Saturday, May 08, 2010

Apes Rise...?

By now, I'm sure you've all read that Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (1972) is being re-imagined as Rise of the Apes.

Here are the details
of the upcoming production:

Twentieth Century Fox has set a June 24, 2011 release for RISE OF THE APES, a completely new take on one of the Studio’s most beloved and successful franchises. Oscar®-winning visual effects house WETA Digital – employing certain of the groundbreaking technologies developed for AVATAR – will render, for the first time ever in the film series, photo-realistic apes rather than costumed actors.

...RISE OF THE APES (tentative title) is an origin story in the truest sense of the term. Set in present day San Francisco, the film is a reality-based cautionary tale, a science fiction/science fact blend, where man’s own experiments with genetic engineering lead to the development of intelligence in apes and the onset of a war for supremacy.

These days, I try to take remakes, re-boots and re-imaginations on a case-by-case basis. Otherwise, I'd spend my life in an indignant snit and miss out on some very intriguing films, including last year's Halloween 2 and The Last House on the Left. Still, the Land of the Lost movie was an insult.


And, in theory I love the idea of a new apes film, since Planet of the Apes (1968) is my all-time favorite movie, and one of my favorite genre franchises to boot. I would like to see the story make a successful transition to the next generation, so I'm not opposed outright.

What concerns me a little about this new initiative to revive the property is simply that Hollywood doesn't do subtext very well these days. Thus, I fear a remake of Conquest will excise all the incendiary racial subtext of the original, leaving the new film a big, dumb action epic; the lobotomized cinematic equivalent of Taylor's friend, Landon. That's something that just shouldn't happen. But I am going to try to keep an open mind.


In the meantime, here's a snippet of my review of the original Conquest, in preparation for the summer of 2011.

The fourth film in the Planet of the Apes motion picture cycle is also the most overtly violent and controversial entry you'll discover in the classic, five-strong franchise.

Schaffner's original Planet of the Apes (1968) offered an anti-nuke, pro-peace message to top them all with that trademark, shocking Statue of Liberty climax. The fallen, rusted Lady Liberty was a tragic visual reminder that man had ruined himself and his posterity over clashing fleeting political ideologies (CCCP vs. U.S.A.). "God damn you all to Hell!"

Even Beneath The Planet of the Apes (1970) -- the sophomore series entry which ended in the Earth's final obliteration -- was anti-violence in thematic thrust. The first sequel gazed at the polarization between races -- in this case simian and mutant races -- and suggested that if we didn't all learn to "get along," our world would become but a burned-out, lifeless cinder. Dark? Indeed. But encouraging of violence....certainly not. The film even featured the equivalent of college-age, Vietnam War Era, pro-peace protesters. Only in this topsy-turvy world, they were intellectual chimpanzees...


By contrast, Conquest of the Planet of the Apes -- written by Paul Dehn (and based on characters by Pierre Boulle) -- is dramatically different in both tone and theme from these cinematic predecessors.

The best of the four sequels to Planet of the Apes -- and a great science fiction film even as a stand-alone venture -- director J. Lee Thompsons' film suggests -- in unblinking, brutal terms -- that in the case of subjugation, oppression, slavery and injustice, violent revolution is the only solution to rectify the problem. In the words of the film, despotic masters won't be kind until they are "forced" to be kind. To force kindness, your people have to be free. To have freedom...you must possess power.

This notion of violent revolution as panacea to matters of social inequality didn't just arise from the ether. Like all great works of art, Conquest of the Planet of the Apes, released in 1972, strongly reflects the time period during which it was produced. And from 1965 through the early 1970s, the United States suffered a number of debilitating, disturbing and violent race riots in many of its most populous urban areas. Angry African-Americans took up arms, looted merchants, and destroyed property in an attempt to express their grievances with the social injustice they witnessed and endured.

The Watts Riots occurred in Los Angeles in the year 1965, and 4,000 rioters were arrested by the police. 34 rioters were killed, and over 1,000 were injured. A political commission convened after the riot judged that the outbreak of violence had been caused by the following conditions: racial inequality in Los Angeles, a high jobless rate, bad schools, heavy-handed police tactics, and pervasive job and housing discrimination.

The LAPD chief at the time of the lawlessness didn't exactly help calm things down either. He referred to the rioters as "monkeys in the zoo," according to Social Problems, 1968, pages 322-341. As silly as that may sound, that very description -- of rioters as monkeys -- is literally translated in Conquest of the Planet of the Apes.

The Watts Riots did not represent an isolated incident, either. There was also the Washington D.C. Riot of 1968, the Baltimore Riot of the same year, and the Chicago Riot too. And -- perhaps most dramatically -- there was the so-called "Detroit Rebellion" of 1967 which lasted for five days (during a hot July) and saw 7,200 arrests, 40 million dollars worth of property damage, and over 2,000 buildings burned to the ground. The root causes of this violent spree were -- again after the fact -- deemed the same as those that had been observed in Watts. Unemployment by blacks doubled that of whites (15.9% to 8%) in Detroit; the community had little access to adequate medical facilities; there was distinct "spatial segregation" in the city; and 134,000 jobs had been lost over the previous decade-and-a-half.

In toto, half-a-million African-Americans were involved in the various race riots of the late 1960s. To contextualize that sum total, this number is equivalent to the number of American soldiers serving in the War in Vietnam. (Planet of the Apes as American Myth, Eric Greene, 1998, page 79). This huge figure alone should put truth to the lie that the riots were but isolated incidents, or somehow just involved career criminals. Clearly, this was a social movement, not a crime spree.

From this turbulent era of violence, riot and protest was formulated Conquest of the Planet of the Apes, a sci-fi film which projects an ape slave uprising in technological North America in the far-flung future year of 1991. As also suggested by author Greene, the film's text is actually "key for re-reading the Watts Riots as a justifiable reaction to intolerable oppression, rather than just an outbreak of lawless abandon." (Planet of the Apes as American Myth, Eric Greene, 1998, page 16). In Dehn's script, the rebelling apes are even specifically referred to as "rioters."

Friday, May 07, 2010

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: Blade Runner (1982)

Although released to decidedly mixed reviews in the summer of 1982, Ridley Scott's Blade Runner has since ascended to the pinnacle of the sci-fi cinema Valhalla.

In fact, the film is often mentioned in the same breath as Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) as, perhaps, the greatest sci-fi film yet produced.

Much of Blade Runner's sterling reputation arises from the film's meticulously-crafted, pioneering production design and dazzling visual presentation.

Yet Blade Runner's triumph isn't merely one of forward-thinking visualizations. The film assiduously echoes the up-to-the-minute worries of the era in which it was crafted (the 1980s), and seems to obsess on an issue that remains of great importance in our nation, even today: race.

Set in the future year of 2019 -- in a monolithic, blighted metropolis --Blade Runner presents a future world in which business and technology have ballooned to titanic proportions and dwarfed the human spirit.

Advertisements for Coca-Cola and other products stand several stories high, and as human dwellings reach closer to the sky itself, the more grand and opulent they appear. The lucky rich are literally awash in warm golden light, as though access to the sun is itself a perk of wealth. We see this fact visualized in the classic, clean lines of Tyrell's (Joe Turkel) sun-soaked penthouse apartment: a veritable Mount Olympus, and a home not just for a Man...but a God on Earth.

Meanwhile, far down below on street level...it's a roiling Hell of ugly industry, punk fashion, neon lights, steam and ubiquitous rain. The hungry and the poor toil there like mindless ants, mostly unnoticed by those living in luxury and wealth high above.

"If you're not a cop, you're little people," according to Blade Runner's screenplay.

And if you're not human, if you're a replicant, you aren't even little people. That's the core of the film's race-based argument. That mankind has played God by creating the Replicants but then steadfastly refused to acknowledge this creation, this child, with the very dignities we all cherish every day: equality and liberty.

Like all underclasses throughout history, the android replicants in Blade Runner are known by a derogatory slang term: skin-jobs. And replicants also have a built-in expiration date that make them seem less than fully human: they die four years after their "incept date."

As you may well imagine, this fact doesn't sit well with some of the Replicants, and that's what precipitates much of the action in the film. A cadre of Replicants return to Earth (from off-world) on a spiritual quest; on a search for more life that, in sub textual terms, might be interpreted as the search for racial equality.

Man Has Made His Match. Now It's His Problem.

Specifically, Blade Runner revolves around the hunt and pursuit of six renegade replicants. Yep, I said six, and that's according to Los Angeles' police chief, Bryant (M. Emmet Walsh) in explicitly stated dialogue. This number is important to note, especially according to one specific reading of the film. But more on that later.

The man doing the hunting is the laconic, hard-boiled and lonely Deckard (Harrison Ford), a former detective in a special police squad called Blade Runners. Blade Runners are famous for "retiring" skin jobs.

The quarry this time includes Leon (Brion James), Zhora (Joanna Cassidy), Pris (Daryl Hannah) and Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer). And yes, that's only four names, even though Bryant mentioned six replicants.

Over the course of his investigation, Deckard questions the latest model of Replicant, a new upgrade built by the Tyrell Corporation named Rachel (Sean Young). "More human than human" as the slogan goes, Rachel doesn't realize she's actually a machine. Rachel even boasts distinctive memories from her childhood. But these memories are really just clever implants; the memories of
"Tyrell's niece."

Deckard soon falls in love with the winsome, confused Rachel and -- depending on which version of the film you see -- also experiences strange dreams of a unicorn in a primeval forest. After hunting down the last of the Replicants, Deckard must decide if he should pursue his relationship with a Replicant...

"I Think It Was Manufactured Locally:" 1980s Terrors Lurking in Los Angeles, 2019

Early in the 1980s, many citizens in the United States of America feared that the country had a new, powerful and sinister competitor: Japan.

At the time, that country excelled in industry, manufacturing, and the development of new technologies. Importantly, Japan was also the United States' main international creditor in this era and it benefited financially from a forty-to-fifty-billion dollar trade gap with the United States.

In particular, the Japanese auto industry seemed to be cleaning Detroit's clock. Seeing this, many World War II veterans who had fought in the Pacific and had witnessed the Draconian, brutal behavior of the Japanese in a time of conflict perceived a danger.

As a character in Die Hard (1988) knowingly jokes, "Pearl Harbor didn't work" so Japan was taking over the United States economically: with "VCRs." There were many Americans of the Greatest Generation who felt precisely that way in the early 1980s (and my beloved, now-deceased paternal grandfather was one of them. Never bought a Japanese car. )

Although structurally and visually a deliberate reprise of the 1940s film noir (an era, incidentally of actual rather than economic war with Japan), one of Blade Runner's many undercurrents involves this 1980s incursion of Japanese business interests in future America.

In particular, it appears that in 2019 American business (always ahead of the curve....), has assimilated Japanese business interests into its very structure so as to continue turning huge profits and remain on the top of the food chain.

Or, as authors Douglas Kellner, Flo Leibowitz and Michael Ryan wrote in their essay,
Blade Runner: A Diagnostic Critique (Jump Cut, February 1985, pages 6-8):

"Crowds of people mill through rain-soaked streets, evoking common fears about overpopulation and "foreigners" overrunning future cities. On the East and West coasts of the U.S., for example, Japanese ramen and sushi cafes have replaced U.S. fast food chains, and visibly prominent are many Asian merchants and street people. The film here seems to articulate paranoia about Japanese capitalism "taking over" the United States. Nevertheless, the film’s city (Los Angeles) seems under the hegemony of U.S. capitalism, which now seems to have incorporated its rivals into its structure. The society’s economic structure combines small, street-merchant-style, "free enterprise" with paternalistic capitalist control. Most of the merchants in the film are Asian or European, whereas the corporate president and executives of the Tyrell Corporation are all North Americans."

So Blade Runner acknowledges the timely fear of a Japanese take-over in America, but puts a spin on it. Even the resourceful Japanese have become slaves to a Corporatist Nation in the future.

Similarly, Replicants -- constructed piece-meal in Mom/Dad, Asian-controlled shops such as the Eye Factory run by Chew (James Hong) -- are another symbol of Big Business gone amok in the future of Blade Runner; of the consumer culture of the 1980s carried to the next level. It's a world where human beings use other beings (androids) for pleasure, to fight wars, and to perform menial tasks that humans apparently no longer wish to do.

And yes, this description uncannily mirrors how immigrants are viewed in today's American society. Interestingly, the film suggests that Big Business will go along with a new influx of workers from other nations, and even co-opt that work force so to stay on "top," literally ,of the situation (living high, high above it, in palatial skyscrapers). If you look at the big companies hiring undocumented workers today, one detects that this speculation was not very far off the mark.

"Is This to Be An Empathy Test?" A Replicant Civil Rights Movement in Blade Runner

In an era of world war, a dedicated drive towards equality for all U.S. citizens was begun here at home.

The 1940s was the era of Roosevelt's Executive Order 8802, which opened up new job possibilities for African-Americans. It was also the era in which white-only primaries were judged unconstitutional by the Supreme Court.

The noir era in film was also the age of Truman's National Committee on Civil Rights, CORE (Congress of Racial Equality), and the election of Chicago's William Dawson in the House of Representatives. There was still a long way to go, but the a long march towards equality was beginning.

Blade Runner explicitly discusses race and the history of race inequality in America. As I noted above, it speaks in the film language (noir) of the 1940s, an era when race was a concern in the United States as enumerated above.

More than that,the Replicants are described in historically racist terms, ones involving the nature of their skin, not the quality of their character. They are not "colored" or "negro," but "skin-jobs. Replicants are not considered "fully" human, and again, this reflects our history. In 1789, in the Constitution, African-Americans were considered 3/5s of a person...not the equivalent of a white person, in other words. If you see someone as being less than fully human, that makes it much easier to enslave them, to deny them basic human rights. In the film, Roy Batty acknowledges this and contextualizes his experience, and the experience of the Replicants, as slavery. He discusses with Deckard what "it is to be a slave."


I suppose there is no need to describe Deckard's hunt of the Replicants as a "high-tech lynching" but certainly, the Replicants are treated harshly as a matter of course in 2019. Deckard shoots Zhora in the back, exposing the ugly truth that Replicants have no legal rights in this society. They are not arrested and afforded due process of law. They are not innocent until proven guilty. Instead, Replicants are shot on sight because of what they are, not because of their conduct. This is the essential characteristic of institutional racism: denying people freedom not because of their behavior; but because of their origin, their skin color, their heritage. If you want to delve deeply into the visuals of Blade Runner, consider that Zhora is murdered while crashing through a series of invisible glass barriers, a metaphor, perhaps, for the oft-mentioned "glass ceiling" that keeps minorities from high level positions in society.

Leon attempts to kill Deckard and says to him, "painful to live in fear, isn't it?" And that too is part of the racial equation. For the Replicants, it's the knowledge that they can be shot and killed at anytime. For Latinos in Arizona today, it's the knowledge that you can be asked for your papers by armed police simply because of your skin color.

You can go pretty deep with this interpretation of the film, if that's your inclination. There's a test in Blade Runner for determining if a person is human or Replicant, and it is called a "Voigt-Kampff" Test. That name sounds uncomfortably like Hitler's manifesto Mein Kampf, doesn't it? And when we think of the Nazis, we think of the belief in racial purity, the subjugating of "lesser" races, right? The Voight-Kampf functions as a tool to identify one such lesser race, the Replicant.

And interestingly, what this test looks for is the "empathy" response in the iris, in the eyeball. As we know from President Obama's last Supreme Court battle, "empathy" is apparently a code word in America today. What Blade Runner doesn't make plain, however, is if Replicants possess a surfeit or lack of empathy in their iris responses.

But what's abundantly clear in Blade Runner is that Replicants are people too. They are, as the saying goes, more human than human.

They love, they mourn, and they want want all human beings want: more life (fucker!). In fact, the Replicants undergo a real spiritual quest in the film. They seek to find their God, Tyrell, and petition him for more life. They seek forgiveness from him too, at least after a fashion, for their methods of self-preservation. In answer, they are told by Tyrell, Corporate God, that they have done nothing "the God of biomechanics wouldn't let you into heaven for."

Of course, the Replicants then kill God, but the relevant point is that Replicants, like humans, seek to understand their very nature, and turn to the divine for that knowledge.

Roy Batty does more than that, however. He not only seeks answers from his God, but, ultimately, shows mercy to his enemies, which is something you cannot say for the police in Blade Runner. Batty could kill Deckard...but choose to save his life instead.

In this beautiful and emotionally-wrenching climactic scene, Batty is depicted grasping a white dove -- a representation of the Holy Spirit in Christian Mythology -- and a symbolic signifier that Batty is truly one of God's creatures and, through his mercy, has earned the right to be considered such. When the dove flies Heavenward, released by Batty, the image visually suggests that Batty's soul has fled his body; that he was more than just a machine.

You've Done A Man's Job, or Less Human Than Human: The Deckard Equation

One of the key questions regarding Blade Runner involves its protagonist, Deckard. Director Ridley Scott has suggested that Deckard is, in fact, a Replicant himself. Harrison Ford has gone on record as saying he believes Deckard is human.

As in all great art, a case can probably be made either way.

If Deckard is a Replicant, then he is clearly "passing" as a human being, and that seems to fit in with the film's racial overtones.

Indeed, there are passages of dialogue in the film that hint at Deckard's Replicant nature. In particular, Gaff (Edward James Olmos) tells Deckard after Batty is dead that the blade runner performed a "man's job." In other words, a job worthy of a man, or a human being. So this description could be interpreted to mean that the replicant has performed as well as a human would under similar circumstances. It is thus a race-centric remark (Hey, you did good for a black guy!) and thus an acknowledgment of Deckard's genetic origin.

Also, Gaff leaves behind at Deckard's apartment a small origami Unicorn. And, in the director's cut of Blade Runner, Deckard dreams of a unicorn in the forest. If Gaff is aware that all Replicants are encoded with the unicorn dream as part of their unusual genetic make-up, then he has left behind the origami unicorn to let Deckard understand the truth about himself. If only Deckard can put it all together...

In the final battle at the Bradbury building, Batty also says to Deckard "let's see what you're made of," as if there is a question about Deckard truly is made of, genetically-speaking. Well, what is Deckard made of?

The following fight scene suggests that our hero is made of much the same stuff as Batty. Notice that in the ensuing fight, Scott's camera catches both Deckard and Batty mending damaged hands at roughly same time, through the art of cross-cutting, This could be a subtle, visual connection. Both men share something in common: an injury. On one level this could simply be an indication that a Replicant boasts the same survival instinct as a human does. On another level, it could mean that these men share a different kind of "kinship," - Replicant-hood, if that's a word. Also, it's important to note that both Batty and Deckard are slaves, though in service of different masters. But this too could be interpreted either way. To demonstrate, perhaps, that the gulf between human and Replicant is not so wide; or more pointedly, to sub-textually suggest that both men are Replicants.

Lastly, remember that Bryant discussed six free replicants, yet the movie reveals depicts four Replicants, and notes that one (the fifth?) was killed attempting to cross a border, a fence (which again, reeks of racial connotations). That leaves one replicant, right? So who is the sixth and final Replicant? Deckard? It can't be Rachel, because when Bryant tells the story of the six replicants to Deckard, Rachel has not yet left the custodianship of Tyrell.

Finally, the very form that Blade Runner utilizes -- the film noir detective story -- suggests Deckard's heritage. In the best film noir movies, the investigation by a detective leads, inevitably, to some shattering personal revelation. Consider Johnny Favorite's journey of self-discovery in a Blade Runner contemporary, Angel Heart (1987). Or the revelation by Faye Dunaway's character in Polanski's Chinatown (1974). In noir, we must conclude that the ultimate discovery is not who-did-it. Rather, it is "who am I?," the discovery or assertion of identity. If Deckard is indeed a replicant, than the film adheres more closely to the noir format. That's ultimately why I favor this interpretation; it's encoded in the film's very DNA.

On the other side of the equation, if Deckard is not a replicant, then, at the very least the film's racial overtones carry an optimistic message to go out on. If even a Blade Runner can fall in love with a Replicant, as Deckard does here, then there is hope yet for the human race. There is some hope of future equality for these artifical people.

But whether Deckard is a Replicant or a human, Blade Runner remains a brilliantly-conceived and wonderfully executed motion picture. By using the film noir approach, Ridley Scott's film creates not only a daring vision of the future, but subconsciously evokes a time period in America when racism was more up-front than it is today (Arizona notwithstanding). The film noir approach grants some breathing room for the film to contextualize the Replicant experience of 2019 in historical terms that we all understand and recognize.

Blade Runner is so packed with fascinating ideas and subtexts (like the quest for immortality; for example), that it's almost impossible to do the film any sort of justice in one blog post. So this review is hardly the last (or even second-to-last) word on the production.

As critic Rita Kempley wrote in The Washington Post (back in 1992): "Every viewing of "Blade Runner" brings new discoveries..."

Tuesday, May 04, 2010

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: The Uninvited (2009)

The Uninvited (2009) is one of those horror movies that Hollywood seems to specialize in a lot lately.

You know the type I'm talking about: everything about the production looks so damned good that you're almost distracted from the fact that the plot doesn't make a lick of sense. You're almost oblivious to the fact that all the ingredients in the film are derivative and overly-familiar.

Almost.

Directed by the Guard Brothers, The Uninvited is a remake of a 2003 Korean film called A Tale of Two Sisters. I have not seen that film, so I'm not in a position to make comparisons between productions.

However, I can note that The Uninvited certainly boasts the familiar flavor of Asian horror as we've come to understand the form during the last decade, or at least since the remake of The Ring (2002). What that boils down to here is the presence of a long-haired, crouching ghost that skulks across the floor, head down, body contorted. And naturally, the ghost is angry about some transgression in the past.

The Uninvited's narrative revolves around a teenage girl named Anna, a character played with entrancing innocence by young Emily Browning. Anna has been living in a mental asylum for nearly a year now following the accidental death of her sick mother. As the film commences, Anna is released from custody and brought home by her Dad (David Straithairn), a successful author.

But Anna is not happy to learn that good old Dad is already shacking up with the lovely Rachel (Elizabeth Banks), Mom's home-care nurse. Anna is also disturbed by the fact that she still has memory gaps surrounding the night Mom died and the boathouse exploded.

Once at home, Anna experiences ghostly visions of her Mom; visions that suggest the sick woman was actually murdered by Rachel. Anna informs her older sister Alex (Arielle Kebbel) about this vision and her suspicions, and together they begin to investigate Rachel's history. They quickly learn that Rachel is living under an alias.

Then Anna's would-be-boyfriend, Matt confides in Anna that he "saw what happened" the night of her Mother's accident. But before Matt can explain further, he inconveniently dies under mysterious and tragic circumstances...

To reveal any further detail about the plot would no doubt ruin the film's many surprises. But suffice it to say that The Uninvited features a third-act twist that the experienced horror fan will see coming from a mile away.

Actually, that's not quite precise. The intrepid viewer need not know horror well. He or she just needs to understand in general how movies are structured. If you think about that, it's easy to correctly guess which character is really behind Mom's "accident."

A little hint: a horror movie like this is never, strictly-speaking, totally straight-forward (not even if it runs under 90 minutes). If a horror movie starts out by pointing the finger at one particular character, that character is, inevitably, not going to be the guilty party. He or she is a red herring. But you knew that already.

Unfortunately, The Uninvited doesn't quite plays fair with its last act revelation. I like and admire Elizabeth Banks a great deal, but she's really and truly lost here. Frankly, I don't see how some of Rachel's behavior and actions (particularly involving a hypodermic needle) can be interpreted in two ways, as the screenplay ultimately demands.

Furthermore, if we are to believe The Uninvited, ghosts apparently displace water when they go swimming...

There's also the not inconsiderable matter of the film's closing lines. Someone says something along the lines of "I'm finishing what I started." This declaration is supposed to be ominous and a bit ironic.

Yet, a careful watching of the film -- and particularly the revelatory flashback -- calls the remark's accuracy into question. Strictly speaking, this character didn't really start "the thing" she's referring to. And, oppositely, "the thing" the character did start, is actually left unfinished at the end of the movie, especially considering the sole survivor left alive and free. And yes, I realize this paragraph probably reads as maddeningly vague. Sorry.

The funny thing about The Uninvited is that no expense has been spared on the production. Anna's house (in Maine) must be a million dollar house, conservatively-speaking. The location, the structure, the interior everything -- it's all absolutely gorgeous. The ghost effects are handled well too and there's even one honest-to-goodness, jump-out-of-your seat jolt moment involving a kitchen stove. The actors all do their best, and occasionally rise above the material.

So it's easy to sit back, look at all these admirable surface qualities and then be lulled into believing that you're seeing a good horror movie.

In fact, you're seeing warmed-up leftovers from approximately a dozen recent and not-so-recent films. Though audacious, the story resolution here just doesn't make any sense. It depends on a weird coincidence involving jewelry. It depends on a convenient memory gap. It depends on the whole movie being interpreted as a "point of view" when the film itself doesn't embody or express a particular point of view.

The Uninvited's last moment is a total deal killer. It reveals that an important character knew all along -- from the first scene -- that the very conspiracy she was investigating was a fiction. In other words, even if the only way to "read" The Uninvited is as the crazy delusion of an insane mind, the movie is still inconsistent with itself.

Monday, May 03, 2010

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: Blade (1998)

Based on a disco-decade comic-book written by Marv Wolfman and illustrated by Gene Colan, Stephen Norrington’s Blade (1998) is an underrated and action-packed gem of its era.

This late-nineties film highlights several effective horror movie-style jolts and blazing martial arts sequences, but remains notable and noble today for its dedicated attempts to re-contextualize the vampire and vampire lore for millennial audiences. More than that -- and from the perspective of a decade later -- Norrington film seems a treatise on issues of race in modern America.

In Blade, the vampires are not the romantic, Byron-esque, "tragic" breed of Anne Rice's Interview with the Vampire (1994) or Forever Knight (1992-1996). Nor are they the pack hunters, savages and desert bugs of From Dusk Till Dawn (1996) and John Carpenter’s Vampires (1998). Rather, the vampires of Blade appear as a purposeful reflection of the decade's conspiracy-phobia, and under-the-surface fear of an unseen, rich cabal pulling the strings in America.

Blade commences in 1967, at the dawn of the counter-culture era in American history. A baby is born to an African-American woman (Sanaa Lathan) who has been bitten by a vampire.


Some thirty years later, the counter-culture movement is dead, Big Business reigns during the "dot-com boom" and that child, that orphan is a man called Blade (Wesley Snipes). This vampire-human hybrid is also known as "The Daywalker" in some circles because of his human ability to survive in sunlight. With the help of his mentor and friend, Whistler (Kris Kristofferson), Blade now wages a war against the undead scourge infesting Los Angeles.


After interrupting a vampire rave called "Bloodbath," Blade rescues a hematologist named Karen (N'Bushe Wright) from a vampire gangster, and then begins to investigate the latest scheme of vampire warlord, Deacon Frost (Stephen Dorff). Frost is attempting to bring about a brand of undead Armageddon by raising an ancient vampire God,: La Magra. This attempted resurrection not only raises Blade's ire, but disturbs the leader of the status-quo-seeking Vampire Nation, Dragonetti (Udo Kier). Finally, Frost attempts to use Blade's very blood to bring about La Magra's ascension....

The character of Blade -- for all intents and purposes a superhero -- first came to life in Marvel's The Tomb of Dracula, issue # 10 in 1972. Originally, he was a tough-talking, shade-wearing representation of the blaxploitation era of filmmaking. In the comic, Blade's enemy was an elder, white-haired vamp, Deacon Frost, not the young rebel and upstart of the film who shares his name. Also, in the comic books Blade was raised by Jamal Afari, a vampire hunter.

Over the years, Blade appeared in comics including Nightstalkers (where he teamed up with the slayer Hannibal King) and even Dr. Strange. But it took more than two decades for the character to come to the big screen. But when he finally arrived, Blade certainly did so with a (bloody...) splash. Genre historians often credit Bryan Singer's The X-Men (2000) for revitalizing the superhero in the cinema, but Blade was actually one of the first such genre films to follow the disastrous Batman & Robin (1997) and accrue overwhelming box-office success.

You Gotta Understand, They're Everywhere: The Secret History of the Vampire Nation

The vampires of Blade are truly frightening creatures: they're lawyers.

Seriously, in Norrington's film the vampire overlords are presented as perfectly-groomed but predatory businessmen in Armani suits.

As the movie's dialogue suggests, these wealthy individuals "own the police." Equally worrisome, this Old World cabal relies on high-tech tools, secret back-room alliances with human political conspirators, plus a smug sense of racial superiority to lord it over less desirable half-castes. Yep these vampires quite literally mean business. Big business.
Importantly, Blade himself notes that these corporate monsters “have got their claws” into all walks of human life…from finance to real-estate. The vampires own “half of downtown” Los Angeles in point of fact. And, when the Vampire Nation meets mid-way through the film's narrative, the discussion of most-importance concerns not literal blood sucking, but the status of “off-shore accounts.”

Thus the vampiric ruling class of Blade serves as a metaphor for the “One World” movement often mentioned (and feared) in conspiracy circles. Such theorists believe that the Rockefeller family, large banks, the Council on Foreign Relations and the Trilateral Commission secretly run the United States and the world itself.

In other words, the ruling class of the globe is a Rich, White Boy’s Club of Bankers and politicians, one that metaphorically “feeds” on the rest of us.

Blade just makes that blood-sucking literal.

This idea carried a lot of relevance in the decade of the 1990s, because on September 11, 1990, President George H.W. Bush announced in a televised speech his dream for a "A New World Order." Some suspicious-minded folks believed that this grandiose-sounding turn of phrase was actually a coded message to let the take-over by the Conspiracy begin. Adding fuel to the fire, Bush had once been a member of the Trilateral Commission. Similarly, the passage of NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement) in the mid-1990s was supported by both Presidents Bush and Clinton, and was believed by many to be the gateway to an expanded America that would soon incorporate Mexico and Canada. You still hear a lot of this conspiracy stuff today, especially if you watch Glenn Beck.

In fascinating terms, Deacon Frost, Blade's central villain, is an outsider to this Secret Boy's Club as much as Blade is. But importantly, Frost views himself as a victim of race and of a hierarchy that refuses to accept him because of it. You see, Frost was merely “turned” into a vampire, not a “pure blood” of noble (vampiric) birth. The other vampires, including board CEO-type Dragonetti use this impure origin as a way to demean and control Frost. He may serve the cause, but he will never be one of the Chosen. Outside of race, and going back to the Conspiracy theory for a moment, one might see this relationship as a metaphor for the way The Trilateral Commission and Zbigniew Brzezinski viewed Jimmy Carter in 1976. He wasn't one of their own, but he was useful and could be trained.

The wholesale derision of Frost by the Vampire Nation is like the Old Rich deriding the Nouveau Rich; or an exclusive white man’s club refusing to accept a black man of great accomplishment. Blade proves clever, however, in orchestrating Frost’s revenge. It is clearly a racial revenge, a kind of supernatural brand of affirmative action (another hot-button issue of the 1990s).

Specifically, Frost attempts to bring to life an ancient Vampire blood god called La Magra who will render all such genetic differences like "impure" or "pure blood" moot. Once La Magra rules "all will serve" the cause as equals. Deacon's selected utopia, oddly enough, involves the total erasure of class and race lines.

Thus, much of Blade involves the concept of racial identity. Blade himself is genetically half-vampire/half-man and an African-American to boot. But he rejects his vampire heritage by utilizing drugs to suppress is hunger for blood. At film’s conclusion, however, Blade realizes that he can never be at home amongst the human race, either. Dr. Jensen offers him a cure for his vampirism, but this medical solution (a signifier for cultural assimilation?) will rob him of his strength, speed and other vampire-enhanced qualities. Blade realizes that this is an impossible accommodation since the war with the vampires still rages. By necessity he must remain what he is: an outsider in two worlds; the one and only “Daywalker.”

Interestingly, neither race -- vampire or human -- accepts Blade. The human world sees him as a law-breaker by and large, a man who needs to be stopped. The Vampire Nation also views Blade as an enemy who must be destroyed. It is Frost, however, who is most disappointed in Blade because he clearly senses that they have much in common. They are both derided by the vampire establishment; they are both rebels. But Frost also finds it mystifying that Blade should protect human beings, the equivalent of cattle in his eyes. “Spare me the Uncle Tom routine,” he barks at Blade in their first face-to-face meeting, thus contextualizing their shared experiences explicitly in racial terms. Frost pretends to serve a master, "the Vampire Nation," while actually plotting an overthrow so he finds it baffling that Blade should allow the beliefs of the human world (compassion, etc.) to be his "master."

Bloodbath: The Veneer of a "Sugar Coated Topping"

Blade's racial sub-text and 1990s obsession over conspiracies are fascinating components of the film, but to many viewers it is the movie’s aggressive and colorful style that ultimately makes it so memorable.

For instance, at several points in the film, the movie incorporates fast-motion photography of Blade’s metropolis transitioning from safe daylight to dangerous darkness. The shift is rapid so that the shadows themselves seem to crawl and creep up glass skyscrapers. These shadows take on a life of their own (not entirely unlike Dracula’s creeping silhouette in Bram Stoker’s Dracula [1992], or the earliest vision of screen vampires, the silent Nosferatu).

But the transitional technique (of fast-motion photograph) also reflects an essential characteristic of the vampire world (and the vampire conspiracy). This world is unmoving, patient and seemingly eternal, a direct contrast to the speedy human "march of days:" a never-ending procession from night to day and back to night. Indeed, this is how the mortal realm might very well look to an immortal creature of the night.

In addition to a hyper-kinetic sense of pace set in what The New York Post termed a "techno-styled urban landscape" (Rod Dreher, August 21, 1998, page 57), Blade offers breath-taking vistas of extreme and stylish violence. The opening set piece, a pulse-pounding, party or "rave" for vampires, starts the film off in blistering fashion. A sexy woman (secretly a vampire) leading an unsuspecting human male into the crowded subterranean party. But before long, the real "underneath" is revealed as overhead sprinklers douse the gyrating revelers in gallons of human blood. Rapidly, the human realizes he’s surrounded by vampires,and that he's the only mortal in attendance. As vampires sensuously rub blood all over their bodies, the color palette of the film morphs from cold metallic blue to hot, lurid red.

Down on all fours -- a position exposing his position in the food chain in this hidden world -- our imperiled human reveler crawls for safety until he comes upon an immovable object: Blade, making his stunning arrival in the film. The vampires back-away in horror at the sight of the Daywalker, and Snipes remains frozen in the frame, literally a stone.

That the vampires retreat (and retreat quickly) and that Blade does not move at all (at least at first...) provides a visual cue about who is dominant in this situation. The framing and choice of blocking asserts the Daywalker's “power” over his vampire prey.

What quickly follows this stellar introduction is a furious action scene. This bload-soaked battle between Blade and scores of vampires is a tour-de-force of choreography, stunt work, scoring, and editing. And Snipes himself is poetry in motion. Gene Seymour at the Los Angeles Times describes the actor as "the movie's biggest asset." The reviewer added, "He may snarl, hiss and twitch in ways that are often disorienting, but you can't take your eyes off of him." (August 21, 1998, page 4). Indeed, it's a star performance.

To some extent, the film’s final battle between a possessed Frost and the wounded Blade in the temple of La Magra can’t match the pure exhilaration of that vigorous, red-blooded opening fight scene. Yet Blade still impresses with its sub-textual commentary on a conspiracy of the rich preying on the weak and poor, and with its impressive sense of visual style.

As many critics suggested, the Norrington film is also part "Oedipal Drama" (Justine Elias, The Village Voice, September 1, 1998), since Blade must in the course of his battle and heroic journey face down his own mother, now a twisted, perverted "assimilated" vampire. Momma Vanessa (Lathan) offers Blade belonging, succor and even sexual comfort. On the latter front, it is noted, quite literally, that Blade, Vanessa and Frost can be one "big happy fucking family." But Blade understands that his Mother has bought into the sick values Deacon Frost and resists the proffered family ties. By breaking the human taboo of incest, Blade understands that he is playing into Frost's chosen method of domination: erasure of "traditional" cultural barriers and differences.

Watching Blade today, and looking past some of the superficial 1990s cliches (a hero garbed in black leather finding his destiny), one senses a genre film grappling with big, intriguing ideas. Blade, the Daywalker, navigates the knife's edge between two cultures that want to own him; but to which he doesn't, and can't ever, truly belong. Today we've had two sequels and even a Blade TV series (which aired on Spike), but in some ways, this first, blazing journey into Blade's world remains the most satisfying and artistic.

In Blade, the "world we live in is just a sugar-coated topping." Beneath that topping is racial strife and resentment, conspiracy, domination, and even the quest for independent identity.