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It’s nice when a film surprises you in a good way. And it’s not so nice when it doesn’t. We asked this week’s panelists the following question:
Here’s what they said…
Predators, the latest one, surprised me in a good way. The previous Predators vs. Aliens were not so hot, and Predators 2 was also middling. I went to see Predators as part of an all-afternoon theater binge, and I wasn’t expecting it to be any good. But lo, it was. What surprised me was that each character worked hard to understand what their situation was, and acted competently and accordingly.
The last film I remember where pretty much everyone worked hard to survive and understand their situation was Aliens, where even the little kid has a survival instinct and works hard to use it. In so many movies non-main-characters act according to plot needs, and are fundamentally stupid human beings. But in Predators they actually figure out they’re on an alien world before the big reveal of two moons.
The last SF film that really surprised me was District 9. Although the faux documentary part of the film fell off early on, the team behind the film did a fantastic job with making every bit of the high-tech and alien stuff seem gritty and real all the way through to the end. It broke down, it got filthy, and it seemed just as dirty, repurposed, and desperate as the more standard elements in the film.
Gareth Edwards’ Monsters surprised me by taking a pulp idea—spores brought back to earth on a crashed NASA probe grow into monsters the size of apartment blocks–and turning it into a character-driven drama/science fiction flick…and all for a reputed 15K.
Edwards’ story is simple. A photojournalist seeking to take pictures of the monsters is enjoined to escort the daughter of his wealthy employer (she has been slightly injured in a monster attack) to a port where she can catch a ferry from northern Mexico back to the States. The ferry, however, is closed to them and they are forced to make their way overland to the Mexican-American border. As they travel north they are befriended by various people living in the “infected zone” and form an emotional attachment with one another.
For all its simplicity Edwards’ narrative is wonderfully nuanced. By not focusing on the monsters as a problem to be solved, pushing that portion of the story into the background and focusing instead on the people living in and passing through the zone, he angles the plot away from a traditional resolution and manages to draw a sub-textual parallel between the monsters and his two main characters: All have been dropped into a hostile alien environment and are bungling their way along, uncertain of their every action. This parallel resonates throughout the movie so that during the climax, a close encounter that takes place in an abandoned truck stop on the US side of the border, monsters and humans come together in a scene that creates a Sturgeonesque sense of wonder and demonstrates both the sweetness and the incomprehensibility of all life.
Most science fiction films are exercises in the formulaic, so it’s always surprising when a movie comes along that exceeds that expectation. With its micro-budget, its three-person crew, and persuasive special effects, Monsters is not only good science fiction, but a remarkable technical achievement as well.
Moon surprised me by wasting millions of dollars of special effects and a terrific lead actor on a dumb plot. The “corporation” (evil, naturally) could have simply hired three guys at hazard pay levels to supervise the mining equipment on the moon. Instead, they create a secret cellar full of (expensive) clones, jamming equipment to block signals from Earth, fake videotapes of the poor worker’s family growing no older to fool him about time lapses, and a junkload of other unnecessary complications — when all the time, as we learn near the end, a shuttle to and from Earth isn’t even that complicated. And what’s with that girl who appears mostly unclad on the moon’s surface, and then disappears from the picture entirely?
What’s with Hollywood, that assumes if it has a “science fiction” label, a movie doesn’t have to make sense?
A pessimist would point to the cliché novelties, comic books, poetry, etc., as though the undead-merchandise is a zombie plague in itself, with mindless products walking (or running) across the multi-media landscape.
Having suffered from “zombie fatigue”, I was surprised and delighted by the movie Shock Waves. (1977).
We’ve seen adaptations of Tales from the Crypt (anthology movies, feature films and the HBO series) but Shock Waves is like a Weird War Tales movie! (The film’s faux-documentary opening sets the tone nicely.)
The premise is simple: a small group of tourists abandon their stranded tour boat and seek shelter on a creepy island. One-by-one the tourists are killed off by a platoon of un-dead Nazi-monsters. But what makes this film so special is the haunting synthesizer score, the winning lead performance by Brooke Adams, and the abundance of big ideas in a B-movie.
Not to ruin it with academia, but the subtext is fantastic. There’s a literary trope of using water to represent memory: the deep ocean is home to various subconscious creatures (“monsters of the Id” was the phrase used in Forbidden Planet.) In 1977 this low-budget horror show was addressing the collective memory of our shameful past: the horrors of World War II. Nazi-Zombies come out at night, like so many repressed nightmares that torture a man’s guilty mind when his guard is down. On the tour boat, a crewmember remarks, “The sea spits up what it can’t hold down.” Likewise, repressed memories bubble up and torment Peter Cushing, playing a self-exiled Nazi scientist, wracked with guilt for creating this super-elite platoon. Like a character from a Dickens novel, the gaunt, haunted, literally scarred scientist wanders the decaying mansion, waiting for his past to catch up with him (and it does!) I’m used to seeing Cushing in stuffy, 19th century garb, but it was a powerful choice to display his wiry frame and bony chest draped in tattered clothes.
Brooke Adams is elegant and grounded, playing the role like a high-class Karen Allen. Despite appearing in a cheapy-creepy genre movie, she never phones it in, making “Rose” a real person instead of just another generic “final girl.”
The supporting cast gives us all the character types you want in a zombie movie: a cowardly jerk, a handsome hero, and a half-mad boat captain. Yet, the film succeeds because it never feels like a typical zombie movie. At various times the imagery or the scares reminded me of Carnival of Souls, Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Creature from the Black Lagoon, Night of the Living Dead, and a few different JAWS knock-offs. That said, Shock Waves is its own one-of-a-kind little film, combining rich intellectual concepts with a bare bones, low-budget gracefulness.
Lastly, I was also surprised that director Ken Wiederhorn didn’t make anything else of note, aside from disappointing sequels like Return of the Living Dead 2 and Meatballs 2.
Good surprise: To sit through this heavily marketed Hollywood extravaganza and see cyberpunk has finally become so ingrained in the cultural mainstream that, when anyone sets out to make a contemporary action caper, it always ends up jacked in. Here, one finds not just a story about archetypal mercenary hackers taking their espionage vitamins and chasing the MacGuffin through technologically mediated realms – but a story drunk (if perhaps coincidentally) on contemporary postcyberpunk thematic overlays like atemporality and design fiction.
Bad surprise: That the gnomic Japanese male archetype needs to be retired.
Good surprise: Michael Caine makes a great postcyberpunk Dumbeldore.
Good surprise: That we live in a world in which you can make a movie about the construction of an imaginary realm inhabited by 500 million humans, and it’s a true-to-life biopic.
Bad Surprise: Realizing the extent to which our contemporary network culture – the largest community in real-life cyberspace -replicates the worst aspects of American adolescent culture: actual community replaced with a virtual high school yearbook updated every few minutes!
Good surprise: The amazing ambient electronic soundtrack by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, which subtextually illuminates the technologically induced alienation of all of the characters, giving this social/business docudrama the science fictional frisson it so wants to have.
Good surprise: That the post-apocalyptic spaghetti Western (cum pilgrimage) plot never runs out of juice, even when the expected sources of actual apocalypse have retired from the Zeitgeist-proving as well as a Cormac McCarthy zombie cannibal story that post-apocalyptic stories persist because they are works of emotional realism, accurately depicting what it feels like to live in the alienated now.
Bad surprise: Dumbeldore is now a degenerate disco-loving cannibal holed up in a house from an Andrew Wyeth painting with an arsenal that would make The Punisher jealous. And he attracts Gary Oldman, an actual zombie.
Good surprise: Alcatraz as a post-apocalyptic utopia, trying to be the Library of Babel. In the remake, Alcatraz will be replaced with Guantanamo Bay.
Good surprise: The revelation that Iron Man is the comic book hero that is the most real to people because it is the most like how we all feel, as cyborgs. More specifically, like cyborgs crossed with Mickey Rourke.
Bad surprise: The surprise that Iron Man, by so perfectly creating a “live-action” version of a Marvel comic book, achieves a totally gripping sensory spectacle that, upon leaving the theater, leaves a strange hollow feeling. By obliterating the narrative negative space of the comic book form, which leaves so much to be completed by the imagination, objectively “well-made” comic book movies rob the viewer of her sense of wonder.
Good surprise: Mickey Rourke is the only contemporary actor whose actual flesh appears on the screen to have been grown through a collaboration between Jack Kirby and David Cronenberg.
Maybe I’ve become cynical, but few modern science fiction and fantasy movies surprise me anymore. Most look stunning – hardly difficult in the days when Kerry Conran can create the visual effects necessary to bring Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow to life – but remain bereft of any of the things that make print science fiction so worthwhile. It’s not just scientific inaccuracies that make something unwatchable; I can forgive those if I see something visionary and interesting. Unfortunately, most genre movies are so predictable that I can set my watch by them. Granted, things like Event Horizon, The Book of Eli, and The Island are fun in their low way, but I wasn’t at all surprised by their utter lack of intelligence or plodding execution.
So given that, I probably was more than a little surprised at how ambivalent I was when I left an IMAX showing of James Cameron’s Avatar last year. It had all of the elements for me to like it: it’s a true quill science fiction movie, as opposed to a science fiction/horror hybrid like, say, The Crazies or a superhero movie like Iron Man; its politics are in the right place; and Cameron took the time to work out the world building that makes Pandora so fascinating. Moreover, Cameron proves that he still can film an action sequence better than almost anybody in the world. And yet, for all of the things that went into making the movie so breathtakingly beautiful, it didn’t involve me on any level. Forget its liberal borrowing from Poul Anderson’s “Call Me Joe” or Ursula K. LeGuin’s The Word for World Is Forest, Cameron simply didn’t make me care. Oddly enough, for all of its faults, Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes, which I saw a couple of days later, engaged me in exactly the way Avatar should have.
I was also surprised at how bad Tron: Legacy was. I’ve heard a couple of people, including a few friends, rate it very highly, but I thought it was a failure on every possible level, especially visually. What was on screen should have wowed me in the same way that the original Tron wowed me in 1982, but everything looked so muddy and dark that I found the glowing dials of my watch far more interesting.
But even when the epic blockbusters fall far too often into epic fail territory, some movies still catch me completely off guard at how good they are. I went to Gareth Edwards’s independent flick Monsters knowing very little about it, other than hearing some very positive feedback from Lawrence Person and Howard Waldrop, and hearing from others that it was 2010’s District 9. What I saw instead was a thoughtful, character driven story about how people cope with an alien invasion, more along the lines of Robert Silverberg’s “A Pardoner’s Tale,” or the works of Lucius Shepard and J.G. Ballard, than any science fiction movie made in the last couple of years. Even more amazing was that the movie looks like a Hollywood blockbuster but was filmed for only $15,000. It’s far more visually arresting than the $100 million plus Disney spent on Tron: Legacy.
I also recently managed to see These Are the Damned, one of Hammer Films’s few forays into science fiction. It’s an odd and oddly subtle mix of rock-and-roll movie, film noir, Ingmar Bergman pastiche, and science fiction, specifically Village of the Damned, that still resonates despite its nuclear war obsessions. What surprised me most was its complete lack of camp. Its air of melancholy and despair works well with Joseph Losey’s black-and-white direction and Elisabeth Frink’s sculptures, and stands completely at odds with the garish colors and overt sexuality that you associate with Hammer. However, despite wearing its message on its sleeve, it never drowns the viewer in propaganda, which is far more than I can say for Avatar. And, in its depiction of rogue Teddy Boys led by Oliver Reed, it seems to prefigure Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange by a decade. (Keep in mind that These Are the Damned was made a year before the publication of Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange.) It may be fifty years old, but it stands as one of the most remarkable science fiction movies I’ve seen in the past year.
Primer took me complete by surprise on almost every level. That an independent film could look so polished was impressive on the technical front, but more impressive was how tight the script was. Even if you know the premise: Man invents time machine by accident the directions that film goes will have your head spinning. Or at least, it did mine. A lot of time machine stories come apart if you look at them too closely but this one… the plot is intricate and holds up to repeated viewing.
Avatar. I knew going in what sort of film it was going to be. I was expecting a Big Hollywood Picture with a fairly trite plot. In this I was neither disappointed nor surprised. What did surprise me though was the world design. On every level, it was carefully considered and appeared consistent until one arrives at the Na’vi which appear to come from a different eco-system. Why, on a world where everything else has three nostrils on either side of their neck, would the Na’vi have noses? Why would everything else have four eyes and the Na’vi have two? The answer is, according to Mr. Cameron, for the same reason that the female Na’vi have breasts. Why is that, you ask? Because the driving design question was, “Would you want to do her?” I have rarely been this angry at a design decision. Mark you, I was irritated by it while watching the film but when I found out why?
Not only does it undermine the reality of the world that was so painstakingly created but it also cheapens the stakes of the film. The whole point was about falling in love with someone who is “other” because of who they are instead of what they look like. Rather than taking a risk and going after the challenge of making the audience understand how to see beauty in someone different, the design decision was based on fuckability.