After a summer dominated by action and fluff, it's heartening to see a number of new movies that deal to some degree with moral issues that make real differences in the world we all share.
The films aren't necessarily old-fashioned family viewing, since stories exploring hard ethical questions may look at them from candid - even challenging or troubling - points of view. The Ice Storm exposes hypocrisy among Watergate-era suburbanites by showing the sexual and drug-related experimentation indulged in by the children of morally irresponsible parents. The Edge criticizes self-centered materialism by plunging a billionaire into a potentially deadly wilderness.
Beneath their unsettling stories, though, the encouraging news is that these and similar pictures have serious matters on their minds.
The discouraging news is that filmmakers brave enough to introduce such themes aren't always bold enough to pursue their ethical vision to its logical conclusion.
The result is several new movies - recently opened or coming soon - that pursue clear, cautionary thinking until about the halfway point, then lose their moral bearings in compromised, timid, or simply muddle-headed conclusions.
Despite its strong performances and skillful camera work, The Assignment is such a film. Aidan Quinn plays Annibal Ramirez, an American military man who looks exactly like an international terrorist. This coincidence leads a CIA agent (Donald Sutherland) and an Israeli operative (Ben Kingsley) to recruit him for a complicated scheme to kill or capture the border-hopping bad guy.
The movie appears to be a fairly conventional chase story until a remarkable moment when Ramirez begins to realize that he and his mentors are behaving just as ruthlessly and violently as the criminal they're hunting. Alarmed by this insight, he starts to ponder some of society's most urgent philosophical questions: Do good ends justify evil means, and does power have an insidious tendency to corrupt its users?
No sooner does Ramirez begin entertaining such ideas, however, than the movie loses patience with its own thoughtfulness and zooms back to chasing, fighting, and killing. This wastes an opportunity to pursue the plot's moral issues and points up another flaw in some of the season's offerings: a weakness for sensationalistic action that swamps meaningful content in lurid details.
The deliberately scruffy Boogie Nights has earned unexpected cachet through screenings in the prestigious Toronto and New York filmfests. Mark Wahlberg plays a 1970s teenager drafted into the pornography business by a money-minded filmmaker (Burt Reynolds) and his motley friends.
Little by little, their dream of making profitable art from indiscriminate sex degenerates into a nightmare of dishonesty, betrayal, and violence, serving up a stinging indictment of porn-film stupidity. So far, so good - until the last few scenes, when most of the characters miraculously overcome their self-induced disasters and return to business as usual.
Among other problems, this irresponsible ending fails even to acknowledge the AIDS crisis that started decimating the porn industry during just the period when these scenes take place.
Gattaca is a more high-minded production, telling a science-fiction tale without the wild-eyed monsters and incessant special effects that have dominated this genre lately. The story takes place in a future society when an individual's entire life is determined by genetic tests performed within moments after birth. The hero is a young man who decides to buck this system - by altering his identity and entering an astronaut-training program limited to an elite few.
Many will applaud the film's message that biology does not determine destiny and that people limit themselves by making fetishes of science and technology. But the moral value of "Gattaca" would be greater if it resolved some conceptual confusions that arise along the way.
One problem is that the hero doesn't beat the system by disproving it; he merely outsmarts it, using another man's "biological materials" as a high-tech disguise. Another problem arises from the movie's fixation on the sort of ego-centered individualism found in Ayn Rand's philosophical novels. If individualism is the summit of human experience, why is this character so eager to join a group of astronauts - the ultimate team players, engaged in a venture that couldn't exist without collective effort at every level?
In some respects, "Gattaca" stands with the year's most thought-provoking Hollywood movies. Like other new pictures, though, it would stand on sturdier moral ground if its themes were developed a bit more boldly and consistently.
* 'The Ice Storm,' 'The Edge,' The Assignment,' and 'Boogie Nights' are currently showing in American theaters. 'Gattaca' opens Oct. 24.