Published at: June 15, 2001, 2:51 a.m. CST by staff
Hey, everyone. "Moriarty" here with some Rumblings From The Lab.
So... here we are. Another summer weekend, 2001, and there's another couple of big-budget blockbusters being released for your viewing... pleasure. I reviewed ATLANTIS: THE LOST EMPIRE yesterday. Short version, for those just joining us, I thought it was okay. Not great. Not awful. Okay. And this summer, that seems to be the equivalent of saying, "Better than oxygen! It's not just a movie! It's essential for my continued life on this planet!" The other film opening is a movie that I have a history with here on AICN.
Let's review that history, shall we?
First up, there's my script review, written after getting my hands on a production draft of the script. Here's a choice phrase from early on in the piece:
"Simon West. Okay. CON AIR and THE GENERAL'S DAUGHTER. Got it. Not exactly a resume that fills me with confidence. Still, anyone can flounder without the right material. He's certainly not a terrible filmmaker."
I'd like to go on the record to say that I was wrong. He is indeed a terrible filmmaker.
I don't apologize for that first review. I've read the script twice since then, and I think it's a very confident, stylish piece of action writing. The emphasis on characterization is strong, and it really did feel like something that could be special onscreen. This has happened to me before, though, and it's depressing when it does. It's depressing when you read something and you see how well it could work, then end up confronted with an absolute failure to realize that script when you see the final film. The last time there was a situation like this... great script, the right cast, they looked good in the photos we saw... and then the film just stank... it was THE AVENGERS.
And that's the film this reminds me of the most. THE AVENGERS.
Allow me to say that again, in case I haven't convinced you to avoid it yet. THE AVENGERS. Uma. Ralph. Sir Bond hisself.
Let me make this perfectly clear. Simon West is a profoundly untalented feature film director. He is possessed of neither narrative sense or visual accumen. He has managed to make three films on a progressively unpleasant sliding scale of unwatchability. He makes Michael Bay look like Kubrick. If he is allowed to direct THE PRISONER, he will ruin another promising franchise before it gets started. If you are reading this and you are in any way involved with THE PRISONER, I beg you... stop him. Stop him before he kills again.
Actually, it's funny. I've been talking with other critics for the last week about this film, all of us sort of waiting out the press embargo and comparing reactions, and I've been telling people that the venom was turned up too high, that they were overreacting. And in all this time, I've been just sort of letting it simmer. But now that I really think about the wasted opportunity here, I am mad. I am actively offended.
When I visited Lloyd Levin last month during the frenzy of post-production on the film, I wrote about my impressions of what I saw then, and the presence of Stuart Baird in the process gave me confidence that even if West had dropped the ball, at least there was someone working on the film to repair the damage.
But we're not talking about a few scenes where he didn't get the right coverage or a case where he's maybe not as sharp with actors as he could be. We're talking about someone taking some of the most exquisite locations imaginable and making them all look like cheap Burbank soundstages. We're talking about someone who seems to be genetically unable to figure out what to shoot during an action sequence. In brief flashes, here and there, West is capable of an image or a series of images that works. There's a build-up to a break-in at Croft Manor where Lara is simply bouncing on a bungee set-up in the main foyer of the house, and the use of Bach there and the way Angelina enjoys that quiet moment, it's a lovely little break before the storm. Unfortunately, it's a shitstorm that comes sweeping in, as West manages to forget even the most basic of details that made the scene work on paper. For example, the guys are all wearing what? Infrared goggles? That help you see where? In the dark? SO WHY IS THE WHOLE SCENE BRIGHTLY FREAKIN' LIT?!
But wait. How do I know it's Simon West's fault? After all, over on FilmJerk.com, they just ran a report about West's reaction at the Portland screening that gave us our first few reviews of the film here at AICN. Here's what "Bone" had to say about the Portland screening and West's reaction to seeing the film:
"When it was over, I kid you not, he came out of the auditorium screaming and yelling saying, 'This movie is a piece of shit' and 'No one's going to like
this fucking movie.' He immediately got on the phone and called the editors
to tell them to get their asses on the next flight out to our theatre. They
arrived quicker than the paparazzi at any Madonna attended function and
began to chop the film up. Cutting here and splicing there."
Oh, stop it. Just stop it. Having tantrums in front of an audience of 800 just so everyone understands that you aren't happy with the movie is childish, and it should give any producer pause when dealing with this guy. The fact is, they brought in someone else to help get this film ready, someone with more experience and style than West, and now he's not happy with the final film. It's not like they remade it, though. Their hands were tied by what was shot, and this film has a uniformly bad eye. I like the opening sequence with the robot SIMON, and I like the first moments of the bungee ballet, and there's about 40 seconds of a giant stone Buddha standing up that made me wonder what Ray Harryhausen would be doing if he were one of the big guns for hire right now, but other than that, West genuinely appears to be puzzled by even the most basic sense of spatial relationships in a scene or even the thinnest veneer of normal human interaction.
The heart of this script was very simple: a girl loses her father and grows up trying to not only be him, but also daring danger with everything she does. She's set on the path of an adventure that could reunite her with her long-dead father, but destroy the world in the process, and for the first time in her life, she's left to make a moral choice. Kick ass action in amazing locations ensues. IT'S NOT THAT HARD. It worked on the page because there was a wit to the way everyone was portrayed as grey, ambiguous in affiliation, and Lara herself was dangerous, always doing the unexpected.
Angelina Jolie, a talented actress and a spot-on perfect choice for this lead, is stranded here. She has mood boobs that seem to grow bigger and smaller at several points in the film depending on what's going on. Every single scene in the movie is directed like an entrance. Remember the moment in RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK where Indy uses his whip to take the gun from the guy, and when he turns around and we finally see his face, it's this great reveal? Well, imagine if Spielberg had then reintroduced Indy to us in every subsequent scene in the movie. Imagine if every time we cut to Indy, he was hanging out at his house, and we had to do grand establishing crane shots each time, just to reestablish that, yes, he is at home, and yes, it still looks like this. Angelina lets her smile do it all, and it's a shame. She was the right choice to give some pretense of depth to a video game character, and instead she seems to have aimed at giving a performance of absolutely no soul.
In BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA, John Carpenter was well aware of the psychotic level of insane exposition that had to be communicated by his characters, so he directed them to play it like an old Howard Hawks film and just rattle it off at machine-gun pace. West never figures out a way to make the nonsense palatable here. You either have to acknowledge the absolute madness of a script like this and play it like BUCKAROO BANZAI or HUDSON HAWK (a movie that is exponentially more fun than this one), or you have to actually take the time to make us believe. TOMB RAIDER does neither. Instead, it tosses plot at us in ungraceful chunks and just lays there, inert, like we're watching someone play a game for us with a cheat guide open and steering them through. There's no tension. Everything is just handed to Lara, and we're never once engaged, because we never once actually know what the hell is happening.
Why is Noah Taylor in this film? Why is Chris Barrie in this film? Why does Iain Glenn give such an incredibly painful performance as the bad guy in this film?
Where is the sense of fun?
Oh, phooey. Phooey on spending any more time on this. Phooey on trying to pick through it and find something to hold onto, something that justifies my early enthusiasm. I'll tell you what... normally I would spend more time on this post-mortem. I would try to make sense of how something gets this ballsed up from page to stage. But I just don't have the wind for it tonight. It's depressing to be this wrong about a movie, especially when you're holding out hope in an already lackluster season.
TOMB RAIDER is neither the end of modern cinema nor the guilt-free pleasure machine that lifelong tit fan Roger Ebert paints it as. It is a lifeless movie from a truly horrible commercial filmmaker. It is a misstep in the starring career of a promising lead actress. And it's a major setback for two producers who have a great slate of material. I hope this ends up being an expensive lesson that spurs everyone involved to do better things in the future.
Except Simon West. You just try and make THE PRISONER, buddy, and "expand the concept to an international stage." See if you don't get a visit from an Evil Genius, a herd of henchmen, and a big white ball named ROVER.