If aliens have been looking down on Earth, watching us with love and amusement over the last few million years (as so many movies have told us they are), they will surely be very worried about recent developments in our culture and what it all means for us as a species. I know I am.
On the surface, the cinematic trend towards “torture porn” films like Hostel and Saw – and their even more dismal cousin The Collector – betrays a weird human human ability to take pleasure in the extreme pain of others that is at odds with how we most of us actually live our lives. I’m curious. What does it all mean?
This was the question I found myself asking as I watched Kevin Greutart’s Saw VII on Saturday afternoon (I say “watched” as, per usual, I found myself staring at the cinema EXIT signs during the more gruesome passages). On closer inspection it’s clear that what we have here is an Old Testament-style morality tale, updated for the attention-deficit, sensation-seeking, modern generation.
In just under an hour and a half it incorporates three separate but parallel threads: the punishment of a fraudulent self-help book author (Sean Patrick Flanery) who has made a fortune pretending to be a victim of the demented but inventive Jigsaw; another chapter in the long-running soap opera about Jigsaw’s legacy featuring his widow (Betsy Russell), his cop accomplice (Costas Mandylor) and the detective on their trail (Chad Donella), and a couple of random “games” (as they are known in Saw-world) where bad people are dismembered in order that they learn some kind of lesson.
Culturally interesting? Yes. Worth watching? No. This is supposedly the final Saw movie in the franchise (yeah, right) but it seemed lacklustre to me, as if the team’s heart wasn’t really in it. Maybe it had been ripped out in a previous “game”.
Equally depressing from a cultural point of view – and equally by-the-numbers for that matter – is Hall Pass, the latest comedy from The Farrelly Brothers (The Coens of body-waste jokes). Owen Wilson (looking like he should be put back on suicide watch) and Jason Sudeikis play two Rhode Island schmoes trapped in happy marriages to gorgeous Jenna Fischer and Christina Applegate respectively.
The plot demands that they are given a week off from marriage (the Hall Pass of the title) so that they can sleep with as many women as possible and get their roving eyes out of their system. Or something. Of course, boring middle aged guys don’t tend to get a lot of action – that’s why they got married in the first place I suppose – and the week turns into a bit of a disaster with marriage-affirming lessons learned on all sides.
I found Hall Pass to be lazy, insulting and not even remotely funny, but at least I saw it in an empty cinema so I got a lot of reading done.
In a weekend pretty free of laughter I did make a laugh-like noise when the bad aliens in I Am Number Four were identified as “Mogadorians” – maybe it was more of a snort. The Mogadorians are on Earth searching for the last refugees of a civilization they have already destroyed – nine youngsters whose developing special powers will eventually allow them to fight back. In a completely arbitrary plot device the nine must be killed in order, which means that Number Four (Alex Pettyfer) is now in their sights. Protected by Timothy Olyphant, a warrior pretending to be the lad’s father, pretty boy Pettyfer heads to a tiny town in Ohio to escape while he learns to harness the powerful blue light that comes out of his palms.
Sure enough, the Mogadorians (I just love typing that word) find him and battle is commenced. I Am Number Four is innocuous sci-fi for the Twilight generation – although too much romance for the boys and too many laser explosions for the girls I expect.
Reversing my usual pattern, I have saved the best until last this week. The Adjustment Bureau is based on a Philip K. Dick short story (like Blade Runner, Minority Report and seemingly dozens of others) and stars Matt Damon as a talent New York politician with a gift for self-sabotage. When he falls for beautiful (and funny) contemporary dancer Emily Blunt, he starts to see strange men in suits and trilbys rearranging the mental furniture and suspects something is up. It turns out these fugitives from the set of “Mad Men” (including one genuine Mad Man John Slattery) are “executives” sent by “the Chairman” to redirect people back to “the plan” when they stray.
That’s right – we have no free will, we just think we do, and Matt Damon has seen the secret. In order to be with the woman he loves, he must outwit the be-hatted ones (including the great Terence Stamp), find the Chairman and persuade him to change the Plan. What helps is that these agents of (let’s just call him) God have somewhat limited powers. In fact you might say they are only partially omnipotent.
The real strength of this slightly silly adventure is the warm, witty and fresh relationship between Blunt and Damon – smarter and more genuinely romantic than any rom-com. You really root for this couple and the investment pays off. I enjoyed The Adjustment Bureau and wouldn’t mind watching it again – and I hardly ever say that.
Printed in Wellington’s Capital Times on Wednesday 9 March, 2011.