Saturday, March 12, 2011

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: Futureworld (1975)

A key character in Futureworld (1975) informs another character that the problem at Delos -- the amusement park of the future -- is "the memory" of the nightmarish events that occurred in Western World, or for viewer purposes, the harrowing events of the great sci-fi movie Westworld (1973).

The very same problem might be ascribed to this less-than-satisfactory cinematic sequel directed by Richard T. Heffron and starring Peter Fonda and Blythe Danner.  In short, it just doesn't live up to the original, action-packed experience of Westworld.

Though it is rewarding and ambitious that this AIP, Samuel Z. Arkoff sequel heads off into new story territory rather than aping the formula or plot-line of the previous film, Futureworld still suffers dramatically from a lack of forward momentum, and a slow-moving, obvious narrative. 

In short, it takes this movie roughly 83 minutes to get to the plot point that audiences have already reached much sooner, and that is that the robots at Delos have taken over the park, and are producing robot duplicates of world leaders and opinion makers.  

Today the amusement park...tomorrow the world.

Since the two lead actors in the film are playing ace newspaper and TV reporters, you'd expect them to put two and two together a lot sooner than they actually do.   But no, they can't even detect a robot close-up, face-to-face in the Delos mission control room. 

Not exactly Woodward and Bernstein, this Browning (Fonda) and Ballard (Danner).

Worse, Futureworld spends an inordinate amount of the film's running time in the underground bowels of Delos, apparently really the Intercontinental Airport in Huston.  Whatever the precise location, it looks like an endless, over sized boiler room, and after a while all the scenes set there look interchangeable and play as deadly dull.

"In Futureworld, nothing can go wrong..."

Some time after the violent events at Western World, the Delos board of directors holds a briefing to announce the re-launch of the $1,200-a-day amusement park. 

The company has committed 1.5 billion dollars to replace the malfunctioning equipment, and executives claim that the new Delos is "fail safe."

International Media Corporation sends reporter Chuck Browning (Peter Fonda)  to investigate the new Delos.  Browning is eager to take the assignment because an informant just recently contacted him about a "big" story at the park and then was found murdered, with news-clippings clutched in his hand. 

Tracy Ballard (Blythe Danner) a TV newswoman with an audience of fifty-five million viewers is none-too-pleased that Browning will be tagging along at Delos, but she and Chuck quickly develop a flirtatious and competitive relationship.

Once at Delos, the reporters visit "Futureworld," a new theme park to go alongside Roman World, Medieval World, and the now-defunct Western World.   After their arrival, the reporters board a rocket simulation, visit a space station, spar with robot boxers, and otherwise enjoy the space age sights and sounds of the luxury resort.  A Delos executive named Duffy (Arthur Hill) escorts the duo on a tour of the Delos facility, and Chuck sneaks off to see if he can discover the truth behind the smooth-running facade.

What Chuck and Tracy soon learn with the help of an employee named Harry (Stuart Margolin) and his android buddy, Clark, is that Delos has been producing duplicates of all the big-wig, high-roller visitors, from Russian generals to Iranian oil magnates.   Ballard and Browning themselves are to be duplicated by the robots, who believe that "the human being is a very unstable, irrational, violent animal" and that mankind will destroy the Earth "before the end of the decade."

Before escaping Delos, Tracy must face down a robot double of herself in the abandoned Westworld, while Chuck battles his own malevolent doppelganger in Futureworld.

"Once you make it with a robot, you don't want anyone else..."

All movies are a reflection of their cultural context, and Futureworld is no exception. 

Coming soon after the Watergate scandal and Nixon's resignation, this movie headlines  two "hero journalists" -- again, think Woodward and Bernstein -- as they uncover a far-reaching conspiracy and essentially save the world as we know it.  In other words, this movie comes from an age in which we had respected journalists (not "lamestream" media), and believed that these truth-seekers could successfully stand-up to City Hall. 

The other cultural or historical context at work here is one that a blog reader Indianhoop insightfully suggested to me in a comment on my original review of Westworld.  I had asked the question "why were the mid-1970s obsessed with robots who could have sex, and duplicate other human functions

In particular, I was thinking of movies such as Westworld, Futureworld, The Stepford Wives and TV characters such as The Bionic Woman's fembots.  Indianhoop suggested that the women's rights issues and battles of the 1970s (Roe v. Wade, Title IX, the ERA, etc.) were at the crux of the issue, and I believe Indianhoop is correct.    In the mid-1970s, women were stepping out of so-called "traditional roles" and countenancing more economic and reproductive freedom than in any decade before.  The reaction by men -- if genre movies are any guidepost -- seemed to be downright fear. 

Without women to lord it over, I guess, human robots were considered next in line for domestic servitude.  After all, machines follow orders, don't step outside of their programming, and can fake orgasms least if Stepford Wives is any indication.

Ironically, one fact that so dramatically undercuts Futureworld is the writing of the lead female character, Tracy Ballard.  This is a  dedicated woman who has risen to the top of her profession (think Barbara Walters in the 1970s) and who commands a vast worldwide audience.  And yet Ballard spends most of the film as an arm ornament for Peter Fonda, alternately poo-pooing his theories or screaming in terror.  Ballard initiates no investigation on her own, and shows not the slightest bit of interest or curiosity in learning the truth about Delos.

Lois Lane, she ain't. 

Despite what was going on in America at the time, what we really have in the Tracy Ballard character is a good old fashioned damsel-in-distress, dressed up in disco-decade, women's lib clothing.   Ultimately, she's kind of laughable, and almost wholly incidental to the narrative.

That's not Futureworld's only letdown either.  Late in the film, robot duplicates of Chuck and Tracy are produced, and sent out to hunt down "the originals."  All throughout the film, the robots of Delos have been portrayed as unemotional creatures who obey orders and programming, but have no overt "human" countenance. 

Well, wouldn't you know it, Fonda and Danner both play these robot duplicates as devilish, sinister characters, who seem to take tremendous, sadistic pleasure in destroying their human prototypes. 

Why are these robots -- all of the sudden -- out-and-out evil?  Aren't they just fulfilling their programming?  Even when The Gunslinger went on a rampage in Westworld, he wasn't cackling with malevolent glee.  That's what made him scary: he was an implacable foe with a neutral countenance.  We were able to project our human fears upon his relatively blank visage, but he was no two-dimensional moustache-twirler.

Another major scene in Futureworld is simply baffling.  Duffy escorts Ballard to a "dream chamber" where she can go to sleep and Browning can watch her dreams unfold on a video monitor that resembles Spock's library computer on Star Trek.  

Almost immediately, Ballard dreams of the Gunslinger (Yul Brynner) from Westworld, but not as a terrifying predator or foe, but rather as a "fantasy lover."

In the dream, the Gunslinger appears out of nowhere and rescues Ballard from doctors in red-jumpsuits who are pursuing her.  The Gunslinger shoots them down, and then lassos Ballard in slow-motion...and beds her.


So, why is Tracy Ballard -- TV newswoman extraordinaire -- dreaming of the Delos Gunslinger as a fantasy lover?  Not a single word in the screenplay indicates she even has specific knowledge of the rogue robot cowboy.  But assuming she did have such knowledge, why would Ballard's dreaming mind spontaneously turn the murderous Gunslinger into a fantasy sex partner?

Maybe I'm being obtuse, but I just don't get it.

I know that my wife thinks Yul Brynner is hot, but come on.  Would you dream of bedding a  mass murderer?  And a robotic one at that? This entire, incongruous scene feels like an excuse to shoehorn Brynner into the proceedings.  It's a bizarre and confusing interlude, and has nothing whatsoever to do with the rest of the film.   The moment wherein Brynner lassos Danner with an animated pink lasso is just...well, embarrassing.  It's great to see Brynner back in his iconic role, looking as fit and menacing as ever, but his presence adds nothing to the movie.

I've read various reviews of this film over the years indicating that there is "high tension" here, but I certainly didn't feel that way.  Unlike Westworld, which moved with drive, humor and purpose, Futureworld meanders  around for about an hour-and-a-half minutes, then spends the last fifteen minutes tying up loose ends.  There's almost no real tension, since Delos employees allow Browning and Ballard to look around, and the 400 robot series is programmed to ignore visitors in their midst.

I also find it unfortunate that Futureworld wastes so much time in the bowels of the amusement park rather than exploring the Futureworld setting.  This is a place of "space safaris," holographic chess (presaging Star Wars by two years...) and skiing on the "ice slopes of Mars."  Wouldn't you rather see some of that, instead of endless boiler rooms?

But the trenchant point here concerns fantasy...and the fantasy experienceWestworld was about living in a fantasy world of violence and sex, and discovering it isn't such a fantasy after all.  The film didn't hammer you over the head with that theme.  Rather, it had a nice, droll sense of humor about the whole thing.

Futureworld ignores this idea (and the sense of humor) entirely in favor of its very dry conspiracy about lookalike robots...and boiler rooms.

Or as Tracy Ballard declares at one point in this interminable movie, walking through  yet another industrial-looking chamber, "This is about as exciting as a visit to the waterworks."

Yep.  This movie went to Futureworld and all the audience gets is a dumb T-shirt.

Friday, March 11, 2011

CULT TV-MOVIE REVIEW: Trilogy of Terror (1975)

Perhaps the most famous TV-movie ever made, Dan Curtis's Trilogy of Terror (1975) boasts an impeccable pedigree.  The anthology, which aired on March 4, 1975 as ABC's "movie of the week," consists of three Richard Matheson stories, two teleplays by William Nolan, four memorable performances by Karen Black, and sterling direction from Dan Curtis, the man behind Dark Shadows and the TV adaptation of The Night Stalker. 

If you're a fan of the genre on television, it really doesn't get much better than this...

The first Matheson story in this TV anthology is called "Julie," with a teleplay by Nolan. 

Here, a callow university student named Chad (Robert Butler) eyes the apparently prim-and-proper English Lit. teacher, Ms. Eldrich (Karen Black).  He fantasizes about her without her clothes on and then sets about making his fantasy real.  

Chad works up the courage to ask Julie Eldrich out on a date -- to go see a drive-in movie.  She accepts, and they watch The Night Stalker (!) on the big screen together.

At the movies, however, Chad drugs Julie's soda pop and takes her back to a seedy motel, where he snaps incriminating photographs of the teacher.  He then uses these photographs as a form of sexual blackmail, and makes poor Ms. Eldridge, essentially, his sex slave.

There's only problem.  Chad has assumed from the very beginning that he is in control of the situation; that Ms. Eldrich is exactly who and what she appears to be, a repressed, librarian-esque school marm.  Turns out that was an incorrect assumption, and Ms. Eldrich teaches an important life lesson to the "singularly unimaginative" Chad.

Although not the most-remembered segment of this horror anthology, "Julie" is pretty intense, especially because of the story's kinkier aspects: a student-teacher sexual relationship, and an early appearance on television of date-rape (replete with rape drug). The lurid segment's final revelation, that Julie is a veritable man-eater who maintains a scrapbook of her sexual conquests and murder victims, is also scarily effective.  Although it becomes clear that Julie is actually a wolf in sheep's clothing, the story nonetheless works as a "cosmic scales of justice righted" tale.

Chad certainly had it coming, given his misdeeds...

Prime among the Trilogy of Terror stories, "Julie" makes fine use of Karen Black's talents, understanding the raw, unusual allure of this distinctive performer.  Sometimes Black can look absolutely gorgeous, but she can also be made-up to appear somewhat homely.  In other words, Black is a performer with layers, and all those layers are put to tricky and clever use in the TV-movie's first story.  In "Julie," Black exudes coiled-up, repressed sexuality even in the most innocuous school room scenes.  Even "hidden" under ugly glasses and dressed in unflattering clothes, Black manages to project this electric sense of the dangerous, of the erotic.  And that's what this story is all about.

In Trilogy of Terror's second story, titled "Millicent and Therese" another apparently prim-and-proper woman, a spinster named Millicent (Black) plans to destroy her younger sister, the sexually-promiscuous and possibly Satanic, Therese (also Black).  Millicent communicates with a psychologist  (George Gaynes) about Thesese, and then plans to use her sister's own fondness for voodoo against her.

Of the triumvirate, "Millicent and Therese" proves the weakest story in short order.  It's pretty obvious from the get-go where the story is headed, and what relationship these "sisters" actually share.  There's much talk of sex in "Millicent and Therese," but in many ways, this story feels like a retread of "Julie" in that Black again plays both reserved and overtly sexy.  Despite the familiarity of the material and obviousness of the story's final "twist," Dan Curtis does an effective job of directing the tale.

Millicent and Therese
For example, most of the story occurs inside one room, inside a library in Millicent and Therese's mansion.  Curtis films several scenes in this locale from a low-angle that accentuates the architecture and decorations of the old world library. 

The idea being, I suppose, that those things which ail Millicent and Therese emerge from this particular milieu.  From this house; from this room. Even from the books on the shelf.

For instance, Therese may have killed her own mother as a child.  And she also seduced her own father when she was sixteen. The books in the library -- all about the supernatural and paranormal -- reflect those "evils" after a fashion.  These volumes also prove the gateway to the destruction of both sisters. 

It may not sound like much, but the nice staging of these sequences in the library somehow suggests a place of evil looming in the sisters' twisted history together.  And given what we come to know about them, it makes perfect sense.

In the third, final and most memorable of the tales in Trilogy of Terror, titled "Amelia," the audience is introduced to a weak-willed, mild-mannered woman, Amelia (once more, Karen Black). Amelia is constantly being bullied by her (off-screen) mother.  In particular, Amelia's mother does not like that her daughter has moved out of the house (to a spacious apartment sub-let) and that she is dating an anthropology professor.

On one Friday night, Amelia decides not to visit her mother and instead spend the evening with her boyfriend, since it is his birthday.  As a gift, she has purchased the anthropologist an authentic "Zuni Fetish Doll," a miniature monstrosity with sharp teeth and armed with a spear.  According to legend, the Fetish Doll houses the spirit of a great hunter, but the murderous soul is trapped inside the doll so long as he wears a golden necklace around his neck.

In short order, the necklace is removed (it falls off, actually...) and Amelia is forced to wage war in the apartment against a violent, miniature predator.

Based on Matheson's short story, "Prey," "Amelia" is pretty clearly the go-for-broke segment of Trilogy of Terror.  After the relative restraint of the first two tales, this one truly goes all-out to get the blood pumping. 

Curtis and director of photography Paul Lohmann, untether themselves from they expectations they have knowingly fostered in the first two tales (of a relatively staid presentation) and with tremendous gonzo indulge in expressive, action-packed film making. 

Accordingly, this story features rocketing cameras bearing down on the imperiled Amelia, and other dramatic tracking shots, all lensed from the killer Fetish Doll's unique perspective.

Curtis achieves something else here as well, and it bears mention.  In particular, he stages many deep-focus long shots of the apartment, with Amelia framed in the background -- surrounded by door-frames on some occasions -- and only emptiness in the foreground.  The result is that we're actually looking furtively under coffee tables and chair legs for any sign of the murderous Zuni Fetish Doll. 

In many such cases, the doll is not present in frame at all...but we know he's nearby, and the deep-focus, long shots expertly set up the terrain of the battle and more than that, a sense of expectation.  These moments of silence and emptiness linger, and increase and enhance the mood of suspense. 

We wonder where the bloody monster is hiding this time...

As the battle grows more violent and intense, and Amelia grows more and more imperiled, Curtis makes these deep focus long shots turn cockeyed, which admittedly sounds cliched (like something out of Batman), but instead proves an effective tool in fostering real terror.  As the balance of power shifts towards the supernatural threat, it's only right that the "real" world's sense of order begins to literally and metaphorically tip over.  This technique of off-kilter shots successfully transmits the full-breadth of the monster's threat to Amelia.

Trilogy of Terror's Zuni Fetish Doll lives even today as one of the most potent 1970s "kinder traumas," responsible for God-knows-how-many youthful nightmares.   The creature has lost none of his macabre effectiveness some thirty-years later.  The Zuni Fetish monster boasts the sharpest teeth you've ever seen, has a big grinning mouth, and utters terrible, strange yells at it repeatedly attacks the imperiled Amelia.  You'll never forget what this creature is like in action; and you'll never forget the sound of his "voice," either.

Thematically, the Zuni Doll is surely an avatar representing Amelia's personal dilemma: the fact that in her personal life she constantly and continuously surrenders to others; to her Mother and also to her boyfriend.  The Zuni Doll makes Amelia -- for once -- fight back.  It's too little too late, perhaps, and Amelia makes the ultimate surrender to the Zuni Doll in the film's final, chill-inducing close-up.  But she puts up a hell of a fight before then, using everything from suitcases to the bathtub to the oven to battle the monster lurking in her apartment.

Another reason "Amelia" works so well is that it lunges directly into the horror territory that the other stories studiously skirted.  We don't know exactly what Julie's power is in "Julie," and in "Millicent and Therese" the voodoo doll is almost an afterthought in a psychological tale about multiple personalities. 

But here, the audience finally sees a supernatural monster in action; one with snapping, hungry jaws, and inhuman powers.  Crimson blood flows pretty freely in this segment too -- a surprise for 1975 television production -- and so again, the effect of the story is amplified.  The first time you see Trilogy of Terror, you aren't really prepared for the third story to descend into bloody murder and wildly expressive camera-work, and so "Amelia" becomes all the more powerful and stunning. 

The thrill of Trilogy of Terror after all these years is two-fold.  On one hand, it's terrific to see Karen Black's versatility used to such dramatic and purposeful effect.  She is a gifted, idiosyncratic performer who isn't afraid to express seamy, powerful and unattractive emotions.  And secondly, the Zuni Fetish Doll is the high octane fuel of a million (or more) bad dreams, and can still provoke throat-tightening terror in audiences. 

For these reasons, Trilogy of Terror doesn't play like a funny old artifact from the disco decade, but as a damn fine horror movie.   The spirit of the film -- like the spirit of the malevolent Zuni Fetish Doll -- endures.  The film's final shot -- a zoom to close-up of Amelia in her new state as a "hunter" --  is not something you can easily forget or put down.

So make sure you check for Zuni Fetish Dolls under your bed before you go to sleep tonight...

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Sci-Fi Wisdom of the Week

"On Earth, everywhere you go, the temperature is 75 degrees. Everything is the same,  All the people are exactly the same. Now what kind of life is that?"

- Silent Running (1972)

Wednesday, March 09, 2011

Thomas Wright Week at Back to Frank Black

Back to Frank Black, the stellar organization devoted to the return of Chris Carter's Millennium and the profiler Frank Black (Lance Henriksen) is currently hosting a week of posts dedicated to Thomas J. Wright, who directed a whopping 26 episodes of the 1996-1999 series.

In my opinion, Wright is an especially skilled director in terms of visuals, an aspect that many TV directors give short shrift.  He's also had an incredible career, directing installments for such genre series as Otherworld (1985), Beauty and the Beast (1987-1990), The X-Files (1993-2002), Nowhere Man (1995-1996) and Smallville (2001 - 2011).  In the early seventies, Wright also painted many of the famous  and macabre art works decorating Rod Serling's Night Gallery.

In honor of Thomas Wright week, I've written a review of "Powers, Principalities, Thrones and Dominions," an important and challenging episode in Millennium's canon, and focused on Wright's visualizations of the intriguing material.  You can read the full post, "Out of Chaos comes Awareness" at Back to Frank Black, here.

Here are the introductory passages:

"What comes after someone survives a terrible and terrifying event? What truths or new perspectives follow in the wake of pure, blood-pumping terror?

These are the pertinent questions raised and answered (at least obliquely) by “Powers, Principalities, Thrones and Dominions,” the Millennium first season segment that directly follows “Lamentation,” the unforgettable introduction of Sarah Jane Redmond’s villain, Lucy Butler. The battlefield or thematic terrain of the episode is well-enunciated in the week’s opening quotation from Charles Manson, which reads: “Paranoia is just a kind of awareness, and awareness is just a form of love.”

In other words, “Powers, Principalities, Thrones and Dominions” concerns awareness in general, and specifically Frank’s dawning awareness of a Cosmic Order outside the ken of mankind. This awareness comes to him only after an extended and painful period of self-doubt and grief.

But ironically, awareness would also not be possible without that self-same period of self-doubt and grief.

Penned by Ted Mann and Howard Rosenthal, and superbly directed by Thomas J. Wright, “Powers, Principalities, Thrones and Dominions” thus finds the series’ lead protagonist, Frank Black at his lowest and most world-weary ebb and then – surprisingly -- opens his eyes to an unseen world; the world of angels, demons and cosmic hierarchies.

The title of the episode itself indicates the nature of those cosmic schemes or hierarchies. According to some Biblical scholars, “Thrones” are living symbols of God’s justice and authority, “Dominions” are beings who regulate the lower angels, “Powers” are the bearers of conscience and keepers of history and “Principalities” are the educators and guardians of the realm of Earth.

Or contrarily, “Thrones,” “Dominions,” “Powers” and “Principalities” may be the categories of evil Minions existing on Earth; the twelve principalities of Satan, for instance (death, anti-christ, covetousness, witchcraft, idolatry, sedition, hypocrisy, disobedience, rejection, hypocrisy, etc.).

Similarly, in Ephesians 6:12 the apostle Paul wrote: “For our wrestling is not against flesh and blood, but against the principalities, against the powers, against the world-rulers of this darkness, against the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places.” This was the author’s manner of suggesting that anti-God, malevolent forces existed in places of state, in places of Empire, in places of government...

Walking in Another Person's Shoes: The Cult-TV Body Swap

After a fashion, all of science fiction television concerns the concept of identity, and a human individual's desire to protect, preserve, and nourish that identity. 

When you break down that assertion to specifics, it isn't difficult to discern how the genre is dominated by threats to the inner "self."  From evil twins, impostors and doppelgangers to alternate dimension counterparts, heroes in cult television almost constantly face challenges to identity Superheroes, for example, often suffer from amnesia: the total loss of memory and awareness of "who they are" or who they are destined to become. 

The Borg -- arguably Star Trek's greatest villain -- rob humans and other races of personal identity, assimilating individuality into a colorless collective.  

Similarly, vampires in Buffy the Vampire Slayer are demons who inhabit your (dead) body, but lack your human soul.

From one end of the genre to the other, villains in the pantheon might accurately be described as body thieves or identity robbers/identity corrupters.

Perhaps the most common genre convention in cult television is the idea of the "body swap." 

In body swap tales, two individuals change bodies, and in the process overturn the order of the status quo.   In sci-fi TV history, villains have swapped bodies with heroes, men have swapped bodies with women, and sane men have swapped bodies with mad-men. 

And in each example of this template, the great struggle in the drama is to re-assert personal identity and reclaim a life that might have been lost.  We cling to our identities. Without it, we are nothing.

The Joe Stefano, Leslie Stevens anthology The Outer Limits (1963-1965) featured an early "body swap" story during its first remarkable season. 

In "The Human Factor," by David Duncan, a scientist named Dr. Hamilton (Gary Merrill) has invented a device for treating the mentally-ill that can join the therapist's mind to that of the patient. This machine can not only share thoughts, but emotions as well...even the emotions "down deep...below the intellect."   

Hamilton has cause to test his mind-joining machine on an engineer named Major Brothers (Harry Guardino) at a military base in Greenland.  Brothers has gone mad with guilt over the death of a fellow officer, and believes that some kind of icy monster has infiltrated the facility.  His goal now is to destroy the facility, and everyone in it. 

But during a therapy session using Hamilton's mind-device, an earthquake occurs and Brothers and Hamilton switch minds and bodies.  Naturally, no other officer believes Hamilton's crazy story that he is actually the good doctor, now trapped in the body of a lunatic; and that a lunatic is now acting as the calm, steady psychologist. 

Disaster is ultimately averted but only because Hamilton's assistant, Ingrid (Sally Kellerman) is able to detect Hamilton's true, good self, inside Brother's body.  The idea of greatest importance in this body swap story is that man is more than a simple machine; that he exists as more than a physical presence, and boasts a soul or spirit (independent of physicality) that can be recognized as distinct and special. 

We would all like to believe that others would recognize our "essence," even if we seem different, or inhabit a different physical form. The Control Voice's ending narration dwells on the machine that made this particular body swap possible, and notes that it is neither good nor evil; that it is man who will always control his machines, and make such choices.

The final episode of the original Star Trek (1966-1969) "Turnabout Intruder," also concerns a body swap. 

This time, another mentally ill individual, a female scientist named Dr. Janet Lester (Sandra Smith), discovers mind-transference technology at on archaeological dig on the distant world of Camus II. 

A former lover of Captain Kirk's (William Shatner), Lester didn't make the cut at Starfleet Academy, and has since developed a deep  and abiding self-hatred.  She has blamed her failure not on her own instability, but on an exclusive world of Starfleet captains that refuses to "admit women."

In the course of the episode, Dr. Lester forces a body switch on Captain Kirk, and then assumes command of the Enterprise.  However, Dr. Lester's capricious, cruel nature soon becomes evident to the Enterprise crew, including Mr. Spock, Scotty and Dr. McCoy. 

When these officers attempt to relieve Kirk of command, Lester tries Mr. Spock for mutiny, and attempts to have Kirk (in her own body) executed. In this version of the body swap tale, the restoration of order again depends on a person -- a friend -- who can recognize a person's true essence outside of physical appearances. 

In this case, the Spock-Kirk friendship proves paramount, and Spock makes use of a Vulcan mind-meld to prove that Captain Kirk's true self is trapped in the body of Dr. Lester.  Again, the idea of the soul is raised, if not named directly.  In "Turnabout Intruder," Captain Kirk speaks of the things that make him "special," "only to himself."

In "Turnabout Intruder's" coda, Captain Kirk also notes that Dr. Lester's life could have been as productive and happy as "any woman's," which today is largely and rightly interpreted as a sexist remark.  But the point of his reflection is that if Dr. Lester had not hated her own identity and self, she could have accomplished wonderful things. 

The body swap story is often about a person who wants to change, to be different, and a person upon whom change is forced.  If you are happy in your own skin, you have no need to envy anybody else, or covet their identity.  But Janet Lester considered her identity not a gift (something special to herself, in the words of Kirk) but as a prison. And she sought to escape that prison at her first opportunity.

Chris Carter's The X-Files (1993-2002) took the idea of the "body swap" in a different direction entirely during the sixth season two-part episode, "Dreamland." 

In this tale, an experimental U.S. aircraft reverse engineered from UFO technology emits an energy wave that exchanges the bodies of Fox Mulder (David Duchovny) and government bureaucrat, Morris Fletcher (Michael McKean).   

This body swap tale is played largely for comedy, and a highlight of the show is an extended sequence during which Mulder sees himself as Morris in a bedroom mirror.  McKean and Duchovny literally mirror each others moves and expressions -- with perfect timing. 

Although this episode is a bit more fanciful and less serious than your typical X-Files segment, there's again a point to the drama: the idea of what it means to walk a mile in someone else's shoes.  

Here, Mulder is cut off from not just his body, his job, and his best friend, Scully, but from his obsessive, lifelong pursuits.  He finds himself with teenage children, a nagging wife, and no real friends. 

Morris, meanwhile -- at least in a certain sense -- does a better job with Mulder's life than Mulder did.  As Mulder, Morris attempts to get frisky with Scully, and enjoys his new, more youthful and athletic body.  Mulder gets moved into a suburban Hell, but Morris makes his time in Mulder's body enjoyable. 

The Farscape canon (1999-2003) also features a variation on the familiar  body swap story.  In "Out of Their Minds" by Ian Watson, a Halosian energy blast strikes Moya and all the refugees and fugitives aboad her (save for Zhaan) are shunted out of their bodies...repeatedly.  

There isn't just one switch among two characters featured in this dizzying, frenetic adventure, but several switches, spread out amongst Chiana, Rygel, John Crichton, Aeryn Sun and D'Argo. 

Like The X-Files installment, "Out of Their Minds" boasts a playful tenor, and doesn't shy away from issues of sexuality (a perpetual strength of Farscape, in general). 

Crichton spends some personal time in Aeryn's body, and Aeryn takes a peek down John's trousers while in his body.  In this sense, "Out of Their Minds" is about curiosity.  In real life, we never have the opportunity to become anyone else, let alone someone of the opposite sex...or a different species. 

When the displaced crew members of Moya pull together and defeat the Halosians, the point seems to be that although these characters are all different, they are all alike under the skin. When  they remember that and work together, they succeed. 

Walking in someone else's shoes and seeing something through someone else's eyes builds empathy for that person.

In Buffy the Vampire Slayer's fourth season two-parter "This Year's Girl," the renegade slayer Faith (Eliza Dushku) uses a mystical device to swap bodies with the very woman who put her in a hospital (and coma) for the better part of a year: Buffy Summers (Sarah Michelle Gellar). 

So the visiting Watchers Council actually apprehends Buffy in Faith's body, and Faith -- in Buffy's form -- is left to wreak havoc on the Slayer's personal life, including her romantic relationship with Riley (Marc Blucas).

This episode is another exploration of what it means to walk a mile in another person's shoes.  As Buffy, Faith has sex with Riley out of revenge, out of petty jealousy.  But Faith is upset and deeply-affected after the intercourse because she felt real love...something she had not experienced herself, and was not prepared for.  

 Suddenly -- and literally -- she's got skin in the game. She was affected by what she did; and now can't treat her new body so cavalierly.

Smallville's (2001 -2011) fourth season offered yet another variation on the commonly-seen body swap story, entitled "Transference." 

In this episode -- one of Smallville's finest hours -- Lionel Luthor John Glover) plots to steal Lex's body using a Kryptonian crystal or artifact.  But Clark (Tom Welling) jumps in at the last second to save his friend Lex, and he ends up being the person switched with Lionel. 

In this case, Lionel not only gets a new and younger body...he unexpectedly finds himself in an invincible one. 

At this point, Lionel is the undisputed villain of the series, and he returns to Clark's life in Smallville with super powers to go along with his criminal mind.  The kicker in this case is that after order is restored and Lionel is returned to his own body, he feels the after-effects of Clark's presence.  In an instant, Lionel is "born again," a reformed man.  The switch has changed him, but not because of himself, but because his body housed a being of rare, superhuman virtue.

"Transference" points to another aspect of "body swap" stories that proves irresistible. Actors featured in a regular series are suddenly gifted with an opportunity to play a different role; to emulate their co-stars, in many cases.

Smallville proves truly spectacular in this regard, with Welling deftly taking on the gestures, stance and mannerisms of Glover's character, and Glover doing the same for Welling's character.  That's the thing that makes this episode so funny, and it's really a credit to Welling (who gets most of the screen-time) for pulling off a brilliant, funny, and carefully-observed version of Lionel Luthor.

Like many other genre conventions, the body swap isn't going to disappear from cult television anytime soon.  It's too useful a trope, really.  The body swap mixes things up for the performers involved, allowing them to play insane, the opposite sex, or another series regular. But it also reminds us how precious and fragile personal identity truly is.   

It would be terrible, after all, to lose your body to another person.  Especially a person who might be you...better than you ever were.

Monday, March 07, 2011


"Be sober. Be vigilant; because your adversary, the Devil, walks about like a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour." - Peter 5:8

With this quotation from Scripture, so commences Devil (2010), the inaugural film in a projected horror trilogy from M. Night Shyamalan entitled "The Night Chronicles."  

All three of the films in this projected cycle concern forces of the supernatural operating in modern day society, and Devil represents a solid starting point for the series

After the title card, the movie opens rather unconventionally with an aerial view of contemporary Philadelphia....upside down

The inverted image -- as simple as it is -- makes audiences conscious, from the  very first shot, that man's order (or his sense of order) has been overturned. 

This powerful image of an upside-down metropolis, coupled with a  bombastic and diabolical-sounding score from Fernando Velázquez, fills one with an immediate sense of foreboding and dread.  In other words, a perfect note to start on.

After the  portentous opening, Devil dramatizes the tale of a police detective named Bowden (Chris Messina) as he attempts to free five trapped people -- a mattress salesman (Geoffrey Arend), a mechanic (Logan Marshall-Green), a security guard temp (Bokeem Woodbine), a cranky old woman (Jenny O'Hara) and an attractive young woman (Bojana Novakavic) -- from a stalled elevator in an urban skyscraper.

Although monitored at all times on the building's security cameras, the men and women stuck inside the elevator begin to die violently, and Bowden, who has suffered a tragedy in his personal life, is forced to reckon with the idea that a malevolent supernatural force -- The Devil himself -- may be one of the five trapped passengers.  

Bowden gleans this surprising notion from a  religious security guard named Ramirez (Jacob Vargaz), whose mother used to tell him an old wives tale about something called a "Devil's Meeting." 

In this myth, "the Devil roams the Earth," often in "human form" to "punish the damned on Earth, claiming their souls." 

Ramirez is quite specific and adamant about the veracity of such tales, and offers further details.  A devil's meeting is always begun with a "suicide" and it always ends with someone seeing a loved one die, so that the utmost "cynicism" can be wrought from the encounter. 

In this way, humans will come to reject God...and embrace Evil.

Bowden is slow to accept the Devil as a possible player in the real life events happening around him, but Ramirez gets under the detective's skin.  "Everyone believes in Him a little bit,"  Ramirez tells Bowden "even guys like you who pretend not to..." 

This line of dialogue really resonated with me, and helped me to identify with Bowden.  I've never been a churchgoer or exposed directly to fire-and-brimstone messaging about Old Scratch, and yet the Devil is a terrifying figure to me. As rational and enlightened as I believe and hope I am, the idea of the Devil still plagues and frightens me on some deep, primal level.  There are some horror movies I won't watch when I'm alone in the house, and The Exorcist is one of them, for this very reason.   And yet, paradoxically, the idea of facing an Evil like that is one of the primary reasons I am drawn so strongly to the horror genre.

As you know, I write often about horror, and in doing so I frequently assert that it is actually the most moral of all movie genres.  I can make that declaration with confidence because few mainstream, non-horror films actually debate a moral universe, or a person's sense of moral responsibility in life. 

But horror movies -- for all of their violence --  frequently tread into such rarefied spiritual and human terrain.  Movies like the original Last House on the Left (1972) may be raw, graphic and extremely upsetting, but they also gaze at the place of violence in our culture outside the milieu of two-dimensional "heroism" we might find in action movies like Death Wish (1975) or Rambo (1985).  Those movies say it's okay to kill someone, if you're killing a rapist or a commie; but movies like Wes Craven's ask us to consider that after bloody violence, "the road leads to nowhere." 

I have made similar arguments about any number of great horror films over the years.  In showing us True Evil, The Exorcist also makes room for the presence of God in man's affairs, for instance.  And that's one reason why I've never understand the evangelical movement's general hatred and disdain for horror films. 

What other movies take the spiritual realm quite so seriously, quite so literally?   

This is my long-winded, sideways manner of noting that Devil -- for all of its creepiness and terror -- lives up to the great horror movie standard and tradition I describe above.  Any tale about the Devil on Earth is also, by implication, a tale about God.  Any tale about the worst of our nature is, by implication, a story about the best in our nature.  

Devil concerns itself with important matters of the human spirit in a pretty direct manner, using the presence of the Devil on that elevator as a vehicle  to communicate ideas about who we are, today, as a people.

Simply put, the trapped passengers have made "choices that brought them" to the elevator of the damned, according to the film's dialogue.  And their way out of Hell is to "take responsibility for" their "decisions and choices."   

I wrote yesterday some about the Great Recession Populism of Tony Scott's Unstoppable (2010), and the same context is extant in Devil.  One of the people trapped on the elevator is involved in a Ponzi scheme (like Bernie Madoff).  One guy is a temp who can't find regular work.  One guy is a blue collar mechanic also looking for a job.  And one of the ladies in the elevator is hatching a divorce against her wealthy husband.  They are all -- in one fashion or another -- trying to navigate the current economic downturn successfully.  They are all trying to ride the elevator to the top of the economy, so-to-speak, but there is an unwanted passenger aboard, threatening to bring  everything and everyone crashing down. 

As Ramirez tells Bowden, in a line that is highly self-reflexive, "There's a reason we're the audience." 

Indeed there is. For this horror movie is more than a mere roller coaster; it's a morality tale about our age -- the Age of Madoff. 

Because of the morality-based stance, and because of the way the Devil is used in the narrative, Devil reminds me (in a positive sense) of a very good episode of The Twilight Zone (think: "The Howling Man").  An evil force is at work and five people who have never met are going to have to deal with it..and each other.  At a relatively short duration, some 80 minutes, Devil never outstays its welcome, and in the end -- as a deliberate book-end to the film's opening shot -- Philadelphia's skyline is set right.

Although the movie trades on some cliches occasionally (why are Latinos always the oracles of religion and spiritual in horror movies?), Devil is still a surprisingly effective little horror movie.  Don't let M. Night's name on the credits scare you away.  This is a low budget effort with few big special effects but an abundance of imagination. What starts out as a parlor game (guessing which elevator passenger is the Devil) turns into something else entirely, a thoughtful meditation on personal responsibility and then, most unexpectedly...forgiveness.

Sunday, March 06, 2011

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: Unstoppable (2010)

Let's face it: sometimes a big, fat generic Hollywood blockbuster is exactly what you hanker for.

A good one can taste great and be less filling...and that's certainly the case with with the high energy, extremely entertaining Unstoppable (2010), a Tony Scott thriller starring Denzel Washington, Chris Pine and Rosario Dawson.

"Inspired by true events" that occurred in Ohio in 2001, Unstoppable is the harrowing, fast-moving tale of two very different men and one woman as they  attempt to avert disaster and stop a runaway train in industrial Pennsylvania. 

Now, that sounds like an extraordinarily simple plotline -- and it is -- but as always, the devil is in the details.

The runaway train, AWVR 777 no  mere "coaster."  Rather, she's  traveling at 77 miles an hour through heavily populated towns and transporting 30,000 gallons of a toxic, flammable chemical called Molten Phenol.  

As the film's put-upon train yard boss, Connie (Dawson) aptly notes, AWVR 777 is not merely a train, but a "missile the size of the Chrysler Building" racing towards 752,000 innocent people in downtown Stanton.

How did the train get out of control in the first place?  

Well, through a combination of "human error and bad luck," according to Connie, but she's just being gracious.  The real culprit is Ethan Suplee's character, the dimwitted, under-trained Dewey,  He's a slack  yard worker who absent-mindedly leaves the train-in-question on full throttle and unforgivably forgets to activate the air brakes before jumping off. 

Now his mistake could decimate the sleepy little town of Stanton and cost innumerable lives.

Reckoning with the runaway train on the front line are two unlikely blue-collar heroes: 28-year train company veteran and soon-to-be forcibly retired Frank Barnes (Washington) and wet behind the ears rookie, James T., Will Colson (Chris Pine).  

Each of these guys is carrying abundant personal baggage. 

Barnes' wife died of cancer and he is estranged from his two daughters, who work at Hooters.  Colson is from a well-known local family but has a chip on his shoulder the size of a locomotive.  He's also estranged from his wife and child over an incident in which he pulled a gun on a police officer.

Unstoppable moves at a relentless, driving pace as Will and Barnes become the last two people on "the main line" capable of stopping AWVR 777.  Efforts to slow down the runaway train with another train fail...explosively.  A daring attempt to land a U.S. Marine on the back of the speeding train ends...with catstrophic injury.  And the dangerous strategy to derail AWVR 777 with "portable de-railers" just short of a hairpin curve near Stanton  proves absolutely futile.  It seems nothing can stop this rolling goliath.

As the train speeds irrevocably towards its rendezvous with certain disaster, death and destruction are at every turn.  Early on, a train carrying 150 school kids on a field trip celebrating "railroad safety" (!)  assumes a collision course with 777.  Later, a horse trailer (with frightened horses inside) stops on railroad tracks as the runaway monster bears down on it.

Soon, the nature of the threat becomes widely-known.  Press helicopters circle AWVR 777 like buzzards; and eventually the heartless train company gets involved too, just in time to really muck things up.  An executive in charge gets the bad news out on the golf course, and his first instinct is to check the company's bottom line.  "What's the stock de-valuation?" he wonders, should absolute catastrophe ensue.

This less-than-flattering portrait of the white-collar bosses is part and parcel of the movie's dramatic blue collar aesthetic.  Scott shoots the entire movie in an over-saturated, colorful, and gritty palette, one wholly befitting its workaday characters.   And the final conflict comes down to two guys who may not be saints but who know how to do their jobs versus over-paid buffoons and telephone jockeys who just want to keep their jobs and fortunes intact. 

Like all movies, Unstoppable is a product of its time, which means that the subtext here is entirely Great Recession Populism.  Good, hard-working joes like Barnes are being pushed into early retirement on "half benefits" to satisfy suit-and-tie executives hoping to reserve enough cash in big bonuses for white collar class.    The message, none too subtle, is that the runaway train called the economy -- the vehicle for wealth --- is barreling out of control, and only the know how of Main Street, not Wall Street can right the course. 

But Unstoppable succeeds well outside of it deliberate class warfare metaphors too.  There's a more simple, basic story here, one explicitly about human nature. 

Human error causes the danger in the first place, and then the movie brilliantly charts the domino effect of each and every response to that initial error. 

In the end, it's human ingenity and resourcefulness -- the opposite of Dewey's human error -- that resolves the crisis.  I appreciated both aspects of the movie's message; that we can control all of our "runaway trains," either to our mutual detriment or to our collective glory.  We just have to climb on, decide on a course, and say "all aboard..."

Director Tony Scott may not boast a reputation for subtlety, but here he certainly keeps all the trains running on time, to marshal an appropriate metaphor.  His camera never hangs back or slows down.  It spins, it races, it tracks, it arcs, it barrels, it circles...and the total effect is of a breathless, unstoppable juggernaut. 

Because of Scott's approach, this movie grabs your attention and imagination from the first moments and doesn't let go until the end credits roll.  I'm not the kind of film critic given to exhortations about movies being "adrenaline-packed thrill rides" or other hyperbolic nonsense.  But those shoes fit the movie in this case.  Unstoppable is one hell of a roller-coaster ride, and I recommend it entirely on that basis; as a better-than-expected, surprisingly efficient and entertaining action picture.

Frank Barnes - Denzel's character here -- has only one rule for life on the railrod track:  "If you do something, you better do it right."  That's an axiom Tony Scott and Unstoppable really live by.  Unstoppable would make a hell of a double feature with another railrod classic: 1985's Runaway Train.

Next stop: heart attack territory...