[5 February 2009]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
They say the most important element in a science fiction story is a strong, understandable mythology. Formulate a believable, working, and logistically logical universe where characters and creatures abide by the rules and regulations set before them and you’ve conquered a great deal of the potential problems. As a result, slip ups can be cured with ease and risks rewarded, just as long as the foundation is set and secure. In the new future shock thriller Push, we are introduced to an entirely new (if slightly redundant) race of specialized individuals, people with powers beyond those of mere mortals. Meeting them towards the middle of their real world arc, we gets bits and pieces of how Nazi experiments in psychic warfare led to an X-Men like mutant population capable of great things - and the secret society Hell-bent on controlling them. Regrettably, the aforementioned reference to a certain comic franchise isn’t the only bit of borrowing this film does. Indeed, the whole effort feels lifted from dozens of familiar - and in most cases, superior - offerings.
Nick Gant has been in hiding most of his life. As a young boy, he saw his father killed by a government agency called The Division. Seeking out individuals who are gifted psychically, the cabal hopes to capture and experiment on each and every one. Later, Nick hooks up with tween terror Cassie Holmes. She’s a ‘watcher’, someone able to see into the future, and she needs his assistance in finding “pusher” (someone able to control the minds of others) Kira Hudson who holds the secret for tearing down the Division. Of course, there’s a catch. By taking on this task, both Cassie and Nick will die. But if they fail to fulfill their mission, they run of the risk of destroying all others like them. With Division agent Henry Carver hot on their trail, and a complicated environment of fellow shifters, stitchers, bleeders, and wipers to navigate, it will take all the special skill that they possess to save everyone.
You’ve got to give Push credit for trying. It’s almost impossible to create a complex alternative reality where everyday humans hold exceptional superpowers, where government cabals plot to capture and control these individuals, and a ragtag group of internal rebels try to overthrow…wait. Isn’t this the primer for NBC’s on again/off again phenom Heroes? Or the structure for any number of post-modern graphic novels? Apparently, when challenged for something original, writer David Bourla absconded with any number of sci-fi comics clichés and then tried to turn them into something novel and original. Yet no matter how you categorize them - sniffers, stitchers, pushers, movers - we are still stuck with individuals as gimmicks. Unless you give the holders of such skills real psychological depth, all we can do is sit back and wait for the overloaded F/X light show.
Sadly, Push doesn’t even deliver said spectacle. Instead, this is a ploddingly paced, awkwardly ambitious film that seems lifted from the middle act of a better, more buoyant franchise. UK director Paul McGuigan wants to create something both personal and pyrotechnical, hoping that the many tiny moments between his actors will blossom and grow into a narrative of epic of otherworldly proportion. He even skimps on the action, leaving all the superpowers stuff until a midpoint confrontation between Grant and his Division enemies, and a last act throwdown on a Hong Kong high rise. Maybe he thought the sparing use of these often intriguing abilities would give them more impact. Perhaps the budget dictated their rare depiction. Whatever the case, this is a movie that needs more - more operatic dramatics, more life and death drive…heck, just more action in general.
Struggling to stay afloat inside McGuigan’s brooding, often pointless pretensions are some damn fine performances. Dakota Fanning could be a live action anime heroine what with her whisper thin figure, Hello Kitty fashion sense, and fragile delivery. Even in moments of predetermined import, she’s vulnerable and distressed. She’s matched well by Chris Evans as Grant. Though given little to do except play icon, there are times when he lets down the forced façade to seem very human indeed. While Camille Belle is still lost somewhere in 10,00 B.C. and Djimon Hounsou does menace as if on autopilot, supporting players like Maggie Siff (as an evil healer) Ming-Na, and Cliff Curtis add wonderful atmospheric accents. In fact, had Push totally ignored the histrionics inherent in the genre and went with something more intricate and intimate, it might have worked.
Instead, we get wannabe chest-thumping and lots of lag time in between. Fanning’s Cassie repeats herself endlessly, doddling in her sketch pad and harping on her impending death. There’s also way too much exposition, sequences where we are given the narrative thread and overriding situational specifics over and over again. Speed is important in efforts like this. Had Wanted slowed down to explain itself fully, or Shoot ‘Em Up stop to allow reconsideration, neither film would fly. Instead, they piled on the particulars and just kept going. Push needed this same kind of urgency. This material needs mania, something you envision being better handled with particular aplomb by someone like Ringo Lam, The Wachowski Brothers, or maybe even John Woo. It’s not that McGuigan is out of his league. He’s just not playing in the same ballpark.
Big ideas like the ones posited in Push necessitate a big vision to succeed - or at the very least, characters we can cheer for, care about, and get behind. Instead, what we experience is two hours of brooding among ambient Asian backdrops…and little else. The Hong Kong setting seems odd since the storyline does very little to accentuate the locale. Only a sequence with the Bleeders (individuals with voices that can literally kill) in a fish market makes sense. In addition, recent films with similar themes like Jumper and Babylon A.D. undermine any sense of originality or freshness here. Even with all its idiosyncratic elements, Push feels like something we’ve seen before. Unfortunately, said memory is of something far more fascinating and definitely more engaging.