The geeks have taken over. Hollywood is their world now; the rest of us just have to watch the flashy, intellectually vacant movies that come out of it. An increasing number of new movies have no conceivable audience beyond the slavering fanboys, and many filmmakers, lacking the ability to create interesting, unpredictable stories or characters of any real depth, have simply turned their movies over to the effects people, hoping that awesome computer-generated imagery can salvage their hackneyed stories and micron-thin characterizations. And they actually can, up to a point — whatever its other merits, film remains a primarily visual medium, so the digital artists’ ability to create strange new worlds around the actors can be enough to distract us from a movie’s deficiencies and make it enjoyable, or at least watchable, just as in the old days an editor could take a film that was sloppily constructed and indifferently acted and cut it together so that it seemed to have a point. But creativity remains the essential element. If the director is a hack without an original thought in his head, his film can be salvaged if the visual effects producer is sufficiently inventive, but what if his work is derivative and tiresome as well? Already the returns have begun diminishing at an alarming rate.
The problem goes deeper than the ways in which movies are written and assembled, though; it goes back to the filmmakers’ influences and aspirations. It used to be that comic book writers and illustrators aspired to create pop mythology, and music-video directors and video-game designers wanted their products to seem like movies. Now, as if it isn’t bad enough that we’re inundated with first-time directors who made their dubious bones in music videos and movies that are based on video games and comic books, we have filmmakers who create original material that aspires for the look and feel of video games or comic books, sometimes both at once, and the worlds they create turn out to resemble nothing so much as a music video.
So now we dance to the music of Kurt Wimmer, who has co-written screenplays for agreeably shallow Hollywood fake-outs like The Recruit and the remake of The Thomas Crown Affair, but whose heart is really in disagreeably shallow sci-fi action. The first film to capture his far-from-unique personal vision was 2002’s Equilibrium, a clumsy allegory set in the standard fascist dystopia with a ridiculously hokey story that trotted out all the predictable influences — one part Brave New World, one part Nineteen Eighty-Four, one part Fahrenheit 451, and six parts The Matrix. In his New York Times review, Elvis Mitchell called it “a movie that could be stupider only if it were longer.” Now Wimmer gives us Ultraviolet, an improvement in the limited sense that it could be stupider only if it were Equilibrium.
Though he rips off plenty of contemporary films, there’s something comfortingly old-fashioned about Wimmer, who consistently sets his dystopian spectacles “In the 21st Century!” (Dude, we’re there now — maybe you want to jack the date up a bit?) His films have the feeling of a kid playing with toys and give the concomitant impression that he’s having a lot more fun than we are. Ultraviolet has a striking visual style — the film stock has been treated so as to heighten contrast, remove detail, and saturate color — and some clever bits of futuristic technology, such as disposable paper cell phones available through vending machines, but none of that really matters; like the plot, it’s just window-dressing for the action sequences. For Equilibrium, Wimmer developed a style of martial-arts gunplay he calls “gun kata,” which mixes unerring marksmanship with flashy and impressive — but completely unnecessary and sometimes counterproductive — acrobatic movements. He uses it again, in an even more extravagant form, in Ultraviolet. It’s something to see — the action scenes have so much speed and flash and general gee-whizzery that you can’t help but enjoy them a little, even if you find them ridiculous, but Wimmer’s characters and storyline are strictly soporific, and his attempts to work up any emotion in the audience are laughable. None of the actors is really any good — though some have been impressive elsewhere — but it would be unjust to single them out for failing to rise above the material; what would be remarkable is if anyone could.
The story takes place in another dystopian future, one in which an American weapons lab has identified an existing but unknown virus — hemoglophagic virus (HGV), which turns people into vampires — and tried to use it to engineer super soldiers. Their attempts failed, a significant portion of the population was infected, and to protect themselves from their now-bloodthirsty fellow citizens, the uninfected instituted a series of pogroms against the “hemophages.” The vampires turned guerilla and rebelled against the humans, beginning a series of “Blood Wars.” This gives us a potentially interesting twist — the vampires are the good guys and humans the bad guys — but after introducing it, Wimmer doesn’t do much to develop it or explore the historical events his plot evokes. From the Holocaust to AIDS, Wimmer invokes genocides and epidemics for no more than atmosphere; Ultraviolet isn’t even an allegory, it’s just an action movie with some gimmicky historical trappings. As in Equilibrium, Wimmer sets up a fascist government working to keep the population docile — and again the leader of the world is a surprisingly hands-on, easily confronted kinda guy — so that we can see the hero bring it all down in a series of action sequences.
What would Wimmer make movies about if there had never been a Matrix? The world may never know, but we need no longer wonder what happens when the Matrix meets Kill Bill in the hands of a mediocre auteur. Violet, the rebel hemophage who instigated the Blood Wars, is played by Milla Jovovich, though the black wig she wears makes her look so much like Selma Blair that I had to keep reminding myself that it wasn’t her (and thus recover from the cognitive dissonance caused by the idea of Blair as an action heroine). The character isn’t much of a stretch from Jovovich’s Resident Evil role — she’s just another genetically-altered superhuman killing machine, so fast that when someone spits at her she catches the sputum in her palm before it can reach her.
This, at least, is one positive dividend of the geekification of Hollywood — the girls get a shot at kicking some ass. Classic action films are all about male aggression; female characters weren’t allowed to be more than damsels in distress or the hero’s long-suffering wife. But the geeks, unlike their John Wayne and Steve McQueen and Clint Eastwood-worshipping forefathers, aren’t threatened by strong women — as long as they’re total babes. This, in Hollywood, is what is called progress.
Ultraviolet begins when Violet goes to a super-high-security government installation to pick up a slender, guitar-shaped white plastic case that contains a deadly weapon designed to destroy the hemophages. She has disguised herself as a human courier and is subjected to a number of torturous physical examinations before she’s permitted inside, all to confirm that she’s not vampire. She escapes detection until the real courier shows up, at which point she must kill everyone who stands between her and leaving the installation with the case in tow. Why the bad guys she fights wear glass armor, I’ll never know, but it does make for some impressively excessive fight scenes. And if that’s not enough, Violet has a “gravity leveler” that allows her to walk on walls and ceilings like a figure in an Escher print and even to fall upwards. She also has weapons that materialize out of nowhere — they come from and disappear into an alternate dimension, or something like that — including a huge sword and some automatic pistols that look like super-fancy staple guns. So far, this is all fine. The fight scenes are excitingly kinetic, and the stylization gives the film a fun, comic-book texture. But once she’s outside the installation, she’s surrounded by a city that’s clearly computer-generated, with no more realism or detail than a video game (and less than the most sophisticated ones). Throughout the film Violet travels back and forth between fully constructed sets and digital environments that have none of the texture or detail of reality. Whether this is a deliberate attempt to maintain the movie’s comic-book/video-game tone or a sign that Wimmer used up the budget (a fairly modest $30 million) before the effects were complete, we may never know.
Violet escapes with the case, of course, and takes it to Nerva (Sebastien Andrieu), the leader of her band of rebel hemophages. A naturally inquisitive sort, she pauses along the way and opens the case to see just what this powerful weapon is. Imagine her astonishment (and the audience’s apathy) when it turns out to be a human child! Well, sort of a human child — it’s that creepy Cameron Bright from Godsend and Birth, because whenever Hollywood needs a weird kid who’s supposed to be cloned or reincarnated, he’s the one they turn to — what Dakota Fanning is to adorable little moppets, he is to junior freaks. When Violet reveals the truth to Nerva, he’s as blase about this supposedly shocking fact as the audience is, and he still plans to destroy the case. Pulling out his gun, he explains, “It’s both — it’s a weapon and a child.” (Also a floor wax.) Being both a heroic type and would-be mother whose would-be child was forcibly aborted after she was exposed to HGV, Violet will have none of this, and she takes the kid and runs. Then a lot of stuff happens that I can’t bear to summarize. The upshot is that Wimmer sets us up for a really enormous climax and then backs down, giving us an out-of-left-field scene that looks like stock footage he borrowed from the PAX network, and then substituting a scaled-down climax that’s just like the ending of Equilibrium.
Wimmer developed a considerable cult following after Equilibrium was released on DVD, and its fans will undoubtedly enjoy Ultraviolet — it’s the same movie with brighter colors, a hotter babe, and none of its predecessor’s weak attempts at profundity. But those who aren’t already Wimmer fans likely will — and definitely should — keep their distance. Sci-fi-fan geekiness isn’t as infectious as vampirism, but it’s far worse for your social life.
Jeremy C. Fox is the managing editor of Pajiba and a member of the Online Film Critics Society. You may email him at jeremycfox[at]gmail.com.
Ultraviolet / Jeremy C. Fox
Film Reviews | May 12, 2006 | Comments ()