One of the many pointed developments in Joseph Heller's Catch-22 concerns a pouting cook who feels that the men on his air force base don't appreciate the fine cuisine he labors to provide for them. So to teach the men a lesson, he puts soap cakes into their mashed potatoes, even though he knows that if they eat it, they'll get sick. And they do get sick. But that doesn't stop them from eating it, doesn't even stop them from coming back for seconds.
It is my premise that the major Hollywood studios are just like that sour-spirited cook. And America's moviegoers are just like the men on the air base. Hollywood serves us up soap cakes of dreck, and the moviegoing public keeps coming back for more. During the long summer season that starts before Memorial Day and stretches all the way to Labor Day, Hollywood serves up little other than soap cakes. And to prove how smart those mean Hollywood cooks are, we've just spent enough admission cash on two of those soap cakes to place them among the highest grossing films of all time.
Thar She Blows
This past summer's first big hit was Twister. Written by Anne-Marie Martin and Michael Crichton (who never met a scientific topic he couldn't populate with preposterous characters and situations) and directed by Jan De Bont, Twister is the story of a team of scientists who study tornadoes, an undertaking that requires them to race along country roads behind their internal combustion engines to get as close a look at the devastating storms as possible. There's probably at least a germ of factual basis for what happens here. But as you know, like soap cakes in your mashed potatoes, germs make you sick.
The story goes like this: Jo Harding (Helen Hunt) and Bill Harding (Bill Paxton) used to be married (actually they're still married—their divorce papers still need her signature to be finalized). Jo and Bill are a couple of crack weather scientists with a specialty in tornadoes. Together they used to head a team of tornado chasers. Bill even dreamed up a new gizmo that he wanted to stick in a tornado's bottom like a suppository. As I understand the concept, once in position, the gizmo would enable him to prove beyond the shadow of a scientific doubt that a tornado is a big pile of wind that whirls around really, really fast.
But then Bill decided Jo was obsessed, and so they broke up. (Wasn't this the domestic plot of Outbreak, one of 1995's soap cakes?) And Bill decided to become a weatherman. And now he's got this drawlin' brunette girlfriend named Melissa Reeves (Jami Gertz) who isn't nearly as stupid as she sounds, looks and acts. We know she's not that stupid because she's a doctor of some kind and has a practice of some kind in something called "reproduction therapy." It's fortunate that Melissa has this practice since she doesn't have anything to do except sound, look and act stupid, nothing except talk to people on the phone about sex acts.
Well, Bill really wants Jo to sign those divorce papers so that he and Melissa can legalize their own sex acts. But when he goes to capture that needed signature, Jo springs a big surprise on him. She's built his tornado suppository gizmo. And wouldn't you know it, there's supposed to be a whole string of tornadoes just about to happen. And what's a suppository if you don't insert it? So—just this once—Bill agrees to accompany Jo and his former team of colorful lunatics on an insertion quest. There are just two minor problems. First, Bill's archrival, Jonas Miller (Cary Elwes), has stolen Bill's idea and built a suppository gizmo of his own. Even more dastardly, Jonas has taken, yes, gasp, "corporate money." This means that Jonas and his team drive around in nice internal combustion vehicles rather than battered pick-up trucks. And this also means that Jonas' gizmo actually looks like a suppository, whereas poor Bill's gizmo looks like a 1930s washing machine. The second minor problem is evidently less troubling: namely that chasing tornadoes is the kind of activity that frequently involves getting killed.
There are a few hundred thousand things wrong with all this, but let me list just 10. 1) In the movie's opening scene, Jo's father tries to hold onto the cellar door during a tornado and gets kited off to kingdom come for his efforts. What kind of nitwit would do such a thing? 2) Given that Jo and Bill are geniuses enough to build a tornado suppository gizmo, does it make sense that they wouldn't devise a superior procedure for inserting it? Their process involves driving up to the front of a tornado, getting out of their pick-up, lifting the gizmo to the ground by hand, and then driving away as fast as possible. Somewhere in there it seems they're required to yell, "Damn, this thing is stuck."
3) Why is Jonas deemed a sell-out for getting a corporate sponsor? How is it that getting a corporate sponsor constitutes being "in it for the money and not for the science"? How much money is there in sticking a suppository gizmo up the bottom of a tornado? 4) When Jo and Bill have a close encounter with their first two tornadoes, why don't they even attempt to insert their suppository gizmo? Is it because the film-makers don't want to give away too early in the movie that a tornado is a big pile of wind that swirls around really, really fast? 5) How do Jo and Bill manage to arrange the schedule of approaching tornadoes so that they can have a nice leisurely lunch with Jo's Aunt Meg (Lois Smith)? And once you got a gander at Aunt Meg, how long did it take you to begin chanting "twister bait?"
6) When that second meanest tornado throws a telephone pole on top of Bill's truck, how do he and Jo get it off there? 7) When some tornado debris cracks the windshield on Bill's truck, where did he find that speedy glass repair shop so that it is already fixed in the next shot? 8) When Jo, Bill and the gang take refuge in a grease pit and car windshields are shattered all around them, how come no one is turned into humanburger by the flying glass? 9) When Jo and Bill try to outrun that meanest of tornadoes on foot, how come they aren't skewered like pieces of shish kebab by those fence pickets which are flung through the air like arrows? And 10) if you had to pick one character you knew would be killed in this picture, how long would it take you to pick Jonas?
Kickin' Intergalactic Butt
Of course, the monster hit of the summer of 1996 was Independence Day, a serious rival to pass Jurassic Park (the big soap cake of 1993) as the biggest ticket seller in motion picture history. To my mind the primary achievement of Independence Day was its success in invoking the subtitle to Stanley Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove: "How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb."
For 40 years I worried that some fatal miscommunication between us and the Ruskies was going to result in a short nuclear war and a long hereafter. Then came the fall of Communism in Eastern Europe and the breakup of the Soviet Union, and I breathed about a 10-second sigh of relief - until I realized that all those nukes were still out there and might next relocate themselves in the hands of someone with the political agenda of Pol Pot. But just about the time I started wishing for an array of international treaties to dismantle that forest of H-bomb-tipped ICBMs, I saw Independence Day and realized how foolish I'd been. We may need those nukes any day now to blast E.T. right back to his own godforsaken galaxy.
Written by Dean Devlin and Roland Emmerich and directed by the latter, Independence Day is the story of an alien invasion and heroic human efforts to send those gremlin-headed, roach-bodied, snake-fingered, bird-legged creatures (who, like us, are too smart for their own good) an atomic invitation to get the hell out of Dodge. This is the way it goes down. Somewhere about a billion (maybe more, who can tell, actually) of these unfriendly E.T.s arrive from Way Out There in the Mother of All Space Ships which is about a quarter the size of our moon. Can you imagine the hangar in which they built that baby? Once they get just outside our atmosphere, they pull up and dispatch a handful of smaller space ships which are still so humongous that if we hadn't already seen the Mother of All Space Ships we'd think these daughter space ships were mothers themselves. Each daughter is a big round sucker about 15 miles across. They adopt hover positions right up above some of the world's biggest and most important cities. In the U.S. of A. they select New York, Los Angeles and Washington, which were the popular choices with everybody not residing there. Then these aliens just sit there and menace us for a while, letting us sweat and try toadying up to them, taking their own E.T. time for no good reason I can imagine. For the first hour of the movie they mainly cover us with shadows. Finally, they use this big blue laser to blast our buildings and cars to smithereens. (Did you ever wonder if Hollywood directors take so much pleasure in smashing up cars because they just hate the traffic in L.A.?) No doubt a bunch of people get killed too, but we wouldn't want to concentrate on that since this is basically a feel-good movie.
Anyway, in this really cool escape, President Whitmore (Bill Pullman) roars out of D.C. on Air Force One with the huge fire storm of the alien destruction licking at his rear wheels. Whitmore is like Bill Clinton with a war record instead of a record for not inhaling. He's got a pretty wife (Mary McDonnell) and a little daughter (Mae Whitman). He wants to do the right thing and keep everybody from getting too scared and surrendering to panic. But don't push him too far. He'll bend, but he won't break. Blow up a trio of his cities and you're bound to make him mad. What I'm saying is that he's the kind of guy who can feel your pain and stick a nuke down your smokestack, too. And with the president at large, the world has a fighting chance, although it's not much clear how.
Well, a bunch of inconsequential stuff happens at various locations around the U.S. until the president orders a full aerial assault on one of the daughter spaceships. This is somewhat akin to trying to sink an aircraft carrier with a BB gun. As everyone knows who ever watched even one episode of Star Trek, all spaceships come with invisible shields. So eventually humans have to figure out a way to get all the marauding space ships to lower their shields so they can be effectively nuked. This involves a mysterious computer virus concocted by nerd scientist David Levinson (Jeff Goldblum) and flown right into the uterus of the Mother of All Spaceships by crack Marine pilot Steven Hiller (Will Smith).
Now I have this theory that we finally beat these E.T.s because we're smarter than they are. For instance, they can read all our communications, but they don't bother to do it when we're launching our virus attack at them. And they may have these daughter spaceships that are about the size of Mt. Everest. But they ain't got nukes. And the daughters themselves are kind of lumbering. It's gonna take them thirty-six hours to wipe out human civilization. Why, between us and the Ruskies we could blow the world up in less than half an hour. These daughters can only do one city at a time and then they have to sail off at about snail speed to aim their lasers at the next town. So who's better? We may be smaller but we got a lot more lead in our pencils.
Of course, I'll admit there are some things about Independence Day that I don't altogether understand. I didn't know, for instance, that if you've flown one plane, you've flown them all, including all those built in Way Out There. But then I can't fly any plane that isn't made out of paper. And I don't quite grasp why all the people in New York start looting each other's houses just as soon as this big daughter ship shadow shows up. You'd think people would be fully occupied with such activities as screaming and wringing out their socks. Also, I don't quite follow how people like Steve Hiller's girlfriend Jasmine (Vivica Fox) can outrun fireballs when Air Force One can barely do it at full throttle. But maybe Vivica Fox is just a pseudonym for Gail Devers. Mostly, I don't understand how folks get over the deaths of their loved ones so quickly. The president and his daughter seem kind of sad when the First Lady dies from internal bleeding that no one thinks to treat with say, surgery and transfusions. But the next day after the president and his men have kicked some intergalactic butt, the First Lady's demise seems an ancient concern. Of course, given that she's the First Lady and all, maybe she's screwed up the nation's chance for decent health care reform and so got just the kind of medical attention she deserved.
In sum, Independence Day is pleasing all those multitudes for darn good reasons. It's got a rousing "We will not go quietly into the night" speech from the president that will make you want to leap from your seat and salute something. It gives us an enemy so ruthless and irredeemable that only the most rabid animal rights advocate would speak against our smoking his butt. And what feels better than absolutely self-righteous violence. Critically, most of the human race is arguably brain dead, and so is this movie. Republican presidential candidate Bob Dole has been widely critical of the moral tone set for the country by Hollywood. But when he saw Independence Day, a movie in which no one can remember thirty million dead Americans for even twenty-four hours, he said, "We won, the end. Leadership. America. I like it." Need I say more?
Bringing in the Reeves
Not all summer movies actually manage to become blockbusters, however. Some just remain blockbuster wannabes. An example is Andrew Davis' Chain Reaction which destroys almost as much property as either Twister or Independence Day but did so before a lot fewer paying customers. It's interesting to contemplate why that was.
Written by J.F. Lawton and Michael Bortman, Chain Reaction stars Keanu Reeves as Eddie Kasalivich, a University of Chicago undergraduate machinist (is that a U of C major these days?) assigned to a high priority science project run by the idealistic Dr. Alistair Barkley (Nicholas Rudall) and overseen by the preternaturally calm Mr. Paul Shannon (Morgan Freeman, who will soon be deleting this film from his resume). Barkley and his team of international physicists and one undergraduate machinist are trying to figure out how to use lasers to split water molecules into their hydrogen and oxygen components. The oxygen can be put to good use for, say, breathing, and the hydrogen can be used for clean fuel. According to Dr. Barkley, there's enough hydrogen in a single glass of tap water to run the city of Chicago for a year. (My precise calculations indicate that means I could heat, cool, light and run the TV at my house for the rest of my life with just a thimbleful.) So you can see how important it is to have an undergraduate machinist on a project like this.
Well, before you know it, the egghead physicists get everything figured out except for the tubes running in and out of this one important jar. Then, presto, Eddie gives this tube a twist and the whole thing a rattle and the world is just about to have enough energy to grow all the food we'd ever need in a hothouse on Antarctica. But it seems that Dr. Barkley is such an idealist that, rather than patenting his discovery so that he, his physicists and lone machinist could become indecently rich, he's planning on giving the technology away. Put the info on the internet so that all the little eggheads with a machinist friend anywhere in the world that could get ahold of tubes, a laser, and a glassful of water a year, could turn their areas completely energy self-sufficient. Is he altruistic or what? Nobody was altruistic in either Twister or Independence Day so that may be one of this film's key problems.
Now we might imagine a couple of folks who'd look unkindly on the proliferation of such technology, not even including people in desert countries who couldn't spare the water. I'm thinking of the stockholders in Exxon, for instance. Well, we're right to anticipate that Dr. Barkley's scheme to satisfy the world's energy needs forever will provoke resistance. And since Barkley is played by an actor we've never heard of before, we're right to suspect that he will shortly be known as the late Dr. Barkley. But, in the picture's lone surprise, the villains are not oil company capos, not even an oil-rich sheik worrying about having to trade in his Mercedes for a used camel. No, in the best tradition of Oliver Stone, the villain is the CIA. But hey, to make sure Chain Reaction is not merely another anti-federal-government tirade, the heroes of the piece are FBI agents. (Not counting that all-important undergraduate machinist, of course.) If my memory is correct, an FBI agent hasn't been a hero in any Hollywood production since I Led Three Lives ended its TV run in the fifties. So that's clearly another of the problems here.
But Chain Reaction does come complete with all the standard Hollywood baloney. This high-tech high concept is finally just a low-rent chase flick with the CIA guys trying to capture Eddie, who splits when he discovers the good Dr. Barkley is deceased. The CIA has got all the eggheads they need to make the project work with Barkley out of the picture. But as everybody who has ever owned a car knows beyond a doubt, it's almost impossible to find a good machinist.
Now Eddie may be just a machinist, and an undergraduate machinist at that, but he's an excellent runner. He can outrun huge fireballs (a requirement for stardom in contemporary Hollywood) as well as cars and helicopters. And like every Hollywood hero, Eddie knows the exact location of that tunnel that leads to the very heart of the villain's compound, this time an isolated place in Virginia where CIA eggheads are trying to duplicate Dr. Barkley's science, sans the all-important machinist, of course. And finally, though a machinist, Eddie is a also a computer whiz who can really muck things up for the CIA eggheads once he tunnels his way into the compound.
In short, this is like every other movie this summer, only more so. So it mustn't have worked because of its unfortunate name. Didn't it occur to anybody that a chain reaction is dangerous and can lead to a bomb?
Soap cakes. Are they tasty or what?