Saturday, December 12, 2009

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: Terminator: Salvation (2009)

It has become fashionable of late to dismiss Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines (2003). I'm not certain exactly why this is the case, especially since the satisfactory threequel boasted a solid action director in Jonathan Mostow, exhibited some narrative ingenuity, and -- most importantly -- featured a driving and relentless sense of inevitability.

Judgment Day had been delayed by the actions of Sarah and John Connor in Terminator 2 (1991), but not undone, according to Mostow's third film. Accordingly, the third Terminator film ended with a horrifying and yet oddly beautiful vision: nuclear missiles detonating across our Mother Earth; flower blossoms of utter destruction changing forever the foundation of man's future.

These images adroitly combined the pastoral and natural (missile silos in middle American farm states like Kansas) with the technological and apocalyptic. As audience members, we had waited since 1984 to see the events that would lead to Kyle Reese's grim, post-apocalyptic world. Terminator 3 didn't disappoint in that regard, and that nuclear coda left me, for one, with a lump in my throat.

In fact, I admired Terminator 3 for ending on such a downbeat (if morbidly beautiful...) note and for not punting the "apocalypse" into some future Terminator film, as would have been the easy and safe choice.

Impressively, Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines was also suffused with a driving sense of momentum, of the future finally come to pass. No matter how hard John Connor tried, he was not going to escape his destiny this time around. The modern world was going to be destroyed...and he was going to have to step up to become the leader that his mother, Reese and the others knew he could be.

No more temporal tricks or cheats. No more plot gimmicks to keep the audience ensconced in our safe, high-tech "normal" world of the 2000s. Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines was apocalypse...now.

Other critics mostly appreciated Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines at the time of its theatrical release too (it had a 70% aggregate score on Rotten Tomatoes), and audiences enjoyed it to the tune of over 400 million dollars. And yet there's been this temptation by many to put it down, perhaps because the memory of Cameron's stellar contributions -- The Terminator (1984) and Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991) -- remains so enduring.

But now, in light of McG's underwhelming Terminator: Salvation (2009), the third film in the Terminator cycle looks like an absolute masterpiece. The new film is a colossal disappointment, a flat-line thriller that never raises the heartbeat, never engages the heart, and never, for a moment, crafts a world or characters that we can believe in. It substitutes loud explosions for thrills; and inserts off-the-shelf platitudes about the "human heart" for genuine character development.

Most disturbingly, John Connor (previously played by Edward Furlong and Nick Stahl) has been transformed from quirky, ingenious individualist into a buff, strong-but-silent, dunder-headed action hero willing to leap (before looking....) into any danger, small or large. The character's inaugural scene in Terminator: Salvation makes this trait a literal truth.

Now an infantryman of the year 2018, Connor (Christian Bale) -- without a second look -- dives into a vast subterranean machine complex, attached to nothing but a tether. Connor can apparently defy the laws of gravity since he literally stops on a dime in mid-air -- without injuring his back or neck -- to light a torch. Then, amusingly, at the end of the sequence, we see Connor grunting and straining to climb out of the underground installation.

Free-falling and stopping his downward momentum in an instant? No problem.

But pulling himself up out of a hole? Tough work...

In the same vein, a later scene depicts Connor jumping out of an airborne helicopter into a turbulent ocean, at the foot of a massive tidal wave, in order to reach his chain-of-command on a submarine. Connor's physical abilities would make Superman blush.

On set tantrums aside, the once-brilliant Christian Bale (think American Psycho [2000]...) has managed to appear less versatile and less emotionally-involved with each successive film role he's tackled, and Terminator: Salvation continues that unfortunate trend towards monosyllabic monotone. John Connor, the boy who grew up "trained" by his mother to be a warrior but who consciously and explicitly selected a different, unconventional path (even forbidding his pet terminator from killing...) has been transformed into nothing but a gun-carrying, thick-necked, well-muscled commando who boasts a tactical advantage: knowledge of the future.

And whether you believe this guy is a "false prophet" or "the key to salvation," would you -- as his military commander -- deploy him in the field where he could easily be killed; thus giving the enemy (Skynet) a substantial propaganda victory?

Terminator: Salvation is filled with violations of story logic just like that. For instance, John Connor's wife, Kate (now played by a glazed-looking Bryce Dallas Howard...) must have stayed at a Holiday Inn Express between the events of Terminator 3 and Terminator: Salvation because the former veterinarian is now performing successful human heart transplant surgery.

In the field.

In a post-apocalyptic environment.


Amazing, no?

While I believe that Kate could indeed become an accomplished medic in the fifteen year span between Terminator 3 and Terminator: Salvation, I don't believe the technology or education would be available to her in a post-nuclear world to learn the skills of heart transplant surgery. It's just...moronic; Terminator: Salvation's final, lame gambit.

In broad terms, Terminator: Salvation's world does not much seem to resemble the horrifying future we caught glimpses of in the first two Terminator films. In Cameron's film, the post-apocalyptic future was a world of perpetual night, darkness and gloom. Mankind barely survived, living atop mountainous layers of ash and debris (and human corpses...), in an unending nuclear winter. Terminators prowled and stalked by night, obliterating all resistance with dazzling, destructive lasers. A wicked joke in the original Terminator found a group of dirty, cold humans huddled around a TV set in an underground bunker. The light from the TV reflected on their sad, devastated faces, but as the camera swiveled around, we quickly registered that the set wasn't operational; that it was an elaborate fireplace.

Yet in Terminator: Salvation, the world around devastated Los Angeles is sun-lit, temperate, and mostly pretty safe. The resistance conveniently equips itself with Sony Vaio computer interface devices (product placement alert!), and fields military jets, helicopters, jeeps and submarines. The resistance also seems to have no problem remaining equipped with guns and ammo.

Even more baffling is the fact that all the humans in the film appear relatively healthy and well-fed. You'd think that acquiring uncontaminated food and water might be a full-time job after a worldwide nuclear winter, but Connor is buff, and Moon Bloodgood is certainly...fit. Nobody mentions radiation or radiation poisoning in the film, either.

So I guess nuclear war is winnable...

Sadly, this is the first Terminator film in which the action scenes have failed to thrill. One particular action set-piece is a real disaster: the night-time pursuit of Marcus Wright (Sam Worthington) after his escape from the resistance headquarters. At the time of this chase, Connor is already struggling with his understanding of Wright, and has even come to sense that the man may be more than he seems...a possible ally. And yet Connor sends out attack helicopters, jeeps and soldiers to blow the guy away anyway...to napalm him back into the Stone Age. It's an unmotivated action sequence, especially since Connor -- after sending in the cavalry -- makes a deal with Wright anyway. This whole sequence succeeds only in slowing down the film's march towards the climax. Like much of the film, the scene makes no narrative sense.

I can only guess why, but Terminator: Salvation -- action scenes included -- is oddly lethargic and listless. It's clear now that Arnold Schwarzenegger's presence in the previous films made some of the clunkier moments in the franchise bearable with his over-sized charisma and tongue-in-cheek sense of humor. Devoid of Arnie's catalyzing presence, Salvation is dull and mechanical. A CGI Arnold shows up late in the proceedings and is fun, if pretty darn phony-looking.

There are some nice touches here, no doubt. I enjoyed hearing Linda Hamilton's voice on the Sarah Connor cassettes. I also thought it was a nice touch that, while going rogue, Connor listens to Guns N Roses (his soundtrack of choice in Terminator 2). If only there was more of that rebellious spirit left in this Connor. And finally, Anton Yelchin, who impressed me as Chekov in the new Star Trek (2009), is equally impressive as Kyle Reese, even if given relatively little to do in this story.

The flat, heartless, disappointing Terminator: Salvation reminds me of Skynet's diagnosis of Marcus Wright late in the film:

"The human condition no longer applies to you."


The More You Know: Moderate Blog Moderating

The regular commenters on this blog are uniformly terrific so I don't usually have to post anything on this subject (I think I've only had to do it once in five years of blogging...).

But just a reminder: this is my policy about comment moderation on this blog. I don't approve for publication on this blog comments that are:

1.) Spammish

2.) Libelous -- or could reasonably be construed as libelous by reasonable people.

3.) personally antagonistic towards other individuals. My blog is not a venue for re-hashing arguments between other personalities or with celebrities. Leave that to the courts. Or your own blog. But don't air your personal grievances here...they won't get through.

And really, did you know that people can sue bloggers for comments left on their blog by readers...Yep, it's true.

The more you know...

Now back to your regularly scheduled programming.

Friday, December 11, 2009

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: Enemy Mine (1985)

Earlier this week, I reviewed Alien Nation (1988), a Reagan Era film about one man and one alien unexpectedly discovering friendship and brotherhood, despite sitting on opposite sides of a deep divide.

In the case of Graham Baker's film, the divide was caused by the racism and social resentment forged during a kind of "cosmic amnesty" program that quickly integrated Newcomer aliens into modern American society.

Wolfgang Peterson's Enemy Mine (1985) is another Reagan/Cold War Era film about the possibility of brotherhood between man and alien.

In this case, however, the backdrop is war itself; and the model for the film's conflict is clearly World War II, particularly the War in the Pacific fought between the U.S. and Japan.

Though based on Barry B. Longyear's story of the same title, the film version of Enemy Mine actually harks back specifically to a 1968 film from director John Boorman: Hell in the Pacific.

In Hell in the Pacific, Toshiro Mifune and Lee Marvin played pilots in opposing air forces who crashed on an inhospitable island and who were, over time, forced to accept each other -- and their differences -- in the battle for survival.

Hell in the Pacific's amazing natural photography by Conrad Hall captured the primacy of that difficult island landscape in the blossoming of the friendship between these sworn enemies. There was little dialogue spoken in the film (Mifune spoke only his native Japanese...), and the tension was often made bearable only by what Variety's reviewer called Marvin's "sardonic" lines, "which resemble wisecracks intended for onlookers."

In very precise terms, Enemy Mine strives for the same atmosphere, but does so under the bailiwick of a sci-fi veneer.

Storywise, the tale involves the Bilateral Terran Alliance (think the Allies...) battling in space (think the Pacific...) against the reptilian, stoic Dracs (think the Japanese...).

The pilots crash not on an island, but on the inhospitable planet of Fyrine IV, which is subject to wild seasonal changes, not to mention incessant meteor showers. The Terran pilot, Willis E. Davidge (Dennis Quaid) and Jeriba, the Drac (Louis Gossett Jr.) first fight with one another, before eventually joining forces to survive death from above (the meteors), and death from below (in the form of carnivorous sand pit monsters).

Enemy Mine's screenplay also gives Davidge (Dennis Quaid) the same kind of sardonic banter that Marvin excelled with in Hell in the Pacific. From the very shape of that sarcastic language, we learn how Davidge feels about the Drac. He's given to derogatory nick-names (not "gook," but "Toad Face") and seems to view the Drac as inherently inferior, deigning to learn a "few words" of Drac's "crude lingo."

Over time -- and the togetherness of the three years -- Davidge begins to understand the grace, beauty and dignity of the Drac culture. In that regard, Jeriba comments on the fact that humans are "always alone" within themselves and thus somewhat capricious (and passionate...) by nature.

By contrast, the Dracs seem more at peace with themselves, a fact which allows them to give birth without the help of a mate. The Drac are also tied, explicitly, to their ancestors, and Jeriba teaches Davidge how to recite the "Jeriba Line" -- 170 generations of ancestors -- so he can testify for Jeriba's son, Zamis, at the Holy Council on Dracon.

It is never stated anywhere in the film, and this no doubt will make some viewers uncomfortable, but watching Enemy Mine this time around, I couldn't escape the notion that young Zamis is actually the spiritual offspring of Jeriba and Davidge's friendship. Not a literal, biological offspring, but the logical, inevitable result of a friendship as deep and intense as that shared by these two unlike men. On a more epic scale, Zamis becomes the bridge between Drac and Terra, and in the film's beautiful last sequence, we come to learn how the human Davidge literally becomes part of Jeriba's family. This is a beautiful message of peace and brotherhood, especially since it came at the height of the Cold War.

Although The New York Times derided Enemy Mine as a "costly, awful-looking science fiction epic," I disagree. Taking a cue from Hell in the Pacific, I submit that Enemy Mine is a beautifully-realized film, though -- as always -- it is best not to judge by today's standards of special effects. The visuals are as stirring, convincing, impassioned and persuasive as the film's central friendship.

Enemy Mine's very first shot stands as a stark example of this. It gives the audience a dyanmic example of counterpoint.

On the soundtrack, Davidge's voice-over narration informs us that all the nations of the Earth have found peace. But on screen, we actually see the contrary: the next frontier; a war with an alien spacies.

The film opens with a creepy view of a human skeleton in a ruptured space suit -- a futuristic yet resonant image -- and then pulls back to reveal that this corpse drifts in a debris field in the aftermath of a star battle. Again, this shot could be accomplished easily with CGI today, but even for 1985, it remains gorgeous, macabre and powerful. It shows us that even in space, our nature to "fight" that which we don't understand may be our worst enemy.

Later, the film lingers on long shots of lonely, rocky landscapes, as a solitary figure (Davidge), traverses the surface of an inhospitable world. Again, in the spirit of Hell in the Pacific, the landscape of Fyrine IV is almost a character in this particularlyplay, always driving Human and Drac towards a friendship that might never have existed on another world.

Again and again, Peterson provides us shots of Jeriba and Davidge besieged by the natural Fyrine-ian elements: snow, rain and fire. And so we understand that petty differences (over territory) don't play a role in this harsh environment. In the battle for survival, there is no time for politics.

While discussing visuals, it's necessary to make a special note of Chris Walas's make-up, which transforms Gossett Jr. into the reptilian Jeriba.

Whereas some of the mattes and optical composites of Enemy Mine have indeed aged in the intervening quarter-century since the film's theatrical release, the make-up has not.

Jeriba or "Jerry" is on screen for a tremendous amount of the film's running time, and transmits to my eyes as a completely believable being. Simply put this is some of the finest make-up in cinema history, especially given the fact that it is put up to such intense and long-lasting scrutiny. Gossett's performance is also impressive. His Drac is an inquisitive, bird-like thing of trilling, hissing language; cockeyed-looks and a real sense of nobility. There's nothing stock, silly or remotely derivative about the actor's performance. From the moment we first see the Drac (coming up out of a lake, naked...) to his last sequence, giving birth to his son, nothing about Gossett's make-up or performance rings phony in the slightest. I remember there was a lot of talk in 1985 that Gossett should have been nominated for an Academy Award for this performance, but sadly it never happened.

Perhaps the finest visual imagined by Enemy Mine arrives just before the final fade-out. In the film's stirring, awe-inspiring closing-shot, we see Davidge and Zamis standing at the Holy Council on Dracon. A human being -- for the first time in history -- recites a Drac lineage before the gathered peoples of the planet.

This watershed view of a beautiful, water-rich alien world is a truly glorious one. The prominence of the sun in the auburn Drac sky cements the parallel to the Hell in the Pacific template since Japan is known, in some corners, as "the Land of the Rising Sun."

A sun on ascent may also be an efficacious metaphor for the Drac/human relationship: a sign of impending peace between people under the new "light" of understanding.

The closing shot even serves as the perfect visual punctuation for Davidge's personal journey. Before life on Fyrine IV, the callow, All-American pilot had lived under the specter of jingoism and hatred/prjeducide for an "enemy," although he had no personal cause to hate Dracs ("It's funny, but I'd never even seen a Drac...").

By film's end, however, Davidge has been "illuminated" by an understanding of the Drac culture, So much so that he had fought to save Jeriba's son, Zamis, from slavers (fellow humans). He has traveled to this alien homeworld -- the enemy homeworld -- to speak on the boy's behalf. By film's end, Davidge basks in the sunlight of understanding, peace, and even the kind of belonging that Jeriba suggests evades humans.

Visually, Enemy Mine is unimpeachable. And if a picture is worth a thousand words, then Enemy Mine achieves whatever greatness it possesses through those gorgeous, inspirational visualizations. In terms of words, and narrative, however, one wishes that Peterson's film had stuck more closely to the film's two central relationships: Davidge and Jerry/Davidge and Zamis, and not gotten bogged down in action-adventure set-piece at a slave ship compound.

Specifically, in the last third of the film, Zamis is captured by snarling, vicious human scavengers (led by the bug-eyed Brion James) and Davidge mounts a rescue operation to save the Drac boy. A film about relationships -- about survival in a harsh wilderness -- is suddenly transformed into a stupid shoot-out: a Hollywoodish stock battle that makes use of the most hackneyed movie cliches.

It is disappointing in the extreme that a movie which has toiled so hard to remind us that every person is more than the sum of stereotypes about their people descends to the easy stereotype of vicious, cruel, violent villains I like the late Brion James and he is always an effective villain, but his savage, wild-eyed, two-dimensional "evil" has no place in a film about shades of gray.

Enemy Mine gets back on track with that beautiful finale at Dracon and in that dynamic, heartbreaking last shot, but I wish the film had heeded its central message and excised the unnecessary material with the silent-movie slavers. The third act of the film could simply have consisted of Davidge and Zamis working together to escape Fyrine; to build a "raft" to space (as in Hell in the Pacific), or something like that. The black hat villains just aren't necessary, and they drag down an imaginatively presented, near-great film of the 1980s.

Enemy Mine is a powerfully-told story about the universal nature of friendship, spectacular in presentation, and acted with authentic heart. The film would likely be remembered as a classic today were it not for the disappointing third act.

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: Alien Nation (1988)

Alien Nation -- The Saturn-award winning, 1988 genre film from director Graham Baker (initially titled "Outer Heat") -- likely owes its very existence to two bills signed into law by President Ronald Reagan in 1986.

The first such law is the Immigration Reform Control Act, which officially granted amnesty to three million illegal immigrants who had been in the United States prior to January 1, 1982 and offered them "access to many of the benefits of a free and open society."


The second pertinent law was the Anti-Drug Abuse Act, also of 1986, a 1.7 billion dollar initiative which set mandatory minimum penalties for drug offenders, and financed new American prisons to the tune of 97 million dollars (though 200 million dollars were also directed to drug education efforts.) This was all part of Reagan's escalation of the "War on Drugs," which also included Nancy Reagan's "Just Say No" public relations campaign.

In terms of pop-culture trends, Alien Nation was part of the "buddy" cop movie wave that proved extremely popular in the mid-to-late eighties, and universally combined two unlike personalities into one seamless crime-solving, law enforcement unit. Among the signature "buddy" films of the era were 48 Hours (1983), Lethal Weapon (1987), Dragnet (1987), Red Heat (1988), and Tango & Cash (1989).

In understanding these contexts, one can detect how Alien Nation actually serves as a valuable sci-fi allegory for America in the late-1980s, one that involves the integration of an ethnic minority onto our shores; diagrams the use of illegal narcotics in that same community, and is expressed, -- perhaps surprisingly -- in the popular vernacular of the day; the buddy cop/crime thriller format.

They Have Landed: Illegal Aliens in a Literal Sense

Alien Nation commences with a startling event of the year 1988. While Reagan is still commander-in-chief, a vast alien saucer lands in the Mojave Desert. We see it all happen via grainy, documentary-style news footage. The saucer carries a "slave race" of 250,000 extraterrestrials

In a televised address to the nation, President Reagan notes that America has "come to a turning point" and offers the quarter-million aliens a brand of intergalactic amnesty...essentially putting them on the fast path to American citizenship.

By 1991, the Newcomers are integrated -- at least on the surface -- into American society: attending our schools; acquiring jobs, purchasing homes...even forming their own communities, like the urban "Slag Town."

But as veteran human cop, Matthew Sykes (James Caan) soon learns, the Newcomers also boast some unseemly secrets about their past. When Sykes teams with the first Newcomer detective in the LAPD, Sam Francisco -- nicknamed George (Mandy Patankin), he uncovers a criminal cartel bent on supplying a dangerous Newcomer narcotic to the aliens. This drug turns Newcomers into steroid-pumped, aggressive killers.

You Got Your Green Card, Buddy?

Rockne S O'Bannon's Alien Nation screenplay draws strong parallels between the Newcomer alien minority and real minorities in 1980s America. Without seeming heavy-handed, the film gazes at the ideas of immigration and integration from virtually every angle conceivable.

For instance -- as we see from news footage "man on the street" interviews -- the average American of the far-flung year of 1991 (!) worries about his place in the new, post-Newcomer economy. "There goes my job future," one college student laments. He also worries that the Newcomers -- who are fast learners -- will do better in school; a cdirect omment on some white fears about the intelligence of Asian students in the 1980s. There are even references here to the "English Only" movement this country saw in the 1990s, particularly in a poster which reads "We Teach English to the Universe."

Later, we also learn of bureaucratic efforts to enforce integration, an "early advancement program" that places Newcomers in prominent positions (in the police force, for example...), but also creates resistance from "regular" Americans; who feel that the aliens are being given special or preferential treatment. Essentially, this is a metaphor for affirmative action; another hot-button issues of the late 1980s and early 1990s.

Inevitably, entrenched racism is also part of this process of integration. At one point, a Newcomer realizes that Sykes -- a self-professed bigot -- didn't recognize him...that he can't tell the individial aliens apart; an old racist chestnut revived and demonstrated in practice (a "they all look alike to me..." kind-of-thing).

Some of the detectives in the L.A.P.D. are also quite jealous of Francisco's fast promotion, and paint graffiti on his car reading E.T.P.D.

There's even a joke here about uh...some ethnic minorities being particularly ...well-endowed. George sees a condom at one point, and expresses disbelief that a human...member could fit inside something so tiny. Also, Sykes is tantalized by the idea of interracial sex with a Newcomer female; a stripper representing the new, the forbidden, the exotic. It's also clear that integration has its downside for the newcomers: they live in low-income housing, stick mostly to their own areas and clubs (like "Encounters") and face prejudice on a daily basis. And George even faces charges of race betrayal from his own kind. "You smell like a human," one Newcomer snarls at him. Yep, he's the Uncle Tom of the Newcomers.

Again, the fast-paced Alien Nation hardly belabors such social points, but it covers -- in broad strokes -- the very process of integration occurring in such cities as Los Angeles (the movie's setting...) following Reagan's 1986 amnesty. Yet the message is ultimately -- and positively -- one of brotherhood. Despite their vast differences, George and Sykes (whose name means, in the Newcomer language, means "Excrement Cranium") eventually become partners and friends. Their mutual belief in law and order -- and loyalty -- binds them and sets aside cultural differences.

Remember: You're Out There Setting an Example for Our Community

The War on Drugs is also a major undercurrent in Alien Nation. The film's narrative involves the resurrection of a potent alien narcotic that was used on the saucers (by "the Controllers") to keep the Newcomers in line. This drug was, in fact, the only pleasure available for this slave race of "hard laborers."

If conspiracy-minded, you might link this idea of population control via narcotics to the belief by some in the black community that the CIA actively distributed drugs in the African-American population to neuter demands for civil rights, and so forth. I'm not saying that allegation has any truth behind it; only that Alien Nation has a resonance of it as one part of its multi-cultural tapestry.

Furthermore, the idea of immigrants arriving on our shores and hidinga terrible secret is not something invented from whole cloth either. Here, the existence of the alien narcotic -- which George wants to keep secret -- reveals that the Newcomers are, in some ways, a race of drug addicts. If you look back to 1980 and the Mariel Boat Lift (the context for Brian De Palma's Scarface [1983]), you might remember that many of the immigrants that arrived on our shores in that event had actually been incarcerated criminals in Cuba. In America, some of those Cuban criminals went on to became drug dealers. That path is not entirely unlike William Harcourt's (Terence Stamp) journeyin Alien Nation. He's a powerful Newcomer who attempts to gain power and wealth through illegal means: narcotics.

I don't believe Alien Nation is a truly great film...but it is a good -- and memorable -- one. Ultimately, the film descends, during the final act, into car chases and foot chases, and relies more on action than the stimulating ideas bubbling beneath the surface. Also, the hackneyed "cop"/police-procedural aspects of the film tend to age it. Yet as an intriguing, sci-fi time-capsule for America in 1988, the film is an invaluable and influential work. Since immigration reform is a big issue even today, Alien Nation still has a tremendous amount of currency.

In truth, many science-fiction fans actually preferred the short-lived TV adaptation of Alien Nation (1989) to this film, in no small part because it went into further detail about Newcomer culture and had the opportunity to diagram the relationships between characters beyond cliches.

Notably, this summer's District 9 exhibits interesting similarities to the Alien Nation franchise too, and recently there was word that Sy Fy (once the Sci-Fi Channel) is re-imagining this property as a new series. So we can look forward to the Newcomers' second arrival in the days ahead...

More Kenner Super Powers For Joel!




Monday, December 07, 2009

30 Years Ago Today The Human Adventure Was Just Beginning


It was thirty years ago today -- December 7, 1979 -- that Star Trek: The Motion Picture was released in theaters across the United States. I was in the fourth grade at the time, and I've got to say, the movie made a huge impact on me.

Anyway, here's an excerpt from my recent review of the film:


As the Star Trek franchise prepares to re-invent itself with the premiere of J.J. Abrams' big budget Kirk and Spock "origin story" in just a few short weeks, it seems an appropriate time to remember the first big-budget re-invention of the durable science-fiction mythos. That expensive and highly-profitable film arrived in American movie theaters nearly thirty years ago, on December 7, 1979, and was titled Star Trek: The Motion Picture.

Directed by Robert Wise (The Day The Earth Stood Still [1951]), Run Silent, Run Deep [1958], The Haunting [1963], Audrey Rose [1977]) and produced by TV series creator and "Great Bird of the Galaxy" Gene Roddenberry, this forty-five million dollar voyage of the starship Enterprise launched a film series that has endured a whopping three decades.

Despite proving a box-office bonanza and the father to ten cinematic successors of varying quality, Star Trek: The Motion Picture remains today one of the most polarizing of the film series entries.

The received wisdom on the Robert Wise film is that it is dull, over-long, and entirely lacking in the sparkling character relationships and dimensions that made the 1960s series such a beloved success with fans worldwide.

It is likely you've heard all the derogatory titles for the film too, from The Motionless Picture, to Spockalypse Now, to Where Nomad Has Gone Before (a reference to the episode "The Changeling.")

Conventional wisdom, however, isn't always right. Among its many fine and enduring qualities, Star Trek: The Motion Picture is undeniably the most cinematic of the Trek movie series in scope and visualization.

And, on closer examination, the films features two very important elements that many critics insist it lacks: a deliberate, symbolic character arc (particularly in the case of Mr. Spock) and a valuable commentary on the co-existence/symbiosis of man with his technology.

Star Trek: The Motion Picture also re-invents the visual texture of the franchise, fully and authoritatively, transforming what Roddenberry himself once derided as "the Des Moines Holiday Inn" look of the sixties TV series for a post-Space:1999, post-Star Wars world.

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: Bruno (2009)

Love it or hate it, last summer's mockumentary, Bruno -- from provocateur Sacha Baron Cohen -- did not meet with the same overwhelming critical success as did 2006's Borat.

On the contrary, Cohen's new effort -- which concerns a gay, Austrian fashion reporter seeking fame and celebrity in the United States -- ended up sharply dividing many audiences.

Some viewers felt Bruno was a powerful indictment of ignorance and homophobia (particularly in the American South...), while others opined that it was a gay minstrel show; an outrageous stereotyping of homosexuals as sex-crazed perverts.

GLAAD noted that while the film was "well-meaning" it was also "outright offensive." The Human Rights Campaign wanted a disclaimer placed on the front of Bruno explicitly noting that it was a film about ignorance, not anti-gay prejudice. In other words, the HRC didn't really trust the audience to "get" the film's message.

Their fear was understandable, if misplaced. To quote one of Bruno's Teutonic brethren, Fredrich Nietzsche: "With the unknown, one is confronted with change, discomfort and care: the first instinct is to abolish these painful states." That perfectly sums up the human experience of prejudice, doesn't it? When we see something that is different from our personal tradition...we tend to fear it, and, in some cases, attempt to destroy it.

Both within the context of the film's actual narrative and the context of American popular culture, the reaction to Bruno reflects Nietzsche's essential truth about human nature. Cohen's comedy intentionally generates intense discomfort on a whole slew of hot-button topics. Accordingly, the gut reaction by many will simply be to attempt to "abolish" their own feelings of discomfort; to decry the film; to write it off; to dismiss it rather than attempt to understand the didactic purpose underlining it.

In the text of the movie itself, you see this "first instinct" to "abolish discomfort" played out in vivid, even violent terms. In the film's audacious, mind-blowing last act, flamboyantly-gay Bruno (masquerading as a straight wrestler...) stars in a cage-fighting match in Fort Smith, Arkansas. His audience consists of hundreds of overweight, beer-swilling, Southern rednecks.

It would be tempting to suggest that these are well-cast film extras; ones intentionally designed to encourage redneck stereotypes in the culture. But they aren't: they're the real people who showed up for a "Blue Collar brawlin' event" with "hot girls" and "cheap beer. " Bruno rocks their world when the heterosexual cage-match turns into a very public act of homosexual....affection. The camera captures (in amazing close-ups...) the shock, outrage and horror of the surprised, even disgusted audience. One onlooker actually appears to be physically traumatized; as though his entire world -- and world view -- has been shattered, stomped on, and utterly obliterated. It is clear he will never be the same. This is not the world he is familiar with, it's a change -- it is alien -- and it makes him feel uncomfortable, angry...even rageful.

As Celine Dion's "My Heart Will Go On" plays on the film's soundtrack, the powerful human instinct to abolish that which is discomforting reveals itself. And boy, it is ugly. The Arkansas crowd grows increasingly violent, throwing food, drinks, and even a metal chair (!) into the cage in an all-out attempt to shut-down the display of gay love occurring at center-stage. Seriously, you worry for Cohen's safety...

As was the case in Borat, this satire draws the most significant power from Cohen's interaction with the relatively backward (or should I say traditional?) values we often associate with the Christianist South. Therefore, his homosexual character heads not only to Arkansas, but to Alabama -- for military training and further mischief. Bruno also goes on a hunting/camping trip with southern rednecks, generating an awkard silence as he notes that the stars in the night sky remind him of all "the hot guys in the world." These moments are priceless, and hysterically funny.

But in some sense, these scenes also clearly represent Cohen shooting fish in a barrel. HIs targets are easy ones; their ignorance and prejudices obvious and therefore easy to ignite. Where Bruno proves rather more daring is in Cohen's dedicated effort to bite the hand that feeds him. In particular, Cohen places in his crosshairs the modern Hollywood culture of celebrity and high fashion. Bruno's gayness isn't really an issue for many viewers in America, frankly, but his obsessive pursuit of his 15 minutes of fame does make him a less-than-sympathetic character at points. Again, this has nothing whatsoever to do with the fact that he is homosexual.

For instance, emulating the likes of Brangelina and Madonna, Bruno adopts an African baby as his latest fashion accessory. His description of the baby (named O.J.) as a "dick magnet" draws appropriate howls from a predominantly African-American studio audience on The Richard Bey Show. But ask yourself: are the howls of outrage over Bruno's homosexuality? What if Borat had done the same thing, claiming that young O.J. was a "pussy magnet?" The same outrage would have erupted, no doubt, because what is being discussed here is the packaging of a living human being as a fashion accessory, as a popular Hollywood fad." Black babies? Everyone should own one!

Bruno skewers Hollywood and the culture of celebrity adroitly in other sequences too. The Austrian fashionista hosts Paula Abdul at his new (empty...) house. Because the house is a new purchase, there is not yet any furniture present for the interview. Bruno thus asks several Latino workers to get down on their hands and knees and essentially function as chairs and a coffee table while they film the TV segment. Paula goes ahead with the interview under these conditions. She sits down on a Latino man, and absently discusses how she is totally dedicated to helping less fortunate people in the world. She is unaware of the apparent contradiction between her words and her behavior. The point is that -- even if well-meaning -- Paula (and by extension, other celebrities...), aren't really focused on helping others. On the contrary, the African adoptions, and the charity work in some cases represent nothing more than self-glorification and vanity. Look at me! Look at what good things I've done! This isn't as obvious, as violent, or as overtly disturbing as the anti-gay behavior we see evidenced in Fort Smith, but it is, perhaps, just as important a comment on American culture.

As a parent, I found one specific sequence in Bruno to be particularly horrifying and jaw-dropping. Bruno auditions children for a photo-shoot with his son, O.J. He interviews several show-business parents and asks them if they are comfortable with a variety of things, vis-a-vis their children. Would the kids be comfortable wearing Nazi uniforms? Crucified on a cross? Would the children be comfortable operating "antiquated machinery?" Could the children drop 10 lbs. in a week? Do the children like working with "lit phosphorous?"

So craven, so desperate, so grasping are these show-business parents that they don't even blink before agreeing to liposuction for their children. And everything else too (lit phosphorous included....)! Again, this is a comment on Bruno's individual journey (and the American Idol, reality-tv desperation of our modern culture): celebrity is everything. Degradation is nothing. It's just a stepping stone! The movie isn't about gay sex or homosexuality so much as it is about what people will do for fame.

I don't imagine many in Hollywood particularly appreciated that message...and I believe that fact likely accounts for some of the negative reviews of the film.

Cohen is a fearless performer, and at every opportunity in Bruno, he knowingly and cannily courts our discomfort. Whether with a close-up shot of a swinging (and talking...) penis; or with the film's opening montage of acrobatic gay sex between Bruno and his pygmy boyfriend (!), the performer's goal is to shatter taboos and decorum. In the process make us confront our discomfort. He even broaches anti-Semitism (in Bruno's admiration for Austria's "other" hero, Adolf Hitler).

What's the end game here? Why court violence, hysteria, nervous laughter and moral outrage all for the sake of making us acknowledge our own, human discomfort?

I believe the answer does not specifically concern homosexuality; but rather prejudice in general. When confronted with change -- with something different or new -- many of us instinctively want to squash it or look away. But in Bruno, Cohen runs the audience through a sort of gauntlet until it becomes okay with Bruno's out-there approach to life. We don't exactly ever approve of him, but in the end, we do want him to be happy, to find love with his nice-guy partner, Lutz. Bruno's way may never be our way, yet by the end of the film, he's just a another human being who wants to be loved.

So Cohen reminds us we have to plow through the discomfort -- or the shock of the new -- to become aware again of our common humanity. To remember the things that bind us and don't separate us. He doesn't tow the party line, necessarily, on homosexuality, but instead forges a strong comment on bigotry in general. This is an electrifying and challenging film, and certainly one of the funniest - and rawest - to come down the pike in a good long while.