30 April 2011

Time Bandits

There's something imperfect and fun about this. It's hard to look at it not as a really, great, amazing film, exactly, but as someone with really amazing potential stretching and trying something new -- it feels a little like looking in a master's sketchbook and seeing the seeds planted, ideas that would blossom in later works. It's not a bad film as a standalone, but it's messy, and it's tough to pin down. It feels like it waffles between frivolous madcap Monty Python-light and something deeper, darker, more philosophically and morally rich, but I can't decide if the vacillations feel like the filmmaker is unsure himself, or if he's daring me to believe both simultaneously. It's both extremely thoughtful (Evil insisting he wasn't created; recurring themes of parenting from a child's perspective) and extremely thoughtless (Palin and Duvall's recurring characters; Evil's topsy-turvy pain-is-pleasure idiot thugs). I mean, it's episodic, sure but the tone shifts so wildly that in retrospect it's hard to place Sean Connery's scenes, John Cleese's scenes, Michael Palin's scenes, David Warner's scenes, and Ian Holm's scenes are all inside one film.

I will say this, though. Something that has stuck with me from the very first time I saw this as a child, and continues to haunt me and my own work today, is the very end, after the (let's face it) extremely easy, peril-free literal deus ex machina of God (the Supreme Being, anyway) stepping in and cleaning it all up. Yes, there's a weird/nice little exchange where He is indifferent to the dying and suffering caused just because he wanted to test his new creation (Evil) and that works on so many different levels (a child's disillusionment of his parents' infallibility; modern society's exuberant lust for gadgets and knickknacks at the expense of a great many things; philosophical and theological debates about the nature and being of both God and Goodness), and even if it's a cheap-shot scene it's a good one. But what really sticks with me isn't any of that; it's when he goes home and finds his house on fire. His parents and him barely escape, and then Mom and Dad, negligent and borderline loathsome as they were, brazenly touch the last scrap of Evil and explode. Kevin is left standing alone calling out for a Mom and Dad that aren't going to return -- and the credits roll. Aside from an odd scene of Agamemnon (Kevin's would-be adoptive father) winking at him as a modern-day fireman, there's not even a trace of hope in this ending. I mean, it's not like the fireman hangs around and says, "What's the matter, little boy?" He winks and drives away, and Kevin is alone in the world, eleven years old, standing outside his house, two dead parents and nothing else. That haunted me as a kid -- partially because in my kid brain I was trying to work out if somehow Kevin deserved this (I think instinctively we all expect characters, especially in kids films and comedies, to get only what they deserve at the end of the story), but partially because I couldn't think of many things more terrifying than the tetherlessness that we leave this story with. He didn't ask for any of it (in fact, my gut wonders if this even works as a traditional narrative; I'd have to watch it again to even determine what Kevin wants as a main goal throughout the story... he's a very reactive character, around for the ride and sometimes trying to help/sometimes trying to stop/sometimes trying to flee our title gang) and what he gets for all the trouble he goes through -- I suppose much like the theological knowledge that God allows Evil and suffering to exist only as a way of exercising something we call freewill -- is nothing but the helplessness of spiraling in a void.

I'm somewhat aquaphobic; I can't swim and my body freezes up beyond my control if I'm floating in a body of water without touching a wall or the floor. This film, when I stop and take it seriously (which I did very much as a child; and which I have a harder time doing as an adult, without caveats), leaves me with the same kind of free-floating existential panic. So I guess I'll concede that for all of its flaws, the parts of it that hit at all, hit very hard. And that's definitely something.

29 April 2011

Forbidden Planet

I am going to go old-school on my comments tonight, keep it very short, because I expected to fall asleep to this and didn't. The story is really talky, and the science is really hokey, but the plot is pretty interesting, the acting better than typical B-movie, and most of the effects really are pretty astounding. It's a very cerebral story and, admittedly, you can see the end coming a mile away, but for the most part they make getting there entertaining and the reveal satisfying.

And oh, young serious Leslie Nielsen, and your proto-Kirkian love affair with the first lady living on another planet that you meet. How earnest you are, and yet how dashing!

26 April 2011


I don't have as much to say as usual. I put this on to end another long night of writing. Mostly I put it on to see one scene very early -- Max Fischer seeing Miss Cross for the first time, since so much of the movie is carried by his ridiculous, unrealistic, unrequited love for her. Rushmore is about a precocious dreamer who really doesn't understand how real people act in a real society, but whose tenacity is an unstoppable force. His inability to grasp that he can't get his way is the main ingredient of his success. There's something similar in the hearts of Max Fischer and my script's main character, though I'm not sure which is the more exaggerated version.

As Wes Anderson films go, this one feels more emotional than the rest, and in a weird way probably his most personal -- there's something honest and self-deprecatingly two-sided in the depiction of Max's insularity and the limitation of being so sure of your own dreams that might speak to the filmmaker himself and the nature of his output.

I also noticed a lot of odd cuts in this film, sloppy cuts on action to too-similar framings that on the one hand smacked slightly of a filmmaker still finding himself and not quite mastering his craft, but on the other hand came off as refreshingly uncontrolled and raw compared to the too-tight artificiality of his later projects, which added a right kind of plucky Max Fischerness to the film.

Last quick, disconnected comment: I do believe we get to watch Bill Murray actually act here, something I know the man can do but I tend to think he doesn't like to unless he has to -- he seems perfectly comfortable to coast through a film "being Bill Murray" (something he's very good at doing) when he can get away with it. But Rushmore was one of the first out of a slump, wasn't it? And as such, he maybe had less leeway to ride the wave of his own cool factor.

20 April 2011


The world of Brazil is complex and rich, but for all its über-Gilliamesque intricacies that fold in on themselves, it never feels arbitrary, or odd just for oddness's sake. Maybe the best thing about the world of Brazil (and probably what makes it such a lasting and resonant film) is that for all the deep weirdness -- weirdness that goes far beyond just the surface of this world -- it's ideologically consistent. It's a study in bureaucracy that takes itself seriously enough to build up a layered world and it applies the skewed philosophy to every layer. It's populated with characters just as "ideologically consistent" as the world: petty and small-minded, people who can only see their corner of the puzzle, but who sympathetic and layered enough to be more than just props or fill-ins for necessary roles.

Actually, the characters here remind me of what I've been saying about science fictions films I've seen lately: it seems to me an easy (read: lazy) mistake to create the perfect character for the role you need him or her to fill just so your story can move along the beats you want it to. Seems like it would always be better storytelling if you put the wrong person for the job and then find a way to make them the right person, though their choices and actions. Instead of a washed-out astronaut hero with nothing to lose, why not make him a guilt-ridden alcoholic who can barely keep his shit together and has three kids back home he's ashamed of himself for neglecting? Now, when the Martian Almond Aliens ask him to join them on a crazy adventure to the center of the galaxy, you have your hero faced with an extremely difficult decision rather than a no-bainer.

In Brazil, Sam Lowry is a pointedly unambitious, keep-your-head-down man who not only believes in the bureaucracy of the system, but is perfectly happy to be nothing but another cog. His old friend Jack Lint is one of the main antagonists in the story (the true antagonist here is The System, with Jack as a common stand-in) not to mention a torturer and murderer, and yet Jack is the nicest, warmest man in the Ministry, an ambitious ladder-climber but also a capable husband and father (in a detached, working-dad/yuppie sort of way). Sam's old boss Mr. Kurtzmann, head of the Department of Records, isn't the right man for the job, traditionally speaking: he's a sniveling coward who can't control his work force, doesn't understand half the equipment in his office, and is so absolutely terrified of the culpability that comes along with committing any kind of action whatsoever that he fakes an injury to get out of signing his name to a document (arguably, in the world of Brazil these things add up to make him the exactly right person for the job of Head of Department of Records). Harry Tuttle, Jill Layton, Ida Lowry, and even the two mean-spirited bunglers from Central Services are just as good examples of the not-perfect person for the role they play. In each case, it's not as simple as choosing the polar opposite of what the role ought to require -- it's messier than that, and that's the point. But each character either struggles with himself or contradicts himself and his nature and that keeps the story dynamic, entertaining, and somewhat more nuanced.

I also went through the first act and did a beat analysis, studying how we move into the story and get the necessary exposition out there. Not shockingly, Brazil fares somewhat better than the other films I've watched this month. First, the exposition delivery systems (the method by which they dump all that info on us) are original and dynamic; second, they're entertaining and humorous; third, each moment and shot manages to work on a minimum of two levels (e.g., backstory and world-building; theme and characterization). It's just -- it's a classic. A tight, beautiful script, completely madcap but firmly controlled, directed by the right guy.

I didn't get into the visuals or the dream sequence or the art/effects/framing, but all of those are just as inspired and multi-layered as the stuff I did rave about. And the visuals! the flying-through-the-clouds dreams, the bizarre ducts-and-wires Rube Goldberg-meets-Orwell nightmare world, the miniatures throughout -- they're all so fucking pretty! Like I said, a classic. Hardly news to anybody: it deserves its reputation.

19 April 2011

Red Planet

Red Planet came out to ride the coattails of (or "compete with," if you want to be generous) Mission To Mars, and I remember both being fairly sloppy, disappointing, with pretty hokey dialogue and hokier plots, but this is by far the lazier of the two movies -- the story seems lazy, the science seems really lazy, and the themes feel more like they were added to the dialogue the day of the shoot. Clunky editing doesn't help either (like flashing back to deleted or extended scenes to let a couple of characters have superfluous character moments).

Plus, as a study in the Act One world-building exposition-delivery stuff, this was lazier and stiffer than The Angry Red Planet, which at least gave me characters talking for a reason. Here we get a big (mostly unnecessary, as it turns out) infodump from Captain Bowman, who is neither our main character nor our most important. Something interesting could have maybe been done with her as their eye-in-the-sky (kind of an inverse man-in-the-hole), an overseer to the heroes' adventures and struggles -- almost as if she was the Computer Voice in all those space operas and starship adventures, but of course Bowman has her own computer voice here, which sort of muddies up that analogy -- but they never really do. Instead, she's (I guess) more like Penelope to Gallagher's Odysseus, except a) the closest thing they have to a romance is he sees her naked and later we see a flashback to an earlier scene where they almost kiss (which apparently wasn't important enough to leave in the movie except as a flashback), and b) Gallagher is a far cry from Odysseus going on a voyage (again, that's a direction they might have taken things, were this a very different story).

Part of the problem with the story is that no time is spent building up the urgency or need of the characters. We're told Earth is overpopulated, running out of clean air and water, a dying crowded mess of a planet, and that all the international organizations have banded together to send five white Americans (well, one vaguely Latino guy and an old Brit among them, to be fair... plus isn't Val Kilmer Native American or something? I'm kidding) to find out why the long-distance terraforming efforts like algae-bombs and habitat-landers seem to be missing.

Along for the ride, the old Brit mentioned above, is a tragically, preposterously wasted Terence Stamp as a "former scientist" (?) named Ch'something, not worth looking up, whose clever little exposition-tag our narrator-captain offers us is "the soul of the mission." He hasn't found God, exactly, but apparently he's given up science because he is looking for God, and so he turned to... philosophy? It's all a little sloppy and confusing, but from a dramatic standpoint I guess he's there to suggest that some things can't be explained by your precious science. The movie then goes out of its way to make sure you see that, yes, everything can be explained by my precious science (even if that means all of the mysteries of the planet can be explained by secret Martian bugs ["nematodes," a fun word] that eat algae, and also metal, and also love human blood the most, and are extremely combustible, but when they aren't termiting you they produce breathable oxygen and are slowly terraforming Mars all on their very own).

Once they've explained to you in detail how it all makes perfectly logical scientific sense, within the confines of the fantastical story anyhow, Captain Bowman wraps things up with another bit of voiceover (or maybe it was a mission debrief to Houston? I forget, to be honest) in which she says "Ch'whatever always said there was more to the universe than science could account for, and I'm just the captain here who doesn't know what happened down below, but that sure seems to sum things up for me." Okay, it's a lousy and snarky paraphrase, but basically she suggests that hey, maybe it was all God's will after all, because of all the miracles we saw or something. The only miracle I can think of that we witnessed on Mars was the random upcropping of Martian life (about which we are assured "where there's air and water, there's life"); or maybe she meant the sudden self-awareness of the combat robot AMEE they decided to bring along (about which we are assured "her processor's been damaged"); or maybe it's the fact that no telemetry or telescope from Earth or Martian orbit could locate the glowing green or orange algae fields, or identify an oxygen-rich atmosphere (they couldn't even identify the oxygen-rich atmosphere when they were standing in it, until they almost died -- a fine moment for Gallagher to take a "leap of faith," but instead it was played as the grasping-at-straws backwards-thinking flailings of a desperate and dying man).

Anyway, it's silly and it's not very well thought out, nor very well executed, but it's a Martian Astronaut movie, so it's kind of fun. Actually, I wanted more astronautness here, more like Mission To Mars. Once they got there it played out more like a crashland-in-the-mountains kind of story than an astronauts-on-Mars kind of story. There's air, there's gravity, there's some kind of (robot) cougar stalking you, there's a horde of (alien) insects, and there's the same kind of mysteries and puzzles, obstacles and solutions that could have been told in some remote Antarctican or Andes Mountain story, with only a couple of tweaks.

Still, spacemen, am I right? And lessons in what not to do. Don't breeze over too much world-building set-up in verbal exposition. And don't bring Terence Stamp onboard to read a couple of embarrassingly hippie-ish lines and then give up and die without an ounce of gravity (heh) or punch. Lessons, noted and learned!

16 April 2011

Star Trek: Insurrection

I've been watching a lot of Star Trek: The Next Generation lately, just cycling through from season 3 all the way to season 7 in my downtime or vegging-out nights at home. It's spotty but generally very good, and I guess I just felt recently like continuing that trend by revisiting one of the more generic Next Generation movies over the last few nights as a fall-asleep-to choice. I remember it being pretty bland, a little too new-agey for its own good, and more about the actors and writers having fun with the characters than it was about developing them in a meaningful story. (Unequivocally, this falls into that recurring theme of late, plot-driven science fiction stories that don't give enough attention to characterization [for my tastes], just like this and this and this.) It's also an odd-numbered Star Trek film, the ninth, and we all know what that means.

But for all of that, it's actually surprisingly watchable. Especially when stacked up against the last few episodes of the TV series and not the other, admittedly better Star Trek feature films (it follows the mostly very good First Contact, for example -- though it's worth noting that it's succeded by Nemesis, which is basically the X-Men 3 of the Next Generation movies/universe). To geek out for a moment, Insurrection is basically a recap of several decent episodes, off the top of my head it steals major plot-points from "Who Watches The Watchers?", "Brothers", and "Homeward" -- and to be honest, aside from combining elements to keep the story moving, it doesn't even offer a very original take on these ideas. It also insists on making Picard a Kirk-style action hero -- though I suppose both Generations and First Contact had already started pushing us down that road, it's still weird when comparing him to the stoic diplomatic Picard of the TV series (and frankly, hard to believe as a natural development of the same character). But it's not bad. It's reasonably smart, and the fan service paid is neither pandering (exactly) nor totally out of character -- Data's awfully smarmy-human in most scenes but I guess by now he's experienced emotions so many times I can't even keep track, so why not; and Riker's gotten awfully soft and well-fed for a dashing new ship captain, hasn't he?

The only other comment I have is, it's always been my opinion that the difference between an okay Star Trek movie (which I'll generously lump this one into) and a great Star Trek movie is the villain. Star Trek II had Khan; Star Trek VI had General Chang (plus, insidious conspiracy); First Contact had the Borg Queen. Even The Motion Picture and Star Trek IV had interesting non-human/truly-alien adversaries. Hell, Christopher Lloyd cut a decent Klingon villain in Star Trek III, for that matter. But F. Murray Abraham falls into an unfortunate pile with Malcolm McDowell, Tom Hardy, and Eric Bana: fine actors who just can't salvage uninteresting, kind of cheesy villains. Like Batman, like James Bond, like any number of action movies or thrillers: without a good villain, it doesn't matter how cool your heroes are.

In my mind, this was more like a ridiculously expensive reunion episode more than a feature film. I'd say that's how III and IV and Generations feel, too. (Star Trek V wants to feel that way, and the not-unbearable parts of it definitely do, to a fault; but it's easier to just pretend there never was a Star Trek V.) So in a way it almost feels silly to blog (rant) about it here, where I generally don't write-up every TV series I watch (I've made exceptions when I felt I had something I wanted to say). But it's a movie, so I gave it the full service. And I more or less enjoyed it, even the weak parts (oh, and a side-note: now that I've seen all of TNG's successor and this film's contemporary, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, I do want to say I found it satisfying that there were references to the galactic-political situation of that show, giving a sense of consistency to the continually expanding world). And since I enjoyed it, I figured it deserved a little bit of blather. And so there you go.

15 April 2011

Source Code *

I feel mixed about this film, but more positive than negative. It leaves you a little dissatisfied, doesn't it? (Everything else I say is blatant SPOILER territory, so don't blame me if you keep reading!) It comes on so goddamn strong and fast, an on-the-train thriller where you have eight minutes to explore alternate histories before the moment collapses on itself. Every eight minutes a brutal explosion; then you flash back to a mysterious chamber and get a new piece of the puzzle; then you have another eight minutes to abuse the consequence-free nature of your impending death while you hunt for the bomber, and then another brutal explosion. The first half moves so fast and smart -- Captain Stevens even begins bucking the rules about as fast as we can infer them -- and the the midpoint (when the hero's quest traditionally evolves and changes directions) is such a sharp and unorthodox shift, veering away from "catch the bad guy in a contained space (and time, no less!)" thriller into a much vaguer, existential dilemma of causality and possibility. It's an interesting direction, and comes naturally (almost inevitably, really) out of Stevens's character and situation, but the stakes and pacing and emotional weight of it shift so drastically, it's easy to feel like the story veered away and left you cruising on an untaken path. (Confession: I struggled to work that weak-ass metaphor around not making any kind of a train pun/analogy.)

I think the reason this feels odd -- apart from some slippery metaphysical and existential questions the end brings up, but one thing at a time -- is because the whodunit chase that starts the story off with a bang gets wrapped up tight somewhat easily and sooner than you expect, and the second half of the story (Stevens hoping to get back onto the train one last time, to set everything right; and Goodwin deciding to honor Stevens's last wish and euthanize him) feels a little like an extended denouement. Once the authorities have Derek Frost in their hands, it feels like there's a missed beat, a moment where the stakes and the urgency drop too steeply, and even though it's still Stevens's life at risk and even though there's still the chance of saving everyone who died in the first, "unstoppable" train explosion, it just feels kind of arbitrary -- I guess I just didn't buy that Stevens wanted it enough? I buy that he insisted he could change the past, and I certainly buy that one more eight-minute try, in a more real-feeling body and world, would be preferable to chilling in that weird chamber and knowing you weren't really there, or waiting to cease existing altogether. But I don't buy that he had any chemistry with Christina (for all the natural chemistry Michelle Monaghan shared with Robert Downey Jr in Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, there was none of that here... none at all) and I don't think he made a compelling enough case for Captain Goodwin to go against protocol so boldly in his favor.

Which I guess brings me to my last real "beef" with the story, which is that, aside from Colter Stevens, nobody in the story seems to react like real people at any point, especially Christina. I kept waiting for the explanation to be that Stevens wasn't visiting actual pasts but some distortion based on the teacher Sean's recollections or perspective, or something. I kept waiting for it to be deliberate, another clue to the truth of his situation, that she kept reacting so oddly and passively, that others kept allowing him to dominate with only a passing gesture toward resistance -- the way it feels when you suddenly realize you're dreaming and you begin acting accordingly, and "people" resist a little, and then go with it, whatever "it" is. So the further in we went, as we learned that it was all real, more or less, the more that kind of "disconnect" felt off-putting. And outside the Source Code, Goodwin and Dr. Rutledge didn't feel much more "real" in their development, either. They both had subtle character moments, tells that were nicely understated but still filled in some story, but they just never felt fully dimensional or real to me, which hurt the story a little.

Mostly, that all boils down to a story that's plot-driven, where the characters were designed to suit the needs of the story and to keep the story moving where it wanted to go, rather than the story going where the characters wanted it to go. The arbitrariness of the last half which should have felt natural and organically unpredictable; the disconnect and detached passiveness of everyone except our hero throughout; these people were who they needed to be and made the choices they needed to make so that we could tell this specific story in this specific way. (It's the exact same thing I've been seeing in other half-dissatisfying science fiction films I've watched lately, both newer films and older ones.)

But despite all of this, I did kind of like this movie, and I'd definitely consider seeing it again. It's smart in its selection of detail and paucity of exposition (and what exposition the story does have boils down to unnecessary and unscientific silliness, like a scientist talking to a child rather than a lot of distracting technojargon and arbitrary rulemaking), and it doesn't waste time going through the motions just so the audience can get comfortable in the world: it assumes you're smart enough to keep up, and it knows you'll be one step ahead of the confused character, because this isn't your first rodeo. You've seen virtual worlds, time travel, train-thrillers, ticking time bombs, and Quantum Leap; just because Stevens doesn't know what's going on doesn't mean you don't, and that's smart of the story to acknowledge. By comparison, I think I like Source Code a good deal more than Inception -- though both films feel a lot more engaging in their first half and a lot more dry or sparse in their second (Source Code loses the lit-fuse urgency and strays into "what's it all mean?" territory; Inception strays from the surreal and unpredictable into the too literal and unimaginative, which runs counterintuitive to what you expect a "dream within a dream" to be like).

That was a lot more than I expected to say. I didn't even get the loose existential ends the story leaves us with. So, briefly: If Stevens gets to keep going in Sean's body just because he changed the timeline, what happens to Sean's consciousness? Where is Sean? Further, if Stevens's consciousness is being transmitted into the past from several hours in the future, and he creates a parallel timeline where the body he's transmitted into doesn't die, and he can continue in perpetuity in this new body, is his consciousness still dependent on his crippled, barely-living body in the Beleaguered Castle labs? The film seems to imply yes, but does that mean his mind is technically living perpetually x hours behind his body -- that, effectively, his body is in the future? More complicated: is "his" body, his version of his body, in the unaltered timeline, still continuing? Is Stevens's mind tethered to a different reality, at a different temporal point, and both are moving along their permanently-distinct paths until one or the other dies? Will Sean return to his body if they shut off Stevens's body, or will Sean's body drop dead -- or will that parallel dimension collapse upon itself? (Is it "stable?" or is it dependent on a perceptual agent and a stable tether? Do infinite universes coexist or is there a single universe capable of creating other quantum universes but only when they are being perceived by someone from the "real" universe?) I could go on and on.

The end -- the train not exploding, Stevens continuing as Sean, Goodwin receiving the email and choosing not to initiate the program in the first place -- all circles back on itself in a way that's interesting and a little mindbending, and it asks a lot more questions than it answers. And I do think it's smart to leave those things unaddressed, but it's hard to say whether I should be generous and praise it for a wildly open-ended conclusion, or be critical and call the ending inconsistent and messy. I guess, as a fan of open-endedness and ambiguity in storytelling, I fall into the former camp, but skeptically so.

Moon was a balls-out unimpeachable example of thoughtful, character-driven "hard" science fiction, a tight package and a closed-circuit of a story that implied a much richer world beyond every edge of the frame. In a similar vein, Source Code is more of a tricky, slippery idea-driven/plot-driven piece of entertaining science fiction that splits the difference between "soft" and "hard." It's nowhere near as simplistic and over-literal as Avatar or Inception, but on the other hand it's not as elegant and sharp as Moon or District 9, for example. Basically, it's a story that seems fun to think about, but you get the idea that, unlike Stevens, if you stray too far outside the frame, the whole thing actually will collapse very easily.

Seen at the Regal Fox Tower.

12 April 2011

The Angry Red Planet

Hard to know what to say about this. Such attention to technical detail, but the detail's all fabricated technobabble. In a lot of ways I'd say this is the prototype for Mission to Mars, the way it has more excitement for its faux-verisimilitude than for its characterization or drama; the way it clumsily dumps an endless barrage of exposition and hokey sentiment into the mouths of every character; and the way the whole film treats Mars like a mysterious threat but in the end the Martian "message" is surprisingly humane and civilized -- though in Mission to Mars that message is an invitation to explore the cosmos, and here in The Angry Red Planet the message is a weirdly parental one, akin to "We've been watching you, and do as you like, but stay out of Mom and Dad's bedroom or you'll be in big trouble, mister."

Also like Mission to Mars, this was a story about a series of events, and the cast was basically filled out in a way that gave us what we needed to make the story work -- including what I have to say is the least realistic crew selection I've ever seen in an astronaut/space movie, like trying to split the difference between the useful archetype diversity of Gilligan's Island and the mutli-discipline scientific-family of Lost in Space. The characters here are too perfectly what is needed to tell this story, and never come off as interesting or believable. In fact, with his rugged kind-of-good looks and brutish masculinity, I gather Colonel O'Bannion is supposed to be a kind of knock-off Bogart, but he comes off more like a heavy. The "dark alley" flirtation between him and "Irish" is less sparky and more rapey. Professor Gettell and good-ol' working class Sam come off more like cartoonish caricatures than genuine people. But the film is 1959, and a b-movie sci-fi thriller, so I'm fully aware that I'm gauging it on unfair criteria.

There's something interesting to the story, definitely, but more in a proto-Star Trek way than anything useful. The exposition moves pleasantly fast, which is worth noting, but it's so stiff and forced all I can take from it is a list of cautionary examples -- how not to inform your audience of the crucial details. The characterization starts to take hold in rudimentary ways, painting with a broad brush but at least painting some characters, but it never really amounts to anything more than "Irish and O'Bannion (supposedly) have chemistry, the Professor is old and smart, and Sam is dumb but good-hearted." The adventure of the story wraps up like a Star Trek episode, with some arbitrary technojargon about electrocuting giant amoebas which have swallowed their ship. Though to be fair: no doubt this seemed a lot more novel and original before so many Star Trek episodes, particularly one where they have to electrocute a giant amoeba which has swallowed the ship (heh). And the end, for all its scares in the middle, seemed particularly toothless, with an easily found and listened-to message from the Martian superbeings; a surprisingly easy-to-cure infection on the Colonel; and no real threat remaining to either our characters or our planet, beyond a vague "you guys are awfully violent, so steer clear" kind of thing. I imagine the message of being watched from space and judged "technological adults, but moral and spiritual children" probably rang pretty true during the Cold War -- but it doesn't really do any dramatic favors to wrapping up an eighty-minute adventure to Mars and back.

06 April 2011

Mission to Mars

This is probably my third time seeing this film, including way back when (all the way back at the dawn of time, in the year 2000) when it played in theaters. I guess I'd basically describe it as equal parts entertaining and underwhelming -- not quite disappointing, and not quite exciting. The script is a bit hokey, with by-the-books dramatics and characterization, clunky exposition and backstories, all that. But the technical details, though simplistic-feeling, also have a real sense of verisimilitude to them. It feels very much like someone excitedly did a lot of really good research into realistic advances in space exploration technology and culture, but maybe hasn't spent a lot of time around real humans. In fact, for all the detail put into space suits and orbital velocities, there is no sense that life continues for any of these characters when the camera's not actively on them. They exist only as elements in this particular story, the perfect combination needed to get from Point A (a disaster involving the first astronauts on Mars, in a curiously but conveniently un-televised event) to Point B (Jim staying behind to accept the Close Encounters-style invitation to explore the cosmos in an alien ship). There is no life beyond the edges of the frame, but within the frame some reasonably exciting stuff does happen.

So -- seriously -- who is a better director for this kind of material than Brian De Palma? Apart from vague similarities to 2001, it's not full of homages to classic cinema (probably somewhere there's a wink or a nod to Hitchcock somewhere in there... right?), but the self-conscious style and the use of movie expectations to keep the story rolling along fits De Palma just fine. There's something exuberantly unambiguous and hamfisted in the storytelling, the emotions, and especially the strange, mildly unearned sentimental montage at the end, and watching this now it's hard to fault it for its obviousness or patness: it's hardly accidental or unconscious. As a story about a man solving a hundred-million-year-old puzzle and earning a chance to join the proto-human Martians somewhere out in the galaxy, it does everything you'd expect it to do, and it does an all right job of it.

For the most part the space- and Mars- and astronaut-related visual effects all look surprisingly good (I'll overlook the wrongness of the zero-G liquids), which makes the weird cartooniness inside the Martian Face structure all the more unusual, and I remember thinking before that this was just another case of You-Never-Should-Have-Put-The-Camera-Inside-The-Ship (to reference Close Encounters of the Third Kind for a second time), but I'm willing to give a tiny bit more leeway here, since it's pretty clearly meant to be some kind of a holographic representation, a CGI simulation in other words, and not a photorealistic depiction of the ancient Martian, or of the Solar System History lesson. Again, with so much of the movieness of this feeling slightly self-conscious, I'm inclined to at least wonder if it wasn't a deliberate choice, letting the alien look less than realistic (it being a film from 2000, when CGI was still coming out of its infancy, doesn't really help support this theory). What it doesn't forgive is the awkward, goofy design of the alien itself. But, whatcha gonna do.

From the perspective of writing reference, though, it was interesting to note how sharply delineated the first act info-dump is, leaping ahead in time (necessarily) and cramming as much conveniently on-the-nose dialogue into each sequence as possible. Again, it's hard to ignore the artificiality of the whole enterprise, the convenience of almost every scene (this unfortunately diminishes an otherwise memorable and dramatically exciting death scene halfway through the film -- you all know which one I mean). Again, the pieces are just too well-suited to the needs of the story, and so at no point do you really get a sense of tough choices being made even when the choices being made would ostensibly be very high-stakes, very difficult decisions.

It's a case of the cart before the horse: they had a story they needed to tell, these guys -- humans get to Mars; on Mars they find a mystery that kills three and strands one; the rescue mission gets to Mars and finds their stranded friend, from whom they learn some key pieces of the story; a challenge is posed, accepted, and met; a deep secret of the universe is revealed; and someone from the party has to be perfectly suited to make a leap of faith. To tell that story, you look at the pieces you need and you fill them out accordingly. That's plot-driven writing. In character-driven writing, you'd set up the mystery and the puzzle, and then put the wrong sorts of people in these situations, and see what they do instead. Maybe the Martian Cyclone-Worm/Spaceship-Invitation Doohickey goes unsolved for fifty more years. I don't know. The point is, this isn't character-driven. And it's okay, but... well, I guess it's clear where my preferences fall.

(Further, the story demands that when the hero leaps off a cliff we don't give too much thought to the logistics or ramifications of that: a single human alone, in some strange alien spaceship, chasing after a very alien race with completely unknown cultural and ideological -- let alone biological -- expectations, needs, or desires... do the proto-human Martian Almond Men want to eat him? study him in a zoo? is he the final step in a hundred-million-year-long experiment in evolution and xenobiology? It seems pretty weird if they just want a single human friend, doesn't it? Compound all that with the fact that this race left Mars before single-cell life on Earth had developed -- I mean, that's a pretty big head start; in the time it took amoebas to become spacefaring hominids, what changes do you think these highly advanced, genetics-mastered spaceworthy Almond Giants have undergone? What exactly is waiting out there for him, best case scenario? It's not like they're going to remember sending out a party invite when they were forced to abandon their home to an asteroid crash. Also, if I'm going to fill this long parenthetical with hole-punching, I can't walk away and not ask: when their lush green Mars was turned into a lifeless husk, why was soaring through space toward a new galaxy a better option than hopping one planet closer to the Sun and populating Earth themselves? It was worthy of their raw genetic material but it wasn't worthy of their cities and culture?)

Anyway, like I said: this story desperately doesn't want to exist beyond the edges of the frame. The characters, the technology, the mystery, and the secret origins of life on Earth. It's like the façades built for those old 1950s westerns: entire towns that were nothing but storefronts and boardwalks, held together on the backside by plywood crossbeams. If you look at it head-on, it's a beautiful, sprawling, detailed frontier town. But if you cock your head to either side and peer around the edges, beneath the surface or into the shadows, you realize how poorly supported and precarious the whole thing is.

Several cautionary tales in all those colorful metaphors, as I return now to working on my script.

04 April 2011


I knew I'd never seen Metropolis all the way through, but I thought I'd seen more of it than it turns out I had, so sitting and watching the "Complete" version with all the restored "lost" footage was a real treat. The number of films I could catch reference to here, feeling the impact backwards as it were, was pretty incredible. Several Spielberg films (Raiders of the Lost Ark, Temple of Doom, Close Encounters of the Third Kind), Lucas (THX-1138, Star Wars: A New Hope), Gilliam (Brazil most notably) and even more offbeat fare (The Hudsucker Proxy, Joe vs. the Volcano) all come to mind.

The metaphor and visual poetry throughout was pretty great. For one the (explicitly repeated) theme that "The Heart Must Be The Mediator Between The Head And The Hands" played out in pretty interesting ways, although the very end with Freder literally mediating between Head (his father, Joh Fredersen, the Master of Metropolis) and the Hands (the foreman Grot, the Master of the Heart Machine and the ad-hoc leader of the city's workers) was a bit too direct to resonate as much more than an easy way to resolve the characters' stories. Taking the "God" out of the Tower of Babel story and turning it into a stone-cold ideological metaphor of class was pretty cool, especially in the economical way it was handled with so few lines or scenes (the leaders and thinkers who come up with Babel think of the word as an exultation of their own and God's greatness; the workers hired to slave away and die for its construction see the same word not as cry of praise but as a curse of despair; therefore it is as though the men all spoke a different language and could not communicate with each other, and so the Tower of Babel was cursed to remain unfinished).

Actually -- and not surprisingly considering my obsessive focus of late (the reason I haven't been blogging is that I haven't been watching films; the main reason I haven't been watching films is that I've been pushing myself for eight to ten hours a night, writing) -- the way the film most impacted me is the way it threw some elements of my "end of the world romantic black comedy epic" script into sharp relief. The theme of Heart vs Hand vs Head is actually no small part of the story I'm working on, and the way the future is depicted here too is actually kind of relieving (that I could "reference Metropolis" in my depiction of rulers, thinkers, and workers somehow makes that seem at least a tiny bit less daunting -- especially the "rulers," which have been giving me a little trouble). Even the technology of throwing a lever and transferring the identity of Maria into the Machine-Man robot has a pretty clear parallel in the story I'm working on (though, at least right now, I have no intention of making the post-mad-scientist woman turn evil and maniacal).

I already know I'm going to be revisiting this soon for a beat-analysis and writing exercise, because I have a feeling considering the themes and approaches this film takes with its story may have an impact on the telling of my own. Maybe I'll have more insight then, beyond "It does things well, and the story feels similar to my own in unexpected ways." I will say this, though: even by today's standards most of the visual effects and sets look pretty amazing; by 1927 standards they must have blown people's socks off. And the use of film as a medium to tell a story that couldn't be told any other way -- the non-literal, the visual poetry and metaphor, the operatic drama combined with heady modern themes and huge, lush setpieces -- make me wonder about all the later, American films by Fritz Lang I've seen over the years. Did I miss something? They struck me as gorgeous, and well-told, and well-acted and directed, but I don't remember any of the kind of boldness of storytelling that you find here in Scarlet Street or The Big Heat or The Woman in the Window.

Wonderful film, deserving of every bit of its reputation.