackman, heh)? Hackman is actually mad because God allows evil to exist in the world. Is there a more trite, hackneyed character? But, man, Hackman sells it like he's never even heard of Job.

I might be wrong, but I think those movies worked to the extent that they did because the makers were willing to sell them hard. And, of course, audiences didn't need things to be hyper-"realistic". (They don't now but they think they do.) But over time, perspectives on what is realistic change, and the "realistic" movies get less watchable while those that knowingly (and successfully) affect a particular theatrical style--like every movie Hitchcock ever made--become more watchable.

I don't have a neat answer for this one. It could, after all, be sheer differences in movie-making skill. After all, it is the very ham-handed parts of The Patriot that detract from it, while the ham-handed parts of the early disaster movies are what make them watchable today.

Go figure.


  1. I felt a disturbance in the Force...something about someone dissing Independence Day.

    Say it isn't so!!! Loved that movie. I think Will Smith is a silly man, but I do love his acting - he just makes me smile, I guess, and ID was terrific entertainment. America kicked ass for the whole world. ;-)

  2. And Jeff Goldblum was the hot nerd in that movie, don't forget that. Brains are sexy.
    Brains saved the world. Love it.

  3. Well, there's an interesting common point between ID4 and The Patriot, isn't there?

    Aliens in the former, Brits in the latter, but both are PURE EVIL and America kicks ass in both. That helps, of course. And, really, those two movies are the most watchable, even though ID4 is really, really stupid.

    I like Smith, too. You could say he's slaughtered some sci-fi classics (I, Robot and I Am Legend) but he's really the only thing that makes those movies watchable at all.

    I think he's probably a pretty level-headed guy, too, despite some of the recent press. He has a very endearing bit part in Jersey Girl which I think might reflect him better than some interviews.

  4. And, as for Jeff Goldblum being a hot nerd, well, I'm not really qualified to judge.

    Sandra Bullock was supposed to be a hot nerd in The Net but I didn't find her credible. Even if she was cute as a button.

  5. But what is stupid about it? What didn't you like?

    OK...I admit...the computer bug was weak, but if you suspend disbelief on that...pretty good!
    My kid was thoroughly creeped out by the alien when they went to autopsy it.

    Will Smith and Randy Quaid are highly entertaining (LOVE Randy Quaid!), and the twist about the First Lady was unexpected. Great drama, I think.

    And I just have a soft spot for Goldblum. But I did think he was uncharacteristically handsome in this.

  6. Hey, far be it from me to dissuade you from any attraction you might have to the brainy types.

    I'd have to go through it to catalogue the stupid but, yeah, the virus thing was super dumb. And, don't get me wrong: it's unlikely they could have pulled that idea off without turning it into a different movie.

    Randy Quaid's character was very typical of the genre: broadly drawn, even jokey, like the cop/hooker duo in Poseidon Adventure. I'd probably put that in to the "works" category.

    Where it misses, I think, is that they had a plausible excuse for being able to find the aliens' technical weaknesses and they didn't really exploit it. I dunno, to get more specific, I'd have to watch it again.

    That it's dumb doesn't mean I didn't like it, mind you. It's not a bad summer flick. When I compare to other great sci-fi summer flicks (War of the Worlds, When Worlds Collide, Time Machine), it just seems sort of shallow.

  7. Great points. Ok, campy fun, with some pretty good special effects.

    I watch this movie, or at least parts of it, every time I find it on TV. It's a feel-good, fun movie for me, so I felt protective of it. :)

  8. As I've brought up a couple of times recently, what makes a movie watchable is not always what we would call "quality". Heh. Remember that this all started with a discussion of how I like The Patriot.

    I'm not one to fault people over what they like, or try to lord it over them. That's one of the dumber conceits one comes across.

  9. Good thoughts, blake. I have been too chicken to see The Patriot, to be honest. I have almost no tolerance for movies where a big part of the movie revolves around the loss of a son or daughter (actually, especially a son).

    It's just the mom in me that can't bear it. But your review made me think about giving it a shot. I may even be wrong about the idea that Gibson's character's son gets killed, but I'm pretty sure he does.

  10. Uh...


    Yeah, you're gonna wanna skip it.

    It's worse than that.

    If it weren't so ham-handed, it would be very hard to watch. See what I mean? Sometimes "good" and "watchable" are opposed.

    How many times do people watch Saving Private Ryan? Especially the opening 15 minutes? Or The Passion of the Christ?

  11. I don't know if that's clear.

    But compare and contrast to, say, Last House on the Left. It's a horrible, horrible film to watch (and not a great film anyway) but the level of violence is both horrific and fairly realistic.

  12. I'm not sure what you mean by the comparison with Last House on the Left. Would you flesh that out for me? ;-)

    But seriously, I get it. Very, very good observation. You should get paid for some of your reviews, really.

  13. Well, LHotL is horrible and very realistic, so that it can be hard to watch. In it, two girls are raped and abused, and the abusers find themselves in the house where the girls' parents live. And the whole thing is almost documentary in its plainness.

    The Patriot is not as horrible in what it shows--it's bad enough in the abstract, mind you, but it's also not as realistic. A lot of the violence is very theatrical. That makes it easier to watch because, well, you know, for example that Rene Auburjonois (who dies in the movie, not a major spoiler) is going to go on to be in some other movie.

    That's part of what I'm getting at, if rather indirectly: The old disaster movies were melodramas in highly stagey circumstances, so you didn't have to take them too seriously.

    ID4 has that, e.g., with Randy Quaid. You know he's going to go on to be someone's crazy uncle in another movie, it just isn't as hard to watch.

    But The Patriot still describes a lot of atrocities, so if that's not your bag, youi'll want to skip it.

  14. I was teasing you. ;-) I have a quirky sense of humor, sorry.

    I saw LHotL. Really haunting, I thought. Brutal. Beyond the very famous scene, the one scene that I can't forget is when the one young woman is in the water, sort of floating, and they shoot her from the shore.

    I wouldn't call it a good movie, but it was interesting in that it still stands out in that genre, I think.

  15. Ah. One of my (many) flaws is to err on the side of pedantic rather than assume someone is joking.

    LHotL was originally given an X or the MPAA refused to rate it, so Wes Craven stole an "R" off another movie and pasted it on to LHotL.


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