Michael Crichton

Congo (1995, Frank Marshall)

At the end of Congo, after the heroes have found the lost expedition, the lost city, and the laser-pure diamonds but also run afoul of said lost city’s super-ape protectors and happened to find this place during a volcanic eruption, some of the super-apes jump into the lava flow. It’s a somewhat lengthy sequence, which with a better film might suggest the director was inviting contemplation but Congo’s direction is so bewilderingly bad it’s obviously not; it’s hard not to see the apes, the whole point of Congo, the pay-off to almost ninety minutes of globe-trotting nonsense… it’s hard not them seeing want to vaporize themselves to escape. The film’s an embarrassment for them.

The movie starts with a diamond-seeking expedition to the Congo going wrong. Bruce Campbell and Taylor Nichols, who aren’t in the movie enough, call home to their company, which is a communications company not a diamond company, and where their remote project supervisor is Laura Linney and the big boss is Joe Don Baker, who’s also Campbell’s dad. Oh, and Campbell used to be engaged to Linney. But he wanted to impress his dad too much so Linney dumped him. There’s a good movie in Congo, if someone else had written the script. John Patrick Shanley’s script is really bad. And since Linney’s the lead, though sometimes ostensibly and sometimes de facto, she loses the most potential from the script. She’s got to go to Africa to save Campbell after an unknown something attacks the camp. Thankfully it’s the movies so she’s able to find an expedition already going to Congo, even though it was thrown together immediately following Linney’s dramatic prologue.

Because the script’s dumb. Like, some of Congo’s big problems are just… well, the script’s dumb. Tim Curry’s absurd diamond hunter? Curry reins it in. The movie could handle him camping it up a whole lot more and Curry resists. He’s not good, because it’s a dumb part, but he’s nowhere near as bad as he could be. He gets sympathy. Linney gets sympathy. Male lead Dylan Walsh however… he doesn’t get much sympathy. Because Walsh isn’t even trying. Or, if he’s trying, he’s not trying as hard as uncredited cameo players (Delroy Lindo as an African military commander), much less main supporting player Ernie Hudson, who’s committed to running with it no matter where it takes him. It’s a great showcase for Hudson’s potential in the right role; that potential qualifier is because this role sure ain’t it.

Walsh is a primatologist who’s taught a gorilla to sign and then gotten her a souped up power glove; the glove “speaks” her signs aloud. Shayna Fox does the computer’s voice, the Stan Winston studio does the facial expressions and costume, two different women are in the suit at different times (Lola Noh and Misty Rosas). Is the gorilla, named Amy, successful? I mean, she’s a better character than Walsh, which isn’t saying much, but… the gorilla could be a lot worse. The gorilla could be a whole lot better—the whole hook of Congo, lost super-apes in a lost city of diamonds or whatever, hinges on the gorillas being impressive.

The gorillas are not impressive. The film manages to gin up sympathy for Amy, enough to overlook the technical limitations, but when the super-apes don’t pay off? It’s all over.

Though, really, the writing’s been on the wall for a while. Bad composite shots, the lost city sets being rather small-scale and wanting, the movie itself not being good; Congo’s not got much potential, but it does sort of assure it’s going to pull off the killer gorillas. It does not. Would it have been able to pull them off—same effects crew—if Marshall’s direction weren’t so tepid? Maybe? Possibly. Marshall pushes for as much gore as the PG-13 will let him get away with, but he doesn’t push for any actual suspense, much less horror, much less terror.

Eh photography from Allen Daviau, always at least competent editing from Anne V. Coates, plus a mediocre Jerry Goldsmith score. If it weren’t so blandly bad, Congo might be able to get by on solid technicals… it’s just Marshall. He’s particularly bad at directing this particular film. He’s obviously lost and completely unwilling to stop and ask for directions.

Joe Don Baker’s bad, Grant Heslov’s pointless as Walsh’s sidekick, Mary Ellen Trainor and Stuart Pankin get close-ups during the first act and some lines for absolutely no reason, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje’s good. You’re never happy to see Tim Curry, but he could be worse. The uncredited Delroy Lindo cameo is excellent Delroy Lindo cameoing. Linney and Walsh are both wanting, in different ways, Walsh much more. Hudson’s at least having a great time and working his butt off. Nice someone could bother in Congo.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Frank Marshall; screenplay by John Patrick Shanley, based on the novel by Michael Crichton; director of photography, Allen Daviau; edited by Anne V. Coates; music by Jerry Goldsmith; production designer, J. Michael Riva; costume designer, Marilyn Matthews; produced by Kathleen Kennedy and Sam Mercer; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring Laura Linney (Dr. Karen Ross), Dylan Walsh (Dr. Peter Elliot), Ernie Hudson (Captain Monroe Kelly), Tim Curry (Herkermer Homolka), Lola Noh & Misty Rosas & Shayna Fox (Amy the Gorilla), Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje (Kahega), Joe Pantoliano (Eddie Ventro), Grant Heslov (Richard), Delroy Lindo (Captain Wanta), Joe Don Baker (R.B. Travis), Taylor Nichols (Jeffrey Weems), John Hawkes (Bob Driscoll), and Bruce Campbell (Charles Travis).


Timeline (2003, Richard Donner)

Timeline is really bad. The opening sequence starts Donner regular Steve Kahan in a terrible bit part but at least there’s the stunt casting; the rest of the poorly edited sequence has ER doctors and anonymous law enforcement looking into the mysterious death of a man who appeared in the middle of the highway for Kahan to almost hit. Of course, we the viewers know he’s somehow travelled through time because we see a knight on horseback about chop him down before cutting to Kahan in the desert.

That opening shot of the knight cutting down the time traveller should be a trailer shot, should have some kind of major visceral impact… it’s got squat. The shot’s boringly composed—somehow Donner manages to suck all the life out of his wide Panavision frame, ably assisted—unfortunately—by cinematographer Caleb Deschanel, who’s never got any interesting or thoughtful lighting. Timeline looks boring, with its “renaissance village at a Six Flags” not even a Medieval Times, much less renaissance faire production design or the laughably bad costumes. The knights all look like they belong on a White Castle commercial and the time traveling heroes look like they’re trying to prove cosplay can be macho. Gerard Butler’s outfit is something else.

Though Butler is something else too. Donner apparently gave Butler two directions—make it more Scottish and play it like 80s Mel Gibson. Shirt off, hair wild, soulfully love the ladies (in this case, Anna Friel, who manages to be the only person outside Billy Connolly, who’s exempt, not to embarrass or humiliate themselves it some point during Timeline).

See, Timeline, which is about locable eccentric old archeologist Connolly going back in time through Michael Crichton-stereotype modern megalomaniacal rich recluse scientist David Thewlis’s time machine. Only he gets stuck back in time and so his team—Butler, Frances O’Connor, plus Connolly’s son, bro Paul Walker, who’s around the dig site because he’s got the hots for O’Connor and trying to tempt her away from her work to apparently quit her job and marry him and pump out babies. O’Connor’s real bad in Timeline, which sucks because O’Connor’s great, and it’s not all Donner’s fault, it’s not all the script’s fault—okay, a lot of it’s both Donner and the script’s fault, like, wow, terrible character. But O’Connor’s still bad. She’s not as bad as Walker, but she’s close, although bad in an entirely different way. If the film embraced its spoof potential—bro Walker going back in time to save his dad, Indiana Jones wannabe Butler, the silly battles, Thewlis’s mad scientist–it might’ve been… good. I was going to say amusing, but I really think about the only way you could make Timeline work is to do it as a comedy of itself. Albeit with a different script, cast, director, composer, cinematographer, production designer, and costume designer. Anna Friel and Billy Connolly can stay too if they want, Friel because she’s got the ability to—if not rise above—at lease not drown. Connolly because it’s Billy Connolly, who cares if he’s any good.

At the beginning, when Connolly’s lecturing, for a moment I thought he got the part because it was going to be “Head of the Class,” which too might’ve saved Timeline, if it were actually a “Head of the Class” spin-off. But no, then Butler’s Scottish burr dominates and it seems like it’s been dubbed it’s so over the top and you don’t realize yet what you’re in for with Butler. Even when Butler’s not particularly bad he’s disappointing because of how the film positions him. It keeps giving him chances to “breakout” and Butler never takes them. O’Connor seems to understand what a mistake she’s making, Walker can’t be bothered to care, they literally have him bro-hugging fifteenth century knights and whatnot, everyone else seems to at least get they’re in trouble. But Butler keeps it together throughout. He’s a trooper.

Who gives a risible performance.

Some spectacularly bad acting from Matt Craven and Ethan Embry. Neal McDonough is quite bad. He’s the ex-Marine security guy who takes the dreamy nerds back in time and immediately loses his cool and they have to compensate. Michael Sheen’s the evil English lord. He’s bad. He’s funny but he’s bad. Sheen might get to stay for the spoof, but only if his already hilariously big armor gets bigger.

Marton Csokas is the evil guard with a secret who becomes everyone’s nemesis at one point or another. He’s awful. He and Butler’s big fight scene actually gets put on pause—with the guys passing out stunned—so the movie can catch up with Walker and O’Connor, who get paired together for a third act mission where Walker’s got to trust the smart woman and it turns out to be a bad idea because she’s just an emotional silly. Truly bad part for O’Connor, can’t emphasis it enough. Especially for 2003 or whatever. There are better female parts in male-targeted medieval action movies from the 1950s and 1960s. I’m not sure how many because it’s not a good genre, but there are at least a few. Because it’s really bad for O’Connor here.

It doesn’t help she and Walker’s romantic chemistry is at the visibly uncomfortably disinterested miscasting error level. Though Butler and Friel’s rapport isn’t much better. It’s just not as bad in such bad ways.

There is one “must be seen to be believed” sequence in Timeline. When they travel back in time, for about fifteen seconds all the actors have to make faces to show brief, unimaginably intense pain. It’s horrible but wonderfully so.

Otherwise… I mean, I knew better than to watch Timeline. It’s on me. But did those involved in its production also now better than to be involved with it; most of the experience of watching Timeline is wondering who the hell thought this something or that something was a good idea when said somethings are so obviously terrible.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Richard Donner; screenplay by Jeff Maguire and George Nolfi, based on the novel by Michael Crichton; director of photography, Caleb Deschanel; edited by Richard Marks; music by Brian Tyler; production designer, Daniel T. Dorrance; costume designer, Jenny Beavan; produced by Lauren Shuler Donner, Richard Donner, and Jim Van Wyck; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring Gerard Butler (Andre Marek), Frances O’Connor (Kate Ericson), Paul Walker (Chris Johnston), Neal McDonough (Frank Gordon), Rossif Sutherland (François Dontelle), Anna Friel (Lady Claire), Michael Sheen (Lord Oliver), David Thewlis (Robert Doniger), Matt Craven (Steven Kramer), Ethan Embry (Josh Stern), Lambert Wilson (Lord Arnaut), Marton Csokas (Sir William De Kere), and Billy Connolly (Professor Johnston).


The 13th Warrior (1999, John McTiernan)

No one in The 13th Warrior seems particularly thrilled to be participating in The 13th Warrior. Some people carry it better than others—Omar Sharif’s cameo is the only “good” acting in the film, as he translates and interprets events for lead Antonio Banderas, who can’t speak the common language with the Vikings they’ve come across. Vladimir Kulich, as Beowulf (13th Warrior is an adaptation of co-producer and shadow director Michael Crichton’s novel, Eaters of the Dead, which is a riff on Beowulf), is kind of fine. His presence is indicative of the problem with Warrior, which is no one wants to take it seriously and actually ask anyone to act, so they just get a handful of personable actors and a handful of romance novel cover models and put the band together. Kulich at least takes it seriously. Taking it seriously requires effort, which is on short supply.

And, really, on short demand. No one cares. William Wisher and Warren Lewis’s screenplay is not some poorly realized masterpiece. It’s a Viking movie with an Arabian guest star. With Antonio Banderas as a tenth century Muslim traveler—based on a real person, but the film… avoids treating Banderas as a real person. The script avoids Banderas as a person so much it isn’t until the last battle, which is a very noncommittal Seven Samurai homage because neither credited director McTiernan or uncredited Crichton are any good at the action. It’s particularly stunning from McTiernan considering he made Predator and the “monsters” in Warrior decapitate and camouflage too. Warrior’s almost willfully bad.

Anyway—the movie doesn’t show Muslim Banderas pray until the last battle scene. How Banderas is going to pray five times a day—at set times—while traveling with a bunch of Vikings on a mission to kill a monster and save a village? Exploring that culture clash would probably be interesting. But they can’t do it because it’s an action movie with what ought to be a pulpy premise but instead wants to get executed like a nerdy one and it’s not. Warrior either needs a compelling lead, compelling adversaries, or compelling cannon fodder (the Vikings slash samurai). It’s got none of those things. And it’s not even Banderas’s fault. He’s not good, but it’s very clearly not his fault. His biggest scene—outside that one prayer—is when he figures out how to speak Old Norse just from sitting around and listening to the Vikings talk for a couple hours. Now, if it’d been set over weeks and the journey had narrative weight, Warrior might have something going but of course it doesn’t because it’s terrible. And the whole translating thing really shouldn’t have been raised because initially it just makes you think Sharif’s going to be sticking around longer and he’s really just there to give the movie some actual Hollywood Middle Eastern star cred before turning it all over to not Middle Eastern Hollywood star Banderas.

Again, it’s a big shame as Sharif’s a lot of fun and he’s able to make Banderas likable in a way the film never repeats. Particularly not for Banderas’s romance with Viking woman Maria Bonnevie, which is one of those “in crisis” situation romances and lacks not just romance but any sense of humanity. Bonnevie’s not bad but you’re never happy to see her because the scenes are just bad and are somehow worse than the bad A plot.

The A plot never delivers. How two directors, cinematographer Peter Menzies Jr., and editor John Wright managed to so completely fumble the action sequences—the Vikings hunting the monsters, the monsters hunting the Vikings—is inexplicable when you consider the professional pedigree and production budget. No one wanted to spend any time figuring out how to make this movie and instead they rely on slow motion a bunch of times. Including slowing down Kulich’s battle cries at one point, which is just cringe-inducing.

If they’d done in serious, it’d have had a chance. Not with this cast, obviously, but with a serious take and a better script. Or if they’d just done it exploitation-y, maybe they couldn’t gotten some energy. The movie’s not even boring as much as it’s exhausting. It’s exhausted, it’s exhausting.

No one looks as miserable to be participating as Diane Venora, who’s got the thankless role of being a recognizable female name for the opening titles and maybe even the poster but nothing else.

The 13th Warrior is a stunning waste of time for everyone involved, viewer included.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by John McTiernan; screenplay by William Wisher and Warren Lewis, based on a novel by Michael Crichton; director of photography, Peter Menzies Jr.; edited by John Wright; music by Jerry Goldsmith; production designer, Wolf Kroeger; costume designer, Kate Harrington; produced by Crichton, McTiernan, and Ned Dowd; released by Touchstone Pictures.

Starring Antonio Banderas (Ahmed Ibn Fahdlan), Dennis Storhøi (Herger), Vladimir Kulich (Buliwyf), Maria Bonnevie (Olga), Richard Bremmer (Skeld), Tony Curran (Weath), Sven Wollter (King Hrothgar), Diane Venora (Queen Weilew), Anders T. Andersen (Prince Wigliff), and Omar Sharif (Melchisidek).


Sphere (1998, Barry Levinson)

Sphere is not a justifiable use of eighty million dollars. I don’t think you could justify spending a dollar to rent a copy to watch, much less eighty million of them to make the thing.

The big problem is the script. Whatever Kurt Wimmer (ominously credited with “adaptation”), Stephen Hauser, and Paul Attanasio did to adapt the Michael Crichton source novel does not a successful script make. It’s got ludicrous character development and bad pacing, and is artificially bewildering and exceptionally crappy to women, specifically Sharon Stone. But there’s so much to fix, so much to compensate for, director Levinson just gives up on even trying. Script’s a big problem but Levinson’s inability to crack any aspect of the project is the biggest. It’s not incompetently directed. It’s incompetently written, incompetently produced, but Levinson’s direction isn’t actually incompetent. It’s just vapid.

Vapid is the word for Levinson’s direction. He’s not interested in executing the film successfully, just executing it. At 134 minutes, it’s a bit of a chore to watch but I imagine it was even more of a chore to make with so little investment whatsoever. Amusingly lead Dustin Hoffman has a bit—apparently ad-libbed—where he explains to Samuel L. Jackson, before the government submarines them to the bottom of the Pacific Ocean to meet space aliens, Hoffman bullshitted a report about how he, Jackson, Stone, and physics whiz kid Liev Schreiber should be the ones to first contact with any space aliens. He used the money to pay for the downpayment on his house, making one wonder what everyone involved with Sphere did with their paychecks before turning in their bullshit….

Okay, that one is a little unfair. Schreiber busts his ass to show-off in a bad part. There’s also these weird optics about competitiveness between Jackson and Schreiber and it’s inexplicable why Schreiber’s got it out for Jackson. Jackson doesn’t like Schreiber because he thinks he’s obnoxious, which is fine—though Schreiber gets intentionally less obnoxious in the second act and it backfires. Schreiber’s a lot better being annoying and doing exposition dumps than not being as annoying and giving them. Of course, the second act stuff isn’t his fault exactly because the film needs its eggheads—Jackson’s a mathematician, Schreiber’s physics, Hoffman’s a psychologist, Stone’s a biochemist-to do all sorts of things you’re not sure they’d know how to do… like setting explosives, repairing underwater habitats, on the fly code-cracking—Stone’s basically a medic, they all know how to get into their underwater suits and go for solo strolls. On and on. Sphere’s got a very limited cast—seven people in a habitat next to a giant spaceship, crash landed 300 years ago, but you’d need a support crew of a dozen to get everything done in the movie you need to get done considering they’re a bunch of narcissistic academics.

But back to the Schreiber vs. Jackson thing—it feels like there are some optics. Jackson’s the Black guy in what turns into a horror movie. He’s got a predicted part in the film.

See, once they go inside the spaceship they find all sorts of weird things, including a giant gold ball and they all become obsessed with it. Except Schreiber and Man in Black boss of the mission Peter Coyote. Oh, if only Peter Coyote were good in the movie. I really think a good performance in that part would at least keep Sphere somewhat buoyant.

Because Coyote, Jackson, and Schreiber have the film’s most important parts. Hoffman’s a terrible leading man. His part seems inflated and Stone’s decreased, which is concerning. Sphere feels very poorly assembled. Stu Linder’s cuts are fine, but the pace of the film, the focus of the narrative impulse? Not good. Whatever Levinson needed to crack with Sphere in terms of characters, plotting, scares, science fictions, musics, whatever… he doesn’t. He’s got no more idea what to do with Sphere at the end than he does at the beginning.

Except to crap on Stone whenever possible. See, she was once Hoffman’s patient and so they had an affair. But he forgot to mention he was married, so he was lying to her while treating her medically. When she felt bad after their breakup and took a bunch of pills, sounds like Hoffman had her sent to electro-shock. Like, he’s a criminal. He shouldn’t just lose his license, he should be charged with something. It’s messed up.

But it’s not the subplot—the subplot is Stone is a crazy woman and no one should trust her, something Coyote rails about, Jackson rails about, Hoffman has an arc about. A vague, vague, vague arc but he definitely goes from thinking he can trust Stone in the beginning to thinking she’s psychotic by the end. With Coyote and Jackson at multiple times counseling Hoffman not to trust Stone because she’s a crazy woman.

It’s really icky.

And even more unfortunate because Stone’s really not good.

She’s got a crap part—such a crap part, just guys violently gaslighting her scene after scene—the writing’s terrible, whatever… and there’s still just something Stone doesn’t bring. Jackson’s got his part down, problematic as some of his scenes get when they think he’s Brett after Ripley let him back into the ship; he’s still got it down. When something goes wrong with Jackson’s performance, it’s the script. Schreiber’s working. Coyote and Hoffman, to differing success, just aim low in every scene and always hit that effectiveness. The least effort possible. Hoffman’s just wrong for it. You wish he weren’t wrong for it because it’d be cool if he could do it, but he can’t do it. Not with how the film’s set up, not with the bad writing, not with Hoffman’s maximum level of effort for this project.

Queen Latifah gets fifth billing and is in what ends up being the film’s best looking visual sequence. Adam Greenberg’s photography is boring, but it’s not his fault. Levinson refuses to give Sphere a visual style, horror, wonder, drama—the second act showdowns between Stone and Hoffman, better written and directed, are Bergman-esque—but it’s not a cheap looking film (save the late nineties CGI) and so it occasionally looks quite good. Latifah’s effect scene’s the one where they spend the time. Shame it’s early on and the film never tries to top it.

Because Levinson’s not trying to ape Kubrick. Worse he doesn’t even seem to acknowledge he should. A bunch of failed homage would make Sphere at least a little fun, instead of frequently upsetting. It’s a drain to watch characters start dying off during the haunted house portion of the film and no one care about it. It’s actually impossible to have less empathy for another character than the characters in Sphere have for one another. Multiple times people get informed of someone dying and the reaction not even warranting a shrug. The biggest question the film raises is, “Is the writing right now bad or lazy and how could you tell the difference?”

Of course, if Sphere were an inevitable fail, it might be fun. But there’s no reason, with a better script, with better direction, with someone else in for Peter Coyote because Coyote’s not showy enough for the part, the film couldn’t be a success. But Levinson’s not the one to do it. It’s clearly the wrong kind of dumb idea for him to fix.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Barry Levinson; screenplay by Stephen Hauser and Paul Attanasio, based on an adaptation by Kurt Wimmer and the novel by Michael Crichton; director of photography, Adam Greenberg; edited by Stu Linder; music by Elliot Goldenthal; production designer, Norman Reynolds; costume designer, Gloria Gresham; produced by Levinson, Crichton, and Andrew Wald; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Dustin Hoffman (Norman), Sharon Stone (Beth), Samuel L. Jackson (Harry), Liev Schreiber (Ted), Queen Latifah (Fletcher), Marga Gómez (Edmunds), and Peter Coyote (Barnes).


This post is part of the Out To Sea Blogathon hosted by Debbie of Moon in Gemini.

Battle at Big Rock (2019, Colin Trevorrow)

Battle at Big Rock is a reminder the Jurassic Park Franchise Part 2 isn’t over yet. It’s a suspenseful nine minutes where director Trevorrow puts the preserving lead characters in danger—a family, of course—culminating in an allosaurus about to eat a baby. There’s also the precocious kid Melody Hurd, who’s a caricature but it doesn’t matter because Hurd’s so good, which is kind of the whole thing with Big Rock. It’s marketing, but it’s well-executed marketing. It’s the promise of R-rated danger with at most PG-13 ratings. It lionizes parents to the point they should be empowered enough to bring the whole family to the next movie because of its positive messages. And it’s not like dinosaurs are real, they’re not going to eat a baby out of its crib. We can just pretend.

And it does a great job of it. Dad André Holland and Mom Natalie Martinez are perfectly good movie parents for a terrifying short about dinosaurs getting up higher than they’re supposed to be (two years since Holland and Martinez Brady Bunched, presumably because of dead spouses)—oh, it’s like A Quiet Place. Oh. That’s dumb.

Whatever. Both Holland and Martinez are fine. Once Trevorrow reassures they’re not going to be running scenes without dinosaurs too long.

Things get scary, they get desperate, then they get silly. And all of a sudden, you get an imagine of the next Jurassic World movie and you wonder if somehow Universal is trying to make itself pretty for Disney.

But it’s all well-executed. Larry Fong’s photography, Stephen M. Rickert Jr.’s editing, it feels like Jurassic Park enough. Like a good Jurassic Park commercial. Amie Doherty’s “just pretend I’m John Williams” music is good too. It’s like homage; soullessly corporate homage but… whatever, it’s nine minutes. If the ending didn’t cheap out it’d be actually good. As is… it’s not bad.

So it’s technically, if unenthusiastically,

2/3Recommended

CREDITS

Directed by Colin Trevorrow; screenplay by Emily Carmichael and Trevorrow, based on a novel by Michael Crichton; director of photography, Larry Fong; edited by Stephen M. Rickert Jr.; music by Amie Doherty; production designer, Tom Conroy; produced by Frank Marshall and Patrick Crowley; aired by FX.

Starring André Holland (Dennis), Natalie Martinez (Mariana), Melody Hurd (Kadasha), and Pierson Salvador (Mateo).


Westworld (1973, Michael Crichton)

Westworld is a regrettably bad film. It doesn’t start off with a lot of potential. Leads Richard Benjamin and James Brolin are wanting. But then writer-director Crichton starts doing these montages introducing the behind-the-scenes of the park.

Oh. Right. Westworld is about an amusement resort with humanoid robots. Benjamin and Brolin are guests. Benjamin’s not over his divorce, so he’s got to man up. Brolin’s a man of few words, less facial expression, and no mystery. Crichton’s direction of the actors in the first act should’ve been a clue for problems later on.

The behind-the-scenes procedural about the maintenance of the robots has a lot of potential. It eventually fails because the set is so poorly designed and Crichton and his cinematographer, Gene Polito, often shoot through walls. Everything looks like a set. Even when it shouldn’t, because Polito’s photography is so bad. And someone needed to explain head room to Crichton because he really doesn’t understand it.

Alan Oppenheimer plays the park supervisor. He’s okay. Okay is pretty good in Westworld. Benjamin is occasionally likable, but he’s never good. Crichton avoids him too much to ever give him the chance to be good or bad. When there’s the big chase scene–robot gunslinger Yul Brynner is out to kill Benjamin–Crichton sticks with Brynner for the first half. There’s a changeover to Benjamin after an atrociously executed ambush sequence where the footage between Benjamin and Brynner doesn’t match. It’s not just lighted differently, it’s obviously different locations because Polito and Crichton also don’t understand how depth works.

Westworld has a bunch of Western genre standards; Crichton executes them all poorly. And tediously. Every set piece in Westworld gets tedious. Crichton and editor David Bretherton can’t do the “action” sequences. They can almost do the mood sequences, when they’re showing the uncanny behind-the-scenes stuff. Then Fred Karlin’s music takes a turn for the worse and Crichton holds a shot too long and Polito’s lighting mistakes kill the verisimilitude. Westworld is a failing movie about something failing. Crichton has some great ideas. Not just for the story, but for set pieces. He just can’t execute them. He tries though. And it’s painful.

Karlin’s music is terrible. Set against Western tropes, it’s belligerently terrible. Crichton’s direction of the Western tropes is awful. It’s like he’s never seen a Western before. It’s singular, I suppose. It’s a singular way of directing action on an Old West set. It’s terrible too. Singular and terrible.

Around the halfway point, Crichton starts focusing more on Norman Bartold’s story. He doesn’t even get a name. But he’s guest in Medieval World, not Western World (Division Thirteen alert). It’s not like Bartold’s interesting–he’s trying to seduce multiple robot women without success–but Crichton still finds him more interesting than Brolin and Benjamin. And Crichton’s not wrong. They’re tiresome.

There’s a lot of future technology and Crichton does manage to showcase those effects well. He really does. It’s like forty-five good seconds of eighty-five minutes. But some of its dumb. Like when Brynner gets a visual upgrade and can see in super-pixelated vision. He can’t make out detail because the pixels are so big. Crichton does point of view with the computer visual stuff. It too kills the moment.

If there are any moments with Brynner. Crichton’s bad direction becomes clear when Brynner shows up. Along with Polito’s inability to match lighting between shots. But it’s kind of fun to pretend when Brynner’s smiling, it’s because his robot is evil. It doesn’t matter.

Because Westworld, even with killer robots and defenseless guests, has no stakes. Who cares if the guests are danger? Benjamin is divorced and no one cares. Brolin is so thin he doesn’t even have that story. Bartold maybe had an implied wife in the setup in the first act but not once Crichton decides he’s more amusing than Benjamin and Brolin. He doesn’t have a name. Oppenheimer doesn’t have a name. Dick Van Patten’s got a recurring cameo. But no name.

Westworld is like a disaster movie’s set pieces strung together. More should make it better but the film’s so terribly made, more would just be worse.

Worst of all, Westworld gets worse as it goes. It disappoints, continuously. And it’s not the story disappointing, it’s how badly Crichton directs the scenes.

Campy would help Westworld. Not much else would help, given Polito and Crichton’s risible composition choices, but camp might help.

Oh, and Majel Barrett’s good. She’s good. Ninety-nine percent of the rest isn’t.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Written and directed by Michael Crichton; director of photography, Gene Polito; edited by David Bretherton; music by Fred Karlin; produced by Paul N. Lazarus III; released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Starring Richard Benjamin (Peter Martin), James Brolin (John Blane), Norman Bartold (Medieval Knight), Alan Oppenheimer (Chief Supervisor), Dick Van Patten (Banker), Linda Gaye Scott (Arlette), Majel Barrett (Miss Carrie), Anne Randall (Daphne), and Yul Brynner (Gunslinger).


Disclosure (1994, Barry Levinson)

Disclosure is not a serious film. It’s a sensational, workplace thriller with crowd-pleasing moments. There are occasional hints at seriousness, but director Levinson and screenwriter Paul Attanasio (not to mention source novel author Michael Crichton) are more focused on providing entertainment than anything else. Michael Douglas’s protagonist is the least developed character in the entire film. His most honest moments come in brief arguments with his wife (Caroline Goodall in a good, but underwritten role) and on a phone call where the other person isn’t even present.

There are a lot of other good scenes for Douglas. The stuff when he’s talking about gender expectations in the work place with Suzie Plakson, Jacqueline Kim and Rosemary Forsyth–not to mention Roma Maffia as his lawyer–these are all great scenes. They just aren’t honest. Attanasio can write thoughtful exposition and Levinson has assembled an amazing cast to deliver it.

The film succeeds because of how the story’s layered. Levinson and Attanasio bake in all the elements they later need to have cooked for a surprise finish. They even reward the audience in advance of some of these revelations. Disclosure is practically the ideal of successful mainstream filmmaking.

As the villain, Demi Moore is almost in a glorified cameo. She lacks personality, which might have been the point. Donald Sutherland’s good in a mysterious role, so is Dylan Baker. The film’s just wonderfully acted for the most part.

Great score from Ennio Morricone, great editing from Stu Linder.

Disclosure’s good.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Barry Levinson; screenplay by Paul Attanasio, based on the novel by Michael Crichton; director of photography, Tony Pierce-Roberts; edited by Stu Linder; music by Ennio Morricone; production designer, Neil Spisak; produced by Crichton and Levinson; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Michael Douglas (Tom Sanders), Demi Moore (Meredith Johnson), Donald Sutherland (Bob Garvin), Caroline Goodall (Susan Hendler), Roma Maffia (Catherine Alvarez), Dylan Baker (Philip Blackburn), Rosemary Forsyth (Stephanie Kaplan), Dennis Miller (Mark Lewyn), Suzie Plakson (Mary Anne Hunter), Nicholas Sadler (Don Cherry), Jacqueline Kim (Cindy Chang), Joe Urla (John Conley Jr.) and Allan Rich (Ben Heller).


Jurassic Park III (2001, Joe Johnston)

Jurassic Park III is about a third of a movie. Even though it runs ninety minutes (minus however many minutes in end credits), there aren’t any characters and the running time is mostly spent on the action beats of a better movie. Instead of being a movie about genetically engineered dinosaurs left to their own devices and intruded upon, it’s a monster movie. And it’s a pretty boring one at that.

Johnston occasionally has moments of directorial flare, but few of them have to do with the action sequences. For the most part, the dinosaur action looks cheap and poorly conceived. I was shocked to read the film actually filmed in Hawaii. The terrible composite shots suggest it’s a soundstage creation.

It’s more a sequel to the second entry and references to the first seem inappropriate, regardless of Sam Neill and Laura Dern’s presences. None of the characters are likable—why do all these Jurassic Park movies need annoying kids? Trevor Morgan isn’t bad, but he’s useless. Unfortunately, many of the adults are useless; Alessandro Nivola is probably the prime example.

Why Johnston casted John Diehl and Bruce A. Young and wasted them is beyond me.

Neill’s not terrible, but he’s barely in it so who cares… I guess Téa Leoni gives the film’s “best” performance. Her or Dern in her cameo. And it’s hard to hate a film with Taylor Nichols in a bit part.

But why hire Don Davis, who composes fine scores, just to rearrange John Williams?

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Joe Johnston; screenplay by Peter Buchman, Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor, based on characters created by Michael Crichton; director of photography, Shelly Johnson; edited by Robert Dalva; music by Don Davis; production designer, Ed Verreaux; produced by Kathleen Kennedy and Larry J. Franco; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Sam Neill (Dr. Alan Grant), William H. Macy (Paul Kirby), Téa Leoni (Amanda Kirby), Alessandro Nivola (Billy Brennan), Trevor Morgan (Erik Kirby), Michael Jeter (Mr. Udesky), John Diehl (Cooper), Bruce A. Young (M.B. Nash), Taylor Nichols (Mark Degler), Mark Harelik (Ben Hildebrand), Julio Oscar Mechoso (Enrique Cardoso) and Laura Dern (Dr. Ellie Sattler).


Twister (1996, Jan de Bont)

At some point during Twister, I remembered Jack N. Green shot it–he shot a bunch of Clint Eastwood’s nineties pictures. So, Twister looks great. Jan de Bont’s a fine director, he knows how to shoot Panavision.

It’s really a lousy movie, a lousy summer action movie. It’s a perfect roller coaster movie in terms of plotting–there’s no reason to see it twice. The “ride” is the only important thing about the movie. Since it’s all special effects, the characters are anemic. It’s very boring when they try to make them likable. Philip Seymour Hoffman is crappy in it, which is surprise, given what he’s gone on to do. The entire supporting cast is awful, even people I like–Alan Ruck, for example. I suppose Todd Field is all right.

Helen Hunt and Bill Paxton are both fine. Cary Elwes is terrible, Jami Gertz is terrible.

One of the more interesting things about the film would be the sunglasses. Gertz wears dark sunglasses while Hunt wears see-through ones, it’s obviously so you can see Helen Hunt emote but not Jami Gertz–to get the audience ready to dislike Gertz.

Considering other action movies, Twister‘s not too terrible. It’s competently made; it’s got a terrible screenplay, but whatever.

It offers nothing. If it were on in the middle of the night, it’d take a lot for it to be the most compelling thing to watch. It’s so unspectacularly bad, there’s just no reason for a person to watch it.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Jan de Bont; written by Michael Crichton and Anne-Marie Martin; director of photography, Jack N. Green; edited by Michael Kahn; music by Mark Mancina; production designer, Joseph C. Nemec III; produced by Ian Bryce, Crichton and Kathleen Kennedy; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Helen Hunt (Dr. Jo Harding), Bill Paxton (Bill Harding), Cary Elwes (Dr. Jonas Miller), Jami Gertz (Dr. Melissa Reeves), Philip Seymour Hoffman (Dustin Davis), Lois Smith (Meg Greene), Alan Ruck (Rabbit), Sean Whalen (Allan Sanders), Scott Thomson (Preacher), Todd Field (Beltzer), Joey Slotnick (Joey), Wendle Josepher (Haynes), Jeremy Davies (Laurence) and Zach Grenier (Eddie).


Runaway (1984, Michael Crichton)

Given the star and the director, it shouldn’t be surprising Runaway is rather conservative. And, given the endless kissing montage over the end credits, it also appears to have been geared toward female viewers (but with Selleck, that one isn’t a surprise either). As science fiction, Runaway is very, very safe. It’s an unexciting safe. It’s even a little sturdy. While Crichton’s choice to cast Gene Simmons is ludicrous, his brand of 1980s futurism is–though obviously budget-conscious–excellent. The robots in the movie have not changed the world, they’re simply new additions to a familiar landscape. Crichton’s always been good with that aspect of science fiction filmmaking, the problems come when he’s got to come up with a plot.

Runaway, for example, does not have much of a plot. It takes place over two or three days, has countless filler sequences of Selleck in peril (in the first twenty minutes, so it seems unlikely he’s in any danger), and is kind of an extended chase story. There are some big plot holes (cops who go missing, spectacular murders unreported), but it gets, predictably, from A to B to C. Along the way, there’s some good acting from Selleck, who both manages not to look embarrassed in the silly future outfit and to maintain some decorum during his scenes with son Joey Cramer. Cramer’s performance is hilariously awful and suggests Simmons might have turned in a better one with some direction, which Crichton was apparently not providing to anyone. Cynthia Rhodes is fine, though her character is absurd. Stan Shaw and G.W. Bailey are both good in smaller roles.

What Crichton manages to do, after a while, is get some good action sequences going. There’s an excellent chase scene and, at the end, he manages to get some solid effect from a wholly predictable (and forecast in the first five minutes) sequence. Crichton’s not a dynamic director–almost every shot is a walking-and-talking shot–but he works really well with rear screen projection. Oddly, those sequences are also the only ones with really impressive work from cinematographer John A. Alonzo. The rest of the time, Alonzo shoots the movie like all they’ve got are fluorescents. Crichton’s composing his shots pre-pan and scan Panavision here, so it’s hard for there not to be a good shot every few minutes.

Most of Runaway hinges on Selleck’s likability, just because there’s very little momentum to the movie. The journey to the near future, which lasts well into the second act, is only so interesting as people are still driving pickup trucks. But for such a colorless narrative, Runaway works all right. It’s dumb, but competent in some interesting ways (though less so in some other–not interesting–ways).

1/4

CREDITS

Written and directed by Michael Crichton; director of photography, John A. Alonzo; edited by James Coblentz and Glenn Farr; music by Jerry Goldsmith; production designer, Douglas Higgins; produced by Michael I. Rachmil; released by Tri-Star Pictures.

Starring Tom Selleck (Sgt. Jack R. Ramsay), Cynthia Rhodes (Officer Karen Thompson), Gene Simmons (Dr. Charles Luther), Kirstie Alley (Jackie Rogers), Stan Shaw (Sgt. Marvin James), G.W. Bailey (Chief of Police), Joey Cramer (Bobby Ramsay) and Chris Mulkey (David Johnson).


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