“Doctor Who: The Power of the Daleks” – a futuristic setting for a police-state society beset by political rivalries

Charles Norton, “Doctor Who: The Power of the Daleks” (animated version, 2016)

Originally filmed in live action in 1966, this Doctor Who adventure was the first to feature Patrick Troughton as the newly regenerated Time Lord forced to face his most deadly enemies the Daleks not long after he staggers to his feet and strains to recognise his faithful Earthling companions Ben and Polly. The trio lands on the planet Vulcan where already a colony has been established by Ben and Polly’s fellow Earthlings in a future hundreds of years after the duo’s time. Almost as soon as they land and start investigating their surroundings, the Doctor finds a dead man, murdered by another. Not long after, the Doctor and his companions are found by the colonists and herded into their settlement where they meet the Governor and his subordinates, all of whom assume that the Doctor is the examiner come to check and audit their work.

The Doctor takes an interest in chief scientist Lesterson’s work but is horrified to discover that Lesterson and his team are attempting to revive three Daleks found in a capsule that crash-landed on Vulcan a couple of centuries ago. Sure enough, as soon as the Daleks are resurrected against the Doctor’s protests, they set about in their cunning and manipulative way to direct the colony’s resources into maintaining themselves and producing new Daleks. The Daleks quickly realise that the colony is divided among the rulers and a group of rebels who plan to overthrow the Governor and his regime, and aim to exploit the political divisions in the colony.

This story was certainly not written with children in mind as the target audience: the animation is minimal and sparse and the story is driven by character and dialogue. Most of the story is carried by the colonist characters and their interactions with the Daleks: the colonists assume they have full control of the Daleks and the Daleks pretend to be subservient while always on the lookout for an opportunity to usurp those in charge of the colony and enslave the humans. This relationship might be read as a metaphor for the decline of British imperialism in its Asian and African colonies in the period in which this Doctor Who adventure was originally made (1966): the British had always assumed they could maintain their empire but through their arrogant exploitation and impoverishment of their subject peoples, and their attempts to expand their global empire to maintain their political and economic edge against rival powers the US and Germany (leading them to fight two disastrous world wars), ended up losing this empire. In most of their colonies, subject peoples fought hard for self-government and the right to make decisions concerning the use of their lands and natural resources, and then for independence when they discovered the British had no intention of sharing power with them. The difference though in the Doctor Who adventure is that the Daleks are united in their apparent subservience while plotting their own rebellion, and remain united when they seize control of the colony. One unfortunate result though of the story being driven by the colony’s unstable and seething politics is that the Doctor’s companions Ben and Polly are reduced to helpless onlookers unable to do much to help the Doctor or the colonists combat the real danger.

The story is outstanding in delineating the characters of several colonists – the sinister and power-hungry Bragen, his equally conniving No 2 Janley, chief scientist Lesterson who possibly feigns madness when his experiment unravels badly and threatens the colony, the crusty Governor and his hapless deputy Quinn who is constantly being shoved aside in spite of his protests – to the extent that viewers come to identify with them, even though these colonists are mostly greedy people engaged in a grubby power struggle. This establishes a tension – viewers know that some of these characters will be killed by the Daleks, that is a given – so when the Daleks do go on their rampage, the shock of seeing so many colonists being massacred can be overwhelming. The one thing lacking in the story is motivation: why are the colonists so keen in the first place to resurrect the Daleks and use them as robot servants? For that matter, we do not learn much about the human colony on Vulcan and why it was founded there: we have to assume that Vulcan contains minerals and other resources needed for the future human civilisation that set up the colony.

One thing that helps to lighten the seriousness of this adventure and distance viewers a little from the characters is the Doctor’s own wavering character which has yet to establish itself properly. Absent-minded, liable to wander off without warning and whip out a recorder to play during times of stress, the Doctor nevertheless retains a sharp mind and the ability to improvise a strategy to defeat the Daleks. Because the adventure under review is an animated reconstruction of the original live-action story, I cannot really comment much on Troughton’s acting against the rest of the cast; the audio recording suggests Troughton and the actors playing the colonists (Lesterson, Bragen and Janley in particular) do a good job in the parts they play, given that the plot is quite complicated but must fit within the structural parameters of a six-episode adventure where each episode lasts 20 to 25 minutes.

This story is definitely one of the better Doctor Who adventures, even if it seems a bit overcrowded with many good characters: it’s a story that inquires into the nature of politics and finds it cynical, petty and small-minded, and what that small-mindedness might say about the values of the society where such politics exist. While the Daleks use their own cunning and exploit the greed and the rivalries of the humans they seek to conquer, they still end up puzzled by the humans whose psychology they manipulate. Why indeed do humans kill other humans for no other reason than sheer greed for power and influence over their fellow humans?

Downsizing: an uneven satirical science fiction comedy commenting on various social, economic and political issues

Alexander Payne, “Downsizing” (2017)

For most viewers, perhaps the more interesting part of this long meandering film will be the first half in which main character Paul Sofranek (Matt Damon) decides to undergo miniaturisation for various reasons reflecting his status as a lower middle-class technocrat worker bee and the pressures that attach to that, and the actual miniaturisation process itself. The rest of the film is likely to leave audiences behind as Sofranek embarks on a journey of self-discovery and fulfillment among similarly downsized humans and is brought to the depths of existential despair and the equally dangerous highs of spiritual exhilaration in his adventures. If viewers were to tune out after the halfway point though, they will miss a great deal of satirical social commentary on the current state of the American middle class, the class system generally, climate change, the plight of refugees and outsiders in American society and cult behaviour among even supposedly enlightened communities.

Sofranek and wife Audrey (Kristen Wiig) aspire to the typically American dream of material success – good jobs with incomes that accommodate a fair-sized house in a socially upward community, good schools and colleges for any children they may have – but due to past circumstances not wholly theirs to control, Sofranek’s dream of becoming a surgeon is downgraded to his being an occupational therapist for a meat-packing plant in Omaha, and the couple’s application for a loan to buy a cheap-looking over-sized McMansion house is dashed because they don’t have the income to support repayments. Through friends, the Sofraneks hear of a community called Leisureland where they can live the life they desire: the catch is they must consent to be downsized to 15 centimetres in height to live in this tiny community – the assumption being that tiny people can exist on a fraction of the resources that normal-sized people require. This assumption has grown from experiments done in years past by Norwegian scientists searching for alternate solutions for human survival in the event of climate change and/or reduced global resources due to overpopulation and overcrowding.

Paul Sofranek himself undergoes the downsizing – the process is very clinical, machine-like, even a little industrial, yet the creepiness of it is (depending on the viewer’s point of view) either attenuated or increased by the cheery music one associates with television situation comedies of the 1950s – but his wife chickens out at the last moment. Paul thus finds himself adrift in a sterile cartoon Disneyland gated community where he has the money to afford a huge mansion with cheap reproductions of famous European paintings. He decides to move into an apartment and (after his divorce) acquires a girlfriend who later rejects him when she discovers his neighbour is a noisy Serbian called Dušan (Christoph Waltz) who throws large parties. You know the Hollywood stereotype about Serbians: they’re either outright villains or just not to be trusted. Dušan invites Paul to one such party where Paul becomes intoxicated on an ecstasy tablet, dances all night long and crashes out next morning. He meets Dušan’s cleaner Ngoc Lan Tran (Hong Chau), a former environmental activist who was arrested and shrunk down as punishment by the Vietnamese government, and who now hobbles on an ill-fitting prosthetic leg she acquired after defecting to the US in a television carton. Ngoc Lan takes Paul to meet her sick friend and he discovers that the women live in a huge slum barrio, one of several on the outskirts of Leisureland. After trying (and failing miserably) to help both Ngoc Lan and the friend with their health issues, Ngoc Lan co-opts Paul into her cleaning service – at least he gets to visit different people and workplaces, so he gladly leaves the telemarketing job he currently has – and the two run a parallel charity in which, instead of receiving payment for cleaning rich people’s houses and business premises, they take away unwanted food, medicines and other supplies for the barrio.

Later Paul and Ngoc Lan travel with Dušan and his skipper friend Konrad (Udo Kier) to Norway to meet members of the original tiny community in an idyllic fjord forest setting. However the people of this community receive news about methane releases in Antarctica and decide that the global extinction of humans is about to begin so they prepare for a transformative event that appeals to Paul.

The cast puts in excellent performances with Hong Chau and Christoph Waltz being the most outstanding. Ngoc Lan’s broken English skills hide a cunning and manipulative personality who knows exactly what she wants. Dušan is a louche playboy who makes his money in the grey areas between what’s legal and what’s not but he, like Ngoc Lan, turns out to have a heart of gold. Damon’s acting is rather more limited in style and expression but his character represents an everyman stereotype, not too bright, and limited in knowledge and expression, perhaps because he has trained for a narrow occupational specialty and was shunted into a niche where he is expected to stay, though changing circumstances mean he will eventually become redundant. Through his adventures with Dušan, Ngoc Lan and Konrad, Paul comes to appreciate humanity as a whole, to learn compassion and true tolerance (as opposed to tolerating people’s presence), and to realise that his purpose in life is to keep on listening and learning, to put others’ needs above selfish desires, and to help others not so fortunate and privileged as he is. True social change comes not from following fads and movements promising utopia but from working with others to improve society as is.

There are so many social, political and economic issues treated in satirical ways in “Downsizing” that the film can only deal with them in a superficial way. The result is that the plot lurches from one issue to the next: first, we have overpopulation as an issue; then come miniaturisation and one social issue that arises from that (will tiny people have the same rights and freedoms as normal-sized people if they shut themselves away in tiny communities?); the class divisions in Leisureland are another, signifying that even tiny communities are not utopias but merely replicate the economic and political structures of their original source communities; doomsday cults are another issue. Far from being a solution to climate change and overpopulation, miniaturisation is simply another means to social avarice and meaningless consumerism. The point could be made though that overpopulation is not itself a problem: the real problem is that the wealth of the Earth is unevenly distributed among peoples due to the economic and political systems that we have which ensure that a wealthy few not only acquire more than they deserve but are prepared to defend what they have to the point of enslaving or killing others to keep their wealth and acquire more. In this respect, the miniaturisation project goes some way (but only a little) to redistribute some of the wealth to a few lucky have-nots – but even they are seduced by the dream of having more. (And if the film’s science were accurate – which it is not – miniaturisation wouldn’t even be considered as one panacea to the unequal distribution of resources: tiny humans would need to eat more, several times their weight even, and thus by sheer necessity take up more resources for their size, simply to keep warm.) True redistribution comes from caring for others and sharing with others, not from isolating oneself in a luxury retirement-village gated community or in a hippie village anticipating an apocalyptic scenario and acting as a doomsday cult, and this is the difficult lesson Paul must learn.

For all its faults and limitations as a tale of self-discovery and redemption, “Downsizing” may eventually attain lasting cult status: it presents issues of varied social, economic and political import, and at the very least prompts serious thinking on these issues, even if it itself fails to answer them adequately.

Pride + Prejudice + Zombies: affectionate spoof historical comedy drama / horror film mash-up could have promised more

Burr Steers, “Pride + Prejudice + Zombies” (2016)

At long last, instead of yet another BBC TV series adaptation or British / Hollywood movie version of the famous Jane Austen novel of marriage and manners, we have an affectionate spoof in which the Bennet sisters – or just two of them, Elizabeth (Lily James) and Jane (Bella Heathcote) – not only sing, dance, play piano and chat wittily at parties and afternoon tea but also fight and kill zombies with knives, swords, guns and Shaolin kung fu. Yes, this is the movie adaptation of the mash-up novel by Seth Grahame Smith which credits Austen as co-author. Although it’s been a long time since I read the original Austen novel – I had to read it for school – and I have never read the mash-up, the film is surprisingly faithful in spirit if not in the details of the original plot and preserves most of its characters.

In early 19th-century England, the moderately wealthy Mr Bennet has trained his five daughters to fight the zombies that have recently overrun that green and sceptred land after a mysterious Black Plague has swept through the country and laid waste to much of it. His frivolous wife is keen to see her daughters hitched to wealthy gentlemen suitors. The family attends a ball hosted by the rich Bingley family and young heir Charles Bingley is attracted to Jane Bingley. Zombies then gate-crash the ball and the Bennet girls help in dispatching them to Purgatory. Elizabeth Bennet catches the attention of Fitzwilliam Darcy (Sam Riley), an even more wealthy gentleman than Charles Bingley and a noted zombie killer to boot. While both Elizabeth and Darcy are attracted to each other, a misunderstanding between them soon arises concerning why Darcy advises Charles Bingley to keep his distance from Jane.

Parson Collins (Matt Smith) pays a visit to the Bennets and proposes marriage to Elizabeth if she will give up her warrior ways but the lass refuses to do so, to the fury of her mother and the relief of her father. About the same time, Elizabeth becomes acquainted with George Wickham (Jack Huston), a soldier who tells her a sob-story about how badly Darcy has treated him and denied him his inheritance. Wickham takes Elizabeth to visit St Lazarus Church in a no-go zone in London where zombies fed on pigs’ brains to calm them down worship. Wickham hopes that these zombies can eventually co-exist peacefully with humans. Failing to persuade Elizabeth of the worth of his plan, he tries to convince her to elope with him but she refuses. At a later time, Darcy also tries to propose marriage to Elizabeth and the attempt ends in a hilarious sword-fight and battle of wits between the two.

Darcy writes a letter of apology to Elizabeth, telling her why he advised Bingley to stay away from Jane – Darcy having believed she was merely after Bingley’s fortune due to Mrs Bennet’s loud-mouthed behaviour at the Bingley ball – and the truth behind Wickham’s lack of money: the soldier squandered his inheritance, tried to hit up Darcy for more money and might have even infected Darcy’s father with the plague germ that zombified old Mr Darcy, forcing the younger Darcy to kill him. Darcy and Elizabeth later discover that her younger sister Lydia has run off with Wickham and that Wickham is preparing a zombie army to invade and take over the whole of London.

The plot just about manages to stay the course of the film – though it does become formulaic towards the end with a climactic fight  between Darcy and Wickham – with no collapse while incorporating key sub-plots and incidents and remaining faithful in the portrayal of the main characters of Elizabeth and Darcy, and even minor characters like the Bennet parents. Wickham is upgraded into the major villain and Huston looks as if he’s having great fun playing an aristocratic wannabe liberator of zombies from their presumed state of savagery so they can share in the wealth of England. Indeed, all the actors seem to be enjoying themselves and the result of their enthusiasm is excellent acting and fairly well defined characters in a film where there’s hardly much pause in the action. Of minor characters, Matt Smith dominates all his scenes as the pompous and obsequious parson, turning Mr Collins into a comic figure to be pitied rather than scorned, and his performance is the best in the film. Lena Headey’s Lady Catherine de Bourgh turns out a surprisingly layered, even sinister character in the few scenes she has; the pity is that she is not a more useful character in the film other than being an obstacle in Darcy and Elizabeth’s paths to happiness together.

The film doesn’t say anything about the status of upper class women and their treatment in Regency England that hasn’t already been said by Jane Austen herself or the various film adaptations of “Pride and Prejudice”. For all their skills as zombie fighters and killers, the Bennet sisters are still reduced to whatever economic value they are worth as the daughters of a minor aristocrat. That humans would waste precious time and energy preoccupied with who’s who in their social hierarchy, how much money a prospective suitor makes and constant match-making while all around them the zombies not only don’t make class distinctions among themselves but don’t discriminate among the humans either is an irony the film fails to capitalise on. The zombies tend very much to stay in the background and viewers see nothing of how the calm zombies might conduct their lives when they are not set upon by humans. Perhaps Wickham’s suggestion that humans and zombies could learn to live together is more pertinent than it first appears: the zombies could certainly represent the disenfranchised proletariat classes of Regency society. A scene in the middle of the end credits suggests as much, as the zombie masses, led by a zombified Wickham, march towards the horrified upper classes in their gilded-cage mansions.

Apart from this, the film is mainly to be enjoyed as a distinctive adaptation of the famous novel but no more. The main problem with “Pride + Prejudice + Zombies” is that the feature film format is too short to deal with the original novel and the zombie invasion to do both justice and needs a mini-series format that could treat Regency-era zombies as a metaphor for the poor and oppressed. The savage zombies could represent the prejudices of the aristocrats and their biased views about zombie behaviour. The upper classes may be proud of their wit, their culture and fighting skills, but their pride is a desperate one rooted in the knowledge that one day they and their culture and values will all be swept away by the zombie hordes.

The mash-up literary genre that produced “Pride + Prejudice + Zombies” and other odd combinations like “Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters” and “Android Karenina” ultimately became a temporary publishing fad but it could have promised more.

Adam Ruins Everything (Season 2, Episode 14: Adam Ruins Halloween): beneath the silly slapstick and cheap thrills, a sobering message about manipulating people’s emotions and weaknesses for profit

Tim Wilkime, “Adam Ruins Everything (Season 2, Episode 14: Adam Ruins Halloween)” (2017)

Beneath the silliness is a sobering message that the scariest thing about life is the extent to which people and the news media will deliberately lie and manipulate information and people’s emotions, weaknesses and vulnerabilities for profit. Adam Conover visits schoolboy Stuart (Elisha Henig) on Halloween night to tell him the truth behind the persistent urban myth of strangers offering children poisoned lollies when they go trick-or-treating; what really happened during that night in 1938 when Orson Welles read “The War of the Worlds” on radio; and why mediums and séances are scams. All three phenomena are or have been very heavily dependent on the power of the news media to repeat and remind readers or viewers constantly to the extent that by sheer repetition the deception appears more real than the actual truth.

That the myth of strangers giving children poisoned candy persists, even though US police statistics and studies have only ever turned up one case of a child poisoned and killed by a cyanide-laced sweet (and the scumbag who did this turned out to be the boy’s father), speaks more about the news media’s repetitions of this tall tale stereotype which takes advantage of people’s fears about the welfare of children as they wander off on their own on Halloween evening around the streets knocking on people’s doors for treats year after year. Why news media outlets continue to exploit people’s concerns by perpetrating a falsehood that has long been debunked by research  to increase sales revenue, without regard for possible long-term effects of this exploitation (such as decreasing trust and weakening community ties, and encouraging people to rely more on government or corporate institutions for security and protection – institutions that may well be advertising through those same media outlets), is worthy of a documentary in its own right: we might find that the media’s exploitation of people’s fears may be tied to an agenda on the part of government and corporations (and those who control those bodies) to keep people fearful and distrustful of a world supposedly hostile to them. In this way, individuals are less likely to come and band together and fight for their common rights.

Similarly the perception that Orson Welles’ radio broadcast of “The War of the Worlds” back in 1938 generated mass panic turns out to be an urban myth that began almost as soon as Welles’ broadcast became known and is attributed to print news media’s jealousy of radio broadcasting and the desire to suggest that the immediacy of radio broadcasts could lead to irresponsible reporting: a rather ironic thing to say since the episode tends rather to suggest that print news media is irresponsible in stooping so low to rubbish a potential competitor. Nothing is said about the social and political context of the period: the Western world was on the verge of war at the time. Again, the fact that this belief has lasted so long and how and why repetition keeps sustaining it is worthy of its own independent investigation: perhaps the myth says something about our fear of being controlled by those who have the power to withhold truth from us.

Finally the episode pooh-poohs self-proclaimed psychics and the methods they use to ensnare people into trusting them and parting with their hard-earned money without asking why desperate and vulnerable people are most likely to believe mediums.

This Halloween episode is one of the more entertaining episodes in the series of “Adam Ruins Everything” even if it does go in for slapstick, cheap scares and thrills. The segment on “The War of the Worlds” scare is lavish and well done, and pays tribute to the creativity of sound effects technicians working in radio broadcasting at the time.

Les Biches: a coolly elegant and stylish film on obsessive love, the fragility of identity and class tensions

Claude Chabrol, “Les Biches / The Does” (1968)

A beautifully elegant film of stylishness and subtle performances from its lead female characters, “Les Biches” is a psychological study of obsessive love leading to jealousy and derangement and of the nature of identity and its fragility. It’s also a study of class, and how one set of rules exists for the upper class who happily and nonchalantly engage in decadent activities and another exists for the lower classes.

The action seems to take place in a hermetically sealed world where only the upper class swan about freely and anyone else has to be invited in. Wealthy Parisian socialite Frédérique (Stéphane Audran) encounters a struggling street artist called Why (Jacqueline Sassard) and seduces her. The two lovers then drive down to holiday in St Tropez and stay in Frédérique’s villa which is also inhabited by Violeta the cook and two gay male room-mates. Initially Frédérique and Why have a great time as lovers. However a young architect called Paul (Jean-Louis Trintignant) intrudes on the women’s happiness: he and Why are attracted to each other but Frédérique, jealous of the burgeoning romance, seduces Paul instead and makes him her lover. Complications arise when Frédérique realises she really does love Paul and wants to be close to him 24/7, leaving Why in bored limbo. The three try to live together but Frédérique and Paul’s affair arouses intense jealousy in Why. Who will prevail over the other in claiming Paul’s attentions for herself: Frédérique or Why?

The plot is very thin and most of the film’s attractions come from the actors’ own ability to make their characters come alive: in this, Audran does a far better job than the other main actors Sassard and Trintignant. Of the three, Trintignant’s character Paul seems a bit one-dimensional and ineffectual if cautious and dead set on Frédérique for her money. Trintignan’s Paul gives every impression of being manipulated by Frédérique. The burden of carrying the film falls on Audran and Sassard and both play their parts well, with Audran having the edge on Sassard in portraying a vampiric predator who sucks the life and vitality out of both Paul and Why. The hold that Frédérique has over Why is enough to rob the younger woman of her original bohemian street artist identity and replace it with Frédérique’s own glossy but ultimately empty spirit. Eventually (spoiler alert), Why confronts Frédérique and gets rid of the socialite – but at what cost to her own sanity and stability?

The gay freeloaders Robèque and Riais provide much needed comic relief in an otherwise very insular and suffocating film and act as Frédérique’s familiars in much the same as bats might do for Count Dracula. They are also dealt with in much the same way by Frédérique as she deals with Why: when their usefulness comes to an end, the socialite throws them out of the house and sends them back to Paris. As for Why, Frédérique gives the younger woman plenty of clues (which Why fails to pick up) that she is no longer wanted. Such is the difference between someone wealthy like Frédérique who can make and break people, and those of the lower classes who are bedazzled by wealth and influence, and are made and broken accordingly.

Few films on sexual power, the class divide, upper class decadence and the fragility of identity are so subtle and coolly elegant as this one with such a small cast.

Treasures Decoded (Season 4, Episode 6: Shrunken Heads): phenomenon of shrunken heads hides a history of cultural exploitation and degradation

Peter Crystal, “Treasures Decoded (Season 4, Episode 6: Shrunken Heads)” (2017)

Shrunken human heads are the kind of macabre curio objects, beloved of museums and oddball collectors, sure to arouse curiosity and revulsion alike – but the history of how shrunken human heads came to the attention of 19th-century European explorers in South American and sparked a collection mania among museums, private organisations and individual collectors throughout the world masks a sordid history of Western capitalist exploitation and undermining of a culture and its worldview. The episode begins innocently if breathlessly with a supposedly impartial team of anthropologists, archaeologists and historians using the latest methods including DNA analysis to examine and discover the origins of various shrunken heads found in museum collections in places as far apart as Philadelphia and Warsaw – and what they discover leads narrator Mark Bazeley and his audience into a shocking underworld of bodysnatching, cold-blooded murder, fakery and near-genocide.

To its credit, the episode spends time explaining the role of shrunken heads in the worldview of the Shuar people in Ecuador: the Shuar decapitate their enemies in warfare and shrink their heads so that the spirits within are trapped and cannot wreak revenge on the Shuar for killing them. (To be on the safe side, the head’s eyes, nostrils and mouth are sewn shut.) Over time, the spirit’s power is used by the Shuar people for peaceful and beneficial purposes. Once Europeans contacted the Shuar and began demanding – and paying for – shrunken heads to furnish their museums, the Shuar were drawn into economic and trading networks in which an aspect of their culture became commodified, and the Western demand for shrunken heads led the Shuar down a dangerous path in which they became increasingly violent and any traditions and customs that they had which had preached peace were forgotten. In time, the Shuar were not only killing their warrior enemies for the head-hunting trade, they were killing their own – men, women, even children – and raiding graves for heads. Over time, the Shuar’s own culture and traditions became degraded and the people acquired an unjustified reputation as being bloodthirsty and violent.

At the same time, the episode does titillate Western curiosity by devoting considerable time to an anthropologist’s attempt in recreating the process by which heads were shrunk by the Shuar with a pig’s head. The fellow then tries through digital means to reverse the shrinking process and to reveal what the face of a man whose head was shrunk might have looked like in real life.

The novelty of seeing shrunken heads wears off very quickly and the really fascinating aspect of this phenomenon is how a cultural tradition originally aiming to mitigate violence and restore peace came to be corrupted through Western contact and co-opted into providing a commodity in capitalist society, in the process being stripped of its benevolent intentions and turning into a sick, twisted and degraded parody spreading fear and violence. Viewers will be heartened to discover that head-hunting was made illegal in Ecuador in the 1960s but only after Christian missionaries contacted the Shuar and persuaded them to give up this violence. It seems a shame that the Shuar could only give up head-hunting by being herded into accepting a foreign religion rather than be allowed to turn back to their traditions to find a remedy to end the violence and instability created by head-hunting. We learn nothing about how the Shuar have since tried to rebuild their culture and communities, and regain the peace and stability they once had.

If there is something valuable to take away from this story about shrunken heads, then the narrative of how the Shuar nearly killed themselves off but instead recovered to reclaim their society and reputation and by doing so saved themselves and survived should have been at least as important as the phenomenon of the shrunken heads themselves.

The Mummy (directed by Alex Kurtzman): action thriller / horror film with no horror, few thrills and silly action

Alex Kurtzman, “The Mummy” (2017)

Somewhere in this hokey action blockbuster film is a story about flawed humans acting for purely selfish reasons and the consequences that result from the idiot decisions they make: destruction, loss of human life and ultimately the loss of their own immortal souls. The plot has more holes than Swiss cheese, not that you’d notice very much because the material is so paper-thin as to be transparent. Whatever character development exists is very superficial because the characters are secondary to the digital special effects, the action and violence, and the need to pack in as much of those as possible so viewers don’t notice the film’s other flaws. Tom Cruise is very miscast as adventurer Nick Morton – he’s meant to be a dodgy thieving treasure hunter of dubious morality but ends up being another variation of action hero with a heart of gold – and his character generates no chemistry with archaeologist side-kick Jennifer Halsey (Annabelle Wallis). Really the only decent acting performances are those of Russell Crowe as the dualistic Dr Jekyll / Mr Hyde head of mystery organisation Prodigium and of Sofia Boutella as the eponymous monster.

Five thousand years ago, evil scheming Ancient Egyptian princess Ahmanet, miffed at being displaced as heir to her father’s throne after a half-brother is born, summons the help of Egyptian death god Set and with his special knife slaughters Dad, Step-Mum and Baby Brother. Her crime is so heinous and her union with Set so blasphemous that the high priests banish her to an underground prison deep down in … Mesopotamia of all places. (Could they not have buried her beneath the Valley of the Kings in the Sahara?) Centuries later, the special knife with the glowing red gemstone falls into the hands of Christian Crusaders who take it back to England where the gemstone is buried with one Crusader and the knife hidden in a statue in a cathedral. More centuries pass, the US invades Iraq and treasure hunters like Nick Morton and pal Vail (Jake Johnson) flood into the country seeking archaeological artefacts to sell on the black market. Under fire from terrorists, Morton calls for help, the US air force responds with a bomb drop and uncovers the tomb of Ahmanet. At the same time, the Crusader’s tomb with the red gemstone is uncovered under London during excavations for a new underground train tunnel.

“Coincidence” builds on “coincidence” and Morton discovers, with the help of Halsey and Henry Jekyll, that he is possessed by Ahmanet who seeks him so they may enter into union and through that Ahmanet can sacrifice Morton to Set and give Set a human form. Evil would then be incarnate upon Earth and the future of humanity and life itself would be in danger. From here on in, the plot focuses on Morton’s attempts to escape the influence of Ahmanet and at the same time save Halsey from the mummy’s clutches and save himself from Jekyll and Prodigium’s plans for his dissection. Ahmanet herself seeks out the knife of Set by manipulating Morton and various English folks whom she turns into zombies.

For a supposed horror film, the first in a “Dark Universe” series of films by Universal Studios resurrecting famous monsters of Hollywood legend, “The Mummy” has very little horror, and for an action thriller, “The Mummy” is as thrilling as paint drying on walls. There’s not much fun to be had, even in scenes sending up Tom Cruise’s past films in which he escapes car crashes and explosions with naught but a scratch on his handsome visage or in scenes featuring Vail as Morton’s comic foil. One doesn’t hold too much hope for what’s next in the Dark Universe.

Mash-up of all previous Alien franchise flicks delivers an uneven story in “Alien: Covenant”

Ridley Scott, “Alien: Covenant” (2017)

British director Ridley Scott must have taken all the criticisms of “Prometheus” to heart as he has delivered a new chapter in the pre-Ripley sub-set of the Alien franchise that at least boasts a half-decent story, even if it looks like a mash-up of all the other Alien films ever made plus parts of Scott’s own “Blade Runner” and “Gladiator” to boot. This second installment in the complicated meta-narrative now poses questions about the purpose of one’s existence, what it means to be human as opposed to being a robot, and the presumption of humans in playing God to the extent of colonising and terraforming far distant exoplanets for the benefit of humans (and at the expense of the native life-forms) and of creating sentient beings to be used as slaves and machines. These questions partly compensate for flaws in the film’s plot and characterisation, and enable the film to be treated with a bit more respect than its predecessor.

The spaceship Covenant is on a mission to find a new Earth-like exoplanet to settle, its colonists (most of whom exist in embryonic form in cryogenic tubes) fleeing a planet ruined by warfare and environmental catastrophe caused by human greed and selfishness. A cosmic storm damages part of the ship and causes some colonists (the adult ones) to awake from hyper-sleep. They repair the damage but lose their captain when his pod is engulfed in flames. The crew aren’t too enthusiastic about going back into deep sleep and start looking for something to do. On cue, their craft alerts them to a signal coming from a planet in the galaxy they are heading towards – and this signal is apparently human. New leader Captain Oram (Billy Crudup) decides over the objections of second-in-charge Daniels (Katherine Waterston) to go down to the planet to investigate the source of the signal. The two take a group of colonists – including the Covenant‘s resident android Walter (Michael Fassbender) down to the planet which initially presents as a paradise of high mountains, beautiful lakes, fields of wheat … but no birdsong or insect chatter.

The reasons for the lack of fauna soon become apparent as the search team is set upon and decimated in often gruesome and gory fashion by various representatives of the protean Alien species. Their space-explorer vehicle is damaged and they are forced to rely on a mysterious hooded figure who turns out to be one of the two survivors from the previous “Prometheus” flick. What the Covenant search team discover about this prophet-like figure and the activities this sinister person has been engaging in is at least intriguing as well as horrifying …

A capable cast gets thrown away not only by the necessities of the plot and overall concept but by sketchy one-dimensional characters. Even Oram and Daniels are not too well delineated themselves: by making gob-smackingly stupid decisions early on, Oram makes himself a marked man and Daniels’ character has to fight against comparison with the tougher, more world-weary Ellen Ripley of past Alien flicks. (Admittedly if the Covenant crew had more than half a brain of intelligence among them to depend on, there would be no plot and no victims for the Alien creatures to play with.) In playing the two characters of David and Walter, Fassbender has no choice but to excel, and excel he does without chewing up too much of the scenery: that’s a job for the monsters who carry it out with enthusiasm and slavering relish. The androids play their good cop / bad cop routine efficiently and through their interactions the issue of the differences between humans and robots is highlighted. For a brief moment, David is confronted with the possibility that to be fully human not only means being able to create but also being less than perfect, and that what he creates has the potential to run away from him.

In the film’s last half hour, replays of “Alien”, “Aliens” and “Alien 3” become rather too obvious to the point of banality and Daniels’ chases of not one but two aliens aboard two ships have the air of being tacked onto the film’s plot at the last minute to satisfy the bean-counters financing the film. Not for the first time (and certainly not for the last time), the critters get blasted through airlocks to join their other siblings into space junk orbit around some unfortunate planet – one wonders what David would make of all this interstellar pollution created by the unthinking and selfish human beings he comes to despise.

As in “Prometheus”, the Covenant crew make a lot of silly mistakes for the purpose of moving the plot forwards and providing meat for the gore and the violence. Silly in-jokes abound as well – was it necessary for an alien to dispose of two people in a pointless shower scene?

Nevertheless the film is beautiful to look at and the technology and special effects can be very stunning. The film ends on a cliff-hanger note that can be foreseen several hundred light-years away. One hopes the next two chapters will improve on “Alien: Covenant” though I am not holding my breath. One major improvement would be to boot Ridley Scott from the whole Alien franchise and let Neil Blomkamp (of “Chappie” and “District 9”) get on with his alternative Alien Version 3.1 in which Hicks and Newt from “Aliens” survive and somehow thrive.

Get Out: social criticism and philosophical inquiry in amongst a bizarre plot and interracial politics

Jordan Peele, “Get Out” (2017)

Jordan Peele’s comedy horror film, his first as a director, about an interracial relationship that goes awry can be seen as a timely social commentary on present-day racism and the forms it can take. Chris (Daniel Kaluuya), a man, has been in a romance with Rose Armytage (Allison Williams ), a white woman, for several months and she invites him to meet her family on their rural estate. They drive out into the boonies and he is awed by their gracious country mansion and the eccentric warmth of Rose’s parents (Bradley Whitford and Catherine Keener) and her brother Jeremy (Caleb Landry Jones). One little problem: their black servants seem so passive as to be zombie-like. From the moment Chris enters the family estate, the plot builds steadily to its bizarre revelation: Rose and her folks are a front for a white supremacist cult that kidnaps black people and uses their bodies with their supposed inherent genetic abilities (such as their strength and athleticism) as vessels into which to transplant their own brains while the original owners’ brains are trapped into a permanent comatose prison.

The film’s production values are very good and transition easily from comedy to drama to B-grade horror and back again. The silly premise of brainwashing and brain-harvesting is made plausible by Peele’s targeting of white “liberal” or socially progressive hypocrites who profess empathy for black people and other victims of white or Anglocentric racism, and who immerse themselves in other people’s cultures, all to feed their own egos and self-satisfaction without considering the damage they might be doing to those they patronise. Peele plants little clues in details of the plot and the cast of characters to flesh out the plot: Rose’s dad happens to be a neurosurgeon and her mother is a psychiatrist who practises therapeutic hypnosis – this of course means Chris will be hypnotised into submission and will be subjected to invasive brain surgery, so the thrill of the plot for viewers lies in guessing how close Chris comes to realising what he’s in for and how he can save himself. The Amityville-style country house setting emphasises Chris’s total isolation from any kind of help and the danger he is in.

Plot holes galore do exist, the most obvious being that in a narrative which carefully stacks all the odds against the hero, a miracle is needed if he is to save himself. The film is not too clear on how Chris overcomes the hypnosis without being found out using stuffing from ripped upholstery to block his ears from mesmerising talk and the sound of teaspoons scraping teacups.

The cast is also very good in playing stereotypical roles and it is to Kaluuya and Williams’ credit that their characters seem very real even though at the climax and afterwards, Chris and Rose descend into one-dimensional and crude figures. Chris’s sudden violence and brutality come right out of left field and one supposes that the Armytages’ early treatment of him has ironically given him a savagery that he otherwise would not have been able to express. Rose’s remarkable transformation from indie college girl rebel to a cold-blooded freakazoid fanatic with machine gun is supremely chilling. Special mention should be made of Keener as a warm and gracious if quirky mother figure who ends up a malevolent, even vicious creature.

While on one level the film is pessimistic in insinuating that there can be no accommodation between black and white people, and black people can never, ever be sure of the attitudes of well-meaning whites towards them, on other issues the film encourages deeper inquiry into cultural appropriation, racial stereotyping and the nature and purpose of one’s existence. Many cultural innovations made by black people, especially in music (as the film’s soundtrack alludes to), have been claimed and commodified by white people. Rose’s family and fellow cult members prey on black people on the presumption that their bodies are better-looking and perform better sexually than white people’s bodies do – and because black people happen to be “cool” (because of their historical role as underdogs and oppressed victims). The cult’s quest for immortality by transplanting cult members’ brains into stolen bodies is part of a deeper quest for the significance and purpose of human existence. The film’s regrettable identification with identity politics and its concerns with other more laudable issues make it a complicated and intriguing beast and ensure its place among those cult horror flicks that are as much social criticism as cheap thriller material.

Compliance: sneering at naive workers exploited by a culture that treats them as robots and brutes

Craig Zobel, “Compliance” (2012)

Based on a series of incidents over a decade from the mid-1990s to 2004, in which a prank caller convinced the staff at various fast-food restaurants in rural areas of the US that he was a police officer and that they had to carry out various demeaning actions on fellow staff, this film demonstrates the extent to which people, especially working-class people without much education, are willing to obey authority and commit the most brutal acts. At the beginning of the film, Sandra (Ann Dowd) is a stressed-out middle-aged manager of a small-town fast-food joint who’s just been harassed by her regional manager for wasting inventory. The busy Friday shift is about to start and already the restaurant is one staff member short. The staff members themselves are a mix of people, young and old, middle class and working class, and Sandra has her hands full ordering them about and attending to the constant demands of customers. The phone rings and Sandra picks it up: the caller (Pat Healy) claims to be police officer Daniels and he is investigating a complaint about one of Sandra’s underlings in the restaurant, an attractive young blonde woman called Becky (Dreama Walker), who is alleged to have stolen a customer’s money. At his order, Sandra drags Becky into a store-room, to be kept under surveillance until the police arrive to make a formal arrest.

What follows is a horrific study in psychological horror as Becky is subjected to a strip search by Sandra and another employee, followed by extreme sexual humiliation and violence. Throughout Becky’s ordeal, Sandra continues to comply with Daniels’ orders even as they become ever more bizarre and perverted. She brings in co-worker Kevin to watch Becky but he quits the room in disgust after being ordered by Daniels to force Becky to undress again. Sandra then calls and brings in her fiancé Van to watch Becky and Daniels orders him to abuse the girl by spanking her.

The film’s story faithfully follows the details of an actual incident that occurred at a McDonald’s franchise in Mount Washington, Kentucky state, right up to the point where the police really do become involved and start tracking down the prank caller and making arrests. The rest of the film then flits through the police investigation and scenes in which Becky considers her legal options and Sandra is interviewed by a journalist about her actions and why she obeyed the prank caller.

While the outward message of the film seems obvious – that people can and do obey authority far too trustingly, even when there are clues that someone claiming to be what he is not, is not at all genuine – the plot itself, by concentrating very closely on the details of the story, fails to make the connection between class and education level on the one hand, and the extent to which people blindly follow authority on the other hand. Sandra and Van are shown to be simple people with limited schooling and equally limited options, and the other people around them are also unsophisticated and no match for the devious middle class prankster preying on them. There is a sub-text suggesting that Sandra is jealous of Becky because she is young and pretty, and that perhaps the prank call gives Sandra an opportunity to subconsciously abuse the girl which might explain why the older woman falls for the scam so readily.

The film does not show the full context in which Sandra, Becky, the rest of the staff and Van feel harassed and compelled to obey the prank caller: the fast-food restaurant staff have an unsympathetic and remote management on their backs, and are driven by work quotas they have to fulfill and a work culture that treats them like robots. In such an environment there is no need to think critically, to exercise one’s imagination, and such attributes would be discouraged anyway. There is no suggestion anywhere in the film that Sandra and her staff have been notified of prank callers in their district by their regional management even when the police discover the person posing as “Daniels” could have been harassing another fast-food establishment prior to the incident in the film.

The film could have been an effective indictment on how working-class and rural people are preyed on and made the butt of cruel pranks by knowing middle-class sociopaths, and an examination of how capitalism exploits people’s loyalty to authority and their willingness to conform and obey orders. Instead it offers a cheap opportunity for audiences to sneer at naive working people exploited by government, corporations and an ideology that regards such workers as expendable work units whose job is to make money and profits. Ultimately as Sandra faces jail time, unemployment and a lonely future, having broken off her engagement to Van, the film can do nothing more than abandon her to her fate.