Thursday, May 28, 2009

Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian, Action-Science-Fiction-Special-Effects Blockbusters, and a Challenge

Not surprisingly, Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian is a very silly movie that prolongs the silliness a little too long. Surprisingly, it is a genuinely funny film, featuring a number of comic performances well deserving of laughter, as well as humor that relies on clever, not crude, dialogue. Ben Stiller, much better when he’s not directing himself, is congenial as Larry Daley, the ex-museum guard. He does a clever routine with Jonah Hill, who plays a bored museum guard reprimanding Larry for “intent to touch” a museum exhibit. But the biggest laughs are produced by the actors portraying the various characters Larry encounters as he tries to avert a disastrous awakening of all the exhibits at D.C.’s expansive Smithsonian Archives. As a spunky Amelia Earhart, spouting anachronistic idioms, Amy Adams is delightfully endearing and full of pert energy that’s fun to watch. While Bill Hader plays a goofily inept George Armstrong Custer who has no clue how to plan an effective attack, Hank Azaria, as the evil but lisping Egyptian Pharaoh Kahmunrah, pulls off a number of wonderfully funny verbal routines.

The Egyptian tablet that brings Archives exhibits and National Gallery artwork to life is merely an excuse for the filmmakers to geek out on a CGI cast of thousands: bobble-headed Einstein dolls; a giant octopus; penguins; kangaroos; squirrels; pterodactyls; Lincoln up from his Memorial; flying machines down from the ceiling of the Air and Space Museum; an army of hawk-headed Egyptian phantoms; Rodin’s The Thinker; and American Gothic, that saves Larry by providing a pitchfork to throw at Kahmunrah’s henchmen. But, here’s a surprise for you. Even though there are more CGI entities in this film than you can count, the effects never smother the film’s comedy or innocent exuberance.

And, surprisingly, Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian includes the best scene featured in any film I’ve seen so far this year. (Spoiler Alert). When Larry and Amelia are chased through the National Gallery by nasty Egyptian spearmen, they lead their pursuers into the famous photograph of the V-J Day kiss at Times Square, which turns into a black-and-white world within a world populated by a whole throng of Times Square celebrants.

I had fun with this movie. I had fun with the humor; Amy Adams’s gee-whiz Amelia Earhart; the eye-grabbing variety of the CGI animals and artwork; and the wonderful scene mentioned in the paragraph above. When it comes to summer blockbusters, I much prefer the action-science-fiction-special-effects blockbuster over the comedy-special-effects extravaganza. But the most recent film of the former genre, Terminator Salvation, wasn’t, in my opinion, the gripping film that other writers have called it. And strangely enough, considering the vast popularity of The Terminator films, Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian was the winner at the box office on opening weekend.

Over at Cinema Viewfinder I engaged in a debate over whether or
not Terminator Salvation is a relentlessly gripping experience after reading Tony Dayoub's well-written, enthusiastic review. Meanwhile, the Film Doctor's thoughtful commentary was more mixed.

For me the film was not that engrossing experience I would wish from a film of this kind. Anyway, the discussion got me thinking about those action-science-fiction-special-effects blockbusters, the best of which are thoroughly engrossing entertainments. I suppose it all got started with Star Wars (1977), which set the requisite criteria for this distinctive genre: science fiction, big action, big special effects, big excitement, big music.(If you argue that Jaws is science fiction - bascially a monster movie - then it all got started in 1975.)

So, here’s the deal. You get to pick the best film meeting the criteria listed above from the 70s, the 80s, the 90s, and our current decade so far, whatever this decade is called. (Make that part of the challenge. What the fuck do we call this decade? I thought there was a name everybody was using and I had missed it somehow, so I Googled “What do we call this decade?” and I found endless debate.)

Here are my picks –

1970s - Star Wars (1977) Although Alien provides stiff competition, Star Wars has the right combination of big action, special effects, excitement, and music. Sometimes I think the music is the clincher here.

1980s - Aliens (1986) In this decade of sequels, science fiction, superheroes, and emerging CGI, James Cameron’s stiffest competition is himself.

1990s - Jurassic Park (1993) In a decade in which CGI was becoming king, there’s lots of competition, but with those dinosaurs, and Spielberg’s skill for suspense at its best, this is the one for me.

Your name for our current decade here - War of the Worlds (2005) Here it’s the tripods, the music, a couple of very gripping scenes, the very dark and threatening atmosphere, and Tom Cruise’s fervent portrayal of a father’s desperate endeavor to save his children. AVP: Alien vs. Predator is a noteworthy second place.


Jason Bellamy said...

Hokahey: Nice post! Whenever I see the Night at the Museum trailer I find myself wishing I could see the parts that seem funny (Azaria, Hader, etc) without suffering through the parts that don't (Lincoln, Stiller with the monkeys).

As for your final question:

70s: Per your criteria, I don't think Star Wars has many legitimate challengers. So I agree with you there.

80s: Well, it doesn't have many "special effects," as we think of them now, but I'd vote for Raiders of the Lost Ark. Crap, it has to be science-fiction. Well, I guess I'm going with Aliens? That's hard to argue with, but now we've agreed twice! So how about Ghostbusters, a movie that thrilled the hell out of my generation. Or, from an action side, The Abyss.

90s: I'll go with The Fifth Element, which has some problems as a whole, but not relative to genre, action and effects. Jurassic Park is a good choice.

Y2Whatevers: You've made a great selection that fits the themes of your post. But I'll toss out King Kong, which has a lot of sins but makes up for them in the New York sequences.

Hokahey said...

Thanks for the comment and for taking up the challenges. Raiders definitely has science fiction elements, so you are welcome to make that your pick for the 80s. Besides its tone and pacing it had a huge influence on the kinds of movies I'm talking about, and the music is the classic "summer blockbuster" theme. Wow! - King Kong. It has too much bloat for me to forgive it for the phenomenal New York scenes. Back to the 80s - I re-watched The Abyss after doing this post and it certainly is a strong contender. What a gripping movie!

FilmDr said...

Thanks for the link and the challenge, Hokahey. I'm in the midst of a vacation, but I will respond more later.

Hokahey said...

Thanks, FilmDr, I will look forward to your picks. I love to see people's picks for favorite films. We all have our own particular tastes. Enjoy the vacation.

FilmDr said...

I agree that for the 70s, Star Wars is hard to beat, certainly in terms of its influence.

Bladerunner in the 1980s.

The Matrix in the 90s (although I also like The Fifth Element).

And lastly, for the zeds, Spider-Man 2, perhaps the best superhero film that can also kind of pass for science fiction.

Thanks for the challenge.

Hokahey said...

Thanks for coming back FilmDr.

Yeah, Bladerunner. Just not one of my favorties, but at the same time I acknowledge its brilliance. Just the other day in my film history unit, for a short presentation project, a student picked a scene from Bladerunner to analyze - and the shot of the dove reminded me how amazing that movie can be.

The Matrix certainly meets all the criteria; and Spider-Man 2 is the best of that series.

Hope you enjoyed your vacation.