1980s, Comedy, Crime/Detective, Scifi

Repo Man (1984)

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Director/Screenwriter: Alan Cox

By Roderick Heath

Writing about Repo Man might be like trying to dance a Picasso or sing about the Taj Mahal. So why am I trying, you ask? Hey, up yours, anyway.

Alex Cox could either be described as one of cinema’s true rebels, a man who determinedly forged his own, uncompromising path when he proved too much for Hollywood, or a filmmaker whose stubborn attitude prevented him from living up to his great early promise, leaving him with one certain sui generis classic and a couple of other cult objects to his name. Given his tell-it-to-me-raw punk affiliations he might well accept both descriptions in equanimity. Cheshire-born Cox, after a stint as an Oxford law student, turned to studying filmmaking. Doubting he was going to get anywhere in the ‘70s British film industry, Cox winged away for a stint at UCLA and made the short artist-versus-the-world film Edge City/Sleep is for Sissies. Cox’s first feature, Repo Man, which he originally hoped to bankroll on a tiny budget, was realized thanks largely to former Monkees member Michael Nesmith, who acted as his executive producer and talked Universal Pictures into ponying up a $1 million budget. Repo Man slowly groped its way out of initial obscurity to becoming an underground hit thanks in part to the popularity of its soundtrack album stirring up an interested audience, setting Cox up for a brief spell as a potential major filmmaker.

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Cox’s follow-up, Sid and Nancy (1986), gave Gary Oldman an early push to stardom and applied a potent blend of authenticity and stylization to recount the legendary tragic punk romance. His career went awry as Straight to Hell (1986) and Walker (1987) were greeted as clumsy, self-indulgent attempts to get polemical and blend familiar genre modes – spaghetti westerns and road movies in the former case, war movies and historical biopics in the latter – with jagged po-mo aesthetics and harsh, blatant political commentary on Reaganite policy in Latin America. He next made Highway Patrolman (1991) in Mexico. Those films, like Cox’s generally ultra-low-budget output since, have maintained a small but fervent cadre of proponents. From today’s perspective it feels even more unlikely that an imported anarchist spiv like Cox even managed to get Repo Man made, never mind parlay it into a brief accord with studio filmmaking. But Repo Man remains a glistening gem, cult cinema about as pure as it gets. In many ways it’s an updated spin on ‘60s free-for-all satire with spiritual and procedural links to the likes of Jean-Luc Godard, Richard Lester’s early films, Lindsay Anderson’s O Lucky Man! (1972), Christian Marquand’s Candy (1968), and Bob Rafelson’s Monkees-perverting Head (1968), which might partly explain why Nesmith was able to grasp Cox’s vision. The old lysergic template was given a punk-era makeover, and produced soothsayer art, as Repo Man anticipated the age of the internet with startling precision.

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The age of democratized information. Doesn’t necessarily mean it’s good information, relevant, interesting, fulfilling, just information. Repo Man, in its way, is like plugging your mind directly into the stream of internet downloads; a frightful, glorious, semi-comprehensible overload of stuff. Accumulating in the brain like pieces of animal and plant in sedimentary silt, bits of things, shards of art, memory, politics, philosophy, design. All was churned together with the full panoply of Cox’s artistic and socio-political obsessions, as well the pinpointing perspective of an acerbic outsider. Like the age it portrays and the one it anticipates, Repo Man is in search. In search of a viable code, in search of meaning, wading through that sediment of endless information half-heard and quarter-understood, trying to put the pieces together in a manner that works. It takes place in a landscape cast over with the scattered rubble of the Cold War, religion, the New Age, pop culture, post-‘50s paranoia, and sci-fi positivism, and grasps to convey a clashing, riotous mix of different social and philosophical groups; punks, hippies, suburbanites, fascists, revolutionaries, whites and Mexicans and blacks, rich and poor and in-between, all charted with the concision of a Victorian realist novel, if not the method.

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The opening credits are backgrounded by green outlines of ordnance maps spotlighting places of specific association in the legend of American nuclear imperialism, zeroing in on Yucca and Los Alamos. The opening scene purveys essentialist American iconography as an unstable and dreamlike conglomeration – a Chevy Malibu with its jaunty, crisply coloured lines bespeaking of some place that always in a blithe mid-‘60s American summer, a highway motorcycle cop clad in fascist steeliness, a trunk full of the same glowing, annihilating stuff that carved a path through the macho men in Kiss Me, Deadly (1955), scorching the hapless cop down to his briefly highlighted skeleton and his smoking boots. The Malibu is driven by J. Frank Parnell (Fox Harris), a nuclear scientist who claims to have invented the Neutron Bomb, armed with an insane smile, one lens missing from his sunglasses, and a trunk full of alien corpses stolen from New Mexico, giving off mysterious energy sufficient to vaporise anyone opening the hatch.

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The gritty sprawl of Los Angeles’ industrial zones, much fetishized by filmmakers in search of hip climes hunting for authenticity in the ‘80s, found their rarest auteur in Cox, and their great documenter in imported cinematographer Robby Müller, cut loose in the American wilds as every indie up-and-comer’s heroic shooter of seedy, sun-kissed glamour. The boxy empty warehouses with the faintest patina of art deco style, the freeway stretches and overpasses painted strange hues by street lighting, high-rise buildings glimpsed away in the distance like a neo-Stonehenge for money worship amidst a city otherwise preoccupied with all its tribal business. Our “hero” Otto Maddox (Emilio Estevez) is introduced as a punk archetype, a young man frustrated with shitty jobs and pointless schooling. He tosses in his job as a supermarket shelf stacker in a fit of pique after his coworker and sort-of-friend Kevin (Zander Schloss) drives him to distraction singing a 7-Up jingle and the boss Mr Humphries (Charles Hopkins) chews him out for various infractions. Seeking fellowship with his punk friends who get wasted and screw in Kevin’s parents’ house, Otto instead finds himself driven from all solace when, after briefly breaking off making out with his girlfriend Debbi (Jennifer Balgobin) to get beer, returns to find his pal Duke (Dick Rude) has taken his place. Otto returns home to try and extract a payment of $1,000 his father promised in a bribe him to stay in school, only to find his burnt-out, pot-addled ex-hippie parents have given it all to a television evangelist Reverend Larry (Bruce White) to send bibles to El Salvador in exchange for having their names inscribed on “The Honor Roll of the Chariots of Fire.”

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Wandering in depression and solitude, Otto encounters Bud (Harry Dean Stanton), a man sitting in a car who offers him money to drive another car, which he claims to be his wife’s, out of a bad neighbourhood. Otto gets into the car and starts it up, only to be assaulted by a furious man, forcing Otto to drive away at speed. Bud works for the Helping Hand Acceptance Corporation, a repossession service, reclaiming cars from owners who have missed their payments. When he realises what business Bud is in, Otto pours out a can of beer on Helping Hand office floor, a gesture of contempt that instead impresses Bud and others in its commitment. “I’m not gonna be no Repo Man” he says; the company’s Girl Friday secretary Marlene (Vonetta McGee), only for her to coolly inform him as she hands him a wad of cash: “Too late – you already are.” As the paradigm of aimless, disaffected youth rather than someone who is by intellectual or even natural leaning a rebel, Otto is of course totally ready to fall for the first thing to come along to satisfy his urges for sex, money, power, and belonging. Whilst his friends Debbi, Duke, and Archie (Miguel Sandoval) take off on a life of crime, Otto is schooled in the Repo Man creed, a lifestyle where the antisocial vicissitudes are as alluring as the fiscal recompense. Kevin’s efforts to act the good little employee with ambitions play out as a fragmentary subplot, as he becomes a naive pump jockey and is last glimpsed briefly dazed and battered on a hospital gurney, Cox offering his and Otto’s tales as his answer to De Sade’s Justine and Juliette.

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The essence of Cox’s sardonic mythos lies in the ambivalent attitude that is the Repo Man way, which both exemplifies an all-American sensibility whilst also charting underlying faultlines, a fantasy of an ancient way somehow persisting in the ruined modern landscape. Otto initially takes the Repo Men for sleazy representatives of narc capitalism, only to find them ruled by a uniquely clannish sensibility with a charge of unexpected cool, cavalry roaming the urban badlands out to punish the deadbeats, living by their wits and doses of greedily snorted speed. The Repo Men take themselves for contemporary versions of the Lone Ranger, risking assault and even death. They lead lives practically indistinguishable from criminals, doing drugs to stay awake, concocting intricate ruses to rip off cars, keeping a step ahead of cops and gun-wielding owners. Unsurprisingly, they idolise John Wayne, even when Miller declares “John Wayne was a fag,” and tries to inform that that he once got hired by the Duke to install two-way mirrors in his bedroom and came to the door wearing a dress, details the Repo Men dismiss: “Plenty of straight guys like to watch their buddies fuck!…I know I do.”

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Bud, a lanky, high-strung, blow-loving maverick, sees himself as the exemplary Repo Man. He anoints himself Otto’s mentor and conceives of his job in an overtly high-minded, even philosophical way, evoking everything from the Bushido to Isaac Asimov as he declares the basic credo as he conceives it: “I shall not cause harm to any vehicle or the personal contents thereof nor through inaction let that vehicle or the personal contents thereof come to harm – it’s what I call the repo code, kid.” Such a warrior ethos is informed by necessities; keeping alive, keeping cool, doing the job well. Bud loathes any code not run to the same pragmatic standards as his own (“No commies in my car!…No Christians either!”), Hawkeye in a hot Pontiac. Venture capitalism as a sort of moral mission: if a man has to risk his body and soul in life, that risk might as well be represented by reward, and reward might as well be money. Bud pursues repo-ing not just for the pay but also because it allows him soil to nurture his need to remain removed from the mass of humanity. The job gives him satisfaction in his loathing people in debt (“If there was just some way of finding out what they owe and makin’ ‘em pay,” he muses ruefully whilst surveying slum dwellers) and, by extension, the world of credit and plastic that has replaced the world of thrift, work, and honour. He’s a hothead who hates his rivals the Rodriguez Brothers because he sees them as the degeneration of his profession. Part Repo sage, part burnt-out middle-aged bore, Bud is the best at his job but wants to get the hell out of it and be the guy with the lot instead of the guy who just brings the cars in.

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Not every Repo Man adheres to the same ethos. Lite (Sy Richardson) offers the black perspective, no-nonsense and expedient, warding off threatening debtors with blank cartridges, hotwiring vehicles, and schooling Otto in seamier tricks of the trade like tossing a dead rat into the car of female targets: unfortunately one reacts coolly to this ploy and squirts mace in his face for his pains. “Only an asshole gets killed for a car.” The Helping Hand encompasses a cross-section of types; besides Otto, Lite, and Bud, there’s sweaty, laugh-at-his-own-jokes boss Oly (Tom Finnegan); Miller (Tracey Walter), a hippie mechanic with a line in esoteric musings; Otto Plettschner (Richard Foronjy), the rent-a-cop fascist who “died in two World Wars” and whose first name suggests the sort of creature Otto might become with the right incentives; and Marlene the double-agent secretary with a line in Blaxploitation action moves. Marlene’s in with the Helping Hand’s great rivals, the Rodriguez brothers, Lagarto (Del Zamora) and Napoleon (Eddie Velez), Pancho Villa-esque alternatives to the Repo Men, complete with quasi-revolutionary outfits as they become Guevara-like urban guerrillas in the closing scenes. When the Helping Hand crew elect to settle their hash during a nocturnal encounter on the road, the Rodríguezes easily rattle them by threatening to sue for injury and damages. The apparently madcap plotlines begin to bundle together when the government agents tracking down Parnell and the Malibu post a reward of $20,000 for return of the car, a prize all the Repo Men leap at, and everyone has their moment in possession of the literally hot car.

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Cox’s use of repossession, the grimy, coercive end of the capitalist centipede, as a vehicle for exploring arch individualism is smart-assed enough in itself. Around this motif he wraps an acidic negation of consumerist values. All the food and drink products seen in the film are bluntly packaged with descriptive names rather than fancily labelled: when Bud suggests to Otto they get a drink, the next shot is of cans simply labelled Drink. Cox goes several steps further to consider an epoch where everything has to a certain extent become commercialised and alienated from its original nature. Christianity has been pulverised into self-mockery, as Otto’s cranially-nullified parents watch the phony televangelist without blinking. The Scientology-mocking ‘Dioretix’ book presents “the science of mind over matter”, adopted variously by Repo Men and FBI agents, is a pseudo-scientific religion perfect for the new-age mindset that tends naturally to believe in things unseen because why not. Science proper is busy creating neutron bombs that “destroy people.” Country, repressing the truth, monitoring your life, employing torturers, perverts, and homogenous minions. Otto wanders the streets of LA seeing men in hazmat suits retrieving corpses, the collateral damage in an ongoing apocalypse. Hippiedom, represented by Miller is beautiful but written off as a form of benign madness, a contrary blot in the corner whilst harbouring keys to the universe. The United Fruitcake Outlet, cover for an organisation for alien conspiracy nuts, waits patiently and hopefully for transcendence to come in the form of relief to come of aliens. Which, funnily enough, it does.

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Otto encounters one of the UFO faithful, Leila (Olivia Barash), as she’s dodging the government agents. Leila and others in the UFO are trying to make contact with Parnell, intending to get the aliens publicised, dreams of dissident glory written up in tabloid ink. Otto chuckles mercilessly at the whole set-up but still sees in Leila a comely lass of just about equal age and level of horniness. Otto’s come-ons lack finesse but finds Leila’s certainly up to screw in the backseat of a repo car in broad daylight out the front of the UFO headquarters. Otto has both enormous cynicism but also a youthful lightness to the way he treats life, like his fumbling attempt to get Leila to give him a blow-job when next he visits her; when she slaps him he can’t help but laugh. Otto’s values, though fractured amidst the random bizarreness of his existence, slowly gain form. He believes in fairness, which he shows by offering to not take a car he thinks belongs to a poor old black lady and then, when he finds it actually belongs to her big musician son and his band of equally big friends, tries to rip it off. Only they catch him and beat hell out of him. When he won’t say who did it to the Repo crew, they in turn beat him up to get the name because it’s their code this should never happen. So Otto gives the name of Humphries, his ex-boss at the supermarket, cueing one of the film’s most bluntly hilarious jolts of black humour as the Repo team visit Humphries’ house and clobber him with a baseball bat. Meanwhile Leila is taken prisoner by Agent Rogersz (Susan Barnes), the haughty, pinstriped dominatrix of the government team trying to track down Parnell who comes across: in a nod to Dr Strangelove, she has an artificial hand to which the punks bow down like a pagan fetish.

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Meanwhile Walter’s sublimely kooky Miller, the hippie repairman and shaman for Helping Hand, performs healing rites for the battered Otto and delivers monologues composed of sci-fi accented mysticism involving flying time machines, blended with contemplations of Jungian synchronicity as an expression of the cosmic unconscious, all recounted as he burns up junk in a rail yard. He does so to Otto’s bemused and cynical interest: “Did you do much acid Miller – back in the hippie days?” Miller’s illustration of synchronicity involving “plate” or “shrimp” or “plate of shrimp” gains a throwaway refrain later as a diner window sign advertises, yes, “plate ‘o shrimp.” Such finite yet precise detailing flows all the way through Repo Man, a film which sees no essential distinction between big particulars and small in a manner that’s akin to a narrative cinematic version of certain modernist art styles, perspective removed, only the map of mysterious relations left. The wonder of it all is that for all the rambling, often scarcely connected flow of individual sequences in the film, its plot ultimately unfolds with a deft sense of mechanism, the fragmentary becoming a unique whole in much the same way that the alien power in the Malibu evolves from destructive to transcendental force. Miller’s raving about “threads of coincidence” becomes the stuff of Repo Man’s story. But what gives the most ironic and clandestine form to the story is the way Cox delivers a version of an Arthurian Grail quest, with the Repo Men as the most devolved version of the Knights of the Round Table, Otto as spaced-out Galahad to Miller’s Percival and Bud’s screwball Lancelot.

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The joke of the federal agents all having the same blonde quaff is reminiscent of the interchangeable jocks in The Graduate (1967), albeit weaponised with acid political inference. The White Superman is under assault from all directions; from youth, the Counterculture, the Underculture, all the non-Gringos, whilst the Establishment’s hordes look they’ve been constructed en masse by Mattel, is too busy trying to keep a lid on the Great Secret of alien life, far too shocking and discomforting to be broadcast on the news between the commercials. Cox sees all theoretically polarised factions as actually porous in nature, because humans are collections of impulses and divided natures, each attitude containing its antithesis. Otto the punk joins the square-dressing Repo Men. The feds mock Marlene and the Rodriguez Brother’s failure to run down Rogersz like they were Repo Men themselves. Leila the radical conspiracy theorist happily signs up with the feds’ mission and tortures Otto. All of them are ultimately driven to look for ideal missions suiting their personal wants and instincts, and what draws them to one group isn’t so far from what might draw them to any other. Leila, excited by the subversive thrill of excavating hidden evidence of alien life and all the pseudo-religious implications therein, is of course attracted to being a fascist.

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Then there’s Parnell, rescuing the alien remains for Leila, hoping to redeem himself in the act except that he’s too far gone, flesh leeched by poison, brain sliced and diced, at once high priest of the western death-dream and victim, obsessed by radiation with apocalyptic delight and fear. He’s been to the mountaintop of modernity, having endeavoured to create what he describes as something “so monstrously immoral just working on the thing can drive you insane.” Parnell’s job was to weave the spectre that seems to hang over the entire scene, as if life on Earth has a limited shelf-life, or at least men will make sure it has one. Perhaps it’s also true to the film’s punk ethos that it also mocks punk itself mercilessly. Otto himself quickly falls from the faith when the blithe, unruly punk ethic bites him on the backside. The young barbarians gather to gyrate and smash glass in post-apocalyptic locales. Otto’s friends degenerate into bandits who sound like poseurs, the poshly accented Debbi and the preppie-sounding Duke, who in a shocked moment vows a really criminal act: “Let’s go get sushi – and not pay!” Otto knows damn well that not only is modern life rubbish but as a hopeless middle-class stowaway he’s part of it too. “Society made me what I am,” Duke gasps whilst dying; “That’s bullshit,” Otto replies with realistic contempt, “You’re a white suburban punk, just like me.” “But it still hurts,” Archie protests in his dying gurgle, summing up the whole problem.

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Repo Man gained a lot of its immediate cred from the soundtrack, with a chugging punk surfer-noir theme by Iggy Pop added late and the spacey guitar tracks by The Plugz gifting the film some of its unique texture, at once louche and spry in propelling the movie with aspects of aural lampooning as well as mood-weaving. Repo Man came out amidst the strong moment for unusual, cultish, low-budget projects that was 1984, as the independent film movement was gathering steam. Jim Jarmusch’s breakout with Stranger Than Paradise presented kin in pokerfaced cool; John Sayles’ Brother From Another Planet anatomised contemporary society with sci-fi metaphors. Wim Wenders’ Paris, Texas offered a simultaneous survey of the American landscape shot by Muller and featuring Stanton in all his bedraggled glory. Much as fans of all three movies might hate to admit it, Repo Man also had affinities with Ghostbusters in making sport of the post-counterculture meltdown and rise of yuppiedom amidst a tale of fantastical cosmic collisions, and with James Cameron’s The Terminator, tearing about the tech-noir LA streets dodging time travellers and metaphorical Cold War-age fallout. If science fiction’s success in the Star Wars age had come at the expense of largely losing the socially critical veneer it had wielded throughout the previous decade, Repo Man helped restore the balance, point the way forward to similar mixtures of urban gothic and satirical screed in the likes of Paul Verhoeven’s RoboCop (1986) and John Carpenter’s They Live (1988). Hell, there’s even some of The X-Files in there.

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Cox’s style, inimitable as it was, would also have definite impact on Quentin Tarantino’s early work in freely mixing deadpan realism closely attuned to LA’s street feel, genre film quotes redeployed in quotidian contexts, black humour, and surf guitar music twanging on the soundtrack. Similarly, Cox had already gotten to places where David Lynch was going in stewing together retro Americana and surrealist blindsiding, pre-empting the absurdist theatre of Mulholland Drive (2000), if with a far more playful bent, and aspects of his TV show Twin Peaks, down to the association of atom-age sin with contemporary dislocation. The formal chic of Muller’s photography with its acrylic textures undoubtedly helped imbue Repo Man with its oddball poise. Flashes of surprisingly intense and kinetic filmmaking, like a liquor store shootout and a chase in an underground carpark, are contrasted with many a shot where the camera sits removed at a cool distance from the actors and action to accentuate the absurdist flavour. One essential example arrives late in the film as the heroes flee a hospital with feds pursuing, the camera remaining rooted to the spot in filming the flurry of action, only for the Malibu, releasing bolts of blue energy that strike down the feds, cruising by as a brief and tantalising glimpse of the utterly surreal. Cox takes a squared-off perspective on roadsides and house fronts so often it becomes a system of sorts, the viewpoint of the Repo Manas cruising along the road, surveying the facades of the everyday, both compelled and repelled by the geometry of LA and its ideals of possession, eyeing the shiny objects parked without.

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The film has an inexhaustible supply of brilliant, throwaway comedy skits and vignettes laden with bemused and mysterious texture. Otto being berated for knocking over garbage bins by an old English lady (Dorothy Bartlett). An agent screaming, “Not my face!” as Marlene prepares to thump him with a chair. A scooter-riding gang trundling up a midnight street to the quoted strains of “Born to Be Wild,” and a refrain of “Ride of the Valkyries” accompanying Duke, Debbi, and Archie as they flee a drug warehouse they’ve raided, Archie pausing to shake hands with a derelict man on the way. “Born to be Wild” resurges later with cruel good humour as Otto tries to take off with the musicians’ car, only to realise the back wheels are jammed on props. Miller ministering to Otto after he’s beaten up by the musicians with mystic chants and ribbons. The Circle Jerks, of which Schloss was a member, appearing as a lounge act warbling atonal and cynical ditties in vicious mockery of the old crooner style. Duke gets gunned down when he and Debbi rob a liquor store, sparking a gunfight that also sees Bud wounded. Duke is already dead, flash-fried by the alien radiation when the crew steal the Malibu. They stole the car off the Rodríguezes, who stole it off Parnell, who then regains his ride after Archie’s death. Otto finally spots the Malibu and chases it on foot until Parnell stops and gives him a ride. The scientist him with radiation factoids and explains how he got lobotomised to slow his overheated brain down, before suddenly expiring from a haemorrhage.

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Throughout all the craziness runs the spasmodic blend of amity and frustration that defines Bud and Otto’s partnership, not quite friends, not quite surrogate father and son, more different versions of the same generational task, each as rudely unfinished and unique as the other, evoking Ethan and Martin in The Searchers (1956), a film Cox would later make a pseudo-sequel-cum-interrogation in trying to explore his fascination. Taking at first to being Otto’s mentor, Bud ends up exasperated: “I thought I could teach you something!” Bud, tired and hungry for enough money to become the boss, is scarcely a model of world-conquering success himself, a prototype already outmoded, and in the very end it proves Miller rather than Bud who takes Otto for the next, greater step in his journey. However Bud’s method of handling things proves revivifying; where Otto finds the Malibu, Bud just rips it off and waves his gun at anyone who disagrees, and when he falls with a belly full of machine gun bullets, only calmly asks for a cigarette. Otto has a young man’s quick sense of the absurd balanced by his longing for something authentic and worthy. He is as often bewildered and out of his depth as is he is knowing and cynical; indeed he’s largely a weak and silly hero (like when he explains to Duke that he never came to see him in juvie because “I was working!”) specifically because he’s also young. But he is, ultimately, a pure grail seeker, ultimately worthy to travel with Miller in the Malibu because of his willingness to keep seeking something uncompromised which overpowers all his other instincts.

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The riotous climax lays waste to the likes of 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) in reclaiming the transcendental encounter with alien powers for the fantastical revolution for social outcasts, whilst the representatives of state security and other institutions wither and cringe before the might of such energy as represented by day-glo paint and gaffers tossing around ice cubes. The radiation-suit-clad feds burst into flames and even the good Reverend Larry bleats “Holy sheep-shit!” as the energy fries his bible. It is ultimately Miller’s vision that wins through, his kooky reports of time machine flying saucers that proves pertinent. Where Bud makes a last stand (“I’d rather die on my feet than live on my knees!”) and get shot for his pains, it is Miller the cracked mystic who ultimately knows what to do with this star vessel, the man on the scene with the understanding. He invites Otto to come with him to the stars. “What about our relationship?” demands Leila. “Fuck that,” Otto replies before climbing aboard. The glitter of the LA skyline glimpsed from a flying car is wonder enough. Nothing left to do but look up and charge into the void. One of the great movie finales, and one of the great movie beginnings.

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2010s, Action-Adventure, Fantasy, Scifi

Star Wars – Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker (2019)

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Director: J.J. Abrams
Screenwriters: J.J. Abrams, Chris Terrio

By Roderick Heath

Here there be spoilers…

And so it ends. Again. For the third…oh look, forget it.

The revived Star Wars series got rolling in 2015 with overwhelming hype and predisposed affection from an eager audience, as the now Disney-owned Lucasfilm team and its hired gun directors promised to restore the original trilogy’s legacy through a blend of straightforward cavalier fun and new-fashioned cinema showmanship following the ambitious but often-derided prequel trilogy. J.J. Abrams’ Episode VII: The Force Awakens was a colossal hit and Rogue One (2016) seemed to successfully augur in a strand of one-off stories. But within the space of four years, much of that goodwill was squandered. The heated, sometimes ugly contest unleashed online by partisans over Rian Johnson’s follow-up Episode VIII: The Last Jedi (2017) and the flat box office of Solo: A Star Wars Story (2018), despite its being the jauntiest and most classical new entry, provoked worries the property might have been over-exploited far too quickly. As vast and rich as the Star Wars universe has proven in reams of expanded-universe literature, the cinematic experience has always been compelled by a singular subject, the fate of the Skywalker family, and its concurrent, elementary mythological motif: the search for a way to battle evil without becoming it. The eagerly anticipating crowd that gathered at midnight with me to watch the closing episode surely announced that despite all missteps, we all still wanted to see how it would all draw to a close.

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Abrams was rehired to helm the third instalment after Colin Trevorrow dropped out, and to a certain extent that was fair: whatever problems one had with The Force Awakens, Abrams had clearly laid claim to the new trilogy as his creative template. Johnson’s well-made but intensely frustrating middle episode tried oh so hard to critique and deepen the series and certainly betrayed an individual creative hand with a solid sense of dramatic architecture, but mostly only achieved a form of storytelling self-negation, neglecting some of the more germane ideas The Force Awakens set in play and sabotaging its own ones whilst dithering through some truly half-hearted plotting, whilst again killing off an original trilogy hero in an especially annoying way. On the other hand, it handled the pivotal new relationship between Daisy Ridley’s emerging titan Rey and Adam Driver’s Byronic villain Kylo Ren with a deft sense of strange attraction even in profound conflict. If The Last Jedi felt an awful lot like a Star Wars movie for people who don’t like Star Wars movies, the latest instalment, Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker, is likely to be just as divisive but along different lines: it’s most definitely one that’s been made in the interests of giving the audience what it supposedly wants. Abrams penned the script with Chris Terrio, with a storyline contributed to by previous creative hands Derek Connolly and Trevorrow. Many cooks, boil a lumpy broth they do.

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The often rushed and ungainly outlay of basic plot in The Rise of Skywalker betrays a trilogy forced to play some serious catch-up football in getting its essential narrative priorities oriented again just in time for a big finish. The Last Jedi left ostensible core villain Snoke (Andy Serkis) dead, the notionally powerful and impressive First Order now run by characters who barely seemed able to run a lemonade stand, and the tattered remnants of the Republic-defending Resistance escaping to fight another day with what appeared to be about two-dozen members. The Rise of Skywalker solves the problem of the first two points one fell swoop in its earliest scenes, as Kylo is provoked by a mysterious broadcast apparently sent out by the Emperor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid), last seen getting shafted at the end of Episode VI: Return of the Jedi (1983): quite literally, he died, but got better. Kylo tracks down one of two totemic markers that can give him the whereabouts of Exogol, the planet that was the ancient seat of the Sith cult, as Kylo intends to properly finish off Palpatine just as he killed Snoke to become the unquestioned leader of the Dark Side’s forces. Instead he learns Palpatine was behind Snoke and the First Order’s creation, and has assembled a colossal fleet of Star Destroyers with new weaponry giving each planet-killing capability, ready to go into action after decades of preparation for resurgence, which Palpatine dubs “the Final Order.”

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Meanwhile, Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac), Finn (John Boyega), and Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo) on the Millennium Falcon on a mission to an ice-crusted asteroid to pick up information collected by a spy in the First Order revealing the newly emergent threat. The heroes manage to escape a battle with TIE fighters and get back to the jungle planet where the Resistance is hiding out. Rey is currently continuing her Jedi training with Leia (Carrie Fisher). Realising they have to find and destroy Palpatine and his fleet before it deploys, Rey, Poe, Finn, Chewie, and stalwart droids C3-PO (Anthony Daniels), BB-8 (Dave Chapman and Brian Herring), and R2-D2 (Jimmy Vee) set out to track down the other Sith totem. They follow a lead to Passanna, a desert planet where, amongst a local festival, they encounter Lando Calrissian (Billy Dee Williams) and locate a dagger engraved with information about the marker’s location. C3-PO is programmed not to translate the Sith language, so he has to undergo a mind wipe to do so. This is performed on the planet Kijimi, where Poe also encounters former comrade in disreputable endeavours and old flame Zorii Bliss (Keri Russell), who like Boba Fett perpetually wears a mask. Chewbacca is captured by the First Order and the gang stage a daring rescue by boarding Kylo’s Star Destroyer to snatch him back, before heading on to the Endor system and the ruins of the second Death Star, where the totem resides. There Rey has to confront not just Kylo but also the discomforting truth of her true birthright.

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To describe The Rise of Skywalker as fast-paced – the above synopsis should give a good idea just how it careens between plot points and locations, and that’s only the first half – could be understatement. The opening scene comes on as such a fat lump of just-add-water exposition, complete with Palpatine conjuring a huge fleet and greatly increased stakes just in time for the big series climax, that it immediately and seriously tests all credulity about just how carefully Disney-Lucasfilm have planned out this series. The Rise of Skywalker makes it even plainer that the production team has tripped over its own enthusiasm in trying to do in four years what took originally George Lucas eight, even not counting early development. The salving aspect is not negligible, however. Abrams’ visual flare, always frustratingly intermittent but sometimes properly arresting, is quickly evinced too. His feel for moody Chthonic imagery and shadowy colossi as explored in the huge, cyclopean reaches of the Sith temple goes some way to restoring the aspect of dreamlike scale and fantastic density to the series after the dull, technocratic look of Rogue One and The Last Jedi.

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There’s a brief but striking sequence in which Kylo has his shattered mask restored by an alien artisan, a sequence Abrams shoots with a sense of infernal ceremony in the guttering shades of red and blue and black and working of stygian tools. Like much of the film it’s a bit too vertiginously edited to gain all the graphic force it could have wielded, and yet this sequence give me a thrill, a reach into the same place of arcane ritual as the opening scene of Conan the Barbarian (1982). Abrams also offers one great set-piece, spoiled to a degree in having been excerpted almost in entirety for one of the film’s trailers, as Rey bring down Kylo’s TIE fighter as it charges her across a desert plain, with an astounding display of her now-honed powers. Notably, this scene is also a sidelong tribute to the famous arrival of Omar Sharif in Lawrence of Arabia (1962). Abrams has long embraced the bricoleur aspect of Star Wars albeit usually only in terms of the original films and others from the same era. Here he packs in several nods to Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) as well, including the hunt for the Sith dagger and a movement where, like Marion in that film, it seems Chewbacca dies in an explosion only to reveal he was on a different craft. Rather oddly, the Sith dagger which proves to be a kind of map quotes a similar device in Robert Stevenson’s Disney-produced adventure film from the antedeluvian pre-Star Wars era, The Island at the Top of the World (1974), a touch that made me wonder if the screenwriters were paying it a nod of their own or if Disney never entirely neglects a property.

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The overstuffed, fleet-to-a-fault aspect of The Rise of Skywalker is a twin-edged blade, likely to aggravate critical opinion, and it occasionaly manages to feel like one of those later Harry Potter movies that were near-incomprehensible unless you’d read the book, despite not having such a basis. I confess to finding it both messy and something of a heartening deliverance not just in terms of this series but also the general tenor of some recent franchise films, like the pseudo-grandiose yet profoundly unimaginative and lethargic Avengers: Endgame. The breathless pace and sense of excitably boyish storytelling here contrasts both its predecessors, which had significant problems negotiating their middle acts and strained to prove all this meant something despite plainly not knowing what. Much of the fan frustration with the various provocations Johnson introduced in his instalment had a trite if not reactionary aspect, but as much again was justifiable because Johnson’s efforts accidentally highlighted a lack of direction overall. Lucas was always deceptively good at alternating tones and dramatic facets in his films in quick succession, something that a lot of the current franchisee cinema he technically birthed often shows no grasp of, tending instead to get lost in lengthy episodes of verbal explanation and theatrical character interaction. The Rise of Skywalker escapes this chiefly by having a lot of stuff do.

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There’s now a piling up of eye-catching new characters who don’t get that much to do, like Zorri and Jannah (Naomi Ackie), a warrior lady from a clan of equestrian survivalists on Endor who are all, like Finn, former Stormtroopers turned deserters and rebels. Jannah’s quick-dry gluing to Finn leaves his gal pal Rose Tico (Kelly Marie Tran) looking in turn a bit stranded. More familiar faces don’t get much to do either: Dee Williams, still a Jovian screen presence, doesn’t get anything like the screen time and vital story function his compatriots from the old series had, and even Wedge (Denis Lawson) is dug up only to appear for all of about five seconds, the sort of touch that gives fan service its bad name. Maz Kanata (Lupita Nyong’o), with her wizened visage and likeably tart tongue, is also now part of the rebel band and just as neglected as ever. Disney’s arrested-development sensibility is plain as it trucks in romantic partners as beards for its heroes only to either kill them off, ignore them, or comically deflate them, as happens between Zorri and Poe at the end. Which does to a certain extent highlight the relative bravery of the perpetually simmering, transgressive passion manifest between Rey and Kylo, or rather Ben, his alter ego. There’s a likeably brusque quality to some of the touches here however, like the casual slaying of General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson), revealed as the spy in the First Order not for any noble cause but because he wants revenge on Kylo. Hux was always a great annoyance for me in the trilogy as the worst kind of tinpot villain, but at least Abrams sees him off with a jolt of narrative impudence as well as faint shock. His place as snooty fascist boss is taken by Richard E. Grant as General Pryde, who gets to sneer at things aplenty for a few reels until he gets his comeuppance.

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I never liked the basic premise and storyline of the new trilogy, too obviously an attempt to recapitulate the original trilogy’s readily marketable strategy with slight tweaks rather than come up with a new template. And yet it’s managed to hold my interest enough, in ways I can’t put entirely down to the Pavlovian power of John Williams’ scoring. Much of the reason to stick with the new trilogy has been for the main characters as inhabited by the key cast members. Boyega’s struggled to keep Finn relevant despite the trilogy’s uncertainty about what use his character is beyond being one character whose natural instinct is to flee a terrifying danger only to learn his heroism like a new language. Whilst Poe has never felt like a role that really needed such a strong actor as Isaac in the part, he feels most vital in this instalment as he tries to find a working equilibrium with Rey, who’s just as fiery and self-assured as he is, whilst also provoking her to live up to her potential. He gets to show off some of Poe’s swagger and romantic streak, even if the film cheats him by sticking him in scenes with a former lover who hides always behind a mask and spurns his advances at the end. Still, Isaac’s roué look of come-hither to her is worth a hundred hours of CGI. At the time of The Force Awakens my first impressions of Driver weren’t agreeable, and yet as he’s proven himself a consistently interesting and unusual type of movie actor, and he’s fleshed out a figure who at first glance seemed an each-way bet, an emo-goth take on Anakin Skywalker with an added dash of Twilight-esque bad boy mystique, with a steady accumulation of gravitas and nuance. He’s proved particularly good at twisting Kylo’s occasional displays of unexpected sympathy into one of his cruellest weapons and the opposite, his most malign acts often seeming to contain as aspect of self-mortification.

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Ridley, the ingénue nobody had heard of at the time of The Force Awakens, who showed herself a little green and yet was still very promising in that movie, now inhabits Rey and her intense existence as a creature feeling the sway of powerful feelings and instincts intensified to the point of lunacy by the tides of the Force. The Rise of Skywalker’s plot throws her a perfect curveball as Rey learns the truth of her lineage. Yes, her parents were, as The Last Jedi established, not terribly important in themselves, but her lineage is nonetheless still consequential: her grandfather is Palpatine himself, and she is the heir he’s long sought to transfer his power and the Sith hive mind into. In terms of the wider series mythology, this makes no real sense – Palpatine reproduced?! with a woman?! – and given that it’s jammed in as a revelation in this very busy instalment, it feels a bit like something Abrams and the other writers pulled out of their exhaust ports. But it does serve a strong purpose beyond mere plot in that it gives Ridley a fine opportunity to bring out extremes of her character, the ferocity of her denial of evil in the previous episodes now tinted with strong overtones of self-righteousness and repudiation that can easily turn toxic. Rey struggles with her dark side and feels the temptations to perfectly egotistical power Palpatine has always represented, even glimpsing a vision of herself as a Sith in the evil-infested Darth Star ruins.

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Despite this, The Rise of Skywalker confirms something that seemed likely from The Force Awakens onwards: the lack of a driving idea behind the new trilogy. Lucas’ original trilogy, forthright and simple as it was, built itself around Joseph Campbell’s repurposed Jungian ideas in portraying the construction of a hero figure in mythic terms that also served as a metaphor for the path to maturation instantly coherent to its audience of surrogates: one great difficulty in making a sequel to this was that the original series had already portrayed the basic experience of life. The prequel trilogy was dedicated to examining creeping political decay and rising authoritarianism, as well as inverting the hero’s journey into a story of failed character. The Disney-sponsored series finally reveals itself as lacking any true storytelling compass apart from again setting up a gang of heroic pals and a great force of evil to take on. The determination to avoid any hint of the prequels’ holistic conceptualism including the political aspect has resulted in a new trilogy that’s confused about what the political struggle involved represents all the way through. We have somehow both a Republic and a Resistance, a centre of political consensus defended by a scrappy band of outsiders, and an evil enemy that is both insurgent cult and tony tyranny. The piling up of familiar series concepts in the finale has no mighty allegorical idea to convey but simply a need to pay off its many promises and make cool shit rain down.

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The closest thing it has gained to a fresh concept lies in Rey and Kylo’s antipathetic bond, one that has perverse, ethereal erotic overtones in uniting the headspace of a man torn by urges and rendered a patricidal bully, and a gutsy, noble heroine, hindered only by a misplaced faith her identity was worth discovering. The Rise of Skywalker hints an interesting new dimension in this regard as the twists of the story see Rey unleashing a dark and hateful side as she learns who she is and Ben Solo eventually winning the battle over Kylo Ren thanks in part to Rey almost killing him in the eye of her nihilism. A good portion of the story here had to be knitted around Carrie Fisher’s tragic passing, solved with digital hocus-pocus reconfiguring some unused scenes from earlier episodes that is at least not as painful as the CGI Peter Cushing in Rogue One but still can’t quite disguise the patching. Fisher’s absence certainly doesn’t aid one aspect of the story, where Rey inherits Leia’s long-unused lightsaber, as Leia can’t be properly around to explore this aspect of herself coherently. At least the episode does give her a solid salutary act as, like Luke, she uses the last of her Force, and life, to reach out to her son and pull him back from the brink of monstrosity, albeit almost costing him his life too.

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The excellent lightsaber battle between Rey and Kylo offers a notable homage-cum-reversal of the duel at the climax of Episode III: Revenge of the Sith (2005). Abrams exchanges boiling lava flows for the angry ocean crashing against the rusting remnants of the Death Star to likewise offer a mimetic canvas for the seething emotion and unleashed power of the duellists. This time it comes with a coherent subtext of two cursed inheritors battling amidst the quite literal wreckage of their elders’ deeds and crises, still trying to piece together a sure sense of their identity with the lingering disquiet that perhaps this is one dance that is eternal, perpetually driven on by failure as well as success. This aspect carries authentic gravitas, and it elevates the film considerably, even if it also highlights the way the trilogy failed to develop the theme properly. Some of Abrams’ persistent flaws nonetheless start nudging insistently. He’s strong at isolated pieces of action staging, but has no facility for larger-scale business. As in the stunted finale of The Force Awakens, he has no idea how to convey the climactic battle of the fleets with anything like tactical coherence and spatial relationship, not to mention any note of originality in the conception of such warfare: it’s lots of shots of X-Wings zipping and zapping or getting zapped. The climactic plot stakes, where the whole Final Order fleet is tethered together like a drone force and therefore can be collectively foiled, represents some really half-arsed screenwriting convenience.

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More serious problems are caused by attempts to walk back The Last Jedi’s cynical touches. Luke is revealed to have been in hiding partly because of his efforts to track down Exogol. His late appearance as a force phantom, to get Rey back into action after she briefly exiles herself to Aach-To, delivers on withheld promises like the resurgence of his sunken X-Wing, but feels rushed and cheesy. Better is Kylo’s imagined but still vital conversation with his dead father Han Solo (Harrison Ford), which offers a grace note laced with foreboding. Long-time fans are also likely to be annoyed by the Force’s transformation into a general form of magic useful for plugging story gaps, complete with Rey and Kylo able now to take physical objects from each-other even when in different places, and a new capacity for healing that comes out of nowhere, first displayed when Rey heals a giant, wounded sandworm and then more consequentially when she saves Kylo. Meanwhile Palpatine suddenly has power enough to fry whole space fleets in the sky. The Force was always a fantastical idea, a breath of the mystical in an otherwise, oppressively technological universe, but this stuff seems to violate all its essentials, only partly excused by the supposedly rare nature of the young antagonists’ bond and the power it produces. Star Wars was a major influence on Harry Potter but in the past couple of movies the traffic has definitely reversed. Seemingly important story pivots, like C3-PO accepting his imminent loss of memory and identity, are introduced and then just as quickly reversed. Granted, enough old series characters had died, but it still feel redolent of cold feet.

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The Rise of Skywalker is a much less stately and self-composed effort than either The Force Awakens or The Last Jedi, which is also why, I suspect, I generally enjoyed it much more even whilst cringing at some of the visible seams and in spite of all the evident problems. It’s messy and regressive, but also proudly and inescapably a genuine, true-hearted hunk of pulp sci-fi fun, unconcerned with checking its own cool or critical cachet anymore and just trying to deliver a rollicking good time. It’s not weighed down by attempts to say something profound about fandom and nostalgia but getting on with delivering a good ride. That’s not necessarily a positive thing, but I also can’t really pretend it’s letting down what’s come before, which suffered from uncertainty about how to give and when; ironically, in giving sway to its scruffiest reasons for existing, The Rise of Skywalker manages to feel less calculated and constricted, and more like an act of happy, gormless conspiracy with other fans. I can’t pose much critical reasoning on this beyond simply having wanted and been delivered a pretty good time. But the best scenes here are good indeed; the only trouble is the film around insists on doubling everything up. The audience I saw it with seemed to have few scruples. They released a great groan of shock when Rey’s lineage was revealed, and a gasp of genuine surprise when the Lando-led fleet of allies finally arrived, the sheer scale of the image actually managing to impress even amidst the dulled palates of CGI-age cinema. Such virtually preternatural communal reactions feel more precious than ever on the contemporary movie scene.

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The finale comes on with such dizzy, daft gusto that it’s hard not to have such reactions, even with such ridiculous notions as Finn, Jannah and others riding alien steeds along the hull of a Star Destroyer, and twists like Kylo managing to fight his way through Palpatine’s guards only for him and Rey to present a perfect regenerative energy source for Palpatine, restoring him to, if not exactly health, then to his old, familiar creepiness. And indeed, precisely because of them. McDiarmid, who did an excellent job shading cunning and manipulative operator into pantomime villain in the prequels, here just has to leer and croak in the old style, and it’s an act he still does well. Palpatine sets up a new version of a familiar double bind for Rey as the act of killing him would transform her into the new Sith, a bind she’s able to get around as she feels her psychic real estate already filled up by generations of Jedi, and she uses her lightsaber to turn his energy bolts back at him, reducing him to dust. The effort kills her, so Kylo revives her by drawing on his own healing power; when the pair finally kissed, the audience I saw it with burst into applause only for it to die off as Kylo dies himself, having used all his life-force to restore her. I love that Abrams reaches for a note of weird and lawless liebestod here, something that might have lifted the new trilogy into an extraordinary place if it had been more compelling in terms of the whole series arc, but it just doesn’t land with the right force.

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Instead Rey is restored to her friends, and she, Finn, and Poe embrace in a way that confirms here the faith is less in the world-reshaping power of passion, a la the surrealists, than the warmth of a superfriends hug. The very ending again revolves the series back to its starting point, with Rey burying Luke and Leia’s lightsabers at Luke’s old home on Tattooine. She claims the name Skywalker as her own, now as it ever was an appended declaration of ambition for quixotic orphans, and she confronts the setting twin suns. It’s the fitting, even compulsory place to leave the saga, paying deep homage to its most fundamental image of dreamy wondering from the original that was also revisited at the end of Revenge of the Sith. But even this comes with a cost, as Rey also beholds Luke and Leia in their force forms, looking like something painted on a Franklin Mint collectible plate. Right to the end, The Rise of Skywalker sways between the sublime and the ridiculous, the earned and the gauche. Perhaps the fact that I felt little conflict this time was a symptom of having abandoned a certain aspect of my trust in the series, the feeling that I was watching Star Wars and expecting certain things from it rather than just another entertaining blockbuster. Certainly I felt more justified than ever in championing the prequels, and yet this also allowed me to simply enjoy what I was seeing. Finally it might be said that Williams, in bringing his great labour and perhaps his career to a close, imbues the unity that’s otherwise been lacking purely through the lustre of his scoring. How many dreams has his music fostered?

Standard
1950s, 1970s, Horror/Eerie, Scifi, Thriller

Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) / Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978)

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Directors: Don Siegel / Philip Kaufman
Screenwriters: Daniel Mainwaring / W.D. Richter

By Roderick Heath

I said, “Hello!” again, a little louder, jiggling the phone, the way you do, but the line was dead, and I put the phone back. In my father’s day a night operator, whose name he’d have known, could have told him who’d called…But now we have dial phones, marvelously efficient, saving you a full second or more every time you call, inhumanly perfect, and utterly brainless; and none of them will ever remember where the doctor is at night, when a child is sick and needs him. Sometimes I think we’re refining all humanity out of our lives. – Jack Finney, The Body Snatchers

Jack Finney’s The Body Snatchers began life as a serialised story in Colliers Magazine and was published as a novel in 1955. Finney, a former copywriter and journalist, became adept at writing in many a genre with the discipline of a shrewd professional. He wrote many crime stories, some of which were also adapted as films, including Phil Karlson’s 5 Against The House (1955), although his biggest publishing success was the 1970 time travel tale Time And Again. The Body Snatchers was received harshly by some science fiction writers and critics as a variation on an already well-worn idea: Robert Heinlein and Philip K. Dick had already explored very similar notions. Even when adapted as a movie in 1956, it was following Jack Arnold’s It Came From Outer Space (1953) in employing the theme of people in a small town replaced by alien doppelgangers. But Finney knew how to place such a story in a resolutely believable and human context, and Don Siegel’s adaptation immediately made the story the most famous variation on the theme, lodging itself in the popular consciousness and birthing the phrase “pod people” in common parlance. The hyped-up retitling initially gave it a trashy lustre but the film’s quality quickly grabbed critical attention, helping cement Siegel’s reputation.

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Siegel himself, unlike Arnold, wasn’t drawn to science fiction by inclination, and like Finney was more associated with thrillers. But it was precisely this likeness, each creative hand’s skill in grounding a tale in an immediately substantial and quotidian sense of the world, that would lend the story its specific texture. Eventually Invasion of the Body Snatchers was lodged as a diamond-hard genre film classic, an eternal touchstone for anyone who saw it when young and had their love for dark thrills galvanised. It also proved a ready template, officially remade three times, and imitated and lampooned endlessly. Philip Kaufman’s first remake, released in 1978, rode a wave of new interest in sci-fi cinema following the success of Star Wars (1977), as studios scrambled to find genre properties that could be quickly given a new gloss with modern special effects. Kaufman’s version immediately inspired and influenced a string of remakes, including John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982), David Cronenberg’s The Fly (1986), and Chuck Russell’s The Blob (1988), adding new lashings of gruesome corporeal detail and radicalism to a fairly clean-cut and beloved movie in a manner that divided fans of the originals. But the most interesting disparities between the two films speak more of the radical social shifts in the twenty-two years that separate them, and the distinctive perspectives of their directors.

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Siegel was noted as a studio hand who’d risen to become a master editor at Warner Bros., and fought to get a break as director. Far from finding himself washed up as the studio system declined, Siegel thrived in the grittier climes of the 1960s and ‘70s, noted for his spiky tales of antiheroic misfits and his fascination for dramas pitting avatars of anarchy and control in direct, almost schizoid opposition. Kaufman, by contrast, was a literate bohemian turned filmmaker who started making movies in the mid-1960s but who didn’t start gaining traction until his fortunes aligned with the emerging Movie Brat generation. Both films retained the same basic structure and stuck fairly closely to Finney’s storyline, although Kaufman’s version transferred the setting from the small California town of Santa Mira to the urban zones of San Francisco and altered aspects of the character drama. Finney’s lead character Miles Bennell is a doctor in his home town Santa Mira who reconnects with his former teenage flame Becky Driscoll, and they edge into a tentative romance again as both are recovering from divorce.

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Kaufman and his screenwriter W.D. Richter reconfigured this so Bennell, rechristened Matthew, is a health inspector and Becky, now Elizabeth, is a colleague and friend with an obvious spark of connection although Elizabeth’s married. In both versions Bennell begins encountering anxious people who report that loved ones have been replaced by beings that look, sound, and act just like the people they know and yet are missing some vital defining trait. Bennell consults a psychiatrist friend, named Dan Kauffman in the original and David Kibner in the remake, who insists the phenomenon is purely mental. But Bennell’s writer friend Jack Belicec and his wife call him to take a look at a mysterious body that’s appeared on their premises, looking like an unfinished version of Jack. A terrible truth begins to emerge: people are being replaced by lookalikes growing out of seed pods with an extra-terrestrial origin, mimetic organisms able to absorb every characteristic of humans save any capacity for authentic emotion.

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Finney’s book had laid down a fine blueprint for describing the tensions between communal and individual identity. The main characters cut across the grain of their surrounds and old-fashioned social presumptions, with Miles and Becky as divorcees, whilst Miles and Kauffman and Belicec comprising something like the intelligentsia of their town with just a faint hint of the siege mentality such cliques often feel, an aspect Kaufman would elaborate on, just as their names nod to the polyglot state of American society. Siegel’s version doesn’t expend a great deal of time setting up the social backdrop of Santa Mira, because he doesn’t need to: it’s so damn ordinary, the people wandering through it familiar with their howdy-neighbour grins, everyone performing a function, from Bennell (Kevin McCarthy) to Kauffman (Larry Gates) to Police Chief Nick Grivett (Ralph Dumke) to gas repairman Charlie (Sam Peckinpah). The first sign of disturbance to the status quo comes as Bennell sees young Jimmy Grimaldi (Bobby Clark) running away from the family fruit stand, gripped by the conviction his mother isn’t his mother. Bennell soon finds the same apparent delusion gripping several other people, including Becky’s friend Wilma (Virginia Christine) who swears her Uncle Ira (Tom Fadden) isn’t her Uncle Ira. “A strange neurosis, evidently contagious – an epidemic of mass hysteria,” Kauffman judges it, and to Miles’ question what causes it, responds: “Worry about what’s going on in the world, probably.”

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Siegel’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers has long been the object of debate as to whether it can be considered as a political parable, with factional readings rooted in its era taking it as either a metaphor for the anti-Communist panic of McCarthyism, where a community gangs up on a small and hapless group to destroy or assimilate outliers, or rather the opposite, a vision of Communist infiltration, as the lookalikes conform to certain canards about the Red Menace, detached and enforcing a collective, hive-mind-like system. The quote from Finney’s book above indicates his target was something at once vaguer and more thoroughly encompassing, a general portrait of modernity as a state of perpetual, alienating shock, defined by a constant succession of nudges away from immediate human reference into a state of prophylaxis. Political readings blur into each-other from such a perspective, the desire to project insidious and malignant motives onto an Other a desperate attempt to return shape to communal experience, which is subject to a constant, intense process of homogenisation. Siegel had a love for characters who, for whatever reason, exist on the outskirts of society and try to operate according to their own very peculiar code. Here he’d found a perfect ironic text to explore his obsession, one that allowed him to make his heroes at once beings apart and the final exemplars of “normality,” the act of retaining their individuality valorised above all else but also doomed to cost them everything.

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At the same time, the story echoes more personally and immediately, speaking to a basic aspect of human experience that’s hard to portray dramatically. The fear of changes in people we know and love, the tiny, almost imperceptible alterations in behaviour that can signal anything from infidelity to senility, the noticing of which can often make the observer feel like they’re the one losing their wits. The way the story ties Bennell and Becky’s resuming relationship to the larger drama emphasises their frail and worldly-wise sense of becoming and cherishing, starkly contrasting the relentless assimilation of the alien invasion. When the lovers are confronted by the replicated Belicec and Kauffman, they insist it’s a blissful deliverance from all the fractiousness that defines human identity, the passion that brings pain, a sort of instant shortcut to a Zen state that represents however not triumph over flesh but the mere deadening of it. Kaufman would take up this facet, envisioning poddom as a kind of transubstantiation that fulfils in detail familiar religious visions – release from the tyranny of flesh and self, the achievement of perfect pacifism and embrace of a higher, gestalt truth – with infinitely cruel sarcasm.

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Part of what was innovative and notable about Siegel’s approach to Invasion of the Body Snatchers lay in the way he completely avoided the usual signifiers of a film in its genre. No dreamy expressionist visuals until the very end or familiar stars, no bug-eyed monsters or giveaways to suggest the alien point of view or airy, poetically meditative dialogue, but unfolding more like a mystery thriller or police procedural a succession of revelations and inferences. Pretty much to be expected, given that was Siegel’s usual purview. He was following Gordon Douglas’ Them! (1954) in taking up that approach, but Invasion of the Body Snatchers took the method a step further: the most monstrous thing it can conceive is beings who look like people but who are not, the most frightening thing a horde of neighbours chasing you through the street in blank determination to erase what makes you you. Shots of Bennell and Becky running through the dark streets of Santa Mira’s downtown, glaring lights reflecting off wet tar, and dashing through empty office buildings and across the desert landscape, is more purely film noir stuff, close to Siegel’s The Big Steal (1949) or Private Hell 36 (1954), or Karlson’s The Phenix City Story (1955). The connection with the latter film, a portrait of corruption and conspiracy proliferating in a nominally average small town, is especially strong, as Siegel applies the sci-fi element to such bedrock.

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The body on the Belicecs’ dining table, grotesquery in the midst of the utterly banal, alien horror manifesting in the space where the characters usually play at small town sophisticate, signals a narrative shift as an invisible phenomenon suddenly becomes substantial and paranoia becomes reality. Soon horror is suggesting itself everywhere, in cellars and greenhouses and farm fields, but remains excruciatingly hard to pin down. Siegel’s expert use of deep focus in widescreen frames constantly places his characters in coherent relationship with each-other and with strange phenomenon, containing them neatly within the same reality despite the protestations of hallucination. This leads to the crystallising moment where he films the replica Belicec’s eyes slowly peeling open, with Belicec and his wife Teddy (Carolyn Jones) in the far reaches of the frame, trying to last out a vigil at their kitchen counter, Teddy alerted by the flicker of movement to a new and terrifying development. Another expert use of the same method comes when Bennell spies in through the window of Becky’s father’s house and sees the cabal of the replaced preparing to distribute pods, whilst a hand reaches into the frame and grips his shoulder. When the danger and perversity become more urgent and disorientating, Siegel’s proclivity for vertiginous low and high camera angles becomes more and more blatant, becoming defining aspects of the film’s most vivid scenes.

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Bennell queasily senses a likeness, having witnessed Becky’s faint disquiet at her father (Kenneth Patterson) making a mysterious trip to his basement. Sure enough, as Bennell breaks in and checks out the shadowy cellar, he finds a similar doppelganger of Becky, so he sneaks up to her room and snatches her away. In both Siegel’s and Kaufman’s films, the psychiatrist character is a rhetorical villain, offering up rationalisations in trying to convince Bennell and his friends that they’ve hallucinated or misinterpreted what they’ve seen. He almost convinces the characters the problem is all in their mind, and yet the psychiatrist is swiftly and easily subsumed to the alien purpose, or was perhaps part of it all the time. Kauffman/Kibner is identified as part of an infrastructure of detachment and learned distrust of the senses. The psychiatrist in each movie even essentially parrots socio-political readings of the narrative of the film he’s in. But just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not really out to get you. Both homunculi vanish and Grivett grouchily reports to Bennell, Belicec, and Kauffman that the male form was found burning on a bonfire out on a farm. The many people who had insisted relatives had been replaced like young Jimmy and Wilma report to Bennell that they were mistaken and everything’s fine. This seems a victory for good sense. Except that as Bennell and Becky and the Belicecs to try and leave behind the bizarreness by having a barbecue in Bennell’s backyard, they discover giant seed pods in the greenhouse that pulse and foam, and split open disgorge humanoid forms that begin taking on the likenesses of the four.

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Most good films detailing the eruption of the fantastic amidst the familiar hinge upon the question as to just when what’s logical – in the sense of what conclusion about a situation that can be reasonably deduced from the facts – ceases to obey one set of presumptions and dictates another. The heroes of such tales are usually those who make the leap a little earlier than anyone else. The discovery in the greenhouse marks the pivot in Invasion of the Body Snatchers in this regard, but it’s a narrative that cleverly obfuscates all certainty in other aspects. We never know when most of the townsfolk are replaced or even if Bennell, Becky, and the Belicecs are the last humans there. This loss of a common reality is the most insidious aspect of the narrative. At what point do the humans become aliens, threatening the native population? One detail in Finney’s novel the films intriguingly avoid mentioning is the fact that the replicas only have a very limited life span, and can’t sexually reproduce, in essence moving about the universe like a locust swarm laying each planet they come to waste. Both films engage the pod people less as a specific parasitical enemy and more as a purely social phenomenon. This might seem to rob an aspect of urgency from the films, but it does throw into relief the notion that really concerns Siegel and Kaufman: what is humanity, and what are we willing to endure to hold onto it?

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Siegel’s film is inexplicit about how aspects of the alien replication work. Part of the physical process is glimpsed in the greenhouse, fleshy human forms rapidly taking shape as would a pumpkin, a blend of familiar forms of propagation to signal the completely alien. Some sort of psychic process seems to be involved in the transference of memories and character. It becomes clear that the vital stage of replacement occurs during sleep, when the pod people have the capacity to download the minds of their models and to upload their own. Which does make one wonder why the pods bother replacing bodies at all, although there’s some potent metaphorical value in there. It makes sense that just as there are people who get by in life despite lacking any sense of integral identity or feeling by mimicking others, so too there might be other species doing it too. Kaufman would be very finicky in nailing down the details in his version. Either way the greenhouse discovery makes the source of the doubles and their nature clear to the protagonists: the psychological narrative, the problem of knowing one’s localised reality, gives way to a battle for existence, but both are seen as stations on an existential continuum. Bennell and Becky hide out from their pursuers in Bennell’s surgery overlooking the town square, where they become witnesses to the replica horde suddenly converging once the first morning bus has been through to distribute truckloads of pods.

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The original Invasion of the Body Snatchers’ connections reached both backwards and forwards in screen history. Siegel would more aggressively pursue the theme of the lone wolf warrior in films like Edge of Eternity (1959), Coogan’s Buff (1968), and Dirty Harry (1971), and offer a gendered examination of collision of the one and the group in The Beguiled (1971). Kevin McCarthy gained by far his best-known screen role in it, but his casting at the time certainly carried association with his performance as Biff in the Fredric March-starring adaptation of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman (1951), another story rooted in the superficially placid yet tense mood of post-war America where someone finds someone they love isn’t the person they think they are. Gene Fowler Jnr’s I Married a Monster From Outer Space (1958) would take up the alien masquerade theme as a manifestation of gender angst. One of the many later films Siegel’s would clearly influence would be George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968), with its similar sense of besiegement within the superficially normal and the terror of loved-ones become emotionless shells, although Romero would twist the idea with the ultimately more marketable concept of a total removal of identity.

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Siegel’s film would echo through a host of films both within and without the sci-fi and horror genres, lurking in the DNA of thrillers in the 1970s like The Parallax View (1973), where the humdrum turns menacing and the infrastructure of daily life becomes enigmatic and oppressive. So when it came time for Kaufman to make his version, he gave the ‘70s paranoid trip a fitting terminus in also bringing it full circle. The pod people motif involves the ironic creation of civilisation that works better according to civilisation’s own ideals where the zombie tale eyes the animalistic underside of social identity. Finney’s novel ended in an upbeat fashion as Bennell’s assault on the pod growing farm results in the aliens abandoning Earth, realising it’s too tough a planet to colonise. For once a Hollywood adaptation decided to go in another direction and embrace a grimmer outlook. The climactic sequence of Siegel’s film is justly immortal as Bennell reaches a busy stretch of highway, the pod people halting their pursuit in caution as Bennell enters the lanes of traffic bellowing out hysterical warnings, Siegel’s camera viewing Bennell’s sweaty, bedraggled, mad-eyed visage as he tries desperately to alert the world only to be lost amidst the din and disdain. The good doctor has become just another nut, as Siegel switches to one of his characteristic high-angle shots and zooms out from him, leaving him stranded in his pathos.

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This, the film finally seems to say, is what we’re all offered as a choice in life: to become braindead in conformity or to be a madman howling at cars in warning. Siegel’s initial cut of Invasion of the Body Snatchers dismayed test audience, so his backers, Allied Artists, and producers Walter Mirisch and Walter Wanger, shot a wraparound sequence that turned the bulk of the movie into a tale recounted by Bennell to patient but sceptical doctors, Hill (Whit Bissell) and Bassett (Richard Deacon), after Bennell is brought into a police station in a frazzled, near-hysterical, but lucid state. It’s usually considered an awkward and obvious appendage as has been excised from some prints, particularly as it despoils the perfection of the highway scene. But it’s never really bothered me, in part because the act of narrating the story gives the film context that engages the possibility of an unreliable narrator. The very end as Hill realises Bennell’s been telling the truth thanks to a very well-timed traffic accident, leaves us on a tantalising note: can any action be taken in time? And what about Bennell, on the verge of collapsing from exhaustion?

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Kaufman and Richter (Richter would go on to write Big Trouble in Little China, 1986, and direct The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai, 1984, both movies that couldn’t find an audience but which became cult objects), in updating and transposing the original’s story, radically altered aspects of its meaning. The relatively unruffled hominess of the Ike-era small town setting is swapped out for the jostling, already mistrustful environs of a mid-1970s American metropolis, where the oddball is always on the boil and the architecture already seems encoded with a disdain for the human, thrusting pyramidal skyscrapers and facades of glass and steel cutting the human connections into cubist fragments. Where Bennell in the original has the noble task as town doctor of ministering to his local flock, Kaufman’s Matthew Bennell (Donald Sutherland) is tasked with seeking out filth and carelessness as agent of benign bureaucracy resented by those he surveys: he’s introduced as a looming face distorted in a peephole lens, and infuriates the manager of the swank restaurant he inspects as he insists an object he fishes out a bubbling dish is not a caper but a rat turd. Kauffman, renamed Kibner, is not just a psychiatrist but a writer of successful advice books, peddling fashionable New Age bromides to his audience. Belicec in the original seemed an avatar for Finney himself as a modestly successful and personable writer, so Belicec becomes Kaufman’s frustrated shadow in his version, a frustrated poet and angrily authentic bohemian. Belicec decries Kibner’s work even as he hopes to ride it for a little benefit, weeping by himself after failing to get a chance to read his work at Kibner’s book launch, even whilst running a mud bath with his wife Nancy (Veronica Cartwright).

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Kaufman makes his Invasion of the Body Snatchers a more literal horror movie than Siegel’s, with flashier camerawork mediating realism with a slow dissolution into a neo-expressionist nightmare, and extended sequences of nascent body horror and gore. And yet Kaufman takes a more leisurely and quirk-sensitive time in setting up the story with flashes of wit and menace as well as incidental characterisation. The credits unfold over visions of alien spores flocking on the surface of a strange planet and being disgorged into space, floating through the void before landing on Earth in rainfall, making the presence of the aliens explicit from the start. Kaufman zooms in to study the alien spores growing parasitically on Earth trees and eventually growing into small, blooming pods. Elizabeth picks one and tries to identify its species, whilst contending with her dentist husband Geoffrey Howell (Art Hindle), who takes time out from watching football immersed with headphones on to come ravish her: theirs is a marriage that seems cheerful but has the quality of a college hook-up nearing its use-by date. The next morning Elizabeth awakens to find Geoffrey already well-dressed and acting in a taciturn, almost robotically severe manner, cleaning up the broken glass she kept the pod in on her bedside table, and spiriting out a strange load of matted material to a garbage truck.

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Whereas Siegel kept the slowly metastasising invasion in the shadows until the last portion of film, Kaufman offers, mostly through Elizabeth’s eyes at first, a sense of a cabal forming and taking grip. She glimpses Geoffrey meeting strangers around town, handing each-other strange objects wrapped in blankets or bags, unspoken accords forming. Michael Chapman, who had shot Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver two years earlier, was called upon here to expand his feel for inner city psychosis, expounded through shots that play with diffused and disturbed vision. Grainy zoom shots of ambiguous dealings. Faces seen through or reflected in distorting mirrors or glass, or looming out of shadows. One shot of Bennell hiding in a cupboard in Geoffrey and Elizabeth’s house is pure Expressionism. Handheld camerawork to capture a sensation of woozy, disoriented isolation. Chapman’s camera notes a man dashing across the street as it pans onto Elizabeth heading to work, faint screeching sounds and people starting to chase after the man unnoticed by her, just more city weirdness to tune out. Soon she’s pounding pavements seeing strangers all around on buses and the like who seem somehow charged with strangeness, the din and frenetic movement of the cityscape not quite obscuring the change at its heart. Bennell’s shattered windscreen, broken by an angry cook at the restaurant he shuttered, becomes a quasi-abstract pattern. It’s through this that Bennell and Elizabeth glimpse a panicky, urgently warning man they almost run down as he dashes in front of them: why, it’s Kevin McCarthy, still sounding the alarm, only this time to be swiftly run down and killed by pursuers.

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This inspired cameo gives Kaufman’s film less the lustre of a remake than a quasi-sequel, taking up where Siegel left off. He left Bennell as the incarnation of a world spirit crying out for attention and awareness, whilst Kaufman runs over it. Siegel himself appears later as a taxi driver. When Bennell takes Elizabeth to meet Kibner, the psychiatrist’s encompassing roster of condemnation and proposed causes for paranoid conviction now includes a disintegrating family unit and people who can’t handle responsibility because life is too confronting. Belicec sticks up for the bohemian spirit as bawls out Kibner’s book: “Where’s Homer? Where’s Kazantzakis? Where’s Jack London?” Meanwhile his wife Nancy accidentally draws attention to the problem of trying to alert people to disintegrating reality when one is already deeply plugged into New Age kookiness, as she brings up Von Daniken-via-Quatermass notions. Then again, who’s to say she’s wrong? The omnipresence of the garbage trucks in which the replicas dispose of the shrivelled remains of the replaced become Kaufman’s most bitterly amusing touch, the most fitting etude for a consumerist society to be deposited in the rubbish by a parasitical species.

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Despite their differences in outlook and temperament, Siegel and Kaufman were nonetheless united in their fascination with and determination advocacy for individualism. Perhaps indeed it’s one trait shared by just about any creative in the western tradition. Abel Ferrara’s awkward, misjudged 1992 version, which to a certain played as less as another remake than as a companion story simultaneous to Kaufman’s, nonetheless included one brilliant sequence rooted precisely in this artistic sense of humanity, in which the one remaining human child in a class is outed when the kids are all made to draw: the human offers colour and form whilst the aliens all come up with static-like fuzz. Kaufman’s sense of political parallel is more pointed and self-conscious, however. Kaufman senses in frustration an oncoming conservatism after the flowering of the Counterculture that would soon bring about Reaganism. Perhaps his most memorable tweak to the way Siegel presented the pod people was to give them a distinctive shriek they release to alert others of their kind when a normal human has detected them, usually with a finger thrust out in identifying accusation.

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This nerve-rattling touch gives the pod people a more immediately alien, monstrous quality, but also more draws out the notion of social horror acutely: the humans become the hated enemy, the deviation, that must be abhorred. Holocaust metaphors are hard to miss, particularly in a late scene in which Bennell watches, in deadpan distress, as a busload of school children are unwittingly ushered into a building to be assimilated. As in Siegel’s film, Kaufman builds to a sequence where Bennell and Elizabeth are confronted by the fake Kibner and Belicec, calm proselytisers for the change who Bennell finishes up killing in a terribly intimate struggle. Like Siegel, Kaufman would devote the rest of his career to celebrating gutsy people apart after having defined his personal nightmare. But where Siegel’s vision became increasingly antisocial, Kaufman tried to celebrate an ideal, helping create Indiana Jones and glorifying the Mercury astronauts and turning Henry Miller and Anaïs Nin into bohemian swashbucklers. Kaufman stages his take on the original film’s greenhouse scene out in Bennell’s backyard, where he, Elizabeth, and the Belicecs are resting: Bennell falls asleep sprawled in a sun chair. Fine tendrils from one of the pods are seen attaching themselves to his body for the sake of absorbing his physiognomy and then mind.

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This brilliantly executed scene did for makeup and prosthetic effects what Star Wars had done for spaceship action the year before in showing an audience a sudden leap forward in a special effects art, presenting a convincingly corporeal vision of the replication of process, twitching, shivering bodies growing rapidly. Only Nancy’s interruption, screaming out to Bennell as she spies the malefic scene, awakens him and forestalls the process. Bennell hacks his replica to pieces with a shovel and the gang flee the house. In both films Bennell can’t bring himself to attack Becky’s replica and so attacks his own instead. Another of Kaufman’s great scenes, a moment charged with the essence of ‘70s screen culture, is a montage sequence in which Bennell tries to alert authorities from pay phones in the San Francisco downtown. Random voices from a distant regime fending off his warnings drone on audio as Kaufman’s visuals employ swooning hand-held camerawork, tracking Bennell as he wanders the city and makes his calls, all sense not just of structured society and authority disintegrating but reality along with it, as Bennell falls down the rabbit hole into complete disconnection from the world, the city completing its transformation from enveloping community to enemy territory.

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As the conspiracy busts loose and the heroes are driven out onto the streets, the style becomes increasingly baroque. Bennell, Elizabeth, and the Belicecs are glimpsed under a flight of stairs, only their four sets of eyes visible through gaps in the woodwork, as their pursuers pound down the steps before them; then the fleeing foursome’s shadows are seen dancing upon the wall of the Embarcadero like they’ve become refugees from a Murnau film. Kaufman’s genuine engagement with the original is also nodded to in two sequences that are also inspired enlargements upon Siegel’s. In the original Bennell and Becky’s efforts to move undetected amongst the pod people by acting emotionless are foiled when Becky screams in concern for a dog that nearly gets hit by a truck. Kaufman has Bennell encounter the bedraggled, homeless busker Harry (Joe Bellen) who sleeps with his dog in the park: Bennell kicks at a pod lying near him to save him from assimilation, but later as Bennell, Elizabeth, and Nancy escape a locale teeming with pod people a grotesque chimera comes loping towards them, the dog with Harry’s head, tearing a scream from Elizabeth. It feel like a black-hearted gag taking aim at too-little too-late liberalism as well as an episode seeking some genuine perversity in the evocation of new frontiers of flesh.

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The second variation plays on a haunting sequence in Siegel’s where Bennell follows the sound of eerie music only to find it’s only on a radio ignored by the replica people working on a pod farm. In Kaufman’s version, this becomes a more expansively operatic moment as Bennell hears a mass bagpipe version of “Amazing Grace” echoing from the waterfront and thinks they might be able to escape on a ship still crewed by humans, only to find as he ventures close that pods are being loaded onto the ships for exporting. The simultaneously mocking and plaintive sense of spiritual longing and human grandeur takes Siegel’s ironic scene to a new place here, all the more tragic in the sense of such art and feeling being erased. Perhaps the greatest moment in Siegel’s film comes when a completely exhausted Becky collapses as she and Bennell try to flee a cave where they’ve hidden. As Bennell tries to pick her realises she’s fallen asleep just long enough, no more than a few seconds, to be possessed by the aliens, her black eyes opening slowly with impassive and depthless regard: Siegel cuts from viewpoint to viewpoint – Bennell’s horrified reaction, eyes wide with shock and revulsion, mirrors the possessed Becky’s – as it becomes clear at last this is a nightmare there’s no waking up from.

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Kaufman’s version of the same moment is less immediately vivid, but it has its own sick power. Bennell returns from the waterfront to find Elizabeth asleep and lost. He sits cradling her body until it crumbles into a fibrous mess, and her replica arises from the scrub nearby, naked and remade as a blankly carnal thing that mocks the way Bennell and Elizabeth played at platonic friendship that finally became passion with the sarcastic permission of the alien invasion: Elizabeth becomes a mere body there’s no point in trying to make love to. Faced with the choice between honouring Finney or Siegel’s endings, Kaufman and Richter chose to do both, which makes for a slightly awkward if still vigorous set of climaxes. Fleeing the fake Elizabeth, Bennell comes across a warehouse where the pods are being cultivated, and he manages to lay waste to the place by dropping lighting rigs on the nursery and starting a fire. But faced with no chance to escape the city, Bennell returns to the Department of Health building and seems to make a play of operating normally amongst his colleagues, now all silent, pokerfaced, utterly futile beings for whom the workaday treadmill has become a robotic routine, a bleak and tedious reductio ad absurdum for all late capitalist life.

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The sting in the tale waits until the very last shots, as Bennell wanders solitary in the town only to encounter Nancy, who gives away her humanity by giving him a complicit grin: Bennell lifts a hand and points at her, releasing the demonic alien scream of accusation. Kaufman’s camera zooms into the black void of the screaming maw. It’s one of the most memorable and ghoulish endings in fantastic cinema, capping the movie with a note of bottomless angst and horror. And yet it’s also ambiguous. Many critics felt the end of Kaufman’s film implied there had never been much point fighting the pods and that the pod Bennell simply represented clapped-out acquiescence. But what does it mean that Bennell became a pod person? His yawing-mouthed cry evokes both his counterpart in Siegel’s film as he raved his desperate warning, and also his own choked-off scream as Elizabeth crumbles in his arms. Did he simply run out of steam, unable to keep himself awake? Did he give in because it was too painful to be alone? Or did he, as the last glimpses of him gazing at the replicated Becky possibly suggest, give in in order, in whatever pathetic, degraded, impotent state, to share it with her? The horror of the ending of Siegel’s film is that Bennell seems inhuman when bellowing and crying out in a most human way. The horror of Kaufman’s is that our most human need, for other humans, could lead us to abandon humanity.

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2010s, Action-Adventure, Auteurs, Drama, Scifi

Ad Astra (2019)

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Director: James Gray
Screenwriters: James Gray, Ethan Gross

By Roderick Heath

Here there be spoilers…

James Gray has remained conspicuously earthbound throughout his career as one of American cinema’s least-appreciated yet consistently lucid and enriching filmmakers, a teller of tales rooted in a world too often crude and exhausting, with flashes of the sublime through the murk blinding as often as they illuminate. Produced by and starring Brad Pitt, wielding a big budget and spectacular special effects, Gray’s seventh feature Ad Astra represents a sharp leap in ambition, and yet it’s also an unmistakeable, remarkably unalloyed extension of his career to date, taking up his most consistent themes and painting them upon his largest canvas yet. Gray’s initial argot, evinced in Little Odessa (1994), The Yards (2000), and We Own The Night (2006), was an updated version of a brand of American film situated on the nexus of film noir and social realist drama, fare like On The Waterfront (1954), Edge of the City (1957), and The Hustler (1961). Such a stage allowed him to at once analyse dynamic processes like immigrant assimilation, upward mobility, and gangster capitalism, in conflict with the internal foils that define the individual person, matters of identity, morality, empathy. With Two Lovers (2008) he turned to a more intimate brand of character drama whilst maintaining his carefully modulated awareness of context, a mode he sustained even whilst shifting to historical settings and broader canvases for The Immigrant (2014) and The Lost City of Z (2016).

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As I noted in writing on The Lost City of Z, Gray’s films are, in essence, ghost stories set amongst the living, tales of haunting gripping his protagonists in their desperate struggles to be born anew. Gray’s fascination with characters who find themselves bound to others – family, lovers, collaborators – in voyages into folie-a-deux perversity here takes on a form that’s become borderline obsessive in current American film, even its more fantastical wings, the figure of the lost and taunting father figure. The realistic special effects adventure and science fiction movie has also known something of a boom in recent years, prefigured by the likes of John Sturges’ Marooned (1969) and Brian De Palma’s Mission to Mars (2001) and recently expanded by Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity (2013), Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar (2014), Ridley Scott’s The Martian (2015), and Damien Chazelle’s First Man (2018). The latter film was a biography of Neil Armstrong, the epitome of the cool, calm, collected type prized by organisations like NASA and utterly inimical to a showman like Chazelle. Gray tackles a similar personality in his protagonist, Major Roy McBride (Brad Pitt), who’s famed in the ranks the NASA-supplanting SpaceCom for the way his heart rate never goes over 80 bpm even in the most adrenalin-provoking straits.

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The film’s opening sequence describes such a circumstance in a fearsomely filmed episode of spectacle, as Roy is working on a massive antenna reaching from Earth into the outer atmosphere for easy communications with deep space. A mysterious pulse of energy sweeping in from the void strikes the antenna, wreaking havoc. Amidst a rain of plummeting colleagues and wreckage, Roy manages to flip the switch on the electrical systems, preventing the whole structure from melting down, at the expense of being swept off the antenna’s side. Falling to Earth, Roy has to wait until the atmosphere becomes thick enough to stabilise his tumbling fall and deploy his parachute, trying not to black out. Even when he does succeed in releasing his parachute, debris rips holes in it, sending him into a chaotic spin, but he still manages to land without being badly injured.

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After recuperating in hospital, Roy is called to meet with some SpaceCom brass (John Finn, John Ortiz, and LisaGay Hamilton), who admire his grit and ask him to perform a mission on their behalf. Roy’s father, H. Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones), went missing in the outer solar system when he led a pioneering scientific mission, the Lima Project, to search for signs of alien intelligence. Long since presumed dead with the rest of his crew, Clifford has been hailed as one of the great heroes of SpaceCom’s history and the colonising process. But now SpaceCom believe Clifford might in fact still be alive, and pursuing some kind of anti-matter research that’s sending out the energy surges and might, if it destabilises, even annihilate the solar system. SpaceCom commission Roy for a very strictly delineated mission, to travel to Mars, the outermost outpost of colonisation, and broadcast a pre-prepared appeal to Clifford to cease the surges and make contact.

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Gray’s version of a spacefaring future has a fascinating tint of the retro to it, as if torn from the pages of a theoretical book predicting space exploration and migration from the late 1950s. Visually, it’s a realistic mishmash of technologies both potential and shop-worn, showroom-fresh and salvaged for expedience. Initially, Roy is offered as the essential square-jawed action man right out of a comic book or pulp tale. The title references the Royal Air Force’s motto, at once evoking the elusively poetic as well as the valiant but narrow pretences of a martial ethos. Roy is deployed by SpaceCom, an organisation Gray amusingly initially presents as a cadre enveloped by a mix of Madison Avenue-like controlled messaging and militaristic caginess. Roy makes the voyage to the moon in the company of his father’s former colleague and friend Thomas Pruitt (Donald Sutherland), albeit one who fell out with Clifford precisely because he wouldn’t follow him to the extremes Clifford aimed for. Gray’s awesome vistas of the moon surface, with the gleaming lights of cities shining out of dark craters, gives way to Roy’s stirred contempt in noting the way the American moonbase has become something like an airport or shopping mall, replete with consumer outlets, with boles of tacky hedonism. Even the flight he and Pruitt arrived on was commercial, charging outrageous prices for petty comforts. This is one of Gray’s canniest notions, suggesting that space habitation won’t ever really take off until the profit motive compels it.

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The moon has also become another stage for human fractiousness, with the many countries claiming various sectors of it locked in a perpetual state of quasi-war for the right to mine resources and defend domain. Despite the risks, the local garrison promises to get Roy and Pruitt aboard the interplanetary rocket, the Cepheus, awaiting them on a distant launching pad. As it unfolds, Ad Astra unveils itself as a variation on Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and its various adaptations. The use of voiceover to penetrate the lead character’s hard shell and ready habits of spouting sanctioned clichés certainly harkens back to Apocalypse Now (1979), although as an assimilation of Conrad Gray’s take feels closer kin to the Ron Winston-directed, Stewart Stern-written’s 1958 TV adaptation for Playhouse 90, which recast the tale as a generational conflict as well as a depiction of cultural collision and malformed hybridisation, making its version of Kurtz the adoptive father of Marlowe and paragon of enlightened, elevated values turned bestial shaman. Such a twist might be said to recast Conrad’s story as more specifically American, a contest between elders ensconced in a citadel of certain faiths contending with a questioning, seeking youth facing a wealth of possibility as well as the pain of impossibility. Gray has explicitly compared the film to a version of Homer’s The Odyssey a common point of mythopoeic reference for all these works, but one told from the point of view of Telemachus, the wandering, searching son.

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Certainly Ad Astra plugs into Pitt’s recent, quasi-auteurist fascination with taking on roles that explore the mystique of certain brand of fatherly masculinity, echoing in Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life (2011) and Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time…In Hollywood (2019), trying to grasp at what made the old-school ideal of manhood tick in order to assimilate its might but also excise its sick spots. Pitt, who started off as a long-haired lover boy and despite his very real talent always seemed like an actor cast for his looks first and his ability second, has finally reached a point in his career, rendered just a touch leathery by nascent middle-age, fidgety anxiousness starting to light those cover boy eyes and a sense of weary humour in self-knowledge twisting up that former perma-pout, where his lingering potential is being realised. Gray already touched on Conradian territory with The Lost City of Z but also argued with it as he presented a white, western hero who finds himself constantly nearing but never quite grasping his quasi-religious goal in the jungle. Also like his last film, Ad Astra entails revising that film’s portrait of a son so determined to live up to his father and join his myth that he eventually loses his life with him in a mission to the edge of the known. But Ad Astra is also a film that suggests Gray has a surprising affinity with sci-fi, particularly the precepts of early forays in the genre that sparked its 1950s screen craze, like Irving Pichel’s Destination Moon (1950) and Byron Haskin’s Conquest of Space (1955), both produced by George Pal, as well as Haskin’s later Robinson Crusoe on Mars (1964).

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Haskin’s efforts to balance a stringent portrayal of what was then the largely still theoretical nature of spaceflight with a questioning, yearning sense of its meaning formed one of the first truly important bodies of work in the genre. Ad Astra can be regarded in many ways as a highly advanced remake of Conquest of Space, enlarging on that film’s detail-obsessed realism with all the arts of modern moviemaking, whilst also assimilating the theme of father-son conflict and madness inspired by confronting the void, and pivoting around key sequences like funerals in space where the eternal and the coldly immediate are both utterly tangible. Like Robinson Crusoe on Mars, it contends with space as an existential trap where the hero(es) contend not just with solitude and survival but with the conceivable limits of existence and their search for a divine presence. In Conquest of Space the father was also a much-heralded hero of space pioneering and his son condemned to dwell in the shadow of his legacy, and finally had to step and in save the day when his father’s seemingly rock-solid psyche gives way as he becomes convinced their journey to Mars is an act of sacrilege. Sci-fi had been on cinema screens since the near-coinciding birth of both forms, but Haskin helped forge a crucial question that’s propelled the genre ever since, certainly influencing sci-fi films as different as Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and Nicholas Meyer’s Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982), not just in imagery but in a central, overriding impetus, a demand for transcendental meaning in the experience of spacefaring.

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Gray obeys the picaresque structure of both The Odyssey and Heart of Darkness, as a succession of events leading Roy from the familiar world to the very fringes of the human sphere, passing through zones of lawlessness, conflict, and collapse along the way to various outposts testifying to a tenuous hold on a universe that might shrug them off. Gray mixes in aspects that retain some of the zest of a pulpier brand of sci-fi whilst twisting it to his own purposes. During Roy and Pruitt’s transportation across the lunar surface to the Cepheus dock, their moon buggy convoy is assaulted by a flotilla of vehicles from a piratical faction, in an action sequence that can be taken as Gray’s take on the helicopter attack in Apocalypse Now. It’s also, like that precursor, one of those scenes you know to be an instant classic of the medium even as you’re watching it, through Gray’s depiction of speed and force as experienced from a rigorously controlled viewpoint, concussive impacts and swift, arbitrary destruction conveyed with a woozy blend of immediacy mediated by the strange, fluidic motion of low gravity. Roy’s cool under pressure asserts itself again, taking control of his buggy and managing to elude pursuers finally with a daring leap into the depths of a crater, a breathtaking moment where the vehicle swings in a languorous arc across the vast pit, suspended between past and future, death and survival.

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The buggy lands without damage, but when he reaches the launch site Roy is forced to part with Pruitt, as he suffers a heart attack following the battle. Sutherland as Pruitt offers a paternal figure to “hold my hand” as Roy puts it, although Pruitt recalls Clifford calling him a traitor. Pruitt insists that Roy leave him and get on with the mission, passing on to him a thumb drive loaded with information SpaceCom kept from Roy, including videos that suggest that reveal, far from perishing heroically, Clifford turned despotic and suppressed a revolt amongst his crew through violent means, determined to continue research with a cabal of remaining loyalists. When the Cepheus stops to answer a distress signal from a drifting spacecraft against Roy’s initial wishes and instinct, he and the Cepheus’ Captain Tanner (Donnie Keshawarz) cross to the vessel to search for survivors, only for Roy to lose contact with the Captain as they explore the interior, in a sequence that slides steadily towards the truly strange. Roy finally comes across the Captain to find him dead, his faceplate smashed and face gnawed off by a baboon, one of a pair of such animals, desperately hungry and maddened, still alive on the abandoned craft.

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Roy manages to kill both animals and gets back to the Cepheus, only for the second-in-command, Stanford (Loren Dean), to freeze up as the ship suffers a power outage during the landing on Mars thanks to another energy surge, once more forcing Roy to assert his steady hand and land the ship. On Mars, Roy encounters Helen Lantos (Ruth Negga), the administrator of the Mars colony who nonetheless doesn’t have sufficient clearance to be present as Roy is pressed into reading SpaceCom’s prewritten pap in a broadcast to his father. On a second attempt, Roy tries a more personal message, tentatively allowed by the controllers, but when they seem to suddenly be alarmed and try to swiftly send Roy back to Earth he realises he got some sort of reply. Helen extracts Roy from the room he’s locked up in and fills in the last piece of the puzzle confirming that Clifford killed many of the people on his mission including Helen’s own parents, in the name of continuing his mission. Determined to confront his father and doubting Stanford’s capacity to fulfil the Cepheus’ mission to stop the anti-matter surges by any means including an atomic bomb, Roy resolves to reboard the ship with Helen’s help.

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Ad Astra self-evidently picks up where The Lost City of Z left off, in contending with the idea of exploration and the kinds of people who dare to make leaps into the beyond, tethering the venturesome exterior journey with an internal struggle. But where the previous film voted the explorer empathy in his social rage and visionary drive, Ad Astra counterpoints with the viewpoint of the abandoned and the betrayed. More subtly, it also extends The Immigrant’s confrontation with people on the borders of new experience whilst still mentally trapped within the old. Percy Fawcett’s determination to discover a lost civilisation and make contact with a wondrous populace at once distinct and familiar is here swapped out for the elder McBride’s hunt for alien intelligence, the quest for a confirming and affirming mirror. Gray sees pioneering as an act aimed as much in rebuke to the familiar as it is an expression curiosity about what’s unfamiliar, and as a process rooted in incapacity to live within a quotidian world, but which is always doomed to drag that world in its wake. Roy passes through the corporatized and commercialised moonbase, a scene reminiscent of Fawcett’s arrival at a jungle city with opera and slavery, surveying a zone where what was once charged with infinite mystery and potential has been colonised and subordinated by the more familiar pleasures and evils of the world. Roy notes that his father would’ve despised such a development, a cogent awareness of the debasement but also offloading any requirement to make a judgement of his own onto the moral abacus of the father figure.

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Gray’s recurring mental landscapes are a warzone in the clash between identity and aspiration, enacted by people who sign on to repeat the journeys of their mentors and forebears despite many good reasons not to. Little Odessa and We Own The Night dealt with characters for whom the natural gravity of following a family legacy is both the easiest thing in the world to obey and also something his protagonists felt to be abhorred; Two Lovers dealt with the same proposition in terms less of material values but anchored instead in desire. The Immigrant’s climactic image of two people bound by a singular concoction of love and loathing heading in separate routes returns in Ad Astra more emphatically in familiar terms. Out Gray’s characters venture to places where traits of character that allow some to thrive and others to fail are mercilessly exposed, but Gray probes a common presumption in genre entertainment where those who question can’t do and those who do can’t question. Gray achieves something passing unique in recent mainstream cinema with Ad Astra, in creating vivid experiential cinema that’s also about conveying a state of mind rather than stating them rhetorically. The stages of Roy’s journey mimic his own self-reconnaissance, the visuals, at once hyper-clear and struck through a dreamy sense of removal, of mysterious abstraction in the void, and finally of hurt gripping like a vice in a cosmos vast and echoic, at once dwarfing and inimical but also lacking any meaning without eyes to see and minds to know.

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As the pivotal figure for a tale of derring-do, Roy is initially opaque, reciting his carefully worked phrases and speeches to get approval from digitised psychological evaluations and operating with the kind of self-control and focus that’s readily mythologised as the ideal tool for government, business, and the military: a man who can do the job and obey exact parameters of behaviour as long as he holds sure the faith that the systems demanding such capacities work with flawless logic. Gray diagnoses Roy’s prized impassivity and coolness as aspects of a carefully erected psychological apparatus to guard against passion, a dam his father’s abandonment and vanishing forced him to build. Gray echoes the thesis essayed long ago in Howard Hawks’ canonical study of old and young American males, Red River (1948), where the old-school tough guy persona was found to be based in closet hysteria, a state of ferocity muzzled rather than controlled. Early in his film Gray notes Roy’s memory of his wife Eve (Liv Tyler) leaving him, a form in the periphery of his awareness, and the process of working his way out towards his father is also in part the process of working his way back to her. Being confronted with evidence that his father was not the paragon both he and SpaceCom needed him to be shakes something loose, and Roy’s hallowed calm shatters.

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And yet the process of regaining his emotional reflexes ultimately don’t retard Roy’s daring and cool, where others around him fail and flail, as Gray seeks to analyse the difference between a kind of false stoicism and a more authentic kind. Ad Astra depicts a key part of coping with grief, where emotional reality is not denied but simply existed within, like the contained capsule of air that is a spacesuit. The counterpoint of Roy’s musing voiceover and his immediate experiences are reminiscent of Terrence Malick’s in this regard, although Gray avoids Malick’s more particular approach where his characters’ thoughts winnow out poetical essentials amidst frenetic associations. Faced with evidence of his father’s destructive actions, seemingly rooted in indifference to more paltry human needs, Roy recognises the same pattern of behaviour that has defined him, and he takes it upon himself to enact an oedipal drama on a cosmic stage. The myths Roy has accepted, which prove to have also been propagated by authority in order to retain its sheen of inviolable competence and purview, demand complete reorientation of his identity. Gray here seems to be getting at something absolutely vital about our time, the way spasms of reflexive rage and denial pass through many a body politic the moment foundational myths rooted in an idealised sense of the past and communal identity are interrogated.

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Roy meets his essential counterpart and foil in Lantos, who has only been to Earth once, born and living on Mars, a biography that subtly bisects Roy’s path. Lantos is a citizen of the void, orphaned and static: alienation is the literal air she breathes. Lantos extracts Roy from a room where he’s been sequestered with a barrage of calming influences projected on the walls, like being stuck inside an animated ambient music track. Lantos’ gift to Roy is a new sense of vengeful urgency in his mission, compelling him to be the one who goes out to bring his father to account, even as SpaceCom try to bundle him off the mission once he renders proceedings personal. Lantos helps Roy in trying to get back aboard the Cepheus, a self-imposed mission that demands swimming through water-filled tunnels and climbing up through a hatch between the rocket exhausts. Even once aboard Roy finds himself in danger as the crew leap to apprehend him. The crewmembers try to shoot and stab Roy even as he protests he has no malicious intentions, but the jolts of the launching spacecraft in accidents that kill all three crew, leaving Roy alone with three corpses. This sequence, another of Gray’s superlatively executed action scenes, is also a study in the concept of aggressive action as something that works upon itself: SpaceCom, revealed as an organisation that ultimately prizes the appearance of competence and rectitude over the actuality, and its immediate representatives react with mindless aggression the proves self-defeating.

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But Roy is also forced to regard the consequences of his own actions, which see him bringing death and mayhem in a manner not really that different from his father, in the single-minded desire to reach a goal without thinking too hard about what it might provoke, his determined aspect like a too-powerful engine amongst other beings who simply drift in existence. Roy’s voyage through space to Neptune sees him almost lose his mind and body in the decay of solitude, before arriving at last at the Lima Project station. Flares of energy radiate from a dish on the hull and Clifford lurks within, king of a drifting tin can where old musicals play on screens amidst floating corpses. Clifford proves haggard and baleful but still utterly lucid and readily confessing to Roy that his obsession entirely displaced any care he had for Roy and his mother, a moment that, amongst other things, extends Gray’s motif of phony speech contending with hard, plain, honest statements throughout the film: although Clifford deals out a cold truth to Roy, at least he respects him enough to offer it. In this part of the film I felt as if Gray’s inspiration was beginning to desert him even as his essential points came into focus. It might have been fascinating if he had taken Conrad’s (and Francis Coppola’s) cue and portrayed the remnants of Clifford’s personality cult engaged in atavistic perversity at the end of the universe in their awe and cringing before a blank vastness, rather than narrowing the experience to a generational confrontation.

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Gray’s ultimate point is articulated through Roy as he comprehends his father has experienced the most gruelling loss of faith, sacrificing everything and everyone including himself for a quasi-mystical project that has yielded nothing, manifold planets of infinite variety and beauty mapped but none offering what Clifford was so desperately searching for. “We’re all there is,” Roy sums it up, with both the inference that the kind of bond tethering father to sun across the solar system is worthy in itself, but also making the task of holding onto human life both more precious and also more awful and despair-provoking, knowing what both men know about human nature, and the fragility of its toehold in the universe. As a climactic point, this wrestles with the same problem Haskin foretold in the 1950s as humanity looked out upon the universe and struggled with the loss of old limits. But it also makes a fascinating about-face from the general run of sci-fi, starting with those old Haskin films and progressing through the likes of 2001: A Space Odyssey, Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) and many more, where the religious impulse is sublimated into a more generalised sense of wonder and possibility, as Gray confronts a frontier that provokes despair in many, the probability that we’re alone and have to make do.

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The images of Clifford and Roy hitched together in space, Clifford trying to tear loose from his son, inverts the climax of The Martian: the finite tether of human contact strained and broken, as Clifford demands the right to make his own end, obliging Roy to quite literally let go so he can drift off into gorgonized eternity. Roy has to synthesise his own good reason to return to Earth and face the music, summoning the ghostly image of his wife’s face as a reason to defy the void and launch himself through the planet’s rings to get back to the Cepheus, in the last of Gray’s astounding sequences, protecting himself against debris with a piece of panelling stripped to use as a shield. This touch seems in itself a closing of a circle even as it evokes a different Homeric figure, given Pitt played Achilles in 2004’s Troy but never got to wield that character’s civilisation-encapsulating aegis: here at last we get the cosmic hero, defier of fates. If Ad Astra sees Gray underlining himself in ways he’s usually avoided for the sake of trying to put across a film to a mass audience, particularly in some fairly superfluous concluding scenes, it’s still nonetheless a mighty, sparely beautiful, finally gallant attempt from a great filmmaker.

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1990s, 2000s, Action-Adventure, Scifi

The Matrix (1999) / The Matrix Reloaded (2003) / The Matrix Revolutions (2003)

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Directors/Screenwriters: The Wachowskis

By Roderick Heath

Read this essay or listen to the podcast

Throughout the 1980s and ‘90s, many filmmakers chased a strange new grail of pop culture: to make the first true blockbuster rooted in the new styles in life and fiction provoked by the arrival of computers as part of everyday existence. As the number of computer users grew and gave birth to happily nerdy ranks as well as the shadowy adherents of hacker culture in the real world, an imaginary refraction arrived in the literary cyberpunk genre, which had been codified if not entirely initiated by writer William Gibson. Eventually it became clear that as a potential audience conversant in new concepts grew larger and the innovation they fostered became generally familiar, a whole new movie audience was forged. Soon filmmakers were offering up the likes of Tron (1982) and War Games (1983). The former, an attempt to build a fantasy-adventure film out of novel notions like virtual reality and computer simulation, bombed at the box office, whilst the latter, a straight-laced thriller with a hacking aspect, was a big hit, but neither approach really led anywhere for the time being.

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In the 1990s the possibility of virtual reality immersions and artificial intelligence seemed imminent, exploited in trashy fare like The Lawnmower Man (1992), Disclosure (1994), and Virtuosity (1995), whilst the arrival of the World Wide Web resulted in updates of the ‘70s paranoid thriller with such entries as The Net (1995) and Enemy of the State (1999), as well as bouncy, digitally enhanced heist movies like Sneakers (1992) and Hackers (1995). The more serious, engaged, imaginative literary takes on a seemingly imminent future union of the human and the machine, the real and the simulated, struggled to gain ground when anyone tried to translate them into cinema, in part because of the failure of films like Tron and Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982). Scott’s film swiftly proved cyberpunk’s cinematic style guide for ambitious young directors, and dark, perverse, gothic-technocratic visions of the near-future proliferated in the mid-‘90s. The likes of Kathryn Bigelow’s Strange Days (1995) and David Cronenberg’s eXistenZ (1999) failed to attract viewers for being too weird and spiky in their approach. ‘90s It-Boy Keanu Reeves saw potential in the cyberpunk style, but his first attempt at riding it for a pop hit, with 1995’s Johnny Mnemonic, proved an embarrassing debacle despite being written by Gibson himself.

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Meanwhile sibling filmmakers Larry and Andy Wachowski had become a hot property in Hollywood with their script for Assassins (1995) and their debut feature, Bound (1996). Infamously, rising star Will Smith turned down the lead role for The Matrix, a project based in the Wachowski’s general obsession with not just computer gaming and cyberpunk fiction but also Japanese manga and anime and postmodernist philosophy, a heady stew Reeves proved more attuned to. To keep down the costs of making the film, which would require some groundbreaking special effects, the production was shifted to Sydney, where it was filmed almost simultaneously with a very similar-sounding project, Alex Proyas’ Dark City (1998). Much like George Lucas a quarter-century earlier, the Wachowskis staked everything on a hugely ambitious leap from down-to-earth fare to epic science fiction filmmaking. The brothers were rewarded as 1999 rolled around, and The Matrix suddenly became the eye of the blockbuster zeitgeist, not outdoing the return of the Star Wars franchise that year in revenue, but certainly stealing all its cool-kid thunder. Why did The Matrix score a bullseye where so many others missed?

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Series protagonist Thomas A. Anderson (Reeves), whose hacker alias Neo eventually becomes his preferred name, is offered as a wage slave functionary in some general purpose corporation office block. He spends his nights locked in his apartment, driven to penetrate the veil of estrangement and falsity he senses around him, and trying to contact legendary hackers glimpsed speeding through the networks. Before we meet Neo, we see one of those legends, Trinity (Carrie-Ann Moss), battling policemen and mysterious government agents in a seedy downtown area. Trinity is a swashbuckling dissident with superhuman powers, powers the agents also wield. Trinity races to a phone booth as one agent runs her down with a truck, and seems to vanish from the pulverised rubble. Neo gets an email offering him answers to his inchoate searching, and meets Trinity in a nightclub. She soon introduces him to Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne), who gives him a choice between maintaining the existence he knows and awakening to a daunting new truth. Neo is arrested and interrogated by the leader of the agents, Agent Smith (Hugo Weaving), who terrifies Neo by somehow sealing up his mouth and implanting him with an electronic bug that becomes a biomechanoid parasite.

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After Trinity removes the bug, Morpheus brings Neo out of the reality he knows, which is actually the Matrix, a computer simulation of the late 20th century. Robotic intelligences, created by mankind but grown too smart to control, long ago won a cataclysmic war for control of the Earth. Faced with a decimated and perpetually clouded world, the central AI unit, called the Source, started exploiting a blend of fusion power and tapped human bioenergy, requiring billions of humans to live swaddled in amniotic chambers, kept lulled by the Matrix. Morpheus believes Neo is “The One,” a prophesised saviour figure with the power to subvert and subordinate the Matrix, and has sought him to fight on the behalf of the one free human outpost left, the subterranean city of Zion. Neo is brought aboard Morpheus’ hovercraft, the Nebuchadnezzar, which travels via ancient underground tunnel and sewer networks. He meets the ship’s crew, including Cypher (Joe Pantoliano), and is schooled in how to bend the rules of the Matrix and battle within the digital world. Eventually Morpheus takes him to meet the Oracle (Gloria Foster), a mysterious entity in the Matrix who told Morpheus he would find the One and Trinity that she would fall in love with him. But the Oracle tells Neo that he isn’t the Messiah, just a naughty boy.

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The Wachowskis had signalled with Bound, a tale of lesbian lovers trying to outwit one woman’s gangster boyfriend for survival and profit, that their ardour for film noir tropes and new-age mores was more than skin-deep. Where the Star Wars films had purveyed their inspirations like Joseph Campbell as intellectual background radiation, The Matrix films flaunted their conceptual literacy and awareness, down to touches like having its hero grab a copy of Jean Baudrillard’s Simulacra and Simulation, one of the heady tomes the Wachowskis gave their cast to explain their notions, and a storyline that referenced philosophical ideas from the likes of Plato and Descartes. Great wads of all three films, particularly in the heroes’ exchanges with the various sentient entities floating around the Matrix like the Oracle, are devoted to dialogue affecting dissemination of abstract philosophical ideas around choice and perception, most of which are cardboard. The film’s most famous metaphorical confrontation comes when Morpheus presents Neo with a simple choice, between returning to the life he knows by taking a blue pill or confronting the underlying reality with a red pill, a notion that cunningly repurposes the old Counterculture notion of drugs as gateways to new perceptions.

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But where other filmmakers tackling similar material kept their thinking relatively intimate, the Wachowskis dreamt up a dystopian mythology and used it chiefly as a pretext for spectacular action scenes. The Wachowskis were freely harvesting tropes, of course, particularly from manga and anime. Echoes of Ghost in the Shell (1995), Galaxy Express 999 (1979), Akira (1986), and many more are detectable in the concern with unholy fusions of the organic and mechanical and detachment of spirit from flesh. The notion of do-or-die conflict played out in an unreal world had precursors too, in stuff like The Undead (1957), Dreamscape (1983) and A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), although those films’ basis in the plasticity of the psyche was rejected. The Doctor Who fan in me long knew a suspicious recollection of that show’s classic episode “The Deadly Assassin” from 1976, where the Doctor linked his mind with his home world Gallifrey’s mainframe computer, called, yes, the Matrix, to do battle with an evil foe in a surreal netherworld. Hiring master Hong Kong fight choreographer and director Yuen Woo-Ping to arrange the fight scenes gave a patina of honest connection with wu xia films. The influence of Frank Herbert’s Dune novels is likewise detectable, particularly in the theme of a nascent superbeing who may or may not represent a liberating force of renewal, and twists of story like Neo being blinded only to discover another way of seeing, whilst Zion resembles Herbert’s concept of the Fremen civilisation.

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Most importantly, the Wachowskis offered style. The look of The Matrix became its instantly identifiable signature, taking ‘90s alt-culture affectations to a refined limit, with its heroes wrapped in black leather and long spaghetti western overcoats, and eyes hidden behind gleaming sunglasses. Trinity is the intensely fetishized emblem of all, somewhere between a teenage boy’s idea of a lesbian motorcyclist and a rave club dominatrix, delivering crane kicks in zero-gravity and giving displays of the now much-mocked “superhero landing” pose. The look imposed by Dick Pope’s cinematography was as dark and chitinous as a beetle’s back, with cinematography washed in green filters to signify the Matrix environs and pale blues for the real world. This aspect was enhanced by the Oscar-winning visual and sound effects. Some of these were deployed on relatively familiar sci-fi vistas, like the dramatic revelation of the human pod farms, the Nebuchadnezzar negotiating ruined labyrinths, and the squirming, squid-like ‘Sentinel’ robots the Source employs to police and chase enemies. But the effects that instantly became cliché devices in the contemporary directorial arsenal included ‘ramping’ effects that shift camera speeds in mid-shot and move around characters gyrating in slow motion, used to portray the Matrix warriors’ ability to distort perception of time to the point where they can dodge bullets.

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Despite all the hullabaloo, I’ve never felt more than lukewarm towards The Matrix and its sequels, and often much less. For films that inspired such obsessive generational loyalty and oodles of po-faced commentary, they’re often incredibly dumb, and staunchly refuse to mine their theoretically infinite malleability, with their basis in a simulated reality, for anything but the most obvious tweaks on action movie clichés. Time has ironically invested The Matrix films with a more interesting subtext than those they so urgently tried to force upon the viewer back when. Larry and Andy Wachowski are today Lana and Lilly, and the films’ obsessive portraiture of an exterior reality that refuses to match up with inner identity now seems immediately inspired by the siblings’ struggle with gender identity. Indeed, they found a uniquely dramatic way of turning that struggle into an experience that allowed a vast audience to grasp and relate to their lot. Even the near-doppelganger pairing of Reeves and Moss seems to channel this quality, fractured pieces of a whole who border on the asexual. The visions of human bodies riddled with steely portals and subsisting within pods of goo weaponised the body horror of David Cronenberg, so strongly fixed as it was in the anxieties stirred up the changed sexual mores of the 1960s and ‘70s. The Wachowskis wanted to base their drama in a distinctively paranoid, anti-authoritian worldview where the bad guys, with their suits and earpieces, look like Secret Service agents and stand as emblems of malfeasant power. The narrative promised nerdy boys the world over they too could rewrite reality, become all-powerful, and net a hot sporty girlfriend if they only learned to code well enough.

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But to me The Matrix films were foiled rather than empowered by their desperate desire to hang with the cool kids and deny their nerdy roots. There is no sense of normality to subvert in the first film. At the outset we get some shots of Neo ensconced as an office cubicle, only to be quickly driven out of it. We only get pop signifiers of social drudgery and reality breakdown rather than engaging it for any sense of personal angst or mounting disquiet. Neo’s briefly-glimpsed freak friends are all cool, kinky party types – basically the same types he breaks out of The Matrix to hang with. The Wachowskis attempt to blindside the audience with Neo’s surreal experience with Smith and the bug, but the mystery isn’t teased for very long, and the sequence where Trinity and others extract the bug from him sees them using a stupid-looking gadget that looks like it came out of some other, lost steampunk movie. Once he does escape the Matrix and begins his evolution into superhero, Neo doesn’t have to master any real abilities or struggle with his identity. The Wachowskis have to invent an entirely unnecessary wrinkle by having the Oracle deny his being The One, to provide the vaguest tension. By the end of the trilogy Neo is still as flat, bland, and numbingly “cool” a hero as he was at the start, an avatar for level-up warriors the world over. Also, I wish some of the slow-motion kung-fu fights didn’t remind me so much of Clouseau fighting Cato in the Pink Panther films.

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Whilst the Wachowskis seemed genuine in their progressive credentials, the world they created had a rather fascistic aesthetic and pivoted on adolescent paeans to those turned on and turned off from reality, the shallow, self-congratulatory aspect of their allegories has been thoroughly demonstrated by the way everyone from the far left to the far right has subsumed its red pill/blue pill schism. Anyone has the right, The Matrix ultimately told too many people, to reject the world one shares with other people and substitute one’s preferred way of seeing. Relics of genuine head cinema like The Trip (1967), The Last Movie (1971), or Alejandro Jodorowski’s films were wild portraits of fractured personalities trying to understand their own perverse and destructive selves as well as the crudity of the world about them. By contrast The Matrix offers a profoundly reassuring message: it’s all those people’s fault. The propelling basis in Countercultural outlook is sapped of colour, fun, and imaginative purview, with shiny technocracy, broad paranoia, and chic violence in their place. The notion of a bunch of radical warriors battling wicked, assimilating forces in a flying ship has an odd similarity to Yellow Submarine (1968), but this was more like Basic Black Submarine. The films were built around some of the more annoyingly shallow aspects of the ‘90s alternative zeitgeist, particularly the kind of collegiate nihilism that had been a dominant mood since Kurt Cobain’s suicide, to which the films can only really respond in terribly weak fashion at the end when Smith asks why Neo puts up with so much pain and hopelessness and he replies, “Because I choose to.”

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The Wachowskis worked hard to keep the Matrix contained by some relatively hard and fast rules. The Source only has a limited ability to interfere with the flow of action in the simulated space, which is a bit hard to swallow but necessary to justify the entire proposition. In one of the trilogy’s more memorable lines, it’s revealed that the Matrix was made to resemble the ordinary human world of 1999 because the first version, a becalmed utopia, was rejected by the humans sharing it. Fractiousness, violence, and discord are part of human nature, demanding the concession of forms of pressure relief like The One and Zion. There’s some irony here given that the Wachowskis were determined to create a fantasy universe that sates such desires: rather than gift their heroes any abilities to have surreal fun with the Matrix, to undercut the fascist chic with absurdism, the Wachowskis keep them caged by generic conventions, and send them into battle instead with guns and other conventional weapons. An essential aspect of the classic martial arts drama is the theme of a character mastering spiritual strength in accord with achieving physical prowess, but the Wachowskis undercut this by making such prowess a mere download away. “I know kung fu,” Neo gasps, one of Reeve’s better line readings as he captures Neo’s ability to process new realities at speed as well as a certain delight in such a gift. And yet, despite the films’ affectations of thoughtfulness, there’s never any real interest in questioning what such warlike arts achieve. The focus and stylisation dismisses most of the other human consciousnesses in the Matrix, and it’s stated outright that they’re all to be considered enemies because the Agents can suborn them at will, which raises some interesting ethical questions that are generally ignored. Bring on the guns, lots of guns.

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Undoubtedly, the Wachowskis tried and succeeded in tapping into the sense of eddying entrapment a lot of young outsiders felt in that superficially calm but deeply anxious lull between the fall of the Berlin Wall and 9/11. Whilst The Matrix decries dull conformism and illusory consumerism, nonetheless the Wachowskis’ method is purveyed in a manner that cuts across the grain of their message, by making their heroes utterly conformist in affect, in settings that are stiflingly brand-aware. Moreover, the Wachowskis suggested in the early reels of The Matrix they lacked the patience to properly build a gallery of characters and worldviews, failings demonstrated all too painfully in the sequels as they tried to expand their universe and ask us to care about Zion and its inhabitants in spite of only introducing them in the most cursory and clumsy manner. Most of the crew of the Nebuchadnezzar look like escapees from Burning Man in the real world and Krautrock stars when in the Matrix, and are instantly forgettable. When Cypher turns traitor and kills most of them by disconnecting their Matrix jacks when they’re immersed, it’s impossible to really care. The best non-technical aspect of the first film is Pantoliano, unsurprising as the Wachowskis had already worked with him on Bound and knew he could give a juicy villainous performance on tap. Where the other actors tackle their deep and meaningful dialogue like wading through treacle in heavy boots, Pantoliano offers what might be the only actual fillip of genuinely engaging acting in the trilogy as Smith courts him to turn traitor in a fancy restaurant: he meditates with deft humour on how the steak he’s eating isn’t real but he doesn’t care because it’s so preferable to the slop they eat on the Nebuchadnezzar.

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In a similar fashion, the movies are much more engaging inside the Matrix than without because there the Wachowskis are free to purvey their love of shiny decadence and reality-contorting imagery, but once the game’s given away it’s hard to care that much about what’s going on inside a giant video game, in large part because there’s no interest in the stakes such battles have for the oblivious unfortunates stuck in it. Foster’s intelligent, measured performance as the Oracle almost helped the character overcome its basis in magical negro cliché. Mary Alice had to take over for the last film as Foster died between shoots, but she acquits herself well too, ably suggesting an entity that stands as the weary but soulful repository of all faith. Weaving’s Smith was another strength, if a fairly broad one, his blandly drawling Yankee accent wielded to sinuous effect as he diagnoses the human condition as being the same as a disease. This presages the character’s ironic evolution by the second two films into just such an entity, a perfect engine of ego remaking everything in his image. Weaving brings just enough smug and irksome evil to his role to invest climactic sequences with some rousing need to see him brought down, as he tortures the captured Morpheus only to invite Neo and Trinity’s wrath. As the Sentinels zero in on the Nebuchadnezzar and Neo is shot by Smith in the Matrix, all seems lost, but Trinity’s kiss in the real world revives Neo in the false, and he finally taps his powers as The One, able to tear Smith to shreds from the inside and escape in time so the ship’s crew can halt the Sentinels with the blast of an electromagnetic pulse. The very last image reveals Neo, after vowing to the Source to bring the pain, flying like Superman across the Matrix skyline: at last the naked, boyish power fantasy has hatched.

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Despite his films’ much more naïf and playful approach, it was telling that George Lucas was beginning to dismantle the Chosen One template with a purpose, to increasing howls of protest, at the exact same time the Wachowskis were greeted as heroes by remaking it for a digitised generation. Whilst the follow-up would do some interesting things with the concept, it never is explained just how being The One works, especially as Neo eventually finds he has powers in the physical as well as simulated worlds. The archaic names littered throughout the series feel less like nods to mythical archetypes than mythopoeic bingo, and the series, for all its intellectual affectations, keeps eventually falling back on stale bromides like “belief” and “hope.” The hardest-headed character in the trilogy, Lock (Harry Lennix), who commands Zion’s armies, is offered as an odiously inflexible figure for failing to see the value in all these. Bound still stands as the Wachowskis’ best film in very large part because it’s their most intimate: there the little myth of self-discovery and the fight for agency had a genuinely convincing scale and sense of urgeny. The failure of their later films to cohere, resulting in the ragged if fascinating mess they co-directed with Tom Tykwer, Cloud Atlas (2012), and displays of empty showmanship in Speed Racer (2008) and Jupiter Ascending (2015), confirmed the siblings had become entrapped by their most famous creation, forced to subsist in a style of moviemaking against the grain of their subtler but preferable talents. The miniature tribute in Cloud Atlas to their signal hit stands as superior for being briefer, punchier, and more to the point.

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Regardless, The Matrix proved so big and unexpected a hit that the Wachowskis were swiftly encouraged to expand their one-off tale into an ambitious trilogy, and two sequels were released within months of each-other in 2003, The Matrix Reloaded and The Matrix Revolutions. The Matrix Reloaded surprised me at the time, as it revealed the Wachowskis as willing to take chances with their property and expand their scope rather than simply continue their original, straightforward dynamic. The Wachowskis this time were confronted by a challenge that often awaits fashioners of cool dystopias, in trying to step out from behind that shield and try to come up with a vision of the opposite. This time they got to portray Zion, envisioned as a gritty, crowded, tenuous space for human life that nonetheless has a utopian aspect, sustainable, harmonious, free of racism and sexism, and led by genuinely wise elders, including Hamann (Anthony Zerbe) and West (Cornel West). The episode’s most divisive scene sees the Wachowskis intercutting between a communal happening where the Zion folk party down with increasingly orgiastic overtones, and Neo and Trinity having sex in their home; physical exultation, communal joy, and weird sexuality are given a uniquely uninhibited place in a Hollywood blockbuster.

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Unsurprisingly, however, the Wachowskis immediately put all that aside and get back on message. The Wachoswkis introduced one impressive-looking new hero, Jada Pinkett’s Niobe, Morpheus’ former flame and a brilliant pilot. The former Agent Smith is now a liberated force, invested with some of Neo’s power and free to set about subsuming every other entity in the Matrix. He even manages to implant his consciousness into a living human, Bane (Ian Bliss), who carries out acts of sabotage in the real world. Perhaps the biggest chance the Wachowskis took, and their most inspired, came at the climax, where Neo encounters the Matrix’s designer program, called the Architect (Helmut Bakaitis), who represents cynical power and corruption by looking like the tycoon on the Monopoly board game box. The Architect informs him that the concept of The One was an invention designed to deal with a cyclical system flaw based in the tendency of humans to rebel sooner or later. So he and the Oracle, another master program, solved the tendency by giving the humans a saviour figure and allowing a certain number to set up rebel enclaves to keep this tendency within controllable limits, eventually wiping them out when they get too large and dangerous and starting the process over. The original’s power fantasy of liberation and subversion is then actually revealed to be a calculated concession that only reinforces the Matrix’s hegemony, and Neo is eventually expected to choose between saving Trinity’s life or working with the Architect to secure the next foundation of Zion with a small number of humans to ensure the species doesn’t die out.

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The plot of The Matrix Reloaded was pretty thin by comparison with the incident-heavy instalments on either side, depicting the attempts of the heroes to track down The Keymaker (Randall Duk Kim), a program who can get them into a locked building where the Oracle tells them they can find valuable knowledge, which proves to be the abode of the Architect. Meanwhile Zion prepares for an attack by a colossal armada of Sentinels. The film exists mostly to string together show-stopping action set-pieces. The episode’s failings as narrative only become clear with the third instalment, wasting whole reels with more pseudo-philosophising and feckless character interaction. Most tiresome is the crew’s encounter with two more Matrix entities, sleazy potentate The Merovingian (Lambert Wilson) and his concubine Persephone (Monica Bellucci), who hold the Keymaster captive. It’s hinted this pair were predecessors of Neo and Trinity as a corrupted One and his mate. Their general function is to tread water between fight scenes with games of mind and libido, as the pompous Merovingian extemporises on the illusion of control, illustrated as he feeds a woman a digital aphrodisiac, and Persephone blackmails Neo into giving her a taste of the sugar he gives Trinity, much to Trinity’s smouldering irritation.

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All this is painfully silly, and wastes running time that could be used better detailing some of the characters it wants us to accept as new and additional heroes. These include Niobe, Lock, Morpheus’ new computer wiz Link (Harold Perrineau), Link’s wife Zee (Nona Gaye), and Kid (Clayton Watson), a young lad Neo brought out of the Matrix who wants to help in the city defence. None of these characters registers as much more than a faint echo, despite the fact that the third part leans on all of them to sustain its drama. But what Reloaded does right is worth cataloguing. In addition to giving the template new dimensions, it offers the series’ most visually ingenious and sustained action scenes. An early fight between Neo and the multiplying Smiths stretched the digital effects to the limit in playing like a cyberpunk kung fu take on the “Sorcerer’s Apprentice” scene from Fantasia (1940). A battle between Neo and the Merovingian’s goons in a mansion expands on the original’s zero-gravity tussles with better effects and a more fluent sense of staging and motion.

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The highpoint of the movie, and the trilogy in fact, is a chase scene on a city freeway as Trinity and Morpheus steal the Keymaker away from the Merovingian, trying to outfight and outrun his dreadlock-haired, white-skinned twin henchmen (Neil and Adrian Rayment) and an Agent whilst careening down the busy roadway. Here the Wachowskis finally give Fishburne some properly badass stuff to do, from slashing a car to pieces with a samurai sword to kickboxing an agent on the roof of a semitrailer. Cunningly, the Wachowskis keep Neo out of this until he manages to swoop in and save Morpheus and the Keymaker from the midst of a slow-motion crash. Whilst this sequence serves no real narrative function, it’s as intricately orchestrated and cleverly visualised as special effects action scenes get, and moreover represents the best example of the series’ driving idea: the apparently stable and familiar universe suddenly and casually perverted. Finally Neo saves Trinity rather than choose work with the Architect, and proves his powers as the One include the capacity to pluck a digital bullet from her gut and restore her to life. Once returned to the real world and forced to flee Sentinel robots consuming their ship, Neo discovers his power over the machines has crossed over, and he destroys several Sentinels with pure willpower, at the cost of almost killing himself.

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The second film leaves the story on a cliffhanger as Neo lies in a coma next to the Smith-possessed body of Bane. The Matrix Revolutions sees Morpheus talking Hamann into letting him take a ship to rescue Neo from the digital netherworld he’s stuck in, over the objections of Lock, who marshals Zion’s scant military strength to hold off the Sentinel horde. After Morpheus, Trinity, and the Oracle’s bodyguard Seraph (Collin Chou) manage to force the Merovingian to release Neo, Neo meets with the Oracle, who assures him she represents the part of the Matrix that wants to find a new solution to the schism of human and machine. Neo senses where his path now leads: to find a way to oblige the Source into calling a truce. As Zion’s warriors, including Zee and Kid, fight off the attack, Morpheus and Niobe dash to bring the last remaining EMP bomb on their ship, and manage to knock out the first wave of robots, at the price of leaving the city barely defensible against the rest. Meanwhile Neo and Trinity continue alone to the heart of the robot city. Neo is blinded when the revived Bane-Smith makes his play to kill him, but Neo discovers he has a psychic link to the Source which means he can see electrical patterns, and he defeats the possessed man. Trinity is killed when their ship crashes into the city, leaving Neo to confront the Source alone. Neo strikes a bargain to save the Source from being completely subsumed by the infection that is Smith if the Source will call off the onslaught on Zion and accept coexistence.

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Revolutions tries damn hard to give the trilogy an epic-sized ending, as the battle that began in the Matrix’s simulacrum finds its climax in mighty clashes of grimy, clanging hardware, and human blood, sweat, and tears. But the most interesting flourish in this instalment comes early as Neo hovers in a vision of limbo that looks like a subway station, a visually effective use of the banal to signify the metaphysical. The mission his friends launch to get him out of there sees the directors ply yet another gravity-defying shoot-out and a hyperbolic display of Tarantino-esque gun-pointing to get the Merovingian to ensure his release. This all makes painfully clear how quickly the Wachowskis were running out of ideas. The conclusion is hurt beyond redemption by the Wachowskis’ incapacity to orchestrate human drama with the same dexterity they bring to the visual. Rather than portray Zion’s fight as an adjunct to the adventures of our familiar heroes, the Wachowskis instead fill the bulk of the episode with the efforts of a bunch of barely introduced and entirely uninteresting characters as they wage war at deafening volume. As FX spectacle it’s well-done, but it’s thumpingly witless and uninventive in execution. The Wachowskis extend their penchant for Japanese sci-fi concepts as the defenders mount mecha war machines, but their defences seem excruciatingly poorly-planned and ineffectual given the nature of an entirely predictable attack. Neo and Trinity are sidelined for great tracts of running time, and Morpheus is literally reduced to a passenger, watching Niobe as she steers with great intensity. Pinkett’s embodiment of tight-jawed determination is impressive, but she’s barely characterised or given a line of dialogue beyond the odd random platitude.

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The Wachowskis were still taking some chances, however. In sending Neo and Trinity out to try and pull off a coup outside of the Matrix where they’re so accomplished and powerful, the filmmakers avoid leaning on their established dynamic, particularly as Neo tries to end the war by making peace and finding common ground rather than simply destroying his foe. But it also becomes clear the Wachowskis were retreating from trying to come up with a truly clever way of resolving their drama. The climax sees Neo and Smith fighting yet again, this time watched by an army of Smith’s doppelgangers and seeing the pair punch it out in the rainy sky. The visuals are spectacular but the sequence represents a total dissolution into empty-headed bombast, which, on top of the already overlong and empty Zion battle, mostly has the effect of boring the hell out of me. Even the aspect of tragedy aimed for here as Trinity and Neo die for their cause doesn’t register with any punch because, despite Reeves and Moss trying their hardest to invest their characters with a certain tremulous, stoic intensity, they’re barely more substantial than they were six hours of cinema earlier. We’re told they love each-other, and that’s about it. And therein lies the ultimate irony of The Matrix films. For all their attempts to grapple with what makes us human, they too often make it feel like the machines won long ago.

Standard
1980s, Action-Adventure, Crime/Detective, Scifi

RoboCop (1987)

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Director: Paul Verhoeven
Screenwriters: Michael Miner, Ed Neumeier

By Roderick Heath

Like many a filmmaker who, having gained stature and plaudits in their native land, heard the siren call of new shores, fresh stories, and better paydays, Paul Verhoeven vacated his place as the most lauded director in the Netherlands to fight for a place on the totem pole in Hollywood. His first film there, the medieval adventure Flesh + Blood (1985), hardly stirred a ripple, but the title was to prove a veritable mission statement for the way Verhoeven would heartily embrace a new career by pushing it to the max. Verhoeven’s lack of timidity as a Hollywood director who notably refused to deal in the usual pretences expected of transplanted auteurs was hardly surprising in light of the movies he had made in the Netherlands. Their number included his sex farce debut Wat Zien Ik (1972), about a prostitute’s misadventures, Turkish Delight (1974), his spectacularly vulgar take on the romantic tragicomedy, and his fetid, delirious melange of horror film, erotica, and metaphysical angst, The Fourth Man (1983). He had offered some films of more restrained temperament, including the historical class-clash epic Keetje Tippel (1975) and the Oscar-winning war film Soldier of Orange (1977). But something in Verhoeven’s overheated sensibility couldn’t be contained too long by such relatively straight-laced fare.
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So when he went Hollywood, Verhoeven went big. Where Hollywood executives told him the audience wanted sex and violence, he would serve double portions, as part of an outlandish mixture of often gross mockery, earnest melodrama, and sleight of hand in tackling Verhoeven’s deeper interest in the politics of body and soul. He didn’t appreciate Ed Neumeier and Michael Miner’s script for RoboCop when he first read it, but his wife did, pointing out to him the barbed skepticism aimed at the emerging corporate dominance, and the theme of the Christ-like saviour. The film was destined to be a smash hit and would place Verhoeven on top for a time until he pushed his tendencies just a little too far for critics and audiences alike. But RoboCop, perhaps his greatest film and a remarkable balancing act by any measure, has never lost its cachet as a cult film sprung out of most surprising soil, standing alongside The Terminator (1984), Aliens (1986), and Predator (1987) in the holy sepulchre of ‘80s sci-fi action but also outstripping them in the force and clarity of its ideas and provocations. Great science fiction is usually part imagination, part reportage, with the best extrapolating trends of the moment of conception and projecting them into a fictional future that if done well can retain that seer-like mystique.
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Like many other movie-mad kids I watched the movie into the ground back when, and like many such relics of a misspent youth it tends to sit around, a must-own for the movie collection but also a little like part of the furniture. RoboCop hasn’t lost its pure, grade-A Columbian potency or its scabrously funny, cruelly satirical purview. Nonetheless time has changed how I relate to the movie: the general mayhem and specific blend of idealism and cynicism, so perfectly in synch with a teenage mindset, gives way to a deeper empathy for hero Alex Murphy, a family man torn away from identity and family – what does age do, but make us feel like pieces are being cut off us and remaking us into hardened things we don’t quite recognise, whilst stealing away things we love? RoboCop’s prognosticative edge seems near limitless, anticipating contemporary concerns of automation and artificial intelligence, the loss of public sovereignty over our institutions, the debasement of social discourse and the media, the unhinged power granted corporations in our lives and the grim spectre of government being annexed by businesspeople – all wrapped up in RoboCop’s shiny, sardonic shell. Even some of the film’s more dated references, like jokes related to Ronald Reagan’s Star Wars project, have gained a new window of relevance, whilst others, like the indictment of a city like Detroit being first built and then trashed and then gentrified at the expense of the inhabitants according to the whims of capitalism, never stopped being immediate.
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Over and above its satirical aspect, RoboCop is of course also a gloriously unhinged pulp adventure that finds whacked-out poetry in the notion of a normal man, his body appropriated for corporate use, transformed into a Kevlar-coated knight. RoboCop’s insidious genius is immediately signalled by the use of TV news reports and ads to frame the action, Greek chorus gone smarmy and commercial: the cold opening offers Media Break, a news programme that takes the pattern of news reduced to capsules and soundbites to an extreme – “You give us three minutes and we’ll give you the world!” – filled with biting bits of futuristic geopolitical info, like the apartheid South African gone belligerent and nuclear, and the “Star Wars Orbiting Peace Platform” that fouls up, at first comically and then scorching a section of California to a cinder. This device also lets Verhoeven summarise the film’s basic plot and background with sublime efficiency. Interspersed are fake ads, grounding futuristic phenomena in familiar packaging, like one for mechanical heart transplants, and sketching out a future society where the phenomena of all kinds – human, machine, news, marketing – are dissolving into a grotesque and lawless stew. On to the real show: the setting is a futuristic Detroit where the infrastructure of the working class’s livelihoods has been reduced to cavernous shells whilst a new elite of corporate overlords rule on high.
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A massive corporation with the delightful nonentity name of Omni Consumer Products, or OCP, has taken over the privatised police force of Detroit, a city that has degenerated into a rundown, crime-infested, Hobbesian hellhole. The cops are outmatched by criminals toting heavy weaponry also made by OCP who manufacture military arms, and the police are slowly being starved of resources by their new masters. OCP’s barely hidden agenda is to rebuild Detroit into the new and shiny Delta City, whilst also hoping to replace the human police with robotic workers, cheaper, easier to maintain, and utterly unquestioning of authority. This project hits a speed bump however, when OCP’s number two man Dick Jones (Ronny Cox) parades the product of his R&D lab before the company board and the company chairman, referred to only as “The Old Man” (Dan O’Herlihy). The hulking, prototype robotic law enforcer ED-209 machine guns unfortunate executive Kinney (Kevin Page) to a bloody pulp during a simulated exercise to demonstrate its abilities. Mid-grade executive Bob Morton (Miguel Ferrer), assigned to develop contingency projects in case of the ED-209’s failure to perform, steams in to steal Jones’s thunder and capture the Old Man’s interest with his alternative: his notion is to create a cyborg incorporating the brain and know-how of a real policeman.
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Morton is already busy trying to orchestrate the ready providing of a good test subject, by restructuring the police force and putting good candidates into dangerous positions. One such candidate, Alex Murphy (Peter Weller), arrives for duty at Detroit’s most hazardous precinct, and is partnered up the station’s hard-ass commander Sgt Reed (Robert DoQui) with the equally tough Officer Anne Lewis (Nancy Allen). The partners soon swing into action, chasing down a team of bank robbers commanded by the malevolent and ambitious Clarence Boddicker (Kurtwood Smith), and pursue them to an abandoned steel mill. There, Lewis is knocked out and Murphy, after gunning down one of the crew, is bailed up by the rest and used for target practice by the gang, before Boddicker gives him a coup-de-grace in the head. Rushed to hospital, the medical team can’t save Murphy’s life, but his organic remains become the indispensible central component in Morton’s exercise in Frankensteinian public utility service.
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The savage boardroom sequence offers startling violence amidst arch mockery of corporate culture that has strong overtones of mirthful lampoons from days past like Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? (1956) and How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying (1967), where young go-getters try to impress the man upstairs with wacky notions. The Old Man gives a speech of hollow self-congratulations met with applause, particularly from the eagerly brownnosing Morton, and hides his face in shame after Jones’ hiccup before admonishing him oh so solemnly, “Dick, I’m very disappointed.” The conceptual starting point is the same as Brett Easton Ellis’ American Psycho as the corporate world is revealed to be an arena of literal life-and-death competition, replete with cocaine orgies and blood-spattered exercises in free enterprise from these upstanding captains of industry, but it’s also a zone of slapstick absurdity, as the Old Man cradles his head in cringing embarrassment in the face of Kinney’s demise. “We steal money to buy coke and sell the coke and make even more money,” says Boddicker’s lieutenant Emil (Paul McCrane), which he holds as basic business acumen, and Boddicker and crew attempt a hostile takeover of a mob drug business.
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Street-level capitalism is soon revealed to be working in harmony with the glass citadels of corporatism, for Boddicker works under the protection of Jones, who offers him the rights to control all the crime proceeds in Delta City. “Good business is where you find it,” Jones and Boddicker both parrot, one of the many catchphrases that recur throughout the film, way-stations of commercialist mind colonisation: everyone in the film, well before Robocop first marches out to battle, is already brainwashed to a certain extent. Glimpses of television in this future are either ads, chop-chop news, or bawdy, soft-porn sitcoms, disgorging another catchphrase, “I’ll buy that for a dollar!” Not, of course, that RoboCop was so unique in terms of its targets when it was released. Corporate honchos, snotty yuppies, and government heavies were kicked about in quite a few ‘80s action films, victims of a lingering suspicion of authority, a hangover in genre film reflexes from the counterculture era but gaining a more blue collar basis in the era of the common man (a couple of years later, in Leviathan, 1989, for instance, a female corporate boss gets a sock in the face from Weller, playing one of the workers she left to die).
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What makes RoboCop so striking in this regard is the way it coherently envisions its future world. The threat of collapse into anarchy is both imminent but also manufactured. The Old Man crows about changes to taxation that have allowed corporate growth at the price of running down civic infrastructure, to which the proposed cure-all is corporate governance. Meanwhile the assailed, under-resourced, cost-ineffective police are driven to the point of considering a strike, something Reed considers utterly verboten. RoboCop is a product intended, like ED-209, to render messy human components to the system unnecessary. And yet Morton’s idea needs the human element. RoboCop’s near-future has hues of dystopia and the shining prospects of renewal on the horizon seem to promise only new dimensions in iniquity. In terms of the science fiction genre in general and in more specific conceptual terms, the entire narrative can be seen as the stage before the construction of the great city of Metropolis (1926).
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In this landscape Murphy is a plain anachronism, a competent cop with a sturdy home life and an old-school delight in the mystique of the western hero, recreating the signature gun-spinning move of his young son’s favourite TV character, T.J. Lazer, protagonist of a sci-fi western blend, and admitting to Lewis that “I get a kick out of it.” Rebirth as RoboCop ironically remakes the gunslinger as futuristic hero, but as a 21st century myth, or at least a 1980s anticipation of one, the context is infinitely more questioning about the actual meaning of such heroism – what was the Old West hero but precursor and defender of more efficient exploitation of the land? RoboCop depicts the search for freedom in immediate and gruelling detail, perceiving the entire world, never mind the computer chips and LED screen that feed fragments of corporate circumspection to Murphy, as a trap of conspiring paradigms. It doesn’t seem at all coincidental that Jones and Boddicker’s association closely resembles that of Frank and Morton in Once Upon a Time in the West (1968), hired gun and business potentate learning from each-other with mutual yearnings to be the other. The true cleverness of RoboCop, and the source of its power, lies in Verhoeven and the screenwriters’ precise feel for what to make sport of and what to take seriously, playing their hero and the other cops absolutely straight. This approach allowed Verhoeven to extend his obsession with the mysterious blurring of the sacred and profane to emblematic extremes.
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Verhoeven’s visual patterns constantly stress the act of seeing, experiencing, processing, and also the limitations imposed upon them. Verhoeven repeatedly returns to Media Brief bulletins and commercials without warning, assaulting the demarcations between standard movie narrative and meta-commentary, between movie-watching as self-evident flow and self-critical process. Point-of-view shots are a constant motif. These kind of shots were increasingly common in this brand of ‘80s sci-fi action movie, the red-drenched viewpoint of the Terminator, the infrared gaudiness of the Predator, evoking new ways of seeing the world through technological media. Verhoeven renders them more purposeful in terms of his hero’s experience. He obliges the audience to spend much time watching this world through Murphy-RoboCop’s eyes, or from those who look on at him with blends of heartache and fear. Murphy’s death and resurrection are first-person events, his viewpoint maintained as doctors try to save his life, in alternation with incredible close-ups of Weller’s glassy blue eyes. Flashback memories take on dimensions of spiritual symbolism, the sight of his wife and son waving to him from the driveway of his house as he drives away becoming a more permanent and piercingly wistful evocation of loss.
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Murphy’s transformation into RoboCop continues in this vein, experience reduced to brief snatches of online awareness, enough time to observe his creation team and overseers like Morton in all their crass and clumsy humanity. RoboCop is supposed to be a completely pliable tool, without memory or sense of self, only a series of simple and unswaying directives to guide his actions. As Murphy-RoboCop rises from his seat to the applause of the technicians and executives, his vision is pixelated by video feed and criss-crossed by targeting grids and computer read-outs, with a viewpoint that’s rigorously linear and straightforward, Verhoeven’s subtle jab at the drab functionality of much Hollywood filmmaking. But dream and memory come to disrupt the way of seeing OCP impose upon him, making the film, in its way, a new paradigm for the classic surrealist creed. Verhoeven cleverly extends the feeling of displacement and the shock of the new as the cops dash through the halls of their precinct trying to catch a glimpse of the outlandish newcomer in their midst, a gleaming hunk of technological force, a masculinised answer to the sleek robot Maria of Metropolis. One of the most logical throwaway details also contains one of its sharpest gags, as RoboCop has to consume a paste close to baby food to keep his organic parts alive, humanity at last perfectly infantilised and rationalised. The film found a way to weaponise David Cronenberg’s dank dreams of body perversion and intrusion.
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RoboCop is sent out to snare the bad guys – one of Verhoeven’s many circular motifs suggests something of Murphy’s spirit is still within RoboCop as he drives out of the precinct car park with sparks in his wake on the steep ramp. Verhoeven compresses vignettes of totemic pop vigilantism into gems of black comedy here, as he offers several hilariously hyperbolic versions of the kinds of street crimes reported breathlessly on nightly news and in cheesy movies. A stick-up man with a machine gun terrorising a market. A pair of denim-clad rapists. Disgruntled former councillor Ron Miller (Mark Carlton) holding the mayor hostage. The stick-up man is easily sent flying into a refrigerator as his bullets ricochet off RoboCop’s armour. More wit is required to take down the rapists: RoboCop successfully shoots between their victim’s legs to make mincemeat of an offending member. The hostage-taker is dragged through a wall and punched out a window (one of my favourite parts of the film is the terrorist’s list of demands to the negotiating cop outside, including fresh coffee, his job back, and a new car, and the cop’s assurance: “Let the Mayor go and we’ll even throw in a Blaupunkt.”) So successful are RoboCop’s forays that Morton’s hubris becomes outsized, crowing to the media that crime will be wiped out in 90 days and dissing Jones in the executive washroom at OCP without realising the target himself is in a toilet stall. Morton is soon assured he’s truly earned an enemy, but doesn’t quite realised how dangerous an enemy until Boddicker barges his way into Morton’s house, shoots him in the legs, and leaves him to watch a DVD of Jones gloating as a bomb ticks down to zero.
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Just prior to getting his goose cooked, Verhoeven gleefully portrays Morton and a pair of models indulging lashings of snow white and fetid sexuality, in a scene that feels eminently like the filmmakers probably witnessed such a scene or perhaps even indulged it somewhere in the Hollywood hills: “God I love to be with intelligent women,” Morton crows to the dimwit pair before snorting coke off one’s tits, summarising the mindset of the executive sexist with cruel exactitude. Boddicker and his crew, by contrast to the corporate corsairs, are a multiracial bunch of scumbags and overgrown school bullies who enjoy turmoil and tormenting, evinced as they sadistically blow pieces off Murphy, and later Emil threatens a geeky gas station worker (“Are you some kind of college boy?…Think you can outsmart a bullet?”). They’re logical end-products of a society based around dumbing things down and celebrating ruthless muscle. That process is in itself a product of the torturing dualism that Verhoeven constantly perceives in the human condition. People at the pinnacle want the seamy pleasure those as the bottom can give them; those at the bottom wish to drag everything down but then ascend in its place. By the time the cops do actually strike and leave the streets to the marauders, the crew unleash their casual destructive impulses with an impunity reminiscent of Verhoeven’s antihero in Turkish Delight, a madcap incarnation of impulse and basic organic hunger detached from all natural feeling for higher function, as well as the ensnared bisexual protagonist of The Fourth Man, who finds himself trapped between sweat-inducing desire and beckoning transcendence.
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Murphy meanwhile experiences the return of consciousness as a digital glitch, the face of his killer leering at him in fuzzy dream, wrenching him out of repose and driving him out into the night, with Lewis’ attempt to reach the man within – “Murphy, it’s you!” – ringing in his ears. Encountering Emil as he robs the gas station, mutual recognition spooks both men, and the device of recognition is, of course, a catchphrase: Murphy’s favourite quip, perhaps also culled from T.J. Lazer, “Dead or alive, you’re coming with me.” Some of the film’s funniest jokes are also its least subtle, like the constant repetitions of the diminutive of Jones’ first name, and the key object of consumerist fancy, the 6000-SUX sports car, a car that fulfils the dream of conspicuous consumption – it nicely meets Miller’s criteria for his dream car that it give “really shitty gas mileage.” Verhoeven returns to the first-person style as Murphy for an amazing sequence where his trash satire and poetic sense of elusive memory work in perfect tandem, following the breadcrumb trail back through Emil’s arrest record through to what used to be his home. Here he finds a smarmy salesman guiding him through his house on video screens, reducing the setting of his life to a series of metrics and brand names, whilst the ghostly memories of his wife (Angie Bolling) and son (Jason Levine) loom before him, conjured out of the past and dissolving again. Murphy, in his prowling distress, punches in one of the salesman video screens, the first overt act of revolt against the overwhelming web of choking commercialism and phony pleasantry glimpsed throughout the film. Characteristically, Verhoeven eases back from the emotional crescendo with a return to comedy whilst still managing to step up the narrative pace as he makes a crash-cut to a nightclub, as Murphy hunts down another of Boddicker’s associates, Leon (Ray Wise). Leon tries to kick the cyborg in the balls but of course gets only some broken toes for his pains and the dancing denizens hoot in approval as Murphy drags Leon out by his hair.
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One of Verhoeven’s master strokes was in casting, putting actors in vividly counter-intuitive roles, like casting the eternally girlish Allen as a tough cop, Cox, best known before this as the dreamiest member of the rowing foursome in Deliverance (1972), as a raging, strutting prick, and Smith, who mostly had played cops in various TV shows before this, as a brutal bandit king, utilising his aura of intelligent authority with an extra layer of antisocial acidity, converting all his lines into little arias of cruel humour. Weller had been circling the edges of stardom for a few years before being cast as Murphy, in cultish fare like Of Unknown Origin (1983), in which he played an everyman doing battle with a giant rat, and the title role of Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the Eighth Dimension (1984), where he played a polymath pulp hero; the diversity of such parts signalled both Weller’s skill as an actor and also his peculiar physiognomy, spindly, slightly hangdog, but equipped with soulful eyes and cupid lips. The latter feature being just about all you can see of him throughout RoboCop and so vital to his presence, some remnant of the human, the romantic, amidst the technocratic fantasia. Weller’s ingenuity as an actor is vital to selling RoboCop, in the mechanical gait of the character, the way he seems to struggle against his new form and then to use it effectively express his rage and distress as he begins to regain his memory. Somehow he manages to make all the stages of his role effectively expressive – from the all-too-vulnerable Murphy to the grimly stoic cyborg to the blank, haunted, quietly resolved remnant that emerges towards the end.
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Murphy’s crashing of a business meeting between Boddicker and a drug kingpin (Lee DeBroux) sees him wipe out a small army of hoodlums, and bash Boddicker around until he tries to warn off Murphy by telling him Jones looks after him, but it’s rather the reminder that Murphy is a cop that saves Boddicker’s life. Instead he casts him to Reed and heads off to arrest Jones, but soon finds a wicked limitation placed upon him – the incapacity to take action against an OCP employee, ingrained in his programming. In this future there is quite literally one law for the rich and another for the rest. Murphy has to elude an ED-209 set upon him by Jones – fortunately, that monstrosity, in what feels like a grand joke aimed at decades worth of impractical robots in movies, can’t negotiate the stairs – and then is almost shredded by the combined fire of ranks of cops called out to deal with the apparently rogue cyborg. Basil Poledouris’ tremendous scoring reaches an apogee here in the grand yet mournful evocation of mecha-Christ crucified over and over again. Lewis manages to snatch Murphy away and helps him self-repair and recuperate in the same steel mill where he was first shot up, and Jones sends Boddicker and crew after him, equipped with explosive shell-lobbing guns. Verhoeven, via Murphy and Lewis, dishes out nasty comeuppances to the criminals, but with a seething overlay of perverse, Looney Tunes-esque comedy: Emil, immersed in the contents of a well-labelled vat of toxic waste, is reduced to a grotesque mass of melting flesh before being run down by Boddicker; Leon is blown to smithereens by Lewis just as he whoops in triumph after trapping Murphy under some junk, and Boddicker gets skewered in the throat by Murphy’s data plug when he gets just a little too close to crow over his pinioned opponent, a deadly steel spike that also looks like an installation art take on flipping the bird.
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What holds RoboCop together is the conviction with which Verhoeven and Weller celebrate their heroes, the cops both human and augmented, even as just about everything around them is revealed to be some sort of sham. When Verhoeven would return to a similar blend of high cynicism and straight-laced thrills on Starship Troopers (1997), a lot more people didn’t, or wouldn’t, get the joke even as Verhoeven unsubtly clad his spacefaring warriors in Nazi-esque uniforms. Such a lapse that time around was due in large part because Verhoeven offered no wriggle room between the fascist precepts of his future society and the aims of the heroes obliged to live in it; on the contrary, the film unstintingly states that their qualities and desires are rather exactly fulfilled and expiated by that society, and infers a similar dynamic can seduce all of us. That quality in some ways makes Starship Troopers the more sophisticated and slyly unsparing as a ransacking of genre film, but in another sense the lack of such tension foils it; it can’t thrill in the way RoboCop can, and so isn’t as effectively two-faced. Murphy returns to OCP Headquarters to handle unfinished business, blowing up the ED-209 with quick efficiency – somehow Tippet and the sound effects team manage to turn the death reel of the decapitate robot, which collapses with a ratcheting click of its wayward toes, into a hilarious moment – before bursting into the company boardroom to brand Jones as a killer before the Old Man and all the other corporate sharks. But Murphy cannot fire, not until the Old Man delivers the true assassination according to his world’s values, by firing Jones as he holds a gun to his head.
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This conclusion offers rowdy, crowd-pleasing flourishes with a sarcasm so complete it circles right back around to earnestness, as Morton’s executive pal Johnson (Felton Perry) gives Murphy and thumbs-up, and the Old Man slides back into western flick argot – “Nice shootin’ son.” The executives, like the audience and Murphy himself, in the end desperately want and need the western hero to exist even when it completely cuts against the grain of all logic. Similarly, Murphy’s final, simple, smiling utterance of his name carries enormous power precisely because of the farcicality, the grotesquery that surrounds him, and the hilariousness of the context only sharpens the sting of Murphy’s self-reclamation. RoboCop was such a hit that inevitably it spawned sequels, but just how essential Verhoeven’s touch had been, and how smart Miner and Neumeir’s writing had been, was soon confirmed. The first follow-up, Irvin Kershner’s RoboCop 2 (1990), proved a disastrous mess which just about everyone involved blamed everyone else for, retreading most aspects of the original but this time with the foulness turned up full and the stabs at humour and excitement utterly leaden. Weller refused to return for the third instalment, released in 1993, helmed by Fred Dekker, so Robert John Burke was cast in the role instead. This time the result swung too far in the other direction from the second entry, playing more like an extended TV pilot with goofy humour and a broad approach. Still, it did actually manage to provide a worthier follow-up. Jose Padilha’s would-be thoughtful but actually merely verbose and heavy-footed remake from 2014 tried to turn its own by-committee, brand-exploiting status into the very subject of its riff, but neglected everything else, and simply reduced proceedings to a crying bore. Some prototypes, it turns out, just can’t be reproduced.

Standard
1970s, 1980s, Action-Adventure, Family Films, Fantasy, Scifi

Galaxy Express 999 (1979) / Adieu, Galaxy Express 999: Final Stop Andromeda (1981)

Ginga Tetsudô Surî-Nain / Sayônara, Ginga Tetsudô Surî-Nain: Andromeda Shûchakueki

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Director: Rintaro
Screenwriters: Kon Ichikawa, Shirô Ishimori; Hiroyasu Yamaura

By Roderick Heath

Leiji Matsumoto isn’t a household name outside of Japan except to fans of manga and anime, Japan’s beloved, specific styles in cartooning and animation. But for anyone who does love those art forms, he’s been one of pop culture’s most vital figures, and even those who don’t might still have felt his influence in their childhood TV watching and their contemporary moviegoing. Matsumoto, born in Fukuoka in 1938, helped spark a popular sci-fi boom and a revival of the romantic early style in the genre called space opera, a few years before Star Wars (1977) officially did the same thing in the west. Matsumoto’s love of the space opera mode took some time to gain traction in his early career, and he gained his breakthrough with Otoko Oidon, a manga about a young man struggling to get into college. That project might seem light years away from Matsumoto’s later repute for fantastical dreamings, but rooted all his work in authentic reflections on rites of passage for boys struggling to achieve manhood and define what that means. Matsumoto’s success was sealed when he was hired to develop a concept by a producer for a tale about space travellers on a desperate mission to save the Earth from alien assault. Matsumoto’s take saw a wrecked World War II battleship rebuilt as a spaceship, a bizarre notion that nonetheless proved the key to the idea’s success. A TV adaptation of Matsumoto’s manga, Space Battleship Yamato, or Star Blazers as it was called for its first English-language dub, became a perennial touchstone for anime.

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Space Battleship Yamato defined Matsumoto’s unique touch, his fascination for combining the super-futuristic with the bygone and antiquated, a sense of possibility and longing at once childlike and sophisticated, and vigorous, spectacular action colliding with dreamy lyricism. Matsumoto soon began producing a clutch of beloved characters who evolved to share a fictional universe in his manga and various adaptations for television and cinema, including Galaxy Express 999 and Space Pirate Captain Harlock, making him one of the first artists of his kind to really embrace what is now called intertextuality. The French electronica outfit Daft Punk so idolised Matsumoto they talked him into directing Interstella 5555 (2003), a feature-length tale woven around the music from their album Discovery. Matsumoto’s style transposed a very personal and localised sensibility onto happily harvested concepts and tropes from a global tradition in sci-fi and fantasy. Growing up in the midst of war and resulting devastation profoundly impacted upon his creative attitude, and his beloved franchises gained much of their power from an informing anxiety about the tragedies of defeat and loss and the irreparable state of lost innocence and youth. Galaxy Express 999 was first made into a popular TV series and then adapted into a film version by Rintaro, one of the storied hands of anime who had first gained repute working on morning children’s programming perennials Astro Boy and Kimba the White Lion series in the 1960s, adaptations of another legend of manga and anime, Osamu Tezuka.

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Rintaro (born Shigeyuki Hayashi) became chief director on the TV version of Matsumoto’s Space Pirate Captain Harlock, and went on to helm many successful anime series and films including a chapter in the acclaimed Neo-Tokyo (1987) and Metropolis (2001). Rintaro worked with Matsumoto, who was credited as planner on the film and, most interestingly, the director Kon Ichikawa, maker of such classics as The Burmese Harp (1956) and Fires on the Plain (1959). Ichikawa had started his career in animation and began dipping his toe back into the field in the ‘70s, and served here as supervisor and co-screenwriter with Shirô Ishimori. Ichikawa’s talents for adaptation and feel for mediating a poetic lustre meshed with Matsumoto’s vision and Rintaro’s visual skill. Galaxy Express 999 revolves around a similar motif to Space Battleship Yamato, a spaceship voyaging through the void built to resemble a far less sophisticated piece of technology, in this case a steam train, in a storyline replete with picaresque discursions but always arcing towards an ultimate confrontation with a formidable foe. But the martial valour and warlike spectacle of the other series were swapped out here in favour of images and ideas more redolent of westerns, and an overall aesthetic that pushed Matsumoto’s romantic and sentimental streaks to the fore.

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Matsumoto’s sci-fi style had a host of readily recognisable inspirations, including the Victoriana dreaming of Jules Verne and H.G. Wells and space opera of E.E. ‘Doc’ Smith and Alex Raymond, but he also drew on more specifically Japanese properties, particularly the novel Night on the Galactic Railroad by Kenji Miyazawa. There’s a strong similarity in sensibility, too, to works like the poet Hagiwara Sakutarô’s poem “Night Train,” and the opening chapter of novelist Yasunari Kawabata’s Snow Country, where the act of travelling by train takes on near-spiritual dimensions, being dissolving into a near-ethereal state of communion. From Sakutarô:

Near daybreak in the dark
Fingerprints chill on the window
Like a soft spill of mercury
White glimmer on the mountains
Passengers hang between sleep and waking
Over them the light-bulbs
sigh with fatigue
(…)
Unexpectedly
we draw close in sadness
and gazing at the eastern clouds
watch light touch
a nameless village in the mountains.

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Galaxy Express 999 unfolds in a future where humankind has achieved tremendous technological leaps to colonise many nearby planets and travel to distant galaxies. But a new force is taking hold and redefining existence, as an increasing number of people are travelling on the famous Galaxy Express 999 transport to its distant, scarcely-seen final stop to swap their frail mortal shells for cybernetic bodies, and conflict between the finite and the virtually immortal seems to be nascent. Young Tetsurô Hoshino (voiced by Masako Nozawa) is an orphan living a hardscrabble existence on the streets of an Earth city called Megalopolis. Tetsuro harbours relentless ambition to get off the Earth again and track down the nefarious robotic overlord Count Mecha (Hidekatsu Shibata), who murdered his mother for sport when they accidentally strayed into his hunting grounds whilst traversing a distant colonial planet. Idolising the outlaws of space whose faces he sees on posters, including Captain Harlock and his fellow pirate Emereldas, Tetsuro wants to obtain a robotic body of his own so he can stand a chance in battle with the Count. He tries to steal a pass for the Galaxy Express from a passenger at a ticketing office, bringing down the wrath of law enforcement.

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Tetsuro glimpses a mysterious woman during his escape, and she helps him evade the cops and hide in her apartment. Tetsuro is startled by the woman’s resemblance to his dead mother, and the woman, whose name is Maetel (Masako Ikeda), agrees to help him achieve his goals. She buys a ticket for Tetsuro and becomes his travelling companion as the Express blasts off into space. The inherently dreamlike conceit of an intergalactic craft that looks like a rattling old steam train is mediated through some expertly deployed technobabble as the engine, actually an incredible, self-aware piece of engineering, sustains all within an “anti-energy infinite-source electro-magnetic barrier.” More importantly, as Maetel explains to her young charge, it’s an aesthetic choice that means the same thing to its passengers as to the movie viewer: it’s designed to foster a sense of nostalgic delight to offset the intensely alienating sensation of travelling deep space and encountering a vast and teeming cosmos.

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Tetsuro gets to know the train’s crew, including its assiduous Conductor (Kaneta Kimotsuki), a squat, glowing-eyed entity in an official uniform, and the attendant Claire (Yôko Asagami), a robotised girl whose body is made of transparent crystal. The Express stays for the length of one day on each planet it lands on, which can be, in Earth time, a couple of hours or a couple of weeks. When it lands on Titan, which has been colonised and terraformed into a lush and rustic backwater, Maetel is kidnapped by some bandits headed by the bristling old warrior Antares (Yasuo Hisamatsu), who is dedicated to battling off the encroachment of the robots and raises a gang of children, all orphans made by Count Mecha. Ignoring Maetel’s pleas for him not to risk himself by chasing her, Tetsuro tracks down the bandits, who test both him and Maetel with x-rays to see if either is a robot; surprisingly, Maetel proves to be entirely human. Tetsuro encounters an old woman (Miyoko Asô) living alone in a cabin, and she finds him so similar to her long-lost son Tochirô in his fighting spirit that she gives him two of her valued possessions: a battered-looking hat, and a laser pistol, the only one of its kind capable of killing robots.

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The movie narrative reproduces the episodic storyline inherited from the manga and TV series, as the Express moves from planet to planet. The filmmakers turn this to their advantage, as each new world reflects as aspect of Tetsuro’s psychological journey as well as his external quest, whilst also suggesting encapsulations of different epochs in recent history. The crude arcadian beauty of Titan blesses Tetsuro with a grandmotherly figure and allows him to step into the shoes of the missing Tochirô to gain a more specific identity, and accumulates the garb and convictions of a mature being. When he and Maetel next disembark on Pluto, which is used as a giant refrigeration unit to keep the discarded mortal shells of the robotised humans, Tetsuro encounters Shadow (Toshiko Fujita), a robotised woman who fills the job of caretaker for the ice cemetery to be close to her own human body, a beautiful corpse she keeps in a glass coffin to pine for and worship. Desperate for human contact, she tries to claim an unwilling Tetsuro as her child, but Maetel fends her off. Maetel herself seems fascinated by something in the ice which Tetsuro doesn’t get to see. Here lurks the threat of frigid emotional stasis and a frightening surrogate mother figure who provides a distorting mirror to Maetel in the role.

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The gritty frontier atmosphere of Trader’s Fork reproduces a western feel and exploits that genre’s suppressed evocation of rootless melancholy to convey Tetsuro’s alienation as he encounters other characters, like the sad chanteuse Ryuzu (Noriko Ohara) and the real Tochirô (Kei Tomiyama), who share his state of exile and longing. Tetsuro gains a peculiar family in the form of ambiguous but devoted Maetel and the train’s crew of oddballs, and fearsome friends and comrades in the form of Harlock (Makio Inoue) and Emereldas (Reiko Tajima), who both intercept the Express and find their fates linked to Tetsuro’s. Antares has told Tetsuro that only Emereldas knows where Count Mecha’s wandering Time Castle can be found at any time, so when her spaceship flies by the Express Tetsuro brings it to a halt with a blast from his pistol and soon finds himself confronting the fearsome female pirate, who proves, despite all to be defined once more by a pining absence, longing for a lost lover who proves to be the sickly, dying Tochirô. Tetsuro finds Tochirô in the wastes of Trader’s Fork and helps him achieve his dying ambition, uploading his consciousness into a computer system so he can serve as the navigation system for his comrade Harlock’s space ship. Harlock turns up shortly after to thank Tetsuro for giving his friend’s mortal remains a burial, and repays the favour by beating up some of Count Mecha’s goons who have attacked Tetsuro.

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Tetsuro is the hero of Galaxy Express 999, but it’s Maetel who is its most obsessive locus of images and pivotal figure, and the ultimate example of Matsumoto’s obsessive figure of femininity. Her iconography is exact, with her cascading mane of blonde hair and huge, long, limpid eyes, and all-black garb of fur coat and cap, resembling some fey-gifted young Russian Countess riding the Trans-Siberian circa 1900, the centrepiece of the film’s uniquely Proustian take on sci-fi adventure. She’s dogged by an air of inexplicable melancholia, her mystique in seeming both infinitely enigmatic and yet deeply familiar embodying a half-forgotten ideal from childhood. Willowy and fragile-looking, she nonetheless constantly proves more powerful than she seems. She’s at war with her own identity in profound and disturbing ways, as it’s revealed she’s the daughter of Queen Promethium (Ryôko Kinomiya), the terrifying, witch-like mastermind and controller of the robot horde. A weirdly dichotomous charge wells up when Tetsuro accidentally walks in upon her in the shower, and Maetel comes to occupy a perverse Freudian nexus as, alternatively an echo of Tetsuro’s mother, avatar for a worldly big sister, and a dream of first love.

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This aspect makes Galaxy Express 999 feel crucially similar to Jaromil Jires’ Valerie and Her Week of Wonders (1970) in contending with the intensely protean experience of adolescence where the roles of life and the people who fill them blur into commonality. In the series Tetsuro was a small, naïve boy, where in the film he’s on the cusp of adolescence. It’s ultimately revealed that Maetel is actually inhabiting a cloned reproduction of Tetsuro’s mother’s body, which doubles down on the perversity. The other female characters – the wretched Shadow, haunted Ryuzu, sweetly transparent (literally) Claire, brooding, powerful Emereldas – all resemble her (aptly, in one of his revisits to his creation, Matsumoto revealed Maetel and Emereldas are twin sisters). This is certainly partly because of Matsumoto’s famous basic template for his romantic heroines, but it also makes perfect sense given they can all be seen as reflections or distillations of the essence of a cosmic feminine Tetsuro chases across the void but can never quite take a proper grip of as he matures. Tetsuro’s physique sharply contrasts his partner’s, a short urchin with a round face and squiggle of a nose, he almost becomes lost to the eye once he dons his complete signature costume, with overcoat and hat reminiscent of Clint Eastwood’s in his Sergio Leone westerns.

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Tetsuro himself has many doppelgangers and brothers in spirit, from Harlock, who stands as an idealised version of the man he’d like to be, Tetsuro, whose boots he steps into, and Antares, the grizzled old warrior who’s taken on duty of care to a host of waifs with the same tragic story. The theme of life journey conjoins with Matsumoto’s anxious confrontation with the forces of modern transformation, which had gone through a breakneck process in his youth: the Galaxy Express itself belongs to an evocation of a pre-war world and dreams of gilt splendour as glimpsed in the retro classiness of the great railway station Tetsuro and Maetel pass through, even in the surrounds of the glittering superstructure of Megalopolis. The new and the old are in constant dialogue throughout, both in terms of physical entities and the gap between action and remembering. Tetsuro’s desperate desire to grow up and take on the evils in his universe is constantly retarded by a growing awareness of the ephemeral nature of his life. Maetel carries a device that allows one person to tap into the dreams of another, a sublime metaphor for the act of creating and sharing art itself, and also a vessel for mutual comprehension, or lack of it, for the characters: Tetsuro’s maturation is measured in part by his choice not to tap into Maetel’s dreams, for all his desire to parse her foreboding opacity.

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Matsumoto’s gleeful mix-and-match of ages and styles is even justified in terms of his tale’s internal logic as the characters are all desperate to locate themselves through clinging on to pieces of the past, to familiar and amusing things that subvert the impersonality of an oncoming state of total, alienated modernity, embodied by the robot people. The tavern full of toughs all weep in listening to Ryuzu’s song of longing for lost childhood. It’s not until they reach their destination in the Andromeda galaxy that they confront a shining, alien, inimical bastion of pure modernity that just so happens to look like any sleek new train station or airport, a setting equated with the loss of identity, physicality, and the pleasures of liminal existence. The robotised people Tetsuro encounters are all haunted by their loss of it, like Claire, who gained her crystal form to please her mother, or driven into utter hysteria, like Shadow, or completely lose humanity, like Count Mecha. Ryuzu testifies to abandoning her human body to please the count and eventually evolving into a spiritual force with power over time itself, but losing in the process all sense of tangible existence. The basic theme could be read Rintaro and Matsumoto’s next-generation burlesque on the comfortable power fantasy of Tezaku’s Astro Boy as well as mediating the post-human disquiet of arguably the most famous anime works, Akira (1987) and Ghost in the Shell (1995).

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Despite being produced on a relatively small budget, Galaxy Express 999 proved the biggest hit of the year at the Japanese box office upon release, a sea-change moment that coincided with Hayao Miyazaki’s debut on Lupin III: The Castle of Cagliostro in announcing cinematic anime’s arrival as a potent cultural force. Miyazaki’s later films would often sport his particular brand of young heroine who combine the qualities of Tetsuro and Maetel. Galaxy Express 999 was soon taken up by New World Studios and became the first anime film in many years to be released in the US, albeit in a sharply truncated form. The animation style of the film is fairly limited because of the budget, and yet it’s a stream of visual pleasures, particularly the ecstatic sequence when the train takes off for the first time, Tetsuro’s enthralled perspective conjuring the sight of his mother in the stars set to a theme song provided by the band Godiego, best known for scoring the cult TV show Monkey; the band were experts at creating a sound at once carefree and wistful. There’s a strong echo of Yellow Submarine (1968) throughout, not just in the basic conceptual conceit but also in the evocations of a fantasy landscape built out of the detritus of a nostalgic perception of the world, a child’s vision of adult realms inflated and transmuted into the stuff of dreams.

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That quality is apparent in settings like the towering, cavernous halls of the Express’s railway station, and echoes on through the film’s visions of surreal splendour. Shots of the train speeding across the face of the Earth and amongst the stars and planets, and descending through the cloudy atmosphere of Titan. A Plutonic landscape of hazy grey clouds and hovering moons with thousands of human bodies locked in the ice. The abstract green sworls and winging snowflakes around Tetsuro and his mother as she dies, her hair shimmering in the wind, and the appearance of Count Mecha and his hunters with their single huge glowing eyes. The grotesque sight of Tetsuro’s mother’s body mounted and stuffed in Mecha’s banquet hall, in the midst of his faux-gothic castle. The stark, near-featureless faces of Shadow and Queen Promethium, whose dress is bedecked with stars and whose appearance most clearly echoes a figure out of Noh. When Tetsuro finally locates the Time Castle thanks to Emereldas, he sneaks into its halls and finds that Ryuzu is Mecha’s concubine and servant, and is promptly surrounded by the Count android guards. But Antares appears, having followed Tetsuro, and helps him annihilate Mecha’s guards and finally, heroically blows apart the shield Mecha and Ryuzu hide behind, whilst Ryuzu fatefully betrays Mecha by refusing to transport them in time, giving Tetsuro the chance to shoot the Count dead. Ryuzu grievingly strips down to her robotic body and lies with Mecha as he and his castle crumble into a rusty pile of scrap.

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Success against Mecha does not sate Tetsuro’s anger, however, as he now believes robotisation is a scourge destroying all that’s worthy about life. He resolves to travel on to the last stop on the Express’s route to the machine planet and destroy it to. But he’s in for a rude shock as he learns the name of the planet is the same as his travelling companion, and learns from the robots who meet him at the station that although he’s killed the robots’ hero Count Mecha, he’s nonetheless a very fit candidate to be turned into a cybernetic component of the planet’s vast machine complexes. Stung and betrayed, Tetsuro smacks Maetel and is strapped to an operating table under Promethium’s approving gaze. But Maetel’s own, ultimate purpose finally reveals itself: she carries with her an amulet device containing the stored consciousness of her father, who is appalled by what Promethium has become, and intends destroying the machine planet, having stored up an explosive lode of energy to do so. Harlock and Emereldas throw in their support, attacking the planet with their pirate vessels to give their comrades a chance. Maetel falters on the very precipice of destroying her mother’s empire, so Tetsuro has to help her throw the amulet into Promethium’s power supply, whereupon the planet begins to disintegrate. Maetel and Tetsuro manage to get back to the Express, but find Promethium has managed to get aboard too. Rather than let her kill Tetsuro, the only person she ever felt was truly her friend, Claire grabs the Queen and detonates her own robotic body, blowing both of them up. Tetsuro pockets the only piece of Claire remaining, a piece of crystal shaped like a teardrop.

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Maetel’s considered act of parricide, however necessary, cruelly mimics Tetsuro’s own orphaning, releasing them both from the obligations of identity but also now needing to reconstruct themselves: for Maetel this means recovering her original body. And of course, being as they are a pair who love each-other but who cannot reconcile it to any familiar life role, they’re doomed to never quite meet in any sense, and Maetel delivers Tetsuro back to Earth and leaves again on the Express after a jolting moment when she kisses him on the mouth. In a moment reminiscent of the finale of David Lean’s Summertime (1957), Tetsuro runs alongside the Express as it departs, with Maetel gazing back at him, becoming the ghost of all things lost in growing up. It’s one of cinema’s great tragic finales, so of course there had to be a sequel. Adieu, Galaxy Express: Final Stop Andromeda was released two years later. Far from releasing the galaxy from robotic domination, Tetsuro’s actions prove to have sparked all-out war between humans and mechanicals. Hordes of robots are laying waste to Megalopolis, and Tetsuro is now one of a ragged and weary band of resistance fighters cowering in the ruins. Tetsuro settles down in a muddy puddle in his disheartened and exhausted mindset, only for the old, tough commander of the unit to tell him he might as well be choosing death. One night whilst gazing up into the sky, Tetsuro sees the familiar glowing green squiggle that is the Express’s wake coiling through the sky, but no-one’s seen it land on Earth in ages.

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Nonetheless Tetsuro soon receives a device from a dying runner carrying a voice message from Maetel calling him to board the Express. The rest of his unit volunteer to help him get by the robot patrols to the station, at the cost of their lives: the old commander uses his dying breaths to make sure the Express can take off. Tetsuro soon finds, to his bewilderment, he’s the only passenger on the Express and that Maetel is not on board. The Conductor introduces him to Claire’s replacement, a robot maid named Metalmena (Yôko Asagami), who claims to have taken the job to get a chance to get hold of “the most precious thing in the universe.” The Express makes its first stop on the planet La-Metal, where the human settlers are battling the robots. Tetsuro is wounded by a flying robotic sentry and saved by a guerrilla unit, and he becomes friends with an alien warrior, Meowdar (Kei Tomiyama). The duo explore a ruined castle and find huge portraits hanging on the wall that look startlingly like Promethium and Maetel, and Meowdar tells Tetsuro the rumour abroad that Maetel has taken her mother’s place as controller of the empire. Tetsuro is so enraged by this notion he slogs Meowdar. The two are almost captured in a robot ambush, but the appearance of Harlock’s ship helps them escape. Parting as friends, Meowdar leaves Tetsuro at the La-Metal station, where Maetel appears, striding out of the steam plumes, entirely unchanged.

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It’s not explained why Maetel never recovered her body and with the portrait on the castle suggesting she’s always looked this way, the cloned body idea seems to have been dropped (pedantic consistency of detail was never something Matsumoto’s properties have been famous for anyway). Tetsuro is joyous upon seeing Maetel again, but becomes increasingly perplexed and aggravated as she fends off his questions and encourages him to leave the Express. The train has strange encounters with other vessels. A craft the Conductor calls the Ghost Train bullies its way past the Express, much to the engine’s shame and chagrin. A spaceship commanded by a menacing cyborg calling himself Lord Faust (Tôru Emori), who seems to have a specific interest in Tetsuro comes next. Maetel almost gets herself killed leaping between the two when Tetsuro tries to shoot Faust, and his spaceship explodes from damage Tetsuro’s gun makes. Tetsuro makes it aboard the Express and Maetel is plucked on the edge of death from space by Emereldas, turning up in the nick of time. During a stopover on the heavily industrialised planet of Mosaic, Tetsuro sees the Ghost Train parked and thinks he hears the sound of a music box belonging to Meowdar, but he can’t break into the menacing craft. Maetel finally reveals that she didn’t send the message that brought Tetsuroi aboard the Express, and someone wants him to come to the true capital of the Machine Empire, Great Andromeda. Soon enough the Express gets there and Tetsuro learns that Meowdar wasn’t wrong: Maetel really has returned to take her mother’s place as queen, and Promethium’s remnant consciousness is still sustained as part of the planet infrastructure.

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Adieu, Galaxy Express is darker and punchier in many respects than its predecessor, kicking off with scenes of grimy warfare and cyberpunk terror that sharply anticipate oncoming preoccupation with apocalyptic imagery in much acclaimed ‘80s and ‘90s anime. The plot leads into a revelation that evokes Soylent Green (1972) as well as carrying strong holocaust connotations as Tetsuro learns that the energy pills the robot people take to sustain themselves contains life force drained out of captured humans, ferried to Great Andromeda on the Ghost Train. The film also displays increased directorial ambition from Rintaro working with crisper, more fluid and confident animation, apparent in an emphasis on dreamlike ellipses like the fades in and out of black interspersing the credits with the opening scenes and flashing, mono-colour backgrounds the envelope Tetsuro in moments of pain and crisis, and some cleverly animated battle sequences, including a nod to North by Northwest (1959) as Tetsuro is pursued by a flying robot sentinel. The Express’s arrival at Great Andromeda, passing through barriers of time, space, and energy, becomes a dazzling psychedelic interlude, particularly well-scored by electropop artist Osamu Shoji. Both films are marvellously scored at that, the first replete with syrupy beauty by Nozomi Aoki and the second with Shoji’s spacier synthesiser strains.

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But Adieu, Galaxy Express noticeably lacks the sense of poetic metaphor that made the first film so striking, and wields a more generic edge to its animation concepts at times. The absence of Ichikawa’s input on the sequel tells, and the plot essentially boils down to a retread of the original’s, with appearances by the likes of Harlock and Emereldas feeling like afterthoughts. The best call-back is the most minimal, as Tetsuro catches a glimpse of Shadow still watching over her frozen charges in silent pathos. Maetel doesn’t turn up for a good fifty minutes, which means the film lacks its obsessive pole to Tetsuro’s for too long. Still, it’s just as desperately romantic and outsized in its evocations of dire emotional straits, becoming particularly gruelling as Meowdar and Metalmena die, and offers up moments of deliriously transformed emotionalism like Harlock’s mouthless female alien crewmember weeping spherical, crystal tears. Rintaro offers ideas reminiscent of Mario Bava’s Operazione Paura (1966) in his portrayal of a malign mother punishing a hostile world and following a relentless quest for power ever since she and an infant Maetel were exiled from their home on La-Metal, a tragedy suggested as in Bava through portraits on the walls of a ruined castle. High gothic paraphernalia and technological Gotterdammerung collide as Maetel once more confronts her mother and steps into her shoes – if only, as it proves, to access a sanctum and find out the truth behind the fate of the human captives. Metalmena’s object of desire proves to be Maetel’s body itself, hoping to transfer her consciousness into it, but learning just where the power capsules she likes consuming come from drives Metalmena to attack some of the robot guards, getting herself terribly wounded but earning Tetsuro’s admiration.

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Adieu, Galaxy Express also goes memorably for broke in a spectacular finale when an even more formidable threat than Prometheum and the mechanical empire appears, a force dubbed Siren the Witch, an all-consuming cosmic void attracted by the wealth of energy on Great Andromeda. As Siren begins sucking in everything in its path, the crews of the Express and the pirate ships have to try and make headway whilst not using their computer systems or other sophisticated machinery, which means for the Express quite literally driving its engine with coal in the boiler. Meanwhile Tetsuro has to duel the looming Faust upon the train roof, trying to use the lesson he learnt for Meowdar about listening for robotic enemies rather than looking for them. Tetsuro wins the duel, only for Faust to reveal, as he drifts off into Siren’s maw, that he’s Tetsuro’s long-lost father: it was he who arranged Tetsuro’s journey so they could fight out the basic battles between human and mechanical, old and young. There’s such wild spectacle here, with an undercurrent thrusting the material back into the correct zone of Oedipal frenzy, that it makes up for the feeling of déjà vu, and also suggesting the ultimate irony that a Matsumoto property was suddenly in debt to George Lucas rather than vice versa.

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A bittersweet coda beholds the wastes of Great Andromeda, reduced to the frozen asteroid it was originally, the ghost of Prometheum’s consciousness still clinging to it in delirious longing for her daughter’s touch, who stands upon the planetoid with Tetsuro regarding the waste. The most interesting, tantalising, painful idea constantly repeated throughout the two films is the awareness that gaining anything, from victory over evil to achieving maturity, usually requires losing something just as vital, and to exist means being gnawed at eternally by that sense of loss. Inevitably, Maetel parts from Tetsuro once more, now with the stated awareness that she’s a wanderer in time whose job it is to help other boys grow up, and Tetsuro’s last wail of her name from the departing Express still carries with it the charge of loss even as a final title declares he’s become a man at last. Anime has grown a lot as a school of cinema since these films, but they stand as estimable, defining classics in the style. Mainstream worldwide cinema perhaps owes them a debt both immediate and through their influence on the mode – would the filthy, glistening world of Blade Runner (1982) exist otherwise, or the fierce images of human softness in the clutches of robotic hellspawn in The Matrix films, the poetics of Wong Kar-Wai (his 2046, 2004, borrows a lot from the Galaxy Express 999 concept as well its obsession with the ephemeral, and his The Grandmaster, 2013, references it in a key scene), or even perhaps the “King of the World” scene in Titanic (1997)? At any rate they’re marvellous lodestones for the gregarious pleasures of anime, and at their best attain that rarest of conditions for popular art, the feeling that they’ve cleaved off and kept safe a piece of a collective unconscious, like that shard of Claire’s heart Tetsuro keeps in his pocket.

An English-language dubbed version of Galaxy Express 999 can be viewed here

…and the sequel, Adieu, Galaxy Express 999: Final Stop Andromeda here.

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