Fast, Cheap & Out of Control Movie Review

Movie Review by Anthony Leong © Copyright 1998


Lions are very single-minded. When you point the four legs of a chair at them, they get confused. They don't know where to look, and they lose their train of thought. His mind is distracted from his original thought: "eat the man in the white pants."

For most people, there could probably be nothing less interesting than the narrowly-focused lives of a lion tamer, a mole-rat expert, a gardener that sculpts bushes into the shapes of animals, and a robotics scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. No, actually, a DOCUMENTARY that focuses on the narrowly-focused lives of the aforementioned would probably be even less interesting. "Fast, Cheap & Out of Control" is the name of the documentary, and despite the somewhat mundane subject matter, director Errol Morris ("The Thin Blue Line", "A Brief History of Time"), using some creative editing and cinematography, has created a compelling narrative that examines the man's insatiable desire to understand and influence the world around him.

The bottom line is that if you're not scared of them, you're in big trouble.

Dave Hoover works as a wild animal trainer in a traditional three-ring circus-- his choice of vocation was inspired by his role model, Clyde Beatty, a famous animal trainer who starred in many movie serials and radio programs of yesteryear. To survive, he must outsmart the lions and tigers he works with, which by their very nature, are compelled to eat him at the first opportunity. By using his understanding of the beasts and how they perceive the world, Hoover is able to put on a show that delights his audience, and still be able to walk out of the cage in one piece.

It's all done from memory. You know what an animal looks like, and you start making an animal.

George Mendoca also works against the forces of nature. He has dedicated his life to maintaining the topiary at Green Animals' Gardens, reigning in the verdant chaos around him to create animal sculptures. And like his lion-taming counterpart, his work requires constant vigilance, as a sudden windstorm can quickly undo years of hard work in an instant, and his sculptures, if not trimmed and cared for, will eventually revert to their unstructured natural state.

Ray Mendez, on the other hand, dedicates his life to the study of the naked mole-rat, small hairless creatures that live in tunnels beneath the African savanna in hive-like colonies. Not only do these odd creatures exhibit insect-like behavior, but they also have no hair and sweat glands, which make them unique among mammals. For the majority of viewers, the mole-rat is but a passing intellectual curiosity, an amusing piece of trivia. For Mendez, they are his means for gaining a better understanding himself and the world in which he lives.

Understand life by building something that is lifelike.

Finally, the quartet is rounded out by Rodney Brooks, a robotics scientist at MIT. He studies the behavior of animals and insects and uses that learning to improve the 'artificial intelligence' of his creations. The title of the documentary stems from his vision for the future of mankind's exploration of space. Instead of sending a single but pricey manned mission to a distant planet, he envisions sending thousands of small semi-intelligent robots that will minimize the risk of failure and be able to explore a larger area: a fast, cheap, and out of control solution.

If you analyze it too much, life becomes almost meaningless.

What makes "Fast, Cheap & Out of Control" so compelling are the linkages that Morris creates between the disparate and dry interview material. By mixing the statements of one interviewee, with the images associated with another, Morris imbues significance into otherwise meaningless banter and perceptions. In essence, he crafts a universal thesis on mankind's aspirations and the desire to leave a legacy, a thematic common ground reflected in the work of these four men. The resonance of this message is augmented by a haunting yet animated score that emphasizes the triumph and poignancy of each man's struggle for meaning, and the editing and camera work are also technically polished, mixing different film textures in a similar style to the films of Oliver Stone ("U-Turn").

"Fast, Cheap & Out of Control" is one of the few documentaries that I can sit through. It celebrates the wonders of human curiosity and creativity, albeit in a very subtle manner, allowing the astute viewer to fit the pieces of the puzzle together for themselves. For those of you that missed this wonderful film during its brief theatrical run, it is now available on video. You may have to search a little in order to find it, but trust me, it's worth the effort.


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