Friday, January 31, 2014

Pop Art: Orion Pan-Am Space Clipper Edition; 2001: A Space Odyssey










2001: The Comic Book: "Vira the She Demon" (Marvel, 1977)


This is a comic-book I collected as a kid, the short-lived 2001: A Space Odyssey series “based on concepts of the 1968 MGM movie by Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke.” 

Just imagine attempting to capture the age-spanning awe and majesty of 2001: A Space Odyssey every month, and you get an idea of what height this comic aspired to reach.

In particular, I’m remembering issue # 2, from January of 1977, written, drawn and edited by the great Jack Kirby. 


In this “startling second issue” of a comic that urged readers to “begin a new journey to the stars - and beyond,” we are treated to the fascinating tale of “Vira, the She Demon.” The story begins in prehistoric Italy - a land dotted by live volcanoes - as Vira, a “non-submissive female” in the words of Kirby, attempts to survive in a totally inhospitable environment. She is dying of starvation until she encounters the Monolith. This strange alien tool/being imbues her with the knowledge of “fear,” and she hence sets herself up as the fierce She-Demon Goddess of a local tribe. Terrified of this pretend-God, the tribe's men house Vira and hunt game for her, and in return she leads them with wisdom...forming mankind’s first government.

Fast forward to the 21st century and we meet astronaut Vera Gentry, of Explorer Unit 5, now stationed on Ganymede. A race of vicious alien hunters destroy her life support and shelter, and like Vira the She Demon so long ago, she flees, only to encounter the Monolith.

This time, the Monolith whisks her off into a world of her own (just like David Bowman’s sitting room in the movie). In her own environs, including a swimming pool she once owned, Vera Gentry ages to 102 years old before ultimately transforming into a Star Child, a so-called “New Seed.”

And yes, this is trippy (or ultimate-trippy....) stuff. It was an audacious move to begin a comic-book line based on a film that had few characters survive, little dialogue, and which jumped from time-period to time-period with regularity, but I wager Jack Kirby was just the talent to do it. This issue apes 2001 by starting at the “dawn of man,” (like the film...) leaping to the year 2001 (like the film...) and then on and beyond into the “future of man” - just like the film. The enigmatic black Monolith, as one can tell from this summary, is a key player, a catalyst, and agent of transformation.

Apparently, it wasn’t long before Marvel's editors realized this brand of story was going to be awfully difficult to sustain every issue. I mean, how many times can you repeat the same tale the Kubrick movie covered so well? The anthology format essentially meant there was nothing recurring for comic-readers to latch onto each month except....philosophy and the general concept. 


Therefore, in later issues, such as the final one, number # 10, Kirby went in new directions, focusing on a character named “Mister Machine,” and avoiding the Monolith. In the "Monolith Mail" page of that book, the editors wanted to gauge reader response. Should they focus on Mister Machine as a central character or continue the anthology format? 

Alas, we'll never know where the comic-book might have finally gone...

So why remember Kirby’s 2001: A Space Odyssey comic today? Well, first of all, it was daring. This wasn’t Star Wars where you could take Luke Skywalker to a water planet one issue, then team him up with a giant green bunny for a pastiche of The Magnificent Seven the next. Kirby’s take on 2001 was a bold idea that relied on the notion that fans would be interested in genuine science fiction stories, even ones not held together or connected by recurring characters.



Also, I remain incredibly fond Kirby’s unique art design (which is also evident in Thundarr the Barbarian, which I'm reviewing on Saturdays...) Why hasn’t some clever filmmaker faithfully adapted his style to cinema? His concepts and designs are inherently cinematic, and totally different from anything we’ve yet seen captured on the silver screen. Anyway, that’s another story. Here, I would simply suggest that Kirby’s comics accurately captured the nature of the 2001: A Space Odyssey universe (with a nod to Marvel’s Watcher thrown in too...), and I wanted to champion the accomplishment.

After all, 2001 is an odd and beautiful film, one with a minimum of talking, but  remarkable imagery. We all remember the scene where an ape-man in the past throws a bone into the air and we leap forward to a bone-shaped orbital spaceship, right? Well, Kirby constantly presented panels like that in the comic-book, leaping us from century-to-century with the same kind of visionary touch. Original? No, it was Kubrick’s imagination translated to a comic, but it was translated in intriguing fashion nonetheless, and Kirby’s art certainly made it feel original, that’s for sure.

So let’s hear it for doing something bold and different. It’s easy to do a Star Trek, Star Wars, or Battlestar Galactica in comic form, but 2001: A Space Odyssey? That’s a crazy notion, but "Marvelous Marvel" has been there and done that.

Cult-Movie Review: 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)


Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) is widely regarded as one of the greatest films ever made, and perhaps the greatest science fiction film in cinematic history.  Accordingly, film critics and scholars have approached the film in a number of ways.

2001: A Space Odyssey is open to many interpretations because of the narrative's ambiguous nature, and due to the absence of an overt explanation regarding key events and motives especially vis-à-vis the HAL 9000’s murderous behavior on the Jupiter mission. 

While acknowledging that 2001: A Space Odyssey may be viewed under a number of different and competing microscopes -- and quite rewardingly so -- I want to write today about what I believe is the Kubrick film’s primary focus: man and his tools.  

For our purposes today, a tool might be defined as “a device used to facilitate or perform work formerly or otherwise completed by manual means.”  Thus, the term "tool" can encompass spaceships, computers or other weapons, as well as more pedestrian instruments.

In terms of structure, 2001: A Space Odyssey is organized into four distinct segments, each diagramming a stage or phase of mankind’s historical development. 

In order, these are: “The Dawn of Man,” Clavius, “18 Months Later,” and “Jupiter and Beyond the Infinite.”  Three of these segments are separated from one another by black title cards.  The Clavius section is not so delineated, but via a memorable visual transition instead.

In brief, every one of these four segments focuses specifically on the interaction between man and his tools, and the evolution of that relationship across the years and centuries.  This relationship grows, essentially, from a view of how man utilizes his tools for survival, to one of how he comes to depend on -- but simultaneously ignore -- the tools proliferating around him. 

Then, the progression continues in the final two sections of the film. 2001: A Space Odyssey's third part gazes at the way man (seemingly without intent...) allows tools to dominate him…and eventually threaten his very existence. 

Finally, Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey meditates on the way that man might move beyond his long-held dependence on tools. 

Or alternately -- depending on your belief about the film’s unseen aliens -- the film meditates on how man finally unites or joins with them.


The Dawn of Man

2001: A Space Odyssey commences on Earth in pre-history as a group of hominids -- ape-like human ancestors -- struggle to survive in a harsh and forbidding natural landscape. 

These hominids form loose associations with one another at first, but are rivals for resources such as water and food. The hominids live in relative harmony with other creatures, such as cow-like animals, but this harmony is a limiter to their survival. If the hominids can’t kill for food when they need it, for instance, survival is imperiled.  Similarly, lack of access to water equates with death.  

In this landscape, those who are physically strong can take the land -- or resources -- from the weak or timid.


Then, one day, the imposing black Monolith appears on the savanna, and a curious hominid individual approaches it.  He is imbued with enhanced intelligence by this mysterious, alien object.  This increased intelligence manifests itself in an unusual way.  The affected hominid is able to see and contextualize a discarded animal bone as something new and different: as a tool.  

This tool assists him in procuring food. Specifically, it is a bludgeon with which to more effectively kill animals.  

Yet the tool is also vital for use in defense of the hominid's territory because it can be used to vanquish invaders.  Soon after the first use of the tool, the loose association of hominids seems to become more tribal.  The “tool” -- which overtly makes their lives better -- tightens and cements the loose bonds of “society.” It galvanizes them. But if the tool is a protector, make no mistake, it is also history's very first weapon.

Soon, Kubrick's camera records the tool's dynamic impact on man and his burgeoning civilization. The hominid tool user bashes an animal carcass in glorious slow-motion.   Bones fragments and other chunks of organic shrapnel are hurled into the air like exploding fire crackers.  The image represents a joyous celebration of destruction, and of man's new-found power.


Man now boasts the capacity to destroy on a level heretofore unseen.  The bone represents not merely weaponry, however, but mankind’s first step in the process of dominating the environment around him.  He is no longer victim to predators and competitors.  He can fight back with lethal force and re-shape the natural world to his specifications.

Mankind's long climb toward the stars has begun...



Clavius

“The Dawn of Man” interlude in 2001: A Space Odyssey concludes with the triumphant hominid participating in an orgy of destruction, tossing that first tool -- an animal bone -- into the air.  Kubrick’s camera focuses on the bone’s ascent into the air and then cuts suddenly, while the tool is still airborne, to orbital space.  

In the relative space of the frame that the bone previously occupied, we now see a (roughly) bone-shaped satellite in its place. This moment, this match-cut, has been termed "one of the most breathtaking and inspired cuts in film history." (Jeff Rovin, A Pictorial History of Science Fiction Films, Citadel Press, 1975, page 123).



2001: A Space Odyssey then cuts once more, to several other brief shots of orbital satellites. These are nuclear weapon platforms, the very latest development of that long-ago weapon: the hominid's “bone.” These are the modern tools that allow man to protect himself, but also permit him to threaten his neighbor and preserve his territorial imperatives on Earth.  

Although mankind has developed greatly in the span since the Dawn of Man, Kubrick suggests through his remarkable visual transition from bone to space weapons platform that this development mostly arises in terms of his destructive potential.  Now, whole countries can be wiped out in mere seconds. Man not need even see his enemies or competitors, or come into physical proximity with them if he wishes to vanquish them.

In other words, man has finally mastered his environment, and he has done so by constructing ever-more powerful tools, ever more powerful weapons.

Yet there is another significant element of this equation as well.  The unmanned orbiting weapon platforms reveal that man has also ceded, to a large degree, the day-to-day control of his environment to his increasingly complex and powerful instruments.  

2001: A Space Odyssey’s sophomore segment is dominated, for the first several minutes at least, by a soundtrack composition that determinedly reflects this notion: The Blue Danube Waltz by Johann Strauss  II (1825 – 1899).  

A waltz is commonly defined as a dance performed by a “couple who as a pair turn rhythmically around and around as they progress around the dance floor.”  

However, in 2001: A Space Odyssey, the couple that dances the waltz is not human.  Instead, the duo consists of a space station and the Orion Pan-Am space clipper.  The passenger vehicle approaching the station actually "tunes" itself to match the revolution of the space station. The two metal bodies in space perform a synchronized docking maneuver. The simple, repetitive nature of the waltz suggests that this movement is part of an almost unthinking routine.



The implication here is clearly that man has fashioned a world in which his tools have assumed a role of paramount importance, and work together in untroubled, unthinking coordination. Thus, the tools are a critical part of man’s environment, but not, at this juncture, in a manner that is deemed overtly threatening to man's supremacy.

Rather, the tools -- space stations, space passenger-liners, and so forth -- have permitted for man to expand his environment (into Earth orbit), and still maintain the façade of a regular or routine "human" life. Top put it another way, man has brought the leisure and affluence of Earth society (as well as the threat of nuclear destruction...) into the closest realm of the final frontier: high orbit.

After the docking of the spaceship, 2001: A Space Odyssey follows Dr. Heywood Floyd (William Sylvester) to the airport-like interior of the space station, where many familiar 20th century “brands” have expanded their reach.  There’s a Howard Johnson's, a Hilton Hotel, and Floyd even utilizes a “Bell” picture-phone device to contact his daughter and wish her a happy birthday.  

In short order, Floyd also engages in conversation with several Soviet scientists -- who are suspicious of his presence and whatever secret is being closely monitored on the moon base at Clavius -- thus suggesting another brand has survived to the 21st century too: The Cold War.

Floyd then travels to Clavius Moon Base. He attends a board meeting, delivers an extremely dull and pedantic speech about security, and then heads out to Tycho crater, where a Monolith has been recently unearthed. Along the way -- aboard the moon-bus -- Floyd eats a ham sandwich and makes small-talk with the pilots. They compliment him on his speech, and in turn he dutifully compliments their work.

This entire section of 2001: A Space Odyssey is devoted to the manner in which man has rendered the frontier palatable by extending those things (and those tools….) which make his life more seem normal or more routine.  



The board-room scene in which Floyd discusses, before an audience of scientists, how to maintain security about the Monolith, is one of the most deadly dull imaginable, and the visual set-up reinforces that notion. Indeed, that's the point.  Virtually the entire scene is a static long-shot.

Virtually everything in the this Clavius interlude, from the boring “work” talk (x 2) to the act of eating a ham sandwich while flying over the lunar surface suggests that man has let his tools overwhelm him while he remains in a kind of developmental stasis.  Even the film's white-on-white visual palette suggests this fact.  In the board room scene, the white of the walls is blinding, and nearly washes out everything, including the event's speaker, Floyd.

Our space-age tools render everything...ordinary, it seems. There's even a zero-gravity toilet for bathroom emergencies! The natural setting or surrounding -- orbital space -- however, is ignored. This lack of oversight regarding technology, regarding our tools is clearly an approach with problems, as the next section of the film reveals in detail.


Jupiter Mission: 18 Months Later

When men working on the moon excavate the Monolith, it emits a signal beamed at Jupiter, and so Floyd and others quickly prep a voyage to that distant world.  Discovery One is the ship to make the journey.  It travels with a crew of six, at least according to the BBC News Special featured in the film  The six include three scientists in cryogenic hibernation, two astronaut pilots to manage the flight (Frank Poole [Gary Lockwood] and David Bowman [Keir Dullea]), and the most advanced computer ever constructed, the HAL 9000.

HAL, the audience is quickly informed, can “reproduce most of the activities of the human brain” and is “foolproof and incapable of error.”   

In short then, HAL represents the ultimate tool, one who can mimic -- to the last detail -- every facet of human consciousness.  He even refers to himself as a “conscious entity.”  And according to Dave, HAL acts like “he has genuine emotions.” 

Kubrick suggests  HAL's "sentience" and importance as a co-equal of man by favoring the computer's view-point several times.  Several shots consist of us -- the audience (or the camera) -- looking out through Hal's ubiquitous red eye. This perspective all but declares HAL's status as a life-form.  It is also a significant change from the camera-work in the earlier sections of the film.  

In his essay, "The Face in the Machine," (Stanley Kubrick: Seven Films, Chapter 2, McFarland, 1998, page 54.) author Randy Rasmussen notes that the Dawn of Man scene is notable for its camera-work, which suggests "a neutral observer."  Such is not the case here.  The viewpoint of a neutral observer is replaced, at least at times, by HAL's distinctive eyesight.



So what does HAL's nature -- and choices -- say about man and his tools?

By recreating himself  in “tool” form, man has actually only succeeded in recreating all his own weaknesses and insecurities.  

Tools originated, in the Dawn of Man section of the film, as weapons that man uses for purposes of destruction.  By recreating his psychology in machine form -- A.I., essentially -- man has now transmitted that very pathology to his tools.  Not only is HAL inquisitive like his organic creators, he is capable of imagination.  And because of that imagination, he can -- in his own words -- “project concern” about the mission to Jupiter.  That concern graduates to paranoia, and HAL eventually commits murder.  Does he do so out of fear of where is headed?  Of what he will find upon reaching his destination?  

Or does HAL become a killer so to preserve his standing as “the most reliable computer ever made?

We can conclude from HAL's narcissistic behavior that by the year 2001 and the dawn of A.I., our tools have finally grown as psychotic and confused as mankind, himself.  As much as he is a child of man, HAL is also a child (or grandchild) of bombs, tanks, those orbital nuclear satellites and every other murderous tool our race has ever built.  Both of HAL's parents -- machine and man -- are steeped in a long history of bloodshed and death.    


One of the famous scenes in science fiction film history occurs in this third section of 2001: A Space Odyssey.  It involves man’s triumph over the tool (or child...) that has attempted to dispatch its master. Dave Bowman breaks into HAL’s memory bank and begins to very methodically shut down the computer’s higher brain functions. 

While this happens, HAL rather pitiably sings a song called “A Bicycle Built for Two (Daisy).” 

The lyrics of that song are instructive, and reflect, in a strange way, man’s relationship with his tools.  “I’m half crazy, all for the love of you,” sings HAL, and indeed, he is indeed half-crazy, torn between fulfilling his programming and satisfying his own, human-spawned sense of imagination, inquisitiveness, and paranoia 

Later, HAL sings the lyric “It won’t be a stylish marriage,” and again…it is not a stylish marriage between man and machines, is it? It has become quite an uneasy relationship.  And the bicycle built for two? Well, that's the Discovery One, in a sense. It is the conveyance headed into the future, carrying man and machine together in "marriage" toward a joined destiny.


Nuclear weapons hang in Earth orbit, ready to destroy their makers at the push of a button, and on Discovery, a microcosm version of that “war” rages. The tool has attempted to usurp its master, and the master -- now desperate -- strikes back against it.  

Yet mankind, as we saw in The Dawn of Man, cannot survive without his tools. And as we witnessed in the Clavius section of 2001: A Space Odyssey, he no longer even recognizes how dependent upon them he is. 

What HAL and his murderous ways acutely point out is the fact that man's tools have grown to such intelligence and ubiquity that the user/tool relationship itself is in question.  Not a stylish marriage, indeed.

The agenda from Kubrick, I believe here, is one of warning. It might very well be that the director viewed this period (the turn of the century) as the epoch in which the human race was in the most danger of destroying itself. 

Lest we forget historical context, 2001: A Space Odyssey was produced in the late sixties during a conflict that seemed like it was going on forever (Vietnam) The threat of nuclear annihilation  -- when the push of a single button could rain death upon millions across the planet -- was ever present.

But if man can survive his flirtation with deadly machines, with the technology he himself has forged to tend to his needs and make life comfortable, 2001: A Space Odyssey seems to suggest, than there will be no limits for what he can achieve. If  masters the urge that gave rise to such weapons in the first place, the sky's the limit.

Which brings us to…


Jupiter and Beyond the Infinite

The final section of 2001: A Space Odyssey has often been considered the most opaque in terms of its meaning.  What actually happens here?  

To summarize, Bowman learns of the Monolith’s existence and, in a space pod, actually travels inside it.  He mysteriously finds himself in a Victorian sitting room where he ages and confronts the Monolith again.  Then,  he reaches for it, just as the hominid reached for it in “The Dawn of Man” and as an astronaut reached for it in the Clavius section.   In reaching out for the Monolith, Bowman is re-born  As hominid became man, man now becomes Star Child.

Some of the last images of 2001: A Space Odyssey showcase the Star Child regarding Earth with curious, attentive eyes.

So how does this coda fit in with the leitmotif regarding the evolution of man’s relationship with his tools?

There are two interpretations to consider.  

The first is that Bowman, by defeating the HAL 9000 and traveling inside the Monolith, has been proven victorious during the most dangerous time in mankind’s history.  He has heard the wake-up call (provided unwittingly by HAL) and re-asserted -- for the first time since that hominid tossed the weaponized animal bone into the air -- humanity’s control over his own tools.  

With no regard for his future survival, Bowman chooses exploration of the frontier over his own continuation.  He seeks to move forward (and thus “evolve”) when he could have simply stayed on Discovery and engineered a Robinson Crusoe-type existence, sans HAL.  ''

He not only defeats an upstart creation or tool, Bowman abandons routine and security for the unknown, to expand his own personal knowledge. He chooses the extraordinary over the ordinary, and remember the Clavius section of the film is all about how space travel has indeed become very ordinary.

It is Bowman’s courage (like the Homind’s courage, or the astronaut’s courage...) that reveals to the Monolith that man is ready to grow again. In this case, that courage involves leaving what is known (the Discovery One, personal safety) for what is unknown.

The second interpretation is actually one that I prefer. The aliens in the film are never depicted in a corporeal form that we would recognize as life.  But an argument could be made that Monolith is that alien life form. And it is simultaneously a mechanism tool (spurring evolution and transmitting a signal), and a life-form in and of itself. 

The Monolith is the alien life form behind man’s development from savage to open-eyed star child;” one that has, we must assume, integrated the idea and use of tools into itself.  

The greatest stage of “existence,” therefore, occurs when tools and their users come together in one form, fully integrated. Today, some people call this futuristic notion “The Singularity,” and there is much talk of it occurring in forty years or so.   

But the bottom line is that the Monolith -- while physically-appearing to be an “instrument” -- shows a human interest or curiosity in mankind. It cares for Dave Bowman through the end of his days. It accelerates man's development when that development is earned and warranted. 

So if HAL was the mad machine born from humanity’s weaknesses and pathology, the Monolith appears to be an instrument and life-form imbued with qualities we would consider man’s finest.


The idea that man will meld with his machines or tools and emerge as something greater than either parent is characterized visually, I believe, by the frequent views of Dave Bowman's eye during the Stargate sequence.  As you can see from the image above, this eye is not quite human anymore. 

Instead, it's like a "technologized" version of a human eye, a melding of HAL and Dave.  

And the only close-up of an eye that Kubrick has favored us with so far is one of HAL's.  But now -- in the Stargate sequence -- Dave's eye is featured in similar detail.  A visual connection is forged.



Beyond Our Tools: Order in the Universe

Stanley Kubrick’s selection of shots and compositions in 2001: A Space Odyssey suggest that beyond man and his tools there is an order to the universe that humans can’t necessarily understand, or even detect. 

Perhaps becoming the Star Child means reckoning with that currently “unknowable” order, one which I believe to be something akin to Singularity.

Kubrick begins the task of suggesting order in the cosmos from the inaugural shot of 2001: A Space Odyssey. 

The first image is of a beautiful outer space landscape which depicts Earth's pocked moon in slow descent. 

Beyond the moon, slowly growing visible is Earth itself: blue, beautiful, and alive. And over the Earth, even more distant stands Sol, our brightly shining sun. The three bodies are aligned perfectly, suggesting a connection, an invisible line, a perfect one-two-three. This is 2001: A Space Odyssey's first indication of a cosmic order, but not the last.

Even the soundtrack suggests this order.  2001’s “theme song” as it might even be considered is “Thus Spake Zarathustra,” a formal composition by Richard Strauss (1864 – 1949) which again, primarily denotes order.  

As Kenneth Von Gunden and Stuart H. Stock wrote in in Twenty All-Time Great Science Fiction Films (Crown; 1982, page 190), the composition: “…opens with an ascending phrase of three notes…which represent Nietzcshe’s view of the evolutionary rise of man…These three notes serve note that the number three is essential to the film: from the perfect alignment of the three spheres of Earth, Moon, and sun at the beginning to the appearance of things in threes...


We see this kind of "ordered" staging of heavenly bodies in "The Dawn of Man" sequence as well. 

There, Kubrick gives us a shot from ground level, gazing up at the imposing monolith. The sun -- high in the sky -- is intersected by the Monolith's apex, and beyond the sun is a crescent moon.  Here we have another viewpoint that intimates a frame of intentional arrangement: a direct line from the Monolith to the heavens above; to the "star" people or aliens.

Late in the film (near the climax), Kubrick's camera depicts a shot of Jupiter and its myriad satellites. Once more, the heavenly bodies are lined up in symmetric, precise sequence, but then -- interestingly -- a black Monolith intersects the line of planets and moons almost perfectly on the horizontal axis, splitting the line in two.

It is almost as though here we are gazing at an algebraic equation -- a new meaning -- created by the planets' positions.  It is an order beyond mankind's understanding or comprehension since we -- unlike Kubrick's omnipotent camera -- can never see such a view, can never act as "the eyes of the universe," as it were.

We travel between worlds; in orbital space, but can we see the stars how God might see them?

Or how the Monoliths do?

In all these views, the stars are immaculate and perfect, arranged and organized for eyes not our own.

But it is, perhaps, in our constantly evolving relationship with our tools that we have the best chance to some day detect that very perspective.

We'll  see.



Next Friday: 2010: Odyssey Two (1984)

Movie Trailer: 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)

Thursday, January 30, 2014

Cult-Movie Review: Insidious (2011)



Produced on a budget of under two million dollars, James Wan's Insidious is a horror film that  nicely lives up to its title. The word "insidious" is defined as "proceeding in a gradual way but with harmful outcomes," or, simply, "crafty" and "treacherous." 

In very large measure, that definition (and therefore the title itself) explains perfectly how the movie proceeds, both in terms of narrative and vis-a-vis effective film techniques.

Particularly, this horror film's "stealth" villain is one who clearly -- and malevolently -- boasts a plan to achieve a wicked goal.  In making the movie's form echo its content, Wan and writer Whannell work patiently and assiduously, though with abundant twists and turns in the mix, to generate an aura of escalating terror and suspense.

Although Insidious's last act is shockingly and brazenly derivative of Tobe Hooper's Poltergeist (1982) -- right down to the presence of two comedy relief parapsychologists and a female medium -- the movie still largely gets under the skin.

Insidious does so, in large part, without benefit of expensive special effects, instead opting for a patient, slow-build approach.  Insidious then climbs to a highly disturbing climax -- and as much as I felt that the movie's slavish copying of the Poltergeist aesthetic was distracting -- Wan's film nonetheless achieved its "insidious" goal: it successfully troubled my mind, and even my slumber.  The night I watched this motion picture, I felt deeply unsettled and anxious.  Despite the life force it clearly appropriates from Hooper's classic supernatural thriller, Insidious still terrifies.

Insidious dramatizes the frightening story of the Lamberts. As the film begins, this harried middle class family has moved into a new home, and almost immediately, the audience detects that something is deeply amiss.

Books fall off the bookshelf of their own volition, and at night strange noises waken the family.  Then, young Dalton (Ty Simpkins) is injured in the attic and falls into an inexplicable coma.

His concerned parents, Renai (Rose Byrne) and Josh (Patrick Wilson) struggle to deal with this tragedy, but the night terrors don't cease.  Fearing the home is haunted, the family moves to another home...only to see the strange incidents resume.


Then, one day, Josh's mother, Lorraine (Barbara Hershey) shows up and reveals that she knows the reasons behind Dalton's coma and also the strange phenomena.  She brings in a parapsychologist, Elise (Lin Shaye) who reveals that Dalton and Josh are both -- unwittingly -- accomplished "travelers."  In other words, during sleep hey can "astral project" out of their bodies. 

However, during these out of body experiences, there's always a risk of traveling too far, and getting lost.

That's precisely what has happened to Dalton.  He has trespassed into "the Further," a world beyond our own and populated by the tortured souls of the dead.  And a dark figure there -- one who once sought to control Josh -- now seeks to control Dalton, and to appropriate his body.

Desperate to save his son, Josh risks an astral projection to retrieve Dalton...

Insidious quickly proves itself an interesting blend of popular horror sub-genres.  For instance, the film commences as if a traditional haunted house movie, with strange phenomena roiling a busy suburban family. 

Intriguingly -- and perhaps as a reflection of the hard times the middle class is now facing in America -- there's no "honeymoon" period here in the new house.  In most haunted house films, there's an early period of "euphoria" for the tenants in the new home before the terror begins.

Here, scenes of domestic pandemonium occur virtually immediately, inter-cut with scenes of growing supernatural pandemonium.  The impression is of a family overcome from all sides.  Early on Renai complains to Josh about their marriage/life and says "I just want things to be different in this house," suggesting a troubled history.  "I'm scared nothing is going to change," she admits.

In raising but not overtly exploring this troubled background, Insidious begins from almost frame one to suggest a amorphous anxiety plaguing the Lamberts; a kind of siege mentality hovering over them like a gray cloud. 

"I feel like the universe is just trying to see how far I bend before I break," states one of the characters, and again, that's a sentiment that a squeezed middle class -- dealing with foreclosures and unemployment -- can largely sympathize with.  In a country where families can't hold onto their houses or their jobs, Insidious suggest that malevolent forces are after even our bodies.

After the "haunting"-styled first act of Insidious, the film then shifts to a "possession"-type horror film, raising the dread that Dalton has been possessed by a demon or other supernatural creature.

Again, this set-up is undercut when we learn that he is not possessed at all...simply gone to "The Further."  And it is here, in this final reckoning that the Insidiou, disappoints by almost mindlessly, grieviously aping every aspect of the Poltergeist screenplay. 

There, as you may recall, Dr. Lesh (Beatrice Straight) and Tangina (Zelda Rubinstein) helped the Freeling family to recover its missing youngest child, Carol Anne (Heather O'Rourke) from a hostile spiritual realm where she was being kept by an evil, avaricious spirit.  After explaining that realm in riveting detail, the parapsychologist and medium then sent the matriarch of the family, Diane (Jobeth Williams) to retrieve Carol Anne. 

In Insidious,  Elise plays the roles of Lesh and Tangina and provides all the necessary exposition about "The Further," and then sends family patriarch, Josh, off to retrieve his son.  It's so obvious and derivative a formula (down to the selection of shots in some cases...) that you get the feeling Insidious took the Poltergeist script and just performed a find and replace for character names and supernatural concepts.

Again, I can't be too blunt about this aspect of the film.  If you go back and watch the Lesh scene in Poltergeist and then the Elise scene in Insidious, you'll see for yourself just how uncomfortably close these moments truly are.   

In Hollywood, of course, this isn't "copying," it's called homage. And in point of fact, the filmmakers could probably erect a good defense on such grounds.  For instance, Barbara Hershey appears in the film as a woman also targeted by supernatural forces, and this role clearly harks back to The Entity (1983), another great supernatural thriller that starred Hershey.  

Similarly, Elise's last name is "Rainier," a selection that suggest the original, true-life case upon which Blatty's The Exorcist (1973) is based.  In particular, a boy in 1949, living in Mount Rainier, was believed to be possessed by a demon. 

Despite such reflexive touches, one still wishes Insidious could have found a way to dramatize its tale without so overtly aping Poltergeist's last act. 

Given this creative dilemma, why does Insidious work so well, overall? 

Well, for one thing, the depiction of "The Further" is very well-done, and deeply unsettling.  There, lost souls wander the firmament and relive distorted, surreal "memories" of their lives. The characters you see dwelling in "The Further" are eminently creepy and disturbing.   Furthermore, the film's stealth villain, an Old Crone, is deeply, monstrously frightening.  The film builds to a terrifying crescendo as the specifics of her "plan" fall into place, one rung at a time, and we detect how easily the Lamberts have been led astray. 

In other words, Insidious really creeps up on you, not truly revealing the villain's hand until the last act.  And that villain -- I will confess -- is very effective.

James Wan is well-known to genre fans as the director of Saw (2004), which sent horror films off in a particular direction that is often condemned as "torture porn."  Much has been made of the fact that Insidious is something of a corrective, relying on suspense rather than gore to horrify audiences. I personally don't object to the Saw films -- any more than I disdain the slasher films of the 1980s -- but it's true that Insidious rewards patience and generates an atmosphere of authentic terror.

As much as my intellect had some deep reservations about the film, particularly the deeply nihilistic ending, my senses responded to Insidious precisely as the director wished.  I was deeply unsettled, and actually had trouble sleeping at night.   That's a nice sweet spot for any horror film to occupy.


Perhaps I felt so unsettled because the film's final twist -- so dark and hopeless -- mirrors, again, the feelings of many of Americans about the future right now. What malevolent forces are working against us while we're occupied trying to get the kids to school safely, or focusing on our careers? 

While appropriating clearly and brazenly Poltergeist's essence, Insidious also ably and relentlessly charts this post-Great Recession Zeitgeist.

Poltergeist knew "what scares us" back in 1982, and Insidious updates that dynamic well enough for today.  How far can we bend before we break?  Does an angry, avaricious universe want to know the answer? 

Movie Trailer: Insidious (2011)

Movie Trailer: Insidious Chapter 2 (2013)

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Cult-TV Flashback: Space Precinct (1994)


Just a season after Steven Bocho and ABC-TV brought extreme grittiness (not to mention four-letter words and bare behinds...) to televised cop dramas with the popular NYPD Blue (1993 - 2005), veteran British producer Gerry Anderson premiered his own unique take on the cop genre: the futuristic adventure, Space Precinct.   Only recently, interest in the series has increased dramatically because of a blunt  behind-the-scenes documentary about the project, called Space Precinct: Legacy.

This one-of-a-kind science fiction TV series from the nineties had roots going all the back to a never-aired pilot film -- Space Police --  in 1986.  Covered in Starlog Magazine at the time, the drama starred Shane Rimmer as an Earth cop named Brogan working in a very, very  alien environment.  

By 1994,  when the concept finally went to weekly series, American actor Ted Shackelford (Knots Landing) assumed the role of Officer Patrick Brogan, a family man  and  officer working in the 88th Precinct in Demeter City, on the distant planet called Altor. 

The suburbs.
And -- in an eerie repeat of what occurred with Space: 1999 in 1975 -- absolutely no one knew what to make of the new Anderson drama. 

Specifically, Space Precinct aired sporadically in syndication across the United States, often at 3:00 in the morning.  It hardly dented the pop-culture bubble.

Apparently, many station programmers weren't certain if  Space Precinct  was an adult drama, a kid's series, or something else entirely. The adult narratives about drugs ("black crystal") and sex suggested the former. The fanciful alien make-up design and cops-and-robbers-styled action indicated the latter.  

Frankly, no one had ever seen anything quite like it. 

Now, twenty years after it first aired, modern audiences can judge for themselves the quality of the program, since the series is available on DVD.

From "The Snake," a booby-trapped Omega Tanker.
In brief, I'll state this: if nothing else, Space Precinct is truly a fascinating historical artifact.  

This is so because the Anderson venture is one of the last sci-fi TV programs to rely almost entirely on miniatures and models rather than CGI in terms of depicting alien space ships and environments. 

Much of the episodic action of Space Precinct occurs in a colossal Blade Runner (1982)-styled future metropolis rendered completely in miniature, and often with impressive results.   

Across the episode catalog, audiences see the waterfront ("near the anti-gravity processors"), parking decks ("Protect and Serve"), mom-and-pop shops ("Enforcer"), the spires of the Hotel Nirvana ("Protect and Serve"), futuristic crack-houses ("Double Duty") and other facets of the metropolis.

The program's ubiquitous flying cars, or "hoppers," are also small, meticulously-detailed models -- moved about on wires -- and there are some really terrific craft designs highlighted in Space Precinct.  

Standard issue police cruiser.
The futuristic apartment complex/space station that orbits the planet is absolutely gorgeous, for instance, and the standard-issue police cruiser -- a multi-engined, fighter-type affair -- is the utilitarian but fun workhorse of the series' action.

Commendably, the miniatures are even used to buttress the series' pervasive and droll sense of humor.  In an episode called "Double Duty," an impressive space colossus appears in space over the orbiting precinct house, and is the punch-line to a very funny joke about an alien race seeking its lost queen.

In another episode, there's a whimsical little pizza-delivery hopper that gets pulped during a chase. And in yet another show ("Body and Soul"), the miniature work evokes a kind of anxiety or terror.  An impressive space derelict -- covered in space dust -- is discovered crashed on the pitted surface of Merlin's Asteroid. 

The big drawback to this old-school special effects approach is simply that the ships/vehicles don't always look entirely convincing while in motion over  atmospheric Demeter City.  Sometime, it is all too clear you're  watching highly-detailed miniatures.  In the worst shots, it's one step up from a Godzilla movie of the 1960s. In the best shots, the Space Precinct visuals really do pass muster, even almost two-decades later.

Interestingly, the space-bound chase scenes -- which don't have to deal with rain, fog and other atmospherics of city-life -- are still uniformly excellent today.  In keeping with the cops and robbers, daily-life-in-space milieu of the show, these chase scenes, on occasion, even feature the futuristic equivalent of "driver's side air bags" -- inflatable ejection pods used in the event of an accident.  Again, the intent of such devices seems to be to evoke bemusement or humor.

Anderson-quality pyrotechnics.
Also, well in keeping with the Gerry Anderson legacy and tradition, every episode of Space Precinct features at least one gigantic, incredibly impressive explosion. 

In "Protect and Serve," a futuristic parking deck gets totalled in glorious, fiery fashion; in "Body and Soul" a prototype derelict spaceship self-destructs after a tense countdown..  In "The Snake," a mad bomber detonates a space freighter in the interstellar void, and so on.

Perhaps even more importantly than the miniature effects, the alien creature designs of the series forecast the fascinating approach of Farscape (1999-2003); namely the incorporation of puppets into the mix so that the featured aliens truly seem like aliens...and not just like lightly-retouched humans with rubber ridges on their foreheads or noses.  It's a revolutionary approach that differentiates it from its contemporaries in America (namely TNG and DS9).

Now, Farscape really and truly mastered this method of creating memorable alien creatures.  Space Precinct made the same valiant attempt  about five years earlier, but not on such a flamboyant and wholly successful scale. 

That said, the aliens featured in this series -- largely a rogue's gallery of cosmic criminals -- are a pretty fascinating and entertaining bunch.  After a few episodes, you don't really consciously process the fact that you are actually watching animatronic puppets.  Therefore the creature designs -- while initially startling and a little too whimsical for my taste -- ultimately prove effective.

In terms of behind-the-scenes personnel, Gerry Anderson -- as always -- assembled a top flight crew.  Here, the late, great cinematographer Alan Hume (Return of the Jedi [1983], Octopussy [1983], Lifeforce [1985], Runaway Train [1985] and A Fish Called Wanda [1988]) shoots several episodes.

Amongst the directors helming individual episodes are such vets as John Glen (The Living Daylights [1987], Licence to Kill [1989]) and Sidney Hayers (Circus of Horrors [1960].   Their expertise is needed and well-deployed, especially because some of the sets (interior and exterior) seem cramped and even impractical for shooting.

Writers on Space Precinct include Marc Scott Zicree, and J. Larry Carroll.   Zicree's stories, in particular, are very enjoyable, and successfully transmit the jaunty, almost tongue-in-cheek vibe of the series.   For example, Zicree laces his efforts with little in-jokes and tributes to other famous genre programs. In  Zicree's "Enforcer" there's a joke about a "bruise the size of a horta's egg," and a passing reference to a crime called a  "1701 in progress."  

As you'll recognize, these are both fun and knowing Star Trek references.



"It's a Whole New World"

The sun sets over Demeter City, on the planet Altor

Set in the year 2040, Space Precinct follows the busy happenings in Demeter City's 88th precinct, an orbital space station and headquarters for the planet Altor's multi-racial police force.

Twenty-year NYPD veteran Patrick Brogan (Shackelford) has recently transferred to the 88th from Earth, and is slowly adjusting to life on this strange alien planet.  He has brought along his wife Sally (Nancy Paul), his son, Matt, and his daughter Liz.  Together they live on another space station, the "suburb" orbiting the city-planet "downtown."


At the precinct house, humans, Tarns and Creons work together to police the dangerous city below, which is named for the Greek Goddess Demeter, who -- appropriately -- held power over "the law" and controlled "the cycle of life and death." 

Officer Castle (Bendix) and Officer Took -- a Tarn -- interview two witnesses.
For easy reference, the Tarns seen here are sort of "Yoda Heads," three-eyed aliens with telepathic/telekinetic abilities and elfin ears. 

By contrast, the Creons are the bug-eyed "E.T. Heads," and seem more like the (Irish?) working-class folk of Demeter City.  Captain Podly, a man who pulled himself up "from the street" by his bootstraps, is a Creon.

Brogan's human partner in the precinct is the hot-blooded Jack Haldane (Rob Youngblood), a younger officer who shares a flirtatious/adversarial relationship with the gorgeous Officer Janet Castle (Simone Bendix). 

Right off the bat -- in terms of appearance and behavior -- long-time science fiction TV fans will find the banter and relationship between Haldane and Castle highly reminiscent of the Tony Verdeschi/Maya relationship on the second season of Space: 1999.  But strangely, the imitation is okay.  The characterizations on the show are not deep in any meaningful sense, and the scenes between these would-be lovers add another fun, romantic element to the proceedings.

In each episode of Space Precinct, Brogan, Haldane and Castle go up against criminals in Demeter City, and Space Precinct lovingly and faithfully resurrects every cliche of the cop genre and then updates each for the future milieu. 

Two Creon police officers bracket the station robot, "Slo-Mo."
In other words, various episodes involve corporate malfeasance ("Body and Soul,") drug dealers ("Double Duty") blackmailing bombers ("The Snake"), con men running protection rackets ("Enforcer") and the ever-popular witness protection and stakeout ("Protect and Serve.") 

But, commendably, the writers do their darnedest to marry these cop genre cliches to solid science fiction concepts. 

One of the finest episodes, "Body and Soul," turns the bitter hologram replica of a Howard Hughes-type tycoon into a murdering monster with a God Complex, for instance. Another show, "Body Double" uses an Alien-like xenomorph as a mob-land assassin.

Space Precinct also relies heavily on tried-and-true cop cliches for the depiction of its main characters.  There's the occasionally wrong-headed superior (the aforementioned Captain Podly) and the cop-with-the-traumatic past (on the bomb squad, no less...), Janet Castle.  And Brogan, of course, is overworked, even to the point where he can't take time to enjoy a candle-light dinner with his lovely wife.

Writing plainly, I can't argue that this sci-fi series is particularly deep, but in a way it reminds me -- in a positive light -- of the first season of Buck Rogers in the 25th Century, which was essentially James Bond in Space (or Mission: Impossible in Space). 


Haldane (Youngblood), Aleesha, and Brogan (Shackelford)
As was the case there, here you get exactly what you pay for: a cop show set on another planet, with every story adapting the conventions of the cop genre to the weird, futuristic setting

Two elements of the series render Space Precinct enjoyable.  The first is the sense of pace: the series is downright frenetic and action-packed.  It never stays put too long in any given scene, so you don't have time to linger on the elements that don't work (largely the human performances and some risible dialogue).  

Secondly, if you watch several episodes of Space Precinct back-to-back you will quickly glean a feeling for the program's quirky sense of humor.   In the aforementioned "Body and Soul," for instance, there's a talking elevator that quotes Samuel Johnson (!).  In "Double Duty", there's the great joke with the bag lady from "Megalon 7" (there's your Godzilla reference...), and it features a special effects punch-line that left me cackling. 

In point of  fact, some episodes of Space Precinct even do offer a kind of elegant story structure.  For example, "Double Duty" is all about the assumptions that people make on a day-to-day basis.  Those assumptions are all perfectly reasonable, but nonetheless wrong.  In police work, such closely-held assumptions can be dangerous, even deadly.

All three storylines -- A, B, and C -- in the episode transmit this idea.  At home, Brogan is worried that his son, Matt, is hanging out with the "wrong crowd." 

An alien-esque assassin.
On the job, the "Bag Lady" wanders into the station and tells fanciful stories about how she is actually an alien queen. 

And finally, Haldane romances a beautiful, green-haired (!) witness who is mysteriously at the scene of every crime.  In each of these tales, we arrive -- along with the characters -- at the wrong conclusion.  It's a kind of charming, fun story, in its own strange, distinctly Space Precinct-ish way.

So, sixteen years later, how is Space Precinct?  Well, it's kind of a gas.  I can't argue that it is consistently or even occasionally deep or meaningful.   But on the other hand, it's never boring, frequently funny and rather enjoyable.   In other words, the series is entertaining. 

Again, my feeling about science fiction series is that they don't all have to be the same.  Today, series don't need to be judged against the yardstick of Star Trek anymore.

Space Precinct is a truly weird hybrid, drawing its manic, silly energy in equal parts from cop dramas like Fort Apache: the Bronx (1981) and TV series such as Star Trek, plus the amazing -- if perhaps antiquated -- special effects tradition of the Gerry Anderson canon.

If this description sounds appealing to you, book passage for Demeter City, and make sure your tongue is tucked firmly in cheek and your expectations are stowed safely in check.

Burton Binge: Mars Attacks (1996)

I distinctly recall reading a review of  Mars Attacks!  which stated unequivocally that the act of directing the bio-pic  Ed Wood  (1994) ha...