Monday, February 23, 2009

Shitty Movies By Great Directors, Episode 3: Robert Zemeckis's "What Lies Beneath"

Robert Zemeckis's body of work represents just about the pinnacle of mainstream filmmaking. This is a guy who has been cranking out big, crowd-pleasing, special effects filled, product placement friendly, summer event blockbuster-y type movies for a good 25 years now. You could almost dismiss Zemeckis as a George Lucas style businessman whose artistic credibility takes a backseat to his business sense. Except Zemeckis is in the rare category of filmmaker, along with Steven Spielberg and James Cameron, where his obvious genius for the medium transcends his films' mainstream trappings. It doesn't matter whether his movies are mainstream or avant-garde, this is a man who simply understands film better than the vast majority of directors. And like Spielberg and Cameron, he knows how to sneak his heart and soul into seemingly shallow material.

It's no secret to anyone who has spent more than 5 minutes in conversation with me that Back to the Future is my favorite movie of all time. This is both because I think it is a great film, and for personal reasons that have only a little to do with the film itself. Which I suspect might be true of most peoples' favorite movie. BTTF is one of those movies that I saw when I was so young that I don't even have a sense of ever seeing it for the first time. It's like I was born having seen it, it was always a part of my life. For me, no other movie so perfectly represents the joy I felt watching movies as a child. As I've gotten older, I've become savvier about film, I understand the craft a little more. I can analyze them. When you're a kid, you don't understand any of that, the movie just sort of happens to you and it makes you feel a certain way and you're not sure why. I've analyzed BTTF enough to understand the craft of it more, but it still inspires those magical feelings from my childhood every time I watch it.

None of Zemeckis's other films could ever mean as much to me, but that doesn't that he hasn't turned out a lot of great ones. Romancing the Stone is probably the best Indiana Jones knockoff anyone has ever made. Who Framed Roger Rabbit is not only a triumph on a technical level, but it also one of the most delightful films I've ever seen, on top of being the weirdest and most memorable modern take on film noir. (Yeah, you heard me, Sin City. You ain't got shit on Roger Rabbit). I know a lot of people seem to be down on Forrest Gump, but I can't think of a lot of other movies that magical. Also magical and captivating is The Polar Express, enough so to melt this bitter, Christmas-hating atheist's cold black heart.

That one marked Zemeckis's first foray into motion-capture animation, which seems to be the style he's sticking with for now. I'd be a liar if I said I didn't want him to go back to doing live action movies at some point. Still, the style has untethered his visual imagination from the practicalities of reality, and if that yields a movie as insanely over the top and violent as Beowulf, I'm not going to complain.

Back to the Future 2 & 3 could never match the magic of the original, those boots are just too big to fill. As a result, I think I've underappreciated them in the past. Part 2 especially is one of the most clever sequels ever made. The third one maybe gets a little bogged down in parodying westerns, but still is light years better than a supposed classic blockbuster like fucking Iron Man. (But that is a rant for another day. I'm seriously considering going back and watching that again to pinpoint exactly what I found so underwhelming about it.) I tend to forget about Contact when I think of Zemeckis's films, which is weird because it's one of his best, and in a lot of ways is the best example of his strengths. It's a big special-effects filled spectacle that also works as an earnest and touching attempt to address the religion vs. science debate. Even a relative disappointment of Zemeckis's, like Cast Away, showcases a lot of great filmmaking, strong acting and is in large parts very entertaining.

And actually, What Lies Beneath isn't so different. It has a lot of promise, a handful of well-constructed set pieces and a strong cast. A lot of what I'm about to bitch about is going to be similar to my complaints against The Fog... that the premise and the cliched ghost story do more to sabotage the film than anything else.

I was a little worried going back to rewatch this one for my blog that it was going to turn out to be better than I remembered. (I was "worried" that a movie would turn out to be good? God that sounds cynical). I was talking to my friend Patrick, and he reminded me that a big reason this movie felt so disappointing when it was first released was because of its awful, absurd ad campaign that gave away all the major plot points and twists. The commercials were brazen spoilers, and not just because they gave away that Harrison Ford turns out to be the bad guy (oops, spoiler, hope you hadn't been planning on seeing this one). Perhaps even worse is that the movie was marketed as supernatural thriller, even though the first 30 or 40 minutes of the movie goes to great pains to try to seem like a riff on Rear Window. It only to slowly reveals itself as a ghost movie. Watching that first act back when this originally came out was painfully boring, knowing already it was all just a red herring. What should have been a neat act of misdirection was made tedious by the film's shitty advertising.

Any ways, what I wasn't really expecting is that it turns out that What Lies Beneath is even worse than I remembered, and that the "boring" first act was actually the best part of the film.

The movie opens with the credits appearing over an ominous body of water. This is the movie's central metaphor, you see, because it's like "what lies beneath" the water? Eventually it turns out it is the corpse of a woman that Harrison Ford killed whose ghost ends up haunting his wife. But also it's like "what lies beneath" Harrison Ford's outward personality, because his wife thinks he's a good guy but he is really an amoral asshole willing to kill to protect his career and upper-class lifestyle. See, I got that shit, it's like a double meaning or whatever. Pretty deep (get it? that's a water pun I'm making).

The set up to the film is actually pretty good. Michelle Pfieffer and Harrison Ford play a middle aged married couple whose daughter has just left for college. There's a sweet scene where they drop the daughter off at her dorm and Pfieffer manages to keep from crying until after they start walking away. Soon, she starts experiencing some empty-nest syndrome stuff being stuck alone in their big house all day. She's bored and depressed, and starts to suspect something weird is going on with their neighbors. But is it for real, or is it just her restless, over-active imagination?

If the rest of What Lies Beneath was like the first 30 minutes, it could have been an excellent thriller. I like horror movies that exploit real life fears, and empty-nest syndrome is a novel one to try. I don't think I've seen it done before. Most older audiences members will remember what it's like when their kids left home, and most everyone will remember leaving home for the first time. It's a scary and relatable experience that establishes Pfiefffer as a sympathetic heroine. The movie then builds up a nice Hitchcockian vibe, with strong themes of voyeurism.

One night Pfieffer and Ford hear the married couple next door engaged in a loud fight that morphs into an even louder bout of lovemaking. Ford goes to shut the window, but Pfieffer asks him to keep it open, so they can hear the neighbors fucking and they can fuck to it. Nice. But Pfieffer starts to become a little too interested in her neighbors, spying on them through their fence, becoming convinced that the husband is abusing the wife, and eventually that he has murdered her.

So we have all the makings of a great Rear Window-esque thriller, and then the movie throws all that out the (rear) window to become another tiresome ghost movie where a bunch of arbitrary spooky shit happens over and over again on a long, winding road to an arbitrary ending. Only worse.

So there's a female ghost haunting their house, which Pfieffer initially thinks is malevolent but of course the ghost is only really trying to pass along a message about the fact that Harrison Ford is evil. I don't mean to repeat everything I said about The Fog, but I hate this kind of shit because it's so frivolous. The ghost has all sorts of magical powers that it utilizes inconsistently and ineffectively. I'm not going to bother listing it all here, but there is one egregiously awful example that I must share. At one point, during a bout of arbitrary spookiness, the ghost types her own initials into Pfieffer's computer, over and over again. Okay, so she's trying to tell Pfeiffer who she is. I get that, but if she can manipulate the computer, then why doesn't she just type out her full name? Or better yet why doesn't she just explain the plot of the film? That kind of crap frustrates me to no end.

Also, I hate in these movies when it turns out that the ghost is actually good. Because then it's like... what am I supposed to be scared of? It's the kind of twist that makes the rest of the movie seem boring in retrospect. Why would I ever want to rewatch it?

Zemeckis's considerable talents are still on display. I've always liked his knack for complicated, showy camera moves and shots that are so flawlessly executed that you don't immediately realize how complex they are. There's a pretty good one here, a scene done in one long shot where Pfieffer has a supernatural encounter in the bathroom that seemlessly incorporates a lot of special effects. I will also credit Zemeckis with a great set piece near the end of the film. After Pfieffer discovers Ford to be a killer, he paralyzes her with a drug and puts her into a bath tub, which slowly fills up with water. Her attempt to escape while barely being able to move her toes is the film's high point.

The problem is more with the screenplay, and Zemeckis's mistaken conviction that its silly story can supply serious thrills. In addition to all the frustratingly stupid arbitrary shit typical of this genre, there are a lot of wrongheaded ideas for scary scenes. Like when Pfieffer and her friend attempt to contact the ghost using a Ouiji board, and it's played for suspense. I'm sorry guys, you expect me to take a Ouiji board, which can be bought at fucking Toys R Us, seriously? You might as well build a suspense sequence around a magic 8-ball.

Most embarrassing though is the finale, a ludicrously convoluted chase presented with a straight face. It's a major set piece, a high speed chase where a car, a boat, a bridge, a fist fight, a lake and an unearthed corpse all slam together with clockwork timing, something appropriate for a Buster Keaton movie, but not so much for a serious horror/thriller. Zemeckis has done scenes like this to great effect in the Back to the Future movies, Beowulf, Used Cars and Roger Rabbit, the difference being that those are more light-hearted, silly, fun movies. This kind of sequence is Zemeckis's bread and butter, in the right context, but is so weirdly out of place in What Lies Beneath as to reach levels of accidental hilarity usually reserved for Uwe Boll. And the fact that Zemeckis's talent is evident throughout the scene makes it even worse. It's like a math genius developing a formula that makes searching for child porn on the internet faster and easier.

I'm convinced that with a good screenplay, Zemeckis could make a great horror film. He has an innate understanding of suspense, setup, payoff and pacing. I love horror movies, so to me it's a god damned shame how this is probably the only Zemeckis horror film we'll ever get. This isn't as shitty as the other two movies I've watched for this column, but it's way more frustrating in how you can sense the good movie that could have been. What it amounts to is an argument that strong filmmaking can't save a bad idea. Maybe there wasn't a lapse in Zemeckis's talent this time around, but there was certainly a major lapse in judgment.

NEXT UP: Steven Spielberg

1 comment:

Fred Topel said...

I hated this when it came out too. Everyone was mostly wowed by Harrison Ford's "surprising" turn. But, you remember the sole reason this movie exists?

This is the movie Zemeckis made while he waited for Tom Hanks to lose the weight for Cast Away. So that's what you get.