Thursday, 14 June 2012

Blue Thunder

Lowdown: The greatest threat to Los Angeles is the new super weapon introduced to protect it.
As far as reasons to sit down and watch a film are concerned, this one has to qualify as one of the silliest. My wife recently bought my four year old son a toy Matchbox style helicopter called “Mission Helicopter”; I couldn’t avoid noting the very non coincidental similarity between this Mission Helicopter and the Blue Thunder helicopter from the 1983 film by John Badham. I have fond memories of that film: I saw it at the cinemas with my father, and its dogfight scenes where Blue Thunder fends for itself against a couple of F-16s were the stuff of many a childhood dream. I therefore set forth to introduce my son to the real version of his toy helicopter.
Let me start by saying Blue Thunder is clearly not a film suitable for four year olds. Not necessarily because of the sex scenes, which totally went over my son’s head (for the record, I much prefer he learns about sex through/with me than through surfing for porn at a slightly older age); no, the problem is to do with the movie’s themes. These are of such a grade many adults won’t recognize them. Luckily, everything is wrapped in a good action package we can all enjoy.
Blue Thunder takes place at the soon to host the 1984 Olympics Los Angeles. We follow police pilot Frank Murphy (Roy Scheider), a guy who obviously knows more than the book about flying police helicopters but a guy who is also disturbed by old visions of Vietnam to a level that implicates his personal life. Murphy and his new co-pilot (Daniel Stern in an atypical performance) fool around doing things they’re not supposed to with their helicopter, like voyeur-ing on women practicing yoga in the nude, and they pay the price for that. However, they are still deemed the best to test out the new super weapon introduced to deal with securing the upcoming Olympics: Blue Thunder, a helicopter with a kick.
Blue Thunder is equipped with stealth and surveillance mechanisms allowing it to eavesdrop unnoticed on virtually anyone. It bites, too, with a canon that’s aimed through the pilot shifting his helmet to “look” at a target. According to Murphy, that’s much more than Los Angeles’ police force needs, especially in the collateral damage department; when he discovers the helicopter comes with an old Vietnam nemesis of his (Malcolm McDowell), you know things would escalate. By the end of the film Blue Thunder and Murphy show us all they can do.
Critically speaking, the first thing I want to say about Blue Thunder is that it is obsolete. It was obsolete even at the time the film came out. I’m referring here to the helicopter, not the film: at the time Blue Thunder was released, with its helmet aimed canon, Apache attack helicopters already had their sights tracking the pilot/gunner’s eyes (rather than the movement of the pilot’s head). Which is my way of saying that reality has a way of turning more horrible than we can imagine.
One thing that isn’t obsolete with Blue Thunder the film is the message it entails. The theme of the powerful authority trying to be perceived as a power for good when what it actually tries to do is enshrine totalitarian measures is, sadly, one we have to deal with on a regular basis. Londoners, for example, face a string of security measures on the eve of their upcoming Olympics: huge, up to 5 hour long queues at Heathrow airport that one is not allowed to talk about, while missile launchers are to be place on top of residential buildings (see here). Then there is the legislation debated in the UK, where security authorities are to be allowed to everyone’s phone calls and Internet activities (here). It’s all in the name of security, of course; the collateral damage is all but ignored.
Not that Australia is immune. We have our Communication Minister, Stephen Conroy, who is still officially supporting Internet censorship in the name of protecting children from pedophiles. Indeed, some limited Internet censorship has already been implemented in Australia. Whether you truly believe this Internet censorship is all to do with fighting pedophilia and has nothing to do with the control of public opinion or looking after the interests of the copyright industry just goes to indicate how naïve you are.
I like John Badham’s work. Between WarGames, Short Circuit and this – Blue Thunder – he created a nice portfolio of entertaining films that show what can happen when we let authorities lead non transparent regimes. I’m sure Badham agrees we should work harder to ensure the accountability of those we put at the helm.
Let down scene: Blue Thunder has clearly aged, but at its core it is still a satisfying action film. However, excess aging is too noticeable in the special effects department where nothing 1983 could offer can compete with today’s CGI. In particular, those F-16s I raved about at the beginning of my review? To my contemporary eyes they were clearly models imposed on the skies. What used to be an exciting scene, the most exciting scene in the Blue Thunder arsenal, is now the subject of a laugh.
Best scene: How daring is the ending? Just compare it to that other dogfighting film from the same era, Top Gun, to see what I'm talking about.
Overall: I’m obviously biased, but I like this package of action with a relevant and meaningful message. Blue Thunder gets 4 out of 5 stars from me.

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