2001 is shaping up to be a really grim summer at the movies, after one of the very worst Spring seasons in recent memory. Other than the delightful surprise of "Shrek," every other Summer release has come in below expectations.
The one exception, if you can find it playing somewhere, is a little noir movie called "Memento," an ingenious thriller about a man (Guy Pierce of "L.A. Confidential") who is searching for his wife's killer. The problem is, he cannot form new memories, and has to start over every few hours by referring to the notes-- and tattoos-- he leaves himself. This film's point, that experience cannot be the ultimate judge of what we believe, and that we lie to ourselves even when we know the consequences can be severe, is telling. This movie is the not only the best mental chain yank since the twists and turns of "The Usual Suspects," it has a moral point.
But back to the big releases. The "Mummy" didn't "Return," he was rehashed, "Evolution" is definitely NOT progress for "Ghostbusters" director Ivan Reitman, "Swordfish" is a John Travolta action flick that is "Con Air"-class dumb and continues his recent slide, "Tomb Raider" continues Hollywood's tradition of making loud but empty movies out of video games, (which makes sense when you think about it) and the title of "What's the Worst that Could Happen?" pretty much says it all.
Now comes "Atlantis: The Lost Empire," Disney's big animated feature of the summer (though technically, the only parts of "Pearl Harbor" that moved were computer animated). This movie features Michael J. Fox as the voice of Milo Thatch, a young, geeky scientist who is obsessed with realizing the dream of his explorer grandfather of finding the legendary lost continent of Atlantis.
Milo gets his chance when an eccentric billionaire (John Mahoney of "Frasier") finances his expedition. The crew includes a military type at its head (James Garner), an Italian demolitions expert (Don Novello of Guido Sarducci fame) and a black doctor played by Phil Morris, most known for playing fast talking shyster Jackie Chiles on "Seinfeld" --which tells you how broad the ethnic cliches are in this movie.
Disney supposedly left behind what has become its standard for the Big Animated Release: musical production numbers (check) and anamorphic sidekicks. But I'm not so sure on this last point. Though the movie has violence-- and a surprising off-camera body count-- there is a character called Mole, a French excavator, that isn't quite human, and quite out of place for a Jules Verne/Edgar Rice Burroughs-style adventure.
Though the comic interplay is forced and overdone, the movie gains some real dramatic momentum while playing it straight. Some of the action scenes-- a giant robot Leviathan that guards the entrance to Atlantis, and some literal fire-flies-- work exceedingly well in comic book/anime style drawing.
There is a real sense of discovery when the remnants of our intrepid crew reach Atlantis, though both the romance between the ageless Princes Kida (Cree Summer) and Milo-- not to mention her arguments with her aging father (Leonard Nimoy)-- are awfully close to the plot of "The Little Mermaid."
But in the last half hour, mystical ecobabble takes over, and the movie becomes nearly incomprehensible, plotwise. It's also filled with multicultural and politically correct cliches, that make it easy to spot the ultimate bad guys. There's one old standby that I'm glad they turned on it's head. The age difference in the romantic couple is about 8,875 years, but this time the WOMAN is that much older. (If I see Harrison Ford with one more 20-something...)
Last year, a very good animated sci-fi flick, "Titan A.E.," which did a far better job at this sort of adventure, did such bad box office that it sunk its studio, Fox Animation. It will be interesting to see if the Disney brand name can save this mediocre entertainment.
But then, mediocre is actually something to be aspired to this summer. Since the slew of Oscar releases, you can pretty much say that aside from "Memento," and "Bridget Jones' Diary," what isn't "Shrek" is dreck.