The Rock

A part of this view­ing list: Criterion Collection Spine #108: Michael Bay’s The Rock.


Oh God. I can’t re­al­ly be­lieve that The Rock [and Armageddon] are on the Criterion Collection list. But then, Michael Bay has a con­tract with them. Anyway, their ec­cen­tric­i­ty as films on this list is a good op­por­tu­ni­ty to ap­ply crit­i­cal analy­sis to a main­stream block­buster, some­thing I rarely do. The last movie I re­viewed was Down By Law, and you’d be hard pressed to find a movie that is more dis­sim­i­lar to it than The Rock. 

For starters, it is a film about break­ing in­to a prison in­stead of out of one. Secondly, it has all of the fire­pow­er of the Hollywood pro­duc­tion colos­sus be­hind it. I’m go­ing to split the re­view in­to two por­tions, the first about the cul­tur­al com­po­nents of the film, and the sec­ond about its me­chan­ics and how they tie to­geth­er. This will prob­a­bly be a long re­view.


The Rock, and many films like it, was de­signed to ap­peal to di­rect­ly to an American male’s sub­con­scious un­der­stand­ing of what it means to be an American male. It sort of grabs for a boy­hood idea of play­ing sol­dier while si­mul­ta­ne­ous­ly of­fer­ing a more so­phis­ti­cat­ed un­der­stand­ing of the mil­i­tary com­plex. The film, again like many films like it, is al­so nec­es­sar­i­ly con­ser­v­a­tive [in a po­lit­i­cal sense] in its por­tray­al of the mil­i­tary use of vi­o­lence. This is a tough path to tread, but it works well enough to a cur­so­ry glance [which, as I’ll ar­gue, is all you ever have time to do in a film like this]. Nicholas Cage’s char­ac­ter, Stanley Goodspeed, acts as a mag­net for the sub­con­scious pro­jec­tion of boy­hood mil­i­tary fan­ta­sy. Although he is a chem­i­cal weapons spe­cial­ist, he’s al­so just some dude with a desk job, and one un­used to vi­o­lence. Yet he ends up equipped with all kinds of fan­cy fight­ing gear and goes along with a Navy SEAL team and a British SAS agent to in­fil­trate an is­land fortress held by rogue mil­i­tants. This sat­is­fies the id’s de­sire to act out re­pressed fan­tasies [Freud is use­ful here, but maybe not ex­act]. We’ve still got the su­per-ego to think about, and cul­tur­al taboos as well.

Enter the vil­lains. Ed Harris’s char­ac­ter is a gen­er­al, a leg­end among the mil­i­tary com­mu­ni­ty, and now he’s gone a bit rogue be­cause he is dis­sat­is­fied with his country’s be­hav­ior re­gard­ing Force Recon sol­diers aban­doned in en­e­my ter­ri­to­ry dur­ing his tenure as a black op­er­a­tive. He steals some crazy nasty poi­son and holes up on Alcatraz with 81 hostages, threat­en­ing to kill most of San Francisco un­less the gov­ern­ment agrees to pay repa­ra­tions to the fam­i­lies of 83 of his lost broth­ers in arms. A no­ble cause it seems, but we’ve got a few hun­dred thou­sand in­no­cent civil­ians to think about. This adds the tough de­ci­sion of du­ty to the free­wheel­ing ad­ven­ture that I’ve al­ready de­scribed. So this can’t be just a sim­ple blow’em up and God’ll sort’em out film, the vil­lain is one of our own and must be un­der­stood first, and stopped with­out vi­o­lence if pos­si­ble.


There are ad­di­tion­al mo­ti­va­tions to think about, Goodspeed has a knocked up girl­friend, Sean Connery’s James Mason wants to get to know his daugh­ter, and FBI di­rec­tor Womack wants Mason sent back to prison for life, but the key to this film is not in the care­ful con­struc­tion of the sto­ry­line, but in its vi­su­al ap­pli­ca­tion on the screen. The key, as I men­tioned above, is to not give the view­er time to process the sto­ry, but enough time to hold it all on a su­per­fi­cial lev­el. I sup­pose an ap­pro­pri­ate anal­o­gy would be be­tween ROM and RAM; the view­er can’t re­al­ly store in­for­ma­tion for re­trieval at a lat­er time, but must keep it in the RAM of their mind for the en­tire movie.

In or­der to ac­com­plish this, Bay, Bruckheimer and com­pa­ny re­ly on fast-cut­ting, ex­treme­ly shal­low depth-of-field, and a pre­pon­der­ance of close-up and dra­mat­ic cam­era-work to keep a view­er stim­u­lat­ed like a lab mouse that keeps hit­ting the crack but­ton. Except in this case they film hits it for us. On the rare times we get a long shot, it is usu­al­ly an ex­treme long shot, from a he­li­copter or some­such, it is al­most as if the dis­tance be­tween a plain Americain and an ELS doesn’t ex­ist. That’s why I put the shot of Connery and Forlani up above; as far as I could tell, it was the on­ly stan­dard long shot in the en­tire film. The Rock is per­fect for the at­ten­tion deficit dis­or­dered, and those who can process im­ages quick­ly, al­most sub­lim­i­nal­ly. While as movies go, it isn’t any­thing spec­tac­u­lar, the care­ful con­struc­tion of every as­pect, the ob­vi­ous weigh­ing of each and every cog, wid­get, sprock­et-hole and fa­cial ex­pres­sion is al­most mind-bog­gling­ly im­pres­sive. Certainly some­thing you’d on­ly ex­pect Hollywood to be ca­pa­ble of.


Criterion Essay by Roger Ebert.
National Park Service site on Alcatraz.
Alcatraz History