Friday, March 13, 2009

Race to Witch Mountain: Failed spell

Race to Witch Mountain (2009) • View trailer for Race to Witch Mountain
2.5 stars (out of five). Rating: PG, and quite generously, for constant violence and gunfire
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 3.13.09
Buy DVD: Race to Witch Mountain • Buy Blu-Ray: Race to Witch Mountain (Blu-ray/DVD Combo + Digital Copy)

You can't merely suspend disbelief while watching Race to Witch Mountain; you have to flush disbelief out the airlock.

Director Andy Fickman's noisy remake of the amiable 1975 Disney fantasy certainly isn't an improvement, which is ironic, considering the enhanced state of special effects in the 21st century. Fickman obviously belongs to the kitchen-sink school of filmmaking: When in doubt, throw in more bullets, more explosions and more car chases.
Having found their way to the super-super-secret military base at the oddly
named Witch Mountain, our heroes — from left, Alex (Carla Gugino), Sara
(AnnaSophia Robb), Seth (Alexander Ludwig) and Jack (Dwayne Johnson) —
stare skyward, as if hoping for inspiration to strike. More likely, they're hoping
for fresh, more intelligent script pages, as this flick doesn't allow them to do
more than run, duck and cover.

Maybe, that way, the audience won't notice the lapses of continuity in Matt Lopez and Mark Bomback's clumsy screenplay ... or the plot holes that are large enough to pilot a flying saucer through.

I've long been annoyed by lazy writers who, having accepted a commission to script a family-friendly (read: children's) film, apparently believe that they can be sloppy because kids won't notice. Well, I beg to differ. It's insulting, and kids do notice ... particularly today's kids, who are much more savvy about movie logic.

As competent writers such as Neil Gaiman and J.K. Rowling would be the first to point out, children's fantasy should be every bit as carefully conceived and meticulously plotted as that for adults. After all, some of the best kid-lit remains an engaging read no matter what our ages, and the best youth-oriented movie fantasies  the adaptation of Gaiman's Coraline immediately comes to mind  are designed to satisfy everybody from young-'uns to their grandparents.

That's the way it should be.

But that certainly isn't the way Lopez and Bomback handled their update/remake of Disney's "Witch Mountain" franchise.

In fairness, yes, Dwayne Johnson is quite engaging as long-suffering Las Vegas cab driver Jack Bruno, who is trying to put his larcenous past behind him. Johnson's action hero persona has a natural flair for light comedy that Arnold Schwarzenegger never quite managed, while at the same time remaining credibly able to beat up on routine bad guys.

Anyway, Jack's life gets more complicated when he unwisely agrees to drive two somewhat unusual kids  Sara (AnnaSophia Robb) and Seth (Alexander Ludwig)  to a remote location in the Nevada desert. Aside from speaking an oddly stilted English and behaving strangely, Sara and Seth have no concept of the wad of money they use to engage Jack's services.

Turns out, the kids are being pursued by a veritable army of gun-toting black-ops types led by the determinedly nasty Burke  Ciaran Hinds, at his most malevolent  a vicious swine who gives the U.S. government a truly bad name. (Didn't Disney get the memo? We have a kinder, gentler, science-friendly administration in Washington now!)

So, why are Sara and Seth the object of so much attention? Because they just arrived on Earth after crash-landing their flying saucer, in their haste to retrieve a whatzis that'll help save their home planet, while also protecting us from invasion by their world's more aggressive elements.

Yes, that's a lot of back-story, and Jack swallows it rather rapidly, once apprised of the situation. He's an adaptable guy.

As if things weren't bad enough, the kids also are being hunted by something called a "Siphon," a warrior soldier from back home determined to sabotage their mission, having been sent by the faction that wants to invade and colonize Earth.

OK, let us pause to consider these elements:

Burke and his minions have access to surveillance technology and forensic specialists who can identify Sara and Seth from mere footprints, and then isolate and surround Jack's taxi within mere minutes ... and yet somehow, driving the same battered vehicle, Jack repeatedly evades and loses his pursuers.

Then, too, Burke's army constantly shoots up the entire Las Vegas landscape, but never hits anything. (Ergo, this film's idiotic PG rating.)

Sara can read thoughts, communicate with animals and move things with her mind, via telekinesis. Seth can alter his molecular structure, allowing him to either "phase" through solid objects or make himself so dense that he can withstand being struck by a moving vehicle. Now, I can readily think of half a dozen uses for these talents that would allow our heroes to evade  or destroy  their pursuers once and for all ... but our young ETs never do more than minor parlor tricks.

I guess we're supposed to believe that they're not fully trained in their own skills ... being only kids, after all. I'd like to see Lopez and Bomback try to sell that line of reasoning to a room filled with contemptuous teenagers.

The Siphon, for its part, resembles and has the awesome destructive power of the similarly garbed Predator that vexed Schwarzenegger back in 1987, and more recently became part of the Alien franchise. This dude can blow up a train  prompting the film's most unintentionally hilarious line ("the engineer managed to survive")  but somehow fails to take out Jack, Sara and Seth despite numerous easy opportunities to do so.

What we're faced with, then, is the style of idiot plot that renders its heroes and villains as strong  or as weak  as a given scene demands. Truly unleashing Sara and Seth would simply end the movie, and of course we couldn't have that.


I'll give Fickman and editor David Rennie the benefit of the momentum pushing this 98-minute flick along; it certainly moves rapidly enough to remain engaging. Setting these events against a UFO convention at Vegas' Planet Hollywood also is good for quite a few laughs, as the hordes of inanely costumed geeks fail to appreciate the actual extra-terrestrials in their midst, even when the Siphon unleashes its fury.

(Intentionally funny line, well placed, as two teen nerds duck for cover: "Best ... convention ... ever!")

Carla Gugino joins the forces of virtue as Alex, an optimistic astrophysicist willing to believe in Life Out There, and therefore easily able to take Sara and Seth at face value. Gugino's always a plucky gal to have at one's side, but  sadly  she and Johnson share zero chemistry.

Oh, and then there's Junkyard, a stray dog that Sara befriends and brings along for the ride ... for no reason. Junkyard sorta-kinda gets lost in the shuffle during most of the movie, until a final moment intended to be heartfelt.

Which isn't.

I would have thought we had outgrown the sort of evil, "dissect first, ask questions later" bureaucrat played by Hinds; even by this film's thin hold on credibility, it's impossible to imagine that Burke's science staff would be so obligingly willing to poke, prod, inject, eviscerate and rapidly kill the first known ETs to arrive on Earth ... particularly since they're so obviously intelligent.

And Burke's attempt to justify such behavior by citing the Patriot Act and calling the kids 'illegal aliens' doesn't get the laugh Fickman & Co. apparently intended; that line is simply tasteless.

Am I taking all of this much too seriously? Perhaps. As a mindless popcorn flick, Race to Witch Mountain looks great, has sympathetic heroes and appropriately nasty villains, and is action-packed from start to finish. But it's also insultingly stupid, thuggishly mean-spirited and surprisingly barbaric, given that misleading PG rating.

1975's Escape to Witch Mountain  or, perhaps more accurately, the Alexander Key novel on which it was based  definitely possesses the story elements that could have produced a spiffier modern remake, thanks to upgraded SFX.

Race to Witch Mountain ain't that film.

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