Wednesday, 22 February 2006

Ultraviolet (2006)

Ultraviolet looks pretty but is not particularly exciting or coherent. Maybe this is what happens when you throw millions at a director who is only worth tens of thousands.

Ultraviolet adds to the flood of sci-fi films featuring heroines kicking ass in skimpy leather costumes, mutant viruses, shadowy organisations, rebel terrorists bringing down corrupt governments. Just as the films it rips off were major disappointments, Ultraviolet is no exception. However, I’m here to bring news that Kurt Wimmer’s creation is no tanker, and Milla Jovovich is no Catwoman.

The plot – which bears more than a passing semblance to the Resident Evil franchise and Aeon Flux – is set some time in the late 21st century, where a mutant virus developed in a government laboratory escapes and infects the populace, creating a world where everyone wears a facial mask as though SARS never left us. Those unlucky to be infected (“haemophages”) develop the haemophagia disease, which confers superhuman abilities in exchange for a drastically reduced lifespan and being hunted down mercilessly by fearful authorities.

As the film opens, the conflict between the humans and the haemophage rebels is in the endgame, with the military-pharmaceutical complex developing a biological bomb that may eradicate the haemophages for good. Top rebel fighter Violet (Milla Jojovich) steals the suitcase containing the ultimate weapon, and discovering that it is an innocent child, decides to go on the run from both humans and her former comrades, a battle-hardened bunch who wouldn’t bat an eyelid to destroy the tyke.

There is nothing striking about the plot, but Wimmer does have a unique and consistent artistic vision: Ultraviolet looks and feels as if it leapt out of a comic book, instead of merely being adapted from one. This will be the flick’s greatest achievement and greatest curse.

In Wimmer’s picture perfect world, stunning visuals, moods and looks are everything. Almost every establishing shot and key frame is composed to give it a dramatic comic panel look. The cityscape of 21st century resembles a bigger, flashier version of Shanghai with gleaming skyscraper after gleaming skyscraper. The interior of buildings are all similarly shiny and coating with plastic – imagine the polished plastic look of iPods as interior design. To mar it all, Wimmer seems to have forgotten to take the plastic wrapping off his lenses – everything is as blurry and soft focused as Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, surely a disservice to the striking good looks of Milla Jojovich.

Action sequences are similarly comic book inspired. The fights are fast, furious and athletic, and involve an impressive array of weapons. These set pieces are frequent and violent – often pitting Milla Jojovich against opponents in the double digits – but are too short and one-sided. The over-neat choreography and the obsession with perfectly framed shots and having people fall to the ground at the exact same moment, turn the visual spectacle of these fights into the sci-fi action equivalent of synchronised swimming. It’s extremely pleasing to watch, but not terribly exciting because of its bloodless and unimaginative execution.

Continuing with the high concept of a movie posing as an adaptation of a comic book, Ultraviolet has dramatic, over-the-top dialogue which would be a perfect read – on paper. When spoken, some of the key lines come off as corny, too precious, self-absorbed and affected. To heighten the sense that they are Speaking Very Dramatic Lines, the cast in the film tend to insert facial punctuation (perpetually arched eyebrows, pouting lips, smirks) into every other line. Thankfully, this film is low on dialogue and high on action scenes.

To complete the comic book convention, Kurt Wimmer parachutes in preposterous plot elements so awkwardly to show these are very important points. There is a mass of mystifying elements in the story that have no apparent reason to be in the movie – why do Violet’s hair and eyes keep changing colour? How does the virus actually do? How does Milla Jovovich hide that many weapons in her skimpy costume? Why do haemophages have huge fangs and are called vampires, but never actually use their teeth and clearly aren’t night owls? Why is the villain, the boss of some government/military/pharmaceutical conglomerate, called a “Cardinal” and works in a cross-shaped lair when there isn’t any trace of religion in the movie? How are we to take him seriously as a nasty villain when he has salt and pepper shakers stuffed up his nose all the time?

Ah, imagine how much tedious exposition it would take to clear all that up. They must be lying around somewhere on the cutting floor, since this movie feels over-short at 88 minutes. Either that or these plot holes resulted from too many script rewrites. Or, they could have been left behind at the same bargain basement counter where Wimmer got his Star Wars surplus costumes from. What audiences get is an expertly-constructed visual confectionary, and a sense that a comic book adaptation of the movie – if it exists – will explain everything. Failing which, you might want to wait for the director’s cut of the DVD release.

First published at incinemas on 30 March 2006

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