Archive for the ‘science fiction’ category

Island of Lost Souls

October 17, 2015

H.G. Wells’ The Island of Dr. Moreau has spawned a variety of adaptations, official and unofficial, but the first is still the best. Island of Lost Souls, for one thing, is in black and white. That might be the secret ingredient. Most of the other film versions were shot in color, but this one is gray and grainy, and the jungle is cloaked in deep rich shadow. Director Erle C. Kenton has no particular flair, but that’s okay for a story like this, which is quite freaky enough without stylistic curlicues. Kenton stays out of the way while master cinematographer Karl Struss lights the island of Dr. Moreau as a subtle hell of half-seen atrocities. The movie has a queasy documentary vibe — there isn’t even any score except at the beginning and end.

Charles Laughton oozes into frame as Moreau, a dominant sadist who even wields a whip. Laughton sneaks all sorts of perversity into his performance through a dark side door. Moreau has created grotesque man-animal hybrids, but why? So he can have bestial slaves to serve him in the jungle? Moreau’s pride and joy, his greatest creation, is Lota the panther woman (Kathleen Burke). When fate brings shipwrecked Edward Parker (Richard Arlen) to the island, Moreau’s interest in Edward is mostly limited to trying to get him to mate with Lota. Let that sink in: A woman who used to be an animal — who in some respects still is — being groomed to have sex with a human male. This is a 1932 film, remember. No wonder it kicked up such a ruckus in America and in England (where it was banned for years because of its vivisection theme).

We could also be looking at a Darwinian concept here: the manimals onscreen came from animals, just as we derived from apes. But the oily Dr. Moreau, hairless except for his pate and his fussy mustache and beard, seems neither human nor animal. He’s like some gelatinous god or demiurge, a Judge Holden at play in the fields of the Lord, dressed all in white like Colonel Sanders or the bride of Frankenstein. Laughton keeps Moreau polite and cool-headed in most cases, until he must discipline his ranks, at which point he barks or hisses or growls. The performance isn’t over the top, though; Laughton sprinkles these weird touches around like biscuits for dogs to find.

As in the same year’s Freaks, we couldn’t care less about the “normal” couple (Leila Hyams plays essentially the same level-headed woman in both films). Our sympathies are with most of Moreau’s creations, like the yowling Sayer of the Law (Bela Lugosi), or the frighteningly lustful Ouran (wrestler Hans Steinke), or the abused M’Ling (Tetsu Komai). Make-up legend Wally Westmore turns the Beast-Men into shaggy, melancholy nowhere men, neither-nors like their father-god, not remotely cute or clever but tormented demons from the nightside of nature. Ouran is pretty scary when he tries to get into Leila Hyams’ room after dark, but is he scarier than a man of science who essentially pimps out his “daughter” to see what her offspring will come out looking like?

Island of Lost Souls was described by Michael J. Weldon, that arbiter of all things cult and psychotronic, as “probably the best horror movie ever made.” There’s something legitimately sick and cold about it, a chill sweat of jungle malaria. Moreau hypocritically lays down a series of laws for his Beast-Men (“Not to eat meat…not to spill blood”) but ignores all manners of moral and medical law, including, eventually, his own — which leads to his downfall, vivisection at the hands/paws of his children in his dreaded House of Pain. Thus do creators of life die in this new world of gods and monsters.

Repo Man

September 20, 2015

detail.23448415Repo Man, the feature debut of writer-director Alex Cox, is a great punk-rock song wearing a movie suit. It’s harsh, abrupt, funny, political, and fiercely unsentimental. Its milieu is post-punk Los Angeles, where punk bands like the Circle Jerks are reduced to playing hilariously affectless dirge-tunes in shabby clubs — “Can’t believe I used to like these guys,” says Otto (Emilio Estevez), our hero, or what we get resembling a hero. Repo Man isn’t really about punk; like much of Jaime Hernandez’ Love & Rockets stories of the ’80s, it’s about what people from the punk scene do after punk dies. It doesn’t take on punk as a subject the way Cox’s follow-up film, Sid & Nancy, did. It settles for giving the audience what we usually want from punk music; it absolutely nails the tone, the arrogance, the hostility. Repo Man is one of my favorite movies, in case that wasn’t clear.

Otto (a homonym for “auto”) flips off his boss at the grocery store and hits the bricks; at least he tried a job, unlike his ex-girlfriend and former buddies, who skulk around L.A. “doing crimes.” This is part of what happens to punks after punk — crap jobs or theft. Otto stumbles into the business of repossessing cars: repo man Bud (Harry Dean Stanton) randomly scouts him for the gig, and if Harry Dean Stanton, born in 1926 and pushing sixty at the time Repo Man was made, isn’t a bona fide punk icon regardless of his generation, I don’t know punk. The perpetually angry, foul-mouthed Bud is the perfect mentor for a baby nihilist like Otto, and Otto starts getting good at the job. Alex Cox doesn’t get pious about the realities of car repossession and how it targets the poor and nonwhite: he trusts us to pick up on that ourselves (and some of the repo men, like the legendary Rodriguez Brothers, are also nonwhite).

Anyway, Repo Man isn’t about the job. There is a subplot dealing with a lobotomized nuclear scientist (sweaty Fox Harris) driving a ’64 Chevy Malibu around, with something mysterious glowing in the trunk. As with the similar briefcases in Kiss Me Deadly and Pulp Fiction, we never find out what’s in the trunk and how it vaporizes people. We figure it involves aliens, though, because some agents are looking for the Malibu. The repo men are, too, once a $20,000 bounty is put on the car’s head. Or hood. Repo Man is full of wry, side-of-the-mouth commentary on codes of belief: Bud’s repo-man code, or the book Dioretix (a slap at Scientology years before most people knew about it), which people keep passing around, or the cosmic phenomenology outlined by Miller (Tracey Walter). I don’t think Cox means us to take the quietly daffy Miller any more seriously than anyone else in the film, but he sure is fun to listen to.

This is a low-budget movie, so although there’s some action — shoot-outs, car chases (including one in L.A.’s drainage canal where the cars racing through puddles in the sunshine create rainbows) — the bulk of it is two guys talking, usually in cars. Repo Man can thus be added to the multitude of films that informed Quentin Tarantino’s work, though it has its own derivative moments. The score by Tito Larriva and Steven Hufsteter, for instance, veers between Chicano surf music and ominous John Carpenter chords. Robby Müller’s cinematography, too, echoes early Carpenter films, although instead of the blue-on-black scheme favored by Carpenter’s DP Dean Cundey, we get green-on-black.

Miller thinks that alien spaceships are time machines, and so is Repo Man, in a way; it takes us right back to the Reagan years, when we were afraid (or were made afraid) of the Russians nuking us. So we get a bit of rhetoric that fits the times (“I don’t want no commies in my car,” growls Bud, “and no Christians either”) and a good deal of paranoia about glowing stuff. Most of the people in the movie, though, live at an angle to the mainstream. Bud again: “Ordinary fuckin people. I hate ‘em.” Every store in the movie stocks its shelves with generic food products, creating a backdrop for a world without real choice. Yet Repo Man’s scuzzy-nihilistic style is played for deadpan laughs. (My favorite non-Harry Dean Stanton moment has always been the “Society made me what I am” bit.) I get the sense that Alex Cox made it for guys like Otto, and didn’t care if anyone else dug it.

The Man Who Fell to Earth

September 13, 2015

the-man-who-fell-to-earth-4For some reason, The Man Who Fell to Earth feels like a Pink Floyd album to me, even though Floyd had nothing to do with the film. It’s oblique, morose, spacey, a little po-faced about dramatic themes and subtexts that strike high-school students as particularly profound. It’s essentially Dark Side of the Moon 2: The American Dream. David Bowie, by his own admission nuked out of his skull on ten grams of cocaine a day, is a fragile alien who takes the Earth name Thomas Jerome Newton. He, or his ship (it’s not really clear which), lands in New Mexico, and he promptly sets about getting filthy rich with electronic patents. (Perhaps meaningfully, he doesn’t develop anything major to help Earthlings — just better quality cameras and recorded music: leisure gadgets.) His mission is to amass enough wealth to build a spacecraft and return home to his dying, drought-ridden planet with enough water to save his people.

Things don’t work out that way, and a great deal of Man Who Fell is devoted to why they don’t work out. After the first scenes, which feel absurdly telescoped in time (Newton goes from pawn shop to pawn shop selling gold rings, and then he’s shopping his patents around), the movie slows way down. It becomes mesmeric in a way, not to mention repetitive, with not one but two sequences in which chemistry professor Dr. Nathan Bryce (Rip Torn) gets it on with a student. One tryst might have been enough, but then we realize that director Nicolas Roeg and scripter Paul Mayersberg (adapting a Walter Tevis novel) are contrasting Bryce’s sexual behavior with that of Newton, who meets and becomes enamored with hotel maid Mary-Lou (Candy Clark). We might also throw in Newton’s lawyer Farnsworth (Buck Henry), whose homosexuality is handled so matter-of-factly we may have to remind ourselves the film was released in 1976.

But then Roeg and Mayersberg are both British. For a while, based on this movie and Don’t Look Now, Roeg had a glowing international reputation for a truly adult erotic sensibility. The frequent sex in this film is explicit, joyous, desolate, satirical, but never American, never inflected with that peculiar Puritan sense of guilt and sin. People have sex in the movie because they’re of age and they want to. It happens often enough (though never between Farnsworth and his lover, significantly) that one might begin to read Man Who Fell as an allegory about American sexual mores and how the government seeks to punish sex. It’s about roughly fifty other things too, of course. As Pauline Kael pointed out, the film is hazy and amorphous enough to be about whatever you want it to. Christ allegory? Sure. An “alien” (British) view of “Earth” (America)? Why not.

The movie is bleakly gorgeous, with a growing sense of ennui, but not a lot of urgency to Newton’s mission. We have no idea how much time is passing, and besides, Newton gets sidetracked with twin addictions to alcohol and television. He sits around drinking and watching the tube (in some scenes multiple TVs) while his chance to make a difference passes him by. That’s the American dream whose native hue of resolution, to paraphrase Hamlet, is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of CBS and Beefeater. Cinematographer Anthony B. Richmond (who has fallen from the pinnacle of this and Don’t Look Now to the depths of Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel) lights the New Mexico desert and cottage lakes for mysterious beauty, and makes Newton’s interior lodgings appropriately antiseptic. Past a certain point, Newton might as well be a zoo creature in a cage even before the plot essentially makes him one.

The Man Who Fell to Earth gains, of course, from its on-the-nose casting of Bowie in the lead. He isn’t acting, quite; again by his own admission, he was stoned and behaving in character. His scenes with Candy Clark, who overacts and whose voice sounds too clangorously dubbed, feel emotionally lopsided: he’s Brit cool, she’s hot-blooded American Woman. (I should point out that the American men don’t come off much better.) But as a sort of found object of alienated angst, Bowie is suitably iconic. The movie is so effective at building a mood of dislocation that it’s almost a bummer when it has to punch its time card as a sci-fi film, with scenes of Dr. Bryce surreptitiously getting a photo of Newton to prove he’s an alien and then asking him if he’s the first visitor to Earth. Newton gives a rather too explicit answer to that question; it would have been better if he’d just flashed an enigmatic smirk. Like many another classic science-fiction film, Man Who Fell seems larger than its sci-fi trappings, seems to have more on its mind and under the hood.

Ex Machina

July 9, 2015

It’s never a bad time to ring the old more-human-than-human bell, and the serenely troubling Ex Machina, which hits DVD next week, rings it loud and clear. A search-engine employee, Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson), wins a trip to the remote Alaska compound of the company’s big boss, Nathan (Oscar Isaac). This is not a social call: Nathan’s life project, having made billions from his popular search engine, is to create artificial intelligence that passes the famous Turing test. Essentially, a machine must convince a human that it is human, that indeed it does not know it is a machine.

To that end, Nathan has worked his way up to Ava (Alicia Vikander), a sleek, delicate-looking unit who’s half Bride of Frankenstein, half the Invisible Woman model — some of her body and skull are transparent, revealing elegant inner workings. Ava often has slightly delayed responses, accompanied by gentle whirring. Those responses seem almost human, but to what extent is her behavior simply learned, a shrewd way to manipulate her way to freedom? Hell, to what extent is anyone’s? Like any good robot movie, Ex Machina considers the mechanistic human moreso than the personlike machine.

Screenwriter Alex Garland has made a clean, effective directorial debut here, staging a quiet three-character chamber piece. I don’t suppose the movie breaks much new ground, but it’s pleasantly antiseptic and pensive, with a bearish central performance by one of our most magnetic young actors Oscar Isaac. Nathan sports a shaved head and a bushy beard, a plausible look for a genius who doesn’t want to spend time fussing with his hair or shaving his face. The beard, along with the name of his corporation (Bluebook), carries associations with Bluebeard, who like Nathan has certain rooms you may enter, certain rooms you must not.

Caleb is a bit of a cipher, an audience avatar with occasional scientific patter. He’s an obvious opposite number to Nathan, a moralist whose sympathy for the machine may also keep him from becoming a great scientist. The movie unoriginally suggests that genius requires a degree of inhumanity, but Isaac keeps Nathan connected to a childlike need for sensation, input. Nathan drinks, dances, passes out, enjoys intimate relations with his creations. The story begins to seem pared down to its essentials, almost elemental. If it never quite reaches us emotionally, maybe that’s because grabbing us by the guts isn’t the game Garland is playing.

The stark interiors (which become bathed in red light on a regular basis whenever the power is cut) contrast with the chaotic outdoors in a way that tips Garland’s hand a little: Nathan, of course, tries to control his environment and can’t. In the end, Ex Machina shakes out as a high-functioning mood piece, a sharp slice of atmosphere, a riff on familiar themes. In Nathan it gives us hot-blooded mind, and in Ana it offers a body that exists at the pleasure of a man, no matter his high-flown rhetoric. Ana ends up being a feminist heroine, yearning for escape from the man who keeps her. Yet she’s also humanity seeking to slip the bonds forged by the gods. Ex Machina takes its deserved place next to the other children of Fritz Lang and Karel Capek.

Mad Max: Fury Road

May 16, 2015

And so we return, after a full three decades, to the post-apocalypse as rendered by George Miller. Same as it ever was: Miller’s beloved original Mad Max trilogy, fronted by Mel Gibson, was a frenetic hell of sand and blood and lawless freakazoids, and the tradition continues in Mad Max: Fury Road. Gibson’s Max, one felt, was mad in both popular senses of the term, angry and insane. The rather more soulful Tom Hardy, inheriting the role, conveys only the insanity. Someone else holds the anger this time. There it is, right in the title, evoking “Nor hell a fury like a woman scorn’d.” Even the heroine is named Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron). This Mad Max is about female rage in the face of warlike male dominion.

I don’t think Miller sat down intending to craft an action-flick SCUM Manifesto; he probably considered it a cracking good yarn, which it is, one that deviates from what he’s done with Max before, which it does. The plot is simplicity itself: Furiosa rescues five young women from the grandiloquent warlord Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne). They had been kept for breeding purposes, and one of them bears Joe’s child; now they are on the move in Furiosa’s massive war rig. Joe’s minions, a pack of powdered baldies called the War Boys, take off after them, and one of the Boys, the sickly Nux (Nicholas Hoult), is hooked up to Max, feeding off his blood. Joe and his people — his whole way of life — are premised on using people like disposable product. Furiosa is conceived in opposition to that.

Much of the action is real, not sculpted in a computer, and Miller gets a properly caffeinated vibe going by speeding up the frame rate — some of the motions look jerky, impatient. Where the pacing is more jagged, the images, courtesy of veteran cinematographer John Seale, are rich and bronzed and fierce — the hues pop, the compositions have rock-solid clarity. Technically, as pure cinema, Fury Road is masterful, unimpeachable. It deals in the lost art of readable, exciting set pieces; the editing is a hell of a lot more “cutty” than it was in Max’s prior outings, but Miller still manages to root everything in plausible physicality.

The movie is getting slightly overpraised for this very reason; by doing what action cinema should be expected to do, it has earned shiny gifts of rhetoric from a grateful nation of movie geeks. Expect fun, excitement, thrills, and surprisingly relevant subtext; ignore most of the hype telling you it’s the sun and the moon. Besides, some of the action is rather obviously computer-enhanced — a dust storm so chaotic, with multiple tornadoes, that we wonder how anyone survives it — and some of it is a bit samey and repetitive, which has been a problem with this series from the beginning; the constant roar of engines becomes almost a lullaby.

The freakiness elevates the film. Maleness is represented mostly by cultish deformity, death’s-head zombies looking like Kurtz’s Montagnard spectres near the end of Apocalypse Now. Femaleness, when not roughly used for reproduction and milk, seeks to get back to an idyllic sisterhood in the greenness of nature. In the middle of this is Max, and the hyper-masculine Mel Gibson wouldn’t have worked as this particular in-between avatar — Tom Hardy, with his full lips and yearning eyes mitigating his punchy features, carries enough femininity to place him naturally opposite Immortan Joe and his despoilers. Hardy is content to hand the movie over to Charlize Theron, who gives a no-nonsense performance eloquent in its silences. Talk is bad in these movies, as if language were as scarce as water and petrol, and were to be hoarded as violently.


November 9, 2014

Is it possible to make a big science-fiction film these days that doesn’t bathe in banalities and sap? Smaller films like Looper or Moon or Under the Skin manage it, but the more a movie costs, the more it has to appeal to the mass audience or risk fatal word of mouth. Christopher Nolan probably commands the most clout of all the big-movie directors, after having made skillions of dollars from his Batman movies and from Inception, and his big new one, Interstellar, cost $165 million and runs 169 minutes — or about a million dollars a minute. Interstellar tries to tackle one of the biggest (and oldest) questions sci-fi has to offer: What will the human race do when Earth becomes uninhabitable? The answer is surprisingly nihilistic and cowardly: Abandon ship. We’ve ruined this planet, let’s go find another to ruin.

I doubt Nolan, who wrote the script with his brother Jonathan, considers Interstellar in those terms. Indeed, the movie stays resolutely apolitical about the dusty dystopia it depicts: nobody says that our crops are blighted and our land assailed by dust storms because of man-made climate change. This, remember, is the director who tapped into Occupy anger in The Dark Knight Rises only to wimp out of it. Nolan, then, is politically unconscious and perhaps conscienceless, a slick imperialist imagemaker who feels the masses are fairly dumb. In the future world of Interstellar, brains no longer matter; people mostly are groomed to become farmers, who work the dry land to grow corn, the only crop that can still grow (though not for long).

One such farmer, a former engineer and pilot known here only as Cooper or Coop (Matthew McConaughey), makes his way to a super-secret fragment of NASA, which shoots him out into space to find, via wormhole, a more hospitable planet. This mission takes longer than Cooper anticipates: over the course of the film’s two hours and forty-nine minutes, no fewer than three actresses play the role of his daughter Murphy at various ages, while Cooper, in an inverse of McConaughey’s Wooderson in Dazed and Confused, stays the same age. (I’m sure I’m not the first to make that joke, but I couldn’t resist.) There’s much chat about the fifth dimension and the singularity and other recitations from the higher-mind quantum-magick grimoire. What there isn’t is much excitement, either narrative or cinematic, until Nolan tries to work some up by throwing in a bad-guy character whose only function is to try to get Cooper and his crew killed a few times. Pretty much everything to do with this character is terrible, especially when he and Cooper are in a death-grapple on some ice planet.

Nolan usually has too much masculine weight on his mind to bother with decent female characters, but such actresses as Anne Hathaway, Jessica Chastain, Mackenzie Foy, and Louise Fletcher sneak in some of the emotions the film’s conception is sorely lacking. The Big Truths we’re meant to take away from Interstellar are the usual bromides about humanity and love finding a way (do we care about saving any other species, by the way? On this topic the movie’s silence speaks damning volumes). The movie isn’t very well thought out or deeply felt; there’s no passion in it. Nolan just wanted to make a big epic sci-fi number, and doesn’t seem at all interested in its implications.

The movie has an unacknowledged rotten core of cold nastiness. But that’s what keeps it bearable during the lengthy tech-geek scenes, wherein buttons are pushed and switches are flicked and directives are issued to robots with a humor level of 75% (which puts them at least 25% ahead of Nolan). Interstellar is good on all the same stuff that The Right Stuff and Contact and Apollo 13 were good on, the nuts-and-bolts Popular Mechanics stuff. But it doesn’t earn inclusion in the same sentence as 2001 or even Gravity, a minimalist masterpiece that focused on survival and left the cosmological woolgathering out of it. The movie doesn’t even leave audiences with bothersome questions on the level of the spinning top in Inception. Christopher Nolan, like David Fincher, is a well-appointed mainstream fabulist who uses a great deal of money and technology to no great artistic purpose. And his ideas are very much stale farts wafting through the deep library of speculative fiction.

The Zero Theorem

August 23, 2014

The sickly neon lighting, the relentless Dutch angles, the grab-bag mix of futuristic and steampunk design, the theme of escape from bureaucratic control through fantasy: these are all excellent indicators that you’re watching a Terry Gilliam film, and his new one, The Zero Theorem, is the Terry Gilliamest piece in his portfolio in quite a while. I wish I could say that I mean that as a compliment, but Gilliam’s flaws may be inseparable from his strengths: when he’s on, he’s brilliant, but when he whiffs, the bleak swooshing sound is deafening, and The Zero Theorem, despite my fervent desire to claim otherwise, is one whiff after another. The surprise here is that most of the ground Gilliam covers here, he already trod devilishly well in Brazil, and after a while I wondered why he didn’t know that. He’s said he considers this film the third in a dystopian trilogy begun by Brazil and continued in 12 Monkeys, but it plays like a Gilliam imitator’s crude remix of the two.

Christoph Waltz, bald and charmless, is the obsessive computer geek Qohen Leth, who toils in a cubicle for the Management, personified by a white-haired eminence (Matt Damon, seemingly doing a Philip Seymour Hoffman turn). Qohen is given the Zero Theorem assignment — he has to prove that everything in the universe adds up to nothing. “Zero must equal 100%,” we’re told by machines again and again. This nihilist math/philosophy problem has broken many other thinkers, and Qohen, who refers to himself as “we” and has the prerequisite collection of genius quirks, finds himself dangerously distracted by blonde femme fatale Bainsley (Mélanie Thierry), who may have been sent by Management to test his resolve or sabotage his efforts.

Pat Rushin’s script plays as if Rushin fell asleep during a Gilliam marathon, woke up, and cobbled together a screenplay from what he dimly remembered. What’s missing is any emotional charge, any urgency — what William Goldman once called “the pregnant moment,” the reason the story is being told now. Qohen is a passive character obsessed with a phone call he once missed, a phone call he thinks could have revealed his purpose in life. Aside from that, he works on the theorem and he dallies in virtual reality with Bainsley. Much of The Zero Theorem is a two-character play, spiced up by Gilliam’s Dutch angles and colors that snap, crackle and pop. One dialogue scene, between Qohen and Bainsley in the cluttered former monastery he calls home, dribbles on and on; Gilliam seems to have forgotten that editing is part of the art of cinema, the thing that moves the images and the story.

Tedium sets in fast. Gilliam makes the surroundings as candied as he can, with Satire 101 messages running across digital billboards. The Management controls everything, but except for a Mutt and Jeff team of a heavy and his dwarf companion (ah, Gilliam and his dwarves), the Management doesn’t have much of a menacing presence, or a presence at all, really. Qohen stays inside for months grinding away on the theorem, occasionally resisting cybertherapy from Dr. Shrink-Rom (Tilda Swinton) and sharing irascible dialogue with the Management’s son (Lucas Hedges), a prodigious hacker who calls everyone Bob. Little of this has any dramatic interest; it’s full of bits of sour whimsy, which we’re meant to take as a hip, cynical vision of bland, hellish tomorrow (and tomorrow in this sort of dystopian satire is always today with futuristic trimmings).

One wants to root for Gilliam and his stubbornly uncommercial work, especially if we’ve enjoyed his earlier movies. I get no pleasure from swatting a new Gilliam film — there aren’t going to be very many more of them, he’s not getting any younger, and he has a hell of a time getting these oddball things financed as it is. A salute, then, to Gilliam for staying true to himself, not even knowing how to sell out. But the irony of The Zero Theorem is that it’s a parable about finding meaning in life, but it doesn’t mean much itself. It’s a doodle, a riff on Gilliam’s pet themes, but emotionally and dramatically it’s an inverse of the theorem: 100% of it equals zero.


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