Monday, December 31, 2012

Remembering 2012 on the Blog, and Looking Ahead to 2013...

Well, 2012 ends today.  Thankfully, the Mayan Calendar worries proved to be as big a catastrophe as Y2K...meaning none at all.

Here on the blog, Reflections registered its biggest year yet in terms of readership and by a considerable margin too.   There were also more posts here, as I hope you noticed. 

Last year: 383 posts. This year: over 1090.  

In terms of specifics, we had Saturdays with Sinbad and a retrospective of the Jurassic Park films to start things out.  I also reviewed the Star Wars Original Trilogy, and the first four Superman films.

In 2012, we also celebrated Breakaway Day, Buck Rogers Day, and Star Trek: The Next Generation Day for its 25th anniversary.  We also had many Savage Cinema Fridays and celebrated the fiftieth anniversary of James Bond at the movies.

We also remembered the Films of 1982, and began a survey of the Films of 1983, which will continue in 2013.  I initiated the new feature “Ask JKM a Question” and to my delight we had more than fifty-nine questions from readers.  I love answering these terrific questions, and still have several more in the queue that I'm working through.   

We also went through a handful of cult-TV series together, including The Fantastic Journey (1977), Otherworld (1985), Ark II (1976), Ghost Story/Circle of Fear (1973 – 1974), Land of the Lost Season Two (1975) and Season Three, Jason of Star Command (1979), and Brimstone (1998 – 1999).  We're currently in the thick of The Starlost (1973-1974).

For Thanksgiving, we had a monster-thon with King Kong and Godzilla, and my most widely-read, quoted, and talked about review of 2012 was, by far, for Ridley Scott's Prometheus.

I plan to have as active and exciting a year on the blog in 2013, so I hope you’ll all be back for more "reflections" on film and television too. 

Two things definitely in the cards: We’ll be celebrating the 20th anniversary of Chris Carter’s The X-Files (1993 – 2002), and I hope to review at least one-episode-a-week, picking my fifty favorite episodes or thereabouts.   Similarly, 2013 is the fiftieth anniversary of the original Doctor Who, so I'll also be looking back at some my favorite serials there.  Plus, we'll see the release of Star Trek: Into Darkness and The Man of Steel.

As I always like to say at the end of each year, the best is yet to come.  

Thank you for your readership in 2012, and for your continued support.  This place would be nothing without your energy and commentary.

Television and Cinema Verities #51

“Reality is incredibly larger, infinitely more exciting, than the flesh and blood vehicle we travel in here. If you read science fiction, the more you read it the more you realize that you and the universe are part of the same thing. Science knows still practically nothing about the real nature of matter, energy, dimension, or time; and even less about those remarkable things called life and thought. But whatever the meaning and purpose of this universe, you are a legitimate part of it. And since you are part of the all that is, part of its purpose, there is more to you than just this brief speck of existence. You  are just a visitor here in this time and this place, a traveler through it.” 

- Gene Roddenberry, creator of Star Trek

Sunday, December 30, 2012

Tribute Gallery 2012

Michael Clarke Duncan (1957 - 2012)

Neil Armstrong (1930 - 2012)

Tony Scott (1944 - 2012)

William Windom (1923 - 2012)

Carlo Rambaldi (1925 - 2012)

Sally Ride (1951 - 2012)

R.G. Armstrong (1917 - 2012)

Jonathan Frid (1924 - 2012)

Ralph McQuarrie (1929 - 2012)

Davy Jones (1945 - 2012)

Ernest Borgnine (1917 - 2012)

Larry Hagman (1931 - 2012)

Dolores Mantez (1938 - 2012)

Gary Collins (1938 -2012)

Jack Klugman (1922 - 2012)

 Charles Durning (1923 - 2012)

Gerry Anderson (1929 - 2012)

Lee Hansen (1968 - 2012), star of my web series, The House Between and beloved friend.

If I failed to include any movie/cult-tv luminaries in this list I culled from the blog in 2012, I apologize wholeheartedly for the oversight. No slight or insult is intended.

Please feel free to leave your thoughts and memories regarding these personalities -- or  any others who passed away in 2012 -- in the comments section, below, if you would like.

Saturday, December 29, 2012

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: Land of the Lost: "Medusa" (October 9, 1976)

The fifth episode of the third (and final) season of the NBC Saturday morning series highlights the mythological Medusa -- snake-haired Gorgon (sister in myth to Euryale and Stheno) -- as the villain of the week.

And indeed, if you are familiar with this bicentennial-era series, it may sound like a real stretch that the Gorgon Medusa would appear in the "closed" pocket-universe of the Land of the Lost. But 1976 was a year of significant format alterations for this series, as we've seen in the preceding weeks.

Specifically, star Spencer Milligan -- playing Dad, Rick Marshall -- left the program. On screen, Ron Harper (Planet of the Apes) took the lead as Uncle Jack, and behind the scenes, Sam Roeca, a veteran of CBS's animated Valley of the Dinosaurs, came aboard as writer and story editor. Also, writer/producer Jon Kubichan joined up.

"The first thing that Sam and I did was watch all the episodes," Kubichan reported when I interviewed him for Filmfax. "I wanted the series to be more fun, and to do something in every episode that was instructive in terms of science."

Roeca was on the same page in these desires and shared a mutual enthusiasm for mythology with Kubichan. 

Together, the new team sought to present in each third season installment "something from the past, from some literature or children's narrative."

This shift in narrative/imaginative focus resulted in a controversial third season that saw the Marshalls grapple with mythological creatures and beings such as The Flying Dutchman, a unicorn, a fire-breathing dragon, the Yeti...and Medusa.

"Medusa wound her way into the Land of the Lost because that actress is my wife," Kubichan joked with me.

"A writer that I knew came in, Greg Strangis, and came up with his story. He said, 'How'd you like to do a Medusa story?' and I thought it was a good idea. He went home, worked out a story, and I made some changes. He re-wrote a little, and that was that."

One reason that humanoid mythological creations like Medusa appeared on the show so frequently in the third season involved matters of schedule and budget. "It was very difficult to do anything with the dinosaurs," Kubichan informed me. "It took a long time to shoot that stuff, so you can't have it done in a couple of days. It takes weeks..."

In "Medusa," Holly (Kathy Coleman), Will (Wesley Eure) and Cha-Ka (Philip Paley) are busy preparing a sort of emergency canoe on the river that the Marshalls explored in first season's "Downstream." Holly boards the craft, and when a dam down-river breaks, she end ups hurtling away from the others. She is rescued by a mysterious woman named "Meddie" (Marion Thompson), and escorted to Meddie's "Garden of Eternity."

There, in the Garden, Holly sees several very life-like statues, including a statue of one Jefferson Davis Collies, the Civil War soldier that Holly encountered with her Dad and Will in the aforementioned "Downstream."

Now, this is a really splendid and entirely unexpected bit of continuity in the series; a direct reference to a program two years previous. The statue of Collies is even seen with his beloved cannon, Sarah.

After Holly learns that "Meddie" has also turned the land's resident triceratops, Spike, to stone, she begins to suspect that she's in some real trouble. Meddie attempts to entice Holly to stay in the Garden by offering her a new, beautiful dress..

Elsewhere, Uncle Jack, Will and Cha-Ka, attempt to rescue Holly from Meddie -- Medusa -- but most grapple with the Gorgon's sentient mirror (!) and the ambulatory, crushing vines that crawl all over the Garden of Eternity. In the end, Jack defeats Medusa by forcing the monster to gaze upon her own horrifying reflection...

Today, Land of the Lost's dedicated sense of creative imagination and fantasy far outstrips the production's prehistoric special effects, which have not aged gracefully. The series is still incredibly enjoyable (the effects are no worse than Dr. Who's; or Blake's 7, for instance...), but "Medusa" is nonetheless hampered by some poor visualizations. 

For instance, when "Meddie" turns into the Gorgon, it's clear that the snakes in her hair are just rubbery, inanimate, life-less things. And her gray, monstrous face make-up doesn't extend fully down her neck. In other words, you can see clearly where the make-up stops and real flesh color begin.

But again, Land of the Lost remains a really terrific Saturday morning's kid show because it is so endlessly imaginative, and because many episodes tend to concern great concepts, whether from science fiction (like time-loops, for instance) or from mythology. Greg Strangis's fantasy story is actually grounded in reality too, and has two very notable themes.

In a very real way -- and this is probably why this episode was so frightening to children at the time -- the episode concerns our childhood fear of strangers. 

Here, Holly is alone and taken in by an apparently kind adult, but one with secret motives. She tries and tries to get away, but the adult is both demanding and apparently friendly simultaneously, and, well, it's hard for kids to go against the wishes of an adult. Here, the stranger is indeed a monster, and Holly must plot her escape carefully. So the story here, in veiled terms, is -- watch out for strangers.

The other sub-text in "Medusa" surely concerns vanity. "Meddie" is ultimately undone by her narcissistic obsession with her physical beauty. According to the teleplay, it is actually "ugly" to be too concerned with one's self. As Holly notes at the end, the problem with vanity is that you might -- like Medusa -- get "trapped" by it.

As a six-year old kid, Land of the Lost's "Medusa" terrified me to my core, but it wasn't just the Gorgon's appearance and frightening ability to turn people to stone that was so powerful; it was the idea that she was a dishonest, untrustworthy adult who was planning to do monstrous things to an innocent child. that's disturbing in a real life way; a way that, well, dinosaurs or Sleestak are not.

Today, it's probably hard to conceive that an innocuous Land of the Lost from the disco decade was ever something that was legitimately "scary." But even today, you can detect how the series always attempted to ambitiously present a lot on a very small budget. 

For instance, "Medusa" features one or two very impressive high angle shots of Medusa's lair. These difficult-to-stage angles get across the atmosphere of danger and dread in a powerful way. A kid's show in a hurry likely wouldn't have found the time to pick out the right angle in moments like these, but Land of the Lost remains powerful (especially to the young-at-heart...) because its stories were conveyed with care both on the page and on the stage.

"Medusa" is a strong entry for the third season, which has been some rough sailing thus far.  It's imaginative and scary, even if certain questions about it persist.  Like, for instance how did Medusa get into the Land of the Lost, and how has she so long eluded the notice of the Marshalls (or the Sleestak, for that matter?)

Next week: "Cornered."

Friday, December 28, 2012

2012 at the Movies #12: Skyfall

It’s unofficial, of course, but if you scrape just beneath the surface of Skyfall (2012) -- the new James Bond thriller -- the designation “M” clearly stands for “Mother” or “Mom.”

Unconventionally, this twenty-third Bond film is a modern action movie concerning a mature woman (played by Judi Dench) who has -- perhaps not fully realizing it -- become the only parent to two grown and needy (or maladjusted…) sons. 

One son, a man called Raoul Silva (Javier Bardem), has rebelled against his mother for her sins, choosing to reject all of her lessons because he feels unloved and abandoned.

The other son, James Bond (Daniel Craig), realizes that this powerful mother figure is responsible for giving his life some sense of purpose, and thus goes to extreme, life-and-death measures to protect her from his enraged “brother.”

Also -- and please make no mistake about this fact – the new Bond Girl of Skyfall is clearly M, not Naomie Harris’s Eve, Severine (Berenice Marlohe), or anyone else, for that matter. 

For the first time in Bond history then, the primary Bond/female relationship does not concern sex or romance, but the maternal, mother-son relationship.

On these relatively startling grounds alone, Skyfall distinguishes itself from the twenty-two previous cinematic installments in the James Bond series. 

Delightfully, however, Skyfall also thoroughly re-invents Bond’s place in the world, lamenting the 21st century reliance on computers and unmanned drones over “human intelligence” in the dangerous game of espionage.  The film thereby forges the (the Luddite?) argument that sometimes the old ways -- like a knife in the back -- still get the job done best.

Skyfall also celebrates fifty years of James Bond movie traditions and history.  Therefore, one can readily gaze at this prominently-featured Luddite argument as a rationalization, as a self-justification, in some sense, for the continuation of the long-running franchise in the second decade of the 21st century. 

Even today, in the age or push-button soldiers, we need 007. 

This argument about the primacy of human values in the Remote Control Age is so exhilaratingly presented that Skyfall often feels like a grand revelation.  Everything “old” is new again, and this Bond film brilliantly sends Agent 007 into a brave new world, even while re-establishing all the old characters (like Q and Moneypenny) and old genre gimmicks we’ve come to expect (like the Aston Martin’s ejector seat).

It’s quite a deft balancing act, and Skyfall is at once cheeky and legitimately sentimental in tone.  It would be easy to term so exciting and revelatory a Bond film the best series installment in years, but Casino Royale -- just six years in the past -- must still earn high marks for resetting the series, grounding Bond, and introducing Craig.  Without those accomplishments, the highs of Skyfall might not have been conceivable.

Instead, the arrival of Skyfall forces long-time Bond fans to concretely reckon with the once-impossible-seeming notion that the Sean Connery Era has, at long-last, been surpassed 

Bond is back and -- no hyperbole -- he’s better than ever.

Mommy was very bad.” 

Skyfall opens in Turkey, as James Bond, 007 (Craig) and an operative named Eve (Harris) attempt to recover a stolen hard-drive that contains the files of every undercover NATO operative working in terrorist organizations. 

Eve is ordered by M (Dench) to take a difficult shot against the possessor of the drive, the evil Patrice (Ola Rapace). But Eve hits Bond instead, thereby losing the drive and an agent.

Some months later, Bond -- who is believed dead -- resurfaces when the MI6 building in London is bombed.  M escapes the attack, but feels political pressure from Gareth Mallory (Ralph Fiennes) to explain the loss of the hard-drive, and now a terrorist attack on British soil.

Although he is not yet physically or psychologically ready to return to duty, M nonetheless sends Bond out to track Patrice.  The trail leads Bond to Raoul Silva (Bardem) a vengeful former MI6 agent eager to make M “think on her sins.”   

With Silva launching one terrorist attack after another -- all aimed at killing M -- Bond decides to take his superior off the grid, and back to his family’s long-abandoned country estate in Scotland, called Skyfall.

“Less of a random killing machine, more of a personal statement.”

As I wrote above in my introduction, Skyfall primarily concerns a family dynamic.  In this unusual family, M is the mother, Raoul is one son, and Bond -- believed dead but actually out carousing on the beach -- is the Prodigal Son.

Bond finally returns to save his mother’s life after Raoul enters the picture.   Apparently, Raoul has interpreted M’s dedication to duty as a personal statement against him, a mirror of Bond’s situation.  Silva, however, conveniently overlooks the fact that he was the one who first transgressed on a mission to Hong Kong some years earlier.

Given this family dynamic, Skyfall also concerns -- in a strange way -- the value of forgiveness.  Bond is able to remember that M’s stewardship provided him a home and a purpose, and he forgives her for ordering Eve to take a shot that nearly results in his death. 

M is similarly able to forgive Bond’s trespasses and welcome back the Prodigal Son, the boy who went out into the world with the inheritance of responsibility and purpose and squandered that inheritance on booze, sex, and scorpions.

By contrast, Raoul Silva -- who evidently still loves M (or Mom…) -- can’t see his path to forgiveness, and remains consumed by overwhelming hatred because of Mom’s abandonment.

This family dynamic plays out in Skyfall even in terms of setting and locations. Bond -- a boy forever in search of the parents he tragically lost in childhood -- brings M back to his family estate, Skyfall to play house, after a fashion.  There, 007 also re-connects with an old friend and mentor Kincade (Albert Finney), a surrogate father figure.

The three characters -- working and living together at Skyfall -- are, briefly, a family, replete with a home and a hearth.  Bond thus recreates the family home he never had in his youth.  Raoul arrives and destroys that home, refusing to forgive Mom and rejoin the family.

In exploring this dynamic, Skyfall is perhaps the most human and personal of all the Bond films.  It explores not only the elements of Bond’s tragic and lonely past, but excavates the nature of his (violent) life in terms of how he sees his connections to others.  For Bond, M and Kincade are the only family he can count on when the chips are down, though there is the suggestion that Mallory may become a father figure as well. 

Outside this dramatic through-line, Skyfall establishes a roiling tension and competition between 21st century espionage and Bondian-style espionage, which came of age during the Cold War of the 1960s. 

This tension is expressed best in the quips back and forth between the mid-life Bond and his young, new Q (or Quartermaster), played by Billie Whishaw.  Q tells Bond that “age is no guarantee of efficiency,” and Bond’s response is that “youth is no guarantee of innovation.” 

In other words, a person with experience and expertise still has something to offer in the world of espionage.

Q also comments explicitly on a painting in an art gallery where he first meets 007.  The painting depicts a warship’s decommissioning. 

It always makes me feel a bit melancholy,” Q opines. “Grand old war ship…being ignominiously haunted away to scrap... The inevitability of time, don't you think? What do you see?

What Bond sees, of course, is that he is that old warship, and the one succumbing to the inevitability of time.  

He isn’t as young as he once was, and he faces the possibility that he will soon be obsolete, outmoded in the Remote Control Age.  But the events of Skyfall prove otherwise.  There is still room in the world for Bond’s brand of “human” intelligence.

Even M gets into the act of discussing the present and the past by quoting Alfred Tennyson’s Ulysses at a critical dramatic juncture:

“Tho' much is taken, much abides; and tho' 
We are not now that strength which in old days 
Moved heaven and earth; that which we are, we are; 
One equal temper of heroic hearts, 
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will 
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.”

This is Bond’s gift to the world, and perhaps England’s as well.  Bond and England no longer dictate the movement of Heaven and Earth, but their wills remain strong, and when threatened, they will not yield.  They are, as they have been….heroic hearts.

The emotionally-delivered Tennyson quotation above thus permits Skyfall to proudly re-assert Bond’s importance in the cinema, and even Bond’s place in the world. Jason Bournes and Ethan Hunts of the world be damned, there’s still a place for Bond, James Bond in the 21st Century.

The battle between Silva and Bond is not merely one of brothers, but of belief-systems, the film cleverly reminds us.  Silva is the high-tech terrorist hiding behind anonymous servers and diabolical hacks. Meanwhile, Bond is the old-world dinosaur who still enjoys his Aston Martin’s ejector seat, and takes M off the grid, to a brick-and-mortar home he hasn’t seen in years. 

It’s digital vs. analog…and analog carries the day.

The amazing thing is that in our convenient and robust Web 2.0 Age, we root in Skyfall for analog to win. 

We long for the romance and sheer individuality of a character like James Bond.  He calls not upon gadgets, tools, or software to win the day, but some deep internal reservoir of individual will and discipline.  We may be constantly perfecting our tools and gadgets, but Bond has perfected his human mechanism, and in reminding us of that, Skyfall has perfected the Bond formula.

It’s appropriate that the last act of Skyfall involves an all-out siege which is more Peckinpah and Straw Dogs (1971) than Ian Fleming, because the analog world does feel, at times, under siege, doesn’t it?  The Old Guard seems to be crumbling, a brick at a time, and some people view this shift as the End of History, and not as the beginning of Something New, perhaps Something Great. 

In an age of irrational exuberance about gadgets, apps, and computerized military capabilities, James Bond and Skyfall remind us that a reliance on humanity -- on our experience and wisdom -- can be the most potent weapon of all.

Here’s to another fifty years of James Bond and his heroic heart.

2012 at the Movies #10: Battleship

“We only have to look at ourselves to see how intelligent life might develop into something we wouldn’t want to meet.…If aliens ever visit us, I think the outcome would be much as when Christopher Columbus landed in America, which didn’t turn out very well for the Native Americans.”
-Stephen Hawking

Hollywood certainly has squeezed a lot of creative mileage lately from that quote excerpted above, and rightly so.  The idea of malevolent aliens raping and pillaging the Earth -- and wiping us out in the process -- is a powerful and frightening one indeed. 

It works so easily in our current global context, I suspect, because we seem to be developing new and powerful technologies daily, while our wisdom hasn’t necessarily gone hand-in-hand with the “improvements.”  It’s not difficult to imagine a race of desperate, resource-starved aliens casting their eyes upon our beautiful home world, and deciding that we’re ripe for the plucking.  It’s their survival or ours.

To one extent or another, films including Skyline (2011), Battle: LA (2011), and even The Darkest Hour (2011) have all been informed by this notion of alien imperialists looting our beloved Mother Earth and committing genocide against mankind.

This summer’s Battleship -- based on the famous game by Hasbro -- utilizes the same inspiration to generally positive effect.  Here, a distant planet in the “Goldilocks Zone” of its star system sends an advanced military scout team of five ships to assess our planet for invasion and/or colonization.  But its communications’ ship is destroyed in orbit, meaning that the aliens must harness our own satellite technology against us.

Cue the U.S. Navy, which by happenstance is undergoing a battle exercise in the Pacific just as the alien force set-up camp in the ocean. 

With only three naval vessels inside the aliens’ force field bubble and able to intervene in the crisis on humanity’s behalf, the Navy must stop the aliens from sending home a message indicating that the coast is clear for all-out invasion.

Leading the surviving Navy ship -- and quite unexpectedly so -- is untested Alex Hopper (Taylor Kitsch), a slack, rule-breaking officer who is about to be drummed out of the service for conduct unbecoming an officer.    

Does this insubordinate, unserious loser have what it takes to save the Earth and all-of-the human race?
In broad strokes, that’s Battleship’s narrative. 

And in short, this movie is big, dumb, and, well, fun.  The film’s first few establishing scenes, with a “Burrito Girl” booty run are so breathtakingly stupid you may be tempted to turn off the film at once and watch something else.  But try to hold on.

Because after an egregiously rough first act, Battleship picks itself up, dusts itself off, and offers a compelling tale of human vs. alien combat on the open sea.  Going in, one should understand that Battleship is a generic “blockbuster”-type film, not prone to subtlety or nuance.  But the special effects are extraordinary, and the cat-and-mouse battle between the denizens of Earth and the evil aliens grows increasingly tense and desperate.

Battleship is thus a movie you can fall in love with for at least one night. You may hate yourself the next morning. 

But gee whiz, what a night…

Directed by Peter Berg -- who brought television one of its best dramatic series ever in Friday Night Lights -- Battleship really goes for the gusto here, plucking every string in its overwrought, manipulative arsenal to prime entertainment effect.  There’s an East/West rapprochement (at Pearl Harbor, no less), a paean to soldiers wounded in war, and a twenty-one gun salute to the Greatest Generation.

I must admit, I indeed felt a lump form in my throat form while watching the eighty-year old veterans of World War II take the battleship U.S.S. Missouri out of mothballs to save freedom…one last time.  It’s cheesy as all Hell, but it works. By the time of the Missouri’s up-fit for battle against the evil aliens, I knew the movie had me in its grip.

Treading a bit deeper, Battleship features two qualities that help it land a cut above the Michael Bay Transformers movies.  These are: the depiction of the aliens as only slightly more advanced humanoids than us, and the nature of the decision-making during the crisis.

On the former front, the film -- again like Battle: LA -- pits man against aliens who are just a little bit ahead of us in terms of their technology.  They have a big advantage, but it isn’t necessarily a decisive one.  Once we learn their weaknesses, it’s game on.  Again, one must consider this dynamic a metaphor for the Iraq War.  There, our forces romped easily to Baghdad, but then had to face a homegrown insurgency.  I enjoy how the aliens are presented in Battleship because they seem like authentic soldiers, not just hissable movie villains.  They’re here to do a specific job, not engage in unnecessary brutality, and they are close enough to us in terms of physicality that we can recognize their motives.   They’re completing a mission they've been tasked with; nothing more.

On the latter front, Battleship puts its Navy personnel through the wringer, and again and again asks Hopper to choose between two equally unenviable and difficult options.  At some point, the discussion of the crew surviving the day is off the table. It all comes down to one question: how do we leverage whatever advantage we have to save the planet?  For all its shallow and generic qualities, Battleship asks its main characters to make some pretty tough calls.

I suspect the readership here already knows exactly what kind of film Battleship is.  It’s a film where handicapped soldiers get-up on their (prosthetic) feet and triumphantly walk, where cowardly scientists find the ability to stand up and fight, and where loveable losers step up and accept the mantel of responsibility.  It’s really just a re-purposed collection of all our old familiar war clichés.  And yet, somehow, the movie manages to be entertaining and engaging moment-to-moment, scene-to-scene.

Perhaps part of the reason Battleship succeeds as ably as it does involves lead actor Taylor Kitsch.  Unlike a lot of young actors today, he possesses a unique ability to simultaneously be in the action and comment on the action.  He’s nearly Harrison Ford-esque in this quality.

In other words, Kitsch manages to convey some sense of self and character outside the specifics of the script, thus making some of the (groan-worthy) dialogue somehow less important.  Kitsch effortlessly carried John Carter (2012) this summer, which -- pound-for-pound -- is a much better film, but he performs the same task ably here.  Don’t believe all those stories in the press about Kitsch being in two major bombs this summer and the catastrophe it means for his film career.  This guy is going places (and I fervently wish one of those places happened to be John Carter 2).

As for Battleship2: Sub Search, I don’t think we’ll be getting that sequel anytime soon, and that’s perfectly okay with me.  Battleship is a legitimately entertaining “blockbuster”-type sci-fi film with some downright rousing moments. But not every sci-fi blockbuster needs to be part of a never-ending franchise.

Battleship stays afloat, but I don’t think it would be sea worthy for more than this shakedown cruise.

2012 at the Movies #7: The Hunger Games

I’m a long-time admirer of Dystopian Cinema -- movies about morally, culturally, and economically bankrupt “future worlds” -- and thus I was very much looking forward to The Hunger Games.  

Directed by Gary Ross from Suzanne Collin’s best-selling novel of the same name, the epic film involves a teenage girl who becomes a contestant in a life-or-death (televised) spectacle in a decadent future society

That brief description conjures memories of many other dystopian films. There’s a strong under-current in the genre involving blood-sports as “bread and circuses” attractions for beleaguered, oppressed citizens of “future states.”  

We saw similar gladiatorial games in Death Race 2000 (1975), Rollerball (1975), and The Running Man (1987) to name only a few. 

Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome (1985) and The Blood of Heroes (1989) also feature material of a similar nature, showcasing worlds where life-and-death “games” are the law, and, not coincidentally, the only avenue by which to achieve independence from the corrupt state.

The Hunger Games develops its tale of the futuristic blood sport by comparing the games not to the world of professional TV sports (like Rollerball) or TV game shows (like The Running Man), but to a more timely topic: reality television show competitions

Not unlike American Idol (2001 - ) or Dancing with the Stars (2005 - ), the story’s  violent annual “Hunger Games” make a celebrity of a resourceful  contestant, while other, perhaps-equally resourceful youngsters also vie for the crown and fleeting fame.  And not unlike Survivor (2000 - ) alliances are forged during game play, presumably to be broken as contestant attrition sets in.   Meanwhile, producers and other behind-the-scenes players keep changing the rules to make the show a bigger “hit,” and one more appealing to the audience at home.

The Hunger Games combines its apropos commentary on reality TV contests with some very vague political commentary.  I’ve seen the film described in print as a both a metaphor for the Occupy Wall Street Movement, and as a right-wing anti-government screed. 

The phrase I just used -- “very vague” -- in fact, captures much of what’s amiss with The Hunger Games.  Although the film is undeniably buttressed by a forceful lead performance from Jennifer Lawrence and a welcome lack, overall, of sensationalism, the film’s future world never quite seems believable or genuine.  Instead, it comes off as half-baked.

Too many factors here -- too many ideas – are left purposefully vague, and therefore the film is neither the searing satire of our modern culture that it could be, nor the heroic poem that some critics view it as.  

In other words, the filmmakers often back away from the "core" of the material, and don't play it for all it is worth.  This movie should be about America in 2012, about the qualities we ask of our our "stars," and the ways we broach fame.  Instead, The Hunger Games is about none of those things, at least not in a fashion that is cerebral or intriguing.

“This is the time to show them everything.”

In the oppressive future state of Panem, the insurrectionists living in twelve poverty-stricken districts are required every year to give up two “tributes” -- a male and female each between the ages of twelve and eighteen -- to participate in a life or death contest called The Hunger Games.

In District 12, resourceful Katniss Everdeen (Lawrence) volunteers to be a tribute for the 74th Annual Games after her innocent young sister, Primrose (Willow Shields) is selected on the day of the Reaping.  She takes her sister’s place, and steels herself for battle.

Katniss joins Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson), a boy in District 12 who harbors a crush on her, for the journey to the Capitol City.  Soon they meet their mentor for the games, one-time winner Hayitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson), as well as image advisors Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks) and Cinna (Lenny Kravitz).

Before the games commence, Katniss and Peeta train with their fellow contestants, learning their strengths and weaknesses in the process.  They are also introduced on TV by the Hunger Games host Caesar Flickerman (Stanley Tucci).  Katniss makes a splash with viewers, and Peeta admits on-air that he is in love with her.

When the bloody games start, Katniss must determine how to stay alive, and how to treat Peeta, who is sometimes a friend and sometimes a foe, apparently.  Meanwhile, President Snow (Donald Sutherland) grows suspicious of Katniss and fears she could upset the Capitol’s grip on the districts…

“They just want a good show.  That’s all they want.”

I have not read Suzanne Collins’ young adult novel, The Hunger Games (2008), or any of its follow-ups so I cannot, alas, comment meaningfully on whether or not this 2012 film represents an adequate or faithful adaptation of the literary material. 

I can only study the film as a movie-going experience and as a complete visual and thematic work of art.  Therefore, my observations in this review will focus on those aspects rather than judge fidelity to the literary source material.

In brief, I found the film’s two primary strengths to be its sense of earnestness and the central performance by Jennifer Lawrence.  

The Hunger Games never feels gimmicky, slick, or sensational, and Lawrence projects fortitude, sincerity, and intelligence as the film’s protagonist.  When the movie succeeds, it’s because Lawrence is riveting and even magnetic as Katniss Everdeen, and because the filmmakers generally take the subject matter seriously.  On the surface, it all seems very impressive, if overly straight-forward.

When The Hunger Games fails, I assess, it’s largely because the dynamics of the dystopian world seem unnecessarily vague or inconsistent.

We see this sort of “muddle” throughout the film, and therefore it is difficult for The Hunger Games to speak meaningfully or even directly to its audience regarding theme or meaning.  

For instance: politics. The film is either an Occupy Wall Street film, about the rich 1% lording it over the poor 99 percent, or it is a film about the fear of over-reaching, outwardly benevolent but really malevolent government.   

The Hunger Games attempts to straddle the line between those red state/blue state viewpoints, but only ends up with a wide stance, if you get the reference.  

In other words, the audiences can’t judge the film’s perspective or viewpoint on the world.  Is it the rich elite who made the world a hell?  Or overreaching government?    In the end, it all just comes across as kind of, well, simple-minded.  What we are left with is that evil government is evil, decadent people are decadent, and good citizens are good.  That's as deep as it gets.  The film is smart enough to tap the Zeitgeist, but it can't commit to a specific aspect of that Zeitgeist.

We see the same problem recur with Katniss and Peeta.  Do they actually love each other, or is it all a show for the cameras, just like on The Bachelor or Joe Millionaire?   

In the end, both Peeta and Katniss play up the star-crossed lovers angle to survive the games, but is the show of affection ever heartfelt or authentic?  Well, The Hunger Games will get back to you on that, coming soon in a theater near you! 

In other words, the film reserves the exploration of that important idea for the sequel.  Yet it is necessary to have some answer here, or the movie offers a woefully incomplete emotional experience.   As it stands, we just don’t know why Peeta and Katniss behave as they do here, now.  Peeta doesn’t bring up his love of Katniss until he is on live TV, for example, which suggests to me it’s a gimmick to help him stay alive.  Katniss realizes that the love affair is, similarly, a way to get ahead. 

Yet, by the same token, Peeta hunts down Katniss during the games with a group of others, which is hardly the act of a soul mate.  And then, if he does authentically love her, why doesn't he murder in cold blood the other contestants (staking out the tree where she is hiding), while they sleep?

But the point is that the movie just...doesn’t...commit.  

It doesn’t commit, I submit, because if it did we, as viewers, would be forced to reckon with how we feel about Peeta and Katniss based on the fact that they agree to a mutually beneficial lie.  If they aren't pretending, and really do have feelings for each other, then they aren't so bad, so shallow.  The movie tries to  play it both ways but just seems, again, muddled.

The Hunger Games could have commented meaningfully (and perhaps mercilessly) here on how reality stars will do and say anything on camera to achieve their fifteen minutes of fame -- Bristol Palin, j'accuse -- but this point is barely touched upon in the film.  

Why set up a satire of reality TV and then drop it without comment?

There’s a similar problem with the violence in the film. Katniss lands in an immensely competitive, immensely violent game, and yet she survives almost entirely by being in the right place at the right time, and by unexpectedly getting help at the very last instant.  She actually kills, by my count, only three of her twenty-three opponents.  And of those, she only kills one directly.  

One blonde villain dies when Katniss cuts a beehive from a tree branch, and the competitor is stung to death.    Katniss wasn't attempting to kill, however.  She was crafting a distraction so she could escape.  

The second kill is sort of a mercy killing, sparing a villain from painful death by huge, slobbering wild-dog monsters. 

Katniss actually only murders one person in cold blood. She shoots Rue’s (Amandla Stenberg’s) killer in a fit of rage and adrenaline.   

Laughably, even the masters of the game keep changing the rules so Katniss doesn't have to kill Peeta to survive the game.  Convenient, no?

Because Katniss never must make the choice to kill someone like Rue -- an innocent little kid -- the movie never addresses the central question of violence and its morality.

Again, I see this development as a failure on the part of the film (and I would assume the book too…) to really commit to its central idea . If Katniss wants to survive the games, she has essentially two options: team-build with the other players and commence an insurrection against the games, or kill her opponents outright.  She does neither, at least not in any organized or deep sense.  Instead, Katniss hides for the first part of the games, teams-up with Rue for a while, and then manages to endure alone while the others fight.

Once more, the hard questions are totally avoided.  

Is it right to kill another human being for your own survival?  

For the survival of your family?

The Hunger Games features children killing children on screen -- something I’ve rarely if ever seen in a horror movie, for example -- but makes absolutely no commentary on the morality underlying these killings.  This way, we can continue to gaze at Katniss as a hero, I suppose.  She's more of an innocent bystander than an active participant in the violence.

How do I feel about this?  

In two words: cop out.

For all of Jennifer Lawrence’s skill in bringing the character of Katniss to the screen, I find that she succeeds without much help from the non-commital script.  Katniss is given no meaningful character arc whatsoever in The Hunger Games. She starts our resilient, independent and capable, is judged an "11" by the games keepers (meaning resilient, independent and capable, in other words), and then emerges the winner of the Hunger Games (with Peeta) by being -- wait for it -- resilient, independent and capable.  The character has no learning curve in the film.  Katniss is in the end as she was in the beginning.

Other aspects of the plot are also deliberately vague. The Capitol apparently possesses miracle medicine and -- unbelievably -- Star Trek-type technology which can seems to  turn energy into matter and “beam” hostile dog-things into the fighting  arena.  

Where did this high-technology come from in a post-war dystopian universe where resources are limited?  

Why does the Capitol need supplies from the districts if it can create matter out of energy, or even just teleport real matter?  

Such amazing technological capabilities are never directly addressed in the film, and thus the universe of  The Hunger Games doesn’t quite feel real.  It certainly isn't very believable.   I submit it would have been much better to see dog-handlers releasing the slavering beasts from cages at the rim of the arena rather than featuring this unexplained and inconsistent technological achievement. 

For instance, if the gamesters of the Capitol can create animals, generate fires and so forth from energy, they can certainly create a CGI Katniss and get her to do what they want her do.  They could have killed the real one, and then had the CGI one act badly, reflecting poorly on her reputation and mitigating her capacity to be a martyr.   Problem solved!

Indeed, this one technological touch ruins a lot of the legitimacy of the action in The Hunger Games.  Katniss might lay low enough for a while to last for much of the game, but there' s no way she could beat a state apparatus armed with Starfleet-era medicine, genetic engineering capabilities, and the equivalent of replicators.  That's a bridge too far.

Also, and I'm certain this has been said before, there is not a single contestant in the games -- not one -- who looks remotely hungry, or starving.  The whole idea underlying this culture is that the Districts live in abject poverty, scrambling for resources and food.  And yet everyone looks well-fed, not emaciated.  Some of the contestants, in fact, look like body-builders.  In the real world, we've all seen, alas, how hunger twists young, developing bodies.  It doesn't look anything like what is presented in The Hunger Games, or more aptly, The Well-Fed Games.

It's a fact, isn't it, that muscle-mass comes from eating right and vigorous exercise? How are these poor District-ers eating so well, getting so much protein, and working out so frequently under the yoke of The Evil Government?

Either the movie should have cast more appropriately, or the actors and actresses should have fasted a bit before principal photography began.  But if those changes had occurred, The Hunger Games wouldn't be able to show off hot young nubile bodies, and that, finally, is what gets the Twilight crowd into the theater, isn't it?

Does she look hungry?

Does he?

How about him?

Does he look like he's starving to you?

What about these folks?  Skinny, undernourished kids living off the land?

Dystopia can't be built in a day.  For audiences to believe in a corrupt future world, they must understand why it works or why it doesn't.  It needs to be internally-consistent and well-thought out.

We also must understand how the filmmaker's feel about that world, and where that world went wrong.  What was the human quality that transformed paradise into hell? 

The Hunger Games doesn't provide much by way of answers to any of these questions. It eschews social commentary and satire in the very era when we see fame whores on every network station in prime time every night of the week.  And furthermore it suggests -- in an abundantly bogus fashion -- that a person can survive a tournament to the death without committing almost any violence at all. 

In terms of dystopian films, this one wouldn't likely survive the first round with Rollerball or Death Race 2000.   The Hunger Games looks terrific and is fronted by the very appealing Lawrence, but the film doesn't hold up under the slightest intellectual scrutiny.

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