Perhaps you’ve seen them. The large, ubiquitous red boxes hanging out in the shadowed corners of Wal-Mart or McDonalds or any other pedestrian-saturated destination, boldly advertising $1 DVD rentals. Perhaps, like me, you scoffed. What true cinephile would get his films out of a vending machine like a cheap piece of Laffy Taffy? Check that snobbery, for the Redbox holds (cough) untold delights within its ruddy depths.
Redbox Roulette will be a new, semi-regular column where we dive into the world of the scarlet container, boldly going where no rational film lover would go, and delivering our discoveries (the good, the bad, and the ugly) to you. These columns will be more like personal essays than critical reviews, delineating our experiences plumbing the murky abyss of the Redbox. There is only one rule: the film we choose must be completely foreign to us. It doesn’t matter how we reach the decision (instinct, blindfold, darts, cage match to the death), but the chosen flick must be one we’ve never heard of.
With this in mind, I approached our local Neighborhood Wal-Mart cautiously. There in the foyer, next to one of those change-counting machines (seriously, do people really have buckets of pennies lying around, enough pennies to make something like that profitable?) was our local vermilion receptacle with a healthy line behind it. I joined the queue and waited my turn. The lady in front had apparently never visited the Redbox before and she was taking her precious time perusing the selections. The pressure must have been too much, for she laughed nervously and walked away without even renting anything.
The Redbox has a marquee on the outside advertising new selections, and I browsed it with my eyes while I waited, looking for something obscure. It appeared to have the standard new releases, but there were a few I was unfamiliar with. One caught my eye, The Deaths of Ian Stone, and I decided that it was as good a choice as any.
I have to admit that whoever designed the Redbox was an engineering and marketing genius. The thing is completely self-explanatory (the name is pure simplicity) and a breeze to operate. Steve Jobs would be proud. However, at the front of the line I quickly encountered the bloody vessel’s major design flaw, the one that the previous lady had fled from. As only one person can use it at a time, whenever a line forms behind you (which it already had behind me), the pressure to make a selection is enormous. Either you A) become a total prick and disregard the foot stomping behind you or B) cave and select the first thing available, no matter how idiotic the choice.
I quickly rushed through the touch screen looking for the movie I had pre-chosen, but I couldn’t find it. Where was it? Apparently the marquee isn’t a guarantee of availability. As a virginal Redbox customer I wanted my first time to be something special, to leisurely take in the experience, but I could practically feel the gazes of the other patrons melting the skin off of my neck. Too…much…pressure!!! With a sheepish grin I quickly strode away, determining to come back once the line disappeared.
So I whiled away the time by buying diapers for my kids. I still have trouble believing the sheer amount of defecation they are both capable of. I never thought I would look forward to potty training as a financial windfall.
Back at the ruby barrel, the line was gone. Ah! Now I could leisurely browse through the touchscreen menu. Surprisingly, there were a number of decent looking arthouse numbers that I had never heard of, alongside the (expected) legions of direct-to-video IQ killers. Being a film buff, critic, and blogger, I tend to be “in the know” on every film that comes out weekly, and it is a rare event to watch a film I have heard nothing about. My brain is at full saturation on all things film, and it retains miniscule cinematic data like nobody’s business. So, I was surprised to find myself genuinely excited to randomly pick a film and go into it completely blind, regardless of whether I had chosen a gem or a turd. That is one of the drawbacks to being so immersed in cinema – you miss out on the joy of discovering hidden treasures you knew nothing about. Part of the fun of antiquing is rummaging through dusty corners and hidden niches, but too often my cinematic consumption resembles an antiquer with a detailed map of the store – sure there are treasures he hasn’t uncovered, but he knows exactly where all of them are, and more than likely he’s read extensively about each one before he even picks them up.
It was, literally, about 2 minutes before the line had formed again behind me. A large man was standing uncomfortably close (some people, either from too much alcohol consumption or genetics, lack the internal mechanism that tells them when they are invading someone else’s personal space…this guy was the posterboy for it) and making helpful suggestions, like “Push the button that says ‘RENT’”. With the unrelenting pressure back, I made an instinctual from-the-hip choice, having noticed Katee Sackhoff’s face on the front a pretty decent sci-fi movie poster advertising The Last Sentinel. Hey, I loveBattlestar Galactica, Starbuck is top notch, and there is no way she could be slumming it, right?
Hmmm….not so much. Apparently David Eick and Ron Moore aren’t paying the thespians who flesh out their hit show as well as one might think.
So the world has been engulfed in a nuclear apocalypse (helpfully illustrated at the beginning for us by archival footage of atomic detonations – nothing screams “no budget” more than the cinematic equivalent of clip art). Somebody developed these robotic super-cops to police the remains of the human race, but as robotic super-cops are wont to do, they ran amuck and started wiping out their charges all Borg-like. So humanity launched one last attack, which failed, and some dude is the only one left of the resistance, the “last sentinel” of the title. He hooks up with Sackhoff and together they save the world, or something. I think that is the plot, but I may have made some of that up, seeing as writer/director Jesse Johnson isn’t the most coherent of storytellers.
The Last Sentinel quickly illustrates why Hollywood spends oodles of money on things like production and set design. There are exactly two different locations here, which are used ad nauseum. They try showing them from different angles and the characters make conspicuous observations about how this abandoned oil refinery is really different from the other five abandoned oil refineries we’ve already seen, but its all so much Titanic brass polishing. Also, when your high tech operations center (the cyberbrain of your unstoppable drone army) is comprised of what appear to be Commodore 64s, it might be time for an art director upgrade.
Then there are the drones or droids or whatever they’re called. We are told they are bad mo foes who are virtually unstoppable, but this becomes a hard sell when their battle tactics consist solely of marching towards their opponents in a straight line—slowly. I’m no military strategist, but I’m pretty sure that method went out of style around the time of the American Revolution. In addition, they also seem to lack a few basic skills, like peripheral vision and shooting targets closer than 4 feet away.
I will say that the film achieves a brief moment of poetry when one of the drones removes his helmet. It’s a blatant Darth Vader/Borg rip-off, but with the rain streaming down and the DP pulling off some nice depth of field (you know you’re struggling when the presences of depth of field becomes a high point), the scene almost approaches artistry. The effect is only slightly ruined when the actor’s lip makeup starts running and he’s forced to read lines from the script, but you take what you can get.
In all fairness to her, Sackhoff is the best part of The Last Sentinel, although it’s hard to understand why she ever signed on for this gig in the first place. While Battlestar hasn’t convinced me she is an actress with significant depth, she merits better material than what amounts to scrubbing linoleum in a doublewide with a used toothbrush. I’m going to go ahead and give her the benefit of the doubt by assuming she fired the mentally challenged chimpanzee who had been masquerading as her agent afterwards.
When Hollywood churns out crap and sells it by slapping a big name star to the marquee, they pretend it’s in service to the director’s “vision” and in pursuit of “art.” Direct-to-video churns out crap, slaps a C-grade name on it (Sackhoff was undoubtedly the entire reason for this film’s existence), and proceeds to proudly flaunt its total lack of vision and spit in the face of art. You can at least respect them for their lack of pretension. It’s similar to the difference between dumpster diving reality television (ala Rock of Love and A Shot at Love with Tila Tequila) and porn: at least one of them is being honest about retarding the human race.
While the first pull of the trigger wasn’t a success by even the most generous of definitions, future editions of Redbox Roulette will hopefully unearth films actually worth watching. Till next time, and remember: the crimson enclosure is always watching.