Saturday, April 24, 2010

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: Star Trek V: The Final Frontier (1989)

As I mentioned here yesterday, I often receive e-mails asking me to review specific films. One of the most oft-requested reviews is for Star Trek V: The Final Frontier (1989), which is widely-regarded as the worst Star Trek film to feature the original cast.

I don't know this for certain, but I strongly suspect this particular review is requested in the hope that somehow, some way, this poorly-reviewed William Shatner film might be rehabilitated in popular imagination. For instance, requests for a review of Star Trek V: The Final Frontier spiked after my positive review of The Motion Picture last year. My supposition thus leads me to believe that a lot of Star Trek fans must enjoy the oft-derided film, and are seeking valid, well-enunciated arguments in support of it.

I can relate to that.

After all, I am a Star Trek fan, and can probably see the silver-lining in every Star Trek movie ever made. So I am happy to enumerate the aspects I appreciate and like about Star Trek V: The Final Frontier.

However, for the record, it is also necessary for me to note where and when things went dramatically wrong with the movie. So -- to quote Joss Whedon -- this review isn't going to be all "hugs and puppies."

That established, there are indeed many components of Star Trek V: The Final Frontier worth lauding, and I will explain in detail below why I feel that way.

Let's start, however, with a brief re-cap of the plot. This fifth Star Trek picks up with Captain Kirk (William Shatner) and his crew on vacation on Earth -- in a the paradise-like setting of Yosemite -- when a dangerous hostage situation unfolds in the Neutral Zone. There, on Nimbus III -- on the "planet of Galactic Peace" -- a Vulcan renegade named Sybok (Laurence Luckinbill) has taken hostage the Romulan, Klingon and Federation counsels. He has done so with an army of devout "believers." Sybok's gambit is to capture a starship so he can set a course for the center of the Galaxy and find the mythical planet Sha Ka Ree (named after Sean Connery), where he believes "God" awaits.

An unprepared U.S.S. Enterprise, with only a skeleton crew aboard, is assigned to rescue the hostages. The attempt fails, and Sybok commandeers the Enterprise using his particular brand of Vulcan brainwashing to persuade the crew to follow him. In particular, he frees each man he encounters of his "secret pain." Kirk soon learns that Sybok is Spock's (Leonard Nimoy) half-brother, who rejected Vulcan dogma and came to believe that emotion, not logic, was the key to enlightenment.

With a Klingon bird of prey in hot pursuit, the Enterprise passes through the Great Barrier at the center of the galaxy and encounters a mysterious planet. There, on the surface, awaits a creature who claims to be "God." Kirk questions the Being, and soon a vision of Heaven goes to Hell.

Because It's There: The Search for the Ultimate Knowledge; The Search for a Film's Noble Intentions

From Captain Kirk's effort to climb El Capitan at Yosemite National Park in the film's first scene to Sybok's probe through the foreboding Great Barrier, Star Trek V: The Final Frontier concerns, in large part, a typically-Star Trek conceit: the human quest to reach a higher summit and to find at that apex a new or deeper truth about existence.

When Mr. Spock asks Kirk why he would involve himself in an endeavor as dangerous as climbing a mountain, Kirk answers simply, "because it's there." That's a simplistic but apt way to describe one of our basic human drives. What our eyes detect, we want to explore, to experience. Enlightenment, for us, is often attained on the next plateau.


Sybok terms his search for "God" the search for the "ultimate knowledge" and he too seeks to climb a mountain after a fashion: penetrating the Great Barrier which protects a secret at the center of our galaxy. The means by which Sybok conducts his quest are not entirely kosher, however (kidnapping diplomats and hijacking a starship). But his quest, though coupled with his vanity, is sincere. An outcast among his Vulcan brethren, Sybok believes that if he can "locate" God, his beliefs will be validated, re-examined.

At one point late in the film, Kirk seems to realize that Sybok and he share a similar drive; that he has stubbornly refused Sybok the same liberty he affords himself, not merely to "go climb a rock," but to see, literally, what awaits at the mountain-top. Upon this realization, Kirk gazes knowingly at an old-fashioned captains' wheel in the Enterprise's observation deck. His hand brushes across a bronze plaque engraved with the legend "Where No Man Has Gone Before," a re-iteration of the franchise's "bold," trademark phrase.

It should be noted here that Star Trek V: The Final Frontier is not out on a limb, franchise-wise, in exploring the existence of "God" or a planet from which life sprang. On the former front, the Enterprise encountered the Greek God Apollo in the second-season episode "Who Mourns for Adonis" and on the latter front, discovered the planet "Eden" in the third season adventure "The Way to Eden."

What remains laudable about Star Trek V: The Final Frontier, however, is that screenwriter David Loughery, with director Shatner and producer Harve Bennett, carry their central metaphor (discovery of the ultimate knowledge) to the hearts of the beloved franchise characters. Star Trek V very much concerns not just for the external quest for the divine, but a personal and human desire to understand the meaning of life. Or, at the very least, the path to understanding the meaning of life.

What that comes down to is one lengthy scene set in the observation deck. There are no phasers, transporters, starships, Klingons or special effects anywhere. Instead, the scene involves Kirk, Spock, Bones and Sybok grappling with their personal beliefs, with their sense of personal identity and history, even. Sybok attempts to convert Spock and McCoy to his agenda by using his hypnotic powers of the mind. "Each man hides a secret pain. Share yours with me and gain strength from the sharing," he offers. One at a time, Kirk's allies fall. Then Sybok comes to Kirk, and the good captain steadfastly refuses Sybok's brand of personal enlightenment.

In refusing to share his pain, Kirk notes to Dr. McCoy (DeForest Kelley) that "you know that pain and guilt can't be taken away with a wave of a magic wand. They're the things we carry with us, the things that make us who we are. If we lose them, we lose ourselves. I don't want my pain taken away! I need my pain!"

This specific back-and-forth is the heart of Star Trek V: The Final Frontier. The Kirk/Sybok confrontation embodies the difference between Catholic Guilt (as represented by Kirk), and New Age "release" (as represented by Sybok). In terms of a short explanation, Catholic guilt is, essentially a melancholy or world-weariness brought about by an examined life. It's the constant questioning and re-parsing of decisions and history (some call it Scrupulosity). And if you know Star Trek, you understand that this sense of melancholy is, for lack of a better word, very Kirkian.

As a starship captain, James Kirk has sent men and women to their deaths and made tough calls. But he has never been one to do so blindly, or without consideration of the consequences. "My God, Bones, what have I done?" He asks after destroying the Enterprise in The Search for Spock, and that's just one, quick example of his reflective nature. In short, Kirk belabors his decisions, so much so that McCoy had to once tell him (in "Balance of Terror") not to obsess; not to "destroy the one called Kirk."

What Captain Kirk believes - and what is crucial to his success as a starship captain -- is that he must carry and remember the guilt associated with his tough decisions. He must re-hash those choices and constantly relive them, or during the next crisis, he will fail. His decisions are part of him; he is the cumulative result of those choices, and to lose them would be -- in his very words here -- "to lose himself."

By contrast, Sybok promises an escape from melancholy. His abilities permit him to "erase" the presence of pain all-together. This a kind of touchy-feely, New Age balm in which a person lets go of pain (via, for example, ACT: Active Release Technique!) and then, once freed, suddenly sees the light.

Sybok's approach arises from the counter-culture movement of the 1960s (the era of the Original Series), and might be described -- albeit in glib fashion -- as "Do what feels right" (a turn-of-phrase Spock himself uses in the 2009 Star Trek). But Sybok is a master of semantics. He doesn't "control minds," he says, he "frees" them. Left unexamined by Sybok is Kirk's interrogative: once freed from pain, what does a person have left? Isn't pain, borne by experience a part of our core psychological make-up? The New Age depiction of Sybok in Star Trek V: The Final Frontier led critic David Denby to term this entry "the most Californian" of the Star Trek films (New York, June 19,1989, page 68).

In countenancing the false god of Sha Ka Ree, these belief systems collide. Sybok -- freed of pain and self-reflection -- is unaware of his own tragic flaws. Eventually he sees them, terming them "arrogance" and "vanity." But Kirk, who has always carried his choices with him, is able to face the malevolent alien with a sense of composure and entirely appropriate suspicion. Kirk is able, essentially, to ask "the Almighty for his I.D." because he has maintained his Catholic sense of guilt. He's been around the block too many times to be cowed by an alien who wants his ship.

The lengthy scene in the observation deck, during which Sybok attempts to shatter the powerful triumvirate of Kirk, Spock and McCoy is probably the best in the film. Shatner shoots it well too, with Sybok intersecting the perimeters of this famous character "triangle" (of id, ego, and super-ego) and then, visually, scattering its points to the corners of the room.

And then, after Kirk's powerful argument and assertion of Catholic Guilt, the triangle (depicted visually, with the three characters as "points") is re-asserted and re-constructed. Sybok is both literally and symbolically forced out of their unified "space."

In point of fact, Shatner uses this triangular, three-person blocking pattern a lot in the film. Variety did not like the movie, but noted the power of this particular sequence in its original review: "Shatner, rises to the occasion," the magazine wrote, "in directing a dramatic sequence of the mystical Luckinbill teaching Nimoy and DeForest Kelley to re-experience their long-buried traumas. The re-creations of Spock's rejection by his father after his birth and Kelley's euthanasia of his own father are moving highlights."

While discussing Shatner, I should also add -- no doubt controversially -- that Shatner has a fine eye for visual composition. The opening scene on the cracked, arid plain of Nimbus III, and the follow-up scene set at Yosemite reveal that he has an eye not just for capturing natural beauty, but for utilizing the full breadth of the frame. As a director, Shatner came out of television (helming episodes of T.J. Hooker), but his visual approach doesn't suggest a TV mentality. On the contrary, I would argue that there are moments in Star Trek V: The Final Frontier that remain the most inherently cinematic of the film series, after Wise's Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979) and Abrams' big-budget reboot of 2009.

What Does God Need With a Starship? Pinpointing the Divine Inside The Human Heart and in the Natural World

I've noted above how Star Trek V: The Final Frontier involves the search for the ultimate knowledge, and uses two distinctive viewpoints (Catholic Guilt embodied by Kirk and New Age philosophy embodied by Sybok) to get at that knowledge.

What's important, after that "quest" is the film's conclusion about the specific "ultimate knowledge" gleaned.

In short order, in Star Trek V: The Final Frontier, the angry Old Testament-styled God-Alien reveals his true colors and demonstrates a capricious, violent-side. After Kirk asks "what does God need with a starship," "God" is wrathful. And this is what the site Common Sense Atheism suggested was really being asked by our secular, humanist hero.

"One might ask, "What does God need with animal sacrifice? With a human sacrifice? With a catastrophic flood? With billions of galaxies and trillions of stars and millions of unstoppably destructive black holes? What does God need with congenital diseases and a planet made of shifting plates that cause earthquakes and tsunamis? Isn't the whole point of omnipotence that God could make a good world without all these needlessly silly or harmful phenomena?" Moreover, why should humans obey the commands of someone as capricious, jealous, petty, and violent as the God of the Jewish scriptures?"

This critical line of thought reminds me of my experience seeing Star Trek V: The Final Frontier in the theater with my girlfriend at the time, who is Jewish.

Afterwards, she was utterly convinced that Kirk and company had indeed encountered the Biblical, Old Testament God. And that they had, in fact, destroyed Him. Her reasoning for this belief was that "God" as depicted in the film looked and acted in the very fashion of the Old-Testament God.

On the former, front (God's appearance), The Journal of Religion and Film, in a piece "Any Gods Out There?" by John S. Schultes, opined: "This being appears in the stereotypical Westernized figure of the "Father God" as depicted in art. He has a giant head, disembodied, depicting an older man with a kind face, flowing white hair and booming voice."

On the latter front, behavior, there are also important commonalities. The Old Testament God was cruel, self-righteous, unjust, demanding, and acting according to a closely-held personal agenda (moving in a mysterious way?) without thought of courtesy or explanation to humans. Consider that the Old Testament God destroyed whole cities (like those of Sodom and Gomorrah), and that it's his plan to kill us by the billion-fold in the End Times, if we don't believe in him. The Old Testament God is indeed one of violence and punishment.

And this is precisely how Star Trek V: The Final Frontier depicts this creature. He wants to deliver his power -- his violence and judgment -- to "every corner of creation." Naturally, Kirk can't allow this.

Over the years, I have come to agree with my former-girlfriend's assessment. The alien portrayed in Star Trek V: The Final Frontier may indeed be the Old Testament God of our legends. Just as Apollo was indeed, Apollo of Greek Myth in "Who Mourns for Adonis."

And, in fact, Captain Kirk kills God. (Or rather, it's a cooperative venture with the Klingons...). In doing so, Kirk frees humanity (and the universe itself) from the oppression of superstition, judgment and tyranny.

The ultimate knowledge, according to this Trek is that God only exists "right here; the human heart," as Kirk notes near the film's conclusion. Accordingly, The Journal of Religion and Society explains that this is a narrative wrinkle true to "the collective history of Classic Star Trek," a re-assertion of Roddenberry-esque, secular principles. In his essay, "From Captain Stormfield to Captain Kirk, Two 20th Century Representations of Heaven, scholar Michel Clasquin concludes:

"In "Final Frontier", Heaven turns out to be Hell: the optimism is deferred until the heroes have returned to the man-made heaven of the United Federation of Planets. The film ends where it began: with Spock, Kirk and McCoy on furlough in a thoroughly tamed Earth wilderness. This, the film tells us, is the true Heaven, the secular New Jerusalem that humans, Vulcans and a smattering of other species will build for themselves in the 24th century, a world in which the outward heavenly conditions reflect the true Heaven that resides in the human heart."

Clasquin's point here demands a re-evaluation of the book-end Yosemite camping scenes of Star Trek V: The Final Frontier. Many critics complained that the film takes a long time to get started, since the crew must "laboriously" be re-gathered from vacation. However, if Star Trek V: The Final Frontier's point is that "God" resides in man's heart (And is man himself) and that the Garden of Eden, or Heaven itself is "a tamed Earth wilderness," -- a finely-developed sense of responsible environmentalism, in fact -- then these two sequences of "nature" prove absolutely necessary to the narrative. Heaven on Earth is within our grasp, the movie seems to note. We don't have to die to get there. We just have to act responsibly, as stewards, of our planet (or in Star Trek's universe, planets, plural). The human heart, and the Beautiful Earth: these are Star Trek V: The Final Frontier's (atheist) optimistic views of where, ultimately, Divinity resides.

All I Can Say is, They Don't Make 'Em Like They Used To: A Movie Shattered (not Shatnered...) by Poor Execution

William Shatner handles many of the visual aspects of Star Trek V: The Final Frontier with flair and distinction. He is badly undercut, however, by three catastrophic weaknesses. The first such weakness involves interference in the very story he wanted to tell. The second involves inferior special effects, and the third involves slipshod editing.

On the first front, William Shatner sought initially to make a serious, even bloody movie concerning fanatical religious cults and God imagery. His plan was shit-canned in large part, by Paramount Studios. Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1986) had just proven a major success, and the Powers That Be judged this was so because the movie evidenced a terrific sense of humor, particularly fish-out-of-water humor. The edict came down that Star Trek V: The Final Frontier had to include the same level of humor as its predecessor.

Frankly, this was the kiss of death. The humor in Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home grew organically out of the situation: advanced people of the 23rd century being forced to deal with people and activities of the "primitive" year 1986.

Above, I described the thematic principles of Star Trek V: seeking the ultimate summit, both externally and internally, and discovering that the Divine is inside us -- or is, actually, the Human Heart. How exactly, does Scotty knocking himself out on a ceiling beam, or Uhura performing a fan dance, or Chekov rehashing his "wessel" shtick fit that conceit?

The short answer is that it doesn't. Such humor had to be grafted on here, and it shows. It's forced, iawkward, and entirely unnecessary. The inclusion of so much humor actually runs counter to the grandeur and seriousness of the story Shatner hoped to tell.

And then -- in typical bean-counter nonsense, what does Paramount do next? Well, it advertises and markets Star Trek V: The Final Frontier with the ad-line "why are they putting seat belts in theaters this summer?" suggesting that the movie was an action-packed roller-coaster ride. This is after they demanded the movie be a comedy! Talk about assuring audience dissatisfaction! Tell audiences that the movie they are about to see is super-exciting and action-packed, and then give them Vulcan nerve-pinches on horses, Uhura and Scotty flirting with each other, and crewmen singing "Row, Row, Row Your Boat."

The second aspect of Star Trek V: The Final Frontier that damages it so egregiously involves the special visual effects. A movie like this -- about the search for God, no less -- must feature absolutely inspiring and immaculate, awesome visuals. We must believe in the universe that includes Sha Ka Ree, and the God Creature. Originally, Shatner envisioned Sha Ka Ree turning into a kind of Bosch-ean Hell, with demons and rivers of fire. But what we get instead is a glowing Santa Claus-head in a beam of light, and...a desert planet. What's worse is that many visuals don't seem to match-up. When Kirk's shuttle flies over the God planet initially, the surface of the world looks like a microscopic landscape (a sort of God's Eye view of the head-of-a-pin, as it were). But when the shuttle lands, the planet just looks like a desert. This is Heaven?

Perhaps Star Trek V could have surmounted this problem, since the TV series was never about special effects anyway, but about ideas. But the special effects in Star Trek V: The Final Frontier fail to even adequately render believable and "real" such commonplace Star Trek things as starships in motion or photon torpedo blasts. Watching Star Trek V: The Final Frontier is a little bit like watching Golan and Globus's Superman IV: The Quest for Peace (1986): the cheapness of the effects just make you wince, and stands in stark contrast to a franchise's glory days.

And the editing! Oh dear. Star Trek V: The Final Frontier is edited -- in polite terms -- in disastrous fashion. During Kirk, Spock and McCoy's escape on rocket boots through an Enterprise turbo shaft, the same deck numbers repeat, in plain view. When Kirk falls from his perch high on El Capitan, the movie cuts to a lengthy shot of Shatner, in front of a rear-projection background, flapping his arms. And just take a look at how Kirk's weight, make-up, hair-cut and disposition shifts back-and-forth in his final scene with General Koord and General Klaa aboard the Klingon Bird of Prey. This was due to post-production re-shoots when the original ending was deemed unacceptable.

Forget the script (which might have worked without the studio-demanded humor). Forget the acting (which is pure Star Trek ham bone -- and, in my estimation, perfect for a futuristic passion play), it's the editing that scuttles this film. Whether it's allowing us the time to notice that Sybok's haircut and outfit change on Sha Ka Ree, or permitting us to linger too long on visible wires in two fight scenes, Star Trek V's cutting is just not up to par.

There's a Star Trek fan out there on the Net who has taken it upon himself to re-edit Star Trek V: The Final Frontier, and you know something? It's a worthy enterprise. Preferably, Shatner should do a director's cut, and trim his misbegotten film down to a mean, lean eighty-five minutes. The worst editing, effects, and jokey moments would be excised, and audiences would be surprised, perhaps, how visual, how dynamic, how meaningful (even spiritual?) this Final Frontier could be, sans the theatrical release's considerable problems.

Let's face it, modern criticism often thrives on hyperbole, so it's fun and dramatic to declare that Star Trek V: The Final Frontier is one of the ten worst science fiction films EVER! The only problem is, it's not necessarily true. I don't even know that it's actually the worst Star Trek film, to be blunt. One of the women I saw Star Trek: Insurrection with actually threw up during a screening. She wasn't sick. It wasn't what she ate. It was the movie. She vomited somewhere after Spiner's Gilbert and Sullivan rendition, Patrick Stewart's mambo, and before Gates McFadden -- the best physician of the 24th century and Counselor Troi-- made a passing reference to their "boobs."

Star Trek V: The Final Frontier conforms to Muir's Snowball Rule of Movie Viewing. Allow me to explain. Because Star Trek V: The Final Frontier is perceived by the majority of critics and Star Trek fans as "bad," everything about the film gets criticized, when -- in point of fact -- many other Star Trek movies feature many of the same goofy errors. For instance, I have read some Star Trek fans complain vociferously about the fact that the Enterprise travels to the center of the galaxy here in a matter of hours. The fact that in First Contact, the Enterprise gets from the Romulan Neutral Zone to Earth in time to join a battle against the Borg, already in progress, goes unnoticed or at least uncommented upon. So, the starship got there in like, you know, a few minutes, I guess. But because First Contact is beloved and evaluated as good, it generally doesn't garner the same level of negative attention or scrutiny. When it fails in a spot here or there, it gets a pass.

Whereas, by contrast, the details in Star Trek V: The Final Frontier definitely get heavier scrutiny. The "bad movie" snowball, once rolling down a hill, just grows larger and larger. We forgive less and less.

Star Trek V: The Final Frontier is an ambitious failure. But ambitious may be the operative word here. The movie certainly aimed high, and hoped to chart some fascinating spiritual and philosophical ground that is true to the Star Trek line and heritage. But plainly, the execution leaves a lot to be desired.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Five Years Ago...

...on April 23, 2005, I began writing my "reflections" about film and television in this space.

Some 1,600+ posts later, I'm still having a great time. In fact, my biggest disappointment in 2010 is that my writing deadlines and responsibilities off-line are keeping me from posting more stuff online.

My introductory post, from 2005, began like this:

"Hello everybody, welcome to my blog. And to start us off, I quote the illustrious Admiral James Stockdale: "Who am I? Why am I here?"

Good questions...

My name is John Muir. and I'm a published author who writes under the name John Kenneth Muir, not because I'm pretentious or anything (though I am...) but because - for some reason - there are a lot of writers out there named John Muir.

Specifically, there's the great American naturalist from the last century, and also a fellow who writes about fixing Volkswagens. Others too, I think. In the age of the Internet, I realized I had to distinguish myself a little for Google, Yahoo, Lycos, Ask Jeeves and other search engines, so for the record, I'm the John Muir (the John Kenneth Muir...) who writes about film and television for a living.

And I know nothing about Volkswagens, so don't ask...

To let you know a little bit about my work, I'm the author of fifteen published books and several articles and short stories. I live in Monroe, North Carolina and work out of my home office penning books on film and television.

You may (or may not...) know some of my titles. From Applause Theatre and Cinema Books I've written: An Askew View: The Films of Kevin Smith (2002), The Unseen Force: The Films of Sam Raimi (2004), and Best in Show: the Films of Christopher Guest and Company (2004).

McFarland, a publisher here in North Carolina, has published eleven of my books, including award winners Terror Television (A Booklist Editor's Choice, 2001), Horror Films of the 1970s (A Booklist Editor's Choice, 2002 and ALA "Best of the Best" Reference Book '03), and 2004's The Encyclopedia of Superheroes on Film and Television.

I've written about prominent horror directors (Wes Craven: The Art of Horror [1998], The Films of John Carpenter [2000], Eaten Alive at a Chainsaw Massacre: The Films of Tobe Hooper [2003]) and several TV series studies, including Exploring Space:1999 (1997), An Analytical Guide to TV's Battlestar Galactica (1998), A Critical History of Doctor Who on Television (1999), A History an Analysis of Blake's 7 (2000), and An Analytical Guide to TV's One Step Beyond (2001)...

That answers the first question, who am I? The second question, why am I here? involves pop culture, film and TV. I hope I can utilize this space to discuss, debate and ponder trends in movies and TV programs...Basically, I just hope to create an ongoing journal about contemporary and classic entertainment."

In the five years since I offered that opening gambit, I've written six additional books (Horror Films of the 1980s, The Rock'n'Roll Film Encyclopedia, Mercy in Her Eyes: The Films of Mira Nair, TV Year, Music on Film: This is Spinal Tap), and updated one (Encyclopedia of Superheroes on Film/TV; 2nd Edition).


I've also written essays for published anthologies (Battlestar Galactica and Philosophy, Ken Russell: Re-Viewing England's Last Mannerist), penned short stories (Space:1999 Shepherd Moon), and even created an award-nominated web-series, The House Between, that lasted three seasons and twenty-one episodes. And heck, I'm raising a three year old kid, which feels like a full-time (but wonderful and very rewarding) job.

But through all that, this blog has been a part of my daily creative process. So to celebrate my fifth anniversary, I'm including links to some of my most popular reviews. Again, these are, in a sense, your selections; the links most visited by readers of this site. Interestingly, these most-"read" reviews don't always seem to be the ones that generate the most comments. Not sure why that is.

Movies:

1. Jaws (1975)
2. The X-Files: I Want to Believe (2008)
3. Body Double (1984)
4. Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979)
5. The Black Hole (1979)

TV programs:

1. Otherworld (1985)
2. Battlestar Galactica (2005)
3. Space:1999: "Dragon's Domain" (1975)
4. The Vampire Diaries (2009)
5. Harsh Realm (2000)


Toys:

5. Space:1999 Eagle 1 Spaceship

Essays/Interviews:

1. An Interview with Chris Carter
2. Don't Tell Them What You Saw: Les Diaboliques vs. Diabolique
3.
The Tao of Michael Myers

My most-requested (by-readers) movie reviews, which I'll be presenting soon are: Blade Runner (1982), Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, Star Trek V: The Final Frontier (I've been promising this one for a while...) and Session 9.


The TV series I am most often asked to review is SGU, followed by Caprica. I've got SGU in my queue, and when a full season of Caprica is available, I'll get to that too. Promise.

So -- five years in -- a humble thank you for staying with me and this blog. The best is yet to come.

Best,
JKM

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Now Available For Pre-Order!


My latest book is now up at Amazon.com for pre-order. It's part of a new series by Limelight Editions called "Music on Film." Order your copy today!

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: The House of the Devil (2009)

While many terrific horror movies have been released in the last few years (especially in 2009), only a select few have achieved greatness in the impressive fashion of Ti West's The House of the Devil (2009).

Because West wrote, directed, and most importantly, edited the piece, the film evidences a real sense of unity in terms of presentation. The cumulative effect is, in a word, powerful.

The House of the Devil is a throwback to an older genre aesthetic, one in which a sort of free-floating, generalized sense of anxiety is generated and escalated through modest, subtle means. The aura of terror arises from periods of silence, a minimum of dialogue and adept film-grammar-styled compositions. In the tradition of all great genre efforts, the movie's stylish shape also reflects the film's narrative.

Specifically, The House of the Devil is set in the early 1980s, around the time that paranoia about "Satanic Ritual Abuse" overtook the nation's middle-class. This strange fear might have been due to the rising influence of fundamentalist Christians in the Reagan Era, and their belief (still held today, vis-a-vis President Obama) that anything not born of the extreme right-wing is the work of the Devil.

Or the paranoia about Satanists in our midst could have been the result of collective parental guilt and shame over the fact that -- in the yuppie era of upward mobility and two-income households -- it was deemed necessary to outsource child-care to day-cares, nannies and other "interlopers." After entrusting their children to strangers all day, parents -- when faced with changes in their little darlings, --may have found it easier to charge "Satanism" than look in the mirror.

The F.B.I investigated the strange charges of Satanic Ritual Abuse and never found substantial evidence that worship of the Devil was involved even in a fraction of cases where it was raised. The House of the Devil, however, trenchantly utilizes this context as a springboard for its tale. It offers some brief information about SRA in its opening title card, which feels reminiscent of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), Return of the Living Dead (1985) and other genre classics.

But the undercurrent or vibe established so brilliantly and thoroughly by West in The House of the Devil is that there is something wrong...or off with the world at large as presented in the film. The source of this problem may not be easily pinpointed (especially at first...), but lurks just out-of-sight, slightly beyond our perception.


One of the ways that West forges this "free form," generalized sense-of-anxiety is to deny the audience a sense of visual comfort from the very first shot. As the movie opens, West's camera captures a long-shot of a figure, but one seen only from the back. She is also some distance from us -- through a door-frame -- and we get no details. In other words, her face is withheld from us for an abnormally-long spell, and the effect, visually, is to unsettle us. The camera zooms in, but still reveals no additional details.

It turns out that this is Samantha (Jocelin Donahue), our college-age heroine. And she's not doing anything suspicious here, merely admiring the interior of an apartment that she hopes to rent. But how the camera views Samantha begins to make us feel uncomfortable. For one thing, her space in the frame is limited by the surrounding "box" of the door-frame. And indeed, this is a set-up that West frequently repeats; cutting off Samantha's available space in the wide-screen frame.

The free-floating anxiety the audience feels grows deeper as it observes apparently mundane details of Samantha's life. She needs money desperately if she is to rent the apartment she desires. She can't get back into her dorm-room (her roommate is having loud sex..). She waits all morning on campus for a man who doesn't show-up; a would-be-employer seeking a baby-sitter. Her friend, Meghan, does something unethical, and that Samantha feels reflects poorly upon her. The pepperoni pizza at the local dive doesn't taste good today.

Again, not one bit of this material is earth-shattering or overtly horrific in and of itself. Instead, as the soundtrack suggests -- to the lyrics of The Fixx -- "One Thing Leads to Another."

The movie thus makes us acutely aware of how each little step that Samantha takes brings her closer to the precipice; closer to her reckoning with terror; closer to her "destiny" that she is asked to accept. Specifically, Samantha takes a babysitting job at 7714 East Beaumont -- way out in the woods -- and then is confronted with further...discomfort.

Her would-be employer, Mr. Ulman (Tom Noonan) is a liar. There's no child to "sit," only an old woman locked away in an upstairs bedroom, and this makes Samantha (and the audience) uncomfortable too. This man isn't trustworthy in the slightest but Samantha feels put-upon and he keeps throwing money at her (400 dollars for four hours work). Eventually, an uncomfortable Samantha acquiesces to take the job. On the night of a total lunar eclipse, no less.

Once alone in the old, spooky, Victorian house, the camera's views of Samantha through a door-frame recur repeatedly, symbolically cordoning off her free space in the frame. One long-lasting but utterly still shot even establishes the parameters of Samantha's "safe zone." We stay in the room -- the camera unmoving -- as Samantha starts to probe out, deeper and deeper into the quiet, dark house.

And then more discomfort comes. While dancing on the staircase (wearing her Walkman), Samantha accidentally breaks a valuable vase...and then finds evidence that her employers were lying about something important...

Most of The House of the Devil is over before Satanism overtly enters the proceedings...and West truly provides one of the great set-ups in horror movie history here, assiduously ratcheting up anxiety along the way. When Samantha finally finds her way to the attic -- where she observes a light on under the crack of a closed door -- you'll find yourself perched on the edge of your seat. Through an unforced but deliberate pace and a canny sense of visualization, West thus brings the audience to throat-clutching terror. The House of the Devil is patient. It creeps up on you. It knowingly and methodically pulls down your defenses until you are absolute putty in West's hands.

West has a great eye for detail too. The film is set in the early 1980s, and the period detail is perfect, from the Sony Walkman to the Isotoner gloves to the rotary phones. Even better, the lead actresses actually seem to belong to this era. They aren't simply playing dress-up.
Donahue, in particular, gives a fantastic, internally-driven performance. We sympathize with her as Samantha's day goes from bad to -- uh -- really, really bad.

If The House of the Devil fails to please in any sense, it is simply that -- after the exquisite and terrifying build-up -- the film's resolution comes a hair too quickly. But this is indeed a minor quibble in what is frankly one of the finest, most-carefully-crafted new horror movies I've seen in sometime. I especially appreciate the fact that West opted to tell his story straight, with no self-referential humor or easy jokes to leaven the mood of unease. This movie is practically a machine built to scare you and there's never a moment where you get to breathe because the director releases you with a laugh; finding a moment outside the confines of the narrative. Even a TV clip (on "Frightmare Theater") of Romero's Night of the Living Dead isn't used as jokey allusion, but suggests a deeper narrative purpose. Samantha's daylight existence has been -- step by step -- literally "eclipsed" by evil and darkness. From the light of the moon outside, to the TV inside...horror bleeds in.

Ti West's name has been bandied about a lot in the blogosphere of late, and now I understand why. The House of the Devil is a modern genre masterpiece of mood and escalating terror. My only recommendation to West is this: as he grows more established and powerful within the movie industry, he should negotiate to be his own editor. This is important. The House of the Devil looks and feels like the individual work of a unique artist -- an early Romero or Carpenter picture, even -- and that's largely due to the careful, accomplished editing. I hope West doesn't accept any Faustian bargains for big budgets, because The House of the Devil proves that -- left to his own devices -- he's already got all the right moves.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Dede Allen (1923 - 2010)

The film world has lost one of its giants and trailblazers. On Saturday, film editor Dede Allen, best known for her convention-shattering work on Arthur Penn's Bonnie & Clyde (1968) passed away.

From Carrie Rickey at The Philadelphia Inquirer
:

Before Dede Allen, the sound you heard matched the image on the screen. But when Allen spliced The Hustler (1961), locating the psychology of each scene in the establishing shot (the ambitious glint in Paul Newman's eye, the collision of balls on the pool table to indicate the collision of wills between "Fast Eddie" Felson and his rival Minnesota Fats) and overlapping the sound from the forthcoming scene as a segue between sequences, everything changed. Allen didn't think editing should be codified like a textbook but rather allusive like a poem. (Her mentor, Robert Wise - the film editor on Citizen Kane, who hired her to cut his Odds Against Tomorrow - is said to have encouraged her experimentation.)

Dede Allen also edited the free-form, counter-culture masterpiece Alice's Restaurant (1969), hard-nosed Serpico (1973), Dog Day Afternoon (1978), Warren Beatty's epic Reds (1981) and even the Gen X touchstone The Breakfast Club (1985).

As Felicia Lee noted in The New York Times, Allen "revolutionized images with a staccato style that gave a story a sense of constant motion."

In other words, Allen is -- for all intents and purposes -- the mother of modern film editing. If you love how the films of the late 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s "move" and "speak" (how they visually express their narratives), then you have Dede Allen to thank for it. Allen will be missed, but her talent will never be forgotten, not so long as film history is remembered, debated and cherished.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Klaatu Barada Nikto: The Day(s) The Earth Stood Still

In 1940, as war raged across Europe, author Harry Bates' (1900-1981) short story "Farewell to the Master" was first published in Astounding Science Fiction Magazine.

"Farewell to the Master" depicted mankind's first real engagement with other-worldly life. In particular, a spherical or "ovoid" alien vessel materialized in Washington D.C. on September 16th of some future year, arriving in "the blink of an eye."


Aboard this highly-advanced craft, which showed "not the slightest break or crack" in its "perfect smoothness" were two "time-space travelers." One was a humanoid named Klaatu, described in prose as a "benign God" and possessing "great wisdom." Klaatu was accompanied by an imposing, green-hued robot called Gnut.

Unfortunately, these alien representatives were greeted with violence by the human race. A religious fanatic, fearing that Klaatu was "the Devil," shot him dead. This act is described by Bates as "the shame of the human race," and the remainder of the story involves photographer Cliff Sutherland's discovery that Gnut is attempting to resurrect Klaatu. The final twist: the robot Gnut is not Klaatu's servant, but rather...his master.

Considering this ending, Bates' tale concerned our human-centric assumptions; our arrogant belief that the human shape of life would -- even on other planets -- be blessed with a superiority over other forms. But clearly, on Gnut's world, robotic (or what we term artificial) life had flourished, rising above familiar biological forms like man. So "Farewell to the Master" served, perhaps, as an object lesson that mankind was not the center of the universe.

On another level, the tale might have been interpreted by some -- especially on the eve of the most destructive, technological war in all of human history up to that time -- as a warning not to permit our modern machinery to overwhelm and dominate us.

If you are interested in knowing more about "Farewell to the Master," Bates' original story is available online here, for your perusal (and free too, I might add).

Join us and Live in Peace, or Pursue Your Present Course and Face Obliteration: The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951)

In 1951, director Robert Wise brought to the silver screen a big-budget (for the time) adaptation of "Farewell to the Master" by Edmund H. North, titled The Day The Earth Stood Still.

Once again, the context behind the film was international warfare. At the time the film was prepared and released, the Korean War was being waged. But there had also been a dramatic shift since 1940 and "Farewell to the Master." By 1951, the atom bomb was available for use (after deployment at the end of World War II in Japan), and now, it seemed, mankind truly had the means by which to obliterate himself and even his planet

In The Day The Earth Stood Still, the humanoid Klaatu (Michael Rennie) -- now the master -- and his robot servant, re-named Gort, land in Washington D.C. in a flying saucer. They are met by the U.S. military. Klaatu is again shot and injured, this time by a twitchy American soldier. He recovers, and asks to meet with world leaders. Instead, American authorities hold him in custody, and Gort escapes.

Under the alias "Mr. Carpenter," Klaatu soon intermingles with the citizens of Earth. He befriends lovely Helen Benson (Patricia Neal) and her son, Bobby Benson (Billy Gray). He talks to a leading Earth scientist (Sam Jaffe), visits Arlington National Cemetery and the Lincoln Monument, and is ultimately sold-out by Helen's boyfriend, Tom Stephens (Hugh Marlowe). When Klaatu is shot dead by U.S. authorities, the hulking robot Gort resurrects him and permits the visitor to deliver a final, staggering message to the people of Earth. In part, it goes like this:

"The universe grows smaller every day, and the threat of aggression by any group, anywhere, can no longer be tolerated. There must be security for all, or no one is secure.

Now, this does not mean giving up any freedom, except the freedom to act irresponsibly. Your ancestors knew this when they made laws to govern themselves and hired policemen to enforce them.

We, of the other planets, have long accepted this principle. We have an organization for the mutual protection of all planets and for the complete elimination of aggression. The test of any such higher authority is, of course, the police force that supports it. For our policemen, we created a race of robots. Their function is to patrol the planets in spaceships like this one and preserve the peace. In matters of aggression, we have given them absolute power over us. This power cannot be revoked. At the first sign of violence, they act automatically against the aggressor. The penalty for provoking their action is too terrible to risk.

The result is, we live in peace, without arms or armies, secure in the knowledge that we are free from aggression and war. Free to pursue more... profitable enterprises. Now, we do not pretend to have achieved perfection, but we do have a system, and it works. I came here to give you these facts. It is no concern of ours how you run your own planet, but if you threaten to extend your violence, this Earth of yours will be reduced to a burned-out cinder."

In a time of war, when the "Red Scare" (fear of Communism) was in full swing, it was downright shocking for an American studio film to suggest that America and the world, literally, disarm. Though there's still the possibility of capitalism encoded in Klaatu's speech (he mentions the pursuit of "profitable enterprises," specifically), this lecture calls for not just an end to war here on Earth, but an end to gun ownership all together. I can't imagine that message playing particularly well in the American south. In 1951 or now.

Some people have suggested that Klaatu's solution to world war in The Day The Earth Stood Still is fascist in nature (since everyone is under the thumb of robot police force...), but in some ways the fictional solution of Wise's film actually mirrors the eventual Cold War accommodation over nuclear Armageddon. The threat of mutually assured destruction served as a deterrent to their use. We lived under this fear for decades, and neither The Soviet Union nor the United States ever launched missiles against one other. We didn't have omnipotent robots watching over us, but we knew that the first sign of aggression on our part would merit an equally grievous response on the part of our enemy.

Other scholars have interpreted The Day The Earth Stood Still as as an overt Christ metaphor. A man of peace, Klaatu, descends from the Heavens and is killed by ignorant men representing conventional authority (not Rome, but America). Klaatu is then resurrected, and walks among his fellow man with a message of peace, and yes, cosmic brotherhood. Afterwards, Klaatu returns to the Heavens above, rejoining his kind.

Even Klaatu's alias on Earth -- "Mr. Carpenter" -- suggests Jesus of Nazareth's one-time occupation. And, further inclined to analyze the film's details, one even might suggest that Tom Stephens is Klaatu's "Judas," betraying the alien for the promise of riches (alien jewels, in particular). Authors Kenneth Von Gunden and Stuart H. Stock excavated this Christ metaphor in detail in their text, The Twenty All-Time Greatest Science Fiction Films (General Publishing Company, Lt., Canada, 1982), noting that screenwriter North "admitted" that the parallels "were intentional."(page 44).

Today, there's little doubt that The Day The Earth Stood Still powerful message of peace and brotherhood would be greeted by some audiences as a socialist treatise, one that impedes personal liberty, and threatens the Second Amendment. On the other hand, look where our continued violence has brought us in 2010. Six decades after The Day The Earth Stood Still, the world is still at war, and mankind is still divided. No doubt this is why the film is still revered today. Humanity seems on stuck on a dark path unless there is an intervention, divine or alien, in our future.

Your Problem is Not Technology. Your Problem is You: The Day The Earth Stood Still (2008).

If the Robert Wise Day The Earth Stood Still posited a kindly, mankind-loving Jesus-styled alien in the person hood of Michael Rennie's Klaatu, then the remake directed by Scott Derrickson in 2008 lays down God's law, Old Testament-style. This movie returns to "Farewell to the Master's" vision of the alien craft as a featureless, smooth ovoid, but sticks to the Klaatu-Gort relationship of the 1951 film.

Klaatu himself, however, has changed dramatically from his previous incarnation. Here (as played by Keanu Reeves), he is a wrathful God who adopts human form (as God often adopted human form in the Old Testament stories).

After Klaatu/God's "angel" -- a man who has toiled on Earth in human form for seventy years -- reports that mankind will never change his destructive ways, Klaatu makes plans to wipe the slate clean; to erase human sin from the surface of the Earth. "If you die, the Earth survives," he tells one human.

The first thing Klaatu does, however, is preserve all the other animal species of the planet in small spheres explicitly termed "arks" by the screenplay. This development also harks back to the Old Testament, Book of Genesis tale of Noah and the Great Flood. The Earth is to be destroyed because of "man's wickedness."

Then, Klaatu lets loose a swarm of all-devouring metal insects to destroy man's technology and even mankind himself. This severe punishment serves as the technological equivalent of the Book of Exodus's Plague of Locusts, visited upon Egypt at a time of corruption (and a belief in "false" gods). The destruction caused by these technological bugs in Derrickson's film echoes the warning from Exodus. "They will cover the face of the ground so that it cannot be seen. They will devour what little you have left after the hail, including every tree that is growing in your fields."

Finally, when Klaatu experiences a change of heart and decides to save mankind, this God-figure visits the last Plague of the Book of Exodus upon our planet: "The Plague of Darkness." Specifically, Klaatu's ship emits an electro-magnetic pulse that destroys all technology on Earth, plunging the species both metaphorically and literally into "night." In the Old Testament, the darkness lasted but three days. On Earth, our technological"night" is to be the new normal, with no end. Ever.

In Wise's atom-age film, the Jesus-like Klaatu issued Earth the verbal warning I reproduced above, but he also revealed his "miraculous" powers. For a half-hour, he interrupted all electrical power on Earth before restoring it (hence the title of the film).

By contrast, in the 2008 version, Klaatu adopts no such half-measures. He punishes us for our mistreatment of the planet and each other, thus acting as a wrathful judge, and cold, emotionless lawgiver. No warnings this time.

The message is clear: in 2008 the human race is past ultimatums and warnings from space. The only thing that will change the human race is a wiping of the slate, pushing us to "the precipice" of extinction. This is the course God in the form of Klaatu ultimately chooses for us, and his change of heart (opting not to destroy us), also fits with Old Testament theology. In the Old Testament, God could not predict would agents of free moral choices would do; and here, Klaatu is unexpectedly swayed by the humanity of Helen Benson (Jennifer Connelly) and her son. He alters his trajectory, but the punishment he selects is hardly mild.

The remake of The Day The Earth Stood Still was not warmly received. In part, this is because it is a remake of a remarkable and landmark film; one that has been lauded as one of the greatest in the history of the medium. Longtime fans of the 1950s version feel nostalgia about it, and will clearly accept no substitutes. Or remakes.

Yet this is a clever, careful and knowing remake in so many ways. It cannily re-contextualizes the original film's Christ analogy as an Old Testament metaphor, down to its concepts of apocalypse (orchestrated by locusts) and Klaatu's aloof, cold-hearted demeanor.

And, in keeping with the post-911 world, this Day The Earth Stood Still also plays dramatically for keeps. It acknowledges that we have reached a "tipping point" in terms of our mistreatment of the environment and notes that things "can't be the same" if the Earth is to survive; that our current lifestyle is unsustainable.

My appreciation of the 2008 remake may not sit well with some -- especially with fans of the original film, I suppose -- but in all the right ways, this Day The Earth Stood Still speaks to us with the same urgency that Wise's film spoke to the men and women of the early atomic age. Some viewers complained of the remake that it was too personal, too intimate; that Klaatu should have -- in the tradition of the original film -- issued a speech and a warning to the world. But in keeping with the Old Testament contextualization of this story, it's clear that God has no responsibility to okay his actions with us. He moves in mysterious ways, and owes us no explanations. And as I stated before, the time for warnings and brief demonstrations is long past.

In 1940, 1951 and 2008, the story of The Day The Earth Stood Still has carried a didactic purpose. The written words of Bates alerted us to the reality that technological warfare could overwhelm us and make us slaves to the machine. The 1950s movie from the great Robert Wise obsessed about our drift towards self-annihilation. And in 2008, the classic tale was angrily, vehemently re-parsed to comment on our mistreatment of the planet.

In all versions, however there exists hope. The steadfast belief that, as Helen Benson puts it -- "we can change" before it is too late.

We should all hope she's right.