Jordan Peele’s latest film, Nope opens with a pair of seemingly unrelated scenes. First we get a glimpse of a TV studio, filled with signs of bloodshed and rampage, a bashful-looking, bloody-pawed chimpanzee seated amidst the mess. Next comes a bucolic moment in the sun for father and son horse ranchers Otis Haywood (Keith David) and his son Otis Jnr, or OJ (Daniel Kaluuya) as he’s found himself problematically stuck with being called: we see OJ going about his usual morning business of letting out the horses and exercising them, before chatting with his old man, who’s already mounted up. The two men are preparing for a TV show performance on star horse Lucky, which they hope will rescue their ranch from financial doldrums. The scene is shattered as a seemingly random shower of hard metal objects falls from the sky. A coin hits Otis in the eye, and he dies as OJ rushes him to the hospital. Cut to a few months later, as OJ uneasily tries to get on with his professional life by wrangling Lucky on the TV set, only for the horse to be irritated by a crewman and kick out dangerously. OJ is obliged to rely on his sister Emerald (Keke Palmer), whose gregarious enthusiasm as a wannabe show biz player contrasts his sullen, taciturn, quietly grieving manner and fateful lack of assertive strength, but Emerald doesn’t want to be stuck with her brother in a failing business. OJ has been propping up the business by selling horses to a neighbouring ranch, the prosperous and popular Jupiter’s Claim, run by former child actor Ricky ‘Jupe’ Park (Steven Yeun) and his wife Amber (Wrenn Schmidt).
That night, one of the horses, Ghost, bolts into the dark, dusty, hilly landscape around the ranch. Chasing after Ghost, OJ hears Jupe’s voice on a loudspeaker in the distance whilst the horse gives an unearthly shriek, and glimpses a large, strange object moving fast through the sky above, whilst a rolling blackout afflicts the locale. Convinced he’s seen a UFO, OJ and Emerald buy a new surveillance system for the ranch, and the morose IT salesperson, Angel (Brandon Perea), who sells and installs the equipment becomes increasingly interested and involved as he’s a UFO freak. They also try to interest the acclaimed cinematographer Antlers Holst (Michael Wincott), who they met on the TV shoot, as they feel only he might be able to get photographic evidence of this scary phenomenon. As the enigmatic situation begins to resolve, the Haywoods are eventually faced with alarming proof that the UFO is actually some kind of living organism that eagerly eats just about anything placed in its path, and that Jupe not only knows about its presence, but even seems to be trying to make it part of his act, luring it down to his ranch with free lunches, being OJ’s horses.
New York-born Peele was best known for many years as a comic writer and actor. After dropping out of college to start a comedy act with future writing collaborator Rebecca Drysdale and spending some time with the famous Second City comedy troupe, Peele gained his big break as a performer on the sketch comedy show Mad TV in the early 2000s. Later he teamed up with another Black comedian, Keegan-Michael Key, for their cable TV show Key & Peele (2012–2015). The duo wrote, produced, and starred in the film Keanu (2016), and Peele made his standalone debut as director with the 2017 Horror film Get Out, a film that represented for the most part an apparently radical switch of vision for Peele, offering a woozy, unsettling blend of social and racial satire and straight-edged Horror and thriller stuff.
That film’s huge popular and critical success came in the immediate aftermath of Donald Trump’s election as US President, seemingly on the back of a new reactionary feeling swiftly met by a bold progressive backlash, and Get Out, along with the Ryan Coogler’s successes with Creed (2015) and Black Panther (2018), seemed to announce a new mainstream hunger for films made by African-American filmmakers with a presumed, concomitant authenticity in needling racial and social angst. Peele’s success with Get Out was cunning in that regard, with his narrative of young Black man whose white girlfriend proves to be luring him in for her family to use in their business of swapping brains between bodies: Peele expertly made the mass audience empathise with his hero’s terror of having his identity erased and subsumed by representatives of a larger assimilating culture because it’s all the rage at the moment to be Black. He also deftly skewered and, ironically and if in all likelihood semi-accidentally, appealed to the white liberal guilt, portraying the wicked family not as overt racists but rather smiling, virtue-signalling bourgeois progressives pretending to be all cool with the new multiculturalism.
Peele has since become, with startling swiftness, a pop culture brand, evinced with his follow-up film Us (2019), through producing a refurbished take on TV’s The Twilight Zone and a reboot-cum-sequel of the 1990s cult film Candyman (2021), and now Nope. Peele is with increasingly plainness trying to position himself as an inheritor to talents writers like Rod Serling, Ray Bradbury, and Stephen King, with their penchant for depicting disturbing intrusions of the outlandish and the mysterious into exceptionally ordinary locales in tales touched with a mystique of fable. He also joins the ranks of directors anointing themselves as inheritors of Steven Spielberg, with his gifts as an orchestrator of the fantastic and of cinematic space for maximum audience impact. The traps in trying to occupy such a cultural crossroads were well-charted by M. Night Shyamalan in the 2000s. Peele’s chief proposition as a new and improved successor to Shyamalan is that he brings a less veiled approach to the metaphors inherent in those fable-narratives, with his specific perspective, which can keep his stories from dissolving into bombast: the idea that Peele’s critiquing gestures really mean something, rather than simply offering the usual glossy wrap of pseudo-meaning over the usual Hollywood bombast, is a big part of his cachet.
At the same time, Peele has also shown savvy commercial instincts. Get Out resisted going anywhere near as dark and mean as it might have, and whilst Us embraced a more surreal and allegorical aesthetic, also only took it so far: in the end it was still, mostly, the story of a threatened nuclear family winning through against erupting boogeymen. Nor were they so sharp a pivot from his previous metier of comedy as they might seem superficially. Get Out had a simmering sense of satirical bite and drollery throughout, such as the famous liberal cliche utterances of the white family’s patriarch (Bradley Whitford), like how he would’ve voted for Barack Obama a third time, and an encounter with one of their victims, the body of a young black man now inhabited by an old white bourgeois, that was pure sitcom shtick. Both Get Out and Us were preoccupied by imposters, absorption, and doppelgangers, concerns he took a few steps further in Us where the central family were confronted by chthonic lookalikes, representing a kind of shadow realm of the oppressed and excluded, with the ultimate twist proving that the mother is herself an escaped double, having forcibly swapped places with her overworld counterpart, who is now leading the buried horde in revenge.
Nope tries to move on a degree from the preoccupations of Peele’s first two films, which is both a good idea in theory but in practice one that doesn’t work so well for him. Nope strongly recalls Shyamalan’s Signs (2002): like that film it depicts an alien invasion, constantly teased in oblique and fleeting ways before finally resolving into a heroic tale of little people standing up to cosmic menace. Peele’s story and style are however better described as an oddball forced mating of Jaws (1975) and Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), borrowing many beats from each: the incredible, elusive visitor from the sky is also the territorial man-eating monster. Peele, despite his success thus far, occupies a potentially hazardous place in contemporary screen culture. He has been so eagerly embraced as a figure that many felt American film desperately needed that everything he does has to be met as either total greatness or risk sour disillusionment, rather than simply being a new and talented genre film voice. Well, the first third of Nope is quite strong – indeed, whilst watching it I felt the film was shaping up as Peele’s best yet. He expertly creates, as he did in the fairground prologue of Us, a mood of cryptic menace and simmering tension whilst playing patient games with perspective, as OJ and Emerald keep getting fleeting hints of the nature of their strange and malevolent new neighbour. Peele uses sound well, particularly in the suggestive gruesome shrieks of the horses echoing down from the sky after being swallowed. In one particularly effective and creepy sequence, OJ is menaced by what look like humanoid alien creatures stalking him around his darkened stables at night, only to realise they’re just Jupe and Amber’s teenage sons in costume, playing a prank as payback for Emerald stealing one of their horse statues to use as bait for the alien.
The title’s blunt, folksy quality is constantly uttered by characters throughout, mostly when confronted by sights that confound their sense of reality and set off a profound war of impulses on the basic level of fight or flight. It also signals the way the film seems constantly at odds with itself, toying with being a kind of send-up rooted in a particular tenor of Black scepticism, whilst also trying to reap the popular benefits of a good old Spielbergian ride. I’ve suspected that Peele might get into trouble when he tried more boldly to crossbreed his penchant for horror with his reflexes as a comedic writer. Not in the sense that he tries to apply too much humour to Nope – in fact it could do with more humour than it has, and might have been better pitched as a blend of laughs and suspense like, say, Tremors (1990) – but he applies a fondness for unexpected segues and bizarre pivots to his essentially straight-laced core story. The most significant subplot of Nope involves Jupe’s experience as a child actor, specifically the infamous incident on a sitcom called Gordy’s Home which he featured on in the ‘90s, opposite a trained chimpanzee who played the titular Gordy, and the two of them “invented” their signature gesture of an exploding fist-bump. But Gordy went berserk during filming one day thanks to some random fright, and brutally killed several of Jupe’s costars. Peele keeps teasing this event through snatched glimpses, including right at the start and then a brief vision of the terrified young Jupe (Jacob Kim) hiding under a table and trying not to attract the crazed animal’s attention. Peele effectively employs this vignette after Jupe has wriggled out of recounting the event to the Haywoods during a business meeting. Jupe instead takes refuge in talking up a Saturday Night Live skit that made dark sport of the incident.
This segue has some evident personal meaning and insider referential appeal for Peele as a wry glance into the world of TV he emerged from, bringing up once-famous, half-forgotten comedy stars like Chris Kattan. Jupe mythologises the greatness of the skit before the trauma he’s trying to suppress is then seen by the audience. Later, Peele gives a more sustained version of Jupe’s memory, his perspective on the event used to avoid showing gory detail whilst still putting across a grim sense of the event’s dreadful violence. Eventually the resolution is presented: Gordy approaches Jupe not to attack but to seek their signature gesture, the ape suddenly just a pathetic, frightened animal needing its costar’s assurance, only for the ape to be gunned down, his blood spraying across Jupe’s face. This portion of Nope is striking and the film’s highpoint in many ways: it’s a more effective moment of restrained horror than the more accidentally silly depiction of people being sucked into the interior of the alien. But Gordy’s rampage isn’t convincing or realistic in its details. Peele requires a CGI chimp to impersonate that kind of deadly ferocity, and we’re forced to wonder why there wasn’t an animal wrangler on the set. Also, the way the fake portions we see of Gordy’s Home lampoons a style of family sitcom that died with the ‘80s, although admittedly Peele does an uncanny job recreating that style. It made me wonder if this was a sketch Peele wrote out and, realising there was no way in hell he could get it made as a feature, decided to weave it into this script.
How this aspect of the story connects to the rest of Nope is tangential but, to be fair, also suggestive. Peele hints Jupe has a pathological need to get close to another monster and make it the star of another act of showbiz hoopla, as if to prove even the wildest, strangest, most inhuman thing can be made amenable to the pleasures of being a celebrity. Holst later makes this idea more literal when he notes the sad fate of tiger-taming performers Siegfried and Roy. When the Gordy element is connected with OJ’s unfortunate sobriquet, it seems Peele’s trying to make a mea culpa-tinged point about the industry of comedy making sport of all kinds of tragic stuff such as was rife in ‘90s American TV culture. This is interesting, but it quickly reaps multiplying problems. Firstly, it makes Jupe a more interesting and indeed more detailed character than the Haywoods, privileging his background and formative experiences with vivid and galvanising power, and yet Peele keeps Jupe a peripheral and blandly executed figure. He should be the focus, a beaming, televisually canny Ahab stirring up monsters. With Nope the lurking point of all this is at once obvious and feebly interrogated: it proposes to be about the nature of spectacle itself, of show business and performance and reality and authenticity in age where those things have become perhaps irreparably blurred. This is literalised by having the monster attracted by being looked at, whilst its presence causes electrical systems to fail, making filming it extremely difficult. Our heroes then must find a way of both looking and not looking at the alien: they most pointedly cannot gaze on in awe like Spielberg’s people.
To this end, after Angel’s security cameras fail, the Haywoods turn to Holst, a portentous being who sits around watching nature documentary footage of predators chasing and consuming prey – thematics are being underlined, dig. Wincott brings his long-neglected but still-persuasive gravel-voiced gravitas to a role that’s pitched as Werner Herzog playing the Quint role, but he’s stuck with a one-dimensional part. His final act of self-annihilating consequence – “We don’t deserve the impossible,” he utters gnomically to Angel before venturing up to get the ultimate shot of being sucked up into the alien’s maw – aims for a note of crazy, nihilistic bravado but feels more like, once more, Peele taking an easy way out of resolving one of his story elements with some shallow portent. Angel himself, winningly played by Perea, is in many ways the film’s most vivid and believable presence, a shambolic character still processing a bad break-up and taking refuge in nerdy frippery. He attaches himself to the reluctant Haywoods to become an unshakeable if jumpy collaborator in their hunt. Both he and Emerald are driven frantic when a praying mantis insists on perching itself before one of their new surveillance cameras just as the UFO appears.
Nope essentially replays, in less funny and snappy fashion, the driving joke from a portion of The Simpsons’ episode “Treehouse of Horror VI”, which depicted an onslaught by advertising signs and mascots suddenly come to life, and could only be defeated by not being looked at, a weapon ironically facilitated with an advertising jingle warbled by Paul Anka. Rather than following such a mischievously satirical bent, Peele tries an each-way bet, wanting the respectability of inferred parable and the base rewards of crowd-pleasing. Peele also steals an idea from The Trollenberg Terror (1958), as it’s eventually revealed by Angel, scanning the ranch’s security footage, that the UFO hides behind a perpetually present, stationary cloud just about the valley. The alien itself (which I’ll call it although Peele ultimately never defines what it is), once properly glimpsed proves to be saucer-shaped but when looked at beam-on looks like a gigantic eye in the sky – thematics still being underlined, folks. Towards the end it unfolds as a diaphanously swirling thing, like a mating of kite and jellyfish, and with a square eye – the most extreme possible variation on the old parental warning to kids that too much screen time will make their eyes go square? Anyway, it’s clearly an attempt by Peele to come up with something new and interesting in movie monsters, but it just looks, well, silly.
As these misjudged ideas accumulate whilst the threat and its underpinning metaphors emerge into view, Nope, after its promising early scenes, start to slide vertiginously downhill. Where in Us Peele’s spongily fable-like underpinnings gained a certain amount of power through his filmmaking, Nope fails for the same reason. But let me define what I mean by fable, which is a seemingly simple, naïve form of storytelling that privileges the illustration of emotion, ideas, and a certain kind of dream logic over rigorous narrative. In both Get Out and Us the mechanics of Peele’s plots bore no scrutiny, for the most part deliberately, I felt. The conceit of the underground tunnels and anti-people they housed were presented as nominally present in a kind of reality but were rather an illustration of a psychological zone. It was absurd that Allison Williams’ girlfriend character in Get Out had to role-play and prostitute herself for months on end just to nab one schmuck college student, when surely it could have been accomplished in an hour. But the object there was to chart the double goad to the hero’s aspiration and anxiety about the many barbs of interracial love. If one took Peele’s films on such a level, they worked. If you didn’t, you were in trouble. As for me, well, as I often do, I hovered somewhere between.
On a more prosaic level, Nope indicates that, good as he is at building mystery and tension, Peele is still quite clumsy at orchestrating large-scale action, in a manner already hinted at with aspects of the climactic scenes of Us. We get endless shots of OJ riding around on his horse without any particular sense of his objectives or tactics, when the alien can hoover him at will. There’s an old trope in monster movies that’s been sardonically recognised by fans where incredibly dangerous and threatening forces easily decimate hapless victims in early scenes but for some reason can’t quite get to grips with the heroes because, well, they’re the heroes, and this phenomenon is so pronounced here it could represent it from now on. Also, the plotting is almost perversely clumsy. The finale hinges on the sudden intrusion of an unwelcome visitor as the Haywoods, Angel, and Holst are trying to lure in the monster so Holst can film it on a hand-cranked camera. The visitor proves to be some jerk online journalist riding a motorcycle. His kinship with the alien as an embodiment of the voracious eye is unsubtly suggested by having him wear a crash helmet that is, like the UFO, silver and sporting one large, dark orb for vision. He soon gets himself stupidly killed, which proves fortuitous as Emerald eventually commandeers his bike to lure the alien into a trap. Was this an aim all along? Or did it just occur to Emerald? Meanwhile OJ seems to be swallowed up by the monster only to emerge unharmed later, a la Hooper in Jaws.
Peele could get away with fuzziness on story details in his earlier films because of that aforementioned fable quality. But the kind of story Nope tells lives and dies on a precise sense of how elements interact. The alien is supposed to be attracted by things that look back, and can tell when it’s being looked at by some tiny animal from a long distance, but cannot distinguish between living creatures and inanimate objects. Its kryptonite, amongst all the non-organic material it tends to suck up, proves to be small plastic string flags, which it first swallows when sucking up the horse statue around which some are wrapped. Later Emerald weaponises these indigestible things against it. Which, frankly, is damn near as a stupid as the water-kills-aliens reveal at the climax of Signs. This frustratingly points up the awkwardness of Peele trying to subsume that sweeping, compulsive blockbuster appeal whilst also maintaining a slight tint of the arbitrarily ridiculous in the unfolding action.
Peele interpolates a few of his now-familiar flourishes of racial consciousness-provoking, particularly in making the Haywoods the imagined descendants of a black jockey filmed by Eadweard Muybridge in his pioneering photographic studies, and also prominently featuring a poster for the relatively obscure but hardly suppressed Black Western Buck and the Preacher (1972). The object here is pretty patent, teasing the presence of a Black influence in cinema and its most stereotypically white American genre in particular. But part of me also wondered if Peele threw such flourishes in to make critics do the heavy lifting of inferring that he’s made some kind of profound parable, instead of a disjointed, half-digested one. Particularly in floating that dubious proposition that “everybody knows who Eadweard Muybridge is.” There’s also OJ’s name, which plays on evoking its bearer’s sense of exposure and connecting to that meditation on horror as exploited in the mass media, but also begs the question of who would keep insisting on calling their kid that when growing up in the last thirty years. There might have been some potential in the ironic portrait of Black and Asian-Americans applying their talents and identities to the cultural tradition of the Western, but again, it doesn’t progress much further than ultimately affirming OJ as a classical genre hero who looks good on a horse.
Kaluuya is a good actor – he was the visual and performative linchpin of Get Out as the bewildered, naïve, victimised protagonist, and was also great in the exact opposite kind of role as a vicious criminal in Steve McQueen’s Widows (2018). But he’s entirely miscast here playing a brooding cowboy, which makes OJ something of a nonentity. He’s supposed to be a strong, silent type who comes to life as his best gifts are provoked, but he remains out of focus. Palmer compensates with an energetic performance, even as I never quite bought Emerald as a character either. Peele presents the Haywoods as a mismatched pair of personalities, Emerald garrulous and slick, a creature geared to perform in a world of modern media, where OJ is shy and wounded and old-fashioned in his enclosed masculinity. Their chief bond is in their uneasy relationship with their father and his unpredictable, sometimes hurtful ways, ways which bound OJ closer to him and pushed Emerald on her own path but left both unfulfilled. Peele’s attempts to give them some personal totemic investment in the battle with the alien feel forced. At one point Emerald recalls how Otis Snr once proposed to give to her horse named Jean Jacket, but then took back to use on a film shoot, only for OJ to later dub the alien Jean Jacket as if to make it the embodiment of their angst.
The mixture here is of squelchy hipster humour – oh, Jean Jacket, that’s so retro and uncool – and unconvincing emotional ploys. Peele similarly has, in a visual pastiche-cum-lampoon of Quint’s monologue in Jaws, Holst sing the lyrics of “Flying Purple People Eater” in a gravely raspy way. All this is the sort of thing Peele ought sensibly have dumped on his second draft of the script, along with the plastic flags thing. Which really only points to the major lack of the film’s climactic scenes, which is any genuine sense of dramatic tension between the Haywoods in their aims in dealing with their quarry. Perhaps Emerald, in her need for validation, might have been made more and more maniacally determined to photograph the alien, whilst OJ becomes increasingly heated in his determination to simply kill the thing that eats his beloved animals and inadvertently killed his father. Instead, their relationship is by and large stated and then allowed to coast. There’s no particularly palpable sense of danger to either, which means there’s never any, genuine thrill to their eventual triumph. Much of the power of Get Out came, for me at any rate, not from the racial provocation but from the portrayal of romantic disillusionment, which culminated in the hero impotently trying to strangle his blankly treacherous lover: that was an idea, an image, a feeling, that communicated a sense of real danger.
The finale makes a big deal of Emerald finally trying to capture the alien’s photo on the old-timey tintype carousel camera that’s used a gimmicky tourist trap on Jupe’s ranch, whilst distracting and killing it by releasing a flag-bedecked balloon mascot. This touch tries to close a loop of meaning with Muybridge’s photography, and perhaps might intend to suggest the only the way to break through to true original vision is to wield a painstaking method with essential tools. Or is it just something as trite as old-timey stuff trumps modern junk? Either way, everything about this struck me as laboured. Nope holds not just the sight of the alien but most of its ideas and feelings in a kind of dip-eyed cringe, and it can’t even quite land the straightforward monster movie is essentially is. It made me long for the potency of something like Chuck Russell’s remake of The Blob (1988), which also feels like an influence in the mix here – the kind of old-school genre film that easily encompassed its revisionism and charged subtexts whilst sprinting onwards with crazy energy and careless gore. Never mind anything by Peele’s genre hero John Carpenter. Nope isn’t a bad film exactly. It’s well-made on all technical levels and for a while at least drags you along with its teases. And yet it never coheres, and by the end, rather than feeling Peele had broken through to new ground, I felt he’d made something closer to a car crash. Which might, in the end, be good for him. Peele can just be a filmmaker now.
Director: Norman Jewison Screenwriter: William Harrison
In memoriam James Caan 1940-2022
By Roderick Heath
Science fiction movies produced in Hollywood in the late 1960s and 1970s have a tantalising quality from today’s perspective. After the genre’s boom in popularity in the 1950s ended, sci-fi remained a niche audience thing, until it suddenly returned as the stuff of major movies, a revival that might have been stirred by the James Bond movies and began properly with 1966’s Fantastic Voyage. The 1968 triptych of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, Franklin J. Schaffner’s Planet of the Apes, and Ralph Nelson’s Charly made science fiction cinema prestigious and won it popularity amongst the younger audience of the day, who latched onto the genre’s ability to offer witty and thoughtful reflections of contemporary concerns as well as future dreaming through a lens of parable and satire. For the next decade sci-fi simmered away with a string of usually modestly budgeted but thematically ambitious entries, with futuristic dystopias, often involving nuclear war or environmental degradation, and quasi-fascistic regimes aplenty. Many movies of this moment, including A Clockwork Orange (1971), The Omega Man (1971), Silent Running (1971), THX-1138 (1971), Soylent Green (1972), Westworld (1973), Zardoz (1974), and Logan’s Run (1976), remain objects of fierce cult followings. The success of Star Wars (1977) suddenly made the genre the stuff of blockbusters, but also by and large skewed the genre back to its less elevated roots.
Norman Jewison’s Rollerball is at once of the most sorely undervalued and significant entries in the style. Jewison himself was for a long time one of Hollywood’s most respected and prestigious directors, reputed for constantly tackling socially conscious subjects whilst proving himself across a range of genres. Jewison, born in Toronto in 1926, served in the navy during World War II, and when attending university after the war became involved in student theatre. He eventually found work in the fledgling days of Canadian television, quickly proving adept in many areas of production. When he moved to New York to work for NBC in 1958, he directed mostly live shows and star showcase specials, and eventually the actor Tony Curtis suggested he try feature filmmaking. Curtis gave him his first shot, too, with 1962’s 40 Pounds of Trouble. After a few middling comedies Jewison gained his first real attention for The Cincinnati Kid (1965), a film he was ironically only hired onto as a quick replacement for Sam Peckinpah, as Jewison proved he was able to balance serious character portraiture with an overlay of slick, inventive, then-modern style, a talent Hollywood urgently needed at the time. His follow-up, The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming (1966), became a cause celebre in depicting the chaos ensuing when a Soviet submarine appears off the coast of New England, offering a puckishly depicted possibility for rapprochement between Cold War foes. Jewison then made In the Heat of the Night (1967), a deft and moody blend of cop thriller and social issue movie, and captured the Best Picture Oscar, although it also marked the second of the seven occasions he’d be nominated for Best Director and lose.
Jewison scored further big hits with a segue into pure pop cinema, The Thomas Crown Affair (1968), and adaptations of the musicals Fiddler on the Roof (1971) and Jesus Christ Superstar (1973). A filmmaker of Jewison’s stature making a violent sci-fi film was a reasonably big deal in 1975, and sparked some mild controversy. Rollerball, adapted by writer William Harrison from his own short story, represented a coherent extension nonetheless of Jewison’s recurring fascination for brilliant but assailed protagonists who have the potential to be ignominiously crushed or emerge as messianic heroes, a tendency explored most obviously on Jesus Christ Superstar but perhaps most truly fulfilled on Rollerball. Aspects of Rollerball are extremely dated today. But in other respects it’s proven one of the more uniquely prognosticative sci-fi entries of its time. Its concept of the future, one where people increasingly seek proof of heroism’s possibility in non-intellectual settings, particularly sports, as the rest of the world becomes increasingly corporatized and conformist and narcotised by media consumption, feels damn near Nostradamus-like. The way it seeks messianic heroism amidst crushing fascistic realms in the genre setting would transmit that figuration to Star Wars and on to the likes of The Matrix (1999) and The Hunger Games (2012): the latter film in particular would riff on a similar proposition of sports used as a form of violent sublimation and social control. In more immediate terms Rollerball anticipated the following year’s Rocky in anointing the popular ideal of an underdog sporting hero, and sparked a brief run of futuristic gladiatorial competition movies, including Paul Bartel’s glorious Death Race 2000 (1976). Rollerball even gained a remake in 2002, but the less said of that the better.
Rollerball also gave star James Caan one of his finest lead roles after The Godfather (1972) cemented him as a major star. Caan was cast as Jonathan E, the champion of the eponymous sport. Jonathan plays for the Houston team in the international Rollerball league sometime in the 2080s. Jonathan has become the sport’s one indisputable legend, to the degree that he’s about to become the first individual player to ever be the subject of a showcase of a special on “Multivision,” the future’s multi-screen, multi-camera version of TV. Rollerball, as depicted in forensic detail in the film’s long opening sequence, is a brutal, gladiatorial sport that resembles a mixture of ice hockey, roller derby, and American football. Two competing teams charge at speed around a circular course, most players on roller skates but some also riding motorcycles, and fighting for control of a heavy metallic ball fired at speed from a cannon, with points scored by punching the ball into a small magnetic hole. Deaths in the game aren’t just common but expected. Jewison memorably raises the curtain on the film with Bach’s “Toccata and Fugue in D minor” blaring out as technicians prepare the arena for the upcoming match, spectators and bigwigs file in, and the players assemble.
The opening sequence depicting the unfolding match with its odd mix of the chaotic and the ritualistic in its unfolding is remarkable for making the imaginary sport palpable and convincing in its details. Jewison extends the oddball period punk aesthetic he explored with his Roman soldiers in Jesus Christ Superstar, here with the helmeted, padded, gauntleted look of the Rollerball players. The differences between this futuristic sporting event and more familiar ones soon become apparent, as the players and crowd are required to stand not for a national anthem, but for corporate anthems, as this future has seen the world carved up between a handful of colossal, omnipotent corporations, each with a different area of the world economy to maintain monopolistic control over. Houston represent the home of the Energy Corporation, also their sponsors, with their high-ranking executive watchdog Mr Bartholomew (John Houseman) looking on from the stands. Houston play Madrid in the quarter-final match: whilst there are some rules and curtailing limits, the competitors have relatively free rein to beat, bash, and run over each-other in the flow of play. Jonathan scores all three of Houston’s goals to win the match, whilst he’s given expert protection by his pal and protégé ‘Moonpie’ (John Beck), who specialises in taking enemy players out of the match with targeted hits and tackles, and Blue (Tony Brubaker), who rides a motorcycle used to haul whoever has the ball around the track to the goal. By the game’s end eight players are listed as injured or killed.
After the match the Houston team members are treated to a locker room visit by Bartholomew, a great honour that grows greater as Bartholomew charms the players by assuring them that whilst they might fantasize about gaining the power and privileges of a corporate executive, the executives all fantasize about being Rollerball players. Bartholomew offers Moonpie a recreational drug pill from his personal stash, and asks Jonathan to come and see him at his office the next day. When he does, however, Jonathan is left bewildered and chagrined when Bartholomew tells him that that the executives want Jonathan to announce his retirement on the Multivision special. This request, couched in the most smoothly affable terms by Bartholomew, is nonethless laced with a clear undercurrent of baleful coercion: “Take your time, take a few days…think about it, but understand it. Do understand it. Because I don’t understand your resistance, and I don’t think anyone else will.” This request however stings Jonathan out of the detached holding pattern he’s been maintaining since his wife Ella (Maud Adams) left him, or, as he thinks, was taken from him by a high-ranking executive. Other women assigned to him regularly to serve essentially as concubines, including current paramour Mackie (Pamela Hensley), who is aggravated when she finds Jonathan is having her replaced and plainly wanted her gone by the time he returned home. Jonathan is much happier to return to the company of his former coach and mentor, now personal trainer, Cletus (Moses Gunn) Cletues still has some contacts in the corporation hierarchy, and agrees to try and find out why the executives want Jonathan retired.
Rollerball’s unusual style pivots repeatedly from the bristling, bloody furore of the three Rollerball matches depicted to the muted, drifting, naggingly melancholic tone of the rest of the film, which Jewison depicts as a kind of lotus eater world of narcotising luxury and disorientating, deliberately ahistorical, amniotic existence, at least for people in Jonathan’s sphere. The use of classical music as the only scoring for the film, probably influenced by 2001: A Space Odyssey but achieving its own, rather different impact, underpins the mood of detached and bewildered absence that dogs Jonathan with works of lilting, longing emotionalism. Jonathan nominally misses his wife but in fact, as he eventually realises, suffers from an aching absence defining his entire existence: the only time Jonathan is entirely alive is on the Rollerball track. Which proves, eventually, to be exactly the problem: Rollerball as a game, it eventually emerges, is designed not simply to be an orgiastic outlet for the violent bloodlust of the audience in a perpetual cycle of repression and sublimation, but also one where the damage wrought upon individual players is a feature rather than a bug. It’s supposed to demonstrate the futility of individual effort, to use up human bodies in the course of entertaining and disarming the crowd. Jonathan himself holds the record taking the most opposing players out of a single match, standing at 13. And so Jonathan’s rise as a player who hasn’t just grown strong but properly and legitimately titanic in the sport is quite literally a violation of its whole ethos and purpose, and threatens the corporate establishment in case people start feeling themselves empowered. The essential matter of the fable questions whether the quick death of the body is any worse than slow death of the spirit, whilst presenting a situation where the two go hand in hand.
Rollerball at least offers a little sympathy for the devil in that regard because, as Bartholomew notes, the age of the corporate overlordship has delivered an age of apparent peace and plenty after the old nations all went bankrupt, and even the days of “The Corporate Wars” are past. Of course, such contentment is actually embalming, and Jonathan, as he tries to learn a little more about why things are as they are, finds himself coming up against a barrier of pleasantly beaming secretaries, suit-clad officials, and company-appointed courtesans trying to keep him safely within bounds. Rather than necessarily putting this down to nefarious deliberation as in, say, Fahrenheit 451 (1966), Rollerball hints this is due as much to general indolence and anti-intellectual habits from this future society, and the overly confident fiddling of technocrats eager to subsume knowledge into their computers, as it is from the corporations trying to quash the nuances of history and culture. Again, this feels quite keenly prophetic. Trying to learn some of the history of the rise of the corporations, Jonathan learns that all books have been transcribed and summarised on computer and the unexpurgated versions kept on an AI supercomputer called Zero, located in Geneva. When he travels there to get answers, Jonathan encounters Zero’s keeper, known as the Librarian (Ralph Richardson), who proves eager to please the great celebrity. This proves a vivid interlude of dark and woozy comedy, warped genre poetry, and dystopian sarcasm. The Librarian escorts Jonathan in to the innermost sanctum of Zero, which runs on “fluid mechanics…a memory pool. He’s supposed to tell us where things are and what they might possibly mean.” But the Librarian also laments that the erratic Zero is erratic, having recently lost all its knowledge of the Thirteenth century after a performing a colossal memory dump when someone asked it a specific question. “Not much in the century,” the Librarian tries to assure Jonathan, “Just Dante, and a few corrupt popes.” Jonathan beholds the core of Zero, a cage-like structure around a bubbling fluid memory bank, but when he asks his question the computer degenerates into incoherent phrases about corporate governance and the word “Negative” constantly repeated, whilst the Librarian furiously kicks the errant machine.
Sci-fi often works best when embracing qualities of fable in terms of narrative but insisting on realistic detail in its minutiae, and Rollerball offers this, pointing the way to other successful variations on the same template as Blade Runner (1982), if in a more modest fashion. The idea of corporate dictatorship as one of many possible futures of illiberalism had been fairly common in 1950s sci-fi writing, and aspects of Rollerball had been anticipated by the radical British filmmaker Peter Watkins with films like Privilege (1967), The Centurions (1968), and Punishment Park (1971), with his interest in systems of power degenerating into violence and atavism. In offering its own, more accessible take on such notions, Rollerball wields its own brand of cunning in the way it recognises and only exaggerates familiar phenomenon of its day just a little, phenomena that have only grown more acute over time. Particularly aware is the way it perceives the sporting hero as a genuine locus of worship and admiration as a figure retaining and employing primal virtues like strength, skill, physical courage, and a particular kind of reflexive, predatory intelligence once required everyday back when humans were hunter-gatherers but now suppressed and necessarily dulled, only allowed to be unleashed in certain arenas like competitive sports. Only the athlete and the actor have retained that kind of electrifying connection with the modern psyche.
Rollerball takes up that kind of sympathy and also the way great athletes and sportspeople become avatars for ordinary people the more they’re feted and rewarded rather than less. The previous year’s prison football drama The Longest Yard had sketched out the theme of the sportsman as a particular bastion of individualism against bullying power, and Rollerball took it considerably further. Much of the film’s first half is given over to perceiving the tension underlying Jonathan’s seemingly luxurious, indulged, and insulated life, manifesting in his interactions with Mackie, and her replacement Daphne (Barbara Trentham), who Jonathan quickly realises has been placed with him to keep him on a short leash in this decisive moment. During what’s supposed to be an interview recording session for the special, Jonathan finds he’s being fed lines via autocue trying to force him into retirement, with Bartholomew and his aide (Richard LeParmentier) watching on from a booth and Daphne lolling about in a drug daze, but Jonathan resists. Jonathan begins to suspect he might be assassinated, particularly as he continues to resist Bartholomew’s efforts to make him retire before the upcoming semi-final that will pitch Houston against Tokyo. Despite Bartholomew’s personal entreaties when they meet at the party Jonathan throws to coincide with the Multivision special, Jonathan insists on playing with the team in Tokyo, because the rules are going to be changed, eliminating all penalties and limiting substitutions, and with even more extreme measures being slated for the final match when it comes. When Daphne tries to prod Jonathan into toeing the line with veiled threats he furiously throws her against a couch and scratches her cheek with his studded uniform bracelet, telling her not to be around when he returns, and avoids taking a private flight to Tokyo, electing instead to travel with the team.
In a touch Steven Spielberg would appropriate in Minority Report (2003), Jonathan feeds his grieving and alienation by constantly rewatching old personal recordings of his glory gays with his missing wife: Daphne’s first arrival comes during one of these sessions. Here Rollerball successfully anticipates another aspect of modern life: technology becoming a kind of stasis chamber feeding out emotional reflexes and nostalgia urges back at is in a loop. The Multivision night party proves a uniquely epic vignette as realised by Jewison and cinematographer Douglas Slocombe, whose images, at once sleekly lit and gritty, capture a drifting, languid, detached quality amidst the flashy pleasure-seeking that presents a sarcastically amplified edition of a Hollywood player party. Moonpie, contending with a bevy of beauties and a dash for a quickie upstairs with one, is the one person who still knows how to enjoy themselves, amidst a sea of drugged-up gladhanding and benumbed sensuality, whilst odd guests experience private gibbers of intense, inchoate emotion, signalling that the bewildered and displaced experience Jonathan is dealing with is a common lot. Amidst the seemingly objective, almost unmoored play of zoom and tracking shots that survey the party we see characters engaging in plays of looks that signal unacknowledged but vitally important dramas unfolding – Jonathan arranging with Cletus a time to sneak away and discuss what Cletus has learned; Bartholomew watching them with intent; Mackie glaring after her former lover.
The Multivision special, filling the many screens all around the house, offers powerful slow-motion analysis of Jonathan’s gameplay, viewers applauding and gaping in glee with each shot of Jonathan clobbering challengers conveyed with both aesthetic and forensic intensity. Lustrous, dreamy beauty and intimate brutality meet, the thrill of sublimating violence and the transformative power of art blended into catch-all for the needs of the audience. That Jewison had his career beginnings as a shooter of live television and star showcases lends personal subtext as well as convincing technical approximation to the film’s depictions of such. The raw immediacy of the Rollerball matches is contrasted by the stylised spectacle of the special, both nonetheless conjoined as part of the apparatus of pacification and manipulation of the audience. Whilst Bartholomew confronts Jonathan and admonishes him for his intransigence, confessing that he and others have been embarrassed, the party guests head out into the dawn light as one man has brought a laser pistol. The glitzy-dressed society damsels begin shooting trees that erupt in fireballs to electric, orgasmic pleasure, experiencing the pure joy of destruction for its own sake, finding their own way of tapping what they imagine is a reserve of power only Jonathan can know.
Rollerball belongs to a strand of Hollywood cinema common in the 1970s that had an unusually European-feeling glaze of style and atmosphere, exacerbated here through location filming. Jewison himself, dismayed by American politics in the early decade, had relocated to London. The film is also a product of a time when a lot of directors assumed all you really needed to do to evoke a cold and pitiless future was film around some particularly odd and flashy examples of high modernist architecture – and it usually worked. Jewison found some particularly ripe examples in shooting portions of the film in Munich, including at the then-new BMW headquarters, and at the Palace of Nations in Geneva, whilst the Rollerball matches themselves were filmed in the Rudi-Sedlmayer-Halle, built for the Munich Olympics. All the lettering and numbers seen throughout are in the supposedly super-futuristic “Westminster” computer-readable font, a more amusingly dated touch, if also one that serves the film’s construction of its particular, sequestered reality. Amidst the lead-in to the match against Tokyo, the Houstonians are obliged to listen to an expert (Robert Ito) in the Tokyo players’ martial arts-derived playing style which represents a threat of precision and dexterity to the Houstonians’ celebrated forceful approach. Moonpie, encouraged by Jonathan, acts as self-appointed tactician and morale officer and refuses to listen to the expert, instead working up his fellow players until they converge en masse on the luckless lecturer whilst chanting their team name with warlike zeal.
Jewison strikes a foreboding note in this spectacle of camaraderie, Moonpie’s resolute refusal to countenance the idea any foe can foil his team’s strength returning to haunt him in the ensuing match. The semi-final proves every inch the dreadful battle Jonathan feared as players on each team are clubbed, bashed, and broken. Jonathan and Moonpie contrive to drag an opponent up into the path of the fired rollerball itself, the projectile breaking his neck, and this in turn prods the Tokyo players to target the two. Whilst Jonathan is taking a time-out after suffering a gouging blow to the arm, three Tokyo players tackle Moonpie and, just as he suggested to his own teammates, they waylay him, strip off his helmet, and punch him in the ganglia, a blow that leaves Moonpie instantly comatose and brain dead. Jewison stages this moment with brilliance as he shifts from the documentary-like style he shoots the rest of the Rollerball scenes to create a moment of tragic, hallucinatory clarity. The camera performs a quick zoom in on Jonathan’s face as he beholds his friend about to be destroyed by considered and ruthless violence, before switching to his viewpoint for a delirious slow-motion shot of Moonpie taking the blow. Jewison then moves in for a close shot of Moonpie’s dead-eyed gaze as his head strikes the track. Blue helps Jonathan get payback by cornering the player who struck Moonpie with his motorcycle, allowing Jonathan to grab him and smash his head in, but Blue himself is soon sent driving wildly against the wall of the track by an opponent’s blows, and burned when his bike explodes after being hit by the launched ball. So thrilled and moved are the Tokyo crowd they begin tearing down barricades.
The steady degeneration of the Rollerball matches from a coherent if madcap game into what are essentially gladiatorial bloodbaths and glorified street fights proves eventually to be cleverly motivated by a reasoned purpose on the behalf of the executives. As Bartholomew notes during the one scene depicting the various corporate honchos interacting over screens, they’ve voted against taking Jonathan down by illicit means, because they need Jonathan to either quit or be destroyed in the arena now that he’s raised the possibility of heroic achievement there. Instead it’s Jonathan’s allies who fall victim to the mounting carnage. Jonathan refuses to let Moonpie’s body be euthanized for transplant surgery, so he’s spirited back to Houston and kept in a clinic where Jonathan comes to visit him just before the last match, and he meditates on the likelihood that Moonpie could live on in his vegetable state long after Jonathan himself has met his end in the final. Jonathan is briefly reunited with his wife Ella thanks to Bartholomew’s string-pulling. Ella tries to argue Jonathan into accepting his fate and retiring, and Jonathan quickly divines their reunion could be made permanent as a reward for doing so, and that Ella will accept that despite now being happily settled with her executive husband and children. Jonathan is so disillusioned when he realises this he erases his recordings of Ella, and sets off in a state of complete existential readiness for the final match.
The role of Jonathan required both a virulently athletic presence and a fine acting touch to portray a troubled, quietly consumed figure, a man who’s not stupid but can express himself with far more clarity and authority when in combat than when confronted by systems of power that are deliberately and dangerously opaque, but still determines to press along his own path. Caan was one of the few actors of the time capable of convincing in both spheres, and he’s exceptionally good at conveying Jonathan’s quiet, deflecting, self-effacing manner when not playing – a common quality of top sportspeople that Caan plainly grasped. Jonathan barely weathers his life outside the arena as a constant succession of disorientating codes and bewildering absences, suddenly arriving and vanishing lovers and teammates. Jonathan isn’t at all a perfect or even always terribly good guy – he is after all someone who’s become enormously successful by unleashing a killer edge in games, whilst also keeping it on a tight leash at all other times – and gives few shows of specific emotion, like his rage at Daphne, and his evident happiness in training with Cletus. He tends to farm out his feeling through indirect gestures – giving Daphne a pill that makes her sleepy rather than alert during the interview, or letting Moonpie rev up the Houston team – and his rebellions petty, unfocused. Perhaps one of the more obvious touches in the film was casting Houseman as Jonathan’s nemesis, the personification of the corporate world order. Not because Houseman is ineffective: he’s characteristically good and intriguingly subtle in the part, conveying a more insidiously intelligent kind of villain and seeming all the more hateful for it, as in the way he quietly, gently, but coercively places his hand on Jonathan’s knee when telling him his time is up. Rather, because of his anachronistically patrician manner to contrast Caan’s rugged, plebeian grit: it’s a backward-looking touch, rather than one that confronts a less comforting schism than snobs versus slobs. Especially from today’s perspective, when all the magnates are trying desperately to seem like you chilled-out bro.
But Jonathan’s journey is rendered with strokes appropriate to mythology, with inevitable Christlike echoes, but also very strong hints of Achilles: like the Homeric hero Jonathan is the essential natural warrior, profoundly offended by the theft of his woman and the killing of his great and beloved fellow fighter. Jonathan’s attempts to learn about history and society meanwhile have their own tint of parable, of a man seeking wisdom who is constantly stymied and blocked, contending with gnomic watchdogs and psychotic machines, and ultimately finds the only way he can express himself is also the one he’s best equipped for, one that requires no learning from outside himself. So great has Jonathan’s cult grown that before the final starts Jewison shows locales around the world, all deserted and silent, whilst the chanting of his name from people watching both in the arena and their homes is heard on sound, registering the starved fervour he’s stirred in the people. The final match of the film which provides its apocalyptically-tinged climax sees Houston playing New York in a game played without penalties and no time limits, which essentially means it will play out as a long session of mutual murder. Soon enough the arena is a stygian space filled with sprawled corpses and blazing fires. Jewison wrings some juice out of asides like the sight of even Bartholomew’s aide being seduced into the cult of Jonathan, as the great player survives all efforts to bring him down.
Finally only Jonathan is left of the Houston team, pitted against two New Yorkers stalking him as the crowd has fallen to utterly fixated silence, only the billowing fires and the revving engine of the motorcycle under one opponent breaking the hush. Jonathan seems badly injured as he takes up a waiting station directly before Bartholomew’s ringside seat, only to prove to be feigning as he grabs the NY player who charges him, and crushes the life out of him before Bartholomew’s sternly concerted gaze. When the last opponent attacks, Jonathan tackles him, swiping him off his bike, but this time catches himself and, instead of killing his foe, gets up, takes the rollerball to the goal, and scores the game’s only, winning point. Instead of killing Jonathan or reducing him to a mindless killing machine, the corporate game finally hands him the proper venue to achieve apotheosis. The crowd take up their chant again from a breathless, ecstatic whisper to roaring triumphalism as Jonathan cruises around the arena, bloodied and battered but gaining new and fearsome determination with every second, until Jewison offers a succession of freeze-frames of his glowering face as “Toccata and Fugue” suddenly resurges, now the anthem of Jonathan’s wrath. Such gestures very quickly became cliché in popular moviemaking, but in the context of Jewison’s brilliantly sustained slow burn, they retain enormous, thrilling power. The film’s ultimate point isn’t that Jonathan is a singular titan who can slay armies or take down a single, hated tyrant, but one fit in the most ironic way for the role he was chosen for, the avatar for embodying and focusing human ferocity, the hero who stole back some of the gods’ fire.
Director: Denis Villeneuve Screenwriters: Eric Roth, Jon Spaihts, Denis Villeneuve
By Roderick Heath
Here there be spoilers…
As a dedicated fan of Frank Herbert’s Dune and its literary children, I anticipated a new film adaptation with a mixture of hope and apprehension. Dune has managed to sustain a potent cult over the half-century since its publication, its influence manifest in subsequent hits as diverse as Star Wars,The Matrix, and Game of Thrones, to the point where its building blocks now seem pervasively familiar, even if its most individual and esoteric qualities remain largely untapped and evergreen in their strangeness. Herbert’s legendarium, with its encoded metaphors for mind-expanding drug use, fossil fuel dependency, post-colonial politics, nascent feminism, and religious seeking, seemed exactly attuned to gathering forces in the modern zeitgeist and so caught the imagination of three generations of dorm room dreamers, but also connected with a larger, more mainstream audience in a way hardcore science fiction rarely does, albeit also erecting a firm barrier between those who could penetrate Herbert’s odd, dense writing style and those left totally cold by it. On a more immediate level, Herbert’s preoccupation with the figure of a quasi-messianic hero who finds himself anointed the one person who can rebound from near-oblivion to lead an uprising helped connect the science fiction genre’s roots in pulp heroism and exotic adventuring with a new preoccupation with the experience of maturation as the key modern narrative, birthing the “chosen one” motif in just about every emulating fantastical epic since.
And, of course, there were earlier versions. David Lynch’s big, bizarre, contorted, but almost endlessly fascinating 1984 version became mostly remembered as a debacle echoing in the corridors of pop culture history but has since gathered a fervent cult following. Jim Harrison’s 2000 TV miniseries proved modestly popular and proficient in its indulgence: whilst scarcely memorable, it seems to have laid seeds for the age of prestige television. For myself, I love both the Herbert novel and Lynch’s film, even if they’re passions that cannot ever quite overlap: they exist a little like matter and antimatter, reflecting the image of the other but unable to touch without annihilation. Lynch’s film manages the unique task of being both maddeningly fastidious and wilfully odd as adaptation, sometimes obsessed with communicating the most finicky details from Herbert and elsewhere badly distorting and even avoiding important elements. Now comes the first part of Denis Villeneuve’s proposed two-instalment adaptation of Dune, a bombastic unit of expenditure and epic portent that seems to have been produced with a determination to avoid the heralded mistakes of Lynch’s version, by taking a leaf from Andres Muschietti’s financially successful adaptation of Stephen King’sIt (2017-19) and splitting the book into two movies.
It’s easy to see a dismaying motive behind the new version: present-day Hollywood’s reliance on familiar intellectual property with a hopefully baked-in audience has become so unshakeable that it would rather try again to adapt a book commonly described as unfilmable after Lynch’s version proved a massive financial failure, on the vague expectation the novel’s fans will come, than take a chance on something new. But hope for a new adaptation that would prove sufficiently balanced and coherent, able to at once honour the material’s most specific qualities and appeal to a big audience, has long preoccupied Dune’s fandom, particularly as I suspect every aficionado has long cherished their personal idea of how it should be done. Bifurcating the story promises that the novel’s meticulous construction of its imagined future 8000-odd years hence could be carefully meted out along with the strong, fairly straightforward central storyline. This approach has its own, big risks of course, as any of the three people who remember The Golden Compass (2007) can testify. Regardless, in familiar fashion, Dune unfolds in a distant future in which humans have colonised tracts of the galaxy and have developed a neo-feudal system of control where an all-powerful Emperor and the feudal houses under him administrate the many planets.
We see the House of Atreides, led by the canny and noble but world-weary Duke Leto (Oscar Isaacs), assigned to take over the planet Arrakis by his Emperor, displacing the previous clan of administrators, their hated rivals the Harkonnens, and taking on the responsibility of mining the substance called spice that only occurs there. The spice is absolutely crucial to the shape and operation of the Empire, so whilst the spice mining is an incredibly lucrative business, failure to keep it flowing could bring down harsh penalties. Leto and his advisors also suspect they’re being set up for a fall, a correct assumption, as the Harkonnens are being backed by the Emperor to wipe the Atreides out and rid him of rivals. Leto and his concubine Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson) have one son, the teenaged Paul (Timothée Chalamet): Jessica is a member of the Bene Gesserit, a sect who operate at the nexus of priestesses, nuns, witches, and genetic scientists. The sect has long been dedicated to breeding a human with psychic gifts pronounced enough to see the future and actively control future human evolution, a notional being dubbed the Kwisatz Haderach in ancient prophecy, and Jessica represents the near-culmination of the project. But Paul’s birth, the result of Jessica’s desire to please Leto after she unexpectedly fell in love with him, disrupted the project, and now Paul is displaying nascent signs of being the Kwisatz Haderach. The Atreides are attacked by the Harkonnens, who break through their defences thanks to the treachery of their house physician Wellington Yueh (Chang Chen), but Yueh’s complex motives also see him arrange to save Paul and Jessica from the massacre.
Villeneuve wisely casts familiar faces even in relatively minor parts, making Dune something of an old-fashioned star-studded epic, even if it resists the Lynch version’s delight in showing off its all-star cast in a long curtain call-like final credits scene. Jason Momoa and Josh Brolin play the ultraloyal and omnicompetent Atreides warriors Duncan Idaho and Gurney Halleck, respectively, whilst Stephen McKinley Henderson plays the house strategist and “Mentat” Thufir Hawat. The three actors have the ability to swiftly and effectively make their characters interesting and palpable, even as they’re also essentially wasted. Brolin gets one of the very few jots of humour in the film as he maintains his familiar tight and stoic grimace even whilst answering Leto’s teasing command to smile with “I am smiling.” Charlotte Rampling is somewhat inevitably cast as Reverend Mother Mohiam, the stern, mysterious, haughty exemplar of the Bene Gesserit creed who nominally works for the Emperor but pushes the Bene Gesserit agenda at all times. Liet Kynes, the Imperial ecologist assigned to study Arrakis turned covert renegade and a male in the book, has here been turned into a woman for some reason or another, with Sharon Duncan-Brewster taking the role. Javier Bardem turns up for two scenes to mumble impressively as Stilgar, a leader of the so-called Fremen, the original human colonists of Arrakis who long since adapted to life on the planet and consider themselves its true custodians, but have since suffered from persecution at the hands of the Imperial and Harkonnen enforcers.
Villeneuve and his co-screenwriters Jon Spaihts and Eric Roth peel away much of the story superstructure in digging down to the fundamental melodrama that forms the spine of the plot, which, he’s decided, is the fate of the key Atreides themselves – Leto, Jessica, and Paul, with interpersonal exchanges between the three trying for a mix of familial affection and pained gravitas, and the tragedy that presages the rise of the young scion on the path to revenge and mystical transformation. There’s an early scene in the novel, dutifully recreated in all versions, which provides a galvanising moment in the narrative, when Paul is visited by Mohiam, who insists on testing his mettle for at that point obscure reasons. She forces him to stick his hand into a box that induces terrible pain, challenging him to withstand the pain or be killed with a poisoned needle pressed to his throat, in a rite of passage designed to distinguish if he’s a true human, infinitely capable of patience and resistance, or a mere “animal,” slave to impulse and reaction. It’s a scene that, I expect, most genuinely hooks the attention of about-to-be fans, as it not only presents a thrilling situation, but also encapsulates much of how Herbert’s writing and storytelling works – the lengthy, ritualistic confrontation of strong personalities, the suspense based in the problem of a surviving a situation when hemmed in by potential checkmates of lethal capacity where cast-iron willpower must be met with the same, and the unsettling description of a teenage boy being forced to endure perfect agony without flinching as a preparation for life in a world without safe and comforting moral boundaries.
Villeneuve handles the scene as well as Lynch did, in the contrast between Chalamet’s open-faced youthfulness and Mohiam’s veil-clad and forbidding embodiment of all that’s powerfully arcane and dismissive of weakness, particularly with the added touch of Jessica able to maintain sympathy with her son from outside the room and experiencing what he experiences, reciting the famous mantra against fear. Villeneuve and his screenwriting team seem to be trying to take a leaf from The Godfather’s (1972) example in trying to communicate the relationships between the central family characters whilst they seem to mostly discuss business, as in another early scene where Paul and his father discuss the looming challenge before them whilst walking between grave markers of their ancestors on the grey and watery world of Caladan that has long been their home and fiefdom. The trouble is despite this approach I never really felt convinced by their family dynamics. Isaac and Ferguson are strong actors and are undoubtedly the right age, but it still feels a little odd seeing them cast as the grizzled patriarch and weirdly hot mother who has a perturbing dynamic with her on-screen son. It doesn’t help that Isaac and Ferguson are both forced to quell their natural charisma to fit into Villeneuve’s pinched, po-faced dramatic style. Villeneuve’s essential approach is one of characters muttering earnestly at one-another in dimly-lit spaces.
What’s surprising about Villeneuve’s Dune is that despite being given a nominal wealth of space to tell the story, it doesn’t really know what to do with it. Despite the simplifications, the script essentially settles for being an exposition machine, with very few flashes of effective and engaging interpersonal detail, like Paul being teased by Gurney whilst being welcomed for the first time into one of the House strategy meetings. It’s the sort of movie that makes you long for the day when a director would spice up an epic with a few dancing girls or something. Villeneuve takes almost exactly as long as Lynch did in telling the story from beginning to the point where Leto finds Fremen housekeeper Shadout Mapes (Golda Rosheuvel) dying, signalling the start of the Harkonnen attack, and then spends the majority of the next hour and twenty minutes of running time on a listless succession of chase scenes Lynch was more effective in compressing. As a fan of the book I’m in a dichotomous position in this regard. Familiarity helps me keep up and indeed a step ahead of everything so I don’t need to expend the mental energy it will undoubtedly cost a newcomer to the material. But it also makes me susceptible to possible boredom when I simply see things being checked off rather than being truly, creatively explored. Unfortunately, that’s what I began to feel watching Villeneuve’s Dune.
The Quebecois Villeneuve emerged as a feature filmmaker with 1998’s August 32nd On Earth, a debut that immediately gained him notice as a talent screening at the Cannes Film Festival, and his French-language follow-ups, Maelstrom (2000), Polytechnique (2009), and Incendies (2010), were all acclaimed and award-garnered, with the middle film stirring some disquiet in portraying an shooting spree at the University of Montreal in 1989. Villeneuve then went Hollywood with the would-be thoughtful, moody thriller Prisoners (2013), sparking a swift rise up the Hollywood totem pole as he followed with the paranoia study Enemy (2013), the drug war drama Sicario (2015), and sci-fi tales Arrival (2016) and Blade Runner 2049 (2017). I haven’t seen Villeneuve’s French-language films: if I had I might have a different perspective on his later stabs at mating art movie postures with popular storytelling. As far as they go, I find Villeneuve a largely insufferable filmmaker. But he’s one who certainly seems to be finding a particular niche in current mainstream cinema discourse similar to those held in the recent past by David Fincher and Christopher Nolan, in that his particular approach seems to impress some and dismay others through a carefully filtered aesthetic sensibility aiming to deliver chic spectacle.
Villeneuve’s mainstream works to date have been defined by this smothering aesthetic matched to storylines that are generally far less deep and intensive than the stylistic cues insist they are. Those cues, including a relentlessly drab colour palette and droning, booming music scores, seem to me hallmarks of a particular brand of modern quasi-seriousness even when, upon close inspection, there’s little substance to back them up in Villeneuve’s films. I still cringe when I remember how the plot of Arrival was explained by a randomly info-dumping Chinese general to the time-unmoored heroine, or Sicario affected to be a grim investigation of the drug war only to become a ridiculous revenge drama, and Prisoners waded through highly unsubtle character signposting and emblazoned themes even whilst affecting a glaze of knit-browed profundity. Like Blade Runner 2049, Dune sees Villeneuve being relatively restrained, but there’s still something relentlessly pummelling and joyless about his filmmaking to me. Dune has been sucked dry of all its exotic strangeness and dynamism, all its semi-surreal, florid liveliness, with a kind of dry, pseud efficiency in its place. “My planet Arrakis is so beautiful when the sun is low,” Chani (Zendaya), Kynes’ daughter and a Fremen warrior, is heard in voiceover at the very outset. This immediately evinces an attempt by the filmmakers to combine exposition and low-key genre poetry, a method that continues throughout. But the unconvincing clumsiness of the line, the lack of actual, proper expressive language and specificity apparent in it, also neatly demonstrate how this method fails.
Rather than the artists who provided beloved illustrations and cover art for the books, like Bruce Pennington and John Schoenherr, Villeneuve moves to take inspiration from more European styles in sci-fi illustration, with a particular emulation of the work of Jean ‘Moebius’ Girard in the oddball costuming and weirdly-shaped spaceships, designs which, as Luc Besson’s The Fifth Element (1997) which had actual Moebius design work proved, just don’t work very well off the page. But that’s a relatively minor issue. It’s in the specifics that Villeneuve really falls down. The actual uses of the spice and way the substance informs the entire social, political, and economic structure of Herbert’s universe are more or less dismissed in a couple of pithy lines of dialogue, and so we’ve subtly but firmly shifted from any attempt to convey the depth of Herbert’s text in favour of simply delivering its most basic story points. Sometimes this can be a wise move – Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy worked in large part because whilst it happily included much of J.R.R. Tolkien’s esoterica, it knew how to impart it in a fashion that wove around rather than interrupted the central story. The trouble is Dune doesn’t work in the same way. Tolkien deliberately structured his stories so you didn’t have to worry about the quasi-angelic background of the many magical figures including Sauron, Gandalf, and Balrog, even if to understand all that does make things more explicable: nonetheless we intrinsically grasp their function. Similarly, in Dune, it’s possible to approach it without thinking too much about the larger structure and historical meaning of organisations like the Bene Gesserit and the guild of mutated Navigators who need the spice to fuel their precognitive ability to steer colossal spaceships.
But – and this is a large but – to not understand those things means to miss what’s important and interesting about Dune as a mythos and as a work of speculative fiction. If you haven’t read the books you’ll have no idea from this movie about the Navigators; whilst the function and method of the Mentats are depicted through Thufir, just exactly what they are and why they exist is likewise impossible to properly deduce, nor why the flying machines and spacecraft are conspicuously missing guidance computers. Anyone who’s read the book knows about the Butlerian Jihad, which saw all robots and artificial intelligences destroyed and forbidden in the universe, and obliging human beings to stretch their abilities to limits unthought-of in our current time, most of it allowed by the spice. Herbert’s real fascination was with human intelligence and physical development as our vehicle, for which our machines are mere externalised devices. I didn’t sense any real intellectual curiosity in Villeneuve’s Dune, nor desire to put across Herbert’s world beyond what’s strictly necessary to the plot. In Villeneuve’s vision, the spice is reduced from a substance of vast, fantastical conceptual importance to the mere, tinny metaphor for fossil fuel it started as, combined with a kind of light hallucinogen. Villeneuve’s renderings of Paul’s visions are the most banal imaginable, consisting of lots of adolescent yearning glimpses of Chani, swanning about in flowing garb, and occasional glimpses of tussling warriors.
This tendency, to mine the prosaic from the visionary, is an awfully common failing of a lot of recent genre film and television in the contemporary obsession with grounding and pseudo-realism. With Villeneuve it’s particularly acute, having already taken Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982) and tapped it for straightforward plotting and self-consciously obvious thematics, reducing the original’s unique dreamlike palette and narrative density to just another plodding blend of action movie and TV commercial-like sentimentality in its odes to human qualities. Similarly, there’s a monotony to the acting and dramatic beats here. The introduction of the Harkonnens themselves, including the bulbous, infinitely malevolent Baron Harkonnen himself (Stellan Skarsgard), his henchman Raban (Dave Bautista), and Mentat Piter De Vries (David Dastmalchian), takes the mumbling-in-dark-rooms aesthetic to a logical conclusion: the entire world of the Harkonnens seems to have a lighting problem. The obvious, cliché casting of Skarsgard, swathed in a fat suit, is matched by the equal, exhausting obviousness of the nods to Marlon Brando’s performance in Apocalypse Now (1979), as Skarsgard strokes his greasy bald pate with monstrous meditation.
The portrayal of the Harkonnens in Lynch’s film has long seemed to me the biggest problem with that work, in trying to graft Lynch’s penchant for leering id-beasts and wild, bristling bullies onto Herbert’s material with its hypnotic fascination with intellectual evil and total amorality. And yet I found myself longing for the vividness of Kenneth McMillan’s Harkonnen and his outsized delight in obscene behaviour, compared to this drab substitution, and Lynch’s most gleefully appalling touches, like giving a poisoning victim a surgically stitched-together cat and rat to milk for an antidote daily, or Raban crushing a small animal and drinking its bodily fluids like orange juice. The closest Villeneuve gets to such twisted flavour is a brief glimpse of some genetic chimera, part humanoid, part spider that his Harkonnens keep as a pet. Yueh was played with some force by Dean Stockwell in Lynch’s film, and his pathos as a man who betrays himself and his friends for the sake of one, desperate tilt at a more personal revenge was allowed to register as he screamed at Harkonnen after being stabbed in the back for his aid, “You think I don’t know what I’ve done? For my wife?” By comparison, Cheng’s Yueh is bland and blasé even as he dies, his motive not suggested until just before he’s killed, one of the many tributaries of potential melodramatic juice reduced to mere plot function in the face of the impassive-grandiose style. There is, that said, a good touch when Harkonnen has Leto prisoner thanks to Yueh’s machinations: Villeneuve has the Duke stripped naked and laid prone before his enemy, a potent little encapsulation of his sudden vulnerability before a truly evil foe. But Lynch’s crazy, disturbing imagination imbued his Dune with something by and large missing from this one. Which is one reason I’ve long felt that Lynch’s Dune is not a perfect adaptation but is perfectly itself, wielding a specificity and, most importantly, a fearlessness of creative passion almost entirely missing from contemporary big-budget cinema.
Not that I want to get bogged down in simply comparing Lynch and Villeneuve’s versions. Villeneuve goes for an aesthetic, full of monumental forms and a kind of medieval minimalism in décor and design, that’s quite different to the tangled Gothicism, Austro-Hungarian martial dress, and madcap Rococo dominant in Lynch’s film, and it’s a look that struck me as more appropriate to the material. And yet Villeneuve’s style of shooting too often has the hyper-sharp, gritty-glossy look of high-end video game cutscenes, particularly in the special effects sequences, although there’s still some genuine awe stoked by visions like the Atreides fleet being disgorged by one of the colossal “heighliner” space transport vessels. His vision of Caladan makes it look like a drizzly patch of New Brunswick – understandable perhaps for Villeneuve – rather than a watery world where the primal power of the ocean matches and opposes the similar power of Arrakis. Villeneuve swaps out a blue filter for Caladan for a grey-brown one on Arrakis, and he makes the desert planet relentlessly dingy and colourless. Villeneuve’s approach has drawn a lot of comparison to Lawrence of Arabia (1962), but I can’t see why. David Lean (who was apparently approached to direct the first version at one point, whilst Herbert himself took strong inspiration from T.E. Lawrence’s story) knew how to convey the scale of the desert as well as its physical extremes through his approach to light, framing, and colour – the more brilliantly blue the skies the more relentless the sense of sun beating down, of exposure and dire physical straits. Villeneuve makes all of his shots colourless, his skies filled with omnipresent dust, and his desert looks, well, rather tepid.
One telling disparity in Villeneuve’s take on Blade Runner was where Scott’s street scenes were teeming with life carefully conveyed not just through hiring extras and costuming them but with the camera’s sense of how to pick up that life, Villeneuve’s felt stodgy and depopulated. There’s a similar lack of any real energy and sense of lifestyle in his approach here. Here everyone seems afraid to raise their voices too high or gesticulate too much lest they disturb the carefully composed symmetry of the shots. There’s genuine visual ingenuity sometimes, that said. Herbert’s cleverest touches, like the ban on nuclear weapons and the personalised force-fields that have returned warfare back to a matter of who’s best at hand-to-hand combat rather than one of projectile weapons, helped at once to give a clever legitimacy to the old-school space opera’s Wagner-in-space sensibility, whilst also feeling coherent and well-thought-through in terms of its imagined future’s construction, where the path to victory for both villains and heroes means threading a path through seemingly impregnable bulwarks of technology and behaviour. The visualisation of the fights between force-field-wearing warriors are good, but only when dealing with one-on-one fights. The big, tragic combat between the invading Harkonnens and Atreides host is oddly curtailed and lacking much dynamism in staging, the sort of moment that really makes you wish some ebullient meathead like Zack Snyder or Neil Marshall was directing rather than a hyperfussy aesthete. Herbert’s ornithopters, the usual mode of flight on Arrakis, long seemed one of those ideas easy to imagine and write but just about impossible to effectively film, are realised nonetheless with true visual élan, with Villeneuve’s take offering helicopters with side-mounted blade that beat like dragonfly-like wings. There are some truly beautiful images scattered throughout, testifying to the cinematographer Greig Fraser’s masterful talents, including the striking prologue depicting Fremen resistance against the Harkonnen spice miners during a sandstorm.
And of course there’s the sandworms, the massive beasts that infest the sands of Arrakis and provide an omnipresent threat, as well as a potential source of power, and are connected to the spice. Villeneuve handles the first scene involving a worm well, in part because it’s a strong suspense situation: Leto and his team, being flown over the desert by Kynes, spot a worm advancing on a manned spice harvesting machine and race to save the crew before the unimaginably large creature swallows the harvester up. Modern special effects are more than equal to the task of realising the worms, and there’s a nice tightening of the suspense as Paul is abruptly distracted during the rescue as he breathes in the unrefined spice and is plunged into a visionary state, demanding Gurney fetch him, the two almost getting caught in the liquefying sands caused by the worm’s approach. After this, however, in the subsequent appearance by the worms as one swallows up a team of Imperial “Sardaukar” troops after they’ve executed Kynes in the desert, and another chases after Paul and Jessica, the worms rapidly become familiar and prove a bit dull-looking: whilst obviously better-realised in a technical sense, they never register as effectively nightmarish as Carlo Rambaldi’s creations for Lynch did, particularly in the latter pursuit. Villeneuve’s versions have long hair-like teeth and perfectly round mouths and crinkly, puckered skin that make them look a bit, well, anal, particularly in a very misjudged shot when one pauses it attack and sits centre-frame. Not that this represents some lurch towards Freudian imagery. If Lynch arguably went overboard in trying to tease out the surrealist imagery and dream symbolism inherent in Herbert’s material, Villeneuve’s edition strains in the opposite direction to make everything clean and hard-edged, plunging Herbert back into the regulation techno-fascist style he broke with.
Momoa’s presence, with his innate muscular swagger and obliquely twisting grin, gives the film a thankful jolt of matinee heroism that’s also appropriate for the character, who, as his name suggests, is offered as a kind of holdover of an ancient kind of frontier grit – one reason Herbert kept reviving Duncan over and over in the books. Villeneuve gives him an appropriately spectacular end, something Lynch fumbled rather badly, as he fights a unit of the Sardaukar hunting Paul and Jessica after the Atreides’ downfall, still managing to battle on even after being skewered with a blade. Momoa’s presence is particularly vital as he offsets Chalamet. Chalamet is definitely a current It Boy on the cinema scene with his anime-drawing-of-a-young-man looks, and he’s an actor with great potential – he did, for instance, an excellent job as the compulsory stand-in for the director of A Rainy Day In New York (2020). The film tosses in a ribbing joke about his lack of muscular manhood, but it doesn’t quite cover up the fact that he feels wrong in the role, whereas Kyle MacLachlan, whatever else you can say about him, expertly negotiated the shift from eager teenager to fearsome messiah: here Chalamet kept reminding me a little too keenly of his character in Lady Bird (2018) as a gangly brat who read a Marxist text once, here with a few added taekwondo lessons. One problem is that Villeneuve’s relentless approach to the style means the only moment where Paul feels at all boyish is when he first meets Duncan on screen, displaying a smile reserved for a kind of older brother or alternative father hero figure. Later in the film when he’s called upon to display emerging grit and gravitas he falls totally flat.
A more obvious problem with Dune: Part One is there in the title. We don’t get a complete story here, and the point where Villeneuve and company choose to leave off is at once fairly natural but also tormenting only in being anticlimactic. Villeneuve ends not on a cliffhanger but at a relatively lackadaisical story juncture, as Paul and Jessica are accepted into the Fremen fold after Paul finally meets Chani, and he is obliged to kill a Fremen, Jamis (Babs Olusanmokun), when the offended and xenophobic warrior challenges him to a duel, a fight that establishes Paul really does have a deadly streak as well as training. This provides a solid fight scene that nonetheless caps off the multimillion dollar blockbuster about some kind of war in the stars with a knife fight. “This is only the beginning,” Chani says in a trailer-ready line, whilst looking and sounding just like a sophomore at a SoCal performing arts school. The time Dune: Part One spent on the shelf awaiting post-COVID release is telling as Zendaya still looks rather young and pouchy-cheeked, with no sign of the impressive maturity she brought to bear in this year’s Malcolm & Marie – not that she’s in the film long enough to make much impression either way. Hans Zimmer matches Villeneuve’s style perfectly in his scoring, alternating drones and ululating songstresses and throbbing-propulsive, drum-thumping cues in a succession of current scoring clichés. Zimmer’s scores are inseparable from the contemporary blockbuster scene, and more specifically from the way movies are sold now: Zimmer’s work maintains a perfect synergy with the art of modern movie trailers, and in effect his work essentially does advertising for the movie within itself, refusing any kind of lyrical invitation in an imaginative universe but instead twisting the viewer’s wrist to find it all grand and darkly thrilling.
Herbert nodded to the early history of science fiction with Dune, with quite a bit of Flash Gordon and Edgar Rice Burroughs’s John Carter of Mars tales in its makeup as well as more sophisticated concerns and investigation of mythopoeic patterns. So to a certain extent it’s fair enough that the movie emphasises this aspect, even if it doesn’t do it all that well. But Herbert deconstructed that kind of old-fashioned adventure tale at the same time, commenting on what’s often seen as the quasi-imperialist assumptions of stories where outsiders, usually white and western, become leaders of far-flung populaces, whilst his narrative both mimicked and commented upon the power of messianic mythology, uncovering links with twentieth century totalitarian movements. Herbert kept in mind things like the way Moses’ emergence as prophet and nation leader led directly to a war of extermination after the wanderings in the desert waged upon occupants of the Promised Land, and saw the way such narratives are pitched as self-justifying for aggrieved nations. He also had an evident fascination for Arabic legend and culture, appropriate considering the story’s basis in the current reality of the oil boom in the Middle East, but also tackled in a complicating fashion: Herbert’s future is a great melting pot of all past human culture and identity, where religions, creeds, and races have long since all formed into a melange as rich as the spice. The Fremen are hardly supposed to be mere stand-ins for Arabic peoples, but a society that’s retained and transmitted a classical culture as appropriate to their lifestyle. This is, after all, once again supposed to be science fiction. Villeneuve’s choice nonetheless is to hammer home the relevance and the more stolid side of the fantasy by emphasising the Fremen culture as quasi-Arabic, which manages at once to be more of a sop to emphasising contemporary parable but also more retrograde and confused in the contained politics.
As for Paul’s dread of the potential of unleashing a genocidal holy war, Villeneuve signals, at least, unlike Lynch who avoided and indeed entirely contradicted it, that he plans to deal with this consequence, but still only has Paul very quickly mutter some malarkey about holy war along with some flash-cut visions of a bloody hand. Lynch’s theatrical cut was forced to compress the second half of the novel in extremely ungainly fashion, so in this regard Villeneuve has left himself plenty of room to deal with the oncoming deluge of fresh weirdness, including Paul’s self-inflicted visionary trip to emerge as Kwisatz Haderach, the arrival of his sister Alia, the bloodthirsty adult in a child’s body, and the great battle for control of Arrakis and the Empire, as well as the bleak side to Paul’s ascension. And yet I’m also forced to ponder how Villeneuve will drain these of their perverted fervour. The ultimate impression Dune: Part One left me with was of something utilitarian, a work that seems to have finally managed, judging by the box office and general reception, the task of successfully selling Herbert’s creation to a broad audience, and indeed it’s worth celebrating insofar as it finally revives hope for franchise blockbusters more ambitious and mature than superhero movies. But the price paid for this is pyrrhic, as too much of what made Herbert’s work lasting and interesting has been sacrificed, and what’s left in its place is occasionally striking but essentially inert. Moreover, it forces me to say something I never, ever expected to say: Lynch’s version remains the superior.
If Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979) sounded in abstract like a movie unlikely to leave much of a mark on cinematic culture upon release, the sequel seemed if anything even more ill-starred. Alien had been a big hit, but attempts to make a sequel soon became bogged down in changing executive regimes at Twentieth Century Fox, lawsuits, and wrangling over returning star Sigourney Weaver’s salary. Despite having emerged as a potential major star thanks to Alien, Weaver had only had one major success since, with her strong if not essential supporting turn in Ghostbusters (1984). A potential answer to the question as to who would make the film, at least, provided when an employee at Brandywine Films, the production company of the first film’s producers and co-writers Walter Hill and David Giler, was on the lookout for interesting new scripts and found a pair by a young filmmaker named James Cameron. Cameron, a graduate of the film schools of Roger Corman and Italo-exploitation, had submitted a potential sequel for First Blood (1981) and his own original sci-fi work called The Terminator, and was busy trying to forget his first foray as director, Piranha II: The Spawning (1982). Hill and Giler, who had taken a chance with Scott and would continue later to hire interesting new talents for the series like David Fincher, Jean-Pierre Jeunet, and Joss Whedon, fed Cameron a basic idea of thrusting the first film’s heroine Ripley into a situation with some soldiers. Cameron hit the ground running in developing the project, but was considered too green to take on directing duties until he made The Terminator on a low budget with maximum industry and potent results.
Cameron was officially hired to make the Alien sequel, given a large but, even by the standards of the time, hardly enormous budget of $16 million, with his then-girlfriend Gale Ann Hurd, who had produced The Terminator, taken on in the same capacity. Cameron’s osmotic knowledge of sci-fi, which caused problems for The Terminator, also drove his interest in portraying spacefaring soldiers in the mould of writers like Robert Heinlein and A.E. Van Vogt. The sequel was filmed at England’s Pinewood Studios, and the 31-year-old Cameron upon arrival found himself facing a lot of scepticism from the British crew, as The Terminator hadn’t yet opened in the UK. Cameron’s own relentless approach to filmmaking, soon to become notoriously onerous, also ruffled feathers, but the film came in, as studios like so much, on time and budget. Aliens was finally released seven years after the first film, an eternity by pop culture standards, particularly in the 1980s. Nonetheless the film proved an instant smash with audiences, and one that would soon enough prove perpetually influential, to the degree that it doesn’t feel like hyperbole to say that Hollywood’s been trying to make it again and again for the past 35 years and never quite succeeding. All anyone who was young and impressionable thought when they first saw it, most likely on video, was that it was awesome.
Arguing over whether Alien or Aliens is the better film is one of those topics movie lovers enjoy fighting over, but what’s certain is that Cameron managed the very rare trick of emulating a great model in a manner that both suited his own sensibility and logically expanded on the original. Indeed, the significant problem that beset subsequent entries in the series was in the inability of any single entry to pull the same trick. Cameron had the unenviable task of mediating Scott’s stylistic approach, which had invested the first film with much of its unique power, and find something new to offer the audience through bringing his own sensibility to bear. The simple addition of an S to the title was all the promissory needed, as simple a declaration as any possible: where before there had been one alien, and the situation matched it, now there would be many, and Cameron follows through on the expectation to expand upon the world and the nightmares Scott depicted. The opening seems to take up where the first film left off, with Ripley drifting through deep space in the Nostromo’s shuttle, the Narcissus, ageless in cryogenic sleep. The craft is intercepted by a much larger salvage vehicle, with a remote robotic unit cutting through the escape hatch and scanning the shuttle before salvagers enter and find Ripley and the Nostromo’s cat Jones still alive. This prologue is exacting in returning the viewer to the mood and method of Alien, not just in the careful recreation of the shuttle set and the hushed, eerily romantic strains of James Horner’s scoring mimicking Jerry Goldsmith’s work, but in the rueful and world-weary comment by one of the rescuers, “There goes our salvage, guys,” immediately recapitulating that this is a universe inhabited by working stiffs where the profit motive looms large and deep space is hardly an escape route from the mundane, where the possibility of rescuing someone is a secondary concern when rounding up a drifting spacecraft.
Cameron continues to follow Scott’s model at first, artfully building a mood of quiet dread where for a vast chunk of the film little seems to happen, although of course every moment of charged intensity without payoff eventually gains it counterweight in thriller action. Such an approach to storytelling in a blockbuster feels all but impossible today, but it’s part of Aliens’ greatness, testifying to a near-vanished moment when crowd-pleasing on the biggest level could also still involve patient, careful storytelling and directorial conditioning. In the theatrical cut of the film, a full hour passes before any actual alien is seen on screen; well over an hour in the “Special Edition” director’s cut assembled for laserdisc in 1990, which stands now as the essential version. Cameron does break from Scott and follows a lead more reminiscent of Brian De Palma in a fake-out dream sequence early on, in which what seems to be the authentic memory of being told by Burke (Paul Reiser), a representative of the company that owned the Nostromo, that she was rescued after 57 years in cryosleep, in the medical bay of a huge space station orbiting Earth: Ripley’s probably real panic attack becomes a nightmare in which she imagines herself impregnated with one of the alien beings which starts to hatch inside her as it did in her fellow crewmember Kane, until she abruptly awakens, panicked and sweating, in the real medical bay. This dream both illustrates the deeply traumatic impact of Ripley’s experiences and provokes the audience’s presumed memory of the first film’s most infamous scene.
As made particularly clear in the Special Edition, Cameron’s script works initially to undercut any hope Ripley’s homecoming will be as positive as the last frames of Alien suggested. She finds herself jobless, disgraced, doubted, and wracked by traumatic nightmares, without friends or family to recognise her upon return, a relic and an exile torn out of her moment. Even her daughter Amanda, who was a young girl when she left, has since grown old and died, a wizened face gazing out at her still-young mother from a pixelated image, time, fate, and identity all in flux. As Burke comes to give Ripley this news, Ripley seems to be sitting in a garden, delivered into nature to recuperate, only for her to pick up a remote control and switch off the large TV screen feeding the illusion. Cameron’s wry visual joke here about technology and falsified environments feels oddly connected with his own extended act of providing such illusion in the fantasy world of Avatar (2009). Soon Ripley is unable to keep her temper when thrust before a review committee who plainly don’t buy her story about the infiltrating alien and seem more concerned by the destruction of the Nostromo and its cargo, and to an extent one can see their point. Finally Ripley is found to have acted negligently, has her flight officer licence cancelled, and learns to boot from the committee chair Van Leuwen (Paul Maxwell) that the planet where the Nostromo’s crew found the alien spaceship and its deadly cargo, now known as LV-426, has now been colonised and is undergoing terraforming.
Aliens immediately recapitulates the cynicism of Alien towards the company, whose canonical name, Weyland-Yutani (suggesting in very 1980s fashion the future convergence of American and Japanese corporate interests into one all-powerful gestalt), was first revealed in the Special Edition, scapegoating Ripley and reducing her to a menial with a tenuous grip on existence. Burke introduces himself by assuring her that “I’m really an okay guy,” which is a pretty good sign he isn’t: although he does seem at first like a solid advocate for Ripley, he nonetheless uses a practiced line of clichés in the course of trying to manipulate her into helping him when it appears she was right all along. Cameron allows images of the cast of the previous film to appear on the computer feed scrolling behind Ripley during the meeting, a salutary touch. But another of Aliens’ qualities is that it’s well-told enough to be a completely stand-alone entity, as the film carefully lays out Ripley’s survivor guilt and contends with the consequences of a situation in a manner most similar types of movie gloss over whilst also offering enough sense of what happened to make her fear as well as the continuing plot entirely comprehensible. Cameron alternates visions of Ripley awakening in stark, body-twisting terror with moments of glazed stillness as Ripley smokes and stares off into nothingness. One nice, barely noticeable touch sees her mane of wavy hair as sported in the first film still present in early scenes but later shorn away to a more functional do, suitable as Ripley is by this time working a labourer in the space station loading docks.
The Special Edition also sports an early visit to LV-426, allowing a glimpse of the colonist outpost, dubbed Hadleys Hope – the outpost’s place sign has “Have a nice day” scrawled in graffiti over the stencilled lettering. Futuristic all-terrain vehicles trundle by the pre-fab structures, buffeted by wind and dust in this tiny island of human civilisation located amidst roiling volcanic rock forms, located someplace between a Western movie town and the outer precincts of hell. A conversation between two administrators (Mac McDonald and William Armstrong) establishes their jaded and frazzled state of mind in running this pocket of habitation whilst an important plot point is conveyed: some company honcho has sent a message asking for a grid reference far out in the planetary wilds to be checked out, so wildcatter mining couple, the Jordens (Jay Benedict and Holly De Jong), have gone off in search of it. Of course, the Jordens come across the all-too-familiar wrecked horseshoe spaceship. I’ve always found this portion of the director’s cut interesting but ungainly: effectively atmospheric, it gives a glimpse of Hadleys Hope as a functioning zone of labour and community, with convincing touches like the playing children who invade the control area of the otherwise tediously functional outpost, and a glimpse of the Jordens as an example of the kind of people who would choose such an existence – tight-knit, working class, adventurous. But it dispels the highly effective sense of mystery and discovery sustained in the theatrical cut, has noticeably weaker acting, and it goes just a little too far in coincidence in presenting Rebecca ‘Newt’ Jorden (Carrie Henn), later to prove an essential character, as being at the epicentre of the nascent crisis. Newt screams in horror as she beholds the sight of her father with a facehugger gripping his head with remorseless biological purpose whilst her mother urgently sends out a mayday.
An unstated amount of time passes before Burke comes to Ripley’s domicile with a representative of the Colonial Marines, Lt. Gorman (William Hope), and tells her that contact with LV-426 has been cut off, and they want her to come with them as an advisor as a unit of Marines are sent to investigate. Ripley is at first, understandably, determined to not to go, resisting Burke’s arsenal of pop psychology cliché (“Get out there and face this thing – get back on the horse!”) and the offer of protection from the armed forces that Ripley already, plainly half-suspects might be vainglorious. Only another wrenching nightmare and a long, hard look in the mirror convinces Ripley there’s only one way out of labyrinth for her, and that only after calling up Burke and seeking assurance that the plan is to exterminate the aliens. Cut to the Marines’ spaceship, the Sulaco, cutting through deep space: the name, taken from a town in Joseph Conrad’s Nostromo, extends that running gag and the connection with Conrad’s grim contemplation of hearts of darkness and corporate-imperial enterprise. Cameron apes Scott’s creation of mood and tension by recreating the quietly gliding camera movements Scott explored the Nostromo with, now scanning the Sulaco’s interior. James Horner’s scoring, like Goldsmith’s employing horns and woodwinds to illustrate the eerie absence of life, interpolates faint drum taps that match the sight of military hardware dormant. One quality that invests Cameron’s early films with much of their populist muscle is the respect and feel he had, certainly earned in his time working as a truck driver in his early 20s, for working class characters, strongly defined by their little social units and camaraderie. It’s a quality Cameron shared with John Carpenter, his immediate forebear as the hero of neo-B movies, although with Cameron it’s arguable this quality arguably hardened into a kind of shtick by the time of Titanic (1997) and Avatar, and where Carpenter’s sensibility led him to increasingly ironic considerations of genre storytelling, Cameron knew which side his bread was buttered on. Nonetheless this lends weight to Cameron’s glancing portrait of life LV-426 and the attitudes of the grunts of the Colonial Marines, as well to Ripley herself. Weaver herself noted that Aliens is essentially one great metaphor for Ripley overcoming her trauma, albeit in a way that thankfully avoids overtness.
It’s important for Cameron that Ripley, originally portrayed in Alien as an officer who makes a slightly snooty impression on her more plebeian crewmates and irks others with her cautious mentality even as circumstances prove her right, here falls basically to the bottom of society as well as mental health. Burke, whilst assuring her there’s nothing wrong with it, tries to plants hooks in Ripley by commenting on her newly tenuous existence. What he doesn’t know, nor Ripley herself, is that her fall also occasions her rise, with particular consequence in the climax, where her specific skill and talent learnt on the loading docks arms her for the ultimate battle with her personal demon. The detachment of Gorman’s Marines, awakening along with Ripley and Burke from cryosleep, is quickly and deftly sketched individually and as a functioning team, particularly the dominant if not necessarily most genuinely strong personalities, including the motor-mouthed, enthusiastic Hudson (Bill Paxton) and the formidable Vasquez (Jenette Goldstein), as well as the quiet, calm Corporal Hicks (Michael Biehn), and the no-nonsense sergeant Apone (Al Matthews). The Marines are reassuring in their confident certainty of their own toughness and competence, and also their generic familiarity, combining classical war movie archetypes and modern sops: the unit includes women, a touch that illustrates Cameron’s cunning retrofitting of old movie templates for a new audience as well as suiting his own sensibility – Apone, who jams a cigar between his teeth within moments of awakening, is right out of a Sam Fuller. But the most crucial point of emulation is Howard Hawks, as the core team fuses together in to a functioning unit once the authority figures are dead or counted out and prove more effective once reconstituted as a semi-democratic whole. Ripley could be said to play the part of the traditional Hawksian woman, except Cameron inverts the old emphasis: she doesn’t have to adapt to the group, but the group fails because it doesn’t adapt like her. Cameron disposes of any dissonance as Hudson teases Vasquez, as she immediately starts doing chin-ups, with the question, “Have you ever been mistaken for a man?” to her immortal riposte, “No. Have you?”
The soldiers patronise Ripley not as a woman but as a civilian, something she gauges immediately, and she takes a certain wry, challenging delight in showing off when she clambers into a robotic loading suit that resembles an anthropomorphic forklift and casually handles a heavy load, much to Apone and Hicks’ approving amusement. Cameron drops in effective, intelligently accumulating character touches that give depth to the Marines, from Hicks falling asleep during the bumpy descent to the planet, to Vasquez and Drake (Mark Rolston) displaying their deep sense of camaraderie as masters of the big guns, drilling in choreographed movement and sharing their own sense of humour, and shades-wearing, ultra-cool shuttle craft pilot Corporal Ferro (Colette Hiller) spouting surfer lingo as she steers her craft down through the stormy clouds of LV-426. There’s also the android (“I prefer the term artificial person myself”) Bishop (Lance Henriksen), present as a standard member of the team. At one point Gorman gets Hicks and Hudson’s names mixed up, a hint at the speed with which the unit was formed that can also be taken as a wry acknowledgement of the difficulty in telling a bunch of young men with buzz cuts apart and of Gorman’s lack of deep investment in noticing the distinction. Hudson himself has an edge of bratty braggadocio that first vanishes when Drake forces him to give aid to Bishop in his party trick display of speed and precision with a knife, but resurges as he regales Ripley with the splendours of these “ultimate badasses” and their arsenal of cutting-edge technological weaponry. The soldiers and their tag-alongs eat before getting mobilised, and another facet of social tension manifests: the grunts notice Gorman doesn’t eat with them, another early sign he’s not going to prove much of a leader. Ripley, remembering Ash from the Nostromo, reacts with virulent unease when she realises what Bishop is, despite his Isaac Asimov-quoting reassurances.
Later, during a briefing for the unit, Gorman generically describes the creatures Ripley has encountered as a xenomorph – exterior-changer – in some official taxonomical flourish that has become since the general name for the malevolent species. After preparing for deployment, the unit is dropped into LV-426’s atmosphere and upon landing find Hadleys Hope seemingly deserted, with signs like half-eaten meals, in a nice nod towards the mystique of the Mary Celeste, betraying the suddenness of what befell the colonists. The Marines soon turn up signs that prove Ripley’s story, particularly patches of metalwork eaten through by the xenomorphs’ spilt acidic blood, and occupy the command centre which was hastily fortified for a last stand. Whilst exploring the deserted domicile, movement detected on their sensors proves to Newt, now bedraggled and deeply traumatised, but also having managed to survive thanks to her intricate knowledge of the domicile’s air duct system, gathered in her years playing in them. Ripley quickly takes on a motherly role for Newt. The team discover two live specimens of the “facehugger” strain that implants larvae in living hosts, kept in plastic tubes in the centre’s Med Lab, with a surgeon’s notes queasily reporting a patient died having one specimen removed. Finally the Marines, trying to find the missing colonists by looking for their subcutaneous tracking chips, locate them seemingly all congregated together in a space under the gigantic atmospheric plant, a fusion reactor-powered array busily making the planetary atmosphere breathable. But when the Marines venture into the plant, they quickly find signs they’re entering a xenomorph nest, and the one living human they find amongst the many eviscerated victims they find fused to the walls quickly dies as one of the larval aliens explodes from her chest. Within moments the unit is attacked by swarming xenomorphs, quickly reducing their ranks and setting the remnant to flight, and it falls to Ripley’s quick thinking to save them.
One aspect of Aliens, relatively minor on the dramatic scale but important to the deep impression made by its overall look and texture, was Cameron’s strong feel, bordering on fetishism, for both a realistic technological milieu, and for military lingo and tough-hombre attitude. Some of the hardware, like futuristic guns mounted on steadicam harnesses and the robotic loading suit, still remain exotic, but other touches, from the Marines’ helmet-mounted cameras to video phones, have become familiar, and all still seem part of a coherent vision of a future that’s at once hi-tech but also rough-and-ready, everything designed for hard encounters on far-flung rocks. That the Marines would use a “drop ship” to shuttle them to and from the planet rather than land a cumbersome spaceship like the Nostromo on LV-426, provides both a logical-feeling aspect of the mechanics of the enterprise whilst also echoing both World War II landing craft and helicopters in the Vietnam war, and also, eventually, provides an important component of the plot. The drop ship itself disgorges an Armoured Personnel Carrier, which the Marines use as a mobile protective base of operations. The visual sheen of Adrian Biddle’s cinematography, with omnipresent steely blues and greys, suggests that the atmosphere itself has soaked up the cobalt-hued lustre of gunmetal and industrial colossi, and the first sight Ripley and the Marines have of LV-426 is of the enormous atmospheric processor installation, powered by a fusion reactor, looming out of the grimy haze, and Hadleys Hope beyond, blurry and smeared in being seen through cameras.
Cameron’s use of such mediating technology also gives Aliens flashes of estranged menace, as the signs of battle and carnage the Marines find once they penetrate the interior of Hadleys Hope, bearing out Ripley’s accounts, are mediated through grainy, fuzzy camera feeds. The oft-emulated scene of Gorman steadily losing all connection and control as the Marines are attacked and the mission turns to lethal chaos intersperses immediate footage and glimpses conveyed through the way their cameras capture incoherent flashes of action and, in the cases of those grabbed or killed by the xenomorphs, blacks out: the technology, which seems to embrace and unite the humans, instead only testifies to their breakdown and impotence. This sequence, which sees the film finally combust after its long, nerveless build-up, cleverly reproduces a key aspect of Alien in the idea of the responses to the xenomorphs being limited by situation, as the nest is directly underneath the plant’s cooling systems, which means that firing off powerful weapons could critically damage the reactor and result in a nuclear explosion. Given the unexpected signs of sentient intelligence the xenomorphs display, too, this might not be a coincidence. This means the team is left almost defenceless as the aliens pounce, save flame throwers and Hicks’ shotgun (“I like to save this for close encounters.”), although Drake and Vasquez, having contrived not to hand over all their ammo, start blasting away wildly as the attack comes.
Cameron and the design team gave the xenomorphs a slightly different look for the film than the sleek anthropoidal shark look of the original model, kicking off a motif in the series where the creatures adapt to their environment. Here they’re distinctly more demonic with a more veinous-looking exterior, hobgoblins surging out of dark reaches they’ve decorated to suit themselves, an environ festooned with eviscerated corpses in a vision of a Dantean hellscape. They discover one living woman (Barbara Coles) who, as Ripley did in her dream earlier in the film, begs her would-be rescuers to kill her, but they’re too late to stop the larval “chestburster” alien from erupting from her chest. The Marines immediately incinerate it with a flamethrower, but this has the unfortunate effect of stirring the other xenomorphs from their nooks. Gorman, pale and sweating and delirious in his horror, quickly proves incapable of a response, so Ripley leaps into the seat of the APC and charges through the corridors of the processor plant, Horner’s furiously martial scoring booming out in announcing the gear change from cosmic horror to rumble-time action. Ripley’s frantic driving in her compelling sense of mission, APC careening against walls, and Gorman’s attempt to intervene only sees him fought off by Burke and then knocked silly by falling containers. Ripley crashes through a partition and reaches the Marines, but not in time to save Drake, who takes a face full of acid blood when Vasquez blasts a xenomorph about to launch on him. As it tries to force open the APC doors, Hicks jams his shotgun in a xenomorph’s mouth and cries “Eat this!” before blowing its head off – an all-time great cheer-out-loud flourish that deliberately makes mincemeat of one of the most disturbing aspects of the xenomorphs as seen up to this point, their double jaw.
One of Cameron’s most important storytelling inflections that recurs throughout Aliens is evinced here in near-throwaway fashion, as Hick’s heroic action nonetheless results in spraying acid blood burning Hudson’s arm. This motif of rolling crisis where gestures and actions constantly result in unintended consequences drives much of the story in a manner that feels realistically chaotic whilst also forcing it onwards in compulsive motion. Ripley manages to barrel the APC out through the plant door after running over a xenomorph that tries to break through the windscreen to get at her, at the cost of shattering the APC’s transaxle. The Marines call in Ferro and the drop ship to come pick them up, but a xenomorph gets aboard the ship and kills the crew, resulting in the drop ship crashing and colliding with the atmospheric plant, setting in motion exactly the inevitable nuclear meltdown they feared. Later in the film Vasquez and Gorman’s final action of blowing themselves up to avoid being eaten and take a few xenomorphs with them offers a moment of valiant kamikaze grace, but also causes another accident that forces Ripley to even more dangerous and strenuous actions.
Aliens tends not to be thought of as a horror movie, unlike Alien, which more obviously straddles the narrow gap between that genre and sci-fi. And yet it has just as much horrific imagery and atmosphere as its precursor, and indeed goes a few steps further, like showing the results of people getting sprayed with the acidic alien blood, and the imagery of the hive festooned with dead, eviscerated colonists. As well as the obvious Horror cues Alien subsumes – the “haunted castle” space ships, the blasted alien planet, the lurking monster, the presence of Ripley as an early and defining “final girl,” the strongly Lovecraftian tilt of the imagery and ideas – it exemplifies how Horror is a style or genre defined by tension derived from the fallibility of the feebly human before forces beyond their control. By contrast, action as a genre is defined by the dispelling of such forces through exemplars of human resilience and toughness: filmmakers don’t have some big, tough muscleman turn up in The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) or Halloween (1978) to kick the fiend’s ass, precisely because such stories require the heroes to be distinctly more vulnerable than the avatars of evil. Aliens can also count classic horror films like The Birds (1963) and George Romero’s Deadfilms as precursors in the theme of fighting violent inhuman besiegement.
But of course Aliens is also a war movie and an interstellar western, and the argument between the immobilising dread of horror and the proactive furore of these other genres is part of what makes Aliens endlessly engaging as a grand nexus of various storytelling traditions and inflections. As legendary as the film’s heroic beats have become, they wouldn’t be at all effective if Cameron wasn’t also so committed at walking his characters up to the edge of the truly nightmarish. The disparity can be traced to the divergent urges expressed in the roots of the two genres. Both go back to stories told around tribal campfires in a far-flung past. In such oral traditions, horror is based in the kinds of stories told to keep children close to the circle of light, warning balefully of the gleaming eyes watching from the dark, whereas those other genres are based in the tales told about great warriors and leaders, the defenders of the tribe, the ones strong enough to go out into that dark. Something Aliens does better than just about any other example I can think of is find the interlocutor of the two in the image of a protecting parent.
Cameron’s approach to the war movie, whilst containing character types going back to silent films like The Big Parade(1925), is nonetheless shaped by his own and his original audience’s cultural moment. Aliens presents a strongly nudging subtext for a popular understanding of the Vietnam War: the Marines, confident in their edge of both machismo (even the women) and technological superiority, as they descend into an environment which their foes, who prove far more intelligent and dangerous than expected and motivated by more coherent, communal urges, are all too good at exploiting. Cameron emphasises the motif through both casting – Matthews, in a casting touch anticipatory of R. Lee Ermey in the following year’s Full Metal Jacket, had been a real-life US Marine, and knew the required attitude inside out – and details like the future-but-not drop ships and the subsumed banter and attitude of Vietnam-era American soldiers. Cameron had success writing the post-Vietnam revenge and homecoming fantasy of Rambo: First Blood Part II and to a certain extent Aliens can be read as its distaff variation, with Ripley fulfilling the role of resurgent natural warrior. But Aliens feels closer to the more considered metaphorical meditation Cameron had woven into The Terminator, where Biehn’s Kyle Reese was easily read as a damaged returned veteran. Aliens came out in the same year as Oliver Stone’s Platoon, and the two films’ similarities include a soldier’s-eye sense of disdain for officer school training grad lieutenants.
Aliens feels its way around all this in portraying Ripley’s reconstruction from PTSD-riddled human cargo to the essential and emblematic action heroine. Ripley’s place in finally and persuasively creating an archetype scarcely seen so unfettered since folkloric figures like Boudica, Kahina, or Jeanne Hachette has been very well covered ever since, but it’s worth noting on some of the things Cameron and Weaver manage to do through her that made her so vital. As noted, Cameron presents a largely gender-egalitarian world, mediating the traditional Hawksian testing of the outsider on the level of civilian versus soldier and grunt versus officer, cutting out any of the usual jockeying and bickering or tendencies towards what is now called “girlboss” politicking. Ripley’s wisdom, as in the first film, is a mere edge of awareness and forthrightness, and what seems to be her chief liability, the crippling horror of her prior experience with the xenomorph, proves to be a great advantage too, able to recover more quickly from the dizzying blows of their attacks and already knowing what kinds of behaviours will save lives and which will get them all killed. A crucial moment comes when she reacts to the horrible death of the cocooned survivor, recreating her own image of herself from her dream as impregnated and doomed, as Ripley grips her own stomach and grimaces in terrible sympathy. As far as catharsis goes, this is about as rough as it gets, but it nonetheless immediately precedes her resurgence as a fighter.
To this Cameron added a faith that Ripley’s specifically feminine qualities were potent virtues rather than discomforting appendages to be denied or ignored in the course of enabling her. Alien suggested maternal instinct in Ripley in her choice to save Jones at the risk of her own life, and to a certain extent Cameron merely elaborates on this streak in reiterating the lengths Ripley will go to to save those she cares about and in subtly reproducing the original film’s basic plot beats. Nonetheless Aliens is much more specific, and particularly in the Special Edition makes it clear that for Ripley such instinct is because being a mother is a significant and immediate part of her identity. This signals why she’s able to form such a quick and intense bond with Newt, and also underlies her instinct to race to the rescue of the Marines. It’s also apparent even in small but consequential gestures as when Ripley orders Newt to leave the APC’s command space when the cameras show the Marines exploring the hive and seeing colonist bodies festooning the walls: as well as the awful spectacle in and of itself, in which Ripley amusingly resembles a dutiful parents warding a child off from something verboten on TV, Ripley also knows well Newt might see her parents and brother amongst them.
Newt herself is in part a nod to the kinds of urchins who attach themselves to soldiers in classic war movies, whilst presenting an ideal surrogate daughter for Ripley in the way too she is an uncommon, alternative kind of survivor: at one point Ripley admonishes the ranting Hudson with a reminder that Newt found ways to subsist for weeks without help or training, so surely the ultimate badasses can take a few lessons. Newt wields a mixture of the authentically childlike – picking up the Marines’ idiom and gestures (“Affirmative!”) with mimicking delight – and an edge of premature awareness and gravitas, in her certainty that the Marines’ firepower “won’t make any difference” against the aliens, and her nudging reminder to Ripley that her doll Casey isn’t cursed with scary dreams unlike herself and Ripley because “she’s just a piece of plastic.” It’s a measure of the depth of Weaver’s performance, and probably the reason why she gained a Best Actress Oscar nomination for the role, a rarity for such a genre movie, in that she’s coherently able to shift between more fearsome postures and gently coaxing maternal interactions with Henn’s Newt, in utterly convincing vignettes like her murmuring ruefully, after dabbing away some dirt on the girl with some cocoa when she’s first discovered, “Now I’ve done it, I’ve accidentally made a clean spot here – now I guess I’ll have to clean the whole thing.” Newt is of course also, like Jones, a plot device, providing a motive for Ripley to not only survive, but to take the kind of risk usually reserved to heroes of classic mythology.
Meanwhile the rest of the humans interact with a deft combination of acting and writing to the point where they’re more precisely drawn than many another film’s lead character, from Paxton’s brilliant slide from posturing wiseass to whiny hysteric before finally going out in a blaze of authentic glory, to Goldstein’s strident Vasquez demanding of the injured Gorman, “Wake up, pendejo, and then I’m gonna kill you!” Henriksen, a familiar enough character actor in movies including Dog Day Afternoon (1975) and Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), had been the star in Cameron’s Piranha II: The Spawning and his initial proposed casting for the role of the Terminator. Cameron’s fondness for him was justified as playing Bishop finally boosted him to cult acting hero status, in part because he expertly walks a line of studied blandness that sustains the question as to whether Bishop is another cyborg monster like Ash – he has a similar awed regard when studying their anatomy – or a good guy. The answer finally comes when he makes a quip, “I may be synthetic, but I’m not stupid,” when he volunteers for a risky mission only he can likely pull off, and it’s impossible to doubt him henceforth, even when he seems to abandon Ripley and Newt to their fate.
Biehn, hastily brought aboard the movie to play Hicks after James Remar was forced to drop out, finished up playing a similar role to the one he had in The Terminator as an ideal male hero who nonetheless finishes up too battered and scarred to be of much help to the heroine as she faces evil alone. Hicks however isn’t a damaged case like Kyle Reese was, but rather a quiet, intense dark horse who clearly isn’t eager to be the star: “Yeah…yeah,” he murmurs ruefully after Ripley points out he’s now in charge, a marvellous little moment for Biehn. But within moments, after being incidentally belittled by Burke, Hicks readily commits to command and to implementing Ripley’s suggestion of aerial nuclear bombardment of the area – “Only way to be sure” – in a way that suddenly confirms he’s the rare character both smart enough and sufficiently untroubled by ego to know the right idea when he hears it, and so is precisely the leader the crisis needs. The crash of the drop ship foils this plan, and obliges the team to fortify themselves in the command centre, sealing up every conceivable door, pipe, and conduit, planning to wait out the 17 day interval before another rescue mission is sent. But Bishop soon tells them they can’t wait that long: the drop ship’s crash damaged the atmospheric processor and it’s now on a countdown to explosion. Bishop agrees to venture outside to patch into the outpost’s transmitter and remote pilot a second drop ship down from the Sulaco. During the wait, Ripley and Newt find themselves trapped with two freed facehuggers specimens, and are only rescued by the Marines in the nick of time. Ripley knows full well this must have been orchestrated by Burke, who she already knows both ordered the search for the alien ship and wants to take the specimens back to Earth, and saw a good way of getting what he wants whilst silencing Ripley. And, incidentally, everyone else.
The reveal that Burke is a villain isn’t at all surprising, as it was pretty compulsory for a 1980s genre film to have an asshole yuppie. It could be said his presence dials down the Kafkaesque portrait of corporate insidiousness in Alien to something more containable: rather than operating on the company’s behalf Burke’s self-defence suggests it’s his own opportunism driving his actions. Still he’s the avatar of the same forces at work, and Reiser makes the character effective in the way he carefully shades Burke’s purposefully inoffensive façade with his unblinking believe-you-me stare and air of practiced facetiousness, a film of sweat greasing his upper lip as he labours to keep up his bullshit in the face of the Marines’ murderous anger. His execution is only staved off by a sudden power outage, a failure that tells Ripley the xenomorphs are on the move with purpose, much to Hudson’s disbelief (“They’re animals, man!”), but quickly confirmed by the team’s motion detectors. Cameron’s use of the detectors, pulsing with ever-increasing pitch and squirming blurs on their readout screens confirming the horde’s approach, to generate tension is peerless, whilst also returning to the ambiguity of technology as a filter for experience. The relentless march of the monsters towards the command centre remains invisible and illogical as they seem to be right upon the humans but without any sign of them, until the penny drops and Ripley turns her gaze upwards towards the panelled ceiling – the one, forgotten conduit for invasion. The pure essence of the monster movie and everything the mode encompasses comes in the next moment: Hicks is boosted up to lift a panel and turn a torch down the duct, glimpsing the hellish vision of a horde of xenomorphs crawling inexorably closer.
Aliens created a template that young and eager genre filmmakers, and some not-so-young ones, would imitate exhaustively in years to come. The hard, chitinous look imbued upon the tech and environs would be endlessly imitated along with the plot patterns and lines of defiant dialogue. Cameron’s editing of the action scenes is quick almost to the point of being subliminal in places, generally to mask limitations of the special effects but also amplifying the sense of the blindsiding speed with which situations turn on a dime from anxious calm to life-and-death conflict. And yet it’s also still entirely lucid and precise in filming and framing. Cameron’s repeated, forceful use of point-of-view shots goes beyond the fascination with layered media, and provides much of the film surging, immediate energy – barely noticed in the rush of events as when he cuts between Burke’s viewpoint as he shuts the door sealing off himself from Ripley and Newt and theirs as they see the door close, and repeated with more bravura towards the end as Cameron adopts Bishop’s pilot’s-eye-view as he barrels the drop ship through plumes of smoke and fire amidst the jutting steel forms in fleeing the atmospheric processor. The sequence of Ripley and Newt trapped in the Med Lab is particularly great in exploiting what the audience both knows and doesn’t know as well as offering a moment of pure situational thrill-mongering. Cameron reiterates the constant motif in the film and its predecessor involving waking and sleeping and the blurred ground between dream and nightmare, as Ripley, who has fallen asleep with Newt who by habit hides under her bed from the very real monsters, awakens and spies the toppled tubes that contained the facehugger specimens, shifting from an idyllic portrait of her bonding attachment into imminent danger and threat, as well as invoking the basic parental role, as the person whose presence allows a child to sleep untroubled.
Ripley quickly finds they’ve been locked in, and Cameron cuts to a shot of Burke switching off the security camera in the Med Lab unnoticed by the Marines. Hicks has given Ripley one of the pulse rifles after showing her how to use it, but it’s been lifted and left on a table outside. Ripley has to find a way of attracting attention, a problem she solves quickly enough by setting off the fire alarm. Hicks and the other Marines dash to the rescue, but how long it will take them to get there is unknown. Ripley has gained their attention, but has made the situation even more nightmarish as infernal red fire lamps glow, the harsh siren buzzes and robs any advantage of listening for the creatures, and water pours down: will the water slow down the facehuggers, or do they love it? For those who had seen Alien, the facehuggers are known to be swift and akin to an instant death sentence once attached, but just how fast they can move and whether they can be outwitted is still moot. Cameron builds to the sear-itself-into-your-cortex shot of the facehugger scuttling after Ripley with obscene multi-limbed motion before it springs on her, wrapping its tail about her neck, Ripley trying to find off its furiously wriggling form, whilst Newt manages to pin the other one’s tail against the wall as it comes for her. Only then does Cameron cut to the sight of the Marines outside, having arrived in the meantime: their appearance is both logical but also a non-sequitir, a startling break from the suffocating moment of dread. Hicks tells the others to shoot out the plexiglass window before launching himself through it in a moment of fearless bravura, and the Marines earn a moment of heroic effectiveness as Hudson saves Newt whilst Hicks, Gorman, and Vasquez untangle the one on Ripley and toss it into a corner to be blasted to bits.
The final invasion by the xenomorphs likewise exploits the red emergency lighting to signal the change from placidity to hellish urgency, as monstrosities drop from the ceiling and erupt from the floor. Burke momentarily prevents the team’s retreat by locking a door, seemingly hoping the team will be killed so he can meet up with Bishop and escape, only to find himself trapped with one of the monsters. It’s a measure of the craftsmanship brought to bear in the film that this sequence manages to evoke the authentic chaos of such a battle as the jangling monsters spring and surge in the bloody red light, whilst also capturing iconic vignettes for its heroes – Hudson taunting the xenomorphs as he guns them down, Vasquez blasting them with her grenade launcher, with Horner’s most epic strains blasting all the way. Hudson, Vasquez, and Gorman all die in the rear-guard defence. Cameron allows each to go down as the reborn absolute badass they always sought to be, fighting to the last round with all their ferocity and grit brought to bear, Hudson dragged into the abyss still screaming out curses at the monsters, Gorman blowing himself and Vasquez up when he realises they’re trapped and can’t escape.
But it’s also worth noting that their gestures are also self-defeating, dying in part by their own heroic pretences as well as the monsters, as none of them quite has the sense to follow Newt at top speed: the little girl holds the key to their salvation in knowing the way through the air vents to the landing field. In this regard Cameron echoes something of the romantic fatalism of H.G. Clouzot’s The Wages of Fear (1953), and indeed its source novel with its last line describing its ill-fated hero as one killed by his own ferocious determination to live. The way Vasquez wails, “Oh no!” after she’s crippled by some of the xenomorph blood, is a perfect signature for her character, registering both fury at herself and terror in finally being crippled, before the simultaneously stirring and ironic sight of her and Gorman locked together in a moment of perfect fulfilment in the second before Gorman’s grenade goes off, and they vansish in a fireball. Problem is, this götterdamerung for warriors results in a shockwave that makes Newt fall into a vent and plunge to a lower level in the building, demanding Hicks and Ripley pursue her. By the time they reach her she’s been snatched away to the hive by a xenomorph, and Hicks is badly burned by acid blood killing another. Ripley manages to help Hicks reach Bishop as the drop ship arrives, but insists she has to back into the hive to rescue Newt. Cue perhaps the all-time greatest variation on a standard action movie vignette, as Ripley arms herself to the teeth in preparing for the venture whilst Bishop flies her into the atmospheric processor, which is beginning to show signs of destabilising in the face of imminent meltdown.
Everything up until this point has been great, but Aliens kicks to a higher level, reaching the innermost core where those divergent ancient storytelling traditions fork, in this sequence. This is of course in large part to the converging elements of cinema – Weaver’s performing, the shooting and editing, Horner’s big brass-and-drum scoring – but also because of the way everything seen before in the film and its predecessor unites into one, pure spectacle. Much like the following year’s Predator, the climax dispenses with all social-animal preliminaries and gets down to a basic, primal rite, the hero who must venture into the bear’s cave and risk tooth and claw. But with the corollary that Ripley’s motive is not symbolic or general, but a specific, deeply personal expression of maternal urge that overrides every other instinct in the existential manual. The deep-flowing fairy tale motif returns as Ripley uses flares like the breadcrumb trail in Hansel and Gretel, whilst on a more mythic level she combines in herself Theseus and Ariadne heading into the Labyrinth on the hunt for the minotaur, Perseus and Andromeda, St George and the princess. The processor plant, glimpsed as Bishop flies into it, has become a gothic monstrosity, spitting lightning and fire, the most literalised edition of William Blake’s vision of dark satanic mills as the blight of industrialism conceivable. All classical storytelling kneaded into modern psychological theory, and it’s working on that level too, as Ripley has also found the overriding urge that makes all inner demons ineffective. At the same time, Cameron lets the audience see Ripley thinking as well as acting: the weaponry she assembles – taping a flamethrower to a pulse rifle, readying the flares – is, far from heedlessly vainglorious, instead utilising every particle of knowledge she’s gathered about her foes and their home, from their physical traits to their numbers, which by this point if hardly decimated must be greatly thinned, and with the majority of the remaining host left behind in the abandoned command centre. In short, even as Ripley finally becomes an action hero unbound, she’s still very much the character she’s been portrayed as, quick on her mental as well as physical feet. If Cameron had by and large eased back on the protean erotic imagery Scott wielded by way of H.R. Giger’s art in the earlier part of the film, he brings it back with a more sickly, suggestive edge in the sight of Newt swathed in hardened cocooning gel that looks like ejaculate, a xenomorph egg peeling open in rather penile fashion, giving this vignette a coded quality of a wrathful mother coming to save her child from a paedophile.
The symbolism inverts nonetheless as Ripley successfully locates Newt and tears her free only to stumble upon the monstrous queen, a great bony crone with a gross, pendulous egg-sack spitting out monstrous seed. Ripley has found her own interspecies doppelganger – the queen’s squarish jaw even seems to have been deliberately moulded on Weaver’s – as another fiercely protecting mother, but this one diseased, spawning misbegotten devils. The two communicate in gesture, as Ripley gives a spurt of fire from her flamethrower, just enough to make clear to the queen she’ll set fire to her eggs if she lets the xenomorphs lurking in the wings come out, and the queen bids them retreat. The tentative little truce ends when one of the eggs opens: Ripley gives a tilt of her head, grits her teeth, and starts blasting. It’s impossible not to share Ripley’s raw, punishing, near-mindless expression of exterminating rage, and yet as with the Marines earlier, her warlike self-purgation is self-defeating, as she wastes most of her arsenal destroying a hive that will be blown up anyway in a few minutes, making herself very close to a victim of new warrior bravura. Tellingly, Ripley aims all her rage and grenades at the queen’s vestigial egg-sack rather than her exoskeletal body, and after Ripley flees with Newt, the alien queen rips free of the sack and follows, bent on vengeance. Ripley finds Bishop seems to have flown off with the drop ship, seemingly confirming Ripley’s anxiety about Bishop, and in the moment of ultimate confrontation with both parental and childhood fear, Ripley tells Newt, “Close your eyes, baby,” as the alien queen emerges from the shadows of an elevator. Except, of course, Bishop suddenly flies the drop ship into view and scoops up the two humans, before fleeing at top speed, just managing to escape the colossal explosion that consumes Hadleys Hope and everything around it and zooming back into the stars.
Cameron makes a dry nod towards a Spielbergian take on a cinematic fairy-tale motif, as he shifts from the cataclysmic vision of the explosion to the sight of the drop ship zooming up into the stars, Horner’s music now offering gently melodic, resolving sounds at a juncture that for most movies would mark the end of the bad dream. But this being Cameron, of course, he has a trick up his sleeve as he did with the emerging cyborg in The Terminator and with the same basic concept of an inimical form of intelligence simply refusing to observe the niceties of what a human would justifiably call enough, as well as repeating and expanding upon the finale of Alien. Right at what seems to be the hearty final moment of conciliation between Ripley and Bishop, who’s delighted by her praise, the hiss of burning acid and Bishop suddenly contorting in pain announces a last act as the alien queen crawls out of a landing gear bay, having skewered Bishop on its horny tail, before ripping him in half. Being as he is an artificial person Bishop doesn’t expire from such treatment, but the vision of both Hicks and Bishop left too injured to help Ripley not only demands she find a way to battle the monster alone but also carries potent metaphorical aspects – Cameron’s viewpoint of a fatally injured idea of masculinity, exposed in both the classical hero Hicks and the motherly, slightly fey male Bishop, whilst playing nice in that they’re both nobly wounded rather than toxic and imperious like the Terminator, nonetheless demands a new kind femininity evolve to take its place, and with the suggestion that the last act of all wars is ultimately fought by women, those who have to deal with the subtler but more pernicious monsters it unleashes.
Bishop’s sundering is also a bravura moment of visual ruthlessness, a shock twist that resembles Ripley’s discovery of the alien on the Narcissus in the previous film and also a last, needling reminder that the material is still mean stuff. Whilst the alien queen hunts for Newt, who tries to hide under the docking bay floor gratings, Ripley emerges wearing the power loader suit, augmented to a level of power equal to the monster. Okay, altogether now, three…two…one: “Get away from her, you bitch!” An unnecessarily rhetorical flourish, probably, given we’ve already seen the idea illustrated thoroughly, but still one of the most delightful moments in the genre film canon, and the signature for Ripley: this isn’t Ripley the damaged survivor or Ripley the hysterical berserker but the ultimate version, powered up with steel fists, completing the journey in now making clear it’s the monster that should be scared. Later, in Titanic and Avatar, Cameron would more conspicuously re-devote himself to what could be called new-age editions of imagery and themes echoing out High Romantic art and literature of the 1700s and 1800s, where artist-heroes rewrite reality with passion, flee collapsing idols, and bestride pristine wildernesses, a twist that might have seemed odd given his penchant for technology as a device both liberating and frightening.
But it becomes clearer in watching Cameron’s oeuvre that the dark side of technology lies in its potential, indifferently destructive effect on living systems, the appeal of it lies in restoring the kind of heroic agency associated with classical art forms. Thus Ripley repurposes a tool, one associated previously with her humiliation and reconstruction, into a new kind of knightly armour, able to step up to the nastiest demon lurking in Beelzebub’s caverns and sock it in the face. Finally, in the titanic struggle that follows, she manages to dump the creature into an airlock and blast it out into the same void as its predecessor, although not before the queen, with its species’ characteristic will to survive, keeps hanging on to Ripley to the bitter end. Finally Ripley seals up the ship as the bifurcated Bishop clings onto the flailing Newt, who finally, unthinkingly anoints Ripley as “Mommy!” as they’re finally united. Cameron returns to the fairy-tale motif for a final image of mother and daughter delivered back to their dreams, perhaps no better than before, but at least now just dreams.
Director: Paul Verhoeven
Screenwriter: Ed Neumeier
By Roderick Heath
Starship Troopers suffered from a serious case of bad timing. Starship Troopers saw Paul Verhoeven and Ed Neumeier, the creative hands behind RoboCop (1987), one of the signal cult hits of the 1980s, reteaming for another trip to the same well of genre thrills blended with high concept satire. Verhoeven had followed RoboCop’s success with Total Recall (1990) and Basic Instinct (1992), two more big, disreputable hits, but hit a career reef with the failure of Showgirls (1995), an attempt to marry acidic camp satire and exploitation movie precepts. Starship Troopers was supposed to reverse Verhoeven’s fortunes but finished up compounding his problems by also bombing at the box office, bewildering an audience expecting something more familiar and straightforwardly fun. RoboCop had nailed down the fetid mood of the late Reaganite era’s strange blend of conservatism and hedonism, and its spiky humour added zest to a classical tale of the hero triumphing over the corrupt and profane. But the mood of the late 1990s was at odds with Verhoeven’s new gambit in satirising war movies and militarism, a time of general peace and prosperity for much of the western world as well as eddying uncertainty, the paradigms that had shaped collective thinking for nearly a century suddenly irrelevant. Verhoeven’s sardonic call-backs to the gung-ho stylistics of World War II propaganda films and posters, a very retro-style frame, blended with violent, flashy contemporaneous filmmaking offered a strange and unstable aesthetic clue. At the time the burgeoning internet was still seen as a great new portal with a generally progressive application, whereas Verhoeven presented it as a new mode for propaganda and curated worldview manipulation.
The film’s chief relevance to its moment seemed to be in smartly identifying the general frustration for a lot of ‘90s youth that they’d never been given a great generation-defining task like war or, as for many of their parents, resistance to one, even whilst provoking with the warning to be careful what you wish for. It didn’t take long however for Starship Troopers to reveal its wicked prognosticative edge as the War on Terror commenced, when the narcotic-like addiction to macho imagery applied to great patriotic use became an entire political paradigm, the slow and painful weaning from which we’ve seen acted out in gruesome detail these past few years. Starship Troopers also came out at a moment when the kinds of social and political assumptions contained in a lot of classic Science Fiction as a genre was being investigated and critiqued by critics and scholars. The film’s approach to Robert A. Heinlein’s Hugo Award-winning source novel, published in 1959 and intended as a blood-and-thunder yarn for younger readers, was entirely in synch with this movement, and counted in itself as a radical act of genre criticism. The film also recognised the subtext in popularity for movies like Star Wars (1977), Aliens (1986), and Predator (1986) in refashioning the narrative patterns of old war movies and westerns for a new age absent any obvious and immediate geopolitical enemies to render as villains, and made sport of it.
Heinlein was long a leading sci-fi writer and one who wielded some sway as a thinker, particularly thanks to his novel Stranger In A Strange Land which served as a strong influence on the counterculture movement of the 1960s with its theme of an alien-raised human who returns to Earth and sets about remaking its culture. Heinlein had started off as a liberal but became a staunch libertarian, and his writing was often preoccupied by exploring social ideas. But his writing also represented a mishmash of political repercussions through articulating a need, commonly worked through in sci-fi, to celebrate a kind of transformative individualism. Starship Troopers told the story of some young heroes in a futuristic Earth society that’s become politically united but also reverted to a kind of Spartan state structure where citizenship is attendant on military participation, and prospective citizens are trained to the limit to become warriors resisting a war of species pitting humans against extra-terrestrial arachnids. In many ways Heinlein’s novel simply did what sci-fi is supposed to do: create a coherent vision not simply of dramatic events and technological concepts but to think through ideas of what society looks like it does and what form it takes in other situations. Heinlein had the then still-recent experience of mass mobilisation and indoctrination of World War II to draw on. But his vision was troubling regardless, and the fascistic undercurrent to the vision he and some other early sci-fi heroes often wielded had been noted and artistically reacted to by a subsequent generation of genre writers.
One aspect of the novel Verhoeven and Neumeier didn’t bother transferring, perhaps to avoid potential special effects difficulties or, more likely, so Verhoeven could sell his WW2 movie lampoon more easily, was abandoning his concept of mechanised armoured suits worn by his future soldiers, today a common trope and one Heinlein is generally seen as having popularised. Verhoeven rather makes the mismatch of the seemingly fearsome but actually insufficient machine guns his space warriors carry and their monster foes part of his own commentary on fascist precepts: a person in uniform with a mass-produced gun is at once the most cynically expendable and rhetorically exalted phenomenon in human society. That, or firing off “nukes” that provoke enormous and indiscriminate destruction. Verhoeven’s take on Heinlein becomes something of a moveable feast encompassing a multiplicity of genre mockeries that relentlessly disassemble their nominal purpose. Early scenes evoke the glossy glory of movies mythologising a high school experience, presenting good-looking young folk who play American Football (albeit some kind of weird, future indoor variety) and go to proms, highlighting a not-so-secret motive behind this mythology that goes back to the unadorned ambitions behind the founding of the Olympic Games: training a warrior generation through sports and competition. Then the film into an extended, extremist riff on films like Allan Dwan’s The Sands of Iwo Jima (1949) where some raw recruits are given harsh training and where eventually they emerge not only battle-readied, but intellectually persuaded of the rightness of their cause and duty, the once-dubious protagonist entirely indoctrinated into following in the footsteps of his hard mentor.
Where RoboCop had helped create context and weave in satire with the recurring motif of TV news reports, Starship Troopers commences and returns regularly to a kind of internet site on the “Federal Network” proffering clips of state-provided informercials and news stories that give insight to both the political and social moment, and punctuated by the recurring phrase, “Do you want to know more?” by the announcer (John Cunningham), which, notably, the person nominally surfing the site never does. Some clips offer seemingly benign factoids whilst another reassures the viewer with the vignette of a murderer “caught this morning and tried this afternoon,” with his execution scheduled for live viewing. The tone of the clips often segues within a blink from the broad and shiny tone of community service advertising and unadorned bloodlust-stoking. The opening recruiting commercial for the Mobile Infantry features ranks of soldiers, modelled after shots in Leni Riefenstahl’s The Triumph of the Will (1935), broken up by the sight of a pint-sized moppet gaining laughs from the soldiers when he claims, “I’m doing my part too!” The dig here at a very recognisable kind of cutesey-poo from advertising and TV is withering. Later Verhoeven offers the sight of kids stamping on more familiar insects in a ritual of patriotic involvement and killing, the words “Do Your Part!” flashing on screen whilst a mother cheers the kids on in hysterical fashion, in one of the most subtly disturbing scenes in mainstream cinema.
These jolts of sleazy suggestion about the brutal and repressive underpinnings of the future society are given more dimension as the film’s central figure Johnny Rico (Casper Van Dien) and his girlfriend Carmen Ibañez (Denise Richards) are properly introduced, in a high school class being lectured by their teacher Mr Rasczak (Michael Ironside) teaching civics. Rasczak proudly shows off the curtailed arm he received in military service and explains the basic philosophical presumptions of their world, including “Something given has no value” and “Naked force has resolved more issues throughout history than any other factor.” As in the novel, the characters are from Buenos Aires, and yet their modes of speech and culture have been entirely subsumed into caricatured all-Americanness, whilst the one-world government, the United Citizen Federation, restricts citizenship to only those who have served in the military. Humans have colonised much of the galaxy but are coming up against a truly ferocious enemy in the form of a society formed by multiple species of giant arachnid, or bugs as they’re usually called, whose apparent lack of higher intelligence doesn’t prevent them pursuing the same intergalactic habits of colonisation and territorial expansion.
The film’s opening proper after the first web break depicts an attempt by human soldiers to invade the bugs’ home planet of Klendathu as seen through the lens of a new crew for the Federation web service, a blur of bloodshed and mayhem as the soldiers seem to be routed by the rampaging monsters. Johnny is glimpsed as one of the soldiers being terribly wounded by one, collapsing before the dropped camera of the dead photographer, screaming him pain. This scene seems to have had an immediate impact on the subsequent burgeoning of the found-footage movie style, containing all its essential motifs as well as style. The shift into flashback explains what brought Johnny to such a fate, as he resolves to join the Federation mobile infantry in part to please Carmen, who has her heart set on joining the Federation space fleet to gain citizenship, but he can’t follow her there because his math skills are too lame. Nor can he kick along with his best friend Carl (Neil Patrick Harris), whose psychic talents lead him towards becoming a senior tactician.
Johnny’s decision to join the infantry stirs his parents’ (Christopher Curry and Lenore Kasdorf) concerns and he finds himself in a struggle to assert his independence, going through with joining up despite being cut off by his angry father. In Mobile Infantry boot camp he gains friends and allies in his training squad, including the brash Ace Levy (Jake Busey), ‘Kitten’ Smith (Matt Levin), Breckinridge (Eric Bruskotter), Katrina (Blake Lindsley), and Shujimi (Anthony Ruivivar). His former quarterback from high school football, Isabelle ‘Dizzy’ Flores (Dina Meyer) also enters the squad, and Johnny thinks she’s followed him into his training unit because of her long-unrequited crush. The squad must face the harsh, bordering on cruel, training methods utilised by Career Sergeant Zim (Clancy Brown), which include impaling Ace’s hand with a knife and almost throttling Dizzy when she and he have a bout to test his recruits’ hand-to-hand skills. Johnny is left depressed and unsure of what he’s doing when he gets a video message from Carmen telling him she loves the space fleet life so much she’s joining up for life. His physical prowess allows him, with some help from Dizzy, to shine during training. Johnny is made Squad Commander, but then a fatal accident during training gets one of his people killed and another drummed out. Johnny elects to take “administrative punishment” of ten public lashes, only to then decide to quit, but before he can go home Buenos Aires is destroyed by a meteorite propelled by the bugs, and the Mobile Infantry are mobilised for the Klendathu assault.
Verhoeven’s fork-tongued wit applies itself as much through style as storytelling detail. Part of his peculiar cachet as a director, the source of both his moments of great success and his ultimate failure in Hollywood, stemmed from the gusto with which he set out to nominally give audiences what they seemingly want, but piled on with a reckless excess quickly annexing camp and subversion. I’ve often felt that aspect of Verhoeven’s sensibility hampered the intelligent edge of Total Recall to a great extent, but it’s perfectly deployed here. Starship Troopers comes on with violence, gore, action, sex, nudity, piled up to the point of obviously becoming camp, whilst still working on a basic genre film level. Early scenes with their bright, glossy cinematography applied to handsomely angular young stars ape the broad tone of TV teen soap operas. Jokes nod to standard TV broadness, like Carmen vomiting as she and Johnny do some dissection for biology class, except Verhoeven distorts through excess, as they’re dissecting a bug carcass with Johnny enthusiastically dumping piles of innards into Carmen’s hands. Casting Harris at that time was a particularly dry touch, as he was still chiefly known for his show Doogie Howser M.D. , and soon enough Verhoeven has him swanning about in a kind of generic brand SS uniform. Rue McClanahan, star of the jolly, saccharine sitcom The Golden Girls, appears as a weird and haughty biology teacher who saunters about like some ballet grande dame with sunglasses and walking stick whilst instructing her students on the superiority of the bugs as a species. Meanwhile Van Dien and Richards suck face they look like they’re in danger of cutting each-other with their jutting facial features.
A football contest between Johnny and Dizzy’s high school team and some visitor present Johnny with a rival in both sport and love in the form of Lt Zander Barcalow (Patrick Muldoon), who has chemistry with Carmen and soon turns out to be her flight supervisor when she’s assigned as pilot to a space warship, the Rodger Young, commanded by Captain Deladier (Brenda Strong). When Johnny finally encounters them as a couple just before the assault on Klendathu, the two men have a brawl in a shipboard common room and are finally dragged apart by their respective service chums. The attack on Klendathu, seen again now from a familiar cinematic vantage, is revealed to be a total disaster where the humans are ambushed on the ground by hordes of the fearsome soldier arachnids and the fleet is badly damaged by the gigantic globules of superheated plasma huge bugs are able to fire into space: so effective is the bug response that people begin to theorise the arachnids have an intelligent caste of “brain bugs.” Johnny’s unit is wiped out save Ace and Dizzy, whilst Johnny takes a terrible wound that is repaired whilst he’s immersed in a stasis pod, mechanical arms stitching him fibre by fibre. After his recovery, the three are reassigned to a new unit whose fearsome commander is infamous but also saved their lives on Klendathu. This proves to be none other than Rasczak, who leads “Rasczak’s Roughnecks” with both a literal and metaphorical iron hand, and soon Johnny and his pals begin to find their feet as warriors, with Johnny promoted repeatedly by Rasczak for his displays of prowess whilst the people he replaces die.
Verhoeven’s formative experiences, as a child of World War II and someone who fell in love with movies in the 1950s, are apparent throughout Starship Troopers. The film contends with superficial jauntiness and a deeper level of queasiness with the matter of militarism, trying to understand the appeal of something that had laid waste to the world Verhoeven had grown up in. The movie influences are fonder, with many nods to the films of Byron Haskin, most obviously the infernal hues of The War of the Worlds (1953), and also his The Naked Jungle (1953) with its marauding insect hordes and Conquest of Space (1955), with a similar scene of the Rodger Young dodging a colossal meteor. Beyond those, a plethora of war and sci-fi movies. The hyperbolic recreation of a zillion movies about recruits being trained for combat pushes familiar motifs to ridiculous limits, climaxing in near-pornographic style with Johnny’s lashing, beefcake body spreadeagled in a frame and bloody trails carved in his back. When Johnny is inducted, a veteran lacking both legs and an arm processes his request, commenting that “the Mobile Infantry made me the man I am today!”, a scene close to one in All Quiet On The Western Front where the officer overseeing training is similarly war-mangled.
Such noble clichés as the chicken officer who freaks out, the commander who orders his subordinate to shoot him if he’s badly wounded, the key lines of patented tough talk handed on from one generation to another, and the soldier who dies heroically blowing himself up in a rear-guard battle make the grade, are purveyed with such intensity they become new again. Verhoeven also keeps intact from more generic WWII flicks the motif of the motley, multiracial gang of recruits, with the added twist that the Mobile Infantry unblinkingly includes women, leading to such odd sights as a group shower where everyone’s buck naked and chatting casually about their reasons for joining up. One quality that’s particularly shrewd about Starship Troopers in this fashion is that where a tinnier satire might avoid complicating its portrait, this one presents its future fascist-tinted state as one that’s also utopian in a lot of ways, lacking gender and racial prejudice, obliging a more ambivalent response that lies at the root of why the film made as many viewers uncomfortable as those who got the joke. Utopias are an old and ever-controversial subject of intellectual reverie and it’s a particular provenance for sci-fi as its creators can dream them up and pull them apart at whim. What’s particularly odd here is that in the 1990s and through today dystopias are, pop culture-wise, much more popular in sci-fi, dark portraits of glamorously decayed societies.
Starship Troopers actually tries to get at why such suspicion lingers, baiting the viewer with a shiny, inclusive, gutsy future world as if actively seeking to make people ache for such a world whilst constantly signalling its dark, cruel, iniquitous side: it offers a vision of such a society as that society would like to see itself, which is indeed what an awful lot of mainstream art provides. Of course, to be a human being in any society at any time means accepting as normal things that other humans in other times and societies might consider barbaric and evil. Whilst it’s hardly a direct parody, Starship Troopers can be described as Star Trek’s evil twin, with its vision of a future Federation conducting gunboat diplomacy in space, egalitarian in social make-up and yet conveniently unfolding in a setting still defined by militaristic hierarchy (although the Gene Roddenberry TV show might have been borrowing some ideas from Heinlein in the first place). In Starship Troopers a white Sky Marshall (Bruce Gray) takes the blame for the Klendathu disaster and resigns to be replaced by an African woman (Denise Dowse). The female characters in the film are strong and strident figures, particularly Dizzy, a top athlete and good soldier whose only foil is the torch she carries for Johnny. Meyer, who might rightly have expected a much better career after this, is terrific as Dizzy, able to be at once ferocious and smoulderingly sexual all at once in a manner few movie heroines have ever been allowed to be, as if Verhoeven was trying to conscientiously recreate the femme fatale figures Sharon Stone had played for him in Total Recall and Basic Instinct as a positive figure.
Nonetheless, perhaps with tongues in their cheek, Verhoeven and Neumeier said on their audio commentary for the film’s DVD release that they ultimately had Carmen survive and Dizzy die, despite a general audience sentiment preferring her, to be “good feminists.” The crucial difference between RoboCop and Starship Troopers lies ultimately in the attitude to the central characters and their relationship with their society. Whilst RoboCop presents the title character as a literal corporate construct and mercilessly teases its futuristic landscape, the storyline ultimately affirms Alex Murphy’s regaining of self, in tension with the powers that create him, standing up for a set of values that exist distinct from an increasingly debased society. Whereas in Starship Troopers there’s no such reassuring message cutting across the grain of the invented society’s mores. Rather on the contrary, Johnny, Carmen, Carl and others all learn how to become better conformists as the story unfolds. They fully embody undoubtedly heroic traits of bravery, self-sacrifice, fervent camaraderie, and leadership, but these are ultimately streamlined to the Federation’s needs, as they’re served up as claw fodder. Carl berates Johnny and Carmen for being appalled at his cynicism when it’s revealed he sent the Roughnecks into danger to lure out the brain bugs, countered with “You don’t approve? Well too bad. We’re in this for the species, girls and boys!”
Meanwhile Ironside, who had done good villain work for Verohoven in Total Recall after graduating from David Cronenberg’s Canadian films, gives an inspired performance that works on a level not that dissimilar to all those old B-movie faces in Airplane! (1980), somehow managing to utter a line like “They sucked his brains out!” in all seriousness but with the finest thread of camp knowing attached. Rasczak amusingly transfers authority from the classroom into the real world, merely amplifying the mix of brutality and pedagogy he wielded in the former setting once unleashed as a commander in the field. The bloodcurdling tenor to the violence as Verhoeven presents humans ripped to shreds by arachnids and having the flesh burned off their bones by their plasma expulsions is alternatively amusingly gross and properly horrifying. What’s notable here is Verhoeven takes advantage of the fantastical-absurd context to confront physical horror as often elided in war movies, as well as trying to animate the cringe-inducing possibilities of warfare with an inherently different survey of species. These range from the soldier arachnids with their huge, torso-bifurcating mandibles to flying bugs with lance-like limbs and the huge plasma-spraying tanker bugs, one of which Johnny manages to take out singlehandedly by leaping onto its back, penetrating its armour with his machine gun, and throwing a grenade into the wound that blows it to pieces. This act of warrior grit marks the beginning of Johnny’s rehabilitation and ascent up the ranks.
Part of what makes Starship Troopers still work as entertainment despite its insidious subtexts and satirical nudges is the way Verhoeven invests even the most absurdly cliché character moments with a weird seriousness. Such moments range from Johnny’s father betraying his ultimate pride in his son despite all his objections – just before being annihilated by the Buenos Aires meteor – by asking over a video link where his uniform is, to Johnny’s register of offence when he sees Carmen and Zander as a couple, and Rasczak’s earnest advice to Johnny never to pass up a good thing when he notices Dizzy’s ongoing flirtation with him. The portrayal of the young soldiers as a community full of cheeky good-humour recalls the respect Verhoeven gave the police in RoboCop as the human edge of the corrupt wedge, as when they mercilessly tease Johnny as he records a video message to Carmen. The Roughnecks’ celebration after a battle offers the oddly delightful sight of Rasczak handing out beer and sports equipment to his soldiers who immediately improvise a kegger-hoedown. Ace happily sawing away on an electric violin to regale his comrades, tipping a hat to the Western genre roots of so much space opera fare whilst giving it all a space-age sheen. The party sees Johnny and Dizzy finally hooking up in one of Verhoeven’s patented sex scenes, notable for their being actually sexy, as here when the two kiss passionately with Dizzy’s shirt pulled halfway up over her face. They’re interrupted by Rasczak who tells them they have to mobilise again in ten minutes, only to extend it to twenty minutes to give them time to get down to it.
The subtler but pervasive aspect of this whole sequence is how smartly Verhoeven nails down the tenor of adolescent fantasy as most essentially one of belonging, Verhoeven’s highly mobile camerawork and the careful weaving of the actors in choreography helping create the impression of group unity and high spirits as well as the kindling at last of good old-fashioned sexual energy. That appeal, to the need to belong, to be embraced by community, is key to both the consumption of much popular entertainment and also to political propaganda, and it’s a correlation Verhoeven strikes insistently. Ultimately arriving too early to catch the wave of new affection for hunky leading men, Van Dien nonetheless expertly conveyed the right spirit Verhoeven required here, playing Johnny in an old-fashioned manner, never less than the perfect budding Aryan superman in looks but still struggling to overcome character flaws before finally arriving as a leader figure filled with sardonic stoicism. Busey’s angular gregariousness as Ace, with his grin like the xenomorph queen in Aliens, provides a likeably eccentric counterpoint as Ace, ambitious at first but happy to simply serve after fouling up as squad leader on Klendathu.
When they’re next deployed on Planet ‘P’ the Roughnecks investigate an outpost that sent out a distress signal and find their fortified position has been overrun and everyone slaughtered except for a General (Marshall Bell) who escaped by hiding in a freezer, and raves about the insects getting inside people’s heads and forcing them to send the distress signal, a grotesque possibility that seems born out when the Roughnecks find corpses with punctured and emptied skulls. Rasczak realises they’ve been lured into a trap and the Roughnecks fight a desperate battle against an overwhelming arachnid attack. Both Rasczak and Dizzy are fatally wounded – Johnny has to shoot his commander and has a mangled and gore-spurting Dizzy die in his arms confessing her gratitude they were together at the end, leaving Johnny the Roughnecks’ commander after he and the scant other survivors are rescued by Carmen and Zander. The Roughnecks’ battle in the fort plainly references many a Western forebear as the bugs come swarming out and over the ramparts, unleashing a giddy massacre of severed heads, punctured bodies, roasted flesh, and blasted bug parts. After barely being rescued the team is then sent back to Planet P to locate the malignant intelligence that set up the ambush Carl believes is present there: a brain bug.
Not the least quality of Starship Troopers is the amazing special effects work, with input from Industrial Light and Magic and former stop motion animation wizard Phil Tippet, offering a then-cutting-edge fusion of model work, digital effects, and puppetry. Over twenty years later a lot of this still looks incredibly good, better indeed than most of the digital sludge in recent blockbusters, and working equally well in the contrasting visions of space fleets and rampaging animals, the latter reaching an apogee when the Roughnecks behold a seeming sea of rampaging bugs charging the fort. The quality of the effects matches Verhoeven’s familiar shooting style with its bright palette and forcefully mobile camera, knitting a comic book-like graphic clarity throughout, at odds with the oncoming style of heavily edited action and visual gimmickry just coming into vogue thanks to directors like Michael Bay but certainly not antiquated-seeming. Verhoeven and his effects team offer startlingly great action scenes almost casually, like Johnny’s Ahab-like ride on the tanker bug’s back in trying to kill it, and the destruction of the Rodger Young amidst a fusillade of plasma spurts, slicing the great spaceship in half, a sequence that stands readily with anything seen in the Star Wars movies. The edge of blackly comic excess is never far away though, as Verhoeven has Deladier get crushed under a sliding bulkhead in another vignette of gory, heroic hyperbole, commander still bawling out orders in concern for her crew even as she’s cut in two.
The climax sees Carmen and Zander managing to escape the Rodger Young only to crash-land on P and find themselves at the mercy of the monstrous, many-eyed, vaguely penile brain bug and its horde of helpers, whilst Johnny, unknowingly given psychic nudges where to find them by Carl, leads Ace and fellow Roughneck Sugar Watkins (Seth Gilliam) to track them down. Here Starship Troopers notably collapses any sense of ironic distance between the travails of the individual characters and their function as members of a militarised society, a final dissolution made explicit by Zander as, just before he has his brains gruesomely imbibed by the brain bug. He declares, “Someday someone like me is going to kill you and your whole fucking race,” a line of bravado that signifies humans achieving the same negation of individual identity as the bugs. Carmen manages to hack off the brain bug’s brain-sucking organ and Johnny arrives to fend it off by threatening to let off a nuke blast before Watkins, fatally wounded, lets off the nuke in his last stand. Finally, in a final nod to the material’s B-movie roots, Zim is hailed as a hero having reduced himself to a Private’s rank to get in on the fighting and finally captures the brain bug as it tries to escape.
For all the heroic sturm-und-drang of this battle for pure survival, Verhoeven returns to sounding queasy absurdism. Carl swans in with his increasingly Nazi-like uniform and uses his psychic powers to diagnose the captured brain bug as finally having learned fear of the humans, and exultantly announces it to the cheering assembly of troops, a moment of pure fascist sentiment. Carmen, despite having a colossal bug claw in her body a few minutes earlier, cheerily embraces Johnny and Carl. Despite making the brain bug utterly horrendous in appearance and behaviour, Verhoeven nonetheless obliges a level of sympathy for it in allowing the special effects artists to make it register as much or more emotion as the humans in its quivering vulnerability once stripped of its fellow arachnids, with final glimpses of the cringing creature being mercilessly tortured by human scientists under the guise of research. In a return to the propaganda reel style of the opening, our heroes are finally glimpsed riding out to battle again, with the last titles announcing confidently, “They’ll Keep Fighting — And They’ll Win!” It’s certainly tempting to say that by this point Starship Troopers has become what it countenances. But that neglects what’s ultimately most pertinent about its form and function, trying to articulate something a more earnest take would miss: indeed, would be obliged to miss. The sliver of black diamond deep in its cold, evil heart knows well the narcotic appeal of such things, and refuses to let us off the hook.
Director: Steven Spielberg
Screenwriter: David Koepp
By Roderick Heath
Orson Welles never completed the film adaptation of Don Quixote he embarked upon in the late 1950s, but he long harboured the perfect ending for it. Confronting Cervantes’ trio of eternal symbolic heroes with the terrors of the modern world, he intended to show them walking out of an atomic bomb blast unharmed. Faced with the prospect of updating their beloved adventurer Dr Henry ‘Indiana’ Jones Jr into the 1950s and ushering him through the same gate of apocalyptic potential, Steven Spielberg and George Lucas had to face down the same looming threat of impersonal and indiscriminate power utterly alien to the essence of their mock-cavalier hero, even with his greater proximity to the nightmares of the mid-twentieth century, and came up with the same solution. Nineteen years after their third Indiana Jones film, Spielberg and Lucas brought their beloved hero back to movie screens for another dance around the world.
The new film came about after a lengthy, torturous development including multiple scripts by the likes of Jeb Stuart, Frank Darabont, and Jeff Nathanson, sported a leading man in his sixties with the former wunderkind filmmakers not far behind. Lucas, coming off his hugely successful but divisive Star Wars prequel trilogy, already knew the dangers in revisiting such totemic works, whilst Spielberg had largely resisted the temptation to rake over old ground. Hollywood had changed greatly in the intervening years. The rollercoaster-paced, vividly entertaining ideal for a certain kind of immensely popular genre cinema, a style Spielberg and Lucas essentially invented, had since colonised the Dream Factory and taken it over. Stakes had been raised, popular mythologies had supposedly evolved, and the kind of old-fashioned, epic-scaled, physically arduous production style Spielberg and Lucas had once been so adept at had given way to an era of CGI shortcuts and plasticised action enforced by more punitive censorship regimes. Where Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) had brazenly summarised several decades of pulp cinema and serial shenanigans, for many young viewers it was itself the archetype of that style. The new film was a big hit, but again received by many as a failure, even a disgrace, despite Kingdom of the Crystal Skull’s emulation of a familiar approach as opposed to the attempt to create a more rarefied style for the Star Wars prequels.
The failure of the new Star Wars and Indiana Jones films to gain much favour with so many aficionados who had grown up with the sturdy early models perhaps pointed to the problems of trying to recapture the spark of youth. This is, ironically, a major theme of Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, a rare entry in the action-adventure genre, in that it contemplates the notion of the adventurer getting older, and finding himself an almost accidental paterfamilias where once he was the devil-may-care buck, in one of the most keenly personal and resonant variations on that common theme of Spielberg’s. When I first saw Kingdom of the Crystal Skull I liked it whilst finding it awkward in certain aspects. The unwieldy title signals something of the long development and a piling up of ideas and elements reflected in the storyline left over from all those drafts. The movie also seemed to struggle with the strong temptation to revisit the material in a manner akin to a greatest hits collection in regards to the previous entries’ established formula, a temptation which, love them or hate them, the Star Wars prequels had for the most part avoided.
Since that first viewing however I’ve kept returning to and thinking about Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, and now it looks increasingly like not just the key film of Spielberg’s late oeuvre, but close to profound as a work of popular, blockbuster filmmaking. Fittingly, the first act of Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is something of an act of archaeology in itself, both for its hero and the filmmakers. The eventual script was written by David Koepp, who had written Jurassic Park (1992) and War of the Worlds (2005) for Spielberg. The opening sequences immediately propose how personal the film will be as it presents the heady confluence of the original film’s pulp forebears with the youth culture burgeoning when Spielberg and Lucas were themselves children. Where Indy and the Boy Scout troop in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989) slowly traversed the Fordian American landscape on horseback, the fastest thing around was the train. Next, a horse. Kingdom of the Crystal Skull’s opening moments offer a ’50s hotrod ripping across the dusty west at high speed, scored to Elvis Presley blaring ‘Hound Dog.’ Post-war youth culture has arrived, speed with it, things moving faster than sense.
The opening credit gag-fade that turned the Paramount logo into a real mountain in Raiders of the Lost Ark here is recapitulated as self-satire as the mountain this time becomes a gopher mound, small cute critters who respond to speeding vehicles much as the humans respond to atomic bombs and alien spaceships. Signs that the nuclear age has arrived already haunt the landscape: a rusting neon sign reading Atomic Café, a nod to the title for an Oscar-winning, disturbing retrospective of the era in 1982, stands a blackly humorous shibboleth overlooking the desert. A Russian soldier pretending to be an American soldier driving the lead car of the convoy gives in gleefully to the temptation of racing the teenaged hotrodders, signalling the eventual anticlimactic breakdown of this geopolitical schism already even as it’s reconstructed. The undercover Soviets soon reach a remote air force base, revealed to be the ever-mythologised Area 51, where they kill the guards. Spielberg has the Russians best their Yankee imperialist running dog foes through a framing joke, gun-wielding Commies lined up behind their commandant Dovchenko (Igor Jijikine) and stepping out into view to shoot, like a cold mockery of the lined-up dancers at the start of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984).
The Russians break open a colossal hanger that anyone who’s seen Raiders of the Lost Ark immediately recognises as the same abode of redacted secrets the Ark of the Covenant was hidden away in at the end of that film. The lore of the Indiana Jones series is invoked but also teased in a manner that confirms a shift in focus: when the Ark is glimpsed peeking out of its broken box it’s left behind as just another relic, as the dramatic horizon has moved on from the awesomely atavistic to the awesomely futuristic. The wrath of Jehovah unleashed in Raiders of the Lost Ark now finds its human-hand analogue in the boiling fire of atomic bomb. One of Indy’s first lines of dialogue, in contemplating how he’s going to escape from a seemingly impossible jam, points up the crucial disparity immediately: when his friend and fellow former wartime spy George ‘Mac’ Michale (Ray Winstone), taken captive along with him whilst digging for relics in Mexico, notes in surveying the Russian soldiers bearing machine guns all around him that an escape won’t be easy, Indy admits, “Not as easy as it used to be.”
Of course, such an admission is immediately dispelled by a display of prowess from this most accomplished of survivors. Captured at the behest of psychic researcher and the late Josef Stalin’s “fair-haired girl” Col. Dr. Irina Spalko (Cate Blanchett), Indy is forced to locate nothing so arcane as the Ark but a casket containing the sealed remains of what seems to be an alien. Indy is one of the few people who knows anything substantial about the contents of the casket because he was one of the experts called upon to inspect it after the Roswell crash in 1947. Indy, with characteristic smarts and sly method, at once seems to serve his captors in tracking down the highly magnetic casket whilst also literally disarming them by convincing them to use their gunpowder to seek it out, plucking out just enough of their teeth to give him a fighting chance to escape. Indy is shocked when Mac proves to be in league with the Soviets and foils his gambit, protesting that “I’m a capitalist, and they pay.” Indy manages to flee anyway, making for what appears to be a nearby town, but instead proves to be a fake suburb built for an atomic bomb test about to go off.
The first half of Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is deliberate in ticking off reference points rooted in the era of pop culture it engages as well as its own series lore. The series always subtextually linked its own surveys of and steals from a panoply of old movies and novels with Indy’s search for buried treasure, and Raiders of the Lost Ark had spun its alloy out of commenting on the young Movie Brats’ quests in tricking money out of monolithic and decaying old studios, outsiders becoming adept at playing insider games. Over the years however Indy slowly grew from a cheeky fantasy projection of masculine self-confidence and independence from some rather less than rugged young nerds to a character who has become Spielberg’s essential autobiographical figure, contending in his four adventures with the difficulties of being a son and a father, gaining a social conscience, battling fascism, and celebrating cultural inheritance. Each entry in the series gave something new to Indy: an adopted son in Temple of Doom, an estranged father in The Last Crusade, and finally in Kingdom of the Crystal Skull a wife and a son of his loins. Initially in this film Indy is presented as a bit of a relic who’s recently lost his father and his former boss and best friend Marcus Brody in the last two years, and faces the betrayal of his other loyal pal Mac, whose actions not only sour the memories of his wartime heroism but put his patriotism under question as he’s grilled by a pair of obnoxious FBI agents (Joel Stoffer and Neil Flynn).
Indy’s battle to escape the Soviets sees him and Dovchenko fight in the first of repeat clashes throughout the film, only to both find themselves launched out into the desert night aboard a sled propelled by an experimental jet engine. The nuclear test village takes the film’s conflation of cliffhanger thrills and ironic self-assessment to a logical and almost cruelly sardonic extreme. Indy stumbles into a simulacrum of the suburban world Spielberg, Lucas, and much of the rest of their generation grew up in, and to which they pitched their movies, without ever quite fitting in. Indy finds himself in an illusory netherworld of friendly postmen and beaming housewives and Howdy Doody on the TV, confronted by the ideal nuclear family on a couch before the TV only to realise they’re mannequins, a Potemkin Village of post-war prosperity built to be incinerated. The homey perfection is plastic and insubstantial, erected in the desert, Spielberg’s ironically personalised and genre-revised take on the same joke in Michelangelo Antonioni’s Zabriskie Point (1970), the American Dream realised just in time to be mightily wiped clean by the wrath of the god plutonium. It’s also a bogus version of a world that mocks Indy, an outsider in this settled, forcibly becalmed, conformist zone, a survivor from ye olde swashbuckling days, Greatest Generation hero forced to confront a world he’s missed sliding into, for better and for worse, even as the bite of some of his life choices is starting to sting. The bomb blows it all to smithereens, Indy saved only by packing himself into a refrigerator in another sly gag nodding to common urban scaremongering about lead-lined fridges and children getting themselves locked in them: death-trap hiding in plain sight becomes vessel of survival. The fridge is hurled clear across the desert even as the hellfire swallows up some of the Soviets who fled leaving him behind.
This sequence proved a focal point for fan complaint afterwards, accusing it of betraying the series’ relatively believable mould. Whilst indeed the series had offered glimpses of supernatural power and might burning through the substance of coarse reality, these displays were portrayed as something distinct from what the mere humans do, in a series that resisted the colossal spectacle of Lucas’ Star Wars films and instead wrung its thrills out of stuntmen hanging off vintage trucks. On the other hand, the series had also exhibited a rather post-modern edge to its understanding of the interaction between audience and disbelief, most famously the witty elision of the question as to just how Indy manages to hitch a ride on the U-Boat in Raiders of the Lost Ark, as well as the deep influence of silent movie stars who mixed slapstick with action like Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd. Indy’s hilarious survival is offered as an episode of high slapstick comedy with an underside of absurdist meaning, more reminiscent in method of Richard Lester or Jerry Lewis. No, Indy should not survive an atomic blast, especially not in a fridge. Nevertheless. Spielberg acknowledges at once Indy’s smallness in the atomic age but also his persistence even in the face of such awful power: the world-spirit he represents and incarnates still lurches forth. Indy crawls out of the fridge relatively intact only to be confronted with the mushroom cloud billowing up into the sky, the power of suns now wielded by politicians, bureaucrats, and military men. This image finds its echo at the climax of the film in an example of Lucas’ “rhyming” ideal for mythic storytelling, as the image of technology as death gives way to the image of renewed awe, mystery, and hope.
Kingdom of the Crystal Skull demanded Spielberg return to the kind of the filmmaker he had been in the ‘80s, not that anyone doubted he had lost his knack for it. But Spielberg was just coming off the most generally dark and fretful run of his career: Saving Private Ryan (1998), AI: Artificial Intelligence (2000), Minority Report (2002), War of the Worlds, and Munich (2006) all wrestled with the angst of protecting and losing children in social contexts variably fascistic and anarchic, only partly relieved by the politically slanted screwball comedy of The Terminal (2003) and the superficially fun but actually deeply anxious Catch Me If You Can (2002). The latter allowed a sidelong self-portrait of Spielberg in its young, wandering genius-shyster hero, who finishes up gazing in on an excluding mockery of his own home-restoring ideals, much as Indy encounters something similar in the nuclear village, whilst Mutt Williams (Shia LaBeouf) takes on the mantle of confused young man trying to forge himself an identity. Spielberg tellingly uses Kingdom of the Crystal Skull to telescope the concerns of those movies and set something of a seal on his long-running theme of a family either found on the run or reforged through adversity. Likewise the film signals Spielberg’s shift to studies in post-war history and contemplation of Cold War-age vicissitudes in Bridge of Spies (2015) and The Post (2017), as well as the more historically remote but just as inquisitive Lincoln (2012), with their contemplation of different kinds of civic duty and the problems of how to avoid in resisting monsters becoming them.
The version of Indy presented here is at once instantly recognisable, his signature hat appearing on screen before he does, but also quite different to the iteration first glimpsed in Raiders of the Lost Ark. The sly, readily violent young rogue who somehow inhabited both bespectacled teacher and rugged soldier-of-fortune without cognitive dissonance, a man called a mercenary and a grave robber, has been supplanted by a wiser elder affirmed in his patriotic credentials, an Ike-liking war hero who now seems much less strange amidst the climes of Ivy League academia, but whose killer and professorial instincts can kick in at odd and apposite moments. Time mellows us all, apparently, but this all also signals that Indy’s life has certainly added up, that he has become something at the expense of losing other things. Brody’s successor as Dean of Indy’s workplace Marshall College, Charles Stanforth (Jim Broadbent), notes with gravity, whilst Indy glances at photos of Brody and his father, that they seem to have “reached the age when life stops giving us things and starts taking them away.” Naturally, the rest of the film dedicates itself to disputing that proposal.
Most intriguingly, Indy’s maturation has made him more aware and open to transcendental experience than he ever was when young: where Indy did not dare to look at the open Ark and risk Jehovah’s judgement, he keeps his eyes and his mind wide open for the grand and transformative here. Acknowledgement of shifted geopolitics is casually tossed in, as now Indy considers going to teach in Leipzig after he’s fired for political reasons in the good old USA. Indy’s success in escaping his Commie captors to alert the government nonetheless sees him become the object of suspicion in a Reds-under-the-bed age, with even the intervention of General Scott (Alan Dale), a former commander, insufficient to ward off the spectre of blacklisting. Indy finds himself suspended from teaching and only retaining pay thanks to the valiant self-sacrifice of Stanforth, who admits to resigning to swing it. Before Indy can leave on a train, he’s chased down by Mutt, a greaser riding a motorcycle, introduced in a shot carefully patterned after Marlon Brando in The Wild One (1953). Another pop culture archetype in the mix, this one the devolved but still potent echo in the post-war rebel of the old frontier dream.
Mutt wants Indy to help him find his missing mother Mary and her friend Harold “Ox” Oxley (John Hurt), a former pal and colleague of Indy’s: Mary went missing seeking Ox, but managed to send Mutt a letter filled with incomprehensible scrawlings and quotations connected with Ox’s supposed discovery of a crystal skull resembling other Pre-Columbian artefacts. Soon enough Indy realises they’re being shadowed by KGB agents who chase them through the campus, but fail to stop them flying south and following Ox’s garbled instructions. These lead them to an ancient cemetery above the Nazca Desert where Indy unearths the crystal skull, buried with the remains of the fabled conquistador Francisco de Orellana, whose obsession with gold led him to search for a lost city called Akator: the skull seems to have been brought with de Orellana and his men from the city. But locating and retrieving the skull proves only to be what Spalko had hoped for, as Mac and Dovchenko take Indy and Mutt prisoner and spirit them to Spalko’s encampment in the Amazon jungle. There they find Ox captive in an apparently lunatic state, along with Mutt’s mother who, not too surprisingly, turns out to be Marion (Karen Allen), Indy’s old flame.
The Indiana Jones series stands as both an exemplar of popular movie entertainment but also one that suffered to a degree in being scared of itself. Whilst Raiders of the Lost Ark is the more perfect movie, with its lean, mean, virtuosic sense of narrative motive joined to thrill-mongering, the series surely reached its height in the second half of Temple of Doom with its total, fervent, almost lunatic embrace of tapping childhood ideals and fears in relation to a parental image. Indy veers from subordinated villain to messianic hero, as his dark side is ritually cleansed in a manner that also resembles a child’s bewilderment when they perceive a parent’s dark side for the first time, before the action unleashed becomes a compulsive battle of good and evil. This was played out in an Arabian Nights fantasia built from an unstable blend of imperialist adventure tropes, Hammer horror imagery, and old Hollywood B-movie chic, all bashed into a coherent shape by Spielberg’s all-pervading sense of cinematic spectacle. There was also the first glimmerings of his interest in social conscience and subjugation-liberation themes, which would lead on to movies like Schindler’s List (1993) and Amistad (1997), and Indy’s journey in the film also reflects the maturation from a seeker of “fortune and glory” to a man with a potent sense of righteous anger. Some complaints, that it revived racist clichés and offered too frightening a stew for a young audience, had a valid aspect, but it’s hard to shake the feeling that in denying the film’s dangerous, antisocial edge Spielberg and Lucas were denying a vital streak in their creativity for the sake of remaining acceptable.
When Raiders of the Lost Ark plundered hoary old stories and movies the filmmakers felt confident their audience would take such backdated tropes as camp, but ironically such recognition grew less sure over time. The complaints unleashed obliged Spielberg and Lucas to file down the franchise’s teeth for The Last Crusade and Kingdom of the Crystal Skull: the latter, the filmmakers readily admitted, patterns itself more after the The Last Crusade than the first two films. But Kingdom of the Crystal Skull finally accrues a tone closer to a Jules Vernian adventure along the lines of Captain Grant’s Children than to the serial movie mould that initially defined the series as a tale of globetrotting and reunion, and film versions of Verne like Henry Levin’s Journey to the Center of the Earth (1959), which is directly quoted at the end. Douglas Slocombe, who had filmed the first three films for Spielberg with a signature look balancing almost expressionistic effects with shadow and light with rich colour palettes, had retired, so Spielberg’s favoured new cinematographic collaborator Janusz Kaminski, whose shooting style usually quelled and mediated colour effects, offered his own, lushly textured variation. The animated camerawork nonetheless also often keeps its distance from events and actors, with Spielberg working through a fascination for master shots containing multiple planes of arrangement for actors, carefully setting the scene for when action erupts along horizontal lines of pursuit.
Whilst it has problems in terms of pacing its plot, Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is on a deeper level a master class in how to directorially pace more fundamental business, to pack a movie with curlicues of humour and context-enriching flourishes. The film is close to relaxed in places, suborning action-adventure thrills to letting its heroes and villains work through their various obsessions, and yet there’s scarcely a second wasted in making some sort of point about them as well as the genre and historical setting they inhabit. The first proper scene featuring Indy and Mutt, charting their development of something like rapport, plays out in a diner adjoining the college where young collegians and greasers gather. This scene is abound with deft bits of business as Mutt’s forced shows of attitude and condescension as an avatar of a cocky new generation contends with Indy’s sanguine cool and sense of paternalistic propriety. Spielberg quotes John Ford’s The Searchers (1956) as Mutt tries to steal a beer surreptitiously from a waitress only for Indy to replace it, even as their conversation on other matters unfolds. Mutt keeps his obsessively maintained pompadour rigid by dipping his comb in some luckless student’s Coke.
The attempt by KGB agents to take them prisoner obliges some quick thinking, as Indy gets Mutt to thump a “Joe College” and spark a brawl between the college kids and greasers to give them a chance at a getaway. The idea of staging an action sequence around the environs of Indy’s workplace is so great it’s a wonder the series never found a way of working one in before, with Indy and Mutt riding his motorcycle, battling and outrunning the pursuing goons and finishing up sliding across the floor of the college library to the consternation of students. This scene is again flecked with an astounding number of throwaway yet substantial touches. Mutt’s punch sparks a schism between the two camps of youth culture, squares and rebels, which allows another struggle, with all its geopolitical and culture war overtones, to unfold unhindered. The chasers careen through an anti-Communist demonstration, a last gasp of cultural centrism on campus before the oppositional tilt kicking in in the 1960s. One of the chasing KGB teams finishes up foiled by the decapitated head from a statue of Brody, and the sequence finishes in a comic-heroic diminuendo with Indy advising preferred historical models to one of his students before advising him to get out of the library even as he and Mutt ride the motorcycle out the door.
The journey to Chile in following Ox’s clues sees Indy and Mutt generating a tentative working partnership, Indy bewildered by Mutt’s worshipful treatment of his motorcycle, Mutt slowly working up a level of respect for the guy he first calls “old man” as Indy recounts adventures with Pancho Villa as a youth (allowing one priceless bit of character business as Indy remembers to spit on the ground after mentioning the name of Victoriano Huerta). Their arrival at the ancient cemetery sees them set upon by mask-wearing, martial arts-adept natives who try killing them with poisoned darts, leading Indy to surprise one by blowing the dart back up his pipe into the assassin’s mouth. Indy and Mutt’s penetration of the tomb sees Indy dealing expertly with problems familiar to him that still terrify Mutt. But Mutt displays his own edge of diligence as he successfully shames Indy for purloining a knife from one of the dead conquistadors in a manner quite reminiscent of old, cavalier approach to such things. When the duo finally do find de Orellana and his men, buried in preserving grave wrappings in a Mayan style, they also find the crystal skull Ox hid away, a confounding object impossible to manufacture and possessed of bewildering magnetic properties towards all metals. Indy deduces that Ox discovered the tomb and the skull, and returned the skull in a desperate attempt to mollify its powerful but inchoate, to him at least, psychic demands.
The elastic snap between frivolity and melodrama, character byplay and plot service throughout much of Kingdom of the Crystal Skull might well represent that closest Spielberg has come since Jaws (1975) to truly honouring his cinema’s precursors in Ford and Howard Hawks, particularly those filmmakers’ loosely-structured, Shakespearean Pastoral-like late films like Hatari! (1962), Donovan’s Reef (1963), and El Dorado (1966). Indeed, whilst auteurist critics eventually rescued those films from the dustbin of regard and recognised their richness, they too were largely dismissed initially as shabby throwaways by titans slipping towards senescence. Such movies follow their characters in exploring a contest of personalities at once fractious but also fused together by bonds of camaraderie and codes of honour, driven out to contend in the wilderness but in search of a homecoming. El Dorado most crucially dealt similarly with aging heroes who find themselves commanding a ragged band of young surrogates and new partners. The major difference between Kingdom of the Crystal Skull and such models is that Spielberg tries to mate their ambling, barely narrative form with the rolling set-piece structure the Indiana Jones films took from classic serials, not the easiest styles to blend.
This might partly explain the relative awkwardness of the film’s middle act, which keeps seeming to build to new eruptions of action, as Indy and Mutt delve into de Orellana’s grave and attempt escape from the Soviet jungle camp, but both situations end with frustration, the latter devolving into farce as Indy and Marion stray into a quicksand pit and the deranged Ox, sent for help, fetches the Russians. The major difference between Kingdom of the Crystal Skull and its forebear Raiders of the Lost Ark lies in precisely this disparity. Where once Spielberg and Lucas had their hero crawl under a truck specifically because it was a cool thing to do, and Indy was invented entirely to be a figure who did such things, the action scenes in Kingdom of the Crystal Skull instead serve largely the opposite purpose, deployed to draw out the characters, to dramatize and visualise their essence as people and the connections that bind them together. The chase through Marshall and the later pursuit through the jungle are rolling acts of meeting and reconciliation, maturation and discovery. The quicksand scene becomes a moment of crucial revelation as Marion tells Indy Mutt is his son (“Why didn’t you make him stay in school?” Indy demands immediately, after telling Mutt dropping out was fine if it suited him), blended with less momentous but equally felicitous shading as Indy speaks like both a teacher and a man of experience as he contemplates the actual threat level of the sand, and is forced to temper his old phobia as Mutt tries to save his life by using a python as a rope.
The actual storyline is a giddy mishmash of ideas, particularly the ancient astronaut theory mooted by Erich von Daaniken in his 1969 book Chariots of the Gods?, a book that helped kick off a burgeoning fascination with new-age esoterica in subsequent decades. Such notions always had a troublingly racist scepticism over technological and architectural achievements by “primitive” civilisations, but also captured imaginations by suggesting deeper, more fantastical influences and forces at work in history. This is mixed with authentic pieces of modern folklore like Stalin’s interest in psychic research, and contentious artefacts like probably faked crystal skulls “discovered” by various archaeologists including Anna and F.A. Mitchell-Hedges. All this entails a shift away from the vital thread of the earlier films in the series, where religious and mythical truth subsisted like a secret river of wonder. That river flowed under the apparent solidity of Indy’s mythologised 1930s world, hovering as it did between the classical and the properly modern, where Judeo-Christian and Hindu mysticism were place on a level footing and genuine historical quests and enigmas were used as linchpins for the stories. Kingdom of the Crystal Skull nonetheless still invokes the same pattern, taking on the myth-crusted history of de Orellana, who gave the Amazon its name, and his search for cities of gold, the search for raw satiation of greed and the hunt for transcendental wonder not easy to separate. The eventual revelation of an alien influence connects easily with Spielberg’s exploration of divine seeking through the prism of UFO mythology in Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977). Spalko theorises that the smaller, less advanced aliens retrieved from the Roswell crash are relatives of the beings who built Akator, and the crystal skull itself contains some remnant of intelligence that retains incredible potency, reducing Ox to apparent lunacy and, when Spalko forcibly exposes Indy to its influence, commanding him to take it to Akator.
Marion’s reappearance in Indy’s life immediately stirs their oldest reflexes of attraction and aggression as their first encounter in decades before a crowd of onlooking Soviet soldiers becomes an instant verbal battle laced with screwball comedy postures, Marion’s fierce declarations that she’s had a “damn good, really good life” charged with protest-too-much electricity. A core pleasure in the film is seeing Allen’s undimmed smile as she feels the old Indy charm again. Substituting Indy’s familiar Nazi enemies for Soviets was a pretty obvious direction to go in, although they just don’t have the same crackle of instant enmity. It’s hinted that Spalko represents a kind of holdout faction of fanatical Stalinists, their commander representing intellectual avarice detached from any kind of social accountability even as she sees herself as a warrior for her political faith, whilst Dovchenko is a straightforward thug who gives Indy plenty of motivation to resist him by casually shooting American soldiers (“I’m sorry – drop dead, Comrade”). That Spielberg can’t quite take his Commies as seriously as villains is still plain as he offers the soldiers dancing the kazatchok around their jungle campfire, perhaps fitting in a movie that’s less about pure evil and more about clashing forces of imperial arrogance and cultural domain in an age defined by moral ambiguity.
Some don’t like her, but to me Spalko presents Indy with his fittest antagonist since Belloq, a strident blend of cerebral and physical honing, a haughty egotist (“Be careful, you might get exactly what you want.” “I usually do.”) supposedly representing egalitarianism whose first insult to Indy is casually kicking aside a handful of relics he and Mac dug up out in the desert: not even Belloq was that barbarian. Spalko seeks out atavistic knowledge purely in the interests of gaining control over the future, spelling out a delightful bullet point of potential uses for harnessing the apparent psychic force of the aliens to “place our thoughts into the minds of your leaders, make your teachers teach the true version of history,” loaning substance to decades of the most deeply paranoid fantasies about Communist infiltration. Spalko resembles Garbo’s Ninotchka reborn as a post-gender dominatrix who hands Mutt his ass on a plate but proves to have her own limits when even she is rendered queasy and terrified by a horde of erupting soldier ants. Blanchett’s elegant, witty performance expertly captures the cartoonish aspect of the character but also fully inhabits her too, equipped as she is with a Louise Brooks-as-Lulu hairdo and a sword on her hip that stands to attention like a mock erection when she gets too close to the alien remains she so eagerly seeks. The edge of vaguely sexual tension between her and Indy is also new, good touch, with Spalko’s sense of imperiousness extending into that realm too as she keeps trying to penetrate his mind with her psychic talents, only to keep meeting his mused disdain. “You’re a hard man to read, Doctor Jones,” she comments whilst giving his face a patronising pat, and later places her hands seductively on his thighs as she again tries to mind-rape him. This moment plays out as something of a sarcastic inversion of Marion’s scenes contending with Belloq’s overtures whilst his prisoner in Raiders of the Lost Ark.
Broadbent, Winstone, and Hurt extend Spielberg’s penchant for great British character actors brought in to augment the team, although the actors’ roles don’t really require such talents. Regardless, Hurt is a delight as the crazed Ox, whose communing with the skull has left him a cosmic conduit with the switch stuck on, hands writing complex messages whilst his mouth pours forth babble. It’s fun seeing Winstone in a different kind of part compared to the bruisers he usually plays, as the inherently likeable yet deeply shifty Mac. The character does serve a solid purpose in representing the temptation to surrender to the inherent ambiguity of the age that Indy must resist. But the film trips repeatedly over the problem of what to do with him, his confession to being an undercover CIA agent infiltrating Spalko’s team later proving to be another fraud: “What are you, some kind of triple agent?” “Nah, I just lied about being a double.” Winstone at least plays him cleverly enough so that no matter how duplicitous he gets he still seems more a jovial rogue than a real villain, and when he finally gets his punishment, sucked into a vortex of interdimensional oblivion, there’s the feeling that his last, confident pronouncement that “I’m gonna be all right,” might still turn out true, somewhere, somewhen.
Mutt’s choice of nom-de-guerre is a clever touch in itself, suggesting both sarcastic pride in playing the outlaw bad boy even though he’s actually a private school reject, whilst also nodding to the way Indy preferred his family dog’s name to his own (and its real source in Lucas’ pet dog). Both father and son struggle through realising new dimensions to their identity. LaBeouf had earned a deal of general enmity for his overbearing performances as the whiny shit somehow anointed as galactic hero in Michael Bay’s Transformers movies, and it’s fair to say he never makes a convincing inheritor for Ford (who could be?). But LaBeouf is nonetheless actually very good as Mutt, leaving behind junior Woody Allen neuroticism for a deft portrayal of a wannabe rugged type who’s not quite there yet, humiliated occasionally in his efforts to seem up to the task but also making sterling shows of intelligence and gumption whilst also trying to hold character, as when he takes a moment, when Spalko threatens to torture him to make Indy give up information, to make sure his hair is perfect again before inviting her to do her worst. Mutt also has flashes of real concern and pity for Ox, who has served as something of a surrogate father figure for him, that reveal the deeper, maturing man within. Indy’s own, more fractious relationship with Ox is summarised as he tries to get through to him: “You were born in Leeds, England. You and I went to school together at the University of Chicago and you were never this interesting.”
As for Ford himself, his career and reputation had been waning although he was still a top leading man in the late 1990s and early 2000s, from frowning his way through too many lacklustre vehicles. Returning to playing Dr Jones, whilst not entirely free of moments where he strains to hit the same old cocky charm, nonetheless did much to revive him, and the quality of his performances in Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015) and Blade Runner 2046 (2017) owe much to the way he connected his aging self to his younger here. The sight of a sixty-something rumbling has its silly side and yet fits the character to a certain extent. Indy was always defined by both his durability but also his undeniable physical realism, a man who most definitely felt the pains of his exertions afterwards, whilst here he seems more energised, more angrily potent, the more knocks he tales: grant me an old man’s frenzy indeed. The performance works ultimately because the film allows Indy’s funny side to come to the fore, as Ford is particularly good when Indy struggles through his new family troubles with an amusing blend of outrage and pathos. The worms finally turn as Indy, Mutt, and Marion ride in a Soviet truck as Spalko’s team follow the clues Indy deciphers from Ox’s ravings towards Akator, a road-clearing engine leading a convoy through the depths of the Amazon.
A family argument rages as the trio accost one-another for betrayals and absences, Mutt’s own discovery that Indy is his father comes with its own edge of shock, forced to reconfigure his view of himself as emulating the wild and doomed pattern of his stepfather, a fighter pilot who died during the war, rather than “some teacher.” When the annoyed Dovchenko moves to silence Marion, Indy and Mutt, squabbling tooth and nail a second before, work in perfect concert to knock Dovchenko out and free themselves from their bonds. Indy’s totemic confession to Marion about the other women in his life – “They all had the same problem, they weren’t you, honey” – proves the elusive key to both healing the rift and powering them all up for a battle with the Soviets, Indy blowing up the road engine with a rocket launcher and sparking a frenetic chase through the jungle and down the river to the fringes of Akator. This sequence is one of my favourite action interludes in any movie: god knows how many times I’ve thought of it whilst wading through others with their variably shapeless roundelays of punching and shooting and gibberish editing or lack of any invention in the way the action unfolds.
Whereas here, again, Spielberg offers a master class in how to do this sort of thing, with beautifully coherent lines of action matched to flowing, dashing camera work, the customary fisticuffs packed with humour and flashes of absurdism. Far too much, many carped, but there’s also a madcap ferocity apparent in touches like Spalko firing off a heavy machine she clings to in a desperately messy attempt to take out Marion behind the wheel as they careen through the bush. The two factions try desperately to capture the skull, Indy and Marion using speed and manoeuvring and the jungle cover to foil their enemies’ firepower. Mutt’s mooted talent for fencing is brought to bear as he and Spalko face off standing on the backs of speeding jeeps, turning the fight into a rite of passage for the next generation. Indy grins in fatherly approval; Marion instructs his fencing like a stage mom. Mutt does well but is teased by Spalko for fighting “like a young man – eager to begin, quick to finish,” and gets more literally blue-balled as he keeps getting whacked in the crotch by stems beneath, before Spalko wallops him properly with some expert judo.
Mutt gets his own back swinging through the trees Tarzan-style with a horde of mimicking monkeys, and manages to snatch away the skull, whilst Indy gets into a tooth-and-nail brawl with Dovchenko who finishes up being dragged into a nest of colossal ants after Indy finally knocks him on his ass amongst them. Marion gets her own crazy brainwave and drives the amphibious vehicle she’s commandeered with all her charges off a cliff into a huge tree’s bowers, letting it deliver them gently into the river, only to then plunge over a triple waterfall. Spielberg punctuates with dramatic dolly shots onto Spalko’s face as she realises a fired-up Jones is going to be one hell of a crimp in her plans, matched later as she draws her rapier to do battle with full, murderous commitment to the swashbuckling. John Williams’ scoring is particularly strong in capturing just the right tone in this scene, his familiar heroic strains momentarily interrupted by a lapse into Slavic reels as a nudge in the ribs alert to not just the not-so-secret edge of the pantomime to all this but also the dance-like orchestration of movement. Much complaint was also made about the amount of CGI used to augment aspects of this sequence, which has a valid edge again. But then, the series had never been shy of special effects, nor had its precursors and influences, and the visual texture resembles the matte paintings utilised in earlier films imbued with mobility.
The horde of monstrous ants that torment the heroes and villains alike suggests homage to Byron Haskin’s The Naked Jungle (1953). Whilst Kingdom of the Crystal Skull does play a pretty clean game in terms of gore, compared to the delightfully infamous excesses of the first two films, at least the image of Dovchenko being swallowed up by the critters, like the blowback dart earlier in the film and Spalko’s death by brain fry later in the film, offer a tasty reminder of the Indy’s, and his films’, willingness to play a bit dirty and flirt with horror visuals. The absurdism hits a new height as the heroic team plunge over the waterfalls in a Keatonesque sequence that concludes with the sight of Marion still clinging to the steering wheel of the amphibious vehicle after washing up ashore. After surviving the journey the adventurers enter the surrounds of Akator, where they have to brave the fearsome native trustees who guard it and penetrate its deepest vaults, entering the central pyramid via a gateway opened through releasing sand from underneath a monolith.
It’s only here that I find the film starts to develop a real problem, not because it slows down but rather because it perhaps ought to. Koepp’s script keeps letting his heroes use the skull to unlock barriers, including parting the guarding army of natives, rather than finding new and clever ways through each challenge. The final movement of The Last Crusade retains tremendous affection from its fans for the way it entwines clear and urgent character stakes whilst shifting from swashbuckling to something more subtle, as the quest engages Indy’s learning and mental prowess as well as physical bravery. Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is more straightforward, lacking surprise and cleverness, except for when Indy works out how to penetrate the pyramid in a touch that again tips its hat to a model, this time to Hawks’ Land of the Pharaohs (1955). Otherwise what we get on the approach to what Lucas’ inspiration Joseph Campbell called the innermost cave feels a little too much like one of the series’ video game imitators like Tomb Raider.
When the heroes and villains both penetrate the inner chamber where the collective of alien skeletons still reside and reform into a gestalt projection, Spalko and Mac meet their comeuppances, both foiled by their divergent brands of greed, and the aspect of the series influenced moralistic fairy tale returns. Spalko has her brain burned out by the relentless flow of knowledge the alien collective exudes, a fate wittily mediated by Spalko’s almost erotic revelry as streams of psychic energy pierce her being but eventually, literally blow her mind, her mantra “I want to know!” finally gaining orgasmic climax as flames sprout from her eyes. The parochial quality to the film’s ultimate moral – “Knowledge was their treasure,” Indy declares after realising the aliens were archaeologist like him in collecting artefacts – is at once corny but also fits its surrounds like a glove: the aliens ultimately vindicate Indy’s faith in his metier. And if the immediate scenes preceding lack the feeling of real novelty, Spielberg nonetheless makes up for it and then some, with his crescendo image of the alien craft buried under Akator rising out of the ground. The pyramid and city disintegrate as a churning whirlwind grows, a colossal, silver flying saucer rising amidst flying stony debris before vanishing. Debris falls back to earth when free of the gravity flux in a thunderous rain of stone and the Amazon River is unleashed in a deluge through punctured gaps in fringing hills, slamming down upon the ruins and drowning them.
This is certainly Spielberg’s most direct emulation of one his eternal filmic touchstones, the parting of the Red Sea in The Ten Commandments (1956). It’s also the counterpoint to the sight of the atomic bomb, with Indy again framed as dwarfed yet determinedly witnessing as the rules of reality are again rewritten, this time opening vast new horizons of experience rather than merely threatening doomsday: the eternal trade-off of modernity encapsulated in one great arc of vision. This shot also resolves the film’s visual language, the recourse to fluid master shots throughout finally gaining ultimate context as Spielberg presents this image of wonder in one, fixated, brilliantly executed shot that binds the cosmic and the human, locating the essence of cinematic spectacle in the direct gaze. The coda resorts to a wryly campy but also fulsome portrayal of homecoming and restoration. Indy is made Associate Dean and marries Marion before approving guests including Mutt, Ox, and Stanforth, Marion kissing her husband with merry lustfulness that startles the old roué. Mutt picks up Indy’s wind-toppled hat from the church floor only for Indy to pluck it from his grasp on his way out. Not quite yet, son. The deep-veined richness of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, the fact that it really only uses genre thrills to hang its delight with life’s wayward adventure upon, perhaps indicates why it aggravated people seeking more monotone pleasures, but also stands as reason why, like its hero, its best days still wait before it.
Creator: Gene Roddenberry
Directors: Robert Butler / James Goldstone / Marc Daniels
Screenwriters: Gene Roddenberry / Samuel A. Peeples / George Clayton Johnson
By Roderick Heath
As a boy in Texas in the 1920s and ‘30s, Gene Roddenberry was a voracious fan of the sci-fi and pulp storytelling of Edgar Rice Burroughs and E.E. ‘Doc’ Smith, stirring the desire to become a writer. After stints as a US Army pilot during World War II and a civilian pilot for Pan Am after, his third crash convinced him to try another profession. He joined the police whilst also pursuing his writing ambitions, blending the two when he landed a job as technical advisor and then writer on the TV show Mr. District Attorney. Roddenberry soon found himself in demand, eventually quitting the cops in 1956 as his career stepped into high gear working on shows including the popular Western series Have Gun – Will Travel, defined by roving heroes and self-contained episodic storylines, and showed equal talent for wheeling and dealing behind the scenes. Some of the quirks of personality and fortune that would define Roddenberry’s professional legacy were already manifesting, particularly frustration in constantly developing and pitching series ideas no-one wanted to produce, and getting sacked from the show Riverboat before even a single episode was made, because of Roddenberry’s fierce objection to the producers’ wish to not feature any black actors on the show despite being set on the Mississippi in the 1860s. On shows he ran or tried to make happen in the early 1960s, Roddenberry met many actors he would later reemploy, including Leonard Nimoy, Nichelle Nichols, and DeForest Kelley.
Since the mid-‘50s Roddenberry kicked around variations on the idea of a contained ensemble drama set aboard modes of transport, including an ocean liner and an airship, adding increasingly fantastical elements and the idea of a multi-ethnic ensemble. Taking inspiration from models including the 1956 film Forbidden Planet as well as Smith’s Lensman and Skylark series and the spacefaring stories of A.E. Van Vogt, Roddenberry merged his various concepts into the one project, revolving around the exploratory adventures of a starship. He added the idea of a lead character based on C.S. Forester’s omnicompetent naval hero Horatio Hornblower. The name of the starship, Enterprise, allowed Roddenberry to reference both the early swashbuckling days of the US Navy and the awesome modern aircraft carrier that represented Cold War America’s military and technical might. He called the proposed series Star Trek. Roddenberry gained the support of Lucille Ball, a close friend whose Desilu production company urgently needed a successful show, and took it to various network chieftains, pitching it as “Wagon Train in space” to make it seem more familiar. NBC decided to back a pilot, selecting one of Roddenberry’s scripts, “The Menagerie.”
Rechristened “The Cage,” the pilot was shot in late 1964, and sported Roddenberry’s lover and future wife Majel Barrett as the starship’s first officer Number One, and Nimoy as a vaguely satanic-looking alien officer named Spock. Jeffrey Hunter, former acting protégé of John Ford whose career had ironically been stymied after playing Jesus in Nicholas Ray’s King of Kings (1963), was selected to play the Captain, Christopher Pike. “The Cage” failed to win over executives and test audiences, but unlike so many of Roddenberry’s projects NBC clearly saw potential as they agreed to produce a second pilot, albeit infamously telling Roddenberry to “get rid of the alien with the pointy ears,” and swapping out Hunter’s intense and thoughtful captain for someone with a little more swagger and bravura. For the second pilot the network chose a script Roddenberry had developed with Samuel A. Peeples, “Where No Man Has Gone Before,” and this time paved the way for the show’s eventual premiere in 1966. Oddly, “Where No Man Has Gone Before” would be the episode screened third: the first broadcast episode proved instead to be “The Man Trap,” written by George Clayton Johnson. The show had many similarities to Irwin Allen’s series Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea and had a rival in Allen’s next production Lost In Space, which had a more juvenile tone but a similar basis in a spacefaring team encountering character often existing in the blurred zone between sci-fi and outright fantasy. Much like its major rival in TV sci-fi annals, Doctor Who, the show suffered through initial low ratings to surge as a surprising cult hit for the first two years of its three-season run, although the real key to its persistence in pop culture proved to be its popularity in syndication in the 1970s.
“The Cage,” “Where No Man Has Gone Before,” and “The Man Trap” therefore all present inception points for the series and varying stages of drafting for its eventual, settled template. “The Man Trap” was probably selected to screen first because of its relatively straightforward monster-on-the-loose plot, and also because it sported Kelley as the ship’s Chief Surgeon, Leonard ‘Bones’ McCoy, not yet cast on “Where No Man Has Gone Before,” and so orientated viewers to the essential line-up more quickly. “The Cage” was eventually, cleverly repurposed for the show on the two-part storyline with the title of “The Menagerie” restored. “The Cage”’s negative was hacked up for use on the show, and the complete version was thought lost. Roddenberry pieced together the full episode combining the colour footage used in “The Menagerie” and a black-and-white workprint, the form in which I, and others, first saw it on video, before a pristine colour print was later recovered. One irony of this is that I think I’ve seen “The Cage” more than any other Star Trek episode, and it stands very close to being my favourite iteration of the entire property, only rivalled by certain episodes of the various series and movie entries like Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982). “The Cage” stands somewhere between the divergent tones of the original series and its eventual successor Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987-93), but also exists in its own peculiar pocket, a place of surreal delights. The re-emergence of the pilot even did much to set the scene for the reboot represented by The Next Generation, a hint this universe could sustain different modes and resonances.
Many familiar aspects of the show were already in place for “The Cage,” including the Enterprise, the presence of Spock and the general infrastructure of the series’ fictional lore and tech like beaming and phasers, the boldly colourful designs and cinematography, and Alexander Courage’s inimitable theme music. The differences however suggest a whole different version of the show existing in a ghostly parallel dimension to the familiar one. Spock, whilst already invested with his familiar look (although it would be toned down afterwards), isn’t the nerveless rationalist of renown but a rather more youthfully impassioned and demonstrative crewman; the trait of chilly intellectual armour is instead imbued upon Barrett’s Number One. McCoy isn’t yet present, nor is Nichols’ Uhura, James Doohan’s Mr Scott, or George Takei’s Sulu. Indeed, one particularly interesting aspect of “The Cage” is that its emphasis is more on gender diversity than racial, with Pike caught between the diverse potential love interests of Number One, and the younger, more callow Yeoman J.M. Colt (Laurel Goodwin), who would be supplanted in the show proper by Grace Lee Whitney’s rather sexier Yeoman Rand. Roddenberry had also left the door open in his scripts to making Spock and the Chief Surgeon female, although eventually in addition to Nimoy John Hoyt was cast as the doctor, Phillip Boyce.
Star Trek arrived as a summation and condensation of Roddenberry’s eminently commercial yet singular artistic personality, one reason perhaps why it immediately overshadowed everything else he did: some creative people are destined, and doomed, to arrive at one vital crystallisation of their imagination. Roddenberry’s experience whilst still a very young man as a leader responsible for lives had a deep and obvious impact on his storytelling, and sometimes used the show to explore aspects of his experience, like the episode “Court Martial,” which evokes a crash Roddenberry had during the war and its aftermath. Ironically, Roddenberry would be caught constantly trying to reassert his control over the property and confronted by the way the input of other creative minds would sometimes prove to understand the nature of its popularity better than he did himself, most particularly when Harve Bennett and Nicholas Meyer rescued the film series it birthed in the 1980s. Roddenberry’s thorough steeping in the kinds of character relations and story basics familiar in TV thoroughly permeated Star Trek, in the panoply of ethnic and job title archetypes, the thematic and narrative similarities to the Westerns he’d worked on, and the basics of how the crew of the Enterprise work and live together.
The opening images of “The Man Trap,” the very first glimpse of the Star Trek aesthetic TV audiences would actually see, envisions the planet M-113 as a desolate place scarcely trying to look like something other than a set, with Fauvist skies and soils and Ozymandian ruins. It’s a psychological environment of the kind many a Surrealist painter laboured to describe, plucked out of the collective unconscious. A place at once wild and filled with traces of vanished grandeur. This edge of stylisation, of the dreamlike infusing the very texture of the universe, is one of the original show’s most specific qualities and one sadly missing from its many progeny. Aspects of the signature look had already been mooted in “The Cage” where Pike and Spock discover and ponder strange blue flowers that vibrate with alien music, although the landscape was more prosaic with a grey overcast sky and rocky forms like a stretch of the American desert. “Where No Man Has Gone Before” offered visions of the remote Delta-Vega, an outpost of super-technology resembling an oil refinery grafted onto an alien shore.
The sense of landscape was one area where the show took clear inspiration from Forbidden Planet, which offered similar vistas and the concept of the id made solid and animate. But the emphasis on rugged and far-flung environments was also clearly part of the show’s inheritance from the Western, including John Ford’s iconic use of Monument Valley, a place the show never visited, preferring the more economicaly adjacent Vasquez Rocks. Star Trek hinges upon evoking and inflating to newly fantastical scale the same sense of awed fascination with the raw bones of the American land, the scarps and mesas and jagged geometries of the western deserts, along with the same uneasy mix of celebration in freedom and wealth of space and conflict over the viability of colonialist enterprise, as drove the Western. Often this was interspersed with depictions of deceptively placid Edenic zones where the flowers are beautiful and deadly.
Roddenberry was already beginning to play the subversive games the show would become famous for. Early in “The Cage” Pike explores his general depletion in spirit and mind from years of commanding the Enterprise with the sympathetic Boyce, who’s rather older than McCoy would be and yet less crusty and combative, instead offering a clear-eyed wisdom more like the characters in The Next Generation. Number One’s stern and heady veneer toys with the familiar figure of the eminently meltable iceberg akin to the female scientists seen in ‘50s sci-fi films like Them! (1954) and It Came From Beneath the Sea (1955), but notably the episode doesn’t undercut her as a figure of command, as Number One has to lead the crew after Pike is kidnapped. The pilot was directed by Robert Butler, an ultra-professional TV director who would go on to an odd and sporadic feature career including making movies for Disney like The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes (1970) and Hot Lead and Cold Feet (1978) as well the trashy action-thriller Turbulence (1997). “The Cage” sees the Enterprise, exploring unmapped regions of the galaxy, attracted by a rescue beacon to a desolate planet dubbed Talos. Believing they’re rescuing the crew of the Columbia, a spaceship that vanished years earlier, Pike leads a party down the planet, where they encounter the bedraggled survivors and their makeshift encampment.
Pike meets the strikingly beautiful Vina (Susan Oliver) amongst their number. She leads him away from the camp on the promise of showing him something interesting, only to deliver him into the arms of a race of bulbous-skulled aliens who knock him out with a gas gun and take him down into the earth via an elevator hidden within a mesa. Pike awakens in a cell with a transparent wall, and the Talosians tell him he’s to remain part of their zoo of fascinating specimens. The Talosians have immense gifts of telepathy, able to plant completely convincing illusions in the minds of others: apart from Vina all the survivors prove to be mirages who vanish once Pike is secured. The Talosian who oversees the zoo, The Keeper (body of Meg Wyllie, voice of Malachi Throne), tries to influence Pike into taking Vina as a mate and accepting his fate to breed and produce a race of servile humans who can help the Talosians, who have become incapable of any kind of practical activity, restore their planet. Attempting to rescue Pike, Number One and Spock set up a powerful energy weapon fuelled by the Enterprise’s engines and try to blast open the Talosian gateway, but seem to fail.
Pike is carefully characterised as a captain with a sterner, steelier exterior than his eventual successor, but also quickly reveals to Boyce his sense of guilty responsibility for losing several crewmembers on the barbarian planet Rigel 7 and his recent tendency to pensively contemplate quitting his job and pursuing less demanding and more profitable pursuits. This contradicts the one steady constant of his successor James T. Kirk’s character, his complete and unswaying dedication to his ship: Kirk’s angsts, once explored, would rather tend to revolve around the threat of losing the ship, his authority, and his friendly comrades. The episode hinges around Pike’s sense of purpose and energy being restored by having to fight for his freedom and identity. The Talosians force him to re-experience a battle he had on Rigel 7 with a hulking warrior, the Kaylar (Michael Dugan), but this time in defence of Vina, outfitted as a classical damsel in distress. Pike eventually grasps a contradiction, that base and primitive emotions like murderous rage can stymie the Talosians’ psychic powers, and fosters them in himself whilst aware this means stripping away his own civilised veneer. “The Cage,” “Where No Man Has Gone Before,” and “The Man Trap” all share distinct fixations and story elements, particularly with psychic powers and chameleonic, reality-destabilising talents. Dualism and the dangers of deceptive appearances would become obsessive themes for the show, and a great deal of its genre-specific ingenuity would be expended in finding new angles to explore them.
This also connects to an aspect the Star Trek franchise has long been running away from with a guilty smirk, the pleasurably dirty secret of the original show, as an artwork preoccupied by and deeply riddled with sexuality. Down to its curvy-pointy designs and title fonts, this pervasive erotic suggestion was part of its essential texture as a drama aimed at the protean zone between the theoretical and the psychological. The way Spock was amalgamated with Number One gives a faint credence and explanation for the oft-fetishised erotic arc many viewers often felt existed between Kirk and Spock. In “The Cage” the subtext is scarcely buried, as the Talosians overtly try to appeal to Pike’s libido by reconstructing Vina in various fantasy scenarios as different kinds of woman, from lady fair to be protected, partner in an idyllic Earth marriage, and as a green-skinned dancing girl of the notoriously lusty Orion peoples, performing for Pike in his own private harem. Vina plays along with such manipulations for motives that only become clear at the episode’s end. These scenarios are all drawn from Pike’s experiences or the fantasies and potential lives he confesses to Boyce in their early conversation. Again, “The Cage” delves further and more boldly into such conceptual conceits, offering a plotline that’s also in part a witty meditation on Roddenberry’s lot as a TV maker, sketching scenarios in hunting for appeal to the audience’s needs and desires, the correct balance of elements needed to persuade and enthral. “Almost like secret dreams a bored space captain might have,” one of Pike’s illusory guests in his harem notes, making explicit the idea we’re seeing common idyllic fancies made flesh.
“The Cage” also deploys the prototypical metatextual and mythopoeic storytelling that would permeate the show, with its myriad references to classical mythology and Shakespearean drama, and the constant games with the characters’ sense of their essential natures and their perceptions of reality in a way that also allowed the actors playing the parts to explore other aspects of their talents. At its best Star Trek seemed to genuinely seek to pattern itself after classical mythology as functioning at once as rigorous storytelling with a hard and immediate sense of form and function, whilst also operating on a level of parable and symbolism, incorporating a dreamlike sense of alien worlds and bodies as charged with qualities the viewer knows and feels with a strange new lustre. This approach would, in the series’ lesser episodes, manifest in a succession of corny political parables (“The Omega Glory”) or clumsily revised myths (“Elaan of Troyius”). “The Cage” also marked the first of many allusions to Plato’s parable of the cave, in regards to the limitations of knowing reality through the senses, and the motives who those who might manipulate others through this disparity. True to the subsequent show’s fame for incorporating social critique, there’s also an implicit self-critical note for Roddenberry and television in general, in the way the Talosians’ basic aim is to make Pike sit still and consume fantasy in order to make it easier to manipulate him into doing the bidding of and fulfilling the needs of controlling masters. Seeds for darker and more explicit variations on such a theme, like John Carpenter’s They Live (1988) and the Wachowskis’ The Matrix (1999). With the added sting that the Talosians themselves have become addled consumers of the fantasies they generate, cut off from action just as surely as their captives.
“The Cage” reaches its climax as the Talosians forcibly beam down Number One and Yeoman Colt and present them as alternative mates so Pike can take his pick. The Keeper notes their divergent qualities and potentials like a particularly dry car salesman whilst also simply forcing Pike to recognise the way his mind has, consciously or not, always cast a sexually assessing eye over his female crewmembers, and vice versa. This move by the Talosians proves their downfall however, as the women were brought down with their phasers, and whilst these seemed to do no damage the Keeper tries to retrieve the discarded weapons. This gives Pike a chance to take him captive, and he threatens to throttle him if he doesn’t release them. The dispelling of imposed illusion allows the captives to see the actual, devastating damage their weaponry made upon the Talosian infrastructure. But Pike is also forced to see Vina in her true physical state: terribly injured when the Columbia crashed, she was rescued and repaired by the Talosians but at the time they had no understanding of what a human should look like, leaving her a twisted and haggard travesty, and only the Talosians’ abilities to conceal this gave her any chance of finding companionship. This forlorn punchline is amplified by the Talosians themselves, recognising that with the humans proving too intransigent to serve, they’ve lost their last chance to save their species. The episode does leave off with a grace note as the Talosians recreate Pike in illusory form to give Vina company.
The revised version of the storyline seen in “The Menagerie” offered the events of “The Cage” as a flashback set 13 years in the past, with a different actor cast as the now-disfigured and paralysed Pike for the present-tense scenes. “The Menagerie” had Spock commit mutiny for the sake of honouring his old commander, taking him to Talos so he can live with Vina and believe himself restored to his unbroken self, a surprisingly clever bit of repurposing even if it dispelled much of “The Cage”’s surreal intensity. The image of Vina as the Orion dancing girl became one of show’s most iconic images, often featured in the end credits of episodes, encapsulating the show’s mystique on many levels. For the second pilot shot nearly a year after “The Cage,” Roddenberry had to find a new lead as Hunter had dropped out. Eventually, the Canadian former Stratford Festival alumnus turned minor Hollywood star William Shatner was cast as Captain James Kirk, whose middle initial, glimpsed upon a conjured tombstone, is given in the episode as R. rather than the eventual T. Far from being introduced at a low point or riven with doubts and guilt like Pike, Kirk arrives as the starship captain entering his prime, confident, quick in mind and body, the perfect man of action who’s also the rare man of intellectual poise. Other essential roles and performers were added, including singer and actress Nichols as Uhura, the communications officer, James Doohan as chief engineer Montgomery ‘Scotty’ Scott, and George Takei as Sulu, initially a science officer but later recast as the ship’s helmsman.
“Where No Man Has Gone Before” and other early series episodes revolve most fixatedly upon Shatner as Kirk, dominating the rest of the cast. Eventually the essential relationship of Kirk, Spock, and McCoy would form, with Spock representing reason and McCoy instinctive humanism, and Kirk constantly trying to balance the two. This shift was informed in part by the impact made upon the showrunners by the way many female viewers surprised them by preferring Spock as the alluringly cool and thoughtful heartthrob, a conspicous contrast to the type of James Bond-inspired man’s man so common in pop culture at the time, although the potential appeal of Spock was already plainly in the show’s thoughts in the earliest episodes. A certain caricature of Kirk has emerged in popular lore as a brash and chauvinistic he-man, pushed hard by J.J. Abrams’ 2009 cinematic reboot. The caricature sadly excises Kirk’s other, more vital and nuanced traits, and even his image as a womaniser neglects the edge of frustration and pathos, even tragedy that so often attached to his romances. To be fair, Kirk as a character often suffered from the way the show would make him into whatever any given episode’s writer needed, sometimes presenting a nuanced philosopher-king and at other times a reactionary cold warrior. Eventually some of the later films, particularly when Nicholas Meyer was writing him in The Wrath of Khan and Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (1991), would unify his facets successfully.
Shatner’s presence as Kirk also represented a compromise between Roddenberry and network executives as to just what the hero of the show should be, schism written into his very being. For the time being Shatner had to impose unity upon the character, developing Kirk’s edge of almost self-mocking humour alongside his edge of hard will and imperious ego, mercurial wit of mind and body invested in his signature, wryly challenging smile, signalling his refusal to take things too seriously, a mechanism that allows him to function in situations that might crush others. Shatner matched his voluble physicality to his inimitable speaking style with its elastic, often sprinting cadences and juddering emphases, to describe the way Kirk has mastered the difficult art of making his masculine vigour and the racing motor of his intellect work in concert. In “Where No Man Has Gone Before” he’s contrasted by a similar type, Gary Lockwood’s Gary Mitchell, serving as the Enterprise’s helmsman. Their eventual conflict has an aspect of doppelgangers clashing, Mitchell symbolising what might result if the side of Kirk that allows him to function as a commander, his sense of innate exceptionalism in authority, was ever encouraged to overwhelm the rest of his character. And, by extension, delivering the same lesson to the audience, all presumed to see themselves to some degree or other in Kirk.
Despite his frequent frustration with Shatner’s Kirk, the character certainly engaged Roddenberry’s pervasive interest in what made for an ideal leader figure, a notion he must surely have been contemplating since being pushed into such a role as a young man and then serving in institutions tasked with service and discipline, making friction against the side of his personality concerned with humanitarian and egalitarian ideals. The show managed to offer reflection on the conceptual tension in the episode “The Galileo Seven” where Spock, obliged to take command when he and other crew crash land on a strange planet, finds himself bewildered when he does everything right according to his sense of logic and expedience only to find the other crew detest him for his tone-deafness to their emotions, whereas they trust Kirk implicitly. In the same way, Kirk was required to help get the audience invested however much he cut against the grain of Roddenberry’s ideals. The bulk of representatives of the Federation and Starfleet hierarchies apart from the Enterprise crew are portrayed as pompous and oblivious blowhards through the original series, shading the show’s mythologised utopian streak in a manner that might well have been informed by Roddenberry’s personal observations about rank, as well reflecting Roddenberry and team’s stormy relationship with their often aggressively bemused network bosses.
“Where No Man Has Gone Before” counters Butler’s stark and dreamy approach with more forceful and flashy handling from James Goldstone, who go on to have a feature film-directing career dotted with some underregarded movies like Winning (1969) and Rollercoaster (1977), and strong guest star support from Lockwood and Sally Kellerman. The episode’s title proved so keen in describing the essence of the proposed show it was quickly incorporated into Kirk’s opening narration. Despite the crew’s nominal assignment on a five year exploratory mission to “strange new worlds” and seek out “new life and new civilizations,” the Enterprise would nonetheless often be found performing more prosaic tasks in well-travelled areas. “Where No Man Has Gone Before” does at least start with the Enterprise preparing for a daring tilt at the edges of the known, whilst also repeating “The Cage”’s gambit as the ship picks up a signal leading to the wreckage of a long-lost ship, this time the USS Valiant, and recover what proves to be an ejected flight recorder. The first moments of “Where No Man Has Gone Before” offer immediate definition of Kirk and Spock’s divergent yet magnetised personalities as they’re glimpsed playing three-dimensional chess, kicking off a running joke in the show where Kirk always beats Spock at the game despite the latter’s vast intellectual prowess, through Kirk’s illogical tactical genius. Joining them on the bridge as an alert is called are the Chief Surgeon Dr Mark Piper (Paul Fix) and shipboard Psychiatrist Dr Elizabeth Dehner (Kellerman).
Spock delves into the recovered record of the Valiant’s end and through garbled passages discerns the ship was driven beyond the galaxy’s edge. There it struck a powerful energy field that killed several crew and left one strangely affected. The Valiant’s ultimate destruction seems linked to enigmatic requests for information about ESP abilities the Captain made to the ship’s computer, before the Captain made the ship self-destruct. Deciding to trace the Valiant’s path in the hope of finding more wreckage, they encounter the same energy field at the galactic frontier. The barrier almost fries the Enterprise and Mitchell and Dehner are both struck down by shocks, seemingly correlated with the degree of latent ESP ability both have been measured in, with Mitchell the most affected, left with a bizarre silver glaze over his eyes. Taken to the sick bay and watched over by Piper, Mitchell seems otherwise unharmed and reveals rapidly growing psychic abilities, allowing him to consume the ship’s computer files at speed and revealing telekinetic power too. Eventually it becomes clear Mitchell is evolving into something very powerful and dangerous, and in a desperate attempt to keep him from taking over or destroying the ship Kirk spirits him to Delta-Vega, a planet supporting an automated lithium refinery, to maroon him. Dehner also develops the silver eyes and incredible power, and aids Mitchell in freeing himself.
“Where No Man Has Gone Before” mediates the tones of “The Cage” and the settled show: Shatner-as-Kirk retains some of Pike’s restraint and pensiveness, although by the episode’s end he’s more thoroughly and specifically designated as an action hero. Where “The Cage” allowed Pike to be identified in a sardonic manner with tiger-in-a-cage intensity and thwarted strength, “Where No Man Has Gone Before” sees Kirk taking on the nascent superman in a fistfight regardless of the long odds. Spock is now firmly defined by his devotion to logic, but not yet stoic dispassion. The climax, in which Kirk battles Mitchell who’s now powerful enough to refashion pockets of reality, sees the rogue mutant conjure up a grave for Kirk complete with carved tombstone, a semi-surreal touch of a brand the show would regularly invoke, in a universe filled with incongruous sights in far-flung surrounds. The weird sexuality likewise is contoured into the direct flow of plot. Mitchell and Dehner, initially defined by gendered polarity – he’s aggressively flirtatious, she’s haughty and heady so Mitchell dismisses Dehner as a “walking freezer unit” – are soon united in new, exceptional identity, their glazed silver eyes signifying a perverse bond in their post-human state. That bond is ultimately ruptured when Kirk makes desperate appeal to Dehner as he battles Mitchell: Dehner aids him in attacking Mitchell and briefly nullifying his powers, at the cost of her own life.
“Where No Man Has Gone Before” maintains a muscular, cinematic force and it’s easy to see why it, rather than “The Cage”, ultimately provided the right blueprint when it came to getting Star Trek up and running. Though not nearly as layered and intriguing, it fulfils the necessary task of presenting this particular wing of sci-fi dreaming as one defined by potent, active characters and forces representing a dialogue between stolid settlement and wild possibility, fantastical yet familiar-feeling in many basic aspects. Goldstone taps the image of the silver-eyed Mitchell for moments of creepy punctuation, as in a fade-to-black that leaves only the eyes glowing, and when he looks into a security camera and Kirk realises he is looking back at him through the camera. Mitchell was the perfect antagonist to lay down this blueprint as a normal man stricken with godlike talents, underlining the emotional meaning not only in Kirk having to kill him but in presenting vast new stages of drama through a human-sized conduit.
Lockwood and Kellerman are valuable presences in their one-off roles, clearly a cut above the usual run of TV supporting actor of the day, and Lockwood’s presence gives it an incidental connection to 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), a film that would take up aspects of Star Trek’s inquisitive reach and push further. Spock would be the singular archetype the show invented rather than augmented for pop culture, but he’s still an evolving and relatively muted figure, perhaps partly because Roddenberry had gone out on a limb to keep him in the series. Nimoy himself was still trying to nail down his characterisation, his voice pitched about a half-octave higher than the inimitable monotonous drawl he would develop. Spock nonetheless is already serving his chief function as the character who offers piercingly unblinkered analysis to Kirk, as when he tells him in no uncertain terms he must either maroon Mitchell or kill him whilst he still can. And yet the very end of the episode sees him admit to Kirk that he too feels a sense of a pathos at Mitchell’s destruction, a first sign that Spock’s surface tension hides undercurrents running deep and fast. Part of the legend of Star Trek revolves around Shatner and Nimoy’s rivalry: supposedly no less a personage than Isaac Asimov advised Roddenberry to overcome Shatner and Nimoy’s ego duels by making their onscreen characters inseparable.
“The Man Trap” iterates a plot the show would return to regularly, most notably in “The Devil on the Dark.” That episode would take the show’s nascent humanist spirit further in presenting the lurking monstrosity as entirely misunderstood, whereas in “The Man Trap” the alien creature is a more straightforward threat, although still voted a degree of sympathy as a forlorn survivor of a decimated species driven by its predatory needs, much like the Talosians. The theme of besiegement by an alien monster in “The Man Trap” echoes Christian Nyby and Howard Hawks’ The Thing From Another World (1951), and indeed restores the idea of a shapeshifting monster Nyby and Hawks excised in adapting John W. Campbell’s story. But Roddenberry and his team were trying to philosophically and practically reconcile that film’s propelling contemplation of prudently vigorous militarism in conflict with coldly inquisitive science. As he did for the two pilots and most of the first season, Courage wrote the incidental music, and his spare, sonorous, Bernard Herrmann-like scoring helps invest “The Man Trap” with eerie beauty, although Roddenberry didn’t like it, one of the first signs the show’s wellspring didn’t entirely grasp what made it good.
Appropriate to the plucked-from-the-Id aesthetic, the monster in “The Man Trap” is a sci-fi spin on the incubus/succubus figure, a creature that takes on the appearance of former lovers and friends to entice those it meets, plundering the libidinous and needy backwaters of the heroes’ psyches for its own purposes. Again, like many episodes subsequent, “The Man Trap” establishes the common refrain of exploring the lead characters’ emotional baggage and busy yet always foiled love lives, here most particularly in the case of McCoy, who sees the creature as Nancy (Jeanne Bal), an old flame who married the archaeologist Professor Crater (Alfred Ryder). The Enterprise is performing a routine visit to check up on the couple as they document a long-dead civilisation, and Kirk, McCoy, and a redshirt crewman, Darnell (Michael Zaslow), beam down for that purpose. McCoy sees Nancy as he remembers her, whilst appearing to Kirk as grey-haired and weathered as he less sentimentally expects, and to Darnell as someone else entirely, a sex kitten he met on shore leave. When Darnell goes off with the creature, he vanishes, and his crewmates later find his body, and medical analysis reveals he’s been entirely drained of salt. Other crewmen die in the same manner, and ‘Nancy’ takes on the form of one of her victims, Green (Bruce Watson), in order to be beamed up onto the Enterprise where pickings are plentiful. Uhura sees the creature as a fellow black crewmate who almost gets hold of her.
“The Man Trap” therefore hinges on the same conceit as “The Cage” in externalising the characters’ inner angsts and fantasy lives through the device of role-playing. The note of forlorn emotionalism is amplified as Kirk and Spock eventually uncover the truth, that the real Nancy was killed by the creature years before and the vampire has maintained a sickly symbiotic relationship with Crater. He’s kept it alive with his encampment’s stock of salt whilst it maintains Nancy’s appearance to please him. Crater’s remnant, lingering affection even for the mere semblance of Nancy is given further weight by his awareness as a scientist that the creature is the last survivor of the toppled civilisation he’s been studying, a parasitic monster that’s also pitiful. The creature stirs a similar emotion of heedless protectiveness in McCoy, one that almost prevents him from saving Kirk’s life in the climax as the creature turns on the Captain. “The Man Trap” establishes McCoy as a man so driven by his sense of humanity as a palpable thing that it can sometimes cloud his judgement, to the equal and opposite degree to which Spock would so often strike him as psychopathically detached. Crater and ‘Nancy’’s relationship reaches an inevitable end as the scientist is killed by the increasingly desperate creature, although the episode foils the potential tragic punch by having this occur off-screen.
When Kirk tries to convince McCoy that ‘Nancy’ is using him the creature mesmerises the Captain, Spock tries to intervene, making a brutal assault on the creature which McCoy sees only as violence perpetrated on Nancy until the creature easily swats the Vulcan aside. But McCoy still can’t bring himself to gun down the creature until Kirk starts screaming as the creature begins to drain him. “The Man Trap”’s director Marc Daniels would handle many episodes of the series with concerted energy, including perhaps the most famous episode, “Space Seed,” which would sport the first appearance of Ricardo Montalban’s nefarious supervillain Khan. The most intriguing aspect of these first three efforts at defining Star Trek is observing how much room they left to manoeuvre for the series, dramatically speaking, and the first half of the show’s first season, whilst erratic in quality, offered various characters and relationships to be enlarged upon at leisure. The second screened episode, “Charlie X”, starts with a memorably odd musical sequence in which Uhura improvises a song teasing Spock, as he plucks his Vulcan lyre, for his weirdly enticing and provocative coldness.
Part of Star Trek’s odd afterlife as a series ultimately lies in the way it never quite lived up to such promise, even though even at its silliest and campiest it was never less than highly entertaining. “The Cage” and “Where No Man Has Gone Before” have gravitas and a relative lack of the formulaic aspects that would both define the show in its halcyon days and ultimately retard its growth. One example of this would be the way the Kirk-Spock-McCoy triumvirate became central, resulting in most of the other characters being left sidelined beyond performing their stalwart crew functions. Famous as they rightfully are for offering multicultural role-models, figures like Uhura and Sulu nonetheless finished up largely wasted for great stretches. Meanwhile, despite the show’s seemingly limitless purview, a certain repetitiveness of theme and story set in, particularly once the show’s budget was cut and the scope reduced to battles against intruding forces on the Enterprise, and the episodic format prevented any appropriate sense of the characters evolving along with their universe. This proved the ultimate foil for the original Star Trek, one that finally helped kill it when it should have been entering its prime, but also informed the eventual revival and great success of a franchise. Today, it seems, the world has caught up with what Roddenberry originally offered. The most recent iteration of Star Trek, Discovery, has revisited “The Cage” and a series revolving around Pike, Spock, and Number One and their adventures together has been announced. Now there’s a cosmic irony even Spock might offer a smile for.
Director: Peter Fonda
Screenwriter: Thomas Matthiesen
This essay is offered as part of the Allan Fish Online Film Festival 2020, a festival founded by Jamie Uhler and hosted by Wonders in the Dark, held to honor the memory of the late cineaste extraordinaire Allan Fish, considering films in the public domain and freely available online
By Roderick Heath
Peter Fonda famously left John Lennon uneasy but also creatively stirred when, as the young actor dropped LSD with the Beatle and his bandmate George Harrison, he recounted a childhood accident when he almost fatally shot himself in the stomach, reporting “I know what it’s like to be dead.” Lennon was inspired to write his song “She Said” sporting his riposte to the utterer, “It’s making me feel like I’ve never been born.” Fonda would for his part later try, when he became a film director, to articulate his enigmatic report from the fringes of existence. Fonda, son of movie legend Henry Fonda, found himself a figure strongly associated with the emerging counterculture vanguard around Los Angeles, an association that would briefly make him a major cultural figure. After making a mark in a small role as a young recruit confronted by the ugliness of life in Carl Foreman’s antiwar epic The Victors (1963), Fonda’s embrace of the hip scene in Hollywood saw his rise to conventional stardom frustrated, but he gained starring roles with Roger Corman in cheap and spurious but fascinating attempts to court a youth audience with tales of the new bohemia like The Wild Angels (1966) and The Trip (1967).
Fonda accepted a sense of mission in trying to convey a more authentic sense of the zeitgeist in working with his friend and fellow actor Dennis Hopper on a project that eventually became Easy Rider (1969). Fonda and Hopper’s divergent sensibilities were thrown into sharp contrast in making the project a reality even as they joined in fertile collaboration. Fonda’s ambitious and thoughtful approach saw him turn to satirical writer Terry Southern to co-write the film with an eye to making an epic portrait of assailed Americana, but Hopper would later claim it Fonda and Southern took too long and he finished up writing most of the film himself. Hopper was generally accepted as the film’s auteur and engine for its rugged, improvisatory, freewheeling artistry. Hopper and Fonda’s quarrel over both the credit and profits for the film would spoil their relationship for decades, but Fonda did get a crack at directing in his own right on the back of Easy Rider’s industry-jarring success, whilst Hopper rolled on towards glorious disaster with The Last Movie (1971).
Fonda eventually directed three films, starting with 1971’s The Hired Hand and ending with 1978’s Wanda Nevada, with Idaho Transfer in between, a film penned by writer Thomas Matthiesen, his one and only screenplay. All three of Fonda’s films can be described, in their fashion, as oddball twists on the folklore of the Western film his father had been so strongly associated with, and are highlighted by their dry, sauntering, deeply eccentric sense of style. Whilst Fonda’s acting career was going more commercial at the time as he appeared in a number of rubber-burning action movies, Fonda’s films as director were more resolutely eccentric and none were box office successes, although The Hired Hand, with its trancelike and fatalistic evocation of the Old West landscape as a place of brutal violence and individuals afflicted with blurred identity, has slowly gathered a potent cult following as an emblematic “Acid Western.” Wanda Nevada tried to court some of the popularity of Paper Moon (1973) in transferring the theme of a roguish man and an apt young female pupil to an earlier period setting. Idaho Transfer, coming between, saw Fonda tackling an environmental theme close to his heart. Produced independently on a very low budget, Idaho Transfer never had a chance of gaining significant attention, as the distributor who took up his project folded just as the film was due to be released, leaving it scarcely screened. Fonda later regained the rights and let the film pass into the public domain, and shot a brief prologue in which he appeared extolling his concerns.
Idaho Transfer manages a rare trick, in seeming both a pure-sprung product of its time but also still awaiting its moment, trying to nail down an ever-elusive undercurrent of the modern psyche. Fonda’s evocative palette here was applied to a science fiction parable. At the outset two young researchers, Isa Braden (Caroline Hildebrand) and Cleve (Joe Newman), are glimpsed capturing snakes and studying them amidst the craggy, sunstruck reaches of the Craters of the Moon National Monument, a field of lava forms in rural Idaho. Isa climbs down through a metal door set in the ground, into a small chamber buried in the lava, and after stripping off most of her clothes and making adjustments to a control panel, is transposed into another, larger, brighter room: Isa has just travelled back in time to her present day. She is the daughter of scientist Dr George Braden (Ted D’Arms), who’s made an unexpected, and very secret, breakthrough in time travel whilst officially working on a government-funded project researching matter teleportation. Her father has assembled a team of intellectually advanced young scientists and assistants to travel through time, or “transfer” as they call it, to a point 56 years in the future, where for some reason all signs of functioning civilisation in the vicinity have vanished. Nearby towns are deserted and no broadcasts are detectable. The project team has inferred some cataclysmic event has occurred in the meantime.
Isa is assigned to bring her sister Karen (Kelley Bohanon) into the team, and despite her father’s instructions to tell Karen everything, she avoids explaining about the potentially debilitating health effects of transferring, which are so severe the team’s doctor Lewis (Fred Seagraves) thinks it would be fatal for anyone over twenty years old, as it causes haemorrhaging in the kidneys. Karen has just spent a spell in a mental hospital recovering from an unstated crisis, and casually tells her sister she lost her virginity when she was raped by a fellow patient. Isa first takes Karen out to the lava fields in the present, to get her familiar with the environment, and they encounter some footloose hippies heading to a music festival. Karen then takes Isa forward in a transfer whilst instructing her in how to operate the machinery. In the future Isa suffers a fall into a crevice and seems badly injured, so Karen quickly brings her back to the present, but can’t get help before Isa dies, apparently not from the fall but from transferring too many times. When the authorities discover what’s been going on at the project a short time later, they move to shut it down and round up all of the personnel, but a number of the young people follow a prearranged plan to gather supplies and equipment and transfer en masse to the future.
Despite being the son of a major movie star, Fonda’s childhood background had been anything but idyllic. His father Henry was remarkably ill-starred in his marital life, compounded by his problems with private emotional expression which Peter in particular would contend with until his father was on his deathbed. Peter and his sister Jane’s mother Frances Ford Seymour had committed suicide whilst in a psychiatric hospital after suffering from severe depression, and Peter’s near-fatal accident had occurred a year later. Peter’s recourse to both the bohemian drug culture and artistic creation might well have had an aspect of therapeutic necessity, and by and large seemed to have worked. The Hired Hand and Idaho Transfer are closely linked in their mood of blasted and alien persistence and fragmented time, and resemble an interior portrait of life as experience through a depressive lens, with the latter film engaging those aspects not just on a stylistic level but also in its storyline. “I’m hip to time,” his character Captain America famously noted in Easy Rider, and here he shows us what he meant, knowing that the passage of the ages has no substance without the limitations of human perception to know it.
The needling signs of personal relevance to Fonda are borne out in the traits Karen shares with his mother, the film an inferring study of a state of mind, portraying the space within Karen’s head in confronting a world of anxiety about what kind of future is possible in the wake of psychological collapse and assault, and avatar for a flailing youth movement confronted by a great existential brick wall: where to next, and is there any next anyway? “I used to have nightmares that looked like this,” Karen says as she surveys the lava fields in the post-apocalyptic future, “They were beautiful nightmares.” This line encapsulates the whole film and the spirit it tries to animate. Idaho Transfer is on one level an evocative, semi-abstract portrait of people in a setting, following on from Easy Rider and The Hired Hand as experiential engagements with the American landscape, and a negative space portrait of post-human witnessing as cinematographer Bruce Logan’s camera gazes upon the wastes of Idaho with an atavistic sense of locale. The schism between those who can withstand the transfer and those who can’t, along a firm boundary between the youthful and the mature, suggests at once a metaphor for generation gaps and also for the state of youth itself, able to weather certain terrible blows and recover more easily only to later realise the wearing consequences to soul as well as body.
Idaho Transfer’s low budget manifests in its Spartan production values and visuals, but Fonda nimbly makes these lacks part of the stark aesthetic, which lacks the overtly hallucinatory interludes of The Hired Hand, but maintains the same dreamlike aura and mood of punch-drunk dislocation as that film and portions of Easy Rider. The opening shots resemble a public TV documentary about field biologists, but the naturalistic approach helps bolster Fonda’s evocation of spacy dislocation infested by creeping dread. Fonda contrasts the bland institutional space of the transfer project headquarters, a warren of white walls, glaring lighting, and functional machinery, where all sign of nature has been exiled save people themselves, and the vistas of the Idaho scenery, a space where no sign of civilisation has taken hold save for the metallic oblong forms of the transfer units fixed in the lava. Both environs seem like places where people persist more as memories than beings, the young folk already living in a zone that shrugs them off in disinterest well before they reach the future. Isa and Karen’s encounter with the hippie travellers offers a brief moment of solidarity and cheer, but later after heading into the future, Karen contemplates their fate. Isa responds duly, “The hitchhikers? Try not to think of them. They don’t matter anymore.” Even before any cataclysm has occurred, the world is suddenly now full of ghosts who don’t know they’re dead.
Although lacking equivalent, fastidious technique, Fonda’s efforts here resemble at points Werner Herzog’s stringent attempts to convey a similar sensibility in films like Heart of Glass (1976) and Where The Green Ants Dream (1984) with their days-of-future-past evocations and bewildered sense of humans trapped on the Earth, and anticipate where Andrei Tarkovsky would head with Stalker (1979), to which Idaho Transfer bears a strong resemblance in both mood and motifs, evoking concepts just as large with means just as sparing. Idaho Transfer also certainly fits in amongst the sprawl of films released in the early 1970s regarding apocalyptic angst, informed by a counterculture-inspired concern for ecology and nuclear war, ranks including the likes of No Blade of Grass (1970), The Omega Man, Zero Population Growth, THX-1138 (all 1971), Silent Running (1972), and Soylent Green (1973). Idaho Transfer is however quite distinct from them except perhaps THX-1138, another, more forcefully crafted but no less idiosyncratic by-product of early New Wave Hollywood potential and effort to mate art-house aesthetics with sci-fi. Idaho Transfer avoids the usual pretext apocalyptic sci-fi narratives, to set up action-thriller stories except for brief spasms late in the movie, presenting instead a work of tensile poeticism that echoes today more in works like those of Kelly Reichardt and later Terrence Malick.
Aspects of the story have an intriguingly prototypical aspect in terms of some sci-fi ideas nonetheless. The specific details of the transferees having to remove all metal objects and much of their clothes in order to travel without risk are very similar to those detailed in The Terminator (1984) over a decade later, and like that film Idaho Transfer rejects a jaunty view of time travel in favour of one that almost conceives of it as close to a form of death and rebirth, or perhaps more like a Caesarean section, sliced out of one reality and dumped in another. The ending is offered chiefly as a lacerating metaphor, but also lays seeds for a driving idea of The Matrix (1999), that of bioenergy tapped as fuel as a cynical answer to resource shortage. Cleverly conveying reality-twisting with the absolute minimum of resources, Fonda illustrates his central sci-fi conceit with techniques that can scarcely be called special effects, the transfer process itself consisting merely of sped-up and stroboscopic footage of passengers moving between locales and time zones. The Craters of the Moon look entirely the same in the two time periods, a natural zone oblivious to the height and passing of the human civilisation that has claimed the continent around it.
Transferring has a certain likeness to taking hallucinogens as a means of escaping a purely liminal sense of existence (and also bears a certain puckish resemblance to the motorcycle riding of Easy Rider). Isa’s surprising death early in a film she seems to be the main protagonist of sees her sister confronted by the sight of her lifeless form with face pressed in a pool of her own vomit, a harsh vision of the physical cost of transferring and also a touch that suggests Fonda here is meditating on the downside of the drug culture and the impact of addiction. Much as Easy Rider revised the Western movie template as an inverted course through a succession of defeated dreams and The Hired Hand offered the usually celebrated wanderers of Western folklore as interchangeable and inept in creating true civilisation in terms of honouring their human obligations, Idaho Transfer literally portrays decolonisation. Fonda’s pantheistic surveys of the landscape invoke the power of the natural world to persist and shrug humanity off like an insect pest. Fonda sharply disturbs the placid ambience when the young team members are obliged to spring into action and execute the planned group transfer as government authorities visit the installation and it seems the political situation out in the world is deteriorating swiftly: Fonda films their hurried preparations for departure in lunging hand-held camerawork, the scramble for survival illustrated although the narrative eventually reveals it to be essentially pointless.
A couple of adults including Lewis make the transfer too despite the risks. The escapees take some comfort in knowing that despite of the crackdown they might still be able to return for a time as the power supply to the transfer machinery can’t be easily cut off, but some, like Leslie (Dale Hopkins), quickly begin feeling troubled at the thought of being marooned. When the units stop working, one team member says it’s only a temporary glitch. Karen surreptitiously returns to the past and fruitlessly tries to contact her father, and then collects supplies whilst dodging security patrols. Ronald (Kevin Hearst), one of the boys on the team, transfers back to fetch her, literally dragging her away leaving dropped toilet rolls in her wake, a deft piece of physical comedy. One aspect of Idaho Transfer it’s been much-criticised for is the acting by the mostly green and nonprofessional cast, and indeed quite a few of them are wooden. But the rough, blowsy performing style largely helps the overall air of verisimilitude, and the basic theme of people who are scarcely adults trying to negotiate a forbidding future, callow and jagged, even clumsy in their emotional expressions. Karen is inducted into a crew of bright young nerds who turn a stoically observant and scientific eye on their circumstances.
Bohanon, whilst clearly raw, nonetheless proves a striking lead, called upon to progress from a gangly and pallid survivor of troubled youth to a sturdy-looking prototype for a James Cameron action heroine in her physicality, even as her psyche matures far more spasmodically. Casting Keith Carradine, the only member of the cast to go on to a notable career, as team member Arthur signals a plain sense of personal continuity, as Fonda’s fellow progeny of Hollywood royalty, son of his father’s co-star in John Ford’s The Grapes of Wrath (1940). Nor does the similarity feel accidental. The early scenes of Ford’s film set amidst Dustbowl squalor and ruination wove a similar mood to what Fonda chases here, one of haunted isolation and desolated place, and in Idaho Transfer plays like Fonda’s spiritual sequel. Another aspect of Idaho Transfer’s unique texture is the score, provided by Greenwich Village folk scene stalwart and regular Bob Dylan collaborator Bruce Langhorne, who had also provided The Hired Hand’s music. The way Fonda shoots scenery with Langhorne’s music on the soundtrack establishes a wistful sensibility contrasted with the increasingly grim sense of entrapment gripping the humans at roam in that scenery, great natural beauty and lustre confronting the characters with their own doomed lot rather than elevating as in the Hudson Valley School painting tradition, that awed yet imperial sensibility in regarding the beneficence of the land, which Fonda evokes and disrupts.
The team eventually decide to try heading for Portland, Oregon, with the bulk of the party under the leadership of Cleve travelling down to and along the Snake River whilst Karen and Ronald are assigned to scout out an overland route and meet up with the rest of the party further along the river. Arthur, Leslie, and another girl who’s hurt her leg, Jennifer (Meredith Hull), are left behind to tend the base camp. As they tramp across the country, Karen prods the phlegmatic Ronald to become her lover, and though Ronald at first plays brusquely and professionally disinterested in Karen’s overtures, she eventually has her way with him. Later she confesses she thinks she’s pregnant to Arthur, news Ronald seems to take with equanimity. Karen tries to hold on to fragments of hope and delight, from the thought of having a baby to delighting in an improvised woven ring someone gives her, and begins to contemplate the gender politics of a new world: “I suppose it doesn’t matter since we have a fresh start now…Call the boys girls’ names and the girls boys’ names.” Lewis separates from the larger party as his kidneys start to haemorrhage and seeks a peaceful, solitary end. When Ronald and Karen spot a train parked and rusting on a railway line, Ronald goes to check it out, and later reports the wreck is crammed with bodies wrapped in plastic bags within, which he theorises were being taken from a coastal city to a dumping point inland when the same deadly force overwhelmed the drivers.
In this section, the narrative most clearly becomes a tragicomic lampoon of the basic proposition of the Western, the fumbling anti-pioneers tramping a path through the wilds, even encountering the dead of a massacre like many a Western hero, albeit with the enemy a negation: westward the course of empire unravels. Fonda never specifies exactly what’s caused the catastrophe, which could be nuclear conflict but seems more like biological warfare. Finally Ronald and Karen reach the river and meet up with the other team, and find they’ve brought along a girl they’ve named Anne (Kim Casper), one of a community of third-generation survivors they encountered. In a motif reminiscent of Planet of the Apes (1968), the human survivors all seem to be deaf and developmentally disabled to some degree through mutation, and yet, as one team member notes, they seem incredibly happy, and another says they’re the most compassionate people he’s ever met. Observing that, apart from hearing loss and slight motor retardation, Anne seems more or less normal, the team considers the possibility of finding an equally high-functioning male and mating them. Karen wryly suggests the men of the team should impregnate her instead for a better result, and then tells them she thinks she’s pregnant. The team drop on her a bleak fact Lewis informed them about and which Ronald didn’t have the heart to tell her: the transfer renders anyone who does it sterile, and the symptoms of pregnancy she’s experiencing are most likely psychosomatic.
Again Idaho Transfer pivots into a psychological portrait where the exterior developments are extensions of Karen’s damaged headspace, as this revelation brutally dashes not just Karen’s emotional recompense but all hope the team might form the core of a new civilisation: they too have become just more ghosts haunting the land. Ronald’s attitude had already signalled a disdain bordering on anti-natalism when he answers Karen’s comment, “I’m a woman, you know,” as she confesses broody emotions with, “That gives you the right to have a bunch of kids?” By way of comforting her, he tells her, “Perpetuation and all the crap that goes with it is just a big hoax anyway,” and advises her to simply enjoy her own existence before letting it all fade out. This attitude to life is evoked as Fonda notes his characters skimming stones across water with an almost artistic sense of technique, trying to launch further and more gracefully each time but always destined to sink into dark. Such a forlorn and astringent attitude feels of a unit with Fonda’s own efforts to be at once unsentimental and open to experience as its own meaning, if not entirely a personal statement, as he also clearly empathises with Karen as the sensate antithesis to such taciturn logic, trying to maintain against all fact some sense of a living purpose, the character who feels the essential meaning of things rather than numbing them with intellectualisms.
Karen decides to separate from the team, leaving early in the morning and hiking back the way she came to the base camp, hoping to see Arthur again and perhaps return to the past. When she does reach the base, she finds Jennifer’s rotting corpse in a crevice, whilst Arthur’s savaged body lies in one of the transfer units. Karen is launched upon by Leslie, who’s gone violently insane and tries to bash Karen’s brains out on the lava, but Karen manages to protect herself with her arm just enough. Whilst Leslie goes after Karen’s dropped knife, Karen dashes into one of the transfer units, and sits within bleeding and traumatised, listening as Leslie beats a stone on the hatch and crows that the units still aren’t working. Karen hears a buzz emitting from the machinery and tries it, successfully transferring to the past. She materialises before an utterly bewildered security guard, desperately explaining she wants to transfer back to a point earlier in time when she can stop Arthur and Jennifer’s killing, to the guard’s utter incomprehension and alarm. Karen frantically tries to reset the transfer machine whilst soldiers mass outside the chamber. Karen arrives back in the future but is soon confronted by evidence she’s gone much further than the earlier transfers, finding the transfer units in ruins and the camp debris old and corroded, the land now in bitter winter.
Fonda saves his last, bitterest, bleakest touch for the very end as Karen sees what strikes her as a sign of civilisation and salvation, a car cruising along one of the ancient roads. She gropes her way to the roadside as Fonda offers flash cuts to her experiences throughout, as if her substance is breaking down. The car’s driver (Michael Kriss) stops, picks her up, and carries her back to the vehicle. Instead of putting her inside, he opens the boot, and pushes her: as the trunk hatch closes, we hear Karen’s bloodcurdling scream. The driver gets back into the car and drives off with his wife (Erica Joeres) and young daughter (Vicki Dietrich), and their dialogue makes it plain that these can-do people of the future have started using other people as an energy source. The daughter says she doesn’t think Karen was “one of them,” although the father assures her she was. The suggestion here seems to be that these “normal” people, who resemble a cold-blooded caricature of an ideal nuclear (post-nuclear?) family have been using the mutated survivors as biofuel. The unaffected ones might be people who gained shelter during the calamity or the superior offspring the transfer team wanted to foster, or even somehow might be, depending on how much time has passed and how accurate Lewis’ diagnosis was, the progeny of the transfer team. As the daughter ponders what they’ll do for fuel once their source runs out, the father says, “They’ll figure out another way for us.” “But what if that’s too hard?” the daughter persists, “Or expensive? And what if they decide they can’t change?…We’ll use each-other then, won’t we?” And the car rolls on over the horizon.
Fonda leaves behind his relatively straight sci-fi scenario into a realm closer to fable here, illustrating his concept of civilisation coming at the cost of constantly dwindling resources and a social-Darwinian process of consumption, for a more surreal and fantastical device, although it certainly also concludes the movie’s narrative proper with an apt taste of blood in the mouth. At the same time, this is also a precise symbolic encapsulation of the psychological distress that grips Karen finally claiming her into a black pit of total nihilism. As an ending this manages to outdo the last two films Fonda had a hand in when it comes to leaving off on a dark and downbeat note, with the Idaho state motto offered, “Esto Perpetua,” or It Is Perpetual, offered as a queasy promise and threat. Even if it had gained a proper release at the time, Idaho Transfer was obviously never going to be the stuff of a popular hit even by the gritty standards of the early 1970s, and is probably still too spare, too severe, to make it as a major cult object. But if you get onto its strange wavelength it leaves an aura of blended melancholy and meditative pensiveness lingering for days. It is, in the end, as much a portrait of Fonda’s struggle with his interior world as with his worries about the outer one, but his most singular achievement in the end is to erase the difference, and the warning Fonda sounded has only grown from a dull throb of anxiety to a blaring alarm in the intervening years. Certainly Idaho Transfer represents a fascinating labour from a rarefied talent, and whilst it’s a good thing it’s available to all today, it also certainly deserves to be seen in a far more respectful state.
Director: James Cameron
Screenwriters: James Cameron, Gale Anne Hurd, William Wisher (uncredited: Randall Frakes)
By Roderick Heath
Night. Dark. Ruination. Los Angeles, 2029. Monstrous metallic death machines traversing an apocalyptic landscape of twisted metal and structures, piled skulls crushed under caterpillar tread, laser beams slicing brilliance through the dank night. Darting human figures dodging the blasts. Instantly The Terminator plunges the viewer into a zone imbued with two contradictory impulses, at once ablaze with kinetic immediacy and vibrancy, and also haunted, moody, oneiric. A title card announces “the machines rose from the ashes of nuclear fire” and the battle between them and mankind’s survivors raged for decades, but will be decided in the past, “tonight.” The machinery of the present day – garbage trucks, front-end loaders, diggers – ape and presage the monstrous cast of the futuristic marauders. Spasms of brilliant energy discharge. In the two spots about the city, where the rubbish flits upon mysterious urges and the brickwork glows electric blue, naked men appear amidst a ball of white light. A version of birth rebooted for a new way of conceiving life and death. Two kinds of body disgorged from these pulsing portals, one hulking and glistening with honed perfection, the other curled in a foetal ball, smoking sores and scars on his body like the stigmata of future reckoning. The hulking man surveys Los Angeles’ nighttime sprawl and encounters a trio of punks, mechanically repeating their mocking words before making a clear and direct demand for their clothes. The price for resistance proves hideous.
James Cameron, the kid from Kapuskasing, Ontario, found the answer to his dualistic mentality in movies. The former student of both Physics and English dropped out of college and educated himself in special effects techniques and wrote stories whilst working as a truck driver. But it wasn’t until he saw Star Wars (1977), announcing an age where his twinned fascination for technology and creative endeavour could find expression, that Cameron properly decided to become a moviemaker. Cameron made a short film about battling robots, Xenogenesis (1978), with some friends. Like many young wannabe filmmakers before him, Cameron got his break with Roger Corman, joining his low-rent studio New World Pictures. He quickly gained a reputation as someone who could get the budget up on screen, working on trash-cult movies like Rock ‘n’ Roll High School (1978), Battle Beyond the Stars (1980), Escape from New York (1981), and Galaxy of Terror (1981). Cameron was hired as special effects director on Piranha II: The Spawning in 1981, a sequel to Joe Dante’s darkly witty 1978 film, but the sequel was being produced by Italian schlock maestro Ovidio Assonitis. Assonitis sacked the original director after clashes and Cameron got a field promotion to take command of the shoot, although he too eventually would be fired and the movie patched together by Assonitis.
The resulting film was dull and silly, although it betrayed hints of Cameron’s sleek visual talent. During a bout of food poisoning Cameron contracted as the production wrapped up, he had a nightmare about robotic torso chasing him about with stabbing protuberances. Cameron turned his dream into a script with the help of writer pals Randall Frakes and William Wisher, and went into a producing partnership with Gale Ann Hurd, Corman’s former assistant. Cameron was determined to direct the project, but he couldn’t get backing from studios around Hollywood. Cameron and Hurd finally gained backing from the British Hemdale Pictures, and made his debut for the tidy sum of just under $7 million. Whilst Cameron went to England to shoot Aliens (1986), The Terminator proved a startling hit, a signature icon of the age of VHS and seed for a franchise that’s produced five sequels to date on top of a TV series, all of highly varying quality. Cameron found epochal success with Titanic (1997) and Avatar (2009), which anointed him as the all-time box office champion twice in a row, only to be recently, finally dethroned by Avengers: Endgame (2019), a film which to a great extent can be regarded as both a clear descendant and pale imitation of the kind of sci-fi action movie Cameron made king.
The Terminator’s opening reels betray Cameron’s nascent epic sensibility with the immediate onslaught of potent imagery matched to a script unafraid of thinking big even whilst creatively adapting it to a tight budget, whilst gaining immeasurably from an authentic feel for place. Cameron turns downtown LA into a neo-noir zone splendid in its seamy and desolate hue, where the homeless and wretched litter the streets and cops cruise in their own paranoid battle with mystery in the night. Early scenes of the film parse fragments of information to distinguish the Terminator (Arnold Schwarzenegger) and Kyle Reese (Michael Biehn) and their distinct yet fatefully joined missions, as the former casually unleashes terrible violence to get what it wants, whereas Kyle only strips the trousers off a hapless derelict (Stan Yale), and nimbly eludes the cops whose attention he attracts. Reese manages to overpower one cop and bewilders him by demanding to know what year it is, before fleeing within a department story and exiting dressed. Cameron quickly has Reese don a long overcoat to underline his noir hero status whilst arming him with a shotgun he steals from a cop car and readily joining the other night flotsam stalking the LA downtown in the wee hours. Daylight brings the mundane sight of young waitress Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton) riding a scooter to the diner where she works with her roommate Ginger (Bess Motta) and tries valiantly to get through days clogged with frenetic work and humiliation.
Sarah’s name has been rendered totemic without her knowing, as both future visitors have searched the phone book for her name. The Terminator enters a pawn shop and kills the owner (Dick Miller) to obtain his horde of quality guns, before heading on to the home of one Sarah Connor, shooting the woman repeatedly at the front door. Ginger alerts Sarah to the bloodcurdling apparent coincidence when it’s reported on the news. That night, as Ginger prepares for a night in with her boyfriend Matt (Rick Rossovich) Sarah decides to head out on the town but soon becomes convinced she’s being followed as she spies Reese trailing her, she takes refuge in a dance club called the Tech-Noir, and when she learns that a second Sarah Connor has been killed she calls the police, who warn her to stay put. But she also calls Ginger, just as the Terminator has killed her and Matt, and he heads to club. Just at the point where the Terminator is about to shoot Sarah, Reese unleashes his shotgun, filling the Terminator with wounds that should be fatal, but only plant the man on the ground for a few moments. Reese and Sarah flee and Reese explains that the hulking man is a type of cyborg, sent back to kill her to prevent her giving birth to her son John Connor, beloved in the future as the great leader of the human resistance, and Reese was dispatched in pursuit to stop it.
Whilst relatively limited in comparison to his immense later productions, The Terminator still stands as the Cameron’s best film to date, and, taken with its immediate follow-up Aliens, helped bring something new and galvanising to post-Star Wars sci-fi cinema. Cameron didn’t invent the sci-fi action movie, but he certainly perfected it. The Terminator matches the qualities of the title entity as a lean, precise, utterly driven unit of cinematic expression. Cameron managed something unique in the context of 1980s low-budget genre cinema. That zone was replete with inventive movies that often purveyed a weird and subversive attitude in comparison to the more high-profile releases of the age even whilst mimicking their trends: 1984 offered some strong entries in the same stakes including Repo Man, Trancers, The Philadelphia Experiment, and Night of the Comet, but none have left anything like the same cultural footprint. Perhaps that’s because The Terminator avoided the waggish edge those films had: whilst hardly humourless, The Terminator takes itself and its ideas with deadly seriousness and contours all into a cool, kinetic style, perfect for compelling an audience without yet hearing the call of the bombast and filed-down edges of multiplex fare.
Cameron established immediately that he knew how to not just set up an interesting and bizarre story but how to keep it moving with headlong force and concision. The name of the Tech-Noir club nods to Cameron’s aesthetic mission statement, in fusing fatalistic thriller intensity with the chitinous sheen and intellectual flickers of sci-fi. Cameron incidentally revealed fetishism for malevolently cool hardware, and his fascination for the mindset of the battle-hardened. Cameron’s confusion in this regard might well have even helped his eventual conquest of the mass audience. Cameron’s initial purpose with The Terminator was to make up for a severe lack he perceived in sci-fi cinema: the lack of a robot movie that summarised the iconic power of the concept that had so often decorated the cover of pulp magazines. The vision of tingling paranoia and evasion amidst a grubby midnight world after the mediating opening title sequence carefully likens the world Reese lands in as a sector of the present day a visitor from a grim future like Reese can recognise and operate within. The glimpses of that future allowed throughout the rest of the film involve much the same game of eluding and pockets of poor and filthy people subsisting as they’re hunted by hostile forces.
Then there’s the reason behind Reese’s arrival: the artificial intelligence (unnamed in this film, dubbed Skynet in the sequel) that sent the Terminator back into the past for a pinpointed assassination, an entity constructed for defence logistics that suddenly became self-aware and tried to wipe out humanity. The intelligence’s last-ditch plan after being defeated in a long insurgency reveals an amusingly robotic logic that can only perceive in limited terms: Skynet perceives its enemy, John Connor, as a variable to be erased, rather than one nexus for the human will and energy inevitably turned against it. Cameron’s engagement with the post-apocalyptic subgenre strained to remove direct political references, as the artificial intelligence’s intervention subverts the Cold War that had heated up again in the early Reagan era by portraying both the USA and the Soviet Union as the mere incidental arsenals for the machine’s plot: te superpowers’ illusion of control is mere grist for the ghost in the machine. But the portrayal of the results of Skynet unleashing such destruction still kept company with a spasm of bleak and portentous portrayals of such events around the same time in fare like The Day After (1983) and Threads (1984). Reese’s methods involve something like urban guerrilla warfare, ironically looking less acceptably normal than the Terminator itself as he wanders the streets with glazed eyes, filthy pants, and sawed-down weapon tucked under his arm and plastic explosives cooked up with household products in a motel room.
In concept The Terminator is only a degree removed from a thread of speculative cinema ranging contending with the idea of urban guerrilla warriors from Ivan Dixon’s The Spook Who Sat By The Door (1973) through to the Mad Max films and variants like Enzo Castellari’s Bronx Warriors films, as well as works tussling with thrillers rooted in post-Vietnam angst like Black Sunday (1977) and First Blood (1982). Cameron had even written a script, eventually much-revised, for Rambo: First Blood Part II (1984). Cameron’s fascination with the fallout of the Vietnam War, an aspect still echoing loudly in his work by the time of Avatar, comes into focus here as Reese is offered as a veteran still at war even whilst returned to the ‘normal’ world. Cameron would back it up with Aliens in offering a blunt metaphor for the American grunt’s-eye-view experience of the war, whilst The Terminator leans heavily on time travelling warrior Reese as an analogue for a damaged veteran still carrying on the war on the home front. Such recognisable affinity was given a new charge by Cameron’s exacting technique and careful aesthetic, and well as the edge of his sci-fi conceptualism, suggesting all such conflicts are a trial run for the coming ultimate war. Reese’s experience is also imbued with Holocaust overtones as he displays the identifying tattoo, cast with chilling aptness in bar code, he retains from years in the AI’s disposal camps where survivors like Reese were used like sonderkommandos. Reese recounts how John Connor helped organise the prisoners, break out, and begin their war, leading to a hard-won victory where only Reese’s mission remains the last, strangest fight.
Cameron’s grasp of time as a fluid and dimensional rather than a purely linear concept helped give the film, and its follow-ups, room to breathe in terms of cause and effect: “One possible future,” Reese tries to explain to Sarah before admitting he doesn’t grasp all the technicalities, implying regardless that the version of the past he’s landed in might not lead back to the same future, but probably will as long as the variables are still in place. That’s why the storyline erects a straightforward paradox as Reese becomes Sarah’s lover and father to her child, the man who will eventually find it necessary to send him back in time. Despite the many heady and imaginative elements fed into it, The Terminator shows Cameron sticking with established formulae when it came to make low-budget genre cinema in that moment. The film freely blends the basic pattern of the slasher style of horror movie with a style of thriller built around car chases and gunfights. Sarah Connor is a standard final girl in many respects, defined by her relative lack of worldly and sexual confidence compared to hot-to-trot Ginger who bangs her boyfriend with her Walkman turned up loud, channels nascent maternal instincts into her pet iguana, and slowly grows from frayed everywoman to resilient survivor. Like Michael Myers, Jason Voorhees, and other slasher monstrosities, the Terminator moves with the steady remorselessness and lack of human register of fate itself, and repeatedly comes to life again for fresh onslaughts after it seems to have been laid low.
The key difference is that those monsters rely on a supernatural mystique whereas the Terminator is a comparatively rationalised force. The way Cameron employs the slasher killer figuration allows him to exploit its key value – it’s a narrative style cheap and easy to stage and blessed with straightforward velocity – whilst also extending the psychological tension in Reese’s inability to establish his veracity until the Terminator provides proof, by which time it’s too late. Cameron also signalled the slasher mode’s end by pushing it into a new zone that would prove much more difficult to imitate because it required more special effects and makeup input, and audience would seek something more clever and substantial from then on. Schwarzenegger’s cyborg devolves from ultimate specimen of manhood to one losing bits of skin and flesh, slowly revealing the underlying robotic form, until only the mechanical being is left. Cameron also pushed against the grain of the slasher style in situating the drama squarely in an urban world where the forces of authority are ultimately revealed to be just as powerless before the marauding evil, and toying with the underlying moralism of the slasher brand. The Terminator offers a story in which, for a saviour to be born, the heroine must enthusiastically engage in premarital sex. The film toys constantly with imagery of birth and tweaked religious impulses. John Connor’s initials clearly signal his messianic function, and he’s the spawn of a figure that falls from the sky and comes to give Sarah the new gospel.
Cameron readily admitted to emulating Ridley Scott and George Miller, assimilating the cyber-noir of Blade Runner (1982) and the rollicking ferocity of Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior (1981). Interestingly, even as Cameron sublimates of Blade Runner’s atmosphere and ideas, he strays closer to Philip K. Dick than Scott’s film did in one crucial aspect: Dick’s original theme was that however close the facsimile of the replicants was to the human, ultimately they remained creatures without souls, without transformative empathy. Another of Cameron’s inspirations, the 1960s anthology TV series The Outer Limits, would eventually prove a thorn in his side. The ever-prickly Harlan Ellison, who had written two notable episodes of the series with similarities to Cameron’s eventual story, “Demon With a Glass Hand” and “Soldier”, would sue Cameron and his studio for plagiarism, a contention that was eventually settled out of court against Cameron’s objections: Ellison received a vague credit. To be sure, the basics of The Terminator do resemble Ellison’s episodes, although a great deal of sci-fi often borrows and remixes ideas in such a fashion, and the way Cameron develops his variations on the same themes proves quite different.
Another strong antecedent is Michael Crichton’s Westworld (1973), with its similar basic plot of a marauding killer android. Crichton’s film presaged The Terminator and some other ‘80s sci-fi-action hybrids in its visual motifs, introducing a post-human viewpoint as the deadly machine stalks its foes utilising point-of-view shots overtly placing us in a post-human way of perceiving the world’s textures. And, of course, the ace in the hole proved to be the casting of the former bodybuilder turned actor Schwarzenegger in the lead role. Schwarzenegger, who had become an odd kind of movie star appearing in the documentary Pumping Iron (1977), had been acting off and on since the late 1960s, and with Conan the Barbarian (1982) was promoted to leading man. Whilst that film had been a fitting vehicle for Schwarzenegger in emphasising a childlike quality within the hulking form, The Terminator went one better in turning all his liabilities as an actor into strengths. Cameron had intended the Terminator to be played by someone like the actor Lance Henriksen with whom he’d worked on Piranha II. The cyborg was supposed to be, after all, an infiltrator, without characteristics that would normally draw the eye.
Nonetheless he found the entire project gained a new and specific gravity thanks to his star’s presence. Schwarzenegger’s grating Austrian accent, slowed down and levelled in a monotone, became perfectly unified with the character, as in his famous threat/promise to a cop at a duty desk, “I’ll be back,” before driving a car through the front doors. His line deliveries became then chiselled little runes depicting the awkward interaction of a machine mind and human custom, most amusingly illustrated when, trying to ward off a nosy hotel janitor, he punches up a selection of retorts and choose “Fuck you, asshole.” Schwarzenegger’s body meanwhile encapsulated the idea of bristling, unswerving threat and force: where Cameron’s initial concept was to utilise the cognitive dissonance between the form wielding deadly force and its impact, casting Schwarzenegger erased it, as he looked like he might just be able to ram his hand into a man’s chest and rip his heart out. A good deal of the film’s signature mood is illustrated simply by the image of the Terminator cruising the city streets in a stolen cop car, a renegade influence that nonetheless readily adheres to an image of pure authority, face bathed in red and green light, eyes promising cold execution.
Although he ultimately came out of it with the least lasting credit amongst the major figures of The Terminator, a great deal of the film’s quality is due to Biehn, who perfectly embodies the future warrior, every nerve and muscle in his body honed by decades of brutal warfare and twitching with tormented survival instinct, and yet still retaining a streak of fractured romanticism. Cameron allows him a veritable Proustian streak as he constantly drifts into reveries of the future past, all of them invoking moments of trauma, as when he recalls battling robots monsters only to be trapped inside a toppled and burning truck, but also signalling the things that keep him human, as in the last flashback/forward where he retreats into an underground bunker where fellow survivors persist and settles to dream upon a photo of a lovely woman taken in another world, an image he clearly adores: it is, of course, a photo of Sarah gifted to him by John.
This sequence is perhaps my favourite in the film as it offers Reese’s memory through a lens of the dreamy remove shading again into nightmare. Cameron evokes Reese’s feeling of peculiar hominess in the grim hovel he shares with other people, a sense of intimate shelter contending with such bleak jokes as a mother and child staring at a TV that proves to house a warming fire and people hinting rats for food. The abode is despoiled when penetrated by a Terminator that cuts loose with a laser canon, Reese’s memories fixating on the glowing red eyes of the murderous cyborg glimpsed through the murk and the photo of Sarah blistering and blazing in the fire. Upon waking, Reese finds that Sarah has dreamt of dogs, the barking sentinels that warn of a Terminator, somehow having shared some portion of his liminal space. Sarah herself is the first of Cameron’s many, celebrated gutsy heroines, although pointedly she doesn’t start as one, complaining that “I can’t even balance my chequebook” in response to the suggestion she’s the mother of the future. Cameron makes the idea of biological function both an ennobling prospect and a cross to bear as Sarah finds herself tethered to this aspect of her female being, whilst Reese, however heroic, serves his function as drone protector and inseminator and then dies, purpose spent.
The film’s most recent extension, Tim Miller’s Terminator: Dark Fate (2019) honourably attempted to allow the alternative of a woman not being simply defined by the man she might birth but become a leader in her own right, but whilst this ticked a rhetorical box it spurned the weird force of Cameron’s initial metaphor for maternity itself, considering every woman as the mother of the future, surprisingly little tackled in the sci-fi genre and a major aspect of The Terminator’s nagging novelty: it found a way to make motherhood seem inherently heroic. This ironically essentialist take on gender functions contrasts the mechanical way of assembly lines and the Terminator’s perfectly self-sufficient body that is nonetheless functionless beyond dealing out death, a most perfectly inflated and reductive evocation of a certain ideal of masculinity. The film’s first sequel, Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991), would stretch Cameron’s thinking further to the point where he offers Sarah a few years down the line as having become Reese, just as wiry and honed and ablaze with terrible, maddening awareness.
The film’s more earthbound and familiar aspect is provided by an array of supporting characters, most of whom fall victim to the Terminator, including Ginger and Matt. The cops tasked with investigating the spate of Sarah Connor homicides are Traxler (Paul Winfield) and Vukovich (Henriksen), a splendid pair of workaday non-heroes with palates deadened by bad coffee and cigarettes and existential miasma, and the police psychologist Dr Silberman (Earl Boen) who interviews Reese and rejoices in the brilliant complexities of his psychotic delusion. Such men try their best to defend a reality they don’t realise is crumbling, and come supplied with running jokes like Traxler’s lack of interest in Vukovich’s anecdotes. Sarah and Reese are arrested after surviving another battle with the Terminator, with the possibility of alternative explanations for what’s happened presented to Sarah. Just after Silberman leaves the station the Terminator comes crashing in, blasting his way through the small army of police with cold efficiency, including Traxler and Vukovich, whilst Sarah and Reese take the chance to escape custody. The police station slaughter is another of Cameron’s nerveless action sequences, the Terminator’s ruthless brutality and efficiency finally described at full pitch, calmly gunning down cop after cop and shrugging off bullet wounds, hobbling his foes by knocking out the power and then proceeding with his infra-red vision. This scene also incidentally underlines the Terminator’s badass lustre in his complete indifference to adult authority, one clear reason perhaps why so many kids and teens immediately adored it.
Cameron’s technical expertise certainly helped him in forging momentous images on a budget, his technique incorporating a cunning use of slow motion in the sequence when Reese and the Terminator converge on Sarah in the Tech-Noir. This seems to match the Terminator’s seemingly more distended sense of time and action when seen from his viewpoint. There’s also Cameron’s signature use of filters, particularly steely blues and greys with patches of lancing reds, and the use of plentiful Ridley Scott-style smoke and steam diffusion. Amongst its many precursors, the film The Terminator most resembles in mood and visual palette is Walter Hill’s The Driver (1978), another work in a zone of urban noir albeit one lacking sci-fi aspects, similarly propelled by the feeling that its characters are akin to the last living survivors of an apocalypse and yet still persist within the stark and alien textures of nocturnal LA. One significant aspect of the film’s identity is Brad Fiedel’s then-cutting edge electronic scoring, with its throbbing, metallic textures, revolving around a main theme at once ominous and plaintively evocative: the scoring feels perfectly of a unit with the film’s underlying struggle between the mechanistic and the emotional, describing all the blasted landscapes and desperate humanity.
Reese underlines the absolute relentlessness of the Terminator to Sarah, its complete imperviousness to all forms of reason and dissuasion. The film draws its galvanising pace from the depiction of such unswerving programming. When it does grab some effective moments of downtime, islands of peace must be bought with moments of incredible exertion and frenzied survival will. Humans need things the Terminator doesn’t, and only geography and the maintenance of its camouflage limit it. The notion of the robot made to look human was hardly new – it has a clear precursor as far back as Metropolis (1926) – but Cameron’s vivid illustration of his version, in the mangling of the Terminator’s appearance, offered a newly gruesome depiction of the machine within, the grown human apparel discarded through its many battles until revealing shining metal and a glowing red eye, the organic one that covered it plucked out with Biblical readiness when damaged. Such subterfuge becomes unnecessary as the Terminator zeroes in on its prey. “Pain can be controlled,” Reese tells Sarah, a sign that to function in terrible extremes the human must aspire towards a Terminator-like state to survive cruel realities, but limits to all such remove are eventually found. The human urge to vulnerable connection inevitably sees Reese and Sarah have sex in a motel room they retreat to, after Sarah beholds Reese’s body with all its scar tissue and his mind with all its quivering, innocent need.
Narrative efficiency reasserts itself with cold humour as Sarah calls up her mother to reassure her about her safety and her mother’s voice extracts her location from her, whereupon Cameron shows the other end of the call, panning past signs of violence to find the Terminator on the phone performing an imitation. This lapse sets up the film’s climax as the Terminator arrives at the motel, with Sarah and Reese warned by a barking dog and fleeing just ahead of the cyborg, which pursues them on a motorcycle. Reese tries to fend off their pursuer with his improvised explosives, but is clipped by a bullet, and both chased and chaser crash on a freeway overpass. The Terminator, after being dragged under a semitrailer, commandeers the truck whilst Sarah has to drag away the injured Reese, but Reese manages to blow up the truck with one of his explosives, and the Terminator stumbles out amidst the flames, collapsing as its flesh burns away in blackened flakes. The lovers embrace by the flaming wreckage, only for Cameron to stage his own variation on the famous, carefully framed revival of Michael in Halloween (1978) as the now entirely denuded cyborg skeleton rises from the wreckage and resumes the chase. Cameron’s penchant for nesting surprising new stages in his climaxes had its first and most sensible iteration here, as once again the constant assaults of the Terminator obey its own logic and capacity to the limit, as well as his intelligence on a plotting level which always tries to make the various crises grow out the previous ones. The terrifying difficulty of halting such a foe is illustrated again and again, and the film’s finally tragic aura stems from the accruing certainty that it can’t be stopped without countenancing hard loss.
Hard loss comes indeed as Sarah and Reese flee within a factory and, desperate to keep the cyborg away from Sarah, Reese gets close enough to stick his last explosive into its armature, blowing it to pieces but getting himself killed, and Sarah badly injured, in the process. Even this still doesn’t stop the monster as the bedraggled torso keeps after Sarah, dragging itself along with one good hand, the organic and mechanical beings now both crippled, mimicking each-other’s motions as they drag themselves across the floor and through the gullet of a hydraulic press, as mutually entrapped as the Coyote and Roadrunner who, at root, they strongly resemble. Sarah’s final destruction of the Terminator by catching it in the press and crushing it is both the end of the narrative and the culmination of Sarah’s evolution, saving herself with warrior grit and kissing off her great enemy with the ultimate reversal of role, “You’re terminated, fucker.” Hardly the birth of the action heroine, but certainly the modern breed’s debutante party. It’s fitting that, after all the thunderous action and surging drama, the coda returns to meditate upon the film’s rarer quality, that aspect of menacing yet yearning genre poetry. Sarah, now travelling the desert in a jeep with a dog for company, is sold the photo that will become Reese’s icon by a Mexican kid, now revealed to be the image of her meditating on Reese himself in an eternal loop of longing and pain. Onwards she drives and vanishes into Mexican mountains, the storm clouds blowing in suggestive of the oncoming apocalyptic threat, one of the great final movie shots.
The Terminator’s influence still echoes through action and sci-fi cinema, including its own birthed franchise. Following a relative commercial slip with the undersea alien tale The Abyss (1989) Cameron would take up his debut again and reiterate it as Terminator 2: Judgment Day, released seven years after the original, this time on a record-breaking budget and riding a wave of hype and expense the likes of which Hollywood had scarcely seen since the days of 1950s widescreen epics. In the meantime the Cold War had ended and the Vietnam-age angst of the original had dwindled. Cameron did his best to intensify the nuclear angst with a punishing vision of LA’s destruction in a dream sequence, but the newly positive mood of the moment was reflected in Cameron’s depiction of his heroes forestalling the rise of Skynet and the destructive war. So Cameron deflected his narrative’s stress points into concepts more rooted in societal observation particularly in describing the feckless lot of the moment’s young folk, as represented by the teenaged John Connor, trapped between disinterested representatives of square society as represented by his dimwit foster parents and a new, ruthless Terminator now disguised as a policeman and entirely subsuming the image of authority, and ruined radicalism as embodied by Sarah, whilst recasting Schwarzenegger’s Terminator from embodiment of brute masculinity to an ironically idealised father figure. The film’s excellence as spectacle, with groundbreaking special effects and tremendous action setpieces couldn’t quite hide the degree to which Cameron often settled for lightly riffing on his original script and recycling a settled template. But taken as a pair the two films remain one of the great diptychs in popular cinema. The rest of the sequels are a matter of taste.
I vividly recall, when I was a very small boy, the first time I saw You Only Live Twice on television. More specifically, it was the opening scene that sank like a fishhook through my imagination. A NASA Gemini space capsule in orbit, carrying two astronauts. One astronaut, Chris (Norman Jones), starts a spacewalk, only for the trackers on Earth to warn some strange contact is approaching. With John Barry’s score swirling in ominous and ratcheting intensity, Chris sees another spacecraft zeroing in, its nosecone splitting apart like a hungry maw and capturing the Gemini. The closing jaws sever Chris’s lifeline, cutting him adrift as the devouring craft moves off. Director Lewis Gilbert conveys something stark and chilling about the notion of death in space in the way the frantic dialogue of the astronauts and the trackers is suddenly severed and Chris drifts away in silence into the cosmos like so much refuse. Not long after, Pauline Kael accused Stanley Kubrick of trying to inflate this affecting vignette into an entire film with 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). Such a vivid evocation of space and death as harsh and lonely certainly didn’t sit with the usual, larkishly nasty entertainment value of the James Bond series, which in just five years had become astonishingly successful to the point of reorganising much of popular culture in its own image.
You Only Live Twice was also the first Bond film I ever saw and the one that made me a lifelong if sometimes hesitant aficionado, deeply fascinating me with its vivid, iconographic style, particularly the opening credits with their evocation of dreamlike romanticism and seething natural force. John Barry and Leslie Bricusse’s great theme song as sung by Nancy Sinatra warbles over Maurice Binder’s visions of naked geishas and boiling volcanic lava, describing a grandly sensual and mysterious world that treads close to subliminal zones, a vision that powerfully infiltrates the often more boyish fantasies glimpsed in the rest of the film. The relatively modest initial hit that was Dr. No (1962) had made Sean Connery synonymous with the lead role and resulted in three follow-ups, From Russia With Love (1963), Goldfinger (1964), and Thunderball (1965), each of which outstripped the last in astonishing popularity and moneyspinning: the margins of profitability on those films would make modern blockbuster producers weep in yearning. By 1967, the Bond marque had to fight for screen space amongst a plethora of other spies and suave action men, and so the series, which was never exactly realistic but certainly had an initially gritty and intimate approach to its thrills, began exchanging that for grander showmanship and a more overt engagement with science fiction. Sci-fi had been percolating in the series since Dr. No’s plot involving rocket toppling, and it persisted in the futuristic edge to Q’s (Desmond Llewellyn) inventions, as well as the supervillains and mysterious cabals borrowed from old serials and Fritz Lang movies.
To give the instalment some fresh vigour, producers Albert R. Broccoli and Harry Saltzman turned from their settled series team. Directors Terence Young and Guy Hamilton had forged the series in aesthetic terms, working with regular screenwriter Richard Maibaum and cinematographer Ted Moore. Hamilton had affixed a glistening pop sheen to Young’s cool jazz template with Goldfinger, but the relatively languid and indulgent style of Thunderball pointed to difficulties the series would have in reconciling a greater and greater push for fan service with propulsive plotting. Trying to up the stakes, You Only Live Twice saw something like the birth of the modern blockbuster as a genre unto itself, melding special effects and action in a delirious blend. Lewis Gilbert, an experienced and robust director used to handling big productions and just coming off a major hit with Alfie (1966), was taken on as director. With Maibaum busy on another project, Roald Dahl, a writer known mostly for his maliciously witty and cunning children’s stories, was commissioned to write the script. Freddie Young, winner of two Oscars for his work on Lawrence of Arabia (1962) and Doctor Zhivago (1965) with David Lean, was hired to give the film a dose of widescreen spectacle. The making of the film proved somewhat fraught, as Connery was getting sick of the role and fearing typecasting, and disliked filming in Japan, leading to his fateful dropping out of the role.
You Only Live Twice already represented a break for the series beyond the personnel changes, as it was the first entry to more or less compose its own storyline and only borrow basic elements from Ian Fleming’s source novel, abandoning the credibility of the early entries, albeit whilst merely amplifying the tropes of futuristic technology and grandiose conspiracy already established. Dahl, who disliked the Fleming novel he was nominally adapting despite having been a friend of the writer, decided instead to offer a more expansive variation of the plot of Dr. No, and You Only Live Twice would itself be recycled in the Bond series, as The Spy Who Loved Me (1977) and Tomorrow Never Dies (1997). Fleming’s book, the last he properly completed in his lifetime, was one of his harshest and strangest entries, with Bond sent to Japan on the hunt for Ernst Stavro Blofeld, the leader of the insidious SPECTRE organisation, after Blofeld had killed Bond’s wife Tracy at the end of the preceding novel, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. Blofeld had taken over an old castle on a remote island and amongst his varying projects had turned it into a garden filled with poisonous plants and creatures as a place where rich people could come to kill themselves. Most of the book, including the finale where Bond was left amnesiac in blissful ignorance, was jettisoned, and the order of the novels reversed in filming, leaving only the basic premise of Bond going on a mission to Japan and battling Blofeld in alliance with local spymaster Tiger Tanaka (Tetsuro Tamba).
The mysterious spacecraft that swallows the Gemini capsule at the outset has been launched by SPECTRE – the Special Executive for Counter-Terrorism, Revenge, and Extortion – from a base secreted within an extinct volcano and carefully hidden from all aerial and satellite surveillance. The USA blames the USSR for taking their craft, but during a heated summit meeting in the ironically frigid climes of Scandinavia where the Americans accuse the Soviets of trying to seize control of space, the British Foreign Secretary (Robin Bailey) reports radar signs the craft responsible returned to Earth around Japan. In Hong Kong, James Bond is currently off assignment and enjoying the fruits of his labour with a local girl (Tsai Chin, best known for playing Fu Manchu’s daughter in the Christopher Lee series), only for her to trap him and let in two machine-gun wielding assassins. When policemen arrive they seem to find Bond dead. Bond is given a burial at sea from the deck of a destroyer in Hong Kong harbour, only for his sail-wrapped body to be collected by two frogmen and brought aboard a submarine, where M (Bernard Lee) and Miss Moneypenny (Lois Maxwell) wait: Bond’s death has been faked and he’s being spirited to Japan in the most covert fashion to take up the search for the spaceship.
Dahl’s cruelly mischievous sense of humour and imaginative gift for absurd mechanics, long apparent in his own writing, quietly invaded the Bond style here, meshing with the wistful spiritual overtones suggested by the title and the many games with identity and culture played throughout, to invest the film with a blithely surreal energy. Bond’s once-solid identity is fractured in many pieces to keep pace with the vastly inflated stakes and bizarre new facts in the age of the space race. Dahl’s imprint is particularly obvious in an early run of droll flourishes, like the Hong Kong girl trapping Bond in a spring-loaded Murphy bed, and Bond being put through all the trappings of a naval funeral, before being brought aboard the submarine where M holds court in a travelling version of his familiar office complete with wood panelling. You Only Live Twice skirts satire of the already-settled Bond formula at quite a few junctures, only to prove they were always a moveable feast. Soon Bond, ever a globetrotter who reminds Moneypenny that he “took a first in Oriental languages at Cambridge,” lands in Japan nominally as a dead man and therefore free to experience on a deeper and stranger level. Upon landing on the Honshu shore, after being fired out of the submarine’s torpedo tube (!), Bond looks towards the sun as it sets with mystical import: Bond reborn in a new land in time to take on a new age.
The film still retains some of the flavour of Fleming’s exotic tourism at a time when Japan was truly becoming a world player again after World War II, offering it as a country with a shell of glistening, ahistorical super-modernity concealing a far more potent classical culture at once unfamiliar and appealing to a westerner half in love with death and dedicated to pagan mores like Bond. So Gilbert cuts from that evocative sunset to shots of pulsating Tokyo neon, putting the dualistic sensibility into the visual language. Bond’s adventures in Tokyo nightlife take a hard swerve towards the mysteriously transformative and unstable spirit of Lang and Orson Welles, as Bond makes contact with one of Tanaka’s operatives, Aki (Akiko Wakabayashi) at a sumo match, and she takes him to meet his colleague, the local British intelligence officer Henderson (Charles Gray). Bond takes the quick and expedient route of ensuring Henderson is who he says he is by taking his cane and giving one of his legs a whack, accurately establishing it’s false. The beaming Henderson begins explaining why he thinks the mystery rocket really is locally based when suddenly he stops speaking in mid-sentence. Bond realises someone’s stabbed him through the paper wall of his room. He chases down the assassin, knocks him out, and dons his clothes, including the surgical mask he wears, to take his place: another goon waiting in a car spirits him to the skyscraper belonging to the Osato Chemical & Engineering Co.
When the second goon uncovers Bond’s face after hauling him up to an executive office, the two have a brutal battle that Bond wins by swatting his foe with a decorative statue. Bond cracks and robs a safe and flees, with Aki proving to be waiting nearby to spirit him away. When Bond demands to take over, Aki lures him into an underground tunnel where the floor opens up and drops Bond into a chute that deposits him neatly on a chair directly before Tanaka in his secret office. This hilarious flourish of destabilised reality strongly evokes the funhouse sequence in Welles’ The Lady From Shanghai (1947) and would itself be filched by Bond fan George Lucas for Star Wars – Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back (1980) in Luke Skywalker’s plunge out of Cloud City. Bond and Tanaka prove swiftly to be well-matched collaborators and personalities, both being fantasies of man-of-the-world largesse and finesse as well as effective force. Upon inspecting the stolen Osato documents, they find a suggestive list of chemical orders and a photo of a freighter, the Chinese-registered Ning-Po, at anchor off a coastal island that the company has gone to ruthless lengths to suppress.
After Tanaka introduces Bond to the pleasures of a Japanese bath, with his harem in attendance, Bond and Aki become lovers. Posing as a chemical buyer, Bond visits the Osato building legitimately to meet with the boss, Mr Osato (Teru Shimada), and his sultry assistant Miss Brandt (Karin Dor). After sparking another attempt to kill him, Bond heads with Aki to Kobe to inspect the Ning-Po to see if it might be carrying constituents for rocket fuel. Dor, swanning into the film with mane of red hair and eyeliner thick enough to dam the Mississippi, doesn’t get to make as much of an impression as some other Bond femme fatales, like Luciana Paluzzi in Thunderball, as this seems the one aspect of the Bond formula Gilbert and Dahl don’t quite seem to know what to do with, not in the same way they give a new flesh to the familiar figure of the ally-lover-victim in the form of Aki, who overshadows the official Bond Girl. Brandt’s attempt to kill Bond by trapping him in a plane and letting him crash is rather lackadaisically staged. Nonetheless Dor gains a memorable note of sadistic incision as she threatens the captive Bond with a knife used by plastic surgeons for slicing away skin, only to free him and hand the blade over to cut away the straps on her gown. “The things I do for England…’ Bond murmurs.
It’s tantalising and disappointing that no-one involved in the franchise has yet done something with the Sadean poetry inherent in the novel’s concept of Blofeld’s garden of death, imagery that accords strongly with the cult of extreme experience Bond and Blofeld both subscribe to. Certainly it wasn’t however a particularly cinematic concept in a series increasingly defined by action. One aspect of the novel retained was the theme of Bond being immersed in Japanese mores by Tanaka. The very dated bawdiness of Tanaka introducing Bond to the pleasures of the Japan way of life where according to him “men come first, women come second” gives the requisite dose of Bond-as-playboy business as he takes pleasure in being scrubbed over by the harem. Fortunately this stuff is quickly and playfully undercut by the way the film offers Aki and, later, Bond’s second partner and “wife” Kissy Suzuki (Mie Hama) as deft agents for Tanaka. Kissy even saves Tanaka with a well-aimed shot in the finale, and the two women are rather more effectual heroines than many from the franchise’s more officially enlightened eras. Aki in particular is a terrific partner for Bond, dashing around Tokyo streets in her zippy white Speed Racer sports car, shimmying down ropes to make a speedy getaway, and calmly calling up the familiar Tanaka surprise for pursuing goons, a helicopter with a dangling electromagnet to pick up their car and dump it in Tokyo Bay.
Bond and Aki’s foray to Kobe justifies a sequence that sees Gilbert and Young delighting in their unfettered sense of the cinematic as they shoot Bond battling off a horde of dockyard thugs, set upon them by Osato, in an ebullient helicopter shot watching Bond punch and thrash his way through opponents as he dashes along a pier rooftop, with Barry’s scoring surging joyously on the soundtrack. Bond escapes them a display of physical daring and skill and he leaps onto piled cargo from on high, only to be knocked out as he calmly tries to walk away. After escaping the villains’ attempt to kill him in a staged plane crash, Bond has Q bring to Japan one of his inventions, Little Nellie, contained within four suitcases, which proves to be a gyrocopter festooned with weaponry. Bond uses Little Nellie to search for the SPECTRE base, and gets to use all her talents in a terrific aerial action, a few ropey, interpolated model shots notwithstanding, as four SPECTRE helicopters appearing seemingly out of nowhere and attack him, only to be out manoeuvred and outgunned by the nifty little vehicle. This sequence augments another familiar element to new importance: where before Bond’s gadgets had been used as part of more functional action scenes, this time an entire scene is contrived purely for a ritual display of what Bond can accomplish with Q’s ingenious weapons. Gilbert employs a puckish cinematic joke as Little Nellie is assembled in an array of still shots without the constructors, the finished machine only becoming coherent in the last.
In spite of his jokes and flourishes of weirdness, Dahl’s script is also notable for having a remarkably solid plot by the series standard, and for actually letting Bond do real and effective spy work. As opposed to, say, Goldfinger where the plot depends on him being incredibly incompetent at his job but then doing Pussy Galore so well she rats out the entire evil plan. By contrast in You Only Live Twice Bond successfully uses ruses to uncover his enemies and collects information that yields clues that describe the increasingly tangible outline of what he’s facing. He also contends with enemies with an edge of real guile and brutality, like Osato, who uses an x-ray machine in his desk to uncover the fact Bond is armed when posing as a buyer, and Brandt, who uses Bond for sex and subversion in the same way he often uses others to get him where she wants him and then tries to kill him. Gilbert conveys all with his hard, clean, rigorously flowing images that play off the specific landscape of 1960s Tokyo. He builds to spasms of terrific action like Bond’s combat with the fearsome goon in the Osato office, a small masterpiece of stunt fight staging, and rendering even episodes of comic-surreal weirdness like Bond’s fall into Tanaka’s office somehow coherent.
You Only Live Twice has significant rivals to being called the best Bond film, particularly From Russia With Love, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969), and Casino Royale (2006). Tellingly, each of them retains a more intimate sense of Bond’s character in professional travails and emotional risk, whereas Bond here is necessarily at his most acquiescent at the dizzying flow of violence and strangeness thrown his way, in one of his most serial-like adventures. You Only Live Twice fully codified some aspects of the series most beloved of lampooners and apt for generalised caricatures, the first Bond film that really adheres to the popular lore of what an old-school Bond film was like. Where before the intimations of awesome force and alien threat represented by Blofeld and SPECTRE were kept fairly minimal and suggestive, here they step out into the open, with their colossal lairs and technology, their nasty paraphernalia for mistreating weak employees, and their nice line in futuristic fashion and architecture. But You Only Live Twice also lacks significant flaws its rivals films have: it doesn’t contend with an awkward lead performance like On Her Majesty’s Secret Service or a first half crammed with franchise-building make-work as Casino Royale, and it moves faster than the relatively slow-burn From Russia With Love.
The major quality as a consequence of You Only Live Twice is that it surely represents the finest balance the glib and absurdist aspect of the series with the side defined by a tough and percussive sense of adventure. Despite its enormous box office success Thunderball had evinced signs of the self-indulgence that would often dog the franchise, as Terence Young had been both the perfect man to kick off the series and a vexing one to continue it precisely because of his strong identification with Bond. Broccoli and Saltzman were wise to turn to a talent like Gilbert to take over. Son of music hall performers and a former actor and screenwriter before making his directorial forays as a documentary maker, Gilbert was a skilled classical storyteller with a talent for evoking atmosphere and finding strong human dramas within big-budget spectacles, with war films as excellent as Reach for the Sky (1956), Carve Her Name With Pride (1958), Sink the Bismarck! (1960), and H.M.S. Defiant (1962), as well as more intimate and ironic movies like Ferry To Hong Kong (1959), The Greengage Summer (1961), The 7th Dawn (1964), and Alfie. A connecting thread between many of his diverse movies was a fondness for studies of sardonically disaffected and detached characters who find themselves trapped between worlds figuratively and/or literally, often trying to convince themselves they’re not affected by their quandaries and heroically, or sometimes tragically, discovering they’re right.
Bond fits neatly into this attitude, the existential survivor and gladiator who feels it when one of his lovers dies but doesn’t let it divert him one iota, the perfect British swashbuckler who finds more self-recognition in Japanese culture, and who is, eventually, even transformed into a Japanese man with makeup at Tanaka’s insistence so he can infiltrate a fishing community. You Only Live Twice evolves a uniquely precise atmosphere for a Bond film, largely thanks to the pulse of Barry’s scoring, constantly revising and recapitulating the essential theme to offer a permeating sense of exotic fancy to accompany Gilbert and Young’s lush visuals, and the sense of double identity and duplicitous appearance that defines the film stems from the interplay of sound and vision. One particularly affecting scene in this regard comes when Bond has to marry Kissy, one of Tanaka’s operatives and an Ama girl who can give him good cover in his search for the SPECTRE base. On one level the scene involves a rather crass joke as Bond dreads the wedding because Tanaka has told him his bride has “the face of a pig,” only to behold the lovely Kissy. But Gilbert pays close attention to the evocation of ritual and a different cultural sublimation of a common act. It’s perhaps the closest the series ever came to reconciling its intensely romantic impulses and its celebration of louche behaviour.
The way Gilbert shoots Bond’s first glimpse of Kissy, with Barry’s surging music, packs an unexpected jolt of romantic intensity, and suddenly Bond’s act of tourism becomes a genuine immersion within the spiritual and sexual life of Japan (Gilbert would later offer a semi-remake of the film with an explicitly romantic gloss with 1976’s Seven Nights in Japan). It also suggests a new act in Bond’s sputtering evolution, setting the scene for his marriage in the subsequent film. Meanwhile SPECTRE’s plot hits its climactic phase as their rocket swallows a Russian capsule, pushing the Soviets and the US on the brink of war as the former accuse the later of a revenge attack. With the second snatching, Gilbert this time follows the mysterious craft through its descent into the atmosphere and landing within the volcano lair. The rocket is a delightful piece of hardware, beyond what rocket engineering was at the time and yet strongly resembling more recent attempts to build a lander. Here, we gain glimpses of Blofeld, his presence still only signified by the infamous white cat he pets and his ruthlessly commanding voice. In From Russia With Love and Thunderball Blofeld’s presence had been suggested with actor Eric Pohlmann’s plummy European accent wielding sonorous menace, offered as an enigmatic, near-abstract source of evil lurking behind the schemes Bond fought, commanding and terrifying his underlings from behind veils of mystery and remote-controlled punishment.
For Blofeld’s first proper appearance Donald Pleasance was cast, but his revelation is left until the climax. Until then he’s the same unseen source malignancy lurking in an apartment off the lair that, like M’s mobile office, mocks the pretences of old European power with its art and tapestries even whilst adapted to a new landscape of cyclopean metal and hewn living rock, high life for the age of the nuclear bomb shelter. Blofeld pushes a lever with his foot that dumps Miss Brandt from a footbridge into the pond filled with ravenous piranha to punish her for her unsuccessful attempt to kill Bond, a moment that still packs a disquieting note, although it’s neatly dispersed by the deadpan comedy of the bridge snapping back into place and Osata scurrying off in alarm to obey Blofeld’s orders. This scene also sees Blofeld meeting with the people who provided the plot’s financing and equipment with the strong hint they’re Chinese Communists, fitting the film neatly into an odd run of movies and TV shows around the same time, also including the likes of Battle Beneath The Earth (1967) and The Chairman (1969) based around a paranoid feeling the Chinese were quietly outstripping the rest of the world.
Unlike the novels, where Fleming cast Bond as the mortal enemy of the KGB, the Bond films liked to avoid dealing with the Cold War too explicitly, playing up SPECTRE instead as a foe. The series even recast the plot of From Russia With Love from a SMERSH operation to one cooked up by SPECTRE, which is rather an supra-national organisation formed from the human refuse of clashes between political systems – their cover, as glimpsed in Thunderball, is a refugee resettlement organisation, which also hints this is how they recruit operatives – and aggressively committed to subverting and leeching off all such blocs. Blofeld even forces the Chinese backers in this film to give him more money before committing to the last part of the plot, and when one retorts furiously, “This is extortion!”, Blofeld coolly replies, “Extortion in my business.” This concept of SPECTRE as something rather larger, more insidious, and more efficiently malignant than any rogue terrorist operation or even rival spy group gave the early Bond films much of their cohesive force, and less random than the later pool of lone wolf tycoons that would provide most of Bond’s foes. It’s also an idea the more recent revivalist entries with Daniel Craig have tried to leverage but have yet to properly exploit.
You Only Live Twice offers Alexander Knox as an American President who’s all terse business and warlike grit, dismissive of the British theory and determined to forestall another snatching, putting the world on the brink of nuclear Armageddon. Fleming’s book had meditated on the decline of British standing in the Cold War game, but the film cleverly points the way forward for the series and Bond as a character in presenting the British influence as a mediating one, a level head outside the whirlwind of Cold War intransigence, and Bond as the hard human edge of that attitude. The regular production designer for the Bond films was Ken Adam, whose style almost invented a way of thinking about the future in his cavernous, Spartan spaces, a touch he also applied to Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove, or, How I Learned To Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964). The similarity of Adam’s war room designs here certainly reflect his design principles but also accords with the vision, not at all dissimilar to Kubrick’s, of nuclear brinksmanship as something harsh, alien, incomprehensively destructive and real yet also waged through the prophylactic of telecommunications, and so entirely modern. This contrasts the supernal retention of homey environs M prefers. Like Dr. Strangelove, You Only Live Twice beholds an age of annihilating terrors and readily provoked national egos. Only Bond is big enough, in various senses of the word, to hold it off.
This thread runs right through the early Bond series, albeit mostly only explored on a specifically visual level, the tension between futurism’s homogenising power and the peccadilloes of established order. Attempts to dissect or revise Bond from a more politically correct angle are always doomed to fail because they don’t understand this tension is fundamental to the series’ popular cachet. This entry even was the first to start making constant jokes about Bond’s traits a ritual facet, in repeatedly making sport of his smoking habit. Blofeld, once revealed, resembles a kind of full-grown misbegotten foetus, the scarred and malignant, asexual embodiment of a world defined by radiation and pollution and monstrous will to power. The immediate follow-ups, which cast Telly Savalas and Charles Gray in the part (and, much later, Christoph Waltz), failed to live up the specific charge of perversity personified Pleasance offered. By comparison the whole of Japan is presented as embodying the dualism of contemporary existence, again according with Bond himself, the primal man enclosed by a loose glaze of civilised mystique.
Fittingly, Tanaka has Bond join his cadre of trainee ninjas who will when the time comes attack the SPECTRE base. The ninjas are presented as both modern warriors but also still proficient in an ancient arts, thus achieving perfect balance and fusion. Amidst their number Bond has to slay a couple of moles out to kill him. One of them sneaks into the house he shares with Aki and tries to poison him by dripping poison down a thread, only to kill Aki by mistake. It’s to You Only Live Twice’s credit that it actually feels connected with some genuine Japanese thriller films of the period (the manner of Aki’s death is borrowed from one), true to the baroque, even surreal lilt many have, if far short of the bravura lunacy of someone like Seijun Suzuki. A lot of Japanese thrillers, like their sci-fi, were attuned to the same tensions as the Bond films, the feeling that the modern world was the insubstantial hallucination, not the past. Tamba, Hama, and Wakabayashi were popular faces in Japanese cinema at the time, and the two women had appeared in both King Kong vs Godzilla (1962) and the Toshiro Mifune vehicle Samurai Pirate (1965) together.
When Bond, Tanaka, and Kissy head to a small village in the region where they think the base is hidden, they and the other ninjas blend into the populace. They’re forced to spring into action as it’s announced the next American launch has been moved forward, and Bond and Kissy act on a clue presented by the death of a local Ama girl: inspecting where she died, they realise she was killed by gas warding off inspection of a volcanic tunnel linked to the SPECTRE hideout. Bond and Kissy’s relationship is initially defined by Kissy’s insistence they’re engaged in business, not indulging themselves, but heats up as they take a time out from climbing the volcano for a bit of smooching, an act that fortuitously makes them look innocuous to a helicopter that flies into the volcanic crater. Once Bond establishes that what looks like a lake in the crater is in fact a huge metal hatch, he sends Kissy back to fetch Tanaka and penetrates the lair. There, he finds the captive American and Russian astronauts and breaks them out, and attempts to pose as one of the SPECTRE astronauts to take command of their craft. But Blofeld spots the deception and has Bond brought to him, cueing Blofeld’s unveiling, eyeing Bond like a frog blinking out of the water with sadistic intentions.
Today the makers of many franchise works and blockbusters fret over giving audiences too much of what they want, but You Only Live Twice has no such compunction: it promises James Bond and an army of ninjas rumbling with SPECTRE in their hideout to decide the fate of the world, and it delivers. Moreover, the Bond films had properly anointed themselves by this point as the inheritors of old-fashioned Hollywood values despite all their pop-age chic, the Roman Forums of recent epics now giving way to glistening abodes of super-science. Adams’ set for the SPECTRE base, the largest ever constructed for a film at the time, is still an awesome piece of movie infrastructure. The set’s enormity helps give the film palpable drama: all this absurdity seems like it could actually be happening, fusing a precise depiction of functional detail and scale with an edge of the dreamlike, another aspect of the film that anticipates the Star Wars series. This is a world where radically different realities nest within the apparent, lethal beasts planted within beautiful landscapes. SPECTRE’s method in capturing the space capsules rather than simply blowing them up seems to be based in the charge of menace the act evokes for the audience: an explosion would be blatant and clear-cut, but the act of swallowing is stranger and leaves no trace, making it seems as if in space there literally be dragons.
The rush of action in the finale is perfectly organised and delivers every gleeful absurdity you could ask for, the ninjas rappelling into the lair, complete with a katana-wielding badass carving his way through SPECTRE operatives. The running joke about smoking being bad for your health finds its punchline as Bond requests a last cigarette only to launch a tiny rocket at the controller for the lair’s hatch, allowing the ninjas access. Blofeld guns down Osato as a lesson in failire, but Bond’s life is saved when Blofeld next means to shoot him when Tanaka plants a throwing star in the megalomaniac’s wrist. Bond himself has to fight his way past Blofeld’s hulking bodyguard Hans (Ronald Rich) in order to make the swallowing ship self-destruct before it intercepts the next American capsule. Hans of course finishes up as food for the piranhas and Bond manages to blow up the craft in time. The injured but unbowed Blofeld sets off the lair’s self-destruct system, the explosions reawakening the volcano and forcing the heroes to flee via the sea tunnel, and the air force drops rubber rafts for them. There Bond and Kissy seem ready to consummate their marriage at last, only for M’s submarine to surface directly under them. Someone always wants to wake you from a good dream.