Saturday, February 27, 2010

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: A Perfect Getaway (2009)

Honesty in blogging time here: I wasn't particularly enthusiastic to screen A Perfect Getaway (2009), a recent thriller starring Milla Jovovich, Timothy Olyphant, Steve Zahn and Chris Hemsworth.

From the trailers, I judged that the film just looked...generic. A bunch of vacationers in an isolated (but lovely) spot get killed off one-by-one by some garden-variety psychopath.

Been there. Done that.

But then I learned that A Perfect Getaway had been written and directed by none other than David Twohy. Now my curiosity was piqued.

After all, this is the underrated talent who directed the very best John Carpenter movie not actually directed by John Carpenter: 2000's sterling Pitch Black.

Twohy also made The Arrival (1996), a film which posited global warming as a secret alien terra-forming strategy. Not a perfect movie, perhaps, but a damned inventive thriller, replete with black hole bombs, creepy alien metamorphosis special effects, some nineties-era big-government paranoia, and a rousing final action scene set atop a giant satellite dish.

Yet despite Twohy's leadership here -- at least starting out -- I still felt that sinking feeling about A Perfect Getaway. It begins (sort of...) with a handsome, just-married couple arriving in Hawaii for a vacation. But Cydney (Jovovich) and Cliff (Zahn) aren't exactly smart travelers.

In short order, these characters make every mistake you can possibly imagine in term of horror movies and the "Stranger in a Strange Land" genre conventions. To wit, Cydney and Cliff show off their heaps of cash (their "wedding haul") to strangers. Then they are rude and crass in front of the locals (Cydney brings up blow jobs out of-the-blue...), Next, they recklessly stop to pick up two hitchhikers: the very menacing Kale (Hemsworth), and his girlfriend, Cleo (Marley Shelton). Worse, once they've made the offer of a ride, Cyd and Cliff try to slink out of it. Subtle.

But even as I grew quickly irritated with Cydney and Cliff for their rampant stupidity and social awkwardness, I found myself growing intrigued by Twohy's choices as a director.

In Kale's first scene, for instance, we never see the hitch hiker's face above the line of his moustache. It's not just a shot here or a shot there, either. A scene of some duration occurs by the roadside, and rough-and-tumble Kale is on screen talking...but we never see his eyes. At the very least, this approach is unnerving. More than that it's a metaphor for Twohy's approach to the entire film (and his steely focus, in particular, on lying eyes...).

Before long in A Perfect Getaway we learn that two innocent newlyweds have been murdered in Hawaii. With this data in the forefront of our thinking, we cringe when Cydney and Cliff easily take-up with two more strangers: Nick (Olyphant) and his butt-kicking, Southern girlfriend, Gina (Kiele Sanchez). Could they be the killers?

And did I happen to mention that Gina learned the fine art of animal butchery (by hatchet no less...) in the local Piggy Wiggly meat department? Or that Nick is "hard to kill," meaning he survived a land-mine explosion in the Iraq War? Said explosion pulped the back of his skull, but he was ambulatory for another seventeen minutes. Fall unconscious? Nah. He just wanted a cigarette..

The first hour of A Perfect Getaway is beautiful to watch, set in "the most gorgeous dead-end God ever made," but I feared I knew exactly where it was headed with all these seemingly off-the-shelf characters. For example, Cliff is an aspiring Hollywood screenwriter, and he and Nick keep discussing second act twists and red herrings. This sort of Scream-esque self-referential business is ten years out-of-date at this juncture, and just feels old and hackneyed. Thus I feared the movie would grind on to the predictable twist, be inordinately pleased with itself, and then end with a lot of sturm and drang.

However -- and I still find this miraculous -- the movie's twist is an absolute humdinger. Seriously. At about the hour-point, this formerly staid, seemingly predictable thriller kicks into high gear. The images go from luxurious color to cold glinty silver. A Perfect Getaway suddenly shifts into black-and-white film noir mode, and everything we thought we knew and believed is up for grabs. I don't write any of this lightly, but A Perfect Getaway lulls you into a sense of complacency before pulling the rug out from under you. Again, I was astonished...

What I feared would be an insipid movie about vapid characters instead becomes an animal of an entirely different stripe. And again and again, Twohy returns to a common conceit: the bonds we make with our eyes. How our eyes judge who is trustworthy. How our eyes reflect what we're feeling. How our eyes can lie, when necessary.

In the silver light that reveals the villains' m.o. (in flashback), their eyes are black and opaque, like their motives. They look like human sharks. Predators.

And then there's a great, tense scene near the end of the film during which a character in need of help meets a group of strangers. The killer arrives and attempts to sabotage her with the suspicious strangers. The killer claims our heroine is addicted to Meth. He claims she's out of her mind; that she's high. The strangers almost believe his story. And then, suddenly, one of the strangers has a thought about the killer's eyes. And the victim's eyes. And the game is up.

Even the motives of the killers comes down to the eyes, and what the eyes witness. The two villains are classic narcissists, you see. "Nothing exists until we get there" is their mantra. In other words, the world is their oyster. The world and its population mean nothing, at least outside of what it means to them. To further establish this point, there's a scene set on a beach in which the killer looks away from the tumbling waves-- and the waves actually freeze -- until he turns back to face them. They are their whole world, and nobody else and nothing else matters. There's no sense of empathy, compassion or humanity in them.

Or, at least in one of them.

Early in the film, Nick informs Cliff that when writing a movie, it is important to get the details right. Otherwise all you end up with is your basic "craptastic movie." Twohy seems to have internalized this message, and crafted a thriller that absolutely plays it straight; that absolutely earns your admiration; that stays two-steps ahead of you. This movie is so clever that it demands a second viewing so you can square yourself with your lying eyes. Especially in the first half of the film. The moves you thought were stupid and off-the-shelf? A second time, you realize precisely what's up.

A Perfect Getaway, even features a great title. Going in, you think this thriller concerns the perfect vacation spot; and the irony of finding terror in such an idyllic setting.

Coming out, you realize the title means something else entirely.

Friday, February 26, 2010

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: Escape from the Planet of the Apes (1971)

"Time can only be fully understood by an observer with a god-like gift of infinite regression."

- Dr. Otto Hasslein (Eric Braeden) discusses the dark, turbulent corridors of time in Escape from the Planet of the Apes.

One of the finest and best-written horror blogs haunting cyberspace in 2010 is
Kindertrauma, a site dedicated to the film and TV productions that scared (and scarred...) us all as children.

In the spirit of that blog's dedicated mission statement, I've been thinking much lately about a disco-decade era movie that disturbed me tremendously as a kid. It's not exactly a traditional pick, I grant you. I certainly wouldn't classify it as horror, per se. But it was...horrific. And it certainly rattled my young mind.

The year was 1976 when I first viewed Escape from the Planet of the Apes on ABC Channel 7's 4:30 Movie (during Planet of the Apes week). I was six or seven years old at the time. I was in kindergarten, if I'm remembering it right. The movie itself concerned three ape-o-nauts hurled back from the future of 3955 AD (the era of the Earth's destruction in Beneath The Planet of the Apes [1969] to 1973; to now, essentially.

But Escape from the Planet of the Apes blazing, go-for-broke valedictory images -- especially following the film's easy-going, fish-out-of-water humor -- proved utterly traumatizing to me.

Specifically, at the film's climax, the audience is exposed to a number of really disturbing images. Kindly ape-o-naut doctor, Zira (Kim Hunter) is shot in the back several times while running away from her assailant.

A villainous scientist, Otto Hasslein (Eric Braeden) empties his gun into the body of Zira's baby (presumably), and we see the bullet-ridden, bloody blanket in close-up.

Then, Cornelius (Roddy McDowall), Zira's husband -- standing atop a high deck on a rusty ship -- kills Hasslein and we see the blood erupt out of his chest as a bullet strikes.

Next, a police sniper shoots Cornelius, and we watch in agonizing close-up as this beloved character, this pacifist chimpanzee, gasps repeatedly for air, plummets from his perch, and smashes hard onto the deck below. He lands with an unforgettable thud.

The most disturbing portion of this death scene is the close-up: Cornelius's lungs have been punctured apparently, and we see him register, shock, confusion and pain as the terminal nature of his wounds take effect, and he struggles for more air.

Finally, the bloodied Zira -- after dumping her baby's corpse into polluted-looking water -- crawls desperately to her husband's side and quietly dies beside him. Then there's a dramatic pull-back -- the cinematic equivalent of a "Holy Shit" -- as the camera retracts in horror from this orgy of violence perpetrated against, unarguably, the franchise's most beloved and likable characters.

And yes, this move is Rated G. For "General Audiences." Take the kiddies...

I've never forgotten this brutal climax to Don Taylor's third entry in the POTA franchise, and it's probably the reason I don't watch this film as often as I do the original 1968 film, or Conquest of the Planet of the Apes. Cornelius and Zira are such kind, innocent, loving beings and throughout the film, they literally wear their hearts on their sleeves. This quality of sincerity makes them very open with strangers ("I like you," Zira tells one of their captors, the kindly Dr. Lewis [Bradford Dillman]). Yet it also makes them impulsive.

This quality of total honesty and openness means Zira doesn't know any better than to tell her human captors EVERYTHING about her work in the distant future, including her experimentation on dumb and mute humans. And Cornelius also reacts impulsively (but protectively) when Zira -- following a torture session by Hasslein -- is insulted by an orderly. Cornelius kills the boy in an instant of fleeting rage. Considering all of this now, I still can't believe how unremittingly, how authentically dark Escape from the Planet of the Apes remains.

What I hadn't taken full notice of, perhaps, in my previous viewing of the film, is just how skilled and yes, how artistic, the film remains, in the support of such a rather bleak story. I had always boasted an unspoken bias against Escape since it is the only Planet of the Apes entry set in "our time," meaning no need for much by way of special effects, make-up or futuristic production design. The film also features less action than both of its silver screen predecessors. Having seen the film for so many years on television (in Pan-and-Scan), and not the more impressive wide-screen version, I had often considered the film ugly-looking, especially in respect to the other impressive films in the franchise.

Now, however, I see it a little differently. Don Taylor makes great use of the rectangular frame in Escape from the Planet of the Apes, forging a number of remarkable compositions in the process. One of the finest examples of his work opens the film. We start with a landscape view of a timeless ocean, bracketed on the left by a jagged mountain. This image plainly recalls the post-apocalyptic Forbidden Zone, rocky shore-line and Statue of Liberty-ending of Planet of the Apes. But before we can contemplate this particular (and familiar...) vision for too long, a contemporary helicopter unexpectedly juts into frame from the left, making audiences aware that we have returned to our Earth of the present. This is a great tie-in to the previous films; one of great visual consistency for the series. It's exactly the opening shot we would expect of a Planet of the Apes sequel...but with a twist.

In terms of visualizations, Taylor's direction also makes a case for our eyes that the human world (soon to die in a nuclear conflagration...) is already half-dead. The Apes from the future are welcomed to this world as heroes and celebrities, but soon are tortured and mistreated by agents of the U.S. military-industrial complex. Accordingly, Zira and Cornelius go from luxurious hotel rooms to utilitarian military bases, finally to a forgotten, rusted ship-yard that represents the wasteful, ruined, industrial infrastructure of a bloated human society living on borrowed time. Zira attempts to nurse her baby inside an abandoned ship there, and the vessel is a total wreckage. So what we get is an odd visual conjunction of birth and dying in the same frame.

In terms of visuals, Taylor also evidences a preference for images which note the apes' entrapment and ultimate doom here in our 20th century culture.

A preponderance of shots reveal the endangered apes through bars, window frames, door-frames or other enclosures that suggest, at least implicitly, their snare. Even the film's final shot adopts this stance; an appropriate touch since it occurs at the prehistory of ape enslavement in human culture. I should add, the shot also adopts the high-angle perspective frequently and in film grammar, that is also a signifier of doom.

Thematically, I also appreciate the way that Escape from the Planet of the Apes is structured as a mirror-image of the original, only flipping the ape/human dynamics. Three astronauts travel through time in both stories. Kindly "animal" psychologists tend to the astronauts in both stories -- in direct contradiction to the rules of the prevailing, cruel society -- and there are also early casualties amongst the space travelers in both Escape and Planet. In Escape's presidential commission or "panel of inquiry," there's even a resonance of Ape's famous "See/Speak/Hear No Evil" Tribunal.

What's even more genuinely commendable about Escape from the Planet of the Apes is the film's central theological and philosophical argument. To wit, Hasslein discusses the nature of time...and destiny. "Time is like a freeway, a freeway with an infinite number of lanes. All leading from the past into the future. However not the same future." He tells us. "It follows that a driver -- by changing lanes -- can change his future."

But then in a conversation with the President of the United States (William Windom in a terrific, ultra-slick performance), Hasslein admits that he wonders about his next course of action. Apes will take over the world if Zira and Cornelius are allowed to raise their baby. Hasslein thus wants to sterilize the parents and abort the baby. But -- as he aptly puts it -- "which future has God -- if there is a God -- chosen for our future?" In killing the Talking Apes, is Hasslein an instrument of God's plan, or an enemy of God's plan?

The President brings up the famous Hitler time-travel conundrum in response. Would we kill Hitler in the womb, knowing what we know of the man and his war crimes? Would he kill his remote ancestors? The President's answer is one of political buck-passing. When told that talking apes will dominate Earth's future, he notes sardonically, "I doubt that we shall still be in office by then."

This thematic conceit sees a deliberate reflection in a character introduced in the final act, the circus owner Armando (Ricardo Montalban). Armando states that he despises those who try to intervene in destiny, and act against God's plan. And furthermore, that if it is man's fate to be dominated by intelligent apes, then he hopes those apes are as kind as Zira and Cornelius. Essentially, we have two opposing points of view here: pre-determinism (Armando) vs. free will (Hasslein). Or to put it another way, Hasslein desires to "change lanes" in order avoid a terrible future for human beings. Armando prefers to believe that we're not even driving the car. That God has us on cruise control of sorts. Changing lanes is futile, if it isn't in God's scheme.

Interestingly, the very words of Zira and Cornelius, regarding "future" ape history, inform us a bit more about the shape of this argument. The two kindly chimps insist that, according to their Sacred Scrolls, pet apes went from doing tricks to performing services in two centuries. And that they turned the tables on their human oppressors in another three centuries. In other words, in the world that Zira and Cornelius arise from (and which Taylor visited) it takes 500 years for harried apes to develop the power of speech and become conscious to the philosophical concepts of slavery and freedom, unity and corporate action. This long period of "dawning realization" may occur because there is no real intelligent leader of the movement. Insurrection, revolution and a new order must arise through the crucible of experience; through evolution. Through generations of slavery.

But by "changing lanes," by traveling back in time, Zira and Cornelius have altered destiny (and their own history). Now, their child -- an intelligent ape -- will bring about the same pro-ape revolution in decades, not centuries. So the future has indeed been changed. It has been hastened.

But the irony of this is Hasslein's role. He acts to kill the baby of the taking apes, and the world believes he has succeeded in his quest. Thus the hunt for Zira and Cornelius's child ends least until a paranoid governor named Breck picks it up twenty years later...when it is too late. By acting to destroy the threat now, by believing he can "change lanes," Hasslein has also hastened the very future he hoped to avoid (the pre-determined future?). The apes will take over his world; and they will do it much sooner than they would have without his witch-hunt. Perhaps God has played a trick on the vain scientist. The outcome was never in doubt; only the scheduling of it.

Critics are always quick to point out the pointed social commentary in Escape from the Planet of the Apes, and indeed, there's much there. Zira gives a bra-burning speech to a Bay Area Women's Club, striking a feminist chord right at the time that second-wave feminism was really entering the American bloodstream. "The marriage bed is made for two," she declares to rousing applause, "But every damn morning it's the woman who has to make it."

Similarly, Cornelius attends a boxing prize fight, and is horrified by the overt brutality of the event. By contrast, the humans don't seem to be horrified by this violence in the slightest. They cheer as the fighters pummel one another. Oppoistely, the humans do take great exception to the violence Zira inflicts on human experimental the year 3955 AD. The same humans who decry Zira's lab experiments in the distant future are also the first to decide on her draconian personal disposition: sterilization after a state-enforced abortion. Given this scenario, Escape from the Planet of the Apes involves human hypocrisy. Or as Zira notes. "We've met hundreds of humans since we've been here. And I trust three."

There's also some underlying commentary in Escape from the Planet of the Apes about the American media and pop culture, and how it is so damn fickle. At first, Cornelius and Zira capture the hearts of "the voters" (as the President states). For a while, they are the toast of the town. Why, they even go to Disneyland to dedicate a "new boat " in the "jungle cruise."

Within a few weeks, however, the apes are spirited to an undisclosed location, and eventually murdered. The culture that worshipped them has apparently forgotten about them; moved on to different bread and circuses, apparently. The message: souls as honest and gentle as Zira and Cornelius get snuffed out in this media "circus" (as opposed to Armando's more compassionate circus, a place of sanctuary).

Ultimately, Escape from the Planet of the Apes is a bridge between the first two films in the series and the last two. It is the only one not set in the future. It is also the movie, in a sense, that makes the entire Planet of the Apes series possible, since it "resurrects" characters from a destroyed Earth of the future and delivers them (and young Caesar...) into the 20th century timeline where the ascent of the Apes will soon occur. For all these reasons, Escape from the Planet of the Apes is a strong entry -- and a necessary one -- in the five-strong franchise. But more than that, it's a pretty damn fine film in its own right.

And I still find it intensely traumatizing. Cornelius and Zira are golden hearts, to steal a descriptor from Lars von Trier. We have witnessed their decency and humanity in Planet of the Apes, Beneath the Planet of the Apes, and here in their last film too. To kill off such sweet, beloved characters in such brutal, unblinking fashion is almost sadistic. But the point about the cruelty of the current human culture is made.

In truth, the enduring power of Escape from the Planet of the Apes probably arises from the vivid, unforgettable, bloody ending that spawns nightmares in the young. This is a Fin de siècle film. The human world is ending; a rusted, industrial nightmare of decay and bloat, and soon to take even further hits (the death of pets by space plague is just ten years off in this time-line, for instnace).

Even the film's final image is haunting, bizarre and a little surreal. A baby ape -- the real child of Zira and Cornelius -- is behind bars at Armando's circus. Shouting plaintively. Calling for "Mama." (And voiced by the late, great Walker Edmiston).

A sad baby searching for his murdered Mama? Not exactly a barrel full of monkeys.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

CULT TV FLASHBACK #102: Space: Above and Beyond: "R&R"

This is Morgan and Wong Week over at Back to Frank Black, the campaign spearheading the return of Millennium's beloved, cult-TV, criminal profiler.

As you may recall, Glen Morgan and James Wong were writers on Chris Carter's The X-Files, producers of MIllennium's second season, and cult-TV creators in their own right. They were behind an excellent paranormal series, The Others, in 2000, for instance. But given this special BTFB event, I thought it would be an appropriate time to look back at another Morgan and Wong production from the 1990s: Space: Above and Beyond (1995-1996).

I featured the pilot episode as my 37th CULT TV flashback back in November of 2007, and today I want to remember another segment, "R & R" produced by Morgan and Wong and written by Julie Selbo. But before we leap into a description of that particular tale, here's (some of) what I wrote about the series premise of Space: Above and Beyond, introduction-wise, back in 2007:

Imagine a "gritty, gutsy" (per TV Guide...) futuristic war drama colored in hues of mood battleship gray. It takes place in deep space following a devastating sneak attack on humanity by an unfathomable and merciless enemy.

Our protagonists in the war effort (which we are "losing badly") are young, attractive (but headstrong and angsty...) pilots. Much of the action occurs inside the cockpits of cramped space fighters and in military briefing rooms. The universe depicted by the series is one of murky morality and hard truths which shift in the troublesome and ambiguous sands of wartime. For instance, the specter of torture (here termed "re-education") is brought up in one installment.

You don't think I'm talking about the re-imagined Battlestar Galactica, do you?

Instead, the first paragraph of this review describes the Glen Morgan/James Wong sci-fi war drama, Space: Above and Beyond, a mid-nineties-era TV endeavor that aired on the Fox Network for one season (and twenty-three hour-long episodes), and which concerned a squadron of rookie - but committed - soldiers serving in the United States Marine Corps Space Aviator Cavalry aboard a mobile space headquarters; not the Galactica, but the Saratoga.

Set in the year 2063, Space: Above and Beyond sets its stories in the immediate aftermath of a devastating ambush on an Earth Colony ship bound for distant Tellus, ("the furthest any human has ever ventured,") and thus this nearly-forgotten series imagined a futuristic 9/11 scenario...six years before 9/11 (and eight years before the Ron Moore remake of BSG). The enemy in this case was not the Cylon race, but the menacing and mysterious "Chigs," a derogatory slang name which refers to chiggers... fleas which burrow into the skin.

What remains so interesting about Space: Above and Beyond is not merely that the re-imagined Battlestar Galactica co-opted so much from its look, feel and narrative without so much as a "by your command," but rather that the creators' of this cult series seemed to understand - far earlier than most of us - how truly divided Americans were becoming as a people; and how - as bad as it might be - a war effort could conceivably bring us together.

Some context: Space: Above and Beyond premiered just a year after the 1994 "Contract with America" Republican Congress swept the elections, a stinging rebuke to President Clinton and a victory for Nute Gunray...I mean Newt Gingrich. I often recall the 1994 elections as the "revenge of the white man" referendum, because this was the era in recent history in which there was so much complaining in the press about Hilary Clinton's (unelected) role in policy decisions (like health care), as well as lamenting over censorship re-crafted under the new term "political correctness." There was also a mighty backlash against social progress that appeared to the hard-right in America to undercut the white man in favor of women and minorities, specifically programs such as affirmative action.

Remember, this was post-Anita Hill/Clarence Thomas America, when the buzz word "sexual harassment" was all the rage. On a personal note, it was around this time that I first heard the name Rush Limbaugh, and began to meet otherwise seemingly-normal people who followed his every rant like he was some kind of cult leader.

Space: Above and Beyond reflects this reality in nineties America by featuring a diverse group of pilots, the men and women who will fight the Chig attackers. In particular, one of the pilots is Lt. Cooper Hawkes (Rodney Rowland), who is part of a new minority in America called a "Tank," a term which is more derogatory slang, this time for "in vitros," citizens who were conceived and born in artificial gestation tanks.

America is still land of the free and home of the brave in 2063, but that doesn't mean that the "in vitro" class can expect total equality. As one character states bluntly in the pilot, "we believe in civil rights for in vitros, but not at the expense of our rights." This is EXACTLY what the debate was in the country at the time: women and African-Americans should have equal rights, as long as we didn't establish any laws that gave them privileges over the white man, some believed. Meanwhile - on the show - racism towards the in vitros still flourishes in the ranks of the space marines, mostly out of ignorance. "Tanks are lazy and don't care about anyone," reports one soldier, relying on an old stereotype. Later, a character registers surprise that "Tanks" actually dream. It's always easier to demonize the enemy (even a domestic one...), when you can somehow render them sub-human. Even the military equipment on hand in the Corps. doesn't fit the "Tanks," and Hawkes has to cut off part of his space helmet to accommodate a common "Tank" birth mark. "They don't make nothing with In Vitros in mind," he laments.

So this is the cultural context that Wong and Morgan were working on with Space: Above and Beyond. And the episode "R & R," directed by Thomas J. Wright, takes the characters of the 58th to yet another new horizon: furlough.

Specifically, the squadron is exhausted after multiple tours-of-duty, and the In-Vitro pilot Hawkes (Rodney Rowlands) is injured during a Chig attack on his patrol. Colonel T.C. McQueen (James Morrison) is relieved when the group is assigned 48 hours of vacation on a pleasure ship called "The Bacchus."

This vessel is described as "Vegas, New York City and Oz all rolled into one." I immediately thought of Sinoloa in the Buck Rogers episode "Vegas in Space" and "Space City," the so-called "Satellite of Sin" in Blake's 7.

In Space: Above and Beyond, this viper's den looks like a Trump Casino in space, and the futuristic Cabaret's master-of-ceremonies is none other than Coolio (!). He promptly informs the visiting soldiers that Bacchus is the place "where what you can only imagine, we make happen."

He also notes that this is not a world of virtual reality or "phony Holodecks," a pointed line which clearly differentiates Space: Above and Beyond's gritty, hard-bitten universe from that of another 1990s outer space franchise, Star Trek: The Next Generation. Remember, Star Trek off-spring dominated the 1990s, and Space: Above and Beyond was a first dramatic step away from that Utopian world of plenty. Again -- in the heyday of BSG and SGU -- we might not appreciate the pioneering aspects of Morgan and Wong's space combat series as much as we should. Not entirely unlike Space:1999, this program ventured to present a realistic look at man in space; rather than going for an idealistic approach.

Back to "R & R." In short order, the pilots of the 58th start to let their hair down. On Bacchus ,Lt. Shane Vansen (Kristen Cloke) sets about winning some dough in the ship's pool hall, only to be verbally upbraided and relentlessly "played" by a psychologically-adroit android pool-shark, uncredited David Duchovny. This characters snarls like Clint Eastood and even asks Vansen "do you feel lucky?" I loved this subplot because it played on expectations (the audience's and the character's): Vansen arrives in the pool hall in a slinky black dress, manhandles her pool cue seductively (!) and vamps it up...expecting to get one by the other players on sex appeal.

Didn't count on a robot, I guess...

Meanwhile, Hawkes has to deal with the specter of drug addiction because of the pain medication he's been prescribed, for his injury. On The Bacchus, goes in search of sexual comfort. A virgin, Hawkes soon meets up with a beautiful in-vitro hooker who is far less glamorous than she appears. She's addicted to drugs too (so she doesn't have to think about how she earns her cash...), and she's the mother of an infant.

And yes, this distinctly un-romantic subplot indeed sounds familiar if you've seen the re-imagined, second season Battlestar Galactica episode "Black Market."

As "R & R" continues, another sub-plot: West (Morgan Weisser) learns that the seemingly-humorless colonel, McQueen, has a fondness for old, black-and-white, W.C. Fields movies. Before long, however, the brief respite from war is called off, and the pilots are back to combat. Hawkes, for his part, has trouble leaving the events on The Bacchus behind. The Colonel, who has also faced drug addiction, tells him "There is there . And here is here."

What we get in "R & R," which aired originally on April 12, 1996, is a dissection of virtually all the program's dramatis personae. Sometimes that dissection is explicit: Alvin (Duchovny) finds the right words about Shane's family life to shake her; to make her lose at pool. Sometimes the character dissection is more subtle: the episode tackles everything from loneliness and virginity to the way "closeness" in combat sometimes creates a false sense of intimacy. James Morrison's character, McQueen doesn't have a tremendous amount of screen time, and yet we learn a lot about him here.

It isn't often in Space: Above and Beyond that audiences got see the characters relate to one another and their universe outside of the battle situation, and their time on the Bacchus (except for the W.C. Fields movies...) doesn't seem relaxing at all. But perhaps that's part of human nature too: our need to pursue love, money and yes, danger, even when we're off the job, supposedly taking it easy. Of course, there's even more danger in pursuing these things when outside the confines of "responsibility. It's hard, as Vansen might say (especially after her encounter with Alvin), to "keep your head screwed on straight" in an environment like the pleasure ship.

Space: Above & Beyond is a remarkably prophetic show. I wrote a few months back about the sense of anticipatory anxiety evident in the works of Chris Carter, and I think you might detect that quality here too, in the efforts of Wong and Morgan. It's the belief that the apparent good times don't last forever, and bad times are imminent. The re-imagined Battlestar Galactica of the 21st century also highlighted artificial people, sneak attacks, hookers, R & R, psychological mind-fucks, and gritty space combat, yet it's hard to ignore that Space: Above and Beyond hit the same notes (and without some of the more questionable soap opera plotting) almost ten years earlier. Also, Space: Above and Beyond always remained humanistic, rather than telling us that we are all the fools of the Gods, the victims of a fate we can't control.

So much of success in Hollywood is based on timing. Space: Above and Beyond in the Roaring Nineties, apparently didn't resonate with a wide audience (though its ratings were higher than many genre shows airing on television today). If it the program aired after 9/11, maybe we would have gotten to know Morgan and Wong's intriguing characters and solid writing for four seasons, or more...

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

The Cult-TV Faces of: Jonathan Harris

A mainstay of the 1960s and 1970s, the late Jonathan Harris headlined in several popular cult-TV series over the years, both as heroes and as scoundrels. How many of the many cult-tv faces of Jonathan Harris do you recognize? If you can, name the series, character, and episode (though that's harder this week...).

Monday, February 22, 2010

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: Surrogates (2009)

There is a great tradition in the science fiction cinema of the “future” police procedural.

It’s actually one of my favorite sub-genres because it often involves a very human (hence imperfect) detective or police officer interfacing with new technology and new social norms based on that technology.

Sometimes, this format is what accomplished author Paul Meehan dubbed Tech Noir. Or to bring up the sub-title of his excellent book on the subject, it's "The Fusion of Science Fiction and Film Noir."

To wit, in Soylent Green (1973), Charlton Heston’s investigation of a prostitute's murder led him down the rabbit hole, into a wide-ranging conspiracy concerning food supplies in an overpopulated city of the future.

In Ridley Scott's Blade Runner (1982), Deckard (Harrison Ford) came to a reckoning about what it means to be human -- and even what it means to love -- through his investigation and pursuit of android called Replicants.

Other examples of the future police procedural include Steven Spielberg’s Minority Report (2002), which arrived soon after 9/11 and the Bush Doctrine, and involved preemptive police “strikes” against "thought criminals" who have not yet actually committed a physical crime.

And then there’s also Alex Proyas’s flawed I Robot (2004), concerning a new "leisure" technology's terminal glitch: it might be murderous.

Obviously, some of these films are stronger and more well-regarded than others, but the “future police procedural” is valuable because it offers us one foot in the past (with the genre conventions of the police investigation) and another in the future. It’s a speculative format, but not so speculative that we can’t relate to it. In other words, it reminds us of human history at the same time that it tries to predict accurately the shape of things to come.

In 2009, Hollywood gave audiences the latest example of the “future police procedural,” Jonathan Mostow’s Surrogates, starring Bruce Willis. Based on the 2005-2006 graphic novels by Robert Venditti, the movie adaptation is an 88-minute actioner packed with both intriguing ideas and insightful social commentary on the direction the human race may be heading. Specifically, the film involves the widespread use of avatars…uh, I mean surrogates.

In the near future (2017), ninety-eight percent of the human population makes use of robotic surrogates on a regular, daily basis. This means that the “real” person sits at home in a “stim chair” while his or her better-looking, virtually-indestructible surrogate engages with the world outside.
It is the perfect surrogate who commutes to work (thus cutting down on car accident fatalities). It is the perfect surrogate who engages in sexual intercourse (thus cutting down on the spread of sexually-transmitted diseases). And it is the perfect surrogate who fights our foreign wars (thus cutting down on military fatalities.) But there's a dark underside to this technology as well, as the movie quickly points out.

Indeed, it’s not a stretch to read the whole surrogate phenomenon/revolution as a comment on two specific components of our contemporary 2009 society. First, the anonymity of life (and work) on the Internet. And second, our society’s increasing and even dangerous obsession with youth, beauty and physical perfection.

On the former front, an obese bald man may have a surrogate out in the real world who is a drop-dead gorgeous blond woman. So when you have sex with her, are you really having sex with her? Or with the obese bald man?

Similarly, when we choose a name or “avatar” on the Internet, it may or may not reflect our true identities (including age, sex, nationality, ethnicity, political beliefs, or even physical appearance). In other words, our Internet and Surrogate personalities may be but vainglorious fiction. In aggressively living this fiction, this fantasy, the film asks, what do we leave behind in the real world?

In the film, surrogates indeed offer human beings a chance to build an entirely new identity, one outside the constraints of our biological blueprint. In one sense, this is extremely freeing and empowering: we can literally be anybody online (or in Surrogates, in the outside world). Interestingly, the film notes that racial discrimination has diminished in the world of surrogate robots. This is because you "choose" your identity. You can choose to be black, white, Asian, straight or gay, based on your desires, not your biology. in this future world, skin color and sex are just fashion statements.

Yet oppositely, the film suggests there’s at least some level of deception and perhaps even cowardice involved in recasting yourself as someone entirely "new" and "different" I mean, why hide behind the blanketing wall of anonymity if you really believe in yourself, your abilities, and your words? Why pretend to be something you aren't?
One possible answer is that the motives of the hidden "concealer" are impure. When cloaked in anonymity, we can vociferously criticize other people with no possibility of being personally attacked in return. Consider: when an anonymous source attacks a political opponent, is it because the attack is truthful, or because that anonymous attacker is paid to do so, or even already ensconced in an enemy camp? We just can't know. When an anonymous source reviews a movie or book savagely and viciously, is it because the anonymous author was beaten-up as a snot-nosed kid by the author or filmmaker in question? Again, there's just no way to know. Motives become opaque; words can't be taken at face value. Trust is lost.

So anonymity proves itself both a shield and a point of deception: How can we accurately judge the real value of a persons' words if he or she won’t even stand behind his or her real name. Or behind his or her true appearance?

has a grand time playing with this notion, utilizing the technology of surrogate robots to make a point about modern life on the Internet. Accordingly, there are at least three occasions in the film during which an operator’s identity proves to be far different from the public face of the surrogate. Operators change surrogates in secret. Operators hide in unlikely surrogates, and so on. This nifty element of the film – a new wrinkle in the police “mystery” -- joyfully updates the format. How can you apprehend a criminal if that criminal's identity is fluid, ever-changing?

Finally, Surrogates seems to suggest that anonymity on the Net or in the real world, is actually a mechanism of trickery, denial, and hiding. “Look at yourself,” the film’s luddite Prophet (Ving Rhames) implores. “We’re not meant to experience life through a machine.” Later, we see a banner that reads “Unplug Yourselves!” and it’s another warning about living a false online life at the expense of our life as so-called "Meatbags," flesh-and-blood humans.

The company that creates surrogate robots in the film is VSI, and it has a slogan: "Life...Only Better." What this sound-byte comes down to is that every surrogate robot in the film boasts a sort of super-enhanced (but ultimately creepy...) beauty. Everyone in this future has perfect, youthful, almost plastic-looking, unblemished skin. All the men are tall and athletically-built. All the women are curvaceous and perfectly-coiffed. And most importantly, everyone appears to be young and vibrant. It's the Botox, plastic-surgery, breast-implant, diet pill culture taken to the logical and extreme ending point: robots with perfect tits, robots with perfect hair, and robots with the Peter Pan Syndrome: forever young.

This is disturbing, however, because of what the world of surrogates has so plainly lost: diversity. Bruce Willis (as Agent Greer) is a perfect example of this argument.

As a surrogate, Greer appears plastic and vapid (though young). Yet as a weathered, bald man in his mid-fifties -- as the real Operator -- he looks terrific...and utterly distinctive, unique.

There's a nobility in wrinkles; an honor in wearing your years on your face, the movie implies. A few powerful interests have sold to the many that there is a single concept of beauty, and that somehow we must all adhere to it. That's true in the movie, and in our lives.

Washboard abs. Big breasts. Perpetual youth. We can't all be Taylor Lautner or Angelina Jolie. And we shouldn't have to be to be considered beautiful or valuable.

Again, we're losing something vital, right now, here in our world, as we creep ever-closer to the universe of Logan's Run: where only those under 21 are considered worthwhile; where qualities such as physical perfection are preferred over qualities like intelligence, even experience. This world of "physical perfection" is an unattainable lie, and one that makes many people feel inferior (and hopeless) if they don't conform to society's stringent rules. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder; and Surrogates goes out of its way to remind us that by depicting how plastic and fake the beauty of 2017 really is.

I really enjoyed these didactic, science-fiction qualities of Surrogates. Yet, honestly, the film is one of the few "future police procedural" examples that gets the speculative sci-fi right, and the standard cop elements/investigation wrong. Specifically, the film involves a hand-held O.D. (Overload Device) weapon that can simultaneously fry a surrogate and his operator at home. The weapon liquefies human brains and blows out robot circuitry.

In investigating the murder of a surrogate, Greer learns of this weapon, and of the dark forces hoping to acquire and control it. But the problem is this: the culprit, when he is ultimately unmasked, has no compelling reason to act as viciously as he does; no motive. His master plan is to "upload" the O.D. weapon into the surrogate network and kill 98% of the world's population (meaning the Operators as well as the Surrogates). A little extreme, no?

This plan is essentially genocide, yet the villain sees it as a gift, a "rebirth" of the human race. That just makes no logical sense, especially when (as the movie makes plain), there is an easy way to destroy all the surrogates but leave the Operators intact, thus accomplishing the villain's goal of destroying surrogacy. Also, the villain himself is hooked up to a surrogate as he is about to launch his overload virus, so he's committing suicide too...

The details of Greer's investigation never prove particularly compelling, and the movie fails to make enough of a big character moment involving this protagonist. Greer's surrogate is destroyed in a pulse-pounding, well-directed chase sequence, leaving the Operator -- the man -- no choice but to unplug, leave his home for the first time in years, and reckon with ugly, messy reality.

After one scene in which Greer experiences a brief panic attack, this subplot is never again addressed in the film. A key to the "future police procedural" format is the detective's level of personal involvement with the revelatory investigation. How Greer is personally impacted by his sudden return to the real world should be the crux of the movie; and it isn't. We should understand what it means to be human again, in a dangerous world with high stakes. But the movie simply pays lip service to that idea.

There's a subplot here involving Greer's wife (Rosamund Pike), who has fled into her Surrogate on a seemingly permanent basis after a deeply affecting personal tragedy. It's an emotional subplot, but it's treated as a side-alley, a B-plot, and not as a convincing motive for Greer to throw all of contemporary society into unfettered chaos (as he does at the film's conclusion).

Again, perhaps it is my cynicism and personal bias, but I tend to prefer my future police procedurals gritty and realistic. I don't believe society can be changed in a day; I don't believe one simple act (or stroke of a keyboard) can undo decades of change and untangle decades of entrenched interests. In Soylent Green and Blade Runner, the imperfect, dominant system isn't brought down. Either the hero is killed by City Hall, or he flees City Hall, a fugitive. I find those resolutions more believable than the upbeat ending here. In fact, I would have preferred the darker ending of the comic-book series. It culminated with the destruction of surrogacy as well; but also with a suicide. You can't change the world without consequences.

Ultimately I enjoyed Surrogates' science fiction metaphors (particularly the message "Live for Real,") but felt that the script was contrived and the resolution nothing but forced Hollywood B.S. I don't buy the villain's motives either.

This is a particularly frustrating experience: that the film's cop angle should be so trite and cliched even while Mostow nails the really tough stuff: the science fiction.

So Surrogates gets a berth in the pantheon of "future cop procedurals," but not, ultimately, in one of the top spots. Like the Surrogates of the film's title, the script is just, finally, a little too...plastic.