Really, Hollywood has two kinds of disaster movies. The first kind puts a group of characters in mortal peril as the result of some devastating natural phenomena: a ship capsising in The Poseidon Adventure (1972) or a volcanic eruption in Dante’s Peak (1997), and so on. Then there is the second kind of Hollywood disaster; not a fictional scenario, but the film itself. Something not simply poorly made, but so badly compromised during production that it never stood a chance of being good.
I have a tremendous soft spot for such films, where the potential of the work casts a long shadow over the reality of it. In some cases, such as David Fincher’s cult favourite Alien³ (1992), the finished film is close enough to its potential that it manages to be an entertaining but flawed work. In others, like Kurt Wimmer’s anime-inspired science fiction film Ultraviolet (2006), the tortured process of production, post-production, and studio interference has been so great that the film simply never stood a chance. I have a deep soft spot for Ultraviolet, but there is not a way in the world I could justifiably describe it as ‘good’. To be honest, it is barely watchable.
In 2078 a global pandemic has left a minority of people infected with hemoglophagia, a disease that resembles the mythic abilities of vampires. While the theocratic government, ruled by the dictator Vice-Cardinal Daxus (Nick Chinlund), seeks to round up and exterminate all remaining hemophages, the rebel Violet (Milla Jovovich) fights for a secret militia working to defend them and find a cure.
Kurt Wimmer is a successful screenwriter whose popular work on Sphere (1998) and The Thomas Crown Affair (1999) led to him writing and directing the science fiction film Equilibrium (2002). That film’s modest commercial success led to him writing and directing Ultraviolet four years later.
Let us handle the most significant problem with Ultraviolet up-front. Production company Screen Gems, allegedly deeply unhappy with how Wimmer’s film was shaping up, ripped it from the director’s control, locked him out of the editing process entirely, and released their own truncated edit to cinemas. It is rumoured, and a glance at the actual film seems to give this weight, that Screen Gems even released the film with incomplete and preliminary visual effects. It is an effects-heavy film as well, with extensive CGI backgrounds blending together location photography in multiple Chinese cities to generate an entirely new metropolis. Exaggerated action and chase scenes also employ significant amounts of CGI to emulate the same action-oriented anime productions that inspired much of The Matrix. Wimmer also seems to have pursued a visual treatment that slightly bleaches out and smooths over human faces. It almost works as a means of developing a sort of live-action/animation hybrid, but simply looks too blurry and low-resolution to seem effective – or, in its most egregious shots, even watchable.
The truncated 87-minute cut does not do the narrative any favours. Story short-cuts abound in the name of including as much ludicrous action as possible. To paper over the gaps, extensive narration is included with Jovovich providing the same tedious voiceover that Harrison Ford famously employed on the original release of Blade Runner (1982). It is impossible to know if a fuller cut of the film would have helped matters – Wimmer may simply have written an incoherent screenplay – but in the film’s released state audiences will ever know. A 94-minute extended addition reportedly adds a minimum of additional detail.
There are fabulous little design elements littered about the film that suggest something much more original and clever that what the final release delivers. To be honest, a viewer’s enjoyment of the film rises and falls based on these small touches. They do suggest Ultraviolet could at least have been a stylistic slice of pulp entertainment, and a neat little science fiction adventure, had it been properly completed.
The performances vary. Jovovich is in her element – these medium-scale action vehicles are her raison d’etre, after all – but Nick Chinlund is much too mannered and hammy to be a convincing villain. Cameron Bright delivers a solid-enough job as the mysterious boy “Six”, whom Violet comes to rescue from government custody. William Fichtner, a reliable presence in any film, has a small but ineffectual role as a rebel scientist. It is nice to see him there, but it’s brief and uninvolving.
Ultraviolet is short, confusing, visually murky, and dramatically underwhelming. It is not, by any reasonable measure, a good film. It’s troubled production has visibly hobbled its chances, and despite showing much promise back in Equilibrium Kurt Wimmer has not directed a film since. Oh, but if…