Friday, April 14, 2006

Zombies down under and Spielberg's folly

For a short time, I had an Australian rooommate in college. He delighted me with some beyond-Paul Hogan-and-Yahoo Serious Aussie knowledge, such as how Volkswagen Buses are called 'combies,' aboriginees are called 'abbies' and the folk from the rural northwest are their version of rednecks. He neglected to reinforce my confidence in what Australian filmmakers can do with a measly budget and some inspired ideas: a rare opportunity for them to show us Yanks up. Over 25 years ago this fact was brought to life with Mad Max (which has a long overdue post coming up . . . hopefully) and forever stamped with Rabbit-Proof Fence. But who knew that those Tropic of Capricorn-straddlers (I ran out of synonyms, sorry) could come up with a zombie movie so original and fun -- and without the aid of Bruce Campbell?

I speak of Undead, which I finally saw yesterday. Funded without any studio aid, 'Undead' has a story -- and even a look-- that feels like a video game, and I mean that in the best possible way. For such a funds-strapped project, 'Undead' is filled with clever SciFi channel-grade CGI effects which never detract from its bold story, but give it a more fun atmosphere. The Spierig Brothers took an approach to 'Undead' that should be a prerequisite of any zombie movie: come original and don't apologize. Instead of putting its characters in a series of backed-into-the-corner surrounded by zombies moments, 'Undead' uses zombie battle scenes sparingly -- because it actually has a story to tell. Instead of a chemical truck overturning and awaking the dead, you get a superb interstellar mystery that twists believeably around and back until the final shot.

What originally drew me to this movie a couple years ago was a description of its hero: Marion is your average Aussie loner, but he carries three shotguns fashioned together to allow for easy tri-shotgun shooting and reloading. Neat. 'Undead' also carries my new favorite zombie-slaying scene, ever: our other hero is trying in vain to fight off zombies with a broom handle in a hardware store, when the end of itself accidentally attached through the hole of a buzz saw blade. With the blade at a slight angle, our femme fatale embarks on an artistic zombie butchering, climaxing with an Australian flag floating to the floor behind her.

I was excited to see 1941 because it seems to have risen -- in some circles at least -- to the exclusive club of elite failures inhabited only by the likes of Heaven's Gate, Cleopatra and the Edsel. At this point in Steven Spielberg's career -- having just made two super hits both critically and commerically in Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Jaws -- he entered the rare realm of being able to do any project he damn well wishes, a luxury he would enjoy for the rest of his career. With this power, Spielberg unleashed an overweight and wrought lead zeppelin of a would-be comedy/historical epic.

Just watching '1941,' it's obvious that it was one of the red-headed stepchildren of the late 70s, Star Wars-era Hollywood, when studios were gradually growing eager to throw around previously-unheard of budgets. This is one of the main problems with '1941,' its stubborn intent on using as many big-name actors in scene after scene of overflowing sets and over-the-top mayhem. The latter can be used for great effect (see 'The Blues Brothers'), but here it just becomes tiresome. For example, in one completely needless scene, Dan Aykroyd's character observes that an air raid is about to commence in Los Angeles, but the lights are still on, so he and others opt to destroy all the neon lights and street lamps in downtown L.A. This is neither funny, nor interesting, and it probably cost about $5,000,000 of shooting time and effects.

'1941' decides from the opening shot that it's going to be a zany, outrageous comedy filled with many people running into things which later explode. The intentions are sometimes good -- such as Robert Stack's general announcing to a crowd at an air base that there will be no bombing on American soil, only to have a stray B-52 bomb roll into his podium -- but even that joke takes so much time to setup that it leaves you literally waiting for the predictable punchline, and when it arrives, it doesn't even matter. Spielberg fills the movie with about 10 too many characters and 4 too many storylines. Aykroyd and John Candy have promising roles, but never have enough screentime to do anything interesting. John Belushi's character is funny and is plenty of scenes, but is pretty much giving us the same joke every time. Even my man Warren Oates, has a fun role, but we only see him for two scenes. Hell, I wouldn't have even known Christopher Lee was in the movie if I hadn't seen the credits because his character is always seen in darkness and all we can really make out is his chin.

Maybe Spielberg needed to get this one out of his system, he would never again attempt a straight comedy in his career.

1 comment:

patrick dubya said...

I really enjoy your DVD reviews. I have a new blog where i have been reviewing DVDs and films. I think your reviewing style is similar to mine and if you have time, please take a look:
I only have a few thus far, but will hopefully have new reviews up regularly. Thanks