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Thursday, October 29, 2009
(This review was originally posted at Bumscorner.com in April, 2006.)
Some people have cookouts in their backyards. Mike Conway makes movies in his.
The wrecked spaceship in his previous film, WAR OF THE PLANETS (aka TERRARIUM) was literally constructed and shot in his backyard. And for his latest effort, THE AWAKENING (2005), he used his garage as a soundstage for several of the sets. This sort of below-low-budget filmmaking can be very interesting if done by someone with a good imagination and a passion for making movies--both of which Mike Conway apparently has--and if you can get past the fact that the production values are on about the same level as an episode of "Rocky Jones, Space Ranger."
THE AWAKENING is the story of David Andrade (Conway, who also directed, edited, scored, and co-wrote the film along with Kelly Johnston and Erik Manion), a research scientist working on a top-secret government project involving the use of radiation to genetically improve the human body. When his wife Lara is diagnosed with terminal cancer, David sneaks her past the military security where he works, hooks her up to an experimental machine, and zaps her with radiation. Presto!--her cancer's cured overnight. But as time goes by, unexpected side-effects begin to develop, and Lara eventually becomes Supergirl. Well, not exactly, since her aggression, hostility, and penchant for violence have increased along with her physical abilities. So, "Super Bitch" would be more like it. (But don't call her that, or you're really in for it.) She even designs her own costume, Peter Parker-style, complete with black cape and thigh-high dominatrix boots, and goes out looking for excuses to kill people.
This, unfortunately, includes her husband David, since the big killjoy actually liked her better the other way and has been trying to find a means of reverting her back to normal. So Lara invades the research facility looking for him and starts throwing Marines around. When she finds David in his lab, he springs a trap that knocks her unconscious and prepares to reverse the super-power process.
Around this point in the movie, I'd already seen just about all the shots that were used in the trailer, and figured the story must be about played out by now. Which would've made it "ehh, pretty good", but nothing to get excited about. So I checked the running time to see how many single-digit minutes were left, and was startled to find that the movie was only half over. Hmm...what could possibly happen next...?
To my increasingly pleasant surprise, THE AWAKENING was just getting started. It seems the powers-that-be behind "Project Gladiator" are using David's research to aid in their quest to create super soldiers, and the last thing they want is for anything bad to happen to the first successful test subject. So while the Marines are trying to take her out, project director Michelle Richards (the striking, 6'4"-in-heels Heather Guzzetta) and her delightfully unlikable toady, Major Craig Konrad (Keith Ford) have called in a bunch of black-ops guys to take out the Marines and retrieve the "cargo." Naturally, this doesn't sit well with the gung-ho, old school Marine Captain Harris (Timothy S. Daley) in charge of security, so he enlists the aid of his trusted cohort Sgt. Benson (Clay Finan) and David Andrade to put some serious hurt on the black-ops guys and throw a monkey wrench into Project Gladiator.
I don't want to give any more of the plot away because it's too much fun to find out for yourself what happens next. But there's lots of shooting, explosions, gory death scenes, and outrageous situations, and it's all a lot more fun than any movie this low-budget has a right to be. I was constantly amazed at the inventiveness Mike Conway and his crew displayed in pulling off scenes that were visually stunning despite the cheap-looking special effects (while also making good use of desert locations around Las Vegas).
When Lara approaches an SUV on the highway after the driver stops to render assistance, I expected her to turn it over or something. Instead, she throws it, and then watches its downward progress with a smirk until we hear an off-camera crash. Later, she backhands the top of a soldier's head off, and the body staggers to the floor as the still-living head watches it. Sheesh--sure it looks fake, but by this point I didn't even care anymore.
The cast does a nice job as well. Most of them aren't really that great as actors, but they manage to make their characters interesting anyway. Tamra Ericson Frame starts out sorta "blah" as Lara, then gets better and better as she has more fun playing the over-the-top aspects of her character. Timothy S. Daley (one of several veterans of WAR OF THE PLANETS who show up here) makes a great no-nonsense Marine. Heather Guzzetta is a towering presence--literally--and is convincingly sinister. And Mike Conway, who will probably never win a "Best Actor" Oscar, does pretty well as David Andrade--his somewhat bland character anchors the rest of the movie.
The DVD features a making-of documentary called GUNS, GIRLS, AND CLONES (now there's a great movie title right there) that lets us see how a film like this is made on such a shoestring budget. It includes bloopers, cast and crew comments, and lots of behind-the-scenes footage that is especially interesting when showing us how some of the special effects were accomplished (a shot of Lara ripping a guy in half was inspired by the fact that their only stunt dummy broke in two during a take!) There's some digital wizardry that I didn't expect, mainly used to convincingly replicate the limited number of extras--in fact, there's a scene where two cops confront Lara, and the same actor plays both of them. We also get to see Conway and his cast and crew having a really good time making this movie.
To tell you the truth, WAR OF THE PLANETS wasn't all that exciting, so I really didn't expect a lot from its follow-up--which is what made it such a hoot to watch when it turned out as good as it did. I've seen plenty of gazillion-dollar movies that were boring. THE AWAKENING may have been partially filmed in a garage, but it isn't boring!
Read our interview with Mike Conway: