Sunday, March 31, 2019

20 Years Ago Today: The Matrix (1999)


"Have you ever had a dream, Neo, that you were so sure was real? What if you were unable to wake from that dream? How would you know the difference between the dream world and the real world?"

- Morpheus, in The Matrix (1999)


When I first saw The Matrix in April of 1999, it was a Star Wars moment for me. 

In other words, it was a moment in which everything I believed I knew and understood about the parameters of movie-making and visual storytelling changed completely.  Watching this film for the first time is like having a mind-altering experience, and even though we are more than a decade away from the movie's release, a re-watch of The Matrix today still arouses those electric feelings of  a fresh, unfettered mind-state; of the doors of perception swung wide open.

Like Star Wars back in 1977, the Wachowski Bros.' The Matrix represented a quantum leap forward in terms of special effects presentation.  In particular, the film makes extensive and imaginative use of "bullet time," a digitally-enhanced simulation of variable speed that can be deployed to escort the viewer literally inside a slowed moment of time to observe details from nearly-infinite angles. 

In bullet time, the audience can watch projectiles approach a target in super slow-motion.  In bullet time, space and time become untethered, and audiences rocket around characters, seeing their movements -- and actions -- from more than one perspective.  The technique involves the breakdown of space and time in the frame; the slicing of reality into smaller snapshots.  "Bullet time" uses CGI as a guide, but it is based around the conceit of still cameras surrounding an object and filming dozens of perspectives simultaneously. 

When coupled with The Matrix's extraordinary wire-work and fight scene choreography, bullet time proved an absolute revelation.  In the immediate aftermath of the film, this special effect technique was utilized so much as to become a bad joke, but in the context of The Matrix itself, it still works beautifully.  After all, the movie concerns the very idea of re-shaping reality to our liking through the power of the mind, and bullet time ably reflects that conceit since it too reshapes conventional film grammar, and plays with longstanding cinematic notions of what is real, unreal, possible and impossible.

Beyond special effects breakthroughs, The Matrix also very much captured the Zeitgeist of the Y2K Age.  I can only describe that Zeitgeist as a permeating hunger and trepidation for a new kind of experience; one that reflected and commented on our ever-more technological-based lives.  The film came out at the end of the nineties: the first decade of the Internet, and the age in which the exterior, existential "Cold War" morphed into Pat Buchanan's interior "culture war" within our own borders.    We had peace and prosperity in America, and yet there was uneasiness roiling beneath the boom times.  There was a feeling that, spiritually, we were lost, and that in the Internet and other technological advances there could be a new opportunity to define ourselves and our place in the world at large.  It seemed as if we stood at the doorway of a new reality (a virtual or cyber reality).

Accordingly, The Matrix deals with the shifting-sands of our technological reality, and does so by asking basic questions about how human beings "see" life itself.  For instance, the film forces audiences to countenance the idea that, as individuals trapped by our physical senses, we can't detect objective reality.  Furthermore, it suggests that, in response, we must focus on an almost Buddhist peace about this fact -- that there is no spoon -- and focus instead on the powers of our own minds.   In that quest, The Matrix suggests, prevailing systems and entrenched orders that are inimical to the human spirit might be overturned, or at least, for the first time, truly "seen" and understood for what they are.  It's a delicate dance: the intertwining of Phenomenology with Buddhism with, finally, to a large degree, Marxist, anti-capitalist sentiment.

Innovative in visualization and revolutionary -- even incendiary -- in theme,  The Matrix remains the thinking man's Hollywood blockbuster, the kind of imaginative foray into science fiction thought that seems to come only once a generation.

"It's the question that brought you here."


In the year 1999, Thomas Anderson (Keanu Reeves) is a computer hacker, alias Neo, by night and a bored cubicle jockey by day.  His latest obsession is tracking a mysterious figure called Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne), a legendary hacker himself.

But then, one day, Morpheus finds Neo with the help of a beautiful woman, Trinity (Carrie-Ann Moss). This duo seems to promise Neo an eye-opening revelation about the very nature of existence itself, but at first a reluctant Neo demures.  Instead, he is captured by an apparent Federal agent, Smith (Hugo Weaving), who wants his help capturing Morpheus and Trinity, both apparently known "terrorists."

Before long, however, Neo follows Morpheus and Trinity down a path of no return.  He learns, in fact, that he has mistaken a computer program called "The Matrix" for the "real world."  Morpheus frees Neo from the Matrix and then reveals to him the true history of the world. 

It is actually the twenty-first century, and some years earlier, man created a brand of artificial intelligence that, feeling endangered by his creator, launched all-out war against him.  A nuclear war followed, and now the Earth's sky is black, shrouded in total nuclear winter.  Requiring energy to survive, the machines now grow and utilize human beings as batteries to propel them. 

At the same time they harness human bodies, however, the machines "fool" their unwitting slaves into believing that normal life goes on as before.  All of the enslaved humans "live" in the Matrix, unaware of the real world, and the war for supremacy going on outside it.

Morpheus awakened Neo because he believes that Neo is "the One," a mythical messiah figure who can free humans from the Matrix and take the war to the machines themselves.  As Neo trains and begins to understand the rules of the Matrix, Morpheus is undone by a traitor on his team, Cypher (Joe Pantoliano) and captured by the villainous Smith...really a policeman of the machine world, dedicated to the machines'  sinister agenda.  

If Morpheus breaks under torture, Smith will know the location of the last, real human city, Zion, and the war will be lost.

Teaming with Trinity, Neo plans to return to the Matrix to save Morpheus, even though he has grave doubts that he is actually "The One"...

"Perhaps we are asking the wrong questions."


A dizzying blend of action and philosophy, The Matrix remains one of the most intriguing and cerebral of all modern Hollywood blockbusters. 

At the same time that the film pushes the technological art of film forward  a generation by the pioneering use of  new special effects, it simultaneously harks back to a period in genre history when thematic subtext and intellectual gamesmanship played a critical role in the film making process.  Like the dystopic visions of Planet of the Apes (1968), Journey to the Far Side of the Sun (1969), THX-1138 (1971), Zardoz (1974)  and even John Carpenter's Dark Star (1975), The Matrix  utilizes the genre primarily as a vehicle for conveying powerful, challenging ideas about the changing parameters of the human equation.

At a very basic level, The Matrix is about the very structure of our human existence.  Most importantly, it is about how we, as living creatures, perceive what is real and what is not real.  Morpheus puts a fine point on it when he muses "What is "real"? How do you define "real?"  This interrogative is perhaps the most basic question a human being can ask about his or her environment, about his or her life.


In terms of philosophy, we would probably term this idea an example of Phenomenology, after Edmund Hasserl's field of study and research.  In particular, the film obsesses on the idea that consciousness itself is always the consciousness of something or someone.   It is not objective. 

What we see and perceive with our senses therefore represents only one side side or aspect of reality.  Because of this fact, what we claim to "know" is not actually known in an objective sense.  Again, Morpheus describes the crucible of this dilemma in The Matrix: "If real is what you can feel, smell, taste and see, then 'real' is simply electrical signals interpreted by your brain."  
 
In other words, if our senses can be tricked, we can be tricked.

In absence of  the ability to discern concrete, objective reality, it is our intention regarding an object  or person that then creates our sense of reality around said object.  To put it another way, our mind creates an elaborate web of reality around a glass of red wine, or a slice of steak, for example.  We bring to these things our sensory experiences and memories. 

Again, this is our so-called "intention," and it colors our view of the objects in question.  In The Matrix, Cypher considers this problem in detail, when he seeks to be returned to the material world of pleasure inside The Matrix.  He notes, of a restaurant dinner: "You know, I know this steak doesn't exist. I know that when I put it in my mouth, the Matrix is telling my brain that it is juicy and delicious. After nine years, you know what I realize? Ignorance is bliss."

And so we get down to the nitty-gritty of how The Matrix uses Phenomenology.  The film appears to state that if we cannot detect, for certain, the shape of objective reality, then the one thing we can control is our own internal reality.  We must not seek validation, legitimacy, or destiny outside, we must look for it within.  In other words, knowing the path is not the same as walking the path.  We must walk the path.

If Phenomenology proves the root problem of human existence, The Matrix suggests some tenets of Eastern Thought, especially Buddhism, as the response to that problem.  In viewing reality as it is and not as it appears to be (a concept called Prajna), Buddhism suggests mental discipline as the key to mastery over one's mind.  "Right concentration" -- or Samadhi -- in other words, is the secret to mastering life.  Such mastery takes practice, effort (vyayama) and awareness (smrti), and again, these concepts are important facets in the film's narrative. 

At length, we follow Neo through his training process, as Morpheus teaches him how to control his thoughts, and how to shape reality in the Matrix to his thoughts.  The first step in this training involves the acknowledgment of the fact that our sense of reality is not necessarily objective reality.  "Do you believe that my being stronger or faster has anything to do with my muscles in this place?"  He asks.  "Do you think that's air you're breathing now?"


His next point hammers it home: "Don't think you are, know you are," he implores Neo, suggesting that Neo must overcome the construct of "reality" his mind has erected around him.  The movie's most famous line of dialogue involves the awareness of this truth.  You cannot bend a spoon with your mind because there is no spoon.  It is the mind that must do the bending.

Even the Buddhist concept of samsara -- a cycle of suffering and re-birth -- finds voice in The Matrix, since Neo learns he may be the re-incarnation of "The One," the quasi-religious figure who freed the first trapped humans from the Matrix.  Later films in the trilogy focus more heavily on this aspect of the hero's journey; on the idea of life seeming to repeat itself, over and over, throughout time.

So Phenomenology is established as the basis for the film's philosophy, and Buddhism represents the means by which the self can conquer the existential issues surrounding that philosophy.  This intellectual grounding leaves the film to provide a third important component to wax philosophical about: a villain.  And here, in devising a world of "illusion" and blind, unknowing service to a machine culture, The Matrix delves whole-hog into a a kind of quasi-Marxist argument about man's sense of freedom, and place in the world. 

Specifically, according to Martin A. Dunahay and David Rider, in The Matrix and Philosophy (2002, Open Court, Page 217):  "workers under capitalism do not recognize the relationship between their labor and the capital that they produce because they have become "alienated" from the realities of work.  They also do not recognize that they are forced to work, believing that they are operating in a "free" market in which they sell their labor voluntarily.  In fact, Marx argues, they are exploited because they cannot choose how and why they work."

This paradigm very much reflects the slavery diagrammed by The Matrix.  Trapped by his own way of "knowing reality" (Phenomenology), mankind cannot detect that he is being exploited by the A.I. Machines as a source of labor (of free energy, essentially...as a copper top battery).  Men like Thomas Anderson believe they are free -- and boast free will -- but such freedom is an illusion fostered by the oppressive, controlling structure. In this case that structure is not Marx's punching bag of capitalism, but the controlling A.I . interests.

Interestingly, the end result of such slavery is viewed as being much the same by Marx and the makers of The Matrix, as this passage from Karl Marx indicates: "...once adopted into the production process of capital, the means of labor passes through different metamorphoses, whose culmination is the machine...set in motion by an automaton, a moving power that moves itself, this automaton consists of numerous mechanical and intellectual organs, so that the workers themselves are cast merely as its conscious linkages."

What Marx writes of here, in one sense, is the idea that the individual worker is ultimately subsumed into the machine. Not a literal machine, perhaps, but a philosophical construct or structure, again in the service of capitalism.  The Matrix literalizes the hypothesis, however, actually physically transforming unaware humans into "linkages" of the machine: becoming their necessary energy source; a cog in the larger automaton. 

Just as capitalism derives capital from a labor's work; so does the machine world of The Matrix derive capital (energy) from human participation in  the dream world of "the Matrix."    In The Matrix, the humans are not conscious of their true purpose -- they are lulled into a world of luxury and tactile pleasures by their masters -- just as in the capitalist system, the accumulation of goods and material are the thing which "lull" people into continuing to support and  prop up a system that rewards the few at the expense of the many.  This paradigm makes the film, perhaps, the most Marxist-leaning science fiction film since Metropolis in 1927.

I'm not arguing for or against capitalism, by the way.  I'm merely observing how The Matrix is conscious and cognizant of how a system of control (any system of control...) operates, and how easily people can buy into that system if they are rewarded for their participation.  Cypher turns the other cheek -- ignorance is bliss-- rather than confront his enslavement, and that's what the film concerns, largely: enslavement in a system so large and pervasive that is almost impossible to "see" in its entirety.  The structure of the Matrix program reflects this structure in human life.  It provides law enforcement and government (in the form of the Agents) and religion of a sort (in the Oracles), as well as tactile pleasures.  And yet some especially insightful people (like Neo) rightly still see the system as a trap.


This notion comes across most plainly in the early section of the film, as Neo searches desperately for some sort of meaning or answer about life itself.  He works in an ugly, green-hued office environment, in a small, anonymous cubicle, "a cog" in the vast corporate machine, as it were. 

When he is called on the carpet by his wrong-headed boss, the directors of the film cut suddenly to a view outside the window, of a window-washer cleaning the transparent surface.  This shot is a metaphor for Neo's life at this point: he is trapped inside a system in which he feels unimportant.  Meanwhile, just outside, something tries to get in; to affect his consciousness; to draw his attention to something beyond the system which manipulates him.  He's on the verge of seeing it, on the verge of perception, but not yet ready... 

And again, this is an idea that carries real currency in America today.  We don't live to work; but we have to work to live. Many of us devote the majority of our "waking" time -- forty hours a week, at least -- to an agenda which is not our own, but which pays the bills and permits us to put food on our tables and a roof over our heads.  Even when we are not physically at work, we are connected or linked to this "work" matrix through e-mail and cell-phones.  As Morpheus notes in the film, "it is the system that is our enemy."  It's a subversive and fascinating point.

As much as we want to escape beyond the system, it's not possible for the vast majority of us to do, unless we are -- as Cypher dreams of being -- someone "powerful."  So The Matrix is about the yearning to be free of corporate masters; a dream which often leads to a double life, after-hours -- moonlighting, like Thomas Anderson.  We seek to find a way to thrive outside the system, outside the restrictive structures which propagate and continue the system.  But the system is too big, too all-encompassing, to beat. 

And yes, certainly, The Matrix understands the ways in which big systems can squash the individual, or the individual spirit.  "You think you are special?  That somehow the rules don't apply to you?" Those are the words used by Neo's boss to keep him in line.  The idea is that he must choose -- with his livelihood at stake -- to either be a drone or a maverick.  If he picks the former, he dies inside a little bit at a time.  If he chooses the latter, the "system" will make it exponentially-harder for him to succeed.  Again, what The Matrix truly discusses here is fighting entrenched, established interests.  It's about being Preston Tucker fighting the Big Three, for lack of a better example.  Why not just join the system, rather than try to beat it?

If the anti-capitalism angle makes you uncomfortable about the film, just look at The Matrix in more generalized, inspiring terms. As being a wake-up call from middle-class complacency; a call to see the mechanics of the system, question the system, and in some small way, at least, buck the system

And indeed, there's a darkness to this film also, in the suggestion of how to beat the Matrix.  Although Trinity and Neo are certainly "heroes," at some point they come to realize that they must use any means possible to destroy their enemy. 

Inevitably, this involves killing some of the people who are enslaved inside the Matrix.  These are innocent people.  One of the film's most famous and incendiary scenes, involves Neo and Trinity -- adorning trench coats -- entering a heavily guarded, secure building, and opening fire on security guards and police. 


The scene is brilliantly wrought, and yet Neo and Trinity are still "murdering" people, even if their victims are slaves to the Matrix. 

Some critics have described this sequence as an incitement to violence because it turns "people," essentially, into video game avatars.  And it's easier, one supposes, to blow away an avatar than a living human being, right?  The outsiders to the Matrix (the freedom fighters like Neo), are able to look at other human beings as being simply "pawns" of the machine, and somehow less valuable, the argument goes, I guess.  In that sense, some people might view the film according to another philosophy: fascism.  The chosen few decide who amongst the rabble lives and dies, with an Aryan-like "One" leading the purge.

Now, in my opinion, this scene isn't an incitement to violence, necessarily, but some in the media certainly treated it as such.  Remember all the criticism leveled at The Matrix after the Columbine shootings, and how the now discredited myth of the "trench coat mafia" took hold so rapidly in the mainstream media?  In some sense, this attack response by the networks was the system -- the Matrix itself -- responding to that which it deemed unacceptable: a movie advocating that, as rational, intelligent individuals, we must occasionally break out of our systemic purgatories and act subversively.

The film's purview is combat and all-out war, with the survival of the human race on the line, so Trinity and Neo are no more inciting violence than Luke Skywalker was when he destroyed the Death Star, and all the people aboard that vast space station.   We accept such situations in spectacular action films, rightly or wrongly, and The Matrix need not be singled out as a negative example, especially when there are far more objectionable films out there (see: 2008's Wanted).

Another really terrific and intriguing aspect of The Matrix is the fashion in which it utilizes ancient, historical and mythological language to reflect the nature of this "future" battle with the A.I. machines.  Take the name of the last human city, Zion., for example. In Kabbalah, Zion (or T'Zion) is the "spiritual point from which reality emerges."  In the film, Zion is the base for free humans, the location from which people awaken the "slaves" of the system, so there's a strong connection there. 

Similarly, the mythical Morpheus is the "God of Dreams," who could appear in dreams to speak directly to the dreamer.  In The Matrix, Morpheus appears in the "dreamworld" created by the system -- a land of enforced dreams -- and awakens people from their forced slumber.  Even his ship, the Nebuchadnezzar, is connected with the idea of sleeping and dreaming, referring to a king who -- like those awakened from the Matrix -- had a "troubled  mind" and "could not sleep," (Daniel 2:1).

The name Neo, of course, means "new," and in The Matrix, Neo is a new recruit to Morpheus's mission.  Yet "Neo" is also Mr. Anderson's secret identity; a reflection of his desire to find something new outside and beyond the parameters of "the system" that enslaves him.  Trinity represents the number three, part of a triumvirate, but being of the same essence as the other components.  This joins her, explicitly, to Neo and Morpheus, as human freedom fighter and stalwart hero.


Finally, The Matrix does one thing that all great science fiction films must inevitably do.  It not only presents a consistent and driving philosophy for its heroes to pursue (in this case, the way of the Buddhist warrior essentially...), it also achieves the same thing for its main antagonist. 

Here, Smith likens humanity to a virus, in a delicious but ultimately difficult-to-refute manifesto: "It came to me when I tried to classify your species and I realized that you're not actually mammals. Every mammal on this planet instinctively develops a natural equilibrium with the surrounding environment but you humans do not. You move to an area and you multiply and multiply until every natural resource is consumed and the only way you can survive is to spread to another area. There is another organism on this planet that follows the same pattern. Do you know what it is? A virus. Human beings are a disease, a cancer of this planet."

Given the exploding population of man, and the consequences to our planetary environment of our increasing numbers, Smith seems to have a point, doesn't he?  Also, it's important to note that in the film, it is man who begins the nuclear war when it is clear there is no other way to "beat" the machines.  He has  not only failed to create equilibrium with the surrounding environment, he has followed a literal "scorched Earth" policy regarding it. If he can't run the playground, there will be no playground.  Smith is a great and monstrous villain, and yet he is not simply "evil" for the hell of it.  He has reasons for his belief system, and they makes him a fascinating opponent.

The look of the film is also extraordinary.  From the first frames of The Matrix, which feature imagery of green computer code cascading down a screen, the film forges a sickly, emerald palette for moments involving life inside the computer/Matrix.  It's an inhuman, antiseptic color that makes audiences aware immediately that something is wrong; that something "inhuman" is happening beneath the scenes.   The generic "establishment" look of the agents works in a  very similar fashion.  At first, the agents seem anonymous and indistinguishable in their suits and ties, but soon we begin to understand that look as a kind of uniform," one that generates terror and dread.   

In the final analysis, The Matrix is a rousing action film, one in which the incredible action cannot succeed without the intellect behind that action.  It's a visceral, brilliantly-directed film, but one in which the weighty ideas carry even more power than the blazing action scenes. 

In other words, the film lives up to one of its core conceits: the body cannot live without the mind.  Here, the mental acrobatics carry the day, even over dynamic stunts, mind-altering bullet-time and tons of kung fu, Finally, The Matrix thrills on the landscape of ideas. But you can't just take my word for it.

Unfortunately, no one can be told what The Matrix is. You have to see it for yourself.

Saturday, March 30, 2019

40 Years Ago Today: Buck Rogers in the 25th Century (1979)




Buck Rogers in the 25th Century -- though designed as a TV series -- actually had its premiere in American movie theaters on March 30th, 1979.  That's 40 years ago, today!

The film, originally a pilot called "Awakening" quickly provided a remarkable return on Universal’s investment.  It was produced for a little over three million dollars (or one-third of Star Wars’ budget, essentially, in 1977) and the movie grossed over twenty-one million dollars in American theaters alone. 

Perhaps even more surprisingly, the film was generally well-received by critics, despite its TV origins. Vincent Canby at The New York Times belittled the film as “corn flakes” while simultaneously comparing it to the big boys: Star Wars and Superman: The Movie.  He also noted (with grudging admiration) the ingenuity of the film’s makers.

I remember seeing Buck Rogers in the 25th Century in theaters and enjoying it tremendously, unaware that it had been conceived and shot as a TV series pilot and then kind of exploded into becoming a full-fledged feature film. In 1979, the special effects held up on the big screen beautifully (particularly the moments in Anarchia, a ruined 20th century city inhabited by mutants…), and the film, overall, was very entertaining. It moved at a fast clip, showed knowing good humor about its world, and was flashy in visual presentation

Today, however, it is not difficult to detect some of the “growing pains” of this production as it stretched from being, essentially, a kid-friendly TV pilot to a more adult-oriented, “big” event movie.  What began as a relatively straight space adventure inched closer to a nifty and ingenious paradigm: James Bond in Space

This shift in premises is best exemplified by an opening credits sequence which features Buck romancing scantily-clad women of the 25th Century, who pose and preen on the over-sized letters of his “name” while a Bond-like ballad blares on the soundtrack.  It’s a little bit ridiculous, and a little bit cheesy, but it definitely captures the 007 aesthetic: sexy women and a catchy pop-tune.


The Women of James Bond Buck Rogers.



The women of Buck Rogers #2


The Women of Buck Rogers #3




The Women of Buck Rogers #4



The Women of Buck Rogers #5

Other moments are more clumsily folded into the narrative than the enjoyable Bondian-opening.  


Late in the film, aboard the Draconia, for instance, Ardala declares she wants Buck to take her father’s “seat” on the throne.  Suddenly, the film cuts to a shot of Buck -- obviously shot at some later date, on a different set -- declaring that her father’s “seat” is the furthest thing from his mind (implying it’s her seat – her buttocks – that interests him). 

Thus sexual double-entendres were ham-handedly added to the production when the shift in venue was broached.  Other innuendos work a little better than this one because they arrive via the auspices of ADR or looping, and therefore we don’t get the chance to visually note the inconsistencies.

Another not-entirely successful addition to the original pilot sees Buck going mano-a-mano with Tigerman, Princess Ardala’s hulking bodyguard and the film’s equivalent of Oddjob, or Jaws…a so-called soldier villain.  

There’s nothing wrong with the climactic physical confrontation between Buck and Tigerman, except that Buck faces a different Tigerman here, not the one seen throughout the film.  This discontinuity is left unexplained, but Derek Butler plays the character throughout the film, and H.B. Haggerty (who returned to the role in “Escape from Wedded Bliss” and “Ardala Returns”) plays him for the fight sequence.  

The two men are both imposing, but boast very different looks in terms of muscle-mass and body-type.  Honestly, I didn’t notice the substitution as a kid, but the switch is impossible to miss now.


Tigerman #1 (Derek Butler)

Tigerman #2 (H.B. Haggerty)
These last minute additions to the enterprise feel somewhat jarring, even if they add to the James Bond mystique of the thing.  A more significant problem, however, involves the thematic approach to the material.  Buck -- in both the film and the series – is raised up as some kind of paradigm for Earth’s future, the ideal man.  A professor and friend at Hampden-Sydney College called the idea “American Exceptionalism in Space,” and he was right.

The only problem, of course, is that Buck is from the very age on Earth that brought about the devastating nuclear holocaust.  His generation, in essence, destroyed everything.  It seems strange and counter-intuitive, then, to deride the sincere 25th Century folks -- just climbing out of a five hundred year economic and cultural hole, as it were – for depending on computers, since the episode makes plain the notion that ungoverned emotions and passions were what brought about the end of 20th century mankind. 

These benevolent robots, acting dispassionately but helpfully, instead rely on logic and rationality. As Dr. Huer notes, they saved the Earth from "certain doom" and have been "taking care of areas where we made mistakes, like the environment."

So…would you really want to go back to the approach that led to Earth’s ruin?  Would you lift Buck up as a role model, or see him as a backward man from a much more primitive time?  To champion Buck, in some sense, is to champion irrationality and emotions over science and reason.  This is the last thing a slow-recovering planet needs, a throwback to the violent past.

It would be one thing if the movie noted that some balance between approaches -- logic and emotion -- needed to be struck.  But the 25th century characters are treated, in broad strokes, as gullible fools who can’t even pilot their own star-fighters (even though those ships are built with very prominent joy-sticks designed for manual control).  

It’s all a little bit…incoherent. Yet the film gets away with it because, again, of the James Bond comparison. We all know that James Bond is irresistible to all women, best in a fight or shoot-out, and supreme exemplar of style and taste.  Nobody does it better, right? 

Here, Buck Rogers seems to have the same magic touch.  We accept the premise, in short, because we recognize it from that other franchise. But in context, the story doesn't make sense.

Despite such flaws, the movie vets an intriguing premise involving the Draconian “stealth” attack (a kind of Trojan Horse in Space dynamic), and features at least one authentically great sequence set in Anarchia, or “Old Chicago.”  Here, Buck goes in search of his past, and finds it…in a grave-yard. 

This scene in Anarchia is particularly well-shot, acted, and scored, and adds a significant human dimension to the film’s tapestry.  We are reminded that Buck has lost everything.  Not just his family…but the world he knew.  

Here, Buck Rogers harks back to a 1970's movie tradition earlier than Star Wars: the dystopia or post-apocalyptic setting of such efforts as The Omega Man, Logan's Run or Beneath the Planet of the Apes.  I’ve always wished that the ensuing TV series had followed up on this plot-line a little more sincerely.  There were many stories to be vetted in Anarchia, but in its two-year run, Buck never returned there (that we know of).

I should add, the special effects visualizations of New Chicago and Anarchia are nothing less-than-spectacular, even today. Again, it’s difficult to reckon with just how cheaply this movie was made because it features extensive, highly-detailed matte paintings, numerous space dogfights, and huge sets (like Ardala’s throne room…replete with Olympic-size swimming pool). 






Finally, I would be remiss without mentioning Buck Rogers’ other great “visual.”  Vincent Canby writes: Pamela Hensley is the film's most magnificent special effect as the wicked, lusty Princess Ardala, a tall, fantastically built woman who dresses in jewelry that functions as clothes and walks as if every floor were a burlesque runway.

There’s probably a case to made that Hensley is one of the Best Bond femme fatales ever…except that she’s not technically in a Bond film, of course. Still, the material is close enough, and boy does she have a sense of…presence.  I can't think of many actresses who could pull-off that "boogie" scene with Buck Rogers here.  But Hensley disco dances with the best of them, retains her character's regal sense of dignity, and is awfully sexy...


Pamela Hensley as Princess Ardala
I can’t really argue that Buck Rogers in the 25th Century is in the same artistic class as contemporaries like Star Wars or Superman: The Movie. But the movie is undeniably entertaining , and it sets up – with tremendous entertainment value -- the boundaries of Buck Roger’s new life in the 25th Century.  In other words, it’s a pretty great TV pilot for 1979 even if -- blown-up to the silver screen – it all plays as a bit scattershot.

Thursday, March 28, 2019

Guest Post: Us (2019)




"US. Jordan Peele's follow-up to Get Out will leave skittish audiences tossing and turning at night"

By Jonas Schwartz



There's a blood-soaked war at the crux of Jordan Peele's latest horror film, US, and it's a clash between the Writer/Director wanting to create a living nightmare, a visceral scare-fest that will have audiences jumping into their neighbor's lap, and the Writer/Director wanting to explain those terrors, which is the filmic equivalent of accidentally turning on the overhead lights in a fun house.

For the most part, Peele's film captures the uncanny, inexplicable repulsions one finds in the unholy dreams that leaves one waking up startled at three a.m. But once you start adding rabbits and tunnels and bunk beds to make sense of the tales, the audience is trying to piece together a chronology and logic that sucks out the creepiness. US works best when it is irrational.


As a child, Adelaide (Lupita Nyong'o) had wandered away from her arguing parents at a boardwalk amusement park and wound up in a house of mirrors. What she saw petrified her and left her mute for a period of time. Now a mother with two children, Adelaide still has residual anxiety. When her husband (Winston Duke) and kids (Shahadi Wright Joseph and Evan Alex) travel back to the same beach town, Adelaide senses something stalking her. One dark night, she discovers her fears are real.


US is visually stunning. The bright reds of the antagonist's robes against the dark sky are unsettling. A barricade of robe-wearers in the final act is bone chilling. The images evoke an inevitability and impotence forever returning to a normal society. The double characters are animalistic, using wails as language, and erratically moving as if their joints are beartraps snapping into place.

Peele choses a stellar cast, including two adolescents who deserve their own action films after this. Nyong'o creates the perfect face for horror. Her large saucer eyes throb as tears drip down like worms. Peele traps audiences inside her fears by making hers so palpable. Hardly a shrinking violet, Nyong'o evolves into a kick-ass warrior, ready to snap anyone in half who endangers her family. She also has a blast as her double, a primal beast, viciously exacting vengeance.

Peele lovingly calls attention to past horror films and tropes. '80s movie fans will quickly recognize the Santa Cruz pier from The Lost Boys. The positioning of twins on the floor and a close-up on Nyong'o's horrified face both pay homage to Stanley Kubrick's The Shining. In a film about doppelgangers, Peele finds several subtle nods, such a real spider crawling under a rubber fake one. He shoots the opening scene low to the ground, from a little child's perspective, reminding audiences how overwhelming a crowded amusement park can be for young children.

As in his Oscar-winning hit Get Out, Peele perfectly blends chilling moments with dark humor. He also manages to treat horror as a parable as George Romero did so swiftly in his glory days and for the most part, in understated ways. When, in the conclusion, he slips an explanation in, it falls flat. The rationalization is too sketchy and half-baked to comfort the audience, and already has them thinking too much at a time they want to be mindlessly haunted. The twist ending also gives audience something to ponder after the film, which will leave them more confounded than satiated.  

Michael Abels' extraordinary score assaults the audience with shrill violins, pounding African drums, and creepy chorales that evoke Jerry Goldsmith's The Omen.

Jordan Peele's US has that lingering dread of a nightmare that one finds in Dario Argento's masterpieces like Suspiria. The images provoke an apocalyptic sense of passing beyond logic and accepting pure madness as the new norm. By attempting several twists that steal away the dreamlike qualities and force the audience to bring logic aboard, he walks dangerously close to M. Night Shyamalan territory where being clever is more highly rewarded than being spooked.



Read Jonas's other reviews at: www.theatermania.com/author/jonas-schwartz_169 

40 Years Ago Today: Phantasm



In some fashion direct or indirect, all horror films grapple with the ultimate human fear, mortality.  But Don Coscarelli’s landmark 1979 horror Phantasm is a film veritably obsessed with the cessation of life, and also the terrible grief that accompanies death for those left behind on this mortal coil. 

In fact, it is not at all difficult to interpret the film’s events as one teenager’s powerful subconscious fantasy, his sublimation and re-direction of grief as he attempts to make sense of all the death happening around him, in life and in his immediate family.  The film’s almost childish tale of a Fairy Tale monster -- a witch-like “Tall Man” (Angus Scrimm) who enslaves the dead -- is actually but 
Michael’s (Michael Baldwin’s) self-constructed mythology regarding mortality. 

Simply put, it’s easier to deal with that orderly “horror” – a world of monsters and villains and happy endings – than one in which those Michael loves are lost and gone forever.

Surreal and haunting, Phantasm confidently moves and tracks like almost no other horror movie ever made.  It vacillates between scenes of outright terror and ridiculous comedy, and treads into terrains not exactly…realistic.  The universe as expressed in the film doesn’t seem to conform to order or rationality as we understand it, frankly.  But importantly, all of this disorder, chaos and pain feels as though it arises from a deep understanding and sympathy for childhood.  The film’s trademark soundtrack composition -- which repeats frequently and effectively -- adds to the overwhelming sense of a lullaby or trance, one we can’t quite awake from.

So many horror fans (rightly) love and cherish Phantasm because of the horror, because of the flying silver “ball” and the gore it creates in its monstrous wake.  Yet for me the film is actually a horror character-piece of the highest magnitude, and actually a tender, even whimsical reminder of how the world might appear to a sad and lonely adolescent. 

 “I just don't get off on funerals, man, they give me the creeps.” 

The shadow of death hovers behind Michael.
In Phantasm, a lonely kid, Michael, investigates the creepy-goings on at Morningside Funeral Home.  In particular, the Tall Man seems to be ensnaring young, able-bodied men with a sexy siren, and then leading them to their bloody doom.  But death is not the end of their journey, Michael learns.  Instead, he discovers that the Tall Man is crushing down the corpses to half-size and reviving them as slave labor for his arid, Hellish other world.

Michael attempts to convince his older brother, Jody (Bill Thornbury), of this bizarre truth, but Jody is burned out and skeptical.  Since their parents died, he’s been caring for Michael full time, and wants to leave town.  Michael knows this, and is deathly afraid of abandonment.  But soon, however, Jody is swayed by Michael’s evidence and together with a friend, Reggie (Reggie Bannister), the trio launches a frontal assault on the Tall Man…

After the Tall Man is defeated, Michael awakes from the long dream to face hard reality.  Not only are his parents dead, but Jody is gone too.  He died in a car crash.  Now Reggie promises to take care of him, but the specter of death is not yet gone from Michael’s life…

“First he took Mom and Dad, then he took Jody, now he's after me.” 

Surrounded by the trappings of death
In terms of psychology, we now understand that an adolescent’s understanding of death rivals that of an adult.  In other words, an adolescent is old enough to understand the idea of permanence, and also the idea that anyone, not just the very old, can die at any time.  Furthermore, we know that in many cases, adolescents react more intensely to death than adults do.  And lastly, that the two most difficult deaths for a teenager to cope with are those of his parents and that of a sibling. 

In some instances, however, teenagers do not react to such losses as expected, with tears and outright declarations of sadness or pain.  Instead, they may not confront their grief at all.  Rather they sublimate and deny it, even crafting complex stories and belief systems around the death of their loved ones, such as the fiction that they are somehow responsible or guilty for those deaths.

We are confronted in Phantasm, then, with a young protagonist, Michael, who has seen the death of both his parents, and also -- as we learn at film’s end -- the death of his brother, Jody.   Instead of coping outright with the grief, however, his mind has fashioned a phantasm, a dream which to attempts to “re-order” his disordered life.  In this story, Michael and Jody are still a team, defeating monsters and solving the mystery of Morningside.  In this dream, death has become embodied in a person, the Tall Man, and as something that Michael, importantly, can combat and defeat.

Michael (left, background) is left behind, while Jody heads...where?
But even in the dream, Michael can’t quite completely banish the specter of mortality, the fear of being left behind.   In one scene, we see him running in the background of a frame, attempting to keep up with Jody (on a bike). But Jody, oddly unaware, pulls further and further away.  In this evocative shot, the camera  leaves Michael in the dust.  Soon he stands alone in the frame, and it’s clear his fear is real.  He is being left behind.  Growing smaller and smaller in the frame.  “It’s Jody again,” he notes at one point, “I found out that he’s leaving.

In terms of grappling with the idea of death, the film proper actually opens with it, as a friend of Jody’s named Tommy is killed.  Michael observes the funeral from a distance, with a set of binoculars.  This particular shot stresses the importance of how Michael sees, and later scenes in the film are similarly composed to reflect the same thing: effectively highlighting Michael’s eyes (as he sees through a crack in an open coffin, for instance) as he views the world.  This visual framing is our cue that the film itself is Michael’s “phantasm,” his way of perceiving and interpreting the things he experiences. 

How Michael sees #1
And what does Michael see?  Again and again, the film depicts not just a fear of death, but the various and sundry trappings of death.  We see mortuaries, caskets, funerals, hearses, graves and other elements of what could only be termed, politely, “the death industry.” 

As adults, these things are accepted, perhaps reluctantly, as part of the landscape, and don’t necessarily have the power to frighten or disturb us.  We know such things exist, and we deal with them. But because Michael is obsessed with death, the film reflects his fetish most vividly, creating a world where the trappings of death are visible and prominent in nearly every frame, and suffused with a dark malevolence.  The funeral director is a monstrous crone (The Tall Man), the graveyard is a place of darkness, danger and entrapment.  The hearse is a vehicle for the enslaved “dead” dwarves employed by the Tall Man, and so on.  The Tall Man hovers in the background of some shots like the Angel of Death himself.  He marshals all these familiar trappings of death and renders them frightening once more.  They serve him.

How Michael sees #2
The implication here is, perhaps, that as adults we accept the “death industry” and its trappings. But for Michael, they symbolize constant, nightmarish reminders of what he has lost.  They are monoliths constantly highlighting the unacceptability and permanence of death, yet hardly noticed by adult eyes.  Michael has not yet matured to the point where he accepts the presence of death in his life.

I’ve written above that some aspects of Phantasm seem childish or childlike.  This is not an insult or a put-down.  For instance, Michael and Jody easily destroy the Tall Man, essentially trapping him in a hole in the Earth (a mine shaft).  That this simple, almost cartoon-styled plan works against a Dedicated Agent of Evil reminds us that we are dealing with a child-like intelligence as the primary mover of the action.  We are seeing Michael’s dreams made manifest before our eyes.  We can destroy the devil by burying him up on that mountain! 

How Michael sees #3
It doesn’t make a lot of rational sense unless we consider the action a child’s phantasm.  Similarly, the whole vibe of the movie is something akin to what I described in Horror Films of the 1970s as a Hardy Boy’s mystery where “something sinister” is happening at the local cemetery.   To describe this almost innocent quality of the film another way, I would say that Phantasm understands the adolescent mind, and crafts successfully and movingly a world around that perspective.

I believe this interpretation is borne out, to some degree, by the depiction of the film’s deadly siren, the Lady in Lavender.  She is a mysterious figure promising sex but delivering death.  She is very much a product of a fearful teen’s imagination and fear.  That teen does not yet understand what sex is, or the power of sex as a desire and appetite.  Instead, the “unknowns” of sex become, in the film, disturbingly intermingled with death.  The moans of love-making transform, in short order, into the groaning of a monster lurking in the nearby bushes.  Both sex and death are things that seem to take Jody away from his brother, after all.

Although all the Phantasm sequels surely preclude the possibility that this film is but the dream of a sad, grief-ridden teenager, the interpretation tracks admirably if you take Coscarelli’s original as a standalone effort and not part of a “franchise.”  As I have also written before, I believe this quality of the film (as a teen’s dream) is also made clear by Michael’s unbelievably good survival rate.  He tangles with the Tall Man and his minions no less than four times in the film, and always emerges unscathed, only to prove, finally, victorious in his campaign.  I submit that this “luck” too is a reflection of a youthful mentality: the belief that you are somehow immune to death.  Furthermore, it reflects the idea that we all place ourselves at the center of our fantasies, as the heroes in our own adventures.  Here, Michael deals with death by becoming a superhero of sorts, one who conquers long-lived monsters and solves mysteries.


Our last, wistful view of Jody, from a distance and bound for parts unknown.
I admire the film because its distinctive visuals so beautifully mirror Phantasm's themes.  In some shots, the Tall Man seems to be the shadow of death himself.  And in one haunting composition, Michael sees Jody for the last time (before waking up into a world where he is dead).  Jody stands high in the frame, atop a mountain.  Jody stands on that pinnacle, a heavenly light (like angel wings?) behind him.  It's the distant, final view of a man going to the great beyond, and Coscarelli's imagery captures it with wonder and a degree of lyricism.

Charting the disturbed mental landscape of a grieving boy, Phantasm gets to a very simple and emotional truth about human existence.  It is often easier to live in a fantasy world (even one with monsters, dwarves, giant flies, and alien worlds…) than it is to face head-on the fact that, in the final analysis, we are all going to lose our loved ones.  Because it deals so sensitively and succinctly with that tough, hard-to-accept idea, Phantasm always gets to me on some deep level.  The film makes me ask myself an important question: Why do I like and enjoy horror movies so much?  Why do I love being scared and challenged by them?

With films like Phantasm, am I actually preparing myself, in some way, for the inevitable?

Perhaps so

I know only this: I deeply fear death, and sometimes obsess on it, both in relation to the end of my own life, and deaths of those I love.  In Phantasm Michael reveals one way to grieve, or perhaps to escape grieving.  Phantasm makes me wonder about my own solution to the Phantasm equation.  Am I going to be that boy, left behind on the bike while others leave me behind? Or will the Tall Man show up for me first?

At some point, the Tall Man is going to look all of us straight in the eye, commend us for a good game -- now finished -- and remind us it is time to die.  You don’t have to be a teenager to fear that day, and in some way Phantasm helps us to explore meaningfully the ideas of grief, loss, and the inevitability of death.

Buck Rogers in the 25th Century: "Twiki is Missing"

In "Twiki is Missing," a space iceberg moves perilously near Earth, endangering the entire planet as an ion storm approaches....