Friday, July 22, 2011

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: Avatar (2009)

"Watching "Avatar," I felt sort of the same as when I saw "Star Wars" in 1977. That was another movie I walked into with uncertain expectations. James Cameron's film has been the subject of relentlessly dubious advance buzz, just as his "Titanic" was. Once again, he has silenced the doubters by simply delivering an extraordinary film." (Roger Ebert, "Avatar," December 11, 2009.)

"The last third of the movie, a battle between the Na'vi and their human destroyers, is a groundbreaking blend of digital and live-action. OK, it's unnerving that a movie preaching peace hits its visual peak with scenes of mass destruction. But Avatar is no Hollywood wankfest. It extends the possibilities of what movies can do. Cameron's talent may just be as big as his dreams." (Peter Travers Rolling Stone:, "Avatar." December 9, 2009.)

"But Avatar is also a distinctly political work of art, with a strong anti-American and anti-Western message. It can be read on several levels – a critique of the Iraq War, an assault on the US-led War on Terror, a slick morality tale about the ‘evils’ of Western imperialism, a futuristic take on the conquest of America and the treatment of native Americans – the list goes on..." (Nile Gardiner: "Avatar: the most expensive piece of anti-American propaganda ever made." The Telegraph, December 2009.)

"It rests on the stereotype that white people are rationalist and technocratic while colonial victims are spiritual and athletic. It rests on the assumption that nonwhites need the White Messiah to lead their crusades. It rests on the assumption that illiteracy is the path to grace. It also creates a sort of two-edged cultural imperialism. Natives can either have their history shaped by cruel imperialists or benevolent ones, but either way, they are going to be supporting actors in our journey to self-admiration." (David Brooks: "The Messiah Complex." The New York Times, January 7, 2010.)

This week for the Cameron Curriculum, our film selection is Avatar (2009), James Cameron's sprawling, science fiction trailblazer.

As you will no doubt recall, the movie proved itself a veritable box office Goliath, and also earned positive reviews, at least in the majority. By and large, audiences loved Avatar as well. The film stands on the IMDB's list of best rated films (currently perched at 183 in the top 250).

Yet, Avatar's success does not mean that the film is non-controversial, as the above critical quotations make abundantly plain. Some critics and audiences view this James Cameron film as an anti-American political diatribe and despise it specifically on those terms.

Others simply can't bring themselves to approve of a film that proved so hugely popular. This is the so-called "Woody Allen" critique. These fans can't be part of any club that would have them as a member. Many geeks apparently believe they can differentiate themselves from "the mob" by rejecting Avatar out-of-hand....some of them without even seeing the movie in the first place!

What those naysayers missed, however, is a film -- much in the spirit of Aliens (1986) or The Abyss (1989) -- that consists of both enormous heart and vision.  Here, Cameron obsesses on the yin and yang of the human equation.  He recognizes our natural desire to explore the new and strange, and in the process overcome hurdles. 

And -- on the other side of the coin -- he clearly "sees" our uncomfortable tradition of destroying or polluting that which we discover on our brave explorations.  

Exciting, emotional and visually pioneering, Avatar is a modern-day genre masterpiece, even if the sci-fi community has not yet entirely embraced it as such.  In time -- when there is some audience distance from some of the politics raised by the film -- the film's reputation will evolve.  And it will be for the better.

Everything is backwards now, like out there is the true world, and in here is the dream.

On the forest moon Pandora, the indigenous people -- the blue-skinned Na'vi -- unwittingly stand in the way of big business and "progress."

Namely, Earth men have come to Pandora to mine the ground for a valuable rock known as "Unobtanium."  

Business and military interests align to re-locate the Na'vi from their Home Tree in order to mine a rich deposit of the critical mineral.

The handicapped Corporal Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) fulfills his dead brother's contract and heads to Pandora to work as a "driver" for a genetically-engineered Na'vi avatar.  Collaborating with Dr. Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver), Jake is assigned to learn more about the Na'vi so he can facilitate their orderly departure from Home Tree.  His military superior, Colonel Quaritch (Stephen Lang), however wants Jake to gather tactical information about the Na'vi and their environs, should diplomacy fail.  For a time, Jake works both sides of the street.

Inside the body of his avatar, Jake also learns the many ways of the Na'vi.  His teacher is Neytiri (Zoe Saldana), the Chief's beautiful daughter.  She reveals to him the true Na'vi soul, and the duo soon falls in love. 

Meanwhile, Grace learns that all the creatures of the planet, including the Na'vi share a link with Pandora itself, a planet-wide symbiosis forged by "signal transduction."  The Na'vi see this bridge to the planet as a link to their God, Eywa.

Before long, the military and business interests grow tired with Jake's lack of progress, and  under Colonel Quaritch (Stephen Lang) launch a devastating assault on Home Tree, scattering the Na'vi so their giant machines can commence mining.  Neytiri's father and many other Na'vi are murdered in the strike.

Finally realizing where his true loyalties rest, Jake decides to make a stand against the Earth men, and he gathers the disparate Na'vi tribes to fight back against them. 

But to gain the trust of the Na'vi, Jake must first tame a giant flying beast of legend: Toruk Macto.

"You are not in Kansas Anymore" - Avatar as visual experience

As Roger Ebert's quote above indicates, Star Wars is likely a fine point at which to commence an analysis of Avatar.

Like Star Wars did in 1977, Avatar stands at the vanguard of a new technological age, and a new threshold in terms of special effects achievement. 

Only this time, those achievements are in the realm of CGI and 3-D rather than motion control, alien make-ups, etc.

Because of this accomplishment, Avatar truly belongs in a select group of great science fiction films such as Planet of the Apes (1968), Star Wars (1977), Blade Runner (1982), Tron (1982) and The Matrix (1982).  Like those genre landmarks, Avatar absolutely immerses the viewer in a new world of unfettered imagination, complexity, color and depth.

The film's protagonist, Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) notes that his arrival on the moon of Pandora represents indeed a "fresh new start," and that synonym for a "brave new world" might very well be our metaphor for the 3-D and CGI presentation of Cameron's Avatar

For once, CGI effects actually seem to comprehend the subtleties of flesh: the nuances of movement, expression, and even the "weight" of gravity.  

No doubt the visual wonders of Avatar will one day be eclipsed, but for now (and for the foreseeable future, given the state of films this summer..), they are certainly state-of-the-art.  In this arena, Avatar is never less than entirely convincing.  You never feel like you're watching special effects or limited, animated digital figures.

Instead, you see characters, creatures and strange lands.

What I find particularly noteworthy about the use of the CGI and 3-D is that Cameron uses the special effects techniques to make Avatar perhaps the very first movie in human history not scaled to us; not scaled to human proportions.

Although Lord of the Rings (2001) inventively blended pint-sized hobbits with human-sized elves and other humanoid beings, the general effect was still one of putting other life forms (Hobbits) into a world we recognize as ours.  Avatar takes a different and far more impressive stance.  It lands us in a world not made for us; and one in which human concerns are secondary. 

And that's very much an example of form following content.  Thematically the film is also about petty human concerns dwarfed by alien but ultimately more important ones.  The universe isn't always about us, and we see that idea (that slap in the face?) reflected in the very colorful, very dangerous, very oddly-scaled world of Pandora.

Accordingly then, Pandora exists against a backdrop that we can hardly conceive, and which is consequently awe-inspiring. Unlike many directors attempting to deploy 3-D, Cameron doesn't merely toss things at the audience in a blatant "coming-at-ya" style. On the contrary, he marshals the process to develop visceral emotions in the audience: to generate vertigo, for instance, and to dramatize for us extremes of height, and altitude and speed. 

Cameron also utilizes 3-D to reveal the depth and breadth of the Pandoran wilderness, escorting us into the greatest silver screen jungle since Kong's lush Skull Island in 1933. 

Again, the level of detail and complexity in this landscape is simply staggering.  I'm not exaggerating.  We get the feeling here not of a small geographic region in sight of a limited camera -- a region encumbered by the exigencies of movie budget -- but of a whole world stretching as far as the eye can see.

The point of the height, altitude, speed and depth, of course, is total emotional immersion.  And because of Cameron's integrated (rather than carnival...) approach to 3-D, in Avatar, audiences come to believe most profoundly in this fantasy world.  Avatar is magnificently unbound from the sound stage (and human proportions), but not at all in the static fashion of the Star Wars prequels, where characters seem to be forever standing in front of green-screen compositions.

Now, I don't share many fans' hatred of those three Lucas films (I rather enjoy 'em, actually...), but they certainly appear shallow in conception and execution next to Cameron's rich, layered vision for Avatar.  Here, every plant, every creature, every insect that swings, stampedes or skitters into view, captivates the attention and the imagination.  Cameron doesn't just record another world for us, he creates an otherworldly ecosphere from top-to-bottom.

Certainly, there's much you can debate regarding Avatar, but as a resounding technological and imaginative triumph it is virtually unimpeachable  No film director in history has utilized 3-D and CGI as inventively and in as integrative a fashion as Cameron has here, and on those grounds alone, Avatar is a watershed event.

"I see you" - Avatar and its themes

Avatar very much concerns the yin-and-yang of the human spirit.  

As a species we are always looking to explore what's over the horizon. And yet when we reach our destination, we yearn to make that new land ours; to harness the dirt and the water and make it serve our needs.  This is a fact of life.

We don't always use our resources wisely, yet the hunt for resources will one day, I'm certain, carry us to the far reaches of this solar system and beyond.  We are driven to explore. And apparently just as driven to use up that which we find along our journey.

In Avatar, we are introduced to a character, Jake Sully, who exemplifies the best aspects of this human equation.  

Despite suffering a physical impairment, he broaches not just a new world, but the "most hostile environment known to man."  And when he takes part in the Avatar program, Jake throws himself into his work.  He learns the Na'vi language. He learns to hunt, ride, fly and live as another life form all together. 

Again, Cameron reveals to us mankind at his most noble: questing and searching for meaning over the next hill.  A wise person once noted that disability is just a matter of perspective, and in some way, Jake's journey reflects that truth.  He first countenances, then embraces, a new way of living while also maintaining the finer qualities of our species (to love; to balance morality, and more).  This is what evolution  truly is: integrating new ideas and new concepts into the self as one's horizons expand.

The opposite side of that human equation, of course, is colonialism and imperialism, and Avatar's central conflict revolves around those very controversial issues.  Although we boast a history of imperialism in this country, we are not alone in that characteristic.  Not by a long shot.  Ancient Rome, England, Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union, France, China and other nation-states have also gone to war (again and again...) over a desire to "take" strange lands and harness them for explicit purposes of Empire-building.

Specifically, Avatar crafts a futuristic metaphor for the settlement of the American continent. 

It's easy to read the lines of the comparison.  The Earth men are the Europeans, come across the ocean of space to take and develop the land.  And the Na'vi are the Native Americans who see their existence and way of life threatened.

In film history, we've seen this very dynamic played out in Kevin Costner's Dances with Wolves (1990),  Walt Disney's Pocahontas (1995) and Malick's The New World (2005), among others.  It's not a new idea by any means, but that's acceptable because the presentation is new...and cutting-edge. 

Star Wars wasn't new in terms of narrative, either, especially if you have any familiarity with the oeuvre of Akira Kurosawa.  And Star Trek, of course, looks very much like a variation on Forbidden Planet (1956)  Avatar harnesses the familiar metaphor of the Native American/European conflict to tell its tale, but does so in ways that boast resonance both as science fiction, and as a reflection on contemporary times.

In the case of Avatar, I would argue that the film succeeds rather admirably in making its case about the moral evils of colonization or occupation.  It does so -- as is Cameron's tradition -- in entirely emotional, manipulative, and even grandiose fashion.  

That's the very nature of the medium of film and Cameron exploits that nature.  Ruthlessly.  As an artist, he is not merely interested in making audiences think about an issue; he wants us to feel it, intensely. 

Some people may object to this approach, but in doing so, they object to Cameron's singular gift as a filmmaker.  Using breakthroughs in movie technology, he brings the experiential, emotional aspect of visual storytelling closer to the audience than ever before. He constructs these intense dramas (like Titanic) based on intimate human relationships and ideas (like the interconnectedness of all life) because he apparently believes in a unique axiom: the more advanced the film in terms of technical prowess and achievement, the more it can impact your heart.

Not that the emotional approach doesn't have downsides.

For instance, the villains in the film are not truly fully developed people, but rather true evil-doers.  Giovani Ribisi plays a despicable character named "Parker Selfridge."  Selfridge?  Sounds like selfish.  Or maybe his name is about what we hope to find over that next horizon or ridge: something for the self

And the nasty Colonel Quaritch refers to the Na'vi as "blue monkeys" or as "cockroaches," and basically attempts to bomb the Na'vi back to the stone age.  He's a racist and a destroyer, and entirely easy to hate. 

Yet, to give Avatar some credit, it's pretty clear why Quaritch thinks as he does.  It's not because Cameron is anti-military as some insist, but because Quaritch has had a very negative personal experience with the Na'vi. 

On his first day on the planet, he was badly injured (and scarred) by them.  Fear and hatred have thus colored his perception of the planet and its people.  Quaritch can't put aside his negative experience with the Na'vi in the face of new thoughts, new ideas.  He can't evolve.  He stays as he is...never outgrowing his fear. He is thus an effective counterpoint to Jake in the story, if not a fully dimensional character in his own right.  This echoes the character of Coffey in The Abyss as we discussed last week.  Both characters effectively move the plot forward and effectively reflect a larger, symbolic issue (intransigence or stagnation in the face of facts, the self-destructive nature of nuclear war, etc.), but on some human level they aren't adequately developed.

Avatar: Does it hate America?
Many people have asked: Is Avatar anti-American?   Unfortunately, that's the wrong question to ask. 

Certainly, Avatar knowingly mirrors much of America's journey in the last decade (2000 - 2010).  Colonel Quaritch notes near the end of the film that "Our only security lies with pre-emptive attack.  We will fight terror with terror," invoking the Bush Doctrine.  

Furthermore, his mission to drop a bomb on a Na'vi holy site is also equated with a "shock and awe" campaign, conjuring memories of our siege of  Baghdad in the second Iraq War.   Also, we have seen people like Tom Tancredo suggest bombing the holy sites of our political enemies.  He mentioned bombing Mecca, specifically.

Following this line of thought, many critics have also looked at the Home Tree assault -- with twin plumes of smoke stretching high into Pandora's sky -- as a thinly-veiled reference to Al Qaeda's attack on the United States that Tuesday morning in September. 

Even the Earth men's hunt for natural resources on Pandora -- with war backing up that hunt -- can be seen as a coded reflection of the belief by many Americans that the war in Iraq was launched so our nation would have direct access to Middle East oil.

These points are certainly unmistakable; but they don't make Avatar anti-American.   That's where there's a crucial fallacy.

On the contrary, all of these issues simple reflect what many Americans truly feel about the direction of our country in the last ten years.  This commentary by Cameron is only anti-American if you assume that America never makes mistakes, that America is always right in the international actions it pursues, and that President Bush's decisions represent the full spectrum of American beliefs about this country.

I mean, is what Tom Tancredo suggested doing to Mecca the American way?  Is pre-emptive war the American way?  Is that the America that people defend when they claim that Avatar is anti-American?

And frankly, I'm baffled by people who want to view Avatar only as some kind of America-hating film anyway.  Avatar is the same story, essentially, as Battle: LA (2011), a film which has clearly not been debated in such terms. 

To wit: in both films a race of extra-terrestrials attack and occupy another planet to gather its resources (alternatively Unobtanium and water). And the natives in both situations strike back against the invaders, mounting a violent resistance to the plunderer.  The invaders in Battle:LA are non-human.  The invaders in Avatar are human.  That's the only difference, in broad strokes, in terms of narrative. 

So why is Battle: LA not anti-American, but Avatar is?  Both films argue the immorality of occupation/colonialism and the imperative to fight back against invaders.

The plain truth of the matter is that Cameron aims for a higher morality here. His statement is simply that it is not right to go to someone else's land and take their resources.  Simple as that.  It seems to me that ought to be something everybody can agree on in principle. It's true whether you're American, Chinese, Russian, Klingon, Jedi or Sith.  In the situation depicted by Avatar, the human beings are seeing only what they can take, not that they have no right to take it.  Now, you can argue the Machiavellian politics of the whole thing; that if mankind is dying out, he must take the Unobtanium and is justified in doing so.  Self-preservation and all.

But by the same Machiavellian mind-set, then, you must accept that the Na'vi -- in trying to protect their own existence -- are also justified in fighting back against the Earthers.  It doesn't only work one way.

It always bothers me when people are unable to see both sides of an issue.  We would hate it if aliens landed on our soil and began mining our land.  We'd fight back, and rightfully so. Just as the Na'vi fight back in Avatar.  But since humans are placed in the role of bad guy (as they are in many sci-fi films, from Conquest of the Planet of the Apes, to District 9, to Blade Runner, even...) then Avatar is suddenly anti-American.

Here's my long-winded point: being leftist is different than being anti-American, and to conflate the two is the facile trick of the propagandist.

Go back and watch Planet of the Apes (1968) -- made at the height of the Cold War and the Vietnam War -- and honestly tell me that it is not a leftist film too; about man's self-destructive, warring nature.   It ends with a symbol of America, Lady Liberty, destroyed.  So is it anti-American too?  If Avatar is, then Planet of the Apes is.

It's only because we live in such hyper-partisan times that Avatar is constantly saddled with the moniker Anti-American, when what the film actually concerns is a human truth: that our drive to explore and increase our knowledge is a double-edged sword; It keeps us alive, but also, often, puts us in conflict with each other, and with nature itself.

Again, it's much easier to brush off Avatar with a simple label ("anti-American") than it is to examine Cameron's story and take it for what it is really about - human nature.  Does the film have a leftist bent?  Absolutely. Just as some science fiction films have a rightward leaning (Zardoz [1974] for one.). 

The right has not been alone in attacking Avatar for perceived "philosophical" flaws.  The left (plus David Brooks) have really gone after the film as being an example of "The White Man's Burden."  In other words, this is a film in which a white man saves a native culture and ascends to leadership of it.  Apparently, that's insulting to ethnic minorities or something.

Again, this is a more simplistic view of the film than is merited.

For one thing, when was the last time that a handicapped character took a leadership role in a major, over-200 million-dollar action film?  Jake Sully is a white man, it is true, but he's also one who has been largely discarded by his culture because of his physical impairment.  He's not physically powerful alpha male Kevin Costner, for instance.

Jake is not the typical "messiah" in that regard.  Instead, he is a perfect man to lead the fight because he is also, like many of the characters in the film, separated and isolated from his true nature.  His physical handicap has prevented him from being what he knows he can be; from doing what he knows he can do.  The avatar program grants him the capacity to tap that potential and to become whole again. 

The film is as much about the Na'vi (and the Na'vi experience) saving Jake as it is about Jake saving the Na'vi.  He learns much through their interconnectedness, after all.

David Brooks' comments bear closer scrutiny.  He writes that the film depicts colonists as "rationalist" and "technocratic" while colonial victims are "spiritual and athletic".  He should take a gander again at Quaritch, a man who is also quite athletic; so damned athletic in fact, he can pick off human targets some distance away while holding his breath for minutes at a time (in Pandora's poisonous atmosphere).  Qauritch is no armchair general.

And why does Brooks assume that the film says "illiteracy is the path to grace."   Nowhere in the film is illiteracy even broached.  The path to grace in the film is through inter-connection; through the link and harmony between man/woman and the land.  Because we cannot see this psychic connection, the Na'vi might very well call mankind "psychically illiterate."  

Again, this attack on Avatar is too simplistic. 

Would it have been nice if the Na'vi could save themselves without Jake as the leader?  Well again, look very closely at the actual specifics of the text in question.  Which character destroys the villain?  Hint: it's not the white man Jake.  No, he is rendered paralyzed, in the final battle featured in the film. 

No, Neytiri finally takes out Quaritch.  She is no mere "supporting player" (as Brooks puts it).

And who turns the tide towards the Na'vi in the battle?  Again, it's not Jake or any other "white man." 

It's Eywa, who through her powers of inter-connection, summon the forest animals to attack the occupiers.  So again, it's not entirely accurate to say that Avatar suffers from this movie "Messiah Complex."   
On the contrary, Jake is present in the film to serve as surrogate for the audience.  He is our (human) entrance point into the world of the Na'vi, an example of -- again -- how mankind can go beyond what he knows and explore a new and alien situation. 

Even the film's ending is about this idea of crossing the next hill; evolving to the next point.  Jake is able to cast aside his human body and become fully Na'vi.  This is because he has embraced the better part of our human nature.  He has overcome his limitations (physical and mental) and become what he had only once "dreamed."   If you're James Cameron, you can't make this argument about human nature without featuring a human protagonist in the film.

In terms of the Cameron Curriculum, there's many points of commonalities between Avatar and Cameron's other films.  For instance, the Na'vi saying that goes "I see you," (meaning "I see your true self") is carried forth from Titanic. In that film, Jack and Rose share an exchange that seems familiar. "You see people," says Rose.  "I see you," says Jack. 

Also, like Aliens, The Abyss, The Terminator and even Titanic to an extent, Avatar features as a hero someone who is "blue collar," in this case a so-called "grunt."  This also makes three Cameron films (Aliens, The Terminator and Avatar) in which a military man is amongst the protagonists, making it more difficult and less plausible for critics to argue that Cameron is somehow against the military.

And, of course, like out-of-time Ripley, an emotionless Terminator in T2 or Mrs. Tasker in True Lies, Jake is an outsider or fish-out-of-water in Avatar.  In a way, he is both outside of the human race because of his handicap, and outside the Na'vi because of his nature as a "Sky Person."  In many Cameron films, only those who are "outside" the dominant coalitions can bring a sense of balanced perspective to crises.

Earlier in the review, I brought up George Lucas and the Star Wars films.  Avatar treads on some territory familiar to that franchise, namely a primitive people waging a war against a technological foe. 

In Return of the Jedi the Ewoks battled the Empire, and in The Phantom Menace, the Gungans battled the Trade Federation.  Lucas essentially played both of those battles for laughs. 

By contrast, the final battle in Avatar is anything but funny: it's a harrowing, tense descent into all-out war.  In Avatar, the primitive species carries the day only because of a gift from Pandora: the ability of all  native creatures to communicate and connect with one another.  That's something the humans can't do, at least on a planetary scale.

Interestingly, Eywa does not normally "take sides."  She protects "only the balance of life."  But in this case, man is so egregious, so awful in his attacks, even God herself must become involved.   This is the environmental message of Avatar, another point that has enraged some people, apparently.

It's another critiique I don't really get.  What could be more conservative, more traditional, than taking good care of the planet you happen to live on?

Avatar is a great film because of the advances it makes in terms of technology, because of the commentary it offers about the double-edged sword of human nature, and because, perhaps, people just can't stop arguing about it.

So many people "see" Avatar.  Or at least they think they do. My recommendation to them is to watch the movie again, this time keeping in mind Neytiri's admonition for those whose mind is already sealed tightly shut.

"It's hard to fill a cup which is already full."

Next Week:  Are you ready to go back to Titanic?

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Sci-Fi Wisdom of the Week

"...all energy is only borrowed, and one day you have to give it back."

- Avatar (2009)

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

CULT TV FLASHBACK #138: Farscape: "...Different Destinations" (2001)

The Sci-Fi Channel series Farscape (1999 - 2003) remains one of the finest space adventure TV programs of recent decades, and the third season episode "...Different Destinations," which aired originally on April 13, 2001, is a good example of why that's so abundantly the case.

It's a time travel story -- a relative rarity on Farscape -- but much like so many series installments, "...Different Destinations" is absolutely unconventional in terms of genre TV tropes.  It's also cutthroat in nature, uncompromising in vision, and beautifully, emotionally depicted.

In the Farscape canon, "...Different Destinations" is apparently a stand-alone episode, one outside of the big story arc and larger narrative concerns, and yet -- despite the superficial "throwaway" status of the show -- it's an absolute gut-punch to John Crichton, Aeryn Sun and indeed, to the audience itself.

In "...Different Destinations," the living ship Moya delivers her rag-tag crew of bickering fugitives to a planet that houses an historical "Peace Memorial." Down on the planet surface five hundred years earlier, thirty Peacekeeper soldiers defended a band of innocent nurses and children from the Venek Horde, a barbarous army renowned for being "bloodthirsty and almost impossible to control." The last stand was inside an isolated mountaintop monastery.

According to Aeryn Sun (Claudia Black), a Peacekeeper herself, a heroic officer, Dacon (Dan Spielman)brokered a peace deal that saved the lives of the nurses and the young ones, but only at the cost of his own life. As Crichton (Ben Browder) describes Dacon, he's "Davy Crockett at the Alamo." Jool (Tammy McIntosh) contrarily argues that the story is militaristic propaganda, designed to prop up loyalty and patriotism.

Thanks to a pair of alien "tourist" goggles available at the cloisters, Crichton and the others can actually view the planet's final, historical battle unfold.

But something goes awry when the enigmatic Stark (Paul Goddard) views the events of the distant past.

When Stark watches, he somehow creates a "tear" in the fabric of time and space; a tear that transports Aeryn, John, Jool, D'Argo (Anthony Simcoe) and himself back in time to the very day of the conflict.

Now trapped in the turbulent past, the shipmates debate the "elasticity of time" and whether or not it is a "brittle framework."

In other words, they wonder if their presence at the battle can change the course of history, and thus affect the future itself; the very "future" they dwell in. There's even a little arrogance in a conversation between Aeryn and John early on, as they wonder if there's a way they might actually "improve" the future.

This being Farscape and not Star Trek, no such improvement occurs. Not by a long shot. Quite the opposite in fact.

What "...Different Destinations" actually depicts is a kind of royal screw-up on the part of the Moya's argumentative crew. For instance, when Aeryn sees that Dacon is just a rookie -- and a cook, no less -- she does everything she can to shield the young man from his grim but pre-ordained fate. And unbeknownst to the others, John strikes a secret deal with the Venek General, one that ends in disaster when the general is murdered on the monastery ramparts by a nurse.

History recorded the military leader as a reasonable man who worked with Dacon to subdue the blood lust of the Horde. Now that he's gone, there's absolutely no buffer between the nurses and the violent warriors at the gates.

John notes after the death of the Venek leader: "I'm in a hell of a slump hereEverything I do just makes things worse." 


Before long, John is actually seeking the advice of the Scorpius implant in his head (Wayne Pygram).  That's how desperate he becomes to find a way out of this complicated temporal puzzle.

Meanwhile, D'Argo eschews the complexity of time travel theories and befriends one of the children in the monastery.

He informs her that the only way to make herself immortal is to be remembered. She takes his words to heart, and carves her name - Centrina -- into the walls of the fortress.

As a long night progresses, John and Aeryn make every attempt to right the time line in the absence of a key player, the Venek General. They even offer up Dacon. But this time when he dies, there's still no peace.  Now Aeryn feels even worse.  In this reality, Dacon died for nothing.

Back on Moya, Chiana, Pilot and Rygel watch in horror as the planet they orbit keeps changing.  The once-beautiful world becomes a burned out cinder and then, finally, disappears all together...totally annihilated in a conflict of hate and violence.

Down on the surface, with the Veneks swarming the monastery, the crew of Moya has no option left but to use their advanced pulse pistol weaponry and fight the conquering horde to a standstill. Making like an army, John, Aeryn and D'Argo fight for their lives and for the lives of the innocent. Then they escape through another "time tear" and return to the present in full belief that their combat efforts have made a truce possible.

But when they view the events of history through the tourist goggles, the time travelers learn a hard truth:  The Venek mob murdered all the nurses and children.  They were angry because they refused to give up the location of the Peacekeeper named...Crichton.

"I screwed up," a mourning John admits.

Crichton may have screwed up, but Farscape certainly didn't, and "...Different Destinations" is an absolutely inventive hour of action and science fiction, one that remembers that people (even astronauts; even aliens...) are flawed and don't always make the right choices.  Even more so, the right choice in the moment may not be the right choice, historically-speaking.

John and Aeryn, in particular, face the ramifications of their interference.  Both young Dacon and the unlucky nurses die horrible deaths, and there's no sense of "heroism" or "glory" to be found anywhere.  

It's a decidedly unromantic, unglamorous view of war, and the episode ultimately confirms Jool's point about propaganda.  Aeryn realizes she's been living with a lie since childhood. 

But this Farscape episode remains a remarkable one because it's just so far astray of audience expectations.  In a latter generation of Star Trek, for instance, the men and women of Starfleet would have certainly repaired the time line and rescued the innocent nurses and children.  And there's almost zero chance they would have held the day by employing their advanced weaponry against primitives. 

But in Steve Worland's "...Different Destinations," there are no higher rules (like Starfleet regulations) to contend with, and furthermore no unity whatsoever amongst the time-traveling participants about how to proceed.   It's trial and error all the way, and John and Aeryn argue vociferously about what should be done.

Interestingly, D'Argo -- often a sort of father figure, given the loss of his son in the series -- befriends Centrina and sees immediately the human cost of failure.  While Aeryn and John talk tactics, he discusses mortality, memory and loss.  It's a potent contrast to the behavior of Crichton and Sun.  They're struggling on concepts: how do we fix this; how do we repair that.  But D'Argo looks at something else: at youth and innocence, and the death of both.  The final moment of this subplot, with D'Argo discovering Centrina's names carved in the monastery wall, is downright haunting.

I admire how "...Different Destinations" is gleefully politically incorrect in terms of genre standards.  The heroes fail egregiously.  The innocent die...horribly.  Standard methods of success (attempting to maintain the timeline; adhering to accepted time travel philosophy) prove counterproductive.   Most importantly, the temptation to "re-boot" the time line and tie everything up with a nice, neat ribbon is avoided. What we have instead then is a series interested in examining cliches and carving out new...and uncharted territory.

Economically shot -- almost entirely on one set, the monastery courtyard -- "...Different Destinations" is impressive in just about every way one can tally.   In particular, it very adroitly utilizes its pop culture references (a mainstay of Farscape), with John finally alluding to the last stand of Tony Montana (Al Pacino) in Brian De Palma's Scarface (1983).

There, Tony -- a gangster and thug -- fought impossible odds and lost, destroyed by his enemies but also by his own self-destructive nature. 

It's extremely interesting, then, that in this episode John goes from referencing Davy Crockett at the Alamo -- an example of great heroism in a last stand -- to Tony Montana, a man who has isolated himself through his bad behavior and went out not in a blaze of glory, but infamy.   The siege situation on the planet has descended from one of heroic last stand, then, to a purposeless battle to the death.  Again, this is a very unromantic, unglamorous view of war, and more trenchantly, of heroes.

What are the reasons for the crew's egregious failure in this episode?  Well, Stark says it well: "...different beliefs...different destinations."  John believes in one thing; Aeryn another, and they don't really work together until it is far too late.  Their different beliefs have created successively -- as we see from Moya's observation deck -- different destinations.  And all those destinations are increasingly horrible.   

In short, this is a story in which our heroes stumble into a tough situation...and make it infinitely worse through their involvement.

That's the kind of thing that didn't often happen to Captain Picard...

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

RETRO TOY FLASHBACK #94: V Enemy Visitor Action Figure (LJN; 1984)

Way back in 1984, Kenneth Johnson's mini-series V took America by storm.  The four hour program (which aired over two nights) was not just a ratings winner, it was a TV event. 

I remember being in middle school at the time, and attending class the day after the first part aired on NBC. 

Everyone -- and I mean everyone -- was talking about the incredible (and horrific...) scene in which a Visitor suddenly removed his human "face" to reveal a reptilian visage, and then promptly ate a live animal.  I think it was a gerbil...

Today, those special effects don't hold up very well.  But at the time, this moment represented a kind of electric jolt.  I still recallmember those visuals vividly, and the considerable impact they had on me.

Given the spectacular success of V on television, I expected a lot of V toys to hit the market; spaceship models and play-sets, action figures...the works.

Alas, that wasn't really the case.

One happy exception, however, was LJN's V "Enemy Visitor" action hero.   This 12-inch alien soldier was the embodiment of Visitor evil, hiding beneath a human face (and sun glasses...), wearing his spiffy red uniform, and carrying a deadly laser weapon.

Designed for ages four and up, the Visitor figure's box came emblazoned with the legend "THEY'RE NOT WHAT THEY APPEAR TO BE!

A graphic below the figure revealed that youngsters could "unmask the Visitor to reveal his lizard face," and made note of his "extendable [forked...] tongue."  

On the back of the box, LJN notes "The Visitor keeps his true identity hidden behind a human face.  Unmask him and reveal the lizard creature!"  It reports too that "The Human Mask is worn whenever you want to disguise the Visitor's true identity.  To remove the mask, grasp one corner between your thumb and forefinger and gently pull off."

The box also suggests: "To make the Visitor's tongue move in and out, push the hidden button on his back." 

Beneath this legend is a circle with three "Proof of Purchase V points," which would have been useful, I presume, to buy other V toys or products.  But were there any?  I have the vaguest memories of some V puzzles, and maybe a toy machine gun emblazoned with the V logo.

Although V was actually remade recently, it was done so by people who didn't truly seem to appreciate, let alone understand the iconic imagery of the Kenneth Johnson original. 

There's still something fearsome (and vaguely fascist...) about the classic red uniform and cap design featured on this toy, especially when coupled with the propaganda posters the Visitors plastered on every wall (and which also appear on the figure's box).  These posters maintain the Visitors are "our friends."  But of course, we know better...  

Once upon a time, these aliens were really scary, right down to the swastika-like emblems on their chests.  And when they weren't scary, they were fun in the way that classic monsters like Dracula, The Wolfman or The Mummy are fun.

Whatever the relative values of the re-imagined new V, it certainly wasn't very much fun, and it was rarely if ever frightening.

Looking again at this figure from the 1980s original, I miss those qualities all the more.

Monday, July 18, 2011

The Cult TV Faces of: The Lycanthrope

Identified by Will: Quentin (David Selby) in Dark Shadows.

Identified by Will: Kolchak the Night Stalker (1974): "The Werewolf"

NOT IDENTIFIED: The Monster Squad (1976)

Identified by BT: "Werewolf" (The Series) (1987)

Identified by BT: Kate Hodge in She-Wolf of London (1990)

Identified by BT: The X-Files: "Shapes"

NOT IDENTIFIED: Charmed: "The Wendigo"

Identified by Chris G: Oz in Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

NOT IDENTIFIED: Wolf Lake: "The Changing"

NOT IDENTIFIED: Smallville: "Skinwalker"

NOT IDENTIFIED: Supernatural: "Heart"

NOT IDENTIFIED: The Dresden Files: "Hair of the Dog"

Identified by Chris G: Benwolf in Ben 10 (2008).

NOT IDENTIFIED: True Blood (Season 3)