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Director/Screenwriter: Joss Whedon
By Roderick Heath
Here there be spoilers.
They’re back – Marvel’s all-star line-up, marshalled by nerd overlord Joss Whedon. It’s been a long three years since the last episode came out, and Marvel’s endless diversification of its fictional universe had, for me at least, begun to take rub of the shine from the brand even as it’s confirmed again and again its box office potency. The Avengers (Avengers Assemble in the UK, to pacify fans of John Steed and Emma Peel), uneven as it was, was a difficult act to follow, surpassing Kenneth Branagh’s grandiose Thor (2011) as the best Marvel movie in ebulliently bringing together a cast of epic-scaled characters and delighting in watching (and listening to) them cut loose. The standalone adventures since then, Iron Man Three, Thor: The Dark World (both 2013), Captain America: The Winter Soldier, and the tangentially related Guardians of the Galaxy (2014), whilst all entertaining to various degrees, inflated their production elements for spectacle but grazed one of the major problems with bigger-is-better storytelling: they felt smaller. That, plus the fact that The Avengers, via Whedon’s pithy, zippy writing style, proved these characters, once introduced with origins explored, actually work best when pitched against other characters like them, forcing them again to jostle for the pre-eminence and respect lesser folk automatically cede to them, and treating the audience to super-friends camaraderie.
In spite of his stature as a major professional fabulist, Whedon is not a particularly original or deep inventor when it comes to the tropes of fantastic fiction. His specific gift rather has been an understanding that the fantasy in that fiction works best when inseparable from the dramatic and emotional impact it has on characters, and through them the audience. The great passage in his TV series “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” that depicted the transformation of nice-girl witch Willow into a psychotic killer and sorcerer after the murder of her lover, or the “Gifted” storyline he wrote for the X-Men comics, that inspired X-Men: The Last Stand (2006), illustrate that understanding well. The Winter Soldier, which I admit to underrating last year, left the franchise in interesting disarray, with SHIELD broken and Hydra, the evil organisation of fascist futurists founded by Captain America’s old Nazi antagonist Red Skull, stripped of its cover.
Age of Ultron commences with the Avengers having stepped into the gap left by SHIELD’s demise, tracking down Hydra’s secret basis and destroying them. Whedon’s greatest coup in his first entry was a single “shot” that moved from Avenger to Avenger along the course of downtown New York, locating each one in the midst of a tussle that fulfilled both Whedon’s delight in connected cinema space that underlined the dramatic democracy of his sensibility, and brought the fluency of comic book illustration onto the screen. Here he offers the same stunt very early on as the Avengers fall upon a castle somewhere in the Mittel Europa enclave of Sokovia, the Avengers charging out of the snowy woods and raining thunder and wrath upon their enemies, in a more focused zone of action where the battle is like a colossal game of tag: Whedon resolves on a slow-motion sprawl with his cast flying en masse across the screen. The once-individualist warriors are now a weathered team: Steve ‘Captain America’ Rogers (Chris Evans) leading Tony ‘Iron Man’ Stark (Robert Downey Jnr), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Bruce ‘Hulk’ Banner (Mark Ruffalo), Natasha ‘Black Widow’ Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson), and Clint ‘Hawkeye’ Barton (Jeremy Renner). Former SHIELD agent Maria Hill (Cobie Smulers), now officially working for Tony, provides support, and Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) lurks in the wilderness, ready to help with the odd deus ex machina.
This Hydra base, administrated by improbably monocle-clad Baron Von Strucker (Thomas Kretschmann), holds secrets beyond the Avengers’ ken, including the fruits of a mysterious experiment in artificial intelligence, the sceptre of unbelievable power brought to Earth by Loki in the previous instalment and filched from the SHIELD vaults, and two siblings, Pietro Maximoff (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and his sister Wanda (Elizabeth Olsen). They are, of course, mutants (or “enhanced” as Whedon calls them, to avoid stepping on turf currently locked down by Fox): Pietro, better known as Quicksilver, provided the best scene in last year’s X-Men: Days of Future Past, albeit with a different actor in the part. Pietro and Wanda in Whedon’s take are a pair of orphaned Russians with a gripe against Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) because some of his weaponry killed their parents. Now their talents have been honed to a dangerous edge by Hydra. Pietro attacks the Avengers and leaves Hawkeye injured, whilst Wanda unleashes her psychic power to give Tony a vision of what he fears is the future, where all his pals are dead and the Earth decimated. Disturbed by this vision, Tony, retrieving Hydra’s experiments, resolves to use the recovered tech to complete one of his brainwaves: Ultron, an AI system more advanced than Jarvis (Paul Bettany), Tony’s digital manservant, to control a system of weapons to defend against alien attacks and allow the Avengers to stand down.
Tony convinces Bruce to help get the system working with the sceptre as power source. Whilst their experiments seem at first to fail, Ultron (voiced by James Spader, whose mordant purr remains immensely entertaining) awakens whilst the Avengers are partying, and, swiftly parsing his mission as programmed by Tony. Quicker than you can say “Colossus: The Forbin Project”, Ultron almost immediately decides in light of Tony’s desire for “peace”, the only way to achieve it is to annihilate human kind in general. Ultron seems to attack and virtually “kill” Jarvis, takes over Tony’s robotic support team and builds himself a crude body. Although that form is quickly destroyed in the melee that follows, Ultron escapes via the internet to rebuild himself more impressively elsewhere. Ultron invites Pietro and Wanda to help him under the guise of payback against Tony and the Avengers, and begins building a doomsday device utilising Vibranium, the same rare element that Cap’s shield is made from. Ultron also hopes to construct himself a perfect form combining human and metallic elements and powered by the core of the sceptre. To do this he takes control of Dr. Helen Cho (Claudia Kim), a medical tech wizard who has built a machine that fashions flesh, already demonstrated in repairing Hawkeye’s injury. The Avengers track down black market arms dealer Ulysses Klaw (Andy Serkis), who’s stockpiled Vibranium, to prevent Ultron getting his hands on the metal, but the team is split and driven into frantic disarray by Wanda’s psychic powers, each member sent spiralling down the rabbit hole of their own inner turmoil – most disastrously, Bruce’s alter ego the Hulk goes rampaging through a city, demanding Tony stop him with his latest, Hulk-sized Iron Man suit.
Already this synopsis should make plain how busy Age of Ultron will get. That busyness may well disorientate and even infuriate a lot of viewers, particularly those not terribly well-versed in this fictional universe or who missed a couple of instalments out of the previous ten movies in Marvel’s unfolding project. Whedon assumes, perhaps fairly by this point, that all of these faces are familiar and so can simply be let out the starting gate at full gallop. Despite being nearly two-and-a-half hours long, a lot of that run-time is spent in breathless motion. Whedon’s versing in the density of the Marvel universe as it’s developed over the past 60 years on the page is plain, and Age of Ultron revels in that richness with authentic passion: this is, for better or worse, is one of the most authentically comic book-esque of comic book movies. The storytelling style achieves the perfervid power of grand pulp fiction, harking back to days of print when villains and heroes chase each-other from page to page with scarcely a concern for anything but the next consequence of their mutual efforts in endlessly metastasising circumstances.
This does mean however that Whedon’s conceptual interests are flattened nearly into irrelevance. He imbues Ultron with Frankensteinian anger at his flawed creator, and makes Ultron himself into something of a cracked mirror of Tony himself, assimilating his flip speech patterns and plaintive neediness for companionship under the guise of gruff egotism. He accidentally cuts off Klaw’s arm in a tantrum when Klaw notes the similarities. Like just about everything else in the film, this fount of a theme is tightly wound into a narrative that can’t do much more than state an idea, rather than explore it. But Whedon does manage to imbue even a relatively second-string villain like Ultron with a distinctiveness that makes him interesting when he’s around, unlike the flat and dutiful villainy provided by several recent Marvel antagonists.
The Maximoffs are one of the big new items on this ticket, with Wanda about to evolve into Scarlet Witch, one of the key Avengers and also one of the most fractious. It’s an old adage about genre fiction, and action cinema above all, that character should be revealed in action, and the intensely mutually reliant nature of the Maximoffs defines them repeatedly throughout the film without requiring much dialogue to underline – and also provides a tragic jolt late in the film. Taylor-Johnson and Olsen, who played husband and wife in the tepid Godzilla (2014), have more chance here to show off their charisma even in more limited roles. Olsen is particularly good, plummy Slavic accent and all, in handling the switchbacks of her character, bringing something new to this panoply of heroes, insofar as she suggests a vengeful, dead-eyed confidence in her powers and the lurking spur of neurotic pain (and indeed, given the character’s instability in the comic books, menacingly so). Wanda and Pietro change sides in the conflict according to an essential, bitterly imposed awareness of the brutality in the world and their own motivation to counter it.
Ultron’s insistence on giving himself a human-like form means giving up the pure sanctity and detachment of a merely digital existence, and allows Wanda to see into his mind, which proves not a pretty place to be. The Avengers swing into battle with Ultron for control of this new, potentially unstoppable cybernetic organism he’s prepared as a shell, and once the body is captured, Tony has the brainwave of installing Jarvis, found tattered but still extant in a pocket of cyberspace, into the body to keep Ultron out and potentially give the team extraordinarily strong new ally. When Wanda, who can see deeply enough into Tony’s mind to know exactly how he thinks, warns Cap and some of the other Avengers what he wants to do, they dash back to stop him, but Thor casts the deciding vote rather literally by powering the new being up with lightning. The being that emerges, Vision (Bettany again, finally gracing the franchise with his physical presence), proves neither human nor machine and can’t even assure the Avengers that he’s not a threat, but instead proves a new and independent life form, who declares himself on the side of life and thus against whoever’s threatening it.
Whedon tries to make his storyline as organically specific to this universe as possible. But regardless of whether Ultron uses Vibranium in his doomsday machine or not, it’s still a doomsday machine, and the actual plot is, again like Whedon’s first instalment, quite simple in spite of the multiplicity of moving parts. Whedon does cleverly suggest that Ultron’s unresolved filial issues drive his desire to reproduce a human form rather than simply disseminate himself into the fabric of the electronic universe: he strives to reproduce and then evolve the human form into something new, but confirms his divided psyche. Like Michael Mann’s Blackhat earlier this year, Whedon tries to depict the digital world as a microcosmic zone of cause and effect, a new frontier of existence. An important subplot here sees Thor, disturbed by the implications of the vision Wanda stirs in him, daring to enter a mystical pool to commune with “water spirits” (cue compulsory Hemsworth shirtless scene), and emerges with the knowledge that the sceptre, the Tasseract, and the Aether, are all kin to the Infinity Stone in Guardians of the Galaxy, part of a fabled set of powerful objects that can be combined to imbue godlike power. And, what’s more, someone has been manipulating all of the events that have beset the Avengers recently, probably even having deliberately placed the double-edge blade that is Ultron where it would best tempt Tony, for precisely the purpose of making them do the work of rounding up the Infinity Stones. That manipulator is revealed in the now-traditional end credits teaser, and their identity is not actually surprising if you’ve been paying attention, but this element does suggest a degree of planning that’s formed a hidden substructure to the Marvel movies in spite of their occasionally wayward surfaces.
Inevitably, with so much lore and action to wade through, Age of Ultron can’t spare much time for more than cursory interaction between some of his Avengers: Whedon assumes Tony, Thor, and Cap, all of whom benefit from their own standalone movies, have been dealt with enough, and they mostly fill out the margins – but given those guys form the core of the fan following, that will probably leave more than a few feeling gypped. Downey Jr.’s art with a smart-aleck quip and Hemsworth’s ever-growing poise and ability to self-satirise in particular give the movie a sturdy support it doesn’t treat too well. Whedon instead concentrates on two character elements to give Age of Ultron a heart amidst the furore. He makes Hawkeye, the least well-served Avenger in the first instalment, the focus for the emotional journey of the episode just as Natasha was for the first. Chastened, bedraggled, and possibly outlawed after their first battle with Ultron and the Maximoffs has resulted in the Hulk decimating a city, the Avengers let Hawkeye take them to a safe house, which proves to be his own, a small farmhouse where Hawkeye has a wife, Laura (Linda Cardellini, always a welcome presence) and two children, with another baby on the way. This unexpected interlude of top-secret domestic bliss leaves the other Avengers toey in the face of their least “remarkable” member’s suddenly revealed settlement and success in keeping his work and life separate, and they move uneasily between rooms in this space, too large for it and too small for their own gifts.
Hawkeye’s specific gift as an Avenger, in contrast to the overwhelming force of the others, is one of precision, a gentleness of touch that eludes the galumphers around him. Whedon gives Hawkeye a crucial scene late in the film as he appeals to the momentarily overwhelmed Wanda to either stand clear of trouble or engage it wholeheartedly as a warrior. This vignette is a little wonder, referring to crucial backstory – Hawkeye also brought Black Widow over from the darkside – and also illuminating the present, suddenly making Hawkeye perhaps the most vital Avenger as well as the most human, and giving the film the kind of surprising emotional kick that is Whedon’s forte. Meanwhile romance is blossoming between a most unlikely couple, as Natasha is smitten with Bruce: in The Avengers Natasha had an intensely phobic reaction to the terrible spectacle of the Hulk, one that only seemed to infuriate the id-beast all the more. Now she has become the Hulk’s calming salve, able to draw the green guy out of his rages with nothing more than offering her hand, leading to the gently erotic sight of small woman’s palm in giant green mitt. But Bruce, whilst plainly equally taken, denies the attraction at first, and feels too conscious of his potential destructiveness to let the romance run its course.
Johansson, who ironically after several years floundering in stardom finally defined her screen persona playing Natasha, gets to work new levels to the character in love. Ruffalo, long a charm machine, is wonderful portraying Bruce’s befuddled delight. Whedon’s problematic but amiable film of Much Ado About Nothing (2013) was a long study in the dynamics of intimate staging for a roundelay of character expressed through quick-fire humour and effervescent emotion. Here that model is reproduced as haiku: Whedon even uses Hawkeye’s house as multilevelled stage in the same manner as he used his own house in that predecessor. I noted in my commentary on the first film that it represented a revival of an old Hollywood tradition, the all-star extravaganza, a genre that is distinct from the more prosaic style of the ensemble drama. Whedon was rightly praised for modelling the original like a Howard Hawks ensemble flick, like Rio Bravo (1959), watching fractious personalities bump against each-other in a pressure cooker situation and enjoy the process of watching them knit together. Whedon had a chance to make his El Dorado (1966) here, the semi-remake that’s possibly even better. The long, casually comic party sequence that follows the raucous opening does provide an islet of Hawksian interaction between the many different players, laced with appearances by supporting characters from the various sub-branches – James ‘War Machine’ Rhodes (Don Cheadle), Sam ‘Falcon’ Wilson (Anthony Mackie) – and vignettes, from Thor treating some old veterans to some of his potent Asgardian booze, to the various Avengers trying and failing to lift his hammer – except for Cap, who manages to move it ever so slightly, bringing a momentarily worried look to Thor’s face (this also sets up a joke that pays off later on).
But the simultaneous blend of firm genre structure with free-flowing behavioural study that was Hawks’ forte eludes Whedon here, who’s been forced to contend with a teetering superstructure of franchise business. Wanda’s mind-games with the team destabilises them and allows Whedon to offer some trippy sequences that expose the hang-ups of the characters, based so often in the same experiences that have given them their superlative talents, a notion that particularly intrigues Whedon for reasons already noted. Age of Ultron tries here to annex the same territory so well-handled by Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984), where the hero was confronted by his own internal chaos, confirming how little distance there was between his heroic side and dark one, but then emerging as purified righteous ass-kicker. In this regard, Whedon fails, rather badly. He can’t linger on the psychological trauma of his individual heroes long enough to make it seem more than another piece of plot hocus-pocus, nor can he leaven even the faintest feeling of anxiety that the team won’t reform and resurge. Age of Ultron is so jam-packed, so overflowing at the margins with throwaway details that it starts to resemble the pages of Mad Magazine, with tiny illustrative flourishes dotted between panels often providing the bulk of fun. Such a stuffed narrative would defeat many filmmakers. And frankly I think it’s defeated Whedon too.
Whedon’s sense of throwaway humour in marginalia makes this work for the most part however; the audience I saw the film with had most of its audible fun with such tossed-off touches, like Thor explaining his hammer-swinging technique to Vision, or Natasha shouting “Sorry!” as she pummels through a crowd on a motorcycle. One of my own favourite moments sees Ultron flying a jet whilst singing a ditty that signals just how cuckoo, and how human, he is. There’s a strong dash of the old James Bond spirit to this instalment, littered with rapid shifts between exotic locales to wreak havoc and look good doing it. The ship graveyard of Chittagong, Bangladesh provides the backdrop for an early battle (albeit supposedly in Africa), a location Whedon disappointingly doesn’t make much of, instead shifting focus for the battle between Iron Man and Hulk in a Michael Bay-esque wreck-the-city sequence – a well-staged, spectacular interlude that nonetheless represents screen time that could have been better spent on something else. The very end credits scan a grand Grecian-style monument depicting the Avengers in the midst of battle, well aware these are our neo-Olympians. There’s an odd and effective little moment that suggests again the breadth of cultural reference Whedon can make, as he offers a glimpse of Wanda retreating in a scuttling, stop-motion manner like a J-horror ghoul. Sadly, that kind of effective lo-fi trick can’t live long in a film with so many digital effects artists on the case.
Whedon’s visual sensibility is also still often surprisingly cramped, staging a major action sequence in a confined metallic chamber that looks like a set left over from City of Lost Children (1995), and offering up a climactic final image of a whole city floating above the Earth, and yet barely registering the surreal intensity of the moment: it’s just more cool stuff happening. Whedon’s visual syntax doesn’t break down, and yet the finale is such a whirlwind of events that his efforts to give every hero their clear ground for individual heroism, something Whedon did extremely well in his first instalment, here become more than a little ineffectual, offering, for instance, just a few blink-and-miss shots of Fury and Hill gunning down baddie robots. There is one grand moment when the heroes form together in Zukovia’s central church to protect the controls for the doomsday device and face a storm of steel and violence, a moment that evokes the most beautiful cover-wrapping comic book illustrations. But such moments of visual power are scarce. One reason I liked Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel (2013) more than many was precisely because Snyder was alive to the visual impact of such ideas, achieving an almost DeMille-like grandeur and beauty in his city-levelling battles and doomsday machines, and also wrestled with the notion of god-like entities battling as something perhaps frighteningly inimical to the rest of us. Whedon probably won’t be keelhauled for doing exactly the same thing like that film was because he’s got credit Snyder doesn’t have. In the lengthy, gigantic, overstretched finale, he bends over backwards to depict the Avengers trying to save the civilian populace of Sokovia as Ultron turns their city into a gigantic battering ram.
Apart from Scarlet Witch’s rousing entry into battle after Hawkeye’s pep-talk, however, Whedon never builds the same elating thrill as his first entry in studying all of his heroes defining themselves through battle, simply because he seems to feel unable to pause long enough to do so, nor the same impact in the face of self-sacrifice. The script promises that the battle will certainly prove deadly for at least some of the Avengers, and one significant character does die, albeit one carefully cross-indexed for relative value. But if Whedon was hoping that his second instalment would annex the mythic gravitas of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982), all I can say is he doesn’t make it. There is another problem the superhero genre faces and Marvel might soon find the ride becoming considerably bumpier soon because of it: the moment when it starts to become a feedback loop that refers to scarcely anything outside itself, an phase that will delight the long-haul fans but eventually detach the casual aficionados. A large part of the impact of the first Iron Man in 2008 came from its deliberate, naïve but effective tapping of the fantasy of many of finding an impervious shield to the cruelty of the times, worked via a very basic story and easy-going sense of humour. The Winter Soldier brought that to up to date as it depicted the modern American sense of self in vivid conflict: Marvel has traced the history of the War on Terror incidentally. The trouble with Age of Ultron is that it can barely refer outside itself, unless it’s to anxiety over the AI future, which ain’t a new anxiety. Now the brand is brushing the edges of a cosmology, and still uninterested in sacrificing broad entertainment to acknowledge the genuinely deeper streams of its mythos.
Even Whedon proves caged by this: to put it bluntly, Age of Ultron, like the much-abused superhero films Spider-Man 3 (2007) and Iron Man 2 (2010), is haplessly overstuffed, and like the latter, is forced to bear the burden of expanding this fictional world, which seems a bit ridiculous at this point, eleven films into a series. And yet it coheres more than those likenesses, if only because Whedon is talented enough to do big things with the smallest flourish. My criticisms of Age of Ultron might sound a bit more impassioned than they’re really intended to be: Whedon’s made another enjoyable movie here, fashioned with verve and working the rollercoaster intensity that the modern blockbuster movie aspires to. Many of them these days can’t really manage it: such intensity demands a movie offer the capacity to make the audience feel the ride as well as gawk in bemused amazement. Age of Ultron will undoubtedly frustrate many with its sheer too-muchness, and will riotously entertain as many or more, because it retains honour in that too-muchness. Avengers: Age of Ultron is as determined to entertain to the limit as an old vaudeville act. For the sake of the show it tap-dances whilst juggling, singing, and balancing a chair on its nose. I would have settled for just the tap-dance done well.
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Director: Gene Fowler Jr
By Roderick Heath
Ladies, has your husband turned into a stranger? Is he withdrawn? Pensive? Acting oddly? Is your bedroom colder than the refrigerator? Does he seem to be hiding a very different face from you? Then you may have to consider he might be an alien imposter.
The science fiction cinema that enjoyed a wave of popularity in the 1950s saw officious optimism and dark introspection jostling in close proximity, constantly battling for psychic supremacy. The broad and obvious association of the atomic age’s terrors with the panoply of giant monsters that stalked across the screen and the intrigued, visionary idealism of potential space travel were accompanied by subtler variations. Starting with Jack Arnold’s It Came From Outer Space (1953), the theme of possession or outright replacement of human beings by aliens became a recurring notion. This theme was quickly reused in a slew of genre films that followed, including Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), Invaders from Mars (1956), War of the Satellites (1957), I Married a Monster from Outer Space, The Trollenberg Terror (1958) and Village of the Damned (1961). All of these films exploited the fear of a loved-one suddenly turning into a stranger, the everyday and familiar suddenly subverted and turned into masking travesty. What was going on in the popular and artistic psyche at the time to make this a notion powerful enough to serve such repetition? Certainly this fear could cover vast territories in the modern psyche, from the most intimate personal disillusionment to raging schizoid fantasies, all somehow latching onto the new extremities and uprooted mood of the age.
Where the earlier films stopped at the fringe of bedroom, however, I Married a Monster moves right into that realm, a move fraught with peril for filmmakers in those waning days before the age of the contraceptive pill and the sexual revolution blew it all open. The early rumblings of something changing were already echoing through prominent melodramas like those of Douglas Sirk, Vincente Minnelli, and Mark Robson, to which I Married a Monster, one of the most genuinely odd and subtext-laden of major ‘50s sci-fi films, feels closely related, whilst also touching on territory Alfred Hitchcock and Fritz Lang had been exploring for decades, the zones of mystery between human beings and the seething psychosexual forces enacted there. I Married a Monster digs incisively into the headspace of its moment of making, delving into questions about that fulcrum period that something like Mad Men tries to examine second-hand: the difficulties and discomforts with prescribed social norms in the time and how it manifested in utterly “normal” settings, and diagnosing fraying social contracts. Director Gene Fowler Jnr broke into momentary genre cinema auteurship with the equally oddball, metaphor-heavy I Was a Teenage Werewolf (1957), establishing a template of transformative unease and primal fear situated in entirely normal circumstances, symbolised by apparently idyllic Eisenhower-age Midwestern towns. Both films tellingly co-opted the common magazine article ploy of the time in their titles, of breathless confessionals and reports from the dangerous zones of life.
With I Married a Monster, with its script penned by Louis Vittes, who previously penned the more prosaic monster movie Monster from Green Hell (1957), Fowler shifted attention from teenage angst to marital, kicking off with an archetypal collective of male friends gathered for a bucks party at the local country club of another pleasant regional town, with Bill Farrell (Tom Tryon) due to be married the next day. Sourly miserable jokes are thrown about, but Bill sets out to check in with his bride with happy confidence, driving along the dark rural road back to town. He brakes suddenly to try and avoid hitting what looks like a body stretched on the road. The body disappears as Bill investigates, who is set upon by a bizarre octopoidal alien that glows in the dark, and enveloped by a creeping mist that spirits him away. Bill still turns up the next day to his wedding to fretful Marge Bradley (Gloria Talbott), and the couple head off to their honeymoon at a seaside resort that quickly turns as cheerless as the thundery weather: Bill has suddenly developed an aptitude for driving in the dark with his headlights off, and when they get to their hotel, instead of diving into bed with his nervously eager bride, Bill prefers to gaze into the lightning in poetic raptures, and the strobing light reveals that somewhere under his handsome, all-American exterior lurks an extra-terrestrial.
Months later, the increasingly disturbed Marge pines for children but her marriage isn’t delivering those, or anything else. Her GP, Dr Wayne (Ken Lynch), checks her as A-1 fertility-wise, and suggests Bill come see him, an idea that turns the already chilly atmosphere around the house Arctic. Even worse, when Marge buys “Bill” a young pup as a birthday present, the formerly dog-loving man finds the animal aggressive and suspicious, and later, when Marge is safely in bed, “Bill” descends to kill the dog and passes it off as an accidental death. Beginning to suspect something genuinely strange is going on, Marge follows “Bill” when he leaves the house one and tracks him into the woods outside of town, where she sees things that seem beyond human reality: an alien being floats in gaseous form out of “Bill”’s body and reforms solid before heading into a secreted space ship. The shell of “Bill” falls flat on the ground, insects crawling over its stony face, and Marge flees in dizzy panic.
Fowler defuses any doubts about whether Marge’s controlling perspective is unreliable by making it clear early on what’s happening, but nonetheless expertly grows a sense of tingling atmosphere as he patiently charts the mounting evidence she finds that this conspiracy is not just in her mind, and the avoidance of making any mystery about the substitution shifts focus agreeably onto what are the motives of the aliens and how Marge will respond. Fowler intelligibly contrasts domestic domiciles of the suburbs with not just the mutable menace of the woods that fringe such safe, civilised zones, but also with the inner precincts of the town, a crude caricature of urbanity yearning for the status of a grown-up city where outcasts, reprobates, unhappy upright citizens, demimondaines, and drifters keep odd hours and the underbelly of this world is usually kept safely contained. Whereas in Teenage Werewolf Fowler’s junior artificial werewolf stalked pals on moonlit country paths, here Marge’s flight through the woods turns into a whirl of hallucinatory fears, looming alien faces and zombie-Bill chasing her in her mind. Like the same year’s The Blob (for which I Married a Monster was actually produced to partner on a double bill), Fowler turns the venturesome night of a small town into a zone of simultaneous threat and embrace in the suburban enclave, the Everytown locale turned into island amidst darkness where beasts roam.
Fowler’s promise as a director was never really fulfilled: whilst his first two works are still the objects of fervent cult admiration, as often happened with directors who revealed an affinity with the fantastic genres, his subsequent works out of those genres rose in respectability but declined in interest and in between a bit of TV directing, he returned to original job of editor. Importantly, Fowler had cut The Woman in the Window (1944) and While the City Sleeps (1956) for Fritz Lang, and Lang’s impact on Fowler seems particularly deep: Lang’s feel for environment as actor in the cinematic space, his fondness for thickets of psychological disease in his characters, and constantly recurring themes of sinister conspiracy, oppressive regimes, and infiltration are all clearly apparent here. I Married a Monster sports intelligent filmmaking, with arresting moments evoking the strong influence of not just Lang but also Alfred Hitchcock on his efforts. A sequence depicting Marge lying in bed listening to her husband’s approach, cross-cutting with his steps up the stairs, strongly suggests Suspicion (1941) and Notorious (1946), both films that likewise revolve around female protagonists under threat in their marriages (notably, Fowler also had Hitchcock’s regular editor George Tomasini working for him here).
Fowler pulls off the kind of invisible edit Hitchcock and Orson Welles were fond of early in the film with a hint of dextrous humour and thematic import when he uses flashing lightning to mask a shift from the window of the hotel restaurant newlywed Marge and “Bill” are nervously toasting each-other in, to their room upstairs: Fowler hides his technique with the same device he reveals his alien – the lightning – and mixes in a joke about deceptions and slippery realities. The Farrell house becomes a noir-ish zone of shadow and telling compartmentalisation, repeating shots of “Bill” and Marge in turn watching their partner in the kitchen from the living room, observing each-other playing at domesticity whilst filled with unease and shame. Fowler notably echoes a moment in Lang’s Fury (1936) when Marge finds herself floundering in the middle of town after fleeing the aliens in the woods and hears blaring, cheery music, only to find a dull and desolate bar with a few sleazy denizens. Wiseguy Weldon (James Anderson) and punchy barman Grady (Max Rosenbloom) mock her reports of monsters as the ravings of a frustrated closet alcoholic, but are also tantalised by this wild-eyed escapee from Squaresville. Weldon tracks her to her house and hangs about hoping she’ll emerge again looking for fun, only to be confronted by the town’s two assimilated policemen Schultz and Swanson (Jack Orrison and Peter Baldwin) and executed by them when realises what’s going on. Marge tells their chief, Capt. Collins (John Eldredge), what’s happening, and he counsels patience, but of course, flashing lightning reveals that he too has been possessed.
Fowler’s little universe proliferates with ingenious fragments of surrealist destabilisation, which often pack a sneaky thematic wallop and totemic encapsulation of the genre’s essence. Mysterious mists slide out of urban alleyways, enfold men and erase them. The hatch for an alien spaceship is secreted amidst the woods just beyond the fringes of a town. Dead animals mark the progress of monsters hiding in suburbia. The obsessions of Middle America, like security and stability, are tweaked only slightly to be turned into punitive sarcasms. The streets of the idyllic town become zones of fascistic repression, so that a lurking “criminal type” is not just confronted and waved on by enforcers of the illusion of peace, but knocked unconscious and shot dead on the street. An unhappy marriage and the moans of a billion wives that their husband just isn’t the man they fell in love with anymore becomes a literal wedding to an alien interloper. The tread of a husband’s feet on the stairs, so easily translated into fear of an abusive spouse or Marge’s own sexual anxieties, becomes the step of the secreted beast. Aliens watch humans from the forest and study their behaviour with intent of conquest and mimic their bodies, then sit around in bars refusing to drink like teetotallers, but end up using the time to whine about their mates and their lots in life just like their hosts.
In the film’s most strikingly eerie scene, the teasing hooker who hangs about Grady’s, Francine (Valerie Allen), wanders the desolate space of the town’s centre, sauntering with a hungry sensuality that’s clearly anything but domestic. Beings emblematic of free-floating sexuality and reproductive craving come into contact and conflict, as Francine tries to chat up a stranger with a hooded jacket she sees staring at dolls in a store-front window: too late does she see that her prospective John is an alien. The alien blasts her with a ray gun as she runs off, momentarily turning her to a blazing spectre before fading into oblivion, before the monster turns back to its weird, sad, solitary study of another species’ iconographic celebration of its offspring. It’s already been made clear by this time that the aliens do want to mate with human women, as the gang of replaced males have discussed. One quality that elevates I Married a Monster is not just its broad metaphors but its web of reversals and epiphanies. The gang of male friends annexed by the aliens who stand in place of normality, far from being agreeably Norman Rockwellian types signifying free and easy Americana, aren’t particularly likeable. In fact they’re mostly a mob of liquor-swilling, disgruntled, misogynist jerks conjoined by their general dread of the trappings of domesticity they nonetheless head into dutifully. The only difference between them and the aliens is that the aliens know why they’re passing.
These men in grey flannel – most of them work in insurance – are already a step away from losing themselves anyway. If they resist, like Sam Benson (Alan Dexter), they’re assimilated by the aliens. Sam’s double then does the work of proposing to his long-time girlfriend Helen Rhodes (Jean Carson). Helen is in turn so delighted from being saved from being a “career woman” that she remains wilfully oblivious to Marge’s warnings that connubial bliss isn’t what it’s cracked up to be. Another of Bill’s pals, Harry Phillips, drunkenly proposes “mass suicide” as the solution to marriage: after he’s replaced by an alien, Harry then complains in exactly the same bitter way about how disgusting his new body is. One of the tell-tale signs of assimilation is sudden giving up of drinking, a biological necessity for the allergic aliens but also a neat gag on the presumed niceties of marital life that the other, unchanged males still chafe against. Another of Bill’s pals, Ted Hanks (Chuck Wassil), rails against the chains of marriage (“Even a convict gets time off for good behaviour.”) and tries to make humour out of his wife Caroline’s (Darlene Fields) emasculating gift for baseball pitching that almost got her a try-out for the Yankees. Once most of the gang are assimilated, they gather with their wives for a picnic where the alien Sam falls out of a rowboat: the aliens are as unfamiliar with water as they are with liquor, so Ted leaps into the lake alone to haul Sam out whilst the others all stand, shirtless and buff, a hilarious spectacle of masculinity turned passive and ineffectual.
Caroline’s pregnancy however forestalls Ted’s replacement and, later, fatherhood brings him out all smiles, handing cigars to Marge and Dr Wayne – not a casual detail, as Wayne, by now convinced of the truth of Marge’s warnings, realises that the town’s recent fathers must still be human, providing a reliable force to muster and take on the infiltrators. I Married a Monster posits parenthood as not just as an act of biological urging but as a commodity of value, a communal need as well as a personal one, one which the male aliens are forced, ironically, to share intimately with the broody women of Earth. Once the veil drops between “Bill” and Marge and the alien appeals to his potential mate for understanding, he explains that all of his species’ women have died out during their long and agonising exodus from their dying planet, and now they have no choice but to seek mates on the way. “You have no idea how rare life is those cold, countless miles of space,” “Bill” reports with a hint of haunted exhaustion, correlating the deadness of the void with the infertility that has stricken his race and the distances between the two worlds with those between men and women. “We came together for breeding purposes only,” “Bill” says of his species’ unemotional nature, but begs Marge for understanding as he confesses to be “learning what love is.”
Of course, like most ‘50s sci-fi films, the Cold War’s special paranoias infest I Married a Monster, and the aliens, with their coldly unemotional, communal ethos, readily call to mind the archest caricatures of Communists as unfeeling, obedient hive minds. But the film suggests other varieties of modern pressure upon the essential stability of the idealised nuclear family unit that would soon burst it open. Critics and theorists have argued for decades over the political meaning of Siegel’s pod people, but in the end the suggestion that they represented a kind of Rorschach test for our anxieties in an age buffeted by the uprooting of old securities feels most accurate. I Married a Monster has this quality too, but the film ultimately evokes more personal, interior anxieties. Much in the same way that Invaders from Mars beautifully communicates a child’s fear of the loss parental love amidst its tacky wonders, I Married a Monster is most crucially about the idea communicated in its title, the fear of the otherness in the partner who romantic ideals tell us are supposed to be fused into our very sense of self. The film is explored chiefly from the wife’s point of view in being tethered to a man who cannot perform for her in bed. Talbott’s performance, her only real star moment, fits her oh-so-‘50s apparel, angular and vivid, shot through with breathless need and tremulous determination. Like the same year’s much less accomplished but still gaudily symbolic Attack of the 50 Foot Woman, I Married a Monster conflates marital melodrama with monster movie and proto-feminist inquiry: both Marge here and Allison Hayes’ fraying heiress in 50 Foot Woman are beset by aliens who neatly turn percolating unease into ripe manifestations, and troubled by men they love without recourse.
The infiltrating aliens of It Came From Outer Space were detached from the Earthlings, merely following their own programme; the pod people of Invasion of the Body Snatchers inimical opportunists mimicking humanity but erasing its essence. Here something more different again is at work, for I Married a Monster is simultaneously enriching and disturbing in the quiet but powerful empathy it offers for both sides of its coin. The fake “Bill” is revealed as a creature that feels the lightest breezes of humanity in his human form, and responds with yearning, albeit a yearning laced with colonialist entitlement, an entitlement the other aliens never doubt. Tryon was an actor who had near brushes with major stardom (particularly in The Cardinal, 1963) but quit to become an accomplished horror writer, and he was cast with alacrity here. With his vivid cheekbones and Action Man doll’s physique, he’s almost a caricatured ideal of ‘50s manhood, but Tryon’s ambiguity is always apparent, the actor displaying churning emotion under his stolid surface with deceptive passion. Tryon was beset by sexual confusion until he finally came out in the early ‘70s, and the film’s strong undercurrent towards reading as a metaphor, at least in part, about hiding as a gay man with a beard wife feels acute even when you don’t know this biographical detail. The newly replaced “Sam” visits “Bill”, ostensibly over an insurance policy, where “Sam” has to reveal himself with an overt gesture when “Bill” won’t get the hint, whereupon “Bill” welcomes him to the club, in a scene that feels like an elaborate form of cruising. Not for nothing, then, do the town’s successful breeders go out hunting for the hidden misfits who cannot reproduce. Notably, although Tryon disliked having to act in this film he tackled the theme of people being drafted into playing roles in an uncanny community himself in his later novel “Harvest Home.”
Whilst the fantasies are still mostly veiled here, a new phase of the horror and sci-fi genres based in the fervent fear of physical perversion seems nascent. So too, indeed, does the shifting balance between horror and sci-fi themselves, a year after Hammer’s The Curse of Frankenstein. There was often little distance between the genres during the decade anyway, in works like Them! and Creature from the Black Lagoon (both 1954) with their inky, nightmarish sagas of monstrous advent, with only the most fundamental underpinnings of the two genres – the irrationalism of horror and the solid cause-and-effect of sci-fi – to distinguish them. Here, the emphasis on the psychological nature of the disquiet and the dark visual palette betray the shift. I Married a Monster’s anticipations are interesting and vital, including David Lynch’s placement of surrealist fragmentation in homey surrounds in Blue Velvet (1986) and TV’s Twin Peaks, whilst the eroticised fear of deviant birth and strange sexuality inevitably feel like precursors to David Cronenberg and the progeny of Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979). Marge’s recoiling horror at the thought of being impregnated with an essentially alien foetus looks forward to Cronenberg’s darkest fantasies like the infamous births of The Brood (1978) and The Fly (1986) in particular, making I Married a Monster, in spite of the dated social assumptions it anatomises, one of the most forward-looking of the major ‘50s sci-fi films, as well as just about the last.
Putting its slippery meanings and weightier invocations aside, I Married a Monster is above all a fun, smart, well-made film (all the more impressively so for its budget) that delivers everything you want from a ‘50s monster movie: only the slightly pokey pacing and structuring of the middle third mar it, plus the slightly laborious effect of some of the dialogue scenes, the product in part perhaps of screenwriter Vittes camping out on set to make sure all his lines were served up exactly. But Fowler delivers a great finale as Marge realises she’s completely trapped by the secret regime that controls the town, but finally convinces Dr Wayne of what’s going on. This sets Ted and other recent fathers on the warpath, moving in a posse to hunt for the space ship and stage a raid on the two unmasked aliens guarding their ship. The attackers find themselves hopelessly outgunned as bullets just pock the skins of the spongy alien flesh in an ingenious little special effect, whilst the ray guns of the enemy blast the men to atoms. But Fowler employs a fun irony as one of the men’s German Shepherd dogs successful bring down the two aliens by attacking and ripping open their distended, tentacle-like neck arteries: it’s a bit of payback for their canine brethren killed earlier that also, amusingly, underlines the film’s theme of species self-loyalty.
The men are then able to penetrate the alien craft where, in another fillip of quality strangeness, the missing men are found dangling like sides of beef, hooked up to projection devices to sustain the aliens’ disguises. The rush to free the men however precipitates tragedy for the aliens who have taken their places, especially “Bill”, who has suffered from being taught what humanity as he remained nonetheless tethered to alien mission, only to be inevitably destroyed whilst fighting for his species’ future, and also is aware of it in a more personal manner thanks to his new human impulses to make it worse: “Bill”, “Schultz”, and “Swanson” dash to intervene but as each host is disconnected they fall one by one and dissolve into gruesome stew: back in his office, the fake Chief Collins pulls out a tiny transmitter and signals to his brethren to give this wild and nasty planet before melting into the same mush. Real Bill pops out of the spaceship into Marge’s arms moments after his doppelganger meets his end, and the fade out presents a last, haunting vista, of an alien fleet moving past Earth and heading on to friendlier climes. “It’s a nice idea anyway,” the fake Bill said earlier, writing his own epitaph, “Making visitors feel welcome.”
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Director/Coscreenwriter: James Gunn
By Roderick Heath
Here there be spoilers:
The US summer blockbuster season has just passed, and what a dismal time it was for critics, audiences, and studios alike. A parade of banal sequels and listless franchise expansion have meant that some are seriously questioning just what Hollywood is good for right at the time when the mass cinema industry’s basic presumptions are being challenged. Guardians of the Galaxy, the latest in Marvel’s world-conquering, epoch-defining hits, was one of the few real critical and commercial bright spots of the season— an industry surprise considering the source comic’s lack of legacy and its deliberately volatile, tongue-in-cheek take on fantastic fare. The building blocks of Guardians seems at first glance to be quite a distance from Captain America’s boy scout decency or the PG naughtiness of Tony “Iron Man” Stark, offering a hero who seems to have nothing more going for him than the vocabulary, horniness, and general attitude problem of an ’80s movie delinquent and a talking racoon who likes taking out his confusion with a Gatling gun set in distant climes of classic space opera. But audiences seem to have been hungry for a little more bite and jollity in the genre, and Guardians has been generally received as a genuine throwback to the kind of goofy, audience-delighting hit that made the 1980s a rather good time to be a kid—or at least, that’s what the hype reported.
Director and cowriter James Gunn was not, at first glance, the kind of filmmaker one expected to score such a hit, as his biggest claim to fame prior to this was his dark, unstable farce Super (2011). That work subjected the superhero genre to aggressive deconstruction, exposing its heroes as stymied vigilante wingnuts and sexual fetishists out of their depth, essayed with a blunt and rather obvious method but managed with a spirit that made the film as entertaining as what it was satirising. Gunn emerged from the infamous, outrageous exploitation studio Troma and entered Hollywood writing Scooby-Doo (2002) and Dawn of the Dead (2004) before making his directing debut with Slither (2006). Undoubtedly Gunn’s clear understanding of what he was kidding made Marvel hire him. The studio’s product has been, in the past two years since The Avengers (2012), devolving into bland and shapeless pablum, and new ingredients have definitely been required. Gunn’s writing partner on this film, Nicole Perlman, did script-doctor work on Thor (2011), still my favourite Marvel movie. The hope that something of Super’s corrosive spirit could be blended with Thor’s grandeur to create something as simultaneously wry and spectacular, knowing and unfettered as, say, Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) or Flash Gordon (1980) rose in my heart.
Guardians kicks off with an unabashedly Spielbergian touch, in a prologue set in 1988: a young boy, Peter Quill (Wyatt Oleff), is called in to his dying mother’s (Laura Haddock) hospital room to say goodbye to her. She leaves him a specific and peculiar gift: a mix-tape filled with all her favourite oddball pop hits. When she expires, Peter runs outside to grieve, only for a mysterious UFO to fly over and pick him up in a tractor beam. Twenty-odd years later, Quill (played as a grown-up by sitcom star Chris Pratt) is now a low-rent corsair and space stud zipping about the galaxy using the dodgy nom-de-guerre of Star Lord. He’s trying to escape the influence of his adopted father, Yondu Udonta (Michael Rooker), leader of a band of pirates called Ravagers who picked up young Quill on a contract to deliver him to his real, mysterious father, but kept the kid and raised him as one of their band (sadly, no Pirates of Penzance jokes are forthcoming).
Quill snatches a chance to make himself rich when he locates a mysterious orb in a wrecked spaceship on a remote planet that every other goon and chancer in the galaxy is after. Yondu is incensed that Quill beat him to it and doesn’t plan cutting him in, whilst warrior Korath (Djimon Hounsou) and his henchmen fight Quill for it. Peter gives Korath the slip and heads to Xandar, a squeaky-clean intergalactic imperial hub that recently signed a peace treaty with the phlegmatic Kree race, after a protracted and bloody war. But once there, he’s immediately attacked by three rivals, one of whom, Gamora (Zoë Saldana), is after the orb. The other two, Rocket (voice of Bradley Cooper) and Groot (voice of Vin Diesel), are bounty hunters after Quill, but after a struggle in the streets of Xandar’s capital, all four are arrested by the peace-keeping Nova Corps, led by sarcastic Corpsman Rhomann Dey (John C. Reilly) and flung into a rough prison floating in space called the Kyln. Initially antagonistic and mutually contemptuous, Quill, Gamora, and the bounty hunters soon find themselves bound together by a mutual interest: money. Gamora hopes to make a fortune selling the orb to the omnivorous “Collector,” Taneleer Tivan (Benicio del Toro) and offers the others a piece of the action, necessitating an escape plan.
The constituent parts of Guardians are interesting and occasionally spark, particularly the characterisation of Rocket, whose loyal companionship with Groot stems from their background as products of crimes against nature committed in some genetics lab. Rocket’s unstable, resentful, acidic take on the world around him is used to cover up some major existential pain that leads him at one point to nearly shoot up a bar full of people just to release his anger. Groot has a vocabulary limited to three words, “I am Groot,” with variations of intonation that only Rocket can understand in a ready jest on similarly opaque utterances by Chewbacca and R2D2 in the Star Wars films. Groot tends to express himself more through the language of his “body,” like when he releases glowing buds to swim in the air for both lighting purposes and a little symbolic commentary, and, most strikingly towards the end, when he sprouts a thicket of lush foliage to enfold and protect his friends from harm. For a more dramatic thicket of backstory, we have Gamora, whose body is a literal lethal weapon, trained since childhood along with her sister Nebula (Karen Gillan) by their adoptive father, intergalactic harbinger of doom Thanos (Josh Brolin), who destroyed their civilisations.
Somewhere along the line, however, Gamora rebelled. She pretends to be in the service of her father and chief bad guy Ronan (Lee Pace) but actually intends to foil them. Nebula chases after her sister in an inevitable, quasi-sibling feud of mythic proportions. Drax (Dave Bautista) is a hulking alien Quill and the others meet in the Kyln who seeks revenge on Ronan for killing his family and signs up for any business that might lead him to his foe. Gunn’s referential framework here, likeably enough, can be seen as encompassing not just obvious touchstones like Star Wars and such predecessors in the space opera realm like Lensman and Buck Rogers, but also John Carpenter’s Dark Star (1974) and some its pop culture children, most of which have appeared on TV—Red Dwarf, Lexx, and Futurama. There’s also some kinship with much more disreputable ’80s fare like Ice Pirates, The Last Starfighter, Night of the Comet (all 1984), and My Science Project (1986), half-clever, scrappy, rascally movies that blended genre fare with a pop spirit that ironically contrasted the traditionally weird and epic zones of scifi with characters still locked in mundane, earthly zones of understanding. Guardians has clear ambitions to annexing that tradition.
Well, that’s what Guardians of the Galaxy’s ambitions are. The film’s actual achievement is, by contrast, so minor that it counts as the biggest disappointment from a big movie I’ve had since Gravity (2013). How could I fail to like what’s clearly entertained audiences so fully? I don’t know. I’m desperate for good space opera. Perhaps therein in lies some of the problem. Guardians threw my mind back to the Pirates of the Caribbean films insofar as that, like those works, it’s overloaded with raw material that could make for truly great, weird, original adventure films—perhaps, indeed, too many because neither Pirates nor Guardians have any idea how to put them together. Guardians isn’t a traditional superhero story; in fact, it’s Marvel’s first work that, though based on a comic series and linked via plot elements like Thanos to other strands of the Marvel universe, represents new genre turf. Yet Guardians fails to escape the template Marvel has established of superfluous motivations and static characterisations, without any place of real interest to take its stories. The early films the studio put out had the advantage of being origin stories, a necessity in setting up superhero franchises that frustrates some comic book fans but helps make the phenomenon coherent for the rest of us. A maxim often bandied about in reference to the comic book genre is that second films are the best, because the business of setting up character and situation has been done and the sequel can hit the ground running.
But Marvel has been proving that maxim untrue, because their sequels have tended to be ramshackle hunks of fan service with plotting that is painfully superfluous. Even this year’s superior, but still highly overrated Captain America: The Winter Soldier, which tried to shift into new territory by borrowing a veneer of hard-boiled cynicism from ’70s thrillers, still readily descended into info-dump explanations and bland, bloodless action. Guardians is technically an origin story but tries to behave like a swinging sequel. Similarly, although Gunn makes many gestures toward placing his work in a grand tradition of zippy fun, the actual product he ends up with is a by-rote work with occasional touches of impertinence that fail to add up to anything substantial. Rather than a flow of loopy, inspired humour and madcap action, Guardians offers up zany ideas harvested from its source material and then lets them sit around serving no function. Guardians wants to act like the usual epic claptrap of its genre is mere background whilst playing up the idiosyncrasies of it heroes, but it remains enslaved to a banal edition of its genre as it overcompensates by stuffing in more plot elements and antagonists than it knows what to do with.
The biggest lack of Guardians is any faith—or even real interest—in storytelling. The early fight between Rocket, Groot, Quill, and Gamora on the streets of Xandar is a good example, simply allowing the three different plot strands/character groups to collide on the street. The prologue sets in motion a theoretical sense of longing for family that Quill gains through his new compadres and invests plentiful melodramatic thrusts to give the story some charge. Yet Guardians’ attempts to get emotional and exciting flounder without ever feeling urgent or convincing. The team comes together and becomes inseparable mostly because that’s what the story demands they do, without much effort put in to developing convincing camaraderie: we go from Rocket drunkenly threatening to kill everyone to superfriends real fast and a couple of low-rent group bickering sessions. The closest we get to a scene of real emotional bonding, touching almost on a love scene (that verboten thing in this perpetually preadolescent genre), comes when Quill and Gamora take a timeout so they can share backstory, delivered in lumpen stare-into-the-middle-distance manner. Guardians lopes from scene to scene without a clear sense of direction. Drax summons up Ronan and his legions for no better reason than the film needs a bit more banging and blasting at that juncture. We spend ages waiting for our heroes to encounter the perverse Collector. The moment they reach his lair, the film swerves ridiculously as one of Tivan’s servants (Ophelia Lovibond) tries to master the infinity stone to escape his influence and instead causes a big bang in a twist that feels less like a radical blindsiding to keep us on our feet than a clumsy waste of time and money.
Imagine getting an actor of Del Toro’s calibre and wasting him like that. In fact, Guardians stands as an incidental monument to the decadent lack of interest in the talent Hollywood has its disposal in the age of the FX blockbuster. Fine actors—Glenn Close! John C. Reilly! Benecio del Toro! Josh Brolin! Djimon Hounsou!—are hurled into the mix and then given absolutely nothing to do. The film even makes a show of this by casting Vin Diesel as a tree that only speaks three words. Quill’s status as intergalactic lady’s man and arrested-development miscreant might have been funnier if J. J. Abrams’ take on James T. Kirk hadn’t already done basically the same thing. Having him flip the bird to the Nova Corps whilst getting a mug shot taken scarcely constitutes investing him with a lode of real character and comes across like a rebellious gesture that’s been relentlessly examined and finally approved by a corporate strategy meeting that thinks it’s being edgy.
Similarly, Gunn throws up the comic’s wacky ideas—a crazy anthropomorphic racoon! a space hero who’s a total scrub!—and expects us to find them outrageously entertaining and not pay any attention to how little invention has gone into the stuff that surrounds them. For instance, in Ice Pirates, a film usually written off today as an example of what could go wrong with the ’80s fantasy template, there’s a genuinely inspired aspect to the final battle, which takes place in the midst of a time warp where the heroes pass through a lifespan’s worth of events in a few minutes even as they charge about trying to defeat the bad guys. Even the ramshackle charms of Flash Gordon sported more real wit, like the impromptu football match in Ming’s throne room that entwined a great, specific joke about culture shock with slapstick humour. By comparison, Guardians has a dismaying lack of cleverness for all its enhanced budget and technical advantages.
Gunn and Perlman’s script does throw up some wisecracks that are pretty funny: the most edgy and unexpected comes when Quill, responding to Gamora’s peevish complaint that his spaceship is filthy, tells his other new friends, “Oh she has no idea. If I had a black light this’d look like a Jackson Pollock painting.” But the humour doesn’t add up to much. There are great long patches without anything particularly amusing going on, and really only the fanciful effects that give us Groot and Rocket distinguish them from comic-relief characters in decades worth of second-string westerns. Drax comes from a race that speaks in vaguely medieval fashion but has no understanding of metaphor, a potentially fertile idea for comedy, but the script develops the idea lazily (apparently though Drax can’t comprehend figures of speech like “over your head,” he has no problem using simile). Pace’s Ronan is supposed to be a fearsome figure of genocidal intent and deep wells of resentment behind his status as a vengeful extremist, but he arrives on screen as basically the same glowing-eyed, hooded bad guy Christopher Ecclestone played in Thor: The Dark World (2013). At the outset, we see Gamora close to Ronan, but what side she’s really on isn’t questioned for any narrative intrigue, whilst the relationships are spat at us by the movie without much care for impact or how we connect them, such as who Thanos is, what his connection to Ronan is motivated by, what Gamora and Nebula’s relationship was before Gamora’s treachery.
The film’s simultaneously flippant yet somehow witless take on employing generic niceties keeps the story from ever seeming important, and thus there’s no vitality to the inevitable wham-bam climax. Guardians makes an outright joke of the obvious McGuffin status of the object that motivates the plot, the orb which holds an “infinity stone,” a source of immense, primeval power. As Quill says, “It’s got a real shining-blue suitcase, Ark of the Covenant, Maltese Falcon sort of vibe.” Rather than amusing me with the plain cheek of this self-referential jive, though, this line highlighted how fed up I am with blockbusters that can’t sustain a proper storyline or be bothered investing real stakes in a plot that connects convincingly to the heroes’ predicaments. Similarly, the film’s soundtrack is replete with the hits that feature on Quill’s inheritance, his mix-tape, utilised as an ironically jaunty soundtrack in place of the usual blaring Wagnerian stuff. There is inherent fun to watching Quill dance across an alien landscape to Redbone’s “Come and Get Your Love” or planning battle to the Runaways’ “Cherry Bomb.” But again I felt after a while that the music was being used to disguise the film’s lack of imagination and skill: the songs are patched over the sequences rather than carefully wound into them, unlike, for recent example, the ingenious deployment of Jim Croce’s “Time in a Bottle” during the best scene in the otherwise insipid X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014). The film tosses out what it sets up as a clever escape sequence in the Kyln, as Rocket lists required objects, only for Groot to almost sabotage it by casually snatching one object and setting off anarchy, and the would-be clever sequence dissolves into so much visual white noise.
What Gunn is trying to do here is actually quite difficult, certainly more difficult than he seems to have realised. It’s certainly not impossible: the action-adventure film that satirises itself as it goes along whilst not deflating the excitement. Look at a really great predecessor that did this sort of thing: the opening of Raiders of the Lost Ark. The careful deployment of information, the steadily constructed tension, hints of character, unfolding of incident. John Carpenter’s Big Trouble in Little China (1986) nailed exactly the mix this film is after, veering blithely between high myth and low comedy, timeless thrills and fleeting insouciance, as did just about any Hong Kong action of the ’80s. Gunn’s work isn’t particularly interesting visually, zipping by its alien landscapes as just so much more CGI fodder without a sign of wonder or investment in the fantastic, betraying the film’s references to Star Wars and the like as the smarmy pretensions of a second-rate jokester. The film’s action scenes are big and expensive and noisy, and yet remarkably dull, failures as cinematic spectacle just as the script fails at satiric comedy. There’s an odd moment in the final battle when a bunch of spaceships join together like a giant Lego set to form a kind of net to catch Ronan’s ship. This is another striking idea, one that comes out of nowhere, performed by a bunch of characters whose presence in the film has been vague at best. Guardians tries to have its cake and eat it, but doesn’t know how to bake and can’t chew.
To me, the film’s one real flash of excitement came when Gamora and Nebula finally meet in battle, a conflict where, for all the weaknesses in its set-up, at last showed a buzz of emotional investment in the fight and the sight of physical dynamism in the actresses and their stunt stand-ins that is the essence of this type of cinema. But even this doesn’t count for much because it’s over before you know it and only ends with a set-up for a sequel (isn’t everything?), and it’s thrown into the mix with about 15 other vignettes pieced together without much intelligent scene grammar. Finally, right at the end, something of Guardians’ ambitions came to fruition in Groot’s final sacrificial action, and the borderline-mystical joining of the ragtag team who become the eponymous Guardians by virtue of their exceptional weirdness, as well as pith, to defeat Ronan with the infinity stone. Pratt does give Star Lord his all, and he could well be a promising action-comedy star. This and the black-out gag featuring a dancing baby groot almost convinced me that I hadn’t wasted my time. And yet, it is easy to understand why Guardians been such a big hit, and I can’t even discount the possibility that some day it will be as big an object of cult veneration as the ones it invokes. Either way, my personal, dismal movie-going year continues unabated.
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Director/Co-screenwriter: Joon-ho Bong
By Roderick Heath
Here there be spoilers
South Korean director Joon-ho Bong captured the attention of many international filmgoers in 2006 with his home-grown monster movie The Host. He rode the crest of a wave of interest in popular Korean cinema with its potent and often outlandish preoccupations, and reservoir of directorial talent and also including Chan-Wook Park and Kim Jee-woon. Many movie fans found that The Host offered the texture and quality of a bygone variety of genre entertainment, plied with energy and love for the nuts-and-bolts craft of a good creature feature Hollywood hasn’t offered since around the time of Arachnophobia and Tremors (both 1990). An enjoyable film, it was nonetheless rather overrated: I found Bong’s filmmaking, in spite of (and because of) his sustained steadicam shots, often clumsy or arrhythmic, the script far too busy and over-long, and the attempts to incorporate political and social commentary obvious, even tacky, without ever being incisive or as curtly dovetailed as in the best examples of the genre. Still, the film surely earned Bong a cult following abroad, whilst his follow-up, Mother (2011), seemed a complete about-face in subject matter, but still earned critical plaudits for the director’s eccentric artistry. Snowpiercer is a work of greatly increased ambition, an adaptation of a French graphic novel series with The Host’s co-stars Kang-ho Song and Ah-sung Ko rubbing shoulders with an international cast in a film that aims for the broadest possible audience, delivering thrills and spill tethered to an allegory that’s never any vaguely disguised.
A post-apocalyptic take on Spartacus (1960) mixed with a little A Night to Remember (1958) and The Cassandra Crossing (1977), Snowpiercer is built around one central, dominating concept: the entire film takes place on a super-fast bullet train speeding around the world. The world itself has been frozen into a giant block of ice by a misguided attempt to deal with global warming by inculcating the atmosphere with a dense artificial gas, and only the train’s constant motion keeps it from finishing up as a metal popsicle. Captain American himself, Chris Evans, plays Curtis, an intelligent and conscientious member of the train’s third class, that is, passengers who were allowed on board in the pure desperation and chaos of civilisation’s last days, and have been forced to subsist ever since in the rear carriages of the train. The train is the brainchild of genius inventor and industrialist Wilford (Ed Harris), who never leaves the very front carriage of the train, tending his engine with its miraculous, perpetual-motion energy supply. The train still travels the old world-looping track he built nominally for international travel but actually because he anticipated just such a fate.
Curtis has become something like the adopted older brother or even father of Edgar (Jamie Bell), and the two have begun conspiring on ways to overthrow the armed guards who keep them cordoned off from the other classes on the train, and stage a takeover. The filthy and dispirited passengers of the rear carriages are fed on green, jelly-like blocks of protein. Curtis is haunted by evil events that occurred on the train in the early days and is discomforted by Edgar’s hero worship. Curtis feels second-rate compared to other passengers, like the wizened old Gilliam (John Hurt), who are missing multiple limbs for reasons that are eventually explained. Gilliam seems to have an intimate understanding of the train’s remote lord, who is regarded as an almost god-like benefactor by the better-off on the train, and he advises Curtis as their plans begin to take shape. Another, more mysterious helper has been smuggling messages of advice to Curtis in his evening protein blocks.
The third-class passengers are infuriated when Wilford’s emissary and concubine Claude (Emma Levie) comes on one of her occasional missions to extract small children for an unknown purpose. She claims Tim (Marcanthonee Jon Reis), son of Tanya (Octavia Spencer), and in the distraught melee that results, one passenger, Andrew (Ewen Bremner) tosses a shoe at Claude’s head. Andrew is grotesquely punished by having his arm forced out through a portal to be frozen stiff in the high mountain cold, and then shattered with a hammer, whilst Mason (Tilda Swinton), a gummy, gawky, patronising Minister in the train’s government, lectures the third class in the necessity of their happy obeisance to the settled order. Mason accidentally gives away a crucial piece of information which Curtis correctly interprets: the guards’ guns have run out of bullets in putting down earlier revolts, and now, if they can strike hard and fast enough, the third class might stand a chance. Curtis chafes against the efforts of Edgar, Tanya, and others to make him their appointed leader, but it soon becomes clear that any revolt is going to need a guiding mind with a clear and relentless idea of what to do each at each challenge, with the reflexes to match. Gross manifestations of repression and inequality are of course soon gleefully repaid as Curtis launches his revolt, using salvaged barrels to jam doors open and swoop upon the guards. As the rebels gain access to the next few cars, they discover the sickening truth about their food source, as insects and waste scraps are mashed into their protein blocks.
There’s conceptual similarity in Snowpiercer to works and writers from great days in the science-fiction genre, likes J.G. Ballard’s grimy satires and Philip K. Dick’s dystopian fantasias. Bong signals his influences and reference points early on: some have compared him to Steven Spielberg, and whilst that was evident in The Host with its narrative focus on a fractious, venturesome family unit, here the guiding influence seems rather to be ‘80s and ‘90s Euro Cyberpunk, like the early films of Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Marc Caro, and Terry Gilliam, who’s given an explicit name-check in Hurt’s character. Which could be cool, but frankly I found much of Snowpiercer felt old-hat, particularly in channelling Gilliam’s least likeable trait, of pushing his performers towards becoming leering grotesques, particularly evident in Bremner’s performance and, more appreciably, Swinton’s amusing if unsubtle Mason, who becomes the main foil and victim of the rebellion. Although pushed a few rungs down the social bracket so she speaks with a broad midlands accent and has a rather awful dental plate, Mason’s a quite obvious burlesque on Margaret Thatcher, abusing her charges, whom she calls “freeloaders,” for their lack of gratitude, and going through a show-and-tell play with a shoe placed on Andrew’s head: “Be a shoe,” she advises the passengers, because they’re not hats. In case it’s not obvious enough already, Snowpiercer is supposed to be a parable about have and have-nots, casting the rear carriage passengers as third world and underclass losers held down by the man, man.
Curtis seeks out Namgoong Minsoo (Song), the train’s former electrical and security wizard, who seems to have degenerated into a hopeless frazzled drug addict. The drug of choice on the train is Kronol, a by-product of the train’s toxic waste and a highly flammable substance. Minsoo, once he’s awakened out of his dissociate daze after being plucked from a penal cell like a morgue locker, makes a deal with Curtis to get his daughter Yona (Ko) out of another locker, and for them both to receive for blocks of Kronol in exchange for getting the rebels through each barrier ahead of them on the train. Yona, a “train baby”, seems to have a preternatural awareness, bordering on precognition, and is able to warn the advancing force about dangers hidden on the far side of the closed doors. The rebels face their greatest challenge in a carriage where they find Mason and a death squad armed with battle-axes waiting for them, timing a blackout with the train’s movement into a long, dark tunnel, so that the attackers, who have night vision goggles, can freely slaughter them. But, in perhaps the film’s funniest moment, one of the tiny number of matches Minsoo had saved is used to light a torch, and this is rushed from the rear of the train to the battleground by successive runners including Andrew in an ecstatic parody of an Olympic torch relay.
Fire allows the battle to proceed fairly and the rebels vanquish their foes, but Curtis is forced to make a call between saving Edgar, who is defeated and used as a human shield by one of the guards, and catching Mason before she can scurry off. Curtis makes the choice of a leader and goes after Mason: Edgar’s throat is cut but Curtis captures the Minister and uses her to force the guards to stop fighting. I like Evans as an actor: he was the star of one of my favourite recent genre films, Push (2009), which was one of those rare films that started off cleverly and kept up the flow of invention until the very end. And he’s quite competent here as a hero whose only exceptional characteristics are his intelligence and his desperation for moral regeneration, which drives him to break boundaries others accept. To his credit, Bong gives the film time to breathe with contemplative time-outs between scuffles, and paying attention to Curtis’ interactions with his fellow, culminating in a lengthy explanation to Minsoo about the early days on the train, when he was a teenage punk who had succumbed to murderous cannibalism, before the protein feed regime was instituted and the passengers were starving.
Curtis was brought to his senses when Gilliam and other older passengers began donating their limbs as food to keep the marauders like Curtis from snatching babies for the pot: Edgar’s life was saved directly by this intervention. Curtis thus faces that regulation trope (or cliché) of many recent Japanese and Korean dark thriller and horror films, the sense of guilt or transgression that can only be expiated by sacrificing a limb (see also the works of Chan-Wook Park, who produced this, and Takashi Miike). Such a revelation invests Curtis with a memorable pathos and darkness, and yet it doesn’t sit very well with the pretty clean-cut guy we’ve been introduced to. I couldn’t help but wonder if it would have been more convincing, and indeed genuinely affecting, with an older, more world-weary and weathered actor in the part, somebody who at least looked like he had the memory of a savage self in him.
At some point in this film’s development, Bong seems to have decided he was faced with a clear choice with this material, to either try to make it convincing or to play up its symbolic value. He chose the latter, but immediately revealed his lack of understanding of science-fiction, which can revolve around parable but must also exemplify a logical take on its chosen fantastical realm. The film follows a very basic guiding logic that makes sense, the literally linear movement from front to back of the train, which has a suspiciously video-game conceit to it, whilst also evoking the powerful influence of producer Park in the resemblance of fight scenes to the tight-packed, squared-off fight scenes that rather resemble the famous corridor battle in Oldboy (2006). But beyond this, Snowpiercer’s set-up, both technical and social, makes painfully little sense, never working at all to explain certain basic questions. Key to the film’s plot is the supposed balance of life within the train, a concept that has important ramifications in a climactic reveal. As the rebels advance through the conveyance, they pass through carriages dedicated to the propagation of animal and plant-life.
If the Snowpiercer had been deliberately designed as a mammoth Noah’s Ark-like device to save a small section of humanity I might have bought this, but the circumstances of the machine’s construction, when revealed, present the film as a private industrial Spruce Goose repurposed into it present use. The train, when glimpsed from the outside, doesn’t seem all that much bigger than the average Amtrak cross-country express, and couldn’t possibly support enough infrastructure to make the life on the train we see possible, not even to produce the insects ground up for the protein meal. The film is full of unexplained logic jumps as weapons come out of nowhere and characters who shouldn’t know one end of a gun from another suddenly having a working knowledge of automatic weapons. A gunfight is precipitated in the midst of a carriage full of the last kids on earth. Obviously someone doesn’t think children are our future.
The perspective the audience is forced to follow makes the early stages a striking experience in the sense of isolation and imposed abused, envisioning life in the third-class carriages as a ride on the Trans-Siberian Express turned into way of life, mixed with a favela. The conceit of the film can be excused as merely a transposed vision of slum dwellers invading the better parts of town wrapped in a polite sleeve of genre fiction, but nakedness of political metaphor doesn’t make for brilliance. As the film unfolds the coherency of the metaphor becomes increasingly silly and self-serving, as it offers no chance for perspective from the other classes on the train, just a broad caricature of privilege and indoctrination. Far from being a wake-up call about the dangers of global warming, the film could be seen as marking a different inference, a metaphor for the way third world countries are denied the pleasures and benefits of industrialisation by the environmental concerns of rich westerners. As the rebels penetrate the “first world” part of the train, the vignettes they see there look like the interior of a luxury liner where prim personages sit, and then the interior of a rave club, filled with louche young things reclining in decadent postures. Yes, that’s the limit of Bong’s insight into modernity’s diseases: stoned young party people and Victorian upper-crust caricatures. It’s so puerile it makes the French Revolution invocations of The Dark Knight Rises (2012) seem profound.
Where all the warriors came from, and indeed where they go to after initial skirmishes, and the train’s entire apparent infrastructure of government and representation, is skipped over. Good points might have been made about the whipped-up bloodlust and fear of the other passengers when faced with the insurrection as a simile for political manipulation, but the only “people” on the train are the rebels, and even they’re pretty one-dimensional. The film’s best scene isn’t much more sophisticated but is staged with such an intimate gusto I didn’t mind, as the rebels bust into a schoolroom carriage. There the primly raised little snots of the train’s upper class are inculcated with cultish love of Wilford through absurd songs and catechisms like “The engine is eternal! The engine is forever!” and “We would all freeze and die!” Mason delights in hearing the songs: “I love that one – such a tonic!” she reports with splendidly needy over-enthusiasm. Canadian actress Allison Pill has a deliriously inspired cameo here as the kids’ wackadoodle teacher, eyes aglow and eyelids aflutter with feverish excitement in teaching the gospel of Wilford like a Moonie zealot, whilst the overtones of this sequence take on several targets at once, from religion in general to the specifically cultish fanaticism attached to supposed benefactors, and even perhaps a tilt north of the 38th parallel.
The scene sharpens to a point as the heavily pregnant teacher draws an automatic weapon on Curtis and the other rebels: she gets a knife in the throat, and Curtis coolly executes the increasingly pathetic Mason in retaliation. Most of the issues I had with the film on an intellectual level with the film might have been rendered moot if I’d found it more satisfying on the level of meat-and-potatoes action, but Snowpiercer is rather ordinary in that regard, and certainly inferior to, say, Pierre Morel’s work on Banlieu 13 (2004), a film which had much the same structure and subtext but not half the pretension. One major problem with the film’s development is that apart from Mason none of the antagonists are at all well-defined enough to dislike. We have bad guys whom scrutiny of the credits tell me are called Franco (Vlad Ivanov, the sleazy abortionist of 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days, 2007) and Egg-Head (Tómas Lemarquis) but who come out of nowhere and are standard action movie villains. Curtis and Franco end up having a gunfight between carriages as the train goes around a long curve, an idea that makes interesting use of the specifics of the situation but as it plays out here is numbingly stupid.
Franco lumbers along emotionlessly killing Curtis’ followers, including Tanya, and proves rather hard to dispatch, like the Terminator in business casual. The film’s action set-piece is the tunnel fight, which is passably well-staged but more interested in pretty effects like art-directed blood spurting on the windows than in believably depicting a fight in such close-packed quarters: interestingly, neither side seems to have thought much about how such battles are likely to proceed. Bong does pull off one terrific little moment of action staging, with Curtis locked in mortal combat with a goon, another goon looms over his shoulder ready to strike, only for Edgar to launch himself into the frame and crash into the goon’s belly. This moment not only requires carefully framing on Bong’s part but also nicely shows off Bell’s physical grace as an actor, which no-one seems interested in exploiting otherwise. I’m not sure what both sides stopping their fight momentarily to celebrate the anniversary of getting on the train is supposed to signify except unfunny satirical intent.
It could also be argued that the film’s weakness as a mixture of realistic and metaphorical storytelling are justified by a certain pseudo-surrealist tone, and there is a little of this, as when the rebels suddenly burst into carriages that are gardens and aquariums. Not nearly enough to justify the film’s conceits, however. Where the finale might have justifiably moved into a zone of splintering realities, like the last episode of The Prisoner (TV, 1967-8), Bong and screenwriter Kelly Masterson (who penned Sidney Lumet’s last film, Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, 2007) stick close to diagrams of clunky blockbuster exposition. Curtis and Minsoo make it to the engine of the train, but find their way barred by a seemingly impassable hatch. Minsoo has a secret intention to use the Kronole he’s amassed to blow open the train’s only exterior hatch, because he’s noticed that the ice outside has retreated and escape from the train is now possible. Rather than do this immediately however, he and Curtis sit around for a half-hour talking whilst their enemies have time to mass. Claude unexpectedly emerges from the engine with a gun to usher Curtis in to see Wilford. Now, unlike Curtis who’s supposed to be smart, the audience will have guessed about five minutes in that Wilford was the one sending the helpful messages to Curtis, with only the motivation hazy. This is revealed to be, in a shameless rip-off of the climactic revelations of The Matrix Reloaded (2003), because Wilford likes to carefully provoke and repress rebellions to justify culling back the train’s population for the sake of sustainability.
Now, why a technocrat like Wilford who has essentially reduced the world to his own immediate ego-verse where he might easily control every element of life would rely on such clumsy and self-destructive tactics to maintain balance on his train is a question for smarter folks than I. So too is why the train’s society is set up like it is. Mason’s use of the word “freeloader” made me wonder if perhaps the schism was set up around those who, as in Roland Emmerich’s 2012 (2009), had paid to get on the ark and those who had been taken on as an act of charity or had forced their way on. But this is never actually brought up, and really it’s just a conservative code word trucked in for broad satirical effect, and besides, after eighteen years nobody’s questioning such delineations? The dark sacrificial antitheses of the surface paradises portrayed in the likes of Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” or Logan’s Run (1976), stories based around similar ideas, aren’t necessarily more probable but they make a hell of a lot more sense in terms of the schematic societies they present us with.
Another ready reference point here is that immovable icon of cinema sci-fi, Metropolis (1926), which has an infamously vague political meaning, but at least boiled itself down to a likeable homily. I’m not sure what homily I could boil Snowpiercer down to, not even “Fight the Man”, as the film’s somewhat self-defeating climax derails (literally) the point it seems to have been making. The film does finally achieve a minatory power in the rush of events and visuals building to that climax – the sight of young Tim imprisoned amongst the gears and wheels of the engine has a Dickensian, symbolic impact, and Curtis and Minsoo rushing to embrace Yong and Tim to protect them from an explosion’s billowing flames offers a fitting condensation of the film’s theme of fatherly care, and a spark of real emotion at last in a film that otherwise lacks it. The last images evoke the end of THX-1138 (1971), although not as vividly iconic, in the simultaneous evocation of freedom and exposure, even as once again Snowpiercer begs a lot more questions than it really answers. Is it better than a Michael Bay movie? Yes. But not that much better.
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Director: Gareth Edwards
By Roderick Heath
Like many young boys, I was once a Godzilla freak. Worse, I was a perpetually frustrated Godzilla freak. For a long time, the only entry in Toho Studios’ banner series I had available to me was Godzilla 1985, the somewhat altered New World Studio recut of The Return of Godzilla (1984), at the time, Big G’s first film in 10 years. Godzilla 1985 was, however, a great place to start with the most famous of atomic monsters, because it stripped its iconic monster back to the force of nature and terror it had begun as in Ishiro Honda’s great 1954 original. That stature had been diluted and then erased through the ’60s and ’70s as Godzilla had been turned increasingly into a giant tag-team wrestler taking on motley foes in increasingly weak instalments. By the time of Godzilla vs. Megalon (1973), the lizard was delivering flying karate kicks and swapping high-fives with his robot buddy.
Toho’s revived series soon brought back the antagonists and continued until 2004, whilst in between came a film remembered by every scifi fan in fear and loathing, Roland Emmerich’s Godzilla (1998). Emmerich’s film wasn’t actually a Godzilla film, tossing out just about everything that separated him from his forebears (The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, 1951) and progeny (The Giant Behemoth, 1956; Gorgo, 1960; every other kaiju eiga) to make him King of Monsters. Another Hollywood Godzilla movie had to make up for this betrayal. The man to try this proved to be Gareth Edwards, a filmmaker with a lone, low-budget work behind him: Monsters (2009), an inventive, intelligent if pedantic movie, turning the invasive mutant beasts that littered its North American hinterlands into broad metaphors for many a contemporary ill, including illegal immigration. Edwards’ evident skill was ripe for a richer canvas, and his Godzilla is his play for directorial megatonnage, whilst giving the vintage Toho franchise new life. The carefully hyped product has been generating excitement in everyone with the slightest glimmer of fondness for Godzilla, but it had its work cut out for it to stand out in the field of modern special-effects movie, like Cloverfield (2006) and Pacific Rim (2013), where cities are regularly levelled and colossal beasts are terrorising humankind.
Edwards, to his credit, makes all the right moves early on, kicking off with a clever opening credits sequence that moves from pages of Darwinian evolution to photos of mysterious happenings and monstrous phenomena around A-bomb test sites, real and fake grainy photos, with cast and crew names flashing on screen in swiftly redacted excerpts. Edwards gives signs early on that his playbook is inflected by Steven Spielberg as much as by Toho. What the rising crane shot to reveal a vista is to Spielberg, a peak into a vertiginous depth is Edwards, commencing with an impressive helicopter shot of a massive sinkhole in the midst of an open-cut mine teeming with antlike humans, a visually impressive and thematically keen vision of what’s to come. Scientists Dr. Ichiro Serizawa (Ken Watanabe) and Vivienne Graham (Sally Hawkins) are brought to the mine in the Philippines to behold an amazing discovery in the sinkhole—the bones of a colossal saurian skeleton with two strange pods in its chest cavity, one of which seems to have hatched recently and disgorged something large.
Meanwhile, in Japan, nuclear safety watchdog Joe Brody (Bryan Cranston) and his wife Sandra (Juliet Binoche) are alarmed by strange seismic and electrical disturbances at the nuclear power plant where they work. Just as Joe begins shutting the plant down, something bursts into the sub-basement where Sandra and an inspection team are working, and releases a flood of radioactive smoke. Edwards wrings the climax of this sequence for high emotion, as Joe is forced to seal off a corridor, leaving Sandra and the other workers trapped, with Joe saying farewell to his wife through a pane of Perspex before she is sealed away forever.
The film jumps 15 years to find Joe, now a damaged, hysterical seeker of the truth, venturing into the quarantined zone around the destroyed reactor in search of old data. His and Sandra’s son, Ford (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), is a bomb disposal expert just returned from active duty and reunited with his doctor wife Elle (Elizabeth Olsen), and has long since written his old man off as a crackpot. Nonetheless, he ventures to Japan to bail him out, only to be promptly dragged back into the quarantine zone with him as Joe urgently tries to convince him of strange phenomena that portend another cataclysmic event, an event presaged by the mysterious absence of any radiation in the hot zone. Joe and Ford are captured by guarding soldiers and brought to Serizawa and Graham, who are keeping watch on a mysterious something buried in the ruins, the weird, crusty subterranean beast that caused the initial disaster and has now been growing fat and strong from absorbing all of the fallout. Of course, Joe and Ford’s arrival coincides just about exactly with the creature waking up and bursting out of its cocoon to wreak havoc. If you’re expecting this to be Godzilla, though, you’d be wrong, because this is rather a colossal, insectoid monster dubbed Muto—“Massive Unknown Terrestrial Organism”—that pulverises everything in sight and spreads its wings to fly into the night.
I was bemused by some early reviews that criticising the film for taking too long to get to the monster stuff, because most of the time, critics (justifiably) bawl out modern genre films for being too quick at cutting to the chase. Edwards and screenwriter Max Bornstein spend a lot of time setting up a rigorously old-fashioned approach to their storytelling. There’s some nice humour and character moulding early on, like a great little scene in a Japanese police station where Ford waits for his father to be released, entertained by watching as a Goth girl is collected by chastising parents before catching sight of his old man, who looks out with a detectable mix of shame and gratitude to his son. Whereas even the ardent Pacific Rim skipped most of that stuff to revel in the fantastic world it created, this Godzilla goes for an old-school tempo of ominous suggestion, startling glimpse, and finally, grand reveal, in the same fashion as such great monster movies as Them! (1954) and Jaws (1975), as well as the original Honda film. The opening offers wrenching, mythic loss to invest Joe with pathos well suited to a hero in this kind of film, whilst providing a father-son redemption as its key human story pivot, pitching Joe as kin to Close Encounters of the Third Kind’s (1977) Roy Neary as a man driven to frayed extremes by tragedy and intimations of the new and terrifying, with a touch of Unabomber nuttiness to him, counterbalanced by his son’s tepid all-American rectitude (notwithstanding his being played by a British actor). Cranston, still riding the crest of a huge following from the TV series “Breaking Bad,” knows how to do edgy and irrational without losing gravitas and empathy, and his presence in the film feels at first like the film’s most inspired, galvanising choice. Unfortunately, Godzilla then does something rather stupid from which it never truly recovers: it kills Joe in a skywalk collapse during Muto’s hatching, leaving Ford to fill in as hero.
Losing its most (only, in fact) detailed and engaged protagonist, the rest of Godzilla feels unmoored in a subtle, but dogged fashion. Taylor-Johnson, a good actor who can play oddball heroes effectively (Nowhere Boy, 2010; Kick-Ass, 2011; Savages, 2012), is reduced to a veritable GI Joe figurine. The limits of Edwards’ Spielbergian mimicry, which extends to naming its main hero after one Spielberg hero and the actor who played another, becomes obvious if one were to compare the scenes of Roy Neary’s home life with those of Ford Brody’s, which are far less detailed, realistic, and vibrant. Ford and Elle never cease looking and acting like placeholders where finished characters might later be inserted, and Edwards cross-cuts in ungainly fashion between the pair in their disparate places as the action heats up, with Elle trying to stick out her healing job in the midst of calamity, but this and the final reunion of the family played for uplift remain weightless.
One motif, amongst many, the monster film shares in common with the disaster film is the need to find convincing ways to have core protagonists somehow manage to be in different places so as to witness the main points of action, but Bornstein’s script manages some awfully contrived methods to keep Ford in play. These include shoving him into the midst of havoc on Hawaii and then having him talk his way onto a squad wiring up and then dismantling a thermonuclear device in northern California. Moreover, the rest of Edwards’ excellent cast is generally left holding the bag. Watanabe is on hand to maintain the film’s Japanese connection, but spends most of the film looking vaguely stupefied, as if someone just slapped him with a fish. Hawkins has quite literally nothing to do except look gawky and worried. Notably, although the filmmakers have named Watanabe’s character after Akihiko Hirata’s troubled genius in Honda’s film, who embodied the position of the nuclear inventor dogged by guilt in creating a terrible weapon, Watanabe’s character has no real function other than to act as sagacious pronouncer (e.g. “Let them fight!” and “Nature will find a balance!”).
Rather than the firm antimilitarism of the early Godzilla films and their preference for scientists, journalists, and everymen as protagonists, this one makes sure to give us a resolute soldier hero straight from a recruiting poster, even if he is one who specialises in dismantling bombs rather than launching them. The film’s awkward subplot about crusty Admiral Stenz (David Strathairn) trying to lure Godzilla and foes to an H-bomb to kill them provokes perhaps the film’s most affecting genuflection to the original, emblematic meaning of all this, as Serizawa questions his decision by handing him his grandfather’s watch, which stopped forever at the time of Little Boy’s drop on Hiroshima. It’s a nicely understated moment that lets both characters and film understand the totem as sufficient unto itself. But the film is really nice to Stenz and his reasoning and cops out of any serious contemplation of the place for nuclear deterrent in the 21st century. Nor even are Godzilla and Muto actually designated as creations of the Atomic Age; rather, they are explained as prehistoric life forms that evolved when the Earth was much more radioactive to live off that energy, and merely revived by a new energy source. This fuzzy take on the key motif behind the series could have been mitigated by a clear new take on the monsters as symbolic phenomena, but nothing really sticks—certainly nothing likely to stick in the mind of any eight-year-old with as much meaning as the chillingly apocalyptic moment in Godzilla 1985 when an atmospheric nuclear blast creates a miniature nuclear winter that revives a felled Godzilla.
Of course, asking for highly reasoned parables and good human drama from a colossal-budget Hollywood creature feature has its churlish side. Edwards has clearly put a lot of thought and effort to one essential aspect of his film—to return to his monsters the awe and mystique engendered by truly titanic scale and impact. Muto’s hatching is grand spectacle, whilst Godzilla’s first real appearance is left until halfway through the film, savouring every hint, sign, tremor and partial glimpse. His coming is marked by cataclysm that sublimates imagery from the 2004 tsunamis as he comes ashore on Hawaii, until suddenly the whole grand beast is revealed in classic fashion in an upward camera pan that tracks the monster’s body from toenail to brow, before Big G releases his trademark concussive roar. Even better is a later sequence in which soldiers speed to Yucca Mountain, where the second, still-filled Muto egg Serizawa and Graham recovered is now stored, with Serizawa having realised the first Muto is heading to reunite with its female sibling. Soldiers begin inspecting the installation, only to find the entire backside of the mountain has been ripped out by the newly hatched and even more colossal mate, now casually ambling toward Las Vegas like a grumpy, loping teen after its first morning coffee. DP Seamus McGarvey’s images are all smoky, foggy, artfully ragged: Godzilla’s landfall at the Golden Gate Bridge—that perpetually unlucky structure!—creates at least one truly beautiful image, of the monstrous antihero striding away from the shattered bridge in a rainy morning mist. Another visually striking, if logically dumb scene has Ford and other soldiers inspect a rail bridge to see if their transport can cross it, only to realise a Muto is lurking in the shadows of the gorge it crosses, at once impersonal and blank in its scale and terribly immediate and minutely watchful in its predatory awareness.
Edwards maintains a rigour toward his monsters, perhaps trying to not oversate the audience as he builds a series of crescendos and diminuendos, bringing his visions of the monsters to the edge of declarative view, but then often dodging or averting his gaze. Sustaining this quality, too, seems to have been paramount in the minds of Edwards and his FX team, as they play with how the audience sees the beasts, from the distant, abstracting authenticity of cable news broadcasts to the swooping, fearsome perspective of parachutists falling in between the squirming bodies and snapping jaws of the monsters. Edwards is so determined to lend intangible, almost religious wonder to Godzilla that he explicitly likens it to the black monolith in 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) by playing György Ligeti’s “Requiem” during the parachuting sequence, a sequence that is the film’s most strikingly staged but also about half an hour later than it should in the scheme of the film. Frankly, this evasive approach is impressive the first half-dozen times or so, but after a while, it starts to get irritating, reminiscent of the frustrating distance the first Transformers (2007) had from its nominal protagonists, as if the filmmakers had failed to really think through how to use their special effects in a dramatic way, a failing never committed by Willis O’Brien or Ray Harryhausen. This leads me to the singular thought I had in contemplating this Godzilla: it’s a monster movie for people who don’t like monster movies.
That might seem a strange comment for a film as devoted to the spectacle of giant lizards and bugs scrapping in downtown San Francisco as this one, but it stuck with me because the overall film is so pensive, so evasive in its approach to its raison d’etre. Pacific Rim, a film that stands heads and shoulders over this one for me in most respects, succeeded in providing thunderous effects and cleverly meshing them with its human drama, though admittedly it was easier there because the fate and will of the human characters was tied to their robot simulacrums directly engaged in action with their foes. And it was also beautiful to look at, resplendent in its hallucinatory colours, in a mobile manner sharply different to this film’s oblique aestheticism, which threatens at many points to become ponderous, especially with Edwards’ stop-start approach to action. Edwards has a great eye for big compositions and for depicting mass drama, like an awesome high shot of a highway clogged with cars and a downed airliner lying smouldering amidst the vehicles, suggesting the meeting place of Godard’s Week-End (1967) and the monster movie. Yet, like a lot of contemporary filmmakers who turn their hand to this sort of thing, the type of simple, shot-for-shot visual exposition required to gain more intimate entry into chaos and stage dynamic interpersonal action is lacking, like a late, awkwardly rushed scene in which Ford tries to incinerate the Mutos’ eggs. When the Mutos first converge on San Francisco, Edwards offers stunning shots of the duo clambering over the tops of skyscrapers, culminating in a charmingly odd moment where the two seem to kiss and one gives the other a meal—a nuclear weapon. But several minutes later, it shows dimwit office workers still caught by surprise as the monsters careen into their building.
On the other hand, Edwards knows how to sharpen his effects to a point for some powerful, climactic moments, as in the finale’s cunningly delayed introduction for his most salient gift, his ability to spit plumes of blue radioactive flame, in a manner carefully contrived to reduce every fan to tears of joy. Edwards and company visualise this as a literal build-up, the spines on Big G’s tail starting to glow, and then the glow rushing forward in a long arc on its back, disappearing into murk and then back again, before it opens its mouth and lets loose. It’s a great fillip of fan service not just because the effects are good, but because it’s staged with relish and visual acuity. And whilst Edwards seems weirdly shy of letting the Godzilla-Muto death match take centre stage, when it does, it’s satisfying, as Big G lets loose with every limb, including its tail, to wallop its enemies, whilst the two Mutos come close to taking him down when they double-team it. One shot of a wounded Godzilla, collapsed in pain and exhaustion, with Ford barely metres away from its colossal snout, captures the disparity between two life forms and also their weird accord as dusty, battered, battle-hardened warriors. There’s a flash here of peculiar poetry, the kind that gives this Godzilla some of the stature it craves. Of course, by the end of the film, Godzilla itself arises with perverse heroic stature, a living embodiment of a channelled, but not tamed power fantasy, even as it stomps out of shattered ruins and disappears back into the ocean, still primal and strange in its individual might, as a TV news title declares it “The King of Monsters.” Yes it is, even when its films are only princelings. It’s still a good night at the movies.
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Director: John Carpenter
By Roderick Heath
I can remember when loving John Carpenter’s The Thing was still a rather lonely business. Carpenter’s remake was largely dismissed and derided upon release, chiefly for its gore, but also for its defiantly, disturbingly corporeal take on what had been a considered a very clean-cut alien invader fantasy when filmed by Howard Hawks and Christian Nyby in 1951. But the intensity and intelligence of the film’s revision of the original to speak to a new era slowly gained traction, to the point now where it’s widely considered Carpenter’s best film. In the 32 years since its release, it’s become a significant cult film and rite of passage for young fans of fantastic cinema, as well as something rare in motion picture history. Standing with the likes of William Friedkin’s Sorcerer (1977), Philip Kaufman’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978), and David Cronenberg’s The Fly (1986), The Thing proved that remakes could, in apt and imaginative hands, be taken seriously in their own right, not eclipsing a predecessor, but rather providing it with a potently evolved progeny.
Moreover, Carpenter’s take had claims to precedence over the original film as a more conceptually faithful adaptation of former Astounding Magazine editor John W. Campbell’s feted 1938 short story “Who Goes There?” Carpenter and screenwriter Bill Lancaster, Burt Lancaster’s son, took Campbell’s original notion of a shape-shifting alien and made it their version’s reason for being, whilst maintaining the essential, classic set-up of a remote polar base under siege by a thing from another world. The result is as tough, harsh, and near-abstract in its elisions and uncertainty as any big-budget film ever made.
For Carpenter, The Thing was a troubled achievement. The young film student who, with some UCLA pals, had pieced together Dark Star (1974) with duct tape and hobby glue became the hugely successful hero of low-budget independent film with Assault on Precinct 13 (1976), Halloween (1978), The Fog (1979), and Escape From New York (1981). Armed with millions of Universal Studios’ dollars, he made a film that has become both a fixed pole of excellence in his oeuvre, but was also the culmination of a seemingly inexorable career rise that was halted by the film’s weak financial performance and constantly frustrated thereafter.
Although The Thing was the first film for which Carpenter had not written either the script or the score, both provided instead by Lancaster and Ennio Morricone, respectively, with large contributions by special-effects wizards Rob Bottin and Dick Smith, the film is marked on all levels by Carpenter’s innate sensibility: the salty, plebeian mood of its characters, the sense of isolation and besiegement by forces beyond human control, the sustained mood of eerie dislocation. Even the unnerving electronic throb of Morricone’s scoring mimics and augments Carpenter’s familiar effects in music perfectly, spelling out lingering dread even as the viewer comprehends a stunning snow-crusted vista. Lancaster, had previously penned The Bad News Bears (1976), and whilst The Thing proved to be his last screenplay, his dialogue is almost endlessly quotable in its salty fashion, swiftly painting character and milieu. A brief prologue of a spaceship tearing out of the void and crashing into Earth’s atmosphere segues into Carpenter’s only direct nod to the original film, recreating the indelible image of the title seeming to burn or rip through a black field.
The concision of the original film’s metaphors for the paranoid new frontiers of the Cold War give way to something very different, an insidious process of breakdown and infiltration: whilst still “alien,” the Thing here is not a convenient Other, but a force lurking within familiar bodies, warping, perverting, and disassembling the given reality of the humans who contend with it. Gone, too, is the conflict of cold science and hot militarism in the original, reorganised (but not actually replaced) by different versions of survival impulse: here, the scientist, as in the original, endangers the team, but with the very different purpose of protecting the rest of the world and thinking about larger pictures than the mere frame of personal survival. Carpenter only offers a brief picture of his Antarctic explorers before chaos visits their midst, because that’s all he needs to paint the group and individual dynamics: the clashing temperaments, the huddled group and the self-exiled cowboy R. J. MacReady (Kurt Russell), black and white, rebels, bohemians, and company men—all echoes back to Dark Star and its portrait of men sent out on an absurd, isolating mission that has broken down not merely patterns of prescribed behaviour, but also individual personalities. Here there’s a subtle distinction between the hard-hat workers there to keep the machines running and the scientist nerds, but this soon dissipates in the face of individual responses to threat, as all characters are revealed, in their varying ways, to be both helpless in the face of such adversity but also often sneakily resilient and leadership roles are reassigned according to temperament and situational wit rather than societally imposed standards.
Carpenter’s innate respect for individualism is clearly at play here, but also placed in telling conflict with other urges—herd instinct and mutual responsibility. The camp’s inhabitants are all men, isolated in the first week of winter, to keep watch upon the Antarctic ice seemingly for the sake of it: commander Garry (Donald Moffat), helicopter pilot MacReady, blasé radio operator Windows (Thomas G. Waites), camp cook Nauls (T. K. Carter), dog handler Clark (Richard Masur), physician Dr. Copper (Richard Dysart), biologists Blair (Wilford Brimley) and Fuchs (Joel Polis), geologist Norris (Charles Hallahan), meteorologist Bennings (Peter Maloney), and mechanics Palmer (David Clennon) and Childs (Keith David). Priceless, and precise vignettes of personal adaptation and maladaptation, from MacReady getting pissy with his computer’s chess programme and tipping a drink into it for revenge, to Nauls torturing Bennings by playing Stevie Wonder through the night, and Palmer and Childs getting high whilst watching VHS copies of old “Wheel of Fortune” episodes. This collection of men threatening at first appearance to break into distracted, preoccupied islets of coping with their isolation and the hell that is other people, are shocked back into reality by new circumstances. The narrative is propelled by the loss of individuality, as members of the team are assimilated down to the finest detail, for the purpose of perfect chameleonic disguise. Yet the innate certainty of some of the characters, like MacReady, that they’re still human provides the closest thing to certainty in the often opaque narrative.
The film’s pitiless logic distinguishes it, and moreover, the very narrative is about that logic, from the moment the husky dog that is actually the Thing’s last vessel reaches the U.S. National Science Institute Base 4, relying on the inability of the humans to recognise it as a threat so that they kill the last person who might’ve stopped the monster—the apparently mad Norwegian who’s chased it in a helicopter from his own devastated base. One of the cleverest revisions of both short story and original film was this narrative remove of having the Thing discovered not by the characters at the centre of the tale but by their predecessors in a chain of bleakly self-replicating events that mimic the Thing’s method of reproducing itself. The circumstances of its discovery, its thawing, and just what it originally looked like are all left to the imagination. There’s no causative immediacy for the American team, then, only an outlandish proliferation of mysteries and instabilities, the horror of a situation where, by the time they become properly aware of just what’s going on, they might be powerless to halt.
The confrontation with otherworldly forces finally comes when animal-loving Clark locks away the foreign dog in a kennel with the camp’s own, only for the arrival to split apart and reveal itself as a spidery mass of tissue that begins absorbing and replicating the other animals in a grotesque display of corporeal invasion and perversion. “I don’t know what it is,” Clark says to his campmates when they come running, “But it’s weird and pissed and off, whatever it is.” This is about the limit of what we come to learn about the Thing, apart from its relentless drive to survive in what fashion it can now that it’s found a new host world. Carpenter turned stomachs with his willingness to show the Thing going about some of its business, a rare segue into outright revulsion for the director. And yet it also came with the thrill of seeing something genuinely original and nightmarishly convincing, as well as viscerally intriguing in trying to capture just how a very different life form might behave, something most scifi cinema shies away from. This also sets up some of the best shocks in cinema history, like the infamous moment when the belly of a man apparently dying of heart failure suddenly opens like a massive pair of monstrous jaws, and the eruption of a dish full of blood that signals the crewman least you least suspect of being infected is, in fact, the Thing.
One of the greatest qualities of The Thing, however, is its embrace of ambiguity in the situation not merely to excite the audience with mystery but as a dramatic end—and not in that schematic manner of more gimmicky films. In spite of the endless attempts of fanboys to parse the film’s deliberate obscurities and unsolved mysteries, Carpenter’s filmmaking maintains teasing force. Characters disappear, their fates unclear, and one, famously, turns up again to leave the finale tingling with unanswerable angst. One of the disappointing aspects of Carpenter’s later work is his decreasing patience with setting up and deploying his effects, a surrender to adolescent glee in jokey violence and dime-store horrors, where the hallmark of his early work was the relentless control he wielded over camera and mood, that reached a height here. Camera movements analyse empty space in a manner reminiscent of Mario Bava, with some of Carpenter’s most memorable shots here depicting nothing, only wandering the halls of the station, suggesting unseen presences. Sometimes the camera takes on points of view in peering into corners and picking out patches of horror lit by torches with a sense of elision that gives a constant feeling of never quite seeing all.
Glimpses of things hellish are brief and stunning, like when Windows enters a storeroom where moments before Bennings had been working, and is confronted first by gruesome traces of blood and slime, and then looking over to where Bennings is in the grip of the monster, now a caricature of a human form swathed in tentacles. Carpenter sets this scene up with a deliberate nod to a similar scene in The Fog, which itself remixed another moment in Halloween. Whereas in Assault on Precinct 13 and Halloween, the threat was an Other clearly defined in nature but rendered close to abstract in concentrating on the reactions of his heroes to threat, here the film’s story offers the most perfect metaphorical reduction of Carpenter’s interest in this theme (barring perhaps the more comic, but equally sharp hypnotism of They Live, 1988) in that Other is now Us. Carpenter might have taken some licence from the flesh-twisting and rupturing of David Cronenberg and Alien (1979), but an equally close ancestor could be Salvador Dali’s “Landscape with Soft Beans,” with its famous image of a two-headed rock man trying to rip himself apart, often referred to as a premonition of the Spanish Civil War. Indeed, civil war is what The Thing portrays, a disintegrating body politic, making the film at one with Precinct 13 and Escape From New York. But the microcosm serves Carpenter better than many of his more sprawling takes on the theme.
The care taken with lighting, shooting, and acting that the big budget allowed Carpenter undoubtedly helped bring all this to a fine edge, though his early films had no lack of such craft. The narrative and the characters accept a situation where the precise limitations of threat dissolve and leave only taunting vagaries about the degree to which any of them cannot only be sure they can kill a Thing that can reproduce to the smallest molecule, but be sure of being human themselves and of surviving. The tension between individual and group reflexes of survival is beautifully studied in contemplating the Thing and the Humans, where for each, the temptation to go it alone is exposing. Faced with the necessity of group action, MacReady comes in from the cold, but finds himself almost killed in a roundelay of mistrust and power plays in which who the best man to lead against the monster becomes a genuinely vexed question. Where earlier Palmer had mocked official leader Garry in pondering “when El Capitan was gonna get to use his pop gun,” Garry hands over that pop gun when he comes under suspicion of sabotaging a potential test for identifying the Thing. MacReady’s reaction to his computer beating him at chess seems almost bratty and childish, but is quietly rhymed later when Blair watches his own computer mapping out the Thing’s replication pattern, calculating that the entire Earth could be infected by it in 25,000 hours. Blair obeys the computer logic and reaches for his gun; MacReady rebels and leads. MacReady’s observations of the Thing during one of its rampages realises that the alien is just like the group of humans fighting it, composed of unruly components that react blindly when threatened. This realization gives him a tool to uncover it.
The Thing is a grinning death’s head of a film, coolly, relentlessly sarcastic and laced with cruel swerves of fate, from the opening scene where the Norwegian, played by producer Larry J. Franco, accidentally blows up his fellow survivor with a grenade meant for the infected dog and then getting shot after his warnings in his uncomprehended language are taken for lunatic ramblings. A similarly contradictory mania grips Blair, the camp’s biggest brain and the one everyone looks to for answers, who devolves into a ranting, axe-wielding madman is because he’s the first to comprehend the extent of the danger. Deciding that the entire camp must be quarantined, he smashes up MacReady’s helicopter and Windows’ radio, robbing both men of purpose, in effect, and then spurring them to opposite reactions. Windows makes a play for individual defence, running to get himself a gun but only precipitating a leadership crisis as Garry is implicated by circumstance, whilst MacReady takes up the mantle as “somebody more even-tempered” than the aggressively querulous Childs.
MacReady, in Campbell’s story a gnarled, elemental hunk likened to a bronze statue, is here a spiky, faintly asocial cowboy who possesses the right mixture of chilly readiness and native intelligence to take an effective stand against both the monster and his own crewmates. He’s the ideal hero for the circumstances, though Carpenter and Russell would later collaborate to disassemble his perfection for laughs in Big Trouble in Little China (1986). First contact, historically laced with devastating plagues—here, between man and alien—is no different as virtually from the moment the dog arrives at the station, the men are doomed. This is not to say their fight is worthless, as MacReady, the most genuine survivor amongst the crew recognises: just as Blair does half the job of closing off the men’s chances for escape, so the rest of them close off the Thing’s chances.
Dean Cundey’s widescreen photography aids inestimably in creating contrasts early on between hermetic exteriors and microcosmic interiors, shooting David Lean vistas in the unerringly crisp ratio, opening the film proper with a view of an ice-fringed cliff wall and the helicopter that appears as a tiny dot, like Omar Sharif’s appearance in the desert in Lawrence of Arabia (1962). Like Lawrence, such expanse becomes a prison. But the frames are often oblique and distance. Scenes shift with dreamy dissolves. High-flying helicopter shots offer primal expanses that contain essential nothingness. Life is only possible within the fragile human abodes, which become temporal traps.
Beautifully unusual as exposition and tension-building, too, is the way backstory is drip-fed. MacReady and Copper venture out to the Norwegian camp in the hope of saving lives, instead finding a ghostly ruin littered with signs of violence, a huge, suggestively shaped block of ice that something has clearly broken out of, and piles of incinerated corpses that seem to have been warped together like the most perverse visions of surrealist art. Video footage purloined from the Norwegians gives clues to what they found, and Carpenter wittily reproduces the iconic shot from the original film of the men marking out the shape of a buried and frozen flying saucer, albeit once removed, glimpsed like the original film as a fuzzy relic on a black-and-white screen.
The actual spaceship, which MacReady, Norris, and Palmer seek out, proves to have been partly incinerated by the Norwegian attempt to extract it, and to have been frozen in the ice for 100,000 years, a nasty birthday present from the universe for whoever found it. That’s become a rather common motif of scifi cinema since this film, and perhaps marks out the long shadow of Nigel Kneale on Carpenter’s work with its obsession with primeval atavism, as well as 2001: A Space Odyssey’s (1968) equal mark on the genre as a whole in looking to a distant past as key to present calamity. In any event, Carpenter’s precise use of quiet and space to create his nerve-jangling mood segues into scenes where all hell memorably breaks loose, particularly in the aforementioned sequence in which Norris is revealed to be a Thing by Copper’s cardiac shocks. The shocks stir the beast within to snap off the doctor’s arms before distorting and ripping apart, an id-beast with Copper’s face dangling from the ceiling whilst Norris’ head detaches, grows legs like a spider, and crawls away, stirring Palmer’s immortal motto, “You’ve got to be fucking kidding!” And, of course, the sustained tension of the scene in which MacReady puts his idea into practice whilst holding the crew at gunpoint—or, rather, flamethrower-point—by poking petri dishes filled with each man’s blood, having realised the Thing’s peculiar nature means that every part of it is, in essence, a separate entity, and the blood of a Thing ought to react. MacReady resorts to such measures after he falls under suspicion of being a Thing himself, locked out in the blizzard by Nauls and forced to shoot Clark when he tries to ambush MacReady with a scalpel.
The sequence that follows is a marvel not just of unerring construction, but also of dramatic byplay, as the specific characters react to each twist, from Childs taunting MacReady over Clark’s proving to be human after mocking the test as a crock of shit, to Nauls’ queasy expression as his test comes around and then his intense, hawkish look once he’s freed and holds the flamethrower himself, and Garry’s veneer of patience giving way to a hilarious final eruption of anger. In between, the startling revelation that Palmer, the classic least likely suspect, is a Thing, transmogrifying gruesomely, with skull splitting into toothsome halves that crunch on Windows and stumbling out into the polar dark whilst burning like a roman candle. At the point where victory seems possible for the men, however, new calamity forces them to contemplate extinction, as they venture out to test Blair, but find him vanished and a half-built alien spaceship under the tool hut, hinting that Blair’s been assimilated and their survival mission has literally been undermined. The simultaneous, mysterious venture of Blair into the snowy dark and the breakdown of the camp’s engine signal that the Thing now wants to refreeze and wait for a rescue party, demanding that MacReady, Garry, and Nauls burn their little world down to flush out the Thing at the inevitable cost of their own lives.
Arguably the film gives in to a less sophisticated brand of monster movie shtick in its climax, as the complete Thing, an obscene hodgepodge of assimilated animal and human parts, erupts from the floor to attack MacReady and release King Kong’s old roar. MacReady tosses dynamite at it with regulation action-hero pith and a sub-Bond kiss-off line. And yet the foreboding and disorientating effects extend right to the end, too, in the glimpse of more cringe-inducing corporeal invasion as the Blair-Thing assaults Garry, fingers sliding under the skin of his face and fusing solidly with it, whilst Nauls vanishes. Most memorable of all is the very coda, which embraces bleak, yet humorously deadpan stoicism of a brand that feels all too apt in the land of Scott and Shackleton. Childs and MacReady, on the edge of death and with one or both of them an alien by now, sit by their burning world, doing what a couple of working stiffs do when there’s nothing more to do—drink J&B. MacReady’s last line, “Why don’t we just…wait here for a little while…see what happens?”, ends the tale on the most low-key, yet utterly perfect note of exhausted acquiescence, MacReady’s tiny, appended laugh signaling he sees the cosmic joke in it all.
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Director/Screenwriter: Andrew Bujalski
By Roderick Heath
Contrary to its long-presumed nature as a purely ephemeral, commercial cult of the new, pop culture today seems powerfully concerned with the study of its own roots. Faced with a panoply of devices for making slicker and slicker creative product, recreating the elusive texture of a rough-hewn past has become a kind of alchemic ambition for many artists. Music recording artists wielding computer software that can make just about any sound known and unknown to humankind, labour now to recreate the tweets and bleeps of the synthesisers their ancient forebears wielded. Some filmmakers, faced with detachment from actual film, have become increasingly preoccupied not just with past genres or movies, but also with recreation of past styles and the specific inflection bygone technological modes brought to cinema. Such is a fascinating turnaround from creators of low-budget and independent cinema who struggled to find parity with mainstream works until new technology allowed artisanal films to look just as good as blockbusters—to reject that quality and delve into the medium as message unto itself. Once, to have shot a film on a crappy video camera would have branded you as a try-hard amateur. Now it’s the latest in craft-art branding.
Like Pablo Larrain’s No (2012), Andrew Bujalski’s Computer Chess is built around a singular aesthetic choice to shoot on an old black-and-white video camera, conveying the texture of the era in which the movie is set via a technological conduit that, even at that time, was considered pretty lame. Bujalski’s film moves into a more literal zone as it obeys this instinct, insofar as that its proper subject is once cutting-edge technology from which a new realm of human activity would spring. Its subject is, in part, the creation of a world the film is itself implicitly rejecting.
Bujalski’s Funny Ha Ha (2002) is considered the first film of the peculiar niche of independent film wryly dubbed “Mumblecore,” a new variation on some old ideas in cinema. Personages to emerge from that movement of naturalistic, witty no-budget films made for, by, and about young, urban, creative types include Joe Swanberg, Lynn Shelton, brothers Mark and Jay Duplass, and Greta Gerwig, who have moved out into the mainstream without excessive compromise. Swanberg’s work this year, Drinking Buddies, is a small gem that assimilates and liberates marquee names like Olivia Wilde and Anna Kendrick, without a blink. Bujalski remains distinct from the improvisatory bent of the Mumblecorps in that he always heavily scripted his films, and Computer Chess again takes a different course from his fellows, fashioning a work as determinedly rarefied as anything to emerge from American independent film in the past 20 years. Computer Chess is set around 1980, when the idea that the computer could play a part in people’s everyday lives was starting to look more realistic and yet still undefined. The culture developing around this new machinery was still one that largely attracted fixated brainiacs, absent-minded would-be professors, entrepreneurial savants, and other exotics who can only flourish in carefully controlled environments.
The film revolves around a chess tournament played by computers, pitting rival programmers, computer models, and software against each other in a stolidly controlled and enclosed environment where petty jealousies, insecurities, asocial traits, and enigmas percolate. The event is held in a distinctly mid-market Austin, Texas hotel, and hosted by chess master Pat Henderson (Gerald Peary), who tries to play the avuncular, good-humoured host, but lets slip a tetchier side occasionally. At the beginning, he berates the crew documenting the tournament on his video camera not to point his camera at the sun. As the competition commences, he brings together several of the major team leaders for a panel discussion about the future chances of a program being good enough to beat him in a match, whilst also exploring some of the past problems in design the teams have encountered. Carbray (James Curry), a bashful, but articulate British software designer, predicts that Henderson will probably win his bet that a computer won’t beat him until 1984, but that he’ll be cutting it close. The highly touted MIT team, led by Roland McVey (Bob Sabiston), was humiliated the year before when their programme, instead of achieving an easy checkmate, got lost in a looping series of checks, which resulted in victory for their rivals from Caltech.
The Caltech team was led by the now-venerated, but mysteriously absent Todd Schoesser (Gordon Kindlmann), who has left the team in the hands of his assistant, Martin Beuscher (Wiley Wiggins, long-ago hero of Dazed and Confused, 1993) and neophyte Peter Bishton (Patrick Riester), whilst MIT have consulted with grandmasters and recruited the tournament’s first female programmer, Shelly (Robin Schwartz), as part of their team. Another man on the panel, Mike Papageorge (Myles Paige), a dapper but truculent and arrogant “independent programmer,” derides the tournament even as he engages in it, and claims to be looking far beyond the petty preoccupations of those about him. Papageorge’s comeuppance proves rapidly forthcoming, as he learns his room booking hasn’t been recorded. With the hotel full up, he’s left wandering the hallways at night, and lacking any cash, trying to find someone who’ll give him a place to crash. He alienates other teams and even the friendly neighbourhood drug dealers when he takes some of their stash but can’t pay for it. Most of the programmers are engaged in low-level drug abuse, taking uppers to sustain them through marathon coding sessions and bug hunts in their digital children. The introverted Peter is faced with trying to rescue the Caltech team’s flagging fortunes as their computer keeps performing disastrously in matches.
Computer Chess examines the little whorl of subcultures and period details it encompasses less with the cheap gaudery of nostalgia than with the finicky exactitude of anthropology. The haircuts, the clothes, the bland environs of the hotel and its surrounds, the boxy cars, all are employed with fidelity and transcend the usual chuckle-worthy recreations for retro send-ups, becoming rather part of a project of holistic depth. Bujalski offers an undoubted sense of kinship between fashioners of off-road artistry like himself and these pioneer mongers of technological ingeniousness, seeing the common roots of obsessiveness, curiosity, and alienation from the imperatives of a larger “real” world. The alternative-capitalist triumphalism portrayed by a films like The Social Network (2010) and Jobs (2013), in which asocial geniuses become world conquerors, are still scarcely conceivable, distant horizons. The programming world portrayed here is wedged between the counterculture and technocrats, neatly trimmed institution men and hairy, dishevelled hobbits fond of puffing weed coexisting in this realm, unified by their devotion to the obscure beauty of code. Only Papageorge seems to have an eye on the necessity, even in the computer business, to project authority and professionalism, but he’s constantly thwarted by his overweening sense of superiority unmatched by a sense of salesmanship and charm.
Whilst the tournament seems a clear-cut affair, zones of mystery, ambiguity, and even outright surrealism begin to open around it. Rumours of military interest in these seemingly benign, almost inane inventions and their possible uses add to undercurrents of paranoia. Schoesser’s absences and distracted manner give some credence to this suspicion, as does the presence of John (Jim Lewis), one of a pair of hotel guests who sell drugs to the programmers, a burly man who chuckles in sardonic amusement at the programmers whom he seems to regard as an the alien species even whilst probing them about potential military applications. He reports to the cameraman that he’s come to see “the end of the world” in the making, and in a way, he’s right, if not in the way he expects. Meanwhile, Peter seems to be spiralling down the rabbit hole trying to understand the Caltech computer’s erratic behaviour. When Schoesser does finally turn up, he explains to Peter that the new programme is supposed to learn as it plays, absorbing new methods of play. Theoretically, it should adapt quickly to the other programmes, but instead, it seems almost wilfully bad. Bewildered and increasingly spaced out by his all-night coding sessions exacerbating his already deep introversion, Peter takes the Caltech machine to Shelly’s room in the middle of the night to test out a theory that proves correct: having Shelly rather than the MIT computer play his, the Caltech programme finally starts working properly. It wants to play against humans.
Have the Caltech crew failed to create a great computer chess programme, but instead created artificial intelligence? Or are they just so strung out, paranoid, and distracted that Peter and Beuscher are imagining things? Henderson mentions earlier the original “chess-playing machine,” the Mechanical Turk, an apparently brilliant device that defeated Napoleon at chess; its secret was that a human chess player was hidden within it. Now will humans have machines hidden inside them? Schoesser, in explaining the program’s workings to Peter, says that “everything is not everything—there’s more,” a seemingly contradictory piece of guff that accidentally reveals potentials beyond what he and his colleagues have imagined, opening the gates into unknown realms of intelligence and discovery. Bujalski stages a witty quote from 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) as he offers a computer’s eye view of two humans talking to each other, except where in Stanley Kubrick’s film, the sentient computer was defensively vigilant about the threat of his human charges, here the new artificial intelligence seems frustrated by how stilted and pedantic its human creators are and begins steering them toward new paradigms. Later, Beuscher nervously tells Peter about an exchange he had with the computer late at night when it seemed to start interacting sarcastically with him before prodding him to “ask your questions.” Beuscher asked, “Who are you?”, and the computer showed him a brief picture of an embryo in utero, before switching itself off. Rather than offering either maniacal super-intelligence as per scifi cliché or the benign boxes of helpfulness we’re used to, Bujalski intimates a Frankensteinlike aspect to the creation of computers, but more faithful to the original theme of Mary Shelley insofar as the creations map, mimic, and invert the faults and qualities of their creator. The good-humoured irony at the heart of Computer Chess is the notion that computers translate their programming into an urge to create connections, between each other and between their creators, the people who use them. It could be argued that the film is also a jokey metaphor for the roots of the internet age; with its billion-fold opportunities for linkage, one of the programmers only hesitantly ventures that one day computers may be used for dating.
For added piquancy, Bujalski turns the hotel into a strangely nebulous zone that acts like the programming limits of the games themselves, complete with mysterious glitches that suddenly puncture holes in reality. During one of his midnight rambles in search of a place to sleep, Papageorge encounters a single cat reclining in the laundry room. Soon the cats start proliferating, like bad patches of software. Papageorge has an allergy to the cats, and when he’s finally given a room, he picks up the hooker who constantly hovers outside the hotel and takes her there, only to find the room filled with cats, preventing him from entering. At first it seems like the cats are Papageorge’s hallucination, stemming from his sleep-deprived state, except that later, Henderson passes on the hotel’s apologies for the cats infesting the place. Papageorge is forced to continue his search for a spot to sleep, and camps out in the convention room. But this place has its own infestation: the hotel is splitting the use of the room between the chess competition and an encounter group run by an alleged African guru Keneiloe (Tishuan Scott) for his congregation of middle-aged hippies. Papageorge’s ordeal by humiliation thus reaches an apogee as he’s dragged into the group’s games, undergoing a ritualised rebirth.
Bujalski’s casting of a large number of nonprofessional actors, many from either the film world (Peary, Schwartz, Riester) or the computer world (Curry, Kindlmann) points to a neorealist sensibility, and indeed it gives the film its peculiar texture of veracity, particularly with the likes of Peary’s wonderfully awful MC work. But for all its esoteric flavour, Computer Chess has real and recognisable roots in a very Hollywood genre, the screwball comedy. The basic situation of a collection of weirdoes gathered in a hotel, indeed two different and irreconcilable kinds of weirdo, readily calls to mind films starring the Marx Brothers or Cary Grant. It’s easy to picture Papageorge in another era played by Grant, increasingly frustrated by his inability to find a place to sleep, a problem Grant indeed went through in Howard Hawks’ I Was a Male War Bride (1949). The gently affectionate mockery of nerds who need to get in touch with their inner troglodyte calls to mind other Hawks comedies like Bringing Up Baby (1938), Ball of Fire (1941), and Monkey Business (1953), in all of which the breakdown of order and scientific rationality is correlated to the impudence of nature’s version of the science the heroes try to corral. Peter and Shelly’s meet geek threatens to move into ’80s teen comedy or Jerry Lewis territory. Bujalski channels these influences tellingly, though whereas another kind of order underlies that surface anarchy in Hawks, here things are far more complicated. Irreconcilable systems are blurring. Artificial and organic intelligence are meeting and melding. Biology has been invaded. A cybernetic age is beginning.
Computer Chess also reminded me strongly of some quintessential films from the era in which it’s set, such as Dark Star (1974) and Repo Man (1984)—incidentally constructed, but richly composed works with a similarly, cheekily oddball spirit. Indeed, Bujalski seems almost nostalgic for the blurring of the present and the future in those films, for Computer Chess recreates that feeling, but in what is, for the filmmaker, the past. It has hints and hues, too, of Jacques Tati’s comedies of modernism and Brian De Palma’s formative works, whilst the black and white and lack of artifice call to mind early Jim Jarmusch. Whilst evoking such classic models, however, Computer Chess dives into the argot of the recent past. The video shooting facilitates this, but there’s more to it than that: a lot of contemporary directors have nostalgically referenced bygone modes of filmmaking, for example, J.J. Abrams’ much-noted efforts to recreate the flavour of ’70s cinematography, but Bujalski’s references are far less common. He tries to recreate the tone of no-budget documentaries, public TV specials, corporate training videos, and most particularly, the sort of filmmaking that came out of regional and university workshops, from a very specific era. The photography gets pixelated, blown out, and even riddled with hazy, smeared impressions from bright lights (not for nothing does Henderson warn the cameramen).
Some of Bujalski’s forebears in smart, independent cinema, including Jarmusch and John Sayles, have often been tagged less as film minds than writers with cameras, a problematic attitude that sometimes seems aimed at ghettoising filmmakers who try to do as much as they can with limited production resources. But in spite of the self-imposed technical limitations that endow this film with its lo-fi look, Bujalski’s framing and cutting are lissom, lively, and laced with a wide repertoire of film devices utilised in a deadpan and simple fashion—iris shots, abstruse framings, delicate tracking shots, split-screen effects, flashbacks, looping shots, even a truly peculiar special effect towards the end—that evince a sophisticated filmmaker trying archly not to seem like one. Lightly surreal humour and images that seem to have stumbled out of cheap, but inventive scifi TV shows coexist with nonchalant realism. The setting, an incredibly bland hotel and concrete surrounds, offers not the slightest photogenic purchase, but, of course, it helps the precision of the misè-en-scene in presenting a land beyond taste and character, like the starting point for an alternative timeline in which machines could well take over because human beings have become deadly dull.
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of Computer Chess is based in Bujalski’s contemplation on the roots of one part of the contemporary zeitgeist. He’s aware that most artists have, so far, generally failed to contemplate just how much the computer and internet age have created a new epoch. He delves into this new age, a very different kind of new age than the one conceived during the ’60s counterculture era, and yet stemming in part from aspects of that ideal. Bujalski focuses on a time when culture was in a state of flux after the ructions of the 1960s, and not doing it via the sexy story of some zillionaire like Steve Jobs, who did indeed provide a link between the ’60s era and the dawn of the personal-computer age in the’80s.
The technocrats of the tournament, living through supposedly serene, digitised simulacrums, and the encounter group faithful searching for immediate, sensitising tactile and experiential awareness, are directly contrasted, but also identified as similarly weird and interesting alternative worlds within worlds. Both have characters capable of speaking derisively about them, as Papageorge mocks the comp and one of the encounter group readily concedes Keneiloe might just be an entertaining fraud. There is mindfulness here of how both systems have apparently opposite worldviews but shared roots, and are linked by a hunger for new ways of experiencing and ordering the world. During the film’s most uncomfortable, sustained comic sequence, a couple from the encounter group, Dave (Chris Doubek) and Pauline (Cindy Williams) try to sell Peter on having a threesome with them. Pauline prods Peter with appeals to expand his mind and range of experience from the narrowness of his technological obsessions, to which Peter ripostes that the possible permutations of positions in his computer chess programme are staggeringly large, and his world of the mind equally vast, so Pauline’s rhetoric is in a way close-minded. Peter flees the couple in a panic, understandably, as Bujalski cunningly roots the discomfort of the scene not so much in the sexual offer, or even their disparate ages, so much as the weirdly parental method of seduction Pauline tries. Peter remains blocked, however, even as he catches Shelly’s eye. She instead has to bat off Papageorge’s entreaties, like his hilariously self-congratulatory chat-up line: “I’d be willing to bet that you and I are the only ones here who even understand that programming has a feminine side.” This aspect of Bujalski’s satire, the perception of the tech world’s awkward record of gender inclusivity, is perhaps the timeliest, although his touch is light: Shelly, like Peter, is an archetypal nerd.
Most of Computer Chess’s first two-thirds is fairly straightforward, and only in the endgame, as per the early discussion, does the program begin to break down; Bujalski achieves the sense of disordering in the way he puts the film together, revealing the genuine cinematic intelligence at work here. Papageorge’s program lives up to his reputation for avant-garde thought, but still fails to best Carbray’s more conventional, reliable invention, and the Brit takes out the competition. Whilst Papageorge and Peter vie to be protagonist in their sharply contrasting ways of being computer savants, Carbray emerges as the quiet hero, with his successful program, his intellectually curious and defensive engagements with John, and his likeably old-school approach to mood-altering: he announces that he’s scientifically determined that “a man on three scotches could program his way out of any problem in the world.” John has his own opinion, as he berates the victory as “Goliath beating David.”
Having clearly counted on winning the tournament for the prize money, Papageorge is left broke and reduced to searching his house for cash to pay off John’s partner Freddy (Freddy Martinez) for drugs he gave him, rushing back and forth whilst his mother regales Freddy with a biblical reading. Finally, Papageorge is caught in a looping segment of the film itself, which has shifted into blurry Super 8 colour as the setting has changed. Bujalski equates Papageorge’s existential situation with the faults of the old MIT computer, doomed to circle endlessly because of his own blind spots. Henderson takes on Carbray’s computer for an exhibition match, but finds that a problem with the booking means that the convention hall belongs to the encounter group. The group agree to share the space and become so interested, they crowd in on Henderson, who suffers a meltdown when the group reach out to absorb him into their number as a fellow sufferer in the new age. Peter seems on the verge of grand, new discoveries, both personal and technical, when he learns that Schoesser has indeed ceded the team’s work to the military for exploitation. He accidentally leaves open a window, and rain gets to the team’s computer, ruining it.
Peter is then left alone and in disgrace, unable to connect properly to Shelly, with her attention newly sensitised by Peter’s experiment and her own observations of how the people at the tournament move like chess pieces themselves in systems play for the sake of defence and offence. She and her team leave. Like Papageorge, Peter finally picks up the hooker, as if making a logical-minded attempt to purge his hang-ups and inexperience. The hooker strips off her clothes and sits on the bed beside him; Peter is carefully framed, downcast and quite literally oppressed by the drab, lifeless décor of the hotel. But then the hooker casually removes the side of her head, revealing flashing lights and gadgets within.
Perhaps Peter is the one hallucinating now, or perhaps he’s having a vision of the future when the technical and the human will conjoin, or merely wishing that humans could be opened up and rewired to work properly like his machines can. Either way, it’s a marvellous climactic image that reminded me of the conclusion of Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker (1979), a sudden swerve into outright strangeness that signals things wonderful and frightening are happening, and the way we perceive reality is shifting. It’s undoubted that Computer Chess, like Berberian Sound Studio from earlier this year, a film with distinct similarities of focus and aesthetics, will prove a huge turn-off for many in its wonky form and mannerisms. But at a time when empty junk is passed off as game-changing cinematic brilliance, I found Bujalski’s wealth of ideas and quirk a tonic, and if not the best, Computer Chess is perhaps the most original American movie I’ve seen in 2013.
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Director: Sebastián Cordero
By Marilyn Ferdinand
Even as the big-money people in the United States are freaking out about how our children are lagging behind those in other countries in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) and pouring tons of their ill-gotten booty into STEM education, Hollywood and indie films alike continue to push fear and superstition as the major consequences of exploring nature and the universe. From the horrors of cloning (Moon , Primer ) and dangers of space exploration (Apollo 13 , Red Planet ) to the wrong-headedness of atheism (Contact , Gravity ) and threat of aliens (all the Alien movies), our movies are telling us to remain god-fearing people who will only be safe and happy in our own backyard.
Certainly there are dangers involved in exploration, and have been since the first human beings migrated from humanity’s place of origin millennia ago. But even as Dorothy Gale told herself over and over that there’s no place like home, she enthused to Auntie Em and Uncle Henry that most of Oz was absolutely beautiful, a place of color that contrasted the black-and-white bleakness of Kansas, and a place where she made lasting friendships. I have been hoping that one day we’d emerge from our self-imposed prison of fear and start declaring and acting on, as Frank Zappa said, how “fucking great [it is] to be alive.” While Gravity chose to dazzle and frighten us and take us back to safety, an indie film that has garnered more buzz than box office, Europa Report, offers us a dangerous journey of discovery that sends back to us a message of hope and wonder untainted by superstition and narrow-focused fear, a feeling the world as a whole has not experienced since the first person walked on the moon in 1969.
Reflecting the reality that governments are no longer willing to support space exploration, a private company is behind the mission to send a six-person, international team of scientists and engineers to Europa, a moon of Jupiter. The expedition’s mission is to see if there may be life on Europa, following a real-life theory that massive oceans may be flowing beneath the moon’s ice sheet. The film toggles between a talking-heads-style documentary of the company’s executive team, Dr. Unger (Embeth Davidtz), Dr. Sokolov (Dan Folger), and Dr. Pamuk (Isaiah Whitlock, Jr.), who describe what happened when ground control lost communication with the spacecraft, and the details of the mission.
Before communication with Earth is interrupted, we get the kind of footage most of us are used to seeing of life on a spacecraft—messages to loved ones, a communal meal, demonstrations of weightlessness and how the crew works out to keep their muscles from shriveling. The actual loss of communication is very realistic, as the picture being transmitted breaks up, freezes, and finally dies. Thereafter, all the footage we see is from the on-board video recorders and the video feeds in the crew’s spacesuits during out-of-craft missions. The ever-present logo in the lower right corner of the screen, as well as the identifying stamps of the mission cameras, seem to disappear as we become enveloped in the crew’s drama of discovery, but they also provide a subtle link to the documentary-like footage of the company executives that puts the entire film into perspective.
Like real-life space travel, the Europa mission is a hazardous one, and crew members do die along the way. One of the crew is shut out of the craft when his suit becomes contaminated with a highly toxic substance during a repair job that could kill them all. He doesn’t want to die—and we don’t want him to die after seeing his obvious love for the family he left behind—but he takes his fate philosophically. The crew member who was with him, also in danger from a puncture to his space suit, is only dissuaded from helping his crew mate because he passes out from lack of oxygen. When he revives in the airlock of the ship, his cry of anguish is wrenching and real.
The landing on Europa doesn’t go exactly as planned, as the crew misses the target landing space by 100 meters because of an unexpected heat vent that blows the landing craft off course. This is a lovely touch, showing that the precise planning of the mission is always subject to change due to unknown natural conditions the crew may encounter. So many fact-based science fiction films make everything seem to run like clockwork, with the only snafus coming from human error or equipment mishaps. They forget what we have sought in space—the unknown wonders of the universe.
What else is extraordinarily refreshing, something that harkens back to the fictions produced during the early days of space exploration, is a sense of excitement and awe the crew displays. We only see what the crew sees—some narrowly delineated looks at the surface of Europa, for example, though director Cordero ensures that we see an entrancing image of Jupiter on the horizon. The crew drills a large hole through the ice sheet, and a camera records a first look at the predicted, and now confirmed, ocean below. When marine biologist Katya (Karolina Wydra) goes out to collect samples after the remote collection equipment fails, we see her unscrewing and resealing jars, and then move toward some lights in the distance. Her enthusiasm and curiosity sweep us along with her.
The film’s budget seems relatively modest, with the personnel and the spacecraft (green screens were employed for the out-of-craft shots) the major expenditures in what is essentially a one-set film. Despite the craft looking like an exploded hardware store later in the film, Europa Report creates an impressive, largely believable world of its own. Crew actions make sense, except perhaps for Katya’s refusal to return to the landing craft after being ordered to twice.
The overall feeling of the film is one of camaraderie, dedication, and self-sacrifice. William Xu (Daniel Wu) is a believable mission leader who is both decisive and willing to sacrifice life and limb for his crew. Russian crew members Andrei (Michael Nyqvist) and Katya huddle from time to time to check on each other’s state of mind, a concern for their mutual welfare part and parcel of the mission. Andrei’s and crew member Rosa’s (Anamaria Marinca) dedication to Katya, in fact, ensures that her discoveries on Europa will be communicated back to Earth. The final takeaway of this film is that some causes are worth any sacrifice, including one’s life and peace of mind. We live in unusually selfish times, so this message delivered by an international cast and crew in a thoughtfully rendered, exciting, and entertaining film is timely and welcome.
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Director/Coscreenwriter: Alfonso Cuarón
By Roderick Heath
Here there be spoilers.
To judge by the early reception of Alfonso Cuarón’s new space adventure movie, it’s the most super-duper, amazing, staggering work of filmic genius of all time, a thrilling successor to 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) as evocation of the awe of space, combined with an elementally thrilling, limited-cast survival quest of the likes of, oh, say, The Perfect Storm (1999). With such unceasing and elated praise, a certain level of scepticism going in and disappointment coming out becomes almost inevitable. Cuarón is a talented, observant, technically ingenious filmmaker who can wring a fablelike sense of macrocosmic beauty of some peculiar material, like his 2001 classic Y Tu Mama Tambien, whilst the Harry Potter franchise owed everything to his forcible reinvention of it with 2004’s The Prisoner of Azkaban. He can also be a prissy bore, as his 1998 version of Great Expectations transmuted Dickens’ drama into the worst kind of Miramax mush. Gravity seems born of the praise for his 2006 scifi dystopian allegory Children of Men, or, more accurately, the praise for the most superficially impressive aspects of it.
Cuarón has an interest in and great facility for creating the one technical act by a filmmaker that can still set cinephiles foaming at the mouth in nerdish delight: the epic unbroken shot that seems to defy all inherent limits of perspective and staging. Gravity offers up one at the beginning that takes the form to new heights, seeming to drift as weightlessly as the characters in space whilst recording the action with precision. Indeed, the whole of Gravity is a technical marvel, a sprawling, eye-gorging example of all that contemporary film photography and special-effects units can offer. It’s just that the film is so remarkably banal, even embarrassing, on a dramatic level.
Cuarón’s protagonists are a pair of American astronauts, Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) and Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock), introduced nearing the end of a long, exhausting spacewalk from their shuttle, Explorer, to work on upgrades to the Hubble space telescope. Matt is the old hand, on his last mission, garrulously yammering to keep nerves dulled and spirits high, and coaching rookie Stone, a former medico. Fellow astronaut Shariff (Phaldut Sharma) putters idly as word comes through that some sort of missile accident has caused a Russian satellite to disintegrate, and soon, waves of space debris fly toward Explorer. Explorer is smashed, Shariff and the other crew are killed, and Ryan is sent spinning off into the void. Fortunately Matt, who has a thruster pack, also survives the calamity and retrieves her. They make their way back to the ruin of Explorer, and then head on to the International Space Station (ISS), hoping to use the Soyuz modules docked there for an emergency landing. As they near the space station, with Matt’s thruster power running low, they see that the crew has abandoned the damaged station. Can Matt and Ryan make it aboard the ISS and maneuver the damaged craft to Tiangong, a Chinese-manned station?
Standing well apart from the space opera traditions of galactic warships and the like, the more realistic mystique and danger of existence in space has wrung interesting representations from filmmakers for decades now. The James Bond film You Only Live Twice (1967), directed by Lewis Gilbert, commences with a surprisingly, poetically chilling scifi vision of a space capsule being swallowed by another: a spacewalking astronaut’s tether is cut by the closing jaws of the larger craft, leaving him to drift off into eternity. So striking was this moment that Pauline Kael, with a hint of accuracy, said that with 2001, Stanley Kubrick seemed to have fallen in love with it and tried to stretch it out into a feature film. Certainly one of the remarkable aspects of Kubrick’s film is that, whilst sustaining its larger, semi-mystical programme of parable, its fastidious attention to space detail provided a genuinely gruelling sense of life and death in the vacuum in a fashion that felt uniquely authentic, extracting every echoing spacesuit breath and agonising moment of laborious action outside the craft to invoke the dread of the void: many of the film’s most poetic moments are achieved through the conscience avoidance of poetic licence. Peter Hyams did a good job on a similar level in the belated sequel, 2010, with a memorable sequence depicting a scientist’s (John Lithgow) first spacewalk. Brian De Palma’s severely underrated pop version of 2001, Mission to Mars, sported one amazing sequence of prolonged suspense in which Tim Robbins’ space captain, drifting away from his friends in a spacewalk, finally ends their efforts to save him by removing his own helmet, a climax to one of De Palma’s many scenes of operatic construction and power.
By comparison, likening Gravity to 2001 is a bit like comparing Lawrence of Arabia to a Road Runner cartoon because they’re both set in the desert. The exhausting raves for Gravity only seem to prove how deeply the hooks of Hollywood technocrats are now lodged in the general consciousness. I refuse to become used to the repudiation of the need for a first act, where the viewer is introduced properly to characters who are then developed with detail and portrayed with substance, giving the audience time to engage with their individuality and then their plight. The dialogue in the first 10 minutes of Gravity is pitched on the same level of crappy conversational exposition I expect from a ’50s B-movie; only the staging distinguishes it.
Cuarón commences with an immense vista of a gorgeous CGI Earth, slowly allowing Explorer and Hubble and the tiny humans darting around it to drift into view. Cuarón repeatedly returns to similar vistas of the Earth, evidently intending for us to soak in the impersonal grandeur and spiritual significance of the view, but what I got from it was the sense that he’s entered a novel dimension of artistic experience: filming the average college student’s screensaver. But anyway. . . soon disaster erupts, and the serenity of weightless orbit, which Ryan says she could get used to, is abruptly transformed into a churning maelstrom. Apparently the missile accident that starts the havoc was Russian. Ha, those Russians. Wait, what? Are we really blaming the Russians for everything that goes wrong again? Hunks of speeding metal hit Explorer and smash it to pieces, killing Shariff—that’ll teach us to quit doing what Matt describes as a “version of the Macarena” and other goofy acts and behave only in an utterly professional manner. Perhaps he was meant to edge into the role of Doomed Ethnic Guy, except that’s still too substantial. If this film had been made in the ’60s, Shariff would’ve been played by Red Buttons, would have had actual screen time.
After the disaster, Ryan goes spinning off into emptiness unlimited in the film’s most effective shot, directly cribbed from the one in You Only Live Twice. The basic limitations and challenges that Cuarón sets himself are admirable and certainly worthy of a great filmmaker: a tiny cast, little space on either side of the crisis it portrays, no flashbacks or digressions from sustaining a unified authenticity. Except that as Gravity continues, the realism which Cuarón and his production team strive for exactingly and constantly devolves as the pressures of maintaining the sort of breathless thrill ride he’s constructed means piling plot devices, coincidence, and absurdity on top of each other. Spurning the initially cool sense of extraterrestrial physics, the film favours increasingly silly, cartoonish-looking, cliffhanger stunts. When Matt and Ryan make it back to Explorer after the initial disaster, they encounter the drifting, frozen bodies of their shipmates, one of them suddenly looming out of the hull with all the blunt force of a cheap horror movie scare: even the music gives regulation “boo!” underlining.
It’s obvious why Clooney was cast as Matt. He has the kind of stoic, adaptable, good-humoured attitude that only someone who’s starred in a couple of Killer Tomato movies, but whose career survived, can radiate. More importantly, his instincts are strong enough to turn a god-awful line like “You’ve gotta learn to let go” into a professional charmer’s last, weak gag as he gently encourages Ryan to release him to certain death. But Clooney can’t make Matt more than a cliché wrapped in a cliché, a compendium of archetypes. He’s that goofy guy who’s always got a corny story about that time he was in New Orleans to keep things light and earthbound. He’s the veteran superior who’s only a day away from retirement, damn it. He’s the noble, experienced, self-sacrificing captain passing the torch onto his Girl Friday. At no point does he feel like a real person. There’s no fear or pain in him when he tells Ryan to let him go, and Cuarón turns his death into a kind of joke as he goes back to listening to his cowboy music, in a touch that feels like an outtake from Dark Star (1974): now there was a space movie.
And Dr. Ryan Stone, what is she, apart from a woman with an unlikely name? She admits, during a particularly fraught passage through space, that her daughter died in a softball accident, and that ever since she’s been inclined to drive aimlessly, dissociating, until whatever quirk of fate turned her into an astronaut (it seems to be something to do with adapted medical imaging tech she developed). Now, whilst it would’ve violated the conceptual purity of this project (though few things are starting to shit me more than conceptual purity), I found myself wondering what another director might’ve done with this contrast of earthly and celestial wandering, what poetic resonance they might’ve garnered by contrasting the image of a grief-stricken woman driving the lonely Illinois plains and floating high above the Earth. Cuarón can only give me literalism: Matt and Ryan are drifting around to the dark side.
Truth be told, Ryan’s backstory of loss is only brought up to give her the thinnest of emotional identities, and to justify Cuarón’s repeated, deeply corny images of rebirth. Bullock, not generally an actress I like, is restrained and efficient in her role, thankfully. Here, as in many of the film’s numerous, repetitive moments of cliffhanger tension, the visuals and the way the human figures are manipulated within them began to resemble not convincing approximations of space, but rather the sorts of mechanistic inventions found in a lot of completely computer-animated films these days. This feeling gets strongest with a shot Cuarón repeats twice, when Ryan opens an airlock, the interior pressure flipping over and back with cartoonish speed, and her grip suddenly seeming to have become superhuman. Another technically bravura moment depicts the return of the wave of debris, slamming into the ISS and carving it to pieces, with Ryan, who’s been trying to cut away a cable restraining the Soyuz, surrounded by whirling debris and crumbling infrastructure. That Ryan survives such an experience for the second time, this time without even losing her slight grip on her buffeted craft and left completely untouched by a multitude of flying metal shards, seems patently ridiculous.
The sensation that Gravity represents the Pixar-fication of “live-action” cinema increased with every passing minute. It reflects the same delight in turning a ruthless movie scenario into a mechanistic, Rube Goldberg construction. Logic and likelihood seem aspects Cuarón and his coscreenwriter, his son Jonás, decided to avoid early on to concentrate on sheer rollercoaster thrills, plus Cuarón’s getting at something the crystallises in the film’s most amazingly bad sequence. Ryan makes it aboard the ISS after being forced to abandon Matt, a moment that’s curiously unaffecting, partly because Matt’s demeanour of professional acceptance and humour doesn’t waver. Matt has alerted Ryan that the debris field will be returning about 90 minutes after the first strike judging by the speed it’s moving in orbit, and when it comes back it destroys the ISS and almost takes out Ryan’s Soyuz. The 90-minute interval seems set up to accord closely with the film’s initial real-time mission brief, for Gravity runs just over an a hour and a half, but Cuarón throws that felicity away as he plays games with story progression in the last third. Ryan’s first entrance to the ISS sees the wryest of Cuarón’s several nods to earlier scifi films, as Ryan strips off her spacesuit to reveal her lithe female form beneath, evoking the famous opening zero-g striptease of Barbarella (1967), but with sniggering sexuality replaced with the grace of mere biology. Except that Cuarón instantly gets too cute by having Ryan curl up in a foetal ball, to underline her own renaissance, and possibly invoke the star child of 2001, but only achieving the status of laboured symbolism. This isn’t the only moment in the film where one of Cuarón’s better touches segues instantly into one of his worst.
The cinematography of Emmanuel Lubezki is, as expected, superlative throughout, though as Christopher Doyle complained about last year’s Oscar-winning Life of Pi, to what extent a film as relentlessly post-produced as this can be said to be have photographed is increasingly dubious. Lubezki shot the last film to earn a lot of 2001 comparisons, Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life (2011), and he has a gift for making even mundane objects seem blessed to exist and bathed in holy luminescence. But whereas Malick’s loopy epic shared a vital trait of thematic adventure and aesthetic risk with Kubrick’s work, Cuarón’s film is infinitely more conventional on all levels but the technical. Kubrick took risks to offer up his space-age tale as a metaphor for the search for divine transcendence one can’t imagine a contemporary big-budget filmmaker being allowed to take, and indeed now, his work was largely greeted with querulous confusion. By comparison, Cuarón’s attempts to invoke religious, spiritual, and philosophical dimensions to his tale range from the cringe-worthy to insulting. After the ISS’s destruction, Ryan is left alone in a seemingly broken-down craft contemplating a solitary death. Again Cuarón offers up one of his best moments here, as Ryan contacts a Japanese ham radio operator and begs him to listen to the barking dogs and crying babies she hears in the background, and begins forlornly howling along with the dogs herself.
There’s riskiness here, an embrace of a note of black comedy as well as a threat of existential absurdity that does achieve something like what Cuarón’s aiming for. But he immediately destroys the effect as Ryan moans, “Nobody ever taught me how to pray!” Give me a fucking break! The film’s dramatic credibility slides precipitously towards the level of a bad soap on a Christian TV channel. Ryan decides to die by turning off the air supply, but Matt, either his shade or Ryan’s feverish, oxygen starved imagining of him, returns and lets himself into the Soyuz to give her pep talk and tell her how to get out of her fix. I will admit as this crap piled up, I very nearly left the movie theatre. A good genre smith would’ve let the angst, the fear, and the desolation in the story all speak for themselves, but Cuarón pretentiously underlines his points in such a way to only highlight how obvious, slick, packaged, and greeting-card-worthy the sentiments here are. We couldn’t just take it for granted that the woman doesn’t want to die and would like to get back to Earth. Cuarón’s presumption to evoking cosmic awe and human frailty in the face of infinite has, lurking behind it, a religious presumption that’s as tinny as a late-night preacher’s homily. One has been warned of Cuarón’s fondness for cheesy symbolism before: to wit, the ship called “Tomorrow” that picks up the heroes at the end of Children of Men, but that was more forgivable as it was akin to a sort of sign-off admission of the story’s fable qualities after constructing his world with some rigour. Here the lurking stickiness of vague New Age spirituality is recalled right at the end as Ryan breathes a grateful thank you, perhaps to God, perhaps to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Or are they the same thing? Of course they are.
There’s no real curiosity about the universe, about the nature of humanity, the contrast between the scale of space and the finite nature of human endurance, to be found here. This is a popcorn-selling, fantasy-action film, no mistake. Some are celebrating it as a riposte to the emptiness of many special-effects blockbusters, and yet it’s no smarter than many of those; in fact, in some ways it’s interchangeable with them, and in other ways worse. At least Avatar (2009) had some actual ideas. Gravity has lots and lots of scenes of Sandra Bullock trying to hold onto metal bars in repetitive cliffhangers. Indeed, consider the title’s similarity to Bullock’s star-making vehicle, Speed (1994), and the close relationship of the two works emerges. Perhaps the greatest lack here is any kind of story complication that might have offered some moral or actual psychological depth, a la Tom Godwin’s famous scifi short story “The Cold Equations,” or various cinematic permutations on it (like precursor realist space movies Destination Moon  and Marooned ). Structurally, Gravity is another recent movie that owes quite a bit to video games as well as Pixar, with its first-person shots and the series of rolling crises that defines the story to quite ridiculous lengths. Really, the tidal wave of technical carnage takes out every satellite, which are all on exactly the same orbital level? Can your average spacesuit really take that much punishment? Are we really supposed to swallow Ryan being saved by the ghost of Matt? Because make no mistake, Matt’s reappearance does have a functional effect on the story: he tells Ryan how to get the Soyuz going and get to the Chinese station. Can we buy this as Ryan’s subconscious telling her how to do it? Either way, it’s really stupid.
Some proponents of the film have dismissed the validity of remarks on its science and implausibilities, as if this was somehow incidental in a film that’s being sold around its realism. I’d like to say that at least on the level of a thrill ride, I enjoyed Gravity, but even there I’d be stretching it somewhat. I often found the film’s technical cleverness to work against the nominal effects it was trying to achieve—the sense of claustrophobic vulnerability violated by the camerawork, the keynote of physical danger degraded by the precision control of the special effects, which, in spite of their grandeur, still rarely looked like actual objects that pose immediate tactile danger to the actors. The opening single shot is deeply admirable as spectacle, and yet I felt irritated by it on a fundamental level: it’s nothing, really, that the many recent fake-found-footage filmmakers haven’t already done. Certainly, this manner of filming has come on in leaps and bounds since Hitchcock’s Rope (1948) had to awkwardly hide cuts in close-ups. Now all sorts of astonishing, reality-jamming things can be accomplished. But the reason why so many filmmakers, critics, and theorists cream their jeans about unbroken tracking shots it’s because they’re supposedly more realistic and offer a more open sense of detail, a challenge to the usual precepts of movie construction, direction of attention, and coherence of space and time.
Such shots in a film like Gravity are more like an extended stunt, not provided to give detail but to wow with how good the staging and effects are. Instead of the potential to awaken the viewer’s receptivity, here it helps to narcotise it, to make us stop paying attention to details and give ourselves up to the experiential haymaker. I will admit to betrayed expectations. This sort of story seems to me more fit for a dark, meditative, mostly psychological thriller, rather than a pompous arcade attraction. Steven Price’s clod-witted scoring has all the subtlety of a day-glo thong. Cuarón has only done one major work not based on strong preexisting material, and that was Y Tu Mama Tambien: if not for that film’s quality, I’d readily put the weakness of this one down to the lack of such a basis. As for the finale, well, remember how Apollo 13 (1995) went into all that detail about descent trajectories and how if they’re not met correctly, you burn up? Yeah, well apparently that doesn’t matter in a Chinese space capsule. Yeah, that was another good space movie. Finally Ryan crawls out of a lake that somehow looks faker, more generic and art-directed, than the space she’s just been in: the real world has become phony.
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Director: Jack Arnold
By Roderick Heath
A clawed hand, seeming to reach out like the living spirit of a deadly, animalistic past trying to grab at prey, looms at the camera. But it’s only a fossil jutting from a rock face, uncovered by the workmen of geologist Carl Maia (Antonio Moreno) in the heart of the Amazon. Carl knows he’s found something remarkable and immediately intends returning to civilisation to exhibit the world-changing artifact, even as a very live, very dangerous-looking counterpart to the hand reaches out of the water and rests on the riverbank, indicating the lurking presence of a creature watching Maia pluck free his ancestor’s remains. During the night, whilst Maia is away, his two workmen, camping in the jungle, are attacked by the roaring, scaled beast and brutally killed…
For people who delight in the brassy glories of ’50s scifi cinema, William Alland must count as a relatively unsung hero. He began his career under Orson Welles at the Mercury Theatre, and won a claim to cinematic immortality playing the shadowy journalist Thompson in Citizen Kane (1941) before becoming a film producer. Alland’s success in this field was found in a comparatively peculiar niche. Like Val Lewton at RKO in the ’40s, Alland captained a series of productions for Universal-International aimed at artfully exploiting a popular trend in a profitable, but not especially prestigious cinema. For Alland, these were scifi movies, built around the lurid, poster-ready appeal of impressive bug-eyed monsters, a subgenre with which Alland’s name became synonymous.
Universal was reacting to the success other filmmakers like George Pal had gained in this territory, but also aimed to reinvigorate their brand as the home of movie monsters, in shifting the official genre prism from the horror style the studio had found such success in over 20 years earlier, a style which had nearly gone extinct. By the mid ’50s, the trickle of scifi became a flood of movies replete with UFOs, aliens, robots, and rampaging beasts, with all their quotidian metaphors for Atomic Age anxieties and frontiers. Alland’s success as a producer was relatively brief, a six-year reign during which he also made several B-Westerns, but in that time, he produced 11 scifi works that run the gamut from major classics to tepid time wasters.
Alland displayed one gift his mentor Welles would have appreciated—an eye for apt and talented collaborators, one of whom was director Jack Arnold, who successfully lobbied Universal and Alland to helm It Came from Outer Space (1953). Arnold started out as an actor but moved behind the camera under Robert Flaherty during World War II. The Oscar-nominated pro-union documentary With These Hands (1950) made his name, and he soon broke into helming B-movies. What made his collaboration with Alland particularly fruitful was that, unlike so many filmmakers trying to make a few bucks from the scifi craze, Arnold had real affection for the genre from his boyhood spent devouring books. Arnold could well be the first proper auteur of scifi cinema, in close competition with Ishirô Honda, who emerged the following year with Godzilla (1954). Fritz Lang, James Whale, Howard Hawks, and Robert Wise were some major directors who had all displayed affinity for scifi, but their works in the mode were limited and used it to offer variations on a worldview expostulated equally well in other genres. Arnold, on the other hand, although he would make some fine noir works and Westerns, was clearly most at home in this field. His influence, worked through a handful of major variations on basic themes, echoes through the next few decades of filmmaking in the genre: ambiguous aliens in It Came from Outer Space, the primal monster of The Creature from the Black Lagoon, the Atomic Age giant in Tarantula (1955), the transformed man in The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957), and antiwar parable in The Space Children (1958). Even something like his bizarre teen thriller High School Confidential (1958) seems close to scifi in its shrill evocation of modern anxiety and moral rot.
The idea for Creature from the Black Lagoon reputedly began forming when Alland met the great Mexican cinematographer Gabriel Figueroa at a party in 1941 and heard from him the legend of a half-man, half-fish that haunted the waters of the Amazon. Years later, Alland carefully developed this notion as a follow-up to It Came from Outer Space, with a story by Maurice Zimm and a script by Harry Essex and Arthur Ross. Whereas It Came from Outer Space had struck a peculiarly ambivalent and intelligent approach to ideas of the alien, Creature represented an attempt to craft a genuine crossbreed of the motifs Universal had exploited so well in its ’30s horror films with a more contemporary edge. Indeed, the specific success of the Alland-Arnold model was in its deeper awareness and embrace of the psychological element of the genre, the notion that, as in the horror genre, the monstrosities seen on screen were essentially signifying something else, something within the psyche, reflecting another, more genuine anxiety.
The strange humanity of the monstrous (and vice versa), a theme most obviously explored in the canonical Frankenstein and Wolf Man films, was in Creature grafted onto an explicitly evolutionary investigation of both humanity’s progress and limitations, unpeeling the notion that under the stellar-aimed mindset of modernity lurks the slavering, adapted beast for which the basic drives of sex and eating are the only true motives. These motifs are introduced in a prologue that strikes the same pedagogical stance that a lot of these films did, but with an underlying quality of curiosity and a faintly haunting note, as a chronicler narrates the birth of the Earth in fire and cataclysm, and then then emergence of life, seen as strange-looking footprints dotting a primeval beach. This promptly segues into an image of the past looming into the present with fearsome immediacy of the fossil hand.
Primeval past and space age present soon come into jarring contact as Maia presents the fossil hand to the remarkably good-looking collective of American nerds running the Brazilian Instituto de Biologia Maritima. Maia gains the interest of guest field researchers David Reed (Richard Carlson) and Kay Lawrence (Julie Adams), and they, in turn, present the find to their boss Mark Williams (Richard Denning), a blonde he-man who’s always eager for anything that can bring glory and funding to the institute. Along with another of the institute’s brainiacs, Dr. Ed Thompson (Whit Bissell), they form an expedition to head to Maia’s dig site and extract the rest of the remains, hiring the steam launch Rita, captained by the shabby genial Capt. Lucas (Nestor Paiva) for the voyage upriver. Finding the mutilated bodies of the diggers, the scientists are momentarily shaken, but press on to find the rest of the skeleton. They have no luck because much of the rock face has been washed away by the river, and the fossil bones along with it. Deciding to take a chance on the theory that the eroded fragments might have collected downstream in the fabled Black Lagoon, the expedition packs up and moves into the recessed waterway, only to discover they’re not alone: the immensely powerful and devastatingly violent Gill Man proves to be the product of an evolutionary cul-de-sac that is nonetheless smart and aggressive enough to have survived into the twentieth century in this locale. Mark, hungry for glory and the thrill of battling something as relentless and motivated as he is, sets out to trap or kill the beast, browbeating David and the others into helping. But it soon becomes clear that the Gill Man has its own hunt in mind: the solitary anthropoid recognises Kay as a potential breeding partner and traps the expedition whilst making constant attempts to snatch her away.
Scifi cinema in the ’50s is now recognised as occupying the same place as film noir did in the late ’40s, that is, that in beholding the genre, one sees the id of the age closest to the surface: aliens in place of Communists, monsters in place of A-bombs, UFOs in place of ICBM missiles and jets. Like most of Arnold’s best films, The Creature from the Black Lagoon actively invites symbolic readings, in part because it’s a meld of styles, with its chiaroscuro visual style and reflexes of phobic intensity in the narrative that stray very close to the gothic horror film. Other aspects of the film fit the ’50s scifi craze at its broadest: there’s a high level of pedagogy, straining to relate all fields of scientific interest with the great and glorious projects of the space and nuclear age. David gives a speech, nominally to his fellow scientists but really for the audience’s benefit, linking research into life on Earth with space exploration and questions of adaptability. The film’s cosmic overtones, set in play at the outset, soon resolve into something more interesting, however, as the story unfolds. Both the forward rush of evolution and its basic, unchanging driving impulses are observed in unison, and the lack of evolution on display becomes crucial. Scratch the rational man and quickly the bully, the mighty hunter, the mate-shielding chest-beater, the savant of survival, the animal on top of the food chain makes clear its determination to claim dominion. All it takes is a close cousin with two-inch claws to shake it all out.
Another hallmark of the Alland’s series was his efforts to always entwine a strong genre concept with a kind of core social or psychological idea and character conflict to feed into its themes and give propulsion to the plot. As in the later, under-budgeted but interesting The Land Unknown (1957), here the propensity of human rationality to devolve quickly and accept arcane principles, particularly those to do with sex and power, are explored. The central conflict between thoughtless enquiry and defensive authority explored in Howard Hawks and Christian Nyby’s genre-defining The Thing from Another World (1951) here is reversed and reconfigured into a pattern that’s become, over the years, close to an essential motif in cinematic scifi. David’s conscientious, curious perspective becomes the default heroic pole against which Mark’s grasping, greedy, warmongering delight in the hunt is contrasted. Mark is identified quickly as a man who takes credit for the work of others, a relentless political operator who represents the corruption of the institutional sensibility, whereas David is a proto-hippie environmentalist in a film that does, indeed, have some claim to being one of the first to engage with this vital modern idea. Creature avoids total didacticism, however, as both sides are ultimately revealed to have strengths and weaknesses. David’s refusal to countenance killing the Gill Man soon appears naïve, whilst Mark’s ferocity proves equal to the task of combating the beast, a nightmare figuration that taunts and fascinates him like some gnawing part of his own id that must be beaten. But he eventually overreaches in trying to wrestle the monster; in the film’s most floridly epic sequence, man and monster lock in a death match, churning in the mud on the lagoon floor that is akin to some extraordinarily weird mating clinch.
The actual heart of The Creature from the Black Lagoon is the darkly erotic frisson provided by the beast’s pursuit of the gorgeous Adams. The Gill Man becomes a phobic reconfiguration of the basest masculine desire turned on the most fetishized of feminine physiques. In this regard, Creature reveals is roots in the kinds of pulp magazine covers of Amazing Stories and Weird Tales where tentacles and otherwise repulsive things drooled and fondled scantily clad damsels, id-beasts in adolescent fantasias of lust. There’s also the long shadow of King Kong (1933) as a variant on the Beauty and the Beast theme, as the monster in the heart of darkness is stricken by the woman it can’t have. Unlike with Kong, however, where the mechanics were obviously difficult, there’s a more genuine sexual as well as physical danger in the situation. Creature would scarcely exist without Adams as its raison d’être, as the object of desire all events flow to and from. The cleverest and most specific spin on the Beauty/Beast figuration found here, in fact, is the idea of making a kind of eternal triangle into more a quadrangle, with a sliding scale of eligible masculinity offered by David, Mark, and Gill Man. David and Kay are introduced as a couple, with David resisting marriage: “I’m waiting for Williams to give her that raise—then she can afford me.” But David’s laggard romanticism and Kay’s excessively grateful demeanour give Mark a toehold in his initial project of prying Kay away from David, before the even greater challenge of the catching the Gill Man. The two projects become entwined for him, signalled in a hilarious display of phallic aggression early on when Mark exhibits the spear gun he’s brought for hunting, firing it off with pointedly potent accuracy after catching David and Kay canoodling: “All you have to do is aim it and squeeze.”
Ironically, of course, ’50s prudery precluded the Gill Man costume from sporting a phallus—his enormous claws serve as stand-ins. One of Arnold’s gifts as a director was his ability to root scifi in a gamy physicality, mapped out at its most extreme in the endless castration of the hero of Shrinking Man, which begins when mysterious fluids coat his bared body, and the switchbacks of familiar guises and repugnant actuality in It Came from Outer Space. Creature is all about sex, and Arnold’s eye through the intermediary of William E. Snyder’s photography, laps up the barely coded fetishism that fuels the tale, replete with Denning and Carlson constantly going shirtless and the proximity of the Gill Man’s scaly form to Adams’ bubble-butt shorts and bare legs. From practically the first moment Kay steps ashore in the Amazon, the Gill Man’s webbed hand comes groping out of the water, desiring tactile communion with the glossy perfection of Adams’ calves. Adams, who had been an agreeable starlet in a couple of westerns for good directors (Raoul Walsh’s The Lawless Breed, 1952, Anthony Mann’s Bend of the River, 1953), never had another moment like this one, which put her name up there with Fay Wray and Evelyn Ankers in the annals of monster-sought damsels, setting a record for Amazonian costume changes and a dip in a bathing suit that would make Esther Williams jealous. Adams’ Kay feels throughout much of the film like the islet of amity and good-natured openness compared with the thickening atmosphere of macho neurosis. She refused to have her genuine feelings of conflict between David and Mark dismissed by Thompson when he tries to play elder-knows-best with her.
The film’s most singular and famous sequence is the perversely romantic scene in which Kay goes swimming in the lagoon. The Gill Man, fascinated, swims after her and begins to mimic her motions underwater, unseen and unsuspected by her until she treads water and the creature tries again to touch her legs. That image echoes back to Jacques Tourneur’s famous pool scene in Cat People (1942) (inspired by Tourneur’s own near-drowning whilst swimming at night) in invoking an intensely reactive sense of personal vulnerability. Many ’50s scifi movies are held today as examples of ‘50s cinematic sexism, filled with brainy heroines reduced to quivering balls of fear in the face of monstrosities, and to a very large extent that charge is true, including here. And yet the era’s genre entries are also curiously driven by the powerful question of gender relations and equality, in part as a necessary gimmick for putting pretty faces into some otherwise sweaty masculine jobs and locations, or even bravely ignoring them altogether, as Roger Corman’s fascinating no-budget movies of the period tended to do. Kay’s scientific know-how is never doubted, but keeping the female safe is still the major plot stake: “Well there’s just one thing Mark,” David warns when the proposal to venture into the Black Lagoon is first raised: “Going into unexplored territory with a woman.” Kay laughs him off, and Mark himself drawls that “I’ve always found Kay can take care of herself.” David’s caution is vindicated, naturally, but the voluble urgency of the film’s notion that biology drives everything undercuts even his wisdom: in the end, it all boils down to the survival of the fittest.
One of the less bracing aspects of Creature’s immediate success was the number of tacky imitations it sparked in the following decades: sticking a guy in a hair or rubber suit and having him terrorise sundry isolated people became a basic template for B-movie makers. On the other hand, Steven Spielberg remembered Arnold’s vision for his own variation on the theme with Jaws (1975), echoing this swimming scene for the opening and quoting elements of the visuals and storytelling in his blockbuster, as in a sequence in which the Gill Man gets caught up in the Rita’s boom net and almost rips off its mast trying to escape. The specific influence of Creature on a single, later blockbuster hides its larger contribution to modern genre film as a model of dramatic compression and intensity. Once the Rita reaches the Black Lagoon, the narrative scarcely relents, in a fashion that looks forward to works like Aliens (1986), as the Gill Man’s campaign of terror commences. Arnold’s reveal of the Gill Man’s full appearance, like Spielberg’s revelation of the shark in his film but coming much earlier in the film, is a real surprise, with the creature suddenly rearing up out of the depths behind Mark and David when they’re casually patrolling the lagoon. Once seen, the creature scarcely disappears, constantly probing the Rita, attacking and murdering Lucas’ crewmen. As the cast dwindles, the expedition team find themselves hard-pressed to even keep the Gill Man off the boat, paying off in a delightfully odd moment in which the Gill Man reaches in through a porthole whilst a bandaged, faceless, voiceless man tries in vain to alert his comrades. Nine years before Hitchcock’s The Birds (1963), the idea that nature can throw up terrors that can encage all-conquering humankind still is clearly mooted, and indeed as in the Hitchcock film, there’s a sense of confluence between the still-present dark of the primal in the human soul and the strange, inimical wisdom of the inhuman world even in the over-lit age of science and reason.
Snyder’s photography expertly charts the sensatory communication of this essential theme: daylight shots are blazes of light, but nighttime sequences are semigothic, noir-influenced islets where the lights on the Rita seem lonely and assailed bastions against the terrible dark. In spite of the moments of cheese and patronisation, Creature still rises to the best of its genre in its conscientious, inquisitive spirit. Thompson is presented as a voice of reasoned contrast to the rest of the team, pointing out early on to a careless Mark that “Dedication doesn’t mean risking the lives of others,” and playing relationship counsellor for Kay moments before he’s assaulted and horribly mangled by the Gill Man. The challenge of defeating the Gill Man on his own turf with wits is raised by David, and in spite of Mark’s drive to turn it all into a raw battle, the native trick of drugging fish with a root-derived drug is repurposed into a method of catching him and holding him at bay. David and Mark do manage to finally catch the Gill Man with the drug, but only after it kills another crewman, and the monster still manages to escape from its cage. Thompson manages to bash it with a lantern after it mauls him, in a striking shot of wild motion and fire as the burning monster struggles, wreathed in flames, before leaping into the water. A major aspect of the film’s stature and appeal is, unavoidably, the creature itself. The Gill Man was designed by Millicent Patrick; the bodysuit was executed by Jack Kevan, who had made prosthetics for World War II vets; and Chris Mueller Jr did the mask. Although limited in some ways and certainly an exemplary “man in a rubber suit” monster, the Gill Man is nonetheless easily one of the most recognisable and tangible screen monsters of all time, particularly when animated by the gutsy underwater adventurer Ricou Browning, who did shot after shot in the costume holding his breath and going for broke.
It’s not really belittling the film to note that an enormous part of its appeal lies in its cheesiness, particularly the blaring, alarmist score provided by Hans J. Salter’s scoring company, with contributions from Henry Mancini, amongst others. Creature is constantly spiked by blasts of brass and ferociously churning strings that underpin appearances of the Gill Man, unsubtle but certainly contributing to the headlong rush of the film’s pace. Paiva provides a sweet counterpoint to the main drama with his gleefully insouciant performance as Lucas, lounging about watching the savants labour, blissfully unconcerned with scientific knowledge, and utterly immune to the temptations and pressures apparent in the other characters: when Mark tries to bully him as he does the others, Lucas simply pulls out a knife, holds it to his throat, and asks, oh so cheerfully, “You wish to say something, señor?”
Happily, Arnold was able to bring back his character, albeit briefly, for the following year’s sequel, Revenge of the Creature, after the finale of this film, which showed the bullet-riddled Gill Man drifting in the inky depths, was just ambiguous enough to justify a sequel. Arnold and Alland did their best to sustain an organic connection in the series, but budget limitations and weak scripting make Revenge a bit of a chore to sit through. A third film in the series, The Creature Walks Among Us (1956), directed by John Sherwood, had far too little action, but managed to reinvigorate the basic concept with some interesting twists. All three films end with a touch of vagueness, the monster seeming to die each time but with a crack left open for survival (and another sequel, of course). For all his deadliness, the Gill Man even by the end of the first film clearly represents something we both fear and prize: the essential pride of natural force.
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Director/Coscreenwriter: Guillermo Del Toro
By Roderick Heath
One of the great filmmakers working in modern genre cinema, Guillermo Del Toro has worked his way up to becoming one of the anointed few: a director of Hollywood mega-productions. And yet, although Del Toro has affinity for the sort of material that today fuels most blockbusters, a true top-tier success seems frustratingly out of reach for the portly Mexican auteur. Since his debut with the haunting, witty fable Cronos in 1992, he’s found his greatest critical success in the Spanish-language diptych of dark fairy tales, The Devil’s Backbone (2001) and Pan’s Labyrinth (2006). Many of his films for the Hollywood market, like the fun and stylish Mimic (1997) and the Hellboy films, did middling box office, but gained fearsome cult followings. Well, at least they did with me. Hellboy II: The Golden Army was probably the best film of the past ten years to have a comic book source, offering both rigorous personality and teeming strangeness. That film’s sequence with the forest god clearly signalled Del Toro’s desire to make an unrestrained monster movie. Only Blade 2 (2004) has proved a true big hit in ratio to its budget, whilst Del Toro’s involvement with bringing Tolkien’s The Hobbit to the big screen ultimately proved a wasted effort, and he handed reins back to fellow nerd-lord Peter Jackson.
Del Toro’s surprising incapacity to truly score with a mass audience, which seems confirmed by his latest attempt at a world-conquering work achieving only soft box office, seems rooted perhaps in the fact that his affection for fantastic film retains a nerdish delight in genre esoterica, his desire to build rather than merely remake franchises, and an old-fashioned ethic that’s determinedly inclusive, refusing fashionable filmmaking postures in favour of emphasising character interaction and particularity in the worlds he creates. In short, Del Toro is a native of this land rather than an interloper, and he lets viewers know the difference.
Nonetheless, Pacific Rim is an overt bid by Del Toro to claim his rightful place at the top of the cinematic food chain. The oneiric, decidedly adult fantasy visions of his Spanish films that ironically involve children and their place in a dangerous world are balanced by the looser, goofier studies in misfits and oddballs cohering in his American works. But the hemispheres of his oeuvre still feel unitary not only in their lexicon of images and ideas harvested from centuries of folk tradition and mythology, but also in their essential tone, their emotional largesse and formal beauty, rendered in bold and fleshy, Renaissance-art colours and highly mobile, vigorous camerawork that maintains nonetheless classical rigour. Pacific Rim nominally annexes territory laid waste by Michael Bay, but is at odds with the preferred approach of most Hollywood big-movie directors like Bay.
The annoyingly vague title, which seems to have aimed for a Cloverfield-esque obfuscation, should have bit the dust during production: to get a sense of this film’s gleeful inner nature, it should’ve been called “Fury of the Mecha-Men” or “Hell-Beasts from the Deep”—something flashy, trashy, and vulgarly poetic, perfectly in tune with this film’s B-movie roots. Easily the best big-budget film of the year so far, Pacific Rim is gloriously corny and entirely unashamed of it, and no small work of formal artistry. It suggests a joie de vivre in its own absurdity and cinematic nature as well as confidence in its cornball dramatics and audio-visual force that’s been frustratingly lacking from the endless series of reboots and franchise instalments of the past couple of years. Even this year’s estimable Man of Steel had an uphill battle to erase memories of earlier versions. Del Toro, on the other hand, may well have made the best monster movie since the original King Kong (1933).
Of course, I am biased, both towards Del Toro as a filmmaker and his choice of references here. How much one enjoys Pacific Rim depends on one’s hunger for adventure, mayhem, and spectacle on the big screen, but will almost inevitably be augmented by a certain affection for ’50s scifi cinema and Japanese fantastic cinema and anime or kaiju, exemplified by the first and greatest, Godzilla (1954), and massive super-technology that offers symbiosis between human and machine, found in the likes of Godzilla director Ishirô Honda’s follow-ups like The Mysterians (1958) and Atragon (1961). Del Toro co-penned the script with Travis Beacham, who previously penned the lackluster Clash of the Titans (2010) remake, which shared at least two qualities Del Toro could appreciate: love of big, monsterish thingies and a certain democratic quality to the way it approached heroic quests. In pointed contrast to Bay’s fascist visions, Del Toro’s desire to create a more internationalist, multicultural vision of world saviours than one usually gets certainly comes out in the course of Pacific Rim, but that again is another way the film accords with old models, like Earth vs. the Flying Saucers (1956) and Conquest of Space (1955). With some emphasis on cooperation between talents of different nationalities and cultural resources, and brave new world solutions, the main plot hinges on the desperate need to create subliminal accord between two historically polarised entities, an American male and a Japanese female.
This accord becomes vital because, sometime in the near future, colossal monsters start crawling out the Pacific seabed, and attacking major cities. Del Toro gives an immediate nod to It Came from Beneath the Sea (1955) as the first monster attacks the Golden Gate Bridge, severing its span while assaulted by jet fighters who find their weapons hopelessly outclassed by the terrifying beast. The animal is finally brought down after several days and apocalyptic damage to several cities. Soon, however, a steady number of of the so-called kaiju crawl out of some kind of dimensional portal hidden deep in the Pacific rift to create more havoc. A counter-weapon to the epidemic of monsters is rapidly developed and deployed: colossal, hard-to-control robots called jaegers (German for “hunters”) that are piloted by specially chosen people who have the ability to “drift,” that is, symbiotically join minds through technological linkages. People tend to drift best with people they already share connections with, so many jaeger pilots are related or have similarly close bonds. Charlie Hunnam plays Raleigh Becket, who pilots a jaeger with his brother Yancy (Diego Klattenhoff). Vigorous and unorthodox fighters with an elastic approach to the rules of their trade, Raleigh and Yancy venture out of their designated defence zone off the Alaska coast one night during a fearsome storm to save a fishing trawler in the path of a kaiju. Although they succeed, the kaiju they thought they killed surfaces. The monster slices open the jaeger, and Yancy is ripped away to his death. Raleigh manages to keep enough control over the machine to finish the beast off and bring the mangled jaeger to the coast, where it flops on a beach before a grandfather and grandson (David Fox and Jake Goodman), fleetingly reminiscent of the main characters of Cronos.
Yancy’s death marks another turn in the tide of the kaiju war, as more of the tougher, more intelligent breed of beast that killed him emerge. Raleigh, left bereft and mentally scarred in more ways than one by the loss of his brother and drift partner, spends years in exile working construction shifts on the new sea wall the United Nations has directed be built to hold out the kaiju. There seems here to be a bit of a satirical pot-shot at the infamous Israeli security wall as well as “pragmatic” solutions to the eventuality of flooding from global warming, or a genre conflation of the idea with Hadrian’s Wall or the Great Wall of China. But it’s still really a broad metaphor for any problem that can be blocked out of sight and thence out of mind. Of course, that doesn’t last long. Meanwhile the jaegers have their ranks thinned, and finally the marshall of the force, Stacker Pentecost (Idris Elba), is told by assorted bigwigs that the jaegers are to be decommissioned. Just as soon as Pentecost is informed of this, however, a kaiju easily bashes a hole through the wall in Sydney, and is brought down by Aussie father and son jaeger pilots Herc and Chuck Hansen (Max Martini and Robert Kazinsky).
The jaeger force’s science team, garrulous American nerd Geiszler (Charlie Day), who finds the kaiju unremittingly cool, and snooty, fussy Oxbridge type Gottlieb (Burn Gorman), who loves numbers far more than the messy elements, predict that kaiju will start to arrive in massed groups. Realising that the human race’s days might be numbered, Pentecost tries to get as many jaegers in the field as possible for a last-ditch attempt to close the portal, and particularly wants Raleigh because he’s the only one apart from Pentecost himself who ever managed to pilot a jaeger alone. Nonetheless, a new drift partner for Raleigh is sought, and the best candidate proves to be Pentecost’s assistant Mako Mori (Rinko Kikuchi). In good contemporary fashion, Mako proves her grit and equality by besting Raleigh in a kendo battle. But Pentecost is reluctant to field Mako, for good reasons: she has personal, tragic spurs to want to take on the kaiju, with the kind of trauma in her past that can turn drifting into a destructive psychodrama. As both she and Raleigh share such trauma, they are a combustive team—risky, but also potentially extraordinary. Many films have explored how traumatic past experiences can both bring people close in kinship and retard their capacities to operate in the urgent flow of life, but here they’re quite crucial to the way the plot unfolds.
An immediate, stand-out quality of Pacific Rim is how good it looks, not an entirely superficial piece of praise. There’s been some criticism in various quarters of the photography of the fight scenes, and indeed, Del Toro occasionally frames his action close to the battles in that modish fashion that makes them blurry, dizzying studies in motion. But Del Toro never lets the action devolve into the kind of gibberish that some directors like Bay or Jonathan Liebesman have wrought lately, trying rather to break up the potential visual monotony of big things hitting each other. Del Toro knows how far to take it, and where to step back, and frankly, the inability of some observers to discern the difference worries me. Raleigh and Yancy’s first battle takes place in a churning squall: following Raleigh’s comment that the jaegers make their pilots feel able to take on hurricanes, the notion that these machines can compete with the very elemental nature of the Earth is rendered thrillingly literal in combat. More importantly, Del Toro sees no reason why special-effects-based cinema can’t be not just thrilling, but actually beautiful in a fashion that avoids the plasticity of a lot of CGI work. Pacific Rim is absolute eye candy. The lysergic vivacity of the colours comes to resemble some brand of modern art, with a palette close to Ridley Scott’s early films, in a peculiar, visual tone poem of modern urban noir, except on a far larger scale and blended with a techno-gothic largesse. His delight in swathing battles in rain and night helps contribute to the sort of visual density that distracts from flaws in the effects, of course, but also helps Del Toro create a rich atmosphere for his battles, apt for a director who loves his Universal horror films.
To expect Del Toro to offer the kind of polymorphic strangeness of his far smaller films in something like this would be pretty foolish. Pacific Rim doesn’t try to upset the apple cart in terms of genre rules; on the contrary, it tries to recreate the naïve tone and deceptive simplicity of classic models whilst blending it with the supercharged spectacle modern cinema can offer. Whereas Jackson’s take on King Kong (2005) was an enormous, gorgeous, but defanged and unwieldy love letter to the ideals of the monster movie, Del Toro keeps focused on the mode’s basics: titanic entities wailing on each other. At the same time, Pacific Rim manages to introduce some scifi gimmickry with genuine depth without getting bogged down in its own conceptualism: the concept of “drifting” delves into cyberpunk territory where barriers of the psyche are broken and definitions of physical reality and human intimacy lose some of their traditional meaning. It also presents a speedier version of the construction of empathy between people, which in most human experience, begins on a familial level, then extends to romantic partners and, if we’re lucky, close friends and immediate colleagues. When Raleigh and Mako first drift and take charge of their jaeger, Raleigh’s traumatic recollection of Yancy’s death shoves spiralling Mako into a recollection of her own formative trauma: the memory of wandering the lanes of decimated Tokyo with a colossal kaiju stalking her after killing her family.
Del Toro’s feel for the roots of such fantasy in childhood phobia is keen here in the nightmarish evocation of abandonment and the fear of a colossal force that feels straight out of any number of childhood bad dreams, and plugs back into the same mythopoeic zone Del Toro investigated with Pan’s Labyrinth, particularly in the totemic red shoe which Mako clutches in her memory and which adoptive father Pentecost hands to her to signal her graduation to monster killer. However, here the children are not abandoned in the face of horror, but rather the jaegers stand for all parental strength to hold back the nightmares, according with Mako’s ascension to full adulthood. Pacific Rim doesn’t mimic the feel of a fairy tale, and yet its underpinnings certainly maintain those qualities, as well as employing a delightful fetishism for taxonomy and offering peeks into bazaars of the esoterically charming and strange, in the colossal barns that house the jaegers and the kaiju party emporium run by Hannibal Chow (Ron Perlman) that captures the essence of being a kid and wandering into some pit of nerdish delight. Another thing Del Toro succeeds in which filmmakers who try to make monster movies often fumble is making their creatures not only malicious enough but also tough enough to make seeing them smote actually enjoyable, as the difficulty in killing colossal monsters is charted vividly: the rise of Raleigh and Mako is depicted purely in relation to their building ability to kill kaiju, from desperate and frantic tussles to lethal efficiency.
The film’s central battle takes place in Hong Kong, as the kaiju seem to hunt Geiszler following his invasion of their hive-mind, tracking him down to a public shelter, whilst the jaegers are faced with defeat by the new, specifically engineered beasts, including one that generates a charge that knocks out the electrics of the jaegers. Only Mako and Raleigh can save the day, and save it they do, marching into battle with a container ship wielded like a club, and finally bisecting a winged demon with their suddenly revealed super-sword, a compulsory mecha flourish saved for the most beautiful reveal and pay-off. The ebullient absurdity and grandeur of Pacific Rim can and should impress itself upon any receptive viewer, but if you’ve ever shared any of the fetishes I listed earlier, you’ll be especially tickled.
Neither the monster movie nor the concept of the giant or humanoid robot are concepts peculiarly native to Japan, of course. Godzilla was directly inspired by the Ray Harryhausen-enabled The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953), whilst men driving robots has been a genre fixture since the early 20th century. But the kaigu eiga or “strange creature film” that Godzilla defined has its roots in the moment following World War II, as Japan faced modernisation in the face of atrocious destruction. Godzilla stood in for all the awful, impersonal threats of the atomic bomb and the modern age, and the kaigu eiga became a hugely popular style as a result; overseas, they became perhaps the key introduction to Japanese cinema and literary culture for most people. Soon enough, in the likes of The Mysterians and King Kong Escapes—epic technological reactions to these metaphoric menaces—began to appear, big enough and brash enough to answer such awful figurations with force, but requiring evolutionary boldness from humankind. The notion of humans forming symbiosis with machines became a fulcrum of the mecha genre, which has analogues in the American tradition like Iron Man, but which remains distinctively Japanese nonetheless. In mecha, an emphasis on collective power is always nascent, the notion of parts fitting together to make a whole on both a human and a technological level, a sort of gestalt power.
This aspect is realised in perhaps the most surprising and resonant edge of the traditions Del Toro is quoting here in how Del Toro perceives and draws out the faint mystical quality that often underlies them. Having recently made a repeat viewing of Tsui Hark’s gloriously loony-tunes Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain (1981) just a few days before seeing Pacific Rim, I was freshly attuned to the degree Del Toro and Beacham evoke the same conceptual fulcrums as their models. As in Zu, the ultimate unity of two different people linked on a supraphysical level to become a greater entity becomes the necessary ideal for conquering evil, though here it’s achieved on a techno-psychic level, rather than a spiritual one, but the difference is negligible, especially as there’s often a mystical edge underlying the fetishized futurism of a lot of anime. Notably, another recent film to channel the same influence and with similar configurations was Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (2010), which also paraded an anime influence, but in an entirely different key. The functioning accord needed between Mako and Raleigh is echoed by the need for the entire jaeger team to work together with their multitudinous nationalities, and the biology/abstraction schism of Geiszler and Gottlieb’s concepts of science and their radically different personalities, and the brain/hand link between the scientists and the warriors. Geiszler eventually decides to try drifting with the brains of the kaiju to learn about their motives, and successfully divines the forces employing them. Not surprisingly for Del Toro, Pacific Rim eventually edges into the sort of Lovecraftian territory he adores, that realm on the borderline between science fiction and psychological monstrosity.
Del Toro also finds peculiar humour and thematic heft in the sight of a whole kind of illicit industry growing off the literal detritus of the kaiju wars, giving him a chance to revisit the kind of mischievous black-market economics and underworld life he’s explored before in Hellboy II’s troll market sequences, evoked here as Geiszler travels down into the boondocks of Hong Kong, in a neighbourhood called the Bone District that’s sprouted in the shadow of a gigantic kaiju skeleton. Geiszler searches for an intact kaiju brain he can drift with, and with Pentecost’s guidance, he tracks down the distinctly un-Chinese Chow: “I got the name from my favourite military leader and my second favourite Szechuan restaurant in Brooklyn,” Chow explains, which sounds exactly like Del Toro and Beacham explaining how they thought the name up. Perlman’s appearance gained an appreciative laugh from the audience at my screening: he’s finally become a popular cinematic icon.
Geiszler is startled and excited to discover that Chow’s operation has mastered preservation and exploitation of the kaiju in a way the biologist thought impossible, with grotesquely amusing touches, like the colossal, squirming ticks Chow’s operatives pry off the fallen beasts. Chow ends up as, well, chow for a baby kaiju after airily proclaiming one dead, but Geiszler and Gottlieb joins forces in drifting to invade the kaiju’s mind and extract the dreadful truth about their origins and purpose. Geiszler’s adventures in Hong Kong see the bespectacled boffin singled out for annihilation by the kaiju who attack the city, and, thrown out by Chow who realises this, he’s forced to take refuge in a public shelter, where the panicking denizens thrash around him trying to get away from this Typhoid Mary but unable to escape their supposed shelter, as a kaiju bashes its way in from above.
The character postures—Pentecost is the armour-assed leader, Raleigh the bruised saviour, Mako the talented neophyte who only needs to get her act together—are fundamental, but handled with such verve and straight-faced force by cast and director that it fits this fare perfectly. There’s a merciful lack of Joss Whedon-esque flippery or pseudo-hip humour. Even Del Toro’s casting of two Americans to put on cheesy accents as an Australian father and son, and perpetual xenomorph Clifton Collins Jr. as the team’s Chinese-monickered tech wiz, has a certain aptness in recreating the pasteboard tone of many B-movies, and there is a music hall sense of humour underlying the regulation Alpha male head-butting of Raleigh and Chuck. Although this could just be a by-product of watching it as an Aussie with an audience of such: hoots of delighted derision were exploding around me whenever Martini and Kazinsky opened their mouths. Even if there’s nothing as happily off-message in the film as Hellboy 2’s hilarious Barry Manilow sing-along, Del Toro still manages to offer fillips of character comedy, from making Mako a bit of a perv, constantly trying to catch a glimpse of Raleigh with his shirt off through her cabin door peephole, to Gottlieb enthusiastically, if cluelessly trying to match Geiszler’s homeboy handshake. Del Toro’s riffs on stock characters are much like his riffs on anime: gleeful in recreating their essence whilst also subtly undermining them or warping them to his individual purpose.
Hunnam, who’s been hovering on the edge of a major career ever since appearing in the original British version of TV’s “Queer as Folk,” and his enticing performances in Nicholas Nickleby (2002) and Cold Mountain (2004), leaves behind his smooth-cheeked Dickens hero for a modern variety with bruises on his soul. He’s entirely likeable, to the degree Raleigh’s an upright and solid hero, though the film’s one lack is a protagonist as flagrantly cool and richly conceived as Hellboy. Kikuchi and Elba ultimately own the film. Kikuchi, who broke out with her performance in Gael Garcia Bernal’s very different fable about internationalism, Babel (2006), and provided a slyer pleasure in The Brothers Bloom (2009), still looks barely out of her teens even though she’s over 30, and offers a slightly oddball elegance to her roles; here the mix of supple humour and emotional immediacy she brings to her part is vital. Normally I don’t like iron leader characters (in films or real life), but the compensating factor for Pentecost is being played by Elba, whose capacity to project formidable authority overlaying a contemplative depth, hinted at in Thor (2011) and Prometheus (2012), is utilised here and mixed with a certain fearsome humour, as when he chides Raleigh, “Rule number one, don’t ever touch me. Rule number two, don’t ever touch me,” and serves the lippy Chuck a harsh character analysis.
The thunderous finale is gloriously over-the-top, as multiple hell-beasts attack our heroes, noble sacrifices and hair’s-breadth escapes are made, dimensions are crossed, and alien swine are righteously roasted. It’s certainly possible to wish that Pacific Rim had more down time for its characters and time to expand on some of its trippier ideas, but it ultimately remains faithful to its chosen brand. Many films try to make me feel eight years old again; this one succeeded.
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Director: Maurice Elvey
by Marilyn Ferdinand
One of the best things about being a cinephile in Chicago is the wealth of informed, passionate fellow travelers who are in a position to bring the best from the world of cinema into our theaters week after week. I have mentioned the Northwest Chicago Film Society here before as one of the best of the programming outfits around town. The NCFS has had a rough time lately, first losing the theater that housed the 40-year-old classic film series they took over; then facing a battle with a Christian congregation that wanted to buy and convert their new home, the Portage Theater, into a church; and now with the theater’s current owner, who abruptly locked the doors of the Portage over a dispute regarding the theater’s liquor license.
Nonetheless, there’s nothing quite like the solidarity of the film community here, as two other movie palaces helped the show go on by lending their facilities to the NCFS to continue their summer schedule—and what a schedule it has been! With the addition of the estimable Kyle Westphal, late of George Eastman House, as a partner and programmer, NCFS has learned of and been able to secure prints of rare films and restorations that have flown under the radar of most other venues. I was fortunate to be part of a packed audience at the Patio Theater to see High Treason, an extremely rare British talkie made on the cusp of the conversion from silent to sound pictures, with both silent and sound versions created and released. The restoration of the spotty nitrate and badly damaged soundtrack was funded by the Library of Congress/National Film Preservation Foundation and The Film Foundation, but the new print has only been shown once before at the Library of Congress Packard Campus Theater. Thus, we were only the second American audience in more than 80 years to see the sound version of High Treason on the big screen.
High Treason, an ambitious production that clearly was influenced by Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927), is set in the future—1940!—when, after the horrible destruction of World War I, individual countries are now formed into federations throughout the world to work in harmony. A sustained period of peace, encouraged by a worldwide organization called the Peace League, has caused an economic downturn for those in the business of war. Thus, a cabal of monied industrialists plots to inflame passions and start the war machine rolling again. The peace is disturbed in Europe by a border incident instigated by the cabal in which a vacationing couple and a slew of border guards are gunned down. When this first incident isn’t enough to shake the peace, a train traveling through a tunnel beneath the English Channel from England to France is bombed, killing all aboard. When the decision to go to war is considered, President Stephen Deane (Basil Gill) breaks a tie vote and casts his lot for war. His soldier son Michael (Jameson Thomas) prepares to mobilize, while Evelyn Seymour (Benita Hume), Michael’s sweetheart and daughter of the leader of the Peace League, Dr. Seymour (Humberston Wright), tries to dissuade him and eventually breaks with him in bitter anger. As men and women all over are called up to fight, Dr. Seymour makes a last, desperate bid for peace.
What may strike you from this brief synopsis is how eerily accurate this film was in predicting the European Union and the Chunnel, and how the idea of a military-industrial complex, which was criticized by progressive movements during the 1960s, is presented here credibly, not as some delusional conspiracy theory that would be ridiculed today. High Treason, however, stays very much of its time in celebrating the Jazz Age. Michael takes Evelyn, in full flapper mode, out on the town for an extended and very enjoyable scene in a nightclub full of fashionable Gatsby-esque extras dancing and drinking the night away. The parallels to the nightclub scene in Metropolis are obvious, as the first vision from inside the club is of a gigantic nude statue of a woman overseeing the revelers. While there is no actual nudity in this or any other scene, as there is in Metropolis, there were enough long takes of women in their silk undies that the film was actually banned in New York.
Elvey produced another fine set-piece in the train sequence. A first train goes through the tunnel, and the conspirators on board drop a time bomb out the train window and onto the tracks. With the dread of the inevitable gripping the audience, he then offers a scene of high comedy, as the doomed second train teems with lively characters, particularly a rich, elderly woman doting on a small puppy, which she puts in her bag and hangs on a hook while she and her husband have their supper. The sweetness of the scene contrasts suddenly and violently with the explosion that upends the train and collapses the wall of the tunnel, sending cascades of water in to drown the passengers. Again, the parallel with the flood scene in Metropolis is hard to ignore, but the scene has a drama and integrity all its own.
The critique of the idle rich that was present in Metropolis is absent here, as the message of the film is not so much about class struggle as about maintaining a lasting peace in a world programmed for conflict. This perspective is another unique aspect of High Treason. The film takes its pacifism—itself a rarity in world cinema—to a logical, if extreme conclusion. Dr. Seymour is as influential a figure on the world scene as any warlike world leader might be today. President Deane allows him to make a statement before Deane announces over the radio that war has been declared; Seymour uses this time to kill Deane and announce that the nation will remain at peace, but he has destroyed another human life and refuses to defend his action as necessary for the greater good. Elvey frames Seymour as a Christlike figure, with a circular window in the background surrounding his head like a halo at his trial. However, Seymour is no martyr, simply a man who sees moral relativism as the greatest danger to the common good, to peace, by suggesting that one life is more important than another. This Eastern notion of the godhead in all of us put me in mind of another utopian vision put to film, Lost Horizon (1937).
Aside from its status as a rarity and important transitional film, High Treason has other qualities to recommend it. While the acting is generally overwrought, particularly from Thomas, the film perfectly exemplifies the transition of acting styles from the broad pantomime needed in the silent era to a more naturalistic rendering of dialogue and expression. The ramp-up to war that has young women lining up to work in an aerodrome factory, guarded by Deane and his troops, is offered in a high crane shot as a moving tableau not only of the legions of lives hanging in the balance, but also of how war reduces human beings to little more than identically uniformed ants marching in line. This impression, however, is mitigated by one woman who begs an intake worker not to accept her; the worker guesses that she has children at home and stamps her orders with an exemption, offering the possibility of mercy against the tidal wave of violence. In perhaps the most compelling scene in the film, the women, led by Evelyn, are prepared to defy Michael and his troops. Seeing the two sides square off in deadly earnest is a genuinely tense moment perfectly staged and paced by Elvey.
Gaumont British had high hopes for High Treason, a prestige export they hoped would put them on the map. Unfortunately, its lackluster box office and complete absence from New York doomed it, and High Treason vanished quickly from view. Thanks to the Library of Congress and The Film Foundation, High Treason is back. Urge an arthouse in your neighborhood to book it today!
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Director: J. J. Abrams
By Roderick Heath
Here there be spoilers.
I know modern movies are essentially treated by many viewers as dialogue filler between action sequences: certainly young audiences in movie theatres act that way. But I’m still stuck back in the age of storytelling, antediluvian-hearted animal that I am. When I wrote about the first entry in J. J. Abrams’ cycle back to a retrofitted version of the original Star Trek in 2009, I commented that although the USS Enterprise was back boldly going where no one had gone before, what it seemed likely to find was far more limited and generic than in Gene Roddenberry’s epochal, probing, often weirdly poetic TV classic. To a great extent, Star Trek: Into Darkness realized my expectations, provoking schismatic reactions in me.
Abrams offers fun and derring-do with only a thin veneer of the inquisitive humanism and speculative eccentricity that was the point of Roddenberry’s creation. This edition provokes suspicion, reinforced by Abrams’ own admissions, that he uses the superstructure of the Trek mythos in service to space opera malarkey whilst ignoring the richer and stranger texture of the source, the patina of flower-child idealism emphasising the multitudinous possibilities for contact and communication in the universe. Of course, that tone coexisted in a vision of the future with corny politics, guys in polyester stockings wrestling with men in plastic lizard suits, and storylines synthesised to justify whatever spare costumes and sets were lying around the Paramount backlot, from Nazi uniforms to gangster threads. The best movies in the Trek cinematic strand are essentially fast-paced pulp yarns that play ably on the fact that with all of the elements of essential drama long in place, it was easy to whip through worlds and ideas.
A greater problem that Abrams courts here is having his take compared to Nicholas Meyer’s Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982), a gold standard of scifi and franchise filmmaking. The stature of The Wrath of Khan lay in the near-perfection of its balance of character, theme, action, and plot rather than in its wobbly production, making it the complete opposite to so much big-budget fare today. The older film’s balance came to a certain extent from the accumulated affection for its cast and the substance of its repeated motifs, something a relatively callow franchise can’t swing nearly so confidently, especially one that has to fight for space on the multiplex screens and win over the popcorn crowd. Into Darkness doesn’t compete in regards to storytelling skill or provocation of wistful emotion. On the other hand, Meyer invested a depth into the characters that they’d never really had before, and played up their aging, worrisome quirks to deliver that rarest of creations, a zippy pop-culture work that grazed the edges of tragedy and myth. Therein lay a contradiction: Meyer both fulfilled and reinvented the brand. Abrams does the same thing, by dealing with a version of the characters defined by youthful volatility and the struggle to learn who they are, rather than the warhorses of the older movies and the crisp professionals of the series. Abrams’ signature touch at the start of his first instalment, one indeed he’s finding hard to top, was an epic sequence of generational loss and birth, signalling his intent to annex Star Trek as a place for genuine character drama. With its early reliance on broad stereotypes and the later series’ generally flaccid placeholders, the human element has always been the weak point of Trek, ironically only really gaining urgency through the perspective of characters who were not human, but who sought to understand that state, like Spock and The Next Generation’s Data.
Never mind the old show: some of the best qualities Abrams and company instilled in their revision aren’t really done further justice. John Cho’s butched-up Sulu, Zoë Saldana’s substantial Uhura, Karl Urban’s DeForest Kelley-by-way-of-Robert Newton take on Bones McCoy, and Anton Yelchin’s comedic Chekhov, all ripe for expanded roles, get odd moments of action, but are all somewhat left holding the bag. Abrams concentrates again on the Kirk and Spock Dioscuri, though the tricky relationship dynamic of Spock and Uhura—sage and communicator—pays off with a satisfying sop to the strength of mutual care. Klingons make it into this entry, but they’re just swarthy menaces who provide story fodder and a fight scene without much chance to show off their weirdly specific, perverse warrior pride and intelligence. Okay, one could wax lyrical about how Into Darkness doesn’t encompass the old Trek brand. It’s still a very enjoyably, impeccably made action flick that follows its predecessor and (mostly) surpasses it, standing up with John Carter (2012) as a rocking yarn that breathes life back into the near-asphyxiated field of mainstream scifi spectacle, purely through the vivacity of its visuals and pacing and the energy of its conceptual universe, coming at a time when scifi spectacle has seen entertaining entries like Avatar (2009) and Oblivion (2013) that are nonetheless dispiriting in their derivativeness. Rejigging Trek for the umpteenth time is also derivative, but Abrams, having jolted the timeline of the series into an alternative reality for the sake of giving a shock to the material (and to the inertia of fan-obsessive continuity), at least has a sense of purpose, glazed in a sense of colour, light, humour, and movement that approximates the best of the old popcorn flicks we all watched as kids.
However, Abrams’ screenwriters, Damon Lindelof, Roberto Orci, and Alex Kurtzman, having proven themselves gifted at harvesting the tropes and ideas of other, better writers and remixing them into superficially clever narratives, have benefited greatly from the annexation of scifi properties by blockbuster cinema. Lindelof’s incoherent screenplay for last year’s Prometheus pointed sadly to just how much artisanal love and craft have deserted the medium. Yet Star Trek has a strong, but malleable, bedrock of lore that can accommodate almost any mode of storytelling, whilst Abram’s gusto and love for his medium is reliable. Abrams dumps the audience into an extended fusion of Indiana Jones adventure and the TV show’s cheerily tacky evocation of the alien as James T. Kirk (Chris Pine) and Bones distract a hostile aboriginal tribe on a far-flung planet long enough for Spock (Zachary Quinto) to drop a cold fusion device into an erupting volcano that’s threatening to wipe the planet out. Spock takes a tumble into the volcano’s mouth and expects to die. After escaping the natives, Kirk violates the Starfleet Prime Directive of not interfering with the evolution of species, and reveals the Enterprise in order to beam Spock aboard. Spock officiously reports the incident to Starfleet: Kirk is dressed down by his mentor Captain Pike (Bruce Greenwood) and fired from his captaincy. Pike takes over the Enterprise and rehires a chastened Kirk as first officer. But a mysterious schemer named John Harrison (Benedict Cumberbatch) has engineered a terrorist attack that decimates a Starfleet facility in London, and a meeting is called of senior commanders to consider the danger.
Evoking The Godfather Part III (1990), Harrison assaults the meeting with a hovering attack ship, killing Pike and other Starfleet grandees. Senior commander Admiral Marcus (Peter Weller) survives and gives Kirk the Enterprise to chase Harrison to where he’s fled: Kronos, the home world of the ever-ornery Klingons. Marcus equips Kirk with a number of drone photon torpedos to decimate the remote region in which Harrison is hiding. Scotty (Simon Pegg) and Spock argue the foolishness of such an act when relations with the Klingons are so fragile, and Kirk relents, choosing instead to capture Harrison with the help of Spock and Uhura. The Klingons are less than welcoming, and the trio are forced to fight, only to be saved by an awesomely talented warrior who proves to be Harrison. Harrison surrenders to Kirk upon learning of his strange cargo, and reveals his true identity: he’s Khan, a genetically engineered, super being exiled from Earth three centuries before. He was reawakened when the spaceship taking him and his fellow genetically engineered savants into exile was rediscovered in deep space, and Khan’s intelligence had been put to use by Marcus. The torpedoes actually contain his shipmates, held hostage to the Admiral’s nefarious designs.
The opening sets a template Abrams follows efficiently: essential Star Trek tropes are employed in a witty style that doesn’t forestall serial-like escapades, paying off in a boiled-down version of many an episode’s lesson, as the natives have an epiphany, drawing the image of the Enterprise in the dirt as a new sky-god. Abrams’ attempts to dovetail the TV show’s traditional themes with a good-humoured, spring-heeled approach are at their most successful here. The consequences of Kirk’s brazen style, in saving Spock who had been entirely willing to die according to the limits of his role, are also followed through in a way that the series rarely required of Kirk. This rule evoked the similar ones holding Superman and Doctor Who at bay from dabbling in social engineering. A hesitation here is that Kirk’s actions are only reprehensible from a strict rule-book perspective: he saves a native species and his first officer both from annihilation at the small expense of providing the natives with a glimpse of things strange and wonder-provoking, a possibly mixed blessing. Kirk’s disgrace puts in motion a drama about the inefficacy of always obeying seniors, even as Kirk has an extended crisis about his own leadership capacity clashing with his tendency to buckaroo improvisation: “I don’t know what I should do,” he says to Spock at a crucial juncture, “I only know what I can do.”
The original Star Trek asked questions redolent of the era’s concerns regarding race, war, and society: what constitutes “humanity” and life worthy of respect? How does one maintain a balance of peace against inimical opponents? Does one intervene in societies beset by growing pains or keep hands off for fear of playing god? What indeed is “god” in such a universe? Stirring and engaging as these questions were in such a medium, they were already pretty old-hat for science fiction by the 1960s. Whilst ethical and scientific inquiries are far less important in the context of Abrams’ films, here the questions are manifested in the push and pull of the Kirk-Spock relationship, with a new third corner in Khan, relating to morality and responsibility in leadership, whilst the larger story almost too obviously seeks to channel anxiety over terrorist blowback, manufactured war-justifying threats, and drone warfare. This “dark” slant of terrorist supervillains and warmongers is actually thematically similar to Meyer’s other Trek film, The Undiscovered Country (1992), which reconstructed the Cold War endgame into scifi argot. Into Darkness’ assumptions about institutional power are, at least before the plot cleans up neatly, far from the semi-utopian assumptions of the old Trek. But it does give a new urgency to Kirk’s desire to puzzle out how to do the most good when the responsibility is his, one Spock reiterates in the classic formula from The Wrath of Khan, “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few or the one.”
Roddenberry’s patina of idealism was also always inseparable from the surprising rigidity and old-fashioned quality of its space-age notions of hierarchy and responsibility, something Meyer recognised when he played up Starfleet’s Hornblower qualities, and which Abrams tweaks here to more menacing purpose. Starfleet’s attitude and costuming are becoming distinctly more militarised: Kirk and his crew now occasionally wear peaked caps, which hint this future is now only a stone’s throw from the overt fascism of Starship Troopers (1997), and Scotty quits the Enterprise crew in protest of this creeping militarisation. Here, much of the leadership of Starfleet is exterminated, except for the very head honcho who proves to be a ranting General Ripper-esque psycho. Thus, Kirk and company find themselves caught between two different versions of the same evil. This narrative is definitely more sceptical than the traditional Trek story, but not necessarily more cynical. What’s more frustrating about Into Darkness is that where Abrams proved with his extended movie brat homage Super 8 (2011) that he could replicate the careful unfolding of narrative that made the brand of Spielberg et al. so powerful back in the day, here he’s still at the mercy of the lazier reflexes of the contemporary blockbuster. Khan’s motivation, history, and perspective aren’t gradually and effectively revealed, but dumped in an exposition speech delivered in the now-compulsory interlude where the villain is briefly imprisoned, as per The Dark Knight (2008), Skyfall, and The Avengers (both 2012).
The story is complex, but all of its elements are essentially in place already as the film jumps into it. Khan is awake. His crew are already stowed in cryogenic chambers hidden in photon torpedos with no convincing explanation for this strange choice of hiding place, nor how Marcus found them. Marcus’ plot has already largely progressed, and he chooses the least sensible patsy imaginable to deliver his Pearl Harbor/Gulf of Tonkin/9-11 on the Klingons. Khan and his crew’s backstory begs so many questions, most of which remain unanswered, that it could cause your forehead to turn inside out if you think about it too much. Into Darkness exacerbates an ever-more apparent problem with a lot of contemporary screenwriting—a story that is at once dense but also essentially treated as baggage. The story has already happened: Kirk and company are roped-in patsies who have to mop up the debris. What is left, then, is basically an extended third act of chase and battle. Whereas in The Wrath of Khan, the war to control the Genesis device was beautifully contoured into the story on several levels, providing thematic gravity, motive, and payoff, here Khan himself is turned into a variation on the device—apt as he is always associated with cyclical destruction and rebirth, which give the Vedic overtones of his name some coherence, with his blood possessing incredible healing properties. At the film’s outset he gains himself a suicide bomber (Thomas Harewood) by saving his deathly ill daughter with a transfusion, whilst this element bides time to provide a deus-ex-machina in the finale. The larger drama in play—Marcus’ attempt to force a war between the Federation and the Klingons—is timely, but not forceful, a significant idea dismissed as mere plot device.
But there I go again comparing, and to a large extent that’s unfair. I can only illustrate why it’s unfair by example: it’s akin to faulting Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) for not concentrating on the same elements of an evident inspiration like Only Angels Have Wings (1939). Whilst definably linked by aspects of character and image and genre, the older film is an exotic adventure movie, but also a situation-comedy about character, whereas the later movie is a full-throttle action film built around linked set-pieces. There’s still room for character and thematic depth in the action film, but it’s subordinated to an ethic of rolling cliffhangers. The problem here is that we already have so many would-be roller-coaster rides on modern cinema screens, making one ache for a more considered brand of genre delight. The positive aspect is that so many of those rides suck, whereas Star Trek’s rigid place in the pop cultural firmament helps give this style rare integrity and power. The day when Kirk and Khan could not only trade physical blows, but also blows of wit and ego laced with literary references seem sadly gone. One of the reasons Khan made such an impact on Trekkies and casual fans alike was because his leonine intellectualism, as well as great physical strength, made him a rare kind of villain befitting a show with a penchant for cerebral stimulation. Khan’s genius is stated, but scarcely given real scope: the film is filled with products of his brilliance, like the souped-up warship he’s designed for Marcus, but again, they’re already present and ready for use.
In its middle third, Into Darkness does shift into the kind of strategic gamesmanship The Wrath of Khan did so well, once again forcing the heroes to take on an enemy who seems to have all the advantages. A seemingly impossible situation is set up, which must be solved with both grit and smarts—a common quality of all versions of the series. Caught in deep space, sabotaged by Marcus in his plan to make them magnets for punitive Klingon action, the Enterprise crew first have to get their ship going, but then are chased by Marcus in the massive and lethal new Dreadnought-class spaceship Vengeance Khan designed. The Vengeance knocks the Enterprise out of warp close to Earth, and only the fact that Scotty has smuggled himself aboard prevents the Enterprise’s complete destruction. Kirk forges a brittle alliance with Khan to take out their mutual enemy, and the two make a thrilling, high-speed flight through a debris field to plunge into a narrow airlock that Scotty has to pop whilst under guard. Khan unleashes unvarnished, megalomaniacal rage, crushing Marcus’ head with his bare hands in another movie nod (to Blade Runner ) and forcing the Enterprise to beam over the torpedoes containing his frozen friends. However, Bones and Sulu pull off a (not too) malicious switcheroo, allowing them to blow Khan out of the sky just as he fires on them.
Into Darkness pulls off something that some other recent films, like the awful Robert Downey Sherlock Holmes series, have tried but not quite swung: putting characters better known for brains into situations requiring brawn, whilst not entirely asking them to abandon the former. Casting Cumberbatch, who plays a modernised Holmes on television, as Khan suggests a move towards embracing the intellectual as well as violent kind of villainy and in keeping with Ricardo Montalban’s characterisation of Khan as a wily, chess-playing, Moriarty-ish kind of enemy as well as a bristling he-man who delighted in his prowess and competitiveness but could only find the satisfaction of exercising his gifts against challenging opponents. That promise doesn’t really eventuate here, in part because he’s bestowed with a new trait that makes him less Nietzschean but also a more apt, shadowy doppelganger to Kirk: he’s consumed by his sense of care and duty toward his fellow mutants as a crew equal that dampens his capacity to act according to the ruthless predatory instincts of his genetic programming. This is a clever exacerbation of the basic theme flowing throughout Abrams’ Star Trek: finding drama in two inimical versions of the same sense of duty. The Kirk-Khan death dance takes on new dimensions, then, as each is forced into positions and choices that test their essential makeup. Cumberbatch invests Khan with pride and an exclusive variety of empathic feeling reserved strictly for his fellow übermensch, but also apocalyptic anger when offended. The “otherness” of Khan, with his distinct ethnic identity, has been removed, relying rather on Cumberbatch, with a mop of black hair and a deep, mordant voice, to embody malefic brilliance. That voice is capable of the same purr, redolent of a panther starting to think about its next meal, that made a star of Alan Rickman. Cumberbatch, whose early roles mostly stuck him playing swots and bluebloods, was hitherto best used for villainous purposes in Atonement (2007). I half-hoped he could find someone on the Enterprise to enjoin, “You have to bite it!” Even if Khan can’t be all that he should be in a modern multiplex blockbuster, Cumberbatch still inflates himself to fill Montalban’s large shoes.
Likewise Quinto, who doesn’t possess Leonard Nimoy’s lode of abyss-throated gravitas, makes up for it with his poise. Some have said that the new Trek has essentially become Spock’s series, and there’s a lot of truth to this, if only because the contemporary sensibility finds the internally divided, outwardly stoic figure much more compelling than the squarer Kirk. This seems to be the season for digging up fallen ’80s heroes, following William Sadler and Miguel Ferrer’s contributions to Iron Man 3; Abrams goes one much better in giving former Robocop Weller a lip-smacking bad-guy role. Rounding out the cast is Alice Eve, playing Marcus’ daughter Carol, a scientist who gets aboard the Enterprise to find out what her father’s up to: according to Trek lore, of course, she’s destined to be the mother of Kirk’s son David and supply a dash of silly cheesecake to a Peeping Tom Kirk, suggesting sexuality in Hollywood hasn’t progressed beyond the 1950s. Also, why Admiral Marcus has an American accent and Carol a British one is left sadly opaque.
Chris Pine’s performance is stretched in ways here that threaten to reveal its limitation: Shatner’s Kirk was always smug, but supremely competent, a man who wore his captaincy naturally. Pine’s, on the other hand, still feels a bit too much like a high school football captain suddenly beset by existential angst about life after graduation. But he and Quinto do still pull off the propulsive aspect of mutual reliance and affection in spite of violently contrasting temperaments. The harum-scarum rush of bluff and double-dealing, mixed with intense, vivid, physical action, is pretty tremendous stuff, and once Abrams is in his action element, Into Darkness rips and roars. The major set-pieces of the finale see Abrams trying to one-up the crashing spaceship sequence of George Lucas’ Star Wars – Episode III: Revenge of the Sith (2005), first by having the Enterprise go into free-fall in Earth’s atmosphere, the heroes caught inside what amounts to a colossal tumble-dryer, and then Khan crashing the Dreadnought into San Francisco Bay in a suicide run at Starfleet Headquarters.
Abrams revels here in the scale and detail and force of what the contemporary special-effects palette can do for him, rejoicing in assaulting the prim environs of the Enterprise and the whole idea of colossal battleships in space, and subjecting them to violence on a grand and entertaining scale. Abrams, a famously transplanted TV talent, has been displaying ever-evolving cinematic gifts since his debut, the strong Mission: Impossible III (2006), a film driven by a peculiar tension between his grasp of kinetic pace and the sense-battering editing endemic to contemporary Hollywood. Abrams has been conquering the latter trait, and though his first Star Trek still displayed those bad habits. The classicism he forced on himself with Super 8 has paid dividends here: the spectacle is gorgeous and the fighting mostly comprehensible. But what really keeps Into Darkness humming is the clarity of Abrams’ focus on emotion that, in spite of the whiz-bang elements, still provides a sturdy superstructure. Where the first instalment ran with one of Abrams’ favourite themes—personality crises in the young and talented played out through the heightening tropes of genre urgency—here the crux is rites of passage that could also be life climaxes. Kirk loses Pike, the last link to his youth, right after he’s sent back to the minors, and, as in The Avengers, the swaggering hero is forced to make the ultimate sacrifice, saved only by convenient screenwriting (and the mutual model for both films is, again, The Wrath of Khan).
The gag is that whereas The Wrath of Khan saw Spock giving his life to restart the Enterprise’s engines, here it’s Kirk, building to an outrageously conceited yet peculiarly stirring mirroring scene to the older film’s climax. Spock sets off in vengeful pursuit of Khan culminating in an essentially superfluous but aptly grandiose and thrilling chase across the futuristic San Francisco skyline, battling on the backs of flying vehicles hundreds of feet above the ground, with Khan’s super-strength, lethal to humans, checked by Spock’s alien physique and way with a mind-meld. The beauty of this battle is twofold: the running theme of Abrams’ films—Spock’s deep-buried, but powerful sense of rage and feeling for his friends—is stoked and leashed upon an apt opponent. And, of course, there’s the sneaky joy of Spock, killed by Khan’s machinations in another reality, now kicking the superman’s ass, with some help from Uhura.
What’s ultimately true here is that Abrams has made a spectacular, bouncy, ripping-paced swashbuckler, largely transcending its flaws and niggling disappointments, but not the moment of its creation. Whether anyone will still watch this in 30 years’ time like they do The Wrath of Khan is a minor point; perhaps more important is that we’ll be watching it for different reasons if we are. The film’s very rushed wrap-up dismisses Kirk’s revival from the dead like something that happens every day, flinging Khan back into deep freeze and sending the crew off on their canonical five-year mission without any note of promise, mystery, or new horizons. By any standard, this is a weak and frustrating conclusion to a good ride, one that again reminds me too sharply of how much emotional fullness and storytelling relish are held as less important than getting the film wrapped up in the permitted running time. Even at its corniest, Star Trek was about wonderment, curiosity, and awe, but these seem to be aspects our screen culture has lost. At least we have gained a good action series.
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The Days of High Adventure: A Journey Through Adventure Film
Director: Nicholas Meyer
By Roderick Heath
It might seem like a leap from the earthbound historicism of The Sea Hawk to the second instalment of a 1980s TV-derived scifi franchise, and yet they’re both, essentially, pirate movies. Lately, pondering the synergy of elements necessary to create great adventure films, I had to admit that, in revisiting Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan (the numerical was added after initial release), I saw it has just about all of them: wonder, action, character, myth, darkness, depth of concept and execution, originality and also noble cliché, a sense of fun, and a sense of legacy, both future and historical.
Gene Roddenberry’s adored TV series “Star Trek”, which ran from 1966 to 1968, ironically became a much bigger hit after cancellation, through syndication showings in the ’70s. The show possessed a ragged, trippy, perfervid energy and channelled scifi’s essential creeds and some fresh ideas into some generically familiar archetypes, stereotypes, and situations—not for nothing did Roddenberry label it “‘Wagon Train’ in space” when pitching it to execs. It survived in part because it channelled a post-counterculture hunger for New Age ideals and inclusivity into a futuristic context, and resulted in the birth of the Trekkie, still the emblematic scifi fan of a strong and obsessive breed. So strong was the series’ belated following that an animated series resulted, and then a push for a movie edition, which reached fruition after the success of Star Wars (1977). The initial result, Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979), directed by that sturdiest of old pros, Robert Wise, modelled itself after the show’s more inquisitive episodes, whilst pinching liberally from Arthur C. Clarke. Wise’s sense of visual grandeur and the probing script partly made up for a stiff reintroduction for the old cast and a weak grip for the series’ familiar human element. The general feeling was that the result was a flabby disappointment. Roddenberry’s fussy creative control got the blame, and it’s clear in retrospect that he was trying to revive his creation with a tone anticipatory of “Star Trek: The Next Generation” (1987-1994), which, with its ponderously plastic air and drones for heroes, was still similarly curious in its best moments. The Motion Picture made enough money to warrant a sequel, but for the second spin around the galaxy, producer Harve Bennett hired a fresher director with a zippier understanding of the underpinnings of such feverishly followed cult works.
Nicholas Meyer started off as a writer, with the likes of the campy comedy Invasion of the Bee Girls (1972) and the novel The Seven-Percent-Solution, adapted by Herbert Ross for the screen in 1976, before he made a directorial debut with Time After Time (1979). Meyer revealed a grasp on the minutiae of figures like Sherlock Holmes and H. G. Wells, and understood the curious nostalgia that resided within the survival of those characters, revelling in the ironic contrast between the Victorian sensibility that spawned them and the modern perspective on their charm—a sensibility that was ironically similar to the inner, fantastical spirit of Star Trek. Certainly, the catchphrases of Star Trek, like Spock’s “Fascinating,” were becoming as specific as Holmes’ “Elementary,” and Meyer understood that. Meyer responded to his new job by going to school on the original series to carefully recreate its essentials, and did an uncredited overhaul on Jack B. Sowards’ script. The Wrath of Khan was perhaps the first film to provide a nominal sequel to a TV episode, 1967’s “Space Seed,” in which Ricardo Montalban had guest-starred as Khan, a genetically engineered superman exiled centuries before from Earth with his followers, who, when salvaged by the Enterprise on its five-year mission, tried to take it over. They were defeated and left to start a colony on a new planet. Whilst such continuity tickled series fans, having seen “Space Seed” was in no way necessary to understanding the plot of the movie. Indeed, it was slightly confusing, as Khan had never met Enterprise crewman Chekhov (Walter Koenig, who joined the old show after “Space Seed”) but recognises him here. Khan was reconstituted in the film as a phantom from the past of James T. Kirk (William Shatner) who emerges to torture and terrorise him precisely as he’s looking down the barrel of a dull and barren middle age, his swashbuckling days as a space captain behind him.
Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan is today often identified by its moments of unfettered camp, and yet it’s actually a deftly balanced work: warm, funny, dashing, often tongue-in-cheek, and yet emotionally and intellectually quite earnest, filled with lush, fluidic imagery and well-paced action. It’s a film that manages to do many different sorts of thing at once, and for very good reason, it’s become a kind of code word for a movie series highpoint. Meyer gave Wise’s stately approach a kick in the pants, and whilst the same elements of wonder and speculative intelligence that The Motion Picture belaboured are still in evidence, here they’re carefully dovetailed with the onrush of a plot that’s more than a little like Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (2003) in space.
Meyer’s most personal and effective touch was to remake Kirk, Spock (Leonard Nimoy), and Dr. Leonard “Bones” McCoy (DeForrest Kelly) into men reminiscent of his earlier takes on Holmes and Wells. They are men out of their time, aware of retro paraphernalia and culture, offering a continuity with the geeks of Earth past, and possessed of an energy and idealism that’s all the more vital in a future world. The film’s very opening depicts one of Kirk’s prize pupils, Saavik (a pre-Cheers Kirstie Alley), a humourless Vulcan neophyte who nettles under the painful lesson of the “Kobayashi Maru,” a test that places potential officers in a situation where they have to find their grace under the imminent inevitability of death. As well as offering up a memorable fillip of series lore, the fact that Kirk administers the test which he himself successfully subverted in his student days presents a thematic echo that rings out through the rest of the story up to its tragic climax. Kirk, with his recurring refusal to believe in the kind of no-win scenarios the test prescribes, must face the real cost of such a situation.
Meanwhile, Chekhov, working under Captain Terell (the late, great Paul Winfield) aboard the Reliant, is searching for a lifeless planet to conduct a vast new scientific experiment with the fantastic new Genesis Device. Beaming upon a planet they believe to be the lifeless Ceti Alpha 6, they fall into the hands of Khan and his fellow survivors, who had been left to form a colony on that planet’s neighbour by Kirk: the planet is, in fact, their former Eden, laid waste by cosmic calamity, and they have only just clung to existence. Now mad for vengeance for the suffering of their exile and the deaths of his wife and several crew from attacks by native animals, Khan takes control of Chekhov and Terell with brain-infesting slugs and sets out to trap Kirk and take control of the Genesis Device. The device has been developed by scientist Dr. Carol Marcus (Bibi Besch), her son David (Merritt Butrick), and a team of researchers on a space station neighbouring the lifeless moon of Regula 1. The device is an incredibly powerful mechanism with the capacity to reshape planets into life-supporting spheres, albeit with the caveat that any life that exists there already would be obliterated, thus making it a work of terraforming wonder that could also be a terrible weapon. David is paranoid about possible military uses of the Device and interference by the Federation, and when Chekhov, under Khan’s control, messages the station ordering the Device to be handed over, pretending the order comes from Kirk, that paranoia seems justified. Carol tries to contact Kirk to demand an explanation, but her message fades out. The Enterprise, on a training mission for the young recruits, heads to Regula 1 to see what’s going on, only to fly headlong into Khan’s ambush.
The Wrath of Khan‘s reduced budget impacted the quality of production noticeably, littered with rather pasteboard-looking sets and props. There are some clunker line readings redolent of a rushed shoot, and Khan’s crew, all strangely much younger than him, look like escapees from a futuristic roller disco musical. But that’s all part of the fun, and otherwise, the film retains the polished look of an A-grade saga. The film’s colour rich and futuristic, yet also fleshy and colourful in an aptly pulpy fashion, is thanks to Gayne Rescher’s photography. The special effects were done by George Lucas’ Industrial Light and Magic outfit, and included a ground-breaking use of computer-generated imagery for the demonstration film of the Genesis Device’s purpose. The effects are very uneven, and yet still possess an epic lustre. I can’t help but admire the suspense Meyer can wring out of scenes of grim-looking crewmen marching about with what look like vibrators with light globes attached: god knows what they’re going to do with them, but damn if doesn’t look important. Similarly, it’s fascinating how poetic the moment in which Carol brings Kirk into the cavern transformed into a paradise by the Genesis Device is, in spite of the obvious matte paintings, in a way that still dwarfs all the CGI landscapes of Avatar (2009). Much of the film’s impact, it has to be said, is due to composer James Horner, who two years earlier had been working on Roger Corman quickies before he gained notice for his mock-epic work on Battle Beyond the Stars (1980). Horner’s soaring, seafarer-like score permeates The Wrath of Khan with a sense of galloping excitement and swooning awe in such moments as the Enterprise’s sailing out from it space dry dock and Kirk’s first glimpse of the Genesis cave.
Whilst the series’ egalitarian, progressive ideals were certainly heartfelt, “Star Trek” simultaneously always sustained an element of retrograde, imperialist thinking in its assumptions, with a future universe where political stability is enforced by gunboat diplomacy. Khan’s name emphasises this aspect. Rather than revise the discrepancy, Meyer emphasises links with Victorian drama and an imperialist adventuring tradition. Kirk and Khan constantly quote favourite novels, Moby-Dick and A Tale of Two Cities respectively, whilst the story and visuals make reference to a charming retention of seafaring codes in space. The Federation uniforms (redesigned from the hideous things sported in The Motion Picture) make the crew look awfully like Redcoats, and a crewwoman blows a futuristic version of a midshipman’s whistle when Kirk first boards the Enterprise. Simultaneously, The Wrath of Khan does something the series, with its limited budget and effects, and episodic style, could never do properly, which was offer, at last, a genuine space battle.
So perfectly does The Wrath of Khan lay out a form of a swashbuckler that the number of similarities in plot and theme between it and Master and Commander demand a few moments to list. In both, the heroes fight off a superior enemy who gets the jump on them in an initial ambush. The emphasis on the battle of wits between captains is all-important. Spock and McCoy are to Kirk as Maturin is to Aubrey, presenting the schism of man of action and man of thought in the context of the supposedly well-oiled machine of these ships of war. The Genesis Device and resulting planet are equivalent to the Galapagos Islands as cradles of wonderment and new potential that excite that scientific mind, a mind which is stifled in being merely obeisant to militaristic exigencies. In both, the physical maiming of a younger crew member is a major tragedy and spur to action. An ambush is facilitated through one ship pretending to be another: Aubrey’s ploy of disguising his ship as a whaler contrasts Khan’s use of a captured Federation ship to sucker in Kirk. Major acts of sacrifice are required to save the heroes’ ship: Spock’s fatal venturing into the reactor to repower the Enterprise matches Hollum’s suicide in belief he’s the Jonah that haunts his ship, and Aubrey’s hacking free a fallen mast, though its means a man must drown.
In spite of its interludes of cheese, The Wrath of Khan builds story and character with a novelistic intelligence, as individual scenes that often seem discursive and casual actually contribute to the thematic imperatives of the tale. The opening joke, where the revelation that the chaos that engulfs Saavik’s captaincy is, in fact, the Kobayashi Maru test—McCoy, sprawled on the floor, demands praise for his performance—will inexorably lead to a moment where such chaos erupts for real around Kirk. He’s the only candidate who ever beat the test, and did so by creative cheating, and, of course, has to stare down the barrel of exactly the situation it was supposed to depict. Mortality is already weighing on Kirk’s mind at the outset, as it’s his birthday. Spock’s and McCoy’s birthday presents to the aging admiral are both antiques for his collection, a leather-bound copy of A Tale of Two Cities and a pair of ancient reading spectacles, apt for Kirk’s retro sensibility, but also reminding him of the march of years. The film actually lets us see Kirk’s apartment in San Francisco, as McCoy breaks out a bottle of illegal Romulan ale—that’s the sort of throwaway touch that I love and that gives this phase in the franchise real personality. McCoy warns him against letting himself become an antique, too, and to get back to captaining, not training callow recruits.
Saavik is posited as a potential love interest for Kirk: she tries to flirt with him whilst trying to understand the purpose of the Kobayashi Maru test, but proves fatally unreceptive to his sense of humour. But she’s also a potential replacement for both him and Spock, an heir to both their legacies. Carol, Kirk’s former lover, and David, actually his son, albeit one he’s barely had any contact with before, present shades of alternative lives he gave up in his love for gallivanting through space, and give immediate, personal flesh to the film’s recurring motifs of existence as a chain of creation and destruction, birth and death. In spite of the futuristic setting, The Wrath of Khan feels intimately contemporary to the early ’80s, as David’s outright contempt and suspicion for Kirk and the Federation channels obvious hints of the ’60s Generation Gap, whilst Carol’s decision to keep David in her world suggests the impact of feminism and new parenting options, leaving alpha male Kirk in a slightly befuddled mid-life crisis.
Meanwhile, the extraordinary potential of the Genesis Device seems to invoke all of the characters’ essential quandaries and capacities, promising both apocalyptic destruction and miraculous creation. Carol, to cheer up Kirk when he’s feeling depressed about the carnage that’s struck his ship and his son’s ferocious antipathy for what he stands for, ushers him along to take stock of a miracle: the grand cave within the Regular moon that she’s turned into a slice of Eden with the Genesis Device, her gift of maternal beneficence to all. Spock and McCoy, upon first learning of the Device’s existence, swing immediately into one of their classic ethical debates. Spock’s coolly measured curiosity striking sparks against McCoy’s fiery, knee-jerk humanism. McCoy mocks the Genesis Device by channelling advertising speak: “According to myth, God created the Earth in six days. Now watch out! Here comes Genesis! We’ll do it for you in six minutes!’ The thematic conflict of the human and the destructive is even acted out on the level of the canonical texts that preoccupy the characters—the shamanistic nihilism of Moby-Dick and the humanistic idealism and sacrifice that defines A Tale of Two Cities. Spock is, of course, the tragic hero, the Sidney Carton of The Wrath of Khan. His logical and unemotive persona, which McCoy always assumes to be inimical to humane concerns, proves, as Kirk croaks in delivering a eulogy for his dead friend, redolent of the most human soul. Spock, now actually the captain of the Enterprise, hands over command to Kirk without concern when crisis is nigh, reminding his reluctant friend that “You proceed from a false assumption—I have no ego to bruise,” and giving Kirk exactly what everyone knows he needs at the same time. Spock becomes the paragon of selfless action and finds his fulfilment of logic in the act of giving his life to save the Enterprise’s crew from certain destruction.
Spock’s achievement of a kind of transcendence paves the way for a resurrection (though Nimoy was actually hoping to jump ship permanently), befitting his new status as demigod. He thus fulfils the religious imagery that he’s been associated with since the first film, which found him engaged in a rite to cleanse himself of feeling in primal landscape. Spock’s nirvana overtly contrasts Khan’s failed attempt to become the Destroyer of Worlds. Khan, genetically engineered and clearly associated with a remnant spirit of Nazi eugenics and an accompanying übermensch mentality, his own constantly stated superiority itself is a kind of godhead for his supporters—“Yours is a Superior Intellect,” as their salute to him goes, and one which his lieutenant Joachim can’t quite complete in dying as both salute and curse—proves weakened by exactly the egotism that Spock resists. Khan’s ruthless intelligence proves constantly susceptible to elements he can’t master, and his monomaniacal focus, like that of Ahab whom he constantly quotes, proves both infinitely destructive and yet quaintly impotent. “I shall avenge you!” he promises the dead Joachim, suggesting that in spite of his brilliance, he’s got all the capacity to learn from his mistakes of a goldfish.
The film’s booming moments of melodrama, such as Shatner’s immortal scream of “Khaaaaaaaaan!”, are either flaws or strengths depending on taste, but surely a helluva lot of fun either way. More to the point, such touches are part and parcel with the film’s resolutely nonironic, defiantly old-fashioned air. Meyer invests the film with an outsized quality that seems distinctly operatic: indeed, Kirk’s scream comes at the conclusion of a sequence that builds like an aria, as the two bull males gibe and wound each other with a spiritual ferocity that befits the talents of Shatner and Montalban, each capable of being both very good actors and colossal show-offs. Montalban, at the time a prime-time staple in “Fantasy Island” and still showing off his marvellous physique at 62, latched onto the role with gleefully outsized zest and finally gave Shatner a run for his money as the franchise’s biggest pork roast. That said, “Khaaaaaaaaan!” notwithstanding, Shatner’s at his best in the film, swinging from flip, sardonic good humour to introspection to larger-than-life heroism with a few well-judged bats of his eyelids and shifts of the inimitable Shatner voice. If Spock is the film’s tragic hero, Kirk here finally ascends to something like warrior-poet status, conjuring grace notes of wisdom hard-won from tragedy and gazing at the Genesis Planet with a truly affecting sense of wonder and rejuvenated spirit.
Whilst it would stretching things a little to call The Wrath of Khan an intellectual adventure movie, nonetheless, it is distinguished by the genuine intelligence that permeates through the various layers of its plot, character, and theme, and how the film plays them for dramatic value. The central, biblical invocations of the Genesis Device are then overlaid with the Christlike sacrifice of Spock, lending the film a mythopoeic quality of actual depth. Too many modern, action-oriented, scifi films today treat their specific genre’s basis, in science and inquisitive theory, as a source of glib MacGuffins. The contrast with J. J. Abrams’ entertaining yet comparatively shallow 2009 reboot of the series is constantly tempting: whereas that film treated its scifi gimmicks and pivots of plot with throwaway contempt or utilitarian purpose in the name of composing a straightforward adventure, Meyer wrings such flourishes and moments to heighten suspense. Thus, the key moments of the cleverness of the heroes are relishable in staging and impact: Kirk’s foiling of Khan’s apparently complete victory by taking advantage of his superior knowledge of the Federation ships, managing to remotely lower Khan’s shields and hit him with devastating and unexpected force; the rabbit-out-of-the-hat glee of the revelation that he and Spock have fooled Khan into thinking repairs that would take two hours would actually take two days by the simplest of ruses; and the final battle where, at Spock’s suggestion, Kirk taunts Khan into following him into the Mutara Nebula, where interference leaves the two ships blind and lacking shields. There, the greater experience of Kirk and Spock sees them best Khan by simply thinking in the three-dimensional terms that a spaceship offers, whereas Khan’s mind is stuck hopelessly in the 20th century, culminating at last when the nearly crippled and dying Enterprise can still sneak up behind the Reliant and pulverise it to a drifting ruin.
Even with Khan defeated, however, the danger is still not past, as he triggers the Genesis Device as his final apocalyptic stab at a pyrrhic victory: the device’s capacity to bring life means nothing to him, but it comes to mean everything for those left to behold it. In spite of the film’s wobbles, the contrivance of the finale, as the down-to-the-wire crisis demands Spock venture into a radiation-flooded room to restore the ship’s power, is nothing short of storytelling perfection. Meyer’s willingness to reach again for operatic heights is apparent in Kirk’s forlorn cry of “Spock!” as his hideously seared and dying friend makes his last salutary “Live long and prosper” sign through the Perspex that divides them. As his body is fired off in a photon torpedo tube in a scene inspired by a similar stellar funeral in Byron Haskin’s Conquest of Space (1955), “Amazing Grace” surges on the soundtrack as his casket plummets onto the Genesis planet at the same moment a sun emerges from behind: it’s like Wagner in space by this stage. The final effect, ironically, wasn’t entirely what Meyer was after, presenting rather a sop to old Trekkies who couldn’t stand Spock’s death being taken too lightly, and yet it gives the film its truly grand final lustre. The Wrath of Khan fulfilled not only the best elements of Roddenberry’s original series, but connected it to the oldest and most complete forms of adventure mythology, positing the struggles of its sky-shaking heroes in the context of the birth and death of titans and worlds.
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Director/Screenwriter: Joss Whedon
By Roderick Heath
The Avengers could well be the most hyped movie ever made, surpassing the likes of Gone with the Wind (1939), Ben-Hur (1959), and other singular icons of globe-conquering audience awareness, if you consider that some of the predecessors in the series of Marvel Comics adaptations were basically teasers, primers, and set-ups for the cast of superheroes it features. The task of living up to such hype would be unenviable for any director, let alone one with only a single, middlingly successful feature to his credit, but the job of tethering together a dizzying sprawl of characters and plot gimmicks from other films into a single, grandiose bash-‘em-up finally fell to such a man: Joss Whedon. Whedon, who has long been known as the nerd’s nerd thanks to his engaging TV series Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Firefly, and Dollhouse, and stints writing storylines for some of the proper source comic books, inspires cultish devotion from many and an equal detestation from others. I confess to considering him rather a talent with great but hitherto unfulfilled potential. Whedon’s actual filmography is slight, having directed the cinematic conclusion for Firefly, Serenity (2005). Serenity suggested that Whedon’s talent for creating interesting characters in a stylised genre milieu, and witty, if occasionally gratingly arch, dialogue could be transferred to the compressed demands of a feature film, and that he could mount an exciting adventure story.
But it also frustrated with its lack of visual imagination and blandly TV-shaped sense of staging, and faltered in clarifying the whirl of storylines being resolved from the show for a new audience. Neither lack in Whedon’s touch was a good sign in approaching The Avengers. The first 20 minutes or so of The Avengers could be switchback-inducing for anyone who hasn’t watched the earlier Marvel films, Captain America: The First Avenger (2011) and Thor (2011) in particular, and, indeed, for those who didn’t wait through the end credits of those films to see their hidden kickers. Whedon also has to revive a rather different kind of film, one with deep roots in Hollywood but which has been fairly quiescent for a long time now: the all-star extravaganza, a form not simply defined by featuring a number of famous faces, but by having to sustain and balance them in parts that suit their aptitudes, fans, and dramatic necessity. Yes, this is the Grand Hotel of superhero flicks.
Thus The Avengers hits the ground running with Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), director of the clandestine SHIELD security service, and scientist Eric Selvig (Stellan Skarsgard), trying to deal with the sudden coming to life of a powerful alien artefact, the Tesseract, which was retrieved along with the frozen Captain America from a watery Arctic grave. For a few minutes even I, who did watch those earlier movies, felt a little riled at such a headlong introduction, and the film takes a while to settle down, as it reintroduces the characters and sets the story into motion: because we already “know” the team, Whedon only goes through the motions of the Seven Samurai-esque gathering of the heroes. Loki (Tom Hiddleston), exiled brother of “god” Thor (Chris Hemsworth) and former usurping king of the alien realm of Asgard, has hooked up with a race of mysterious and very ugly extra-terrestrials who control a galaxy-crossing portal, and the Tesseract, as it happens, is the other end of that portal. Loki, having successfully sold the aliens on invading Earth and installing him as ruler, teleports into the SHIELD headquarters and takes psychic control of Selvig and Agent Clint Barton (Jeremy Renner), dubbed “Hawkeye” thanks to his awe-inspiring prowess with bow and arrow, and Fury fails to prevent the Tesseract’s theft by bringing down the headquarters about their ears. Fury, recognising that the sort of situation he’s been preparing for has arrived, calls in his sinuous superspy Natasha “Black Widow” Romanoff and sets about tracking down the various powerful weirdoes who will comprise his Avengers team.
Bruce “The Hulk” Banner (Mark Ruffalo) is tracked down to where he’s working as a medic in an Indian slum. Captain America, aka Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), is still trying to adjust to life in the new millennium. Tony “Iron Man” Stark (Robert Downey Jnr) has just built a New York skyscraper powered entirely by his miraculous arc reactor and resents being called away from the arms of his lover-assistant Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow). Thor is still apparently trapped on Asgard, having demolished the portal between the two worlds. Whedon’s rush of opening action betrays an uncertainty, perhaps inevitable, about how to get this contraption off the ground: still, I don’t think David Lean could have taken on such a burden and managed to make it flow perfectly. The opening offers a little tough-gal action with Cobie Smulders as Maria Hill, a cool and sturdy SHIELD agent who continues to bob up distractingly throughout the rest of the film, but whilst Whedon does snap into focus, unsurprisingly, when he can focus on a kick-ass female hero, it is in this case Johansson, who, after enlivening the torturous Iron Man 2 (2010), maintains her form as Natasha in a droll introduction. In the middle of being tortured by sleazy Slavic arms dealers, Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg) calls Natasha’s mobile phone and she irritably resists having her mission cancelled now that the “interrogators” are inadvertently telling her everything she needs to know, but, obediently, she clobbers her captors whilst still tied to a chair and makes her escape. She is sent to track down Banner, whose Hulk alter ego, although he’s been keeping a lid on it successfully of late, is regarded as an unreasonable danger; it’s Banner’s scientific knowledge SHIELD wants.
Ruffalo, taking over a seemingly cursed role after Eric Bana and Edward Norton, far outshines them for grasping Banner’s essence, not having the physical presence of Bana and more convincingly anxious than Norton; he instead pitches his performance as a savant gnawed at by the beast within, his skin sallow and his soul seeming to droop nearly as much as his purposefully oversized wardrobe, and so the Hulk stands as the Most Improved Superhero in this movie. Loki makes his presence known in Stuttgart, Germany, where he tries to browbeat a crowd into kneeling before him, only for an old man (Kenneth Tigar), having seen all this before, to resist. Before Loki can blast him away, Captain America arrives to block the exterminating bolt with his shield: he too has seen this sort of thing before. Such a scene is a punchy reminder that Whedon grasps not only the essence of good melodrama but also the powerful underlying thematic ties of this material to the anxieties of the last century. Whereas Stark’s Iron Man, who arrives to give Rogers some needed aid, constantly trails the association of the Cold War his father fought and the American hegemony and embodies the cognitive dissonance of this age, Rogers is still the WW2 fascist-fighter, and recognises Loki’s übermensch mentality. Interestingly, as the least colourful and the most old-fashioned of the heroes, Rogers emerges as the film’s axiom, all the more surprising as Captain America was saddled with the least inspired of introduction films. But Rogers’ air of faintly forlorn, antiquated idealism is compelling as Fury states apologetically that “we’ve made mistakes…some very recently”, and inevitably grazes against the post-modern wise-assed diva act of Stark.
Evans, a surprisingly restrained and grounded actor considering that he first came to attention playing the insufferable Johnny Storm in the Fantastic Four movies, absorbs Downey’s stream of flip with a shield of earnestness far more impressive than the metallic one he carries. Whedon aptly makes Coulson a closet Captain America fanboy, and wants his childhood hero to sign the trading cards he’s collected. Rogers offers Whedon an obvious avatar for exploring not simply the boyish fantasies at the heart of the superhero mythology, but also the powerful pull of nostalgia, and the sense of being a devotee to any creation with a legacy, not just seventy-year-old comic book heroes, which means living both in the past and the present. Rogers searches for something, anything, to give him purpose and direction: when, having sat through a stream of modern techno and military babble, someone’s crack about “flying monkeys” makes him shout with joy that he recognises the reference. Rogers however instantly adapts to crisis situations, and emerges in the finale as the team’s natural leader, as an experienced soldier and strategist, barking out a stream of instructions to the team to take up positions, ending with the immortal last order to his least sophisticated warrior: “Hulk…smash!” That said, Downey, so beleaguered in Iron Man 2, is in fine form here, especially as he mocks Thor’s initial appearance as “Shakespeare in the park,” (“Doth your mother know that you weareth her drapes?”) and later dubbing him “Point Break”, and, surprised to recognise in Banner a fellow genius, taking pause to praise him for his work, including turning into an “enormous green rage monster.”
Hemsworth’s Thor, still charmingly arcane in speech and unsubtle in method, arrives trailing fraternal issues, and makes several ill-advised attempts to talk his brother into ending his campaign of violence. Loki’s familial status is key to one of the film’s funniest lines, as Thor demands respect for the villain from the humans because he’s part of the Asgard royalty: when Natasha points out he’s killed eighty people, Thor can only bleat, “He’s adopted.” Whilst it would be easy to make The Avengers sound like a stream of Whedon-speak, the erstwhile writer-director actually for the most part contours his style into the material, which demands a more consistently classical sense of weight than Whedon’s usual pitch offers, with success. Somehow, he manages to squeeze in the great Polish director Jerzy Skolimowski, an early sign that Whedon’s aiming higher than usual, as the leader of the baddies Natasha bests at the start, and Jenny Agutter and Harry Dean Stanton also make some wryly stirring cameos for the movie fan with more than the goldfish memory of current pop culture. The Avengers takes some time to find its groove, in part because there’s so much going on, usually the opposite problem to what comic book adaptations have to deal with, and Whedon’s experience at smoothly drawing together story elements as an audio-visual as well as literary entity still isn’t that strong. Whedon instead feels his way along through what is for him the much more comfortable device of making The Avengers, in essence, a TV episode about forty minutes long, getting his characters into a small space, in this case on SHIELD’s amusing new command base, an aircraft carrier that turns into a near-invisible flying fortress, and listening to them argue, snipe, quip, cajole, threaten, butt heads, and bond. Rather than hurting the film, this segment gives the film its traction and the vitally needed human element, as Whedon carefully exposes the raw nerves of the team, their isolation, traumas, guilty legacies, and potential weakness. This puts The Avengers unshakeably on track for the first of the film’s two genuinely epic-scaled action sequences.
Before they start working as a team, in time honoured tradition the heroes clash incessantly, even violently, as they first come into close proximity, as when Thor first appears on the scene, manifesting on the back of a plane and snatching the captured Loki away from Stark and Rogers, sparking a forest-levelling tussle between the demi-god and the mechanical man, which finally the thawed-out ‘40s square has to quell like a teacher interrupting a schoolyard brawl. Later, as it turns out that Loki is plotting to destroy the Avengers before they even really get going by exploiting their fractiousness and unleashing the supposedly uncontrollable Hulk, Hulk rampages first after Natasha, who, although tough as nails, finishes up a quivering foetal ball in hiding at the spectacle of the green monster, and Thor finishes up having to take him in a ship-shaking brawl. In terms of story structure and imagery, it wouldn’t be too inaccurate to call The Avengers a cross between The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (2003) and Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow (2004). Like the former, there’s a team of famous if conflicted and volatile personalities drawn together to fight a nefarious villain, and they initially prove their mettle by saving a super-futuristic craft from sabotage, a craft which looks like something out of the latter movie, as do the flying alien invaders they take on in the finale. Perhaps that merely reflects the relatively limited lexicon of the supposedly endless permutations of such fantasy material. It does however behove me to point out that Whedon’s film does everything bigger and, more importantly, better: better detail, better effects, better characterisation, better drama.
Most vitally, Whedon knows that this sort of tale has to reach a moment of iconic power where the heroes click as a team, and he offers this as the heroes gather in a circle with their enemies about them, but also that the heroes have to all have their distinctive moment of glory, which requires coherence in the style and saves the finale from being a singular mass of tedious action. And everyone gets one, from Natasha pulling off an astounding hijack of an alien flying craft thanks to her gymnastic skills, to the Hulk, irritated by Loki’s mockery, grasping him and slapping him about like a rag, finally reducing the sneering hunk of malevolence to a groaning wreck in a moment that could well come out of a Chuck Jones Looney Tunes cartoon. Loki isn’t as interesting a villain as he was in Kenneth Branagh’s terrific Thor, where his pathos and pathetic neediness underscored his treachery; now he’s a mad and unrepentant would-be dictator, but Hiddleston still serves him well, playing him as the most vicious English boarding school bully imaginable, with a strut archer than Ziggie Stardust-era Bowie and a nice line in antique insults. Renner has the most thankless task in the film, playing the one team member who hasn’t had a substantial prior introduction, and he spends half of it under Loki’s mind control to boot. Hints of his and Natasha’s connection through a personal debt and perhaps, although she denies it, something deeper, does nonetheless clear the way for some emotional urgency in Hawkeye’s return to the fold. Renner projects the same taciturn sensibility of a warrior wit honed to the finest edge that caught the eye in The Hurt Locker (2008), with an added hint of reserved gallantry: thus Hawkeye seems, in his way, the most “real” character in the film.
Of course, whilst the outlay of story elements is busy, the actual plot, once in motion, is actually very simple, even scanty, an excuse to give the Avengers a decent threat to go up against – not always an element these films remember to provide, as Superman Returns (2006) sadly forgot. The real stress is on character conflict, and Whedon smartly makes this the essence of Loki’s plans as well as the general story dynamic: he pricks the heroes, especially Natasha, with their own hang-ups, in his attempts to divide and conquer. The team comes close to disintegrating when they learn Fury and SHIELD have been trying to create new weapons with the Tasseract’s power, the act which alerted the aliens to its presence in the first place. But when Coulson is fatally wounded by Loki, Fury gives them a little propagandist push by soaking Coulson’s trading cards in his blood and presenting them to the team as a spur, an interesting stab at trying to complicate the film’s morality, and consider how such spurs can be both manipulative and dishonest, but perhaps sometimes also necessary. Fury himself has to defy unscrupulous masters in trying to hold off a shadow World Security Council from using the nuclear option on Manhattan, something he fails in, demanding a final sacrificial effort from Stark. On a purely incidental level, it’s cool to see Jackson’s Fury finally get to do some proper badass work, and I kind of wish someone would make a “Young Nick Fury” movie: surely there’s room for a black superhero with ‘70s Blaxploitation motifs in his background and atomic-age power in his hands in the modern pantheon.
When it comes to the crunch, The Avengers provides a properly spectacular and visually well-organised special effects extravaganza, in production terms one of the best ever done, staged with ebullient energy: it’s certainly trying to be such, although it can’t reach the level of imperative Peter Jackson managed in The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King (2003), where there’s a dizzying sensation in the action of multiple elements long in the setting up colliding head on, or the finale of George Lucas’ Star Wars: Episode III – The Revenge of the Sith (2005), where the settings and the effects ebulliently describe the emotions being enacted. This is more spectacle for spectacle’s sake, turning a basic punch-up into something like three-dimensional chess using a city as a playing board, but damn, what spectacle. Whedon, or at least the special effects team provided him, invokes the dreaded Transformers movies at points, especially as the final battle in a cityscape superficially resembles the climax of the first of Michael Bay’s series. The always unpleasant sensation Bay’s films radiate, with their unreconstructed militarist fetishism and sense-contorting editing styles, has been seen by many as transmitting a kind of covert fascism; Whedon answers this by not simply emphasising democratic themes in his tale, but by making his film entirely fluent and thrilling through access, not assault, for eye and mind. I don’t know if it can yet be said that Whedon has any kind of definable visual style, but he does have a fondness for long-take sequences as a way of facilitating that democratic spirit, and this strategy culminates in one utterly bravura shot that seems to move along the breadth of Manhattan, finding each of his individualist heroes engaged in their station of battle in a fashion that unites them strategically and emotionally, from Captain America brawling on street level to Hawkeye atop a skyscraper to Thor and the Hulk riding the back of one of the grotesque mechanical leviathans the aliens employ.
The sight of Thor’s red cape swirling as he rides a colossal beast of dull grey steel over the equally dull grey New York skyline catches the eye like the essence of some secret genre poetry, in which both fantastic invaders and familiar urban architecture are equally complicit in a war against the unrelieved colour and power of the primal individual, and both lose big time. Whedon shoots for some of the supercharged emotion glimpsed once upon a time in the climaxes of the early Superman films or Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan (1982) as Stark tries to call an oblivious Pepper for a goodbye as he prepares to sacrifice himself for humankind, an act Rogers earlier said he could never consider: Whedon doesn’t quite hit those heights, but it’s nice that he tried. Some touches do become repetitive, especially characters falling from great heights for bruising landings, but all in all this is a brilliantly made sequence that dwarfs almost all rivals. The Avengers doesn’t escape all the familiar blind spots of this kind of filmmaking. In addition to the stuttering start, it sadly forgets to include a satisfying ending where the characters have a proper farewell, there’s a tacked on promise for another sequel, and a certain amount of fragmentation sets in with Whedon’s need to keep all his elements in some sort of focus.
There’s a constant, uncomfortable reminder with these Marvel movies that they can never just be movies sufficient unto themselves. Romance is mere theory, and sexuality is expressed through the tight pants of its heroines. It’s these lacks that repeatedly stand in the way of the superhero genre truly becoming the heir of the swashbuckler, which was always defined not only by its basis in the immediate reality of the athleticism of its actors, but also by the incision of personal concerns that are definably adult – looking forward to the future, trying to reproduce, and reshape nominal barriers of gender and class to find a place in a society worth living in – rather than the kind of pouting angst, detached from such concerns, so often found in modern superheroes and which makes them so relatable for teens; the reasonably strong romantic element of Thor was one reason it stood head and shoulders above most of the recent pack, and Tony Stark’s former playful licentiousness is down for the count. But it feels a bit churlish to stress such lacks considering that The Avengers as a whole really does hit the mark as surely as one of Hawkeye’s arrows. It has to be said that between this and the fiscally ill-fated but still glorious John Carter, 2012 has seen the blockbuster bar raised pretty darn high for the next few years.
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Director: Brian De Palma
By Roderick Heath
Made four years after Phantom of the Paradise, The Fury is a radically different piece of filmmaking in many ways, and yet also vitally similar to its wayward predecessor. Phantom of the Paradise is De Palma’s swan song for laissez-faire youth; The Fury is a new master taking his final step toward becoming a big-budget director with a vast array of technical and financial resources at his command, big stars to work with, and a story that demanded his visualisations maintain a more traditional rhythm, though hardly free of freewheeling invention. In between, he had made Carrie and Obsession (both 1976), films where he revisited the Hitchcockian template he hit on with Sisters (1973), but also developed a more rigorous and coherent style and a richer, less insistently hip emotional palate that veers between the earnest and the ironic with often breakneck speed. They were still filled with his acerbic sense of humour and character, and maintained a socially critical vibe, but they were also rendered with a refreshed and deepened directorial sensibility, full of swooning, sensually loaded, mobile camerawork that often serves the purpose of binding together seemingly disparate events into textured wholes. In short, De Palma had grown up, and rather than seeming to be neutered by his full emergence as a mainstream filmmaker, he revelled in it, even if mainstream audiences and critics hardly always knew what to do with him.
The Fury was adapted from his own novel by John Farris, but it became in every sense a De Palma film, a coherent development of themes in Sisters, Phantom of the Paradise and Carrie that represents a dazzling dance of form and function that builds towards a crescendo that some critics have rightly likened to a cinematic orgasm. It’s also one of De Palma’s most oddly unappreciated movies from his career-defining run of amplified cinema made between the mid ’70s and mid ’80s. What’s specifically remarkable about The Fury is the way, as with Carrie, he turns pulpy material into pure and personal cinema invested with a sense of emotion far beyond the sources. De Palma invested Carrie with a romanticism that was spiritually little like Stephen King’s work in which Carrie herself was as noxious a scion as her persecutors. Like Carrie, too, The Fury revolves around psychokinetic powers in adolescents, redolent of all the supercharged passions of youth, but it offers two young psychics rather than one, whose eventual meeting, fusion, and reproduction are the logical narrative and biological pay-off, but one which is complicated in an impudently clever fashion.
Whereas Gillian Bellaver, played by Amy Irving (thus suggesting her character in Carrie) has inherited the gift/curse of psychic ability and has to face similar social ostracism once her peculiarity emerges in the mercilessly bitchy realm of high school, her male counterpart Robin (Andrew Stevens) is transformed into a pampered psychopath by dint of his extraordinary abilities. De Palma’s usual, sneaky political overtones enter right at the start as a terrorist attack on an Israeli seaside town proves to have been stage-managed by repellent American government agent Childress (John Cassavettes), who runs an organisation known as PSI, which collects and develops psychic talent as the next generation of game-changing weaponry. He betrays his friend Peter Sandza (Kirk Douglas) and claims his son Robin, whose gifts he wants untrammelled use of. Robin thinks Peter is killed when he tries to escape in a Zodiac and machine gun bullets causes the engine to explode. Robin is bustled away, but Peter crawls out of the ocean and sees Childress bossing about the killers; snatching up the gun of one slain attacker, Peter tries to shoot Childress, only succeeding in wounding him in the arm before fleeing and going underground. Two years later, Peter is in Chicago, close to where Childress is operating. He has hired greasy local psychic Raymond Dunwoodie (William Finley) to find Robin, a move Childress has anticipated.
Dunwoodie contacts Peter when he notices Gillian on a Lake Michigan beach, recognising her as a superior talent who could find Robin more easily. But Childress closes the net on Peter. Peter’s escape cues a lengthy, elaborate, funny sequence in which he dives out of a hotel window in just his underwear, and holes up in the apartment of a pair of loudmouths (Gordon Jump and Jane Lambert) who, in the design of the story, stand in for the most absurd components of Middle America, and a crotchety but sympathetic grandmother (Eleanor Merriam) who’s all too pleased when Peter’s arrival with a gun places her irritating daughter and son-in-law in her command. Peter then kidnaps two off-duty policemen (Dennis Franz and Michael O’Dwyer) and makes them drive him away from the goons on his tail, finally fooling one team of agents to gun down another and then crash themselves. Peter then contacts his new girlfriend, Hester (Carrie Snodgress), who works at an institute devoted to psychic research, a place through which many powerful young talents pass. Peter first met with her in the hope Robin may have been placed at the institute at some point, a well-founded assumption, as the institute’s director Dr. McKeever (Charles Durning) is, in spite of his misgivings, essentially a talent scout for Childress. When Gillian causes one of her obnoxious school friends (Hilary Thompson) to bleed spontaneously during a cafeteria argument, she decides to take refuge at the institute, accidentally putting herself in Childress’ hands, but also soon picking up traces of Robin’s presence and current whereabouts.
De Palma’s mature style always pulsates with a deeply corporeal sensibility in films that often become a tötentanz of blood, sex, and carnal excess, innately infused with an eroticised quality. That quality is apparent in this film’s very structuring, down to its offhand jokes, like building scenes that tweak casual sex gags into moments of narrative consequence—for example, Dunwoodie’s girl-watching, which creeps out Gillian and her friend, proving to be a different and even more invasive kind of cruising, or Hester receiving what seems to be an obscene call from a heavy breather who turns out to be Peter, freezing cold after his dip in the lake. De Palma’s feel for eruptions of violence that transfigure flesh and spirit is the key for all the narrative’s pivotal moments, as when Gillian accidentally grasps McKeever’s scarred hand, and has a psychic vision of Robin’s near-fatal attempt to escape the institute, with De Palma achieving one of the keenest moments of voyeuristic switchback by back-projecting Gillian in front of the action she’s “seeing.” Later, she hooks directly into Robin’s mind as he’s experiencing one of the experimental procedures Childress and his research team are inflicting on him, becoming the subject herself, a prone participant in an act of forced viewing of what he thinks was his father’s death: it’s as elaborately cruel as Swan’s videotaping of Winslow Leach in Phantom. Both moments are sparked by Gillian touching someone, and she causes the spontaneous bleeding that finally proves near-fatal for Dr. Ellen Lindstrom (Carol Rossen), McKeever’s number two and lover, who collapses in a bloody mess when Gillian finally returns from her trance. Gillian offers a similar take on the Typhoid Mary character to that of Rogue from the X-Men movies in that, as her gift becomes more pronounced, she becomes increasingly dangerous and unable to make simple human contact. Childress offers her the promise of control of her gifts, but, like the promise to polish Winslow Leach’s gifts, it’s a Faustian bargain of the worst kind, because Childress’ real programme is to turn his psychics not into warriors, which implies a personal sovereignty even in battle and bloodshed, but into weapons, malleable and directed.
De Palma, in his way, helped usher in the era of modern blockbuster filmmaking, defined by a string of elaborate wind-ups with punchy pay-offs, and yet his works finally end up at odds with that format. The Fury was often fiercely criticised when it was released, but like some other signal works of the Movie Brats, like Star Wars (1977)—much less adult than De Palma’s works, but in some ways just as sophisticated in relying on an audience to put together the drama in instinctive, visually associative fashion rather than via literary ways—it represents an evolution in the form that finally threw away the stage roots of the mainstream cinema model. De Palma’s overt worship of the likes of Hitchcock, Lean, and Leone is apparent in the way he constructs sequences in his mature films like symphonic movements, serving their own self-contained sense of grammar as much as an overall narrative.
Whilst De Palma is often thought of as a maven of raw cinematic values and not a dramatist, that reputation often ignores his ear for dialogue and touch with actors. Having stoked Oscar-nominated performances from Sissy Spacek and Piper Laurie in Carrie—a miracle for a horror movie in the ’70s—here he gives Douglas one of his best roles of the decade and gets great stuff from the rest of the cast. Irving, a fascinating starlet with a hint of the leonine to her glam, is terrific as Gillian, the film’s pivotal figure as a girl who grows from object of ogling to empowered engine of wrath. De Palma is also keen to the offbeat magnificence of Snodgress, Oscar-nominated herself several years earlier for Diary of a Mad Housewife (1970) but little used afterwards, and Durning, who gets a marvellous mid-movie scene where, hurt and squirming under the weight of evil forces, he fends off Ellen’s solicitous invitations in wanting to remain alone and get drunk. It’s the sort of moment that contributes immeasurably to the texture of the film, and reveals an empathy for middle-aged compromise relatively rare in De Palma’s work, even if it doesn’t actually serve the story one iota.
De Palma constantly offers technically demanding shots, with the aid of cinematographer Richard H. Kline, that bind together multiple actions in single frames, and the editing by Paul Hirsch is something close to genius, in moments as seemingly minor as the test for psychic power Ellen and Hester hold at Gillian’s high school, her overpowering talent revealed as she sends an electric train run by mental power at a rocketing rate around a table, zipping past a chart, the clauses of which, the graduating levels of psychic power, are counted off one by one as Gillian’s power becomes clearer and clearer. Another is the shot towards the end where Gillian’s hand, trembling with new-found authority, fills the screen, Childress, with his withered hand redolent of secret impotence no matter how powerful he acts, in the background vibrating as vengeful energy is unleashed on him. The Fury is a tale of colliding and binding forces. The concurrent plotlines of Peter and Gillian are distinct, if destined to coincide, in their personal issues, ages, genders, sense of the world, and even rhythms of storytelling. Peter is already aware of the trap Gillian is walking into unawares, and the film’s deceptively action-thriller-toned first act segues into a quieter, sinister build-up as Gillian’s tale comes to the fore.
Hers is one of apparent homecoming, settling in at the institute where there’s an atmosphere of cheery fellowship and prodigious possibility: The Fury, in that sense, anticipates not only the X-Men films, but also the basic motif of the Harry Potter series, exploiting that atmosphere, and the attendant sense of longing that the exceptional and the outcast share in looking for good fellowship. But whereas in those films, the institutions are positive and offer refuge from harsh realities, as ever in De Palma here the institution is corrupt, the benign care a façade, albeit one that makes McKeever, Ellen, and Hester uneasy in sustaining. McKeever makes a weak attempt at rebelling against Childress by lying about Gillian’s talents, but Childress doesn’t have to share his charges psychic talents to spot he’s being bullshitted. De Palma builds his web of enmeshed parallels not only though crucial moments where Gillian accesses Robin’s mind and has flash visions of the future, but also in a teasing moment when Hester tells Gillian about her boyfriend, the younger woman unaware that she’s talking about the father of the boy she’s become psychically tethered to, describing him as a great dancer who’s only frustratingly difficult to get hold of.
When the two plot strands do finally meet, it comes in one of De Palma’s most ebulliently staged set pieces, as, at Peter’s insistence, Hester plans an escape for Gillian before Childress’s goons can take her out of the institute, going through an elaborately comic routine to arrange the crucial moment when Gillian can take off out the back door; she and Hester fly in a customary De Palma use of agonising slow motion where chains of cause and effect are identified in their components before they crash together and create chaos. John Williams’ largely Herrmann-esque score here offers for a few brief moments that would sound equally at home in E.T. – The Extra-Terrestrial (1982) in conveying momentary, joyous liberation. Liberation, however, turns on a dime to desperation, as Hester accidentally knocks over an agent rushing to catch them, one moment of happenstance that gives them a clear run, and the pair converges on the taxi in which Peter waits, aiming a pistol at the pursuing car filled with more agents. But his excellent aim proves his undoing, for when he takes out the driver, the car swerves and strikes Hester, sending her crashing through a parked car’s window, a bloodied, instantly fatal demise. Another agent charges out of the neighbouring park and grasps Gillian: Peter, horrified at the sight of Hester in and act he is unwittingly caused (another constantly recurring De Palma touch), turns and shoots down the agent with punitive fury; Gillian regards the gun-wielding stranger who is her “saviour” with bewildered terror. It’s not the most expansive of De Palma’s set pieces, but it is still one of his most ruthless and lucidly composed, not only in the way he physically binds actions together and pursues them with dark irony, but for its thematic intelligence in illustrating the notion that violent resistance always claims innocent lives no matter how good the cause.
Like many of De Palma’s high career films, The Fury becomes a metaphorical tale of resistance to a corrupt order, with outsider heroes flailing in their attempts to penetrate the figurative (and sometimes literal) castles of their persecutors, who usually affect parental or romantic concern: such is true of Sisters, Phantom, Carrie, and Dressed to Kill (1980), Blow Out (1982), The Untouchables (1987), and Mission: Impossible (1996). Scarface (1983) and Femme Fatale (2002) would in differing fashions see the figures converge in epics of interior character conflict. Cassavettes’ marvellously malevolent Childress is a perverter and corrupter in the guise of friend and guide; like Sisters’ villainous psychiatrist and Phantom’s Swan, his plots begin to give way under the strain of trying to maintain a façade, but tearing that façade down properly usually comes at a punishing cost. The Fury also works as another parable of how a society rewards and destroys talent, like Phantom, as Robin can easily be construed as simply an inflated version of any heroic young jock. He is rewarded by being treated “like a prince”, to the extent of being basically given his attractive supervising doctor, Susan Charles (Fiona Lewis), as concubine, even as his aggressive instincts are tweaked and his rage unleashed by the regimen Childress has prescribed, to make the best of his abilities. The chief target of his new licence is, then, his lover, whom he finally kills in the most hideous fashion. What is created is a monster in control of his powers but not his mind or emotions, a perfect end product of Childress’ philosophy. Even here, there’s a dark, erotic joke at work, as Robin’s fulminating frustration is based in how his level of psychic control is not matched by physical control, still messy in a young man’s fashion and unable to sexually please Susan.
The inevitable disintegration is signalled when Susan coaxes Childress into letting her take Robin out to a fun fair in a brief break from experiments, unaware that Robin has already become too crazed and immoral: seeing a group of Arab men accompanying a prince, reminding him of the (fake) killers on the beach, he sends the prince’s Ferris wheel spinning out of control, car flying off through the air and crashing through a window upon his retinue. Robin repeats the trick later when he tortures Susan to death, spinning her around until her blood is painting the walls of their ritzy apartment in the PSI’s mansion headquarters. And, of course, in Robin himself and Childress’ operation, the centre cannot hold. Thus, when Peter and Gillian finally reach the PSI mansion, Gillian’s presence enrages Robin, who sees her as someone brought in to replace him. He kills Susan and two of Childress’s goons, and when Childress finally sends Peter to calm him down, Robin instead causes his own death, driving himself and his father out through a window to dangle from a high parapet. His personality disintegrates at precisely the moment he becomes a virtual god, and he tries to hurt his father rather than save himsef., and Peter hurls himself over the same high parapet in grief. It’s the stuff of Shakespearean tragedy, but Childress doesn’t have any time for that: waving his hands disgustedly (“Go on, get ‘em outta my sight!”), he instead sets about seducing Gillian as the next candidate.
Many of De Palma’s heroes finally fail in their attempts to undo evil and are left traumatised, if not dead, but Gillian evolves into one of his most triumphant, if finally frightening, heroes. Having absorbed from Robin at the point of death his honed gifts, now blended with her still-present moral awareness, she turns on Childress in the most memorable and effective of revolts, first blinding him, his gore-dripping eyes reminiscent of X: The Man the X-Ray Eyes (1963), and then giving him exactly what he wants, proof of an awesome new power, but not in the manner he intended. Reminiscent of the finale of Zabriskie Point (1970)—and, of course, De Palma would soon make a more overt tribute to Antonioni with Blow Out—Gillian blows Childress to pieces in a moment De Palma offers in distended instant replay, an orgasmic celebration of, yes, fury unleashed on the false father. It’s one of the great comeuppances in movie history, and not for the first or last time, De Palma proved that he was a bastard, but a magnificent kind of bastard.
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Director: Steven Soderbergh
By Roderick Heath
Time advances, aesthetics shift, technologies update, morals and social maxims evolve, but some things remain constant. Especially movie clichés. The disaster movie, for instance, has hardly changed in form in more than six decades. You take a threat to a slice of, or all of, humanity, and pit against it characters from all walks of life who try to survive and/or nullify the threat. It’s a nifty generic conceit that allows storytellers to work at once on panoramic and microcosmic levels and tap into common anxieties and fantasies about what might happen when things go to hell. One subgenre located at the nexus of the disaster and science fiction movies is bi-fi, where a biological threat is the agent of destruction.
Bi-fi nominally exploits the wonder and terror in quite real and immediate concerns about potential pandemics, perceiving how the porous boundaries in our global village render us ever less insulated against such shocks. But it often tends to exploit other, less specific anxieties as well: that doctors, those virtual new priests of the modern world, might suddenly stop being able to offer us absolution from fear; that governments might gleefully let slip their most authoritarian impulses given half the chance and muster us all into neat rows to die; or that our neighbours, friends and we ourselves might, with the provocations of impending chaos, suddenly turn into marauding looters and killers when society starts crumbling. Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion, from a script by Scott Z. Burns, is immediately identifiable as belonging to the genre, and yet it possesses a veneer of the dispassionate analytical cinema Soderbergh turned on the likes of Traffic (2001) and Che (2008).
There’s no kind way to say that Contagion is one of the worst major recent films I’ve seen, so…that’ll have to do. The only wonder and terror Contagion generates is at the profligate expenditure of talent and the dizzying shapelessness of the filmmaking that can’t even rise to the level of the cheesiest ’70s all-star disaster flick or the average mid-’90s telemovie. I’ve confessed before my long-running distrust of Soderbergh’s oeuvre, and whereas Che made me consider laying down my arms, Contagion has me all guns blazing again. There’s something threatening about this terminally bland, unfocused, stake-free collage of reputable thespians achieving poses of mild concern in a procession of offices and labs, as if it presages an era in which, freed from the necessity engendered by shooting on real film, Hollywood’s technocrats can just slap together a project over the weekend and pass it off as a movie. Soderbergh directs with a pretence to docudrama spareness, and yet, as ever, I wonder if he’s ever watched a good one, so completely does he forget to include the “drama” half of the equation and so badly does he fumble the “docu” part. In Contagion, near-apocalyptic forces are unleashed, and yet even the few glimpses we get of chaos and dissolution are so neat and tritely staged that I seriously started to wonder if anyone in Hollywood knows what the rest of the world looks like, beyond the confines of select hotels and institutions.
Soderbergh, to his credit, kicks things off with some fast-paced montage work, as he introduces a Patient Zero, Beth Emhoff (Gwyneth Paltrow), from whom a ripple of unintentional calamity spreads outwards. People she met in a Hong Kong casino, including a Ukrainian model (Daria Strokous) and a young local waiter (Chui Tien You), begin folding up and dying all around the world. After a stopover in Chicago for a quickie with a former boyfriend, Beth returns home to Minneapolis to her husband, Mitch (Matt Damon), and her kids. She collapses in a fit in the kitchen and is rushed to hospital, where a postmortem reveals signs of a contagion so terrifying the pathologist tells his assistant to “call everyone!” The A-Team of medical science springs into action, as various health organisations rush to identify and find a solution to the disease, which begins to prove untreatable and fatal to a staggering number of the population. Dr. Ellis Cheever (Laurence Fishburne), a bigwig at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta, contends first with the problem of arranging a response whilst worrying it might all prove to be another over-hyped menace.
Cheever sets Dr. Erin Mears (Kate Winslet) on the task of tracking the disease’s landfall in America and then arranging treatment and containment strategies. WHO official Dr. Leila Orontes (Marion Cotillard) tries to zero in on the source of infection, contending with obstructive Chinese officials, before finally being kidnapped by her liaison, Sun Feng (Chin Han), who feels obliged to try to use her as barter for a supposed secret cure the American and French governments are sitting on to save the remnants of his village. As the crisis worsens, Mitch, who’s immune, tries to weather the storms in the Minnesota suburbs as mass hysteria and mortality set in: after his stepson dies from the disease, he tries to keep his daughter Jory (Anna Jacoby-Heron) safe, fending off visits from her boyfriend Andrew (Brian J. O’Donnell). Meanwhile some plucky researchers, including CDC research wizards Ally Hextall (Jennifer Ehle) and David Eisenberg (Demetri Martin), and Ian Sussman (Elliott Gould), a grizzled outsider who plays by his own rules, become the first to grow the microbes successfully and lay the groundwork for finding a vaccine.
I don’t think I’ve ever seen a less convincing and compelling portrait of an international crisis than in this movie. Whilst Soderbergh is obviously trying to avoid the trashy hype of the likes of Outbreak (1995), he doesn’t succeed in filling his work with anything else that’s persuasive. The pretensions to realism are constantly undercut by the proliferation of famous movie actors playing characters with romance novel names, glimpsed in stodgy vignettes (some, like Martin and Gould, wasted to an astonishing degree). Any intended commitment to procedural integrity and continuity is quickly jettisoned as major plot elements, like Sussman’s and Hextall’s labours, are reduced to glib throwaways, in contrast with a ’30s biopic like The Story of Louis Pasteur (1936) that was able to develop not only a sense of process but also of drama in the process of trying to combat a microbe, not to mention a real classic of bi-fi like The Andromeda Strain (1970). There’s a far too cute piece of insta-exposition when the researchers manage to obtain security recordings that show Beth meeting several of the other infected people in pristine clarity and perfect situated detail.
In failing to deal interestingly with the disease itself, therefore, one might expect the real weight of Contagion’s interests to fall on another area, but instead it spreads itself so thinly that it communicates absolutely nothing with depth. There’s no continuity of mood or even detail from scene to scene: whilst there are occasional cutaways to shots of soldiers amassing to impose and maintain blockades, the film fails utterly to evolve a proper visual and thematic pattern of deepening crisis and desperate straits, as it doesn’t even seem able to decide on what level we should take the impact of the disease. Even in the brief vignettes of lawlessness and chaos glimpsed through Mitch’s eyes, there’s something stilted and antiseptic about the whole affair, with barely any sense of contiguity between the various story and character strands. Soderbergh’s idea of upsetting audience expectations is to give a shot of Gwyneth Paltrow’s head being peeled open in an autopsy. Any five minutes of George Romero’s The Crazies (1972) have more existential angst, ruthlessness, and bitter irony than the entirety of this addled slop.
Soderbergh can’t even decide how serious the problem he’s depicting is. While in one frame we’re seeing desperation and danger in the suburbs, as things around Mitch start to resemble The Omega Man (1972) or something, and rows of corpses are buried in mass graves a la The Devils (1971), in another we have our doctor heroes in their still perfectly functional labs looking like they just stepped out of the pages of a Vogue Oscar preview spread. Characters come and go with rapidity and jarring disconnection that borders on contempt for storytelling, for example, when Hextall’s doctor father (Dan Flannery), who falls sick after weeks of labouring with disease victims, is trucked in three-quarters of the way through the film in a rather limp stab at stirring emotional involvement for Hextall, who has taken an experimental vaccine to test its effectiveness. Even Irwin Allen’s terrible The Swarm (1978) manages to extract more drama out of such an act than this film does, failing as it does to shake Ehle’s Mona Lisa smile a fraction of a millimetre. For a film that seems to propose itself as being about detail and studying chains of cause and effect, Contagion looks and feels so segmented and disconnected that it ends up operating a bit like a terrorist organisation full of cells who have no idea what each other are up to. Soderbergh has long had pretences to being a politically conscious filmmaker, and yet his politics and methods of relaying them are hackneyed, and here they are so sketchy and silly as to beggar belief. In the cheesiest attempt to raise a sort of everything-is-connected consciousness I can possibly imagine, the very last scene is the worst in this regard, as Soderbergh returns to the actual process of the first contamination of a pig Beth eats as having resulted from the bulldozing of forest by the corporation for which Beth was an executive.
Along the way, there are portraits of the untrustworthiness of Asians on both the official and personal level, with the latter supposedly leavened by Leila’s eventual empathy and collusion with her kidnappers, as she is seen tutoring kids in Sun Feng’s village—maybe more third world villages should shanghai brilliant white women—and rushing back to them when she learns they’ve been given a placebo in exchange for her. Like many other things in the movie, but perhaps most representative, this subplot is so weakly developed and offhandedly treated that it results in head-scratching bewilderment as to what Soderbergh and Burns thought they were accomplishing. Jude Law contributes the film’s most hilariously awful element, playing blogger and freelance Aussie journalist Adam Krumwiedler, the first of what will undoubtedly be many gross caricatures of Julian Assange in movies, who spreads whipped-up stories about corruption, secret cures, and malfeasance via the internet—because the internet and especially bloggers are evil, don’t you know—and turns out to be trying to make money by flogging a product called Forsythia that falsely claims to be a cure for the disease. Soderbergh gives us repeated scenes of Krumwiedler, complete with crooked front teeth, meeting with a hedge fund rep, billed in the credits as “Hedge Fund Man in Park” (Randy Lowell) to give you an idea of the precision screenwriting that went into this aspect, selling him on helping him flog Forsythia to a populace whom Krumwielder manipulates with rumours and conspiracy theories. It’s the partnership of the hypocritical scare-mongering left and the greedy, feckless right we’ve all not been waiting to see in a movie. Speaking of scene progressions that fail to make sense: in one scene Krumwiedler’s wearing a full-body suit to avoid being infected, and yet soon after he’s back chatting to the Hedge Fund guy in a public place without any protection at all, making it utterly apparent Soderbergh shot these scenes contiguously without pausing to think about the psychological or practical considerations of these characters in the flow of such a situation.
Krumwiedler’s wickedness continues when he attempts to disgrace Cheever by uncovering how Cheever tried to get his wife (Sanaa Lathan) to leave Chicago, and, of course she, like all foolish wives, lets it slip to friends, and so on and so forth—not that this plot element has actual consequences apart from causing Fishburne’s affect of stony decency to become slightly stiffer during press conferences. That Cheever’s actually a decent bloke is illustrated through his conversations with cleaning man Roger (John Hawkes, who might have reasonably expected his Winter’s Bone work might elevate out of parts like this), to whose son he gives his own dose of the vaccine once it arrives, because, well, he’s just good that way. Krumwiedler and taciturn Asians are not the limits of the film’s shallow villains, for Mears also has to deal with a ludicrously nasty Minnesota Department of Health official (Tara Mallen) on the way. One of the film’s few moments of any incipient menace and tragedy comes when Mears awakens in a hotel room to find herself infected, and hurries to track down the hotel employees she may have passed it on to. She is later glimpsed lying with other victims in the disease centre she helped set up, but Soderbergh can’t wring any irony out of that, chiefly because he segues into another cheap piece of pseudo-irony, as Cheever learns he can’t extract her to bring her to the CDC’s better facilities because the plane used for this has commandeered for a sick congressman.
Damon’s part as the lone assailed Everyman in this scenario has rightly been regarded as the best element of the film: certainly Damon plays Mitch, who staves off grief and anger at the sudden loss of wife and stepson and discovery of her infidelity to get down to the hard necessities of survival, with his usual cagey skill. He’s particularly good in the moment when he’s told his wife has died, the reporting medicos stating it in such a dispassionate fashion he doesn’t register the fact and goes on to ask to see her. But even in his subplot, the only real street-level vignette of the movie, Contagion displays a woeful lack of challenging darkness or skill in staging. Mitch glimpses riots in supermarkets—one infected woman comes up to him and gives a stage cough that sets him shepherding Jory away again—and signs of murder and pillage in neighbouring houses. But the biggest problem he has to deal with is keeping Andrew away from his daughter, who pouts and pounds out her frustrations on her iPhone, thus reminding us that, as bloggers are evil, so, too, all modern teens are self-involved and tech-addled to the point where even a major modern disaster all around them won’t inspire them to get their heads out of their asses. The profundity just keeps on a-comin’, folks. Even some of the smaller bits of business are clichéd, like an early moment where an infected man wanders dazedly in front of a truck, this being the second recent movie in a row I saw with this scene in it.
Not very long into Contagion I began to think about Fernando Mireilles’s popularly dismissed Blindness (2008), which, whilst overlong and excessively self-conscious, nonetheless employed and explored much of the same imagery and situational dynamics as Soderbergh’s film, whilst actually managing to invest them with personal and philosophical weight, as well as a grinding corporeal effect. Contagion, whilst a nominally more “believable” and parable-free approach to such a calamitous story, actually startled me with the lack of substance, the lack of immediacy, the lack of any genuine thought-provocation, invested in it. One aspect that particularly struck me was the fashion in which Contagion recycles a motif from one of the earliest bi-fi movies, Val Guest’s 80,000 Suspects (1963), in which Yolande Donlan’s unfaithful wife is a Typhoid Mary spreading disease throughout London. The fascinating repetition of the association of adultery and female sexual transgression reveals that, under all the new-age hype and facile realism, very little has changed in the (probably unconscious) minds of many mainstream filmmakers. Contagion finally limps through to a final narrative phase where the threat dissipates and yet the movie steadfastly refuses to end until we get some unearned emotional milking (Mitch weeping for Beth at last, and Jory getting to dance with Andrew in a makeshift living room Prom Night). All that said, there are one or two scenes, as when Mears chases down one of Beth’s infected coworkers on a bus and particularly that in which Mears reports her own illness to Cheever, in which the strength of this high-caliber cast wasn’t wasted entirely—but not for want of trying. Soderbergh has reportedly been kicking about the idea of retiring. He should have done it sooner, because if this is what the end of the world looks like, we’ll go out with not a bang, but with a whimper of boredom.
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Director/Screenwriter: Benedek Fliegauf
By Roderick Heath
Films that use the ideas of the science fiction genre to genuinely serious investigatory or poetic ends are pretty few and far between in today’s cinema. If they are taking those ideas seriously at all, it’s more likely to be on a conceptual, rather than psychological or emotional plane. A coldly beautiful and quietly dazzling exercise in psychosexual provocation, as well as a meditation on mortality and personality with a blend of genre with high Freudian perversity, Womb easily bests the last mainstream film to tackle the moral and humanitarian ramifications of cloning, 2010’s unfocused and soapy Never Let Me Go, for narrative power and coherence. Fleigauf’s film expands its ideas with genuinely unsettling and affecting permutations that retain a touch of the otherworldly and yet also proceeds with a chilly, peculiar logic.
Strangely, Womb has gained little attention, though not too surprisingly, as it’s inevitably noncommercial; I only came across it by chance, dumped onto DVD, in spite of sporting two excellent young stars: Eva Green, an actress who embodies something intelligent yet provocative and insinuatingly decadent even in the most humdrum of parts, and the rubbery-limbed Matt Smith, currently inhabiting the role of Doctor Who. Indeed, it’s been a good year for dumped Green films, also including the lesser but still interesting Cracks.
At the outset of Fleigauf’s film, Green is a solitary woman sitting on the balcony of her remote house, perched on stilts in the midst of a tidal plain, cradling a belly bulging with pregnancy, thanking, in voiceover, someone for this gift. Fliegauf then jumps back many years in the past to when Green’s character, Rebecca, was nine years old (played at that age by Ruby O. Fee), and staying for a vacation with her grandfather. She encountered a boy, Thomas (Tristan Christopher), when he took a break from being chased about by local hooligans to say hello, and they swiftly became inseparable friends, with Rebecca practically absorbed by Thomas’ parents, Ralph and Judith (Mike Leigh regulars Peter Wight and Lesley Manville), into their family. The two children spent an idyllic vacation in spite of the typically northern European, tempestuous, and glowering atmosphere of the seaside locale, with its pebbly beaches and beautifully blasted shores and sands, until Rebecca finally had to leave to join her mother who was taking a job in Tokyo. The night before she leaves, Tom announces he’s going to see her off and give her a going-away present, but he never shows up.
Rebecca returns over a decade later, having gained a degree and a profession as a designer of software for acoustic devices, to take over her since-deceased grandfather’s house and to look for Tom. When she finds him, he’s grown into the agreeable adult form of Smith. When Rebecca finds his current abode, still in the same seaside town that he loves too much to leave, she finds Rose (Natalia Tena) sitting on the floor in her undies, reading a book. But she’s just a casual pick-up, and she gets frustrated and stomps out when faced with Rebecca and Tom’s instantaneously resumed mutual fascination: “Maybe you two should start sniffing each other.” Tom gives Rebecca the present she was supposed to receive, a matchbox containing a snail, now long dead.
Tom, who is now a biology student and an activist, is planning a demonstration at a new cloning centre called Sparkling Park, and has a crate full of cockroaches ready to release to cause alarm amongst the security staff. Rebecca joins him for this jaunt, but when she gets him to pull his car over so she can go take a pee in the grass, and he starts to get out after her, she hears the unmistakeable sound of another car hitting him at speed. Fleigauf and Green pull off this scene with terrific dispassion and a proper sense of the jarring shock of sudden, complete, irretrievable loss registered in the ever so slightly widening eyes of Rebecca as she surveys Tom’s broken body. Except that it’s not irretrievable, not anymore. As Tom’s parents grieve, Rebecca retains her sphinx-like smile, and presents them with a solution: that they clone Tom, and she will act his surrogate mother. Judith rejects the notion, stating that, “We’re atheists…but that doesn’t mean we can rummage in our deceased’s grave…we are not farm animals…we accept what life gives us!” Rebecca presses ahead, however, going to Sparkling Park, where Rose, who works there, catches sight of her. Months later, Rebecca gives birth to Tom redux, and begins to raise him as her own son.
What end such an act can possibly have, and all its manifold and troubling imputations, looms with constant tension throughout Womb, as Fleigauf describes young Tommy’s growth from bulge in Rebecca’s belly to upright young man. Whether Rebecca can continue to treat Tommy as simply her own child who happens to also be giving the genetic material of her great love a second chance at life, or if she’s nursing a darker, if still possibly inchoate, plan to make him a substitute, and what his reaction to the inevitable, practically Greek tragic moment of realisation will be is the crucial question, one that hovers as not entirely resolved until the very end.
In the meantime, Rebecca keeps the truth of Tommy’s origins from him, and when he has an encounter with another cloned youngster, Dima (Gina Stiebitz), he learns of the intense social hatred toward clones. Other concerned mothers, worried when Rebecca invites Dima unknowingly to Tommy’s birthday party, meet with her and explain, in a note-perfect transposition of such anxieties from more familiar worrisome types, how they don’t want their children exposed to the unknown influence of these strange, unnatural entities. But word soon reaches the parents of Tommy’s friends about his genetic origins, thanks to Rose, and when Tommy asks Rebecca why nobody came to his party, Rebecca only says, “Because they’re stupid!” The next day she packs up and moves them both out to the remote house glimpsed at the beginning, where Rebecca continues to live until Tommy is grown, burgeoning into a man eerily similar to his earlier incarnation, with a deep interest in nature and a loopy sense of childish fun. When he moves a girlfriend from college, Monica (Hannah Murray), into the house, the stage is set for possibly the strangest ménage-a-trois, seething beneath the surface and constantly sensed by all parties without quite taking shape, in cinema history.
Fliegauf maintains a tremendous formal control over Womb, which could easily have toppled into torpid psychodrama or arty sterility. His film bears a distinct resemblance, in setting as well as style and the chilly anthropological deconstruction, to the early work of Roman Polanski. Shot in the Sylt region in Germany, near the Danish border, with its many gradations in hazy beauty, the setting presents a perfect barometer for the oedipal drama unfolding with the mood of increasing isolation from the real world. As far as films that use natural settings to define and dominate the mood of a film, Womb stands far above just about any work of recent cinema, except ironically Polanski’s The Ghost Writer (2010).
The womb of the title is both Rebecca’s physical womb, of course, cradle and battlefield of this experiment in human intransigence and longing, but also the house into which she moves to continue her experiment in peace. Fliegauf pieces together telling detail as he effectively describes a warped family situation with cues, usually subliminal and yet constantly accumulating, occasionally to overflowing, as when Rebecca offers herself to a barely adolescent Tommy in a fashion he doesn’t at all understand. Simultaneously, there’s a distinct echo of biblical myth in the very Garden of Eden where the second-generation man Cain must marry his mother Eve as a precursor to new life: Rebecca retreats into her own little Eden. Images of mother and infant bearing distinct similarities to those seen in The Tree of Life flow by, except whereas there is mystery in familiar human growth—no one’s ever quite sure what a child will look like as it grows—here there is a chilly, preordained sense of how Tommy is going to grow up, what he’ll think, feel, what he’ll be excited by—and what he’ll be turned on by.
There’s a particularly keen condensation of parental affection, childish destructiveness, and unspoken suspicion in a movement in which Rebecca gives Tommy a toy robotic dinosaur, as cruelly adorable as possible, which Tommy along with a boy he befriends then buries in the sand: it’s the sort of thing a boy his age does to toys, an act that’s usually thoughtless but that parents can feel is somehow a rejection of them, and imbued here with another layer as Tommy acts out a detestation of simulacrums. Fliegauf relies on the audience blanching at a lifelike thing being treated in such a fashion, aware that Tommy himself would be considered such a thing, requiring Rebecca’s retreat to the edge of the earth to pillow him from that treatment. “Dima is the victim of artificial incest!” one of the village mothers says in a key, wryly amusing, yet highly discomforting scene: “Her mother gave birth to her own mother!” The ground seems set for another portrayal of small-mindedness and reactionary impulses through a gimmicky prism, but Fliegauf loads the situation thanks to the awareness that Rebecca’s intentions for her own clone are not entirely wholesome. Rebecca, sensing the danger of being caught outside the herd, immediately acquiesces and plays along. Where exactly all the ethics review panels went to in this brave new world isn’t stated, but it’s clear the act of cloning has already been commercialised out of sight, as one of the reasons Tom was protesting the cloning centre was its plan to make most of its money out of “cyberbitches”, cloned prostitutes, and endlessly reproduced household pets.
At the outset, Womb seems cast in the mould of something like Julio Medem’s Lovers of the Arctic Circle (1999) in portraying Rebecca and Tom’s intense connection as something almost sublime and preordained, and Tom’s quirky energy seems quite in line with that familiar variety of lively young man. Smith, however, has a gift for suggesting something slightly alien and asocial in his characters as well as charming and zany. When Rebecca walks back into Tom’s life after years, she doesn’t even need to say her name for him to recognise her, and soon they’re so fixated on each other that they completely ignore anyone else in their world. Their initial reuniting is painfully brief, so Rebecca seems to hope that this innate bond will be sustained as Tommy grows into a man. Yet, for the most part, she plays the almost-perfect mother, with a job that allows her to work from home and continue constant interaction; when Tommy’s grown, she tiptoes into his bedroom to lay down a breakfast tray for him and Monica, whom she’s never met. Monica’s arrival starts a breakdown in Rebecca’s equilibrium: she’s lived without any kind of sexual contact all these years—it’s revealed in the most alarming fashion possible that she’s still a virgin—and her still-manifest physical desire for Tommy, and, it becomes increasingly clear in spite of all his presuppositions, his for her, begins to boil over.
Incest seems to be emerging as a new subject for would-be provocateurs in the artier cinema brackets, whilst films that try to describe and encompass the repetitive chains of birth, growth, and creation that govern human life seem to reflect a current wave in the zeitgeist: some of the year’s other top films, include The Tree of Life, Hanna, Attenberg, and Mysteries of Lisbon, all present some consistent thematic concerns with this developmental theme, as children become products of, and vessels for, the ambitions and mistakes of their parents. Rarely has the most profound taboo been approached with such supple, nerveless skill as in this film, whilst the theme is carefully leavened by the story frame: there is awareness that Tommy is not a natural son as it would once have been defined, and yet he’s bound to Rebecca in the most intimate way as a product of her body, if not of her genes. Whether Tommy retains an actual bond with Rebecca that transcends the liminal, or whether he’s just responding to endless subtle signals in her manner over the years, is impossible to discern; nor, is it easy to tease apart the specific ramifications of the situation it presents, with their scifi impetus, from any normal mother’s relationship with a grown son who in some ways personifies her husband grown young again. In any event, Womb is a film infused with a sonorous cool and an emotional intensity that builds to an inevitable outburst, which comes when his other mother, Judith, turns up at the house, looking like a gorgon of gnawed conscience, not speaking a word as she partakes of this remake of her son and reels away with profound and baleful knowledge.
This episode lodges a fresh disquiet in Tommy which Smith realises as a marvellous climax of actorly slow burn. Tommy, Rebecca, and Monica are at the breakfast table, his final exhaustion with Rebecca’s evasions and estrangement exploding as he slams a clogged salt shaker repeatedly upon the table and turns the kitchen upside down until he procures a handful of salt to smother his meal, before pointing to his mother and saying the fateful words in regards to Judith, “I know her.” Monica’s pathos in trying to plead for her lover to emerge from the bathroom where he locks himself and realising that she’s the superfluous point in this triangle, causes her to flee. At last, Rebecca delivers self-knowledge to Tommy, and he rests for a bleak and terrible moment on an edge of powerful feeling that will resolve either in matricide or sex—either way, a primal taboo. As it happens, sex prevails. Tommy finally ends Rebecca’s virginity and then flees the house, having fulfilled exactly what Rebecca wanted—to have a real child by Tommy—and finally free to find some purpose for himself. The mood seems at last unbearable, except that in the final shot, as Tommy disappears into the murk, Rebecca switches on a light within the house: now, at last, each is only just recommencing life. Womb is a strange, troubling, fascinating waking dream.
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Director: Mike Hodges
By Roderick Heath
It’s a little difficult to write a coherent piece on Mike Hodges’ cult classic Flash Gordon without descending into fetishising its variegated fragments of dazzling impression like a Gustav Klimt painting: Colour! Queen music! Ornella Muti’s thighs! Brian Blessed’s thighs! Today, the popular cinema culture feels an overwhelming need to validate and pump up the mythical seriousness of comic book fare, complete with epic-scaled special effects in which “believability” is a constant maxim. Look at the way Michael Bay tries to cloak his ludicrous Transformers movies with images of martial nobility and heavy-duty patriotism whilst his robots brawl in pseudo-realistic blurs of incoherent motion. Our age is a complete inversion of the camp, pop-art-inflected likes of the Batman TV series and films like Danger: Diabolik (1967) and Barbarella (1968). There’s some good reason for that inversion: campy, self-conscious superhero and comic book flicks eventually became embarrassing to their fans, because camp too often became a lazy creative crutch.
In 1980, Dino De Laurentiis, producer of Danger: Diabolik and Barbarella, and Lorenzo Semple Jr., occasional writer on Batman, collaborated on an adaptation of Alex Raymond’s Flash Gordon, the seminal ’30s Buck Rogers rip-off that became one of the most recognisable icons of juvenile derring-do, interspersed with fantastical landscapes and dollops of soft-core sexuality. De Laurentiis and Semple had already collaborated on their sorry sack of a King Kong (1976) remake, and the Italian maestro’s attempts to conquer Hollywood through science fiction and horror movies were mostly disastrous, often both aesthetically and financially. George Lucas developed his original Star Wars material because De Laurentiis had bought the rights to Flash Gordon before he could. After trying to interest several high-profile directors in giving their distinctive personal stamp on the material, including Federico Fellini and Nicholas Roeg, De Laurentiis finished up hiring perhaps the least likely candidate for such a project: British director Mike Hodges, most famous for his bone-crunching gangster film Get Carter (1971).
The jump between such cast-iron fare and the delirious psychedelia and playful action of Flash Gordon seems colossal, though Hodges’ previous film was a step in a science-fiction direction—an adaptation of Michael Crichton’s The Terminal Man (1973). Even more problematic was the fact that Hodges, working with De Laurentiis’ mostly Italian crew, essentially had to improvise everything but the dialogue and basic story from day to day during the shoot. Hodges’ Flash Gordon, which provided a sort of postdated antecedent and satiric mirror of Star Wars, nonetheless retains a rollicking verve and delicious sense of fun, as well as a genuinely rich evocation of those pop-art roots. It’s far better than Barbarella, and sustained by a remarkably sturdy sense of when to take the material seriously and when to send it up.
Flash (Sam J. Jones) is in this incarnation an American football champion on holiday in the off season. He meets travel agent Dale Arden (Melody Anderson) on a plane just when Earth is beset by showers of fiery meteorites that announce the campaign of terror begun by alien dictator Ming the Merciless (Max Von Sydow). The very opening of the film depicts Ming being presented with Earth as a suitable plaything and target for destruction by his vizier Klytus (Peter Wyngarde) to sate Ming’s boredom. The pilots of Flash and Dale’s plane are sucked out of the cockpit when it is punctured by a meteorite, forcing Flash to use his rudimentary flying skills to make an emergency landing.The plane crashes into the remote observatory/laboratory in which Dr. Hans Zarkov (Chaim Topol), a genius kicked out of NASA because of his much-derided fear of alien invasion, has built a homemade rocket ship. Zarkov is near-crazed by his determination to search for the alien threat, and needing a second passenger to help him operate the controls after his assistant Munson (William Hootkins) runs off, he kidnaps Flash and Dale by convincing them his ship is a telephone booth. After a tussle, they’re launched into space, sucked into a wormhole, and emerge on Mongo, Ming’s home planet, where they’re taken prisoner and presented to Ming’s court.
Hodges’ flashy visuals, with inestimable contributions by Danilo Donati’s wild production fancies and Gilbert Taylor’s terrific photography, present a vision of totalised style that suits this material perfectly. Hodges’ accounts of the film’s shooting reveal the vast difference between the kind of production De Laurentiis, Donati, and their crew were used to, compared with the oncoming age of Hollywood’s ruthlessly pedantic blockbuster infrastructure, as Donati hurled together gigantic sets for the hell of it and hired famous artists to work for weeks on background paintings, none of which could be used. This style of working perhaps explains why so many of De Laurentiis’ genre excursions finished up as giant messes; but Hodges seems to have had exactly the right sort of wit to make it all work for him.
The opening credits, offering fleeting visions of Raymond’s strip flickering by in a pop-culture dream to the driving throb and declarative choruses of Queen’s theme song, give context for what follows in the same bold, Sunday comic colour and two-dimensional illustrative elegance as Raymond’s pictures. Ming’s kingdom is a candy-tint sprawl of fantastically attired aliens and settings, from the oddly delightful, much-victimised lizard-men who appear throughout, to the army of scantily dressed concubines, and the winged, jockstrap-clad Hawkmen led by Prince Vultan (Brian Blessed at his most spectacularly hambone). Jones, a minor hunk of beefcake whose greatest claim to fame before this was as a Playgirl centrefold, doesn’t display great acting chops, and yet, this makes him oddly perfect as Flash, who’s defined by his slightly dim, utterly innocent approach to life’s problems. “This guy’s a psycho!” he blurts when he witnesses Ming’s rough justice for the first time. He’s immediately plunged into a parade of cliffhangers and deadly situations. In perhaps the film’s most inspired coincidence of comedy and action, Flash starts a brawl with Ming’s henchmen, and, initially outmatched, he catches a ball-shaped ornament Zarkov tosses to him and immediately starts devastating them with his football prowess, with Dale giving pep-rally cheers. Klytus recognises the “barbaric game” and gives plays to the guards, while Zarkov finally accidentally knocks Flash out with a pass. Flash is sentenced to death in a gas chamber, whilst Dale is enslaved by Ming as a prospective bride. But Flash is saved by the conniving of Ming’s lusty daughter Aura (Ornella Muti), who arranges with one of her lovers, a doctor (Stanley Lebor), to help Flash survive the gas. She then spirits him away to the forest kingdom of Arboria, and begs another of her lovers, Prince Barin (Timothy Dalton), to shelter Flash.
Hodges treads a tightrope throughout Flash Gordon and stays on it for the most part, never allowing the film to become too silly whilst keeping tongue in cheek all the time. It helps that he plays the film’s serial-like set-pieces seriously, including Flash’s being forced by Vultan to engage in a deadly test of manhood for the Arboreans by reaching into different cavities in a tree stump where a poisonous creature lives, and later his death-match with Barin on a moving disc out of which lethal spikes randomly protrude. Dale even gets in on the act, besting a bunch of Ming’s blind pig-men guards with kick-ass élan, yet with the witty little touch of her constantly pausing to move out of the way the ludicrously glam high heels she kicked off to do battle until she’s done and can put them on again. The special effects are a different proposition, an advancement on the tinny craft usually seen zipping about on wires with firecrackers in the the ’30s and ’40s serial versions of the strip, and yet still paying more than a wink to their cheesy glee, as hordes of Hawkmen dive through the clouds bouncing about on wires, and suspiciously phallic rockets zip through the hallucinogenic skies of Mongo and its moons.
Hodges’ film came out eight years after Michael Benveniste and Howard Ziehm’s Flesh Gordon satirised the strip in a semi-pornographic, but startlingly accurate fashion, and some critics actually prefer that version. A not entirely dissimilar sense of the strip’s sexuality percolates more subtly throughout this one; after some surprise, Hodges admitted he had learnt just how strong the strip’s influence was on American friends’ early sexual fantasies, and pays some tribute to it, with Aura’s provocative horniness and the eventual S&M-accented torture of Flash and Aura. “We don’t like doing this at all!” claims spandex-clad bitch-queen General Kala (Mariangela Melato) in between lusty blows of a whip on Aura’s back; Klytus stops her with the even more insidious proposal: “Bring me the bore-worms!” Hodges even has famed playwright John Osbourne appear as a high priest whom he frames to look as if he’s masturbating, though he’s actually just engaged in a religious rite. A great pleasure of the film is that everyone seems to be in the right key of overlarge and funny, yet not excessive or mocking, performance. Von Sydow, relishing his first truly nonsensical role after two decades of suffering antiheroes and icy villains, makes a gloriously stylish, even sexy, but deeply psychopathic Ming, strutting through the proceedings with a concise physicality and arch attitude. Just as good is the mordant purr of Wyngarde’s masked Klytus. Muti’s overripe sexuality, practically a cult fetish in itself, neatly contrasts Anderson’s perfectly pitched turn as Dale—I have no idea why the only other film I’ve seen her in is Dead and Buried (1981)—and of course there’s a catfight between the pair. Dalton clearly laid his claim not only to his ill-fated, underrated turn as James Bond, but also his Errol Flynn-esque bad guy in The Rocketeer (1991) with his amazingly dashing performance as Barin, whose instant enmity for Flash is countered by Flash’s gentlemanliness, and he catches on to this whole Earthling decency thing.
This Flash Gordon was misinterpreted as a spoof by some at the time of release, but it’s really a classic swashbuckler with a grand sense of humour about itself. It’s the film’s refusal to modernise its plot and visuals or cynically mock the values it embodies, even whilst being very funny about everything else, that finally make it more than colour and motion. Flash is a patently outdated figure, but like Richard Donner’s similarly strong Superman (1978), the disparity is shoved aside when Flash is stuck into a situation that requires precisely his kind of naïveté. Throughout the film, treated with an ironic glint but with a hint of enough substance to hold it together dramatically, is the spectacle of the human values Flash, Dale, and Zarkov retain that easily, constantly better the cruel, powerful, yet rather sloppy omnipotence of Ming and his followers. There’s a witty and affecting episode in which Klytus and Kala try to brainwash Zarkov, parsing through his memories back to his Jewish roots in Hitler’s Germany: “Now he showed promise,” Klytus purrs upon seeing the dictator. But Zarkov thwarts them by keeping a litany of human arts and sciences flowing through his mind. Flash’s example impresses Barin and also Vartan and his Hawkmen, who follow him into battle, and Flash, with his guileless purity, resists Ming’s offer to give him Earth to reign over. Ming’s attempt to marry Dale comes as circling spacecraft trail signs that read, “All creatures will make merry…Under pain of death,” and the High Priest (Philip Stone) has to amend his marriage vows for Ming: “Do you promise…not to blast her into space…ah, until such time as you grow weary of her?”
Late in the film, Hodges offers a battle sequence that strikes a sturdy balance between genuine spectacle and tacky absurdity, as Flash and Vartan entrap one of Ming’s spaceships and board in a sequence that suggests a mating of The Sea Hawk (1940), Wagnerian myth, and a Peter Pan pantomime. Flash makes a suicide drive into Ming’s defences to bring about a catastrophic explosion that will allow the conquest of his citadel, but Barin’s action within helps Flash make Ming see the point in an hilariously apt finale. Key to a lot of the film’s high-flying impact, particularly in this sequence, is the terrific score provided by Queen (all together now: Flash! Ahh-ahhh!), standing in some contrast to the band’s overblown contribution to Highlander (1986), and orchestrations by Howard Blake. The film’s final shot pays a winking tribute to the end of Terence Fisher’s Dracula (1958) as Ming’s hypnotic ring is all that’s left of his dissolved body, yet suggesting his survival: The End? asks the closing title, but no sequels were forthcoming. Which perhaps is just as well, as it’s hard to imagine how this film’s raucous invention could have been extended without descending into excess. But when Transformers 3 steals the box office and Bay’s notion of fantastic cinema poisons minds like the sputum of some fantastic space slug, it’s not hard to wish for an alternative dimension where Flash stills stands for every one of us.
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Director: Andrei Tarkovsky
By Roderick Heath
Andrei Tarkovsky is both notorious and adulated amongst movie fans as the maker of some of the most objectively forbidding films ever made, as well as several of the greatest. His patient, immersive, unique style represents one definitive extreme in how to fashion cinema. Tarkovsky’s movies are exemplified by their attempts to articulate things that are virtually inexpressible, and yet still, somehow, are part of the common pool of experience. Tarkovsky wanted to provoke his audience to higher levels of awareness and engagement with the processes occurring in the cinematic space before them, and to force them to deal with their own preoccupations and interpretations. As such, his films manage to convey two almost disparate visions of film as an art, as the working definition of eccentric, anti-populist, “challenging” cinema, and yet also the products of an artistic sensibility that prizes and respects the viewer’s receptivity. Tarkovsky’s approach could become enigmatic, even abstract, but at the same time he seemed to be trying to avoid mere obscurity or alienation: for the most part his images, conveyed through his famous fondness for long takes and extended shots that sometimes seem to be searching for some event or epiphany to give them purpose, are deceptively lucid, even guileless. And yet he knew precisely when and how to starve the audience’s flow of information, to force their interactive engagement with his material, the opposite of becoming absorbed by a standard narrative flow. For Tarkovsky cinema was not so much an intellectual game to be solved and broken down, but rather to be experienced on an emotional and intuitive level as well as the intellectual, but with a far broader and less forced definition of experience and emotion than that offered by most commercial cinema. Tarkovsky could offer some of the familiar elements of fine cinema, like smart writing, a vivid story, and nuanced acting, as much as any director, but subordinated them to his own cinematic ideals. In any event, his road less travelled represented a partial rejection of the hitherto definitive Griffith-Eisenstein model of filmmaking, even as Tarkovsky expanded on some of Eisenstein’s later impulses.
Stalker, his fifth film, was adapted by sibling writers Boris and Arkady Strugatsky from their own novel, and followed up Tarkovsky’s Solaris (1971) as an eminently different kind of science fiction movie. Stalker commences in a hovel in an industrial wasteland, the camera scanning the three sleeping members of a family sharing a bed in seemingly perfect contentment, and also noting the objects sprawled on the bedside table, including two enigmatic pills. The man (Alexander Kaidanovsky) is the film’s eponymous protagonist: he’s known as Stalker, but he’s only one of a number who apparently share his profession as Stalkers. This one, our Stalker, awakens and dresses. He tries to sneak out without his wife’s knowledge, but she awakes and upbraids him for recommencing a dangerous line of work that’s already seen him thrown in prison. He meets up with two men in a local tavern that’s as seamy as his place. The two men agree at the outset to only use nicknames based on their occupations—thus “Writer” (Anatoli Solonitsin) and “Professor” (Nikolai Grinko)—and begin the difficult process of penetrating the Zone. The Zone is a mysterious area, so the Professor tells the Writer, that seems to have sprung up since some kind of meteorite or other mysterious object came from the sky and devastated an area of ground. A legend sprang up that a room in one of the buildings in the area had become a space where any entrant’s wish might come true. This, more than the fear of fallout or other danger, made the authorities paranoid enough to entirely fence off the Zone and place armed patrols around it.
Yet the authorities are also deadly afraid of stepping within the Zone for reasons the Stalker tries to sensitise his charges to: the Zone’s environment is constantly changing, full of unseen forces that can kill a man in the blink of an eye. He can only navigate about the place by gut instinct and by tossing objects, usually nuts tied up in cloth, in a random direction. Stalker was schooled in the way of the Zone by a man nicknamed Porcupine, who mysteriously became rich after leaving the Zone, and then killed himself a week later. Stalker spots evidence of Porcupine’s final, apparently malicious damage and rearranging of landmarks within the Zone, something that makes the already precarious job of navigation all the more difficult. Fragments of mysterious magic are glimpsed: the earth at one point seems to throb as if on fire within; later, two birds are seen to fly over a sandpit, with one disappearing and the other flying safely past. Yet none of the dangers Stalker warns about actually strike the Writer and the Professor: the latter turns back to collect his knapsack in spite of Stalker’s imperative command not to, and the Writer safely crosses the threshold of a sandpit before the Stalker shouts a belated warning. Debating about the nature of the Zone, about their own life assumptions and what exactly finding a room that grants a wish might entail, the trio steadily approaches the object of their journey.
Tarkovsky’s career is often considered in tandem with Stanley Kubrick’s. Tarkovsky’s first science fiction film Solaris is called a more romantic, less Nietzschean 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). Stalker, in its way, also suggests the latter film’s notions of humanity on the cusp of great transcendence or total degradation and anticipates aspects of The Shining (1981) in exploring the ambiguities of empirical existence and presenting situations where psychological credulity and supernatural obscurity are difficult to distinguish. Stalker is an epic odyssey, a purified quest narrative with roots in the most ancient myth and the traditions of folkloric parable, which, ironically, involves only the most minimalist props and actions. In spite of the film’s ambling pace and stark yet dreamy, paranoid yet becalmed atmosphere, it’s a work of cerebral but clear-cut ideas familiar from both its essential genre of science fiction, and from a distinctive strand of Eastern European fantastic and satiric drama. But the ideas are almost entirely manifested through talk, gesture, and emotion, rather than visualisation: the world around the character rarely deviates from the same old solid, empirical reality. Stalker can be described, on one level, simply as a film about three guys who walk around an overgrown industrial site for three hours, except for certain moments when something amazing and bizarre happens, possessing a precise, coiled, yet still inscrutable strength.
The bulk of Stalker was shot around a disused hydroelectric plant in Estonia, and some believe the pollution around the site was directly responsible for Tarkovsky, Solonitsin, and several others who worked on the film all dying of cancer within a decade. If true, such a tragic real-life consequence feels nonetheless all too harshly appropriate considering some of Stalker’s essential themes. Retrospective analysis has recast the film as a prediction of Chernobyl, a notion that seems absurd, and yet there’s no deep mystery to this seeming echo of future horrors. Soviet industrialisation, not to mention Nazi invasion, had long been making an environmental hell out of swathes of the country. To this day, millions of hectares in Siberia are caked in oil spewed out by decayed infrastructure. Chernobyl was merely the loudest, climactic act in that process of breakdown and despoiling, and the dark imprint of industrialisation’s by-products were surely already quite familiar to Tarkovsky and the Strugatskys. Other aspects are equally suggestive: Stalker’s daughter is a slightly mongoloid-looking girl who can’t walk because she reportedly has no legs, and misshapen children are apparently common amongst Stalkers’ families. Such information is immediately redolent of thalidomide and radiation birth defects.
The haze of everything malefic in the modern industrial world therefore hangs over the film in a thick pall, both metaphorically and, in the early scenes, quite literally. There’s a bleak, totalitarian aspect to the world we catch glimpses of, with the roaming security guards who randomly shoot off guns to try to cut down infiltrators of the Zone, factories billowing out smoke and grime, and locomotives that thunder past Stalker’s house. It could all be a particularly scabrous portrait of the decaying Soviet Union, a notion that’s particularly hard to resist considering that Stalker, with his shaven head redolent of the Gulag, angrily states “everywhere is a prison!”, and the Professor contends with his threatening, authoritarian boss over the phone. And yet they may also be just carefully structured visions of a perfectly ordinary modern nation, most of which have their rust belts, petty official and state-sponsored thugs, and top-secret areas.
When the Writer first appears, he’s come directly from a party, still pretty drunk, driven to the rendezvous by a chicly dressed young woman in a slick car who wants to join the expedition. The pair could easily belong to any society circle: Stalker simply, strictly tells the girl to go, and she speeds away, her whim casually extinguished. The Zone can be interpreted as a bomb-testing site or battlefield that’s become overgrown, but within which radiation or landmines still lurk. Shattered, rusting tanks and armament litter the Zone, remnants of the ill-fated attempts by the government, so Stalker recounts, to penetrate the Zone with military force. The detritus of a pulverised patch of civilisation is likewise scattered: in a long, seemingly pointless, but actually vital moment half-way through the film, Tarkovsky’s camera drifts away from his protagonists to study the material scattered in a waterway. Icons, books, prints, documents, ornamentation, machinery, medical equipment, a gun, utensils, and sundry other remnants of civilisation lie in a kind of dreamy stasis in the water. The Zone itself is steadily reclaiming all human materials into itself, which, whilst seemingly dominated by nature, has its own withholding, inhuman mystery restored.
Meanwhile, the Writer and the Scientist bicker and debate as they follow Stalker. That they stand in not only for their different professions, but also for philosophical disparities, is all too obvious, and the Writer lives up to his part with moments of sodden boorishness and self-pity with a certain level of stereotypical zest. He needles the Professor, a physicist who worked for a government department that seemingly oversees the Zone, over the inadequacies of his empirical worldview in the face of a place like the Zone, and the universe in general. Stalker’s natural, almost primitivist, crypto-spiritual intuition stands in contrast to both men’s forms of intellectualism. Writer nicknames him, half-pejoratively, “Chingachgook,” after James Fenimore Cooper’s Indian hero, and “Pathfinder” would be just as apt for Stalker, who feels rather than thinks his way across the landscape. What lends these schematic figures weight is the way everything is both abstracted to the point where almost nothing literal and everyday is identified definitively, so that the drama unfolding here can stand in for any era and many potential parables, and yet it’s all composed of entirely three-dimensional images and settings so potent in the physical details that you can practically smell the landscape, the characters sharply played and defined. In a way, Stalker is akin to a children’s game—remember how you once declared some random object a castle, and the ground suddenly became lava, and you had to find a way over it?
A similar sense of random danger and reality’s familiar rules rendered capricious dominates in the Zone. Indeed, Stalker expressly describes the Zone as capricious. Stalker relates to the Zone as a religion, a god, and quotes scripture incessantly: one of his more suggestive quotes comes directly after that long view of the detritus in the water, in which he speaks of men who did not recognise Jesus when he came to them because of his altered garb, suggesting that something within the story – the Zone perhaps, or perhaps Stalker himself, or his daughter – may be another divine messenger. At another point, Stalker recites passages from Revelations, and the mysterious object that fell to earth suddenly suggests the “star called Wormwood” from the same book, thus shifting the resonances of the story towards the apocalyptic.
Stalker defines the Zone as a place for people in a state of crisis and without hope; only the desperate can survive the Zone’s caprices, and perhaps only the Wishing Room can solve their problem. The Writer comes to view the Zone essentially as a heart of darkness, a regressive place that will reduce one’s will to a core, key desire, one that will become the “wish” in contradiction of any false (civilised) value one holds and tries to assert. An idealist may also be driven by covert misanthropy, and this hidden aspect will then define the wish. This view seems highlighted by the recounted fate of Porcupine, an enigmatic tale the Writer slowly unravels thanks to some of Stalker’s stories. Porcupine lured his talented poet brother there to be annihilated, and then, breaching the Stalkers’ code, entered the Wishing Room himself and received wealth. His suicide upon returning to the world was because he regretted killing his brother, but when he returned to wish for his brother’s return, the Zone would not grant it, because the original wish was truer. The threat of the wishes of utopians and religious freaks is as terrifying to the Writer and the Professor as those of the vengeful and the vicious. The Writer suggests his crises of faith and imagination at the outset when he tells the girl, “The world is governed by cast-iron laws, and it’s excruciatingly boring!” Cynical and driven by doubt, as he readily, even proudly, admits, he also seeks a proof of a god that will imbue his efforts with meaning. And yet he ultimately doesn’t want proof: he begins to understand that his doubt is a kind of weapon. The Professor is so scared of the Wishing Room’s potential that his own personal mission is to detonate an atomic bomb he’s been carrying in his knapsack in the Wishing Room, thus ridding the world of the threat entirely. Stalker tries to stop this, but Writer instead holds Stalker back, accusing Stalker of enjoying playing God in helping people reach the Wishing Room.
Stalker defends himself merely as a mediator, a man who tries to lead other men to the edge of something restorative. He seems more like a holy fool, and when he returns home he convulses in pain, both physical and emotional—that’s what those two pills (aspirin) were for—as he frets over the misanthropy and distrust of the two savants. On whatever level he believes in the Zone, as manifestation of the alien or even of the imagination itself, he worships its power. The possibility that the preternatural qualities of the Zone are an invention of Stalker’s is mooted, for the Professor learned everything about the place from him. There’s certainly something strange about the Zone is certain, confirmed by an opening scrawl written by a “Professor Wallace,” who may or may not be the same Professor in the film, the efforts of the guardians to keep people out of it, and the warnings of the Professor’s boss, but the peculiarity of the Zone might not necessarily be what Stalker says it is. What is certain is that Stalker takes his devotion to his job as seriously as any medieval monk. Such devotion is echoed by his wife, who recites a monologue directly to the camera stating that in spite of her writhing ecstatic tantrum at the outset, she’s never been unhappy with Stalker, knowing what she did about the dangers and how their children often ended up right from the start. Whether this can be read as a simple encomium to devotion as a trait in itself, or connected more deeply to her understanding of his sense of mission, such familial completeness as is seen at the start is both outset and endpoint of Stalker’s own journey. Stalker considers, at one point, moving his family into the Zone, reasoning they’ll be beyond harassment there.
For all the oblique, pensively intellectual, arty qualities of the film, it’s worth noting how unfussy the visuals are, and the workmanlike expertise with which Tarkovsky builds tension, particularly in the long, brilliantly orchestrated scene in which Stalker has the Writer enter a tunnel he dubs “the meat-grinder” because of the number of people who have died trying to traverse its length, and his subsequent stumbling into the sandtrap. Likewise, a certain wry, even black comedy percolates throughout, as when the Professor disappears and Stalker gives him up for dead, only to come upon him eating his lunch with ingenuous calm. This aspect of the film provides a definitive punch line once the three are inside the centremost building, only metres away from the Wishing Room. A telephone starts ringing, which the Writer, who was in the midst of one of his rants, picks up. He listens to the voice on the other end, shouts “No this is not a clinic,” slams the receiver down, turns away, and then all three men freeze dead still in sudden awareness of what just happened: this moment is delivered with the comedic precision of a Marx Brothers routine. The Professor’s response to realising there’s still a working telephone in the Zone is to call up his boss, who forbade him going on this mission, to mock him and gloat. The shadows of Beckett and Kafka lay over much of this material, even if the film’s specific flavour is less bludgeoning and negative than their work, and closer in spirit to magic-realism.
Finally, whilst the debates, confessions, and petty in-fighting of the three main characters are fascinating, it’s in Tarkovsky’s images where true wonder and ambiguity lie, refusing any simple reduction of the many interpretations and dimensions of the story, moving beyond the literal, and the literary, and into a realm of total cinema. It’s as if Tarkovsky set himself the task of pitting his images against intellectual formulae, and, amazingly, winning. The Zone retains its threat and mystery when the Writer and the Scientist and even Stalker himself have done everything to reduce its meaning and potential within coherent boundaries. More matter-of-factly, the film’s atmosphere is palpable, and Tarkovsky draws out the strange, poetic beauty of industrial wreckage invaded and infused by rebellious nature, as if in the median ground between civilisation, past, and future.
Where the film’s bookend scenes back in the city are filmed in a near-monochrome with a faintly bronzed tint, the Zone is a sprawl of muted, lustrous colour that returns in two concluding shots of Stalker’s daughter, immediately zeroing in on her as the vessel for something as strange and wondrous as in the Zone. Stalker’s devotion to her, carrying her on his shoulders across the inhospitable landscape, is both pathetic and joyous all at once, almost Dickensian, and yet the very last scene moves into a new realm. Like another, more earthbound, yet equally wondrous version of 2001’s star child, the girl sits in her little hovel vibrating to the passage of trains, stares dimly at glasses on the kitchen table, and begins to move them about telekinetically. Stalker’s adventures in the Zone have resulted in his offspring possessing something deeply abnormal, perhaps inhuman, and potentially terrifying. Yet Tarkovsky lets a snatch of Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” creep into the soundtrack, suggesting that where now the world shakes her house, some day she’ll shake the world right back.
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