Dark City (1998)

"Abandon all hope, ye who enter here."Most critics began their writeups of this film with the elementary and idiotically middle-minded question: “What if you woke up [in our main character’s situation]?” Well no surprise, me: I’d freak out, find a hole to crawl in, and stay there. As would you, fictional meta-critic I made up for this intro. But then, we’re not the protagonist of Dark City. Or are we really? And if not, then just what are we? The sum of our experiences? Take those from us and what’s left? Emotions? Sense impressions? Souls? Some interior sense of justice and injustice? Is there anything within our beings that makes us uniquely us? What is it, then? And when will some anonymous Chosen One rise from out the bewildered herd to educate us and our body-snatching, pale-faced, alien masters?

These are Dark City‘s primary questions, and its heartfelt concern for them is (poignantly, and for once) not buried under a multi-million dollar marketing campaign or a barrage of Hong Kong Action Movie tricks…unlike certain other, more popular, and much more expensive films that utilize essentially the same plot, and attempt (haphazardly, almost as an afterthought) to address the same questions. But fuck The Matrix. Much as I love it, thanks to Dark City I cannot prostrate myself before it. Buy the ticket, take the ride, and I’ve been on this ride for over a year. So good job, Wachowskis: now tell me something I don’t know.

Another Tuesday morning at my house...At Dark City‘s opening, we know as little as our protagonist (Rufus Sewell), who wakes in lukewarm hotel bathtub with no memory of who he is or how he came to be there. The driver’s license in his pocket says his name is John Murdoch. A mysterious phone call from Kiefer Sutherland, and the dead hooker on the floor with the Fibonacci spirals etched into her flesh, tell him some Five Alarm shit is going on. A hasty exit might be the most pragmatic course of action. We follow John’s aimless wanderings around the titular City for several scenes…until a gang of strange men in black start to chase after him. Since none among them is Will Smith, John makes the safe assumption that they must be Evil . Chopping one open reveals this to be a prudent assumption. Hell, they aren’t even human. But if the strange, telekinetic powers John manifests during this initial chase scene are any indication, Our Protagonist ain’t exactly Joe Normal either.

Get your noir on.Finding his wife, John learns that not only does he have a wife named Emma (played by Jennifer Connelly – Go, you, Johnny-boy), but that she was unfaithful to him at some point in the past he can no longer recall. She also tells him of his doctor, Daniel Schreber (Kiefer Sutherland), and how a quick sit-down with Dr. Schreber might also be a good idea. John departs to assimilate this. On the one hand, she could be lying. On the other hand, infidelity can turn people into murderous madmen. But John’s not a murderer. Or is he? That dead hooker (and the string of them appearing around the City these past few nights) might be his work…or the work of those “men” he just escaped.

While all this spins through his head, time stops. Cars, trains, people; all fall like broken toys. Like a world ruled by the Fairy Godmother’s mad bitch of a sister, the entire city falls asleep at the stroke of midnight. All save John, who, in an excellent scene, revealing Sewell’s Powers of Acting, dashes about a crowded highway, shaking sleeping people out of there cars in a vain attempt to wake someone, anyone, up. Then, before he knows it, things start to change. Buildings shift and twist into new shapes. Radio towers spring up like corn stalks treated with Alec Holland’s bio-restorative formula. Apartment tenements become rich condos, and the entire city begins to swarm with those “men”.

"It's astounding...time is fleeting...madness takes its toll..."Freaked right the fuck out, John attempts to hide, and finds the good Dr. Schreber not only awake but running around with these “men”, helping them perform experiments on the City’s sleeping population. After some pummeling, Schreber explains that all this…the city, the people in it, John’s memories (or lack thereof)… is the work of what Schreber calls “the Strangers,” alien beings who use our dead as “vessels” and have the ability to alter physical matter through the telepathic machines that run under the City. Built, not on Rock-n’-Roll, but on dreams, populated by kidnapped hordes of long-forgotten origin, the City is a perfect closed system, a vast simulation. Every twelve hours the Strangers shut the whole thing down and “tune” bits of it their whim, including the memories of its ignorant inhabitants.

No one in this City has his or her original memories intact. Free will here is as much an illusion as the beach John keeps dreaming about. Human beings are the rats in this city-sized maze but John (of course) is different. Somehow, during the implantation of his newest life (as a serial-killing malcontent), John resisted, and wound up a blank slate. This, somehow, allowed him to inherit the Stranger’s ability to effect bits of the City with his mind.

Words cannot genuinely describe this film in anything other than a dry, analytical way, killing it dead as a butterfly pinned to a specimen board  in one of the Smithsonian’s drawers. Nevertheless, we must try. And a good deal of its incomunicability flows from director Alex Proyas’ highfalutin’ style. By fusing a comic book sensitivity to striking images with heavy nods toward German impressionism and film noir, Proyas works the same magic he worked in The Crow, creating a sense of urgent movement that hauls the viewer through the twists and turns of David Goyer and Lem Dobbs’ plot.

Get your German Expressionism on, too...Indeed, Goyer, Dobbs and Proyas have hit upon a story that renders traditional film tropes like characterization less than useless. John Murdoch’s past is not the point of all this, despite its pulling double shifts as both a MaGuffin and a climactic reverser (sorta, kinda, spoiler alert). This in no way discourages the actors from giving their best. William Hurt, for example, is a wonderful gumshoe hot on John’s trail, who for once follows Sherlock Holmes patented method of investigation all the way to its however-improbable conclusion. Connelly, despite ending up a damsel in distress, projects a quiet strength that elevates her lady-in-waiting role to a third dimension. I even believe her tears (and Connelly does has some of the best tears in the biz), just as I believe Sewell’s desperate near-madness as he succeeds in playing the non-character main character that he is.

The point is that action which serves as the basis of all good science fiction…all good fiction, in fact…examining what, in the argon of my favorite Philip K. Dick story, “human is.” There’s a lot of Blade Runner in Dark City‘s visual aesthetic, and comparisons between the two films abound. This only shows the illiteracy of most film critics, few of whom seem to recall Dick’s final point, the essential question of the book Ridley Scott butchered to make his oh-so-pretty film: in the electric city, what keeps humanity’s head above the technological mire we’ve built for ourselves? Did we even build it in the first place?

No, says our popular culture. It’s all those damned aliens and their technological superpowers. If only we could see through their fog of lies and wake the fuck up to the really real nature of the world. Like any of us are going to do that, or use films like this as our guideposts and watchword…apart from me, that is.

Marquees you'd love to see.I don’t really mind the Stranger’s underdeveloped alien-ness. They look and act more-or-less like the vampires they’re meant to remind me of, yet they’re saved from being one-dimension villains by a wonderful turn from Richard O’Brien (know around these parts as Riff-Raff from The Rocky Horror Picture Show) as the aptly-named Mr. Hand. In an attempt to track John down before he wreaks the whole applecart, Mr. Hand volunteers to be imprinted with the very memories John rejected. With gleaming death in his eye, Mr. Hand sets out to ensnare humanity’s only hope with a little unwitting help from Emma and William Hurt’s character, the film’s noir-detective-alike. This bit of movie cat-and-mouse handily pads out the second act while allowing us to step behind the Stranger’s curtain of creepiness. Surprise! They’re not all that different from us, really. No more so than the Morlocks. And once again, that’s okay, because for all their advanced technology they aren’t really the point either.

That Dark City not only knows this but manages to internalize it is a miracle of modern movie making in itself. All those CGI morphs and filtered cinematography are set dressing, distraction from the film’s real thrust. In an era that plucks its hot young directors from the world of advertising (including that slickest of ads, the music video) its refreshing, enchanting, and by-God heartening to find a film with even half a mind (hence the success of The Matrix). I’m even more astonished to find a film with a mind all its own. Dark City is that film, a perfect epitome of the late-20th century conflagration of science fiction and fantasy. While the ground level fans insist on segregating them, artists are working hard in the trenches to bring about their unification. This is a speculative film that, by now, you should have all seen. Because it’s just that damned good.

GGGG

Anaconda (1998)

Personally, I blame Steven Spielberg. Think about it. Big Steve makes Jaws and look: lots of  giant-animals-eat-people movies glut the screens, sharing much more with the disaster movies of the 70s than any decent daikaiju movie. Predictably, most of them suck. Here’s another one for the barbie. And even though Anaconda isn’t that much of a Jaws rip-off (now, Devil Fish and Up From the Depths, on the other hand. . .) it still blows like a whale.

So there I was, giddy as a schoolgirl over the fact that I finally, finally got HBO. So there I am, back of my chair temporarily attached to my spine, ready to turn my brain completely off for…oh, I don’t know…two hours would be good. Then I spot Anaconda. “Hmmm…there might be a fun way to waste two hours. Giant snake eats people, sounds like a no-brainier to me.”

But wait! a voice in my head gasped. It’s nothing more then another Jaws rip-off! You know it, I know it and a butt load of other critics know it.

“So? Critics have been wrong before.” {More}

Blade (1998)

"And in this corner, weighed down by over fifty pounds of body armor and leather, it's..."
“And in this corner, weighed down by over fifty pounds of body armor and leather, it’s…”

This is a unique specimen, a transitional fossil. It combines the disrespect for an established comic book character’s cannon that defined the Golden Age of the American Superhero Film (which unarguably began with Richard Donner’s Superman) with the complete seriousness and penchant for eye-gouging special effects that went onto define the Silver Age, which would not out-and-out begin until two years after Blade fell off everyone’s radar screens. Everyone but we geeks, that is.

Fact is, we recognized a good thing when we saw one (unless we avoided this flick out of misplaced anti-vampire prejudice). And while it’s not the head-stomping, face-melting, game-changer we hoped it would be, Blade certainly proved something serious creative types (by which I mean, science fiction writers) had known for decades: treat your concept seriously the audience will follow, no matter how fantastically weird your concept might be. Then, as long as you can avoid curb-stomping your audience’s willing suspension of disbelief, it doesn’t matter how well known and beloved your main character might be…though hiring a well-known, beloved actor to play him never hurt anybody. Continue reading Blade (1998)

Earth vs. The Flying Saucers (1956)

Watch the Skies!About six months ago I bought Earth vs. the Flying Saucers on impulse. I’d picked up an MST3K episode and was looking for something to go along with it. This was before Christmas, before the snowstorm trapped us all inside the house. So I bought Earth vs. the Flying Saucers and set it down on my bookshelf, next to the stack of Books To Read. I remember setting it down and thinking Eh, I’ll get to it, eventually.

Three months later I found the tape (still unopened) under a Dean Kootz book. Lightning, I think. I dusted the movie off and put it in my Movie Drawer, thinking, Eh, I’ll get to it, eventually. I began reading.

Three months after that (last night, as a matter of fact) I opened my Movie Drawer and there it was, nestled snug between my copies of The Thing and Bulworth, where it would rest, I realized, until the last trumpet sounds and the gates of Doomsday opened up to swallow us all, screaming. {More}

One Million Years B.C. (1966)

Well, its easy to make fun off. We can say that, certainly. What else is there to say about One Million Years B.C.? That “mockablity” does not a good movie make. Apart from some vintage Ray Harryhausen special effects, sure to please dinosaur and monster fans, this bland, mildly bitter little flick has absolutely nothing to recommend it. Except Raquel Welch’s breasts. If only they, and Harryhausen’s dinosaurs, had gotten more screen time. This movie might’ve been decent. Instead, they (the dinosaurs, not Welch’s breasts) pop up for no particular reason at all, distracting and interrupting my modest efforts to understand just what the hell is going on.

For some unforgivably stupid reason, screenwriters George Baker and Michael Carreras wrote an entire script in Cavemanese. If this film were a simple bit of exploitative nonsense (an excuse to star at Harryahusen’s T-rex and Raquel’s twin reginas) I’d say, okay: no harm, no foul. Just a pointless waste of movie. Unfortunatly, in a movie that is obviously driven by dialogue, its usually a good idea to have dialogue your audience can understand. Then again, films set in prehistoric worlds notorious for their stupid dialogue. Perhaps director Don Chaffey thought to avoid that Bert I. Gordon route,  having sat through the Notorious B.I.G.’s equally-notorious King Dinosaur. More likely love of Lon Chaney’s 1940 vehicle, One Million B.C., moved him (and his producers) beyond all rationality. After all, they decided to remake that piece of crap. {More}

Godzilla (1954)

He's his own reading light.On March 1, 1954, fallout from the United States’ Castle Bravo nuclear test on Bikini Atoll rained down on the 140-ton tuna boat  Daigo Fukury Maru contaminating its twenty-three man crew. All suffered from acute radiation sickness and one eventually succumbed. According to the Japan Times, his last words were, “I pray that I am the last victim of an atomic or hydrogen bomb.”

Movie producer Tomoyuki Tanaka considered all this on a plane ride home from Indonesia. His latest picture having fallen through, he flew home facing a hole in Toho Studio’s winter release schedule (which used to be what the summer schedule is today for American studios). In all likelihood, a clutch of manic bosses looking for a hit, fast, waited for him at home. The American monster picture King Kong had just enjoyed a international re-release the previous year, mulching a bumper crop of American giant monster films with all that lovely money it brought in. Including The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, a film about a giant dinosaur awakened by fictional nuclear testing in the Arctic Circle, which eventually attacks New York City. What if, Tanaka wondered, a giant monster, awakened by the actual American nuclear tests going on in the Pacific Rim, attacked Tokyo? {More}

Halloween (1978)

"Raise your hand if you're Pure Evil!"It’s easy enough to review Halloween. Just prattle on about how scary and haunting adjectival it all is given that twenty years of increasingly-mechanical slasher films have done absolutely nothing to diminish Halloween‘s overall effectiveness. Nothing at all. Do you hear? Rather like I attempted to do in my original review of the film, which appeared somewhere very much like this space way back in the dark, dial-up days of 1999. Don’t look for it: I’ve not touched the thing since I originally put it up, and I’d just as soon it ceased to exist. Bloody Wayback Machine.

On the other hand, it’s difficult to review Halloween given its lofty position at the event horizon of the American Slasher Film, a cinematic object so dense its sucked down the entire horror genre into an ever-redshifted morass of misogyny, masochism, and mordant self-referencing. Halloween is the film most directly responsible for this ongoing Judgment Day, making it the cinematic equivalent of a supernova. Unknown, it flashed onto the American scene at the decrepit end of the 70s only to collapse in on itself, creating an omnivorous black void from which nothing good can escape. Continue reading Halloween (1978)

Friday the 13th (1980)

They're so cute when they're all tucked in, safe.
They’re so cute when they’re all tucked in, safe.

In the beginning, there was Alfred Hitchcock. And Alfred said, “Let there be Psycho.” And there was Psycho, coupled with widespread rejoicing.

Among those who rejoiced one young man stood among them somewhere in the vicinity of the Getty Museum. He alone in all the world possessed the strength and skill to answer Hitchcock’s Psycho and move its story forward, almost exactly twenty years later, into an age where Norman Bateses seemed to suddenly fill the land (or, at the very least, the land’s primary news outlets). His name was John Carpenter. He said, “Let there be Halloween.” And there was Halloween, coupled with widespread rejoicing.

It’s strange to come back to Crystal Lake now that I have some reason to be there. For better or worse (mostly worse, as we’ll see) Friday the 13th remains one of the most influential films of the twentieth century. As a reformed fan of the films that are ostensibly Friday’s children as much (if not more so) than they are Halloween’s, my fingers rebel at typing this phrase…but all those Christian moralizers who spent the 1980s bitching about Slasher movies were right in so far as they likened these films to more…traditional…pornography. Continue reading Friday the 13th (1980)

Batman and Robin (1997)

Joel Schumacher shows what he really thinks of us.So here it is: the final nail in the coffin, the death knell of the Golden Age of superhero movies. As with any artistic Age, it’s boundaries are plastic and open for debate, should any nerd care to distract him- (or her-) self. But you’d be hard pressed to find a nerd who doesn’t view this movie for exactly what it is: the lowest of the low, the scum of the fucking earth, the most useless, servile, pathetic trash that was ever shat out of Hollywood, a town ruled by effete assholes who see not at all wrong with dumping toxic, imaginative waste straight into their target audience’s eyes, so long as there are as many eyes as possible.

Sorry. Channeled Trainspotting there for a moment. Where were we? Ah, yes…we were marveling at Joel Schumacher’s continued slide into camp and self-parodying idiocy. All in the name of keeping this franchise “family friendly.” In practice, you and I both know this means, “so dumb your trailer-trash, hick cousins from Possumscrotum, Texas, will beg, cry, scream and, eventually, drag their parents into theaters. We’ve spent the last six months stoking their little, ADD-addled minds with trailers and toy commercials. If we don’t get their butts in those seats, our Japanese masters stand to lose hundreds of billions of yen! We can’t allow that!” {More}

Independence Day (1996)

"Maybe we shouldn't've crossed Newt that last time..."Roger Ebert called this “an inheritor of the 1950s flying saucer genre”…though, for the life of me, I can only think of two films that match Independence Day‘s sheer destructive gluttony. The mid-90s will go down in history as a period shamefully infested with big-budget disaster orgies, horror pornography for middle Americans too chicken at watch real horror films.

And if ID4 has a more proximate progenitor, it is the disaster movies of the 70s, which carved this genre niche after the collapse of the studio system led to a collapse of the Epic. All-star casts stopped playing mythological heroes from various Western holy texts and began acting out multiple plot-threads as…normal people. One (or two, or three, or a whole bunch) of us. We began to appear in epic tales of survival against long odds and various plot contrivances…for, like any genre, the disaster flick soon found itself hedged in by its own, flawed, internal logic. {More}

Reviews with swear words and sociopolitical analysis from David DeMoss