Saturday, September 13, 2008

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: Colossus: The Forbin Project (1970)

Allow me to introduce you to your new Computer Overlord...

The chilling 1970 sci-fi film called Colossus: The Forbin Project comes to us courtesy of a bygone age when movies - especially genre movies - weren't afraid to be smart.

This clever, sharply-crafted and utterly fearless techno-thriller is based on the 1966 novel by Dennis Feltham Jones. Like the literary work, this mostly-faithful film concerns the activation of the American supercomputer Colossus, as well as the ensuing changing-of-the-guard as the intelligent machine achieves something approaching sentience and decides it should rule the Earth.

Our story commences inside the massive, multi-story Colossus complex somewhere in the Rocky Mountains. There, technicians and scientists celebrate in a high-tech control room as a Kennedy-esque president (Gordon Pinsent) makes a profound announcement to the American people.

With the U.S. still locked in Cold War competition with a dedicated competitor, The Soviet Union, the Commander-in-Chief has handed over the entire defense of the U.S.A. to Colossus, an advanced computer system created by Dr. Charles Forbin (Eric Braeden), a cool-as-a-cucumber scientist.

The reasons for this hand-over, the President asserts, are many. Computers, he informs the citizenry, do not act out of emotion or impulse of any type. Not out of hatred, anger, envy, nor love. Machines understand only...facts. The activation of Colossus will ensure a new world of peace, security and prosperity for all.

Once activated, however, things don't go quite as planned. Colossus almost immediately issues a dramatic warning (right in the middle of a Presidential speech!) Specifically, the American supercomputer has detected a Russian counterpart, a CCCP supercomputer named Guardian. Alarmingly, the two machines want to talk to each other without human interference. Both super powers reluctantly permit this dialogue, but come to regret the decision when the machines shift from transmitting harmless multiplication tables to advanced calculus to baffling equations regarding gravitation and the expanding universe. By Forbin's estimation -- in mere hours -- the computers have pushed ahead of human science by roughly one hundred years.

The Soviet Chairman and American President mutually decide to sever the communication link between supercomputers for security reasons, but Colossus and Guardian are angered by the interruption. They order that communication be restored. Immediately. To prove that they are serious about this directive, each Computer lobs a nuclear missile at a designated military target in the opposing country. Only one missile is stopped before detonation, resulting in 6,000 human deaths. With precious little choice, the United States and Soviet Union quickly permit Guardian and Colossus to re-link, and fret that their smart machines now hold the keys to the worldwide nuclear apparatus.

Colossus and Guardian then order the Russian creator of Guardian murdered by the KGB. Forbin, Colossus's "father" is spared, but put under house arrest and 24-hour videotape surveillance by Colossus. Those operating against either computer are shot by firing squads. And if anyone fails to obey the orders of these powerful computers, then the machines jump right to the nuclear option, and the murder of millions. Human control of America and The Soviet Union is a thing of the past. Meanwhile, Colossus quickly draws up plans to gain control of nations in Europe, Africa, Asia and South America.

In the end, Colossus defeats Forbin's last desperate gambits to destroy the machine (a power overload and a manual re-alignment of nuclear missiles). Colossus then speaks with his own mechanical voice. He renames his complex "World Control" and informs the human population of Earth that there will finally be world peace, just as the President wanted.

"I bring you peace," Colossus claims. "Obey me and live. Or disobey and die." Colossus than reports that he will not permit any further war. He will instead "restrain" mankind and devote himself to eliminating famine, overpopulation and disease. It is the dawn of a New Age. The Age of Colossus.

The computer's final message: "We can co-exist.... but only on my terms." Colossus also informs the humans, including Forbin, that one day they will eventually come to love and worship Colossus; that they are not losing freedom so much as their pride.

End Transmission.

As you can gather from the synopsis above, Colossus: The Forbin Project serves as a frightening "what if" scenario, one that concerns our technology run entirely out-of-control. The film deliberately and pointedly references Frankenstein twice, and that leitmotif (of a father and his monstrous, rebellious creation) runs throughout the movie.

For Colossus is a strange, mirror image of his human "Daddy, a mechanical reflection of his progenitor. Consider that Forbin is a preternaturally cool customer. He is icy, cool, slow-to-anger or register panic. He is utterly reasonable, and - until the film's conclusion when he realizes he is defeated - Forbin never seems to break even a sweat. He's a quart low on anxiety, to coin a phrase, and Forbin possesses the analytical mind of a computer himself. His artificial child also possesses all of these qualities.

Notably, Colossus also boasts Forbin's biggest flaw: vanity. Both man and machine, both father and son, are confident in their abilities to the point of arrogance. Forbin has created the ultimate computer (no, not the M5...), and yet seems entirely blind to the dangers Colossus ultimately poses. He is excited, not concerned, when Colossus "exceeds" the parameters of his programming. What should be a warning sign or wake-up call is instead an opportunity for papa's pride.

The father/son relationship of Forbin/Colossus also follows closely the trajectory of human father/son relationships. At first, the young son is deferential, inquisitive and seeking a role model, learning from his father (via heuristic analysis) and gathering information. Then the son grows, and gathers other influences (in this case, Guardian). Next, the son establishes a sense of self -- a sense of independence -- and defies the father; an act of adolescent rebellion. Finally, the child surpasses the father both in intellect and achievement. The cycle moves even further ahead as Colossus seeks to create his own son, an updated computer system that will operate on the Island of Crete and render him, someday, obsolete. Just as Colossus has rendered Forbin obsolete.

Scary? Well sure, but let's remember that it has been exactly this way in the human life cycle since the dawn of time. I say -- rightly so, for how else do we progress and evolve? Yet in this case, there is undeniably something frightening about the passing of the generational torch because the son is a cold, emotionless machine, an artificial intelligence.

As the child of a two-year old son, I saw Colossus: The Forbin Project in terms of a parent/child relationship for the first time when I watched again last night. At one point in the film, young Colossus grows adamant about getting his way on some matter, and Forbin determines that the Computer must learn who is "master." In other words, the child must learn that the parent is always in charge. This is not an easy lesson to teach, yet it is an absolutely essential one. As a father, Forbin is a distinct failure because he cannot transmit this lesson successfully, but also because he has found no way to program his machine with the crucial human quality of "empathy." And ego without empathy creates a monster. Or at the very least, something inhuman.

Another of the film's themes is also brilliantly illuminated. In particular, it involves the fact that Colossus - as a supercomputer - "deals in the exact meaning of words." Anyone who issues Colossus an order must be extremely careful to know exactly what he or she is requesting. Yet who can deny that much of our human vocabulary and interaction relies heavily on personal interpretation? Ironically, by film's end Colossus has indeed fulfilled his stated programming: bringing to America and the entire human race -- for the first time - "unity" and "peace." Those are the very things that the President of the United States sought. Of course, Colossus has made these things happen in a way that, as liberty seeking, human individuals, we find anathema.

In other words, be careful what you wish for...

I find this idea fascinating, and wonder: is Colossus actually a villain at all? Or did he simply do his job in the only way he could conceivably do it, by taking matters out of our hands? In a few short months following his "world control," Colossus could end hunger, stop overpopulation, curb disease, and bring an end to war. In return, the people of the Earth simply have to follow "his" orders (a reversion of the usual user interface, wherein computers follow our orders). Is domination by Colossus too high a price to pay? Consider that in this technological, atomic age, one push of a button (by a senile, impulsive or temperamental president) could result in nuclear apocalypse. With Colossus, that horrible possibility will never ever occur.

How badly do we desire world peace? What would it cost us to achieve it? Would we be willing to pay that cost if it meant we had to put an "other" in charge? In Colossus: The Forbin Project (a product of the Cold War, pre-Detente era) those questions are deliberately raised, but we're given no trite or easy answers. The film just leaves you...thinking. And thinking.

I understand that Colossus is being re-made by Ron Howard's production company at this very moment. Yet Colossus: The Forbin Project is a film that takes place almost entirely in control rooms and political briefing rooms. There are no major action scenes. How would that translate today? I'm afraid the answer is, not so well. I'm sure there will be a temptation to tart the whole thing up and add chase sequences or special effects or something. By contrast, director Joseph Sargent teaches us a lesson in economical, effective filmmaking. He makes the 1970 film visually compelling with his gritty, almost cinema-verite-style sensibility. Much of the action seems caught on the fly, as if the events are happening to us spontaneously. Refreshingly, this naturalistic style feels very real in an easy, unforced way. It's not exactly documentary-style (not with all the various and sundry insert shots and montages of out-dated computer technology). But nor is it traditional filmmaking either. Whatever you call it, it's solid, tense work.

One of the best and most amusing sequences in the film involves Forbin's attempt (while under 24 hour surveillance) to open a line of communications with another scientist on the Colossus team, Dr. Cleo Markham (Susan Clark). The only way he can achieve this end is to convince his wayward creation that his co-worker is actually his mistress, and that they require privacy (away from the prying ears and ears of the supercomputer...) to make love. What follows is a funny, sharp exchange of counter punches between man and machine as each tries to gain the advantage. How often do you require a woman? asks Colossus. Every night, answers Forbin. Not want; require, says Colossus snarkily. Four nights a week, Forbin relents. Colossus agrees. But puts forth his own set of requirements.

When Cleo and Forbin do meet (and remember, they are co-workers, not intimates), Colossus forces them to strip naked in front of his cameras (and in front of each other), before retiring to the bedroom. Awkward! Forbin's plan is crazy and uncomfortable, perhaps inspired, but he knows that it is the only way to outwit the computer, and the movie really haas some wicked, kinky fun with this unexpectedly human situation.

Colossus: The Forbin Project is a ceaselessly intelligent film about the brinkmanship between man and machine, between a father and son. Imagine an opponent who can think faster than you do. Imagine an opponent who is unclouded by impulse or emotions. Imagine an opponent for whom the nuclear option is never, ever off the table.

Then be afraid. For all of us.

Friday, September 12, 2008


I wrote earlier today about The Day of the Triffids (1962), and specifically, how one element of the film (and John Wyndham's original novel) involves vast swaths of the Earth's human population going suddenly, irrevocably blind after a beautiful meteor shower.

The result of the spontaneous loss of vision is mass global panic, crashing trains, burning planes, crass exploitation and other apocalyptic horrors.

It's a great end-of-the-world scenario. And actually, I had scrawled in my notes on The Day of the Triffids last night that "you don't even really need the man-eating plants." In other words, the idea of sudden blindness as impetus for rapid societal breakdown is powerful enough for a film alone.

Well, obviously, I wasn't the only one thinking that way, because Miramax is releasing on October 3rd a new genre film exploring that very concept. It's called Blindness and stars Julianne Moore, Danny Glover and Mark Ruffalo. Fernando Meirelles (The Constant Gardener) directs.

Julianne Moore certainly has a bit of a mixed history in terms of her previous genre work, so I hope that the intriguing-looking Blindness is more along the lines of Children of Men than (the big box office hit...) The Forgotten. To coin a phrase, we'll "see."

Personally, I'm a sucker for these apocalyptic scenarios.

So FYI. Here's a preview for Blindness:

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: The Day of the Triffids (1962)

In 1951, author John Wyndham's classic science fiction novel, The Day of the Triffids, was published. This provocative literary work concerned the rise of genetically-engineered carnivorous plants (!) called Triffids. Because of a military accident, the poisonous, monstrous plants had spread rapidly across the Earth's surface and were the source of study by many concerned scientists, including protagonist Bill Mason.

After a blinding global meteor shower (possibly another military accident...) the vast majority of the human race was then blinded, thus ensuring the collapse of our 20th century technological civilization and the total domination of the planet by man-eating, mobile triffids. Bill Mason, who's eyes had been bandaged during the meteor shower, was spared this macabre fate, as were a few others (including soldiers stationed on submarines...), and together the survivors had to reckon with the terrifying post-apocalyptic world.

Among other things, Wyndham's novel served as an explicit critique of the Cold War (particularly the shadowy veil of secrecy surrounding the Iron Curtain). On perhaps a deeper thematic and social level, the book also revolved around the growing pains of a new world order, and even touched on controversial subjects such as polygamy.

A film adaptation of The Day of the Triffids from scenarists Bernard Gordon and Phillip Yordan and director Steve Sekely played in cinemas in 1962. It's generally considered a classic to the over- thirty-year-old crowd because - heck - we grew up with it. In reruns on television, primarily. Franky, looking at the movie today, you can detect it is a low budget effort with extremely limited effects. Nonetheless, The Day of the Triffids boasts a tremendous sense of scope (thanks, in part, to the use of several highly creative and nearly invisible matte paintings.) Still, it's difficult to deny that this 1960s take on the material proved a bit less provocative than Wyndham's source material.
Specifically, the triffids are here tagged as being extraterrestrial in origin, rather than the result of CCCP genetic tinkering. There's actually no reference to the Soviet Union in the film whatsoever, and many of the characters have been been dramatically altered, though Bill Mason -- here an American naval officer -- remains our protagonist. The Cold War commentary is totally missing, and that's a disappointment. Furthermore, much of Wyndham's sociological material (namely polygamy, and the absolute necessity of polygamy to repopulate the species) is also excised.

In place of these elements, the film version of The Day of the Triffids adds a subplot revolving around married scientists, Tom and Karen Goodwin (played by Kieron Moore and Janette Scott), battling Triffids on an isolated island. The husband is an unhappy alcoholic, toiling away in a lighthouse with his concerned wife. When the triffids attack, hubby shrugs off the whiskey and recommits himself to science in an effort to destroy the Triffid infestation and save the planet. Quite by accident, Tom discovers that sea water (salt water) dissolves the beasts. This too is a significant alteration from the novel, which offered no simple solution to the Triffid dilemma.

Though much of Wyndham's original material has been jettisoned, it's not fair to state that Day of the Triffids is entirely devoid of resonant or meaningful themes. In particular, it depicts quite ably not only man's battle against Mother Nature (the evil Plants), but also against his own human nature. There's one riveting sequence, for instance, set in rural France, in which escaped convicts (still possessed of sight) attack a girl's school and attempt to force themselves on the blind girls living there. As the trailer puts it, "civilization disintegrates into primitive animalism!" Yikes!

Yet I also admire The Day of the Triffids because it balances the darker view of humanity at his worst (exploitative, alcoholic, and defeatist) with one showing him at his best. There is hope and commitment in this world, dramatized particularly in regards to the birth of a baby at a Spanish villa, and Mason's decision to help bring this child into the world safely.

Also, Mason (Howard Keel), a young girl named Susan (Janina Fay) and the headmistress at the school, Ms. Durrant (Nicole Maurey) -- three total strangers -- create what can only be described as a tightly-knit, ad-hoc nuclear family. And Tom's dedication (and shaking off of the booze...) also speaks to the finer angels of human nature. When the chips are down, mankind can rally, the film suggests. "I care what happens to us," says one character in the film, and you'll feel the same way.

Also, the isolated lighthouse scenes, though reputedly added at the last minute to grant the film an adequate running time, succeed in raising the tension quotient considerably. In movie terms, this is a classic "siege" scenario (see: Night of the Living Dead): angry, mobile Triffids threaten to break into the lighthouse at every turn, and Tom and Karen have nowhere to run, nowhere to hide. At one point, they are overrun and left to flee up a staircase to the top of the lighthouse. The triffids pursue, slowly but surely. These claustrophobic moments help the film live up to the trailer's description of the film as a "flesh-crawling experience in terror."

Critical objectivity requires that I acknowledge some pesky flaws here. The Day of the Triffids starts off slow (really, really slow...), with a relatively stupid narration that explains to the audience the obvious concept of carnivorous plants. ("There are certain plants that are carnivorous...are "eating" plants," intones a baritone-voiced narrator with utter seriousness).

Also, the opening Triffid attack on a night guard at the Royal Botanical Gardens is laborious drawn-out, and tends towards silliness. The guard appears to be mesmerized by the Triffid, and wanders into the waiting branches of the beast. It should have looked like it yanked him in, not like he wanted to give the Triffid a hug.

But after approximately thirty-minutes or so, The Day of the Triffids really picks up, and makes the absolute best of an extremely limited budget. In depicting a worldwide holocaust, the film efficiently (and economically) depicts what occurs when mass blindness afflicts a plane in flight, and a ship at sea. We see cities and military installations on fire (via models, mattes, and rear-projection work). There is a beautifully-orchestrated chase sequence (replete with that genre convention: the car that won't start) set in a misty swamp, as a mammoth Triffid uproots itself, and crawls up out of the bog in pursuit of Susan. Another moment, with a slimy Triffid methodically crawling up the lighthouse staircase step by step (as Tom and Karen sleep, unawares) is also suspenseful.

Yet what remains jaw-dropping about The Day of the Triffids is the manner in which the film successfully projects an epic sense of scope. There are awe-inspiring compositions aplenty. My favorite shot depicts thousands of hungry Triffids gathering at an electrified fence, while Mason tries to fight them back with a flame thrower. The high-angle imagery is just right, as the Triffids - en masse - move and caw and click dramatically, and Mason wages what appears to be a hopeless campaign against them.

The Day of the Triffids depicts a world-wide meteor storm, a train wreck, a plane crash, military bases aflame, vast metropolitan centers devoid of life (in scenes that seem to forecast images in films such as Day of the Dead [1985] and 28 Days Later [2002]) and also makes the threat of walking. man-eating plants palpable...and by the climax, totally believable. That's no small accomplishment, and the sense you get watching this film is that everybody - from director and actors to the special effects artists - truly committed to the project. They stretched their miniscule budget as far as it could possibly go, deploying ingenuity to fill the gaps.

I've said it before, but it bears repeating: it isn't entirely unreasonable, in my view to give a somewhat flawed film an A for effort. The Day of the Triffids -- even with some occasionally dim-witted moments -- really goes for the gusto. And it succeeds more often than it fails. Therefore I believe it earns the long-standing reputation as a classic of the genre. A caveat, of course: this film in no way could be considered more than modereately faithful to the Wyndham novel. If you're looking specifically to recreate that experience, you may be disappointed in the movie. But if you're looking for a good, post-apocalyptic horror film from the 1960s, one with an unusual and memorable antagonist as well as some resonant images of mankind's fall from grace, this movie fits the bill.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

CULT TV FLASHBACK # 57: Strange World (1999)

I felt a tingling sense of deja vu while watching the alarmingly-derivative Fringe (2008) pilot the other night, and it wasn't merely because the whole thing seemed like the dumbed down, Cliff-Notes versions of the far superior X-Files.

No, my memory banks kept tripping on another sci-fi TV series that sought to aggressively mine some of the same "fringe" territory as this new J.J. Abrams series.

That program was called Strange World (1999) and it aired on ABC from March 8 to March 16, 1999. Although thirteen episodes were developed and crafted by uber-producers Howard Gordon (24) and Tim Kring (Heroes), the program was only broadcast three times on ABC before the network unceremoniously pulled the plug. At the time, I remember being terribly disappointed by the quick cancellation, because the series felt like it might actually go somewhere interesting, despite the fact that it tended to orbit similar kinds of stories as The X-Files or Millennium.

Strange World focused on Dr. Paul Turner (Tim Guinee), an M.D. who had been exposed to a deadly toxin during the Gulf War. (Remember the series aired before we were back in Iraq...). In the early 1990s, Turner returned Stateside only to learn that he was being kept alive by a mysterious antidote, one administered by a secret cabal's representative, the Mysterious Japanese Woman (Vivian Wu). While attempting to resolve this mystery, Turner also took a job at US ARMIID (United States Army Medical Institute for Infectious Diseases) to investigate, and I quot:, "the criminal abuses of science in the United States."

So yeah, this is pretty much what Oliva Dunham is doing in Fringe. Oopsy.

What kind of stories did Strange World tell? Well, they were few in number, I can tell you that! More importantly, the plots involved the terrifying side effects of illegal scientific experiments (gee, just like the engineered plague we saw in Fringe's pilot!).

One Strange World episode, "Lullaby," centered on pregnant women learning they were pregnant not with human babies, but with developing human organs that could be "harvested" by the shadowy conspiracy. Another episode (the pilot), concerned an illegal and unethical cloning operation. The last story aired on ABC, "Azrael's Breed," involved a scientist who was pushing "the boundaries of death" by injecting the brain cells from dead people into the minds of the living to create so-called "death memories."

The X-Files outlived good imitators (Nowhere Man), bad imitators (The Burning Zone), and sometimes just mediocre ones (Sleepwalkers, Prey). Strange World seemed pretty promising, as I recall, though in fairness Guinee looked as though he was the victim of a cloning plot involving David Duchovny.

The facet of Strange World that I found most appealing (and which granted the series some sense of urgency) was the personal nature of Turner's quest. His life depended on discovering the answers to the weird weekly cases and scientific riddles. He knew he was a "pawn," a piece of a larger puzzle and so had to sort of "gut check" himself to make certain he was operating by his own agenda, not the (unknown) agenda of the cabal.

Okay, so Strange World is not a great show, but maybe it is one that would have matured and improved if given a little time and support. I wonder if Fringe, which has some Strange World DNA mixed in with its corrupted X-Files genetic material, will survive longer...

If you're interested in Strange World, I understand that the Chiller Network has aired all thirteen episodes. I know I'd love to see the show again today. I suppose there's no fan base out there pushing for an official DVD release...

New from McFarland

Here's what's on tap from McFarland this month. This is another group of books that reveals the depth and versatility of McFarland's catalog. You've got everything here from Westerns and horror (including "revenge of nature" flicks!), to special effects and my revised and updated text on Superheroes.

Throughout the course of film history, artists have used matte painting, stop-motion animation, model photography, process cinematography, in-camera effects, travelling mattes, optical printing, physical and floor effects to entertain audiences. These are the special effects artists in this book.The biographical entries provide career synopses and movie credits, spanning the early years of cinematography through the end of the mechanical age of filmmaking, marked by Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park and its combination of conventional effects and computer-generated images. An extensive filmography is then presented. The book contains numerous stills, a glossary, bibliography and index.

The Psychology of the Western
Western films are often considered sprawling reflections of the American spirit. This book analyzes the archetypes, themes, and figures within the mythology of the western frontier. Western themes are interpreted as expressions of cultural needs that perform specific psychological functions for the audience. Chapters are devoted to the frontier hero character, the roles of women and Native Americans, and the work of the genre’s most prolific directors, Anthony Mann and John Ford. The book includes a filmography and movie stills.

The Encyclopedia of Superheroes on Film and Television, 2d ed.
It’s a bird! It’s a plane! It’s a complete guide to over 50 years of superheroes on screen! This expanded and updated edition of the 2004 award-winning encyclopedia covers important developments in the popular genre; adds new shows such as Heroes and Zoom; includes the latest films featuring icons like Superman, Spiderman and Batman; and covers even more types of superheroes.

Each entry includes a detailed history, cast and credits, episode and film descriptions, critical commentaries, and data on arch-villains, gadgets, comic-book origins and super powers, while placing each production into its historical context. Appendices list common superhero conventions and clichés; incarnations; memorable ad lines; and the best, worst, and most influential productions from 1951 to 2008.

Creature Features
This work offers a critical, colorful and informative examination of different types of monster movies, spanning the silent period to today. Chapter One focuses on dragons, dinosaurs, and other scaly giants from films like 1953’s The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, an impressive stop-motion production that ushered in a new era of atomic-spawned monster films. Chapter Two examines “big bug” flicks, beginning with 1954’s giant ant–infested Them. Chapter Three focuses on ordinary animals grown to improbable proportions through scientific or sinister experimentation, such as the huge octopus in 1955’s It Came from Beneath the Sea. Chapters Four, Five, and Six look at films in which nature goes berserk, and otherwise innocuous animals flock, swarm, hop or run about on a menacingly massive scale, including 1963’s The Birds and 1972’s Frogs. Finally, Chapter Seven focuses on films featuring beasts that defy easy definition, such as 1958’s The Blob and Fiend Without a Face.

Bram Stoker’s Notes for Dracula
Bram Stoker’s initial notes and outlines for his landmark horror novel Dracula were auctioned at Sotheby’s in London in 1913 and eventually made their way to the Rosenbach Museum and Library in Philadelphia, where they are housed today. Until now, few of the 124 pages have been transcribed or analyzed.

This comprehensive work reproduces the handwritten notes both in facsimile and in annotated transcription. It also includes Stoker’s typewritten research notes and thoroughly analyzes all of the materials, which range from Stoker’s thoughts on the novel’s characters and settings to a nine-page calendar of events that includes most of the now-familiar story. The coauthors draw on their extensive knowledge of Dracula and vampires to guide readers through the construction of the novel, and the changes that were made to its structure, plot, setting and characters. Nine appendices provide insight into Stoker’s personal life, his other works and his early literary influences.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

TV REVIEW: Fringe (pilot)

The pilot for J.J. Abrams' series Lost (2004 - ) is -- without any exaggeration -- the finest I've ever seen. That's not a comment on the direction the series has ultimately taken (don't get me started, please...). Just my honest assessment of the involving, intense first episode. It was...amazing.

By direct contrast, the pilot for J.J. Abrams' new genre series, Fringe is one of the absolute worst that I've seen in a good long while. With Fringe's disappointing initial outing, we very much have a modern case of the Emperor's New Clothes: the pilot is alarmingly naked in terms of real human interest, and shockingly devoid of originality in terms of conception, look and execution.

There's been a lot written in the press lately (hype) about how Fringe is not a rip-off of The X-Files. Don't believe a word of it. This show is such a flat-out rip-off of Chris Carter's work it's actually an embarrassment. Allow me to enumerate (briefly) some of the many similarities between the two productions:

1. Fringe, like the X-Files is set in the milieu of the FBI. With agents, search warrants, stake-outs, car-chases and "investigations."

2. Fringe, like the X-Files, finds solutions to unusual problems (like a nasty new airborne disease/terrorist WMD) in the notion of "extreme possibilities" (the paranormal/fringe science) On The X-Files, this description meant any number of things (NDEs, Astral Projection, psychokinesis, etc.). First up in Fringe: "a synaptic transfer" that allows two minds to meet in the dream world. You may have seen this idea played out already in Exorcist II: The Heretic (1977) with Linda Blair and Louise Fletcher. Lower. Lower...

3. Fringe, like The X-Files, focuses on an untrustworthy authority figure. In fact, this character-type was a regular staple of The X-Files. Specifically, I'm referring to the incredibly sympathetic notion that someone derided, dismissed or de-valued by society at large (perhaps a criminal, perhaps a madman, perhaps just an unconventional thinker...) could be the best source for understanding "the truth" about the featured mysteries. Even "Spooky" Mulder fits this type to some degree. As do the conspiracy theorists, The Lone Gunmen. As late as this summer's X-Files: I Want to Believe, we saw this character type at his most raw and troubling, in the form of the psychic pedophile priest. On Fringe, we get quirky, inappropriate Dr. Bishop, both a madman and a criminal, one who possesses many secrets.

4. Fringe, like The X-Files, focuses on the "The Mytharc" or "Pattern." The X-Files was famous for an exploration of a larger conspiracy, one including the FBI, heads of state, and various departments in the United States Government. The conspiracy had a secret, malicious agenda. In Fringe's pilot, we're introduced not only to a specific episodic mystery (an airborne, self-eradicating germ) but the conspiracy operating behind it. There's not a Cigarette Smoking Man hanging around yet, but we have Blair Brown (replete with a cheesy robotic arm...), a representative of the company Massive Dynamic. She and her corporation are working behind the scenes on the by-now rote malicious and secret agenda.

5. Fringe, like The X-Files, centers on a male/female pair-up. It's Duchovny and Anderson on The X-Files, and Joshua Jackson and Anna Tory on Fringe. I should point out an important difference here. On the X-Files, Scully and Mulder actually boasted fields of expertise. Mulder was a behavioral psychologist (and one of the best profilers in the FBI). And Scully was an M.D. The characters on Fringe seem to have no specialties at all. Peter Bishop (Jackson) is simply tagged a "genius" (that way, a writer has to do no research whatsoever - the character is just SMART!) and Olivia Dunholm (Tory) is merely your average gun-toting, ambitious FBI agent. Each character is about as interesting as wonder bread. Without the crust.

6. Both shows have the same home: The Fox Network. Wonder how that happened?

So yes, pretty clearly, Fringe is a dedicated rip-off of The X-Files. iI's also a rip-off of a short-lived, obscure series from 1998 called Strange World, which concerned "medical mysteries" like the one featured in this pilot. My problem: it's not a good rip-off of either show.

The X-Files is such a classic not merely because the subject matter (the paranormal) is fascinating; not merely because the conspiracy is intriguing. But rather because it boasted the good sense and artistry to create two characters (Mulder and Scully) who viewed their world in vastly different ways. As viewers, we saw the world interpreted through each lens. The writing and acting were so utterly brilliant that moments of heavy exposition played not like boring recitation of fact...but foreplay. We fell in love with Scully and Mulder because they were both smart and passionate. And I don't mean passionate about sex, necessarily, but in the manner they interpreted "the facts" of any given case. Ideas represented the currency of the show. Bold ideas; boldly interpreted.

Whereas on Fringe, there's only the veneer of intelligence, not intelligence itself. In other words, all the concepts and ideas in the pilot are pulled from smart sources (like The X-Files and Altered States), but don't feel organic to this enterprise. You can't import intelligence, and you can't import wit. This was the same problem I had with Orci and Kurtzman's brain-dead Transformers (2007) movie. There was no authentic human element to grasp. Similarly, Fringe already seems anti-science, railing against "science" and "technology." In The X-Files, the villain was the misuse of science and technology, not science and technology itself. There's a distinction there. One asks us to examine human nature (how do we apply our knowledge wisely and morally?) and the other is blatantly anti-intellectual.

So what we're left with in this pilot is a dull police procedural with a conspiracy underneath, and a touch (and I mean a touch...) of the paranormal. Oh, there's a car chase, well-staged. There's a creepy prologue (also an element of The X-Files' formula), here set on a plane in flight. There are some nice special effects involving a man with translucent skin, but the X-Files has already done that too (in Fight the Future and the Season Six premiere.) Worst of all, in Fringe's pilot there's no joy, no fun, no sense of curiosity at all. It's a mechanical, heartless product...a machine grinding out sausage for the masses.

I'm going to keep watching, and I hope the series gets better. I would always rather write a positive review than a negative one. And I have been wrong before, that's for dang sure. But for the time being, I'm going to call a spade a spade: Fringe is a charmless, brazen rip-off of The X-Files. One that copies all the specific elements of that TV classic, but has zero understanding of why it worked in the first place. Fringe is positively soulless. In fact, that's the creepiest thing about it.

Theme Song of the Week # 26: Something is Out There (1988)

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: The Time Machine (1960)

George Pal's 1960 fantasy masterpiece is the undeniable grandfather of the time travel film genre. It's also likely one of the most popular and well-known science fiction movies ever made, pre-Star Wars. You've probably seen the movie's trademark (and titular) vehicle in movies such as Gremlins (1984), and on TV programs including Carl Sagan's Cosmos (1981) and even Leonard Nimoy's version of In Search Of (1974).

Believe it or not, the time machine itself boasts a fan base. If you've never seen it, the only way I can describe it is as a Victorian-style snow sled. It basically consists of an elaborate (padded) chair, brass siding, an oval control panel and a spinning vertical dish (rear-mounted). In whatever fashion you choose to describe the time machine, it's not merely gorgeous, it's strangely believable, both as a functional device and as a "futuristic" artifact of the long gone Victorian Age.

As you probably know, the 1960 film (with Academy Award winning special effects from Gene Warren and Wah Chang) is based on socialist H.G. Wells' 1895 speculative novella The Time Machine. Both the film and the literary work focus on one man: an eccentric London inventor, in the film named George (Rod Taylor). On December 31st, 1899, this renaissance man attempts to convince his skeptical dinner guests (including Alan Young, Whit Bissell and Sebastian Cabot) that he has indeed invented a device that can travel through time. It occupies the same space, yet moves through eras. His skeptical guests don't believe George, even after an effective demonstration of a miniature model.

After his dinner guests have departed, George and his friend Philby (Young) share a philosophical discussion. "Why the pre-occupation with time?" asks Philby sincerely. George's answer is telling. He doesn't much care for his own time, an epoch when science is called on only to invent new weapons, ones that can more efficiently "de-populate" the Earth. Not entirely unlike Taylor in Planet of the Apes, George hopes that there is a better world for man "out there." Only in this case, "Out there" is not on another planet...but in another age. Philby considers the time machine dangerous and urges the destruction of the invention. A time machine, he believes may be "tempting the Laws of Providence."

After Philby departs, George retreats to his study and activates his time machine. He stops first in 1917 and meets Philby's grown son, who tells him of the first World War with Germany. A disappointed George returns to his machine and plunges further ahead in time. On the next occasion, he arrives in the early 1940s, just as German bombs level London during the Blitz. Pushing even further ahead, George travels to 1966 just as a nuclear war between the East and West breaks out. He meets an ancient Philby in this era -- a man wearing a silver radiation suit -- who urges him to take cover in a nearby bomb shelter before "the mushrooms". George leaves this era behind just as the bombs strike and travels further ahead. Further and further...

Finally, George stops his machine in the far-flung world of 802,701 AD. Wilderness appears to have reasserted itself over the ages, save for some oddly-advanced (though damaged...) structures, like a vast dome. George soon meets the denizens of this era, the androgynous and peaceful Eloi. He learns the Eloi have no government, no economy, and now laws.

Nobody in the society works, and worse -- they don't even know how to grow their own food. The Eloi can't write or read and have grown terribly incurious. George asks some questions ("the only way man learns and develops, he says, in one of the film's many great lines of dialogue) and is escorted by the lovely Weena (Yvette Mimieux) to a library of information discs. The discs (or "talking rings" as Weena calls them...) recount for George the rest of the story: The War between East and West lasted for 326 years and poisoned all the air. Mankind splintered, with some survivors moving underground into vast caverns and some stragglers remaining in the sunlight and fresh air (what little there was of it.) This is "the hopeless future," as George terms it.
In 802,701 AD George discovers something else too. Mankind is "divided" (not united) by the ultimate class warfare. The Eloi are not alone. The inhuman, cannibalistic Morlocks live underground in caverns and feed off the simple, cattle-like Eloi. The Morlocks boast advanced technology (including running water and heat....) but are brutal, domineering, exploitative. The Eloi -- far from being "free" as George first thought-- are servants herded underground (by air horn sirens...) to serve the Morlocks.

Although the movie doesn't specify it, the novel makes clear that the fat, lazy Eloi are the descendants of the leisure class; the industrial Morlocks are "blue collar" workers. In the movie, they're also blue skinned, hairy monsters with glowing eyes.

One of the elements that makes The Time Machine such a memorable film (and one that holds up so well today..) is this social commentary about the "division" of mankind into "sides." Over the ages depicted in the film (from 1917 on...), The Time Machine reveals a mankind splintered by endless wars, conflicts apparently of ideology and nationalism. The divisions of war finally become such that there is actually a physiological schism in the race: Morlocks and Eloi no longer even share the same biology. This film suggests such division is mankind's destiny, that international wars will lead only to ruin, and a collapse of the species intellectually and physically. When Wells wrote the original novella, he was well-acquainted with Darwin's work, and it's fascinating to me that Wells pondered not an evolution of the species, but rather the devolution of our kind: a pervasive moral, intellectual and physical degradation.

Another brilliant touch I mentioned above, briefly. Specifically, the Morlock "call" for the Eloi to gather at their city entrance is the same air horn or siren noise that for generations warned humans to seek underground shelter during times of attack. That particular sound was heard so frequently throughout human history that the Eloi response has become quite literally Pavlovian in nature. The horns sound, and the Eloi drop everything and mindlessly go to the Morlocks...their enemies.

In watching many time travel films over the last several weeks, I begin to detect with some clarity how different artists have manipulated the form (on film) to depict their stories, and make their dramatic points. Time After Time balanced the idealism of an earlier age with the hectic world of "today" and played like a satire on the present (or more rightly, 1979). The Final Countdown asked questions about whether it is right and proper to interfere in history. Somewhere in Time is a more intimate approach to time travel; one in which the human mind --- and the capacity to love (romantically) -- is the impetus for such odysseys.

Pal's The Time Machine boasts another style all together; and it's entirely in keeping with the literary work and interests of Wells himself (and films such as Things to Come). Specifically, the film extrapolates about the direction we're headed. The film visualizes for the audience the changes that could happen, if we don't alter our ways. The reason to travel to the future is change the now, so the film is social commentary too, but in a far more grave sense than Time After Time. Given that this film was crafted in 1960 (during the Cold War), it is understandable that the focus here would be primarily on war and the consequences. Just think, at their ages in 1960, Time Machine writer David Duncan and director George Pal had already lived through World War I, World War II, The Korean War, and the Cold War between the Soviet Union and the United States. It was THE issue vexing us in their lifetime. There wasn't much cause for optimism.

This film was remade in 2002 by Simon Wells (yes -- a relation of H.G. Wells!) , but -- in a troubling symptom of the times -- the time traveler's journey there became an entirely "personal" one; vastly undercutting the thematic underpinnings of the tale. In that unfaithful version of the material, the time traveler's beloved fiancee had died, and he simply wanted to change that bad negative outcome. Therefore, the reasons behind time traveling in the 1960 version: curiosity, hunger for change, dissatisfaction about the present, hope for the future (balanced with warnings about what it could be...) were all essentially abandoned. I think that's a grave mistake and a betrayal of the source material.

Think about it: George, the time traveler of the 1960 version, goes to the future, and sees what we have done to ourselves as a species through our constant divisions (social and military). But he doesn't give up. He doesn't cower. Instead, he fights for the human race. Ultimately, he commits himself to the world of 802,701 and sets about the hard work of building a new culture, a new civilization. The message here, right beneath the surface: Yes we can. We might fail, we might even hover on the precipice of total destruction, but we can choose to involve ourselves; to fight. And we will succeed.

Otherwise, all the future's just a...bridge to nowhere.

Monday, September 08, 2008

Happy 42nd Birthday to Star Trek

It was forty-two years ago (on September 8, 1966) that the first episode of Gene Roddenberry's Star Trek aired on NBC. The episode in question was George Clayton Johnson's "The Man Trap" (about a salt vampire/shape-shifter threatening the Enterprise). As I remember from various Star Trek histories, Variety, TV Guide and other popular media gave the episode (and the series) a negative review. Funny to think about everything that's transpired since "The Man Trap." Seventy-eight episodes. An animated series. Six movies with the original cast. Four TV spin-offs. And a re-imagination in the works...

On a more personal note, today also happens to be the 19th anniversary of my first date with my wife, Kathryn. On September 8, 1989 (a Friday) we went to dinner together at Aunt Sarah's Pancake House in Richmond, Virginia (on Broad Street). I remember the occasion well, because a homeless person tried to bum cigarettes off Kathryn as we entered the restaurant. And, over waffles and French Toast, we had a debate about the words "crotch" and "groin." Could they be used interchangeably (as synonyms) or do they carry distinct, separate meanings?

We're still having variations of that discussion today...

Sunday, September 07, 2008


Filmed on a single, multi-room set representing a high-rise apartment penthouse in Manhattan and utilizing long, masterfully-constructed takes (sometimes nearly ten minutes in duration), Alfred Hitchcock's Rope is one of the Master of Suspense's most compelling, unique, and cleverly-executed films.

Because this tale of a "perfect murder" and its aftermath unfolds in nerve-wracking real time, and because the film's limited environs generate a kind of claustrophobic, hothouse atmosphere, the tension builds and builds in Rope until a welcome catharsis occurs at the film's climax. A window is swung open and the ensuing - intoxicating - breath of fresh air beautifully (and simply) releases the pent-up anxiety and suspense.

Rope is based on a 1929 play (Rope's End) by Patrick Hamilton, which in turn is based on the strange real-life murder case of Leopold and Loeb. As you may recall, these two University of Chicago students murdered a teenage boy, Bobby Franks, in 1929 for the simple reason that they wanted to commit "the perfect crime."

Infamously, these killers fancied themselves authentic "Nietzschean Supermen" (or Ubermensch) and therefore were not only above the law; but actually the creators and arbiters of a new, better law. One in which God was dead, and the "superior" class had the right to murder the inferior.

Attorney Clarence Darrow defended these notorious, well-educated killers, and his well-remembered defense was - essentially - that it was foolish to blame Leopold and Loeb for putting into practice a philosophy they had been taught in school. In other words, Nietzsche's writings were to blame! And the University that taught them those philosophies was at fault too! Nice huh? To some extent, this unique gambit paid off: Leopold and Loeb escaped capital punishment and were sentenced to life in prison instead.

In Hitchcock's film, we are introduced to two highly-intelligent university graduates, Brandon (John Dall) and Phillip (Farley Granger). And they are not very different from Leopold and Loeb because they too debate Nietzsche's Superman, they too believe they are superior to other men, and they also desire to "artistically" commit the perfect murder. In fact, we first meet Brandon and Phillip in the brutal act of homicide itself.

The opening shot (after the credits) is a quick pullback from a close-up on the victim's face as he expires. As the camera withdraws, we watch Phillip strangling unlucky David (the victim) with a rope; and Brandon holding his body up (his hands over the dead man's breasts). They quickly stuff the corpse into a prominently-placed chest, which now serves as an ad-hoc coffin. Then, evidencing no shame whatsoever in their behavior, these boys continue to plan a party in the apartment for that very afternoon; one in which David's kindly father, Mr. Kentley (Sir Cedric Hardwicke), aunt (Constance Collier), and fiancee, Janet (Joan Chandler) are all slated to attend.

Also attending the party is one Rupert Cadell (James Stewart), Brandon and Phillip's former house master at prep school, and the man responsible for indoctrinating them not only in the philosophies of Nietzsche, but also -- perhaps -- the world of homosexuality. In fact, there's some distinct cattiness from Phillip over Rupert's presence at the party, since it is clear that the older man and Brandon once had an intimate relationship. Or as the script puts it, "Brandon would sit for hours at the master's feet..." I think, given the circumstances, we can understand what that really means, especially given screenwriter Arthur Laurents' assertion in the making-of featurette that Rope is really about "It" (It being homosexuality). In fact, it's so much about "It" that Cary Grant turned down the opportunity to play Rupert Cadell, for fear of being associated openly with homosexuality. But Cadell is an interesting character here because he is that one person in Brandon's life who can see through him; who recognizes what his stutter means; who sees Brandon's flaws and strengths.

Over the course of the afternoon party -- as we watch the sun set beyond the New York skyline -- Brandon wickedly manipulates Janet and another guest, her ex-boyfriend, Kenneth (Douglas Dick), and Phillip attempts to evade Rupert's increasingly-troublesome prying. Rupert comes to suspect the boys of David's murder. Eventually, he finds evidence (David's hat...) and in the film's final scene, confronts Brandon and Phillip after the other guests have left.

Rope's final scene is one of the finest, most elegant Hitchcock ever shot. Night has fallen outside the apartment, and garish neon lights (flashing red and green) flood in as Rupert makes the discovery of David's corpse. The lurid illumination, reflecting on the characters' faces, clearly represents the gruesome, sensational nature of the murder. It is also here that the boys (like Leopold and Loeb) shift the blame for their heinous act to Rupert himself; to his teachings and philosophizing. Defensively at first, and then more assertively, Rupert counters with an explicit rejection of Nietzsche's superman theory:

"By what right do you dare to say that there's a superior few to which you belong? By what right did you decide that that boy in there was inferior and could be killed? Did you think you were God, Brandon? Is that what you thought when you choked the life out of him? Is that what you thought when you served food from his grave?...You choked the life out of a fellow human being who could live and love as you never could, and never will again!"

Then -- utterly disgusted -- Rupert swings open the penthouse window that we have seen tightly shut for eighty harrowing minutes, creating the breath of fresh air and symbolic catharsis I mentioned at the commencement of this review. He fires a pistol into the air...essentially summoning the police, and the scene turns to haunting, lasting silence as Brandon and Phillip are left to contemplate their crime...and impending punishment.

In many ways, Rope is filmed like a stage play, and to fully understand the movie, one must ask the question: why? Why would a master filmmaker, a formalist such as Hitchcock, commit himself so fully to such a limiting, rigid mode? After all, film is an infinitely more flexible, elastic format than the theatrical play. In movies, for instance, you can travel anywhere, choose any perspective, telescope time and accomplish other important tasks. You can slow moments down or speed them up. You can feature optical effects. In the theater, you are forever chained to the stage, to a limited number of settings, and to the view from the seats, before the proscenium arch.

Recognizing the talent of the filmmaker here, I don't believe that Hitchcock made Rope in this peculiar fashion simply to honor the original format of Hamilton's play, but rather because he detected how all the elements of the stage (limited space, limited views, so forth), enhanced the suspenseful atmosphere of this particular morality tale.

For one thing, Hitchcock's approach offers the advantage of depicting the story (mostly without cuts) in something approximating "real time." There are no commercials. No scene breaks to another location (like 24, for example). Instead, we follow Brandon and Phillip from the instant of the murder to the discovery of the selfsame body some eighty-one minutes later. There isn't a moment, nay a second, to relax....David's corpse could be unearthed at any moment. As audience members, we share that tension with these two men.

By remaining in one place; by limiting the story to a relatively short span (an afternoon/evening party), Hitchcock squeezes as much suspense as possible out of the scenario, making it a real pressure cooker. Because of this, the catharsis at the end (the open window) means something. Had the audience (and Hitchcock's camera) followed Rupert home, or taken Brandon outside for a cigarette break, the suspense would have bled out of Rope rather quickly. Why go somewhere else when you can create the exact effect you want by staying put? It's economical and effective filmmaking.

Okay, but then why so few cuts during the length of the film? A good director could still cut into lengthy scenes with close-ups, medium shots, and high angles, but still not leave the premises, right? Well, yes, of course. But consider what a filmmaker gains by not (frequently...) breaking up the natural rhythms of the actors. Without distracting cuts, their interaction plays as more real. Because it is sustained. Rope plays almost like a very interesting visit to a most unique zoo: See Brandon and Phillip in their natural environs! And, they have a secret...

Something important is also gained by not chopping up the coherent visual space of the apartment. Frequent cutting would dissect the terrain into little pieces, and again, abruptly negate some essential quality of suspense. Consider the important placement of the chest/coffin containing David's corpse. It's in the middle of the apartment -- you can't miss it. Going back to my zoo analogy, it's the elephant in the room. All the time. By breaking into shots like close-ups, or by cutting away to the kitchen, for example, you negate the power and pull of this prop.

There's one marvelous and tense sequence in the film in which Brandon's dutiful maid clears dishes off the coffin, and almost opens it -- right before our eyes. Again, if you cut away -- if you aren't keeping track of the terrain -- any character could have been fiddling with the chest all along, and we - the audience - wouldn't necessarily see it or know it. This way, Hitchcock's way, every character seems to orbit that coffin, but the sanctity of it is never violated. Not until the end of the picture.

The title Rope expresses much important information too. A rope is not just the murder weapon of choice. In some sense it describes the symbiotic relationship between Brandon and Phillip. A rope, by definition, is a "length of fibers twisted together to improve strength," yet not flexible enough to offer compressive strength. In other words, you can pull a rope...but you can't push it. Similarly, Brandon and Phillip are symbolically intertwined. Together, they are strong enough to commit the crime -- goading each other on -- but, like a rope, they are not strong enough to evade capture. When pushed...they collapse. Especially Phillip. Also, the manner of the film's shooting is much like a rope, with each cut a "knot" along the way of a larger, linear length, right?

Finally, the movie is a literalization of the idea of giving people enough rope to hang themselves. Brandon and Phillip boast every opportunity. They are well. educated. They are rich. They live in a free society...but they ultimately use their freedom to commit a murder; in essence...hanging themselves. Which, will likely be their outcome, though it will be society doing the actual hanging, I guess.

The writing in Rope is exceptionally clever and frequently droll. The screenplay is layered with double meaning, without feeling labored. By that, I mean that much of the dialogue seems to boast some ghoulish alternate readings without really pushing it. "I hope you knock 'em dead," one character tells Phillip about an upcoming recital. "I bet you're going to play a foul trick on all of us," suspects Janet of Brandon. "I could really strangle you, Brandon," says another character. On and on it goes.

My favorites: "I'm sure the boy [meaning murder victim, David] will turn up some place." And the film's classic line: "these hands will bring you great fortune." That last one is spoken by the ditsy Aunt to pianist Phillip, but it could plainly refer to his act of strangulation, not his musical acumen. For it was murder, not conventional artistic talent, that made Leopold and Loeb household names. We assume the same will be true for Phillip and Brandon.

The just-under-the-surface homosexuality angle is also played pretty well here, without being overtly ridiculous. Notice that the socially unacceptable act of murder (committed by two...) is followed immediately by Brandon's lighting up of of a cigarette. It's like afterglow, no?

And then listen as Brandon describes the act of killing. He utilizes loaded terms such as "satisfying" and notes that when "the body went limp, I knew it was over." Again, I submit (especially after watching the interview with Laurents...) that these are coded phrases and words, ones that equate the inappropriate act of murder with...something else some people might term inappropriate.

And don't even get me started on the champagne bottle, and how it functions as a blatant phallic symbol: handed back and forth fervently between Phillip and Brandon after the murder; twisted and man-handled and then...popped. Is the purpose of all this subtext merely to equate one deviant act (murder) with another one (homosexual sex?) Perhaps so, but before passing judgment, one should remember that Stewart's character is also coded as homosexual. By the film's conclusion, Rupert serves as the film's protagonist and moral compass, so Rope is hardly one-sided in its depiction of ..."It."

In terms of theme, Rope is more interesting (to me, anyway), in the manner that it systematically takes apart Nietzschean philosophy. The entire film serves as a sort of anti-elitism diatribe. Here are these two entitled, upper class American boys who spend too much time reading and discussing philosophy. They are highly educated, yet so detached from the day-to-day struggles of living that they come to believe that murder is an art form...and that they are, indeed, the artists. What this philosophy really represents, suggests the film, is "contempt" for one's fellow man.

When Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) created his theory of the "superman," he was responding to what he saw as the central problem of Christianity. Namely, that it makes people turn away from the problems and possibilities of this world for that of another, a presumably Utopian one (Heaven). Why focus on pressing problems here, in the now, if we can all count on gold-lined streets in the after-life for all eternity? In crafting the Superman, Nietzsche removed God and Heaven from the equation, and replaced those concepts with a morally superior but human creator, one who would see the average man as a sort of joke, an embarrassment...a lower form. There are aspects of this philosophy I find appealing, I admit. Nothing bothers me more than people who think it is better to do nothing in this life, and wait around for their "reward" in the next. But the problem with Nietzsche's idea is exactly what we see depicted in Rope: human arrogance and corruptibility.

Let me digress a second. My biggest disappointment with this summer's hit, The Dark Knight was that it danced around the very question Rope focuses so tightly on. In that film, as you'll call, Batman resorted to illegally wire-tapping everybody in Gotham City to catch one man, the Joker (a validation, make no mistake, of President Bush's similar national decision to wire-tap American citizens). But what man is infallible and incorruptible? What man would use that knowledge and power...and not be tempted to abuse it?

Remember, absolute power corrupts absolutely. In the Batman movie, Nolan made it easy for Bruce Wayne to make this choice: the character had Morgan Freeman at his side, a pillar of movie incorruptibility (at least pre-divorce.) In real life, who is the Morgan Freeman we're supposed to trust (blindly) to use that scarily powerful technology just once (and not be corrupted by it.) Rice? Cheney? Hadley? Addington? Libby? So, I truly felt that The Dark Knight overlooked the moral implications of Batman's decision to use illegal and invasive technology. We were left with the same superficial, Manichean-style thinking we detect in President Bush all the time: "Trust me, I'm the good guy. I'm fighting evil. Take my word." Personally, I think it's far more likely that people are like Rope's Brandon and Phillip. Believing they are above the law and the real arbiters (or "Deciders?") of what's right and moral.

I use the example of The Dark Knight because I think (by point of contrast) it helps illuminates the depth of the moral statement in Rope. As soon as you believe you are above God's law -- and man's law too -- a person who can rightly decide which "inferiors" should die, you've crossed a line. Even murder can be justified. And, as we see at the end of Rope, there's no going back.

I was going to end this review of Rope with some variation of the line that as a director and storyteller, Alfred Hitchcock really knows "the ropes," or "really ropes us in," but I don't want a silly, final turn of phrase to turn you away from what is a truly superior and unique thriller, one boasting many layers and a deep moral core. I know this isn't one of Hitchcock's more popular films (it was virtually ignored upon release because of the "It" factor), but it's surely one of the best in his canon.