Total Recall

Total Recall: What We Learned in 2008

We recount the year's most important cinematic lessons.

by | December 31, 2008 | Comments

We go to the movies for a lot of reasons: to laugh, to cry, to be scared, to escape. However, the best movies can enlighten and challenge us; by the time we leave the theater, if we’re lucky, we may just learn something. With that in mind, we at RT compiled a list of things we took away from 2008’s cinematic slate — and don’t worry, there won’t be a quiz at the end.

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Billionaire playboys have an inherent need to don costumes and fight crime.

Examples: The Dark Knight, Iron Man

According to the two biggest action movies of this summer, the most effective way for the disgustingly ultra-wealthy to exorcise their demons is to slap on an expensive, hi-tech suit of armor and beat up on bad guys. First it was Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.), the former boy genius who came to lead (and improve) his father’s industrial tech company in Iron Man. After a brief stint as a terrorist hostage brings about a moment of clarity, Tony shuts down the military arm of his company, builds himself a spiffy robosuit, and declares war on, well, war.

Just a couple months later, another young member of the “trust fund brigade” by the name of Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) returned to the public consciousness to remind us Tony Stark wasn’t alone. Now Bruce, who also inherited his father’s commercial empire, has previously had the nuances of his psyche explained, but his moral code was never challenged more than in The Dark Knight. And yet again, he turns to the R&D department of his father’s company to gear up with goodies and gadgets, including a new suit of armor, to “work through” his issues by knocking out evildoers. The takeaway from all this, naturally, is that rich kids have issues, and vigilante justice is the best therapy.

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If we continue to mistreat the Earth, mankind is doomed to extinction by either rebellious plants, conservationist aliens, or obesity.

Examples: WALL-E, The Happening, The Day the Earth Stood Still

There’s been a lot of talk in recent years about the state of our planet and what effect we, as humans, may or may not have had on it. Since this is RT, and we obviously take all our cues in life from the movies, 2008 tells us we’re in for a world of hurt, people. First of all, if there was ever any confusion about whether or not plants are sentient beings, The Happening cleared all of that up. When people in New York and Philadelphia mysteriously begin committing mass suicide, high school science teacher Elliot Moore (Mark Wahlberg) flees the big city with his wife and a couple of friends. Soon enough, they discover that the phenomenon was perpetrated by the surrounding flora in response to eons of human maltreatment. Airborne toxin-induced autogenocide was the obvious solution.

But let’s say we nip that problem in the bud (no pun intended) somehow; unfortunately we’re still not out of the woods (pun intended). As 2008’s The Day the Earth Stood Still showed us, we are being carefully observed by an alien race that won’t hesitate to exterminate us all in order to save Earth. It doesn’t help our case much when their handsome ambassador Klaatu (Keanu Reeves) finally arrives and the first thing we do is put him in the hospital with a gunshot wound. If only one of their killer robots can decimate half our army, it’s probably best to try not to tick them off. And even if we manage to avoid these outcomes, there’s still the issue of trash buildup. If WALL-E is any indication, we may just end up abandoning the planet altogether, dooming ourselves to a life of hi-tech, spacebound supercomfort and effectively rendering our endoskeletons useless. Final conclusions: we must destroy all plant life pronto, detain Keanu Reeves until further notice, and drink more milk.

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Bumbling everymen are regularly swept into action-packed plots they don’t fully comprehend.

Examples: Wanted, The Forbidden Kingdom, Eagle Eye, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

Who doesn’t feel like an ineffectual nobody from time to time? Well, for all of you normal people who didn’t raise your hands, I have good news: Hollywood says adventure is right around the corner for you! Take, for example, The Forbidden Kingdom‘s Jason Tripitikas (Michael Angarano), a fairly average Joe with a penchant for classic kung fu flicks who is unexpectedly sucked through time when accosted by a bully. Now in ancient China, Jason becomes entangled in an intricate plot involving immortals, mystical weapons, and lots of kung fu.

Then there’s Wanted‘s Wesley Gibson (James McAvoy), a panic attack-prone paper pusher and born loser who suddenly discovers he might be one of the greatest assassins who ever lived. One day he’s at the pharmacy to pick up his meds, and the next he’s curving bullets and shooting the wings off flies. And of course, there’s Jerry Shaw of Eagle Eye (Shia LaBeouf in a role he seems to play particularly well), a Stanford dropout in dire financial straits who somehow becomes involved in a larger conspiracy to assassinate the president and several of his top aides. Shia was actually on double-duty this year, getting whisked away on yet another wild adventure by his dad, the one and only Indiana Jones, in The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. So the bottom line here is that we should all strive for mediocrity if we ultimately hope to achieve awesomeness.

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Trouble preys on friends who roam in pairs.

Examples: Pineapple Express, Harold & Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay, Zack and Miri Make a Porno, Role Models

You know that one friend you always confide in, the one you’ve known since junior high, your BFF? After this revelation, you may want to keep your distance. Consider the plights of Zack and Miri (Seth Rogen and Elizabeth Banks), or Harold and Kumar (John Cho and Kal Penn). The former, a pair of roommates, have fallen on such hard times that their utilities are switched off. They fail to score any points at their high school reunion and are eventually forced to produce an amateur porn video to pay their debts! The latter pair is comprised of two promising young men who are mistaken for terrorists and immediately sent off to Gitmo. That by itself would be tragic enough, but when they escape, their lives on the lam are punctuated by a series of disasters, including another run-in with an overzealous Neil Patrick Harris.

Or consider Danny and Wheeler (Paul Rudd and Seann William Scott) from Role Models, or Dale and Saul (Seth Rogen and James Franco) of Pineapple Express. Danny is dumped by his longtime girlfriend, and he and Wheeler are arrested for destroying part of a school. If that’s not bad enough, they can’t even hold onto their community service positions as Big Brothers. As for Dale and Saul, they weren’t even really pals to begin with, but trouble finds them when Dale accidentally witnesses a murder and freaks out. Pretty soon, he and Saul are on the run from drug lords, corrupt cops, and even a gang of ruthless Asians — not a fun weekend, if you ask us. So the next time you’re having lunch with your homeboy, don’t be surprised if you end up losing your job, your girlfriend, and your freedom.

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If you are in the midst of spiritual malaise, shopping and/or the music of ABBA are the only cures.

Examples: Sex and the City – The Movie, Mamma Mia!

What crimson-blooded American wouldn’t be happily distracted from his/her ongoing existential crises by a little pop and/or retail therapy? And what on Obama’s green earth is as righteously at the intersection of consumer spending and romance than weddings? Think of it! Couched in the Mediterranean coast, Meryl Streep sings to her betrothed daughter of her girlish exploits, all in preparation for a lifelong commitment to one man, forever and ever amen. Meanwhile, Sarah Jessica Parker orchestrates the disaster drama nuptials to end all disaster drama nuptials, all of which can only be assuaged by the glossy shine of couture footwear. Box office numbers for both SATC and Mamma Mia! proved that you don’t have to live in either NYC or Greece to be gladly comforted by musical interludes or rent-priced accessories. You do, it seems, have to be a member of the (ahem) “fairer gender,” as, rumor has it, no self-respecting man would be caught dead shelling out the cost of two beers to see Kim Cattrall bemoan her exceedingly lucrative affair/business partnership or hear an ex-Bond (try his darnedest to) sing. The fact both films were based on pre-existing phenomena certainly helped keep the films’ makers from stewing in their own spiritual doldrums..

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Growing up is hard. Especially if you’re a vampire.

Examples: Twilight, Let the Right One In

Most of us suffer through adolescence believing we’re some kind of monster. Funny, then, that movies drizzle nostalgia all over puberty, pumping up the excitement of first love and making light of all the odd growths, identity crises and complexion issues. Twilight protagonist Bella Swan (Kristen Stewart) experiences both the alienation and the romance when she falls for the eerily hot outsider Edward Cullen (Robert Pattinson). Cullen’s outsider status, Swan finds, is his manly way of concealing with his brand of monstrosity in high school. Meanwhile, in Let the Right One In, Oskar (Kare Hedebrant) falls slowly for his mysterious neighbor Eli (Lina Leandersson), whose dietary tendencies are, well, as deliberate as Cullen’s outsider status. In line with feeling like a freak, didn’t you also believe your first love could kill you if peeved them? These guys didn’t choose their vampirism. We should pity their burdens! Twilight never faced an awkward phase; its book series hit it big near immediately, while Let the Right One In had a slow and almost quiet emergence with broader audiences. It was surprisingly successful for a foreign release and has already inspired an American remake, promising we’ll relearn this lesson (in English) in 2010.

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Walking on a tightrope spanning the Twin Towers takes a lot of planning.

Example: Man On Wire

The year’s best-reviewed documentary chronicles Philippe Petit’s mad quest to walk on a tightrope that spanned the World Trade Center towers. Since he’s interviewed in the film, you can assume Petit pulled it off — but goodness, a lot of planning, intrigue, tension, and passion went into this fool’s errand. Man On Wire was just one of a remarkable crop of enlightening and entertaining critic-approved docs. From Taxi to the Dark Side, we learned the devastating effects of torture. From Bigger, Stronger, Faster*, we got new perspectives on America’s obsession with physical perfection. From Encounters at the End of the World and My Winnipeg, we learned that cold climates just make Werner Herzog and Guy Maddin weirder — though their hunger for cinematic poetry burns as hot as ever. And from U2 3D and Shine a Light, we learned (once again) that U2 and the Rolling Stones, respectively, rock.

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The truth is still out there.

Example: The X-Files: I Want to Believe

As was the case in recent years, 2008 saw its share of mediocre films based upon well-established properties. Critically-panned remakes (The Women, Prom Night, One Missed Call), tepidly-received adaptations from other media (Speed Racer, The Spirit), and at least one failed reboot (Punisher: War Zone) hit the big screen this year. However, it’s still curious how quickly The X-Files: I Want to Believe faded from the public consciousness. In the 1990s, armies of fanboys and girls followed every twist and fork in the path of Fox Mulder and Dana Scully as they investigated conspiracies, cover-ups, and paranormal activity. When the show ended in 2002, countless questions were left unanswered – though few were addressed by I Want to Believe, which was largely dismissed by critics as dour and muddled — and generally ignored by the X-Files cult. Though the possibility of yet another follow-up remains, it looks like the X-Files‘ reign as a pop culture phenomenon is over.

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Sometimes movies about comebacks mirror comebacks in the movies.

Examples: The Wrestler, JCVD

Mickey Rourke’s turn as the broken ring king Randy “The Ram” Robinson in The Wrestler was one of the year’s best performances — not least because it mirrored Rourke’s own troubled path to redemption. In the 1980s, Rourke garnered comparisons to Robert DeNiro, before bad choices, an ill-advised boxing career, and a reputation for difficulty derailed his career. It’s impossible to imagine anyone else playing the Ram in this painful, powerful tale of a fighter seeking redemption in the ring; Rourke, like his character, may have had his share of setbacks, but he’s a consummate professional, even if his haggard body contains a lifetime of regret. And although Jean-Claude Van Damme may have had less of a rep to squander, his return in JCVD — playing a faded action hero who’s heroics don’t necessarily translate off-screen — was the most critically-acclaimed performance of his career. In two crucial scenes, an older, wiser Van Damme directly addresses the camera, detailing his shortcomings and failures — and only a viewer with a heart of stone could fail to be moved.

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You don’t mess with the Zohan. Also, never back down.

Examples: You Don’t Mess With The Zohan, Never Back Down

‘Nuff said.

Check out the rest of our Total Recall archives here.

Finally, here’s a little tune to help you ring in the new year — courtesy of the Beach Boys.

Happy New Year!

Written by Ryan Fujitani, Sara Schieron, and Tim Ryan.