Like a lot of speculative fiction, the TNT made-for-TV movie Race Against Time takes as a given the corporate takeover of the world and the increasing cheapness of human life. Where do they get that stuff? Actually, in this case life is not especially cheap — it‘s worth exactly $300,000, at least in the case of construction worker Eric Roberts, who sells his impressively well-maintained body (and organs within) to a giant HMO for recycling — but it is disposable. In the dystopian utopia Roberts inhabits, the Supreme Court has ruled suicide legal, and despite the fact that crime and unemployment are practically nonexistent, some people are still unhappy or desperate or bored enough to sign away their lives for money. (You get a year to spend it before the doctors strip you for spare parts — this is sounding more and more like the premise for a prime-time game show.) Roberts, however, is just trying to raise the scratch to save his apparently dying son — only to find that things are not, you know, what they seem. I was ready for some satire here, or just a little plain social commentary — the premise invites it, certainly — but the order of the day is merely Action: It’s a standard-issue run-and-rescue flick.
Plotwise it owes something to Coma, Soylent Green and Logan‘s Run, but as an artifact, it owes more to The Matrix, including the climactic storming of an office building, a fight on a subway platform, and that frozen-in-space 3-D rotation effect I first saw in a Wallflowers video and don’t need to see again. Roberts, who used to be an actor, is a perfectly acceptable cut-rate action hero; he‘s buff, he’s bad, he‘s got skills. Cary Elwes, who has in his early middle years settled squarely into television, is the villain, the familiar nasty smoothie with a wicked right cross. Sarah Wynter, who will be playing Alma Mahler soon for Bruce Beresford, is a bodacious bounty hunter — a Buddhist, but who isn’t these days? — who hooks up with former prey Roberts after he saves her life. If logic is sometimes stretched — and, to be fair, the film makes better sense than many of its big-screen cousins — the story only exists, after all, to facilitate the chases and fight scenes, which are pretty well done and subscribe to the current fashion (down to The Matrix again, borrowing from Hong Kong) for physical impossibility. Here, as there, the characters shrug off what should kill them without even the excuse that it‘s all in their heads. But you just have to go with the flow. Or get out of this kitchen.
Just so with They Nest, a killer-bugs movie from the USA Network, which has nothing on its mind but re-creating several dozen killer-whatever movies before it. There’s not a moment in it that hasn‘t been seen somewhere else — the ship-in-a-storm prologue, incubating beasties moving under the skin, the vomiting of larvae, you know what I’m talking about — and likewise the characters. You‘ve got your big-city stranger in isolated small town (Thomas Calabro, of Melrose Place); your beautiful girl who’s accountably never left it (Kristen Dalton); your sullen, suspicious locals (led by John Savage, adding another drunken slob to his collection); your long-suffering sheriff (Dean Stockwell, not working hard but always nice to have around). Certainly The Birds is a precursor, but that movie had a kind of mystery about it, a hint of incalculable revenge, of the forces of nature coming into pre-apocalyptic eye-pecking alignment. There is no mystery to the modern mad-beastie movie, which is just an expression of the common belief that there are things out there waiting to get us, to ingest us, to get inside us. If movie monsters in the ‘30s and ’40s were tragic figures, and in the ‘50s and ’60s were the symbols of our technological hubris, now they‘re just eating machines. They Nest is essentially the 842nd remake of Jaws, with a few tricks from Alien thrown in to keep things disgusting.
The fact that local hero and master of many reeds Vinny Golia wrote the score — not quite as outside as I would have hoped, but adequately unusual — predisposed me favorably to the film; after seeing his credit roll by, it was just a question of whether or not the movie itself would piss away all my good will. It did not; not all of it, anyway. Directed by New Zealander Ellory Elkayem (now reportedly working on a movie about scary spiders), it aims low in all but a technical sense; but as hack work goes, it’s an efficient job, with a few good scares and moments of suspense, decent acting and generally impressive production values. If the special effects are not exactly state-of-the-art — they look like special effects — they are fair enough to get the point across, and indeed are better than those in, say, The Search for Spock, which I pick only because it was on the other night, and which people paid money to see in movie theaters not all that many years ago. The bigger problem is the script, which is short on wit and believable human reaction and interaction, and which, as far as the bugs are concerned, gets more preposterous as it goes along, less believable even on its own terms — though calling this a “problem” likely overestimates the ambitions of anyone involved. The stock “surprise” ending has been filmed so many times before it was almost a shock to see it again. Though why I should have by that time expected anything else, I do not know.
Then again, originality isn‘t everything. There is nothing particularly original about Ratz — do not be put off by the new-wave-band spelling — a Showtime movie for kids, sewn together from scraps of Cinderella, Square Pegs and The Nutty Professor, and yet it demonstrates how impressive a work a patchwork may be. The previous credits of writer-director Thom Eberhardt, which include Night of the Comet and Captain Ron, suggest a talent more for craft than art, genre-adaptation rather than auteurist vision, but his script here has the shape and spark and sass of good young-adult fiction, his dialogue is fresh and unpredictable, and his pictures are colorful and a little strange, as if Tim Burton or David Lynch had dropped in to direct an after-school special. Even though one knows how things will turn out (they will turn out all right), one cannot say exactly how they will turn out that way, and the high-farcical trip to the happy ending is consistently diverting, with complication piled upon complication at an accelerating pace, and a lot of background business and throwaway slapstick to keep the senses engaged.
Like many, or perhaps all, of the finest kids’ movies, Ratz stands up for outsiders, with socially marginal Marci (Vanessa Lengies, of Are You Afraid of the Dark?) and Summer (Caroline Elliott) facing the prospect of yet another dateless Spring Dance and suffering the self-obsession of junior beauty queen Chelan Simmons (“You know the type — 14, looks 16”). Kathy Baker (Pickett Fences) has an evidently grand and uncharacteristically goofy time as Doris the junk-shop lady, who through the offices of a magic ring turns herself into her favorite soap-opera star (with, need I say, consequences) and transforms a pair of pet rats into teenage hunks — albeit with the brains of rats — to escort Marci and Summer to the dance. (“All rats want to do is eat, run on the treadmill and mate,” says Marci, “which, when you get right down to it, doesn‘t make them much different from most guys.”) There is trouble. To say the least. The usually animated Ron Silver (you loved him long ago on Rhoda and perhaps recently as Bill Graham onstage) plays against type as a shy handyman with a 22-year-old unspoken crush on Baker; all that one would want to happen between them does, though not until — well, just watch it, why don’t you? Though this is far from the television event of the year, it is perfect in its way and made me happier than anything I‘ve seen in months.