Sunday, February 25, 2024

Making Contact (1985)

... aka: Contacto con el más allá (Contact with the Beyond)
... aka: Debiru doru (Devil Doll)
... aka: El secreto de Joey (Joey's Secret)
... aka: Joey
... aka: Joey, una storia meravigliosa (Joey: A Wonderful Story)

Directed by:
Roland Emmerich

Having lofty aspirations to become Germany's answer to Spielberg or Lucas, Roland Emmerich started out in his home country with smaller scale science fiction films. His first feature length effort fresh out of film school was The Noah's Ark Principle (1984), which didn't set the box office ablaze but did manage to turn a profit due to securing an international distribution deal on a budget of around 300 thousand U.S. dollars. Next up was this effort, which took a year and a half to complete and was budgeted at around 1.5 million. Like his previous effort, this sold well internationally (to 22 markets) and made even more money due to the director's decision to shoot the film in English and keep it tame and schmaltzy enough to secure a PG rating, thus netting an even wider audience. As for the critical response to the film, it was almost universally terrible; a recurring theme for the director. Not that he cared any. Emmerich would later go on record admitting that he only makes popcorn movies for mass consumption. That attitude would end up serving him well when he later segued into his big budget Hollywood career. 

Less than a decade after he started with his modest little fantasy / sci-fi films, he was "discovered" by Sylvester Stallone and then recommended to direct the popular Jean Claude Van Damme action vehicle Universal Soldier (1992). From there he made the uneven though successful sci-fi film Stargate (1994), which at least spawned a far superior TV series, and then was on to the alien invasion extravaganza Independence Day (1996), which ended up becoming the highest grossing film of its year despite not being very good.

The formula was all pretty simple: huge budgets, huge major studio marketing campaigns, casts filled with popular actors, expensive state of the art special effects and depictions of mass destruction, all pasted together with extremely hokey human interest drama. Audiences just couldn't get enough for awhile and he'd repeat the same routine with later films like The Day After Tomorrow, 10,000 BC and 2012. However, the sheen would eventually wear off. Later "event" movies like the Independence Day sequel under-performed, while his last film as of this writing - Moonfall (2022) - was a certifiable box office bomb.

As someone who's not a fan of his Hollywood career at all, I actually went into this with my curiosity piqued at the prospect of seeing what Mr. 200 Million Budget could do with only a tiny fraction of the money he'd later become accustomed to working with. I didn't expect good, but I did perhaps expect moments of interest seeing someone with such big, expensive visions facing budget constraints. How will he overcome that? Will he overcome that? Let's take a look...

Grand, whimsical John Williams-esque music swells over the opening credits and then we're whisked off to a funeral. Laura Collins (Eva Kryll) has just lost her husband, leaving her to raise their 9-year-old son Joey (Joshua Morrell) all on her own. Later that night, while Joey is mourning his father, his toys seem to come to life, lights flash from his closet and a glowing red plastic phone starts ringing. Joey answers it to find his father on the other line. Or does he? When mom catches him under his blankets talking to his deceased father, she's mildly concerned but decides to just give it some time. Maybe this is his unique way of grieving. Joey makes the mistake of telling some of his classmates that he's still making contact with his dead dad, which makes him the target of a group of bullies led by Bernie (Matthias Kraus) and William (Jerry Hall).

At a nearby abandoned house, Joey finds an old, ugly ventriloquist's dummy in the basement. He cleans it up, takes it home and puts it in his bedroom. The dummy turns out to be alive, or at least possessed by someone and being animated, and also appears to be the root cause of all the supernatural events that have been occurring thus far. Somehow through all this, Joey picks up telekinetic abilities and is gifted the ability to move objects with his mind simply by willing it to happen.

The dummy soon reveals its true nature to Joey i.e. it's not just another harmless inanimate object in his massive toy collection. It goes "Blarrrrr!" in a deep voice and shoots lasers out of its eyes. It tries to kill his mom by flinging a knife at her and attempting to run her over with a car, shows him historical clips on a TV screen and tells him he hasn't actually been talking to his father all this time. Instead, he's been speaking to a famous former stage magician and ventriloquist named Jonathan Fletcher, who's been dead since the 1920s and had brought his stage prop to life via black magic. As for their motives, the dummy chimes in and says that he and the dead Fletcher want to "control" him. As for why, and what they plan on doing once they do, your guess is as good as mine. I couldn't make heads of tails of much of this, though it's kind of revealed toward the end that the dummy is the real issue, not the ventriloquist. Or something.

Joey does have a couple of helpful allies, including a friendly, pigtailed neighborhood girl named Sally (Tammy Shields), his dog Scooter and a super-intelligent miniature R2-D2 style robot named Charlie that can think for itself and even has feelings (!?) Concerned teacher Martin (Jan Zierold) starts showing up periodically to check on the boy and is set up as a potential love interest for the widowed mother, though nothing ever comes of this. Just like in E.T. where a huge swarm of government agents and scientists basically take over the family home, here a huge swarm of paranormal investigators, police officers and scientists take over the family home. While they're running tests on Joey, his bullies convene at the former ventriloquist's home and make elaborate plans to "rid ourselves of this menace." (What do they plan on actually doing? Killing him?) Instead, they become trapped inside while a supernatural manure storm hits, which somehow includes a toothy monster, a mummy and a giant fanged cheeseburger (!?)

This is a prime example of a filmmaker putting nearly everything he has into the technical aspects of a film whilst neglecting every other important thing in the process. This is a delightfully colorful and handsomely shot (by Egon Werdin) film, with expensive-looking art direction and special effects. It's actually impressive how the director and his crew are able to almost completely pull off the look and feel of a big budget 80s Hollywood production with meager means. That said, the visuals are about the only good thing going on here, unless you can have fun counting the endless blatant ways the director tries, and fails, to copy Spielberg's brand of "heartwarming" family friendly fantasy entertainment.

Undoing nearly all of the polish is an absolutely terrible screenplay, which is completely unable to generate any sympathy for its cardboard protagonists, fails to establish any kind of compelling, coherent plot, fails to come up with a satisfactory conclusion (there basically ISN'T a conclusion) and is filled with laughably awful dialogue, including giving the dummy a bunch of lame "funny" one-liners. Everything here feels soulless, heartless, charmless and derivative, as if every prior popular PG fantasy film was fed into some kind of malfunctioning computer and this got spit out.

Making matters even worse, the acting is horrendous. His decision to cast mostly amateurs simply because they spoke English results in across-the-board stone-faced performances and stilted delivery of nearly every single line of dialogue. Apparently all of the young "talent" were completely inexperienced kids that were plucked from a U.S. military base / school to take part in the film, though they don't really come off any worse than most of the adults. Not sure where they found the rest of these folks at but most never appeared in anything else ever again. I'm also not sure why they even bothered shooting in English since most of the actors ultimately got dubbed over anyway. The woman playing the mother, for instance, looks like she can actually act based on her reactions to various events but then she's given a monotone dub that ruins her entire performance.

You'd be hard pressed to find another film filled with as much product placement as this one, though I don't believe there were any kind of paid licensing deals going on here either. The director seems to have basically just used whatever he wanted to give this a more American appearance. The young star's bedroom is filled to the rafters with name brand toys and merch; Sesame Street, Star Wars, Smurfs, various Disney characters, Garfield, Pac Man, E.T., you name it. If kids were into it at the time, Joey definitely has it. This goes even further than that with a perplexing cameo appearance from Darth Vader himself. The kitchen is filled with products like Skippy peanut butter and Heinz ketchup. Their dog eats Alpo. All of this makes Mac and Me, which infamously features an entire musical number set inside a McDonald's and an alien sustaining itself with sips of Coca-Cola, look restrained by comparison.

In addition to directing, Emmerich also co-wrote the script, produced, did a lot of the special effects and even operated the camera at times. Most of the film was shot in Germany, but exteriors were shot in the U.S. because this is supposed to be taking place in Virginia Beach, which somehow also means we get gratuitous shots of Southwestern Bell pay phones and a Krispy Kreme shop.

From Cinemafantastique Vol. 16 #3 (July 1986)

There are a number of different versions available. The first is the original 101 minute version released in Germany under its original title, Joey. This same version appears to have been released throughout Europe. And then there's the heavily-cut, English language release called Making Contact. Over twenty minutes have been removed (having browsed through the longer version it doesn't appear you're missing out on much) and it features a different, inferior score. The cut U. S. release was briefly distributed theatrically by New World Pictures in 1986, then turned up on home video courtesy of New World Video later that same year. Anchor Bay distributed it on DVD and then Blu-ray duties were handed off to Kino Lorber. The latter includes both the original and cut versions of the film.

A little note here, my rating is entirely a reflection of the craftsmanship of some of the crew people, not a reflection of my enjoyment of the actual film. I actually hated this with every fiber of my being. It grated on my nerves nearly the entire time. It's obvious. It's insulting. It's dumb as hell. It's offensively cynical in how stupid it assumes its target audience is going to be. And it actually just pissed me off.

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