Saturday, May 29, 2021

Stupefying Stories Reviews: OXYGEN and ARMY OF THE DEAD

It’s Memorial Day weekend, the unofficial start of summer vacation season in the US. What the heck are you doing sitting indoors, doomscrolling the Internet and binge-watching movies on Netflix?

Nevertheless, it appears that you are, so for your viewing pleasure, first Pete Wood reviews OXYGEN, and then Bruce Bethke reviews ARMY OF THE DEAD. Enjoy!

OXYGEN • review by Pete Wood

Beware spoilers ahead! Ye been warned!!

Netflix unleashed Stowaway, a movie probably based on Tom Godwin’s 1954 short story The Cold Equations, earlier this Spring. The story of a teenager girl who sneaks aboard a spaceship that can’t accommodate the weight of two people has never made a whole lot of sense to me. Twenty-five years ago, I and the rest of the science fiction literature class at N. C. State hated it. But it’s canon for a reason. It’s more or less a philosophical exercise on the inflexible rules of physics.

And it’s short. It doesn’t drag out the plot.

Stowaway, about a man who somehow (don’t ask) gets knocked out and wakes up on a mission to Mars with only enough oxygen and supplies for three, goes on and on and on, milking a pretty thin premise for almost two hours. The 1989 episode of the New Twilight Zone clocks in at twenty-two minutes and has the decency to give credit to Godwin’s story. Netflix’s takes bundles together endless idiot plot devices to drive home its point with countless sledgehammers. Maybe that’s why it has a 5.6 rating on IMDB.

On May 12th Netflix released Oxygen, an almost two hour film that might have ten minutes of plot. You’ll be grateful for the remote control. A woman (Melanie Laurent of Inglorious Basterds) wakes up in some sort of pod and spends the first ten minutes freeing herself from some sort of bandage/straightjacket malarkey that only exists so that she can spend  ten minutes escaping. She has no idea where she is, and she spends the next eighty-five minutes panicking and banging on her pod and making phone calls to unhelpful bureaucrats and asking questions of evasive A.I.s until the big reveal in the last five minutes. Laurent does a good enough job, but the writing sinks this movie.

Oh yeah, outside the pod the oxygen supply is rapidly dropping, as the A.I. keeps reminding her, while it plays hide the ball with every other piece of useful information.

The movie plays hide the ball with everything else. The big reveal is of course that the poor woman is in a suspended animation chamber on a colonization spaceship. A meteorite has hit the ship and if she leaves the pod she’ll die.

Not that the A.I. bothers to tell her that.

Nope. Instead, she calls people on the pod’s phone where the future’s equivalent of 911 assumes she’s joking about waking up in a pod with no memory. The idiotic operator even threatens to arrest her for making a false police report.

Because, you know, that’s how 911 works. Operators argue with callers rather than dispatching help and trying to solve problems. I live in the 919-area code and a few years ago local calls had to dial 919 without the 1 to place a call. We had a rash of misdialed emergency calls. And the police checked out every misdial in person. That’s what emergency responders do. They ask questions later. Only in mediocre movies do emergency responders argue, in order to drag out the plot. Like in the 1998 slasher flick Urban Legend, when 911 argued with a caller about whether or not that was really blood she saw spurting out of a murder victim. Only in the movies.

Of course, in Oxygen, it turns out that it’s a fake 911 operator, which is even worse. No help is coming because she’s in deep space.

Now I ask you, what is the point of hiding information in this situation? Why wouldn’t the A.I. just announce to her that she’s on a deep space flight? Why wouldn’t there be a latch on the inside of the pod which she could have opened in the first minute of the movie?

Because information is only hidden in bad movies to drag things out.

I saw a TV show, whose name escapes me, where police inform a neighborhood that a sexual predator has moved in but they can’t divulge the name. Naturally, the neighbors turn on each other and attack the wrong guy. There is no reason to not cough up the criminal’s name. In the real-world sex offender registries are common and a very useful tool. If you want to stretch out a razor-thin plot, giving out half-assed information will get you there.

Gradually discovering information is the heart and soul of good movies too. But characters have to behave logically. The situation has to make sense.

I watched And Then There Were None, the 1945 adaption of Agatha Christie’s murder mystery, for the fourth time recently. It is the best murder mystery ever written and this version is the only one that does the novel justice. Don’t bother with any of the remakes. Ten people are trapped on an island off the coast of England where a murderer is in their midst: a simple premise that has been copied endless times. No hiding the ball here. The characters act sensibly, and the action and the final reveal makes sense. Be warned. It’s a very British film, where characters still sleep in their pajamas in separate bedrooms even while a murderer is on the loose. But that’s part of the fun.

Memento, the 2000 film by Christopher Nolan, is the model for the slow reveal. Insurance investigator Guy Pearce tries to solve a murder but has no short-term memory. The film is told backwards, with each scene taking place earlier in time. The protagonist doesn’t remember the earlier events. A tour de force with an ending you won’t forget. And no hiding the ball or stretching out the plot.

The movie Oxygen is just insulting and a waste of your time. The 2017 episode of Doctor Who, “Oxygen,” is not. The Doctor and his two companions materialize on a spaceship in a capitalist dystopia. A greedy corporation charges its workers for their oxygen consumption. It’s a fun and thought-provoking tale.

And no hiding the ball. 

—Pete Wood



ARMY OF THE DEAD • review by Bruce Bethke

Let me be the first to congratulate writer/director Zack Snyder on producing the first fully actualized exercise in hip-hop film making. Roland Emmerich has repeatedly tried to create new films by splicing together samples and loops lifted from earlier films, but Zack Snyder has actually done it. If there is a single original idea, image, scene, line of dialog, or bit of business anywhere in this movie, I must have missed it.

If you’ve always wondered what it would look like if someone did a three-way mash-up of Dawn of the Dead, Aliens, and Die Hard, this is the movie for you. Throw in generous helpings of 28 Days Later and possibly actionable steals from Fallout: New Vegas, along with smaller bits and shots lifted from other films and the obligatory “ticking clock to Doomsday” primary plot driver, and the stew is complete. This is a film that will have you saying, “Ooh! Ooh! They lifted that shot from Apocalypse Now!” And, “Hey, that’s Paul Reiser’s character from Aliens!” And, “Omigod, they lifted that scene whole from Terminator: Salvation!”

If you like your thrills completely programmatic and predictable, from the opening scene to the final frame before the end credits roll, this is the movie for you. If you like to play the game of “Guess which character is going to regurgitate which clichéd line of dialog next,” you’ll have endless fun with this movie—and I do mean endless. This one is two and a half hours long. Zack Snyder apparently knows how to make movies. He just doesn’t know how to end them.

In the long hot summer to come I can see ARMY OF THE DEAD turning into a popular party drinking game. Get a bunch of friends together, put this movie on the big screen, and whenever someone spots an obvious steal from Aliens or Die Hard, everyone has to chug their drink.

Betcha you don’t stay sober past the obligatory, “Omigod, the ticking clock has accelerated!” scene.

—Bruce Bethke


ray p daley said...

Watched Oxygen. Predicted the end & the twist by 20 mins in.
Literally predicted 80% of the movie from the 1st 20 mins.
Either I'm a genius or it was weak writing.