Media Column -- October 2007
by Rogan Marshall
Review by Rogan Marshall
Media ISBN/ITEM#: MC102007
Date: October 2007 /
September is traditionally a slow month for cinema, regardless of what genre(s) you follow, and this year it's no exception; if you stay home entirely, you'll only miss second-string studio releases, though they do include a pleasant, if dubious, surprise or two.
Though I did see it in plenty of time to cover it last month, I blew off reviewing the new remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, which is somewhat exclusively titled The Invasion, out of indulging an odd, inexplicable apathy, that, perhaps, resembles that poisoning the process of any filmmaker willing to tackle such tired material. (In this instance, there are two notable names involved: talented German director Oliver Downfall & Das Experiment Hirschbiegel was notoriously replaced with V for Vendetta director James McTeigue for extensive uncredited reshoots.)
I suppose it is true that Jack Finney's vastly entertaining novel, which explores uncomfortable ideas about alienation and paranoia so effectively it has earned classic status both among SF readers and in the literary mainstream, bears looking at multiple times, as far as cinematic adaptation is concerned; I have to concede the point, because I'm fond of more than one movie version, already. The 1956 original is my favorite, but there is much to be said for Philip Kaufman's 1978 revisionist remake (from a script by later Buckaroo Banzai director W.D. Richter); among its numerous positive qualities, the Kaufman/Richter adaptation is arguably the scariest. Though it's a small production, and less ambitious, the 1993 version Abel Ferrara departed to direct, titled simply Body Snatchers and scripted in part by cultish directors Larry Cohen and Start Gordon (contributing to different drafts), isn't half bad, either.
Unfortunately the same thing cannot be said for the newest remake; more unfortunate still, the bad half almost exactly coincides with the second half of the movie. The Invasion starts strong, plummeting through too familiar exposition with promising grace: the lovely and talented Nicole Kidman plays a psychiatrist whose relationships with her estranged husband, the son they share custody of, and new boyfriend Daniel Craig (who's just as charming here as he is playing James Bond) interweave across the foreground as meanwhile, we learn largely from various strategically placed televisions, an alien infection has fallen to Earth via space shuttle crash. The virus, which spreads by supergross Cronenbergesque mechanism (part of the process involves swallowing an infected victim's vomit), replaces an individual's personality with the emotionless functionalism of a single cell in a giant implacable hive mind, though not, as in earlier versions, replacing the victim's body altogether, a revisionist decision I'll come back to momentarily.
Throughout the clever intense first half of this picture Kidman and Craig, like the protagonists in earlier versions, fail to read the warning signs as the alien virus goes pandemic and takes over everyone around them; when they do piece things together, Kidman must kidnap her son from his alienated father and escape town to safe point Fort Dietrich, where the child's peculiar resistance to the infection may help in the race to find a cure before the whole human race succumbs.
The uneven pace and jittery visual style that drive the first hour of this picture are traits of cinematic character usually to be found in a much smaller movie; The Invasion often feels pleasantly like a sharp independent with a couple of misplaced expensive actors condescending to play its leads. This, of course, is in the same key as anti-establishment attitudes and ideas in all the earlier adaptations, for instance Kaufman's then-trendy naturalism; like those of Kaufman's movie, this new remake's peculiarities of style slowly grow on you. The screenplay by David Kajganich contains more than a fair share of sharp witty dialogue, and in the picture's first half various familiar plot points are cleverly updated.
But in reaching for ways to freshly re-interpret a story that's undergone thorough effective adaptation at least twice already, the filmmakers behind the new remake have misplaced significant story infrastructure. For instance, the fact that Kidman and company know the entire time that the infection is being faced and fought somewhere, reducing the significance of their own escape to that of individuals acting to save themselves, falls woefully short of matching the vertiginous drama facing previous protagonists, on whose survival the fate of humanity depended. (Yes, I know, the immunity of Ms. Kidman's son is emphasized, to cover this hole, but it doesn't work. Kidman and Craig directly witness one other character, personally known to them, other than the child, display the same immunity; if the ratio of two to the number of speaking roles is an accurate sample, those living safely at Fort Dietrich must already number among themselves many such immune individuals, and once a cell phone call tips them off that anyone is so immune, and that the ratio is that high, the solution to the problem lies within easy reach. The fact that a screenplay as smart as the one this movie is shot from, displays such loose logic later on, is probably the result of rewrites executed under instruction from above, for the McTeigue reshoots.)
Also, though cool special effects illustrate the new interpretation of the alien menace, eventually, it feels all wrong, without the pods. When the bad guys aren't aliens disguised as humans, the pod people walking proverbially among us of earlier versions, but simply real human beings who have caught an alien disease, it just doesn't work as well, as satire, or as horror, at all. And by the time this movie reaches its (once groundbreaking, now oldfashioned) extended climactic chase sequence, all the tension and suspense have gone completely out of it; already mauled by problems like those I just mentioned, it gets resoundingly ruined by some absolutely unnecessary nonlinear editing, just like that deployed for the same purpose in V for Vendetta.
A good deal more fun, without being in the end much better, is the misfortunately titled Korean f/x extravaganza Dragon Wars: D-War. A pleasantly muddled mixture of Eastern and Western influences and elements contribute to this little epic, in which a most confusing background, laid out by several elaborate sequences comprising a historical-prologue-within-a-flashback, involves the struggle between two giant snakes, one good one evil, to steal a badly described magical quality or element called Imoogi from 19-year old Los Angelene Sarah (Amanda Brooks), whose red dragon birthmark, unbeknownst to her, signifies that she'll be given the chance to transform one serpent or the other into a celestial dragon upon her twentieth birthday.
The movie doesn't make this business any clearer than I just did, though you can't fault it for effort, as all of that gets explained out loud at least twice, but it doesn't actually matter very much, once the story breaks into the clear, where we can see how it works: Sarah and her protector, TV reporter Ethan (Jason Behr), who receives incognito assists from the wise and magical character actor Robert Forster, spend half the movie running away from a snake big enough to eat all the elephants in the zoo, in one scene. This evil legendary serpent is, in turn, being pursued by the cops and the military, and if you want to know how two people on foot manage to repeatedly elude a giant fast-moving snake while the snake in turn manages to repeatedly elude highly organized official pursuit, well, it must be admitted even among its most ardent admirers, who are most likely to be boys between the ages of six and eleven, that this movie doesn't make very good sense most of the time. Eventually the evil snake is supported by a magical army, raised directly from ancient scrolls by way of digital effects sequence; this ravening horde, including many dragon-like or dragon-based creatures of several different descriptions, attacks and overruns downtown Los Angeles.
Like the Neil Gaiman adaptation Stardust I pummeled in this very space last month, the main thing wrong with D-War is its muddled, disorganized script; my notes are riddled with questions about the disposition of various elements, ideas, etcetera, questions that remained, in the end, mostly unanswered. As in the case of the Gaiman adaptation, I got the impression that this movie was shot from a hurriedly executed first draft of a screenplay, in the rush to produce which, no one ever took the trouble to polish it into acceptably sensible shape.
Present company, however, did not annoy me as much as Stardust, because D-War is, for one thing, mercifully brief, but also and primarily, because the frequently recurrent digital sequences which dominate the movie are so much fun. These cinematic times are dominated by juvenile effects extravaganzas for which computers generate startlingly realistic interpretations of extensive apocalyptic events; even considering this background – the state of the competition, the state of the art – D-War is an impressive example of the type. While this never has the great big heart or stunning style of the last Korean monster movie I reviewed (The Host), it does surpass it for sheer volume of monster-related havoc; I bet every other movie critic working has, as I type these words, already gone on record comparing D-War with one or many of the vintage Japanese monster movies that obviously provided a lot of its inspiration. If D-War is never quite as startlingly, refreshingly creative as The Host, it certainly matches it for sheer kinetic energy.
Though I wouldn't bother to mention this specially anywhere else, among SF fans it is well worth pointing out that this is the first of several recent "bad dragon movies" (as everyone I know is calling them collectively) that really delivers for the dragon-obsessed. The previews are holding out on you; they don't grant coherent glimpses of most of the dragonesque critters on display here, among them the best "Oriental" dragon ever rendered for "live action," a phrase that, as extensive digital tampering becomes more and more financially viable, will become less and less relevant to the cinema.
Among the many filmmakers whose work we can expect to blossom forth and shine unexpectedly as a result of this new, animation influenced formal equation, is director Russell Mulcahy, whose seminal 1986 feature Highlander was a landmark both for its "dark fantasy" content and its furiously fluid visual style. Resident Evil: Extinction represents oddly enough a turning point, I think, in the careers of both its hitherto uneven director Mulcahy, whose visual acuity and genre savvy rescue this picture from utterly indistinct sequeldom, and its star Milla Jovovich, whose image as bankable badass action star is now firmly established, despite the unavoidable fact that this seasonal sleeper hit is a sequel to a sequel to a bad movie based on a videogame.
I suppose you've all heard by now that this movie is much better and cooler than it ought to be, but for those who've been off-radar, I'll run down the plot: the zombie-making plague originally stolen straight out of Romero's Dead pictures has by the beginning of this third Resident Evil movie wiped out almost all life on the planet, reducing vast areas of formerly arable land, including the whole Western half of the United States, to uniform desert wasteland strongly reminiscent of George Miller's classic Mad Max movies. Milla Jovovich plays what is, essentially, a superhero named Project Alice, though her friends, whose ragtag convoy roams the highways in a desperate search for ever-dwindling supplies, mostly just call her Alice, even though she prefers to hide from them and wander alone, on account of her unpredictable psionic powers, not to mention the evil scientists using advanced communications technology to look for her because of them, while trapped by ubiquitous packs of flesh-eating zombies in a worldwide network of underground bunkers.
The first half of the movie, which sets up all these pieces, is, I have to admit, a lot of fun. If everything is borrowed from the Romero and Fulci zombie classics, and the aforementioned Miller movies too this time around, Mulcahy is a filmmaker who knows how to borrow deftly, and he also keeps things brisk, and rife with imaginative detail, so it takes at least an hour for a jaded educated viewer like myself to start to find it dull. If the second half gets a little tiresome, especially during the obligatory shooting-gallery mayhem sequences, these are lovably leavened by the presence of Milla Jovovich, who is archetypally easy to watch, especially when she's elaborately spinning through the air, eviscerating animatronic zombies. (Why does Milla kill so many zombies with those cool-looking knives, instead of just shooting them with her guns? Because she can.)
Oddly, perhaps amusingly, it is with this little and largely undistinguished movie that Ms. Jovovich comes into her own as a programmatic action-movie icon. This, too, is the work of Mr. Mulcahy, whose camera, it seems, always knows exactly when to loiter a beat too long in a closeup of his star, just a touch too sensuously, to remind us how much of a star she really is. I've spent several futile years hoping to see Milla in something else besides this kind of thing more often; now I can't wait to see her step up to a bigger better SF/horror/action movie, and I have to assume I'm not the only one who's been suddenly and unexpectedly converted.
On DVD I must admit I've fallen behind, though I'll defend myself, by pointing at the huge pile of recent Halloween-leaning vintage releases, and promising to cover them en masse next month. The best thing anywhere near the fantastic genre(s) I saw at home this month (if one doesn't count David Lynch's fearsome deconstructed epic Inland Empire, as I decided not to, after some puzzled internal debate regarding the parts with the freaky animal masks) was a 1997 movie of The Castle, from the posthumously published "fragment" by Franz Kafka, directed by Michael Haneke for Austrian television before he scored international fame with The Piano Teacher, Time of the Wolf, and my favorite Haneke picture, the ruthlessly disturbing psychodrama Funny Games.
Adapting this particular Kafka text, which, alongside its natural companion piece The Trial, is one of those literary works that's best considered as fantasy because it's even harder to look at any other way, is peculiarly suited to Haneke's gifts as a filmmaker; in fact, though I haven't made a study of the subject, Haneke might be the most appropriate filmmaker ever to approach Kafka. Haneke is a rigid, austere structuralist, who wears the twin influences of Bergman and Fassbinder pinned to his sleeves; he has a sly, sadistic sense of humor, partially expressed here through the villainous glee he obviously takes in creating various contrapuntal tensions and frustrations by distorting our expectations for timing and pace, and onscreen physical space, in distinctly characteristic ways.
All these remarkable points of style, which incidentally have grown increasingly muted in Haneke's more recent work, combine in The Castle to illuminate its literally endless story, of an unemployed middle-class functionary hopelessly seeking to obtain admittance to the offices of the titular castle, as thoroughly and effectively as any imaginable adaptation ever could. Even the technical limitations imposed by the slim restrained production conspire to help Haneke achieve exactingly appropriate aesthetic ends. The cast, which includes several faces familiar from later Haneke pictures, is perfect; one gets the impression that all the actors were required to read Kafka closely. If you think you're tough, you might want to schedule this funny creepy little classic in a double feature with its predecessor as the ultimate Kafka adaptation, the nightmarishly trippy Orson Welles version of The Trial, though maybe "tough" isn't the right word, for a person who can take four straight hours of faithful Kafka adaptation.
Last, but certainly not least, I feel compelled to mention, despite my ingrained aversion to commercial television, the box set containing the first season of the hit series Heroes. If you're as cynical as I am about TV, and just as reluctant to invest in any program built to accommodate frequent interruption by advertisements, maybe you'll believe the hype, coming from me: Heroes is as exciting and engaging as anything fantastic ever made for the small screen.
Here's the concept: unknown factors operating on human genes worldwide cause a small but significant number of adults from all nations and walks of life to suddenly develop super powers, like those the folks in funny books are possessed of; an intricate weave of plot-counterplot, in the grand tradition of prime time network soaps and episodic dramas, brings these sometimes extremely reluctant heroes slowly but inexorably closer to one another, and their collective world-changing destiny. To reduce Heroes so, however, is to deny its peculiar power; like its most obvious influences,the Moore and Gibbons graphic novel Watchmen and the early Marvel comics by Stan Lee and company (particularly, of course, X-Men), this wonderful, habit-forming series overcomes its intrinsic limitations as a weekly show to deliver, unexpectedly, high art, mostly by virtue of creator and head writer Tim Kring's extraordinary genius for plotting, which rivals that of Stan Lee himself.
Heroes is, first and foremost, fun to watch. I've only seen the first two hour-long episodes as of this writing (that's the contents of disc one), but I plan to watch all the rest, which is a compliment no other TV show I've exposed myself to for this column has been good enough to force me to pay.