The long delayed The Impostor finally opened early 2002. Directed by Gary Fleder and based on a Philip K. Dick short story, it's a story of a man suspected of being an alien "impostor" with an internal bomb. The FX were done by a wide variety of FX houses, though ILM features as the lead facility, with George Murphy supervising.
The movie was a long time in the releasing. Originally it was set to be a segment of the Light Years Trilogy movie, an anthology movie. That was scrapped (the Alien Love Triangle segment was done as a short film) and The Impostor segment was extended to be a full feature. But the studio delayed the project from the Summer of 2000 till January 4, 2002. In the meantime George Murphy not only finished his FX duties on the film but went on to co-supervise Planet of the Apes.
The movie stars Gary Sinise as weapons scientist Spencer Olham who is married to a doctor played by Madeleine Stowe. The story is set in 2079 and Earth is at war with aliens from Alpha Centauri (who are never shown). The aliens have destroyed a great deal of Earth's cities and now the remaining ones are protected under energy shields domes. One day Spencer Ohlam is suspected of being a genetically engineered alien impostor carrying a powerful undetectable bomb in his chest, set to kill Earth's Chancellor (Lindsay Crouse). He is arrested by agent Hathaway played by Vincent D'Onofrio, bent on preventing a disaster. But Olham escapes and the chase is on as he tries to prove his innocence.
The film sports an ensemble cast of many character actors. Tony Shalhoub stars as Ohlam's best friend, Mehki Phifer as Cale, a resident in one of the destroyed areas who helps Ohlam along the way, Gary Dourdan as a police captain, Elizabeth Peña as a midwife and even cameos by Kimberly Scott, Tracey Walter and Rosalind Chao. Unfortunately most of the talented is wasted. Gary Sinise is good as the scientist going paranoid and Vincent D'Onofrio proves a strong nemesis without being cartoony or over the top villain. But besides those there is little to go around, there is not much for Stowe to do except on a few scenes, and Tony Shalhoub's character is barely in the film to develop the characters. Mehki Phifer has a few good spots but we get to them until the film is winding down.
The film plays like an action/chase movie and it's a bit apparent that it was stretched in length. The beginning and premise are setup very quickly and afterwards the film turns into a chase film until close to the end. The direction is regular sometimes overusing the hand held camera, dark environments and escapes through tunnels and vents. Besides Gary Sinise's character there is not much character development and many aspects of the story are not explored, like what that future society is like, the war, or even the Olham's relationship. On the plus side the story did stick to the short story finale instead of trying to Hollywoodize it. Some people might find it anti-climatic, but personally I liked that it stuck with it's more non traditional ending. Even with all it's shortcomings the Philip K. Dick element survives and makes the movie more enjoyable than many other higher budget sci-fi extravaganzas. It might not be a classic like Blade Runner or even well accomplished like Total Recall, but it's enjoyable enough to pass some time.
The FX can be categorized in two main areas: the depiction of the futuristic city, and the high tech displays. Many houses worked on this film besides ILM, including The computer Cafe, yU+co, Netter Digital, Digital Firepower, OCS/Freeze Frame/Pixel Magic and many others. For the most part the different FX fit together except for 3 instances.
The film starts with a prologue narrated by Sinise about his childhood and the start of the war. Here is where we have the first mismatch. The sequence uses footage from Starship Troopers which is also very recognizable. Also there is one shot from Gattaca. As part of the prologue we have a few shots of the space battle between Earth and the Alpha Centauri There is one nice shot of a Centauri ship firing towards Earth, but the shots with the fighter spaceships are less convincing. Even in the quick shots you can see an apparent lack of detail on the ships and also the animation is too smooth. You don't get the feeling this are real ships, they don't have that more real combat film feel like in Star Wars.
The action quickly turns to Earth where we get the bulk of the FX. The main ones include views of the domed cities, and are very reminiscent of the Coruscant shots in Episode 1. We have towering buildings with flying cars all over the place leaving heat distortion and landing all over the place. They are establishing shots so we never see a person looking out into a balcony but they serve well their purpose. On the other hand we also have many shots from the destroyed parts of the city at night where we can see the energy domes in the distance. The scenes are very dark so it's difficult to see any details but they do extend the sets nicely. Actually many of the FX like the matte painting to set the various locales are in very dark places which helps them blend in and give a broader scope to the film. I'm sure there were quite a few there that I didn't detect. One notable albeit brief FX sequence which was nicely done involves Gary Sinise and Tony Shalhoub looking through a window to the mega-weapon Sinise's character has created. It involves a slight pan down and we see technicians.
The other notable pieces of FX are the high tech displays, in walls,and screens, PDA, medical equipment and many more. Two notable uses are present in the film: an X-ray type of scanner and a medical body scanner. The first one is used when the agents track down Sinise to an old building and are trying to locate him. The effect is similar to the one used in Eraser and there are a few shots from the POV of the operator nicely tracked into the plate. The medical scanner is a scene where Sinise is trying to prove his innocence by scanning himself and comparing it to a previous scan. The display is holographic and we see the image being constructed while showing the different layers and tissues, bones, muscles and organs, almost reminiscent of Hollow Man.
The climax of the film involves an explosion occurring at night in a forest. Except for a brief shot of the start of the explosion, which whites out the frame quickly, the resulting shockwave and destruction looked very flat, involving a few fire elements with black silhouettes of trees and people getting wiped out and a couple of shots of people being burned done as more 3D FX. Considering that it's the climax of the story it definitely doesn't fit in well with the more polished work on the rest of the film and almost looks like it was added at the very end.
The Final Verdict
While many of the FX involved are fine, the mismatch between different sequences is sometimes too apparent. This is probably due to the troubles of the production towards the end and the restructuring of the story. Too bad the studio didn't invest a bit more to have the FX work polished. There are enough interesting scenes to be an FX curiosity, but it's too bad the story wasn't further developed, and being a Philip K. Dick inspired project, not only the story could have been handled better but probably the FX work would have been more extensive and interesting. Many things are a bit too dark but the cityscapes are Coruscant-like enough to provide interesting details to look for. Most FX are good to excellent but the mismatched styles brings the production down unfortunately. Overall I would give it a ** and a half out of 5.