Untangling The Terminator Timeline

The Ter­mi­na­tor fran­chise is cooked from a core recipe of cyborgs, time travel, bul­lets, and explo­sions, sea­soned with themes of des­tiny, para­noia, and techno­pho­bia. Sub­tract or sub­sti­tute too many of these ingre­di­ents and you wind up with some­thing not-Terminator. Ter­mi­na­tor Sal­va­tion is the first episode to dare to omit the foun­da­tional time travel ele­ment. Its “present” is the post-apocalyptic future we only glimpsed in the pre­vi­ous films, and the clos­est thing to time travel is the very con­ven­tional sto­ry­telling con­ceit of a flash­back. It’s curi­ous that in a media land­scape where frac­tured, non-chronological nar­ra­tives are the norm (par­tic­u­larly on tele­vi­sion, most notably in Lost and Break­ing Bad) that the Ter­mi­na­tor series would retreat to a safer, more lin­ear nar­ra­tive structure.

While one might imag­ine that would result in a more straight­for­ward con­tin­u­a­tion of the saga, I found it raised more ques­tions than it answered. I’m either over– or under­think­ing things, or more likely expect­ing too much of a post-exhausted escapist action fran­chise, but the Ter­mi­na­tor chronol­ogy seems more entan­gled with para­doxes than ever. Let’s start with a con­densed overview of the four fea­ture films to date, com­piled from Wikipedia, Empire Online, io9, and the Ter­mi­na­tor Wiki. For simplicity’s sake, I’m omit­ting The Sarah Con­nor Chron­i­cles TV series and any other spin­off comics, games, nov­els, or what­ever other assorted ephemera that has since only mud­dled things further:

off­screen:

  • 1959 (T1, T2) or 1965 (T3): Sarah Con­nor born

The Ter­mi­na­tor (1984)

  • The present: 1984 (Los Angeles)
  • Judge­ment Day: August 29, 1997 (spec­i­fied in T2)
  • The future: 2029

off­screen:

  • 1985: John Con­nor born

Ter­mi­na­tor 2: Judge­ment Day (1991)

  • The present: 1995 (John Con­nor is 10)
  • Judge­ment Day: August 29, 1997
  • The future: 2029 (same date given in T1, but SkyNet is markedly more advanced)

off­screen:

  • 1997: Sarah Con­nor dies of leukemia (T3)

Ter­mi­na­tor 3: Rise of the Machines (2003)

  • The present: 2004
  • Judge­ment Day: July 24, 2004 (delayed from 1997 by events of T2)
  • The future: 2032

Ter­mi­na­tor Sal­va­tion (2009)

  • Pre­lude: 2003 (Texas death row, prior to the events of T3)
  • Judge­ment Day: July 24, 2004 (not spec­i­fied; I’m assum­ing it’s the same as pre­dicted in T3)
  • The present: 2018 (the ear­li­est vision of the future seen yet)

So across four films, our heroes suc­ceed in delay­ing the dread Judge­ment Day only once, and never out­right pre­vent it. Per­haps the supremacy of arti­fi­cial intel­li­gence is inevitable, like Ray Kurzweil’s pre­dic­tions of the com­ing Tech­no­log­i­cal Sin­gu­lar­ity.

Four TerminatorsFour movies, four Ter­mi­na­tors: T-600 (Ter­mi­na­tor Sal­va­tion), T-800 (The Ter­mi­na­tor), T-1000 (Ter­mi­na­tor 2), T-X (Ter­mi­na­tor 3)

Per­haps eas­i­est to straighten out is the evo­lu­tion of the vil­lain­ous SkyNet’s foot­sol­dier: the tit­u­lar Ter­mi­na­tor. At the time of Ter­mi­na­tor Sal­va­tion, SkyNet has only deployed the crude T-600, basi­cally a tank on legs that could be mis­taken for a human only at a great dis­tance. Ter­mi­na­tor Sal­va­tion also shows an inter­me­di­ate stage in SkyNet’s plan to cre­ate “infil­tra­tion units”, cyborgs that can ingra­ti­ate them­selves into human enclaves. The pro­to­type turns out to be not very reli­able — far more human than machine — so SkyNet’s skunkworks are already mass-producing all-machine suc­ces­sor, the T-800. Sarah and Reese suc­cess­fully destroyed one of these in The Ter­mi­na­tor, but frag­ments sur­vived destruc­tion and were (para­dox­i­cally) used to cre­ate SkyNet. So, not only is Judge­ment Day not averted, SkyNet is even more advanced in the ver­sion of 2029 seen in Ter­mi­na­tor 2 than the 2029 we see glimpses of in The Ter­mi­na­tor. Sarah and Reese arguably made things worse, for SkyNet devel­oped the more high-tech liq­uid metal Ter­mi­na­tor model T-1000. The events of T2 delay Judge­ment Day until July 24, 2004. Around 2032, SkyNet devel­oped the even more advanced T-X (a hybridized model uti­liz­ing both an endoskele­ton and a liq­uid metal skin) seen in Ter­mi­na­tor 3: Rise of the Machines. SkyNet also evi­dences an enhanced sense of aes­thet­ics, as the T-X is markedly more sexy.

The adult John Con­nor we see in Ter­mi­na­tor 4 has not yet become the leader of the resis­tance that nearly defeats SkyNet in the future of The Ter­mi­na­tor. So, in Ter­mi­na­tor Sal­va­tion, what does he think when he’s pre­sented with a plan to per­ma­nently defeat SkyNet? Does he know the plan is doomed to fail because he knows his future self will still be fight­ing SkyNet in the future? In which case, why bother to help? It might be in his best inter­ests to actively thwart the plan.

Also, how does SkyNet know in 2018 that John Con­nor and Kyle Reese must be assas­si­nated? Nei­ther has yet become a leader. Nei­ther has time travel been invented (yet), so SkyNet can’t know (once again, yet) what these two humans will become, or that SkyNet in the future will try at least three times to kill John before Judge­ment Day.

The easy way out of these ques­tions already exists in the Ter­mi­na­tor canon: accord­ing to the rules of time travel as estab­lished in the Ter­mi­na­tor uni­verse, the time­line is not fixed, and may be altered. This con­ceit only raises more ques­tions: if the plan suc­ceeds, he will never become the leader of the resis­tance. He will never send Kyle Reese back in time to become his father, and he will have never existed to put in motion his plan to save human­ity. If he suc­ceeds, will he be erased from his­tory? If so, why do we not seem him grap­ple with this inter­est­ing exis­ten­tial ques­tion onscreen? Would this not be the entire point of finally revis­it­ing the long-running char­ac­ter of John Con­nor as an adult? It would seem the film­mak­ers are more inter­ested in spe­cial effects spec­ta­cle than char­ac­ter or deeper themes.

Edward Furlong, Christian Bale, Nick Stahl, and Michael Edwards as John Connor in The Terminator moviesThree movies, four John Con­nors: Edward Fur­long (Ter­mi­na­tor 2), Nick Stahl (Ter­mi­na­tor 3), Chris­t­ian Bale (Ter­mi­na­tor Sal­va­tion), Michael Edwards (Ter­mi­na­tor 2)

All of which brings me to my biggest philo­soph­i­cal prob­lem with the core of the entire Ter­mi­na­tor con­cept: what makes John Con­nor so impor­tant? Ter­mi­na­tor Sal­va­tion is the first install­ment in the story to finally depict him in action as the mature rebel leader SkyNet is so afraid of. But the most influ­en­tial acts of lead­er­ship we see are mere moti­va­tional radio addresses meant to inspire a defeated human­ity to keep fight­ing, a far cry from the mes­sianic mil­i­tary com­man­der that will sup­pos­edly lead human­ity to its sal­va­tion. His sup­posed des­tiny is described by the cyn­i­cal Gen­eral Ash­down (Michael Iron­side) as a reli­gious prophecy. I would have liked to see more doubt on the part of the resis­tance that he’s any­thing spe­cial, at least yet. But instead, he inspires blind loy­alty (except for a colleague’s act of spec­tac­u­lar treach­ery in releas­ing a cyborg mole, whom they have every right to believe is a SkyNet agent). Also, why doesn’t any­body just call him “John” or “Con­nor” or “hey you”? He’s appar­ently so impor­tant that every­one always refers to him by his full name, per­haps so the audi­ence is per­pet­u­ally reminded of his por­ten­tous ini­tials, which rather obvi­ously reflect the character’s cre­ator James Cameron, as well as another mytho­log­i­cal sav­ior of human­ity from two mil­len­nia past.


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Apocalypse Porn: Terminator Salvation

Terminator Salvation movie poster

 

Ter­mi­na­tor Sal­va­tion was released in a year curi­ously rife with apoc­a­lypse porn. The visions of world’s end in the­aters that year var­ied wildly in tone: every­thing from illu­mi­nat­ing art to alarmism to escapism. The com­pe­ti­tion to bum you out included Roland Emmerich’s 2012, which uti­lized the best spe­cial effects tech­nol­ogy money could buy to depict the sys­tem­atic destruc­tion of inter­na­tional land­marks, and John Hillcoat’s The Road (read The Dork Report review), which imag­ined the scat­tered rem­nants of human­ity scrab­bling to sur­vive in a world they may have them­selves dec­i­mated, but long past a point where blame had any mean­ing. Tech­nol­ogy is both destroyer and sal­va­tion in Ter­mi­na­tor and 2012, but largely irrel­e­vant to the strag­glers cling­ing to life in The Road. All of humanity’s inven­tions are gone, and give nei­ther aid nor harm.

For the Ter­mi­na­tor series to be such a long-lasting mass enter­tain­ment is odd, con­sid­er­ing it is set in a des­o­late, post-nuclear-war world ruled by a self-aware arti­fi­cial intel­li­gence. It would seem that a dis­trust of tech­nol­ogy and fear of world war is a per­pet­ual moti­va­tion to go to the cin­ema. James Cameron’s orig­i­nal sci­ence fic­tion night­mare is vin­tage 1984, with old-school opti­cal spe­cial effects and stop motion ani­ma­tion that, depend­ing on your point of view, are either quaint or relics of a lost era of hand­made moviemak­ing. But its core con­cept was strong enough to become arche­typal of an entire genre, inspir­ing count­less deriv­a­tive works. The Wachowski Broth­ers stole it out­right for The Matrix, where self-aware com­puter pro­grams turn against the human civ­i­liza­tion that cre­ated them, like the Ter­mi­na­tors before them. The Ter­mi­na­tors stage a mali­cious holo­caust of pure exter­mi­na­tion, but the Matrix pro­grams instead vir­tu­ally enslave the human race while they feed on giant elec­tri­cal bat­ter­ies com­prised of farmed human bod­ies. While the epony­mous Matrix was a weapon of frat­ri­cide, The Ter­mi­na­tors were instead locked in a game of time-travel chess. But in each case, the off­spring of human­ity are afflicted with pro­found Freudian com­plexes: they are fix­ated on con­sum­ing their parents.

Christian Bale and Sam Worthington in Terminator SalvationThat’s so $&#%ing unpro­fes­sional, you $&#%ing cyborg infil­tra­tion unit!

The cast of Ter­mi­na­tor Sal­va­tion was more pop­u­lated with famous names than it needed to be. Chris­t­ian Bale is now the fourth actor to play the role of humanity’s sav­ior John Con­nor, and with apolo­gies to Edward Fur­long, Nick Stahl, and Thomas Dekker, the first mar­quee name. One need look no fur­ther to spot the biggest gam­ble this film makes: nobody went to see any of the pre­vi­ous three Ter­mi­na­tor films because they were fas­ci­nated by the good guy. From the very begin­ning, the big draw for audi­ences (and the plum role for any actor look­ing to make a splash) was the vil­lain. The epony­mous cyborg antag­o­nist James Cameron cre­ated quickly became iconic and launched body­builder Arnold Schwarzeneg­ger to Hol­ly­wood star­dom and, even more implau­si­bly, a polit­i­cal career.

Bale is com­ing from an entirely dif­fer­ent place than a ‘roided-up Aus­trian ama­teur thes­pian in 1984. Bale is a capital-S Seri­ous Actor, from the very begin­ning of his career as the child lead in Steven Spielberg’s still under-appreciated Empire of the Sun through to his mod­ern resur­gence in Mary Harron’s con­tro­ver­sial Amer­i­can Psy­cho. Like Brando and Crowe before him, Bale comes across as an angry and humor­less guy — pos­si­bly even unsta­ble — in most of his roles and even his pub­lic per­sona. Indeed, rumors of his ill tem­per were seem­ingly con­firmed by his infa­mous erup­tion on the set of Ter­mi­na­tor Sal­va­tion in July 2008.

Terminator SalvationThis is as good a place as any to ask: why do the Ter­mi­na­tor movies refer to these as “endoskele­tons”? Isn’t that redundant?

A pes­simist might even imag­ine Bale’s histri­on­ics part of a pub­lic­ity cam­paign to cre­ate aware­ness and pos­i­tive buzz — not just for a movie that stu­dio exec­u­tives might con­sider an unsure prospect in need of a mar­ket­ing boost, but even to cement his own sexy rep­u­ta­tion as a loose can­non or Hol­ly­wood bad boy. In the end, a hissy fit thrown by a hand­some and over­paid celebrity wasn’t enough to pre­vent minor box office dis­ap­point­ment and tepid reviews, (a mod­est 52% on Meta­critic). At the very least, Bale’s tabloid pres­ence helped most of the celebrity obsessed world become aware that there was a new Ter­mi­na­tor film com­ing out, when pre­vi­ously only Comic-Con attend­ing sci-fi geeks had been pay­ing atten­tion. Per­son­ally, know­ing about Bale’s tantrum before­hand actu­ally took me out of the expe­ri­ence of watch­ing the film on its own mer­its. I was con­tin­u­ously dis­tracted by won­der­ing which par­tic­u­lar scene stressed him out enough to blow his top.

Bale’s prickly per­sona might make him emi­nently suit­able for roles like the dri­ven resis­tance leader John Con­nor, but it makes his range seem quite lim­ited. He employs the exact same set of man­ner­isms he used for Bruce Wayne in Bat­man and The Dark Knight (read The Dork Report review): a hoarse voice, tensed pos­ture, and lowered-head thousand-yard stare. Bale may play the top-billed role in The Dark Knight and Ter­mi­na­tor Sal­va­tion, but he is arguably not the real pro­tag­o­nist in either and is over­shad­owed by Two-Face (Aaron Eck­hart), The Joker (Heath Ledger), and Mar­cus Wright (Sam Wor­thing­ton) — both in terms of screen time as well as actorly showi­ness. Per­haps it’s a delib­er­ate choice on Bale’s part to seek out essen­tially sup­port­ing parts in which he allows his char­ac­ter to be sub­or­di­nate to a cast osten­si­bly billed below his name. Fit­tingly, Bale was to earn an Oscar the next year for an actual sup­port­ing role in David O. Russell’s The Fighter, so at least in one case his real-life per­sona com­pleted its redemp­tion arc, if his Ter­mi­na­tor role John Con­nor didn’t.

Moon Bloodgood in Terminator SalvationMoon Blood­good checks behind her for her character’s moti­va­tion. It’s got to be around this waste­land someplace.

I have noth­ing to back this alle­ga­tion up, but I’ve heard rumors that the orig­i­nal script for what became Ter­mi­na­tor Sal­va­tion cen­tered around the char­ac­ters of Mar­cus (Wor­thing­ton) and Reese (Anton Yelchin). Wor­thing­ton and Yelchin would have shared the focus, while the char­ac­ter of John Con­nor was rel­e­gated to a cameo appear­ance, but the role was greatly expanded when Chris­t­ian Bale became attached. This rumor could account for the rel­a­tive rich­ness (albeit trun­cated) of the Mar­cus char­ac­ter arc, as com­pared to the one-note Con­nor. It would have served both char­ac­ters bet­ter had the movie focused on just one tor­tured male savior.

Direc­tor McG’s Ter­mi­na­tor Sal­va­tion is by no means equal to James Cameron’s two orig­i­nal films, but it’s really not all that ter­ri­ble, and cer­tainly bet­ter than Jonathan Mostow’s Ter­mi­na­tor 3: Rise of the Machines. My the­ory is very sim­ple: it’s too grim. The first three movies all had some degree of humor, but Ter­mi­na­tor Salvation’s trail­ers and TV com­mer­cials made no attempt to tart it up as a good time. By far the high­light for the audi­ence I saw it with was the sud­den appear­ance of a famous T-800 model Ter­mi­na­tor, not entirely suc­cess­fully real­ized by apply­ing a CGI Arnold Schwarzeneg­ger head atop body­builder Roland Kickinger. If a lit­tle less than con­vinc­ing, it at least pro­vided some relief from the oppres­sive apoc­a­lyp­tic despair. Also, a newly recorded voiceover cameo by Linda Hamil­ton was a nice touch for nos­tal­gic fans. The always enter­tain­ingly eccen­tric Helena Bon­ham Carter appears in an sig­nif­i­cant cameo, with Bryce Dal­las Howard in a totally incon­se­quen­tial part that could have gone to a new­comer. Fol­low­ing the estab­lished rules of action flicks (per­haps best exem­pli­fied by Cameron’s Aliens), the cast includes the req­ui­site cute kid, but thank­fully she’s mute.

Bryce Dallas Howard in Terminator SalvationYes, Bryce Dal­las Howard is in this movie, for some rea­son. Still doing penance for The Lady in the Water, perhaps?

I was able to go along with the plot for the most part, but found the reduc­tion and over­sim­pli­fi­ca­tion frus­trat­ing. A global war against arti­fi­cially aware machines is con­densed down to a hand-to-hand bat­tle with a sin­gle T-800 on a fac­tory floor — a self-conscious retread of the cli­max of the orig­i­nal film. But per­haps this is a bet­ter dra­matic choice than what Cameron did in Aliens, which exces­sively mul­ti­plied the sin­gle alien threat of Rid­ley Scott’s orig­i­nal, effec­tively dimin­ish­ing the core premise that was appeal­ing in the first place: an almost inde­struc­tible crea­ture dri­ven by pure bio­log­i­cal instinct, not malice.

Another fatal flaw with Ter­mi­na­tor Sal­va­tion is a con­sis­tent prob­lem with many char­ac­ters’ com­i­cally blasé reac­tions to extra­or­di­nary sit­u­a­tions. Connor’s right-hand man Reese res­cues a guy who claims never to have seen a Ter­mi­na­tor before, or even know what year it is. But Reese sim­ply answers his ques­tions, and never won­ders just where the hell this weirdo’s been the past few years. Also, I under­stand Williams (Moon Blood­good) bond­ing with Mar­cus after he res­cues her from gang rape, but she risks the safety of an entire human out­post when she decides to free him. This choice goes beyond under­stand­able impul­sive­ness and into the realm of lunacy.

Also curi­ous is an appar­ent lack of imag­i­na­tion in real­iz­ing futur­is­tic tech­nol­ogy. We’re told the Ter­mi­na­tors com­mu­ni­cate over old-school short­wave, so evi­dently SkyNet hasn’t taken over the satel­lite net­work and blan­keted the planet in Wi-Fi or 3G. Maybe the robots found their recep­tion was as bad as Man­hat­tan AT&T sub­scribers. I won’t go into how the gleam­ingly sleek SkyNet HQ includes fancy touch­screen graph­i­cal user inter­faces designed for humans, or how Con­nor mirac­u­lously wit­nesses a nearby nuclear explo­sion with­out being atom­ized by the shock­wave, or at least going blind or con­tract­ing radi­a­tion sick­ness. Such a thin line between sus­pen­sion of dis­be­lief (for the pur­poses of thrills & spills) and sheer stu­pid­ity would bother any viewer with half a brain, whether the other half is cyber­netic or not.


Offi­cial movie site: terminatorsalvation.warnerbros.com

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

 

People Are Vectors: George A. Romero’s The Crazies

The George A. Romero Zombie Cycle

The Crazies movie poster

 

George A. Romero prac­ti­cally invented the lucra­tive zom­bie sub­genre with Night of the Liv­ing Dead in 1968, simul­ta­ne­ously trap­ping him­self within it for most of his sub­se­quent career. Romero’s zom­bies served him well enough for six films and count­ing, at least two of which tran­scended the genre and are still dis­cussed in seri­ous terms. His less famous later cre­ations the “cra­zies” only appeared in one of his films, but their influ­ence on pop­u­lar cul­ture is dis­pro­por­tion­ate to their fame. They are arguably the­mat­i­cally richer and — despite not tech­ni­cally being zom­bies, per se — exert a greater influ­ence on most sig­nif­i­cant sub­se­quent zom­bie films by other directors.

The Cra­zies (1973) may not belong to Romero’s offi­cial Liv­ing Dead cycle, but what sets it apart is mostly a mat­ter of brand­ing. Zom­bies had cap­tured the pop­u­lar imag­i­na­tion in a way that the more vaguely-defined cra­zies could not, at least at first. The clas­si­cal Romero-style zom­bie is sim­ply a rean­i­mated corpse with an insa­tiable ani­mal hunger in place of higher brain func­tion — in effect a sub­trac­tion of the intan­gi­ble human essence, or what a reli­gious per­son would describe as a soul. In con­trast, a crazy is exactly what it sounds like: a liv­ing per­son dri­ven to unchecked vio­lence and lust, while still remain­ing rec­og­niz­ably human.

A scene from George A. Romero's The Crazies“Peo­ple are vectors.”

The most sig­nif­i­cant inno­va­tion Romero intro­duced in The Cra­zies can be summed up in its most chill­ing line: “peo­ple are vec­tors.” In Night of the Liv­ing Dead, it was enough for Romero to vaguely drop hints of some sort of mys­te­ri­ous extrater­res­trial radi­a­tion caus­ing the dead to rise. The virus fac­tor would pre­oc­cupy sub­se­quent zom­bie auteurs for decades, par­tic­u­larly Danny Boyle with 28 Days Later. It’s a rich con­cept that touches on many sen­si­tive themes: pol­lu­tion, con­spir­acy the­o­ries, bio­log­i­cal war­fare, sex­u­ally trans­mit­ted dis­eases, and pan­demics. While now vir­tu­ally every non-Romero zom­bie movie defaults to a viral ori­gin story, it seems that Romero him­self is dis­in­ter­ested in the mechan­ics of either zom­bies or cra­zies. He’d much rather focus on randomly-selected bands of sur­vivors, on the run in a world where soci­ety has bro­ken down. Liv­ing humans are a greater dan­ger than mon­sters, and death is no longer absolute.

All the usual Romero tropes are present, par­tic­u­larly insti­tu­tional cor­rup­tion and inep­ti­tude. On the macro level, the U.S. gov­ern­ment and mil­i­tary serve their own inter­ests first, to the degree that they func­tion at all. The gov­ern­ment has secretly engi­neered and weaponized a virus with the innocu­ous code­name Trixie and acci­den­tally releases it into the water sup­ply of small town Evans City, PA (a real town, where por­tions were actu­ally filmed). As in Inva­sion of the Body Snatch­ers, the action remains in the small burb for the entirety of the film. For­get Patient Zero; this is Town Zero.

George A. Romero's The CraziesThe mil­i­tary tries to clean up its own mess

The author­i­ties swoop in and attempt to quar­an­tine the bucolic burb until the virus burns itself out. We learn they were blithely aware of the risks in trans­port­ing the virus, and remain chill­ingly apa­thetic even after the begin­nings of cat­a­stro­phe. One espe­cially cold­blooded gen­eral casu­ally munches sand­wiches while dis­cussing how to con­tain the epi­demic. Romero’s usual sym­pa­thies are for the indi­vid­ual con­science ham­strung by soul­less bureau­cra­cies. Even in Day of the Dead, where the mil­i­tary was the pri­mary source of con­flict, some indi­vid­u­als remained sym­pa­thetic. In The Cra­zies, Major Ryder (Harry Spill­man) and Colonel Peckam (Lloyd Hol­lar) strug­gle as much against their supe­ri­ors’ coun­ter­pro­duc­tive orders as they do try­ing to pacify the cra­zies on the bat­tle­field and pro­tect the uninfected.

Even the civil­ians have deep ties to the armed forces. David (Will MacMil­lan) and Clank (Harold Wayne Jones) are Viet­nam War vet­er­ans who now find them­selves in oppo­si­tion to the insti­tu­tions they once served. They spend most of the movie com­pletely in the dark as to why their town is in chaos, and in fact come into vio­lent con­flict more fre­quently with the mil­i­tary than with their now-insane for­mer friends and neighbors.

Romero also con­tin­ues his tra­di­tion of fore­ground­ing women and peo­ple of color. The ranks of Duane Jones in Night of the Liv­ing Dead, Lori Cardille in Day of the Dead, and John Leguizom­bie Leguizamo in Land of the Dead are joined by Judy (Lane Car­roll), a preg­nant nurse who ini­tially assists the military’s con­tain­ment efforts. Her char­ac­ter is far more sig­nif­i­cant and inte­gral to the plot than her equiv­a­lent in Breck Eisner’s mediocre 2010 remake, played by Radha Mitchell. It’s sad but per­haps unsur­pris­ing that a B-movie from 1973 would fea­ture a stronger fem­i­nist char­ac­ter than one from the 21st century.

George A. Romero's The CraziesLynn Lowry inau­gu­rates her career as a scream queen

But on the other hand (you knew that “but” was com­ing), the other pri­mary female role is played by Lynn Lowry as an impos­si­bly ethe­real and wil­lowy teen with a marked resem­blance to Sissy Spacek. The character’s pri­mary func­tion is to look inno­cently gor­geous and be raped by her infected father. Lowry would go on to a long career as a scream queen in sex­ploita­tion films.

The Cra­zies is largely humor­less in tone, save for ironic music cues through­out. A per­sis­tent mar­tial snare drum plays under oth­er­wise rather dull scenes of Ryder and Peckam argu­ing in a cheap office set, and “Johnny Comes March­ing Home” accom­pa­nies sequences of desen­si­tized sol­diers sum­mar­ily exe­cut­ing detainees.

The estab­lish­ment of mar­tial law and mil­i­tary occu­pa­tion of a town on Amer­i­can soil raise the ques­tion: how do you tell the dif­fer­ence between gen­uine resis­tance and mur­der­ous rage, which is to say, just plain crazy plus capital-c Crazy? Is not killing and shoot­ing other human beings by def­i­n­i­tion crazy, espe­cially when sys­tem­at­i­cally oper­ated by the gov­ern­men­tal and mil­i­tary orga­ni­za­tions that are sup­posed to pro­tect and serve life? In the movie’s most charged sequence, a priest immo­lates him­self on his church steps. In 1973, it would have been an unmis­tak­able visual allu­sion to the Bud­dhist monks that self-immolated to protest the Viet­nam War. A sol­dier exe­cutes him. Was the priest protest­ing or Crazy? Was the sol­dier mer­ci­ful or Crazy?


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.

Quarantine

Quarantine movie poster

 

Quar­an­tine, remade by direc­tor John Erick Dow­dle (co-written with brother Drew) from the Span­ish movie REC (2007), fol­lows in the now-firmly estab­lished hor­ror faux­men­tary tra­di­tion. Pre­vi­ous entries Blair Witch Project, Diary of the Dead, and Clover­field are all osten­si­bly com­prised of found footage recov­ered from cam­eras found at the scenes of hor­rific dis­as­ters. Quarantine’s only wrin­kle is that, unlike its pre­de­ces­sors, this pre­tense is not explained as such on screen. Quarantine’s con­ceit is that we’re watch­ing raw footage, edited in-camera, aban­doned by the late char­ac­ters them­selves. There are no implied, unseen sur­vivors that picked up the pieces.

Clover­field (read The Dork Report review) never pro­vided a con­vinc­ing psy­cho­log­i­cal moti­va­tion to explain why its cin­e­matog­ra­pher would keep his cam­corder run­ning through­out his des­per­ate flight from toxic alien crea­tures swarm­ing across Man­hat­tan. A much more intel­li­gent exam­i­na­tion of an obses­sion to cap­ture every­thing on video came from the less expected source of none other than the zom­bie god­fa­ther him­self, George A. Romero. His under­rated Diary of the Dead (read The Dork Report review) fea­tures a group of young film stu­dents with pre­ten­sions to becom­ing great doc­u­men­tar­ian film­mak­ers, and what bet­ter sub­ject to doc­u­ment than their own first-hand expe­ri­ences dur­ing a zom­bie out­break? Although Clover­field had sig­nif­i­cantly greater bud­getary resources at its dis­posal to cre­ate eerily real­is­tic images of Man­hat­tan crum­bling beneath the feet of a Godzilla-like mon­ster, Quar­an­tine fol­lows in the more mod­est foot­steps of Diary of the Dead in striv­ing for greater psy­cho­log­i­cal realism.

Scott Percival in Quarantineground floor, com­ing up

In story terms, the jus­ti­fi­ca­tions for Quarantine’s char­ac­ters to keep film­ing con­tin­u­ally evolve as their cir­cum­stances worsen. Like Romero’s Dawn of the Dead (read The Dork Report review), Quar­an­tine fea­tures mem­bers of the press as main char­ac­ters. The first full 12 min­utes are devoted to reporter Angela Vidal (Jen­nifer Car­pen­ter) and cam­era­man Scott Per­ci­val (Steve Har­ris) shoot­ing a tele­vi­sion news seg­ment on a local fire depart­ment. By the time an emer­gency finally arrives and the duo hitches a ride along to the scene, we’ve become fully endeared to the bub­bly, spunky reporter and the charm­ingly filthy fire­fight­ers. As the rou­tine inves­ti­ga­tion turns into a con­fronta­tion with a feral-seeming elderly woman, Angela senses the oppor­tu­nity to score some sen­sa­tional footage. It’s clear she fan­cies her­self a more seri­ous reporter.

Later, as the elderly woman is revealed to be patient zero for a new highly con­ta­gious dis­ease, the Los Ange­les Cen­ter for Com­mu­ni­ca­ble Dis­ease quickly quar­an­tines the build­ing, cut­ting off all their com­mu­ni­ca­tions and falsely report­ing to the pub­lic that it has been evac­u­ated. The trapped ten­ants are a ran­dom assort­ment of Los Ange­lans: an opera tutor and his hot young live-in pro­tégé, a vet­eri­nar­ian, a clean­ing woman, a mom and her baby (whom we meet again near the end of the film, in hor­ri­fy­ing trans­formed fash­ion), toy dogs, an immi­grant cou­ple, and… what’s miss­ing? That’s right! If this is L.A., where are all the unem­ployed actors?

Build­ing man­ager Yuri (Rade Serbedz­ija) keeps con­ve­niently remem­ber­ing exits (includ­ing a back door and a base­ment entry to a sewer), but all are blocked. By this point, Angela has mor­phed into a right­eous cru­sader want­ing more footage as proof of the city’s out­rage against jus­tice and human rights. But when the virus spreads to most of the peo­ple trapped in the build­ing, the power goes off, and panic truly sets in, Angela’s moti­va­tions switch to pure sur­vival. The cam­era now only proves use­ful as a source of light, and any­thing cap­tured on video hap­pens by chance as they fran­ti­cally nav­i­gate through the cor­ri­dors. Then, in true hor­ror movie fash­ion, things get even worse. In a scene rival­ing the nail-biting base­ment sequence in Silence of the Lambs, Angela and Scott find them­selves bar­ri­caded in a pitch-black attic with their camera’s lamp bro­ken. The remain­der of the movie is seen through the green­ish haze of their night-vision filter.

Jennifer Carpenter in QuarantineIn true hor­ror movie fash­ion, Angela (Jen­nifer Car­pen­ter) sheds lay­ers of cloth­ing through­out her ordeal

While Quar­an­tine may seem to tip its hat to hor­ror tra­di­tion as pro­tag­o­nist Angela sheds lay­ers of cloth­ing over the course of her ordeal, the movie is actu­ally quite sub­ver­sive in show­ing her lose her spirit. Atyp­i­cally for a hor­ror movie pro­tag­o­nist, she is no plucky sur­vivor that defeats the men­ace. She pretty much just breaks down.

Quar­an­tine may be yet another in a long line of zom­bie flicks, but I would argue its true genre iden­tity is as an urban night­mare. Clover­field relived 9/11 in the form of another Godzilla and its highly toxic babies, and Guillermo Del Toro’s Mimic envi­sioned swarms of giant cock­roaches breed­ing in aban­doned sub­way sta­tions. Quar­an­tine touches on another deep anx­i­ety of urban dwellers: a viral con­ta­gion born of city filth. The entire out­break plays out in the con­fines of an aging ten­e­ment build­ing (with what seems to be a cloth­ing sweat­shop hid­den in the back), a place many city slick­ers might rec­og­nize as home.

What made Quar­an­tine the most fright­en­ing for me in par­tic­u­lar was not the gore or the booga-booga scare fac­tor, but rather the dis­turb­ing plau­si­bil­ity of its fic­tional dis­ease. In real­ity, all we hear about are the dan­gers of dis­eases like HIV jump­ing from bush­meat to humans, and the avian or swine flu incu­bat­ing in impov­er­ished nations where peo­ple live in close quar­ters with ani­mals. What about those of us liv­ing in devel­oped, sup­pos­edly civ­i­lized cites, full of dogs, roaches, rats, and yes, a cer­tain num­ber of crazy nutjobs?

A hyper-evolved form of the rabies virus is the most plau­si­ble pseudo-scientific expla­na­tion I’ve yet heard for zom­bies, espe­cially com­pared to the vaguely described Venu­sian radi­a­tion in Romero’s Night of the Liv­ing Dead (read The Dork Report review). Like the “super­flu” in Stephen King’s The Stand and the dis­tilled “rage” virus in Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later, this strain of rabies was genet­i­cally engi­neered by a lone ter­ror­ist holed up in the attic of the ten­e­ment. An omi­nous clue is dropped halfway through the film about an unaccounted-for ten­ant liv­ing in the attic. When we finally meet him, he appears to have been infected for quite some time. Blind and ema­ci­ated, he scram­bles around in the total dark­ness of his for­mer home and lab­o­ra­tory (scat­tered with dis­gust­ing med­ical pho­tos and news­pa­per clip­pings about Dooms­day Cults). The creepy fig­ure is played by the unusu­ally tall and slen­der Doug Jones, most recently seen as the Sil­ver Surfer in Fan­tas­tic Four and Abe Sapien in Hell­boy. I worked on the offi­cial web­site for Guillermo Del Toro’s mar­velous Pan’s Labyrinth, for which Jones was inter­viewed about his expe­ri­ences play­ing The Faun and The Pale Man; for some­one that so typ­i­cally plays mon­sters, he’s a super-nice, funny, and charm­ing dude. I skimmed through the bonus fea­tures on the Quar­an­tine DVD, and it’s a cry­ing shame that he appar­ently wasn’t interviewed.

In place of a musi­cal score, Quar­an­tine fea­tures a com­plex sound design built around an eerily creak­ing, groan­ing old build­ing. It also for­goes other stan­dard movie plea­sures, being a grue­some, depress­ing, and pun­ish­ing expe­ri­ence. In that respect, it’s sim­i­lar to how the nau­se­at­ingly (lit­er­ally) bleak Blind­ness (read The Dork Report review). In con­trast, the sub­lime Chil­dren of Men (read The Dork Report review) is the rare movie night­mare set at the brink of the end of human­ity that nev­er­the­less car­ries a spark of uplift and hope.


Offi­cial movie site: www.ContainTheTruth.com

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

Låt den rätte komma in (Let the Right One In)

Let the Right One In movie poster

 

Let the Right One In (Låt den rätte komma in) is unapolo­get­i­cally a vam­pire story. It fol­lows most of the rules of the genre but avoids the stan­dard trap­pings of spec­tac­u­lar blood­let­ting (like, say, Blade) and sim­plis­tic sex­ual metaphors (we’re look­ing at you, Twi­light). Direc­tor Tomas Alfred­son and screen­writer John Ajvide (adapt­ing his own novel) are star­tlingly frank not just in their depic­tions of the rit­u­al­is­tic vio­lence inher­ent in a vampire’s every­day toil, but also in the des­per­ate hungers and desires of all their human char­ac­ters as well.

Novel and film are both set in 1980s Swe­den, at a time when the famously inde­pen­dent, neu­tral nation was strug­gling through a Cold War eco­nomic reces­sion. 12-year-old Oskar (Kåre Hede­brant) is meek, frail, and so fair as to seem albino. He splits his time between a scold­ing mother and a lov­ing but dis­tant father with unex­plained secrets. The only time we see Oskar happy is when play­ing in the snow at his father’s rural home. An omi­nous guest arrives, mut­ing even con­ver­sa­tion (we never learn the man’s iden­tity, or the rea­son for his smoth­er­ing effect, but for story pur­poses it only mat­ters that Oskar can­not be happy even here). Oskar is con­stantly bul­lied by school thugs seem­ingly inspired by the sav­age tor­tur­ers from the movie Deliv­er­ance: their favorite taunt is to demand he squeal like a pig. The con­stant pres­sure dri­ves him mor­bidly inward, rapidly becom­ing a poten­tial dan­ger to him­self and oth­ers. He secretly col­lects grue­some news­pa­per clip­pings of local crimes, and sneaks out­side at night to play­act his vengeance with matches and a knife. It’s easy for a 21st Cen­tury viewer to imag­ine Oskar becom­ing a school shooter.

Lina Leandersson in Let the Right One InEli (Lina Lean­der­s­son) has been twelve for a long time

A mys­te­ri­ous cou­ple moves in next door in the dead of night: Eli (Lina Lean­der­s­son), a girl appear­ing about his age, and her adult com­pan­ion Håkan (Per Rag­nar). Eli inter­rupts one of Oskar’s soli­tary night­time revenge fan­tasies, and they strike up a sort of friend­ship. As the habit­u­ally aloof Eli warms to his com­pany, she advises him to fight back against his oppres­sors. When he gets a chance to do so, Hedebrant’s star­tling per­for­mance dur­ing his tri­umph con­veys a dis­turb­ing impres­sion of a too-young boy expe­ri­enc­ing a kind of ecstasy. Com­pare and con­trast his obvi­ous plea­sure with the wholly dis­pas­sion­ate mur­ders com­mit­ted by Eli and Håkan. One won­ders how Alfred­son directed the young actor towards such a per­for­mance, and how much Hede­brant knew about the sub­text of how the scene would play on the screen. As becomes clear, Eli may not have had the boy’s best inter­ests at heart; was she urg­ing him to stand up for him­self, or set­ting him up for a big­ger fall later? Either way, she suc­ceeds in bind­ing him more closely to her.

Although Oskar is pubes­cent, his infat­u­a­tion with her does not seem to be espe­cially sex­ual. His hungers are more for com­pan­ion­ship and under­stand­ing. Eli says she is “not a girl,” and asks Oskar if he would still like her were she not. With lit­tle hes­i­ta­tion, he answers yes. He catches a glimpse of her naked torso, see­ing what seems to be a cas­tra­tion mark. But Eli is far more than just not a girl. Sub­tle spe­cial effects give us fleet­ing images of her with eerily enlarged eyes and as an older woman. She is per­ma­nently frozen in a state of child­hood, but it seems she hasn’t matured intel­lec­tu­ally and emo­tion­ally as her body remains in sta­sis (unlike the young char­ac­ter Clau­dia in Anne Rice’s Inter­view With the Vam­pire). As she tells him “I’ve been twelve for a long time.”

Let the Right One InVam­pires are hot stuff in bed

Although it doesn’t resem­ble more typ­i­cal vam­pire tales, Let the Right One In does fol­low most of the mythos: vam­pires have to be invited in (hence the name; to enter unin­vited will cause a painful, bloody death — a fate Eli demon­strates to Oskar to prove her affec­tion for him); any vic­tim bit­ten but not killed will become a vam­pire (Eli is shown to break a victim’s spine after feed­ing — a belated form of mercy com­ing from a vam­pire, I sup­pose); house­cats are com­pelled to attack vam­pires (as seen in not one of the most con­vinc­ing spe­cial effects sequences), and sun­light causes them to spon­ta­neously com­bust (as seen in one very con­vinc­ing sequence).

Eli shares with Oskar her motto “To flee is life. To linger, death.” Like her encour­age­ment to fight back against bul­lies, here is the key to under­stand­ing the mys­tery of her devoted human com­pan­ion Håkan. Eli has out­sourced her phys­i­cal needs to her self­lessly devoted ser­vant, essen­tially mak­ing him into a ser­ial killer on her behalf. What moti­vates him to com­ply? Was he once a boy, like Oscar, that fell in love with her? What­ever their bond, she ensures that Oskar is next in line to become her new provider.

After writ­ing the above, I read The A.V. Club’s excel­lent Book Vs. Film: Let the Right One In by Tasha Robin­son (part of a series also includ­ing Watch­men). In short, yes, a great deal needed to be omit­ted from the novel to shape the story into a fea­ture film. But Robin­son approves; rather than leav­ing too much out, the movie fruit­fully chooses a very dif­fer­ent, more inter­nal ver­sion of the story. Some tid­bits gleaned from the arti­cle that may be of inter­est to any­one else that hasn’t read the book:

  • The book is a more graphic, con­ven­tional hor­ror story.
  • Oskar’s father’s friend is a less sin­is­ter char­ac­ter in the book. Sim­ply, he’s a drink­ing buddy, and Oskar’s oth­er­wise decent father is appar­ently a mean drunk.
  • The title is derived from a Mor­ris­sey song quoted in the book: “Let the right one in / let the old dreams die / let the wrong ones go / They can­not do what you want them to do”
  • The Oskar of the novel is over­weight, inspir­ing the bul­lies’ “piggy” taunts.
  • The Håkan of the book is a pedophile. Eli encoun­tered him as an adult, and she trades some sex­ual favors for his ser­vices. Skim­ming the com­ments left below Robinson’s arti­cle, I see most other view­ers inter­preted the movie the same way I did.

Offi­cial movie site: www.lettherightoneinmovie.com

Must read: Let the Wrong Sub­ti­tles in to Let the Right One In. Icons of Fright finds the Eng­lish trans­la­tion lacking.

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