Saturday, November 7, 2009

A Decade of Dreck #5: Dragonfly

dragonfly1Charge Shot!!! is celebrating the end of the decade in the most masochistic way we know how - by watching and writing about the 100 worst movies of the last ten years as defined by film review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes. Click here to see RT's complete list, click here for more about the Decade of Dreck project, and click here to see all of the movies we've done so far.

I think I learned – or at least re-learned – an important lesson today: expectations do not just influence, they often completely dictate my critical response to nearly all media.

I braced myself for something awful when I began this movie. The top critics of Rotten Tomatoes were universally unkind in their reviews (a resounding 3%), except for one who I will paraphrase as saying, “If you love movies of this genre, you’ll sort of like this one a little!” So naturally my eyeballs were ready to roll and my hand was poised and ready to smack my forehead.

I was foiled, and I blame preconception.

The movie opens with flashy, fifteen-second scenes of beautiful doctor Emily Darrow (Susanna Thompson) caught in a storm in a remote Venezuelan jungle where she’s been working for the Red Cross. Floods are coming and the village is being evacuated. One might wonder why the only available escape vehicle is a decrepit yellow school bus, but the scene-changes and dramatic music try to confuse you into forgetting your doubt. There’s action going on!

Tragically, the bus slips over muddy cliffs, gets stuck, gets struck by a rockslide and then falls into a swollen river. All of the passengers are found dead except Emily, but with the still-raging monsoon, she is presumed dead, washed away in the white-water, all within three minutes of the opening.

Distraught, her husband, Dr. Joe Darrow (Kevin Costner), attempts to push forward in his life as an ER doctor. On the same day of the memorial service he shows up to work, a move that draws concern from his supervisors, and he makes decisions that the staff disagree with.

Does the plot feel contrived yet? Of course it does, but the movie wasn’t that bad so far. 

Late that night Joe stays in the ER alone, wallowing in darkness. From flashbacks we learn that Emily was pregnant (“I thought we were going to teach our kids our values, Joe!”). We also learn that she had an obsession with dragonflies because of a resembling birthmark. Suddenly Joe is jerked back to the present by a voice calling his name, growing louder as doctors rush a dying boy past him. When the boy is pronounced dead, Joe peaks into the room. When he approaches the bed, the boy wakes up!

This marked the first time where I screamed and jumped. It happened a total of four times. Maybe it was because I was watching it alone and it’s stormy outside. Maybe it’s because I’m a total wiener when it comes to lame scary music and things jumping out of closets. But I can’t deny the evidence. I was clearly invested enough to be scared when the movie wanted me to be scared, even if it was ham-fisted about it. That counted for something.

We learn that the near-dead boy was a patient of Emily’s and that he has flat-lined many times (and apparently his father thinks this is just hilarious, and teases his terminally ill son about his ridiculous fantasies of what death is like…). But this time he has come back with a message for Joe: Dr. Emily saved him, and she’s trying to contact her husband.

From here the ghost story takes over. Joe is haunted by hospitalized children who draw squiggly cross-symbols and pass along messages from Emily who may or may not be beyond the grave. As a pediatric oncology doctor, she prefers to haunt children with cancer, break light bulbs, cause creepy dragonflies to ram into windows, inhabit the bodies of organ donors, and scare the crap out of the couple’s pet parrot. One night she appears in the window (time number two that I screamed) and when Joe returns in the morning he finds this same curvy cross drawn into the condensation on every window in the house.

Joe’s buddies and his sweet lesbian neighbor (Kathy Bates) are concerned. Everyone thinks he’s crazy, and evidence suggests he could be. He’s finally convinced to sell his house and go on a white-water rafting trip with his old college buddies, but when he scans through the river maps he sees the wavy-cross symbol, and all the pieces fall together. Joe drops everything (following ghost-scene number three where I screamed) and flies down to South America to find her.

I won’t describe the ending, but I was once again pleasantly surprised, even though it was a bit ridiculous, sappy, and overly spiritual. I’m absolutely awful at predicting the outcomes of movies, even when everyone else thinks it’s obvious, so it might not mean much when I say I didn’t see this one coming. Nevertheless, I thought the movie did a decent job of dropping hints and wrong turns, enough that I could respect the crude attempt at foreshadowing. It’s like the director and the screenplay writer had some understanding of what would take to make a good movie, but they were unpracticed at it.

Of course the plot was tired and overdone, the dialogue dull and over-dramatic, and the acting mediocre at best, awful at worst. The plot path between Costner getting on the plane to Venezuela and the ending was goofy,  involving a tribe of isolated natives with giant feathers pierced through their ears and a young South American pilot who is happy to help out some random white guy hell-bent on getting himself killed in the jungle.

But I’m a sucker for the one-role-man Kevin Costner, in part because I never get tired of seeing his character recycled in baseball movies. Every time he was caught in a rushing river or a torrential downpour I couldn’t help but shout, “Dry land is not a myth!”

I liked this movie more than Congo, and I would have stayed to watch it in a theater if I had already paid. I probably wouldn’t have rented it on my own, but I might have watched it on TV. To me, this is clear evidence that there is a considerable difference between rank 90 out of 100 and the higher ups.

And you know what? I liked it a hell of a lot better than The Watchmen, and it was a hell of a lot shorter, too. For many of you, I realize that that’s reason enough to dismiss my opinions in this review.

Dragonfly is ranked #90 on the Rotten Tomatoes Worst 100 list with 7% freshness. Its RT page can be found here.