K-19: The Widowmaker starts off a lot like another good-ship-gone-wrong film of recent memory: Titanic. Much like the infamous luxury liner whose name has become synonymous with disaster, the Russian nuclear submarine K-19 was supposed to be the biggest and the best. K-19, like Titanic, starts off obviously but appropriately foreshadowing why the voyage is doomed from the beginning. Pride in both country and manufacturing is at play here: K-19 was a triumph of engineering and capability for a Russia desperate to assert itself as a world power at a time when World War III looked more like a looming inevitability than a worst-case scenario.
Harrison Ford is Alexei Vostrikov, a respected and feared senior navy captain brought in to supervise the finishing touches and maiden voyage of K-19 (nicknamed the Widowmaker because 10 men died in separate incidents during its construction). He relieves of his command K-19's Captain Mikhail Polenin (Liam Neeson) and hastens the ship's preparations for its essential first mission: the firing of a test missile from the Arctic Circle. Vostrikov pushes the limits of both vessel and crew by crashing through the forbidding Arctic shelf and plummeting to crushing depths -- all to prove to his crew that were they at war, there would be no opportunity to make mistakes, nor would there be time for fear. Tensions boil between Ford's and Neeson's captains. Polenin knows the limits of his craft and crew, while Vostrikov must exceed and expand them. And they are indeed tested when the reactor's coolant system springs a leak and the lives of all aboard are weighed against the success of the mission. Vostrikov is placed in a political and logistical nightmare: If the ship explodes, it will detonate the sub's warheads and destroy a nearby U.S. Navy destroyer -- which would probably be interpreted as an act of war and could kick off WWIII. If the crew abandons the ship, they could be surrendering the Russian flagship and all of its secrets to the U.S. If they stay, they could die from hideous radiation poisoning. All the while, mutiny hangs in the air and the temperature of the reactor climbs ever closer to its terminal 1,000 degrees.
Director Kathryn Bigelow, who knows the craft of suspense (Blue Steel) and action (Point Break), has put together an effective, if unextraordinary, thriller. Tensions run high, of course, and there is plenty of expected sub-related excitement afoot -- scenes with rivets popping out of the hull, water leaking, and the insanity that comes when claustrophobia and disaster combine. There is one particularly harrowing scene where men take 10-minute shifts repairing the leak in the reactor. Each enters the reactor after seeing the last worker exit, ravaged by radiation. The film is at its best when showing this kind of reality: the fear and determination of its crew, whose heroics are the kind typically reserved for movies about Americans in similar peril.
Beneath the veneer of explosions and last-second saves, however, there is a refreshingly complicated and engaging political adventure unfolding. Bigelow and screenwriter Christopher Kyle take a very objective perspective in showing us the realities of the Soviet political machine, as national priorities are juggled in favor of beating the Americans to technological superiority and control of the world's interests -- at the expense of safety and sense (a practice common in this hemisphere as well). Additionally, we are given a complex yet uncompromising treatment from both sides of the argument of the two captains, whose tensions rise to a surprising and satisfying climax, and we see that the Russian code of honor leaves no room for doubt. Ford and Neeson are a great match, both with their own brand of authority and concern. While their Russian accents leave much to be desired, their credibility as men who may hold the fate of the world in their hands is absolute. And in our current world, where that very fate sits in too many hands, this film shows us, challengingly, the honor and heroism of the "enemy" within.
-- Bo List
If you see only one monster movie this summer don't see Eight Legged Freaks. An agreeable but hackneyed comedy about giant, mutated spiders attacking a small, Southwestern mining town, Freaks hits the big screen one week after an even more ridiculous monster movie, the retro-futuristic Reign Of Fire. (Wouldn't you have loved to have been in that pitch meeting? "It's Matthew McConaughey fighting dragons in the future!") And the differences between the two films are instructive: Where Reign Of Fire is a great bad movie, Freaks is merely a lazy, conventional one.
Several films over the last couple of decades have taken on material similar to that in Freaks (a community besieged by alien creatures, terrestrial or otherwise) and with a similar tone (jokey, amiable, cartoonish homage to earlier creature features) -- obvious antecedents like Arachnophobia and Tremors, Tim Burton's alien-invasion Mars Attacks!, and Joe Dante's genre standard-bearer Gremlins among them -- and all have fared better than Freaks, which reaches for freshness in what has become the stalest way possible: by incorporating oh-so familiar and half-hearted attempts at witty self-referentiality à la Scream. There's the clip from one of those '50s-era scare films playing on the television in the room of the preteen boy who, per convention, is the only person in town to understand what's going on, and then there's the same kid's wink-wink, nudge-nudge speech about how "they never believe the kids." And worst of all is one character's desperately topical exclamation "It's a spider, man" followed by a double-take just in case the viewer doesn't get the lame pun.
Reign Of Fire, by contrast, pays truer homage to B-movie matinee fare through the utter conviction it invests in its preposterous narrative, charming partly through unpretentious fantasy escapism and partly through moments of giddy ludicrousness far more entertaining than the standard Mystery Science Theater 3000 kitsch. When ugly American McConaughey (sporting camouflage and one of those wild-eyed-Southern-boy stares) dukes it out with Englishman Christian Bale (wearing a Euroweenie turtleneck sweater!) in some fever-dream reenactment of a closed-door argument between George Bush and Tony Blair, it's one of the most ridiculously entertaining things on the big screen this year, its unintentional comedy far outpacing any of the telegraphed laugh lines or too-familiar visual jokes found in Freaks.
Eight Legged Freaks, despite its too well-worn, genre-spoofing intentions and too by-the-numbers script, could have saved itself with its cast and its critters, but it flubs both. Kari Wuhrer (MTV's Remote Control, countless second-grade "erotic thrillers") and Scarlett Johansson (Ghost World) might make one of the most fetching mother/daughter tandems ever put on-screen, but the latter, especially, isn't given enough to do here in her marginal, conventional scream-queen role. Instead, most of the action is given to the kid (Scott Terra), a Harry Potter look-alike who doesn't register much of an impression, and David Arquette, who gives a slightly toned-down version of his standard schtick.
As far as the critters, the film is plagued by the technological "advantage" it has over the vintage B movies to which it seeks to pay tribute. While it may be cool to see the car-sized jumping spiders taking down dirt-bikers in mid-air, the dull two-dimensionality of the computer-generated spiders gets a little tiring after awhile, especially when compared to the cheaper-looking but more engaging mythic, painterly Reign Of Fire dragons (especially in scenes in which the fire-breathing baddies are viewed from a distance).
So if you're only going to see one monster movie this summer ask yourself if you want to see a slapdash product that pays homage to great B movies (which, chances are, you haven't even seen) or just a great B movie? -- Chris Herrington