Saturday, September 04, 2010

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: The Warriors (1979)

"The problem in the past has been the man turning us against one another. We have been unable to see the truth, because we have been fighting for ten square feet of ground, our turf, our little piece of turf. That's crap, brothers! The turf is ours by right, because it's our turn. All we have to do is keep up the general truce. We take over one borough at a time. Secure our territory... secure our turf... because it's all our turf!"

- The "One and Only" Cyrus, The Warriors (1979)

Recently, a reader of this blog asked me in an e-mail to name my "dream" or "fantasy" double feature of the immediate post-Star Wars film period. 

I'm not sure if this is precisely what she had in mind, but almost immediately, my mind seized on two great action fantasies which perfectly capture the unsettled, anxious vibe of that span: Walter Hill's The Warriors (1979) and John Carpenter's Escape from New York (1981).  

Wouldn't you love to sit down in a darkened auditorium, and watch these two films back-to-back?  I know I would.

Both of these classic action movies are born from of the same historical context: a period of extreme urban decay and blight in the Big Apple.

And -- as great science fiction films often do -- both movies project that considerable societal problem into the immediate but unknowable future.   In the case of The Warriors, that future date is intentionally left unspecified, but New York is a city overrun by gangs.  And in the world of Snake Plissken (Kurt Russell), Manhattan becomes a government-run maximum security prison in 1997.

So how did the American fantasy film arrive at this weird, dark juncture...where the criminals are running the prison, so-to-speak?   

Well, if you recall, the mid-1970s was not really a terrific time for big cities in America, specifically NYC.  Much of the metropolitan infrastructure had fallen into disrepair and neglect,  and there was a growing sense of disenfranchisement, politically-speaking. 

Alarmingly, crime rates were sky high and trending higher. 

Poverty was also an enormous problem because of economic stagnation and high unemployment (Carter's age of malaise and America's "crisis of confidence.")   New York City teetered dangerously near bankruptcy in 1975, and President Ford famously refused to bail it out.  This task was left to the Teachers' Union and, utilizing pension funds, it rose to the the tune of  a then-whopping 150 million dollars.

Then, in July of 1977, a city-wide power outage shone another light on the social unrest burdening the great city.   During a 25-hour period of black outs, there was a city-wide outbreak of looting and crime, and over 3,000 men and women were arrested.    Prisons virtually overflowed...

In that day and age, no one could have imagined so quick an end to this urban nightmare (which was also featured to great effect in the terrific early eighties flick Wolfen [1981].  However, via the corporatization/Disneyfication/Giuliani-fication of the Big Apple in the early 1990s...the problem was resolved in New York, at least to a very large degree. 

Yet filmmakers of the day, like J.C. and Walter Hill, imagined in the late 1970s and early 1980s that the Big Apple would only sink further into crime, into gang-warfare, into blight, and into despair.  The city became a dark, apocalyptic landscape in their highly-visual, action-packed productions.

That's the critical context underlying both The Warriors and Escape from New York.  I'll be reviewing the latter for John Carpenter Week in October, so today I want to gaze specifically, and in detail, at The Warriors, a film by Walter Hill and based very loosely on the 1965 novel by Sol Yurick of the same name. 

In his landmark book, Cult Movies, film scholar and critic Danny Peary does a terrific and thorough job of comparing and contrasting the novel and the film, but long-story short: the book de-romanticizes the gang members that serve as its protagonists, while the Walter Hill film of the disco-era purposefully mythologizes The Warriors and firmly places them in  a fantasy-styled (if dystopic...) landscape.

Taking a Ride on the Wonder Wheel; Or History Repeats Itself

It is a well-known fact that The Warriors (book and film) is loosely based on an event from human antiquity, the Battle of Cunaxa in 401 B.C. 

There, north of Babylon, a leader named Cyrus the Younger led "The Ten Thousand," -- an army of Greek soldiers -- into enemy territory against the Persian Army, which reportedly numbered over a million-strong. 

Cyrus was killed in the battle, leaving his men stranded deep inside enemy territory with no ally, no sanctuary and no supplies.  Clearchus, a Spartan general, assumed command of the fugitives, but there was danger, intrigue and betrayal at every turn.

For instance, a local satrap, Tissaphernes, invited the Greeks to feast with him...and the leaders who accepted the invitation were captured and decapitated.  The remaining Greeks fought superior numbers all the way back to their land, near the Black Sea.  And when they saw the familiar shore-line, they shouted -- famously (and with great relief) -- "Thalatta! Thalatta!" ("The Sea! The Sea!")

The events of the battle at Cunaxa, the subsequent retreat and the return home were assiduously recorded by the Greek soldier, Xenophon in his famous chronicle, Anabasis.  

This historical work is explicitly the source of the adaptations by Walter Hill/David Shaber and Yurick, but the location has been updated to the near-future, to gangland New York sometime near the dawn of the 21st century. 

A gang called "The Warriors" travels deep into enemy territory from their home-land (Coney Island) to attend a "conclave" in the Bronx.  The gang then faces enormous odds (and enemy gangs with names like The Baseball Furies, the Lizzies, the Electric Eliminators, the Moonrunners, the Orphans and the Gramercy Riffs), to return home safely following the assassination of a messianic gang leader. 

The Warriors ultimately know they have reached home, not coincidentally, when they spy the shore at Coney Island.  Thalatta?

There's even a figure in the film named Cyrus -- the aforementioned visionary gang leader assembling an "army" -- who dies early in the proceedings.

By connecting the odyssey of the Coney Island Warriors explicitly to the story told in Anabasis, director Hill successfully casts his unconventional, even criminal protagonists as epic heroes; thus casting them in a romantic, mythological light.  These men are not just street toughs; not merely small-time thugs, but heroes undertaking a terrifying and dangerous journey

The Wonder Wheel at Coney Island is the first shot of the film and it's almost as though Hill is using the concept of the wheel itself to take us back in an almost mythological past.  The point is simply to note that, perhaps, unconventional times demand unconventional heroes.

Throughout the film, Hill returns to this important idea of myth making.  First, he cannily utilizes familiar character names to suggest famous figures/characters from history and myth.  It's important to remember, these character names are quite different from those highlighted in Yurick's novel, which sought to reveal gang members as ignorant and foolish, not as heroic, comic-book, fantasy figures. 

In the movie, then, we get a gang leader named Cleon (Dorsey Wright), who leads his Warriors to a "peace" gathering in the city. In Greek history, Cleon was actually a noted critic of the aristocracy, and the film character takes on this particular trait, at least to some extent.  He sees the power and righteousness inherent in Cyrus's vision of gang unity.  It's a way to change things; a way to alter the established (and morally corrupt?) order that has created the desolate, urban landscape. 

Another Warrior is called Cochise (David Harris), and he adopts the guise and characteristics of  a famous Apache war chief in American history.  Cochise's name means, literally "the strength of oak," and accordingly, in the film, Cochise is one of the Warriors' greatest fighters.

Yet another Warrior from Coney Island is named Ajax (James Remar), and this moniker derives from Greek history/myth too, specifically from Homer's The Iliad.   

Then there's Rembrandt (Marcelino Sanchez), the gang's graffiti-artist...named for the Dutch painter, and Snow (Brian Tyler) -- an African-American who is one "cool" customer.

Even the man who eventually takes over for Cleon, Swan (Michael Beck) is named explicitly for myth.  In Finnish tales, a swan is known as the bird of the underworld, and the "swan song" widely remembered as the "song of death."  Ultimately, it is Swan who takes on the Orphean task of safely leading his fellow-gang members (and a beautiful woman named Mercy...) out of the underworld of New York City, back to the safety and relative sanctuary of Coney Island.

The characters and situations encountered by the Warriors in Hill's 1979 film also relate specifically to stories recounted from Greek Myth; stories that remain well-known today.  For instance, Ajax falls prey in a park to an undercover police officer, a beautiful woman, sitting on a park bench.  She hand-cuffs the impulsive Ajax to that bench, and soon the police have arrived in force to take him into custody.  He does not make it home. 

After a fashion, Ajax's tragic fate is a reflection of the "Procrustean Bed" in Greek legend.  An evil man named Procrustes set up -- on a sacred path, no less -- an iron bed.  He would then invite innocent passersby to rest upon it.  Finally, he would ruthlessly make his occupant fit the bed...even if that "fit" required amputation, dismemberment or other tortures.  Eventually, Procrustes met his fate at the hands of the hero Theseus. 

But the underlying point of the myth was Procrustes' enforcement of conformity...everybody had to fit his bed...or die trying. 

In The Warriors, Ajax -- an outlaw gang member -- is captured by the police, who enforce conformity to the law.  In this setting (and rather subversively, I might add...), the police represent the corrupt and powerful authority of the land, and the gang members represent an escape from/protest of the establishment

In another important scene in The Warriors, Cochise, Rembrandt and Vermin are lured from the safety of a train at Union Station by a beautiful all-female gang called "The Lizzies."  On one hand, the Lizzies may be an allusion to the Tissaphernes interlude in Anabasis...the promise of a sumptuous "feast" of sorts that actually leads trusting warriors to their mortal doom. 

Or perhaps, the all-female nature of the gang, and the tantalizing promise of sexual seduction refers to the famous Sirens of Homer's The Odyssey: dangerous female creatures who lure sailors to their doom with beguiling music.  Certainly, the latter idea fits well here.  The Warriors are drawn out of the train car, and led to an island of sorts - a locked room -- with the promise of sex.  Only Rembrandt seems to sense the danger.

My favorite scene in The Warriors involves the heroic gang engaging battle with another dynamic gang, the Baseball Furies.  These Furies are armed with baseball bats and dressed in baseball uniforms.  Most terrifyingly, they wear war-paint: face-make-up.  You might be tempted to laugh at these characters in broad daylight...but at night -- and in perpetual, relentless motion --  these guys are pure nightmare fodder. 

Importantly, they take their name "The Furies" from another facet of ancient Greek lore.

There, the Furies or "Angry Ones" were known as beasts who exacted brutal punishment against those who had sworn a false oath.  In other words, the Furies punished...liars.  In the film, the Baseball Furies come out of the woodwork to punish the Warriors, who are believed to have broken the city-wide truce; and who (against orders) brought a weapon into that truce at  the conclave.  Of course, the Warriors are not guilty of murdering Cyrus, or of breaking their word, but the Furies don't realize that.

Again and again in The Warriors, Hill explicitly links the journey of the Coney Island gang to mythological, events, personalities and scenarios.  The end-game is to suggest that they -- like the heroes of antiquity -- are larger-than-life, romantic figures who, one day, will be remembered by history for their great accomplishment. 

The movie's myriad comic-book touches -- specifically framing and captioning -- likewise add to this underlying feeling of myth making.  This is no small matter.  I remember reading as a kid an interview with George Lucas in which he derided the lack of "real" heroes for children in 1970s pop-culture.  He named Dirty Harry and Kojak as role-models I believe, and saw Star Wars as a more innocent and appropriate alternative.

The Warriors in Hill's film represent another such alternative, even if a little unconventional.  They boast such heroic qualities as loyalty, strength and honor...and they are steadfastly trying to make a better life for themselves in the corrupt, urban blight of a city out of control. "sometime in the future." 

By depicting the gangs of New York City in this strange future landscape as colorful, dynamic and interracial (in the spirit of John Carpenter's Street Thunder in Assault on Precinct 13 [1976]), director Hill reminds the audience that this film does not occur in depressing, kitchen-sink reality, but rather  in a heightened, fantasy reality where people -- even gang members -- can still make heroic choices, and behave in honorable fashion.  In a future where every young person seems to be in a gang (or in a network of gangs, as it were), it's not hard to believe that one gang may be more heroic than other. 

That's why The Warriors is not the incitement to violence that some culture warriors mistook it for way back in 1979.  It features gangs to be certain, but the landscape is purposefully classic -- mythological -- and the gangs themselves are fantasy-inspired villains, bearing almost no resemblance to real-life thugs or common gangs. 

I mean, how many gangs do you know that dress up as...mimes? 

Can You Dig It? The Magic of "The One" in The Warriors

In some highly-intriguing fashion, The Warriors is not merely a comic-book fantasy about heroes on a "desperate, forced march" but a subversive commentary on its post-counterculture times, on the Crisis-in-Confidence America of the 1970s. 

Here, representatives from warring gangs in peace (and unarmed, even...) attend a conclave in the Bronx.  They go to listen to the inspirational words of a messianic leader, "The One and Only" African-American visionary and revolutionary. 

Except for one bad apple (David Patrick Kelly's Luther), these gang members stand and listen respectfully to Cyrus, and "nobody is wasting nobody."

Believed to possess a "whole lot of magic," Cyrus is the leader of the biggest gang in the city and he preaches a Gospel of unity...and, importantly, numbers.  "Can you count, suckers?" he asks repeatedly.  Then he provides an entirely logical argument using mathematics as his primary rhetorical tool. 

There are 60,000 gang members in blighted New York, and only 20,000 police he reminds his audience.  "One gang could rule this city," he deliberately suggests.

What Cyrus promises is a new order.  Instead of short-sightedly battling over "turf," over a few hundred meters of territory, these gangs could effectively control the entire city if they just cooperated.  They could control infrastructure, resources and yes, even crime rates.  The city could not move without the okay of the gangs, Cyrus observes.  Power is within reach, but the gang leaders must not be selfish; must not be distracted by the "small" things.

What The Warriors never makes clear, or specific, is how exactly Cyrus would utilize his new found power were he to gain control of New York City.  Would he cause a reign of terror, of lawlessness?   Doubtful, I think.

Given the comments by the Warriors (especially Cleon...) regarding Cyrus, as well as Hill's honorable, classic presentation of these fantasy outlaws, there's ample reason to suspect that Cyrus is the real deal, and that his motives are pure.  

The character thus represents political optimism...the belief that, as foot-soldiers for change, we can each help shape the future to our liking.  If only we all row in the same direction.   What's daring about this vision is that Hill seems to suggest that it isn't just the marginalized who recognize the corruption of the system...but actual criminals.  Those outlaws become, ironically, the hope for a more equitable future.

It's downright fascinating how this fantasy movie positions an outlaw gang-leader as the rightful heir to the counter-culture movement of the late 1960s, and how this so-called criminal (as well as his people) openly embraces high moral ideals, like interracial equality and unity of purpose.

But there's an important idea here: Yes We Can.  We have the numbers, if we vote, to unseat those responsible for the status quo; responsible for -- in the era of the movie -- the city that is falling down and failing its citizenry.

Unfortunately, in the tradition of inspirational real-life leaders like Martin Luther King Jr., and Robert Kennedy, The Warriors' Cyrus is brutally gunned down before his Utopian new order can come to pass.  At his death, those formerly in unity turn on each other, and foster only deeper disunity.   Without the leadership of The One, the gangs turn on their own kind.

So, let's sum up here.   A film that begins with great political optimism (the belief that a better world is possible if we work together) ends with great cynicism about the entrenched political process.  Even the media itself (a New York City radio station) is prophetically used throughout the film to "spread the lie" that the Warriors assassinated Cyrus. 

The Warriors become convenient scapegoats, pursued not just by law enforcement authorities, but by their fellow citizen gang-members and by the powerful media that holds sway over their dangerous world.  In one of the movie's many great moments, the radio DJ marshaling gang forces "in code" against the Warriors plays the song "Nowhere to Run."  It's essentially a rock-and-roll death sentence.

America itself keeps reliving this very cycle of optimism/pessimism/cynicism in our national politics. With overwhelming numbers, we vote for change.  Lately, Reagan, Clinton and Obama all owe their presidencies to "change"-oriented campaigns. 

Yet very early into these periods of "change," powerful (and rich...) voices in the mass media re-assert the power of the entrenched establishment and scare voters about the very change we so enthusiastically and resolutely voted for.  Instead of believing we can work together to make things better for everyone, we soon become mired in convenient scapegoats and ignorant beliefs (like, say, that our President is, you know, the Anti-Christ).  What's worse, sometimes the people "pulling the trigger" on the future - on men like Cyrus -- do it simply to be oppositional.  When asked why he killed Cyrus, Luther answers "No reason.  I just like doing things like that."

In The Warriors, like in life, alas, nothing seems to change fast.  Cynicism supplants optimism, and the problems of the city don't get solved.  The Warriors heroically return home, but even home isn't so great.  "This is what we fought all along to get back to?" Swan asks, upon leading his people successfully back to Coney Island.   A nearly abandoned world of graffiti, boarded-up shops and empty roads?

Is this the promised land that it could have been, in Cyrus's vision? Or simply the last place the Warriors can fight the system, their backs literally braced against the ocean? 

In its conclusion, The Warriors suggests a kind of desperation and yearning for change, since even the criminals -- not exactly a future-oriented crowd --  see that something must change, that revolution must come, to make things better in the City.

I want the people to know that the Warriors were there: Change Begins with One Person..or Maybe Two.

I don't want to make it sound as though The Warriors is a serious movie all about political systems and cycles. 

On the contrary, this is a visceral, action-packed thriller, and there's a real uplifting, inspiring side to the picture too. 

One fetching and memorable character in the film, Mercy (Deborah Van Valkenbergh) joins up with the Warriors, and returns home with them.   After circling each other suspiciously for a time, Mercy and Swan take the first steps towards trusting...and loving...each other.

In a dark train tunnel in the city, at the height of the action, Mercy talks convincingly and meaningfully about the established world; about the world she was born into and hates. 

"I see what's happening next door and down the block," she tells Swan.  "...I want something new.  This is the life I got left.  You know what I mean?"

There is such yearning expressed in those words; and such power in the (truly great) performance.  It's authentic, it's hungry...its questing.   For Mercy, happiness is still possible, but you have to keep looking for it. 

Like Cyrus, the Warriors (and by extension the audience itself) must have the vision to imagine what a better world could look like...and pursue that vision no matter the cost.  For Swan and Mercy, perhaps, finding each other is the first step towards that unseen Utopia.

This idea is reinforced at the film's end, with the surviving Warriors and Mercy standing together before the timeless, beating waves of the unceasing ocean.  The soundtrack goes to song ("In the City") and the lyrics suggest that "Somewhere out there on that horizon, out beyond the neon lights, I know there must be somethin' better..."

As these lyrics play on, the movie goes to freeze frame, with the Warriors standing heroically on the beach, a beautiful sun hanging low in the morning sky.  Our last view of them shows these heroes unbeaten, unbowed.  Still wearing their colors (holding onto their ideals, in other words) and standing at the precipice of eternity, literally, at the dawn of life beyond the soul-deadening City.

I'll be honest and completely unguarded here. This momentary conjunction of  subject matter, theme, song and film technique represents what is for me a perfect movie moment, one of those inexplicable but wholly magical grace notes that always gives you goosebumps and leaves you on an emotional high. 

In part (personally speaking), this is what the exploration of cinema is for...for finding and excavating such moments.

The whole movie comes together gloriously in this final burst of energy, and, well, you can't resist it. The Warriors have survived the day, and, because of their experiences, can imagine what a better tomorrow looks like.

Or, to put it in the lingo of the flick, the Warriors will...come out to play.  Another day.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

CULT TV FLASHBACK # 117: Buffy the Vampire Slayer (2001): "Tabula Rasa"

"Sorry, I just got back the memory of seeing King Ralph..."

- Xander (Nicholas Brendan) experiences an unpleasant memory, in "Tabula Rasa."

One of the most commonly-featured themes in cult-tv history involves the age-old, psychological debate of nature vs. nurture.

Are heroes (even Starfleet officers and C.I.A. agents) "born" heroic? 

Or are their personalities and achievements the result of extensive experience and training?  In other words, many genre programs over the last sixty years have grappled with the idea of  heroic identity, and put their protagonists to the test.

The most oft-depicted manner of testing this mettle, it seems, is to remove a hero's memory entirely; to cause the unlucky dramatis personae of a TV series to experience retrograde amnesia, the total loss of pre-existing memories.

In other words, if James T. Kirk (William Shatner) is zapped by an alien obelisk and loses his memory on a faraway world of Native Americans, will his new identity as "Kirok" -- a blank slate, essentially -- also feature the self-same qualities that make the starship captain so noble; namely ingenuity, leadership ability, and loyalty, etc.?

Star Trek grappled with this amnesia paradigm and the concept of the blank slate (that people/characters could be reduced to a state of innocence, with no experience or memory...) in the above-referenced third season episode,  "The Paradise Syndrome," but that's not the only example of this tale, even in the Roddenberry franchise. 

In Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987-1994), the fourth-season episode "Clues"  [ed's note: - actually "Conundrum," per reader Brian!] saw the entire crew of the Enterprise-D suffering from an induced amnesia, becoming pawns of destructive aliens in the process.  Eventually, Captain Picard (Patrick Stewart) and the others began to realize "who" they were, and were able to re-assume control of the ship and re-assert their values.  Just in time too...they were on a mission of terrible destruction. 

A TNG episode of the seventh season, "Thine Own Self," saw a malfunctioning Data as a kind of wandering amnesiac on an alien world, so this plot device was occasionally re-used, even on that particular series.

More recently, Alias's (2001 - 2006) action-packed third season played the amnesia card to dynamic and thrilling effect across a wide story-arc.  C.I.A. agent Sydney Bristow (Jennifer Garner) awoke in Hong Kong after a fight with an enemy spy...only to learn that two years had past and that she had no memory of her activities during that span.  Her boyfriend, Vaughn (Michael Vartan) was now married.

In this case, Sydney's core identity had been mysteriously returned at her awakening, but she was forced to wonder what, precisely, she had done in those missing years.  Over the course of several episodes, it was learned that Sydney had taken on a new identity as "Julia Thorne," an assassin for a nefarious organization called "The Covenant" and that, on at least one occasion, she had killed a good guy (a Russian diplomat). 

So the question here was not very dissimilar from the one what Star Trek had imagined and raised in the late 1960s.  Stripped of her friends, training, loyalty,  and her experience, was Sydney capable of becoming...evil?  Or, despite the content of her memory, was she always the good guy?  Could she ever be anything other than "the chosen one" that destiny (and Rambaldi...) intended?

A more specific, contained  example of amnesia was depicted in Babylon 5 (1994 - 1999): Commander Sinclair (Michael O'Hare) could not remember a crucial 24 hours in his history (during an important space battle, no less).  Finding out what happened to him in that missing spell would help to shape his very future.

In addition to such examples, the amnesia story has also been a staple of superhero programming going back to the beginning of the medium of television itself. 

Way back in the early 1950s, in "Panic in the Sky," The Adventures of Superman (1951 - 1958) first dealt with the concept.  In this memorable tale written by Jackson Gillis and directed by Thomas Carr, Superman loses his memory while attempting to deflect an approaching meteorite from Earth.  If he does not recover his memory in time, millions of people on Earth will die. 

The same amnesia tale was re-made on Lois and Clark in the 1990s as "All Shook Up" and has been repeated with some variation on The Incredible Hulk ("Mystery Man,"), The Greatest American Hero ("A Train of Thought,"), Angel ("Spin the Bottle"), Smallville ("Blank") Mutant X ("Presumed Guilty") and Painkiller Jane ("Thanks for the Memories"), to name just a few variations.

One of the finest examples of the "amnesia" story arrived on UPN in late 2001 (November 13, to be precise), and it was, not surprisingly, featured in the superhero milieu once more.   Rebecca Rand Kirshner penned "Tabula Rasa" an episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer's sixth season. 

Now, if you remember this season, you might recall that the "Big Bad" villain of the year was actually real life.    Recently returned from the dead, the Slayer, Buffy Summers (Sarah Michelle Gellar) had to grapple with the parenting of her teenage sister Dawn (Michelle Trachtenberg), a flooded basement ("Flooded"), and most dastardly of all, paying the bills ("Life Serial").  In one episode ("Doublemeat Palace") she had to get a dead-end job at a fast-food restaurant.

The high school as Hell-template of the first three seasons had been left behind and -- courageously and controversially -- Buffy the Vampire Slayer nudged its young characters into responsibility-filled adulthood.  Xander asked Anya to marry him...then had second thoughts.  Willow -- a burgeoning witch -- began to rely too heavily on magic, an addiction of sorts ("Wrecked").

"Tabula Rasa" -- again, Latin for blank slate -- finds the dramatis personae lapsing deeper into confusion, self-doubt and anger at the way life is turning out for them. 

Tara (Amber Benson), Willow's girlfriend, has discovered that Willow is using magic (Lethe's Bramble) to alter her they never fight. 

And Giles --  convinced that Buffy isn't living up to her responsibilities because he is always "playing" the father -- decides to leave for England permanently. 

Meanwhile, the vampire Spike (James Marsters) owes a loan shark demon  some kittens (currency in the underworld) and is causing problems for Buffy.  Alone and unable to tell her friends about the after-life, Buffy has taken the first steps towards intimacy with Spike...kissing him (in the musical episode "Once More With Feeling," which precedes this show).

With Buffy angry about Giles' departure, and Tara threatening to leave if Willow uses magic again, Willow soon conjures a forgetting spell.  But -- as these things do -- it goes wrong, and everybody (Anya, Xander, Buffy, Spike, Dawn, Giles, Willow and Tara) ends up as amnesiacs in the Magic Box. 

With vampires pounding on the doors, these amnesiacs must learn quickly who they are, where they are, and what the hell they were doing before they lost their memories.

Very quickly, the gang begins to seek clues about their pre-existing identities.  Since Spike and Giles both have British accents, they assume they are son and father.  Since Anya awakens near Giles and finds an engagement ring on her finger, she assumes Giles is her fiance. 

Carrying no wallet or identification of any kind, Buffy quickly exhibits leadership qualities, but gives herself a name that deliberately eschews such responsibilities...Joan.  "I feel like a Joan," she says modestly, before coming to realize (during a fight with a vampire) that she is indeed a "superhero or something."  But being Joan offers Buffy, at least for a bit, the chance to hide from her true identity and responsibilities.

Spike has an even more unpleasant reckoning.  He imagines himself a hero like "Joan," only to learn that he's a vampire...a monster.  "I must be a noble vampire...a good guy," he finally concludes, unwittingly comparing himself to Angel, the vampire with a soul who "helps the helpless."  No such luck: he's a soulless, lovelorn demon.

Meanwhile, Willow and Tara discover that their attraction to one another (and indeed, their sexual orientation) goes beyond mere memory and's biology.  They tentatively orbit one another, an experience which almost culminates with a kiss.  Dawn, who is typically fearful and clingy to Buffy even as an amnesiac (they realize they are sisters...)  remembers the feeling of being imperiled.   It is, she says "weirdly familiar."

Interestingly, all the characters unknowingly cometo play their traditional roles before the amnesia experience is done.  Xander tries to play the hero, leading Dawn to safety in the sewers (though outmatched by a vampire).  Giles and Anya see to "the research" to fight the vampires with magic.  And Buffy and Spike physically fight the bad guys...acting as the warriors.  Even without memory, without experience, they are all destined to be these things...and they can't escape destiny.

At the end of the day, the spell is broken, and real life comes crashing back down on everyone.  Tara leaves Willow for breaking her word about using magic.  And Giles boards a flight for London...a one way trip. 

In this case, the amnesia -- though frightening -- actually proves a respite of sorts in which these troubled characters can, for a time, hide from their true identities (and from the Big Bad of the season -- real life.)   For a time, Buffy can just be Joan (a choice of names which Dawn calls "blah") and worry about what's in front of her face...not saving the world.  Similarly, Spike can escape his destiny as a "monster."

But what "Tabula Rasa" cogently reminds the characters of Buffy the Vampire Slayer (and the viewership) is that real life is not something that can be escaped; even with amnesia.  In fact, human beings are not blank slates...we are the accumulation of our choices and decisions.

And those choices and decisions are so much a part of our human gestalt that even without active recall, we cannot escape them; they re-assert themselves, as if by osmosis.  Buffy is a hero...and even as Joan, she remains a hero.   The daily troubles faced by Giles and Willow disappear momentarily in the crisis...but return with a vengeance once Willow's spell is broken.  

Even Anya, a former vengeance demon, in her amnesiac state resorts to her true identity, taking vengeance upon Giles -- a man -- for attempting to leave her before they get to the altar (a grave foreshadowing of her actual wedding experience in "Hell's Bells.")

In the end, Buffy intimates -- in one of the genre's great amnesia stories -- that we can't escape who we are; we can't deny who we are.  There's no magic bullet to escape real life. 

Instead, we have to face it, armed with our very identities -- with the built-in characteristics and experiences that have taught us (hopefully) to cope.

In other words, those skeletons in the closet can't be buried or ignored. 

They have to be brought out into the open, into the daylight...and sword-fought to a standstill. 

That's real life for you.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Sci-Fi Wisdom of the Week

"When I told you screw yourself, I didn't mean for you to take it literally."
- The Sixth Day (2000)

Sunday, August 29, 2010

SGU Arrives on Blu-Ray October 5

Just as Season Two begins airing on September 28 (on Sy Fy), you can catch up with the sci-fi adventure of SGU through Stargate: SGU: The Complete Season One on Blu-Ray.   Now, I'm not a big fan of the Stargate franchise in general, but to my surprise I really, really loved the first season of SGU.  I'm looking forward to seeing where the  inventive show heads next

From my review a couple months ago:

Stargate Universe is a bit edgier, somewhat more serious in intent, and far more mysterious than what I've seen of the other Stargate series. It showcases flawed but interesting human characters instead of gun-toting, romanticized ideals. It's also -- at least from what I've seen -- not as overtly militarized in bent. There are still several military characters involved in the drama, but the show isn't all guns and salutes. Not hardly.

SGU dramatizes a tale of disaster and survival. A group of officers, scientists and technicians from Earth are unexpectedly forced to abandon an off-world base called Icarus following a surprise attack on the installation.

But when the group evacuates through a star gate, it returns not to Earth, but lands bumpily aboard a damaged, colossal spaceship traveling at faster-than-light velocities towards the end of the universe itself.
The man responsible for this selection of destination is the inscrutable Dr. Nicholas Rush (Robert Carlyle), who has been working for years to puzzle out the last "chevron" on the Stargate technology in hopes of discovering more about the race that constructed it: The Ancients.

So, a group of about fifty or so people -- the "wrong people" -- according to Colonel Young (Louis Ferrara) are now trapped together aboard this inhospitable vessel named Destiny. In the opening three-part episode, "Air," life-support power fails and the crew is forced to scour a desert planet for resources needed to repair the C02 scrubbers. In the second episode, "Darkness," the ship's power fails completely, and in the third, "Light," Destiny becomes trapped on an apparent collision course with an alien star. A lottery is held to see which fifteen people will board an escape shuttle, and who will be forced to remain aboard the ship as it plummets towards the sun...

Outside of the Stargate franchise, SGU is heir to a rich cinematic and television legacy of space adventuring. The series' impressive opening shot -- of the huge Destiny gliding through the void -- puts the Empire's Star Destroyer and the inaugural shot of Star Wars [1977] -- to shame. Then, in the very next shot, the opener cuts to a Ridley Scott-esque tour of quiescent interior corridors, evoking the Nostromo in Alien (1979).

The notion of boarding and deciphering a starship of alien construction reminds me of the Liberator and Terry Nation's Blake's 7. And the scenario of men and women trapped on an out-of-control "vessel" unable to control speed or trajectory made me think of Space:1999's Moonbase Alpha. For good measure, the opener also throws in some (largely unnecessary) character flashbacks that evoke the early years of Lost (2004-2010).

And did I mention that the soundtrack boasts the Far Eastern, melancholy feel of Firefly?

Despite all these familiar touchstones, SGU makes some intriguing and positive modifications on formula. For one thing, the series eschews the horrible techno-babble that scuttled late-era Star Trek (Next Gen, DS9, Voyager and Enterprise).

On those 1990s programs (which have not aged well, for the most part...), the resolution of the crisis of the week always involved a simple re-shuffling of a deck of cards. Let's re-modulate the power array to shoot a graviton pulse at this tertiary domain of subspace that will seal the space/time rift blah blah blah.

Somehow, no matter what hand the crew of the Enterprise-D, Deep Space Nine or Voyager was dealt, it always managed to pull an ace from that deck. Once or twice of course, this was fine but after a while, the cumulative effect was actually a negative statement about humanity and the supposedly-heroic Starfleet characters. They had no real resourcefulness or ingenuity of their own but they did have great technology, and simply by reshuffling the same deck every week, they could survive and flourish in the universe.

My hero and mentor, the late Johnny Byrne -- who served as story editor on the first year of Space: 1999 -- once compared late era Trek and Space: 1999 in the following way. He said that shows like Next Gen and Voyager assumed the characters already had everything they needed to succeed, whereas Space: 1999 adopted the perspective that the characters did not already have what they needed to survive.
Now...which approach do you think is inherently more dramatic?

And indeed, this is reason why so many episodes of Next Gen, Voyager and Enterprise feel so rote. The sense of danger is missing. In drama, when characters have everything that they need (even when separated from home base by a quadrant or two...), space adventuring just becomes a workaday job. And besides, the holodeck is open all night...

Refreshingly, SGU revives the earlier template, and adopts the perspective that the characters don't have the resources or know-how they need to survive, or, at the very least, don't yet understand how to master the technology that would permit survival to be anything approaching easy.

In other words, the Destiny may provide for all, but the crew -- again, the "wrong people" -- don't necessarily have the skill set to figure it all out. This is Johnny Byrne's Space:1999 principle applied, and applied well.

What I admire about SGU is that, even in these early shows, there's a lot of trial and error on display, a lot of attempts that go nowhere. At one crisis point in "Darkness," I was suddenly, out-of-the-blue, reminded of the Apollo 13 incident in 1970...of people working in space to solve pressing (nay, urgent...) problems with ingenuity, grace, available resources, and luck. The series really captures this vibe well. It's something about the danger of space travel and human inspiration intertwined...and it works. It's a concept that in large part, modern space adventure series have abandoned, and it's nice to see it back at the forefront of the medium.

SGU also gets something else right, and this is crucial. By and large, SGU allows the viewer to scan the drama for subtext rather than spelling out that subtext as, well, actual text.

This was always my primary concern with the re-imagined Battlestar Galactica [2005-2009]. Not that the producers seemed more interested in telling stories about Abu Ghraib, September 11th, Al Qaeda, the Geneva Conventions and late 20th century East/West perceptions of God than tales of survival in hostile galaxy, but that they did so in such an on-the-nose, obvious fashion.

By contrast, the early episodes of SGU feature some vivid human drama, but the series isn't crushingly self-important or pretentious in the way that Galactica often was. It doesn't spoon-feed you with obvious analogs for current events. It doesn't pat viewers on the back for knowing that "go frak yourself" is the same as Dick Cheney's famous "go fuck yourself." I mean, we get it, right?

Also, the re-imagined Battlestar Galactica series was alarmingly lazy about creating the universe around its human characters. On alien planets half-way across the universe, people drove late 20th century, American-produced Humvees. This was basically an admission on the part of the producers that television can't believably do "sci fi" -- a theorem I disagree vehemently with -- and so no real imagination was afforded for the look or design of the show; to create believable alien vistas, technology or cultures. The only civilizations in all of Battlestar Galactica were humans and their creation, the human-looking Cylons.

I just find that idea...immensely depressing. Kind of like us getting to outer space and discovering that in all the cosmos, in all the stars, there are just Liberals and Conservatives, or just Muslims and Christians. As a sci-fi series taking place in the great unknown, Battlestar Galactica could dream nothing better for mankind than perpetual divisiveness and partisanship. Of course, this is an entirely valid philosophy and approach...just not one that engaged me, personally, I suppose. I could always watch the series as an adrenaline-inducing pressure worked very well in that sense. But the new BSG had no curiosity about the universe itself.

I have enjoyed what I've seen so far of Stargate SGU because it remembers that there is more in Heaven and Earth than is dreamed of in our human philosophy. The universe is a riddle; human nature is a riddle. There are mysteries and terrors in space beyond anything we can imagine. The series is actually based on a riddle itself, the mastery of an alien ship, Destiny. Why was the ship built? Where is it headed? What was its mission?

Because I am so immersed in the history, details and minutiae of sci-fi television, I often check with my barometer, my wife, Kathryn to see how she registers new programs. She watched the first disc of SGU episodes with me and, if anything, enjoyed the show even more than I did. She's no pushover. On the contrary, because she is not strictly a "sci-fi" fan, Kathryn can be cutting, even brutal, in her assessments of these programs.

One of her observations I found especially trenchant. She noted that the actors in the series seemed to have been cast for their abilities, not for their looks or youth. There are few underwear models here, in other words. The characters aren't all "smoldering" hotties in their early twenties, but real people doing their best in a difficult environment. And again, being the "wrong people," being unprepared for this journey, makes them, by and large, interesting to follow. Young clings to his military training. Rush clings to his belief that he can learn everything on Destiny...if given time, Eli clings to his sense of humor, and so on.

You can never guess what right or wrong turns a series will take as it continues down the long years, but in these early episodes, SGU is promising, dramatic and much better than I expected it would be. It hasn't dropped any land mines that may come back to haunt it (like the identity of the fifth Cylon, or the invisible tree-shaking monsters), and instead seems focused on a good concept and, so far, solid scripts.

I appreciate SGU for the same reason that I've always enjoyed original Trek and Space:1999. It's a program about Humans -- us -- trying to make our way in the stars with danger -- and opportunity -- around every turn. In each adventure, human constitution and ingenuity gets put on the table. Sometimes it fails, sometimes it succeeds in completing the task at hand. But these are programs that tell us, in every hour, that despite the failures, the sky can still be the limit.

From the Official Press Release:

Emmy® nominated* for outstanding special visual effects, the first season of the hit show “SGU” debuts as a complete set on Blu-ray and DVD October 5 from MGM Home Entertainment. The collection features the opening chapter in the spectacular saga as it follows a group of people that is unexpectedly transported to the other side of the universe only to find that their sole mission is survival.

An exciting stylistic change from previous Stargate series, “SGU” Season One offers an in-depth look at human nature and the inner struggle between right and wrong. The latest series of the popular franchise features a brand new cast including Robert Carlyle (The Full Monty), Brian J. Smith

(Hate Crime), David Blue (“Ugly Betty”), Jamil Walker Smith (“Hey Arnold!”), and newcomers Louis Ferreira, Alaina Huffman, Patrick Gilmore and Elyse Levesque. Plus fans will enjoy special appearances by original cast members Richard Dean Anderson (“MacGyver”) and Amanda Tapping (“Stargate SG-1”).

Showcasing all 20 episodes, the “SGU” Season One Blu-ray and DVD feature an extended pilot with never-before-seen footage, exclusive behind-the-scenes featurettes, video diaries and commentary on every episode. In addition, fans can enjoy Blu-ray exclusive special features such as extra Destiny SML (Star Map Log) and the SGU: Survival Instinct Game. The brand new interactive game challenges players to use their knowledge, intelligence and skillfulness to jump through a series of time loops in order to return to the Destiny. The “SGU” Season One Blu-ray will be available as a five-disc set for the suggested retail price of $59.99 U.S./$69.99 Canada, and as a six-disc DVD collection for $49.98 U.S./$59.98 Canada. Prebook is September 8.