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Salt Lake City Weekly There Is Life Underground

Brendan Fraser comes up in the world in the unexpectedly endearing Blast from the Past.

By Greg Beacham

FEBRUARY 23, 1999:  The naif is a staple in the conversation of fiction. The schmo, the bumpkin, the man-child, the innocent--they're all the same character, one which has appeared in every medium for centuries.

Writers, songwriters and filmmakers like the naif because he's so easy to manipulate. It's easier--and lazier--to write for characters who don't think cleverly because they're incapable of it. Such a character also makes all the other characters' actions easier to write: They'll either manipulate or feel sorry for the naif.

Because so many writers abuse this staple, it's easy to forget its primary appeal, which is the wonder with which he approaches every discovery, every detail in the story. Cynicism is easy to do; wonder is really hard.

That's why the naif played by Brendan Fraser in the new film Blast from the Past is so refreshing and endearing. In the middle of a movie with an original concept but spotty execution, Fraser is a nuanced, interesting person who also happens to be experiencing the world for the first time. It's a trip that's actually quite silly, but one to which you can't help warming.

In 1962, Adam Webber's parents (Christopher Walken and Sissy Spacek), mistaking a plane crash for a nuclear holocaust, fled to their bomb shelter underneath their home in the San Fernando Valley. Calvin Webber is a rich inventor who built the largest, most elaborate shelter in movie history; it makes those military command caves in Colorado look like tree forts.

There, Helen Webber gives birth to Adam, and the family spends the next 35 years underground. Eventually, Adam (Fraser) is allowed to venture to the surface to see what has become of the world, to bring back supplies and to find a nice girl, preferably from Pasadena, for procreation purposes.

The reason Blast from the Past works is that it doesn't allow Fraser to play a moron. The guy has been underground for 35 years, and he's requisitely naive. But he also displays a modicum of common sense and resourcefulness as he gets his bearings in the modern day and haphazardly courts a girl--named, of course, Eve (Alicia Silverstone)--who can't figure him out.

Adam figures out he can make a lot of money selling his father's baseball card collection, and he puts years of dancing lessons from his mother to good use in a memorable scene in a swing club. Fraser's combination of class president good looks and wide-eyed earnestness is the biggest reason he's able to sell a character as preposterous as Adam: When he tells a girl he's never heard of the name Heather, you believe him, but you don't make fun of him.

The temptation must have been huge to send Adam around running into things as a full-blown doofus, but the filmmakers (who include Finnish director-of-really-bad-films Renny Harlin as a producer) resist, and it saves their picture. Because Adam isn't stupid, we know everything won't happen to him by accident, and we gain a stake in his actions.

The cast around Fraser is hit-and-miss, however. Walken and Spacek both have decent handles on their roles as '60s parents stuck in neutral, and Helen gets a number of the film's best reaction shots when she begins to hit the bottle as the years pile up.

But Silverstone is a disappointment, particularly given her penchant for playing it 8.5 miles over-the-top in bad films like Clueless. In Blast from the Past, she's content to bite her lip, fling about her Little Lord Fauntleroy curls and react to whatever Fraser does.

Dave Foley is no better as Eve's best friend Troy, who is either supposed to be gay or a Republican, I couldn't tell which. Neither character is memorable, which is a particular shame given Fraser's standout performance.

Though only the first 20 minutes of the movie is set in the past, it still manages to build a brisk, breezy tone similar to Joe Dante's Matinee, another underrated, campy studio film.

That studied nonchalance carries through to the third act, when the picture suddenly changes course from a fantasy to some kind of stilted realism that doesn't suit the story at all. Instead of continuing in the dream-like milieu the film spent the first 90 minutes building, it branches into a literal wrap-up of plot ends that would have been best left ungathered.

But a little dissatisfaction is no reason to discard a game attempt at executing a difficult idea. Attention, filmmakers: Blast from the Past shows you don't have to sink to the level of your material. This is the way to do studio schlock pictures (mostly) the right way. Take notes.

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