Sunday, February 27, 2011

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: Case 39 (2010)

Perhaps the most significant problem with the recent supernatural thriller Case 39 is that you feel like you've seen it 38 times before.  

Beyond the abundantly familiar premise involving an "evil child," this horror film is also over-long at an hour-and-forty-nine minutes. That considerable span grants the viewer plenty of time to puzzle over internal inconsistencies as well as confusing character motivations and overall meaning.   Even the surfeit of "jump scares" (an alarm clock ringing, a dog barking, etc.) can't cloak the movie's paucity of ingenuity or originality.

Director Christian Alvart does his best to ramp up the terror in the last half of the film, but even in terms of genre stylistics Case 39 relies on by-now old tricks.  For instance, the herky-jerky inhuman movement we've come to associate with ghouls in the post-The Ring (2002) Age is trotted out here; as are the almost-subliminal face morphing tricks, which -- through the auspices of CGI -- briefly reveal the "true" appearance of a malevolent demon (Paranormal Activity [2009]). 

About the only things the film really has going for it are a sterling cast that includes Rene Zellweger, Jodelle Ferland,  Ian McShane, Bradley Cooper and Callum Keith Rennie, plus the occasional sense of discomfort that some of the violent imagery generates.

Case 39 is the tale of a single, over-worked social worker, Emily (Rene Zellweger) who practices a "pro-active" kind of counseling.  The opening scenes in the film -- during which Emily is burdened with another new case (39) to add to her already-considerable workload -- are actually pretty good. 

Emily is trapped in a chaotic office cubicle at work in a state agency, and the film's color palette is grungy and washed-out, giving the impression of a world in collapse, of bureaucracy overloaded as endangered children pay the price for adult mistakes.  In this world, the phones are always ringing, red-tape trumps compassion, and endangered children are represented by stacks of files to be handled...eventually.

When Emily investigates the case of young Lilith Sullivan (Ferland), a girl who falls asleep at school and shows "serious signs of neglect," Case 39 reaches its apex of efficiency.   

In a very disturbing early sequence, Emily arrives at the Sullivan house (rendered in extreme high angle) and  interviews Lilith's parents. Her father (Rennie) is a monstrous, whispering creep who refuses to speak directly to Emily and who gives the film more kinetic energy than any of its CGI transformations.  This scene works because we never learn precisely what Rennie's character whispers to his "emotionally enslaved" wife during the interview, but his physicality and facial expressions are the stuff of coiled, secretive rage and perversion.  Rennie exudes dramatic, sick menace and basically steals the show.

Emily just knows something is wrong with this guy, and after a distressing late-night call from Lillith, rushes with her friend on the police force, Mike (McShane) to save the child from abusive parents.  What Mike and Emily discover at Lilith's house is authentically frightening.  Mr. and Mrs. Sullivan have stuffed the little girl into an oven...and turned on the gas

I must admit, this imagery unsettled me profoundly.  The sight of supposedly loving parents trapping their child inside a compact oven and attempting to burn her alive is one of nearly-archetypal horror (think the witch in Hansel and Gretel).

Of course, as is obvious from Case 39's plodding script, Emily draws the incorrect conclusions about Lillith and her nutty family.  The child is no innocent, and the Bible-thumping parents have good reason for wanting her dead; reasons that Emily eventually understands, especially after she brings Lillith into her own home and her friends mysteriously begin to die in strange "accidents."

Sound familiar?  You've seen this movie before, no? 

A recent variation on this theme was seen in the outstanding 2009 film, Orphan.  But Case 39 just isn't in the same league. 

For one thing, it takes a woefully long time for the dramatis personae to reach the obvious conclusion that Lillith is actually bad news.  The result is that you're always way ahead of the narrative and even the characters themselves, a fact which makes the movie feel both long-winded and unsurprising.  There aren't any real twists or turns in Case 39, and so audiences may grow frustrated or even restless as Emily tentatively goes step-by-step investigating the puzzle of the child's true nature.

Because the plot is so familiar and because it proceeds without much variation from other films of this type, an engaged mind will begin to ask meaningful questions.  Like: how come young Lillith can escape a fiery house (while locked in her bedroom...) but not a car sinking into the water?  She seems to teleport in the first instance, and that unique skill would certainly come in handy in the second. 

And furthermore, what is Lillith really after?  A character in the film suggests that she feeds on "kindness and decency," and that "she wants to know what your idea of Hell is and make you live in it."    So basically, the child just wants to make Emily miserable?  Well, it looks like the Department of Social Services was already doing a pretty good job of that before Lillith even entered the picture...

Movies about "evil children" are popular in the genre (and with audiences, generally) because we fear the corruption of innocence in our culture today, and because youngsters in film universally represent tomorrow, or the future.  If children are evil, it's the end of hope; the beginning of the end of the human race.  Case 39 treads into that territory, but ultimately in a confusing and contradictory way. 

By that, I mean that there seems to be a critique of child psychology embedded in the film.  Emily asks Doug if he remembers a time when people were simply "bad," "before everything had a diagnosis and a justification."  That's an interesting observation, which I've thought about myself in regards to John Carpenter's Halloween (1978), but the movie doesn't really present anything besides child murder as an alternative to clinical diagnosis and justification.  The film gets a lot of mileage out of Lillith mocking Emily and her profession.  "We help families communicate and learn healthier ways to resolve conflict," etc.

But what's the point? That sometimes children are  Evil and you have to pull a Susan Smith on them and drown them instead of trying to help them?

I'm not certain that's really an argument the movie is serious about making, or any movie would want to make.   But all the negative talk in Case 39 about psychology makes you think the movie is trying to make a serious point about how our contemporary culture views evil. 

For a really good, consistent (and deeply disturbing) horror movie on that topic, about psychology and the nature of evil, I'd recommend Mr. Frost (1990) instead.

Still, there are some elements of Case 39 that I admired.  Director Alvart has a way of finding interesting visual "moments" that enhance the picture and the movie's overall sense of dread.  For instance, I like the repeating imagery of Lillith spinning round and round in a chair at Emily's office, like she's a tornado or some other force of (super)nature. 

I also admired an almost throwaway shot of a frightened Emily stepping across a case-file on her hallway floor.  By that point in the film, Emily has wounded her foot, and so she leaves a small blood spatter on the psychological assessment form; a nice way of suggesting that blood-letting and violence has supplanted psychology. 

There's even a wicked visual joke late in the film: As Emily prepares to burn down her own house (starting with Lillith's room), we get an extreme close-up, insert shot of a book of matches.  Clearly visible on the matchbook is the warning  "keep away from children."

Well, except in case of demon, anyway...

Make no mistake, there are plenty of worse horror movies than Case 39, but for the most part this one feels rote and by the numbers.   "She saw you coming a mile away," Mr. Sullivan tells Emily, late in the film, and that observation is also the best description of the film's overly-familiar story.

You'll see it coming a mile away.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: The Tenth Victim (1965)

In the early 1950s, sci-fi author (and now legend...) Robert Sheckley (1928 - 2005) penned a story entitled "The Seventh Victim." 

Published in Galaxy Magazine in 1953, Sheckley's tale depicted a post-World War Six future world in which an "Emotional Catharsis Board" had established a worldwide "hunt," or "game" during which mankind could satisfy his need for violence by hunting down human "victims" as a licensed, carefully regulated hunter. 

In fact, after seven successful hunts (alternating turns as hunter and victim...) a person could achieve great wealth and even join an exclusive hunter's club.  

How did such a world come about?  Well, it was believed that the Hunt (established originally by men for men) could curb the violent tendencies of a "large percentage" of men and prevent any further world wars.

The protagonist in "The Seventh Victim" is Stanton Frelaine, a New Yorker who finds himself unable to kill his  assigned victim, a young actress named Janet Patzig who, for some strange reason, does not defend herself or even hire "spotters" to help her target her would-be-murderer. 

Curious about this unusual young woman, Stanton befriends Janet and eventually falls in love with her.  Finally, Stanton confesses to Janet that he is her "hunter" but that he wants to marry -- not murder -- her. 

"You don't kill the girl you love," he  informs her...

From this description, you might guess the ending of the story.  Or maybe not

But, in keeping with Sheckley's literary canon, "The Seventh Victim" is a futuristic satire of sorts, an absurdist tale about mankind attempting (with questionable results) to exorcise his "high degree of combativeness" through an officially sanctioned and legislated sport.

In 1965, The Seventh Victim was re-fashioned as a motion picture called The Tenth Victim that starred Marcello Mastrioanni and Ursula Andress. 

Made in Italy, The Tenth Victim is directed by Elio Petri (1929 - 1982), a former neo-realist.  As you may recall, the Italian neo-realist movement in cinema occurred immediately post-World War II, and some of its trademark stylistics include a focus on location shooting, non-professional actors in major roles and a narrative focus on poverty and difficult economic situations.

By the 1960s, however, thanks in large part to talents such as Antonioni and Fellini (who gets name-dropped in The Tenth Victim), the Italian neo-realist movement gave way to a more individual cinema that focused on internal existential angst rather than the external difficulties of life in a more-prosperous Italy.  It was a big shift, but perhaps a natural one given improving economic conditions in the country.

The Tenth Victim arises from this second movement: a more colorful, dynamic cinema, but also one that questions many aspects of modern life.  Petri was well-known as a political/social filmmaker, and in The Tenth Victim he is abundantly aware that he is forsaking the neo-realist obsession on stark reality.  In one specific scene, for instance, the film's main character, Marcello Poletti (Mastroianni) is heckled (and nearly stoned) by a cult of neo-realists who object to the hedonism and romanticism of another cult, the local "sun worshippers."  This is Petri's play statement on his sci-fi film: he knows he's forsaken his background and heritage.  But bloody hell, those neo-realists are such downers...

This all sounds like inside baseball, but you don't have to remember the details of the Italian cinema to enjoy The Tenth Victim and contextualize it in terms of dystopian science-fiction cinema (a current obsession of mine). 

Indeed, this forward-looking film from the 1960s has much in common with later American films on the topic, such as Death Race 2000 (1975). In both ventures, the government gleefully administers a violent contest (the cross-country race there; the Big Hunt here) that is judged, after a fashion, a "social good," but which actually appeals to our most base and awful instincts as a species.

In terms of social commentary, The Tenth Victim also serves ably as a comment on overreaching government, on our thirst for violence, and also -- perhaps most dramatically -- the unending battle between the sexes. 

On that last front, the story by Sheckley suggests that women may be far more effective (and cold-blooded killers...) than are men. And indeed, one might detect a sexist aspect to the film since Poletti is hounded relentlessly throughout by three women: his wife Lidia, his mistress Olga (Elsa Martinelli), and his would-be terminator, Caroline Meredith (Ursula Andress).  The final moments of the film also explicitly compare marriage to "death," which is certainly a funny joke if you take it in the spirit intended.

Weighed in total, the satirical The Tenth Victim boasts a wicked sense of humor from its tour-de-force first "hunt" all the way through its surprising last shot "bang," and it eminently deserves its reputation as a 1960s cult classic. 

"I'll tell you, this year it's trendy to kill women..."

As The Tenth Victim commences, American hunter extraordinaire, Caroline Meredith (Andress) makes her ninth kill, luring her "hunter" to the Masoch Club and then -- during a striptease -- murdering him with her double-barrel brassiere gun. 

The Ming Tea Company is so impressed with Caroline that they offer her corporate sponsorship for her tenth and final kill.  

Caroline agrees to the company's terms and sets off to Rome, where she is take out her tenth victim, a hunter named Marcello Poletti (Mastroianni).   With the Ming Tea film crew in tow, Caroline decides to murder Poletti at the Temple of Venus (the Goddess of Love...) and with the Colosseum in the background. And yes indeed, this locale is symbolic.

Meanwhile, Poletti -- who has just completed his sixth hunt -- is growing twitchy about his upcoming role as victim in the seventh.  He's recently annulled his first marriage to Lidia and is being hounded by his mistress, Olga.  When a third woman, Caroline, enters his life claiming to be a TV interviewer doing a story about sexy Italian men, Poletti is immediately suspicious of her, fearing that she is his new hunter.

Caroline and Marcello orbit each other suspiciously and Poletti sets up his own product placement deal with Coca 80 to murder her.  His plan is to lure Caroline poolside at the Big Hunt Club, and then -- using a spring-loaded chair -- to eject her into the jaws of a man-eating crocodile.  At that point, Poletti would look to the camera and say "You always win with Coca 80..."

Things don't go exactly as planned, however, and Poletti ends up at the Temple of Venus, face-to-face with his would-be murderer and now lover.  Will she kill him?  Or has Poletti let himself be trapped in this fashion?

"Legalize Your Homicides"

If you've been keeping up with this blog, you know I've been screening dystopian films of late; films such as ZPG (Zero Population Growth), Westworld, THX-1138. Zardoz, and the like. 

As is the case with many of those efforts, The Tenth Victim predicts a future world in which governmental efforts to help solve a problem in fact succeed only in creating a corrupt new regime and civilization.

In The Tenth Victim, a new agency called "The Department of the Big Hunt" (sanctioned by a global moral institution, "which moralized this century") has put an end to all war with the advent of this strange murderous ritual.   Loudspeakers at the Bureau constantly trumpet the wisdom of this war-ending Big Hunt. 

"To avoid the dangers of the big wars, register with the Big Hunt," crows on announcer.  "Legalize your homicides," "One enemy a day will keep the doctor away," suggest others. 

My personal favorite of these violent government platitudes suggests a unique resolution to the problem of over-population: "Why control the births when you can increase the deaths?" 

I also like the announcer's urging to "live dangerously...but within the law."  Good advice, no?
As director, Petri does an admirable job diagramming the absurdly violent nature of this new world order, especially during a scene set at the Bureau.  As Poletti walks down the front stairs of the building, a woman in a white dress (a victim) is shot in the back by her (male) hunter.  A police strolls by and cites the sanctioned hunter...for a parking violation.

What this scene suggests is that there is still rule of law in this's just a very different sort of law.  Murder is legal in this future world...under certain circumstances.  The funny (or sad...) thing about this whole dystopic set-up is that today it doesn't seem all that far from the truth in modern, twenty-first century America. 

In South Dakota and Nebraska, for instance, lawmakers have recently debated a law involving "justifiable homicide," making murder -- under certain circumstances -- legal.   After the tragic Arizona shootings of last month, representative Trent Franks (R-Ariz) publicly "wished" that there had been "one more gun that day in the hands of a responsible person." 

And all of this comes after a national election in which we heard endlessly about Second Amendment "remedies" that could be used to overturn the results of lawful elections.  Don't retreat, reload, right? 

In The Tenth Victim, a hunter decries new Big Hunt regulations in Rome which prevent gun-men from opening fire in restaurants, hospitals and "nursery schools." Caroline responds proudly that such restrictions on personal freedom have not yet been approved in America, and Poletto shakes is head and notes, simply, that "America is...something."

Legalize your homicides indeed.  In this country, you can bring a gun to church if you want.  

So, If Zardoz was a brilliant right-wing picture about the danger of unconventional family units (specifically the 1960s hippie communes) then The Tenth Victim is a left leaning picture about, at least partially, a world in which the NRA makes all the laws.

But the really forward-thinking aspect of the film involves how Poletti ties the pervasive violence of the culture to mass media, and to business interests.  Specifically, both hunters in the film gain corporate sponsorship, and both sponsors actively encourage colorful, on-camera murder. 

In a very funny scene set aboard a helicopter, Caroline and her Ming Tea TV producers scout locations for the next kill, debating studio interiors versus exterior locations.  At first, the producers want to kill Poletti near the Vatican, but the Pope doesn't approve of the Big Hunt.  Then, they discount the Colosseum as "too run down." 

After the company settles on the Temple of Venus as a locale for Poletti's death, set-designers hoist up a giant sign in the background of the shot, reading "MING TEA."  


Then, before long, the equivalent of Solid Gold dancers (all waving prop guns around...) appear to make the murder scene even more colorful.

Watching these sequences, you can't help but think of the last decade of reality television programming, of being "voted off the island," or of being "fired" from a job.  This Big Hunt (not unlike a certain Amazing Race) is all about big business.

I also found the film forward-thinking in two other instances.  In one scene, an announcer declares that "The National Association of Homosexuals" has officially sanctioned the Big Hunt, suggesting a world in which gay rights are already established by law. Again, today we have seen the end of Don't Ask, Don't Tell, and the President's first attempt to overturn DOMA. 

And secondly, one scene dramatizes Poletti reading a comic-book from his expansive collection of  such works.  The last few decades, in real life, have seen the mainstreaming of comic books in our culture, and as a critical part of modern Geek life.  The Tenth Victim gets this idea right as well.

There's even a subplot in the film about Poletti hiding his elderly parents in his home (in a secret room...) so that the State can't take them away and murder them; an idea we saw talked about last year  in all that fiery "Death Panel" debate.

Finally, I really got a real kick out of the moment in which Poletti flashes Caroline a small card that read simply (in three languages): "I am a victim." 

Talk about an embodiment of the victim mentality!  Today, we don't actually have card-carrying victims anywhere, but so many folks play the victim role to the hilt, even without the official cards.  Everyone seems to have a grievance: about government, about insurance, about employers, about freedom. You name it.

"When people are in love, they make mistakes..."

Against the gun-crazy background of The Tenth Victim, director Poletti also tells a unique story about men and women. 

In the film's bravura first sequence, Caroline lures her (male) hunter to his untimely a strip-club.  She strips down before him -- to a silver bikini -- and he is so taken with her physical beauty that he doesn't see his own death coming.  She shoots him with a double-barrel bra, and that's the end for him.

Later in the film, Caroline similarly manipulates Poletti.  She rouses him to jealousy when she suddenly drops him as a lover and picks a local stud to dance with and interview for her fake TV show.  Poletti falls for the ruse and ends up at the Temple of Venus, at the business end of Caroline's pistol.  He survives by his wits; but the fact of the matter is that Caroline gets him where she wants him.

When you add these sequences to those other scenes in which Poletti must balance his continued survival with the demands of his nagging wife and demanding mistress, two things become plain.  One, men are depicted in the film as being not particularly cunning, bright or capable.  And secondly, that women are...well...barracudas.  

In other words, Poletti is thoroughly out-matched throughout the film, in all corners of his personal and professional (Big Hunt) life.  This  idea is faithful to Sheckley's short story, and  might be interpreted in two ways.

It's either anti-woman for painting them as manipulative hunters or it's even-handed because it also paints men as not-too-bright creatures who let their emotions (and urges...) get in the way of good decision-making.

The film's final scene, which finds Caroline and Poletti on a "wedding plane" bound for America explicitly compares marriage to death.  Caroline hasn't murdered her prey.  Instead, she marries him.  Either way, he is trapped, the film suggests, and the last shot: --  of a gun firing celebratory flowers into his face -- makes this fact absolutely plain.  Talk about shot-gun weddings...

Again, it's not a big stretch to view The Tenth Victim as being sexist. But on the other hand, women are often unfairly described in the media as overtly (and irrationally...) emotional, and that's not the case here.  On the contrary, in The Tenth Victim, it's the man who can't see past his emotions; and the woman who takes the upper hand through the traditionally male trade/profession of "hunting." 

So it comes down to, I suppose, how you choose to interpret the film.  You could see it as either anti-woman, or anti-man, if that's your game.  But I think that -- more than anything --  this film is about the dance that men and women do; the endless circling and sizing up. 

The Tenth Victim is more a movie about the way that we fall in love and express that love than one about putting any group down.  The line of dialogue from the film -- "when people are in love, they make mistakes" -- is sort of an on-camera explanation of the characters' behavior throughout, and a sympathetic one at that.

Today, The Tenth Victim serves as a perfect  1960s companion piece to Death Race 2000 (1975), The Running Man (1987) or the recent Gamer (2009). If you're intrigued by the idea of a future society where violence is sanctioned and even encouraged, there's much to enjoy and reflect on here. 

Where the movie version differs most significantly from Sheckley's literary vision is in terms of outrageousness.  The hunt in the short story is simple: it's an intimate seduction.  But the hunts in the Petri movie are deliberately outrageous and over-the-top, thus contributing to the film's sense of fun and humor about itself and its central concept.

We've come a long way since the swinging sixties, but The Tenth Victim suggests that even in the future, our thirst for violence won't diminish.  Today, nobody wears double barreled bras and there's no Big Hunt on TV,  and yet the film seems strangely much more plausible than it did in decades past.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: Westworld (1973)

In 1984, Arnold Schwarzenegger portrayed an emotionless, homicidal android  in James Cameron's The Terminator...and an iconic movie villain was born. 

But in the decade before The Terminator arrived in theaters, there was another silver screen model for relentless android villains: Yul Brynner's 406 model "Gunslinger" from the 1973 Michael Crichton  (1942 - 2008) sci-fi/horror thriller Westworld. 

And like Schwarzenegger after him, Brynner returned to this iconic role for at least one theatrical sequel, 1976's Futureworld.  The Westworld franchise also spawned a TV incarnation years after the original film, 1980's short-lived Beyond Westworld

Today, a remake of the original Westworld is being planned for theatrical release in 2012, though it has apparently been in the works for a decade or so at this juncture.  At one point, there was even talk of Schwarzenegger taking on the role of the Gunslinger, which seems appropriate given  the actor's career history.

Gazing back at the original Westworld today, it's not difficult to determine why audiences responded so enthusiastically to the film and its seemingly unstoppable, silver-eyed bogeyman. 

Indeed, the film still excels as a lean, efficient thriller, and the movie capitalizes ably on a  universal human fear (also marshaled in the Halloween films) of being pursued by a seemingly inhuman being that absolutely won't stop; no matter what. 

Like Michael Myers himself, you can shoot, stab or burn the Gunslinger android and it doesn't seem to phase him one bit.  And again like The Shape, the Gunslinger wears a mask of sorts; an inexpressive "human" face that reveals nothing of his internal motivations, needs or desires. He's impossible to read, beyond the fact that he absolutely wants to kill you.

After the thrilling action elements of Westworld, there's also a fascinating science fiction premise operating here, one specifically involving modern human morality.  In this regard, the film concerns an amusement park called Delos where rich patrons can pay 1,000 dollars a day to relive past epochs in "Western World," "Roman World" and "Medieval World." 

More than that, these patrons pay for the right to have sexual intercourse with subservient androids (with no consequences...) and even kill those androids (again with no consequences) in the various theme parks.  Clearly, there's a statement here about the activities that human beings consider entertaining.  Is it okay to commit violence when the target of such violence is a machine?  Is it okay to engage in casual sexual relations with a slave, too?  

Also, though it isn't heavy-handed about it, the film comments broadly on technology and the use we put it to.  There's the suggestion here that the androids are beginning to develop some sense of awareness of themselves and their rights as intelligent beings.  

And their uprising in the film -- though terrifying -- seems justified given their cruel treatment at the hands of the wealthy elite.  In many ways, Westworld forecasts Terminator and also the re-made Battlestar Galactica of the last decade in exploring such a notion.  It's a science-run-amok Frankenstein story in which the technological children of man, perhaps rightly, turn on their biological parents.

Westworld received decidely mixed reviews upon release in the mid-1970s.  Newsweek's Paul D Zimmerman wanted the film to go further than it did, noting "What's the point of fantasy if it's rated PG?"  Meanwhile, Pauline Kael assessed the film "moderately entertaining."   Audiences were more enthusiastic, and today the film is indeed considered a genre classic.

Uniquely,  Crichton returned to the narrative template of Westworld while fashioning his most famous novel (later a movie), Jurassic Park.  In that instance, another high-tech amusement park also fell prey to a rebellion by its denizens: genetically-engineered dinosaurs.

"The best amusement park in the world...."

Westworld opens with a TV commercial that promotes the concept of the amusement park Delos to future clients. 

Here, in this world, you can escape complex reality and live another life all together. 

In Western World, Roman World (a place of "sensual, relaxed morality"), and Medieval World, visitors can indulge their most elaborate fantasies all while interacting with robots programmed to act, talk and even "bleed" just like humans.  You can kill, or fuck, for sport.

When the commercial's spokesmen interviews visitors to Delos, they enthuse about the amusement park, noting that it is "the realest" thing they have ever done.  One senior citizen raves about having played "sheriff" in Westworld for a week.  Another client, a woman, blushes at her memories of Roman World.

After the advert ends, and a hover craft lands at Delos, two visitors to the park, the macho John (James Brolin) and the neurotic Peter (Richard Benjamin) choose Western World as their "world of choice" and are shuttled by tram to a re-created town mimicking conditions in the American West of 1880. 

In short order the pair indulges in whoring and gunfights..and even murder.   On two successive occasions, Peter is confronted by a bald, dressed-in-black Gunslinger (Brynner), an android who seems to have it in for him.  And in both instances,  Peter bloodily guns the robot down.

While John and Peter enjoy their week in Westworld, the scientists tasked with overseeing the vast Delos grounds toil in subterranean environs to repair and service hundreds of androids.  A new concern soon arises.  Android breakdowns are on the rise, almost as though an infectious disease is passing from one android to another.  The scientists watch concerned as android behavior begins to turn...rebellious.

Instead of shutting down the park, the scientists opt to continue observing.

This delay in decisive action proves to be a mistake, since the androids revolt and begin to murder the Delos guests.  In Westworld, the Gunslinger returns one last time, looking to even up the score.  He murders John in a shoot-out.  The machine then sets off on a relentless pursuit of Peter through Roman World and Medieval World. 

A desperate Peter now must utilize every survival instinct and weapon at his disposal (including hydrochloric acid and fire) to survive the machine's endless attacks.

"The realest thing I've ever done..."

The first thing to acknowledge about Westworld is that the  Michael Crichton has directed the low-budget picture with a real sense of competence...and most importantly, consistency.

For instance, all of the scenes set in the underground complex utilize lengthy camera pans.  These pans (of high-tech machinery, infirmary beds for the robots, whirring reel-to-reel computers, etc.) cover a tremendous amount of territory and successively give one the impression of Delos' massive control apparatus. 

We return to this underground complex several times in the film, and Crichton universally deploys these lengthy pans; not just to provide the setting a sense of scope, but also to keep things moving in the film. 

We're constantly aware, via these frequent panning shots, of the momentum necessary to keep Delos operational.  Underground, nothing ever stops.  And the nighttime "clean-up" scene in Westworld with vehicles and workmen gathering the "dead" androids for repairs likewise adds to the film's sense of reality; to the sense of a real-life park at an apex of activity.

Inside Westworld,  Crichton adopts a different technique to film the "fake" cowboy moments; the moments that seem to be straight out of old Western films and TV shows.  In this case -- for bar fights and shoot-outs that aren't real -- he deploys slow motion photography so that immediately our minds seize on the concept of movie Westerns; and of a history of being entertained by them.  These heightened, almost exaggerated (and again, lengthy) sequences remind us that this world of Delos is all but  "play acting;" that the world Peter and John engage with in Delos is not real or authentic.  It's a game.

When things turn sour inside Westworld,  Crichton makes another pivot in terms of stylistic flourishes.  He does away with the artificiality of the slow motion photography and relies instead on staging and shooting tricks we most closely associate with the horror genre.  He thus adopts first person subjective shots, tracking shots, and even stages a decent "jolt moment" as Peter backs up into terror.   All of these moments combine to ramp up the tension, and carry us through the film's exciting climax.  There's even a sting-in-the-tail/tale involving the (scorched) Gunslinger as he gets up for one last kill.

It isn't so much that any of this workmanship represents revolutionary or trail-blazing filmmaking; it's merely that Crichton's approach is economical and adroit; efficient and well-done.  Without being show-offy, he almost universally finds the right shot for the right scene, and the result is that Westworld moves effortlessly from set-piece to set-piece with a bit of good visual grace to go alongside the film's subversive and extremely witty sense of humor.

"There are no rules..."

If Crichton proves deft as a film director, it's fair to make the same case for him as the film's screenwriter. 

Even though Westworld features a fairly straight-forward narrative that devolves into a last-act chase sequence, Crichton has nonetheless layered on social commentary in a way that proves both appealing and funny.  These touches earn the film a serious appraisal in terms of the genre and what it can accomplish.

Specifically, Westworld ponders the human race and its unlucky creation, the androids of Delos.  First let's consider the humans. 

These are creatures who pay an exorbitant fee to escape from reality into a more primitive, less comfortable past.   That fact alone says something about us, doesn't it?  Specifically, it says that we've built ourselves an uncomfortable modern world in which the only outlet or escape is a fantasy that looks to the past; to "less complicated" times.  Ironically, we romanticize that past and yearn for the "simplicity of it" instead of making the present more tolerable and liveable. 

As Star Trek's Mr. Spock would say...highly illogical.

In this more primitive past, the vacationing guests at Delos can indulge sexual and violent fantasy, all without feeling the slightest bit of guilt or remorse about the behavior because the target of these fantasies is a machine...and we don't consider machines to be life-forms. Again, this is a statement about us as a species.  We find  And we consider machines to be subservient; not our equals.

Intriguingly, Delos also makes it possible for people lacking in any real survival skills or abilities (like Dick Van Patten's character) to buff up their egos and feel like larger-than-life heroes.

Yet  those feelings of heroism and bravery stem from killing machines who are programmed to be slow on the draw; or by bedding female androids who are not entitled "to refuse a guest's seduction."  

In other words, it's a stacked deck. 

There's no danger here and no real adversity either.  And where there's no adversity, there's no growth and no learning.  Again, it's all just a game, a delusion to make a guest feel "special" when in fact the androids have no choice but to die on cue or submit to sexual advances.  As a species, we're easily fooled into believing we're pretty terrific, aren't we?

And that's where Peter (Benjamin) proves an interesting character.  He's a neurotic, insecure lawyer still hung up on his ex-wife (who took him to the cleaners during their divorce).  He's the stereotypical modern "sissy" man, and he feels "big" about himself for bedding an android, and for shooting down an android gunslinger.  

He thus mistakes the world of Delos for one that really matters. This error becomes plain to him when the androids malfunction and commit murder.  Suddenly, Peter is thrown into a situation that is all-too-real, and he must use his wits, imagination, constitution and other human gifts to survive the day.   His previous (and short-lived) confidence was based on a sham.

But at the end of the film, a battered, sweating, exhausted Peter realizes the truth.  That he survived something "real" and that it wasn't at all a game.  Rather, it was terrifying.  The last shot of the film is a close-shot of Peter recognizing human folly.  He recognizes his own folly (in treating the game like it mattered) and the Delos creator's folly: in believing that nothing here could ever possibly go wrong.

In terms of the androids, the film hints (and just barely so...) the idea that the machines are gaining an awareness of how badly they are being used by the human guests.  In Brynner's case, one gets the sense that the android is tired of losing to a sissy human who he knows he could beat in any fair fight.  The androids here are "sex models" and gunfighters, and every single day they have to die or put out so that men like Dick Van Patten or Richard Benjamin can feel better about themselves.  Men like the character played by James Brolin are not much better: macho thugs who see people simply as receptacles for their urges and appetites, both sexual and violent.

It's an unflattering portrait of modern man.

In this scenario, as in films like Conquest of the Planet of the Apes, audience loyalties become increasingly divided.  It's not right to enslave any creature, and yet nor do we wish to see humanity subjugated before an enemy.  Westworld offers a very interesting take on all this, and I agree with reviewer Zimmerman that the film would have been even better had it been R-rated; so that we could understand even better the plight of these machines who suddenly realize it isn't so pleasant to be cast as the villain (or the prize...) in another creature's fairy tale.

Finally, I just have to comment on Yul Brynner's famous performance.  He gives new meaning to the term "steely eyed," and brings an intense sense of physicality to the role of the android gunslinger.  He moves with a strange but purposeful carriage (even while riding a horse) and successfully evokes the feeling of something that is more than human.  Although his face rarely shows expression of any type, there is also something in Brynner's gait and stance that implicitly suggests an under-the-surface malevolence.  Even though he is an emotionless machine, he's clearly a bad ass.  

This is a really accomplished performance, and Brynner isn't just portraying a machine...he's portraying a machine with a (data?) chip on his shoulder.  He's a lot of fun to watch in this movie.

When I wrote Horror Films of the 1970s back in the years 1999-2000, I finished off a review of Westworld with the thought that "what man has forged to serve him will dominate him unless stopped, or conversely, treated with common decency."  Today that conclusion still seems apt.

Someone organize those androids at Delos a union...before it's too late.

Sci-Fi Wisdom of the Week

"Boy, have we got a vacation for you..."

- Westworld (1973)

Monday, February 21, 2011

One Planet; Two Futures

If you've been reading this blog in the last few months, you know I've been focusing many of my cult-movie reviews on dystopian science fiction films (Z.P.G., THX-1138, Zardoz, Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, and Gattaca, so far).

The reason?  Well, the mysteries of the future endlessly fascinate, don't they?   Two roads diverge before us, and we cannot travel both, to paraphrase the poet Robert Frost.

In that spirit of curiosity about the shape of things to come, I read two very intriguing news stories this morning about humanity's possible future.

One article portrays a rather grim future, where income disparity grows worse and food supplies run scarce (Soylent Green?). 

The other gazes at the next (mostly-positive) step in human evolution, perhaps: "Singularity" (which is also a term from the 1990s series, Dark Skies, by the way.).

Here's the link to the grimmer of the two future stories, titled: "Planet could be 'unrecognizable' by 2050, experts say."  And here's a snippet:

"...a growing, more affluent population competing for ever scarcer resources could make for an "unrecognizable" world by 2050, researchers warned at a major US science conference Sunday.

The United Nations has predicted the global population will reach seven billion this year, and climb to nine billion by 2050, "with almost all of the growth occurring in poor countries, particularly Africa and South Asia," said John Bongaarts of the non-profit Population Council.

To feed all those mouths, "we will need to produce as much food in the next 40 years as we have in the last 8,000," said Jason Clay of the World Wildlife Fund at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS).

"By 2050 we will not have a planet left that is recognizable" if current trends continue, Clay said.

And here's the link to a Time Magazine story I read via Andrew Sullivan's blog.  It is titled "2045: The Year Man Becomes Immortal" and it lays out an amazing, optimistic vision involving man's ability to purposefully re-shape his world; and even his mortality:

"It's impossible to predict the behavior of these smarter-than-human intelligences with which (with whom?) we might one day share the planet, because if you could, you'd be as smart as they would be. But there are a lot of theories about it. Maybe we'll merge with them to become super-intelligent cyborgs, using computers to extend our intellectual abilities the same way that cars and planes extend our physical abilities. Maybe the artificial intelligences will help us treat the effects of old age and prolong our life spans indefinitely. Maybe we'll scan our consciousnesses into computers and live inside them as software, forever, virtually. Maybe the computers will turn on humanity and annihilate us. The one thing all these theories have in common is the transformation of our species into something that is no longer recognizable as such to humanity circa 2011. This transformation has a name: the Singularity."

So will the wonders of Singularity transform us all into immortal beings in 2045? Or will we be crowding public squares for scraps of leftover food in 2050?

Being that we have but one planet here, we cannot travel both routes. Is it in our hands, I wonder, to choose?  Or has our trajectory already been fixed?

Today I'll hope for the Singularity scenario, and ponder Robert Frost again, who notes in "Our Hold on the Planet" that if you take nature altogether since time begain -- including human nature, in peace and war -- that it "must be a little more in favor of man (say one percent or so...)."

Let's hope so.

The Cult-TV Faces of: John Glover

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