science fiction and stoners

At the weekend I watched three videos in a row. I was in the mood for science fiction, with a dash of comedy, so I plumped for The Mutant Chronicles, Babylon A.D., and Pineapple Express. Here be spoilers, so don’t read on if you haven’t seen the movies.

The Mutant Chronicles is directed by Simon Hunter and written by Philip Eisner, and is extraordinarily bad for a film with a lot of talent in it. It’s set in a future that’s aiming for a retro-World War I vibe, but shows no evidence of future-thinking or a convincing worldview.

It’s burdened with a wad of exposition that’s chewed over and spat at us by voiceover, which involves a mutating machine that’s buried in the earth by a group of monks in the past, which is now “activated” by a battle between four Orwellian corporations that currently rule the planet. You know what, I’ve just described the back-story more concisely than the film. A group of soldiers are hand-picked to quest into the machine and shut it down (I’m not sure why the monks never did this the first time because they drew extensive maps, and obviously knew how to do it).

For the first ten minutes I thought the future didn’t involve women. And then the first token woman appeared, quickly followed by token characters of different racial backgrounds – all of whom die, I might add. The film is a white boy science fiction fantasy that’s derivative, unoriginal, and lacking any merit.

I’m partial to Vin Diesel. It’s the voice, and the fact that if you put him in an action role he’ll generally deliver the goods. Babylon A.D. is directed by French actor/director Mathieu Kassovitz, and the screenplay was co-written by Kassovitz and Joseph Simas, adapted from the novel by Maurice G. Dantec.

After the atrocity of the previous film I was pleasantly encouraged by the opening sequence of Babylon A.D., and the first half of the film. Diesel is solid in his role as Toorop, a mercenary scrabbling for survival in Eastern Europe, who is offered a babysitting deal: bring 18-year-old Aurora (Mélanie Thierry) and her custodian, Sister Rebeka (Michelle Yeoh), to New York City from a monastery Mongolia. It’s clear that Aurora is a bit odd and perhaps has unusual gifts. There is a lot of chasing about across a Cyberpunk Russian & European landscape.

I was pretty happy with all of this. Over time the backstory began to creep in, and it didn’t make a lot of sense. Aurora is a special child created by a Church and yet abandoned in a monastery, and brought back to the West on a flimsy pretext. I was rather irritated that Eastern Europe was portrayed as a lawless wasteland, and as soon as the characters hit New York it was like a clean American Tokyo.

The more the reasons for the journey were explained then the more I scratched my head. The last twenty minutes were disappointing. Whenever we get into virgin birth territory I roll my eyes. And of course the mother died: after all that’s the main reason for women, right? Receptacles for children? Women lose their holiness once they’ve been sullied by childbirth. That was particularly annoying.

Yet, this film delivers action, decent pacing, and some cool science fictional ideas for the majority of the film. It’s made me interested in reading the novel, and seeing what the author originally envisioned, which I suspect has been diluted and distorted.

Finally Pineapple Express, which was directed by David Gordon Green, and the screenplay was written by Seth Rogen (the film’s star) and Evan Goldberg. I’m fond of stoner movies. This is buddy flick with a lot of eye-watering slapstick humour, rolled in with a gang dispute, and a corrupt cop.

Rogen is amiable as Dale Denton, the twenty-something pothead who serves subpoenas to support his weed habit, and who is dating Angie (Amber Heard), a high school student (and largely irrelevant in the film). Seth has become friendly with his dealer, the permanently stoned Saul (James Franco), and they start the film smoking on the latest strain, Pineapple Express. In a far-fetched coincidence Dale witnesses a murder while preparing to serve a notice, and the guy turns out to be the criminal from whom Saul gets his weed – via his middle-man Red (Danny R. McBride).

Initially, the film is about two hapless losers stumbling through misunderstandings and accidents and is amusing enough. There are a couple of hilarious fights that have the fumbling, awkward realism of scraps by people who’ve never lifted a first against another human being. Yet, as the film progresses it delves into much murkier moral ground. Selling dope to kids is shrugged off as a lark, and later on there’s a terrific shoot-out in which our heroes happily plug the nameless bad guys – including the stereotypical Asians with “hilarious” subtitles!

By the end I found myself distanced and unimpressed with Dale and Saul. Picking up guns and playing around with them like boys with toys is cool, apparently. Murder and mayhem is permissible because, sure, they’re just nerdy idiots and the criminals are all bad! There isn’t even enough subtext in the film to argue that Rogen and Goldberg and making a serious point about this genre of film: their characters are just smoking grass and blowing shit up. If you like that sort of thing and are happy to pal around with morally-impaired stoners with access to firearms then you should enjoy this film.