Sunday, May 22, 2022

30 Years Ago Today: Alien 3 (1992)




It is an indisputable fact that fan service and good drama don’t always go hand-in-hand in the cinema. 

In fact, sometimes these factors diverge sharply. 

David Fincher’s Alien3 (1992) may just be Exhibit A illustrating this fact. 

The film -- the third in the Alien series -- is lousy fan service, and yet, simultaneously, an absolutely gorgeous, challenging, and worthwhile work of art.

Of all the Alien films, the third is the first entry, for example, that legitimately earns the descriptor “spiritual” and which allows Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) to escape the same repetitive narrative formula or routine: 

Wake-up, fight aliens, return to sleep.  

Rinse and repeat.  

Instead, the thirty year old film attempts to grant the revered movie franchise that rare gift known as closure, and it devises a legitimately spiritual and dramatic end for Ripley, the aliens, and the universe they inhabit.  

Alien3 is also truthful from an emotional and human standpoint, even if fans may not appreciate the dark, contemplative story it dramatizes.  

In short, the movie obsesses on the idea that sometimes surviving is not enough. There are some values higher than self-preservation, and death, finally, is Ripley’s gift to the world, the human race, and the universe itself.

In Alien3 this message is expressed through brilliant compositions -- the building blocks of film grammar -- and through contextual clues about mortality.  

In other words, the film’s form reflects its thematic content, and for a visual art form, that is the highest ground a work of art can occupy.

I won’t beat around the bush, here. Popular or unpopular, Alien3 is every bit as strong and powerful a film as its two predecessor were.  

Its existential problem, simply, is that it didn’t please its intended audience.




I gotta re-educate some of the brothers: Why the fans are so wrong-headed about Alien3

Make no mistake, Alien 3 remains maligned to this day primarily because it fails to please faithful fans of the series. 

And yet, objectively-speaking, fans aren’t always the best arbiters of quality or artistic merit because their interest -- plain and simple -- isn’t experiencing the best, most dramatic story possible, but rather the continuation of the saga and the beloved characters, no matter what. Ad infinitum.

So the first factor to understand about Alien 3 is that fans by-and-large carried a certain set of expectations into their viewing of the film. In fact, they carried an unrealistic expectation about what the sequel could be, given the reality of what the film already was: the third film in a horror movie franchise. 

What the majority of fans no doubt found most difficult to stomach in Alien3 is the shocking opening sequence, which dramatizes in blunt fashion the violent deaths of young Newt (Carrie Henn) and likable marine corporal, Dwayne Hicks (Michael Biehn), two beloved characters from Aliens.


These losses feel so traumatizing because many fans and critics displayed high hopes for the characters and their future, fantasizing about a scenario that involved Ripley and Hicks becoming lovers and surrogate parents to Newt, while the helpful android, Bishop (Lance Henriksen) hovered in the background as a kind of synthetic, all-knowing uncle. Time Magazine explicitly speculated about this possibility in a cover story about Cameron’s 1986 film.

The misguided assumption here is that such an ad hoc nuclear family could dominate an ongoing horror film franchise.

This “wish” simply did not take into account the savage and Darwinian nature of these movies. How realistic -- or how believable -- would it be to have this family go up against acid-spewing chest-bursting aliens, again and again, always coming out victorious, always emerging whole? 


Does that sound like any Alien film you would recognize, or enjoy watching? The sense of danger and surprise the franchise is famous for would dissipate…and fast, if it were to focus on this new family.

Remember, if you can, the original context for Ridley Scott’s Alien

There were very few films like it at the time of its relase because the alien was always changing form, always evolving. Ripley, Dallas and the others were always fighting the last enemy, not the newest, unpredictable form of the xenomorph. The changing nature of the alien -- a life-form always “becoming” something else -- granted the film a tremendous, terrifying sense of uncertainty.

Now imagine, going in, that you have a Mom, Dad, daughter and uncle fighting those monsters, film entry after film entry.  Over and over. This isn’t the template for a good horror film, or a good horror series, because horror thrives on uncertainty and unpredictability.

To put it another way, the Alien movies are not family movies. Families don’t survive in these films, as Newt’s parents and brother would attest. As Ripley’s daughter might remind us. 

And that’s sort of the point of the whole cycle. 

The aliens are so dangerous, so “perfect” in their unremitting hostility that if they make it to Earth, or any other colonized location…it’s game over, man.  

Game over.  

No more families.  No more…anything.

Having the Ripley/Hicks family front another Alien film, and emerge unscathed (again) cuts right through the heart of that thematic through-line. It undercuts it.

Would the approach have been good fan service? '

Yes, undoubtedly.  But again, it wouldn’t have made a particularly good or dramatic horror film.

Furthermore, let’s contend in reality for a moment. The whole family idea wasn’t exactly practical in terms of casting, either. Alien3 was made five to six years after the production of Aliens, so Newt (Carrie Henn) would have had to be re-cast no matter what. The family couldn’t have been reunited in its original form, even if that was the plan.  It was just not to be.

What was the other fan service disappointment of Alien3?

Again to put the matter bluntly: there is absolutely nothing in this sequel for the aroused ammo-sexual.  

Aliens is a great film, a classic, and one of the greatest science fiction films ever made. So to reduce it to the simple “hardware” angle is probably a disservice. But in reality, there are a number of fans of the film who fell in love with pulse rifles, smart guns, flame-throwers, grenades, drop-ships and other high-tech weaponry.  

The whole “Colonial Marine” milieu became beloved after the film’s release.

Pursuing its own course, Alien3 drops that angle completely.  

Just as Aliens dropped the “space trucker” mode of Aliens for a new setting and milieu, so does Alien3 choose the path of innovation instead of repetition. If Aliens is about soldiers finding their courage in a war they can’t win, developing camaraderie as a unit along the way, Alien3 upsets that apple cart completely.  




Instead, it concerns a grieving, nay bereft, Ripley alone on a prison planet, working not only with people she doesn’t know, but with both the scum of the Earth (rapists and murderers), and those who don’t accept her because she doesn’t share their religious views.  

Yet they are human, and Ripley must stand up for them and lead them.  And she must do so without the big guns, without weapons of any kind.  

Alien3 is thus about a very different brand of courage and heroism.

But let’s face it, absolutely lot of fans got into the Alien franchise because of the guns and marines of Aliens, and therefore Alien3’s scaled-back, low-tech, human-centered approach was a no-sale from the start. 

Throw in the fact that Aliens featured dozens (if not hundreds) of leaping, drooling aliens, and that this sequel contains just one, and you can see why some fans choose to gaze at the film with disappointment and not attempt to engage with the material, or even meet it half way.

Again, it’s rewarding to look at reality, and pragmatism in terms of fan desires. 

Considering the geometric progression of horror from Alien to Aliens, fans expected a third Alien film to offer an even grander spectacle with more of everything: more aliens, more weaponry and more space grunts.  

Oorah!

This was plainly an impossible desire too.

How could any movie not costing 300 million dollars top Aliens?

It just wasn't possible. 

In 1997, Alien Resurrection cost 75 million, approximately, and still didn’t come close to featuring the carnage and action of Aliens.  So the possibility, the opportunity with Alien 3, instead, was to forge a new, innovative story-line that completed Ripley’s journey and brought the trilogy to a close in a meaningful, even tragic fashion.  

And, I would argue, that’s exactly what Alien3 achieves.



It’s a long, sad story: Why Alien3 is every bit the equal of Alien (1979) and Aliens (1986)

On the artistic merits, Alien3, in some ways, is the purist of all the Alien films. 

No other entry speaks so meaningfully about Ripley’s character, and her spirituality, and no other film so clearly aims for closure. The high-tech background has been subordinated, and the film stresses close-ups of human faces over long pans across space age hardware.

In other words, the film takes us to the ass end of space, and then makes us countenance, directly, the people who inhabit it. Their faces -- some ugly and unfamiliar; some surprisingly compassionate -- literally fill the screen.



These human faces don't always belong to nice people, it's true but they’re all human.  

They’re all seeking answers about what it means to live a good life.  Dr. Clemens (Charles Dance), dwelling in guilt, lives a life of quiet, isolated exile, punishing himself for his medical error over and over again. 

Dillon (Charles Dutton) and his wards are trying to make right with God, waiting on the prison planet for the Lord’s return, trying to resist the urges and impulses that made them outcasts from society in the first place.  They have decided to wait and serve in their own way, but Ripley and the alien show them that they don't have that luxury.  Man proposes; God disposes.

Alien3 is also the intensely personal story of an isolated, depressed Ripley trapped on a backwater penal planet, functioning there as a sort of despised outsider or heretic, at least at first. So instead of copying Aliens Alien actually attempts something new, different, and ambitious as Hell. According to Sigourney Weaver in an interview with Cinefantastique, the movie concerns the idea of "fighting a common enemy alongside people you don't really like, without guns." 

To her, this battle defines Ripley's greatest challenge.

In particular, Ripley -- who is so often termed “the ultimate survivor” -- ends up in a scenario wherein personal survival is less important than sacrifice; less important than saving all of mankind.  She comes to learn that she is carrying an alien queen inside of her, and that it boasts the capacity to hatch thousands of offspring.  

Worse, the Company wants it for their bio-weapons division.

So Ripley makes a choice.

It is the choice of a brave woman, or even a saint. She chooses to die so that we all might live. This description is not a colorful exaggeration, and it’s crucial here to consider how Alien3 actually plays as a Christ metaphor in a consistent, coherent and therefore artistic fashion.

First, Fincher telegraphs the comparison between Ripley's plight and Christ's. Fury 161 may as well be Golgotha. An early moment reveals a twisted industrial wreckage jutting out of the planetary surface, a rough Christian cross.


Next, we get the details of Ripley’s choice. It mimics Jesus’s choice on the cross. He can either live a self-centered life as a man, or he can die for man’s sins and save us all. Ripley, likewise, must die to redeem all of mankind.  

It is not something that she wants to do; it is something that she knows she needs to do.  

And again, consider the make-up of those she is saving. Some are dumb Company Men (85), some are rapists and murders (Dillon’s flock) and some are so obsessed with power that they don’t realize how their ambition threatens everything (Bishop II).

Still, Ripley chooses to save them.

In at least two separate compositions in the film -- one in Dillon’s quarters and once in the lead foundry -- Ripley, resembling Maria Falconetti in Carl Dreyer's Passion of Joan of Arc (1928), is seen in the pose of the crucifixion, indicating her status as saint and martyr …and her destination, whether death or spiritual immortality.




Alien 3, according to critic David Ansen is thus “a quasi-religious passion play with Sigourney Weaver as Ripley, head-shaved, offering to martyr herself to save the world from the sins of the monster....[so] credit Fincher for taking risks.” 

The religious parallel is as meaningful and as powerful as Ansen suggests. "With her shaven head and her director's predilection for unflinching close-ups, Ripley radiates passion like an SF Joan of Arc, searching the furthest reaches of her alien-battered soul for any remaining sparks of faith, hope and grace to sustain her through yet another ordeal," writes New Statesman and Society’s Anne Billson, acknowledging that Alien 3 is the first franchise film to operate on a genuinely spiritual level.

It is this final act of Alien 3 that brings the saga into crystal clarity for perhaps the first time. Ripley, the ultimate survivor, overcomes her personal (and some might say selfish...) desire to live (Alien), bear children (Aliens) and find happiness so that all humanity can survive.  

This existential moment of truth far surpasses the more popular but comparatively facile "dueling maternal instincts" battle in Aliens and successfully apotheosizes the beloved character.  The Christ analogy transforms Ripley's final decision -- essentially suicide -- into a beautiful and meaningful act rather than a cowardly or empty one.

But again, let’s continue the Christ metaphor. Ripley, like Christ, must make her sacrifice with full-knowledge of what she is losing, of what her act truly means. 

For this to occur, we need a seducer, or a tempter…a devil. 

Enter Lance Henriksen as Bishop II.  He comes to Ripley at her cross (or on her chain link fence) and whispers about the possibilities to her.  He shows her a "friendly face" and attempts to tantalize her with earthly delights. 

He tells her all the things that she wants to hear, so she can continue living.

They can take the alien out of her.  It’s a simple surgery.  

And afterwards, they’ll destroy it.  

Then, she can still have a life.  A family.  Children.



And this, we see, is where the deaths of Hicks and Newt really matter to the overall narrative of the trilogy.  Ripley had a family…and lost it.  We felt that loss for ourselves. 

And having a family is what Ripley has always wanted.  It is the gift, the blessing, she must turn away from, but which she finds so difficult to turn away from.

But Ripley chooses not to have that family. Instead, she chooses to save all families, everywhere…and die. 

Again, I love and admire Alien and Aliens, but this crisis of spirituality, takes the series to a new, higher emotional and spiritual zenith.  We have already seen Ripley survive.  We have already seen Ripley rescue a child and become a mother.  She has fought to “win” things for her life.

This time is different.  

She fights and dies to for the good of all mankind, ending forever the alien scourge, and the avarice it creates in our species.  She thus resets the direction of the human race. We have a third chance (assuming, if you are a person of faith, that Jesus gave mankind his second chance...).

There is no last minute cop-out, no surgeons racing to rescue Ripley from the terror inside her stomach just in the nick of time, only the grim reality and finality of death and the knowledge that sacrifice has a purpose. 


How does Ripley come to this point?  Well, she has examples to follow. Her dear friend, Bishop -- facing a future in which he can’t help others, in which he will never again be “top of the line”--  also chooses death.  

Ripley could refuse his request just to keep a familiar, beloved face around, but Bishop is in pain.  “My legs hurt,” he says.  “It’s dark in here,” he notes.  He is in pain, and so Ripley relieves him of his suffering, showing empathy and compassion for him. She sees from him that sometimes survival is not the right path.

Clemens is selfless in his own way too.  He is not a believer, or a spiritual man.  But he stays on Fury 161 to take care of the believers, putting aside his own material desires because he feels he was “let off lightly” for his crimes, and that he has not fully paid his debt to society, to humanity.

Ripley starts to see, in the film, that survival is not the highest aspiration anymore. 

And, I believe, it is subtly encoded in the film that her sacrifice, her gift to mankind, will become known, over time, and cherished in the way that many cherish the sacrifice of Christ.


Morse is the only survivor of Fury 161 at the end of the film.  He is depicted throughout the early portions of the movie as a coward and an asshole. By the end of the movie, he is putting aside his own pain (after being shot by the Company), to help Ripley accomplish her mission.  He has seen the light, through Ripley’s example.  He is her first disciple, in a sense, because he witnessed her sacrifice...and so Ripley’s legacy lives on.

Director Fincher obviously felt that the idea of sacrifice was an important message to impart to audiences in yuppie America, one suffering under the burden of a huge national deficit. Like all good art, Alien 3 speaks relevantly to its historical context, then. It relates ideally to the early 1990s, the time when presidential candidate Ross Perot called -- also unsuccessfully -- for sacrifice so as to preserve the future for further generations.  

As deeply as Aliens mirrored the jingoism, gung-ho spirit of the Reagan era, Fincher’s Alien 3 reflects the hangover of the Bush recession. An article in Entertainment Weekly once described the movie’s aura as “bushed.”

Ripley wins the day, but at tremendous cost. She suffers and dies, and we lose her. 

What do we learn?  

Not all battles are won crisply and cleanly, with everyone coming home and returning to their families. Some battles are wars of attrition, or campaigns that succeed because one brave person puts his or her country ahead of personal survival. Ripley -- the character with whom we are most invested in the Alien saga -- makes that choice here.

Perhaps the most devastating crime Fincher could commit after killing Ellen Ripley is to summarily end Alien 3 without the traditional sequel hook or sting in the tail/tale: the tantalizing possibility of yet another Alien film yet to come. Of course, in keeping with his philosophy that movies "should scar," this is precisely the route he takes. 

Fincher's film ends decisively with three separate compositions focusing on heavy metal doors slamming shut with a clang, thus asserting quite literally that there is no door left open for a future sequel. Ripley’s sacrifice is such that it has saved mankind, and ended the alien threat.  Forever.

This is it. The trilogy has ended. Don't let (the doors) hit you on the way out.  End transmission.




So Aliengrants the series a noble, honorable and believable and satisfying ending.  

Yes, this idea was undercut by the release of Alien Resurrection in 1997. Yet Alien 3's denouement must be judged on its own artistic terms. It was designed to be "the end" and is, therefore, a notable example of Fincher's brass.  He adds something no predecessor had offered the Alien franchise: dramatic closure.  

Finality.

Beyond his steadfast determination to direct an unpredictable and surprising entry in the Alien series, Fincher has crafted a film of uncommon technical virtue and beauty. Much of the film is shot from an extreme low angle, not to suggest the size and power of the protagonists, but to constantly make viewers aware of the protagonists’ vulnerability.  

The prison ceiling -- visible in literally hundreds of deep-focus shots -- not only reminds audiences that Ripley and the other convicts are trapped inside a decaying institution (a sardine can, essentially), but that the alien strikes from above. The xenomorph clings to the ceiling over the human hustle and bustle, and the continual focus on "what lurks above" Ripley and the others often has viewers scanning the background anxiously, waiting for the next strike.

Regarding Alien 3’s visuals, critic John Anderson noted in Newsday that "Fincher attains a claustrophobic feel in his shots, which emphasize the vastness around the characters and the feeling that somewhere, just out of sight, something horrible is lurking.  And there's nothing you can do about it." 

The New York Post's Jami Bernard agreed with him, writing that Alien 3 “is smart in how it plays on the audience's fears and failings..." 

But probably no element of the film is more visually impressive than David Fincher's elaborately-staged climax, a chase set in a massive subterranean complex. The labyrinth is so confusing an arena that the characters themselves -- one of whom we are explicitly reminded has an IQ of 85 -- are unable to navigate it successfully.  Naturally, the alien picks the confused men off, one by one.

Although some critics commented that the final chase in the film is a mess because the geography of the lead-works is "confusing," they have missed the point of the action.  

The exact opposite is true.  

The men of Fury 161 are not aware of spatial orientation or tactical information any more than the audience is.  

They aren't trained marines.

They aren’t even space truckers. 

They’re inmates in a deserted installation, and they are lost and disoriented. Fincher's technique mimics Stone's non-traditional battle scenes in Platoon (1986), reflecting that this is a war without conventional boundaries; one that these humans are unequipped to fight.  There are no mock-heroics in Alien 3, just frightened and confused people trying to survive a crisis, running around lost in the dark.

Depressing?  

Perhaps, or maybe just part of the overall schema, one that suggests Ripley -- through her actions -- can bring light to darkness.

Why is Alienso hated by so many fans, to this day? 

Easy answer: it ignores issues of fan service and instead crafts a beautiful, haunting tale about human nature, and about the choices we are called upon to make in the most difficult circumstances imaginable.  

Ripley doesn’t survive the film.  But the human race does.  

She gives up all the things she could have -- the material and emotional happiness she has desired but never found -- and she does it for you and me, not so we can all have a sequel.

And after all this, after such a remarkable spiritual journey, all many fans could do was complain. 

Not enough guns. 

Not enough aliens. 

Downer of an ending.

Thirty years later, there are still those fans who want to ignore the film and pretend it didn’t happen; and make Alien 5 as a direct continuation of Aliens.

And that, my friends, is a deep, deep betrayal of Ripley’s journey; of her ultimate sacrifice.

In the final analysis, Alien 3 is a great film because it rejects convention, safety, and predictability, and leaves one discomforted and bereft.  

Furthermore this approach assures that Alien3 -- love it or hate it -- is never merely an uninspired copy of earlier franchise films. 

In this way, Alien3 actually gains a foothold on immortality like the other movies. 

No one can ever accuse it of being just like the other films in the franchise. This is a case of “stasis interrupted,” of a major film franchise suddenly ascending from the realm of predictable mass entertainment to something else; to illuminating work of art.

The film deserves to be in continuity. I hope it remains there.

End transmission.

Saturday, May 21, 2022

40 Years Ago Today: The Road Warrior (1982)


I first viewed The Road Warrior on a double bill with Superman III at the Castle Theater in Irvington, New Jersey. I was thirteen or fourteen years-old at the time and saw the movie(s) with my father. 

Alas, my showing of The Road Warrior was interrupted three times by police incursions into the auditorium (the Castle was that kind of theater in the eighties...) but somehow the danger in the theater only added to the aura of danger, anxiety and uncertainty generated by George Miller's landmark, startling post-apocalyptic film.

At that young age, I had rarely experienced an action film as intense or cut-throat as The Road Warrior, but now that I've screened the film a dozen times over the years, I recognize that it wasn't merely the experience of seeing it at the Castle during a drug bust or three; it's the film itself, which remains of the ten great action films of the last forty years. 


More than that -- and discounting Planet of the Apes -- it's one of the cinema's most effective and brilliantly-shot post-apocalyptic efforts.

The Road Warrior, released in America on May 21, 1982, opens with an evocative and tightly-edited black-and-white montage. A voice-over narration accompanies the fleeting but memorable documentary images (stock footage), which depict our twentieth-century "oil culture" as two "mighty warrior tribes" go to war to control the dwindling resource. 


The montage reveals vast war machines at sea and on land, and then endless, stagnating debate among world leaders on how to control the limited reserves. After this debate, the montage reveals, the thundering war machines of technological man "sputtered and stopped." 

Furthermore, world civilization itself "crumbled." Cities exploded in a whirlwind of looting, and man "began to feed on man." Nomadic gangs took over the highways, dominating them and making the roads treacherous, murderous passages. It is here, via stock footage of 1979's Mad Max that we are introduced to the personal story of Max [Mel Gibson], an ex-policeman who lost everything; only to wander the wasteland as a "burned-out" desolate sentinel.


In terms of narrative, the voice-over device and stock-footage montage in unison frame this tale as though it occurred in the distant, murky past. 


In part this is because of the grainy stock footage, which looks to be drawn from the early part of the twentieth century, but the sense of an "old story" also arises from the voice of the narrator, which suggests wisdom and age, among other qualities. 

The war is history to the adult "teller" of the tale; and our civilization itself is pre-history. This remote time frame thus lands the post-apocalyptic "future" of Mad Max into the realm of origin myth, or heroic legend. The teller could be speaking of Achilles and the Trojan War, or perhaps more aptly, the Old West in his discussion of the manner in which a new civilization was founded from the ashes of the old.

The Old West metaphor also works to the film's advantage because in -- some very critical ways -- The Road Warrior is not unlike a Spaghetti Western of the late 1960s and early 1970s. 


Witness these facts: it is filmed in a location that could be the American West (here, the Australian Outback); the camera work is highly fluid (like the work of Sergio Leone); and the production is distinctly, but not alarmingly, low-budget.

Similarly, much like many Italian Westerns, the film also actively sets about to deconstruct or de-mythologize its world, focusing on such horrible human behaviors as rape and murder. To put it politely, The Road Warrior is not a romantic vision of human nature. 


Even the treatment of a child -- the Feral Child -- is realistic rather than romanticized.

After the opening exposition, which plays like the visual equivalent of a dusty history book, Miller's kinetic camera swoops down (apparently from a helicopter) at near-warp speed towards an endless highway. 


The asphalt flies by the camera and immediately the audience feels a sense of momentum and acceleration. Suddenly we're enmeshed in colorful, full-speed chase, as loner Max is pursued by the motorcycle-riding thugs of a warlord called Humongous (also known as "the ayatollah of rock-and-rollah..."). 



From this first moment, the film never lets up, never stops, never really slows down. It is a race from start to finish, a maelstrom of flipping, careening vehicles, high-speed pursuits and bloody confrontations.

The cinema has provided us all manner of "end of the world" scenarios before, from nuclear war (Planet of the Apes) to germ-created vampires (Last Man on Earth), to melting ice caps even (Waterworld), but The Road Warrior today seems to offer the most plausible (or at least relevant) scenario as it explicitly concerns a war over limited resources, in this case oil.


In 1982, America had not yet fought two wars for oil in the Middle East, and so didn't seem quite so prophetic. 

But now? It's seems so indeed.

The bulk of The Road Warrior involves Max's interactions with a post-apocalyptic frontier town, a society that has sprung up around a functional oil refinery (perhaps the last...). The people who live there boast resources to squander, and don't want to share it. Instead, they dream wistfully of a paradise by the beach where they can live in peace with their drums of black gold tucked safely away. 

Before long, Max is dealing not only with these inhabitants of the refinery (who feel they have a rightful claim to the oil), but with the occupying, invading army of Humongous. The Warlord, who admonishes the peaceful refinery people to "just walk away," requires the oil to keep his mechanical war machine running. Without it, one realizes, even his loose society of scavengers and marauders would likely fall into total anarchy.

The story of fallen mankind fighting over the scraps of civilization (like "angry ants," as one character notes), is buoyed by Miller's directorial sense of invention and also his understanding of framing and mise-en-scene.


For instance, in the scene in which Max is confronted by an auto-gyro pilot (Bruce Spence), notice how Gibson is almost always positioned in the center of the frame, He deals with snakes and an armed assailant...yet those threats still "orbit" Max, not vice versa. This is important because the framing makes us believe in Max as immovable object -- a tower of strength -- early in the film (witness his handling of the snake...), a notion which is undercut significantly later in The Road Warrior when he is bruised and beaten after one encounter with the scavengers. 


The idea, I suppose, is to open with Max as figure of strength, and then -- as the events of the film overcome him -- figuratively cut off his legs, so that the audience grows more involved with his survival. He starts out as a loner, but by the end of the film, Max needs the others to survive. This is an important element of his growth; of his redemption and return to the human race. The journey is completed in the final film, Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome (1985).

The stakes are high in Max's world, and George Miller doesn't shy away from revealing how bad things are there. There is a scene, for instance, in which Max sits on the rim of a mountain eating dog food, and acts as though it is the best thing he's ever tasted.  


Miller also dramatizes a failed escape attempt with horrific results. A man and a woman flee the refinery and are set on by the marauders. The moment, seen through the lens of a telescope, culminates in a double murder. The auto gyro pilot watches this event lasciviously at first, because the female escapee is stripped (we see her breasts...), but his desire turns to horror as she is brutally raped and murdered. '

This is what mankind has come to, and it's only hope is Max, a man whom the screenplay describes as "a parasite." Max is no hero; the people of the refinery are no saints (they resort to duplicity with Max, for one thing...);but both Max and the town people are better than the utter immorality and monstrosity represented by Humongous and his gang. Here -- as in many cases -- it is a choice between the lesser of two evils.


So much of The Road Warrior is unromantic and blunt. Consider, for instance, the beautiful, Amazonian warrior (Virginia Hey). She protects the refinery and is portrayed as heroic and courageous. In most Westerns or genre films, a romance might blossom between this gorgeous, strong character and Max. 

Not so here. 

Instead, she is brutally murdered in the film's final chase scene. She is shot and left to dangle off a truck turret. The message: this is a world that makes no distinction between male and female; between movie "hero" and movie "fodder."

Likewise Humongous's version of Baghdad Bob loses his fingers to a boomerang in one scene, and Miller indelicately cuts to an insert shot of those fingertips flying through the air. Even more tellingly, it was the Feral Kid -- a warrior, himself -- who throws that boomerang. A child! And how do Baghdad Bob's "friends" and associates react when he loses his fingers? They cheer and guffaw. 


In this world, pain is a source of laughter; even if the person hurting is on your side. The message is again that society is gone, and that we -- as viewers -- can't expect decorum from this film if we simultaneously expect it to be "true" to what such a world would look and feel like.

The murder of a dog (or dingo) is depicted slightly less bluntly, but there are other harrowing moments here, when arrows are yanked out of human skin on screen, for instance. And examine Max's demeanor too. In the film, he demonstrates no compassion or human consideration for anyone, including the pilot, until he himself requires help and rescue.  All of this focus on human ugliness makes The Road Warrior a nihilistic action film, but one of remarkable imagery and power. With civilization goes decorum; with decorum goes decency; with decency goes humanity.

The central portion of The Road Warrior involves Humongous's Alamo-like siege on the refinery (and there is a brilliantly-staged, almost De Palma-esque tracking shot featured here as Miller's camera pursues a rabbit hopping madly through the compound as an attack gathers nearby...), yet it is the final third of the film that leaves one breathless and walloped. 


The last act of The Road Warrior is an eighty-mile-an-hour chase scene, a non-stop demolition derby involving a weaving tanker truck, buzzing cars, roaring motorcycles and the swooping auto-gyro. Characters leap from speeding vehicle to speeding vehicle; characters swing chains, fire arrows, and drive for their lives. 


It's a go-for-the-gusto finale that tops everything else in the picture, and to this day still tops most action movie denouements. I should add, it was all executed on a low budget, with real vehicles (no CGI!) and absolutely rousing stunt work. Coupled with Brian May's pulse-pounding soundtrack, the action climax of The Road Warrior is a burst of sustained adrenaline, injected right into the heart.

A superb and clever addition to the post-apocalyptic film pantheon, The Road Warrior is artistically crafted, and the film pauses its relentless drive to the climax only long enough to offer a little homage. In a scene involving a music box and a corpse falling out of a truck cab, Miller's film momentarily pays tribute to a quieter moment in Romero's Night of the Living Dead. 


It does so, I submit, because Miller recognizes Night as a spiritual antecedent. Both films are distinctively unromantic portraits of humanity; both films are about a change (or degradation...) in the social order, and both films are blunt in their portrayals of violence. 

The only significant difference is that Night of the Living Dead is so bleak that it kills Ben (the film's hero), whereas the device of the montage/voice-over leaves room in The Road Warrior for the possibility that mankind -- in a better iteration, hopefully -- will go on to thrive in a new world; one where the violence we see here is but a misty memory; just like that warrior of the wasteland, Max.

The third film completes Max's journey of redemption, but even there, he is not quite ready to return to the human race, to civilization.  

Saturday, May 14, 2022

40 Years Ago Today: Conan the Barbarian (1982)



“Between the time when the oceans drank Atlantis and the rise of the sons of Aryas, there was an age undreamed of. And unto this: Conan, destined to wear the jeweled crown of Aquilonia upon a troubled brow.  It is I, his chronicler who alone can tell these of his saga. Let me tell you of the days of high adventure…”

-Opening Narration, Conan the Barbarian (1982)


Now four decades old, John Milius’s Conan the Barbarian (1982) commences with imagery of a sturdy sword being forged in fire and snow. And indeed, that forging process is the movie’s central metaphor for Conan himself, and his evolution from child to man.

This hero’s life may be a “tale of sorrow” at points, according to the voice-over narrator, but it’s also a tale of learning, of Conan’s growth and development. This is a process which culminates in a triumphant apotheosis and is revealed -- majestically and mysteriously -- in the film’s valedictory shot. 

From orphaned boy to pensive king in the span of one movie, Conan is shaped and tempered like a sword, until he becomes, himself, the flesh equivalent of that one dependable element in all of human life: steel.


In some ways, however -- and this is where the film proves truly clever -- Conan’s story is also our very own. 

We also face adversity and we also overcome it. We survive.   

Accordingly, one impressive quality of John Milius’s cinematic telling of Conan’s tale is the manner in which the production’s various fantasy set-pieces -- from the Wheel of Pain to Thulsa Doom’s cult -- form a rough analogy for the places life takes us…whether we want to visit those particular places or not.

Sometimes, our life is pure drudgery and unending routine, just like Conan pushing that damned wheel for fifteen or so years. 

And sometimes we go questing for something “outside” ourselves so as to fill an interior, emotional void. That search is reflected in Thulsa Doom’s belief system.

Yet we can’t be healed from the outside in. Instead -- by Crom -- the process of becoming whole must start within us.  Through all life’s trials -- and in keeping with the film’s opening quote from Nietzsche-- “what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger.”

To this day, Conan the Barbarian remains the finest iteration of Robert E. Howard’s hero on the silver screen. This is so because as a work of art it concerns explicitly those things that don’t kill Conan, but which nonetheless prepare him to be the man – and king -- he must become.

Conan the Barbarian is also pitched at a far more adult or grown-up level than either Conan: The Destroyer (1984), or the twenty-first-century re-boot, Conan the Barbarian (2011), a fact which renders the film more accurately about the vicissitudes of real life…even though it is a fantasy of the fictitious Hyborian Age.  

This Conan gets drunk, fucks a lot, faces emotional set-backs, and exacts bloody revenge. He hasn’t yet been homogenized for modern popular culture consumption and that fact makes Conan the Barbarian a thrilling, unpredictable, and occasionally quite romantic fantasy film.


“He is Conan, Cimmerian. He won’t cry.  So I cry for him.”

A vicious raiding team attacks the village of Cimmeria, and young boy named Conan watches as his blacksmith father (William Smith) falls in battle. Conan then watches -- up close -- as his mother is decapitated by a warrior, the evil and strangely magnetic Thulsa Doom (James Earl Jones).

Conan is sold into slavery, and grows up at the Wheel of Pain. There, he lives a life of drudgery, forever pushing one of the wheel’s heavy spokes.

When he is mature -- and fit -- Conan becomes a champion of the arena, and a favorite of the people.  

Once educated, Conan escapes from his masters and goes out in search of the man who killed his parents all those years earlier.

After battling a witch, and teaming up with a thief, Subotai (Gerry Lopez), Conan pursues the rapidly-spreading “Snake Cults” across the land.  In one town, he meets up with the beautiful warrior Valeria (Sandahl Bergman), who is interested in robbing a snake temple.

Together, the three wanderers steal the expensive jewels inside the temple, and defeat a giant snake.  Afterwards, Conan and Valeria fall in love, realizing that they are…soul-mates.

Soon, King Osric (Max Von Sydow) summons Conan and his friends to his kingdom. The King reveals that his daughter (Valerei Quennessen) has fallen under the sway of Thulsa Doom, and gone to his temple as a priestess and slave.  Osric offers to make Conan rich if he can bring his daughter back.

With Valeria reluctant to undertake the quest, Conan goes on his own. He is promptly captured by Thulsa Doom, crucified, and left to die in the desert.  

Fortunately, Subotai, Valeria and a friendly wizard (Mako) nurse Conan back to health. Valeria even beats back the soul-takers of the Under World by night to prevent them from carrying away Conan.

With his team assembled, Conan prepares to rescue the princess, and exercise his final revenge against Thulsa Doom.  

But the great warrior has one more grievous loss to face…


“Now they will know why there are afraid of the dark. Now they learn why they fear the night.”

Conan the Barbarian opens with a montage of a sword being forged, and these images are run in tandem with the main credits. 

Throughout this forging process, there are two sets of hands on this specific sword, and significantly, they belong to Conan’s mother and father.  

We see the sword born in fire and cooled in snow. 

We see the hands of Conan’s father chiseling fine detail onto the hilt.  

We see Conan’s mother tenderly wrapping the sword’s handle with her delicate hands.

These images seem to be about preparing a weapon, a blade, but they actually transmit something else: the love of Conan’s parents for their only child. 

By tending to the sword with such love and devotion, we understand that his parents are not only shaping the blade, they are shepherding and shaping Conan himself. 

The focus of this imagery is not just on the sword itself (the surrogate for young Conan), but specifically on the hands doing such delicate and hard work.  Watching, we understand the message. This is what good parenting often feels like: very hands-on.






The film then cuts to a scene of Conan’s father shaping and tempering the young man, telling him of his belief in God -- Crom -- and of the Cimmerian philosophy of steel.  Conan’s father thus shares his religious faith with his son, and he does it in a kind of spiritual location, atop the most beautiful, snow-capped mountains imaginable. The sky and clouds seem within reach.


These opening scenes thus reveal that Conan may live a harsh life, but that he is loved…protected.

In short order, however, this cocoon of total love is destroyed. Thulsa Doom arrives in the village with his raiding party, and -- as if to visually transmit the horror of the villain’s actions -- Milius cuts to a shot of young Conan and his mother cowering in the snow of Cimmeria… in the very center of the rectangular frame.  

Bracketed on both sides of Mother and son are the armored, merciless warriors of Doom. The positions of the guards here reveal the level of danger. Conan and his Mother’s space in the frame has been abbreviated, cut-off. They have nowhere to run, no recourse.


And then, Milius’s selection of shots transmits the idea of loss.

Conan is grasping his mother’s hand tightly when Thulsa Doom decapitates her. 

But Conan doesn’t see the death blow. Instead, his mother -- who had been holding his hand -- falls away from him, out of frame, and Conan is left holding nothing…only air.  

This shot expresses the sudden emptiness of his life, and the reverse angle reveals the thing that shall replace love in Conan’s life…vengeance.

Specifically, the reverse angle on Conan at this juncture reveals Thulsa Doom standing symbolically in the position Conan’s mother had occupied. 

From this view, Conan’s hand and arm seem curled not around “nothing,” but around the imposing Doom. 

The family has been destroyed. Love has been replaced by hatred in the young boy’s heart. And Milius’s choice of composition perfectly reflects this shift.



The next scene in Conan the Barbarian is among my very favorite from the film. The boy Conan pushes the Wheel of Pain for years -- through sunlight and darkness, through winter and spring -- until he is all grown up. 

Arnold Schwarzenegger is introduced as the adult Conan in this montage, coming around on the final revolution of the wheel. First, we see only his (strong) legs, but then we see his adult countenance, his furrowed brow and cunning eyes.  

A less clever film might have simply faded out on young Conan as a slave, and faded in years later, with him as an adult. There might even have been a chryon stating, flat out “20 years later.”  But the Wheel of Pain sequence not only introduces us to “adult” Conan, it adroitly reveals the essence of the character’s life. It is a life of repetition, routine, hardship, grunt-work, labor, and struggle.  

The years do not pass quickly for Conan. 

Instead, they pass tediously and with back-breaking sweat, and as I noted in my introduction, the Wheel of Pain thus seems like a perfect metaphor for the human existence. 

Some people might say adolescence and high school are wheels of pain.  Others might conclude that a 5-day-a-week job is a candidate for another wheel of pain. 

You can pick your poison, but Conan the Barbarian finds a perfect way to express Conan’s woes, and the fact that his years pass unhappily, without love and, importantly, without adventure. He is trapped in this Hell, doing the same thing over and over again, dreaming patiently of revenge, but never being able to enact it.







The snake cult of Thulsa Doom, I believe, represents another aspect of human life: false wisdom.  

The cult’s wisdom is not the wisdom of parents who love you no matter what, but the wisdom of people whose motives may be less than benevolent.  In this case, individuality is squashed as thousands of men and women dress identically in white and listen rapturously to Doom’s pronouncements and sermons.  

But the landscape around the cult is of special note in terms of the visuals: the trees and the land seem dead, a representative of the very “emptiness” that Doom not only creates, but actually promises for his devoted acolytes. Notice the wretched, gnarled trees that line the path to Thulsa Doom’s temple, specifically.  There is little life, color, or vitality there.




There have been those writers and reviewers over the years who suggest a certain right-leaning or tilt to Conan the Barbarian, and I concur with that viewpoint. For example, Thulsa Doom’s cult seems very much like an intentional rejection or critique of the 1960s hippie movement, and counter-culture family units such as the commune.  

In 1982, there would have been a fairly recent example of just such a communal life gone terribly wrong, namely the Jonestown Massacre of November 18, 1978, wherein over 900 people were killed by “guru” Jim Jones.

But if one gazes at Conan the Barbarian in broad terms, the story concerns a man (Thulsa Doom) -- a leader -- who creates useful “emptiness” in his followers by taking them away from their parents, away from the traditional family units.  The shot I noted above -- with Doom stepping metaphorically into the visual space of Conan’s mother -- reflects this very notion.

Specifically, Doom robs Conan of his parents. But importantly, he also takes away King Osric’s daughter, the princess. This act so grieves Osric that wealth and power mean nothing to the king.  “All that’s left,” he tells Conan mournfully, is “a father’s love for his child.”

But Doom replaces the love of parents -- which we saw so vividly expressed in the film’s opening “forging” montage -- with sexual desire, hero worship, group anonymity, and mysticism.  Perversely, he calls his cult “The Children of Doom,” and that very name suggests how he has twisted family values to his own ends.

In fact, Thulsa Doom attempts to create spiritual “emptiness” -- to be filled by the snake cult -- in Conan twice. First by killing his parents, and secondly by murdering the love of his life: Valeria.  

The most affecting moments of Conan the Barbarian involve the dedication and commitment that these soul-mates and lovers show one another. Valeria saves Conan from the under-world and, finally, her spirit saves him in battle.  

The latter act is suggestive of a love that lasts beyond mortality, and again, that act of love very much stands in contrast to the selfish and empty love that Thulsa Doom offers his followers.

In the end, Conan loses Valeria and all he is left with is the thing his father promised him as a legacy all those years earlier, “the discipline of steel.”

He cannot trust men or women to be at his side, as his father indicates. But this is not because other people are bad, but because death takes them.  In realizing this – and in truly knowing love -- Conan becomes a hero who is much deeper than his early, infamous commentary, “crush your enemies, hear the lamentation of their women…” suggests.

Some scholars and reviews have suggested that there is something inherently fascist about Conan the Barbarian, but in truth, it seems far less fascist in design and execution than a saga like Star Wars.  There, for example, only the people with the right kind of blood (Midichlorians…) can harness the power of the Force. 

By contrast, Conan here becomes king not because of any pure blood he possesses, not because of ancestry or heritage, but, according to the dialogue, by “his own hand.”


That description suggests the opposite of fascism, and is an assertion instead of good old-fashioned, self-reliance. Conan takes the (terrible…) hand he was dealt and, in spite of his woes and sorrows, becomes a wise King.

A chronicle of “high adventure” in an “age undreamed of,” Conan the Barbarian succeeds and endures because its visuals so ably express Conan’s story. From the opening sword-forging montage to the visualization of “emptiness” (and thus death) at the heart of Doom’s cult, the film’s meaning is transmitted beautifully by symbolic imagery.

Beyond this, the film is gorgeous to look at in terms of its natural vistas. Today, of course, the lack of CGI is very refreshing. There is something three dimensional and “real” about the landscapes and creatures Conan encounters in this film, and we have a better sense of him as a person and as a hero because we feel he exists in real environs, not merely in front of a green-screen.

Similarly, the film’s final battle represents a dramatic high-point because Milius doesn’t take it for granted that Conan will win merely because he is a great warrior with bulging muscles.

Instead, we witness Conan’s intense preparation of the battle-field before the fight. We see him set up booby traps, and think through all the angles.  We thus get the idea that he wins the battle for two reasons.  

The first is that he assiduously prepared a strategy to defeat the army…meaning that Conan is smart and cunning. 

And secondly, Conan wins, because Valeria intervenes in his affairs, from the Underworld.  He has forged so meaningful a relationship with her -- again, the polar opposite of Doom -- that even death cannot keep his dearest ally from aiding him in a time of need.

It has always been fashionable to bash Arnold Schwarzenegger as an actor, and Conan the Barbarian is no exception. 

But unlike many other athletes/fighters turned actors (like Steven Seagal, for example), Schwarzenegger always showcases a sense of humor, a self-deprecating side of himself. There’s a grace and humanity in his best performances that make audiences love him. 

Arnold may look super-human and perfect, but he’s also got that kooky accent, those bulging eyes, and a goofy grin.  He’s actually pretty good as Conan because he projects a distinctive personality and sense of humor as the hero. You sense that his Conan possesses an inner life, and isn’t just a dumb hulk.  

Sandahl Bergman is also perfect as Valeria, making the no-nonsense role her own. She plays a strong woman, and Conan's equal on the battlefield (and presumably elsewhere...). Bergman projects toughness and tenderness in equal measure, and has no stereotypical "damsel in distress" moments whatsoever. 



Bergman's best moment, in my opinion, involves her decimation of Thulsa Doom's forces, while Conan is carrying away the princess. Valeria ruthlessly, efficiently -- and magnificently -- eliminates what seems like an army of warriors, and Bergman is poetry in motion.  Also impressive here is the fact that without much dialogue, Bergman is able to powerfully express Valeria's devotion to Conan.

Conan the Barbarian captures the spirit of Robert E. Howard's stories, if not always the exact details, and that is simply the best that a fan can usually hope for, since movies and books are such different art forms. Yet at the time of its release, Conan the Barbarian was also bashed as being too violent, too sexual, and too politically incorrect, despite its fidelity to the source material.  Today, such qualities actually grant the film a sense of verisimilitude that many other fantasy epics decidedly lack. It’s so refreshing to see an R-rated fantasy. 

This version of Conan has a lot of heart, a lot of verve, and enough steel to kick-start a franchise. And that’s exactly what happened.

35 Years Ago: Star Trek: The Next Generation: "Encounter at Farpoint"

Although by no stretch one of the best installments of the series’ seven year run, the inaugural episode of  Star Trek: The Next Generation ...