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STUDIO: RHI Entertainment
RATED: Not rated
RUNNING TIME: 181 Minutes
• Bupkis. Unless you consider Scene Selections a special feature.
“It’s the Canadian Titanic, but this time there’s a giant explosion! It can’t miss!”
Vincent Walsh, Shauna MacDonald, Ted Dykstra, Tamara Hope, Zachary Bennett, Graham Greene, Pete Postlethwaite
On December 6, 1917 at 9:05 AM, the WWI munitions ship Mont-Blanc, overloaded with explosives en route to the European theater, collided with the Norwegian cargo ship the Imo in Halifax Harbor, causing the largest pre-atomic explosion in human history. This is the true story of that explosion, and its aftermath. And also its… uh, beforemath.
“Pardon me sir, we’re with the Silly Hat Brigade. I’m afraid your hat is not up to code.”
Here’s a movie that proves you should never try to please all of the people all of the time. Shattered City: The Halifax Explosion is simultaneously a disaster movie, a courtroom drama, a spy thriller, a love story, a war movie, a family melodrama, and a historical epic. In trying to provide something for everyone, the filmmakers have given us a product so bland and unremarkable, that as I write this, less than twenty-four hours after watching the movie, it already feels like a distant memory. With its three hour runtime, you would expect even the most inept filmmaker to provide (if only by accident) at least one memorable piece of dialogue, one remarkable scene, one interesting shot. But no; Shattered City: The Halifax Explosion is so aggressively mediocre, it practically dares you to react with anything other than total ambivalence. Never before has a gigantic explosion been so completely uninteresting.
This made-for-Canadian-TV movie stars Vincent Walsh as Captain Charlie Collins, a shell-shocked officer of the Canadian Expeditionary Forces who’s on leave in Halifax for Christmas. While visiting a wounded comrade in the hospital, he meets Dr. Barbara Paxton, a visiting American surgeon who is advising the Canadian military officials on reconstructive surgery techniques. While their relationship blossoms, meanwhile economic pressures have forced Harbor Commander Frederick Wyatt (Leon Pownall) to relax safety standards on ships sailing in and out of the harbor, much to the chagrin of Harbor Pilot Francis Mackey (Ted Dykstra), who objects to the British Commander’s new deregulation policies and their effect on oh my God I’m boring myself just summarizing this.
You’ll notice that I haven’t yet mentioned the cargo ship full of explosives yet. That’s because the explosion itself doesn’t occur until a full ninety minutes into the film. For a movie that’s supposedly about the Halifax Explosion, the filmmakers seem awfully reluctant to show it to us. And in the meantime we’re left with pompous melodramas about the Collins family and their various romances and hardships. Granted, once the explosion finally does occur the movie starts to pick up some steam, but by that point I didn’t care anymore. When you’ve spent the first half of a movie actively hoping that every character onscreen would die in an explosion, you can’t help but be disappointed when that explosion finally happens and most of them survive.
Nobody had the heart to tell her that the Pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey game ended hours ago.
But maybe I’m being unfair. The second half of Shattered City - which shows the aftermath of the explosion and the criminal trial that followed – is relatively effective in its own dreary sort of way, and has a strong narrative drive that the first half sorely lacks. Where the first ninety minutes are meandering and directionless, the second half, though equally dull, is at least driven and purposeful. The first half gives us manufactured intrigue about German spies infiltrating the harbor (which is not only a historical fabrication, but it goes nowhere and eventually dropped entirely), the second half provides some genuine drama about ordinary people trying to survive the aftermath of a terrible disaster that killed nearly 2,000 civilians. Though the less said about the ending, the better. Not to give anything away, but if I were James Cameron I’d be getting my lawyers on the phone right about now.
It’s no coincidence that the two most recognizable actors in the film – Pete Postlethwaite and Graham Greene – appear in the latter, stronger half, as a prosecuting attorney and a fisherman respectively. Both are very good here, taking otherwise tedious material and making it relatively watchable by comparison. Greene is particularly good as a fisherman whose boat was flung a quarter-mile inland during the blast, leaving him miraculously unharmed. His story is actually an interesting one, so of course the movie isn’t the least bit interested in telling it. His character is basically nothing more than a plot device, a deus ex machina whose job is to simply appear, deliver important testimony that will decide the case, and then disappear. In spite of this, Greene makes the most of his role, creating a more memorable performance in three minutes than any of the lead actors are capable of in three hours.
Shattered City’s special effects budget left much to be desired.
The biggest problem with this material is that the Halifax Explosion itself is so completely uncinematic. For one thing, the blast was instantaneous, vaporizing several square miles of Halifax Harbor in a heartbeat. Not an event that translates particularly well to film. Second, the explosion was a total accident, with blame being shared equally between several parties, including the Dock Master, both ships’ captains, and the Harbor Pilot who was responsible for guiding the barges safely in and out. There’s no villain here to blame for the deaths of all those people, no single person whose negligence was responsible for causing the detonation. Yet the filmmakers insist on finding a scapegoat, eventually settling on the safest possible option: Just blame it on war itself. If a war hadn’t been going on, the film argues, that ship full of munitions wouldn’t have been in the harbor in the first place. Yeah, and if my aunt had balls…
Since there isn’t a single special feature on this DVD, I thought it would be fun to take you though the pre-menu previews, every one of them more entertaining than this movie.
First is Killer Wave, starring Tom Skerritt as a government official battling some kind of evil scientist who is causing massive tidal waves across the East Coast. The narration here is fantastic: “What if the most deadly force of nature was unleashed by the nature of man?” I don’t know, narrator guy. What is it about the nature of man that makes forces of nature so deadly?
My favorite moment: It turns out that the villain’s tidal wave machine is controlled by the easy button from the Staples commercials:
“Tidal Waves. That was easy.®”
Next is Pandemic, starring Tiffany Thiessen (what happened to Amber?) and French Stewart as doctors trying to control a deadly outbreak. I don’t like mankind’s chances.
My favorite moment: Eric Roberts as the mayor of L.A. In comparison to Dr. Thiessen and Dr. Stewart, I can actually buy this:
He’s got my vote.
Third is Marco Polo, starring that guy who fucked his sister on Lost. I never knew Marco Polo knew kung fu. It’s in a TV movie, so it must be true!
My favorite moment: Brian Dennehy appears as Kublai Khan. I am not shitting you:
Either that’s some awful faux-Mongolian makeup, or Brian Dennehy has had a lot of work done.
Last, we have Son of the Dragon starring David Carradine, which looks like some TV executive saw a Zhang Yimou film and said to himself, “This would be so much better with B-List American actors.”
My favorite moment: a CGI dragon that looks like it came right out of a Mortal Kombat movie:
“Grrr! I will kill you with my eight million polygons!”
There’s also a paper advertisement in the DVD case for a movie called Blood Monkey starring F. Murray Abraham. No, not “Blood Money”. Blood Monkey. Consider me sold.
What I wouldn’t have given to see any of these movies, as terrible and silly as they all may be, instead of Shattered City: The Halifax Explosion. I’ll take terrible and silly over mediocre, dull and self-important any day of the week.
5.4 out of 10