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Friday, 3 August 2012

The Photon Effect (2010)

Director: Dan Poole
Stars: Dan Poole and Derek Minter

It would be easy to wonder what sort of story we're watching here. Before the title screen we get a trio of young men in body armour and spine sheaths with neon blue lights pretending to be X-Men. They seem to be mounting some sort of mission to plant explosives on industrial equipment but it isn't particularly clear what they're doing. The one subtly named Damage sticks his hands in what looks like a photocopier and apparently gains the power to throw fireballs at people. It's all a little much but when he leaves the building, he explodes. It's comic book superhero stuff. After the title screen, we find ourselves grounded in blue collar reality with a couple of cousins who work for American Antenna. They're refreshingly real, down to earth workers, all the way down to Jay and Derek Powers being played by a couple of actors who are great fun to watch but are far from slick Hollywood star material. They're given good dialogue too, which is enjoyably free of cool inanity.

You know the two stories are going to meet at some point and they do so in explosive fashion. The cut rate X-Men work for a company called Randall Communications Inc, as human test subjects in an experimental weapons program. American Antenna contracts to RCI because, as Derek points out, they're the only company willing to put up unknown, untested electronic transmitters. It's on a trip to RCI that Jay notices Tina, his ex-fiancée, working there and he's dying to get an opportunity to win her back after eight years. So he pops round after hours to talk to her and ends up taking on the security guard outside instead. She eventually shows up, with the guys in body armour. One of them fires an oversized penis extension of a ray gun at his car which promptly gets tossed up in the air like a pancake. Another flips sparks out of his fingers, just as a suggestion that he might want to get the heck out of Dodge. He's bright enough to realise when he's outgunned.

It's fun to watch a couple of protagonists who are bright and dumb at the same time instead of just concentrating on the latter. Most of this is due to the efforts of Dan Poole, who was something of a one man crew on this movie. He wrote, produced and directed; he served as production designer and stunt coordinator; and he also played one of the two leads, Derek Powers. It's entirely his film and it's not a particularly surprising progression from his first film, a 46 minute demo reel called The Green Goblin's Last Stand, made for $500 and sent to James Cameron, at the time the director assigned to Spider-Man. Derek is a good guy. Even though he starts out in a shirt that reads 'Authentic Lifesaver', he's a realistic hero. As the tagline to the movie runs, 'not everyone wants the power to change things,' and the evolution of his superpowers, because yes, he gets them, is far more believable than anything Marvel or DC conjured up over the last century.

RCI are working on a secret weapons program tied to experimental microwave antennae, which Jay and Derek get to attach to towers. As Jay fools around while his cousin is fitting one of them, the accident happens and Derek turns into Photon, the Human Antenna. Jay turns into the Black Hole, a little more deliberately, essentially to impress Tina and win her back from Destroy. All this sounds impeccably cheesy but it isn't, it's character driven and thoroughly grounded. The cheese is kept in reserve for the various appearances of the Dial-a-Hurt Squad, those guys in body armour who get precisely no depth and no background. They're even called dumb names: Damage, Degrade, Deny and Destroy. I get the impression that Poole made them deliberately cheesy to epitomise the Hollywood superhero genre, while letting the Powers boys show what the indie scene can do. I may be reading too much into it, but that's what it felt like to me and it felt good.
Poole is excellent as Derek Powers, but fortunately he has Derek Minter to play off as his cousin Jay. They have different acting styles and play very different characters, but they work very well together, not least through the power of sarcasm which is used to joyous effect here in a literate script. Jay is far more volatile than his cousin, a textbook underachiever who's a little fond of the bottle and a little quick to anger. 'I knew you'd be a baby when I got my superpowers!' he tells Derek, as they face off against each other for the first time, and that's a line that could sum up Hollywood today all on its own. Poole has a talent for dialogue, which is intelligent but believable, even when he stoops to homage with lines like, 'You wouldn't like me when I'm hungry.' Dialogue doesn't cost anything but it often seems like the last thing low budget filmmakers try to build up when compensating for a lack of financing. Poole likes dialogue and character as well as effects.

The Powers boys are magnificently fleshed out for a low budget feature like this. Apparently it cost a mere $117,000 which is truly amazing given the technical quality of what Poole gets up onto his screen. Some of the overlay and rear projection work needs improvement but most of the rest is surprisingly good and I found that I enjoyed the result a lot more than the last dozen superhero films I saw with a thousand times the budget to play with. No, it's not going to stand up against what Weta Digital might conjure up but it doesn't have to. It only has to be good enough to prompt us to marvel a little at the spectacle while we care about the characters, and it's easily up to that. It didn't take any effort to look past some of the flimsy walls they break through or the instability of Photon running alongside a purse snatcher on his motorbike. I cared more about Derek's doctor and Kelly Hammond's assistant at Biolabs than I did about Iron Man. They had better lines too.

In fact there are a whole host of supporting characters who are great fun to watch. The acting is consistently capable, even though these folks don't all seem to be incredibly experienced. Most inherently obvious are the Dial-a-Hurt guys, because they're a macho dream with their huge guns and body armour. They are also the most wooden actors in the film but that's probably by design. The real supporting characters are led by Ariana Almajan and Brian Razzino. Almajan plays Jay's old flame, Tina Viccarini, and she does so with stunning matter of factness. Razzino is Bob Chase, the head of RCI, and he's a suitable wiener of a villain for someone who has no powers of his own. Alex Baker plays Kelly Hammond, who progresses from a purse snatch victim to a key player in helping Derek deal with his new found abilities. I didn't catch the names of some of the lesser characters but they were all good fun. I hope I see many of them again in the inevitable sequel.

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