Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Movies: Over and out.

I have a soft spot for movies that pit their supernatural baddies against members of the armed forces. Properly done, the militarization of the victims of a horror film imparts a sense of genuine conflict. When a bunch of boozed up co-ed nymphomaniac camp counselors find themselves the target of an eight-foot tall semi-undead mass murderer, the action that follows resembles either a ritual sacrifice or the relentless grind of a factory farm meat processing plant. But, replace those teens with a squad of soldiers and you've suddenly got a ball game. The presence of significant levels of firepower, a pre-existing command structure meant to handle decision-making in a crisis, the willingness and capacity to meet violence with violence, training that facilitates teamwork between tactical assets, and an assumed minimal-level of individual competence all suggest that, whatever the flick might throw at them, the soldiers have a real chance at surviving.

Of course, this perception is largely illusory. My wife's mother likes to say, "God never gives you more trouble than you can handle." Horror films work on the opposite premise: The danger you face must always be greater than your capacities. Usually this works through a simple logic of escalation. Evil always rises to the occasion. If you've got a bunch of teens on a summer holiday, then a serial killer will come after them. Replace one of the teens with an ex-cop packing a .44 Magnum and the standard-issue serial killer will upgrade to a tribe of mutant cannibals. Dump the teens, remake the cop into a British soldier, add a half dozen other troopers, and the cannibal tribe will transform into werewolves. And so on and so on until you've got the entire military of a nation on one side and a giant city-stomping monster on the other.

But bigger baddies only get you so far. There's a pragmatic cap on the logic of perpetual escalation. Eventually you end up trafficking in such enormous levels of destruction that it becomes virtually impossible to conceptualize a threat that could withstand the onslaught. One workaround for the escalation problem is to hamstring the troops. You can give them incompetent leadership, place them in a training context that requires they have fake weapons, or cast "weekend warrior" National Guard types as your military personnel. Clever directors can also exploit the martial assumption that superior firepower, expertly applied, is what every situation calls for. Pit the troops against a virus, ghost, psychic phenomena, or other un-shootable thing and you've pretty negated their major advantage. Regardless of how it's done, we know on some essential level that being soldiers won't actually help the film's protags.

Still, the idea that being soldiers should matter is crucial to carrying off a good army versus monster flick. We have to feel that we're watching humanity's last line of defense, the people you'd call to handle this sort of thing, do real battle. If the mechanics of the plot are too naked visible, the actions of the characters take on an insignificance that fails to grab us.

The 2008 mercs versus monsters flick Outpost starts as a serviceable horror/actioner. But the logic behind its villainous otherworldly sci-fi Nazi immortals (not actually "zombies" in any conventional sense of the term, as is often stated) so overwhelms the agency of the soldiers of fortune at the films core that the flick's stripped down structure tips from pleasingly Spartan to smotheringly arbitrary. What starts as tension devolves into a forced march. There's plenty of gunfire, gore, and a rich layer of pulpy technobabble to act as eye glue. But once the audience has grokked that the actions of the protagonists don't have any effect on the plot's direction, the narrow pleasures of the film are undermined by the sneaking suspicion that they're just waiting for the film to run out of bodies.

The film starts with a pleasingly bare bones plot. The representative of a mysterious and unnamed cabal of investors pulls together a seven-man team of mercenaries to retrieve an unidentified item from a long-abandoned World War II Era bunker in an unnamed Eastern European country. This lack of information gives the flick a user-friendly, almost videogame-ish feel that makes up for in narrative efficiency what it lacks in depth. (Some of the deleted scenes available on the DVD include extended sequences that build character backstory and motivation, but director Steve Barker wisely left such distractions on the cutting-room floor).

Shortly after their arrival at the target, the crew is fired upon from dense woods surrounding the bunker. Convinced that they're outgunned, they hunker down. As they explore the bunker, they crew begins to fall prey to a seemingly unstoppable enemy who, despite the mercs best defenses, slips in and out of the bunker, killing with impunity.

In the meantime, their employer reveals that the target of their search is a "unified field generator," a bizarre bit of strangely Buck Rogers-ish tech that sits at the heart of this otherwise straightforward run and gun. Though I recall many Brits bemoaning the historical inaccuracies of American flicks, the backstory regarding the UFG shows that Americans have no monopoly on bad history or science. Attempting to explain the UFG, the employer explains that four forces govern the behavior of matter in the universe. He doesn't say what they are, but so far, so good. He explains that unified field theory explains the link between these forces. Then, he goes of the rails. Basically, in this film, the unified field acts like the "one ring to rule them all" of time and space. With a unifed field – which is less a mathematic explanation of the links between nuclear forces, gravity, and electromagnetism than a new super energy – people could bend the rules that govern physics. We're told that Einstein was working on the unified field until he saw the detonation of the test a-bomb at Los Alamos. Worried about its destructive potential, he stopped working on it. (In fact, Einstein wasn't at the Trinity test, the a-bomb has little to do with unified theory, and the famed physicist never stopped working on unified field theory.)

The Nazis, it turns out, were ahead of the curve on the UFG and used the unified field to experiment on their own troops, turning them into silent, shambling things that can teleport, become solid or immaterial at will, and exist in a sort of timeless neverwhere outside of their bodies (which are piled up, perfectly preserved, in a cell in the bunker).

The rest of the flick follows our ever-dwindling crew as they slowly come to terms with truth about their unbeatable foes and getting soundly thrashed by Nazi ghosts from beyond time and space.

Though somewhat formulaic, the pick gets creativity points for its innovative and quirky monsters. I suspect the repeated use of "zombie" in reviews and commentary about this flick has to do less with intellectual laziness than with the fact that they're virtually impossible to classify using standard horror beast taxonomies. Furthermore, even in its less innovative aspects, the film's shot with a crisp confidence that carries the viewer over the less interesting bits. The acting is well handled, though nobody is given much beyond broad character types to deal with.

Ultimately, the real problem with the flick is that you can practically see the characters' strings being pulled by the director. For all the shouting and firing, characters are powerless to stop what comes their way. This powerlessness drains the fight and kill scenes of their drama and raises questions about the seemingly nonsensical way in which the Nazi unified field ghosts, or NUFGs, behave. (Even the script gives a nod towards this problem by having a character wonder aloud why the seemingly invincible NUFGs are taking so long to kill them all. He receives no explanation.) The end result is a sort of viewer indifference.


Sasquatchan said...

I want to say this is the 3rd WWII zombies in a bunker movie you've reviewed.. But I can't recall exact details of the other ones -- just the same synopsis: guys find a bunker, disappear one by one..

Heather Santrous said...

Oh sure, you won't call these guys zombies, but you have no problem calling the infected of 28 Days Later zombies. See how you are?

CRwM said...

Screamin' Sassy,

I think you're thinking of Deathwatch, in which a WWI unit comes across a haunted German trench. And maybe R-Point, in which a unit of allied South Korean rangers in Vietnam come across a haunted temple/hospital.

CRwM said...

Screamin' Heather,

There a stronger case to be made for the NUFGs not being zombies. I point the jury to the following:

1. They teleport
2. They don't eat people
3. They use weapons
4. Their operative selves (the bodies that move around and kill folks) are not their corpses, which are piled in a locker room in the bunker
5. Head shots don't phase them
6. The characters in the movie refer to the NUFGs as ghosts

Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, I ask you: Do these things sound like zombies?

(Though I've come around to your way of thinking on the 28DL infected. The filmmakers themselves say they made it a point not to use the "Z" word, so that should be respected.)

Heather Santrous said...

1. They do?
2. No rule that zombies have to eat people. I admit that they normally do, but no rule saying they have to.
3. They are soliders, so of course they will use weapons!
4. I was never sure if that was the case or not. Seemed like there were a lot more ghosts, or zombies, or whatever you want to call them, than there were bodies in that room.
5. I have always wondered why a head shot will kill a zombie. The zombie is dead, in some cases for a very long time. Soft tissue, like the brain, will be the first things to decompose, so there won't be a brain, or much of one, to shoot anyway.
6. You have me there, but at first they did act more like ghosts than anything else.

I'm not saying you are right or wrong, or that I was either. Just enjoying having an arguement with you! :)