Watch out, folks! There is a new generation of movie technology that has been designed to sneak in under the critical radar and release its lethal payload before anyone knows it has been there, wreaking havoc with the taste and intelligence of a whole generation of movie-goers who are unfortunate enough to find themselves in its path of destruction. This is much more terrifying as a cultural weapon than the robot plane called EDI (for Extreme Deep Invader) is as a weapon of futuristic war in the new movie Stealth. The fiendish cleverness of the movie technology is that the central importance of its technically accomplished special effects so crowds out such critically important but more traditional matters as plot and characterization that there is nothing left for a critic to criticize. The fiendish cleverness of the airplane’s technology is, well, conventional.
To give it its due, Stealth, directed by Rob Cohen from a screenplay by W.D. Richter, tries to liven things up with a sort of original twist whose absurdity is hardly noticeable amidst so much absurdity. Not to give anything away, but it has to do with whether EDI (voice of Wentworth Miller) is a good guy or a bad guy. There is a reason why robots generally turn out to be bad guys. From the sinister HAL of 2001: A Space Odyssey to last year’s I, Robot, the movies have generally found it to be a better story when the little metal guys are out to get us than when they are cute and adorable as they are in the Star Wars movies. The bad-guy robot is a version of the Frankenstein myth, which is in turn an early technological redaction of the myth of Prometheus, an object lesson in humanity’s hubris in seeking to attain to godlike status. The good guy robot is nothing but a wisecracking Disney sidekick. EDI is a little of both. Which he turns out to be in the end I will not reveal, but as the good robot he’s short of a wisecrack or two and as the bad robot he’s less a lesson in hubris and nemesis than in political skullduggery of the most boringly predictable kind.
The movie begins by filling us in on the Naval Air Force (the what?) of the near future. Guess who the enemy is? Terrorists! Guess how we have to deal with them? Not by face-to-face combat but the highest of high tech. And if there are three and only three pilots chosen to fly the planes that are the highest tech of all, see if you can guess their race and gender. Right you are! One white guy, one black guy, and one chick. What are the odds of that, do you suppose? Oh, and the chick is a knockout in a C-cup and a teeny-weenie bikini. Of course they are all both impossibly handsome and the best of friends — at least until love threatens to break up their little band of brothers. But maybe you could have predicted that too? Fortunately, when Ben Gannon (Josh Lucas) falls for his “wingman,” Kara Wade (Jessica Biel), in defiance of regulations, Henry Purcell (Jamie Foxx) is happy to settle for the consolation prize of a gorgeous Thai girl (Jaypetch Toonchalong) who not only doesn’t fly but doesn’t even speak English.
It will be observed that this movie is a techno-geek’s dream in more ways than one. The development of love out of easy camaraderie smacks of the imaginary warfare of comic book science fiction or Starship Troopers. In the wars of the future, we can well imagine, all the Top Guns will have cute little blonde wingmen in C-cups to snuggle up with. And is there just the lightest of propagandistic touches in the Christian name of Lt. Wade? Both proponents and opponents of the relaxation of rules prohibiting women in combat will remember very clearly the name of Lt. Kara Hultgreen, who crashed her F-14 and died while trying to land on the same ship featured in this movie, the USS Abraham Lincoln, in 1994. EDI the robot may or may not be a harbinger of future warfare, but the dream of an ideal world in which Lt. Kara flies again clearly lives on.
Whether or not, too, the robot is a bad guy, you know from the moment he struts across the screen that the gung ho advocate of naval robotics played by Sam Shepard is going to be up to no good. That close-cropped military type who smokes cigars and scoffs at the quaint scruples of the beautiful pilots is bound to be working in cahoots with some corrupt politician back in (gasp!) Washington. “You are pilots of the U.S. Navy,” he says to the beautiful ones. “I expect nothing less than perfection.” The scoundrel!
The story and the characters, in other words, are ludicrously unreal and cliched all at once. But the more awful it is as an action-adventure yarn, the more it becomes impossible to see anything in it but the great visuals of futuristic airplanes zooming about the skies and making very gratifying large explosions. How could there be anything to criticize about that? The real stealth here is the stealth with which a stupid movie gets past our critical defenses by pretending to be nothing more than cool pictures.
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