January movies suck. Right? At least that’s always been the conventional wisdom. Just as movies released in the second half of August and early September are considered to be weak stragglers and cast-offs after the summer rush, the post-holiday haze of the very beginning of a New Year is supposed to be the same kind of repository for the trash that isn’t awards-worthy or good enough to spend a lot of marketing dollars on. After all, the kids are back in school, no one has money, so who cares?
The truth of the matter, however, is that over the years January has gradually shed its stigma of being a cinematic burial site. Now that doesn’t mean there isn’t plenty of garbage shoved onto multiplex screens during the first month of the year—far from it. But as two recent examples show, January can be just as much fun for moviegoers as any other period, especially if one is looking for the kind of escapist genre fare that once was known in the vernacular as “B-movies.”
Let’s also make it clear that we’re talking about new movies getting their first release in January, and not films that creep into theaters for a week in December to qualify for awards before getting a wider release a month later. No one should confuse awards fare like the current (and excellent) contender Women Talking with releases like M3GAN or the newly released Plane. Those latter two certainly aren’t going to win any major awards, but they’re all of a lot of fun…
M3GAN Never Takes Itself Too Seriously
M3GAN is already a monster hit, overperforming on its opening weekend to the tune of $30 million and benefiting from a social media-driven marketing campaign that introduced a whole new generation to their own killer doll movie (we’re old enough to remember when Chucky and Annabelle were all the rage). And it comes from the newly aligned combination of Jason Blum’s Blumhouse Films and James Wan’s Atomic Monster banner, two of the best-known names in horror today.
But make no mistake: M3GAN is a fine film in its own right. It’s a clever combination of horror and sci-fi, capitalizing on the ongoing debates about what artificial intelligence means for humankind’s future, the film draws not just on the history of talking, murderous dolls (going all the way back to films like the 1945 anthology Dead of Night) but adds both elements of Frankenstein and Westworld to the mix.
It also taps into the anxieties of every parent who wishes secretly that there was a toy like M3GAN who could actually be a constant, interactive companion to their kids. In this case, that is represented by Allison Williams’ overworked scientist who has had parenthood forced on her when her niece is suddenly, tragically, orphaned, and who in her attempts to forfeit her responsibilities to technology, exposes the loneliness of kids themselves and their search for the perfect best friend.
This doesn’t mean that M3GAN is a serious examination of these themes. Right from the start, there’s a playfulness and slight edge of camp that keeps the movie light (even when M3GAN offs someone’s pet) and generally fun. Writer Akela Cooper and director Gerard Johnstone know exactly what they’re working with, they understand the basic silliness of their premise, and before things get too grimdark, M3GAN busts out her already famous dance to take things to a different level.
Plane Is a Mid-Level Action Throwback
Now, on the other hand, there’s not a whole lot of humor in director Jean-François Richet’s Plane (written by Charles Cumming and J.P. Davis), but that’s not the point. Plane is the kind of action programmer that goes back decades, a film that sets up a nearly impossible (not to mention implausible) situation and deploys an everyman hero to get out of it, often in a manner that demands the use of violence, chases, and explosions.
The film stars Gerard Butler, whose resume has been filling up with this kind of thing for years as the now 53-year-old actor prepares to take the action B-movie crown from Liam Neeson, who found his niche in this genre considerably later in his career.
Although Butler’s early career was much more varied, ranging from Reign of Fire to The Phantom of the Opera, to his big breakout, 300, his recent output has focused on the likes of Olympus Has Fallen and its sequels, Geostorm, Law Abiding Citizen, Den of Thieves, and Greenland, in which the Scottish thespian plays a variation on his signature role: a professional at something (security, law enforcement, etc.) who is more than competent but also capable of vulnerability. He then must overcome extreme obstacles to save his family, stop the bad guys, or, in this case, rescue the passengers of a commercial flight.
Some of Butler’s action movies are awful, and most never rise above the level of “pretty good,” but his presence of overall charisma and a willingness to not let himself look invincible onscreen (he even cries at one point in Plane) has given him considerable leeway in his pursuit of the B-movie throne.
Plane definitely falls into the “pretty good” category and, we daresay, bumps up near the top of it. This time Butler plays Brodie Torrance, a pilot on a mid-level airline who’s commanding a New Year’s Eve flight from Singapore to Hawaii so he can meet his daughter there for a holiday. Torrance is a widower (all these guys of course have dead wives) and he’s also not flying the best routes because he got physical with an unruly passenger a while back (the guy deserved it). But he’s also an extremely skilled pilot and all his expertise and experience is called into play when the plane—sent directly into a heavy storm by a flight controller to save some time, fuel, and money—is struck by lightning and forced to crash land on a remote island somewhere in the Philippines.
To make matters that much more difficult, in addition to Torrance, his co-pilot Sam (Yoson An), and his three flight attendants, one of the flight’s 14 passengers is a fugitive named Louis Gaspare (Mike Colter of Luke Cage and Evil fame), who’s being extradited back to the States for murder and accompanied by a sole law officer.
From the moment that Gaspare enters the jet (and Colter is quite good at keeping the character enigmatic throughout), to a few minutes later when Torrance has to fly directly into some extremely bad weather, Richet immediately begins to crank up the suspense. The first payoff is the exceedingly scary crash sequence, which is a white-knuckle set piece all the way down even with some dodgy CG of the outside of the plane.
But Plane then caught us by surprise. We should say at this point that we went into the movie totally cold, with very little knowledge about the plot, and we would argue that the film works better that way. The setup makes one think that the story is going to go a certain way, but then it goes in a rather different direction, with different challenges for Torrance and his passengers to overcome and character arcs that don’t quite go as you’d expect.
Plane Shows How January Can Stick the Landing
Now don’t get us wrong: right down to its generic title, Plane is the kind of movie one might catch on Netflix on a rainy Sunday afternoon. As we mentioned, the visual effects aren’t the best. It’s all set for the most part in one jungle location. A lot of the camerawork is done in close-up or medium shots, so the film kind of feels small.
But Richet does know how to stage action so that you can follow what everyone is doing, and the geography of the action sequences always makes sense. The story develops in a logical fashion. Torrance and Gaspare are not developed much beyond their basic elements (pilot wanting to get home, fugitive who may not be what he seems), and the rest of the passengers aren’t developed at all. But you end up rooting for all of them (even the typical loudmouth who’s always on the passenger list) to get out alive.
So Plane works, and its economical 107-minute running time more or less flies by. Just like M3GAN, it doesn’t have the weight of expectations—whether those of holiday season prestige films or summer blockbusters—on its shoulders. It sets out to entertain you, and it damn well does.
Bad Boys for Life. Taken (Liam Neeson’s standard-bearing older-guy action fest). Cloverfield. Split. Mama. The Grey (Liam Neeson again). Juice. Haywire. Hell, even From Dusk Till Dawn back in 1996. These are all genre entries (action, crime, horror) that came out in January to solid and sometimes knockout box office, all of which were well-received by audiences and often critics. Now M3GAN and Plane can join that list.
As for late August… that’s another story.
M3GAN and Plane are both out in theaters now. Go watch them. You’ll have fun.