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Total Recall is pornography.
I’m ashamed of myself — I was railing against the Total Recall remake in the days before its release, though mostly in jest, saying things like “It was Arnold, not Philip K. Dick, who made Total Recall great” and other words of wisdom in a similar vein. I wanted to see Total Recall for reasons a product of hard cynicism — ranging from ”I wonder what an Arnold movie is like without Arnold” to “I refuse to see Batman Begins 3*”, but didn’t include “I’m going to enjoy this.” Why wouldn’t I enjoy this? Despite the director’s not sterling resume, and the bland, depressing source (remake of an adaptation of an uncinematic short story), this movie is a complete joy, an absolute gem.
Total Recall 2012 benefits and suffers from its modernity. Gone are the more outlandish elements, like vagina-faced mutants and ancient aliens, and with those things the rapid-fire pace of imagination that elevates the original, which is reduced somewhat, though a significant residual fleshes out the world. And what a world — there is a broad and intimate attention to detail in a cityscape that takes turns being as big, beautiful, and absurd as the green and vertical city from Vanquish and the best Blade Runner mean streets since the original, beating out strong contenders for the throne like Natural City.
Granted, this reeks of ‘Christ, why even bother,’ much in the way of Natural City, and it’s true — Total Recall makes Minority Report seem more important than it is for crafting a Phildickian utopia that isn’t flooded by rain and defended by not umbrellas but neon parasols. It’d be a real issue if the city wasn’t so busy, so energetic, serving as a satisfying and dazzling backdrop for action that’s more intense and entertaining than expected in a PG-13 movie. It’s good action, not splatterfest action like the original. They’re both good, but in different ways. Nobody’s getting used as body shields, but I think Kate Beckinsale just punched Colin Farrell in the face with her vagina.
There’s zero-gravity, futuristic gadgets, and some very cool-looking robots thrown into the mix. It’s a streamlined art direction that offers a more focused, cyberpunk look than the original at the price of a playful, more unpredictable quality (like Inception vs. Paprika). Bill Nighy plays the resistance leader, but rather than being a mutant on the stomach of some other dude, he forgets where he is and assumes it’s The Matrix Reloaded, saying things like “Memories are constructs of the Mayan-dah,” and then looking up and winking at the Architect, who’s of course always watching.
The characters are pale shadows of their former selves (with one alarming exception), as there’s nothing visually interesting about them, and the serious attitude of the film keeps dialogue on the straight. I never realized how much of a non-character Quaid was until someone un-Schwarzenegger played him — he’s a blank slate searching for his identity, which is a compelling premise for a character, though better yet a short story, but doesn’t make for a particularly charming or memorable hero. He’s good at killing people, and that’s what counts, along with the generally strong performances — Bryan Cranston will never play a goof again, you can count on it.
When the fight is done and the hero and heroine look in each other’s eyes, it hit me what a hollow experience this movie was, favoring the ideas over any character development or drama, and not expounding on those ideas as expertly as the author, or introducing any new concepts. But then I thought back and remembered how much I actually enjoyed Kate Beckinsale’s character going around doing stuff. It’s sad that Richter and Sharon Stone’s characters have been combined into one, such that Ironside never gets his arms chopped off by an elevator, and nobody gets pierced through the skull with divorce, but Beckinsale plays one awesomely ass-kicking lady, a villain who isn’t sympathetic or interesting, but is extremely fun to watch. She runs hard after Quaid, and her physical performance heightens the action. And obviously, she looks good doing it all.
But this amounts to little more than pure guilt — guilty pleasure of the highest order. Total Recall may not be considered very important in the realm of science-fiction, but it’s unique for being one of the few action movies with nearly non-stop action. Quaid and Jessica Biel bound from set-piece to set-piece as the collateral damage and body count rise faster than you can groan at all the visual homages that put Terminator Salvation to shame. Why did the director say this movie would be more like the short story than the original movie? It’s just less like the original movie. There’s no tiny alien invasion, or anything completely odd.
This is a good thing, however. Total Recall 1990, an adaptation of a pretty good short story, is a really fun story, and I appreciate its immortalization in remake form, as well as the remake itself, which is an energetic and colorful adventure with a lot of pretty things to look at**, whether that be the city, the action, the robots, or the very attractive and active lead women.
*(On The Dark Knight Rises): Hey, the fights may be hampered by poor fight choreography and dumbass costumes, but he finally nailed the cinematography (stood still) and surrounded the action with pure spectacle — more like Batman Begins than… that other one
**(On Art Direction): Just one problem: the guns. The pistols were fine, but I recognize the rifles from reality, or at least, the reality of near future weapons that find homes in like, Ghost Recon. They look cool, but why not design something new? I could be wrong… maybe it was just a dream.
As good a job the movie does at world-building, setting up warring factions and dealing with two external factors to Mars and revealing things at reasonable beats to our audience proxy, we never get a good sense of geography in this far-out Barsoom place. They juggle a lot of things while they push the honestly pretty sluggish story forward, but it’s difficult to be invested in that most important thing — the planet — when we barely know what it looks like. John Carter is suffused with desert, and we see some areas in the Thark territory (the green alien-looking aliens), but we only get glimpses of the big cities that are eventually attacked.
John Carter is a lot like Avatar, and that’s — I know, I know — because Cameron was inspired by the Burroughs series in the making of Avatar, and by extension his career, Avatar being a project conceived in the mid-80s. In Avatar, James Cameron built a world, and wasn’t about to not show it, so we got a whole hell of a lot of Pandora. There were jungles and flying mountains and tangles of trees where the Na’vi hung out. As ridiculous as the Na’vi culture is, I felt more comfortable with their world than I did with Barsoom.
This is a complaint I didn’t expect to have, especially after seeing the movie, in 3D, by the way. Real-D 3D, in fact. It’s apparent that director Andrew Stanton and company were set to do the material and its legacy right and make an epic. Not only is the original story a big sweeping tale, it’s inspired some of the biggest names in science-fiction film, from Star Wars all the way up to Avatar. Their movie, called John Carter for whatever reason, needed to be huge in scope and scale.
I appreciate what this does for storytelling to some degree. As much as I thought it dragged in a few places, the treatment of the narrative’s formulaic nature really harkened back to traditional storytelling I always enjoyed out of Disney animated movies. By comparison, Tron Legacy very nearly seems complex. This A to B style is a welcome change — and in John Carter, there are heroes and villains, and heroes fight villains and the darkness inside the hero is quelled as he’s redeemed and overcomes his past. This is good old fashioned science-fiction fun, exactly what you’ve heard from critics.
What irks me about this decision to go epic, which for the record, was the only option, is that omce again, the runtime was too long. The story isn’t overly simple, but there are recognizeable steps in the narrative that every once in a while make the viewer feel like a precog — we know John’s gonna come around and help out. There wouldn’t be much a movie if he didn’t, so why’s it taking him so long? There’s anxiety and frustration there, as if the writers are holding the big action ending over our heads and making us wait. Well, not as if — that’s exaclty what it is, and the only explanation is that they feel compelled to hit these story beats in such a story template.
So it’s the story template, the same thing that killed Avatar nearly does in John Carter, though the excuse here is that Burroughs set the goddamn template with John Carter of Mars a hundred years ago. But this is an adaptation, lest we forget. With that said, the A Princess of Mars story seems to make a pretty successful transition to the screen, though I haven’t read the whole thing. And while the movie couldn’t have been called A Princess of Mars, there was no reason to call it John Carter over John Carter of Mars, which I assume is what it was throughout it’s unreasonably long development cycle, a saga in itself. The title screen (which shows up at the end of the movie, a new trend) even says “John Carter of Mars,” but that’s perhaps a reflection on the character’s arc more than miscommunication between creators and execs.
I left the theatre yesterday feeling a little confused. I enjoyed some parts, was impatient through most of it, and kind of missed the world when the movie was over, but wouldn’t really want to return. The characters were charming, but there’s an interesting dynamic going on here — there characters spend the movie figuring each other out. They don’t operate on the same plane, which makes dialogue interesting, but different. I don’t know how I feel about it. The acting was good all around. I’m a big fan of Dominic West, but he didn’t get too much play here.
So in the end, unfortunately, one of the key highlights of John Carter was the 3D trailer for Prometheus at its front. It’s good however, to have such a pulpy story given a mature, modern treatment, as this is Hollywood afterall. I remember seeing a still from Avatar of Col. Quarritch holding a futuristic pistol with the alien planet in the background and thinking Christ — this could be a still from fucking Saturn 3 or something. But it was actually from a Best Picture-nominated (not that that makes much of a difference to me, personally, it’s more a reflection on the popular audience), billion-dollar making movie. I appreciate John Carter and Avatar as signs of things to come — people are taking the genre more seriously, and getting recognition for it. Indeed, Children of Men is an incredible and important science-fiction film, but it’s downright underrated. When the next Children of Men came out just three years later — District 9 — it wasn’t as overlooked, wasn’t overlooked at all that is.
When mortality hangs into frame strongly every moment, like high-beams reaching the end of the road, does life become precious — or oppresive? How do we cope with forces beyond our control, if we’ve never known control to begin with? There’s a central metaphor in Never Let Me Go, a film directed by Mark Romanek and written by Alex Garland (adapted off a novel by Kazuo Ishiguro), the young people born into life as organ donors double as mirrors to us — this is even acknowledged by our heroine in the final moments. It’s not entirely original, and in fact I’d even direct those science-fiction fans disappointed by Michael Bay’s The Island to this one, but Never Let Me Go manages to be wholly gripping despite the lack of novelty in its premise.
This is an odd thing to say; isn’t The Matrix wholly gripping despite being preempted by everything from Dark City to Rene Descartes? Yes, but The Matrix is a real American John Woo movie jam-packed with everything we want to see. Never Let Me Go has an incredibly low-key execution, dealing very little in science or set pieces, or anything visual. It’s a dead-sombre romance drama, one that from scene to scene finds characters occupying time talking or looking off into the horizon. This is both a chief issue and the spirit of the film, the thing that characterizes the fabric of the movie for better or worse. While watching it I never really had that wonderful sensation of ‘I’m actually really enjoying this,’ at a random moment like other recent watches like Mission Impossible or Contagion, but after the handful of very emotionally intense scenes, I was thorougly taken.
These great areas of the movie do however serve to make clear to me what could have been and isn’t in Never Let Me Go. Great potential here is couched in already working material, but the potential is hard to ignore. Because the movie is an adaptation, there is something lost in translation as there is universally in adaptations, something more abstract than a scene or Tom Bombadil. It might just be confidence, as a story takes form in its initial medium for a reason. In this case it was a novel, not a script. This isn’t a knock on Alex Garland, a writer I admire very much after Sunshine in particular, rather it’s criticism of the institution of adaptation with Never Let Me Go as the current case study.
Pacing is the problem. We spend so much time on narrative areas that could be trimmed or summed up, and to maintain precious film real estate (a meta-commentary on themes internal, perhaps) significant ideas or arcs are left only implied. It’s difficult for me in particular who, because of watching and being so fond of Hollywood movies, appreciates traditional storytelling in movies, because I would approach this movie by spending more time on the romance between Kathy and Tommy, which would doubtless have drawn impressive moments of sci-fi driven drama.
Of course, Tommy spends more time with Ruth and very little with Kathy because that’s the movie, their ultimate tragedy. They’re in love, but can’t be together — a classic doomed lovers story where time, circumstance, and predestination stand in for rivalling families. On paper, this is great. In execution, it works holistically, but at the high cost of merely jabbing where it could have bruised. Compliment this lack of good with an amazing amount of ‘bad,’ and we’ve got a grand total — the opening thirty minutes of the movie could have been cut down to five or ten.
For all the talk of plot and pacing, the thing to keep in mind is that Never Let Me Go is by the end successful because it’s a study of relationships. We check into these three characters every now and then, jumping ahead years at a time. We see how different they are, how the same they are, and how they’ve reacted to their current situation. The love triangle at the core of the movie is so critical because it’s able to say so much of the complications in life — and in death, too. We’re all slated to die, so what do we make of our time? In this movie, Kathy for the most part is a passive protagonist, save for one niggling thing that’s a constant throughout — her love for Tommy. Tommy has unfortunately been Ruth’s boyfriend for almost twenty years, and she had been keen on keeping him, for maybe less than admirable reasons as we discover later on.
Kathy is a victim not only of her predestination, but of Ruth, who is a product of a strange, dystopic childhood. She was jealous of her best friend, and pursued Tommy. Jealousy is dangerous to children, and this carries into teenage years and beyond with this bunch, as we tell from the diner scene — these people haven’t really grown up. They’re kids until they die.
The dramatic unfolding of this conflict is a slow burn amidst refined science-fiction ideas. There’s the walking organ factory trope we’ve seen before in everything from Repo Men to Firefly, but the underlying tragic depths that the gory predestination provides is worth digging into, and interesting territories are found. They’re also given a proper treatment, as this is science-fiction by way of Wong Kar Wai, such a subgenre that is the rarest of things. Out-there lines like ‘the art gallery wasn’t to look into your souls, but to see if you had souls,’ bear truly heartbreaking weight and impact on the already established and real characters, and it works, makes you wonder why so few have dared to put a ‘what-if’ scenario together with a serious tone.
The only other movies like this that spring to mind are Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, The Fountain, and Last Night. I have yet to see Code 46, but I have a feeling it’s in a similar vein. Science-fiction romance is a rare treat, so seek this one out if you feel you’ve been too happy lately. You might well up a little inside, but trust me — it’s worth it.
So you like Westerns, but don’t know where to start? There’s a great many varieties of Western out there, many good (Django), many bad (The Searchers), and here’s some that may help you do what I’m doing right now, which is starting out in exploration of this on-and-off Hollywood pastime…
3:10 to Yuma (2007)
If you’re a fan of action movies period, check this movie out. Christian Bale and Russell Crowe headline this gritty, energetic readaptation, which makes me think it must have been a pretty difficult shoot, but they’re great talents flanked by familiar and welcomed faces (Ben Foster, Alan Tudyk). The story is classic, and the final gun battle heaves with its narrative weight. The shootout is cathartic, and the resolution satisfying. All around a great flick, in the vein of Collateral or The Rundown — modern Hollywood action movies that’ll surprise you with just how good they are, and just how far a good screenplay can take something.
The Proposition (2005)
Ugh, I don’t know. This might be your cup, but it ain’t mine. I had mixed feelings going in, expecting something grim and overly violent (thumbs up) with not-so-successful artistic pretensions (thumbs down), but what I got was really neither of those things. The violence is honestly pretty minimal, and the philosophical yammerings are infrequent and not that offensive. What is offensive is that the movie seems to neglect the audience, forget that its duty is to be entertaining. I can’t stand it in movies when the audio and video are grating and hard to look at, respectively, simultaneously. What’s accomplished, then? I will say that Ray Winstone’s character and performance were the sole saving grace. He did a great job, but damn–the opening ten minutes or so held so much promise. It’s Apocalypse Now in the Old West… Go. But alas, it was stopped before then, and now they’re just floundering.
You might like this movie. A lot of people do, and it’s perhaps worth a fair shake.
No Country for Old Men (2007)
Alright, back we are. This is a Coens Brothers movie, so we can expect a story about money and people on the run and corruption — and we get it, but this is actually based on preexisting material, a novel by Cormac McCarthy, which is allegedly just Blood Meridian-lite. I’ve yet to read either, though I did do a little of The Road and thought it was trash, so I might have to revisit that one, or just watch the John Hillcoat-directed adaptation (he also did The Proposition). Anyway, No Country is a neo-western, or a modern western, so it’s taking the ideals and scenarios (it’s in the title) and transplanting them to the modern day, although technically this is a period piece, taking place in the 80s. It’s a fun movie with a great scare at the end that always gets me.
The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly (1966)
What’s to be said of this little-known, pretty obscure foreign film? Well whatever there is, I’ll add this: be sure to check out the extended edition, which has one of my favorite scenes of all time, where Angel Eyes tours through the bombed out Confederate camp to Il Forte by Ennio Morricone. Really powerful stuff.
Gladiator, Return of the King, and No Country for Old Men were among the few Best Picture nominated movies that won and deserved it. Unforgiven is certainly in this category, also being nominated for Best Screenplay by David Webb Peoples, who you might know as the co-writer of Blade Runner (and Soldier). This is a truly beautiful movie, one that discusses the tragedies of the Old West with grace and grit. It might be a little slow, I especially think that English Bob’s section goes on a bit long for no conceivable payoff, but by the end, when Clint Eastwood faces down a gallery of enemies with the weight of cinematic history on his shoulders, it’s all worth it. And the scene where he admits to be afraid of death brings a tear to my eye every time.
The Good, the Bad, the Weird (2008)
Familiar settings and scenes abound in this action and star-packed Korean western. Like a lot of modern genre films, and in particular modern westerns, this one pays homage to those that came before it, though The Good, the Bad, the Weird isn’t as inaccessibly as Sukiyaki Western Django in this regard, which is more genre-literate. This movie would rather be just plain entertaining, and it’s got a number of pretty spectacular set pieces, all the while looking incredibly good. One of the few colorful westerns out there. GBW also gets a mention here because it somehow manages to reference The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly and Once Upon a Time in the West essentially at the same moment.
Like westerns? Like space? Like Cowboy Bebop? Here’s a movie with Nathan Fillion. Your welcome.
It’s 1982, and paleontologist Kate Lloyd (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) is summoned to the Thule research station in Antarctica by a rather intense Dr. Sander Halvorson (Ulrich Thomsen), who’s made quite the discovery. Her expertise is required early on in examining frozen remains of an alien life-form, but when Thule is threatened by this thing from another world, it’s her survivalist instinct and pyro-tendencies that save the day–for the most part. If you’re familiar with John Carpenter’s The Thing, a remake in itself, there’s nothing new here in terms of structure or story, which depending on your viewpoint is a good or bad thing; for the 2011 film, the 1982 original was formula perfected, and this formula is not only repeated in Matthijs van Heijningen’s movie, it’s updated to satisfying modernity. We have, as we did thirty years ago, a team of scientists battling a malevolent alien creature capable of shape-shifting to the image of friends and associates, and gruesomely showing off in doing so. In this film, it’s the showing off part that sells.
When a member among the crew is suspected of being an alien in disguise, that’s bad news for him. When the alien then transforms into a more lethal form as self-defense, that’s bad news for everyone else. These transformations made the John Carpenter movie iconic, and in the new film, computer generated imagery and physical creature effects work in tandem toward sickening results. With a shudder of flesh and the grinding of bones, body parts sever, split, snake–and come after you. The creature makes a mockery of the human form, contorting it to mimic aliens it must have assimilated before, where heads meld together, and massive jaws rend out of stomachs to the tune of otherworldly wails. This is something you don’t want to become, be eaten by, or even look at–it’s easy to sympathize with the crew, who often turn on each other in the face of suspicion.
The crew of John Carpenter’s movie was a close-knit bunch of blue-collar boys, but at the first sign of trouble from the icy wasteland, tension brimming just below the surface begins to poke through. In Matthijs van Heijningen’s movie, potential factions are visible from the start: Americans vs. Norwegians, scientists vs. pilots, men vs. women, newcomer Kate vs. everybody, everybody vs. sinister Sander. As the film plays out, alliances and suspects shift–the alien could be anybody, and it isn’t telling. The prevailing question through not only this movie but the original is: who goes there? Human or alien? Characters only feel safe when they’re looking over their shoulder, and the alien certainly knows that frail human necks get sore after a while; paranoia manifests in tight grips on rifles and flamethrowers, and people are put into groups, examined, quarantined.
Moviegoers in 1982, when they did, came for the alien gore, and stayed for the psychological aspect. It’s a story akin to the greats in The Twilight Zone or Stephen King’s The Mist, where gooey creatures are portals to the much darker evils of man. Unfortunately, this piece de resistance of the story is not nearly as strong in van Heijningen’s film, though it does exist. A lot of it is that sacred law of diminishing returns, but mostly it’s the characters. For the most part, they’re enough to invest in but never truly cared for, as they occupy one of two roles: background detail or lazy stereotype.
There is precious little time for characterization; same as in 1982. But screenwriter Bill Lancaster was able to draw fully-rounded characters despite the forward-moving plot, placing great significance on every line spoken by individual members of the ensemble; they’re charged with defining not only the character, but the character’s place in the situation. Hefty work done efficiently, but not quite in 2011. The cast feels much larger this time, and that’s because we never get to know most of them by the time they’re assimilated. Names of the Norwegians were elusive, and it was difficult from the outset to keep track of everybody. By the time chaos hits Thule Station, these nameless guys are running around shouting things–often in a different language–which is appropriately panicked and confusing, so it works, but the audience is lulled into a distance from the action. It’s up to Kate to engage us, and whether or not she does is somewhat inconsequential, because the film would doubtless have been improved if the supporting cast wasn’t as expendable. For evidence of this, we can look to John Carpenter’s.
The film is written by Eric Heisserer (from drafts by Ronald D. Moore), based on “Who Goes There?” by John W. Campbell, and he turns out a competent job, keeping the tension high despite mostly pale characters. Together with fine acting, the script is brought to life and touches all prerequisite bases for fun, alien-smashing action. As it checks steps off the list–unearth the creature, figure it out, deny it, suffer attacks by creature–the cast follows through in stride. Accents are masked and changed, tempers fluctuate organically, expressions speak loudly. In horror, strong emotions reign, whether it’s fear or anger or sadness. In science-fiction, suspension of disbelief is chiefly credited to the actors, and The Thing of course straddles both genres. Not an easy task on the part of the players, but one well performed here.
Unlike other modern creature features, physical actors could interact with equally physical monsters, though they were smartly enhanced by CGI. The creature itself is where the filmmakers stood apart from John Carpenter’s, as the original monster could seem to do anything–but move. The new creature is not only mobile but fast, and its new predatory nature adds a welcome element of suspense. Critics have noted that van Heijningen must have taken influence from Alien, with chases down hallways and even in some cases, creature design. One might of course argue that this is a necessary path the film needed to take.
The issue surrounding The Thing is that most films of its kind–good science-fiction horror movies–don’t need to take paths in the first place. They don’t have to be engineered to a specific blueprint in order to please people, but in this hideous day and age, where remakes of reboots of franchises of adaptations reign, the audience is king. With The Thing, the audience was a notoriously difficult bunch to please–fans. In adapting a preexisting work with any type of fan-base, there will be complaints. The filmmaker then has forked-roads to travel, whether he stays faithful to the source material or creates something new, if modernizing it or not is the right way to go, etc. He’s beholden to this crabby audience, which typically perceives his final decision as the wrong one. Producers Marc Abraham and Eric Newman chose wrong when they decided to do a remake of a now beloved classic, and that was step one.
It’s a tragedy that The Thing was released to commercial failure in theatres, because it speaks to the greater realm of modern science-fiction film, a realm that’s slavish to the nerd kingdom. Not helping is of course that van Heijningen’s movie cannot stand on its own, where John Carpenter’s most certainly could, and felt nearly defiant, rather than adoring, in the face of its predecessor. This movie truly should have been titled Who Goes There?, but I suppose the distributors wanted to milk as much money from whatever marquee value The Thing brand name carries. Not much, as we discover. One is led to wonder exactly who was targeted to see this film. The big horror movie franchises of the day ring polar opposite to this one: Paranormal Activity, Saw, Final Destination–these days the creature feature has been displaced by the zombie flick, and those who appreciate monsters are used to the rubber or stop-motion dragons and Brundleflies of days gone by. CGI in The Thing? It was bad enough in 1982 when there was going to be animatronics and miniatures in The Thing, as opposed to only makeup effects!
So if not fans of The Thing, and if not modern horror fans, perhaps this will be The Thing to rein in a new generation of fans? Afraid not; the kids of the day would rather see ghosts and Death itself kill people, which, on a visual level, is to say nothing at all kill people. Movies (a visual medium, by the way) of that type also tend to feature kids, which is something of a selling point whether we like it or not. Compare Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s character Wendy in Final Destination 3 to Kate in The Thing–there was romantic tension where now there is only survival and stern, commanding looks. While some might prefer the latter with more passion, a majority prefers the former, albeit casually. The youngsters of the day would just as quickly wonder what a Snake Plissken is as they would claim that the new Thing is a rip-off of the video-game Dead Space. Another audience not easily pandered to when sixty-year old aliens are concerned.
Additionally, and possibly most importantly, The Thing is a remake. It may technically be a prequel, but why then wasn’t it called Before the Thing, or The Thing Zero, The Thing 2, or One More Thing? Because those are all terrible titles–once again Who Goes There? was left wide open. The money-men were banking on its assets as a remake, not a prequel, and in late 2011, audiences have had their fill. Not only of remakes, but of horror remakes.
The giants in the genre have all been dried up in the last couple of years: Halloween, A Nightmare on Elm Street, Friday the 13th, Dawn of the Dead, even smaller titles like The Hills Have Eyes, Last House on the Left, Black Christmas, Fright Night, and of course, arbitrary entries in the John Carpenter canon: The Fog and Assault on Precinct 13. Maybe next year we’ll get rumblings of a Big Trouble in Little China remake, but dark. The Thing came far too late, though ironically it was just as late as John Carpenter’s was, following up Howard Hawks/Christian Nyby’s.
It may have felt like a good idea at the time, but revisiting The Thing was as fruitful as taking a tissue sample from the frozen alien specimen. It is as it’s always been–a film with a small, but significant appeal. Van Heijningen’s movie may not interest you on principle, but I’d advise you to seek it out on home video. It’s a creature feature in a league with Frank Darabont’s excellent The Mist rather than Underworld Evolution or Resident Evil: Apocalypse, and at its best moments, provides very real, very intense moments of terror that don’t merely recall the 80s days, but fill us with those same, welcomed feelings. It may not be the best sci-fi horror movie of all time, but it breaks this writer’s heart when a genuinely entertaining film is passed up because we were all expecting it to be bad. It’s the current climate–we’re done with remakes, and perhaps we could blame the victim here in saying that it shouldn’t have joined those ranks to begin with, but as the credits roll and we see how this story bridges into John Carpenter’s The Thing, I’m glad it did.
There was a moment in The Thing when I did lose focus and begin to drift, started thinking that I couldn’t wait to get home and watch some more Party Down. Indeed after the opening moments where we see that this movie isn’t characterizing its scientists nearly as carefully as they did in ’82, it slows down to something of an odd pace. The alien is loose and running around, and so are the characters. Scenes from the first movie (of this ilk) are recycled; we get a sense of where they’re going with all this, but it’s not engaging. This continues for only about a half hour/forty-five into the movie. After that, the gloves come off, and I saw exactly what I wanted to see – and more.
In the original The Thing, there are three major Thing set pieces that always stand out in my mind: the dog, the spider-head, and the blood test scene. They’re all self-contained pieces of fantastic horror, and they do exactly what most horror films skip over. In the new one, there is exactly one scene like this – and it’s a pretty good one. Keeping spoilers to a minimum (ironically enough), it’s the origin of the two-faced thing that gets examined in the original movie. The rec room scene, I suppose I’ll call it, has got a great transformation sequence, a lot of Thing-related fatalities, and above all – and this is what the original did that few other horrors do – it was really intense.
Watch the movie for this scene, because this is when it’s most like the Carpenter version. That movie alternated between dedicated suspense and high-intensity terror. That formula didn’t translate wholly to the new movie, which tries its hand at the suspense part far more often, and doesn’t excel. The rec room scene is key though; writhing body parts split off and start skittering away as the face moans its alien moan, flamethrowers aren’t working, tables are being flipped, people are screaming in horror – it’s an expertly done scene, and it gives us a really cool Thing monster, something that I’ll touch on later, because presently it reminds me of what this scene, and the movie, is very reminscent of.
That’s The Mist, the wonderful Frank Darabont adaptation of God-knows-who, which had, like this movie, somewhat CG-obvious creatures, fire-axes being used to kill said creatures, paranoia, and a nostalgic monster movie sensibility. I believe that when Darabont set about making The Mist, he probably wanted to do what Kubrick did for science-fiction with 2001 – make the ‘proverbial good monster movie.’ That’s why there’s a black-and-white version on the DVD.
This is something that sets both The Thing 2011 and The Mist apart from modern horror movies. Attached to the new Thing was a trailer for Paranormal Activity 3, which shambles into theatres this month. That’s the type of horror movie the demographic (teenagers) wants to see. They’ve never been into creatures and monsters – it’s all about just people, just dying (the Human Centipede definitively does not count as a monster). That’s why Final Destination does so well, and Saw, and all those slasher movies that find creative ways to kill people. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with that, but hey – I love a good monster every once in awhile.
I know what you’re thinking – The Thing wasn’t really about monsters, because the thing never got five feet without being fried. The horror came from the transformation sequences, and all the grisly, disgusting inventions it cooks up to escape the flame. This new movie decided, thank God, to take things a step further, and this is the real reason to see this movie before it closes shop without making its budget back. The Thing doesn’t mess around. He wants two things – to survive, and to kill. Due to the limitations of the animatronics back in the day a decade before Jurassic Park, the alien wasn’t limber, wasn’t mobile. It wasn’t much of a hunter.
People are often face to face with a dribbling, fangy alien with tentacle face, or hiding from it without nothing but an ineffectual knife – these moments were a pure joy and certainly worthy of comparison to the 1982 flick. It’s simple really: the design is cool. Though I’ve played the games, the aliens look a lot like, or take the principle of, the monsters from the Silent Hill series. You take a human body and twist it into a four legged tentacle monster. It’s really the most unnatural, unnerving thing you could ever imagine being in the same room with.
Luckily our intrepid heroine is able to take action, and she proves quite capable in this movie. Picking up on the creature’s game pretty quickly (she probably got a few pointers from Kurt on the sets of Sky High and Death Proof), she leads the charge as Norweigans are being picked off all around her. I never really got to know any of these people. I know none of their names, save Sanders and Peder, though I don’t know who Peder is, just that his name came up in subtitles a lot. These guys, heroine Kate Lloyd included, aren’t nearly as memorable as MacReady, Childs, Norris, Palmer, Fuchs, Windows and the gang. When they died I was really more interested in their transformation, and what mutants their bodies would provide. I wasn’t really upset or anything, except maybe for the younger looking guy and the dude who gets killed by the facehugger arm – everybody was just standing around watching as he died a slow, horrible death. Pobre bastardo.
There is an ending in this movie that will undoubtedly piss off the purists. It’s a sure case of ‘we never needed to know that,’ but it’s like Gears of War 2, for those who played it – they show you questions, meaning they do things that are cryptic and try to maintain that less-is-more legacy that’s served the genre so well. In Gears 2, that was plainly amatuerish storytelling. Here, very little is gained, as mystery is uncovered only to give way for mystery, but it all seems useless, because the first mystery was so good.
The Thing was the Avatar and the Machete of 2011 for me. While I wasn’t as excited to see this as those two, this one is so, so much better. Would buy again, and indeed sometime in the future I’ll revisit this one to talk about the ending, and some other things that require spoiling for elaboration on. So for now I’ll leave you with one final recommending comment: Mary Elizabeth Winstead is a total badass.
If you’ve seen The Thing from Another World, the classic Howard Hawks film from 1951, you remember the vegetable Frankenstein monster, the snowy setting, the 50′s charm, and the iconic line, “Always, watch the skies.” It’s a movie about the clash of ideals, here between military and science, about alien invasion and heroism. It may not be as intellectual as The Day the Earth Stood Still or as recognizable as Forbidden Planet (to use its contemporaries), but its an entertaining ride with a few great moments and wonderful characters.
It is, though, very light. The characters never seem to take the issue too seriously, and this reasonably reflects on the situation. There’s really nothing all that scary about Frankenstein’s monster in the year 1951 when one has access to rifles and electric floors. Never once did I feel like this creature would be victorious, or even half of the crew would be injured. This is where I come in and say that John Carpenter’s The Thing is so much different – and it is – but comparing these two seems almost wrong. Yes, they are two very different movies on a tonal and visceral level, but more than that, neither of these movies should have to live in each others’ shadow.
They’re both major entries in the canon of science-fiction film, but it seems that rarely do sci-fi fans appreciate both equally. I don’t. With the coming of a third Who Goes There? movie, I begin to wonder just what people will make of this unofficial trilogy sixty years in the making.
But that’s not important now. Merely musing…
We’re here to talk about The Thing, because this is not only one of John Carpenter’s best, but one of the very best science-fiction films. Certainly one of the best horror movies, though many would consider it second as horror/sci-fi to Ridley Scott’s Alien. Just like how Robocop owes its production to The Terminator from three years earlier, Scott’s sophomore picture is the reason why The Thing exists as it does. It showed a world hung up on Star Wars that space wasn’t such a nice place, and that science-fiction was more than a pretty face. It was an acne-scarred, sniveling one.
After the dreary sixties, and I suppose the dreary seventies, Star Wars reinvented pulp science-fiction, the romantic heroes who got the badguys and heroines who got kidnapped. I wouldn’t say that Alien is necessarily counterculture; it was born of a rather brilliant idea of O’Bannon and Shusett’s for a horror movie – what’s the scariest thing you can think of (the answer of course being rape by alien) – but possibly The Thing is. It’s aggressive, paranoid, violent, raw.
And yet, it’s a callback to the original short story by John W. Campbell. Carpenter wanted to do what Christopher Nyby and Howard Hawks didn’t: talk about what people do when thrown in an isolated space with the most frightening thing imaginable. This creature takes the identities of others, as well as their places, and this begs the question “who among us are human?” Since you can only be sure of yourself, this question offers Reason 1 why The Thing works.
The other is something of a controversial thing, the effects. Nobody can watch the The Thing and scoff at Bottin’s makeup and animatronic monsters. They’re a highlight in eighties visuals for sci-fi film, an absolute horror and joy to watch. Not only do they look freaky, they move around in ways you don’t want them to and do things to really mess people up. But some people are so understandably taken by these effects that they’re distracted, or come to think that they’re the reason for the movie. While the effects amount to Reason 2, they also did a lot to hurt the movie’s critical reception.
This is certainly an odd analogy but take for example Higher Learning, a film by John Singleton. Critics liked it, but didn’t think it had a strong enough romantic appeal (strong character relationships) and believed the characters were stereotypes. Essentially they wanted the movie to be more conventional drama. Having character drama about romance isn’t the movie’s point, that would definitely draw away from its message, which is all about how radical thinking is proliferated through generations, masquerading as education. Why is it that film is a medium that must conform to certain conventions and standards? Why must we always be entertained by these things?
The Thing‘s effects shouldn’t be tuned down. Perhaps that thinking stems from our appreciation of The Thing from Another World, which creates suspense with no gore. What works about the effects in The Thing is their service to atmosphere. There’s nothing more scary than Antarctica. Oh wait there’s nothing more scary than a creature that can take our identities. Now there’s nothing more scary than a stomach that eats your arms. We’re touring through a nightmare reality, a terrifying hallucination that is testing these men, seeing how long they’ll dangle over the abyss before falling off – snapping and turning on each other.
It’s a Twilight Zone-esque character study with a budget. We have characters thrust into a situation that keeps getting worse, where even survival seems pointless. In The Twilight Zone, the cheesy effects actually serve a purpose (whether intentionally or not), they create a layer for us to pierce through and see what’s just below the surface – they force us to investigate, and be rewarded, more often than not (some of those episodes are pretty aimless). The Thing does have the effects. No big-headed aliens, no Sasquatch thingy on the wing. We have an effective glimpse at not an alien creature, but at an alien world, and it’s scary as hell. I suppose it is forgivable for people to be distracted, but it’s the two elements that are absolutely crucial.
That of course is neglectful of the characters themselves, the script, the direction, the acting, and the music (though Morricone himself earned the film a Razzie, forever sealing that organization’s fate for me as “jokards”), all of which are astounding, especially for science-fiction film. Only rarely do we see attention to detail on all fronts in a movie with aliens.
Will we see it again tonight with The Thing (2011)? I know we’ll at least see the effects. They’re in the trailers, and they look great, if a bit Dead Space-ish (ain’t nut wrong with that). I assume that lip-service will be paid to the who goes there aspect of the story, but that’s just fine. As long as a body is on a laboratory floor morphing in the most horrifying ways only to be blasted by Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s flamethrower – that’s all I need.
It’s an alternate 1985 where God exists and he’s American, a retired hero must rescue people from a fire to get hard, and a vigilante screams out to be killed in a world that’s turned its back on justice. Watchmen is the most celebrated graphic novel from Alan Moore, the man who coined the term, and it remains, after all these years, an incredible story that weaves hard-hitting images with political, philosophical, and revisionist text. A sharp tale making an entire medium of entertainment take a look in the mirror – it’s small wonder Hollywood’s been scrambling for ages to get the film produced. But Watchmen is like The Lord of the Rings. It doesn’t belong to Alan Moore, Dave Gibbons, or DC Comics. No, no, no. It belongs to its fans, and they are many.
Fans claimed that Watchmen was unfilmable, just like the aforementioned Rings. Indeed it does feel like an unsavory prospect; we open these pages and see superheroes sharing panels with scenes of sex, superheroes behaving rather like Mad Max in the original Mad Max, superheroes who’d rather blame the blue guy in the room for shooting a pregnant Vietnamese woman than take the responsibility for himself. Aside from graphic content and themes, Watchmen is of course a 12-issue comic, and each issue is an episode. One episode jumps around in time – how do you do that in a movie and keep things moving forward? All too often filmmakers don’t appreciate the disparaties in mediums, and believe that translations will always work.
Perhaps that is what happened here, but the end result was a fantastic experience, a movie version of a great story that maintains the great story and embodies the spirit and feel of the comic’s panel-to-panel nature. Every shot is thoughtfully composed – no doubt these guys took the Rodriguez/Miller route and went to the comics for the storyboards – the lighting and colors create a hyperreal image that only stops moving when the slow-motion button is hit. Just like in 300, Snyder’s use of slow-motion is appropriate because it slows on actions that were originally read on the page with eyes that linger and focus. It also gives the action an unusual rhythm as we move through hard streets and cavernous corporate buildings.
There’s a simple joy that fills me when watching a good adaptation, but it isn’t unqualified. As much as I like to study what actors were chosen and how well the themes translate, there’s something almost uncanny about hearing dialogue you’re familiar with. This was a major issue for me with movies like Memoirs of a Geisha and other flicks where I read the book right before watching (that one was for school): it feels very artificial when actors are speaking dialogue that originates from somewhere that’s not a screenplay; it’s difficult to fool yourself that these words came from the character’s head.
There’s also the issue that Watchmen is actually unfilmable, but I don’t believe it’s in the way that the collective masses tend to say. The problem is that Watchmen was a post-modern comic, and to nail this home (as if opening with Captain America’s death wasn’t enough) we have a comic-within-a-comic, which is read by a minor character throughout the story. We get glimpses of the macabre tale, Tales of the Black Freighter, every now and then, and it serves a purpose. Unless you’re watching the Ultimate Cut, a version that’s over 3 hours (the Director’s Cut is 2 hours and 40 minutes), you don’t get to see the Gerard Butler-narrated comic-within-a-comic. I haven’t seen it as standalone nor in the Ultimate Cut, but it doesn’t matter – it wouldn’t have the same effect.
Tales of the Black Freighter in Watchmen the movie would have no purpose because Watchmen the movie isn’t a comic. A movie that’s revisionist towards comics doesn’t have the same effect as the source material – it’d be like if Once Upon a Time in the West or Pulp Fiction were novels, and we had movie references from Shane and High Noon written out on the page.
I do feel like the problem is mitigated somewhat by the filmmakers – we hear the Ride of the Valkyries as the Comedian rides into Vietnam on a helicopter, a song that might as well just be called the Apocalypse Now song. That’s what it reminds us of, and coupled with Vietnam War imagery, we’re in familiar movie territory. That’s one instance where Watchmen the movie takes advantage of the medium’s asset to make it uniquely a movie.
I suppose that the superhero genre in film by the year 2009 was also in need of a revision, but of course Watchmen the movie made very little impact and like the equally R-rated Punisher War Zone a year before, didn’t make a box office splash. At least, not for a Watchmen movie. Hollywood would go on to take little notice, making Captain America, Iron Man 2, Thor, Green Latern, The Green Hornet, The Dark Knight Rises, another Superman, another Spider-Man, Kick-Ass, X-Men Origins: Wolverine, X-Men First Class, Jonah Hex, and Scott Pilgrim vs. The World from 2009-2012 (fingers crossed for Nelvedine/Taylor’s Ghost Rider). Aside from Scott Pilgrim, I saw X-Men Origins: Wolverine and thought it was the dumbest crap ever, with precisely three seconds of gold (a wonderful reaction shot to a gazing Stryker during a ‘tense’ and ‘dramatic’ scene).
Without speaking for all of those above, X-Men Origins: Wolverine really captured what was wrong with the superhero genre. It’s stale, and it panders to a fan base. Instead of rich characters we have to fill out a quota of characters – alright we got steel man, invisible man, laser man, blue devil man, mega man, ultra man, woman man, cat man, Poke mans – and instead of a compelling premise from which to draw a decent story we have oh-my-gosh-let’s-pull-pages-from-this-this-this-and-this, ‘this’ referring of course to the bountiful source material in the case of X-Men.
Watchmen, to get back on topic, isn’t of course new, but is akin to Unbreakable and The Incredibles – yes we have superheroes, but we have a different type of superhero story. Many say, and I agree with this, that Watchmen is more a science-fiction story than a superhero one. It deals with cold war anxieties, experiments gone wrong, and at the end, alien invaders and outer limits – staples of the genre. Because we have a science-fiction structure with superheroes as the players in a greater tale rather than the center of the spotlight like the bat symbol, we open up so many narrative and thematic possibilities that modern filmmakers dare not tread. At the end of X-Men we’ve learned nothing – in fact nothing has changed for anybody. There is really no point except $300 million, or however much that particular movie made.
Maybe that’s cynical, but it did feel like a very, very commercial picture that didn’t go for the bar. Not that it was set high but anyhow Watchmen had aspirations, as a comic and as a film. As a movie, it had to hit upon what the fans wanted – an easy task, as everybody involved was a fan. It had to tell a cinematic story, not a simple adaptation. And most importantly it had to maintain what Watchmen was all about, asking questions about the measure of heroism and the morals of justice. Like Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, Watchmen treats every frame delicately, and the product is an extremely well-made film that looks amazing even during the most mundane bits. It’s violent, but not overly so where anything extreme, like sawing through arms or repeated strikes to the head with a cleaver, are very obviously CG and don’t look so great.
It’s a very nearly literal adaptation, but it’s a smart one. The filmmakers realized that 100% direct translation wouldn’t work – perhaps they heard the shouts – and went about constructing a slick, often disturbing, sometimes affecting, and always throught-provoking experience.
If you’re worried about the length of the Director’s Cut, I honestly don’t know what to tell you. I’m no good with long movies, and I watched this over the course of two nights. Personally I don’t see it as a problem because I like that as much of the comic was reproduced on screen as possible; this Watchmen is truly the definitive movie version – disregarding the Ultimate Cut, there will never be a more complete version, although the lack of the newstand guy and Black Freighter reader was noticeable.
The Godfather Part II is a movie whose thesis is nearly lost in the complexities of its subject matter. This is exactly what happened in the original, but the ‘problem’ is amplified here because of one of the dual storylines. Vito Corleone is a much more interesting character this time around, despite his mass presence in The Godfather. The origin story approach for the sequel was an inspired decision, but it makes Michael’s continued saga seem less impressive than it was in the first movie. He’s no longer the innocent bystander turned crime boss – that’s Vito’s role now – he’s a madman losing his grip on the family. The reinforcement of the final moments of The Godfather, where Michael closes the doors on his wife, effectively making the choice he swore he wouldn’t at the start of the film, and losing himself to crime, was played out logically, but somewhat messily.
Organized crime as a subject matter brings with it a need to delve into complications of family, betrayal, justice, and business, and these are tropes akin to cyberpunk’s artificial intelligences, body modifications, and virtual realities. Because The Godfather was the movie that revised the previously very pulpy genre of crime fiction, it was the original serious crime drama. It introduced to the world those tropes, and since The Godfather Part II came only two years later, the filmmakers didn’t think much in the ways of post-modernism when the modern was so recent. So The Godfather Part II embodies these affairs, and finds Michael involved in hearings and playing families against each other and being betrayed. In premise, all of the these things are good and necessary: they create the plot and give a reason for Michael’s decline. But for the movewatcher like me, they also create situations that don’t click.
All too often in the movie do the characters go deeper and deeper into the complications of the genre staples, and scenes of dialogue that are necessary to the plot stretch out the length and tamper with the pacing. Alone, this wouldn’t be such a bad thing. It would be a slightly overly complex movie that nearly dilutes the main theme. But when each scene involving Vito Corleone is so tight and obviously important to its story arc, Michael’s overall three-quarters of the film appears bloated.
If The Godfather Part II was entirely Vito Corleone’s rise to power, and The Godfather Part III was Michael’s continuing saga ending in the death of Fredo and Michael again closing the door on his wife, that would be perfect. Plans for The Godfather Part III apparently were to repeat the formula in Part II, but with Tom Hagen’s origin story. That didn’t happen, but I don’t know what did because I haven’t seen the third installment, arguable the most infamous sequel ever. I think that the parallel between Vito and Michael would be more profound over two movies, rather than just blatant within the confines of a single movie. Overall, The Godfather Part II is probably an unecessary movie afterall, as it doesn’t say a whole lot new. I’m glad it does exist though, because it’s a better watch than the first, and the first was already famously good.
I would also contrast The Godfather Part II with Goodfellas, as the Martin Scorsese mob flick is very streamlined, despite having a comparable number of characters and relationships mixing and interacting. Goodfellas also has a similar theme, where the family dynamic between goodfellas in the end doesn’t mean shit because everyone’s looking out for themselves in a world that’s organized to be violent. People losing themselves to the life of crime that comes with money and power is shared across both movies, but Goodfellas played out much more straightforwardly, and benefitted. Ultimately the Michael bits are overly complicated for their purpose, but this has to be because the genre walls are two strict.
The original Godfather has a plot that could not be told many other ways and still arrive at the end point with the same level of understanding for where each character is. The intent for The Godfather Part II is to further Michael’s story, showing how he is driving his family into the ground in his attempt to drive it forward. More importantly, we see how his character is deteriorating, which was implied at the close of the first movie. Because the first bit, the family matters, is so crucial to the second, we need all this stuff about business relations and assassinations and deals. Unfortunately, it could be done any number of ways, and I think the most effective would be an approach similar to Goodfellas - show us just what we need to see, otherwise we could get distracted, and even the parallel between Vito and Michael is made less obvious than the film’s structure would propose.
Not a major problem, and certainly not one everyone would have, but I think it’s an interesting thing to see where a filmmaker will place focus on – the themes or the plot. In the long run, the overdone plot of The Godfather Part II makes it seem a bit draggy, where the first certainly was not. Whenever 50′s era New York came on screen I kind of shifted in my seat, waiting for the next time we could see Robert DeNiro, because his story was more interesting and less complicated.