Monday, April 12, 2010

1984: 2010

What’s it about?

Years after the disappearance of a space mission sent to investigate monolith transmissions to Jupiter, disgraced astrocrat Roy Scheider is approached by Soviets to help with a joint mission to figure out what happened. [If you don’t know what that means, go read the entry on 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY (1968). -- ed.] The joint mission launches amid growing political tensions between east and west back home, but the crew ultimately arrive at their destination in Jupiter -- though only after encountering an unexplained phenomenon on Europa’s surface that was either a static discharge or evidence of an intelligent being.

The team (including engineer John Lithgow, computer scientist Bob Balaban, and Soviet commander Helen Mirren) investigates the derelict ship and reactivates the computer HAL-9000. In studying HAL’s orders, they identify (and attempt to correct) the problem that caused the computer to become homicidal on its last mission. Things get strange, however, when they turn their attention to the monolith orbiting Jupiter, and soon they find themselves relying on HAL to save them all from possible destruction.

Is it any good?

I didn’t have a lot of kind words for director Peter Hyams when I wrote about OUTLAND (1981) a little while ago -- though I should reiterate that I thought that movie was perfectly serviceable. 2010, however, is more than serviceable. In fact, I would say that it’s downright good, and I’m willing to confer on it the “lost gem” status that I pointedly withheld from OUTLAND. So long as it actually qualifies for the “lost” part, that is, which is not an easy thing to figure out.

I’ve always been aware of the existence of 2010 (or, as it’s sometimes called, 2010: THE YEAR WE MAKE CONTACT). Or at least I’ve been aware of it for almost as long as I’ve been aware of 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY (1968). They occupied consecutive spots on the few shelves devoted to science fiction movies in the video store of my youth. (I trust we are still some years away form having to explain what a video store is.) But although I eventually succumbed to the sense of cinematic obligation and rented 2001, I never bothered to watch 2010. Looking back, it’s amazing to me how many science fiction movies I left unwatched on that video store shelf.

Of course, in those days, my video rentals were often selected based on how likely they were to contain female nudity while (just as importantly) still providing some veneer of respectability. A story set in outer space certainly provided the necessary respectability, but it didn’t seem to offer a lot of opportunities for a glimpse under the spacesuits. And so, 2010 never made the cut.

But back to the movie at hand. 2010 makes absolutely no attempt to copy the structure or pacing or overall feeling of 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY. This is an excellent decision, in my opinion. For one thing, 2001 had already been copied and mimicked to death in the intervening sixteen years -- often with not much success. With a sequel, any comparisons would only be scrutinized all the more closely, and Peter Hyams is no Stanley Kubrick. I am not a big fan of Kubrick, to be honest, but at least Kubrick comes by his schtick honestly.

For another thing, 1984 was not the same year as 1968. When 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY was released, its only real competition for sci-fi spectacle came from FANTASTIC VOYAGE (1966), BARBARELLA (1968), and PLANET OF THE APES (1968). By the time 2010 was released, science fiction spectaculars had proliferated exponentially. This was a post-SOYLENT GREEN (1973), post-LOGAN’S RUN (1976), post-STAR WARS (1977), post-SUPERMAN (1978), post-ALIEN (1979), post-THE ROAD WARRIOR (1981), post-BLADE RUNNER (1982) world. (Not to mention the many also-rans, imitators, and sequels.) Space stations cartwheeling to the strains of “The Blue Danube” would seem quaint instead of revolutionary. Just ask Robert Wise, the director of STAR TREK: THE MOTION PICTURE (1979) -- a movie which did in fact attempt to duplicate Kubrick’s methodical pacing, detailed spaceship miniatures, and tripped-out light-show ending. Much as I enjoyed that movie, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I’d seen it all before.

So 2010 sidesteps this problem by not trying to copy Kubrick and also by not trying to be revolutionary in its own way. Where Kubrick’s movie starts with a wordless, nearly incomprehensible twenty minutes of ape-men cavorting about in the desert, Hyams instead begins with a very detailed summary of the main points of the last movie in the form of an official report. And where Kubrick cut from one seemingly unconnected vignette to another with no explanation whatsoever, Hyams provides unnecessary narration from Roy Scheider to ease us from one perfectly traditional scene to another. And while Kubrick pointedly leaves us to puzzle about the meaning and purpose of the monoliths in his movie, Hyams’s exists almost entirely to explain them.

Now I have no idea how much of either movie comes from Arthur C. Clarke’s novels. It may be that the books are as different as the movies are in style and structure and clarity. But as far as the movies go, 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY strikes me a bit like Frank Stockton’s short story “The Lady or the Tiger?” -- not only are the ambiguity and lack of resolution (in this case around the monolith) important to the story, they are in fact the entire point of the story. I suppose this may not be true of everybody, but practically all of my thoughts about 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY are framed in the context of trying to figure out what the monoliths mean. So in one way, 2010 is a bit like the sequel to the story that guilelessly blurts out, “Oh it was the tiger all along.”

But I’m going to suggest thinking about 2010 in a different way -- that is, not as a sequel to 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY but instead as a possible interpretation of it. For me, the certainty of the second movie doesn’t detract from the ambiguity of the first -- the explanation it puts forth is just one possible theory as far as I’m concerned. And, in fact, by giving a specific function to the monoliths, 2010 makes it impossible to just think of them as symbols anymore. Instead, they become tools of some sort, and this reality raises a whole host of seemingly insurmountable logistical questions. (First on the list: Who is using these tools?)

Don’t forget -- I really liked 2010. Once I decided that it wasn’t necessarily a canonical continuation of Kubrick’s movie, I started to appreciate the way it revived certain elements from the first movie. There’s the derelict spaceship with the homicidal computer on board, the giant and mysterious monolith floating in space, and Keir Dullea’s missing astronaut. All of these things get deployed in fairly interesting ways. Some moments of real tension come out of it too -- for instance, one scene when the investigators scan the craters of Europa for the source of a strange reading as they fly by is especially suspenseful. There’s also a moment-of-truth showdown between HAL-9000 and the man who designed him towards the end of the movie that’s very exciting, but in a different way from the man vs. computer sparring of the first movie. In 2010, HAL-9000 is just as much a victim of violence as it is a perpetrator. And though I didn’t like everything about the ultimate “explanation” for HAL’s freak-out in 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY, I did like how it brought HAL back into the story in a different capacity than homicidal computer protecting the mission.

One of the elements of 2010 that possibly helped exile it to the dusty back drawers of sci-fi movie history is the central position that the Cold War takes in the story. The movie opens with a Soviet scientist pitching the idea of a joint mission to a very skeptical Roy Scheider. The idea only wins out because there is really no other alternative. The Soviets will get there first because their salvage ship is closer to launch -- but they don’t have the data or know-how to make any sense of what may have happened unless they take some American experts along. And so most of the movie is actually set on a Soviet spaceship under Soviet command -- but with three American passengers in the forms of Scheider, John Lithgow, and Bob Balaban.

The Cold War also heats up into a hot war while the mission is in progress, which results in absurd orders from Washington and Moscow that the astronauts and cosmonauts must segregate themselves on the salvaged American ship and the Soviet rescue ship, respectively. There’s never really any sense that the scientists are going to start a space war. But they do obey the orders to split up, and so all of their research into the monolith is brought to a halt at a critical moment. It’s kind of a neat way to illustrate some of the less obvious casualties of east-west hostilities, but it’s also an anachronism. It’s 2010 today, and somehow even though I’m not bothered by the fact that we are not actually making manned expeditions to Jupiter these days, it still strikes me as quaint that anybody thought that the Soviet Union would still be around.

On the other hand, it’s refreshing and prescient how nobody regards Helen Mirren’s female mission commander as anything unusual or even worthy of comment. Sally Ride had only just become the first American woman in space in 1983 -- though of course the Soviets had already sent up two women cosmonauts in 1963 and 1982. But female commanders are not very common in sci-fi movies. The only earlier example I can think of appears in the East German IN THE DUST OF THE STARS (1976). So in film -- just as in real life -- the Soviet bloc led the way in equal opportunities for women. Well, unless you count BARBARELLA (1968), I suppose.

Thursday, April 8, 2010


What’s it about?

Long after the fall of industrialized society in a destructive war, the remnants of humanity live in small colonies scattered throughout a world of wilderness. Much of the globe is also threatened by the advance of “the Sea of Decay” -- an expanse of toxic plants that blankets any area it can get its spores into. In this world, the people of the Valley of the Wind live in relative harmony with nature -- burning away the deadly spores when they come too close to their village, but also respecting and protecting the giant (and easily enraged) insects that live in the Sea of Decay.

But one day, an airship from the militaristic Tolmekian people crashes in the Valley of the Wind. The ship’s cargo is a “giant warrior” -- an ancient weapon of unbelievable power that the Tolmekians are hoping to use to destroy the Sea of Decay. Armies soon arrive to subjugate the Valley of the Wind and retrieve the giant warrior. But when Princess Nausicaa -- an inhabitant of the Valley of the Wind who has a special connection with nature -- discovers that the Sea of Decay has a place in the natural order, it becomes clear that the giant warrior must be destroyed.

Is it any good?

It’s probably time that I stop pretending that I don’t like cartoons. I’ve watched a bunch so far -- FANTASTIC PLANET (1973), WIZARDS (1977), HEAVY METAL (1981), THE PLAGUE DOGS (1982), THE SECRET OF NIMH (1982), and now NAUSICAA OF THE VALLEY OF THE WIND -- and you would think by now that I’d be able to point to one and say, “Yeah, see, this is an example of why I don’t like animated movies.”

Maybe I’m just picking really good cartoons, though it’s not like there are a bunch of animated sci-fi movies I’ve been passing up. But so far the biggest complaint I have about the animated nature of the movies is that HEAVY METAL too often fritters away its artistic potential on big breasts and geysers of blood. In fact, back when I was writing about HEAVY METAL, I suggested that the problem with cartoons is that a world where anything is possible is also a world where it’s very difficult to invoke real emotions -- real awe, real sympathy, real terror.

I still think that criticism holds true of HEAVY METAL, which is the least imaginative and least skillfully executed of the cartoons I’ve watched so far. (In general, I mean. HEAVY METAL does have its moments too.) But I was a bit hasty in applying that comment to animated movies in general. What I didn’t count on is that the limitless possibilities of animation -- when combined with imagination and skill -- can hit emotional notes with images that are impossible to create in the real world.

NAUSICAA OF THE VALLEY OF THE WIND is probably the best of the animated movies I’ve ever seen, so it’s possible that I’m letting the pendulum swing too far in the other direction now. After all, NAUSICAA OF THE VALLEY OF THE WIND is a pretty great movie in almost every respect -- not just the artistry of the visuals. It’s probably not even fair to focus on how nice it looks, since that wasn’t even the part that I enjoyed most. But it does look really awesome, and practically every new image -- from the monstrous insects to the Tolmekian airships to the giant warrior itself -- is crafted for the maximum impact. I’ve said before that none of the animated movies I’ve watched would be better if they had been filmed in live action instead. That’s doubly true of NAUSICAA OF THE VALLEY OF THE WIND.

I also really liked the story and the world of the movie. The action takes place in a post-apocalyptic world, long after a world-wasting cataclysm. Much of the world -- like the Valley of the Wind, for instance -- looks peaceful and idyllic, but characters talk about the toxic elements that still infect the soil and water. Presumably these are the remnants of industrial waste or nuclear radiation that are still polluting the earth generations later.

It’s not really clear what the effect of this pollution is -- trees and other plants still grow, people seem healthy, the world generally looks like a nice place to live. But it turns out that the Sea of Decay (really a forest) is a sprawling organic filter for these toxins. The reasons the plants in the Sea of Decay are deadly to people is that the toxins present in the topsoil and surface water are concentrated and accumulated in them -- a plant from the Sea of Decay raised on clean soil and pure water is as harmless as a daisy.

There’s some mumbo-jumbo about how the Earth created the Sea of Decay to cleanse itself of humanity’s pollution -- I could have done without that part. But I did really like what this revelation did for the central conflict of the movie. Throughout the first half of the flick, the Sea of Decay seems like a source of pollution itself -- a riotous overgrowth of toxic plant life that brings death and decay everywhere it goes, and which is expanding faster than the few human survivors can contain it. But if the Sea of Decay is actually a natural and necessary adaptation to the pollution that already exists, then it doesn’t seem so smart to destroy it then. It puts the environmentalist’s favorite choice into stark relief: either doom the planet for the convenience of mankind, or let mankind perish to preserve the planet.

I think I would have expected these kind of environmentalist themes to be more prevalent in science fiction movies, but now that I’m thinking about it I can’t really come up with many precursors to NAUSICAA OF THE VALLEY OF THE WIND in this respect. There are certainly movies that feature future Earths that have suffered some kind of unspecified environmental catastrophe -- like the desert world of A BOY AND HIS DOG (1975) or the ice world of QUINTET (1979). But the only movies I can think of that have specific pro-nature or anti-technology agendas prior to 1984 are SILENT RUNNING (1972) and WIZARDS (1977). There are, of course, many other sci-fi movies that caution against advances in science and technology -- but overwhelmingly those warnings are on behalf of mankind, not on behalf of a bunch of trees and pixies.

But NAUSICAA OF THE VALLEY OF THE WIND is unabashedly environmentalist in its sympathies and messages. I don’t really mind that since sci-fi partly exists to give shape to otherwise abstract fears. Environmental collapse is a possible danger we may have to face -- no different than the Communist invasions and out-of-control computers and overpopulated cities that science fiction helped us grapple with in earlier decades.

If you take the “prophecies” of these movies seriously, they start to be a bit much. But science fiction is a haven for hysteria -- partly because it makes for good stories, and partly because it’s actually comforting in the end. Despite the anti-science bent of so many sci-fi flicks, mankind usually wins out in the end -- and we win out over the most extreme and most unlikely versions of our fears. After all, Godzilla doesn’t show up in Tokyo and instigate a statistically significant rise in annual cases of skin cancer. No, he levels the whole city. (I know I’m mixing metaphors here, but you see what I mean.) If we can deal with Godzilla levels of carnage and destruction in our fantasies, then surely we can deal with our own messes in the real world. Of course, it remains to be seen whether that’s actually true or not -- but at least that’s what sci-fi seems to be telling us with all of its happy endings to gloomy situations.

Monday, April 5, 2010

1984: DUNE

What’s it about?

In the galactic empire, the most precious substance known to man is “the spice”. The spice is a substance found only on one planet in the universe -- Arrakis, or Dune -- and has all sorts of recreational and commercial applications when taken as a drug. Chief among these is its use in making possible instantaneous interstellar travel by allowing a secretive guild of navigators to “fold” space itself. Control of the planet Arrakis is therefore extremely important to many powerful interests in the galaxy, so when the emperor starts using the planet as bait to incite factions in the empire to fight, he finds himself closely watched by others.

One of the factions being drawn into conflict by the emperor is House Atreides, the heir of which seems to possess some unusual powers. His mother disobeyed orders from a secret society when she bore him, and now it seems possible that he is the fabled Kwisatz Haderach -- a powerful being that will allow its controllers to rise to power. But as the son arrives on Arrakis with his faction, it also seems that he might fulfill a long-standing prophecy to free the planet from foreign control.

Is it any good?

Most science fiction movies take place in a setting that is somehow derived from the world we live in today. It makes sense -- it’s easier to relate to what’s going on if there’s at least some connection to the world that we know. For example, STAR TREK’s Federation of Planets -- for all its galaxy-spanning reach -- is still headquartered in a futuristic (but recognizable) San Francisco, with an intact Golden Gate Bridge and all.

There are a few cases of course where sci-fi movies take place in exotic worlds that have nothing to do with Earth at all. Many of the early examples -- like FLIGHT TO MARS (1951), THE SILENT STAR (1960), THE PHANTOM PLANET (1961), or ROBINSON CRUSOE ON MARS (1964) -- put Earthmen on other planets in our own solar system. The adventures they have while there don’t have a whole lot to do with their home planet, but there is always the yearning to go home. And, of course, the entire movie is filtered through the eyes of characters who are just as much strangers in these worlds as the audience is.

Perhaps the culmination of this is DOCTOR WHO AND THE DALEKS (1965), in which Peter Cushing’s doctor travels to a distant alien planet with several young companions. (Note: In the movie’s version of the Doctor Who mythos, the good doctor is actually a human inventor and not an alien Time Lord.) The doctor and his companions become spectators to and eventually participants in a conflict between two alien races. And since they traveled to the planet using the T.A.R.D.I.S., there’s no discernable connection between the planet they arrive at and Earth.

Some years later, IN THE DUST OF THE STARS (1976), STAR WARS (1977), and BATTLESTAR GALACTICA (1978) dispensed with any need to have human characters at all and even with any mention of Earth (except, in the case of BATTLESTAR GALACTICA, in mythological contexts). Naturally many of the characters still looked like humans -- they had to be played by human actors, after all -- but finally these were science fiction movies that seemed to take place in universes where Earth may not even exist and where its existence is often utterly irrelevant.

DUNE is another such movie, and even more than the others I’ve mentioned it seems to owe a debt to the universe of Isaac Asimov’s FOUNDATION novels. As in Asimov’s novels, the planets of DUNE are all populated by human-like beings who belong to the same species. There aren’t any aliens to speak of -- just planets with wildly divergent customs, cultures, histories, politics, and manners. It’s unclear in the movie how all these people got where they are -- particularly the folks who ended up on decidedly inhospitable planets like Arrakis -- but planets in DUNE are roughly analogous to nations or cultures on Earth.

This is a pretty cool way to populate a universe, in my opinion. I almost always feel a little embarrassed for writers or directors when they try to think up truly alien species with alien cultures, alien anatomies, and alien environments. Either they end up being humans with facial prosthetics and exaggerated philosophies (like Klingons and Vulcans) or -- well, to be honest, I’m having a hard time even thinking of a good example of a truly alien culture in any science fiction movie. By that, I mean a culture that could never evolve in humans because of anatomical or environmental limitations. The Borg from STAR TREK: THE NEXT GENERATION might be one example, or the Cylons from the new version of BATTLESTAR GALACTICA -- in both cases, the mechanical nature of the races means that individuality has far less opportunity to assert itself.

(Also, I have nothing against Klingons and Vulcans. I love Klingons and Vulcans. But Klingons and Vulcans aren’t truly alien -- they are just extreme extensions of existing human philosophies. Which is not to say that there’s anything inherently virtuous about movie aliens being “truly alien”. It all depends on how the aliens -- whether they are familiar or not -- are handled and presented.)

But look, this is all a digression. My only point was that DUNE is populated entirely by humans with widely divergent cultures, rather than different alien species. And that is a decision that I like and respect. Now, I need to make another short digression here. The navigators in DUNE certainly look like they are aliens -- they float around inside glass tanks with bloated bulbous bodies, stick-like arms, and horrifying facial features. Yet, my understanding from the movie is that they are not actually aliens, but are mutated humans who have been taking the spice so long that it has changed their very anatomy into something else entirely. However, I could be completely wrong on this point, as it’s not really explained in detail in the movie.

I’ve never read any of the DUNE books and didn’t really know anything about the story except that it concerned spice and sandworms. And Sting. But besides that, I went into the movie with no understanding of the story or world. It surprised me in two ways -- first, the sheer amount of raw explaining that was needed to simply set up the story. (Take a look at my summary -- it’s mostly a dump of underlying political conditions that make the conflict possible. The beginning of the movie is a lot like that too.) But the second thing that surprised me was how rarely I was bored with it all. The political situation is pretty interesting once you get a handle on it, and it’s usually clear which characters are on which side. And it’s not just A vs. B. There are like five or six different sides all with their own objectives and ambitions. The very beginning of FLASH GORDON (1980) is a little bit like this too -- but DUNE is orders of magnitude more layered and more satisfying. So if you’re into politics and intrigue, this is probably the movie for you.

On the other hand, DUNE ultimately feels like a summary of a movie. There’s just so much stuff to get through that the characters often get shafted. There are lots of minor characters who I thought it would be interesting to hear more about, but at most they get one or two scenes, which is only enough for a hint at what’s going on with them. And even a lot of those scenes were cut from the theatrical version by director David Lynch. There is a three hour cut of the movie that restores a lot of that footage, but I watched the theatrical two-hour cut since that’s the one that Lynch seems to prefer. (He had his name taken off the longer version.) But judging from the deleted scenes that I watched, there’s a lot more tying up of loose ends and closing of minor character arcs in the longer version, which is something I would have liked to have seen more of.

And how did a weirdo like David Lynch end up directing a studio movie like DUNE anyway? His first full-length film, ERASERHEAD (1977), got him lots of attention from other directors who appreciated his avant garde style and distinctive voice. From there, he was given THE ELEPHANT MAN (1980), which was a massive critical success and earned Lynch several Academy Award nominations. George Lucas then approached Lynch to direct RETURN OF THE JEDI (1983), but Lynch feared that he wouldn’t have the level of freedom he wanted so he turned it down. But he took up Dino De Laurentiis’s offer to direct a STAR WARS-like sci-fi epic (DUNE) in exchange for the chance to follow it up with any movie of Lynch’s choice. After DUNE was completed, Lynch took the opportunity to make BLUE VELVET (1986) and he has never really come back to anything resembling normality since then.

Despite the exotic costumes and make-up and sets, DUNE is a fairly traditional (though dense) story. It was apparently not much of a success on its initial release, and I’m not sure that anybody considers it a classic these days. I liked it pretty well, but I do think it would have played much better as a miniseries -- or even as a whole season’s worth of television. Like I said, I’ve never read the book, so maybe it’s not as interesting as it seems when you really start delving into all the things that the movie only touches on. And it would be pretty frustrating to have to wait hours and hours until you get a glimpse of a sandworm. (By the way, this movie has giant sandworms, and they are pretty sweet.)

In the end, DUNE mostly makes me more curious about the book. I can’t say it makes me want to read it, since it does have me a little scared that’ll it be too dense and full of exposition to be truly enjoyable. But it at least has me wondering what else there is to know that didn’t make it on to the screen. Oh yeah, also, this movie has Sting, Patrick Stewart, and Dean Stockwell in small (but key) roles. And its score was composed by the rock group Toto, best known for its 1982 hits “Rosanna” and “Africa”. So those are some other things about this movie that you might want to know.

Monday, March 29, 2010


What’s it about?

After a military assessment reveals the unreliability of human officers in launching ICBMs, the U.S. government decides to install a computer system called WOPR to control the country’s nuclear arsenal. Later, high school computer whiz Matthew Broderick inadvertently hacks into WOPR while looking for secret information on upcoming computer games.

Broderick challenges WOPR to what he believes is a game called “Global Thermonuclear War” -- it’s actually a war simulation, but WOPR’s handling of it sends NORAD into nuclear alert and the brink of war. The incident ends with the government holding Broderick on espionage charges, but unaware that WOPR is continuing the game on its own. As the simulation gets closer and closer to outright war, the bewildered government prepares to retaliate against what appears to be an overwhelming Soviet strike.

Is it any good?

WARGAMES is probably not a movie that I would ordinarily write about in this blog. It’s not bad -- in fact I think it’s pretty good -- and it’s a pretty interesting step on the road from DR STRANGELOVE, OR HOW I LEARNED TO STOP WORRYING AND LOVE THE BOMB (1964) to THE MATRIX (1999). (That’s the road of killer computers who can or do initiate Armageddon, natch.)

But I talked about all that stuff back when I wrote about COLOSSUS: THE FORBIN PROJECT (1970), and I am not sure I have anything further to say about it. In fact, WARGAMES is a lot like a junior version of that movie, where everything is just a bit dumber and the main characters are a lot younger. There’s a certain amount of lowered expectations that comes with a movie featuring the handsome young stars of the 1980s (in this case, Ally Sheedy and Matthew Broderick, both near the starts of their careers), and taken in that context, WARGAMES is very good. But it’s also a dumbed-down version of the same man vs. computer Frankenstein story that’s been popping up in the movies since the 1960s. And taken in that context, WARGAMES has far more in common with John Carpenter’s supremely dumb DARK STAR (1974) than it does with Kubrick or Colossus.

I don’t really want to write a thousand words taking down WARGAMES since I think it’s a pretty enjoyable movie. But here are a couple of glaring annoyances. First, it’s never clearly explained what WOPR thinks it’s doing. Is it playing a game? Running a simulation? Actually trying to win a thermonuclear war? At various points in the movie it acts in different ways regarding the situation and is never consistent or rational about what it’s trying to achieve. There’s even a big countdown clock that WOPR brings online for no particular reason.

Second, the moral of the movie is summed up in WOPR’s ultimate assessment of global thermonuclear war: “The only winning move is not to play.” That’s all well and good, but WOPR goes through practically the entire movie acting as though it believes such a war could be won. It’s not until Matthew Broderick has WOPR play a few games of tic-tac-toe that the computer finally gets the concept of an unwinnable game. It’s just a too-pat ending -- the whiz kid who saves the day with an obvious observation that the grown-ups somehow didn’t think of.

I mentioned DARK STAR a few paragraphs up, and I don’t think I’ve talked about that movie yet. It was John Carpenter’s first film -- a sci-fi comedy about space madness and suicidal smart bombs made on a shoestring budget. It’s not a great movie. The low budget effects are alternately charming and boring, but the real problem is that the story is a mish-mash of plots stolen from better movies and books. The suicidal smart bomb -- a nuke which threatens to blow up an entire spaceship -- is a variation on HAL-9000, and the situation is eventually defused when one of the crewmen locks its circuits by posing a philosophical quandary so stupid that I don’t even remember what it was.

The similarity between that and WARGAMES is that the movie thinks it’s smarter than it really is. The story doesn’t reveal anything new about people or computers -- it just restates an obvious piece of wisdom which is already common knowledge, but robs it of any of the shades of grey that might make it interesting. When I wrote about THE WAR GAME (1965) -- a movie that highlighted the absurdity and hopelessness of nuclear war in very uncomfortable ways -- I said that I almost couldn’t believe after watching it that we managed to get out of the Cold War alive. WARGAMES has the opposite effect -- it argues so bluntly that nuclear war is such a bonehead move that it makes it seem like there was never any danger at all.

Let’s talk about what I like about WARGAMES though. Matthew Broderick gets to play with lots of old fashioned computer equipment that looks neat and possibly authentic. (I have no idea really -- I was certainly not a hacker in 1983.) Outside of WOPR itself, computers in WARGAMES are the gatekeepers to easily manipulated systems with inadequate security and apparently no human checks and balances. Broderick changes his grades, hacks into servers, bypasses computer locks, and gets free long distance calling at a payphone. It’s a credit to the movie that I could always follow exactly what he was doing to break into these systems -- high tech crime seems positively low tech in WARGAMES and the feeling is that computers are tools that can be broken down and controlled by anybody who knows the tricks.

That’s an idea I like, and I really enjoyed all of Broderick’s shenanigans (even the ones that struck me as wildly implausible) for their MacGyver-ish charm. Of course, all of this makes it all the more perplexing why WOPR is such a different kind of computer and why it can’t be stopped even after the brass know what’s happening. (Perhaps there’s a cautionary tale in all of this about giving too much control to computers?) But I promised I was going to talk about good stuff.

I also really enjoyed the very beginning of the movie. In fact, it is probably my favorite part of the whole picture. Before Matthew Broderick or Ally Sheedy even show up, we meet two military officers who operate a missile silo somewhere in the U.S. They are given orders to launch their missiles and then are faced with the dilemma of whether they ought to follow the orders or not. They have no information about what’s going on outside -- only that the chain of command has ordered them to launch their nuclear missiles. They don’t know if it’s a first strike or a retaliation or (as it eventually turns out) a training exercise. I really love this part -- it’s such an unreal situation, like something out of a hypothetical morality question. Yet, it was (and is) potentially reality for thousands of folks who are stationed in these silos or on submarines. But then WARGAMES proper begins, and all such interesting moral dilemmas are intentionally wiped out by the introduction of WOPR.

Thursday, March 25, 2010


What’s it about?

Cable channel executive James Woods goes out looking for the next big thing in television -- something that will break barriers and shock viewers into massive ratings. He thinks he’s found it when he stumbles across a pirate broadcast of a show called “Videodrome”. The program has no content except for depictions of torture, mutilations, and murders which all take place in the same featureless room.

Woods, believing the program to be staged, attempts to find the creators so he can offer them a broadcast deal. The trail leads him first to renowned television prophet and personality Brian O’Blivion, and then deeper into a shadowy underworld. Meanwhile, Woods begins having powerful and disturbing hallucinations, which he eventually learns have been triggered by signals hidden in the Videodrome broadcasts. By the time he realizes he’s caught up in a weird conspiracy, it seems too late for Woods to save himself.

Is it any good?

I’ve been avoiding writing about David Cronenberg movies because -- well, just because. I watched both THE BROOD (1979) and SCANNERS (1981) back when I was covering the years they were released in, but couldn’t work up the enthusiasm to say a whole lot about them. I got pretty close with THE BROOD, since I was interested in how it used a “soft” science like psychology as the springboard for sci-fi speculations instead of a harder science like robotics or physical medicine or computer science. I also mentioned THE BROOD in my entry about ALTERED STATES (1980) when I talked about the mind-over-matter themes of that latter movie.

After watching a couple more David Cronenberg movies, it certainly seems like he keeps obsessively returning to those mind-over-matter themes. SCANNERS is about warring factions of folks with telepathic powers -- including the ability to link in to other peoples’ bodies and affect their bodily functions (sometimes with explosive consequences). Likewise, VIDEODROME is at least partly interested in how hallucinations can change subjective (and possibly objective) reality.

There are really two sci-fi stories running in parallel in VIDEODROME, though they are unavoidably intertwined with each other. The first is Woods’s quest to find ever more shocking content for his cable channel. This leads him to seek out programs that feature sex, violence, gore, perversion, or (ideally) some combination of them all. To be honest, the sci-fi edge here is a distinction in degree rather than in kind -- and only by the slightest degree. The quest for shock value certainly isn’t new of itself, and the programs that Woods reviews don’t even necessarily seem more depraved than some that exist in the real world. In 1983, it wouldn’t have been so easy to distribute such things on a mainstream cable channel, but today the Internet has removed essentially all doubt that there’s an audience out there for even the most envelope-pushing or stomach-turning content.

The other sci-fi twist involves Videodrome’s ability to trigger hallucinations in those who watch it. If you look at that from a metaphorical point of view, it could be saying something about how watching violent or perverted content can warp a person’s view of reality. It also pretty clearly separates “those who watch” from “those who don’t” -- anybody who watches enough of the show will be easily recognizable by their raving insanity. When Woods finally meets the folks responsible for the shows, for instance, they ask him why on earth a person would want to watch a show like Videodrome. They’ve never seen it themselves -- if they had, they would have gone crazy too.

On a more surface level, the hallucinations are part of a plot to do something or other. To be honest, I’m not really clear what the makers of Videodrome were trying to accomplish. They don’t appear to be anarchists who are just intent on driving everyone crazy. Seemingly the hallucinations are controllable -- that is, the shadowy forces in control of Videodrome use Woods’s freak-outs to control his behavior, and at one point even get him to assassinate some people for them. (Though the logic behind the assassination is never clear either.) So potentially Videodrome could be a recruitment tool for insane assassins, but it’s such a blunt tool that it would be difficult to really manage the program. The movie doesn’t really spend much time developing that part of the plot either, which is probably just as well. As far as brainwashing assassins goes, I can’t really imagine that VIDEODROME would be able to top the audacity of similar plots in movies like THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE (1962) and THE PARALLAX VIEW (1974).

David Cronenberg has a reputation as a guy who loves disturbing or gross images. I haven’t seen that many of his movies besides the ones I mentioned already, but I can see where folks might get that impression. THE BROOD isn’t particularly gross, but it does make use of some freaky child-like killers in creepy masks. They’re a bit too similar to the big gotcha from Nicholas Roeg’s DON’T LOOK NOW (1973) to be deeply disturbing, but there are a few frightening moments. These killers are also the physical manifestations of mental anguish, and one late scene where one is shown budding out of a woman’s body is pretty darn grotesque.

SCANNERS ups the gore considerably with its iconic exploding head. It’s an amazing special effect, and it still looks cool even when watching it happen frame by frame in slow motion. The climactic battle between the final two telepaths is a revolting splatterfest as well. When the fight’s over, we’ve seen ruptured blood vessels, burst eyeballs, and burning and melting flesh.

VIDEODROME takes things in a different, but no less unnerving direction. We never see the worst of the torture on the Videodrome program -- it’s still unpleasant, but it’s very brief and never particularly graphic. James Woods’s hallucinations, however, are extremely graphic, and they seem to have a recurring theme of combining organic flesh and technology. In one recurring bit, Woods’s appendix scar splits open, allowing access to his innards so videotapes or guns can be deposited inside his body (or, later in the movie, retrieved for use). There’s not a lot of blood and gore necessarily, but Cronenberg seems to hone in instantly on what makes people say “yuck”. I’ve got at least THE FLY (1986) and NAKED LUNCH (1991) upcoming from him as well, so I expect to be saying “yuck” many more times.

Ultimately, I don’t think that any of the three Cronenberg movies I’ve seen so far are that great. They all start out with very interesting premises, but then end up in pretty standard patterns. THE BROOD turns into a slasher flick in the second half, and both SCANNERS and VIDEODROME end up as conspiracy thrillers. The conspiracy part of VIDEODROME is especially half-baked -- as I said, I’m still not clear on what the objective of the conspiracy is, and I have no clue whatsoever why the bad guys went to all the trouble they did to rope in Woods. (A half-hearted answer is given to that second question, but it doesn’t really make any sense.) VIDEODROME looks better than either of the other two, and the special effects on the hallucinations are worth seeing. It’s kind of unpleasant at times, but it’s also fairly unique (at least in the early going). And James Woods is a great actor for this role. Based on all this, I’m really looking forward to seeing Jeff Goldblum in THE FLY. I could easily see that being the magic combination that makes a really great movie.

Monday, March 22, 2010


What’s it about?

In the near future, the socialist party is elected into office in the United States, marking the beginning of a peaceful revolution. Ten years later, large segments of the population are dissatisfied with the government -- especially with work programs that are perceived as giving good jobs to some and meaningless jobs to others.

One group of dissidents is a self-styled “army” mostly composed of homosexual and minority women. When protesting doesn’t get results in curbing violence against women or marginalization in the workforce, radical elements in the army start to take more definitive action. When the government hits back -- apparently assassinating a prominent leader and burning two pirate radio stations -- the women turn to terrorist tactics to make themselves heard.

Is it any good?

I’ve already written about several “soft” sci-fi movies that speculate about changes in society rather than changes in technology -- for instance, PANIC IN YEAR ZERO! (1962), WILD IN THE STREETS (1968), and PUNISHMENT PARK (1971). One of the movies I didn’t write about was INVASION U.S.A. (1952), a piece of outright propaganda that makes the case that ignorance or apathy in ordinary citizens could result in a communist takeover of the United States.

The reason I bring up INVASION U.S.A. is that it’s seemingly an early example of a long string of “red scare” pictures that depicted the United States attacked or invaded or even conquered by Soviet forces. That type of movie had by no means vanished in the 1980s -- you need look no further than RED DAWN (1984) for proof of that. But BORN IN FLAMES is also evidence that it had become possible to take a somewhat more nuanced look at competing political systems as well.

BORN IN FLAMES is very similar in form and content to PUNISHMENT PARK, a pseudo-documentary movie in which counter-cultural types are systematically (and sadistically) hunted down by law enforcement officers in vast wilderness areas -- ostensibly for training purposes. Although the sympathies of the director clearly lie with the hippies, a series of drumhead tribunals ensure that the opposing establishment side gets ample chance to state its case. I loved the movie despite the bluntness and almost offensive extremity of its premise, and it’s still one of my favorites out of all the ones I’ve seen for this blog.

BORN IN FLAMES never purports to be a documentary itself, but it does take a fly-on-the-wall approach that feels similar to the style of PUNISHMENT PARK. But by making the establishment figures the representatives of an elected socialist government, it seemingly turns the politics of the other movie on its head. Seemingly, the same idealists who were pleading for peace, love and understanding in PUNISHMENT PARK are now the ones helming a failing socialist experiment and issuing assassination orders. But the connection isn’t really that clear. Neither of the movies are really about left vs. right. Instead, they are both about the corrupt establishment vs. the idealistic counter-culture, and by making the United States a socialist state, BORN IN FLAMES seemingly tries to demonstrate that it doesn’t really matter which side is in power if you’re the little guy.

The similarities between the two movies don’t stop there. They both show a counter-cultural movement that is obsessed with intellectual rhetoric -- these revolutionaries do much more talking than anything else. Likewise, both movies depict a counter-culture that’s split on whether action or violence is permissible -- a question that only results in even more endless debates. In some ways, BORN IN FLAMES is the more ambitious movie, as it follows the rise of an organic revolutionary movement in the wild. PUNISHMENT PARK, meanwhile, limits itself to the interactions between two clearly defined groups in an entirely artificial setting.

Despite all that, I’m not sure that I would have found BORN IN FLAMES all that interesting on its own and without the context of other similar movies. The documentary style is fairly compelling, but the acting is not always that great and the characters are hard to keep track of sometimes. The depictions of urban blight in the early eighties are pretty riveting, but the frequent collages of unconnected images that separate vignettes make the movie feel pretentious and self-consciously artsy. I enjoyed thinking about it as an extension (or possibly inversion) of PUNISHMENT PARK, but it seems too slight and muddled to pack much of a punch on its own. I’m still a bit confused about what exactly I’m meant to take away from BORN IN FLAMES -- unless it’s the sense that the more things change, the more they stay the same.

The socialist government might also have been used to make the radicalized women more sympathetic, since it clearly couldn’t be intended to be a depiction of any actual American government. The women end the movie by hijacking news stations at gunpoint, and then ultimately by destroying the transmitter towers on the World Trade Center with explosives. (By the way, it’s really hard to watch people staging a terrorist attack on the World Trade Center without feeling some emotion colored by events that the movie could not have foreseen.) Just as CONQUEST OF THE PLANET OF THE APES (1972) concocted a vaguely fascist American government that could be toppled by the ape revolution, so too does BORN IN FLAMES offer a target that is arguably not representative of the America of the time.

But if this was an attempt to protect the film-makers from accusations of being anti-American, then I guess it’s a bit disappointing. PUNISHMENT PARK doesn’t pull any such punches -- and although the depiction of the establishment is unfair and cheap at times, there are at least broader metaphorical points that are impossible to miss. And it seems almost impossible that the producers of BORN IN FLAMES would be the sorts to chicken out of a fight. The director, after all, is a woman who enthusiastically calls herself “Lizzie Borden”, who featured revolutionary-minded punk music throughout the movie, and who didn’t flinch from putting a completely gratuitous close-up shot of an erect penis on the screen. In other words, it seems unlikely that such a provocateur would be concerned about hurting Ronald Reagan’s feelings.

But this is what I mean when I say the movie seems too slight and muddled. It seems to be saying too many things at once, and the confusion makes it both less sharp and easier to dismiss as an indulgent fantasy. It’s not a bad movie, but it’s certainly not going to be one that I think about much months from now.

Thursday, March 18, 2010


What’s it about?

Two dogs named Snitter and Rowf escape from a secret government research station in the wilds of Scotland. After being subjected to cruel experiments during their time there, they are only too happy to get away. But what they don’t realize (being dogs) is that their escape route took them through another laboratory where scientists were working with the bubonic plague.

The government at first tries to cover up the escape, but soon a dragnet is being cast for the dogs to prevent the possible spread of infection. As the days pass, the two dogs resort to killing sheep to eat, and before long the army is called in. Led by effective (but compassionate) commander Patrick Stewart, it seems certain they will quickly get the job done.

Is it any good?

Based on a novel by Richard Adams (who also wrote WATERSHIP DOWNS), THE PLAGUE DOGS is yet another animated sci-fi movie that isn’t really appropriate for kids. This is despite the fact that it’s a movie about two talking dogs (one voiced by John Hurt) and their animal pals, including a crafty fox named “the Tod”.

To be honest, this is the only movie I can think of where the talking animals are all anatomically correct. There’s no reason why dog testicles shouldn’t be in a kids’ movie, I suppose, but they just usually aren’t. After all, any kid who has owned a dog (or who has even played with one) would quickly be exposed to such anatomical realities, and yet for some reason it still seems strange to see them onscreen in a cartoon where someone deliberately drew them.

That’s not really what makes this movie less than ideal for kids though. The main reason is what I will call “adult themes” -- that is, the hopelessness of the dogs’ situation. It’s not their fault if they are infected with the plague, but all the same they need to be hunted down and destroyed. And the fact that the dogs understand none of this -- they talk, but they are still fairly simple-minded -- only adds to the pathos of the situation.

There’s also some cussing and a couple scenes of fairly shocking violence. Besides killing sheep for food, the dogs are also ultimately responsible for two human deaths -- one an accident, and the other in self-defense. In fact, the cut of the movie that I watched is an abridged version that apparently leaves out some even more disturbing material -- such as implications that Snitter and Rowf (while starving) make a meal out of a dead human. The animal experiments at the beginning of the movie are pretty tough to watch as well. In particular, Rowf is repeatedly thrown into a tank of water with no exit and allowed to practically drown -- presumably to measure his endurance or something.

Snitter, meanwhile, was subjected to experimental brain surgery before the start of the movie. It’s not really clear what the point of this surgery is, but it’s explained once as removing the wall between the subjective and the objective. Mostly, it results in Snitter having flashbacks to previous moments in his life at inopportune moments. During these flashbacks, he’s blinded to the world outside, and only sees what his memory shows him. This experimental brain surgery is really the only part of the movie that would traditionally be considered science fiction. But the whole thing is about animal experimentation and the arrogance of science and all that. If a movie about the ramifications of scientific research doesn’t count as science fiction, then we may have to reassess what science fiction is.

As far as the normal movie things go, I liked the story a lot -- even though there didn’t seem to be any possible happy ending. (Spoiler alert: In an odd twist of the usual paradigm, the book is apparently cheerier on the ultimate prospects of the dogs than the movie is. I haven’t read the book myself, but the comment boards on IMDb were pretty vocal on this subject.) There were some particular scenes that I thought were overwrought -- the accidental human death especially comes out of nowhere and is handled in a way that made me laugh out loud in a totally inappropriate way. The animation is pretty neat though. In addition to featuring more realistic character designs, the movie also has a dull, muddy look that fits well with the Scottish setting and the dispiriting, quasi-misanthropic themes. If you’re a fan of animation (especially animation for adults) or if you’re just interested in movies that are unique or unusual, then I’d definitely recommend checking it out.

THE PLAGUE DOGS would also make an interesting double feature with THE SECRET OF NIMH (1982) -- another animated flick from the same year which is coincidentally also about escaped laboratory animals. I’m not going to write about THE SECRET OF NIMH separately, but it’s worth a mention here. It was directed and produced by Don Bluth, a former Disney animator who left the company and started competing directly with his former employer by putting out high-quality cartoon movies like THE SECRET OF NIMH, AN AMERICAN TAIL (1986), and THE LAND BEFORE TIME (1988). In fact, Bluth’s movies often went head-to-head with Disney’s animated releases and beat them at the box office. To be fair, the 1970s and 1980s were not exactly rife with animated Disney classics, and some folks credit Bluth’s movies with shocking Disney out of its slump. After the 1980s, Bluth continued to turn out animated films and achieved some mainstream success again with ANASTASIA (1997) and notice among sci-fi fans with TITAN A.E. (2000).

In any event, THE SECRET OF NIMH is pretty exciting and surprisingly dark -- as it opens, the main (mouse) character’s husband has just been violently killed, her son is sick with a serious case of pneumonia, and a human farmer’s equipment is about to plow her home under and kill everyone still inside. There’s a lot of tension and action -- including some bloody swordfights -- but it still looks a lot like a kids’ movie and is clearly intended to be enjoyed by children. But since it contains hardly any pandering at all, there’s no reason adults can’t like it too.

I will say that the “message” of the movie strikes me as a little lame in places. The escaped lab animals I referred to earlier are rats who were made hyper-intelligent by the National Institute of Mental Health (the “NIMH” of the title, natch) and who then used their newfound smarts to escape the lab. They now live under a rosebush in this farmer’s yard, and in the past few years have figured out how to tap into the power grid and provide electricity to their colony. That’s not the lame part, though. The lame part is that in this movie, increases in intelligence and knowledge are linked directly to increases in moral awareness. The rats are preparing to move out of their home because they have realized that stealing is wrong, and they no longer want to rely on the human power grid to serve their needs.

To be fair, there is some internal disagreement among the rats about whether the move is really necessary. But the ones who want to stay and continue stealing are depicted as both morally corrupt and also not as intelligent as the others. If you don’t know stealing is wrong, says the movie, then you really aren’t that smart. That’s fine, I guess. But if the rats who want to stay aren’t even intelligent enough to be capable of moral awareness, then why should I feel satisfied when they get their comeuppance? Where’s the justice in punishing folks who don’t know right from wrong? Granted, it’s not 100% clear this is what the movie is saying, but that’s because the motivations the rats have for wanting to leave or wanting to stay are glossed over. THE SECRET OF NIMH is still an exciting, interesting movie -- but it doesn’t feel like as much thought was put into the moral center of the movie as was put into the world of mice and rats.