Monsters (dir. Gareth Edwards): likely to be a minor cult classic but lacking in refinement

 

Gareth Edwards, “Monsters”, Vertigo Films (2010)
 
Some time in the not too distant future, a NASA space probe has gone and collected some alien life-forms from one of those recently discovered giant exoplanets orbiting various stars hundreds of light years away. On its way back the probe crash-lands in northern Mexico and the life-forms, surviving the blast and the hit of oxygen and other unfamiliar gases, escape and proliferate. Six years after that terrible event, an entire area of several million square kilometres along the border with the United States has been declared an Infected Zone: that is, it’s infected with giant squid and octopus aliens with long skinny insect legs to walk on land and huge tentacles to throw tow-trucks and fighter jets around for ballgame practice. Cities in the Zone are left abandoned, buildings and highways are left in ruins and only the very poor who cannot escape scrape whatever existence they can from the land. Just how much fun these cephalopods get up to is demonstrated early on when we see on night vision a US army convoy, complete with a soldier singing Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries”, run into one such creature: there’s an explosion, a tank is damaged, a man starts screaming for help and attempts to drag a woman off the road away from the enraged beast. Soldiers rescue the woman but leave the man behind to suffer a horrible death.
 
The bulk of the film is a road movie about two mismatched people, Andrew Kaulder (Scoot McNairy) and Samantha Windon (Whitney Able), thrown together by Kaulder’s unseen magazine employer. Kaulder has come down to Mexico on an assignment to do a story on the aliens and their effect on the local people when he gets a call to escort the boss’s daughter back to the US. He finds her and initially their train journey goes smoothly – until the train driver is told to stop and turn back. Kaulder and Samantha leave the train and hitch-hike down to the coast where they try to catch the morning ferry. Unfortunately they lose their passports and the ferry leaves; the only remaining option is for them to go through the Infected Zone with an armed guard escort to the border.
 
The two are determined not to speak to each other, Kaulder angry at having to “baby-sit” the boss’s daughter, but they bond together enough that, down at the coast when he discovers she’s not interested in him and is engaged to someone else who she seems uninterested in, he ends up getting drunk and in bed with a prostitute who later steals the passports. The prostitute is able to take the documents and Kaulder’s cash because when Sam sees her with Kaulder, Sam runs away as if stood up and Kaulder runs after her, leaving the valuables behind. The way in which Sam and Kaulder become friends, start to trust each other and then fall in love through their travels in the Zone and beyond stretches credibility but Able and McNairy’s minimal acting at least puts meat and bones on two otherwise very vague and sketchy character types. Perhaps it is indeed possible that two initially incompatible human beings who are actually starved for proper affection can, through unique shared experiences that involve extreme and intense emotion and behaviour on their part, be more than travelling acquaintances?
 
As they travel through the Zone, Sam and Kaulder learn something of the aliens’ life-cycle (luckily for them, this doesn’t include humans as larval incubators – Sigourney Weaver can breathe easily now) and see the creatures close up twice: the first time, it’s as though they’re on a safari trip, watching wild animals go about their business; the second time, it’s in a more conventionally sci-fi horror setting with the exception that a screaming US fighter jet on patrol has upset the creatures and caused them to go on a rampage. As a result the two travellers lose their armed escorts and must continue on their own. The movie’s sub-text, which began with the monsters as a metaphor for illegal Mexican and Central American migrants entering the US through the porous US-Mexican border, becomes richer: the alien creatures, through their conversion of the semi-desert region of northern Mexico into lush tropical rainforest (complete with an abandoned Aztec or Mayan pyramid – how that got in there, I’d like to know), represent a regeneration of life and it’s quite possible that through their close contact with the aliens and nature, Sam and Kaulder become awakened to the humanity in themselves.
 
Sam and Kaulder’s ascent of the Mayan pyramid (representing a failed empire) to rest and view the distant Wall along the US-Mexican border is a remarkable highlight of the movie, not least because of the multi-layered symbolism within the beautiful and atmospheric if slightly unreal scene: among other things, the Wall is a replication of the Great Wall of China, itself a monumental failed attempt to stop barbarian invasions of Chinese empires, and implying that the United States has become a self-made giant ghetto. The symbolism becomes even greater once Sam and Kaulder reach the border and cross over: they leave abundant green nature and walk into a deserted barren landscape where all houses have been hit by air strikes and one survivor they see is severely traumatised. Now the Wall is a veil to stop foreigners from seeing what America has become and how far from the invincible military superpower empire the nation has actually fallen. The conversation the two have about seeing America from the outside while resting on the ruined pyramid’s summit takes on an extra bitter resonance.
 
We see the aliens only a few times in the film and it’s not until near the film’s end in the petrol station scene that we see them in their rather ordinary giant squid entirety. Sam and Kaulder watch in fascinated awe as two giant aliens, crackling with electrical energy, glide toward each other on their stilts and entwine tentacles. The subliminal message being sent to the two humans is obvious: Sam and Kaulder should stay together rather than return to their empty lives in the world’s biggest hermetically sealed ghetto state. The humans get the message all right (the creatures’ pheromones blowing into their faces help too) and start to kiss. In the meantime a US army convoy, complete with a soldier singing Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries”, is barrelling along the road to collect the two travellers.
 
The film could have been a lot better in its character development – Kaulder is a cynical, unlikeable guy and one wonders what the more capable Sam sees in him, at least until we discover he has a son from an old fling – with better dialogue that doesn’t have to be witty or smart-arse spitfire repartee but at least makes the two lead characters more three-dimensional and maybe more conflicted about what they’re going back to and what they’re giving up at journey’s end. As it turns out, journey’s end is The End for one of the pair. Apart from the two leads and the threadbare plot, the film unfolds rather like a beautiful nature documentary with even the aliens appearing like local wildlife – albeit giant local wildlife toying with ruined fighter jets – and parts of their life-cycle and behaviour on display for open-minded people. The idea of a sci-fi horror film about an alien invasion combining nature documentary, the road movie genre with two people developing a moving relationship and some political commentary is original and inspired, and if the director had had more experience in making movies and didn’t have to do nearly everything himself on a small budget, he could have pulled the whole thing off more successfully and the film might have become a masterpiece. I can see “Monsters” becoming a minor cult classic: it has most of the elements for a great movie and the main thing holding these back is a lack of refinement and development.

Splice: spliced-together movie unravelling at the joins

Vincenzo Natali, “Splice”, Dark Castle Entertainment (2010)
 
Fans of former Oscar Best Actor winner Adrien Brody must be wondering how their man came to be slumming it in this Canadian sci-fi horror flick about a Generation Y scientist couple Clive Nicoli and Elsa Kast (Brody and Sarah Polley) who work for a genetics corporation splicing DNA from various animals to create chimeras whose hormones and other products can be manufactured and patented by their employer by day; and at night work on their own experiment splicing animal and human DNA to create a Frankenstein who among other things will substitute for their inability – or rather, Elsa’s unwillingness – to have their own child. (And the corporation, feeling the cruel pinch of the Global Financial Crisis, will no longer countenance its star employees using company resources and equipment for pursuing personal projects.) At first the hybrid, named Dren, is very cute: she’s a mixture of human, bird, a bit of rodent here and a scorpion there, but she’s a fast grower as well as a fast learner and eventually the couple have to move her out of the company basement and storage areas and into a country farmhouse where Elsa spent her childhood. There Dren grows into a weirdly beautiful adult (Delphine Chaneac) in double-quick time and suffers the problems of adolescence in double-quick intensity: she’s not only intelligent and perceptive, she’s rebellious and wants freedom to move and explore, find her own identity and niche in life perhaps. Her complicated genetic inheritance kicks in, presenting all manner of weird and wacky parenting problems and Oedipal complexes for Clive and Elsa to cope with. The results are devastating if perhaps predictable – previous company-approved experiments with two slug chimaeras whimsically named Fred and Ginger prime the audience for what’s to come – with the tantalising possibility of a Z-grade sequel in the manner of the Species films where each succeeding chapter gets progressively sillier with a new batch of actors being punished by the mutating monster for sacrificing their artistic integrity for a few hundred extra measly bucks
 
In a way this isn’t a sci-fi film as the technology to splice DNA from different animal and plant species to create new kinds of genetic beings has existed for many years and corporations like Monsanto are already making billions out of this activity. The general idea though – know-it-all specialists wanting more secret knowledge in their specialty, conducting risky experiments to get that knowledge, reaping the early rewards but also suffering from the inevitable fall-out – qualifies “Splice” as a member of the Frankenstein category of science fiction / horror. “Splice” is also “splice” in the way it tosses in elements of romantic comedy – a scene where Clive and Elsa argue and the two stomp back and forth between a car and the barn illustrates this nicely – and of psychological thriller horror once the action moves into the farmhouse where Elsa grew up and was abused by her mother. A sly dig at companies that initially profess horror at unorthodox staff projects and punish the employees severely yet eagerly scramble for the money-stream such projects promise easily slots into the plot.
 
This is very much a character-driven film as the two scientists start out masters of their particular universe but end up being driven by it as one bad decision leads to another and the mess just gets bigger and bigger. Ethical issues about personal, parental and corporate responsibility are brought up without being hammered over and the lead actors do an excellent job portraying arrogant, fallible human beings whose weaknesses are exposed as they grapple with the consequences of their decisions and actions. It becomes obvious that Dren, for all her intelligence and perception, is an innocent victim of her particular cosmopolitan genetic make-up as it expresses itself and viewers will pity her pain, confusion and inevitable demise, and feel disgust and contempt for her fat-headed creators and their sponsors at the same time.
 
Unfortunately as the movie progresses, it starts to feel shaky as the action flips from glossy cutting-edge sci-fi to rustic isolationist farmhouse horror and the stitching of various genre elements becomes less than seamless. The action descends into a predictable rut as Fred and Ginger’s doom starts playing itself again, big-time this time with Dren, Elsa, Clive, his brother and their immediate work supervisor unwillingly drawn into its consequences. Maybe a little too much genre-splicing has gone on here and the movie threatens to turn into a monster itself. The original plot sketch must have fizzled out and the director, actors and film crew had to improvise the rest of the story as best they could, tie up all necessary loose ends and salvage a total schemozzle by tacking on what looks like a twist ending. Though the director probably had this ending in mind originally; the problem is how to get there. At once funny and disturbing, the conclusion recalls mediaeval horror stories about demons visiting male humans in their sleep, making a few quick adjustments and then visiting female humans in their sleep … I shan’t elaborate further but this was how the Anti-Christ was supposed to come about.
 
Perhaps it’s too early to say yet whether “Splice” might become a cult film: the underlying theme and the issues it raises scream cult-film potential and ongoing cultural relevance, and there is an edgy unpredictability early on that piques the interest. Some extra thought to fleshing out the plot-line more and some back-story to Elsa, her uneasy relationship with her mother and how that impinges on her actions toward Dren might have strengthened the whole movie.

Alphaville: Lemme caution you, it’s a sci-fi flick like no other

Jean-Luc Godard, “Alphaville”, Athos Films (1965)

On the surface “Alphaville” is just one of many episodes in the career of stereotypical hard-boiled trenchcoat-suited detective Lemmy Caution (Eddie Constantine). Caution’s immediate mission is to search for another agent, Dickson, in the city of Alphaville. Inititally the film plays ball in a straightforward film noir manner with stark backgrounds that take advantage of the black-and-white film, with a choppy cartoon musical motif, just what you’d expect of this kind of film. However, listen closely to the early dialogue and you’ll find Caution’s in a city like no other: on arriving at his hotel, a young woman leads him to his room, informing him all the while that she is his specially assigned state prostitute; he contrives to get rid of her and her hidden pimp-enforcer, only to have another young woman, Natasha (Anna Karina), assigned to him. It becomes apparent that Alphaville is a city organised along purely scientific-technocratic principles formulated by the brilliant scientist Von Braun and carried out by his supercomputer Alpha 60.

The citizens of Alphaville live and behave strictly in accordance with these principles which admit no expression or indication of emotion or reasoning that goes against the city’s rigid logic. Much of  the movie’s first half is exposition as Natasha takes Caution on a tour around the city; among other things, he sees law-breakers being punished for being emotional or irrational. Caution progressively drops his nom de plum and his purported reason for visiting Alphaville, and  reveals his real mission: to find and kill Von Braun and destroy Alpha 60; in order to do so, he must understand the nature of the city and how it oppresses its inhabitants and Natasha, and ultimately himself

Quickly the viewer becomes accustomed to director Godard’s deliberate use of modernist concrete and glass buildings and interiors, and the bleak highways and neon signage of Paris of the mid-1960’s, both as the cityscape of Alphaville and as a metaphor for the direction Western society is heading in. The speed with which the viewer accepts Godard’s conceit itself may say mountains about we readily accept authority and authoritarian guidelines even when they contradict human nature and impulses. Raoul Coutard’s camerawork enhances the futuristic aspect of the contemporary Paris landscapes: there are long tracking shots of passages that go on and on and on, suggesting the illogicality of a place ruled by pure logic; there is effective use of Paris nightscapes to suggest an all-seeing mechanised Big Brother; and scenes inside buildings are shot in high contrast to emphasise the alien quality of Alphaville.

The most unnerving aspect of the movie though is the voice of Alpha 60 itself: deep, gravelly and just how you’d expect an obese toad grown to elephant height to talk if such a being could talk, with a clicky machine quality as it draws breath. When Caution finally confronts Alpha 60 in a booth, microphones glide around his head move in stiff but sure movements: the movements of a detached, automated order that grinds down its followers. This is a chilling yet comic scene as Caution defeats Alpha 60 quoting lines of poetry – quite strange for a man of his occupational background

Small details in the movie reference recent European history and literary and film sources: Caution discovers Natasha carries a serial number on her neck; the scientist who created Alphaville is surnamed Von Braun after the German rocket scientist Wernher von Braun who switched his allegiances from Nazi Germany to the United States in order to realise his dream of manned space flight; the hotel used in the movie is one that was occupied by the Nazis during the Second World War; scenes of long passages recall Franz Kafka works like “The Trial” and “The Castle”. The computer voice of Alpha 60 (voiced by a man with an artificial larynx that replaced his cancer-ravaged one) is an influence from a 1930s film. I understand there are several references to Jean Cocteau’s works, none of which I’m familiar with, and one of these is the flight of Caution and Natasha from the oppressive city which is inspired by the Cocteau film “Orphee”, a retelling of the Greek myth about Orpheus and Eurydice set in 1950s Paris. (Thanks, Wikipedia

I’ve heard “Alphaville” itself was a major influence on Ridley Scott’s “Blade Runner” and I can see many parallels between the two: “Blade Runner” combines film noir and sci-fi elements in having a hardboiled detective in a future society who, like Caution, submits to a computer test and meets an innocent young woman who, like Natasha, is forced by the detective to confront her “robot” reality and transcend it by learning how to love. Like Caution and Natasha, these two characters flee for their lives once the detective’s mission is completed but the “love conquers all” theme is missing and the mood is tinged with the detective’s knowledge that the woman faces an early death which he is helpless to prevent

Admittedly “Alphaville” isn’t immediately enjoyable – it can induce sleepiness in its first half – and it does look dated due to its settings and its depiction of the technology then current. But some of its themes and ideas are perhaps more relevant to our day than in 1965. This may say something about what Godard had in mind while making the movie; evidently he detected certain trends in Western society which he takes to their logical and sometimes comedic, sometimes horrific extremes in “Alphaville” and some of these trends are well on the way to being realised in our times: they may look sharper, glossier, not so clunky but nevertheless they’re on the march. As long as we have corporate fascism masquerading as capitalism to enforce its “logic” across nations and continents, these tendencies such as dehumanisation of people in a technological society and rule by ideology against human nature will continue. For this reason “Alphaville” continues to have historic didactic value and most folks should see it at least once.  Some may end up watching it again and again whenever the opportunity arises

Inception: overhyped film remains in dream limbo

Christopher Nolan, “Inception” (2010)

I found this film disappointing despite the ingenious combination of
science fiction with the conventions of an action heist film, based on
the notion that one day it might be possible for strangers to invade
one’s dreams and muck around in there stealing secrets and planting
ideas and impulses that end up defining who you are and your life’s
work. I don’t expect a great deal from Christopher Nolan as a director:
the ideas he has for his movies may be good but their eventual execution
falls far from brilliant even when you allow for conformity with
Hollywood and mainstream audience expectations. I’m sure David Lynch,
Terry Gilliam or David Cronenberg among other Hollywood directors would
have made something far more interesting and much wackier with the idea
of a dream-thief and his team implanting a notion into the head of an
heir to a corporate energy empire to force him to break it up. The
result might be messy and confusing for the audience to follow, with
sub-plots that might break off suddenly and remain unresolved in the way
of a Thomas Pynchon novel. Various snide asides and jokes at the
corporate world and about mind surgery would be dropped along key points
in the plot to relieve tension, lighten the mood and enable some
character development. With the idea in Nolan’s hands, everything
becomes part of a cool, glossy, sterile corporate-world veneer of glass
skyscrapers, picturesque historical architecture, marble floors and
people in expensive suits. Scenes of fighting and mayhem shot in a
Kenyan locale look well-ordered and clean with one narrow passage
between buildings strangely free of rubbish, pools of smelly water and
scavenging dogs. Even cities in the First World aren’t that
dental-flossingly clean! An unseen inflexible logic lurks in this world,
allowing nothing to disturb it and pursuing and getting rid of anyone or
anything that does.

In order to properly plant the idea into the victim’s head, the
dream-thief Dom Cobb (played by Leonardo di Caprio) and his companions –
an apt description as one of these people, Ariadne (Ellen Page), is a
novice at dream invasions and needs must have the parameters and
pitfalls of the inception explained to her (so the audience understands
what’s involved) in the way Doctor Who explains his actions to yet
another befuddled female Earthling he’s taken a shine to – find they
have to descend to four levels of dreamscapes, each one dreamt by a
different team member who must stay on that level in order to bring back
his fellows from a deeper level by a device or series of devices they
call the “kicker”. I happen to find it easier to view each dream as
being on a “lower” or “inner” level from the next as though they are
parts of a progressive vertical hierarchy. Each dreamscape runs at a
different pace of time so that the main action bar the kicker on one
level can finish before the team can enter a lower level. Hence we have
constant flipovers during the last hour of “Inception” to a van falling
in slow motion from a bridge to a river below. It’s very curious that
activity on the higher dreamscape level can affect levels lower down but
the effects of activity on the lower levels cannot filter up. Equally
curious is that Cobb’s guilt feelings about his dead wife Mal (Marion
Cotillard) intrude into the various dreamscapes while any subconscious
feelings Ariadne and the other team members might have resolutely stay
away from the dreamscapes.

Along the way, one of Cobb’s companions and instigator cum corporate
sponsor of the heist, Saito (Ken Watanabe), suffers serious injury on
one level which causes him to die on a lower level. This in turn sends
him to dream limbo and risks putting him in a permanent coma in real
life so Cobb diverts into a sub-plot – and another dream loop – to save
Saito. They end up recreating in mirror form a scene from the film’s
opening frames in which an aged Saito faces Cobb over a polished black
table. In these frames Saito asks Cobb if he wants to die old and alone
with regrets – in order to induce him into the inception caper – in the
recreation, it’s Cobb who asks the question of Saito to get him out of
dream limbo and back to reality. This is the climactic scene of the
movie: both Cobb and Saito are faced with a choice to continue dreaming
(and cut themselves off their loved ones in real life) or to return to
reality (and cut themselves off their memories of their loved ones, dead
or alive). I half-expect at this point they realise they’re in “Blade
Runner” so they pull out a Voight-Kampff polygraph test from under the
table to determine their human / replicant status and then exchange
origami unicorns. Instead, the extended denouement that follows becomes
a kind of limbo between the dream world and reality in which all loose
plot ends are apparently tied and the viewers must decide if they’re
watching Cobb in dream limbo or reality.

What impresses me is the conservatism and narrowness of Nolan’s vision:
the dream-thieves are contracted for a job to break up a corporate
monopoly in the long term. This is done mostly for the benefit of Saito
who altruistically includes his fellow corporate competitors as
beneficiaries. Nothing is said about any possible benefits or
disadvantages of this con-job to the planet and its inhabitants. Dom
Cobb has his reasons for accepting the job but the motives of his fellow
dream-travellers (apart from Saito) remain unknown and these people
remain one-dimensional for that. Ariadne initially is repelled but
decides to go to keep an eye on Cobb’s subconscious. The dream-worlds
they enter are banal even by our own Hollywood movie dream standards: an
urban highway chase scene in one dream, an attack on a fortress (which
turns out to be a hospital) in snowy country in another, a swish 5-star
hotel in a third. We may share the same culture so our dreams will often
be very similar in background scenery and symbols, no matter how kitschy
and trite they are, but the links and inter-actions among those symbols
and their meaning or significance have creative potential for something
original, something subversive, and become very personal. In the dreams
that feature in this movie, Nolan doesn’t attempt even in a small way to
play around with film genres like action film, science fiction film,
film noir or spy films that might extend their creative potential or
comment on the nature of making movies. (The aforementioned scenes
involving Cobb and Saito may themselves comment on linear plot
narrative.) For whichever genre appears in “Inception”, its conventions
are studiously obeyed. Irony and playfulness are replaced by explosions,
constant flipping among dream narratives and go-go-go action which
demands more energy than skill from the actors involved.

The result renders “Inception” as a smooth and efficient film with
little zest and soul. The film slots into a category along with James
Cameron’s “Avatar”, Cronenberg’s “eXisteNZ”, Gabriele Salvatores’s
“Nirvana” and possibly even Martin Scorsese’s “Shutter Island” (which
I’ve not seen) among others. In these films, characters take on other
identities and go into other “worlds” to interact with inhabitants of
those places: there is often a hidden agenda behind the purported
reasons for doing so. It may be cavalier or depressing to some that I
should treat the world of dreams as no different from virtual reality
worlds or brain / technology interfacing but other reviews of
“Inception” have noted the similarities between the dreamscape world and
computer games. This may have been part of Nolan’s intention when he
conceived the idea for the movie. In its drive to attract teenage and
young adult audiences, at home with the idea of blurred identities and
multiple fractured narratives that have an inner logic, Hollywood
undoubtedly will invest more money in directors and writers who can
deliver a similar style of film as “Inception” and its kind. If these
films can give us memorable characters and something challenging and
subversive about the way we see the world, that would be a bonus but
such bonuses are very rare in the rapacious and amoral corporate world
“Inception” seems to aspire to.

Contact: Official “Inception” movie website,
http://inceptionmovie.warnerbros.com/