Thursday 12 December 2013

Letterboxd: MAN OF STEEL (2013); RED DAWN (2012)

Thursday 12 December 2013
★★½ (out of five)

One criticism of the unfairly disliked SUPERMAN RETURNS is that it was visually underwhelming and Supes didn't hit things enough. Sigh. You can't criticise MAN OF STEEL on that level; but where's the fan outcry over its lack of heart, humour and thoughtfulness, which RETURNS had in spades? I give up.

Zach Snyder (300, WATCHMEN) is the man behind this reboot, and early hopes having Christopher Nolan (THE DARK KNIGHT) as the film's "godfather" might have a positive effect on Snyder's film-making falls by the wayside after fifteen-minutes. MAN OF STEEL does have some neat ideas and twists on comic-book expectations, let's be fair: the planet Krypton finally has a rich cultural identity that's the antithesis of Richard Donner's glacial 1978 interpretation; I loved the idea that Kryptonians are genetically-engineered to fulfil particular roles in society, so Kal El's the first "natural born" amongst their kind who can forge his own destiny; and Lois Lane (Amy Adams) discovers Clark Kent's an alien before he's technically even "Superman", which completely upends the comic tradition of her being unaware her bespectacled colleague is the Man of Steel himself. That's a massive change. They've basically SPIDER MAN 2'd the franchise a film early. Jonathan Kent (Kevin Costner) also dies in an interesting way that's equally devastating to Clark than a heart-attack he couldn't prevent—although Pa Kent's also written as a callous and paranoid man who'd rather let a bus full of children die than have the world know his son's super-strong. Costner somehow survives that writing.

Unfortunately, a few worthwhile changes, impressive production design and slick visual effects can't compensate for MAN OF STEEL's inherent problems. It's too long without ever feeling "epic" in the true sense, there's almost no humour (completely unforgivable), Snyder fails to unlock any emotions in the audience during key moments, the narrative decision to use extensive flashbacks to Clark's childhood feels unnecessary, and not since The Avengers have I been so troubled by the fact millions of people are dying during a super-battle that sees entire skyscrapers collapse... and Superman himself rescues about three people from such calamity.

I can see what screenwriter David Goyer was aiming for when he wrote MAN OF STEEL (with its strong sci-fi angle on alien first contact, but also a "coming out" tale for Clark Kent), but it's unfortunately structured like a succession of escalating set-pieces that make the film feel like a two-hour version of the (much better) trailer. Where's the fun and romance between Lois and Clark? Where's the humour? Where's the rapport between characters? Why is General Zod (Michael Shannon) half as dislikeable as Terence Stamp's version? Who decided to put Diane Lane in old lady make-up? How can they make Amy Adams a forgettable Lois? Why don't I feel any excitement when Superman fights the villains? Why isn't anything here a rousing spectacle, instead of just a deadening one? Take away the action sequences, and you have a half-hour short where the best moments are ten minutes of Kevin Costner talking.

MAN OF STEEL is a big disappointment, but it's a noisy and dynamic spectacle tailor-made for people who don't demand much else from a summer blockbuster. You can give me SUPERMAN RETURNS over this style-over-substance approach any day, even if it's positively anaemic in terms of action and CGI. I mean, it's close to ludicrous just how much property damage occurs here, or how Clark's life is one long string of rescues. Good luck selling the preposterousness that Ben Affleck's Batman would stand a chance against this Superman in the fast-tracked sequel, which now also involves Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman... and we know how well Snyder works with female characters after SUCKER PUNCH...

★ (out of five)

Nobody was begging for an update of 1984's RED DAWN, and this movie feels even sillier because physically invading a Western country feels like a throwback to pre-Cold War times. RED DAWN was scheduled for release in 2010 but shelved because of MGM's financial problems, only surfacing in 2012 to widespread derision. In the interim, it was helpful that star Chris Hemsworth became a big deal thanks to THOR, but they also changed the villains from Chinese to North Koreans—when someone realised the lucrative Chinese market may not be happy about their role in this tripe. They even digitally-altered all the flags accordingly.

Suffice to say, RED DAWN 2012's production woes are the most interesting thing about this whole sorry mess. The gist of the story remains the same, as a group of youngsters become unlikely heroes when North Korea (not Russia) invades their small-town, forcing them to become a resistance unit named after local football team The Wolverines. It's a crack team of Chris Hemsworth (THOR), Josh Hutcherson (THE HUNGER GAMES), Adrianne Palicki (FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS), Isabel Lucas (THE PACIFIC) and others, who seem to have little difficulty fighting a highly-trained group of Korean soldiers. Home turf advantage is one thing, but there's never any sense The Wolverines have a tough job.

It's not really worth talking about RED DAWN further. The characters are lame, the script's anaemic, the action repetitive, the story fails to present the North Koreans as anything other than "baddies" (whose grand plan appears to be putting as many red flags and banners up as possible), and there's ultimately nothing of interest here because the entire situation feels utterly implausible from beginning to end. There's a scene where the resistance members start reminiscing about things they miss now they've become "soldiers", despite the fact this situation's basically a few days old. Or did the film simply do a bad job with the passage of time? That feels likely, as it did such a poor job with everything else.
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