Apart Hate: District 9

District 9 movie poster

 

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 mélange 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 à 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

Buy any of these fine prod­ucts from Ama­zon and kick back a few pen­nies to The Dork Report:

 

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/

Buy the DVD from Ama­zon and kick back a few pen­nies to The Dork Report.

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.”


Buy the DVD from Ama­zon and kick back a few pen­nies to The Dork Report.

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…


Buy the DVD from Ama­zon and kick back a few pen­nies to The Dork Report.

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.


Buy the DVD from Ama­zon and kick back a few pen­nies to The Dork Report.

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.


Buy the DVD from Ama­zon and kick back a few pen­nies to The Dork Report.

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 cliché. 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

Buy the DVD from Ama­zon and kick back a few pen­nies to The Dork Report.

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.


Buy the DVD from Ama­zon and kick back a few pen­nies to The Dork Report.

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

Buy the DVD and sound­track CD from Ama­zon and kick back a few pen­nies to The Dork Report.