THE FIFTH ELEMENT (1997)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 6 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Intense Sci-Fi Violence, some Sexuality and brief Nudity

Directed by: Luc Besson

Written by: Luc Besson & Robert Mark Kamen

Starring: Bruce Willis, Gary Oldman, Milla Jovovich, Ian Holm, Chris Tucker, Charlie Creed-Miles, Brion James, Tricky, Tommy Lister Jr., Christopher Fairbank & Lee Evans

There are people who love THE FIFTH ELEMENT and people who loathe it. This sci-fi cult classic is currently celebrating its 20th anniversary and has been enjoying a big screen revival at various movie theaters. Having never actually sat through this entire movie (I know, shame on me) and being (mostly) a fan of director/writer Luc Besson, I decided to give his odd opus a go. THE FIFTH ELEMENT is goofy and some elements haven’t stood the test of time, but it remains fun and humorous nonetheless.

In the distant future of 2263, an ancient prophecy is coming to light. The fate of the world is near as a planet-sized evil approaches Earth. The only thing that can stop the deadly giant orb has come in the form of four ancient stones and a gibberish-speaking alien, nicknamed Leeloo (Milla Jovovich). When Leeloo crashes through the roof of down-on-his-luck cabbie Korben Dallas (Bruce Willis), this average guy is sucked into an adventure that involves a rogue priest (Ian Holm), an obnoxious radio host (Chris Tucker), a violent alien race, and evil weapons-dealer Zorg (Gary Oldman).

THE FIFTH ELEMENT doesn’t take itself seriously at all. The film opens with a prologue that nicely sets up the main premise, but also includes loads of comic relief and silly-looking aliens (they appear like they inspired the a few designs in 2005’s HITCHHIKER’S GUIDE TO THE GALAXY). There’s a constant sense of cheesiness throughout the film that feels deliberate and there’s rarely (if ever) a dramatic moment. Besson’s focus is on fun and he nails that aspect of this film, even if others fall by the wayside.

The visuals, aided by many special effects, bring an imaginative vision of the distant future to life. There are space cruises, layers upon layers of traffic (cars literally passing above each other), and compact apartments (that push furniture into the walls). Besson’s cinematic universe is cool to look at, but not all of the effects hold up. This is mainly true of CGI that looks very dated. The menacing evil planet appears to have come out of a Syfy Channel movie, though to be fair it was created with 1997 computer graphics. The evil alien race is brought to life through a combination of occasionally crappy CG, but mostly giant rubber suits that look pretty damn good.

THE FIFTH ELEMENT has two modes: action-packed and funny. It’s occasionally the former, until it reaches the end of a chaotic crescendo on a massive spaceship that sees many subplots colliding. The latter is a constant in the film as even gunfights have laugh-out-loud bits. One running joke about Korben’s nagging mother never ceases to be funny, while there are visual gags that are sure to guarantee a few giggles. Another series of mishaps at a space airport (in which many people claim to be Korben) is easily my favorite comedic scene in the entire film. With so much humor and action set pieces, the plot seems almost inconsequential. That’s a plus in this case, because there are convenient developments, half-assed mythologies and minor plot holes.

As far as performances go, everybody seems to be having a good time and that comes across in their acting. Bruce Willis plays Korben with his usual tough guy persona, serving as both an action hero and delivering well-timed comic zingers (a few of his best bits were improvised). Model-turned-actress Milla Jovovich gives probably the best performance of her career as an incoherent alien. Though she gets a few lines of English as the plot goes on, Jovovich’s heroine mainly acts through body language and facial expressions.

On the supporting side of things, Ian Holm is goofy as an exposition-spouting priest and occasionally gets to deliver a good laugh. Gary Oldman is allowed to ham it up as the villainous Zorg and effectively steals the show. Oldman’s over-the-top baddie gets many great scenes and I sort of wish that he had been the main antagonist, as opposed to the badly animated fiery planet that’s heading towards Earth. Mark my words, Chris Tucker (who usually annoys me to no end) actually made me laugh frequently throughout this film. This and the RUSH HOUR series might be the only films where Chris Tucker is actually funny. So there’s something to be said for that alone.

THE FIFTH ELEMENT suffers from cheesy CGI, muddled writing, and convenient plot developments. Still, this is a fun watch for viewers who are craving sci-fi entertainment that doesn’t take itself too seriously in any way, shape or form. Action and laughter are the two main elements of THE FIFTH ELEMENT. For the most part, it delivers both of those in spades. If this sounds up your alley, then this love-it-or-hate-it sci-fi cult classic may just be for you. You won’t know quite where you stand on it until you’ve seen it.

Grade: B

ALIEN (1979)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 57 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Sci-Fi Violence/Gore and Language

Directed by: Ridley Scott

Written by: Dan O’Bannon

Starring: Sigourney Weaver, Tom Skerritt, Veronica Cartwright, Harry Dean Stanton, John Hurt, Ian Holm & Yaphet Kotto

ALIEN was one of the first science-fiction horror films to be taken seriously in film. This was basically a B-movie monster story executed with A-grade talent and scares. The film launched the career of a budding Ridley Scott into the mainstream, delivered one of the best female characters to ever grace the silver screen, and spawned a movie franchise that has lasted for decades. Though this film relies on a simple story and it’s not without a few flaws, ALIEN is essential viewing for anybody who loves movies!

The crew of the spaceship Nostromo are awakened from hypersleep by a distress signal on a nearby planet. According to a clause in their work contracts, the crew must investigate and rescue anybody in distress on their way home. What appears to be a rescue mission turns into something out of a nightmare because the planet is quiet, mist-covered, and downright spooky. When one of the crew encounters an odd-looking egg and, being an idiot, bends down to take a closer look, he winds up with a living organism hugging his face. The crew, being idiots, let the possibly contaminated crew member back on board and soon enough, there’s a full-fledged, blood-thirsty alien running around the ship. It’s up to warrant officer Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) to remedy the deadly blunders of her fellow crew members.

You might have noticed ALIEN’s single problem from my plot synopsis. The spaceship is populated by characters who do really stupid things and their dumb decisions further the story along. Don’t get me wrong. ALIEN is a fantastic movie, but there are eye-rolling lapses in judgment that seem to slide purely because the story needs them to. The whole film hinges on a dumbass looking into an egg and then another moron letting that dumbass back onto the spaceship. I can let both of those stupid decisions slide, but I can’t stand Harry Dean Stanton’s redneck wandering around by himself because the script demands it. Also, The film’s most egregious example of stupid decisions has one sobbing character refusing to get out of the alien’s way, thus resulting in two deaths. It’s been nearly 20 years since I first saw ALIEN and this moment still seems stupid to me.

With my complaints out of the way, let me dive into ALIEN’s great qualities and there are plenty to be praised! The first one is Sigourney Weaver’s protagonist Ripley. She’s a strong heroine who kicks ass and doesn’t take crap from any other crew member on the ship. She easily seems like the most sensible person of the bunch and we root for her to live from her first appearance. Weaver is basically playing a slasher final girl on a spaceship and does this with a bad-ass persona. Another performance worth praising is Ian Holm as creepy scientist Bishop. You know something isn’t right about him from his first interaction and though his most memorable scene has already been spoiled by plenty of people throughout the decades, Holm still remains unnerving in the role.

What’s most impressive about ALIEN is how much it accomplished with simple technology and effects capabilities of its time. Ridley Scott employed everyday appliances like rubber gloves (for the movement inside the egg), puppets (for the early born alien), milk (for Android’s blood), various animal guts (for pieces of the facehugger), and miniatures/models (for spaceships and planets). However, none of that is what appears on the screen. What we see is another world, freaky organisms, and visceral gore. ALIEN easily has the best effects to come out of the 1970s!

The spectacular effects come to a head when talking about the film’s titular monster. This is a creature feature after all and a lot of the scares hinge on the creature. Using an unforgettable design by H.R. Giger, the Xenomorph is easily one of the greatest monsters to be brought to life by a man in a suit. That man, Bolaji Badejo, was unnaturally skinny and very tall. This brought an eerie effect to the monster and Scott purposely picked Badejo because he didn’t want the eye to naturally think that a person could possibly be portraying the long-headed, two-mouthed Xenomorph. This monster still freaks me out in certain scenes, the biggest of which is easily Dallas (Tom Skeritt) hunting it in the ship’s air ducts. That entire sequence is masterfully executed and delivers one of the best jump scares in cinema history.

While later entries in the series would take a more action-based approach to the material, ALIEN is like a slasher film in space that features a monster and haunted house scares. It’s a nearly perfect combination of science fiction and horror, with a handful of stupid character decisions marking the film’s only flaws. The monster is iconic. Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley is one of the best heroines to ever hit the silver screen. The special effects still look amazing. The scares are effective. The filmmaking is masterful. Simply put, ALIEN is one of the best creature features ever!

Grade: A

EXISTENZ (1999)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 37 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Strong Sci-Fi Violence and Gore, and for Language

Existenz poster

Directed by: David Cronenberg

Written by: David Cronenberg

Starring: Jennifer Jason Leigh, Jude Law, Ian Holm, Don McKellar, Callum Keith Rennie, Sarah Polley & Willem Dafoe

Though he might be known for his dark dramas today, a strong argument can be made that David Cronenberg single-handedly pioneered the sub-genre of body-horror on film. From disturbing early efforts like SHIVERS, THE BROOD and VIDEODROME to his far more mainstream remake of THE FLY, Cronenberg has never been a director afraid to get his hands dirty with a few bodily fluids all while throwing more than a little social commentary into his work. EXISTENZ is Cronenberg’s final body-horror film before totally making it into art-house dramas and though it might not be at the peak of his bizarre masterpieces, it’s a damn fine note to go out on. This film is pretty much VIDEODROME with video games and that’s not a bad thing in the slightest.

MSDEXIS EC007

In the near-future, video games has taken a disturbing new turn. There is no such things as consoles with remote controls anymore, because why would you need that when you can just literally stick yourself into a game (or stick the game into you). Nifty body modifications, called Bioports, are holes drilled into your spine and you’ll just insert something that resembles an umbilical cord into said hole to play whatever game you choose. Not surprisingly, a faction of radical folks called Realists (some real subtle social commentary) have risen up and are making violent movements against this abomination of reality. Allegra Gellar is a highly influential gaming designer testing out her new product (titled Existenz) when an assassination attempt is made on her life. Rescued by trainee Ted Pikul, the two go on the run. Gellar is suspicious that her new game may have been damaged or corrupted so the two decide to “play” it and from there on the movie turns into a fever dream of surrealism and nightmarish body-horror.

MCDEXIS EC006

EXISTENZ asks certain suspension of belief from the viewer, but not in a bad way. We are thrust into a world where body modifications and video games are one and the same. All sorts of oddities are given that we’re automatically forced to accept as viewers. There’s a two-headed reptile creature that’s just sort of kept as a pet and no real answer is brought up to exactly what this thing is…aside from it’s a friggin’ two-headed reptile. There’s a ton of creativity here and any lesser filmmaker could have just wallowed in Cronenberg’s little ideas that are merely set-up to the bigger picture at hand. The body-horror, though not nearly as gory or graphic as VIDEODROME or THE BROOD, manages to be every bit as insane and disturbing as Cronenberg’s earlier efforts. I mean, the idea that you’re literally modifying your body to play a video game is creepy enough, but it progressively gets even freakier with organic systems being plugged into you and other biological twists (including the erotic licking of someone’s Bioport hole and a skeletal gun that shoots teeth for bullets).

MSDEXIS EC011

As you might imagine any film that deals with escaping reality will inevitably ask the question of what reality means. 1999 was a year in which many films asks philosophical questions about what constitutes our existence. Besides EXISTENZ, there was the far more popular MATRIX and the criminally underrated THIRTEENTH FLOOR. Each of these films morphed its science fiction concept into something wholly unique and Cronenberg uses conspiracy theories as his little spin in the plot. Even when our characters are not being hunted in the real world, they are being pursued through the world of Existenz by threatening forces. The script comes off as convoluted, but there’s no denying that was entirely intentional. As a whole, the movie is about our characters escaping reality (or as one of them calls it: “a cage”) and trying to find their way back to it…which may or may not work in their favor.

MCDEXIS EC007

There are a couple of flaws that do stick out in EXISTENZ though. Jude Law is enjoyable as Pikul, even if his character is a bit of a whiny pansy at the start. Willem Dafoe and Ian Holm have brief appearances that I’d argue are wasted, but they make the most of the screen time they’ve been given. However, Jennifer Jason Leigh is wooden as the gaming genius Geller. Though it’s mentioned near the beginning that she’s antisocial and that quality leads to her nervous character quirks, there’s a distinct line between playing a character and bad acting. I think that Leigh crosses that line on numerous occasions in this film delivering philosophical rantings about the benefits of extreme gaming in a wooden way. I can also see people being slightly pissed about this movie’s ending and yeah, I’ll admit that it can be seen as a bit of a cop-out. However, I felt this was the only logical way that Cronenberg could have concluded the already twisted and bizarre story.

MSDEXIS EC008

EXISTENZ may not be Cronenberg’s best film, but it’s a damn fine conclusion to his body-horror period of filmmaking. Shades of VIDEODROME can definitely be seen throughout (from organic guns to hallucinatory nightmare logic), but EXISTENZ remains a mighty original and insane ride. The acting from Jennifer Jason Leigh can be a little wonky and some folks might not be satisfied by the ending, but there are so many ways that one can interpret this film (I won’t go into specifics for fear of spoilers) and each of those readings is completely valid. Overall, EXISTENZ is a gleefully crazed ride loaded with violent twists and strange turns. The subtext might not exactly be subtle, but that’s part of the enjoyment. Highly recommended!

Grade: A-

THE LORD OF THE RINGS: THE RETURN OF THE KING (2003)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 3 hours 21 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Intense Epic Battle Sequences and Frightening Images

ReturnKing poster

Directed by: Peter Jackson

Written by: Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens & Peter Jackson

(based on the novel THE RETURN OF THE KING by J.R.R. Tolkien)

Starring: Elijah Wood, Sean Astin, Andy Serkis, Ian McKellen, Viggo Mortensen, Cate Blanchett, John Rhys-Davies, Bernard Hill, Billy Boyd, Dominic Monaghan, Orlando Bloom, Hugo Weaving, Liv Tyler, David Wenham, Karl Urban, Ian Holm & Marton Csokas

When Peter Jackson’s adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s LORD OF THE RINGS trilogy was announced, everyone in the fantasy circuit probably went crazy. This sounded like a movie deal that was too good to be true. After all, this was a three-year laid out in advance. While all three films were shot simultaneously, they were distributed for three consecutive Christmases in a row. FELLOWSHIP was a solid start to the series, but lacked a natural flow and felt like an obligatory introduction in areas. TWO TOWERS is my favorite of the trilogy with the most exciting and dark material being covered from the entire Middle Earth saga. However, RETURN OF THE KING is the film that walked away with 11 Academy Awards (including Best Picture). Though it remains more of a technical achievement than any of the other films, KING fumbles in the home stretch with a running time that feels too drawn out (made worse by an ending that can’t decide what it wants to be).

MCDLOOF EC141

The journey is drawing to a close as the ring of power nears possible destruction and peace for Middle Earth is becoming a real possibility. Frodo, Sam and (the not so trustworthy) Gollum are getting closer to the fires of Mount Doom. As Frodo becomes slowly corrupted by the ring, tensions between him and Sam grow. Gollum enacts a diabolical plan to get his precious ring back. While all of this is happening, the last battles are upon those few who remain from the original Fellowship and Aragorn is mustering up what it takes to reclaim his crown at one of the last kingdoms of men. This all leads to, of course, epic battles and a conclusion that will decide the fate of Middle Earth once and for all.

MCDLOOF EC093

TWO TOWERS delivered in bringing one of the best battle scenes ever in Helm’s Deep. That hour-long conflict would be hard to beat in a follow-up film, so Jackson’s solution is simple. He’s pretty much stretched out a majority of this three-plus hour film into two separate battle sequences. Scenes of Frodo and Sam trying to make it to Mount Doom are intercut, but the battles themselves are quite awesome. Adding another layer of tension is a crazed Steward who doesn’t want to give up his position of power for Aragorn as the rightful ruler. KING has plenty of moments that seem tailor-made to get the viewer to cheer and they work effectively. It’s nice to see cocky villains who you’ve been pissed at for most of the trilogy (or just this movie) get their comeuppances. One specific scene caused the entire theater to burst into applause when I first saw this back in 2003 and that moment still holds up perfectly to this day!

MCDLOOF EC147

This final film is loaded with appropriate pay-off for the whole trilogy. It’s nice to see story-arcs that have been building for over 6 hours (when you combine the running time of the previous two films) turn out to be worth the wait. The best of these lies with Frodo, Sam and Gollum though. The identity of the mysterious “she” that Gollum mentioned in his cryptic dialogue with himself at the end of TWO TOWERS comes to fruition in a scene that features probably the scariest creature of the entire series (which is saying a lot). This long suspenseful sequence also gets one of the biggest applause-worthy moments in its final minutes.

MCDLOOF EC265

Peter Jackson keeps an epic scale fully in tact for this finale to his original Middle Earth trilogy (way before three-film adaptation of  THE HOBBIT was even announced). This also contributes to the only problem that keeps RETURN OF THE KING from perfection in my eyes. The running time is unbelievably bloated and that all comes in the final 40 minutes. Spanning over three hours in length, Jackson feels the need to throw 5 different endings into the conclusion. It’s almost like he didn’t want to end the story, so he kept filming different final scenes and decided to loop them all together in the actual movie. Some of these details are so minute and insignificant (including Bilbo’s departure to the elf paradise and even going as far as Sam’s wedding) they become annoying. In this sense, Peter Jackson slightly wears out his welcome. When you’ve got 40 minutes of wrap-up scenes, there’s a big issue with the storytelling at hand.

MCDLOOF EC154

I don’t love RETURN OF THE KING as much as most other RINGS fans and the reason why might be considered a relatively simple complaint. The film slightly overstays its welcome in its (multiple) ending(s). The battles definitely up the action from the stellar Helm’s Deep sequence in TWO TOWERS and scenes that almost seem guaranteed to receive an applause in the theater still hold up flawlessly. It has been a lot of fun to watch character arcs develop and play out naturally over a 9-hour-plus trilogy (which is one hour shy of one season of GAME OF THRONES). Perhaps, the overlong climax is a prime example of too much of a good thing that ultimately becomes a problem. In the end, RETURN OF THE KING is a highly satisfying conclusion to a supremely successful trilogy of fantasy epics.

Grade: A-

THE LORD OF THE RINGS: THE FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING (2001)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 58 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Epic Battle Sequences and some Scary Images

FellowRing poster

Directed by: Peter Jackson

Written by: Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens & Peter Jackson

(based on the novel THE FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING by J.R.R. Tolkien)

Starring: Elijah Wood, Ian McKellen, Viggo Mortensen, Sean Astin, Liv Tyler, Cate Blanchett, John Rhys-Davies, Billy Boyd, Dominic Monaghan, Orlando Bloom, Christopher Lee, Hugo Weaving, Sean Bean, Ian Holm & Andy Serkis

In 2001, Peter Jackson released a first chapter in the most ambitious undertaking in the history of fantasy film. LORD OF THE RINGS exploded into a cultural phenomenon and went on to receive universal acclaim from both critics and audiences alike. The original Middle Earth trilogy ranges in its quality, but all three films are notable in their own way. If I had to pick a least favorite entry though, it would be FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING. While this first epic introduces the viewer into a world of magic and wonder, the lengthy run-time and formulaic storytelling are a couple of kinks in an otherwise steady beginning to one of the most celebrated cinematic trilogies ever constructed.

MSDLOOF EC014

Middle Earth is a land populated by different creatures and filled with magic. Times weren’t all bright and cheerful as a dark era has long since past. Something survived from those bleak times. That wicked survivor is the spirit of the Dark Lord Sauron. A powerful ring exists that, if Sauron were to posses again, will lead to the destruction of Middle Earth. This ring was lost for thousands of years but somehow landed into the possession of the hobbit Bilbo Baggins. The tiny object has now been passed onto his nephew, Frodo. Frodo and a group of individuals are charged with getting this one ring to the fires of Mount Doom (the only place where it can be destroyed). This fellowship of the ring (as an elf leader prolifically puts it) includes four hobbits (Frodo included), Aragorn (a man with a mysterious past), Legolas (an elf and master bowman), Gimli (an axe-wielding dwarf), and Gandalf the Grey (a powerful wizard). The fellowship begin their quest and find that many perils lie at the start of their journey.

MSDLOOF EC032

FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING is a beautiful film to look at. Peter Jackson brings a world only thought possible in the pages of a book to life. Through gorgeous New Zealand locations and stunning effects, Middle Earth is right in front of the viewer’s eyes the whole time. Talented actors become their roles as well. The best of which is definitely Ian McKellen as Gandalf the Grey. Viggo Mortensen, Orlando Bloom, and John Rhys-Davies almost form a three musketeers sort of trio as Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli. The only real weak links come in Elijah Wood as Frodo. He comes off as a wussy protagonist, especially when compared to every interesting person around him. It might be argued that this was required for his character, but his delivery still seems a little forced in moments.

MSDLOOF EC035

One arguable problem is clear in FELLOWSHIP’s formulaic storytelling that becomes apparent in the second half. The plot pretty much moves into a rinse, lather, repeat mode of the group encountering one threat and then moving on, where they only encounter another threat. In this sense the viewer is moving from set piece to set piece. This isn’t necessarily a bad tactic, but it does get distracting when it’s so obvious that it’s being used. The dangers are creative, including my personal favorites of an almost invincible cave troll and a towering demon, but other threats almost seem like throwaway monsters. This is especially seen in one sequence with an octopus-like beast that randomly pops up from a lake for the sole purpose of causing a little havoc.

MSDLOOF EC021

While I don’t find the film to be the masterpiece that most diehard fans claim it is, FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING is a technical masterwork in the sheer nature of bringing a mystical world to life in the most detailed way imaginable. The beginning of any trilogy usually suffers from the syndrome of leaving the viewer wanting more, which can be both positive (wanting the story to continue) and negative (wanting a more satisfying conclusion). FELLOWSHIP has a couple of issues that might detract from the overall awe-inspiring factor of it thanks to storytelling and a so-so protagonist, but remains a very good film that has stood the test of over a decade of time passing. Fantasy fans who haven’t checked this out (I can’t imagine there are many), would do well to introduce themselves to Middle Earth with FELLOWSHIP.

Grade: B+

Blog at WordPress.com.

Up ↑