Front page

Are you afraid of the dark?

(Click to invert colors, weenie.) (Requires JavaScript.)

All email will be assumed to be for publication unless otherwise requested.

What's in the banner?

Thursday, April 08, 2004

Hell-o Submarine

(Yes, I deliberately chose the worst pun I could think of for the title. Rejected ideas: Hell Cheeses Over, Hell Is for Heroes---and Subs!, and Helltire and Firestone. I strive at all time to induce groans, if not actual vomiting. My gift to you.)

I've been working hard on a scientific paper, and my part is finally done, until my co-authors have finished with it and decided it's a piece of crap and needs to be completely re-written, or better yet, burned.

Until then, though, I can turn my mighty intellect to more stimulating matters, to wit: Phantom Force another Sci-Fi Pictures original from the Unidentified Flying Object, er, Unique Fruit Orb[*], ah, United Film Organization dream factory, which employs a certain blogger.

There will be SPOILERS, yes.

Quick summary: A powerful magic dingus, thought to be a DOORWAY to HELL!, and lost in a shipwreck centuries ago, is found by an oil-company research sub. It takes over the sub and wreaks mild havoc in the Aegean Sea, until the Phantom Force is dispatched to bring it to heel.

Plot: The movie begins well enough, with the original shipwreck. The ship's captain has managed to acquire what appears to be a stone tire (the Hades Stone, or, as I will call it, the Firestone). He's really excited, because this will make them invincible. His crew is dubious, and even more so after a lightning strike activates the Firestone, and it disgorges a handful of extras from Mad Max---no, I mean---DEMON WARRIORS from HELL!, who immediately cut the crew down. This turns out to be SOP for the DWfH!, but is never adequately explained. The ship sinks to the bottom, and there the Firestone sits for centuries. Eventually, the Venture---an oil company exploration submarine patrolling the Aegean---finds the Firestone and takes it aboard. Hours later, contact is lost with the sub, and random ships begin to sink.

At about this time the movie switches to a surface crisis, in which a gang of terrorists (ripped from today's headlines!) takes over a chemical plant in some vaguely Eastern European locale, and threaten to kill the staff if they do not get what they want---cylinders of Special Sooper Dooper Mystery Gas. The hostages, who seem more bewildered and put out than frightened, tell them that most of the Super Gas was hauled away, as scheduled, a half hour before. This leads to a rather Dilbertesque scene in which the terrorist field operatives express their frustration that the pointy hairs at Terrorist HQ have sent them on a wild Gas chase.

While all this is going on, a special squad of crack ninjas is creeping into the plant, moving silently as a herd of elephants. They are led by a small ninja whose mask reveals a set of pretty eyes, so you know he's our hero (this seems to be a pattern). The ninjas and the terrorists eventually battle it out, slinging hot lead in every direction, and yet managing not to puncture any VX cylinders or sulphuric acid tanks. The Mystery Gas remains safe behind its vault (which was what was pissing the terrorists off). The terrorist leader plays possum, then tries to kill the ninja leader when his back is turned. But a cryptic montage alerts the ninja, and he whips around and shoots the terrorist, who dies with a look of great surprise frozen forever on his face. (Actually, we liked this part a lot.)

The hostages are saved, but our ninja leader (who turns out to be Marcus Dupree, played by Richard Grieco) is disappointed, because he realizes the whole chemical plant thing was just a diversion from the hijacking of the main shipment of Spooky Gas. He feels he has failed, but his boss (Bavaro, played by Nigel Bennett, who looks like a cleaned-up version of the DWfH!) apparently disagrees, because he immediately assigns Dupree to head the team which is going to try to recover the Firestone (which he calls a Hellmouth). Oh and the Venture.

Meanwhile, under the sea, a US Navy sub is looking for the Venture. They find it, sort of, but can't see it. The Venture fires two torpedoes which miss, and two which don't, and the Navy sub is destroyed.

Back at Shadowy Organization HQ, Dupree meets cheerful, perky psychologist Rebecca Weaver (Jenna Gering), whose scientific specialty is parapsychology (oh, for fun!). Rebecca wants to ask Dupree about his neat-o psychic powers. See, the confusing montage which alerted Dupree to the terrorist leader's tricks was actually his psychic power: he has some sort of mind-reading skill, but only when it comes to murder. He can tell when and how a person has, in the past, murdered someone. Apparently this causes him a great deal of pain, because he's always meeting people who've committed murder at one time or another, and he gets to see it in his head. (He should find a different line of work.) He tells Rebecca that, because of this, he doesn't really want to get to know her, in case he finds out that she, too, is a murderer. This causes her to get all offended and flounce off in a huff.

She can't escape the movie's clutches that easily, though, because Bavaro has assigned her to the team, along with a geekoid (Cutler, played by Jim Fyfe) who dabbles in psychic experiments, former N'Awlins detective Potts (played by the ssssmokin' hot Tangi Miller---her nickname in the force must've been "Hot Potts"), and a couple of thick white guys. This is the audience's opportunity to play Spot the Redshirts (we spotted wrong).

A submarine takes them near the Venture, but they have to actually find it using cute little two-man minisubs. This is where the movie, which has been dragging a bit, becomes a little more interesting, and much more confusing. The Venture, Geek-boy explains, is actually in another dimension. His experiments have featured a gizmo which will translate (or possibly rotate) the team members into that other dimension. Of course, he's only experimented on bunny rabbits so far...

So the team docks their little subs and slips aboard the Venture as quietly as a Kraken waking on the wrong side of the bed. Geek-boy's dimensional gizmo works well, and they begin to explore the Venture.

Periodically, while all this non-action is going on, we switch back to the surface, where some Slavic military types are running around doing, um, something which we're sure will be very important to the plot, especially when Bavaro turns up in their midst, bargaining with them for something or other.

Here the movie turns into a teenage slasher flick, except that the teenagers are really elderly and all the action takes place on a submarine (and the elderly teenagers have cool guns). Our heros wander jumpily around the ship while spooky music plays. Unseen things stalk them, and inanimate objects (doors, valves, medical equipment) move of their own volition. Also, as in a teen slasher picture, our team bickers among themselves, the girls share heart-to-heart talks, and the leader broods.

The lurking poltergeists (or whatever they are) manage to kill one of the team rather messily before the remainder find the Firestone propped up agains the ship's nuclear reactor. Moments after they do, technobabble emissions from the reactor activate the Firestone, causing the Hellmouth to belch forth another cadre of DEMON WARRIORS from HELL! (man, I so wish for a cool B-movie font). Our heroes flee, taking care to shut the heavy watertight doors on their way out.

This precaution is futile, however, because the DWfH! kick those things aside like the cheap balsa wood they are. In the time-honored tradition of crappy movies, it turns out that the DWfH! have extremely eccentric powers. They're big half-naked guys armed only with swords and axes, and they're invulnerable to hot lead and must be destroyed with "condensed proton splitters" (snicker), but Hot Potts slows one down by laying some kung fu action on him.

Some of the DWfH! are destroyed, and another team member bites the dust (though not exactly via the DWfH!). Soon we find that the special effects generators are going haywire, and need to be rebooted. If they are not, then the containment field will collapse, leading to a warp core breach, which---no, wait---actually, I'm not sure what happens. It's a Bad Thing, though.

Tactical genius Dupree hits upon the brilliant strategy of grabbing the Firestone and hauling ass (his words). At the last minute Geek-boy announces he must stay behind and reboot the generators. (Oh, that's right---the consequences of letting the field collapse means that the Hellmouth might stay open permanently, except I thought the Hellmouth was the Firestone, which the team have loaded aboard one of their little subs. Well, details.) He manages to do this in the very nick of time, but it's all for naught, since a second Navy submarine has located the Venture, and blows it and him to hell. (Or, in this case, perhaps not.)

The rest of the team manages to escape, meet up with Bavaro, and the movie is over.

Ha ha! Not so fast!

Instead, their helicopter lands among the encamped pseudo-Slavic army. The team is bewildered, but this is obviously something Bavaro has arranged ahead of time. What he hasn't arranged, however, is the betrayal by the army's commander. Bavarro and the team and the Firestone are marched to a cave complex, where the Slavic Army's leader commits Movie Villain Error #1: he leaves his enemies alive.

He, naturally, wants to use the Firestone for his own fell purposes. It is here that we find he has procured the juice that activates it---the Sooper Dooper Gas from the beginning of the movie! It does all tie together! ("See, it's a good movie."---MST3K) Better still, they identify the Sooper Gas for us.

It's xenon.

Yes, indeed, we must send out a team to terrorize some hostages, but only to make a diversion so that we may steal a bunch of gas that you can easily buy on the open market. I'm sure that budget cuts have been hard on whatever army this is.

At this point Dupree's psychic powers make an appearance, showing him that his guard has killed a woman in the past. Dupree starts talking to him about it, which unaccountably upsets and frightens the guard (you'd think the ability to kill without remorse would be a requirement for a job in a mysterious paramilitary organization; must be those budget cuts again.) The guard lunges at Dupree, allowing Bavaro to get the drop on him. They go to free the remaining team members while, outside, the commander activates the Firestone.

So, the xenon opens the Gates of Hell!, which disgorge some more Mad Max extras, who commence to whacking at the soldiers. After about ten minutes, Dupree finally hears our shouted exhortations to just DESTROY THE FIRESTONE, ALREADY. He does so over the objections of Bavaro, who later claims to have been worried that the Hellmouth would open forever, but we all know that he just wanted it to "study", kinda like the Ark of the Covenant.

I must give the movie credit for avoiding certain cliches. When the team was introduced, I was sure that we were going to see a romantic relationship between these characters, and that those characters were going to be killed, and the movie confounded those expectations. So, yay. As a whole, though, this movie was neither good enough to enjoy, or bad enough to enjoy hating.

JKRank says he was in this as a State Dept. hack, but there were no such creatures in the movie (unless I was blinking while he was on). I couldn't find him in Dragon Storm either. I suspect his scenes end up on the cutting room floor, poor sap.

Phantom Force is a sort of sequel to two other movies, Interceptors and especially Interceptor Force 2, which again starred Nigel Bennet as Bavaro and Hristo Shopov as Commander of Glorious Slavic Militia (actually he played different characters in the two movies). I just love the name Hristo. Hristo! Sounds like something a magician would say.

In the scenes at shadowy HQ, Grieco plays his character like a sulky 15-year-old who's just been grounded. His entire attitude drips with, "This is so bogus, man." Grieco's early career was spent playing a cop who infiltrates a high school in the eighties drama 21 Jump Street, so maybe it was some sort of nostalgia trip for him (he's aged since then: now he looks college-age). He does OK in the sub scenes.

What is the shadowy organization they work for, anyway?

At one point I shall not divulge, Hot Potts is revealed to be a Voodoo Mama. This is just plain silly. I mean, if you're going to watch a movie about the Gates of Hell!, fine, you have to suspend some disbelief, but really. She holds back Hell! No way.

I should note here that the male team members dress pretty much like you'd expect people to dress if they were going on a dangerous mission. The women, however, dress as if they're going to appear on MTV, with tight pants and little midriff shirts.

One fun thing about this movie is seeing how many other movies you can identify in it. For example, there's a scene with an underwater trench which is reminiscent of the trench scenes at the end of Star Wars. And the whole Hell-belching thing is kinda like the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark ("Don't look at it, Marian!"). Then of course there were the teen slasher flicks, and the condensed proton splitters (tee hee) remind me of the positron colliders in Ghostbusters, and there were other scenes which I've forgotten now. This IMDB review says the prologue was reminiscient of Relic Hunter, and also notes the Ghostbusters elements.

The whole Hell thing is not very well thought out. What is Hell, really? Is it a Dante-esque afterlife where the wicked are punished by fires and various other torments? Or is it just a dimension filled with large, angry guys with edged weapons?

Who's in charge of the Venture after the Firestone comes aboard? Our team found only one body; what happened to the rest of the crew? Do the DWfH! know how to work a submarine? The DWfH! weren't there when the team boarded, but were unleashed later. So who destroyed the Navy sub? What is the force which kills our two team members?

It's suggested that the Venture was able to destroy the first Navy sub because it (or its torpedoes) could get close without being detected, possibly because it's really in another dimension. How does that work, anyway? When the team arrives on the Venture, Geek-boy cautions them about not wandering around before the field is established. I assume that means that, since they are not in the Venture's alternate dimension, they might walk right into the ocean. Presumably, in the Venture's dimension you don't interact with the real world (er, except that the ghostly Venture---which does look very cool---floats around like a real sub would). So how is it able to destroy the first Navy sub, and be destroyed by the second? Especially when it's suggested that the first sub cannot destroy the Venture because it's in another dimension?

Consistency is Hell.

[*] When I was in Australia, Niles sent me a sticker like this one, which came from a mutant peach he bought at the supermarket. They're advertised as "Unique Fruit Orbs", or UFOs. They don't really look much like UFOs. They're also called "Saturn peaches" or "donut peaches", and look like this.