Saturday, July 18, 2009

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: Fanboys (2008)

A review of the road-trip comedy Fanboys (2008), presents a unique crisis for me. Over the years, you see, I have been accused of being something of a Fanboy myself. I believe the exact words were "Fanboy Overachiever."

No, really
. Imagine that.

So if I inform you that a movie poking fun at fanboy ways isn't very good (or even particularly funny...), you might conclude I'm thin-skinned, insecure, and can't take a joke about my own peeps.

On the other hand, should I attempt to be jocular -- courageously a "good sport" -- and tell you how great, funny and spot-on this movie is, you might actually watch it...but then see that I'm lying through my teeth. Then you might not trust me as a critic.

I'm going to opt for the route of total honesty here, with the possible (adverse) result being that some readers will just think I'm a humorless bastard who can't take a joke. But you know what? I can live with that.

So here's my honest, overachieving, fanboyish assessment of Fanboys, put in the lingo that the film's stereotypical protagonists would clearly understand:

It sucks. Or rather, IT SUCKS!!!!!!

doesn't suck, however because it mocks fan culture with wanton glee. On the contrary, I could tell you stories from sci-fi conventions that would "freeze your soul," to quote Q. There was this one convention, for instance, where Kathryn and I innocently sat down-wind from a line of obese folk dancers. When these corpulent souls flapped and waved their long skirts during a performance, the body odor emanating from that chorus-line could have decimated the audience faster than Shinzon's Thalaron weapon. Seriously, we almost choked.

Nor does Fanboys suck because it superficially portrays fanboys as overweight, buck-toothed, socially-inept, anger-management acne cases. Believe me, I've been on that panel before. In fact, I've made a personal vow never to grow my hair long and wear a pony tail ever again, after sharing one such panel with an officious, socially-inept, anger-management prick with a pony tail. Do. Not. Want. To. Be. Mistaken. For. That. Guy. Ever.

No, Fanboys sucks because it is a derivative, mostly unfunny, generic effort...and one poorly executed on virtually all fronts.

Most significantly, Fanboys sucks because it isn't particularly insightful about the subject matter of choice; about those things which might legitimately ignite fanboy rage, derision or scorn. The opposite is just as true: the movie has zero understanding of why Star Wars resonated so powerfully (and so positively) with a generation of American children.

The inevitable result is that Fanboys is knowledgeable but not knowing. It can expertly quote Star Wars trivia till the cows come home, but can't contextualize the importance of that minutiae for the curious non-fan looking in from the outside. Because of this shallow approach, the movie is nothing but another episodic, raunchy, road trip comedy about opposing "teams." One team (Star Wars) doesn't like the other team (Star Trek) and tries to score points, but ultimately you could substitute DC vs. Marvel, Mac vs. Microsoft, Mets vs. Yankees, Christian vs. Muslim, conservative vs. liberal or any other "team" affiliation you like and end up with pretty much exactly the same disappointing movie that you see here.

As evidence of my assertion, you might easily and accurately interpret Fanboys as a sort of slavish copy of Adam Rifkin's 1999 road trip movie, Detroit Rock City. That film was set in the 1970s and involved four young male fans of the rock band KISS making an all-important trek to a concert in Detroit.

Along their epic journey, these friends encountered the true enemy of all KISS fans...disco fans! One exaggerated interlude on the road trip even required a forced, embarrassing strip-tease from one of the four buddies. of the four KISS buffs, Jam, was played by an actor named Sam Huntington.

But Detroit Rock City was visually adroit (especially the Gene Simmons tongue cam...) and also fun. It was made so, in part, by the clever use of nostalgic period music like "Fox on the Run," "Boogie Shoes" by KC and the Sunshine Band, C.W. McCall's "Convoy" and the Ramones' "Blitzkrieg Bop." Detroit Rock City also made reference to disco decade icons like The Fonz, Jimmy Carter and Charlie's Angels.

Now compare and contrast: Fanboys is set in the year 1998 and involves four young adult, male fans (again), one named Eric --- played by the self-same Sam Huntington of Detroit Rock City! Because their friend Linus (Chris Marquette) is dying of cancer, these budz make a pilgrimage to the Lucas Film Ranch in San Francisco to illicitly see an early rough cut of 1999's Star Wars: The Phantom Menace.

Along their epic journey, these Star Wars fans face-off against their dedicated enemy: Trekkies (or Spocksuckers, as one friend, Hutch, terms them), And in one embarrassing interlude (in a gay bar called "The Mantina"), the Star Wars fanboys are even forced to do an embarrassing strip tease!!! Fanboys also makes nostalgic use of such 1990s music such as "Whoomp There It Is" by Tag Team (1993), and The Smashing Pumpkin's "Today" (also 1993). The film even references a number of 1990s pop culture icons and memories, from the Spice Girls to...Zima.

So, really, it's the same damn movie with different dressing.

Even the "enemies" fulfill the same supporting function in each film, as cartoony costumed threats; either John Travolta-wannabes in big-lapeled white suits, or Trekkies in ill-fitting, brightly-colored uniforms and over-sized, pointed ears. One cultural sub-set, KISS fans, has been replaced with another pop-culture sub-set, Star Wars fans, but the jokes are pretty much identical, only with the appropriate trivia references included. If you don't believe me, make a night of it and rent Detroit Rock City and Fanboys from Netflix. You'll see...

The jokes in Fanboys are pretty scattershot, and for the most part poorly staged. Let me give you a prime example. There's a moment late in the film in which the four buddies, and the sexy Zoe (Kristen Bell), have arrived at the Lucasfilm Ranch and stand ready to complete their quest. Our five "epic" heroes stand in a line -- from one edge of the frame to another (their van, the Slave 2, perched behind them). They approach us in that formation for the briefest of moments. Now, this is the famous "BMF Shot" (Bad Mother Fucker Shot) made famous by a dozen bad Hollywood blockbusters (usually by Jerry Bruckheimer or Michael Bay). But it's staged ineptly here. It should be cut in extreme slow motion so as to accentuate each dramatic step. There should be a "hot" atmospheric glare or lens flare in front of our iconic heroes as they approach us too, looking serious and mock-tough. But instead, the moment is robbed of gravitas (and therefore humor...), sort of half-staged and half-assed. You understand what the director was striving for, but it isn't successfully achieved. Many of the film's jokes are like that. Botched.

Fanboys also frequently mistakes motion (or velocity) for humor. The film is an endless series of tiresome chases. The four buddies run afoul of Trekkies in Riverside, Iowa, and flee. The four buddies must break Linus out of the hospital, and then flee. The four buddies encounter an angry pimp (Seth Rogen), and must flee. The four buddies meet William Shatner at a Star Trek convention, but then are spotted by wrathful Trekkies and must flee. They break into Lucasfilm and run into Security (dressed like the police of THX-1138 and led by Ray Park) and must...

...well, you get the idea. The funniest line in the film goes to Kristen Bell, who notes to the four buddies "this is the most exercise you've gotten all year." Not only is that a funny and legitimate insight about fanboys, but the dialogue accurately summarizes the movie's action. Confrontation. Run. Confrontation. Run.

Which is fine, except that Fanboys wants to tug at your heart strings too. Linus is dying of cancer, remember? He won't live to see the premiere of The Phantom Menace in six months, and this is his last hurrah. The last time the old gang can get together. Yet the movie is so manic, so busy, so capricious, the supposedly heart-felt subplot (and apparent raison d'etre of the movie...) hardly registers.

Now, I know the background, of course...all fanboys do, don't they? The director was allegedly only permitted to re-insert the cancer plot-line at the last minute. Fine...but you don't review movies based on what was supposed to be in them; you review them on what's up there, on the screen. I don't mean to be harsh. Fanboys is likable enough, but only about 30% of the material is actually funny. And the movie never makes the case why Star Wars is so important to these characters. Hutch gives a speech about how everybody must "find their Death Star," but Linus never gets to explain how Star Wars affected his ideas of friendship, love, mortality...anything. In this movie, being a Star Wars fan is just a funny label to hang around the necks of the characters.

Let me put it another way. If you're looking for an excavation of fanboy culture you could do a lot better than this movie. If the documentary Trekkies didn't exist, Christopher Guest would have had to invent it. Galaxy Quest (1999) also features some affectionate but even-handed observations about fans. I also rather like Mark Altman's Woody Allen-esque Free Enterprise (1999). And Kevin Smith's Zack and Miri Make A Porno (2008) does a better (and funnier) job with the fanboy mentality in one interlude (the Star Wars porno...) than Fanboys manages during the whole bloomin' movie.

By contrast, Fanboys only scratches the surface of fan culture. It really is shallow. Just look at the outfits of the Trekkies in this film, and their "equipment" (tricorders, etc.) too. Trekkies might be a lot of irritating or funny things, but one thing is true: they pay obsessive attention to detail. Their self-made uniforms fit. Their props are accurate down to the last button.

But it's so much easier to make them figures of fun than it is to accurately observe their neuroses and obsessions, and then play on those. So the Trekkies in this movie wear ill-fitting uniforms and Spock Ears that real Trekkies wouldn't be caught dead in. Thus an important point is glossed over: love of Star Trek or Star Wars might be considered obnoxious, bizarre or weird by some people in the mainstream, but these loves are gate ways, actually, to other realms. To understanding make-up application, to sewing, astronomy, physics, computer animation, and also writing and filmmaking. Fanboys doesn't understand that, it just wants to settle for the lowest common denominator stereotypes. Sure, Eric is a comic artist who miraculously becomes successful in the movie's less-than-convincing ending, but there's no explicit connection to his art work and his inspiration, Star Wars. What made him love comics? What taught him to draw? Didn't he spend grade school drawing TIE Fighters and Yoda?

Fanboys is a raunchy road trip that just happens to be about Star Wars fan. Thanks to some brilliant marketing, the movie has earned some serious and earnest devotion and loyalty from real fanboys. But the low quality of the final picture eerily echoes Fanboys' last line.

What if the movie sucks?

Friday, July 17, 2009

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: My Bloody Valentine 3-D (2009)

Before getting to the specifics of My Bloody Valentine 3-D (2009), let me get something important out of the way first: I enjoy and admire slasher films.

For one thing, I legitimately enjoy experiencing (and indeed, cataloguing...) the myriad twists in the sub-genre's excessively rigid, repetitive format. Because slasher movies tend to be so predictable (almost down to the minute), feature stock characters (the final girl, the Cassandra Figure, the jock, the bitch, the black friend...) and off-the-shelf situations (the cat-jump, the car-won't-start, the twist ending...), a clever filmmaker can inject real surprises -- not to mention shock -- with just a modicum of ingenuity. A slight shuffling of the deck can do wonders.

Just recall for a moment the final revelation of the original Sleepaway Camp (1983), if you need an evidence of a slasher movie curve ball that scales the heights of mad genius.

In addition, I appreciate the traditional, moralistic, thematic undercurrent of most slasher films (vice precedes slice-and-dice...). Whether we admit it or not, we're all judgmental of our fellow man under the skin, and we enjoy seeing the wicked punished and the good...survive.

I have even come to understand why we need slashers in our leisurely, all-too-routine lives. In this buttoned-down, contemporary society of plenty -- in which we don't even procure our own food -- the challenge of the celluloid, mythical super-predator is nearly impossible to resist.

Often connected explicitly with Mother Nature Herself, The Bogeymen Slashers (Jason, Michael, Freddy, Jason, Ghost Face, Harry Warden, etc.) boast powers and capabilities beyond those of mere mortals. Endowed with superior strength, resilient bodies, and the unerring (though also unexplained...) capacity to appear and disappear almost at will, always selecting the right victim at the right time in the process, the Masked Slasher is the superior human predator we don't (thankfully...) have in our real lives.

And in facing down a slasher -- even a mythical one in a scary movie -- audiences get to run the equivalent of a survival gauntlet; matching their wits and skills against the slasher's. Don't run down that hall! Don't fall for that red herring! Get out of the car! Call the police!

The best slasher films are even deeper. Is Michael Myers the bogeyman? Or a developmentally-arrested "child" who doesn't realize the real-life implications of his trick-or-treat games? Or could he be the physical embodiment of Laurie Strode's frustrated id? How about a Druidic avenger protecting his tribe by destroying selected members of said tribe on the eve of Samhain? John Carpenter's Halloween is open to all such interpretations (except, really, that last one...). But perhaps that fact is off message in this review. A good slasher film need not be great art. It just needs to scare us, surprise us, and feature a few ingenious curve balls in that road map of the paradigm.

I don't mean to cover territory that I've vetted here before (particularly in my review of Friday the 13th) but I believe it important to establish up front that I wasn't seeking high art or deep social meaning in My Bloody Valentine 3-D. I'm not a kill joy, a grouch, or a fool. What I sought, simply, was a good time being scared. A few jumps here. A few jolts there. You know...a cheap date for the discerning slasher fan.

But My Bloody Valentine 3-D never connects even on that simple, humble basis. I never thought I would actually have to write this, but all movies (yes, even slashers) must accomplish something basic if they wish to be successful in the slightest. They must forge a sense of verisimilitude; a surface plausibility that indicates the events of the film are actually occurring or actually could occur. There has to be enough "kitchen sink reality" in the film's set-up and execution so that our imaginations are successfully engaged for all the ensuing craziness. Start with the real, and then, once we believe, tread into the unreal or the super-real.

Most people forget it, but the original Friday the 13th film in 1980 featured this quality in spades. Cunningham's film did a more-than-credible job of setting up the environs of Camp Crystal Lake and the surrounding town. After the prologue, the film opened with shots of a babbling, idyllic brook, and a few views of the historic "Americana" architecture of the local town. The idea was that this was a "real" place where the seed of horror had unexpectedly grown. The characters -- though undeniably stock in nature -- boasted a surface plausibility. In their hair-styles. In their wardrobe. In their dispositions and demeanor. They look like they belonged in the world the filmmakers were striving to create. They were recognizable to audiences as people we might meet on the street, not collagen-lipped, eye-brow-plucked products of Hollywood.

This was even more true in the original My Bloody Valentine (1981), an ultra-naturalistic slasher film shot in Canada and involving blue collar miners in the town of Valentine's Bluff.

Off the top of my head, I couldn't tell you the name of a single actor featured in that old film, but I can tell you that every character looked as though he or she belonged in that story. The actors were well-cast and believable in their roles. They didn't draw attention to themselves as "actors" but seemed, rather like regular people living in a regular mining town...and being forced to reckon with extraordinary things.

The director of the original My Bloody Valentine, George Mihalka, was also skilled enough to realize that the film's central location -- the mine -- was an important character in the drama. He focused the film's attention, at points, on the rickety old rail car utilized to travel down a long, dark tunnel into darkness. He provided subjective, point-of-view shots of the cave walls racing by during the subterranean sojourn and descent into hell, as if we ourselves were riding down to the bottom of the mine. He established a geography for the lower levels of the dark mine, and then took that geography away from us by -- in a terrifying moment -- having the killer destroy the string of light-bulbs illuminating the cave. Along with the Final Girl, we had lost our bearings...and were scared.

So along comes this glitzy, superficial remake of My Bloody Valentine, and it simply can't be bothered to do any of the basic creative work I've described above. It's a gaudy, infantile coloring book, not a real movie. The actors (including Kerr Smith and Jensen Ackles) are glamorous, beautiful, perfectly-coiffed, and never appear smudged, dirty or even significantly discomforted. The women all look like professional strippers. Not a single character in this film appears as though he or she has ever set foot in a mine...anywhere. Heck, they probably don't even know that West Virginia is a state in the Union. And even though the movie spans ten years, the actors don't age in the slightest, except for facial hair.

Worse, in this remake, the mine generates not an iota of fear. No terror. No claustrophobia. Not even a basic fear of the dark. The mine might as well be an amusement park funhouse. The only "mining" director Lussier does is for imagery. He cribs the falling miner suits, broken light-bulbs and a washing-machine scene from the original 1981 film. But you know what? In every single case, those once potent images have lost their original power because the underlying world of the characters -- the very thread that connects the movie together -- is so faulty.

The killer himself -- a miner in mask and armed with pick-axe -- appears in the film's first scene with such little fanfare or build-up that at first you might assume you are watching a parody of My Bloody Valentine. A character stumbles into a massacre in the mine, sees the killer, and we're off to the races without the slightest nod to creating an atmosphere or a mood. The movie gets in some great gory kills, but they come at you so fast that they don't register as anything but side-show absurdities.

Then come the 3D effects. I cannot judge how effectively they worked in the theaters (and apparently, they were quite wonderful...), but in the 2d format -- where My Bloody Valentine will exist from now on -- they stink. They are cartoony and seem to exist in their own computer animated world. 3-D has been and always will be a gimmick, and the 3-D staging and execution here is novel and creative enough, I suppose. But after you get over the thrill that - wow, things are coming towards me! -- what's left? After novelty...what? In 2D, the effects only call attention to themselves, and in terms of a horror movie, that's never a good thing. The effects should blend seamlessly with the rest of the filmmaker's world so that we can believe what we're seeing.

The makers of My Bloody Valentine have made their movie with real zeal, but virtually all their considerable energy has been devoted to making it an amusement park ride rather than a movie with a coherent narrative. I've rarely seen a movie, in fact, that so egregiously failed to establish its basic sense of reality.

That's not to say I didn't enjoy some individual moments in the film. By God, there's Tom Atkins (The Fog, Halloween III, Night of the Creeps...) back in action! And I would by lying if I said the film's final twist didn't surprise me in the half-second before I realized it was a cheat on the level of High Tension's. But even writing about these things, I feel as though I'm discussing a roller-coaster ride, not a movie. Didn't you like that last loop? Wasn't the third dip like, totaqlly amazing? Despite such pluses, I never believed in the characters, the town, the violence...or the world of My Bloody Valentine in the slightest. And so it never scared me. I don't think I ever even jumped, either. Bummer.

Seems to me that a good slasher film would somehow combine the visual acumen and distinctive, rich look of Nispel's dull-as-dishwater Friday the 13th remake (also 2009) with the visceral zeal and high-energy impact of Lussier's flamboyant circus attraction, My Bloody Valentine. Then we would have a slasher movie we could believe in.

The tag-line for the new My Bloody Valentine is "get your heart broken." Mission accomplished, movie. Mission accomplished. It's not that the makers of the film didn't live up to the original film, it's that they toiled so hard simply to create...a Universal Studios attraction.

Coming at ya...nothing interesting whatsoever.

Monday, July 13, 2009

CULT TV FLASHBACK #84: Star Trek: The Next Generation: "Q-Who?"

Although I very much enjoyed watching Star Trek: The Next Generation during the original syndication run (1987 - 1994), it's not my favorite Star Trek series by a light year. I'm an old-school Trekkie, I guess you'd say. Just talking personal taste here, I find The Next Generation a little sedate and passionless compared with the colorful Original Series. It's so very...beige.

That personal bias established, there are a number of outstanding episodes in the Next Generation canon: "Yesterday's Enterprise," "The Measure of a Man," "The Inner Light," "A Matter of Honor," "The Outcast," "The Best of Both Worlds," etc.

One of my personal favorite episodes is the sixth-season two-parter, "Chain of Command," which lands the belligerent - but gloriously colorful -- Captain Jellico (Ronny Cox) aboard the Enterprise in the absence of Captain Picard...and has him run roughshod over our easy-going crew. Jellico even tells Counselor Troi to put on a real Starfleet uniform instead of one of those damned purple jump suits.

I recently watched another terrific Next Generation installment from the second season. Point of fact, it held up remarkably well on its twentieth anniversary. It was taut, exciting, surprising and scary as all get out.

But Maurice Hurley's brilliant "Q-Who?," directed by Rob Bowman, is famous, I suppose for one dramatic reason. It introduces a new and awesome villain to Star Trek lore: The Borg.

Equally as important, however, Hurley's economical and inventive teleplay injects a much-needed sense of creeping uncertainty, doom and terror into a sci-fi series that too often came across as safe and self-satisfied.

"Q-Who?" commences as a new engineering crew member, Sonya Gomez (Lycia Naff), spills hot-chocolate on Captain Picard (Patrick Stewart). The good captain heads to his quarters to change uniforms, but steps off the turbo-lift to find himself on a shuttle under the control of Q (John De Lancie), the mysterious and enigmatic entity that has twice before challenged the crew of NCC-1701-D (in "Encounter at Farpoint" and "Hide and Q").

Because he's been kicked out of the Q Continuum, Q apparently wants to join the Enterprise crew. Under guidance from Guinan (Whoopi Goldberg) the bartender, however, Picard rejects the offer, calling Q "next of kin to chaos." Q points out Picard's hypocrisy in his out-of-hand decision, pointedly asking him "where's your adventurous spirit?" When Picard won't relent, Q informs Picard that he will live to regret his choice, that the Federation is "not prepared for what awaits" it in space. He claims that the Romulans and Klingons are but "pitiful adversaries" compared to "what's waiting."

With the snap of his fingers, Q then transports the Enterprise 7,000 lights years distant to the J25 solar system. It will take the starship nearly three years at maximum warp to reach the closest Federation starbase.

Picard decides to investigate the system before starting the long trek for home, and soon the Enterprise encounters a spacehip that is "strangely generalized in design" -- meaning that there is no bridge, no living quarters, no engineering deck. The ship is, in fact, a gigantic cube.

A worried Guinan informs Picard that the ship belongs to a race called "The Borg," which "swarmed" into her system and "scattered" her people across the galaxy. The Borg have been developing their brand of human/machine hybrid for "thousands of centuries." Picard attempts to communicate with these aliens, but to no avail. And then a Borg Drone, an enhanced human -- part man and part machine -- beams aboard the Enterprise. The drone promptly identifies the ship's technology as something the Borg "can consume."

Q informs Picard that he has met his match in this new adversary, that the Borg are not interested in "political conquest, wealth" or territorial gain. That Picard can't "outrun them or destroy them." That they are "relentless."

They're also apparently hungry, because they promptly attack the Enterprise and -- in the words of Riker (Jonathan Frakes) -- proceed to "carve up" the ship like a "roast." The Enterprise breaks free, but not before 18 crewmembers are presumed dead in the confrontation.

After an Away Team mission to the Borg ship -- one that involves the discovery of an unsettling Borg Nursery -- Picard comes to realize that he may very well have no choice but to beg Q for help. All too soon, the Borg take out the Enterprise's shields and keep coming. They take out the warp drive, and keep coming. They survive blasts from the aft photon torpedoes and keep coming...

At the end of "Q Who?" Captain Picard concludes that perhaps Q did them all a favor by giving them a "preview" of the Borg threat. He realizes that "what we most needed was a kick in our complacency."

And you know what? You can accurately conclude the same thing of The Next Generation as a series, at least previous to the introduction of the Borg. The good-natured series wasted a tremendous number of episodes and airtime devoted to silly holodeck adventures (with the crew relaxing in a virtual reality setting), "Love Boat in Space" stories (with family members coming on board to solve the soap opera problem of the week), and other blind alleys. The crew hardly ever seemed to break a sweat, and it never seemed as though they were in real danger.

The villains up to that point generally weren't worth the Federation's time or energy either: the silly Ferengi ("The Last Outpost"), manipulative drug dealers ("Symbiosis"), petty warlords ("Code of Honor"), and feuding aliens by the boatload ("Lonely Among Us," "Loud as a Whisper," "The Outrageous Okana.")

Yep, it seemed like Star Trek: The Next Generation had forgotten that the final frontier was dangerous territory, and that it was no fun at all if the good guys were always the most powerful kid on the block. What Q reminds Picard so brazenly in "Q Who?" is that -- in his words -- "it's not safe out here." "There are terrors," he concludes" to "freeze your soul."

"It's not for the timid."

In very deliberately putting these lines into Q's sarcastic mouth (and also by explicitly asserting the smug, sometimes arrogant nature of characters like Riker and Picard...), Maurice Hurley successfully addressed one of the core drawbacks of The Next Generation. In the process, Hurley also gave the franchise an indisputably classic villain.

From the iconic cube design of the Borg ship, to the relatively fresh (for Trek) notion of a hive intelligence, the Borg represented a whole new direction for the franchise. The Borg had no individual leader; no "agenda" except technological and biological consumption, and they simply could not be reasoned with or talked to. Enlightenment, diplomacy, and mediation -- Picard's specific portfolio -- were no good against them. How do you reason with someone who doesn't acknowledge your existence?

Inevitably, the franchise blew it with the Borg and tried to shoe-horn the novel alien threat into a more mainstream, conventional form. "Descent" made the Borg mad-dog individuals instead of a cerebral, calculating hive mind. And 1996's (admittedly spectacular) First Contact introduced the ridiculous idea of a Borg individual leader of the Collective(!?) Then, in Voyager, Captain Janeway -- a character I genuinely like -- began to outsmart and outfight the technologically-superior Borg almost every week (even without Starfleet behind her...), and the Borg lost even more of their initial power.

But for "Q Who?" none of that matters. Star Trek was dangerous again, and the audience felt invested in the crew's plight. Thanks to a good script, a powerful foe, and Ron Jones' militant, pushing soundtrack, the episode's sense of fear is palpable. For once, our heroes are out of their depth,and there's a feeling of unpredictability...that all the crew's assumptions (and our assumptions about Star Trek) are really and truly out the window.

"Q Who?" features some great creepy moments. When Riker, Worf and Data beam aboard the Borg ship and are confronted with "frozen" Borg, the tension begins to rise. There's a feeling here that the quiescent drones could come to life any second...and do our crewmembers real physical damage. And the moment in Engineering when a pale-as-a-ghost Borg drone turns from a panel and dispassionately (perhaps malevolently...) eyes Geordi (and us, in the audience) is positively chill-inducing. There's no humanity there. No mercy, no empathy.

Star Trek's finest quality, in some sense, is the diversity or individuality of the characters. Data is an Android, Worf a Klingon, Troi a half-Betazed, Geordi is blind, and so on. But each one of these unique personalities "contributes" to Starfleet in a powerful, individual and unique way. The great menace represented by the Borg is that, as a hive mind, they possess no sense of individuality. And worse, they want to rob you of yours. In the colorful, diverse world of Star Trek, that's a fate worse than death. Identity is a core concept of Star Trek and the Borg chillingly act as identity robbers.

Finally, "Q Who?" ends with Picard's realization that the Borg are now aware of the Federation; that they "will be coming." This admission -- played against the backdrop of endless stars in Ten Forward -- evokes shivers and a remarkable sense of anticipation and foreboding.

It's just the kick in the butt that the Enterprise D and Star Trek: The Next Generation needed going into its third and best season.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: Knowing (2009)

"...Man proposes, but God disposes; neither is the way of man in his own hands."

- Thomas à Kempis (1380 - 1471 AD)

Knowing, the controversial and apocalyptic 2009 film directed by Alex Proyas (The Crow [1994], Dark City [1998], lands on The Big Issue of Human Existence during an early classroom scene set at M.I.T.

Astrophysicist, professor, and widower John Koestler (Nicolas Cage) debates with his students the competing values of "Determinism" and "Free Will" (or The "Random.") The mechanisms of the Universe, he is certain, operate by one of these governing principles.

If Creation is of a Determinist nature, everything occurs for a reason. There is order in the universe...purpose.

On the other hand, if "Shit Just Happens," and the universe is random in nature, Existence itself is the result of a chain of complex accidents with "no grand meaning," and "no purpose." What some people might view as Synchronicity is, in fact, nothing but mere "coincidence."

Having suffered a terrible personal tragedy -- the death of his wife Allison in a hotel fire -- Koestler believes that life is indeed random. That there is no greater purpose for his intense suffering; that "Life is just a string of random accidents and mistakes."

This belief puts Koestler in direct conflict with his estranged father, a Christan pastor. It also troubles his young, gifted son, Caleb (Chandler Canterbury), a lonely, brilliant boy who desperately seeks a deeper sense of meaning in his life.

But one day, in October of 2009, everything changes for the Koestlers.

At Dawes Elementary School, a silver, cylindrical time capsule buried in 1959 is excavated during a school event. Each student in attendance in 2009 receives an envelope from 1959; one with a "picture" inside of what the students of the Eisenhower Era believed the future would look like. Their imaginings were dedicated to "The Future and the Promise it holds."

From this undisturbed "Vault of History," Caleb receives the envelope of a troubled little girl, Lucinda Embry (Lara Robinson). Fifty years earlier, in 1959, Lucinda drew a picture not of rockets, moon bases or flying cars. She didn't see promise in the Future...she saw dread. So she scrawled a very long string of numbers.

As Koestler soon realizes, these numbers are not random. On the contrary, the digits observe the date of every natural and man made disaster between 1959 and 2009 (earthquakes, hurricanes, train crashes, terrorist attacks etc.), followed by the exact number of casualties...and then the precise longitude and latitude of each catastrophe. It is a road map to human suffering.

Koestler hopes desperately to dismiss the Code as a fake, but after deliberately interfacing with two contemporary disasters (a plane crash and a subway accident), he realizes that Lucinda indeed knew about the events of the future...down to the last detail.

And worse, Koestler comes to understand he is helpless to stop or prevent the terrible events. Those accidents were not and are not, in fact, random...but pre-determined.

Although Koestler's skeptical colleague at MIT notes that such numerology codes are "a dime a dozen" and that "people just see what they want to see," Koestler grows increasingly obsessed with the Code, and the story of Lucinda, a very "sad little girl."

Meanwhile, strange platinum-haired strangers repeatedly visit Caleb (presenting him with a smooth black stone on one visit...). They even share with him a horrifying vision of Apocalypse. At the same time, Koestler learns of Lucinda's later life and obsession with Ezekial, a 6th Century (BC) prophet from her daughter, Diana (Rose Byrne). And then -- finally -- dangerous solar flares threaten to impact Earth on the very day that Lucinda's catastrophe Code ends: October 19, 2009. Her last casualty tally reads, ominously, "EE."

Koestler realizes with horror that EE stands for "Everyone Else..." All life on Earth.

As human beings, "we can't know for sure" (as Koestler says in the film) what the future holds for any of us.

What we can be certain of, upon a close viewing of Knowing, is that the Proyas film builds a case for a determinist existence. Our fates are known and have been written down. They are immutable, unalterable, and inevitable. The Strangers have come to Earth for a very specific purpose: because they know that The End was near.

I noted above that Knowing is controversial, and this deterministic approach is the source of that controversy. Many viewers and critics have dismissed the film as "Creationist" or "Christianist" propaganda because the film exploits religious symbols including The Tree of Knowledge, Adam and Eve, The Apocalypse, The Book of Ezekiel, Cherubim, and God's Chariot. It is therefore assumed by many (and I believe wrongly so...) that the film suggests the existence of a Supreme Being, or God. Some even say it pushes the existence of a Christian God, specifically.

On the contrary, however, the Proyas film might actually be viewed as a refutation of religion. Why? Because all that occurs in Knowing could be owed to quantum mechanics as much as to "The Hand of God," given one possible interpretation.

And that's one of the film's irrefutable strengths: it is open to interpretation. It invites it. If I went in to Knowing seeking to reinforce a hard, fast belief in God, I might find it here, at least based on a superficial reading of the text.

First, in the Prophecy of the Book of Ezekiel coming to pass, and secondly in the pre-determined nature of the universe, the film might appear to affirm the existence of God as we would understand him from the Bible.

And when Koestler tells Caleb at the film's conclusion that "they will be together forever," he could be describing a newfound belief in the Afterlife, in Heaven. If Existence is deterministic -- moving along according A to B to C to a Grand Plan -- then there is, at least, by inference, the possibility of God. Right?

Well, yes. But there's another valid interpretation of Knowing. One which, given my atheist predilections, I prefer. I can sum the case up, basically, by reciting one of Arthur C. Clarke's Laws of Prediction. The one that states: "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. "

Basically, what Knowing suggests is that the white-haired Strangers are extra-terrestrials who, 'knowing' the end is near for Earth, send messages to our population over time to warn us. The Book of Ezekiel was a recording of one such historical encounter with the whispering aliens. Lucinda's stream of numbers, her "vision," is another much more recent example.

The historical Ezekiel was (like Koestler, incidentally....) a widower, and he remains renowned today amongst Biblical scholars as one of the most specific of all early prophets; for his unique "systematic arrangement." This means essentially that Ezekiel attached dates to his predictions (as dates are attached to Lucinda's number chart in the film).

Ezekiel's first transcribed "vision" was of God's Chariot, a magnificent vehicle described as a "wheel-within-a-wheel" (Ezekiel 1:1-3:27). This divine Chariot was pulled by four beings identified by the prophet as Cherubim. And Ezekiel himself was recruited as a Sentinel or Watchman. His mission was to record an upcoming apocalypse: the destruction of Jersualem in consuming fire.

indeed adopts the symbols of Ezekiel's vision, but re-purposes and re-contextualizes all of them as completely scientific...and secular in nature. The Chariot is a huge, multi-faceted wheel-within-a-wheel spaceship, not a divine vehicle. The four Cherubim are the Four Alien Strangers, not Angels from Heaven. Ezekiel, Lucinda and to some extent, Koestler himself are the Sentinels or Watchmen standing witness to disaster. And the Earth -- rather than merely a single city -- ends in consuming fire (but one caused by a solar flare, not God's wrath). In particular, the aliens send visions to Caleb and the other "gifted" children (including Diane's daughter, Abby) that show fire in their imme
diate environs or "world" (Caleb's back yard...) just as Ezekiel witnessed a consuming fire in his neck of the woods, Jerusalem.

Importantly, there is no "God," let alone "Christ" in these symbols, just a very advanced alien race, who -- via the auspices of technology we do not yet understand -- are apparently able to see across the ocean of time: past, present and future simultaneously. They record the grand sweep of history, down to every last disaster and casualty.

This is why I mentioned quantum mechanics earlier in the review. Some physicists today believe that there is actually no past, present or future at all. Merely...the "Eternal Moment of Now." It is our brains, therefore, which build a connection - moment to moment - and thereby impose a chronological or temporal sequence to them.

Given this theory, assume for a minute that the alien species as seen in Knowing is endowed with the gift to "see" all possible iterations of Now. And it is by this very mechanism or capability that they can then account for how, where and when people die, disasters occurs, and planets are obliterated. This interpretation makes as much sense as "God" does, in context of the film.

More so, actually, because the Apocalypse that destroys Earth in Knowing is clearly no Biblical Rapture. Koestler's father is a devout Christian priest, and he isn't "saved." Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Agnostics and Atheists all get fried indiscriminantly in the coronal ejection and planetary conflagration. The only people "saved" are not The Faithful Christians, but rather a handful of innocent, gifted children, ostensibly of all religious and non-religious persuasions. And they are swept away not to a spiritual realm...but to a faraway planet to colonize. We see distant moons and planets in the sky of this world...not streets of Gold, flying Angels and the Gates of St. Peter.

Yes, you say, but the boy and girl on that planetary Eden run towards an imposing Tree of Knowledge, echoing the story of Adam and Eve and the Garden of Eden! Yes indeed, but if the Book of Ezekiel is a vision transmitted by the Cherubim/Aliens, then we must conclude that the story of Adam and Eve is the self-same thing. An image of a Beginning After An End; one that aliens shared with a human prophet as they later shared information with Lucinda, Ezekiel and Caleb. If there is no past, no future -- only the Eternal Moment of Now -- then the Adam and Eve Story is not strictly historical; but rather a vision of man on another world; one misinterpreted by primitive superstition, by religion.

My point is this: Just because an
alien race sees all of time/space (as well as who lives and who dies on this island Earth...), that does not necessarily imply a Universal God/Mind in the Christian sense. If Aliens boast the power to see all, then there is no need for God. The Aliens are essentially God, because advanced technology appears magical to the primitive.

When Koestler tells Caleb that they will be "together forever" he might very well be referring to their shared genetic heritage, not an Afterlife. Again, the film depicts no Afterlife for Koestler, his father, or anyone else living on Earth for that matter. No Heaven. No Hell.

What Knowing does depict is the human race continuing on elsewhere in the mortal the form of Koestler's progeny. Human immortality need not be the literal continuance of individual conscience, but rather the transmission of our genes in our children, grandchildren. and the generations beyond.

Alternatively, Koestler will also live on in the memory of Caleb and Abby, a reason, perhaps, that Koestler's final gift to Caleb is a keepsake: a locket with his photograph (and Allison's photograph, inside). The locket will always remind Caleb who and what Koestler was...and that memory will live beyond the Death of the Earth. By carrying the memory of his father (and by sharing that memory with his own children in the days ahead...) Caleb and his father will indeed by "together forever" after a fashion.

I submit that the quantum physics approach and non-religious interpretation of Knowing also fits better with Alex Proyas's previous efforts in the genre. In Dark City, the director presented us with God-Like beings who could effortlessly manipulate time and space and also shuffle human souls from body to body. In every aspect we -- as "primitives" --- understand...they are clearly Gods.

However, as Dark City's climax makes clear, the Movers and Shakers of that future-noir Metropolis are actually but highly-advanced alien scientists...seekers who are experimenting on humans and reliant on their own amazing technology. Again, return to Clark's Law: Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. That axiom underlines both Dark City and Knowing, and it is merely the human desire to impose meaning -- to impose determinism, even -- that causes a misinterpretation. Extra-terrestrials are mistaken for Gods and Demons and Cherubim because they possess an understanding of the
universe we don't have. Simple as that.

Is Knowing a great film? Our nation's most respected critic, Roger Ebert, praised the film highly and rated it Four Stars. He admires Proyas as an artist and similarly praised Dark City, ranking it as the Best Film of 1998. I can state this: Knowing is certainly a great film of modern vintage, and I understand why it strikes so deep a chord (or "vibrates") with Mr. Ebert.

I've told this story before, but when I interviewed an editor toiling in Hollywood today -- one who had been in the business for twenty-five years -- he told me a horrifying fact. Basically, he said that Hollywood studios and studio executives have forced him, on more than one occasion, to eliminate all subtext and ambiguity from the films he edits. Even if such complexities clearly appeared in the screenplay and survived the shooting. In whatever way you decide to interpret Knowing (and please...have at it...), it does not fit this inglorious trend. Knowing is a movie alive with possibilities, and it does not spoon-feed the audience any single answer. This alone distinguishes it from many movies made today.

Commendably, several important elements of the film are left to your imagination and given no clear explanation. What are the smooth black stones? What do they signify, and why are they important? Why do the aliens make gifts of them to the children? What, precisely, is the meaning of Koestler's assurance to his son that they "will always be together?" The movie leaves us to seek and ponder our own answers, and on those grounds, it is successful and provocative in a way that most movies made today simply are not. Some skeptics will deride the use of numerology to make the film's point, but again, this isn't a movie about numerology. Numerology only opens the door to a debate about the nature of human existence. It's a useful starting point, and the movie is in no way a validation of endorsement of it.

Though some critics faulted Knowing's philosophical underpinnings as being one-sided (either too atheistic or too religious...), it is difficult to find fault with the film on technical grounds. Knowing is beautifully shot and performed. At times the film is thrilling and awe-inspiring. And there are some portentous, visually dramatic moments too. Early in the film, for instance, Proyas gives us a long pan across Earth's curved surface from the perspective of the Heavens. We can detect man's roads and highways stretch across the horizon, looking like snaking, questing lines of light. Beacons of civilization in the dark...scattered but indomitable. This shot selection not only portends a "watcher" -- an observer from Above -- but also reveals to us the seemingly random nature of man's "path:" stretching in all directions across Earth. House after house, turn after turn...without purpose. Or is there?

Knowing also features a heavily autumnal color palette, rich in oranges, browns and apricots. Ubiquitous crimson leaves fall from the sky in many exterior shots. Because of their shading, these abundant, swooping leaves resemble cascading, burning embers from a dying, heavenly fire. Given the film's apocalyptic vision of a planet Earth consumed by flame, these shots are portentous too; harbingers. They hint (visually) at the terror to come; of whispered endings carried on the wind.

Even the artistic production design echoes the film's determinism vs. random debate. The Koestler family lives in a half-finished, haphazard, wreck of an old house. Some rooms are painted. Some rooms are not. The studs still peek out from sheet rock in some rooms. Yep, Koestler's house even looks like "Shit Just Happens." It's a nice, relatively subtle way of reflecting the character's world view.

Also, I especially enjoyed Knowing's central father-son relationship. I found it...affecting. As (the doting) father of an almost-three year old boy, I understood and empathized with Koestler's pain at being forced to part from his boy. As parents, I suppose that there comes a time when we all accept that our mortality is less important to us than that of our children. Knowing recognizes that too. And even though I'm not a Nicolas Cage fan, I found his performance, especially in these final scenes, quite powerful. As any good parent would, Koestler encourages his uncertain son to go with the aliens; that his old man will be all right. Koestler puts on a brave face. A false face. The minute that Caleb is gone and out of sight, Koestler doubles over -- as if in physical pain -- weeping at the ache of separation. I admit it: I was moved by this very human moment. By the passing of the generations; by the the final goodbye.

After this emotional scene, Knowing's final sequence doesn't disappoint, either. The last scene is...breathtaking. I'm not referring to the Apocalypse (which is pretty much disaster porn boilerplate...), but rather what comes after the fire. The alien "wheels-within-wheels" spaceship resembles a giant white snowflake (a deliberate contrast to the airborne scarlet leaves and burning flames on Earth...), and these ethereal, immaculate crafts deliver Earth's survivors to a pastoral, utopian setting. Knowing's final shot of the picturesque Tree of Knowledge intimates so much.

What fruit, I wonder, grows on The Tree of Knowledge in Paradise this time around? Could it be the Knowledge, perhaps, that there is a Purpose in the Universe, and that Man -- for all his chaos, confusion and pain -- is Part of that Purpose? Or is it simply the knowledge that though bad things may happen -- man proposes and God disposes -- we have to pick ourselves up anyway and go on? Make our peace with tragedy? Send our children into the future with hope instead of dread?

Knowing doesn't "know" the answers. None of us do. But it asks all the right questions, and then leaves the debate to the audience. People will see what they want to see, I guess. The question is...what do you see?