Choke Canyon

Director: Charles Bail   
Stephen Collins, Bo Svenson, Lance Henriksen

When we are growing up, there are so many different occupations we think we would like to have once we are adults. These jobs that we think of as children seem to be exciting and magical to us. Once we are adults, however, the idea of jobs being exciting and magical fades away, at least for the vast majority of us. As adults, we see jobs as, well, hard work, and there are few jobs we can think of that we can think we'd be 100% comfortable for us. What is it that first causes us to see jobs as exciting and magical when we are young, and what gives us a cynical look at jobs once we are adults? Both of these things can be blamed (if that's the right word to use) on exposure to popular media. Let me give you an example of this, using your grandparents (or maybe your parents, for some of you) in this example. When your (grand)parents were young, they probably wanted to be cowboys when they grew up. At the movies, and on their television sets they were exposed to cowboy heroes like Roy Rogers, Gene Autry, and John Wayne. These cowboy heroes were noble, smart, and seemed to have full confidence. They also got to shoot off their guns, and boy, did filling someone with holes seem like a lot of fun. But as your (grand)parents got older, this romantic look at the cowboy was spoiled by the same kind of popular media, both television and the movies. In the movies, the romantic look at the cowboy evaporated for more cynical looks at cowboys, from violent spaghetti westerns to revisionist westerns like Bad Company. And when they began to watch the news on TV, they would see reports of ranches being foreclosed, and cowboys "lucky" enough to be working doing so in bad weather and with other problems like low paychecks and uncomfortable outhouses.

There are other jobs that seem awesome when we are young, but look less and less glamorous as we get older and get exposed to more popular media. The dream of becoming a policeman is the dream of many children, but TV shows and movies showing corrupt cops and the problems that even honest policemen have spoil things. True, there are plenty of positive Hollywood portrayals of policemen as well, so maybe I should say that becoming a cop doesn't look like a good thing to be when you grow up if you happen to live in Mexico, judging from many news reports I've read and watched coming from that country. But there are also some jobs that don't just seem to be not so fun when you are an adult, but also seem this way when you are a child. One of those jobs happens to be that of a scientist. I'll use my own personal experiences as an example of this. When I was growing up, whenever I saw a scientist on TV or at the movies, the scientist often seemed to be, well, "mad". If they were not "mad", they did seem to be corrupt and working for the forces of evil. One mad scientist I witnessed in my youth that made a great impression on how I view scientists today was the mad scientist future Oscar winner Morgan Freeman played on the educational show The Electric Company. As a child, this character creeped me out with his ranting and evil schemes, though I remember at the same time wondering why someone who was intelligent as him would hire help (this being his hunchbacked assistant "Igor") that was largely incompetent and somewhat feeble-minded.

As I got older, hearing the word "scientist" would keep sparking images of white-coated individuals cackling wildly while executing an evil scheme with their test tubes and other laboratory equipment. Even as an adult, that's what comes to my mind when I think of scientists, and that is Choke Canyonnamely thanks to hours of watching movies which contain scientists who are mad or have evil schemes. Sometimes I wonder if real scientists have observed this same stereotype, and I also wonder what they think of it. Very likely they would be wishing for more positive portrayals. This rampant stereotype of the scientist was one reason why I picked up Choke Canyon, because it promised to have a portrayal of a scientist that would be considered, well, "cool". A scientist who is smart, has a desire to help mankind out, and one who can single-handedly defeat any dangers thrown his way. That scientist, one Dr. David Lowell, is played by Stephen Collins (7th Heaven). In the badlands of Utah, specifically in one Choke Canyon, he has set up shop. Choke Canyon is the one place where the approaching Halley's Comet will be directly traveling over, and Dr. Lowell has a theory that the energy waves coming from the comet can be converted into a new source of clean energy. However, the Pilgrim Corporation - which is leasing its land to Dr. Lowell - wants to reclaim the canyon so it can dump a large amount of toxic waste. They try to buy out Dr. Lowell, but he refuses to abandon his long-brewing experiment. So the head of the corporation, John Pilgrim (Nicholas Pryor, Beverly Hills 90210) gets one of his company's executives (Lance Henriksen, The Terminator) to send in muscle, lead by one chief mercenary (Bo Svenson, The Inglorious Bastards). However, Dr. Lowell is able to fight off every attack made on him and his property. But can Lowell fight off long and hard enough so that his upcoming experiment can be executed in time and without interference?

Stephen Collins was a good choice to play the heroic scientist. When you first look at him, he has an air around him that instantly makes you think that his character is a decent fellow. Not only that, you believe that this character is confident and smart enough to fight off whatever challenge will be thrown in front of him. Indeed, there are a number of times in the movie where we see him face intruders on his property and fight them off. My favorite moment was probably an early scene where two trucks with hired goons smash up his property. Collins gets under their moving vehicles a la Indiana Jones and manages to tangle them together with cables, which forces them off a cliff (an eye-catching stunt.) However, as smart and resourceful as his character is at times, at other times his character comes across as really stupid and seemingly unable to think with proper logic. Take what subsequently happens after Collins sends those goons in those two trucks off the cliff, which is the first real attack he gets from the Pilgrim Corporation. Tell me, what would you do? I don't know about you, but I would immediately head to the nearest police station to report this threat of life towards me. The police would probably sift through the wreckage and mangled bodies at the bottom of the cliff, subsequently trace all of this back to the Pilgrim Corporation, and the Pilgrim Corporation would be stopped dead in their tracks. Even if the cops were unable to prove anything in the end, during the long investigation that would happen, the Pilgrim Corporation would certainly not dare to do anything else that could be traced back to them, and our scientist hero would be able to complete his experiment.

If the rest of the movie had been sufficiently engaging, I probably would have labelled distracting questions like those as minor quibbles. But Choke Canyon is in key areas so poorly made that we are not distracted from thinking about illogical actions by the characters. Did it never occur to the bad guys to try some other way to force Dr. Lowell off his property, one that could not be traced to them? How did Dr. Lowell, after this incident, get the explosives he uses to blow up Pilgrim buildings in the canyon? How did Dr. Lowell wrap the crane cable completely around the RV housing the bad guys without them noticing? How did Dr. Lowell get a tuxedo on short notice and get into the Pilgrim Corporation party without security noticing or stopping him? Questions like that kept going through my head all through the movie because of there being little to distract me. One reason I wasn't engaged was that the characters were not only stupid, they didn't have strong personalities. While Stephen Collins may have been a good choice, his performance wasn't directed to make the audience root for him. Everything he does in the movie seems effortless to him. As I've said in other reviews, the way to get the audience to root for a character is to make him struggle before he ultimately wins. Struggling builds suspense and tension, and make us flawed viewers identify with the character on display. But here, Dr. Lowell doesn't even break a sweat. He's so cool and confident, that in the end he becomes arrogant in our eyes. Also, he doesn't have strong villains to fight against. John Pilgrim, the head of the company, just has a few lines of dialogue and even fewer appearances. Lance Henriksen, playing one of the Pilgrim Corporation executives, is wasted, restrained in both his performance and appearances. And while Bo Svenson gets a respectable amount of screen time, quite frankly he seems absolutely bored when he should be instead a teeth-gnashing bully that the audience would love to hate.

In fact, "bored" would be the best way to describe the majority of the movie. Although the movie tries to throw in action on a regular basis, these scenes don't really manage to liven up the movie as much as the filmmakers intended. That scene when Dr. Lowell pulls an Indiana Jones on those trucks has a few cool shots of the doctor under the trucks attaching the wire, but the excitement from these shots is drained away whenever the director shows the trucks from a higher level. (Gee, those trucks don't seem to be traveling very fast.) The climax of the movie involves a chase between a helicopter carrying a heavy load underneath and a biplane. Undoubtedly the sequences has some very impressive shots that must have taken a long time to choreograph and set up, especially when the aircraft start doing things like fly under low bridges and land on moving targets. But in between occasional spectacular shots like those, it feels like the aircraft are flying through molasses. Some of the sluggish feel to these action sequences can be blamed on the music that plays in the background. Sylvester Levay's score sounds completely wrong for this movie. The closest I can describe it is comparing it to the score for a lesser Italian zombie movie made in the same era. The movie simply cries out for a full orchestra blaring out excitement instead of sleepy synthesizer sound lumbering in the background. As a result, my mind drifted and wondered about things like how it was a coincidence that Dr. Lowell and his female companion both just happened to know how to fly a helicopter for that climactic sequence. This is a movie that will really make you think, though not in ways that the filmmakers intended.

Check for availability on Amazon (DVD)

See also: Breaking Point, Framed, Nightmare At Noon