What's The Story? The Special Effects In This Summer's Blockbuster Movies Are Fantastic. The Plots Are Another Matter. Logic And Coherence Are At An All-time Low.

Posted: July 16, 1996

As gunfire breaks out aboard a private jet and bullets careen around the cabin, Arnold Schwarzenegger, the high-flying hero of Eraser, pushes open the plane's hatch, sending the craft's pressure plummeting. Then he hurls something into the fan of the engine, causing a crippling flameout.

Cut to the cockpit, where, following all this deafening mayhem, the pilot turns to the copilot and says with a puzzled frown that there seems to be something wrong back there.

Not just back there, buddy. There's something wrong ``up there,'' too, on the thousands of movie screens playing this summer's crop of blockbusters.

Just to drive the point home, Schwarzenegger chucks a parachute out the open door and dives after it. In cheerful defiance of the laws of gravity, he catches up to the chute and dons it just in time to engage in a gun duel with the oncoming plane he has just left so abruptly.

It all began when Twister's killer tornadoes sucked up everything in their path - tractors, cows, common sense, continuity, plausibility, and the quaint notion that movies should have characters you care about. Since then it's been a string of illogic - Mission: Impossible, The Rock, Eraser, Independence Day - ranging from the goofy to the galling.

Spectacle and special effects? Bam! Action? Pow! Plot? Huh?

``I just saw Independence Day and the joke out here is they should have called it The Day the Script Stood Still,'' said Scott Ross, president of Digital Domain, one of the busiest special-effects houses in Los Angeles.

``I hold screenwriters in the highest regard when it comes to the ultimate quality of the movie, but this summer is proving that special effects can drive movies to obscene profitability. You look at them as films and there's not much of a plot line, not much acting, and the direction is mediocre. But the effects are fantastic. Twister and Independence Day aren't about characters. They're big thrill rides.''

For the last two decades, moviegoers have trooped to Hollywood's summer offerings expecting all the seasonal substance of cotton candy. But this year, we have made the transition from lighthearted and airheaded to brain-dead. In a recent tongue-in-cheek tirade, Variety editor Peter Bart has even suggested new Oscar categories for ``best deconstructionist screenplay'' and ``best non-writing for a special-effects movie.''

Judging from the summer's record-breaking box-office grosses, audiences no longer care - or, more depressing, are incapable of detecting - that the plots of movies don't track. Among the lowlights:

* In Mission: Impossible, the utterly impossible occurs when a helicopter chases a train into the new tunnel under the English Channel. It's Chunnelvision, Hollywood style.

* In Independence Day, computer whiz Jeff Goldblum helps save the world by hooking up his laptop to the popular galactic Internet service AOL (Aliens on Line?). By stunning coincidence, terrestial modems are compatible with the computer technology of an advanced civilization a zillion light-years away.

* In The Rock, Ed Harris leads rogue Army officers in a takeover of Alcatraz and threatens San Francisco with missiles, which could be launched in safety and secrecy from anywhere. Later there's a gunfight on a railway of bulletproof laundry carts. Presumably, in the old days, the warden of Alcatraz feared that even the bedsheets might escape.

No wonder Harris - whose team steals 16 missiles when it only launches four, and whose actions are ridiculously at odds with his character - has publicly admitted, ``My part borders on the totally implausible. At times it was difficult to be totally serious about it.''

Filmmakers and studio executives are loath to be quoted by name on the subject, but in conversations about what has happened to logic and even coherence, the word that surfaces most often is committee. With budgets for spectacular special-effects movies exceeding $100 million, studios get nervous. And, as David Koepp, who wrote the script of Jurassic Park, puts it, screenplays become ``corporate destinies instead of simple stories.''

Carmine Zozzora, who is producing a big-screen version of Combat to star Bruce Willis and who worked on the three Die Hard films, said that the trouble starts because ``studios make movies by committee.''

``You have all these different inputs: There's the director, the writer, the star, the people at the studio,'' said Zozzora. ``Everybody's got his idea and the thing is everybody's got a different idea that has to be appeased. All too often what you're left with is a movie that's not sure what it wants to be.

``You have rewrites being done while the film's in production, and there's a great deal of pressure on the studio to have a big summer movie out there. Sometimes the story gets forsaken. You can talk all you want about special effects but it all comes down to the script. . . . Look at Mission: Impossible. It had Tom Cruise and everything going for it, but the way it dropped off at the box office [after a huge opening week] shows that it didn't deliver the goods emotionally. When the script was being written you had people fighting for what they wanted, so they ended up with a film that didn't have the elements it needed.''

John Frankenheimer, who is cherished as the director of such thinking-moviegoer's thrillers as The Manchurian Candidate, Seven Days in May and The Train, notes that jumpy, adrenaline-pumping film editing (The Rock is blink-fast) also tends to push aside essential aspects of narrative.

``There's no doubt that the MTV personality has found its way into feature films, and I regret it,'' said Frankenheimer, who will release a high-tech remake of The Island of Dr. Moreau next month. ``I find there's a lot of fast, subliminal cutting. People don't want to spend the time to do a scene properly and let the actors work.

``The problem is that more people are now involved [with a script] and you end up with that line about a camel being a horse designed by a committee. Everyone has an opinion,'' said the veteran director. Add to that the fact that ``stars today have such power that they can bring in their own favorite writer'' to enlarge and polish a role to their specifications, he said.

Once the film is out, and critics point out that it has a hole in its plot big enough to drive Twister's tractor through, the studio is stuck. ``It's not like the old days when you could open a picture in four or five cities,'' said Frankenheimer. ``If the film was poorly received you could recut it. Now you open all over the country and there's a lot of pressure.''

You'd think that, with the basic components of fiction-writing in meltdown this summer, a novelist celebrated for his style and skill would be mightily affronted. But Martin Cruz Smith, whose thrillers Gorky Park and Nightwing both became films, is in a generous mood. The last two movies he has caught are polar opposites: the high-tech Independence Day and Lone Star, the much-admired contemporary western by John Sayles, also a respected author.

``I enjoyed Independence Day as a fun ride, and that's the way it should be taken,'' said Smith, who has just published Rose, a historical novel.

``Nothing in The Rock makes any sense. Why was the furnace [in the basement of a prison that's been closed for years] still going strong? But there have always been silly films, and at least that was a star vehicle with three people who can actually act,'' he said. ``But go to Lone Star and you find a wonderful movie that has a truly novelistic quality.''

Smith sees Hollywood diverging along two paths represented by the very different qualities and target audiences for Independence Day and Lone Star.

``Special-effects movies are going to a much wider pool around the world,'' he said. ``They have action and spectacle that can appeal to people who don't speak English. That's changing the nature of movies: There will be one kind for the international audience and there will be the smaller films with acting and plot. I suppose we'll feel guilty for liking both kinds.''

With Independence Day grossing $160 million in just 12 days, it's not hard to figure which kind of film will predominate, especially in the summer months. Scott Ross' Digital Domain did the creatures for Frankenheimer's The Island of Dr. Moreau and is busy with Titanic and Dante's Peak, both expected to be box-office behemoths next summer.

The lingering image of the summer of '96 may be a roaring twister, but it will be a puff of air by the time Dante's Peak blows into the multiplex. Said Ross, tantalizingly: ``Wait until you see the volcano.''

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