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Director/Co-screenwriter: George A. Romero
It began when a short filmmaker and production aide working for host Fred ‘Mr’ Rogers’ Pittsburgh-based children’s TV show decided to make a horror movie. 27-year-old George A. Romero and his friends, bored with making anodyne entertainment and looking to make a splash, pooled resources financial and technical and formed a production company called Image Ten. The company set out to film a script Romero had written with pal John A. Russo, drawing on a short story Romero had penned, strongly inspired by Richard Matheson’s 1958 novella I Am Legend. With a budget trickling in from several sources that eventually added up to just over $100,000 dollars, the film shoot was largely restricted to weekends over a seven month period when cast and crew were free, out in the Pennsylvania hinterland. The best audition for the lead role the filmmakers saw was that of former academic turned performer Duane Jones, making the film one of the few of its kind to that date with an African-American leading man. Members of the crew and production staff doubled as cast members. Rogers supported Romero’s efforts but wouldn’t let him use a member of his cast star in the project, which seemed destined to exemplify the phrase “cheap and nasty.” Romero and his team, shooting on cheap 16mm black and white stock, fashioned their artisanal epic until they had a real film in the can, but then had a hard time selling it to a distributor because of the visceral gore and bleak ending. Even the estimable schlock palace AIP wouldn’t touch it. Their work, first entitled Night of the Flesh Eaters, was finally taken on by a low-rent New York company, the Walter Reade Organization, and premiered in 1968. Reviewers like Roger Ebert and moviegoers promptly freaked out, as the film was being shown without a censor classification, so children were being admitted to a film that features cannibalism and murder. The distributor had also retitled it Night of the Living Dead whilst forgetting to update the copyright, meaning that the movie slipped into the public domain almost immediately.
Why are people still talking about this forlorn labour a half-century later?
To be sure, Night of the Living Dead is no perfect artefact. But it’s the blend of cinematic intelligence and homespun crudity enforced by the circumstances of its production that made it instantly galvanising: the result vibrates with pitiless gall and insolent power, a statement from the fringe that hits right at the axis. Night of the Living Dead exemplified several new trends already in motion when it was released. The old Hollywood was splintering and a void had opened, where there were huge sums of money to be made from an audience TV and mainstream cinema couldn’t touch. The likes of no-budget goreteur Herschell Gordon Lewis had already proven the potential punch of low-budget horror movies made by filmmakers not just outside of the studio cinema system but also labouring away in what seemed to be backwaters of American cultural life. The low budget of Night of the Living Dead gave it a quality that money would have spoilt, a sense of closeness to genuine experience and a brusque countercultural authority. That latter quality was given a steroidal boost by the cruelly sarcastic finale, so similar to the one that would follow a year later in another legendary low-budget film, Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda’s Easy Rider. Romero’s thumb was feeling for the pulse of the zeitgeist, trying to say something about the psychic life of America in the late 1960s. Riots and protests were everywhere, institutions were rocked, the fabric of modern Western life tested in all quarters. Somehow, Night of the Living Dead records that landscape for us now more effectively than just about any other product of the age, even though it never tries to be overtly political, for it hit upon a near-endlessly malleable metaphorical framework to explore what’s happened to the modern body politic.
Surely that’s part of the reason why today Night of the Living Dead has conquered the world. A vast swathe of the entertainment industry today owes Romero and his ragged band royalties and suitable celebration. The explosion of zombie-themed entertainment that’s cropped up in the past decade or so, from the comic book and TV series The Walking Dead to films like World War Z (2013), only offer slight variations on Romero and Russo’s basic concept and Romero’s subsequent variations on it, in his follow-ups Dawn of the Dead (1978) and Day of the Dead (1985). Then again, what Romero owed Matheson and Alfred Hitchcock and the sci-fi monster flicks of the 1950s is not so negligible either. Romero had worked on the set of Hitchcock’s North by Northwest (1959) but it’s The Birds (1963) that Night of the Living Dead picks apart and stitches back together, a tale of besiegement by savage beasts featuring a blonde heroine who goes largely catatonic after peering grim fate in the eye. But where Hitchcock leaves off is where Romero starts, a point made obvious in the fate of initial, apparent protagonist, Barbra (Judith O’Dea), whose blindsiding experience of world-cracking terror and loss comes scant minutes into the film and leaves her ruined and near-mute for most of the next hour and a quarter. Hitchcock’s film used his inexplicable outbreak of hostility for a lesson that he not busy being born is busy dying, whereas Romero sees a point where everyone might just be dying. Night of the Living Dead can also be seen as the next way station on a trail blazed by Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) in creating the modern horror film, both in their approach to intimate violence as the new barometer of horrific effect and also in the way they look at the landscape, literal and figurative, we have lived in since the post-World War 2 settlement.
The film’s opening scene also incorporates a commentary on horror film history, as Barbra and her brother Johnny (Russell Streiner) arrive in a cemetery out in rural spaces, on their ritual yearly visit performed on behalf of their incapacitated mother to their father’s grave. Johnny employs an impression of a Boris Karloff-like creep to scare Barbra. Like the same year’s Targets, which actually employed Karloff for the same end, Romero here zeroes in on the way the argot of classical horror represented by the venerable English star had become campy and passé, but still possessed an unsettling quality needing a new context to find effect: Johnny’s jokey evocation of horror immediately sets the scene for the real thing. But it’s daytime, in the quiet expanses of the Pennsylvania countryside – surely nothing bad can happen here. The mood is one of tolerance and tested nerves and banal frustration. The string tethering the siblings to this show of familial loyalty is perilously thin, and Johnny keeps testing it, claiming to barely remember his father. He cynically notes that they might as well have bought the same memorial wreath for the grave a few dozen times – mourning is another tacky industry. The toey, distracted tone of this opening suggests disquiet and discomfort already roiling under the surface – Johnny’s irritable distaste for the business he’s been forced to perform is all but tangible as he clearly wants to leave behind his past, with his affectations of hipster playboy, whilst the nervy, already suggestively fragile Barbra can’t escape it and perhaps doesn’t want to. They’re chicks who have clawed their way out of the shell of the classic nuclear family variably well. Johnny can still send Barbra spiralling back into childhood with his sardonic mockery. But the shambling figure Johnny takes for a roaming wino and nominates as one of the looming monsters (“They’re coming to get you, Bar-bra!”) proves to actually be a brute, attacking Barbra and stirring a show of actual brotherly feeling from Johnny, who immediately pays the price as he gets his head bashed in against a gravestone. Barbra flees back to the car but doesn’t have any keys, so tries to escape the ravening stranger by freewheeling down a slope. This gives her enough space to flee on foot towards a nearby house.
The qualities of Night of the Living Dead that distinguished it from the pack are made instantly apparent in this opening movement. The deceptively calm and tepid atmosphere, loaned a sombre unease by the black and white photography, gives way to a sudden ferocity that’s still remarkable, conveyed by the actors and Romero’s intense camerawork and editing. Most low-budget and independent horror films before this were laborious in their use of the camera; now suddenly the limitations of the form became an asset, in the free and kinetic deployment of the camera matched to the urgency of the action in a manner that’s never exactly documentary-like – Romero’s framings and use of canted angles are far too careful for that – but has something like the same immediacy. The mean jolts of irony that underpin the narrative as a whole first are first felt here. It’s in the switchback from sardonic calm to survival scramble, in the actualisation of Barbra’s unease in the graveyard, in Johnny’s swift demise springing to defend the sister he was teasing seconds before, joining the father he can’t remember as a corpse in a cemetery in Nowheresville. Barbra’s flight from the pursuing zombie takes her to a refuge that proves a trap, the contradiction that defines the rest of the narrative. She finds the farmhouse apparently empty, with only a gruesomely mutilated corpse lying on the stairs for company. The phone is out. The solitude is terrible. She runs for the door only to be pinioned by the glare of headlights: a pick-up truck pulls up and its driver, Ben (Jones), leaps out to urge her back into the house. Ben has just barely survived his own encounter with more of the mysteriously animated corpses lurching around the countryside, and with the fuel in the truck he appropriated nearly exhausted, sees no choice but to make a stand in the farmhouse.
Ben’s appearance, suddenly thrusting his face into frame, at first an apparent threat swooping out of the dark to grab Barbra, is a brief but notable rupture in the otherwise crisp visual textures: the nominal hero arrives in a blur, a shock to Barbra’s already fried sensory organs. Like one of the film’s spiritual descendants, Alien (1979), the apparently random choice of lead performer loaned potent subtext that isn’t acknowledged in the script or surface drama, but still inflects what we see. Barbra’s shrinking, quaking behaviour as Ben enlists her in his survival efforts could be the fear of someone out of her depth and thrust into an intense situation with a total stranger, and also that of a prim suburban white girl who’s never been so close to a black man in her life. Ben’s got-his-shit-together coolness under pressure seems to contrast Barbra’s rapidly fraying nerves – her rapid spiral into almost disembodied hysteria as she makes account of what happened to her contrasts Ben’s curious, bewildered but cooler narrative, and his implorations “I think you should just stay calm,” voiced as he goes about his business. But this is in part a miscue, as Ben’s experience replays Barbra’s at greater length. Soon, after Ben battles and kills several of the ghouls and begins makeshift barricades, they’re joined by more survivors, revealed to have been hiding in the basement: middle-aged, balding Harry Cooper (Karl Hardman), his wife Helen (Marilyn Eastman), and daughter Karen (Kyra Schon), and the younger couple Tom (Keith Wayne) and Judy (Judith Ridley). A fault-line quickly splits these would-be survivors as they’re faced with weathering this storm, as Harry advocates holing up in the basement where they only have a single door to worry about, whilst Ben wants to continue barricading the house, to have open ground to fight in or flee to. Tom mediates between the two men’s heated exchanges, whilst Ben declares himself in charge of anyone who wants to remain upstairs with him.
It goes almost without saying that most of the nascent power and specific inspiration of Night of the Living Dead lies in the way it constantly looks past the zombie horde, whose appetites are basic and instinctual and whose threat is close to abstract, to consider the living instead. But the zombies deserve appreciation. Romero didn’t think of them as zombies, a name with roots lie in specific religious traditions, black magic, and spell-casting, as beings under the will of manipulators or influenced by curses. Romero’s zombies are described here as mutations, animated by a mysterious radiation cloud released when an experimental deep-space probe rocket was destroyed before it could land on Earth, an idea that connects Night of the Living Dead less with precursors in zombie cinema like Victor Helperin’s White Zombie (1932) or John Gilling’s Plague of the Zombies (1966) than with sci-fi like The Quatermass Xperiment (1955) and atomic monster flicks in the Godzilla (1954) tradition, as well as strong similarities to Terence Fisher’s cheap but creepy The Earth Dies Screaming (1964). The idea of making the living dead cannibalistic killers was drawn from the source myth behind the word ghoul. But zombie is such a cool word. Romero would drop this explanation in later instalments, in part because it was unnecessary. The zombies are the ultimate Other, a tabula rasa of terror, possessing no motive, no will, no identity, beyond what natural drive dictates, gruesome shells of being that both defy and embody death. This helps explain their easy popularity today. Moreover, the basic narrative of Night of the Living Dead has many echoes not just from earlier sci-fi and horror films but also Westerns and colonialist adventure stories with the zombies subbing for Indians or tribal Africans laying siege to a microcosmic collective, but allowing those narratives to be sustained without socio-political and racial specifics, which can then be suggested at will. Romero’s undead lurch around dazedly, seeking out any form of sustenance with the appetite of the damned, advancing not with great speed or force but relentless intent, and turning on like ravening animals when they have what they want in their sights.
By contrast, the humans want above all to survive their ordeal. The will to survival, a trait usually granted respect in the types of narrative Night of the Living Dead takes inspiration from and depicted as informing noble efforts to band together and act selflessly, here is probed at with a ruthless sense of the way character and outlook affect the way we approach situations, finding the opposite tendency. When alone, Ben’s activity seems entirely sensible, as he boards up the house’s doors and windows, seeks out weaponry, and prepares for siege, but the emergence of others in the house instead of relieving tension only provokes a concurrent conflict. The clash between Ben and Harry doesn’t just polarise the movie but still feels like the basic archetype of modern communal quandary, interpretable on several levels – black fight versus white flight, communal action versus self-interest, internationalism versus isolationism, on and on. The microcosmic conceit sees Ben and Harry taking on their separate kingdoms, barking orders and warnings at each-other, with Tom trying to mediate for an outcome. The women are by and large relegated to staying out of the way (in his interesting if comparatively saggy remake in 1990, Tom Savini revised this element smartly so that Barbra, instead of going catatonic, turns into a killing machine, detaching from humanity in a different way) or settling for commentary, as Marilyn acerbically cuts her husband down to size (“That’s important isn’t it – to be right.”) in miniature Albee scenes, paving the way for Romero’s more overt and pointed engagement with feminist themes on Season of the Witch (1971) and the later Dead movies.
Ben has the gun, retrieved from a cupboard in the house; Harry’s overwhelming need becomes to gain possession of this symbol of male power over his antagonist, who is in turn determined not to be reduced to passively waiting to see if the monsters break in on him or not. But none of these people are absolutely right or wrong, or entirely competent. Harry’s clammy, truculent yet actually timorous demeanour is based in part in concern for his family, particularly his daughter, who’s wasting away from an injury, whilst Ben has no-one he must be personally responsible for. He’s the kind of guy you want in the trenches with you, but his instinct to get away from the house and make for a rescue station pushes him to advocate a risky and eventually catastrophic venture. This sense of human frailty is another aspect of Night of the Living Dead’s adroitness, perhaps indeed its greatest aspect. Romero refuses to stroke our egos and present the usual avatars of our best imagined selves, but provides instead figures desperately improvising, spiralling into panic or thrusting themselves into risks for the sake of action in the belief it must be preferable to inaction. Barbra’s instincts work beautifully in fighting for her life but then collapse once necessity wanes and she’s left to ponder just what happened, and in a similar way Ben’s own attempt to rationally solve his problem proves self-destructive. Ben’s attempt to lead an escape from the house, with Tom’s help and Judy’s fearful imposition, by obtaining petrol for the truck from a locked pump near the house devolves into a comedy of errors and then hideous tragedy. Nothing quite goes right, and the end result is the truck exploding in flames, killing Tom and Judy, and Ben, running back to the house, finds himself locked out by Harry. Harry does eventually let him in, only to get a beating from Ben. Another jagged irony is thrown up, that the ultimate as Harry’s belief the basement is the safest place is proven correct.
Part of the mystique of Night of the Living Dead and Romero’s early films in general lies in their pungent sense of time and place, their genuineness in evoking the lives of suburbanites and the citizens of out-of-the-way places – the lives of quiet desperation in There’s Always Vanilla (1971) and Season of the Witch, the decimated small town of The Crazies (1973), and the blasted urban drear of Martin (1977), films that locate a zone somewhere between genre film and neorealism. Romero’s unknown, sometimes amateur casts and location shooting informed this authenticity that often also shades into awkwardness in acting. But his characters are deftly sketched, arriving as people who seem to have walked right into the films from life. Nobody in Night of the Living Dead is particularly special – that’s why their fate is compelling, the sense this is happening to anyone and everyone. The film’s novelty as horror lay not just in the graphic depictions of cannibalism that comes as the zombies feast on the nicely cooked remains of Tom and Judy, but in its extension of a note sounded in Psycho. Horror is now based in the utterly humdrum modern world, welling out of septic psyches, the effluence of scientific-industrial progress, and decaying bodies, clinging like a faint, indefinable, yet certainly noxious aroma to things formerly thought of as clean and upstanding and mundane, from noble old houses to quaint churchyards and open country spaces, as well infesting the good old family unit.
Night of the Living Dead is preoccupied with both the bonds that tie people together and also the forces that hold them at odds and foil best intentions. In its way, then, it’s a profoundly neighbourly film – perhaps Romero hadn’t come so far from Mr Rogers perhaps after all. You can imagine the dull potpourri-scented parlours at home and the bus rides Barbra takes back in the city, something Jonny has declared independence from with his flashy sports car. And what’s he doing on the weekend? Ferrying his sister out to place a plastic memorial wreath on his father’s grave on the behest of a senescent elder. Ben tries to create a safe zone and invites everyone to share it even as he and Harry take “my way or the highway” attitudes. The film’s survivalist theme plugs into a system of anxiety that had begun buzzing in the early nuclear age and was starting to go into overdrive in the context of the late ‘60s: Harry is the archetypal white suburban father anxiously shepherding his family into a bunker and hoping to get hold of a weapon in case he needs to hold off social collapse. In this regard Night of the Living Dead can also be seen as an extension of Ray Milland’s little-known but intriguing attempt to portray post-atomic war straits engulfing a normal family, Panic in the Year Zero (1962), and looking forward to a generation of films like Damnation Alley (1977) and Mad Max (1979), obsessed with the post-apocalyptic landscape. Romero also drew on the lone film work of another director from well beyond the pale, Herk Harvey, who like Romero had roots in making pedagogic shorts and helmed the shoestring classic Carnival of Souls (1962). Quite apart from Harvey’s example as a low-budget filmmaker for Romero, his ashen-faced, black-eyed ghouls stalked locations that evoked corners of the American landscape left vacant and decaying in changing times grasped the same mood of blasted alienation and parochial anxiety.
Romero’s background in regional television and his interest in the way communal infrastructure is both erected to handle calamity and is disturbingly vulnerable to it is constantly evinced throughout the film. The characters in the house urgently try to tune into radio and TV to glean understanding of the situation and find what they should do: Romero understands the modern world as a zone of networks people rely on scarcely without thinking. Night of the Living Dead evokes the eerie, paranoid sensation of tuning into some emergency broadcast station in the middle of the night, beaming out test pattern in boding readiness for the moment when it might be needed. It’s chiefly access to communication devices that entices Harry and his fellows out of the basement for any length of time. The news anchors trying to fill people in on apparently incoherent and unbelievable events contextualise the impossible in familiar terms: the zombie revolution will be televised. Ben and the others make their ill-fated venture out of the house partly in hope of heading to one of the rescue stations advertised on the TV. Tellingly, at the outset of Dawn of the Dead, Romero depicts behind the scenes at a TV station with an argument about beaming out details about rescue stations that might have been overwhelmed by ghouls already. Romero’s follow-ups became increasingly apocalyptic in tenor, each one less a sequel in the usual sense than a revision that ups the scale of the problem each time, reflecting the metastasizing nature of Romero’s concerns. As it’s made clear here, the best method of handling the zombies is quickly established and the roaming National Guard and militias out in the countryside are having no particular problem cleaning up the fiends. This suggestion of possible containment of the problem makes this sharper as a drama of personal endurance on one level and perhaps more sardonic too as it throws more emphasis onto the failings of the heroes rather than the inevitability of their predicament, even if it robs the tale of the biblical scale touched on in Romero’s later takes.
The word “taboo” is often employed when discussing Night of the Living Dead, and for good reason, as it’s a work dedicated to demolishing them on both the dramatic and thematic levels. In a film driven by its contemplation of the tenuousness of human relations, Romero resolves this motif by locating dark, nihilistic revelry in the worst possible permutation of those relations with the cold, unremitting aim of an Enlightenment satirist like Swift, De Sade, or Voltaire, sharing with their ilk an unfettered readiness to unravel just about any presumption of Western civilisation from Homer on. With the bonus of gleefully trashing just about every nicety of genre storytelling and the presumptions of commercial storytelling. So, the handsome, innocent young couple are roasted alive and then eaten. The two alpha males, far from learning to work together and respect each-other, devolve into primal battle for control of a weapon, resulting in Ben shooting Harry like a commander in the field executing a mutinous officer. Marilyn and Barbra all die at the hands of loved-ones, as Barbra is snatched by the revived and zombified Johnny and fed to the horde of ghouls he’s joined, whilst dying Harry becomes dinner for his daughter who has succumbed to the malady too, before she stabs her horrified mother to death with a trowel. One of Romero’s finer gifts as a filmmaker was his ability to shoot physical action in a manner that invests it with a voluble sense of physical immediacy (at least in his early films – his more recent work is ordinary in this regard), and this is particularly vital in the film’s climactic scenes as the defence of the house swiftly and brutally collapses when the ghoul horde becomes large enough to bash through the barricades – death comes at the protagonists from every direction. Barbra finally snaps out of her daze right at the moment of crisis and leaps into action with surprising energy, to no avail.
Most pungently and infamously, Ben, suddenly alone and faced with a seemingly unstoppable tide of the marauders, is forced to take refuge in the basement with two half-eaten bodies that revive, forcing him to shoot them, and await the dawn. At long last daylight creeps in, the militia arrive gunning down ghouls all about, and Ben ventures out of his hiding place to cautiously investigate his rescuers – only to get a bullet in the forehead in the presumption he’s just another zombie. Ben’s body is dragged out with hooks to join the ghouls on the bonfire under the opening credits. Jones would go on to star in Bill Gunn’s black cultural riposte, Ganja & Hess (1973). This chilling, utterly deadpan final act exacerbates the film’s political dimensions of course, but also plays in part as a MAD Magazine-like lampoon extending Romero’s attack on narrative clichés. The cavalry has arrived to rescue our hero from siege by the savages, but just a little too late, and he’s just another moving target for a mob of trigger-happy hicks. In a year that had seen Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy gunned down by reactionaries, in which racial and countercultural action constantly nudged the edges of overt insurrection and in which the potential looming spectre of a whole race of angry Harrys emerging from their basements now armed and eager to blast anything dissenting and threatening, Ben’s death didn’t just feel ironic, or tragic, but inevitable. I particularly like the leader of the militia’s jaunty cockaded hat, a touch that gives him a spiritual link to the burgomasters leading mobs in Universal horror films, and with the suspicious undercurrent of lynch mob justice in those films suddenly brought out into the open. But what seems most chilling about watching Night of the Living Dead today is the revelation just how deep Romero’s insight into his culture went. On many levels, the film seems to be just as true about 2016 as it was about 1968.
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Director: Fritz Lang
By Roderick Heath
The title resolves amidst intersecting geometries that coalesce and create a cityscape, ranged with neo-Babylonian techno-ziggurats: Metropolis, instantly a statement worthy of Ozymandias. A super-city where trains and cars shuttle along spanning bridges and aircraft buzz between sky-nudging structures. A great machine that explodes and morphs into a dark god of ages past, accepting human sacrifice into a greedy, fiery maw. A great dial of switches becomes a massive clock crushing its operator. A dark and twisted fairytale abode left like a seed of corruption in the midst of this empire of the will. The outpost of an ancient brand of faith discovered underground, to where the beaten and exhausted tread in search of hope. A beam of light in the midst of a dank, labyrinthine catacomb, terrorising and pinioning a saintly young woman. A robot fashioned in the likeness of a human, all art-deco brass curves and blank features, wreathed by electric arcs, slowly taking on the likeness of the same young woman. The robotic simulacrum dancing like Salome reborn, stirring the lusts of men until their eyes join together in a great mass of rapacious gazing. Statues of the seven deadly sins lurching out of their stalls in a Gothic cathedral, announcing the coming of calamity and death. A mass of desperate children all reaching out for their saviours in the midst of surging flood waters. A rooftop struggle between hero and villain for the life of the heroine, the battle of good and evil staged as vertiginous graph written on the face of a civilisation.
These are some of the lodestone images of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, and it’s still easy to feel their power even after intervening decades where their genetic material is woven into pop culture at large. If A Trip to the Moon was the seed of science fiction on screen, Metropolis is its green stem, and much more too. The floodtide of Fritz Lang’s visual techniques and the expanse of the film’s evocation of the future might have met resistance of mind and eye in its day, but even in an abused and truncated form enough of his vision remained to stun the eye and light the creative spark.
Director Lang and his creative and personal partner Thea Von Harbou had climbed swiftly to the peak of the German film industry thanks to highly ambitious, stylistically radical films that provided basic engineering for cinema as it found maturity and began to branch into different streams of genre and style. Lang, working under the influence of Louis Feuillade, had taken his template and pushed it into stranger places with his rollicking action-adventure diptych The Spiders (1919), and had written the script for the film that kicked off the Expressionist cinema style, The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1919). Lang’s first great opus, Dr Mabuse, the Gambler (1922), embodied the shock of the new in cinema, telling in the mode of epic melodrama a tale of crisis in modernity by depicting someone capable of manipulating its many aspects, and then his follow-up Die Nibelungen (1924) had delved into the foundational myth of Germany to explore the ructions that cause tragedy and the ideals and fidelities that make civilisations. Metropolis was destined to be the third chapter in this survey, a myth of the future if still based in the pressing quandaries of the present and articulated through a vast array of concepts from the cultural inheritance. Von Harbou wrote a novel specifically to use as the basis of the script, and the production took over Germany’s flagship film studio UFA in the midst of the national inflation travails that helped shake what little confidence there was in the Weimar republic. Lang’s lordly vision took a toll on cast and crew, fortunes were spent, and the reaction to the film’s initial was like cold water hitting hot metal, warping all perception of Lang’s achievement. Metropolis’s sniffy reception sounds familiar today, as many called it a giant would-be blockbuster that is all visual bluster and no substance. A film hated by no lesser personage in the budding science fiction genre than H.G. Wells. A film Lang himself later disowned, perhaps feeling that well had been too badly poisoned.
After barely recouping Metropolis’s massive expense upon release, UFA was compelled to let Paramount Pictures buy it out. Metropolis spent much of the next thirty years being cut down and reshaped, until what was left was so confused many thought it had always been that way. It was adopted as fetish object and style guide by the Nazis, who wanted to emulate its monumental aesthetic and absorb its message system into their own, and Von Harbou herself became an active party member. The film eventually became a pop art moveable feast, including being appropriated as a music video by Giorgio Moroder. Only in the past couple of decades has Metropolis been mostly restored to the point where it can be properly judged and studied according to Lang’s original intention. And yet, in spite of such manhandling, Metropolis still stands as one of the most influential films ever made. Metropolis provided a blueprint for envisioning a wing of the imagination encompassing dreamlike horizons, conjoining both the imminently possible and the ages of humankind so far into a grandiose survey of conceptual iconography. Much like the space opera that formed much of science fiction’s first popular phase on the page and which still survives chiefly thanks to Star Wars, Metropolis tries to comprehend the future and the present in terms of the past, envisioning an age of technical marvel and scientific miracle as a new version of the old alchemistic fantasia and the greatest dreams of imperial domain, whilst asking on what foundations such superstructures grow.
Metropolis is, of course, like most variations on the utopia-dystopia scale, actually an account of the moment of its making, thrown into sharp relief on a mimetic map. The tensions that termite Metropolis are the tensions lurking under the brittle façade of Weimar Germany, where, in the wake of World War I’s calamity, far left and far right agitators had clashed on the streets and nearly seized the machinery of government. The entire apparatus of state had been shaken, and reconstruction, the surge of newness pushing the nation forward, presented a political and social landscape few understood and felt at ease with. Even money wasn’t worth anything. The essential theme of labour versus management was more universal, and the new reality of much work in the early twentieth century, which turned humans into parts in huge assemblies, was taken into Metropolis to its logical conclusion, envisioning a carefully stratified human populace where some live in regimented, downcast, utterly slavish existences, doomed to run the infrastructure that allows more comfortable lives for the rest. Metropolis is the future itself, situated in no identified nation or age. Captain of this great project is Joh Fredersen (Alfred Abel), architect of the city and its Tyrant in the original sense, oligarchic master and civic administrator. Fredersen lives in the “New Tower of Babel,” a skyscraper at the city’s lofty hub.
Metropolis isn’t just a city he has been elected to run or master but his own brainchild, his ego-empire, the expression of human will essayed on the greatest scale. Metropolis is also in part a variation on a familiar conflict between fathers and sons, the stern and acquiescing pragmatism of age versus the idealism of youth, another universal topic also bound to gain impetus in the coming years. Fredersen’s son Freder (Gustav Fröhlich) is the child of privilege, anointed amongst the rich and blessed, free to train body and mind to maximum potential in his days before taking his ease with the procured lovelies invited to the pleasure gardens of the city’s rooftop expanses. But his life is set to be changed by the intrusion of a woman, Maria (Brigitte Helm), who ushers in a collective of urchins gathered from the lower reaches, to give them a look at the closest thing to heaven, the world Freder inhabits thoughtlessly. This gives the princeling his first sight of inequity and of the woman who becomes the instant lynchpin of his existence. Maria and her charges are quickly ushered out of this exalted sphere but Freder becomes determined both to find Maria and acquaint himself with the lives of Metropolis’s workers. The realm he ventures into proves to be a scene out of a fantasia where Dante co-authors with Dickens and Picasso. Here cowed and regimented workers trudge through blank, institutional corridors and take up work stations at hulking machines where they perform repetitive, arduous tasks for ten hour shifts.
An explosion in a massive machine inspires the horrified Freder to think of Moloch, the wicked god of Biblical lore. Seeing a young worker collapse at a station where he works a dial-like switching control, Freder rushes to take his place. The worker, whose name is Georgy but is snidely affixed merely with the title 11811 by the bosses, swaps clothes with Freder, who sends him to take refuge in his apartment. Freder struggles through the rest of his shift, almost broken trying to keep up with the vital task. Another worker, mistaking him for Georgy, whispers to him about a meeting Maria has called, and Freder joins the workers who descend into the ancient catacombs under the city to listen to Maria give a sermon. Fredersen, wishing to split Freder from Maria and to break her moral influence over the workers and gain an excuse to establish martial law, visits scientist and inventor C.A. Rotwang (Rudolf Klein-Rogge), who has constructed a perfect humanoid robot, a Machine Man: Fredersen wants Rotwang to give it Maria’s appearance, and use it to stir up trouble.
Lang explained that the root of Metropolis lay in a visit he made to New York in 1924, confronted by the looming grandeur of the city’s skyscrapers, floating like a dream fashioned from glass and steel, erected with all the promise of the age’s new possibilities but also stirring some profound anxiety, a fear of being dwarfed and pinioned by the weight of such achievements. The novel version of Metropolis was then written by Von Harbou as a parable about winners and losers in the modern world and Metropolis still feels strikingly relevant in choosing this as subject matter, as it remains the basic, ever-urgent matter at the heart of the modern dream. The first target of criticism of Metropolis is usually its storyline, which is usually judged not just simple but simplistic and naïve to boot in its treatment of social schisms. And that’s undoubtedly true on some levels. The film’s recurring motto, “The mediator between the head and the hands must be the heart,” is on the face of it a purely humanistic, essentialist slogan. But it’s not such a great stretch of the imagination to link the magical thinking behind it in regards to social philosophy with openness to similarly trite thought that would soon seduce the screenwriter along with millions of others to the Nazi cause. The solution at the end of Metropolis indicts the troublemaker and presents rapprochement between upper and lower classes as a matter simply of mutual respect and good-heartedness. Fredersen, who has built a city on iniquity and laboured to find an excuse to permanently and violently oppress his working class, is let off the hook because he gets anxious over his own son.
Metropolis is in part an attack on a worker’s revolt as an aim, seeing it as prone to demagoguery and manipulation and destructive in it results. On the other hand, it’s also a fervent attack on capitalist power as self-perpetuating, blinding, and dehumanising. Metropolis proceeds with a plot that is certainly close to comic book. To comment on Metropolis on this level, though, is to misunderstand it crucially. Metropolis invokes a vast sprawl of mythopoeic associations, and represents a clear and direct continuation of Die Nibelungen’s obsessive attempts to grapple with social identity and construction, using the language of mythology as starting point for a work of conjuring that unfolds on levels not just of story and action but in design, costuming, lighting, the entire texture sprawling across the screen. Metropolis betrays an ambition towards creating a total work of art, the gesamtkunstwerk which had been Wagner’s ideal and also had become the credo of the Bauhaus movement, whose cultural vitality and concepts Lang surely had in mind whilst making the film. Metropolis sometimes recalls nothing less momentous than the religious paintings of Ravenna or the sculptures of the Parthenon: we are looking into a way of conceiving the world from side-on, as an illustrative, holistic sprawl. Many of these mythical refrains are biblical, including the parable of the prodigal son and the captivity in Babylon.
Both Maria and Fredersen conceive the world in terms of legend, each employing the tale of Babel to make their own statement: Fredersen’s New Tower, with his gleaming citadel, announces to man and heaven his lordship over all, whilst Maria recalls the calumny and division implied at the root of such mammoth human projects. The speech she gives to the gathered workers is not a literal political tract but a parable recalling the original myth of the Tower of Babel from Genesis, tweaking it into a tract where in the destruction of the great human project came about because the visionaries designing the tower could not speak the same language, literally and figuratively, as the people hired to build it, causing riot and destruction. She casts Freder in the role of mediator, the man who can link above and below both personally and symbolically. Maria herself recalls the history of early Christianity’s practice in the catacombs of Rome, with similarities to Henryk Sienkiewicz’s much-filmed novel Quo Vadis?, casting Maria as voice of Christian charity and brotherhood. Freder discovers her in her underground church amidst the dark and twisted reaches of the catacomb, the sacred an island in the nightmarish space.
Other aspects recall the mythology Lang and Von Harbou had examined on Die Nibelungen, as faces and identities are swapped. Freder cast as a young Siegfried-like hero who ventures out to battle with dragons and finds himself swiftly engaged in a much more profound battle for the future of a society where covert designs and mysterious doppelgangers manipulate events. And of course, that other great Germanic myth, Faust, could be the overarching frame – all this represents what happens when mankind sells its soul for progress. The subplot of the twin Marias echo of one variation of classical Greek legend, one that Euripides utilised in his play Helen, in which the real Helen was duplicated by the gods, with the real Helen being whisked away to Egypt where she lived in captivity and incognito whilst her malicious double caused the Trojan War. The way the Trojan myths entwine the cultural and political with the personal and in particular the sexual points to the similar ambition propelling Metropolis, which was in part designed by Von Harbou as a lampooning of the liberated Weimar “new woman” in the figure of the provocative, sensual, carelessly destructive cyborg Maria, a chimera created by the denizens of the new age to enact their not-so-secret desires. Whereas for Lang, this element fits rather into his career-long fascination with the power of the irrational to warp the sturdiest superstructure of ethics and security, of which sexual desire is the most readily apparent and eternally vexing manifestations.
The crux for the atavistic and futuristic is Rotwang, the archetype of the mad scientist with his wild hair and gloved cybernetic hand whose persona was set to echo on and on through pop culture to come. But he’s also a projection of the ancient figure of the dark magician into a contemporary realm, the alchemist who rewrites laws of nature and steals the power of gods and demons and who worships idols, having turned the visage of his great love into a monument and has pentagrams festooned around his laboratory. Rotwang lives in a twisted, ancient building at the centre of Metropolis. He is linked to Fredersen not just in rivalry as radically different versions of the same titan-genius, but through a very personal link: the lost love was a woman named Hel, who married Fredersen rather than him and died giving birth to Freder. Fredersen’s request of him to aid his designs in regaining total control present Rotwang with a way to destroy him instead, by attacking the city he has built and the son who is the living link to Hel. Rotwang’s name – red wing in English – invokes both satanic stature and political danger. Like Faust, he conjures the Hel(en) figure as incarnation of taunting desirability and illusory object of yearning. His house is a hangover of Gothic fantasia clinging like a weed to the flank of the supercity, but also sits atop a well that leads into the dank labyrinth below the city. Rotwang is the jilted and obsessive lover who has castrated himself in surrendering his hand in creating a facsimile of woman. He knows too well the dark drives of humankind, which allows him to occupy this place, the gateway into secret human motives and the power of the illogical white-anting Fredersen’s ego-empire.
Lang’s obsession with underworlds, first evinced in The Spiders which conceived of a Chinese colony lurking underneath San Francisco and recurring again and again in his cinema, here has bloomed into something close to a form of psychic architecture that conceives of the whole of Metropolis as a mind, complete with id, ego, and superego, rational stretches and irrational depths, its holy and profane women, its young crusader torn between three father figures, one mad but powerful in mind and emotion, one timid and entrapped, the last seemingly dead in all nerves but will. Similar ideas are evinced in a very different setting in Von Harbou’s The Indian Tomb, a novel set in an Indian city (which Lang would film much later) where the progressive Maharajah’s stirred erotic jealousy turns his world into a repressive state and the shiny bastions of the exterior conceal basements where zombie-like lepers. Rotwang chases down Maria after the workers depart, stalking her through the labyrinth and terrorising her with a torch beam, ironically inverts the image of light in darkness as the bringing of terror and the pitiless of eye of technology (the movie camera?) to the subterranean realm where emotion is truth, to torment the holy innocent.
Maria and Freder’s journey is linked with two men Freder helps release from their slots in the great machine, Georgy and Josaphat (Theodor Loos). The latter works as aide to Fredersen but gets fired for not being prompt enough in reports, a devastating act that will doom Josaphat to a degrading existence as unemployable pariah. But Freder, as he did with Georgy, throws him a lifeline by letting him take refuge in his apartment and taking him on as a partner in his venture to change Metropolis. Just as Georgy is a near-double for Freder, his less lucky, anointed brother in look and soul, Josaphat has been Freder’s more human surrogate father almost incidentally as the man who took care of his needs on his father’s behalf. Josaphat’s growth from toady to hero is one of the film’s most entertaining elements. But Georgy has been sidetracked by the allure of the high life, and, fuelled by the cash in the clothes Freder loaned him, he goes for a night on the town in the Yoshiwara Club, the favourite night spot for the city elite. Both Georgy and Josaphat come under the thumb of one of Fredersen’s agents, known only as the Thin Man (Fritz Rasp), who bullies and blackmails both men into retreating into the underworld. Freder himself is imprisoned in Rotwang’s house when he hears, by chance, Maria’s screams coming from inside. Entering the abode, he finds himself duelling with the automated doors that steadily shepherd him into the attic and lock him in. Rotwang places the unconscious Maria in a mechanism in his laboratory that steadily reconstructs the Machine Man’s exterior into a perfect double of Maria.
The resulting creation is a demonically sensual and taunting succubus operating under Rotwang’s command, and even Fredersen, who knows well what it is, can’t resist when it visits him. Freder breaks out of Rotwang’s house and arrives back at his father’s office in time to see what looks like his father and his lover embracing. The crisis of disillusion on top of his agonised and exhausting adventures is so great Freder collapses in a delirium. The Robot-Maria, sent out by Rotwang to stir up anarchy, performs before the uptown folk at the Yoshiwara Club, Whore of Babylon going jazz age burlesque priestess. The cyborg’s starkly erotic, physically frenetic performance stokes the ritzy crowd, all milk-fed whelps produced by the idealistic, Olympian reaches of the city like Freder, into a grotesque mass of lust. The veneer of civilisation is peeled off like a chrysalis, and soon they’re duelling each-other and staging mass orgies, distracting the scions of the governing class from the chaos about to be unleashed by Robot-Maria’s more pertinent campaign. It takes the place of the still-imprisoned Maria and now preaches destruction of Metropolis’s utility systems, to bring the oppressors low. Freder, Josaphat, and Georgy try to calm the crowd but the workers try to assault Freder, and Georgy is stabbed to death when he throws himself in front of him. Led by Robot-Maria, the workers swarm to assault the Metropolis systems, finally destroying the great “Heart Machine” that coordinates the utilities, paralysing the city. But the workers’ actions unleash a flood that begins to fill their own city with water, threatening to drown their children who have remained behind.
Metropolis would be remarkable enough for the beauty and ingenuity put into what Lang puts in front of his camera, the sets by Otto Hunte, Erich Kettelhut, and Karl Volbrecht, Eugen Schüfftan’s radically innovative model photography, and Walter Schulze-Mittendorff’s totemic design for the Machine Man. But the cinematic textures of Metropolis in cutting, shooting, and use of the camera are equally impressive and represent silent cinema at its most innovative, amassing into an artefact that proves, scarcely a decade after the crude yet sufficiently significant grammar of Birth of a Nation (1915) helped officially open up the true cinematic age, just how vigorous the new medium had become, and looking forward to the ebullient freedoms of Abel Gance’s Napoleon (1927). Lang had Hollywood’s spectacles his sights, the colossi fashioned by Griffith and Cecil B. DeMille and laid out for stars like Douglas Fairbanks and Lon Chaney, hoping to prove European cinema could not just match such production heft but outdo it for artistry. Lang and his brilliant technical team, which also included cinematography greats Karl Freund and Günther Rittau, explored almost every facet of the medium possible in the time.
The surveys of Metropolis demanded the creation of a landscape through huge mock-ups and complex model work. The scenes of Robot-Maria’s creation and the destruction of the Heart Machine interpolation of photographic elements in a combination familiar in many respects now but still startling in their eye-filling beauty and inventiveness in context. Midway through the film, Lang launches into an astonishing movement after Freder’s discovery of his father with Robot-Maria. Freder’s mental disintegration is depicted in flourishes of abstract animation and herky-jerky editing that resembles the labours of experimental filmmakers. Robot-Maria’s dance is then intercut with Freder’s raving fantasies, in which he sees the Thin Man as evil priest repeating Maria’s sermon as rhapsodic incantation that stirs the forces of death and destruction into motion. The allegorical pantheon of the deadly sins and Death in Metropolis’s cathedral is seen jerking to life and striding out of their stalls. The film is split not into chapters or cantos like Die Nibelungen but into musical signatures – Prelude, Intermezzo, and Furioso.
Lang’s original concept was to have Rotwang literally conjure up magic forces to attack the modern, scientifically enabled world of Metropolis. This idea was mostly dropped but here something of this eruption of the irrational is still present, climaxing in the image out of medieval nightmare of Death slicing the air before Lang’s camera. Lang edges into the realm of outright surrealism here, and does again as he builds to a climactic shot during Robot-Maria’s dance when the screen is filled with that mass of eyes – the male gaze literalised as one great amorphous, greedy force, a shot reminiscent in execution of experimental photography. More subtly, perhaps, Lang’s filmmaking conveys a constant awareness of power relations throughout, befitting a film where the synergies of social relations, positive and negative, are translated throughout into concrete expressions. It’s quietly but surely present in conversational scenes like Freder’s first conversation with his father or the Thin Man’s confrontation of Josaphat, where attitudes of body and expressions define the characters (the latter scene building to the Thin Man’s physical as well as mental domination of Josaphat) in terms of their potency and the regard they show others – the hard line of Fredersen’s tilted jaw as he son appeals to him, only for the young man to realise his father is something like a monster. This aspect is illustrated more explicitly and spectacularly with Lang’s arrangements of human elements in the sequences where workers tread in close, robotic ranks.
The opening scenes depict the workers changing shifts in obedience to horns that blare out around the city, moving between their underground, near-featureless, pseudo-Berber city, the intermediary stage before Wells’ Morlock evolves and start eating the Eloi above, all scored to an unheard yet definite musical rhythm (no wonder musicians like Moroder have been drawn to the film). There are even moments of hand-held camerawork during Maria’s flight from Rotwang in the underground. One of Lang’s most insistent traits during the German phase of his career was the way he turned his awareness of and fascination for contemporary art styles and his utilisation of them to create cinematic effect. This trait had first made itself known in his plan for Dr Caligari’s Expressionistic effects, and in Die Nibelungen had seen him annexing Cubism and art nouveau for decorative and conceptual import. Here, the entire universe has become, on one level, a form of installation art, the marching ranks of workers elements arrayed in harmonies of line and form. Spaces are carefully diagrammed to open up vistas even within the boxy Academy ratio frame of the day, through use of height – Metropolis is a hierarchical tale on both the thematic and visual levels. The linear clarity and rigid control inherent in such stylisation is ironic considering that Metropolis’s concerns are closer to rather different European artists of the day, including the photomontage satire of John Hartfield and the bleak panoramas of Hans Baluschek.
Both Fröhlich and Helm were thrust into stardom specifically for this film, but whilst Fröhlich merely looks the part of ardent young hero, Helm, still a teenager during the shoot and yet attacking the role with astonishing gusto as she inhabits the Madonna-whore schism, is remarkable. Klein-Rogge, the hydra-headed star of Lang’s early films, wrote himself into film legend as Rotwang with his wild hair, gloved hand, and imperious gestures. His role is hurt by scenes still missing from the film, including a violent confrontation with Fredersen that gives Maria the chance to escape his house. The workers lay waste to the machinery that oppresses them but in a self-defeating way. Tellingly, Freder’s other self from the worker populace, Georgy, is defined by his dedication to his work, his understanding that he is in a way necessary to the survival of Metropolis even as it uses him up like an replaceable part. The shattering of order, celebrated by the workers who dance around the toppled idols of technocracy, soon gives way to panic as they realise their children are in danger, and they’re impotent to intervene. Fredersen, who has ordered the Heart Machine’s foreman and worker representative Grot (Heinrich George) to stand down and let the workers do their worst, is stricken himself with the seemingly imminent death of Freder in the flood. By this stage his machinations have even cost him the loyalty of the Thin Man, who responds to his desperate demand to know where his son is with the memorable retort, “Tomorrow thousands will ask in fury and desperation, ‘Joh Fredersen, where is my son?’” Meanwhile Robot-Maria is unbound, leading the frenetic, equally nihilistic revelry of the upper class out of the nightclubs and into the streets. Once the ambitions and pretences of Metropolis work themselves out, it becomes, in essence, a Boy’s Own adventure tale not that far from The Spiders’ cliffhanger suspense set-pieces. This is particularly plain in the finale as Freder, Maria, and Josaphat try desperately to save the workers’ children from the flooding, with Maria wrestling with the mechanism to set off the alarm gong in the town square, and the two men making arduous climbs up a shaft to reach her.
Lang’s acerbic perspective is still in constant evidence, as the climactic scenes hinge upon ideas that would preoccupy Lang in the next decade of his career or so are in play here in the likes of M (1931), The Testament of Dr Mabuse (1933), Fury (1936), and You Only Live Once (1937) – the terror of lynch mob justice, the accusation of the innocent, the reactive and self-consuming rage of the oppressed, the sinister manipulator of events, the rogue villain whose actions show up uneasy relationship of various social strata. The meeting of those strata is literalised almost comically here as the revelling scions of Metropolis’s upper levels, with Robot-Maria lifted shoulder high as their champion, collide with the mass of enraged workers, chasing the real Maria in the belief she is a witch who has led them to ruin. Somewhere amidst this is an eerie anticipating echo of the grim love affair that would soon come upon Nazi Germany with the almost ritualised, orgiastic invitation of destruction. Metropolis remains tantalising and enigmatic in this regard to this day, in spite of its optimistic depiction of a balance less restored than at last properly achieved. Robot-Maria is the film’s dancing Kali, whipping up the passions of the crowd as a brilliant mouthpiece for an insidious force and then leads the people rejoicing in the moment of pointless and delicious vandalism. In spite of the official message of Metropolis, the power of Robot-Maria’s wild, sexualised, anarchic insurrection feels more heroic than anything the nominal good guys accomplish here even if the result is the old conservative nightmare of such actions, the unleashing of uncontainable forces and unintended horrors. In a different time and different social mood, many a hero in the science fiction genre, from Logan to THX-1138 to Luke Skywalker to Neo, takes up the robot’s iconoclastic mantle rather than Freder’s even whilst stepping into his messianic shoes.
Luckily, the workers chasing the real Maria instead mistake the robot for her, tie her to an improvised pyre, and burnt. The skin is peeled by licking flame, the Machine-Man under the human guise revealed and with it not just the tricks of Rotwang and Fredersen but also the queasy face of the next stage of evolution. Rotwang’s degeneration from evil genius to lecher trying to escape Freder with Maria under arm across the rooftops is comparatively unconvincing and a nudge too far in the direction of gothic melodrama, perhaps inspired by the Lon Chaney version of The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1922) and surely laying ground for dozens of variations to come. But the staging of this sequence is impeccable, particularly in the moment when Maria falls over a railing and snatches onto a bell rope to dangle over a dizzying drop, the clang of the bell alerting Freder and others to this new drama. Like Rotwang’s house the cathedral is an island of the ancient amidst the city, and the sole place where the schizoid facets of Metropolis can still come together, crux of old and new, high and low, the bleak memento mori of medieval religious imagery gaining new potency in the context of Metropolis’s collapse. Rotwang falls to his death, Freder and Maria are reunited, and Freder literally becomes the mediator in showing Grot and his father how to overcome their pride and make piece. Again, certainly weak sociology, but also a perfect thumbnail for the fairy tale essence of Metropolis as a whole. Both the greatness and the difficulty of Metropolis lie in that essence, as a film that animates the dark and strident fantasies of its age without quite knowing how to critique or contain them. But even the most casual of glances around us at the world today shows that, where most films of its era have joined the ranks of playful relics, Metropolis still has something potent to say. And therein lies some of the deepest brilliance of Metropolis in tethering science fiction, the art of anticipation, with the method of myth, the primal storytelling form—both speak to that moment just over the horizon of experience and foresight. It is never; it is ever.
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Director: Andrei Tarkovsky
By Roderick Heath
An implicit faith in most science fiction is encoded in that name. It is the art of science, the act of understanding, comprehending, grappling with the real. But also an act of creation, of imagination applied to zones of the mysterious and the obscure, tethering the known, the possible, and the imaginable in brief harmony. It is still usually a bastion of a Victorian kind of faith that anything can be penetrated, broken down, conquered. Solaris, as written by Polish author Stanislaw Lem, is remarkable as a rebellious work in the genre, a rejection of this basic precept as a way of seeing and thinking. Lem, like so many Europeans of his generation, had lived through the worst of World War 2 and the grimmest of lessons in the limitations of the human spirit. After the war he studied medicine whilst forging a name as a writer, concentrating on science fiction in part because it drew less censorship at the time. Lem’s fiction became reputed for its stringent and stimulating conceptual and intellectual gravity, and he became one of the most widely-read sci-fi writers of the day. Solaris, his most famous work, was an attempt to sketch that most vital of sci-fi themes, contact between humans and aliens, with the title referring to a possibly sentient planet at the heart of the mystery. But Lem set out to avoid the usual presumption of the theme, that such a meeting, for good or ill, would nonetheless be between mutually coherent entities, in a universe that, however vast and unexpected, is so often envisioned by we poor Earthlings as a realm that will contain beings like ourselves, or at least variations on things familiar, obeying similar rules in the spree that leads from protozoa to sentience. Lem often tackled this idea, from his early novel The Man From Mars on, and with Solaris Lem took on not just the problem of imagining a form of alien life entirely incomprehensible to us, but also wrestled with this human tendency to look for our own image in the aeons, the simultaneous yearning for enigma but also the urge to subordinate it.
Legend has it Andrei Tarkovsky vowed to make a film to counter what he perceived as the chilly, detached, unfeeling streak in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), and chose Lem’s book as the right project to examine what Kubrick had left out of his vision. This was an odd move considering Lem’s preference for the heady, theoretical side of his writing, and Lem didn’t much appreciate Tarkovsky’s adaptation, which has since overshadowed the book by focusing squarely and unapologetically on precisely the human aspect of the tale. Tarkovsky wasn’t the first to tackle Lem’s book. Boris Nirenburg’s 1968 version made for TV is sometimes described as the most faithful to the author’s conception, insofar as it focused more on the attempt to understand the planet itself rather than on the human quandaries provoked by the planet’s habit of actualising their psychological preoccupations. Amongst Tarkovsky’s specific inventions was a lengthy first act establishing central character Kris Kelvin and the mystery of Solaris as viewed from the earthbound perspective, in which Kelvin is described as a man outwardly maintaining a forced attitude of rationalism but who Tarkovsky’s visuals suggest is actually a meditative, introspective, mournful nostalgic, a fitting non-hero for Tarkovsky’s annexation of sci-fi as another realm for the poet. The opening shot, of weeds waving slowly under the glassy surface of the lake neighbouring Kelvin’s family home, instantly immerses the viewer in Tarkovsky’s lexicon of obsessive imagistic refrains and establishes the mood of languorous submergence that defines Solaris as a film.
Kelvin (Donatas Banionis, who suggests a Russian Marcello Mastroianni) is a scientist and mathematician who is the latest brave soul to agree to travel to a space station orbiting around the distant planet of Solaris. An entire discipline of science, dubbed Solaristics, has evolved in trying to grapple with this enigmatic object, which seems to be a form of living or at least reactive entity, but no-one has been able to establish anything concrete about it. In the uneasy time before he’s due to be launched into space, Kelvin is visited at his house by a former astronaut who had spent time at Solaris, Henri Burton (Vladislav Dvorzhetsky), who arrives with his young son. Kelvin, his parents (Nikolai Grinko and Olga Barnet), and Burton watch an old recording of the testimony Burton gave to the international body administrating the Solarist mission. Burton recounted how, during a search for two scientists who crash-landed on the planet, saw a mind-bendingly strange manifestation – what appeared to be a massively oversized human child, standing upon the oceanic surface of Solaris, gesturing up into the sky. Burton’s account was written off and mocked because of its unlikeliness and also because recordings of the flight offered no sight of the apparition. Burton, visibly aged and crushed by his dismissal, is still touchy but also anxious to communicate to Kelvin the reality of what he saw and the problems looming ahead for him. At the first sign of Kelvin’s disbelief he angrily leaves and journeys back to the city, only to phone him back and tell him an aspect of his tale he had not shared before: after returning to Earth he encountered the small son of one of the lost scientists, a boy who was the smaller but otherwise exact image of the mysterious child-giant. Kelvin, boding over this strange news and his own unstated anxieties, burns his belongings in a farewell to his past and his world, and speaks with his father, both knowing the elder probably won’t be alive if and when Kelvin returns.
This lengthy first movement is a slow and often cryptic introduction not just to the story but to Kelvin in elliptical fashion, looking at the world he has been rooted in, the sensual richness of the green Earth and and his fecund but decaying family, as a way of sounding out the quality of his mind. This is vital to getting at what Tarkovsky is delving into with Solaris, but also the film’s most frustrating facet. Usually Tarkovsky’s sense of pacing, deceptively slow and yet building a steady intensity and a system of images that become overwhelming, was masterful, but something seems off about this segment. The scenes of Burton’s drive back to town (with a district of Tokyo filling in for this vision of high futuristic human hive life), often provokes the feeling this is stretched out pedantically rather than artfully. Nonetheless the mysteries set in play here and sketched with cobweb-like fineness soon find their place as Kelvin is confronted with the great unknown in the guise of his own interior life. Sublime rhyme is suggested as Burton’s son encounters a girl in Kelvin’s garden – he looks at her, she regards him with preternatural scepticism and interest, and they dash off to play, first act in the eternal human roundelay, one that will preoccupy the rest of Kelvin’s journey even as he tries to reach out and touch the infinite. The gruelling, ritualised humiliation of Burton in front of the international space agency is depicted, with the contrast between Burton’s younger self and the dilapidated remnant actually present in the Kelvins’ house a before and after diptych warning Kris of the subtler dangers of the mission he’s undertaking. Tarkovsky employs a specific stylistic touch here in portraying the old footage in black-and-white to contrast the lustrous colour of the immediate (this was Tarkovsky’s first colour work), a cineaste’s format joke that also introduces a recurring motif for where past bleeds into present and certain realities seem to become blurred. Shots of the “futuristic” city violently contrast the natural landscape Kris takes refuge in, suggesting one hardly needs go to space to find environs alien and perturbing.
Meanwhile Kris tries to drink in every sensation of nature possible, including the rain gushing down upon his face, for the sake of memory for when he’s exiled to a distant and sterile bauble in space above an alien world that betrays no sign of land or substance, where, to fall asleep at night, the inhabitants tape slivers of paper to exhaust events to mimic the sound of leaves in the wind. Burton’s road trip serves to symbolise not just the looming journey through space but also provides a key into Burton’s pensive train of thought as he rides with his son and his thoughts turn to the most disturbing manifestation on Solaris and the suggested possibility of mysterious union between the mind and the physical possible on Solaris. Kris is forcibly sceptical, and speaks of the looming choice he might have to make, to either withdraw the orbiting satellite, and thus conceded defeat, or making an aggressive attack upon Solaris with heavy radiation, and finally conquer the mystery at the cost of creating a Roman desert. Burton is shocked by the possibility, setting in motion at least the shell of dialectic between scientific curiosity as transcendent and overriding value, or an act of ignorant immorality aiming to destroy what can’t be understood. His father berates him for offending Burton and notes that “the Earth has become used to dealing with people like you,” and indeed Kris is eventually revealed as a man who has habitually broken whatever he’s come into contact with. “I don’t have the right to make decisions based on impulses of the heart,” Kris warns Burton in deflecting his appeals: “I’m not a poet.” Kris’s fate is instantly set, to be forced to do make just those sorts of decisions, and become the instinctive poet of Solaris, a force of total ambiguity that nonetheless proves to have a function that Kris eventually learns to treasure, as it can make real what is lost or desired.
Kris’s arrival at the Solaris station is a terrifying tumble as he momentarily goes out of control. He eventually docks and disembarks safely, only to find the station, far from being a hive of scientific industry, has become a near-deserted husk, sterile and littered with rubbish. Only two fellows still inhabit it, the haughty, critical, nervously serious astrobiologist Dr Sartorius (Tarkovsky regular Anatoli Solonitsyn) and the shambling, distracted, philosophical cyberneticist Dr Snaut (Jüri Järvet). Kris is shocked to learn of the recent death by suicide by a third crewmember, the physiologist Gibarian (Sos Sargsyan), who had been the brave intellectual leader figure in what’s left of the Solarist field. Now his body lies icy in a cold room on the satellite, to be taken back to Earth per his wishes. At first both remaining men seem anxious to fend Kris off, and Snaut advises him to take things slowly and carefully. Kris however witnesses inexplicable things, including a man sleeping in a hammock in Snaut’s room, and a dwarf trying to escape Sartorius’ containment. Kris watches a recording of Gibarian’s final moments, and sees flinching at the presence of a young girl, almost like a dogging familiar out of superstition. “Fechner died a magnificent death,” Sartorius declares, referring to the scientist Burton was looking for, but that “Gibarian was a coward.” But in his last message, Gibarian stated, “I am my own judge…It has something to do with conscience.” Soon enough, Kris awakens to find himself now supplied with his own miraculously conjured companion, this one taking the shape of former wife Hari (Natalya Bondarchuk). Somehow, Solaris has the capacity to read minds and reproduce people from the storehouse of memory, with their remade bodies made of neutrinos. But such a visitation is as painful for Kris as it is disorientating and joyful, as the original Hari committed suicide years earlier, after he left her.
Tarkovsky’s approach to Lem’s source material realised the latent power of the idea of Solaris as a lodestone that can realise any aspect of the human thought patterns made for the perfect poetic metaphor, a mimetic tool that communicates the world of dreams, impressions, dynamic thought, but not actual, direct language, a notion that crystallises towards the end with the suggestion that Solaris mistranslates a vital aspect of Kris’s memories into a surrealist but emotionally exact manifestation with rain inside his old family house. Solaris sets in play an attempt to understand memory as a function of life Tarkovsky would return to with a more personal frame on The Mirror (1975), whilst also echoing back to the very sources of poetry in the western tradition in the myths of Orpheus, casting Kris as half-pathetic inheritor of the mantle of seer-hero who gets to resurrect his Eurydice during his visit to a zone of existence that’s over the threshold of reality’s normal demarcations – Kris’s space journey is his venture across the Styx. Solaris both indicts and celebrates the human mind that can only comprehend things that operate like itself. The magic spell Solaris weaves is double-edged, diagnosing the limitations of human perception, but also highlighting anew for Kris as he ventures deeper into this new realm just what that perception is and what has given birth to it. Tellingly, he loves the remade Hari far more than he was capable of loving the original. This simulacrum of Hari is like her in every way, or at least like the version of her that was alive in Kris’s memory, carefully tailored by selective memory and his own emotional responses to be a more perfect edition.
Kris is soon confronted by the fact that not only is Hari redux a sentient, entirely lucid being although she can’t recall her own grim end, but that she has astounding powers of healing and re-composition. At first she needs to maintain close proximity to him – she tears her way through the metal door of his cabin, leaving herself a bloody heap, only for the gashes and wounds to swiftly close up again. When she first appears there’s a telling flaw in the manifestation: the dress she wears isn’t quite right, so Kris has to cut it off. Kris at first tries to dispose of the companion Solaris has provided him with, luring the unsuspecting Hari into a rocket stored aboard the satellite and firing her off into space. This effort, which sees Kris almost burning himself up in the process, is envisioned akin to an elaborate act of self-mutilation or amputation, and Solaris immediately supplies him with another Hari, in full awareness that the first simulacrum is still drifting around in the rocket. He doesn’t try this again, and falls completely in love with the latest Hari. The second simulacrum eventually evolves into a fully-formed woman, capable of arguing for her own existence and autonomy with Snaut and Sartorius in spite of their sniffy, semi-wilful need to dismiss her. Their own embodied burdens are only suggested, although the tiny grotesque that harasses Sartorius seems like the projection of his own stunted emotional self. The way Kris talks early in the film, trying to talk himself into the role of cool rationalist and cordoned empiricist fighting the good fight for science and state, is Sartorius’ full-time persona. He describes Kris’s connection with Hari, half-disparagingly, half-jealously, as a form of “emotional contact” with Solaris. Ageing, gnomic Snaut is more open to the experience Kris and Hari are going through but retains his own brand of scepticism, noting, in the film’s most specific line of dialogue, that what humankind really wants wherever it goes is a mirror, a system that reflects our own obsessions.
Like works in the science fiction genre ranging from Mary Shelley’s original Frankenstein through to Alien (1979), Solaris deals in its own way with the same theme of a man giving birth. Such a notion speaks not just of ructions in modernity’s constructions of gender and social role, but cuts to the quick of the entire scientific project in which science, so often characterised as a highly masculine business, tries to impose and rewrite the rules of natural order: all sci-fi might, on this level, be exactly that – a man giving birth. But Solaris squarely preoccupies itself with the most fundamental aspects of humanity; particularly love in all its infinite strangeness, territory sci-fi usually goes weak-kneed in, with Kris inadvertently conjuring a mate, that gate Frankenstein finally stalled before, at least until James Whale took charge of him. Kris rummages through the stages in his life and contemplates not just the manufactured reality of reborn Hari but also the memory of his mother, glimpsed as a loving yet ambivalent woman who used to hide behind the shed and smoke cigarettes whilst he wandered the snowy landscape, and whose youthful shade he calls on to coach him through a moment of interiorised crisis. Hari has vague memories of Kris’s mother disliking her, but for him of course they’re the eternal diptych of the cosmic feminine, alpha and omega to his lifespan. Kris and Hari’s renascent marriage seems to defy all limitations of time and nature, but can’t overcome the fundamental flaws of the human way of knowing, a flaw that echoes the problem with understanding Solaris. The human consciousness is locked within itself but reaches out to others, and what we know is always left incomplete by the limits of perception.
Remade Hari, although just as “real” as her model, is a perfect reproduction of Kris’s understanding of her, tailored, so to speak, by his own psyche to suit his nostalgic ideal. At first Hari is weak, passive, bewildered, unable to stand life without her lover at hand – a veritable caricature of a certain sentimental view of femininity. She gains independence and identity, but also crippling awareness of herself as a construct, experiencing the ultimate existential crisis: humans can deal with the vagaries of existence because of the myriad layers of experience that make us, whereas Hari is forced to confront her direct and inexplicable creation by an incoherent deity, realising the dream of millennia of would-be saints and prophets to know their creator but gaining only suicidal depression from the privilege. The images of Hari’s physical suffering, sliced up after she tears through the cabin door and later when she attempts suicide, reproduce in unnervingly visual terms the interior suffering of a woman who doesn’t seem to have been quite properly constructed in the first place for life in a mean world, now brought back to life and unable to find peace. Like 2001, Solaris is also about the hunt for god, or something like it. Where 2001 essentially presented a myth that made evolution a path leading to its own form of angelic transcendence, the novel of Solaris concluded with something more like an existential despair that god, actualised by Solaris, is an evolving creature as well, and therefore not omnipotent or all-wise. Lem also concluded with the suggestion that the transcendent love that becomes Kris’s refuge was an illusion. But for Kris and Tarkovsky the difference is moot – the fact that mankind yearns for a safe harbour from the ravages and transformations of time and whether it comes in the form of heaven or an alien planet that can offer such a perfect refuge makes for no difference at all. For Kris, encountering love through Solaris offers him a new form of the feeling that borders on divine revelation: “Maybe we’re here to experience other people as a reason for love.”
Tarkovsky’s debut feature, My Name is Ivan (1962), already set in motion many of the concepts and imagined landscapes depicted Solaris but in a more familiar context. Ivan depicted a cast of characters trying to fight the good fight for their identity and culture, adventuring in zones rendered near-abstract and dreamlike, as well as introducing one of Tarkovsky’s prize themes, the collision of innocence and faith with a violent, entropic world. The elusive search by a contemplative hero for a proof of faith and his attempts to understand systems of life at odds with his own understanding echoes his second film, Andrei Rublev (1969). Solaris stripped back much of the spectacle and baroque expansiveness in those films as Tarkovsky continued to search for new ways to tell stories and utilise the cinematic space, and offers a fantastic drama that purposefully avoids most manifestation of the fantastic. And yet Solaris is often held up as Tarkovsky’s most accessible and popular work, chiefly because of its lucid and powerful romanticism. That quality ironically can only be conjured in a remembered, mediated state. Some have noted that Solaris really bears more resemblance to Vertigo (1958) than to 2001 in depicting a man resurrecting a lover only to find the reproduction duplicitous, and in both the legends of Orpheus and Pygmalion are the deep roots.
The myth of Orpheus ties the artist to an eternal attempt to conquer death and conjure the ideal, something Solaris makes possible for Kris. The very act of creation is a constant refrain for Tarkovsky, and Solaris also takes up an unstated but self-evident concern in Andrei Rublev about how art is indeed all that is left of any one artist, their culture, their age, to speak to any receptive ear in the future, if often contradicting or denying the facts of the world that produced it. Rublev’s real, decaying, stylised and idealised artworks, surveyed by Tarkovsky’s camera in the end of that film, here give way to Kris burning his own share of the cultural inheritance, his books and artworks, in a scene that anticipates another variation on the same idea, in Stalker (1979), where a similar panoply of the human reliquary is surveyed left like rubbish in a stream. Tarkovsky is always trying to get at the preciousness and vulnerability of such inheritance as well as the urge of human kind to make such icons, to conquer death and time with such keepsakes but also the vulnerability of such an inheritance to the forces time brings – decay, neglect, the ravages exacted by humanity’s destructive impulses, always in a dance with the creative urge. A reproduction of Brueghel’s “The Hunters in the Snow” hangs on the wall of the space station’s library room, surveyed by Tarkovsky with its depiction, at once lively and haunting, of seekers returning to their community frustrated. This picture both echoes scenes Kris recalls from childhood when his family property lay under blankets of snow and his mother in her solitary, boding mystery, and also comments sarcastically on the enterprise he and his fellow scientists are engaged upon. The work is of art is no one thing, and that is its power and purpose. Solaris offers a device of perfect retention and transmutation, both the ultimate artistic device and a tool that renders art obsolete.
Tarkovsky’s drifting, tentative approach in the film’s first act, in his attempt to depict a state of mind and a way of seeing detached from immediacy even as Kris tries to luxuriate in the physical, gives way to the peculiarly visualised sequence of Kris’s brief, dangerous, almost disastrous shuttle flight from the ship that carts him across the void to the orbiting station. Space travel is represented by a bubble speeding out of the dark, with only Kris’s face, eyes highlighted by pencil spots, spinning before the camera, as if Tarkovsky is deliberately breaking down the distance between the hard and technocratic concepts of space travel and some Carlos Casteneda-like interiorised journey or a yogi’s ideal of astral projection. Solaris itself is glimpsed as a vast ocean that shimmers and teems with hallucinogenic hues, suggesting movement without cause or effect, a search for form in need of design, and sometimes even resembling the wrinkly matter of a brain. The footage recorded on Burton’s fateful rescue flight only seems to capture roiling fluids and white cloud, a survey of dreamy voids (a common visual refrain for Russian filmmakers of the period, transfixing Larisa Shepitko and Sergei Bondarchuk as well, in the search for the sensation of pure release in flight). The planet does seem to react to the interactions between Kris and Hari, the churning of its liquids speeding up and producing curious patterns that mottle the planet’s surface. The environs of the space station might well have influenced the later efforts of filmmakers like George Lucas, Ridley Scott, and Peter Hyams to lend their sci-fi visions the grungy quality that is today much more of a norm, as Tarkovsky surveys this place, clearly designed as the sci-fi magazine ideal of a space station, like some big city bus station at the end of a long day – near-deserted, littered with rubbish, exposed wiring and circuitry. Such a dead space is a self-imposition created by the human need for wonder but also represents the failure of human imagination, created by a way of thinking that has a curious contempt for the roots of aesthetic in nature.
The aridness of the space station and the blank, protean canvas that is Solaris’s surface seem to offer no purchase for human feeling, and yet both are actually stages for just that, as Solaris the film ultimately becomes transfixed by the spectacle of feeling, the needful couple of Kris and Hari. Kris is eventually left feverish and nearly broken by the intertwined fear of losing Hari again, his awareness her continued existence is an egotistical dream made flesh and pain for her, and that they can have no future away from the zone of Solaris’s influence. Tarkovsky’s infinitely patient method builds to three extraordinary scenes late in the film. The first comes at the end of a lengthy scene in which Kris, Hari, Snaut, and Sartorius debate whether Hari can be considered alive, with Sartorius insisting she’s still only a figment in spite of her apparent self-awareness. A change in the station’s rotation sets everything on board, for a precious, transitory moment, completely weightless, untethered from all earthbound laws – a tray of candles and the hapless couple themselves all dancing through air to the inaudible music of the spheres. Hard upon this moment of incantatory beauty however comes Kris discovering Hari dead, having drunk a vial of liquid oxygen. She lies sprawled across the corridor, draped in frost and blood, victim of some forgotten piece of coding in her makeup that drives her towards self-destruction as well as the very real cues her impossible situation give her. The image of her in such a state seems to echo high Romantic poetry and Pre-Raphaelite art in its weirdly eroticised depiction of perfection in death –Wallis’ “The Death of Chatterton” or Millais’ “Ophelia.” Tarkovsky then turns exacting in its evocation of the corporeal as Hari, doomed to eternal life by her alien makeup that does not respect the roots of the human being in our ephemerality, revives, convulsing and shaking as her mangled flesh reorganises itself. This pivots again to recall another Brueghel painting, that of the dead Christ, which so fascinated another Russian artist, Dostoyevsky: the resurrection is only a miracle in the face of death in all its raw and ugly reality.
Kris collapses himself soon after in febrile need to withdraw from this perversion of his idyll, retreating into fantasies of speaking to his mother. When he revives, it’s to learn Hari has again killed herself, this time successfully, utilising a device Snaut and Sartorius built specifically for dispelling the neutrinos these free-radical beings are made from. They’ve also attempted communication with Solaris by beaming an encephalogram of Kris’s brain patterns down at it: now Solaris’s surface is rearranging and throwing up apparent land forms. Kris meditates on the question of whether he should return to Earth and resume his life even if he is haunted by the vast new possible he has grazed, or continue to try and make contact with Solaris. A plant that has sprouted in soil he brought with him from his home suggests new life is possible. But at first it seems that Kris does go back home, as he is next seen back in his old yard, albeit in winter’s icy glaze. A sentimental homecoming seems nascent as he nears his house only to be bewildered by the disturbing sight of a rain falling inside his house, his father contending with the damage to his books. The film’s epic last shot, retreating from high overhead, reveals the house and the grounds exist on one of the new islands formed on Solaris. Has Solaris understood Kris sufficiently to try and provide what he can’t return to as he’s attempted to commune with it in person, or still just mimicking the contents of his mind on a larger scale? Has the Kris we’ve been following been real at all, or just another simulacrum, a retained piece of code absorbed by Solaris and kept with a slight corruption in the file? All are possible explanations for what we see here. But it could also be that Tarkovsky thinks that in the end everyone longs for our own Solaris – that place where nothing ever dies, and we can find everything we ever left, just where we last saw it.
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Director: Ridley Scott
By Roderick Heath
I can imagine opening a newspaper in 1979 and glancing at a review of Alien with its plot recounted in dry ink lines, or perhaps at a poster and beholding the infamous tagline, “In space, no one can hear you scream.” I think one would have been forgiven if the thought didn’t cross your mind that it would one day this film might be considered a major cinematic classic. Even when you know much more about it, the improbability still stands. Sold to prospective studios in script form as “Jaws in space” by Dan O’Bannon and Ronald Shusett, a pair of young screenwriters who had happily looted the sci-fi B-movies and creature features they had loved as boys, Alien might have seemed something like a garish throwback in abstract, to the days when many a monstrous beast from space went on the loose was all the rage in drive-in fodder. After all, cinematic sci-fi in the late 1960s and ‘70s had generally taken on a more serious cast in keeping with the literary genre, complete with heightened social commentary and philosophical metaphors. Star Wars and Close Encounter of the Third Kind (both 1977) made studios everywhere enthusiastic for the genre for the first time since the ‘50s, however, because suddenly it was making giant piles of cash. O’Bannon had one claim to fame before helping pen the script originally called “Star Beast.” He had co-written, acted in, and helped make the world’s best-known student film, 1974’s Dark Star. But John Carpenter had gained most of the credit for that, leaving the high-strung O’Bannon chagrined and on the hunt for his own success. O’Bannon was particularly taken with the idea of returning to Dark Star’s sub-plot involving a rampaging alien stowaway, visualised in that comic film by a beach ball with talons, and playing this notion straight as a horror movie in space.
At first the script seemed doomed to finish up as feedstuff for Roger Corman’s low-budget production farm, because its gore and perverse aspects turned off big studios. But when sci-fi properties suddenly turned hot, the duo sold it to producer-director Walter Hill and business partner David Giler, who had Twentieth Century Fox at their backs. Hill and Giler worked the material over, adding major subplots and changing character names. But they retained one notable corollary of the original script – the parts were “unisex,” and could be filled by any actors, male or female. Hill decided not to direct the property himself, as he was too busy and inexperienced in special effects work. Picking the right filmmaker was the real trick, as they knew the wrong director might play it as schlock, whilst the right one would have to prove equal mastery over both the hard-edged, hi-tech realism and the mysterious, eerie, virtually surrealistic qualities the story offered. They found their man in a 42-year-old former TV commercial director from South Shields at the mouth of the Tyne named Ridley Scott. Scott had gained a reputation for turning simple advertisements into great visual artefacts, and had just made an impression with his Cannes-screened debut film, The Duellists (1977). He grabbed this opportunity with both hands. Scott and his ideas impressed the studio so much Fox doubled his budget. The result, far from being just another creature feature, is today regarded as one of the major classics of sci-fi filmmaking and indeed modern commercial filmmaking.
O’Bannon and Shusett happily acknowledged remixing the futuristic terrors and beauties of It! The Terror from Beyond Space (1958), Forbidden Planet (1956), This Island Earth (1955), and even the far-flung alien graveyards and body-invading spectres of Mario Bava’s signal sci-fi/horror cross-breed Planet of the Vampires (1966). There was also some similarity to the creatures that menaced their way through the pages of A.E. Van Vogt’s stories “Black Destroyer” and “Moonbeast.” Although not based on an H.P. Lovecraft story, Alien remains perhaps the most effective channelling of Lovecraft’s imaginative palette on film, conjuring a universe of infinite mystery and threat, replete with glimpses of things and places beyond human reference. This is a realm of things that squirm and ooze and move perversely and seem engineered for climes beyond any natural reference point, glowering with infinite disdain for precious human individualism and acumen. Here there is only the terrible beauty of survival talent and the cold equations of necessity. The purity of Alien as a narrative lies in the way it pits instinct versus intelligence. The self-propagating concept in the title of Scott’s first film is taken immediately to reductio ad absurdum: this is the duel at the edge of the universe, the perfect opposition. Alien as a metaphorical work is in its way as extreme as Solaris (1972) in exploring the essence of humanity through conceiving its opposite, with similar precepts – isolation and a manifestation of the incomprehensibly other. It’s another film that straddles the blurry genre midground with horror, essentially positing a haunted house movie in space mixed with no minor similarity to the slasher movie style that was just gaining real traction thanks to Carpenter’s Halloween, released the year before – a small cast stalked and killed one by one by a roaming killer.
The story is exceptionally simple on the face of it. The spaceship Nostromo, towing a combined bulk ore carrier and refinery through deep space back to Earth, is brought out of hyperspace and rerouted towards a remote and unexplored planetoid, source of a mysterious generated signal presumed to be a distress beacon. Captain Dallas (Tom Skerrit) and his crew, comprising flight officers Ripley (Sigourney Weaver), Kane (John Hurt), and Lambert (Veronica Cartwright), science officer Ash (Ian Holm), and engineers Parker (Yaphet Kotto) and Brett (Harry Dean Stanton), are awoken from their cryogenic sleep. After confusion and some argument, they follow the protocol mandated by the ship’s owner company (unnamed in this film, later dubbed Weyland-Yutani in James Cameron’s sequel Aliens, 1986) and land on the planet. The Nostromo is lightly damaged during landing and Brett and Parker set about fixing it whilst Dallas, Lambert, and Kane venture out onto the stormy, hostile surface of the planet to track down the source of the signal. They come across a ruined spaceship clearly not built by humans, with the fossilised remains of an ancient pilot with a ruptured ribcage still installed in a kind of cockpit, and a collection of seed-like pods in the hull. Kane gets close to one, intrigued by signs of life within, only for the crab-like thing inside to spring out suddenly and burn through the visor of his helmet. The organism clamps itself over his face, holding him in a comatose state whilst keeping him alive. Ripley, acting commander of the ship, refuses to let Dallas and Lambert bring Kane through the airlock for fear of biological contamination, but Ash ignores her and lets them aboard.
The creature (again unnamed here but usually called a “facehugger”) on Kane proves to have deadly acid for blood and is impossible to remove without killing its host, but eventually it falls off by itself and dies. Kane awakens, seemingly fine, but as he and the rest of the crew settle down for a meal, Kane suddenly starts to spasm in agony. Something tears its way out of his chest – the larval stage of new creature that will grow to human size and begin killing or utilising rival life forms. The greatest question before Scott and the filmmaking team was what the title creature should look like. Reputedly, it was O’Bannon who suggested to Scott that he take a look at the artwork of Swiss painter H.R. Giger. Both men fell under the spell of Giger’s painting “Necronomicon IV”, which portrayed a bizarre demonic entity with a tubular head, spiny back, and penile tail. Giger’s disturbing, distorted, perversely eroticised pictures tried to render aspects of the subconscious and the surreal, murky and obscure and protean, and provided a vital catalyst not just for the alien’s design but for the aesthetic of the film as a whole. Alien certainly belongs to both the sci-fi and horror genres, rooted in the solid conceptualism of the former but using it to annex the id-shaped atmosphere of the latter. If the film had been painstakingly created to reflect a certain academic shift in the basic imagery and concerns of genre storytelling it could not have been more precise, as the usually solid Freudian forms of sci-fi – all jutting phallic rockets matched to neo-colonialist visions written on the tabula rasa of space – gives way to a nightmarish zone filled with gaping holes and hideous babies that sprout from a man’s body. In this simple yet ruthlessly clever concept lies the aspect of Alien that instantly announced itself as contemporary, compared to the older genre works that inspired it. The alien monster is no simple, clean beast that stows away and rampages, but as a monster insidious and infesting, predatory and parasitic, instinctual and apparently not interesting in anything more than self-propagation but also possessed of a jarring, baleful brand of intelligence.
This aspect fit into a phase in sci-fi-and horror cinema where anxiety over the human body was becoming a driving concern. David Cronenberg’s early works like Shivers (1975), Rabid (1976), and The Brood (1979) had helped define and polarise this new, queasy style. The alternate title of Shivers, They Came From Within, perfectly reflected this motif, twisting the fear of the alien other expressed in titles of 1950s films like It Came From Outer Space (1953) into a motif of internal disorder and rebellion, evoking both the bodies corporeal and politic. Emerging even before the spectre of the AIDS epidemic, this new unease with disease derived from the strange new anxieties of the modern world, one where suddenly awareness of aspects of human life that had normally not been talked about in the post-Enlightenment age were suddenly common currency, many of them sexual, bound up with a time of rapid revision in understanding of gender and desire (also, notably, the superhero movie made its first real impact around this time with Superman, 1978, providing an antithesis). Alien announced this style, dubbed “body horror,” in big-budget, mainstream cinema, as Kane is impregnated and torn to shreds by his own nominal progeny. This vision of perverted birth transplanted onto the male body comes after intimations of oral rape. The intensely sexual aspect of this was already encoded in a series of visual evocations and design refrains. The waking of the ship’s crew in the opening scenes is gently birth-like, guided by the ships supercomputer which is called, mischievously, MUTHR. The coddled human creatures nicely cocooned in the Nostromo and tended to by the maternal computer soon offered up as fodder for the sustenance of a creation that faintly resembles a human but also swiftly grows to blend into the interior of the Nostromo itself, with limbs and skin resembling the tubes and conduits and metal forms of an industrial zone. The human, soft flesh, red blood, is at the mercy of a thing that seems both monster and machine, something that evolves too quickly to be contained and too aptly to be positioned anywhere but at the top of the food chain.
Sci-fi had generally been a realm of gleaming newness and minimalist chic ever since Things to Come (1936) posited the future as a gigantic shopping mall with a slight Bauhaus edge. This presumption often (though not always) went unchallenged in sci-fi cinema until Star Wars intrigued and impressed genre creators with its “lived-in” vision of a futuristic age (albeit past) that looked functional, busy, often banged-up and dirty. The script for Alien envisioned a future of space travel that has devolved into something much more familiar than cosmic swashbuckling, one where working stiffs ride the highways of deep space hauling around loads of resources, worrying about pay and bills and getting home to loved-ones. This was taken up not just as a background detail but an entire holistic mission by Scott and his designers. Surely Scott’s background, his intimate familiarity with the reverse face of the age of industry and technology, told him something different about what a spacefaring future might look and sound like, gleaned from a youth staring out at the ships on the Tyne and the decaying industrial landscape of England’s midlands, sights that told him how little some spacefaring future was likely to look like the brochures. Aspects of Alien’s look retain the sleek and clean aesthetic of high futurism – the womb-like confines of the stasis pod room and MUTHR’s control room. But these abut the factory-like interiors of the rest of the ship, grimy, functional, and cluttered. The alien planetoid itself – once again dubbed LV-426 in Aliens but left nameless here – is a place straight out of the dark places of the psyche, with its roiling volcanic forms. The horseshoe-shaped space wreck is perched atop a peak like Dracula’s castle gone Analog Magazine, with an interior that is a polymorphous zone of strangeness. Such contrasted landscapes chart both the psychic and physical realities of contrasting life forms.
O’Bannon’s collaboration with Carpenter on Dark Star had envisioned men on a mission wandering listlessly through space destroying rogue planets in a deadpan satire on the Domino theory, with its main characters so bored and alienated they’ve swapped personalities several times. It made for a sci-fi landscape virtually unheard-of before. Similarly, the humans inhabiting the Nostromo are there purely to ensure the smooth running of the machinery and deliver the load of processed ore to Earth, casually observed, highly ordinary people. Even Ripley, eventually to be canonised as one of the great action heroes, is here just a woman with a slight edge of competence, intuition, and coolness under pressure that lets her survive where all her fellows eventually fall. One common concern of the diverse filmmakers involved in creating Alien, particularly Scott and O’Bannon, was this awareness of social and class conflict and also the individuals perpetrating such schisms. Dallas as captain (and the most Dark Star-esque character) knows his job and can do it virtually in his sleep, preferring to bliss out alone with some classical music and escape the bolshy niggling of Parker and Brett and Ripley’s by-the-book sternness. Of course, that streak had the potential to save the whole situation, as her refusal to let Kane and the facehugger aboard is correct both according to the book and instinct, if not sheer reactive empathy. Ripley is first really defined by this act, an attitude of caution that seems unfeeling whereas Ash does the “humane” thing, although it will eventually be revealed that he’s not only obeying the company’s agenda but is also a more literal tool of a distant but still consequential power, as an android posing as human.
Ripley’s adherence to principle as well as rules and Ash’s actions in countermanding her seems at first merely a moment of tension in outlook and a road-bump in the chain of command on an already lackadaisical hierarchy – Ripley confronts Ash over the point and pushes Dallas for action but he simply wants to go home and avoid more headaches. But it proves instead the pivotal action that unleashes disaster, and Ripley’s cold act is proven the wise one. This aspect, the human capacity to act both rationally and instinctually according to given situations, is pointedly contrasted with what Ash celebrates it for, its “purity” as a creature of raw survivalist nerve and shark-like purpose that sustains its life cycle through other creatures, a form of exploitation equated with the business of business that motivates all that befalls the Nostromo. The crew themselves are defined by their mixture of camaraderie and interpersonal tension, and also by their varying levels of interest and complicity in that system, from Dallas, the man in charge who’s all too aware how little power he really has, to Parker and Brett constantly bringing the “bonus situation,” their own concerns purely mercenary, a mode of realistic cynicism adapted neatly to the exigencies of a job that demands spending years in forced sleep drifting through the ether. Alien is littered with sharp vignettes, like Parker insistently stealing back “his” chair and brushing it off after Ash has occupied it, Brett’s half-interested parroting of Parker (“Right.”), and Ripley telling them both to fuck off as they try to jerk her around as member of the superior flight crew. The film’s pivotal, immortal sequence when the crew settle down for dinner with the revived, apparently well Kane is a rare moment when the crew are all relaxed, happy, and on level ground, a seeming resumption of normality shot through with relief that gives way to epic horror and tragedy.
Alien’s defining quality is rooted not simply in its thrills or its vivid imaginative palette, but in its slow, patient, nerveless storytelling, so different from the mad rush of images in much contemporary filmmaking. Scott’s return to this fount, Prometheus (2011), although fine in and of itself, was disappointing for those of us hoping for a stylistic rather than thematic extension, a project revelling in the creation of miasmic atmosphere and slow-ratcheting dread. The normally propulsive Cameron honoured the model with his follow-up in its deceptive blend of quiet and intensity with Aliens before hitting the gas. The opening shot of Alien, a slow, abyssal scan of the dark planetoid silhouetted against the rays of its sun, with barely audible music and the slowly compositing title of the film across the width of screen, immediately roots what follows in a mode of interstellar gothic. There’s a powerful echo of William Blake’s “The Ancient of Days Setting a Compass to the Earth” in its image of a dark sun and the evocation of cosmic powers gathering, as Scott primes the viewer for a dive into an age where the dark, satanic mills and apocalyptic dragons of Blakeian verse have become universal state (and Blakeian ideas and images recur constantly through many of Scott’s subsequent films). This gives way to the Nostromo making its way through space, and much is made, in a manner reminiscent of 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968; doubtlessly deliberate as per Scott’s avowed Kubrickian fetish), of the sheer mechanical intricacy of the ship’s efforts to get from space onto the planet, at once ungainly and majestic. Jerry Goldsmith’s seafarer scoring reinforces the way this moment seems at once a super-technological event and a throwback to a days of laborious transport on the whims of the wind and tide. Goldsmith’s scoring, which was subject to conflicts with both Scott and the studio, is nonetheless one of the film’s less-appreciated achievements, defining the eerie, sonorous mood at the outset before swelling to offer overtones of not just menace but also elegy, even romanticism, as these far-out labourers find themselves cast however incidentally as pioneers and adventurers. His music rises to crescendo during the attack on Lambert and Parker where the dramatic furore of the scoring offsets the almost languid, slow-motion quality of the horror, this death-dance where you can do nothing but watch as a grotesque hell-beast sizes you up and prepares to lunch on your brain. And then, no music at all – only the sounds of unimaginable terror, piped through to Ripley as she rushes to a rescue that only come too late. All of it, a master class in the use of film’s sonic textures as well as visual.
The film’s opening minutes, similarly, say much about what can be done even when nothing is happening. Tracking shots through the ship’s interior, resolving eventually on the forms of the crew in perfect stasis, computers clicking to life before humans, toy baubles bobbing up and down according to the thrum of the constant engines: Scott evokes presence by absence, the eerie chill of a haunted house, the crew already dead but not yet knowing it. The ship’s name of course was taken from Joseph Conrad’s novel, a tale of an ordinary but great man ruined by greed, and a step removed from the heart of darkness. The hunt for the creature commences after its gruesome birth, with the crew at first assuming they’re only dealing with a small, nasty vermin. But soon Brett, assigned to track down the ship’s cat and mascot Jones, encounters the alien, having grown into a gangly, man-sized monstrosity that rips his forehead open with a recessed, springing jaw. Dallas ventures into the ship’s air duct system to track it down, only to be outwitted and attacked, his fate ambiguous (in the later director’s cut, revealed to have been cocooned alive as a meal or host body for another alien). Brett’s ill-fated hunt for Jones and its jolting climax makes for one of the film’s best scenes, in part because of Stanton’s shambling, ineffably hangdog refusal to act like he’s in a horror movie, perfectly depicting a man worn comically ragged by a lifetime of bullshit work suddenly reaching its end in a way no-one could ever see coming, seen as a series of eliding yet hideously suggestive glimpses of obscene creation and violence. Scott uses his search as an excuse to shoot the Nostromo’s darkest reaches with its filth and dripping water in a way that evokes the feeling of such an environment not just as a tactile space but a way of life and a working world that somehow also spills over into the dreamlike. The alien is first glimpsed dangling from some hanging chains and yet the plain sight of it doesn’t register for several viewings precisely because it looks like so much of the mechanical.
Dallas’ hunt for the alien is a more traditional horror sequence in which tension is built not just by the carefully utilised claustrophobic space Dallas scrambles about in, but the register of the tracking sensor that shows something zeroing in on him, yet remaining chillingly unseen and elusive until it appears at the least expected moment in one of cinema’s greatest ever pure “boo!” moments. Ripley is next in command, and is left the one who has to make a call on what to do now, cueing my favourite moment in Weaver’s performance. This scene depicts Ripley, shaken and grieving after two severe shocks but at the same time coolly taking charge, pacifying Parker and registering her disbelief with Ash’s responses, contrasting the increasingly brittle Parker and Lambert and Ash’s inhuman cool. Suspicious of Ash’s reticence with ideas for catching or killing the monster, Ripley consults with MUTHR only to learn the company has instructed that the alien be returned to Earth with the crew considered expendable to this end. Ripley angrily strikes Ash, only for Ash to chase her down and try to murder her, starting to leak not blood from a graze on his head but milky white fluid – the sign he’s actually an android. Although it displeased O’Bannon, Hill and Giler’s decision to introduce Ash as an android was inspired, as it gave the film a jolt of narrative complexity and surprise, as well as one of Scott’s best whisper-to-a-scream sequences, particularly when Ash is revealed, having silently entered the control room and now standing next to Ripley when she’s just read the shocking orders in MUTHR, to tell her that, in spite of the evidence of her eyes and mind, there’s a perfectly reasonable explanation for all of it.
Ash plays a very similar role to HAL 9000 in 2001 as the electronic entity on board who proves nearly as dangerous as any other threat, and he introduces another common conceptual wing of the sci-fi genre alongside space travel and alien life – the artificial human. But where HAL was a proto-consciousness destroyed by its own confusion born of being perched between states of being, there is nothing confused about Ash or his role, as simulacrum contrived to be indistinguishable and as a proxy to carry out dirty work, a sleeper agent representing both the interests of the company and his own fascination for the alien. Scott would of course return to the theme of the cynically created android being in Blade Runner (1982) and push several ideas nascent here to a limit, particularly the question of how moral in the human sense one could expect such a sentient creation to be when given life to by entirely different creative forces. Ash intellectually votes a kind of loyalty to the alien precisely because it’s more like him than the humans around him, with the keynote word of “purity” signifying something both fascistic and atavistic in that loyalty, with the hint that there’s always something machine-like to any lifeform, in compulsion to survive in itself and to reproduce to extend its genome.
The alien is a sophisticated but also utterly simple expression of this essence. Parker and Lambert must stop Ash killing Ripley, with Parker decapitating him with a blow. But the android still deadly, until Lambert finally fries him with an electrified prod. The physicality of this sequence is tremendous, particularly as it serves in part as a repeat-cum-revision of Kane’s earlier demise, echoed in the ripping apart of Ash and the exposure of his vitals, except now the human form is substituted for something else – the company man revealed as unholy chimera of literal milk for blood and circuitry, the strength and wicked concision of the android physique suggested as Ash rips Ripley’s curls from her head, forms his fingers like a vice on Parker’s chest, and tries to choke Ripley with a rolled-up magazine. The image of headless Ash still trying to kill is as vital in its way as the alien itself in depicting the maniacal heart of this tale, animating the essential notion of a universe turned animate and hostile, of creation turned insane. When they briefly revive Ash to glean information from him, his mocking smile and cold humour (“I can’t lie to you about your chances but…you have my sympathies.”) give cold comfort but also a fire to the last three crewmembers. They resolve to abandon the ship and blow it up, ensuring there’s nothing left of the alien to pose a threat, or a boon, to anyone else. The climactic scenes see Alien’s pitiless logic still in play even as everything seems to spiral towards incandescent terminus. Parker and Lambert’s scrambling eagerness to survive creates a racket that attracts their nemesis. Ripley finds herself trapped on the ship she instructed to turn off, the intelligent but insensate MUTHR now calmly counting off minutes to self-destruction regardless of Ripley’s screams for awareness.
Only Ripley is fated to live, to become the emblematic survivor, the eternal neo-Odysseus voyaging home and battling demons of the underworld at every turn. Scott and company had the guts to take up that original notion of O’Bannon and Shusett’s and even take it a step further in a way, making her the film’s pivotal figure without rhetoric or cliché: she became the great archetype of a modern heroine because she simply is. Ripley’s force and character are made apparent long before she has to take up the mantle of command and then the face the axis that will make her either titan or afterthought lunchmeat. To a certain extent this idea wasn’t so radical, particularly as Ripley serves the role of “final girl” already being codified in horror movie terminology. She would become as the archetypal warrior mother in Aliens, Boudica with a pulse rifle. Here she’s just another member of the crew, blessed only with a slight advantage in muscle of body, mind, and spirit that allows her to survive. And even that may be in part due to the alien, as it’s heavily suggested, being canny is enough to use her to so what it can’t—fly the Nostromo’s shuttle away from the dying vessel. Weaver’s performance is both excellent but also less stand-out than the star-driven sequels, as Alien retains something of the Howard Hawks ethic of the ensemble as star, but also because Ripley is becoming, evolving, just as surely as the alien is, switched on by crisis and forced to work every cell in her frame to live. Still Weaver catches the eye at first with the blend of amusement and attitude she turns on Parker and Brett, and comes into focus as she interrogates Ash over his breach of discipline and, later, his seemingly negligent lack of urgency. “You’re still collating?” Ripley asks Ash, with Weaver’s reading at once emotional and beggared and exacting in her refusal to be bullshitted, before announcing a course of action to her fellows that signals both her emotional genuineness and her unfurling strength. It’s the moment Weaver became a movie star and Ripley becomes not just a character but a hero.
The breathless climactic scenes, as the formerly becalmed corridors of the Nostromo become a labyrinth of din and smoke, do graze the edge of impressive but empty hullabaloo on repeat viewings. But the sneakily appended final act is a perfect islet that repeats the film in miniature and punishes anyone who thought defeating such evil it would be so easy. Tough, resilient, almost androgynous Ripley strips down to her panties, suddenly, almost discomfortingly vulnerable, takes a deep breath, and prepares for sleep, only to find she’s trapped with the ultimate boogeyman. Much like Laurie Strode in Halloween Ripley is terrorised into a cupboard and forced into her make-or-break stand there, adapting tools and formulating a quick plan that needs profound courage to pull off and circumstances allow no other end. The cunning of this sequence lies not just in staging a great twist that the entire film has, in retrospect, been conditioning the viewer for – is it just more quiet and methodical observation, or leading to something? – but in the way it underlines both human and alien as creatures refusing to surrender or abandon their essence. Ripley finds her warrior pith, fusion of dragon killers like St George and Perseus with the princesses they saved, as befitting a modern myth, and the incredibly resilient alien manages to survive in space, still trying to find a way back into the shuttle after Ripley blows it out the airlock, will still not give up the game until Ripley gives it a roasting with the shuttle engines. The last image, of Ripley returned to sleep, is sublime in its sense of circularity, the waking life a nightmare that must contended with, and sleep the place where everyone is safe.
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Director: James Whale
By Roderick Heath
Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, or, The Modern Prometheus is a foundation text of both the science fiction and horror genres. Born of a dull, rainy summer by Lake Geneva by the brilliant young bride in the company of her famous husband Percy, his even more famous friend George Gordon, Lord Byron, and his physician Dr John Polidori, Frankenstein still makes Mary’s name familiar to people for whom Romantic poetry might as well be Klingon. Frankenstein, a text that referenced ancient mythology, was destined to be the legend of an age still busy bring born, the industrial and scientific eras. Shelley was herself product of a revolutionary age, daughter to the feminist theorist Mary Wollstonecraft and immersed in the burgeoning Romantic movement’s spiritual and symbolic conceptualism as well as radical thinking. Many both thrilled at and recoiled from the consequences of that time, the ancient regimes falling and new concepts and hierarchies rifling their way through every familiarity, as the French Revolution had devolved from florid optimism to a grim and concerted mobile slaughter consuming Europe, and that happy, elegant party in Switzerland were contemplating what it all meant via art. Ninety-four years after it was written, Frankenstein was filmed for the first time, by Thomas Edison’s film company. But it was the 1931 film version that was to permanently transform Frankenstein into a byword, and throw up an image of the monstrous still instantly recognisable to most people.
The most famous transposition to the screen, one that threw up an image still instantly familiar to most people eighty years after it was made, came in 1931, when Universal Studios wanted an appropriate property to follow up a smash hit, Tod Browning’s Dracula. As with that success, they chose an intermediary work, Peggy Webling’s theatrical adaptation, and hired a director who had proven himself gifted at traversing the gap between stage and screen, James Whale. Whale had come to Hollywood to adapt R.C. Sheriff’s play about the fatalism of World War I aviators Journey’s End for the movies. That film’s substantial success made Whale a major director, and he followed it up with the wartime melodrama Waterloo Road (1931). Dracula had suddenly made gothic horror popular after years when, in spite of the genre’s popularity in Europe, both Broadway and Hollywood had largely preferred jokey horrors like the semi-satirical The Cat and the Canary (1928): several years of the Depression and the harsh mood attendant in the early ‘30s had suddenly transformed the zeitgeist. With Frankenstein Whale, in spite of his comparative newness to the medium, fashioned a far more powerful work of cinema than Browning had managed, a dark fairy-tale painted in shades of grey and dusty light. Whale cast his Journey’s End star Colin Clive as the monomaniacal scientist, rechristened Henry rather than the novel’s Victor, and cast a relatively unknown English actor as his creation: the one-time William Pratt, who had rechristened himself Boris Karloff for an aura of the exotic and the sinister.
Whale’s Frankenstein emerged as a rather different beast to Shelley’s, however. Updated to around the turn of the twentieth century, Whale’s film stepped back from the poetic grandiosity of Shelley’s concepts, which traversed the distance from Alpine peaks to frozen Arctic and pitted creator and creation against each-other each as mutually tortured poet-kings, to present a tight morality play with an atmosphere derived not from the elemental reaches of high Romanticism but from the fetid, id-like realms of Expressionism in art. The monster was conceived not as Shelley’s misbegotten but entirely articulate demi-titan, but a mute, hulking, ugly, instinctual being, both childlike and animalistic in its simplicity, even innocence, and its savagery. This choice, disloyal as it was to Shelley, was the key to the nigh-unshakeable impact Whale’s take has had on popular culture. The monster, in being rendered something less nobly post-human, had become more relevant, a being onto which so much could be projected. Everything different, troubled, outcast, reviled—other—lay behind Karloff’s limpid eyes and misshapen brow. Whale’s fulminating anger at his poverty-stricken childhood, status as a gay man in a hostile world, and the trauma of his wartime service, found just as much accord in the monster as the audience who, suffering through the Depression, surely saw so many of themselves, cast off by a system that had pretended to care for them only to leave them stranded and bewildered by forces beyond control. Any black man scared for his life in Jim Crow south or migrating Oakie trying to find a place of refuge would recognise the mob that chases down and annihilates the hapless creature for its supposed sins, some of which were only the sin of circumstance and others natural response to mistreatment and cold regard.
Frankenstein’s stark seriousness as a parable had defined it, but Whale’s own sensibility was distinctly less solemn when let off the leash, particularly when it came to generic material he would resist being ghettoised in. With his next ventures into fantastic material, The Old Dark House (1932) and The Invisible Man (1933), he revealed that mischievous streak, interpolating overt humour and eccentricities of style in a way that still feels unexpected and bizarre, offering flashes of a new cultural argot that didn’t have a name then – camp. As Universal clamoured for a sequel to Frankenstein, Whale eventually caved in and agreed to helm it, and produced a film more suited to his personal humour. In spite of its eventual classic status, Bride of Frankenstein was beset by a troubled production, with endless revisions of plot and intent that lasted from initial story proposals to post-production edits designed to pacify the new production code. Whale ran through several screenwriters in searching for a persuasive concept and eventually found one when John L. Balderston, the dramatist who had written Dracula’s source play, hit upon the idea of using a vignette from Shelley’s novel, in which Frankenstein starts building a bride for his monster, and taking this to the logical end Shelley shied away from. The result is almost certainly the greatest of the storied Universal horror films, and also perhaps the strangest, a freewheeling romp through the landscape Whale had created for the first film that manages at once to mock and enlarge that landscape, and the already quickly calcifying clichés of the style Whale helped define.
Aptly for a film whose title promises new frontiers of sexuality, Bride of Frankenstein grazes downright perverse invocations of the erotic and the abnormal, one that actually gathers impetus and power from Whale’s pitch-black humour and self-satirising impulses. Laughter and dread have long been twinned opposites but are also notoriously difficult to combine effectively. Whale pulled it off in part by rendering the vividly stylised, eerie, shadow-sodden landscapes he had created for Frankenstein even more bleakly beautiful and momentous: Bride of Frankenstein is the height of the gothic horror style on the visual level. Yet Whale populates it with characters who seem rather bewildered to realise they’re in a horror film, like Una O’Connor’s screeching, teetering servant Minnie, and Ernest Thesiger’s villainous Dr Pretorious, who, in spite of his repulsive practices and sinister ends, is also a perversely cheerful bon vivant. Whale’s sensibility is in play right from the opening frames as he segues from a classic horror landscape of a fearsome storm raging above a grim Swiss castle to his take on the pretensions of Byron (Gavin Gordon) and the Shelleys, with Mary (Elsa Lanchester) characterise as a delicate drawing room darner who writes tales about unfathomable horrors but can’t stand the sight of her own blood when she pricks herself with a needle, and Byron as a prototypical fanboy who delights in recounting her own nightmares to Mary’s protest that no-one can see she was trying to tell a serious metaphysical parable.
The metafictional aspect to this opening – another idea that hadn’t been codified yet – ingeniously allows Whale to continue his narrative under the guise of a natural expansion on Shelley’s idea and lend it a quality rooted in a knowing sense of being told for its own sake, an extension of the parlour game roots of the original story. The scenes of Shelley’s story Byron recounts are also not those of the book but Whale’s film, allowing a recapitulation of that film in a manner close to a highlights reel before a new TV episode. Meanwhile the deliberately artificial acting of the three actors signals Whale’s wry approach to the effete aristocratic fantasies he’s engaging with and his smirking take on the heightened essence of melodrama, taken soon to extremes in Valerie Hobson’s hilarious overacting as Elizabeth, Frankenstein’s fiancé, and Clive’s own raw-nerved performance, which nudges the scientist from thoughtful rebel towards hysterical patsy. Frankenstein, left gravely injured after being thrown from the top of the windmill where the monster apparently met its end at the climax of the first film, is taken home, believed to be dying, but he shows signs of pulling through. Meanwhile at the scorched and crumbled ruins of the mill the Burgomaster (E.E. Clive, splendidly pompous) tries to assert authority over the flocking villagers proud of their handiwork and hoping the monster is dead, including the Frankensteins’ servant Minnie and the parents of the girl the monster drowned, Hans (Reginald Barlow) and his wife (Mary Gordon). Hans, in his distraught desire to see the monster’s body, accidentally falls into the mill’s flooded cellar, and finds the monster scorched and wounded but still very much alive and vengeful. The monster throttles Hans and climbs out, and the near-sighted hausfrau doesn’t realise she’s helping the monster out of the pit until it’s too late: he pitches her down after her husband, before encountering Minnie, whose squawking panic bewilders even him.
Minnie finds herself frustrated when no-one believes her about the monster’s survival, and the misshapen creature subsists in the forest, terrifying unfortunates he encounters even as he repeatedly tries to reach out to them, including a shepherdess (Ann Darling) who faints and falls into a pond. Although he saves her from drowning, she believes he’s attacking her, and a passing hunter wings him with a bullet. The monster finally finds refuge and fellowship with a blind hermit (O.P. Heggie), whose melancholy violin playing entices and pacifies the creature’s pained ferocity. Meanwhile, as he recovers, Frankenstein is visited by Pretorius, a former teacher at Frankenstein’s university who was “booted out” for pursuing similar forbidden pursuits in trying to create life. Pretorius talks Frankenstein, who has become a Baron since his father’s death during his convalescence, into taking a look at his creations. The Baron is revolted by Pretorius’s pint-sized homunculi, which he grows “like cultures” rather than stitches together and keeps living in jars, but Pretorius does pique Frankenstein’s curiosity when he proposes creating a second, female creature with a combination of their techniques. When a pair of lost hikers walks in upon the creature and the hermit, they spark a fight that results in the burning down of the hermit’s house, leaving the creature homeless and hunted again. Taking refuge in a graveyard, he encounters Pretorius who, with his murderous fugitive helpmates Karl (Dwight Frye) and Ludwig (Ted Billings), is robbing the tombs for body parts. Pretorius takes the monster under his wing and uses him to force the reluctant Frankenstein to complete their project, finally having the creature kidnap Elizabeth to force his hand.
One of the trickiest aspects of Bride of Frankenstein to appreciate is the blithe way it steps between outright absurdity and total sincerity in treating its themes. Whale’s insistent religious imagery correlates the monster’s suffering with Christ’s, tethered to a pole and raised up as if on the cross, and the eerily highlighted crucifix on the hermit’s wall that lingers in a glowing image even after a fade to black. Whale pushes this element with fervent clarity, like a blazing insight into a core of real, irate, transcendental feeling that is otherwise purposefully contrasted with the absurdity of most human behaviour when backed up by feelings of security and self-satisfaction. At the same time, there’s also a hint of lampooning of the parochial side of this value system, particularly in the down-home church organ that drones under the same scene where the hermit and monster find each-other like a pair of hapless lovers. Minnie embodies this idea most directly for Whale, acting like a firebrand when she thinks the monster is down and screaming and running off when he proves impossible to suppress for long. In the first film Whale portrayed the monster as embittered and reactive after being tormented by Frankenstein’s assistant; here this element becomes something close to behavioural theory, as the reactions of the ostracised and the differentiated result in maladaptation in the face of the ignorant reflexes of others, often forming a tragic roundelay of victimhood. The reactions of people to the monster usually create situations that result in violence and harm. This idea is most vividly illustrated in the sequence when he saves the shepherdess, as he tries to suppress her panicky screams only to make things worse, Whale alternating between viewpoints with electric intensity conveying both the fear of the girl and the alarm of the monster, erasing the apparent line between appeal and assault.
For a film as long-hailed as it is, Bride of Frankenstein is nonetheless nearly as stitched-together as the monster itself, chiefly because the new, strict censorship regime just gaining traction in Hollywood at the time, added to the tumultuous development, meant that aspects of the film were left choppy and unclear. These include a midsection in which a number of dead bodies are found scattered around town, killings for which the monster is blamed but which were supposed to have been committed by Fritz and Hans on Pretorius’s business. Whale changed the finale at the last minute, letting Frankenstein escape the final conflagration, although he’s still visible amidst tumbling rubble at the end. Despite this raggedness, the film comes on with astonishing pace and power. One bravura sequence follows another, but perhaps the two most brilliantly composed come half-way through and right at the end. The first sees the monster chased down once more by torch-wielding, pitchfork-trusting villagers through a forest until he’s captured by the mass, in a sequence that represents nigh-perfect interplay of editing, music, camerawork, and directorial thrust. The monster is bound, carted back to town, and trussed up in the old dungeon below the police station, held down with chains and bonds. The threat has been contained completely and utterly, the Burgomaster is happy to get back to work (“And leave us to ours,” mutters one of the gendarmes in bolshy manner), assuring the townsfolk everything is now taken care off. Except that the monster tears himself free and smashes his way out again with ludicrous ease once the weight of society is off him – the tormented alien has grown too strong to be held by such forces, and can henceforth only be destroyed by his own yearnings.
Karloff initially objected to one of the biggest changes to his role, which had made him one of horror cinema’s most everlasting stars, was that the creature learns to speak in the course of the movie. Karloff’s brilliant mime work had given the creature qualities of pathos and terror more intense than most actors could manage with pages of dialogue. But the monster’s halting, grunting vocal deliveries, built around the basic words the hermit and Pretorius teach him, is one of the most memorable aspects of Bride of Frankenstein. His speech quickly evolves in spite of his small vocabulary from identification and association (“Bread!”) to value judgement (“Bad!”) to philosophy (“Love dead. Hate living.”). The two films form a tale of the creature moving from newborn to nihilistic experience, with stages of bratty, tantrum-throwing murderousness and clasping adolescent neediness in between, leading to a finale when he apportions life and death according to his own will. The moment of ultimate confrontation comes when Pretorius opens a door and lets the monster into Frankenstein’s parlour, the baleful gaze of the rejected creation above a mouth that now has mastered the broken syllables of his creator’s name – an act in legend that gives mortals powers over gods. Appropriately, from this point on the creature controls Frankenstein’s fate.
The note of mutual fulfilment that sparks under the monster’s relationship with the hermit (“A friend – to be a light to mine eyes and a comfort in time of trouble – amen!”) is cunning for the way Whale universalises it, a perfect picture of Christian fellowship that can also be read as an idealised gay relationship, in a way that shoots for the cosmic by way of the purely personal, all we misbegotten creations of a dubiously competent deity clinging to each-other in the night. If the hermit is the angel on the monster’s shoulder, Pretorius is presented as a jaunty yet phthisic, queeny devil on the shoulder of Frankenstein, who spends most of the film clinging to his bed, bride, and Baronetcy as a desperate closet, trying to resist the thrill of creating life in forbidden rites. Pretorius, whose unlikely name baffles Minnie (“There ain’t no such name!”), struts into the film providing both its arsenic heart and its impudent instant critique, contrasting both the stricken conscientiousness of Frankenstein and the haplessness of the monster with his eager embrace of his own immorality. He plays the puppet-master creator mischievously arranging the world according to his acerbic understanding of the way it works and the stories it tells itself to make sense of its perversity, as he outfits his homunculi as travesties of social roles and essential identities – a king, a queen, an archbishop, a ballerina, a devil. He encourages Frankenstein to follow “the lead of nature – or God if you like your Bible stories,” although he also happily quotes the Bible when enticing the good doctor to join in his project: “Male and female created he them – be fruitful and multiply.” Pretorius is a happy inhabitant of the twilight world. When he leads his assistants in breaking into the tomb looking for harvestable bodies, he eyes a girl’s corpse with an assessing, physiologically and erotically incisive eye. “Pretty little thing in her way wasn’t she?” Karl notes with hesitant ghoulish interest, but Pretorius more directly states with gleaming eyes, “I hope her bones are firm!”
Pretorius arranges bones as a centrepiece for an impromptu party he holds for himself, toasting monsters until the real thing lurches out of the shadows: “Oh – I thought I was alone,” he notes unflappably. Thesiger’s inimitable delivery and persona had already been exploited brilliantly by Whale on The Old Dark House, but Pretorius gave him an even more perfect vehicle, with his gift for lending any line the quality of some alien and malignant invocation, down to his “only weakness,” of which there are at least two. By comparison, Clive’s Frankenstein is marginalised for much of the film, perhaps a result of Whale working around Clive’s worsening drinking problem which would claim his life within two years, and also more definitely a by-product of the film’s waggish take on the pivotal myth, which makes Pretorius the core figure illustrating what Frankenstein would act like if every remnant trace of humanism was removed, the Baron stuck as wishy-washy moderate in the face of Pretorius’ embraced extremism. Still, although bullied and blackmailed against all his best impulses throughout the film, and appalled by realisation that Pretorius has his minions happily murder women to furnish their laboratory-born chimera with body parts, Frankenstein also falls under the spell of the promethean act again as the project gathers pace: what greater drug than the thrill of defying natural law and creating life, without any fussy intermediaries? The orgasmic charge of the final creation scenes, where Whale cuts loose in a riot of canted camera angles, vertiginous shots and sparking machines and faces turned to chiaroscuro death masks as the great phallic tower lifted to sky awaits electric insemination, pays off in new birth.
The original film, like many early sound films, lacked an incidental music score. By 1935 that was quickly changing and Whale hired recent immigrant Franz Waxman to write music for the sequel. Waxman responded with a work of oversized bravado that instantly made his name in Hollywood and also expanded concepts of what a film score could do at the time. It also showed how much he understood Whale’s oddball sensibility by interpolating, amidst the rollicking drums and deep-throbbing strings that invoke the crepuscular epic, a faux-Polynesian love theme, a whine of sardonic yet plaintive feeling constantly nudging the film towards perverse romanticism even as the chiaroscuro visuals sketch out dread spaces of the mind. Whale, like a vast number of filmmakers in Hollywood and elsewhere, was a great admirer of the recent trend of German Expressionist filmmaking and its core creators, and took direct license from them. Their ranks included Paul Leni, Robert Wiene, Fritz Lang, and Paul Wegener, whose Der Golem: Wie er in der Welt Kam (1920) had offered an obvious template for the concept of the daemonic creation as limpid-eyed yet glowering monstrosity pulverising the human world yet beset by simple and childlike things, whilst Leni’s gift for weaving in humour with horror undoubtedly appealed to Whale.
Whale took this a step further as he tested the idea that the comedy of manners could exist within the heightened removes of such bizarre fare, and his understanding that the root of both the comedy and the horror was the fear and desire for others, with society as monster in its own right that torments and afflicts what appals it. Like Frankenstein and The Invisible Man’s Frank Griffin, Pretorius crosses the invisible but all too consequential barrier of what’s done and finds the thrill of transgressive power even as the forces of reaction snap into action and begin to fence them back in. The monster on the other hand is always unwillingly trapped beyond the fringes of the human world. The search for companionship, in all its forms, preoccupies all the characters, particularly the creature, whose train of thought, set in motion by Pretorius, moves inexorably through stages of relation – “Woman. Friend. Wife.” The film’s final, most ingenious and ruthless touch takes the comedy of manners theme to its logical end with the bride’s rejection of the monster as hideous, a punch-line that cynically splices the theme of the search for perfection and for fellowship – the human brain Pretorius grew, the perfect tabula rasa of social behaviour, still knows instinctively what is beautiful and what is ugly.
Like Orson Welles who would similarly make a leap from stage to screen, Whale’s style was at once floridly theatrical and inimitably cinematic, compensating for the lack of open space he was used to in the theatre with energetic, sweeping camerawork and jagged cutting. His work here came with invaluable aid from the team of technical experts at Universal, including the inimitable work of makeup man Jack Pierce, special effects maestro Jack Fulton, and John J. Mescall’s photography. The evocations of cavernous ancient chambers and rude stonework, the dense forests of jutting trees, the soaring battlements of castles and old mills where creativity unfolds jealously guarded from the snooping hoi polloi (both the scientists and the poets), the glowing homey windows of the hermit’s hut, the stark statuary and blasted loneliness of the cemetery, the frosty sprawl of Hobson’s nightgown across the Frankenstein’s plush bed – all come close to the platonic ideal of this wing of the genre. One great technical and expressive moment comes when the monster watches from a hiding place as Pretorius and his goons invade the tomb where he’s hiding, their lanterns appearing in the distance and then advancing in an intricate play of light, the three gruesome intruders squabbling and fussing all the way whilst the alienated creature recoils in bewildered fear. Another, truly spectacular and visually ambitious moment comes later when the infuriated monster stalks Karl on the mill roof, the monster assaulting up the sleazy henchmen and throwing him from the roof amidst a wild survey of thunderous clouds, roaring winds, guttering fires, and the wind-rocked cradle of the bride’s body about to be fired with life. And this is just one vignette in the riot of images that is the climax. Such trappings still pack their oneiric power even when Whale makes sport of it, or perhaps especially when he does so, as when Frankenstein, Pretorius and his crew enter the old mill where Frankenstein does his experiments, all twisted, mimetic proto-Escher shapes and grimy hues, the Baron advising “Mind the steps” whist Pretorius noting, “I think it’s a charming house.”
If Frankenstein still readily springs to mind when it comes to any variation on the misbegotten creation myth today, Bride’s imprint could be subtler, but just as definite, as it asked a question about such creations about where the lines can be drawn between life and technology and what we can invent to sate our needs. Recent films like Her (2013) and Ex Machina (2015) are similarly dedicated to exactly the same unpredictable notion of synthetic consciousnesses becoming erotically and emotionally enticing only to reject their would-be creator-controllers. Whilst the notion of a synthetic love object had been mooted in cinema before the Bride, particularly in Lang’s Metropolis (1926) and Henrik Galeen’s Alraune (1928), those tale posited the ancient figure of the demon temptress, where the Bride that Frankenstein and Pretorius make is actually the opposite, a creature that naturally refuses to be a mere passive creation and recoils from being objectified. Many years later when the film as partly remade by Franc Roddam in 1985 as The Bride, things had changed enough that the monster and mate find each-other whilst the creator goes mad and dies trying to rape his creation. Under Whale’s gaze this element takes on an extra dimension of bizarreness as he turns Pretorius and Frankenstein into mad makeover artists, swathing the bride with her jutting mane of frizzed Egyptian-styled hair in gown of white. This is Whale’s piece de resistance in mocking social and mating rituals and the game of love and the eternal conflict between flesh and soul: the bride’s hissing horror is a most normal reaction but also is rooted in something primal, something alien to the empathic self that defines humanism – and is thus anti-human. The bride’s rejection her proposed mate sets in motion the monster’s final, enraged auto-da-fe as he cordons off himself, the bride and Pretorius whilst, moved by the escaped Elizabeth’s show of loyalty to Frankenstein, commands them to depart before blowing up the mill. Whale’s last, most sublime irony is there in the spectacle of the weeping monster. Too human to cope with the world, he is finally gifted the power of the gods his own creator snatched but could never bear, deciding who should live and who belong dead.
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Director/Screenwriter: Wong Kar-Wai
By Roderick Heath
Wong Kar-Wai was already a major figure on the film scene of the 1990s, but his 2000 film In the Mood for Love made him something close to the cinematic poet laureate of the millennium’s pivot as far as many moviegoers were concerned. Achingly beautiful as a remembrance of things past and a portrait of stymied emotions, In the Mood for Love was both an apotheosis of Wong’s obsessive refrains as a creative force, but also suggested a deliberated about-face from the artistic persona he had built for himself and the style of his oeuvre to that point, rooted as they were in the hyperkinetic climes of his native Hong Kong. Works like Chungking Express (1994) and Fallen Angels (1995) were concerned with the neon-painted lives of young city dwellers adrift in the tides of modern detachment, the suffocating nature of lives spent in the vortex of too much choice and chance. In the Mood for Love, nominally a portrait of two people drawn together but fatefully unable to connect, was more tone poem than narrative, celebrating evanescent emotions in the midst of such human furore, immersing the viewer in Wong’s nostalgia for the milieu of 1960s Hong Kong with its crumbling, seedy, intimate vibrancy, an attempt to grasp at an image-dream of the past swept away in the hoopla of the late 20th century.
Wong’s most excitedly accepted works had a habit of dropping in between other projects he was expending more energy and time on. The genesis of In the Mood for Love hardly suggested it would prove Wong’s most popular film, as Wong had conceived and shot the film as a respite and recourse whilst another, heftier project called 2046 languished in development hell. Wong spun one project from the material of the other, resulting in two films linked by crucial but rearranged aspects, each narrative and its human figurations haunting the other like ghosts. A third film in the mix is Wong’s debut, Days of Being Wild (1988), suggesting that 2046, when it was finally produced, had evolved into a summative assessment and closing bracket for all his films up to that time. 2046 is a partial antithesis to its immediate predecessor in spite of its shared images, themes, and characters–sexual where the earlier film was chaste, purposefully messy rather than singularly focused, a study in the onrush of history both personal and general rather than a wistfully static zone within it. It’s also the director’s most unusual narrative insofar as it takes place in two different times, or two different realities, splitting the difference between mid-1960s Southeast Asia and the year of the title. 2046 isn’t a sequel in the conventional manner, nor is it a second chapter of the same story. A close literary relative would be D.H. Lawrence’s The Rainbow and Women in Love, which tell the lives of two sisters but can easily be regarded as standalone works or distorting mirrors of each other.
Much as 2046 recapitulates the plot of In the Mood for Love in a series of increasingly less sentimental and satisfactory echoes, the protagonist of 2046, Chow Mo-wan (Tony Leung Chiu-Wai), writes one part of this story. Or does he only think he does–is he in fact the memory or myth of someone in 2046? Of course, both stories are being created by Wong Kar-Wai in the early 2000s, projecting both backwards and forwards in extending his poetic metaphors to extremes. Chow is nominally the same man seen in In the Mood for Love, but a revision—sour, cynical, and glib rather than intense and honourably disconsolate. He’s first glimpsed breaking up with a lover, Su Li-zhen (Gong Li), a woman who had the same name as Maggie Cheung’s character from In the Mood for Love but who couldn’t have been more different. This lady is a shady femme fatale and professional gambler who always wears a black glove, a creature suited to the smoky, feverish dens of Singapore, the place where Chow has been hiding out since his life fell apart back in Hong Kong. Chow returns to Hong Kong in the spirit of getting on with that life again, and quickly encounters a woman he once knew by the name of Mimi (Carina Lau), who had appeared in Days of Being Wild and who now calls herself Lulu. She doesn’t remember Chow, but he’s able to tell her own story back to her like a narrator, an act she seems to find beneficent. Soon after, Chow tries to find Lulu in the Orient Hotel, where she lives, only for the hotel owner, Mr. Wang (Wang Sum), to tell him she’s left. Chow is struck by the detail that Lulu was living in a room numbered 2046, the same number as the hotel room where he and the first Su Li-Zhen spent time trying to write kung-fu action stories.
Chow asks Wang if he can rent the room, but Wang puts him off, talking him into accepting the neighbouring room 2047. Chow later learns the grim truth Wang was suppressing: Lulu had been murdered by her jazz drummer boyfriend, and her room is still covered in blood. Chow settles into life in the Orient, encountering Wang’s daughters, the forlorn, fraying Jing-wen (Faye Wong) and her scamp of a younger sister, Jie-wen (Jie Dong), and cabaret dancer Bai Ling (Ziyi Zhang), who eventually moves into 2046. Jing-wen has a boyfriend, a Japanese businessman (Takuya Kimura) who had stayed at the hotel for a time and has since returned home, and now she spends her quiet time learning Japanese, hoping eventually to make the journey to his arms. But her father’s vehemence against the match seems to doom the romance to perpetual long-distance longing. Jie-wen soon visits a form of karma on their father when she, following in Lulu’s footsteps, runs off with another drummer. Meanwhile Chow begins a mutually aggravating flirtation with Bai Ling, who lives a similarly libertine lifestyle to him, and eventually it flowers into a fiery affair. The hotel is an easy place to romanticise. The balcony under the hotel sign is a flying bridge where the lost folk who inhabit its poky spaces retreat for solitary cigarettes or momentary connections with their fellows. But the opera that resounds from Wang’s apartment signals not a love of surging artistry, but rather an attempt to mask his constant, gruelling arguments with his daughters, and in a similar manner, the more insistent truth that emerges is that the hotel is a crossroads where lost souls graze one another.
Chow’s adventures in the Orient Hotel provide the seeds for a science fiction story he begins writing with Jing-wen after she has a bout of severe depression and spends time in hospital. Chow has already had a success with one he wrote called 2046; his and Jing-wen’s follow-up is entitled 2047, set in a future in which the world is spanned by a network of trains, one of which makes a journey to the mysterious destination 2046–a year, a place, a state of mind?–where life enters stasis and people remain immersed in their dreams and memories in escape from the real world. The hero of the story, a Japanese man named Tak (Kimura again), is the first person to ever make the return journey from 2046 because he lost his lover even in that dream world. During the trip, in spite of the driver’s warning not to fall in love with the android staff on the train, he becomes fascinated by one android (Wong again), and tries to puzzle out her behaviour, which might signal that she loves someone else or might be slowly suffering mechanical wear-out. Chow’s working relationship with Jing-wen proves successful, as their story forges a name and new profession for Chow but also troublingly echoes his liaison years before with the original Su Li-zhen. As he did then, Chow falls silently in love with his writing partner. Rather than take advantage of his Japanese rival’s absence, however, Chow lets them write to each other using him as intermediary so her father won’t suspect, and finally arranges a Christmastime phone call between the pair, acknowledging with melancholic satisfaction that the especially cold regions of 1224–1225 the trains in his story pass through were named for Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, the two days when everyone needs extra warmth.
Wong’s films before In the Mood for Love had been marked by their employment of purposefully arch storytelling techniques, some of them adapted from modernist literature, others suggesting the influence of poetry, fairy tales, even pop songs. Wong foregrounded his stories’ status as just that—stories—with films divided into chapters or mirroring narratives, doppelganger characters, intertwined narrative lines, and totemistic fetishes, like the man who buys canned pineapple cans every day and the girl who obsessively listens to “California Dreamin’” in Chungking Express. At the same time he tried to demonstrate how all such devices were, to some extent, masks of an underlying obsessive drive to record and describe thoughts and feelings almost beyond words. His customarily eccentric take on the great native fictional genre wu xia, Ashes of Time (1994), had presented a collective of familiar stereotypes from the genre but as lovelorn and life-foiled individuals whose existential crises are only interrupted by occasional life-and-death battles that come on ironically more as escapes into pure action than as great climaxes.
Chow’s attempt to write wu xia tales in In the Mood for Love suggested an in-joke on Wong’s part, whereas here the bifurcated narrative split into period romance and futuristic metaphor reproduces the same essential idea of convention and cliché utilised to penetrate to the heart of real emotion. The rag-and-bone shop of Wong’s poetic lexicon is constantly evinced throughout 2046, rooted in the detritus of popular cultures of which, he suggests, Hong Kong was a particularly enriched tidewater where the products of both East and West wash ashore, and things remembered from Wong’s childhood, the fervent, crowded, fearsomely lively yet isolating atmosphere of Hong Kong and the open, rich sense of possibility in Southeast Asia at the time, before the horrors of Vietnam, Pol Pot, and the fall of Sukarno. In the Mood for Love’s final shots, filmed in Angkor Wat, suggested both a longing to regain a mystically tinged sense of certitude rooted in a fractured past and a sense of foreboding, knowing that soon monsters will be roaming over this landscape. 2046 stepped into a new realm for Wong, insofar as that it’s about the act of creation itself, offering in part a meditation on the way experience becomes art, the transposition of ideas from immediate reality into the zone of the fantastic, and back again. Chow processes his experiences into an alternate zone of facticity where emotional states shape that world, and, as Wong did with Ashes of Time, removing the traditional motivations of scifi–usually action and adventure–to study the more ephemeral qualities lurking within genre storytelling.
2046’s attempt to evoke zones of feeling and sexuality beyond the current understanding of such things isolates the underlying mood of scifi like Blade Runner (1982) and makes it the very point of the film’s ponderings. Wong also starts off not with Chow in his ’60s setting, but with the world of his fiction, raising the question as to which era is the dream of the other. Wong’s scifi references cover as much ground as his other cultural influences. Vistas of gleaming CGI neon and surging monorails come straight out of ’70s and ’80s Japanese anime, evoking a common background of such modern mythology in the past-war state of so many Asian cities–Tokyo demolished and Hong Kong turned from colonial outpost to place of refuge and haute-capitalist tide pool, causing both to be rebuilt as carnivals of steel, glass, and neon. The concept of correlating distant future as stage to deliberate on the past is reminiscent of Dennis Potter’s final works Karaoke and Cold Lazarus. Aspects of the story suggest Wong digested an episode of Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone, “The Lonely,” down to the fateful number in the title, the year the Serling story was set.
Of course, in one sense 2046 might not be regarded as science fiction at all, given that the futuristic element in the film is presented as something external to or concurrent to its other reality. And yet Wong, uninterested as he is in the nuts-and-bolts methods of technocratic pondering and conceptual fancy with which scifi tends to be preoccupied, engages with another, subtler mode of the genre, a brand that explores how the modern human identity subsists in relation to a vast, strange, implacable universe, and how we coexist with our own mimetic projects and creations. In this regard, 2046 has kinship with major genre works that betray a different sense of science fiction, including Alain Resnais’ Je t’aime, je t’aime (1967) and Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris (1971), similarly transfixed by memory and simulacra of life, exploring the constant human tendency towards interior travel rather than face up to the universe in all its indifferent grandeur. Ridley Scott’s Replicants would extend the Frankensteinian fear of a creation that refuses to abide and extend the creator’s self, but Wong’s twitchy-limbed fembots, like Stanislaw Lem’s alien planet that gives Tarkovsky’s film its central enigma and motive, only reflect back to the onlooker what they project upon them, embodying but remaining as fundamentally unknowable as the love-object. Chow tries to understand himself through mythic projections of himself and those who torment and fascinate him. A constant visual and thematic refrain is a large speakerlike object on the 2046 train, high-tech equivalent to the hole in the tree where secrets are whispered and stored–a piece of folktale wisdom mentioned in this film and its predecessor. The darkness at the heart of the pit of secrets is the crux of the enigma, the black hole at the galaxy’s centre, the vaginal portal, the id. Nothing that goes there comes back unless changed beyond recognition.
Wong and Doyle conjure gorgeous scifi images in the sleek confines of the 2046 train and the blank-eyed yet mysteriously emotive robots who stalk the deserted conveyance, Kimura’s perfect manga hero their detached and pensive companion-lover. Nor is scifi the only genre Wong rifles, as he steps into film noir and paperback romance tales. Gong’s gauntleted gambler could have stepped out of his frustrated attempt to film the source novel for Orson Welles’ noir masterpiece The Lady From Shanghai (1946). Glimpses of Chow’s own 2046 story being enacted split the difference between noir and scifi, as a cyberpunk gamine lures a man into bed and murders him whilst her boyfriend hides upstairs and spies on them, his dripping tears caught on the plunge by DP Christopher Doyle’s camera as galactic blotches. The images here hark back to Fallen Angels’ assassin lowlifes inhabiting the underside of contemporary Hong Kong that Wong filmed like an alien world. Chow’s shift of modes from writing martial arts tales to scifi suggests Wong had been paying attention to a general critical consensus that scifi provided a new stage for traditional genres to unfold, with the likes of Star Wars (1977) blending motifs borrowed from both the Western and the martial arts tale.
The metafictional aspect of Chow’s adventures in writing suggests an imagined alternative life for Wong himself, one where he subsists as a smith of genre fiction. Hong Kong cinema has for so long been buoyed by its reputation for action and comedy films Wong’s constitutional inability to swim with that tide was enabled a level of freedom by his stature but also left him cut off from the mainstream of his own local culture. Wong may well also have been thinking about the creative pillars of wu xia on the printed page, the likes of Liang Yusheng and Jin Yong, pseudonyms used by men who had created many of the defining characters and motifs of the genre writing for newspapers in the 1950s and ’60s–indeed, Ashes of Time had been adapted from Jin Yong’s stories. Much of the landscape of scifi and film noir had similarly been born of such writers, penning stories for magazines. Rather than dismissing such folk as grubby hacks, Wong celebrates them in his way, suggesting the fuel for all forms of creativity is inherently personal. 2046 is also, as some have noted, the year before the promised self-governing period of Hong Kong after the handover to China runs out, giving the number a foreboding quality, a crux of the political as well as personal. Hong Kong’s status as a world caught in the cross-rip of different cultures, hemispheres, and ways of being, perched uneasily on the edge of history, waiting to be pushed off by some fatal pressure. That sense of anxiety, however subliminal, gives Wong’s work an overtone that remains vital to it (for instance, the absence of it in Wong’s Stateside romp My Blueberry Nights, 2006, doomed that film for all its qualities to feel comparatively frivolous).
2046 unfolds as a series of contrapuntal sequences, stepping backwards and forwards in chronology and between realities. The highly rhythmic yet dislocated structure unfolds is simulated in Wong and Doyle’s shooting. In the Mood for Love’s style was marked by its Matisse-like visual effects, spaces and people alike used as elements in patterns that converge and give way without depth, conveying both the beauty and stasis of the central couple’s affair. 2046’s images flit by at a much faster pace, the dense layers of the period Hong Kong and Singapore scenes, all vertiginously narrowed corridors and universes folding in on themselves, matched to the stripped-back environs of the futuristic train scenes, where the real world moves by in a blank blur. The sense of something urgent underlying 2046 is impossible to ignore even as, essentially, nothing happens. Chow’s voiceover mentions riots convulsing on the waterfront, with the suggestion they’re the first act in an age of disruption that will end the islet time Wong was born in and celebrates. Shigeru Umebayashi’s propulsive main theme for the score underlines this sensation of impetus, contrasting the slower, more yearning, dancing pizzicato of his In the Mood for Love theme and matching the film’s pulse instead to the driving force of the futuristic trains seen dashing through tunnels and neon cities. Wong realises the two periods as polar opposites of atmosphere (if all still painted in the lustrous hues of Doyle’s photography), the clean, sleek, supermoderne environs of the 2046 express where stilted androids cavort and gaze dead-eyed out the windows into digital dreams, and the tangled, bustling, organic furore of period Hong Kong, a world in which Chow and Bai Ling exist bred to it as panthers in the veldt, slipping the cramped hallways, drenched in the hues of red and green and blue that infest the parlours and foyers and streets of the city, at once embracing and isolating.
The film occasionally switches into black-and-white for an aura faintly reminiscent of high-class advertising, apt for iconographic moments of perfection where, like the doomed Scotty Ferguson of Vertigo (1958), Chow finds himself confronted by reproductions of his idealised love object via fetishized talismanic objects and experiences–sharing a drowsy ride in the back of a taxi, the hand in the black glove–as waystations in a journey that loops eternally. Zhang and Leung make for one of the sexiest screen couples in history, inhabiting characters whose connection of a physical level is foiled by their discursive emotional needs. If In the Mood for Love was transfixed by a love affair based in subliminal accord foiled by scruple and circumstance, 2046 studies one doomed by the incapacity of the two lovers to state their subtler desires out loud and their ingrained attitudes even as they find deep carnal satisfaction: Chow constantly holds off Bai Ling’s shows of feeling by continually relegating her to the status of whore whilst she is constantly frustrated by his detachment whilst casting him as the eternally elusive lover. Their early scenes play out as a dance of attraction and repulsion in which they consciously assume characters, he the drawling roué, she the teasing tart, that ensure they don’t really meet, only the guises they put to survive their respective narratives as soiled romantic and fading beauty. Their quicksilver attraction and sexual compatibility founders, however, on their inability to leave behind such guises, as Bai Ling offends Chow by failing to show up for a dinner he gives when he plans to introduce her as his girlfriend to his friends, and he in turn leaves her increasingly wounded as he fails, deliberately or not, to recognise her very genuine neediness.
2046 is also a study in acting, both within and without Wong’s narratives. Leung is his eternally reliable worldly conduit, ensuring Chow always conveys a sense of gravitas and covert discomfort even when he’s being a flip shit. Wong’s cabal of actresses, a critical mass of Chinese screen beauty and talent, are all cast in accordance to classic Hollywood’s rules of casting according to type and essence–Gong in her steely, stoic majesty, Zhang in her defiant but covertly brittle intensity, Faye Wong’s bright-eyed yet melancholic romanticism. Wong even goes so far as to name Zhang’s character after one of the few big Hong Kong stars not in the film. The theme is both supernal and vital: roles and lives lived and unlived spin about each other in strange gravity throughout 2046, whether through the constructed safe zones of fiction or the demands of surviving daily existence in a metropolis, and a natural process of life, the people we are in different times. But within this celebration of words and identities worn like husks is an idea Wong constantly, even obsessively tries to dig into is the ambiguity of the self, whether it’s knowable not just to anyone outside of that self but even itself, and indeed the question as to whether that ambivalence is the essence of human authenticity rather than a failure to locate it. Both Chow and the second Su Li-zhen prize their ambivalence and the difficulty others take in trying to understand them–Su fobs Chow off when it comes to learning anything about her by playing high and low with him for such information, and she always wins. “I’ve seen pretty people disappear like smoke,” Bob Dylan once sang, and it’s a fact of life for Chow, who returns to Singapore towards the film’s end in search of her only to find her vanished, perhaps consumed by her perpetual twilight lifestyle, perhaps having returned to Cambodia where she came from, where she’ll probably also die once that epochal nightmare rolls around.
Chow’s time with the second Li-zhen is described in one of the later chapters although it comes before most of the events depicted in the film, and is bookended by his last encounter with Bai Ling, so we can see tragedy repeating not exactly as farce but surely as ironic inversion. Li-zhen resisted Chow’s entreaty to come with him to Hong Kong just as he refuses to play Bai Ling’s lover again–to be “borrowed” as he put it once before–because he recognises he’s finally found a part he can’t play, an interior reality he can’t ignore for the sake of an external one, and that like himself, she needs to escape the roundelay of simulacrums they take refuge in. Chow’s act here seems cold, as he leaves Bai Ling weeping in her poignant, final loss of illusion, but is actually as kind in its way as his aid to Jing-wen was, for his response here is akin to ripping off a band-aid, a momentary hurt that deflects a deeper and more grievous possible wound, a refusal on Chow’s part to indulge his guises any longer nor to offer Bai Ling the opium that is bogus affection. The concluding images of him are as a sad and solitary figure perhaps resigned to such a state until he can properly lay his ghosts to rest. Unlike his fictional antihero, Chow might not have the will the leave that place where memories surround and immerse, but there is a sign he is reconciled to it, able to coexist in future and past, a gaining of wisdom if not catharsis. The meaning of it all suggests a transposition of the famous last lines of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby to a new setting and new context. All our trains rush on, borne back ceaselessly into the past.
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Director/Screenwriter/Actor: Georges Méliès
By Roderick Heath
On the 27th of December, 1895, Georges Méliès attended a special event arranged by the inventor brothers Auguste and Louis Lumière. The brothers had recently perfected the machine they called the cinematograph—a creation that combined functions of moving picture camera, processor, and projector—and had been showing off the results around Paris throughout the later weeks of the year. On this night, they invited various showmen and theatrical impresarios to see the results of their labours. The invitees were to be one of the very first movie audiences, and at least one of them would soon become a pioneer of a new art. The Lumières had conflicting aims in the exhibition. They were exposing their creation and hoping to stir interest and publicity, which would help protect it from their many rivals, including Thomas Edison. But they also had avowed high-minded, scientific purpose for their invention on the cusp of dispatching a corps of photographers around the world to shoot documentary footage and exhibit the results. Méliès was an experienced stage illusionist who owned and managed the Théâtre Robert-Houdin, built by that famous magician. Méliès had become a success thanks to his meticulous attention to his theatre’s running and ingenuity in providing its attractions. Like all of the impresarios, he was transfixed by the new mode of communication the Lumières presented, and he jostled with the owner of the Folies Bergère in trying to buy their camera. But the brothers refused all offers.
Méliès got around this by travelling to London and purchasing another manufacturer’s projecting device, which he adapted into a noisy but working camera, at first directly copying the short films the Lumières had made and showing them in his theatre as a side attraction. Méliès discovered peculiarities in this new tool as he went along, as when his camera jammed whilst shooting a street scene. When filming was restarted, a moment of time had elapsed. When projected, Méliès saw the resulting jump and realised this basic quirk of the invention could be utilised to realise tricks similar to what he worked on stage. What was could suddenly become something else, only in the reality of film. Edison had already pulled a trick like this in one of his movies, but Méliès would make it the basis of a new expressive form. Méliès quickly found popularity with his new obsession far greater than what even his theatrical success could aspire to. He built a film studio in Montreuil, brought over his stock company of players, and began making movies with the verve and industry of someone who knew how to make and stage a show, as well as the quicksilver acumen required to adapt to a new medium. Most of his early works were only a few minutes long, but he tackled every subject he could, from ripped-from-the-headlines dramas like Divers at Work on the Wreck of the Maine (1898) and The Dreyfus Affair (1899), to titillating stag-circuit shorts like After the Ball (1897), and the proto-horror films Le Maison du Diable (1897) and Robbing Cleopatra’s Tomb (1899).
Méliès’ work provides the bridge between the show business of one age, the theatre of belle époque Paris and the Victorian era stage fantasia, and the oncoming time of cinema. Illusionism was Méliès’ stock in trade, but it wasn’t just his love of theatrical stunts and sleight-of-hand that would influence his drift towards spectacle and the realm of the fantastic. His was a genuine love for and affinity with such fare, particularly what was called the “féerie” on the French stage—pageants and spectacles based in mythic and supernatural tales, imbued with a light and evanescent quality of transformative wonder, safe for young audiences in their colour, but also dusted with delicate, good-natured eroticism. Méliès captured the essence of this style as he began to specialise in stories exploiting his gift for realising fantastic imagery. In 1899 he made the six-minute Cinderella, an extremely straightforward telling of Perrault’s story. This proved so popular it gained him international clout and international legal problems, as the popularity of his works with pirates became increasingly galling. Under the banner of his production company, christened Star Films, Méliès began work on his most ambitious film to date, spending 10,000 francs and taking four months to create a film over fifteen minutes long. This odyssey was Voyage dans la lune, or A Trip to the Moon, inspired by ideas from Jules Verne’s novella of that title and H.G. Wells’ First Men in the Moon, via, perhaps, Jacques Offenbach’s light-hearted operatic spin on Verne.
Méliès’ work dated quickly in its day, as the fast-moving tides of technology and taste almost resulted in its total loss, swept away just as CD-ROM and VHS have been in the very recent past. After Méliès fell into ruin and obscurity, his rediscovery came when cinema first started looking back over its shoulder at the past. A Trip to the Moon is so familiar as a totem of pop culture inception today that it can seem near to cliché. And yet it’s as tantalisingly strange, witty, and original now as it was a century ago, a broadcast from the very edges of technological memory and modern reference. Of all the things cinema has been and is now, a seed for so much lies within A Trip to the Moon. It’s an experimental work, feeling out the peculiar textures and tricks of this new expressive form recognising no limits, only a basic set of proposed rules and a governing urge. It’s a protosurrealist’s fantasia mapping out the universe as annex of the interior imagination. It’s a pure auteurist relic created by a man who tackled and manipulated every aspect of his burgeoning craft. It’s a work of spectacle driven by special effects and a desire to wow an audience with visual impact. It’s a spry and funny burlesque on the themes of genre fiction and the stuff of official mythology, as well as the new, exciting, more than slightly terrifying concepts of the age of mechanisation and expanding consciousness marking the end of the Victorian era and the onrush of the new century. Sixty-seven years later, humankind would actually pull off the adventure Méliès conjured.
A Trip to the Moon commences with a gathering of astronomers. The presiding Professor Barbenfouillis (Méliès himself) proposes firing a manned projectile to the moon with a giant gun, much to the excitement and consternation of his fellow scientists. A rival argues with him, plainly decrying his plan as preposterous, an exchange that devolves as Barbenfouillis tosses papers and paraphernalia at his adversary. Others agree to the proposed expedition and the mad-bearded professor shakes hands with them. Like much of the film, this scene seems very simple, with the unmoving camera, the stage-pageant sprawl and mime-show action. And yet it’s stuffed full of allusions, sign-play, and waggish jokes. Méliès depicts not contemporary scientists in the strict, professionalised garb of Victorian science but as medieval alchemists sporting cloaks decorated with celestial objects. Immediately apparent in this vignette is the way sexuality becomes a refrain, and above all show business itself; A Trip to the Moon is a paean to its own evocation of showmanship as a triumphant value. Cute stenographers write down the scientists’ every word, and a line of trim-waisted chorus girls enter to give the senior scientists the gifts of telescopes, which then transform into stools for them to sit on.
This fillip of visual humour has resonance, suggesting the way wonder is often transmuted into stolid function: these men are used to romanticising whilst sitting on their equipment, and their journey is glimpsed as something of a Quixotic tilt not merely at exploration but at regaining lost youthful pluck. Méliès surely hadn’t read any Freud and yet the phallic note in those telescopes is insistent, and recurs later when the chorus girls are needed to help fire off the gigantic cannon. The opening tableau pictures the scientific realm as a cabalistic enclave with roots in weird esoterica and antisocial elitism, but pointing the way forward with industry and inspiration. Perhaps there’s some hint here of the filmmaker’s cunning in regards to his audience’s understanding of forces rapidly changing their lives, an aspect that complicates the film’s usual characterisation as an epitome of an early twentieth century statement of bold forward-looking. Of course, Méliès is also aware that his very film itself is part of those transformative forces, and the very last shot conflates Méliès’ mastery of his new art and the act of heroic discovery. Barbenfouillis’ sketch on a chalkboard becomes great undertaking, as witnessed in the second and third tableaux, as they have their projectile built and great gun forged. The scientists immediately set about modernising themselves, changing out of antique gear into the clothes of Montgolfier-era gentlemen adventurers. Barbenfouillis and his cabal inspect their brainchild’s realisation in the second tableau, but the savants are out of place in this workaday environment, as one man trips over a tub to the great amusement of the workers.
If A Trip to the Moon repeatedly envisions scientific endeavour and venture into branch of show business, these scenes carry a hint of Méliès’ respect for the process required to produce anything wonderful, as the painted backdrop behind the projectile recognisably reproduces Méliès’ own studio. But the arts of Victorian metallurgy and industry become mere cardboard and paintwork. A Trip to the Moon revisited ideas Méliès had first explored in his whimsical 1899 work An Astronomer’s Dream, which had similarly envisioned an arcane concept of a skygazer dreaming of star-riding nymphs and a frightening moon with a man’s face that at one point eats the dreamer hero. A Trip to the Moon reordered these touches into a more elaborate edition, with the film’s famous central image quoting but also inverting the vision Méliès had offered three years earlier, as a product of human labour careens into the eye of the man in the moon. A simple inversion of a personal joke, certainly, but also an idea that reflects a changed attitude. Suddenly, humankind is no longer so at the mercy of the universe’s caprices. An Astronomer’s Dream betrays a certain level of anxiety filtered through comedy, a sense of the world just beyond our ken as both enticing and threatening. The promise of A Trip to the Moon has been the key promise of cinematic scifi ever since, that wisdom and applied intelligence might turn threat into triumph. The dreamer has become warrior with the way of things. And yet, of course, the aura of dreamlike plunge and the image of the cosmic feminine remain powerful in A Trip to the Moon.
Seven years had passed since the first time Méliès saw a motion picture. Cinema was coming together with Promethean fire, and still only a fraction of the distance of the path it would travel. To watch the earliest fragments of moviemaking, the work of Edison, the Lumieres, and the handful of other pioneers in the field, is to stare at the very liminal edge of any sense of the past in motion, and the fleeting illusion of human subjects caught in a moment of life, like some form of spiritualism. How much it would evolve again in the following decade and a half, in terms of the techniques of visual storytelling, shifting from Méliès’ mostly fixed camera to the aggressively mobile and expressive camera of the likes of D.W. Griffith and his generation. Méliès brought a school of illusion from the stage to the screen with the essential presumption that one could be used like the other. To him, the camera was conjuring device and an imaginary audience member in his beloved Théâtre Robert-Houdin beholding the wonders he and his creative team could parade before it. Lack of worry about where the camera was and what it was doing at least freed him to labour on his other effects, as the hand-painted settings and props sprawl across the screen, creating an alternate reality, mysterious, beautiful, protean.
Whilst the film presents only 17 apparent shots with a resolutely rectilinear perspective, it consists in fact of many more: Méliès’ camera passivity is another, carefully controlled illusion. One irony of passing time is that today with many filmmakers competing to outdo each other in masking their technique in elaborate tracking shots and the like, Méliès’ efforts in creating an illusion of sustained reality from a rigorously direct perspective feels less antiquated on at least this level. We can also see the jumps in Méliès’ sense of the camera by looking back to Cinderella with its cluttered but also simpler mise-en-scène and basic camera tricks just three years before—here the shots tend to stand back further, but are also more cleanly composed and energetically arranged. The vibrancy of the sets also betrays a more confident sense of what the frame could contain, what the eye could handle zapping down at it from the screen. The film’s third tableau, a shot of the astronomers overlooking the enormous undertaking of forging the cannon, is relatively brief but one of the most fascinatingly realised and visually dramatic moments, with Méliès using forced perspective, plumes of steam and smoke, and streams of liquid metal. This is a direct transposition of a vivid passage in Verne’s novel, revealing Méliès as adaptor as well as free improviser. The basic visual presumption here is still theatrical, but the shot betrays an interest in conveying process, the art of construction and the spectacle of industry in itself, that has moved beyond the tableaux style into something more definably cinematic, a seed for the epic style in filmmaking. Méliès’ shifts from shot to shot come with dissolves, embryonic film grammar giving the film the mobility the camera lacks.
The next three tableaux are the most familiar moments of A Trip to the Moon, indeed some of the most instantly recognisable in cinema history, endlessly excerpted and anthologised as they’ve been. The moon shot project reaches its moment of truth in the midst of public excitement and publicity coup. The scientists climb into their shell and a cohort of chorus girls load it into the great cannon, before a uniformed military officer (François Lallement, one of the Star Films cameramen) signals the gun to be fired. The shell flies through the ether, and the moon, envisioned like an illustration out of a children’s book with man’s face upon its dial beaming beatifically down upon the Earth, receives the interstellar slug right in the eye. These scenes again take Verne’s novel as blueprint, but subject it to a highly satiric attitude. The great business of conquering space is presented not as pure, stoic, Apollonian venture growing out of diverted military force but a carnival of enterprise that mocks martial swagger—the rifle-toting, trumpet-blowing, flag-waving marine entourage are girls who look like a rough draft for Mack Sennett’s bathing beauties (including Méliès’ lover and later wife Jeanne d’Alcy), sending a bunch of old farts to the moon with a gun blast that needs more than a little womanly priming. Méliès’ mischievous take on great nationalist adventures here betrays his background in drawing political cartoons, as well his impresario’s understanding that there is no event so great that can’t be sexed up a bit.
And, of course, the man in the moon receiving the shell in his eye still blazes with comical and technical genius, one of the greatest sight gags ever to grace celluloid. This sequence utilised Méliès’ technique, pioneered on The Man with the Rubber Head (1902), of approximating what would become the rack or zoom shot (except that the subject was moved closer to the camera rather than the more familiar practice, because the camera was too heavy), to provide a sense of motion. That motion is to give a sense of zeroing in on the moon, which starts off as a vague, mysterious object, charged with enigmatic meaning, then revealed as an animate being who splutters with pain and offence once he gets the iron slug lodged in his brow. Méliès knew well it was a killer image, utilising it as iconography in the film’s last shot and as core advertising motif. Here we seen encapsulated in image and action not just a great piece of humour and a technical innovation, but a pivot of ways of seeing the universe, an idea that legitimises A Trip to the Moon as science fiction and not just playful fantasy. Méliès signals his conversance with a panoply of mythical figures as common motifs in theatrical fancies throughout, and knows his audience is too; the projectile is the hard smack of new scientific possibility right in the eye of a poetic worldview. The idea of landing on the moon is an act of blasphemy according to one unit of values and a simple jaunt to a strange place in another. One irony here is that the filmmaking Méliès was now espousing would soon mostly sweep away the theatrical world he was rooted in, and invent new pantheons of myth to fill in for what he counts as cultural lingua franca. Of course, the tendency of humankind to write its own image on the universe has never really left us. It’s core to understanding some of the most ambitious science fiction films, from 2001: A Space Odyssey’s (1968) depiction of interstellar destiny to Solaris’s (1971) sarcasm towards the notion in encountering the truly alien that can only mimic the onlooker, eternally retarding and frustrating understanding with the collaboration of our most parochial reflexes.
Méliès offers this vignette as a kind of abstract, symbolic commentary on the idea of landing on the moon, only to follow it up with a different, more literal version of the same thing. The shell actually skids to a halt on the moon surface, depicted realistically as a craggy, brutal landscape, if also, not so realistically, as a place with a breathable atmosphere. The scientists climb out of the shell only for it to slide into an abyss, and, amazed by the sight of the Earth rising on the horizon, they settle down to try and sleep. Méliès revisits the core joke of The Astronomer’s Dream here as the snoozing savants either conjure up the spirits of the ether in their dreams or miss seeing them because they’re asleep, and again Méliès evokes the mystical way of looking at the universe with erotic overtones. The Pleiades look down in bewildered amusement, depicted as a flock of disembodied girls’ heads framed by stylised model stars, the snoozing old men still cheated of their true promised land. The moon goddess Phoebe (played by regular Méliès player and stage star Bleuette Bernon) and irate old Saturn argue over what to do about these interlopers, a fight Phoebe wins: she causes a gentle snowstorm that wakens them and drives them follow their shell into the abyss. The concept of the beneficent cosmic force overlooking sailors on the celestial ocean is, in spite of science fiction’s nominal agnosticism, a constant refrain in a lot of the genre’s screen existence, but Méliès’ sense of humour about the notion is rarer, the contrast of beatific Phoebe and ranting Saturn, who leans out of a portal in the side of the planet bearing his name, pictures the gods as comedy neighbours.
Descending into the valleys of the moon, the explorers find an exotic and fertile world where strange transformations can occur—Barbenfouillis finds his umbrella takes root and grows into a colossal mushroom. Here Méliès turned to Wells for inspiration, borrowing his moon inhabitants called Selenites to provide plot complication lacking from Verne, whose space projectile had simply rounded the moon and glimpsed the possibility of strange things existing on the dark side. One of the Selenites, weird, crustacean-like hominids fond of leaping bout like acrobats, erupts from the underbrush and intimidates the scientists sufficiently to make Barbenfouillis strike out with another umbrella, causing the alien to explode in a puff of smoke. He does the same thing to a second Selenite, only for a small army of the aliens to give chase and capture the hapless Earthlings. The captives are bound and paraded before the king of the Selenites, who sits on a throne in an alien city, surrounded by his harem of moon maids. Infuriated, Barbenfouillis wrenches at his bonds and snaps them, grabs the king and hurls him to the ground, exploding him, before the humans run for their lives. Méliès provides a sense of propulsion and quickening rhythm here, spurning the languid, dreamy mood of the scientists’ arrival on the mood as the action becomes urgent. Here we have a resolutely linear, comic book-like sense of action as the heroes flee across the frame into different shots, chased by furious Selenites, but not yet offering simple cuts between the scenes, still delineating the change of scene with the dissolve. The result offers a kind of embryonic montage.
Some have theorised Méliès intended A Trip to the Moon as a purposeful lampoon of imperialist practices and values, apparent in the bumbling but real aggression of the scientists crashing in upon a foreign culture and wreaking havoc. Méliès was probably aware of Cyrano de Bergerac’s own supposed adventures to the moon, part of his subversive method of mirroring absurdity on Earth. Méliès himself had spent time working as a leftist political cartoonist, taking aim official pieties and pomposities, and he had stirred fights in cinemas by explicitly taking a pro-Dreyfus stance with his film about the case. Later, with one of his last epics, Conquest of the Pole (1910), Méliès would be less abashed in poking fun at suffragettes and their opponents. A Trip to the Moon is filled with images smirking at the hoopla of nationalist intrepidity and the idea of timid humans faced with frighteningly wilful organisms. Whilst such readings might easily be taken to unlikely lengths, it is plain Méliès has a lot of fun transposing the template of imperialist-era adventure stories onto the moon, following the same basic pattern as any Tarzan story, but keeping tongue deep in cheek: the explorers tramp into the unknown, are captured by hostile natives and paraded before their overlord who embodies an archaic ideal of lordly domain, before the heroes make their escape. It’s certainly a long way from Wells’ portrait of the Selenites as a sentient race governed by resolutely different social and biological constructs. Blood-and-thunder plotting is, however, viewed through Méliès’ sensibility, the playful, naïve state of early cinema, and the traditions of the féerie, finding comic diminuendo in the fact that the Selenites explode rather than die realistically, and the easy manner in which Barbenfouillis breaks the ropes that bind him. Méliès’ moon bleeds but his Selenites disappear in puffs of theatrical smoke. The universe is alive but life is no more than a moment’s dream.
Méliès nonetheless dashes with breathless art towards his climax as the scientists locate their craft and climb in, whilst Barbenfouilles labours to pull the shell off a cliff, finally succeeding just as a lone Selenite grabs hold of the shell and is dragged over the edge along with it, plunging back towards Earth. This moment suggests Jack and the Beanstalk as another fairy tale influence on Méliès, another story of a naïve man ascending to a strange land, whilst Méliès abandons any pretence to scientific realism in favour of straight fantasy logic. Méliès has the shell splash-land in the ocean, the only use of any real, outdoor location in the film with the shell and splash superimposed over real waves. The shell sinks into the ocean depths, actually a fish tank, and then is pulled back to shore by a ship—a sliding cardboard cut-out pulling a similar mock-up of the shell, from which a handheld puppet waves a flag of triumph. These effects are obviously incredibly primitive on one level, and yet ebullient in their zest and stirring in Méliès’ willingness to use any and every trick to tell his story in as visually inventive and dynamic a manner possible. Here is the essence of a delight in artifice as its own aesthetic value that many a much later filmmaker, from Terry Gilliam to Tim Burton and Michel Gondry, has embraced. Questions of realism or artifice were probably entirely incidental to Méliès considering the nature of early filmmaking, and yet one can’t help but feel he was the kind to choose artifice every time.
The scientists make their triumphant return to their homeland with their Selenite captive, who is paraded before crowds and forced to dance, whilst Barbenfouilles is immortalised in statue as the conqueror of the moon, with the slogan “Labor omnia vincit” on the pedestal. Méliès retains hints of his acerbic side here, with an undertone of violence in the scientists’ success—the statue of Barbenfouillis depicts him with boot planted on the moon with the shell lodged in its eye, whilst the Selenite has been reduced to dancing bear. But the overall tone is one of pure elation, an envisioned moment of triumph that codifies all the confidence and joie de vivre not just of Méliès and his filmmaking team but of the young twentieth century itself, just starting to look up not just in fantasy but true ambition. Méliès evokes the masque dance used to end some theatrical performances in celebratory mood, and underlines his work here above all as an expression of carnivalesque joie de vivre, a work that stands above all as a tribute to the very idea of dreaming big. It was an apex of ambition and accomplishment for Star Films. Méliès had drawn on the theatre world he loved to help augment his vision, utilising friends who were singers in Paris’s music halls as his crew of scientists, beauties from the Théâtre du Châtelet as the cannon girls and star maids, and acrobats and dancers from the Folies Bergère as Selenites.
A Trip to the Moon’s influence is incalculable—every special-effects spectacle, every alien that stalks the screen in every scifi film owes it a debt of gratitude. The influence hardly stops at genre borders either. Edwin S. Porter’s seedling western The Great Train Robbery (1903) would take licence from the film’s shunting film grammar, controlled theatrical viewpoint, and dashing action style, echoing on through a vast array of horse operas and action films. D.W. Griffith would state he owed Méliès everything. The director’s own masterpiece is perhaps a purer fantasy, made four years later, The Kingdom of the Fairies, still just as stagy in some ways but now overwhelming the cinematic frame with shifting planes of vision and effect, and conveying the essence of the féerie Méliès loved so much for cinema’s posterity. But it was A Trip to the Moon that made Méliès the most famous of early filmmakers and which will probably always define his contribution. The only problem with Méliès’ success was that it was so inescapable. He had changed the way a very young art form conversed with its audience and expanded its scope to become a zone of pure creative vision, diverting the form away from the Lumieres’ vision of a tool of veracity. He had set in motion processes that would make him the first real movie king and the first to be dethroned by shifting tastes, evolving styles, and the brusque way of business that would soon dominate what turned quickly from enthusiast’s pursuit to heavy industry. Méliès had employed all that his studio and the theatrical world of Paris could offer, but all that was doomed to be swept away or radically transformed by an age of movable entertainment feasts. The century for which he had provided a fanfare would indeed eventually see men land on the moon after times of grotesque tragedy and grand calamity. The flame of grace that still gutters within A Trip to the Moon, in its charming and naïve proposition of the future by way of the past, is that it remembers that moment when anything seemed possible for us. Labor omnia vincit.
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Director: Jack Arnold
By Marilyn Ferdinand
The line between science fiction and horror is often breached because humanity’s fear of the unknown has proven fertile soil for the fevered imaginations of scifi writers and filmmakers. The 1950s, of course, produced a slew of Atomic Age nightmares, as the science fact of massively destructive weapons merged with the paranoias of the time. Some forget that this period in human and movie history also was awash in psychoanalysis—the science of the mind—with Freudian theories all the rage in films of all types.
The 1957 scifi/horror classic The Incredible Shrinking Man is firmly rooted in these socioscientific concerns. The plot is propelled by environmental horrors. A radioactive cloud floats toward the boat where the title character, Scott Carey (Grant Williams), and his wife Louise (Randy Stuart) are relaxing and coats him with a stardust sheen. Scott doesn’t start shrinking, however, until he is exposed to insecticide after they return home. While there is plenty of frightening action ahead, it is in the aftermath of these initial events that the film takes on more psychological and philosophical shading, and makes a pointed critique of a society slipping a straitjacket of conformity and wholesomeness over its citizens following the chaos and lingering malaise of World War II.
Scott asserts his privilege as a white man in a white-male-dominated society in the very first scene by ordering his wife to go below deck to get him a beer: “To the galley, wench. Fetch me a flagon of beer,” he jests. Unwittingly, he did the manly thing by saving her from getting dusted, but because his rescue was unintentional and unconscious, we know we are in Freud’s realm of the uncanny. Freud said, “The uncanny is anything we experience in adulthood that reminds us of earlier psychic stages, of aspects of our unconscious life, or of the primitive experience of the human species.”
In Scott’s case, his body becomes one of a child, reduced to dependence and an infantile relationship with his wife. When he shrinks to the size of a doll, he takes up residence in a dollhouse, a feminizing situation, with his wife’s face looming over him like the overbearing mother’s in Woody Allen’s segment of New York Stories (1989). When he becomes even smaller, he must rely on primitive instincts and strategies to survive in a once-familiar but now alien and threatening environment.
Based on Richard Matheson’s book The Shrinking Man, The Incredible Shrinking Man offers the usual thrills of a Jack Arnold film and a sexual tension that can be found in many of his works—most notably, The Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954)—and present in this one by the changing dynamic between Scott and Louise and Scott’s abortive attempt to return to a normal heterosexual relationship with Clarice (April Kent), a midget he befriends and from whom he flees when he discovers he is still shrinking. Voiceover narration by Scott somewhat preserves Matheson’s fractured timeline, though the film proceeds chronologically.
Arnold’s brilliant use of oversize furniture and props, as well as optical printing to put Scott in the same frame as the enormous beings who surround and threaten him, create a convincing world through which we can empathize with Scott’s struggle. I was particularly taken with the gentle cat for which the Careys show obvious affection, and its transformation into a dangerous beast chasing its own master seems the perfect metaphor for the destructive force of nature human beings unleashed upon themselves. With global warming filling our skies with the moisture of melting glaciers that cause mammoth hurricanes and biblical floods, the timeliness of The Incredible Shrinking Man cannot be overstated.
Arnold preserves some hope for humanity’s survival as we watch Scott improvise a house from a matchbox, a grappling hook from a pin, and a flaming arrow from a match. Arnold takes his time filming Scott in the cellar of his house trying to scrounge for food. Scott’s attempt to grab a piece of cheese from a mouse trap, as well as to reach some bread crumbs on a high ledge now guarded by a spider in its web are both painstakingly tedious and fraught with tension. His duel with the spider taps into the arachnophobia many people feel, providing audiences with a genuine fright.
It is in these final scenes that Scott’s attempts to reclaim his life and his privacy from the legions of curious people and probing reporters when he was, if small, still human-sized, completely fall away and move him—and us—into a contemplation of existence. It’s not entirely clear, but it appears that Scott will keep shrinking to the size of an atom, the perhaps logical end for exposure to atomic radiation, or disappear altogether to join the cosmic dust from which the universe sprang. Arnold ends his film with a vision of our galaxy, the alpha and omega of humanity. Don’t we all feel small in the face of that!
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Director: Byron Haskin
By Roderick Heath
It seems now as if H.G. Wells’ 1898 novel The War of the Worlds marked a vital moment not just in the evolution of science fiction as a literary mode, but maybe even of the modern consciousness. Wells contemplated the possibility that life not only might subsist beyond the confines of the Earth, but also might be intelligent and aggressive enough to attempt an invasion, displacing and annihilating humankind, in his tale of the inhabitants of Mars annexing the Earth with great technological advantage only to fall victim not to human ingenuity but to common microscopic infection. Wells was hardly the first writer to contemplate the possibility of alien life, but he ventured deep into speculative realms with both clear and ruthless logic and proper dramatic art, bundling together a panoply of concepts from his scientific learning and intellectual precepts to contemplate with such fervour and detail that it resembled reportage what such an event might feel like and how it might play out. Here was the new creed of scientific understanding reporting dragons on the fringes of its mental maps in the new vision of the Earth not as deistically guaranteed realm, but as mere bauble in the infinity of space, its human populace pretentious zoology. The most frightening reflexes apparent in Wells’ thinking come not from any great leaps of imagination, but from consideration of events still playing out at the time Wells was writing in the processes of colonialism. Wells’ narrator says of the Martians that descend upon Victorian Britain:
“And before we judge them too harshly, we must remember what ruthless and utter destruction our own species has wrought, not only upon animals, such as the vanished bison and the dodo, but upon its own inferior races. The Tasmanians, in spite of their human likeness, were entirely swept out of out of existence in a war of extermination waged by European immigrants, in the space of fifty years. Are we such apostles of mercy as to complain if the Martians warred in the same spirit?”
You couldn’t ask for a cooler diagnosis of human inhumanity nor more sinister counsel that one day what went around might well come around. Wells also worked a variation on a popular pulp fiction theme of the day, the possibility of an invasion of England by a foreign power, necessitating valiant and gruelling battle in the green fields. This storytelling mode, although the basics have changed greatly over the years, remains the basis of a tremendous amount of popular culture: if the quiet and order of everyday life are disrupted by a destructive force from without, how will we rise to the challenge? But Wells gave it a nasty twist, confronting his then-contemporary readership with the unsettling prospect of an enemy far more powerful and equally careless about things regarded as inferior. In addition to gifting his contemporaries a few chills, too, Wells’ nightmarish tale, realised with force by illustrator Warwick Goble in the original serialised version that appeared in Pearson’s Magazine, bequeathed to subsequent generations a dark and inquisitive strand of science fiction.
The potency of Wells’ vision has been recapitulated many times ever since. Even if the myth of the event far outstripped reality, Orson Welles certainly managed to burn his name into the mind of an audience for the first time with his legendary 1938 radio adaptation, pinning down the pensive mood of the prewar period with his docudrama conceit that, amongst other things, squarely updated the story with Martian craft landing in New Jersey. Film versions followed Welles’ lead in this. The first cinematic realisation, produced by George Pal and directed by former special effects wizard turned ragged auteur Byron Haskin, encapsulated the mood of the early atomic age. If Pal’s later adaptation of The Time Machine helped establish the iconography of Steampunk by retaining a delight in an antique vision of technology, The War of the Worlds resists such cutesiness; it remains eternally present-tense, an ideogram representing futurism’s threat. Steven Spielberg’s tilt, fifty years later, became a panoramic meditation on the post-9/11 mood. To a certain extent Spielberg’s take stays truer to the source material, rendered as a bleak and savage travelogue where calamity is glimpsed in dazzling snatches and the nature of the invaders remains tantalisingly vague, creating a maelstrom of destruction from which its human protagonists emerge simply happy to know they’re alive.
But Pal and Haskin’s version remains unavoidable: no science fiction film of its era is more emblematic. The dense and fleshy colours, ingenious sound design, the vistas of awesome violence and terrible beauty. Which is perhaps why The War of the Worlds still seems like the fount of so much modern scifi on screen, perhaps the most vital between Metropolis (1926) and 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). Most every alien invasion film owes it something of course, up to and including not just Spielberg’s proper variation but also pop remixes like Roland Emmerich’s Independence Day (1996). But the inflection is just as notable in the bold use of colour to create a visual lexicon redolent of the fantastical and otherworldly in subsequent works like Forbidden Planet (1956) and TV’s Star Trek. The haunted, deserted vistas of Forrester’s odyssey through a deserted Los Angeles look forward to a strand of post-apocalyptic cinema, from The World, the Flesh, and the Devil (1958) through to The Omega Man (1972) and even the Mad Max films. The film was to become an obsessive touchstone for several of the Movie Brat generation including Spielberg, Joe Dante, James Cameron, John Carpenter, Paul Verhoeven, and George Lucas, who surely absorbed the lesson that the film’s use of sound to create credulity in the fantastic was as vital as its visuals. Mystery Science Theatre 3000 would name its mad scientist villain after Gene Barry’s hero. Hell, it’s even possible the oncoming styles of car design that fix the 1950s so accurately in the collective memory got some inspiration from the film’s alien death machines.
The War of the Worlds twists the 1950s’ assertive and chrome-plated flash in upon itself in a pointed parable of jut-jawed heroism suddenly turned impotent, the worst fear of recently victorious and newly-hegemonic America encapsulated when even the omnipotent promise of the atomic bomb is rendered ineffective. The psychic frontiers of the Cold War, that paranoid and strange idealisation of the Communist threat as something lurking beyond frozen reaches looking out with cold intent at the rest of the world, found perfect enshrinement, but so too did the entire mood of the post-WWII world, a world of nerve-tingling oddness, of slippery, arrogant technology and weird new electronic sounds, insinuating their ways into everyone’s lives. The age of “super-science” as Paul Frees’ opening narration calls it was stirring much soul-searching and reflexive anxiety, finding expression in diverse terms, from the demagogic postures of Joe McCarthy to a new fashion for themes of historical empire-wrangling and religious struggle in cinema that played at the same time as a boom in science fiction’s popularity, usually buried in historical epics kicked off the success of Cecil B. DeMille’s Samson and Delilah (1949). The morality of that new age was still being defined, if indeed it could ever be defined after all in the wake of WWII’s horrors. Little plays of responsibility would be played out in popular filmmaking for most of the decade.
Close to the start of The War of the Worlds the innocent folk of rural California are seen queuing up to see Samson and Delilah. This seems partly an in-joke, as DeMille had planned a film of the Wells novel in the ’30s, but also a statement of intent, for Pal seemed to harbour ambitions to become DeMille’s successor and knew well his scifi brand had annexed zones of the epic and the mythical DeMille was used to occupying. And The War of the Worlds plays out in the same palette of infernal reds and cleansing blues as DeMille’s later colour films, confirming its similar conceptualism of a Manichaean battle where the Enemy comes on with satanic, overwhelming force only to be finally stalled by “the littlest creatures in God’s creation.” Screenwriter Barré Lyndon had, several years before, helped give shape to the docudrama as a style that influenced a huge number of subsequent films with his script for The House on 92nd Street (1945), and he probably suggested the way this film announces itself, in the blaring terms of a wartime newsreel. Frees’ dramatic intonations recount recent history as a series of brutal wars fought with weapons becoming exponentially stronger, orientating the 1953 audience in terms of immediate cultural reference akin to a modern day film taking a mockumentary approach, and bringing them to the threshold of “the War of the Worlds.”
As with Pal’s other productions and much of Haskin’s directorial oeuvre, however, stentorian import and martial clamour are balanced with an insistent edge of the poetic and interludes of quiet intensity working in diastolic alternation. This is immediately apparent in the evocative sequence after the opening credits, surveying the other planets of the solar system from the viewpoint of the mysterious, even unknowable and yet so strangely similar aliens. Sir Cedric Hardwicke’s narration starts off with a slightly tweaked version of Wells’ own writing (“No one would have believed in the middle of the twentieth century that human affairs were being watched keenly and closely…”) whilst also shaded with a planetarium announcer’s recounting of facts about the planets of the Sun such as James Dean would zone out from whilst considering the problems of life here on Earth a couple of years later: he knew the real aliens were parents and new kids in town. Here there remains something of the curiosity and excitement over the possibilities of the universe found in Pal’s game-changing first scifi film Destination Moon (1950), even in the face of things that might destroy us. The film also implicitly, like Wells, notes the commonalities between the Martians, however “vast, cool and unsympathetic” their intellects, and humankind as they behold the choices of the solar system, from roasted Mercury to frozen Pluto, and the planets in between, a range of limited choices for existential action illustrated with delirious colour and wonder. The Martian home world is glimpsed as a hive of super-modern structures amidst flurrying snow and ice, a bastion trying to hold out against climate change and dying resources. The perfection of the green Earth, “eloquent of fertility,” is the inescapable fact for both human and Martian, and so the war of conquest and resistance is fated to start.
In best Revelation style, a falling star brings Armageddon to Earth, a meteorite scorching its way through the evening sky and crashing in hills near the small California town of Linda Rosa. Volunteers rush to put out the brush fires the fallen colossus starts, whilst a local deputy (Frank Kreig) ventures up into the hills in search of three wise men: scientists from the (fictional) Pacific Institute of Technology up for an r’n’r session of fishing. One of the trio, Dr. Clayton Forrester (Gene Barry), descends to investigate the great space rock, which sits, glowering with heat, stirring dreams of avarice and enlargement in the locals, including one who bashes a shovel against the meteorite, hoping for gold, and others whose ambitions run more reasonably to fast food stands for Sunday driver traffic. Forrester encounters the pillars of the community including local pastor Dr Matthew Collins (Lewis Martin) and his librarian niece Sylvia van Buren (Ann Robinson). But the scientist’s Geiger counter begins to tick as it detects radiation emanating from the meteorite, the devil’s skin of the nuclear age. The early scenes of The War of the Worlds yearn to evoke a version of small-town Americana that’s a touch corny but effective in sketching the petty small-time schemers and white-bread religious leaders and the apple-cheeked librarian who worships the celebrity scientist even if she doesn’t recognise him with glasses on. Forrester gets inexplicably roped into the town’s evening square dance whilst three locals (Bill Phipps, Jack Kruschen, and Paul Birch) watch over the meteorite. Just before packing up and going home, the trio see something begin to move on the hummock, a circular hatchway slowly unscrewing and falling free. A metallic bulb on a flexing stalk emerges, pulsing with power and emitting a creepy ticking sound. The men advance waving a white flag. The response is a blast from a lethal heat ray that leaves behind only man-shaped piles of ash.
This moment comes straight from the novel, but the touch of the men’s shadows burnt into the ground betrays more immediate news from Hiroshima, nuclear age terror barely concealed by the alien metaphor. The Martian craft remain some of the most singularly memorable creations ever for a scifi film. Here Pal, Haskin, and their production team worked instead to conjure a menace that is graceful, even beautiful, sublimely menacing, all shining, slippery, aerodynamic surfaces, and the baleful, blinking glow of the heat ray that annihilates. The Martian ships are both perfectly technological but also somehow animate with their rattlesnake-like drone, snaking periscope necks, and sweeping, manta ray-like hulls, emitting unnerving pulsing sounds that hint the awful power they soon loose indiscriminately upon the world. Wells’ concept of monstrous tripods is given an update in how they don’t actually fly but instead move along propped up by three invisible beams. The announcement of the Martians’ malevolent intent brings the army rushing to Linda Rosa, under the command of arch-professional soldiers General Mann (Les Tremayne, impressively serious) and Colonel Heffner (Vernon Rich), whilst the eyes of the world on the Californian backwater, including a radio reporter who finds his truck amusingly fried by the heat ray. Forrester remains to advise Mann and scope out the mysterious entities still hidden in the meteorite crater, whilst Sylvia works as a Red Cross volunteer. Her uncle, after encouraging her to stick close to Forrester, resolves to attempt to communicate with the Martians as they finally emerge from the crater with the belief that as an advanced species they must be “nearer to the creator.” Haskin pulls off this sequence with a wicked sense of intensifying rhythm and peril as Collins makes his march out to meet the Martian machines, watched by a frantic Sylvia and the soldiers. The icy punch-line comes as the Martians confirm their lack of familiarity with scripture and scorch the priest off the face of the earth.
This scene again mimics but also transforms the meaning of a singular episode in the novel, when Wells’ unnamed narrator was trapped with a nervous curate who finally slips into a hysterical fugue and marches out preaching the word into a Martian den, forcing the narrator to kill him. For agnostic Wells religious verve could be dangerous and distracting, for Haskin the transcendental urge is one of openness and communication dashed with appalling enthusiasm by the Other. The pastor’s extermination wrings a furious reaction from the human soldiers, who rain thunder and death down upon the Martians, only to find themselves entirely impotent against the invisible shield the alien machines conjure for protection. Instead the army units are quickly and ruthlessly destroyed by the heat ray and a secondary weapon that simply causes objects to disintegrate on a subatomic level. Forrester convinces the soldiers to give up their defence just before Heffner is killed. Forrester flees in an army plane with Sylvia, only to crash-land in the countryside when flying too low to avoid bombers. The duo trek to an abandoned farmhouse and take time out to recuperate, only for another Martian cylinder to land and careen into the house. Trapped, Forrester and Sylvia find themselves the apparent objects of interest to the aliens, with Forrester just as eager to get a look at them. A camera-like probe surveys the house in search of the couple, and finally one of the aliens, a stalk-limbed, one-eyed thing, comes in and scares the hell out of Sylvia before fleeing with a wild shriek after Forrester throws a lump of wood at it. The two humans just manage to slip out of the house before the aliens annihilate it, and make it back to Los Angeles. Meanwhile the Martian invasion quickly spirals into a rout where the best efforts of all nations fail and populaces flee into the wilds, trying to avoid the aliens that seem determined on their total extermination.
Of course, The War of the Worlds has retrograde aspects. It might even define some of them to contemporary eyes, in the confident insularity in the portrait of ’50s Americana, the nervous heroine who screams a lot and serves coffee to handsome scientists and stern warriors who roll up all too ready to do battle with the invaders before they know what they are or what they want (“Shooting’s no good!” “It’s always been a good persuader.”) The careful elision of Cold War politics only serves to draw attention to them: many nationalities are mentioned but the Soviet bloc is completely ignored, deepening the suggestion that the Martians are stand-ins for godless, warmongering Commies. With his It Came From Outer Space released the same year, Jack Arnold mimicked the starting point of The War of the Worlds but immediately set about dissembling its clear-cut us-versus-them assumptions in a way that pointed forward the deepening currents of the genre: the aliens become us and the outsider hero is the only bridge. Barry’s Forrester belongs to a school of manly savants that populated ’50s scifi (e.g. Richard Carlson in Creature from the Black Lagoon, 1954, and Rex Reason in This Island Earth, 1955) and has never been seen since, emphasising muscular virtue behind the scientific creed befitting the atom age. Tellingly, Forrester and Mann are supposed to have been previously acquainted working at the nuclear facility Oak Ridge during the Manhattan Project. But Forrester gets to retain his inquisitiveness and his delight in the unknown and wonder at the Martians’ abilities and nature. Costar Bob Cornthwaite had played a similarly curious scientist in The Thing From Another World (1951) who was eventually, explicitly designated a dangerous factor. Forrester represents an ideal of the scientist as humane and conscientious, proactive figure rather than chilly intellectual tool. Barry’s performance is probably at its best when Forrester can’t suppress his boyish excitement as the Martians emerge from the first cylinder even knowing how dangerous they are.
Haskin also stays true and even exacerbates other aspects of Wells’ vision. Far from offering any real security in the idea of military might, the U.S. forces are even less effective against these Martians than Wells’ imperial soldiers. Forrester’s cool genius is finally left every bit as flailing and helpless as Sylvia’s emotive sensitivity. Even the atom bomb is rendered quaint by the Martian shields, and there is no equivalent to one of the book’s most memorable vignettes, when a British pre-dreadnought successfully takes on a Martian war machine. Interestingly, although grimmer in tone, Spielberg’s remake was ultimately more conventional in this regard, offering a moment when his central protagonist defeats a Martian machine and a finale in which the military regroups usefully. Collins’ death announces a willingness to challenge any parochial notions of moral gravitas in a world that’s suddenly too large and too wild for small-town enforcers of order to handle; in the same year Brando’s Wild One came riding in on his chrome horse to snatch away the daughters of the small Californian town, here the Martians bring an even louder announcement of the age of anxiety. Frees is glimpsed on screen as a reporter wandering through the tumult before the attempted atomic bombing of the Martians, tape recording his account in a clever updating of the epistolary style popular in Victorian genre writing and which Wells mimicked. “These recordings I’m making are for future history,” Frees notes: “If any.” Pal would later utilise Frees again as the voice of the talking rings in The Time Machine who, like the chorus figure he inhabits here, recounts calamity for unknown future ears.
Haskin had been making films since the silent era, and yet he became, along with Jack Arnold and Ishiro Honda, one of the first directors to become properly identified with science fiction on screen. If producer Pal essentially viewed the genre as a new annex of traditional fantasy and mythic storytelling, Haskin, who became his frequent collaborator, was keen to its textures, able to conjure a sense of the oneiric and limitless sprawl of the unknown. This quality he would reiterate in subsequent works, like the genre-grazing The Naked Jungle (1954), which inverts the sense of scale in alien invasion but remains just as insidious, the fear and trembling in the face of the infinite in the underrated Conquest of Space (1955), the noir-soaked flourishes of his legendary The Outer Limits episode “Demon With a Glass Hand,” and Robinson Crusoe on Mars (1964), which envisions Defoe’s hero as a man intruding upon the Martian landscape. Haskin’s signature fascination was with the pastoral theme of seemingly diverse characters meeting and communicating in the wilderness, an idea first posited in his first real hit as a director, Treasure Island (1951), and which he’d explore most deeply in Robinson Crusoe on Mars, is certainly apparent here as Forrester and Sylvia find themselves bound together, leading into a quiet interlude in which Sylvia recounts a myth out of her own youth, a time when she hid away in a church and begged for the person who loved her most to find her, which proved to be her uncle.
This lovely little interlude cuts to the quick of something Haskin repeatedly touches on, the frailty and strength of individual spirit and a search for cosmic requite in the face of overwhelming and inimical forces. This note recurs through all his other work in the genre and some beyond it. In this regard Robinson’s performance, which always aggravated me as a kid – then and now I generally like my heroines of sterner stuff – now seems to me the spirit of The War of the Worlds, which envisions everyone essentially as an orphan looking for their place in the world. Sylvia’s raw humanity is everyone’s, as the film advances to describe a descent into helplessness and chaos in which only a certain effervescent need for succour and the touch of other humans. Forrester’s close encounter with the Martians gives him and his wonderful little cabal of fellow Pacific Tech scientists (whose number includes stalwart character actors Cornthwaite, Sandro Giglio, and Ann Codee) clues as to their physical makeup and suggests the possibility of vulnerability to a biological weapon, an idea that seems humanity’s only recourse once the atomic bomb fails. But the scientists can’t get any project brewing before the Martians assault L.A., so they flee amongst a general evacuation that spirals into chaos, Sylvia driving a school bus loaded with scientists and Forrester following with a truck full of lab equipment.
But Forrester is dragged from the truck by a mob of men desperate for transport, beaten and left in the street, along with a wretched flimflammer (Ned Glass) who’s found to his horror that money doesn’t mean any to the mob in the street than the vague promise of science to combat the terror. Forrester finds signs that Sylvia’s bus had the same fate, and he begins an increasingly frayed and shambling odyssey around the town as the Martians perform a calculated blitzkrieg to destroy it, following a breadcrumb trail of clues and the memory of Sylvia’s story in searching for her in churches where exhausted, broken, hopeless people give themselves up to prayer and suppliance before fate. The War of the Worlds tried to do a lot with relatively limited resources, evident in the cast populated with lower-order contract players and B-movie stalwarts, depictions of disorder, evacuation, and worldwide calamity that require extras to mill about, and a mid-point montage consisting of stock footage pasted together with a fair amount of invention and given inimitable aid by Hardwicke’s majestic narration. Whenever Hardwicke speaks you never doubt the world is fighting for survival and losing. And yet The War of the Worlds contains more of a sense of moment and grandeur than movies that cost fifty times as much have conjured. Leith Stevens’ excellent score with its plangent strings and sonorous flourishes helps in that regard.
Moreover, the strength of the film’s imagery is quite remarkable, even if some of the special effects show their age (the very heavy props of the Martian craft required a veritable cat’s cradle of wires to keep aloft, something DVD and Blu-ray prints are especially harsh on). The War of the Worlds is littered with pictures that cut to the essence of science fiction in this mode, often painted in Haskin’s totemic use of red and green as signifiers of infernal destruction and alienness. The pulsing eye of the Martian craft and the flash of its heat-ray shooting at the camera, the three small-town envoys dissolving in its heat. Heffner struck by the death ray, glowing green with his skeleton showing white within before vanishing. Sylvia’s face in strange hues as seen through the alien camera, transformed under an alien gaze into an unfamiliar form of life, just as odd and threatening as the Martians were to her. The Martian’s sucker-tipped fingers clapping on Sylvia’s shoulder and cowering under Forrester’s torch, embodiment of every fear of the murk that shrinks under the light. Forrester’s solitary form, dwarfed and pathetic, wandering amidst a deserted city. The destruction of the L.A. City Hall, a special effects spectacle reused in many films. The final, unexpected pathos of the dying Martian’s arm. Haskin delivers another tremendous crescendo in the final moments as Forrester finally finds Sylvia in a church and rushes to grip her, editing yoking together the moment they embrace, the breaking of a stain-glass window sporting the image of Jesus, and the first sign of the Martians waning and dying, their war machines crashing in the streets outside. By film’s end church steeples are crowding the screen, the act of the Martians destroying the window implicitly signals their sudden striking down by on high in turn, and the film concludes with a chorale of “Amen” even as Hardwicke’s voiceover recounts Wells’ explanation that the Martians have unthinkingly left themselves vulnerable to microbial life.
The emphasis on religiosity that winds through the film stands in direct opposition to Wells’ pointedly rational vision of biological struggle extended with technological means, but it does give impetus nonetheless to The War of the Worlds as a movie, surveying the unease of the age and wondering what could still be counted certain, amidst a confrontation with Armageddon in terms as fiery and thunderous as anything Biblical. Pal had signalled a similar note at the end of When Worlds Collide (1951) in the prospect of a new Eden. But it became an aspect of Haskin’s work, one that bobs to the surface again in Conquest of Space and Robinson Crusoe on Mars, as intimations of divine intervention save its heroes. By Conquest of Space, though, the sense of religious awe in the universe has become internal and terrifying, causing near-disaster; in Robinson Crusoe, it’s a common value across species in the face of the hostility of the cosmos. A later generation of scifi dramatists would engage the same urge with a different method. For Nigel Kneale and Stanley Kubrick and Andrei Tarkovsky and Spielberg the search for gods was something that could be pursued through the motifs of science fiction itself, rather than offered as a bulwark that could make science fiction coherent and appetising for people just beginning to contemplate existence on a planet where suddenly, after 1945, life suddenly seemed to depend on good breaks rather than good prospect. For all its dated elements, one reason The War of the Worlds still packs the force of legend today is that it enshrined that very feeling forever.
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Director/Screenwriter: John Boorman
By Roderick Heath
The success of Deliverance (1972) turned John Boorman into a major figure on the cinematic landscape and gave him the opportunity to do almost anything he wanted. Almost. He first tried to realise an adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, and after the potential expense scuppered that project, Boorman remained excited by the idea of tackling an invented, fantastical world. An idea had come to him for a tale set in a distant future where extreme science fiction ideas could commingle with motifs and atmosphere out of mythology, the realm to which his thoughts were increasingly turning as he contemplated the unease of humanity with itself and the world. The result, Zardoz, has been an extremely divisive work since it was released.
There’s no doubting that if Boorman had set out to make a film that would dazzle and provoke some and strike others as bewildering and absurd, he could not have done better than what he managed with Zardoz. Aspects of the film, like the mantra “The gun is good, the penis is evil” and the sight of Sean Connery in a red loincloth, have even retained a kind of decontextualized fame, still eternally provocative to the adolescent mindset often pervading the internet. From its very first moments, Zardoz announces its strangeness, its odd humour, and its sly understanding of itself as a postmodern trip through the idea of myth-making. A man’s face hovers in the darkness, drifting closer to the screen, playing the chorus to the tale he himself is author of, protagonist in, and creation for. He is Arthur Frayn (Niall Buggy), made up like a Renaissance actor’s take on an alchemist or a pharaoh, confessing quickly that he, too, is just another made-up character for a tale before asking the audience, “And you, poor creature—who conjured you out of the clay? Is God in show business too?”
Frayn has many secrets to be unveiled in the course of Zardoz, not least of which is that he is the title character, or at least pretends to be. As in any good myth, the death of a god is the pivotal act. In the postapocalyptic wastes of 2293, Zardoz floats high above the desolate Earth, a giant, floating carving, a fearsome godhead worshipped by the remnant human population known as Brutals. Zardoz preaches a grim testament, encouraging his followers to take up the creed as anointed holy warriors who call themselves Exterminators and wear masks based on Zardoz. These adherents have been charged with killing their fellow humans to wipe the infesting remnant of their species from the face of the world. Zardoz delivers them loads of guns for this purpose. But one of the loyal Exterminators, Zed (Connery), sneaks into the godhead when it lands and discovers it’s actually a kind of hovering aircraft loaded with goods and stores and people in suspended animation, and captained by Frayn. Zed shoots Frayn, who falls from the craft. The Zardoz head lands in an enclosed commune, one of several scattered about the countryside, called the Vortex. Shielded by invisible force fields, the Vortex is an oasis of green and summery pleasantness in the otherwise forsaken land. Zed explores the Vortex and enters one of the houses, a seemingly ordinary country house littered with keepsakes and relics from a forgotten world. He discovers a miraculous crystal on a ring that projects Frayn’s image and links to a supercomputer that answers all of Zed’s questions—except for the truly important ones. Zed is soon discovered and apprehended by the inhabitants of the Vortex, dubbed the Eternals, a collective of humans who have, thanks to advanced science, achieved life stasis, effectively making them immortal. Even Frayn, dead at Zed’s hand, is already being regrown, his foetus suspended in plastic in the laboratories of the Vortex.
Zed finds himself the object of both curiosity and fear amongst the Eternals, representing as he does everything the Eternals have managed to reject or suborn—death, danger, sexuality, extreme feeling. The imperious Consuella (Charlotte Rampling) wants him quickly disposed of, but inquisitive scientist May (Sara Kestelman) wants to study him and learn what changes have been wrought on ordinary humans by the two centuries of struggle and privation that have passed since the Eternals last deigned to study them. May gets her way when the question is put to a vote, and is given three weeks to study him before he’s terminated.
Zed soon begins to discover that the Vortex is hardly the model of fraternity and tranquillity the Eternals like to pretend it is. One Eternal, Friend (John Alderton), takes charge of Zed and introduces him to some of the more chilling aspects of life in this hippy commune of the damned. Immortality torments many of the Eternals. Petty acts of rebellion and dissent are common—mostly just to break up the atmosphere of noble boredom—and are punished with forced ageing. Some of the most extreme cases, labelled Renegades, have been doomed to permanent old age and senility. Others, robbed of the natural drives of sex and sleep, which have been replaced by group trances and meditation, have become walking near-catatonics called Apathetics. One Eternal is tried and sentenced to be aged five years after he confesses to loathing everyone and the world around them, and Friend himself is soon also weeded out when he refuses to join the others in a trance. Zed later finds him haggard and grey, banished with the other reprobates.
The Eternals can’t govern their own life and death cycles because they deliberately erased the knowledge of how to disable the supercomputer that runs the Vortex, referred to as the Tabernacle. The computer controls the processes that regenerate them, and to which they are linked through crystalline devices implanted in their foreheads that also give them strong psychic powers. In return, the Tabernacle has absorbed aspects of all their personalities and has taken on something like a will of its own.
Zardoz remains one of the most original, bold, and heady of science fiction films, a dense and wilfully eccentric piece of movemaking made in the dying of a moment in popular cinema when a filmmaker could create something like this on a relatively big budget with one of the biggest acting stars in the world. It occasionally feels like a punch aimed right at 2001: A Space Odyssey’s (1968) frigid, Apollonian, faux-deistic crotch; stands as the frantically onanistic, Borges-reading father to The Matrix (1999); makes a little sport of Planet of the Apes (1968) along the way; and grazes territory staked out by TV’s The Prisoner (1967-68). Boorman’s fixations and mature style, bubbling under the surface of his earlier works, broke out in the most vivid and personal fashion. The dark underworlds and beckoning islets of eternity and paradises begging to be gate-crashed glimpsed in Point Blank (1967), Hell in the Pacific, and Deliverance here became Boorman’s focal points, looking forward to the oddball mythopoeic stuff of The Exorcist II: The Heretic (1977), Excalibur (1981), and The Emerald Forest (1984). Whilst themes of apocalyptic adaptation and cordoned-off lifestyle management concurred with a host of works in the same period and point forward to many more, Zardoz is more purposefully abstracted and spreads its roots farther and more deeply. Boorman tackles many an essential scifi concern and field of intellectual battle, from the underpinnings of religion to the purpose of free will and the battle between brute impulses and higher intelligence, and studying them with fierce concentration until all merge and blur, revealed as facets of the same Ouroboroslike concern of death and life entwined.
Zed’s role is analogous with the corn gods of pagan Europe, making the film something of a riposte to the sarcastic use of the old religion in The Wicker Man (1973), as Boorman’s fascination with pantheistic ideas and practices began to dominate his thinking. Not for nothing does Zed emerge from corn inside Frayn’s craft. Death and rebirth as constant cycle is taken as the inescapable fact of existence in Zardoz, a fact the Eternals, whose yearning towards transcendence of time has become a self-crucifying joke, deny. In this fashion, Zed is introduced as the death urge incarnate, but his person bespeaks the crude virility of an eternal frontier, fostered apparently by Frayn in the guise of Zardoz as a warden culling the last of a benighted species. But more is going on than any one character understands, even Frayn, who has recently taken to teaching the Brutals how to farm and using the Exterminators to capture, enslave, and manage others for this end. The nominal purpose for this was to provide extra food for the increasing number of Apathetics and Renegades in the Vortex, but Frayn’s deeper game is uncovered as May looks closely at Zed’s physique and genetic structure. She learns, with no small amount of unease as well as yearning, that Frayn had deliberately fostered Zed’s birth with selective breeding during his excursions into the wilds. Zed is the product of that breeding, a stable third-generation mutant, a new stage in evolution with perfect memory recall and other talents who only requires correct stimulus to bound past the Eternals in an evolutionary sense. But the power of the Tabernacle must be overcome if Zed can deliver what so many of the Eternals really want—death. Meanwhile, Consuella whips up a jihad after she catches May and Zed together in an embrace, inciting the other like-minded Eternals who want to fend off the doom Zed might bring. Zed’s fellow Exterminators wait patiently beyond the border force field for the chance to move in.
For all its teeming, trippy images conjured by a genuine cinematic talent, Zardoz’s essentials have much in common with a brand of sparely illustrated, pseudo-naïf, idea-driven scifi very common on the page, but usually confined to TV. Boorman, armed with a solid budget and a formidable battery of technical collaborators, including cinematographer Geoffrey Unsworth, was able to film with the sweep, colour, and class usually withheld from this brand. Boorman’s signal influences manifest throughout. Fellini is there in the use of masks and the atavistic evocations reminiscent of Satyricon (1969). Orson Welles registers in the final confrontation between Zed and the Tabernacle with a hall of mirrors sequence a la The Lady From Shanghai (1946), whilst other aspects are reminiscent of Welles’ similarly out-of-time take on Macbeth (1948). Like Alejandro Jodorowsky’s El Topo (1969), Zardoz finds new context for the hirsute machismo loose on Daliesque plains that defined Sergio Leone’s spaghetti western in a surrealist frieze, with Connery’s Zed cast as a gunslinger Neanderthal kicking in the door of the temple and ushering in a posthuman age.
Perhaps it’s a sign of Boorman’s essential Englishness that even as he seems to be exacerbating science fiction’s tendencies towards portentous self-seriousness he’s also making a glorified sex comedy movie, a Carry On film with pleasant delusions of grandeur. Certainly it’s a cinephile’s joke that echoes throughout Zardoz, as it reveals roots in that evergreen work of popular mythology, The Wizard of Oz (1939), Boorman mocking himself as magic lantern artiste via Frayn’s facetious sorcery and showmanship. Boorman also confessed to making the film when he was using hallucinogenic drugs, the kind of admission that seems too perfect in the face of the film’s liquidinous textures and distorting visuals redolent of the psychedelic style at its ripest in feature film. Yet Zardoz is entirely coherent on a narrative level, if also unusually structured, delaying significant revelations and honouring many classic mythical texts with an in medias res gambit.
Right from the opening shots of the floating head descending on the flocking Exterminators, Zardoz strikes and sustains a feeling of having been plucked out of any readily accessible reality and plunged into a zone far in the future or way back in the past, something out of shared Jungian dream-memory. Plato’s Allegory of the Cave is crossbred with L. Frank Baum’s intelligibly childlike and most assuredly American popular fairy tales, whose title gives the clue to the nature of the false god he dares to meet and then kill. This proves one of Frayn’s mirthful but focused ploys, as he lures Zed into the experiential realm of reading and learning, only then to hand him the bitterness of disillusion through a copy of Baum’s book, revealing not just the source of the name Zardoz, but also Frayn’s method in posing as a god, offering the punch line to a tragically funny gag. The quality of political allegory Baum worked in his tale, warning everyone to beware seemingly awesome leaders with big voices, is reproduced and amplified by Boorman whilst also exploring the familiar scifi notion that technology looked at by someone without understanding would seem like magic. Frayn stirs the urge to rebel in Zed by forcing him and the other Exterminators to betray their creed before leading him through a series of tests and provocations designed to awaken the intellectual gifts Frayn’s breeding efforts instilled in them. The sting of betrayal Zed carries with him even as he progresses through levels of being and understanding, from near-animal to superman, continues to define him, counterbalancing the torment of the Eternals, who have attempted to make themselves gods and found themselves instead permanently tethered to their own mortal impotence. “Another dead end,” Friend reports to Zed when recalling their attempts to explore deep space. The chief scientist who led the mission to create the Vortex is now a withered and ancient being balanced perpetually on the edge of easeful death but never able to fall off.
Zardoz’s associations skid every which way, commenting as much on the fate of the counterculture intelligentsia of the 1970s as it does on scifi concepts, lampooning the era’s utopian impulses and the evergreen human longing for a panacea against mortality, and a dark-tinted emotional autobiography from its writer-director, an extended jeremiad against attempts to deny the darker side of human nature and against that eternal target of British artists, the class system. Some of Zardoz’s impulses, like the geriatric renegades being forced to dodder around a ballroom floor in ruffled formal dress in a gruesome caricature of a retirement home at Christmas time, have the quality of surreal but recognisable musing on contemporary denial of mortality. There’s also the allusive sense Boorman was trying to grasp of the nature of nostalgia, planted in a waning memory of a different age of parents and grandparents and his own youth in a hermetic suburban environment he described as “comfortably smug.” The final shot of Zed and Consuella evokes the same flavour, at once mimicking a Renaissance artwork and a late-Victorian wedding photo, marking them out as both holy family and ghostly forebears. Boorman depicts the Eternals as a mob of immortal yet morally and emotionally phthisic Bloomsbury Set rejects acting out a genre transcription of a D. H. Lawrence parable and Zed roped in as a Webley-wielding Mellors to boff and beat some life into these stiffs. It might even be fair to call Zardoz a variation on H. G. Wells’ The Time Machine told from the Morlock point of view: what use these Eloi anyway? A crucial flashback reveals the ranks of Eternals who have retained their sense of identity and purpose were all the youngest members of the commune, children of the scientists who created the Vortex and the Tabernacle: with less reference to the old way of life, the younger ones were able to adapt more readily.
Of course, one reason Zardoz still has to fight for its place at the table is the way it puts sexuality front and centre: scifi is one genre where the Id and Eros are usually channelled into solidly delineated forms, but Zardoz, as well as exemplifying a certain blithe, very ’70s approach to nudity, is deeply concerned with the place of sex in human identity and its future and as the essence of the life urge wound inextricably with death. Boorman’s defiantly eroticised approach manifests also in his sexualisation of his lead actor. This culminates in a hilarious and erotically potent moment when Connery is presented swathed in bridal dress and veil as the geriatrics smuggle him past the marauding Eternals, and later, when the great phallic monster becomes whore to a bevy of seed-seeking, would-be witch queens and lady madonnas. Zed’s sweat is an elixir that stirs the Apathetics to life and group snogging. The Eternals are gelded in their immortal state, but still fascinated by Zed’s sexuality, as his memories constantly refer back to adventures in rape and rutting out in the wilds. When Consuella tries to provoke erotic reactions in Zed with pornographic images, she finds he’s more aroused by her immediate person. S&M motifs bubble up as Zed becomes Friend’s ponyboy and finds himself uninterested in the wealth of utterly blasé sex objects presented by the Apathetics. Consuella is one part Vestal priestess guarding a forbidden zone from all but a touch of the divine, one part snooty princess in need of a good rogering as she proclaims sexuality the force that “so degraded woman and so betrayed men,” and glares icily at Zed’s erection. She accidentally breaks her own cage and finds she has transformed herself into her enemy. When she finds Zed under her knife, a claiming of potency that ironically destroys the very point of what she was fighting for, she stirs the newly enlightened Zed to quote Nietzsche’s famous epigram about the fate of those who fight monsters too long.
Connery supports Zardoz on his shoulders in the same way Charlton Heston used to prop up historical epics, with the film in part simply transposing the dichotomous mystique of James Bond as both ultimate lover and ultimate killer, the pure primitive man wrapped in the complete civilised man, and throwing the twinned image into heightened contrast. Connery, happily tossing away the wig that dogged his later turns as the spy yet still possessed of formidable physical presence, gives one of his best performances, conceding to Boorman’s exploitation of him as both irrepressible in his masculinity and also the constant subversion and mockery of it. Zed is, alternately, a shy beast, a natural titan, a flailing thing, and, finally, a human being or better. Connery’s presence also fills in a Lee Marvin-shaped hole in Boorman’s vision, as Zed recalls Walker of Point Blank, a similarly primeval power who nonetheless constantly finds himself battered and bewildered by the forces of civilisation (although I can’t help but wonder if Boorman might even have liked to cast a black actor in the role; put Jim Brown or the like in the part and imagine the fur that would’ve flown). Zed speaks wistfully of losing his innocence when his mind was activated, and finally finds himself notably impotent in one way by the end, when he can no longer use his gun: intelligence has given him morality, but removed pure will. Consuella’s war against Zed conceals her own powerful desire for him with a hunger that transcends not merely the social demarcations after she describes May’s interest in him as bestiality, but also the powerful death wish that has overcome the other Eternals, and at the very moment when she has the chance to kill Zed finds instant, transfiguring accord with him (another recurring Boorman motif, the couple that falls in love at the drop of a hat). Rampling’s lethal jade gaze was never better-suited to a role.
Boorman’s answer to Kubrick’s stargate trip is an equally magisterial, but even more deeply strange and gaudily colourful sequence in which Zed agrees to impregnate May and her cadre of like-minded women in the Vortex so they can carry away the next generation of humanity and repopulate the world; in exchange, they agree to use a teaching technique employing touch, psychic induction, and the crystals that allow them to tap the Tabernacle’s resources. Insemination of womb is rhymed to insemination of mind, illustrated in projections cast upon rutting bodies and naked frames and philosophies and poesy dropping from lips, an inheritance of intellect entwined with the flesh. Boorman attempts nothing less than an affirmation of the virility of one in terms of the other, an attempt to punch through the mind-spirit-body schism that has often defined and afflicted the western mindset. Here, too, Boorman’s influence also makes itself plainest, aspects of his creativity echoing through later works by filmmakers as diverse as Derek Jarman, Peter Greenaway, Ben Wheatley, Terrence Malick, Terence Davies, and particularly, Terry Gilliam, all of whom would try in diverse ways to explore similarly the perpetually uneasy relationship between the immediacy of experience and the inescapability of physical being and the inheritance of culture, teasing the edges of abstraction in the process. Meanwhile, the anointed messiah figure has found a new life in many a more soothing setting, from Star Wars (1977) to Superman (1978) to The Matrix and the Marvel superhero roster, mostly robbed not just of sexuality, but of simple connection to other human beings.
Zed arrives near the end of his journey and takes on the Tabernacle, which torments him with the fragments of the people who form part of its makeup and, finally, Zed’s own doppelganger, which he kills in symbolic defeat of the machine. Zed emerges from the battle with authentic psychic power. Confronted by the Eternals whipped into a frenzy that has turned self-consuming as they smash the cultural inheritance they’re supposed to be protecting, Zed is able to shunt them from his path and telekinetically repair the statues they’ve vandalised—the capstone for Zed’s shift from destroyer to restorer. Zed and Consuella flee to the wilds and mate in the felled Zardoz head whilst the Eternals finally meet their fates at the hands of invading Exterminators, who are all too happy to answer their gleeful demands for death in an orgy of killing, including the newly restored Frayn and Friend, revealed as collaborators in the project of creating a force strong enough to break the Vortex.
The film’s coda is at once peculiarly funny and deeply sad as Boorman summarises the last/first family’s future in a fixed shot lapping through time, Zed and Consuella ageing and withering as their son is born, grows, and leaves them. Their biological function fulfilled, they remain until they are only a pair of ragged skeletons holding hands. One of Boorman’s major points here is one that we’re never easy with, particularly in this day and age, and yet can never deny—that we are all momentary vessels of life and that individual identities ultimately mean much less than what we pass on. The very last image zeroes in on Zed and Consuella’s hand prints on the wall of the cavern where they made their life, juxtaposed by Zed’s gun. Humanity arose from Stone Age to Space Age and back, and now a new pivot has taken place. All that’s ever left of anyone is the shape of their hand, outlined by paint on the stone.
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Director: George Pal
By Roderick Heath
The 1950s saw the first real boom in cinematic science fiction, and those genre halcyon days owed much to George Pal. The Hungarian-born filmmaker had made his name working in the German film industry before the Nazis came to power with a series of shorts linking music and a clever brand of animation he developed known as Puppetoons. After he moved to the U.S. and started working in Hollywood, he captured an Oscar for his shorts in 1943 before eventually turning to feature production with the 1950 fantasy film The Great Rupert, helmed by actor-turned-director Irving Pichel. Pal and Pichel quickly followed it up with a more ambitious project extrapolating cutting-edge scientific concepts, most of which were still purely theoretical, about what space travel would be like and turning them into a movie titled Destination Moon (1950). Not the best of the scifi work of the era and not quite the first, Destination Moon nonetheless renewed the template for a brand of realistic science fiction first touched on by Fritz Lang two decades earlier with The Woman in the Moon (1929), and proved the catalyst for an eruption of interest in all things fantastical and futuristic that would cram movie screens for the next few years. Pal, who seemed to harbour ambitions to emulate his Paramount Pictures stablemate, Cecil B. DeMille, as a maker of grandiose entertainments, soon produced two more works still familiar to anyone who loves the genre: When Worlds Collide (1951) and War of the Worlds (1953), based on the H. G. Wells novel. His brand came to grief with Conquest of Space (1955), an attempt to return to Destination Moon’s template of hard scifi that was generally rejected as hokey and clumsy, although now its ambition and fumbling attempts at a poetic understanding of space flight now look far more prescient.
Pal didn’t make another film for three years, and when he did, it came as a straight fantasy for MGM, tom thumb (1958), with Pal himself directing for the first time. The film’s success allowed him to return to scifi with a second raid on the works of H. G. Wells, this time the 1895 novella The Time Machine. Wells’ role in shaping the very concept of science fiction is hard to overestimate. If his predecessors and fellow progenitors Mary Shelley, Edgar Allan Poe, and Jules Verne opened up the strange new landscapes of speculative interest, the former pair as a psychic vista of strangeness and anxiety, and the latter with a grasp on the potential of machinery, Wells synthesised their approaches and used his real scientific learning to start writing stories that investigated a certain driving idea to a logical end, with his real dramatic and poetic gifts used to shade and guide. Wells was eventually frustrated by the way his early, short, sensational writings overshadowed his more literary and philosophical output even before his death in 1945. His most famous tales also defied easy filming, as they tend to be shaped more like travelogues through certain conceptual universes rather than as propulsive narratives. Pal, however, had no problem overseeing their conversion into forceful blood-and-thunder yarns.
Partly for this reason, Pal’s approach to scifi has often been divisive for genre fans in spite of his films’ iconic status, as he popularised the form by emphasising elements general audiences could grasp and relate to at the expense of more radical aspects: When Worlds Collide and War of the Worlds are littered with invocations of the biblical and parochial in contrast to the more difficult, sceptical, acidic impulses scifi in its literary form was just starting to contemplate. Yet Pal and his various stable directors had a grasp on the essence of scifi in the popular mindset as a place of vast frontiers, grand promise, and outsized threat: When Worlds Collide and War of the Worlds successfully visualised the new awareness of the Atomic Age as a place of both possibility and dread in fervent colours and big-type dramatic reflexes. By 1960, the zeitgeist was changing, and Pal took on The Time Machine with a mellower, more thoughtful palate, if also still happily leaping into adventure territory when the time came. Pal saw scifi through the eyes of a man whose life had been shaped by his love of constructing and manipulating his Puppetoons, a modern take on an old mechanistic craft with its roots based on middle Europe’s folk cultures as a new-age wing of the old fairy tale book; unsurprisingly, his next work as director was to be an exploration of the legacy of the Brothers Grimm. The Time Machine manages to be both thoughtful and wistful, but also childlike in its sense of the possible and glee in the process of the impossible.
The film’s prologue, a series of gently ticking, drifting clocks in the void giving way to the drumming thunder of Big Ben, has a beguilingly poetic quality that infuses the rest of the film, which looks both backwards and forwards with both youthful joie de vivre and an autumnal sweetness. In this regard, Pal’s visuals are inestimably aided by Russell Garcia’s scoring, with sound and image in deep accord in exploring the way the past and the future are another country. As later transposers of Wells’ art would also later do, Pal and screenwriter David Duncan wove Wells himself and his ideas into his tale, essentially presenting the anonymous time traveller of the book as Wells himself, or the version of himself he presented through his writing—a thoughtful dreamer and pacifist out of step with the coldly pragmatic mindset of the late Victorian age. Pal also reset the story at the moment of a great pivot, in the last week of the 19th century, charged with intimations of a farewell and a new beginning attendant to every change of year with the special dimension of one world about to give way to another. The book’s recounted narrative is retained, as kindly Scots merchant Robert Filby (Alan Young) and other members of a circle of friends, gruff Dr. Hillyer (a glorious character turn by Sebastian Cabot), boozy Bridewell (Tom Helmore), and stuffy Kemp (Whit Bissell), await dinner with their inventor friend George Wells (Rod Taylor) in his house. Increasingly irked by George’s absence, the men sit down to dinner served up by the housekeeper, Mrs. Watchett (Doris Lloyd), only for George to appear, bloodied, shattered, and dishevelled.
George, fortified by wine and Filby’s assurances that he has “all the time in the world,” begins to recount the strange adventure he’s had since he last talked to them. A flashback takes them to their last meeting, on New Year’s Eve, during which George tried to thrill and impress his friends with a demonstration of a miniature version of a time machine he’s built. The small machine seemed to work perfectly, but his friends chose to dismiss it as a conjuring trick. Hillyer and Kemp instead prodded George to turn his efforts towards more practical ideas to serve military applications, whilst Filby feared the machine on a more fundamental level, warning his friend that it’s not a good idea to tempt the laws of providence. Frustrated by their lack of belief and understanding, and appalled by more grim news from the Boer War, George arranged for the dinner a week in the future before heading to his laboratory and climbing into the full-sized version of the time machine, determined to brave all dangers and explore the future in his conviction it will prove to be the place where his dreams become common reality.
The Time Machine chose to take on its source novel in the period during which it was written and employ the odd and fascinating spectacle of super-sophisticated machinery built in a Victorian fashion. In doing so, The Time Machine’s eponymous creation, a glorious thing of brass curves, plush red velvet and blinking multicoloured lights, became one prototype for the subgenre today called Steampunk. The Time Machine wasn’t the first work to render a scifi classic in period, as a handful of Verne adaptations in previous years—Richard Fleischer’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954), Byron Haskin’s From the Earth to the Moon (1958), and Henry Levin’s Journey to the Centre of the Earth (1959)—had already exploited the charm and colour of retro conceptualism. But that choice was more felicitous in making The Time Machine because of the nature of its narrative and its themes, and because although submarines and spaceships now existed, the idea of a time machine could still be illustrated in a charmingly vague way. George’s time travels didn’t have to be entirely imagined, and the contrast between his ideals and the reality of the new scientific age could be described, with an extra dimension of introspection from a 1960s perspective.
First and foremost, George’s plunge into what he calls “the fourth dimension” is both illustrated by and analogous with Pal’s own love of ingenious showmanship, visualising time travel through the basic building blocks of cinema itself—stop-motion and time-lapse photography—and replete with good-humoured flourishes, like the mannequin in Filby’s store window who becomes George’s unageing friend and barometer of shockingly changing tastes in fashion. George’s first stop in future time brings not just the chuffing oddness of a horseless carriage, but also a harsh taste of loss, as he sees Filby wearing a military uniform, only to learn to his sorrow that this is Filby’s grown son James (Young again), whose father has died in the trenches of World War I. George takes away one salve: Filby, who controlled George’s estate, refused to sell the house out of faith that one day George would “return.”
George despondently returns to his machine and presss on, experiencing his house’s destruction during the Blitz before stopping again presumably in the later 1960s, when atomic war has broken out. Again George is confronted by the sight of people fleeing to air raid shelters, and again meets James Filby in a military role, only this time he’s a silver-suited, white-haired air raid warden urging people to safety, astounded by George’s youthful appearance. The sight of an atomic missile drives Filby away even as Geroge begs him for conversation, and George barely survives the horror of an atomic explosion and the volcanic eruption it sets off. He climbs into his time machine and just manages to avoid being roasted by lava. Instead, he is walled inside a rock form for millennia.
When the rock wears away, he surveys a marvellously new green Earth where a sublime harmony seems to have evolved between human structures and the elements. He stops his machine suddenly, causing it to careen out of control, topple over and knock George out. He awakens to find himself close to a strange, Sphinxlike building, and when he begins to explore the landscape, finds it an Edenic place with apparently no one to share it, the huge, super-moderne buildings nearby uninhabited and run down. Finally, he does encounter other people, a bunch of wan, blonde, innocent and yet also almost pathologically indolent folk who call themselves the Eloi. George has to save one woman he sees close to drowning in a river under the blasé gaze of her friends. George makes the acquaintance of the woman, who says her name is Weena (Yvette Mimieux), and slowly begins to plumb the strangeness of the society he’s presented with.
The greatest qualities of The Time Machine become apparent in George’s headlong journey through time, experiencing his own erasure from history, the death of friends, and the calamities awaiting humankind thanks to our inability to learn lessons, all with steadily drooping enthusiasm. Pal grasps intuitively the action of time travel not just as discovery, but also as tragedy, as George finds himself doomed to witness looping events and scenes of loss and destruction, until finally, when the rock encasing him and his machine breaks apart, he seems to behold a gorgeous new future. But there are also peculiar proofs of faith, as when George finds that what was his old house has been turned into a park dedicated by James to his father’s love for his friend. There’s a striking intimacy and humanity to much of the film, for example, when George realises Filby has remained behind after his disappointing demonstration to talk, or George’s interactions with Weena, who gropes towards an understanding of him and the apple of necessary, but painful knowledge he brings to her Eden. When he arrives in the future he so dearly wants to see, his pleasure in what he sees is steadily worn down to a state of furious disillusion: the underlying truth about the Eloi and the strange beings that lurk in the darkness they call the Morlocks eventually proves utterly horrifying, but, in a way, less depressing to a man like George, who finds himself shocked and outraged when he finds the Eloi have allowed what’s left of the human intellectual inheritance to petrify and crumble away as they live happily in the sun eating the bounties provided to them without question or heed.
Wells set out with The Time Machine to disassemble the precious, barely questioned idealism of the high Victorian period, an idealism that had much in common with the 1950s variety—an official faith in the future with a vibrating anxiety over change and threat beneath it all. He took the still fresh and prickly notion of evolution, whose great proponent, Julian Huxley, had been one of Wells’ teachers, and applied it mirthlessly to the satirical idea that if allowed to continue, the stratification of society would eventually lead to two entirely different posthuman species, the Eloi, descendants of a leisure class, and the Morlocks, subterranean workers who, in a twist of brute sarcasm, have become farmers treating the Eloi as free-range cattle and living on their flesh. Pal and Duncan tweaked this concept to look squarely at the idea not just as a permutation of Victorian labour relations, but also as a distant echo of life in the 20th century: the Morlocks round up their flocks of Eloi by blasting out the sounds of air raid sirens that draw the Eloi underground. The Eloi have essentially become children, afraid of the dark and blithe about what supports their lifestyle, but George’s arrival quickly coaxes deeper reflexes from Weena. She braves the terrors of the night to warn him about the Morlocks as he searches for his machine, which he finds has been dragged within the Sphinx. George and Weena spend a night hunkered before a fire after one of the Morlocks has attacked her, but fortunately, the monsters prove vulnerable to bright light and a good right hook.
The Time Machine treads campy territory in trying to present the Eloi like a mob of listless, young Hollywood ingénues and beach bums (that Mimieux also starred in the same year’s Where the Boys Are amplifies the association), whilst also interestingly prescient on the oncoming age of the counterculture and its history-reboot philosophy, a movement which had much in common with the onset of many similar ideas in the Victorian age that Wells himself often espoused. There is stinging power in the moment when George, led to a collection of books kept by the Eloi by one of their number, realises the Eloi have let their cultural inheritance decay and literally turn to dust, and the previously idealistic and forward-looking savant is appalled and disillusioned to a crushing degree: “At least I can die amongst men!” he bellows in offense before abandoning his attempts to plumb the Eloi culture, because there is none. It’s also hard to deny that on at least one level, the film devolves into a Boy’s Own tale of two-fisted adventure and revolt as George proves the threat of the Morlocks is only as strong as they’re allowed to be. But the future sequences of the film have a similar mood of stripped-down mythos that would later sustain definitive genre TV works like Star Trek and early Doctor Who. In this regard and more, The Time Machine feels like a vital transitional moment in scifi cinema, mediating the chitinous forms of ’50s scifi and the brand that would dominate for the next 15 years or so in English-language scifi filmmaking—looking more closely at human society, its past and present, through the prisms of parable.
The soul-searching that often bubbled as subtext in ‘50s scifi films here hatches and becomes overt, contemplating the modern inheritance both as one of wonder, but also cringing fear of what terrors it had conjured. The Eloi living space has the quality of being at once futuristic and distantly mythical. The drama turns inward as it contemplates humanity’s fate with an early intimation of the idea of dystopia, a substrata of the genre that’s still powerful, often playing out in extrapolated versions of high modernist architectural environs and evoking common pasts as decayed and neglected memories, and plied with a dusting of fable as here, including the likes of THX-1138 (1971), Zardoz (1974), Rollerball (1975), and Logan’s Run (1976). The headier, questioning aspect of the film seeds many more genre directions, not the least of which was the time travel idea itself, one barely tackled in cinema before this, but which has become an oft-iterated theme in works as diverse as Back to the Future (1985) and Primer (2004). The haunting quality Pal manages to invest in the film continues to recur, especially powerful and poignant in the sequence when Weena leads George to a place where the remains of human civilisation still persist, the voices of men in ages past recorded on spinning rings reporting tales of bleak decline and death; pointedly, both voices heard are Paul Frees, who had loaned his stentorian tones to War of the Worlds as the definitive voice of futurism, now reporting as the ghost of ages lost in a sublime distillation of the scifi creed in a totemic moment: “My name is no consequence. The important thing you should know is that I am the last who remembers when each of us, man and woman, made his own decision.”
The lingering shadow of the ’50s monster movie still pervades The Time Machine, as the glowing-eyed Morlocks try to snatch Weena. But Pal still manages to generate a weird and tense atmosphere, as when George witnesses the Eloi responding to the Morlock siren call and then descends into their underground works to rescue Weena and in a gleeful action climax as George battles the cannibalistic, humanoid Morlocks, having discovered the gruesome secret in a room littered with human bones by exploiting their great weakness, their fear of bright light. A particular likeness has long intrigued me about this sequence and the way it connects to Pal’s earlier career and background: Garcia’s music in places sounds awfully reminiscent of Igor Stravinsky’s score for his famous ballet The Firebird, suggesting Pal might well have taken inspiration from that work and its roots in Slavic and Hungarian mythology, and evoking Pal’s own musical reflexes from his Puppetoon days. Certainly Pal had long been fascinated with the classic battery of fairy tales and had adapted several as shorts. This connection makes perfect sense to me, as the story is essentially the same, with George cast as the pure hero descending into a stygian underground to fight the demons and steal back a captive princess, fending off evil with light, and the time machine itself cast as the firebird, the vessel of transformative power. And as silly as George’s battle with the Morlocks is in a way, it’s still a genuinely gripping sequence with a great physicality, particularly as Pal’s eye is strong here, with the nightmarish image of the Morlocks advancing on their penned-up intended meals. The film’s corniest moment is also a highlight—an effete Eloi mans up and wallops one of the Morlocks in the back as it throttles George, saving his life.
A few good socks to the jaw and some fiery brands fortunately prove enough to give the Morlocks hell, being as they are used to victims who don’t fight back. George is able to rescue Weena and some of the other Eloi, blowing up part of the underground city, and a new dawn seems at hand. But the Morlocks set a trap for George, luring him into the Sphinx with his time machine and then closing the doors, separating him from Weena and forcing him to fight for his life before he manages to escape in time, first travelling forward, witnessing the gruesome decomposition of a Morlock he killed, a surprisingly graphic and spectacular visual punch for 1960. George finally returns to his own time to keep his date with his friends. His only proof for his story is a flower given to him by Weena, and again he is disbelieved, taken by his friends as an attempt to break into the penny dreadful market. At the last, Filby hears the time machine revving up again after George has dragged it back in from the garden and repositioned it in the laboratory so he can reappear outside the Sphinx before Weena.
It’s appropriate that the last notes of The Time Machine return to that mood of wistful longing and questioning as Filby is left contemplating his friend’s resolve when he and Mrs. Watchett notice George took three books to the future with him, leaving it up to the audience to divine which three books they were. This provides a lovely little supernal flourish that closes off the film on just the right note, again nudging the fablelike with the tiniest signs of human nature—a flower in Filby’s hand, a space on a bookshelf, the lights switching off in a house whose owner will never return, and a man shuffling off in the snow back to his family—proffered as transcendental totems.
The cast of the film lived long and well. When Rod Taylor and more recently Alan Young died, I could not help but think, “You have all the time in the world.”
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Director: Steven Spielberg
By Roderick Heath
The box office success of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989), Steven Spielberg’s third trip to that popular well, partly disguised his struggle to find his artistic maturity, a struggle that defined his oeuvre in the late 1980s and early ’90s. With the fervent, Dickensian lilt of The Color Purple (1985) nominated for multiple Oscars but then frozen out, and Empire of the Sun (1987), now regarded as one of his greatest achievements, a box office bomb and object of critical suspicion at the time, his foray into a more serious brand of cinema might have seemed a blind alley. He returned to lighter, fantastical tributes to moviemaking’s past with Always (1989) and Hook (1991), but in spite of tremendous moments in both, time hasn’t been particularly kind to either on the whole. Whilst Spielberg was working up the project that would eventually become Schindler’s List (1993), he also set out to find a new property to convert into hard-charging popcorn cinema in the Jaws (1975) mode. He found it in a novel by Michael Crichton, a former physician who turned to writing smart-pulpy scifi and thrillers for the printed page and TV in the late 1960s and even found some success as a film director himself for a time. Crichton had essentially recycled the core idea of his 1974 hit film Westworld for Jurassic Park, both being tales of a futuristic theme park contrived to realise deeply cherished fantasies for its audience whose illusion of control vanishes when the exhibits quickly become hunters.
Jurassic Park now looks very much like a pivotal moment in Spielberg’s career—not just chronologically, or in its success, which was colossal, even industry-deflecting in reestablishing Spielberg as the titan of pop cinema and giving the CGI era its clarion blast. Jurassic Park is its own work of theatre and self-dramatization, paying tribute to the ageless wish to see something truly awesome and to actually satisfying that desire. But it’s also a study in complication, the awareness of mechanics behind spectacles and the dangers of knowledge—the lot of adulthood. Westworld’s grounding in the Me Decade of the ’70s depicted very adult fantasies realised through the well-worn scifi concept of the humanoid robot that goes berserk. Jurassic Park, by contrast, had a more original, timely, scientific McGuffin to employ, and developed it with a variation on Crichton’s recycled concept with broader appeal: what if scientists could recreate dinosaurs using advances in DNA technology and exhibit the results as the ultimate tourist attraction? The concept of primeval forces placed before armies of sticky-fingered kids and their bewildered parents was obviously irresistible to Spielberg—a life-and-death entertainment for whole family.
Jurassic Park is also, more obviously, a tribute to and contemporary spin on a hallowed strand of scifi, one in which a remnant of the distant past and its formidable wonders is found subsisting in the present. This subgenre had roots in fare like Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World and Edgar Rice Burroughs’ The Land that Time Forgot, entries from the early days of speculative fiction. The most famous movie inheritor of their lexicon was Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack’s King Kong (1933), the definitive monster movie and progenitor over the intervening decades of the likes of Ray Harryhausen’s films and the Japanese kaiju epics. One of Jurassic Park’s key images, of the park’s wooden, momentous gateway, pays direct tribute to King Kong, whilst the opening scene deploys a wry joke for fans of the classic and a bluff for an audience expecting thrills. Tense and wary workmen and their overseer, great white hunter Robert Muldoon (Bob Peck), watch as something monstrous stirs behind trees, as Kong did in his first appearance. The culprit? A forklift. But the joke dies in the throat with intimations that something slyer and deadlier than Kong’s lumbering protomachismo is in play—the mechanical monster carries forth one of the deadly chimeras science has conjured ready to take a bite out of any hapless soul foolish enough to get close. Hints of dread give way to contrasts of absurdity and elusive promise, as lawyer Gennaro (Martin Ferrero) braves jungle depths to talk to miner Juanito Rostagno (Miguel Sandoval), who holds a shard of precious amber with its ancient prisoner, a luckless mosquito, every bit as powerful a relic pulled from the earth as Spielberg’s Ark of the Covenant. Gennaro, an insulated modern astray in the field contrasts Rostagno, a man confidently engaged in an ancient and honourable art, one shared by one of the film’s core heroes, Alan Grant (Sam Neill), a digger.
Alan and his palaeobotanist colleague and lover Ellie Sattler (Laura Dern) are tempted away from their dig for velociraptor bones in the New Mexico desert by the initially obscure temptations of twinkle-eyed entrepreneur John Hammond (Richard Attenborough), who offers to fund their research for years if they agree to come with him, no questions asked, to inspect his latest creation. Alan and Ellie find themselves thrown into the company of Gennaro and flashy mathematician Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum), who’s also been hired for expert opinion. Soon, the trio find out just what Hammond and his company, InGen, have been brewing on Isla Nublar, a remote island off the coast of Costa Rica. InGen’s scientific wizards, led by Dr. Henry Wu (B.D. Wong), have conjured a motley collection of dinosaurs bred from remnant DNA extracted from amber-entrapped prehistoric insects and arranged in paddocks. Hammond hopes this will be the commercial coup of the millennium. He’s distressed when the three savants all bring up the potential risks and variables they’re facing now that dangerous animals have come back from the dead, even though the scientific team working for InGen have tried their best to control the population, including breeding only females and leaving them hormonally deficient. But the real spanner in the works is human: Hammond’s chief computer technician, Dennis Nedry (Wayne Knight), angry that he’s not getting paid enough for building Hammond’s cutting-edge, completely automated systems, has agreed to steal embryos for a rival company and arranges to send the park haywire to cover his theft and retreat. Nedry’s plan plays out during a confluence of complicating situations, with a hurricane brushing the island and Grant, Ellie, Ian, and Hammond’s two grandchildren, Lex (Ariana Richards) and Tim (Joseph Mazzello), trapped by the system breakdown in a very inconvenient situation.
The basic notions at the heart of Jurassic Park are some of the oldest and most familiar in science fiction, but given an ingenious gloss of cutting-edge theory and technology. The Frankenstein question of how far humankind’s dominion can and should stretch over the natural world is dressed up in some pop science thanks to the chaos theories espoused by Malcolm, who doubles as the film’s colour man: Malcolm’s mathematical extrapolations say that no outcome can be entirely predicted, especially when dealing with a living system. The film minimises, but doesn’t entirely eject the scientific detective element in Crichton’s book, as Alan tries to understand how the dinosaurs, in spite of their creators’ labours, prove still able to mate and reproduce: the use of frog DNA to fill in gaps in the genome proves the catalyst. Jurassic Park also came up with a great way to give those old lost world works a believable spin in an age when all the blank spots have been cleared from the world’s maps and a sense of wonder, and caution, in the face of the unknown steadily dulled. For Spielberg, the appeal of seeing dinosaurs is inevitably correlated with his very stock-in-trade, his cinematic skill, and the way he made the act of beholding itself a totemic action in his work.
Jurassic Park’s most powerful scene, one of the definitive moments of Spielberg’s career, is the lovingly orchestrated climax of the film’s first movement, when the visiting scientists catch their first, amazed glimpses of one of the dinosaurs in a dance of reaction shots, deft little dollies, and careful control of information that makes the act of seeing something as important as what’s being seen—Spielberg’s hotline into the unconscious of his audience at its most precise. Alan and Ellie are instantly plunged back into their own childhood fantasies of communing with the beasts they’ve made the subjects of their adult studies, confronted by a sprawl of saurian species straight off generations of museum dioramas and picture books illustrations instantly recognisable to any dinosaur-mad kid. Amazement gives way, inevitably, to curiosity, as Alan, Ellie, and Malcolm break out of the controlled limits of Hammond’s contrived theme park tour to look more closely at the science and the machinations behind the facades. Curiosity leads to knowledge, and that’s when the expulsion from Eden begins—or rather the dragons in Eden start to slither out of the underbrush. The scientists voice their concerns to the point where Hammond is left bemoaning the fact that the only person unequivocally on his side is Gennaro, “the bloodsucking lawyer,” who represents the purely fiscal mindset at a slight remove from Hammond’s creative vision. Small wonder the film of Jurassic Park inverts the novel’s fates, where Gennaro became a mild hero and Hammond died, consumed by his own creation.
Spielberg’s empathy with Hammond is vital to Jurassic Park, the filmmaker’s identification with the character’s desire to thrill and provoke people to wonderment mediating the myopia and incidental arrogance that created the park and leads to tragedy. Hammond is initially presented as a Venn diagram for Willy Wonka, Colonel Sanders, and Richard Branson, welcoming the innocent into his land of treats where the dangers are in full view. But Jurassic Park constantly correlates the experience of movie-going and its attendant paraphernalia with the world Hammond has engineered, and Hammond’s pride as a man who built himself up from the humblest of backgrounds—his first piece of showmanship was a flea circus—to become a maker of marvels. If a film like John Carpenter’s They Live (1988) depicted its maker’s increasing sourness and frustration with a zeitgeist he could never quite connect to and felt increasingly alienated from in scifi form, Jurassic Park is revealing of Spielberg’s point of view as somebody who had known success and yet had seen it careen in unexpected directions, throw up hazards, and stir worry he might be losing his way. Jurassic Park lampoons the idea of commercialising creative fruit even as it exemplifies the notion. The park is presented as the ultimate version of the Universal Studios tour where Spielberg’s man-eating shark regularly leaps from the water several times a day—except that the dinosaurs aren’t animatronic and will happily bite you on the ass. Spielberg gets to work through his ambivalence at the idea not just of seeing private inspiration become public circus, but the distance between art and reality above all. This motive comes as another indelible image, when a velociraptor painted on a wall is suddenly contrasted by the shadow of the real thing—wriggling, sniffing, hungry for living meat.
This moment exemplifies another enriching aspect of Jurassic Park, one that goes a long way to explaining the longevity of the film and the franchise it spawned: Spielberg’s ability to envision the dinosaurs not simply as threats and effects but as animals, with wilful, irrepressible natures, whether they’re brutal carnivores or boding vegetarians. The explosion in special-effects sophistication that allowed CGI to be paired with animatronics helped articulate this idea better than most variations on this idea had managed before, from the triceratops whose sleeping bulk captivates the scientists, to a brachiosaur that sneezes over an appalled Lex, or the sort of Heckle and Jeckle pair of raptors who stalk the kids through a kitchen in all their flitting curiosity and twitchy, predatory nerviness. Jurassic Park understood well the sway dinosaurs hold over people, particularly kids, avatars of a way of seeing the world as both hazardous, but also potentially splendid. The tyrannosaurus that is the film’s antihero encapsulates this understanding, progressing from demonic spectre that terrorises the heroes to engine of almost paternal vengeance that defeats the all-too-human velociraptors. The escape of the tyrannosaurus from its pen is the film’s core set-piece and another vignette of Spielberg’s skills at highest pitch, recalling the charge of Jaws as the monster is glimpsed in awful suggestions—a gory chunk of goat falling on top of Lex and Tim’s car, a pair of massive jaws closing in the flash of lightning—before the beast breaks through the fence left vulnerable by Nedry’s conniving and terrorises the kids, building to that most nightmarish moment in the Spielbergian universe: the object of awe and fascination looks right back at the beholder and decides it wants to eat it. The humans must reach into their most instinctual, primal facets to survive.
This sequence still thrills for relatively straightforward reasons that nonetheless completely elude so many of the filmmakers with pretensions to working in the same mode as Spielberg: he achieves the Pavlovian ideal of popular cinema, that for a few minutes you’re utterly convinced of the urgent reality of what’s happening. Spielberg creates the feeling of being someone small and vulnerable with the image right out of nursery room nightmare of a black and scaly monstrosity with butcher-knife teeth bearing down upon you, and yet the sequence is entirely logical, even mechanistic, as a series of unfortunate events where an animal’s hunger, the fear of some kids, the concern of two men, the panic of a third, and a broken-down moving part of someone else’s dream provide the elements of a chaotic ballet. Each moment, each gesture, each mistake, each fumbled attempt at recovery creates the context for the next, perfectly illustrating the concepts Ian has tried to expostulate unheeded. The initial note of nascent dread is signalled, like some Buddhist parable, by ripples in a cup of water—the same water, vitally, Ian had earlier used in teaching chaos theory to Ellie. By its climax, Alan has been forced to play Spielberg’s superhero Indiana Jones to save himself and Lex, Malcolm almost gets himself killed helping others, and Gennaro finishes up as lizard food, plucked off a toilet in the most horrible fashion in reward for his cowardice. Alan is left leading his two battered charges through the park, whilst Malcolm is recovered by Ellie and Muldoon moments before having to outrun the tyrannosaurus.
For all the showy thrill-mongering, much of the pleasure and quality of Jurassic Park comes as Spielberg enjoys his cast and characters interacting and treating the storyline’s conceits with both a sense of revelry and droll suspicion. The latter element is chiefly supplied by Goldblum’s Ian Malcom, whose persona is smartly contrived as the antithesis of the old-school cliché egghead, strutting through the film as leather-clad cool kid and dryly scornful voice of reason, violently contrasting Alan’s shabby, testy earthiness, Ellie’s pleasantly nerdy pluck, and Hammond’s pixilated bonhomie. Malcolm interestingly serves in contrast to one of the classic genre story patterns in which the figure of rationalism is portrayed as the cold arbiter of unfeeling precepts; Jurassic Park is, in part, the tragedy of everyone failing to listen to his Cassandralike omens. The scientists here are the bridging and communication points between the furore of nature and the human desire for order and domain. Muldoon (expertly played by the ice-eyed Peck, who sadly died not long after) evokes another archetype, the rugged bush tracker in slouch hat who sees the ruthless intelligence at hand in the raptors, but who finally proves no luckier than Jaws’ Quint when it comes to taking on his monstrous foes, outsmarted in the underbrush by tactics Alan had anticipated earlier. Alan and Ellie’s introductory scene sees Alan mischievously terrorising a snotty brat hanging around his paleontological dig site with tales of velociraptor acumen and savagery. Alan is basically a big kid himself, and another of Spielberg’s identification figures as the guy who likes stirring reactions in people and the man who fears taking the next step in his life as husband and father.
The bipolar aspect to Spielberg’s career was still fairly unrecognised when Jurassic Park came out. The mean and mischievous Loki of Jaws, 1941 (1979), and the first two Indiana Jones films, as well as the portraitist of cruelty and anarchy in The Color Purple and Empire of the Sun, was still dimmed to most eyes by the joyous Peter Pan of Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) and E.T. – The Extra-Terrestrial (1982). Like most of his fellow generation of “Movie Brats,” Spielberg had personal motives invested in his cinema but no problem plying his work for as big an audience as he could muster. Yet, for such a “big” work, many of the best moments in the film are virtually inconsequential—Ian and Ellie flirting up a storm, Alan beaming with boyish pleasure as he listens to a sickly triceratops breathing, Hammond expressing his quiet loathing for Ian’s taunting cynicism—nonetheless somehow manage to speak of the film’s essential theses of life in all its tumult, brutality, and empathy. The two children of a sundering family along for the ride provide surrogates for the younger audience and fill out one of Spielberg’s already-familiar pick-up families, as Alan grudgingly evolves from childphobic to burgeoning father figure. Early sequences are lengthy and surprisingly talky, prizing conversation, expostulation, the give-and-take of ideas and ways of seeing. The seed is here for Spielberg’s handling of this motif in ostensibly more serious fare, like Amistad (1997) and Lincoln (2012), just as the sequence when the visitors speak with Hammond and Muldoon at the raptor cage sees Spielberg try out a different way of shooting a scene—holding back, allowing multiple dialogues to take place at the same time—that signal an evolving aesthetic.
It’s chiefly the sense that the filmmaker is in his element that that gives Jurassic Park kick even as the storyline plays out in a predictable and, yes, somewhat slapdash fashion. I’ve never been an uncritical fan of Jurassic Park as a whole, although I’ve come to like it a lot more with time and clearer insight into its genuinely excellent aspects and elevating flourishes. But significant flaws also remain clear. Whilst Spielberg’s animated gamesmanship is always fun, the second half never succeeds in generating a sequence as intimately scary and thrilling as the tyrannosaurus break-out, and many of the situations feel frustratingly basic, failing to build to the kinds of crescendos Spielberg manages in his greatest action-adventure films; that’s one reason I actually prefer his sequel, the gleefully nasty and happily frivolous The Lost World: Jurassic Park (1996), which is essentially a series of Spielberg set-pieces striving to satirise and outdo earlier Spielberg set-pieces. The difficulties and budget-soaking cost of developing the film’s groundbreaking special effects whilst the script was still a work in progress (the writing was eventually credited to Crichton and David Koepp) shows through in the patchiness of some of the action. The film’s visual palette is relative bland, with Dean Cundey’s photography sometimes emphasising a surprisingly cheap, even TV-movie-like look. Nedry and Gennaro are reduced to crude, very ’90s stereotypes when I usually expect better from Spielberg. Casually killing off Gennaro and Muldoon left the film bereft of one of the book’s more enjoyable aspects, a lack that feels telling in the second half’s rather basic romp-and-chomp chase scenes that never, ever feel as urgent or compulsive as anything in a not-so-dissimilar monster chase movie like Aliens (1986).
Still, Spielberg continues to pull off great moments. The shock of the raptor attacking Ellie right after she manages to restore power is one of his finest pieces of timing and malicious nerve, whilst the sudden reappearance of the tyrannosaurus at the very end as deus-ex-machina is ridiculous on some levels, but tremendous on others. Moreover, the loose, rolling structure of Jurassic Park allowed Spielberg and his team to cram the film with throwaway touches until the film is as textured with jokes and visual flourishes as a MAD Magazine page. The tyrannosaurus’s yawing mouth glimpsed in a rearview mirror with the message, “Objects In Mirror Are Closer Than They Appear.” Nedry disposing of a handful of shaving cream on a piece of apple pie. Strands of DNA code projected onto a marauding raptor’s face. Hammond crowing, “We spared no expense!” as perpetual B-movie actor Richard Kiley’s voice emanates as tour guide from speakers. Hot starlet sprawled on a zebra skin embodying the call of the wild and Robert Oppenheimer puffing a pipe with warning warring for attention around Nedry’s computer space. The little dance of action Alan performs in trying to escape Tim’s yammering enthusiasm. Repurposing the Woody Woodpecker cartoon from Destination Moon (1951) as explain-it-all short of the Jurassic Park ride experience—a deep cut of referential wit as well as a perfect expository device. Lex with a spoonful of jelly starting to shake like the proverbial when she spies an interloping raptor. And, of course, that capstone flourish of the roaring T-Rex with a poster reading “When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth” ribboning before the beast’s all-too-genuinely renascent power.
The achievement of Jurassic Park, both devious and ardent, is that it litters such touches around with abandon and feeds up a significant portion of its cast as dinosaur chow, and yet still manages to close out with a feeling of the sublime. The final frames offer a feeling of conciliation, acceptance, and still-bubbling curiosity rather than fear and retreat, as Alan gazes out at gliding seabirds with a new sense of life in its value, both his own and the kids he’s learned to care for, and the overall continuum that defines species and evolution. John Williams, who provided one of his best scores here, dusts proceedings with a sense of grandeur, even a hint of the elegiac, fleshing out this grace-note that suggests it’s precisely what terrifies us that often draws us back in deeper curiosity and need for understanding. This pivot of comprehension, moreover, backs up an aspect of the tale represented by Malcolm and his cautions against arrogance, and Alan and Ellie’s inquisitive and celebratory mindset. Jurassic Park is a tale of forces inimical to human conceit and the dangers of unfettered experimentation, and yet it finally manages to affirm the yearning spirit and the act of scientific inquiry as one of personal conviction. For Spielberg, it allowed him to tether his light and dark sides together with ease and pointed the way to the future.
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Director: Ben Wheatley
By Roderick Heath
Ben Wheatley debuted as a director with 2009’s Down Terrace and leapt to the forefront of British filmmaking talents with his second work, the gruesome, tantalisingly semi-abstract horror film Kill List (2011). Since then Wheatley, working in close collaboration with wife Amy Jump, who cowrites and edits his films, made the blackly humorous Sightseers (2013) and the psychedelic period film A Field in England (2014). Part of the potency the duo’s collaborations have mustered wells from the blend of Wheatley’s filmmaking savvy, achieving beguiling gloss and texture with stringent budgets and strong but near-unknown casts, and creative eagerness to smack apposite ideas and styles together. Wheatley and Jump marry the disorientating and enigmatic effects of arthouse cinema to down-and-dirty genre aesthetics, conjure farce and savagery as entwined serpents, and harbour an evident yearning to reinvigorate touchstones from diverse heydays of British cinema. Sightseers, for instance, managed to pitch itself somewhere between Ealing comedy and the eerie stylings of ’60s and ’70s folk-horror films, whilst A Field in England, though never quite coalescing as successfully as its two predecessors, also represented a leap in ambition as Wheatley and Jump explored the familiar theme of the shock of the new, but in the context of the past. High-Rise sees the filmmaking duo moving into new territory in adapting a highly regarded novel penned by J.G. Ballard in 1975 and working with a much more prestigious cast and budget. Still, the material demands that the duo’s edgy, fearless streak be left undiluted.
Ballard, a writer who, like Kurt Vonnegut, transcended his niche in popularity as a science fiction writer to become regarded as one of the most impishly acerbic imaginations of his time, spent part of his youth in a Japanese internment camp during World War II. He later transmuted that desperate experience into his famous novel Empire of the Sun, filmed by Steven Spielberg in 1987. Ballard’s adult viewpoint on the world, one that emerged with increasing ferocity, perversity, and cyanide wit in his writing, was understandably inflected by the grim lessons of his war experience, the spectacle of human civilisation suddenly ceasing to work in the coherent, systematic, antiseptic manner that defines modernity. Ballard’s scifi writing took on an increasing tint of brute parable as he offered mordant dissection of social systems and the underlying assumptions of human behaviour that sustain them. High-Rise levelled Ballard’s cold wit and unsparing sensibility at one of modernism’s temples, the high-rise apartment building, and the attendant commercialism of the boutique lifestyle mythos. The story, although nominally realistic and contemporary to when Ballard wrote it, edges quickly into a Swiftian portrait of what happens as systems break down and primeval behavioural patterns begin to assert themselves.
A few years ago I happened to catch on TV a British semi-documentary film from 1946, The Way We Live, detailed the rebuilding of Plymouth, rejoicing in the promise of apartment blocks as the way of the future for affordable housing. It was both a fascinating and perturbing experience to watch from a half-century’s distance, considering that life in such blocks would eventually become synonymous with slums and social dysfunction in many British towns (and far beyond), as large numbers of poor people were crammed into drab, self-cordoning zones — although now high-rise solutions to space and environment problems in cities are again becoming an trendy notion. Ballard’s target was larger than just architectural cul-de-sacs and the social engineering they’re supposed to enable, though, as his high-rise structure becomes a metaphor for the entire apparatus of human civilisation, with a grand architect named Royal and the floors of the building literalising social caste in terms of floors. Wheatley and Jump, in adapting the novel, made the choice to keep the story set in the 1970s, an idea with perhaps inevitable appeal for the duo with their fetish for retro tropes and styles, but one which also risks stripping the tale of its immediacy and still-pungent relevance, especially considering that with Kill List, Wheatley had revealed a gift for digging into a raw nerve of anxiety and portrayed the blindsiding quality of the late ’00s economic tsunami and the bitter aftertaste of the decade’s geopolitical adventuring better than most any other filmmaker.
High-Rise also keeps intact the flashback structure of Ballard’s novel, which commences with the instantly galvanising image of focal character Robert Laing eating a dog, and works backwards to explain how he came to this moment. Tom Hiddleston takes on the part of Laing, glimpsed at the outset exploring the mysteriously ruined, fetid, broken-down environs of his home, where strange men and dead bodies sit around apparently unnoticed, and the aforementioned act of cooking and eating a wandering dog is scarcely worth a blink. A title card announces a jump back three months to the days when Laing first moved into his new apartment building, the first completed tower in a five block project designed by genius architect and entrepreneur Anthony Royal (Jeremy Irons). Royal’s declared hope for the building is to create a civic crucible that would break down class and other social barriers and create a self-sufficient community unto itself, complete with supermarket and swimming pool, and he’s attracted a great swathe of tenants through the fashionable swank and visionary allure of his construction.
As he settles into life in building, Laing learns that the opposite situation to the one Royal hoped for is rapidly evolving, with a rigid hierarchy built on floor levels. Lower floors are filled with middle-class wannabes whilst toffs and celebrities congregate in the higher. Laing, a pathologist at a teaching hospital, hovers somewhere in between, but he captures the interest of many of his new neighbours, including the much-chased single mother and socialite a floor above, Charlotte (Sienna Miller), and Royal himself, with his tenancy application, which inadvertently portrayed him as a Byronic intellectual. Laing seems to partly fit the bill as a loner, tightly-wrapped, both physically and psychologically. He’s recently been left quietly bereft, but also subtly armoured, by the death of his sister.
Laing draws Charlotte’s further interest when she catches sight of him sunbaking naked on his apartment terrace. She invites him for a session of fine dining and rutting in her apartment, which is interrupted by her young, bespectacled, hyperintelligent son Toby (Louis Suc). Charlotte’s also being pursued by another resident, Wilder (Luke Evans), a virile, fervent, working-class man who’s climbed a few social rungs through his work as a TV filmmaker. He lives on a lower floor with his wife Helen (Elisabeth Moss) and their kids. Laing encounters other neighbours around the building, a gallery of variously fussy, pushy, eccentric types, including wealthy, famous, but desperately lonely and fraying actress Jane Sheridan (Sienna Guillory); and supermarket checkout chick Fay (Stacy Martin), who starts teaching herself French from a phrasebook Laing buys but leaves behind.
Laing is invited to meet Royal by Cosgrove (Peter Ferdinando), his gatekeeper, and is bewildered by the rooftop garden, complete with thatched cottage, that crowns the building, Royal’s concession to his wife Ann (Keeley Hawes), progeny of a great country house and the patrician mindset thereof. Royal, who limps from an injury he sustained during the building’s construction, needs exercise to keep limber: he asks Laing to be his squash partner and also offhandedly invites him to a party his wife is giving. When he arrives at the party, Laing is embarrassed to find everyone else is in fancy dress (as pre-Revolution French aristocrats, complete with chamber orchestra scratching out a version of ABBA’s “SOS”) whilst he’s in a black suit, and worse, he’s outed as a man who doesn’t understand the vicissitudes of the sphere he has entered. Cosgrove, the hard fist attached to this body politic, tosses him out after a brief window of courtesy, and Laing is forced to spend the night in the elevator when it breaks down. Royal is apologetic over both the humiliation and the breakdown, but he infuriates Laing with unchivalrous remarks about Charlotte.
The elevator breakdown proves, moreover, to be an early sign of the faults Royal dismisses as teething problems, but which soon turn out to be endemic. As the infrastructure of the building breaks down so does the nerve, tolerance, and finally the humanity of its populace. “On the whole, life in the high-rise was good,” the narrator’s voiceover (also Hiddleston) proclaims late in the film, directly quoting Ballard’s text: “There had been no obvious point when it had moved into a clearly more sinister dimension.” Part of the essence of High-Rise’s thesis is precisely the idea that perhaps there is no great divide between the petty evils (and ecstasies) of human society and the potential for total descent into what some would call anarchy; indeed, another of High-Rise’s themes is that anarchy is another kind of order. High-Rise eventually moves into overt parable, even surreal territory, reminiscent of the music room no one can leave in Luis Buñuel’s The Exterminating Angel (1962), as life in Royal’s building begins to decay and everyone, instead of reaching beyond it, becomes determined to win their various battles within it, sensing, as the very end signals, that they might at least gain the advantage of being used to it before everyone else has to do the same. It’s also a variation on an eternal theme of postwar British artists, particularly satirists and comedians: the thorny and often insufferable business of living with other people, an inevitable psychological by-product of life on a small island where politeness is not just a pleasantry, but an actual survival skill.
Great swathes of modern science fiction writing have never really had their day on screen, and the best writers of Ballard’s era, including Michael Moorcock, Harry Harrison, Robert Silverberg, and Harlan Ellison, conjured gritty, dingy, sexy, acerbic tales that threw off the adamantine postures of earlier genre writing and embraced a cynical and dissident attitude even before the cyberpunk age arrived. Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange (1971) was one of the few authentic filmings of that style in its own era; Robert Fuest’s take on Moorcock’s The Final Programme (1974) was another. Wheatley’s work here recalls Fuest’s film particularly, evoking devolution as haute couture phenomenon. Wheatley’s decision to make High-Rise in period proves quickly to have been a master stroke, in part because it accords with the material’s wilful rejection of restraint in its metaphors, turning Ballard’s tale into a kind of disco allegory slightly out of time, like Lindsay Anderson’s If… (1968). The first half, however, plays mostly like a ’70s sex farce with the underlying note of absurdist dread only registering as the faintest buzz, as Laing negotiates life in the tower and contemplates the uncommon (that is, utterly common) mores of his fellow inhabitants, from Charlotte’s nonchalant approach to sexuality (after they’ve been interrupted shagging by Toby, Charlotte lights a cigarette; Laing asks confusedly, “I thought we were doing this,” to her reply, “We’ve done it.”) to Helen’s broody, frustrated angst, expiated in dreams of moving to a higher floor and watching TV dramas set in the romantic past, and Wilder’s tiger-in-a-cage unease in his environment. Meanwhile the upper classes and their lackeys barely bother concealing their vicious defensiveness, setting the stage for a partial inversion of the world H.G. Wells envisioned in his The Time Machine where the workers would evolve into cannibalistic Morlocks and the bourgeois into effete Eloi: in this vision, the upper classes remain so precisely because of their cold-blooded determination to hold onto privileges, a lack of sentimentality that could be called monstrous or some kind of evolutionary advantage.
Laing, after his ejection from Ann Royal’s party, takes out his anger with quiet precision on one of her other guests and a fellow tenant, the foppish Munrow (Augustus Prew), who’s also one of his pupils at the hospital. Munrow faints during Laing’s instructive dissection of a human head, and though his medical scans come back showing he’s fine, Laing plays a blackhearted practical joke on him by suggesting the scans suggest he might be ill. Shortly after, Munrow throws himself off a balcony to his death. Laing’s mean joke gone wrong proves to be a psychic declaration of war that soon starts to consume the building, where minor faults and breakdowns evolve into systemic failure of power and supply.
Wilder starts a more overt insurrection with a catalyst moment that begins as literal child’s play: Wilder, edgy and itching for conflict during a birthday party for one of his kids, leads the child guests in a raiding party on the swimming pool, which has been cordoned off and claimed for a toff’s wine party. After one of the higher-floor tenants, a newsreader who works for the same TV station, promises to get him blackballed, Wilder releases his anger by purposely drowning Jane’s dog. The pool crashing coincides with a power outage, with the lower-floor residents respond to with a sprawling impromptu party, during which Wilder snorts cocaine and, confronted by Cosgrove, beats the enforcer to a pulp. Wilder certainly has all the potency and force required to lead the lower-floor faction, as social sniping becomes active warfare, but does he have the sense of a cause and the wisdom? His first instinct is stick to his job, endeavouring to make a documentary on life in the tower block even as everything goes to hell, whilst Laing’s instinct is to retreat into his intense, self-composed bubble and wait out the various storms breaking upon his door. But this proves impossible as the block spirals into chaos during the continued blackout, and supplies start to run low. A cabal of upper-floor types led by Pangbourne (James Purefoy), with Ann Royal as patron, begin to create plans to take on the lower floors and throw an even better party, a plan that shades into full-on raiding and pillaging as looting breaks out in the supermarket and it becomes clear survival and prosperity in the building is starting to become a matter of raw force and dominance.
High-Rise, in spite of its nominal period setting, has the genes of dystopian science fiction, portraying a microcosmic society in breakdown and connecting that breakdown to the processes of the human mind itself. Laing compares Royal’s building plans to a human hand—the multiple towers are shaped like the curling fingers closing around the great central car park that, in spite of being wide open, is actually labyrinthine in its confusion—a brain and nervous system, and then finally, a heart. The idea of place becoming a mimetic map of psychological function is an old one in scifi, suggested in Metropolis (1926), and here employed with a hint that it’s an illustration of a war between functional utilitarianism, implied by the resemblance to the hand, the often illogical and mysterious twists of the mind that controls it, and the force of the heart that keeps beating through all. Laing’s name suggests a reference to the influential Scottish psychiatrist R.D. Laing, who helped develop a theory that the madness that follows attacks of schizophrenia is the cathartic result of the brain receiving contradictory messages—a notion that describes High-Rise’s narrative and Wheatley’s treatment of it as a whole with great accuracy. As the situation in the tower block worsens, Wheatley’s tone straddles the zones of horror movie consummation and screwball comedy, seeing both the repulsive and hilarious aspects of people acting on their worst impulses as their civilisation declines from consumerist paradise to galvanised class structure to tribal commune.
Futuristic tales of dystopian societies and struggles against coercion have been infiltrating popular cinema of late, with films like The Hunger Games series, Joon-ho Bong’s Snowpiercer (2013), and George Miller’s Mad Max: Fury Road (2015), and the structural conceit of Snowpiercer’s social metaphor suggests the immediate influence of Ballard’s tale. Wheatley’s take on that tale feels, however accidentally, like a riposte to the supposedly dark, but actually simplistic, reassuring heroic fantasies in those films. High-Rise posits Wilder as a possible hero figure, a would-be revolutionary who wears both his class resentment and his masculine force on his sleeve, but he’s led astray in the course of the film by the very violent impulses he can’t control and by sexual egotism that finally manifests in the ugliest way when he learns that Charlotte, who has rejected him, has been Royal’s mistress and that Toby is the architect’s son: Wilder’s response is to break into Charlotte’s flat, rape and beat her bloody, and then make her feed him in a gruesome caricature of normality, with the punch line that Charlotte feeds him dog food, one of the few foodstuffs left in the building. Wilder chows down with straightforward acceptance of a new reality, apparent in some of the building’s other inhabitants. Meanwhile, Helen finds her own succour getting rogered by Lain over the unused stovetop in his apartment, a space he tries in vain to decorate and inhabit; his belongings remain unpacked, with smears of neutral blue-grey paint the same hue as the colour of the sky outside on his walls in his attempt to fashion himself a free-floating life. It’s not until he actually has to fight for ownership of a can of paint in the supermarket-turned-war-zone that he actually proves he wants anything. Wilder eventually half-compliments, half-condemns Laing for his self-possession, the kind of apparently bland, quiet rigour that can actually weather the storm that’s breaking about their ears.
Moving slightly askew from Ballard’s obsessive theme of the distorting quality of technology and its pernicious penetration of the way humans relate to it and each other, Wheatley and Jump’s interest is more compelled by social ritual — its apparent arbitrariness, the very real forces it sometimes conceals and otherwise channels — and also by the rules of power as evinced in the seeming neutral zone of modern life. Sightseers portrayed its mousy social outcasts finding self-realisation in murder, whilst Kill List depicted a returned Iraq War veteran who engaged in killing for hire to support his lifestyle, only to find the bill arriving in the cruellest fashion possible. A Field in England depicted the temptations of control and submission with suggestive political ramifications: some people certainly do want to lord it over others, but is their ability to do so sometimes facilitated by the desire of others to let them, as a release from certain pressures and anxieties of existence? Wilder’s forced ritual of making Charlotte pose as dutiful wife echoes the scene in A Field in England where the necromancer took his enemy prisoner, tortured him, and then forced him to wear a sickly smile whilst leading him like a dog on a leash. Wilder eventually harbours an ambition to climb to the higher levels and confront the god-king Royal, to tear him down or displace him, only to fail to recognise Royal when the two men meet in the supermarket after the architect descends to the lower levels in his attempts to fathom the failure of his creation and the people in it. Royal himself tries to count himself out of the chaos, but is drawn however reluctantly into the upper-floor cabal out of sheer parochial loyalty, as his anointed class’s parties devolve into raw, explosive orgies fuelled with captured riches. Royal finds himself nominated as tribal chieftain, for all his flummoxed cynicism.
Around the travails of the main characters, Wheatley offers a sprawling landscape of strangeness, offering perversely ebullient filmmaking as he charts the decline of the building from chintzy classiness to stygian pit, alternating effects of dreamy fantasia and cokey Scorsesean montages, matched to Kubrick’s ironic classical music cues, whilst visions of Sadean revelry flit by. Ann Royal is forced to run on a supermarket conveyor like a treadmill when she’s caught by a gang of vengeful spivs led by Fay; Jane rides amidst the snobs’ orgy on horseback as a porn-queen take on Lady Godiva before dismounting and asking “which one of you bastards is going to fuck me up the arse?” A team of upper-floor raiders led by Pangbourne adopt tracksuits as a uniform and march into the supermarket happy to crack skulls. Wheatley and Jump’s propulsive editing style maintains the free-flowing, anecdotal quality of Ballard’s writing, vignettes of a descent into hell—or heaven, as so many seem ebullient and released in their surrender to completely carnal realities, including Royal and his wife, who shift from mutual contempt to strange loving using Jane as sexual surrogate, the two women holding hands plaintively whilst Royal works away. As the dissolution of the building reaches it last stages, its atomises into camps—women gathered in communal suckling circles, orgiastic sprawls that would make Sardanapulus blush, the swimming pool turned at first into a miniature Ganges where people wash clothes and then a concrete Styx littered with corpses.
Laing eventually finds himself threatened with top-floor defenestration when he refuses the request of Cosgrove, Pangbourne, and others in the upper echelon to lobotomise Wilder; he is saved only by Royal’s intervention. Wilder himself, given a gun by the Royals’ much-abused housekeeper and after Helen has been snatched as a hostage and put to work as a servant, climbs up through the building’s ventilator system, determined to confront Royal, only to stir the wrath of the women who form a kind of gestalt, a band of neo-Bacchantes who respond with lethal group wrath when their priest-king is threatened. Perhaps the most subversive idea in High-Rise is not that there’s a monster lurking under everyone’s skin, but that people are the same in just about any situation, just to greater or lesser degrees, and that after a time, perhaps it’s less our individuality than our shared reflexes that allow us to survive and create worlds together. Wheatley and Jump finally locate weird visions of happiness in disintegration amidst the horror and find a moment to note humanity even in the worst and the creation of new binaries and social zones, climaxing in beguiling moments, like Pangbourne coaching Helen through her labour pains and the final survey of Laing, calm and fulfilled with a harem of wives and a shank of dog leg on his spit.
If there’s a major flaw to High-Rise, it’s that it paints, but doesn’t entirely analyse the social processes Ballard’s satire was evoking. It backs off from some of the novel’s blackest resolutions, preferring to illustrate instead in a continuum of free-form absurdism. I have the feeling a lot of material finished up in the cutting room floor. But the blackout, sketch-like structure is to a certain extent the strength of High-Rise, kicking off the strictures of narrative nicety and, as the narration says of the building populace by the end, surrendering “to a logic more powerful than reason.” Here is the suggestion its characters reach a logical psychic end point akin to survivors of Leningrad’s siege or the bombing of Dresden, continuing with the business of keeping on. Only the very end brings in a genuinely false note, as a speech by Margaret Thatcher about capitalism is heard wafting on the airwaves: this moment serves less to make a solid connection between the late ’70s rejection of grubby authenticity for neoliberal chic and the sharp edge of social Darwinism than confirming just how much their impotence before the Iron Lady and her creed still haunts the British intelligentsia. High-Rise is certainly strong meat, perhaps too strong for many, in spite of its playful flourishes. But for the most part Wheatley and Jump have made their own work, the kind cinema too rarely offers these days—audacious, dynamic, and superbly crafted.
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Director: Paul McGuigan
By Roderick Heath
More or less ignored when not reviled upon release in 2009, Paul McGuigan’s Push has become one of the very few movies of recent years I can watch any time, in any mood, and enjoy. McGuigan, a talented Scots director, caught my eye in the late ’90s with the grimier, more authentically punkish answer to Danny Boyle’s Trainspotting (1995), The Acid House (1996), and the tougher-minded, more authentically maniacal retort to Guy Ritchie’s gimmicky gangster movies with Gangster No. 1 (2000). His work since going Hollywood, Wicker Park (2004) and Lucky Number Slevin (2006), failed to find wide audiences or critical favour, but have located some after-the-fact fandom. After a spell doing TV work, he just recently re-emerged as a feature director, only to have another jarring flop with Victor Frankenstein (2015). Push, his best work to date, is a hugely entertaining concoction in desperate need of some appreciation. It’s colourful, clever, and serious enough to compel, but sufficiently light-footed to evoke the kind of pulp novel adventure and comic book mind-bending its story evokes. Push is hypermodern in its approach and aesthetics, but also has the charm of a cult object slightly out of its time, as McGuigan’s stylish filmmaking blends diverse strands of contemporary cinema that someone ought to remix more often in service of a gleefully tricky narrative that riffs on the superhero genre with more poise and artistry than any actual recent superhero movie.
Push was also perhaps a little too obviously hoping to be the cornerstone of an original cinematic franchise. McGuigan lays the basic pillars of its plot through the opening credits, as protagonist Cassie Holmes (Dakota Fanning) explains a secret history rooted in the efforts of Nazis to discover and exploit paranormal abilities. This programme eventually evolved into an ostensibly U.S. government-sponsored, but almost lawless and stateless organisation called Division, which specialises in collecting and employing an array of individuals given great psychic and telekinetic powers. These people have been sorted into several basic types, each with an unofficial, but pithy sobriquet. Movers can manipulate, repel, or direct objects. Sniffs have an extraordinary sense of smell and can track people’s movements through the smallest residual traces. Watchers have the power to foretell the future. Pushers can distort other people’s sense of reality. Shadows can mask people and objects from the powers of other breeds. Shifters can mask the true appearance of something. Stitches wield startling healing powers. Bleeders can pulverise with their vocal sounds. A prologue sequence sees young Nick Gant (Colin Ford) and his Mover father Jonah (Joel Gretsch) on the run from Division. Taking momentary refuge in a hotel room, Jonah forces Nick to leave him, as he intends to do battle with Division’s heavies, but tells him before their split that one day a girl will give him a flower, and this girl will give him the key to changing his life. Jonah dies moments later in battle with Division agents, led by the forbidding Carver (Djimon Hounsou), a battle Nick witnesses obliquely from a hiding place before he scurries away and gets on with the business of surviving on his own.
A decade later, Kira (Camilla Belle), a captive of Division, is seen receiving an experimental drug Division has cooked up to boost the powers of superhumans. Everyone who’s taken the drug before this has died, but Kira survives and escapes with a sample of the drug thanks to a marble dropped by another captive which spins by seemingly random luck across the floor and jams a door. Meanwhile Nick has grown into the stubbly, sad-eyed form of Chris Evans, and is living in Hong Kong, a popular refuge for unaligned superhumans because the dense population makes it difficult for Division’s goons to track them. Nick has inherited his father’s Mover powers, but has neglected to master them for fear he might meet the same fate. Nonetheless, driven by lack of cash, he tries to use his powers to cheat in a craps game, but fouls up and finishes up having to outrun gangsters bent on beating him up. Retreating into his apartment, he’s soon visited by two Sniffs, Agent Mack (Corey Stoll) and Agent Holden (Scott Michael Campbell), who have finally managed to track him down. They’re looking for Kira, Nick’s former girlfriend, but don’t let him know that, leaving Nick bewildered. Once they leave, Nick gets a phone call from 13-year-old Watcher Cassie, who is standing outside waiting for him to open the door so she can raid his refrigerator and enlist him in a search for a large sum of missing money.
Nick quickly sees through this ruse and declares he doesn’t want to get involved in whatever Cassie’s up to. But he soon finds that he and the girl have already been targeted by a Triad crime family headed up by a kingpin (Haruhiko Yamanouchi) who wants to get hold of the drug and make his mob a rival to Division. All of his children have powers—he and his two sons are Bleeders and his daughter (Xiao Lu Li) is a talented Watcher with a fondness not just for sweets but also a sadistic proclivity for taunting her enemies, particularly precocious Cassie, whose mother is a legend in the paranormal community for her Watcher gifts. The clan are dubbed the “Pops” because of the daughter’s habit of sucking on lollypops. The crime family attack Nick and Cassie in a marketplace. The Bleeders cause havoc with their deadly screams—a touch that recalls Jerzy Skolimowski’s The Shout (1978)—as they chase the duo, causing fish in tanks to explode and finally leaving Nick badly mangled. He escapes death only because the Pop girl warns her brothers that they need him to obtain the drug. Cassie takes Nick to a Stitch, Teresa Stowe (Maggie Siff), who reshapes Nick’s body: Teresa is a haughty S&M priestess who can take away pain, but also return it, and who perversely enjoys not healing, but bringing agony. Then Cassie performs the totemic act of handing Nick a flower, signalling to Nick the time to take a stand has come.
Push’s conceptual similarity to the X-Men films was widely noted on release, but that is misleading to a certain extent, as the plot encompasses a rather different take on the relationship of its gifted outsider heroes to authority at large (there’s also a notable influence by Stephen King’s Firestarter). There’s less emphasis on spectacular powers than on subtler brands demanding mental discipline and wit. In the company of Push’s cast of superhumans, time and reality are in a constant state of flux to a point where even they can’t necessarily keep up. Push actually hews closer to an honourable update of one of the source texts for the more ambitious and sophisticated strand of superhuman fantasy works, A.E. Van Vogt’s Slan, with its Byzantine sense of paranoia in confronting a posthuman landscape amidst the shell of the hitherto dominant civilisation. As filmmaking, Push unfolds like a Fritz Lang movie reset in Wong Kar-Wai’s kaleidoscopic modern Hong Kong and jammed in a blender with Tom Tykwer’s Run Lola Run (1999). McGuigan’s strong visuals, alive to the colour and teeming liveliness of the locale, borrows from the aesthetics more usually associated with artier filmmakers, like Wong, Sofia Coppola, Michael Mann, and Olivier Assayas. Like several of those directors, McGuigan finds in Hong Kong the perfect hyperkinetic muse to survey the modern world, a place where urban life takes on a venturesome romanticism because it’s a frontier where cultures are meeting and ricocheting in manifold new forms.
McGuigan and screenwriter David Boursa are able to dramatize this idea precisely through the mechanics of their story, which hinges on people with all their differing gifts and traits working against or in conjunction with each other. Each power tends to complement another, but can also jam things up. The setting and the essential theme are noirish, the nature of fate unfolding in an urban labyrinth. But the mood is far too ebullient to nudge noir fatalism, and besides, Hong Kong is also a setting of action films, and the thematic lexicon can skew close to the traditions of manga and anime radiating from Japan—one of the Pop brothers has Astro Boy tattooed on his arm—and genre fusion mimics cultural fusion.
Appropriately for a film where a jostling breadth of humanity bestrides the landscape and the many modes of sensing evinced in the storyline, McGuigan’s trippy, tricky fantasia is a filtered, audio-visually layered experience laced with the jazziness of experimental films and music videos, but always plied with measured effect: freaky lensing, uses of contrasting film stocks and grains, careful use of décor and subdivisions of the frame that recall Wong’s assimilation of Matisselike visual textures and putting them into a more dynamic context, judicious slow-motion and time-lapse photography courtesy of DP David Sova. These flourishes are used with particular vividness in sequences illustrating the superhumans’ powers, like the fast-forward visions the Sniffs have when fondling Nick’s cup, visualising their analysis in reducing months of Nick’s life to a blur of action, and vertiginously edited fantasies the Pushers install in people’s heads.
Nick and Cassie, trying to work out where Cassie’s visions are leading, enlist the help of some other paranormal ronin, including Shifter Hook Waters (Cliff Curtis), Sniff Emily Hu (Ming Na Wen), and Shadow Pinkie Stein (Nate Mooney), who all have their reasons for hating Division and joining the fight even if their good sense tells them to stay out of the way of Carver and his hand-picked goon squad. Meanwhile Kira awakens on a boat in Hong Kong harbour with no memory of how she got there, looked over by the gaunt stranger who owns the boat and a message written with her own lipstick on a mirror simply spelling out Nick’s name and a number: Kira has had her memory of the recent past erased by the boatman, Wo Chiang (Paul Car). She’s soon captured by the two Sniffs but is able to push Agent Mack into killing his partner by convincing him that he murdered his brother, creating an entire alternative existence for Mack in a few blinks of her black-swelling eyes. Kira then manages to defeat Mack in a scrambling melee in a rest stop toilet and flees back to Hong Kong. Following clues given by both Cassie’s visions and Emily’s detection, Nick tries to rendezvous with the mysterious girl who everyone’s looking for. It proves to be Kira, who first response is to take a few potshots at him with Mack’s appropriated gun. Turns out Nick and Kira were lovers back in the States, a romance that ended suddenly when Kira was kidnapped by Division, leaving Nick clueless as to her whereabouts. Or were they? Believing they have to keep Kira out of Carver’s hands and find where she’s stashed the drug, they hole up in a hotel room using Pinkie’s gifts to hide Kira.
Another good quality of Push is the strength of its cast and the sharpness of its characters. Evans, post-Fantastic Four, first got to move away from Johnny Storm’s dude-bro tediousness and work out the charmingly chilled-out, white bread hero he’d soon purvey to much more money and popularity as Captain America, but also with a scruffy, more asocial quality, anticipating his next foray into Asiatic scifi, Snowpiercer (2013). Hounsou, always a great screen presence, makes for a formidable opponent, one who wears Division’s imperial arrogance like a suit: it feels like a manifestation of McGuigan’s raspy wit that the one-time oppressed hero of Amistad (1997) is now the ultimate manipulator of destinies and identities. Belle, who gained notice in Rebecca Miller’s The Ballad of Jack and Rose (2004), has an oddly delicate screen presence that helps draw out the contradictions of her character, who is at once powerful and near-fatally malleable.
One of screenwriter Boula’s better tweaks of the familiar plot pattern here is the way Nick is presented less as a singular hero than merely one in a group of pan-ethnic characters. Nick’s neglect of his talents means that he’s nearly constantly outmatched in his various encounters throughout the film, ending up battered, tormented, and tossed about like a plaything, as when he tries to confront Carver and his Mover bodyguard Victor (Neil Jackson). His lack of savvy as a hero recalls one of the film’s influences, Big Trouble in Little China (1986), though his lacks aren’t played for as many laughs as Jack Burton’s. His essential decency is noted early on when, whilst being tortured by Bleeders, he uses his powers to push Cassie to safety, and he does finally start to bring his real talents to the fore as the story unfolds. Chief amongst these is not his telekinetic gifts, but his mind for strategy, with which he works out a way to avoid the seemingly unstoppable fate barrelling down on him and his pals.
Young Fanning, though, taking her first step from child star to adult actor, is the one who walks off with the proceedings, playing Cassie as a precocious punkette with dashes of delirious pink dye in her hair (“Lose a bet with your hairdresser?” Nick prods her) and who draws pictures illustrating her visions in an art book, despite her complete lack of artistic ability: her pictures of the futures she sees are essays in childish style, all too crudely contrasting her precocious projections. Cassie is, in many ways, the film’s proper protagonist, as she’s desperate to save her mother from Division’s clutches. She is partially wizened beyond her years by her gift and also trying to play the grown-up living in her mother’s near-legendary shadow, a person who has touched the lives of almost everyone in the narrative with reverberations that eventually prove anything but accidental. Rattled by her own constant premonitions of death and the taunts of her lollypop-sucking sister-adversary, Cassie tries to focus her gifts and see her way through to another future by trying her mother’s favourite device to improve her seer powers—alcohol. Cassie, roaring drunk, bursts into the hotel room where the ragtag gang are holed up and accosts Kira as the one who’ll get them all killed: “I’m 13, and I’m powering my use!” she declares with truculent bravado.
Her encounters with Pop Girl are charged with peculiarly personal antipathy as well as a sense of their similarities, both prodigies competing directly on the behalf of family with the obligation to use the prodigal gifts they possess to further the ends of their kin, but with very different ultimate purposes. Where Cassie’s mother lives in a tranquilised void in Division’s headquarter—she’s only briefly glimpsed being led around by guards and dropping the fateful marble that helps Kira escape—and becomes something like a younger sister to Nick, Pop Girl represents a vicious and egomaniacal patriarch and a clan of carefully groomed thugs. When Pop Girl reports a failure to her father, he slaps her around. Later, when she presents her brothers with a more successful insight, it prompts them to ask whether that will make their father love them.
Push vibrates with unexpected fragments of emotional and thematic depth like these, decorating McGuigan’s framework like the neon that blazes over Hong Kong, never overplayed to bog things down. The emotional tenor here is wound together with the way the Watchers predict the future, becoming, in essence, like film viewers anticipating certain outcomes: “I like how this future ends,” Carver tells Cassie at one point when fate seems to be dooming the outsiders’ revolt to a grim end. The film’s audience, meanwhile, have their expectations constantly switched around, holding fast to the faith certain things will come out right even in the face of mounting contradictions and seemingly impossible knots of fate. Push’s approach to fate is one of its cleverest aspects. The idea that precognition is an ability affected by choices and potentials rather than being perfect insight into the inevitable isn’t a new one—Frank Herbert’s Dune posited a similar concept—and Push presents it as a psychic gift derived from people’s trains of thought, which means it’s vulnerable to temporary disruption. Kira took advantage of this by having her own memory wiped, and Nick eventually formulates a way to outwit the enemy Watchers by piecing together a plan and then having his own mind wiped by Wo Chiang, his instructions written down and parcelled out to his comrades in arms. I’m not sure if all this holds water logically, but it’s damn fun to watch play out. Nick is forced to take such drastic measures after Kira falls sick from the drug she was injected with and has to be handed over to Carver to save her life. This makes her vulnerable to Carver’s Pusher talents: he convinces her that she’s an agent in his employ who is suffering from amnesia.
Nick’s ploy works, sending both Carver and the Pops scrambling to keep up with the seemingly random twists and turns of their quarries, whilst they follow a chain of clues to locate the suitcase containing the drug sample in a skyscraper under construction, with a super-talented Shadow hired to mask the location. Our heroes still have run a gauntlet of challenges and dangers. The Pops try to zero in on the drug, but are instead fooled by a substitute Nick contrives to deliver to them. He then has a literally bruising encounter with Teresa, who has sided with Carver and has a sadistic streak her healing gifts are weirdly wound in with: she can restore injuries she fixes, and does just this to Nick, planning to torment him further, but his rapidly evolving Mover gifts allows him to outwit her. Cassie, constantly dogged throughout the film by visions of herself dead with a tiger above her, lets herself be bounced randomly around the Hong Kong underground, but still seems doomed to meet her ordained fate when she’s cornered by Pop Girl in a storeroom. But it turns out to be Pop Girl’s body splayed under one of the tiger symbol-emblazoned shipping boxes, her mind wiped by the lurking Wo Chiang. With Kira’s Pusher abilities magnified, Carver keeps her under his control once she’s stabilised and uses her take on the Pop clan’s army of gunmen, leading to a climactic battle within the half-finished skyscraper between the three vying factions.
I suspect that if Push had been made a decade earlier, it would have been a major cult hit, and not because superpowers weren’t so common on screen then. McGuigan’s sensibility cuts against the increasingly parochial and bombastic flavour of a lot of similar filmmaking, with its focus on international drifters in a polycultural nexus fighting the powers that be harking back to the ’90s milieu, rather than the post-9/11 mindset that rewarded Michael Bay’s fascist chic with big bucks, and the far more conventional and baggy filmmaking of the now exhaustingly dominant superhero movie. McGuigan signals a deliberate note of needling satire about the dark side of Bush-era politics, as he has Carver note, “We’re not ones for diplomacy anymore.” The final battle is a terrifically organised free-for-all during which Carver and Kira turn enemies on each other, Kira orchestrating a battery of killers under her influence like a particularly freaky line-dance choreographer, whilst Nick battles Victor, their powers becoming so well-balanced that they’re essentially reduced to a fist-fight, at least until the Pop Bleeder boys try to squelch them both. McGuigan tips another nod to Big Trouble in Little China when the Pop patriarch releases his Bleeder scream in uncontrolled furore after one of his sons dies, bringing down a heap of scaffolding on him and Victor.
Nick finishes up carrying the elaborate triple-bluff through to its end when he injects himself with the drug, which by this time has been substituted for soy sauce, and pretends to die under Carver’s contemptuous gaze. The very last few moments confirm that an even more elaborate plot than anyone except Cassie had originally realised has just been pulled off, and though Kira is still in Carver’s clutches, Nick has arranged for her to recover the truth, setting the scene for a most satisfying blackout moment of poetic justice. I’m inclined to call Push a kind of pop masterpiece, but too few heard this tree fall in the woods. A few months after its release, many of the same people who dissed it were calling the equally tricky but comparatively dour and pompous Inception (2010) a major event, which goes to show what a funny world we live in.
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Director: Jim Sharman
By Roderick Heath
Incredible as this will sound, this week I watched The Rocky Horror Picture Show from beginning to end for the first time. Oh, sure, I’d seen most of it in bits and pieces before going right back to when I was a kid. Thanks to growing up in a pop-culture world inflected with its legacy, I was long familiar with its characters, plot, and, of course, its soundtrack—who hasn’t heard “The Time Warp” or “Sweet Transvestite” in our day and age? This very familiarity made seeing the whole thing seem a bit superfluous, but finally, I made myself sit down and take it all in.
Rocky Horror was, of course, struggling English actor Richard O’Brien’s brainchild, composed, he said, to keep himself busy on long winter evenings of unemployment. O’Brien’s off-the-wall musical play mashed up his fetish for classic scifi and B horror movies, the trappings of the faded ethos of showmanship and glitzy-tacky Hollywood pizzazz, and the milieu of post-Swinging London and the age of sexual liberation—all entirely in keeping with a music scene ruled over by Mick Jagger and Ziggy Stardust. Australian theatrical director Jim Sharman, who had gained some respect for his staging of Jesus Christ Superstar, knew O’Brien from his one-night stint playing Herod in the show, and O’Brien snagged his interest with his kooky project.
Sharman’s showbiz pedigree was unquestionable. His father had been famous in Oz for running a travelling boxing show and carnival, and he grasped the potential in O’Brien’s project. He had already directed a film in Australia, 1972’s Shirley Thompson vs. the Aliens, built around much the same mix of nostalgia, camp, music, and satirical reference. Sharman staged O’Brien’s show in the 64-seat Royal Court Upstairs Theatre with a cast of virtual unknowns, including star Tim Curry, an actor O’Brien knew from around his neighbourhood, and Sharman’s pal from down under, “Little” Nell Campbell. The show was an instant success, and soon became the fixture it essentially still is. Two years later, Sharman brought it to the big screen for 20th Century Fox, importing for the sake of a larger budget two American actors, Susan Sarandon and Barry Bostwick, to play the nominal leads, as well as one talent who had made an impression in the LA production, Marvin “Meat Loaf” Aday. The film version initially failed to find an audience, and was written off as a misbegotten flop, but this was the golden age of cult films, with midnight screenings of cinematic oddities attracting large audiences of college kids and hipsters. An enterprising distributor saw the potential in marketing the film to the same audience, and soon a whole subculture formed around the movie, with audiences creating a ritualised script of comment and response and live performers mimicking onscreen action.
It’s easy to see Rocky Horror’s specific appeal, particularly in the milieu of the mid-1970s. Above all, the rock ’n’ roll score accomplished something nothing, not even Hair or Jesus Christ Superstar, had quite pulled off so effervescently and effectively before (or, really, since, perhaps not until the recent Hamilton)—contextualising the stage musical in the pop era in a way that made it fit. O’Brien tapped into an audience steeped in both a love of flimsy fantasy and New Age mores, creating a variation on a niche of gay culture just acceptable enough to lodge itself in the mainstream. The plotline, whilst strutting through a mocking pastiche of B movies, essentially describes a mass cultural experience, portraying a pair of hopeless squares being exposed to the stranger side of life and finding themselves, if not necessarily better off, certainly wiser—a Sadean narrative rendered in a light, fun, mostly harmless manner. At the same time, Rocky Horror has undoubtedly helped a lot of gay, bisexual, and just plain fabulous people come out of the closet and wield its fantasy as a weapon.
All that said, though, is The Rocky Horror Picture Show any good?
As a record of this peculiar cultural artefact, certainly. The movie, like the stage version, opens with the song “Science Fiction/Double Feature,” an ode to the pleasures of cinema from yesteryear, the stuff of O’Brien’s youth, referencing stuff like Tarantula (1955) and Day of the Triffids (1962). The film is littered with references to the glory days of Hollywood filmmaking, and there’s an interesting contradiction in there somewhere, this creation of fringe art celebrating a lost Eden of commercial art—although in the context of the mid-’70s, that legacy had faded and the same studios were trying to reinvent themselves by making stuff like, well, stuff like Rocky Horror. Moreover, such referential gambits feel like a miscue to me, as the project never really settles for pastiche or lampooning, and, least of all, for straight-up genre thrills, but instead subjects those tropes to a transmutation, turning subtext inside out and exploring less the ideas of classic genre cinema than camp culture’s take on it. Sharman’s expanded cinematic scope and the production circumstances allowed him to directly evoke the glory days of British cinefantastique, particularly Hammer horror, which was in its death throes at the time. Much of the film was shot around the decaying Oakley Court mansion, a popular location for horror film shoots. The central scene of monstrous creation directly references the laboratory scenes of Fisher’s Frankenstein films.
One of the cleverest touches of the film adaptation was casting Charles Gray, consummate player of villains in such films as Terence Fisher’s The Devil Rides Out (1967) and the James Bond film Diamonds Are Forever (1971), as a “Criminologist” whose introductions and narration evoke the likes of Edgar Lustgarden, the crime writer famous for hosting true crime TV series in the ’50s, and Boris Karloff’s hosting of the anthology show Thriller. Some of the film’s truly killer vignettes include the cutaways to him lecturing on how to do the Time Warp, and casting away his dryly portentous dignity to dance on a table top. Drive-in movie fare isn’t the only subject for satirical mirth: Brad and Janet overhear Richard Nixon’s resignation speech, symbolic fall of the establishment about to be mirrored by the young couple’s impending date with subversive elements.
An early sight gag unsubtly, but pertinently lampoons the couple representing middle American values, as Grant Wood’s famous “American Gothic” painting looms over protagonists Brad Majors (Barry Bostwick) and Janet Weiss (Susan Sarandon) and their friends at a wedding. The inference is obvious, the lurking spectre of parched, repressed, cheerless conformity the legacy behind their white-bread, upright, uptightness, and several of the church congregants watching the wedding revels with parsimonious intensity are, in fact, the very same perverts who will later turn the couple’s lives upside down. Brad and Janet are citizens of the Texas town of Denton. After they bid farewell to their just-married friends, Brad finally confesses his love for Janet via the song “Dammit Janet,” and they set off for a night of celebrating their smouldering blandness. But the couple’s journey is complicated by a storm and strange motorcyclists, and their car busts a tyre after they take a wrong turn. Luckily for them, there’s a castle nearby where they can ask for help.
Brad and Janet immediately stumble into an asylum of weirdness, greeted by a cabal of partying oddballs attending the “Annual Transylvanian Convention,” overlorded by pansexual, transvestite scientist Frank-N-Furter (Curry) and his fake servants, hunchbacked butler Riff Raff (O’Brien) and his sister and maid Magenta (Patricia Quinn), as well as hanger-on and former lover Columbia (Campbell). Frank has gathered the cabal together to celebrate the culmination of a great experiment: he is about to bring life to a man he’s constructed, dubbed Rocky (Peter Hinwood). Frank’s creation emerges from the vat as a perfect Aryan vision, ready and willing to flex his physique to the amazement of the audience even as he wonders what strange situation he’s been plunged into. But Frank’s road to triumph has been paved with his sins, including frozen biker Eddie (Meat Loaf), who busts out of cold storage in a dizzy rage. A delivery boy who was ensnared by Frank’s lustful attentions but who gravitated to Columbia, Eddie’s been partly harvested to provide Rocky’s brain, and he careens through Frank’s lab on his motorcycle until the vengeful host dispatches him gorily with an ice pick. Having disposed of this momentary distraction, Frank sets Rocky to building up his body to ever greater heights of masculine glory before chaining him to his bed. Rocky Horror revolves around this one central, inarguably brilliant premise—though the film doesn’t do much interesting with it—turning the classic Frankenstein figure into a freak who wants to create not just a human being, but a perfect male love object and then doubling down on this joke by having the monster’s traditional rebellion be that he is resolutely and helplessly heterosexual.
Curry inhabits the role of Frank-N-Furter with such total ease and charismatic verve that it seems like he was born in his lofty stilettoes and garters, credibly locating jolts of pathos and flickers of melancholy under the surface of a creature otherwise defined by totally shameless hedonism and dedication to his own outsized talent and ego. From the moment he enters the film dressed like Dracula, only to throw off his cape and reveal his very masculine body swathed in burlesque-ready underwear, Frank-N-Furter commands the proceedings. Later, as he acts as impresario mad scientist at Rocky’s revival, he sports the pink triangle of gay pride (adapted and reversed from a Nazi designation), but doesn’t stop at any polite or merely political limits of gender orientation. The figuration of Frank and Rocky could well have been originally inspired by Z-Man and his lust object, Lance Rocke, in another hugely popular camp relic, Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (1970); Frank very strongly recalls Z-Man as the imperious host of debauched revels and jealous creator with not-so-secret peccadilloes. There’s also a strong whiff of Cabaret’s (1972) Emcee to him, and Bob Fosse’s sleazy-sexy sensibility pervades the film as an influence.
Sharman’s theatrical talent mostly works once Brad and Janet reach Frank’s castle and are confronted by an the alternate-universe rock’n’roll party as a moment of revelation. The Transylvanians line-dance, and Riff-Raff, Magenta, and Columbia regale them with “The Time Warp,” that most insistently catchy and seemingly nonsensical of songs with lyrics that bespeak a defining obsession with nihilism countered with a sense of freedom and release found in remembered pleasures. Frank enters from a cage elevator and struts through the scene with carelessly convivial enthusiasm laced with erotic potency. The movements here obey their own warped logic, the mood of having stumbled through veil into a strange zone of reality, true in its way to many a classic horror film with the twist of discovering not horror and madness—although there is some of that—but rather the strangely alluring invite of a secret society dedicated entirely to making life a trifle less dull. Of course, it’s the songs here that tie this act together: “The Time Warp” segues into “Sweet Transvestite,” and, a little later, “Hot Patootie,” all musical bits that roll on with driving force, the first and the last perfect floor-fillers and the middle song an impudently sexy declaration of Frank’s wont that burrows deeply into the ear.
The stage is set for wild and shaggy times, and some do actually happen. Very much the pivotal sequence of Rocky Horror and its mystique comes at the halfway mark in a sequence that plays as an omnivorous replay of the health clinic scenes in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969), except whereas James Bond was fox in the henhouse with a bunch of horny ladies, here Frank-N-Furter revels in having a couple of ripe, young dweebs to make a tilt at. Frank first pretends to be Brad visiting Janet and then Janet visiting Brad, with both squares letting him have his way with them on the assurance the other won’t find out about it, climaxing, literally and figuratively, with the silhouetted, but still declarative shot of Frank fellating Brad, a moment that does still feel gutsy and unique in the context of such a work of broad appeal.
Riff Raff and Magenta’s general program of torment and sabotage sees them drive Rocky crazy with fire and cause him to escape, and then make sure Janet can see through the house’s TV monitors that Brad and Frank are together. Janet stumbles out in an anguished delirium and meets Rocky. She succumbs immediately to his boy-man virility, a spectacle that, in turn, shocks both Frank and Brad. Eddie’s father, a scientist named Everett Scott (Jonathan Adams) and a rival of Frank’s, reaches the castle in search of his son, necessitating a very uncomfortable dinner that climaxes with Eddie’s dismembered body being revealed in a glass coffin under the banquet table.
Unfortunately, Rocky Horror leaves itself no particular place to go after Frank’s bout of bed-hopping, and in the above-described scenes, retreats into shtick that, frankly, could be in any average dinner theatre show (“Or should I say Von Scott?” Gimme a break). The odd witty line does drop throughout the film—I got a good laugh from Brad’s question, “So, do you any of you guys know how to do the Madison?” after “The Time Warp”—but too often there’s a surfeit of true wit or even good wisecracks. A late swerve for a note of pseudo-pathos as Frank-N-Furter faces his downfall doesn’t come off in part because his divaish final song is the dullest tune in the film, and besides, who wants to take Frank seriously? His wonderful line, “It’s not easy having a good time—even smiling makes my face ache,” gives the character a signature facet that doesn’t need underlining. Such flailing probably didn’t matter so much on the stage, where the compulsive energy of the performers and the tunes can carry the material along, but the film finally suffers from a lack of a real cinematic invention. Part of this surely stems from the general decision to make the film as a road-show version of the stage production rather than striking out as a genuinely expanded vision. It’s tempting to wonder what a real filmmaker would make of the material. Ken Russell, who had made The Boy Friend (1971) a genuine cornucopia out of the same kind of material, and released Tommy (1975) the same year as Rocky Horror, could perhaps have conjured something really extraordinary. Ditto Fosse or Richard Lester, filmmakers who might have developed a real visual counterpoint to the material’s obsession with movie history. Brian De Palma’s Phantom of the Paradise (1974), which the film was paired with on a double bill for a time, lacks Rocky Horror’s hoofer bravado, but far excels it for originality and vigour in filmmaking.
In this regard, Rocky Horror ran upon a reef that often lies in wait for stage-to-screen adaptations: how far can you go in revising a project before it ceases to be the thing people liked in the first place? Not that the film lacks cinematic values. Cinematographer Peter Suschitsky, who had worked with Kevin Brownlow early in both their careers and would go on to shoot The Empire Strikes Back (1980), gives the film a rich, vivid palette of colour and lensing, one that cranks up the loopy garishness of the material to 11 in places, particularly during Eddie’s madcap terrorisation of the assembled on his motorcycle, and gives the sequence when Brad and Janet approach the castle singing “Over at the Frankenstein Place” a strange, elegiac beauty. But frankly Sharman, whatever his gifts as a stage director and his real hand in creating Rocky Horror as a theatrical entity, was an annoying filmmaker. A couple of years later he tried to film Nobel Prize-winning author Patrick White’s The Night, The Prowler, a story with a not-dissimilar theme to Rocky Horror of a repressed young women being assaulted and finding a certain sick liberation in the experience, but the film is just as leeringly overacted and unsubtle as this one. At least here, overacting and unsubtlety are part of the point. But the superficial energy of the filmmaking and performing can’t ultimately cover up the fact that Rocky Horror loses its mojo badly by the end. Scott’s arrival at the castle sets the scene for some really lame slapstick comedy, with Scott’s wheelchair being attracted up a staircase with a giant magnet and the rebellious guests and flesh toys being zapped with a “Medusa” ray that turns them to stone. The finale is particularly weak and feels like a missed opportunity, as Frank forces his posse of lovers to join in a kick-line chorus in front of the old RKO Radio Pictures logo.
Here Sharman could have gone nuts and expanded the staging and conceptualism, but settles merely for replaying the stage show’s climax with Rocky going nuts and carrying Frank on his back in a limp King Kong (1933) spoof. In spite of the overt desire to pay tribute to the cheesy glories of classic scifi and horror, Rocky Horror never really gets a chance to engage with them. Maybe it’s because the previous year’s Young Frankenstein had already beat it to the punch on so many jokes. At least there is a gaudy nod to Busby Berkeley as the camera surveys Frank floating in a life ring from the Titanic in a swimming pool with Michelangelo’s “Creation of Adam” at the bottom. Moreover—and now we’re edging into the realm of pure personal taste here, I admit—Sharman’s work presented a blueprint of freaky style not just to the burgeoning Punk and New Wave scenes (particularly Sue Blane’s costuming), but also to every terrible fringe theatre group and art-pop wanker around for the next two decades, and what was fresh was quickly beaten into the ground; just looking at the chorus line of Transylvanians makes me feel a little stabby as a result. Of course, it’s churlish to critique such a project for a lack of story cohesion or dramatic heft; in fact, the lack of both probably explains the popularity of Rocky Horror, its ultimate rejection of deep meaning as well as the kind of rigour that might have made for a more genuinely funny, tighter experience, which then wouldn’t have allowed the same room for an audience of adherents to write in their own amusement.
Admirably, too, Rocky Horror never backs down from its joy in transgression even as it tries half-heartedly to locate a deeper meaning. The shots of Frank, Rocky, Columbia, Brad, and Janet exulting in a moment of orgiastic sexuality in the pool weirdly echoes the climax of David Cronenberg’s Shivers, also released that year, purveying a similar sense of the blurred distinction between the elatedly liberated and the genuinely freakish. Frank-N-Furter is soon delivered a comeuppance by Riff Raff and Magenta, two fellow aliens who have been oppressed playing his servants and now take command, but far from being representatives of any controlling order, they’re an incestuous couple who just want Frank’s foot off their necks. Curry’s extravagance, matched to his character, tends to drown out rivals, but just about everyone still brings something great to the table: O’Brien’s bug-eyed, yawing-lipped rock’n’roll face, Quinn’s plummy pseudo-Lugosi accent, Campbell’s look of irritation after falling over at the end of her “Time Warp” tap dance, Bostwick’s shows of facetious charm, and Sarandon right at the beginning of her career, with her big eyes and ditzy-lustful smile suggesting Betty Boop before she reached for the hair dye and went to the dark side. By its end, it must be said, I was left frustrated, even disappointed by Rocky Horror, as its moments of invention, even genius, are balanced by just as many that don’t work or run in circles. Yet I’m still glad I finally watched it, and moreover, I’m glad that it exists, if just for the sake of the fabulous.
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Director/Coscreenwriter: J. J. Abrams
By Roderick Heath
Here there be spoilers.
And so it begins. Again. After months of feverish anticipation, it finally came down to me amidst a movie theatre filled by fans, many dressed as their favourite Star Wars characters. Some recoil from the way such popular material can suck up all the oxygen of cultural discussion, but I can’t help feeling enormously cheered when surrounded by people who love a story and a way of seeing so much that it inspires them to throw out the usual rules about how we’re supposed to treat the products of imagination in real life. Amidst such cultish fervour, however, it can also be hard to formulate an objective opinion. J. J. Abrams now lives out the dream of so many in the audience who saw the first Star Wars back in 1977 in relaunching the series for a new time and generation, skewing it back toward his understanding of what made it great in the first place. Abrams is, of course, the former scribe of TV shows, including Lost and Alias, who graduated to making films with the nervy action thriller Mission: Impossible 3 (2006), the big, fun, rather dumb rebooted Star Trek movies, and his best to date, the deeply personal, if derivative, semiclassic, Super 8 (2011).
Auteurist scruples may wince at the prospect, but then again, just as George Lucas was so ready to remix his favourite old movies into something for himself, the time had come, apparently, when someone can do the same to Lucas’ model. The new Star Wars entry comes weighed down with a colossal amount of expectation amongst many hardcore and casual fans, most of who want to bury the memory of Lucas’ prequels that I spent so many digits exploring recently. I like the prequels, and my set of expectations are inevitably different. I’m a fan of the series, of Lucas as a filmmaker, and of fantastic movies in general, a set of loyalties that can converge neatly—or twist in gruelling discursions.
The Force Awakens nonetheless studiously hits all the right notes from the outset— the classic title swooping away from the camera, the expository screen crawl, the first glimpse of something awesome deep in outer space. In this case, it’s a Star Destroyer appearing as a silhouette against a planet and disgorging a swarm of smaller space ships like some monstrous arachnid. The crawl does a fair job setting up the essential story: the Republic is faltering, a bunch of Imperial holdouts calling themselves the First Order are on the march, and Luke Skywalker has disappeared. First Order jackboots, including new dark lord Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) and Stormtroop commander Phasma (Gwendoline Christie), are chasing down dashing X-wing pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac), who’s on a mission to retrieve a map that may show Luke’s whereabouts. Poe receives the map from an old rebel adherent, Lor San Tekka (Max Von Sydow, pitifully wasted), on the desert planet Jakku, but Ren and his thugs arrive, forcing Poe to hide the map in his droid BB-8 just before he’s captured. The First Order thugs massacre Tekka and his fellow villagers, but one Stormtrooper, whose only moniker is FN-2187 (John Boyega), is disgusted with the slaughter. He helps Poe escape Kylo’s clutches, albeit not before Kylo uses his skill with the Force to extract the map’s whereabouts. Poe gives his rescuer a proper name, Finn, based on his number, and they escape in a TIE fighter. The craft is damaged, and they crash-land on Jakku. Finn thinks Poe has died and starts searching for BB-8 alone, only to be adopted quickly by venturesome young salvager, Rey (Daisy Ridley). Duo and droid flee First Order forces, and eventually hijack an old, battered spaceship found lying about a Jakku junkyard. Whaddaya know, it’s the Millennium Falcon.
The Force Awakens works well up to this point. Ridley, Boyega, and Isaac are able to create likeable heroes and strong repartee with surprising fleetness, setting up this fresh roster of characters in the context of a new era whilst also counterpointing the story beats of the very first Star Wars film in a way that feels apt to the basic patterning that has dominated the series. Rey is, like Anakin and Luke Skywalker, the product of a desolate environment and even more hardscrabble existence, and Finn recalls Han Solo and Lando Calrissian in his determination to do right in spite of a morally compromised past. BB-8 is an ingeniously designed and executed new droid who has to bear all the heavy lifting of cute appeal in this edition, for precious little kid-friendly whimsy will be allowed to slip through tightened fanboy security. Isaac, in particular, is instantly convincing: his natural charisma and swagger, so often damped down in more earnest performances and films, makes Poe a real focal point — so, of course, the film leaves him out of its middle act. Abrams’ insistence on returning as much as possible to “practical” special effects, replete with model work and life-size mock-ups, pays the most obvious dividends. The physical world here has texture, and the technical production is magnificent, every ray gun blast and engine noise registering with thrumming force, every spaceship seeming real and tactile. If Abrams achieves nothing else, it might be that he does something similar to what Lucas, Spielberg, and the other Movie Brats accomplished in their day for his own contemporary cinema: reinvigorate the love of craft and sense of film production as a near-religious event.
Rey and Finn’s first adventure in the Falcon, dodging TIE fighters inside the strewn wrecks of cast-off Imperial death machines, is dynamically staged, and carries thematic force—the world of the old Star Wars films is now a dramatic scrap heap, a legendary time given way to an age of fractious decay needing new blood and gumption. But The Force Awakens starts to go awry here, too. The arch touch of finding the Falcon in such a circumstance is wittily purveyed, but segues into a desperately flimsy reintroduction for Han (Harrison Ford) and Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew), who have just returned to their old lives as smugglers because, as Han says at one point, it’s “the only thing I was ever good at.” You’ve gotta be kidding me, Abrams. Han and Chewie, appearing in a big, junky smuggling ship, zero in on the Falcon and pick it up. They hold off some disgruntled clientele and marauding monsters in a sequence that comes across more as a big-budget Red Dwarf gag than Star Wars-grade fare, and Abrams gets to do one of his trademark breathless but unimaginative run-about-hallways action scenes. The best news is that Ford is at the top of his game here, slipping back into Han like a second skin and tossing off his bluffs and grouchy quips with sublime ease. But this is part of the problem, too. Howard Hawks, one of Lucas’ masters and models, knew very well that he couldn’t utilise John Wayne the same way in El Dorado (1966) as he had in Red River (1948), and apart from Han’s tentative reunion with Leia late in the piece, there’s little convincing sense of character development. Abrams offers the juice of seeing an old friend, but with the dispiriting corollary of finding that old friend is still a screw-up. Of course, there’s a reason for this, such as it is.
It’s not surprising that Abrams is confident in making a continuation that gives us “what we want.” Any experienced TV writer learns quickly how to move onto a project and mimic the qualities that sustain a successful show. Here that honed skill is matched to a fan’s fetishism for the look, sound, and tenor of the original trilogy. The Force Awakens bends over backwards to operate like someone just took all the old Star Wars toys out of your bottom drawer and started playing with them again, at the expense of developing Lucas’ fantasy world in any meaningful way. Spent the last 30 years wondering what the rebuilt Jedi Order would look like, how Han would take to being a war hero and husband to a princess, what the rebuilt Republic would be like? Abrams answers these questions by negating them, hitting the reset button and returning the narrative to comfortable, fan-service postures. Luke’s in narrative purgatory, the Jedi are a nonstarter, Han’s gone rogue again, and Leia’s now a general, which means she does the same thing here as she did in the finale of the original—stand around watching glowing maps. The Republic is up and running once more, but fragile, and the First Order is being fought by “the Resistance,” which is basically the Rebel Alliance with a mandate, still scrappy, outmatched outsiders. The First Order looks, sounds, and operates exactly the same as the Empire though they seemingly have none of that entity’s resources or purview. Having experienced two giant variations on the Maginot Heresy already with the Death Star, here is, well, another Death Star, except it’s been constructed inside a planet and is called the Starkiller base: “It’s bigger!” Han cracks, a touch of knowing self-satire that doesn’t actually excuse the laziness of the story. The First Order have an overlord who’s come out of nowhere named Snoke (Andy Serkis)—wow, there’s a terrifying villain name—and looks like a bigger, even pastier and nastier version of Emperor Palpatine. His underlings Ren and Phasma are joined by General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson, overacting something shocking) to duke it out for most incompetent bad guy prize.
The emotional element for many in seeing Han, Chewie, and Leia again after so many years presents Abrams with a ball he can’t possibly drop, and he doesn’t. Nor does he do anything interesting or enriching with it: Han and Leia stand around swapping a few feels, and then we’re off again. The habit of reviving iconic characters only to make them mere furniture or to bump one or two off for shock effect is one comic book readers mocked decades ago, and Abrams lets himself be drawn into the same trap, as indeed he already did on his Star Trek films. One of the major spoilers or whatever here is Kylo Ren’s identity: in a motif drawn from the expanded universe novels that followed the original trilogy but tweaked for the sake of independence, Kylo is actually Ben Solo, Han and Leia’s son, who’s fallen under the spell of the Dark Side. The absolute signature moment of the original trilogy was, of course, the revelation by Vader that he was Luke’s father. Think about that moment, how brilliantly powerful and climactic it was, how dramatically staged. Here, we learn Kylo’s real identity in a throwaway piece of exposition spouted by Snoke. Lame scarcely covers it. Kylo keeps Darth Vader’s melted helmet as a totem in his bedroom to spur his longing to become a worthy heir to the Sith lord’s power. Driver is competent in the role, but anyone who critiqued Hayden Christensen’s rather more complex performance as Anakin Skywalker should not have the gall to call this anything more persuasive. Indeed, the film badly lacks a truly potent and charismatic villain, someone to shock the narrative into feeling like anything more than a wire hanger to drape callbacks and footloose action on.
I know this might sound rich coming from a guy who defended the writing of the prequels, but the script of The Force Awakens is weak in many respects. It struck me to be about three or four drafts away from optimal, and contains many familiar clichés of Abrams’ writing style—and contemporary screenwriting in general. Lawrence Kasdan might have been hired to give the script some gloss of familiarity with the original characters (he’s credited as cowriter along with Abrams and Michael Arndt), but too much of the film has Abrams’ rather more mechanical, weakly balanced sensibility. In its desperate need to get off to a high-powered start and stay in that gear, the sequences that have to bear the weight of character and story development, particular in the middle act when our heroes takes refuge in a bar run by gnomic alien crone Maz Kanata (voiced by Lupita Nyong’o), take on an awkward feel, at once rushed and laborious. Maz is a fascinating example of how an attempt to reproduce an element of the original trilogy (Yoda) finished up as a bland and forgettable placeholder, someone to nudge Rey along her path toward finding her inner Jedi and nothing more: no one will remember a thing this character says or does. Also, why net an actress of Nyong’o’s quality for such a fruitless aspect of the film? The film sets up a tension whereby Finn fears the inevitable moment when his Stormtrooper past will be revealed to Rey. The moment comes. There’s no payoff. We wait for Han and Leia to be reunited. They’re reunited. And we’re done. Compared with the way Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008) wove Indy’s reunion with Marion as a screwball bickering scene in amidst thunderous action, this is strikingly witless. Indeed, for all the faults of Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, it was a far more accomplished film than this in acknowledging aging heroes and weaving in legacy with derring-do.
The Force Awakens is a paean to popcorn movies as an ideal, and it moves along with such rollercoaster verve and good spirits that it does fulfil that ideal to a great degree. But something’s been lost. For Lucas, even at his lowest ebbs, the Star Wars mystique was about something more, something richer and more conceptually challenging. The acting is “better” here than in the prequels, but largely because the actors are called upon to do much less complicated things, in that increasingly common pseudo-screwball, TV-influenced manner where they all but trip over their dialogue from having to rattle it off so quickly. Boyega and Ridley give mostly confident, broad performances where they nail what their characters are supposed to be doing in any given scene, as much as the script is clear about who they are and what they’re thinking and feeling, which isn’t as often as I’d like. Boyega has a good sense of humour and he conveys Finn’s anxiety well, a particularly neat turn from an actor whose most notable previous role, as the hapless leader of the gang of posturing toughs in Attack the Block (2011), was defined precisely by a lack of self-humour. But at no point was I ever convinced that this character had ever been ruthlessly trained since childhood as a killing machine and then discovered his humanity. This is actually a very cogent example of something I was getting at in my comments on the prequels, where Lucas tried so hard to make his characters operate according to the laws of his invented universe rather than dumping easy avatars into that world, which is exactly what Abrams and company have done. Ridley, who suggests this year’s model Keira Knightley, is sometimes a plucky lass with a line of good-golly-gosh faces and sometimes an omnicompetent Sarah Connor type, and the film is remarkably cagey—or lazy—in telling us who she is and how she got this way. A couple of the bad guys sneer about her being a scavenger, but this feels more like regulation screenwriting apparatus than a real goad to her class rage. Nonetheless, I liked Finn and Rey as protagonists: as this revived series goes on, they might be allowed to take these roles to some interesting places. Or maybe not.
I’m not sure what, if any, authentic emotional level Abrams works on, except for his love of classic Gen X action and scifi flicks, and the originals in this series above all. The sprawl of Lucas’ references was vast. Abrams’ take on Star Wars refers to almost nothing outside itself, except with some vague suggestion of an Islamic State programme of all-consuming absolutism behind the First Order, as well as the usual Nazi-authoritarian stuff. Given the post-Romanesque world of the collapsed Empire, there was a good opportunity to give the overarching narrative shape by referring to tales of Charlemagne and Arthur, rather than the Greek and German myths used in the original sextet. One of the best heroic images in the film, when Poe leads in a flight of Resistance X-Wings to battle like charging paladins or knights of the Round Table, grasps this concept. There’s also a hint of Excalibur surrounding the light saber left behind by Luke, which Rey finds hanging around in an odd place (but convenient for Abrams, who still has a poor sense of how to get characters around points A, B, and C) which seems to now choose its owner. But the really alarming side of The Force Awakens is that it completely lacks any kind of fresh, motivating frame of reference or core idea, or at least, none that’s allowed to make itself apparent. The original films never let concepts get in the way of a good story, but they were held together doggedly by Lucas’ carefully parsed underpinnings. It’s enough for Abrams that a character goes from zero to hero; that’s his and Hollywood’s current idea of mythic resonance. Some critics have congratulated this film for precisely the absence of mythological preoccupation. Go to hell, I say; then why am I watching this and not the 300 other action-adventure franchises out there?
Abrams and his team have gone to great lengths to merely dress familiar things in new garb: here’s a new Emperor stand-in, here’s a Darth Vader wannabe, here’s a second-string Luke Skywalker, without pausing to let any of it breathe or gain substance. The original film took nearly an hour to leave Tatooine in the course of charting the events that set Luke on his journey, passing through stages of surprising stillness and quiet, evoking the meditative edge that often bubbled unexpectedly to the surface in places throughout the sextet. Lucas’ Jedi were thinkers and feelers; everyone here is a doer. Abrams grazes similar moments of horror to the death of Luke’s aunt and uncle and Anakin’s mother in noting the First Order’s violence, but it’s impersonal and offstage. Many branded the prequels as overly light and lacking grit, but The Force Awakens is actually far more blithe and evasive about the impact of violence. Many similarly derided the introduction of the idea of the midi-chlorians as a source for the Force as a misguided demystification of Lucas’ spiritual aspect, but here Abrams and company do something worse as the film reaches its climax and Rey literally gets her Jedi knight moves on in the course of battling Kylo. The whole point of the original trilogy was the process of developing the mental and spiritual discipline required to become a Jedi, and the prequels studied what horrible results could come of the process failing. To Abrams, it’s become just another cheap power fantasy.
The Starkiller base wipes out a few planets a la the destruction of Alderaan, but whereas that was Leia’s home and an immensely brutal act registered through her reaction delivered with a political purpose of tyrannising obedience out of Imperial subjects, here it’s just some places that get wiped out for no particular reason other than, well, the story needs to make us dislike the baddies some more. Such is the film’s great technical in-your-face bluster and swiftness of movement that the weakness of its story structure and designs is nearly obscured. Return of the Jedi saw the rebels embarking on a rather limp plan to foil their enemies’ defences, but that plotline now looks positively Machiavellian in cunning compared with the way Han and Finn take out the Starkiller base’s defences by holding Phasma at gunpoint and threatening her into lowering the shields. So much for these fanatically committed agents of evil. The second great spoiler here is that Kylo, when Han finally confronts him, kills his father, in a sequence deliberately reminiscent of the death of Obi-Wan in the original. That scene was wrenching and shocking in part because Lucas never really suggested it was going to be so momentous. Here Abrams telegraphs what’s going to happen so blatantly that I couldn’t feel even a flicker of surprise, or even much sadness. By this stage, Han is just another moving part amongst too many. But I did like the flicker of interesting ambiguity that strays into the scene—does Han realise what’s in Kylo’s heart and willingly sacrifice himself, or did he trust too much?—which lends the film momentary depth by offering the one vignette that isn’t plying the obvious.
The Force Awakens is spectacular, of course, but there’s a difference between spectacular and spectacle. Spectacular is flash and impact; spectacle is lucid and grand. Lucas aimed to give a touch of the sublime in his sense of the cosmic, and so often had a poetic edge to his visuals to counterpoint the kinetic ferocity. His frames spoke of his love of the fantastic, his desire to share with the audience a sense of things vast and strange, even when his words failed him and his movies skidded. Nothing like the romantic vistas of Attack of the Clones get a look in here, and Abrams’ way of evoking the same kind of yearning in Rey as once possessed Luke, so eloquently captured in the famous sunset shot of the original, manifests as her watching a spaceship take off, without anything like the same sense of visual rapture conveying inner meaning. The Force Awakens deploys the same lexicon of fantastic images as Lucas created, the scale of his war machines and the martial vigour of the space battles and final light saber duel. But Abrams has no gift for spectacle, and apart from the few brief visions early in the film, like the wrecked carcasses of Star Destroyers and their cavernous innards, no grasp on the dreamlike sensibility that coiled throughout the original sextet, no feel for the dark and hushed places that often live in the corners of that fantasy world where the heroes often found some of their truest threats.
Abrams has been consistently improving as a director, and he restrains his messy instincts here to a great degree, imitating Lucas as much as possible. Yet his images never escape the realm of mere prose. The final battle sequences forget entirely about the space war raging above the heads of the duelling young warriors, and the Starkiller base blows up with scarcely a raised eyebrow: there’s no sense of the dramatic shape that made the original’s finale so enthralling. Here it’s just more cool, pretty things going zap and boom. Even the scene I praised earlier, of the Resistance’s charge, kind of comes to nothing. Finn and Rey’s attempt to bring Kylo down really gains strength, but this is then spoilt by Abrams’ need to give too much too soon. I’m being churlish to a deliberate degree, I’ll admit. The Force Awakens is a beautifully produced, solid, fast-paced and entertaining space adventure movie. But on some level, for all the familiar paraphernalia and exacting tribute, I felt like it was barely a Star Wars film, but rather just another imitation, Battle Beyond the Stars (1980) with more money. The film finally wraps up with a coda that is, on one level, excruciatingly clumsy, but also intriguing, as Rey confronts Luke at his hidden abode, an ancient Jedi temple at the edge of the ocean, his grizzled and battered face suggesting the hells he’s been through coping with the aftermath of his awful triumph. It’s telling that merely the sight of Mark Hamill’s face captures exactly the note the film has spent more than two hours trying to strike.
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Director/Coscreenwriter: George Lucas
By Roderick Heath
The fervent anticipation at the nearing release of Star Wars – Episode VII: The Force Awakens carries an unavoidable sensation of déjà vu. Like just about everyone else my age, I grew up watching the original Star Wars trilogy, and recall another wave of both powerful hype and real expectation through the closing months of the last millennium that crested with the release of George Lucas’ return to the series, Star Wars – Episode One: The Phantom Menace. This cinematic phenomenon began as a good-humoured, referential piece of space disco created by Lucas, a man who up until 1977 had been best known for a film about teens driving about all night to the musical accompaniment of ’50s oldies. But the series he inaugurated with Star Wars – Episode IV: A New Hope (1977) quickly became something rare: giant blockbusters viewers adopted with the fierce personal attachment of cult films. Stripped down to constituent parts, the original Star Wars films seem simple, even infantile, and yet there’s something incredibly powerful encoded in them, defying reduction if not dissection. Almost inimitable amongst modern special-effects-driven movies, they maintain the rarefied quality of fable, combining cheeky but essentially straitlaced heroism with a quality, in their evocations of places seen and visited, their alien cities dancing on clouds and death machines the size of moons and taverns littered with denizens of two dozen species, that resembles the apparatus of dreaming.
Concurrent with the fond eagerness was a quieter but powerful swell of cynicism from people who disliked the films or resented the hype. Star Wars had germinated as personal fantasia but became marketing event. Lucas began his career with the semi-experimental scifi feature THX 1138 (1971), but more than any other filmmaker of his generation—the so-called Movie Brats—Lucas came to exemplify faith in the broad audience’s wont as well as the artisan-artist’s individual vision. Lucas learnt the hard way about the pitfalls as well as the prospects in making movies for that audience by dealing with the uproar over the nightmarish Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984) and the flop of the oddball Howard the Duck (1986), and had resolved to be a responsible provider of family entertainment. Facing a new trilogy with much darker and less commercial subject matter than his first series, Lucas at first courted a new generation of young viewers as fans by conceding to them excessively. Trouble is, the people who already loved Star Wars weren’t kids anymore: they were 20- and 30-somethings who wanted, whether they knew it or not, two completely divergent, yet equally necessary, concessions: the feeling of being thrust back to childhood while simultaneously reflecting their evolution. The Matrix, released a few months before The Phantom Menace, became the film the latter singularly refused to be: a superman fantasy dressed up in pseudo-grit and cyberpunk quotes that fitted the mood of the time. The Phantom Menace was a huge hit, but soon became a byword for the cultural equivalent of a fumbled touchdown. I was and still am bewildered by the level of invective the prequel trilogy receives. In some ways, I even prefer those films today.
I don’t say this just for the sake of contrariness. Some criticism levelled at the trilogy is legitimate and feelings of dashed expectations are honest enough for many. But I also feel this cult of disdain exemplified something notably obnoxious about the dawning age of the internet, a deeply spoiled capacity to judge with distinction or consider with a sense of history that refers outside of the bubble of fandom, or the opposite, charmless snootiness turned on popular cinema. I think of how lumbering and overhyped a lot of modern franchises have been—The Dark Knight, Pirates of the Caribbean, Transformers and Twilight and Hunger Games series, even to a certain extent the Marvel superhero films. So many are testimonies to a brand of professional smoothness or an anodyne brand of fun, rarely taking any risks or offering real ambition to match their flimsy gravitas. Peter Jackson’s Tolkien adaptations, formidable as they are, rendered the epic and the fantastic in a manner that remains resolutely concrete, sapped of relevance as parable, and the more they try for the ethereal, the less they seem. So I’ve found myself returning often to the colour and expansive glee apparent in even the least of the Star Wars movies. There’s real beauty and great invention to be found in the prequel trilogy. At their best, they exemplify the creed of the project as it began to explore complicated ideas and motifs through apparently cheery and unpretentious figurations. Lucas had originally drawn on nearly a century’s worth of space opera scifi and pulp storytelling as well as more serious sources.
The surprising thing about The Phantom Menace is how well Lucas captures the tone of some of the stuff he alludes to—the broad, tony, featherweight joie de vivre of a Saturday afternoon adventure film by someone like Nathan Juran or Richard Thorpe. People wanted the Star Wars prequels to be about their childhoods, but it remained, in many ways, an account of Lucas’ youth. One definite impact upon my own sense of art and artistry I can say the series had was the way it introduced me to the idea of auteurist cinema. George Lucas was Star Wars; even when he wasn’t directing, his influence was still all over the product. This eventually proved a sword with two edges, as Lucas the creator became the boogeyman of fanboy campfire tales.
The overarching story of the prequel trilogy is straightforward, but also much more complex in its dimensions and ramifications than the original trilogy’s. The trilogy depicts the transformation of the Galactic Republic, an ancient, galaxy-spanning alliance of planets, into a fascistic Empire. Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid), a devotee of the once hugely powerful but long since toppled mystic society called the Sith, is at first a mere senator from the planet of Naboo. He engineers a plot in multiple stages, first leveraging himself into the chancellorship of the Republic Senate by creating a crisis between his home world and a cabal of smug, fish-faced aliens called the Trade Federation, led by Nute Gunray (Silas Carson). Palpatine then foments a full-scale civil war between Republic loyalists and disaffected groups, using his adherent and accomplice Count Dooku (Christopher Lee) to manipulate events until he is given dictatorial powers, permitting him to create a full-scale army of clones to control his domain. Then Palpatine moves to wipe out the Jedi, the Republic peacekeepers who adhere to an antipathetic philosophy to the Sith whilst drawing on the same quasi-spiritual energy source known as the Force.
Woven into the fabric of his plot are three core characters: the elected Queen and later Senator of Naboo, Padmé Amidala (Natalie Portman), Jedi knight Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor), and his pupil Anakin Skywalker (played as a kid by Jake Lloyd, as a man by Hayden Christensen). The Phantom Menace tells how Obi-Wan and mentor Qui-Gon Jinn (Liam Neeson) save Padmé and aid her in reconquering Naboo from the Federation. They encounter young Anakin by chance when hiding out on the remote, barbaric desert planet Tatooine, where he and his mother Shmi (Pernilla August) are slaves to gruff, sleazy trader Watto (Andrew Secombe). Anakin’s uniquely powerful ways with the Force help gain a victory, and after Qui-Gon’s death in battle with Palpatine’s initial apprentice Darth Maul (Ray Park), Obi-Wan convinces the Jedi Council to let him train the winning, but possibly unstable young prodigy. Whilst The Phantom Menace is the least effective of the six feature films to date in the series, it also clearly illustrates the uncool side of Lucas’ obsessions in a way that also confirms their meaning to him. In its first 40 minutes or so, the episode has a much more juvenile style and tone than the other films and is the one most clearly made with a young audience in mind. As much as this tone acts like nails on a chalkboard for older viewers, it’s not actually a flaw in itself.
That said, Lucas had not personally directed a whole film in 22 years, and the one-time savant of ’70s cinema had clearly grown stiff in the joints. Some parts of this revival are brilliantly executed, others weakly patched together. Early special-effects sequences in the episode are awkward and feel unfinished—particularly an underwater journey for the Jedi—and replete with weak edits. The much-hyped, first-ever, completely computer-generated character in a feature film proved to be Jar Jar Binks (voiced by Ahmed Best), a floppy-eared, lizard-like alien from a Naboo race called the Gungans who seems composed of a few hundred different comic-relief figures (and ethnic clichés) from old movies. I generally side with popular opinion here: Jar Jar is an annoying figure who nudges the material too close to the cartoonish, lacking the fierce-cute appeal of the often derided but lovable Ewoks. That said, although Jar Jar grates badly in early scenes, his involvement in a climactic battle through which he careens like Jerry Lewis trying to be Errol Flynn, bringing terror and destruction to both the enemy and his own fellow Gungans, blends comedy and action well in a sequence that calls out directly to a lot of classic swashbucklers, like Nick Cravat darting through danger in The Crimson Pirate (1953) or Herbert Mundin amidst the throng at the end of The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938).
An extended subplot involving the substitution of the real Padmé, who pretends to be one of her own handmaidens behind a decoy, played by a very young Keira Knightley, means Portman and Knightley are forced into awkwardly imitating each other with a weird mid-Atlantic accent. But Padmé is one of the most interesting characters in the franchise. She’s a product of a culture with a curious predilection for being governed by emotionally and intellectually advanced young women, one who remains the voice of social and political wisdom in the trilogy and a gutsy fighter who has a tendency to leap into frays where others hesitate but who founders on her love for a younger, volatile man. The Ruritanian look of Naboo has a fervent and colourful charm, again clearly linking the instalment with the fantasy filmmaking of Lucas’ youth like Knights of the Round Table (1954) or Jack the Giant Killer (1962). The core of the story is distrustful races coming together to fight a common enemy, as the humans of Naboo ally with Jar Jar’s people, the Gungans. The last word spoken in the film is the Gungan king’s (Brian Blessed) cry of “Peace!”, contextualising the developing story as a decline from a state of civilisation into a time of war. War comes not as great and appealing crusade or assaults by conveniently abstract others, but because of the manipulations of cabals hoping to gain power or money. Images throughout the film of the Federation’s war machines trammelling the lush, green beauty of Naboo introduce a recurring note of concern for the environment, nodding toward the same themes of natural purity and the insatiable ravening of sentience depicted in Wagner’s Das Rheingold.
The core sequence, again often criticised but actually a terrific bit of filmmaking, comes when Qui-Gon manipulates events on Tatooine to allow him and his party to escape with young Anakin, which requires letting Anakin enter a dangerous form of competition known as the Pod Race. This sequence provides another evident reference to a movie that stands as distinct precursor to the Star Wars series in both production grandeur and self-mythologising style, William Wyler’s Ben-Hur (1959). Whereas the chariot race in that film was a climax, here the pod race actually inaugurates the essential Star Wars myth with the spectacle of something new and amazing coming into the world, and serving at least four purposes. In straight narrative terms, it solves the crisis of how the heroes will get off Tatooine and leads to Anakin joining their team. It’s also an action set-piece that jolts the spluttering film to life. It focuses not just the story, but also the mythic element in the evolving epic tale as Anakin’s great, courageous, slightly berserk talent reveals itself for the first time. It also revives the panoramic aspect that’s always been crucial to Star Wars: tiny, enriching details flit by, from Jabba the Hut overseeing the race and boredly flicking bugs off his booth’s ledge to vendors selling alien small fry to hungry viewers to the two-headed race caller mouthing off sarcastically. This sort of stuff is, to me, always a great part of the pleasure of Lucas’ creation, a universe of recognisable things given a fantastic, slightly mocking but ultimately effusive makeover. Also, given how junky a lot of ’90s action filmmaking looks today, this sequence is especially great in its clean and fluid use of widescreen and the perfect legibility of the visual grammar. But sequences like this sit cheek by jowl with awkward ones, like Anakin being teased by some fellow Tatooine waifs, where the style of acting and humour strays too far into a broad and juvenile place, like a Saturday morning children’s show.
Climactic scenes of The Phantom Menace may push the kiddie wish-fulfilment a bit far as Anakin saves the day by blowing up a Trade Federation control ship to a chorus of applause. But the light saber duel between the Jedi and Darth Maul, which costs Qui-Gon’s life and reveals Obi-Wan’s gift for surprising pompous opponents, is in the best series tradition. Attack of the Clones, the first follow-up, is probably the most frustrating entry in the entire cycle. The episode encompasses some heavy lifting in the overall narrative, depicting Anakin simultaneously as a brave and gallant knight who wields an almost unnerving romantic fixity in pursuing Padmé, but also harbouring a dangerously fraying psyche. This side to him, though sensed warily by the leading Jedi Yoda (Frank Oz) and Mace Windu (Samuel L. Jackson), is revealed when he returns to Tatooine looking for his mother Shmi (Pernilla August), only to find her on the edge of death after being kidnapped and tortured by humanoid nomads known as Sandpeople. Anakin, stirred to psychotic rage after Shmi expires in his arms, slaughters a whole village of them. The monster within Anakin is hatching, byproduct of both his alienated and exploited youth and the process of becoming a Jedi, a process that was supposed to ennoble and cleanse him of such evil. Anakin confesses his act to Padmé, alternating shows of rage, adolescent petulance, grief, and bewildered self-reprehension. Padmé, resisting her own ardour for the handsome warrior, nonetheless acquiesces to and covers up his lunacy.
Parts of Attack of the Clones have a romantic grandeur that easily match the best moments in any other episodes and strike at the heart of the appeal of this universe. The film starts effectively with a noirish sequence depicting an assassination attempt on Padmé that kills one of her doubles, a moment that signals immediately that the kiddie games of The Phantom Menace are over. Anakin and Padmé kissing before being wheeled out for a death match before a stadium full of insect men is a moment carved out of the very ore of the fantasy epic. The climactic battle sequences, including a tribute to Ray Harryhausen as our heroes battle a trio of monsters, the Jedi finally depicted at their best as they rally to save our heroes and fight off an army of robots, and Yoda and Dooku meeting in a light saber duel, are great entertainment, with a hint of the old to-hell-with-it absurdity that marked the older films. The landscapes on display are a diorama of fetish points for space opera and classic scifi—robots, aliens, Art Deco supercities, technogothic castles, glistening chrome space ships, and stygian automated factories, as if decades of Amazing Stories and Astounding magazine covers have come to life. Mixed in with this are references to the ’50s pop culture beloved of Lucas, like diners and hot-rod-like speeders and spacecraft, making for the deepest immersion in the fantasy world Lucas had created.
But the episode is also beset by a baggy narrative that wastes screen time when it should be developing the tortured romance of Anakin and Padmé, whose affair unfolds in settings straight out of Pre-Raphaelite art. Instead we’re lumped with a couple of action scenes that come across more as show reels for the increasingly good digital effects or blueprints for computer games, like an asteroid field chase and a sequence in a droid assembly plant that is well-done and has a certain thematic force by portraying our heroes trying not to be more literally stamped out by a heedlessly working machine, but could easily have been left out. Some sequences even stir thrills and a touch of exasperation at the same time, like the early chase sequence through the planetwide city of Coruscant. Wisely, Lucas reduced Jar Jar to a handful of cameos here, as a malleable political stand-in for Padmé, whilst the reliable duo of C3-P0 (Anthony Daniels) and R2-D2 (Kenny Baker) are turned to for comic relief, though the pair don’t wield the importance or sharpness of humour they had in the original trilogy. For all its flaws, though, Attack of the Clones is a vigorous, fun, substantial work. Many of the best moments, odd for such a piece of big filmmaking, tend to be tossed-off asides: Obi-Wan using a Jedi mind trick on a barroom drug dealer, Anakin playing Joe Friday with bar patrons, bounty hunter Jango Fett (Temuera Morrison) spinning his blaster like a gunslinger after shooting down a Jedi, C3-P0 having a killer droid head welded onto his body, and the sight of Anakin speeding across the Tattooine landscape on a futuristic motorcycle like the Wild One gone Zen Ronin.
A great part of the appeal of the original series lay in the relatively broad simplicity of its heroes, who stood for clear, easily graspable, positive values. Even Han Solo, the slightly tarnished wiseguy uneasily elevated to crusader status, is hardly a Dostoyevsky character. The characters did evolve, but only Luke really deepened, and his journey from fresh-faced farm boy, an obvious avatar for the audience’s fantastic yearnings, to grim inheritor of cosmic destiny, bore most of the real dramatic and mythic weight. By comparison, the prequels force one to empathise with a callow budding psychopath, his enabling lover, and his emotionally constipated mentor. These three protagonists each aid in causing the destruction of the world they think they’re defending. The prequels depict a world falling apart and tellingly refuse to let the audience off the hook, no matter how distanced or naïf the rendering of that hook: almost everything the audience wants to see is bound up in this decay. The desire to see action is sated, but immediately indicted by Yoda as proof of failure. The romance of Anakin and Padmé slips its bonds, but signals impending doom for both. The daydream sustained in the original trilogy is therefore critiqued and inverted.
Much as older viewers couldn’t relate to Anakin, many kids and teens did. His deeply egotistical and painfully self-castigating sense of having his potential thwarted and his need for control foiled, and Padmé’s optimism waning into an increasingly detached cynicism towards the political process she stands for, depict states of mind all too prolific in our time, ones that contradict common, conflicting expectations loaded upon young people, to be incredible achievers and unswervingly empathetic idealists all at once. “Only a Sith talks in absolutes,” Obi-Wan warns Anakin as he turns to the dark side. At the time, some took this for a tilt at the rhetoric of George W. Bush, as much as it now sounds like a thumbnail sutra explaining the powerful appeal of groups like Islamic State for some—the promise of complete surrender to a simple cause, a pure mode of thought for which any act can be countenanced. In this regard, Lucas clearly had his pulse on something other populist filmmakers have tried to grasp but usually belaboured. What is also clear to me is that Lucas, when he revisited this material, wanted to try to live within in it on a much deeper level than the original films and pay truer heed to the material’s partial roots in the medieval mythos, both Eastern and Western, where lives were lived and death was met according to rather different value systems. The famous title card of every episode declares that this is all “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…,” but this fairytale motif only really feels true with the prequels. The original films are a charmingly bratty revolution fantasy, where the good guys happen to speak like ’70s American teens and the bad guys have English accents. The prequels are a tragic contemplation of the forces that tear societies, and individuals, to pieces. Lucas’ interest in a chillier, headier brand of scifi parable was obvious right from THX 1138 and here found further articulation.
This quality emerges strongly in the last film of the trilogy, Revenge of the Sith, where Palpatine’s attempts to win over Anakin resemble at once a seduction, therapy session, and a chess match of moral relativism. In the original trilogy, evil was, like in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, an elixir that once tasted was totally subsuming. In the prequel trilogy, both the light and the dark sides are more processes of thought and ways of feeling: by the time he becomes Darth Vader, Anakin is convinced he’s bringing peace and justice to the realm. A constant leitmotif to the prequels is a sense of ethical questioning and a tension between the personal and the political that ultimately destroys both the Jedi and Anakin by pulling them in asymmetrical directions. Yoda warns young Anakin about maintaining attachments and giving himself cause for fear, and it’s precisely this that ultimately leads him straight into Palpatine’s arms. But the Jedi, presented as uncomplicated paragons whose aura is legendary in the original series, are here revealed as gallant but also demanding and elitist, almost incomprehensible to someone who runs on emotion as much as Anakin and perhaps ultimately too detached from the fate of the Republic to actually save it in part because of their own ethic of accepting loss.
Lucas shows he understands something vital about courtly sagas and classical tragedy: the requirement of role and the nature of humanity are disparate and demanding things. Lucas literalises the tension key to the prequels between role and person early on with Padmé’s absurd regalia, a crushing weight of stately role that continues to stand like a statue even when she’s entirely outside of it. Jar Jar actually serves a fairly analogous role here as Han Solo did to the original films, if much less successfully, as a character who remains oblivious to the pretences of the civilised and the imposing (“Maxi big the Force!”). His clumsiness is the very opposite to the ideal of disciplined self-abnegation that defines the Jedi and also the fetishism of power and order that defines the Sith.
The writing of the prequels is often criticised, but what this brings up is just exactly what is good writing in such a context? Is it the writing of, say, Joss Whedon, where everyone, no matter where they come from, speaks like a smart-aleck English major in a Californian college, or the brick-heavy koans of Christopher Nolan? That famous quote of Howard Hawks about the trouble working out how a Pharaoh should talk for Land of the Pharaohs (1955) (“I don’t know how a Pharaoh talks. And Faulkner didn’t know. None of us knew.”) is still relevant in this regard. Lucas tries, a bit archly but with some purpose, to recreate the flavour of a certain brand of courtly poeticism in speech through the prequels, with a texture on occasion that strives for the flavour of medieval epics— romantic, stylised, high-flown to the point of sounding like recitative. Lucas himself compared it to a kind of a rhythmic sound effect—a fair description. There’s a much-mocked line in Attack of the Clones when Anakin and Padmé share a romantic interlude by the side of a lake. Padmé remembers days of joy swimming and lying on the sand with an old boyfriend, and Anakin feebly jokes how much he hates sand. It is an uncomfortable moment, but deliberately so: Anakin tries to shrug aside a hint of romantic jealousy with humour, but accidentally reveals a hole in his soul, as he’s actually talking about his childhood on a planet where sandstorms were dangerous and life was hard, a place to which he will soon return. Characterisation, backstory, foreshadowing. Not so bad for a dumb joke about sand.
That’s not to cover up the many dud line readings in the prequels, most of which are perplexing as they could’ve been salvaged with a few hours’ dedicated ADR work. It’s definitely true that Lucas accomplishes his aims better with images than words. An iconic shot in Attack of the Clones depicting Anakin regarding the dawn and trying to calm his raw nerves with Padmé hovering in the wings, and the final shot of the same film where the pair get married in the rays of a setting sun, have a transfixing, totemic beauty. Lucas’ formal gifts are, in fact, often greatly in evidence throughout the series, particularly his interest in wide shots replete with geometries that highlight the formalism that defines this age in his fantastical world and the tension about to bust it to pieces.
I think the style is quite deliberate and suits the tone of the material, and is also modulated with a deliberation many didn’t notice, moving from the pantomime-like tone of the opening episode to high operatic drama in the last. But the emphasis on a tense decorum in this futuristic (albeit past) world leaves Portman and Christensen often seeming far more out of place than their predecessors ever did. Christensen, whose chief claim to fame was playing a troubled young misfit on the TV series Higher Ground before Lucas cast him, is one of the most vexing elements of the triptych. Lucas clearly wanted a James Dean-Marlon Brando quality to Anakin, his generational touchstones for rebellious youth and social disaffection, a touch of the immature as well as the fearsome to his asocial side. If Christensen was irredeemably bad, he could simply be allowed to fade into the texture of the films like human wallpaper. But Christensen delivers on occasion, as in the scene when Anakin tells Padmé about the massacre of the Sandpeople: he grasps the degree to which Anakin is composed of alternating repression and inchoate eruption, nobility and monstrosity.
Plummy old pros like McDiarmid, Jackson, and Oz fit into this landscape better. McGregor acquits himself well enough in the series, an achievement considering he had a difficult job in matching his younger, pithier version of Obi-Wan to Alec Guinness’ quiet and assured characterisation. Although he and Christensen have the athleticism, in some ways Portman strikes me as the natural adventurer of the three young stars, dashing about firing ray guns with delighted eyes; her “I call it aggressive negotiations” quip in Attack of the Clones is pure swashbuckle. Perhaps the best performance in the trilogy comes from August, who does a terrific job of securing the drama in the spectacle of a mother bereft of her son; the reunion in Attack of the Clones has an unusual pathos because the dying woman is transfixed by the sight of her grown son.
At its best, the prequel trilogy legitimately inhabits the realm of chivalric romance, stocked with themes and stances found in sagas, particularly in the traits that define Anakin, who’s actually much closer to a great mythic hero like Achilles, Jason, or Siegfried than Luke ever was in the violence and intensity of his driving emotions and character stances—forbidden love, crippling conflict between stoic integrity and hysterical eruption, an inability to settle into required strictures of life in the society he represents. Obi-Wan was originally presented as a mentor figure whose initially uncomplicated call to action for Luke was revealed in subsequent instalments to have more dimensions, but he still remained a figure of sagacious wisdom. McGregor plays him as a dashing, but serious-minded swashbuckler who retains a telling and ultimately calamitous blind spot when it comes to Anakin, his pupil and adopted brother, an emotional substitute for the lost father figure of Qui-Gon. This fantasy world is a kind of Eden from which everyone falls, giving birth to a different time and throwing up rogues like Han and Lando Calrissian (Billy Dee Williams).
Many of Lucas’ reference points for creating his mythos were pretty disreputable, including not just the classy art of Alex Raymond’s Flash Gordon comics but the vulgarity of their screen serial adaptations. A wealth of other reference points is apparent— the swashbucklers of Michael Curtiz, the conceptual richness of Frank Herbert’s Dune novels and the venturesome absurdity of Edgar Rice Burroughs, the sweep of John Ford’s western mythology and the rigorous formality of Akira Kurosawa’s samurai epics, and Ray Harryhausen’s films, which combined ingenious wonders with the ropy charms of B-movies. On the highest level, Lucas has often seemed an acolyte of Cecil B. DeMille, whose embrace of scale and riotous colour as aesthetic tools matched the themes of world-shaping powers with The Ten Commandments (1956), and of Fritz Lang, who laid the groundwork for much of the style of Lucas’ works with his silent epics The Spiders (1919), Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler (1922), Die Nibelungen (1924), and Metropolis (1926)—fantastical pieces of world-building replete with similarly surreal and cavernous environs, action cliffhangers, and stories often split across multiple episodes. Coruscant turns Metropolis’ soaring modernist architecture into an entire world. There’s more than a hint of Die Nibelungen (both movie and source myth, quite apart from Wagner’s take) in the recurring images of crushing courtly stature and state, infernal downfall and baleful regard. Palpatine sitting at the centre of all plots is the ultimate Mabuse, manipulating the downfall of others for personal amusement, reducing government to a matter of his own will and detecting the weak points of Anakin’s psyche to turn him into a helpless acolyte.
The political substance of the series is a mishmash of historical motifs, blending a parable for the Roman Empire, the Crusades, the American Revolutionary War and Civil War, and World War II, complete with space Nazis and galactic paladins. But the prequels contain a consistent thread of real interest in the idea of what constitutes the self and society, diagnosing cynicism as a problem that’s as pernicious as corruption. The original trilogy only seemed to reference contemporary politics by evoking a generational anxiety of becoming what the ’60s counterculture rebelled against, as Luke tried to avoid becoming his father, whilst the battles of the Ewoks uncomfortably suggested an odd hijacking and inversion of the Vietnam experience. The prequels suggest a more immediate and clarified lesson. “So this is how freedom dies,” Padmé murmurs at one point when the Senate votes to make Palpatine Emperor, “With thunderous applause.” Revenge of the Sith, the concluding movie in the trilogy, has a rueful warning for younger generations of how easy it is to be so subsumed when your leaders manipulate you to commit evil in the name of good, with Anakin, youth and talent personified, seduced by promises of power and privilege, called to commit slaughter in the name of peace, to be delivered from fear and frustration. Anakin’s urge to free himself from fear also detaches him from democracy, making him lean toward authoritarianism, the get-things-done attitude of Palpatine.
One of the most obviously powerful qualities of the series since its inception has always been John Williams’ scoring, and perhaps the most inarguably strong aspect of the prequels is his music, particularly the “Duel of the Fates” piece used in The Phantom Menace and the lush “Across the Stars” motif in Attack of the Clones, and the thunderous drums and choral works that recur throughout Revenge of the Sith. The prequels sport a few nods to the original trilogy that are passing excessively cute—having C3-PO prove to have been an engineering project of young Anakin’s, making Boba Fett’s father Jango the genetic source of all the initial wave of clone Imperial Stormtroopers. But there are also some refined and intelligible touches of foreshadowing and mirroring throughout, particularly in Anakin’s two duels with Count Dooku, which mimic cinematic effects and story patterning in The Empire Strikes Back (1980) and Return of the Jedi (1983) in suggesting the same forces of fate and divergence of character that define fathers and sons, masters and pupils. Revenge of the Sith signals the closing bookend to the trilogy in echoing Episode VI – Return of the Jedi, as Palpatine’s plots reach climax, the Jedi are wiped out, and Anakin begins a precipitous transformation into that darkest of dark marauders, Darth Vader.
Frankly, Revenge of the Sith is the best of the Star Wars films, a grandiose distillation of the entire concept of space opera scifi, the closest the series has come yet to fulfilling its neo-Wagnerian streak. It’s also the tightest, most dynamic piece of filmmaking, a narrative inexorable in the same way as A New Hope, except on a downward trajectory, successfully carrying through a promise to turn into high tragedy. Elements that had problems connecting and synchronising in the first two films snap into gear here— even Christensen is fairly okay—if at the relative expense of some aspects, including Padmé, a dashing figure in the first two instalments left as mere weepy baby mama here. The opening sequence is a marvel that shows how far special effects advanced even in the six years since the trilogy began, and unfolds as a pure episode of swashbuckling action, as Anakin and Obi-Wan try to rescue Palpatine, who’s been kidnapped by Dooku and cyborg rebel leader General Grievous. Anakin defeats Dooku this time and kills him at the chancellor’s behest, and finishes up having to pilot a massive crashing spaceship in for a neat landing. This whole sequence is a piece of cinema spectacle I don’t think anyone’s topped in the last 10 years. Revenge of the Sith alternates the urge to such kinetic release and intense, yet quiet, almost cerebral sequences where the characters grope their way through their contradictory impulses and collapsing worldviews.
Another very large reason I like these films is that they reject nearly every modish trick of so much contemporary filmmaking. As modern, perhaps excessively so, as the digital special effects seemed upon release, the actual cinematic design of the films is rich and classical in utilising the screen’s expanse, and those much-quibbled-over effects, sometimes gorgeous and sometimes cheesy, offer to me a quality like the painted wonders of old matte effects – not realistic, but transportive on some level. There’s scarcely a single too-tightly-framed shot or jerky camera moment in all seven hours of the filmmaking here. Lucas’ trademark Kurosawan screen wipes nudge visual and narrative structure along with fluidic insistence. I’ll also admit I have a liking for aspects of these films from which others recoil, so go ahead and assume I’m mentally ill. I enjoy Lucas’ happy embrace of the kind of outsized, old-fashioned melodrama and idealization usually filtered out of modern tent-pole films where the cult of awesome has a very narrow range of definition; the scenes of Anakin and Padmé swooning in the fields of Naboo, which have a resplendent, flower-child goofiness to them, and Vader’s final, over-the-top cry of “NO!” are big, gregarious middle fingers turned up at the middling, sometimes nonexistent emotional range of most of Lucas’ inheritors. Revenge of the Sith concludes the move away from the kid-friendly tone of The Phantom Menace, as here the young Jedi are butchered en masse by Anakin amidst a night of long light sabers. Marching ranks of Stormtroopers invade the Jedi temple, and Anakin heads to the planet Mustafar to wipe out the separatist leaders, including Nute Gunray, now that Palpatine no longer needs them.
Lucas’ direction, which grows more vigorous and animated throughout the trilogy, cuts loose in this movement, replete with delirious high viewpoints of marching armies, cross-cut glimpses of myriad alien worlds where other Jedi are betrayed and ambushed, and the churning violence Anakin turns on his enemies, carving up the separatists with a savagery that’s quite unmatched in the whole six-film cycle. The finale of Sith, at once paving the way for the next cycle of history and underlining the total collapse of everything depicted as sacrosanct and worthy in the previous three films, sees Obi-Wan and Anakin battling over Padmé’s crumpled, pregnant form on a volcanic planet where the spuming lava flows mimic the emotional landscape of the characters and the action unfolds in gloriously hyperbolic manner. Molten rock erupts, sparks fly, light sabers streak and slash, colossal machines fall apart and melt. The mimetic quality of Lucas’ creation is at its most unrestrained and beautiful here: I’m not sure if mainstream cinema had seen its like since the days of DeMille, or Powell and Pressburger, whose Black Narcissus (1946) and The Red Shoes (1948) similarly paint obsession and jealousy, love and hate, in bold tones of bloody red and dancelike motion.
Lucas does grant concessions to the remnant heroic ideal at the heart of the series. Yoda gives the newly crowned Emperor a bit of what-for before fleeing in the face of the crushing political machine the Sith now wields, and Obi-Wan quite literally cuts Anakin’s legs from under him when the young, increasingly mad tyro overreaches and underestimates his opponent. The concluding scenes take the cross-cutting structure to a striking place as two different kinds of death and birth are contrasted—the waning life-force of Padmé even as she struggles to give birth to the crucial Dioscuri of the next epoch, Luke and Leia, matched with the reconstruction of the mangled and pathetic Anakin into the monstrous form of Darth Vader. There’s a perverse and gruelling quality to this moments that, again, defined new territory for a series once based in mere boyish adventure. The themes of rebirth, cycles and family, decay and renewal, conclude in images of funeral, as Padme is celebrated in death by Naboo, and homecoming, with Leia finding a home with Senator Organa (Jimmy Smits) and his wife. But the very last shot inevitably returns to that most memorable image of A New Hope, as young Luke is held by his aunt and uncle (Joel Edgerton and Bonnie Maree Piesse) as they gaze out on the twin suns of Tatooine, the future with its horrors and glories a distant promise.
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Director: Gordon Douglas
By Roderick Heath
The New Mexico desert, a vast, flat, seemingly sterile and vacant zone of the Earth, where it seems like nothing can hide for long in the glare of the sun. A police spotter plane contacts two cops in a patrol car, Sergeant Ben Peterson (James Whitmore) and Trooper Ed Blackburn (Chris Drake), and guides them in tracking down a small figure wandering in the gruelling landscape. This proves to be a young girl (Sandy Descher), clutching a doll, walking with a glazed and staring expression in a state of deep trauma. Heading to a car and caravan parked nearby hoping to return her to her parents, they instead find the caravan has been violently torn open by some great force, with no sign of the owners, later identified as a couple named Ellinson. Only a weird, unrecognisable animal is print left in sand nearby, and sugar cubes are scattered all over. Ambulance men and lab investigators arrive, take a cast of the print, and load the girl to be taken to hospital. For a moment Ben and a medic are distracted and puzzled by a strange, trilling sound that arises out of the swirling sands near the site – a sound that momentarily stirs the girl. Ben and Ed head to a nearby general store owned by ‘Gramps’ Johnson as a dust storm rises and night falls, and find the store has also been broken into and trashed with incredible ferocity, with a buckled Winchester rifle on the floor and Gramps’ corpse discovered at the foot of steps into the cellar, mangled and bloodied. Ben heads off to bring the investigators over from the caravan, leaving Ed alone. Just as the sound of the car disappears into the night, Ed hears the same trilling call, and heads outside to look for the source. We hear his gun fire and his terrible scream as something launches on him from the dark.
Them! is the greatest atomic monster movie. Made with machine-like skill and chitinous beauty, it’s one of the very few sci-fi classics of the 1950s that feels scarcely dated. Part of its rare value and specific force stems from adopting what was then a radical idea, starting off in a different genre altogether, and proceeding with remarkable swerves of story and expectation. Them! unfolds essentially as a police procedural. Early scenes carefully posit signs of something incredible and far beyond the ordinary, violent death and carnage falling under the provenance of professional lawmen, whose method is linked with that of scientific enquirers, sifting facts and winnowing out inescapable conclusions. Slender threads and long shots are followed, ridiculous suppositions and apparently lunatic stories taken seriously. Director Gordon Douglas only made this single foray into fantastic cinema. Most of the time he made rock-solid westerns and crime flicks. This armed him perfectly to approach this story, however. Them! has familiar elements of both horror and sci-fi, but leads stylistically with a tone of sunstroke noir, like Don Siegel’s The Big Steal (1949) or Dick Powell’s Split Second (1953), before segueing into the nightmarish scene at the store. Jack Arnold had tackled the desert as a setting of atmosphere and surrealist destabilisation in It Came From Outer Space a year earlier, and Douglas went one better. Here the wind howls through gutted walls and sets the overhead lights dancing, littered with broken bodies and signs of forceful intent at once superhuman in ripping out a wall and finicky in pausing again to steal sugar. The ripped bags and pooled grains are infested with tiny black ants, a coldly witty foreshadowing of where all this is going. White Sands, site of the first atomic bomb test less than a decade earlier, is not far away.
Douglas confronts the once-open American landscape as a place suddenly turned septic and deadly, riddled with monsters, and its taciturn, self-reliant inhabitants with their expert marksman eyes suddenly outmatched and their bones left strewn about, bleaching in the sun. Investigative method is at first is left utterly bemused, noting the damage done to Gramps, including shattered bones, pulverised flesh, and “the one for Sherlock Holmes – there was enough formic acid in him to kill twenty men.” FBI Agent Bob Graham (James Arness) is just as clueless in the face of the details. Wiser, more rarefied intelligences are called for. Soon an unlikely pair of big brains are flown in, chasing a suspicion based on the plaster print: Dr Harold Medford (Edmund Gwenn) and his daughter, fellow scientist Dr Patricia Medford (Joan Weldon). Bob and Ben smirk and gawk at the site of a good-looking female scientist and a cuddly, absent-minded old professor, but soon find themselves scrambling to keep up with their businesslike attitudes and cryptic suggestions of imminent disaster. Medford uses the scent of formic acid to stir the young girl from her catatonic state: suddenly the girl launches herself from her chair, screaming “Them!” as she cowers in the corner. Medford grows all the grimmer as he makes the lawmen take him and Pat out to see where the print was found, scouring for new prints. Pat finds one, just in time to have the thing that made it come up behind her: an ant, big as an elephant. Medford shouts for the cops to shoot at the creature’s antennae to render it senseless, but it’s not until Ben fetches a machine gun that they bring down this unholy terror.
Medford pronounces his worst suspicion confirmed: lingering radiation from the first atom bomb test has sparked mutation. The ant is the worst possible species to face blown up to hundreds of times its normal size, an animal with great strength, social organisation, martial intelligence, and “savagery that makes Man look feeble by comparison.” If Godzilla (1954) articulated Japan’s sense of being on the receiving end of the atom age’s horrible birth, full of images of soaring, impersonal destruction, Them! is the more paranoid companion piece from the victors. The towering, singular, city-flattening monsters of most atomic monster movies here are exchanged with large and threatening but more immediate and pervading enemies. Manny Farber’s metaphor of termite art never felt more appropriate. The fear articulated in Them! is less of the destructive force of the Bomb itself than of the more insidious threat of radiation. Soldiers were being marched through atomic bomb test sites even as Them! was produced, many later to fall ill. The giAnts could also be seen as a twist on a popular caricature of Communists – monsters with a warlike attitude and perfect, communal organisation, spreading out and infesting the nation. Douglas had already done his best for Cold War acclimatising on I Was a Communist for the FBI (1951).
As Ben and Blackburn explore Gramps’ shattered store, a droning radio in the story broadcasts news from around the world. Reports on diplomatic entreaties and success of vaccination programs, the instability of modern politics and the genius of modern science reported in close succession, investing the scene confront the cops with a portentous mood of diagnosis. Them! depicts the essential conflict between the Janus faces of the atomic age, the forces that created the evil – science and militarism – called in to clean up their own mess, with the moral leadership provided by civil guardians Ben and Bob. “This is the first time I’ve ever given orders to a General,” Ben quips to General O’Brien (Onslow Stevens) as they’re required to work together, because Medford insists on keeping the existence of the giAnts secret as long as possible. With the nature of the beast finally revealed, the job of tracking down the monsters requires searching the desert by helicopter, and Medford calls in O’Brien and aide Major Kibbee (Sean McClory). Finally they glimpse one of the great black beasts standing astride the entrance to the nest, a ribcage in in its mandibles. Medford counsels the need to both exterminate the nest but also to keep it intact and make sure every creature is killed. He comes up with a plan that the two lawmen and two soldiers carry out, firing phosphorous charges at the nest with bazookas to keep the giAnts at bay, and then gas their hive with cyanide.
Bob momentarily balks at having Pat, who needs to do what her elderly father can’t, descend with him and Ben into the nest to survey the damage, but she quickly dismisses his concerns: “There isn’t time to give you a fast lesson in insect pathology.” Pat’s introduction echoes that of Bella Darvi’s similar prodigal daughter of the savant in Sam Fuller’s Hell and High Water (1954): the first sight of her is a sliver of leg in a pump, descending a ladder, astounding the meatheads before quickly and simply laying claim to her place on the team. Fuller’s tone was satiric where Douglas is businesslike, for like Pat he can’t stand distractions and pointless arguments. It could be one of the most significant early rumbles of feminism on film: Pat does scream queen duty early on but after that is a model of cool and purpose, and as much as it makes Bob look gassy, he’s forced to concede Pat’s point. After that it’s never mentioned again. This aspect is perfectly contiguous with the film’s survey of a new landscape where the pace of change, and evolution itself, is outpacing comprehension. George Worthing Yates, who wrote the original story for Them!, would return to the same feminist slant, if more awkwardly, on It Came From Beneath the Sea (1955).
Descent into the ant nest sees the nightmarish tint of the store sequence shift into the realm of the truly strange and mythic as Ben, Bob, and Pat roam the labyrinth, where gas clouds swirl and demonic forms lie slumped and twisted. Two ants from a walled-up section of nest break out and attack, but Ben manages to cook both with his flame thrower, that great catch-all weapon of any self-respecting monster hunter. But the most disturbing and threatening discovery in the nest is an absence, as Pat recognises the importance of some large, empty egg shells. New queen ants and male consorts have hatched and left the nest, meaning that new colonies will be founded someplace else, and the cycle will start again. The film’s lengthy mid-section returns to the investigative theme as our small band of heroes rustle up government support, but still keep their operation small and low-key as they sift through leads extracted from an avalanche of reports encompassing weird and unusual events. In this situation, the more bizarre and lunatic-sounding the story, the more meaningful it is, one of the cleverest conceits of the script (by Ted Sherdeman and Russell Hughes). The team get their best clue from a shaky Texan aviator, Alan Crotty (Fess Parker, pre-Davy Crockett), who’s been shut up in a loony bin because of his report of nearly flying into UFOs shaped like ants. More crucial leads come from a theft of a load of sugar from a parked railway car, and from a loopy alcoholic, Jensen (Olin Howlin), whose reports of seeing giant ants crawling about the LA River bed and flying about in model aeroplanes would be dismissed as DTs by most but set the hairs on our heroes’ necks standing.
Them! stands tall not just in the annals of monster movies but in movie history in general for the way it balances two qualities required for great storytelling which can seem contradictory: the concision of its storytelling, both visually and in its writing, with lean ferocity to the plot and pacing, coexisting with enriching distractions – comic asides, incidental vignettes, and moments of human intensity. The comedy is good: the railway security man who’s been arrested because he employers believe he must have been complicit in the sugar theft scoffing, “You ever hear of a fence for hot sugar?”, Crotty bleating that the staff in the hospital won’t even give him “anything to hold up my pants!” two old souses arguing the ethics of evening wear, or Jensen chanting “Make me a sergeant, charge the booze!” when he thinks Kibbee wants to draft him. The heroes and their motives are straightforward, with only Ben’s tight-wound desire to settle a score against the things that killed his partner and turned his beat into a war zone offered as an aside to the general business of social dedication, whilst romance between Bob and Pat is noted but not belaboured. Otherwise they get along with their jobs with the dedication of experts. Even with this terse attitude, though, Them! manages to be revealing, as with Medford’s habitual insistence on calling his daughter doctor when they’re discussing business, and Pat’s concern for the old man’s health. Gwenn, long a scene-stealing actor, delivers a peach of a performance, at once a source of frail but plucky humanity, as when he splutters irascibly at being lectured on how to use a two-way radio, and then delivers the regulation voice of pseudo-poetic wisdom beholding the terrors of a new age.
The necessity of the heroes doing that job is illustrated and made urgent by the repeated motif of interrupted lives, and children left endangered by the deaths of parents – the Ellinsons at first and then the two sons of Mrs Lodge (Mary Ann Hokanson). The hunt for the ants comes to Los Angeles in probing the sugar theft, and quickly a new ant colony in the storm drain system under the city is identified, in part because of an even more random lead, when Ben and Bob check out the body of a man who crashed his car but had clearly been violently mutilated beforehand. This man, Lodge, was a working man who took his children out on Sunday mornings, the only time he had for them, and it’s clear that this time it ended in violent tragedy. Finding what happened to Lodge’s children and where proves to the key to mystery and the stake for the finale. This aspect of the story does more than serve a plot function: it situated Them! in a real world that many such films never even graze, particularly in today’s genre film. The most powerful images here aren’t of battle and monstrosity but of human reaction. The first, of the Ellinson girl stirred from her traumatic bubble to jump up, face distorted by terror and proximity to the camera and screaming the title, is designed and executed as a perfectly iconic moment, capturing the leap from rigid anxiety to explosive, cathartic hysteria – the essence of the atom age conflated into a child’s face. Another moment, bordering on arch and yet remaining starkly serious, comes after the first giAnt is killed, with the sound of its fellows ringing eerily out of the dust storm, and Medford speaks a faux-Biblical quote that underline the mood of imminent apocalypse and primal threat: “And there shall be destruction and darkness come over Creation – and the beasts shall reign over the Earth.” The rhyme to the Ellinson girl’s violent display comes towards the end when Mrs Lodge hears her boys are alive, with Douglas cutting to a close-up as she buckles in sudden relief, a moment that packs emotional wallop no matter how many times I watch the film.
No monster movie is better than its monster, of course. As Steven Spielberg would to great effect years later with Jaws (1975), Them! keeps its beasties off screen for a long time – nearly a third of the film. The first appearance is a piece of brilliant mischief on Douglas’ part, as Pat kneels by a print she finds and scans her surrounds, unaware that a colossal monster is rising up over the sand dune just behind her, a giant something seeming to crawl out of infinite nothing, before fixing on the small, juicy human with beady eyes. I remember the first time I ever saw the film as a kid and being utterly bewildered as to what kind of threat was going to turn up until that most memorable reveal. The effects used to animate the giAnts aren’t always convincing, and aren’t as artful as the stop-motion work by Willis O’Brien and Ray Harryhausen. But the decision to eschew miniatures and use puppets and large-mock-ups gives them a sense of size and imminence, bristling threat and an aura of brutish savagery. When the ants do show up, just as importantly, they don’t shrink as threats – rather the opposite. Even when not seen that eerily memorable sound effect of their call (actually the massed sound of a species of tree frog) signals their presence and builds atmosphere. One of my favourite moments in the film, which feels to me again like an encapsulation of the era’s taut nerves and sense of dark wonder at the newly threatening frontiers of existence, is when a report comes through to the government about another ant nest having hatched out on a ship at sea. Medford cranes over the shoulder of a signalman typing up a furiously tapped Morse code message. Douglas zooms in on the signalman’s headphones, dissolves to a shot of the ship at sea, then to the hand tapping out the message – a hapless sailor trying to get out his message as the giAnts careen through the ship consuming men and bashing through walls.
Them! as an artefact vibrates with intimations of a novel and alien age, Douglas and Hickox seeking out odd visual textures to underline a headlong rush into an enclosing modernity and pestilential menace. When the first giAnt appears, the humans in the scene are dehumanised by the goggles they wear against the sand, making them look a bit ant-like themselves (whilst Weldon’s tightly cinched waist is insectoid as anything in the film), whilst the irradiated desert anticipates a post-apocalyptic world. LA’s vaulted roadways and cemented rivers, and the storm drains where the army ventures on the hunt for the ants, becomes a maze of blank and glistening concrete, like a rough draft for some futuristic city, the kinds seen on a hundred scifi pulp novel covers. Bronislau Kaper’s scoring mimics the churn of radio signals and the pulse of Morse code and singing telephone lines as the action plays out on arrays of communication that suck in all the information of the world in a new network to be disseminated by our heroes.
Them! benefits from its relative privilege, a long time before Star Wars (1977), as a film from a genre usually relegated to cramped budgets and expedient filmmaking in those days, made with something like the care and production heft of a top-line movie, apparent not just in the special effects but also the technical elements including Sidney Hickox’s photography and especially Bronislau Kaper’s thunderous music score. Whitmore’s performance as Ben anchors the film with his restrained humanity and everyman quality, a quality that makes him seem like a prototype for a brand of movie hero who was still to have his day in the future, whereas Arness’s jut-jawed company man feels more like a familiar type of the day, especially as he gets befuddled around Pat’s aura of competence. Ben is also a tragic hero, dying whilst saving the Lodge kids from an army of the ants in the storm sewer, managing to hoist the two lads to safety only to finish up mangled between two massive mandibles – a bloodcurdling moment remarkable not just in its cruel verve but in carrying through on the violent threat to its hero with a gutsiness still few films can claim. When, a few minutes later, Bob gets trapped by a collapsed roof in a section of tunnel with more of the beasts, the narrative’s rude and declared disinterest in the usual niceties makes the moment all the more thrilling, with Bob becoming the image of a frontline warrior with machine gun blazing in desperate last stand against the ultimate enemy – monsters of the id turned flesh.
Though the two films belong technically to the same subgenre, if Godzilla, released in Japan less than four months later, defined the giant monster movie forever, Them! has surely had as permanent effect on a smaller-scaled brand of man-versus-whatever drama – there’s something of its mutant DNA in films as diverse as Jaws and its many rip-offs, The Birds (1963), Night of the Living Dead (1968) and Aliens (1986), and the Jurassic Park films, both on the level of narrative patterning and on the crudely but effectively phobic level of exploiting the dread of being eaten by something with a lot of teeth and legs. But there are also the seeds of concerns filmmakers like Robert Aldrich, with Kiss Me Deadly (1955), John Boorman, with Point Blank (1967), up to and including Michael Mann, would later enlarge upon, surveying the wilderness of the new with anxiety rather than triumph. The enemy is defeated and exterminated in the very last moments of Them!, but not without a sense of both regret, as the human protagonists look down upon the last of a new species writhing in streams of fire, and also, vitally, a sense of menace contained but not quelled. As Medford’s hokey but effective last speech states and Douglas’ bleakly revelling images convey, it won’t be the last horror the brave new world will have to stare down.
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Director: Ridley Scott
By Roderick Heath
Mars, the near future. The members of Ares 3, the third manned mission to the Red Planet, pick at the surface whilst pursuing their scientific mission. The team consists of commander Melissa Lewis (Jessica Chastain), pilot Rick Martinez (Michael Pena), and a crew of highly competent supernerds, Mark Watney (Matt Damon), Chris Beck (Sebastian Stan), Beth Johanssen (Kate Mara), and Alex Vogel (Aksel Hennie). As Watney and Martinez trade their practised acerbic banter, the team are called in because a powerful sandstorm is heading for their mission base. Rather than weather out the storm and risk the safety of the rocket that will take them off the planet, Lewis orders the mission aborted and immediate evacuation. During the near-blind and floundering trek through the storm to the rocket, Watney is struck by a piece of flying debris and flung into the maelstrom. Lewis tries to find him but, faced with the evidence that he’s probably dead, and with the rocket in danger, she gets aboard and orders lift-off. The accidental tragedy, the kind that can befall such dangerous missions, is reported, and NASA boss Teddy Daniels (Jeff Daniels) breaks the sad news to the world’s press. Watney, however, is not dead. He awakens half-buried in the red Martian soil, a steel spike jutting from his chest, his pressure suit leaking but not enough to kill him. He manages to get back to the habitation unit, dig the jagged metal out of his body, and staple the wound closed. He is then confronted by the awful fact of his situation: the smart-aleck botanist and engineer knows he’s alone on Mars, his communications wrecked, and the rations left behind insufficient to last him the wait of up to four years until the next mission arrives.
Watney must improvise the best he can with the limited tools available to him, the limits of his existence reduced to a glorified tent on an alien alluvial plane. There’s nothing left to do but, in his words, to science the shit out of this. Watney is presumed dead by everyone on Earth for many months, and his survival is only discovered by accident when the NASA director of operations, Vincent Kapoor (Chiwetel Ejiofor), asks permission to scan the site of the Ares 3 mission by satellite to check its condition. Technician Mindy Park (Mackenzie Davis) quickly discerns that someone is driving around the abandoned rover vehicle. Daniels refuses to pass on the news to the Ares 3 crew, who are already grieving his loss, but NASA snaps into gear to work out how to resupply Watney in a tight window of opportunity. Unexpected disasters soon begin to make the situation critical, as Watney’s crop is destroyed by a near-fatal rupture in his airlock, and the first rocket built to send food to him crashes during launch because of its hurried construction. The head of the Chinese space agency, Zhu Tao (Chen Shu), offers to help with his organisation’s new experimental booster rocket, but a young telemetry expert, Rich Purnell (Donald Glover, stealing scenes), has a better and less risky idea, and proposes turning the Hermes, the spacecraft used by the Ares crew, around and sending them back to fetch Watney after a resupply. Teddy nixes the idea, not wanting to risk the rest of the crew, against the heated disagreement of Mission Controller Mitch Henderson (Sean Bean), so Mitch secretly transmits Rich’s plan to them, essentially making it their call whether to turn around and trek back across space to save their friend. Meanwhile, Watney survives his ordeal with the only supply of Earthly culture left behind for him: Lewis’s USB collection of ’70s sitcoms and disco music.
Andy Weir’s 2012 novel The Martian had a very contemporary genesis. Weir, after dabbling unsuccessfully as a writer, started the story as a blog purely to amuse himself, but then the project developed much like the adventures it portrays: a solitary task that attracted like minds fascinated by the same ideas and problems Weir postulated. The ideas readers contributed via comments were woven into the tale. Weir placed most of his emphasis on the science part of science fiction, striving to create a believable depiction of survival on another planet. Weir’s narrative template was obviously Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe: as with Defoe, the nuts-and-bolts survival methods of a castaway concerned him first and foremost, tackling in abstract the very real and likely problems of survival as a mixture of thought exercise, best-practise thesis, and classical frontiersman narrative. For dramatic convenience, Weir eventually brought in other characters and viewpoints, including a collective of NASA brains and Mark’s own guilt-ridden crew. Weir’s novel was deliberately (in part) artless, most of it presented in the form of Watney’s daily log that suited the initial presentation on a blog perfectly whilst also reviving an old literary form, the epistolary novel. Watney’s yammering, authorial voice was replete with pop cultural references, sophomore sarcasms, and nerdy enthusiasms—pretty much the voice we’re all used to reading on a thousand fliply amusing websites. The blend of hyper-detailed procedure and antiheroic humour wasn’t great drama or deep contemplation, and yet it made for a very enjoyable read.
Ridley Scott’s film adaptation was destined to be a rather different creature, though screenwriter Drew Goddard, who handled the witty, if minor, horror genre riff The Cabin in the Woods (2012), follows the novel scrupulously in many regards. Scott, one of the few great maximalists left in cinema, couldn’t be much different to Weir in his approach to his art. But it’s not difficult to discern the appeal of the material for the director. For one thing, it lets Scott operate in several genres at once, most of which he’s tackled before, particularly in his restless late career. It’s a scifi vista about fighting for survival a la Alien (1979); a comedy about characters with weak social skills like Matchstick Men (2003) and A Good Year (2006); an epic pitting man against primal forces following on from Prometheus (2011) and Exodus: Gods and Kings (2014); and a tale of a searcher founding new worlds like 1492: Conquest of Paradise (1992) and Kingdom of Heaven (2005). The sequence in which Watney operates on himself suggests a prototype for Prometheus’ best scene, which depicts more sophisticated self-surgery. Prometheus was doomed to stay in the shadow of Alien because of a confused screenplay, whilst it also discomfortingly revealed how much more staid and lumpen much current big cinema often is compared to that from the days when Scott emerged. The mild disappointment of the experience seems to have stung Scott out of a relatively flat period. The Martian, excellent as it is, might also count as a decline from the gutsy strangeness of The Counselor (2013) and the epic vigour of Exodus: Gods and Kings, two films with completely diverse brands of ambition that few seemed willing to process.
Most vitally, though, The Martian allows Scott a chance to approach narrative entirely on the level of systematology, a notion he’s been dabbling with for most his career but started reflecting most seriously on his underrated crime movies American Gangster (2007) and The Counselor. In those films, he strove to do what most gangster flicks avoid and demonstrate the drug industry as a chain of cause and effect leading right down from kingpin to the most pathetic junkie. Even more impudently, he used a spectacular chain of logically metastasising events to illustrate that most illogical of things, divine intervention, throughout Exodus: Gods and Kings. Watney is Scott’s anti-Moses, and yet echoes his take on the mythic hero, partly signalled by Scott’s return use of Wadi Rum in Jordan as a location for the drama (whilst also tipping his hat again to Lawrence of Arabia, 1962, which also used the same location). Watney is forced to rely purely on his own invention, using happenstance advantages, like the manna provided for him in a package of potatoes shipped for a Thanksgiving feast that gives him the chance to grow enough crops to live, and then carefully manufacturing what he needs, including water, through risking chemical and mechanical processes. Weir’s book was obviously far more detailed and in-depth about the pure process of this undertaking, and to a certain extent Goddard’s script skates over the very business that is the essence of the tale. But then The Martian is a mass-market movie, and it’s already stretching the template by avoiding many regulation elements and clichés—only the very faintest hints of romance, little action, very little religion, and a bunch of eggheads for protagonists.
The Martian’s can-do poptimism strikes a refreshing note in the contemporary film landscape, following Weir’s lead in contemplating a situation where scientists get on with their jobs without political interference and the world’s populace looks on, riveted by the spectacle of how to do a lot with very little—a very now theme if ever there was one. The Martian belongs to a recent string of science fiction straining to be more accurate than the cinematic branch has often been seen as in the past, whilst also connecting to hallowed works of the genre’s history. The speculative problem-solving has roots not just in Robinson Crusoe but also in Jules Verne’s template of blending hard and soft science based in the best available knowledge and cutting-edge concepts of his time. Cinematically, Byron Haskin’s Robinson Crusoe in Mars (1964) is an obvious intermediary: Haskin’s film dragged in scientific improbabilities, like stones that give off oxygen when heated, and the outright fantastic, when aliens eventually appear. But it also evoked an eerie, distinctive, dislocated mood that anticipated the serious science-fiction filmmaking of the next two decades, including Alien. Haskin had worked long before that with George Pal, who had produced Destination Moon (1950), the first modern scifi film and one that was just as persuasively preoccupied with the true problems of space travel. Brian De Palma’s Mission to Mars (2001), a controversial flop at the time of its release and another film made in the image of Stanley Kubrick’s tirelessly (and, increasingly, tiresomely) influential 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), helped reinvigorate realistic scifi with its elegant use of the authentic limitations of travelling in space, usually sidestepped readily by filmmakers, as the very matter of its drama—the danger of meteors, the tyranny of distance and scarcity, the exacting punishment attending the smallest of faults and miscalculations.
More recently, Gravity (2013) and Interstellar (2014) had delved into similar territory (The Martian shares Interstellar cast members Damon and Chastain). One thing The Martian has that those films conspicuously lacked is its scallywag sense of humour; Scott’s film is less pretentious than either whilst going well past them in actual, practical acumen. If it lacks the intermittent glimpses of unusual grandeur Christopher Nolan conjured in his work, it also avoids the bad wobbles of story and characterisation, and actually lives up to the promise of convincing use of a far-out setting on which Gravity failed so conspicuously to deliver. But actually, a closer ancestor to Weir’s novel was The Andromeda Strain (1970), Robert Wise’s adaptation of Michael Crichton’s novel where almost all of the drama was found specifically in scientific exegesis. A lot of Weir’s more finicky process details are left out of the film, and Scott is more attentive to the physical level: Watney, as his ordeal continues over months, degenerates from a man blessed with Damon’s weathering but still very boyish features and sturdy physique, to scrawny, sore-riddled, malnourished remnant sprouting a ragged beard. Scott’s filmmaking is part of the great pleasure of The Martian: avoiding much of the mannered and assaultive lexicon of contemporary pseudo-realism (some of which Scott helped invent), Scott instead offers a work of classical filmmaking sweep, perhaps his most successful attempt: it somehow manages to be at once fast-paced and dashing, yet also curiously relaxed, a work of profoundly casual skill.
The filmmaking here is most memorable when regarding the Martian landscape itself, a vista grand and beautiful, but also utterly desolate. Watney’s journey across the planet to locate the escape ship intended for the next mission but now to be repurposed as his ark is an interlude of cinematic grandeur that again nods to Lawrence of Arabia’s Nefud Desert crossing sequence, alternating viewpoints both godlike and eye-level. Some have called Scott’s approach to the material distant, but I found it simply elegant, and perhaps that’s so rare these days, no one recognises it. The mix of old-school cinema and new-age humour, potentially awkward, works for the most part. Perhaps there was the seed of something shaggier and more genuinely oddball here, in the mould of John Carpenter and Alien collaborator Dan O’Bannon’s heady Dark Star (1974). But of course, that was never part of the mission statement. Weir resisted introducing much introspection on Watney’s part, with the suggestion that Watney’s detail-focused approach to his situation holds at bay existential angst. One of the best jokes transcribed here satirises a tendency towards heavy metaphysical ponderings in such fare, when Kapoor wanders what Watney must be thinking, before cutting to the stranded astronaut deploring the lyrics of disco music.
Scott, on the other hand, whilst not trying to graft something too weighty onto the material, doesn’t let Watney escape unscathed, simply utilising his filmmaking to acknowledge a sense of isolation and the tug of eternity, and finds a sense of wonder as much in the miracle of a sprout of living green, with all its scientific and poetic meaning, as in the vast reaches of an alien world. Watney is confronted with a landscape of perfect solitude, his status as pioneer, the first one to go just about anywhere on the planet, a space cowboy and tourist who has the technology-provided ability, familiar again to most of us these days, to define his own reality with the music he constantly blasts, and yet with the tug of airless infinities just beyond his cocoon of plastic and digitised music.
Scott and Goddard smartly dial back on some of Weir’s more awkward, populist-wannabe touches, like the clashes of temperament between Teddy and Mitch, aiming more for an interesting diminuendo where a confrontation of the two men after Mitch makes his risky play acknowledges consequences like grown-ups. It’s tempting, indeed, to read Mitch, with Bean in the role dampening his trademark machismo and playing up his intelligence, as Scott’s avatar in the film, a man long used to playing by a larger game’s rules but willing to occasionally remind everyone he doesn’t always sign on with the smooth, hierarchical, technocratic suppression of human instinct (Bean’s presence also presents an opportunity for one great in-joke for Lord of the Rings fans). I was also pleased that Chastain, who might have been prodded to overplay the fearless leader in a manner close to her charmless part in Interstellar and her steely-neurotic spymaster in Zero Dark Thirty (2012), instead offers a portrait in mature leadership that, again, feels rather rare in recent filmmaking. Chastain expertly handles the moments like when she holds herself accountable for leaving a very-much-alive Watney behind with pliant skill, registering both piercing reprobation and lucid realism. In fact, the cast is so generally excellent that many actors, like Kristen Wiig, must count as wasted.
The Martian isn’t perfect. I could’ve done with a few less rounds of NASA technicians cheering and cutaways to enthralled audiences in Times Square and other international locations. The theme of contact and cross-pollination between cultures is one close to Scott’s heart, and yet The Martian gets oddly stiff when contemplating an American’s butt being saved with Chinese aid. Yet something of the crowd-sourced joie de vivre of the novel’s genesis has slipped through into this film, one that invites the audience along and doesn’t talk down much as it explains the minutiae of growing crops on Mars and explores the method Watney has to use to strip down and repurpose the ascent vehicle in order to reach the Hermes, reducing to a “convertible,” as Watney quips, assaulting the craft to the point where it seems unsafe, and indeed this turns out to be so.
The climax is a particularly brilliant display of technique and visual power, ratcheting up tension but also finding weird epiphanies of motion that extend the film’s theme of seeing the beauty and wonder even at the outermost fringes of survival. The jokey yet fundamental theme of music as a basic human need resolves in a zero-gravity dance where the need to grip onto another human is quite literally a life-saving act of faith. Scott and Goddard go further than Weir for a postscript that underlines, amidst a mood of bouncy triumph, the notion that experience equals knowledge that then must be passed on in the same way a seed leads to a green shoot. Such uncynical epiphanies make The Martian one of the most charming big-budget movies of the year and one of Scott’s most entertaining works.
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Director: Colin Trevorrow
By Roderick Heath
Here there be spoilers…
I was just a little too old when the original Jurassic Park came out. My youthful obsession with dinosaurs had faded, and if it had been made a few years earlier when my fragile young mind was cramming itself with The Land That Time Forgot (1974) or Baby…Secret of the Lost Legend (1985) then I surely would have watched it until it became coded in my DNA. My just-teenaged, would-be sophisticate self watched it and felt that Steven Spielberg’s school of cinematic wonderment was running on fumes: his shift back to serious historical dramas seemed nascent in a film whose staging and shooting is often half-hearted from the man who made Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981). It did have a handful of admittedly classic Spielbergian moments, like the first glimpse of the revived dinosaurs, and the terrific set-piece that is the Tyrannosaur’s first break-out. My opinion was rather irrelevant in the face of those kids who were precisely the right age for it, and the parents who went along with the ride, making it the biggest-grossing film ever for a time, and unlike too many of the FX-driven blockbusters that followed it, most of them have retained a deep affection for it. I preferred Spielberg’s follow-up, The Lost World: Jurassic Park (1997), an extended doodle from the great filmmaker that embraced the horror movie-like possibilities of the material to a surprisingly impish degree, whilst also invoking its own absurdity. Nonetheless I’ve come to like the series overall a lot more in recent years, and even Joe Johnston’s undercooked third instalment from 2000 has moments of pleasure. Spielberg’s commentary on his own unease as a successful showman, for one thing, emerges much more strongly in the original today. And of course, there was so much Jeff Goldblum: his two turns as wiseacre mathematician Ian Malcolm embodied that rarest of creatures, the intellectual action hero, a walking insta-commentary on the drama unfolding about him, and something like the arrival of geek culture in mainstream cinema.
Moreover, the essence of Jurassic Park as an idea spoke readily and clearly to anyone who’s ever dreamed of seeing a dinosaur in the flesh and indeed to anyone who’s ever pined for reality to be even stranger than it is. Whilst I think it’s still far from Spielberg’s best variation on the theme, Michael Crichton’s novel provided him with perhaps the purest metaphor for such yearning he was ever likely to find. Crichton’s novel was actually something of a rehash for that successful literary entrepreneur, having used basically the same idea in his semi-classic 1974 film Westworld, where, as with his later, even more successful brainchild, he combined the theme of fantasies unleashed by hubris with an old-fashioned but newly relevant cautionary paradigm about the dangers of playing about with the building blocks of life. Jurassic World bears a heavy weight of expectation in reviving this peculiar, beloved fantastic zone and the fascinatingly diverse reactions to it have struck me as so erratic and vehement that it makes me wonder whether or not this seemingly uncomplicated material has a deeper relationship with what we bring to it than I suspected. Part of the power of the material lies in the way it found a way to manifest something wonderful and dreadfully primal in an otherwise very ordinary contemporary world. There are no superheroes, no complex world-building, and the material’s rules must hew reasonably close to those of the everyday. The genre patterns evoke classic safari flicks like Hatari! (1963) more than Godzilla (1954). This is also a franchise built, like it or not, around the threat of people being eaten by vicious animals, and occasionally the fulfilment of that threat.
Director Colin Trevorrow made the minor but witty and enjoyable indie film Safety Not Guaranteed (2012) and found himself chosen for his blend of droll humanism with a sense of ardent fantasticality, to step into Spielberg’s shoes. That must have been a daunting moment. He’s not even the first. Johnston, who had once been a crew member on Raiders, made a career as the second-string Spielberg, but his entry was tellingly basic by comparison in constructing suspense sequences and glib, thin storyline and characters, thrusting this material back to its ‘50s B-movie roots. And big Hollywood cinema is currently crowded with directors nominating themselves as Spielberg’s natural heir apparent, including recent stabs by Christopher Nolan, J.J. Abrams, Andrew Stanton, Brad Bird and more. What does this little upstart have they haven’t? Jurassic World doesn’t exactly retcon the second two films out of existence – they took place on the “B site” island of Isla Sorna anyway, rather the original park location Isla Nublar – but it does ignore them, and only fleetingly references events in the original. Those events are essentially regarded as teething difficulties in getting John Hammond’s dream up and running, even part of its special mythos (the Tyrannosaur exhibit even references it as part of the show) rebranded as, yes Jurassic World. There have been upgrades aplenty, such as they are: where Richard Kiley narrated exhibits before, now it’s Jimmy Fallon. Live animal feedings to the Tyrannosaurus have become the subject of frenzied iPhone filmings. Bored, spotty youths listlessly man the park rides. Hammond’s death in the interim has seen ownership of the park pass on to another dreamer-entrepreneur, Simon Misrani (Irrfan Khan), an Indian Richard Branson-esque billionaire.
Claire Dearing (Bryce Dallas Howard) runs the park day-to-day and digs up sponsors for the park’s new exhibits, which have to be unveiled every few years because of an unexpected problem with the park’s basic purview: dinosaurs have gone from staggering must-see to a still-privileged but familiar attraction, so they need to up the wow factor at regular intervals. The joke here isn’t belaboured, but still clear enough. The original Jurassic Park, amongst other things, was the starting gun for the CGI age, and the necessity of outdoing the last spectacle is a commonplace expectation of current tent-pole films. The park’s solution to this problem has been to get the wizards in the lab, led by Dr Wu (B.D. Wong, the only returning cast member of the original), to concoct a new dinosaur species. The resulting cross-breed is a big, mean, dextrous creature glimpsed hiding in the leafy foliage of its concrete bunker, given the focus group-friendly name Indominus Rex. Claire’s business-focused life faces a speed bump, as her two nephews Gray (Ty Simpkins) and Zach Mitchell (Nick Robinson) are visiting the park, with Claire charged to watch over them for a few days, by her sister Karen (Judy Greer) and her husband Scott (Andy Buckley). Gray is young and dinosaur-happy, whilst Zach is older and too preoccupied with girls to care much about anything else. Claire is too busy to spend time with the lads anyway, and gets her assistant, the glam but hapless Zara (former Merlin Morgana Katie McGrath), to shepherd them about the park instead. The boys quickly give her the slip and explore the park on their own. Meanwhile, in the pens of the Velociraptors, former Navy SEAL turned animal trainer Owen Grady (Chris Pratt) and his team including Barry (Omar Sy) have been carefully raising and educating these ingenious, ruthless killers to see if they can be tamed at all.
Both this operation and the creation of the Indominus Rex prove however to have been okayed by Hammond’s genetic engineering firm InGen, which only leases the products of its labours to Masrani’s operation: InGen operative Vic Hoskins (Vincent D’Onofrio), another former soldier, sniffs around Owen’s operation with interest, quickly making it clear he’s hoping to used tamed raptors for military purposes. Soon it emerges too that Indominus Rex, in spite of Wu’s insistence that it was created purely to satisfy Masrani’s showmanship needs, might also have been concocted with the same purpose in mind. But the animals have their own ideas. Called over to assess the Indominus Rex’s pen, Owen finds the creature has vanished, claw marks on the walls suggesting it might well have climbed out when no-one was looking. When Owen and other keepers venture into the pen, they realise something even worse is happening: the creature is hiding, having created a strategy to escape and lured them in. With a quick, terrifying charge, the monster squeezes through the closing gate, devours a couple of keepers, and Owen only avoids the same fate by dousing himself in petrol, hiding from the creature’s sense of smell. With Indominus out stalking the byways of the park, Claire and Misrani are forced to call in the crowds and send out the park security team to hunt the beast down. Soon however they find they’re up against a creature that’s more than a toothy critter, but an unholy chimera capable of far more than just stomping on folks, blessed with ruthless intelligence and chameleonic abilities. Meanwhile Zach, in a moment of teen bravado, decides to take himself and Gray in their bubble-like safari vehicle out through a hole mysteriously punched in a perimeter fence…
Jurassic World extends a ‘90s franchise, and repeatedly evokes the originals although it sidesteps much of their legacy. But it represents more of a mash-up of classic ‘80s Hollywood sci-fi and action flicks of which Jurassic Park was really a late entry, in a way that many of the creators of those films, including Spielberg himself, John Carpenter, James Cameron et al, would readily recognise. Much of their genre filmmaking was just as referential of favoured models as anything Quentin Tarantino has ever made, but opposing the post-modernist reflexes where the quotations are demarcated, but are instead carefully contoured in narratives. InGen has become a Weyland-Yutani-esque company, and some of the action scenes directly evoke Aliens (1986). Owen’s characterisation, as a scruff who may well prefer animals to people after being left more than a little alienated by his combat service, evokes many a cool rough-trade loner from the time (down to living in a trailer and working on his motorcycle), and even recalled to my mind John Heard’s character in Paul Schrader’s oddball remake of Cat People (1982). There’s even a dash of Chuck Russell’s The Blob (1988) in there, as the apparently random eruption of monstrosity proves to be engineered, with some of that film’s giddy, antisocial pulp energy, if not its outrageous gore. Trevorrow tips his hat jokily to Spielberg’s Jaws (1975), as a dead Great White is fed to the monstrous marine Mosasaurus that is one of the park’s main attractions. But perhaps Jurassic World owes most to Jaws 3-D (1983), the amusingly trashy sequel that was itself heavily reminiscent of authentic ‘50s B-movie Revenge of the Creature (1955) in exploiting the notion of captive monsters unleashed in fun parks. Jaws 3-D, which was directed by Joe Alves, production manager on the first two Jaws films, took the idea of carnival barking as a base aesthetic for the film. Trevorrow does a similar thing in the early scenes of Jurassic World, entering and beholding the park with the same breathless sense of discovery as Gray and Zach, surveying its expanses in swooping, shiny helicopter shots, filming kids and adults enjoying the attractions in a manner that does a far better job than Bird’s Tomorrowland managed at recreating the tony vibe of a great ad selling childhood fantasy in one grand package.
Jurassic World also highlights the original story’s recycling of Westworld by going the whole hog and giving us the fully working theme park that never got off the ground in the original. This demands some tweaks to the timeline, including that Hammond had decided by the end of the first film not to try any longer. Perhaps the almighty dollar demanded a change of mind. Masrani, like Hammond himself, is portrayed as a generally decent guy with blind spots, rather than a blunt corporate villain. He is prone to the over-confidence of success: he’s introduced learning to fly his own helicopter, a detail that’s both an important plot point and a commentary on his character, with his inability to completely master both the complex systems of genomes and flight, jobs that can’t be multitasked or mastered with people skills, ultimately conspiring to destroy him. Claire combines a couple of well-worn character traits from some of Spielberg’s films: like Peter in Hook (1991) she’s a workaholic, and like Alan Grant in the first Jurassic Park, she’s a dedicated professional awkward around kids, who bring the threat not of domesticity but of instability. For Spielberg those themes were rather more personal than they seemed at first, conveying his concern that his own love for filmmaking, not just directing but managing a whole, important infrastructure of production, might cause him to neglect his burgeoning family. For Trevorrow these are mere pop tropes to evoke. This is most awkward when Gray’s anxiety of their parents’ impending divorce is suddenly brought up, as he alerts Zach about what’s going on, only to then drop the theme: the theme of familial anxiety, so central to Spielberg and one of the rawest nerves he always touched in his heyday, is raised but only half-heartedly pursued. Trevorrow does work in one good touch: when informed that his folks might be divorcing, Zach pouts and worries for a moment, and then says most of his friend’s parents are split too, and you can see by his look the battle between nascent adult bravado and childish fear.
Mid-film the boys discover the ruins, lost in the jungle and half-buried, of the original Jurassic Park’s central post, littered with lost memorabilia and technology, down to the famous “When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth” banner that set the seal on the original experience, quickly repurposed as fuel for a burning torch. Trevorrow here literalises the sensation so many reboot franchise episodes have of being built on the ruins of previous successes, replete with references left lying about like so much refuse, and give a metaphor for his own film that doubles as neat character business, as the two boys hurriedly patch together a working jeep and use it dash away to safety. Trevorrow’s scant filmography might well render moot what his own interests here are other than honouring old movies he loves, but there is a clear recurring motif from Safety Not Guaranteed, manifest in the screwball-flavoured romance of uptight office female and slightly asocial male, a jokey variation on the call-of-the-wild theme that the rest of the film purveys rather more urgently: Safety Not Guaranteed was far more free-wheeling riff on romantic comedies as it was on sci-fi, and whilst no-one would pretend Jurassic World is sophisticated as a character comedy, this reflex of the director is more than readily apparent throughout. Owen is as wobbly at human socialisation as he is accomplished at it with raptors, but then so is Claire, who wears her business suit like armour plate; so of course both are thrown in together in trying to extract Zach and Gray from the park, heading into a version of The African Queen (1951) with giant lizards. Claire, although sharing traits with Grant from the original, is closer in spirit to a gender-swap version of Gennaro, the lawyer who was unceremoniously eaten in Spielberg’s film but in Crichton’s book went through an enjoyable mouse-to-lion growth from corporate dweeb to dinosaur hunter. Probably the film’s funniest vignette comes when Claire, in silent retort to Owen’s scepticism over her being able to follow him on a jungle hunt in high heels, quickly gives herself an action chick makeover in the manner of dozens of plucky heroines only to be met by Owen’s bewildered stare.
Howard hasn’t thus far had the career she might have, considering both her pedigree and her talent: after catching eyes as the chief salvation of The Village (2004), her performance in Kenneth Branagh’s little-seen but marvellous As You Like It (2006) was a coup of the kind I don’t easily forget. She’s been hovering on the edge of stardom since, and she gives a mischievous performance as a square character: Howard’s Claire, slightly ridiculous, largely delicious, is very much the heart of the film, a not-quite-normal person forced to operate far beyond her experience and finds herself adept. Backwards and in heels, too. Pratt’s outright play for the kind of Harrison Ford–esque status many feel he could obtain after Guardians of the Galaxy (2014) comes very close to succeeding, although Owen lacks the kind of truly defining gesture to separate him from the pack, unless it’s his unexpected empathy for animals – or the douchey air-humping gesture he makes to Claire’s eye-rolling disdain, a moment that again recalls Trevorrow’s debut, showing there’s a bit of a naughty little boy in Owen. Which is perhaps why Zach and Gray, also naughty little boys, gravitate to him so quickly. Pratt’s large, emotionally communicative eyes undercut the potential macho pomposity in the role. When the first Jurassic Park came out much of this business about genetic science was just gaining credibility: now when D’Onofrio’s Hoskins speaks of the dinosaurs as specific property of InGen it’s clear the filmmakers are thinking about the efforts of corporations to patent their discoveries in genetics, with the implied riposte that no living system obeys legalese. Malcolm’s chaos theorising in the original made a similar point, but here it’s Owen who voices the same ideas in a more flesh-and-blood manner as he contemplates such questions in terms of animal behaviour patterns, warning that Indominus might lack socialisation to a point that will make it intolerantly violent (it ate the sibling the genetic engineers provided with, a dark rhyme to the alternate theme of the Mitchell brothers’ mutual reliance). The film’s emotional crux follows hard upon as the duo come upon a brachiosaur mauled by Indominus, a moment that echoes the scene with the Triceratops in the original except this time with the immediacy of an animal’s pain and death making it clear that the dinosaurs are indeed animals and not mere exhibits, in the gentlest variation on the elsewhere more urgently portrayed alternations of understanding and inimical attitude between life-forms.
The ins and outs of this plot, as Hopkins asserts authority over situation to further his own ends, including spiriting Wu away, are occasionally clunky (and obviously intended to set up further franchise expansion, in a not-so-salutary way), but then that’s true of most of the films Jurassic World sets out to honour. Hopkins’ crew of bullying heavies moves in to take over the park’s control room to ply their solution to the problem, but when it fails they pack up and depart again with equally efficient save-ass speed, leaving Claire’s chief tech nerds Lowery (Jake Johnson) and Vivian (Lauren Lapkus) to pick up the pieces. The story hinges on the question as to whether Owen can maintain the kind of control over the raptors Hopkins expects he can, and emotionally blackmails him into trying his plan of setting the raptors on Indominus. Except that the big bad proves to have raptor in her make-up, and swiftly turns the creatures on their masters in the dark forest for a frenzied repast. To be frank, I enjoyed this infinitely more than the year’s far more critically lauded retro-rocker, Mad Max: Fury Road, which struck me as two hours of fan service in exactly the wrong way, a reductio ad absurdum of action cinema to just running and shooting, for all the technical swagger. Jurassic World doesn’t skimp on fan service either, but its set pieces and cheer-along touches, like Owen riding off to battle on motorcycle with his gang of raptors, and the finale’s all-in monster brawl, have clear narrative purpose and spin off from the story with the sort of rolling semi-logic that Spielberg always made the guiding principle of his films, rather than simply and cynically reducing story to pretext. In fact, I enjoyed this more than any summer blockbuster-season film since Pacific Rim (2013). Perhaps that exposes my still-guttering love for behemoths smashing things up, but both films share a crucial feeling, as if they are the products of filmmakers trying to articulate real affection for the material.
Trevorrow has actually done what those other, more famous pretenders to the Amblin throne have failed to do, and recreate the tone, seemingly naïve and properly breathless, of the old-school blockbuster. His direction has pop energy that doesn’t strain to modish (little wobble-cam or incoherent editing). The film has characters, or at least caricatures who vibrate effectively in this setting. It has a structure, a set-up, complication, and a proper climax. It doesn’t trip over itself trying to be cleverer than the audience, try to paste over a lack of inspiration with glib humour like Pratt’s last hit vehicle Guardians of the Galaxy, or get bogged down with pseudo-intellectualisms (see the works of Nolan, Christopher). It is old-fashioned, generally in the best way. Trevorrow gives the film an edge that wasn’t uncommon in the kinds of ‘80s fare he’s honouring, as pterosaurs attack hapless funfair visitors in a sequence recalling The Birds (1963). Poor Zara finishes up becoming object of a tug-of-war between Pteranodon and Mosasaurus in a surprisingly intense moment of life-and-death struggle that ends grimly. This isn’t quite a horror moment in an otherwise juvenile-friendly epic – the only real bloodshed seen in the film comes when a more expected victim falls under the raptors – but it does signal a return of the edge this sort of fare used to have, to the sort of flourish Spielberg once served up easily in his early Indiana Jones films: the fantasy has a dark side, and the dark side has teeth. Although the mayhem here is more expansive than in Spielberg’s entries, moreover, Trevorrow is much fonder of his main characters and serves fewer of them up for lunch, even going so far as to actually, self-consciously avoid that most sadly common trope of this sort of thing, killing off the major black character.
Trevorrow tweaks this all-hell-breaking-lose aspect until it starts to recall The Simpsons episode “Itchy and Scratchyland”, that show’s scabrous lampoon-cum-celebration of Crichton’s tales. Of course, this never really becomes satiric, but offers rather a light sheen of sarcasm that reflects a readiness nonetheless to contemplate the “rollercoaster” ideal that initially defined the modern blockbuster as an actual theme park attraction, plied smartly but not smart-assed. More vitally, too, Trevorrow and fellow screenwriters ply a concept that Gareth Edwards tried to articulate but failed to properly dramatize in his take on Godzilla last year, that of its monsters as nobly self-sufficient, even heroic in their utterly natural way, in a manner that does not necessarily respect humankind. Although Owen’s bond with the raptors does ultimately snap back into effect, it becomes clear that even those fleet killing machines can’t handle Indominus alone, forcing Claire to go fetch a bigger set of teeth for a finale that’s gleeful in satisfying the audience with a grand display of dinosaur tag-team wrestling, the lawless ferocity of these creatures turned to good use. Jurassic World is definitely not perfect. Although I appreciate that the film has a first act, that act is not always that elegant in unspooling, and Hopkins’ subplot is just never that well-handled, even his regulation icky end. But goddamn it, I liked this film, down to its last line, a capper that could indeed have come of the kinds of Hawksian comedy-adventures that lies deep in this film’s DNA strand. Jurassic World has been an instantaneous, enormous hit, and for once that’s fairly deserved in my mind.
Only next time, if there must be more sequels, please bring plenty of Jeff Goldblum.
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