Tag Archives: science fiction

Killing Time

This week’s Criticwire Survey asked, “What is the best time travel movie ever made?” I answered with La Jetée (1962), explaining that

I’m impressed by how deftly Chris Marker constructed a short film out of photos, voiceover, and a few seconds of moving image… [and by] how he uses time travel: not as a narrative device plucked out of the sci-fi toolbox, but as a poignant reaction to war, love, and memory.

After decades of overexposure, sci-fi audiences are mostly inured to time travel. We take the technology and its (often mind-bending) repercussions for granted. Unless it’s invoked in a wholly original way—as with Primer, a popular Survey answer—it tends to feel cliché. But revisiting La Jetée makes time travel fresh again. Because Marker isn’t following blindly in the footsteps of genre pioneers like Heinlein, Bradbury, Dick, etc. He’s telling his own wistful story, one begat by his hero’s relationship with (and physical access to) the past.

More than anything, this viewing of La Jetée brought to mind the “white parasol” speech delivered by Everett Sloane in Citizen Kane. Both are bittersweet recollections of a single image seared into a man’s consciousness, prompting lifelong obsessions. (Men fantasizing about women: is any other subject as ubiquitous in film?) The subject of Marker’s experiment, however, is allowed to reenter that past, speak with the woman, and transform his fantasy into reality. It’s sci-fi wish fulfillment, but of the most metaphysically heartbreaking kind.

The romance blossoms through a series of crisp black-and-white photographs. Although La Jetée is science fiction, Marker’s montage gives it a near-documentary flavor. Each snapshot functions as evidence of a new past, a record of this couple’s shared time. No wonder they visit parks and museums, these spaces of preservation, or gaze at a cross-section of an ancient redwood. (The latter also references Vertigo, a past-fixated Marker favorite.)

These photos, one by one, pull cinema back to zero—back to the Lumières and Barthes’ Camera Lucida and Bazin’s “Ontology of the Photographic Image.” Like his Nouvelle Vague compatriots Resnais and Godard, Marker embeds his theory in his sci-fi. La Jetée is a meta-movie, an act of time travel itself, an attempt to overcome the pain of memory. But as its guinea pig quickly learns, that attempt only brings the tragedy full circle.

Early on, La Jetée’s narrator explains that “nothing distinguishes memories from ordinary moments. Only later do they become memorable by the scars they leave.” In which case every new scene in a movie is another psychic wound.

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Spaced Out

Not every movie can be great (or good). Most, in fact, end up in a long line of generic mediocrities, playing on cable for years with built-in lowered expectations. Movies like Space Jail (2012)—whose title is actually Lockout, but come on—which is coded as “standard genre fare” so bluntly it’s almost endearing. It stars Guy Pearce (mmm Guy Pearce) as Snow, an ex-CIA operative trying to clear his own name, and it takes place in a dingy, corrupt future that seems to exist solely as a backdrop for misadventures like these. The kind of future where no one seems to have a house or a 9-to-5 job, but the government can invest zillions of dollars in a supermax prison orbiting the earth.

The president’s daughter, of course, is drawn to said space jail like a moth to the flame, making a humanitarian visit that goes horribly awry. Next thing you know, she’s trapped among hundreds of rioting space-prisoners, the cynical Snow is sent in to rescue her, and Space Jail is well on its way toward following Escape from New York’s blueprints beat for beat. But to my surprise, the film has a single twist in store: once Snow and the first daughter cross paths, it becomes less a John Carpenter rip-off and more a remake of It Happened One Night… in space. Same opposites-attract story of sheltered rich girl vs. seen-it-all roughneck, same on-the-run banter, even near-identical gender politics despite being made eight decades apart.

So Space Jail’s syntax is that of the “fugitive lovers” romcom, overlaid with every visual cliché an action movie can sport. Claustrophobic ventilation shafts! Chasms inexplicably built into the jail! Dim blue lighting and orange explosions! It’s all exactly as ridiculous as you’d expect from the words “space jail,” right down to a fun but credibility-straining climax. Nothing new or remotely intelligent on display here, but I like it. Maybe it’s Pearce’s gruff wisecracking. Or maybe it’s the “get in, get out, get it over with” mentality of the filmmaking: this is self-evidently a factory product, 90 minutes of set pieces and MacGuffins not intended to outlast April 2012, yet here I am months later chuckling at its absurdities.

Despite the hugeness of its spectacle, Space Jail feels small and grungy. It’s the first feature for either of its directors, James Mather and Stephen St. Leger; it was shot in Belgrade; and its digital effects are shoddy at best. It feels made to slip through the cracks, and I appreciate that, as well as its tone—the casual bleakness of its future, the use of violence as a tool to skip past obstacles and toward objectives. Space Jail’s mediocre through and through, but I can’t help thinking it’s the kind of movie Snake Plissken would make.

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Link Dump: #61

Oh my god, look at that cute leopard kitty from Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo! It’s so adorable! Also here’s some links:

No strange search terms this week. Either that, or we’ve become jaded and now have a warped definition of “strange.” Who knows.

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How Wude

Sometimes perverse curiosity gets the better of me. Sometimes I revisit movies like Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace. A long time ago (in a galaxy far, far away), it was the most-anticipated movie of 1999. But the intervening decade has turned it into a feature-length joke, a dartboard for cracks about podracing and midi-chlorians. So I was curious if it lived up to its negative reputation. Short answer? Yeah, pretty much. Long answer?

Let’s start with the writing. Episode I’s most fundamental flaw is tangled up with its role in the Star Wars franchise: whereas the original trilogy was all about telling an old-fashioned adventure story, the prequels are all about expanding the series. In Episode I, any detail added to the Star Wars universe is treated as inherently good, even if it impedes the storytelling. Thus, the film’s opening crawl begins with these words, ushering us into a bold new era:

Turmoil has engulfed the Galactic Republic. The taxation of trade routes to outlying star systems is in dispute.

(Oh, no! Not the taxation of trade routes! But how will the economically marginalized denizens of Outer Rim planets transport their goods now?)

Yes, gone is the original trilogy’s quotable pulp poetry. Instead, we have reams of clunky exposition. Even top-drawer actors like Liam Neeson and Ewan McGregor are hobbled by the jargon-strewn dialogue—not to mention their own distracting Jedi hairdos. Supporting characters are reduced to mere mouthpieces, onscreen only to deepen the franchise’s convoluted politics and mythology. While the original trilogy was streamlined and instantly iconic, Episode I putters about in a morass of details and misplaced priorities. Its establishing shots—all those crisp CGI vistas—stirred up pings of recognition in me. (“Ah, the old Star Wars magic…”) But then it’d cut away to actors muttering gravely, and the tedium would set in.

Granted, when Episode I focuses solely on exotic landscapes, it can be kind of engrossing: “Ooh, an underwater abyss. Ooh, a giant coliseum. Ooh, a planet-sized city.” And the film does contain a pair of solid performances: Ian McDiarmid as the Machiavellian Senator Palpatine, and Ray Park as his taciturn protégé Darth Maul. But when it’s bad, it’s very bad indeed. The score sounds like a parody of John Williams bombast, accentuating pretty much everything; the film is infamous for its racial caricatures (e.g., the Neimoidians and their “Me rikey!” accents, or Watto’s obvious Fagin/Shylock lineage); and it’s just littered with botched attempts at humor. Slapstick droids! NASCAR-style color commentary for the podracing! Even a pack animal fart joke.

Of course, I’ve saved the worst for last. Because it’s impossible to overstate how violently Jar Jar Binks derails this movie. If, as a perverse exercise, you tried to create a mood-killing, unlikeable character, you could never improve on Jar Jar. No matter what’s happening in a given scene, he becomes its focal point; everyone else is suddenly the Bud Abbott to his Lou Costello. Somehow, George Lucas must’ve thought he could leaven the film’s solemnity with Jar Jar’s manic bumbling. But wow was he wrong. Jar Jar even gets a failed catchphrase (“How wude!”) that he trots out again and again, as if it’ll become funnier with repetition. (Spoiler: it doesn’t!)

The end result is a tone-deaf movie that, scene after scene, smacks you with its awfulness. Early on, for example, we get a tête-à-tête between Neeson’s Qui-Gon Jinn and Anakin’s mother, played by Swedish actress Pernilla August. As they discuss her son’s destiny, you can sense real performances, even real emotion, broiling right beneath the surface. But then all the tragic potential of this mother/son relationship gets squashed beneath the tacky costuming, artless writing, and hydra-headed subplots. Hell, Episode I isn’t just bad. It’s insistently anti-good.


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Brain Teasers

By Andreas

The first hour of Fiend Without a Face (1958) just sucks. It’s the usual Cold War atomic paranoia stuff—an American military base on Canadian soil, experiments with nuclear-powered radar, a series of unexplained murders—told in the most pedestrian manner possible. Marshall Thompson plays the movie’s typical Army Guy, and he’s just terrible; he delivers every line with the exact same I’m-the-Army-Guy tone of voice. He falls for a pretty Canadian woman, and wouldn’t you know, she work for a Vaguely Mad Scientist! Could the Scientist be somehow linked to the murders? Will the Army Guy discover this link and investigate? Well, duh. Yeah, it’s on track to become the most generic, forgettable ’50s B-movie of them all…

But then, a miracle: the climax strikes, and the entire movie changes. An influx of radioactive energy (or something to that effect) reveals the invisible monsters to be a flock of slimy, creepy-crawly killer brains. Holy fuck, right? All of a sudden, Fiend Without a Face stops being a formulaic Cold War sci-fi movie and turns into a grotesque orgy of bloodshed and stop-motion. The brains slither, lunge into the air, and latch onto characters’ necks, only to be dispatched with a bullet or an ax. It’s fuckin’ awesome!

I think the creative team behind Fiend Without a Face knew that the flying killer brains were their movie’s only hook, too. I think they banked on it, and that’s why they allowed the rest of the film to be almost self-parodically tedious. In those last 15 minutes, they do nothing but exploit their truly impressive special effects. Seriously: the plot grinds to a halt so that characters, under siege in a cabin, can stare out the window at a forest swarming with gooey, disembodied brains. It practically becomes an avant-garde nature film—“Behold,” you can imagine David Attenborough saying, “the fiends without a face, clinging majestically to the Canadian pines!”

And yeah, Army Guy blows up the nuclear reactor, makes the brains all melt into viscous puddles, and then kisses the pretty Canadian woman as the words “THE END” roll onscreen. But somewhere in their fictional minds, these characters must realize that we (the audience) do not give a shit about them. That we only came here for the killer brain action. That they’re only human placeholders driving along a story that’s fundamentally about killer brains. I feel kinda bad for them: Fiend Without a Face is cruelly lopsided, stringing its audience along with the promise that, yes, the climax will feature flying killer brains. Army Guy, the putative star, doesn’t factor into the movie’s appeal at all.

But the killer brains. They’re alluring, certainly more so than lead actress Kim Parker. They also anticipate trends in horror cinema 20-30 years in the future: the way their blood spurts reminds me of Eraserhead’s man-made chickens; their moist texture calls to mind Naked Lunch’s Mugwumps; and when they melt, it heralds the splatter-happy zombie movies of Sam Raimi and Peter Jackson. They’re terrifying, radioactive little crystal balls.

I really cannot overemphasize how effective the stop-motion is here. Looking back from 2011, the brains still give me the creeps. Maybe the rest of the movie was made exceptionally boring as part of a Sirkian trick to make the brains seem even more impressive when they finally arrived? I can’t say. But I do know that thanks to that miraculously sui generis climax, Fiend Without a Face is a film I’ve treasured since childhood, and it’s one I’ll never forget.

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Link Dump: #46

This week’s kitty is from the ’80s horror classic Night of the Creeps, which gave us Tom Atkins as a zombie-killing cop with an unforgettable catchphrase (“Thrill me”). If you’ve seen the movie—or, really, any horror movie—you know that misfortune awaits this kitty. So let’s just appreciate its brief, non-undead appearance here. And then appreciate some links:

We had one outstandingly weird search term this week: “Чарли Кауфман пьессы,” Russian for “Charlie Kaufman pessy.” Yeahhh. I don’t know what to make of that. But it’s weird.


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Link Dump: #45

This week’s lucky kitty, being held by Natalie Wood, comes to us courtesy of the Super Seventies tumblr. This week’s collection of links, meanwhile, is extra-swollen with informational goodness, since we didn’t have one last week (blogathon and all, you know). Also, keep in mind that we’ve got one more week of “normal” blogging before we switch over to all-horror, all/most of the time, for October. And now, enjoy:

We had two search terms of note over the past couple weeks. The first, which made laugh out loud, was “what is antarctica pussy?” It’s one of life’s big questions. The second was “сатанисты фото,” which is apparently Russian for “satanists photo.” I feel like somebody has a very flawed impression of what we write about at Pussy Goes Grrr!


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