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Apocalypse Now Showing
At World's End (at the Summer Box Office)

Blast San Francisco Bureau

Man versus monster. Man versus meteor. Man on the run.

Halfway through summer and already Hollywood has trashed the planet not once, not twice, but at least four times. A deadly comet threatens mankind in the drama-heavy "Deep Impact." A giant lizard takes Manhattan by storm in "Godzilla." Aliens and a shadowy group of men plan armageddon on Earth through slick and sinister means in the big-screen treatment of "The X-Files." A rock that dwarfs "Deep Impact's" hurls toward Earth and only a dirty half-dozen of Bruce Willis and Co. can save the day in "Armageddon." Robert Redford tries to lull box-office masses into a deadening sleep with "The Horse Whisperer."

Life sucks -- then mankind dies. (Well, almost. Without giving too much away, let's just say the spirit of humanity is triumphant in these flicks.)

When Hollywood tries to wow us with the end of the world, that's a mighty tall order to fill. So far, how do the films add up? Let's review.

"Deep Impact" is an atypical disaster film, emphasizing human drama over pyrotechnics. Here, the film doesn't begin with a big bang, only an impending sense of doom as a huge comet is spotted hurling toward Earth by an amateur astronomer (played by Elijiah Wood). A spunky reporter played by Tea Leoni (didn't she do the same damn role on TV's "The Naked Truth"?) chases a lead that uncovers the coming apocalypse. The President (played by Morgan Freeman) plays a calming presence to the world while initiating a plan to send a crew of astronauts (including an wise pilot played by Robert Duvall) to blow up that damn rock.

It's a lot of characters to deal with and director Mimi Leder takes advantage of that to show us a more contemplative side to the usual slam-bang flicks. Instead of a string of action sequences with a few lulls in between, "Deep Impact" is a series of interconnected mini-dramas involving regular folk. Many of them are ordinary folk in extraordinary circumstances, while the space crew serves up the gist of the film's fast action.

The film builds anticipation as the comet hurls closer to the Earth and the astronauts race to stop it. Leder successfully paces the film to keep it somewhat compelling, although often one can't help but cry out: "Ditch Leoni! Bring on the fireworks!"

It's an extraordinary tale - too bad it's an ordinary movie. You walk out of the film saying to yourself, "It was good, not great." Yeah, Dreamworks spent a couple dozen million to make it and it's made well over $200 million -- BUT it's nothing to rush to the moviehouse for. Because it's so drama-heavy, it would all look fine on a 27'' TV screen. In other words: Rent it instead.

* * *

The entire sage of "Godzilla" is pretty stupid to begin with. Once you get past the "Nukes are evil" message that forms the subtext of the first "Godzilla" feature in 1954 (then titled "Gojira"), the rubber-suit F/X, the "Wrestlemania" monster fights, the sheer cheesiness of the Japanese films, then you're left with - well, not much else.

Director Roland Emmerich and his film partner, writer/producer Dean Devlin, are, by no stretch of imagination, film intellectuals. They make films that go boom, that are anchored by characters as thin as rice paper. Their lack of true talent is evident in their ability to co-opt elements of earlier film (Face it, "Independence Day" ripped off everything from "Aliens" to "Star Wars" to "Top Gun") But their films work as entertainment. It only made sense that they revitalize the "Godzilla" series with the usual Hollywood tendency to overdo and overkill.

The dangers of nuclear testing is addressed in the opening credits - and summarily set aside for the rest of the film. (Reality check: If we wanted a discussion on nuclear proliferation, we can slumber our way thorough scholarly analyses about the Indian-Pakistani regional arms race in The Economist). The French government does some testing on a far-flung island and some lizard mutates into a towering beast, period.

Next the monster attacks a Japanese fishing boat. A scientist (Matthew Broderick) is brought in as authorities try to outwit or destroy the creature. It attacks New York, then nests in Manhattan. All hell breaks loose. But because it's trashing New York, that's a good thing. (I'm from San Francisco - can ya tell?)

Anyway, the action sequences are fun and exciting, especially a well-made underwater sequence involving Godzilla and a torpedo-armed submarine The updated monster is agile, menacing and well-animated. No damn visible zippers. There's a whole subplot involving Broderick and his ex, who happens to be the New York journalist who scoops the goods on the monster dubbed Godzilla. Jean Reno shows up as a leader of secret French operatives sent in to track down Godzilla. It's all fun, especially since a couple New Yorkers become street pizza for the rampaging creature.

Emmerich and Devlin's "Godzilla" seems to take a lot of, uh, inspiration from last year's "The Lost World." And "Star Wars." And maybe a bit of "Crimson Tide." You get the point.

"Armageddon" is, on the surface, a Xeroxed treatment of "Deep Impact": A big galactic rock -- this time a meteor the size of Texas -- is hurling toward Earth and an astronaut crew is sent to blow the thing up.

But this Michael Bay film is loaded with testosterone. He and producer Jerry Bruckheimer must've been on Viagra when making this dick flick. Instead of the contemplative drama of "Deep Impact," we get a team of rootin' tootin' cowboys, a cast filled with macho, sweaty, beefy guys (uh, not counting Steve Buscemi).

Bruce Willis plays Harry Stamper, one of the world's best oil drillers. NASA hires him and his motley crew of working-class cut-ups (Buscemi, Ben Affleck, Will Patton and others) land via space shuttle on the meteor. Once there, they have to drill several hundred feet into the rock and insert a nuclear warhead. If all goes right, the explosive device will turn the rock into cookie crumbs and mankind lives another day.

"But this being Hollywood, it can't go that smoothly."
But this being Hollywood, it can't go that smoothly. First, after learning about the doomsday meteor, the U.S. government has to find a crew that can do the job. Once they recruit Stamper, the audience is treated to a lengthy training sequence that's served with the right touch of humor.

The shuttles (there's two of them in this mission) make a refueling stop at a Mir-like space station that propels the film more with more explosive action. The landing approach toward the meteor is also filled with dangers, as bits of rocks hurl toward the shuttles.

Eventually, the crew lands and has its mission in hand. Like any good action film, the script is filled with plenty of twists and turns to keep it rocking and rolling. Bay dulls the audiences sense with fast cuts, loud sounds and an urgent sense of pacing.

Of course, there is such a thing as overkill. Bay demonstrates here, as he did in "Bad Boys" and "The Rock," an adeptness at heightened action direction. But he needs to chill, take a pill and watch some John Woo films -- to give us less technique. Even if he's peddling some popcorn flick with little depth to begin with, does he need to bombard us until our sense are dull?

The other big gripe -- and this applies to "Deep Impact" as well -- the meteor set looks hella fake, all saw dust and glitter. What is this, the old set from "Capricorn One"?

"Armageddon is basically big dumb fun, period. No matter how much detail is put into it, how many technical advisors are consulted, the underlying science is questionable (Uh, how did they, no, how could they dodge all the rocks as they landed on the meteor, and survive?). The movie's too loud, the editing's too frenetic. Can. Michael. Bay. Slow. Things. Down. And. Let. Us. Absorb. The. Film?

* * *

The truth is in here: "The X-Files" film is one damn fine film. But because it's spawned from cinema ugly second cousin, television, and has a following that often makes Trekkies look attractive, you'll hear a lot of complaints about "The X-Files: Fight the Future."

"Scully and Mulder didn't do the nasty!"
Some of the negatives I've heard: The plot is confusing. The movie's contrived. It exploited and over-commercialized the series. Scully and Mulder didn't do the nasty!

First, let me point out that I'm a big "X-Files" fan (an X-phile, whatever). I watch the show religiously and know enough about the show that I didn't need to study a primer before running off to the theater. I also find the show to be one the best shows on TV ever, a dark, moody, often frightening, sometimes funny show that owes some debt to "The Night Stalker," "Twin Peaks" and the "The Twilight Show," among other previous TV programs. It's a show that takes ordinary, real events and melds them with the tabloid, the paranormal, the conspiratorial to produce an hour each week of compelling fiction. It's different from other TV shows and very well-produced, -written, -acted, and -directed. If you're a newcomer to the world of Agents Fox Mulder and Dana Scully, the film will be an enigma. Well, too fucking bad for you; go see "Armageddon" instead, dipshit.

That stated, "The X-Files" film is a masterpiece. There, I said it. It takes the entire notion of the summer blockbuster and turns it on its ear. It takes a minimalist approach to the sci-fi doom-and-gloom genre and instills a true sense of fear. All this, and only a few stupid explosions.

The movie picks up where the show left off in its season finale. The X-Files, a codename for FBI case files that are unexplainable, have been shut down and now Scully and Mulder (played by David Duchovny and Gillians Anderson) are working the terrorist detail. Before that, we are shown a prehistoric Texas, a frozen wasteland then, as a couple of cavemen tussle with an alien. The thing spews a dread black oil that seems to be alive itself as it enters one Neanderthal. Flash forward to the present day as the oil seeps into a little boy who stumbles onto the same site. Composer Mark Snow's music crawls under our skin. The threat to mankind is established - and it's no goddamn meteor. The film early on takes on a darker, more subversive tone from here on.

Cut to Scully and Mulder. In Dallas, they investigate the explosion of a federal building (Here, the sense of destruction hits closer home for us because it mirrors a recent real event) -- where the bodies of the Texas boy and other infected firemen happen to be. Mulder, a self-described central figure in a government conspiracy to hide the truth about extraterrestrials, soon gets in touch with a Dr. Kurtzweil (played by the talented Martin Landau), a conspiracy nut who makes our protagonist FBI agent look completely sane. Kurtzweil leads Mulder on a path to uncover the truth. Early on, the film stays true to the spirit of the series, weaving conspiracies like fine cloth by taking seemingly unrelated, sometimes benign or unnoteworthy, events and linking them together into something more sinister (In the first half hour, a prehistoric encounter with an alien, a Texas boy infected with the black oil, an apparent act of domestic terrorism are drawn together). I mean, isn't that what makes a compelling conspiracy. Eat your paranoid heart out, Oliver Stone.

From here, "The X-Files" becomes part film mystery and part Hitchcockian thriller, propelled by a few scenes of intrigue and action. Frightening secrets lurk beneath benign objects and agencies: a Texas suburban playground, a tanker-truck, the obscurely known Federal Emergency Management Agency, swarms of bees, a simple field of corn. In a fine sequence that recalls "North by Northwest" and "Apocalypse Now," Mulder and Scully outrun a couple of helicopters. In an effective plot twist, Scully herself falls infected to the black oil, putting Mulder on a path to the truth that leads to an isolated compound in the Arctic.

Eventually, we learn the gist of the conspiracy - that aliens and cadre of government agencies are colluding to infect Earth's people and replace them with extraterrestrials. But describing it does no justice to watching it unfold. In fact, in one scene in which the so-called Well-Manicured Man (one of the men behind the plot) explains the secret going-ons to Mulder, he says it with such absolute seriousness, that we almost ignore the fact that it sounds like some bad cheesy sci-fi film from the '50s.

The film's conclusion near the North Pole recalls the look and feel of the "Alien" films, along with an extra heaping of dread. We eventually get glimpses of the aliens - and let's just say, they aren't friendly.

"The X-Files" is a big-screen flick that defies the usual blockbuster films: It's dark and moody and spooky. There are chases and explosions but they are kept to a minimum. Most people wouldn't put this film in the same category as "Deep Impact" and "Armageddon" but the sense of doom is creepier because it's much more subversive. I mean, what would you be more inclined to believe, much less be afraid of? A giant rock headed toward the earth - or that government agencies are colluding with outside forces in planning the armageddon of entire populations? Because of its subversiveness, we are more frightened.

It's like an episode of the series, only this time "X-Files" creator/executive producer Chris Carter and director Rob Bowman have a larger canvas. Like any great film, the story unfolds primarily visually, told through menacing shadows and a preponderance of blue tint.

Funny, one of the season's best films originated from - gawd - television.

The final tally:
Deep Impact: C
Godzilla: C+
Armageddon: C
The X-Files: A-