Invaders From Mars (1986) – Random Viewings With Ben and Josh

For as long as we’ve known each other, my friend Josh and I have endlessly talked about movies. Please enjoy these continued discussions of our random viewings:

 

Invaders From Mars (1986) – dir. Tobe Hooper

 

 

JOSH:   What would you do if you were a little kid, living in the suburbs, gazing up at the stars, and one night an honest to God alien ship landed in your backyard and started body snatching your family and teachers and the cops and pretty much everyone?  This is the dilemma facing intrepid youth David Gardner in Tobe Hooper’s 1986 Invaders from Mars.

The invasion is on almost right at the start of Hooper’s film. During a violent thunderstorm, David sees a mysterious object float down from the sky and settle just over the crest of a hill behind his house.  He runs to alert his parents, but by the time they get to his room the UFO has, of course, disappeared from sight. The next morning, David’s father goes out to investigate. He disappears over the hill and returns a changed man.  We’ve spent just enough time with him for the difference to be unmistakable. Before he was easygoing, friendly, kind. Now his speech is stilted, his manner stiff and remote, and he’s got a very suspicious gash on the back of his neck.

David is, naturally, aware of the change, and alarmed by it, and when dear dad tries to convince David to go with him over the hill to check things out for himself, David sensibly books it to his school bus.

But school is only a temporary refuge.  More and more people disappear over that hill and returned changed – a couple of cops, some scientists, David’s mother.  And when he goes to school on the second day of the invasion, he notices that a teacher has the same strange neck wound as his father.  And we notice it on the neck of one of his classmates. And everyone is suddenly veryyyyyy interested in young David Gardner…

Invaders from Mars is a remake of a 1953 film, and like a lot of Cold War-era sci-fi stories, the original steeped in the specific fears and paranoia of that era.  The boy (also named David) sees the invaders slowly infiltrating his town and enlists the help of a couple of scientists, who in turn enlist the help of the military.  This is ultimately a comforting film, of a secret invasion uncovered and repelled by that best, most stable patriotic American institutions, the US Army.

At first, I thought Hooper might go with a different approach.  Some other 50s Cold War sci-fi flicks had already been remade – Invasion of the Body Snatchers in 1978, The Thing in ‘82 – and they very much reflect the degree to which filmmaking and society had shifted since the originals were made.  And here, we find David isolated from almost every major pillar of stable society – the cops, his family, the school – all corrupted. I thought maybe Hooper was building up a head of a steam for a wider satire of Reagan’s America, laced with a deeper skepticism about the institutions of American power that rode to the rescue in the first film.  It didn’t seem unintentional to me that David’s father, after being taken over by the aliens, acted like your stereotypical stern 1950s father figure.

But, um…  nope. What this actually becomes is your classic boy’s adventure film, a little weirder, a little more sharp-elbowed than your standard Amblin film from the era, but definitely in the same general ballpark, and definitely not skeptical about the kick-ass commie – er, alien – fighting power of the American military.  Here it is a kind nurse, not a scientist, who initially assists David. But eventually she gets him to the general in command of a local military base, who quickly believes David, and animates all the resources at his disposal – which are considerable – to take down the nefarious alien threat.

So it’s a strange movie just on those grounds, with its tentatively subversive first half turning out to be a head fake before a full-throated, rah-rah America Fuck Yeah second half.  And while that may sound like a criticism, I was pretty happy once it shifted into that sillier, more playful mode. The first half is something I’ve seen from other sci-fi remakes of the era.  What I haven’t seen? Louise Fletcher eating a frog. And Invaders from Mars gave me that gift. Ergo, Invaders from Mars is good.

Anyway, from that basic thematic weirdness, it gets weirder in more tangible terms too, as the film acquires the feeling not so much of a boys adventure but of a story a young boy would himself tell on the playground, or yell from the backseat of a car to a harried parent on the way to the grocery store.  Military leaders defer to David’s judgment, the general suddenly develops this bizarrely intense connection to a subordinate (his anguished screams of the subordinate’s name – “RINALDI!” – echo still in my soul!), scientists get zapped with ray guns. It gets pretty loopy.

But it’s fun.  It’s not the best of the cycle of 50s sci-fi remakes that proliferated through the 80s.  It may in fact even be the worst. But that doesn’t mean it’s bad, because it’s not. I got a kick out of it from start to finish, and especially as it really went over the top and let its freak flag fly.  I’ll get into things more later (especially the ending, which is great and complicates some of what I wrote about above in interesting ways), but I think this is enough of an introduction to get things started.

So, Ben, I throw it to you.  Wanna make some good old-fashioned hamburgers and go have a picnic and talk things through?

 

BEN: Rinaldi, nooooo!

Sorry, I’m still recovering from my PTSD over Rinaldi’s tragic demise. Why do we both know Rinaldi’s name? Because this movie loves repeating names over and over again. I’m pretty sure 50% of the lines in the script are either “DAVID!” or “LINDA!”

You mentioned how this feels like an Amblin movie and you’re totally right on that one. Invaders from Mars feels like an 80s Stephen King movie directed by Steven Spielberg. The shot of the spaceship landing in David’s backyard feels like it was ripped right out of Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and David’s interactions with adults definitely have an ET vibe. But Invaders From Mars is those movies on acid. At one point there’s a very visible bag of M&Ms on David’s nightstand, reminding us of the Reese’s Pieces in ET. The lesson here is obvious. Don’t eat M&Ms before bed, kids. The aliens are way scarier.

Invaders from Mars is like an Amblin movie…but it’s not one. It’s a Cannon Group film, and that’s what gives this movie its edge, because Cannon don’t give a fuck. I’m pretty sure at some point someone tried to explain the concept of “Less is More” to the fine people at Cannon, but I imagine the conversation went something like, “But…more is more. I mean, it’s right there in the word. Why would less be more?” Why have a platoon of soldiers in your shot when you could put the entire army in the shot? That’s the Cannon way! There are so many soldiers in the martian tunnels in some shots that it looks like something out of Starship Troopers, but without the ironic wink. These guys just want to fuck up Martians. (“Don’t worry, Son! We Marines have no qualms about killing Martians!”) Both David and a scientist suggest talking to the Martians first, but they’re quickly brushed aside so the marines can shoot the Martians with all the firepower that they have available to them. It reminded me of the classic shot in another Cannon film with “invasion” in the title, Chuck Norris’ 1985 movie Invasion U.S.A, where they somehow managed to fit as many soldiers and tanks into a tiny back alley as they possibly could so that they can all comically shoot at the terrorists at the same time in an insanely extreme show of force. Invaders From Mars the kind of movie where you shoot the Martians a couple hundred times with M-16s, and then polish them off with a surface-to-air missile for good measure.

This movie is all about the small silly details and it couldn’t give a crap about the big picture. I’m still not entirely sure why the Martians invaded, because there’s no big exposition scene explaining why they’re there. If I had to guess, they’re trying to keep NASA from sending a rocket to Mars…maybe? Who cares? The movie doesn’t. Twenty-five percent of this movie is just David reaction shots, as if the editor wasn’t exactly sure when a scene was supposed to end. There are lots of shots of David amazed, or shocked, or horrified, or disgusted, or terrified, or…just staring off into space. There’s at least one shot where I half expected a stage mom to walk into frame with a juice box while the boom mike fell into frame and then you hear Tobe Hooper yelling “Cut!” in the background. Like, what is happening here? Is David actually reacting to something or is that just our goto shot for padding out the running time? Linda and General ‘Mad Dog’ Wilson also have some pretty great reaction shots too. Honorable mention should go to how hilarious David looks when he’s running. It’s like he’s trying to swim, poorly, while lazily swatting away flies. His arms flail around more than the inflatable man outside of a car dealership.

I pick on David, but he’s probably one of the best things about this movie. Here’s a kid who’s excited to collect pennies and drinks Dr. Pepper for breakfast. At one point, school nurse Linda, the first of several adults to rather quickly believe David’s story that his parents’ minds have been taken over by aliens, asks him, “David, you’re not just some crazy child, are you?” well after the time when she really should have been asking him that question. You’d think you’d put a little more thought into the situation before telling a small child to ditch school and go hide in your house (that he’s never been to before). And if that weren’t already a pretty horrible example of child endangerment, David then hides from the mean body-snatched teacher in a creepy van…that just happens to be filled with dead animals…and just happens to be owned by the mean body-snatched teacher he was trying to hide from. Come on, David!

There’s some good stuff to talk about with this movie too, like Tobe Hooper’s trademark crane shots, my favorite of which is when Linda and David go to where the spaceship is supposed to be parked, only to find a clearing with nothing in it. But before Linda can accuse David of making the whole story up, some scientists arrive. As they walk up the hill and down the embankment to the clearing the camera cranes up and over Linda and David, giving you their perspective as they try to hide out of view of the scientists, who ultimately end up getting eaten up by a hole in the ground.

But the good stuff isn’t as much fun to talk about, so before I go blabbing about all the other crazy things that happen in this movie I’ll flip it back to you, Josh. Which insane plot points stood out in your mind?

 

JOSH: I think I’ll answer that question by getting at one of my favorite performances in the film, which lead to some of my favorite moments. Louise Fletcher, an Oscar-winning actress who is seriously slumming here but still gives it her all – because she’s a professional dammit – plays Mrs. McKeltch, who we’ve mentioned a couple times now.  She’s the teacher who gets body snatched right away, and in whose dead animal filled van David hides. She’s the one, as I also mentioned, who eats the dead frog. Which, you have to admit, as dead giveaways go, is a good one.

There are two additional moments involving Fletcher that I got a huge kick out of.  The first is when Mrs. McKultch, who has been chasing after David for a while now, finds him hiding in Linda the nurse’s car at a gas station.  Linda is attempting to call for help. Mrs. McKultch pulls up to the gas station in a school bus, spots David, and drags him out of the car. He escapes before she can get him into the van, and starts running – if you want to call it that, you’re right that David has a goofy as hell run – down the street.  Mrs. McKultch chases after him, Louise Fletcher is not what you’d call an Olympic sprinter either. Linda sees David running, hops in her car, rescues him, and they drive off.

The reason this is such a great moment is because, once she realizes David is once again firmly out of reach, Mrs. McKultch stops running, shakes her fist in the air, and yells, “I’LL GET YOU, DAVID GARDNER!”  Which would be good enough, but then she pauses for a second, and says, “Damn,” in the most half-hearted way. Describing this moment doesn’t really do it justice, but in the moment is simply sublime.

The second might be my favorite scene in the whole movie, and it’s toward the end, so readers should consider this a spoiler warning (though, really, it’s a little late for that).

Toward the end of the movie, David is brought before the Supreme Martian Intelligence, the leader of the Martians, who looks like a slimy brain with a face on it, and speaks mostly in guttural moans.  He’s kind of creepy, but mostly silly, like all the aliens in Invaders from Mars.

This is where the film most resembles the school-yard tall tale I mentioned above, because David spends a good amount of this scene trying to reason with the Supreme Intelligence to return his parents, and Linda, and maybe a couple other people.

Fletcher is on hand because…  why not. She interrupts David several times as he’s trying to reason with the Supreme Intelligence.  The first time he’s interrupted, David yells, “SHUT UP! I’m talking to him!” When she persists, David says, “I’ll stay after school for the rest of my life if you’ll just shut up for a second!”  To which Fletcher responds with cackling laughter. She also hugs one of the Martian soldier thingys at one point – again, just because.

A few seconds later, David whacks her in the head with a sack of coins, and she gets eaten by two of the alien foot soldiers.  Including the one she was just hugging! So sad.

But before that happens, David gets fed up with the Supreme Martian Intelligence and calls him, and I quote, “DICK BRAIN!”

Anyway, at this point it should go without saying that this is a great scene.

A couple other lines that really cracked me up:

1)  Just before SETI scientist Bud Cort gets zapped to death by an alien, he’s trying to communicate with them.  He says something like, “Hey boys.” Hooper cuts to two soldiers. One of them goes, “How does he know they’re boys?” and the other hisses, “SHUT UP!”

2)  Shortly after calling the Supreme Intelligence a dick brain, David escapes and meets up with the general and his soldiers.  David tells them that Linda is in danger, the general snarls out an order, everyone runs off… except for one soldier. Hooper pushes in on the soldier, who has the most wonderfully bewildered, lost look on his face.  And the soldier just kind of shakes his head and mutters, “I wasn’t trained for this.” And then Hooper cuts away and it’s back to the action. Just this little wistful, existential moment of reflection amid the chaos.

These little moments make the movie.

Anyway, I want to conclude by giving a shout out to the late great Karen Black, who doesn’t have anything really crazy to do, but is nevertheless a welcome presence.  She plays Linda and is really just called upon to be stable and kind-hearted, and she does that very well. She also has a really good scream, which she deploys with regularity.  Her career was well on the downswing by the mid-80s, and it’s a damn shame because she does very nice work here and clearly could have continued doing so for decades.

All right, back to you Ben.  Any other performances or moments you want to mention?  We haven’t even talked about the creature effects, courtesy of Stan Winston!  How crazy is that?

 

BEN: Yeah, I definitely wanted to talk about the creatures, because I feel like someone owes Stan Winston some money. I would be shocked if no one at ID Software, makers of the video game Doom, had seen this movie before making their iconic game. The main Martians look like a combination of the “Pinky” demon and a Cocademon while the head martian kind of looks like a Spiderdemon whose head comes out of the wall like the Alien Queen in Aliens. On top of all that, their spaceship looks like pretty much every alien spaceship I’ve seen in a 3D shooter game this side of Halo. Doom even takes place on Mars! Coincidence? Even the soundtrack has parts that sound like Terminator crossed with Doom.

In no way, shape or form do these Martians look like a friendly ET. It’s pretty obvious looking at them that they’re here to kill humans, which only makes the scenes where the scientist or David try to reason with them more unintentionally hilarious. Imagine trying to negotiate with a spider the size of a horse that it should give your parents back, only to call it a “dick brain”, and somehow not get murdered instantly. I guess if you were a special effects nerd in the 80s you might find their dopey guy-in-a-suit practical effects charming because they’re really well done, but for everyone else, dear god are they disturbing to look at.

Some fun random moments: All the pennies stuff. David collects pennies, which is going to become a huge plot point in the movie. There’s one scene early on after the dad becomes pod-personed where he creeps up on David, scary music playing in the background, and you think he’s going to strangle David, but instead, he just wants his pennies. The reason for this obsession with pennies is that the Martians apparently need copper to power their weapons. Towards the end of the movie the soldiers try to use one of the Martian weapons to blow a hole to safety, but they’re out of ammo. What follows is this hilarious bit of dialogue between a general and his soldiers:

“Great Scott, hasn’t anybody got a penny?”

“You don’t carry loose change into a combat zone, sir!”

We’ve been subtly hinting at Invaders From Mars’ twist ending throughout this whole review, and it might as well be time to spoil it, because it’s frustrating, confusing and yet it also puts a lot of things in perspective and actually helps the movie make a lot more sense, all at the same time. After escaping the Martian ship and saving his parents it’s revealed that almost the entire movie has actually been David’s dream. He probably had too much Dr. Pepper and M&Ms before bed and the thunderstorm raging outside (the same one that we saw at the beginning of the film when the Martian ship first landed) gave him some crazy dreams. He rushes into his parents’ bedroom to tell them of his nightmare and they assure him that no, Martians didn’t show up and take over the town. Then the movie throws in one more stinger right at the end implying that the Martians are actually landing NOW, and at that point I almost threw my remote at the TV.

Once you get over the initial disappointment of realizing that you just wasted the last two hours on a dream sequence the rest of the movie actually starts to make a heck of a lot more sense. We’ve both already mentioned so many insane sequences in the movie that most people would say help make it a “bad” movie, but when you take into account that this is all springing from the overactive imagination of a small child, those narrative decisions make a heck of a lot more sense. If you had a boy like David describe his nightmare about Martians invading earth this is EXACTLY how they would tell the story. Now it makes sense why adults like an army general (whom David had met at a class field trip earlier that day) and school nurse Linda would believe everything David said without much evidence to back up his claims, and it would also explain why the main bad guys trying to get David are his mean teacher and the girl in class who picks on him. The entire film is a young boy’s wish fulfillment, make-believe adventures sprung straight out of his daily life. Suddenly narrative incongruities and leaps of illogic aren’t examples of bad filmmaking, they’re smart creative decisions.

Well, maybe. It’s still a pretty dumb movie. But it’s a really fun dumb movie, well worth checking out if it sounds like your cup of Dr. Pepper.  


Well, are you glad we’re back? I hope so, because we’ll be back again soon with a quick review of Microwave Massacre (1983) – dir. Wayne Berwick. Is cooking and eating your wife with an industrial size microwave normal? No, and neither is this movie.

 

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Europa Report (2013) – Random Viewings With Ben and Josh

For as long as we’ve known each other, my friend Josh and I have endlessly talked about movies. Please enjoy these continued discussions of our random viewings:

 

Europa Report (2013) – dir. Sebastian Cordero

 

 

BEN: How far would you go to prove that we’re not alone in the universe? That’s the central question posed by Europa Report (2013), a hard science fiction film about six explorers and scientists who blast off on a rocket for a four year round trip to Jupiter’s moon Europa after it’s discovered that water exists on its surface. They hope that with that water is some evidence of life on another world. (Coincidentally, water was actually discovered on Europa the exact same day as this movie went into production). Europa Report is essentially a found footage movie a la Blair Witch Project, which helps this small budget movie immensely to give it a big budget feel. Every shot of the film, outside of those filmed on Earth, is taken by the crew, giving everything a documentary feel. You only see what they saw. The majority of the footage comes from just eight cameras stationed around their spacecraft, but the clever cinematography and editing make certain that the movie never feels boring.

The movie uses time jumps quite a bit to help craft the mystery of what exactly happened to the crew of Europa One, the advanced one-of-a-kind ship these travelers use to get to Jupiter. All we initially know is that contact with Europa One was lost on Earth about six months into their voyage. It’s insinuated that something bad happened to at least one of the crew, James (played by District 9 actor Sharlto Copley), but it takes a while before we’re finally let in on what that is. At a certain point, two years after they left Earth, communication is re-established with the ship and Earth receives all of the footage from that missing time frame. Europa Report is about filling in those gaps of missing time for us.

Amazingly the concept — only using found footage to craft the story; since they’re on a spaceship, almost none of the film takes place outside of the ship — somehow doesn’t make things feel claustrophobic. There’s a genuine sense of discovery you get from the characters, almost as if you’re watching a film about explorers trying to find the New World in the 1500s. Their mission is to try and find life outside of Earth, and everything they do and every decision they make is to try and achieve that goal. In spite of any of the complications that arise on their journey, they all feel that any sacrifice they have to make is worth it if it means Earth will get to find out what they discovered. And even though this is a sci-fi movie about finding life on another planet and (SPOILER ALERT) they do find that life, the movie never devolves into a generic sci-fi monster movie. This isn’t Alien. The movie is about discovery and exploration, and the conflict in the story comes from how far the six of them are willing to push themselves to achieve their mission goals. Instead of jump scares, we get radiation spikes and spilled chemicals, malfunctioning equipment, and limited oxygen supplies. It’s refreshing, especially now in the era of Space Force, to see a movie that takes science and scientists seriously.

(One of the things I do find a little weird about this movie is that the Europa One is an international crew, with Russians, Chinese and even a South African in the crew, but literally no one has an accent, even though I know that some of these actors actually do have accents in real life. Just a weird observation.)

So what do you say, Josh? Were you thrilled by fixed camera angles and SCIENCE! Or were you constantly checking your phone waiting for something to happen?

 

JOSH:  A little of both, I’d say.  I agree with a lot of what you said.  I appreciated the hard sci-fi approach it takes.  I was pleasantly surprised that it didn’t involve a cartoonish monster, or a virus infecting a crew member, or space zombies, or whatever else.  Just a straightforward space mission with decent people committed to their jobs, generally good at them, and simply overmatched in the end by the near impossible circumstances they’re thrust into.  One of my beefs about found footage in general is how lazy the writing and filmmaking often is – too much improvised dialogue, too much sloppy handheld camerawork. Europa Report sidesteps both of those to a significant degree.  The locked down camera is actually pretty well positioned, so you can tell that the director actually thought about framing and composition and stuff. And a lot of the dialogue is dense with scientific language, so you know that it wasn’t just improvised on set by a bunch of dummy actors (I kid…  sort of).

That said, yes, I was mostly bored.  As you might be able to guess from the above, I go into most found footage movies predisposed against liking them, so the fact that I thought Europa Report was, like, solid enough is a victory of sorts.  I always like the idea of found footage, because it seems like such a good opportunity to realize ambitious ideas, whether conceptual or thematic, on a small budget. In practice, though, and this is a problem Europa Report doesn’t find a way around, it just means an awful lot of narrative wheel spinning.  A lot of time devoted to nothing in the name of getting to the big thing that we’ll glimpse for half a second at the end, because that’s all they have the effects budget for. It’s a narrative approach that almost all of these movies take, and it’s always so God damn boring and predictable. The obligatory early banter between the crew members, the overwrought emoting as the mission starts to go wrong, the mystery that isn’t really a mystery because we know what kind of movie we’re watching, and then just a lot of yelling as the final reckoning approaches.  So much yelling in these movies.

I thought the nonlinear structure of this thing, trying to tease out additional mysteries where they didn’t need to exist, was a mistake.  It irritated me. There was no real reason except that the filmmakers clearly didn’t think there would be anything to hold an audience’s interest otherwise.  They were right, but their fix didn’t actually work.

And while I appreciate that some attention was paid to the look of the film, I still thought it was pretty unengaging on a visual level.  Just for fun, about halfway through the movie I closed my eyes and listened to it as if I was listening to a radio play. I did that for about five minutes, and it was actually a pretty solid experience.  I didn’t feel like I was missing a single thing by seeing zero visual information. This is not what I want from my movies. Again, I realize some of this is budget driven, but that’s a loop these movies have never figured out how to close.  Europa Report is a movie that wants you to feel a certain wonder, a certain awe, at the scale of what these scientists are confronting. Tight close-ups of half of an actor’s face from inside a helmet don’t accomplish that. Watching not-great actors react to something doesn’t accomplish that.  Seeing the human face react to something is part of the basic equation of cinema, but it’s not the whole thing.

Anyway, that said, there were parts of Europa Report that I liked a lot.  The early footage of the launch of the ship into space – that was cool. Good sense of scale and scope there, plus rocket launches are inherently cool and cinematic.

I think the single best sequence in the film is the EVA.  After the ship’s communications with Earth are knocked out, two of the crew members, Corrigan and Blok, venture outside of the ship to try to make a repair.  There’s an accident, Blok’s suit is torn and he’s knocked off the ship (though secured to it by a line). Corrigan reels him in and they’re about to enter the safety of the airlock when Blok notices that the accident has left Corrigan’s suit coated with hydrazine, and if they reenter the ship the hydrazine will poison the rest of the crew.  So now there are two emergencies – Blok is within seconds of running out of air, and there’s likely no way they can clean Corrigan’s suit. Blok suggests that Corrigan take off his suit and risk the brief exposure to space, but immediately after he loses consciousness. Corrigan can try to take his suit off, but it will likely mean Blok’s death.  So Corrigan makes the decision to push Blok into the airlock and close it, even though he’s also closing the door on any chance of his survival. Blok survives, and Corrigan pushes off from the ship, drifting further and further away as his air runs out.

I think this is what I’d like to see more of from found footage.  Not a big story told on the cheap, but a small story told with immediacy and intimacy.  This sequence doesn’t feel like a cheat, even though it’s incredibly simple – a ship exterior, a green screen (or, if you wanted to be real low tech about it, a black scrim with sparkles on it), and two actors on wires.  But it’s a full human drama compressed into ten minutes or so, and grabbed me more than any other single moment, or collection of moments, in the film.

Oh, and I will give this movie props because Sharlto Copley is usually an actor I find nails on a chalkboard intolerable, but he’s actually pretty good as Corrigan.

Anyway, you liked this a lot more than I did, so what were some of your favorite moments?



BEN: I get what you’re saying about the narrative structure of the film. It almost doesn’t work for me, in that I think you’re right that it does result in some vague narrative wheel-spinning early on. Ultimately it did work for me though. I got sucked into the mystery of what happened to the crew, and I think that got me more invested in the outcome of the movie, knowing something bad happened and waiting anxiously to see when that shoe might drop. It kind of reminded me of the structure of Cannibal Holocaust (1980), where we learn early on that a film crew didn’t make it out of the Amazon, but it’s only after the producers in NYC watch the found footage that we discover what actually happened to them, in horrifying nail-biting fashion.

What I ended up really liking about this movie was its realism. You could compare it to another very similar recent movie, Life (2017), which is also about a group of astronauts who are the first to discover life outside of Earth. Life fell into the traps of the genre, quickly becoming an Alien (1979) knockoff with nothing really new to say outside of some fancy special effects sequences that looked expensive but didn’t really grab me emotionally. Europa Report, on the other hand, felt very grounded in reality, which felt surprisingly fresh. Science fiction films by their very nature tend to attract big budgets, which leads to filmmakers always trying to outdo what the last guy did in the hope of grabbing the audience’s attention, and more importantly their wallets, to try and make that budget back. As things get bigger they also tend to get more outlandish, and you start to miss out on some of the more subtle suspense moments that you find in films like Alien. Because Europa Report is working on a much smaller budget it can afford to play things smaller and more intimate, which felt like a nice change of pace from what I’m used to seeing.

One of the things I really liked about the found footage angle is that it kept us in the character’s headspace. In outer space astronauts’ perspective is often limited by the objects that keep them alive. You can’t just pop your head out the window to see what’s going on because you’d be instantly killed by the vacuum of space, so you’re limited by the field of view that the small portholes on the spaceship afford you. Even the spacesuits are big and bulky, offering a limited perspective. By keeping the cameras on fixed positions we the audience have the same frustratingly limited field of view as our protagonists. The camera never got up and showed us a God’s eye view of things the crew couldn’t see and that helped build tension by keeping us in the moment with the crew.

I also liked the attention to detail and realism that made the film feel like it could actually have been real found footage. These are skilled and trained astronauts whose focus remains on completing the task at hand. They aren’t panicking and making poor decisions like so many victims in horror films. There’s no moment where one of the crew develops space madness and turns on the rest of the crew, no moment where things turn into every man for himself. These are professionals who are doing their jobs to the best of their ability. Take for example the spacewalk scene you mentioned above, where we finally find out what happened to James. In any other movie he would have tried taking off his contaminated spacesuit, risking his own life, nearly dying from the extremes of space; or maybe he would have taken off his tether and risked a space jump from one side of the spaceship to another with a dock he could have used without contaminating the rest of the ship; or maybe he would have tried to climb in the ship with his contaminated suit to try and save his own hide, nearly killing everyone else. All of those examples would have been stupid and dangerous, and thankfully the movie takes the path of realism. There’s nothing they can do for him in the time he has remaining, so he sacrifices himself for the greater good. His final moments have a tragic poignancy that lingers with you long after he disappears off screen. It also sets the stage for the final act, where the rest of the crew has to decide if they’re going to sacrifice themselves for the mission, to make sure that no matter what, Earth discovers what they discovered on Europa.

That realism manufactures tension in the smallest of details. Due to a small error, their landing craft ends up landing a mere few hundred yards from their original drop zone on Europa. Anywhere else this would be no big deal. Just get out and walk the short distance needed to get the readings they were there to collect and go home. But this is a hostile, alien world. A few yards might as well be miles here. There’s extreme temperatures, large amounts of radiation, unstable ground and of course the whole lack of breathable air thing. They’ve just traveled halfway across the solar system and now their whole mission might be a bust because they landed just a couple hundred yards from where they needed to be. That one small mistake creates a chain reaction of problems that are constantly threatening to derail the mission. Will they have to leave and go back home without collecting the samples they needed to prove that there is life here? After they discover alien life, will they be able to escape with their own lives? If they can’t escape Europa, will anyone else ever know what they discovered here?

I really enjoyed the way the characters (relatively) kept their cool and stuck to the mission. It felt a bit like a recruitment film for NASA in that way. It also reminded me a lot of true stories about explorers of the past, like the first sailors who tried to sail around the world before anyone even knew such a thing was possible, or the first astronauts to leave Earth’s atmosphere, not knowing what might happen to them outside the safety of Earth. Obviously, they want the mission to be a success and have everyone get home safely, but they also must obviously know that such an experiment has never been tried before and there’s a very high probability of mission failure. This could very well be a one way trip for them, and I’m always attracted to noble acts of sacrifice like these.

So it’s time to wrap things up, Josh. Was there anything else you liked about the movie, or on the flip side, anything else that drove you crazy about it? Ranting is always more fun.

 

JOSH:  Ranting is fun, but not really warranted in this case.  I think I vented all the negatives I have about the movie before.  So instead, let me talk about the very ending, which speaks to the noble sacrifice you just mentioned.  At the very end of the film, all is basically lost. The crew has attempted to get off of Europa, it hasn’t worked, the ship is sinking through the ice.  Nobody is making it out alive. And what we find out in the final moments of the movie, is that the last thing the last remaining crew members did was make sure that the ship was transmitting data, so when the alien life form that has been threatening to make an appearance since they landed finally forces its way into the ship, an image of that alien will make it back to Earth.  Undisputable proof of alien life.

So often these kinds of dire sci-fi are strictly about survival.  In most other movies, I’d imagine the focus of the last act of the film would have been the crew figuring out a way to kill that alien and preserve at least the possibility of survival.  That’s not how it plays out here, and it’s not ever really an option. I liked that. And I liked that in the final moments, knowing that they were all dunzo, they kept their focus on making sure that something scientifically useful would come of it.  Making sure that the people receiving this information would understand what happened to them, and could, after a bit of processing, move on to focusing on the data collected, rather than just spinning endlessly on the events that led to the gathering of the data.

That’s pretty cool, and aside from being bored with a lot of the narrative huffing and puffing, so is Europa Report.

 

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So that’s Europa Report! Next time we’re watching something completely different. Instead of watching a movie about humans invading an alien world, this time the aliens are invading our world in Invaders From Mars (1986) – dir. Tobe Hooper. See, totally different!

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Silverado (1985) – Random Viewings With Ben And Josh

For as long as we’ve known each other, my friend Josh and I have endlessly talked about movies. Please enjoy these continued discussions of our random viewings:

 

Silverado (1985) – dir. Lawrence Kasdan

 

 

JOSH:  Our last Random Viewing was a zombie movie.  Our next one, Lawrence Kasdan’s 1985 film Silverado was, at the time of its release, from something of a zombie genre.  It’s easy to forget now, when the western is in relatively good standing thanks to the likes of the Coen brothers and Quentin Tarantino, but in 1985 it was a genre on the verge of extinction.  From the 30s through the early 70s it was one of the backbones of the American film industry, evolving from the B-westerns of the silent era and 1930s to the A-list prestige pictures of John Ford, William Wellman, and Howard Hawks in the 40s, the psychological westerns of Anthony Mann and Budd Boetticher in the 50s, the radical Italian (aka Spaghetti) westerns of Sergio Leone and Sergio Corbucci in the 60s, and the revisionist American westerns of Sam Peckinpah and Robert Altman in the 70s.  It was with that last evolutionary twist that the genre’s commercial prospects finally faltered.

The major westerns of the 70s largely reflected the growing cynicism, ambiguity and disillusionment that was rampant in the nation at large, and while that movement produced more honest westerns, and never stopped producing great ones, it carried it far away from its populist roots.  And it did so at a time when popular tastes were turning away from westerns anyway, even on TV, where the great classics of the 50s and 60s gave way to crime dramas in the 70s and 80s. Still, the genre endured, if tenuously, until the calamitous failure of Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate in 1980 –  a $40m picture that grossed under $5m at the box office, nearly put MGM out of business, effectively ended the New Hollywood of the late 60s and 70s, and, most relevant to this discussion, wiped the western off the map.

Which brings us to 1985.  Silverado was in fact the second of two major studio westerns to come out in the summer of ’85.  The first was Clint Eastwood’s Pale Rider, an eccentric supernatural western about a mysterious loner known only as The Preacher, who may or may not be a ghost, who rides into a mining camp one day to help the humble miners there fight back against a ruthless enemy.  With its heavy religious overtones and oddball energy, Pale Rider’s existence was a testament more to Eastwood’s star power than the studio’s interest in reviving the ailing western. And its financial success (it was the second highest grossing western of the 80s, not that there was much competition) was a confirmation of Eastwood’s star power, and the unique connection his 20-plus year history in the genre gave him with audiences.

In other words, Pale Rider was a big deal, but it was mostly a big deal for Clint Eastwood, and I doubt anyone thought that it was going to launch the next wave of westerns.  I don’t know for certain that such an expectation hung over Silverado either, but it certainly plays like a film that was trying to single-handedly rekindle the mass audience’s love for the genre.  And how does it to do that?

Well, it’s fun, for starters.  Really fun. Silverado is, first and foremost, a pure entertainment, fun in a simple way that harkens back decades, consciously sidestepping and downplaying the thematic complexity and moral ambiguity that had snaked its way into the genre’s DNA over time.  Silverado is your classic black hats vs. white hats, farmers vs. ranchers, good vs. evil western. It’s about four men who meet on the road to Silverado – brothers Emmett (Scott Glenn) and Jake (Kevin Costner), loner Paden (Kevin Kline), and would be farmer Mal (Danny Glover).  It takes us an hour to actually get to Silverado, because first there are rescues, shootouts, prison breaks, saloon showdowns, backstories to get sorted out, conflicts to set up. It feels like Kasdan was intent on packing as many beloved tropes of the classical western into this film as he possibly can.  It also feels like maybe a bit too much at times, like he maybe should have been just a little bit choosier. This is not to say that any of it is bad, because it’s not. Fact is, if you gave me a pair of scissors and told me to go cut something out it wouldn’t be an easy decision. Still, the opening hour does feel overextended, and it drags the movie out to 133 minutes, which no self-respecting classical western ought to be.

That said, once the boys arrive in Silverado, oh boy does this thing start to sing.  Paden is quickly put into the service of Sheriff Cobb (Brian Dennehy), an old frenemy who is himself the hired muscle for a local cattle baron named MacKendrick, whose violent agitation toward various local farmers threatens Mal, Emmett and Jake and all the people they love and care for.  I won’t go too much further into the plot just yet. There’s nothing on a plot level that will surprise anyone with even a glancing familiarity with the genre, anyway. But as we’ve said a few times now in this series (and likely will continue to say), it’s the way these elements are thrown together that makes this such an enjoyable experience.

Case in point, there’s a grand tradition of westerns about the struggle to build a decent, civic-minded community out on the lawless plains, a society of law and order and human decency, and the way that often forces people to organize and fight back against the encroaching abuses of the powerful.  There’s a wonderful sense of that developing community spirit in Silverado, built one person – some good, some not so good –  at a time. There’s Stella the saloon operator (Linda Hunt); the duplicitous gambler, played by Jeff Goldblum in a fabulous fur coat; the hired muscle played by the likes of Jeff Fahey; the noble settlers played by Roseanna Arquette and Joe Seneca.

I loved, for example, the simple sequence that follows from the town’s land office being set on fire.  The town people spring into action to fight the fire, with Stella barking out orders despite her diminutive stature, and all the big strong men following those orders without question.  It says a lot about what this town is, who they respect and why, without saying anything, and it’s indicative of the care and passion that Kasdan brings to every element of this film. The relationships feel real, the world feels lived in, there’s a palpable history pulsing off the screen.  It’s good, good stuff.

I could go, and likely will later, but I know you liked Silverado a whole lot too, Ben, so let’s hear what you have to say for a spell, while I go tip back my chair, put my feet up on the deck rail, and take a break from this harsh mid-day sun…

 

BEN: It’s funny, we both loved this movie but I think I loved the first half of the film more, while you prefered the second half, which is fine because both halves are amazing. This is going to be a fun one to discuss, because a lot of the things you just brought up were barely on my radar, and yet still fantastic parts of the film. There’s just so much film here to love that there’s something here for everyone. I even said to you while I was watching Silverado that it felt like I was watching four movies at once AND THEY WERE ALL GOOD.

It should be no surprise that this blockbuster reinvention of a forgotten genre just happened to come from Lawrence Kasdan, a little writer you might remember for masterfully reinventing two other forgotten genres a couple years prior — the space opera and the adventure serial — in two films you may have heard of — Raiders of the Lost Ark and The Empire Strikes Back. Yeah, I know. Nobody I know loves those movies. Kasdan tried to put that same energy he put into Star Wars and Indiana Jones into reinventing the Western yet again, and I think he succeeded admirably. Silverado is from start to finish an unbelievably fun ride, like what Westworld would probably feel like if the robots weren’t always trying to kill you.

One of the things I love so much about this film is how tight and economical the writing is. As we’ve both already mentioned, there’s a lot going on in this movie and it sometimes feels like there are a billion characters to keep track of, and yet you know everything you need to know about each character after their first scene. Every scene, every set piece, is crafted to tell you something about the characters. Nothing seems frivolous or unnecessarily tacked on. Everything has its purpose, even if you’re not entirely sure what that is as you’re watching it unfold.

It’s a filmmaking truism that you should be able to tell everything you need to know about a movie by its opening scene, and that’s definitely true with Silverado. We open on Emmett asleep in a shack. Some men ambush him and attempt to gun him down. We barely get a glimpse of any of his attackers. Instead, bullet holes rip through the walls, letting in beams of light. We have no idea where this shack is or what it’s really used for or why these guys want to kill Emmett or even who Emmett is, but Emmett knows that he has to act fast or he’s dead, and that’s all we really need to know. The scene is confusing, but not in how the scene is shot. We, the audience, don’t know what is going on, but Emmett takes each of them down like a pro, following the locations of the holes in the walls and the sounds outside to take each gunman down without even seeing their faces. It’s claustrophobic, chaotic, terrifying and yet thrilling to see someone dominate his attackers from an obvious place of disadvantage. And then, if just to let you know that this film is going to incorporate all the best things that make up a Western, Emmett goes into the doorway and we get the classic The Searchers doorway shot, where the darkness of the room suddenly expands into the vast majesty that is the plains and mountains of the Wild West.

In this movie, action is always driven by character. The sequence where all four main characters first meet is a great example of how each character’s inner drives and desires push them together and to the inevitable outcome of the film. Paden has stuck around with Emmett out of gratitude and obligation after Emmett saved him from certain death, being tied up and stranded in the desert, but when he discovers that the person Emmett road into town to find is Emmett’s brother Jake, and said brother is set to hang the next morning for kissing the wrong girl, Paden thinks staging a jailbreak to bust Jake loose is a bridge too far for him and he says his goodbyes to Emmett. It doesn’t take long before Paden finds himself in a saloon, however, and it takes him even less time to land in jail for shooting the man who stole his favorite hat. So now Paden is stuck in the same jail cell as Jake, and Jake correctly guessed his brother’s code that he’d be breaking him out of jail at dawn and wants Paden to help him break out. Paden the gambler didn’t want to take a chance earlier by helping Emmett, and now here he is after a bit of bad luck, right in the jail cell where he needs to be, forced into doing what he originally didn’t want to be a part of.

What I love about the jailbreak is that it’s doomed to fail and only succeeds if all four men are where they are, doing what they need to be doing, when they need to do it. Despite the fact that Emmett is “breaking them out”, he actually has nothing to do with the actual break out. He’s busy causing a distraction to pull the sheriff away from the jail. (Quick side note: The sheriff is played by John Cleese, who does an amazing job of exuding pompous arrogance. He’s the kind of guy who feels the need to point out the obvious that he’s British, as if he wants everyone to know how much better he is than everyone else. My favorite subtle little character detail is in a quick scene where you see him playing chess with one of his deputies, only for him to spin the board around after playing his move, indicating he was actually playing himself the whole time. Nothing’s said, and it’s one of those blink and you’ll miss it details, but in one quick little moment you can tell that he thinks he’s smarter than everyone else, and his only true worthy opponent is himself. We’ll see how that all works out for him later.)

Meanwhile, it’s up to Jake (and now Paden) to bust himself out. Jake tests out hiding under the bunk. He then picks the lock. When the deputy comes in to check on them and sees the door open and Jake missing, he (and we, the audience) surmise that Jake’s hiding under the bed. Thinking he’s clever for figuring out the roose, the deputy tells Paden to move towards the bars so he can handcuff him and then dig Jake out from under the bed. But, in a surprise to him and us, Jake’s actually been hiding behind Paden the whole time, and a third fist comes flying out of Paden’s jacket to take out the guard.

Jake and Paden meet up with Emmett and the three of them ride out of town with a posse close behind them. It looks like they all might get caught, that is until Mal shows up. Rewinding things for a moment, before all this jail stuff started Emmett and Paden first met Mal at the saloon, where the racist townsfolk tried to kick Mal out for the horrible crime of wanting a glass of whiskey and a warm place to sleep after so many days on the range. As three men gang up on Mal, Paden comments on how bad the odds are, only for Emmett to ask, “Yeah, but for who?” Emmett can see exactly who Mal is, and Mal proves him right by easily kicking the asses of his assailants. The sheriff is about to lock him up when Emmett vouches for Mal that he was merely defending himself against his attackers. While Mal doesn’t end up in jail (or worse) he is kicked out of town, because, well, they’re super racist. Cut back to Jake, Paden, and Emmett racing away from the posse. All seems lost until someone starts firing at the posse from a distance. Turns out Mal has been watching the whole thing and decides to help these guys out for not being dicks earlier.

So let’s break this all down. Emmett might not have found out that his brother was going to hang in the morning if Mal hadn’t gotten into a bar fight, bringing the sheriff into the picture. Jake’s breakout doesn’t work if Paden doesn’t help. Paden doesn’t want to help, but his love of saloons and his hat results in him ending up in the same jail cell as Jake, in the perfect place to help him break out. The two of them don’t get the chance to ambush the deputy if Emmett doesn’t create the distraction, and the three of them don’t get away if Emmett hadn’t shown kindness to Mal earlier. Despite the four of them having their own wants and desires that should take them away from each other, it’s those same wants and desires that keep pushing them back together again and again. All roads in this story lead to Silverado.

That’s just one of my favorite character beats in this story. There’s many, many more. This movie is all about character, not just in the literal sense, but also in the moral sense. All of our protagonists in this film have done morally questionable things in their past, but what makes them the “good guys” in this story is their drive to look out for the little guy and when push comes to shove, do the right thing, refusing to push around others just because they can.

What were some of your favorite character beats, Josh? And how great a screenplay is this?

 

JOSH:  It’s a pretty damn great screenplay.  You’re right that Silverado is rife with smart, illuminating, often delightful character beats, but that bit you mentioned about Jake hiding behind Paden in the prison really crystallizes for me what’s so much fun about Silverado – the obvious pleasure Kasdan takes in playing with our expectations, setting up a scene one way and then flipping it at the last second.

One of my favorite examples of that is later on, when Emmett is out taking target practice.  This is a scene out of any number of westerns – the gunslinger honing his craft by shooting at empty cans, bottles, that sort of thing.  Here Emmett first practices with his rifle, firing one shot after another until he’s out of bullets. He walks twenty or thirty feet back to his horse, secures the rifle on his saddle, walks the twenty or thirty feet away from the horse again, and empties his six-shooter, hitting a tin can over and over, popping it up into the air.  We’ve all seen it a million times before, and I’m pretty sure that in every single one of those million times, the scene simply ends with a cut to the next scene. The shooter has proven his bona fides, now it’s on to the main event. Not so here, because what we know, but Emmett doesn’t, is that Sheriff Cobb has sent some men to kill him.  So just as Emmett is finishing off his target practice – and most importantly, just after he has emptied his gun of bullets – one of Cobb’s deputies emerges from hiding and gleefully shouts, “You’re empty, mister!” And just like that, this badass posturing becomes a moment of mortal danger. Emmett breaks for his horse, but another deputy appears and lassoes Emmett to the ground.  He’s run over by a horse – twice – and would almost certainly end up dead, except that Mal appears at the last minute to save the day.

This scene is really simple, but I got a kick out of how Kasdan subverts the invincibility of the badass gunfighter by having him… run out of bullets.  And I loved that Kasdan and Scott Glenn allow us to see Emmett realize what a colossal mistake he’s made.

One of my favorite moments in Silverado is Sheriff Cobb’s monologue about Paden and the dog.  Cobb describes how, following a robbery they pulled together, Paden allowed himself to be captured so he could care for an injured dog.  A dog, Cobb says with a weary sigh, that Paden didn’t even like. At first, it seems like Cobb’s objection is just that Paden gave in to a sentimental impulse, but it quickly becomes clear that Cobb felt betrayed by Paden’s decision. “I thought we were pals after all the riding we’d done together,” Paden says, growing wistful.  “All of a sudden he was more worried about some mutt.”

Sheriff Cobb is a great villain, complex and sly and dangerous.  And it’s a great performance by Dennehy. He’s constantly sitting or slouching, leaning against chairs or on the bar at the local saloon.  Always minimizing himself to seem less threatening, and with his fluffy white hair, twinkling eyes, dignified beard, you could forgive yourself if you let yourself be seduced into thinking he wasn’t so bad.  Like an old west Thanos, a lot of what he says makes a certain amount of sense, as long as you don’t think about the results Cobb has in mind, or the methods he plans to use to achieve them. After the murder of a land supervisor, he tells Paden, who by now is well on his way to turning against his old partner in crime, not to rock the boat.  “Just give it a few days and it’ll all be over,” Cobb says, and it’s so damn sensible and reassuring coming from this big guy with the warm voice and wide smile. The best part is that there’s no lie there – if Paden just lets Cobb kill the people he needs to kill, life will almost certainly settle into a more peaceful rhythm. All you have to do is be able to live with it.  All you have to be able to do is think of it and smile.

And that’s Cobb – he puts a good face on bad things, and he’s good at making people not look past the former to see the latter.  And when you do? Well, one of the most potent, least subtle images in the whole movie is Cobb walking toward the camera with angry flames roiling behind him.  He might not be the devil – he’s actually all too vividly human for that – but he’s in the ballpark. But one of the reasons that monologue is so damn juicy is that Paden and Cobb obviously were truly friends once, and Cobb obviously misses him.  Cobb felt betrayed when Paden left him for the dog, but I think what Cobb really felt, and what really hurt him, was that Paden saw him for who he was, and left. It’s the loneliness of Cobb that hurts him the most. There’s an unmistakable longing to return to what Cobb still obviously thinks of as the good old days, so he gives Paden a job, tries to strong arm him into the towing the company line – he wants this to work, dammit.  Even though he knows it won’t last. Paden is still, as Cobb later says, the guy who cares too much about the dog.

Before I throw it back to you, there’s one other visual moment that I wanted to point out, and it’s Jeff Fahey’s death scene.  It comes toward the end. Fahey has been one of Cobb’s thugs throughout, a violent and intemperate man, and his end comes during the climactic gunfight.  It’s an unremarkable death scene with one exception – Fahey’s eyes. He has these piercing light blue eyes, like Paul Newman’s, and after he’s shot, he falls to the ground, and somehow the light catches his eyes so they’re especially bright.  And then his eyes snap shut and he’s dead, and it’s just an incredibly simple, powerful evocation of what death is – eyes shining bright, and then not. It has stuck with me ever since I saw it.

Anyway, here we are, several thousand words deep on this, and I feel like we’re still only scratching the surface!  Care to dig a little more, you old grizzled prospector?

 

BEN: I might as well end things talking about what I believe is the primary theme of this movie, LUCK. This movie is all about luck and gambling, both in the literal and figurative sense, best exemplified by our main character, Paden. Paden’s a self-identified gambler and lover of saloons, but you get the feeling when the film starts that his luck has been pretty rotten to him lately, because for a gambler he’s pretty timid towards taking chances and a little risk-averse. He seems to be always playing the odds in his head and looks for the safest bets because he’s been burned one too many times in the past by taking wild bets.

You mentioned the dog story above, one of two pieces of backstory we get for Paden. In that story things have been going pretty well for Paden, being in Cobb’s gang, that is until one of his fellow gang members shoots a mangy stray. Paden didn’t even like the dog, but at that moment he takes pity on it and stays behind to take care of it, only to get caught by the law and thrown in jail. That was the end of his good times with Cobb, and you get the feeling that the lesson Paden learned is empathy has no place in gambling.

The second piece of backstory we get explains how Emmett came to find Paden alone in the desert with nothing but his long underwear to keep him company. After getting out of jail, gangless, Paden roams the West looking for his next adventure. He comes across a group of men that he decides to pal along with, because as he says himself, it’s better to treat people like a friend than an enemy, but that doesn’t turn out too well for him, as the outlaws he joins up with rob him blind and leave him to die. Again, you get the feeling that the lesson Paden learned from this is that empathy gets you nowhere and you should always play the odds when it comes to dealing with people.

What Paden doesn’t realize is that sometimes you can make your own luck by choosing the right side, regardless of how bad the odds might look over there. While Paden pals around with Emmett for a while in gratitude for saving his life, he immediately wants to bail as soon as Emmett makes his intentions of breaking his brother out of jail known. Going to the saloon and having a good time seems like the safer bet. But as I detailed above, his luck brings him face to face with one of the outlaws that stole his favorite hat, and luck again puts him in the same jail cell as Jake. To Paden, this is just another example of his awful luck, but to the audience, it appears to be the opposite. Paden’s “bad” luck puts him exactly where he’s supposed to be.

After escaping the jailbreak, our four protagonists come across a wagon train that was just robbed by the guides who were supposed to be keeping them safe. If luck is the main theme of this movie, seeing people for who they really are is a very close second. Ironically, earlier in town Paden and Emmett were mistaken for the two men that turned out to be these bandits that robbed the settlers of all their money. Three of our heroes want to go after the bandits, but Paden would rather stay behind with the attractive settler’s wife, played by Rosanna Arquette, after her husband makes a big stink about going with them because he’s afraid they’ll just take the money and never come back. Hitting on the wife is the safe bet, the outlaw bet, while taking on a camp full of bandits is a stupid bet, sure to get them all killed. But when Emmett tells Jake to stay behind and lead the caravan to Silverado, as Jake’s the only one who’s been there before, Paden reluctantly agrees to join the other men to take on the bandits.

This scene is another great set piece. Our heroes are outnumbered and outgunned; the bandits well fortified in a canyon with only one way in and out. Emmett uses his smarts to trick the bandits into thinking he’s being chased by a posse, when in reality he’s stealing back the lockbox full of the settler’s hard earned money. They make fooling the bandits look easy, and celebrate their well-earned victory, but the stern settler still believes that they’re going to steal the money for themselves. “Mister, you got a lot to learn about people,” the dumb homesettler says, right before he gets shot by one of the real bandits. The irony in his words is made instantly apparent. Even though these men have all run afoul of the law in the past, they all do the right thing by returning the money and helping the settlers make their way to Silverado.

The movie is all about this tug-o-war between luck and character and as much as Paden tries to walk away from this internal struggle, he keeps getting pulled back into doing the right thing. After a brief attempt at trying to seduce the now widowed settler, Paden almost immediately gives up when he realizes she’s serious about making the farm work. Upon arriving in Silverado Paden again tries to avoid making serious human connections by again heading straight to the nearest saloon, and again, as luck will have it, he runs right into what he was running away from. He and the barkeep, Stella, are kindred spirits and you can see an almost instant platonic friendship blossom. The two of them have such great chemistry together and it’s that chemistry that becomes the final tipping point for Paden’s journey, because naturally this saloon Paden fell in love with also happens to be owned by Cobb (who also just happens to sheriff, installed by the guy whose father just happened to have been shot by Emmett). Again luck has dealt Paden a bad hand, but it’s the relationships he’s developed thus far that ultimately end up turning his luck around.

Before I wrap things up, I just want to quickly mention that Jeff Goldblum’s traveling gambler character is obvious meant to be Paden’s mirror. Slick is a professional gambler doing what it feels like Paden wishes he was doing, traveling from town to town setting up his own games and caring about no one but himself. Slick plays the odds without taking his emotions into account. When the heroes ask for his help warning Jake about the coming storm, Slick stands aside and does nothing, leading to Jake’s capture. In the climax of the film, when it comes time to take sides, he sides with Cobb and his men, which is obviously the safe bet as Cobb is the sheriff and the saloon owner, whose interests aline with Slick’s. But because of his earlier betrayal, Mal’s sister steals the knife he keeps hidden in his boot, the same knife that ends up killing Slick. Just like Paden’s redemption comes from his empathy and willingness to do the right thing, Slick’s death comes from his lack of empathy and selfishness. Paden might have thought that his bad luck started with taking pity on a dying mutt, but in reality, that was actually the moment when his luck started to turn around.

 

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Whoa there, cowpokes! Darn-tootin’, that was a long one! I hope it was worth the wait. Next time we watch Europa Report (2013) – dir. Sebastian Cordero, a hard sci-fi/found footage movie about the first astronauts to visit Jupiter’s moon, Europa. Does life exist outside of Earth? We find out when we see you next!

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Cargo (2017) – Random Viewings With Ben And Josh

For as long as we’ve known each other, my friend Josh and I have endlessly talked about movies. Please enjoy these continued discussions of our random viewings:

 

Cargo (2017) – dir. Ben Howling, Yolanda Ramke

 

 

BEN: We don’t just randomly watch obscure movies from decades past around here, sometimes Josh and I watch newer movies you may have actually heard of too. This week we watched one of the seemingly endless number of movies bought by Netflix to pad out their library of original content, Cargo, starring Martin Freeman as a father trying to find somewhere safe for his newborn daughter in a world devastated by a zombie outbreak.

Now when I saw the description for this movie I have to admit I was pretty pumped to see it. Martin Freeman in a post-apocalyptic Australian outback zombie movie? That checks so many boxes for me. Unfortunately, much like pretty much every other Netflix original movie I’ve seen thus far, this movie sounds better on paper than it does in execution. Cargo is based on a 2013 short film of the same name, which honestly worked better for me in its brevity than its feature length counterpart. Cargo (2017) is thematically not so much a Romero-style zombie movie than it is one made post-Walking Dead, where the undead are less of a threat than the mundane details of everyday survival and, of course, the threat of other uninfected humans. To be clear, this movie isn’t terrible. I quite enjoyed parts of it. My problem with the film is that it seems more interested in telling a flat, realistic story of survival than it does setting up and delivering on any big cinematic set pieces. The movie is constantly teasing something bigger but never quite delivering.

 

 

The movie starts with Andy (Martin Freeman) and his wife Kay (Susie Porter) drifting down a river in a houseboat with their newborn daughter, trying to avoid the infected that have already taken over Australia. Andy wants to stay on the boat where it’s safe and use the river to get to where he thinks the next safezone is. Kay thinks they’re going to die on the boat from lack of supplies long before they find this safezone that probably isn’t safe anyways, and insists that they should ditch the boat and look for a more permanent shelter. It turns out they were both right, because while Andy happens to find a sailboat filled with supplies to keep them going, he hides from his wife the danger hidden inside, leading her to go in herself and get bitten by a zombie. Kay insists Andy leave her and find somewhere safe for her daughter, but since in this universe it takes exactly 48 hours to go from infection to living dead status, Andy thinks he can save her by trying to find a hospital that might still be open before she goes full zombie.

Meanwhile, we occasionally cut from Andy’s story to Thoomi, an Aboriginal girl played by newcomer Simone Landers who is hiding her zombie father from her mother and the rest of her tribe who are on a mission to kill and burn all of the infected. Thoomi thinks the Clever Old Man can bring her father’s spirit back to his body and save him, but we don’t learn any of this until well over halfway through the movie when Andy finally meets Thoomi, which makes for some rather confusing cross-cutting early on in the film. Andy’s relationship with Thoomi is really my favorite part of the story, and I wish they had linked up earlier in the film to really take advantage of how well they play off of each other.

Instead we have to first muddle through the more conventional zombie movie storyline of Andy linking up with another survivor, Vic (Anthony Hayes) who seems like a good guy at first, but ends up being the kind of horrible person zombie apocalypses so often end up creating. I think Vic was meant to be some rather predictable metaphor about white Australians exploiting natural resources and mistreating indigenous people, but the whole thing adds nothing new to the cliché and comes off rather boring and trite.

Part of the problem is that this movie looks like it has the exact same budget as the 2013 short film it’s based on, as if all the extra financing they got to make the feature length film was spent on locking down Martin Freeman’s retainer. Outside of what we’re told by the characters, there’s very little production design put into creating a post-apocalyptic world. Everything is insinuation. Is this a world ravaged by zombies, or just another slow day in the outback? Considering the wealth of post-apocalyptic imagery to come out of Australia that the filmmakers had to draw upon, you’d think they’d have something more interesting to show you. Instead we get lots of shots of untouched Australian outback with the occasional burnt zombie to let you know this isn’t the normal outback. Yawn.

Anyway, what did you think of Cargo, Josh? Was the human drama enough to hold your attention, or, like me, were you disappointed in how flat this movie was filmed?

 

JOSH: I’d say I pretty much agree with your assessment in the broad strokes.  It is definitely a, ahem, modestly scaled, imagination starved Aussie zombie flick that goes for human drama over…  well, you name it: action, suspense, actual scares, etc. etc. This is a film that places its entire bet on getting you to a) care about the travails of Andy, Thoomi, and baby, and b) because of that, not care that this is practically an anti-zombie movie, considering how obligatory the actual zombie movie elements are.

For a while I didn’t think the film’s bet was going to work for me at all, mostly because Andy and Kay (albeit Kay to a lesser degree, her one fatal error aside) are so fucking stupid in the first half hour of this thing.  I know, I know, it’s easy to watch a survival drama and armchair quarterback people’s decisions, but these people, Ben. My God, these people. Their stupidity, combined with the co-directors’ inability not to telegraph the patently obvious from a thousand yards away (wait, do we think there might be a zombie hidden below deck in this mysteriously wrecked yacht?  Do we – wait, do we think that might happen?) is a pretty infuriating combination, and I therefore spent the first half hour of the film groaning at these dummy’s unfortunate life choices and praying for death – either for them or my WiFi signal, so I could spare myself the remaining hour.

But funny enough, the rest actually did pretty much work for me, on its own limited terms. Once Kay has zombied out, bitten Andy, and started his own 48 hour countdown to Zombietown, the film shifts into a different mode, dominated by a kind of pervasive, escalating sadness and desperation that I found reasonably compelling.

Andy is a confident man at the start of the film, but it’s the confidence of a man who is terrified of failing.  He and his family have survived this long on a houseboat, and Andy is just pleased as punch about that – never mind that it’s plainly the houseboat that has done all the heavy lifting there.  When left to his own devices, Andy’s choices are terrible – first he neglects to tell his wife about the possible danger on the yacht, resulting in her eventual infection and death; then he ignores her pleas to leave her behind, leading to his infection and eventual death.  He is prepared to leave his daughter in the hands of a racist monster because, hey, at least she’ll survive longer than he, Andy, does. At each turn, these choices are mostly about preserving an image of himself – as a competent man, husband, father. And of course what he learns via his experiences is how to actually be those things.

So I’m not going to mount some super strong defense of the movie, because I absolutely hear you on what a let down it is as a genre exercise.  But I am a sucker for movies about men brought to heel by their own hubris, and I did like the way the film tore Andy’s blinders off step by step, dangling victories before him only to snatch them away.

And I liked his relationship with Thoomi a lot.  She is as imprisoned by her belief in her own failure as Andy is imprisoned by his fear of failure.  She believes her father is a zombie because of her, that the Clever Old Man can save him, and that she is responsible for making that happen.  She isn’t, of course, and Andy is able to tell her that – clearly and without hesitation, which is ironic considering his own blinkered perspective.

But I liked how the film handled Andy’s evolving perspective, too.  He goes from the guy who is about to kill himself at Vic’s compound, to the guy who pleads with the father of another family not to go through with a murder-suicide.  He goes from the guy who views his responsibilities narrowly through his own sense of self worth, to a guy who literally lets Thoomi ride him like a zombie pony to make sure she gets the rest of the way to her family, thus ensuring her own survival, and that of his daughter.  I liked the way the film does that, reducing the number of available outcomes down steadily, until there’s really only one or two. The way Andy is forced to make those choices, step by step, is pretty solid, and Freeman does a good job of selling each step in the journey. He’s a fine actor and this is another good turn from him.  It’s not a full meal, but it ain’t the thinnest gruel either.

As for the visuals, I do agree that the movie is pretty flat on that front, though there is one striking set of images that I want to point out.  Toward the end there are a series of haunting, smoke filled shots as Thoomi’s family set brush fires and massacres zombies as they wander through the smoky terrain.  It’s little more than a handful of shots, often framed off center so you barely catch the action out of the corner of your eye, but it’s still very evocative and cool.  In fact, it points to a much more interesting movie altogether.

And this is what’s ultimately so frustrating about Cargo.  Indie film budgets are what they are. International financing is what it is.  I haven’t seen the short film this is based on, but I understand the impulse to make a low budget Aussie zombie movie that’s actually a sensitive character study about Martin Freeman learning to become a good man.  You can, and they did, sell that movie. But for God’s sake, why make that movie when you could make a movie about a group of badass Aborigine’s banding together to fight off the zombie apocalypse? It’s right there, sitting on the screen, a story waiting to be told, and one that we haven’t seen, in one iteration or another, a million times before.  And they blew it.

Now maybe it’s good that they didn’t, because that’s an approach that could easily have run right off the rails, especially now when concerns over appropriation and racial insensitivity are much more prominent in the cultural conversation.  But still, I would rather have seen them – or someone! – try.

 

BEN: After reading your response and thinking back on the movie I would like to adjust my opinion, slightly. I think Cargo probably worked a lot better on paper, where your imagination could help to fill in a lot of the gaps in the storytelling. The core idea is really strong and the screenplay could be converted into a really great novella. It’s the film’s direction that really kills the vibe for me. This movie really needed to be turned up to eleven, through maybe some more shots of forced perspective or ramped up editing during the action sequences. The word that keeps coming to mind every time I think of this movie is “flat”. There seems to be no real point of view, no fresh take on the subject. Everything is shot rather matter of factly. A little extra personality or perspective from the directors would have gone a long way towards pushing me to the edge of the seat, instead of towards my phone. I was constantly trying to guess what the filmmakers were trying to say, and it wasn’t until the movie was nearly over that I was able to really figure that out.

It doesn’t help that they throw a lot of rather ambiguous imagery in there for you to try and muddle through on your own. The biggest question mark for me was the zombies with their heads buried in the dirt. I may have missed something, but I don’t think the film ever explained why there were all of these zombies with their heads buried in the sand. Did someone put them in there that way? Logically that would make sense, except Andy frequently has moments where he starts to dig a hole for himself, only to stop when something happens to help him move the plot forward. But if people are doing this to themselves, how, exactly? Try to bury your own head and see how well that works out for you. And I doubt the zombies are covering up their own heads, unless that’s the final stage of infection (which doesn’t explain why there are so many zombies just walking around). So what exactly is going on here?

At first I was thinking this was some kind of way to preserve your body without infecting anyone else until the government made a cure for the infection, but that doesn’t quite make sense either. Finally the only theory I could come up with was the dumbest theory, that it was a metaphor for people giving up and literally putting their heads in the sand to avoid dealing with their problems. As a metaphor that kinda makes sense, but as a real thing that actually happens in a movie it’s just so DUMB. The whole time I’m thinking this is so obvious that it can’t be the right answer, because it just…can’t. Secretly I’m hoping that burying your head in the sand is some Aboriginal tradition I’m not aware of that would make the image work so much better than what I came up with. I also agree with you that this movie would be so much better if they spent more time on the Aboriginal side of the story. That would be something I haven’t seen before.

The other main problem I have with the movie is that it sets up things that you think are going to have a big payoff, but don’t, which in turn undermines the impact of the plot elements that actually do have a payoff. Thoomi keeps going on and on about how the Clever Old Man can bring the infected back from the dead by guiding their souls back to their bodies. Meanwhile, the movie makes a very big deal about how you have exactly 48 hours from infection until you go full zombie. Somehow, amongst all the chaos of a global zombie apocalypse, FitBit apparently had time to make a device that counts down the 48 hours for you. The whole movie is a race against the clock for Andy to find somewhere safe for his daughter before he turns around and eats her. We even see the Clever Old Man in a cage at one point of the movie, but he’s gone by the time Andy and Thoomi come around to save him. But wait! There’s the Clever Old Man at the end of the movie! He’s about to kill Andy when Thoomi stops him from doing so. Thoomi sprays Kay’s perfume and Andy seems to react to it, as if there’s still some of him left inside. We haven’t seen his FitBit in a while, so maybe he still has a few minutes of humanity left before going full zombie? Maybe the Clever Old Man does actually have some old Aboriginal trick to save the infected? (SPOILER ALERT: He doesn’t.)

I was so mad that the movie had left out all of these little breadcrumbs for me to follow, only to not push them to their logical conclusion, that it rather undercut the actual ending of the movie, which actually wasn’t all that bad. It just wasn’t what I thought they were setting up, which is at least partially why this movie left such a bad taste in my mouth. Martin Freeman, god bless him, has to hold a lot of the movie together on his shoulders, because the bland filmmaking doesn’t do us any favors by indicating or hinting at where the movie is going.

Cargo actually reminded me a lot of another no-budget zombie movie I saw recently, The Battery (2012). That’s a movie about two guys who were teammates on a minor league baseball team before the zombie apocalypse started (pitcher and catcher). The central tension in the film comes from the fact that the guys weren’t exactly friends before everything started, just teammates, but now they have to depend on each other for their survival. They fight and bicker, they don’t even really seem to like each other, but they do need each other, and that clear narrative drive pushes the story forward without having a budget big enough to do much more than slap zombie makeup on a couple extras. There was a clear vision pushing a narrative forward that got me invested in that story where Cargo didn’t, despite it having an even smaller budget than Cargo.

But what did you think of the ending, Josh? Did it end the way you thought it would, or were you thrown off by all the conflicting story elements like I was? And did you ever figure out what the deal was with the buried head zombies?

 

JOSH:  I think the only real lead we’re given about the head-burying thing comes when Andy and Thoomi are going through the tunnel.  They find a group of zombies lined up with their heads against the wall. Thoomi says that they’re hibernating and need the dark.  I assume that the zombies bury their heads in the sand when they don’t have a nice dark tunnel to hide in. As for why they need to hibernate, or what happens after they’re done hibernating…  well, your guess is as good as mine. Maybe it has to do with the apparent degradation of their eye tissue – in the end-stage of the infection, the pre-zombies’ eyes get pretty funky, and after they die they seem to excrete some really nasty pus looking stuff from their eyes.  I would probably want to bury my head for a while after that too, you know?

The matter of how a movie raises expectations, and how it pays off those expectations, is a good one to get into, though.  This movie definitely does raise a lot of questions, directly and indirectly. It answers very few of them, and I think it’s totally fair to be frustrated by that lack of explanation.  It didn’t throw me in this case, mostly because I think I latched on to what the filmmakers were going for early enough that the questions and mysteries seemed like exactly the red herrings they were.  We were never going to get clear rules on what the zombies were, because our point of view was too limited – Thoomi’s perception of the plague is colored by her religious beliefs; Andy was on a house boat for too long and just doesn’t seem to have the context.  Or maybe he’s just pretending not to for the sake of his own sanity.

But the movie muddies that significantly at times – for example, the filmmakers clearly establish that the plague has been going on long enough for the government to have issued kits for how to deal with infected individuals, including pointy metal rods in case you need to kill someone (including yourself) before turning.  So the information does exist, and Andy should actually know it, but he doesn’t seem to, not really, and it’s never communicated to the audience. For me, it doesn’t really need to be – it’s not necessarily the type of conversation that Andy would have with any of the people that he comes across. But it’s a detail that both enhances and undermines the world that the filmmakers created.

The role of the Clever Old Man and his potential power to return souls to their bodies, well…  That struck me as pretty fanciful stuff that the movie was never going to pay off. That’s just a child’s superstition, or so it seemed to me.

But, filmmakers have to be aware of what issues they’re raising, and the expectation of some kind of reasonable payoff that inevitably files.  You can do what they did here, and pretty much give you nothing, but they risk leaving the viewer frustrated and unsatisfied, especially when what’s offered up as the alternative is not exactly mind-blowing stuff.

I’ve been trying to think of what Cargo reminded me of, and the closest film I came up with was Children of Men, which also dangles some similarly big questions, at least at first, but then narrows its scope down to be a simple matter of survival: will Clive Owen deliver the pregnant girl to the ship?  Ultimately, in both films survival is the single goal. Figuring out the hows and whys of something have to be left for later. But Children of Men is much smarter about managing our understanding of what exactly the film is, and how it should be viewed, with filmmakers who are much more aware of what they’re doing, and much more capable of offering a wholly satisfying experience, even in the absence of hard answers on the film’s big, abstract questions.  And that’s ultimately where I think we can leave off with Cargo: it’s a movie that wants to be About Something, but in the end it’s just a zombie flick with its head stuck in the sand, with all us viewers left to wonder why.

 

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I hope you enjoyed reading about a newer movie, because next week we go back to the 80’s (heck, the 1880s, even!) to watch a film that’s actually really good: Silverado (1985) – dir. Lawrence Kasdan, the best semi-recent western that you probably haven’t seen.

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The Shadow (1994) – Random Viewings With Ben And Josh

For as long as we’ve known each other, my friend Josh and I have endlessly talked about movies. Please enjoy these continued discussions of our random viewings:

 

The Shadow (1994) – dir. Russell Mulcahy

JOSH: For our next Random Viewing, we turn from the metaphysical mysteries of The Quiet Earth to the evil that lurks in the hearts of men in Russell Mulcahy’s The Shadow.  Adapted from the popular and long running CBS radio series of old, this is the tale of Lamont Cranston, a suave man of leisure who moonlights as the mysterious crime fighter The Shadow, known for his black coat and red scarf, his piercing eyes, his cackling laugh, and blowing away the bad guys from time to time.

If our first two movies don’t have many obvious similarities, they are nevertheless tales of two selfish men given opportunities to redeem themselves.  The Shadow begins in exotic Tibet in the early 1930s, where Lamont Cranston (played by Alec Baldwin), suave man of leisure, has apparently let his dark side run absolutely wild.  You’ve heard about the Ugly American, but Lamont has really taken that ball and run with it, setting himself up as a local opium peddler and warlord going by the name of Yin-Ko. After killing the wrong man, Lamont is kidnapped and taken before an ancient mystic, who offers Lamont a choice – reform and put himself in the service of goodness and justice, or get butchered by a sentient flying dagger with a permanently bad attitude named Phurba.  Lamont, sensibly, chooses to reform, but it takes a good seven years of training before he’s sent back to his homeland, good ol’ New York, NY.

Among the skills Lamont learns during his discipleship are the ability to change his appearance, to hide in plain sight (to literally become a shadow), to control the minds of others.  Upon his return to New York he adopts the character The Shadow, dispensing justice and building an elaborate network of agents, both willing and otherwise, to feed him information, act as his emissaries, and generally advance the common good, as defined by reformed war lord and murderer Lamont Cranston.

Things are going…  fine, let’s say, until the sarcophagus of Genghis Khan arrives in New York.  This sarcophagus contains not the remains of the famous conqueror himself, but the very much alive body of his last living descendent, Shiwan Khan (John Lone, delightful throughout), who promptly sets in motion a plot to bend the world to his will.  This naturally puts him in the crosshairs of The Shadow, and while you might think this is good vs evil, it turns out that things are a little bit more shades of grey when pitting an aspiring despot against a reformed warlord and drug trafficker. Who knew!  Also along for the ride here is Peter Boyle as Cranston’s on-demand cabbie chauffeur; Ian McKellan, doing a really bad American accent, as a nuclear scientist who his integral to Khan’s plan; Tim Curry as McKellan’s treacherous assistant; Penelope Ann Miller as McKellan’s daughter, Margo, who happens to be a telepath who is immune to Lamont’s mind control; and Jonathan Winters as Cranston’s uncle, the chief of police.

Ok, so having dispensed with this boilerplate, let’s get down to brass tacks.  I know this was the first time seeing this movie for both of us. I have avoided it for 24 years for the very simple and stupid reason that it was a notorious flop at the time of its release, and I’d always heard it wasn’t very good (though who, in fact, I heard that from, I’ll probably never know – maybe it was The Shadow himself?).

Well, a flop it was, but on the second count I am happy to say that I was wrong.  The Shadow is not a bad movie, though it is a pretty silly movie, and maybe that silliness is what doomed it back in its day (though I think its release date, sandwiched in between The Lion King and True Lies, probably had a lot to do with it too).  I don’t know, but from where I’m sitting now, any movie that starts with Alec Baldwin in a bad wig, playing a playboy turned warlord, is starting off on the right foot.

There’s a lot of different directions we could take this conversation, but let me pause at this point to throw it over to you.  This was definitely a highly publicized movie at the time, and yet we both managed to avoid it for the better part of two and a half decades.  Now that you have, what do you think? Is Alec Baldwin’s performance, half Jack Donaghy deadpan, half Glengarry Glen Ross trash talking, an inspired meta-performance, evidence of serious malpractice from the casting department, or some perilous middle ground?  And is Phurba the sentient dagger the best character in the movie, or the best character of the 90s? The Shadow awaits your response.

 

BEN: I can definitely see why The Shadow bombed when it was initially released; what’s less clear is why it hasn’t become more of a cult classic since hitting video.

After the success of Tim Burton’s Batman in 1989, Hollywood (and the rest of America) went comic book crazy, but much like the comic book boom of the early 90s Hollywood couldn’t figure out what to do with that newfound enthusiasm for the medium for at least another decade. For some reason Hollywood looked at Batman (created 1939) and other popular movies at the time like the Indiana Jones trilogy and thought 90s kids must really love pulp heroes from the 30s and 40s (cue Ron Howard voice: “They didn’t”). After Batman we got Dick Tracy, The Shadow, The Rocketeer and The Phantom, all of which had varying degrees of success, but none of which made even a fraction of the impact at the box office that Batman did. Turns out, 90s kids just weren’t that into characters that probably weren’t even that familiar to a lot of their parents. Go figure.

So yeah, I can see why there weren’t a lot of radio serial fans/pulp paperback nerds lined up to see The Shadow on opening weekend. Despite having what looks like a fantastic cast today, I don’t think I was really that familiar with any of these actors back in 1994. And yet, I think this is one of those rare movies that just gets better with age. It subverts so many of the superhero movie clichés that we’re familiar with today just by pure virtue of the fact that they weren’t clichés back then. The Shadow (the movie and the character) can, and will, do whatever it wants, and that’s what makes it so fun to watch.

Take the prologue set in Mongolia that you mentioned above. Our first glimpse of Lamont Cranston is of an opium warlord with hair like a Ringu ghost and long black fingernails sharpened to a point who tells his goons to shoot through one of his most trusted advisers in order to kill a man who didn’t really pose much of a threat to any of them. This is the hero of the movie, folks! Lamont then gets kidnapped by the man who sees his potential to become the Shadow, but instead of some long, extended training montage à la Bruce Wayne and Ra’s al Ghul in Batman Begins, we suddenly jump 7 years into the future with only this fantastic title card to explain what just happened:

The price of redemption for Cranston was to take up man’s struggle against evil. The Tulku taught him to cloud men’s minds, to fog their vision through force of concentration, leaving visible the only thing he can never hide — his Shadow.

Thus armed, Cranston returned to his homeland, that most wretched lair of villainy we know as —

Cue cowboys in a salsa commercial: “NEW YORK CITY!?”

And thus the guy who probably would have been the villain in any other superhero movie is now a fully-formed hero terrorizing a bunch of mobsters on a NYC bridge, again, much like Batman. Nothing is ever entirely explained in The Shadow. Things just happen and you’re either expected to already know the source material or expected to just keep up, because this movie has no intention of slowing down for anything, which is where I think most of its charm comes from. If the movie gave you a second to think of how absurd everything was the film would fall apart under its own weight. Instead, much like its protagonist, the plot appears and disappears like a ninja assassin, taking you from one entertaining set piece to the next.

One of the things I hate most in comic book movies is the origin story movie. How many times do we have to see Peter Parker’s Uncle Ben die, or watch Bruce Wayne watch his parents get shot in Crime Alley? If we really want to know how these heroes became heroes there’s tons of source material already out there that you can get your hands on. I want to see my heroes do actual hero stuff and be the characters we all want them to be, which is one area where I think The Shadow definitely succeeds. We skip right over the boring origin story movie and pick right back up in the middle of his career.

And speaking of things only half-explained, Phurba the dagger, everybody! I have no idea why this thing is even in the movie, outside of the fact that it was the early 90s and you weren’t anybody if you didn’t have a completely CGI character in your movie. I’m sure back then, to audiences raised on the greatest era of cinematic practical effects, the CGI in this movie looked pretty terrible. Looking back through the goggles of nostalgia though, the CGI here isn’t half bad for early 90s work. Phurba actually looks fairly believable, at least as believable as any practical animatronic or puppet work would have looked. And while some of the morphing effects have a dated Pentium II 3D effect look to them, they look no worse than Alec Baldwin’s horrible nose prosthetic that seems like it was only included in the movie so that the studio would have an image that matched the Shadow’s hooked nose profile made so famous by pulp book and magazine covers. Every time the Shadow switches to his classic look he almost immediately switches back to looking like Alec Baldwin, and I guess the people making the movie should be commended on not actually doubling down on that trainwreck when they didn’t need to.

What did you think about the special effects in The Shadow, Josh? And — wait a minute — maybe we should talk about the actual plot of this movie? Or not. Only the Shadow knows what you’ll write about next!

 

JOSH:   I thought the effects work was pretty good for the era, which is to say that it’s endearingly bad, so proudly displayed as a groundbreaking technological feat and so primitive now.  This was just a year after Jurassic Park revolutionized digital effects, and let’s just say that Phurba and company do little to further push the envelope. And that’s fine! I think there’s a real charm to the films of this era, an unavoidable fakeness that ends of up working in their favor.  And the contrast between the relatively primitive (but no doubt pricey) digital effects and the absolutely deluxe physical production elements (the gorgeous sets and costumes, for example) is also very enjoyable, very typical of a time – an awkward straddling of one era that’s dying but not quite dead, and another that has just been born but isn’t quite breathing on its own yet.

That’s equally true of it’s approach to the superhero genre.  It definitely owes more to the Indiana Jones’ and Rocketeers of the world than the Supermans and Batmans, at least in terms of how it approaches the genre and the now obligatory first movie origin stuff.  I have to say, I think it’s a relief that screenwriter David Koepp and company realized that Lamont Cranston’s origin story would be the least interesting possible angle on this. Do we need to know how or why a New York society boy turned into a warlord in Tibet?  No, it’s much more entertaining to just know that he is, to lead with that image, and let that be your introduction to the character.

And it allows for a much more playful tone.  The Shadow layers in a lot of really fun humor by playing on the fact that Lamont Cranston is basically a nasty piece of shit, whose worst instincts have been channeled in a more positive direction on threat of death.  And it makes his interactions with Khan a lot of fun, because…. Well, you know the old cliché in these movies, where the villain goes, “We’re not so different, you and me?” That’s especially true here, where Khan studied under the same master as The Shadow, and employs many of the same tricks but with greater mastery.  It’s not hard to see Khan as the man Cranston might have wanted to become at one point (or maybe still does on some level?). But the movie doesn’t make this some dreary dirge on the duality of man or whatever. No, Koepp and Mulcahy use it to set up dialogue exchanges like this:

KHAN:  In three days, the entire world will hear my roar, and willingly fall subject to the lost empire of Shan Khan. That is a lovely tie, by the way. May I ask where you acquired it?

CRANSTON:   Brooks Brothers.

KHAN:   Is that mid-town?

CRANSTON:  45th and Madison. You are a barbarian.

KHAN: Thank you. We both are.”

Annnnnnnd….  Scene! That exchange honestly had me giggling, but it’s far from the only one.  The Shadow has a real irreverence that feels both slyly self-satirizing and sincerely appreciative.

And while I don’t know that we should really go into the plot much more than we have – it’s just the old saw about a villain who wants to conquer the world and a hero who has to stop him – we should definitely talk about John Lone as Khan, because he is a big part of why exchanges like the above work so well.  It’s a delightfully self-aware performance, just as much as Baldwin’s, and I really enjoyed how they both managed to convey the seriousness and the absurdity of their characters without winking or going full camp with it. They’re genuinely thoughtful performances perfectly in harmony with the movie around them, and while that’s not as much of a surprise from Baldwin, who has been doing that for a while, Lone was a real discovery for me, even though I’ve seen him in other things.  This movie made me want to see more.

But on that story front, do you have anything you want to address directly?  This movie struck me as the perfect embodiment of the old Roger Ebert line, “It’s not what a movie is about, it’s about how it is about it.”  I think we’ve covered the how of it pretty well, but then again, the what of it does still matter.

Oh, and before I throw it back to you entirely, we should probably just tip our caps to the director, Russell Mulcahy, who does a very able job juggling material that is a bit more complicated than it first appears.  I think the conventional wisdom, at the time and maybe now, is that he didn’t actually do a very good job, but if that’s the conventional wisdom it’s hogwash. Mulcahy is most famous for the two Highlander movies, the second of which he tried (and failed) to have his name removed from.  I don’t like either of those movies, and I haven’t seen anything else he did, but you could have worse claims to fame than directing this film.

All right, back to you to reveal once and for all…  Jerry Springer voice: What evil lurks in the hearts of men…?

 

BEN: In retrospect, it was probably pretty dumb of me to bring up the plot of The Shadow, as it’s easily the least interesting part of this movie. It took me a while to remember what Khan’s evil master plan even was. This descendant of Genghis Khan (whom no one has ever heard of) is threatening NYC with an atomic bomb (something that wouldn’t be invented in real life for another decade or so, and something no one in this movie would have even heard of before) from an abandoned hotel (that no one can see) for (cue Dr. Evil:) one BILLION dollars! Khan’s goal is to finish what Genghis started and take over the world, but it’s not entirely clear if he plans on using the one billion dollars to do so, a ludicrously high amount of money to ask for during the Great Depression, or if he always planned on destroying NYC with the bomb, which seems very probable, since he leaves the bomb on a timer as he makes his exit from the city via plane. The whole thing doesn’t really hold up to a close examination, which is actually what makes this movie kinda great. The whole thing is pure comic book insanity.

I mean, this is a movie where a Mongol warrior in full battle armor regalia is trying to super subtly tail Lamont on a busy New York City street. In what universe would he expect to NOT be noticed by The Shadow looking like that? Thankfully, the answer is this universe. So instead of trying to further explain the plot of the Shadow, I thought I’d spend the remainder of my time firing off some of my favorite moments in the movie:

 

  • Every time Khan uses his hypnosis powers, his eyes get super big like an anime character’s or a kewpie doll. It’s super adorable.
  • Lamont’s standing order at the club is two martinis. I don’t know why, I just thought that it was hilarious that the waitstaff already knows that he likes to double fist it as soon as he sits down.
  • Not once, but twice in the film one of the bad guys twirls around the room firing off a tommy gun in a desperate attempt to hit the hidden Shadow. Turns out, the spray and pray strategy is not super effective.
  • Peter Boyle’s taxi cab is probably the coolest looking NYC cab in cinema history, and Boyle’s performance as the cabbie who drives like a crazy person but remains perfectly calm the entire time behind the wheel is perfect.
  • Ian McKellan plays a pretty boring absent-minded professor type here, and yet I love the fact that one of his recurring jokes is that he can’t tell the difference between red and green and it’s never really explained why that is, ie he’s colorblind, or something like that. Therefore, since it’s never explained, the logical inference is that he’s just so absent-minded that he never bothered to learn what colors were which. Wait, what?!
  • Bullets from the Shadow’s guns can knock a man clear across the room. At one point Khan and the Shadow shoot each other’s bullets out of the sky (because of course they do) and somehow the force of that one in a billion shot doesn’t cause its own mini-nuclear implosion.
  • The movie has some great one-off lines. Personal favorites include, “Psychically I’m very well-endowed”, and “It’s all falling into place for me now…”, something Lamont says in the foreground as a sailor throws himself off of the Empire State building in the distant background.
  • But perhaps the best line delivery in the entire movie happens after Margo spends the night at the Shadow’s home and tells him the next morning about an erotic dream she had about lying naked on a South Pacific beach. She’s obviously flirting, but when asked what he dreamed of, Lamont answers, in perfect Alec Baldwin deadpan, “I dreamed I ripped all the skin off of my face and was someone else underneath.” The joke doesn’t just land because of Penelope Ann Miller’s perfect stunned reaction shot, but also because the audience knows that that’s literally what he just dreamed about. The startling dream sequence where Lamont rips his face off is probably the best special effect shot in the entire film.

 

But you’re right that all the best moments in the film come from any of the scenes where Khan and the Shadow face off against one another. Their tête-à-têtes are so gentlemanly and civil, like something out of a James Bond movie. Josh, you already quoted the fantastic scene where Khan asks Lamont where he got his Brooks Brothers tie, and I just wanted to add to that by pointing out that the next time the two of them meet Khan is wearing a tie that’s obviously also from Brooks Brothers, and in between the two of them making verbal jabs at each other Lamont still manages to take a moment to compliment Khan on his tie. It’s just one of many little nods that the filmmakers are in on the joke and having a blast with it, which becomes immediately obvious to anyone watching the film. The Shadow is just a damn fun movie. Are you going to like this movie? Only the Shadow knows…but yeah, if you’re up for a good time you will enjoy this movie.

 

——

 

That’s all for this week’s discussion of The Shadow. Tune in next time as Josh and I discuss Cargo (2017) – dir. Ben Howling, Yolanda Ramke, aka that zombie movie on Netflix starring Martin Freeman that you probably added to your queue a while back but will most likely never watch because you can never figure out if any of these movies are suppose to be any good, so instead you just end up rewatching The Office again for the hundredth time (bonus points if it’s the British version of The Office, starring, you guessed it, Martin Freeman!)

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The Quiet Earth (1985) – Random Viewings With Ben And Josh

For as long as we’ve known each other, my friend Josh and I have talked about movies. Like, a lot. We’ve probably written thousands of pages back and forth about all the crap we’ve seen over the years, no exaggeration. I know C’est Non Un Blog has been quiet for a while, so to get things back up and running again I thought, “Why not just turn those conversations into a regular column?” The idea is that each week we’ll pick out a new movie, watch it, and break down what it is we did or didn’t like about it. The format is still an experiment in progress at this point, but we hope to turn this into a recurring discussion that you all can check out, so we hope you enjoy it. And if you’ve seen the movie as well, we’d love to hear your opinion on it. With that said, let’s talk about some movies!

 

The Quiet Earth (1985) – dir. Geoff Murphy

 

BEN: Today we begin our discussion of film with Geoff Murphy’s New Zealand sci-fi classic, The Quiet Earth, a film about a man who thinks he’s the last man on earth after a science project he’d been working on to create a sort of global wifi network for electricity goes haywire and makes every person on earth disappear…or does it? One of the more delightful aspects of this film, of which there are many, is that while it has a rather straightforward narrative it’s very withholding when it comes to answers. Did everyone disappear, or did he transport himself to another parallel universe? Is he dead or has he cheated death? Can we trust what is happening to be real, or is everything just happening in his mind?

The Quiet Earth achieves this subtle mystery through its deliberate choice of imagery, and there’s two examples that happen right at the very start of the film that I’d like to talk about. The very first image we see is of the sun rising over the horizon, but I think we’ll wait a little longer to dissect that one, since it directly mirrors the final shot of the film. Instead I’d like to talk about the next shot, which is our main character Zac Hobson (played by Bruno Lawrence) lying naked on his bed. This is the first of what will turn out to be a surprisingly large number of shots of Bruno Lawrence’s junk, but that shock of male nudity made me focus on one area of filmmaking I admit I largely ignore, which is costume choice. Zac wakes up naked as the day he was born, an intentional and deliberate image as he’s as of then unaware of what has happened to the world as he slept. He wanders the house innocently, but slightly disoriented, and only covers himself up when he starts to realize something is off and calls into work to check on things, only to have no one on the other end pick up the phone.

From that point on there seems to be a very strong correlation between what characters are thinking internally and what they are wearing on the outside. Zac puts on his suit and tie and starts to go about his regular morning routine, only to slowly discover that he can’t find another living soul anywhere in town. Once he finally accepts that he’s the only person on earth he goes on a shopping spree, Dawn of the Dead style, wearing fancy tuxedos and moving into a mansion where he imagines he’s a sort of James Bond. But it’s there at the mansion that he sees a woman’s slip and the cold reality that he’s never going to see another woman again hits him hard. He tries on the slip (hey, don’t judge, you would too) and suddenly he’s having a complete psychotic break, realizes that he might be responsible for killing every living creature on earth, and announces that he’s king of the quiet earth to a cardboard cutout of Adolf Hitler. He leaves the house, still in the slip, and starts engaging in all sorts of destructive behavior until he attempts suicide, only to change his mind and save himself at the last second. The next time we see him he’s all cleaned up and wearing a rather pastoral outfit, as if he had just been out herding some sheep, which transitions us into the next section of the film where it turns out (SPOILER ALERT) that–much like Will Forte on The Last Man on Earth–he’s not actually the last man on earth.

I don’t want to spoil too much of the rest of the film just yet, but to finish my thought, that focus on costume choice continues on through the two other characters we are introduced to, potential love interest Joanne (played by Alison Routledge) and potential rival Api (played by Pete Smith). When we’re introduced to Joanne she’s wearing very conventional clothing just like Zac is at this point in the movie, but later she starts to ditch the conventional wardrobe choices in favor of more wild and exotic outfits, which also just happens to coincide with the introduction of Api, a Māori man who makes a rather bold entrance in a sort of leather military-inspired outfit, Eddie Murphy Raw-style. Interestingly enough, I don’t really remember Api changing his outfit in the movie, outside of his and Joanne’s final scene together where they’re both naked, symbolizing their return to innocence. There’s something wild and dangerous about his outfit that threatens Zac, but is also sexy enough to attract Joanne away from Zac.

But what did you think Josh? Were you as hyper-aware of the characters’ costume choices as I was?

 

JOSH:  Nope! Though it was hard to miss Zac spending the first few minutes of the film in his birthday suit.  The costumes definitely do tell the tale of that opening act – first he’s naked, then wearing a suit, and finally slumped on the street in a tattered slip with a shotgun stuffed in his mouth. Now that is a journey.

The relative innocence of that first image of Zac belies the fact that he actually knows a lot more about what has happened than we do when we first encounter him.  Not to mention the circumstances of how he came to be lying on that bed naked. It’s a deceptive image, or rather, one with multiple layers that only become clear over time.  I liked that, and it’s a strategy Murphy returns to a lot. You mentioned that he’s both straightforward and withholding – very true, and he gets a lot of mileage out of playing with that balance.

The contrast between Zac and Api’s initial appearances is also striking.  If Zac is framed as a (not so innocent) babe born into this new world, Api is the opposite, a man who has not let go of the old world.  We first meet him covered head to toe, with his face completely hidden. Once he takes off the mask, his caution makes total sense. As a Māori man who has probably faced a ton of racist bullshit in his life, he would be on his guard in this new, barren world – after all, suppose the only other survivors turn out to be neo-Nazis (and wouldn’t that be a hell of a story?).  It’s only Joanne’s presence that seems to truly allow him to let his guard down.

I’m split on the actual love triangle, because on one level it made the movie much less interesting to me.  Joanne’s arrival signals the start of a much more normal story arc, and then Api cements that by filling the expected role of romantic rival/antagonist.  What redeems it partially for me is just how spacy and weird the movie treats aspects of that relationship. There’s a point later on where Zac mentions to Joanne that he sometimes feels as if she knew Api before the Effect, as he calls the phenomenon that disappeared all life on the planet.

I don’t think the film ever really suggests that they did know each other, right?  But they certainly do give off that vibe.  From the moment they spot each other, there’s some serious looks between them.  Murphy accentuates their first meeting by having Joanne step away from Zac, staring at Api, who pauses, staring at her, before the three of them slowly move into a warm, loving embrace (just as Joanne and Zac did in their first meeting).  But that three-way happiness doesn’t last. I remember thinking when Joanne first showed up that she and Zac were going to be the Adam and Eve of the Quiet Earth, and I was worried when Api showed up that he was going to be positioned as the snake who tempts them into ruin.  And there is a little of that – he definitely has an ax to grind with Zac. Hell, he even runs him off the road and seems more or less ready to kill him through most of the film’s final act. But it’s Joanne and Api who end up in the Adam and Eve position, the last survivors on Earth, while Zac sacrifices himself to stop the Effect from happening again, preserving the Earth for them while inadvertently sending himself to… a new planet?  A new dimension? Hell, heaven or purgatory?

In retrospect, I wondered if the distance Zac felt between him and Joanne, the closeness he felt (or imagined) with Api and her was both real and a manifestation of his own growing detachment from her and the world.  Going back to that opening image, Zac is, we come to realize, on a hell of a journey through this movie – complicit to a degree in the Effect that wiped out all life on the planet, guilt-ridden, but given a chance to atone for his error. And atone he will.  He starts observing the abnormalities in the sun right around when Joanne shows up, so as their relationship blossoms, so too does his realization that the Effect might recur, and his determination to do something to stop it. And he chooses to leave them behind, with each other, but we’re not really privy to when he starts to make those decisions.

So what did you make of the love triangle and where it ends up?

 

BEN: Perhaps the best unsolved mystery in The Quiet Earth is who are these characters and why, exactly, are they, and only they, the last people on earth? Is this story really just about some science experiment gone wrong, or is there some greater meaning at work here? Is some invisible hand (God? Aliens?) pushing them towards their final destination? My personal favorite theory is that Joanne and Api might not even be there at all, at least not in the traditional sense, but instead were put there (by someone? Something?) in order to push Zac’s story forward.

I want to make one minor clarification to something you said earlier, Josh. Joanne’s first meeting with Zac doesn’t begin with a warm embrace like when she meets Api. Interestingly, both she and Api first appear by getting the drop on Zac with a gun drawn on him. Joanne sneaks up on him at his house, while Api creates an elaborate trap with abandoned cars to bottleneck Zac into a killzone. I think we’re meant to see them both as threats, literally and metaphorically, to Zac and his journey, but also as necessary forces put there for the purpose of pushing his narrative forward.

Zac mentions to Joanne at one point that he thought he was perfectly suited to a life lived alone, absent of any other human companionship, and that surviving the event was some sort of karmic justice for killing everyone else on Earth. But then Joanne just happens to show up when he starts to have doubts over his ability to be alone, and almost immediately the two of them settle into domestic bliss as if to show Zac exactly what it is that he would be missing out on living the rest of his life alone. But the married life isn’t for Zac.

As you mentioned earlier, Joanne’s arrival also seems to correspond with Zac first noticing that something was wrong with the sun. Api’s arrival happens right after Zac does some tests and discovers that something definitely is wrong with this Earth, and that the Event seems to be making a comeback. It feels like Zac is meant to discover the truth of the Event, while Joanne and Api are there to create conflict to make sure Zac stays on track to make that discovery. Does he try to prevent the second Event if the two of them aren’t around? I think probably not.

That’s just a theory though. Assuming Joanne and Api aren’t just figments of Zac’s imagination, why are they there? You made a point earlier of wondering if Joanne and Api actually knew each other before the movie starts. When Api divulges his backstory it actually helps us as the audience fill in one of the main mysteries of the film, which is, how exactly did the survivors get here and not end up like everyone else? We discover that all three characters presumably died just as the Event occurred, which somehow allowed them to survive the Event instead of disappearing like everyone else on Earth. Zac killed himself for being part of the project that created the Event. Joanne’s hair dryer shorted out and electrocuted her. But it’s Api who gives us the most details about his death.

According to Api, his best friend drowned him because Api fell in love with his mate’s wife. The wife killed herself out of shame, and Api’s mate blamed Api for her death, and in turn drowned Api because of it. Maybe Api’s story is just meant as a narrative device to frame the love triangle between the three survivors, or maybe, and this is a stretch, Joanne was Api’s mate’s wife. Of the three, Joanne gives us the least details about her death. All we see is a hair dryer shorting out, and then she’s on the Quiet Earth. What if the brevity of her story marks it as unreliable, and what if she dropped that hair dryer into the tub or something like that, perhaps because she fell in love with her husband’s best mate? That very brief shot of her dying is pretty much the only detail we get of her life before the Event, so maybe Quiet Earth could be a do-over for them. And if so, maybe Zac wasn’t meant to kill himself before the Event happened. Maybe this is also his do-over to push him towards the stunning conclusion of this film.

Speaking of which, let’s return to that first shot of the film, of the sun slowly rising over the ocean. The shot goes on and on for what feels like quite a while. Heat from the sun’s rays distort the image, making the ocean’s waves look fuzzy and unreal, almost like abstract art, our first real hint that something’s off with this Earth, and it’s something for us to remember when Zac later notices the sun is vibrating abnormally. The sun also appears to float on the horizon, looking a lot like that egg Zac pours into a glass of champagne towards the middle of the film (is that a thing, putting a raw egg in champagne? Is that some weird Kiwi hangover cure?). Maybe that egg in the champagne is another subtle hint of things to come, a symbol of his rebirth?

Ultimately Zac has to learn that fighting the feelings Api and Joanne have for each other is only going to lead to disaster. Right before the climax of the film Api drives a truck full of explosives full speed into a truck full of fuel in order to push it out of the way, a decision that seems reckless at best, and is one I spent watching through my fingers on the edge of my seat. His actions are meant to show off to Joanne just how much more masculine he is compared to Zac (and it does seem to work on her), but he risks killing them all over a dumb schoolyard rivalry. Zac then makes the selfless decision to let the two of them be together while he drives the truck full of explosives into the satellite array responsible for causing the Event.

And then…something weird happens. We see the same tunnel effect the characters described seeing the first time they died and went through the Event, and suddenly Zac is on another world. Similar to the rising sun in the first shot of the film, the final shot is of a ringed Saturn-like world rising above the horizon. Weird clouds pepper the horizon. Are they clouds though? They look like the aftermath of mushroom clouds. Could the clouds be emanating from the other research stations placed around the globe that caused the Event? Are we even on Earth anymore? Zac notices his tape recorder is still in his hand and lifts it up to his mouth, but then stops himself. Can he even put into words what he’s seeing right now? Is there anyone left in the world who would ever even get to hear the tape?

Well, Josh, what do you think the Event is? And have you ever heard of someone drinking raw egg with champagne before?

 

JOSH:  To answer your last question first, raw egg with champagne was not on my radar before this movie.  Here’s a fun fact, though: if you google “raw egg with champagne,” the sixth entry that comes up is…  an article about this very film! The third item on the listing assures that, yes, the pairing of egg with champagne is a thing, and apparently a well known one at that.

Going back to Api and Joanne, the film does give juuuuust enough information to make you want to make the leap to them having an actual history together.  I’m still resistant to that actually being the case, because… well, I think I just prefer to have the stranger answer be the right one in this case.

But that’s also fairly typical of a movie that encourages you to reach for the neat answer, but makes sure to preserve the messier, and maybe more likely, alternative.  Is there a force organizing the Event? Did some invisible hand intervene to make sure these three people “survived” by dying at the exact right moment? Is it all just blind chance that happens to have some massive personal significance to one of the survivors?

My own interpretation is that the initial Event, and Zac’s survival, is a matter of blind chance.  Zac’s response to the dangers of Project Flashlight is to kill himself. It doesn’t work, and his unlikely survival triggers a kind of metaphysical rebirth – back to that initial image of him on the bed.  He considers killing himself again later on, when confronted with the magnitude of his loneliness, guilt, etc. But he doesn’t, and the people he encounters push him further along that metaphysical road. His actions and experiences push him along a path from being essentially selfish to essentially selfless, willing to die again – not to absolve himself of personal responsibility, but to ensure that Api and Joanne will survive.

He undoubtedly dies again in the explosion at the lab, but because it’s at the same time as the Event Round 2, he also survives and is reborn yet again.  You asked what I think the Event is, and I have no idea what the literal explanation is, but within the story it is an engine that drives Zac toward a spiritual evolution.  The ending reminded me of 2001: A Space Odyssey and the accelerated evolutionary process that Kier Dullea undergoes, leading to his rebirth as the Star Baby. In that movie it is expressly the work of alien technology spurring on that evolutionary movement.

What I like about The Quiet Earth is that it suggests that evolutionary leap can also be self-directed, that even in the wake of a disastrous choice, we can, to quote (with maximum corniness) President Obama, become “the change we wish to see in the world.”

But the ending also reminded me of Lucio Fulci’s The Beyond, which (SPOILERS for the uninitiated) ends with its main characters stranded in an alien, threatening world/dimension/what have you.  And I guess the lesson, if we combine the two films is, “strive to change – but be careful what you wish for.”

——

 

Well, that’s it for this week’s discussion of The Quiet Earth. I think it’s safe to say both Josh and I really enjoyed it, and even though we spoiled a bunch of shit I think the movie is still great enough that it doesn’t really matter, so do yourself a favor and check it out! I watched it over on Shudder, which is a really fantastic streaming service for horror fans.

Next time Josh and I will be watching Alec Baldwin play the titular character in The Shadow (1994) – dir. Russell Mulcahy. Because, you know, 90s kids were all about 1930s pulp superheroes.

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Napoleon – OSTs Vol 1: The Yamabushi

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This year I got an unexpected surprise on my birthday when I woke up to see that Napoleon had just released a new EP in what looks to be a new ongoing series of imaginary soundtracks, similar to the epic run of monthly EPs he put out last year (which, if you haven’t checked those out yet, shame on you). Just having something new out in the world by Simon Mills is enough to sell me on the EP, but the idea of creating an original soundtrack for an imaginary project was more than enough to send me into music nerd heaven.

Simon Mills was kind enough to talk a little bit about his new project with me and of course the first thing I wanted to know was where he came up with the ideas for each of these proposed imaginary projects. “There’s a thread yes, a loose plot in each one, although that’s more just to help me piece the whole thing together. The themes tend to form after I’ve made a few tracks.” One of the future themes may be an homage to Tron, based on a scrapped idea for an EP he had last year, so keep an eye out for that one.

Video game and film soundtracks were what originally got me interested in music in the first place, and they were a huge influence for Simon growing up as well. “I would actually love to write a score properly for an existing piece, since I’ve had pieces in games and films before… I think a huge portion of my fave music is actually in soundtracks.”  The Yamabushi reminds me a lot of Miyazaki movies and PS1 JRPGs shot through Millsy’s unique electronic filter, basically checking off every box on everything it is that I love about music.

 

“Actually, the first song I did was ‘The Training Gardens’, which reminded me for some daft reason of an old computer game called International Karate – not entirely sure why, but alongside a couple of other sketches they felt part of the same universe. And from there I wrote more tracks and adapted them to have a similar palette and atmosphere. For me it’s almost like an early 80s obscure soundtrack, even though there’s house and disco elements in there. I guess it’s just how I perceive them!”

Early Japanese video game composers totally pulled their influences from Western sources as diverse as House music, Rock and Reggae, so I don’t know about you guys, but I’m totally on board with this interpretation. Of all the tracks “The Smell of Cut Grass” probably has the most old school video game soundtrack vibe to it, with synthesizer refrains that feel like they were ripped straight out from a classic Final Fantasy game.

 

But what’s the story of The Yamabushi actually about? “Well, it’s simply the clichéd tale of a warrior who has to infiltrate a fortress to save a princess.” I did a quick Google search for “Yamabushi” and found out that they’re Japanese mountain hermits with supernatural powers seeped in mysticism and I asked Simon, is that who the warrior is suppose to be? “Yeah, it’s derived from that. They apparently had a spiritual approach to life and fighting. The sleeve is an origami ball.”

I absolutely love this EP and I encourage anyone and everyone out there to come up with their own projects inspired by The Yamabushi, like this fan-made video for the final track on the EP, “Reborn (Ending Waltz)”. It’s probably one of my favorite tracks on the album. The song is so evocative that I bet if you asked someone what they were thinking of when they listened to this song that they could probably tell you what was suppose to happening in this imaginary story without knowing a thing about the project.  Simon had this to say about it: “The final track is kind of like the victory theme… which someone has made a video for, randomly… It’s not in line with the theme of the piece, but I love the references in it to vintage electronics, as that is me all over!”

 

 

Like Napoleon on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/NapoleonUK?fref=ts
Buy The Yamabushi on Bandcamp: https://napoleon-tunes.bandcamp.com/album/osts-vol-1-the-yamabushi

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