Thursday, March 19, 2015

The Films of 1990: Gremlins 2: The New Batch

At a crucial juncture in Joe Dante’s Gremlins 2: The New Batch (1990), an agreeable if dopey millionaire -- an amalgamation of Ted Turner and Donald Trump – learns that if you create a place for things instead of people, you shouldn’t be surprised that things eventually live there.

Daniel Clamp (John Glover) thus comes to understand that his fancy Manhattan high-rise -- automated to the max and designed to sell, sell, sell -- ends up being a place not for human beings, but for gremlins. 

This is an explicit continuation of Gremlins’ (1984) technology critique, which I discussed here on the blog the other day.

We shouldn’t be surprised, the film suggests, when de-humanization actually de-humanizes us.  Play with the building blocks of life, like Splice of Life does, or put people under the thumb of 24-hour surveillance and security guards, or cook exclusively with microwave ovens….and people begin to behave…badly.

Monsters start popping up.

This social critique probably makes Gremlins 2 sound like a deadly serious film, but instead it’s a gag-a-minute, laugh-a-minute treat that skewers the modern age, circa 1990.  This is a time, the film tells us, when technology will either carry the day, making us all “monsters,” or humanity will re-assert itself.

Look up from your iPhone screen for a moment and tell me which side won that particular war.

Caustic and hilarious Gremlins 2 is also “inventive and explosive” according to The Christian Science Monitor’s David Sterritt, and “thoroughly enjoyable” according to Films in Review’s Edmond Grant. The film is much funnier than its predecessor was, though the trade-off may be difficult for horror films fans to accept. 

As brilliant and subversive as Gremlins 2 remains, it has lost some of the scary, suspenseful aspects of the original film.

Yet I suspect the trade-off is ultimately worth it. How many sequels are so delightful, and so thoroughly unpredictable?

“We hope you have enjoyed our programming. But more importantly, we hope you have enjoyed…life.”

Former Kingston Falls resident Billy Peltzer (Zach Galligan) and his girlfriend, Kate (Phoebe Cates) are having trouble adjusting to life in expensive, impersonal New York City.  In Manhattan, the duo works at the technologically-advanced but de-humanizing Clamp Center, the world’s first fully-automated office building and home to the Clamp News Network (CCN). 

After the death of Mr. Wing (Keye Luke Luke), Gizmo is taken to the Clamp Center by a scientist working at the Splice of Life genetic laboratories inside the building. 

Before long, Gizmo and Billy meet up again, and face another outbreak of malevolent Mogwai.

This time, the gremlins are enhanced by Dr. Catheter’s (Christopher Lee) genetic experiments.  The Gremlins soon add to their numbers with a brain gremlin, an electric gremlin, a vegetable gremlin (!), a bat gremlin, a spider gremlin and…a female gremlin.

“This is a complete failure of management.”

In America, we tend to worship those who introduce us to the next level of technology (and its accordant convenience) and make a fortune doing it. Gremlins 2 introduces us to the (great) character, Daniel Clamp, and it is impossible not to love him…but also impossible not to recognize him. 

He’s a little bit Ted Turner, who founded the nation’s first 24-hour news cable network and was a proponent of “colorization,” the expensive process by which old black-and-white films would be updated and made palatable for contemporary (but lazy…) TV-watching masses. 

Clamp is also a little bit Donald Trump (1946 - ), the increasingly unhinged man behind Trump Towers in New York City, Trump Tower Resorts (casinos and hotels…) and such best sellers as Trump: The Art of the Deal (1987) and Trump: Surviving at the Top (1990).

In Gremlins 2, Daniel Clamp (John Glover) is the self-absorbed dynamo behind Clamp Premiere Regency Trade Center, a high-tech sky-rise/headquarters and home to CCN: The Clamp Cable News Network. Clamp is the author of the best-selling I Took Manhattan, and his cable network airs Casablanca,now in full color…with a happier ending.”

And when the Gremlins disaster occurs inside his building, Clamp even has a handy “end of the world” message to air on CCN, a funny reference to Turner’s famous boast that his CNN “won’t be signing off until the world ends.”

The social commentary doesn’t end with the (gentle) skewering of these powerful men, who helped to reshape modern America. The film also comments on the fragmenting or “balkanization” of television brought about by cable networks, a process which creates (in the film) “niche” networks like The Archery Channel, Microwaving with Marge, The Movie Police (starring Leonard Maltin), The Safety Channel and on and on.  

What’s the point? 

That technology (in this case the new shape of television) is merely separating us into our own little worlds, not building a community that reflects life, like Kingston Falls, for example.

Today, we are some way down the line from Gremlins 2.  We not only have over 200 channels, we have Internet streaming, 24 hour cable stations, and a host of other viewing options.  The “glue” that the mass media once used to hold us together as a nation is now gone. You can now choose the news (like a pizza topping) that best reflects your already-established world-view (conservative or liberal) and never be exposed to a new concept, or something that takes you out of your comfortable bubble.

Dante delves into pop-culture movie references too, commenting on the 1989 blockbuster Batman with a Gremlin-sponsored recreation of the movie’s ubiquitous bat logo. He ushers in jokes about the Wizard of Oz (“I’m melting”), The Marathon Man (“is it safe?”), and even laments the fact that a sequel was made to…Gremlins.

Once again, the point is that even our art is now de-humanized.

Batman is now a brand name and trademark, with a corporate logo you can’t mistake.  Forget individual artistry, the Dark Knight is an institution, not a vehicle for inventive storytelling! Matters such as story and character are less important than the creation of a perpetual money dispensing machine.  We watch a superhero movie from Marvel these days, and after the credits are over, we get a tease for another character, or another movie.  Then, we wait months for the trailer for that next movie, and anticipation is ratcheted up.  The actual product – the “movie itself” -- is just one piece of a never-ending media/marketing strategy.

Gremlins 2 likewise mocks the de-humanized essence of business jargon, which had grown and multiplied in American culture by the 1990s like some sort of terrible verbal plague. Workers were no longer asked to come up with good ideas…they had to “think outside the box.” Workers were no longer charged with blending departments, but finding and exploiting their “synergy.” They no longer had to simply do better at their job; they had to “take it to the next level.” 

This kind of inhuman gobbledygook -- this business-speak -- is mimicked and expanded upon with great success in Dante’s film. For instance, the revolving doors at the Clamp Tower entrance remind workers to “have a powerful day!” 

Similarly, characters don’t discuss career aspirations, they reflect on “situational long term outlook perspectives” and “career opportunity advancement.” Even ceiling lights are no longer just lights they are part of an “illumination system.”

And a takeover of the building by malevolent green gremlins is not a catastrophe, a disaster or even an invasion according to some, but rather a failure of management.

So the film tells us that to go along with our inhuman technology, we have developed inhuman modes of communication.

If one catalogues all of these pop culture jokes, a common thread grows detectable. What Dante laments in Gremlins 2 is the coarsening of the American arts and culture and even national dialogue to the point that everything and everybody is a product; a vehicle for squeezing out a profit.

When art and business join forces,” declares one character in Gremlins 2,anything can happen.”  He means it as a net positive; but Dante means it sarcastically.

Gremlins 2 is prophetic in understanding the pitfalls of this modern approach. 

Have you been a success in real-estate? 

Write a book and proselytize your success!

Direct a successful movie? 

Market it and make a sequel!

Have a good idea for a restaurant? 

Franchise it! 

Yet in a culture where the all-mighty dollar is so important, qualities such as individuality and creativity – nay, artistry -- eventually lose their significance.  Clamp’s two-hundred-and-fifty million dollar high-rise, a monstrosity of mechanization, voice-operated elevators, self-cleaning ash trays, surveillance cameras and “eye-pleasing, color-coordinated, authorized art,” is not an environment fit for unique, individual human beings. 

Instead, it’s a big fat, high-tech “work”-extruding beast.

The Gremlins -- the very embodiment of Loki; of chaos and anarchy – descend on Clamp Towers and very quickly prove…bad for business.  They get into the “natural” ingredients at the Yogurt Stand.  They destroy “Splice of Life,” a genetic laboratory that is the very representation of profit put ahead of responsibility and science run amok.  They foul the complicated phone system in the building, and in one wicked joke, are consigned to a hell called “hold,” where the muzak never stops.

Is it a wonder that monsters exist in a world like this?
Gremlins 2 is probably the closest thing to a live-action cartoon you are likely to see, but all the mayhem, all the brilliant effects carry pro-social weight.  The real movie monster is our craven consumer culture, and our desire to possess new, better technology. This monster is everywhere, infiltrating every walk of life.  It’s in our television (“an invention for fools,” says Mr. Wing), it’s in our newscast, here presented by a man in a vampire suit (a literal bloodsucker), and it’s in our most revered businessmen like Clamp, who still wants to merchandise Gizmo…even after all the anarchy.

What makes this point so interesting to contemplate is that Dante decides, in this sequel, to make the gremlins non-generic even as the world of humans becomes more generic. There’s not just a furry creature and an evil one here, like in the first film. Instead, we meet dozens of individual gremlins. There’s one little guy with googly eyes who acts like he needs Ritalin, stat. There’s Greta, the female gremlin. There’s one mogwai who becomes a gargoyle. And, of course, there’s my favorite, the delightful Brain Gremlin (voiced by Tony Randall), who wants only, “civilization.” 

Thus, the shape of the film might be interpreted as a mirror of the overall critique. To destroy a world of homogenized, inhuman technology and jargon, you need a return, perhaps, to messy individualism.  The Gremlins -- funnier, and more colorful than ever -- provide that antidote.

Gremlins 2 is wicked good fun, and one sequel that not only differentiates itself from the original, but in some way, exceeds it. I watched both Gremlins films with my son, Joel, and he couldn’t decide which he liked better. He liked the original, he said, because it told a scarier, more suspenseful story.  He liked the sequel because it upgraded the monsters and was very, very funny.

In my assessment, Gremlins fits together better as a coherent central idea or movie, but Gremlins 2 takes the cake in terms of ingenuity and humor. In the final analysis, original or new batch matters little because the franchise provides viewers two remarkable films.

1 comment:

  1. To say I love this film is an understatement. Still one of the finest slaughters of pop culture ever made