Category: Terrible Films

The Whale (2022)

The Whale (2022)

Manipulative and sentimental, Aronofsky’s tear-jerker is dishonest and disingenuous

Director: Darren Aronofsky

Cast: Brendan Fraser (Charlie), Sadie Sink (Ellie Sarsfield), Hong Chau (Liz), Ty Simpkins (Thomas), Samantha Morton (Mary), Sathya Sridharan (Dan)

The Whale is the sort of film that is either going to bring you out in tears or hives. Me? Let’s just say I felt incredibly itchy as I sat through this naïve, sentimental and manipulative film. I hated its dishonesty and its disingenuousness. The only thing I felt move was my stomach.

Charlie (Brendan Fraser) is a morbidly obese, reclusive English professor who teaches online courses with the camera turned off. Nursed by Liz (Hong Chau), the sister of his deceased partner, Charlie has never processed his depression and guilt at his partner’s suicide. Now, facing death from congestive heart failure, his last wish is to finally bond with his daughter Ellie (Sadie Sink) whom he has not seen in the eight years since he left her and her mother (Samantha Morton). Ellie is now an angry, high-school drop-out teenager. But Charlie is sure he can see the good in her.

So much has been made about the morbid obesity of the film’s lead. The prosthetics coating Fraser in layers of fat are impressive. An opening montage shows Charlie struggling to move around the house. Picking something up off the floor is impossible and he has to lever himself out of the bed or into the shower. But the film is hugely pleased with itself that it dares to see a fat person as “one of us”. Aronofsky initially films him like a freak show monster – already patting himself on the back about how “humanising” it will be when we learn that obese people are just as capable of being at the heart of maudlin, self-pitying films as thin ones.

The Whale is adapted from a stage play. Not only does it really feel like it (it’s all set within Charlie’s apartment, with characters announcing their arrival in a neat four-act structure), it also sounds like it. The dialogue is forced, artificial and clumsy, making on-the-nose emotional points. Characters feel like narrative constructs. Sadie Sink’s Ellie is the sort of precocious-but-angry tear-away genius brat you never find in real life. Ty Simpkins’ hipster-turned-missionary is more a collection of quirks than a person. The script leans heavily on clumsy metaphors – a walk on the beach, bible quotes, Ellie’s childhood essay on Moby Dick – milked for all they are worth.

Worst of all, a film that prides itself on being about the power of honesty feels like a big, walloping lie. It lies about its characters and it lies about the real issues that drive them. Firstly, it never once touches on issues of mental health and addiction that have led Charlie to this state. Sure, we get a scene of him compulsively eating. But Liz, his “caring” nurse, brings him medicine and huge piles of food (a massive bucket of fried chicken, enormous sub sandwiches…). It’s like caring for an alcoholic by bringing him chicken soup and a huge bottle of whisky. How is this helping someone recognise and deal with an addiction? Which is what this level of over-eating is.

Worst of all the film treats this as a “charming friendship between two eccentrics”. It eventually touches on the fact they are both hurting from the suicide of Charlie’s partner Alan. But never once is the film brave enough to link their behaviour now to this act. Charlie failed to get Alan help, keeping him away from the world and others, believing that the isolated love of a single person would solve his depression. Liz repeats the same mistakes. She isolates Charlie, encourages him to eat, never challenges him to seek help or process his grief, and creates a safe environment for him to destroy himself. If he was a drug addict, what would we say about a carer who draws the curtains and encourages him to shoot up? We’d be calling her the villain of the piece.

That’s before we even dive into the film’s lack of honesty about Charlie. It’s sad to think of a character being so depressed he’s eaten himself to death. That’s awful – even if the film never wants to reflect on the emotional and psychological reasons for this (because that would be depressing in a film as desperate to be upbeat as this one). But by showing us Charlie at the end, full of regret and self-pity, the film white-washes his mistakes and selfishness. There are clear flaws in Charlie that contributed to this state – however much the film wants to present it as a terrible accident.

Charlie abandoned his family and made no contact with his daughter for years (he complains it was too difficult and tries to blame her mother), leaving her traumatised. The film loves its sentimental device of Charlie reading to himself Ellie’s childhood essay (which he knows by heart). But this is, basically, a selfish fantasy: an idea for Charlie to cling to that he was a good Dad and Ellie a kid with a future, radically different from the actual reality. Just like he never addresses why guilt and depression drove him to destroy himself, so he refuses to deal with the issues Ellie is facing now by simply not acknowledging that she has changed from his idealised version of her as the sweet, sensitive girl who knew Moby Dick was really about Melville’s unhappiness.

Instead, the film suggests her mother is the one who really failed. Charlie – who has spent about an hour in her company in eight years – would have donebetter. Just like Liz passing him chicken buckets, Charlie’s solution to solving his daughter’s problems is to smother her with love rather than get her to ask herself why she does and says the cruel things she does. How can the film not see he is repeating the same ghastly cycle again, encouraging a depressed, vulnerable person to stick her head in the sand and hope for the best? Well, he’s wrong. And the fact that the film doesn’t see this means it’s lying to itself as much as he is.

By the end you’ll be stuffed by sentiment, greased by the insistent score. Every single frame is like being walloped over the head while Aronofsky shouts “cry damn you”. The dreadful script is well acted, even if no-one ever makes these device-like characters feel like real people (except maybe Morton). Fraser is committed, a lovely chap and I’m very pleased he’s having “a moment”. But this is a simplistic character, that requires little of him other than to wear a fat suit and cry. He never once really delves into any complexity. It’s also true of Hong Chau, a collection of quirk and tears.

The Whale is a dreadful film, manipulative, artificial and full of naïve and dishonest emotions that avoids dealing with any complex or meaningful issues. Instead, it thinks it’s achieved something by making you see a fat person as a real person. There is almost nothing I can recommend about it.

Blonde (2022)

Blonde (2022)

Exploitative biopic of Marilyn Monroe that doubles down on misery, discomfort and leaves you feeling rather like a Peeping Tom

Director: Andrew Dominik

Cast: Ana de Armas (Norma Jeane Mortenson/Marilyn Monroe), Adrien Brody (The Playwright), Bobby Cannavale (Ex-Athlete), Xavier Samuel (Cass Chaplin), Julianne Nicholson (Gladys Pearl Baker), Evan Williams (Edward G Robinson Jnr), Toby Huss (Whitey), David Warshofsky (Mr Z), Caspar Phillipson (Mr President), Dan Butler (IE Shinn), Sara Paxton (Miss Flynn)

Few icons had such cultural impact in the 20th century as Marilyn Monroe. Maybe Elvis – coincidentally also the subject of a 2022 biopic. Even people who have never seen a Monroe film can impersonate her or knows about that dress being blown up around her. It’s also pretty widely know she had a difficult life, troubled family and some disastrous marriages culminating in her tragically early death from an overdose. Blonde, based on a novel by Joyce Carol Oates, dives into a heavily fictionalised account of Monroe’s life, focusing overwhelmingly on anything that could be seen as miserable, shocking and traumatic to the exclusion of almost everything else.

In doing so it’s hard not to think that, for all its attempts to shine a light on the difficulties of Monroe’s life, it’s not also partly exploiting her as well, turning her into a sort of misery porn entertainment. Over the course of nearly three hours, we see her raped at least three times, beaten, fall victim to elaborate revenge plots, forced through two blood-soaked abortions, pumped full of drugs to get her through film shoots and constantly at the centre of slavering piles of male filmgoers who scream for her attention and call her a whore the second she walks past. To say Blonde is a miserable film that’s tough to watch is putting it lightly.

Why does Marilyn put herself through it? The film offers no real answers, beyond the simplest, crudest flashes of pop-psychology possible: Daddy issues. Growing up not knowing who her father is, Marilyn’s life is a quest to find either her father or an acceptable substitute. That could be the audience, the husbands she calls “Daddy” or the hope that the person claiming to be her father who sends her a letters, might one day meet her. This is about as far as the insight goes. How issues influenced her choices and decisions is left frustratingly untold.

The film skims over the creative control she gained over her movies, the production company she set up and her skill as comic actor (it focuses much more on her dramatic Actor’s Studio work). It never once tries to understand why she continues in a career she hates so much – she had plenty of chances, even in this film, to back out – or what lured her to the silver screen and a quest for superstardom in the first place. It’s as if acknowledging Monroe worked hard to get her career would undermine the victimhood the film is determined to define her with.

The film suggests “Marilyn Monroe” is a persona put on by Norma Jean. This is another crude piece of psychology. We completely skip the years Norma Jean must have spent creating this persona and we never learn what influences it or get an understanding of “who” this Marilyn is. I suppose it’s “Marilyn” who smiles at film premieres or appears on screen: but we get little sense of how Norma Jean might have used this alternative persona to get her through the day. For all the time we spend with her, we never understand her beyond someone desperate for love with severe Daddy issues.

The film is so clumsily mishandled, its makers were reduced to stating it was not intended as an anti-abortion movie. This despite both abortions being horrifying experiences (one with a drugged Marilyn begging that she’s changed her mind, the other a late blood-soaked possible-fantasy where Marilyn is kidnapped has an implied Kennedy baby removed). Worse than this, the film Marilyn hammers home Marilyn’s sense of guilt. During her first abortion she imagines herself in a house burning down around her and later imagines a conversation with a giant foetus, which asks “Mummy why did you kill me?” and begs her not to do the same for her future babies. Not exactly the sort of messaging you expect from a #metoo film.

On top of this, Blonde is a film almost unbearably pleased with itself. This is Art with a capital A, R and T. Dominik shifts from colour to black-and-white, changes film stock and constantly shifts and changes the aspect ratio from shot-to-shot. In almost three hours, only once could I see any logic in this: as Marilyn agrees to marry Joe DiMaggio, the frame closes in on her from 2.35:1 to 4:3, a neat visual metaphor for the constricting marriage she has signed up for. Other than that, there is no rhyme or reason for any of these visual changes in the film. It doesn’t comment on the action, reflect emotional beats, delineate between reality or fantasy… it just smacks of an overindulged director using all the flashy tools for the sake of it. It becomes intensely irritating.

There is a committed lead performance from Ana de Armas (even if her Cuban accent does sneak through), who captures beautifully Monroe’s physical and vocal traits and sells what emotional titbits she is given in the salacious, muck-raking framing of the film. Her traumatic relationship with her disturbed mother, a sex-filled thruple with Hollywood princes Cass Chaplin and Eddy Robinson Jnr, raped by Darryl F Zanuck and a surprisingly-vile John Kennedy (while a TV in the background shows missiles rising – boom boom), knocked about by a jealous Joe DiMaggio (in real life he remined close to her and organised her funeral, but hey ho)… it’s all meant to be shocking but it’s all dialled up with glee of a two-bit muck-rag, flogging the hot goss.

That’s standard for the whole film, a flashy, pleased-with-itself epic that focuses on misery and pain for its subject at the cost of everything else and ends up telling us very little about her or her inner life, instead leaving us feel slightly like peeping toms for watching.

Speed 2: Cruise Control (1997)

Speed 2: Cruise Control (1997)

It seemed like such a good idea at the time… Keanu Reeves wisely passed on Speed 2 – so should you

Director: Jan de Bont

Cast: Sandra Bullock (Annie Porter), Jason Patric (Alex Shaw), Willem Dafoe (John Geiger), Temuera Morrison (Officer Juliano), Glenn Plummer (Maurice), Brian McCardie (Merced), Christine Firkins (Drew), Mike Hagerty (Harvey), Colleen Camp (Debbie), Lois Chiles (Celeste), Royale Watkins (Dante)

In 1996 Keanu Reeves turned down a huge salary for Speed 2. Everyone in Hollywood thought he was mad. On June 13th 1997, Speed 2 was released. On June 14th everyone thought Keanu Reeves was a genius. It’s quite something when one of your best ever career moves was not doing a movie. But God almighty Keanu was right: time has not been kind to Speed 2 – and even when it was released it was hailed as one of the worst sequels ever made. It’s like de Bont and co sold their souls for Speed and in 1997 the Devil came to collect.

Keanu’s Jack Traven is clumsily replaced by Jason Patric’s Alex Shaw – although the dialogue has clearly only had the mildest tweak as Shaw has inherited Traven’s job, friends, personality and girlfriend Annie (Sandra Bullock – elevated to top billing but even more of a damsel-in-distress than in the original). Alex and Annie are wrestling with making a long-term commitment – see what I mean about this script only be mildly tweaked? – when they decide to take an all-or-nothing cruise. Shame the cruise liner is hijacked by deranged computer programmer turned bomber Geiger (Willem Dafoe). With the boat powering through the water towards a collision on shore, can Alex save the day?

You’ve probably noticed the disparity between the title Speed and the setting: a slow-moving cruise liner. At one point, Alex asks how long it would take an oil tanker to move out of a collision course with the liner – “At least half hour – that’s not enough time!” he’s told. The very fact that a debate whether 30 minutes will be enough time in a flipping film about speed shows how far this sequel has fallen. How did anyone not notice this?

Pace is missing from the whole thing. The script is truly dreadful. Paper-thin characters populate the cruise liner, none of whom make even the slightest impression. At one point a character breaks an arm and then immediately shrugs off the injury to steer the ship. The script is crammed with deeply, desperately unfunny “comedy” beats. Bullock’s character seems to have transformed into a ditzy rom-com wisecracker – with a “hilarious” running joke that she’s a terrible driver (geddit!??!) – and, instead of the charming pluck she showed in the first film, is now an irritating egotist. She still fares better than poor Patric, who completely lacks the movie star charisma of Reeves and utterly fails to find anything that doesn’t feel like a low-rent McClane rip-off in his character.

It’s like de Bont forgot everything he knew about directing in the three years between the two films. If anything, this feels like a well below average effort from a novice director. The humour is dialled up with feeble sight gags and the film takes a turgid 45 minutes to really get going (most of which is given over to derivative romantic will-they-commit banter between Patric and Bullock).

de Bont basically flunks everything. He fails the basic directing test of confined-spaces thrillers like this by never making the geography clear to the viewer. I challenge anyone to really understand how characters get from A to C on this boat. The long introductions are supposed to establish these basics (see Die Hard for a masterclass in this), but here you haven’t got a clue about what’s where or why some locations are more risky than others. There is a spectacular lack of tension about the whole thing – it’s not really clear what Dafeo’s lip-smacking, giggling, leech-using (yes seriously) villain actually wants or how his scheme works, and the momentum of the boat towards unspecified destruction is (a) hard to see on the open water with no fixed point to compare the speed with and (b) even when we get that, not exactly adrenalin fuelled anyway.

de Bont’s comedic approach to much of the material might have worked if he had any sense of wit or comic timing in his direction. Or if Patric had been more comfortable with the wit the part requires. Bullock instead feels like she has to joke for all three of them, to disastrous effect. There are a couple of semi-comic sidekicks sprinkled among the supporting players, but none of them raises so much as a grin. The film can’t resist implausible in-jokes, like bringing back Glenn Plummer’s luckless character to have his boat swiped by Alex (they even leave in a mildly altered “what are you doing here?” line, as if they didn’t realise until shooting it that Keanu wasn’t going to be there).

It ends with a loud crash of a boat into the shore which cost tens of millions of dollars (at the time one of the most costly stunts ever) but just looks like a fake boat ripping through a load of backlot buildings. It’s a big, loud, dull, slow ending to a film that looks like it was made by people who had no idea what they were doing but enough power to ignore anyone who might have been able to point out what they were doing wrong. Speed 2 remains the worst sequel ever. Reeves went off to make The Matrix. Who’s the idiot?

Airport (1970)

Airport (1970)

Disaster awaits in the sky in this ridiculous soap that is less exciting than Airplane!

Director: George Seaton

Cast: Burt Lancaster (Mel Bakersfied), Dean Martin (Captain Vernon Demerest), Jean Seberg (Tanya Livingston), Jacqueline Bisset (Gwen Meighen), George Kennedy (Joe Patroni), Helen Hayes (Ada Quonsett), Van Heflin (DO Guerrero), Maureen Stapleton (Inez Guerrero), Barry Nelson (Captain Anson Harris), Dana Wynter (Cindy Bakersfeld), Lloyd Nolan (Harry Standish), Barbara Hale (Sarah Demarest), Gary Collins (Cy Jordan)

A busy Chicago airport in the middle of a snowstorm. Workaholic Mel Bakersfeld (Burt Lancaster) doesn’t have time to prop up his failing marriage to his humourless wife: he’s got to keep the flights moving, clear the runways and solve the problems other people can’t. He’s not dissimilar to his brother-in-law Vernon Demerest (Dean Martin), who hasn’t got time for his plain-Jane wife at home when he’s got a flight to Rome to run and a saintly pregnant air hostess girlfriend Gwen (Jacqueline Bisset), to deal with. Tensions will come to a head when depressed former construction worker Guerrero (Van Heflin) joins Demerest’s flight, planning to blow himself up so his wife can profit from his life insurance. Disaster awaits!

“A piece of junk”. That was Burt Lancaster’s pithy review of this box-office smash that was garlanded with no fewer than ten Oscar nominations. He’s pretty much spot on. Airport is a dreadful picture, a puffed-up, wooden soap opera that never takes flight, stapled together with a brief disaster plotline that only really kicks in during the final act of the film and is solved with relative ease. Other than that, it’s all hands to the pumps to coat the film in soapy suds, which can be stirred up by the strips of wooden dialogue that fall from the actors’ mouths.

Seaton adapted the script from a popular low-brow novel, though it feels as if precious little effort went into it. It’s corny, predictable dialogue does very little to freshen up the bog-standard domestic drama we’re watching in a novel setting. Both lead actors juggle loveless marriages with far prettier (and much younger) girlfriends. Those girlfriends – Jean Seberg for Burt and Jacqueline Bisset for Dean – play thankless roles, happily accepting of their place as no more than a potential bit-on-the-side and very respectful of the fact that the job damn it is the most important thing.

The film bends over backwards so that we find Burt and Dean admirable, despite the fact that objectively their behaviour is awful. Burt treats his home like a stopover, barely sees his kids and seems affronted that his wife objects he doesn’t attend her important charity functions and doesn’t want the cushy job he’s being offered by her father. Just in case we sympathise with her, she’s a cold, frigid, mean and demanding shrew who – just to put the tin lid on it – is carrying on behind Burt’s back. We, meanwhile, applaud Burt for showing restraint around the besotted Jean Seberg, merely kissing, hugging and chatting with her about how he’d love to but he can’t because of the kids at home damn it!

He looks like a prince though compared to Dean. Only in the 1970s surely would we be expected to find it admirable that a pregnant girlfriend happily takes all the blame – the contraceptive pills made her fat and she knows the deal – begs her boyfriend not to leave his wife and then urges him to not worry about her. Dean’s wife doesn’t even seem that bad, other than the fact she’s a mumsy type who can’t hold a candle to Bisset’s sensuality. That sensuality is overpowering for Dean, who at one point pleads with her to stay in their hotel room because the taxi “can wait another 15 minutes”. Like a gentleman his reaction to finding out Bisset is pregnant, is to offer to fly her to Norway for a classy abortion (rather than the backstreet offerings at home?).

This soapy nonsense, with its stink of Mad Men-ish sexual politics (where men are hard-working, hard-playing types, and women accept that when they age out, he has the right to look elsewhere) is counterbalanced by some laboriously-pleased-with-itself looks at airport operations. Baggage handling. Customer check-in. Customs control checks. Airport maintenance. All get trotted through with a curious eye by Seaton. Just enough to make parts of the film feel briefly like a dull fly-on-the-wall drama rather than a turgid soap.

Soap is where its heart is though. Helen Hayes won an Oscar for a crowd-pleasing turn (from which she wrings the maximum amount of charm) as a seemingly sweet old woman who is in fact an expert stowaway. Van Heflin and Maureen Stapleton play with maximum commitment (Stapleton in particular goes for it as if this was an O’Neil play rather than trash) a married couple whose finances are in the doldrums, leading the husband to take drastic steps.

It’s all marshalled together with a personality-free lack of pizzaz by Seaton, who simply points the camera and lets the actors go through their paces, with a few shots of humour here and there. There are some interesting split-screen effects, but that’s about the last touch of invention in the piece. It’s mostly played with po-faced seriousness – something that feels almost impossible to take seriously today, seeing as the structure, tone and airport observational style of the film was spoofed so successfully in Airplane (a much better film than this on every single level, from humour, to drama even to tension – how damning is that, that a pisstake is a more exciting disaster thriller?)

It smashed the box office in 1970 and got nominated for Best Picture. But its dryness, dullness and lack of pace mean it has hardly been watched since. Although it can claim to be the first all-star disaster movie, it’s not even fit to lace the flippers of The Poseidon Adventure, which far more successfully kickstarted the cliches that would become standard for the genre (and is a tonne more fun as well as being a disaster movie – this has a disaster epilogue at best). An overlong, soapy, dull mess.

Thor: Love and Thunder (2022)

Thor: Love and Thunder (2022)

Injokes, backslappery and smugness abound in this terrible Thor adventure

Director: Taika Waititi

Cast: Chris Hemsworth (Thor), Natalie Portman (Dr Jane Foster/Mighty Thor), Christian Bale (Gorr the God Butcher), Tessa Thompson (Valkyrie), Jaimie Alexander (Sif), Taika Waititi (Korg), Russell Crowe (Zeus), Kat Dennings (Dr Darcy Lewis)

Okay. Part way through this desperately unfunny tonal mess I wondered: if I had to choose would I watch this again, or Thor: The Dark World? I can’t quite believe it, but I’d rather watch that functional, forgettable, mundane film. At least it doesn’t make me angry as it drifts past my eyes. And I say that as someone who loved Thor: Ragnarok. Thor: Love and Thunder is terrible. So, unlike Star Trek, it looks like even numbered Thor films are awful – so at least Thor Five should be a doozy.

Thor (Chris Hemsworth) is in a state of ennui – although that doesn’t stop him restoring his buff form after we last saw him as a coach potato in Avengers: Endgame. He doesn’t know what to do with his life: he has (and I can’t believe the film doesn’t make this obvious joke considering its jukebox score) “lost that lovin’ feelin’”. Will the arrival of bereaved father Gorr (Christian Bale), and his mission to butcher all Gods because they don’t answer your prayers, give him meaning? Or will it be the chance to finally rekindle his love for Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) when she unexpectantly lands back in his life? However, it’s not the Jane he remembers: unknown to him, she’s dying from cancer, but his old hammer Mjolnir is keeping her alive, transforming her into a female version of Thor.

Thor: Love and Thunder is a bit like attending a victorious Thor: Ragnorak after-show party. Everyone there thinks everything they say is like the funniest thing ever and the air rings to the sound of backs being slapped. It takes everything that it believes worked best in that film and dials it up to eleventy thousand. Waititi doubles down on his quirky, off-the-cuff, shoulder shrugging humour at every turn and you get the feeling that no one once tapped him on the shoulder and said “you know that’s funny to us on set, but are we sure that will be funny in the audience?”

Because, based on the audience I saw it with, it wasn’t. I think I chuckled about three times in the film. Which considering it takes every single bloody opportunity to tell a joke, is damning. Perhaps it fails to land because, unlike in Ragnarok or other Waititi films, its like he’s surgically removed anything emotional or gives a weight to the gags. He’s also sacrificed much of his trademark sweetness. Instead, this is full of incredibly knowing, tip-the-wink gags at the audience, as if trying to say “hey it’s okay, we can’t take this seriously, comic books are all silly, silly shit”.

And you know, that’s fine many people take these things too seriously. But what worked about Thor: Ragnarok was it balanced a quirky sense of humour with genuine stakes and real emotional quandaries. This however is just a tonal mess. We have an opening scene dealing with child death, that shifts swiftly into knock-about farce. A leading character dying of cancer sitting alongside a pair of screaming goats. It is revealed Jane is effectively draining her life source using the hammer (that it is keeping her alive and killing her at the same time). Here’s a chance to explore the cost of heroism and finding a purpose in life (after all isn’t Thor supposed to be depressed? Wouldn’t Jane make a good contrast here?). instead, the film constantly retreats to playing the humour card (worst of all unfunny humour!), as if Waititi perhaps thinks this genre stuff is silly and slightly below him.

Ragnarok allowed moments of impact: this film shits all over any moment of potential emotional reality. Hemsworth’s Thor used to be a guy with a strong moral purpose and seriousness, but allowed to stretch his wings with comedic sharpness. Now he’s a buffoon who interrupts a speech to distraught parents with gags. Any attempt to build an arc of a hero who is internally lonely and searching for purpose is constantly smashed by self-consciously irreverent humour. It says a lot that Thor’s axe Stormbreaker feels as much a character as anyone else – although the film is overly pleased with the gag of the axe being jealous of Thor’s doe-eyes at his old hammer.

The entire film feels like it’s been plotted out in about four minutes. Presumably Waititi was confident “hilarious” off-the-cuff inspiration would solve any problems. Christian Bale struggles manfully with his villain – but it’s like no one gave him the memo that the film was a piss-take. Tedious detours fill the plot – like an un-funny Guardians of the Galaxy cameo at the start, a tiresome trip to an orgy-tastic God planet and the screeching giant goats which feels like a joke whose punchline has been cut. A major plot point about a wish granting Eternity God is suddenly introduced to establish a secret plan for the villain. It’s like no one gave a damn.

Waititi doubles down on funny stuff that worked in small doses in Ragnarok by stretching it past any point of humour here. Liked Neill, Damon and Lesser Hemsworth playing bad actors in that film? Well, you get bucket loads of it here with Melissa McCarthy as a Fat Hela (that’s the joke: she’s fat). Liked Korg’s overly literal asides? Well, he’s in seemingly every second of the bloody film here, including narrating it. Russell Crowe pops up for a cameo that everyone clearly feels was hilarious but really looks like a big-name actor amusing himself with a borderline racist Greek accent. The film is crammed with this crap.

Hemsworth does okay I suppose, but in many ways the film feels as much of an ego-trip for him as it does Waititi. Natalie Portman gets to do some some fun things, but comedy isn’t her natural forte and she struggles with getting the zing in the dialogue that Tessa Thompson manages. It builds towards a big ending where Thor weaponises children and then the film lands on an utterly unearned emotional ending at a secret place – as if Waititi suddenly remembered his films work best when they have a heart – at the centre of the universe that is so easy to reach you wonder why people didn’t go there much earlier in this franchise. Even the final explanation of the title feels thrown in at the last minute and I’ve no idea what we are supposed to make of Thor’s character arc in this film.

The lack of heart is what is missing here. There is nothing heartfelt or emotionally true really in this. Nothing to give you warm feelings or to make you say “ahh”. Instead there are just endless, endless smug insiderish-gags. This is a piece of shit and the silent reaction it got from the full audience I saw it with says it all. A smug, tonal mess by a director who is over-indulged and unrestrained and forgets that humour works best when grounded with some sense of drama. I’d definitely rather watch Thor: The Dark World again.

Jurassic World: Dominion (2022)

Jurassic World: Dominion (2022)

It squeezes so many characters in, it totally forgets to make room for plot, invention or anything new at all

Director: Colin Trevorrow

Cast: Chris Pratt (Owen Grady), Bryce Dallas Howard (Claire Dearing), Laura Dern (Dr Ellie Sattler), Jeff Goldblum (Dr Ian Malcolm), Sam Neill (Dr Alan Grant), Isabella Sermon (Maisie Lockwood), DeWanda Wise (Kayla Watts), Mamoudou Athie (Ramsay Cole), Campbell Scott (Dr Lewis Dodgson), BD Wong (Dr Henry Wu), Omar Sy (Barry Sembène), Justice Smith (Franklin Webb), Daniella Pineda (Dr Zia Rodriguez)

As I was leaving the cinema, I heard a twelve-year old talking about which of the dinosaurs in the movie was their favourite. Then they said: “it was a bit samey though wasn’t it?”. I’m not sure I can beat that precocious nail-on-the-head judgement. Nothing happens in Jurassic World: Dominion you’ve not seen many times before in the franchise. Underneath the flash, Jurassic World: Dominion is a tired retread, crowbarring in references from better films left, right and centre, all to hide that there are no new ideas here.

Owen Grady (Chris Pratt) and Claire Dearing (Bryce Dallas Howard) have dedicated their lives to protecting human clone Maisie Lockwood (Isabella Sermon) from the grasp of corporations. When she’s kidnapped by foot-soldiers of clearly-evil-corp BioSyn (they even have “Sin” in their name), they pull out all the stops to get her back from BioSyn’sNorthern Italy research compound. Meanwhile, Drs Ellie Sattler (Laura Dern) and Alan Grant (Sam Neill) are investigating genetically modified locusts which are destroying every crop in the Southern USA – except those using BioSyn seed. All roads lead to that Italian compound – where Dr Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum) is employed as a contrarian philosopher – to try and stop BioSyn’s nefarious schemes.

You know what struck me when I wrote that summary? I didn’t use the word dinosaurs. The prehistoric beasties are pretty superfluous. Sure, they down a plane and our heroes dodge them in various places (BioSyn’s compound doubles as a dinosaur refuge). But, seeing as the last film ended with dinosaurs escaping into the wild and becoming part of our everyday lives… this sequel takes the concept nowhere. Bar an opening news report montage (showing, among other things, pterodactyls – yes, I know they’re not dinosaurs – stealing a bride’s bouquet) and a Star Wars style under-ground market where dino-pets and fighting-pit beasties are traded on the black market, Dominion finds almost nothing to do with this.

In fact, Dominion struggles to find anything to do at all. It’s an extremely loosely plotted mess of a film that feels like two vaguely (very, very vaguely) connected plotlines rammed together in a way designed to shoe-horn in as many legacy characters and call-backs as possible. Laura Dern gets the bulkiest (and only plot essential) role among the returning trio. Sam Neill feels dragged along for the ride (Grant serves literally no narrative purpose) and, while Goldblum gets most of the best lines (delivered in his trademark, improvisational oddness), Malcolm merely splits the role of “inside man” with another character so cursorily introduced and vaguely motivated he feels like he was only there because covid made some of the other actors unavailable for parts of the filming.

The legacy framing is so lazy that all three of these characters essentially wear the same costumes as they did in Jurassic Park. Everyone in universe seems to know who they are (Which I find highly unlikely) and the film bends over backwards to introduce clumsy links between them and the characters from the first two Jurassic World films in ways that feel forced.

The film slowly consumes itself with references back to previous films, linked by sequences that feel ripped out from other hits. Owen and Claire’s opening plotline plays out like an odd Mission: Impossible spy thriller, including a Bourne-ish roof top chase (with Owen haring away on his trademark motorbike from killer velociraptors – the film’s only exciting set-piece, and even that is ripped from other films) with Claire transformed into a semi-adept free-runner. The dino-market is essentially Mos Eisley, by way of that Kamono Dragon fighting pit from Skyfall. By the end a host of famous set-pieces from Jurassic Park and Jurassic World are effectively re-staged or openly referenced and props (such as Nedry’s shaving foam can) are reverentially pulled out.

Any interesting ideas raised are swiftly crushed. Maisie’s concern that, as a clone, she isn’t a real person is fascinating, but the film forgets it in seconds. The villain (a neat Steve Jobs parody from Campbell Scott) spends a fortune capturing Maisie – but when she escapes (thanks to a key to her cage being helpfully left on a table in front of her) he makes literally no attempt at all to recapture her. It’s stressed to us that the whole world is looking for Maisie and that if she is found it will be dangerous for her – by the end of the film she’s doing a press conference and no one gives a damn. The moral implications of a ‘mother’ cloning herself and curing her clone child of a life-ending disease in the womb, is thrown on the table and then ignored.

The whole film revolves around ridiculous coincidences. Villains run away and then helpfully return to ludicrously unsafe places, purely because the plot requires it. Stupid decisions are made right, left and centre. Plot armour ruthlessly protects the expected. The dinosaurs are just irrelevant set dressing: we are told no less than three times the Gigantasaurus is “the biggest hunter there’s ever been”: solely to build up an inevitable face-off with the T-Rex. The deadly locust plot is such a naked attempt to motivate shoe-horning in legacy characters, the film doesn’t even bother to explain what it’s about or what the baddies plan was.

At one point Laura Dern says something to the effect of “we shouldn’t live in the past, we should aim for the future”. Imagine if this slightly lumpen rehash of its better predecessors had done the same.

Hancock (2008)

Hancock (2008)

Will Smith goes against type as an arrogant superhero in this deeply flawed would-be satire

Director: Peter Berg

Cast: Will Smith (John Hancock), Charlize Theron (Mary Embrey), Jason Bateman (Ray Embrey), Eddie Marsan (Kenneth “Red” Parker Jnr), Jae Heard (Aaron Embrey)

Back in 2008, everyone was entertained by the idea that the most charming man in the world was pretending to be an arrogant, entitled arsehole. Sadly, in 2022, when Will Smith is synonymous with entitled public slapping, the joke feels a little different.

In Hancock, Smith plays the eponymous superhero, a drunken dickhead, who saves people without giving a damn about them or the millions of dollars of damage he causes while doing so. When he saves the life of PR man Ray (Jason Bateman) – wrecking a train in the progress – Ray decides to help Hancock change his image. His wife Mary (Charlize Theron) is less than happy about it – but is there a deeper mystery to her discomfort?

Needless to say there is: and the reveal of what it is marks a tonal shift in a messy film that never quite knows what it is. But that’s because the entire film is basically a sketch thinly stretched out over 85 minutes. What if Superman was real and also a complete arsehole? What would an irresponsible, drunken, unpleasant hero be like? And hell, wouldn’t we stop thanking him and instead start getting really pissed off when he trashes a freeway and several buildings, while chasing some trigger-happy bank robbers?

That’s basically the core of the film: setting up the unlikeable hero, watching him tell people to go to hell and use his powers against people who annoy him. See him get humiliated by going to prison (Ray’s genius PR idea to get people on Hancock’s side) and then eventually resolving a bank robbery with excessive, awkward politeness. It’s one joke. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a good joke. It would make a great recurring gag on Saturday Night Live or something. But it never manages to be anything more than that.

Peter Berg’s film radically shifts gear for the final thirty minutes or so. A second superhero is introduced, a poorly explained and illogical backstory is shoe-horned in and info dumps of character background start to get dropped in (the entire backstory, plot and motivation of Eddie Marsan’s nominal villain is explained in an overheard TV broadcast). What had been a farce suddenly turns into a clumsily intense relationship drama between two people with no chemistry. It ends in a final fight in a hospital which features blood, shooting, tears and a joke about a hand being sliced off. It’s all over the place.

Will Smith just about holds it together: and the fact that he managed to make this not-particularly-funny or rewarding film into the fourth biggest hit of its year is a tribute to what Box Office Gold he was at the time. It’s a decent role for him, and Smith does the humour well. But, after his frank autobiography on his dark side (not to mention that infamous slap), it feels less like Smith playing against type, and more him exposing parts of his own personality. But he carries the entire film with gusto, even if he can’t make the final tonal mess work.

Berg’s direction pitches between way-too-intense and flatly-comedy-free. He drills into emotion in the final act, as if he’s forgotten that this was supposed to be a super-hero satire – but totally fails to bring enough character or reality to the story for its seriousness to work. For the first half, he struggles to bring much personality to the film (I suppose that is Smith’s job). It becomes a film that raises the odd smile but, despite its very short length, outstays its welcome.

Bateman is good value as the do-good PR man (strangely, he’s introduced as a real hotshot, even though it seems he’s completely useless based on nearly everything we see him do). He has a strange chemistry with Charlize Theron, wasted in an incoherent part. No one else gets a look in.

Tonally, Hancock is a mess with a few good gags (Hancock casually tossing a beached whale back into the sea, hitting a yacht, is funny). Its novelty appeal in 2008 – “Look! Will Smith can be mean!” – has disappeared today. Nothing in it is remotely memorable, making a decent joke never anything more than functional. It falls apart in the final stretch as it reaches for a depth it isn’t strong enough to deliver. Can you believe this was one of the biggest hits of 2008? Has anyone really watched, or thought about it, since?

The Ten Commandments (1956)

The Ten Commandments (1956)

DeMille’s massive, camp epic sets the table for what we expect from Biblical epics

Director: Cecil B. DeMille

Cast: Charlton Heston (Moses), Yul Brynner (Rameses II), Anne Baxter (Nefretiri), Edward G. Robinson (Dathan), Yvonne De Carlo (Sephora), Debra Paget (Lilia), John Derek (Joshua), Cedric Hardwicke (Seti I), Nina Foch (Bithiah), Martha Scott (Yochabel), Judith Anderson (Memnet), Vincent Price (Baka), John Carradine (Aaron), Olive Deering (Miriam), Douglass Dumbrille (Jannes)

“Let my people go!” Close your eyes and think of Moses. Chances are you’ll see an image of Charlton Heston, arms spread wide, parting the waves to lead his people to freedom. Heston had been partly chosen for his resemblance to Michelangelo’s sculpture of the famous law-giver. It’s also a tribute to how Cecil B DeMille’s slightly ponderous, very-very-serious Biblical epic pretty much defined what we expect from Bible stories.

The Ten Commandments would be DeMille’s final movie (and for all its many flaws, it’s way more deserving of the Best Picture Oscar than the valedictory pat-on-the-back his penultimate film got). It’s basically a triumphal capturing of his self-important style, with sonorously devout voiceover and a faultless hero chiselled from marble an excuse to fill the screen with action, campy scheming and lots of sexiness. The Ten Commandments became a massive hit because it’s a rollicking pile of nonsense and something you could persuade yourself was “good for you” because it’s about the Exodus.

It’s a BIG film. DeMille delivers an opening direct-to-camera address, dripping with pompous self-satisfaction, where he piously tells us about the level of historical and Biblical research he’s carried out. The credits list a stack of professors, historians, religious experts and, last of all, the Holy Gospels as sources (presumably the Gospels’ writers got no cut of the vast profits). DeMille, as per his style, marshals thousands of extras and some huge (and distinctly sound-stage looking) sets to play out a series of tableaux, many of them rooted in classic silent-movie framing and techniques. Special effects abound to create plagues (disappointingly the film skips seven of them) and parting of the Red Sea. DeMille narrates with the grandiose aloofness of a Sunday School teacher.

It’s almost enough grandeur to make you overlook this pageantry covers a rather camp, frequently silly piece of entertainment. The film is ripe with buff actors striking poses: Heston does a lot of this during the first half, matched by Brynner (who worked out at length so as not to be shown-up). Opposite them, gorgeous Israelite and Egyptian babes fawn and flirt. The film is at least as interested in the love/hate relationship between Moses and Nefretiri as it is in the Word of God, not least because DeMille knows that this soapy stuff really sells.

Perhaps that’s why Anne Baxter plays Nefretiri with a level of campy purring that would be almost laughable, if you weren’t sure that she’s in on the joke. Relishing the chance to play a sex bomb – in costumes designed to stress her assets – Baxter simpers, flirts, drapes herself across Heston’s ram-rod (in every way but one of course – he’s righteous man of God) Moses and gets to utter lines like “Oh Moses, Moses, you stubborn, splendid adorable fool”. She mocks and cajoles Rameses into rejecting Moses’ demands, partly because she can’t stand Moses is immune to her charms, partly because she can’t bear the idea of Moses leaving Egypt (and her) behind forever.

Ten Commandments elevated Heston to the rank of the immortals. Few actors could carry the weight of films like this as well as he. His performance is in two acts. The first is the visionary, egalitarian adopted son of the Pharoah: the guy who builds the best cities, turns rival kingdoms into allies, gives the stuffy priests’ grain to the slaves (even before he finds out he’s one of them) and whom Seti (a haughtily British Cedric Hardwicke) would rather took over the kingdom than Rameses. Discovering his roots, he morphs over a (long) time into the white-haired, broad-shouldered prophet, speaking most of his lines in sonorous block capitals (“BEHOLD. THE POWER. OF GOD” that sort of thing). Very easy to mock, but only Heston could have played such woodenly written silliness with such skilful conviction.

He generously said he believed Brynner gave the better performance. Brynner does have the more interesting material. A playboy monarch who is true to his word and seems (at first) torn with how he feels about this adopted brother who overshadows him at every turn, Brynner adds a lot of light and shade to a character written as a pretty much straight villain. Moses is presented as such an imperious stick-in-the-mud, it’s a little tricky not to feel a bit sorry for the put-upon, inadequate Rameses, for all he’s a tyrant.

Heston was the only actor who went on location for a few key shots (the others all perform on sound stages or in front of green screens). Keeping things sound stage based allowed DeMille to have complete visual control over the set-ups. This suited his conservative camera movements and editing – most of the scenes take place in a few carefully extended mid-shots, that allow us to soak up the pretty costumes and the theatrical acting. The Ten Commandments is partly a flick-book of devotional pictures – so much so that a tracking shot into Seti’s face when he banishes Moses stands out for the amount of camera movement.

That doesn’t stop DeMille throwing in plenty to look at in frame. With Heston spending half the movie as (in some cases literally) the voice of God, John Derek’s Joshua carries the action torch: chiselled of chest, he’s introduced zip wiring to save Moses’ mother from being crushed by a mighty stone. Like most of the “good” characters he gets very little to actually work with: the decent Jews are either excessively pure or aged men of physical weakness who commentate on the wonders around us. Still, it’s better than the hilariously cheesy dialogue of the regular Israelites (“We’re going to the land of milk and honey – anyone know the way?”) that contrasts laughably with the Biblical pastiche Moses and the other principals speak in.

DeMille has plenty of fun with the doubters and naughty among the Israelites. Edward G Robinson goes gloriously over-the-top as quisling Dathan, blackmailing Joshua’s girl Lilia (a timid Debra Paget) into years of servitude and taking every single opportunity to undermine Moses’ leadership. It works as well: no wonder Moses gets so peeved – the slightest set-back and the Israelites seem ready to stone him. Dathan leads the final act Golden Calf orgy (DeMille’s voiceover tuts constantly, while letting us see as much of the action as the censor would allow) while Moses is up the mountain picking up the Word of God.

Robinson has the tone right though: the cast is stuffed full of OTT actors. Vincent Price plays a perverted Egyptian architect with lip-smacking glee. Judith Anderson jumps over the top as Nefretiri’s nursemaid. Nina Foch (one year younger than Heston!) plays Moses’ adopted mother with grandiose gentleness. They know this is a big, silly, pose-striking pantomime passing itself off as a piece of devotional work.

But that’s why its popular. DeMille knows that people don’t want to see a devotional lecture – or even really have to think that much about the rights and wrongs of an Old Testament story that sees the Lord strike down a load of kids with a murderous cloud (even Moses is torn by this for a minute). The Ten Commandments is huge in every sense, full of campy nonsense, pose-striking acting and a mix of stuff it’s taking very-very-seriously and campy ahistorical nonsense. It’s a winning cocktail that doesn’t make for a great film (or even, possibly, a good one) but cemented it as a landmark everyone recognises even if they haven’t seen it. In a way, making it one of Hollywood’s most magic epics.

Transformers: Dark of the Moon (2011)

Transformers: Dark of the Moon (2011)

Sexist, violent, crude and deeply disgusting. Transformers continues to make you weep for your childhood memories

Director: Michael Bay

Cast: Shia LaBeouf (Sam Witwicky), Josh Duhamel (Colonel William Lennox), John Turturro (Seymour Simmons), Tyrese Gibson (Robert Epps), Rosie Huntington-Whiteley (Carly Spencer), Patrick Dempsey (Dylan Gould), John Malkovich (Bruce Brazos), Frances McDormand (Charlotte Mearing), Kevin Dunn (Ron Witwicky), Julie White (Judy Witwicky), Alan Tudyk (Dutch Gerhardt)

I’m ashamed to say when I saw it in the cinema I sort of enjoyed it. Goes to show how the excitement of a trip out can make the most ghastly, horrible, vile piece of work feel like fun. Even at the time, I recognised enjoying Transformers: Dark of the Moon was like becoming engaged with the story-telling in a porno. Doesn’t change the fact it’s a crude exercise, pandering to your baser instincts.

The plot? Autobots. Decepticons. Blah, blah, blah. Don’t worry if you’ve not seen the previous films: this merrily contradicts them. In the 60s an Autobot ship crashes on the moon, the moon landings were all about exploring the wreckage. In the present day our “hero” Sam (a never more annoying, unlikable Shia LaBeouf) can’t land a job and the Decepticons hatch a plan to destroy the planet by bringing their homeworld Cybertron here. Former Autobot Boss Sentinal Prime betrays everyone. Optimus Prime doubles down on being a psychopath. It’s very loud and makes no sense.

Transformers: Dark of the Moon exposes Michael Bay’s aesthetics as those of a porn director. Everything is crude, huge, brash, obvious, tries to do as much work for you as possible and panders to your worst instincts. Dark of the Moon is shocking in almost every possible sense: from its crude sexism and leering camera, its revoltingly heavy-handed, end-of-the-pier, terminally unfunny comic relief, its overlong, explosive battle sequences (shot with the slavering longing of a pornographic gang-bang). Dark of the Moon is a revolting film, a disgusting perversion of what was a kids cartoon.

Can you imagine letting a child watch this? Let’s deal with its disgusting sexism first. Megan Kelly had been sacked between this and Revenge of the Fallen for denouncing Michael Bay’s working basis (I’ll admit calling him Hitler went too far). Every chance in the film to disparage her character is taken (two appallingly unpleasant tiny Autobots all but call her a bitch). She’s replaced by Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, introduced walking up-stairs, the camera starting at her feet and trailing up, lingering on her bottom (she’s wearing just a slightly-too short shirt). Later two characters will discuss “the perfect curves” of a car – while the camera pans up her body. Those are only the most egregious of the deeply uncomfortable sexual objectification of this poor woman.

How about its crude humour? Several actors enter a private competition to give the loudest, least funny comic cameo. Malkovich gurns and rants as Sam’s pointless, kung-fu obsessed boss. John Turturro does whatever he wants as a Transformers obsessed former-agent. Kevin Dunn and Julie White are eat-your-fist levels of unfunny as Sam’s parents. Worst of all is Ken Jeung as a Deep Throat style informer whose every scene is crammed with homophobic jokes about anal and oral sex. Remember, once upon a time this was for kids. All this alleged humour does is add to the already bloated run-time. You’ll suffer through every single word, because you certainly won’t miss it due to laughing. Bay’s idea of funny is if the joke is delivered LOUD by a wild-eyed actor, preferably accompanied by a whip-pan. He’d probably love Roy Chubby Brown.

The film has two of the least likable heroes perhaps ever placed on film. Shia LaBeouf must have genuinely hated himself by the time he made this. Perhaps that’s why he makes no effort to make Sam even one per cent likeable. Sam is a whining, petulant man-child, alternating between bitching about his job to bragging about his trophy girlfriend (whom he spends half the film whiningly chasing). In the first of these films, LaBeouf had a goofy charm. Now the character is just a deeply arrogant little prick, with major entitlement issues. LaBeouf shouts and screams throughout, but mostly just looks really angry at himself for even being there.

Then we come to the pièce de resistance: Optimus Prime. When I was a kid, this noble warrior was like the perfect Dad. Traumatised kids wept when he died in the animated movie. Revenge of the Fallen started turning him into a violent killer. This completes the journey. Bay probably thinks Prime is a bad-ass taking names. He’s actually a violent, psychopathic killer who arrives at a battle with the inspiring words “We will kill them all”. Prime allows the whole of Chicago to be destroyed (at the cost of millions of lives) to prove a point to the stupid humans. At the film’s end he reacts to Megatron’s offer of a truce by ripping out his spine and then executes Sentinel Prime by shooting him point blank in the head while Sentinel pleads for his life. Ladies and gentlemen: our hero.

It’s customary to say the special effects are good, so: the special effects are good. The violence is pornographic, shot often in slow-mo, with explosions, fast editing and huge noise filling the screen. Transformer bodies are mauled, beheaded, eviscerated. There are several rather chilling executions. Prime rips out the equivalent of heart, lungs, eyes and brains. Bay adds a reddish oil to the transformers, which looks like blood spraying up. Just like the humour, the action goes on FOREVER. The final Chicago battle takes up fifty minutes of buildings falling, brutal slaughter and triumphalist flag-waving. After repeated viewings it’s not just boring, it starts getting offensive.

Dark of the Moon is, quite simply, only just (only, only, only just) better than Revenge of the Fallen – and it says it all that it’s because it’s not as racist. In every other sense it’s simply revolting: violent, crude, sexist and homophobic. This is a horrible, horrible film made by a soulless director. It genuinely is like a beautifully shot pornographic film that wants you to respect the craft that’s gone into it while you finish yourself off. For a brief few seconds you might get sucked in – but you’ll certainly not be boasting about it afterwards.

Twister (1996)

Twister (1996)

Cardboard characters try not to get blown away in this extremely silly disaster movie

Director: Jan de Bont

Cast: Helen Hunt (Dr Jo Harding), Bill Paxton (Dr Bill Harding), Jami Gertz (Dr Melissa Reeves), Cary Elwes (Dr Jonas Miller), Lois Smith (Aung Meg Greene), Philip Seymour Hoffman (Dusty Davis), Alan Ruck (“Rabbit” Nurick), Sean Whalen (Allan Sanders), Todd Field (“Beltzer” Lewis), Wendle Josepher (Haynes), Jeremy Davies (Brian Laurence), Joey Slotnick (Joey), Zach Grenier (Eddie)

In 1996 Twister blew through cinema screens with a vengeance, becoming the second most biggest hit of the year. Yes, you read that right. Stop me if I am wrong, but has anyone thought about, even for a second, this bog-standard disaster film since? Staffed almost exclusively by characters so lightweight a puff of wind would blow them away, never mind a tornado, the whole thing is full of sound and fury and signifies absolutely nothing at all.

Drs Jo (Helen Hunt) and Bill Harding (Bill Paxton) are trying to get divorced. He’s finally had enough of risking his neck on their joint passion for storm-chasing, deciding to jack it in for a lucrative life on the media circuit and marriage to relationship therapist Dr Melissa Reeves (Jami Gertz). He arrives in Oklahoma to get Jo to sign the divorce papers – but doncha know it, he gets sucked in to “one more job”, to road-test the storm measurement doo-hickey device he and Jo dreamed of making but she’s actually built. And, handily, one of those pesky twisters is on the way.

The doo-hickey – I’m really not sure what it’s meant to do – is the sort of ludicrous scientific device that only exists in the movies. It’s basically a huge metal cauldron full of marbles that needs to be placed in the path of a twister. It’s also – in a terrible design flaw – hugely fragile and unstable, constantly falling over at the worst possible time. There are apparently three prototypes, of decreasing quality, each a back-up of the one before – you have one guess as to how many of these they burn through in the film.

In fact, you can pretty much one guess almost everything that might happen. Will Jo finally come-to-terms with the death of her father in a storm? (That’s right – she has a “I’m passionate and obsessed because a twister killed my dad” backstory!) Will Bill realise Jo is the one for him, not fish-out-of-water big-city-girl Mel? Will Cary Elwes’ lip-smacking, moustachio-curling copyright-stealing storm expert get his (fatal) comeuppance? Will sweet Aunt Meg (and her dog) survive her tussle with the storm? That “it’s almost never happened” super-storm they talk about at the start of the film – do you think it’s possible our heroes will find themselves in the middle of it before the end?

All of this is shuffled in a film with a hideously over-loaded deck. Jo’s team consists of around eight assistants, none of whom have so much as a character between them. They are a feeble collection of archetypes: the geek, the shy one, the techie, the religious one and the loud-mouthed one (a role of flamboyant indignity for Philip Seymour Hoffman, yet to be recognised as a great actor and instead relegated to feeble comic relief roles). But then it’s not like the leads are that interesting either: she’s committed, passionate but gosh-darn-it puts the storm before her personal life. He’s trying to move on but doncha-know-it he’s just lying to himself that he doesn’t love the storm.

In fact, as this rather smug ex-couple riffed on in-jokes, storm facts and their shared love for their doo-hickey made of marbles I felt rather sorry for Mel. Obviously, we are meant to scorn Mel, with her hand-wringing profession of counsellor (as opposed to the macho jobs of Bill and Jo) and her reluctance to run into a massive twister. Actually, I think she’s rather sensible. Bill and Jo are both clearly insane and take suicidal risks. She puts up with her fiancé flirting with his ex far longer than most of us would and she is hugely patient with the polite scorn she’s treated with by Jo’s rag-tag band of tedious risk-taking geeks playing at being alphas. She hangs around far longer than anyone else would do, before departing after maturely and sensibly telling Bill he should stick with his first two loves (Jo and storms – maybe not in that order).

People aren’t watching these films for the character or plot though – just as well as the film doesn’t really have either – but the special effects. These are impressive, I suppose, as the storm rips through sets, throws CGI buildings around and generally makes for loud and impressive noise. The film has a sort of goofy wit at times – at one point a CGI cow is blown through the sky in front of the Hardings, mooing rather sadly.

There are some decent set-pieces, even though they are basically all the same set-piece repeated over and over again at a different scale (first the storm blows over a car, then a building, then a village, then most of a town while our heroes duck and cover their heads). Lots of it was done with practical effects, shot with an alarming lack of regard for safety – Hunt got an infection from being flung into a drain and she and Paxton were temporarily blinded by a burst of artificial lightning.

De Bont directs all this with a personality-free competence. The film is at absolute best less than half as good as his first film, Speed – and de Bont’s subsequent film, The Haunting, would be half as good again in a career of ever-diminishing returns. Twister offers nothing new or even particularly interesting, other than some wind special effects that are of passing curiosity value but nothing else. It’s almost quaint that, in 1996, this was seen as something earth-shatteringly impressive. Now it’s as fearsome a burst of raw natural power as a fart.