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Hipster Holy Grail: Momentum (2003)

The Hipster Holy Grail is a weekly experiment where I try to find and review a movie that's at least 10 years old and has less than 5,000 ratings on IMDb. I always hope to discover something amazing. Sometimes I don't.  This week, I watched....

The Short Bit for People Who Don't Like to Read Reviews

It's not terribly innovative or even all that exciting, but Momentum is smart enough to work within its technical limits and ends up being a surprisingly watchable movie.  If not for a couple of subpar performances and a needlessly padded plot, this would be a recommendation.  As it is, I think it would work best in the background while you're folding laundry.

My Rating: 3 / 5 (AGM)

The Plot Summary

The movie opens with an armored car robbery.  But it's not just any robbery; it's a psychic robbery.  Adrian Geiger (Michael Massee) and an entourage of tough guys use telekinetic powers to flip the armored car over and drag it across the road.  Unfortunately, when they go to steal the cash, it turns out one of the drivers is still alive and armed.  He opens fire and takes down one of the psychics, so Geiger and the others flee the scene.

We cut to Raymond Addison (Louis Gossett Jr.), an almost-retired CIA agent, trying to convince some other government stooges to clean up some loose threads of a defunct program known as "Project Momentum."  One of those loose threads happens to be Geiger.  However, the one government stooge we see - played by Zach Galligan on what appeared to be his lunch break that day - doesn't care and tells him to get lost.  Addison checks in with his assistant, Frears (Daniel Dae Kim), and says they'll have to take care of Geiger on their own.  To do that, they're going to need some help.

Cut to Zachary Shefford (Grayson McCouch), a physics professor and physical fitness buff.  He's got a stable life and a job he enjoys.  Unfortunately, when he steps into a convenience store one night, he becomes witness to an armed robbery.  The robber puts a shotgun to the clerk and looks like he's going to pull the trigger, so Shefford reluctantly intervenes by revealing his darkest secret: he, too, has telekinetic powers.  He flips the bad guy backward and saves the day, then runs away from the scene before anybody can find out who he is.

While that's going on, two FBI Agents, Ripps (Teri Hatcher) and McIntyre (Carmen Argenziano), start investigating the armored car robbery.  They find the scene and the witness accounts suspicious, but don't really make much headway.

That's actually a good summary of Ripps and McIntyre's total involvement in the plot.  "Two dummies don't make any headway."  They have a lot of banter and keep saying, "That's something you don't see every day," as if they were hoping it would be a catchphrase people would remember and want to put on T-shirts or something, but they're pretty much useless.  I only mention them because they keep showing up every five minutes.

Anyway, let's get back to the real plot.  Addison finds surveillance footage from the convenience store showing Shefford using his psychic powers.  He tracks Shefford down and blackmails him: either Shefford's going to help Addison, or Addison will reveal his telekinesis to the world.  Shefford reluctantly agrees, so Addison lays out the scheme: Shefford will try to infiltrate Geiger's inner ring of telekinetic goons and become part of his circle of friends.  When he gathers enough information to predict Geiger's movements, he'll call Addison and the CIA will arrest everybody.

Shefford goes to a bar where Geiger is suspected to hang out and meets Tristen (Nicki Aycox), a blonde bombshell who catches his eye.  They flirt a little bit, but then Tristen and a tough guy try to rob Shefford.  When he uses his telekinetic powers to get out of the jam, they reveal that they are also telekinetics who work with Geiger.  They give Shefford a knock-out cocktail and tell him that if he wants to meet Geiger, he has to drink up.  Shefford is hesitant, but downs the drink.

When he wakes up, he's in an isolated compound with about a dozen or so other psychics.  Briefly, he gets an introduction from Geiger who explains that this is a place where they can all live in peace and freedom.  Y'see, he was the star attraction of Project Momentum, a top secret government program to train telekinetic warriors who could carry out important CIA stuff.  Unfortunately for them, Addison, the head of the program, determined that the psychics were too much of a risk, so he's been hunting them down and killing them ever since.  Geiger went on the run and now roams the country finding other psychics and trying to create a safe community for them.

They don't trust Shefford because he's still an outsider, but Tristen - who is revealed to be Geiger's daughter - senses something special in him and has urged the gang to treat him well.  Shefford is likewise on the fence about trusting the compound; one the one hand, it's a place where he can be himself and find folks like him, but on the other hand, Addison told him that Geiger was dangerous.

They spend a little bit of time waffling on this conflict and for awhile the movie is actually pretty good.  Then Tristen and Shefford have sex and he leaves the compound abruptly to try to go back to a normal life.  Addison meets up with Shefford and demands to know where Geiger is, but Shefford doesn't reveal the truth.  Addison warns him that he needs to comply for the safety of the country - Geiger has cells of psychic warriors all over the country, and they may be planning attacks on innocent people if Addison can't stop him.  But Shefford doesn't know who to trust, so he remains silent.

Enter CIA assassins.  In almost the very next instant, Shefford is on the run and being hunted by covert operatives.  They capture Tristen and hold her hostage, but tell Shefford they will release her if he can get Geiger to turn himself in.

Shefford is apparently in love with Tristen now, so he tries his best to comply.  Agent Ripps and McIntyre follow him back to Geiger's compound where they are caught, and then Geiger summons his top goons to help him pay a visit to Addison so they can rescue Tristen.  They're also going to kill Ripps, but Shefford saves her just in time.  Then she calls for backup, but instead of getting FBI Agents on the scene, Addison's goons show up and slaughter everyone at the compound.

Shefford and Ripps work together to find Addison and there's a big psychic showdown where everybody starts fighting each other.  Tristen is released, Addison is killed, and Geiger is mortally wounded.  In his dying breaths, Geiger gives Shefford some words of encouragement to help him be a better psychic, and then Shefford and Ripps leave the scene.

Ripps calls in to HQ and tells them that Shefford is dead, allowing him to flee completely and start a new life under a new identity.  He says he's going to lay low, but then he sees a news broadcast about a bridge collapse that has killed dozens of people.  In the footage, he sees Tristen in the background.  Realizing that Tristen is picking up where her father started - and that he's now the only one who can stop her - Shefford vanishes to ostensibly go on further psychic adventures.

What I Liked

Considering this was a made-for-TV movie, it was shot and edited fairly well.  It moves with a great pace and actually looks like a movie instead of a cheesy approximation.  I know that sounds like faint praise, but after years of watching movies like this for my blog, I think it's one of the highest compliments I can give.

There's so many times when a movie starts and I immediately go, "Ugh, another one of these."  Scorcher was like that.  There's something about the over-saturated lighting, the lazy framing, and the MIDI score that just screams, "Ha!  Fooled you!  You thought you were going to watch a B movie, but actually you're watching my nephew's college project!"

Momentum is not like that.  So, that immediately puts me in a good mood.

More importantly, the effects are terrific.  Momentum is a movie about super-humans with telekinetic powers, which means there's basically three ways you can go with it.  The first is that you can do the shitty CGI method where you insert a crappy spiral effect in the air and dub over a dumb "vwoooomp" sound effect every time somebody moves something with their mind (aka, the later seasons of Charmed).  Second is the cheaper version of that first method where you still have the stupid sound effect, but you don't want to do anything that's legitimately impressive, so mostly the telekinetics just make things fall off shelves or other stupid bullshit while making a dumb, almost constipated face (aka, the earlier seasons of Charmed).

The third - also known as the "correct way" - is much more subtle.  In this method, you use practical effects to move things while having your actors make only the slightest of motions, but everything still looks like it has weight and you're still obeying the (rest of the) laws of physics.  Sound effects are optional as long as the shit that's being moved is the loudest.

As an example of what I'm talking about, look at the armored truck robbery that sets the plot in motion.  It's staged flatly and they don't do anything flashy or stupid with it.  The truck doesn't fly up in the air and spin around or any stupid crap like that.  It just falls to the side and then gets dragged across the road.  When Geiger is making it happen, he doesn't abracadabra his way through the scenery and there aren't little psychic hoops flying out of his brain - he just holds up his hand a bit and puts on his concentration face.

Since the movie goes for that subtle approach, it becomes immersive and believable enough that I'm willing and interested in going along with it.  Instead of rolling my eyes and thinking, "Huh, getting a lot of use out of that new morphing software, huh?" I'm actually watching the movie and thinking, "I wonder where they're going with this."

That willingness to accept the movie on its terms goes a long way - especially when they try to build up to a more grandiose conflict toward the end.  When they introduce the idea of sleeper cells of psychic terrorists who are going to unleash havoc across the country, I'm actually willing to say, "Holy shit, that sounds bad.  I hope Shefford can stop them."  It sounds like a cool idea and a major threat instead of just some bullshit.

Contrast this - again - with Scorcher, which gets more and more ridiculous as it goes on, but never once tries to do anything to make you think it's taking place in the real world.  The irony is that Scorcher is literally about the end of the world and I never felt any sense of scale or doom greater than, "Oh, that guy might miss his flight," whereas Momentum is so much smaller and more confined, but actually does feel like the start of something epic.

What I Didn't Like

Unfortunately, despite its strengths, Momentum gets saddled with too many side characters and subplots who detract from Shefford's journey rather than adding to it.  I really don't want to make a dumb Willy Waffles' Movie Reviews pun about this, but all the baggage really dulls the movie's... momentum.

Right away they weigh Shefford down with a disposable ex-girlfriend(?) character.  (I think her name is Brooke?)  And I don't mean to be misogynistic or dismissive by talking about her like an object, but this is exactly how the movie handles her.  She shows up early on, saddles Shefford with a bit of conflict about their failed romance in the past, and then disappears only so she can be murdered later.

And yet she actually gets more screen time than Geiger's second-in-command!  If you have some nothing side character who isn't going to contribute to the main plot or create a source of internal conflict for the protagonist, then don't put her in the spotlight.

At most, Brooke should have been a one-scene character to set up Shefford as a down-on-his-luck protagonist.  Like maybe they break up because she's frustrated that he doesn't seem passionate about their relationship, and he says he just doesn't feel like he can be himself around her - and then that's it, that's all you have.  You end the scene with her saying something pointedly like, "You look like you're always hiding something from me."  That way it doesn't feel arbitrary or stupid later on when Shefford is suddenly super excited to bang Tristen and make psychic babies with her.

But they don't have any pointed conversations.  They talk a little about their relationship, but it's so stilted and dramatic and calm that it might as well just be two people talking about refinancing their mortgages.  This is how the movie chose to pad out its first act.  Why?

Even the movie's second "lead" (supposedly) ends up being almost a non-entity in the film.  Despite getting second billing, Teri Hatcher's Agent Ripps doesn't actually do a whole lot and doesn't even figure into the conclusion in a meaningful way.  The movie takes great pains to characterize her and flesh out some back story about her career as a superstar FBI Agent, and there's a lot of decent rapport between her and her partner, and Teri Hatcher is even plastered all over the movie poster - but despite having a third of the screen time, she really just amounts to a cheerleader by the end.

(And while we're talking about Hatcher, I should mention that she's kinda terrible in this.  The acting is hit or miss in this movie - Louis Gossett Jr. and Grayson McCouch do okay and Daniel Dae Kim is having a bit of fun as one of the bad guys, but Teri Hatcher looks and sounds like she just walked off the stage of her first play in elementary school.  I guess she had better things to do while they were filming.)

What the movie really could've used was another pass at its screenplay.  To make this a really wonderful little gem of a low-budget feature, all they needed to was:

1) Cut Ripps's involvement way down so she was basically just the neutral presence of The Law.

2) Add in way more scenes at Geiger's ranch where Shefford gets to know all the other psychics who live there.

3) Add in more scenes of Shefford grappling with his trust issues and being torn between Geiger and Addison.

Point 3 is really the most important of all - there's some of this in the movie, but not nearly enough.  The parts where we should be feeling the most tense about Shefford's internal conflict are flat. There's not enough substance behind either of the sides of his external conflict.  What the movie wanted to be was a taut psychological thriller in which Shefford is never sure who to trust and you can't figure out what anybody's motives are.  (Is Geiger a terrorist or a savior?  Is Addison a courageous defender of justice or a cruel murderer?)  You get the slightest taste of that, but just when the movie starts to explore that tension, it shrugs and goes, "Oh, actually, they're both kinda bad.  Tough break, man."

I really wish somebody would remake this movie. It has just enough promise of being a great low-key thriller that I wanted to watch it the whole way through, but it never fully delivers.  There's a really terrific version of this movie to be made for under $5 million if anybody feels like investing in the story a little more.

Where You Can Watch

Momentum is currently streaming on Netflix.

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