Thursday, March 31, 2011

Sci-Fi Wisdom of the Week:

"It's not so much staying alive, it's staying human that's important. What counts is that we don't betray each other."

- 1984 (1984) 

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

CULT TV FLASHBACK # 131: Ultraman (1966 - 1967): "The Blue Stone of Baraji"

My four year old son's latest video entertainment obsession, following a three-month long Ben 10 marathon, is the 1966-1967 monster/superhero series from Japan, called Ultraman

Created by the legendary Eiji Tsuburaya of Godzilla fame, this early incarnation of Ultraman originally aired from July 1966 to April 1967 on the Tokyo Broadcasting System, and came to include some thirty-nine half-hour installments.

Set in the future world of the 1990s, Ultraman centers around the activities of the high-tech "Science Patrol" organization, particularly the branch operating in and around Japan.  

The Patrol roster consists of no-nonsense Captain Mura (Akiji Kobayashi), deputy commander Shin Hayata (Susumu Kurobe), and communications/radio specialist Fuji (Hiruko Sakurai), the group's only female. 

Providing comic relief (and occasionally breaking the fourth wall) is accident-prone engineer Ito (Masanari Nihei).  Also included in this stalwart group is the ubiquitous child mascot, Hoshino (Akhilde Tsuzawa), and Ito's occasional partner in mischief, Arashi (Sandayu Dokumamushi).

The members of the Science Patrol zip about, to and fro, in fancy, futuristic aircraft, and always adorn orange and white, Star Trek-like uniforms (but with ties) and air-force-styled helmets.  The Patrol's communicators -- worn on their chests -- forecast the communicator models of The Next Generation as many other reviewers have also pointed out.  In Ultraman, the commbadges are shaped like a star upon a rocket nose, and feature tiny antennae that activate when the device is in use. 

The job of the Science Patrol is to defend Japan, and indeed, other nations as well from rampaging monsters of extra-terrestrial origin.  These monsters are almost universally depicted by men in elaborate and creative monster suits, in the fashion of a Godzilla or Gamera film.

In the first episode of Ultraman, the Science Patrol is called into action to stop the dinosaur-like Bemlar, a colossal reptilian menace who can shoot heat rays from his mouth. 

While battling the beast, Hayata's airplane collides with the spherical alien craft belonging to another alien being called Ultraman, a law enforcement official from Nebula M78. 

Rather than let Hayata die from the accident, Ultraman shares his life force with the human, and grants Hayata the power to transform into Ultraman in times of crisis.  Hayata can usher in this transformation by utilizing a tube-like device known as a "beta capsule."  In various episodes, tension is wrought from Hayata's ownership (or loss) of the beta capsule. In one episode, he drops it off a roof accidentally and it lands on a ledge many feet below, where he must retrieve it.

But even the great Ultraman -- a red and silver costumed titan with glowing eyes -- is not invincible.  On his chest is a round power indicator.  When the indicator blinks, the light is a "warning" and should it go dark entirely, "Ultraman will never rise again." 

In other words, Ultraman can only fight the bad guys for a short time, or he will die.  This is another near-constant source of tension in the half-hour episodes, as prolonged battles drain Ultraman ever faster.

In various episodes of Series One, the Science Patrol and Ultraman are called upon to battle the monster or menace of the week.  And this is where the series really proves itself fun and infinitely imaginative.  The "monster of the week" may be universally taller than skyscrapers, but each one is highly individual and inventive in appearance, and boasts different capabilities or powers so as to challenge our hero. 

For instance, in the second episode, "Blast the Invaders," Ultraman must battle the bug-eyed Baltan aliens, who boast mammoth pincers for hands, and who can freeze their enemies in their tracks.  More uniquely, the alien Baltan can project visual decoys, so it is difficult to detect and kill the "real" alien. 

Another monster, in the third episode is called "Neronga" and he is -- at least for a while -- invisible.  These monsters are really great, and it is a lot of fun to start each episode and wonder what brand of monster is going to endanger the Earth this time.  It could be something from space, something long-buried beneath the Earth's surface, or even something living at the bottom of the sea.

Each episode of Ultraman usually begins with just such a threat or mystery emerging  from space.  In "The Ruffian from Outer Space," for instance, a group of Japanese school children find an unusual object fallen from the sky that can transform into any shape that someone wishes for.  The device is stolen (in a very droll, ingenious sequence)  by a criminal mastermind who wishes for it destroy everything. 

Before you know it, the device morphs into a giant monster, Gango, that appears to possess rotating satellite dishes for ears.  

In another episode, "Passport to Infinity," two meteors crash on Earth, and -- when fused together -- form a time and space warping leviathan.  Before the monster forms, the episode has a great deal of fun with the meteor's time and space twisting capabilities.  Ito runs up a staircase to nowhere, and two scientist find themselves unexpectedly walking on the ceiling of Science Patrol HQ.  Once formed, the strange, shell-like monster extends weaponry that transports attacking planes in flight from the air to the ground; and then does the opposite to a trio of tanks.

After the threat of the week is introduced each week, the Science Patrol attempts to stop the ensuing invasion, but the human technology proves ever ineffective.  In the last five or so minutes of each half-hour, Hayata finally realizes Ultraman is needed, and presses his beta capsule at the moment of highest drama. 

In short order, Ultraman appears and wrestles, then defeats the enemy.  Finally, in a regurgitation of the Superman premise, Hayata returns to his mild-mannered self and nobody in the Science Patrol realizes that Ultraman and Hayata are never seen together at the same time.

One impressive episode from the first Ultraman series is called "The Blue Stone of Baraji."  Here, the Science Patrol travels to the Middle East with an American patrol member, Adam Jeffers, to investigate an apparent meteor crash in the desert, near Afghanistan and Turkey.  The Science Patrol's jet goes down, however, after encountering a strange atmospheric disturbance, a ray of magnetic energy.

After surviving a harrowing crash landing, the Science Patrol is shocked to see a huge monster -- Antlar -- pulp their plane. 

Antlar looks like a giant terrestrial insect with a hard exo-skeleton, and his mandibles fire the very light/magnetic beam that brought the Patrol down in the first place.  

Seeking help and sanctuary, the Patrol members make their way to a lost city that stands in the shadow of Mount Ararat. 

There, a beautiful princess with the power of telepathy ("a gift of the Gods"), tells them of the city's long, storied history.  It was once a busy metropolis, the capitol of the desert, but soon traders began to disappear into the desert, victims of Antlar, the monster who has hidden beneath the sand for centuries.  The city survives only because Antlar is afraid of "Ultra" -- Ultraman, himself -- and the blue stone or "good luck charm" he once wielded.

When Antlar follows the patrol and lays siege to the ancient city, Hayata uses the beta capsule. Soon, Ultraman and Antlar duke it out, but Antlar's magnetic powers are too strong for Ultraman to resist.  The blue gem, finally, is the key to destroying Antlar, and it is removed from a stone statue of Ultraman in the city's temple.  When the gem is thrown at Antalr, the beast is finally destroyed.

With their job complete, the Science Patrol leaves the cityand the Princess says she prefers to keep the city lost, "far from wars and the like."

Intriguingly, this episode of Ultraman gives some nice back story about the super-sized hero from space.  It turns out Ultraman has come to Earth many times before his initial meeting with Hayata in episode one, "Ultra Operation Number One." 

In fact, he has been protecting this city from harm for generations, and there is that mysterious statue of Ultraman in the temple.  The statue and Ultraman's involvement in human affairs, protecting the city of Baraji, make the viewer aware that Ultraman and his enemies are not a new phenomenon, but rather part of the planet's very history...and even mythology.  It's a nice contextual touch that adds to the legend of the hero from another planet.

What is particularly enjoyable about "The Blue Stone of Baraji" is the shift in setting away from urban, futuristic Tokyo to the wide open desert.  This episode also includes a plane crash (rendered in miniature), an impressive giant monster, a lost city, and a pitched battle between evenly-matched titans.  I grew up with movies such as Godzilla, War of the Gargantuas and Rodan, among others, and Ultraman (called a "kaiju" in Japan) is a perfect, 23-minute extension of that world, featuring carefully-crafted miniatures (which are nonetheless instantly recognizable as miniatures), fantastic monster suits, and a lot of heart. 

For Joel, I know the thrill here is seeing Ultraman fight the monster of the week, and he often grows impatient with Hayata's perpetual dithering.  As soon as the monster appears, Joel is ready for Ultraman to beat it back to space.  But before that can happen, a few things are certain to occur first: hijinks with Ito, (who gives himself a black eye in one episode by falling out of his bunk bed), and Hoshino and Fuji invariably find themselves in need of rescuing.

The Ultraman format is repetitive and predictable, but also a hell of a lot of fun.  And that goes for the whole 1966-1967 series, really.  It's so good-hearted, thrilling and fantastic you just might find it impossible to resist, whether you're four years old or forty-one.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: Skyline (2010)

Purportedly the first in a sci-fi film franchise by the Brothers Strause (AVP: Requiem [2007]), the 2010 alien invasion movie Skyline (2010) is literally a wonder to behold. 

Unfortunately, I mean that description in both the positive and negative senses. 

The film's amazing special effects sequences re-define "shock and awe" ably, with Los Angeles falling under siege from impressive alien ships for most of the film's running time.   Without reservation, I can state that the Brothers Strause execute some jaw-dropping, gorgeous  shots of extra-terrestrial attack in the film, and more importantly get across some authentically powerful ideas about what it might feel like for the average Earther to suddenly awaken to, well, planetary regime change.

Yet for each great effect, and each great concept featured in Skyline, there's also the undeniable sense that the movie's narrative is developmentally arrested.  In particular, the film's first half-hour is a long, slow haul through screenwriter hell as shallow rich people talk about nothing, argue about nothing, and generally act like narcissistic reality-tv show personalities. 

If human life in 2010 is really this inconsequential, really this petty, really this shallow, then go ahead and bring on the brain eating aliens; that's all I can say.

When the going gets tough, the tough just get indecisive in Skyline, and the not-very-likable young characters endlessly argue the merits of staying in one place to hide, or making a run for it in broad daylight.  It's this terminally uninteresting and extended case of -- cue The Clash -- "Should I Stay or Should I Go?" that makes the film feel not only enormously frustrating for the viewer, but which makes the storyline feel terminally stalled.  An alien invasion is happening outside a high rise apartment, and for much of the film, the protagonists just hide in their room, peeking out timidly and arguing the same point. Stay or go?  Go or stay?  

 After awhile, you just want the characters to do something, anything, to move the plot forward.

Don't You Get it? We're at War

In Skyline, Jarrod (Eric Balfour) and his girlfriend, Elaine (Scottie Thompson) visit Jarrod's friend, Terry (Donald Faison) in Los Angeles after he has become a success in the movie industry, specifically in special effects. 

Meanwhile, Terry is cheating on his girlfriend, Candice (Brittany Daniel) with his assistant, Denise (Crystal Reed).  At the same time, Jarrod and Elaine argue because Terry has offered Jarrod a job there in California, and she doesn't like L.A.  Elaine is also "late" and informs Jarrod that she is pregnant with his child.

After a night of celebration, the group awakes at 4:27 am to witness a blinding blue light outside the windows of Terry's high-rise apartment building.   Anyone who looks at the light is mesmerized by it, and "sucked" outside.  Jarrod narrowly survives this fate when Terry pulls him back from the precipice. 

Some time near dawn, Terry and Jarrod head to the roof to see what is happening outside, and learn that the blue flares are present all over the city.  Worse, at every instance of the unearthly illumination, unsuspecting humans are being drawn high up into the air, into the bellies of strange, bio-mechanoid spaceships.

An escape attempt goes wrong as aliens invade the city, and Terry is abducted by one of the invaders.  Later, the survivors join up with the apartment manager, Oliver (David Zayas), and watch from Terry's apartment, as the U .S. Air Force engages the alien ships in combat.  The battle ends with the U.S. forces decimated, and an alien ship nuked.  Unfortunately, the extra-terrestrial ship rises triumphantly from the mushroom cloud and begins to re-assemble and regenerate itself.

Jarrod, who is feeling strange effects from his first encounter with the blue light, leads Elaine to the roof, in hopes that an Army helicopter they witnessed earlier will return and rescue them.  After another pitched battle, Elaine and Jarrod are captured by the aliens as well.  As they are sucked up into the sky, they share a tender, final kiss.

Meanwhile, all over the world, the human race falls to the alien blitzkrieg.  Aboard one ship, Elaine watches as the strange aliens remove and then absorb human brains.   But there's something different about Jarrod's brain...

They're not dead.  They're just really pissed off.

Skyline has received really terrible reviews from most film critics, and certainly there are reasons why that's been the case.  But before I delve into the film's many valleys in quality, allow me to take a moment to examine the film's creative summits.

First of all, Skyline does a surprisingly effective job of introducing and maintaining the mystery of the extra-terrestrial incursion on Earth.  Many War of the Worlds-type films open with alien saucers and war machines arriving, and then decimating the Earth with energy beams that we recognize as variants of lasers; variants of our technology.  Then, the aliens send in the ground troops (Battle LA, which I haven't seen), and combat on terra firma ensues.

Here, the Brothers Strause go another, more intriguing route.  They introduce alien technology that feels, well, legitimately alien, or at least unfamiliar to us.  The blue light that comes down to hypnotize and catch humans is actually a pretty creepy device, and tremendously powerful in forging terror in a surreal, nightmarish fashion.  As one character rightly notes, "who wouldn't want to look at something so beautiful?"  The idea is that the blue light suffuses an area of the City, and curious humans -- by their very nature -- are drawn to gaze at it.  Of course, if that happens, it's too late and the aliens have you.

The second part of the alien attack equation, also splendidly visualized, involves human bodies being drawn upwards into the underbelly of the mecha-organic spaceships.  At least early on, the film doesn't over-do this view or special effect and again, real terror is generated.  We catch two or three glimpses of hundreds of human beings -- seeming to defy gravity -- pulled up through the air in a terrible cluster.  It's an odd, incongruous and disturbing inverse image of what our nation witnessed on that horrible day, September 11, 2001.    There, bodies plummeted down to the ground from the heights of the World Trade Center.  But this opposite image -- with bodies sucked skyward by some alien force -- nonetheless resonates.  It seems both frighteningly recognizable and absolutely, horrrifyingly un-real.  It is a defiance of the Laws of Physics as we understand them; but that's just fine because the source is alien. 

My point here is that any alien force with the high technology to get to Earth from another solar system would also likely possess weapons of invasion far in advance of anything we could accurately imagine or comprehend.  They wouldn't come with bullets and missiles and machine guns.  Instead, the alien arsenal would likely be terrifying, extremely efficient and wholly alien to us.  For all of its myriad flaws in storytelling, Skyline really broadcasts this idea dramatically.

The alien ships themselves -- in all their various and sundry iterations -- are a wonder to behold too.  They seem to be an unholy combination of machine, squid and insect, literally swimming through our skies, seeking out prey.  Once more, the special effects are downright amazing; so much so that the reality of alien siege is immediately and viscerally established.  Looking at the alien tech, you can readily believe that these beings and their machines could dominate our world in a mere three days.

And even here -- in the pitting of alien tech against human tech -- Skyline gets a few things right.  About mid-way through the film there's an extraordinary battle between our unarmed drones and the alien ships.  There's a stealth bomber, armed with nukes, in the mix as well.  In most alien movies, an aerial attack like this would be a total rout, with the Earth forces repelled and destroyed, and nuclear missiles rendered ineffective immediately.  Skyline treads a more original path, and really gives the audience hope that the human counter-attack is going to work.  The drones and the Stealth bomber acquit themselves well, and the nuclear missile takes down the alien ship, smashing it to pieces.

And then -- again -- we see something really alien occur.  The vessel starts to regenerate itself; literally pulling pieces back together from the scattered debris.  In alien invasion movies such as this, we're accustomed to invisible force fields that protect alien saucers or such, but here, just a little twist, a ship picking itself up and re-assembling, gives the impression of something new, that we haven't seen a dozen times.

I can't fault the Brothers Strause for their imagination or execution of the aliens featured in the film; they do a terrific job in this arena.  I just wish that these skilled special effects experts had devoted as much energy and imagination to the human and narrative elements of Skyline.  

For instance, as Skyline reveals, the giant monsters from outer space are here to rip out our brains and, well, eat them up.   That is an incredibly hoary idea, and one you couldn't get published with in this century.  But more to the point, it doesn't make a lot of sense.  The aliens come to our planet to steal and use our brains as a power source (think of the A.I. in The Matrix [1999] co-opting our bodies as batteries...), but how does a culture from somewhere in a solar system or galaxy far, far away design and build its tech around something found, ostensibly, only right here on Earth? 

Before they got here to eat our brains, how did they move their incredible machinery from their planet to ours? I appreciate the idea that the aliens are here on Earth to rob a precious resource, but  the whole brain angle plays as pulpy, simplistic, and unconvincing. 

Also irritating is the fact that probably nine-tenths of the human race in Skyline go through exactly the same process as Jarrod, and yet he is the only person who begins to develop, ahem, alien powers that come in handy during the finale.  We see Elaine go through the same procedure in the film as well -- the blue light -- but she isn't changed or altered as Jarrod is.  So is he just a fluke, or -- again like The Matrix -- is he The Chosen One?  The guy with the power to save all our brains?!

Someone might note at this point that all these questions could be answered handily in the inevitable sequel.  That may be true; but as a standalone Skyline still plays as a bit...stupid.  And the sentimental, senselessly romantic moment in which Jarrod and Elaine share an intimate kiss inside the alien light stream (as they are hundreds of feet in the air...) adds to the feeling of general dopiness.

That grandiose, romantic kiss in mid-air isn't earned by Skyline because the characters mostly come across as petty and mercurial, capricious and arbitrary in their concerns.  In the first half-hour, they argue over nothing of consequence.  Elaine is angry that Jarrod is offered a job in L.A.  Is that his fault?  He could still turn it down.  But she's needlessly mopey and hostile about it.   When he asks her why she didn't tell him she is pregnant, she replies that she didn't want to ruin his trip to California?  Really?  Then why has she been such a bitter pill to deal with since setting foot on the tarmac?

Later in the film, Elaine is malleable and changeable to the point of comic absurdity.  Elaine argues that the survivors should stay and hide in the apartment, but lets herself be dragged outside by Jarrod, and disaster ensues.  Later, she continues to argue that it is best to stay inside for the time being.  At this juncture, Jarrod's eyes turn milky and his blood vessels turn dark -- a telltale sign of the alien influence -- and he argues again that they should go outside and attempt to rendezvous with an army chopper.    Jarrod and Oliver fight, and Jarrod says that he is not leaving his "family" behind.

This alien/emotional outburst miraculously changes Elaine's mind, and she willingly goes outside, to the roof, with Jarrod when she was just arguing the opposite course of action.  So tell me: if your significant other began evidencing signs of physical alien takeover, would this make you more or less likely to follow his lead?  Would you change your mind or stick to your guns?

So much of Skyline plays like that bizarre moment.  The screenplay is not merely nonsensical, it's anti-sensical, if that's a word.  For instance, early in the film Jarrod notes that the aliens aren't hovering over the marina, so they should get out on the water pronto.  All the sudden, I had visions of Signs (2002), and water-fearing alien invaders.  But here, the idea is left entirely undeveloped.  Why aren't there any ships over the water?  Is it a coincidence?  Or is Jarrod actually onto something?  The movie never, ever decides; it just sort of floats the idea of water as a sanctuary, so the survivors have something to further argue about before dying.

Another difficult to swallow plot element involves Elaine's pregnancy. While carrying a child in her womb, Elaine gets exposed to alien takeover light, gets grabbed and squeezed by an alien bio-mechanoid arm, and is contaminated by the fall-out of a nuclear bomb in close proximity.  All this occurs before she is air-lifted and yanked hundreds of feet and sucked into an alien spaceship. 

That's one tough baby she's still carrying in the film's last scene, let me tell you.

Moment by moment, scene-by-scene, Skyline piles absurdity and frustration upon absurdity and frustration.  People look directly at nuclear blasts and don't go blind.  Nor, in close range, do they get radiation sickness.  Alien probes can climb stairs to reach the roof, but  don't stop to check individual rooms where the survivors are hiding.  A lighter doesn't light at a crucial moment, and then, at another crucial moments does light.  A character named Oliver lectures Jarrod about survival ("The city's a vacant lot...we need to survive") and then turns around and commits suicide when he could have just run out of the room and escaped an alien threat entirely.

Again, not just nonsense, but vehemently, proudly, courageously anti-sense.  That's Skyline in a nutshell.

Still, "beggars can't be choosers," as one character in the film notes.  At least in Skyline you can actually see the action, which differentiates it from the Strause Bros.' previous, horrible outing, AVP: Requiem.  That movie was so dramatically under-lit, you just kind of gave up half way through.

On the other hand, actually seeing the impressive action in Skyline gets one's hopes up that the movie's storyline is going to prove as powerful and affecting as the awe-inspiring special effects.  And the Strause Bros. just don't pull it off.  After we finished watching the film, my wife was silent and I asked her what she thought.

Her answer was a quote from the movie's hilariously bad dialogue: "I'm not dead, I'm just really pissed off."

That made two of us.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Remember when I said "less is more?"...

...I lied.

So anyway, I didn't blog yesterday because I spent the whole bloomin' day re-organizing my home office and finally organizing my display-able toy collection.  It was a colossal task that took me about fifteen hours, but now I've finally got this home office in good shape...for the moment. 

And yes, I retract my former statement that less is more.

In terms of home office toy collections, more is clearly more.

The Cult-TV Faces of: The Captain's Women






















Saturday, March 26, 2011

Sci-Fi Wisdom of the Week

"My father once told me, "We don't choose the things we believe in; they choose us."

- Minority Report (2002)

Friday, March 25, 2011

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: Silent Running (1972)

"It calls back a time when there were flowers all over the Earth. And there were valleys. And there were plains of tall green grass that you could lie down in; you could go to sleep in. And there were blue skies, and there was fresh air.  And there were things growing all over the place, not just in some domed enclosures blasted some millions of miles out into space."

- Freeman Lowell (Bruce Dern) remembers the long-gone beauties of Earth in Silent Running (1972).

Douglas Trumball's 1972 environmental space film, Silent Running opens with a series of gorgeous, extreme close-up views of colorful flowers in bloom, and the diverse animal life surrounding these plants: a snail, a turtle, and a toad, in order. 

As the camera pushes in towards the red, pink and yellow blossoms, we detect that the petals are wet and glistening with translucent water drops. 

What Trumball's probing camera gazes at -- in extreme proximity during the film's inaugural and majestic angles --  is a thriving ecosystem; an inter-connected biological system in perfect and serene balance.  The considerable size and prominence of these plants and animals in the frame makes audiences feel as though they are witnessing a whole planet in microcosm, a world in its multitudinous, assorted entirety.

The remainder of Silent Running, in a more nuanced fashion than it has often been given credit for by critics, audiences and ideologues, concerns another biological system, that belonging to technological man aboard the American Airlines Space Freighter, Valley Forge. 

Specifically, this technological ecosystem becomes imbalanced due to the acts of one man, the symbolically-named "Freeman" Lowell (Bruce Dern).  In short order, Lowell makes a life-and-death choice entirely consistent with the "Conservation" Pledge he has sworn to uphold, but it is a decision that he cannot possibly live with as a thinking, moral human being.

So while many critics and audiences seek to pigeonhole Silent Running alternately as a conservative warning against rampaging eco-terrorists (presumably Lowell in this case) or a bleeding heart, liberal ode to "tree hugging," the truth is, predictably, much more complicated. 

What Silent Running truly concerns is a man who does what he passionately believes is the right thing...and then almost immediately regrets the imbalance he has initiated in his own life, his own psychology, and aboard his ship. 

There's something very realistic and poignant in both Lowell's capricious actions and his guilty reactions to them.  Seldom in life are such grave decisions made and executed without real consequences for the decision-maker, and Silent Running is Lowell's tale in that regard.  He achieves something wonderful in one very important, nearly cosmic sense (the preservation of the Earth's last forest), but the price for his actions is his own sanity, and even more than that, his belief in himself as a moral and "good" human being.

On Earth, everywhere you go, the temperature is 75 degrees. Everything is the same; all the people are exactly the same. Now what kind of life is that?

Silent Running depicts the tale of gardener and astronaut Freeman Lowell.   Aboard the space freighter Valley Forge, he lovingly tends to the last surviving forests from planet Earth. 

At some point in the past, all the world's forests were transported into space aboard such ships (with monikers such as Sequoia and Berkshire). 

Lowell has been patiently waiting for the day when man will realize the errors of his ways, redeem the Earth, and recall the forests.  Lowell even harbors hopes of becoming the director of a new "Parks and Forests" system, since he alone among his shipmates appreciates the living forests and the fruit they bear.

However, when an announcement arrives from Earth authority, it is not what Freeman had expected or hoped for.  Instead of reclaiming the forests, the terrestrial governments have decided on "cutbacks."  The forests will be launched from the freighters and destroyed in nuclear detonations.  Nature itself is to be abandoned by the human race.

Lowell protests this final solution to his shipmates, but they are young, callow souls, who only want to return home, and could care less that the last forests on Earth are not "disposable" like so many elements of mankind's technological world. 

While watching forests explode in terrifying nuclear blasts, Lowell makes a rash decision: he protects one of his forest domes from a shipmate...killing the crew man in the process. 

Then Lowell repeats that fateful decision, trapping the last two crewman inside one of the Valley Forge's geodesic domes as it launches into deep space and is destroyed.

Now a murderer three-times over, Lowell goes on "silent running," and takes the Valley Forge through the turbulent rings of Saturn.  During the escape maneuver, one of the Valley Forge's small maintenance drones, number 3, is destroyed.

Separated from his home world and his fellow man, Lowell begins to lose his grip on sanity.  He re-programs the surviving drones, re-named Huey and Dewey, to keep him company.  They learn to play poker with him (and promptly beat him...) and they even become gardeners under Lowell's ministrations.

When Earth authorities finally catch up with Lowell, he realizes he has one last chance to save the sole surviving forest.  He tasks Dewey with tending to the forest -- for eternity -- and launches the forest dome on a trajectory for deepest space. 

Alone and guilty over his violent actions, Lowell then destroys himself, the malfunctioning Huey, and the Valley Forge itself.

She's never going to be able to see the simple wonder of a leaf in her hand. Because there's not going to be any trees. Now you think about that.

Silent Running paints a not very pretty picture of our immediate future, and thus qualifies as a dystopian vision.  On Earth, man has apparently populated the world to such a degree that two things have (presumably) occurred. 

In the first case, there is no room for plant life on the surface. In the second instance, plant life apparently can't even survive or thrive on the planet anymore because of factors such as pollution, or littering.  Thus space freighters carry the surviving forests to the stars with human custodians aboard.  Freeman Lowell, one such custodian, recalls the Presidential announcement that gave birth to the Valley Forge's mission during a voice-over flashback:

"On this first day of a new century we humbly beg forgiveness and dedicate these last forests of our once beautiful nation to the hope that they will one day return and grace our foul earth. Until that day may God bless these gardens and the brave men who care for them."

Although we never see Earth in the film, Silent Running's dystopia isn't all-together foreign to those of us living today.  We detect in the film's fictional future the end game of an environmental battle being waged on Earth and in America right now. 

On the one hand, there are those who want to preserve our planet's natural landscape.  These people believe that human beings are tasked -- in our short time here on Earth -- with responsibly maintaining that which God, or Mother Earth, has given us.  We are mere shepherds of the land until we can hand off this important care-taking duty to our children, the next generation. 

Then there are those who want to mine the land, drill the land, log the land, and extract from nature everything of possible value for business and personal profit.  These folks usually want to undertake such invasive action in the cheapest, quickest way possible, which ultimately equates to a disruption of the wild.  The goal is to make our lives more comfortable, and less expensive, but the means are destructive.

If you couple this latter approach of environmental management to the increasingly-real idea of a plastic, disposable culture, you arrive at the world imagined so powerfully by Trumball and Silent Running.  The astronauts aboard Valley Forge have never eaten real fruit or vegetables; depending instead on "synthetic" substances for sustenance.   They also don't see any value in the forests.  In an early scene, the crew men playfully and loudly ride motorized buggies into the garden domes, disrupting the habitat without a care, or even a thought.

Lowell attempts to remind his less insightful crew mates that the decision to nuke the forests because of budgetary shortfalls is not one that mankind can come back from.   Unlike the synthetic food supplies stacked in the ship's cargo hold, the forests are not replaceable.  Once the forests and their wildlife are gone, they're gone, and man is only left with what the president called "the foul Earth."

When Lowell decides to preserve the last forest, at the expense of his shipmates' lives, he is committing murder to be certain, but he is also, we should remember, upholding his sworn duty.  Not long ago, the President was asking God to bless "the brave men" who protected the gardens, and he honored their mission of conservation, even begging forgiveness for destroying the planet's natural beauty. 

More than that, Lowell in particular has sworn a very specific oath, "The Conservation Pledge," which reads: "I give my pledge as an American to save and faithfully to defend from waste the natural resources of my country -- its soil and minerals, its forests, waters, and wildlife."

In some sense, Lowell is honoring his word and the service he selected by rescuing the Earth's last forest preserve.  Yet to fulfill that oath, he commits the murder of his fellow man, and that is, simply, an immoral act.  In upholding his sworn duty, Lowell has violated another, equally as critical moral law.   His awareness of this violation begins to drive him crazy, and occasionally, Trumball jump cuts to images of the Lowell's dead crew, jump cuts that are meant to represent Lowell's memories veritably attacking his mind; reminding him of his culpability, of his inescapable guilt.

I believe that many viewers -- especially ideology-minded ones -- face a difficult journey with Silent Running because it proposes two ideas that we assume contradict each other, but don't, actually.  These are, A: the last forest should be saved, and Lowell is right to save it.  And B: it is wrong for Lowell to kill his crew mates to save the forest. 

Both A and B are true, and exist side-by-side in the film. 

Lowell accomplishes a good...very badly, if that makes sense.  And he is not just a wanton murderer, as his expressions of guilty conscience reveal.  Rather, he is a fully-dimensional character who both commits a great right and a great wrong.  He is a flawed, fallible human being.

Life is often this complex, but movies rarely are.  Silent Running asks viewers to countenance a man who wants to save the last forest of Earth, and does, but pays too a high a personal and moral price to achieve that noble end.

Silent Running is truly remarkable, I submit, because it also reveals how Lowell unbalances his own ecosystem -- the Valley Forge -- by his rash decision-making; just as the choice to nuke the forest domes was rash.  Before long, he's the fellow driving through the empty ship in a buggy -- in a pointed reflection of the earlier scene of his crew mates doing so -- and he wreaks just as much havoc as the other men did.  Not by running over the grass and the woods of the forest, but by colliding with and seriously damaging one of the expressive little drones. 

Another drone, Luey, also pays the price for Lowell's actions.  Lowell steers the ship through the rings of Saturn, and the drone is lost...killed, when yanked from the ship's hull.  With Luey dead, only two drones remain to maintain the ship. 

The ecosystem of the Valley Forge is -- again -- unbalanced by Lowell's choices.  He then keeps programming and re-programming the surviving maintenance drones to better serve his personal needs.  To serve as his doctors (for an impromptu surgery), to play games with him, to garden for him. 

This is a metaphor for man's treatment of nature: it must service us and adapt to us, even as our needs change and evolve.  Lowell is thus no better and no less capricious than the men down on Earth who were begging God for forgiveness one day and then nuking the last forests the next.

I've often discussed Silent Running with people who wonder what the last half of the film, involving the drones, really has to do with the first half of the film, about Lowell's decision to save the forest.  The answer is plain and straightforward: the last acts of the film reveal Lowell to be as  mercurial and controlling of his available resources (including the drones, ostensibly life-forms) as the people of the Earth were.  But in at least one instance, he certainly committed a "good" by saving the forest.

I thus submit the film is morally complex, rather than simple-minded or facile, as many reviews have argued.  Silent Running is not anti-technology either, because in the end, it is a man-made drone tending the forest, inside a man-made, technological shell. 

The forests would have died long ago without man's technology.  In some senses, that's the example of harmony man should and could emulate: building and re-building eco-systems in balance.   From its first evocative shot of nature in extreme-close-up harmony, Silent Running,concerns the way that man balances or unbalances his environs, whether on Earth or aboard the Valley Forge.  That's the takeaway message.

Written by Steve Bochco, Michael Cimino and Deric Washburn, Silent Running is one of those early-1970s, pre-Star Wars treasures that, unencumbered by blockbuster expectations, moves freely and imaginatively to tell its unique story in its own individual way. 

The movie is basically a one-man show, with Dern interacting, sometimes wildly, with the drones and even the forest.  Silent Running boasts its own sometimes-mellow, sometimes-hysterical rhythm too, a rhythm augmented by Joan Baez's musical performances of ""Rejoice in the Sun" and "Silent Running." 

I can't recall many times that folk music has accompanied grand outer space vistas (outside of the ironic use of "Benson, Arizona" in Dark Star [1975]), but the musical compositions and lyrics here strike just the right note of individual personality, sadness and wistfulness.  The songs ably support the film's episodic, elegiac, and eccentric story-telling style and structure.

Given Trumball's incredible talent and experience on 2001: A Space Odyssey, it probably goes without saying that the special effects sequences in Silent Running are extraordinary.  This effects work brilliantly holds up today, and the Saturn's ring sequence remains a highlight of the film.  Perhaps most importantly, the exterior views of the film's central location, Valley Forge, remain totally convincing, and totally realistic.  These sequences were later used -- over five years later -- in Battlestar Galactica.

In the end, Silent Running, I think, concerns man's lack of wisdom controlling the world and creatures around him.  That stance applies equally to nature and technology, given the film's narrative details.  And the movie even ends on a poetic apex, one not easily forgotten.  Freeman Lowell -- just minutes before committing suicide -- describes a youthful experience placing a note inside a bottle and tossing it into the ocean; wondering if anyone will ever find it and read the note.

As the film makes plain, Lowell has done the same thing on Valley Forge, but on a much grander scale.  He has sent a forest in a bottle of sorts, across the void of space...hoping someone will find it, and treasure it. 

It's up to future man -- hopefully on a better, more balanced track -- to find that lonely, lost bottle and remember the gift he has foolishly rejected and actively sought to destroy  The emotional folk songs sung by Baez speak of "sorrow running deep" at the loss of a great treasure, and the film concludes on the lonely image of a solitary drone -- with watering can -- tending to mankind's forsaken wards.  It is an image that suggests environment and technology going on  and on, but without man.

So Silent Running is a film about a world of "no more beauty," and "no more imagination,"  in which "nobody cares" about what God or Mother Nature gave us to care for.  But the film leaves open the possibility of hope that it won't always be that way.

Or, as Freeman Lowell says, "Don't you think it's time that someone should have a dream again?"

Thursday, March 24, 2011

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: Babylon A.D. (2008)

Babylon A.D. (2008), based on a cyberpunk novel by Maurice Dantec, is one of those sci-fi movies that you stick with -- even though you have reservations -- in hopes that all the intriguing elements are going to somehow come together in the end.

Alas, in this case, the film's admittedly interesting ingredients don't ever truly cohere. As a result, you might leave a screening feeling disappointed, sensing some missed opportunities. 

Or to put it another way, Babylon A.D. is a fascinating story only half-told; one inadequately rendered in any significant human dimension.

Babylon A.D. is set in a near future world of dystopian proportions, and stars Vin Diesel as a world-weary mercenary named Toorop.  He's recruited by another mercenary, Gorsky (Gerard Depardieu) to smuggle a Noelite nun, Sister Rebekha (Michelle Yeoh) and an unusually empathetic young woman, Aurora (Melanie Theirry) across East Europe and into New York City. 

He's got six days to do it.

Toorop is a guy who doesn't ask many questions, especially when he is a promised a passport back into his beloved homeland, the United States, as reward for the successful delivery of Aurora to the CEO of the Church of Neolites (Charlotte Rampling). 

But along the  action-packed cross-continental journey (by train, by sub, by jet-ski, and by plane), the smuggler sees things that make him wonder about Aurora's true nature.  She has the power to powerfully empathize with other life, including cloned animals, and boasts an instinct for both healing and understanding the wounded.

Is Aurora carrying a virus that could wipe out an entire metropolis?  Or is she actually the next step in human evolution?  In short, Toorop isn't certain if Aurora is savior or destroyer of man.  In the end, he finally gets his answer, thanks to a clandestine meeting with Aurora's "father."

Babylon A.D. follows the cyberpunk playbook pretty faithfully.  The film depicts a future society, post-2017, of "mega corporations."  Here, even Organized Religion is Big Business, and the Noelite leaders regularly check to see if their stock options are "sky high" or falling. 

More than that, these religious business-people believe that their professional trade is "miracles" and that people such as Aurora can be trademarked.    Religion in this world is about selling people something they desperately want, spirituality, and about getting rich.

The impressive look of New York City -- a step below Blade Runner (1982) perhaps -- affirms the importance of corporations in this near future milieu.  Skyscraper exteriors are multi-story advertisements and commercials.  Corporate logos appear on every surface imaginable, even on the sides of planes and city taxis.  Clearly, big business is the way of the future, if we are to believe Babylon A.D.'s vision.

But Babylon A.D. is also a cyberpunk vision because it ponders a dystopian future in which high technology does not raise all ships, so-to-speak.  The early portions of the film highlight life outside of the rich United States, in Serbia and Russia, respectively, and these are places of degrading infrastructure, miserable housing, failed technology, and populaces living in abject poverty.  The human beings dwelling in these countries seem to live in spaces that aren't really designed (or safe) for people. 

In accordance with this idea, twice in the film Toorop is forced to contend with items that don't work properly: a hand-gun and lighter, in particular.  The overall impression is thus of a used-up world, squeezing the last drops of viability out of late twentieth-century technology and wealth.

But it is the character of Aurora who points the film most clearly in the direction of cyberpunk literature.  She is the daughter of both biology and technology, anticipating a new epoch in which man and machine are mated.  Some futurists refer to this new age as "Singularity," and the movie gets much mileage out of the idea that machines are now developing faster than the human race is.  Aurora, we soon learn, is pregnant: a "vessel" for the next step in our very evolution.

Cyberpunk has much in common with film noir, too, so you won't be surprised to learn that the film opens with a laconic voice-over narration from Diesel (as Toorop), debating the future.  "Save the planet?  What for?"  He asks, sounding a lot like Riddick.  

Toorop then contrasts that line of dialogue with his own example of "bumper sticker philosophy" as he calls it: "Life's a bitch and then you die."  

Toorop himself is pretty clearly a noir hero: an outsider living on the margins of society, trying to stay uninvolved and yet secretly hoping for a reason to become involved again; to reignite his connection to the human race.  He finds that connection, surprisingly, in a revival of his spirituality.  Certainly, Babylon A.D. speaks a lot in the language of faith: Aurora's journey across the globe takes six days, there's a human populace "starving for miracles" and, yes, there's also the idea of immaculate conception.

As I wrote above, all of these elements are authentically intriguing and worth noting. Yet Matthew Kassovitz's film remains incoherent; as though it has been edited with a blunt hatchet.  We literally leap from set-piece to set-piece without rhyme or reason.  We don't always understand, exactly, where the characters are and what they're doing in any particular place.   For instance, Toorop, Rebekha and Aurora find themselves running on a gigantic ice field with other Russian refugees at the start of one scene, and the moment leads to a bloodbath at a parked submarine.  Yet we don't know how anyone got there or what's going on.  Instead, the scene plays as if someone blew a whistle, and all the actors started simultaneously running a race.

In truth, the film doesn't always seem certain which forces are pursuing Aurora, and for what reason.  Several apparent thugs follow Toorop through a colorful, atmospheric bazaar and ensuing terrorist attack at a train station, and thus seem to be our bad guys.  They are involved in an extensive fight sequence, and yet they have no reason to approach Toorop with hostility given what we later in the film learn about their allegiances.

And the action scenes -- such as a drone attack on two jet-skis -- feature impressive special effects but not the right tone.  They play as unrealistically heroic or comic-bookish in what is otherwise supposed to be a grim, realistic world.  

But the most significant problem is that Babylon A.D. fails on a human, emotional level.  The story of Aurora -- as a messiah and Mary Figure -- is one that should be beautiful and inspiring, yet it isn't.  Aurora is too remote a figure to sympathize with, and we don't understand her motives for most of  the adventure. 

Toorop's final revelation (about saving the planet again, one life at a time) feels more than a little facile and easy because the audience never truly feels or experiences the connection between this mercenary and Aurora.  We know it's there and we want to feel it, but the movie lurches mechanically from plot point to plot point instead of adequately developing the characters' relationships. 

Babylon A.D. is supposed to be a story about the dawn of a great new age for the human race, and the rebirth of one man's faith, but the film's closing line, "Ain't that a bitch?" hardly feels like an appropriate or worthy apotheosis given the circumstances. 

Because this cyberpunk film features a future world that already seems very familiar to us (from the likes of Blade Runner and Johnny Mnemonic, for instance), the only way Babylon A.D. could have differentiated itself  from the cyberpunk pack would have been in the handling of the unconventional relationship between Toorop and Aurora.  This is where the filmmakers should have focused; on the emotional content of Aurora's journey; not the spectacle and danger of the actual trip.

So instead of being a movie about the wondrous joining of man to machine, Babylon A.D. feels like a movie made by a machine instead; one programmed to know and regurgitate every action cliche in the book. 

Ain't that a bitch?

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Tom McLoughlin Interview at The Modest Proposal

Joseph Maddrey, my producer on The House Between (2007 - 2009) and the writer/producer of Nightmares in Red, White and Blue (2009) has prepared and conducted a book-length interview with director Tom McLoughlin, the talent behind such classic eighties horror films as One Dark Night (1983) and Jason Lives: Friday the 13th Part VI  (1986). 

During his career, McLoughlin has done everything from playing a robot (Captain S.T.A.R. in The Black Hole [1979]) to adapting a Stephen King story to film.

Maddrey's project is currently being excerpted at The Modest Proposal, here, and I wanted to point out the article to readers of this blog who enjoy the horror genre.

Here's a snippet from "Art Imitates Life... and Death: A Conversation with Tom McLoughlin:"

In 1990, you adapted Stephen King's short story "Sometimes They Come Back" to the screen. Are you a Stephen King fan?

I'm a huge Stephen King fan. Obviously he saw the same Twilight Zones we all saw, the same Outer Limits, the same Corman movies—he loved that stuff—and because of his writing talent he was able to take those basic ideas and stories and fill them with the thoughts of his characters. That's his brilliance. He shows us our dreams and our nightmares in [his characters'] thoughts, which allows his readers to have a personal relationship with the stories.

In my opinion, most of the Stephen King movies don't work. You can't get that same experience [of the characters' thoughts], so the filmmakers usually substitute something else. The movies that really succeeded were the ones that had stronger characters—Carrie, The Dead Zone, The Stand. But a lot of the other ones didn't quite get there for me, because you're trying to condense something that's so rich in the books into 90 minutes of screen time. You can sell a title and you can sell the idea, but it's got to be fleshed out differently.

I think that's what Sometimes They Come Back suffered from—lit wasn't fleshed out properly. The writers had to expand a short story, so they put a lot of "the best of Stephen King" moments into it. Like the evil car [from Christine]... a lot of things like that were borrowed from other works to flesh out the story.

I have to admit that when I watched Sometimes They Come Back, I was confused about the nature of the monsters. Are they ghosts or are they the living dead? Do they exist in the flesh or only in the main character's imagination? What are the rules?

When Dino DeLaurentiis offered the project to me, I remember saying to him, "This really doesn't work." The writers had moved on because they were not going to do another rewrite without being paid a fortune, so Dino brought in Tim Kring, the future creator of Heroes. Tim is a great guy and very smart, and we saw eye to eye right away. But whenever you deal with Dino, there are a lot of stipulations—"don't lose this, don't lose that, because I like that..." So we were trying to Frankenstein things together...

Please check out the rest of Maddrey's interview at The Modest Proposal for a very involving and informative read.

The Road Warrior (1982)

I first viewed  The Road Warrior  on a double bill with  Superman III  at the Castle Theater in Irvington, New Jersey. I was thirteen or fou...