The Chameleon series: An algebraic overview

This trilogy of movies originally started with UPN in 1998, and had the clear aim of trying to generate enough interest for an ongoing show. As yet, that hasn’t materialised (it was most recently considered after part 3, according to Sci Fi Wire), but the series has been going strong anyway.

The setting is the near-future, when corporations have taken over, and even the FBI is now the Incorporated Bureau of Investigations. The star is Bobbie Phillips, who plays Kam, a creation of the IBI. She was made as a special agent, with mostly human DNA, but also traces of cougar, falcon and chameleon. This gives her an interesting power: she can make her skin match her surroundings almost perfectly. Fortunately – or not – this skill is also possessed by her clothes, which is a bit of a plot clunker, designed to avoid both the traditional Invisible Man-styled floating shirts, and gratuitous nudity.

It does beg the question: if you have material that can do this, why go to all the bother of breeding a person that can do it? Wouldn’t it be easier (and more fun for the audience!) to just give them a nice Seven-of-Nineish catsuit? The effect is nicely realised, even if it’s an ability only used at moments essential to the plot – when she mounts her final assault on the villain’s lair, it would be sensible to do so invisibly, but that would make for duller viewing.

Shot in Queensland, Australia, these may not be the most original pieces of work that you’ll ever see, but they are certainly a cut above most TV movies and deserve a better fate than late-night reruns on the Sci-Fi channel (which is where I first accidentally stumbled across them). Hence this primer, which will hopefully encourage mathematicians and others to seek them out.

  • Chameleon


    chameleonIn mathematical terms, an approximation to Chameleon can be expressed by the following formula:
    (Leon / Blade Runner)2 * Terminator 2 + (0.2 * Predator)
    To go step by step through the equation:

    • Leon: an emotionless assassin discovers new depths within themselves, thanks to a child rescued from a corrupt government officer, also responsible for killing the kid’s parents. Together they develop mutual respect and track down the villain.
    • Blade Runner: artificially-created humanoid life, with a deliberately restricted lifespan, rebels against its creator and tries to extend its longevity. A bounty-hunter is sent on the trail. The twist here, is that good and bad are reversed from Ridley Scott’s classic.
    • Terminator 2: ass-kicking, motorcycle-riding killing machine is taught compassion by a young boy, who possesses something of potentially vital importance to the future of society.
    • Predator: the ability to blend into the background, leaving no trace save for a shimmery heat-haze.

    There: that’s the essential elements covered. This is doing it a slight disservice, since it does have some genuine original ideas, but there is an awful lot which is blatantly lifted from elsewhere. However, credit must be given for stealing from excellent sources, and enough of those involved go at their work with sufficient enthusiasm and energy to make you forget its less than groundbreaking setting and storyline.

    The plot revolves around a hacked computer credit chip which is the equivalent of a bottomless bank account: just before the inventor is slain, he passes it on to his son, and when Kam is ordered to kill him and recover the chip, she rebels and rescues him. She heads off to the countryside to escape, where she links up with a group living outside the urban world where the vast majority of the population now reside (nicely, the countryside has become almost a myth to townsfolk). There, she must fend off the bounty-hunter sent to track her down, as well as coming to terms with the uncertain human feelings she is steadily feeling, before returning for the inevitable showdown with her creator.

    Bobbie Phillips delivers an excellent performance as Kam. In films like this, the balance is important; it’s easy for the heroine to fall into being unsympathetic at one end, or weak at the other, but that’s not the case here. Kam comes across with an almost childlike innocence in some ways, but is perfectly happy with using her sexuality for gain, at one point whoring herself in exchange for gas. It’s a nice contradiction that helps to provide depth to what could be just a stock character. Unfortunately, most of the rest of the cast don’t work as well; Eric Lloyd as the child is particularly irritating, and the villain lacks anything to make you hate him with the necessary intensity. [Returning to the inspirations above, he should take lessons from Gary Oldman or Rutger Hauer]

    The action here seems restrained; a little gunplay and some minor martial arts, but nothing particularly memorable. The sexual scenes make the made-for-TV origins painfully clear, with sheets that appear to be velcro’d to Phillips’ breasts, when she doesn’t have her elbows elegantly positioned in front of them. Still, there’s enough here in the central character to make me want to see more…and lo, what’s this coming along?

    Dir: Stuart Cooper.
    Stars: Bobbie Phillips, Eric Lloyd, John Adam, Jerome Ehlers

  • Chameleon 2: Death Match


    chameleon2Unlike most mathematics, which tends to increase in complexity the more you get into it, the second part of the series has a very simple equation:
    (Die Hard * 2/3) + (Lethal Weapon / 6)
    Disappointingly, study of the above shows that it manages to be significantly less than any of its component parts. Again, we have theft from well-regarded sources, but here, there is almost no originality on view. Let’s see…

    • Terrorists take over a high-rise building…
    • …as a decoy operation for their actual goal.
    • The hero(ine) must take them on single-handed…
    • …save for occasional communications with the black cop running things outside…
    • …while exchanging taunts with their leader via a walkie-talkie.

    The plagiarism is more focused too, ripping off highly specific elements, such as the terrorist leader accepting a hostage’s offer of help before killing him, and even the style – witness the bad guy who plummets to his doom from a window, in a shower of broken glass, limbs flailing wildly. It’s shot from above in exactly the same way as Die Hard, and was the point at which I began to yearn feverishly to watch John McTiernan’s greatly superior effort. [Though admittedly, it’s also greatly superior to almost all action movies, save Aliens]

    You get a lot less sex than in the first part; in fact, none to speak of. There’s not even any sexual tension between Kam and her new partner, Booker (Siemaszko), who just engage in the kind of bickering familiar to anyone who has seen a buddy-cop film. Oddly, there is absolutely no mention of the kid who had bonded so firmly to Kam – by the end of part one, she could even say the F-word to him. That’s “family”, in case you’re wondering. I should perhaps stress that this is merely an observation, rather than a complaint.

    Booker and Kam are one team sent into the hijacked tower-block to find out what’s going on and solve the problem. The next hour goes almost exactly as you’d expect, with the terrorists progressing towards their goal, and Kam trying to stop them. Even more than previously, she does seem to keep forgetting to use her power – in such hostile surroundings, I’d have it on all the time. There may be some neurological or biochemical reason for this: it’d have been nice if they’d actually bothered to mention it though.

    There’s one sequence with Kam scurrying, lightning-fast, up a ventilation shaft (left) and a rather good brawl involving her that made me sit up and pay attention, offering hope for the rest of the movie. It’s a red herring. The last twenty minutes finally stop slavishly cloning Bruce Willis, with the villain not being who you’d expect (though if you think about who played the bad guys in the Die Hard trilogy, it’s not hard to work out). One good twist at the end is Kam recovering the “loot” and using it for her own ends, which extends her nicely amoral attitude. There’s also a nod to Kam’s not-entirely human origins, and how they affect her emotions, which would be a good avenue for future exploration.

    But overall, this is a poor follow-up. You shouldn’t try to remake classics, unless you can bring something new to the party, and while Phillips is certainly no worse an actor than Bruce Willis, it’s not enough to stop this seeming a lame copy.

    Dir: Craig R.Baxley
    Stars: Bobbie Phillips, Don Battee, Casey Siemaszko, Tasha Smith

  • Chameleon 3: Dark Angel


    chameleon3Part three is a return to form, despite a title which might now seem suspiciously unoriginal, at first glance on the video shelves. But it actually predates James Cameron’s series, leaving his genetically-altered, motorcycle-riding loner firmly in the position of late-comer. The mathematics for this one are harder to define, since the ideas on view are…well, if in light of the first two movies, I’m reluctant to claim originality, they are at least taken from less obvious sources. There is thus an “X” factor to take in account here, where X may or may not be genuine inventiveness.
    (Chameleon / Kung-fu movies) + (Dirty Harry / 6)2 + Factor X

    Note the semi-recursive nature of the formula, with one major element from the first film being rehashed, namely Kam’s acquisition of a child into her protective custody. Note also the plot inversion of many a kung-fu movie – these may be summarised as, “you killed my brother and you must pay!”, while here, it’s “you are my brother and you must pay!”. Yes, the chief threat here comes from Cain, another DNA-hybrid: wolf, bat, etc. though I’m unaware of any of them having the startling regenerative powers he has. Maybe the bat was part vampire, in which case Kam could always try decapitation and stuffing a holy wafer in his mouth, for nothing else – even impalement with a pipe – is a long-term solution. Time to call in Buffy, perhaps.

     A bunch of physicists, including teenage prodigy Tess (Teal Redmann – who, Chris points out, looks like a young Renee Zellwegger), are working on a sample of “dark matter”, when rudely interrupted by Cain. He makes off with it at the behest of his master (bald head, sneer and clearly planning towards Being John Malkovich) for the usual mercenary gain purposes. Unfortunately, the dark matter is unstable and Tess has to convince Kam that in 48 hours, the planet will be gurgling down a black hole like leftover soap-suds. So far, so ho-hum, but the only way to stop it is by exploding an electromagnetic pulse bomb – and the only person to have one powerful enough is a wheelchair-bound terrorist called The Mongoose. Will they find him in time?

    I imagine no-one genuinely doubts the answer, but this adds a whole new plot twist, especially as the last time the Mongoose activated his weapon, its impact was pretty heavy. What happens when it’s used here is never really shown, and there is some scientific handwaving about the black hole absorbing all the energy, but it would be gratifying to think that it became necessary to destroy the city in order to save it. Not least because Cameron’s Dark Angel starts with a very similar premise.

    Even if the heroine’s chameleon-like powers have been all but forgotten, this is the best entry in the series, with some great action, notably Kam’s single-handed demolition of the Mongoose’s gang – I saw this just after coming back from Jet Li’s Kiss of the Dragon, and it’s a battle which stands up well in comparison. Her ruthless brutality is also surprising and you can only sympathise with her handlers, futilely trying to keep her in check. She does what she want, when she wants, to whom she wants, and can only be applauded for it. The child actor here is also a great deal less annoying than first time around, an obvious relief to the viewer.

    There, for the moment, the series rests. What lies in the future is hard to tell, but given the ongoing success of shows like Buffy, Xena and La Femme Nikita, it’d be a foolish man who would write off the chances of Chameleon finally making it onto the small screen.

    Dir: John Lafia
    Stars: Bobbie Phillips, Teal Redmann, Alex Kuzelicki, Doug Penty

Wholly Trinity

Police Officer: “I think we can handle one little girl. I sent two units. They’re bringing her down now.”
Agent Smith: “No, Lieutenant. Your men are already dead.”

[Of necessity, this article contains spoilers for both The Matrix and The Matrix Reloaded. If you haven’t seen these two films, you might not want to proceed. And how was the dark side of the moon?]

Few movies have been so influential as The Matrix, with its seamless combination of elements from Hong Kong action, anime, and science-fiction, to which the Wachowski brothers added a sprinkling of semi-original thoughts and some very cool sunglasses. One of the key pieces in the jigsaw is Trinity, played by Carrie-Anne Moss – normally, supporting characters fall outside our realm here, but Trinity transcends the usual bounds imposed on such roles. Along with Lara Croft, she has become one of the most important action heroines of the past decade.

Trinity’s impact is immediate and striking; the opening sequence of the first movie features her character, welcoming us into the “anything is possible” universe of the Matrix. We see the introduction of bullet-time, the camera swinging around her as she freezes in midair, before delivering a devastating kick – an image subsequently aped in everything from box-office smashes (Shrek) to obscure arthouse films such as Takashi Miike’s City of Lost Souls. Her powers are superhuman, reflexes and agility far beyond normal; she apparently vanishes into a phone booth which is crushed by a juggernaut. As Neo would likely say: “Whoa…”

The middle is relatively quiet, Trinity taking a back seat to Morpheus as he gradually opens Neo’s eyes to the real world. But towards the end, she teams up with Neo – pulling rank on him without blinking – to rescue Morpheus, after he is captured by Agent Smith and the other Matrix guardians. The shoot-out in the lobby of that building has to rank as among the most berserk in cinematic history, with hero and heroine both kicking butt spectacularly. Chapter 29 on the DVD. :-) She goes on to pilot a helicopter, from which she leaps as it crashes into a building, then resurrects the dead hero with a kiss. Not just your basic, average, everyday, ordinary, run-of-the-mill, ho-hum supporting character.

She also opens Reloaded, riding her motorcycle through the air before leaving it, mid-flight – the bike continues on as a guided missile (see pic at top). She then gets into a gun-battle with an Agent, both of them in free-fall from a building, which ends in Trinity being shot…and Neo waking with a start, wondering if this was just a dream, or a premonition of some sort. The two have now clearly formed a relationship, which is perhaps damaging, in that Trinity’s role is now closer to that of the usual subservient girlfriend.

However, she is still more than capable of independent action, such as when she, Morpheus and Neo seek the Keymaker, and are led to him by Persephone. This leads to a battle, first against the Twins, two dreadlocked, white brothers who can pop in and out of physical existence at will. Then, as if this wasn’t enought, there’s the highway chase, where Trinity whizzes into traffic at speeds best described as “not slow”, swerving across lanes and around oncoming vehicles as if they weren’t there. The movie ends in a reversal of the first film, Neo resurrecting Trinity with a kiss. Death, where is thy sting…

I was originally going to title this piece, “Trinity – the yin to Neo’s yang,” but in reality, they aren’t complementary opposites, it’s more a blending towards each other. Neo is far from your typical action hero, lacking muscles, three-day stubble and an impenetrable accent – he’s a computer programmer, f’heavens sake! Conversely, Trinity is female without being feminine: her skills lie in traditionally masculine areas such as motorbikes, fighting and technology. “I just thought…you were a guy,” says Neo, on discovering she was the one who hacked the IRS’s computers. “Most guys do,” is her calm response. The portrayal of Trinity deliberately and consciously avoids any sexuality at all, which perhaps partly explains why the sex scene in Reloaded feels jarringly out of place.

Her name resonates on several possible levels:

  • The trinity formed by herself, Neo and Morpheus
  • The Holy Trinity of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The Matrix was released over Easter Weekend, 1999…
  • The pagan trinity of the Triple Goddess, with womankind represented in three forms – maiden, mother and crone.
  • Trinity was where the first A-bomb was detonated in 1945, thereby starting the Atomic Age.

Note also that the room she is in at the start is number 303, while Neo’s is 101.
Which is actually the case, only the Wachowski brothers know, and they aren’t talking – this silence may be the reason why Reloaded has a more introverted feel, and IMHO doesn’t work as well. Dare I suggest, that if they loosened up and connected with their audience a bit more, the product might not resemble a Philosophy seminar quite as much.

Trinity’s feminine side does show through occasionally, however, most obviously in the nurturing way she initially cares for Neo. She brings him food, causing the traitorous Cypher to comment, “I don’t remember you ever bringing me dinner.” Trinity just rolls her eyes, but Cypher’s jealousy is perhaps a factor in pushing him over the edge into treachery and an alliance with the Agents.

This masculine/feminine contradiction is inherent in all female action heroines, and is perhaps part of the appeal. It is perhaps at the finale of The Matrix that it becomes most clear, as Trinity declares her romantic love for the dead Neo, then revives him, saying, “You can’t be dead… because I love you,” resurrecting him exactly as Prince Charming awoke his bride. It’s a complex, multi-level moment, bringing together the facets of a character which has been interpreted as everything from Mary Magdalene to Princess Leia. Let’s just hope Revolutions does not reveal she and Neo are siblings…

All this, and the ability to look very cool while kicking butt too. Credit to Carrie-Anne Moss, who not only brings depth to a character about whom we (so far) know very little – such as any real background – but who also broke a leg during training for Reloaded. She says, “While we were fighting, there wasn’t a moment that went by when I didn’t physically ache, for almost a year really,” and such commitment can only be admired. Where her career goes from here, no-one knows, but (especially given her current state, i.e. highly pregnant!) would suspect she might want to do a few costume dramas…



“Vampires and Werewolves and PVC, oh my!”

The day before this opened, we watched a “documentary” on AMC, entitled Fang vs. Fiction: The Real Underworld of Vampires and Werewolves. Quotes used advisedly, as they must be when the program interviewed someone who said he was a werewolf. Regrettably, despite our yelling at the TV, he refused to transform on camera, claiming it was too taxing. Wuss. What it did demonstrate was that the old stereotypes are alive and well – or at least undead and well. And so it is with Underworld: the vampires all dress in black, and mope around a mansion like 18th-century slackers. Not what I’d be doing if I was an immortal. Which is probably why I amn’t.

A bit of an exception is Selene (Beckinsale), a “death dealer”, part of a team of vampires who go out and hunt down werewolves – the two races have been at war for the past fourteen centuries. When she discovers a party of lycanthropes following a human, Michael Corvin (Speedman), she realises something is up, and uncovers a plot to create a vamp-wolf hybrid. She awakens her mentor, Viktor (Nighy) from his slumber 100 years too soon, which brings down the wrath of clan leader Kraven (Broly), who is ‘suspicious’ in more ways than one. Add her growing feelings for Corvin, and life is going to be kinda complex for Selene.

There’s a lot to admire about this film. Beckinsale is great, and the look of the film far surpasses what you’d expect from the budget ($20m) – it’s filmed in an almost monochrome way, and this makes sense, given it takes place almost entirely at night. The script holds together elements which feel supernatural, with a healthy dose of science: no garlic, no holy water, and no crosses here, but daylight and silver still do the job, however.

 What doesn’t work, on any level, is the Selene-Corvin relationship, which is never given any reason to blossom as it does. Worse, still, though the film is told largely from Selene’s point of view, at the end, it’s Corvin who has to battle against The Big Bad [and I’d best not say who that is; the film takes delight in pulling the carpet out from under the viewer]. Sure, Selene gets to deliver the coup de grace – and impressively so – but reducing the heroine to someone left holding her man’s coat, is mostly why this one doesn’t get our seal of approal. Making it even more embarrassing, by this stage, the hero looks like a blue version of the Incredible Hulk.

And that’s a shame, since the first half in particular is a joy to behold. It hits the ground running, with a subway shootout that will likely leave your popcorn quietly forgotten in your lap, and Selene’s independent and feisty streak is swiftly established, rapidly winning us over. Also worthy of praise is Nighy, who exudes exactly the sort of aristocratic grumpiness you’d expect from an immortal being who has just been shaken roughly awake. Neither Speedman nor Broly make any impression at all – the former is perhaps more forgivable (he’s a mere human, after all), but you’d expect a vampire leader to ooze charisma and personality. Or at least have one…

The most obvious influences are Blade 2 – not least in the Eastern European setting (for the dark streets of Prague, read the dark streets of Budapest; both are now overused, we need to discover a new continent or something) – and The Matrix, with Beckinsale dressing like Carrie-Anne Moss on her way to Goth-Industrial Nite. Plenty of slow-mo and wirework enhance the feeling that this is a particularly murky corner of the Wachowski Brothers world.

There are some plot points which are never quite explained. At one point, Selene hides Corvin in a safe house, which then mysteriously comes under attack from the lycanthropes. How did they know? Why the werewolves don’t take advantage of the daylight, and avoid moving around at night when the vampires are about? It probably also gets rather too embroiled in creating an entire society and culture for the vampires, explaining stuff not necessary to a 90-minute movie – that’s why it’s actually a 121-minute movie.

And, some lawyers believe, not an original one. Sony are being sued by game makers White Wolf, who allege 60 points of copyright infringement with their games. Personally, this sounds like a cheap publicity ploy, but to add to the tension, Beckinsale left the father of her child, Michael Sheen, who plays the head of the werewolves, and is now shacked up with the film’s director, Len Wiseman. Bet that made for a cheerful wrap party. Overall, this is disappointing – however, only slightly so, and for most of the movie, it’ll provide plenty to keep movie-goers with horror/action tendencies entertained. And we also got to see the trailer for Kill Bill and the sublime teaser for Resident Evil: Apocalypse (not what it appears at first!) – as female action heroine sessions go, a pretty good day’s work.

[A lot of people seem to come here looking for info on the weapons Beckinsale used in the film. From what I’ve been told, she used a range of guns, including a Walther P99 9mm and the Beretta 92FS and/or 93R’s. Hope this helps! :-)]

Dir: Len Wiseman
Stars: Kate Beckinsale, Scott Speedman, Shane Brolly, Bill Nighy



“U’s the boss?”

By my reckoning, that’s now five straight big-budget action-heroine pics in a row not to be screened for critics: in addition to these two, add Domino, Aeon Flux and Bloodrayne. Yet this is, like the others, no real disaster: indeed, this is a luridly visual, CGI-overkill of a movie, which unfolds exactly like the comic-books used to striking effect in the opening credits, and wears its HK action (among other) influences on its sleeve.

Of course, it probably helps that we are big fans of Equilibrium, Wimmer’s previous SF-action flick, which achieved a cult following for its sleek style and innovative “gun kata”, a scientific martial-art designed to maximize both the efficiency and survival of its practitioners. Ultraviolet could be set in a parallel universe to that, where a disease has turned some of humankind into vampires, or “hemophages” as they’re called here. The rulers, led by Daxus (Chinlund), have developed a genocidal bioweapon, which Violet (Jovovich) has been tasked by her colleagues in the vampire resistance to steal or destroy. Only, to her shock, it turns out to be a child (Bright), which brings out her maternal instincts, even as both Daxus and her former allies now seek to destroy her.

As with Resident Evil, the main asset is Jovovich, who projects just the right mix of chic bad-ass – her belly-button gets so much screen time, it deserved its own credit – with wardrobe and hair changing colour in synch with her mood [and, I believe, it’s far more likely nanotech will be used for this kind of thing than, say, curing cancer] When her co-vampires prepare to take her on, pointing out they’re just as fast and strong as she is, her response is, “Yeah, but are you as pissed-off as I am?”. It’s hard to imagine any other actress who’d come out with such a cheesy line and get away with it.

Indeed, much of the film is similarly-targeted: her ability to drive her bike up and down the walls of skyscrapers is dismissed with a one-line reference to a “gravity leveller”. What? Exactly. This airy dismissal is the film’s way of telling you it isn’t going to bother explaining everything, and you’d better deal with it. In that way, it is perhaps more like Aeon Flux than Aeon Flux actually was, and the body-count is similarly hefty to the original MTV shorts. However, the PG-13 certificate leaves it all but bloodless, giving the battles about as much sense of danger as a video game. And, oddly, every shot of Jovovich appears to be in soft-focus, for no apparent reason.

Otherwise, however, the action is excellent, CGI enhancing the impact of the fights. There is a certain sameness, it must be admitted – Violet faces multiple opponents and kicks their arses from here to next week – but Wimmer takes this basic theme and runs enough variations on it that it doesn’t become boring. Visually, it is hard to work out where the sets stop and the plentiful effects work begins (to some extent, that’s true of the supporting cast as well, who don’t have really have much to do, and may be avatars). Either way, it looks fairly good, given the budget: as noted, it isn’t going for photorealism, though the motorcycle chase did look more like an Xbox game. But even little things like disposable mobile phones, indicate genuine thought has gone into the edges. Perhaps more so than the plot, truth be told.

However, if you’re looking for a cool, entertaining flick, this is the best action heroine to come down the pipe since…well, probably the last Milla Jovovich film. While studio interference may have hampered Wimmer’s creative vision (half an hour is rumoured to have been cut out – here’s hoping for an uncut DVD), it’s certainly not deserving of the 8% fresh score at as previously mentioned here, hell hath no fury like critics shorn of their free screenings. And in contrast, after 2200 ratings in the IMDB, 25.6% of voters gave it 8+ out of 10, so don’t just take my word for it. I’ll close with some comments from other, brave, reviewers who “got” it like I did – albeit partly to prove my enjoyment of this was not just a psychotic episode…

Peter Sobczynski: “The pretenders will bitch about ridiculous and over-the-top while decrying it as mind-numbing junk while the real film fans – those who realize that the line between trash and art is not as large or as distinct as some would have you think – will relish it for those very same qualities.” Kushmeer Farakhan: “Probably the first great Popcorn movie of the year. It’s not brainless and it’s not highbrow, it merely is what it is. A really fun action movie.” Brian Gallagher: “If you want some insanely innovative action, with a futuristic twist, Ultraviolet is right up your bullet-dodging alley.”

Dir: Kurt Wimmer
Stars: Milla Jovovich, Cameron Bright, Nick Chinlund, William Fichtner

Thelma & Louise


“Two Bitches in a Car.”

But to quote one character in the movie, “Bitches from hell“… :-) Guess a spoiler alert is needed, though I suspect 90% of readers know how this ends. Better safe than sorry though. That said, it’s possible to pinpoint precisely the pivotal moment in Thelma and Louise. A thug is raping Thelma (Davis) in the parking lot of a bar. Louise (Sarandon) comes out, sees the assault, and puts a gun to the attacker’s head. The man freezes, and Thelma wriggles away. But when he tells Louise to “Suck my cock!”, she guns him down anyway.

It’s a shocking climax to a highly disturbing scene. Writer Callie Khouri made a very conscious decision for the ‘victim’ – quotes used advisedly – not to be a threat when he dies, and it leaves the viewer with really only two options. Lose empathy for a character capable of such a crime; or, somehow, accept that it’s okay to shoot someone for what they say. [Rumblings of a previous incident in Texas are hardly a defence] To reverse things, any movie where the hero gunned down a mouthy woman would not, I feel, get an Oscar for Best Original Script, or be described as “empowering”.

This is brave, but seems designed to fit her agenda better than the needs of the audience. Indeed, much the same could be said of the whole script, which can be summarised in four words: all men are bastards. The problem is, cliches are cliches, regardless of what sex they are. Every man is reduced to a crude stereotype – mostly petulant boys – even Harvey Keitel’s stoic cop (with an Arkansas accent this Brit knew was lame) demands T&L do things his way. On the other hand, the script goes out of its way to ensure every woman is portrayed sympathetically, down to the truckstop waitress.

It becomes like having Andrea Dworkin yelling in your face for two hours, yet the film’s moral is that if women empower themselves, death inevitably results. Khouri seems to be saying, “You can only beat the system by suicide,” while the patriarchy watches from behind its sunglasses and firearms. We win, guys – now, let’s go back to our Bud and football, while the little ladies make us dinner. With such confused writing, little wonder one studio executive’s opinion, as given to Ridley Scott, was the quote headlining this article. Khouri, meanwhile, largely vanished until 2002’s Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood. However, if you need proof that a mediocre script can be salvaged by acting and directing, this is it. Between them, Davis, Sarandon and Scott (plus cinematographer Adrian Biddle) bring incredible depth to the characters and their story. No further proof is needed than to contemplate some of the other pairings who were mooted for the film: Jodie Foster and Michelle Pfeiffer or, god help us, Meryl Streep and Goldie Hawn.

I hadn’t seen this since its original release over a decade ago. At the time, I remember being more impressed by Davis’ performance; now, my opinion has changed, and Sarandon comes across better. This is partly because Thelma is such a dumb broad, who behaviour is initially more like that of a hormone-crazed teenager. Within hours of nearly being raped – hey, you go line-dancing, whaddya expect? – she’s virtually sliding off the car seat when she sees cowboy JD (Pitt, though the role almost went to another then-unknown: George Clooney). She knows he’s a criminal, yet leaves six grand on the bedside table for him to steal. Oops! Silly Thelma!

600full-thelma-and-louise-screenshotIt’s impossible to blame her for long, however, and the character development is fascinating. She starts the subordinate, but it’s Thelma who robs the convenience store to fund their journey to Mexico (a great place to escape male oppression…), locks a whimpering cop in the trunk of his car, and suggests they should die rather than tamely accept capture. While Louise initially seems to be the stronger, the cracks begin to show before long, not least in her near-hysterical refusal to enter Texas, regardless of the resulting detour.

These are two fabulous portrayals – unlike Khouri, fully deserving their Oscar nominations (the statue went to Jodie Foster for Silence of the Lambs) – which salvage potentially laughable moments with convincing emotion that blows away the script deficiencies. And in contrast to the grim ugliness of their predicament is the luminous postcard photography of mythic America, in the shape of oil-wells, ruler-straight roads, pylons and buttes, on their way to that quintessential American location, the Grand Canyon. [Actually Utah’s Deadhorse Point]

Certainly, it has to be considered one of the most important entries in the GWG genre, and despite its flaws, this film struck a chord which resonates even now. Perhaps its most powerful testament is a creepy little fact I found in Over the Edge: Death in the Grand Canyon [Ghigieri and Myers, Puma Press, 2001]. It has been possible to commit suicide by driving off the South Rim of the Grand Canyon for about eighty years. Almost one-third of all those who chose this method, did so in 1993, the year after Thelma and Louise came out on home video…

Dir: Ridley Scott
Star: Geena Davis, Susan Sarandon, Harvey Keitel, Brad Pitt



“Feeling Alien-ated”

alien1The lack of a seal of approval here is less a comment on the quality of the film, than the fact that it only starts to qualify as an action heroine flick in the final twenty minutes. [Though for sheer influence, omitting it entirely here would be unthinkable] For most of the film, Ripley (Weaver) has been just another one of the crew; if you found someone unaware of the series, and showed them the first two-thirds, they’d probably have Dallas (Skerritt) down both as the hero, and the character most likely to survive.

But it is one of the central rules of horror movies – or, at least, good horror movies – that anyone can die at any time. This is a rule to which Alien adheres, and makes it as much an entry in the haunted house genre as a science-fiction film. True, it’s set in space, with the main threat an extra-terrestrial creature, but outside of these elements, and in both tone and structure, possesses little in common with contemporaries like Star Trek and The Empire Strikes Back.

Indeed, perhaps the closest relation this film has, is Sam Raimi’s The Evil Dead. Like Ripley, Bruce Campbell’s Ash (oddly, a name shared with the Nostromo crewman played by Holm) only assumes a heroic posture late in proceedings, forced by adversity to tap unexpected reserves of courage and strength. The movies also share characters trapped in a location from which they can’t escape, by a creature whose presence is in part self-inflicted, and at the same time wildly beyond their understanding. Their enemy is also pissed.

A plot synopsis hardly seems necessary, but here goes. [A spoiler warning is also in effect, albeit one probably relevant only for any Bantu tribesmen who happen to be surfing this site] The spaceship Nostromo, on its way home, picks up an unexplained signal from a planet and goes to investigate. On landing, they find an alien craft, and a lot of eggs, from one of which a creature leaps, attaching itself to crew member Kane (John Hurt). It later falls off, but not, as it turns out, until he has been implanted with a larva which bursts out of him during a meal, and scurries off into the ship. From there, it picks off the crew one by one, growing bigger and badder all the time.

Scott barely lets us see the monster for most of the film, probably a wise move given the budget, which at $11m was below average for the time, especially for a film with so many effects. While the designs, by Swiss weirdo H.R.Giger, are fabulous, their realization sometimes leaves a little to be desired. The scene of the critter scurrying away from Kane’s body is more likely to provoke sniggers these days, as are some of the model shots.

 It helps enormously having a great cast: Ian Holm and John Hurt, Tom Skerritt, Harry Dean Stanton, and of course, Sigourney Weaver, in her feature debut. They are a million light-years away from clean and shiny SF characters, and the film owes more to Dark Star than 2001. It does start off at a very leisurely pace, perhaps too leisurely for an informed viewer, who knows that almost all these lovingly-detailed characters are going to bite the big one before long.

alien2Once Kane gets infected, and especially after the alien gets loose, the pace picks up significantly, with tension being ratcheted to the max. The final sequences rank among the most memorable of all time, when Ripley realises all her crewmates are dead – it’s just her and the monster. And just when you think the film is over, with Ripley blowing up the Nostromo [in space, it appears, no-one can hear you scream, but you can hear a ship explode] and escaping by shuttle, clad in the smallest pair of knickers imaginable…it isn’t.

alien3The film’s most important contribution to the girls-with-guns genre was in creating a plausible heroine, capable of surviving through her own skills, rather than being saved by the macho hero. This was a cliche particularly relevant in SF films, where women were usually passive, and though Alien‘s place in that genre is questionable, as discussed earlier, it opened a lot of eyes to the possibilities. Without Ripley, there quite probably would be no Sarah Connor, Lara Croft or Sidney Bristow.

The director’s cut, released 25 years after the film’s initial release, isn’t as much an alteration as some – as with Blade Runner, Scott opted to trim as well as insert, leaving the new version almost the same length as the original. The main addition is a sequence where Ripley discovers the remains of two of her colleagues, cocooned in preparation for the next step of the alien’s life-cycle. Otherwise, it is simply a joy to experience this film in the darkness of a theatre, where its understated creepiness is undeniably at its most effective.

Its critical and popular acclaim – adjusted for inflation, it’s the best-grossing girls-with-guns film ever at the box-office – inevitably meant that a sequel would follow. While Scott would return to similarly empowering themes more than once, first in Thelma and Louise, and then, less successfully in G.I. Jane, the reins were handed over to another director, James Cameron. He took the franchise in a radically different direction, arguably to even greater success. But that’s another story…

Dir: Ridley Scott
Star: Sigourney Weaver, Tom Skerritt, Ian Holm, Harry Dean Stanton

Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines


“Old and Busted – New Hotness”

I feel a certain camaraderie with Arnie, since I’ve largely grown up alongside this series of movies, which is probably his finest work. I was at university when the first one came out; the second saw me living the life of a bachelor in London; and the latest installment finds me a happily married man in Arizona. Just as I’ve evolved, so have his opponents: they’ve become harder, faster and more difficult to kill; my sarcasm has been honed to a lethal edge, thanks to living with two teenagers and a pair of dogs.

One good thing about the series is that they haven’t rushed into quick-buck sequels – three movies over 19 years is unlikely to leave the audience jaded. It’s been more than a decade since the last part, leaving a lot of people wondering if Schwarzenegger could still cut it, especially after a slew of underwhelming films like End of Days and Collateral Damage. Those, however, required him to act: I’m happy to report there is no such pretense here, and the results are all the better for it.

The twist this time, and why it’s covered on this site, is that his nemesis is female. The latest model – an appropriate term given Loken’s background – is a T-X, and comes fully equipped with DNA-analysing tongue, throat-box modem, and a broad selection of interesting weaponry, though regrettably, we only get to see a couple in actual operation. They are, however, pretty damn cool.

The plot is effectively a retread of the previous entry, with John Connor (Stahl) a drug-confused member of the underclass since his mother died of leukemia (possibly Hollywoodese for “Linda Hamilton wanted too much money”). He goes on the run with former schoolmate Kate (Danes), whose father just happens to be the guy in charge of SkyNet. What are the odds against that? These two are supposed to meet and fall in love, but there’s a bump on their road to happiness, in the shape of a nuclear war due to start at 6:18 pm that night.

This romantic angle has all the excitement of a pound of herring, and may be safely ignored. What you’re here for is things hitting other things, and there’s certainly plenty of that. It is perhaps significant that the two best sequences largely eschew whizzy CGI, in favour of actual physical destruction. There is a fabulous chase, involving a mobile crane driven by the T-X, which for my money surpasses the summer’s other big helping of road-rage, served up in Matrix Reloaded. She demonstrates an almost human appetite for destruction that borders on endearing; such wilful chaos is likely counter-productive to her mission, yet she goes ahead anyway.

The other chunk that will stick in your memory is when the T-X and T-101 go toe-to-toe. No wirework, no Matrix-fu, just full-on, hardcore brutality, a brawl surely permitted by the MPAA, only because the two protagonists are robots. Walls, floors, urinals – all are just tools into which your opponent can have his/her head driven. Repeatedly. With venom.

One interesting point, is that nobody ever mentions the T-X’s gender. The concept certainly held potential for a lot of PMS-type comments, but save for one minor joke involving Victoria’s Secret, sexuality is entirely kept out of things. The T-X, with her impossibly perfect hair and the coolest red leather jacket worn by a actress playing a superviolent female robot since Eve of Destruction, just goes about her business like an evil babysitter.

After what had been a disappointing year for high-end action movies so far, Terminator 3 restores my faith in the genre. It may be a pip below the first two entries, since you get little in the way of intelligence or innovation, but it’s still a entry worthy of the name. Despite James Cameron being notable by his directorial absence, Mostow delivers everything you could want from a summer film. Here’s to Terminator 4 in 2010!

Dir: Jonathan Mostow
Stars: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Kristanna Loken, Nick Stahl, Claire Danes