Saturday, January 08, 2011

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: Gattaca (1997)


In the first shot of Andrew Niccol's impressive Gattaca (1997), what appears to be an over-sized fingernail lands on a hard floor like some heavy-gravity chunk of ice or space rock.  

This Goliath is followed promptly by a tree-trunk sized strand of human hair, which also impacts with considerable force. 

These unusual images -- extreme close-ups, actually -- are captured in rich blue hues, and promptly followed by shots of a naked man (Ethan Hawke) scrubbing his body vigorously, attempting to leave behind the biological evidence of his real identity.

This memorable and highly cinematic opening sequence suggests a few important things. 

First, it suggests to the viewer that, as human beings, we are all the product of genetic blueprints, and that, given a certain set of circumstances (namely the future world imagined by Gattaca), that very blueprint could subvert or betray us.   

To wit, the film concerns a man who aspires to reach the stars, but who is held tightly to the terrestrial firmament below by his physical blueprint; by the fact that he does not possess the right genetic "code" for success. 

The discovery by Society-at-Large of something so simple as a fingernail or a strand of his hair could shatter this man's dreams of transcendence permanently.  So these falling objects -- the fingernail, the hair-strand -- literally "loom" over the man as giant threats.  The director's choice to present them as colossal juggernauts is a clever, intelligent and unconventional one.

Secondly, the blue light (and also the act of scrubbing) suggests sterilization of a sort; of rendering neutral or dead those things or elements that could potentially do harm.  The film's protagonist, Vincent (Hawke) must literally sterilize himself to be accepted in "valid" society.

He's sanding off parts of himself to fit in; to conform. 

On a more symbolic note, the blue light in this inaugural sequence suggests, at least to me, the sterile, somehow empty nature of Vincent's near-future world.  It is a place where all imperfections have been engineered out of the human organism. 

The result is a world that seems remote, lacking in the warmth, love and color we associate with everything that exists in the species today:  in our families, in our national discourse, in the pure diversity of our lives.  We may lead messy, chaotic lives of highs and lows, of bickering and compromise, but that's the human equation, isn't it?  To clean that up -- to refine and rein in that anarchy  -- is to change the essence of what and who we are as a species.

Inspiration, spontaneity, all strong emotions, it seems, have been forsaken as "imperfections" in this world of Gattaca.  The genetically-engineered people who dwell there are intelligent and beautiful, but -- somehow -- shallow.  All their struggles were resolved for them before they were born; on the battlefield of test tubes and splicing.   Now, these men and women of Gattaca are surrounded by inspiring rocket launches every day, and never turn their eyes heavenward; never express excitement about the final frontier. 

Why strive or struggle when your destiny is written and cemented in your genes?

When I consider the great science fiction films of the 1990s, my mind almost always conjures Gattaca first (though I am also quite enamored with The Matrix [1999]).  The 1997 Niccol film not only artistically imagines a very believable, very distinctive near future, it  also explores that future fully, and in the process makes a case against discrimination or racism in all its forms.     It also asks a pertinent question: without the struggle -- the struggle to be better, stronger, smarter, more resourceful and successful -- what's left for human kind?

But, as science fiction, in particular, Gattaca, succeeds so ably because it extrapolates -- based on 1997 knowledge -- on one possible future direction of our species.

In terms of context, the most important thing to understand about Gattaca is that it was crafted and released in the decade of the Human Genome Project,  a  "13-year project coordinated by the U.S. Department of Energy and the National Institutes of Health" with the goals of "identifying all the approximately 20,000-25,000 genes in human DNA, determining the sequences of the 3 billion chemical base pairs that make up human DNA, storing this information in databases, and improving tools for data analysis," among other things.

The 1990s also brought us an obsession with forensic science, the use of physical DNA evidence in solving crimes, and even the first successful cloning experiment in 1997, involving a lamb named Dolly. 

Accordingly, many films of the decade, from Jurassic Park (1993) to The Island of Dr. Moreau (1996) to Alien Resurrection (1997) to Mimic (1998) to  Gattaca (1997) gazed at the possibilities and pitfalls of advanced genetic engineering.  Not since the age of the Atom Bomb in the 1950s had the genre obsessed so much on the idea of a Pandora's Box being opened,and the potential for science to "run amok."

On theatrical release, Gattaca failed to draw an audience, although the critical response was mostly positive.  Janet Maslin at The New York Times called the film "a handsome and fully imagined work of cautionary futuristic fiction."  

Walter Addiego at the San Francisco Examiner recognized the film's value as "social criticism" and opined that Gattaca was a "welcome throwback to the days of good, low-tech sci-fi, stressing character and atmosphere over computer-generated effects and juvenile thrills. It reminds me of the older sort of British science fiction, produced on very modest budgets, but with superior writing and acting, that achieved a thoughtfulness many don't expect from this genre."

Elegant, gorgeous and filled with heart, Gattaca is the amazing story of a man who beats the hand his genes and society have dealt him.  Maybe, that's the story of us all...

"My real résumé  is in my cells."

In the "not-so-distant future" of Gattaca, a man named Vincent (Hawke) relates, in voice-over, the story of his life. 

He was a "faith birth," meaning that his parents conceived him without first seeking the help and meddling of genetic engineers.  When Vincent was born and he was given a life expectancy of just "30.2" years, his parents were scared straight.  They set about having another child...the "proper" way this time, with the aid of helpful scientists. 

"We want to give your child the best possible start," says the Geneticist.  "Believe me, we have enough imperfection built in already. Your child doesn't need any more additional burdens. Keep in mind, this child is still you. Simply, the best, of you. You could conceive naturally a thousand times and never get such a result."

As Vincent grew, he was overshadowed in every way by his genetically-engineered brother, Anton (Lorn Dean). But he also became fascinated by the subject of outer space, and the potentials it promised to escape the conformity of Earth. 

But because he was a "de-gene-rate" or "Invalid," Vincent would never be allowed to go to the stars.  "The only way you'll see the inside of a spaceship is if you're cleaning it," he is told in no uncertain terms.  In this world, all the faith births form a kind of custodial underclass, doing menial jobs that the Elite won't.

So, Vincent leaves home and family, and with a "borrowed ladder" in Jerome Morrow (Jude Law), gets a job in Gattaca, the space command center, which sends spaceships to the stars every single day. 

Pretending to be Jerome, Vincent carries bags of Jerome's urine in case of surprise drug tests, and even adorns small blood pouches under his fingernails so he can pass daily blood tests.  He is a pretender amongst the Elite, but if he plays his cards right, he will man a yearlong voyage toTitan.

Despite Vincent's cleverness and drive, one thing stands in his way.  With the flight to Titan pending, the mission director is found murdered -- battered with a computer keyboard -- and a police investigation by "Hoovers" is commenced. 

Very quickly, the detective on the case, Anton, discovers evidence of an invalid on the premises, his long-lost brother Vincent, and the hunt is on.  Now Vincent must outwit his genetically "superior" brother, the forces of law enforcement, and overcome the suspicions of his new girlfriend, Irene (Uma Thurman) if he hopes to achieve his dream of touching the stars...

Fortunately, he has at least one secret ally.

"I belonged to a new underclass, no longer determined by social status or the color of your skin. No, we now have discrimination down to a science."

If you take away all the scientific, film noir and futuristic trappings of Gattaca, what you have is a simple and heartfelt morality tale concerning prejudice. 

Bigotry, after all, involves the judging of other people by exterior but ultimately superficial qualities.  The color of their skin.  Their sexTheir sexual orientation.   Where they were born, even.   

These are all things that -- like genetic make-up -- don't account for an individual's personal character, heart, or mind-set.   Everyone can choose to be good, or choose to be bad; can choose to be strong, or choose to be weak.  Everyone can excel, and deserves the right to follow their dreams, no matter what skin color or genitals they possess.

But what's even more alarming about Gattaca is that the film intimates a State-sponsored brand of prejudice.  Institutionally-speaking, "Invalids" are lesser (three-fifths?) people than the genetically-engineered elite. In one short sequence, we see, for instance, that many Invalids live in an urban, ghetto-style community away from the "pretty" people.  They're so unsightly after all, right?

And though there are laws on the books against "genoism," these edicts are easily discounted, and talk is rampant of "the right kind of people," meaning only the genetically engineered.   

Cannily, the crisp, elegant, 1950s-1960s-look and production design of Gattaca suggests, quite dramatically, the pre-Civil Rights era in our own nation. This was a time when it was okay for African-Americans to be waiters and elevator operators, but not astronauts (that didn't happen in America until 1983). 

I often write here about form echoing content in great films; and that's what Gattaca does so well, too.  It presents a future that has one foot in the inequalities of the past; and the Eisenhower-era styled costumes and cars express that idea beautifully.  Even the idea of a nascent space program reflects that era in American history (post-Sputnik).  One step forward; two steps back.

Another intriguing facet of the Niccol film involves the class distinctions even amongst the genetically engineered. If the Invalids are the least of the society, some of the elite are also -- tellingly--  victims of their DNA and their propaganda about DNA.  Irene, for instance, possesses a tiny heart defect, and believes that this problem some how renders her lesser than the others around her.  In fact, this small thing destroys her sense of self.

"You are the authority on what is not possible, aren't you Irene?," Vincent asks her. "They've got you looking for any flaw, that after a while that's all you see. For what it's worth, I'm here to tell you that it is possible. It is possible."

This too is a side-effect of institutionalized racism.  Some of those discriminated against come to internalize the hateful beliefs of the bigots.  Some part of them believes that they really are inferior, or lesser, or somehow "degenerate."  Institutionalized racism is not just cruel and ill-founded, it's ego shattering to those targeted.  That's what Irene represents in the movie.

Gattaca affirms that people are more than a mix of proteins (more than skin color or sex, by extension, in contemporary terms) quite ably in several ways.  First and foremost, of course, Vincent executes his brilliant strategy and gets to the stars.  He succeeds because he wanted it; because he desired it; and because he masterminded a way to get it. 

This plot-line allows the viewer to see that desire and drive can be more powerful a motivating force than genetics.  Early on, Vincent figured out a way to beat the elite.  "I never saved anything for the swim back," he reveals to his brother, Anton. In other words, he marshals all of his resources to get where he wants; with no resources waylaid or wasted or rationed for a return trip. For him, getting there is the entire battle.  That is victory enough.

A bit more subtly, Eugene/Jerome (Jude Law) also, in some way, proves the same thing.  He is paralyzed from the waist down, considers himself a failure, and yet commits himself fully to Vincent's cause.  A genetically-engineered person, he is supposed to be perfect in every way, but early on, he lacks Vincent's sense of desire. 

Late in the film, however, the paralyzed man pulls himself up a staircase (seen in the poster above) shaped deliberately like the DNA helix.  Eugene drags himself to the top of this edifice -- with his drive and desire to help his "brother," Vincent intact -- and succeeds beyond all expectations.  Again, think of it symbolically: even paralyzed, Eugene's desire is more powerful than genetics (represented by that staircase and his mastery of it.)

In their own ways, both Vincent and Jerome/Eugene overcome society's impression of them (which is based on genoism).  Both prove to have "the right stuff" and manage to outwit law enforcement, the space program, and their fellow citizens.  Again, the powerful leitmotif is that individual human drive trumps genetic blueprints or "programming" every time.

Another important idea here concerns "brothers" and "genetics."  Vincent and Anton are biological brothers, but are estranged and competitive.  Vincent and Eugene are not biological brothers, but are united as brothers in their purpose and mission.  Eugene gives everything (finally his life) for his spiritual brother, a sacrifice which the more rational, less spontaneous Anton could never imagine. 

Again, look back at the 1990s in America.  This was an age when the shape of families was changing in dramatic and non-traditional ways.  Because of no-fault divorce, more blended families came into being in this country than in any decade previous.

And also for the first time, beginning in the 1990s, homosexual couples could openly adopt and raise children. 

What these changes indicate is that "family" was no longer a static concept tied exclusively to biology.  Stepfathers, stepmothers, and step-siblings are family too.  The intentional comparison and balance between Vincent/Anton and Vincent/Eugene mirrors this change in American society, and it too is a critique of sorts. Genetic, biological relationships are not the only standard of family, Gattaca suggests, and should not be held up as "perfect" while other relationships are treated as, well, invalid.

"Of course, they say every atom in our bodies was once part of a star. Maybe I'm not leaving... maybe I'm going home."


In Gattaca, Vincent compares the weightless environment of space to being "in the womb" and later he notes that he is not leaving Earth on his mission to the stars, but rather "going home." 

When these words are taken in conjunction with the film's surfeit of water imagery (swimming, in particular...), one can see how Gattaca concerns, in some way, the ever-present human struggle to begin again; to experience a second birth, get a second chance. In this case, Vincent literally wants to be born  free of society's restrictive rules, and -- by going to space -- transcend the limitations of bigoted society.  The water represents cleansing and a return to the womb; as does space travel.

I deeply admire how Gattaca concerns these powerful idea of transcendence.  Vincent must transcend society's expectations of him to make his dreams come true; and he must literally leave the Earth to do it.  The stars are his destination, and in that idea of the final frontier there is also the kernel of hope.  Of finding something better out there; or at least something that gives one a new perspective on life here.  Thus Gattaca is about the human desire to transcend the unpleasant moment and see over the next hill.

If you've seen Gattaca, you'll remember how gorgeous the film is, in terms of visuals. There's a gorgeous scene in which golden sunlight lands on reflective satellite dishes in the desert, for instance, and the film's color palette is suggestive of a paradise on Earth...even if all cannot share in it equally. 

But I equally admire how Gattaca gets every detail right, down to the futuristic slang ("de-gene-rates,") and down to terminology (cops are called "Hoovers" not after J. Edgar but after the hand vacuums they use to collect evidence.) The movie even gets right the "soft bigotry of low expectations" visited upon the Invalids by even "nice" people among the elite.    These people aren't evil, they just live according their society's rules, and society has told them it is okay to look down their noses at "God children" or "faith births."
Finally, I would be remiss if I didn't discuss, at least a little, Gattaca as what author and scholar Paul Meehan terms a "tech noir," a futuristic film noir.  In particular, the film is structured in the familiar fashion of a 1940s or 1950s noir.   Like other film noirs,  Gattaca concerns a crime aspect (murder) or police procedural plot-line.  It is about a "social problem" (in this case, prejudice or bigotry) and it is structured as a series of flashbacks introduced through a laconic voice-over narration (Vincent's).

In this case, the film noir structure serves the same purpose as the 1950s-1960s-style wardrobe and production design.  It ties the futuristic world imagined by Gattaca with a Pre-Civil Rights Movement past in America; a time when prejudice, if not institutionalized, was at least pervasive.

In Gattaca, it's clear that mankind has taken a wrong turn, and it's easy enough to see how it happened.  Who wouldn't want to eliminate baldness, the propensity towards obesity, or other "negative" qualities from our genetic make-up?  The problem is that it's hard to know where to draw the line.  Perfection is in the eye of the beholder, isn't it?  Who gets decide what is perfect, and what is imperfect?  Scientists?  Politicians? Theologians?

In this case, I sympathize with the decision made by Vincent's parents in the first case.   "We were just wondering if, if it is good to just leave a few things to, to chance?" his father asks. 

I also agree with something Vincent reminds us at one point in the film: "They used to say that a child conceived in love has a greater chance of happiness."

In Gattaca, "they don't say that anymore." 

And it's their loss.

Thursday, January 06, 2011

The Home Video Evolution of Space:1999

Four episodes released on VHS in 1990 by J2 Communications

Entire series released on laserdisc from J2, early 1990s.

Columbia House VHS "Collector's Edition," 1990

A& E "Megaset," Entire Series, 2002.



The complete series on DVD, 2007.

Year 1 Blu Ray, 2010

Space: 1999 (1975 - 1977) didn't run for long originally: just two seasons, 48 episodes.  Yet it has survived and experienced quite the afterlife, at least from a certain standpoint. 

In particular, episodes of Space:1999 have been released on VHS twice, on laserdisc, on DVD (in two editions) and finally Blu Ray over the decades, an honor bestowed upon few science fiction TV series other than Star Trek, X-Files and Dr. Who, I think.

Across the years -- to my wife's dismay -- I've purchased every single 1999 episode set, from the Columbia House "Collector's Edition" VHS to the 2010 Blu Ray of Year One.  That either makes me a sucker, or just a very big fan of the program.  Or possibly both.

I can tell you with great fondness that I purchased my first laserdisc player -- a Pioneer model -- so I could play all 24 episode "volumes" of the Gerry and Sylvia Anderson series back in the 1990s.  That laserdisc player, my last one, finally gave up the ghost a few weeks ago, leaving me a vast laserdisc collection without a player.  Still, I've used and abused that laserdisc player since Christmas of 1993, so it lasted almost seventeen years.  R.I.P.

I've recently begun watching Space:1999 again on Blu Ray while I write the next officially licensed novel of the new Powys series -- Space:1999 - The Whispering Sea -- and if anyone is holding off I can only say this: get the Blu-Ray now. 

I have never seen the series look so crisp, so well-lit, so abundantly and magnificently detailed.  I feel almost as though I am watching the series again for the first time, and that's a pretty nifty trick given how many times I've seen these shows.  So far, I've watched "Guardian of Piri," "The Infernal Machine" and "The Metamorph" (the bonus Year 2 episode on the set), and I'm very, very impressed.  It isn't an exaggeration to state that the picture quality is absolutely stunning.


The IndieNet and Beyond Enters The House Between...


Long-time readers of this blog will recall that in 2006, I created (and self-financed...) an independent, sci-fi web series called The House Between (2007 - 2009) that eventually went on to be nominated twice (in 2008 and 2009) as "Best Web Production" at Sy Fy Portal/Airlock Alpha.

The crazy idea was to shoot seven half-hour episodes (25 - 30 minutes each in length) in seven days, on a budget of seven hundred dollars an episode. Most of the budget actually went to equipment and catering.

With a stellar group of actors and crew members (including Nightmares in Red, White and Blue writer and producer, Joseph Maddrey and composer Mateo Latosa, editor-in-chief of Powys Media), we eventually created twenty-one episodes (and three seasons) in this fashion.  It was a tremendous amount of fun, and a happy collaboration overall.  Working with that talented cast and crew has been one of the highlights of my writing career, and I was also gratified that the show quickly developed a devoted fan base.

Since the series folded in 2009, I've been working on re-editing the entire series for a DVD release in 2011, upgrading effects and fixing some stuff that we didn't get right the first time around; particularly matters of editing and pacing.

Now, journalist and filmmaker Marx Pyle (Silence of the Belle) -- who covered The House Between during its original Internet run -- has posted a new retrospective of the web series for his IndieNet column/blog at Sci-Fi Pulse.   

Marx interviewed me for the piece, which discusses the creation of The House Between, and the success/failure of the web series environment/platform today.  This written piece will be augmented by an audio interview with me, to be available soon.


“We shot this in black and white so we could do all these sort of things with shadows and silhouettes. I remember one of the things I told my cinematographer starting right off. ‘We have no props so lights and the shots sort of have to create the props.’ The shadows almost become the props,” Muir continued. “One of the great things about black and white is that it hides the seams. We’re dealing with very low budget. The budget for the show was like $700 including the catering. But also the look I was going for with the show, I wanted to do something along the lines of The Twilight Zone or the anthology of One Step Beyond or the original Outer Limits… Somehow the black and white makes it timeless. I did want to emulate that… and try to recapture that feeling.”

John Kenneth Muir and his crew worked at a neck breaking pace by shooting about one 25-minute (or more) episode each day. It lead to some rough edges, but gave a massive amount of story for fans to devour each year..."

Wednesday, January 05, 2011

RETRO TOY FLASHBACK #91: Micropolis (Mego, 1978)


One of the most incredible products to come out of Mego's Micronaut line of the 1970s (an American version of Takara's Microman brand...) was the "Micropolis" building set series.  

The Micropolis collection was advertised in Micronaut catalogs and on box art as "the building set that never stops growing," and a major selling point was that all "Micropolis parts are interchangeable with any Micronaut figure or vehicle."

The first Micropolis sets were released in America in 1978 as part of the Series 3 wave, and included such toys as "Microrail City," "Galactic Command Center," "The Interplanetary Headquarters" and the "Satellite Survey Station."   

Each one of the sets came with literally hundreds of pieces, so that ambitious kids could construct a complete, interactive city of the future.  I had one of these sets as a kid (I think it was the Galactic Command Center, but I'm not sure...) and I  played with it for years.  Seriously.

The Micropolis packaging described the instructions for the sets in this fashion:

"Micropolis building sets enable your child to build any number of different toys that can be taken apart and put together over and over again, using a simple five millimeter plug and receptacle system. Micropolis's building sets will adapt to all Micropolis's figures and accessories."

Every Micropolis set also came with various individual accouterments.  The Interplanetary Headquarters, for instance, came with a whopping 186 parts, and in this case, some of those included a "Multi-Position Crank-Action Elevator" and "Micronaut Elevator Seat."

In 1979, Sears sold the mother of all these Micropolis sets, "Mega City," which was a vast toy incorporating some 579 pieces (162 squares, 27 triangles, 308 connectors, 12 octagons, 15 columns, 22 accessory connectors, 2 bucket seats, 4 seat bases, 4 charis, 1 crank, 1 winch, 6 domes, 4 stairs, 2 consoles...).

Given a lot of time and dedication, intrepid kids could actually create a whole city for their Micronaut figures and vehicles out of these construction play sets.  Or, as the box suggested: "Make this and dozens of fantastic space age structures for your Micronauts!"

And I'll tell you, that's exactly what Joel and did Christmas morning two weeks ago, after he opened his last gifts: a complete Mega City and a near-complete Interplanetary Headquarters. 

Even now, our fingers still hurt from pushing those tiny gray "connectors" into the white, unforgiving "receptacles."  I actually couldn't type for a few days because my finger tips were black and blue...

Still, it was all worth it. 

Joel parked his Astro-Station, battle cruiser, Biotron and Microtron in Mega City, and for awhile, it was an amazing diorama.  We had a great series of adventures there.  After a few days, however, our cats accomplished what Baron Karza and Membros never could: they toppled Mega City.

Anyway, here's a 1970s-era commercial for Micropolis so you get a sense of what the building set looks like in action:


Latest Reviews, Music on Film: This is Spinal Tap


Well, the critics' reviews have started to come in for my latest book, Music on Film: This is Spinal Tap (Limelight Editions; 2010) and so far...so good.

Here's a round-up of some recent reviews:

"The book is full of wonderful anecdotes, facts and quotes about the mockumentary that started all the mockumentaries...this book is a delightful gem."

"...John Kenneth Muir draws a genealogical relationship between the lauded mockumentary and the comic philosophy that arose in a specific context: America on the Watergate era of the late 1970s...Muir's book presents copious Tap trivia, most of which has yet to be warmed over on the internet (score one point for print)." - The Bohemian.com. 

"In this entry in the Music on Film series John Kenneth Muir tracks the history, creation and legacy of one of the most hilarious films of all time. This book definitely goes to 11." - TheatreBooks.com.
 
"Muir's writing is informative and engaging. Although it's obvious that he's a fan of the film, he tries to maintain a certain distance from the subject by relying heavily on interviews and quotes rather than resorting to personal gushings." - The Admiral's Corner.

Monday, January 03, 2011

CULT TV FLASHBACK # 126: Point Pleasant (2005)


The horror "soap opera" form is a well-established one in television history.  Since Dan Curtis's daytime trail-blazer Dark Shadows (1966 - 1971), the world has also seen David Lynch's Twin Peaks (1991), a prime time Dark Shadows revival (1991), American Gothic (1995), Kindred: the Embraced (1996), The Vampire Diaries (2009) and even last year's Happy Town (2010). 

Created by John McLaughlin and Marti Noxon, Point Pleasant (2005) is another memorable example of the form.  As the critics of the day termed the Fox series, it was basically "The O.C. (2003 - 2007) meets The Omen (1976)."

For in Point Pleasant, a new arrival in town -- Christina Nickson (Elizabeth Harnois) -- is not merely a prospective hot date...she's the Anti-Christ. 

In the first episode of the series (which aired January 19, 2005), Christina literally washes into town, having fallen overboard at sea, and is rescued by a hunky life-guard, Jesse Parker (Sam Page).  Immediately, he feels drawn to her, and Jesse and Christina begin dreaming of one another.

In short order, Christina is also unofficially "adopted" by the Kramers, a Point Pleasant family which includes the town doctor, Ben Kramer (Richard Burgi), disaffected daughter Judy (Aubrey Dollar) and a matriach, Meg (Susan Walters) still in mourning over the death of her eldest daughter, Isabelle, a few years earlier.  Circling Ben like a shark is the sexy town vixen, Amber Hargrove (Dina Meyer).

And arriving in town shortly after Christina is the driving force and prime mover of the series: Grant Show's sinister  "Lucas Boyd," a Devil-worshipping, possibly demonic individual with the ability to play havoc with people's souls and decision-making processes.  Dressed to the nines (or is it dressed to kill?), Lucas begins doing favors for the town people...and then calling those favors due.

Specifically, Boyd comes to the quiet New Jersey beach town because Christina's powers have "started to manifest." As the Devil's daughter ("the child of darkness," according to Boyd),  Christina faces an important test of character and Boyd knows it and hopes to guide her.  She has seen the birthmark -- the 666 in her eye -- and she knows what she is; biologically-speaking.  But she also knows how she feels...and it isn't evil.
Christina Nickson (Elizabeth Harnois): The Anti-Christ?

And that's the rub -- and the dramatic meat -- of Point Pleasant.  Christina is not all "Carrie-at-the-Prom," fire-and-brimstone, from the first episode. 

Rather, she is simply a confused teenage girl  who was "born of a human woman" and therefore boasts a "choice" about her destiny.  Christina  seeks her identity on her own terms, beyond how others want to see and pigeonhole her. 

In other words, if Christina becomes part of a family, part of a community, part of the human race itself, she can be a powerful force of good in the world.

If, on the other hand, Christina follows Boyd's wishes and comes to see humans only as self-destructive "cattle," she will become the fearsome harbinger of our doom.  Throughout the series, Boyd does his job with glee, always separating Christina from those she loves; from her ad-hoc family, from her would-be boyfriend, even from the young Priest, Tomas, who sees tremendous "good" in her.

Marti Noxon, who did so much good with Buffy Summers on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, works in a familiar and efficacious venue here too.  The metaphorical underpinnings of the show work well.  At Christina's young age, we all undergo the process of deciding "who we want to be," often over the desires of our parents. And as we start deciding who we are, those choices dictate our direction....towards the light or towards the dark. 

But there's another interesting aspect of the program's creative equation too.  And it is relevant, in particular to the "reality tv" times of the 2000s in which people like Paris Hilton or the Kardashians or Bristol Palin became famous because, well, they are famous, right? 

Christina is the daughter of a very famous personality, a "celebrity" (Satan) and so she is constantly measuring herself against others' expectations of her, given that heritage.  With the involvement of the Devil, of course, Point Pleasant is an exaggeration, but in Christina we see what it means to be Jenna Bush, or Chelsea Clinton, or any young adult who has to live up to -- or live down -- the reputation of her parents or family. 

In this Point Pleasant premise one might also recognize a bit of Stephen King's great novel, Needful Things.  Here -- as in that tale -- an evil wind blows into a sleepy little town and the denizens begin to suffer because of temptation; because of their material desires.  In this case, it isn't materialism per se,  that drives the locals of Point Pleasant, but rather all the typical human foibles: vanity, loneliness, sexual desire, jealousy, etc. 

Like his spiritual predecessor, Lucas Buck in American Gothic, Lucas Boyd in Point Pleasant does his job with great glee, watching with cynicism as he topples over human souls like dominoes.  His motto: "We're all basically bad."

Point Pleasant's greatest weakness for horror fans is likely the soap opera, O.C.-component of the series.  It's easy to take one look at the buff, gorgeous, young, sex-driven characters on the series and see this as a callow, empty-headed affair created purely to titillate. 

Yet, after a few episodes, the attentive viewer will get sucked in -- at least a little -- by the mythology, and by Boyd's constant efforts to bring diffident Christina to a boil; to bring about "The End of Days."  Harnois is appealing as Christine too: she has enough edge to seem like she could truly go dark; and yet she has a familiar, Sarah Michelle Gellar-ish winsome side that akes you want to take care of her and guide her to the light.

The individual episodes in the Point Pleasant canon are pretty variable.  There's a legitimately awful episode in the mix called "The Lonely Hunter" which features future Mad Men star John Hamm as a long-haired psychotic killer who abducts young girls and runs afoul of Christina...only to take her up as an object of worship. 

Contrarily, another episode really stands out as being memorable and affecting.  "The Last Dance" by Zack Estrin and directed by Michael Lange recounts some of the grim history of Point Pleasant at the same time it continues Christina's journey of self-discovery. 

Best of all, "The Last Dance" reveals Boyd's indoctrination into evil, in a 1930s dance contest of all places. 

Jesse's Mom (Clare Carey) has Iago - Lucas Boyd (Grant Show) - in her ear.
In the present, Boyd hosts a fund-raiser for the local church, St. Martins: a modern dance contest featuring Jesse, Christina, Jude and Jesse's girlfriend, Paula (Cameron Richardson) among others. 

Boyd's purpose is to cause, literally, a Carrie-at-the-Prom moment, wherein Christina will take out her rage and jealousy on Paula.  It's Dancing with the Anti-Christ.


But at the same time, the episode often cross-cuts to the dance contest of the 1930s, when things were tough in town.  When poor people danced for days in the hopes of winning prize money, very much to the amusement of rich locals

One of the contestants in that Depression-era contest was Boyd himself -- an impressionable young man in love, and one with big dreams of success.  During an intermission, he sees his partner Holly (Elizabeth Ann Bennett) betray him for cold hard cash...and heis never the same.  His journey to the dark side begins there...in the death of innocence, and the death of what he thought was true love.  After he commits murder, he is approached by a man who might be the devil (played by Prison Break's T-Bag, Robert Knepper).

In the present, Boyd's plan is almost successful.  Christina brings down a glittering disco ball out of rage, but Jude saves Paula at the last minute, and sees the dark-side of Christina's character for the first time.  Like all the best moments in Point Pleasant, this episode concerns how we choose to react -- or not react -- when confronted.  Do we fight back?  Do we turn the other cheek?  What's the right thing to do?  What's the right thing for Christina -- the child of darkness -- to do?

Fox cancelled Point Pleasant after just eight of the thirteen episodes aired, but you can see all thirteen episodes on the DVD collection (available through Netflix).  Unlike many short-lived series, however, Point Pleasant doesn't just drop off at the end, forever unresolved.  On the contrary, the final episode "Let the War Commence" ends pretty definitively as main characters die, as destinies are charted, and as Christina finally charts her course, for good or evil.  The series could have continued (and some dialogue indicates that possibility, in the next-to-last scene), but this episode also concludes the series ably.

In general, I'm not a big "soap" fan, unless that soap happens to be absolutely extraordinary (like Lynch's Twin Peaks or Raimi's American Gothic), but I was certainly diverted by Point Pleasant.  It has some great moments, even if individual episodes (especially early on...) seem to move at a snail's pace.  Although soap opera programs are always ensemble series, a big, lasting problem with Point Pleasant is that there is never any one character you really can follow or get invested in. 

Grant Show veritably dominates the program as Lucas Boyd, upstaging even the Anti-Christ in terms of evil.  It's a great gleeful, caustic performance, and yet it also represents a dangerous imbalance of sorts in the show's format.  Nobody -- and I mean nobody -- can stand up to Lucas Boyd, and so after awhile, you may not care much about the travails of Amber, Paula, the Kramers, or the young-Lucas-in-training, Terry (Brent Weber).  

Late in the run of Point Pleasant, Lucas is given a kind of Achilles' Heel in the Holly character (who re-appears after "The Last Dance") and one senses that thisoccurred to put the brakes on the guy a little.  He's an evil dynamo.  

A specter raised from the dead to kill Christina.
I really enjoyed Elizabeth Harnois's performances as Christina, but she also has a tough task, making Christina transparent enough to identify with her. 

Sometimes -- to get through the poor writing -- it just seems like Christina is weak, or goes with the wind, and that not the kind of ambivalence the character requires. 

Perhaps if Christina had started off strong, only slowly growing weaker, the character would have been easier to identify with as a lead.  Instead, Christina seems lost from the first moments of the series, and never really puts up an adequate fight against Boyd, though she does try, in one memorable episode "Swimming with Boyd."  Again, Harnois is good, but I think the writing of the character lets her down at times.

Point Pleasant is better than last year's Happy Town, and if you like the horror soap opera format, you can do a lot worse.  But in the end -- despite the game efforts of Grant Show and Elizabeth Harnois -- the series seems to definitively lack the magic -- black or otherwise -- that would have made it a huge cult hit.