Crichton's Book. Levinson's Movie.
George Lucas' Cool Filing System.
by Scott Snyder
Michael Crichton's novels are such hot cinematic properties these days,
thanks to the successful pureeing of his paleozoic tour-de-force Jurassic
Park, that his most recent novel, Disclosure, has taken little
more than a year to leap to the big screen. One wonders (I do, anyway)
whether a bit more time for reflection - a look before leaping - would have
yielded a more thoughtful translation. Barry Levinson's screen version makes
many presuppositions about its audience's willingness to suspend disbelief
and to put up with deus ex machina plot gimmicks; in the end, dinosaurs on
the rampage seem a more plausible premise than much of what Mr. Levinson
asks us to accept.
The plot seems at first to revolve around the return of an ex-lover
(Demi Moore) into the life of a digital communications company executive
(Michael Douglas), now happily married and on his way up in the CD-ROM
drive industry. The old flame has become a corporate bigwig herself since
the two parted; the company has hired her as senior vice president, a
position on which everyone thought Mr. Douglas's character, Tom Sanders,
had a lock. When Sanders's new boss tries to rekindle their steamy
affair-this time from a position of corporate power-Sanders resists, then
flees. And when, in the morning, he discovers that his job is in jeopardy
and he is being accused of sexual harassment (an interesting concurrence),
his life-is-a-bed-of-roses outlook takes a turn for the worse.
In many ways, what follows for Sanders is a reprise of Mr. Douglas's
role in Fatal Attraction: small indiscretion leads hero into big
trouble with wife and makes life hell; wife finds it in her heart to
forgive him and works at his side to put the succubus in question back
where she belongs. For, naturally (I can't possibly be giving anything
away here), our hero does triumph, thanks to a series of
technologically-enhanced coincidences (phone numbers dialed incorrectly,
interminable answering machine tapes, last-minute revelations faxed in from
Malaysia). And naturally, this being a movie that is determined not to
exploit cliche's - or at least not to let on that it is exploiting
cliche's - the situation only gets worse at the very point when it seems
to have been resolved. The soundtrack at this point suggests we are
supposed to be surprised that Sanders is merely out of the frying pan.
I hope that audiences are savvier than that. If moviegoers find themselves
in suspense over how Sanders will get out of either of his predicaments,
then they haven't been watching very carefully.
There is something insidiously misogynistic about Mr. Crichton's
political-correctness-in-reverse take on sexual harassment; he seems to be
exhuming the "men can be victims, too" argument, even suggesting that what
happens to Sanders is not so much of an anomaly as it might seem. When a
colleague mourns sympathetically, "You know how women are," Sanders can only
nod wearily, having learned this rather ludicrous "lesson" all too well. And
when one of his corporate higher-ups drops his jaw and tells Sanders, "I've
never heard of such a thing, a woman harassing a man," we get the sense that
we are supposed to laugh derisively at this naive fool. In this society,
however, sexual harassment is fundamentally a man's crime, institutionalized
in the structure of corporate America and the male psyche. The sociological
stones that Mr. Crichton and Mr. Levinson leave unturned do much to discredit
Disclosure as a serious commentary on sexual and corporate politics.
Viewers will be less than surprised, though, when the movie turns out
not to be a penetrating look at the true nature of gender politics after
all, but rather a treatise on what not to do when covering one's corporate
behind. Even as Disclosure invites us to gloat over Sanders's personal
victories, they (and the entire first hour-and-a-half of the film) are
rendered inconsequential. One can't help being disappointed. I felt as
though I had stayed up all night studying notes that turned out not to be
on the test; plot twists are one thing, and plot resets are quite another.
Donald Sutherland turns in the best performance of the day, as the
president of the corporation. Mr. Sutherland manages to be despicable and
affable, childish and childlike at the same time. Make no mistake, his
character is an evil creature. But he is evil in such an earnest, endearing
way that we can almost believe it when Sanders doesn't quit working for him
at the end of the movie. Mr. Douglas and Ms. Moore have less to show for
their efforts. Both rely far too heavily on jutting out their jaws to
develop their characters, and neither succeeds particularly in making the
fantastical ethical decisions their characters make seem plausible.
The most bizarre decision Levinson made, though, was to cast Brian
"Kato" Kaelin as a programmer and technician for the company. Mr. Kaelin is
a "name," so to speak, but not the sort of name - let alone the sort of
acting talent - this film really needs. In one sequence taking place inside
a sort of virtual reality filing application that the company has created,
Mr. Kaelin's face appears pasted onto the body of a Virtual angel, wings
fluttering like hummingbird's. The angel is the filing program's on-line
help system; when the user has a question, he says, "Angel, I need help,"
and Kato Kaelin appears over his shoulder. I should think the effect would
be disquieting enough to put a damper on sales.
The filing system sequences were designed by George Lucas's Industrial
Light and Magic team, and, though quite implausible (like much of what we
see on computer screens in this film), they are quite striking. Strapped
into a VR monkey suit, the user locates files by walking down a lush
mahogany-and-marble corridor, pulling file drawers out of walls, and reading
files in midair before his eyes. This is the Visual Concept of the movie-an
attempt, one might suppose, to distract audiences from holes in the
storytelling. And it does make sitting through the movie more worthwhile
- though not as worthwhile as spending five minutes actually using such a
program would be.
All this is not to say that watching Disclosure is two hours of
hell or anything. About half of the jokes are funny (thanks in large part
to Dennis Miller, whose timing and delivery are laudable). And the pacing
is quick enough to hold interest without losing the audience in a frenetic
blur. During the slower bits, we can envy the interior design of the
company's office building, a glass-and-brickwork affair that could only
be the environs of a Hip, Trendy Computer Corporation. Ultimately, though
- despite pretenses of having an actual theme - Disclosure fails to
be either as insightful or as suspenseful as it hopes to be. It's the
Jurassic Park syndrome all over again. Disclosure has too
complicated a plot to translate effectively to film, and in attempting such a
translation, Mr. Levinson has delivered Cliff's Notes: We know what effects the
story is supposed to create and what the messages are supposed to be, but
we know this only secondhand. It's the difference between e-mailing
someone and going out to the airport to meet their plane.