Sunday, November 27, 2022

20 Years Ago Today: Solaris (2002)

“We take off into the cosmos, ready for anything: solitude, hardship, exhaustion, death. We're proud of ourselves. But when you think about it, our enthusiasm's a sham. We don't want other worlds; we want mirrors.

-       Solaris (2002).

It’s unusual that a contemporary Hollywood remake of 1970s Russian science-fiction film should succeed so dramatically on its own terms.  

Yet that’s precisely the case with Steven Soderbergh’s remake of Solaris (2002) starring George Clooney.  Although this remake diverges from both the Stanislaw Lem novel and the 1972 Tarkovsky film, the director’s post-millennial iteration of the tale nonetheless succeeds as a consistent and imaginative work of art.

This artistic success hinges in large part on Soderbergh’s splendid visualization of the story, and his creative decision to eschew the bells-and-whistles of the modern sci-fi cinema.  This is a film about the nature of the universe, and more trenchantly, how mankind views that nature and his place in it.  But it is vetted, surprisingly, through the excavation of a very human relationship.

Thus Solaris is resolutely not a film of action, or set-pieces, or special effects. There’s a significant segment of the population that, simply put, won’t exhibit much patience for it. Writing for Rolling Stone, Peter Travers wrote: “Put George Clooney in a space-suit and you expect Star Wars heroics, aliens, massive FX. Get over it.” 

That’s excellent advice.  

Where most outer space films are determinedly “epic” in nature, Solaris appear painfully and resolutely intimate.  The film concerns, primarily, the concepts of grief, guilt, and God.  Furthermore, it is a meditation on human identity, and the ways that such identity precludes an honest reckoning with a life form that is authentically “alien” in nature.

Soderbergh’s Solaris -- as J. Hoberman noted at The Village Voice – “achieves an almost perfect balance of poetry and pulp. This is as elegant, moody, intelligent, sensuous, and sustained a studio movie as we are likely to see this season—and in its intrinsic nuttiness, perhaps the least compromised.”

The film qualifies as uncompromising because it doesn’t bow to commercial influences above artistic ones, and because Soderbergh deploys symbolic imagery and canny compositions to characterize both the protagonists’ lonely life on Earth and his once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to make, essentially, a “leap of faith.” 

Thematically, Solaris can be interpreted on two tracks.  

On one track, the film is strictly a religious treatise, one affirming an important tenet of Christianity as set down by Paul in Romans.  It is about, simply, assurance of salvation.  

On a deeper and ultimately more rewarding level, Solaris functions admirably as a complex psychological mirror, one that reflects the lead character’s perhaps subconscious desire to believe in a cosmic order beyond secular science.

Accordingly, the film’s protagonist finds in the planet Solaris a sentient life form that accommodates and manifests his buried desire to “believe” in God and therefore in a religious hierarchy to the universe.  The planet’s manifestation of an eternal “after life” for this character in the film’s denouement makes one ask the question: is there any meaningful difference between “God” and a life form that acts as if it is God?  This interrogative parallels the movie’s other big question mark: is there any substantive difference between a human and a Solaris-generated “Visitor” who appears human?

No matter how one interprets it, Solaris (2002) qualifies as a masterpiece of the science fiction cinema, a very impressive achievement” and one that “measures up” to Tarkovsky’s brilliant cinematic progenitor.

We are in a situation that is beyond morality.”

In the near future, mourning widower and renowned psychologist Chris Kelvin (Clooney) is sent by the DBA Corporation to investigate a dangerous situation on Space Station Prometheus, a facility orbiting the mysterious world called Solaris.  

A video message from one of the scientists stationed on Prometheus, Gibarian (Ulrich Tukur) reveals that the crew is being overcome by…something.  Kelvin soon heads to the station in a capsule called Athena to arrange “the safe return of the crew.”

When Kelvin reaches Prometheus, he finds that Gibarian has committed suicide, Dr. Gordon (Viola Davis) has locked herself in her room, and Snow (Jeremy Davies) has apparently lost his mind.  After he sleeps for the first time on the station, Kelvin finally begins to understand the nature of the crisis.  His dead wife, Rheya (Natascha McElhone) appears in his quarters...apparently created from Solaris and from his very memories.

Kelvin learns that each of the other scientists also met important “Visitors” from their pasts.  At first he is terrified of Rheya and sends her away on a pod.  But when Rheya re-appears (following another period of slumber), Kelvin realizes that he boasts a “second chance” to be with his beloved wife.  All the guilt he feels over her suicide can now be repaired, he feels, and they can start again.

While Gordon masterminds a plan to obliterate the Visitors created by Solaris using an Anti-Higgs ray, Kelvin and Rheya grow closer.  Unfortunately, Rheya seems pre-programmed for suicide, a reflection of the true Rheya’s disturbed psyche…at least as Kelvin remembers it.

When the anti-Higgs ray affects Solaris…causing the planet to swell and grow in mass, Kelvin must make a fatal decision about his destiny.  

Should he return to an empty life on Earth? Or face absorption by Solaris, the seeming “entity” which brought (a version) of his wife back to him?  What awaits Chris in a symbiosis with the mysterious planet?

“Are we alive or dead?  We don’t have to think like that anymore…”

Unlike the source material created by Stanislaw Lem, the 2002 version of Solaris --- at least from a certain perspective -- offers something of a religious, Christian parable.  

The film tells the tale of a scientist -- Kelvin’s “nihilist psychologist,” as the dialogue terms him -- who takes a “leap of faith” and chooses “belief” rather than a return to the (lonely) reality he knows and deplores. Instead of going back to the “secular,” “real” Earth, Kelvin chooses to believe that there is another option: an eternal afterlife created by Solaris.

Kelvin’s favorite poem, quoted often in the film, is Dylan Thomas’s (1914-1953) “And Death Shall Have No Dominion” (1936).  The poem’s title comes from Paul’s Epistle to the Romans in the New Testament.  This epistle concerns, among other things, man’s assurance of “salvation” through the act of faith.  According to this work, man can join forever with Jesus Christ in the Kingdom of Heaven and find freedom from sin there.

In the film, we witness a flashback sequence wherein Kelvin, Gibarian, and Rhea share dinner and Kelvin self-righteously adopts an atheist or nihilist standpoint.  He claims that human existence is just one of a billion mathematical possibilities, and therefore random.  

The whole idea of God was dreamed up by man,” Kelvin and his friends assert.  Both Kelvin and Gibarian tease Rheya mercilessly about her belief in “God,” belief in that magical man with the “white beard” that listens to and answers human prayers.  

Although clearly a troubled soul, Rhea rejects this nihilist view of existence. She sees purpose and meaning in the cosmos. She is a believer. 

In the face of the apparent miracles Kelvin witnesses on the Prometheus space station, he is asked, ultimately, to believe in something too.  If not a Christian God, necessarily, than in the powers of Solaris to reunite him with Rheya, the wife he lost.  

He stills feel guilty about her death, and that continuing burden of guilt leads Kelvin to the precipice of a spiritual awakening, as he reveals in voice over narration.  Kelvin notes that he is “haunted by the idea” that he remembered Rheya wrong, and that if he could be so wrong about someone he loved so deeply, he could be “wrong about everything.”

Everything” in this context means the existence of God. And perhaps even the very nature of the universe.  In other words, the nihilist Kelvin opens up his world view, just a crack, to accept the possibility of miracles, of real spirituality. Of all those things determinedly not incorporated into his carefully-selected, secular philosophy.

As Stephen Holden wrote in his review of Solaris Chris's tears aren't the warm, cathartic sobs of a grieving Rhett Butler softened by one too many brandies, but the tremors of a man who thought he had all the answers suddenly confronting a scary metaphysical conundrum.”

So to resolve that scary metaphysical conundrum, Kelvin makes a leap of faith, and decides to remain on Prometheus, even as the planet’s mass threatens to consume the facility.  As that act of planetary absorption occurs, Kelvin falls to the floor of one particular corridor, where he is greeted unexpectedly by a “Visitor” who takes a form of pure innocence: Gibarian’s young son.   

This boy -- a Christ or God figure -- offers an outstretched hand of support. In response, Kelvin stretches to reach the boy’s hand.  And for a moment here, Soderbergh cuts to a close-up image of the two hands in close-proximity, grasping for one other. 

The Hand of God

The Hand of God?

The Hand of God

The Hand of God?

As you can see, this particular shot selection eerily echoes Michaelangelo’s “Hand of God” imagery in the Sistine Chapel.  In that Catholic venue, this image represents God giving life to Adam, the first man.   Here, the image suggests that Solaris (or Christ…) forgives and accepts Kelvin, and grants him an eternal after life.

Ensconced in that afterlife, Kelvin soon finds himself back in his apartment on Earth.  But he is not alone this time.  He is with Rheya…forever.  And his guilt over her death is now assuaged.  For her part, Rheya informs Chris that this is a place of eternal peace: 

Everything we’ve done is forgiven,” she asserts, harking back to Paul’s assurance of salvation in Romans, and the specific line from Kelvin’s favorite poem.  Death shall have no dominion…at least for believers.

The spiritual and religious aspects of Solaris are consistently applied throughout the film, with Gordon – another scientist – fearing the planet’s “resurrections” (a term which also recalls the story of Jesus), and Rheya coming to interact with the planet as something akin to God; something which has set her down a specific path and which “wants” certain things from her.  In one scene, we witness Rheya talking to an invisible presence, asking, specifically, what it wants of her.  It is the stance of someone trying to discern the word of God.  And in one image (in a mirror), the figure she seems to be talking to is no longer invisible but, again, the Gibarian child.

Even the explicit discussion of a “place where” Kelvin and Rheya “can live” together in their “feelings of love” harks back to a Christian interpretation of the film.  That place of unending love can only exist when Kelvin takes a leap of faith; when Kelvin believes in something beyond science.

The irony of Solaris’s viewpoint if you subscribe to this interpretation is that it absolutely conforms to Gibarian’s damning line that “we don’t want other worlds; we want mirrors.”  

In other words, Solaris depicts the tale of man in space, and finds that in this frontier he must reckon with the Face of God Himself.  And here God conforms -- through the Michelangelo symbolism, the Dylan quotation (from Paul, originally), and the apotheosis of an after-life of “forgiveness” -- with pre-existing Earth beliefs, or specifically, Christian beliefs.   

Therefore, Lem’s original idea from the novel is indeed sacrificed. 

This movie is not about Lem’s notion of countenancing something truly alien or incomprehensible, but rather about countenancing a “mirror” that re-affirms Earthly beliefs. In that vein, one can argue that Solaris takes man to the frontier of knowledge and finds there but a mirror reflecting earthbound, Western traditions of faith and spirituality.

There is another way to understand the film, however, and frankly, I prefer this second interpretation.  

Chris Kelvin is an avowed secularist (“the nihilist psychologist,” remember) and yet something in his soul connects emotionally and meaningfully to the works of the Dylan Thomas, particularly that poem about “death having no dominion,” and love lasting forever.  

Kelvin is already open, then, in some buried sense – perhaps even a subconscious sense – to the idea of an afterlife, to the idea of forgiveness, and even to the concept of God.  The planet Solaris – a vibrating, coruscating membrane, and, perhaps, a mirror – thus creates for him the very (religious) imagery his mind seizes upon at the point of his death.  Chris wants to “believe,” and Solaris accommodates that desire, making his belief a “real” dimension, a real afterlife.

Solaris is thus not God, and the afterlife we witness in the film's climax is not Heaven, at least not in the Biblical sense.  Instead, just as the Visitors are not exactly human, but rather representations of human, the after-life is a manifestation of Kelvin’s desire to find peace in Heaven, but not actually Heaven itself. Got it?  Just as Kelvin asserts in the flashback that man has "dreamed up" God, he, in the film's finale, dreams up (a version of) Heaven.

It seems even Kelvin’s name embodies his philosophical stance in Solaris.  On the Kelvin Scale of Belief, he seems to be on a consciously-applied "absolute zero," at least until he interfaces with Solaris and his repressed beliefs come to the surface.  I believe Kelvin boasts the repressed desire to believe in something beyond proven science because he feels guilty about Rheya, and can’t forgive himself for her death.  Science can't provide forgiveness.  Even behavioral psychology can't, really. So his mind creates a world – and Solaris manifests that world – where he can find that peace and forgiveness.

But that world is no more Heaven than the Visitor Rheya is actually the real Rheya.  

The forgiveness that Solaris grants Kelvin -- the very afterlife it manifests for him -- are thus but mirrors of what his conflicted mind seems to desire: a place where he can dwell forever in that feeling of love with the woman he cares about.

“How are you here? Where do you think you are?”

At the heart of Solaris is this crucial character, the nihilist, Chris Kelvin.  He goes on a mission that makes him re-examine his beliefs and feelings, and runs square up against the human concept of identity.  He comes to realize that the Visitor version of “Rheya” is created exclusively from his memory, from his mind.  

Accordingly, she can act only as he expects her to act; only within the confines of his established mental “definition” of her.  This realization proves incredibly troubling to Rheya.  She can’t deal with the fact that she is not “herself,” but rather a creation of Rheya vetted through the lens of Kelvin’s eyes.

What Solaris truly hints at, then, is the notion that no one can truly know anybody else. That our identities are fragile, self-constructed puzzles of deep layers and many facets. 

No one else – not even our spouses, our children, our parents or our best friends – can fully understand the complexity of the inner, personal self.  Throughout the film, characters respond in fear and anger to the visitors because they don’t know “why” they have appeared, or “who made them.”

Well, why are we here?  And who, outside our parents, created us, the human race itself? 

It’s completely hypocritical that Gordon and Kelvin, at least to an extent, ask existential questions of Rheya, Snow and Gibarian’s son that they can’t truly answer about themselves or human nature.  This is why the final revelation about Snow is so important.  Others accept him at face value, believing him to be human, when in fact he is a "Visitor."  For a person on the outside looking in, it's impossible to detect the difference.  That's the point.  

Soderbergh excavates this concept -- the ultimate un-know-ability of other people -- through a carefully selected visual approach.  In particular, there are an abundance of compositions in the film which reveal to us Chris Kelvin…but only from the back.  

These shots aren’t like the fast-moving, “intrusion” tracking shots of Black Swan that I pointed out last week, although they may resemble them from the screen grabs (which can't alas, accommodate motion or movement).  Instead, these are (mostly) still frames in which Kelvin’s back is deliberately facing the camera.  The image suggests that something important is being denied us.

This composition could be a visual prophecy of Kelvin’s approaching death, or a sign of the character’s alienation and isolation from the world.  He has literally turned his back on it (and to the camera).  

Or, if one chooses to consider the image symbolically, these composition choices represent Soderbergh’s reminder that even Kelvin – our protagonist – is a man of layers and contradictions.  Ultimately, we can’t understand more of his identity than what he reveals to us.  This interpretation fits in with the notion I described above, of Kelvin as both firm nihilist/atheist and Kelvin as secret “believer” (or want-to-be-believer, if you will).  Can we really know him?  Can he really know himself?

What's denied us in this image?

Trapped in the prison (notice the bars?) of his own beliefs?

Separated from the world outside.

Lost in a blur of unimportant faces.

Finally, Unknowable.

How can we know anybody, in fact, if “nobody can even agree [about] what’s happening” as one character describes the central mystery in the film.  The issue: We are all victims of and slaves to our own unique perspectives. 

Another intriguing composition that Soderbergh deploys repeatedly in the film involves a strange, inscrutable view of Rheya’s face.  She is universally in the middle of the frame during these moments, staring at the camera; staring at us.  This oddly serene and yet significant posture forces us to consider: who is looking at us from behind those wide eyes?  Is it Rheya?  Is it Solaris?  Is it God?

Who is looking at us from behind those eyes?


An imitation?




The irony, of course, is that when we meet strangers and they look at us, we don’t understand everything behind their eyes, either.  Are we immediately suspicious and paranoid of them too?  Or do they get a pass because we assume they were born on Earth, and are therefore human?  Once that assumption disappears, however, do we face the unknown – even familiar faces -- with fear and paranoia?

In some sense, what Solaris concerns is the idea that we all see the world through our own individual lens.  We interpret the identities of other people through that lens, which includes, in many cases, a life time of memories.  Yet, in our memory, we get to control everything, explaining perhaps why we form judgments of people that are biased or wrong, or narrow, or ill-considered.  What we are really judging is not another person’s true interior “self,” but our perception of that self.

What I enjoy and admire about this remake of Solaris is that it is internally consistent, even if it is not faithful in terms of theme to the Stanislaw Lem original novel.  Soderbergh’s Solaris asks us to consider identity, and to consider the idea that mankind – even when broaching other worlds – will never be able to see anything other than mirrors.  The lens with which we view other people (and other realities?) is an individual, personal one, unable to reckon with something truly alien on its own terms.

The mystery of the planet Solaris can’t be resolved, because human beings can’t relate objectively – outside themselves and outside the mirrors of perception – to something truly otherworldly.  Instead, they see only shades of themselves and their own lives.  How can we assess something in terms of human characteristics, if it possesses no human characteristics to begin with?

If you keep thinking there’s a solution, you’ll die here,” one character warns Kelvin in the film.   “There are no answers, only choices,” Gibarian tells him, on another occasion. 

No answers, only choices?  That’s the crux of our human existence right here on Earth, isn’t it?  Again, Solaris uses the “alien” mirror to show us, in fact, our very reflection.

We can make choices about what we want to believe, of course.  But part of our questing human nature must involve the admission that there are no answers, except the ones we craft for ourselves, about our identity, and about how we choose to view the universe.  The human race has made God (or transformed God…), into an image we find acceptable, a reflection of our modern world and its value system.

When we face the idea of God, we don’t really want to see the Divine at all, do we?  We’re hoping, instead, for a mirror....

Friday, November 25, 2022

War of the Gargantuas (1966)

It’s no exaggeration to state that The War of the Gargantuas (1966) was a staple of my childhood TV-watching. 

The Japanese monster movie -- released in America in 1970 -- aired frequently on our local station WWOR Channel 9 in the 1970s and 1980s; sometimes on The Million Dollar Movie, if memory serves.

Rightly or wrongly, I have come to associate these viewings of The War of the Gargantuas with the Thanksgiving holiday, or more accurately, the Friday after Thanksgiving.  

So today, I decided to take a look back at the film. The War of the Gargantuas stars Russ Tamblyn as Dr. Paul Stewart and is a sequel of sorts to Frankenstein Conquers the World (1965). In particular, the film’s Gargantuas -- brown and green -- were created from the cells of the Frankenstein Monster, which were cast into the sea in the previous film.  

And in Japanese, I believe, the creatures are referred to not as Gargantuas but as “Frankensteins.”

Directed by Ishiro Honda, with special effects from Eiji Tsubaraya, The War of the Gargantuas concerns the attempts of several scientists to save the life of the non-violent brown Gargantua, or Sanda, even while the Japanese Army plots the demise of the violent, carnivorous green Gargantua, Gaira. 

In the end, nature does away with the giant monsters instead. But the film serves as a meditation on the nature vs. nurture debate, comparing the wild, untamed Gaira with the kindly Sanda, who knew human companionship. 

Man’s violent nature is discussed as well, since the Japanese Army refuses to acknowledge the (obvious) differences between the gargantuan monsters, and goes forward with its plan to kill them both with napalm.

“Is it possible a gargantuan might exist?”

A ship at sea is attacked by a giant octopus, and later, a giant green monster or Gargantua. 

The only survivor of the incident reports the attack, and the Japanese press runs with the story, asking Professor Paul Stewart (Tamblyn) and his associate Akemi (Kumi Mizuno) if such creatures could be real. The scientists know from experience that it is possible.  Five years earlier, they cared for a gentle brown Gargantua, before it escaped from custody.

The Green Gargantua, Gaira, soon makes landfall at Tokyo Airport and does catastrophic damage there. Later, the same beast attacks the patrons at a roof-top night-club, and is repelled only by bright light.  

The Japanese Army brings in maser tanks to annihilate Gaira, but at the last minute, the injured creature is rescued by Sanda, the brown Gargantua who has been living in peace in the Japanese Alps.

Stwewart surmises that the Gargantuas are offshoots from the same unknown cells, and therefore their cells may be able to generate additional monsters.Alarmed, the Army plans to destroy Gaira and Sanda, over Stewart and Akemi’s objections...

“We were sunk by a hairy green giant.”

The War of the Gargantuas explicitly references, at one point, the Biblical story of Cain and Abel: the story of a man who murders his brother. 

That tale roils underneath The War of the Gargantuas as Sanda and Gaira  first discover one another, and eventually face off. Early in the film, Sanda saves Gaira from the Army and nurses him back to health after maser attack. But soon Sanda -- who was raised by humans -- sees that Gaira has killed and eaten a human boater.  Sanda realizes that he can no longer protect his sibling, and nor should he. They fight it out, even though Sanda is peaceful and docile.

The other set of “brothers” in the film -- mirroring this monster dynamic -- are human scientists and soldiers. The scientists, like Sanda, are peaceful and docile, hoping to investigate the crisis and save the more peaceful of the two Gargantuas.  The soldiers, by contrast (and not entirely unlike Gaira...) are bound and determined to destroy anything they deem a threat, including the innocent Sanda.  

Like the Gargantuas, scientists and soldiers possess “the same blood, the same cell structure,” and yet are incredibly different.The movie points out the hypocrisy of the Army's higher-ups. They are bound and determined to kill both Gargantuas, even without cause, even though they are acting in a murderous fashion, like Gaira. 

But brothers are supposed to be responsible for brothers, right?

In the end, the Gargantuas are put down not by each other, or by the auspices of man, but by an underwater volcanic eruption. Though spurred by a helicopter bombing, this eruption is the “other” key player in the film’s action: Mother Nature, or God, if you will.  

The Gargantuas -- as Frankenstein Monsters and creations of man -- are “unnatural” creations. Therefore, it is only proper that nature remove them. But had monster movie history been a little different, however, Sanda and Gaira would have likely returned in another film, perhaps to battle Godzilla himself. 

On my recent screening of the film, I was pleasantly surprised by the effetive and atmospheric opening of the film. Like so many Japanese monster movies, The War of the Gargantuas opens with a ship at sea during a storm, and an attack by a giant monster.  

This time, that monster is a huge, menacing octopus, and the scene is very well-shot. The punctuation of the scene is a surprise too.  Gaira dispatches the octopus so that we think he is a hero, but then Gaira proceeds to attack the ship himself.  Out of the frying pan, into the fire. 

Later, in a scene that is a little shocking to behold, we see Gaira pursuing the swimming survivors from the ship.  He plucks them out of the water and eats them. 

The scene I most remembered from the film is set at a night club, where an American singer croons “The Words Get Stuck in My Throat,” unaware that Gaira is creeping up in the background, behind her.  

The movie misses a genuine opportunity, in my opinion, because the singer doesn’t get eaten (or stuck in Gaira’s throat...). That would have been a wicked (and nasty) joke but The War of the Gargantuas is a sincere entertainment and doesn’t tread into camp, at least intentionally. Still, it's hard not to giggle at the sea captain's cry that his vessel was attacked by a hairy green giant.

On this viewing of the film, I also admired how the filmmakers set up and exploited the comparison between Gaira and Sanda.  

Gaira is a vicious, inhuman thing that has never known love or companionship. By nature, he may have the potential to love, but he has never been nurtured.  He sees human beings only as food, biting their heads off first, apparently. This is terrifying to watch, and I remember, as a kid, being scared by Gaira.  

There's a moment in the film when a fisherman looks down into the sea, and there -- below the surface -- is Gaira, just waiting to spring. That moment offers some good old fashioned nightmare fodder, and Gaira represents nature gone wild, untamed and undisciplined. 

Sanda was raised by humans, however, and therefore understands love, companionship, and even brotherhood. That latter quality, brotherhood, is the very thing that Sanda seeks with Gaira, perhaps to alleviate a lonely, or even solitary existence.  

But Gaira simply can’t change his ways at this juncture, and is no doubt confused when his brother turns against him. Sanda, clearly, wishes events had turned out differently.

What I didn’t admire so much about The War of the Gargantuas is the fact that the mid-movie battle between Gaira and the Japanese Army seems to go on forever, and therefore lose some visceral impact.  

I fully realize that many nay-sayers disliked 2014’s Godzilla because there wasn’t a lot of monster-on-monster fighting in the film. The fights were used strategically, and mostly during the climax.

The War of the Gargantuas, however, validates that restrained approach.The battles here go on for so long, without relief, that they eventually become monumentally uninteresting. 

It’s probably sacrilege to say this, but the fights could have been pruned back by a full-third, and the movie would have moved with more grace, purpose and drive. The first thirty minutes or so of The War of the Gargantuas in particular, are terrific, and the special effects (especially during the airport attack) hold up rather well.  

Once the fighting takes center stage, however, The War of the Gargantuas feels like it is stuck in neutral. Long stretches of time go by where we just seem to be watching vehicles getting positioned, and masers firing.

The War of the Gargantuas is generally very well-regarded by fans, and I can detect why. Some feel nostalgia for the film, because they grew up with it. Certainly, I'm in this camp.

Others have keyed in on, quite rightly, the human, affecting nature of these particular monsters. You don’t want the Gargantuas to kill each other or die, and yet, at the same time, that outcome feels inevitable. 

All the best monster movies make audiences care about their creatures, one way or another. You either love them, hate them, or feel sorry for them. 

On that front, The War of the Gargantuas absolutely succeeds, and all those emotions bubble to the surface. Sanda, in particular, is heart-breaking. He attempts to build a bridge to the human world (which includes brotherhood and compassion), and carry Gaira with him -- his own flesh and blood -- across it, but doesn't succeed.  

Thursday, November 24, 2022

Happy Thanksgiving!

When I was growing up in the New Jersey burbs during the seventies and early eighties there was a great Thanksgiving Day tradition that I’d like to share on the eve of the holiday.  

Every year, WOR Channel 9 would broadcast King Kong (1933), Son of Kong (1933) and Mighty Joe Young (1949) on Turkey Day.

Then, on Friday, the same station would host a Godzilla marathon consisting of such films as King Kong vs. Godzilla (1962), Godzilla vs. The Smog Monster (1971) and many others.  Some years, if memory serves, War of the Gargantuas (1968) also played.

I remember showering and dressing early on those Thanksgiving Days, so I could be lodged near the TV when the Kong movies started. Meanwhile, my Mom and Dad would be busy in the kitchen preparing a great meal of turkey, stuffing, baked carrots with cinnamon, and home-made biscuits.  The house would fill with the delectable aromas of the feast, and even downstairs -- while glued to WOR-TV -- I could feel my appetite for dinner building.

Our guests, usually my grandparents and aunts and uncles, would arrive sometime in the early afternoon, around 1:00 pm and I would socialize with them, and then sneak back to the family room for more King Kong.  Sometimes my uncle Larry, a horror fan after a fashion, would join me.

Then the meal and dessert -- a chocolate cream pie and a pumpkin pie -- would be served, and we’d all enjoy each other’s company over the delicious food.  After an appropriate interval of visiting and socializing, I’d high-tail it once more back down the stairs to watch more of the movies. 

I’m certain my description of Thanksgiving makes it sound weird and anti-social, but you must remember that in the seventies, there were no VCRs (let alone DVRs or movie streaming), which meant that if you wanted to see a movie like King Kong, you had to seize your moment, or else wait for another year. 

I believe it took me the better part of four Thanksgivings to see all of King Kong, and then not even in chronological order.  I actually saw the entirety of Son of Kong first, perhaps because it was often scheduled between our early afternoon dinner and dessert course.

This tradition of King Kong Thanksgiving and Godzilla Black Friday continued over a long period at my house -- the better part of a decade -- so much so that I still irrevocably associate the Holiday season with WOR Channel 9 and its monster movie broadcasts.  

I still remember, a bit guiltily, forcing my parents to watch the 1970's Godzilla movies on Fridays, while we ate Thanksgiving leftovers in the family room. My folks liked the King Kong movies, but when it came to Japanese monster movies, they weren’t exactly big fans.

Happy Turkey Day!

Monday, November 21, 2022

50 Years Ago Today: Gargoyles (1972)

In Bill Norton's made-for-TV movie Gargoyles (1972), written by Steven and Elinor Karpf, the human race encounters a very old enemy: Gargoyles...the monstrous spawn of Satan himself. 

As the film's opening narration and title cards reveal, Gargoyles are real, and arose from Hell, from the lake of Fire. Every six hundred years (or thereabouts) the Gargoyles vie for supremacy on Earth with mankind.  In every battle thus far, we've defeated these insurgents, but the beasts always survive to threaten us once more.  In the modern age, most humans have forgotten the truth, and consider Gargoyles only myths...

Short and sweet at 74 minutes long, Gargoyles is one of those classic horror TV movies of a bygone age (like Satan's School for Girls, Don't Be Afraid of the Dark, or Dark Night of the Scarecrow.)

The production values are minimal, and the Gargoyle costumes -- often shown in fully-revealing slow-motion photography -- perhaps don't hold up particularly well in 2022, fifty years later. 

And yet, the movie casts a powerful and sinister spell despite such concerns.  It is also clearly of the age of "social critique" genre films such as Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (1972), wherein a group/cadre of non-human characters symbolize some element or component of real life in contemporary America.

In many crucial ways, the first half-hour of the film, in which the Gargoyles are not fully seen, sets the macabre, unsettling tone for the picture. 

We follow an anthropologist, Dr. Mercer Boley (Cornel Wilde) and his halter-top wearing daughter, Diana (Jennifer Salt), into a barren desert as they visit a crazy old coot, "Uncle Willie" (Woody Chambliss).  Willie claims to have made a discovery of some scientific significance, but wants to show it to the Boleys, not merely tell them about it.

In these early moments, Gargoyles generates a mounting sense of dread and foreboding as Norton's camera adopts high angle shots of great distance. From a viewpoint high atop ancient rocks and outcroppings, we watch the Boley station wagon traverse, essentially, nothingness. 

Roads seem carved out of the Earth, and all around, there is no sign of life. In this barren, isolated realm, something evil lurks...and watches.  After a few such shots, this effect becomes rather unnerving.  In one instance, a dark, inhuman shadow falls over a mountaintop...

Later, Willie reveals to the Boleys a Gargoyle skeleton he found in the desert and has meticulously re-assembled..and then the first Gargoyle attack arrives in a flash.  We see slashing claws break through a metal shed wall, and all Hell breaks loose.  The Boleys manage to escape (Willie is not so lucky...) and they flee in their car. 

Again, a Gargoyle attacks, and nearly destroys their vehicle.  The Boleys make it to a lonely gas station by thick of night, and the sensations of emptiness and vulnerability are pretty powerfully rendered once more. 

Our protagonists are surrounded by darkness on all sides of this lonely outpost, and you can just imagine that they are being closely observed by the monsters,who are conveniently obscured by blackness.

In its short running time, Gargoyles is filled with moments such as the one I describe above, at the gas station at night.  Later on, Diana walks along a desert road by herself, on the way to a police station, and she's the only soul in sight.

Out in the darkness, there be dragons...

I suppose the creepy success of Gargoyles is a testament, in part, to effective location work and choice in setting.  Director Jack Arnold often utilized the desert background to great effect in his genre films, and that's the same trick Gargoyles pulls off.  Almost immediately, the film disarms the viewer with a powerful sense of place, and the impression of a malevolent intelligence working behind the scenes.

When the monsters do finally take center stage, the film shifts into a different gear all-together. The slow-motion photography that frequently showcases the beasts is perhaps a double-edged sword.  On one hand, it gives the creatures a kind of "alien" or unfamiliar sense of movement and grace, and grants their monstrous footsteps a level of gravitas.  They seem to move according to their own laws of nature.

On the other hand, the slow-motion photography also reveals, fully, the costumes.  Gargoyles (deservedly) won an Emmy for its special effects, but fully-costumed, head-to-toe monsters are hard to vet well, especially if you show them (well lit) so frequently. The masks/make-ups by Stan Winston and Ellis Burman remain exquisite, but in some cases -- probably because of superior DVD clarity -- you can make out that the Gargoyles seem to be wearing tights/pants.  You shouldn't let this inhibit your enjoyment of the movie, however.

For the latter half of Gargoyles proves effective, and unsettling by developing the character of the lead Gargoyle, a sinister but intriguing character played by Bernie Casey and given vocal, icy life by Vic Perrin, the Outer Limits "Control Voice." 

There's a malevolent, clever intellect at work in this Gargoyle's voice and dialogue.  He is truly a monster to be reckoned with.  He's not merely a dumb brute or savage beast, but an intelligent, curious, and yes, often diabolical being. 

Late in the film, for instance, the Gargoyle captures Diana and forces her to read human books to him, so he can gain an increased understanding of his enemy.  There's a definite Beauty and the Beast vibe happening here, and in one suggestive moment, Diana reads the diary of a woman from 1417 AD who was visited in her bedroom --and  seduced -- by a Gargoyle.

Nothing remotely physical or sexual actually occurs between the Gargoyle and Diana in the film, but this scene scintillates with danger, uncertainty, curiosity, and the undercurrent of forbidden sexuality. 

In one provocative moment, the Gargoyle approaches Diana, probing aggressively into her physical space, and informs her that he is "curious" about her.

If this admission from the Gargoyle is coupled with the scene of his first approach -- wherein he caresses an unconscious Diana and seems to cover her prone body with his own --  the idea of forbidden "attraction" between Gargoyle and human seems inescapable.

And make no mistake, in some weird, twisted way, the Gargoyle is a beautiful, regal and even attractive creature. He has dignity, poise, stature...and icy intelligence.   And that description, of course, fits the very nature of evil as we sometimes understand it: it sometimes carries a wicked, seductive allure. 

Here, the mystery of the Evil "Other," is quite powerful, and the scenes between Diana and the Gargoyle compensate for some of the less-than-overwhelming heroics that dominate the last few minutes of the film.  

Also noteworthy about Gargoyles is the film's sense of imagination regarding Earth's "secret history."

The film suggests that man and Gargoyle have been locked in a war over the generations, and that the Devil's children are real, and perhaps possess an equal and rightful claim to the Earth. Even more than that, there are points in the film, including the climax, wherein Dr. Boley reveals compassion for the Gargoyles.  Early on, when a Gargoyle is struck dead in the street by a passing truck, Dr. Boley notes that it seemed afraid, just like a human being would.

I find this degree of sympathy for "the monster" an endlessly fascinating touch, because the voice-over narration at film's commencement establishes, without a doubt, that the Gargoyles are born of Evil, and therefore evil themselves. Yet when we meet the Gargoyles, we immediately recognize such human characteristics as pride, lust, and even the survival instinct.   

Can we treat the enemies of mankind with compassion?  Is this actually sympathy for the devil?

Thus Gargoyles forges the subtle argument that just because one is born of evil does not mean that such evil must be one's destiny.  The Gargoyles can choose to be different, perhaps. I wonder, do they possess the same "free will" as man?

Regardless, in allowing the Gargoyle and his winged mate to escape, Dr. Boley saves his daughter's life. But has he also assured, through his behavior that -- at some juncture -- a truce is possible between these two races?

Read a little deeper however, and I suspect, on some level at least, that Gargoyles is actually a horror treatise concerning race and race relations in America. 

For instance, there's the specter of forbidden love between a white woman and "monster" here (as well as the concurrent mythologizing of the ethnic "Other" as a kind of sexual Goliath). The diary speaks of the seduced woman's frenzy, but does not make clear if that frenzy is terror, sexual, or some unique (and pleasurable?) combination thereof.

In Gargoyles, you also see the idea of a separate ethnic group existing within our national borders, seeking to redress past wrongs. And as the lead Gargoyle states, this is the end of "our age" and the beginning of his.

In Gargoyles, there is also a well-recorded history of animosity between the two peoples, but also an acknowledgment that in terms of our desires and characteristics, humans and Gargoyles are very much the same creature.  We both fear death. We both possess "desires." We both love our young.  

In America, alas, we have also witnessed a long and ignoble tradition of people referring to other ethnic groups as Satan's representatives on Earth, and this real life parallel casts the film in a new light.

 If Gargoyles -- children of evil -- and humans can achieve a rapprochement, what's to stop us from healing racial divisions among our own kind? 

When Boley lets the Gargoyles go free in the climax rather than burning them in their egg chamber, he is striking a blow, perhaps, for racial justice. He's turning the page on an age old animosity, and re-setting the state of human/gargoyle relations for a more positive future.  Again, the closest parallel I can think of here is Conquest of the Planet of the Apes, which positioned the apes, essentially, as a derided, mistreated ethnic minority.

An in-depth discussion of Gargoyles reminds me that in the 1970s, our pop culture often examined things from a somewhat more nuanced and even-handed place than it does today. Here, rather than render an entire race extinct, Boley reveals the human qualities of mercy and hope.  In today's genre films, he unlikely would be so forgiving. Rather, he would probably wipe out the Gargoyles without a a second thought.  They are monsters.  Man kills monsters.  Period.

Anyway, there's much more to Gargoyles than meets the eye. It's an ambitious and heady effort for a "movie of the week" made in 1972. That's one reason it still possesses an avid cult following, I suspect.  I saw it for the first time as a child in the late 1970s -- around the same time I saw Don't Be Afraid of the Dark, I suppose -- and it terrified, intrigued, and fascinated me.

Gargoyles still has that effect on me, all these years later.

The Road Warrior (1982)

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