McG's biggest project in a while lacks the most important thing about the 80s films it tries to emulate - the sense of opening up a secret part of the world.
This absolutely ok throwback sci-fi has a very ‘made by committee’ feel, like a marketing department saw how popular 80s nostalgia is right now and commissioned a script that would smush all the popular stuff together. Bit of Transformers, a wodge of Ready Player One and a whole load of Stranger Things; should be able to get 90-minutes out of that. It’s totally fine in a way so many Netflix movies are: not so bad you can be bothered to switch it off and not good enough that you’d ever consider paying for it individually.
It takes place in that most American of places, the summer camp. Shy, awkward Alex (Jack Gore) has been left there by his mum, who hopes he might make some friends and stop spending so much time with his computers. Alex hates it. Shortly into his stay, the canoeing and kumbaya-ing are loudly interrupted by a spacecraft crashing to Earth. An astronaut crawls out, gives Alex a key and is then viciously killed by an alien. It’s up to Alex and three strangers to get the key to a secret facility and save the world before the aliens destroy it. It’s just a sassy robot and a talking dog away from hitting every 80s touchstone.
There are two different types of 80s nostalgia. There are the movies and TV shows that try to recapture the tone and escapism of the big adventure movies of that era, which knitted together family drama (usually involving the absence of at least one parent) with fantasy action. Films like Bumblebee, Shazam! or, going back a bit, Super 8, nailed it. Then there are those that try to evoke nostalgia by reminding you of specific moments or characters from older movies, whacking in cameos and easter eggs or recreating scenes so that ‘buffs’ can spot them and enjoy the recognition. It’s the ‘I Spy’ approach to nostalgia. Stranger Things does this a lot, visually referencing 80s movies and TV shows apparently at random. Ready Player One was built on I Spy nostalgia. Rim of the World is doing a very cheap version of this.
There are many – so many – scenes in this film that imitate other, better movies. The Goonies, E.T., Star Wars are frequently given ‘homage’, but no movie is outright copied more than Jurassic Park (not 80s, of course, but of the same school). The raptors in the kitchen scene is recreated with an alien dog, while other scenes and shots closely echo other famous moments from Spielberg’s classic. There’s nothing to these tributes other than recognition, though. They’re not subverting or twisting what came before, just trying to leech some of the magic.
That is really what the blandness of this movie boils down to, a lack of ambition. It’s not trying to do anything new, just repeat what has been done. The beats you expect, it hits. The alien attacks are just pew-pew-pew and some explosions. Bizarrely, Zack Stentz’ script even imports questionable racial and gender attitudes from the 80s. ZhenZhen (Miya Cech), a girl from China, is academic and initially doesn’t speak, so a camp councillor tries shouting English loudly at her at her and telling her he loves Jackie Chan. She’s also primarily a love interest, there to help Alex learn to talk to girls. Dariush (Benjamin Flores Jr.) is an absolutely first base ‘comedy black sidekick’ character, with an overactive mouth, an excess of confidence and commitment to materialism. So as not to restrict the lack of imagination to the non-white characters, nerdy awkward Alex is, of course, short and ginger. None of the blame here lies with the child actors, who all do solid work.
This marks the biggest project in a while for McG, a director who was much mocked in the ‘00s for his two Charlie’s Angels films and Terminator Salvation. He became a byword for dumb Hollywood action movies that were more about looking cool than making sense. This is less dumb and more sweet than any of those films, and McG can still create visuals than are striking if not necessarily beautiful, but it’s lacking the one most important thing about the great 80s movies it wants to emulate: They all made you feel like they were opening up a secret part of the world. This just takes you to places you’ve seen a hundred times before.
Release Date: 24 May, 2019