Driven batty by blockbusters

11th July 1997 at 01:00
Batman and Robin (PG). The Fifth Element (PG). Crash (18)

For the cinema, summer means one thing: big stars and big action. But if you're bored of blockbusters you could take in a slice of timeless comedy instead, writes Robin Buss

A young audience loves action, and action needs special effects. This is the calculation made by film production companies, and it means that we face another summer of blockbuster movies.

We all face it, whether or not we decide to go to the cinema, because the major releases will be accompanied by marketing campaigns that will put bats into toyshops and dinosaurs into burger bars all over the country. And if we do decide to visit the cinema, we can expect to be amazed by the noise, the outrageous overacting and the better-than-ever technology. The latter is surprising, because these films carry at least implicit messages about the evils of technological advance, whether it is being used to recreate the past (as in The Lost World), or to shape the parallel present of Gotham City (Batman and Robin) and the dystopian future (The Fifth Element). Each story, too, encapsulates its own vision of bliss: pastoral in the Jurassic Park films and The Fifth Element, domestic in Batman and Robin.

This is the third of the Batman series and it repeats the pattern of its predecessors. Batman, unlike the all-American hero Superman, has always been recognised as having a dark side, a troubled psyche. Can the vigilante remain untouched by his work? What drives him? What is the nature of his relationship with Robin? The television series opted for self-parody and low-budget effects, but the films have tried to give some depth to the characters, while demonstrating their respect for this product of popular culture by playing it straight. They also spare nothing to translate one of the cheapest forms of entertainment, the comic book, into a multi-million dollar medium. The result is a horribly credible Gotham City, a megalopolitan nightmare in which people are dwarfed by Byzantine piles and grotesque statuary. The irony (surely conscious) is that the more tangible they make the place, the less it seems worth saving.

The superhero, now played by George Clooney, and his sidekick (Chris O'Donnell) look handsome enough, but the need for continuous action leaves little opportunity to develop their characters or their relationship; all we know is that they both like dressing up in capes and black, contour-moulded suits. These antics are indulged with patrician condescension by the old retainer (Michael Gough), a hangover from an Edwardian country-house world which is the film's version of paradise; he nearly dies of a rare disease, to which the arch-villain, Dr Freeze, holds the cure. Can Freeze be persuaded to release it?

Since these are films for pre-teens (actual, intellectual or emotional), there is little love interest and the baddies get the best parts. The male villains are very similar, almost always having some physical deformity and an ability to "smile, and murder while I smile" (though the most stereotypical of Shakespeare's villains seems subtle by comparison). As Freeze, plotting to enwrap Gotham City in ice, Arnold Schwarzenegger adopts a look that suggests he is enjoying the whole exercise enormously, despite being encased in silver armour and having his face painted blue. In fact, he can hardly stop laughing.

Gary Oldman, who plays the villain in The Fifth Element, is hampered by a limp, a Southern drawl and a piece of plastic stuck to his forehead; he, too, spends most of the film apparently teetering on the brink of hysteria.

The Fifth Element starts in an Egyptian tomb in 1914, then leaps forward to 23rd-century New York, a place of mountainous skyscrapers and airborne cars that have made driving as difficult as three-dimension chess; at street level, the traffic disappears into a sort of perma-smog (convenient for evading the police). Bruce Willis knows, because he is a taxi-driver with several endorsements on his licence.

This vision of things to come is by far the best section of the movie, which then departs for a Hawaiian-style holiday resort on a satellite in the region of Saturn, where scaly aliens (re-engineered dinosaurs, perhaps), the villainous Gary Oldman, Willis, a priest (Ian Holm) and others are trying to find the mystical stones that will save life on Earth - provided they can add "the fifth element". This turns out to be some feeling that has developed between Willis and Milla Jovovich during lulls in the action. The film calls it "lerve".

Both films make dangerous driving look really exciting, and the second half of The Fifth Element, in particular, contains a succession of violent deaths. Because they are implausible and done in "cartoon style", we assume that only a little parental guidance is necessary to ensure that children are not adversely affected. David Cronenberg's Crash, on the other hand, because it states the appeal of violence where these other films are content merely to exploit it, has been the subject of noisy controversy ever since it was shown at the London Film Festival.

Crash contains no violence (unless one counts a few, very brief scenes of cars hitting one another) and less sex than most television serials. It is based on the idea that some people are sexually aroused by car crashes and the resulting injuries, and makes this seem even more ludicrous and improbable than most sexual deviations. It is not a particularly good film, and I include it here because, unlike the other two, it seems also to contain a warning about our enslavement to cars, speed, action and violence. At least the future hell of Crash may be avoidable.

Finally, there is another ray of hope in the perma-smog: the summer also brings some re-releases, among them Jacques Tati's Jour de Fete. All Tati's films look back to a gentler past, exhibit a disgust with the motor car and the high-rise block, and manage to divorce comedy from cruelty and laughter from villainy. If you get the chance, send your children to Jour de Fete, as an antidote to the blockbusters.

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