Apart Hate: District 9

 

Neill Blomkamp’s District 9 is an old story told many times in fiction and history: an undesirable group intrudes upon the space and resources of privileged power possessors. This story never ends well. District 9’s highly allegorical culture clash corresponds to great many groups that have suffered in throughout history, many sadly ongoing: refugees, minorities, Roma, Jews, or immigrants. But hey, this time it’s aliens!

Peter Jackson produced writer/director Blomkamp’s feature length version of his short film “Alive in Joburg”. The concept is closely related to Graham Baker’s 1988 sci-fi cop buddy picture Alien Nation (developed by Kenneth Johnson for a TV series the following year), in which a fully-packed slave ship is suddenly abandoned on Earth. The slaves may have been freed, but stranded in a hostile, crowded alien world with no room for them, even if the natives didn’t find them distasteful. Alien Nation found its drama in the friction on both sides as the freed slaves are absorbed into human society in a variety of ways.

District 9“When dealing with aliens, try to be polite, but firm. And always remember that a smile is cheaper than a bullet.”

District 9 is far more vague about its aliens’ nature and more cynical about the possibility of their integration. The ship they arrived in may not even have belonged to them, otherwise they would presumably have been more inclined to attempt to repair it or at least live aboard. Were they an exploited labor force, or what we would call slaves? If so, what happened to their captors? The trailer includes at least one scene not included in the finished film, in which an alien interrogated by human police implies that they are preventing them from repairing their ship, when all they want to do is go home. This simple sentiment is never expressed by any alien character in the movie. In fact, more of them seem content to simply live in squalor. Why can’t or won’t they simply tell us who they are or what they want?

District 9 is comprised of an awkwardly stitched together melange of genres, less seamlessly than how Alien Nation merged the buddy cop drama with science fiction. For most of its running time, District 9 works as a fauxmentary made of ostensibly found footage. The fauxmentary has long been a format for farce (q.v. Zelig and This is Spinal Tap), but in later years The Blair Witch Project, Diary of the Dead (read The Dork Report review), and Cloverfield (read The Dork Report review) all found ways to effectively employ the style for horror, drama, and science fiction. The ongoing wave of reality television and the run-and-gun handheld style in vogue since Paul Greengrass’ kinetic The Bourne Supremacy are no doubt contributing to the trend of including the “camera” as, essentially, a character in the film.

The fauxmentary pretense is upheld for quite a while, until it suddenly shifts to a privileged point of view for a scene in which three alien characters speaking in confidence, without the virtual “camera” present. This shift is jarring, as we’ve previously witnessed everything from the point of view of the absent protagonist. It signals the beginning of a more traditional narrative, albeit one still visualized with the same aesthetic. It’s as if Blomkamp stuck to a first-person point of view until it became inconvenient, so simply shifted to third-person while preserving the same visual aesthetic.

If the audience didn’t already contract whiplash, District 9 then dips into the body horror genre as Wikus (Sharlto Copley) undergoes a metamorphosis a la David Cronenberg’s The Fly. Even this doesn’t hold Blomkamp’s attention, and the film about-faces once again, this time into a standard-issue sci-fi action flick like Aliens (with a dash of Black Hawk Down). For its grand finale, it suddenly crashes back into fauxmentary.

District 9“District 9 – Paving the Way to Unity.”

The shifting genres and points of view mirror Wikus’ character arc. Initially a basically sympathetic company man, he turns villainous in our eyes when he displays vicious speciesism by destroying an alien hatchery with undisguised glee. His cosmic punishment is for his body to painfully mutate into that which he hates and fears the most (again, an archetypal Cronenebergian theme), after which he comes around to being sympathetic again. The ending is very effective in reminding us how far Wikus has transformed, body and mind, since we first met him.

District 9 is riddled with a number of irritatingly illogical elements, which are unclear if meant to be mysteries for the audience to ponder or if just outright plot holes or implausibilities. Most refugee situations in human history involve oppressed people with no political or military power. These aliens possess ferociously powerful weapons, but don’t use them to fight for better conditions or more food and resources. If they are so technologically advanced, why do they not also have some kind of functional societal order, as opposed to the self-defeating chaotic shanty town they’ve constructed for themselves? Perhaps the technology belonged to their mysterious and unseen captors, or maybe their ill-behavior is explained by the breakdown of order the occurs in any kind of refugee scenario. More questions: How can one little alien child, born on earth, have the know-how to reactivate the mothership? Why did it take 20 years for any of them to harvest the necessary materials from their own scrap? Surely more than two adult aliens could organize themselves to better harvest their own waste.

It would normally be reductive to search for a “moral of the story” from even the simplest film — the kind of assignment given to an elementary school reading comprehension essay. But since District 9 is clearly making an obvious point about racism and xenophobia, it has to be said that it shoots itself in the foot with its extremely problematic depiction of Nigerians as gangsters and cannibals. Granted, the Nigerian characters don’t come off that much better than the white South Africans we see conducting cruel genetic research on both humans and aliens.

Setting the film in South Africa was perhaps the least subtle way possible to present any kind of science fiction allegory for racism and xenophobia — at least since Star Trek: Enterprise dressed reptilian Xindi villains in Nazi uniforms in 2004 (just in case the slower members of the audience didn’t pick up on the unsubtle pun in the species’ name). It’s perhaps more comfortable to think that these types of situations have occurred in isolated places throughout history: in Nazi Germany, Rwanda, or Armenia. The alien refugee camps are of course most directly analogous to South Africa under Apartheid — the title itself alluding to the forcible eviction of District Six in Cape Town to Cape Flats in 1966. By contrast, Alien Nation made the more profound point that the same thing could happen anywhere.


Official movie sites: www.d-9.com, www.district9movie.com, and www.MNUSpreadsLies.com

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The Pod People Film Festival: The Invasion

The Pod People Film Festival

Welcome to The Pod People Film Festival, The Dork Report’s third mini movie retrospective. After catching up with Ridley Scott and George A. Romero, we now take a look at four adaptations of Jack Finney’s novel The Body Snatchers, plus one unofficial homage / satire.

  1. Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956)
  2. Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978)
  3. Body Snatchers (1993)
  4. The Faculty (1998)
  5. The Invasion (2007)

The Invasion movie poster

 

Nicole Kidman must be one of the unluckiest stars in Hollywood, having recently starred in at least two big-budget catastrophes. Frank Oz’ The Stepford Wives (2004) was sabotaged by cast members dropping out, extensive reshoots, and competing script revisions that left significant logical plot holes in the finished film. Similarly, Invasion is best described as quite simply a broken movie. One full year after the completion of principal photography under director Oliver Hirschbiegel (Downfall), producer Joel Silver contracted Andy and Larry Wachowski (The Matrix, Speed Racer – read The Dork Report review) to write new scenes to be directed by their protégé James McTeigue (V for Vendetta – read The Dork Report review). Warner Bros. expended $10 million on 17 extra days of shooting in an attempt to reshape what was reportedly a more internal, psychological suspense piece into more commercial thriller.

Nicole Kidman in The InvasionDo you ever get the feeling that you’re in a terrible movie…?

After a brief, promising opening scene (a flash-forward, we later learn, to a world almost fallen to an alien attack), Invasion quickly descends into full-on sci-fi action cliché. A space shuttle disintegrates on re-entry, carrying a payload of virulent spores bent on world domination. After the real-life loss of the crews of the shuttles Challenger (1986) and Columbia (2003), this spectacular special effects sequence is about as tasteful as watching CGI skyscrapers crumble.

One of the Wachowski’s late additions was a ridiculously long car chase through the streets of Washington DC (filmed in Baltimore), with psychiatrist Carol (Kidman) behind the wheel of a literally burning Mustang. It’s beyond implausible that a shrink would have the driving skills of a modern-day Bullet (Steve McQueen) or Popeye O’Doyle (Gene Hackman in The French Connection). In fact, Kidman damaged more than her career: she broke several ribs during an accident incurred while shooting the sequence.

The biggest problem is not the clumsily grafted-on action spectacle but the choppy screenplay. It’s painfully obvious to spot the seams between Dave Kajganich’s original script, which one can infer would have made for a more subtle horror story about an alien invasion accomplished without bullets or the exploding of infrastructure, and The Wachowski Brothers’ reduction to the lowest common denominator. The movie is at its best when Carol senses the subtle changes of her city’s daily routine as the invasion spreads. It’s also interesting as she encounters other uninfected survivors that have learned to hide in plain sight. Veronica Cartwright, who appeared in Philip Kaufman’s 1978 version, appears as one of Carol’s patients who is apparently naturally immune. She counsels her to pretend to be a Stepford Wife in order to avoid detection by the dispassionate alien intelligences that have taken over most of the population. But these moody sequences are all too brief in-between the car chases and explosions.

Nicole Kidman in The Invasion“Our world is a better world”

A huge chunk feels missing from the middle; the second act should be a slow discovery of the details of the invasion and a gradual escalation of the conflict. But Carol and her doctor paramour Ben (Daniel Craig) leap to the accurate conclusion of an alien invasion based on only a few observed cases of mild weirdness around them, clearing the rest of the movie’s running time for a series of chase sequences. Worst of all is yet another criminal misuse of poor Jeffrey Wright (reunited with 007 co-star Daniel Craig), a brilliant actor saddled with most of the script’s laughable technobabble that leaves no room to the imagination (the original 1956 Invasion of the Body Snatchers was arguably not specific enough, but the 1978 version found just the right level of gory detail without getting bogged down in tedious pseudoscience).

Jack Finney’s classic sci-fi novel The Body Snatchers has been adapted over and over into movies that illuminate the concerns of the times. Don Siegel’s 1956 original was a thinly-veiled critique of McCarthyism. Philip Kaufman’s 1978 remake also made sense in a post-Vietnam and Watergate era. Abel Ferrara applied the metaphor to blind obedience and conformity in the military in his 1993 Body Snatchers. Robert Rodríguez found the most perfect setting yet, as he satirized teen peer pressure in high school in The Faculty (1998). What does the oft-told Body Snatchers tale mean today? Invasion is the fourth version of novel, and the second to ditch the notion of replacement bodies. As in The Faculty: the aliens are puppetmaster-like parasites that take over human bodies without permanently harming them. Invasion makes a fleeting reference to other nations publicly combating the alien insurgents. The US is the only one to hide behind a cover story that has the opposite intended effect, only further enabling the invasion to succeed. Invasion might have been a better film if it had focused more on this glimmer of political satire than on Shuttle disasters and burning Mustangs.


Official movie site: http://theinvasionmovie.warnerbros.com/

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The Pod People Film Festival: The Faculty

The Pod People Film Festival

Welcome to The Pod People Film Festival, The Dork Report’s third mini movie retrospective. After catching up with Ridley Scott and George A. Romero, we now take a look at four adaptations of Jack Finney’s novel The Body Snatchers, plus one unofficial homage / satire.

  1. Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956)
  2. Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978)
  3. Body Snatchers (1993)
  4. The Faculty (1998)
  5. The Invasion (2007)

The Faculty movie poster

 

We interrupt this retrospective look at the four official feature film adaptations of Jack Finney’s novel The Body Snatchers with a kind of bonus track, a remake in all but name, Robert Rodríguez’s The Faculty.

It may be a touch campy, but hugely entertaining. All four official versions are deadly serious, so it’s refreshing for The Faculty to play the concept for laughs. Rodríguez isn’t known for restraint, but most of the fun is likely attributable to Kevin Williamson, the writer of Scream, one of the most influential movies of the 1990s. Yes, I’m prepared to back that claim up: it was one of the first mainstream movies to be overtly Postmodern, and not in a stuffy college literature seminar sense, but one that found lowbrow thrills & chills from a highbrow intellectual perspective over the horror genre. That is, Scream was both a knowing satire of the horror movie genre, in which its own characters knowingly commented upon the events that befell them with all the knowledge that comes from being movie geeks well-versed in horror movie cliches, but was also simultaneously an actual functioning horror movie itself. Other 1990s movies along those lines were Wild Things (one of the sexiest, twistiest noirs ever made), Starship Troopers (a hilariously bleak vision of a fascistic world inherited by children), and even Shakespeare in Love’s playful plays-within-plays-within-a-movie (read The Dork Report review).

faculty_2.jpgThere’s be no more tears… in gym class

A prologue introduces us to the namesake faculty, from which the great (and sexy) Bebe Neuwirth checks out early, or at least seems to. The adult cast is wonderful overall, even though some parts are little more than cameos. Robert Patrick brings all of his ruthless Terminator T-1000 steeliness to Coach Willis (like Dr. David Kibner – Leonard Nimoy – in Philip Kaufman’s 1978 Invasion of the Body Snatchers, a villain both before and after the invasion), the glamorous Famke Janssen is an improbably mousy loner, Jon Stewart as a sympathetic science teacher, and Salma Hayek is hilarious in her brief appearance as Nurse Rosa Harper. On the downside, fat slob Harry Knowles of AintItCoolNews.com notoriety also haunts the faculty room (this was 1998, after all).

We finally meet the kids in a montage set to a cover version of Pink Floyd’s infamous antiauthoritarian anthem Another Brick in the Wall Part II, with onscreen text resembling Gerald Scarfe’s scrawled lettering on the original The Wall album sleeve. They’re a next-generation Breakfast Club comprised of every key high school demographic: goth loner Stokely (Clea DuVall), hot ice queen Delilah (Jordana Brewster), meathead athlete Stan (Shawn Hatosy), bad boy Zeke (Josh Hartnett), meek nerd Casey (Elijah Wood), and sweetness-and-light Southern belle Marybeth (Laura Harris).

faculty_1.jpgThis meeting of The Breakfast Club II is called to order

Zeke is a slacker genius with an awful haircut that hasn’t dated well. He has deliberately failed out in order to relive the glory of his senior year within the safe bubble of being Big Man on Campus. He peddles a powdered narcotic (actually mostly caffeine), drives a fast car, and makes the girls swoon. But underneath it all is an intellect missing an aim or purpose. Good for him, then, that an alien invasion gives him the opportunity to step up.

Troubled goth girl Stokely disguises herself as a lesbian to avoid human contact. One wonders why, then, she’s not hassled by the school’s other lesbians. Like cuddly misfit Allison (Ally Sheedy) in The Breakfast Club (1985), Stokely eventually conforms to straight-girl norms by dressing in pink and dating the jock. DuVall is said to be gay or bisexual, so I wonder how she felt about playing such a cop-out character. But this oddly conservative moment aside, the character is the key to the Postmodern, metafictional nature of the movie. Stokely is a science fiction fan that explicitly references Jack Finney’s novel The Body Snatchers (but not any of the movies). In fact, she disparages the book, claiming it’s a poor ripoff of Robert A. Heinlein’s The Puppet Masters.

All Body Snatcher movies to date featured sentient brussels sprouts that create evil duplicates of humans, destroyed the originals, all with the aim of bringing a form of peace and harmony: a uniform society in lockstep synchronicity. But these pod aliens are more overtly evil. These aquatic parasites that temporarily take over bodies are no emotionless drones, but are actually remarkably lusty. They clearly relish the sublimation of the students, and stage a football game like a Nazi Party rally.

All of which begs the question, if the aliens are like unleashed, uninhibited versions of our own ids, what’s the difference between them and, say, a high school kid hopped up on hormones? As one of them aptly puts it, “I’m not an alien, I’m just discontent.”


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The Pod People Film Festival: Body Snatchers (1993)

The Pod People Film Festival

Welcome to The Pod People Film Festival, The Dork Report’s third mini movie retrospective. After catching up with Ridley Scott and George A. Romero, we now take a look at four adaptations of Jack Finney’s novel The Body Snatchers, plus one unofficial homage / satire.

  1. Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956)
  2. Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978)
  3. Body Snatchers (1993)
  4. The Faculty (1998)
  5. The Invasion (2007)

Body Snatchers movie poster

 

Yet another remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers might seem an odd project for iconoclast director Abel Ferrara, known for gritty urban crime sagas centered around profoundly compromised protagonists. In stark contrast, the lead in Ferrara’s most conventional movie is a good-natured teenage girl, a world apart from the crazed Harvey Keitel of Bad Lieutenant or Christopher Walken of King of New York. Marti’s (Gabrielle Anwar) biggest problems are a nomadic lifestyle, a moody little brother, and a new stepmother.

This version of the bodysnatchers story sheds “Invasion” from the title, which is strange considering it ought to be the key word for a movie focused on the U.S. military, at home not long after the first Gulf War (a conflict thought to be resolved at the time). With America at peace and a Democrat in office, Body Snatchers was probably one of the first mainstream feature films to directly mention the conflict, along with Courage Under Fire (1996) — David O. Russell’s ruthless satire Three Kings being still some ways off. Abbreviating the title was a missed opportunity to play with the ambiguity between a military confirmed as professional, government-sanctioned invaders, and an extraterrestrial force that easily infiltrates them. But don’t worry, the word “Invasion” would be picked up again for Oliver Hirschbiegel’s 2007 abomination starring Nicole Kidman.

Gabrielle Anwar in Body SnatchersGabrielle, sweetie, you should know better than to take a bath during a horror movie…

On home soil, an Alabama army base under the command of General Platt (who else but R. Lee Ermey?) must suffer the indignity of bending over for The Environmental Protection Agency as it investigates the army’s storage of chemical weapons. The sympathetic Major Collins (Forest Whitaker) reports increasing cases of mental illness in his infirmary (paranoia, fear of sleep, etc.). He suspects the toxic chemicals, making it impossible to miss the allusion to the controversial Gulf War Syndrome.

Marti falls in love with helicopter pilot Tim (Billy Wirth), so bland and flat that it’s hard to tell if he’s a pod person (to be charitable, maybe this was a deliberate casting call, meant to keep the audience guessing). She is befriended by Platt’s punk daughter Jenn (Christine Elise), a refreshing dose of nonconformism among the rank and file – indeed her rebelliousness serves as a canary in the coal mine to measure the progress of the invasion. We genuinely feel for Marti’s little brother Andy (Reilly Murphy, a rare child actor that does not annoy) as he senses his school playmates are “bad” and witnesses his stepmother (Meg Tilly) die firsthand. Incidentally, Tilly’s performance as the pod-stepmother is excellently weird.

Meg Tilly in Body Snatchers“Where you gonna go, where you gonna run, where you gonna hide? Nowhere… ’cause there’s no one like you left.”

Like Philip Kaufman’s 1978 version of the same material, Ferrara indulges in the gore and female nudity de rigueur to the horror genre. Marti disrobes for a very close encounter with groping alien tendrils in a bathtub, and later runs through an infirmary full of gross, half-formed pod people. The very pretty Anwar is so convincingly young-looking that her unexpected nude scenes make one feel decidedly uncomfortable.

In all three versions of the story so far, a pod person delivers some variation of the following warning to human resistors: there’s nowhere to run, nowhere to hide, and there’s no one else left like you. So why do the pod people always work so hard to chase down the few remaining humans? On the evidence of Body Snatchers, they’re still very easily defeated, and the climactic ending is something of a dud.

The infected army base plots to distributes pods to other bases, and eventually amass an armed force capable to taking over the world. But Marti and Tim manage to blow up the base and as entire convoy with just one helicopter. Why was it fully armed during peacetime, anyway? The first film ended with humans just beginning to mobilize against the invaders. The second ended with humanity totally overswept. Now the third ends with us winning. How will Nicole Kidman fare in Invasion? Tune in after our next review, an interlude to look at Robert Rodríguez’ enjoyable homage The Faculty, to find out…


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The Pod People Film Festival: Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978)

The Pod People Film Festival

Welcome to The Pod People Film Festival, The Dork Report’s third mini movie retrospective. After catching up with Ridley Scott and George A. Romero, we now take a look at four adaptations of Jack Finney’s novel The Body Snatchers, plus one unofficial homage / satire.

  1. Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956)
  2. Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978)
  3. Body Snatchers (1993)
  4. The Faculty (1998)
  5. The Invasion (2007)

Invasion of the Body Snatchers 1978 movie poster

 

Philip Kaufman’s re-imagining of Don Siegel’s 1956 classic paranoid nightmare Invasion of the Body Snatchers immediately signals its uniqueness with a strange and beautifully abstract opening sequence. Psychedelic spores float off the surface of an alien planet, traverse through outer space, and fall to Earth as gelatinous rain. A glimpse of a newspaper headline describes a simultaneous epidemic of “spider webbing,” an ominous portent of what turns out to be the desiccated remains of the invaders’ victims.

Matthew Bennell (Donald Sutherland) is a pitiless health inspector pining after his excitable colleague Elizabeth Driscoll (Brooke Adams). When her slob dentist boyfriend suddenly starts wearing suits and loses interest in televised sports, she becomes convinced a little too quickly that he’s an impostor, and leaps from there to even grander notions of an alien conspiracy. But, being a lab worker at the Department of Health, and the type that keeps a greenhouse in her bedroom, perhaps she is after all eminently qualified to identify malevolent walking and talking plants bent on world domination.

Leonard Nimoy in Invasion of the Body SnatchersLeonard Nimoy would like to encourage you to stop sleeping around. There will be no more tears.

The original film imagined a subversive alien invasion of suburbia. In conservative small-town America, or at least the fantasy thereof seen in movies, everybody knows everybody else’s business. This remake takes place in the liberal urban setting of San Francisco, where relationship networks are fractured into neighborhoods, socioeconomic classes, and cliques. As our current fears of avian and swine flus attest, infections spread faster where humans congregate in tight spaces: schools, slums, public transportation, etc. The aliens in the original plotted a slow takeover of American’s already homogenous heartland, while their cousins here target our population centers for maximum shock and awe. Still, some secrecy is required at first, and the creatures prove themselves adept at subterfuge.

The greatest deceiver is self-help pop shrink Dr. David Kibner (Leonard Nimoy). It’s a crying shame we haven’t gotten to see Nimoy play more roles like this in his career – by which I mean anything other than Spock. Far from a San Fran free-love liberal, Dr. Kibner is actually a conservative reactionary, decrying the ease with which modern couples mate and part. He believes modern society as a whole is suffering from a fear of responsibility and commitment. Sadly, out of everyone we meet, he was arguably already a pod person all along (we never find out for sure when he his body was snatched). The most interesting facet of the film for me is the irrelevance of whether Kibner was a type of alien advance guard writing books espousing pod philosophy. I believe the point is that he represents a human viewpoint already sympathetic to the invading veggies: one that longs for a return to conservative values and like behavior. But why is Kibner wearing an archery guard on one hand? That’s just a weird affectation.

Donald Sutherland in Invasion of the Body SnatchersOMG! Look out for the trolley!

Easter eggs include cameos by Don Siegel as a sinister taxi driver and the original’s star Kevin McCarthy reprising his crazed rant “They’re here already! You’re next!” A young Jeff Goldblum brings all his quirk to bear as neurotic poet Jack Bellicec. His wife Nancy is played by Veronica Cartwright, reprising essentially the same shrieky, panicky performance she delivered in Ridley Scott’s Alien.

The original film was a a thinly veiled metaphor for the McCarthyism of the period. In the late 1970s, the same story works just as well at the tail end of a dying sexual and cultural revolution that began in the 1960s. After the disillusionment of Vietnam and Watergate, people may have sensed the coming conservatism and conformity (in other words, Tom Wolfe’s masters of the universe and bonfires of the vanities) of the 1980s.

This Invasion of the Body Snatchers is largely a psychological horror film, but features at least one true gross-out sequence in which the alien growth process is explicitly depicted. Matthew aborts his own budding duplicate with a garden hoe (a wholly appropriate weapon for sentient vegetables). The original film avoided detailing the process, possibly to elude questions that couldn’t be addressed without violating standards of decency (What happens to the original bodies? Why aren’t newborn pod people naked? Now we know – hey, look! Brooke Adams’ breasts!). Gore aside, the one truly unsettling image is a glimpse of a body snatching gone awry: a dog with a human face, an accidental hybrid being created when Matthew interrupts the process of an alien taking over a hobo with a pet doggie.

But what Kaufman’s version is chiefly known for is its bleak, bleak ending, in total contrast with the faint hint of hope that closes the original. The baton wouldn’t be picked up again for another 15 years, when Abel Ferrara transposed the action to the obedient, conformist, oppressive world of the military in the tersely titled Body Snatchers.


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The Pod People Film Festival: Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956)

The Pod People Film Festival

Welcome to The Pod People Film Festival, The Dork Report’s third mini movie retrospective. After catching up with Ridley Scott and George A. Romero, we now take a look at four adaptations of Jack Finney’s novel The Body Snatchers, plus one unofficial homage / satire.

  1. Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956)
  2. Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978)
  3. Body Snatchers (1993)
  4. The Faculty (1998)
  5. The Invasion (2007)

Invasion of the Body Snatchers 1956 movie poster

 

For a pulpy 1950s horror flick relating the strange tale of an invasion of giant brussels sprouts, Don Siegel’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers is a startlingly gory, paranoid nightmare positively loaded with political subtext. Its themes of identity, mistrust, and subversion have remained relevant and influential for decades, inspiring three official remakes and even left-field homages like Robert Rodríguez’ high school melodrama The Faculty. Not only has “pod people” entered the lexicon, its screenplay is highly quotable (“They’re here already! You’re next!”) and sometimes even rather poetic: “There’ll be no more tears.”

The movie can be a bit frustrating to modern science fiction aficionados used to high pseudo-scientific detail. The aliens’ life cycle seems illogical and not fully thought-through, to the extent that it harms the plot. It seems a victim simply must be in proximity to an alien pod for it to begin to grow into your shape. We also learn that a pod absorbs its host’s memories when it sleeps, but we see Becky Driscoll (Dana Wynter) duplicated after falling asleep alone in a cave devoid of any visible pods. What happens to the original bodies? How do the pod-born duplicates wind up wearing the host’s clothes? Philip Kaufman’s 1978 remake is more clear on the process, with the added benefit of allowing for more explicit gore and female nudity to tart things up a bit. The 2007 remake Invasion solves these problems by sidestepping the issue entirely, featuring a breed of aliens that literally invade your body – a mild condition which is, it turns out, curable. Ask your doctor, or better yet, date one!

Kevin McCarthy and Dana Wynter in Invasion of the Body SnatchersEat your brussels sprouts! Or you’re next!

As Matthew Dessem points out in his analysis of The Blob for the Criterion Contraption, certain 1950s horror and sci-fi movies beg to be interpreted as metaphors for key atomic age issues: Godzilla, The Day the Earth Stood Still, and The Blob among them. But these monsters look just like us. So let’s give it a shot. Interpretation one: the movie manifests a generalized fear of a homogenized American culture. A pod person is discovered in an intermediary state, totally devoid of individual characteristics like a mannequin. Perhaps America’s fabled melting pot, brought to an absurd conclusion, could result in a dead-end monoculture of of uniform religion, politics, and behavior. Interpretation two: the story is a thinly veiled metaphor for McCarthyism, the contemporary Red Scare that envisaged insidious Communist sleeper cells already among us, threatening to undo American churches, families, private wealth, and government. In either interpretation, the invaders are convinced their systems of belief are correct, and honestly believe they are helping us by absorbing us into their ranks.

Kevin McCarthy and Dana Wynter in Invasion of the Body SnatchersPod person in the corner pocket.

The premise may be deliciously cynical, but the movie does end on a possible note of hope. Our hero Dr. Miles Bennell (Kevin McCarthy) manages to reach some uninfected human authority figures, and corroborating evidence helps him convince them to mobilize against the threat. But does this call to action come too late? From the perspective of 2009, America looks increasingly polarized and partisan. If the pod people are already here, which side are they on? As Sarah Palin might say, the Real America? I’m sure they only want to help.


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The Day the Earth Stood Still (2008)

The Day the Earth Stood Still 2008 movie poster

 

If the least one expects of the 2008 remake of The Day the Earth Stood Still is that it merely fulfill the promise of its title, then please move right along, for the earth stands still only a few moments. It is, however, a far bigger production than the 1951 original directed by Robert Wise (read The Dork Report review), even accounting for the inflation of filmmaking technology and audience expectation for spectacle. As if to overcompensate for the original’s now admittedly amusing implausibilities and the silly giant robot and flying saucer, it tries too hard to impress with too many unconnected ideas and excessive hustle and bustle. It’s even rather inappropriately macho, with more unconvincing digital helicopters and military hardware than a typical Michael Bay movie. At least it’s much, much better than the disastrous Invasion (the third official remake of The Invasion of the Bodysnatchers).

It does get off to a good start with a prologue in which a lone mountain climber (Keanu Reeves) discovers a glowing orb in 1928 India. The sequence is mysterious and interesting, but ultimately unimportant to the plot. We later learn that the orb was an alien probe that copied the climber’s DNA, from which to grow a surrogate body for the alien Klaatu (Reeves again) decades later. Even the most basic plausibility is violated as humans dissect his alien body without biosuits or any kind of quarantine at all. One wonders if earlier drafts of the screenplay involved Klaatu’s captors initially misidentifying him as a missing person from 1928. A missed opportunity would be a scene in which the aged original adventurer comes face-to-face with an alien mimicking his youthful self. But as it stands, this whole subplot acts as a distraction. The original movie simply presented the alien as humanoid (if a little unusually tall and angular) and that was enough. The notion of a alien being reborn in a new body is interesting but an unnecessary complication, one that only raises questions unrelated to the central themes. Klaatu is lucky his template was the handsome Reeves (at one point, he steals a schlumpy guy’s suit and it fits as if it were tailored for him). Supposedly this body is human, but he exerts superpowers including the transmutation of electricity into some kind of sketchily-described life force. In this respect, the original is better; Klaatu outwardly looks like us, period, end of story. Isn’t that enough? Another extraneous idea, superfluous to the core story: Klaatu’s giant omnipotent robot companion Gort is now comprised of a swarm of nanobots. Why have both a giant robot and itsy-bitsy nanobots? Pick one idea and run with it.

Keanu Reeves in The Day the Earth Stood StillKeanu Reeves in The Day the Earth Stood Still

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves; first we must fulfill another genre cliche. The Day the Earth Stood Still lines up after the likes of The Happening, The Day After Tomorrow, A.I.: Artificial Intelligence, Deep Impact, Watchmen, and Cloverfield (the list goes on, and on…) to take another stab at decimating poor New York City. When humanity detects an unidentified object set to strike Manhattan, Dr. Michael Grainer (Man Men’s Jon Hamm) assembles a crack team of diverse experts including astrobiologist Helen Benson (Jennifer Connelly) to fly around in black helicopters and gawp helplessly at all the special effects. Luckily, for the moment at least, the object turns about to be a spacecraft. In 1951, alien emissary Klaatu (Michael Rennie) went to Washington like Mr. Smith. In 2008, this Klaatu figures the place to make a grand entrance is Manhattan’s Central Park (never mind that the United Nations headquarters is on the East Side). Fans of computer-generated destruction of the sort in which Roland Emmerich traffics will be pleased to see Central Park forcibly landscaped before the movie is over. During the final climax in the Park, I’m pretty sure the principals hide under the exact same bridge as the survivors at the end of Cloverfield.

Like the original, it’s credited as being based on the 1940 short story “Farewell to the Master” by Harry Bates. Its cinematic touchstones include The Brother From Another Planet and The Man Who Fell to Earth. But it shares a critically flawed plot element with the more recent Watchmen (read The Dork Report review). In the latter, mortal heroine Silk Spectre must convince Dr. Manhattan, an ambivalent nonhuman that couldn’t care less, to save the world. Klaatu arrives on Earth to receive the report of an earlier agent, who confirms humans are self destructive by nature. That’s enough for Klaatu to begin to purge the planet, but the agent goes on and tries to impress upon him human’s complexity. Klaatu is unswayed. Helen and her son Jacob (Jaden Smith, son of Will and Jada Pinkett-Smith) try to do the same and succeed just as Silk Spectre did, but in both cases the audience can’t quite understand how their arguments go through to superior beings one step away from godhood. Because she’s pretty, and her kid whines so much that Klaatu caved in just to shut him the hell up? Personally, if I was an alien judging humanity, and I met such an insanely annoying kid, I would purge the planet too. The movie would merit at least one more Dork Report star if the kid hadn’t been in it.

Jennifer Connelly in The Day the Earth Stood StillJennifer Connelly in The Day the Earth Stood Still

Jennifer Connelly is sadly wasted, again. As in Ang Lee’s otherwise underrated Hulk, she’s relegated to second-billing below the computer effects. The great Kathy Bates fares even worse in a role anyone could have played. As for the legendary John Cleese’s cameo as a mad scientist, I assume the idea was to cast a slightly kooky personality with a British accent to project intelligence to dumb American audiences. But the formerly manic Cleese has mellowed out so much in his later years that they could have just cast any old Brit.

The original Day the Earth Stood Still was quite obviously a Cold War parable, if a little muddled in its particulars. This version skirts the politics of war, choosing instead to recast the basic premise as an eco-parable. Much like M. Night Shyamalan’s Happening (read The Dork Report review), New York’s Central Park is ground zero for an ecological catastrophe. Part of Klaatu’s mission is to save samples of the Earth’s biosphere, which the Secretary of Defense (Bates) explicitly equates to the Biblical tale of Noah’s Ark.

Wikipedia notes the film was a largely green production, in which the crew recycled or donated props and costumes, and utilized a central intranet to reduce paper waste. But within the story itself, for an alien concerned about cleaning up the Earth, Klaatu is quite content to ride back and forth from Manhattan to New Jersey in a gas-guzzling SUV (the manufacturer of which no doubt provided product placement).

Finally, some questions: exactly how much of the world is decimated in the end? How does Klaatu expect humanity to clean up the planet when he’s already destroyed most of the infrastructure? Imagine all the homelessness, starvation, chaos, rioting, and looting that must be dealt with before any government could even begin to think about ozone holes or carbon collection. Also, Klaatu’s species has the technology to disintegrate all manmade materials on an entire planet, but he totally dismisses out of hand the idea of cleaning up our pollution for us, or at least lending us the technology? The original Klaatu had more faith in humanity.


Official movie site: www.dtessmovie.com

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The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951)

The Day the Earth Stood Still 1951 movie poster

 

Robert Wise’s The Day the Earth Stood Still is one of the few essential science fiction movies that has lasted, overcoming dated special effects, acting styles, and the end of the Cold War (provider of subtext for many a horror story). In the company of Forbidden Planet (Shakespeare’s The Tempest in Space), The Blob (an invasive species consumes the population), and Invasion of the Body Snatchers (smalltown America succumbs to the ultimate conformity), it continues to resonate decades later, even being reimagined in 2008 as an ecoparable.

Immediately striking is the dissonant score by Bernard Herrmann, of Psycho fame. The evocative piece over the opening credits sounds just like an outtake from Brian Eno‘s ambient album On Land, thirty years early.

Michael Rennie as Klaatu in The Day the Earth Stood Stillevidently they have Brylcreem in space

Wise shows us humanity’s first alien contact through the quaint filter of period radio and television; rest assured, “scientists and military men” are on the case. Klaatu (Michael Rennie), a suave caucasian humanoid male alien, and his pet robot Gort (Lock Martin) park their UFO on a baseball field on The Mall in Washington D.C. His polite request for an audience with the United Nations goes rebuffed, for during the height of the Cold War, not even a flying saucer, an alien in a silver jumpsuit, and a giant robot is enough to convince the nations of the world to sit down and talk. Klaatu’s flying saucer is surrounded by hilariously lax security, and he is briefly taken into custody before handily escaping into the D.C. suburbs.

Klaatu has learned mid-Atlantic accented English from radio and television broadcasts, and outwardly appears perfectly humanoid right down to his slicked-back hair (they evidently have Brylcreem in space), so all he needs to blend in with the masses is to simply steal someone’s dry cleaning. He checks into a spare room, with some shots directly quoting Alfred Hitchcock’s 1944 classic The Lodger. He befriends young Bobby (Billy Gray) without a hint of suspicion, dating the film more than anything else.

Klaatu tries to get his message through to a pacifist scientist, but he’s discovered, shot, and dies. Gort, programmed to activate in such an event, threatens to exact an unspecified violence upon humanity. But Klaatu has already taught his interspecies ladyfriend Helen (Patricia Neal) the robot-mollifying fail-safe codephrase “Klaatu barada nikto.” Gort ceases his hostilities, and instead revives Klaatu using machinery on their ship. Klaatu claims his new lease on life is only for a limited time, for true resurrection is only the domain of “the Almighty Spirit”. The remarkable fact that he believes in a God goes unremarked upon; both he and the humans to whom he’s speaking simply take it for granted they’re talking about the same deity. This line stands out for a reason; the dialogue was reportedly inserted at the request of the MPAA, who objected to Klaatu’s godlike powers of resurrection. Failing to reach the world’s leaders, he settles for the next-best thing: an assembled group of scientists (all, of course, white males). Message delivered, he leaves Earth in a huff.

Lock Martin as Gort in the Day the Earth Stood StillKlaatu barada nikto! Don’t tase me, bro!

So, let’s recap: an otherworldly visitor with a message of peace-or-else is executed, rises again, and ascends into the heavens. Do I have to spell it out?

But if Klaatu is analogous to Jesus, let’s take a closer look at his message. He claims Earthlings’ warlike behavior is of no interest to the spacefaring species of the universe, as long as it’s contained to one planet. But the interstellar community is beginning to fear that Earthlings are about to discover interstellar travel, and they will not permit humanity to bring their atomic weapons with them. Klaatu is the representative of other societies that have already passed through this phase, whom, unable to curb their violent impulses on their own, came up with a solution to police themselves: a fleet of lethal robots programmed to eradicate anyone that violates the truce. So they use weapons to deter the use of other weapons? What kind of message is that to a Cold War audience living under the nightmare of Mutually Ensured Destruction? To the 21st Century viewer, the immediate worry is whether or not we could ever trust an artificial intelligence with impartially keeping the peace. Indeed, whole science fiction franchises have been built upon that very theme, including 2001, Blade Runner, The Terminator, The Matrix, and Battlestar Galactica.

But perhaps I’m being too literal. It’s a simple movie, but is it a simple analogy? Is the army of Gorts a symbol for Earth’s nuclear arsenal? No, because that’s exactly what Klaatu wants humans to put away. According to The New York Times, producer Julian Blaustein “told the press [the film] was an argument in favor of a ‘strong United Nations.'” But the U.N. is denigrated as petty and ineffective in the movie; they won’t deign to gather to merely listen to Klaatu’s speech. The overall message is very cynical: even more advanced aliens aren’t able to curb their violent impulses on their own. Klaatu is here to threaten, not save us. If we embark out into space bearing weapons, we’re toast.

The Day the Earth Stood Still is based on 1940 short story “Farewell to the Master” by Harry Bates. Walter Trevis’ 1963 novel The Man Who Fell to Earth (filmed in 1976 by Nicholas Roeg, starring David Bowie) shares some plot elements (the alien Thomas Newton too bears diamonds as seed money), but veers off into another direction altogether. Newton has no interest in steering humanity’s course. He’s here on a secret mission to save his own people, but falls prey to his own all-too-human weaknesses.


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Orifices in Place of Faces: The Flaming Lips: Christmas on Mars

Flaming Lips Christmas on Mars poster

 

The Flaming Lips are an odd band to have achieved mainstream success. After years of noncommercial psychedelic art-rock experimentation like the four-disc Zaireeka (1997), they broke through to mass appeal with The Soft Bulletin (1999) and Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots (2002). The latter features the finest existential love song to ever become the official rock song of Oklahoma:

Do you realize that everyone you know someday will die
And instead of saying all of your goodbyes, let them know
You realize that life goes fast
It’s hard to make the good things last
You realize the sun doesn’t go down
It’s just an illusion caused by the world spinning round
     — Do You Realize??

Wayne Coyne in Christmas on MarsThe Alien Super-Being gets great reception

The Lips also have more ambition than most of their contemporaries when it comes to the audiovisual aspects of a rock group’s responsibilities. They were inspired by how some of their forebears did more than contract third parties to film them live in concert or to direct hagiographic documentaries. The Beatles (A Hard Day’s Night, Help!, Yellow Submarine), The Who (Tommy, Quadrophenia), and Pink Floyd (The Wall) all made feature films that deserve to be considered among their canonical audio-only discography. As Lips frontman Wayne Coyne told Pitchfork:

we’d always talked about how the Flaming Lips should have a movie, like the Ramones have a movie, or the Beatles. Not in a pretentious way, just like, “Yeah! We should have a movie!” We thought, “Well, why not? We’ll just sort of make one and see what happens.”

They began talking up Christmas of Mars years ago, and the longer the delay, the greater the legend. It was rumored to be either an expensive folly on the scale of Axl Rose’s album Chinese Democracy (in production for 14 years for a budget of $13 million) or an elaborate meta joke. But in fact, the Lips did in all seriousness work on the project off and on for about seven years. They produced the whole thing in their stomping grounds of Oklahoma City, mostly around Coyne’s own home. For better or for worse, it’s entirely their vision, written and co-directed by Coyne, with Bradley Beesley (who directed several of the band’s music videos) and George Salisbury.

Surely Coyne & co. must have been familiar with the infamous b-movie Santa Claus Conquers the Martians (1964) (in the public domain and a free download). The spectacularly awful movie was hilariously massacred on both Mystery Science Theater 3000 in 1991 and by Cinematic Titanic in 2008. Like this ignoble predecessor, Christmas on Mars is saddled with long sequences of bad dialogue delivered poorly by amateur actors. Even cameos by the Lips’ pals Fred Armisen and Adam Goldberg are really awkward.

Partly inspired by the psychedelia of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (read The Dork Report review), Christmas on Mars actually owes more to the blue-collar atmosphere of Ridley Scott’s Alien. The humans in Christmas on Mars are ordinary people in an extraordinary locale, struggling to survive. One year prior, humanity has established a dilapidated space station on Mars. Worse, the crew members are slowly going mad and suffering hallucinations. As they conclude, man is not meant to live in space. The sole purpose of the colony, other than constantly repairing its decaying infrastructure, seems to be to support a test-tube baby due on midnight, Christmas Eve. The only woman on the station lives in a bubble, feeding the baby through a tube grafted into her belly.

Wayne Coyne and Steven Drozd in Christmas on MarsThe Lips discretely invite you to enhance your viewing experience in whatever manner you choose

Major Syrtis (Lips member Steven Drozd) has taken it upon himself to organize a Christmas Pageant to raise morale. He is in fact partially responsible for their current predicament, as he apparently sacrificed storage space to cart some Christmas accoutrements to Mars, a decision that has near-fatal consequences for the colony. The colony’s only source for happiness is very nearly ruined when his chosen Santa commits suicide. The Alien Super-Being (Coyne) lands nearby in a spherical spacecraft, which conveniently shrinks to a size suitable to be swallowed until he needs it again. Even though Coyne wrote the script, and is quite a talker if the DVD’s bonus interviews are to be judged, the role he assigned himself has no dialogue. He fills Santa’s shoes and repairs both Syrtis’s busted snow machine and the colony itself. He saves Christmas and allows the baby to be born.

Far more interesting are the beautiful optical special effects (at least, I assume they’re optical – if they actually are digital, they’re uncommonly beautiful). Some of the abstract psychedelia was so freaky I feared it might burn out my aging television. Most curious is the strange preoccupation with vaginal imagery. The Alien Super-Being passes in and out of his spaceship through a vaginal portal. Syrtis hallucinates a visiting spaceman with a pulsating vagina for a face, and later dreams of an entire marching band with similar orifices in place of faces (say that ten times quickly).

A pre-movie sequence advises viewers to have sex, smoke pot, or just do whatever they like while watching the movie. This boring Dork Reporter dared to disobey these instructions and simply watched it alone at home, stone cold sober. Not to put too fine a point on it, I suspect Christmas on Mars is one of those things best experienced in an altered state.


Official movie site: www.flaminglips.com/content/film

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