Sunday, December 5, 2010

'Groom Lake' should probably remain secret

Groom Lake (aka "The Visitor) (2002)
Starring: Amy Acker, Dan Gauthier, William Shatner, and Tom Towels
Director: William Shatner
Producers: Charles Band, JR Bookwalter, William Shatner, and Chuck Williams
Rating: Four of Ten Stars

A dying woman (Acker) and her boy friend (Gauthier) travel to Groom Lake, Nevada where she hopes to see a UFO. They become embroiled in an effort by an Air Force officer (Shatner) to return an alien visitor to his home world before the government shuts down his top secret base.

"Groom Lake" has all the makings of classically "bad" sci-fi movies. It's got the US military up to secret things in the desert, it's got creepy townies hunting for aliens, it's got an attractive young couple in the middle of it all to serve as a combination of heroes and victims. It's even got an honest-to-God space alien with an interesting back story.

Unfortunately, all these elements aren't put to their best possible use.

Ironically, part of what does this film in is what I so often fault Full Moon productions for lacking: Character development. Shatner, who conceived the story as well as directed and co-produced the film, takes time to give us background on all the major characters, as well as providing scenes that defines key relationships between them. Unfortunately, he does it in such a haphazard and disjointed fashion that it lends an air of confusion to the entire film.

The worst of this is manifested in the development Kate and Andy, the young couple at the heart of the story. When they first appear in the film, we learn they are on a road trip to work through some issues in their relationship. After cutting away to deal with other business, we come back to Kate and Andy to discover that the "issue" is the fact that Kate's dying and wants to experience proof of life on other planets. We also learn that Andy is a bit of a jerk. After dealing with stuff at the secret military base, we return to Kate and Andy to find that Andy isn't just a jerk but also an idiot as he rolls their jeep in the desert, just to show off. But we also discover that he loves Kate deeply and visa-versa.

And so it goes, back and forth, with the film unveiling character backgrounds and relationships in bits and pieces. This works well with Shatner's enigmatic General Gossner and connection with the alien he is trying to help, but it is frustrating and annoying when it comes to Kate and Andy, because there is no need to be mysterious or vague as far as they're concerned. In fact, the opposite would have been more effective, as they are both pretty straight-forward characters. They are so straight-forward that a twist I was anticipating never materialized... there's nothing about them other than what is right on the surface.

A big problem comes from the film's budget. It was made for roughly $750,000, but that clearly wasn't enough to create a convincing military base; the special effects shots of strange lights in the sky and an alien ship and spirit coming and going; cars crashing in the desert; and the explosive finale of a town being shot up with laser beams. Clumsy attempts are made to hide the budget issues in the editing room and with creative camera angles on the set, but that doesn't change the fact that the hi-tech secret military installation is being run from a command center featuring a bank of iMacs, nor the low-grade digital effects. More often than not, I am willing to overlook the various fake-looking laser beams and fireballs in Full Moon pictures because they've been a staple for so long that I have come to consider them a feature not a flaw, but most Full Moon pictures have an atmosphere that is slightly askew, something of a goofiness not matter how "serious" the film might be. There is very little of that goofiness here, as almost every second of this movie comes across as deeply earnest and serious in its intent, so it needed convincing effects to match which it doesn't have. (I don't fault the film for its earnestness--the message running through the lives of the main characters that love lasts forever is a nice one--but it isn't being served by the overall package.)

Finally, as if the haphazard manner in which some of the story elements are introduced wasn't bad enough, Shatner throws in a scene which drags the rest of the film down. After being stranded in the desert, Kate is sexually assaulted by some local weirdos, possibly even raped. It's a repulsive moment that's out of step with the rest of the movie, and the mechanism is serves in the plot could have been handled in a far better way: Kate didn't have to get assaulted and/or raped by weird desert-dwelling UFO fanatics by to be taken captive by the military.

For all that is wrong with this film, it does have some good points.

The small town filled with UFO fanatics is interesting in that it's even weirder than one might expect. I'm usually a little put out by the "everyone in a small town is a dangerous nut and/or hates outsiders" template that Hollywood is so fond of, but it's amusing here, because while the town is full of dangerous nuts, they don't hate outsiders... only outsiders who don't believe in UFOs the way they believe in UFOs. I also thought that Shatner's character and his relationship with the alien was well done and lent the film an aspect that it needed.

On the acting front, everyone does a decent job and gives performances that are a notch above the Full Moon standard, especially for the 2000s decade. Of particular note Shatner, who is very Captain Kirkish but effective in what is probably the last serious part he'll play; and Tom Towels, who is great fun as a psychopathic tow truck driver who is obsessed with proving the Truth is Out There. You just know that it's going to end badly when Andy decides to team up with him in order to rescue Kate after she's imprisoned at the secret base.

"Groom Lake" is a flawed film, but it still has enough going for it to make it worth watching if you're a big William Shatner fan--he's not in the film a whole lot but he is in the good bits--or if you're a lover of the "weirdness in the desert"- or "aliens are among us, but the government keeps them hidden"-type movies.

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Thanks for sharing your opinion. I love seeing what fellow fans have to say!