MOVIE REVIEW: “Bionicle: The Legend Reborn” (2009)

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ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED ON 10/26/09

Have you ever had one of those things that wash right over you without leaving a trace? The kind of thing that you try to dive in to and swim around in, attempting to divine its secrets, and when all is said and done, not only did you not gain any esoteric knowledge, you can’t even really remember what the hell you spent all that time doing. I have a kind of whacky combination of a semi-eidetic memory, and a bit of OCD, so I have some advantages when it comes to figuring things out, and I can usually come up to speed on any complex story fairly quickly, but there are certain things - math for instance - that I can claw at for years, hold barely in my fingernails, and then loose the moment I turn away. It’s frustrating, but fortunately these ‘dead zones’ in my brain are relatively scarce and fairly well circumscribed.

Except for damn Bionicle, of course. I can’t keep it straight.

It’s not for lack of trying, however, my kids love the stuff, and it kind of behooves me to know what they’re talking about. It’s a dad thing, right? Alas, try as I may, for years on end, the stuff just goes straight through me like shot through a gun, and I’m left with no real knowledge of what it is that I just watched. It’s not like an alien abduction, of course, I know what I’ve seen, but for whatever reason the whole thing exists in a world without dimension or context, and nothing means anything. If that sounds familiar, it’s a complaint that a lot of people have about Science Fiction as a whole. I don’t know why I should find a storyline intended for eight year olds so damn confounding when I can effortlessly keep 700 hours of Star Trek straight in my head, when I know every nod and reference in Babylon 5, when I know how all the Stargate shows fit together, when I can kluge the Bible together in a linear narrative on a moment’s notice, when I can swim through centuries of World History as though I was a fish in a pond, but, dammit, I can’t figure out this franchise.

It drives me nuts.

The “Bionacle” movies started out a few years ago, as Straight-to-DVD fare. They made three of them: The first was a standalone; the second was set between the penultimate and ultimate scenes of the first, and the third one was a prequel in to which the previous movies plugged, again, between the penultimate and ultimate scenes. Odd construction, but no matter. Beyond that it gets fuzzy. I mean, I’ve even read the books, but none of it *means* anything. Tone poems have more heft with me, and I *hate* those, boy.

Bionacles are living machine dealies, I guess, maybe; there are several ethnic groups, and several grades. There’s the regular “Matoran“, and then their protectors who are souped up in to “Toa” and then the retired “Toa” are called “Torragas.” These all live happily in a big city called “Metru Nui,” except when they don’t, which seems to be the case in more than half of the stories. Metru Nui is, evidently, a continent-sized city on whatever planet the Bionacles live on. They fight wide assortments of beasties called “Rahi” and there’s something called a “Visorak” that I was never quite able to figure out - maybe it’s an animal, maybe it’s an enemy, maybe it’s a friend, it makes no sense to me.

On top of all this, there’s an eternal conflict going on between the forces of light and the forces of darkness in the person of “Makuta,” who’s the devil, and “The Great Spirit.” This “Great Spirit” is a source of much confusion for me. Sometimes he’s used in the American Indian sense of the title, ie “God,” sometimes they wus out and back away from it a bit and say he’s “The Great Spirit Of Civilizaton,” whatever that means. Sometimes the name “Mata Nui” is used, but it’s never clear to me if this is the same as the Great Spirit, or if they’re different characters. Sometimes Mata Nui is an island, sometimes he’s a god, sometimes he’s just a vaguely goofy new-age concept. Can you see why I find this confounding? I know some conservative Christians find this blasphemous and evil and stuff, but frankly I can’t comprehend it well enough to be offended.

With that out of the way:

PLAY BY PLAY

The Island of Mata Nui explodes, and it turns out that it’s just sitting on the face of a massive continent-sized robot that was laying on its back in the water. Really. It gets up and walks around, and we hear Michael Dorn talk about how he was the absolute ruler of his own private little universe, but he was betrayed from within. Literally within, as there’s a megacity of Matoran living within him. Something unexplained goes wrong within the big ‘bot, and it shuts down amidst much higgledy piggeldy amongst the folks inside. Then, for no adequately explained reason, a mask shoots out of the big ‘bot’s belly, and flies through space.

The mask “Of Life” drifts between galaxies, and crashes in to another planet called “Bara Magna,” where, again for no adequately explained reason, the mask grows in to a normal looking people-sized Toa, which quickly befriends a kind of cyber-bug thing, and is then attacked by a robot monster. The cyber-bug transforms - once again for no adequately explained reason - in to a shield to protect the Bionicle from the beastie, which then runs off.

Eventually Joe Isuzu (David Leisure) shows up in the form of a local robot man (It should be mentioned that even though this is a different planet, everything here is robotic, too) on a dune buggy, who offers the Toa a ride. The Toa introduces himself as “Mata Nui” and, once again, I’m confused as hell about what the hell a "Mata Nui" is supposed to be. Big Robot? Little Robot? Continet? God? God in Bionacle Form? What? Anyway, Joe takes Mata back to his town, a place were they evidently do nothing all day but watch gladiatorial games “To settle disputes.” One of these games goes wrong when a defeated gladiator (“Glatorians” in this game) sucker-punches the victor as he’s walking away. Mata jumps in to rescue the victor, and the bad guy eventually slinks off.

“Ackar” is the “Glatorian” that Mata befriended, and Ackar introduces him to “Kiina,” who’s evidently a chick. Before they can get to the robo-boot-knocking, however, Kina explains that she’s found a ‘secret cavern’ (ahem) that she’d love to show Mata Nui (Ahem), because she feels it might interest him (Ahem) if he’d promise to take her with him when he leaves (Ahem). This they then do, stopping off at her place only to find it’s been destroyed by a joint assault from two heretofore unrelated species of desert-dwelling Bara Magnans. I can’t think of what they’re called, so let’s just call them the “Sand People” and the “Jawas.“ Anyway, her village is destroyed, but they manage to rescue one of the locals and escape to Kiina’s special place (ahem), where they meet a kleptomaniac in the caves, along with some references to the “Great Beings.”

This piques Mata’s interest, though no one bothers to explain who or what a Great Being is. Evidently they’re important, though it’s unclear why, which probably shouldn’t be surprising in a story that can’t keep track whether its protagonist is a god, city, island, mask or whatever. In any event, the Great Beings are somehow significant in Bionicle history, and evidently at some point in the distant past, they were hangin’ out on Bara Magna. Mata Nui finds a huge schematic of himself, back when he was a continent-sized city-bot, and he’s surprised to find that the locals are indifferent about these “Great Beings.” Kiina holds that they devastated the planet, leaving it the endless wasteland it is now, Ackar is more philosophical about it.

After this, Mata decides to go his own way, but Ackar points out that he’s got a lot to learn about fighting, so he stays. Also, for - say it with me here - “For No Adequately Defined Reason” whenever someone touches their weapon to Mata’s mask, their weapons get super-powers - fire swords, super-hyper-mega squirt guns, etc. They make their way to the “Twin Towns” with no real incident, and we’re told at this point that Mata has learned all Ackar has to teach about fighting (Whaaaa?) Here we bump in to Joe Isuzu again, at a gladiatorial game. Ackar calls an end to the fight and points out that the sand people and jawas have united and are on the warpath, which freaks everyone all the hell out. Joe Isuzu informs us that such a thing is unthinkable and has never happened before, and in the past they’ve been working at crossed purposes with little real effect aside from the occasional 7-11 robbery and some graffiti, however, if they were able to work together they could easily take out a Stuckys or maybe even a Dairy Queen! The Sky’s the limit!

The twin towns are united by physically pulling them together - don’t ask. I watched it myself with my own eyes, and I don’t understand it. Remember what I was saying about this stuff washing right through me and leaving nothing but a sense of lost time? Case in point. Anyway, this causes the ground to collapse a bit.

Kiina and the Klepper are captured by the Sandpeople, and after some talk, Mata Nui decides to go after them himself while the Glatorians all band up to form an army. He walks to the Sandpeople camp, and picks a mano-a-mano (Boto-a-Boto?) fight with the sand people leader, which, of course, he wins. He’s Michael Dorn, after all! Then he frees the captives, and meets the true mastermind of Jawa/Sandpeople unity: Joe Isuzu. Because we’re repeatedly told that he’s a businessman and, I dunno, capitalism is bad or something. I’m fuzzy.

Higgaldy Piggaldy once again breaks out in the form of a ten minute long battle between the bad guys and the good guys which more-or-less defies people to give a damn, and Mata captures Joe Isuzu and touches him to his mask, thereby (One more time!) “For No Adequately Explained Reason” transforming him in to a robot snake. Kind of like a bicycle chain, with a metal snake head on one end. Wearing a mask. He slithers off. Oh, and at one point Mata’s bug friend and some other bugs form a giant bug-monster thing as a distraction. They’re vaguely purple, so you know it’s important.

The other towns are unified, again by physically towing them to the spot and clamping them to the Twin Towns (Again, I watched this, and still have no freakin’ clue what’s going on), and then the ground collapses some more, and they see the remains of another continent-sized robot, just like Mata Nui’s former body laying there, for no adequately blah blah blah. You get it. They also discover a clue to something or other, and set off to follow it.

The End.

OBSERVATIONS

I was going to start this out by saying “Michael Dorn is best known for playing Gordie the Weatherman on the final season of The Mary Tyler Moore show, and also I think he played a clown or something in one of those Trek shows.” Alas, dammit, I can’t say that, despite it being really funny, because I just checked in to it and found that - despite widespread rumors to the contrary - Gordy the Weatherman was played by John Amos. There’s limits to how far I’ll go in service of a gag, and I won’t deliberately say something that’s wrong. I even research it, though I’m too lazy to go back and look up what the jawas and sand people were called.

Anyway, bottom line, my gag is ruined by stupid ugly reality, and of course Michael Dorn played Worf on all 7 years of TNG and I think 4 seasons of DS9 as well. He’s the single-most-filmed Trek character in the entire history of the franchise, and has probably spent more time in the prosthetic makeup chair than any other human being alive (three or four hours a day for a decade adds up, kids). He’s also reputedly a great guy with an instantly recognizable speaking voice, and I’ve always liked him (Despite attempting to pretend he played a clown on Trek as part of a dismissive anti-Trek gag that didn’t really come off). He’s good in this, though, obviously, putting him in this movie was either stunt casting or typecasting, or some other generally-perceived-as-negative kind of casting. “We need someone who can say Honor forcefully, and Andreas Katsulas is dead, so get me that trek guy with the silly-looking swords!” He does the best he can with limited material here, though.

David Liesure is surprisingly good at this. I’ve never heard him voice-act before, but he’s good - comedic and oily, with just a hint of menace and condescension. Kiina is voiced by Marla Sokolof (Whom I’ve never heard of before) in a manner midway between Amanda Bynes (Who I don’t like) and Ashley Tisdale (Who’s a great voice actress). Sometimes it works, but when she Byneses it up, it doesn’t.

The animation style is wildly different than the original trilogy. Gone are the surprisingly lush visuals with a surprising depth of field, gone are the endless overgrown cityscapes and alien architecture, left behind in favor of a dramatic locus that looks a lot like a torn up back yard that a kid might play in. I think that’s deliberate, actually, I think that’s what they were going for. The first three movies were really trying for (And mostly missing) an epic feel, whereas this one is, I think, kind of supposed to look a little crappy. In the first films, they went out of their way to make the bionicles look fairly real, in this they deliberately look like toys. It’s a definite step backwards; too obvious to be anything other than deliberate. I think the new design ethos is “Make it look like a kid playing in his back yard, making up incoherent crap as he goes along,” which is intended to be quaint, but is mostly a shame. At least I could zone out to the pretty eye-candy of the original movies when my kids insisted on watching them. For this one, I’ve got nothing.

Turning Joe Isuzu in to a snake was both obvious and derivative. Frankly, GI Joe: The movie (1986) did it much better with Cobra Commander (“I wasss onssse a man! Onessss a man!”).

Music is just kind of there, nothing much jumped out at me.

The story ends as an obvious setup for another sequel, and the question of Mata Nui’s people - who, he repeatedly says, are enslaved back home, awaiting him to come and deliver them - is nowhere near resolved.

[6/22/10 UPDATE: Nor will it ever be resolved. Back in May, the toy company announced they were discontinuing the Bionicles line and any promotional stuff that tied in with it.]

It feels both cobbled together and horribly open-ended. There’s a ‘why bother’ feeling to it that the first films didn’t have. I actually felt like I should have understood - or at least remembered - those. If I’d seen this one first, I doubt I would have made any effort.

Direction is flat, and talky, and yet not terribly expositional, just…y’know…talky. Nothing of any real great import, they’re just chatty, but we still don’t know why Mata Nui was a robot-city-continent-thing, how he was betrayed, how he knew he was betrayed, how he came to be a mask, how he came to travel through space, how he came to this planet, how a bug fell in love with him, why he can transform things…seriously, none of it makes much sense. Compared to this, “Tron” is an example of unbelievably tight logical wrangling.

In the end, my youngest said “I’d have liked more boom boom and less talk talk,” and I couldn’t help but agree with him. His assessment was that it was ok, but not nearly as good as the others, which is probably a case of damning with faint praise. My oldest said it felt like an unsold pilot for a TV series. But I’m sure the sequel will make it all better, right? [The sequel that will never be made?]

WILL CONSERVATIVES LIKE THIS MOVIE

Normally I say something snarky at this point, indicating that I emphatically believe they will, or emphatically believe they won’t, or snidely mention that it won’t matter at all. In this case - wow - this movie is so amazingly inert that I honestly can’t formulate an opinion. I guess if you’re fond of Argon and Xenon gasses you might like it - that is, if you like inert stuff, you might. If you want something that will affect you on any emotional level, either for good or ill, however, this movie ain’t that.

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