Saturday, April 07, 2012

Saturday Morning TV Blogging: Jason of Star Command: "Face to Face" (November 3, 1979)

This week on Jason of Star Command, the Saturday morning Filmation series pulls out a familiar genre convention: “My Enemy, My Ally.”   In this staple of sci-fi television, two enemies must work together to resolve an existential crisis.  It was Geordi and a Romulan officer on Star Trek: The Next Generation’s “The Enemy.”  It was Peter Burke and Urko on Planet of the Apes’ “The Trap.”  Paul Foster and an alien pulled the same trick on UFO’s “Survival,” as well.  Even Land of the Lost saw Rick Marshall and a Sleestak named "S'latch" team-up in "The Hole."

This "My Enemy/My Ally" story universally concerns team work, and more than that, diversity.  A Romulan doesn't believe he can learn anything from a human...but he does, and so forth. Here, the different skill-sets of the people forced to work together prove valuable in overcoming a hurdle.  That hurdle might be a cave-in ("The Trap"), or an inhospitable terrain (the moon in "Survival," or Galorndon Core in "The Enemy.")  

I realize that "diversity" as a concept or virtue has come under heavy fire over the last several years as being "PC," but its merit is obvious in a sci-fi setting: a different (and alien...) background offers a different viewpoint and opinion about survival, and often a different philosophical approach to facing death.  Such qualities are incredibly useful.  It's always better to have more viewpoints and more knowledge, from varying sources, when trying to assure survival. IDIC and all that.

Here, Jason (Craig Littler) and his enemy, Adron (Rod Loomis) are trapped on a planet with a poisonous atmosphere, and must between them share one portable life-support system.  This means that they are literally chained together by the wrists, in a dynamic visual call-back to The Defiant Ones (1958).  

At first, Adron is reluctant to trust Jason, but Jason is optimistic.  “I believe all life is worth saving,” he tells his new friend.  

Finally, Jason gives up his claim on the life support system to help Adron survive, and this softens the alien’s heart.  “It is better to live with brotherhood than hatred,” Adron agrees, noting he must “heal” his conscience after working with the evil Dragos.

Adron also reveals to Jason that Dragos is “amassing” alien power sources so as to invade “the universe,” and that’s where this particular episode leaves off.  Jason and Adron part, and the implication is that Jason is off to stop Dragos' fiendish strategy.

It’s undeniably fun to see the My Enemy/My Ally dynamic re-stated so bluntly on Jason of Star Command, even if the idea is incredibly familiar. 

At least the re-use of  such an old concept gives this installment some philosophical and cerebral heft, so it isn’t just action all the time.  This episode of JOSC doesn't feel as empty as some, as a consequence.

Another nice touch in "Face to Face" is that Adron and Jason are trapped on a “living planet,” one which attempts to kill all invaders, and which starts setting off explosives across the landscape.  At one point, a cave wall comes to life and attempts to crush the duo.  It's one thing to work together in a dangerous environment, it's all together something else when that environment is consciously trying to murder you...

About the only misstep in “Face to Face” is the fact that, once more, Dragos seems to be able to see  and hear everything that is happening to every moment.  How Dragos manages to possess constant universal, inter-dimensional, intergalactic surveillance on his target is a total mystery, and one that the series never explains.

Next week: "Phantom Force."

Friday, April 06, 2012

Cult Movie Review: Jurassic Park (1993)

"If there is one thing the history of evolution has taught us it's that life will not be contained.  Life breaks free, expands to new territories, and crashes through barriers, painfully, maybe even dangerously..."

- Jurassic Park (1993)

In October of the year 1990, the Human Genome Project began mapping the DNA building blocks of humankind, and a new era of genetic science was upon us.  As had been the case with the atom bomb in 1940s and 1950s genre cinema, this dawning chapter in man’s scientific understanding was quickly recognized by intrepid Hollywood filmmakers, and immediately recruited as a template for new silver-screen initiatives.  

Specifically, the “science run amok” horror and sci-fi films of the 1990s -- much like their “don’t tamper in God’s domain” predecessors (Them! [1954] for instance) -- explicitly concerned the idea of a new Pandora’s Box being wantonly and recklessly opened.

And once opened, that box could not be closed…or at least not easily closed. 

Thus genre cinema gave the world such DNA-based horrors as The Island of Dr. Moreau (1996), Mimic (1997) and Deep Blue Sea (1999).  The biggest blockbuster of this brand, however, was undoubtedly Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park (1993), a work based upon the best-selling 1990 novel by Michael Crichton.  According to critic Malcolm W. Brown in his New York Times article “In New Spielberg Film, a Dim View of Science,” – Jurassic Park “revived” the image of Frankenstein in terms of “amoral scientists unleashing forces they can’t control.”

Furthermore, Brown concluded, the film featured an “anti-science message.”

In terms of Jurassic Park’s thematic DNA, the “science run amok” conceit was indeed powerfully vetted, and, yes, it concerned scientists unleashing forces they weren’t able to control.  

Yet the message of the film wasn’t necessarily so much anti-science as pro-responsibility.  The scientists who created the dinosaurs in the film did so explicitly for profit, and because technology made it possible.  In other words, they went climbing a dangerous mountain…because it was there.   

By unleashing the “most awesome force this planet has ever seen” -- namely genetics – the scientists featured in Jurassic Park failed to respect and heed nature itself, much as Brown’s critique suggests.  But what the Spielberg film actually seemed to seek was not a total curtailing of scientific progress, but rather some sense of modesty and judiciousness on the parts of those who chose to tamper in God’s domain. Janet Maslin got it exactly right in her review, noting that Jurassic Park involves “both the possibilities and the evils of modern science.”

Indeed, it would have been remarkably hypocritical for Jurassic Park to eschew science and progress entirely, since the film itself exists, primarily, because of advancements in technology, particularly the new special effects breakthrough of computer generated imagery.  The film thus owes much of its power, even to this day, to its breathtaking dinosaur specimens.  These “living biological attractions” move and roar and rage with a sense of realism previously unseen in the cinema.  The dinosaurs in the film even seem to boast personalities or specific characteristics, from the nobility of the T-Rex to the cunning, cold intelligence of the Velociraptors.  For all intents and purposes, our eyes register these creatures as "alive" and no bad effects exist to undercut that accomplishment.

More to the point, perhaps, the idea underlying Jurassic Park is that “life will find a way,” and that if man chooses to play God by creating new life, he must also possess the modesty to understand that he cannot control that life, once he sets it in motion.  Science even boasts a champion in the film, after a fashion, in the voice of "rock star" mathematician Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum), who hunts for some sign of restraint or modesty from the geneticists, but finds none.  His view of the world -- Chaos Theory -- provides the key to understanding Jurassic Park the amusement park and Jurassic Park, the film.

I often write here on the blog, and in my books, about how a film's visual form should reflect or mirror the content.  I consider this the highest value of the art: revealing to us in images a reflection of the film's theme or meaning.  I admire Jurassic Park so much because Spielberg understands this dynamic perfectly.  Many compositions in the film as imagined by the director showcase the idea of technology as the "monster" to be reckoned with.  Since the film concerns the dangers of relying on technology without first judging technology in terms of how it affects the surrounding landscape, this approach is appropriate.  But lest this approach sound preachy or heavy-handed, Spielberg leavens Crichton’s jargon-laden narrative – one highly reminiscent of Westworld (1973) – with large dollops of visual humor and roller-coaster ride tension.

In short, for all its debate over modern science, Jurassic Park remains a great entertainment: a thrilling, action-packed movie that, while never quite possessing the same cutthroat mentality as the book, nonetheless boasts some unbelievably suspenseful moments.  The T-Rex attack on a tour caravan by night and the hunting of two children in a kitchen by a tag-team of Velociraptors leap to mind in this regard. These scenes retain surprising power, even nearly twenty years after the film was released.  The powerful idea underneath those images is quite resonant: what if man "recreates" with science a being with the power to usurp him, to replace him on the food chain?  The T-Rex attack, and especially the Velociraptor hunt remind us that except by a quirk of destiny, dinosaurs may have "ruled the world."   Is man so foolish and imprudent a creature that he could undo that favorable destiny, even after God "selected" dinosaurs for extinction?

“Creation is an act of sheer will.”

On Isla Nublar, an island close to Costa Rica, InGen CEO John Hammond (Richard Attenborough) has harnessed cloning technology and genetic engineering to create a new breed of dinosaurs.  

Utilizing dinosaur DNA found in mosquito corpses trapped in amber -- and filling in the sequence gaps with frog DNA -- Hammond has brought back to life specimens including a T-Rex, triceratops, brachiosaurus, and even the pack-hunting velociraptors. 

Now, Hammond wants to share his discovery with the world at large, and to that end has created an amusement park for the wealthy, Jurassic Park, where visitors can pay to see the extinct species.  However, an accident involving a Velociraptor and the death of a park worker instigates investor concerns about the safety of the park.  Hammond now needs experts to sign off on the park for his lawyer, Gennaro (Martin Ferrero), and he recruits paleontologist Alan Grant (Sam Neill), paleobotanist Ellie Sattler (Larua Dern) and mathematics expert and chaotician Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum).

These experts are joined at the park by Hammond’s grandchildren, Tim (Joseph Mazzell) and Lex (Ariana Richards), but the first tour goes badly when a high-tech saboteur, Nedry (Wayne Knight) de-activates the park’s safety systems in hopes of stealing trade secrets.  The dinosaurs, including the T-Rex, escape their paddocks as a dangerous storm washes across the island

While Dr. Grant, Tim and Lex attempt to stay alive in the wild park, the others work to re-boot Jurassic Park’s computer systems, a task which is made exponentially more difficult by the fact that the clever – and merciless – velociraptors are now free to hunt.

“You think they'll have that on the tour?

From Jurassic Park’s opening scene, director Steven Spielberg reveals his penchant for visual humor, but importantly, visual humor that buttresses or reflects the movie’s theme.  

As the film opens, for example, we see a group of nervous, armed men standing in a nighttime jungle.  From their expressions, we know that they now face grave danger.  The film then cuts to shots of trees rustling, and leaves swaying as something unseen moves through the shadowy foliage at a high altitude.  

Importantly, this is a shot that, if you boast any familiarity with monster movies, is quite commonplace.  

You’ll see it in Guillermin’s King Kong (1977), for instance, just as Kong is about to appear for the first time and take Dwan (Jessica Lange).   It’s the trademark moment when the monster is about to be revealed, standing high above man, coming into a clearing for his first close-up, essentially.

And yet what emerges from the jungle in Jurassic Park is not a biological monster or beast, as we would expect.  Instead, it’s a man-made machine -- a dinosaur paddock or container -- on a crane.  This shot is our first indication that the dinosaurs are not the true monsters of Jurassic Park.  Rather, that honor goes to technology or science that has been allowed to run amok.

This leitmotif is carried on throughout the film, in a variety of ways.  The protagonist, Alan Grant, for example, is a proud technophobe.  “I hate computers,” he announces early on, and this point of view is reinforced by his experiences on the island.   When Alan is on the amusement park tour, for instance, the computers don’t fail, but the electrified fences do, meaning that dinosaurs are free to escape and endanger him.  He is constantly, throughout the narrative, being imperiled by products of technology, from DNA-enhanced dinosaurs to failed security systems.

Also, during the height of the film’s climactic action, a Velociraptor jumps up on a table in a control room, and bright images from a computer monitor are reflected upon its face.   Superimposed over the dinosaur’s visage, specifically, are the letters representing DNA code: A, C, T, and G.   This shot expresses well the nature of the dinosaur: he's man made; science made.

Once more, the message is clearly that these dinosaurs are not the source of the danger themselves, but that the unrestrained, irresponsible science that created them represents the true menace.  I must admit that I deeply love this particular composition (pictured at the top of the review), because it declares in one still what Jurassic Park concerns: danger created by overreaching science.  You can't blame the animals for being what they are; but you can blame amoral science for bringing these dinosaurs back into the mix.

Genetic science isn't the only kind of "progress" that gets tweaked in this Spielberg film.  In short order, Jurassic Park invites us to peer and gawk at virtual reality gloves, CD roms, driver-less cars and night goggles, even.  The idea seems to be that -- at the time of the film -- we were on the verge of taking a giant step forward in terms of our understanding and application of technology.  We were either going to go forward responsibly and carefully, or chase recklessly behind our science, “just racing to catch up,” as Alan Grant worriedly notes.  Again, it should be noted that this thematic through-line needn’t be seen as being merely anti-science, rather one in favor of the notion that human morality should dictate our scientific investigations.  We must control our tools, not let them control us. 

"Spared no expense," Hammond's near-constant refrain isn't a statement of morality, after all. It's a statement noting that all available resources were utilized.  Thought was not given as to whether they should have been utilized on this endeavor in the first place.  

Still, Hammond in the film, a man much softer and friendlier than his counterpart in the novel, boasts good intentions regarding his amusement park.  Although yes, he wants to make money, what he seeks more deeply is the respect of his audience.  After starting out creating “flea circuses,” he feels desperate to create an attraction with inherent value or merit, hence the dinosaurs of Jurassic Park.  But Hammond has allowed his own insecurities to take over his good sense. He has let his desire to please others short-circuit his sense of  moral responsibility.  Finally, even he can't endorse his own park.  

If "creation is a sheer act of will," as Jurassic Park suggests, then one must pose two additional questions.  First: whose will, in particular, stands behind the act of creation?  And secondly, what is driving that sheer act of will?  Insecurity? Avarice?  If human failings stand at the need to push scientific boundaries to their limits, then we’re all bound for a lot of trouble.  As James Spence wrote in his essay, “What’s Wrong with Cloning a Dinosaur,” human beings boast a “limited capacity to control our own technological innovations.”  

That's okay, so long as we are mindful of it, and take precautions, I suppose.

All of this dialogue about scientific responsibility might have come across as pretentious in the hands of a lesser director. And indeed, one on-the-nose scene with Hammond and Sattler discussing the dangers of the park does play very much that way, and should have been cut back radically. 

But for the most part, Spielberg plays lightly with the film's premise, and incorporates a number of visual jokes.  

One of the funniest, by my estimation, occurs as Lex -- sitting in the cafeteria -- spots a Velociraptor on approach.  She turns to jello, literally, even as she holds a spoon of green jello in her hand.  

The girl and the jello both begin to jiggle at the same time.

The film’s action scenes, furthermore, appear inspired wholly by Chaos Theory.  Events seem to spiral out of control, with each random event causing increasingly dangerously and random results.  Alan rescues little Tim from a car lodged in a tree, for example. They escape the car and the tree, but then the car falls to the ground…over and above them, and they barely survive.  “Here we are…back in the car,” Tim says, and the line is funny because the moment seems unpredictable and spontaneous.  So many moments in Jurassic Park actually play that way, with spontaneous incidents generating chaos and disaster.

Another great in-joke involves a T-rex chasing a car in motion.  We see the dinosaur’s toothy mouth open wide, filling the screen.  Right beneath it reads the legend: “objects in mirror are closer than they appear.”  In some way, this is another lesson about the danger of technology: it can sometimes distance us from that which is menacing...and close-by.

All these witty moments suggest to me that Spielberg had a great deal of fun making Jurassic Park, perhaps because in terms of the heavy lifting, he had a good template in the script by Crichton and Koepp.  The script was solid enough that Spielberg could direct his energy towards creating sharp-as-nail visuals, ones that actively reflected the content, and even had some fun with it.         

“How’d you do this?”

Why does Jurassic Park hold such a powerful grip on our imagination and affection, even after nearly twenty years? 

For me, I know it’s not just Steven Spielberg’s sense of directorial humor, or even the message about morality guiding scientific progress. 

No, it’s the dinosaurs themselves.  

I realize this isn’t true for younger generations, but I grew up during an era when dinosaurs on film invariably disappointed.  They never looked quite real.  Sometimes they appeared...laughable.  They never seemed to move with authenticity, or with the grace and majesty I knew they really, really should possess.

That all changed with Jurassic Park.  When a gorgeous, majestic Brachiosaurus lumbers across the screen at approximately the 20-minute point in this Spielberg film, the secret dream of all dinosaur-lovers is potently fulfilled.  You feel as if you are seeing a real, living, breathing creature, not an over-sized lizard projected over a miniature landscape, or a man in a suit.  No, you are seeing the regal dinosaur as it was meant to be seen.

I still recall the first time I saw that Brachiosaurus scene in Jurassic Park.   It brought a tear to my eye.  In rendering the dinosaurs so beautifully, so nobly, so wondrously, this film understood my unspoken dream as a dino-loving child. One I’d forgotten I’d ever even had, at that point. There’s just something so glorious, so right about the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park, especially in conjunction with John Williams’ rapturous score.  

For me, this movie felt like a destiny fulfilled, somehow.

Because there is not an ounce of phoniness in their physicality, Jurassic Park truly awes.  I don’t want to lavish all the credit to the CGI, either.  Special effects genius Stan Winston (1946 – 2008) created animatronic, life-sized replicas of many dinosaurs and controlled them using cable actuation, rod-puppets, cranes, radio control, hydraulics and whatever else could sell a scene effectively.   

Amazingly, Winston’s mechanical creations blend perfectly with the digital creations of Phil Tippet and Dennis Muren at ILM so that we believe, truly, dinosaurs walk the Earth again.  This idea also gets dramatic visual punctuation in the film.  There's the valedictory image of a real life T-Rex occupying the former space of a T-Rex skeleton, as a banner reading "When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth" flutters before him.  

In short, this is a magnificent passing of the baton, as though a new generation of special effects are supplanting the skeletons of the old one.  Certainly, these dinosaurs ruled the box office in 1993.  And given their outstanding appearance, justifiably so.  When I think of Jurassic Park, I think of a tense, funny, intelligent film about "living biological attracts so astounding" that they indeed captured the "imagination of the entire planet."  

For those of us who wondered after Hook (1991) if Steven Spielberg still had it in him to re-capture the magic of Close Encounters, or Raiders of the Lost Ark, Jurassic Park was our rather definitive answer.

Next Friday: The Lost World: Jurassic Park 2.

Movie Trailer: Jurassic Park (1993)

Sci-Fi Wisdom of the Week

 "God creates dinosaurs. God destroys dinosaurs. God creates man. Man destroys God. Man creates dinosaurs..."

- Jurassic Park (1993), to be reviewed here today.

Thursday, April 05, 2012

CULT TV FLASHBACK #152: Torchwood: "Countrycide" (November 19, 2006)

If Doctor Who met The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974), you might end up with something  like Torchwood’s ultra-violent first season episode, “Countrycide,” an early, dramatic and gory high-point in Russell T. Davies’ TV long-running spin-off.

First aired in the UK in late November of 2006, Torchwood’s “Countrycide” was written by Chris Chibnall and directed by Andy Goddard.  The story finds the intrepid Torchwood team heading out to the isolated and remote Brecon Beacon mountain range to investigate a series of unusual missing persons cases. Specifically, seventeen people have disappeared in the mountains in five months -- all within a twenty mile radius -- and there is no pattern in terms of age, sex, or race.

Led by the dashing Captain Jack Harkness (John Barrowman), new recruit Gwen Cooper (Eve Myles), the team doctor Owen Harper (Burn Gorman), computer expert Toshiko Sato (Naoki Moro) and Ianto (Gareth David Lloyd) set up camp in the remote mountains.  Owen stresses how uncomfortable the country locale makes him feel, and in short order, there's good reason for his discomfort.  Before long, the Torchwood vehicle is stolen, and the group is left to fend for itself at a nearby inn, the abandoned "Tap House.”  

There, the group finds skinned, half-eaten corpses, and also one young survivor who warns of monstrous, implacable attackers.  The Torchwood team suspects that the temporal and spatial “rift” which deposits alien life-forms in Cardiff -- a corollary to Sunnydale’s “Hellmouth” on Buffy the Vampire Slayer -- has mysteriously expanded to include this area in South Wales.

One by one, the team is captured by monstrous, hooded foes, and soon Torchwood’s best and brightest find out that the brand of evil they now face is all human.  Specifically, the locals celebrate a “harvest” every decade, enthusiastically going cannibal in the process. “We’re food,” Tosh realizes, after gazing into a refrigerator filled with human body parts.
After barely surviving an attack by the cannibals, a shocked Gwen comments that this is all “too much,” that interfacing with dangerous aliens is one thing, but facing the human heart of darkness is something else all together…
Incredibly violent and disturbing, “Countrycide” is the closest thing to 1970s savage cinema (The Hills Have Eyes, Deliverance, Texas Chain Saw) that I have seen on television since The X-Files aired the (later banned from network broadcast...) fourth season episode “Home” in 1996.  Bloody and violent, this British cult series unexpectedly tracks off its predictable course and showcases a riveting drama that eschews the paranormal, the supernatural and the alien.   
From the first sequence of a woman driving alone at night and spying a corpse on a lonely country road, “Countrycide” seeks to terrify, unsettle and provoke.  It largely succeeds, in part because of the tremendously effective location shooting.  Several long establishing shots of the Torchwood team operating under gray, roiling skies -- surrounded by inhospitable mountains on every side -- transmit perfectly the isolation and danger of the locale.  

In addition, the episode frequently cuts to P.O.V. shots from hilltops or through window panes gazing at the team; watching unnoticed as Jack and his friends attempt to unravel the mystery.  Tight-framing is utilized during several tense sequences, and the episode also deploys high-angles to help maintain the sense of tension and anxiety throughout the hour.  The visualization here seems much more adroit than many other early episodes of Torchwood, and it's clear that everyone was on the same page in terms of producing the equivalent of a horror movie.
The horror-based film grammar in "Countrycide" fits perfectly with the horror tropes the narrative dutifully marshals.  The group heads into an area of no cell phone reception (convention #1) and learns that the local police are complicit with the atrocities they find (convention #2).  Later the bad guys cut the power in the inn (convention #3), plunging Jack and company into darkness.  And finally, the episode resolves with a Sam Peckinpah-like slow-motion massacre of the villains (convention #4)  in a location that seems to deliberately recall Straw Dogs (1972). 
In terms of horror movies, I have always preferred the “savage cinema” sub-genre because I find it more realistic than some other styles.  The core idea of the savage cinema is that you are living your normal life when you take a wrong turn (into rural Texas, or the Nevada desert, or the mountains) and end up countenancing a kind of horror you could never imagine.  This brand of horror is grounded in real human desperation and insanity.  “Countrycide” dwells on such notions and at every turn, Jack and his team seem outmatched and unprepared to deal with it.
The Torchwood team's lack of understanding about the cannibals in "Countrycide" represents a great spin on the series’ sci-fi premise.  Up to this point, the mysterious Jack seemed to have all the answers.  He could recognize and diagnose crimes as being the results of certain alien incursions, and always devise an appropriate defense.  But here he’s caught off-guard, and “Countrycide” offers the most dangerous engagement yet for his team.  

Like Leatherface in the Chain Saw movies, the crazy cannibalistic locals of this episode seem unable to relate to people as anything but as a resource to be used up.  “He’s meat” says the leader, of one victim.  “Meat has to be tenderized,” he informs Tosh, looking her up and down…but not as a sexual conquest.  Nope, he sees dinner.
“Countrycide” also boasts a truly wicked sense of humor. An early scene set at a roadside hamburger stand suggests some of the mystery to come, and there’s a droll moment wherein Tosh off-handedly tells a story about a friend contracting Hepatitis from eating a burger at a similar establishment.  The reactions from the team members (all dining on burgers at the time…) is priceless.  

Finally, “Countrycide” works so well within the Torchwood continuity because the engagement with the cannibals boasts strong repercussions for the primary characters.  

Isolated by the Torchwood organization's demand for “secrecy,” Gwen is unable to tell her fiancé about the horror she has witnessed here.  Feeling vulnerable and alone afterwards, she turns to Owen for comfort (and sex...), an act which will have repercussions down the line.  The episode also adds another layer to the puzzle of Jack's background.  Here, Harkness reveals to a cannibal that one of his "skills" is...torture.  Jack Harness, Jack Bauer?
At this point, I've finally caught up with the first three seasons of Torchwood, and by my estimation, the series just kept getting better and better each year.  The third season’s “Children of Earth” is one of the most devastating, emotionally-affecting science fiction TV dramas I’ve seen in a long while.  Early on, however, the show wasn’t quite as sure-footed.  “Countrycide” is a notable exception: an extremely savage and disgusting early installment that explodes the carefully established rules of the series, and reveals, rather dramatically, how even with aliens lurking about, the ultimate enemy remains man himself.  

When you reach “Children of Earth,” the third season, you begin to detect that this idea of man's heart of darkness -- so brilliantly vetted in “Countrycide” -- is not a detour…but rather an intentional destination.

Torchwood Season One Promo

Wednesday, April 04, 2012

Pop Art: Fantastic Films Edition

Collectible of the Week: The X-Files Action Figures (McFarlane Toys; 1998)

To coincide with the theatrical release of the first X-Files movie, 1998's Fight the Future, McFarlane Toys manufactured a small line of exquisitely detailed action figures from the film.

Although I have always wished for a more complete and affordable line of X-Files action figures (to include Tooms, the Peacock family, Frank Black, Morris Fletcher, Jose Chung and other high-profile "guest" characters), this movie-based line was certainly a terrific start.

On the back of all the McFarlane Fight the Future figure cards read the following legend: 

"For years, the world has seen reality distorted, facts manipulated and truth hidden.  But there's even more to the story than anyone suspected.  Because no one has been able to see the whole picture until now.  Cherish the past.  Enjoy the present.  Because the truth is coming."

Underneath this warning were featured biographies for the franchise's two stars, Agent Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson) and Agent Fox Mulder (David Duchovny).

For Mulder: "Oxford-educated, brilliant and driven, Agent Fox Mulder was one of the leading investigators in the Violent Crimes division of the FBI, until he requested a transfer to an obscure area of the Bureau known as the X-Files..."

For Scully: "Recruited out of medical school by the FBI, Agent Dana Scully was originally assigned to the X-Files to debunk Agent Fox Mulder's work and report on his finding. Idealistic, intelligent and with strong convictions, Scully soon realized the X-Files contained extraordinary secrets that could not be refuted by scientific interpretation..."

In whole, "Series One" of this "ultra action figure" release included an Attack Alien (replete with club) and the long-clawed, green skinned alien who ripped him to shreds, two versions of Agent Mulder, one in suit and tie, and one in his parka for Antarctica, and two variations of Agent Scully along similar lines.  The characters look very accurate to their appearances on the series/in the film.

I've long considered The X-Files the Star Trek phenomenon of the 1990s, but to finally reach that apex, we definitely need more toys and play sets from the Chris Carter-verse.  And to get those, we need a new film, or a new TV series.

The truth is out there: I'd be in favor of either.


Tuesday, April 03, 2012

The Horror Lexicon #8: Welcome to Prime Time! (The Television Set)

Modern horror films boast a unique and not all together comfortable relationship with television. For a generation of movie brat directors like Spielberg, Dante, Carpenter, or Hooper, the television represents, on a basic level, the avenue through which clips of favorite old movies make it into a new generation's works of art. 

In films such as Halloween (1978), Halloween 2 (1981), Gremlins (1984), and Gremlins 2 (1990), for instance, "old" or "classic films" appear in the body of the new work, thus serving as an important reference point to the action.  The appearance of these beloved Hollywood gems could be a simple way of paying tribute to the "greats." 

Or, on a more meaningful level, the productions that appear on the television sets in these horror films could boast a more complicated, inter-textual relationship with the new work.

For example,  in Halloween, little Lindsay watches a horror film marathon that consists of such classic gems as Howard Hawks' The Thing (1951) and Forbidden Planet (1956).  

Both of these classic films, in some significant manner, relate directly back to the theme of Halloween.  In the case of The Thing, a scientist tries in vain to understand the malevolent alien creature, only to realize (with fatal results...) that it is an implacable, nearly unstoppable monster.  Similarly, in Halloween, Michael Myers cannot be diagnosed by science, but instead must be dealt with as a force of super-nature.  He's the Shape, or the Bogeyman. 

Forbidden Planet, of course, concerns "Monsters from the Id" (the human subconscious), and there's a line of critical thought that Michael, in Halloween, represents a manifestation of Laurie's Id.  She wishes for a man to have all to herself (as she sings), and Michael appears in the foreground of the frame almost simultaneously.  Soon he is killing everyone that Laurie knows, setting up a relationship of bizarre exclusivity between them, just as the song portends: "just the two of us."  

In both instances, the nature of the film featured on the TV in the horror marathon relates to what seems to be occurring on-screen.  This idea is even extended (as a wicked joke) in the 1981 theatrical sequel.  After impossibly surviving six point-blank bullet shots, Michael continues to walk...and kill.  On the television: George A. Romero's Night of the Living Dead (1968).   

In both Gremlins (1984) and Gremlins 2 (1990), director Joe Dante uses films playing on TV such as Rambo: First Blood Part II (1985) not as reflections of the movie's themes, but as in-text influences on Gizmo's growth as a warrior against the other Gremlins.  Gizmo watches TV (to his owner's chagrin), and begins to imitate the heroic behavior he sees championed by the likes of Clark Gable or Sylvester Stallone.  In this case, movie history affects the shape of the narrative, creating "teachable moments."

Importantly, Dante also highlighted moments from the original Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) in Gremlins to telegraph the important action of his story.  Very soon, Kingston Falls (like the film's Santa Mira) would become the fulcrum of an invasion by monstrous creatures.

The specific footage seen in Gremlins is from Body Snatchers' climax, during which Dr. Bennell (Kevin McCarthy) warns passersby on a highway (in vain) that the aliens are already here; that the threat has commenced.  Coming where it does in the story of Gremlins, his warning is just as important to unaware Kingston Falls.  The Gremlins have arrived (and the rules governing their behavior have been broken.)

Many of the same horror movie directors have utilized the television as a portal of evil, one that sits right near the family hearth, in the American living room.  

This was the underlying premise of Hooper's Poltergeist, which saw "The TV People" (really ghosts) invade our reality.   In one very funny moment, Mom Freeling (JoBeth Williams) implores her daughter Carol Anne (Heather O'Rourke) not to look at the static on the television set.  She flips the channel to a station playing a violent war movie instead.

This disturbing cinematic imagery, ostensibly, won't damage Carol Anne's "sight" as much as the static.

Poltergest's brilliant last shot sees the imperiled Freeling family kick a "dormant" TV set out of their hotel room, and then a long, slow camera retraction away from the offending appliance. The implication being that the family would be safe so long as it watching.

Halloween III: Season of the Witch (1982) involves television on an even more fundamental, critical level.  Here, a malevolent inventor, Cochrane (Dan O'Herlihy), plans to send a signal across America's television sets that, when transmitted, will kill a wide swath of innocent children as a Halloween "prank."   Once more, TV is an avenue for absolute horror and destruction, a social critique, perhaps of the very form.  Does TV destroy children's minds, literally?

In 1988, director John Carpenter went even further in They Live.  He began to see widespread "brain death" in America and he attributed it, in part, to the pervasive nature of television in our society.  

Here, aliens beamed a hypnotic signal through the nation's TV sets, one that would lull people into a trance so they would not notice when Yuppie aliens began lapping up all the resources, all the wealth, even all the good-looking women.  TV was viewed, literally, in They Live as the opiate of the masses.  And the "sound bytes" of politicians -- hopelessly vapid platitudes -- were part of the "lulling" effect.

In some fashion, Wes Craven's Shocker (1989) built upon Poltergeist's example and introduced a serial killer, Horace Pinker (Mitch Pileggi) who could enter and exit from the "TV world" into different victims' homes.  

The film's final, stunning, tour-de-force chase through cable television programming gave new meaning to the term "channel surfing."  An example of Craven's brilliant eye for "rubber reality," Shocker was perhaps the ultimate in the horror film's commentary on the dangers of television.

In the 1990s, references back and forth between filmmakers became sort of "in jokes" in many horror films. Kevin Williamson and Wes Craven featured a clip of Halloween in Scream (1996), and in 1998, the Halloween franchise returned the favor by including a clip from Scream 2 (1997).  Talk about cross-pollination.

In the American remake of Ringu, called The Ring (2002), the film's monster, Samara, emerged from the television -- again a portal for evil and destruction.  

Here, the filmmakers comment on the idea in the War on Terror Age that the suffering of millions can be transmitted to the innocent, and even the innocent are impacted negatively through the mere act of watching.

Probably my favorite television-oriented moment in modern horror, however, comes in the sequel A Nightmare on Elm Street III: Dream Warriors (1987).  There, Freddy Krueger (Robert Englund) actually emerges from the television set and kills a fame-seeking girl, Jennifer (Penelpe Sudrow) by jamming her head into the set.  

"Welcome to prime time, bitch," he says, and in some way, both his diabolical bon mot and particular mode of violence seems to presage the coming of reality television, in which TV introduces and then quickly disposes of the likes of Richard Hatch, Omarosa, or Justin Guarini.  They all had their "big break" on the boob tube, and then got spit out.

Horror movies and television have intersected in a number of other films beyond those explored above including Cronenberg's  incredible Videodrome (1983) -- about the total biological blending of man and home video entertainment, Cohen's satirical The Stuff (1985), Demons 2 (1986), Child's Play (1988),  The Seventh Sign (1989) and Wes Craven's New Nightmare (1994).

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: Big Trouble in Little China (1986)

Last Friday, I wrote here about the controversial Dino De Laurentiis version of Flash Gordon (1980), a genre film concerning a dashing American hero uniting an alien world, Mongo and bringing justice to the oppressed citizens there.  

Another one of my all-time favorite cult movies is John Carpenter’s Big Trouble in Little China (1986), a film set entirely on Earth but which nonetheless shares some important qualities with Flash Gordon. 

Specifically, Big Trouble in Little China involves an American hero treading into a mysterious, non-Western world where he feels like an “outsider.”  That world, in this case, is not literally another planet, but rather the mystical and dangerous world of Chinese black magic. 

So once more, movie audiences get an on-screen representative of “us” countenancing a strange land and strange customs, but Big Trouble in Little China leverages tremendous humor not only from the peculiarities of this culture clash, but from the rather dramatic presentation of the American hero in question.   

To wit, Kurt Russell’s truck-driving, self-important protagonist, Jack Burton, is a swaggering, blundering John Wayne-voiced blow-hard.   He’s Jack Blurtin’, so-to-speak.

And yet Jack also reveals (in the words of the screenplay) “great courage” under stress, and his heart is always (well, almost always...) in the right place.  I have always maintained that the accident-prone but intrinsically heroic Burton represents director Carpenter’s most positive silver screen depiction of American dominance upon the world stage, especially compared with the perspectives showcased in the dystopian Escape from New York (1981) and the 1980s social critique, They Live (1988).

I also wrote in my book The Films of John Carpenter that “it’s all in the reflexes,” to quote Jack. So Big Trouble in Little China serves as Carpenter’s almost reflexive tribute to the style of Chinese martial arts films.  Thus, this is a movie that rests largely on Carpenter's unimpeachable film-making instincts, his fully-developed directorial muscle or chops.  The action sequences -- particularly an early one set in a Chinatown alley -- represent a visual tour de force.   The final battle in the film is one of the most giddy, over-the-top, visually-dynamic set-pieces put to celluloid in the 1980s, and a high point for the fantasy/action genre.

But here's the big secret in Little China: the film is much more than action too.

What is Big Trouble in Little China, then?   Well, the film is one part culture clash, one part genre pastiche and all camp humor. Writing for the Village Voice, Scott Foundas suggested Big Trouble was a “far more enjoyable mash-up of classic Westerns, Saturday-morning serials, and Chinese wu xia than any of the Indiana Jones movies, with Kurt Russell in full bloom as Carpenter's de rigueur hard-drinkin', hard-gamblin', wise-crackin' loner hero—a bowling-alley John Wayne.”

And as critic Richard Corliss wrote in Time Magazine (“Everything New is Old Again”), Big Trouble in Little Chinaoffers dollops of entertainment, but it is so stocked with canny references to other pictures that it suggests a master’s thesis that moves.”

And boy, how Big Trouble in Little China moves.  It never stops moving, in fact.

This is one frenetically-paced spectacular, and the feeling of unfettered delight Carpenter engenders simply from the film’s manic sense of speed is a remarkable thing.  One scene near the climax that begins with a close-up of a hammer pounding an alarm bell escalates to such intense velocity that your heart threatens to leap out of your chest.  And naturally,the moment ends on a joke.  After running a gauntlet of monsters, bullets, and opponents, Jack Burton is nearly a red traffic light.

Frankly, I’ve never understood why so many critics rejected this film upon its release in the summer of 1986, but as I always argue: don’t bet against John Carpenter in the long-run.  Big Trouble in Little China has ably survived the slings and arrows of bad reviews and stood the test of time to emerge one of the most beloved cult movies of the 1980s. 

I think this is likely so because of Jack Burton.  Other films have been set in distinctive "underworlds," and many movies have been set against the backdrop of Chinese myth or legend.

But there is only one Jack Burton.

“Everybody relax. I’m here.”

When his friend, Wang Chi (Dennis Dun) is unable to re-pay a bet, surly truck driver Jack Burton (Russell) tags along to the airport to pick up Wang’s betrothed, Miao Yin (Suzee Pai).  Unfortunately, the green-eyed beauty is abducted right out from under the duo by a Chinese gang known as the “Lords of Death.”  Miao Yin is then delivered into the custody of an ancient warlord and cursed spirit called Lo Pan (James Hong).  Lo Pan believes that if he marries and sacrifices a green-eyed woman, he will be rendered flesh again, after two-thousand years as an insubstantial ghost.

Jack and Wang pursue the gang to Chinatown and become embroiled in an all-out gang war.  Jack’s parked truck is stolen from an alleyway, and the theft draws the skeptical American further into the realm of Chinese black magic.  Soon, Jack teams-up with an elder sorcerer, Egg Shen (Victor Wong) and a crusading lawyer, Gracie Law (Kim Cattrall) to stop Lo Pan and recover Wang’s would-be bride and his own ride.  This quest takes Jack deep underground, into the Hell of Upside Down Sinners, into Lo-Pan’s secret lair, and into fierce battle with monsters, warriors and ghosts of all shapes and sizes.

“May the wings of liberty never lose a feather.”

As the The Village Voice review notes, Big Trouble in Little China can be interpreted as an example of the Chinese literary and film form known as the Wu xia, or simply “wuxia.”  

In stories of this type, a young hero survives and overcomes tragedy in his life, undertakes a heroic quest, and ultimately emerges as a great fighter and an adult, all while maintaining a strict code of honorable behavior.  To state the matter broadly, “wuxia” is the Chinese equivalent of the western-based “heroic journey.”  It’s a rite-of-passage tale, and one that heavily features a romantic component.

Big Trouble in Little China conforms with many details of the established wuxia formula if and only if the viewer considers Wang Chi the film’s prime hero figure.  Wang loses his bride-to-be, undertakes the quest to save her, and becomes – during the course of the film – a real hero.   Each time he fights, Wang becomes stronger until, by film’s end, he is actually an equal to Lo Pan’s invincible minions, the Storms.  

Of course, the quality that makes Big Trouble in Little China so unusual as wuxia and as action film is that the capable hero – the man on the quest and with all the heroic capabilities – is but a sidekick or second fiddle to the star, the bumbling, accident-prone Burton. 

Thus, in some significant but very funny and subversive way, Big Trouble in Little China questions and teases long-standing Hollywood assumptions that America and Americans must always stand at the center of the cinematic action, and must always play the “hero.”  This film suggests there’s another tradition and source of inspiration for cinematic adventure too.  

After all, George Lucas raided the film oeuvre of Akira Kurosawa to create Star Wars, so here John Carpenter pays tribute to Eastern-produced martial arts fantasies and their unique style of heroic storytelling. 

Again and again, then, Big Trouble in Little China invites us to view our "hero" Burton in distinctly funny and non-traditional terms.  He faces the implacable bad guys with bright red lip-stick marring his face, for example.  Far from striking fear in the heart of his enemies, Jack’s battle cry actually renders only himself unconscious.  At one point, we see Jack miss his intended target with a knife throw, and on several occasions he expresses fear and uncertainty about the creatures and world around him.

In spite of all this, Jack is certainly persistent and loyal and yes, heroic. So you get the feeling that, when held in contrast to the film’s Asian characters, Carpenter’s depiction of Jack charts an intriguing new global dynamic.  

Specifically, American might and bravery joins with Asian complexity for a great victory against evil.  Jack is a big and strong American, grounded in stereotypical western concepts, whereas the Asians are more introspective and ambivalent. In other words, Jack seems to live on the surface of reality; reality as his (limited) imagination weighs it. This quality enables him to see clearly “right” and “wrong.”  By comparison, the Chinese characters dwell in a more ambivalent, complicated self-doubting state; one where modernity requires them to eschew the beliefs they know to be true.

In terms of the film’s characters, the Americans in Big Trouble in Little China are defined basically by what they look like and what they say.  Jack is a muscle-bound, athletic truck driver and looks every bit the traditional hero.  Gracie Law is a beautiful lawyer and simultaneously a walking parody of the old Hollywood film cliché: the lady crusader.  “I’m always poking my nose where it doesn’t belong,” she enthuses at one point, effectively defining her own purpose in the narrative.  Both Jack and Gracie boast an exaggerated sense of self-importance too.  At one point, Jack blusters into a room and says, flat-out, “Don’t worry, I’m here.”

The Eastern characters, by contrast, seemed defined…differently.  On the surface, Egg-Shen appears to be a little old man and bus driver, but in reality he is a powerful sorcerer.  Wang Chi is a skinny, diminutive man who works in his uncle’s Chinese restaurant, and yet is actually a warrior of superb skills.  The Chinese heroes seem to possess layers of self-awareness, modesty and contradiction that Jack and Gracie do not.

Kurt Russell does a mean John Wayne impersonation as Jack, and that choice underlines the film’s unique approach to heroism.  When we think of John Wayne, we think of the idealized American hero, a man from a time when “men were men” and  when morality was as plain as black and white.  But Jack Burton drives his truck into an alleyway in Chinatown in this film, and all bets are off.   Suddenly, he might as well be on another planet, just like Flash Gordon because he’s asked to countenance an ethnically diverse world where all the truths he holds dear about the nature of the universe may no longer apply.  Certainty is harder to come by.  

If John Wayne had met the moral ambiguity of the late 1970s or 1980s, perhaps he’d be Jack Burton. 

The front-and-center placement of the anachronistic John Wayne character in a drama about foreign mythology and spiritual is the very thing that makes Big Trouble in Little China more than just your average adventure film, but rather a commentary on our shifting position in a globalized world.  In the 1980s, when it looked like the East (particularly Japan) was rising to eclipse America in terms of innovation and technology, along came Big Trouble in Little China to -- with tongue-in-cheek -- critique our place in the new world order.  

I’m feeling a little like an outsider here,” says Jack.  “You are,” is the reply from the Chinese.  But then, as they must readily admit, the Chinese protagonists need Jack.  Their destiny rests in his “capable hands.”   He is the one they require (with his black and white views of the world?) to bring "order out of chaos."

Jack has a lot of catching-up to do in the film in terms of understanding Chinese lore and mysticism, but in the final analysis, who ultimately takes out Lo Pan?

When Jack does save the day (because he was born ready, remember), he does so, literally, with time-worn reflexes.  Lo Pan tosses a knife at him, and Jack instinctively tosses it back, with fatal results.  When Jack states “it’s all in the reflexes” it’s a deliberate comment on America too.  Our reflex – our instinct - is to act heroically, even if we don’t always think our way fully through a problem before jumping in.  We may have to play catch up, like Jack, but when big trouble rears its head, the world counts on us to do something...and we invariably deliver.  

Moving with breathtaking speed and with ample good humor, Big Trouble in Little China is much smarter than it tends to get credit for.  It takes the long-standing cliché of American Exceptionalism -- seen in more straightforward fashion in Flash Gordon -- and both questions and re-affirms it for the age of globalism.   But if the delightful, one-of-a-kind Jack Burton – warts and all – is an insult to our traditional American images of strength and power as some film scholars insist, then, to quote the great man himself, “Go ahead…insult me.” 

Because when the "chips are down," you can count on Jack Burton.  

(Not to mention John Carpenter).