Universal Squadrons (2011)
Director: Mark Millhone
review by Matthew S. Dent
Often, films wear their inspirations on their sleeves. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, as it shows that the director has thought about it, and
is trying to build on the work of others. Other times it's a loving or humorous homage. Sometimes, though, it's just a bald-faced rip off. So I'll
just come out and say it; Universal Squadrons (aka: Minuteman) wants to be
Jacob's Ladder for the Iraqi War generation. It fails
in that aim. The main problem is that Jacob's Ladder was a very intelligent film. This is more like a SyFy channel, straight-to-TV movie -
which, for all my research could dig up, might be exactly what it is...
The film revolves around Captain Lance Deakin (Riley Smith), adjusting to being back from a tour in Iraq, where he sat around at a desk playing
a videogame called 'Minutemen' with his fellow soldiers. Or did he? Back at his Texas ranch, Deakin struggles to get back into the swing of civilian
life, with his girlfriend Becca (Willa Ford), and farmhand Corky (David Borne). But he's plagued with dreams and hallucinations which hint at something
more than videogames having happened in Iraq. From that you can probably figure out where it's going. It's far from a new idea, and far from an
original presentation of that idea. All that director Mark Millhone has done is take a thinly disguised Call Of Duty game, and more modern
(and cheaper) settings, and paste it over Jacob's Ladder.
But, aside from a terminal lack of originality, Universal Squadrons is plagued with other problems. One of which is the writing. The story
is damn hard to figure out, even with the generic roadmap provided by its obvious inspirations. We get that Deakin did something 'terrible', and
are even shown what that something is, but the whole lead up to that point is a little nebulous, and we're left to presume the intervening parts
of the plot. Which might work if it was smartly executed, but here is just feels like someone spilt ink over parts of the screenplay, and the director
just decided to run with it and see if anyone would notice the gaping plot holes.
The acting, too, is of questionable character. The main characters seem to be doing alright, until numbers of military men start turning up. The
gruff, military officer character has become so much a staple of this genre that it's almost difficult to call when it's bad acting, or just bad
writing. Here, I suspect, it's both. None of the military characters are well played, and the scene when they're all sat around guffawing feels
so wrong that I'm forced to wonder if it wasn't another attempt to ape the general oddness of Jacob's Ladder.
It wins a point for not resorting to nudity to try and hide its low quality, but that point immediately evaporates when the superpowers start to
turn up. Here we step fully into the realm of budget SyFy fare, and the appearance of a guy who really looks like he should be playing a werewolf
(I'm sure they wouldn't let him into the army with hair like that) just sums up the disappointment. Overall, Universal Squadrons is not a
good film. It aspires to be much more than it ended up being, and it grates a little that it thinks so much of itself. It is a low-budget sci-fi
movie about a well-worn topic, and rather hastily written. I wouldn't really recommend it.