Refreshingly, novelist William Boyd’s The Trench doesn’t gang-press WW I, virtually forgotten apocalypse that it was, into genre service or a Spielbergian redemptive strike. Rather, it’s All Quiet all over again, taking us to the western front to simply watch the carrion accumulate. Moviewise, the Great War has few other functions. Hardly known to us by way of news footage (Boyd does include an at-the-front shooting of what could’ve been the world’s first propaganda film), the war is by now a docket of muddy glyphs: the hallway-in-hell trench life, the helmets and sandbags, the compulsory rush toward slaughter, the fresh-faced teenagers narratively earmarked for a pointless martyrdom. Falling unceremoniously into line behind Lewis Milestone’s awesome 1930 version of Remarque, Kubrick’s Paths of Glory, and Peter Weir’s Gallipoli, Boyd’s movie thieves knowingly from all three, all the while reclaiming a few even grimmer realities, like picking tooth shrapnel out of your head and the de rigueur distribution of pre-attack whiskey to infantrymen. “They won’t go five yards,” the bellicose sergeant (Daniel Craig) growls, begging one of the movie’s several pasty/plummy officers to contribute his own scotch.
The Trench focuses nominally on Billy (Paul Nicholls), a sensible, doe-eyed everybloke who talks too much about the romantic epiphany he never actually had with a woman. But there are over a dozen characters in the trench, stuck holding down the field in a skeleton force only days before the Battle of the Somme—which, we’re reminded, was the bloodiest single day the British Army ever faced. (That is not to say the bloodiest faced by any opposition.) Gritty revisionism or not, Boyd (whose self-described “family lore” involves grandparents wounded in the green fields of France) can’t help but be nostalgic—his is a safe antiwar film, executed at an entertaining remove. The stereotypes—hotheads, fat boys, cynics, brownnosers, etc.—squabble and wax working-class lyrical along the hand-dug corridor’s lower depths, and Boyd shoots them almost entirely on an obvious set, with BBC miniseries lighting. The acting, by a large cast of little-known young Brits chewing on South London accents like dog bones, is uniformly splendiferous, but you can’t mistake them for doughboys.
No less a residue of World War culture than Boyd, Arnold Schwarzenegger couldn’t be mistaken for an icon anymore, much less an organic reality. But in the endtimes of Jackie Chan’s Americanization and Cameron Diaz’s butt-shaking the mega-budgeted action rerun into a Pixy Stix sugar high, what’s an aging, tongue-twisted Austrian cyborg to do? Stretch Armstrong, that’s what, and The 6th Day—a genetic-engineering thriller in which Arnold gets to utter the timeless chestnut “I will not clone my dog!”—is everyone’s favorite semihuman’s latest effort at seeming a little less James Cameron and a little more Philip K. Dick. But instead, cloning simply offers director Roger Spottiswoode a chance to have the worst actor in Beverly Hills play scenes with himself, scenes that come off like a pair of Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robots guest-starring on MacGyver. As with End of Days, the context seems flexible, but Arnold himself is a chrome-plated trailer hitch aspiring to be the galaxy’s goddamnedest family man.
In the “sooner-than-you-think” near future, human cloning is illegal, but replication of organs and animals is big business—the script’s few witticisms involve the mall store RePet, and the frequency with which evil mogul Tony Goldwyn’s henchmen get killed and cloned anew, complaining about their death traumas and retrieving jewelry from their old corpses. There’s even a mall-sold synthetic child someone has to behead to shut up. Mostly, though, it’s a standardized quip-shoot-and-run, assembled by Spottiswoode with the requisite proficient inefficiency, with moments of bio-dread showing through the cracks: cloning expert Robert Duvall watching his cloned wife die a second time, a wounded Goldwyn’s last-minute, half-baked clone (looking like Ross Perot covered with Vaseline) getting off the table and roughly undressing the bleeding original. “We’ve all been killed before,” bad guy Michael Rooker grunts once; in an Arnold movie, supporting players have few other options. The star has fewer himself as the years press on; I prescribe a sitcom, or a talk show.
Things descend even further with the bloodless, lip-biting psycho-carnage that’s supposed to be Brian Skeet’s The Weekend, in which the entire cast inexplicably mourns the passing of D.B. Sweeney. Deborah Kara Unger was his sister-in-law/lover, Jared Harris his brother, David Conrad his lover (who we first meet reading Art and Anarchy, reclining on a lakeshore dock), Gena Rowlands a blowsy neighbor, Brooke Shields her slut-actress daughter, etc. Every shot of the film features someone holding a wineglass halfway to their mouth. Hudson Valley real estate porn, treacly piano music, fade-to-blue flashbacks—it’s almost the awful movie Kevin Bacon wanted to make in The Big Picture. Here we need Arnold, and a gun.