Luc Besson. Space Prison. Guy Pearce. For some of you, those six words are probably all the review I need to offer on Lockout. Though not nearly as ambitious in its scope (or budget) as The Fifth Element or Taken, Lockout is best framed as Luc Besson lending his name, pen, and production company to two rookie directors, Stephen St. Leger and James Mather, who seem eager to cut their teeth with a story befitting Paul Verhoeven or John McTiernan.
Lockout’s story lives in the sweet spot where American “sci-fi” action meets European dry wit. Guy Pearce plays Snow, an ex-government operative wrongly accused of murder in an authoritarian but not quite dystopian vision of future America. Without trial, Snow is sentenced to 30 years in MS-1, an orbiting space prison that houses its inmates in cryogenic storage. Meanwhile on MS-1, the president’s daughter (Maggie Grace) is trying to ascertain the long term effects of cryogenic suspension upon the human body. The incompetence of one secret service agent leads to a single prisoner freeing all five hundred of MS-1’s inmates. Rather than sending in the marines, the president and the head of the secret service send in Snow to extract the first daughter.
Now would be a good time to engage a little suspension of disbelief. We all know that even sixty years from now, there’s no way a space prison will be feasible. So why would Besson bother writing a film with such a kooky concept? Arguably, because the movie has a lot of fun reveling in absurdity.
Fun, however, is not a word that I like to use very often in my reviews. All too often “fun” is invoked as an apology for something stupid and ill-paced. So why use it now? In part because it is genuinely fun to see how the screenplay (jointly written by Besson, Mather, and St. Leger) amplifies the clichés of the American action hero until it becomes something somewhat original. For example, Lockout’s trailer portrayed Snow as a wise cracking tough guy, not exactly new ground. Yet the writing takes Snow’s smart-ass dialogue to the nth degree by making almost everything he says a punchy one-liner, and surprisingly enough, each zinger is as funny as the one that came before it. This might hurt the movie’s re-watch value, but as a one-time affair, it’s spot on.
Then there are the almost negligible story elements which speak to a world which takes itself deadly serious, even if the audience isn’t meant to do the same. In addition to MS-1, Earth’s orbit is so littered with objects as to necessitate the existence of the “Low Orbit Police Department.” If ever there were to be a rent controlled SyFy original series, surely it must be the adventures of the Low Orbit Police Department.
These and other conceptual building blocks might move the premise into a danger zone between Roger Corman and Terry Gilliam, but they simultaneously show a fully actualized world in the minds of the writers. They didn’t just pick a space prison for the fun of it; rather they built a world to accommodate their story’s setting. The key difference between Lockout and something like Cameron’s Avatar is that Besson and company are smart/secure enough in their work not to dwell on the ephemera. Two hours, or more, of Guy Pearce’s japes and the LOPD’s hand waving might be a bit much. But ninety minutes of Escape from New York…in space is just right.
With an impoverished, by Hollywood standards, production budget of $20 million, Lockout is also a study in doing more for less. While the chase sequence that sets up Snow’s story is bloated with haphazard FX shots and blurred CG akin to the first season of Spartacus, everything set in space is stunning to behold. External shots of MS-1 give a fantastic sense of scope to something as mundane as a prison. Physical sets inside the station evoke the design sensibilities of Moon. All of this is capped off with what has to be one of the best space battles this side of Endor.
While there’s no real depth to Lockout beyond what we see on the screen, it’s still commendable as the product of two neophyte feature film directors. In moments where the story could risk going over the top, the writing takes a step back to wink at the audience before proceeding along a course parallel to but distant from established tropes. If nothing else, Lockout is as honest with the audience as it is with itself; therein if the opening scene doesn’t grab you as a viewer, you’re probably safe to move on to something else.
Directors: James Mather and Stephen St. Leger
Writers: Stephen St. Leger, James Mather, and Luc Besson
Stars: Guy Pearce, Maggie Grace, and Peter Stormare