Showing posts with label re-imagination. Show all posts
Showing posts with label re-imagination. Show all posts

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Cult Movie Review: King Kong (1976)




Over a decade ago, I had a strange professional experience. The editor on a book I wrote about a classic British science-fiction TV series marked out in red ink every single reference I made in my text to the 1976 version of King Kong. 

As explanation, the editor opined that such a “bomb” could not be discussed as part of legitimate King Kong history.  If I needed to refer to King Kong, then the 1933 film would do just fine.

This anecdote reveals two things.

First, it exposes how editors can impress their own viewpoints and biases on a manuscript. 

Secondly -- and more relevantly for this review --  this story suggests the depth of hatred the Dino De Laurentiis King Kong remake has aroused over the long decades since it premiered.  The film is apparently not only “a bomb,” but it should actually be erased from the history books and our collective cultural memory.  You…can’t…even…write…about…it.

As you may have guessed, I disagree with the questionable conventional wisdom that King Kong (1976) is a bomb, and one unworthy of debate, examination, and analysis.

In the first case, the film grossed over eighty million dollars worldwide on a budget of twenty-four million dollars, with a marketing budget of fifteen million.  King Kong thus cleared its budget and turned a nifty profit, especially in 1970s terms.  In fact, the remake had approximately the same opening weekend gross as Jaws (1975), about seven million dollars. 

So financially speaking, King Kong was definitively not a bomb. The industry expectation recounted in various articles of the day (including in Time Magazine) established that the film should gross between fifty and one hundred million dollars.  Receipts landed just about in the middle of that ballpark, with eighty million.

And in terms of critical response, was King Kong really a bomb?

Critic Pauline Kael certainly didn’t think so.  She wrote in The New Yorker that the new King Kong was a “romantic adventure fantasy – colossal, silly, touching” and even termed it an “absurdist love story.”

Meanwhile, Time Magazine called the film a “confidently conceived, exuberantly executed work of popular movie art.”  

Roger Ebert also praised the film (and gave it “thumbs up” rating) during a 1976 episode of Sneak 
Previews.  Also, the periodical America noted that “in making a comment on the tragedy of the human spirit in an industrialist age, it [the film] speaks directly to and about its audience.”

So while the film undeniably received many negative reviews, it might be more accurate to state that 1976 Kong was controversial, or faced mixed critical reactions.  Those who declared that King Kong was a “bomb” were primarily die-hard fans of the original 1933 film, and members of the protean genre press (the same class that also, incidentally, savaged Space:1999 [1975 – 1977]).

Considering this dynamic and the timing of the film's release, King Kong may actually represent the occasion of the very first “remake” fan war.  As is the case with all remakes, I can see both sides of the debate, but elect to take each remake on a case-by-case basis. Some remakes are worthy and interesting and others...are not.

In the case of King Kong, there are indeed some fascinating aspects of the film to remember and praise.  It’s true that the special effects in the latter half of this Oscar-winning film are an absolute mess, especially in the film’s bungled finale atop the World Trade Center.  And one can only cringe at the craven attempts to sell the man-in-the-monkey suit (Rick Baker) scenes as featuring a giant Kong robot.  Yikes...

Yet -- warts and all -- this King Kong speaks to the 1970s as trenchantly as the original Kong spoke to audiences of the 1930s.   The film contextualizes Kong as an exploited natural resource, as a metaphor for the 1970s Energy Crisis and America’s dependency on petroleum.  And secondly, on a far more personal level, the film comments on the pursuit of fame and its consequences in our modern culture.

I grew up with the 1970s King Kong and thus possess great nostalgic affection for the film.  I’ll be covering 1976 “Kong Mania” here tomorrow afternoon, in my weekly Memory Bank piece, for example.  But childhood affection for it or not, I maintain King Kong is not the “bomb” -- either financially or creatively -- that conventional wisdom has so often suggested.

“Ah, the power of it. Ah, the superpower! Hail to the power! Hail to the power of Kong! And Petrox!” 

In Surabaya, primate researcher Jack Prescott (Jeff Bridge) sneaks aboard the Petrox Explorer as it prepares to set sail for a mysterious destination.  As Fred Wilson (Charles Grodin), executive for Petrox Oil explains, he has discovered in the Pacific what he believes is an uninhabited island hidden behind a perpetual fogbank.  Satellite footage suggests the island could be a rich source of oil.

En route to this remote destination, the Petrox Explorer rescues the lone survivor of a yacht explosion, the gorgeous would-be movie star, Dwan (Jessica Lange).  And upon reaching the island, Jack, Fred and Dwan learn that it is indeed inhabited.  The natives who dwell there cower behind a huge wall in fear of a God called Kong,” in actuality a colossal gorilla.

By night, Dwan is abducted by the natives and transformed into a “bride” or human sacrifice for Kong.  But as Dwan soon learns, the giant gorilla is not a dangerous enemy, but a valiant and loyal protector.  The men from the Petrox Explorer set out to rescue Dwan from Kong even as Fred learns that there is no gusher on the island…no oil.  So as to spare his professional reputation and save his job, Wilson decides to capture Kong and bring him back to civilization as a “commercial” for Petrox.

After Kong is captured and brought to New York City, the regal ape breaks free and causes chaos in Manhattan.  Finding Dwan again, Kong carries her to the top of the Twin Towers.  Before long, helicopters armed with machine guns close in for the kill…

“Well, here's to the big one…” 

Leaving behind the context of the 1930s and the Great Depression, King Kong (1976) is truly a remake with a modern spin. The film revolves around the Energy Crisis of the 1970s, particularly the 1973 Oil Crisis. 

As you may recall, that incident occurred when OPEC slashed oil production by five percent and then increased prices dramatically, something on the order of seventy percent.  The Arab organization used this so-called “oil weapon” to protest the U.S. government’s support for Israel during the Yom Kippur War.  

At home, American consumers were soon urged not to be “fuelish” about consumption, and to conserve gasoline.  The embargo was lifted, finally, when the Nixon Administration negotiated an Israeli withdrawal from Sinai.

But the OPEC incident revealed to many Americans the heretofore un-excavated nexus between government action, international relationships, oil companies, and fossil fuel.  If America was to become truly energy independent -- and avoid a repeat Energy Crisis in the process -- it would need to discover and dig up new sources of petroleum.

King Kong (1976) is explicitly about this quest, and the mighty Kong himself stands in -- literally, in one case -- for petroleum; for a precious and exploitable natural resource. 

In the specific scene I mention, Kong is rolled out before an American audience in Manhattan…ensconced inside a giant Petrox gas tank.  It would be foolish to deny the potent symbolism of this imagery. An audience stands in awe of a giant container of gasoline, the very life-line to its twentieth century life-style of leisure and consumption.

But underneath that tank is...what, precisely?

A monster that -- if set free – could threaten or destroy everything in our modern world, here symbolized by the Big Apple

If one stops to consider that the ownership and control of foreign oil has been the precipitating cause of global conflicts on several occasions, one may begin to detect the underlying context of this Kong remake.  The race to possess and control oil could lead not to a world of plenty, but to destruction and chaos.  We try to control oil (or Kong), but look what happens?

Furthering the symbolism, Kong is brought to America inside the vast cargo hold of an oil super tanker, a fact which also visually equates the ape with petroleum, a valuable resource taken from a foreign locale and made to serve American interests.

In the original film, Kong was “the eighth wonder of the world,” an amazing spectacle captured to relieve the boredom and anxiety of a people enmeshed in an economic depression.  

In the 1976 remake, Kong is literally a mascot, a “commercial” (in the words of the script) for an oil company hoping to beat its corporate competition to larger profits.  In fact, a literal comparison is made between Kong and the famous Exxon campaign “put a tiger in your tank.” Only here the royal and regal natural power is embodied by a primate rather than a feline.

In toto, the “Kong as natural resource” angle of the remake works surprisingly well.  Wilson is described aptly in the film as an “environmental rapist” and Prescott worries about what will happen to the island culture once it is bereft of the “energy” (in this case creative and spiritual energy…) that Kong’s presence provides it. Kong is “the juice,” in other words, that powers every aspect of their lives, from organized religion to national security.  When Kong taken from them….does their culture die? What does it run on?

As Richard Eder wrote in The New York Times the impulse to explore, to discover, to bring back something that you’ve discovered - [that which we found in the first King Kong] is now replaced by simple greed – the greed of the oil company representative Fred Wilson, to find a gusher.”

In the same vein, the film is veritably loaded with references to Gulf, Shell and Exxon.  And Skull Island itself is termed in dialogue a “huge tank just waiting for us to twist the top off.”  

The idea expressed, then, is that of out-of-control oil companies hoping to sustain our 20th century life style.  In support of this endeavor, they can travel anywhere in the world, claim natural resources as their own property, and in the process destroy the natural beauty and even the people of those terrains.  The excuse?  “There’s a national energy crisis!,” as Wilson says. 

In charting this dynamic, the remake of King Kong evokes a far more cynical and troubled world than the one dramatized in the original 1930s film.  If the original film is a fairy tale of mythic proportions, the remake is, by contrast, a cautionary tale about a world running out of gas, creatively, spiritually and in terms of natural resources.  It’s a world that hopes to latch onto anything “new,” and exploit it for its monetary value even if that “new” thing is destroyed in the process. Going even further, the decision for Kong to climb the World Trade Center -- a representation of western economic and global powers -- is symbolic in some sense too.  As Time Magazine opined, the film might be seen as a "projection of Western fears of what might happen if the Third World should develop its potential power and fight back."


Menaced, literally, by Big Oil.


Kong comes to America...in an oil tanker.

In the remade Kong, Dwan also fits into the leitmotif about exploitation. She is an aspiring actress who desires, more than anything, to be famous.  Her experience on Skull Island with Kong is Dwan’s ticket to fame, and she realizes it.  Dwan is, in essence, seduced by the possibility of being a “star” and so betrays Kong…the beast who protected her and sheltered her in a dangerous jungle.  By contrast, Prescott possesses the wherewithal to detect Wilson’s exploitation of Kong, and he terms the whole affair a “grotesque farce.” 

But Dwan can’t see or acknowledge the truth fully because she is obsessed with herself, and with fame. 

This idea is woven nimbly into the screenplay by Lorenzo Semple, Jr.  Early on, we learn that the character changed her name from Dawn to Dwan in order to make it “more memorable,” a sign of the character’s true aspiration to be a celebrity. 

And when Kong is captured, and feeling morose about his captivity, Dwan tells the great beast not to worry, that he’s “going to America to be a star.”  This line also suggests that for Dwan, fame is the highest achievement in our culture. 

Finally, Dwan can’t risk rebelling against Fred’s wishes for her, or else, as Wilson says, “I promise you'll never get another booking in your life. You'll end up tap-dancing at Rotary clubs. This threat of public obscurity keeps Dwan in place as a team member in the “grotesque farce.”  Dwan rarely asks if Kong’s imprisonment and loss of freedom – his exploitation – is an acceptable price for her media super stardom. 

One of the primary reasons I appreciate the artistry of the 1970s King Kong involves the clever blocking and staging of the final scene at the foot of the twin towers.   

Kong is dead and Dwan stands before the cameras at his side, playing up her sadness and tears for maximum press impact.  Prescott attempts to approach Dwan through the crowd of photographers, to rescue her from the paparazzi (just as Kong did earlier, at his unveiling in Manhattan). But then Jack stops short.  A dark expression crosses his face as he recognizes that Dwan is exactly where she wants to be: at the center of attention

The blocking and reaction shot (from Bridges) represent a visual way of establishing a philosophical line of dialogue from the original film, but one not included in the remake.

It was not the planes (or helicopters in this case) that killed Kong.  It was Beauty who killed the Beast.

As the scene continues, the photographers grow so aggressive that even the attention-hungry Dwan looks legitimately disturbed and menaced by their actions.  But both of her dedicated protectors – Kong and Prescott – are now gone.  As flash bulbs explode all around her, Dwan looks dismayed, but the implication is clear.  This is the bed she made for herself, and now she must lie in it

Importantly, Prescott has witnessed another man -- Kong -- destroyed attempting to “protect” Dwan from that which she actively seeks – attention -- and so he, finally, makes a different decision.  He leaves Dwan to the tender mercies of the press.  Thus we leave King Kong on a deliberately down-beat note. There is no happy ending to be found.

For Dwan, it’s be careful what you wish for…you just might get it.  For Jack, it's his realization that everything for Dawn – even the death of Kong – is a thing to be used to further fame and fortune.


Dwan is ready for her close-up?

Jack realizes that she  will always be a fame-seeker


The press is her boyfriend now...and she knows it.
In the years since King Kong premiered, we have, as a nation, descended much deeper into this kind of craven celebrity culture, where truly unworthy people become famous for fifteen minutes for participation in a tragedy, a trauma or a scandal.  King Kong is an early commentary on this facet of modern life, granting Dwan her fifteen minutes of fame at the expense, literally, of a king among animals.  Kong had no concern but to protect Dwan, and was (innocently) unaware that she could not reciprocate emotionally.  In essence, Kong is exploited twice in the film: first by Wilson (as a natural resource) and secondly by Dwan (as a gateway to fame and celebrity).   This depth in terms of narrative strikes me as being more than enough meat for a "monster" movie.

In terms of forging a hypnotic spell, King Kong is quite an intoxicating picture, at least in its first hour or so.  Real locations (in Hawaii, I believe) provide awe-inspiring natural vistas.  There are some shots featured here that are so gorgeous, so unimaginable on a visual scale, that they literally prove jaw-dropping.  One lengthy “zoom out” from a tight shot in a natural canyon suggests a scale far beyond our capability to fully process.  Such visuals seem that much more amazing for having been lensed in the age before digital effects and CGI.  It’s absolutely appropriate that the film was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Cinematography.

About mid-way through King Kong, the film transitions from real life locations to studio sets that, alas reek of sound-stage fakery. Yet the transition -- while jarring -- may work thematically. In other words, the island seems to turn “uglier” and more claustrophobic as Fred Wilson’s motives for it (and its inhabitants) also turn ugly  As man grows dominant (and Kong comes nearer to man's world), the visuals take a turn for the desolate and despairing.

At first, the island is a place of unfettered beauty and innocence – God’s hand on Earth.  But then, technological, 20th century man shows up to put a stamp on it, and the land itself seems to change, revealing a craggy, hard-edged, ugly and ominous side.  By the time we’ve gotten to Kong’s smoky, desolate lair, Skull Island looks as though it could be a harsh, crater-filled landscape on the moon, or perhaps Mars.  And then, of course, the movie takes us to a REAL jungle...New York City.


From this...

...to this...

...to this...

...to this...

..at last, to this.


King Kong’s final scenes, atop the Twin Towers, are also pretty terrible in terms of visuals.  In part this is so because of blue screen and rear projection work that fails to maintain, in proper ratio, the size of Kong and the size of the attacking helicopters.  It’s also a matter of the lighting of the various component parts of the scene.  The night-shots of the helicopters and night sky look washed out and dim compared to the footage of Kong.

And yet, in the final analysis, I can forgive the special effects lapses of King Kong because I feel the film attempts to imbue the “monster movie” form with a new sense of social relevance. King Kong’s game is to ask questions about how, in modern times, we steal from nature and often destroy nature for our own selfish purposes.  The Dwan and Wilson characters represent two sides of that particular coin.  They are indeed selfish and foolish (or is it "fuelish?").

It ought to be noted, as well, that the 1970s King Kong is the first version of the material to suggest more than a rudimentary monster/victim dynamic between Kong and his would-be bride.  This is an important element also featured in the Jackson remake of 2005.  Here, in one of the film’s best and most poetic scenes, Kong takes Dwan -- now covered in mud -- to bathe under a natural waterfall.  

The moment is magical (and erotic, strangely...) not merely because of Jessica Lange’s extreme and ravishing physical beauty, but because of Kong’s gentleness and yes, even sweetness.  I don’t know that either of those qualities could be ascribed to the 1933 version of this “monster” character.  This Kong seems a lot more humane and less violent than his predecessor.  The waterfall scene is supported brilliantly, I should add, by the late John Barry's lush and romantic score, which -- accompanying the visuals -- practically causes swooning.  In lyrical, visually ravishing moments such as this, it's awful hard to totally hate this production of Kong.







Yet if the end game is to hate all over King Kong (1976), there’s obviously plenty to latch onto too.  No stop-motion effects, weak optical-effects in the last half, and a script that probably features too many in-jokes about “male chauvinist pig apes,”the Empire State Building” and the like.  And yet, for all its obvious failings, it must also be said that this (sentimental) Kong wears its heart on its sleeve.

Or as Pauline Kael astutely noted, “I don’t think I’ve ever before seen a movie that was a comic-strip great romance in the way this one is… it’s a joke that can make you cry.”

Monday, July 23, 2012

Blake's 7 to be re-booted next?


IndieWire is reporting that Casino Royale (2006) director Martin Campbell has signed a deal to launch a TV re-boot of Blake’s 7 (1978 – 1981), the cult-TV series concerning a band of space rebels fighting a totalitarian Federation from aboard an alien ship of incredible technology, the Liberator.

So, if everything works out, we’ll have Blake’s 7, and a re-boot of Space: 1999, called Space: 2099 on the tube at the same time. 

Of course, I’ve read probably five or six times over the last decade about attempts to re-launch Blake’s 7, either as a cartoon, a film, or a new TV series, and nothing ever seems to happen.  I wonder if this attempt will be any different.

And as I noted in an interview on Genre-tainment last week, the problem with rebooting Blake’s 7 now is that Firefly (2002) – a great series – already revived and reflected many aspects of the Terry Nation legend.  So the new Blake’s 7 will not only need to genuflect to the original program, it will need to stake out territory that differentiates itself from Firefly.

I just wrote a post about remakes here on the blog, and noted the reasons why they aren’t always desirable. But I also wrote about the fact that I’ll review each remake on a case-by-case basis.  I stick by that.  Also, I did write, way back in 1999 -- in my book about Blake’s 7 -- that a big-budget remake with new special effects and a focus on the Dirty Dozen/Robin Hood aspects of the legend could indeed prove pretty amazing.  

Furthermore, I deeply miss space adventure on television. It’s been absent since the cancellation of SGU (2009 – 2011), and thus the thought that either Space:2099 or Blake’s 7or both – could be airing soon fills me with more hope than despair…at least at this point.

If you’re interested in learning more about the original Blake’s 7, check out my book on the subject, available here.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Cult Movie Review: Lost in Space (1998)


It was the summer of my discontent. The blockbuster season of 1998 brought lackluster revivals of two childhood favorites, Godzilla and Lost in Space.  I came away from screening both films nurturing a belief that -- literally all at once -- Hollywood had forgotten how to make entertaining movies based on beloved genre properties. 

Yes, Hollywood was capable of crafting spectacular special effect, yet something rung terribly hollow at the heart of both of these lavish remakes.  

Perhaps the problem is that the A-list actors, writers, producers and directors engaged in these remakes were essentially working with “B” material, but without the appreciation or zeal for the material that the original “B” movie teams had so clearly and abundantly demonstrated in the past.

There’s a crucial difference, we must finally acknowledge between creating an original work of art and inheriting that same property years later, determined to make it “relevant” and “popular” again. 

The artistry, invention and love that goes into making something for the very first time is not necessarily the same thing as -- years after the property has made its name -- applying a paint job, or a superficial renovation.  But of course, even Lost in Space the TV series was an adaptation of a work of art in a different form, Space Family Robinson.

But the point is that when a movie remake is launched, the property already possesses a history, a context, a vibe, and a perception by the culture-at-large.  The critical task of the remake-r is to interpret those pre-existing characteristics and determine the “why” behind the initial and residual success.

But that “why” isn’t always easy to understand, and it is even more difficult to replicate.

The message -- which I understood in 1998 and try to hold in my thoughts even now -- is that you can’t go home again.

Lost in Space (1965 – 1968) is irrevocably a product of its time, the mid-1960s. As a series it combined fairy tale whimsy and innocence with a schizophrenic approach to science and the future.  On one hand, the Robinson pioneers possessed all of this wonderful, space-age, Matt-Mason-like technology to make their lives easier, and on the other hand the same technology had stranded them in some far corner of the universe.

Lost in Space on TV also featured this great, mid-1960s space age paraphernalia: boxy, oversized and predominantly silver, with lots of blinking, bright lights.  There was a can-do attitude – a holdover from Camelot, perhaps – at work in the series too, despite the premise of being “lost.”  And love or hate the Dr. Smith role and the use to which the character was put during three tumultuous seasons, Jonathan Harris exhibited incredible commitment to that role.

And the 1998 Lost in Space movie? 

Absolutely no expense was spared in terms of special effects, in terms of sets, and in terms of lead actors, but somehow the movie doesn’t connect on the same simple human level that the series did on a weekly basis. 

The filmmakers apparently believe we want to see in this franchise weaving spaceships and lots and lots of fireballs.  They think that’s “the why” of Lost in Space, though the Irwin Allen series could afford no such bells and whistles.

Or perhaps the movie doesn’t work because, in a bow to reality and the drastic changes in American culture, the new Lost in Space family is portrayed as wholly dysfunctional and somewhat unpleasant.  This is an attempt to make the family-oriented property fit in better during a new era; to reflect our 1990s era domestic reality.  But it’s nonetheless a change that isn’t entirely welcome.  It’s very much the same problem that plagued the new Battlestar Galactica re-imagination.

There’s a vast difference between a family facing challenges and crises from the outside – a kind of Little House on the Prairie template, where life throws ample challenges at you – and facing internal, personal character flaws such as alcoholism or narcissism.  In a dramatic crisis situation and sci-fi setting, like the extermination of the human race or being lost in space, viewers want to see – I believe – characters clinging together and fighting the “elements,” as it were, not battling “personal” subplots about alcoholism that were trite when As the World Turns vetted them thirty years ago.   I think people want to see the best of mankind fighting the Cylons or space spiders, not the worst of us.

Or finally, maybe this 1988 movie fails simply because some of the casting doesn’t seem based on who is best for the role, but who boasts the most marquee value.  Matt Le Blanc, in particular, doesn’t exude the intelligence necessary to portray a believable space pilot.  His gum-chewing horn-toad comes off as hopelessly and irrevocably dumb.  His dialogue, consisting of lines like “Yee hah!,”show time!” and “last one to get a bad guy buys the beer,” is banal on a level that the old TV series could not even have conceived

Critics, generally, weren’t impressed with Lost in Space.  Writing in The New York Times, Janet Maslin wrote:This "Lost in Space" is much more chaotic and less innocent than its source.”  Roger Ebert (accurately) termed the film “dim-witted,” and The San Francisco Chronicle called it “a warm wallow in the cinema of the dumbed-down.” 

All these critics were chipping away at the edges of one particularly relevant argument: that child-like innocence has been supplanted by a kind of witless breathlessness.  The original Lost in Space wasn’t Shakespeare to be certain, but nor was it patently, overtly, cheerfully dumb.  Some episodes, even today, play as lyrical fairy tales, stories of family values re-asserted in a land of extra-terrestrial magic, and occasional terror. 

You can’t look back honestly at some of those old black-and-white stories, like “My Friend, Mr. Nobody,” “One of Our Dogs is Missing” or “The Magic Mirror” without feeling a sense of wondrous, child-like imagination, if not strict devotion to established science.  It might have more in common with The Wizard of Oz than Star Trek, but Lost in Space, the TV series...had something, especially in those early black and white days.

By contrast, the Lost in Space movie seeks to hammer the audience with a pile-up of catastrophic incidents (many admittedly interesting, at least initially), and at the same time, pay lip service to the family values vibe of the original. 

In a bit of too-clever criticism, the movie’s Dr. Smith asks at one point: “will every little problem be an excuse for family sentiment?”  That is precisely the movie’s modus operandi.  To its ultimate detriment.

“And the monkey flips the switch”

In 2058, Earth is on the edge of oblivion.  The environment is dying and the only hope for survival is to colonize a faraway world, Alpha Prime.  To do so, however, two “hyper gates” must be built, one in Earth orbit, and one in orbit of Alpha Prime.  When both are up and running, colony ships can jump instantly from one point to the other, and the relocation of man can begin.

Professor John Robinson (William Hurt) leads a mission to Alpha Prime to construct the second hypergate. Because of the long duration of the mission -- a decade -- his family comes along aboard the Jupiter 2.  Among the crew are his wife Maureen Robinson (Mimi Rogers), physician Judy Robinson (Heather Graham), petulant teenager Penny (Lacey Chabert) and boy genius Will (Jack Johnson).

But Professor Robinson’s problems begin when a new, less-than-cooperative hot shot pilot, Major West (Matt Le Blanc) assumes the role of pilot on Jupiter 2, and a saboteur from the Global Sedition, Dr. Smith (Gary Oldman) programs the ship’s Robot (Dick Tufeld) to destroy the Robinsons once the craft is in flight.

Averting a disaster in space, the Jupiter 2 “jumps” through the sun and becomes hopelessly lost in space and time.  The Robinsons run afoul of strange, alien spiders on a derelict spaceship, and later crash-land on an inhospitable planet where they encounter their future, tragically-altered selves. 
There -- in that peek into a dark future -- John gets the chance to see how his absence as a father has affected a grown-up Will.

“There are monsters everywhere...I know, I am one.”

Lost in Space combines a number of plots from the old TV series, including elements of “The Reluctant Stowaway,” “The Derelict” and any episode in which Dr. Smith makes trouble for the Robinsons by interfacing with alien biology/technology or personnel (“Wish Upon A Star,” “Ghost in Space,” “The Space Trader,” “His Majesty Smith,” “All that Glitters,” “The Dream Monster,” and so on…). 

The film, directed by Stephen Hopkins, also attempts fidelity in terms of production design.  The Jupiter 1 in the film looks much like the TV series’ Jupiter 2, for instance, and before the end of the movie, the newer high-tech robot has been re-built by Will to resemble the popular B9, that famous “bubble-headed booby” and cousin to Robby the Robot.  Even the interiors look like faithful if updated reconstructions of the 1960s sets, only with more curves and a more organic feel.

Of all the cast, Le Blanc fares the worst.  He is utterly unlikable as West, and given the worst dialogue to vet.  William Hurt seems bored and disconnected as Professor Robinson.  Mimi Rogers and Heather Graham are okay, and only Gary Oldman absolutely shines.  In fact, Oldman’s version of the treacherous Dr. Smith character feels like a real tribute to Jonathan Harris, coming off as arrogantly self-important and straddling the line between good and evil.  Oldman mines considerable humor and menace from the screenplay, and is the movie’s most valuable player.  He's great here.

The most contrived portions of Lost in Space involve Maureen’s unceasing complaints about John’s “time.”  She constantly nags him about spending more hours with Will, even though she also has two daughters and he doesn’t spend any time with them, either.  So yes, apparently only young boys, not young girls, require quality time with their father.  Who knew the world would be so sexist, still, in 2058? I  guess we know who wins the war on women...   

More crucially, Maureen’s complaints come off as rather selfish and small given the context of what’s happening around her.  John Robinson is struggling to save the planet Earth and the human race, and sure, it would be nice if he could attend his son’s science fair. But I wager his priorities are just about right.  In fact, I bet if Will were given a choice, he’d decide that his Dad should, you know, save the planet, so that all kids can enjoy science fairs for years to come.

The John-needs-to-spend-more-time-with-Will subplot is a manufactured crisis and a contrivance that isn’t truly believable given the narrative details.  The movie sort of proves it’s a non-issue when the older Will – even with Spider Smith as a surrogate father – does the right thing to save the universe and his family.  I guess John imparted some good qualities to his boy in the time he had.  He may be "busy" (again, saving the world") but he isn't negligent or absent.

Again, the old series didn’t contend with these “emo” touches.  The Robinsons were essentially space pioneers and, well, a planet had to be tamed.  John Robinson (Guy Williams) was always there for his son if Will (Bill Mumy) needed him, but there wasn’t this constant hand-wringing on the TV series  about how much time the two were spending together.  Here, the subplot is a little touchy-feely and unrealistic given the circumstances.

Bottom line: there’s not a lot of time for father-child closeness when your spaceship is plunging into the sun, battling metal spiders, crash-landing, or hovering at the edge of a dangerous space-time bubble.

Sorry, kid.  Suck it up.

Even family must, as we all know too well, bow to reality, and I generally resent movies that suggest everything would be okay if a Dad and son just spent a little more time together.   Meanwhile, the planet is falling apart…. 

Another problem with the film is that, in post-production, apparently, someone decided that the film needed to be funnier.  Therefore, we get an out-of-left-field The Waltons joke (“and good night, John Boy...”) delivered in embarrassed voice-over.  The problem isn't that the joke isn't funny, though it isn't.  The problem is that it doesn’t fit the scene.  We get a nice fade-out on John and Maureen about to have sex, and then the very next instant, we’re onto a sound cue of the same two characters saying “good night” to each other and the kids, like this is the galactic Brady Bunch.  Like so much of the film’s humor, it’s groan-inducing.

As incongruous as that moment remains, the space creature that the Robinsons discover, Blawp is even worse.  He has been crafted to look absolutely ridiculous.  The design of this alien might have fit in on the original series, forty years ago, but it in no way fits the palette of the 1998 film.  Blawp doesn’t look like the product of a universe that includes the movie Robinsons and the truly scary alien metal spiders.  Instead, Blawp looks as though he was shipped in from the funny pages, circa 1959.  Every time the creature appears, his presence takes you right out of the reality of the movie. 

It’s not just that the creature is composed of bad CGI.  It’s that the visualization of the creature is all wrong for the earthy production canvas; fanciful and whimsical in a movie of skin-tight body suits and dark browns and greys. 

Despite my reservations about the movie, Lost in Space begins relatively well. Even though the opening space battle between the Global Sedition and United Global Space Force is entirely unnecessary, the first hour of the film establishes well the threat to Earth. The first act boasts a decent pace, and there’s a respectable level of excitement and anticipation. The battle on the alien derelict against the metal spiders is also thrilling. From the point, however, in which John goes into the time bubble, the movie gets lost itself.

Lost and incoherent.

As the movie ends, Future Will throws Present John through a time vortex, but it isn’t entirely clear if West already has the power cells the Jupiter 2 needs for lift-off, if John has them, or if Future Will still has them.  Why is the Jupiter 2 attempting escape velocity without the power source it needs?  Why isn't anyone commenting on, essentially, a suicide run?

Then, the movie ends without resolving Dr. Smith’s crisis. He’s slowly turning into a giant spider monster, but there are no attempts to treat the condition, or even quarantine the guy.  The movie ends without even a hint of resolution on this front.  But this is after John, Will, the Robot and Smith himself have seen his future manifestation.  I very much doubt Smith would stay silent, knowing he is carrying an infection that will transform him into a giant arachnid.

Also, Lost in Space never squares the circle in terms of the future.  The robot of the future comes back in time to the Jupiter 2…but in the “real” timeline, Will never finishes building that robot.  So if he does, there will be two robots? 

If he doesn’t finish work on the robot, then where did the robot come from, having never actually been constructed by Will?  I’m not saying that this is an unworkable dilemma, only that the movie might have made note of the time paradox.  A joke about it would have been fine.

As a general premise, Lost in Space boasts great potential, even today.  The idea of a family alone on an alien world, trying to make a go of things, offers nearly infinite story ideas.  You don’t have to make the movie schmaltzy, or wall-to-wall action to make the scenario work effectively.  You just need a few characters you like, some tough conditions, and a sense that – as a family – the pioneers will stick together and see the mission through, no matter the challenges.  But this Lost in Space wants to hit you on the head with incongruous platitudes about family (a lot like the Dark Shadows remake I reviewed on Tuesday…) and then wow you with special effects explosions.

Although I felt a legitimate  thrill hearing Dick Tufeld voice the Robot again in this film, I remember well 1998 and my discontent regarding this film.   It remains a lost opportunity, and an emotionally hollow adventure.  

Danger, Will Robinson! 

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: Don't Be Afraid of the Dark (2011)

Another week, another horror movie remake.

Seriously though, as I hope to have established in previous reviews (notably my recent review of Fright Night [2011]), I work hard to assess remakes on a case-by-case basis rather than simply trashing all of them, out-of-hand. 

Such a measured approach is the only way to prevent  errors of critical judgment in an age when Hollywood feels that every horror film should carry name brand identification and the possibility of franchise-a-fication. 

All these (seemingly endless...) remakes exist for a reason: because it is less risky to market a tested title than a fresh one.  But the crux of the matter is that some remakes are indeed better than others....and even downright good  They should be lauded for that achievement, not dismissed because they part of -- as a whole -- a mangy breed.  In the past, I have enjoyed and appreciated such remakes such as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre  (2003), Dawn of the Dead (2004), and The Ring (2002).

So I'm not a remake hater just for the sake of it. 

Nonetheless, Don't Be Afraid of the Dark (2011) just ain't one of the good ones.  It not only fails to understand why the original version of the material scared us as children, it fails to make much internal sense.  It's a double failure, then, first as re-imagination, and then, additionally, as an original work.

Co-written by one of my genre heroes, Guillermo Del Toro, and directed by Troy Nixey, Don't Be Afraid of the Dark (2011) is an elaborate remake of a 1973 TV movie of the same name.  You can read my review of that film here, which I posted a second time on the day last year the remake was released.  John Newland directed the original made-for-tv film, and it starred Kim Darby. 

The meat of my review of the original establishes that Don't Be Afraid of the Dark is:

"...essentially the tale of a woman trapped in an unhappy and lonely marriage...and slowly but surely losing her grasp on reality (see also: Something Evil).

Sally's husband is mostly absent, and treats her as though she's a slow-witted child. All Alex cares about is that she's the "perfect hostess" for a dinner party, and the film functions literally as a metaphor of an unhappy marital relationship. Little things - literally, little monsters - keep getting in the way of the relationship, driving a wedge between the couple.

The terrifying notion at the heart of Don't Be Afraid of the Dark is the opening of a Pandora's Box, the fear of breaking down a wall and releasing something that can't be put back in its place.

Again, without putting too fine a point on it, there's a psychological equivalent to this Pandora's Box (the fireplace...) in the film too."

The 2011 remake fails so egregiously because it takes a relatively simple and yet resonant tale (as diagrammed in the excerpt above) and then  heaps more and more unnecessary story detail atop it.  

In other words, this movie does what all bad remakes feel the inexplicable need to do: it embellishes and embellishes until a once-sturdy foundation can no longer support the weight of all the new additions.

Consider: the original film concerned a country estate that was impressive, but not colossal or overwhelming, and involved little monsters about whom the audience knew almost nothing.  They were little devils, certainly, and they wanted to drag poor Kim Darby's Sally into a furnace...and perhaps Hell itself. 

That's pretty much everything.

But that simple blueprint is not enough for the re-told story.  In the spirit of Jan De Bont's The Haunting (1999), the reasonably-proportioned country estate of the original has been turned into a goliath mansion of impossible interior decoration and dimension.  This mansion interior is so ornate, so over-sized that it would be difficult to imagine such a place actually existing.  It is a fantasyland castle.  This problem in presentation and tone is exacerbated, in fact, by the film's very first shot.  We open with a CGI view of the mansion exterior in the past, in the 1880s.  The view is abundantly phony, and immediately colors the film as fantasy, rather than as horror.  Reality is absent.

Beyond the fantasyland coloring and dimensions of the mansion in the new Don't Be Afraid of the Dark,  the film slathers on more detail, more exposition, and more background.  The audience receives a lengthy prologue revealing the monsters, the monsters' lair in the furnace, their 19th century victims, and their peculiar need for childrens' teeth.

Later in the film, the star's protagonist, Kim (Katie Holmes) visits a library and a special collection that explains the rest of the monsters' story.  The creatures are historical "fairies" who require children and their teeth to replenish their dwindled numbers.  We see artwork of the monsters, and learn of their interactions with the historical papacy in Europe.  The only thing we don't get is a specimen for our own personal dissection.

All of these informational, spoon-fed touches are absolutely antithetical to the generation of suspense and terror in horror cinema.  A good general rule of thumb in horror is that the less we know about certain elements of a narrative (namely what the monsters are, and what, precisely they want), the more successful the film is.   Horror rests in not-knowing, in ambiguity.  Why? Because that's the essence of human life.  We don't always understand why fate chooses us to suffer, or why bad things -- such as a car crash, or diagnosis of cancer -- occur.  The good horror movies reflect such real life ambiguity by not sharing absolutely everything about their menace, whether that menace is Michael  "The Shape" Myers, the birds of Bodega Bay, or the xenomorph in Alien (1979). 

Mystery enhances horror; knowledge diminishes it.

Conceptually, this remake just never surpasses this needy, continuous desire to make everything bigger, more elaborate, and more-spelled-out than the original. If you look at such classics as Psycho, Halloween and The Blair Witch Project, you understand the fallacy of such thinking.  We don't require impossible interior decoration to be scared.  We don't have to know the 'why' of a monster's behavior, either.

But I should be absolutely clear about this fact: Don't Be Afraid of the Dark doesn't even work on its own terms; even if you don't take the original into consideration.  The problem is sloppy writing.  The story just doesn't hold together, and the film will have you screaming over its multitudinous oversights and missed opportunities.

For instance, late in the film, the young heroine, Sally (Bailee Madison), is trapped in a dark library with the rampaging monsters.  She battles them valiantly, while outside the library, the dinner guests of her father, Alex (Guy Pearce) try to break in and rescue her. 

At this point in the narrative, everyone believes Sally is merely a disturbed or troubled child, and that the monsters are figments of her troubled imagination.

Eventually, the dinner guests break into the library, but not before Sally crushes one of the creatures against a library book shelf.  We see a severed arm fall to the floor as the monsters scurry away into darkness.  Instead of showcasing this rather dramatic evidence of her questionable story about monsters, Sally proffers a blurry photo, which is never revealed to the audience. 

So why doesn't Sally show the disbelieving adults, including her father, the severed arm? 

Incontrovertible proof of monsters would have rather niftily supported the child's case at this juncture.  You can be damn sure that if I were trying to make people believe I had seen a monster, I'd be waving around that severed arm to the high heavens.

This is only one problem of internal logic and consistency.  Another involves the monsters themselves.  Throughout the film, there are perhaps a half-dozen of them.  Just a handful.  But then suddenly -- and conveniently in time for the over-the-top climax -- there are literally dozens.  Where did the rest come from?  Where were they hiding during the rest of the film?  Lounging in the underworld?  If your population's survival depends on accomplishing one task, such as stealing a child, do you leave the bulk of your army languishing in the furnace until the last minute?

And if the purpose of stealing Sally and dragging her down into the furnace is indeed to replenish the monsters' dwindled numbers, then how the heck did there get to be so many of these hobgoblins down there in the first place?  The surfeit of monsters in the climax undercuts the monster's established motivation: the desperate need to reproduce.   By elaborating so fully about the monsters and their needs, the movie writes itself into a corner.  When suddenly a dozen monsters appear, it doesn't ring true; it smacks of gimmickry.

Thirdly, the finale of Don't Be Afraid of the Dark sees a character dragged down into the furnace; down, down underground, into a seemingly endless (but navigable...) tunnel of dirt, clay and earth.  In the original TV movie, Sally was dragged down into the furnace when nobody else was nearby...so no one saw where she went and could rescue her.  She just...disappeared.  Her husband might easily have believed she had left him; that she had run away.

But here, two characters witness a family member dragged down into the hole, and do absolutely nothing in terms of follow-up.  In this day and age, the police would surely have excavators and work crews ripping up that basement to rescue the missing citizen in short order. 

Why doesn't Alex call the local fire crew and report that one of his family members has fallen down a deep hole, and that he requires assistance rescuing her? 

Seriously, would you leave a loved one down in a hole, and make no attempt to rescue him or her, especially if he/she was alive (and kicking...) when falling in?  I realize, of course,  that Alex can't immediately follow the missing family member down the hole himself, because he has another family member to look after, and he may consider the danger from the monsters far from over.  But he could drive away, make a cell phone call, drop off the family member, thenand go back and save the missing person from the well.  It makes absolutely no sense that this doesn't occur.  This is  yet another example of embellishing a story to the point that it can't stand up on its own.

Grievous errors of internal consistency and believability occur again and again in Don't Be Afraid of the Dark.  A groundskeeper,  Mr. Harris, fights off the monsters about mid-way through the film.  They get into his toolbox and go at him with scissors, a utility knife, and other deadly implements.  He manages to escape, climb the basement stairs, and seek help from Sally and the housekeeper.  He still has scissors jutting out of his shoulder

Well -- incredibly -- the police, and Sally's Dad write off all of this carnage as a "work accident."  Really?  Scissors jutting out of the neck? Bloody cuts all over the man's body? 

And it was a workplace accident?  

Boy do I hate it when horror movies pull this shit, one of the dumbest of all genre movie tropes.  Nobody in their right mind would believe the attack was an "accident," but all the characters in the film automatically assume the unbelievable instead of the patently obvious.

Another flaw worth mentioning:  Alex and Kim have been re-fitting and restoring this historic mansion for months. They have sunk their financial fortune into this task.  There are groundskeepers and workers all over the premises, working around the clock for a photo-shoot in Architectural Digest.

You'd assume the couple has actually seen the original blueprints of the home if they are so enmeshed in an authentic restoration process, right?  Yet, a little girl, Sally, wanders onto the premises and on her second day there discovers a heretofore unknown basement!   Something architects, landscapers, painters, and historians all missed.  Again, all sense of reality just crumbles, and horror must possess a level of reality before layering on the scares.

Then, of course, there are flaws here originating from the fact that the remake attempts to be "faithful" to the original in some  misguided way.  In the climax of the original TV film, for instance, Sally utilized the flash of a polaroid camera to try to injure the photo-sensitive beasts.  At that point in history (the 1970s), polaroid cameras were commonplace, so the idea was pretty clever.  Sally used what was on hand to inventively attempt to save herself. 

In the remake, Sally's Dad is a collector of polaroid cameras (!) so that there happens to be one on hand to fight the ghouls; one which possesses seemingly endless flash capacity.  But here, the polaroid is such a damn stupid thing to use. If you were Sally, in this film, would you decide to use the ammo-limited Polaroid camera to fight these light-sensitive monsters, or would you pick up a flashlight ,which projects a steady stream of light and is pretty unlimited in terms of duration, assuming new batteries? 

Of course Sally keeps snapping pictures with the camera...instead of acting logically and using the flashlight.  Again, contextually-speaking, the polaroid made sense in the original.  It was an inventive weapon of last resort.  But it's resurrected here in a context that is nonsensical.

Finally, the ending of the new Don't Be Afraid of the Dark doesn't make sense in terms of the background story the characters have been told about the monsters.  The audience has specifically been notified that the fairies want to take children to replenish their small numbers.  At the end of the film, the monsters abduct somebody, but it isn't a child, and add her to their ranks.  She is transformed into a monster (off-screen).   How does this work, precisely?  Aren't kids the the magic bullet?   Why bother to laboriously explain the rules of these monsters' existnece, if your movie isn't even going to stick to them?

All of these problems established, Don't Be Afraid of the Dark is impressive in a few regards.  The movie boasts a humdinger of a jump scare involving a monster underneath Sally's bed covers.  Alas, if you've watched the film's trailer, you've already seen this bracing moment.  It's a major plot point -- the reveal of the monster -- and the impact of it is utterly ruined by the preview trailer.  I can't blame this issue on the film makers, but they must have surely been disappointed to see their big "boo!" moment ruined by advance advertisements.

Still, the monsters have been (masterfully) designed with a faithful eye towards the original creatures.  The gnomes/trolls are much more convincing and real here, and are genuinely scary in movement and look.  The wee beasts scurry around, and are truly malevolent, hateful little things.  You come to fear them.  And if you look closely at their faces...they share visages with their TV-movie counterparts.

Also, I can readily detect how this update attempts to craft a new and meaningful story about a child's alienation from parents, rather than the original's commentary on spousal alienation.  Little Sally is not really wanted by her mother or father, and is shifted about from house-to-house with little thought.  She is warned to be "gluten free" and take her "Adderall," dialogue points which convey the idea that her parents don't want to be bothered with her. 

 Just take your behavior-modification medicine, and shut up. 

Given this leitmotif, Sally's bed in the impossibly ornate mansion is represented as a kind of gilded, golden cage, and that's the point.  The child possesses everything (material) a kid could want, except love and affection.  So when those monsters tell Sally that "they [meaning her parents] don't want you, but we do," the line carries some resonance and power.   We all want to be with people who love us.  The monsters manipulate Sally at first to make her believe they care for her, and the attempted corruption of a child is indeed frightening.

I suspect this element of the film explains Del Toro's involvement.  He has almost universally featured children in his films and always evidenced a dramatic sensitivity towards a child's point of view.  The same is true here.  The jump scare I mentioned above works so well because it involves a universal dread.  As children, we all imagined strange worlds beneath our bedtime blankets. Sally explores one such world here, and it is monstrous, nightmarish and recognizable to our collective subconscious.

Yet even the conceit of a "lonely child's world" is carried out unevenly, as Sally is shunted to the periphery, and Kim becomes the main character.  Does she have the mettle to be a Mother?  What about her own tough childhood?   These new ideas are half-developed, and the final resolution of the story is not nearly as powerful as it should be because the movie spends so little time developing the growing bond between Kim and Sally.  The real question to consider: is this Sally's story, or is it Kim's?  The movie doesn't ever truly decide.  If this were a legitimate fairy tale, Sally would likely end up with the beasts in the furnace, finally finding her sense of "belonging" there which would serve as a lesson to all parents who neglect their children.  You either care for your kids and give them attention...or they could end up a monster.

A shame this movie doesn't have the gumption to follow through with its theme, and go in that unsettling direction.

Don't Be Afraid of the Dark showcases dramatically all the common fallacies of modern horror remakes. It girds a simple story with too many bells and whistles, and it plays it safe in terms of its final act, sparing the child and spoiling the story.

Embellishing isn't necessarily improving, and the new Don't Be Afraid of the Dark gets so big and fat, it forgets totell a story that makes sense, or that is capable of truly disturbing our slumber.  

The original 1973 telemovie did so much more with so much less.