(originally published in The Outreach Connection in August 2004)
Mopping up some summer movies I haven’t covered already.
Vaguely inspired by Isaac Asimov’s classic novel, Alex Proyas’ blockbuster depicts a generally recognizable future world, but one in which the use of ultra-sophisticated, all-but-human robots has proliferated. Will Smith, swaggering through the movie like a Shaft throwback, is a police detective with an anomalous hatred for robots; amazing coincidence then that he’s put on the case when their famous creator is murdered, apparently and unprecedently by one of his own androids. Actually, the movie’s extremely tortuous plotting ultimately reveals it’s not a coincidence.
The film is a bit of a flat experience: monotonous and emotionally thin, and it’s disappointing that director Proyas (whose Dark City was regarded by Roger Ebert as the best film of its year) does so little to evoke the texture of the future world. There are some throwaway lines about escalating environmental problems, and about the economic turmoil generated by robots supplanting jobs, but none of this coheres into an understandable picture – Spielberg’s Minority Report, similar material in numerous respects, was a much more accomplished creation. And at a time when movies are increasingly overcoming the clinically fake look associated with computer generated images, I Robot represents a regression; I swear in some scenes I almost felt back in the days of Dr. Who.
In a way though, the film’s weaknesses provide some unintentional thematic interest. The robots have been criticized for looking lightweight, almost ethereal, and that’s quite right – they never have a persuasive presence. Which in combination with the pallid work by Smith and the film’s other principals reinforces the sense of dehumanization and alienation. It ends with a tacked on epilogue seemingly attributing some kind of spiritual destiny to the robots, which is more than any of the human characters ever seem in possession of. You walk out feeling somewhat more attuned to the perils of our technological momentum, which is definitely of some value, even if it’s something embodied rather than explored by the movie.
The Door in the Floor
Tod Williams’ film, based on a section of John Irving’s novel A Widow for One Year, has lots of superb moments that ably communicate the writer’s fluid quirkiness. It’s really a mere anecdote, about a teenager who comes to spend the summer with a renowned author of children’s books. The author turns out to be rampantly eccentric, and then the kid develops a crush on the man’s estranged wife – and she reciprocates! (women do that kind of thing in Irving’s stories). Williams, whose first film was the even quirkier Adventures of Adrian Cole, has a sensibility that’s unusual nowadays, engaging his characters’ eccentricities with considerable style and patience. This pays dividends in the author character played by Jeff Bridges, a mixture of geniality and bluster and hedonism that’s one of the year’s more complex characters. Unfortunately, the other main characters are far less distinctive (Irving’s trademark liberal-minded approach to overlapping destinies feels pretty arbitrary here), and the film leaves little after-impression: almost as soon as you think it might be spreading its wings, it draws itself back into a ball and disappears down that eponymous, unchallengingly metaphorical door in the floor.
Jehane Noujeam’s documentary about the infamous Qatar-based Al-Jazeera cable network arrived here on the same weekend that the CRTC announced its widely criticized decision to license the channel for Canada: they allowed it, but subject to a monitoring requirement for carrier companies that seemed uneconomic to most observers – thus the CRTC added to the existing web of opposing perceptions about Al-Jazeera’s place in the world. Control Room, shot in a straightforward style, raises numerous questions (even more than most documentaries, although less than Fahrenheit 9/11) about how the choice of what to put on the screen was made, and the extent to which the presence of Noujeam’s camera influenced events. On the basis of what’s seen here, the channel gets a bum rap elsewhere. Although obviously not denying an inclination to the Arab perspective, the station’s employees appear methodical and conscientious (in one scene, for instance, we see a producer criticize the choice of an American “expert” interviewee who’s too one-sidedly anti-US in his on-air views).
But the film’s real case for Al-Jazeera is made by contrast with the Americans, whom we see engaging in extreme news management tactics (all flowing down from the self-righteous Donald Rumsfeld) and perhaps deliberately bombing the network’s Iraq bureau (the Americans say it was in response to sniper fire from the roof). The American we see most of, a mid-ranking press attaché, seems fairly decent, allowing in one scene that Fox News has a bias (doesn’t sound like such a confession, but did you ever hear it from anyone in the Bush administration?) and sounding genuinely pained by Iraqi losses. Maybe he’s just a better faker than the rest. Anyway, Control Room runs less than 90 minutes, which may be enough to give you a reasonable sense of Al-Jazeera, but leaves the experience feeling rather hermetic. One day, a future Marcel Ophuls may make a vast sprawling documentary about the Iraqi war, and despite what we think we already know, I expect we’ll all be devastated by it.
The Bourne Supremacy
The sequel to The Bourne Identity has been getting lots of good reviews from respectable critics; for example, David Edelstein in Slate called it “simply a tour de force of thriller filmmaking” and saw something existential in the way that the central character’s relentless action substitutes for his absence of much of a self. I can see all that, but it doesn’t excite me very much, and I can’t help thinking that the praise directed to this meat-and-potatoes movie is an overreaction to the preponderance of digital effects in movies like I Robot (indeed, a number of reviewers basically admitted as much).
Matt Damon returns as Jason Bourne, still plagued by amnesia and thrown back from exile into a complicated set-up of espionage and double-crossing, through which he weaves his way with the relentless ease of someone determined to finish a particularly difficult jigsaw before going to bed. The movie is well made: quoting Edelstein again, the action scenes are frequently so “close and blurry and tumultuous that they summon up your primitive fight-or-flight instincts.” But this also struck me at times as bordering on incoherence, and as such retro pleasures go I kept thinking of the late John Frankenheimer’s Ronin, which had similar existential facets but a much cleaner, classical approach to the characters and the action.
Metallica: Some Kind of Monster
Better than any of the above, Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky’s documentary on the making of Metallica’s last album delivers all the rock genre goods, but with a bizarre (until you’ve thought of it, that is) contemporary twist: the band members undergo relentless talk therapy as they try to hold it all together. It’s intermittently hilarious and always fascinating, and Metallica are still a big band, so why did this movie disappear from theaters so quickly? One to see on the repertory circuit, for sure.