Tuesday, November 16, 2010

A verdict on the January apocalypse movies

Three movies were released on consecutive Fridays last January that had a couple things in common: 1) they all dealt in some way with an apocalypse, either imminent or in the distant past; 2) none of them seemed like a movie that would usually be released in January, the month when the schlockiest films on the calendar are typically unleashed on the world.

And so it was that I came to consider Daybreakers (January 8th), The Book of Eli (January 15th) and Legion (January 22nd) to be an informal triumvirate of end-of-the-world movies with ass-end-of-the-schedule release dates. (It's technically the beginning of the schedule, but it's the ass end in terms of desirability).

As of Thursday night, I have now seen all three.

I wrote about two of them -- Daybreakers and Legion -- before I ever saw them, so I thought it was definitely time to double back and reconsider them after a viewing of them and their brother Eli.

And even though this will be a very brief set of rankings, why not rank them?

1) Daybreakers (2010, Peter and Michael Spierig). Not only is this the best finished film of the three, but it has the best high-concept conceit also. I can't believe no one had previously made a film that followed the logical progression of infection that is always the threat in zombie movies -- if a vampire epidemic took over, eventually the whole world would become vampires. The nice advantage a vampire has over a zombie is that it can be intelligent, refined and seductive, and so the world presented in Daybreakers is a lot like ours -- only your average citizens rely on blood rather than food for sustenance, and their eyes have a yellow tinge to them. (Plus that whole "avoiding sunlight" thing.) But what happens when humans are hunted to extinction, and none of their blood remains?

It's a delicious idea, and the Spierig brothers -- whose Undead I now want to see -- realize it to perfection. The details of their vampiric world are exquisite, and the story arcs they've chosen to follow are satisfying and in some cases tragic. To say that the concept is executed perfectly is not the same thing as saying it's a perfect movie. There may be some questionable choices in the third act, and it's possible it drags a little bit in the middle. However, I enjoyed all the performances (especially Sam Neill's) and I thought it was a wonderful creation of a specific world. To give an indication of how much I enjoyed it, I did a thing that's rare for me -- I watched an entire "making of" bonus feature on the DVD that was nearly as long as the film. This showed the Australian directors' ingenuity in making the most of relatively modest resources, and I got a lot of out of it.

Glad to see the Spierigs recognized for this film (and Undead), even if it was not a huge box office champ and is only thought of middlingly by most critics -- they're directing the next Dark Crystal movie and a remake of Captain Blood.

2) The Book of Eli (2010, Allen and Albert Hughes). Didn't recognize until now another thing two of these movies have in common -- they're directed by a pair of brothers. The Hughes brothers have been around a lot longer, but I was shocked to see that it had been nine years since their last feature, From Hell. But I knew that if they brought some of that film's outside-the-box quality to this one, it would at the very least be an interesting watch with some good technique.

I actually felt slightly more strongly about The Book of Eli than that, even though it too was pretty much dismissed by critics. In fact, its critical dismissal led us to have it out from Netflix for a good three weeks before it finally got watched, and it only finally got watched because my wife decided she didn't need to see it and I should just watch it by myself. The Hughes brothers' apocalypse is farthest in the past -- in fact, the film takes place in the desolate wastelands of America, 30 years after an apocalyptic war that left only Mad Max-style marauders roaming the countryside. The filter they use gives everything a gray, washed-out look that is also crisp enough to jump off the screen, if that's not a contradiction in terms. I knew Denzel Washington played a loner on some kind of mission, though I didn't know what it was -- it turns out he's trying to deliver the only known bible in existence into safe hands, even though most people don't believe there's actually still an enclave of higher learning that exists out there, trying to rebuild the human race.

I thought the fight scenes were pretty good -- shot in silhouette with a minimum of frenetic cuts -- and as with Daybreakers, I enjoyed the little details of the world they created. The film actually reminded me of Children of Men in a couple of thematic ways, even though Alfonso Cuaron's masterpiece is leagues better than this film. But this film ain't half bad, and I saw those outside-the-box decisions that made From Hell so interesting in terms of camera setups, etc. There was one scene that stuck out in particular in this regard, in which the "camera" (I assume it was done digitally) follows bullets back out through the holes they left in a wall, out to the gatling gun that's firing the rounds about 50 feet away, and then swinging back around to look at the house that's rapidly becoming Swiss cheese. Good stuff. There's something of a "twist" at the end that some viewers may find hard to swallow, but it worked well enough for me, especially as a thematic extension of the purpose of Eli's mission.

3) Legion (2010, Scott Stewart). Legion is ranked third in these rankings, but that's only because there aren't more movies to rank. If there were seven pre- or post-apocalyptic films released this January, Legion would probably rank seventh on that list. It's that bad.

And since I already gave some ink to how bad I thought it was here, I'll give it less ink now. Simply put, this is one of those movies where the only interesting images are the ones they put front and center in the trailers, and literally everything else is a boring talking scene that slows the pacing to downright turgid. I thought the idea was somewhat interesting -- an extermination of the human race conducted by angels, repurposed into killing machines by God after he becomes displeased with humanity (think Noah's Ark). But it was handled in the most stupid and haphazard way possible, with humans inexplicably turned into demonic zombies and descending on what may or may not be our last outpost of human survivors, holed up in a diner/gas station in the middle of nowhere. The reason this is the place everyone's interested in is because some thoroughly unlikable waitress in the diner is carrying humanity's savior in her stomach. Why this baby is the key to everything is never revealed. My thinking is that this movie was a collection of what they thought would be interested set pieces -- a grandmother going crazy, biting people and climbing on the ceiling of the diner -- fashioned into some kind of undercooked story. In fact, the story is so undercooked that it would give you salmonella if you tried to take a bite out of it.

What really interests me about these three films is that in many years, they would be positioned for a summer release, either because they have big stars (Denzel Washington), big ideas (all three) and big special effects (all three to varying degrees). Or if not summer, at least in March sometime, when the studios are trying to whet your appetite for the upcoming summer season. The fact that they came in January, which is usually considered to be the dumping grounds for misfires, indicates how the old release rules just don't apply as much as they once did. Even if they thought these movies would be tough sells, or that they did not turn out quite as originally envisioned, they're each juicy enough to potentially earn someone's summer moviegoing dollars. And even though I haven't seen many of the potential tentpole movies that were released this summer, such as The A-Team or Prince of Persia, I have to think that Daybreakers and Eli are better than they are. Maybe it just goes to show: Just as the TV networks are no longer content to take a season off, neither are the studios, and a movie ticket costs the same whether you buy it in January or June. If you can lead a weekend in January when there's no other competition, it's a lot better than trying to fight off June's high-profile releases.

Well, now that I know that two-thirds of the apocalypse movies dumped in January 2010 were pretty good, it gives me some hope for January 2011, when the next film from Michel Gondry (The Green Hornet) is being "dumped" on January 14th. Then again, if the last film from Michel Gondry (Be Kind Rewind) is any indication, maybe that's where The Green Hornet will truly belong.

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