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Tuesday, 01 August 2006

Image As high-definition DVDs roll out in the form of Blu-Ray discs and the incompatible HD DVD, some studios show little care in selecting what films are released in this dazzling format. So far, it seems Columbia/Sony is just grabbing the last group of theatrical releases, or films like “50 First Dates” that already did well on standard DVD.

“Ultraviolet” is a good example in several ways. It’s a lousy movie, no question of that, even though the usually-appealing Milla Jovovich is the star. Perhaps her career has been derailed by her starring role in the wretched “Resident Evil” series, because now she seems like Action Girl #1. “Ultraviolet” doesn’t require much of the acting abilities she displayed in “The Fifth Element” and “The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc.” On the other hand, those films also required her to be nimble and graceful, even while wearing a full suit of armor. The one thing we learn about her in “Ultraviolet” is that she pronounces her last name as “Yovovich.”

Here, the full suit of armor weighing her down is the derivative, unimaginative script by director Kurt Wimmer. His intention of doing a comic book movie is, basically, shouted by the opening credits, which play over a background of what appear to be “Ultraviolet” comic books, the covers drawn by some of the best in the business (and others imitations of artists no longer around, like Wally Wood). But the movie isn’t based on such a comic book (though one may be published now); it’s entirely invented. One hesitates to say “orginal,” because it’s anything but. The movie is set in the future—you can tell because all the buildings look brand new and people wear sexy clothing. The movie was made in Shanghai, and takes advantage of that city’s futuristic architecture. Disease has swept the world, mostly a man-made plague that turns people into “hemophages”—vampires, of course. (Is anyone else as tired of vampires as I am?) You can tell they’re vampires because they have pointy fangs and, Anne Rice-style, can move really fast. Other than that, there seems to be no difference between them and human beings; the plot, in fact, depends on the ability of hemophages to successfully pass themselves off as human.

We’re told that the humans want to wipe out all hemophages, though just why they do, and why they’re so afraid of becoming hemophages themselves—in the opening scene, a cop instantly shoots his buddy dead when he realizes he’s been contaminated—is never made clear. Nor is anything else about the differences between humans and hemophages (who were, after all, born human). All this back story does is to establish two well-armed, warring groups, one underground, one the force of society itself. And that’s all. In short, it’s the good guys (hemophages) against the bad guys (the ruling elite), the former personified by Violet (who’s never called Ultraviolet), the latter by Daxus (Nick Chinlund, very good under what must have been trying circumstances).

Around the edges and between the cracks, a shade of a story can be glimpsed. There’s something about Violet having once been married, but now her hubby is dead and she’s angry. Part of the sort of story has her retrieving something from Daxus’ headquarters. This turns out to be a boy (Cameron Bright, also in “X-Men 3”) who may be carrying a bacteria that will wipe out hemophages. Violet appoints herself his protector, “Gloria” style, and takes on more and more opponents.

It’s just another action movie with exaggerated, Matrix-style, comic book-influenced, martial arts and major weapon conflicts occurring every few minutes. There’s also a dazzling and dopey motorcycle chase; Violet’s motorcycle can whiz along walls as well as straight up them. She always makes flashy, balletic leaps to get out of danger.

But there’s no story. It’s ALL chases and fights. It’s as if Wimmer was afraid that a few character-establishing dialogue exchanges would make the audience flee the theater. Even when people do converse, it’s ripe with ATTITUDE, mostly snarling cynicism. After a while, all of this posturing, all of the flashy action, all of the ballet-cum-marcial-arts flips, twirls and leaps, becomes increasingly silly but also increasingly boring.

Now here’s where the “but….” comes in.

But this is a Blu-Ray, high-definition disc. And that makes a hell of a lot of difference, at least for those who have an adequate home theater system, for in terms of visual and aural presentation, “Ultraviolet” is a dazzler. The movie opens with a team of ninja-like warriors dropped (as big balls) into buildings from a high-flying plane. When they burst out of the balls, they’re in black-on-black costumes, but the Blu-Ray process allows us to see each detail in the costumes, black on black though they be.

The vast cityscapes outside do look largely like CGI sculptures and there’s not much distinction between them, but once the show moves inside, the screen explodes in detail and richly-saturated color. The definition is razor-sharp, even though at times cinematographer Arthur Wong Ngok Tai often elects to use soft focus.

There’s no blooming in white-on-white scenes; all the whiteness stays politely in its place. There are virtually no video artifacts—at least I didn’t notice any—and the image is pristinely clean in every way. Some colors are especially responsive to the processes used to film and present the material: vivd, intense canary yellows practically scream, which can be a little distracting. Chartreuse is also a color to which high-definition seems particularly responsive; it’s not used often, but it’s high visible when it turns up. That icy steel blue that seems to be the favored color for sci-fi action movies these days is prevalent, and so impossibly blue it seems metallic.

The cityscapes are in peach-toned silver, which makes the entire film look like a great big commercial. But one major fight scene is has orange everywhere, walls, floors, sky, and again you can firtually feel the heat. Clearly, the filmmakers were aware of the power of color, as Violet’s clothes and hair frequently shift up and down the spectrum. Mostly she has black hair, but at times it becomes an incandescent lavender.

Director Wimmer seems intent on giving us lots of impressive visuals; Violet wears a white suit in her last big battle, but when she’s wounded the entire suit turns blood red. The final conflict with Daxus is in a pitch-black room lit only by the fire on their literally blazing swords.

As a demonstration of the visual richness high-definition video brings, “Ultraviolet” is a good model. But as a movie, it’s boring. All the visual glories can’t compensate for lumpy direction, murky plotting and undeveloped ideas. The acting is uneven; Jovovich does what she can, but the character is so limited she’s basically lost. Chinlund, a memorable “X-Files” baddy, is the best thing in the film, but again, the character is so one-dimensional that all the smirking irony he can deliver doesn’t improve things overall.

The extras include a surprisingly lengthy making-of documentary, amusingly titles “UV: Protection.” Some of the comments by the participants can be a little surprising, as when one defines the film as an adventure comedy. Funny yes, a comedy no. Someone else claims the movie is a new definition of the science fiction picture, and another says that director Wimmer has grounded everything in reality. Except for a fight scene in a garden (in which an opponent attacks Violet with his dreadlocks), there ISN’T anything real in this movie. Even the existing Shanghai buildings are so extravagant they seem part of the décor.

Milla Jovovich provides a cheery commentary track (accompanied by her dogs). She sounds charming and enthusiastic, but not well informed and clearly unaccustomed to doing this kind of thing—she simply falls silent for long stretches of film.

Bottom line: if you have a Blu-Ray player and want to demonstrate it to friends, “Ultraviolet” is a readily-available source—but it’s a bad movie.

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