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Monday 2 April 2007

Movie Review of The Last Mimzy

by Howard Waldrop & Lawrence Person

Directed by Robert Shaye

Written by Bruce Joel Rubin & Toby Emmerich (screenplay), James V. Hart & Carol Skilken (screen story), based on an original story "Mimsy Were the Borogoves" by Henry Kuttner & C.L. Moore (as Lewis Padgett)

Starring: Chris O'Neil, Rhiannon Leigh Wryn, Joely Richardson, Timothy Hutton, Rainn Wilson, Kathryn Hahn, Michael Clarke Duncan

Both: This is a deeply frustrating film.

Howard Waldrop: The less you know about Lewis Padgett's (Kuttner and Moore's) story, the more this movie will work for you. Maybe.

It's strangely structured, part narrated from the Utopian future (and there's a last-minute double-narrator p.o.v. at the very end of the film to boot); this is mostly set here and now, about a brother and sister who stumble on stuff from the future (you're reminded of Kornbluth's "The Little Black Bag ") and what happens when they start diddling with the stuff.

The movie is (mostly) from the kids' p.o.v. (although omniscient, if that makes sense); when the kids handle one of the educational toys, it looks like a sparkling waffle made of glass — when an adult picks it up, it looks like a centuries-old petrified Pop-Tart. All this stuff washed up in a Hellraiser-type box at the beach house on Whidbey Island, including the stuffed rabbit (named Mimzy) the girl, Emma, bonds with — it "tells her stuff" as she says, and is precog. We never hear exactly what it says; a very muted R2D2 sing-song hum is what we hear.

Lawrence Person: The real science fiction stuff in here works better than I feared. Unfortunately, all that is undercut, perhaps fatally, by the baggage of the framing device. Early on, a school lecture on pollution damaging DNA led me to believe that we were going to get: a) Another Movie in Which Hollywood Lectures The Rest of Us About the Environment, and b) A "device sent back in time to harvest fresh DNA for a dying future" story (a la John Varley's Millennium or 12 Monkeys). Unfortunately, The Last Mimzy manages to do something even worse: Throw in a lot of cringe-worthy, touchy-feely hippie New Age bullshit (including, I kid you not, palmistry as workable science/plot device). Your mileage may vary, but for me it brought the movie down from "flawed but interesting" to "barely tolerable."

HW: We're in semi-Spielberg land here. The kids are pretty good — the young sister looks like the early A. J. Sterling — and is as natural a kid onscreen as the early Spanky or Ronny Howard. Being in Spielberg-land, the movie is about the adult world's — their parents, teachers, Homeland Security's — reactions to what are essentially futuristic Lego/Erector/Sea Monkey/Ant Farm sets.

The parents are played by Timothy Hutton and Joely Richardson. (Hutton has unfortunately begun to look like Tim Allen — not that there's anything wrong with that, but you have to keep reminding yourself this isn't a Tim Allen movie.) There's a swell science teacher and his touchie-feelie New Age girlfriend, who come at the mystery ass-backwards but are on the right track anyway.

There's some fairly restrained use of CGI at first — before it cuts loose at the climax.

LP: I'm also guessing that they used CGI for the spider sequences (because it's not like Hollywood is going to train spiders), but you can't tell for sure, so kudos there. Actually, the scenes where the boy figures out that spiders are affected by sound, and uses computer-programmed changes in sound to make the spiders spin a web in the shape of a bridge, are among the most interesting (and plausible) in the film.

Another clever thing was when the government lab takes a tiny slice out of Mimzy, they put it under an electron microscope, go down to the maximum magnification... and find an Intel® logo at the molecular level. That was good. Despite that, and a guy from Intel telling them that it was way beyond their current capabilities, they immediately dismiss Emma's claims that it's from the future.

HW: There's swell stuff in the movie. Plus missteps. They characterize the local head of Homeland Security (after one of the toys causes a total blackout of the Seattle Metro area) as a real human; he's the heavy, and then he turns back into a nice guy and just leaves. The safe-house/jail the family's held in for part of the movie is less secure than Apu's Quicky-Mart.

LP: The Homeland Security stuff is pure Idiot Plot expediency. The blackout seems to have started in the family's house of a white, upper-middle class lawyer. Do you a) Interview them to see if they know anything, b) Set up surveillance to detect anything suspicious, or c) Immediately arrest them, accuse them of being terrorists, and throw them in an isolation cell? This being Hollywood, you can guess the answer...

HW: I was confused by the topography. The family house on Queen Anne Hill looks like it's in Renton (or somewhere south on I-5). A crab-shack on Hwy 20 plays a part: the science teacher has been there before but says he "doesn't know the way to Whidbey Island" — Hwy 20 is the way to Whidbey Island, and if you're anywhere left of I-5, you're within 8 miles of Whidbey. I kept having cognitive dissonance about geography until I sat through the credits and found the whole thing was filmed in Vancouver, BC (which is like Seattle turned sideways and rotated up 90 degrees). This stuff won't play well in Anacortes or Utsalady.

I was reminded all the way through not only of Kornbluth — whose story was written later in any case — and not of Kuttner and Moore's "Mimsy Were The Borogoves" but of Kuttner's earlier "The Twonky " — something from the future causes a lot of grief in the present. (This is a couple of light years better than the 1953 movie made from that story.) We're never sure of the exact nature of the stuff — fine, but I don't think the filmmakers were, either; it's almost like magic.

There are some swell scenes of the kids' use of the objects, and what they're doing to them. And of adults' complete misunderstanding of what's going on. Mandalas (and the lottery) play important subparts in the film — providing both verisimilitude and scenes that fall flat chockablock with each other. You're not really jerked around (as in lots of movies) but you wish the writing was all like the good stuff here.

This is a nice earnest attempt to out-early-Spielberg early Spielberg. I saw it at noon with three other people in the audience. It's making some money, so will probably be around another couple of weeks. I wanted it to be much better than its weakest parts, and as good as its best. So will you.

© 2007 by Locus Publications. All rights reserved.