My dad has four brothers; the oldest, Gary, was born in 1951. Gary was a hippie for a while, and saw 2001: A Space Odyssey in the theater (probably on acid, shh). He’s a blue collar intellectual, a salt-of-the-earth fellow who knows about cars and Greek philosophy and cooking and political theory and electrical stuff. Gary worked at a newspaper in Port Huron, Michigan for 25 years and then retired. In 1985, his left index finger was severed in half by some machine. When he removed his work glove he felt something dangling which felt like a string, and later he asked the doctor what it was, only to receive the reply, “that was your tendon, it had been pulled out”. (That detail has no relevance to anything—I just wanted to make you shiver.)
Gary has a lot of quirks. He’s settled on an acreage in no man’s land, Michigan. Nestled fifty miles between his two kids, on the western side of the state, Gary lives a simple life. He’s never owned a computer or cellular phone. He heats his house the only fashioned way, with windows and fire. He’s become somewhat of a hybrid raw foodie, growing his own vegetables and balancing that with a daily sandwich made of various parts procured at the closest Wal-Mart, which is about twenty miles down the only road to town.
That Walmart, like so many across this fine country, has a bargain bin—and Gary is a bargain bin junkie. He’s always been a movie buff, and since 2001 (the odyssey, not the year) he’s had a flavor for sci-fi and fantasy spectacle. Living in that house with seventeen hours of awake time to fill every day leaves enough space for about 5-7 movies, and Lord of the Rings, whose DVD extended editions have countless commentaries and endless special features, filled his day(s) nicely and then some.
After Lord of the Rings, he progressed to Ridley Scott, whose Blade Runner and Alien (both, of course, found in the bargain bin) also have extended director’s cuts and plenty of cool features. Gary is infinitely fascinated with the practical effects in Blade Runner. We once had a two-hour conversation marveling at how the futuristic setting was photographed in-camera. We even agreed that the movie itself is a little boring, but boy is it fun to look at. Although his attention span may have a little more stamina than mine, sitting in that cabin all day.
After Blade Runner came Blade. I think Blade was the gateway drug because once he watched Blade it was a steady decent into the bargain bin maelstrom (not unlike Dave’s trip at the end of 2001). Next came Underworld and its sequels, and the next thing you know he has a collection of over 300 DVDs, all from the bargain bin, spanning all levels of unwatchable modern sci-fi.
But his absolute favorite discovery? Paul W.S. Anderson. The Wal Mart bargain bin in Bumblefuck, Michigan has forged my dear old uncle into a Paul W.S. Anderson scholar. And although that is funny, I say it unironically and without a hint of facetiousness or exaggeration. He has seen every Paul W.S. Anderson movie a minimum of six times, with commentary. And he has seen the special features as many times.
When he first brought up Paul, I had of course heard of him, and I knew that Armond White was a huge supporter, comparing his visual prowess to Scorsese’s (as I do with Michael Bay, a guy White also champions). But I confessed I had never seen any of his movies—not even Mortal Kombat.
The next time Gary came out to visit (I think it was this past mother’s day) he came prepared with a brown lunch bag filled with DVDs, like a bum concealing his beer.
I dug in chronologically.
I can see why Mortal Kombat marked new territory in video game movies, a genre that Anderson trailblazes (and Uwe Boll famously boxes in defense of) yet I don’t think there has ever been a very good video game adaptation. I think it’s because video games are already stories, and in some ways, ones that are much more engaging and visually captivating. The emotional highs and lows are already played out visually, and trying to re-contextualize that into a movie just seems needless. Mario is certainly a great character in a beautiful and interesting universe, but putting that on a big screen just won’t translate. (Although I’m sure they’ll try again one day.)
That said, Mortal Kombat is a pretty simple story with some striking visuals. Anderson films action the way it should be filmed—with well-staged, stylistic panache.
Event Horizon is just kinda dumb. I actually remember when this came out, and I think I even saw it when I was 11, because I liked Sam Neill because of Jurassic Park. Event Horizon is one of those sci-fi movies that tries to bite off more than it can chew story-wise. The aforementioned 2001 went fully abstract, which worked for it. Alien went pure horror—a monster killing off dudes one by one in a dark, bleak, cool setting. Event Horizon doesn’t know which one it wants to be, and even the cool visuals and fun, dated special effects can’t help.
A year later, in ’98, came Soldier, and how can you not kind of love it? Kurt Russell is one of those guys that is in a lot of junk, but time and time again, he elevates the junk. He’s just so natural even when being Snake Plissken or a programmed soldier thing. I love the space visuals in Soldier, too. And that’s about the best I can say about the movie.
The first installment of the Resident Evil franchise comes next. I have to say, I find these movies wholly unremarkable. I tried to watch them, but just couldn’t get into any.
What I was really excited to watch was AVP: Alien vs. Predator. But I don’t get this movie or why it is the way it is. I like Alien and Aliens, and I never saw Fincher’s infamous Alien 3. I like the second half of Predator a lot; the first half is dreadfully boring, but once it gets going it’s really fun. I even like Predator 2—ya know, Danny Glover, the cityscape, good stuff.
What I don’t get about AVP is how small and innocuous it is, especially for being a merging of two hugely popular franchises, not to mention being helmed by a proven filmmaker with sci-fi visual prowess. If you follow Anderson’s work, AVP would seem like his dream project, connecting with and adding to the touchstones of modern action and sci-fi. But again, I ask, why make it so small? AVP looks and feels like a small pet project. It’s a no-name cast with modest fight scenes. The movie itself is basically John Carpenter’s The Thing redone with Alien and Predator. There are very few action set pieces, and even the climactic battle is pretty dull.
What I suspect happened is that the studio couldn’t get all the contracts together to make a movie that would do justice to its provenance. What I would’ve loved to see is Schwarzenegger and Weaver fighting shit together, helping each other with their knowledge of the monsters, surrounded by a new ragtag group of soldier-type guys. Toss in a few nods to the original movies, and you’re all set.
An example of small route gone right is Nimrod Antal’s Predators, which is a very fun and engaging continuation/redoing of the Predator saga. I can’t blame Anderson fully for AVP, as I suspect it was bogged down with studio notes. However, I will say that AVP exposes Anderson’s inability to create compelling tone and tension. The Thing is not a great movie, but it does at least feel eerie. In classic Carpenter form, it uses slow camera moves and wide, static shots to create an ominous landscape for the characters to inhabit. The effects are awesome and the mood is chilling (pun intended!). But AVP drops the ball completely. Although I wish it were a large-scope summer spectacle, I’m okay with it being a small taught thriller, but you have to get the tone right in order for that to be effective. I like the premise, I like that the Predators are these hunters and the whole a-huge-cube-buried-in-the-earth thing is fine, but it stops there.
I like the imagination of a guy like Anderson. I like guys that want to play with the Hollywood toys and utilize all the magic the cinema has to offer. I guess it’s kind of a shame that these same folks generally make stuff that’s so bland, frivolous, and silly. But oh well. At least my uncle likes it.