Saturday, July 27, 2013

Cult-TV Gallery: Star Trek: The Animated Series Planetscapes


"The Lorelei Signal"

"The Infinite Vulcan"

"The Magicks of Megas-Tu"

"Once Upon a Planet"

"The Terratin Incident"

"The Ambergris Element"

"The Slaver Weapon"

"Eye of the Beholder"

"The Jihad"

"Pirates of Orion"

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: Star Trek: The Animated Series: "The Ambergris Element"

STARDATE: 5499.9

The U.S.S. Enterprise conducts research on the world of Argo, a planet covered almost entirely with water.

While exploring the planetary ocean aboard an Aqua Shuttle, Kirk and Spock are attacked by a giant aquatic creature which resembles “a Denebian whale.”  It destroys the shuttle, and the Captain and First Officer are lost.

Dr. McCoy and Scotty search for the missing officers, and after five days recover them in an odd, mutated state.  Some alien science of great innovation has converted the men into water-breathers.  

Gazing at his webbed hands, Kirk realizes that this transition could mean the end of his command.  “I can’t command a ship from the inside of an aquarium,” he declares.

Hoping to be restored by the same beings who changed them in the first place, Kirk and Spock explore the ocean world, and find a race of intelligent water-breathers who are battling a generation gap of ideas among the young and old…

“The Ambergris Element” showcases a breadth of visual and technological imagination that is very refreshing.  The episode successfully explores the idea of the Enterprise examining a planetary environment and surface that is entirely water, and encountering an aquatic species of high intelligence and technology.  This is a concept that could not have been executed on the original series for reasons of practicality and budget, but makes abundant sense in terms of the Trek concept.

Accordingly, the episode rolls out nifty new Starfleet tech such as the Enterprise’s aqua shuttle, and even a small motorboat (called a “scouter-gig”).  The great aspect of these new vehicles is that they have all been created with tremendous fidelity to the 1960s-style futurism of the original NBC series.  In other words, the ships look absolutely convincing, and absolutely “of” the established Star Trek universe.

But the idea that I like so much is that the Enterprise -- an exploratory vessel, not a warship -- would indeed be equipped with all the technology necessary to explore worlds of various physical natures and properties, from volcanic ones, to aquatic ones, perhaps even to gas giants.  Clearly, animation is a more affordable route if such story ideas are to be pursued, and it’s nice to witness the scope of a tale like “The Ambergris Element.”  I guess what I'm saying is that it successfully "expands" the universe of Star Trek in a good way.

Less inspiring, to a degree, is the actual storyline of the episode (by original series author, Margaret Armen).  We get another splintered alien civilization, where a difference in approach/philosophy is causing trouble, and it’s up to Kirk and Spock to bring peace and new understanding to the planet.  This paradigm is right out of the Star Trek playbook, but the fact that the Argosians are water-breathers living on a water world gives the episode some much needed distinction.

Next week: one of the all-time classic animated Trek episodes, and another one that "expands" the universe: “The Slaver Weapon."

Friday, July 26, 2013

The Films of 1984: Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes

First things first. Director Hugh Hudson's cinematic follow-up to his Oscar-winning Chariots of Fire (1981), Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes (1984) is not particularly faithful to the events depicted in his source material, Edgar Rice Burrough's 1914 novel, Tarzan of the Apes.

For instance, in this 27-million dollar movie adaptation, Tarzan (Christopher Lambert) does not meet Jane Porter (Andie MacDowell) in the jungle; nor return for her later in the United States; in Baltimore, and then Wisconsin, specifically.

The film also largely omits Tarzan's varied (sometimes playful) interactions with a local village/tribe in Africa, plus his attempts to learn to read English himself.

And the film's climax -- in which Tarzan returns to the jungle, leaving Jane behind (ostensibly forever...) -- is also not exactly canonical; though it can certainly be rationalized in movie terms, since everyone involved in the production was no doubt thinking/hoping "sequel."

Importantly, however, Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes, does, in very welcome fashion, get at the human "truth" of the popular, often-told Tarzan story. Specifically, the film offers a realistic and believable excavation of that which Burroughs first imagined: the story of an orphaned human boy raised by apes in the wild, and his interactions with so-called human civilization.

If the Richard Donner Superman: The Movie of 1978 was all about "you'll believe a man can fly," then this careful, painstaking iteration of Tarzan is, perhaps, "you'll believe a man can swing on a vine."

And actually, that's no small achievement.

Over the long decades, the silver screen Tarzan has been involved in the hunt for gold (Tarzan's Secret Treasure [1941]), battled Nazis (Tarzan Triumphs [1943]) and faced down evil cults (Tarzan and the Leopard Woman [1946]). 

By deliberate contrast, Greystoke is a back-to-basics approach, focusing on the man and his identity rather than the pulp-styled enemies or cliffhanger challenges the character so often faces.

Crafted with meticulous care -- with talented actors, gorgeous locations and Rick Baker's still-impressive ape make-up -- Greystoke was widely welcomed in theaters in 1984 as "one of the best movies" of the year. Joseph Gelmis wrote in Newsday (March 30, 1984, page 7) that it is a "serious movie, a thinking man's Tarzan. It is also ravishingly beautiful, provocative" and "profoundly moving."

Much of that "profoundly moving" part arises from the considerable efforts of Christopher Lambert, an actor who is, in many ways at his absolute finest here. I also admire Johnny Weissmuller, one of Lambert's more prominent predecessors in the role of Tarzan, but Weissmuller's interpretation was a product of a different, more artificial/theatrical age in movie history. Weissmuller was a sort of muscle-bound body-builder-type, which today seems wrong for Tarzan. He was also a bit too clean-shaven and civilized to seem a believable man of the jungle.

Greystoke knowingly adopts a more natural approach, and Lambert is absolutely believable as an animalistic figure, one almost constantly in motion. His Tarzan is a creature of instinct, curiosity, and barely-contained energy. Lambert doesn't look like a body builder, either. His Tarzan is a lean, strong man who has flourished in the wild, sustained by that which nature provides. 

And much of Lambert's focused performance -- the character's sense of cunning and intelligence -- arises in his penetrating eyes. Lamberts' eyes are like lasers here, targeting objects and, in an instant, assessing them as threats or non-threats. Lambert also carries all of the character's emotional pain in his eyes, and at times, this is a powerful choice. It's an accomplished performance.

Jack Kroll in Newsweek described Lambert's Tarzan well, (March 26, 1984, page 74), calling him "a supple, feral creature, not an over-muscled hulk, whose animal grace becomes a human virtue and whose eyes, piercing but gentle, shows a keenness and clarity that over-civilized senses have lost."

This description really nails the Tarzan persona of Greystoke. Tarzan is not a super-human "hero" in any way, though he boasts the survival skills of his adopted family, the apes. Instead, the movie finds the character's vulnerable, human core.

Much of what Greystoke dramatizes is, in effect, Tarzan's sense of powerlessness in the face of mortality. 

As a baby, he is unable to prevent the death of his biological parents, the noble Claytons. 

As a teen in the jungle, he loses his ape mother, Kala, and is again. powerless to prevent death. 

Finally, upon return to civilization, Tarzan loses his kindly grandfather (Ralph Richardson) and even his ape father, who has been shipped to London to be studied. 

Thus life for Tarzan, as depicted in this film, is but a series of terrible losses; grief experienced and re-experienced.

This viewpoint, I submit, helps to explain Tarzan's final choice to return to the jungle at the film's climax. When life is so short, when death lurks around every corner, we cling to "home," to the place that helps us remember those loved ones that we've lost. For Tarzan, that place of happier memories is the jungle.

Unlike many Tarzan adventures of the silver screen, Greystoke also focuses explicitly on the differences between man's "modern" world and the primitive ape world of the jungle. Howard Kissel, writing a review in Women's Wear Daily (March 28, 1984, page 27), noted that Burroughs' book was written "when Darwinism and its social implications were still a dominant intellectual force." 

He goes on to suggest that "the book was aware of man's dual nature - simultaneously primitive and civilized." 

Greystoke gets at this point ably. It spends a little over half its running time in the jungle, as Tarzan ascends to the leadership of a local ape tribe, and about an hour in staid England, where instinct is derided and manners are treated as a paramount consideration.

Here's the difference as I see it: In the ape world, nobody tried to control Tarzan. Or if they did...he confronted and dominated (or even killed) them. In England, Tarzan becomes a pawn of sorts, one who is supposed to "represent" something, perhaps, like the innate superiority of man over beast. "You must overturn what has happened to you," Phillippe D'Arnot (Ian Holm) suggests. at one point. But Tarzan isn't interested in being a case study. He doesn't need to be "greater than the accident of his childhood," or a triumph of the "Imperial Science."

On the contrary, Tarzan is "what the jungle has made him" and just wants to be free 

As much as Tarzan loves and admires his grandfather, he knows that the land is not his to "sell" or "keep." His wisdom is different from the conventional wisdom of Darwin's England, and this also makes him a perpetual outsider.

The duality of Tarzan 's nature -- part man/part ape -- is often expressed in Greystoke through shots involving a mirror (or a reflection). "Mirror" is one of the first English words Tarzan learns, for instance. 

Early in the film, while sitting lakeside with another ape, Tarzan also spies his own reflection in the water and can detect, for the first time, how different he is from those around him. Later, he discovers the hut where his parents died and -- again -- gazes into a mirror, expressing a half-remembered familiarity with the alien world of human civilization.

Finally, when Tarzan courts Jane, Hudson shoots almost the entire scene inside the frame of a mirror, in a reflection. 
he inference is that by accepting Jane, by loving her, Tarzan fully enters the world of civilization, perhaps. 

There's a subtle message about human relationships here, as well. Jane loves Tarzan because he is not like the mannered buttoned-down men of the aristocracy, the men who are all around her. And yet, still, she wants to change him. As much as she admires him for what he is, she knows that in this state he is not an acceptable husband. Eventually, in a scene showcasing the nobility of women, Jane chooses Tarzan's happiness over her own.

Greystoke is made with great care and love (from a script by Robert Towne, under a pseudonym). For example, I admire the beautiful book-end views of the jungle that open/close the film, a reminder that the life of Tarzan -- indeed all our lives -- is but a blip in the life of the Earth. 

The ape-suits by Rick Baker hold up remarkable well today, nearly thirty-years after the film's production. And the performances are particularly strong, with Lambert providing a strong, sympathetic anchor. Richardson and Holm also do great work, creating very sympathetic "father figures" for Tarzan.

But two aspects of the film may prove troubling to some. The first is a technical issue. Andie MacDowell (playing Jane) is dubbed throughout the entire film by Glenn Close. Every time the young character speaks, there's an emotional disconnect between MacDowell's youthful appearance and Close's line readings. You can just tell something is off, and this fact diminishes the relationship between Jane and Tarzan in some critical, under-the-surface fashion. American accent or no American accent, MacDowell's line readings should have stayed in the film. Americans Kevin Costner (Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves), Keanu Reeves (Bram Stoker's Dracula) and Julia Roberts (Mary Reilly) have all played British characters and were not dubbed in their roles, and MacDowell deserves the same courtesy.

Secondly, Greystoke seems to go out of its way to not include or verbalize the name "Tarzan" in relation to Lambert's character. He is called Clayton, Jack, or simply Greystoke. I understand why this decision was made. It's another attempt to distance the character from his pulpy movie past and make this film a serious, believable interpretation of the legend. But Tarzan must be can't hide his name any more than you can hide the name "Superman" (like Man of Steel attempted...) or "Batman." This movie very much wants to be about who Greystoke is -- his very identity -- and yet the name Tarzan ("White Skin") is a crucial part of that identity. The movie should have taken the name back for Tarzan, not ignored it.

My feeling about Greystoke is that it is a great first movie in a franchise that, unfortunately, never arrived. 

The movie accomplishes the difficult task of taking Tarzan's world seriously; of making the character and his environs believable and authentic to a degree never before seen. I just wish there had been a second film in the franchise, one which captured a little more of the pulp; a little more of the adventurous spirit of the Tarzan stories we know from our pop culture. Rex Reed wrote In The New York Post (March 30, 1984, page 39) that Greystoke boasts "lavish detail," "opulent sets and splendid canvases of Scottish life on the heath" but "the second half resembles all too often a boring Masterpiece Theater production on Public Broadcasting."

I wouldn't go that far, perhaps. 

Greystoke is a lush and enchanting character piece that gazes at the beating heart of Tarzan. It succeeds on those grounds. But I too -- particularly as the movie rounded out its second hour -- wished for a little more excitement, a little more action

After all, what's the point of being the Lord of the Jungle if you can't rescue Jane from a few perils like quick sand, giant snakes, or rampaging elephant? Right?

Greystoke remains a gorgeous and powerful movie, featuring perhaps one of the greatest Tarzans in film history (thanks to Christopher Lambert's performance.)  Yet when its over, you do wish the movie had also let Greystoke be the Tarzan of our popular imagination, at least for a little while.

I also would have enjoyed, I guess I'm saying, seeing a sequel with Lambert's Tarzan...fighting Nazis, Ant-Men and unearthing golden cities.

The film is now available in blu-ray format, so this is a good time to revisit Greystoke.

Movie Trailer: Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes (1984)

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Theme Song of the Week: Mork and Mindy (1978 - 1981)

Lunch Box of the Week: Mork and Mindy

Collectible of the Week: Mork and Mindy Action Figures (1979; Mattel)

Last week, I remembered Mattel's Space: 1999 (1975 - 1977) action figures.  The company used the same nine inch tall action figure molds to create Mork from Ork (Robin Williams), the break-out sitcom star of 1978 - 1979 on ABC's Mork and Mindy.

The Mork action figure came with a "talking space pack" which, when a string was pulled from the rainbow colored device, would emit eight "crazy" catchphrases such as the ever-popular "Na nu, na-nu."

A Mindy figure was also produced, described as "favorite earthling and every best friend of TV's lovable MORK."  Mindy (Pam Dawber) came  complete with long hair that could be brushed (as opposed to a plastic mold, like Helena Russell's figure from the 1999 collection.)

At the same time that these two larger-scale figures were released, Mattel also produced a small 3 and 3/4s inch action-figure of Mork (to fit right alongside your Kenner Star Wars figures) 

This figure came housed in his egg spaceship (or eggship), which could hatch right down the middle and release Mork for more antics.

Model Kit of the Week: Mork and Mindy Jeep (Monogram)

Board Game of the Week: Mork and Mindy (1978; Parker Bros.)

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Cult Movie Review: 28 Weeks Later (2007)

The terrific 2002 zombie-styled 28 Days Later didn't require a sequel. It was brilliant, involving, socially-relevant, and entirely tormenting all on its own.

However, the follow-up film from Juan Carlos Fresnadillo is a surprisingly worthy continuation of the story. More than that, the harrowing sequel fulfills the highest aesthetic criteria of any film project: it reflects (to an often-alarming degree...) the turbulent times in which we live. So like its predecessor, this is a horror movie sequel that is both scary and relevant.

And it isn't a remake or re-imagination, either, which is always nice.

After a bloody, fast-moving prologue set during the apex of the rage virus in England (the period covered in the original Boyle film), the movie jumps forward the titular 28 weeks to a span when the plague is quelled, and British citizens are slowly being repatriated to to an abandoned London. 

Specifically, American soldiers have moved into the eerily quiescent metropolis and been tasked with the impossible: reconstruction of an entire country. They also safeguard "The Green Zone" (or District 1), where 15,000 healthy civilians await the final clean up of the surrounding areas so they can resume their interrupted lives. 

Outside the green zone are rats, wild dogs, and contaminated food and water...

Quite plainly, the sub-text of 28 Weeks Later -- released in 2007 -- is the nation-building effort in Iraq, and the difficult nature of the American post-war occupation. The dormant "rage virus" in the film is the equivalent of the "Insurgency" in reality. And like that insurgency, the plague is believed (by the Americans) to have suffered its "last throes." 

To the contrary, however, it returns more powerfully than ever. This fact throws all of London and the American forces into absolute chaos, necessitating a "surge" of firepower which consists of indiscriminate fire bombing, poison gas, and even a deliberate massacre of civilians. 

In the end, there are too few American forces to contain the disaster, and it expands -- in a horrifying epilogue -- to France.

The careful viewer may also detect a few resonances of the post-Katrina disaster in 28 Weeks Later, as innocent civilians become trapped in various buildings while outside them disaster multiplies.  Despite this particular connection, the film nonetheless draws it's strongest energy from its examination of American military might...and the limits of that power.

To wit, one of the film's central characters, an American soldier named Doyle (Jeremy Renner), stops seeing the civilians as "targets" and starts viewing them as people. After being ordered to kill civilians, he breaks rank and goes to the aid of a handful of civilians. Far from being a "bad apple" (which is how the Bush people termed the torturers at Abu Ghraib), Doyle is most definitely a "good apple." He doesn't lose sight of his humanity, he doesn't blindly follow bad orders, and he is an entirely positive depiction of an American soldier. 

I found this to be an enormous relief, frankly. Doyle is young, loud and goofy, but he's a hero too: ready and able to do the right thing when the situation warrants it; even if it means laying down his life.  I felt that this character arc honors the principle of the original film: that it is better to live and die as a human than to survive as a thug or a monster.

Indeed, I admired the under-the-surface notion presented in 28 Weeks Later that "humanity" -- if given the opportunity to spread -- can ultimately prove as "contagious" as the deadly rage virus. For instance, a likable American doctor (Rose Byrne) commits to saving two children in the film -- Tammy (Imogene Poots) and Andy (Mackintosh Muggleton) -- and her steadfast commitment rubs off on Doyle; who then passes it on to a Special Forces Helicopter Pilot (Harold Perrineau).

28 Weeks Later is packed wall-to-wall with inventive conceits like that; ones that successfully distinguish it from many modern zombie brethren. The movie raises the specter, for instance, of a Rage Virus Typhoid Mary - a carrier - and that's an original wrinkle in the zombie apocalypse.

Also, one of the main characters here, Don (Robert Carlyle), is quickly proven a despicable coward in the film's opening passage and then presented as our lead for the next half-hour or so. Don abandons his beloved wife during a zombie attack on a farm house, flees the area by boat, and then makes his way to the Green Zone...where he greets his children, the aforementioned Andy and Tammy. 

All during these scenes, the viewer wonders: if Don is willing to abandon his own wife when the going gets tough, how is he going to protect his kids when the inevitable zombie attack comes?

Ultimately, however, the use to which Don (and Carlyle himself...) is put in the larger narrative proves far less innovative than that neat set-up suggests. We never get the chance to see what Don would do the second time he is faced with choosing between possible death and rescuing his family.  That's a shame.  Can the infection of humanity trump the infection of rage, or cowardice?

Instead, Don simply becomes an improbably long-lived rage zombie who survives one attack after another and pops up (conveniently...) for a final scare. I suppose that an intrepid film historian might consider Don a kind of homage to Bub in Day of the Dead (1985) or the lead zombie in Land of the Dead (2005), but giving the zombies a distinct leader doesn't work particularly well here. 

The overriding force in 28 Weeks Later is the rising tide of chaos: the ways in which one disaster leads to another, and another. With zombies running around in great numbers, that idea is powerful enough without an identifiable "leader." The message may simply be that Don -- whether a person or a zombie -- is a "survivor." However, the ease with which this single, unarmed zombie out-lasts fire bombing, gassing, and rifle snipers simply raises too many questions in terms of believability and logistics.

One of the reasons 28 Weeks Later succeeds for the most part is that it logically and impressively expands the scenario of 28 Days Later, tending toward the spectacular. There are some amazing special effects in the film, particularly the fire bombing of London. And one scene -- involving a helicopter's massacre of attacking zombies in a field -- is an impressive  horror set-piece the likes of which you've imagined (thanks to a propeller decapitation scene in Dawn of the Dead [1979]) but never considered possible on this scale.

Juan Carlos Fresnadillo also proves capable with the more intimate "creep" sequences. A descent into a pitch-black subway makes excellent use of night vision, for instance. And Tammy and Andy's trip (on a moped) through abandoned, ruined London successfully evokes many historical "abandoned city" movies, from The World, The Flesh and The Devil (1959) to Omega Man (1971).

I detected Fresnadillo chasing his tail in only one important sequence, however. When Don (now a zombie...) breaks into a containment area where civilians are crowded in the dark, the film lingers on make-up that isn't that good, relies on slow-motion photography that reveals too much, and suffers from too many incoherent quick cuts. The scene is a melange of confusion, a virtual disaster (perhaps form echoing content?) but I imagine it was not meant to be so visually unappealing. Fortunately, this weak scene is followed by a virtuoso, nail-biting rooftop sniper sequence involving Doyle, and 28 Weeks Later quickly regains its footing.

So this is overall an above-average sequel to a great horror film, which is better than what we sometimes get...

Movie Trailer: 28 Weeks Later (2007)

Cult-Movie Review: 28 Days Later (2002)

The new, 21st century era of zombie films officially kicked off in 2002 with Danny Boyle’s visceral horror film 28 Days Later

Not coincidentally, the film also kicked-off the post-9/11 horror film format revival, in the process depicting a world of urban chaos, confusion, and infrastructural collapse.  In a way, 28 Days Later’s “timeliness” was but a coincidence: the film was actually in production when the 9/11 attacks occurred in America, though it was released afterwards, as the War on Terror Age ramped-up.

Still, it’s amazing (and more than a little disturbing...) how much of the film's searing, apocalyptic imagery calls us back to that bleak, devastating Tuesday in September of 2001.  

At one point early in the film, for example, a confused, lonely hero stumbles upon a bulletin board for the missing and lost, a near ubiquitous sight of post-911 news and entertainment (and a set-piece appearing in the remade Battlestar Galactica, as well, a few years later). 

Although 28 Days Later does not actually feature zombies, but rather people infected and driven mad with “rage,” the film certainly inspired the fast zombies of horror films that premiered later in the decade.  For some horror aficionados, this fact is not necessarily a good thing, but the blindingly-fast ghouls of 28 Days Later remain surprising, dangerous, and terrifying, even today.  There's no narrative or thematic reason why these monsters should be slow, since they aren't technically "dead."

Thematically, 28 Days Later remains worthwhile for two artfully-vetted thematic strands.  

The first involves the specific nature of the blood-borne “rage” virus: it appears to emerge from constant exposure to TV news imagery.  

The movie thus serves as a critique of the (then) new age of the 24-hour news cable cycle, which thrives by constantly ginning up outrage and resentment, and by providing a constant diet of upsetting, grotesque imagery.   The Boyle film thus makes an implicit link between "exposure" to television news and "exposure" to disease.

Secondly, and on a far more human level, 28 Days Later succeeds because it concerns the way that humans can adapt to the worst possible conditions, apparently with ease.  

And in this case, adaptation is not necessarily a good thing. 

In particular, there’s one character here, Selena, whose mantra is “staying alive is as good as it gets,” and who has turned off all her emotions, empathy, and compassion so as to survive in the terrifying new world order.  

Further down that continuum of inhumanity we get a soldier named West -- a character essayed in a charismatic, dominating performance from Christopher Eccleston -- who is willing to dispense with humanity all together if it means he can hold on to power.

These characters are contrasted in the film with the central protagonist: a sensitive, skinny, unassuming guy named Jim (Cillian Murphy) who believes that the way to survive in this horrible new world is not by short-circuiting humanity, but by living up to its best ideals, even if, in some circumstances they could be interpreted as dangerous, or as "luxuries."

The film's central debate involves this conflict between those who see survival as paramount, and those who see humanity as the issue at hand.

“The end is extremely fucking nigh.”

Animal rights activists break into a secret laboratory in Cambridge to free the animals, including champs, undergoing cruel experimentation there.  

This incursion goes terrifyingly wrong, however, when the activists are bitten and attacked by the infected animals.  Very soon, a contagion of red-eyed “rage” spreads across England…

Twenty-eight days later, a man named Jim (Cillian Murphy) awakes in a hospital to find that the world seems to have ended during his coma.  He finds London an abandoned city, save for packs of the fast-moving, scarlet-eyed infected.   

Fortunately, Jim is found by two survivors, Selena (Naomie Harris), and Mark (Noah Huntley), who explain to him how civilization came to an end, and all civic infrastructure quickly collapsed.

Mark is killed while Jim tries to contact his parents, at their home.  Afterward, Selena and Jim find two additional survivors, kindly Frank (Brendan Gleeson) and his young daughter, Hannah (Megan Burns). 

Together, the group hopes to reach a blockade near Manchester, where a radio transmission reports that the “answer to infection” has been discovered.   

The rag-tag group commences its long journey, and the first hurdle is a tunnel filled with the infected.  When the group finally reaches the Manchester blockade, however, it  finds West, and a military outpost teetering on the very edge of insanity...

“Staying alive is as good as it gets.”

As 28 Days Later opens, unlucky chimps in a laboratory are being subjected to a variation of the Ludovico Treatment from Clockwork Orange.  They are forced to endure non-stop images of rage, discontent, rebellion, war, chaos, murder, and madness on the television.  

The underlying message here is that modern civilization, at least as represented on the news is toxic, and that constant exposure to it on the 24-hour cable news cycle can cause deleterious effect on the psyche, making one feel prone to inescapable feelings of helplessness, resentment, and anger.

If you have any relatives who watch Fox News on a regular basis, you get the idea behind this vicious cycle. It’s a 24-hour manufactured-rage machine that, in turn, manufactures new rage.  

The images tell another, perhaps more subtle story as well: Rome is burning, and everyone is too busy passively watching the images of violence on the television to glean the real, bigger picture…that such rage is imperiling civilization itself.  

This was an idea of tremendous currency in the opening years of the War on Terror Age.  Films such as The Ring (2002) also concerned this notion. There, the videotaped suffering of one girl, disseminated to strangers, was enough to render the "watching" strangers culpable in her pain, and result in their deaths just a week after the initial viewing of it.

There are actually two ideas -- and seemingly contradictory ones -- roiling under the surface here.  One involves the idea that TV broadcasting around the clock – showcasing images of destruction and death – is having a harmful effect on society as a whole.  

The other interpretation is that corporate-sponsored news knowingly feeds the citizenry the bread and circuses they desire in the form of these graphic reports and stories, thus numbing people, overall, to the horrors of war and so forth.  

And when people are numb, they'll put up with a lot more war and suffering...

What the documentary or news images featured in 28 Days Later make plain is that, all over the world, people are hurting each other, fighting one another, and locked in cycles of perpetual violence  This constant strife is what creates the “rage” in the blood-stream.  It is the thing that makes the blood boil, and turns human beings into unfeeling, murderous monsters.

Connected to this idea is the fact that this apocalypse only speeds up a process that had already begun.  When faced with a country-wide catastrophe on this scale, the key to survival is erroneously perceived by the likes of Selena and West as even more cruelty, even more violence, even more harshness.  

Only Jim -- a character who has slept for a month and therefore been exposed to no rage on TV or in the streets -- sees that the cure to violence is not more violence; that the cure to inhumanity is not more inhumanity. Throughout the film, he and Selena debate this very question.  

Is living what matters?  Or is it how you live that makes the difference?

If Jim and Selena stop to help Hannah and Frank, will the family just “slow them down?”  Or is helping Hannah and Frank a simple human responsibility that must be honored, regardless of the consequences?  

Is it "human" to kill a person who might be infected in the span of “a heartbeat,” or does human decency require that before we resort to violence, we take a breath and consider the evidence of “infection?”

These are not small questions, and so 28 Days Later involves the very thing that makes us human: our ability to think and reason, and to care for those around us who are in pain.  Mankind universally has two roads ahead of him.  He can be barbarous because he feels the situation warrants it, or he can outgrow his barbarism and act humanely. 

28 Days Later handles this subject matter in a surprisingly nuanced way.  In the film’s last act, for instance, Jim must go “native” and kill West’s soldiers to free Hannah and Selena from rape, sexual enslavement, and worse.  Is he succumbing to “the rage?”  Or has he reasoned out that this is the only path open to him if he hopes to prevent further exploitation and abuse?  

I would submit the latter view-point is the correct one.  Although they possess the means to protect people, West and his soldiers willfully abuse those means.  The military men here are as sick, in their own way, as the film’s zombie creatures.  They have abandoned all sense of human dignity, all to survive.

By contrast, Jim fights to preserve his ad-hoc family, and more than that, to preserve Hannah’s childhood and innocence.  It is clear that the soldiers plan to rape her (and Selena) on a serial basis.  This is an atrocity that is worse than death.  

Although it is perhaps schmaltzy to write it this way, perhaps: Jim ultimately kills for love while the soldiers kill out of fear, and the zombies kill out of unfettered, unstoppable anger.  

Jim’s fight is one against the odds, but one with an undeniable pro-social purpose: to reunite and free his new family and to put an end to a regime of utter cruelty and sadism.  Also, Jim learns that only England is infected, and that there is a larger, sane world out there, a world they can reach.  This element of “hope” permits him to face down the barbarians who are interested only in survival at all costs.

After all the violence and death, the film ends (perhaps improbably...) with that very idea of hope.  Jim, Hannah and Selena are rescued, and they literally turn “Hell” into “Hello,”  a phrase which is a greeting to civilization, and a sign of a new, fresh beginning. 

In a way, West was telling the truth: the answer to infection was there, at his barracks.  It was not in soldiers, and guns. It was not in survival at all costs.

No, the answer to infection was in the restoration of human compassion ,and the consideration of the ties that bind us all.

The antidote to rage is always more love, not less, and 28 Days Later is a worthwhile horror film not only because it is terrifying and heart-wrenching (especially regarding Frank’s tragic demise), but because it makes this pro-social point in an entertaining and ultimately uplifting fashion.  

The film set off a zombie boom at the cinemas, to be certain, but few of the follow-ups could make a claim to having the same sense of heart as Danny Boyle's 28 Days Later.

Movie Trailer: 28 Days Later (2002)

Monday, July 22, 2013

Late Night Blogging: Don Adams "Skittle" Game Commercials for Aurora (1973)

Ask JKM a Question: 28 Days Later (2002)?

A regular reader, Jez, writes:

"Any chance of you doing a review of Danny Boyle's '28 Days Later'? Personally I think it's a brilliantly scary movie with a strong political philosophy, and with a few scenes in particular that elevate it far above just about any other 'zombie' movie since 2000.

A lot of critics and friends of mine are quick to dismiss the final third of the film in a similar manner to the way people dismiss the end of 'Sunshine'. For me though, Jim 'becoming' a zombie and killing all of the soldiers due to his anger is precisely what the movie is about; as Henry says around the dinner table, it's just people killing people, same as it always was. The chimps in the opening scene were infected with 'rage', and it is rage that drives Jim to do what he does, infection or no infection. In the end, he's indistinguishable from an infected as evidenced by Hannah clubbing him over the head.

There are a few shoddy actors (Hannah in particular is absolutely dire) but overall I can't think of many films in the last 15 years that succeed both intellectually and as pure horror to quite the same extent. I would love to hear your thoughts."

Hi Jez, I have been a big admirer of Danyy Boyle's films -- and especially 28 Days Later -- for many years now.  I feel that all of your thoughts on the film ring true, and most of the criticisms against the film tend by fannish complaints about fast-moving zombies, or some such thing.

But, I will indeed review the film -- tomorrow morning, at 6:00 am -- and present my full thoughts about it. Thanks for a great question, and for reminding me of a great film.

Cult-TV Theme Watch: Living Spaceships

The living spaceship or "bio-ship" is a space-going vessel composed mostly or in totality of organic or biological materials.  Most bio-ships poses more than a rudimentary intelligence, and are depicted as benevolent and loving beings.  Also, there's often some sense of symbiosis or emotional connection between a living ship and its crew or pilot.

Over the course of cult-TV history, many bio-ships or living spaceships have appeared.

Arguably, the most well-known or famous bio-ship is Moya, loving home to refugees in the Uncharted Territories in Farscape (1999 - 2004).  Moya is a gentle space-whale of sorts, one with emotions and high intelligence.  She also feels pain when attacked.  Moya, like all life-forms, is also able to reproduce.  Early in Farscape's run, she produces a child, Talyn, who -- because of genetic meddling -- is a Peacekeeper battleship.

Moya also boasts a strong connection to "Pilot," a gentle, turtle-like alien who serves as the bio-ship's link to the humanoid world.  Pilot often feels Moya's emotions, and is an advocate for her well-being with the biped crew.

One possible predecessor to Moya  may be "Gomtuu," of the Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987 - 1994) third season episode, "Tin Man."

In this 1990 story, Gomtuu is an acorn, or sea-shell-shaped bio-ship who is able to communicate on an empathic level with Tam Elbrun (Harry Groener), an unstable Betazoid.  Gomtuu explains to Elbrun (and subsequently the NCC-1701-D crew...) that the bio-ship feels intense guilt over the accidental death of its humanoid crew.  In addition, Gomtuu -- like Tam himself -- is lonely.  The episode is about two disparate beings finding perfect companionship in one another.

In Doctor Who (1963 - 1989; 2005 - ), the Time Lord's famous conveyance, the TARDIS is also often considered a "living being."

 In recent years, this status as a distinctive and separate life-form (rather than as a machine, for instance) has become more plain, especially in episodes such as "The Doctor's Wife," during the era of the Eleventh Doctor (Matt Smith).

In this tale, the TARDIS's soul or spirit is transferred into a humanoid woman, one who re-contextualizes the Doctor's adventures in a new and different way.  She suggests she "stole" the Doctor from Gallifrey, not vice-versa, for instance.  She also reveals a real affection and love for the Doctor (and a dislike or distrust of some of the "strays" he brings aboard the ship in the form of his companions.)

In Doctor Who history, bio or organic ships have also appeared during the Jon Pertwee era ("The Claws of Axos"), and the Tom Baker era ("Terror of the Zygons"), as vehicles belonging to invading or dangerous aliens.

Other biological ships have been seen on Babylon 5 (1994 - 1999) in regards to Vorlon and Shadow Alliance vessels  On Star Trek: Voyager (1995 - 2001), the devilish Species 8472 also flew organic space ships through a region of "fluidic" space in the Delta Quadrant.

Some series, including Voyager, have also featured spaceships with "biological" circuitry, but which could not be considered alive in any traditional or conventional sense.  In the Year One episode of Space:1999, "Gwent" was a living mechanical ship, not organic, but still possessed of life and the (apparently universal...) need for companionship.

The Cult-TV Faces of: Living Spaceships

Identified by SGB: The TARDIS of Doctor Who 

Identified by Carl: The Axon spaceship of Doctor Who: "The Claws of Axos."

Identified by SGB: Space:1999's Gwent, from "The Infernal Machine"

Identified by SGB: Star Blazers.

Identified by SGB: Gomtuu from ST: TNG: "Tin Man"

Identified by T.S. The Shadow vessel from Babylon 5.

Identified by SGB: Space Cases.

Identified by William Mercado: Star Trek Voyager, Species 8472

Identified by T.S.: Lexx.

Identified by T.S.: Moya from Farscape.

Identified by Wordboy: Talyn from Farscape.

Identified by T.S. The Cylon Raider from the re-imagining of Battlestar Galactica