Friday, July 18, 2008

Hancock and the Golden Wall-E

Yes indeedy, the summer movie season is here, and with it we have a spate of films that are overstuffed with special effects, action set pieces, and--somewhat surprisingly--story. But this is not necessarily a good thing.

The last three movies D and I have seen--Wall-E, Hellboy II: The Golden Army, and Hancock--all suffer from an excess of good material. It's as if the filmmakers couldn't decide what story they wanted to tell, and just decided to blend everything together in the script-o-matic. The end results contain bits of interesting premises, but those bits are floating in a vaguely incoherent story-like substance. Or, to use another metaphor: too many dots, not all connected.

I wouldn't say any of them was bad, but you can probably wait for DVD to see for yourself.

(MINOR SPOILERS BELOW)

The worst offender, in terms of underdeveloped story and character, is Hellboy II. I really liked the first Hellboy movie, which managed to preserve much of the feeling of the original comic while also adding its own flourishes. But for the sequel, director Guillermo del Toro went a little overboard on art direction and makeup design--there are some amazing creatures which appear on screen for less than five minutes.

I'm glad Guillermo is getting the budget to play with stuff like this, and the movie looks beautiful, but there are literally half a dozen different subplots which all get shortchanged along the way. If you're going to see any of these three films on the big screen, go for Hellboy II. It's gorgeous.

Hancock, on the other hand, features some of the worst superhero-flying visual effects I've ever seen. I'm not talking about how Will Smith's character flies like the drunkard he is--that's actually a nice touch. I'm talking about the quality of the computer graphics and compositing. The lighting doesn't match between elements, and foreground object edges ring like crazy. It's surprisingly subpar for a big movie like this.

And even if you haven't seen the movie, I'm sure you've heard about the big left turn it takes in the second half. After reading a synopsis of the original screenplay (which was written in 1996 and titled--I'm not even kidding--Tonight, He Comes) and looking at the writing credits for the finished film, it seems obvious that X-Files alumnus Vince Gilligan smothered newcomer Vy Vincent Ngo's spec with half-baked mythology in the hopes of making it--well, something else. It didn't quite work.

D has a higher opinion of the final product than I do. I agree with her assertion that just three additional scenes would have filled in the biggest plot holes, but I don't think merely connecting the dots would have helped this movie to the next level. We never really find out who Hancock is--we do learn his origin, but we never get to know his character.

Wall-E has the opposite problem. The film has a nearly perfect first act. It starts with a show tune--"Put on Your Sunday Clothes" from Hello, Dolly--and introduces us to the titular robot with no dialogue at all. You could say this is the movie Pixar was destined to make; "Luxo Jr.," the animated short film that put them on the map, was all about making an emotional connection between the audience and an anthropomorphized desk lamp, using nothing but movement and a few sound effects.

Unfortunately, this film also takes a bit of a left turn halfway through. It's not quite as egregious as Hancock; in Wall-E's case, it's like the writers felt they needed to graft on a second story that featured more talking, almost as if they didn't have confidence that non-speaking robots could carry the whole movie. The addition isn't nonsensical or even a tonal shift, but it felt somewhat unnecessary and oversimplified to me.

Part of the problem is, I'm sure, that I've read much more science fiction than the kids at whom Wall-E is aimed. I know from generation ships and environmental apocalypses and mutinous ship's computers. It was fun to see the references to 2001: A Space Odyssey and Logan's Run and Star Trek, but I would have liked more exploration of the underlying concepts along with copying the imagery. These particular Big Ideas aren't new to me, so I want a little more depth in their presentation.

I know everyone is gushing about Wall-E, but I'm a bit disappointed with Pixar this time around. They usually spend years perfecting their stories and pinpointing the hearts and souls of their characters*, and I feel like they shortchanged their main character to spend time on a very standard, MacGuffin-fueled third act. There were so many other, more interesting things in the movie they could have developed. I'm still waiting for the next great science fiction film to come along and wow me.

~CKL

* Cars is the exception that proves the rule.
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