Evolution (2001)

Sometimes, your heroes let you down. And sometimes, you’re not really “let down” per se, and the person’s not really a hero, he just directed some of the most formative films of your childhood. Ivan Reitman has made a lot of films, from the classic (Ghostbusters, Stripes) to the mediocre (Ghostbusters II, Twins) to the well received but essentially forgotten (Dave, Legal Eagles) to the infamously bizarre (Junior) to the simply infamous (Six Days, Seven Nights) and the simply bad (My Super Ex-Girlfriend), and even a personal favorite (Kindergarten Cop). But the truth is, as he has aged, he hasn’t grown much or matured, and nowhere it that more evident than in the 2001 flop Evolution. It’s a piece of shit.

Starring David Duchovny as Dr. Ira Kane, a disgraced former military scientist reduced to teaching biology at an Arizona community college, Evolution concerns the arrival of a meteor bearing life forms which rapidly evolve from blue ooze to worms before branching out into monstrous versions of seals, dragons, primates, and such strange beings as carnivorous trees and giant insects. His best friend is Harry Block: professor of geology, women’s volleyball coach, and deliverer of painful one-liners. They arrive at the location of the meteor crash, bluff their way into taking over the site from the local police, and meet Wayne (Seann William Scott), a firefighting cadet whose car was destroyed by the falling space rock. Of course, then the real military shows up, led by General Woodman (Ted “Buffalo Bill” Levine), with scientific advisor Dr. Alison Reed (Julianne Moore). There’s rivalry between the two groups, revelations about Kane’s past failures that resulted in his discharge, and romance! It’s terrible!

Outside of Christian propaganda, I have never in my life seen a movie that was so out of touch with its era and so obviously trapped within the sensibilities of the past. This movie is so sexist and gross, y’all. When it first surfaces, one’s initial reaction is to kind of laugh at it in how dated it is. Like: Reed’s a lady doctor, but she has to be a fucking klutz so she doesn’t come off as threatening to the fragile male audience and their avatar Kane (supposedly this was Moore’s idea, but that smells of the shit of the bull to me). Block and Kane meet her for the first time, with little interaction at all, and then Block spends the rest of the movie egging Kane on to just hit that already, sometimes in non-consecutive scenes that do not feature her appearing between them at all. She’s even subjected to listening to Kane describe her over the radio as a frigid bitch in an overlong monologue as her male colleagues stand around and laugh and make faces at each other like, “He’s right though, eh?” That’s not even getting into the appearance of poor Sarah Silverman acting as Kane’s ex-girlfriend (she’s ten years younger) in a diner where Kane belittles her in front of her new boyfriend about the shirts she never returned (haha?) that is essentially an excuse for Silverman to have to take her top off in a restaurant. And let’s not forget Block’s student Nadine, a woman whose only goal is to pass Geology so that she can get into her nursing program, not because she wants to help people but because appearing to want to help people will give her an edge in some beauty pageant, or the suburban women who find a monster in a pantry and want to make it a pet. Women, am I right? It’s unbelievable how mean-spirited the whole thing feels.

I can’t remember the first essay or article that first brought the underlying pro-Reaganomics anti-government themes of Ghostbusters to my attention; it’s been repeated and bandied about the internet for so long that it would be impossible to track down the originator of that reading (I’d wager it was someone over at Cracked though). But once you see it, you can’t unsee it. For the uninitiated: Ghostbusters can be read as a pro-capitalist text in which Our Heroes are underdogs providing a necessary service to the people of New York and collecting a fee, but the incompetent government (manifested in the goon from the EPA) won’t stop trying to keep the working man down. Also, Venkman won’t stop trying to get Dana to sleep with him, despite her repeatedly saying “no.” All of this is true, but Ghostbusters is also funny and of its time, two claims that cannot be made in defense of Evolution. Not to mention that in spite of Ghostbusters‘s contemporary mixture of misogyny and masculinity, it also had Janine, whose no-nonsense attitude served to counterbalance the boys club that she was surrounded by.

That same disdain for government is on full display here. This movie came out in the summer of 2001, making it not only probably one of the last American films to feature the military without alluding to the War on Terror but also the last American film to show the military as being full of incompetent blowhards (at least until that became one of the narratives of the War in Iraq). Every level of organized government in this film is full to brimming with nincompoops with itchy trigger fingers, from the judge who supports the ousting of Block and Kane from the meteor site, to Woodman and his cronies, to the local police, to the governor of Arizona (played by Dan Aykroyd, who had a line in Ghostbusters mocking the world of public academia in comparison to the “private sector,” which is echoed in Evolution when Reed gives up her posting with the Army to join Kane’s ragtag group of misfits citing that she “always knew the real money was in the private sector anyway”).

The jokes on display here are just so old and out of date, not just for 2018, but for 2001. Poor Orlando Jones has is anally invaded by one of the creatures and it has to be extracted using a scary-looking tool. This is a pretty good example of the level of comedy in this movie.

Doctor: It’s moving too fast! There’s no time for lubricant!

Block: There’s always time for lubricant!

Comedy!

Honestly, this movie is garbage. As with Ghostbusters, this film could have gotten some slack if it were funny, but it’s just so painful. A flying alien dragon monster ends up in a mall, where Seann William Scott sings off-key at a convenient mic stand to lure it back. Orlando Jones goes up a giant life form’s anus in a “clever” payoff to one burrowing up his own ass earlier in the film. Toward the end of the movie, Reed tells Kane that she’s going to “Rock [his] world” once this is all over, and Moore has this look on her face like she just realized that no paycheck in the world was worth the humiliation of being in this throwback. This one’s on Amazon Prime, but you’re better off just watching Ghostbusters. Or Kindergarten Cop.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Schizopolis (1996) Goes Hollywood: Full Frontal (2002)

When Steven Soderbergh filmed the largely improvised, aggressively irreverent Schizopolis in the mid-90s, he seemed to be deliberately disrupting the flow of his career. After a few consecutive big budget duds failed in wide release, the director returned to the themes & means of his popular debut, Sex, Lies, and Videotape, with the intent of burning them to the ground & shaking himself out of a creative rut. Soderbergh’s one-for-me-one-for-them creative pattern never felt as drastic as when he filmed Schizopolis, which was seemingly made with an audience of one in mind: Steven Soderbergh. The trick worked. The next stretch of the director’s career brought on a string of mainstream successes that made him a formidable creative force within the Hollywood system, instead of a one hit wonder in the 90s indie cinema boom he helped spark. Even success has a kind of complacency to it that begs disruption, however, and early in the 00s Soderbergh returned to the cerebral irreverence of Schizopolis to shake himself out of the comfort of Hollywood System filmmaking.

Following on the heels of major financial successes Traffic & Erin Brockovich, the Hollywood-insider comedy Full Frontal returned to the low-fi absurdism & disjointed structure Soderbergh gleefully turned into a Looney Tunes farce in Schizopolis. Full Frontal is a little less aggressive in its sense of silliness than that 90s work, but is just as prone to jarring non sequiturs, unexplained shifts in form & reality, and playful experimentation with improv. Shot in less than a month on intentionally low quality digital video, the film was called out by contemporary critics for being confusing & visually amateurish, as if those effects weren’t deliberate. For at least the second time in his career, Soderbergh was consciously working in low-fi, anarchic modes of expression to break away from a creative comfort zone that threatened to dull his output. The only difference, really, was that Schizopolis featured mostly non-professional actors (including Soderbergh himself & his real-life ex-wife Betsy Brantley), running amok in the Baton Rouge suburbs, while Full Frontal heavily relies on a vapid Los Angeles movie industry playground for its own hijinks, including public persona-subverting turns from Major Movie Stars like Julia Roberts, Brad Pitt, David Fincher, David Duchovny, etc.

Full Frontal vaguely tackes the shape of many 00s indies with large casts. A collection group of characters weave in & out of each other’s lives in a loose, everything-is-connected narrative over the course of a single day. Actors, producers, public relations drones, playwrights, and every other brand of LA industry type you can imagine entangle and drift apart in various combinations in the day leading up to a mutual friend’s birthday celebration. Occasionally, Julia Roberts poking fun at her America’s Sweetheart™ persona or Catherine Keener asking nonsensical, stream of conscious questions to her employees in layoff interviews will steal the show, but the movie is ultimately more concerned with form than it is with performance. Jarring shifts in visual quality & location of setting will intentionally disorient the audience, especially as (borrowing a page from Sex, Lies, and Videotape) the audio drifts out of sync from the image presented, to a dissociative effect. Sex is blurred & obscured from the camera. Movie within a movie layering & voice-over interviews deliberately confuse what’s “real” within the narrative. Character introductions are presented in headshots before the opening credits (which are actually credits for a non-existent movie Rendezvous) as if they were a playbill in motion. Much like Schizopolis, Full Frontal feels like a filmmaker playing with the basic tools of his craft to reach for freshly innovative effects he could not achieve in the more well-behaved works that preceded it.

There are plenty visual & thematic details connecting Full Frontal & Schizopolis if you intentionally keep an eye out for them. Catherine Keener’s slow-motion romantic breakup with David Hyde Pierce certainly echoes the domestic fallings out between Soderbergh & Bentley’s various doppelgängers in the earlier work. The reality-breaking interview tangents, the drab office place settings (including scenes set in workplace men’s rooms), and Soderbergh’s choice to appear in front of the camera (this time with a blurred-out face, as if he were an episode of Cops) are just a few blatant connectors that run as parallels between the two films. What’s more important is the way the films use an improv-style spontenaity to make the audience feel as if anything could happen. In Full Frontal, a nameless neighbor is shown performing simple domestic chores in a full Dracula costume; an unnamed man crawls across a hotel hallway on all fours in his underwear, unacknowledged; an actor with a Hitler mustache sings the theme song to Cops in a makeup mirror (there’s that show again). This spontenaity revitalizes Soderbergh as a filmmaker, a creator. Instead of shaking up the romantic ennuii of Baton Rouge suburbanites, it disrupts the business-as-usual mundanity of Hollywood’s sycophantic starfuckers & namedroppers, but the intent remains the same even in the transported setting. Unfortunately, these films also share the burden of being overlooked & undervalued for the deftly absurd ways they reshaped & untidied Soderbergh’s career as it evolved into Hollywood-insider status. They’re two of his best films, yet somehow two of his least loved.

For more on August’s Movie of the Month, the irreverently cerebral Steven Soderbergh comedy Schizopolis, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film, this comparison of its romantic doppelgänger crisis to the similar themes of Anomalisa (2015), and last week’s look at how it violently subverted the director’s hit debut, Sex, Lies, and Videotape (1989).

-Brandon Ledet