Category Adventure Movie Reviews

100 Million BC (2008)

100 Million Years BC (2008)

An elite military team. Sent back in time. They will not return… Alone

A science team is stranded 100 million years ago in time when a time travel experiment in the 70s failed. 30 years later after perfecting the technology, a rescue team is sent back to retrieve them. Whilst there they encounter all manner of carnivorous dinosaurs and venomous plants. However upon their return to the present, they inadvertently bring back a dinosaur and runs rampant through Los Angeles.

 

The Asylum have a reputation for being cash-in merchants when it comes to the next big thing. Scroll down their list of films over the past few years and you’ll see what I mean. Whenever there’s a big blockbuster coming out, they quickly run off and make a cheap knock-off version, affectionately known as ‘mock busters.’ To show you how blatant this is, when Transformers came out, they made one called Transmorphers. You’ve got Snakes on a Train (Snakes on a Plane), I Am Omega (I Am Legend), The Da Vinci Treasure (The Da Vinci Code) – see where I am going with this? Usually their version have identikit titles as well as pretty much the same plots just with about one tenth of the budget. Can you guess which one 100 Million BC is supposed to be cashing in against?

However this one shares absolutely no similarities with Roland Emmerick’s CGI-fest 10,000 BC apart from the title. In fact this has much more to do with a solid but highly-berated film called A Sound of Thunder made a few years about time travellers who accidentally change the past and cause the modern day to change into a prehistoric wasteland. That had ideas and designs on being much more than it’s budget allowed which is a shame because it was actually pretty good. This one goes even further and takes away any budget that had and just reworks the story with their usual array of bad washed up actors and atrocious special effects.

The first thing that smacks you in the face is how the film desperately tries to be something it clearly can’t afford to be. The whole idea of time travel and changing the future needs budget to do it. So when this clearly expensive time travelling machine is located in some rusty old warehouse in Los Angeles and manned by a crew of two technicians and an army guy barking orders, you don’t buy it one bit. Even worse are the attempts to explain time travel and paradoxes – just forget the explanations and I’d probably buy it more than the two-bit attempts to describe what happened to the audience.

Actually the first half of the film is as entertaining as it could be as soon as the crew go back in time on the rescue mission. There’s plenty of grunts to be killed off in various ways. If it’s poison-spitting plants, monstrous crocodiles or just good ol’ raptors, these army guys have their backs up against it from the start. The problem starts when the dinosaur on the front of the box shows up. Only it looks nothing like that ferocious-looking thing on the box. It’s red, it’s goofy looking and it’s a travesty of CGI. There’s no other way to describe it. I honestly can’t comment on how pathetic it looks. It just sickens me to know that special effects from 50 years ago still hold up strong today whereas this cinematic turd will be flushed away in a year or so. Unfortunately this is the main threat that the characters will face both in the past and then back in the present. The dinosaur follows them back through the wormhole and proceeds to go on a “rampage” in Los Angeles. This last bit of the film reminded me a bit of The Lost World: Jurassic Park, only without the decent T-Rex and entertainment value. It also gets boring quickly as somehow the dinosaur keeps managing to hide itself and there only seems to be a handful of people doing anything about it. You’d have thought a dinosaur running rampant would cause a bit more of a panic. But this one is smart and tries to keep itself to the back alleys and streets. The front cover is grossly misleading as it looks like the dinosaur is taking on a battalion of tanks and gun ships – the reality is that one helicopter hovers around the action for a bit to keep track of the dinosaur and then the finale involves an armed vehicle.

Poor Michael Gross. For those of you who liked and enjoyed Tremors, he was Burt Gummer, the bad ass gun nut who wasn’t afraid of anything. He looks like he really needed the pay cheque here. He does add a bit of credibility to the science side of the film but I think that’s because he looks old more than anything else. A quick thought on the character that Gross plays: if you are the only guy who can operate a time travel machine, why do you go back in time to potentially be killed, thus ending the chances of your team getting back? Greg Avigan is also listed on the front cover (I’m not familiar with his work) but he has about ten lines in the film as the army commander who oversees the experiment. And Christopher Atkins is also starring. The fresh-faced young man who got to hang around with a naked Brooke Shields in The Blue Lagoon has turned into a grumpy-looking has-been who takes these two-bit roles to give him a leading role. My anger towards him simply stems from the fact he starred in the dreadful Caved-In: Prehistoric Terror. One thing that he should learn is how to react to something that isn’t there. It’s a hard job trying to act when the monster is added in post-production but countless actors have managed it with success. Given he seems to be taking a few of these CGI monster movie roles, would it be hard to make the effort in future?

 

100 Million BC is a shockingly bad film let down by everything: the shoddy acting, the ridiculous script and the abominable special effects. One of the most dreadful films I’ve ever seen and that’s saying something.

 

 ★☆☆☆☆☆☆☆☆☆ 

 
 

Aztec Rex (2007)

Aztec Rex (2007)

In 1518 A.D. only the noblest warriors survive

Arriving in Mexico in 1551, Spanish explorers led by Cortés come across an Aztec tribe who worship a dinosaur as a god and offer it regular blood sacrifices to keep it at bay. After a failed attempt to enslave the tribe for his own gain, Cortés agrees to help them rid themselves off the dinosaur if they release him and his men.

 

Sy-Fy offers up a huge pile of dinosaur crap with this pathetic monster movie that does as little as it can within the space of an hour and a half and expects you to be thankful for it when it’s finished. Aztec Rex (or Tyrannosaurus Azteca as it is known) comes from the man who brought you such classics as Leprechaun 3 and, er, Leprechaun 4: In Space so you know that his pedigree in the realms of low budget, trashy filmmaking is as corny as it gets – though oddly enough, Quentin Tarantino cites Brian Trenchard-Smith as one of his favourite directors! Aztec Rex stars a terribly-rendered CGI dinosaur, buckets of pound shop make-up and fake limbs they sell around Halloween time, and a cast who look like they’d be better off modelling in fashion shoots than pretending to be Spanish explorers or Aztec tribesmen.

Let’s cut to the chase and talk about the star of the show first – the T-Rex. Even by Sy-Fy standards, this prehistoric protagonist looks to be about two hundred million years out of date. Using the same couple of frames of animation time and time again, the film does little to maintain the flimsy illusion that this monster shares the same intergalactic plane as everything else. Trees don’t move. Branches aren’t snapped off. There are no footprints when it walks. There are no shadows cast on it by the forests. For all intents and purposes, this is a stealth dinosaur. I have no idea where they found or created this laughable CGI aberration but it doesn’t belong here.

Even though the dinosaur effects are some of the worst you’re likely to see, Aztec Rex is at least gory. Characters are bitten in half, have intestines slit open, bodies are chewed up and left to rot in all of their gruesome glory and survivors are showered in blood. Yes it looks a bit tacky but it’s at least making the effort in this department.  The dinosaur is well fed, much to the chagrin of numerous expendable tribesmen and some of Cortés’ lesser developed crewmen who find themselves on the wrong end of a bite. The blood looks more purple in colour than red and the screen is literally engulfed with gore whenever the dinosaur decides to feast. Although there are some old school make-up effects, there are also a lot of rubbish CGI bones and entrails dripping abut which makes everything look second rate and tacky as if someone had superimposed unrelated video game footage over the top of a New World drama piece.

The script attempts to cleverly intertwine itself with historical events surrounding Cortés and the Spanish conquests but, his name aside, there’s nothing else in here that would suggest factual information. I guess the inclusion of such history was to try and raise the material above its usual type but it fails dramatically. I can tolerate the fact that the Spanish characters are played by perfectly formed English actors but the Aztecs are played by a bunch of Hawaiians who would look more at home standing  outside a hotel in Honolulu and greeting people than pretending to be ancient savages. Plus there are only about twenty people in the entire film including non-speaking extras. You wonder just how often this tribe can afford to sacrifice its population given that you only ever see about six of them.

Whilst the film contains its fair share of problems, the most fundamental one is that it’s just not engrossing enough. You never care for the Spanish (after all, they’re just after gold). You never care for the Aztecs (they do sacrifice their own kind). And the dinosaurs, whilst garnering some pity at how lame they look, are not there for characterisation. After a dull start in which the Spanish attempt to enslave the village (the notion of six or so Spanish guys attempting to ‘storm’ a village which has an equally small number of people in it is just too daft to laugh at), the film then traps itself in a never-ending cycle of characters going off into the forest to try and kill the dinosaur and end up a few characters short by the end of the scene. Rinse and repeat for the rest of the film and you have a monotonous, tedious narrative which doesn’t entertain or hold interest on any level whatsoever.

 

You get what you deserve with Aztec Rex. It smacks of Sy-Fy right from the opening scene until the final credits – the cardboard characters, the bottom dollar effects, the repetitive narrative, the overly dramatic music  and the deadly serious script which attempts (and fails) to make everything you’re watching somehow more interesting, intelligent and higher grade. It’s dinosaur dung, plain and simple. Never mind a giant dinosaur frightening off the Spanish, a copy of Aztec Rex would have been enough to make Mexico uninhabitable for millennia!

 

 ★☆☆☆☆☆☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

Jurassic Park (1993)

Jurassic Park (1993)

Life Finds A Way.

Wealthy entrepreneur John Hammond has spent millions on his latest pet project – an island theme park featuring living and breathing dinosaurs created by extracting DNA from insects encased in amber. Before opening to the public, he invites a selected audience of experts, lawyers and his family to take a sneak preview. However during their tour, the security system is hacked and the power to the enclosures is shut down releasing prehistoric terror not seen on this planet for millions of years!

 

Love it or hate it, there’s no denying that Jurassic Park is one of the most influential films of recent times. It was one of those big box office events in the “where were you when this released?” mould that come up every now and then (you know, Star Wars, Jaws, Lord of the Rings, etc). Well I was twelve and growing up as a big lover of anything dinosaur-related (I used to have toy dinosaur fights in the sandpit at nursery), it was like a dream come true. Watching it again after a few years and being a more mature (judge for yourselves) and experienced connoisseur of film, it was interesting to see how different my perspectives of the film have changed and how some of them have stayed exactly the same as that excited twelve year old who went to see it on a Sunday morning with his parents on opening weekend.

At a pretty lengthy hundred and twenty seven minutes, the film had a canny knack of sending you to sleep in the first forty minutes or so. This hasn’t changed a bit. Back in the day, it was bums shuffling on seats waiting for the T-Rex to show. Nowadays it’s bums shuffling on the seats waiting for the T-Rex but at least I can understand what they are talking about! The opening does contain a lot of decent information which helps a few of the proceedings later on (for instance, the whole talk of the velociraptors reveals plenty of nasty surprises of what is to come later when you see them) but for the most part it’s filler. Pure and simple. Spielberg knows where he wants his audience to be and by holding back on the dinosaurs for as long as he can, he’s got us so excited he could have thrown in a blow-up toy dinosaur and we’d still have cheered it on. The reaction on the faces of Sam Neill, Laura Dern and Jeff Goldblum are priceless when they see the film’s first dinosaurs – a brontosaurus munching on some leaves. I don’t know about anyone else but I held back my “wows” for the first sign of the meat eaters. Maybe the reaction of the audience has mellowed a bit nowadays, having been spoon-fed a diet of terrible CGI monsters over the years. But back in 1993, on the big screen for the first time, these dinosaurs were like nothing you had ever seen before.

And believe me, the wows are worth it when the T-Rex does show up. It’s gone down as one of the most famous scenes in movie history now and it’s worked to perfection. The first sounds of it stomping towards the jeeps, indicated by the flickering cups of water on the dashboard. Next you know there’s something horrific just behind the trees, as signalled by the disappearance of the sacrificial goat. But then it’s still a few moments of gradual revealing as the T-Rex slowly appears, testing the fence and realising there’s nothing to stop it from breaking free. When it finally strides over the barriers and into the picture for the first time, its earth-shattering roar sends shivers down the spine. Is this really a CGI dinosaur or is a living and breathing preservation from the past?

Say what you like about CGI but it’s never looked better than it does here because it’s not completely over-used. There’s a combination of animatronic models and CGI and it’s blended fantastically together. This is one seriously ticked off dinosaur and the film sets about proving that point. Spielberg promised us dinosaurs and he delivered big time. Big budget films with CGI in them have never been surpassed by this, over thirteen years after it was made. Why? Because it’s not the quantity of effects used but their quality and how they are used. Over-reliance is over-kill and although Spielberg was experimenting with a rather unknown quantity back then, he gets the mix perfect.

Maybe it works against the film to a degree because once you’ve seen the amazing special effect that is the T-Rex, the rest of the dinosaurs don’t seem to have that wow factor about them, as deadly as they are. Even then there are still other high points, in particular the constant threat of the raptors in the final third. If you want your action and thrills then this is certainly the place. But they’re no match for the T-Rex.

Casting is strong but unfortunately their characters aren’t. Sam Neill, Laura Dern, Richard Attenborough and particularly Jeff Goldlum (always a pleasure to watch and always ready with a quip or wise-crack) are all talented performers and do their best. It’s just a pity their characters don’t really have a lot to do after the opening scenes expect scream, run and scream a little more. I can see the logic in this – Spielberg’s target audience wouldn’t really have bothered with who is who – they just want to see dinosaurs. I know when I was younger, I didn’t really pay any attention to them. Now when you look back, you can begin to pick the film apart a little more. But thankfully the thrills and spills are just around the corner so you don’t dwell on them too much. Even the two child actors do a good job here with Joseph Mazello and Ariana Richards actually managing to put in better performances than the annoying Wayne Knight (as the nervous Dennis Nedry who is responsible for the hack job on the computers) and even Samuel L. Jackson.

 

Jurassic Park is one of the greatest monster movies of all time. It delivers exactly what it promises and given the standards of some of today’s big budget flops, it’s going to stand the test of time for a long period ahead. It has not been surpassed in terms of believable special effects and can easily hold it’s own in terms of thrills, excitement and action. Mr Spielberg, you’ve done it again. Another classic to add to your résumé.

 

 ★★★★★★★★★★ 

 

 

Jurassic World (2015)

Jurassic World (2015)

The park is open

Despite the problems with the original Jurassic Park, the late John Hammond’s dream of an interactive dinosaur theme park has finally been brought to life. Running for over ten years, Jurassic World had been drawing in crowds from around the world with its thrilling exhibits but attendances have been slipping as the dinosaurs no longer provide the same excitement. Desperate to boost flagging numbers, the genetics team decide to create their own dinosaur using a mixture of DNA from other popular dinosaurs. The result, the Indominus Rex, is a bigger and badder alpha predator which looks every bit the crowd-puller for when it would eventually go on display. But when the dinosaur escapes from its pen, it heads straight towards the tourist areas, devouring everything in its path.

 

The last Jurassic Park film from the original run, Jurassic Park III, came out in 2001, yet the franchise never really died a death. Rumours were abound for years about a muted fourth sequel and every other month it seemed that a new director, cast or script was floating around. Finally fourteen years later, Jurassic World emerges from its embryonic state to unleash more dinosaur carnage upon the world. Would cinema audiences still have the same affection for big-budget dinosaur films when, in the years since 1993’s Jurassic Park, there have been hundreds of CGI monsters ranging from Godzilla to King Kong?

The original was a ground-breaking motion picture, one of the first films I can remember going to see in the cinema, and one that certainly changed the way studios looked at special effects. Spielberg’s classic still has the raw ability to mesmerise and wow audiences, particularly that awe-inspiring first T-Rex attack which is a masterfully-staged scene. The two sequels provided ample thrills and I don’t mind either of them to be honest – they both get far more bad rep than they deserve. However, if there is an overriding problem with the Jurassic Park films is that the central idea – that of dinosaurs escaping captivity – is rather limited in scope. People have to get onto the island and become trapped. The dinosaurs have to escape. That’s about it. Jurassic World sadly offers little alternative to that premise, rehashing the same story again. You’d think that these dino-experts would learn from their past mistakes!

Jurassic World reboots and remakes the original in equal measure. You’ll lose count of the number of nods to the original and some of the scenes are just flat-out lifted from it. At the same time, the film tries to establish its own presence in an attempt to build a platform for future sequels. The most interesting concept here is seeing how the grand vision of ‘Jurassic Park’ has finally been brought to life after the testing phase in the original. Watching the park burst with vitality as hordes of energetic kids rush from one attraction to the next, seeing Sea World-like exhibitions entertaining scores of tourists, going ‘aww’ at the petting zoos (only instead of goats and lambs they are baby dinosaurs) and laughing at merchandise stands going overkill with the novelty tat really hammers home the original intentions of John Hammond and the gang of suits sponsoring his plans in the first one. With CGI coming on in leaps and bounds since 1993, the actual park can be brought to life in this fashion and it’s to the film’s credit that you really can believe this is a fully-functional theme park. There are loads of nice touches, right down to the teenage slacker who works on one of the rides who really couldn’t care less about his job. These sequences really build upon and expand the original’s ideas, something the previous two sequels should have done.

Quickly moving on from this sickly Disney World-esque utopian theme park, Jurassic World gets down to the usual business of having the dinosaurs escape. Let’s face it, we don’t want to see baby dinosaurs hatching from eggs or being fed in a zoo – we want to see the big meat eaters causing havoc. Over twenty-two years since the original came out (saying that makes me feel really old) and it seems as though the dinosaur special effects haven’t got any better. The T-Rex in the original is still one of the most impressive movie monsters of all time. Ironically, like the notion that the theme park is struggling to keep people hooked due to its inability to impress them anymore, the film suffers from the same fate. T-Rexs weren’t good enough to keep people flocking back and so bigger and nastier dinosaurs were introduced – the Spinosaurus in Jurassic Park III and now the Indominus Rex. The Indominus might be gigantic compared to the T-Rex but it’s just another computer-generated dinosaur with little personality and character – something you might see in one of The Asylum’s overblown ‘mockbusters.’ Perhaps it’s the reliance on CGI to bring to life not only the dinosaurs but the surrounding landscapes and scenery which takes me out of the new special effects sequences. There’s nothing to immerse the audience anymore – look at how masterfully Spielberg crafted the T-Rex attack scene in the first film, shot outdoors with rain, effective lighting and mixture of animatronic models and post-production CGI. I’d kill for something half as exciting and engaging nowadays. Jurassic World has plenty of big, loud action set pieces but there’s just nothing you wouldn’t see playing a video game version. For such a landmark film series which raised the benchmark for special effects in 1993, Jurassic World falls back upon the terrible 21st Century Hollywood ‘bigger is better’ mantra which is destroying the summer blockbuster like never before.

Despite seemingly being everywhere right now, Chris Pratt does make for a likeable and charismatic lead man. This is the kind of role he’s beginning to do his sleep and Pratt adds a nice mix of action and humour in what is essentially a token hero role. Bryce Dallas Howard is pretty appalling in her role, though through a terrible script rather than any fault of her own. Throw in more stereotypes like the angry head of security or the Asian park owner, and couple that with two wholly uninteresting and annoying child characters, and you have one of Jurassic World’s main weaknesses. The characters are subject to all of these horrific situations, but you never really once care for their safety or well-being.

 

Jurassic World’s multi-million-dollar approach lacks the darker touch that Spielberg brought to the table and with it, an air of underlying menace to make the dinosaurs actually scary and the film thrilling. Maybe it’s just the cynic in me thinking that I’ve seen this all before somewhere – I bet if I was twelve-year old again I’d fall in love with the film like I did with the original. Jurassic World isn’t a terrible film but it won’t exactly do to Hollywood what the original did back in 1993 – if anything, it is more a sad product of the current blockbuster system than it is a pioneering force for change.

 

 ★★★★★★☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

King Kong (1933)

King Kong (1933)

A Monster of Creation’s Dawn Breaks Loose in Our World Today!

Producer Carl Denham and his film crew head off to an uncharted Pacific island to finish shooting a movie amongst the superstitious natives who worship a huge gorilla named Kong. What they don’t realise is that Kong is real and the gigantic beast abducts lead actress Ann Darrow after she is offered up as a sacrifice. Setting off in pursuit of her through the perilous jungle, Denham realises that there would be more money to be made if they could capture Kong alive and put him on show in New York.

 

What can anyone say about King Kong that hasn’t already been said? Still one of the biggest cinematic spectacles ever made, King Kong has stood the test of time as an iconic, landmark film in history. Everyone knows the story. Everyone knows how it pans out. Even if you haven’t seen the original, the two remakes, countless imitations and numerous spoofs and references will have mapped out the film from start to finish. I suppose the attraction of watching King Kong nowadays is to become a part of history by immersing yourself in a film that transcends time.

I think people forget when this was made whenever they launch into criticism. King Kong was made in 1933, right in the middle of the Great Depression and only six years before the start of the Second World War. Countries were broke. People were penniless. It’s amazing to ponder the mindset of anyone trying to make something as grand and as spectacular as this during that time given how much of a financial risk it would be. Even the limited technologies available to filmmakers back then failed to deter Merian C Cooper and Ernest B Schoedsack from attempting to break the mould and make a film that would be like nothing else that had come before. One can only imagine the reaction of being alive in the 30s and being used to the sort of films that were being made back then only to be confronted with King Kong on the big screen. The cultural impact is just too immense to even consider.

The likes of cutting-edge effects-driven spectacles such as Jurassic Park and more recently Avatar have rivalled King Kong‘s screen impact for newer generations but never topped it. There is just something awe-inspiring about the way in which this was all put together back in the 30s – a real labour of love for the cast and crew. Sadly, there is no question that King Kong has dated. From the Orientalist caricatures of the indigenous natives to the 30s fashions and the chauvinist sense of place that men and women both held in films right to the crackling sound and speeded-up action sequences, King Kong has seen its best days long, long gone. The acting by the three leads is of the old school ‘larger than life’ mould where they’re not so much as portraying characters but blustering through theatrical dialogue with all of the determination of a Renaissance dramatist. The script is full of schmaltzy old fashioned macho hero/damsel-in-distress nonsense but given the time period, it’s all perfectly acceptable.

Willis O’Brien deserves a lot of the credit for the success of King Kong. His legendary stop-motion special effects still hold up extraordinarily well today, turning Kong from a special effect into a fully-fledged character. Kong is invested with more heart and soul than 90% of human characters in every other film made. His mannerisms, expertly rendered by O’Brien, such as rubbing his eyes, shaking his head or pounding his fist instil the monster with a scary sense of humanity. He may be a thirty-foot ape but that still doesn’t stop the audience from immediately warming to him and eventually feeling sorry for him when he’s treat the way he is by mankind. The infamous, surprisingly poignant ending, atop the Empire State Building must rank as one of cinema’s greatest climaxes, both tragic and awe-inspiring at the same time. Equally as impressive is the fight between Kong and a T-Rex which finishes up with Kong breaking the jaw of the dinosaur in a show of raw, brute strength. To today’s audiences, the special effects will seem ‘fake’ but suspension of disbelief isn’t hard when the film is this good. O’Brien’s landmark effects paved the way for the likes of Ray Harryhausen to go further in pushing the boundaries of technology and in turn he influenced the next generation of artists like Spielberg, Jackson and Cameron. No King Kong, no cinema as we know it today.

The beauty with King Kong is that it’s not just visually impressive but it tells one hell of a story. People forget how well it plays out, full of thrilling action scenes, heart-stopping chases and romantic sub-plots. The build-up to Kong’s first sighting is skilfully manipulated. The dangerous trek through the jungle, featuring all manner of dinosaurs to pick off the crew, is as exciting as it is scary. Anywhere between thirty and forty of the crew are killed off during the film which is pretty horrific by today’s standards, let alone the 30s!

King Kong also saw the first time that an orchestral score was used to enhance the images on screen rather than have stock music run randomly alongside it without any sort of presence or purpose. Max Steiner’s score for King Kong saw the introduction of leitmotifs, where one recurring piece of music would be attached to an idea, person or place, saw its birth here. These ‘theme tunes’ could be sped up, slowed down or slightly altered given what was happening on-screen – think of the Imperial March theme from The Empire Strikes Back and how that was re-used in different forms across the series, or the shark’s theme in Jaws which was slowed down or sped up depending on the situation. It is a pivotal ingredient that we take for granted in film nowadays but something which saw its genesis back in 1933.

 

I could go on forever about King Kong and haven’t even scratched the surface in regards to the relationship between ‘beauty and the beast’ which led to the film’s most famous quote. I can’t say that it’s one of my favourite films because it’s not. But there’s no denying just how big of an accomplishment this film was and how much of an industry-defining impact it had. Still one of the biggest cinematic spectacles of all time, King Kong is quite simply put one of the greatest films ever made. It truly is the ‘Eighth Wonder of the World.’

 

 ★★★★★★★★★★ 

 

 

Rocketeer, The (1991)

The Rocketeer (1991)Cliff Secord is a young pilot whose dream of entering into a big air race with his new plane are ruined when a shoot-out involving cars on the ground below him forces him to crash-land. But whilst he is grounded, Secord stumbles across a top secret rocket pack that was hidden inside the cockpit of another plane in the hanger. Strapping on the invention, he finds that he can fly and with the assistance of his mechanic friend, Peevy, he becomes the Rocketeer. It isn’t long before he attracts the attentions of the Mafia, the FBI and Neville Sinclair, one of Hollywood’s top actors, who has a secret of his own.

 

Long before Iron Man hit the cinemas, another flying superhero who wore metal was one of the sole flag bearers of a niche genre which had yet to hit its stride, Batman and Superman aside. The Rocketeer was ahead of its time. Had it been made during the comic book boom of the late 00s, it would have a found a bigger, more appreciative audience. But it was a flop when it was released in 1991 and I’m not quite sure why. The Rocketeer blows the socks off a lot of today’s superhero efforts and is a lot of fun in its own quaint, charming way. Thankfully, over the years it has grown a decent cult following.

Think Iron Man meets Raiders of the Lost Ark and you won’t go too far wrong in preparing yourself for The Rocketeer. The film is set in the late 30s and a lot of effort goes into bringing to life that era with a wide variety of cars, clothes, music, hairstyles and dating etiquette on show. This wouldn’t have worked in a modern setting and the old fashioned, vintage feel helps bring the story to life in a lot more fantastical fashion – the notion of a rocket pack may not seem so far-fetched to someone in the present day as opposed to someone living in 30s America. The period setting also allows the inclusion of those favourite whipping boys, the Nazis, as the bad guys.

The retro feel of the film really allows the film to embrace its Saturday morning serial roots in much the same manner that Raiders of the Lost Ark managed to replicate so well. The film is very episodic, with the Rocketeer going from one scrape to the next and getting involved in all manner of gun battles, fist fights and battles atop blimps. The action sequences are dealt with perfectly well – this is a family-friendly Disney live-action film after all and so there’s nothing here that will offend or cause concern. The majority of action set pieces and special effects are done using old school techniques including using some well-trained stuntmen. Though some of the flying sequences with the Rocketeer look a bit dated now, they still serve their function. Everything is all very innocent and gentle, as you’d expect from the House of Mouse. It’s too bad we don’t really get enough of them. To say this superhero is meant to fly, he doesn’t do an awful lot of it.

Sadly, The Rocketeer lacks the spark that made Raiders tick – the self-referential humour. Yes there are a handful of in-jokes and sight gags but they’re sparsely scattered around the film. The throwaway material works well with gentle humour and whilst The Rocketeer never gets serious, it fails to find the funny bone as well. Coupled with the shortage of truly captivating action sequences, the film consistently threatens to come crashing back down to Earth with a bump. Thankfully the film is light enough to be able to take the rough and tumble of some poor pacing. Things never get overly boring but at the same time there seems to be a lack of energy underneath.

The Rocketeer’s main weakness comes from its leading man, Bill Campbell. Whilst he’s not terrible in the role, his performance is so average that it is hard to remember anything worthwhile he says or does in the film. The role really needed someone more charismatic and memorable to bring the character to life. Considering the supporting cast of Jennifer Connelly, Alan Arkin and Timothy Dalton who all outshine him, Campbell is wooden and dull. Dalton, in particular, is having a blast (having hung up his 007 tux two years earlier) as a Nazi spy doubling up as a successful Hollywood actor. If anyone ever doubted whether Dalton had the charisma to pull off Bond (he was always one of, if not my favourite, actors to play Ian Fleming’s suave spy) then this role proves he did.

James Horner provides the soundtrack and seems content to rip off his previous scores once again. Aliens and Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan were classic scores yet Horner continually recycles his old work to remind us of how good he once was.

 

A bit cheesy, full of clichés and as light and fluffy as cotton wool, The Rocketeer is nevertheless an entertaining, family-friendly superhero film which deserved far better success than it had. Not every superhero film has to be uber-serious like The Dark Knight or Man of Steel.

 

 ★★★★★★★☆☆☆ 

 

 

Son of Kong, The (1933)

The Son of Kong (1933)

SEE! The cannibals! The earthquake! The sea serpent! The fighting monsters of ages past!

After King Kong’s rampage through New York, filmmaker Carl Denham is counting the cost. Penniless and faced with numerous lawsuits served against him, he is approached by Captain Engelhorn, the captain of the ship of that brought Kong to New York and who is also facing charges, with an offer that the two men flee to avoid their inevitable prison sentences. After attempting to make money by shipping cargo around the Dutch East Indies on Engelhorn’s ship, they bump into Norwegian Nils Helstrom who originally sold Denham the map to Skull Island. He convinces them that there is great treasure hidden on the island and together they set sail to find it. But when they get there, they discover an ape that they believe is the son of King Kong.

 

After the phenomenal success of King Kong in 1933, a sequel was rushed into production. But Ernest B. Schoedsack was told that he would have a lower budget and would be only given six months to make the film so that it would be ready for release by Christmas…in the same year! That’s a harsh production schedule for any fantasy film to adhere to given the amount of painstakingly-detailed stop-motion animation shots on display, let alone the sequel to one of cinema’s titanic classics. And let’s face it, no sequel was ever going to be able to top the original for sheer spectacle.

Not many people are aware that King Kong spawned a sequel based around his offspring (the whereabouts of Mrs Kong have never been revealed but I hope she didn’t bolt on them both!) but The Son of Kong deals with just that. It’s hardly a lesser remake of the original like many a sequel is, though it shares many similarities once Denham and co. arrive on Skull Island by putting the human characters in danger from hungry beasts. This one goes off on its own tangent a little more thanks to Kong Jr. only being about twice the height of a normal man and not a giant ape. Plus it doesn’t end up back in New York but history repeating itself twice would have been a stretch too far.

The story picks up a few weeks after the events of the original, with distraught and disgraced Carl Denham (Robert Armstrong) being the main character now – neither Fay Wray or Bruce Cabot return to their roles. Armstrong said that this was his favourite film out of the two as it gave Denham more character to play with. He’s right – he’s no longer a maverick producer with visions of dollar signs running through his brain but a man broken by tragedy. The responsibility that Denham bears for Kong’s death weighs heavy on him throughout the film and his sombre apology to Kong Jr. is rather heart-warming in its sincerity. Denham truly feels remorse for what happened and Armstrong is able to channel that to good success, even if there are few moments when the old Denham tries to break out. Frank Reicher resuming his role as Captain Engelhorn also adds some continuity to the film’s links with the original. However Fay Wray’s replacement, Helen Mack, doesn’t play a pivotal role in the film and has blatantly been cast as a damsel-in-distress for the sake of casting. Beauty did not kill the beast in this one.

But apart from Denham traversing a nice character arc between this and the original, The Son of Kong is clearly a rushed production which doesn’t deliver anything like the qualities of King Kong. It’s only a little over sixty minutes long and it takes the characters nearly half of the film to arrive on the island. Whilst the film eventually picks up pace when it gets to the island, things pick up too late and they’re over way too quickly to leave any lasting impression. Once on the island, the handful of human characters are put in peril with the island native beastly inhabitants desperate to make a meal out of them. And Kong Jr. is on hand to save the day.

Kong Jr looks alright to say that the animation was rushed along in six months by Willis O’Brien. He doesn’t have the same awe and majesty about him that his dad did and his less-than-imposing height and albino look does more to appeal to children than anything. The animation isn’t as complicated as it was before but O’Brien understands the need to give Kong Jr. the same sort of quirky mannerisms that his father had to add personality and humanity to the character. It’s hard not to warm to Kong Jr. in a way that we couldn’t with his father and it adds more emotional impact to the teary-eyed finale which was never going to top the infamous ascent to the top of the Empire State Building but does a good job of doing the best it can with the circumstances. The lasting impression that Kong Jr. makes on the audience is surprising given how little he’s on the screen but he’s a credit to the stop motion animation of Willis O’Brien. If only Denham and his gang had arrived on the island a little earlier in the film to give the film more of an overall impression.

 

More friendly in tone and approach than its predecessor, it can’t compete for spectacle or horror with King Kong but, like the infant ape on the screen, The Son of Kong is hard not to feel some affection for. It’s blatantly a missed opportunity however and it would have been interesting to see how much better it could have been had everyone been given a year or two to make it.

 

 ★★★★★★☆☆☆☆