GUARDIANS OF THE TOMB: A Masterclass In Cinematic Banality
Chinese-Australian co-production Guardians of the Tomb is one of the most cliched, dull and shamelessly corporate creature features you could possibly imagine.
Whenever one hot Hollywood trend comes to a close, there’s always an amusing period of time where you witness the projects that tapped into the once popular fad emerge too late to be relevant, coming out like ancient artifacts of a bygone era – which is usually only just 1 or 2 years ago.
Even as I type this review, we’ve seen the release of the third Maze Runner film hit theatres worldwide, despite a universal understanding that the quickly prominent Young Adult sci-fi subgenre has become frigid territory. Seeing the advertising material for a third Maze Runner feels like the historic Facebook photo reminders that the social media website likes to intermediately highlight to you, quietly shaming you about that period in 2013 when you thought the Harlem Shake was hilarious.
One of the biggest cinematic movements to steadily die off was the advent of 3D cinema, a 1980’s gimmick that was transformed into a new bombastic type of elevated film-watching off the insane success of James Cameron’s Avatar. Suddenly everything from R-rated action epics to children’s animated features were flipped into 3D properties, a short-sighted venture that resulted in audience’s quick resistance to the eye-damaging and expensive way to digest an art-form that is best suited to 2D screens.
One of the minor hits of the 3D era was Bait 3D, a goofy Australian-Singaporean collaboration that pitted a group of Australians inside a flooded supermarket, alongside one hungry CGI shark. Six years later, its director Kimble Rendall returns with another attempt at 3D B-Movie success with Guardians of the Tomb, a film that’s such a fossilised relic that I’m not surprised the main characters aren’t hunting it in some bizarre form of meta-storytelling.
Something For Everyone
Originally titled The Nest 3D, Guardians of the Tomb is the absolute worst type of transparent manufacturing found in the film industry. Shot back in early 2016, it’s one of the major titles to be produced under a new collaboration between Screen Australia (Australia’s biggest source of film financing) and Chinese production companies, with a series of quadrant hitting projects made to obtain success from both of the contributing countries.
Much like America’s attempts at combining their audiences with China’s surging box office through the ill-fated The Great Wall early last year, Guardians of the Tomb simply feels like the end results of its obvious intentions.
There’s no organic blending of the multiple factors that Screen Australia and the other involved bodies had hoped this would tick off – big success in the Chinese and Australian box offices, making extra money off the lofty 3D ticket prices and be a hit with genre audiences worldwide. I honestly think I’d be more interested in watching the multi-chaptered powerpoint presentations that surely were used to green-light this, because at least then the cynical nature of this movie’s inception wouldn’t try to disguise itself as anything else.
The Basic Formula
Li BingBing plays Jia, an Australian expert on venomous animals, who is shocked at the news that her older brother Luke (Wu Chun) has gone missing in an expedition in China. The dangerous quest was to find a mysterious elixir, a heavily-dismissed symbol of past folklore stories, which promises its user immortality and immediate healing abilities. Luke’s mission has been commissioned by Mason (Kelsey Grammar), the CEO of a struggling biotech corporation that previously belonged to Jia and Luke’s recently deceased parents. Desperate to find her lost sibling, Jia teams up with Mason to descend into the deserts of China to find out what happened.
Once there, Jia meets the team members that originally assisted Luke in his search before his alarming disappearance – a parade of disposable stereotypes who exist to be cannon fodder later on. There’s the necessary comic relief guy (Shane Jacobson), the “hot girl” (Stef Dawson) and Mr. Exposition (Jason Chong). Adjacent to them is Ridley (Kellan Lutz), the appointed muscular beefcake of the gang whose glaring banality is only covered by his flagrant plot armour.
As these lifeless structures of narrative convention find a cave entrance that houses the missing Luke, they come face to face with a bland assortment of CGI spiders, thousands of black homogenous creatures that represent a definitive lesson in screen-writing for horror films – it’s quality, not quantity that works.
Three Dimensional – In Visuals Only
There’s a clashing nature of the cheap practical effects being decorated by an absurd amount of computer generated anthropods, as their obviously fake nature lacks any tactile features, making any form of suspense/scares completely futile. There’s an inherent emptiness to these visuals, because it all looks fake, with no effort made during the actual filming days to legitimise any of the effects being done at a later date. This movie is the personification of the film-making joke of “We’ll Do It In Post Production”, a vacant promise usually announced by lousy directors, who think bad shooting days can be magically fixed through editing tricks and animated wizardy.
An annoyingly frequent amount of direct to camera intrusions highlight the originally intended 3D nature, but without that artificial attempt at engagement, it just feels cheap and desperate. It’s not just the 3D parts that feel like reminders of moments in Hollywood history, the production design also helps in emphasising the laziness, with every location just feeling like banal recreations of the work done in Brendan Fraser’s Mummy trilogy back in 1999.
In fact, this whole thing is a retro-active time capsule of the 1990’s, a rich decade of risky studio film-making, with one of the trendy series of releases for Hollywood at that time being the big-budget creature feature. Alien 3, From Dusk Till Dawn, Deep Rising, Lake Placid, Anacdonda and Mimic were just some of the high-profile motion pictures that contributed to the popularity of this trend, all with the same formula: a rag-tag group of trapped humans are stuck in a singular location, killed off one-by-one by some mysterious creature, either alien or an far-fetched depiction of a dangerous animal.
The tropes and narrative structures presented here are pretty well-defined, which is why Guardians of the Tomb is such a tediously frustrating watch. NOTHING is done in order to create a distinctive mood, sense of character, anything that would make it identifiable in a crowd of 100 other derivative titles that use this exact same overdone formula.
All of the diverse cast members are clearly bored, given absolutely zero help by the script, a worthless collection of pages that only functions to tell the director which identically insipid paper mache cavern the cast needs to stand around in. Shane Jacobson, who showed that he can be quite a charming screen presence with The BBQ, is given the increasingly irritating role as the unraffled comic relief, encroaching on every minor action set piece or conversation with some outlandishly misfired one-liners. Every single one is delivered with the lifeless nature that their level of unfunniness deserves.
So much of Jacobson’s gags are noticeably done via ADR, that it often feels like we’re listening to his personal commentary on the movie, a series of dubious jokes that feel reminiscent of Ben Affleck’s hilariously sarcastic commentary for Armageddon.
Conclusion: Guardians of the Tomb
With a title like Guardians of the Tomb, I can only have vivid thoughts of producers excitedly hoping misguided teens hit play on it instead of James Gunn’s beloved Marvel space operas. Just picturing a snug teenage couple, in the midst of the accepted ritual of Netflix and Chill, hoping to see the radiant adventures of Star-Lord and his gang, and instead getting this dreadful, banal, ugly commercial product, is quite hilarious to me.
Just imagining this moment alone is more entertaining than anything on offer here, a movie so formulaic and cliched that its forced me to use a thesaurus just to research how many different ways I can say its boring: tedious, dull and monotonous seem to be the three main offers. Yup, a perfect trio of words to summarise this garbage, an absurdly monumental waste of Australian and Chinese finances.
What are some of your favourite creature features?
Guardians of the Tomb gets a limited release on February 1st in Australia and New Zealand, and was released in China on January 19th. UK & USA releases are currently unknown. For other international release dates, check here.
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