Saturday, March 04, 2006


[This is Part 1 of a pair of trashy girl-sci-fi-action pictures which have a qutie a bit in common, including the slightly unfair drubbing they are getting in the mainstream press who I believe collectively fail to see what the aim of the picture, get a bit too hung up on plot, narrative continuity and ultimately miss the point of making and viewing these kinds of movies. See also AEON FLUX below this review.]

Think back if you will to 1993. Perhaps, if you were lucky enough, you managed to catch a low-budget action picture from maverick director Robert Rodriguez. El Mariachi was not particularly original story-wise, but it was maverick, spunky and a heck of a lot of fun. Few people actually caught it in the theatre, but upon the VHS release it really began to generate word of mouth. Fast-forward to 1995 and Desperado. A remake, a sequel, and a continuation of directional devlopement, it featured an vastly increased budget and that money was transformed into a love of visual excess. Guerrilla spunkiness gave way to giddy confidence as many of the conventions of North American action films were trammelled in to something new: Substance is casually (but completely) discarded and style trumps all.

Now take the case of Kurt Wimmer. His buried (by Miramax ‘natch) riff on Huxley, Bradbury and Orwellian themes took on a life of its own on DVD, with the benefit of the internet to spread word-of-mouth. Equilibrium got by on some good performances (Christian Bale, Emily Watson, Sean Bean) and the cinematic debut of “Gun-Kata,” (a form-based martial arts featuring handguns). The fact that it fell into most peoples laps with little fanfare other than a trailer which made the film look like a low budget Matix clone (which if you want to be picky, it isn’t), likely cut the film some slack. Much like Rodriguez, with his follow up film, Wimmer aims to push style over substance much, much further with his larger budgeted follow-up effort. Excess oozes out of every carefully composed and digitally altered frame of Ultraviolet. It is likely to rub about 90% of its audience the wrong way.

Featuring a composite ‘plot’ which blends elements of many comic book, video-game and sci-fi features of the past decade (For the record, The Matrix, Blade, Resident Evil, Underworld, X-Men and Aeon Flux – in fact, this film is a heck of a lot more Peter Chung’s Aeon Flux than Karyn Kusama’s – Think Chung’s animated short “War” and you are about perfectly on target). The futures new form of perpetual war has moved far past the war on terror to a war on disease. Background characters could not help but remind me of laughably (to local Torontonians) fear-mongering CNN images featuring mask-wearing Chinese and Canadian citizens during the 2003 SARS crisis. The “big disease” has turned a small portion of the population into vampires; in the movies vernacular, hemophages. Violet (Milla Jovovich at her most handsome and most mechanical) is a hemophage resistance fighter determined to take down the current dictator/biochemist/priest who rules the society with and latex-gloved iron fist and a disinfectant wipe (hilariously, the Pentagon building in the future is shaped like the Biohazard symbol). The incident at hand involves a bio-engineered boy (Birth’s creep child Cameron Bright, playing it both angelic and vacant) designed as a weapon to biologically exterminate the hemophages like some sort of designer antibody.

The opening credits are done with 1970s comic book covers, in hopes to prepare you that realism just is not the aim. Instead, it is graphic arts. Plot, narrative continuity and acting are so far beside-the-point here that if you are hung up on such 'trivial' details you will be clawing your eyeballs out about 10 minutes into the film. Ultraviolet is a patch-quilt made of retro-70s and modern CGI set pieces, many of which involve hundreds of faceless storm troopers coming at Violet en masse to be struck down with such exacting geometric symmetry that you know instinctively where the joie de vivre was in the making of the film. A word of warning: There is almost no spatial continuity from one set piece to the next, making this feel as much like a comic book as a level based video-game. Featuring a discotheque visual palette recalling George Lucas’ THX1138 and original Star Wars, Tron, Mamoru Oshii’s Avalon and Kazuaki Kiriya’s Casshern (Hell, throw in Kill Bill Vol.1 for good measure), the movie is going to live or die for a lot of viewers on these two aspects: Action forms and production design (reminiscent of The Duelist, a recent unconventional Korean film also in love with form at the expense of traditional narrative).

The body count is as high as any HK John Woo squib-fest and half the characters are vampires, but there is really no blood to interfere with the glossy set design Another visual oddity, perhaps in keeping with the comic book action/sci-fi vibe Wimmer is striving for, is a flattened look of facial features. With the exception of a bearded William Fichtner (serving here as Violet’s Q), everyone’s face has been digitally airbrushed to interesting effect. It is interesting, even if it is not entirely consistent over the course of the film.

Many who have been looking forward to Ultraviolet are coming for the Gun-kata, and happily, it has been elevated to the next level here in three standout sequences. Although Wimmer may have run out of ideas with the martial art about half way though the film. This is most obvious by his choosing to set up almost identically a certain iconic Lobby sequence, and charmingly paying it off with only sound effects behind a closed door. It is a hilariously catty visual joke, perhaps in response to the comparisons of Equilibrium to the Matrix.

A quick word about the dialogue: Ultraviolet opens with a clunky extended dialogue sequence, which is only moderately successful at setting up the mythology of the world. Every spoken phrase is either a cheese ball one-liner, a melodramatic breathy proclamation, or needless exposition. While again, dialogue is not the aim of the film, it somehow manages to earn the films only big laugh (true to recent sci-fi trash-film it takes itself deadly serious most of the time) delivered seconds before the final showdown.

As much a digital back-lot production as the recent slew of films (from Sky Captain to MirrorMask), perhaps Ultraviolet should be compared Sin City, both Kurt Wimmer and Robert Rodriguez aim to meld the popcorn film into other forms of media.

There is a place for this type of film. A heck of a lot of critics are going to crying yet again to the death of storytelling. Like Equilibrium, it is trash. But for some of us, trash is not an insult, but rather a stylistic form. I am happy to watch these experiments be taken to the next level.


Post a Comment

<< Home