Back Into The Cage: Chernobyl Diaries vs. The Awakening

The Awakening and Chernobyl Diaries happened to come in from Netflix on the same day so I watched them back to back in order to form a comparison even though, apart from the fact that they are both horror movies, they don’t have much in common.  One is a classy ghost story in the vein of The Others and the other is a lowbrow zombie picture with radioactive mutants standing in for the zombies.  So why compare them?  Because, much like Total Recall and Dredd, one of these movies succeeds and the other fails on the basis of what is and isn’t in their stories.

On the face of it, one would expect The Chernobyl Diaries to be the favorite here.  It’s got a great hook, tourists trapped in the Chernobyl support village of Pripyat run into a tribe of cannibalistic mutants with hideously deformed faces (either that or they’re wearing old gas masks.  They’re shown so fleetingly that I never got a good look at one).  One of my favorite horror movies ever was the Dawn of the Dead remake and this looked to be in the same vein.  Unfortunately, Diaries has none of the story or character depth of that film and ends up languishing in manufactured drama and overused tropes. 

Anyone can tell a story about a group of people running away from monsters.  The hard part is making viewers or readers care about the people running away from the monsters.  You see how we’re into the Total Recall territory again?  The writers lay in some artificial conflict between two brothers and a pair of newlyweds who are never really properly introduced but it’s just exterior noise. 

Watching this group of really unsympathetic young people get picked off in an increasingly ridiculous series of set pieces, I was reminded of a truly awful book and film that swept the nation a few years ago, The Ruins.  An unreadable book and a truly unwatchable movie, they both fail for the same reason Diaries does: the characters’ relatability ranges from “don’t care” to “wish she would just die already”.  Throw in a completely ridiculous monster in the form of sentient vines (or mutants who have somehow managed to survive intense radiation for several decades) and you’ve got something that is really hard to care about.

Notice I didn’t warn you about spoilers?  That’s because there is absolutely nothing to spoil. If you’ve seen the trailer for this movie, you’ve seen this movie. 

The Awakening, on the other hand, was the one I was looking least forward to seeing.  It looked like another twee British ghost story that spends most of its time going on about “The War” and “Mustard Gas” and wot-wot with a ghost thrown in every now and then for good measure.  Like the Haunting of Downton Abbey – a concept I find so horrible it would just be unimaginable.

That’s not what this is.  Much like the beautiful and powerful and sad and triumphant Pan’s Labyrinth (highly recommended, obviously) The Awakening uses the war as a backdrop for the real story.  But in this case, the war is over and the people who have survived it (and the Spanish Flu epidemic) are living with the ghosts of a million dead from a single generation. 

I’m struggling to find a way to explain how wonderful this movie is without ruining it for you.  Suffice to say that the definition of “haunted” gets a workout and the lead character is on a journey of intense discovery.  And it’s that character and that journey that give the story so much depth.

One thing to add, though, is that I’m in the minority with my fondness for this film.  Rotten Tomatoes gives it a 62% from the critics (Roger Ebert, usually one of the more reliable critics, gave it a one word review: “Whatever”) and 52% from audiences.  I attribute that to its slow pacing and gradual ratcheting up of the horror, two things that I believe add to the film rather than detract from it.  So if you’re in the mood for a quick, cheap scare, definitely go for Chernobyl Diaries.  If you’ve got the time and the patience for a really good ghost story, I recommend The Awakening.

 

Dredd Vs. Total Recall Cage Match

I watched the 2012 Dredd remake last night.  Following on the heels of the just so-so Total Recall remake, I thought this would be an interesting experiment considering the similarity of the source matter; both were remakes of cheesy 1990s Science Fiction extravaganzas staring actors known more for their physiques than their acting chops.

The original Judge Dredd is a stark reminder that once upon a time, Hollywood couldn’t make a comic book movie to save its greasy life.  In the wake of Spiderman, The Dark Knight, Thor, Captain America, Iron Man and The Avengers, that’s a little hard to believe, but it’s true.  Once the best Hollywood had to offer in the form of a comic book movie was The Fantastic Four.  I don’t know how they figured it out but the current crop of DC & Marvel movies benefits from more than just better special effects.  They benefit from excellent story structure and storytelling, as well.

The differences between the two remakes are stark.  The look of Total Recall was good but derivative.  The storytelling was rife with action tropes and, as noted before, there was a singular lack of emotional investment in the characters even though there was a romance at the heart of the story.

Everything that Total Recall gets wrong, Dredd gets right.  The oversaturated chromatics give the colors a weird metallic vibe that sets the look apart from anything else I’ve seen in a while.  I didn’t get to see this one in 3D because I was streaming it at home, but I wish I would have.  The super slow motion, overexposed scenes showing the effects of the SloMo drug must have been nearly overwhelming to the senses.  The megablocks, with their vaguely Soviet “good enough for government work” appearance, are also a better visual indicator of overpopulation than crowds of people standing in the rain.

But this blog is really about story, not about visuals, and that’s where Dredd scores well ahead of Total Recall.  Whereas Total Recall wasted a perfectly good chance to humanize their story with the romance between Quaid and Melina, the Dredd writers realized straight off that their protagonist was a nonstarter for emotional involvement.  Judge Dredd as a character is an Eastwood.  He’s not capable of dramatic change or emotional connection.  He’s more a force of nature than a person.  So they rightly focused the emotional side of the story on Dredd’s rookie partner, Cassandra. 

In the end, this is really Cassandra’s story, not Dredd’s.  Not only does she have to go through the mouth and belly of Hell, a megablock run from top to bottom by a vicious gang led by a sociopathically disinterested Ma-Ma (played perfectly by Lena Heady), she has to do it as a psychic given to taking in the thoughts of those around her.  This tower of despair is not filled with the sort of people whose thoughts would be comforting to read.

This is another good point the movie makes about overpopulation: the megablock is filled with equal parts good people and atrocious villains.  When they run out of room, people live in despair cheek to jowl regardless of their proclivities.  With no police force to protect them (Judge Dredd says early on that they can only respond to 6% of 911 calls) people are forced either into a life of crime or one of cowardice without recourse.  This is highlighted when Ma-Ma shuts the building down and traps the two Judges inside so she can kill them.  The ordinary citizens are ordered not to help or risk being killed themselves.  There follow many scenes of terrified citizens closing their doors to the Judges.

The hail of bullets destroying property and innocent bystanders alike used to be Paul Verhoeven’s signature but now pretty much every science fiction movie spends more rounds than were used in all of World War II.  This is probably because the simple act of shooting someone doesn’t have the impact it did when Dirty Harry did it.  We are too inured to gun violence for a single bullet to impress us.  Dredd uses this trope to good effect, however, to show the absolute worthlessness of human life inside the megablocks.  Ma-Ma puts the exclamation point on this statement when she uses three Gatling guns to erase a whole floor, including all its civilians, by shooting right through the concrete walls.

Cassandra’s journey from idealistic rookie to full on Judge is a good one and Dredd’s character acts as a nice signpost indicating where she’s headed should she choose to go there.  And that’s the difference between this plus-good movie and the just good Total Recall.  There’s a journey to go with the chase.

 

Returning to the Well

When Total Recall came out in 1990, my movie buddy and I launched ourselves like guided missiles to the nearest theater not because we thought this might be the mythical good Arnold Schwarzenegger movie but because we knew it would be a delicious ball of cheese – just like every other Schwarzenegger movie but only more so.  Years later I used to watch it with my daughters who also loved it for its awfulness. It’s just so Verhoevian!

When the remake came out last year, I didn’t bother going to see it because a) why? and c) it got a C from Critical Mass and a 31% from Rotten Tomatoes.  Also, Colin Farrell… I just don’t get it.  He was great in Seven Psychopaths and In Bruges but most of the time he’s little more than a talking grimace.

But I found myself with a lot of free time this weekend (read: My Lovely Assistant is out of town) and decided to stream this for a laugh.  Now, it always helps to come into a movie with low expectations but I got a solid good* experience from it.  Actually, I started to stream this on one monitor while playing Borderlands 2 on another monitor which is what I do with boring or tedious movies that I somehow feel the need to watch.  That way I can fill the empty time with run & gun only having to look over at the movie when it seems like something is about to happen.  A few minutes into the Total Recall remake, however, I shut down the stream and moved downstairs to watch it on the big screen.  In other words, I liked what I was seeing.

SPOILERS FOLLOW

It’s a remake so you’re familiar with the story enough to enjoy Kate Beckinsale’s performance as the loving wife.  That was what caught my eye at first.  Knowing that she is going to quickly turn into an ass kicking terminatrix from Hell, makes the scene tasty to behold.

The look of the film is fantastic if slightly derivative of Blade Runner, but whose fault is that Ridley Scott got it so right that no depiction of an overpopulated future can escape without comparison.  Though it is interesting that in Blade Runner, the problem was actually under-population.  The reason J. F. Sebastian has a whole hotel to himself?  Most of the population has moved to the off-world colonies.  What’s left on Earth are the super rich and the physically incapable, the people who would never chance colonization or who are physically not up to the task.

The Synthetics (the robots) have a great look, as well.  Ever since I, Robot (a truly atrocious misappropriation of a foundational science fiction novel) the design of robots in film has been awesome.

The city appears to be built on a massive suspension rig over the bombed out remains of old London (or maybe Old England, it appears to be truly enormous) so every square inch of sky is filled with structure.  The colors are muted because, as science tells us: in the future no one wears bright colors, but also because when you have too many people, humans turn into mud.  Everything has a vaguely Asian look because as Joss Whedon points out: in the future only two super powers will remain, China and the West, and their cultures will fuse into one.

Note: I’m streaming the movie on the other monitor while I’m writing this and I just noticed that the Red Light District scene is quite disturbing and not just because it’s a little derivative of Spielberg’s AI, but because of the Synthetic prostitutes.  It makes you think that the human prostitutes have to do something to compete, hence the three breasted woman.

One place this movie operates well is on the black hat side of things.  Kate Beckinsale plays the Sharon Stone role like a vengeful wife pursuing a cheating husband, the Lorena Bobbit of Terminators.  This adds some texture to what was a pretty shallow role in the original.  It doesn’t hurt that she’s also playing Michael Ironside’s role from that movie.  By blending the two, they removed two fairly flat characters and replaced them with one scary as hell ex-wife.

Also, Bryan Cranston plays evil well because he does it like a corporate executive.  Real evil in the real world doesn’t look like Ernst Stavro Blofeld.  It doesn’t wear an easy to recognize uniform and sit stroking a white Persian cat.  Evil in the real world wears a suit and tie.  It runs companies like Haliburton, BP and Enron.

The thing the remake gets wrong that the original got right, is that the relationship between Quaid and Melina gets pushed to the side in favor of the many set pieces.  Both movies are essentially one long chase scene but in the original, Quaid’s character starts to come into focus when he encounters Melina on Mars.  In the remake, Melina just sort of shows up to save him and they begin running together.

What makes J. J. Abrams’ Star Trek reboot double plus good and this movie just good?  They both have a great look, lots of eye popping action, and an intense and tricky story line, but Star Trek gives you an emotional investment that ratchets up the value of the action.  While the Total Recall remake is fun (the Wonkavator fight scene is particularly good) and pretty to look at, I don’t really care about anyone in it and that always leads to a sort of Meh feeling when the credits roll.

When you walk out of a really good action movie, what you remember is the stunts, the special effects, the chase scenes and the set pieces, but people have a tendency to forget that the reason you found all that stuff so fascinating was because you were emotionally invested in the story.  Forgetting that essential rule is why movies like this get made and the core relationship of the film gets paid little more than lip service.

* Ratings Examples

Double Plus Good: Star Trek Reboot

Plus Good: Looper

Good: Total Recall, Remake

Un-good: Sucker Punch

Plus Un-good: Troll 2

Double Plus Un-Good: The Room

So Bad It’s Good: Total Recall, Original