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Air Force One (1997)

06/14/2011 1 comment

Air Force One is the official air traffic call sign of any United States Air Force aircraft carrying the President of the United States. The two jets to which this title is officially assigned are the most technologically advanced and most secure aircraft in the world, designed to protect the President from any threat. You practically have to give a kidney and your firstborn to get the clearance to board. However, little do bad guys know that the real threat to intruders is not the hordes of Secret Service agents and countermeasures that populate the plane during Presidential excursions – at least not when the President is Indiana Jones.

Air Force One is an action film directed and co-produced by Wolfgang Petersen, and written by Andrew W. Marlowe. It stars Harrison Ford, Glenn Close, Gary Oldman, Xander Berkeley, William H. Macy, and Paul Guilfoyle.

It is 1993. A crack team of elite Spetsnaz and Delta Force commandos have just captured General Ivan Radek, the leader of a terrorist regime in Kazakhstan. Three weeks later, American President James Marshall gives a speech in Moscow, rejecting the idea that he should be congratulated for this victory, instead expressing dismay that it took the United States this long to act. He vows to take a hard line against terrorism, political self-interest be damned. Of course, this is certain to get up somebody’s nose. As he, his wife and daughter, and most of his political posse of advisors and cabinet members board Air Force One to head back to the States, a group of terrorists loyal to Radek board the plane under the guise of a Russian news crew. In the middle of the flight, they seize control of Air Force One and take its passengers hostage with the goal of forcing the President to call Moscow and have Radek released. Meanwhile Secret Service agents hustle Marshall to the escape pod to keep him out of harm’s way. Marshall has other ideas, though; these people are threatening his family and national security, and he is not going to let this stand. It isn’t long before the terrorists realize that they are trapped aboard a highly advanced aircraft with a very angry ex-military Battle President, who is willing to do anything to get them the hell off his plane.

It is clear from the premise itself that this is a pre-9-11 movie. Petersen himself said that with the tightening of national security protocols both civilian and presidential, it would be nigh-impossible for anyone to get the level of access to (and inside) Air Force One, let alone highjack it. As it was, at the time film crews were not even allowed inside either of the Air Force One jets, forcing the filmmakers to make educated guesses about the interior. However, the fact that the setup is dated and the immediate setting for the bulk of the movie was pretty much made up does not make this an uninteresting movie. The idea that terrorists would manage to get this far into the U.S. government’s inner sanctum is thrilling and terrifying, considering that they would be able to wipe out the top tiers of American political authority with frightening ease. While it is still an extremely difficult plan to execute in today’s political climate, this is the scenario that all the security-tightening is designed to prevent, and all it would take is a single hole to render everything moot.

Of course, while this is an action movie, it largely depends on a skilled cast to execute properly. Harrison Ford is excellent as James Marshall, an ex-military man trying to outwit some very dangerous people aboard a relatively tiny space. While he has come a long way since his Indiana Jones/Han Solo roots, he is resourceful and clever, using the resources he has at hand to foil the enemy forces swarming his jet. Glenn Close, playing his Vice President, is a protective and helpful voice on the ground, doing her best to negotiate with dangerous terrorists and guide Marshall to the knowledge he needs while working to prevent the Presidency from being usurped by well-meaning cabinet members. On the other side of the coin, Gary Oldman is a terrifying villain, willingly threatening women and children in pursuit of goals that could throw the civilized world into chaos, in ways that seem a far cry from his villainous role as Zorg in The Fifth Element, released the same year. He is ruthless. He is fanatical. He is unquestioningly loyal to Radek. He will eat your children. (And off-camera, he’s apparently a fun guy to be around.)

If you enjoy gripping, claustrophobic action movies and you’re a fan of Harrison Ford, I highly recommend Air Force One. While the premise may be nearly impossible today, it still plays on modern terrorism fears and keeps you hooked the whole way through.

Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991)


With every successful movie, there is a good chance that the studios will want to repeat their success. Occasionally, this may result in an unrelated film being repurposed as a sequel, but more often the same people will simply make a sequel. As sequels go, there are three basic types:

  1. Sucky sequel: This sequel falls short (often far short) of its predecessor’s level of quality, and comes off as an obvious, half-assed money grab.
  2. Equivalent sequel: The sequel does not fall short of its predecessor’s level of quality, but neither does it improve on things.
  3. Improved sequel: A rarity, the improved sequel not only meets but also exceeds the quality of its predecessor, taking the concept in new directions that still fit with the established storyline.

In a pleasant surprise, this film finds itself in the third category. And it kicks all kinds of ass.

Terminator 2: Judgment Day is a science fiction action film directed by James Cameron, and is the first sequel to The Terminator. It stars Linda Hamilton, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Edward Furlong, Robert Patrick, and some really cool CGI effects.

It has been eleven years since Sarah Connor was last menaced by the (nearly) unstoppable Terminator. John Connor, the future savior of humanity, is now a troubled youth of ten, living with foster parents in Los Angeles after his mother was arrested for trying to bomb a computer factory and sent to a hospital for the criminally insane. Even though he spent his entire childhood being prepared for the impending apocalypse, John isn’t sure what to believe now. Little does he know that in the future, Skynet is going to make another temporally-assisted attempt on his life, this time with the T-1000, a newer and more dangerous model of Terminator composed of liquid metal, with the ability to mimic anything it touches, including people. Fortunately, the human resistance is able to send back yet another guardian, this time a familiar face – a T-800 identical to the one who previously tried to kill Sarah, but reprogrammed to defend John. The two converge on John in a desperate race, and their mutual target is about to learn that his mother’s crazy rantings are anything but delusional…

When I first saw this movie, I hadn’t seen the original in years, but I heard all the hype about the groundbreaking computer generated effects – only two years since The Abyss, in which Cameron also used groundbreaking CG effects, except the hard way. It was amazing to see the advances in CG since then, even though in the fifteen minutes or so of transformation time the T-1000 had, only a relative handful used CGI. And it looked amazing. As the first movie which had a major character be partially (and in a couple scenes completely) created in CGI, the results were impressive and eye-popping. Even though morphing effects had been in use since Willow, and CG-created characters were as old as Young Sherlock Holmes, this time through it looked amazing. Arnie, of course, gets enhanced with old-school makeup effects and animatronics, and the two types of effects mesh well.

The acting was also superb. Linda Hamilton, having previously played Sarah as a meek little mouse of a woman being menaced by things that technically hadn’t happened yet, buffed up to play Sarah Connors, Mother of the Human Resistance, and I could easily believe that she was a little unhinged, albeit with a very good reason – she’d been beaten over the head with a really bad future, she was having nightmares about the impending nuclear apocalypse, and she’d been told that her son was the only thing standing between humanity and its own annihilation. The movie does make it clear that even though John loves his mom, her behavior does not make her a good mother. If anything, it makes her borderline psychotic, to the point that she nearly tips over the edge into the same territory as the focused, emotionless killers whose creation she was trying to prevent. The opens the door for a surprisingly philosophical discussion about humanity, as the inhuman T-800 turns out to be a more dedicated parental figure to John than even Sarah was. Robert Patrick makes an effective rival Terminator as well, sleeker and faster than the T-800, in effect a leopard compared to Arnold’s grizzly bear. Also, sharp-eyed fans of the first will recognize Earl Boen reprising his role as Dr. Silberman, the police psychiatrist in the original, now responsible for Sarah’s care in this one (and about as effective), though of course he gets belted across the face with the truth in a very satisfying sequence at the psychiatric hospital.

It is very rare to find a sequel that improves so drastically upon the first, but it is not surprising to find that James Cameron managed to pull it off. If you enjoyed the first but felt it needed something more, watch Terminator 2: Judgment Day, and then just sit back and enjoy the action.

Apollo 13 (1995)


In 1970, the Apollo 13 mission would blast off from Houston. Its destination: the Moon. However, it would never reach its intended landing site, as a chain of events would soon unfold that would endanger not only the mission, but the lives of the three astronauts aboard the Odyssey. It will take the ingenuity of both the imperiled crew and Mission Control back on Earth to bring all of them home safely.

Apollo 13 is a film directed by Ron Howard, based on the real-life near-disastrous Apollo 13 mission, and in particular adapted from Jim Lovell’s book Lost Moon. It stars Tom Hanks, Kevin Bacon, Bill Paxton, Gary Sinise, Kathleen Quinlan, Chris Ellis, and Ed Harris.

Jim Lovell (Hanks), a NASA astronaut who orbited the Moon on Apollo 8, knew in 1969 that he wanted to go back. While giving a VIP tour of NASA’s Vehicle Assembly building, he is informed that he and his crew will fly the Apollo 13 mission instead of their planned Apollo 14, and it looks like he will have his chance. After he informs his family of the news, he and his crewmates, Fred Haise (Paxton) and Ken Mattingly (Sinise) begin training for the mission. Days before the launch, Mattingly is revealed to have been exposed to German measles, and he is bumped from the flight in favor of backup Command Module pilot Jack Swigert (Bacon). Excitement in NASA is high, even though lunar missions have become commonplace in the media, and Jim’s wife Marilyn (Quinlan) worries about the launch.

The Saturn V rocket launches with a minimum of protests, clearing the tower at 13:13, but during a routine set of maintenance procedures, Swigert flips a switch to stir the two liquid oxygen tanks in the Service Module, unexpectedly causing one of them to explode and the other to start leaking. Mission Control aborts the Moon landing, and the Apollo 13 crew are forced to use the lunar module Aquarius as a lifeboat to stay alive while Mission Control figures out a way to get them home safely.

Ron Howard has certainly risen above his roots as Richie Cunningham, making a name for himself as an accomplished director of heartwarming (and occasionally heartrending) dramas and comedies. He keeps on this path with Apollo 13, taking a historical near-disaster and presenting it as the gripping drama it was. While he was preparing to film Apollo 13, Howard decided not to use stock footage of the original launch, or any other NASA Launch. He reproduced the interiors of the Command Module and Mission Control with exacting detail, even bringing in one of the tech guys from Apollo 16 to make everything look right. The footage of the rocket’s launch was so realistic, in fact, that it fooled the NASA guys who worked on that launch, only distinguishable from historical footage in that there were no cameras at those particular angles. During filming, the actors playing the Apollo 13 crew were filmed in actual weightlessness aboard NASA’s KC-135 reduced gravity aircraft, nicknamed the “Vomit Comet”, which saved a lot of time that would otherwise be devoted to simulating the effects of null gravity.

The acting was also exemplary. Hanks had already established himself as a skilled dramatic actor two years earlier with Philadelphia, and he is bang-on as the terrified astronaut with balls of steel. Bill Paxton also shines as Haise, showing that he can play a wider range than simply obnoxious jerkwads, and Kevin Bacon as Swigert carries himself well as the situation aboard the Odyssey deteriorates. At the Mission Control end, Ed Harris earns the hell out of his paycheck as Gene Krantz, trying to get everybody on both sides thinking about the problem calmly and rationally, even with the threat of losing another crew hanging over his head. Their dialog was taken nearly verbatim from actual transcripts and recordings (the immortal “Houston, we have a problem” line was originally, “Houston, we’ve had a problem,” changed because Howard thought the original line implied the problem had passed).

In all, this is yet another example of Ron Howard’s great talent as a director, Tom Hanks’ impressive talent as an actor, and the ways in which real life can be every bit as exciting as fiction. Pick this up sometime if you’re sick of overblow sci fi and want to see how badass the real NASA guys truly are.