Lockout (2012)

Posted on January 15, 2014


In 2079, there is a maximum security prison space station called MS One. A CIA agent named Snow (Guy Pearce), accused of killing another CIA agent, is given a choice between going to MS One to rescue the President’s daughter, Emilie (Maggie Grace), during a breakout, or life in prison.

Fortunately for the plot, he chooses to be helpful, and chaos ensues.

If you didn’t see it, I’m not surprised. It’s estimated budget was $20 million, and after a month it had only grossed about $14.3 million. It was popular with young males, but that wasn’t enough.

Short Version

It never rises above its clichés.

Long Version

The problem with this movie is that it is a 1980s, 1990s, throwback action movie. Guy Pearce keeps Snow from being cheesy, but he’s cocky and smug like an action hero from back in the day.

Luc Besson came up with the “original” idea and has a screenplay credit as well as an executive producer credit. Twenty years ago, I liked his movies. I liked La Femme Nikita, Leon/The Professional, and The Fifth Element.

Then things started to get a little hit or miss. Kiss of the Dragon isn’t very good, but The Transporter is a lot of fun. Wasabi is terrific (if you haven’t seen it, you should). District B13 is very exciting, but The Tranporter sequels aren’t very good. Unleashed has good moments, but that’s all. Taken is only good if you can ignore the racial stereotyping.

So Besson’s name doesn’t really sell me on anything anymore.

Considering the talent that Besson has displayed in the past, it would have been nice if he acknowledged the debt this film owes to movies like Escape from Alcatraz, Escape from New York, Fortress, and The Cube. There are no Easter eggs, shout-outs, visual cues, or story references to past inspirations.

In a way, it’s refreshingly straightforward and without irony. However, I agree with the critics who wanted to see a fresher take on the material, or for the writers and directors to acknowledge the older material and have more fun with it.

The character that I liked most in Lockout was Emilie. She was tough and smart, even when out of her element. She never stopped thinking, and she never stopped making suggestions. Maggie Grace makes it seem like Emilie’s decisions to trust Snow are actually active choices.

It’s too bad that she needs a man to rescue her, because this could have been a really interesting action movie with a strong female star. Certainly Emilie’s motivations are more primal, and therefore more emotionally interesting to the audience, than Snow’s.

The real reason to talk about this movie is to discuss action and it’s use in story. There are only two uses for action in story: To establish character or context, and to advance plot.

For example, Lockout opens with Snow having a fight with another character, the CIA agent he is accused of killing. Because we don’t know anything about the plot or the characters, all we know is that there is no risk. Snow won’t be killed or even seriously hurt, because Guy Pearce is in the rest of the movie. The fight itself is, therefore, boring, and only serves to establish the trouble that Snow is in.

In contrast, watch the opening of Escape from New York. John Carpenter established the setting, and then Kurt Russell’s expression and body language establish the character. Without a fight or a car chase, we know that Snake Plissken is under arrest and in big Federal trouble. Done. Moving on. In fact, when you watch that scene, notice how dark it is, and how the lighting emphasizes the shadows. That’s so you can’t see how small the set is!

If you watch an action movie, and you find that you are not excited, it’s time to look at the action and ask why it is there. What is it communicating?

Does it communicate something about the character? Jet Li’s characters, for example, will not hit women. Seriously, it’s in his contract. Watch Romeo Must Die, and pay attention to the elaborate choreography that goes into his fight with the glorious Francoise Yip. Aaliyah has to finish the fight for him! That sequence communicated something, and reinforced that this badass is also chivalrous.

Does the action communicate an escalation of consequences? In Bad Boys 2, there is a chase sequence that involves a hearse, a corpse falling in the street, commandeering a car from Dan Merino, and lots of property damage. Of course we know that Marcus Burnett (Martin Lawrence) and Mike Lowrey (Will Smith) aren’t in any real physical danger, but we also know that there will be consequences for the way they wreck Miami. In fact, they lose their Captain’s confidence, and push the drug dealer they oppose into kidnapping Burnett’s sister, Syd (Gabrielle Union).

Does the action accomplish a story goal? In The Professionals (1966, starring Lee Marvin, Burt Lancaster, Woody Strode, and Robert Ryan), there is a huge action sequence when the protagonists “rescue” Maria (Claudia Cardinale) from Raza (Jack Palance). Getting Maria free is an important story point. The action sequence highlights its importance, shows the competence of the protagonists, and starts a chase sequence. It’s exciting, even though we’re pretty sure it has to be successful and most of the protagonists will survive.

Lockout has action sequences on a regular basis, according to action movie formula. They are not innovative or visually interesting, although they are well filmed and choreographed. Guy Pearce makes a good action hero. There’s just something missing.

Lockout would have been improved by being a Big Trouble in Little China in space (that’s three references to John Carpenter movies starring Kurt Russell, although I did mention Escape from New York twice). If it had acknowledged its source material and built on it, or turned it around somehow, that would have been more interesting.

Combat in a low- or no-gravity environment should be very three-dimensional. It should have lots of wire work, and be visually interesting. Gunfights in pressurized environments should have decompression consequences. Like they did in Outland

Prisoners awakened from cryogenic freezing should be stiff and less competent than otherwise. Lockout ignores all those things about its very premise, and is the worse for it.


In 2014, I’m reading books on screenwriting and hopefully I will have some new things to say this year, besides harping on story construction. Just wait until we can talk about saving the cat! I enjoyed going into detail about what action should do, and I hope you enjoyed reading it.

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Posted in: Movies