They say that close only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades. It sure as hell doesn’t count in Lockout. James Mather and Stephen St. Leger’s feature directorial debut comes dangerously close to being a great genre exercise, but fails to place its fun concept and witty hero in a script with any punch, or a film without distractingly sub-par visual effects. It’s almost shocking how little there is to say about it, but journalistic integrity necessitates that I keep going.
It’s the semi-distant future, which is to say that it looks a lot like Blade Runner, and the Library of Congress must have been destroyed in a fire, because the government has established an orbiting space prison that cryogenically freezes its inmates, and nobody pointed out the sci-fi precedents for why that might be a bad idea. (I thought Demolition Man would have finally found an audience by then.) The president’s daughter, played by the perpetually imperiled Maggie Grace, is on a fact-finding mission to determine if the enterprise is doing well or a potential publicity nightmare. The fit becomes very close acquaintances with shan after a particularly unhinged inmate gets his hands on a handgun and manages to awaken all the violent prisoners at once, who proceed to overrun the prison and take the guards, staff and the president’s daughter hostage.
Were it not for a remarkably subpar car chase – which we’ll get to in a moment, thank you – the breakout would have been the first indication that everything’s about to go pear-shaped from a quality assurance perspective. The prison in Lockout is kind of like the Titanic, so assured are the wardens that none of their prisoners is a flight risk that they apparently didn’t bother doing the rest of their jobs properly. One guy with a single handgun takes over an enormous space station. It seems like there should have been a protocol for that. The staff’s laziness sneaks into the rest of the film, which manages to avoid demonstrating any real skill.
Because an actual assault on the space station could lead to the president’s daughter’s accidental death, the head honchos decide to send in a single, highly trained agent to sneak in, put Maggie Grace in an escape pod and call in the heavy artillery once the mission is accomplished. Their top pick is an accused national traitor (good idea!) named Snow, played with more vivacity from Guy Pearce than we’ve seen since Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. For all of Lockout’s flaws, Pearce is not one of them. In a genre dominated by joyless macho freaks and cocksure schmucks, Snow is a remarkably refreshing change of pace: a hero with an actual, amusing sense of humor. Pearce’s one-liners don’t play like one-liners, they play like the character uses language and unexpected social interactions to amuse himself. You know, like a human being. A character this genuine belongs in a better film.
So Snow breaks into the space prison to save the president’s daughter and clear his good name in the process, and thus begins an intermittent string of flirtatious bickering intercut with familiar action scenarios. The tragedy is that it might have worked, clichéd though it is, with a stronger set of villains. There are hundreds of prisoners to characterize, and the best Lockout’s got is a generic level-headed leader type played by Vincent Regan, perpetually undone by his psycho brother, played by Joseph Gilgun. The problem with the antagonists’ plan is that they don’t have one. There’s no scheme to be foiled, and there’s certainly no interpersonal conflict to be resolved. They’re the bad guys because they’re taking hostages, and any opportunity to spike their personas with distinctive backstories or predilections is wasted. If these guys get off the space station – which never once seems like a real possibility, which cripples the suspense – what then? Will they turn terrorist or just hide out in Aruba, keeping their noses clean and occasionally committing a heavy larceny or two? Sometimes “anything is possible” just means that nothing matters.
But like Dave Foley in a lab coat, Lockout does manage to coast on charm. Pearce and Grace make for magnetic leads, and for once the inevitable romantic subplot feels organic and not tacked on out of arbitrary by-the-numbers screenwriting. The nuts-and-bolts filmmaking is largely competent but uninspired, with some of the CG in particular looking flat and out of place, like the cinematics from an underfunded video game, undermining an otherwise ambitious and deftly storyboarded early car chase and opening the film on a sour note. It’s a shame, really, because Escape from New York in Space really does seem like the kind of exciting low-concept action schlock that producer Luc Besson could have engineered in his sleep. Maybe he had indigestion that night.