The Rock

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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