Tuesday, November 17, 2015

John Carpenter, part XIII: It's a real executive production, all right


I'm sure if John freaking Carpenter couldn't make a workable movie out of it, then Stewart Rafill certainly can!  Right?

Directed by Stewart Rafill
Written by Michael Janover, William Gray, Wallace C. Bennett, Don Jakoby, Stewart Rafill, and John Carpenter (super-uncredited) (sort-of based on the book The Philadelphia Experiment-Project Invisibility by Bill Moore and Charles Berlitz)
With Michael Pare (David Herdeg), Nancy Allen (Allison Hayes), Bobby Di Cicco (Jim Parker), and Eric Christmas (Dr. James Longstreet)

Spoiler alert: moderate

Is there a more total failure of movie magic than when a film tries to pass off a place you've been as somewhere else?  I suppose that L.A. and SoCal residents (not to mention the denizens of Vancouver) have been immunized to the worst of this effect.  But as a longtime resident of that Real America you hear so much about from the more unpleasant forms of media, I myself have very rarely had the opportunity to see a movie that was shot in a place I've been, while pretending it was another place entirely.

Unfortunately, The Philadelphia Experiment gave me a wake-up call, opening hard with a sequence absolutely rotten with what might be the fakest shit I've ever personally seen in a motion picture.  We begin with the Silas Pearman Bridge in Charleston, SC—it's supposed to be Philadelphia, in 1943—before making our way to Patriots Point, so we can shoot on and around the USS Laffey, a WWII destroyer, the USS Clamagore, a WWII submarine, and—most disconcertingly—the USS Yorktown, a WWII aircraft carrier from one of the single most recognizable classes of naval vessel in history, a ship barely in operation in 1943 and directly transferred to the Pacific Theatre of Operations because, shockingly, there was a far greater need for fleet carriers in the war against the Japanese, who still retained a surface fleet of some repute, than there was in the war against the Germans, who by 1943 essentially had one (1) exrcuciatingly vulnerable battleship that practically never left port until it was bombed to death by the RAF in 1944.  This sounds like mindless nitpicking—and, God knows, it really is!—and I want you to know that I'm not even that sensitive to this sort of thing.  For example: I noticed, just like everybody else, the cars happily driving around in the background in The Omega Man's post-apocalypse; and just like everybody else, I didn't care.

But by the time where we can clearly see the floating museum's jet aircraft exhibits just squatting there on her deck, like this was The Final Countdown or something, the impression has already been cast of a movie that feels like nothing more than people in costumes milling about in various locations while someone else films them reciting lines, often quite poorly.  Tragically, however, if the first scenes only put me in a bad mood by accident, very little in The Philadelphia Experiment ever made much of an effort to rescue me from it.

Check out this totally necessary shot.

Of course, I shouldn't even be reviewing it in the first place, except out of a perverse sense of completism (and out of the rather misjudged expectation that I would like the movie, which as you know is one more entry in the continuum of 1980s sci-fi that to this day serves our civilization as one of our largest reservoirs of fantastic hopes and dreams).  This is our John Carpenter retrospective, after all, and in Experiment, Carpenter gets only the meaningless credit of "executive producer," which translates to "in the 1970s, JC wrote half a screenplay based on an unlikely conspiracy theory concerning an alleged anti-radar experiment conducted by the US Navy during WWII, but ultimately abandoned the project in order to make Escape From New York, a good movie."  (But they certainly put his name on the poster, didn't they?)

In the final film, released in 1984, there's naturally not a lot of Carpenter left.  Yet, oddly, it prefigures Starman something fierce—with the big exception that it replaces a loveable alien, played by super-actor Jeff Bridges, with some dickheaded sailor, played by one Michael Pare.

"Who?"  Yeah, I know.

So let's go back to the middle of the Second World War, as seamen David Herdeg and Jim Parker, best Navy friends, prepare to embark upon the destroyer USS Eldridge for a six month tour around the bay in Philadelphia, testing a radical new top secret device invented by Dr. Longstreet to cloak ships against enemy radar.  What could possibly go wrong?  Everything.  Duh.

Although technically the apparatus works—the Eldgridge does become invisible to radar—it also becomes invisible to everything else, as the cloaking device flashes the whole ship into hyperspace.  The fate of the Eldridge is as yet uncertain, but we do know what happens to Davey and Jim—they're blasted four decades into the future, and about two thousand miles from home, as related by way of some of the most Godawful optical effects this side of Dark Star (so maybe there is a Carpentery touch to it after all).  Appearing suddenly in what turns out to be a Nevadan wasteland, the duo make their way across the desert until they reach civilization—which, much to their relief, has not been converted to Nazism.  Unfortunately, while recognizably American, to them it nonetheless remains a landscape nearly as alien as another planet.

However, if you hoped for some Captain America-style coming-to-terms with The Future, this will have to wait—why, much like in an actual Captain America film!—because something weird is happening to the two men.  This is especially the case for Jim, who begins to glow and, before you can say "That's an ugly effect," starts shooting lightning out of his butt, damaging property and generally causing a scene.  About to get lynched by a frightened mob, Davey nabs one of their persecutors' guns, and—in a sequence that is noticeably meaner than such things usually get—he kidnaps poor Allison Hayes, a woman on her way to a new life in L.A.  They barely get out of Nowhere, NV, before being run down by the cops, although Allison—for reasons known only to her screewriters—refuses to press charges.  Jim winds up in a hospital anyway, as Davey and Allison watch him vanish.

Back out in the desert, though, we find Dr. Longstreet, forty years older, and up to his old tricks—but this time he's made a whole town disappear into the ether.  In the process, he's opened an anus-like hole in the heavens that, as it grows, presently threatens to swallow the planet itself.  Naturally, the solution to Davey's mystery will prove to be bound up in the very salvation of Earth.  In the meantime, though, he and Allison may forge a certain connection, as they find themselves chased from Nevada to California by a team of extraordinarily overzealous MPs, who apparently have orders to shoot to kill, until they don't.

And that's where Experiment jumps from being a barely-effective sci-fi mystery to its primary mode, which is to transparently waste everybody's time, until it sees fit to reveal the twist that it has not, in any event, done a terribly good job concealing.  (Though Experiment obviously arrived too early to call it a rip-off of James Cameron's famously erotic riff on the Novikov principle, it nonetheless ends up a rather weak-kneed variation on the same basic ideas underlying Terminator.)  Anyway, it's insulting enough that Davey never has a reason to run for it in the first instance—hell, it's patently obvious from the get-go that the only people who could possibly help him (or even believe him) are in the military.  But when the MPs eagerly begin attempting to murder him—despite the man giving their orders having made it pretty plain Davey is needed—you realize, deep in your brain's heart, that you are watching a poorly-devised excuse for a forced road movie, complete with so, so many nominally-thrilling chases and explosions and gunfights.

But Experiment, of course, is a cheap movie, and it doesn't even use its available budget all that well, squandering the one tense moment in the picture (a standoff in a crowded elevator) with a pursuit straight out of the Keystone Kops.  (Of course, the sequence ends with Davey apparently teleporting from the upper floors of a hospital to the street, and there's no anti-radar machine in sight to explain that one.)  So, with the action heavily foregrounded, yet never terribly exciting, we are left with the presumptive draw of the picture—Davey's man-out-of-time schtick combined with his fiat romance with Allison—pushed into the smallest corners of the film.  Thus, a decent Reagan-was-an-actor joke shows up here; Nancy Allen haphazardly runs through her Blow Out spiel there.

Then again, this could simply be Stewart Rafill desperately directing around the demonstrable weakness of his lead, Michael Pare, who hamstrings everything that could have been interesting about the film with a performance that can only be described as "pathologically unappealing."  He runs the whole range of emotions here—from barely-restrained rage to unrestrained rage to deeply insincere apologies to even more insincere attempts at sparking some chemistry with his co-star.

But Experiment isn't a total disaster, at least: for one thing, it is extremely hard to fuck up a time-loop (even one that hardly bothers even pretending that it's not going to pull its strongest punch), and there's a certain amount of inherent interest to the X-Filesy premise that the worst execution still couldn't dispel (even if here it's mined for very few legitimate thrills).  Finally, there's the occasional detail that really does belong in a much, much better film—like the truly harrowing vision of the men of the USS Eldrige after the malfunction of the invisibility machine, fused right into the deck, still barely alive, and twitching inside the metal.


Now you know I didn't mention The Final Countdown earlier by any kind of accident: much as E.T. did to Starman, the success of the Kirk Douglas semi-classic threw an ice-cold rag on Experiment's development.  The existence of another film involving time travel and WWII, even more than his writer's block, was the single biggest reason that Carpenter abandoned the work to other, lesser men.  Yet the similarities are really only skin deep, both in terms of content and quality.

Indeed, what we actually get on the screen is the seriously dysfunctional film that Starman could have been, but wasn't, because Carpenter managed to find the real beating heart beneath its generic trappings; meanwhile, it's not entirely clear that Raffill could find his ass, with both hands and a map.  Both films achieved a measure of financial success, and today this one still has its fans.  But if you asked me, The Philadelphia Experiment is one 1980s B-movie whose charms appear to have been entirely lost in time.

Score:  5/10

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