Saturday, April 30, 2011

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: Code 46 (2003)

"If we had enough information, we could predict the consequences of our actions. Would you want to know? If you kissed that girl, if you talked to that man, if you take that job, or marry that woman, or steal that papelle? If we knew what would happen in the end, would we ever be able to take the first step, to make the first move?"

- Code 46 (2003)

If you subtract the  futuristic and dystopian details from Michael Winterbottom's spell-binding Code 46 (2003), what emerges is a relatively simple and straight-forward tale of doomed, irrational love. 

In other words, this sci-fi movie concerns an adage from an old Woody Allen film: the heart wants what the heart wants.  Even if what the heart desires isn't really wise, legal, or necessarily right.

Once you layer on the film's impressive futuristic details however, Code 46  emerges as something of tremendous import and note.  It's a frightening and deeply saddening glimpse of technology run amok and genetic control ruthlessly imposed by a seemingly-invisible but all-powerful State.  There are echoes and resonances of Gattaca (1997) here, but Code 46's focus is not on personal achievement and widespread genetic "racism," but rather on a single star-crossed couple who -- inexorably and unintentionally -- flout the prevailing laws.  They feel they have no choice. They are in the grip of a force not of their conscious choosing.

Coupled with a mesmerizing, trance-like score and an informal cinema verite shooting-style, Code 46 masterfully conveys a real sense of place and time; even though the film's futuristic venue doesn't exist in the real world.  It's a staggering achievement on Winterbottom's part, and Code 46 thrives not as an action film or even as a thriller, but as an unforgettable mood piece.   Even if precise details of the plot are occasionally opaque or baffling, images and feelings from the film nonetheless linger and echo long after a viewing. 

After experiencing Code 46, you will authentically feel as if you've spent ninety-five minutes in another world.

Or, as film critic Paul Byrnes insightfully reported in his review of the film: "It's a bleak future, but not a bleak film. Winterbottom has an uncanny ability to create beautiful, hypnotic sequences, using contemporary music. His films have a seductive modernism, but without losing focus on character and idea. Other directors raised on MTV use music to paper the cracks; Winterbottom uses it to get inside the cracks."

Does an empathy virus work long distance?

In the intriguing world of Code 46, genetics are rigorously policed, perhaps as a result of widespread infertility or sterility in the recent past. 

As the film's opening card relates: "due to IV, DI embryo splitting and cloning techniques, it is necessary to prevent any accidental or deliberate genetically incestuous reproduction." 

If genetically incestuous reproduction does occur, it is termed a Code 46 violation.  If genetically incestuous reproduction occurs intentionally, it is a criminal violation of Code 46, and duly punished.

The future imagined by Code 46 is also one of huge class differences.  Cities are over-populated (except in the "unhealthy" heat of broad daylight), highly affluent, and termed "Inside."  Beyond the borders of the colossal cities -- "Outside" --  denizens live in abject poverty, environmental desolation and technological primitivism. Because of the draconian genetic regulations, freedom of travel is a luxury of the past. 

To make passage from one from city to another, from Inside to Outside and vice-versa, travelers must carry genetic passport termed "cover," or "papelles."  These electronic "papers" -- genetic driver's licenses, essentially -- must be presented before all ingress and egress.  "Cover" is also severely time-limited.  If your cover i.d. expires while you are still in a foreign land, you have no way to get home.

As Code 46 commences, a fraud investigator, William Geld (Tim Robbins) is sent to Shanghai to investigate a problem inside the massive Sphinx Insurance Company. 

Someone inside the company is falsifying cover papelles for undesirable genetic elements, thus permitting them to travel freely in restricted zones.  In order to help him ferret out the saboteur, Geld has been injected by his employers with an "empathy virus" that allows him to intuit the traits of those people he interviews, provided they freely share with him one detail of their lives.

After a series of one-on-one interviews, Geld determines that Maria (Samantha Morton) is the source of the falsified or forged papers.  However, instead of arresting her, the married Geld makes a leap.  He pursues a romantic and sexual relationship with Maria.  The next day, while still "covered," he leaves Shanghai.  

Back home in Seattle with his wife and young son, Geld still seems obsessed with Maria.  When he is summoned back to Shanghai on a new development in his investigation (the death of a man with falsified papers...), he attempts to find Maria again.  William discovers that she has been taken to a state clinic for a Code 46 violation.  Specifically, she was pregnant with Geld's child.  Now, the pregnancy has been "terminated" by the State.  Also, Maria's memories of the sex act and her lover have been surgically-removed.

Although he knows he is courting danger, Geld  remains in Shanghai as his cover papelle expires, and shares with Maria memories of their lost relationship.  Geld also goes to a DNA expert and learns that he and Maria indeed share genetic history.  Specifically, Maria is fifty-percent genetically related to him, a "biological clone" of his own mother, who was one of a "set of 24 in-vitro fertilized clones."  Legally, they can not "liaise"

Despite his knowledge of this fact, Geld still pursues a romantic relationship.  On forged cover, Maria and Geld flee to the "Outside" and to Jebel Ali, in Dubai.  There, Geld learns that Maria has been implanted with a virus that reacts negatively to his...sexual presence.  Still in love with him, Maria demands William strap her to the bed and make love to her.  He complies. 

But afterwards, still possessed of the virus, Maria reports to local authorities a Code 46 violation.  The couple attempts to outrun the State in a hastily-purchased car...

You know what they say, "the Sphinx knows best."

In some ways -- and as has been duly noted in other reviews -- Code 46 plays like a high-tech variation and meditation on Sophocles' play, Oedipus Rex (429 BC).  

In both tales a man unknowingly falls in love with his own mother (or a genetic duplicate of his own mother, at least), and personal disaster and destruction ensue. The Oedipus Complex is known in psychological circles as a male child's unconscious desire for the (sexual) love of his mother, of course, and Sophocles' famous work also gazes explicitly at the conundrum of fate versus free will.  In pursuing his free will, Oedipus meets his unpleasant destiny.

This idea is resurrected, updated and tweaked in Code 46.  William Geld is involved in an unacceptable form of love by legal, societal standards (as was the case with the King of Thebes), but in his case, the laws of the state actually seem to compel this behavior, at least to a certain extent.  Society as depicted in the film creates the very technological conditions in which William can encounter a genetic duplicate, essentially, of his mother.  And then society punishes him for his "illegal" response to Maria.  Yet, importantly, Geld is in no position to deny his Oedipal feelings, his destiny, either.  The "empathy virus" he has been injected with only augments his feelings for others, thereby assuring that he will step outside of bounds of legality with Maria.

As for Maria, she describes early in the film a dream she experiences every year on her birthday. In that dream, she gets closer and closer to finding her "destiny."  She first meets William Geld on her birthday, and when she experiences the prophetic dream again, she sees him waiting for her.  He is her destiny.  Since she believes this, and William is "empathetic" (thanks to the virus), he cannot help but believe it as well.  He is a sense, under her romantic influence.

And Maria? She is a biological clone of William's mother.  Does this mean that her subconscious vision of William as her destiny actually symbolizes her genetic desire for an offspring, a child?  The movie never suggests that explicitly, but it certainly seems a possibility.  Maria receives one signal, but misinterprets her destiny.  William is not supposed to be her lover, perhaps, but her child.  A biological clone of another being, her circuits seem crossed.

Even the so-called "riddle of the Sphinx" is adapted Code 46.  In Oedipus the King, Oedipus must solve the riddle of the Sphinx, a query which has perpetually vexed travelers outside Thebes.  In Code 46, the mysterious Sphinx -- the monolithic insurance company -- permits and denies travelers ingress and egress for reasons all its own.  The corporation's decision-making process remains completely hidden from the actual travelers.  As viewers, we don't discern the Sphinx's higher purpose, except control.

In both Oedipus and Code 46, the man who has broken the law -- William or the King -- must pay for their crimes.  Oedipus gouges out his own eyes and becomes a wandering wretch in the work of Sophocles.  In Code 46, William Geld has his memories of Maria expunged from his mind and lives up to his name, "Geld."  To Geld is to castrate, and here William Geld is emotionally castrated; denied the knowledge of what he once felt (rightly or wrongly) was his destiny.

In substituting a company (Sphinx) for an instrument of the divine (the Sphinx of Greek mythology), Code 46 suggests that in a high-tech future both fate and free will shall be supplanted by the iron will of the State.  And again, there's a kind of hypocrisy embedded in the State's will.  The very world that it creates ultimately is responsible for encouraging and discouraging William and Maria's love.  The State is a fickle deity.  The couple would never have met without the genetic laws, never have fallen for each other without the "empathy virus" and then never have been torn asunder without the widespread prosecution of Code 46 violations.  Maria and William are thus screwed six ways to Sunday, if you'll pardon my French.  Their love and loss is unimportant to the Order of Things as legislated.

William survives the affair well enough, after a fashion.  But for Maria, it's quite a different story.  The end of the film features a canny montage of cross-cuts to suggest this. 

In one set of images, we see William returning home to his well-dressed, perfectly-coiffed wife in Seattle.  He is greeted by his gorgeous spouse and young son, and then returned to his affluent home.  These images are inter-cut with visions of Maria alone, in Dubai, wandering in solitude and poverty.  Her final words, uttered in voice-over -- "I miss you" -- are ones that William will never hear.  In fact, he has no awareness or memory of Maria at all.  Their love affair is erased, deleted except in her solitary memory.

And lastly, there's one final connection to Oedipus here.  In Sophocles' work, Oedipus realized what he had done, and took steps to punish himself.  He rendered himself blind, and then made himself an outcast.  In Code 46 -- after a second instance of illegal sexual intercourse with Maria -- William knowingly permits his lover to notify the authorities.  He watches her make the telephone call, and does nothing to prevent her or stop her. 

This is by far a more passive response than Oedipus's, but it is William's tacit acknowledgment that he has committed a wrong, and that it must be corrected.  Yet -- in some cowardly way -- the burden of pain falls not on William (as it did on Oedipus) but on Maria instead.  William blithely returns to his happy life, never knowing what he has lost while Maria forever bears the scars of their brief but passionate relationship. 

In this fashion, I submit, Code 46 also concerns a globalized society in which the rich make the rules and benefit from those rules, while the poor get shafted.   William had an illicit dalliance, but was welcomed back into the loving embrace of his wife (and we see them make love after his return).  He carries not even the burden of a guilty conscience for his illegal behavior.  In this world, love apparently means you don't have to remember to say you're sorry.

Instead, Maria takes it on the chin, alone. Outside, and grief-stricken. She wonders, mournfully abut the man she has lost, harking back to her own memory loss. "Can you miss someone you don't remember? Can one moment or experience ever disappear completely, or does it always exist somewhere, waiting to be discovered?"

We all have problems, William. How we deal with them is a measure of our worth.

As I wrote at the beginning of this review, Code 46 is an eminently powerful mood piece, and all the details add up to a believable future world as backdrop to the haunting, conflicted love story. 

In this case, one of those backdrop details involves the "globalized" society I just noted.  Although the world-spanning State (a one world government?) regulates genetics, it has apparently also paved the way for the assimilation of all known languages and cultures, and therefore also the destruction of small, local, individual worlds (at least on the "Inside.")  Specifically, all the characters in the film speak a hodgepodge of English, French, Spanish, Mandarin and Farsi.   There are no borders anymore, as the State (apparently a Corporate State) has smashed all of them. 

To support the idea of this rampant "globalization" and wanton intermingling of cultures, Winterbottom even intermingles our very sense of geography in the film. Outside metropolitan Shanghai, for instance, is a vast, empty desert.    And Seattle looks roughly the same as Hong Kong, or any other over-populated urban center. 

And in every city, gigantic interior structures seem to wind around on themselves, technological behemoths with no end and no beginning.  The idea here is that technological and business "globalization" has dwarfed individuality the world around.  By shooting in real life locations all over the world and mixing and matching locales freely, Winterbottom presents a vision of global sameness on an inhuman (and inhumane) scale.

What's so beautiful about Code 46's presentation, however, is that Winterbottom does not approach this inhuman world with sterility or even, actually, cinematic formality.  On the contrary, through informal editing and shooting techniques (jump cuts, blurred focus, point of view perspective shots, and more), he enhances the sense of a real place, of bustling Shanghai at nightfall, for example. 

Desson Thomson, writing in The Washington Post rightly observed: "The movie's atmospherics -- the grainy-hazy images, a blighted world, the zoned-out luminosity of Morton's face -- give "Code 46" an impact that transcends the actual story. You may soon forget the specifics of the plot, but you'll always remember the world it came from.

The spontaneous-seeming, cinema verite camera-work in Code 46 also successfully contrasts the controlling aesthetic of the Sphinx and the State.  It's a top down world of rigorous control in which citizens are constantly under surveillance.  But down on the street level -- and between two lovers like Maria and William -- life can still feel spontaneous, surprising, unpredictable.  This couple wander into their pre-ordained genetic meeting with eyes closed; not understanding the pull of destiny, or rather, genetic pre-determination. 

The fact of their genetic incompatibility is revealed in visual clues  by Winterbottom, right down to the casting of Robbins and Morton.   Robbins towers a full meter over the diminutive Morton, a virtual giant beside her, and there's something unsettling and wrong about them "together," down to their very physicality.  Kurt Loder noted this idea in his review of the film: "But in extrapolating from our contemporary unease about human cloning, and of course the ever-ominous powers of government, "Code 46" presents a future society that's hauntingly plausible. Robbins and Morton don't seem to have much in the way of romantic chemistry at first — or do they? In fact, they probably have all the chemistry possible in a world that's been so drained of cheer and trust and human possibility, and so fundamentally disfigured by scientific technology. They have too much chemistry, it turns out, and it dooms them both in different, dreadful ways."

That last point is a critical one.  In some very deep, thoughtful fashion, Code 46 concerns the way that our feelings seem to dictate our reality; how our emotions become intertwined, irrevocably, with our world view.  Maria and William may be courting destiny in their tragic love affair or they may be responding to something deeper: a genetic, Jungian unconscious that must pull them together, regardless of the consequences. 

In small, meaningful ways and in occasional grace notes, Code 46 artfully explores the nuances of the human condition, and the way that the human condition forever remains constant, even in the looming shadow of scientific, technological and business "advances."  The heart must have what the heart must have...

Friday, April 29, 2011

Around the Web: Links and Events for a Friday Night

Lots of interesting stuff happening across the Inter-Tubes today, and I wanted to draw your attention to some of them:

First, Destinies: the Voice of Science Fiction, a truly fantastic radio talk show hosted by Dr. Howard Margolin, celebrates its 28th anniversary  today. 

Destinies airs tonight at 11:00 PM on 90.1 FM, WUSB, Stony Brook, NY, (netcasting at

Tonight's celebration will include music by Bear McCreary, John Debney, Murray Gold, Kasey Lansdale, and the California Guitar Trio, as well as encore readings by Patrick Thomas and Barry K. Nelson, and volume 2, number 112 of Christopher DeFilippis' "DeFlip Side," in which he pays tribute to the 50th anniversary of Yuri Gagarin's first spaceflight. 

Also, Mateo Latosa and Cesar Gallegos' original score from my web series, The House Between, will be featured on the program as well. 

If you miss the celebration tonight, but want to check it out later, Destinies programs are archived here,

Happy 28th Anniversary, Howard!

Secondly, BACK TO FRANK BLACK, the great organization dedicated to the return of Millennium's profiler, played by Lance Henriksen, begins to air the web series Millennium: Apocalypse tonight at 8:00 pm. 

I haven't seen this series yet, but I'm looking forward to checking it out.   I've heard many good things about it.

And last, but not at all least, Will and Michael (Le0pard13) at The Paxton Configuration have just recorded a highly-detailed and extremely entertaining podcast on the subject of the 2007 horror film, The Mist.  I actually saw the film for the first time not long ago and am a big fan of it (even if a friend spoiled the ending for me. D'oh!).  

Anyway, the wide-ranging podcast discusses director Frank Darabont, Thomas Jane, and films such as The Shawshank Redemption and The Fly 2.   The conversation never wanes, and the two hosts share a good chemistry and back-and-forth. 

I hope and Will and Michael record more of these podcasts; I very much enjoyed this one and hope you'll check it out.

Hell's Bells: The Ten Greatest Weddings in Cult-TV History

It's that time of year again.  Spring has sprung, flowers are in bloom, and lovers of all ages are busily preparing to tie the knot.   The months of May and June are traditionally amongst the most popular for nuptials, and so I figured this is a good time to survey the most famous (and infamous...) weddings in cult-television history.    

Before we get to my top ten selections, I should note that there are other contenders for "greatest cult-tv wedding" beyond those featured in the countdown.   These episodes, while entertaining, are bridesmaids but never brides, you might conclude.

Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman (1992-1996), for instance, saw Clark Kent's (Dean Cain) wedding day spoiled when bride Lois Lane (Teri Hatcher) was replaced at the altar by a frog-eating clone.  The real wedding took place a season later and was not only uneventful, but sort of an anti-climax.

On Star Trek: Voyager's   (1995 - 2001) "Course: Oblivion," Tom Paris (Robert Duncan McNeill) and B'Elanna Torres (Roxann Dawson)were married in the Delta Quadrant, but the ceremony viewers witnessed turned out to be that of a duplicate or "alternate" crew that was fated to die.   Because of this plot twist, the wedding felt like just another gimmick in an already gimmicky narrative.

Weddings have been a staple of other genre programs too.  Buffy the Vampire Slayer's "The Prom" teased an Angel/Buffy wedding day that quickly became a nightmare, and The Greatest American Hero's (1981-1983) "Newlywed Game" saw Ralph (William Katt) and Pam (Connie Sellecca) tie the knot under some less-than-ideal circumstances.

As much as I enjoy all of these series, I suppose you could say I have "cold feet" about including them in this particular wedding party. So without further ado, here are -- from ten to one -- my selections for the best cult-tv wedding days in history.

The Ten Greatest Weddings in Cult-TV History

10. Star Trek: "Balance of Terror" (1966)

Two young crew-members aboard the U.S.S. Enterprise, Angela Martine and Robert Tomlinson, celebrate their joyous wedding day aboard ship.  Scotty (James Doohan) gives away the blushing bride, and Captain Kirk (William Shatner) officiates at the ceremony,  Yeoman Rand (Grace Lee Whitney) at his side. 

Kirk's opening words: "Since the days of the first wooden vessels, all ship masters have had one happy privilege: that of uniting two people in the bonds of matrimony."

Unfortunately, Kirk's happy duty is interrupted by a crisis in the Neutral Zone that separates the United Federation of Planets from the Romulan Star Empire.  A "ghost" ship is destroying Federation outposts one by one, leaving carnage in its wake.  The ship is really a Romulan Bird of Prey, armed with a devastating cloaking device and a new plasma weapon.   What ensues is a battle between two equally-matched opponents and commanders.  Kirk is victorious in the space battle but, as always, there is a price for such conflict.  The young groom, Tomlinson, is killed in the final battle, leaving a heartbroken fiancee, Angela, behind.

"Balance of Terror" reminds us that even in victory, there is often loss; that every time war is the solution to a political problem, the cost comes in human lives.  The ship's teaser involving the wedding is a perfect reminder of this fact.  In this case, a couple's dream of future happiness is the victim of the Romulan/Federation conflict. 

And for noble Captain Kirk, he must reckon with the fact that though he handily completed his mission (destroying the Romulan vessel and her weapons), it was by no means a painless or easy campaign.  As he knows too well, a Captain is responsible for his crew, and here he loses two young people who should have been destined for happiness.  Weddings are universally about the future, about bringing together promising tomorrows.  In "Balance of Terror," the wedding only precedes a terrible ripping asunder.

09. Buck Rogers: "Escape from Wedded Bliss" (1980)

The Draconian Princess, Ardala (Pamela Hensley) returns to Earth with an orbital doomsday weapon and demands that Buck Rogers (Gil Gerard) marry her, lest she destroy the world.  The Earth Defense Directorate surrenders Buck to the Princess aboard her flagship, the Draconia. 

There, Buck learns the rules of Draconian courtship and marriage.  In short, he must battle Tigerman in the arena to prove he is worthy of a Draconian princess.  Then, in the final stages of the wedding ceremony, Buck is to wear not a traditional wedding ring, but rather a wedding collar which constricts and tightens around his neck when he displeases his new bride.  This "shotgun wedding" is averted at the last instant, and Buck destroys the doomsday weapon, leaving a jilted Ardala at the altar.

"Escape from Wedded Bliss" is a primal male fantasy.  A gorgeous, powerful and sexy princess will destroy the world unless you and only you agree to make her your bride?  What red-blooded American guy wouldn't be in favor of that arrangement?  Then again, there's the wedding collar to think about...

But all kidding aside, this episode of Buck Rogers in the 25th Century does a pretty fine job of revealing how sad and lonely a figure Princess Ardala truly is.  As a member of Draco's royal family, Ardala feels isolated and alone, and suspects that Buck -- because of his "out-of-time" nature -- might feel those emotions too. 

Joining up makes sense, at least from Ardala's perspective.  Forcing Buck Rogers to marry her isn't the answer, but this is one Bridezilla who you can really feel compassion and even admiration for.  Ardala knows what she believes will make her happy, and goes for it, doomsday weapon, wedding collar, combat-to-the-death and all.  In short, "Escape from Wedded Bliss" humanizes one of the series' recurring villains in a very sympathetic way.  It also reminds the viewer that marriage is best left for people who are truly and irrevocably in love.  And as Buck reminds Ardala (with surprising tenderness) in "Escape from Wedded Bliss," he just doesn't love her.

08. Star Trek: Deep Space Nine: "You Are Cordially Invited" (1997)

Pour the blood wine. Serve the steaming hot g'agh. It's Dax's Big Fat Klingon Wedding.

On Deep Space Nine -- in the midst of the galactic war with the Dominion -- Worf (Michael Dorn) and Lt. Jadzia Dax (Terry Farrell) plan to wed in a traditional Klingon ceremony.

There's only one hitch in this plan: the mistress of the House of Martok, Sirella, isn't exactly keen on having a non-Klingon such as Dax as a family member. Dax refuses to humble herself for the proud Sirella, and it looks like the wedding won't come off unless she changes her mind.

Klingon bachelor parties aside, this episode of Deep Space Nine gazes at the underlying meaning of marriage: the total combination of two lives and the total dedication of one life to another. Dax shouldn't exactly be surprised that her hubby-to-be, Worf, so deeply desires a traditional Klingon wedding, and she shouldn't be surprised that she must jump through some hoops to win over her future "in-laws," given Klingon pride and xenophobia.

With a little help from Captain Sisko, Dax realizes that she must give her soul-mate the wedding he wants, and that it is actually only her own pride standing in the way.  There are plenty of times in marriage when the only way to get over a problem is to tuck away the ego and make a sacrifice for the spouse, and this episode understands that fact.  If Dax is going to be part of the family, she has to respect family tradition, and again, that's something that all prospective brides and grooms realize.  It would have been interesting, however, to see Worf doing some compromising too, however.  Would he have done anything for Dax to experience a traditional Trill wedding, I wonder?

07. Battlestar Galactica: "Lost Planet of the Gods" (1979)

While the rag-tag, fugitive fleet faces two problems, a deadly plague and a strange "void" in space, Captain Apollo (Richard Hatch) and former news-woman, Serina (Jane Seymour) select a date for their "joining" ceremony, to be officiated by Commander Adama (Lorne Greene).

Apollo and Serina's "sealing" ceremony is celebrated in a candle-lit chamber beneath the darkness of the starless void, but at the height of the nuptials, a star appears to guide the Galactica and her wards to a planet called Kobol, the very world from which all Colonial life sprang.

Apollo and Serina explore the planet with Adama and encounter Baltar -- and tragedy -- on the planet surface.

"Lost Planet of the Gods," like so much of Battlestar Galactica's canon, concerns a Manichean universe of light and dark; a theme made all the more explicit by the episode's plot element of the starless void. But even in a universe of moral absolutes (rather than the moral relativity of the recent re-imagination...), the Gods may yet be fickle. The "joining" of Apollo and Serina seems pre-ordained and sanctified by the sudden, almost divine appearance of Kobol's star.  But what the Gods give, they can also take away.

In the last act, when Serina dies from Cylon attack, there's not any talk of signs or portents. There are no bright stars guiding anyone to happiness.  Instead, it's a very human tragedy, and the last scene in the episode -- Apollo and Serina's son, Boxey (Noah Hathaway) saying goodbye to the beautiful wife and mother -- never ceases to affect on a human level.

A lot of people claim Battlestar Galactica was just a Star Wars rip-off and the characters were only carbon copies of Star Wars characters. A lot of people were  wrong. 

"Lost Planet of the God's" tragic ending proves that rather conclusively.  I often liken Battlestar Galactica to Little House on the Prairie or The Waltons in Space: every week a family tragedy, and a family overcoming that tragedy together.   The last shot of "Lost Planet of the Gods" is heart-wrenching, but also a testament to the strength of family bonds: Adama, Tigh, Starbuck and Apollo's other friends all stand outside Serina's door, waiting for him, and silently supporting him and Boxy through their difficult loss.

06. V: The Series: "The Rescue" (1985):

The bride wears scales.  The priest is a lizard in cardinal hat.  And the wedding banquet consists of gerbils, spiders and rats.  The bride, Diana (Jane Badler) and groom, Charles (Duncan Regher) share not a delicious wedding cake, but rather "a ceremonial mouse" at the lovely reception.

Yep, it's just another day aboard the Visitor mothership in V: The Series

Here, Diana is manipulated into marriage by her rivals Lydia (June Chadwick) and Charles.  Surprisingly, however, Diana and Charles actually seem to fall in love, or at least in lust.  This development outrages Lydia, who then plots to kill Diana with "cat poison."  The murder attempt goes wrong, however, and it is Charles who ends up dead on his wedding night.

From start to finish, "The Rescue" is utterly outrageous.  It's high camp and V: The Series knew it.  Why?  Well, consider that on July 29, 1981, a very different Charles and Diana were wed at St. Paul's Cathedral in London before a global TV audience of one billion people.  "The Rescue's" Charles/Diana nuptials were not viewed by nearly so many, but it was worth a try, wasn't it? 

The fun of this episode (and of V: The Series in general) was in watching the wicked, wicked machinations and tactics of Lydia and Diana as they forever sought to one-up each other, all while devouring small rodents and other terrestrial creatures.

 "Peel you another goldfish?"

05. Dexter: "Do You Take Dexter Morgan?" (2008)

In the finale of season three, sociopath, serial killer and blood spatter expert Dexter Morgan (Michael C. Hall) finally marries Rita (Julie Benz), but only after tying up some serious loose ends regarding his "Dark Passenger." 

These loose ends involve the final disposition of Miguel (Jimmy Smits) and Ramon  Prado (Jason Olazabal), two men who had learned his secret.
Dexter Morgan remains one of the truly great characters in modern television history, and "Do You Take Dexter Morgan" asks many important questions about Dexter's nature. Is he capable of love? Is he capable of participating in an honest and open relationship with anyone given his murderous nightlife?

Surprisingly, the answers to both those questions seem to be yes, at least with a few caveats. In the course of the story, Dexter learns that Rita is keeping secrets too. She has been married twice before, not once before, as he believed. But Dexter decides not to confront Rita about her lie when he realizes the truth of the marriage's circumstances.

Already then, Dexter has taken a critical step towards compassion and mercy. One thing about marriage: you have to permit your spouse a few secrets and a few fantasies. After all, Dexter's hiding a few things too, right?  Marriage is not just about romance, but about acceptance and forgiveness.  If a sociopath can learn that simple lesson, we all can.

04. Smallville: "Promise" (2007)

In the spring of its sixth season, Smallville reached a pinnacle of darkness.  Lana Lang (Kristin Kreuk) had accepted Lex Luthor's (Michael Rosenbaum's) marriage proposal and rejected Clark Kent (Tom Welling) over his penchant for secrecy.

"Promise" takes viewers through the Lex/Lana wedding day with a surfeit of surprises and heartbreaking twists.  

Lana finally learns Clark's secret and has serious second thoughts about marrying Lex.  Meanwhile, Lex's secret about Lana's pregnancy threatens to come to light, and leads him to commit bloody the chapel.  Clark makes a last minute play for Lana and considers proposing to her.  Finally, Lionel Luthor (John Glover) steps in and blackmails Lana into marrying his son.  Trapped in a loveless relationship, Lana leaves Clark abandoned and rejected on a particularly sad wedding day.

In the first seven seasons, Smallville was both the epic heroic journey of Clark Kent and the tragic fall of Lex Luthor.  Thus Clark and Lex were deliberate mirror images; a reminder in some fashion that parenting can make all the difference in the path a child takes towards adulthood.  Showered with love and nourished on bedrock Kansas family values, Clark grew up feeling loved...and so could become a hero.  Lex, on the other hand, had every monetary advantage anyone could possible get, but his father never loved him, and this absence of love sent him down the dark path.

In "Promise," the wrong man clearly wins Lana's hand.  Through manipulation, exploitation and ultimately murder, Lex takes away from Clark the woman he loves.  On the other hand, it's not a great victory for Lex, either.  Lex must resort to brutal murder with his bare hands to keep his wife-to-be, bloodying his white tuxedo shirt on his wedding day.  Their marriage is also predicated on a lie of his making, regarding her unusual pregnancy.

And then the kicker: even after murder, the love of Lana is not assured for the young billionaire.  In the end, Lana only remains with Lex because of Lionel's blackmail.  Lex Luthor may be on the ascent in "Promise," but he is  an authentically tragic figure, doomed to always be alone because of his suspicion and controlling personality.

But "The Promise" thrives because it demonstrates how lack of trust can scuttle a marriage from the get-go, from the words "I do."  Lana and Lex's wedding night is certainly bound to be uncomfortable, given that Lex is a murderer and Lanais staying in the relationship only to protect Clark's life...

03. Buffy the Vampire Slayer: "Hell's Bells" (2002)

In the sixth season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Xander (Nicholas Brendon) is finally about to marry former wish-demon Anya (Emma Caulfield) when he encounters a mysterious future version of himself. 

This old, hunched, "Future Xander," shows his younger self  disturbing visions of an unhappy married life, and Xander gets really cold feet.

In truth, Future Xander is a demon seeking revenge against Anya, but his real identity is beside the point.  Rattled, Xander leaves a heart-broken Anya at the altar, leading her to resume her career as a demonic destroyer of men.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer's season six was all about real life as the "Big Bad."  Buffy had to take a job at a fast food restaurant to support her family, Giles left for England, Willow developed an addiction (to magic), and Xander and Anya went through the "Hell's Bells" marriage disaster. 

The point is that making big life choices -- even without the involvement of the demonic or supernatural -- always has unintended repercussions.  And weddings, of course, have repercussions too.  Xander has the proverbial "cold feet" in "Hell's Bells," but he lets his fear sway him, and breaks the heart of a woman who loves him dearly. 

This one act of betrayal leads Anya back into the demon fold, and promises more trouble for Xander and the scoobies.  But again, this is real life.  You don't leave a person at the altar without creating some serious bad blood.  How often have we seen that amongst former spouses, now estranged or divorced? Someone you loved so passionately becomes someone you hate more than anyone else in the world. Love and hate, not so far apart?

02. Star Trek: "Amok Time" (1967)

"The Trouble with Tribbles" may be funnier.  "City on the Edge of Forever" may be more tragic. 

But Theodore Sturgeon's "Amok Time" is nonetheless one of Star Trek's finest and most memorable hours.

In "Amok Time," Spock experiences Pon Farr, the Vulcan urge to mate.  This biological drive is so strong that Spock (Leonard Nimoy) will die if it is not fulfilled.  Acting as a friend and disobeying orders, Captain Kirk takes the Enterprise to Vulcan. so Spock can marry...and mate.

Spock asks Kirk and McCoy (De Forest Kelly) to attend the wedding ceremony on Vulcan's surface, officiated by the great T'Pau (Celia Lovsky).  There, the Enterprise triumvirate also meet Spock's intended, the lovely T'Pring (Arlene Martel). Unfortunately, T'Pring has no desire to marry Spock, and in an ancient ritual, forces Spock to fight for her hand in marriage.  Her chosen champion?  Captain Kirk...

It's funny that the logical Mr. Spock should be carried off to the altar, essentially, in a swirl of irrational, uncontrollable emotions.  But that happens to men and women on Earth too.   And if so many of the episodes on this list indeed detail the passionate emotions that swirl around weddings and marriage, "Amok Time" is a nice reminder that not all marriages emerge from feelings of love.  T'Pring has no desire for Spock, no desire to be the wife "of a legend," and would rather see him die in a ritual than spend her life with him.  She is a cool, cruel, callous "thinker" who believes she has found a "no lose" scenario for herself.  And in the end, she's absolutely right; she is victorious. 

The callous T'Pring is strongly contrasted in "Amok Time" with the dedicated friendship of Kirk/Spock/McCoy.  While T'Pring thinks only of herself, the Enterprise trio are a textbook case of one for all/all for one.  This is a reminder, perhaps, that there are other kinds of real love besides romantic/sexual love.

and finally...

01. Smallville: "Bride" (2009)

It's the day of Chloe Sullivan's (Allison Mack) long-awaited wedding to cub reporter Jimmy Olsen (Aaron Ashmore).  The location of the nuptials: the Kent farm in Smallville, Kansas. 

While an anxious Lois Lane (Erica Durance) organizes the event, Chloe receives distressing voice mails from Davis Bloome (Sam Witer), who has only recently acknowledged his love for Sullivan.

At the wedding reception -- and caught on digital video -- an inhuman beast called Doomsday lays siege to the barn and abducts Chloe, leaving Jimmy bleeding to death.

Bride" arrived at a time of  tremendous dramatic resurgence for Smallville. The episode moves at light-speed, yet still finds the time to develop the burgeoning Lois-Clark (Clois?) relationship.  It balances this new love with  a story of love rejected, in the case the love for Chloe of the "monster," Doomsday.   Additionally, "Bride" often adopts the first person perspective of wedding video footage (think Cloverfield [2008]) as the monster arrives to take his bride. 

Given the narrative details (and title), this episode of Smallville is also rife with allusions to monster movies such as Bride of Frankenstein (1935).  The visual of the monstrous Doomsday carrying Chloe in her wedding gown to the Brainiac-infected Fortress of Solitude is one straight out the genre's golden age, and enormously resonant in this context.  Doomsday sets Chloe down on a bed of black ice, and her eyes glitter...not with love; but with the inhuman glare of Brainiac.

Besides the powerful imagery, technique and characterizations, "The Bride" somehow still finds time to re-introduce Lana Lang to Smallville (thus setting back Clark and Lois six months or so...) and  then ends with the revelation that Lex Luthor is alive, and bent on vengeance.  Clark and Lana?  Clark and Lois? Jimmy's Dead? Doomsday? Brainiac? Lex Luthor?   "Bride" is a prime reason why Smallville's fans are still so die hard.  When the show hits on all thrusters, it's like a Kryptonite kick to Superman's gut.

"Bride" is truly apocalyptic, a wedding day gone straight to Hell.  And the episode is so dramatic, so fast-paced you won't be able to catch your breath until the end credits roll. If marriage is about being swept away by love, "Bride" sweeps you away in love gone horribly wrong.

So that's the top ten cult-tv wedding list.  Speak about it now, or forever hold your peace...

Thursday, April 28, 2011

CULT-TV MOVIE REVIEW: Short Walk to Daylight (1972)

Disaster movies were very much in vogue during the early 1970s, due in large part to the efforts of producer Irwin Allen, the so-called "Master of Disaster." 

The Poseidon Adventure (1972), The Towering Inferno (1974) and Earthquake (1974) all proved early box office hits during the decade, and the appeal of such films -- both then and now --  arises in witnessing the varied and colorful human responses to chaos, mortality and apocalypse. 

Some characters in these dramas may rise above their petty everyday problems to survive.  Others find the weight of their own prejudices, problems and weaknesses too tremendous to overcome, even in moments of high crisis.  The group dynamic is important too.  In most good disaster films, power struggles arise, and group loyalty shifts back and forth.  Who knows the "right" path to survival?  The right fork-in-the-road that will save lives?

One made-for-television movie that exploits this tried-and-true  yet still efficacious disaster formula is Barry Shear's impressive Short Walk to Daylight (1972).  The TV movie aired on October 24, 1972 and involves a small handful of subway passengers in Manhattan who, late on a quiet Saturday night, become trapped in a catastrophic earthquake and must escape from the ruined, collapsed tunnels. 

The film stars James Brolin as a white police officer, Tom Phelan, and James McEachin as African-American train driver Ed, two very different prospective "leaders" during this particular crisis. 

Each man sees the survival of the group as his bailiwick and responsibility.  And ach man wants to call the shots based on his own knowledge and experience.

Meanwhile, the rest of the group consists of two young white women returning home from a night on the town, Joanne (Brooke Bundy) and Sylvia (Suzanne Charny), a sullen, disenfranchised African-American man, Alvin (Don Mitchell), and a hard-working African-American mother ending the night shift, Dorella (Abbey Lincoln).  

Also on the train when the quake hits is a junkie, Jax (Lazaro Perez) and his girlfriend, Sandy (Laurette Spang). We begin the subterranean odyssey with these eight characters, and along the way, their numbers begin to dwindle in crisis after crisis.

The elephant in this subway system, other than the earthquake itself, is clearly racial tension.  As noted above, Tom and Ed butt heads over leadership, and whether to remain in the train, or to seek escape in the tunnel systems.  More plainly, Tom and Alvin also develop an immediate dislike of each other.  Tom takes Alvin for a criminal and thug at first, and Alvin sees only a racist cop who is out to judge him.  As the film progresses, Alvin and Tom confront each other as well as their own  prejudices.  Although they don't realize it at first, they are each  looking only at a stereotype, rather than the individual.

Desperation grows in the tunnels as several escape routes are blocked, and one tunnel route system under Brooklyn begins to flood.  The group realizes quickly that "no one is digging for" them early on a Sunday morning, under Wall Street, or anywhere else for that matter.  If they are going to survive, it's up to them.

A crisp 73 minutes in duration, Short Walk to Daylight makes the most of a small budget by fostering a powerful sense of claustrophobia.  After the film's first shot of Manhattan by night, the film cuts to a view of Sylvia and Joanne descending a long flight of stairs.  From that shot onwards, the film never actually returns to the world of the surface or the world of daylight.

Instead, after the earthquake scuttles the train, the film adopts a shaky cam to present an informal, spontaneous aura to the action.  Sometimes, the camera is also positioned behind broken glass, observing characters through a shattered lens, in essence. 

This kind of expressive mise-en-scene, along with the minimal lighting and restrictive set confines, grants Short Walk to Daylight a strong sense of disorder, chaos and urgency.  The small, gritty details are appreciated, and worth noting too.  The Iowa girl, Joanne (Bundy) breaks her nose in the quake, and spends the movie with a bloodied face.  And Tom's shirt is covered in sweat for the narrative's duration.  The persistent overlapping dialogue also adds to the unnerving vibe of a disaster unfolding "as live," essentially.

Short Walk to Daylight is also bolstered by a few impressive effects sequences, thanks to the hard work of Albert Whitlock.  A good matte painting reveals an overburdened tunnel at one point, and near the film's climax, water bursts into the tunnel and gravely imperils the survivors.  One character is washed out to sea in the rushing waves.  It all looks very convincing, and very deadly.

But in the final analysis, what works best about Short Walk to Daylight is the intense, unserving focus on the eight diverse dramatis personae.  Tom is a good cop, but one who thinks "you can shake people enough," so they'll do what he wants.  Alvin, by contrast, is a man with an overdeveloped persecution complex, and sees the earthquake as yet another one of the daily hurdles in his life to overcome.  "All my life, this city has been coming down on me," he notes, "and all I have to say is let it crumble on down."

The most sympathetic character in the drama  is Abbey Lincoln's character, Dorella, who is slow to trust and like her fellow survivors, and already exhausted from a hard night's work. 

The only thing Dorella desires is to be back at home, on a Sunday morning, with her two little boys.  Every Sunday morning you see, she gets to relax, and her children bring Mom breakfast in bed for a change. 

There's a moment in the film -- traversing a flooded tunnel compartment -- when Dorella's life is unexpectedly imperiled, and this TV-movie gets you exactly where it wants you.  After her monologue about Sunday mornings and her two sons, all you can think about are Dorella's children, facing the thought of life without their Mom.  Kathryn, who watched the film with me, threatened to bail out if anything bad happened to Dorella.  That's a testament to the film's effectiveness, and to the careful treatment of the characters.

Short Walk to Daylight never wears out its welcome, and never returns to daylight, even in its valedictory moment.  The reason, of course, is that all the drama is right here: these diverse people forced to contend with one another in the dark.  The issues at play, like their locale, are all part of the "underneath" of the American experience.  The battles over the law, jurisdiction and race reveal how different from one another Americans can sometimes seem; in every regard from philosophy to background.  But ultimately, the film also reveals  how similar we all are aside from such skin-deep differences.

Many disaster movies thrive on epic and expensive imagery: buildings falling down, skyscrapers on fire, the end of the world, even.  Short Walk to Daylight features good but minimal visual effects and saves the real fireworks for the character interaction.  It's a good call, because a Short Walk to Daylight is actually better than a  big-budget 1996 disaster film with roughly the same premise, called Daylight.   There, the focus was on impressive stunts and mock heroics, not people...and what people fear losing. 

Yet loss is the real looming threat of any disaster or crisis.  What moves us and motivates us is the terrible  fear of losing loved ones, or even our lives.  And that's what Short Walk to Daylight never forgets; the human  component of such tragedy.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Sci-Fi Wisdom of the Week

"At the end of time, a moment will come when just one man remains. Then the moment will pass. Man will be gone. There will be nothing to show that we were ever here... but stardust."

- Sunshine (2007)

RETRO TOY FLASHBACK # 92: Star Base Command Tower (Minor Industries; 1979)

The year 1979 was a pretty great one for kids who were interested in space adventuring. 

On the big screen: Star Trek: The Motion Picture, The Black Hole, Buck Rogers in the 25th Century, Moonraker and Alien

And at home on ABC TV every Sunday night: Battlestar Galactica. 

Toy stores were terrific places for the final-frontier-minded tykes as well.  Their shelves were packed with Kenner Star Wars figures, and, last but never least, The Micronauts. 

A cool thing about this era was that many toy companies without licenses to popular movie or TV franchises also jumped on the outer space bandwagon/craze and created some generic but wildly fun space adventure play sets and action figures.

These sorts of figures and sets have become a kind of weird passion for me over the years (and you can check out my home office collection these days, here.) 

I remember playing with a lot of these generic "space" toys as a child and wondering what series or film they were from. 

But the fact that they were from no such franchise at all made them perfect (and inspirational) sources for creative and ingenious play.  They became more interesting to me, actually, because I could, as a 9 year old kid, create my own universe.  I don't doubt that just such play actually developed my desire to be a writer.

Ideal's S*T*A*R* Team (1977) leaps to mind, a neat Star Wars rip-off toy line, with a menacing Darth Vader-ish villain called "Knight of Darkness." 

And right around 1980, Sears had a fold-out Star Fortress play set that was a heck of a lot of fun (and again, sized just right for your Star Wars figure collection).  

In 1979, Minor Industries released a "space play set" as well, the over-sized "Star Base Command Tower" (No. 3321) that is the subject of this flashback.

"A tower of space play for adventurers" (ages 7 and up...), The Star Base Command Tower is a heavy cardboard, easy-to-assemble edifice. 

It consists of a "four level space command structure," and an "Exterior Transparent Elevator Shaft with manually functioning elevator."

It also came with a complete "assemblage of space force equipment."

On this last front, the set included a white tank-like vehicle, a rocket launcher, a space sled of sorts and two red headquarter "domes" with transparent tops. 

Better yet, the Star Base Command Tower also came "fully manned with finely detailed space action figures."   These astronauts are molded in various action poses, carrying walkie-talkies, tools and the like. 

Truth be told, they look more like a throwback to the late 1960s, 2001: A Space Odyssey/Major Matt Mason era than Star Wars-like characters, but that's fine with me since I grew up on a steady diet of Planet of the Apes and The Green Slime. 

Still, the design of the figures makes me wonder if this play set was a re-issue of a much older one.

Anyway, I always have my eyes out for these generic star bases, command towers, command bases, and galactic fortresses.  I came upon this one recently -- in outstanding condition -- and plan on sharing it with my son Joel, this summer. 

"Sharing" means I'll put the base together and then have a blast watching him play with it.    After he goes to bed though, I'm definitely going to test out that transparent, manually operated elevator...

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: The Running Man (1987)

"This is television, that's all it is. It has nothing to do with people, it's to do with ratings! For fifty years, we've told them what to eat, what to drink, what to wear.  For Christ's sake, Ben, don't you understand? Americans love television. They wean their kids on it. Listen. They love game shows, they love wrestling, they love sports and violence. So what do we do? We give 'em what they want! We're number one, Ben, that's all that counts, believe me."

-Damon Killian, in The Running Man (1987) 

Based on a 1982 sci-fi novel by Richard Bachman (Stephen King, actually), the motion picture version of The Running Man (1987) arrived in theaters during the Great Year of Arnold Schwarzenegger; the very season that also brought audiences John McTiernan's Predator. 

Although viewers typically and rightly associate Schwarzenegger with action films, The Running Man ably and rather surprisingly functions best as a satire of American television and politics.  

While the writing and performances in this dystopian film tend towards the razor sharp, the action sequences in the film don't always hold up as well. They feel episodic, dull, predictable and repetitive.  To be certain, the film is a highly entertaining experience from start to finish, but never, precisely, the adrenalin-inducing thrill ride that some action fans might hope for or expect.  Still, it seems the film's trademark action scenes did inspire a real life competition TV series entitled American Gladiators (1989 - 1996), right down to the spandex costumes.

Bachman/King's literary version of The Running Man remains far more grim, serious and spectacular in approach than the Schwarzenegger film, a fact which makes the possibility of a more source-faithful movie adaptation a possibility, especially in this age of remakes.  The novel as you may recall, is set in a totalitarian America in 2025 and involves a man, Ben Richards, "running" on a popular TV program so as to pay for expensive medicine for his ailing daughter. 

The movie version eliminates this important character background and motivation, as well as the novel's incendiary, unforgettable ending; one which transforms Richards from a game show contestant to a bonafide enemy of the state and so-called "terrorist." 

In other words, the 1987 movie version is less interested in creating real, identifiable characters and building a believable dystopian future world than it is in commenting humorously (if accurately) on aspects of our own world.  Not there's anything wrong with that.  Like I wrote above, it's the biting satire of American media and politics that makes The Running Man a rewarding film to watch over twenty years after it was released.  If anything, the film's observations about our entertainment seems only more apt in 2013, after ten years+ of reality television programming.

The movie version of The Running Man actually has much more in common with Roger Corman and Paul Bartel's trail-blazing Death Race 2000 (1975) than King's literary portrait of a totalitarian future America.  In both Death Race 2000 and The Running Man, the media and the government have joined forces -- through a popular TV show -- to divert  the attention of the poverty-stricken masses.  While the country fails, these "bread and circuses" successfully keep the populace distracted from real problems, namely the class warfare between the haves and the have-nots.  In both films, the popular TV show overtly focuses on bloodshed and violence, either in the form of a cross-country race or a pedestrian chase.

Directed by Paul Michael Glaser, The Running Man also shares much in common with another great 1987 science fiction movie, Verhoeven's RoboCop.  To wit, both cinematic endeavors feature short, satirical commercials and imagery that reveal, at length, how crass and stupid network television can really be.  Ironically, considering Schwarzenegger's presence, The Running Man also shares RoboCop's  anti-establishment suspicion of the ascendant right wing in America during the eighties. 

Where RoboCop humorously depicted the end result of privatizing anything and everything in America, including the police force, The Running Man gazes more directly at the cult of celebrity in America and the ever-increasing blending of politics and entertainment. 

Lest we forget it, a Hollywood actor was President of the United States in 1987 and, because of his advanced age, some folks considered him more a showman by many than an actual leader in terms of policy and administration.   The Running Man takes that premise further, envisioning a wholesale blending of entertainment and politics at every level of government. 

For instance, at one point in the film, Killian (game show host Richard Dawson) barks "Get me the Justice Department...Entertainment Division."  In the same scene, he orders an underling to "get me the President's agent."  In another sequence, "court-appointed talent agents" are discussed.

The idea here is that Hollywood and politics are a match made in Heaven (or is it Hell?).  Both Hollywood and Washington D.C. focus on the same important task: selling imagery and fantasy, not reality, to an American populace desperately seeking hope, truth and justice.

The film is even more cynical (and wonderful) than that.  It suggests that concepts such as justice are all just a game, anyway...a spin of the wheel of fortune.  And in the world of The Running Man, freedom isn't even on the board.  You can win such great prizes (if you're lucky...) as "trial by jury," "suspended sentence" and even "a full pardon," but real liberty is absent.  

"I'm not into politics.  I'm into survival."

The Running Man is set in the year 2019.  The World Economy has collapsed and food, oil and natural resources are in short supply all over the United States. 

Because of these crises, a police state has arisen in America.  No dissent is tolerated, and television is controlled and created entirely by the State.

Helicopter pilot Ben Richards (Schwarzenegger) is arrested by his fellow officers when he refuses to open fire on unarmed civilians during an urban food riot.  But the State manipulates video footage of this event and thus transforms the innocent Richards into "The Butcher of Bakersfield." 

This is another example of government's manipulation of media, and media imagery in the film; the transformation of a real-life hero into a hiss-able villain for wide-scale public consumption.  An easily digestible image or sound-bite is packaged and sold, rather than a possibly-damaging, harder-to-countenance reality.

Richards  is sent to a work camp and spends the next eighteen months there.  After an escape from the labor camp, Ben Richards is apprehended by authorities thanks to lovely, Amber (Maria Conchita Alonso), a citizen who believes the lies about "The Butcher."  When Damon Killian (Dawson), host of the number one TV show, The Running Man, sees news footage of Richards in action, the ratings-hungry showman realizes he's discovered the next great star.  He quickly negotiates to have Ben Richards turned over to him.

Richards reluctantly appears on The Running Man, a game show in which contestants run for their lives...against terrible odds.  There, he is pitted against government "heroes" -- really bloodthirsty killers --with names such as Sub-Zero, Bloodlust, Buzzsaw, Dynamite and Captain Freedom (Jesse Ventura). 

However, if Richards can hook up with the People's Network, a growing resistance movement, and gain control of the Running Man transmission, Killian may have a few surprises coming his way...

Mr. Richards, I'm your court-appointed theatrical agent.

The Running Man works overtime, and with more than a modicum of cleverness, to create a world in which image and reality don't match up. 

Again, this is what I have often termed the Be Afraid, Be Very Afraid/Don't Worry Be Happy duality of the decade. 

Americans were asked in the 1980s to believe that they could spend (much) more on national defense and pay lower taxes and shrink government all at the same time. 

This was the essence of  the argument in 1980, but by 1988, government had grown considerably, adding 61,000 Federal jobs to Washington.  Also, taxes were raised three times, in 1983 (gas tax), in 1984, and in the Tax Reform Act of 1986.  Finally, America piled on  2.7 trillion dollars to the national debt in those eight years.  The people were sold the very appealing mantra of lower taxes, smaller government and affordable defense, but that was not what was delivered by Washington D.C.

The Running Man reflects the huge gap between reality and fantasy that we saw in real life during those years.  Damon Killian -- whose name always makes me think of Simon Cowell --  is a character who puts on a face of love and kindness for audiences.  He kisses old ladies, and hand-holds nervous contestants.   But he is actually a mean-spirited, power-mad, control-freak.  In one scene, Killian nearly trips on a newly waxed floor in his office building.  An employee apologizes to him, and Killian graciously accepts the apology to the employee's face. As soon as the custodian is gone, Killian orders him to be fired.

This is just one small example of the reality/imagery gap.  As mentioned above, Killian has the Bakersfield food riot videotape edited so that it presents a lie, the very opposite of the truth.  A man who should be lauded as a hero, Richards, is instead despised as a villain...all so Killian can get better ratings.  Similarly, Killian makes another attempt to deceive audiences late in the film, utilizing "traveling mattes" and other state-of-the-art special effects techniques to make it appear as though Richards is killed in the contest when, in fact, he has escaped unharmed.

Another of Killian's lies: last season's winners on The Running Man are not celebrating on a tropical beach somewhere, they've been murdered by Killian. 

Described succinctly, everything Killian does in public and for the TV show is a show.  It bears no resemblance to reality.  It's just show business...but this behavior is especially sinister in the film because lives are on the line, and the movie has explicitly connected show business to politics and government.

The people of America aren't exactly spared harsh criticism by this satire either.  Although Killian repeatedly discusses "traditional morality" and such on The Running Man, the people in America are actually nourished on a steady diet of violence, avarice and perversion. 

We see this fact exemplified in one of the commercials made for the film, Climbing for Dollars, which shows hungry dogs nipping at the feet of contestants as they climb a rope, scrambling to collect money.  At another point, we see a poster for a television series entitled "The Hate Boat."   Again, this is not traditional morality, it's sex and violence as governmental distraction or sleight-of-hand. 

The audience members watching The Running Man are particularly fickle too.  At first they mourn when their gladiators die in battle.  But soon enough, they are hooting and hollering in favor of Richards, the very man who killed their "favorites."  Again, the projected image is one of decency and traditional values, but it's not real.  "Words can't express" how sad the audience feels at the loss of their heroes says Killian.  But then he cuts to commercials, and sells more "Cadre Cola."   Apparently mourning can't get in the way of making a few bucks.  And the audience can't even remember who they were rooting for before the commercial break.  

The Running Man works efficiently as a satire because it reveals so well how films and TV can, in the wrong hands, be utterly manipulated and manipulative.  The film's master-stroke regarding this leitmotif involves the casting of Richard Dawson, former host of Family Feud.  Hiring Dawson was a real coup, because he very ably mocks his familiar game show persona but then layers on the screen character's private, caustic face.   Dawson makes for an extraordinary villain by playing on our expectations and then totally subverting them. 

In The New York Times, Vincent Canby noted: "Mr. Dawson, who was the host of television's long-running ''Family Feud'' game show, is wonderfully comic as a fellow who'd star his own beloved dad as the ''running man'' if it would buy him a few points. His hair always perfectly blow-dried, his haberdashery immaculate, Mr. Dawson steals the movie as a personality composed of equal parts of Phil Donahue, Merv Griffin and Maximilien Francois Marie Isidore (Mickey) Robespierre."

More than the imposing Schwarzenegger, Dawson is the fuel that drives The Running Man, making it so very wicked, so much fun, and seemingly so real.   That established, this is also one of the Governator's most impressive film performances. The Washington Post wrote: "Pumped and primed for self-parody, the burly star proves as funny as he is ferocious in this tough guy's commentary on America's preoccupation with violence and game shows."  I agree with that review as well.  If Dawson is willing to mock his public image here (and he is), Schwarzenegger courageously goes down that same path with him, even mimicking his most famous screen line, "I'll be back," and opening himself up for Dawson's great comeback.

"Only in reruns..."

There's something very post-modern happening here.  The Running Man tackles the unholy juncture of television and politics at the same time that it playfully pivots off our intimate knowledge and affection for Dawson's and Schwarzenneger's familiar screen personas.  It's a very, very...meta equation, for lack of a better term.

I only wish that the action scenes in The Running Man were a little more varied, a little less predictable  A killer is called on stage, and then he goes in to hunt Richards.  Richard is victorious and it's time for another hunter.  Rinse and repeat.  Ad nauseum.  Watching the film, you get the distinct sense that all of the talent was energized by the film's witty ideas, but that the action scenes were sort of left to fend for themselves.

Still, The Running Man isn't out of steam, even today.  It gets a lot of the "future" detail just right.  From fears of an economic collapse to fuel shortages, the film makes some pretty accurate guesses about the 2010s.  At one point, Ben Richards books his escape route/travel itinerary on an interactive television set, a precursor to something we do on the Internet now all the time. 

And also, of course, this 1987 film seems to understand that our television and politics were headed towards a generation of ingrained and unimaginable cruelty.

It's not a pretty picture, but I bet that with just a few tweaks here and there, Killian's The Running Man would be a pretty big hit with some people these days....

National Twilight Zone Day: "Come Wander with Me"

There are, perhaps, several episodes of Rod Serling's classic   The Twilight Zone  (1959-1964) more sharply-written, more morally-valuab...