When I Was A Child, I Spake As A Child: Detour for Buck Rogers in the 25th Century

Posted in best science fiction, Film, Movies, Science Fiction, television, Top Fifty Films, TV with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 29, 2012 by top50sf

1979

Director:  Daniel Haller

Cast:  Gil Gerard, Erin Gray, Pamela Hensley, Tim O’Conner, Felix Silla, Mel Blanc (voice only), Duke Butler, Henry Silva

Introduction     Plot Summary     Impressions     Wrap-up

My rating:  Class G (a medium yellow star, much like our own sun, 5/7).  An ambitious attempt at witty, arch dialogue steeped in late seventies culture and set in one of the most venerable science fiction universes in existence, this one falls flat on its face to my adult mindset, but it was a tremendous amount of fun.

Fan trailer (not the theatrical trailer):

And the series introduction (from season 2), which is something of a classic:

Introduction

Folks, this baby has a serious science fiction pedigree.

In 1928, Philip Francis Nowlan wrote a novella, Armageddon 2419 A.D., which appeared in the pages of Amazing Stories and detailed the adventures of Tony Rogers, a veteran who wakes in the year 2419 to find America conquered by the Han.  In 1929, his follow-up novella, The Air Lords of Han, completed the story he’d begun and symbolically freed the United States from its foreign overlords.  While not politically correct today—the two novellas embody the thinking behind “the Yellow Peril“—they were great fun, and promoted ideas of sexual equality and technological development.  And to be fair, the Han turned out to be the product of alien miscegenation, though that emerges in the last pages of the second novella.  Both can be downloaded for free from the pages of Project Gutenberg.

Nowlan freed the imaginations of a generation; the two stories proved to be so popular that they spawned the first science fiction comic strip, Buck Rogers, in 1929.  The comic strip ran for thirty-seven years, ending in 1967 and experiencing a brief four-year revival in 1979 (the same year as this movie).

The character also appeared in a 1932 radio program—the first science fiction radio program, in fact—which ran until 1947.  The 1933 World’s Fair in Chicago featured a ten minute film strip called Buck Rogers in the 25th Century: An Interplanetary Battle with the Tiger Men of Mars.  In 1939, Universal Pictures produced a twelve-part serial starring Buster Crabbe (who appears in a cameo in the first two-part episode of the 1979 series) which would be edited into three separate feature-film versions (in 1953, as Planet Outlaws, in 1965 for television as Destination Saturn and finally in the ’70s as Buck Rogers).  Buck also came to the ABC television network for a year or so in 1950 in the form of a thirty-minute long, live broadcast television series, of which there are no surviving prints.

In its own way, Buck Rogers may be a bigger cultural phenomenon than any of the other existing franchises in the science fiction world.  Only Flash Gordon comes close to it in terms of longevity (Buck Rogers is the original and Flash Gordon something of an imitator).  So in 1977, when Star Wars revolutionized theatrical story-telling, helped to change movie-goers’ expectations, demonstrated the power of special effects, and revived the space opera, it was perhaps inevitable that Buck—who is no longer protected by copyright, apparently—would be back.

After all, that’s a big market to ignore.

Enter Glen Larson, a relatively successful American television producer in the wake of his Battlestar Galactica (a television show cancelled after one season due to declining ratings and increasing cost over-runs).  As part of the marketing efforts, the two-hour long pilot would be edited into theatrical form and released in the United States, much like Battlestar Galactica itself.  And that’s how you and I got to be here, talking about Buck Rogers.

The movie, or the pilot if you prefer, keeps a lot of the elements of the original concepts, but re-imagines them for a 1970s audience.  Also unlike its immediate predecessors, this is definitely a light-hearted romp intended to be fun, and it fairly oozes sexiness.  It’s not entirely successful in the witty banter department, and some of the comic elements fall a little flat, but it’s easy to see what the show was going for…

A final word before we get to the good stuff:  it’s impossible to evaluate this film as a movie on its own, because the series was so iconic, and people remember it so well.  I’ll do my best to keep the movie in my sights, and not hare off on tangents related to the series.

Short summary:  Boy takes a five hundred year nap.  Boy meets Bad Girl.  Bad Girl decides to use Boy to conquer Earth.  Boy meets Good Girl.  Good Girl is convinced that Boy is a plant.  Boy has trouble adjusting to life in the future.  Good Girl’s side tries Boy as a traitor and convicts him.  Boy escapes and runs to Bad Girl’s ship, planning to fix her good.  Bad Girl tries to seduce Boy.  Boy escapes Bad Girl.  Boy destroys Bad Girl’s heavily armed fighters, while Good Girl leads an attack on Bad Girl’s space ship.  Buck escapes.  The day is saved!

Setup:  Buck Rogers, an astronaut, commands Ranger 3, a shuttle-like starship which suffers a malfunction in its life support system, freezing Buck Rogers for 504 years.  He is discovered by Princess Ardala’s Draconian flagship, taken aboard, and drugged.  The princess and her right hand, Kane, elect to place a tracking beacon on Ranger 3 and program its autopilot to return to Earth.  They hope that Earth’s Defense Directorate will take Ranger 3 through the secret passage past the Earth’s force field, thereby enabling the Draconian Empire to conquer a beleaguered Earth.  The plan works, up to a point, but the tracking beacon is discovered and the Defense Directorate concludes that Buck Rogers is a traitor….

Impressions

I really, really wanted to like this movie.  A lot of people did—it did well enough on broadcast and on theatrical release to get a green light for the series.  And I have very fond memories of the show as well.

How unfortunate, then, that those memories and impressions are based on the mind and experiences of a fairly sheltered twelve year old boy.

From this, you might gather that the movie did not hold up very well, and you’d be right.  Don’t get me wrong—it’s enjoyable, in its way, and fine children’s television (though with an overtly sexy quality which, as a parent, I might well have wanted my children to avoid, but then a lot of ’70s TV had a similar quality).  But it’s not high art, and it’s not especially well-done.

Let’s start with the special effects.  They actually aged rather well in some ways, even though a lot of them were based on re-tooled Battlestar Galactica ideas and props.  The Earth Defense Directorate’s starfighters, for example, were the first model developed for Battlestar Galactica‘s vipers, and that series’ landrams and distinctive laser bolts—sound and all—show up here.  It’s rather obvious that some money went into the show, and the effects—almost certainly scale models combined with animation, and perhaps some green screen work—hold up rather well, all things considered.

The computer-generated images, on the other hand—prevalent in displays intended to mimic radar or tactical screens—are remarkably primitive.  They don’t even look as good as an actual radar screen, though they probably were state of the art at the time.  The fact that the action on the computer screens doesn’t always match the “real” action which the movie showed in its full blazing glory was something of a problem.

As for the rest of the movie’s look…no ifs, ands or buts, this is science fiction as envisioned in the disco era, and it’s heavily laden with sex appeal (for both genders).  The hair styles, the in-story music, the clothing—all is filtered through the age of disco.  Tight spandex in flashy colors predominates.  Erin Gray, who played Wilma Deering, has commented that one reason that Wilma seldom sat was because the spandex suit was so very tight.  One commentator referred to Gil Gerard’s outfit as “polish sausage” (I couldn’t have made that up if I’d tried).  And Pamela Hensley’s Princess Ardala has a definite look and style all her own….

Musically the film is rather forgettable.  The stirring opening sequence of the series—perhaps one of the best in television history, which still has the capacity to evoke a thrill—is yet to be.  Instead, the Buck Rogers theme song is softened, sounding rather like seventies soft pop, with uneven vocals, played over images of beautiful woman in revealing costumes lounging about on giant lighted letters spelling out “Buck Rogers.”  No, I’m not kidding.  You really have to see it to believe it, and unfortunately the only video I could find was a web cam capture.  Still, here it is:

The acting is uneven, at best.  Gil Gerard, as Buck Rogers, displays a boyish charm and a ready smile.  Gerard shines as a drugged astronaut, and he projects confidence and competence as well as any actor out there.  He dishes out the cheesy lines with a ready smile and a sense of insouciance that almost works; about the only place he truly fails is in the witty banter and maudlin “I’m five hundred years out of my own time” elements.  Unfortunately, those are the most important aspects of the character….

Erin Gray’s character, Wilma Deering, in the movie/pilot is quite a bit different from the character you may remember from the series.  She’s not vivacious and half in love with Buck; she’s cold, arrogant and not very competent.  That’s a factor of the writing; the sparkling, merry and beautiful warrior woman is in there, peeking out, but we get only glimpses of her in the pilot.  Gray does a competent, if not stellar, job, basically ham-strung by the script.

That changes for the series, of course, and the following clip captures the chemistry of the two leads, and shows off some of the good, and the bad, the series incorporated:

Pamela Hensley, who plays Princess Ardala, is perhaps the standout actor.  She never shows a trace of self-consciousness, even as she struts around in a sequin-bedecked bikini with the most bling-encrusted viking-inspired hat ever to grace the imagination of the maddest hatter ever born.  Ardala is sly, confident, manipulative, and sneaky, and Hensley, a strikingly attractive woman, brings all of this off with a grace which makes me wonder why she didn’t go on to become a huge star (her last major role was as the titular character’s lawyer buddy in Matt Houston).

By the way, the two characters, Wilma Deering and Princess Ardala, do not care for one another:

The narrative itself is remarkably cheesy and inept.  Buck succeeds as a fighter pilot because he turns off the combat computers and goes it with plain old American ingenuity and know-how (“use the Force, Luke”).  He almost single-handedly turns a losing situation around by shoving bombs up fighter tailpipes while sneaking around on the Princess’ “Draconian Flagship,” thereby destroying the ship’s entire offensive capability, all the while being caught by only one of the ship’s personnel, Tiger-Man—who he kills by stuffing yet another bomb into his belt and kicking him off-screen.  And what’s he doing in an Earth Defense Directorate uniform at the reception for Princess Ardala?  In fact, what’s he doing at the reception at all?  It’s silly, it’s hokey, and it’s stupid.

There are some other strange or simply incomplete things going on in the movie and then in the series.  Dr. Huer, the elderly gentleman who may or may not be one of Earth’s rulers, runs the Earth Defense Directorate.  He also may be Earth’s ambassador.  On the other hand, it’s the Computer Council that apparently rules the planet, but they also function as Buck’s jury in his treason trial.  How the two fit together is a complete mystery.  And don’t get me started on Dr. Theopolis, who spends much of the movie as Buck’s greatest defender—even pointing out how handsome Buck is.  There are undertones of love at first sight at work there, and that was actually a little disturbing—not the gender issue, since computers don’t have genders, but the idea of a computer forming such a quick and irrational attachment.  Much of the movie feels like it was just thrown up on the screen without serious regard for how everything actually fit together, or what the real background was.

On the other hand…it’s great fun.  I think that may be one of the reasons the movie worked as entertainment.  It’s not supposed to be taken seriously, and it’s all about great visuals, sexy people, cool effects, and adventure.  And in that sense, Buck Rogers in the 25th Century does deliver.  It delivers best for children, who might be entertained by Twiki the robot, as opposed to being irritated—Twiki is in some ways the spiritual predecessor to Jar Jar Binks.  In fact the series which flowed out of the pilot became quite a bit lighter in the first season, though that trend reversed in the second season, as Gil Gerard himself agitated for a more serious tone almost from the beginning.

Wrap-up

I won’t say that seeing the movie as an adult destroyed part of my childhood, but it did bring into startling focus how little judgement and taste I had as a twelve year old.  As I say, this movie is great fun, but it’s also pure schlock.  Take a trip down memory lane, by all means, and watch this again, but don’t expect too much from it!

The sheer unadulterated mass of fan commentary, web sites, Youtube clips and everything else Buck Rogers out there on the web make it clear that a lot of people remember this movie/series very fondly.  I couldn’t give a better endorsement for the series’ impact if I’d tried, so obviously it had something going for it.

It had so much going for it that the “remake” rumors have swirled for the last two years or so.  IMDB lists the movie as “in development,” and MovieInsider.com states that it will be directed by Paul W.S. Anderson, with a slew of producers lined up and at work.  If it pans out, it could be good fun!

I leave you with a fascinating segment from British Television’s Channel 4, which captures a lot of the fun and the good things about the show, and which helped me to sort out my mixed feelings….

And lastly, just for kicks, some video which makes it clear why America loved Erin Gray so much:

Some other takes on the show:

The upcoming movie (from CinemaBlend):

Doom, Madness and Dreams: Detour for 12 Monkeys

Posted in best science fiction, Film, Movies, Science Fiction, Top Fifty Films with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 8, 2012 by top50sf

1995

Director:  Terry Gilliam

Cast:  Bruce Willis, Madeleine Stowe, Brad Pitt, Christopher Plummer, Christopher Meloni, Jon Seda, David Morse

Introduction     Plot Summary     Impressions     Wrap-up

My rating:   Class B, bright blue-white star (2/7).  Dark, somber, mysterious, intriguing—12 Monkeys depicts a grim future and how that future came to be, and does so in a character-driven time travel story which is captivating and depressing at the same time.  Strong performances, solid direction and a layered script make this one to see.

Introduction

12 Monkeys was a difficult film for me to review, for reasons both intrinsic to the film and for reasons having to do with me as an individual.  First, the film is a deceptively complex and layered work, in which image and plot, theme and sound, work together in sometimes surprising ways.  Second, I passionately dislike time travel stories (there are, of course, exceptions) because they often bog down in time paradoxes, reset the action back to the initial state, or involve ideas of predestination and inevitability.  Finally, a theme of madness runs throughout the film, and I always find such themes disquieting.  So bear with me as I work my way through a difficult film for me.

12 Monkeys has Gilliam’s signature touch—visually and thematically—all over it.  How strange, then, that Gilliam was brought in to direct the film after executive producer Robert Kosberg convinced Universal Studios to make a movie based on the short French film La Jetee, and after script writers David and Janet Peoples (David was one of the co-writers of Bladerunner) had finished their work.  But this was a match made in heaven; the movie script was perfect for Gilliam.  Gilliam himself was fascinated with the script, stating that it was “a study of madness and dreams, of death and re-birth, set in a world coming apart.”

Make no mistake—this is a bleak film, though it is also a complex one with intriguing—and doomed—characters who draw you into the story.  It makes the most of its time travel plot device, and gives an intriguing view of the hoary old science fiction device of time travel.  And while the shape of the narrative becomes clear fairly early in the film (there is substantial use of foreshadowing), 12 Monkeys manages to surprise along the way.

Critical and commercial reception of the film was quite good—the film grossed about $57 million in the United States alone.  It has an 88% fresh rating at Rotten Tomatoes and a 74/100 over at Metacritic.  Roger Ebert praised the film but also stated that “it appeals more to the mind than the senses.”  That probably puts the film into context:  not everyone will like it.

Plot (Contains Spoilers)

Short summary:  Boy lives in a disease-ravaged 2035.  Boy travels to the surface to get biological samples to combat the disease.  Next, Boy travels back in time to collect additional samples, but is sent to the wrong year.  Boy meets girl.  Girl thinks boy is crazy.  Girl puts boy in the sanitarium.  Boy meets Boy 2, who is definitely crazy, in the sanitarium.  Boy returns to his own time.  Boy travels back to the correct year and meets Girl again.  Boy abducts Girl.  Boy makes Girl take him to Boy 2.  Boy returns to his own time.  Boy decides he is crazy, and that his present is a hallucination.  Meanwhile, Girl discovers evidence that Boy is not crazy, but a time traveler.  Boy travels back in time once more and finds Girl.  Romance ensues.  Boy and Girl decide to go to Florida.  At the airport, Boy receives new instructions to kill a particular person.  Boy attempts to do so, and is shot.  Boy dies in Girl’s arms as his target flees and a younger version of himself watches.  The day is saved!  Er…actually, not so much.

Setup:  It is 2035, and mankind has been nearly extinguished by an artificial viral plague (5 billion died, and the world population in 1996 was about 5.8 billion).  The survivors live underground, sealed off from the surface, where animals prowl the ruins of decaying cities.  A group of scientists has a plan, however, to send a convict back in time to collect samples of the pure virus at the time of its release, before it mutates, and use it to create a vaccine or cure, and thereby save the human race.  Enter Jack Cole, a convict and a not totally willing volunteer, who agrees to first go to the surface and then later to go back in time to get the information the scientists require…

He meets two key figures on his first journey back in time:  Dr. Kathryn Railly, a psychologist, and Jeffrey Goines, son of a prominent virologist and a fellow inmate of the sanitarium.  Both will be instrumental in the events which transpire throughout the film.

Impressions

The film has a unique visual look, and though it lacks explosions and fancy sets, it definitely sets the tone.  The future settings, all underground, are uniformly grimy, dirty and industrial in appearance.  The glimpse we get of the surface is frozen and deserted, an empty Philadelphia ruled by the animals.  Settings in Cole’s past, the 1990 police station and sanitarium in Maryland, and the 1996 scenes set in Philadelphia, are equally unpleasant and decaying.  The only bright spot in the entire film is the Goines mansion.

Gilliam’s use of wide-angle lenses and unusual angles serves the film quite well.  Gilliam creates unusual visual perspectives and images, many of which serve to emphasize the themes and plot elements.  For example, during a sequence in which a drugged Cole attempts to escape the mental ward, the unusual angles give you a sense of what Cole might actually be seeing, and serve to distort reality in visually interesting ways.

One of the more fascinating visuals in the film was the subject of a lawsuit.  In some scenes, when the group of scientists are receiving Cole’s reports—or interrogating him, if you prefer—the scene uses a chair set into a wall some little way up from the floor, and there is a sphere, apparently of wood and with television screens inset, on a metal arm.  That vision was allegedly taken from a work by American architect and artist Lebbeus Woods (you can see his original sketch here).  Woods won a lawsuit against Universal Studios, but allowed the scenes to remain in the film in exchange for a monetary settlement.

The music is also first-rate.  The film opens with a piece that can only be described as “French” in tone, and it resembles a polka played on an accordian.  Given the film’s roots in a short French film, that’s entirely appropriate.  But the piece also manages to convey a sense of the absurd and ridiculous as well as menace, and it works quite well.  In actuality, however, the recurring theme is based on an Argentinian tango nuevo called Suite Punta del Este by Astor Piazolla….

The film also makes substantial use of modern music, because Cole loves music and doesn’t get to hear it in his time.  “Sleep Walk,” first recorded by Santo and Johnny, is an instrumental piece on the steel guitar with an eerie and haunting quality; it recurs throughout the film in reference to an advertisement enticing the listener to visit the Florida Keys.  In a strange coincidence, this particular version was recorded by B. J. Cole (Willis’ character is named James Cole).  And other popular music, most notably Fats Domino’s Blueberry Hill but also including Louis Armstrong’s What A Wonderful World, The Comanches’ Pipeline, and Tom Waits’ The Earth Died Screaming make their way into the film, and are in some ways part of the plot as much as they are background music.

Gilliam’s deft direction ensures that the music never overwhelms the viewer or interferes with dialogue, and the soundtrack never becomes too loud, a welcome change from many modern movies.

The performances in this film are more than merely solid.  First, of course, there is Bruce Willis as James “Jack” Cole.  Willis—assisted by a very clever script—does an extraordinary job of making a violent and brutal man, who is probably crazy and definitely a menace to the people around him, into a sympathetic character.  In spite of any number of clues as to Cole’s nature, when he explodes into on-screen violence it actually took me by surprise.  I knew he was an angry man capable of killing, and yet I felt for him even as I recognized his lack of sanity.  Willis truly shines in this film.

So, too, does Brad Pitt, who was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor.  Pitt visited a mental institution and sought the advice of a psychiatrist in order to get his role down, and his research paid off.  Pitt’s Jeffrey Goines is full of nervous energy and spastic tics, and can’t settle into a single stream of thought.  He is wildly verbal as well, effortlessly spewing insane diatriabes at the drop of a hat—twice providing a distraction during which Cole escapes.  Many of the characters are, ultimately, rather predictable, but Pitt’s Goines transcends predictability as he descends into madness.

Madeleine Stowe’s portrayal of Dr. Kathryn Railly is also quite good, if not as explosive on the screen—a condition created by the script rather than the actress.  Stowe brings an understated, almost serene, quality to Dr. Railly, but as the film progresses, and she is drawn deeper into the madness surrounding Cole, that serenity begins to crack in a series of compelling emotional outbursts.  While Railly never becomes truly insane in the sense of mental illness, she does respond to the events sweeping her up with some unusual choices.

The plot of the movie is quite well constructed, though, like many good stories, the Peoples’ script and Gilliam’s direction leave plenty of room for interpretation.  Between the fact that the film involves time travel and liberal use of foreshadowing, the ending of the story should be clear to the viewer before he actually reaches it.  Along the way, though, the movie manages to slip in some surprises, even if the viewer identifies the red herring and deduces the identity of the person who spreads the virus.  In particular, the motivations of Railly and Cole after they realize that neither of them is insane, and that everything is happening exactly the way that the scientists in 2035 said it would, is open to interpretation and question.  Does Cole go to his death knowing exactly what will happen?  If so, why?  Is it only the threat that Jose will kill Railly that motivates him, or is there something deeper at work?  When Railly realizes her world is doomed, why does she try to take Cole to the Florida Keys?  The film doesn’t spoon-feed us with the answers to these questions.

In some ways, the movie reminds me of the Robert A. Heinlein story “By His Bootstraps,” a wonderful little time travel story in which a man uses a time gate to make himself the dictator of a far-future society.  In that story, the protagonist—all four versions of him—acts upon himself to create a paradox in which there is no first cause, but instead a temporal loop.  This story is somewhat reminiscent of that one, and it presents the idea that, whatever Cole and Railly and Goines may think and feel, 2035 is the present and everything they experience is the past—already set in stone because it’s already happened, and can happen in no other way.  It’s a sobering and rather unique view of time travel.

In two places, characters in the film quote from Revelations in the Bible—specifically, Revelations 15 and 16, in which seven angels carry seven golden vials filled with the wrath of God, and which represent the seven last plagues.  The first such scene puts the Biblical quote in the mouth of Dr. Railly, and thereby links doom and madness together as she lectures on the Cassandra syndrom (a fictitious psychological illness).  Nevertheless, given the context of the film, it is chilling.  And in the mouth of a street preacher, who somehow recognizes Cole as “one of us,” the words are even more chilling and more prophetic.

Certain images recur throughout the film, as a sort of visual motif.  Animals are perhaps the most obvious of these:  in the ruined and frozen city of Philadelphia in the year 2035, for example, there are a bear and a lion.  Patients in the mental institution sometimes display animalistic qualities reminiscent of monkeys, chimpanzees or gorillas.  The television in the mental ward displays news footage of animal testing on rabbits, as well as the Marx Brothers’ film Monkey Business.  Cole uses the phrase “never cry wolf” when discussing the plight of the boy trapped in the pipe (later revealed to be a hoax), and in an attempt to help the boy, authorities lower a monkey with an infrared camera attached to it, carrying a roast beef sandwich for the little boy.  The scream of a hawk, never seen, serves as a backdrop for Cole’s flight through the woods.  The animal liberation group, the Army of the 12 Monkeys, seems to deliberately ape the behavior of monkeys.  And once the Army strikes, releasing the animals from the zoo, we see a flock of flamingos, as well as giraffes running across a bridge.

The recurring animal motif serves to draw attention to the animal rights movement.  It would be hard to guess which side Gilliam favors, as both sides seem to be satirized, but any way you slice it, the question of man’s domination of the planet, and what that means for the animals who share that planet, is the warp of the film’s tapestry (as well as an oblique reference to Genesis).

If animal rights are the warp of the film, then surely madness is the weft.  Two of the major characters are clearly insane—Goines with a frenetic, highly energetic insanity focused on animals, and Cole with an explosive propensity for violence.  Another character, Dr. Peters (David Morse), also displays more than a flash of insanity.  Railly is a psychiatrist, and many scenes take place in a mental ward in Baltimore.  The depictions of insanity are chilling and realistic, and definitely made an impression on me.

The science of the film is difficult to evaluate.  Many physicists are convinced that time travel will never be possible, even though there are certain solutions to equations underlying theories such as relativity which appear to permit some kind of time travel.  Accepting that time travel might be possible, however, none of the rest of the science presented in the film is unduly ridiculous.

Wrap-up

Dark, complex, layered…strong acting…well-written script…excellent direction which takes film-making into the realm of art.  What, really, is there NOT to like in 12 Monkeys?  Well, it’s pretty bleak, and rather depressing.  But if you’re not afraid of that, then you should definitely take a look at 12 Monkeys.  I guarantee it will make you think, and it will entertain.

Additional Thoughts:

Full of Sound and Fury: #27, Total Recall

Posted in best science fiction, Film, Science Fiction, Top Fifty Films with tags , , , , , , , , , , on March 28, 2012 by top50sf

1990

Director:  Paul Verhoeven

Cast:  Arnold Schwarzenager, Rachel Ticotin, Sharon Stone, Michael Ironside, Ronny Cox, Marshal Bell, Mel Johnson Jr., Michael Champion, Roy Brocksmith

Introduction     Plot Summary     Impressions     Wrap-up

My rating:  Class M, dim red star (7/7).  This is—in some ways—an ambitious movie—but it utterly fails to capitalize on that ambition or its roots, and instead devolves into a violent and silly action-adventure movie with a deeply flawed premise.  Not even Ah-nold’s one liners can save this mess.

Introduction

Take two veteran screenwriters, Dan O’Bannon and Ronald Shusett, the guys who brought us Alien, and give them the rights to “We Can Remember It For You Wholesale,” a gem of a short story by Phillip K. Dick.  After a few years, give the project to Dino de Laurentis, with Shusett as producer and Richard Dreyfuss in the lead role.  Or possibly Patrick Swayze.  Bring David Cronenberg on as the director, but he wants William Hurt in the lead role.  Have Cronenberg and Shusett fall out over the continually redrafted script, and let de Laurentis lose interest after Dune flops and his production company goes bankrupt.

Enter Arnold Schwarzenager, who was initially rebuffed by de Laurentis as the star of the film, and have him persuade Carolco Pictures (the company that brought us First Blood and Rambo II in the ’80s) to buy the rights to the picture, with Schwarzenager as the star with veto power over producer, director, screenplay, costars and promotion.  By the time Schwarzenager personally recruited Paul Verhoeven (Robocop) to direct, the screenplay had been through forty-two drafts, and still lacked an ending (or even, according to some reports, an “act three”).

There was no way was this going to work out well.

It turned out to be a giant mess with aspirations to philosophical depth.  The script is riddled with scientific inaccuracies so great that they wreck the willing suspension of disbelief; the performances are rather lack-luster; the film is incredibly violent; and the resolution is deeply flawed.  Many, if not all, of the movie’s failings can be traced back to the movie’s own lack of identity, as it isn’t sure what it needs to be and indeed changes from one type of movie to another about a third of the way in.

On the other hand…the movie debuted at number one in the box office in its opening weekend, ultimately grossing over $250 million.  Critics seem to love the movie—Roger Ebert gave it three and a half stars, and it’s rated 81% positive over at Rotten Tomatoes.  So maybe there’s something there I’m not seeing…

Plot (Contains Spoilers)

Short summary:  Boy wants to go to Mars, but he can’t afford it.  Boy goes to Rekall, Inc., instead, to buy the memories of a trip to Mars, complete with him being a secret agent and meeting a brunette (“athletic, sleazy and demure”).  The memory implant doesn’t work because someone has already done a memory wipe.  Boy wakes up claiming that they’ve blown his cover, so the Rekall folks wipe his memory (again) and send him home.  On his way home, Boy is attacked by his coworkers, and then, once home, by his wife.  Boy flees, chased by Boy 2.  Along the way Boy receives help from the previous version of himself through an old coworker at the spy agency, and goes to Mars.  Boy meets girl, who despises him for betraying them.  Boy leaves.  Boy meets his “wife” and one of the Rekall folks, who try to convince him that he’s having a psychotic episode.  Boy figures out they’re lying and combat erupts.  Boy is rescued by, and rescues, Girl.  Boy and girl flee to the rebels, but are captured by the government.  Boy is revealed to be a false persona created to destroy the resistance.  Boy and girl escape.  Boy and girl fight the government.  Boy and girl activate an alien underground installation which melts a glacier and oxygenates the entire planet.  The day is saved!

Impressions

Visually, Total Recall has a lot going for it in some ways.  It was the last major science fiction film to be done without any significant CGI, using instead miniature effects (scale models), makeup and masks.  Most of those effects look pretty good, and many of them owe their success to Rob Bottin, the make-up and special effects wizard who brought The Thing to life.  The movie was filmed in Mexico City, using the public transportation system for a good part of the story, and successfully conveys both the future and Mars itself.

Jerry Goldsmith scored the film, and he put in a superb effort with a strongly martial orchestral soundtrack recorded by the National Philharmonic orchestra.  The soundtrack is probably one of the highlights of the film, making use of a metal percussive element as well as a seamless blend of orchestral and electronic elements which suit the opening of the film to a “T.”

The performances are, by and large, at least adequate and in some cases better than that.  Arnold Schwarzenager, in the role of Douglas Quaid, is perhaps a little out of his depth.  Surprisingly enough, I enjoyed him most in the opening third or so of the film, when he doesn’t have a clue what’s going on: his yearnings for something more, something different, seem real, and his confusion at the events surrounding him seems very real.  Unfortunately, however, when the movie makes its transition to the big action flick, Quaid somehow seems a little too flat, a little too cool, for what’s going on.  He’s Ah-nold in big action hero mode, complete with snappy one-liners, and somehow that cheapens the movie.  And Schwarzenager’s scenes as Hauser, the “real” personality before the memory overlay which created Quaid, come off as a grinningly evil caricature.

Michael Ironside, as the chief heavy for the bad guys, is wrath and anger personified.  Ronny Cox, in the role as the more cerebral evil mastermind, is delightfully smarmy, and the two together are fairly riveting on the screen.  Rachel Ticotin, in the role of Melina, Quaid’s one true love, is little more than adequate, though truthfully she doesn’t have much to work with.  Sharon Stone—in her first film role as Quaid’s “wife”—is fresh-faced, beautiful, and fairly effective, especially when she realizes her cover is blown and she becomes angry.

Three other (unfortunately minor) performances stuck out—first, Robert (“Bobby”) Costanzo as one of Quaid’s co-workers who really works at the Agency.  The Brooklyn-born actor is a lot of fun to watch on the screen, and seems very real.  Another performance of note is Debbie Lee Carrington, who plays Thumbelina.  A “little person” and a stuntwoman, she, too, is a lot of fun to watch, and rather convincingly fires a machine gun in one memorable scene.  Finally, Mel Johnson Jr., as Benny, the mutant cab driver who betrays the heroes to the government, is a walking, talking stereotype, but he’s also magnetic and his performance is a lot of fun.

Thematically, the movie is a bit of a mess.  In terms of plot structure, it’s even worse.  Essentially, the movie starts out as a rather unconventional and thought-provoking story dominated by questions of identity and memory.  And then it changes, almost without warning, and becomes a violent roller coaster ride through vales of idiocy, paying only lip service to the themes and questions it invokes at the outset (with one startling exception).

Of course, there’s a reason for this, and it’s probably rooted in the unusual development history of the movie.  It’s based on a very short little story, and as Dan O’Bannon, one of the initial scriptwriters, would later say, the story merely gives the first act of the movie; acts two and three would have to be invented from scratch.  O’Bannon is the one who said they should take Quaid, the protagonist, to Mars, though his story would have been very different from what—eventually—made it onto the big screen.  David Cronenberg later stated that he was intrigued because the story started off as pure Philip K. Dick (“this very wonderful beginning”), but then no one knew what to do with it.  Cronenberg rewrote the script (12 times), and then, in a meeting, the following dialogue occurred:

Shusett:  You know what you’ve done? You’ve done the Philip K. Dick version.

Cronenberg:  Well, yeah.

Shusett:  No, no, we want Raiders of the Lost Ark Goes to Mars.

Cronenberg:  Well, Jeez, I wish we’d all had this discussion twelve months ago — it wouldn’t have wasted all our time!

(from Tales From Development Hell by David Hughes).  Cronenberg departed the project at that point, since his vision was incompatible with that of de Laurentis and Shusett.

So, ironically enough, a story about a man with two identities is embedded in a movie that’s not sure what it wants to be…a thoughtful and thought-provoking story about a man with no real past and the manipulative jerks who created him, struggling to become real, and a violent story about a rebellion against corporate tyranny for the sake of freedom.  It is this schizophrenic quality of the film that robs it of its power, though it does have other scripting issues.

That said, and ignoring the script’s believability issues, the two parts of the film actually work—and even work well—independently of one another.  It is only their misbegotten marriage that creates the problem.  At least in part, this is due to the fact that once the action starts, it doesn’t stop.  Verhoeven’s pacing is strictly a sprint, and the breathless pace doesn’t really give the viewer much time to ponder questions of identity and memory until Verhoeven is good and ready to let those questions resurface.  However, the action movie doesn’t do much more than pay lip service to the philosophical question movie, and that fact mars the promise of the film.  To put it another way, the opening third of the film promises to deal with the issue of who Quaid is if his memories are all false, while the action movie doesn’t fulfill that promise.

Nowhere is this more evident than in what could have been one of the penultimate scenes of the movie.  After Quaid first encounters his one true love, Melina, on Mars, and is rejected as a double agent, he returns to his hotel room.  There, he encounters his wife and Dr. Edgemar (Roy Brocksmith).  Edgemar, the owner of Rekall, attempts to convince Quaid that he’s still sitting in the chair at Rekall, undergoing a psychotic episode and refusing to face reality.  All it will take, Edgemar says, is to take a pill, the psychological symbol of attempting to get well, to break the psychosis and return to normal.  Quaid’s wife, Lori, is there to beg him to take the pill and to return to her and their life together.  And in true action movie style, Quaid spots that Edgemar has a bead of sweat on his bald pate, deduces that everything is actually real, and that he must not take the pill.  Instead, he shoots Edgemar and raging combat ensues when the backup goons, and then Melina, ride to the rescue of their respective sides.

The scene quite competently eviscerates everything that the opening act sets up, establishing once and for all that the entire sequence of events is reality.  Instead of playing to the promise of the movie, the script actually rejects it as a cheap trick and never looks back.  That betrayal accomplished, the movie once again takes off at high speed, delivering non-stop—and stupid and senseless—action.

Some say that a willing suspension of disbelief makes the movie enjoyable, but frankly, Total Recall tests the viewer’s ability to willingly suspend disbelief in a number of ways.  Just off the top of my head, there’s a bug in Quaid’s head which can be blocked by a wet towel (which stays wet, no matter what), but not concrete, steel girders, etc.  That same bug, which is rather larger than a marble, can nevertheless be pulled out of Quaid’s head through the nose.  His mask, a total head covering, features a telescoping rod which would occupy some of the space of his head when not extended.  The bad guys carry guns on Mars, when a shot through one of the apparently ordinary glass windows will (and does) expose everyone to the nearly airless surface of Mars.  The Martian surface can effectively kill the main villain while an equal time of exposure not only fails to kill Quaid and Melina but also leaves no significant injury.  The Martian reactor, the product of alien technology, can give Mars sufficient atmosphere so that people can walk around in the space of less than four minutes.  And where does that atmosphere come from, you might ask?  It’s a glacier, buried under the martian soil.  It may, or may not, be a planet-wide feature….  I don’t mention Mars’ lesser gravity, since Hollywood never seems to pay attention to gravity when it’s less than Earth-normal, probably because no one has figured out how to do it convincingly and cheaply.

So…irreconcilable differences between the first part of the film and the middle and ending, paired up with a down-right silly story which ignores physical reality.  If it’s that bad, why do so many people like it?  I think it’s because, whatever else is going on, Arnold Schwarzenager has charisma to burn, and it’s a fast-paced, action-packed thrill ride which never lets up.  The violence, mild gore, shocking imagery and speedy transitions may well mean that most viewers simply sit back and enjoy the ride, without paying much attention to the movie’s defects.  In that sense, the movie is actually a triumph of the film-maker’s art, and it is a reasonably fun ride.

One last thought:  some of the quibbles I have with the movie could be said to employ a kind of dream logic, thereby deliberately playing to the question of whether or not Quaid’s experiences are real or not.  If that’s so, the movie is an even greater failure than I imagined, as Quaid’s memories of his trip to Mars as a secret agent will never be, in any way, compatible with reality.  When he wakes up, Rekall’s implanted memories will stick out like a sore thumb, and he’ll know them for what they are.

Wrap-Up

If you’re in the market for a big dumb action film that never lets up, and you’re prepared for that ride to ignore the laws of physics, Total Recall is well worth the price of admission.  If, like me, you expect your movies to make sense on every level—even if that’s only in terms of internal logic in the worst-case scenario—you might want to give this one a miss.  If the movie hadn’t promised more than the roller coaster ride it actually delivers, I might have been okay with it, but as it stands I have to consider the movie a failure.

It’s worth mentioning that a remake is due to hit the big screen this summer.

On the plus side, the movie did spur me to go out and pick up a Philip K. Dick short story collection containing “We Can Remember It For You Wholesale,” and that reading experience was definitely worth it.

A Soap Opera In Space: Detour for Star Trek: Voyager, Season Two

Posted in Random Science Fiction Goodness, television, TV with tags , , , , , , , , , , on March 20, 2012 by top50sf

Star Trek: Voyager:  The fourth television series set in the Star Trek universe, Voyager takes place in the same general time period as The Next Generation but features Star Trek’s first female captain of a much smaller, though unique, starship lost in the Delta Quadrant 70,000 light years, or twenty years’ travel time, from home. I’ve already reviewed season one, and since I’m still watching and enjoying, here’s my take on season two.

Star Trek: VoyagerI’m not sure exactly what was going on during the second season, which was Voyager‘s first full season, but it produced some amazing drama and a great deal of fun for me.  It may be significant that Jeri Taylor and Brannon Braga, two writers from Star Trek: The Next Generation, played a large role in the second season, writing or contributing to 11 of the season’s 26 episodes.  On the other hand, Braga wrote what was arguably the worst episode of Star Trek ever, so…

What made this season so much fun was the soap opera quality it brought to the table.  A storyline might begin in one episode as a seed, and grow throughout several episodes until it flowers into the center of an episode all its own.  The major plot line revolves around Seska, the Maquis crewman who was actually a Cardassian spy who betrayed Voyager in season one, escaping to join the Kazon, Voyager’s mortal enemies.

Martha Hackett, who played Seska, was a brilliant antagonist for Captain Janeway, and she always seemed to be a step ahead of everyone else.  Admittedly, I’d hate to see the series’ heroes consistently outplayed, out-fought, and out-thought every episode, but Seska proved to be a tenacious and dangerous adversary who had Starfleet, Maquis and Cardassian experience and training.  Seska manipulates Chakotay easily, and finds the Kazon Nistrim Cullah easy prey as well.  Before everything is said and done, she has both Chakotay and Cullah believing that they are the father of her baby (a soap opera style plotline if there ever wasy one).  Hackett’s performances simply stole the show in all of her episodes (it’s hard to believe that this plotline was central to only four episodes).  Indeed, this storyline wound up being critical to the season’s cliffhanger ending—something I’ll address again a little further along.  But before we hit the ending, we get intriguing glimpses into an arrogant but extremely capable woman, the Kazon culture in which she’s immersed herself, and the character defects of our heroes.  In a way, it’s a shame that the goodness had to end…

But that’s hardly all that Season 2 had going for it.  A love triangle involving Kes, Neelix and Paris added fuel to the fire.  Neelix displays insane jealousy throughout the first few episodes of the season, while Kes constantly told Neelix that Paris was just a friend, and Paris actually backed off when he realized he was beginning to feel something for Kes.  All of this may have worked better if Neelix and Kes had more or better chemistry, but Neelix generally came off as more of a mentor or protector for Kes, with no hint of sex or romantic involvement.  I guess since they’re both aliens, that’s okay.  At any rate, we get the first food fight in space when Neelix’s temper boils over, and the boys wind up stranded on Planet Hell, where their shared experience allows them to bond.  All in all, a nice arc for the two, which has ramifications for their friendship, and the chance to tug on the viewer’s heartstrings, throughout the rest of the season.

As an aside, “Investigations” featured then Prince, now King, Abdullah bin al-Hussein II of Jordan in a non-speaking role.  Hussein was a fan of the show, but could not be given a speaking role because he was not in the Screen Actor’s Guild.

Paris’ character development through the second season was nothing short of amazing.  In the first season, Paris is clearly trying hard to fit in and be a member of the crew, and in season two, that continues, but in Paris’ own way.  His emotional armor is up, and he’s never without a quip or a joke.  Paris holds everyone at a distance even while being the life of the party, even—or perhaps especially—with his best friend Harry Kim.  But in “Threshold,” which is in many ways the worst hour of Star Trek ever filmed (only DS9’s “Run Along Home” can really compete), Paris displays what really moves him: he’s a pilot, first and foremost, and he wants to be the first to achieve warp 10.  Somehow during the process the Paris shell cracks and we get a chance to see what really moves the man, and we get insight into how his mistakes may have flowed out of his conflicts with his father, a Starfleet Admiral.

A word about “Threshold” before we continue, since I’ve labeled it one of the worst hours of Star Trek in history.  The basic premise of the story is that you can’t achieve warp 10, because when you do, your speed is infinite and you exist throughout space simultaneously.  There are obvious advantages to such a speed, if you can reach it, namely that every point in the universe is accessible in an instant, and so Voyager‘s crew is assiduously researching this idea.  The flaw in the episode comes about from the consequences of achieving warp 10, which our intrepid crew manages to do: Paris changes rapidly into a superhuman being, the purported endpoint of human evolution.  And what, you may ask, is Star Trek’s view of such a perfected being?  It’s a lizard of some kind, apparently.  I could have lived with that if that was just something that happened to Paris through some quirk of his DNA or something, but since it also happened to Janeway, and since the crew rescued the two but left their litter of hyper-evolved children behind, I’m less than sanguine about the episode.  Brannan Braga, who wrote the episode, has acknowledged that they were not successful in what they were trying to do, and that this was in fact the worst episode he wrote.*

In the wake of “Threshold,” Paris’ character takes a turn for the worse as he develops seditious and downright insubordinate traits.  This progresses and worsens throughout the second half of the season until Paris leaves Voyager—all of which was a ruse, cooked up by Janeway, Tuvok and Paris in order to flush out a traitor supplying information to the Kazon and Seska.  The situation comes to a head in “Investigations,” in which “A Briefing With Neelix,” Neelix’s television-like contribution to morale, uncovers the true traitor and restores Paris’ good name.

Another intriguing aspect of the season is Captain Janeway’s never-named holonovel, which appears to be something along the lines of a Victorian novel in which Janeway takes the role of a nanny to a strange family where the mother may or may not be dead.  It gives the writers an excuse to put Janeway in a subservient, but not menial or lesser, role, and dress her up as well.  The holonovel becomes a focus for some telepathic skulduggery, but the holonovel does show us a different aspect of the otherwise tough-as-nails Janeway.  Incidentally, that episode, “Persistance of Vision,” does some intriguing things—especially for Star Trek.  The alien (his race was Botha) is driven off by Kes, who shows off some impressive (if passive) telepathic abilities, but interestingly, the alien was bad because it was fun, and Voyager neither got the last word nor stopped him from doing his thing to others…

Another fascinating episode came up when the crew realized that they had a serial killer aboard the ship.  It turned out to be Ensign Suder, a Betazed (and therefore telepathic) former Maquis.  Brad Dourif played Suder, and his chilling monologues about violence were actually a little scary.  His telepathic mind-meld with the Vulcan security officer Tuvok proved to be scary as well, upsetting Tuvok’s rather tenuous emotional controls.  Dourif played Chucky in Child’s Play, by the way, and true to season two’s form, this would not be the only episode featuring Suder.

Ensign Samantha Wildman, a secondary character, comes to Captain Janeway and tells her that she’s pregnant—her husband, and the baby’s father, is in the Alpha Quadrant and doesn’t even know that Wildman is pregnant.  The pregnancy persists throughout the season, culminating in a birth which would go on to have ramifications for the rest of the series.

The second season is also the first time in which the phrase “ship of death” is used.  Turns out that the Kazon have been spreading nasty rumors about Voyager and her crew, though to be fair, there are a lot of explosions and whatnot when Voyager comes around.  Still, this is the first time we’ve seen a Next Generation era starship operating so far from the Federation, and it’s refreshing to see alien reactions to the cloyingly noble Federation.

In the first episode of season two, we learn that Voyager, in addition to its other unique qualities, can actually land.  That’s a first for Star Trek, and it probably says more about the evolution (and cost) of special effects than anything else.  Sadly, once the writers got it into their heads that Voyager can land, they seemed to want to bring it up, and season two sees the starship on the ground three times.

B’ellana Torres continues to develop as a character, having faced and understood her Klingon half, and she seems more at peace in season two.  She’s also less inclined to flout the rules, which may have something to do with her continuing bonding with Captain Janeway.  The two are always riveting when they’re on the screen together, and though that usually involves science and engineering, the aptly-titled episode “Maneuvers” features an impassioned Torres defending the actions of a wayward Chakotay to Captain Janeway.  These two actors really work well together, and they are tremendous fun to watch when they’re together.  Torres’ embarrassment at seeing a fellow crewmember in the near-altogether is also amusing.

Chakotay gets a lot to do this season, and it’s not all being manipulated by Seska—for whom he apparently had very strong feelings at one point.  But we do get to see more of his background both as a Maquis and as a Native American, which is both good and interesting.  Poor Harry Kim continues in his role as the ensign to whom wierd things happen: in this season, he has to leave a doomed Voyager in one reality and board another Voyager which lost its Ensign Kim, as well as being transferred to an alternate timeline in which he was never aboard Voyager at all.  The holographic doctor continues to develop as a person, even falling in love and having a brief romantic relationship, while Kes displays new strengths as well as her trademark compassion.  She even tricks the holodoctor at one point by programming a simulated illness to last longer than he expects, in order to teach him what it’s like to be sick.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention “Tuvix,” an episode which has generated substantial fan and critical response as well as philosophical analysis.  To be honest, I found the episode a little trite, and felt that some of the characters’ actions were difficult to understand.  In brief, a transporter accident fuses Tuvok and Neelix into the title character, a new being with some of the characteristics of both individuals.  Needless to say, the question of what to do with the fused being is at the heart of the episode’s moral ambiguity.  After two weeks, the doctor discovers a way to take Tuvix apart and retain Tuvok and Neelix, but by then, members of the crew have bonded with Tuvix and he himself views the procedure as a death sentence.  Ultimately, Captain Janeway has to intervene, and the episode seems to garner strong emotional responses from viewers.

Voyager ends season two with one heck of a bang.  Seska, having cemented her position in the woman-hating Kazon culture, manages to lead Cullah and his Kazon Nistrim in a raid and then an ambush which succeeds in taking Voyager.  At the end of the episode, Paris has escaped in a shuttle, while the Doctor and Ensign Suder, the serial killing Betazed, are left on the ship and the remainder of the crew is marooned on a dangerous planet.  It’s one heck of a season finale…

* I think I need to defend Braga, in spite of his numerous detractors among Star Trek fans.  Let’s face it: the man wrote almost 150 episodes of Star Trek in 15 years, an astonishing output which included some very fine episodes, many of which showed up in Voyager.  He wrote the scripts for the highest and second highest grossing Star Trek movies (Generations and First Contact).  He’s a creative powerhouse who, like all of us, has made a few mistakes along the way, but we shouldn’t lose sight of his successes. (Jump back!)

Captain Kirk is the Great White Whale of the Galaxy: #22, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan

Posted in best science fiction, Film, Movies, Science Fiction, Top Fifty Films with tags , , , , , , , , , on March 15, 2012 by top50sf

1982

Director:  Nicholas Meyer

Cast:  William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, DeForest Kelly, James Doohan, Walter Koenig, George Takei, Nichelle Nichols, Bibi Besch, Ricardo Montalban, Kirstie Alley, Merritt Butrick

Introduction     Plot Summary     Impressions     Wrap-up

My rating:  Class A (3/7, hot whitish star).  No ifs, ands or buts…this is far and away the best of Star Trek’s (the original series) voyages into the theater.  It’s got a villain from the series, the heroic death of a beloved character, a terrifying weapon, and plenty of character interaction between the big three, with enough for the “secondary” characters to do.  To top it off, the effects still look good, and it boasts one of the best space battles in cinematic history (something it managed to do without losing the capital ship-feel of the series).  What keeps it from being a Class O or Class B?  It does have some scripting problems, and the story feels a little too pat…

Introduction

Fair warning before we get moving, here:  I’m one of those people who can tell you about the destruction of the Enterprise, Enterprise A, Enterprise C, and Enterprise D (as far as I know, in the original series continuity, as opposed to reboot continuity, no one knows what happened to the B, though it has been on the big screen).  In other words, I’m something of a fan, and I have a good memory, and…oh hell.  Truth is I’m a Star Trek fanatic and I love the series.  So take my review with a grain of salt.

I will not spend a lot of time here explaining the basics of the Star Trek franchise—it’s sufficiently popular, and this is a science fiction blog, for me to assume you’ve got some idea about the basics of the series.  This movie, the second installment of the franchise, comes cold on the heels of Star Trek: The Motion Picture, which is generally perceived as something of a flop and which was not well-received critically.

There are the big four characters, of course: Captain Kirk (William Shatner), the half-Vulcan Spock (Leonard Nimoy), the irascible Dr. McCoy (Deforest Kelly), and of course the Enterprise itself.  But once you have them, for the most part you have Star Trek.  Star Trek II offers plenty for all four to do, with actual character development and movement tied to the film’s themes of aging, life and what it means to face death…

Star Trek II didn’t stop there, though, bringing back the entire slate of “secondary” characters and giving most of them fun things to do on-screen, as well as bringing back an intensely-drawn and performed villain from the series, and coupling it with new characters, a tightly plotted and thematically superior story, and a set of re-imagined visuals which breathed new life into the franchise.

In almost every way, Star Trek II surpassed its predecessor, and critical and commercial reception was very positive—perhaps the only thing that saved the franchise, in fact, and paved the way for four more TOS films and four more series.  The movie broke box office records for the opening weekend, and went on to become the sixth-highest grossing film of 1982.  Fan response was overwhelmingly positive, and the film has a 92% positive rating at Rotten Tomatoes.

Plot (Contains Spoilers)

Short summary:  Boy is getting old, and he’s lost all his girls.  Boy’s enemy lures boy into a trap.  Boy and boy’s enemy manage to hurt each other’s rides.  Boy’s enemy withdraws.  Boy meets girl again.  Girl has some surprises in store for Boy, including his son.  Boy’s enemy steals the other surpise, a terraforming device which is also a terrible weapon, and seemingly maroons Boy, Girl and Boy’s posse.  Boy has a trick left, and takes his posse back to his ride.  Boy and boy’s enemy face off in a climactic battle.  Boy wins.  Boy’s enemy activates the weapon.  Boy’s friend sacrifices his life to fix Boy’s ride.  Boy and his posse escape destruction.  The day is saved!

Setup:  Unless you’re either young or completely immune to popular culture, you know who Captain Kirk, his science officer and second in command Spock, and Dr. Leonard “Bones” McCoy, the Enterprise’s Chief Medical Officer, are.  You probably also know the key others:  Scotty the engineer, Sulu the helmsman, Chekov the weapons dude, and Uhura the communication chick.  What you may not remember is episode #22 from the series’ first season, “Space Seed.”  You can get by without the backstory—the movie does a pretty good job of explication—but it’s always nice to have it…

In “Space Seed,” the Enterprise encounters the Botany Bay, a ship drifting with a crew in suspended animation.  That crew turns out to be Khan Noonien Singh and his followers.  Khan is a genetically engineered superman—bred to be a soldier—who, during the Eugenics Wars on Earth, went from soldier to brutal tyrant who controlled about a quarter of the Earth.  He tries to take over the Enterprise and relaunch his conquest of humanity, but is foiled by Kirk.  Kirk maroons Khan and his followers, including a member of his crew who fell in love with Khan, on Ceti Alpha V, where both Kirk and Khan hope that Khan will develop a new and vibrant society.  Khan views Ceti Alpha V as a challenge and looks forward to it, while Kirk has saved the Federation from a potentially grave threat.

Fast forward some years and a disaster later, and the stage is set for these two enemies to find one another again.

Impressions

The visuals in this film are pretty impressive by my standards, even now, though to many the effects seem dated.  It’s worth noting that the effects were not the emphasis of the film.  Nevertheless, the old model technique holds up well here, in part due to a slower and more majestic type of space combat.  The Enterprise and Khan’s stolen Reliant are not nimble fighters, or even destroyers; they are massive capital ships with a slower, stately movement which brings to mind the sailing vessels of the 17th and 18th centuries, complete with devastating broadsides as the ships maneuver into range.  For filming purposes, the models were stationary while the cameras moved, and all of the damage to the two ships was simulated, as the models were very expensive.  The Reliant, by the way, was the first Federation starship shown on film or television which was not a Constitution-class vessel—it became the basis for the Miranda class vessels seen in The Next Generation.

The nebula effect, where the final battle between Khan and Kirk takes place was beautifully realized.  I have no idea, of course, what the inside of a nebula might look like, though I suspect that they aren’t anywhere near as exciting as most science fiction makes them out to be.  However, the visuals were amazing.  They were created using a tank of water with injections of latex and ammonia, along with colored lighting.

While the look of the Enterprise itself is unchanged from the first movie—in fact, the Enterprise model is the same one in both movies—the look of the crew and their uniforms and the ship interiors is a bit different.  Harve Bennett, the producer who took over Star Trek II, wanted a more nautical feel, and he feared that the television series’ uniforms would appear dated.  Other nautical touches include a boatswain’s call and a ship’s bell, giving the movie a distinct look and feel which would be retained for the movies into The Next Generation‘s forays onto the big screen.

Musically, the movie faced a bit of a challenge:  how do you follow up Star Trek‘s Jerry Goldsmith score while keeping your budget low?  Paramount solved the problem by bringing in a 28 year old composer, James Horner, who composed a terrific orchestral score without reference to the music of the first film.  Instead, it uses the iconic sound of the original series, translated to a full orchestra, to open the movie, which then segues into a motif which, during the course of the movie, becomes Kirk’s theme.  The Enterprise, Khan and Spock also get themes of their own—the Enterprise a softer version of Kirk’s theme and Khan a stirring percussive bass theme.

The actors do a fine job in this movie.  The true standout is Ricardo Montalban as Khan Noonien Singh—he’s not just a super-intelligent and super-strong would-be conqueror in this movie; he’s a hate-filled avatar of vengeance, and Montalban’s scenery-chewing performance probably makes the film (and accounts for the Online Film Critics’ Society’s designation of Khan as the tenth greatest movie villain of all time).  Montalban takes some relatively bad lines, such as “Revenge is a dish best served cold.  And it is very, very cold in space” and turns them into signature aspects of his character.  His performance is even more impressive when you realize that he never appeared in the same shot with Shatner, and his halves of the conversations between the two men—performed over starship viewscreens or communicators—were actually run with a script girl.

The big three—Shatner, Nimoy and Kelley—also turn in above-average performances and really seemed to understand exactly what was going on thematically in the story.  Shatner’s often-lampooned over-acting is absent here, instead replaced by a warmly human (and vulnerable) performance.  Nimoy’s got Spock down pat, and Kelley’s Bones just seemed to get better with age.  James Doohan, as Scotty, turns in an impassioned performance which showcases more of the actor’s range than is commonly visible.  Walter Koenig’s Chekov shines as well, though as Reliant’s first officer he’s got more screen time than many of the “secondary” characters.

The other notable performances come from new-comers to the Star Trek universe.  Bibi Besch gives an absolutely delightful performance as Carol Marcus, the scientist in charge of the Genesis Project—and a former girlfriend of Kirk’s, who “forgot” to tell Kirk about their son.  She projects intelligence paired with beauty, and she has a serenity and a presence which implies that she is a formidable person and leader in her own right.  Kirstie Alley, in her first film role as Spock’s protege Lieutenant Savik, gives something of a mixed performance—though apparently that’s not really her fault.  Savik was supposed to be of mixed Vulcan and Romulan heritage, and quite young—and hence given to displays of emotion.  Unfortunately, none of that background made it onto the screen, which leaves the viewer with the impression that Alley’s Savik is pretty emotional for a Vulcan.  On the other hand, viewed as a character with imperfect emotional control, someone who aspires to Vulcan logic and lack of passion but isn’t there yet, Alley’s performance is nicely nuanced.  It’s a pity that the movie didn’t make that clear, because otherwise Savik’s emotions are rather puzzling.

For a child of the sixties and seventies, there are a number of interesting casting details in this movie.  Scotty’s nephew is played by Ike Eisenmann, who played Tony in Disney’s Escape to Witch Mountain and its sequel Escape From Witch Mountain, as well as a number of ABC’s after-school specials (“you can do it, Duffy Moon!”).  Kirk’s son is played by Merritt Butrick, and he appeared on the short-lived but quite memorable television series Square Pegs.  Finally, Judson Scott, who plays Joachim, a young right-hand man to Khan, appeared in the short-lived science fiction series The Phoenix.

There are two major thematic elements in the film.  First, there’s Kirk’s concern with the aging process, which is paired with his refusal and inability to face his own, or anyone else’s, mortality.  Then there’s Khan’s crazed obsession with revenge, with the obvious and intentional parallels with Moby Dick.  Both themes are well-developed and help to give the movie a great deal of emotional intensity and complexity.  The themes also intersect nicely, with Khan doubling as a symbol and harbinger of death, thereby bringing the two themes into close proximity.

The aging theme is significantly advanced by a wonderful scene early in the movie between Bones and Kirk, and Bones’ birthday present of authentic eyeglasses (to accompany aged Romulan ale) becomes a prop which carries through the film (Spock gives Kirk a copy of A Tale of Two Cities, which might be regarded as a foreshadowing of Spock’s self-sacrifice).  Death, of course, is tied into the aging theme as well, and Starfleet’s training exercise—the Kobayashi Maru simulation—is designed to teach young officers how to face and deal with the “no-win situation” in which death is inevitable.  Of course Kirk cheated the exercise by changing the simulation’s programming, and he is forced to confront death head-on when, at the end of the movie, Spock’s sacrifice saves the ship but kills him.  The death of an engineering ensign, a favorite of Scotty’s, presages Spock’s death, and Khan himself is a symbol of death and destruction as well.  Death and aging are woven into the movie from its beginning.

Khan’s obsession with revenge upon Kirk is much like Captain Ahab’s obsession with Moby Dick, the great white whale which cost him his leg.  Indeed, a copy of Moby Dick is prominently displayed in the ruined Botany Bay, where Khan makes his home on the ruined Ceti Alpha V.  As if that weren’t enough, Khan’s death speech is a near-word-for-word duplicate of Ahab’s impassioned speech at the end of Moby Dick.  Khan explicitly rejects the idea that, with both Reliant and Genesis, he can simply leave the crippled Enterprise behind and claim victory.  Instead, for the sake of vengeance, he pursues the crippled Enterprise into a nebula which eliminates his advantages of functioning shields, sensors and warp drive—leading to the death of his entire crew.

The ending of the film doesn’t feel like a doom-and-gloom, death-comes-for-us-all-in-the-end kind of ending, however.  Instead, the death and aging theme hits the rebirth element which was lurking in the background all the while.  The film leaves you with a rather uplifting message in which Kirk states “I feel young” while gazing out on the brand new world brimming with new life where a dangerous nebula had been.  The transformation from aging and death to birth and renewal comes from Spock’s heroic act of self-sacrifice.  That self-sacrifice is his own answer to the no-win scenario, and so it is a stirring affirmation of the human spirit in the face of death, as well as a triumph over that very no-win situation.  Spock’s death also forces Kirk to confront death—and thereby to grow and develop as a person.

One of the other aspects of the movie which keeps the aging process from being a wholly bad thing is the way in which age and experience trump youth and a lack of experience every time.  The knowledgeable and experienced Kirk manages to force the Reliant to drop its shields from the Enterprise’s bridge, and Khan, who’s never commanded a starship before, can’t get them raised again.  Kirk and Spock concoct a code on the fly which deceives their enemies.  Spock suggests that they lure the Reliant into a nearby nebula, where the less-damaged Reliant will lose its advantages.  Kirk’s superior knowledge and experience of tactics gives the advantage there to the Enterprise, and even the killing blow is dealt by Chekov, a weapons specialist, instead of Sulu, who—as a helmsman rather than a weapons officer—isn’t quite capable of finishing the kill before Chekov returns to duty.

It’s worth mentioning that the development process of this movie was unusually long and convoluted, and may have contributed to some of the plot elements which made their way onto the big screen.  Basically, Paramount was decidedly unhappy with Star Trek: The Motion Picture.  They spent a lot of money and started an enormous marketing campaign, which included toys, a novel, a comic book, and happy meals, among other things, and that film’s lackluster critical and commercial response nearly killed the franchise.

Any rational view of Star Trek: The Motion Picture would have to conclude that it was a commercial success.  It broke the box office records for the weekend opening gross, for example.  However, the process of bringing it to the screen took over four years, numerous script re-writes, and a diversion into the idea of an updated television series featuring a second five-year mission (called Star Trek Phase II).  During that development process, the cost of the project tripled.  And in light of the massive success of Star Wars, the big shots at Paramount can perhaps be excused for being disappointed with the performance of Star Trek I.  Some of the negative critical reception focused on the first movie’s emphasis on special effects and lack of story.

Paramount essentially fired Roddenberry (under the guise of moving him up in the hierarchy) and brought in Harve Bennett to script and write the sequel, and they reduced the size of the budget enormously.  A new director, a new producer, an emphasis on cutting costs…and the result is a movie which is visually very different from its predecessors, and which emphasizes themes foreign to the upbeat and optimistic (if seldom light-hearted) original series or its successor The Next Generation.  Take it how you will—and I do love the optimistic view of the future in Roddenberry’s vision—but you would probably have a hard time getting anyone to seriously contend that this is not the best of the Star Trek movies.

The death of Spock, one of the key elements of the movie, actually came about because the promise of a good death scene was the only way Paramount could lure Leonard Nimoy into doing another Star Trek movie.  Nimoy had no interest in the proposed Phase II series, and wanted Spock to go out in a blaze of glory—he apparently felt that the series was done.  Paramount and Bennett hedged their bets, however, by bringing in Savik, another Vulcan, and the Genesis conceit gave Paramount an easy way to reset the board if that proved necessary.

With all that good stuff, you might be wondering at this point what on earth I have against the movie.  You may recall I mentioned some scripting issues, and they are definitely there.  I’ve already mentioned the stilted and in some cases truly terrible dialogue the script puts in Khan’s mouth, and only Montalban’s performance avoided that trap.  And the finished movie’s failure to identify Savik as half-Vulcan is pretty close to unforgivable; Savik openly cries during the course of the film, something no Vulcan would ever do.  Chekhov recognizes Khan when he encounters him, but Chekov wasn’t on the show (and presumably not serving on the Enterprise) when Kirk first encounters Khan.  Khan’s taking of the Reliant is not shown on-screen, and you don’t find out what happened to its crew (marooned on Ceti Alpha V) until several scenes later, when it is mentioned in a throw-away line.  The Kobayashi Maru simulation, which is perhaps the emotional core of the film, is something Kirk cheated when he took it—but we subsequently discover that he only cheated on his third try.  That implies, of course, that Kirk did face death and the no-win situation the first and second times he took the test, thereby neatly eviscerating the film’s primary theme.  There are minor things like this peppered throughout the script, and they do detract a bit from the movie.

Wrap-up

Still and all, The Wrath of Khan is a wonderful ride.  It has plenty of surprises the first time you see it, but retains its emotional power when you see the film a second (or third or…) time.  For the most part, Star Trek II gets everything right, and it’s well worth taking a look if you enjoy science fiction, Star Trek, or character-driven adventure movies.

A Flight of Fancy: #24, Brazil

Posted in best science fiction, Film, Movies, Science Fiction, Top Fifty Films with tags , , , , , , , , , on February 21, 2012 by top50sf

1985

Director:  Terry Gilliam

Cast:  Jonathan Pryce, Robert De Niro, Katherine Helmond, Ian Holm, Bob Hoskins, Michael Palin, Ian Richardson, Peter Vaughan, Kim Greist, Jim Broadbent

Introduction     Plot Summary     Impressions     Wrap-up

My rating:  Class B (2/7, a hot white star).  Dense and complex, but leavened with a wry and quirky sense of humor, Brazil is an amazing visual and thematic accomplishment.

Introduction

Many of us have fond memories of Monty Python, an absurd British comedy television series structured as a sketch show but ably assisted by Terry Gilliam’s animations into a sort of stream-of-consciousness flow from sketch to sketch.  So I was expecting this film, directed by Terry Gilliam and featuring Michael Palin, one of the original members of the Monty Python troupe, to be funny and touching and absurd and somewhat disturbing, much like Gilliam’s first feature-length film Time Bandits.

I definitely got all of the above, but one thing this film is not, by any traditional approach, is science fiction (yes, yes, I’m linking to my own discussion of what science fiction is).  It is a dystopian satire, certainly, but it’s much more of a fantasy than it is a science fiction film, and my disappointment in that probably colored my reaction to the movie.

That said, it is a good movie, even if it isn’t really science fiction in my book.  It did extremely well in Europe, though the North American box office receipts were rather weak; like many of the films I’ve reviewed here, however, it achieved something of a cult favorite status in subsequent years.  Some of the poor box office take is a product of the acrimonious relationship between director and studio, and that definitely affected how the movie was publicized.

Gilliam filmed the story exactly the way he wanted it.  Universal Studios, however, felt that the film was, at 142 minutes, too long, and they wanted a happy ending for it.  Gilliam refused; Universal shelved the movie.  After a year, Gilliam took out a full page ad asking when it would be released.  Gilliam and Universal compromised, and Gilliam cut 11 minutes from the film, and added an ending sequence including white clouds in a blue sky and the reprise of the tune Aquarelo do Brazil, one of the film’s recurrent musical motifs.  You could write reams about how the dispute came about, but it’s fascinating to me that a film about how the modern world grinds down the individual using the tools of bureaucracy to stifle dreams and creativity was itself an apparent victim of the very process it depicts.

Plot (Contains Spoilers)

Short summary:  Boy doesn’t like his life.  Boy does like his dreams, though, in which he loves Girl.  Then Boy meets the real-world Girl, and everything goes horribly wrong.  Girl rejects Boy.  Boy takes new job to find out more about Girl.  Girl gets branded as a terrorist.  Boy uses his government position to save girl.  Government decides Boy is a terrorist.  Boy and Girl flee.  Boy is captured while Girl is killed.  Boy is tortured.  Boy goes insane.

Setup:  The lead character is Sam Lowry, a man who works as a government clerk in the Ministry of Information where he seems to be the only competent worker, and upon whom his supervisor relies to get things done and fix problems.  His mother is at least well-connected, and probably rich, and she wants more out of life for Sam than he does—she arranges promotions for him, attempts to ignite his ambition, and throws her friend’s daughter in his path.  Sam’s dream life, however, is anything but that of a lowly clerk in an oppressive and colorless society; he is a winged, armored warrior who flies to the rescue of a beautiful woman and battles monsters to save her.

Things begin to go wrong when the government goes after a suspected terrorist, Archibald “Harry” Tuttle.  Thanks to a fly in the typewriter, the government issues the orders for Archibald Buttle instead, and Buttle subsequently dies in the custody of the Department of Information Retrieval (at the hands of Lowry’s old friend Jack Lint, in fact).  Lowry decides to deliver the widow’s refund for the wrongful Department of Information Retrieval fees in person, and sees that her upstairs neighbor is Jill Layton, quite literally the woman of his dreams.  She wants nothing to do with him, and she pursues the issue of Buttle’s death in custody on her own.  Meanwhile Lowry comes in contact with the terrorist Tuttle, who is a renegade air conditioner repairman who fixes Lowry’s air conditioning without government sanction.  Lowry, stymied in his attempts to get information on Jill, prompts his mother to arrange a promotion to the Department of Information Retrieval, where he will be able to access the information on Jill Layton in the government’s archives.

At this point the stage is set, and the disaster is probably already evident to you as these disparate strands come together.  I haven’t mentioned some things which are important—Jack Lint, one of Lowry’s friends, works in Information Retrieval as a torturer, and the Department’s head is an old friend of Lowry’s father, for example.  Lowry’s mother is a vain and fashionable woman who undergoes plastic surgery the way some women buy shoes.  But you’ve got the basics, at any rate, so we can move on to my impressions.

Impressions

As I mentioned in the introduction, I came into this film expecting a standard science fiction film with some humor and some wry twists; what I got was an Orwellian (more on that in a bit) vision of a bureaucracy gone mad—and madness is, without question, a central issue in the film.  I’m not sure why this movie was on the list of the Top Fifty Science Fiction films of all time, to be honest—it’s not that it’s not a good film, but rather that it’s a dystopian vision of the now.  Dystopias have a long history in science fiction, and many people associate the word with science fiction.  But in my book, this film is much closer to fantasy—it’s even called a fantasy in many of the press releases and publicity material.  So the movie was, through no fault of it or Terry Gilliam, something of a disappointment to me.

However, viewed in its own right, the movie is a phenomenal piece of art.  By turns funny, touching, absurd (in both good and bad ways), and complex, the film is a really solid effort in Gilliam’s “Imagination Trilogy” (preceded by the excellent Time Bandits and followed by The Adventures of Baron Munchausen), in each of which Gilliam explores imagination versus reality in a different way, and from the viewpoint of a different age as well.

The visuals in the film are stunning.  Everything in Sam Lowry’s dream life is larger than life, colorful, and full of motion.  His office, on the other hand, and for that matter most of the places in the real world, are colorless, drab and utilitarian.  The only exception is his mother and her home, which are, much like Sam’s dreams, big (in a metaphorical sense—Katherine Helmond was certainly not big) and bold and a riot of color and style.  Jill, Sam’s dream girl, is a striking woman, even with her hair cut short, and when the real Jill turns out to be a rough and tough truck driver, even her vehicle is big and bold.

Brazil’s set design is definitely unique and idiosyncratic.  Sometimes described as “retro-futurism,” Gilliam has commented that he wanted the look of the film to capture the entire Twentieth Century compacted down to a single moment, and also to look like the 1980s as it might be imagined by someone in the 1940s.  As a result, visually the old and the new coexist peacefully, typewriters beside computer screens.  The bizarre juxtapositions create some of the movie’s absurd impressions and give the film a unique look and feel.

One of the more bizarre aspects of the visual nature of the film is the ductwork.  Nearly every scene, with the exception of those which take place in the Ministry of Information, includes exposed ductwork of various types.  There’s a “commercial” in the opening segment of the film for ducts which can be selected to suit any customer’s preference.  The ducts are not just a striking visual, though; they tie into the plot because it’s Lowry’s air conditioning unit, ducts and all, which malfunctions and brings him into contact with the suspected terrorist Archibald Tuttle.  Gilliam doesn’t put things in just for the look of them—the ducts may well be symbolic and are closely tied in to the advance of the plot.

It is worth noting that the Ministry of Information was filmed in an old grain mill; according to some sources, it is now an IKEA furniture store.  Make of that what you will, in light of the movie’s themes.

The music—a light and airy orchestral score—is wildly inappropriate for a tragedy, and yet it fits the themes and the tone of the film entirely too well.  Gilliam picked Aquarela Do Brazil, commonly known simply as Brazil in the English-speaking world, as his thematic leitmotif, but it was a good choice.  The song is upbeat, opening with a swelling sequence of horns, and then invoking a swift drum beat.  The composer, Ary Barroso, wanted “to free the samba away from the tragedies of life.”  Given the way the film turns out, using the song and indeed naming the film for it seems entirely fitting, after all.

The performers do a more than simply good job, and it’s hard to pick any as better than the others.  But Katherine Helmond brings her trademark insouciance, beauty and comic timing to her role as Sam Lowry’s mother.  She even manages to make a hat shaped like a boot look both good and natural.  Michael Palin is a standout as the joyful torturer who loves his work, and Robert De Niro brings a sort of everyman quality to his role as the renegade air conditioner repairman cum resistance fighter.  The ubiquitous Ian Holm also does a very nice job with his role as Lowry’s hapless supervisor in the Ministry of Information.  Jonathan Pryce, in the lead as Sam Lowry, really shines in all aspects of the role, from projecting quiet desparation and despair to at least the intention of action as well as bewilderment and confusion.

While in some ways the story is a simple one—and it really is a boy-meets-girl sort of story set against a backdrop of tyranical government bureaucracy, the intersection of the two plot lines inevitably leading to tragedy—it is not told in a simple way, and for that matter the thematic implications of the story are anything but simple and straight-forward.  There’s a lot going on in the background of the shots, for example, that advances the story.  A half-heard interview might contain critical information; a fleeting glimpse of a sign or poster might have a slogan that helps to set the tone and make the why of the events occurring on-screen sensible.  In other words, you have to pay attention and work to keep up.  I’m not saying that you’ll never realize that the Department of Information Retrieval is, among other things, government-sponsored and controlled torture and interrogation, as a point like that is too fundamental to the film to let the viewer miss it.  But you may not realize it at first, and it might be a considerable surprise when you get to the end of the film.  There is little doubt in my mind that this film would repay a second and third viewing.

Among the other themes in Brazil, there’s a strong thread of paranoia and over-heated response to terrorism which may strike a chord with modern viewers.  At the Ministry of Information, for example, there’s a sign on the wall which reads “Be safe:  Be suspicious.”  Or how about “Mind that parcel.  Eagle eyes can save a life.”  For anyone who’s ever spent time in an airport in the wake of September 11, 2001, that’s a chilling echo of the things you hear and see these days.  Then there’s two posters which evoke 1984 and Big Brother:  “Don’t suspect a friend, report him.”  I immediately thought of the TSA’s slogan “If you see something, say something.”  Gilliam wisely includes the terrorists’ explosions without explaining who is responsible; the ambiguity behind the terrorism actually seems to drive the plot forward.

Another idea which may strike some viewers as chillingly prophetic is the government’s position that wrong-doers must pay for their own torture and incarceration.  In the hands of a government which seems less interested in fairness and more in the absolute letter of the law, and which regards wasting government time and paper as a crime worthy of torture, the point is perhaps less comically absurd than it is frightening.  One of the guards recommends to Lowry that he not resist too much, because it will destroy his credit rating….  This system is also why Lowry is in the Buttles’ apartment in the first place, as Buttle—wrongly arrested instead of Tuttle—was charged for his imprisonment and torture, and the government must give the money back to his widow since it isn’t entitled to it.

At least the government in Brazil is still a believer in truth, as the refund of Buttle’s funds suggests.  But Gilliam isn’t painting a picture of an evil government out to get its own citizens; he is instead showing a government and a society which is needlessly bureaucratic, and which grinds down the individual and crushes their dreams.  He uses Orwellian symbolism, certainly (he considered giving the film the title 1984-1/2 according to some sources), and the use of torture over a waste of paper and government time is clearly overkill—but in the end, the story is intended as a metaphor for Gilliam’s feeling that the modern world has a way of grinding the individual down and rendering him or her a mere cog in the machine.  And the only escape is fantasy….

At the end of the film, when Jack is torturing Sam, the tool in his hands is a very old-fashioned device indeed: it is inserted into the nose and pushed up into the brain, severing the frontal lobe.  In other words, it’s a tool for a frontal lobotomy.  Arguably, and in spite of my initial impression that Brazil is actually about Sam Lowry’s psychotic break from reality with tragic consequences for everyone around him, Lowry is completely sane—albeit taking great risks in the name of love and attaining his dreams—right up to the end of the film.  It is, instead, society itself which is insane.  That social insanity, of course, is why comic absurdities crop up throughout the movie.

Lowry’s insanity, and his visions of an escape from the torturers—including the renegade air conditioner repairman becoming a resistance fighter who winds up dissolving into a flurry of paperwork—is the closest thing Gilliam could give us to a happy ending.

Wrap-up

All in all, Brazil is a funny and yet sad and disturbing film.  I’m glad I watched it, and it was entertaining and thought-provoking.  Given a little time, I’ll probably watch it again to see what I missed and how time alters the meanings I take from the film.  That, I think, is some of the highest praise I can give a movie.

However…the movie’s place in the Top Fifty Science Fiction films is, to me at least, not quite right.  Okay—it’s a dystopia.  Dystopias are often science fiction.  And yet this film is a work of pure imagination without any real reference to scientific advances, scientific concepts, or science.  That isn’t a bad thing; it’s merely an issue of categorization, and it’s coming from a self-confessed science fiction geek who almost literally read his way through the public library’s science fiction card catalog entry.  So it’s a great movie, but it’s not a great science fiction movie.

Man vs. Empire: The Chronicles of Riddick

Posted in Film, Movies, Science Fiction with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 30, 2012 by top50sf

Detour: The Chronicles of Riddick

The Chronicles of Riddick is, of course, yet another detour off our roadmap of the Top 50 Science Fiction Films of All Time.  Still, it’s quite a bit of fun…

2004

Director:  David Twohy

Cast:  Vin Diesel, Colm Feore, Thandie Newton, Judi Dench, Karl Urban, Alexa Davalos, Linus Roache, Nick Chinlund, Keith David

Introduction     Plot Summary     Impressions     Wrap-up

My rating:  Class F (4/7, a hot white star).  As action movies go, this one has a lot going for it.  As science fiction movies go, it’s a little weak.  But it’s jaw-droppingly gorgeous, the action never stops, and some of the performers are better than merely good, which makes up for a relatively silly story.

Introduction

Okay, so you’ve got Vin Diesel, somewhere between $105 and $120 million dollars, and an idea for an epic science fiction story set in the same universe as the sleeper science fiction horror hit Pitch Black featuring the anti-hero from that movie.  Just for kicks, throw in some amazing actors with substantial theater chops like the incomparable Dame Judi Dench and the superlative Colm Feore, as well as fan favorites Karl Urban, Thandie Newton, and Keith David.

How could this possibly go wrong?

Go wrong it does, and it’s a gloriously stupid action film which makes the most of its settings from a visual perspective and ignores their potential for a thoughtful film.  It’s big, dumb, and violent, a celebration of man’s viciousness and his (and her) killer instincts, but it’s also a fun ride, and I enjoyed the movie.

It didn’t do so well at the box office, mind you.  It grossed about $57 million domestically, and given its costs, that isn’t good.  When the world-wide take is added in, it may have been a break-even sort of thing, but the DVD sales for the movie have been good—so good, in fact, that Twohy and Diesel are hot to make a sequel, and the film has spawned a game and an animated direct-to-DVD film.  On the other hand, critical response was almost uniformly negative.

As I mentioned in the side bar when I first decided to review this film, I consider it something of a must-see for science fiction fans, and I was stunned to learn that one of the Wretched Excess Crew hadn’t seen the movie.  It was Mark, in case you were wondering, who has a penchant for horror movies, better taste in movies than I’ll ever have, and a discerning, critical eye.  I was honestly expecting him to be partially stunned and partially enthralled, and that didn’t quite work out—he felt like it wasn’t dumb enough.  That reinforces my perception that this is a movie without any real redeeming features once you get past the action and the visuals.

I should mention that I watched and am reviewing the director’s cut, one of three versions of the film.  The director’s cut includes Riddick‘s visions of Furya, his homeworld, and a slightly different ending, as well as some moments with a female bounty hunter, which are not present in the theatrical or television releases (though the television release does have footage not included in the theatrical release).

Plot (Contains Spoilers)

Short summary:  A brutal culture of conquerors, the Necromongers, believe that they are destined to reach and live in the Underverse, “a constellation of dark new worlds,” and a place where, in the Necromonger religion—and perhaps in reality—death has no meaning.  The armies and armada of the Necromongers reach Helion Prime, a world which shares its sunlight with a cluster of other worlds in the system (no, I’m not sure what that means, either, and I’ve seen the movie—it seems to be more than an acknowledgement that the planets of the Helion system share the same sun), where one of the Elementals, a culture of calculating foreseers with either enhanced abilities or undetectable technology decide to intervene in the conflict to save themselves, since they believe that their world is next on the Necromonger assault plan.

That intervention takes the form of hiring a bounty hunter to capture Riddick, the last of the Furyans, and the person that the Elemental Aereon believes will be the one to kill the Lord Marshal and end the Necromonger threat.  The sprawling plot begins with Riddick’s capture of the bounty hunter Toombs and theft of his ship, and then proceeds to Helion, then to Crematoria, and finally back to Helion for a climactic finish.  Along the way we meet Lord Vaako, a Necromonger who longs for advancement and who is manipulated by his equally ambitious wife, as well as Kira, a girl who looked up to Riddick like a brother after their experiences in the previous film Pitch Black.  We also hear a bit of the backstory, learning that the current Lord Marshal led a brutal assault on Furya, attempting to kill each male Furyan, because a seer had prophesized that the Lord Marshal would be killed by a Furyan.

Impressions

Visually, there’s little like this movie in the annals of science fiction—and yet, at the same time, the gothic and overly-ornamented style of the film does call to mind both the Di Laurentis-Lynch Dune film and the SyFy Channel’s miniseries of the same name—though I might have called those films baroque as opposed to gothic.  The dark metal buildings are decorated with ornate statues, and everywhere you look, there’s another surprising aspect to the buildings, the ships, the costuming—most of it centered on the Necromonger craft and armor.  That said, the planets each have their own style as well, from the somewhat austere forms of the Helion cities to the frozen wastes of B.V.6 to the alternately frozen and then burning landscape of Crematoria.  It’s obvious that they spent a lot of money trying to get the look of the film right, and they succeeded admirably.  It’s a gorgeous film.

The effects are, in general, pretty good, and they’re woven into the film seamlessly.  Almost every “wow” moment feels like it belongs there, and wasn’t just put there to look good or impressive—though the story was clearly distorted to fit those things in, a point I’ll return to later in the review.  About the only failure anywhere in the effects category comes on the prison world of Crematoria, where there are some prison dog-things, or possibly tiger-things, which look very, very fake.  I found the shimmer in the air under moving ships interesting, and truly enjoyed the sunrise on Crematoria and the visualization of the soul which shows up near the beginning and the end of the film.

The music is probably supposed to sound inspiring, and it has a certain sweeping grandeur, but it also has a been-there-done-that aspect to it; it’s just another orchestral science fiction theme, as it were, and not one by John Williams.  It is dark, and it does convey a martial tone, though, so it gets the job done without being particularly memorable.

Before I address the performances, it’s probably necessary that I mention the dialogue.  Frankly, it’s terrible.  Consider this one:

Dame Vaako:     I’ve always wondered, can an air Elemental fly? Now do me a favor. Calculate the odds of you getting off this planet alive… and now cut them in half.
Aereon:  No, we can’t fly. But we do glide very well.

Or this:

Riddick:  You said it’s all circling the drain, the whole universe. Right?
Imam:  That’s right.
Riddick:  Had to end sometime.

Or this:

Riddick:  Been a long time since I smelled beautiful.

So…you might be getting the impression that I’m not impressed by the script and the dialogue.  You’re right, and that has an impact on the performers—it’s tough for an actor to sell drivel like this.  And as a result, only Judi Dench’s character Aereon really shines, though to be fair Dench’s should-be-patented no-nonsense clipped delivery—oh so very upper crust British, thank you very much—works perfectly with her character.  But as for the rest of the performers…well, they do the best they can with what they’ve got, with few standouts in the group.

Colm Feore doesn’t have much to work with, and that’s a shame, because he’s a very good actor and you don’t get to see his true potential in this movie.  Alexa Davalos does a remarkably good job—she gets to be mad at, and simultaneously hero-worship, Riddick, and she delivers one of the film’s few really solid performances.  Karl Urban turns in a nice performance, though his character, a sort of cut-rate Lord MacBeth, is not very well-drawn.  Thandie Newton, a beautiful woman who normally does a great job with her roles, struggles here in the part of the conniving, scheming Dame Vaako, at some points doing a creditable job and at others failing to deliver a convincing performance.  Finally, the hapless Toombs is portrayed by Nick Chinlund with a wry aplomb.  Strangely, he and Diesel exhibit a comfortableness with one another which comes through loud and clear on the screen, in spite of the fact that they’re enemies—it feels almost like they’re frenemies instead, or that under different circumstances they would get along quite well.

That just leaves Vin Diesel to consider.  The Riddick character is a cold-blooded killer who’s been chased around the universe and who always puts himself first.  That’s not much of a character, from an actor’s perspective.  He’s quick with a quip or a wry comment, and the character is rather intelligent—manipulating bounty hunters, for example, to get what he wants—as well as arrogant.  Diesel pulls off the intelligent and arrogant parts without much trouble, but doesn’t really come off as a cold-blooded killer who cares only about himself, which is not entirely his fault—Riddick is more properly an antihero than he is genuinely evil, at least in this film.  Diesel shines in the action sequences, and while a good portion of the movie calls for ridiculously superhuman performance from the Riddick character, Diesel makes you feel like that’s just the kind of stuff Riddick does all the time.

The film opens with an interesting premise, that the Necromongers are a race of evil conquerors, and that sometimes, in order to fight evil, you need “a different kind of evil”—that evil, of course, being the killer Riddick.  Riddick’s actions in the movie, however, are far from evil, especially when compared to those in the predecessor film Pitch Black.  We only see Riddick kill when he needs to defend himself or others, and not even for the sake of vengeance.  The primary motivation for him to journey to Helion Prime in the first place is to get a bounty taken off his head, and he leaves that world to ride to the rescue of Jack/Kira, one of the survivors from Pitch Black who engaged in hero worship of Riddick, and who is imprisoned on Crematoria.  He leaves Crematoria and goes back to Helion Prime, coincidentally bringing down the Necromonger Lord Marshal, to save Kira once again.  In other words, he’s not very evil.

I have called the movie a big dumb action movie, but that’s not entirely fair.  There’s a lot going on in the film.  You have the Necromongers on their quest to the Underverse, killing or converting all who stand in their way.  You have Aereon of the Elementals, who finds a way to aim Riddick squarely at the Necromongers, and who may be aware of the various connections Riddick has with the other players (she certainly knows that he’s one of the few remaining Furyans).  Riddick himself turns out to be quite the manipulator, basically conning the bounty hunter Toombs into taking him exactly where he wants to go.  Then there’s the ambitious Lord Vaako, who wants to be the next Lord Marshal, and his wife Dame Vaako, who isn’t above shoving the current Lord Marshal out of the way.  The only people in the film who are exactly what they appear to be and lack significant ulterior motives or craftiness are the other survivors of Pitch Black, Imam and Jack/Kyra.

I suspect it’s actually hard to keep track of everything that’s going on, as intense as the action tends to get, and realize that there’s a method to all of the ongoing madness, on the first viewing.

Thematically, it’s possible to load this movie up with all sorts of interpretations.  Are the Necromongers a corrupt version of the Catholic Church (possibly leading a crusade against the Muslims, a conclusion bolstered by the name of the character Imam)?  Is Riddick a Christ-figure, who comes back from the dead to take his place at the head of that church?  Is the message of the movie that it takes evil to destroy evil?  Or perhaps that in battling evil, we are doomed to become it?

I don’t feel like any of that’s actually in there.  I think that a good 90% of the film is there because it looked or sounded cool to the people who put it there.  Don’t get me wrong—film is a visual and auditory art form, and it can be character driven, so doing things because they look or sound cool or neat can be a good thing in movies.  The problem here is that the script and the story seem to have taken a back seat to the wow factor, and that distorted the picture.  There were things that simply didn’t need to be in the movie, or obscured the plotlines, but were probably in the movie for the look of the thing.  Some of those things were simply silly (death by teacup, for example).  To put it another way, “cool” is all very well and good when it flows naturally from the story, and not as valuable when it takes precedence over the story.

The other major problem with the film is its lack of emotional depth.  The protagonist, Riddick, doesn’t really care about stopping the Necromongers.  He does care about saving Jack/Kyra, but that really seems to be the only thing he cares about, and as an emotional hook, it shows up fairly late—the Necromongers have already landed on Helion Prime, and Aereon’s schemes (presumably assisted by the rulers of Helion Prime and by Imam, since they seem to be in the mess up to their eyebrows) have already drawn Riddick there before we learn of it.  The viewer’s major reason to care about Helion Prime at all—Imam, a man who loves his family, treats Riddick well and warmly, and reminds him of Jack’s existence—is killed off about thirty minutes into the film.  It’s as if the script goes out of its way to create emotional distance between the film and the viewer.

I will touch briefly on the science in this science fiction epic.  There is none.  There’s not even an attempt to put in the science, or even to make any of this seem believable.

Wrap-up

From the foregoing section, you might think I hated this movie, and yet I gave it a Class F rating.  Well, the fact of the matter is that in spite of all its flaws, I like this movie.  It’s fun.  It’s not deep, and it’s not symbolic, and you probably won’t form an intense emotional attachment to the events on-screen.  But the action is virtually non-stop, Vin Diesel seems to be a very likeable sort of guy, and the underlying universe, with its Necromongers and Elementals and Furyans and “holy half dead” and Underverses and whatnot, is interesting.  It’s a violent, brutal place full of schemers, mind you, and I’d hate to live there, but it’s an amazing place to watch.  At the end of the day, that’s what makes for a fun movie.