Friday, January 20, 2023

Guest Post: M3GAN (2023)

"M3GAN Is Humorous Horror but The Trailer Gives Away Many of The Tricks"


By Jonas Schwartz-Owen


The cops may think that the murderous doll is responsible for all the killings, but Universal’s marketing department has slaughtered many of M3GAN's best surprises. Though M3GAN — an almost-parody of killer doll movies — features many clever touches, the movie feels like a rerun, since many of the best sequences have already been captured and shown in coming attractions for months. 


On the one hand, M3GAN's twisted dance before eviscerating an enemy was one of the sequences that gave the film a cult following even before its release (and may have contributed to the rumored R rated version being edited down to a more teen friendly, bloodless PG-13 — at least according to On the other, the movie loses its mystery when the audience knows the entire plot.


Workaholic Robotics genius Gemma (Allison Williams) loses her sister to a tragic accident and finds herself taking in her despondent niece Cady (Violet McGraw). Parenting does not come naturally to the engineer, and she merges her career and family life by treating Cady as the test audience for her new product, an AI doll named M3GAN. The robot child is not only meant to substitute as a friend for lonely children, but to take up parenting duties as well. Cady bonds with the doll — who resembles an anime version of Mary Kate and/or Ashley Olsen — while the doll strives to keep Cady safe and happy, even if it means bludgeoning a few people to death.


M3GAN returns to the well originally excavated by Mary Shelley in the early 19th century. Like Dr Frankenstein, Gemma plays God, and due to her laziness and rush, she creates a dangerous being she can't control. Like the "good" doctor, Gemma is overly dependent on technology — in one scene she can't even comfort her niece with a book, because the reading app hasn’t updated yet. M3GAN's flaws are programming issues, caused by Gemma. The robot just does what she was written to, without parameters (or a soul, for that matter). 


Director Gerard Johnstone, who helmed the clever horror/comedy Housebound, plays with the horror conventions right away by quickly introducing us to a displaced child, teasing us with jump scares, and presenting the obvious future victim pool like a menu. He sprinkles in the clichés as if to tickle the audience. He continues that with visual homages to Terminator 2Child's PlayE.T.and Wes Craven's Deadly Friend. Johnston appears to be joshing the genre by making M3GAN so ridiculous — the dances before the deaths, the Freddy Krueger punchlines, the SINGING (not just any tune, but "Titanium" for God's sake) — that the audience knows this a lark, not a fright fest. 


The script by Akela Cooper (based on producer James Wan's story), hints at a storyline where the doll's rage comes from her connection to the despondent child, but never gets around to exploring that option. Though horror movies such as The Hand and Monkey Shines have used a killer monster as a surrogate, it would have been intriguing to explore the pain of a child being neglected. 


The cast is in fine form. Williams gives the audience someone preoccupied and unqualified for parenthood with an arc that shows her taking responsibility for her mistakes. McGraw is never cloying as the little child. Amie Donald (as the body) and Jenna Davis (as the voice) play M3GAN over the top, which works thanks to the film's already goofy tone. 


M3GAN's success at the box office has proven she's striking a chord with audiences. The killer is saucy and sassy, and her ambitions are pure. In this precarious world, there seems to be a hunger for a Barbie doll with a vengeance. 


Monday, January 16, 2023

50 Years Ago: The Night Strangler

The TV-movie sequel to the 1971 hit The Night Stalker finds our hero, downtrodden reporter Carl Kolchak (Darren McGavin) in Seattle, Washington -- still trying to sell his incredible story about vampires in Las Vegas.

In a dingy bar one night, his former editor Tony Vincenzo hears him making his case, and -- taking pity on the guy -- hires Kolchak as a reporter at Seattle's Daily Chronicle (run by John Carradine!) Of course, (and Vincenzo knows this...) he's just asking for trouble bringing Carl Kolchak aboard.

For before long, Carl has run smack into another bizarre, perhaps even supernatural case. Several beautiful belly dancers have been murdered (strangled...) in the Pioneer Square Area of the city. A little research reveals that women have been attacked there, in that very spot, every 21 years. There were crimes in 1952, 1931, 1910, 1889 and 1868. Interestingly, the murders in 1868 took place before a massive earthquake, in a portion of the town now underground.

Kolchak's quest to find the perpetrator of these horrid crimes leads to a scientist once interviewed by Mark Twain, named Richard Malcolm (Richard Anderson). It seems this man was a Union Soldier in the Civil War and has been keeping himself alive ever since with a home-made "elixir of life" consisting of milk, meat, hair...and blood extracted from the necks of healthy women! 

Karl ventures into the old underground city to confront this nearly immortal (and clearly psychotic...) man, and ends the reign of terror once and for all. Of course, Karl gets fired for interfering with the police; and this time his editor Vincenzo gets fired too. Together, the two bickering friends drive out of Seattle together, hoping for a better future in New York.

The Night Strangler, written by the incomparable Richard Matheson, is not quite in the class of The Night Stalker, perhaps because at times it feels like a note-for-note repetition of the original TV movie, with Kolchak running up against bull-headed, CYA-type authorities (mayors, policemen, bureaucrats...) while he works to solve a supernatural case. 

What's so interesting this time is Matheson's decision to feature a scientific, rather than supernatural explanation for the crimes. The monster is still a vampire (one who strangles his victims), but one who operates via science, not biology. Seen as bookends, the two tele-movies make interesting sides of the same coin, even if the original isn't quite as good as the original.

I also love the idea of a forgotten, subterranean existing beneath a modern one. It's sort of a perfect reflection of Kolchak's world. There's the surface world which appears normal, and the night-time world of monsters.

Watching The Night Strangler, I began to crystallize the reasons I love Darren McGavin's portrayal of Kolchak so much. This reporter wears white sneakers, you may notice if you watch the telefilms and TV episodes. Not much is said about this, but these are running shoes, worn because Kolchak is always running after a story. I just love that small, little detail; that Kolchak wears the same suit and hat, but also the very shoes that help him track down interviewees during an investigation.

The Night Strangler also makes clear just what an influence Kolchak was on The X-Files

The story of an immortal killer, needing infusions of new life (by murder...) every twenty one years, reminded me instantly of a first season episode called "Squeeze," the first part of the Tooms saga wherein a strange serial killer needs to eat the livers of healthy humans. The idea of elongating life; of a killer coming out of shadows every few decades; and the skepticism of the police are common features between The Night Strangler and the adventures of Mulder and Scully.

I also got a real kick out of The Night Strangler's humorous finale, with Vincenzo and Kolchak hollering at each other over every little detail. Despite all the yelling, it's clear that they are best buddies. And that, quite nicely, is an element continued in the TV series.

Friday, January 13, 2023

Happy Friday the 13th! Ranking Jason's Adventures Worst to Best

Ranking the Friday the 13th Movies: Worst to Best.

To celebrate Friday the 13th, let's take look back at the movie slasher saga,  which has been too long absent from our screens 

12. Friday the 13th Part V: A New Beginning (1985): This movie totally bungles the second movement of the Tommy Jarvis trilogy (IV, V, VI), and gives us not a reappearance by Jason, but rather a Jason impostor.  That sounds like it could be a reasonable narrative if handled correctly, but it is never explained how the impostor manages his Jason-like survival rate. He gets hit by a bull-dozer, and then stands back-up to continue fighting.  How this possible for a mere mortal man?  A sub-standard, really terribly movie in the canon. 

11. Friday the 13th Part VIII: Jason Takes Manhattan (1989): So, Toronto substitutes for Manhattan here, and Jason only reaches it in the last act…for a few minutes. Adding an insult to that injury, the movie seems to `believe that New York City utility companies flush toxic waste through the sewers every night. At the film’s conclusion, Jason gets caught in the toxic flood and is reverted to the form of a child.  WTF? The death scenes are ludicrous, including one set in a disco aboard a cruise ship, where a female victim dies, literally, because she has no attention span. If she just kept her eyes on Jason, she might have survived. Instead, she can’t manage that feat, and he just appears in front of her and kills her. This character suffers from a serious movie malady: no peripheral vision.

10. Jason Goes to Hell: The Final Friday (1993): The fun of a Friday the 13th movie is seeing a big, hulking slasher in a hockey mask hack people up with a machete. So what does this movie do? It eliminates Jason’s body and turns the slasher into a body-hopping ghoul. What is this, The Hidden 2?  And then there’s some serious and lame retconning of the overall story. For example: the Voorhees house.  Jason and his mom had a house that everybody knew about?  That still exists?  That is well-furnished? That has a mail box?  Are people sending mail there? If so, then why was Jason living in a shack in the woods in Friday the 13th Part II?

9. Freddy vs. Jason (2003). Jason is Freddy’s patsy for the first part of this film, and then reveals, oddly, that his mortal fear (and Kryptonite, essentially…) is water. This revelation occurs even though we have seen in Jason in functioning ably in water attacking people -- without fear -- in virtually every Friday the 13th movie since 1980. Whatever.

8. Friday the 13th Part III in 3-D (1982): Folks my age have a lot of nostalgia for this particular movie, but it doesn’t hold up well outside that context. The stoner characters (who look like Cheech and Chong) are cringe-inducing, and the 3-D effects (with everything flying at the screen) look low-rent and ridiculous.  All the characters are dumb clichés, so the third time’s not the charm for the series. Now Jason moves and acts more like Michael Myers than an original character.

7. Friday the 13th (2009): The reboot plays like a Friday the 13th “Greatest Hits” mix tape, taking good ideas from many of the individual entries and working them into one intriguing narrative. That’s not a bad approach -- hitting all the visceral hot spots of the saga -- but the film somehow comes across as shallow and lacking in any real sense of fun.

6. Friday the 13th Part IV: The Final Chapter (1984): Not a great entry in the saga, but a fun and generally quite popular one. The film demonstrates a love for the horror genre by making young Tommy Jarvis (Corey Feldman) a make-up artist.  He uses that skill to good effect to decapitate Jason in the last act (while pretending to be a young Jason).  An eminently watchable entry, although nothing fresh or exciting in terms of storyline or effects, really.

5. Friday the 13th Part VII: The New Blood (1988): This impossible-to-resist entry is basically Jason vs. Stephen King’s Carrie. Accordingly, Jason falls victim to a slew of telekinetic trickery, well-orchestrated.  The first two acts aren’t great, but the last act is a hell of a lot of fun as a monster of the physical realm, Jason, does pitched battle with a heroine of the psychic realm.  Much more entertaining than it has any right to be.  My favorite murder also occurs in this film: the sleeping bag death.

4. Jason X (2002). Are you surprised that this one made it so high on the list?  Well, can you think of another Friday the 13th movie that is so relentlessly inventive, and which plays so wittily on the tropes of the series? Sure the movie’s premise is ridiculous, but it knows it is ridiculous.  The scene with Jason encountering nubile hologram characters who just “love” premarital sex is absolutely priceless and alone worth the price of admission.

3. Friday the 13th Part VI: Jason Lives (1986): This entry turns Jason the slasher into a full-blooded supernatural monster (revived from the dead by lightning) to good and often funny impact. The James Bond-style opener, Jason’s encounter with survivalists, and a cameo appearance by Sartre’s No Exit are just few of the moments worth treasuring.  

2. Friday the 13th Part II (1981): This film pits a smart, resourceful child psychologist, Ginny (Amy Steel) against Jason’s developmentally-arrested “retard” (to quote the film; not my words). Lean and efficient, the film also introduces Jason’s mom fixation

1. Friday the 13th (1980): Still the best of the bunch, thanks to a smart screenplay, and some stand-out scares (including the final sting-in-the-tail/tale). Here (as in all Jason films), it is suggested (through the presence of a storm) that the killer is a force of nature. Similarly, there’s a Garden of Eden/Snake in the Garden metaphor at work at Crystal Lake.

Friday, January 06, 2023

50 Years Ago: Schoolhouse Rock!

Today, I credit three diverse and valuable sources with my ability to write well.

The first is my study of Latin. I minored in the subject at the University of Richmond and have never regretted it. Vēnī, vīdī, vīcī.

The second source is a deep stable of wonderful and inspiring English professors; stretching from my grade school experience through the university years.

And, last but never least, is...Schoolhouse Rock, the ABC animated musical series (1973-1986) that demonstrated -- in superbly entertaining fashion -- how to accurately utilize conjunctions ("Conjunction Junction"), adverbs ("Lolly, Lolly, Lolly Get Your Adverbs Here,") interjections ("Interjections!") and more. 

Yep, these "lessons" were all facets of the series' memorable class on "Grammar Rock."

Schoolhouse Rock premiered on the ABC Network in early January of 1973 -- fifty years ago -- the brainchild of ad man David McCall, musician Bob Dorough and artist Tom Yohe. 

Network executive Michael Eisner approved the project for broadcast during ABC's Saturday morning schedule, and accordingly three minutes "bits" were cut (over producer protests!) from the entertainment programming (such as Scooby Doo) to make "elbow room" for these educational and amusing shorts.

The series' mission: "to link math [and other subjects] with contemporary music...[so] kids will breeze through school on a song."

Over roughly a dozen years, Schoolhouse Rock accomplished that task in spades. It offered a deep, amusing, highly-addictive and toe-tapping TV curriculum in a variety of academic subjects.

Celebrating the bicentennial in 1976, Schoolhouse Rock's "America Rock" featured such shorts as "I'm Just a Bill," (following a bill's progress from idea to committee to law or veto...), "Elbow Room" (about the American expansion West after the Louisiana Purchase..."), "Mother Necessity" (about American ingenuity and inventions...), and "The Preamble," which concerned the specific words and meanings of the U.S. Constitution.

In the subject of math, audiences were offered "Multiplication Rock," with shorts called "My Hero, Zero," "Three is a Magic Number" (a personal favorite that I used to sing to my son, Joel, when he was a baby) and "Figure Eight."

In "Science Rock," youngsters learned about "Electricity, "Electricity" and "Interplanet Janet" (a ditty about the heavenly bodies of our solar system.)

For Generation X (my generation) specifically, these shorts (particularly the catchy tunes) are nothing less than indelible. 

Here's to half a century of Schoolhouse Rock!

Monday, December 12, 2022

50 Years Ago Today: The Poseidon Adventure (1972)

Based on Paul Gallico’s 1969 novel of the same name, Irwin Allen’s The Poseidon Adventure (1972) is one of those disaster movies from the seventies that even today -- fifty years later -- proves impossible to resist.  

It’s not just human curiosity that makes this film appealing, with audiences inevitably wondering how, in the same situation, they might fare.

On the contrary, there’s actually a strong spiritual component at work in this thriller directed by Ronald Neame. 

Indeed, the movie offers a full-throated, abundantly muscular version of Christian faith that many viewers will find appealing now, in 2022, and must have proven highly appealing at the time of the film's original release, in the aftermath of Time Magazine’s “Is God Dead?” cover story.

The filmmakers knew what they were onto, I believe, and so the film’s promotional materials read, pointedly. “Hell, Upside Down!” 

That tag-line very nicely sums up the movie’s thematic through-line. 

Specifically, a widely-disdained man-of god -- a Moses or Jesus figure -- played by Gene Hackman leads a group of would-be survivors through an industrial Hell on Earth: the capsized ocean-liner S.S. Poseidon.  

The path to safety and indeed, salvation, is veritably Dante-sque in its grueling, horrific dimensions, consisting of floods, fires, and other challenges for the faithful to overcome. Again and again, Reverend Scott’s tenets of faith are asserted, challenged, and vindicated as he rallies the spirits and courage of his wayward flock.

This approach is quite different, for certain, from the specifics of the novel.

In the literary version of this tale, Scott possesses some rough edges, and takes his own life. Additionally, the character played by Pamela Sue Martin in the film is, in the book, raped by a fellow survivor. The filmmakers have removed this controversial material so that Scott and his “flock” are easier to identify with and root for, perhaps.

And that’s the thing worth lauding about The Poseidon Adventure (1972). 

In the final analysis, it doesn’t matter how much Ernest Borgnine over-acts, or if the special effects have aged poorly (and mostly, they haven’t).  

Despite any such superficial drawbacks, the film enthralls the viewer because we desire to see the characters live up to their leader’s words. We hope to see them take responsibility for their own lives; for their own survival. 

When they do so, their victory is not merely one of physical endurance. It is one of spiritual strength.

“Resolve to fight for yourself and others.”

At sea, the ocean liner S.S. Poseidon is struck by a tsunami, and it cap-sizes. The captain (Leslie Nielsen) and bridge officers are killed instantly, leaving survivors of the disaster to fend for themselves.

In the ship’s main hall, a ballroom where a New Year’s Eve party was in full swing, the Reverend Scott (Gene Hackman) attempts to convince the others that they must leave the hall and head for the upside-down vessel’s aft propeller section. There the metal hull is at its thinnest, and rescue is therefore possible.

Many don’t heed his message, but some do. 

Climbing a Christmas tree and escaping the ballroom with the reverend are a young woman, Susan Shelby (Pamela Sue Martin) and her little brother, Robin (Eric Shea), and an older Jewish couple, the Rosens (Shelley Winters, Jack Albertson). 

Also going with Scott’s group are an argumentative police officer, Rogo (Ernest Borgnine) and his wife, Linda (Stella Stevens), as well as a single man, Mr. Martin (Red Bttons) and a traumatized singer, Nonnie (Carol Lynley).

The group escapes the hall just as water floods it, killing those who stayed behind. 

But the survivors can’t look back, and must soon navigate a passageway called “Broadway,” a kitchen riddled with fire, a submerged compartment, and the obstacles of a burning engine room.

“Nobody’s gonna help us except ourselves.”

Early in The Poseidon Adventure, Gene Hackman’s outsider reverend (who is bound for exile in the third world for his non-dogmatic views of Christianity) delivers a powerful sermon on the ship's deck.  

He declares that God cares about humanity, but sees humanity on a different scale than we can understand. God is looking at man over the generations, over a huge span of time, and can’t worry about each one of us, says Scott.

Instead, Scott informs his flock -- and the audience -- when we “pray to God” we should “pray to that part of God within” all of us. 

God wants winners, not quitters,” he says. Scott then suggests that his listeners “resolve to fight” for themselves and "for others."

Scott’s philosophy comes in handy during the crisis, but on a much more significant level, also informs the rest of the film.  It is not actually in Scripture that “God helps those who help themselves,” but The Poseidon Adventure puts forward that philosophy, on steroids, as a guide-post for the faithful in harrowing and uncertain times.

Again, one must consider historical and cultural context when thinking about a film’s meaning. In the early 1970s, the pop culture was agonizing over the issue of God and faith. The 1966 Time Magazine with the “Is God Dead?” cover appeared in Rosemary’s Baby (1968), for example. 

The Poseidon Adventure’s response to such questioning, is, essentially, to say, stop being a crybaby about God and go pull your own weight. 

God’s got other things to do besides saving your scared ass. He made you in his image, so find that part of God inside you...and survive.  Quit being a victim.

Now, I am not advocating any viewpoint or belief system here (least of all regarding belief in God), merely noting that The Poseidon Adventure reflects its time, and accordingly puts forward a philosophy or way of commenting on that epoch.

Think about that time just a little more: December, 1972. American pillars like faith in government were beginning to fall, in part because of the Watergate Scandal. The first convictions in that crime came just weeks after The Poseidon Adventure’s theatrical release. 

Also, America was sharply divided by issues such as the Vietnam War, which it appeared to be losing...badly. The old ways of seeing and living just weren’t working anymore. In short, We all seemed to be trapped on a capsized ship, one that was sinking fast.  

The Poseidon Adventure’s answer  to that dilemma was simple but ultimately empowering on a personal level: When things are falling apart, look to yourself. Summon the best part of yourself to respond.

In the film, Scott’s superior in the Church, also on the Poseidon, laments that Scott “speaks only for the strong,” but I think he’s off-base in that assertion. I believe that the message of Scott’s sermon is that we all  carry the spark of the divine within us, and can access it when we try.  We are all strong, and we must summon that strength if we wish to survive. Again, I’m not advocating for or against anything, including religious belief, merely noting what I saw and heard consistently expressed in this movie.

The entire film can be read, at least metaphorically, as a religious journey. Scott states his philosophy, and some follow it...while others (to their detriment) don't. 

He leads them out of the hall or ballroom, specifically by climbing up a Christmas tree. Certainly, that is a symbolically-important choice.  In 2004, for example Pope John Paul noted that the Christmas tree exalts “the value of life” and related it to Scripture, and the tree of life in Genesis 2:9.  

Note that a key aspect of Scott’s philosophy, as repeated, in hushed tones throughout The Poseidon Adventure is that “life matters very much.”  Life, specifically, involves climbing that Christmas tree and escaping the hall. It is literally a tree of life for those who choose to see it as such.

Moreover, the Christmas tree in the film is topped by a star of sorts, if memory serves, and symbolically speaking, such a Christmas star is supposed to represent the one viewed by the Three Wise Men at the time of Jesus’s birth. Likewise in the film, above and beyond the star is, literally, salvation: an escape from the hell of the bowels of the ship.

Scott’s belief system, that “nobody’s going to save us except ourselves,” is transmitted to the others, including Belle Rosen (Winters). She gives up her life fighting to survive. Had she not chosen to swim into a submerged compartment, Scott would have died then and there, pinned under a sheet of metal, and the others would not have escaped the ship.  Belle Rosen -- whose name means beautiful flower -- "blooms" as a person, and puts into practice the belief of her spiritual leader.  She fights for "others," like her husband, Manny. She has resolved to fight for them, no matter the cost.

Next, of course, in this spiritual reading of the film, we must consider Scott himself. He is either a Moses figure, leading the survivors out of Hell to a promised land, or a Christ figure.  

I tend to prefer the Christ analogy, because -- spoiler alert -- he dies living his principles.  

Above the burning ruins of Poseidon’s Engine Room -- literally a lake of fire in spots -- Scott gives up his life so that others might live. He dies, essentially, for our sins, as Jesus did. Burning steam is being voided into the chamber, and Scott hangs precariously from the valve to close it, and make the way passable.

Although we don’t explicitly get a traditional crucifixion pose here, it is important to note that visually, Scott hangs isolated before the others, dying before their eyes, as he makes his sacrifice.

He dies living out his philosophy, fighting every inch of the way to survive, to fight not just for himself, but “for others.”

The Poseidon Adventure's final scene is particularly Dante-sque, as it sees the survivors escape the Hell of the Engine Room and step out onto the surface, into sunlight and safety.  This moment represents a catharsis, a cleansing. True, it’s not Easter Sunday when these individuals escape (like it was for Dante and Virgil in The Divine Comedy), but it is a day of renewal and re-birth nonetheless: New Year’s Day. 

As readers are aware, I admire tremendously those movies that work on two tracks of meaning simultaneously. 

One can absolutely enjoy The Poseidon Adventure as a straight-up disaster film with some remarkable stunts.

But one can also view the film as a statement of philosophy; as a meaningful comment on spirituality and what it means at this particular junction in history.  Although the film is often criticized for over-acting and some cheesy dialogue, it also manages to craft some beautiful and unforgettable compositions.

For instance, there’s the moment early in The Poseidon Adventure when the hall is flooded, and those without faith in Scott's leadership panic and drown. There is nothing Scott can do to help them once the sea rushes in. 

Downcast, he closes the doors to the hall -- which the doomed will never reach -- his visage disappearing into shadow and darkness. The others have been locked out of Heaven, in a sense, because of their inability to believe in Scott’s philosophy of muscular faith. Visually, this shot  makes us understand how Scott must “close the doors” on those who can’t help themselves, and continue his trek for freedom (and the salvation it brings).

Another moment that lingers in the memory involves Mrs. Rogo’s death. She’s a former prostitute and a crass sort of gal.  She dies just moments before salvation, by falling into the lake of fire. 

This occurs, I believe, because she never came to believe in Scott’s dogma of looking out for herself and others.  She only got to the first part of that equation. In one especially ugly moment, she comments on Mrs. Rosen’s “fat ass,” and getting stuck behind it.  

Her punishment for abandoning her fellow survivors is death by fire. It’s true Mrs. Rosen dies too, but she dies at a moment of courage and nobility, saving others instead of deriding them. I suppose the important question involves how one meets his or her fate, right?

On the surface, The Poseidon Adventure is about a disaster at sea, of course, and those who do and don’t survive that disaster.  That’s to be expected.  

The rewarding quality about this film is that it talks about survival not merely as an end, but, finally, a statement of philosophy and faith.  

There are a lot of good disaster movies out there, but I don't know of many that are as coherent and consistent as The Poseidon Adventure is in terms of messaging and symbolism.

Hell, Upside Down,” is the challenge you face, and if you desire to escape it, you have to do it standing on your own two feet.  

Sunday, December 11, 2022

40 Years Ago Today: Timerider: The Adventure of Lyle Swann

Timerider: The Adventure of Lyle Swann (1982) is a droll and perhaps even inconsequential low-budget time-travel movie from the great year of 1982. Unlike many time travel films, however, this William Dear movie doesn't revolve around the future of humanity or some other Earth-shattering event or crisis.  

Instead, Timerider's approach is notably restrained, even low-key. 

The film -- which opened theatrically in December of 1982 and later became a staple of cable television in the 1980s -- is an almost mellow "fish out of water" Western adventure involving motorcycle racer, Lyle Swann (Fred Ward), as he travels back in time to November 5, 1877, fights some nasty bandits, and beds a super-hot woman, Claire (Belinda Bauer) who turns out to be, well, the "great matriarch" of his own genetic line.   

Timerider is a minor epic at best, perhaps, yet features moments that any aficionado of low-budget cult movies is certain to enjoy and remember with affection.  The movie just kind of rolls along from one situation to the next with humor, even if the whole thing doesn't ever coalesce into being a truly "great" or classic film.

"As far as I'm concerned, this place is history..."

In Timerider, the vaguely sinister corporation "International Computel" plans its sixteenth experiment in time travel, but the first one involving a living life form.  In this case, that life form is a rhesus monkey.   

Unfortunately, Lyle Swann is racing in the Baja 1000 at the same time as these unusual time experiments in the Mexican desert are slated to occur, and is zapped into the year 1877...along with the monkey.  

Once in the past, Swann takes an unusually long time to realize that he has traveled back in time over a century, even though the unwashed locals consider the red-suited rider "El Diablo," and his motorcycle a "fire horse."  

Soon, a gorgeous female adventurer, Claire Cygne, falls for Lyle, and shelters him from a gang of bandits, led by the diabolical Reese (Peter Coyote).  Reese and his partners in crime (played by Tracey Walter and Richard Masur) are bound and determined to steal Lyle's futuristic machine for their own nefarious purposes.

When Claire is captured by the bandits, Lyle joins up with a "padre" (Ed Lauter) and two U.S. marshals to take down Reese and his gang.

"You're the strangest woman I've ever met..."

In some important dramatic sense, Timerider is a quart-low on both anxiety and ambition.  

The film boasts what we would no doubt consider a lackadaisical pace in today's hyper-accelerated media environment.  The first several minutes of Timerider simply showcase Lyle riding his motorcycle in the picturesque desert to vintage 1980s synthesizer music (courtesy of producer Michael Nesmith).

And yet despite the lack of a driving pace, there's ultimately something pretty refreshing about Timerider's laid-back attitude towards, well, everything.  

Timerider doesn't push hard in any sense, and so the movie, at times, plays as extraordinarily funny, especially in the numerous culture clash or "fish out of water" scenes.  The low-key approach means that we discover the film's sense of humor for ourselves, and Timerider feels more rewarding because of that sense of personal discovery.   

Specifically, the director, William Dear, boasts a quirky and dynamic way of dramatizing critical moments.  One composition, involving the after-effects of a bandit's unfortunate encounter with a whirring helicopter propeller, is especially memorable and amusing.  All that remains are the bad guy's (shredded) boots...

In addition, Fred Ward and Belinda Bauer share some electric romantic chemistry in the film, and each time their two characters get together (*ahem*) and stop talking about the plot, the film dramatically picks up.  The relationship between Lyle and Claire represents the heart of the film, and watching these scenes, it's a wonder to me that Bauer was never a bigger star.  It's not just that she's absolutely, drop-dead gorgeous.  It's that Bauer's screen presence conveys a fetching brand of cunning intelligence and individual strength.  

Without a doubt, Claire is the most intriguing and interesting character in Timerider, a woman who, after the Civil War, was left to fend for herself.  She had to decide whether she wanted to "use her body," or "use a gun" to survive the West.  She picked a gun, and in the course of the film, Claire demonstrates her gun-fighting skills by shooting off a bandit's nose.  

But in Bauer's capable hands, Claire is capable, sexy, smart, and more than a little mysterious, especially in her final, almost inscrutable gesture.  That action, in a sense, creates a new world (or at least, sets one in motion...).

If Claire is mysterious, strong, smart, cunning, gorgeous and supremely hot beyond all reckoning, Lyle Swann isn't as carefully presented.  Fred Ward -- in slick long hair and wearing a red jacket that make him look like Michael Jackson in the Thriller video -- is a fine actor, and does a capable job playing Swann.  However, the movie never lets Swann be as smart as he should be.  Basically, until he meets Claire, Swann is given to saying things like "What the hell is the matter with everybody?" and asking if he can use the nearest telephone.  The script plays him as dumb, clueless, and out of it.  The gun holsters, the cowboy hats, the horses, and the general lack of technology all around him never seem to sink in.  In fact, it's unclear during Timerider when precisely Swann realizes he's traveled back in time.  Claire mentions the Civil War, and Swann writes her off as "crazy."

The movie has some difficulties with plausibility too. Swann's motorcycle never runs out of gas until the end of the movie, for one thing, which doesn't make a lot of sense given all the riding he does.  And there are occasional moments of  incompetence to boot. In one close-up shot of considerable duration, for instance, you can clearly see the cameraman's reflection in Swann's motorcycle helmet.  Oops.

In terms of theme, Timerider plays lightly (and again, almost casually) with the notion of a motorcycle showing up in the Old West and shocking the hell out of folks.  The locals react in fear and horror to the noises and lights of the 20th century vehicle, and in one of the film's funnier moments (played absolutely straight, again), an old bandit dies from fright when Lyle Swann shines a flashlight upon him.  Other culture clash moments are equally amusing (and underplayed), such as the instance wherein Swann offers a U.S. marshal (Chris Mulkey) an energy bar to perk him up.

I suppose the quality that most distinguishes Timerider is the cast.  Here, we've got Fred Ward, Belinda Bauer, Ed Lauter, Chris Mulkey, Peter Coyote (E.T.), Richard Masur (John Carpenter's The Thing), Tracey Walter (Blade Runner) L.Q. Jones, and in a small role, Miguel Sandoval.  Talk about a great B-movie assortment of actors, huh?   They are all well-directed here, because every performer underplays perfectly, so that the film's sense of humor emerges naturally, rather than feeling as though it was extruded by committee decision-making.

I had planned to also write  here about the ways that Timerider is a variation on Clint Eastwood's Man with No Name films, explicitly involving a "stranger" who rides into town, battles the bad guys, metes justice, and sets things right. 

That broad story is certainly a template for this film, but Timerider perpetually and purposefully de-mythologizes the tale.  Lyle is just a "dude" on a bike, not an enigmatic hero, and he never really seems to get a good sense of what's happening around him, or even why it is happening. I believe that this almost anti-heroic approach was intentional: a kind of deconstruction of the Western myth that reveals, perhaps, how circumstances make the man, not how a hero uses his innate qualities to achieve a positive outcome.  In other words, Timerider appears an early (but notable) inversion of the Campbell Monomyth or heroic journey.  Here, Swann may be destined for an heroic quest, but he's more like an innocent bystander on his own journey, rather than a deliberate mover and shaker.  He's a timer-ider, not a time-driver, if you get my drift.

If Timerider deliberately de-mythologizes the Western format, it does likewise for time travel movies.  Part of the common time travel aesthetic is "not changing the past" so as to "ensure the sanctity of the present."  Timerider takes the alternate point of view that instances of time travel are already factored into our existing history.  Lyle had to go back in time to bed Claire Cygne and therefore his assure his own birth.  Had he not gone back, he wouldn't exist.  To put it another way, Lyle doesn't change history by his presence.  His presence is already part of the established equation.  His journey, though seemingly accidental, is pre-destined.

The film's final revelation, that Claire is actually both Lyle's ancestor and also the mother-to-be of his child (!) is a bit weird, I'll readily admit, but it also exposes Timerider's ethos regarding time travel.  Essentially, the film is a re-iteration of the old canard about going back in time and accidentally marrying your grandmother or killing your grandfather.  Timerider plays the joke -- like just about everything else in the film -- as a long, shaggy dog story. 

Time travel fans will also note that Lyle's good luck charm -- a necklace -- represents a paradox (like Kirk's glasses in Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home). Lyle travels back in time and Claire takes the necklace from him.  She then passes it onto her children, who pass it on to young Lyle, their descendants.  Given this "loop," where did the necklace originate? Or rather, who made it?  Another question: why do so many time travel movies select the date of November 5th for temporal adventuring?   Timerider shares this date in common with Time After Time (1979) and Back to the Future (1985) apparently. 

I don't think that Timerider has the answer to those questions, or any other important question about time travel, frankly.  Instead, what the movie suggests is that -- through dumb luck and fate -- we sometimes ride ride right into...our destiny. Nothing wrong with that idea, and Timerider never takes itself, or its ideas too seriously. In fact, this genre flick from 1982 is like a nice, cool breeze blowing by you in the desert. 

Timerider: The Adventure of Lyle Swann is a pretty enjoyable - if ephemeral -- experience.

Friday, December 09, 2022

20 Years Ago: Star Trek: Nemesis (2002)

A “generation’s final journey” begins in Star Trek: Nemesis (2002), the film that finally took the crown of “worst” (and lowest grossing…) Star Trek film away from The Final Frontier (1989).  

And much like that fifth franchise film, Nemesis is a movie that saw some severe post-production cuts and tinkering. Fifty-minutes have been excised from the Stuart Baird film, and many fans to this day feel that those missing fifty minutes could make a huge difference in terms of the film’s quality, not to mention reception.

The theatrical release of Nemesis, however, fails to please for a variety of reasons.  

First, the film veers wildly from irrelevant fan service (pleasing the base demographic) to head-scratching discontinuities within the existing Star Trek universe. The film ping-pongs between these disparate poles, and, roughly, pleases almost no demographic whatsoever.  

On top of that enormous deficit, the film’s photography is relentlessly, woefully dark. And I don’t mean the film’s tone, either. I refer to the underwhelming, uninspiring visual palette. We go from one dimly-lit chamber to another, to another, ad infinitum -- even aboard the Enterprise -- and the result is a subconscious feeling of fatigue, or even emotional oppression.  

The familiar story-beats from The Wrath of Khan don’t help Nemesis succeed, either. Been there, done that.

Here, another deadly villain who is a mirror image of our hero (literally, this time…) attempts to use a weapon of mass destruction. In stopping this terrorist, a beloved Enterprise crew member is killed…and the seeds are planted for an emotional resurrection.

Overall, Star Trek: Nemesis feels, well, worn-out and exhausted. And this impression arises despite the herculean efforts of lead actor Patrick Stewart, who connects with the Picard character again on a very human, almost world-weary level. He delivers a fine, thoughtful performance, in Nemesis – one of his finest, actually -- and he almost succeeds in anchoring the movie.

Following the wedding ceremony of Commander Will Riker (Jonathan Frakes) and Counselor Deanna Troi (Marina Sirtis) on Earth, the Enterprise-E crew heads to outer space to ferry the happy couple to Betazed.  En route, however, “positronic” readings are discovered on the world of Kolarus III, near the Romulan Neutral Zone.

Upon investigation, Captain Picard (Patrick Stewart), Commander Data (Brent Spiner) and Commander Worf (Michael Dorn) discover a disassembled android prototype on the planet, a dead ringer for Data.  The android’s name is B-4 (Brent Spiner), and he is a less-sophisticated machine, but one that Data nonetheless accepts immediately as a brother.

After leaving Kolarus III, the Enterprise is re-routed by orders from Admiral Janeway (Kate Mulgrew). A coup has occurred on the planet Romulus, and a mysterious new leader, Shinzon (Tom Hardy) has swept away the old government with the help of his loyal Reman shock-troopers. Now, Shinzon apparently desires peace…

Upon meeting Shinzon, Picard learns that he is human…and a clone of Picard, one originally designed for espionage. He was created some years earlier to infiltrate Starfleet Command and replace the real Picard, but the plot was abandoned and Shinzon was consigned to the Dilithium Mines on Remus. Now, an angry, revenge-driven Shinzon has delivered his vengeance upon Romulus, and Earth is next in line for the same treatment.

To that end, Shinzon has developed a powerful “Thalaron” weapon which can decimate living cells on a colossal scale, and even render a planet lifeless.  

A grim Picard commits the Enterprise to a battle against Shinzon’s super vessel, the Scimitar, but in the process must put his own life on the line, as well as the life of one of his dearest friends…

Before I enumerate this film’s flaws, I should comment on its virtues. Because, hating to the contrary, they do exist.  

First, Nemesis stands virtually alone among the Next Generation films in the way that it confronts time’s inevitable passage. 

One persistent glory of the feature films featuring the original cast members is that they acknowledge the reality for the characters’ mortality.  

People age.  

They grow old, they grow apart, and they move on with their lives. Chekov changed jobs for The Motion Picture (1979), took a posting on Reliant in The Wrath of Khan (1982), and Sulu assumed command of the Excelsior in The Undiscovered Country, for example. The universe didn’t remain static, like a TV show...which hopes never to end.

Nemesis works really hard to get to the same place of “reality” for the characters, and should be commended for the attempt. 

The film’s opening wedding scene -- while generally horrendous in terms of dialogue, tone, editing and overall execution -- reminds us that we have known these characters for fifteen years, and that the times are indeed changing. Riker and Troi are finally getting married, and Riker is headed off to command the Titan…after a decade-and-a-half serving in Picard's shadow. Data is moving up to the role of first officer.  Worf is just visiting (conveniently, again…). 

Secondly, Nemesis ambitiously attempts to shed “TV thinking” by allowing its characters to experience -- how shall I say this? -- sexual impulses.Here, there is a scene involving Riker and Troi in bed, making love. I certainly appreciate the scene in concept, revealing a more grown-up side to the characters, but again, bad execution scuttles a move towards character realism. For one thing, Jonathan Frakes is in no shape to do a love scene at this point in his career, and for another the fact that the scene ends in a weird rape/dream ruins the intent of showing normal love and sex in the future. What should have been a good character moment become, instead, icky and sort of embarrassing.

Much of Nemesis plays like this, like a good idea gone horribly south in the vetting, and the result is a remarkably schizophrenic film of a few ambitious highs and many incredible lows.  

The film’s first action scene is a prime example of the latter. Captain Picard, Data and Worf visit the planet surface of Kolarus III and immediately go out driving the harsh terrain in not-at-all-advanced-looking vehicle called the Argo. It looks like a kitted up dune buggy, and runs on…wheels.  

Fucking wheels?

Certainly, by the 24th century, cars would be out-of-fashion, and wheels wouldn’t be employed when a hover-craft would so, so this vehicle looks and feels terribly out-of-place in terms of the franchise continuity and history.

Secondly, we already know from Star Trek history (“A Piece of the Action”) and Star Trek: The Next Generation history (“The Big Goodbye”) that automobiles are relics of another, bygone age. In fact, in the aforementioned TNG episode, Worf can’t even pronounce the word “automobile” correctly.  

The result is that the Argo sticks out like a sore thumb.

Anyway, the Starfleet officers tool around in their new…car, and end up fighting the inexplicably hostile life-forms of Kolarus III, a pre-warp planet.  

Disregarding the Prime Directive entirely, Picard, Data and Worf utilize their advanced phaser technology to fight back, and also deploy their advanced shuttle craft. The scene evokes the Road Warrior (1982) in a kind of bad way, but primarily raises so many questions. Why does Picard ignore the Prime Directive? Why are the inhabitants hostile to our heroes? If Data can scan for positronic life signs, why can’t he also scan for the aliens ahead of time, and avoid contact with them? Why can't the Enterprise just beam everyone (and all the tech...) up quickly, and minimize the cultural interference? 

This whole interlude exists in Nemesis for only one contrived reason, to introduce B4.  

Yet it is never explained in the film how Shinzon found the android, or why he chose to drop him off on a hostile planet for Picard to find, or even why he felt the need to dissect B4 into his component parts.  

If Shinzon had wanted to bring the Enterprise and Picard to Romulus for peace negotiations, he would have had to merely request Picard and his ship. He is now a recognized Head of State, after all. He can pretty much negotiate with anyone he chooses. Instead, the excuse seems to be that Picard was in the area (Kolarus III), and thus the closest ship available for peace talks. It’s all terribly trite and poorly-written, and worse, unnecessarily trite and poorly-written.

The terminally-conflicted Nemesis continues in this vein. It reveals a young bald Captain Picard, when the TV series established that he was not yet bald when he entered Starfleet (“Tapestry.”)   

It makes another Data-type android a major plot-point, but doesn’t once bring up Lore (“Datalore,” “Brothers,” “Descent.”)

It is set on 24th century Romulus, but doesn't make even a passing comment about Amabassador Spock and his unification movement, which we remember from the series.

At one point in the narrative Data also mentions that he feels "nothing," and yet no notation is made of his emotion chip, which enables this android character to feel emotions, and which played a crucial role in Generations (1994) and First Contact (1996), and even got a passing mention in Insurrection (1998).  So has Data elected not to use it anymore? Was it destroyed? A major character issue is just dropped like a hot potato.

All these inconsistencies contrast mightily with moments of extreme “fan service” in Nemesis, such as the appearance of Spot, Data's cat, a mention of a Kirk Maneuver, a nod to Enterprise’s Captain Archer, and so forth. The film simply can’t decide if it wants to break free of franchise history or wallow relentlessly in it, a fact which validates J.J. Abrams’ alternate Kelvin universe approach to the new films starting in 2009.

As for Shinzon, he is an interesting enough villain, thanks mostly to the efforts of a very young (but also very impressive) Tom Hardy. Unfortunately, the film’s conceit that Shinzon is actually a younger version of Picard simply doesn’t work. It doesn't past muster in terms of our lying eyes.  

In the scene during which Picard and Shinzon meet for the first time, there is no psychic shock as Shinzon makes his revelation of identity. Even with prosthetics and a bald head, Hardy does not resemble Patrick Stewart very much. The gulf between years is simply too great to bridge with our eyes, and so the visuals can’t inform us that Picard and Shinzon are indeed one-and-the-same person. Thus one of the major beats of the movie simply doesn’t work successfully.

Shinzon’s motives don’t bear close examination, either. 

I can understand why he would seek revenge against the Romulans, of course. They created him for their own purposes, and then they enslaved him. He is their “son,” their Frankenstein monster, essentially.

But why should Shinzon lash out at the Federation in general, and the Earth in particular? What grudge do his Reman soldiers have against Earth? The Viceroy (Ron Perlman) is constantly pushing Shinzon to attack Earth. What the hell?

Because these questions are not answered, or adequately addressed for that matter, the film’s central threat falls flat. It’s fine that Shinzon is dying of an illness and needs Picard’s blood to survive, but that point doesn’t explain the character’s desire to destroy Earth.

These are all considerable problems, but the film’s desire to repeat, almost verbatim, the story beats of Wrath of Khan diminishes the final product even more. Insurrection took the same route. Shinzon gets the jump on Picard, like Khan did with Kirk, and then Data helps Picard get the jump on Shinzon (as Spock did in TWOK). Then, there’s the final battle of starships, with use of a WMD at stake, and – finally – the death of a major character. Here, Data dies, but not before transferring his katra -- I mean “data engrams” -- to the conveniently-located B4. 

I know plenty of people love The Next Generation, and rightly so, but it is absolutely the wrong approach to shoehorn the people and places of TNG into the mold established by the Original Series and its characters.  

The interactions are different, the storytelling-modes are different, and the feelings we have about each crew are also different. The reason most of The Next Generation movies are not very strong is that the producers and writers keep trying to make TNG characters as jaunty, colorful and funny as the Original Series characters, and the fact of the matter is…they never were. They were different, and had other strengths worth featuring. Picard’s thoughtfulness is certainly one of them, and it is to Stewart’s credit that he still projects that intelligence and thoughtfulness…even in as lame a vehicle as Nemesis.  

To ape Wrath of Khan is bad enough, but to do it badly, and with a short attention span, is worse.  

In 1982, fans had to wait for two whole years for Spock’s return in The Search for Spock. There was no instant gratification at all in that case. By the end of Nemesis, B4 is already whistling Irving Berlin tunes, and there is no doubt that Data lives. This short-period of mourning manages to take away from Data’s noble sacrifice. We have a replacement right here, for the beloved crew member who died...

Nemesis’s intellectual terrain involves “family.” Data is connected with a brother (or double), B4, that is untrustworthy. This journey is reflected in Picard’s experience with Shinzon, a clone and brother/son figure.  

The point, showcased via Data’s sacrifice is that sometimes the brothers and sisters we choose (siblings like Riker, La Forge, Worf, Crusher, and Troi) become more important or significant to us than those boasting a biological connection.  

This is a strong idea, and one that augments the relationships between the crew. Yet the idea fails somewhat because the film’s form doesn’t reflect the narrative's conclusions about the brothers and sisters "you chose." Nemesis focuses on Picard and Data to the exclusion of almost all other characters. Though Troi gets a larger role than usual here, Riker, Worf, Crusher, and La Forge all feel like after-thoughts. A chubby, Shatner-esque Riker battling the Viceroy mano-e-mano is hardly a substitute for meaningful time spent with the character.

I should also add that Nemesis is very 2002, either by design or happenstance. The film was released in November 2002 just as George Bush 2 (the sequel) and his administration were making their big marketing push to invade Iraq and take down the regime of Saddam Hussein. The reason behind that invasion of Iraq (which ultimately came four months later…) was Hussein’s (believed) possession of WMD. The plot line of Nemesis reflects this reality because it is the tale of the Enterprise battling a tyrant who has just such horrible weapons in his possession, and the will to use them.   

Of course, reality and fiction differ rather drastically. Saddam Hussein actually had no such weapons, whereas Shinzon clearly did. Picard made the right choice to commit resources to destroy him. Unlike real life, movies can tread in absolute certainties, and it’s easy to pick out the bad guys and the right "battle" to undertake. This movie reflects none of the complexity of the real life issue.  

Twenty years on, I wish there were more positive things to write about Star Trek: Nemesis, but it is abundantly a case of the echo (Nemesis) over the real voice (The Wrath of Khan), to roughly-quote Shinzon. I’m all for a new release of the film featuring the excised footage, and restoring some moments that would have made the Next Generation’s last voyage a bit more successful. 

I hasten to add, it would have been a letdown to end the original cast films after the failure of The Final FrontierThe Undiscovered Country righted the franchise ship, and gave that beloved crew a proper send-off.  

Today, the Next Generation crew is arguably just as beloved as the original crew, and it deserves a proper send-off too. Nemesis just isn’t that movie.  

Not by half-a-galaxy.

So...I guess in 2023 we get Picard Season 3 to finish the task that Nemesis began? Let's hope they get it right.

Guest Post: M3GAN (2023)

" M3GAN  Is Humorous Horror but The Trailer Gives Away Many of The Tricks"   By Jonas Schwartz-Owen   The cops may think that the ...