I really like high concept sci-fi movies. Yeah, most of them are trash, but they’re so rare these days, with only a one or two a year getting any sort of notable release, that I can’t help but trudge out to see them whenever they show up. This is doubly true if they’re attached to a name like Luc Besson, who has in the past decade managed to produce a whole train of entertaining wrecks. Are these good films? No. Are they a great way to spend two hours? Well, there are worse ways, and I enjoy them.
This is especially true when they star an actor that I like, but whose career hasn’t really taken off in the way I would hope. Which brings us to Guy Pearce and the joy of Spacejail, er, I mean, Lockout, the newest movie from the house of Besson. In it, Pearce plays a CIA agent named Snow, wrongly convicted of treason and murder. He’s given One Last Chance to go to Supermax MS1, an orbital space jail, and find the President’s daughter, who is being held hostage after an inmate riot leaves hundreds of the worst humanity has to offer in charge of the station.
If this sounds ridiculous and stupid that’s because it mostly is. In the heady year of 2079, the world is not particularly changed outside of every touchscreen being smaller and transparent and every exterior shot being the world’s most gratuitous CG. Into this world swaggers Snow, played by Pearce with an aloof, wise-ass tone that’s somewhere between Snake Plissken and Hunter S Thompson. He’s a loser and a louse, always quick with a ridiculous quip, but when push comes to shove he’s the guy who gets the job done. It’s the kind of role that almost entirely dried up in the post-80s era, when Willis and Schwarzenegger and Stallone cornered and killed the market: absolutely cheesy, but with an innate charisma that the right actor can really make sing.
I suppose I should clarify my earlier statement about Pearce, then. I first noticed him in Memento, which is a movie I count happily among my favorites even to this very day. But a few bad choices (that awful Count of Monte Cristo chief among them) sidelined him from star status outside of the odd Australian film. But I didn’t care, I’d watch them all, and every time he played a bit role in a bigger movie I’d say “Man, this guy really needs his own movie, because he’s awesome.” Lockout is that movie. Pearce really sells something of a post-modern action hero, more self-depreciation than machismo, but with an easy confidence that blurs the line between skill and luck in the same way your Indiana Jones and John McClane types do. He is by far the reason to watch the movie, and I’d happily watch the further adventures of Snow in the Future if such movies were to happen.
The rest of the movie, however, is less stellar. The set up is pure Escape from New York, with a time limit and threats of incarceration or death and everything, all set in the backdrop of space. Unfortunately, the space bits really don’t amount to much more than one or two set pieces of note, the rest of it taking place in a sprawling amount of corridors and airlock rooms and ambiguously industrial sets. Which is fine, but you’d expect a little more future fun from the movie about space jail.
Unfortunately, the few times it does blow out to a bigger scope, including a highway chase on Earth and a space battle with some cops in space fighters, the movie really starts to come apart at the seams. Wikipedia helpfully suggests a budget of $20 million for this movie, and in sequences like that it really shows. The CG is ambitious, full of the kinds of swoops and effects that you’d see in a movie with ten times the budget, but without those resources it all ends up looking uniformly terrible. The highway chase in particular is one of the worst CG action sequences I have seen in years. It’s embarrassing, the kind of thing that would barely pass muster as an animation student project.
Instead the movie seems content to rest on the escaped convicts and a MacGuffin that Snow has to uncover in order to clear his name. None of this is very special, either, I’m afraid: the bad guys are an assortment of creepy types, scarred and scruffy, most of them completely interchangeable outside of the two big bads, one of whom spends most of his time threatening to rape the President’s daughter. The other, the ‘one in charge’, is a second string Gerard Butler, all angry accented menace but not a lot of screen presence. He is the ‘honorable’ bad guy, and ends up being little more than bad color to a movie that already runs too long.
Special mention, then, to that human plot device, the President’s daughter Emilie Warnock. Played by Maggie Grace, she manages to be the bright spot of good acting in a movie where every bit player is dead weight. She starts off stuffy and a bit too political for her own good, but ends up holding her own in this situation and becoming a great straight man for Pearce to play off of with his sassy antics. She doesn’t steal the movie, but she grows in the course of the film from victim to assertive heroine in her own right, and Grace plays her with the right level of frustration and charm that really sells the role. It’s a complete opposite from the Totem of Motivation she played as a victim in Taken, and it suits her much better.
Lockout is one of those movies that is really hard to recommend. It’s not good, and often is genuinely bad, but there’s enough there to make it absolutely worthwhile, especially for someone who misses the days where these ambitious, deeply flawed science fiction action films were a dime a dozen and all equally kind of great and shitty. Lockout stands happily among them, not as the best by far but as a solid entry into their legacy. I wish more movies like this existed, and because they don’t I like this one maybe more than it deserves. But it’s hard to argue with a movie that revolves around two good leads with a lot of chemistry, even if everything else is pretty lackluster. If space jail sounds cool to you, Lockout is probably already up your alley.