Friday, August 12, 2011

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: The Terminator (1984)

"This is burned in by laser scan. Some of us were kept alive... to work... loading bodies. The disposal units ran night and day. We were that close to going out forever. But there was one man who taught us to fight, to storm the wire of the camps, to smash those metal motherfuckers into junk. He turned it around. He brought us back from the brink. His name is Connor. John Connor. Your son, Sarah, your unborn son."

- Kyle Reese (Michael Biehn) in The Terminator (1984)

Today for the Cameron Curriculum, we travel back in time to the distant year 1984, and to Jim Cameron's first smash-hit motion-picture, the science-fiction action thriller, The Terminator.  This intense, fast-moving film not only began Cameron's career in Hollywood in earnest, it vaulted star Arnold Schwarzenegger to super-stardom (following the Conan films) and even gave him a recurring catchphrase: "I'll be back."  

Speaking to the film's quality and longevity, The Terminator has spawned three movie sequels (in 1991, 2003, and 2009, respectively) and even a spin-off TV series: The Sarah Connor Chronicles.  Also, the Library of Congress added The Terminator in 2008 to its National Film Registry, marking the film as culturally, aesthetically, and historically significant.

An ugly incident in the film's history involves a threatened lawsuit from science fiction legend Harlan Ellison, who claimed that The Terminator ripped-off elements of Ellison's The Outer Limits episode "Soldier," the second season premiere that featured two future soldiers accidentally traveling to the present and battling one another.   The matter was settled out of court, and Ellison's name was added to the film's end credits, apparently over Cameron's urging to Orion to fight the matter. 

This matter acknowledged, there's simply no way to gaze at The Terminator  as anything other than the product of James Cameron's stellar visual and storytelling imagination.  Looking back across the decades, it's plain to see how his film fits in with the remainder of his oeuvre, and introduces his career-long obsessions with strong women, star-crossed lovers, fish-out-of-water protagonists, and the bugaboo of nuclear war.

Going back to the original Terminator in 2011 it's a little amazing just how well the film holds up.  In many senses, it holds up even better than its 1991 follow-up, the somewhat bloated Judgment Day. The action scenes here are still breathtaking, the love story remains affecting, and film features a relentless, driving sense of urgency.  Indeed, The Terminator never lets up, never stops, never looks back...much like its titular character. 

And yet, gazing beneath the surface, one can detect the unconventional but canny manner in which Cameron approaches the film, and how his directorial strategy buttresses the quality of the piece substantially.  For instance, there are relatively few conventional locales or settings featured in the film at all.  This is a movie that takes place in parking garages, in speeding vehicles, inside seedy motels, in sewers, and in smoke-filled police station waiting areas.  The film never truly settles down in any one place too long, and that fact actually contributes to the driving pulse of the piece.  You feel like the movie has been made on the fly, filmed in one brief sanctuary after another, as the protagonists' safety is constantly eclipsed and imperiled.

Secondly, The Terminator creates -- at times -- this weird, almost authentically dream-like vibe.  It arises from the conjunction of Brad Fiedel's effective synthetic score, and Cameron's frequent use of slow-motion photography to extend time and mine the latent tension in many sequences.  Time, of course, is the very crux of the film, and the way that Cameron stretches and bend time matters a great deal in the film's overall tapestry. 

Heroes Kyle Reese and Sarah Connor only share just "one night" together, as the film's dialogue reminds the audience, and yet they experience a "lifetime" of love.  This is not simply romantic hyperbole.  It's an accurate expression of how deeply the audience comes to sympathize with the heroes and their doomed relationship.  James Cameron's choice of techniques reminds us that it's not how much time we have that matters, but what we make with the time we're given.  His directorial flourish -- slow-motion photography, particularly -- is a perfect example of form highlighting or reflecting content.

As we've now come to expect from Cameron, The Terminator is a near-perfect fusion of big emotions, big concepts and stellar action-movie film making.  It's almost impossible to conceive of the picture as Cameron's first, since it is remains so accomplished on so many dramatic fronts.

Come with me if you want to live.

In the year 2029 A.D., the human survivors of a devastating nuclear war are on the verge of defeating their enemy, an artificial intelligence called SkyNet. 

In response, the intelligent machine sends a cyborg called a Terminator, a T-100 (Arnold Schwarzenegger), back in time to the year 1984 to kill waitress Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton), who will one day be the mother of the future resistance leader, General John Connor. 

The resistance responds to this initiative by sending back to 1984 someone to stop the killing machine, a foot soldier named Kyle Reese ( Michael Biehn).

In 1984, the Terminator uses the the phone book and begins to methodically kill all L.A. residents named Sarah Connor.  As the police (Paul Winfield and Lance Henriksen) assemble the disturbing clues in the case and grow concerned they're dealing with a serial killer, an unwitting Sarah encounters the Terminator at a club called Tech Noir.

Kyle rescues Sarah and soon tells her the story of the future not yet written; of her unborn son, John, and her tutelage of him in the ways of war. 

But even as Kyle and Sarah fall in love, the Terminator continues his relentless drive to find them and murder Sarah.  After decimating an entire police station, the Terminator pursues an injured Kyle and Sarah on the road. 

The final battle to decide the future occurs in an automated factory, Cyberdyne Systems...

Look at it this way: in a hundred years, who's gonna care?

Perhaps the very best quality about The Terminator is that it eerily and effectively crafts two very distinctive and atmospheric worlds. 

The first such world is Los Angeles of 1984, and city life is dramatized here as  this weird twilight world of seemingly never-ending night.

The city boulevards are rain-soaked and wind-swept. Garbage blows continually through alleyways.  Strangers, hobos and other fringe dwellers seem to move back and forth, half-conscious, in the neon-lit streets, unnoticed and uncommented upon.  Here, in anonymity, a monster arrives; a technological boogeyman.  But because he is human in appearance, he is perfectly disguised, able to fit in easily with the human flotsam and jetsam.

As Cameron paints it, this world feels particularly fragile and unwelcoming.  The punk rock music (as heard in the club Tech Noir) is harsh and driving, and there's a feeling that the denizens of daytime such as Sarah Connor don't easily see or understand the denizens of the city's night.  This is important, of course, because a war is being waged secretly at night.  Two warriors - the T-100 and Kyle Reese -- slip into this world and, unnoticed, fight for the very future of mankind.  They pick off resources (clothing, weapons, groceries, etc.), and march forward on competing agendas.  The overall feeling is that no one in authority is watching.  Nobody cares.  These people and their urban world have been written off as unimportant, inconsequential.

Cameron artfully picks up on a true 1980s aesthetic here, showcasing the homeless, the hopeless, and the lost as part of his twilight world.  Other films in the 1980s, such as Vamp (1986),  and John Carpenter's Prince of Darkness (1987) and They Live (1988) capture a similar  mood; the electric notion that another world co-exists with ours, and could intersect with our experience at any time.  It's half-seen and half-acknowledged, but it's there...

The second world that The Terminator creates with frightening acumen is Los Angeles of 2029.  It's a world in which human skulls appear to form the firmament of a new terrain, and the skies are forever gray and dark.  Many science fiction films visit post-apocalyptic futures, but The Terminator presents one of the grimmest and most effective visualizations of such a landscape.  The world of 2029 is a colossal junkyard that consists of ruins as far as the eye can see.  Where some films (such as The Road Warrior or the Planet of the Apes films) have opted for showcasing real deserts as the aftermath of a  nuclear war, The Terminator really goes for broke here, showcasing broken, desperate humans living in horrible, miserable conditions.   Man's world has been twisted and broken. 

One terrific shot in the post-apocalyptic scenes reveals two starving children huddling in front of a TV set.  Cameron switches views after a minute, and we see the yellow light emanating from the television is that of a candle, one set inside the broken screen.   The moment is picture perfect as gallows humor, and as heartbreaking glimpse of a tomorrow that must never be.

The feeling evoked  in the contrast between 1984 and 2029 s is that one world leads to the other world, as easily as the present flows into the future.   There's a feeling in the 1980s scenes that mankind has abdicated his sense of responsibility to the world and to civilization at large.  In one scene involving the police detectives, the question is asked "who is in charge here?"  The answer seems to be nobody.   Nobody is in charge.  Nobody is making a difference.  Man seems to have given up on his world and his fellow man.

Sarah's roommate, Ginger, for instance, tunes out of reality even while making love to her boyfriend, Matt.  And Sarah and others seem to constantly be speaking to answering machines or unfeeling telephone operators.  Punk-styled predators -- played by Bill Paxton and Brian Thompson -- stalk the night too, seizing on the world's very lack of order.  It's not difficult, given the shape of the world of 1984, to imagine a future in which man surrenders his very well-being to a machine.  Indeed, Tech Noir -- the Night of Technology - precedes the dawn of SkyNet.

As I wrote in Horror Films of the 1980s (2007), "the antidote to this techno-punk world is human love and connectedness."   And here, Cameron gives the audience star-crossed lovers Kyle and Sarah, two classic characters in film history. 

They not only love each other, they conceive a savior for human-kind out of that love.  Implicit in this scenario is a criticism of the world as it stands in the 1980s.  It's one where, to quote Charlton Heston in Planet of the Apes, there seems to be an abundance of lovemaking, but little real love.

Murder is as easy as flipping through a phone book (let your finger's do the walking...), the police are ineffective and insincere, and even medical science (as represented by Earl Boen's Dr. Silverman) is incapable of feeling empathy or providing help.

The seed Kyle brings back to Sarah, then, is one of love, compassion and self-sacrifice.  Kyle is a man of duty who understands how valuable human life is, and he brings that understanding to a purposeless Sarah and to her disaffected, empty world.  I mean, just think about Kyle for a moment.  He could have escaped from his apocalyptic world back to 1984 and made a very selfish decision.  He could have stolen some clothes, abandoned his mission, and had a pretty decent life (at least until 1997).  But Kyle didn't do that.  He cared about his peers and his purpose and stuck to his mission of saving a woman he had never met, and only fantasized about.   

In Terminator 2, Sarah tells Silverman that everyone blindly living life (before Judgment Day) is already dead; and that's also clearly the vibe of The Terminator.  The world seems to be running on fumes, as a culture of death (in terms of punk music and punk fashion...) spirals further and further away from not just inter-connectedness, but civility and decency itself.  Reese opens Sarah's eyes to the fact that "a storm is coming," and that the world in this half-awake, half-asleep state, cannot continue.  Sarah also opens up Kyle's eyes to love too.  She makes him see that he can't remain disconnected from pain or hurt, or that he'll be making the same mistake as the 1984-ers.

At several crucial junctures in The Terminator, Cameron utilizes slow-motion photography to enhance the power of his visuals.  In the first such case, the Terminator kicks open the door of a middle-aged woman named Sarah Connor (not our final girl, but another S.C....). He forces her way into the house, levels a gun at her head, and fires.  It's all vetted in  agonizing slow-motion, and so the nature of the intrusion and violation is heightened significantly.  The terror of the moment -- the seeming randomness of the crime -- is punctuated.  As the moment lingers, we reflect on the horror of it.  Of a stranger coming to our door, breaking it down, and leveling a gun at us.  Again, this is a very 1980s brand of fear: of random violence and crime run amok.

Later, Cameron uses slow-motion photography during the lead-up to the Tech Noir fight sequence, and this time, he deploys it to lengthen the audience's feelings of tension and suspense.  Sarah Connor has no one to protect her, no avenue of escape at all, and as The Terminator nears in slow-motion, his power and dominance -- and her vulnerability -- attain near-epic proportions.

Finally, Cameron uses slow motion photography at the culmination of Sarah and Kyle's love scene.  Intertwined, their hands open slowly, as if a flower blooming.  The idea here -- again -- is that time may be constant, but as humans we experience it as relative.  Here, the connection between Sarah and Kyle is significant and meaningful, and the "blossoming" image of their hands suggests that their love has, well, literally borne fruit.  Their love-making is also like a stolen moment during an un-ending nightmare that "will never be over." 

Again and again, we've seen in the Cameron Curriculum how James Cameron is able to connect powerfully -- nay viscerally -- with audience emotions, and foster feelings of immediacy and immersion.   In The Terminator, one of his neatest conceits involves this manipulation of time's passage in the edit.  And yes, it's a highly appropriate selection given the film's theme about time travel.  Cameron's approach reminds us that time feels different at different times, and that ultimately the secret of time is to make something positive out of it.

Over and over again in the film, Cameron reveals great ingenuity in how he deals with the concept of the future.  For example, Sarah's waitress friend notes that in a hundred years, no one will care about what's she doing in 1984, but that is not technically true.  The people of 2029 no doubt wish that the denizens of that earlier age had made different choices, especially regarding the invention and implementation of SkyNet.  And personally, of course, Sarah Connor's name will no doubt be long known -- even in 2084 -- if human beings manage to defeat the smart machines.  

Also, the film is downright poetic in the way it deals with Sarah Connor's photograph, and Kyle's possession/loss of it.  Interestingly, we see the photo burn in the film before we even see it developed.  But we are asked by Reese to wonder what Sarah is thinking about when the picture is snapped.  By the last reel, we know precisely: she's thinking of him, of Kyle.   Thus Kyle fell in love with a photograph of a woman who, before he was ever born, was already in love with him.  Mind-boggling stuff.

Other aspects of the film are equally stirring, and admirable.  For instance, the disintegration of the Terminator's human appearance is splendidly vetted.  His eyebrows are singed off first.  Then he loses an eye. Next he injures his fore-arm (and must repair it with a razor knife...).  As the movie progresses, the Terminator appears less and less human, until finally -- during the climax -- he is revealed as the soulless automaton that he is, no longer able to pass in human society as one of us.  The methodical disintegration of the Terminator's appearance, however, barely seems to go noticed by society at large, and again a point is made about people only seeing what they want to see; of avoiding the confrontation with something different or unpalatable.

In terms of the Cameron Curriculum, we certainly have a fish-out-of-water element in The Terminator.  Here, the obvious fishes-out-of-water are Kyle and the Terminator, who have traveled back in time forty-five years to a totally new world.  But a closer reading of the film suggests that it is Sarah who may be the out-of-her-element character.  Although 1984 is her time and Los Angeles is her world, she is swept up into the conflict between future man and SkyNet, and forced to countenance all kinds of things she can't even imagine, including her own destiny and purpose.  In this case, the Terminator and Kyle are the characters with the useful information, and Sarah spends the film playing catch-up, at least until she comes into her own in the film's finale.

Sarah Connor is also James Cameron's first great female character.  She starts out living a largely unexamined life, and yet by the end of the film can clearly "see" a future that others can't.  She survives the attack on her life and becomes the person she was destined to be.  Although Sarah protests along the way of her development -- noting that she can't even balance her checkbook -- she soon becomes literally the mother of humanity's future.  The factor that makes Sarah change so radically is  one man, Kyle, and that's one of the key points we've seen here on the Cameron Curriculum. Essentially -- to use a Titanic metaphor -- Kyle plays "Jack" to Sarah's "Rose," waking up Connor from her complacency and infusing her life with a sense of purpose.

The shadow of nuclear Armageddon hovers over The Terminator, and that too is a common aspect of Cameron's canon.  Nuclear weapons play a critical role in every one of his films save for Titanic (1997).  Here, Cameron focuses on the madness of putting life-and-death nuclear decisions in the hands of "the machine," and that theme would become even more pronounced in the sequel.   But again, the context of this film must be named.  In the early 1980s, President Reagan frequently joked about nuclear war.  On an open mike he once declared that "bombing begins in five minutes," and in a 1984 debate with candidate Walter Mondale he inaccurately reported that nuclear missiles could be recalled from submarines after their launch.  The "apocalypse mentality" of the 1980s was thus a powerful force in American cinema mid-decade, and one can see it here, very prominently, in The Terminator.

I've also often likened The Terminator to a technological version of John Carpenter's Halloween (1978) because both films involve an unstoppable, relentless monster pursuing a young woman, and that woman's ultimate turnaround to fight back.  Michael Myers is "The Shape" and not quite human, and Arnie's The Terminator is a technological monster.  But these boogeymen certainly share traits in common.  They both come and go as they please; they both often hide in plain sight; and their thought processes are quite opaque to audiences.  They both kill and pursue victims, but we don't really know what they're thinking or why they're thinking it.   Like Michael, the Terminator -- who also survives being beaten, bruised and flame-broiled -- is truly a classic movie villain because of his relentless nature. 

In the sequels, Arnold would play the machine as a hero, but there's something potent, callous and devious about his portrayal of this Terminator, this first time out.  Underlying the cold, mechanical nature of the thing, there's some sense of an identity, of an enjoyment of his vile actions.  This Terminator thrives on the hunt, it seems, and isn't entirely immune to concepts such as irony or humor.  His selection of rejoinder to a nosy landlord in a sleazy motel is a perfect example.  "Fuck you, asshole."  Why select that particular option (from a table of options)?  It has something to do, I would argue, with the machine's personality.

The Terminator is an incredibly effective thrill machine, but the reason the film is remembered today (and will be remembered well into the future) is because James Cameron has surrounded his meticulous action scenes with "living human tissue," namely an affecting love story and meditation on time itself.  This skin on the story's mechanical bones makes the film resonate on a deeper level, and point explicitly towards Cameron's future approach in film making.

 It's "something about the field generated by a living organism"...and it's called heart.

Next week: the Cameron Curriculum concludes with Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991).

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Sci-Fi Wisdom of the Week

"John Connor gave me a picture of you once. I didn't know why at the time. It was very old - torn, faded. You were young like you are now. You seemed just a little sad. I used to always wonder what you were thinking at that moment. I memorized every line, every curve. I came across time for you Sarah. I love you; I always have."

 - The Terminator (1984)
(full review coming tomorrow, as the Cameron Curriculum continues...)

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

RETRO TOY FLASHBACK #95: Shoot Out in Space (Tomy; 1978)

Everyone remembers how Star Wars ended in 1977.  A little precision shooting from Luke Skywalker (with some help from The Force...) and the Death Star was history.  

This 1978 toy from Tomy (No. 2509) , Shoot Out in Space offered imaginative kids of the disco decade the opportunity to undertake a similar sort of mission, only this time taking out enemy spaceships launched from another evil space station.

According to the box, Shoot Out in Space was a "real test of marksmanship."  The goal of the game was to "disable enemy rockets with a mysterious beam of light."  

In broad terms, the toy involved "cosmic combat with a ray gun, revolving station and enemy rockets." 

You could even modify your laser weapon to your liking, making the "ray gun hand-size by separating it from the stock." 

The light beam from the ray gun worked "on a transistorized target at distances over 30 feet," and you could also "change the target to make it harder and harder to hit."

Designed for ages 6 and up, this Tomy toy required four "AA" batteries to operate, and was quite a popular item when I was a kid, as I recall. 

My best friend who lived next door to me in Glen Ridge owned Shoot Out in Space, and often invited me up to his third-floor playroom to shoot down the enemy rockets.   We would spend a while playing the game, and then inevitably take the (soft) rockets and peg each other with them, pretending they were space grenades.  Now that was really fun.

I finally got my hands on one of these toys recently (as part of my ongoing effort to recapture my lost youth...) and it's still a pretty cool game all these years later.  I've played it with my son, Joel, and -- wouldn't you know -- the soft rockets are his favorite part of the game as well.  Only he uses them to knock down and "destroy" Gobots, and occasionally, to terrorize our cats...

Tuesday, August 09, 2011

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: Battle: Los Angeles (2011)

"We only have to look at ourselves to see how intelligent life might develop into something we wouldn't want to meet. I imagine they might exist in massive ships, having used up all the resources from their home planet. Such advanced aliens would perhaps become nomads, looking to conquer and colonise whatever planets they can reach."

- Steve Hawking

Jonathan Liebesman's Battle Los Angeles is both a gung-ho, full-throttle war movie and an intriguing meditation on the thoughts expressed in the Steve Hawking quote printed above. 

In other words, the film is a two-hour warning that there could be a bigger kid out there on the cosmic block, eyeing up our milk money...or our planet.
The film -- set on August 12, 2011 (this coming Friday, actually) -- concerns an alien invasion and occupation of planet Earth, and the largely impotent (at least at first...) response on the part of our national military. 

Though critics relentlessly hammered Battle Los Angeles for a variety of reasons, the film is undeniably exciting and intense, and also effectively presented in terms of visuals.  The most interesting aspect of the movie however, is the subtext, which reflects on the contemporary age of American Empire. 

With two wars in Iraq under our national belt in 2011, plus continuing military engagements in Libya and Afghanistan, most contemporary Americans are acutely aware of how vital natural resources are; and how far a global power might go to acquire or protect such resources.  As the last remaining superpower, America -- rightly or wrongly -- reserves the right to send military forces around the world to determine ownership and control of such resources.  We are blessed with superior armed forces who are impeccably equipped and entirely capable of carrying out such foreign policy spearheads.

Intriguingly Battle Los Angeles essentially asks audiences to consider the war in Iraq from the other side of that particular equation. 

Suddenly, its our cities being attacked, our resources being coveted, and our soldiers being outmatched by superior technology.  Suddenly, "shock and awe" is being utilized against the very people who invented the term.  The shoe is on the other foot. 

Uniquely, Battle:Los Angeles makes its alien invaders more advanced than the U.S.A. in terms of technology, but not so much so that the aliens are invulnerable or able to wipe us out easily.  The point here is that the aliens are only a generation or so ahead of our own military; as we are but a generation ahead of the Iraqi Army, for example.  Even the design of the alien technology reflects this fact.  More or less, the aliens utilize recognizable guns, air ships, drones and armor; tech only slightly out of our reach today, in 2011.

The goal in fostering this dynamic, this familiar relationship, is to reveal to audiences how modern urban fighting looks and feels when you don't possess the upper hand in terms of weapons, vehicles and territory. 

Here, the battle occurs on American soil -- the soil we consider most important -- and every loss in terms of property and people is a blow to our country's economy, treasure, and life-blood  Thus the movie plays cleverly on our sense of nationalism and pride.  We believe it can't happen here -- that we can't be beaten in war -- but Battle: Los Angeles shows viewers how, in fact, it could.

Of course, in typical Hollywood fashion, the less-advanced army carries the day here, just in time for a convenient happy ending.  But that flaw (along with a few others) might be forgiven since Battle: Los Angeles is so obviously crafted in the blockbuster mold.   Accordingly, the film's action scenes are spectacular and involving, particularly one set on a damaged freeway ramp.  And lead actor Aaron Eckhart is especially impressive as Sgt. Nantz, a quiet and committed American soldier; a reluctant warrior of tremendous integrity and fortitude.

An unidentified enemy has reached our coastlines in a swift and militaristic attack. Right now one thing is clear: The world is at war.

On August 12, 2011, meteors rain down across the globe.  As Earth authorities soon learn, however, the meteors can alter speed and change trajectory.  They also house alien soldiers of frightening, destructive capability.

As armies mobilize around the world to meet the alien threat and pundits theorize that the aliens have arrived to steal Earth's water, Staff Sgt. Michael Nantz (Aaron Eckhart) is called back from retirement to active duty. 

Under the command of a rookie lieutenant, Martinez (Ramon Rodriguez), Nantz is ordered to lead a squad of soldiers, Echo Unit,  into the occupied city of Los Angeles and rescue several civilians trapped in an otherwise abandoned police department.  The soldiers must complete the rescue in three hours, before the U.S. Air Force firebombs the city

After a disastrous first engagement with the aliens, Nantz and a group of civilians and soldiers attempt to make it back to a base in Santa Monica in a still-operating bus.  After a pitched battle on a freeway ramp, the survivors make it home only to find the headquarters burned to the ground by alien air power.

Teaming up with a tech sergeant, Santos (Michelle Rodriguez), Nantz launches a desperate campaign to take out the alien's command center, a construct hidden somewhere within city limits. 

At first, it looks as though Nantz will have to make the final fight alone, but through his heroic and selfless actions he earns the loyalty of the men and woman in his unit...

That was some new John Wayne shit

Although critics complained about Battle Los Angeles visual flourishes -- or lack thereof -- director John Liebesman has nonetheless selected the best technique to depict his particular tale.

In particular, he deploys a shaky cam and hand-held shots so that the audience feels -- viscerally -- that it has landed in combat right alongside the infantry and Sgt. Nantz.

Mimicking documentary film techniques, Liebesman reaches for and attains an authentic cinema-verite vibe here, the sometimes queasy feeling of real life unfolding before the camera, unplanned and unrehearsed.

Yes, this technique isn't always perfect in terms of clarity and spatial relationships, but indeed that's the very point of such an approach.  A soldier on the ground in an alien invasion of Los Angeles certainly wouldn't have access to the larger picture, the position of his enemy, or much of anything, actually.  Instead, the experience would be one of total pandemonium and chaos. 

The jerky camera and the quick cutting here accurately reflect the experience of combat, the proverbial "fog of war."   In other words, the film's form reflects its content to a high degree.  The visuals make us feel the disarray of the situation.  We too, go to war, here and the director's selection of technique heightens immediacy and fosters anxiety.  I fail to see why many good film critics failed to recognize the efficacy of this approach.  Is the film "noisy, violent, ugly and stupid?"  Well, it's the first three, to be certain. And yet a war like this, if fought in real life, would also be "noisy, violent and ugly."  Stupid?  Well, I suppose that's in the eye of the beholder.

The grounds on which to legitimately complain about Battle: Los Angeles are likely those involving the off-the-shelf characters.  The military types in the film, while undeniably heroic, are stereotypes as old as the war movie genre itself.  There's the seasoned veteran about to be put out to pasture.  There's the green rookie put in charge of the unit, trying to find his battle "legs."  There's the married guy, the resentful soldier who lost a brother under Nantz's command and so on and so forth. 

These characters and situations are all right out of the war movie formula playbook, but as one of our readers, Cannon, insightfully commented here the other day "the reason they call it formula is because it works."  Indeed.  We don't watch a film like this for character development, necessarily, but for the riveting action and combat scenarios, at least primarily.

Another reason to dislike Battle: Los Angeles, perhaps, is the unoriginality of the alien motivation.  The E.T.s are here on Earth to steal our water supply.  We've already seen that idea played out on the original V (1984) and in Signs (2002).  Yet, again, I believe that this argument largely misses the point.  Battle: Los Angeles is first and foremost a war movie, but one boasting some welcome and creative twists.  We get state-of-the-art special effects and cinema-verite camerawork, but more importantly the movie presents the unconventional conceit of turning shock and awe on the very country who introduced it to the world.   There's also a nice homage at film's end to Ridley Scott's brilliant Black Hawk Down (2001), and it's one that lauds American soldiers and ther commitment to service.  All in all, it's not a bad or unpalatable mix, frankly.

Fronted by Eckhart -- whose chiseled good looks and quiet strength suggest he would make a hell of a Sgt. Rock -- Battle Los Angeles is ultimately an inventive and interesting enough initiative to grab a foothold in the viewer's psyche and plant it's flag there.

And, it's better and smarter than the similarly-themed Skyline (2011). 

Monday, August 08, 2011

The Cult-TV Faces of: the Time Traveler

Identified by Hugh: Russell Johnson in The Twilight Zone: "Back There."

Identified by Hugh: William Hartnell is The Doctor in Doctor Who: "An Unearthly Child."

Identified by Will: Michael Ansara as Quarlo in The Outer Limits: "Soldier"

Identified by Hugh: Tony (James Darren) and Doug (Robert Colbert) in The Time Tunnel (1966).

Identified by woodchuckgod: Dr.  McCoy (De Forest Kelley) in Star Trek: "City on the Edge of Forever."

Identified by Hugh: Enik (Walker Edmiston) in Land of the Lost: "The Stranger."

Identified by Hugh: Commander Koenig (Martin Landau) in Space:1999 "Journey to Where."

Identified by Will: David Eakins (Paul Shenar) in Logan's Run: "Man out of Time."

Identified by Hugh: Phineas Bogg (John-Erik Hexum) and Jeffre (Meeno Peluce) in Voyagers!

Identified by Hugh: Patrick Stewart and Patrick Stewart in ST: TNG: "Time Squared."

Identified by Hugh: Sam Beckett (Scott Bakula) in Quantum Leap.

Identified by Hugh: Bill Preston Esq. (Evan Richards) and Theodore Logan (Christopher Kennedy) in Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure (1992).

Identified by Hugh: Darien Lambert (Dale Midkiff) in Time Trax.

Identified by Will: Officer Jack Logan (Ted King) in Time Cop (1997).

Identified by Claudiu: Lt. Frank Parker (Jonathan La Paglia) in Seven Days.

Identified by woodchuckgod: Admiral Kathryn Janeway (Kate Mulgrew) in ST: Voyager: "Endgame."

Identified by Hugh: Eliza Dushku as Tru in Tru Calling.

Identified by Claudiu: Temporal Agent Daniels (Matt Winston): ST: Enterprise: "Storm Front." 

Identified by Claudiu: Chuck Taggart (Peter Weller) in Odyssey 5 (2002).

Identified by Will: Dan Vasser (Kevin McKidd) in Journeyman (2007)

Identified by Hugh: Sam Tyler (John Simm) in Life on Mars.

Sunday, August 07, 2011

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011)

Well, I'm absolutely thrilled that I get to end my blog's Ape-o-thon on a positive note. 

Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011) is not only a great movie, it's a terrific Planet of the Apes movie too.  The film's special effects are downright astonishing, but more importantly the "human" story -- concerning an evolved ape seeking his destiny -- proves wholly affecting. 

In terms of the franchise, Rupert Wyatt's Rise of the Planet of the Apes features perhaps a dozen hints or links to future (or past?) events in the series and most of all, doesn't spoon-feed the audience all the answers regarding them.  Therefore, as much as the film sets up a new Apes franchise (in the mold of Star Trek [2009] or Batman Begins [2005]), it also showcases more than enough mystery to stimulate the mind. 

A new "future history" has been initiated here, and that hard work is done with real intelligence, detail and depth.  Just please be certain you don't leave the auditorium until after the end credits, or you'll miss the film's final (terrifying...), information-age coda.  I have the distinct feeling some major critics may have missed this coda, based on their reviews.  They seem to think that the apes only get so far as Golden Gate Bridge, when in fact another entire subplot reveals why Earth could very soon become a planet dominated by apes.

In assessing the quality of a Planet of the Apes film, one has to gaze at several criteria.  Does the film permit the audience to see human beings in a new light; from the outside (ape perspective) as it were?  Does the film then comment meaningfully on human nature, and compare it to ape nature?  Does the movie boast a convincing narrative with closure and distinct purpose while -- all the while -- laying the groundwork (or tying the knot...) for other entries in a film series that is a giant loop?  And, of course, is the film thrilling and action-packed in a way that supports that narrative?

Rise of the Planet of the Apes succeeds admirably in every single one those arenas.  Actually, I'll go further: it's the best movie I've seen theatrically in some time, and perhaps the best genre film I've seen this year.  In large part, the re-boot's grandest achievement is that it focuses so powerfully on one character, Caesar, and takes the audience through almost his whole life, from birth to young adulthood (ten years, perhaps).  Given that Caesar is created via digital special effects (and through the incomparable talents of Andy Serkis), the film's success is all the more surprising and admirable. 

"You'll learn who is boss soon enough..."

In Rise of the Planet of the Apes, a young scientist, Will Rodman (James Franco) at Gen-Sys develops the cure of Alzheimer's, called ALZ-112.  The chemical causes damaged brain cells to repair and re-build themselves, a brand of "Neuro genesis." 

The test of ALZ-112 on Chimp # 9, "Bright Eyes," has proven that it works admirably, but when the affected chimpanzee suddenly goes crazy and breaks out of confinement, the Board at Gen-Sys opts not to pursue human tests.  Later, Will and the chimpanzee handler, Franklin (Tyler Labine) discover that "Bright Eyes" may merely have been protecting her newborn infant.

With his work shut down, or at least set back, Will brings the orphaned baby chimp home, where his father, Charles (John Lithgow) names the ape "Caesar."  Charles suffers from Alzheimer's and Will, acting in secret, gives him the ALZ-112.  The cure works its wonders, at least for a time, and Will learns that Bright Eyes passed on the ALZ-112 to her son...meaning that Caesar possesses incredible intelligence.  By the age of three, Caesar is already smarter than his human counterparts...

As the years go by, Caesar becomes like a son to Will.  Along with a lovely zoo veterinarian, Caroline (Freida Pinto), Charles, Caesar and Will often visit Muir Woods, where the ape can climb the tall redwoods and roam free.  Unfortunately, Caesar acts violently against a cruel, callous neighbor when Charles' Alzheimer's returns, and for his defensive action is remanded to the San Bruno Primate Shelter run by the cruel Landon family (Brian Cox and Tom Felton).

While Will attempts to bring Caesar home, he also develops ALZ-113, a new strain of his cure that may have side-effects the scientist has not foreseen.  This fact does not stop Will's profit-hungry boss, Jacobs (David Oyelowo), however, from pursuing development of "the cure..."

"What is Caesar?"

Early in this film, animal handler Franklin reminds Will (and the movie-going audience) that apes boast "personalities" and that they "form attachments." 

In many ways, this line of dialogue is  the key to the film.  Rise of the Planet of the Apes concerns an orphaned chimp of extreme intelligence who becomes part of a family, Will's human family. 

Thus Caesar wears clothes like a human child, plays games like a human child, and forms attachments to those he loves.  He views Will as his father, and Charles as his grandfather.  Caesar even gazes out the attic window of his house and -- we can see it on his expressive face -- wants to play outside, like human children.  His happiest moments are those in Muir Woods, where he can fully exercise his ape heritage.  But importantly, even those wonderful moments are spent with his human family...the other part of Caesar's equation or make-up.

As Caesar grows, he begins to wonder explicitly about his nature.  "What is Caesar?" He asks Will, rather pointedly (in sign language).  The answer is that he's not quite a human and no longer a mere, unevolved ape either. He's something singular; something different.  And in that difference Caesar is lonely and confused.  Caroline warns Will at one point that as Caesar grows, he will no longer be the obedient, supplicating son, but rather a rival, a competitor.  In this dynamic, quite clearly, Rise of the Planet of the Apes develops a metaphor for both human adolescence and the perils of fatherhood.  

When Caesar's home is taken away from him and he's remanded to a facility where the apes are treated cruelly, we see what happens when an emotional, vulnerable being is abandoned by family.  To quote the film, evolution becomes revolution.  After a time, Caesar gives up the hope and belief that he will return home to Will, and turns his attention to the apes incarcerated with him. They are treated -- again to quote the film's most important dialogue -- as if they don't have personalities and as if they don't form attachments.  They're just stupid prisoners to be controlled, and Caesar's evolved mind becomes awakened to the idea that such captivity is wrong.  He finally sees a place for himself where he does a leader of his kind.

Again, this process very much mirrors the journey into adulthood we humans face.  There's the inevitable rejection of the "father" or the previous generation, and the search for one's own purpose, outside of "family of origin" definitions.  There's the leaving of home, and the discovery and building of a new home.  Rise of the Planet of the Apes feels very personal in its depiction of this theme.  Will's character proves very interesting in that he is both  a son and a father, and in some sense, he fails in both roles. 

The film largely adopts Caesar's perspective, and we sympathize with the character as he loses his mother, his home, and then even his already-limited freedom.  When he leads the apes on an escape from captivity (again, to Muir Woods), it's not so much a rebellion against humanity as it is a flight to a better life.  Again, this idea is very easy to sympathize with.  Growing-up and finding one's place can be a tempestuous process.  We all ask ourselves the questions: Who am I?  Who do I want to be?

The social commentary in this film arrives in  few key points.  Other than Will's family and Franklin, humans in the film are seen in light of the old proverb that money is the root of all evil.   Landon and Jacobs put profit ahead of humanity, ultimately to the detriment of humanity itself.  They would rather be rich than be good, and though this leitmotif doesn't equal the powerful anti-war sentiment of the original franchise, this idea is certainly timely in our culture right now, following the Great Recession.  Wealth -- the accumulation of money -- has become more important than safety concerns to many businessmen, as we saw in the BP Oil Spill of 2010.   Helping people seems secondary to lining pockets, or protecting interests.

Like Jurassic Park (1993), Mimic (1997) and Deep Blue Sea (1999), Rise of the Planet of the Apes is also about the common horror movie idea of science run amok; of science unchecked.  The film glides past the idea that "some things shouldn't be changed" in relation to Will's experimentation, right to the idea that business can't regulate itself when it comes to new (and potentially profitable...) science.  In other words, Will may have been wrong for testing ALZ-112 and ALZ-113 illicitly, but his actions weren't a threat to the world until his creations fell into the avaricious hands of Big Business. 

In some way, the film is very much about human arrogance too.  From Rise of the Planet of the Apes' first frames -- a brutal chimpanzee hunt in the jungle -- it obsesses on the almost casual way that humanity assumes that other creatures (such as apes) are his to do with as he pleases: to abduct, to experiment upon, and to imprison. 

In our arrogance, we believe that other creatures don't possess souls, or don't feel emotions  as we do.  In 2011, we have heard an awful lot in the media about government taking away our "freedoms" or "liberties," but how stingy mankind appears in regards to the freedom and liberties of other mammals or non-humans.  In that way, Rise of the Planet of the Apes is very much about animal rights, and this brings us full-circle to the original Planet of the Apes.  There, we saw Zaius's religious hypocrisy and the ape belief that only simians possessed the "spark" of the divine.  Today, many people similarly believe that Man is made in God's image and other creatures are just...dinner.  These folks believe what Ann Coulter espouses "God gave us the earth. We have dominion over the plants, the animals, the trees. God said, 'Earth is yours. Take it. Rape it. It's yours.Rise of the Planet of the Apes asks us to question that kind of cruel, selfish thinking.

Before I saw the film, I was very anxious about the CGI aspects of the movie.  If they failed...the movie would fail too.  Fortunately, I had no cause for concern.  The apes in this film are completely convincing and "real," and -- mirroring the through-line about personality and attachment -- register as real, recognizable individuals.  Caesar is the film's crowning achievement, but a gorilla named Buck is pretty amazing too, as is a slightly-mad chimpanzee named Coba. 

I haven't read many reviews to mention this fact, but in terms of physicality, Caesar actually seems to echo the contours of Roddy McDowall's face, at least after a fashion.  And his responses also strongly echo details of McDowall's performances, particularly in Conquest.  There's an instant in the film where Caesar hisses at a threat and then, after a moment of reflection, seems to reconsider and actually disapprove of his own "animal" behavior.  If you're a fan of the series, it's an emotional response you'll recognize instantly as McDowall's.  Seriously.  The effects-work isn't only gorgeous and realistic, then, it is actually faithful to the franchise and succeeds in making us sympathize with Caesar to an incredibe degree.  James Franco does a fine, restrained job as Will -- by selling the reality of the special effects, essentially -- but Caesar feels like a flesh and blood person, or ape.

In terms of thrilling action, Rise of the Planet of the Apes features several incredible scenes of Caesar's apes on the loose in San Francisco.  On first blush, it might not seem plausible that high-tech human law enforcement officials would have a problem containing this escape of the apes, but the film makes the case surprisingly well that the apes don't think like humans, and therefore keep surprising the humans. 

For instance, there's a great exterior visual of the apes leaping out of a building -- through glass windows -- by the dozen.  In another impressively-staged shot, we see that the apes apparently believe the quickest way to their destination is to go through an office building, not around it.   Again and again, the movie reveals how the apes operate on different principles of behavior, and how that behavior prevents law enforcement from responding effectively to the crisis.  That the apes are "evolved" plays into the matter too, of course.  The police don't expect the apes to pick up spears, use city buses as barricades, or deploy advanced battle tactics. 

The film's final battle on the Golden Gate Bridge is really fantastic work, in large part because we come to understand Caesar's tactics and movements, and the film doesn't cheat on spatial relationships or placement of the two "armies."  So many action films made these days rely on quick cutting and shaky cameras, but Rise of the Planet of the Apes builds its climax in relatively traditional film grammar terms, so that we understand where the characters are, who they are fighting, and what's at stake.  It's accomplished work, especially considering the complexity of the effects.

For the dedicated ape fan, Rise of the Planet of the Apes is an absolute delight. There are so many clever series touches here that it's difficult to remember and enumerate them all.  One involves Caesar's birth.  Nobody knew that "Bright Eyes" was even pregnant, and when Caesar is found, he's wrapped in a brown blanket....a blanket very much like the one that Zira wraps up baby Milo in during the conclusion of Escape from the Planet of the Apes.   To me, this raises a mystery.  Is Caesar really Bright Eyes' child, or the child of another ape, perhaps even Zira herself?  It's true that Caesare possesses the "green flecks" in his eyes that are a telltale sign of ALZ-112, but since this is passed on genetically, all evolved apes (even future apes of the year 3955...) would also possess them. 

Another mystery regarding Caesar's origin: What does the birth mark on his chest mean?  Is it present simply so the audience can recognize and differentiate Caesar more quickly and easily in the battle sequences?  Or does it carry another, deeper meaning?  Is it some kind of future-ape culture "brand" (in a caste system?) that was put on him by his real mother and father (whomever that may be)?  I don't know, and I like that the movie doesn't tell us too much.

Many reviews have also made note of the TV newscast that reports the disappearance of the spaceship "Icarus" on a mission to Mars.  At least unofficially, Icarus is the name of Taylor's spaceship from the original film, and it's disappearance suggests the time-dilation or Hasslein Curve that we're expecting.  A sequel to this film could have that spaceship arriving on Earth in a thousand years and finding Caesar's progeny. 

Rise of the Planet of the Apes also finds ways to work in Charlton Heston and famous lines of dialogue such as "take your stinking paws off me..." and "It's a madhouse,  madhouse!," but frankly, such touches aren't even really necessary.  The film works so impressively as a re-imagination of the franchise that the more overt pop culture shout-outs only seem to take away from the film's strong sense of dedication and fidelity to the source material.  My only wish is that in the primate shelter we had seen some ape name-plates that read Aldo, Lisa, and Mandemus.

I've read some critical complaints about the Tom Felton and Freida Pinto characters in the film, but these arguments largely miss the point.  These characters are not extraordinarily well-developed, to be certain, but they're as well developed, at least, as Julius in the original film, or Stephanie Branton in Escape.  Focusing on their superficiality misses the point: this is Caesar's story.  It's his story of determining "what he is," what he's supposed to be, and what purpose he is supposed to fulfill in his life.  The other characters are developed enough, but they aren't the focus.  In other words, you see about as much of them as you want to see, and no more.  It looks a lot to me like many critics were just trying to find things to quibble about in a movie that they largely liked, but didn't want to admit that they really liked.

Thrilling, intelligent, and emotionally resonant, Rise of the Planet of the Apes is everything I hoped it would be going in -- even with expectations high -- and perhaps more too.   When the film ended, I wanted to pay for another ticket and watch it again, to catch all the details I had missed.  I eagerly await the film's release on Blu Ray, that's for certain.

Finally, a re-imagination that doesn't make a monkey out of the audience.