Director: Naylon Beauregard; Cast: Angelina Jolie, Toni Collette, Jude Law, Jada Pinkett-Smith, Tom Cruise, Matt Damon, Laurence Fishburne, Zhang Ziyi, Robert Duvall, and Jason Robards as the President of the United States
(To see the official Essential Target poster, click here.)
There are few things that end up being worth the wait, the gradual buildup of expectation until it outpaces whatever the final product could ever become. And, yet, Essential Target was poised to top even our own outsized hopes. The pedigree suggested as much. Writer and director Naylon Beauregard’s previous movie, Acceleration Homeward, netted just shy of 900 million dollars in foreign and domestic box office totals. That film, an epic story of an entire civilization’s lifespan aboard a spaceship the size of a planet, revitalized the sci-fi genre and made stars of Jude Law and Toni Collette. It changed the way special effects can enter into the storytelling process, reminded us how a singular vision can speak to so many people, and, most importantly, changed our perceptions of our place in this universe. It was, to say the least, as life changing as film can be. Essential Target, I must confess, does not succeed as a film in any traditional (or even nontraditional) sense of the form. It is so ponderous and overwhelmingly large in its focus that our current screens simply cannot accommodate it. I sense that, even if a screen were made that encapsulated the entire dome of the sky, it would not do justice to the aims of this film. What the film does accomplish, through means that may or may not revolve around the act of filmmaking, is to once again cause us to question our necessity in the universe, our need to exist, our possible movement toward a deserved extinction.
It’s impossible to critique Essential Target without first addressing the issues surrounding its creation. The budget. What began as a 100 million-dollar movie turned into a 200 million-dollar movie and, by the time a quarter of a billion dollars had been spent on a single motion picture, still not even half finished, there seemed no option but to continue pouring money into what literally seemed to be the assembling of an entirely new reality. The final budget has not been released, but rumors put it at two-and-a-half billion dollars. A large portion of this money, we of course have now learned, was put toward the scientific enterprise of discovering a new planet in the solar system and then, no other way to describe it, blowing it up. It seems pointless, in a film review, to discuss the ethical questions of this endeavor, only to relate how that experience, captured on film in astonishingly beautiful and disturbing detail, affects the experience of viewing the finished film.
The story concerns a committee of world leaders, disturbed by the rapidly increasing instances of extraterrestrial contact, some good, some bad, which enlists several scientific geniuses to create a plan to rid the universe of other life forms. The committee, spurred by the fear-mongering of the President of the United States of America, played here by Jason Robards, place their faith in the hands of a brilliant, young, beautiful (of course) scientist (Angelina Jolie), who devises a plan to send manned super-nuclear warheads into outer space, to then be piloted toward each known planet in the solar system. This comprises roughly ten minutes of the film. The resulting three hours and twenty-five minutes are devoted to the actual suicide missions of the eight missiles, which are piloted by Toni Collette, Jude Law, Jada Pinkett-Smith, Tom Cruise, Matt Damon, Laurence Fishburne, Zhang Ziyi, and Robert Duvall. The star power at play is staggering, perhaps intentionally designed so as to allow the characters to withstand the awe-inspiring, divine setting of the film, some of it actually filmed in space. It should not ruin the movie to state that almost all of the participants in this mission are unsuccessful and it should not ruin the movie to say that the movie spends most of its time focusing on Collette, who is tasked with eliminating Pluto from the galaxy. Plot and character are, truthfully, not the interest of Beauregard; he cares, instead, about theme and visuals. The problem is that the plot and characters are presented in such a strange way that the film seems to actively work against the tenets of storytelling.
The greatest example has to be the way in which these world-famous actors are presented. For nearly the entirety of the film, these astronauts/suicide bombers don’t wear helmets, which would obscure their faces, but, strangely enough, are encased in an oxygen-manufacturing cloud that protects their bodies from the stress of long-term space travel. This cloud is digitally created and works in the same way that offensive images are blurred on television, though in a more detailed, more ghost-like way. The actors seem not to be present, to already be perished and brought back to the film in ghost form. While the voices of these characters, and particularly unique voices like Duvall and Collette fare better than Cruise or Damon, are present, their bodies, their faces, are obscured for the duration of the film. Why, I ask, spend millions upon millions of dollars on actors who will not be seen? And some actors, such as Ziyi in particular, are primarily interesting actors because of their looks, their movements, not their voices.
However, to pinpoint one aspect of this film as overspending seems ludicrous. And, if the voices of these actors are to be prized, it is again strange that so much of the movie, I would say seventy-five percent, is silent. These are characters on single-manned space flights and they behave as such, sitting in their cockpits, occasionally floating through the cramped quarters that are not given over to the immense payload that is the primary purpose of the trip. It is, I have to say, much like watching a movie where everyone has died, including the director, and the film was reassembled in heaven and beamed back to earth. It is, yes, unsettling and difficult.
The visuals are stunning. It is impossible, most of the time, to understand what we are witnessing, what is real and what is effect and what is actually a hallucination of our own creation. If it is possible, Beauregard shows us not the light of dying stars, but the reincarnation of the stars into something brighter, more startling, more real. It is not enough to say that the visuals, objects moving through a vast expanse of space that cannot simply be understood by the human eye, make you believe in the existence of a god. It causes you to believe that Naylon Beauregard is a god, and this causes you to wonder why god would create such a strange and unsettling film. There is a scene that many will reference, if they make it this far, where Collette’s rocket speeds toward Pluto and Beauregard presents the exterior of the rocket, the size of a fingernail, in a dense and empty expanse of outer space. The scene continues, without sound, for twenty-seven minutes. It is possible, for three or four minutes at a time, to lose sight of the ship entirely, to forget what it is you are even staring at, that you are even watching a movie. You keep reminding yourself that this is a studio-backed summer blockbuster sci-fi adventure, but you are weeping and you cannot understand why we exist when we hold the capacity to hurt everything we’ve ever loved.
Though it is rarely done, it is necessary to discuss the ending. You are free to stop reading, but it won’t matter. It won’t prevent the necessary readjustment of your mind and body. Knowing in advance cannot prepare you for the sheer spectacle of watching an entire planet explode and vaporize. Other articles will discuss the audacity of a film crew searching for, discovering, and then blowing up an actual, honest-to-god planet (though even that designation is, apparently, still being debated, though without the actual planet to help aid in the discourse). The aim of this review is to simply state that the ending, the successful delivery of Collette’s rocket into a planet, which then shifts to the actual footage that Beauregard painstakingly captured (using equipment and techniques he literally invented), is impossible to accurately describe. Even in the strangeness of the scene, having never witnessed an event like this before, it is perfectly understandable upon viewing it. You immediately understand that an object that took millions and millions of years to come into being has been destroyed. And you realize that it is not entirely dissimilar from the object that you currently inhabit.
The problem with reviewing Essential Target is that it is impossible to accurately classify it as a film. It is something else entirely and that is perhaps why this review asserts the failure of the endeavor. It is not a movie. It is a universal experience, accidentally captured by a camera. It is our collective belief that we are both everything and nothing. I wish I never, ever, saw it.
Kevin Wilson is the author of the collection Tunneling to the Center of the Earth (Ecco/Harper Perennial, 2009), which received an Alex Award from the American Library Association and the Shirley Jackson Award, and a novel, The Family Fang (Ecco, 2011). His fiction has appeared in Ploughshares, Tin House, One Story, Cincinnati Review, and elsewhere, and has appeared in four volumes of the New Stories from the South: The Year’s Best anthology as well as The PEN/O. Henry Prize Stories 2012. He has received fellowships from the MacDowell Colony, Yaddo, and the KHN Center for the Arts. He lives in Sewanee, Tennessee, with his wife, the poet Leigh Anne Couch, and his sons, Griff and Patch, where he is an Assistant Professor in the English Department at the University of the South.