A sequel to the remake of the original - but not a remake of the sequel of the original - The Hills Have Eyes 2 gets some credit for ambition, but then squanders most of the goodwill it threatened to build up on slick, but vacuous, execution. With hints of occasionally subtle characterization, provocative social subtexts, a genuine expansion of the franchise's backstory, just a hint of a homo-social man crush, and an extended allusion to Greco-Roman mythology, T2HE2 (pronounced "tea two, he two") sounds awesome on paper. Sadly, the finished product swaps high pro glo and frantic action for story development, making this a blood-spattered Goonies for folks who thought The Descent was too cerebral.
The film picks up several years after the close of the last flick. The US Army, eager to cover up that fact that a colony of mutated humans has been living in the caves of the Army's now defunct nuke test site, launched a search and destroy mission that wiped out the remnants of the mutant family left over from the first film. To be sure we suffer no more unsightly mutant flare-ups, the Army sent in a bunch of scientists and civilian contractors to the place electronic surveillance around the mouth of the mine system that served as Mutant Central. The film opens with these folks sending a call for supplies to the base. And then gettin' the business end of a mutant insurgency.
Cut to base. A ragtag group of woefully incompetent National Guardsmen are training, to epic fail result, for a tour in Afghanistan. Because they need to do a little punitive desert survival training, the CO sends them to deliver the supplies requested by the now mostly dispatched scientists. When the citizen soldiers arrive on the scene, the movie begins in earnest and it becomes a straight-forward run-and-gun exercise, with the soldiers facing of against the poor country relations of the X-Men.
T2HE2 has some nifty stuff. First, although the soldiers are – like all soldiers in horror films must be – a hopeless group of jackasses, the film spends less time than average showing us the standard "breaking down under pressure" scenes. We get a few "Game over, man!" set pieces, but the film manages to stay admirably on point with regards to the fact that these people are trained soldiers who are determined to survive. We must still wait for the day when professional soldiers in a horror movie actually exhibit the training and skill that make real life US troops such frightening instruments of destruction. (Hold this ratio in mind for a moment: In the infamous "Black Hawk down" incident in Somalia, just under 20 US soldiers died; enemy and civilian casualties were estimated to be between 1,000 and 1,500, with another 3,000 to 4,000 wounded. This is not to celebrate our ability to kill others, but to illustrate that, when put in a situation where their use of force is unchecked, the average US soldier is capable of bringing a truly staggering amount of violence to bear on a situation. Against what amounts to a handful of particularly ornery Tusken Raiders, it seems to me that contest would be incredibly one-sided.) But this is a nice step in that direction. As a fan of army vs. monsters flicks, a critical soft spot I picked up from watching "military vs. giant bugs" flicks on Saturday afternoon television, I especially appreciated a scene in which the embattled Guards execute a clever ambush to draw one of the mutants out of hiding.
Second, the new mutant designs are nice. The premise of this flick is that the mutant colony shown in the first flick was simply one of several mutant clans. Another group, even more mutated, existed deep within the mines. Their links to the upper world were presumably severed when the surface clan was wiped out, so they just now surfaced. More monstrous and freakish than the first group, they make for pretty nifty beasts. Two standouts include Chameleon, a mutant whose sores and densely-packed goiters resemble the rock surface so closely that he can blend in with his surroundings, and the mutant's alpha male, Daddy Hades. Like his mythological namesake, Big Poppa has a thing for kidnapping womenfolk and dragging them down into the underworld. However, where Hades was ostensibly in love with Persephone, Daddy H really just needs ovum to continue the species. The new mutants, we learn, are an all male society. (Unfortunately, unless you stick around for the credits or read the comic prequel – scripted by the Gray and Palmiotti team behind the current Jonah Hex comic series – you'll never catch the mythological allusion. Director Weisz didn't find it interesting enough to warrant any mutant speaking Daddy's name, wasting that particular opportunity.)
Hades's compulsory mutant repopulation initiative, and what it means for the Guard unit's two female soldiers, brings us to the topic of gender in T2HE2. This film struck me as a movie that really, really tried not to be stupid about gender. But it couldn't help itself. Sure the women get cutesy names while all the guys go by their last names or suitably jockish nicknames (like "Crank"). And sure, once we get down into the caves, the women can't get down to their olive drab GI issue tank tops fast enough. But, on the whole, the women, the next door girl type Amber and the no nonsense MILF Missy, are slightly more likable than their male counterparts, less prone to self-destructive impulses or stupid bravado (though the whole unit is the victim of the piece, so everybody manages to catch more than a few attacks of the stupids), and actually do a respectable amount of the action-hero labor. There's a hint of a romantic entanglement between Amber and one of her male counterparts, but the film wisely dispatches the male half of the duo early, leaving her a clear field of movement for the rest of the flick. The film not only allows its female leads full rights as protagonists, it actually hints at an awareness of their position as "inside outsiders" within the unit. When the women serve as bait in a mutant trap, their discomfort with their male teammates' easy willingness to so use them is palpable. Later, when Missy is captured, the men in the unit – despite having received the same info as the women about what mutants do to lady guests – are quick to write her off. Amber, however, makes it her mission to find Missy and either free her or put her out of her misery. Finally, when Amber is caught slipping a bullet into her pocket – saving one last round for herself – she gets a lecture from one of the men about how dead is never better. Her expression reveals that she's not worried about dead. That this plays out fairly subtly, almost as if it were a decision by the screenwriters or actors that the director was unaware of, drives it home more poignantly than if the female leads had all been post-Buffy style women warriors. One imagines this is how feminism really happens in rigorously all-male environments like the military: on the sly and quietly, in plain sight, but coded.
Unfortunately, all of this interesting work is undermined by the light handling of what might be one of the most cynical scenes in modern horror. At one point, in their desperate search through the mutants' mine structure, the remaining soldiers use the sound of Missy getting raped to "echo locate" her. What is notable about this scene is how unaffecting it is. We're subjected to a few seconds of Daddy Hades forcing himself upon a bent over Missy, then we cut to a handful of soldiers going, "Hey, that's Missy. We'd better hurry up. Though, you know, if anybody wants to stop and discuss strategy and stuff, I'm sure Missy will be fine. It's not like they're killing her, right?" The blogger behind the excellent Day of the Woman blog has justly pointed out that genre cinema and its fans have long copped a trite attitude towards the subject of rape. She points out that most film reviews of Cannibal Holocaust mention the violence done to the characters, but tend to simply skip over the multiple scenes of sexual assault and rape (including my own review, I'm sad to say). I recall I a blogger– I don't recall who now – opining that he assumed "goodthink critics" of the super-bomb Watchmen would attack the film for its depiction of Dr. Manhattan splatting VC. The possibility that somebody might take offense at the idea that a sexual assault so brutal that it breaks ribs would leave its victim pining for more wasn't mentioned. [UPDATE: The reviewer in question was Sean Collins. Sean explains why my mention of this particular example is misleading the comments.] Genre works, and horror especially, have a long tradition of trivialized sexual violence. T2HE2 falls into this tradition of casual sexual brutality and suffers greatly for it. What was meant to be a lively and entertaining run-and-gun exercise, in the vein of Aliens or Dog Soldiers, derails in that scene.
This weird one step forward, two steps back approach is apparent whenever the film stumbles across a socially relevant subtext. The situation our heroes find themselves in, by the admission of screenwriter Wes Craven, was meant to parallel the Afghanistan/Iraq Wars. This analogy holds true in the sense that America got in over its head, but it also seems to argue that Afghans and Iraqis aren't pure strain humans and, by extension, suggests that the only "solution" to the threat they inherently pose (the mutants are cannibals who can only breed through rape, so open dialog and humanitarian efforts would be lost on them – a point made in the film) is complete quarantine or extermination. In the filmmakers' defense, I don't think they hold such views. That their film can be said to express such views is more a sign of the film's lazy construction and not the filmmakers' political convictions.
Visually, T2HE2 is proficient, but not particularly interesting. Filmed in the desert hills of Morocco, the breathtaking landscapes conspire with the film's cinematographer. There's hardly any external shot that doesn't contain some startlingly pleasing terrain. Still, compared to the sun-blasted, dried out, overexposed color palate of Aja's flick, these shots seem a little simplistic and inert. Once we go inside the tunnels, there's a gory charm to the whole thing, but nothing we haven't seen before. Despite the grime and guts, it is certainly less startling than the freakishly macabre test ground homes of the first flick. The acting, like the filming, is functional rather than inspired. The cast hits their marks and delivers their lines, occasionally sliding in bits of admirable work. Quite admirable if you think of how little the script demands from them (mentally and emotionally, I mean – physically, I suspect the shoot was torture).
T2HE2 is more a curiosity than a success. Mechanically entertaining in the disengaged and automatic way that movement and sound inevitably draw our attention, the meat of the film is only passable. It does have the advantage of containing some subtexts that you might have fun teasing out and mulling over, but you'd have to be pretty generous with the flick to claim they are interesting and substantial enough to redeem the flick as a whole.