Aelita, Queen of Mars: a multi-plot story with a moral about living in fantasy versus living in reality

Yakov Protazanov, “Aelita, Queen of Mars” (1924)

This silent Soviet film from the mid-1920’s can be seen in nine parts on Youtube.com thanks to contributor Ishexan. Most current interest in the movie focusses on its sci-fi sub-plot of a trip that three Earthmen make to Mars where they are promptly embroiled in Martian politics and one of them, a revolutionary called Gusev (Nikolai Batalov), inspires the oppressed Martian workers to rebel against their despotic king and replace him with his daughter who is equally tyrannical. This sub-plot is part of a broad melodrama about an engineer called Los (Nikolai Tsereteli) who fluctuates between an erotic fantasy life revolving around an exotic aristocrat woman who worships him from afar and his real life in which his wife Natasha (Valentina Kuindzhi), neglected by him, has an affair with a rich foreigner, Ehrlich (Pavel Pol).

Los’s fantasy about the woman Aelita (Yulia Solntseva) begins when he and his colleague Spiridonov (Tsereteli again) receive mysterious radio transmissions from afar which can’t be translated into Russian and someone in their department jokingly suggests the messages might be from Mars. Mars is a place where rich folks like Aelita and her dad King Tuskub (Konstantin Eggert) can spy on the affairs of other planets on a special TV made of geometric shapes and squiggly wires powered by Martian planetary energy harnessed by Gor (Yuri Zavadsky), the planet’s chief scientist and guardian of radiant energy. Poor Martian folks on the other hand must labour in the labyrinthine dungeons of Mars and there’s a rotating roster in which one-third of the workforce goes to sleep in deep freeze chambers when the available work dwindles. Good thing the capitalists on Earth never heard of that idea! Most of the movie’s running time flits from Los’s work ,which among other things involves volunteer work on an engineering project in the Soviet Far East and in his spare time constructing a spaceship capable of flying to Mars with Spiridonov, to Natasha working at a refugee centre, then an orphanage, and flirting with Ehrlich, to other sub-plots which include Gusev’s on-again/off-again relationship with his wife and an investigation of Natasha’s shotgun murder by the comically inept detective Kravtsov (Igor Ilyinsky). There is also a sub-plot that focusses on one man’s attempt to cheat on the food-rationing system used in Moscow which calls audiences’ attention to the economic and social plight of ordinary people in Russia at the time the film was made.

All this means that “Aelita …” can be a bewildering experience for first-time viewers unfamiliar with the immediate post-1917 situation in the Soviet Union before Joseph Stalin came to power in the mid-1920’s. Repeating viewings and a foreknowledge of the film’s plot and themes will be necessary for some viewers to understand and tease out the various sub-plots. Several sub-plots are Los’s daydreams which the film deliberately doesn’t separate from what happens to the engineer in real life so the narrative, and in particular the ending, can be very confusing to watch. A pro-Communist / anti-capitalist message is present in the movie but director Protazanov’s treatment of it is very ambiguous: Gusev has second thoughts about allowing Aelita to assume leadership of the Martian proletariat and his fears are well-founded. This particular moment in the film serves perhaps as a warning of what could happen to the Soviet government, that it might fall into a similar autocratic style of government as the previous Tsarist government: a prophetic message indeed.

Los realises his fantasy about Aelita comes to nothing but chaos, which might make viewers wonder whether it really is a fantasy that he has or something that actually happened to him. Fantasy women who hero-worship you don’t usually try to co-opt you into their own nefarious schemes, do they? He decides that his goal in life is to be with Natasha, who miraculously is alive despite having been shot at close range multiple times earlier in the film, and work with her for the reconstruction of their country. Natasha for her part is willing to return to Los and give up Ehrlich. The film’s message is that inner psychological rebirth is as important as political, social and economic rebirth if people are to co-operate and fulfill the goals of socialist revolution. Fantasising about flying to Mars as a way of escaping humdrum reality and the work involved in maintaining a marriage (and by extension, maintaining a community, especially a new revolutionary community) certainly won’t help to bring about equality and prosperity for everyone.

The film’s production values are very impressive: in particular the Martian sets, influenced by the Russian avantgarde art movement Constructivism with its emphasis on abstract geometric shapes and figures, look very futuristic and in some scenes are monumental. The make-up and costume design for the actors playing the Martians are similarly abstract and angular though the headgear looks comic. The style of acting varies in keeping with the plot and themes: generally the Earthlings move and act in a natural way while the Martians, lacking human emotion, have a stilted and robotic style of behaving. Aelita especially seems a child-like and petulant aritstocrat compared to proletarian Natasha who is portrayed as a warm and caring, if rather flighty, young woman. The editing helps here too, cutting from Aelita at her leisure watching Los on her TV or lounging about to Natasha cooking stew and scrubbing wet clothes. Hmm, what does it say about Los and his attitude towards women and social class that Aelita is a naive fantasy ideal that turns dangerous and has to be killed off while the neglected Natasha is ready to offer him love and support if only he would pay more attention to her and their marriage?

Ultimately for most people the main value of “Aelita …” will be in its sets and design but for students of propaganda and Soviet history, the film has a great deal to say about the difference between fantasy and reality. The lesson is aimed as much at idealists and would-be revolutionaries as for those still wedded to capitalist ways of thinking.

Profound themes of evolution, maturity, cycles of life and death, and Japan’s modern history in Katsuhiro Otomo’s “Akira”

Katsuhiro Otomo, “Akira” (1988)

In an alternative but parallel universe in 1988, a scientific experiment using young children as test subjects for research into superhuman mental abilities goes awry when a child loses control and causes a huge explosion in Tokyo that is taken for a nuclear bomb attack and leads to a global war. Cut to 30 years later and a new city, Neo-Tokyo, has arisen on an artifical island in Tokyo Bay, the old city having been completely annihilated. Neo-Tokyo has become a thriving, wealthy metropolis but it’s also plagued by political corruption, anti-government riots and terrorist activity, and a seedy underbelly of crime, drug addiction and violence; and the scientific experiments that led to old Tokyo’s demise continue apace. In this context, two motorcycle gangs fight a turf war racing down the city’s highways and a member of one gang, Tetsuo, comes to grief when he hits – or appears to hit – a small child with aged features. His fellow gang members led by his childhood friend Kaneda quickly come to his aid but before they can take him to hospital, several military helicopters arrive and take Tetsuo and the small child to a military hospital. Kaneda and his gang are arrested by soldiers for questioning over a recent anti-government demonstration that turned violent.

At the hospital, Tetsuo is found to possess psychic abilities similar to those of the children being used in the secret experiments, now conducted by Dr Onishi under the supervision of Colonel Shikishima. The boy is operated and experimented on and the tests awaken his psychic powers which begin to develop of their own accord. He escapes from hospital and is reunited briefly with his girlfriend Kaori and Kaneda’s gang but is captured again. As Tetsuo struggles with his hallucinations and headaches, and discover what they are leading him to, Kaneda sees a girl, Kei, he met while in army custody and follows her; she leads him into a secret plot to get Tetsuo out of the military hospital. While the plotters battle to infiltrate the hospital, various incidents there bring Tetsuo’s psychic powers into the open to his advantage and Tetsuo himself, flushed with and revelling his new powers and the authority they give him, commences on a quest that he believes will give him even more power.

The plot is straightforward and not too complex but runs at a brisk, energetic pace so for most people two viewings of “Akira” might be necessary to fully understand what happens. The movie is a commentary on the cycle of birth, death and rebirth, embodied in the development of Tokyo / Neo-Tokyo itself, and what that implies about the post-1945 history of Japan and forecasts for the country’s 21st-century future. The use of anime rather than a live-action feature to bring the original “Akira” comic to screen is appropriate: the exacting technical detail of backgrounds and machines against and on which the plot depends captures the close and complicated relationship modern Japanese culture has with technology, at once beneficial, malleable enough to seem harmless, cute even, yet also highly dangerous. Tetsuo’s transformation is a metaphor on several levels: on a grand scale, it mirrors the evolution of life itself; on a global scale, it’s a parallel to Japan’s development as a modern society dependent on technology; on a more mundane level, it represents growth and maturity in human beings; on the very personal level, it traces an individual’s adolescent development and adjustment (or not) to adult life. Tetsuo’s inability to handle his psychic powers and allowing them to take over his body can be interpreted as a warning of the potential for moral corruption that having too much power, in whatever form it takes, without having the understanding, experience and knowledge to use it responsibly can pose. Tetsuo’s upbringing, parts of which are seen in flashbacks, shows that he didn’t get much moral guidance or understanding from adults, and was bullied by adults and children alike so he harbours a deep resentment and hatred towards other people and sees his newfound abilities as giving him opportunities for payback. He goes out of his way to kill Yamagata, one of his gang-mates, for having derided him in the past. Tetsuo’s powers are too much for him to handle though and he ends up killing his faithful girlfriend Kaori.

Other characters reflect aspects of Tetsuo’s dilemma: Dr Onishi who oversees the experiment on the boy, is too swept up in his enthusiasm to see the destruction Tetsuo causes and he pays for his tunnel vision with his life; he’s a stock figure representing scientific and technological hubris. Likewise various people, representing a society trained to obey, who follow a New Age guru or trust in Tetsuo as a new messiah to replace the mysterious Akira figure, are destroyed in various ways as a result of their blind, unquestioning faith in an external power. Overall, character development in “Akira” is fairly weak and only two characters can be said to be significant in that respect: Tetsuo and Colonel Shikishima. The Colonel is the most complex figure: iniitally looking and acting like the most obvious choice for Head Villain in the film, he is a tough, stern soldier who dislikes the chaotic disorder and lack of direction characterising democracy and liberal society and seizes the first opportunity he can to impose his idea of good government on Neo-Tokyo. Yet he cares for the remaining original test subjects of Dr Onishi’s experiments and has no taste for grubby politics where money speaks louder than principles. In an ideal world he would be father figure to Tetsuo and would guide the boy to the wisdom and understanding required to use his psychic powers for the benefit of humankind; but the Colonel has adopted a narrow military frame of mind which prefers order, conformity and discipline over individualism and tolerance for a multiplicity of ideologies and cultures within the one society, and Tetsuo has grown up in an environment where power means being able to throw your weight around and kicking little people (like him once upon a time). Both Tetsuo and the Colonel can be seen as complementary figures in the use of power: Tetsuo needs some restrictions and the Colonel would impose too many, and both are oppressive in their own ways; and Japan as a society that has used political, social and military power to control people perhaps isn’t an ideal place for the two to meet in an imperfect world. As for Kaneda and Kei, the other major characters, they are flat compared to Tetsuo and the Colonel; they are best seen as stock teenage / young adult character types who are basically good and, while easily led astray, play expected heroic roles in a plot that has no need for heroes and doesn’t use them.

The climax of the film in which Tetsuo transmogrifies into a monster on contact with Akira and has to be absorbed, along with the remaining test subjects of Dr Onishi’s ongoing experiment, into an implosion that takes most of Neo-Tokyo with it to leave behind a gaping crater and the rest of the city in ruins, is a sheer mindfuck of animation knowledge and technique limited only by the technology available in 1988 to portray what virtually amounts to birth of a new universe in several dimensions and the animation crew’s own collective imagination to consider what such birth might look like. Indeed, the black-and-white montage of simple images looks like a jokey reference to the way films made in the past often begin, a series of encircled numbers counting down to zero. It’s arguably nowhere near as good as the surreal bedroom scene in which Tetsuo is attacked by giant toy animals that bleed milk – that scene qualifies as the standout for its combination of the cute and conventional notions of bedtime horror when things under the bed crawl out to menace children.

True, the detailed animation often threatens to usurp the plot, characters and action but the movie couldn’t have been made otherwise at the time without an astronomical budget or advanced CGI technology. Otomo’s aim is ambitious and the film’s scope is tremendous but perhaps the narrative as it pans out doesn’t quite justify the ambition, the philosophical concepts and what Otomo is trying to say about the nature of power. Is it possible to know if Tetsuo feels triumph when he unites with Akira and the other test subjects in a new universe? Is his final anaemic-sounding utterance “I am Tetsuo” an expression of self-affirmation or its opposite – or even both? If Tetsuo had changed his mind about pursuing power and gone back to the Colonel or to Kaneda, would that be a form of denial? It’s hard not to feel that the plot reaches an impasse beyond which the choice to be made will be an unsatisfactory explanation or substitute way for using power: either become God in your own universe (hmm … seems petty) or turn it over to others whose motives may be suspect. Is a third way at all possible?

As for other aspects of “Akira”, special mention should be made of the music used: a mixture of traditional and modern Japanese instruments and musical styles, it’s used sparingly to create and emphasise a scene’s mood or the action in it. Otomo also takes care to show parts of the city from different angles and points of view: the film appears to zoom from a very intimate point of view in some scenes to ones where people appear as ants scurrying around a vehicle on fire. The suggestion is that Neo-Tokyo itself is a major character though this idea is not fully realised in the narrative.

Western viewers might wonder at Japanese pop culture obsessions with the destruction of Tokyo, the grotesque body horror and the fetishism of technology and cuteness. There is present a sense of the Buddhist notion of non-permanence, tying in with the theme of evolution as a continuous, dynamic process in which humans are but a stepping-stone. There is something of the horror of ageing which is related to the body-horror aspect: the test subjects remain child-like but age to the point where they become corpse-like, and Tetsuo’s body merges with metal and runs riot as his powers, reaching maturity, overpower their human vessel. With so many themes flying under the radar in “Akira”, it’s a wonder the movie doesn’t collapse with the weightiness and profundity of them all; instead it flies determinedly with relentless energy with hardly any let-up all the way to the end and beyond. In spite of its being over 20 years old and the animators overlooking or unable to predict certain technologies – people are still driving cars and still using pen and paper to write – “Akira” appears to have dated very little though whether the same can be said by 2018 or 2019, the period in which the movie is set, is another thing.

Delicatessen: amusing dystopian black comedy that overdoes the oddball edge and comes out looking twee

Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Marc Caro, “Delicatessen” (1991)

How to describe this droll French movie that tackles cannibalism in a light-hearted manner? It’s at once a dystopian horror black comedy and a character study of sorts featuring romance, thriller and drama elements, all flavoured with a distinctively twee style. Unemployed Louison (Dominique Pinon) is a clown by profession looking for somewhere to stay in a future Paris which looks very much like a ghost town in the middle of a desert where the air is perpetually dusty and food is in short supply. He discovers an apartment block advertising for a handy-man with a vacant unit as part of the job package. He is accepted for the job by landlord Mr Clapet (Jean-Claude Dreyfus) who runs the delicatessen on the ground floor. Little does Louison realise that Clapet plans to fatten him up and kill him to provide a source of cheap meat to the other tenants in the building. As he keeps busy (and skinny) doing maintenance around the tumbledown building – and there’s plenty to do in the various tenants’ units – he meets Clapet’s daughter Julie (Marie-Laure Dougnac) and over time they fall in love. Julie’s all too aware of what Papa Clapet has in mind for Louison so one night she sneaks out of the building and descends into the sewers to contact a group of vegetarian terrorists calling themselves the Troglodistes and to appeal to them for help in rescuing Louison from the chop.

It’s very cartoony with characters that are one-dimensional in an extreme zany way. The colours of the film are sometimes bright, almost fruity, but more often brown, grey, dark and dirty. The filming is done from odd angles that exaggerate some characters’ facial features or an aspect of their personalities, or to emphasise the peculiarity of the insular world they live in. Fast editing keeps the action and energy flowing in several parts of the movie. The actors are quite good, especially Pinon and Karin Viard who plays Clapet’s mistress when they are either bouncing on the Clapets’ creaky bed or dancing as a couple in Louison’s apartment (though it’s possible some computerised tweaking took place in the dancing scene). True, the acting can be very mannered with characters appearing to play up to the screen and the camera itself encouraging them to exaggerate expressions for viewer laughs and sympathy. Dreyfus plays his villain role in a straight buffoony way and Dougnac, aided by her round-faced, fair-haired angelic looks, nails the shy and awkward Julie for most of the film, at least until the last half hour when Clapet and Louison’s showdown takes over and everyone and everything must conform to the shaky plot’s exigencies.

With an original premise drawing on several genre influences, the plot understandably weaves among graveyard humour, Grand Guignol melodrama, steampunk science fiction, horror suspense, action and boy-meets-girl / boy-loses-girl / boy-regains-girl romance. In trying to be everything or nearly everything at once, it becomes patchy and fragile indeed. Subplots centred around Clapet’s tenants that look promising remain just that, promising, and the potential for black horror humour in the tenant who constantly attempts suicide but is always let down by her Rube Goldberg mechanical arrangements, or in the basement dweller who cultivates snails and frogs for food, remains stalled or repeats itself. The Troglodistes aren’t just a sidetrack to the plot and a hindrance in the murderous Clapet’s way and so the plot fumbles towards a climax that clamours as much for laughs and guffaws as for tension and suspense.

The movie suggests that in the not-too distant future of severe food shortages and other scarce resources, society will retreat into the past with women dressing in kitschy mid-20th century work fashions, people watching old musicals on black-and-white TV sets and everyone resorting to, uh, drastic hunting, gathering and hoarding methods when shopping for groceries. Motifs that appear here and which sometimes resurface in Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s later films include an emphasis on the lives of oddball outsiders living isolated lives with the director showing sympathy for those who often break mainstream society’s rules and conventions but are otherwise well-meaning; a fascination with mechanics and technology on a human scale; and one individual’s victory over a whole bunch of murderous neighbours and quite useless guerilla fighters in spite of odds against him. Together these motifs suggest Jeunet is critical of many aspects of modern French society: there may be subtle criticism of bureaucracy, an obsession with maintaining appearances and how mainstream society treats its most vulnerable and downtrodden victims.

How well “Delicatessen” stands the test of time as a cult movie is a big question: visually it’s a treat and enjoyable to watch and sections of the movie that feature comic music syncrhonisations are very clever, perhaps too clever, but the quaintness and oddball style seem too deliberate and overdone. The main characters aren’t quite flesh-and-blood human enough to carry the oddball overload on their shoulders and the minor characters stay frozen in their eccentric routines due to the limited screen-time allocated to them. A longer playing time of about 10 – 20 minutes devoted to more character development and resolving the subplots – so that the lady trying to kill herself gets her wish fulfilled but in the way she least expects, perhaps by being buried under an avalanche of snail shells or frog skeletons – and a bit less on layering the film with one eccentric detail after another might have brought more light and warmth out of the film’s dark Gothic settings and plot. For all its layers of black comedy, optimistic romance and Gothic drama, at the centre of “Delicatessen” is something a bit cold, unemotional, even a little sterile.

Blade Runner: movie remarkable chiefly for visual impact and theme

Ridley Scott, “Blade Runner” (1982)

The curious thing with this movie is that as it recedes back in time – 2012 will be its 30th anniversary! – it appears less science fiction and more film noir in spite of its subject matter: a specialist police officer known as a blade runner comes out of retirement and is given a mission to hunt down and execute four half-human / half-machine beings or “replicants” that have hijacked a space-ship in and returned to Earth. Certainly the emphasis on atmosphere and a dark, downbeat mood throughout the film has always been very strong but now even little details like ceiling fans in rooms, derelict buildings in crowded cities and people puffing away on cigarettes, which to some viewers might seem quaint or contradictory, add an extra touch to the pessimistic mood. As the science fiction appears less incredible and more possible, “Blade Runner” now emerges as a futuristic film noir piece with a distinctive visual style. Once viewers become accustomed to the movie’s look and the backgrounds, the movie’s plot appears as threadbare with dialogue so spare the storyline nearly collapses. The characters are not nearly as fleshed out as they should be as a result. All that is left is a long movie with a pace so slow that any sense of tension drags away. The pivotal confrontation between the blade runner cop Deckard (Harrison Ford) and the rogue replicant leader Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer) seems very drawn out and its climax is too brief by comparison.

The movie does look beautiful with its vision of a futuristic Los Angeles as a chaotic, crowded city where different and often contradictory, even retrogressive ways of life co-exist with sophisticated technology. Scenes often appear in a hazy blue light and there is plenty of interplay between intense light and dark shadowy interiors in various parts of the movie which encourages a sense of paranoia and dread. Society as it appears in “Blade Runner” is highly stratified: the wealthy have moved to colonies in outer space where their needs are attended to by replicant slaves, the poor eke out a living as best as they can on Earth but mind their own business and aren’t bothered much by the authorities who carry out regular aerial patrols. The suggestion is of an all-seeing police state, confident in its stability to the extent that it feels no need to regiment and order the little people who scurry about like rats. The rebel replicants are able to insinuate themselves among the population as circus performers or beggars, all the while trying to gain entry into the massive Tyrell Corporation building and to beg their creator to give them more life before their 4-year guarantee wears out.

And why do the replicants only have a lifespan of four years? As police supervisor Bryant (M Emmett Walsh) explains to Deckard, this is to prevent the replicants from acquiring emotions and a desire for independence. What is implied is that if beings that are half-human and half-machine can rebel, then full human beings might be inspired to rebel as well. Bryant’s threat to Deckard if he refuses his mission suggests Deckard is as much a slave of his society as the replicants are. When viewers first meet Deckard, he seems lethargic and burnt-out in his retirement, with no enthusiasm for life; we presume his work as a blade runner has disgusted him and dehumanised him in some way. Indeed, later in the film when he flushes out replicant Zhora (Joanna Cassidy) and kills her, the experience exhausts him as Bryant comments when he comes to see the corpse. The point made here, which many fans of “Blade Runner” may have missed, is that the police state has made humans like Deckard less than human and reduced them to the level of replicants; the irony is that the replicants, in seeking more life, are seeking to be more human than humans themselves are allowed to be.

An even greater irony is that it is the replicants themselves, in particular Batty and Rachel (Sean Young), modelled on the niece of the head (Joe Turkel) of Tyrell Corporation, who restore humanity to Deckard. The subplot in which Deckard falls in love with Rachel and teaches her to love him (an idea likely borrowed from Jean-Luc Godard’s “Alphaville”, also a dystopian sci-fi / noir film) is important to Deckard’s reawakening as a human as it is for Rachel in learning how to be human. The division between replicant and human becomes irrelevant but in teaching love and trust to Rachel, Deckard puts her life in danger and so in the film’s coda, they flee his apartment. (In the original cinema release in the United States and Australia, the coda was a happy one that provided definite closure to the film’s events and was ironically closer to the “Alphaville” ending.) Deckard’s love for Rachel is paralleled by the open affection and love the replicants Batty and Pris (Daryl Hannah) express in their brief time together on screen.

Ford underplays his role as Deckard, as is appropriate for a character long out of touch with his emotions and what it means to be human; he rediscovers his humanity gradually through his encounters with Rachel and Batty. Rachel reawakens his capacity for love and Batty teaches him how to feel physical pain again and how to fear for his life. By film’s end, with his humanity restored, Deckard is finally able to crack a smile when he finds the origami unicorn left behind at his apartment by his police minder Gaff (Edward James Olmos) to indicate that the police know that Rachel is hiding inside and that they know that when he dreams, his mental processes are being monitored by the authorities. The conventional interpretation of the origami unicorn scene and its relation to the unicorn dream that Deckard has had earlier in the film – and this is supported by director Ridley Scott himself – has been that Deckard himself must be a replicant and the dream was implanted into his brain just as Rachel’s childhood memories are implants. If that’s so, then Gaff himself might also be a replicant – how else would he know of Deckard’s dream? – and by implication, so must Bryant. The whole rationale for “Blade Runner” falls over: if replicants aren’t allowed to be on Earth, then why is Deckard working there as a blade runner in the first place if he’s a replicant too? An alternative explanation is that the all-pervasive surveillance technology is sophisticated enough that the regular aerial patrols are “reading” people’s mental processes when they are asleep and able to capture any images generated and relay them to the police. This explanation reinforces the view of “Blade Runner” that society in the future will be ruled by a police state highly dependent on technology that not only spies on people but moulds them physically and mentally; it also continues the paranoid ambience of the film right to the end.

Of the other actors, Hauer plays his role as Batty subtly, sometimes child-like and sometimes authoritative and menacing, in the manner of a fallen angel, a motif used frequently with variations in connection with the character throughout the film. Emotions flit across his face and sometimes he inclines his head shyly as if playing at being an innocent, which in some respects he is. His final soliloquy at the film’s climax is very moving though viewers do have to pinch themselves to remember that the speech might be an implant. Young perhaps seems one-dimensional as a femme fatale stereotype who is also an innocent victim of the corporate police state created and sustained by her uncle in part and who needs to be saved and freed from that state to become “human”.

The background texture of the movie, against which the anti-hero Deckard chases the replicants, is the most outstanding feature: the society seems more fully realised here than in most other science fiction movies set in a future dystopia and the theme of what it means to be human and when does someone become human or non-human plays out well. The flimsy plot does allow the background to protrude into viewers’ awareness more than a complicated story with many twists  would. The dialogue could have been bulked a bit more to make Deckard and Rachel’s romance more credible. “Blade Runner” remains a standard by which science fiction film and television should be judged for visual impact and the way it portrays a police state in operation; it’s a pity that the plot doesn’t quite meet the standard of its background context.

Alien: Resurrection (dir. Jean-Pierre Jeunet): more a lame rehash than a revival

Jean-Pierre Jeunet, “Alien: Resurrection” (1997)

The idea behind this movie was to give new life to the Alien movie franchise but despite some interesting ideas about breeding alien / human hybrids as bioweapons and space pirate mercenaries working in secret and illegal tandem with a private or public military corporation among others, and replacing the psychological horror and action adventure aspects with black comedy, the movie suffers terribly from poor character development, a formulaic plot and poor writing. Two hundred years after “Alien 3” in which she dies in a vat of fiery molten lead, Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) wakes up and realises it was all another bad dream … except this dream is very real and she’s not Ellen Ripley but her clone, cultivated and brought to life by military scientists on the spaceship USM Auriga from cells collected from the original woman during her stay on the prison planet. The scientists are actually interested in the DNA of the alien queen found in those cells which is why they have created the clone. By the time the new Ripley is fully conscious, the alien queen has been removed from her surgically and allowed to mature in a special holding bay. Ripley should have been discarded but the scientists remain interested in her as she has inherited various characteristics from the aliens.

A group of space pirates that includes a robot, Call (Winona Ryder), delivers human cargo kidnapped from another spacecraft to the USM Auriga. The cargo is to be used in the scientists’ experiments on the aliens bred from Ripley’s alien queen. The group receives its pay in cash from the USM Auriga captain in a way that demonstrates the transaction is clearly underhanded and corrupt. Call attempts on her own to kill Ripley as part of her mission, kept secret from her fellow pirates, to abort the alien breeding programme but discovers she is too late. She is caught by the Auriga’s soldiers and the entire group of pirates is arrested and held prisoner. In the meantime, the aliens that have already been born and are under study break loose and rampage through the ship. Surprise, surprise, Ripley finds herself following the pirates plus one of the human cargo and a couple of the Auriga’s regular crew as they try to make their way through the ship to the pirate craft Betty and escape before the aliens get them too.

From then on the story falls into the familiar refrain of run, hide, escape, kill if necessary, blow up more ships if necessary and send more aliens into outer space as space junk. A conservationist, environmentalist agenda has never been the Alien movie franchise’s strong point. Though Jeunet introduces elements to spice up the plot such as an underwater chase sequence ending in a cruel twist, aliens possessed of human intelligence and Ripley stumbling across previous aborted results of the cloning experiment that produced her, the plot formula proceeds stronger than ever, perhaps because of the sometimes ingenious deviations from it.

There is hardly any character development in the movie: the actors playing the space pirates, in particular Dominique Pinon and Gary Dourdan, do their best at giving their characters Vriess and Christie some individuality and Ron Perlman as the macho, sex-crazed pirate Johner provides tension relief after some heavy action scenes with lame comic one-liners and an encounter with a spider. Other actors of note include Brad Dourif as a scientist who’s a little too fond of the aliens for his own good. Weaver as the Ripley clone brings sardonic humour and camp to the role but doesn’t have much interaction with the pirates individually, Purvis the cargo or Wren the scientist in charge of the cloning experiment: Ripley’s relations with the Auriga and Betty survivors could have been a good source of tension and conflict and a sub-plot in itself. Ryder as Call is simply not believable as a spy and terrorist among the pirates: she’s too small and delicate in looks, and her role which is significant to the movie’s plot demands more screen presence which waif-like Ryder lacks. The very idea of a robot programmed to be sympathetic and at the same time carrying out a mercenary task is not credible.

Opportunities for exploring the nature of being alien and “alien”, and what being human means, are missed: Purvis, carrying an alien embryo, might at least have been given a chance to beg for death before the alien hatches, putting the pirates in some quandary about killing him in cold blood and forcing them to question how much they value other people’s lives; the Ripley clone might have wondered how much she owes in the way of loyalty at least to the humans who tried to exploit her or to the aliens, some of whom accept her as their own, let alone pondered on her uniqueness and “alienness”. The closest the movie comes to tackling this idea is in the Newborn, a weird alien / human hybrid which recognises Ripley as its “mother” and tries to bond with her. The moment when Ripley disposes of it before the Betty lands on Earth is a poignant one and possibly at the risk of “chick thing” melodrama, as Johner might have put it, director Jeunet could have extended this moment to have Ripley sobbing a bit and Call comforting her before they realise they’ve arrived.

The movie does have some big plot holes: what does mad boffin Wren get up to after trying to kill the pirates and Ripley and before boarding the Betty? why does the Auriga automatically set course for Earth whenever there’s an emergency, no matter how many zillions of miles away it is? how does Purvis manage to escape his prison and why is he the only one to do so? why don’t the characters care much about what happens when one of their number goes missing in the underwater swimming scene or on the Betty? (Doing head counts obviously isn’t important in the Alien movies.) Viewers expecting the movie to follow its own logic will be disappointed here.

Motifs from the previous Alien films – motherhood and the idea of a recurring link between Ripley and the aliens – appear in “Alien: Resurrection” but the movie otherwise doesn’t extend these motifs much (apart from giving the aliens no further excuse to bother humans or any other species) or introduce new ideas and themes that could be taken up in a fifth movie / fourth sequel. Yours truly has known for some years that Joss Whedon, the script-writer for “Alien: Resurrection”, had penned a script for a fifth movie tentatively called “Alien: Revelation” which was rejected; this movie likely would have taken up where the fourth movie leaves off and mostly likely developed the Ripley clone’s character, abilities and destiny further. “Alien: Resurrection” has the appearance of a film treading water in search of a clear direction that could take the franchise into new subject and thematic territory rather than simply rehashing old themes.

Alien 3 (dir. David Fincher): potentially interesting psych horror / slasher flick in space is a mess

David Fincher, “Alien 3” (1992)

At least in this third episode in the Alien series, people finally figured out a new original way of killing the monster other than just flushing it out through a space-ship’s airlock into deep space where eventually the thing would join similarly executed critters in the Great Alien Skeleton Garbage Patch circling a distant planetary system. Beyond that, the options for the sequel to two very different movies were limited: the first having been a space horror movie, the second being an action adventure movie, where can the third go? It goes into a film noir / slasher flick scenario set in space in which an emergency forces an escape pod containing Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) and her surviving companions from “Aliens” to separate from the spacecraft Sulaco and crash-land onto a remote planet where the only human beings live in a maximum security prison. Ripley is the only survivor of that crash-landing and almost immediately has to contend with a group of condemned men, hostile and uncertain as to how to treat this “alien” in their midst, while they wait for a rescue craft to pick her up. As Ripley tries to negotiate her way through the surly all-male prison society, unusual and violent deaths begin to occur and Ripley realises that an alien of the type she’s only too familiar with must have stowed away on the Sulaco and then on her escape craft. Chaos erupts and everyone starts to panic as the alien picks off the medic and the prison supervisor and as usual Ripley has to take charge and devise a plan to get rid of the creature before the rescue craft arrives.

The only really original element is the concept of an isolated factory prison where not only are all the inmates men with violent criminal pasts, they also are followers of an apocalyptic religious cult. This means the action takes place in a claustrophobic environment of industrial machinery, huge underground tunnels, galley ways, steel catwalks and long chains: dark, moody, full of foreboding. Viewers should feel dread and abandonment throughout this film. The religious flavour adds a superficial Gothic feel with close-up shots of lit candles; nearly all the cast are skinhead monks in drab dark colours and even Ripley falls in line with the hair and clothing fashions. Unfortunately constant studio interference in the making of “Alien 3” has made for a muddled mess in which the potential offered by a prison scenario of mad misogynist monks is never properly realised and the film retreats into a re-run of “Alien” in which people scurry around the labyrinths of the prison alternately flushing out the alien so it can be destroyed and trying to avoid being killed by it. The plot starts to stretch and drag halfway through when an early attempt to trap and kill the creature ends in disaster and everyone collapses in despair and self-doubt before slowly and painfully resuming the job.

Whatever character development exists in Ripley in “Alien 3” is limited to a black sense of humour and wry one-liners: “This is a maximum security prison and it has no weapons?!” or words to that effect. The prisoners she has to deal with, played by Ralph Brown, Charles Dance, Charles S Dutton, Brian Glover, Paul McGann, Pete Postlethwaite and Danny Webb among others, are one-dimensional characters or character stereotypes who get very limited screen time: Dance and Glover’s characters exit early and Webb, playing Morse, doesn’t even become prominent until near the end of the film. The one character who shows signs of being more than a one-note role is Dillon (Dutton), the hard man who enforces discipline and leads prayer, and who in his own way has a soft spot for Ripley and sacrifices himself to give her time to kill the alien.

The theme of how institutional religion and a bureaucrat mind-set can restrict people’s viewpoints and limit their capacity for action, especially in a context where they have to deal with an unforeseen and unpredictable threat to their security and existence, and a parallel theme of how people in despair learn to cope and deal with an extreme enemy, using the few resources they have, are strong but help create a plot that can be slow for audiences used to the fast and convoluted pace of “Aliens” and who expect sci-fi movies to fit the kinetic action adventure mould.

Had Fox Studio allowed director David Fincher more freedom to make “Alien 3”, the film most likely would have developed in a way similar to Fincher’s later movies like “Se7en” in which protagonists negotiate their way through a situation, the rules of which aren’t clear, and battle their own character limitations and flaws as much as they fight through their dilemma. In Ripley’s case, she not only must learn the rules of prison society as they apply to her, she must fight against her fears about the alien and her own body which now harbours an alien embryo. (How this happened and how Ripley knows the embryo is a “queen” embryo aren’t clear in the movie.) This might have made “Alien 3” an interesting noirish psychological study of characters in crisis but it wouldn’t have resulted in the kind of box office success the studio expected.

Aliens (dir. James Cameron): overstretched plot meets redeemed heroine in Vietnam War fable

James Cameron, “Aliens” (1986)

Sequel to Ridley Scott’s “Alien”, this is a very different movie: “Alien” is basically a haunted-house horror story with ordinary civilian worker types set on a spaceship; “Aliens” is a combat movie about a mission gone wrong set on a distant planet. The only things the two have in common are the character Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) and the monsters who become a regular part of her life when she’s awake or at least not in deep sleep. Comparisons between the two films are beside the point: Cameron didn’t set out to remake “Alien”, he made a movie in a genre he was familiar with at the time (late 1980s), which is the action adventure genre. “Aliens” can be read as Cameron’s ham-fisted criticism of US military conduct in the Vietnam War, in which nearly two million US soldiers were thrown into a conflict a lot of them didn’t understand and many thousands died needlessly, being picked off by the enemy Viet Cong who knew the territory well (it was their home after all). In like manner, a group of marines armed with sophisticated weaponry sally forth into colonial territory established on an alien planet to protect the colonists and hunt down and destroy an enemy, only to be hit back hard by a determined and intelligent though technologically primitive monster species that has made the planet its home.

Fifty-seven years after the events of “Alien”, Ripley’s escape craft, having drifted in space, is picked up by a larger ship and taken back to Earth. After half a century away, one’d think Ripley had been given up for dead and all her details wiped off any databases and the cargo transporter she blew up written off as a lost asset but no, as soon as she’s back, she gets grilled by the Company for wilfully destroying its property, losing its cargo and her pilot licence (it’s still current?) is withdrawn. Worse than that, she discovers she has no family, her only daughter having died childless.

Resigned to manual labour as a non-entity in a society that doesn’t need or want her, Ripley is later contacted by Company rep Carter Burke (Paul Reiser) and an army man Gorman (William Hope) who advise that the Company has lost contact with its colony on planet LV-426 (formerly Thedus where the Nostromo landed in “Alien”) and they are sending a military mission there to find out why. Would she be willing to go as a “consultant”? After first refusing and then suffering a bad dream and a panic attack, Ripley finally agrees to go.

The mission, made up of young marines under the impression of going on a “bug hunt”, travels to the planet where it finds one surviving colonist, a young girl called Newt (Carrie Henn), and discovers the colony got wiped out by a hive of aliens. After being nearly wiped out themselves, the surviving marines retreat back to their drop-ship and decide to bomb the colony buildings and go home. Unfortunately the evacuation ship itself is attacked by an alien and explodes, leaving the survivors stranded. From then on, it’s a struggle for Ripley, Newt, Burke, the robot Bishop (Lance Henriksen) and the remaining marines to bring another evacuation ship down to the planet and get off before the colony explodes or the aliens get them, whichever is first. Along the way, Ripley must thwart Burke’s devious attempt to get two aliens on board the ship home and save Newt after the child disappears down a vent into the clutches of the aliens who want her as baby food. The remaining marines get picked off one by one down to Hicks (Michael Biehn) who barely survives the mission.

The film divides into two halves, the first half being exposition, tying up and elaborating on any loose plot strands from “Alien” and setting up the scene for the conflict with the aliens on LV-426; the second half all breathless go-go action with no let up and piling on one implausible plot twist after another. What holds these halves together is Ripley’s transformation from mere company worker with no future into a leader with a purpose: in finding and retrieving Newt, and confronting the alien queen twice, Ripley at last finds reason to continue living and achieves a kind of redemption. This makeover makes Ripley a fully realised character in comparison with rest of the cast who play character stereotypes. The former stickler for regulations throws them all out the window to risk her life to rescue Newt and her black-and-white view of the world changes too: Bishop shows her not all robots are as bad or creepy as they look and she even achieves a short-lived understanding with the alien queen in the breeding pit.

The aliens’ life-cycle and physiology reveal them as overgrown insects: they bleed lots of acid blood which they can use as a weapon, they have a parasitic larval stage, they moult as they grow and they have a “queen” whose life is completely given over to laying eggs. There seems no point in making the queen the biggest and most intelligent critter if she’s merely an egg-laying machine – one could argue she’s actually a slave to the other aliens – but the detail hardly matters in a cartoon plot. Having Gorman as combat mission leader despite having no actual experience in the field begs credibility. Ripley surviving one encounter with the aliens can be put down to luck but surviving two with a little girl in tow and nearly all the marines save one totally blown away is perhaps too much even for coin-tossers among us. Anyone who’s bad like Burke and everyone who is disposable or disrespects Ripley gets it in the neck – or the face – and the people Ripley cares about or who have a lesson to teach her come through safely. Come to think of it, a huge powerful and wealthy Company able to send ships into space should be able to afford a robots-only military mission or even just a reconnaissance satellite with Google Earth streetview (and better) technology to investigate the disappearance of a colony but then of course there’d be no movie and Ripley would have no transformative redemption and a reason to go on living. There are many “just-in-time” moments that strain credibility: the aliens cut off electricity just when the survivors decide what to do with Burke after they discover his little scheme, Ripley saves Newt seconds from being custard-pied by an alien larva, Bishop arrives in the nick of time to rescue Ripley and Newt from the alien queen’s wrath and the queen herself is about to haul Newt from beneath a grate just when Ripley in her cargo-loader challenges her to a duel.

A conservative message about the role of women may be present, in that Ripley finds her true destiny being a mother (to Newt) and is challenged by another mother (the alien queen) to prove herself worthy of that destiny. On the other hand, the men in “Aliens” become weak or compromised in some way and as they fall to the aliens it falls to Ripley to lead the expedition and to salvage whatever she can of it. Only Hicks, who respects Ripley and treats her as his equal, stays alive.

In spite of the overstretched plot, the various “in time” incidents and a weak copycat flush-down-the-airlock ending, “Aliens” is a likeable live-action cartoon movie which fleshes out a familiar character and the monsters who become, for better and for worse, twinned with her forever. The one aspect of “Aliens” that lifts it above other similar popcorn action movies is the development of a character who through her encounters with her worst enemy matures into a leader and discovers inner strength and resourcefulness.

Alien (dir. Ridley Scott): unique sci-fi/horror film with much to say about human society

Ridley Scott, “Alien” (1979)

In the wake of news that Ridley Scott has started work on “Prometheus”, the movie prologue to “Alien”, it’s timely to revisit the movie that started the whole series and made Sigourney Weaver a star. The idea of mixing science fiction with horror was not new in 1979 when the film was released and some of the ideas in “Alien” can be traced to various sources including a story in the British TV science fiction show Doctor Who “The Ark in Space”, broadcast a few years before “Alien”, in which an alien lays larvae in human hosts asleep in capsules in a space ship. What Scott brought to “Alien” that makes it stand out from its influences and from other science fiction / horror films before and after is its use of atmosphere, backgrounds, characters and plot to create a fusion of haunted-house horror, slasher flick and a survival film. The alien’s life-cycle becomes a central part of the film’s horror and this together with the alien (played by Bolaji Bodejo) itself have come to embody human fears and misunderstandings about sexuality, pregnancy and birth.

In the distant future a company cargo space transporter, the Nostromo, is bringing a refinery and various minerals back to Earth when it intercepts an apparent SOS from a spaceship on a distant alien planet. The crew of seven is awakened from deep sleep and on discovering the signal, land on the planet to investigate its source and provide assistance. The signal is traced to a crashed alien ship and the crew, led by Dallas (Tom Skerritt), sends out a rescue team. One of the team, Kane (John Hurt) is injured during the search, and is brought back to the Nostromo. Too late his crew-mates discover he has been infected by an alien parasite which has deposited a larva in him; the larva emerges in spectacularly erect fashion in the communal dining-room – it always has to be a dining-room for the yuck factor – and zooms off to hide in the Nostromo’s various labyrinthine networks, holding bays and other nooks and crannies. From then on, the movie is a mixture of hide-and-seek / cat-and-mouse game as prey becomes hunter and the hunters become prey, and along the way audiences learn more about the true nature of the SOS signal and how the crew’s employer exploited them and put their lives in danger by not advising them of the true nature of the rescue mission.

The seven actors who make up the crew had considerable experience in theatre, film, television and other forms of drama when they were cast, and their performances as ordinary technical service personnel with all their concerns about pay, work conditions and treatment by their employer are good if perhaps not exceptional. Weaver as Ellen Ripley the unimaginative stickler for rules and regulations and Ian Holm as the Nostromo’s overly detached science officer Ash who harbours a secret deliver the stand-out performances with Yaphet Kotto as the would-be hero mechanic and Harry Dean Stanton as his laconic partner not far behind. Perhaps the best scene with respect to acting is Weaver’s scene where she confronts the alien directly and fights to control her emotions as she draws the creature towards her so as to position it for blasting into space via decompression: it’s equal parts cool-headed heroism, an unyielding will to survive and the fear and horror of violent death all feeding off one another.

The Nostromo should receive an acting credit as well: its labyrinth-like interiors in which the alien hides provide major opportunities for the simple plot to advance and the alien to bump off individual crew members. The colours of the Nostromo’s interiors are dark and shadowy which give the film’s early scenes a moody, suspenseful, almost film-noir atmosphere. Flashing lights, bursts of smoke and siren sounds in its narrow corridors in the film’s later scenes build up tension towards the climax in which Weaver’s character Ripley will meet the alien. Probably the only criticism to be made about the sets is that the ones that feature computer technology were becoming dated even at the time of the film’s initial release. Film crews, even ones with great imaginations, can only look so far into the future and guess at what technologies might be popular.

Where “Alien” really excels is in its careful detailing of the alien planet’s landscapes, the crashed ship’s strange, organic shapes and interiors, and the alien’s sexually suggestive appearance based on artwork by Swiss artist H R Giger who had a cult reputation in the 1970s. The very alien-ness of the film’s early scenes, in which the rescue team investigate the crashed ship, helps to set the mood of dread and mystery for the action to come. Once the alien is out and about and has got rid of a few victims, the tension starts to ratchet up steadily and the noir-like mood gradually disappears to be replaced by a new atmosphere of competitive, urgent struggle as Ripley decides to blow up the Nostromo and sets its self-destruct mechanisms in place.

The film makes insinuations about the future society that provides the context for the nightmarish scenario the crew find themselves in: for a company to be able to send large cargo ships into the far reaches of space to ferry ores, it must be extremely rich and must hold considerable political as well as economic power. The company also has a large human workforce, so large that a few missing, even killed deliberately, barely make a dint on the company’s occupational safety records. It prefers to keep valuable knowledge and secrets in a robot that lacks an inbuilt system or database of ethics, forces humans to follow company orders and spies on them as well. One would think a company that rich and powerful should be able to build cargo ships that are entirely self-operating and need no humans, not even in emergency situations where lateral thinking is required. Perhaps this company operates on thin profit margins that don’t allow it to continuously update its operations but manages with a mixture of old and new technologies. In such ships, humans are needed in much the same way as pilots are needed on airbuses and jumbo jets, mainly to land such vehicles and set them up for take-off, and to perform other jobs as the company requires. The fact that Ripley and the other crew members address company headquarters staff collectively as “Mother” suggests the company plays a nanny-state role in its employees’ lives – among other things, it might provide housing for them and their families, schools and teachers to educate their children, and doctors and nurses to monitor their health and determine their fitness for company employment – in a way viewers would find highly intrusive and hard to understand. The company literally has the power of life and death over its workers.

Science in such a society becomes nothing more than a weapon or a mechanism which the company uses to enrich itself and its owners, and to expand its power. No wonder that the company sees value in obtaining the monster – thus its directive to Ash to preserve the monster’s life at any cost – to the extent that it would sacrifice the Nostromo’s crew. Ash admires the monster for its “purity”, meaning its lack of self-awareness that would require possessing some sort of moral code, a sense of right and wrong. The monster exists to survive and replicate itself in aggressive ways and the company wants to know what motivates this kind of behaviour in the monster. Anyone familiar with the way movie science fiction works can easily figure out what this might lead to: insane fascistic fantasies about creating hierarchies of human-alien hybrid soldiers and worker drones to colonise the universe. The mysteries of human sexuality and reproduction become an elaborate if mechanised form of mass factory production of the kind Aldous Huxley wrote about in “Brave New World” in which human embryos were customised by chemical and/or cellular manipulation to fit into particular pre-determined social and economic niches in the novel’s hierarchical society.

At least Ripley and the others discover who the real monster in the scenario is – and it ain’t the one hiding in the air shafts hunting them down. The film is not very subtle about that fact – indeed much of it plays out like a B-grade horror film – but in its set-up and characterisation that provide the basis for the plot, it makes assumptions about the future evolution of human society and its relationship to science and technology that would have most of us hanging our heads in despair.

Metropia: dystopian science fiction animated film offers little that’s fresh

Tarik Saleh, “Metropia” (2009)

Set in a future post-apocalyptic Europe in 2024, where all underground train networks in the different countries have been unified in one giant Metro system, “Metropia” is a dark dystopian animated spy / noir film that explores paranoia, mind control through an ingenious nanotechnology and secret corporation conspiracies to dominate society and profit from exploiting its citizens through consumer products and entertainment. The type of animation used is a computerised photomontage technique that exaggerates characters’ heads and faces over their bodies. Faces have minimal expressions, eyes barely blink and even lips barely move when speaking. One such affected character is typical worker bee Roger Olsson (voiced by Vince Gallo) who works in a call centre: he’s a frail, skinny guy with a young, smooth face whose main emotion is worry, indicated by slight creases in his forehead and eyebrows. He certainly has reason to frown as he believes society is somehow against him, to the extent that he’d rather cycle every day between his dreary, grey workplace and his equally dreary, rundown apartment that he shares with his girlfriend, than catch the trains. His paranoia increases when he starts hearing strange voices in his head and he struggles between dismissing them as delusions and wondering if they are in fact real. One day his bike is stolen so he has to use the metro and while travelling down the escalator to the platforms, he spies a beautiful blonde woman (voice: Juliette Lewis) who he recognises as the actor spruiking a brand of shampoo made and marketed by the giant Trexx Corporation which rules all of Europe. He decides to follow the woman on the trains, the woman becomes aware of his presence but allows him to follow her …

So begins an odyssey through a huge, grimy underground labyrinth of tunnels and corporation secrets, the result of which Roger realises the voices in his head are not only real but have been placed there to govern his thoughts and actions. The conspiracy is for real and the film spends its leisurely time detailing it: the plot appears to be complicated but by the end of the film, it’s not so convoluted after all and even has a little ingenious twist that absolves Roger of any crime he might have committed. Due perhaps to the limitations of the animation technique, there isn’t a lot of physical action: characters walk when perhaps they should run or jump and much of the darkness and shadowy quality of the film exists to cover over the animation problems, especially where a character might look unrealistic doing something. The focus is on close-ups of characters’ faces, eyes and expressions so viewers are likely to be disappointed that people’s facial and mouth movements turn out to be so minimal. I wonder why the particular animation method, in which photos of real people were taken and then manipulated by computer, is used here: with the emphasis thrown onto characters’ faces, together with the unrelenting bleakness of their environment, dialogue becomes important in pushing the plot but because it is about a conspiracy, characters must speak obliquely, dish out information in dollops and maintain poker-faces throughout. Viewers have to work out what is actually being said, if it’s a clue to the mystery, if it gives any background to Roger and Nina the blonde woman. The effect is to distance viewers from feeling any sympathy for these two characters who remain resolutely one-dimensional as they descend deeper into the conspiracy and get closer to its core.

The environment in which they move in is strange and not something viewers can relate to: Europe has always been distinctive for its man-made environments which imply large bustling, vibrant crowds, a deep history and distinctive cultures. The Europe of “Metropia”, even its Paris, seems mostly abandoned by people and bare of any culture except the very kitsch. Admittedly most activity takes place at night or in underground places where few people go anyway but viewers would expect that even there, Roger would meet various beggars living in and around the metro networks who in themselves would be a comment and a criticism of the society that produced them.

Aside from the animation which can be awe-inspiring, especially in scenes where the “camera” pulls back to show scenes of the devastated urban environment or the explosions that occur at the Trexx Corporation offices, the film sticks to a spy / noir story type. There’s the mysterious blonde woman with hidden secrets who befriends Roger; Roger is attacked by security guard thugs at the start of his investigations; a minor character (Alexander Skarsgård) who passes on some useful information to Roger and warns him of danger ends up dying violently; and there are two, maybe even three, climaxes in the film coming fairly close together. What could have been the film’s real strength if director Tarik Saleh had thought to emphasise it, is that Roger turns out to be a pawn in a banal family dispute, the nature of which is never clear but is sure to have major political and social consequences. The Corporation is a virtual monarchy and, like all monarchies, subject to family intrigues and disloyalties: the CEO Ivan Bahn (Udo Kier) and his right-hand man Parker (Stellan Skarsgård), both at the centre of the conspiracy, realise too late their most dangerous enemy is Bahn’s child and heir. While Roger might be lucky to pick up his old life again, the Corporation continues on, perhaps initiating new forms of mind control and mass entertainment under the new CEO and not learning any lessons from the power struggle until a new generation of Bahn heirs wants to take over. All that might be needed would be a brief voice-over narration from Roger at the end, wondering at what will happen after Bahn’s gone, whether the Corporation will continue selling its mind control products or allow the people in the united Europe more freedom in their daily lives and some say in their government.

As it is, “Metropia” is an interesting warning at what Europe might become and look like as a poverty-stricken unified state. It offers little that’s new and fresh in plot and genre exploration. The political message is undeveloped at the film’s end but there is always the possibility of a sequel that will pick up where “Metropia” ends and explore the politics of the Corporation. People with experience of living in Communist states are sure to have feelings of deja-vu when they see the buildings where people live and work and the cramped, crumbling apartment where Roger lives. The animation technique does have definite limitations in telling this particular kind of spy / noir story where characters’ expressions and minimal dialogue become more important than the actual plot and could have been augmented with voice-over narration and various visual and audio special effects at particular points in the story to add drama and tension.

Dark City (dir. Alex Proyas): thought-provoking ideas and issues trapped in a prison

Alex Proyas, “Dark City” (1998)

An attractive film that combines elements of film noir, mystery, science fiction and (regrettably) action thriller, “Dark City” is a quest into the role that memories play in shaping people’s identities and individualities with a darker message about how a person’s memories – and his or her identity as a result – can be changed and moulded by others pursuing a secret agenda. This sinister message can apply to whole communities and societies as well with the result that even a country might exist only on the basis of lies and myths concocted by an elite group and believed by the country’s entire population.

The film is upfront about the nature of its nameless Dark City in the opening voice-over narrative supplied by an important character, Dr Schreber (Kiefer Sutherland): a group of aliens known as the Strangers, whose original world and civilisation are destroyed, and who themselves are on the verge of dying out, nab a whole bunch of people from Earth – how many isn’t said – and pop them into a floating prison space-ship reconstructed in the style of American cities as they might have appeared in mystery or crime thriller movies of the 1940’s. The purpose is to study the humans in order to find out what makes them “individual” and to use that knowledge to save the Strangers from extinction. Quite how the Strangers found out about human civilisation and how they conducted their research – they must have plundered film libraries throughout the world for information on how to build cities – isn’t explained but they end up producing a claustrophobic and grim brutalist metropolis with some Art Deco and German Expressionist flourishes that is a homage to Fritz Lang’s famous dystopian flick “Metropolis”. Into this world is “born” a man (Rufus Sewell) in a bath-tub full of water: he wakes up and realises he has no name, not many childhood memories and certainly no idea as to why the woman in the room outside the bathroom should be a bloodied mess with knife wounds all over and weird spirals painted in red on her naked body. He stumbles into some clothes, out of the hotel and into the streets, working out that he’s called John Murdoch and that he spent some time in an idyllic seaside place called Shell Beach. While he’s busy reconstructing who and what he’s supposed to be, others are hunting for him: the police, led by Detective Bumstead (William Hurt), believe him to be the woman’s murderer; and the Strangers together with Dr Schreber want him so they can fix up their botched experiment in creating a serial killer.

Since the Strangers abhor sunlight and moisture, they keep their prison city in perpetual night and allow no rivers or other bodies of water near it. At “midnight” every day, they put all the human inhabitants to sleep and modify the city’s environment and the people in a process called “tuning”: new buildings sprout from the ground like vegies on Viagra and Schreber, allowed to stay awake, goes around injecting individual folks (using alarming-looking heavy-duty syringes) with new identities and memories that he’s cooked up in his laboratory deep underground where the Strangers live. For some lucky humans, upward social mobility is achieved in the space of 15 minutes or roughly the time it takes for a table to morph three times its length. Murdoch discovers that he too can stay awake during the tuning periods and moreover can tune buildings by mind power; he uses this ability to evade the police and the Strangers on several occasions while trying to make his way to Shell Beach. He discovers though that while people “know” the place, they can’t give him the directions. He locates a relative, Uncle Karl (John Bluthal) who happily tells him about his childhood but Murdoch discerns glaring holes in the reminiscences and exposes the stories and the uncle himself as deliberate artificial constructs.

Later surrendering himself to the police, Murdoch meets Bumstead who himself has been troubled about what’s happening in the city and he convinces the detective that there’s something not right about the place. They both track down Schreber and force him to take them to the farthest outskirts of the city in the direction of Shell Beach. The threesome come up against a brick wall (literally) and what they find behind the illusion of Shell Beach confirms Murdoch’s suspicions about the artificial world they live in …

The speedy and straightforward nature of the plot and the ease with which Murdoch deconstructs the nature of everything around him give the film and its concerns an air of superficiality which is unfortunate. Needed are a few lingering bird’s-eye point-of-view shots of the city sprinkled throughout the film to emphasise its alien atmosphere and artificiality and to let people savour its idiosyncratic appearance while thinking about the events they’ve just seen; such moments can also serve to heighten or reduce tension, depending on what point in the plot they appear. Though early shots of the cityscape look moody and glamorous enough, later the city starts to look generic and more prison-like and becomes less of a character than it should be as the film slips into action-thriller mode. The result is that the movie ends up looking like a budget version of “Metropolis” and there’s very little sense of the city as a multi-layered Gothic creature harbouring secrets and conspiracies in its alley-ways, tunnels, labyrinths and stairwells. If a film is going to use CGI processes to create a city, it should go the whole hog and beyond to create something that looks as if it took decades, even centuries, to develop and mature. Seems it’s not only the Strangers who need to learn that surface style is no substitute for substance.

Acting excellence and character development aren’t very important in a film like “Dark City” where everyone bar Schreber is supposed to be one-dimensional and if people show any signs of personality, the Strangers will subject them to a cerebral clean-out. Sewell and Hurt play their parts straight and acquit themselves well though Proyas could have included more close-ups of Sewell’s face; this actor has wide soulful eyes with a clear colour that could reflect the progress his character makes in reconstructing his identity. Jennifer Connelly as Murdoch’s wife Emma has little to do and her part could have been dispensed with entirely. Sutherland plays Schreber as a campy mad scientist: his role as collaborator who switches sides is admittedly a difficult one and perhaps his obsequious little creep is the only way to play a duplicitous character bouncing off Sewell’s straight-man role.

Where the film really slumps is in its last fifteen minutes where Murdoch faces off against the Strangers’ leader (Ian Richardson), again literally, and rocks and bodies get thrown around in a boring pyrotechnics display. A film with some aspirations to being cerebral and concerned with investigating artificiality-versus-reality could do much better and more, and include a scenario where the Strangers and humans agree that truth ultimately trumps lies and they should live together as equals: the strangers would then discover that it’s only by allowing humans the freedom to construct their own identities over time that individuality is achieved. In this way the Strangers discover the remedy to their past mistakes and save themselves from extinction. Instead we end up with a scenario where the dark city could end up living another lie, only this time a lie created by a human with the potential to rule as tyrant. Individuality and memory would be used to prop up the new lie and enforce a new kind of conformity.

It’s a real pity when a movie with its heart in the right place and an ingenious concept investigating memory, identity and the nature and role of artifice gets stuck at a level simply to please what commercial interests perceive to be the lowest common denominator in movie-going audiences and a potentially good, thought-provoking story ends up marooned within.