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.

Monday, December 05, 2022

Enter The House Between Novellas #1 and #2 NOW FOR SALE


For longtime fans of this blog and my writing, my 2007-2009 web-series The House Between (which was nominated for Sy-Fy Portal Awards back in the day....), is on the verge of an exciting new re-birth in the weeks and months ahead.

A new audio drama series is due to premiere in Spring of 2023 with original stories (more info to come), and Powys Media is publishing novellas based on the original program as well

The first two novellas, "Arrived" and "Settled" are now available for purchase at the Powys Media web-site!

Now available to order here. 

Saturday, December 03, 2022

MOVIES MADE ME: Book Review: Horror Films of 2000-2009

MOVIES MADE ME: Book Review: Horror Films of 2000-2009:    

"Back in the mid-90s, John Kenneth Muir staked out ground as a film critic willing to take horror cinema more seriously than most. Buoyed by the success of his early books about iconic directors like Wes Craven, John Carpenter, and Tobe Hooper, he launched a series of mammoth studies of American horror films organized by decade. The nearly 700-page Horror Films of the 1970s came out in 2002, followed by the 800+ page Horror Films of the 1980s in 2007, and the comparatively slim Horror Films of the 1990s in 2011. Now he ventures into a new century with Horror Films of 2000-2009, a 900-page exploration of what Muir characterizes as the triumphant return of the great American horror film. “Bad times make for good horror films,” he declares, and the cultural turmoil of post-9/11 America helped filmmakers—and critics and scholars—rediscover the genre’s “voice and purpose." 

Sunday, November 27, 2022

20 Years Ago Today: Solaris (2002)

“We take off into the cosmos, ready for anything: solitude, hardship, exhaustion, death. We're proud of ourselves. But when you think about it, our enthusiasm's a sham. We don't want other worlds; we want mirrors.

-       Solaris (2002).

It’s unusual that a contemporary Hollywood remake of 1970s Russian science-fiction film should succeed so dramatically on its own terms.  

Yet that’s precisely the case with Steven Soderbergh’s remake of Solaris (2002) starring George Clooney.  Although this remake diverges from both the Stanislaw Lem novel and the 1972 Tarkovsky film, the director’s post-millennial iteration of the tale nonetheless succeeds as a consistent and imaginative work of art.

This artistic success hinges in large part on Soderbergh’s splendid visualization of the story, and his creative decision to eschew the bells-and-whistles of the modern sci-fi cinema.  This is a film about the nature of the universe, and more trenchantly, how mankind views that nature and his place in it.  But it is vetted, surprisingly, through the excavation of a very human relationship.

Thus Solaris is resolutely not a film of action, or set-pieces, or special effects. There’s a significant segment of the population that, simply put, won’t exhibit much patience for it. Writing for Rolling Stone, Peter Travers wrote: “Put George Clooney in a space-suit and you expect Star Wars heroics, aliens, massive FX. Get over it.” 

That’s excellent advice.  

Where most outer space films are determinedly “epic” in nature, Solaris appear painfully and resolutely intimate.  The film concerns, primarily, the concepts of grief, guilt, and God.  Furthermore, it is a meditation on human identity, and the ways that such identity precludes an honest reckoning with a life form that is authentically “alien” in nature.

Soderbergh’s Solaris -- as J. Hoberman noted at The Village Voice – “achieves an almost perfect balance of poetry and pulp. This is as elegant, moody, intelligent, sensuous, and sustained a studio movie as we are likely to see this season—and in its intrinsic nuttiness, perhaps the least compromised.”

The film qualifies as uncompromising because it doesn’t bow to commercial influences above artistic ones, and because Soderbergh deploys symbolic imagery and canny compositions to characterize both the protagonists’ lonely life on Earth and his once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to make, essentially, a “leap of faith.” 

Thematically, Solaris can be interpreted on two tracks.  

On one track, the film is strictly a religious treatise, one affirming an important tenet of Christianity as set down by Paul in Romans.  It is about, simply, assurance of salvation.  

On a deeper and ultimately more rewarding level, Solaris functions admirably as a complex psychological mirror, one that reflects the lead character’s perhaps subconscious desire to believe in a cosmic order beyond secular science.

Accordingly, the film’s protagonist finds in the planet Solaris a sentient life form that accommodates and manifests his buried desire to “believe” in God and therefore in a religious hierarchy to the universe.  The planet’s manifestation of an eternal “after life” for this character in the film’s denouement makes one ask the question: is there any meaningful difference between “God” and a life form that acts as if it is God?  This interrogative parallels the movie’s other big question mark: is there any substantive difference between a human and a Solaris-generated “Visitor” who appears human?

No matter how one interprets it, Solaris (2002) qualifies as a masterpiece of the science fiction cinema, a very impressive achievement” and one that “measures up” to Tarkovsky’s brilliant cinematic progenitor.

We are in a situation that is beyond morality.”

In the near future, mourning widower and renowned psychologist Chris Kelvin (Clooney) is sent by the DBA Corporation to investigate a dangerous situation on Space Station Prometheus, a facility orbiting the mysterious world called Solaris.  

A video message from one of the scientists stationed on Prometheus, Gibarian (Ulrich Tukur) reveals that the crew is being overcome by…something.  Kelvin soon heads to the station in a capsule called Athena to arrange “the safe return of the crew.”

When Kelvin reaches Prometheus, he finds that Gibarian has committed suicide, Dr. Gordon (Viola Davis) has locked herself in her room, and Snow (Jeremy Davies) has apparently lost his mind.  After he sleeps for the first time on the station, Kelvin finally begins to understand the nature of the crisis.  His dead wife, Rheya (Natascha McElhone) appears in his quarters...apparently created from Solaris and from his very memories.

Kelvin learns that each of the other scientists also met important “Visitors” from their pasts.  At first he is terrified of Rheya and sends her away on a pod.  But when Rheya re-appears (following another period of slumber), Kelvin realizes that he boasts a “second chance” to be with his beloved wife.  All the guilt he feels over her suicide can now be repaired, he feels, and they can start again.

While Gordon masterminds a plan to obliterate the Visitors created by Solaris using an Anti-Higgs ray, Kelvin and Rheya grow closer.  Unfortunately, Rheya seems pre-programmed for suicide, a reflection of the true Rheya’s disturbed psyche…at least as Kelvin remembers it.

When the anti-Higgs ray affects Solaris…causing the planet to swell and grow in mass, Kelvin must make a fatal decision about his destiny.  

Should he return to an empty life on Earth? Or face absorption by Solaris, the seeming “entity” which brought (a version) of his wife back to him?  What awaits Chris in a symbiosis with the mysterious planet?

“Are we alive or dead?  We don’t have to think like that anymore…”

Unlike the source material created by Stanislaw Lem, the 2002 version of Solaris --- at least from a certain perspective -- offers something of a religious, Christian parable.  

The film tells the tale of a scientist -- Kelvin’s “nihilist psychologist,” as the dialogue terms him -- who takes a “leap of faith” and chooses “belief” rather than a return to the (lonely) reality he knows and deplores. Instead of going back to the “secular,” “real” Earth, Kelvin chooses to believe that there is another option: an eternal afterlife created by Solaris.

Kelvin’s favorite poem, quoted often in the film, is Dylan Thomas’s (1914-1953) “And Death Shall Have No Dominion” (1936).  The poem’s title comes from Paul’s Epistle to the Romans in the New Testament.  This epistle concerns, among other things, man’s assurance of “salvation” through the act of faith.  According to this work, man can join forever with Jesus Christ in the Kingdom of Heaven and find freedom from sin there.

In the film, we witness a flashback sequence wherein Kelvin, Gibarian, and Rhea share dinner and Kelvin self-righteously adopts an atheist or nihilist standpoint.  He claims that human existence is just one of a billion mathematical possibilities, and therefore random.  

The whole idea of God was dreamed up by man,” Kelvin and his friends assert.  Both Kelvin and Gibarian tease Rheya mercilessly about her belief in “God,” belief in that magical man with the “white beard” that listens to and answers human prayers.  

Although clearly a troubled soul, Rhea rejects this nihilist view of existence. She sees purpose and meaning in the cosmos. She is a believer. 

In the face of the apparent miracles Kelvin witnesses on the Prometheus space station, he is asked, ultimately, to believe in something too.  If not a Christian God, necessarily, than in the powers of Solaris to reunite him with Rheya, the wife he lost.  

He stills feel guilty about her death, and that continuing burden of guilt leads Kelvin to the precipice of a spiritual awakening, as he reveals in voice over narration.  Kelvin notes that he is “haunted by the idea” that he remembered Rheya wrong, and that if he could be so wrong about someone he loved so deeply, he could be “wrong about everything.”

Everything” in this context means the existence of God. And perhaps even the very nature of the universe.  In other words, the nihilist Kelvin opens up his world view, just a crack, to accept the possibility of miracles, of real spirituality. Of all those things determinedly not incorporated into his carefully-selected, secular philosophy.

As Stephen Holden wrote in his review of Solaris Chris's tears aren't the warm, cathartic sobs of a grieving Rhett Butler softened by one too many brandies, but the tremors of a man who thought he had all the answers suddenly confronting a scary metaphysical conundrum.”

So to resolve that scary metaphysical conundrum, Kelvin makes a leap of faith, and decides to remain on Prometheus, even as the planet’s mass threatens to consume the facility.  As that act of planetary absorption occurs, Kelvin falls to the floor of one particular corridor, where he is greeted unexpectedly by a “Visitor” who takes a form of pure innocence: Gibarian’s young son.   

This boy -- a Christ or God figure -- offers an outstretched hand of support. In response, Kelvin stretches to reach the boy’s hand.  And for a moment here, Soderbergh cuts to a close-up image of the two hands in close-proximity, grasping for one other. 

The Hand of God

The Hand of God?

The Hand of God

The Hand of God?

As you can see, this particular shot selection eerily echoes Michaelangelo’s “Hand of God” imagery in the Sistine Chapel.  In that Catholic venue, this image represents God giving life to Adam, the first man.   Here, the image suggests that Solaris (or Christ…) forgives and accepts Kelvin, and grants him an eternal after life.

Ensconced in that afterlife, Kelvin soon finds himself back in his apartment on Earth.  But he is not alone this time.  He is with Rheya…forever.  And his guilt over her death is now assuaged.  For her part, Rheya informs Chris that this is a place of eternal peace: 

Everything we’ve done is forgiven,” she asserts, harking back to Paul’s assurance of salvation in Romans, and the specific line from Kelvin’s favorite poem.  Death shall have no dominion…at least for believers.

The spiritual and religious aspects of Solaris are consistently applied throughout the film, with Gordon – another scientist – fearing the planet’s “resurrections” (a term which also recalls the story of Jesus), and Rheya coming to interact with the planet as something akin to God; something which has set her down a specific path and which “wants” certain things from her.  In one scene, we witness Rheya talking to an invisible presence, asking, specifically, what it wants of her.  It is the stance of someone trying to discern the word of God.  And in one image (in a mirror), the figure she seems to be talking to is no longer invisible but, again, the Gibarian child.

Even the explicit discussion of a “place where” Kelvin and Rheya “can live” together in their “feelings of love” harks back to a Christian interpretation of the film.  That place of unending love can only exist when Kelvin takes a leap of faith; when Kelvin believes in something beyond science.

The irony of Solaris’s viewpoint if you subscribe to this interpretation is that it absolutely conforms to Gibarian’s damning line that “we don’t want other worlds; we want mirrors.”  

In other words, Solaris depicts the tale of man in space, and finds that in this frontier he must reckon with the Face of God Himself.  And here God conforms -- through the Michelangelo symbolism, the Dylan quotation (from Paul, originally), and the apotheosis of an after-life of “forgiveness” -- with pre-existing Earth beliefs, or specifically, Christian beliefs.   

Therefore, Lem’s original idea from the novel is indeed sacrificed. 

This movie is not about Lem’s notion of countenancing something truly alien or incomprehensible, but rather about countenancing a “mirror” that re-affirms Earthly beliefs. In that vein, one can argue that Solaris takes man to the frontier of knowledge and finds there but a mirror reflecting earthbound, Western traditions of faith and spirituality.

There is another way to understand the film, however, and frankly, I prefer this second interpretation.  

Chris Kelvin is an avowed secularist (“the nihilist psychologist,” remember) and yet something in his soul connects emotionally and meaningfully to the works of the Dylan Thomas, particularly that poem about “death having no dominion,” and love lasting forever.  

Kelvin is already open, then, in some buried sense – perhaps even a subconscious sense – to the idea of an afterlife, to the idea of forgiveness, and even to the concept of God.  The planet Solaris – a vibrating, coruscating membrane, and, perhaps, a mirror – thus creates for him the very (religious) imagery his mind seizes upon at the point of his death.  Chris wants to “believe,” and Solaris accommodates that desire, making his belief a “real” dimension, a real afterlife.

Solaris is thus not God, and the afterlife we witness in the film's climax is not Heaven, at least not in the Biblical sense.  Instead, just as the Visitors are not exactly human, but rather representations of human, the after-life is a manifestation of Kelvin’s desire to find peace in Heaven, but not actually Heaven itself. Got it?  Just as Kelvin asserts in the flashback that man has "dreamed up" God, he, in the film's finale, dreams up (a version of) Heaven.

It seems even Kelvin’s name embodies his philosophical stance in Solaris.  On the Kelvin Scale of Belief, he seems to be on a consciously-applied "absolute zero," at least until he interfaces with Solaris and his repressed beliefs come to the surface.  I believe Kelvin boasts the repressed desire to believe in something beyond proven science because he feels guilty about Rheya, and can’t forgive himself for her death.  Science can't provide forgiveness.  Even behavioral psychology can't, really. So his mind creates a world – and Solaris manifests that world – where he can find that peace and forgiveness.

But that world is no more Heaven than the Visitor Rheya is actually the real Rheya.  

The forgiveness that Solaris grants Kelvin -- the very afterlife it manifests for him -- are thus but mirrors of what his conflicted mind seems to desire: a place where he can dwell forever in that feeling of love with the woman he cares about.

“How are you here? Where do you think you are?”

At the heart of Solaris is this crucial character, the nihilist, Chris Kelvin.  He goes on a mission that makes him re-examine his beliefs and feelings, and runs square up against the human concept of identity.  He comes to realize that the Visitor version of “Rheya” is created exclusively from his memory, from his mind.  

Accordingly, she can act only as he expects her to act; only within the confines of his established mental “definition” of her.  This realization proves incredibly troubling to Rheya.  She can’t deal with the fact that she is not “herself,” but rather a creation of Rheya vetted through the lens of Kelvin’s eyes.

What Solaris truly hints at, then, is the notion that no one can truly know anybody else. That our identities are fragile, self-constructed puzzles of deep layers and many facets. 

No one else – not even our spouses, our children, our parents or our best friends – can fully understand the complexity of the inner, personal self.  Throughout the film, characters respond in fear and anger to the visitors because they don’t know “why” they have appeared, or “who made them.”

Well, why are we here?  And who, outside our parents, created us, the human race itself? 

It’s completely hypocritical that Gordon and Kelvin, at least to an extent, ask existential questions of Rheya, Snow and Gibarian’s son that they can’t truly answer about themselves or human nature.  This is why the final revelation about Snow is so important.  Others accept him at face value, believing him to be human, when in fact he is a "Visitor."  For a person on the outside looking in, it's impossible to detect the difference.  That's the point.  

Soderbergh excavates this concept -- the ultimate un-know-ability of other people -- through a carefully selected visual approach.  In particular, there are an abundance of compositions in the film which reveal to us Chris Kelvin…but only from the back.  

These shots aren’t like the fast-moving, “intrusion” tracking shots of Black Swan that I pointed out last week, although they may resemble them from the screen grabs (which can't alas, accommodate motion or movement).  Instead, these are (mostly) still frames in which Kelvin’s back is deliberately facing the camera.  The image suggests that something important is being denied us.

This composition could be a visual prophecy of Kelvin’s approaching death, or a sign of the character’s alienation and isolation from the world.  He has literally turned his back on it (and to the camera).  

Or, if one chooses to consider the image symbolically, these composition choices represent Soderbergh’s reminder that even Kelvin – our protagonist – is a man of layers and contradictions.  Ultimately, we can’t understand more of his identity than what he reveals to us.  This interpretation fits in with the notion I described above, of Kelvin as both firm nihilist/atheist and Kelvin as secret “believer” (or want-to-be-believer, if you will).  Can we really know him?  Can he really know himself?

What's denied us in this image?

Trapped in the prison (notice the bars?) of his own beliefs?

Separated from the world outside.

Lost in a blur of unimportant faces.

Finally, Unknowable.

How can we know anybody, in fact, if “nobody can even agree [about] what’s happening” as one character describes the central mystery in the film.  The issue: We are all victims of and slaves to our own unique perspectives. 

Another intriguing composition that Soderbergh deploys repeatedly in the film involves a strange, inscrutable view of Rheya’s face.  She is universally in the middle of the frame during these moments, staring at the camera; staring at us.  This oddly serene and yet significant posture forces us to consider: who is looking at us from behind those wide eyes?  Is it Rheya?  Is it Solaris?  Is it God?

Who is looking at us from behind those eyes?


An imitation?




The irony, of course, is that when we meet strangers and they look at us, we don’t understand everything behind their eyes, either.  Are we immediately suspicious and paranoid of them too?  Or do they get a pass because we assume they were born on Earth, and are therefore human?  Once that assumption disappears, however, do we face the unknown – even familiar faces -- with fear and paranoia?

In some sense, what Solaris concerns is the idea that we all see the world through our own individual lens.  We interpret the identities of other people through that lens, which includes, in many cases, a life time of memories.  Yet, in our memory, we get to control everything, explaining perhaps why we form judgments of people that are biased or wrong, or narrow, or ill-considered.  What we are really judging is not another person’s true interior “self,” but our perception of that self.

What I enjoy and admire about this remake of Solaris is that it is internally consistent, even if it is not faithful in terms of theme to the Stanislaw Lem original novel.  Soderbergh’s Solaris asks us to consider identity, and to consider the idea that mankind – even when broaching other worlds – will never be able to see anything other than mirrors.  The lens with which we view other people (and other realities?) is an individual, personal one, unable to reckon with something truly alien on its own terms.

The mystery of the planet Solaris can’t be resolved, because human beings can’t relate objectively – outside themselves and outside the mirrors of perception – to something truly otherworldly.  Instead, they see only shades of themselves and their own lives.  How can we assess something in terms of human characteristics, if it possesses no human characteristics to begin with?

If you keep thinking there’s a solution, you’ll die here,” one character warns Kelvin in the film.   “There are no answers, only choices,” Gibarian tells him, on another occasion. 

No answers, only choices?  That’s the crux of our human existence right here on Earth, isn’t it?  Again, Solaris uses the “alien” mirror to show us, in fact, our very reflection.

We can make choices about what we want to believe, of course.  But part of our questing human nature must involve the admission that there are no answers, except the ones we craft for ourselves, about our identity, and about how we choose to view the universe.  The human race has made God (or transformed God…), into an image we find acceptable, a reflection of our modern world and its value system.

When we face the idea of God, we don’t really want to see the Divine at all, do we?  We’re hoping, instead, for a mirror....

Friday, November 25, 2022

War of the Gargantuas (1966)

It’s no exaggeration to state that The War of the Gargantuas (1966) was a staple of my childhood TV-watching. 

The Japanese monster movie -- released in America in 1970 -- aired frequently on our local station WWOR Channel 9 in the 1970s and 1980s; sometimes on The Million Dollar Movie, if memory serves.

Rightly or wrongly, I have come to associate these viewings of The War of the Gargantuas with the Thanksgiving holiday, or more accurately, the Friday after Thanksgiving.  

So today, I decided to take a look back at the film. The War of the Gargantuas stars Russ Tamblyn as Dr. Paul Stewart and is a sequel of sorts to Frankenstein Conquers the World (1965). In particular, the film’s Gargantuas -- brown and green -- were created from the cells of the Frankenstein Monster, which were cast into the sea in the previous film.  

And in Japanese, I believe, the creatures are referred to not as Gargantuas but as “Frankensteins.”

Directed by Ishiro Honda, with special effects from Eiji Tsubaraya, The War of the Gargantuas concerns the attempts of several scientists to save the life of the non-violent brown Gargantua, or Sanda, even while the Japanese Army plots the demise of the violent, carnivorous green Gargantua, Gaira. 

In the end, nature does away with the giant monsters instead. But the film serves as a meditation on the nature vs. nurture debate, comparing the wild, untamed Gaira with the kindly Sanda, who knew human companionship. 

Man’s violent nature is discussed as well, since the Japanese Army refuses to acknowledge the (obvious) differences between the gargantuan monsters, and goes forward with its plan to kill them both with napalm.

“Is it possible a gargantuan might exist?”

A ship at sea is attacked by a giant octopus, and later, a giant green monster or Gargantua. 

The only survivor of the incident reports the attack, and the Japanese press runs with the story, asking Professor Paul Stewart (Tamblyn) and his associate Akemi (Kumi Mizuno) if such creatures could be real. The scientists know from experience that it is possible.  Five years earlier, they cared for a gentle brown Gargantua, before it escaped from custody.

The Green Gargantua, Gaira, soon makes landfall at Tokyo Airport and does catastrophic damage there. Later, the same beast attacks the patrons at a roof-top night-club, and is repelled only by bright light.  

The Japanese Army brings in maser tanks to annihilate Gaira, but at the last minute, the injured creature is rescued by Sanda, the brown Gargantua who has been living in peace in the Japanese Alps.

Stwewart surmises that the Gargantuas are offshoots from the same unknown cells, and therefore their cells may be able to generate additional monsters.Alarmed, the Army plans to destroy Gaira and Sanda, over Stewart and Akemi’s objections...

“We were sunk by a hairy green giant.”

The War of the Gargantuas explicitly references, at one point, the Biblical story of Cain and Abel: the story of a man who murders his brother. 

That tale roils underneath The War of the Gargantuas as Sanda and Gaira  first discover one another, and eventually face off. Early in the film, Sanda saves Gaira from the Army and nurses him back to health after maser attack. But soon Sanda -- who was raised by humans -- sees that Gaira has killed and eaten a human boater.  Sanda realizes that he can no longer protect his sibling, and nor should he. They fight it out, even though Sanda is peaceful and docile.

The other set of “brothers” in the film -- mirroring this monster dynamic -- are human scientists and soldiers. The scientists, like Sanda, are peaceful and docile, hoping to investigate the crisis and save the more peaceful of the two Gargantuas.  The soldiers, by contrast (and not entirely unlike Gaira...) are bound and determined to destroy anything they deem a threat, including the innocent Sanda.  

Like the Gargantuas, scientists and soldiers possess “the same blood, the same cell structure,” and yet are incredibly different.The movie points out the hypocrisy of the Army's higher-ups. They are bound and determined to kill both Gargantuas, even without cause, even though they are acting in a murderous fashion, like Gaira. 

But brothers are supposed to be responsible for brothers, right?

In the end, the Gargantuas are put down not by each other, or by the auspices of man, but by an underwater volcanic eruption. Though spurred by a helicopter bombing, this eruption is the “other” key player in the film’s action: Mother Nature, or God, if you will.  

The Gargantuas -- as Frankenstein Monsters and creations of man -- are “unnatural” creations. Therefore, it is only proper that nature remove them. But had monster movie history been a little different, however, Sanda and Gaira would have likely returned in another film, perhaps to battle Godzilla himself. 

On my recent screening of the film, I was pleasantly surprised by the effetive and atmospheric opening of the film. Like so many Japanese monster movies, The War of the Gargantuas opens with a ship at sea during a storm, and an attack by a giant monster.  

This time, that monster is a huge, menacing octopus, and the scene is very well-shot. The punctuation of the scene is a surprise too.  Gaira dispatches the octopus so that we think he is a hero, but then Gaira proceeds to attack the ship himself.  Out of the frying pan, into the fire. 

Later, in a scene that is a little shocking to behold, we see Gaira pursuing the swimming survivors from the ship.  He plucks them out of the water and eats them. 

The scene I most remembered from the film is set at a night club, where an American singer croons “The Words Get Stuck in My Throat,” unaware that Gaira is creeping up in the background, behind her.  

The movie misses a genuine opportunity, in my opinion, because the singer doesn’t get eaten (or stuck in Gaira’s throat...). That would have been a wicked (and nasty) joke but The War of the Gargantuas is a sincere entertainment and doesn’t tread into camp, at least intentionally. Still, it's hard not to giggle at the sea captain's cry that his vessel was attacked by a hairy green giant.

On this viewing of the film, I also admired how the filmmakers set up and exploited the comparison between Gaira and Sanda.  

Gaira is a vicious, inhuman thing that has never known love or companionship. By nature, he may have the potential to love, but he has never been nurtured.  He sees human beings only as food, biting their heads off first, apparently. This is terrifying to watch, and I remember, as a kid, being scared by Gaira.  

There's a moment in the film when a fisherman looks down into the sea, and there -- below the surface -- is Gaira, just waiting to spring. That moment offers some good old fashioned nightmare fodder, and Gaira represents nature gone wild, untamed and undisciplined. 

Sanda was raised by humans, however, and therefore understands love, companionship, and even brotherhood. That latter quality, brotherhood, is the very thing that Sanda seeks with Gaira, perhaps to alleviate a lonely, or even solitary existence.  

But Gaira simply can’t change his ways at this juncture, and is no doubt confused when his brother turns against him. Sanda, clearly, wishes events had turned out differently.

What I didn’t admire so much about The War of the Gargantuas is the fact that the mid-movie battle between Gaira and the Japanese Army seems to go on forever, and therefore lose some visceral impact.  

I fully realize that many nay-sayers disliked 2014’s Godzilla because there wasn’t a lot of monster-on-monster fighting in the film. The fights were used strategically, and mostly during the climax.

The War of the Gargantuas, however, validates that restrained approach.The battles here go on for so long, without relief, that they eventually become monumentally uninteresting. 

It’s probably sacrilege to say this, but the fights could have been pruned back by a full-third, and the movie would have moved with more grace, purpose and drive. The first thirty minutes or so of The War of the Gargantuas in particular, are terrific, and the special effects (especially during the airport attack) hold up rather well.  

Once the fighting takes center stage, however, The War of the Gargantuas feels like it is stuck in neutral. Long stretches of time go by where we just seem to be watching vehicles getting positioned, and masers firing.

The War of the Gargantuas is generally very well-regarded by fans, and I can detect why. Some feel nostalgia for the film, because they grew up with it. Certainly, I'm in this camp.

Others have keyed in on, quite rightly, the human, affecting nature of these particular monsters. You don’t want the Gargantuas to kill each other or die, and yet, at the same time, that outcome feels inevitable. 

All the best monster movies make audiences care about their creatures, one way or another. You either love them, hate them, or feel sorry for them. 

On that front, The War of the Gargantuas absolutely succeeds, and all those emotions bubble to the surface. Sanda, in particular, is heart-breaking. He attempts to build a bridge to the human world (which includes brotherhood and compassion), and carry Gaira with him -- his own flesh and blood -- across it, but doesn't succeed.  

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…)...