Ridley Scott’s “G.I. Jane” (1997)

The 1990’s were a golden age for brawny, high-octane action films made by directors with a distinct visual style.  Before the dull sheen of computer-generated effects brought their cartoonish rag-doll physics to the fore, these films relied on massive pyrotechnics and even bigger biceps to pump up the audience’s heart rate.  The bombastic patriotism of the Reagan years fused with the detached nihilism of the grunge era to create a wave of stylish and witty action that yielded some of the genre’s high water marks— films like SPEED (1994), THE ROCK (1996), TRUE LIES (1994) or THE MATRIX (1999).  Ridley Scott’s G.I. JANE, however, is not one of these films.  Released in 1997, the film promised the impeccable pedigree of a seasoned director working in peak form and a zeitgeist-y storyline by screenwriters David Twohy and Danielle Alexander that injected the unbridled machismo of the armed services with a healthy dose of Girl Power.  An archetypical “battle of the sexes” narrative played out on a big-budget scale, G.I. JANE had been shepherded along through development by actress Demi Moore as a starring vehicle when Scott got involved.  While one could argue that the story would have been better served by a female director, Scott’s celebrated track record of fierce heroines, from ALIEN’s Ripley to THELMA & LOUISE’s titular duo, suggested that his participation would mean more than just “the next best thing”.  Despite his best efforts, G.I. JANE ultimately struggles to break out as a major work in Scott’s career, instead nestling itself quite comfortably within his middle-tier of serviceable entertainments.

G.I. JANE tells the fictional story of the first woman to be selected for the US Navy Special Warfare Group, an elite unit comprised of the best and brightest from the military’s various branches.  We’re quickly introduced to Anne Bancroft’s Lillian DeHaven, an aggressively feminist US Senator pushing for gender parity within the armed forces. She identifies and selects Moore’s Jordan O’ Neill for this elite combat program, effectively using her as a tool for her own PR campaign.  Already an accomplished computer analyst in the Navy, O’Neill finds herself back at the bottom of the ladder, forced to compete in a testosterone-laden environment where she’s constantly outmatched in size and strength. As if that wasn’t enough, she also has to contend with the misogynistic antagonism and rampant sexism of her male colleagues (perhaps best signified in the fragile, hairtrigger masculinity of Jim Caviezel’s character).  Through a series of harrowing obstacles and ordeals, O’Neill eventually proves her fierceness and ambition, earning their begrudging respect as well as that of her commanding officer, Master Chief Urgayle. Played by Viggo Mortensen just prior to his breakout in Peter Jackson’s THE LORD OF THE RINGS trilogy, Urgayle’s alpha male theatrics come across as distractingly cheesy in a modern viewing context, strutting around in a goofy mustache and short shorts while he barks orders through a megaphone.  The main thrust of the story emerges when O’Neill inevitably proves all of her doubters wrong— her ascendancy causes problems for Senator DeHaven’s agenda, which reveals itself to advance feminist interests only as far as it helps her own commercial pursuits.  When the action moves from the training grounds in Florida to the live-ammunition climax off the Libyan coast, O’Neill faces the ultimate test of mettle in order to prove that there is no such thing as gender when it comes to warfare.

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G.I. JANE serves as a prime example of Scott’s aesthetic, especially in its 90’s iteration.  Reteaming with his WHITE SQUALL cinematographer, Hugh Johnson, Scott frames his 35mm film image in the 2.35:1 aspect ratio to create an appropriately epic and cinematic tone.  A high-contrast, subdued color palette deals in primarily blue and yellow tones, making for a picture that lacks the warm vibrancy of previous works like WHITE SQUALL or 1492: CONQUEST OF PARADISE (1992) but rather evokes the cold steeliness of the military-industrial complex.  Signature Scott touches are peppered throughout, populating the film with evocative flourishes like silhouettes, the use of venetian blinds to create noir-style shadows, and even punches of colored smoke during the climax.  This sequence also finds Scott deviating from his otherwise-ironclad use of classical camerawork, evoking the chaos of battle by going handheld and experimenting with an interesting technique that rapidly rocks the zoom back and forth.  While it grows admittedly wearisome the more it’s used, the technique nevertheless emulates the stress of taking fire— especially when combined with Pieter Scalia’s staccato editing. Aerial footage captured from a helicopter finds several opportunities to add a bird’s-eye view to the action, becoming something of a bridge between Scott’s aesthetic and brother Tony’s more bombastic pop sensibilities.  Composer Trevor Jones completes the “90’s-ness” of G.I. JANE’s presentation, delivering an original score that ultimately comes across as “budget Zimmer” in its use of militaristic percussion and a blandly-heroic orchestral arrangement of strings and horns. The film’s musical character better is better served through Scott’s various needledrops, with Three Dog Night’s “Mama Told Me Not To Come” headlining a suite of blues and classic rock tracks.    

Scott’s artistic strength with well-developed, strong female protagonists suffuses G.I. JANE with a vitality that may otherwise have been lost in the hands of a lesser filmmaker.  He neither leans into O’Niell’s objectification as a sexual object nor does he reduce her sexuality so she can “hang with the guys”.  Like all of us, she is a complex biological being, and her strength lies in her refusal to abandon her humanity in the face of a training regimen designed to do exactly that.  Like much of Scott’s theatrical output throughout the late 80’s and the whole of the 1990’s, G.I. JANE does not take place in a fantasy world that Scott can build from scratch— it takes place contemporaneously in an admittedly-exaggerated version of a world we can recognize as our own.  In lieu of imagination, Scott and his production designer Arthur Max (in the first of several subsequent collaborations) channel their efforts towards meticulous research and attention to detail.  The protocols, training facilities, and tactical equipment of military life are vividly realized— especially during the climactic battle sequence that takes place in the deserts off the Libyan coast, retroactively becoming something like a rough draft for Scott’s similarly-themed combat picture, BLACK HAWK DOWN (2001).  Indeed, Scott’s artistic interest in the Middle East region has given subsequent works like KINGDOM OF HEAVEN (2005), BODY OF LIES (2008) and EXODUS: GODS AND KINGS (2014) an exotic backdrop seldom utilized by contemporary filmmakers in the American studio system, priming them with a timely relevance in their explorations of xenophobia in a post-9/11 context.  While G.I. JANE doesn’t quite aspire to such lofty thematic heights, it does play a part in establishing a visual grammar in which Scott can later convey these ideas.

In the years since, G.I. JANE has struggled to maintain the high profile it enjoyed upon release as the #1 movie at the box office (despite mixed reviews).  Even Scott’s poorly-received films tend to find some degree of re-appreciation in later years, usually after the release of a superior director’s cut.  No such fate seems to be in the cards for G.I. JANE, and at the risk of editorializing too much, this isn’t necessarily a great tragedy.  In the context of Scott’s filmography alone, the film has already been eclipsed by superior works about armed combat like BLACK HAWK DOWN.  While it’s clear that the filmmakers’ intentions were good, one can’t help but wonder if G.I. JANE’s premise might have been too absurd for its time— Moore’s Razzie win for Worst Actress arguably reflects less on the quality of her performance than it does on the notion that audiences of the day weren’t particularly inclined towards the idea of a woman in combat.  In the real world, women couldn’t even become Navy SEALS until 2016– almost twenty years after G.I. JANE’s release.  The film’s heart may have been ahead of its time, but its skeleton reveals itself to be a fossil of 90’s-era pop entertainment.  Nonetheless, all fossils have archeological value, and G.I. JANE’s worth lies in the small  insights it yields into the evolving craft of a director on the cusp of his own artistic renaissance.  

G.I. JANE is currently available on high definition Blu Ray via Buena Vista Entertainment.

Credits:

Produced by: Suzanne Todd, Roger Birnbaum, Demi Moore, Ridley Scott

Written by: David Twohy, Danielle Alexander

Director of Photography: Hugh Johnson

Production Designer: Arthur Max

Edited by: Pietro Scalia

Music by: Trevor Jones