Thursday, May 29, 2008

Scifi Channel Original: Warbirds

We've often discussed our love for the Scifi Channel originals here at Pulp 2.0 (even when we were DISContent). They are a great opportunity for up-and-coming writers, directors and crew to show what they can do with a limited budget and a high concept. They are even opportunities for veteran low budget filmmakers to make movies, get paid and make more.

I've even had some of my, early films screened on Scifi, and from that feedback I was able to learn a lot, meet a few people who have also written a Scifi Original and get a credit.

Yesterday I received a screener copy of one of their recent movies, WARBIRDS, and everything you like about the Scifi Originals is here - high concept, and a general audacity to entertain its audience for a few hours (I'm including commercials). Except that in this case, WARBIRDS is an example of a movie with so much unrealized potential that I felt I needed to share it with you as a case study rather than an out and out review.

I realize this is "Monday morning Quarterbacking" and that I'm going to be called on that. Fine and accepted. But part of my mandate here is to get people to think about putting more entertainment value (read: pulp) in their low budget scripts and movies (and new media) without raising the costs. I think that's important to say because we all want to put our best storytelling foot forward and not in our mouth - especially when we don't have the money to throw at the screen.

So let's start off with where WARBIRDS gets it right. From the Scifi Wire press release:

Brian Krause, who stars in the upcoming SCI FI original movie Warbirds, told SCI FI Wire that the film is set during World War II and blends action and SF. Krause (Charmed) stars as an Air Force colonel being ferried on a secret mission across the Pacific when a pterdodactyl attack forces his bomber and its all-female crew to land on a remote island. "On that island, we run into the Japanese, who have been terrorized by a prehistoric reptile, pterodactyls who have kind of taken over the island," Krause said in an interview. "We need to get off the ground and escape from the pterodactyls so that I can finish my mission. The woman I'm playing opposite, Jamie Mann, is part of the flying force. She has a whole issue about us taking off and risking losing the lives of her crew." Krause's U.S. officer also has a Japanese counterpart, played by Japanese-American actor Tohoru Masamune. "And so we kind of have to work together--the Japanese, the Americans, the women--and find a middle ground to be able to save our lives and get off the island, all the while fighting the pterodactyls," he said. Krause admitted that the cast and crew never left the United States, though Warbirds is set in the South Pacific. "We were out in Baton Rouge, La., in middle of summer, at night, out in the bush," Krause said. "We were sweating out in the bush at 3 in the morning. I hadn't been there since Katrina, and it was nice to be able to put some money back into the economy."

High concept (Pteradactyls v. WW2 Women pilots and an Atomic Bomb) -- Check!
Genre star (Brian Krause of Charmed) -- Check!
SFX (CGI Pteradactyls v. Japanese Zeroes and a Liberator) -- Check!

The movie however promising with that great title starts off at a pedestrian pace with off-the-shelf chyron over some cgi sunset background. The opening credits set is in 1945 in the pacific where the war was still raging prior to the atomic bomb being dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

My problem with it is that the titles were relatively hard to read and the producers and writer-director could have made a much more interesting title sequence using public-domain footage of broadcast quality. By public-domain I mean "free." They could have had an opening sequence that played like a newsreel - and brought us into the story much more quickly and powerfully. Very much like the old BLACK SHEEP SQUADRON television show.

And that, kids is a major problem I have with Warbirds. They tell a lot and it gets in the way of the showing.

Warbirds tells the story of a group of WASPs (Women Air Service Pilots) who must ferry a Colonel (Krause) to a naval base as he must deliver a Top Secret package. A storm shunts them toward a deserted island that may be a Japanese base, but is most definitely inhabited by Pteradactyls - one of which damages their plane.

The US and the Japanese forces must set aside the war to repair the plane and get out of there.

Plenty of story there for a good "pulp fantasy" such as this, but the movie itself never lives up to the promise of that title. Lots of dialog. Really "clean" uniforms that don't reflect being on a Pacific island in the heat and humidity with limited supplies. The women pilots always had red lipstick on and the sets seemed sparse and unrealistic. With a little quick "dirtying up" the movie would have a greater sense of realism and I think it would have helped the casts mostly wooden performances.

Another problem I have with Warbirds is its adherence to "authenticity" sacrificing drama and clarity. In other words - You DO NOT have to say "over" after every message broadcast over a radio. Especially when you are in a dogfight with a Pteradactyl! It got to be some sort of sick joke with the women pilots shouting "over" while in the midst of battle. Use a little dramatic license and build the tension - please!!! [see below]

One of the problems I have with Warbirds is that it violates one of the "rules of good pulp" (and realize that INDIANA JONES AND THE KINGDOM OF THE CRYSTAL SKULL does it too...) -- that is the characters learn things by talking about them instead of learning valuable facts that will come in handy later while in the midst of danger and daring-do.

When the dinosaurs show up it's a good show and I just wish they were able to maximize that value and up the personal stakes for the characters at the same time. There were moments where they were on the edge of doing so, but they didn't quite hit the mark.

For me, unfortunately this is a pass due to the script and the execution.

I invite those of you who have seen Warbirds to comment.


Emily Blake said...

I've also got to take issue with the fact that a movie that sounds like it's about strong women features a dude as its most prominent character and its biggest star.


Adam said...

Agreed, Emily. I also did a double-take at the line:
the Japanese, the Americans, the women
As though the women are some seperate nationality unto themselves.

Sure the movie is set in the forties, but wasn't that press release was written in the twenty-first century?

Mr. Cunningham: Any comments on the gender roles as portrayed in the film? Just curious.

Cunningham said...

The gender roles/conflict were 1940's with a twist:

The pilot was in charge of the plane and the flying, and the Colonel (Krause)was in charge of the mission (as it would be in any military operation). That dynamic came into play several times in the movie, and enhanced the gender conflict.

And truly I thought that at times the women were on their own as a third party in the Japan v. USA dynamic. The two male parties were often bone-headed and stubborn and the women had to save the day (piloting Japanese Zeroes in an attempt to escape the island).

Re: Krause - he's the name in the movie. He was probably not there the whole time because he cost too much. They shoot around him for a week or so - then bring him in - and finish shooting. It makes it financially feasible to have some sort of "star power" in a low budget movie.

If they had a "name" in one of the women's roles they would have had to give it to the Captain - played by Jamie Mann - because the other roles were, to be frank, "filler." Mann (no pun intended) was in virtually every scene of the movie, and if that role had gone to a name they would have blown their budget.

Financially, it makes better sense to put a talented newcomer in that part.

Roger Alford said...

Bill, would love for you to do a similar review of Indy IV.