A secret comedy lurks within this decidedly shoddy piece of corporate horror, filmed at what appears to be the craggy dunes of those old Star Trek episodes. Yes, the movie is about radioactive desert mutants—not especially funny, in theory or execution. Nor will you be laughing at the first scene: a mutant birth that ends with the bound mother being punched in the face. Bring on the National Guard!
But not since Stripes has a studio picture so thoroughly (and, we must assume, unwittingly) presented an American fighting force in such an unflattering light. The two credited writers, Jonathan Craven and his more famous dad, Wes, were obviously aiming for the fear factor of James Cameron’s Aliens. But their military heroes are so supremely infantile and undisciplined, prone to whining and “bitch” insults, that watching them slowly get picked off becomes strangely satisfying. One has his arm chopped off, after which it’s waved to him.
Of course, you don’t need a road map to locate the political comment in a film about exhausted civilian soldiers getting sucked into caves. At the film’s start, they’re training for Kandahar deployment; by the end, their only hope is escape. Sound familiar? (Now playing; Click here for venues.)—Joshua Rothkopf