Celluloid culture

Culture | On Hollywood's palette: realism, fantasy, nihilism

Issue: "Remember Los Alamos," March 27, 1999

Death of a nihilist
Now that Stanley Kubrick is dead, his last movie may finally be finished. Eyes Wide Shut has become the stuff of Hollywood legend. It took a year to shoot and many thought Mr. Kubrick, who was known to shoot a scene up to 50 times and hadn't made a movie since Full Metal Jacket in 1987, would never let it go. An idiosyncratic perfectionist, Mr. Kubrick was one of few directors ever given total artistic control of their work. He was so secretive about his last film, Eyes Wide Shut, a sexually explicit mix of Freudianism and nihilism, that at a New York test screening he made the projectionist turn his back while the film ran. Observers compare Mr. Kubrick to eccentric millionaire Howard Hughes for both imagination and seclusion. The director's greatest fame came over 25 years ago with movies like Dr. Strangelove, A Clockwork Orange, and 2001: A Space Odyssey. Born in 1928, his first major movie was Spartacus (about the Roman insurrectionist) in 1957. He only made 13 movies in his 45-year career. Mr. Kubrick's gloomy worldview and his reputation as a control freak made him a role model to many budding directors. In his movies, war, sex, technology, and even the spirit world rip people apart and leave them floating in space. "His films warn us we are risen apes, not fallen angels," wrote biographer Alexander Walker, "creatures whose proud rationality suffers breakdown with convulsive effects." A family off the deep end
Crises can bring families together, but they can also push problems to a head. In the case of the movie The Deep End of the Ocean (Columbia Pictures; rated PG-13 for mild profanity and mature themes), the problem is a missing child. Mom (Michelle Pfeiffer) leaves her two sons alone by a hotel luggage cart to go check into their room; when she returns, one is gone. The missing boy doesn't return for nine years. In the meantime, Mom becomes depressive, uncooperative, and clings to her remaining children. Constant media attention doesn't help. The other son follows in her emotional footsteps and becomes a boozing juvenile delinquent. Dad (Treat Williams) swears things will be normal soon and doesn't take charge of the situation; he barely staves off a divorce. Worst of all, their only confidante is a lesbian police detective played by Whoopi Goldberg. The missing kid is found living only a few blocks away from his parents. When he returns, he doesn't identify with anything going on and only wants to go back to the man he calls "Dad." Naturally, nobody can handle the situation. Ultimately he must rescue the people who were supposed to be rescuing him. Ocean, based on Jacquelyn Mitchard's bestseller, is an amazingly realistic look at how not to handle a family tragedy. This point also earns it comparison with many TV movies with lesser casts. Director Ulu Grosbard stays away from the realms of melodrama and tear-jerkerdom, but also must leave issues unresolved even as the elements come together. All the characters are strongly presented, except the father part, a problem disturbingly typical of much recent Hollywood fare. This film teaches an important lesson, albeit probably unintentionally: If a family's relationships aren't set in good shape when times are good, they won't improve when trouble hits. Watching a video game
Wing Commander is one of this decade's biggest PC video game hits. So what better way to show off the latest computer graphics and souped-up special effects than with a movie version? The Bill Gates-induced result (20th Century Fox; rated PG-13 for profanity, adult themes, and sci-fi violence) could produce a slew of successors. After all, computer games are becoming more cinematic and complex. Their audiences track well with that all-important young affluent male category that sci-fi needs. They also come with cool designs and prefab marketing schemes. Besides, computer animation and spectacular special effects are so commonplace nowadays that even weak movies can look strong. Wing Commander takes us to the 26th century, where the Confederation must save the world from the onslaught of the evil Kilrathi. The most important mission, naturally, belongs to a group of hot-shot space fighter pilots led by a woman named Angel (Saffron Burrows). The good guys make up a multicultural, postfeminist fighting force cut from the Starship Troopers. The bad guys look like seals from Sea World sporting beards and body armor. Our hero, Maverick (Freddie Prinze Jr.), is one of the last remaining descendants of space explorers called the Pilgrims, who sport crosses around their necks. Unfortunately, these guys turned evil, tried literally to become gods, and destroyed themselves. That means Maverick, who knows little of his heritage, must prove he isn't really a villain. Of course there are religious motifs in all this, but they aren't explored. The filmmakers are more interested in showing off effects from a Microsoft-funded production company called Digital Anvil. Wing Commander is played like a futuristic war movie, but there's no sense of irony or tragedy, just a few cardboard clichés. Curiously, one of the senior officers is played by Jürgen Prochnow, who faced far more intense battles as the captain of Das Boot. Wing's action doesn't even heat up until the very end of the film. Much of the movie is as sterile as watching somebody else play video games.

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