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LORD OF THE RINGS TRILOGY: 

The trilogy includes The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers, and The Return of the King. A lot of guys like it because it shows a band of men (including hobbits, elfs and dwarfs...) working together. Even when they are split up following assorted catastrophes, the characters each follow their paths to achieve their objectives. This is especially true of some of the minor characters:

 

King Theoden (Bernard Hill) who banishes his own self-doubts to lead his people in their defense of Helm’s Deep, and who later at the siege of Minas Tirath makes a truly stirring speech. Meanwhile, Faramir (David Wenham) overcomes his inner conflicts over possession of the Ring and gives up its power for the higher truth. I really liked the scene in The Two Towers where, at the moment of extreme crisis, Faramir shoots the Nazgul's flying beast and saves Frodo from himself. It's men working together and all that sort of thing.

 

Director Peter Jackson took an interesting approach in filming the trilogy, using actual New Zealand locales for the landscape of Middle Earth. This makes the films feel all the more real. CGI is in there, but only where needed. The actors react realistically to events which are too bizarre even for them. When Frodo, Sam and Gollum reach the Black Gate of Mordor, you can see both the fear and pride in their faces from boldly going where no hobbit has gone before.

 

The complete trilogy is long, especially if you get the “director’s cut” version on DVD or videotape. What is amazing about The Lord of the Rings is not so much that it is good film, but that they could make it at all!

 

 

EXCALIBUR:

John Boorman’s take on the Arthurian legend. It’s an odd mix of late Medieval armor with early Dark Ages characters, but the reason I recommend it is for the subplot involving Sir Perceval in the second half of the film. It’s the Parsifal legend, of course, and it gets to the root of the legend, which goes back millennia.

 

In order to find the Grail, Perceval must go on a quest whose goal, he finally realizes, is not a physical object. He encounters sorceress Morgana La Fey and resists her blandishments, being hanged from a tree where, at the verge of death, he glimpses the Secret of the Grail. Later, after a symbolic purification he comes to the realization that the True Grail is inner enlightenment and so he can finally relay the truth to Arthur about the oneness of the King and the Land. It has meaning to anyone who has conducted a warrior quest, or who wants to conduct one.

 

 

THE THIRTEENTH WARRIOR:

A film adaptation of Michael Crichton’s book, “Eaters of the Dead”, which was a retelling of the Beowulf story. Antonio Bandaras is a Saracen who hooks up with some Vikings to fight the Big Evil. And who else is behind the Big Evil other than a matriarchal earth goddess! It’s all kind of hokey but sharpen your broadsword and pass the popcorn.

 

 

THE LAST MAN ON EARTH

 

You are the only living human being in a world which has been depopulated by a bizarre epidemic. At night, you fight off the hordes of zombie-like creatures which besiege your fortress-like home. During the day, you struggle to maintain life as unusual and kill as many slumbering foe as you can. Then do it again the next day, and the next, and the next...

 

You are The Last Man on Earth.

 

Last Man on Earth stars Vincent Price as the titular hero. It’s an interesting role for Price. He plays it straight, without his usual irony. He makes his character of Robert Morgan work as a man of intelligence dealing with an impossible situation and maintaining his sanity in the bargain. It’s not an action movie. There’s killing in it, unpleasant and necessary, but it's not the point of the film. Morgan takes no joy in it, nor are there any heroics. Price comes off as a Randian “man of the mind”, literally standing alone against a hostile world. Regardless of the external circumstances, he stays true to his principles, trying to find a cure.

 

Last Man on Earth can be seen as a tale of alienation. One man’s struggle against a world which has lost its humanity. The empty city, the living-dead antagonists, the quest for a cure—fill in the blanks with whatever symbols you care. Significantly, Price’s character has lost his wife and daughter to the epidemic, as too many men have lost their families to a system which has been rigged against them.

 

A considerable part of the movie is in the form of flashbacks. There’s the usual scenes of the Army trying to deal with the plague, but the best they can do is burn bodies in gigantic pits. This is not the standard 1950s science fiction movie in which the Pentagon saves the day by the last reel. The end of the movie gives some hope, but not by resetting things to the way they were before the plague. There’s no going home again. A new breed of humans arise. Humanity moves forward, somehow. Despite his intent, Morgan becomes the new world’s legend.

 

Last Man on Earth was the first attempt to film Richard Matheson’s book, “I Am Legend” (the hero’s original name was Neville in it, for some reason the movie makers changed it). It was later filmed as The Omega Man (with Charlton Heston) and more recently as I Am Legend (Will Smith). Both of the later two films seemed to miss the point of the original, perhaps spending too much money on sets and special effects, and turning things into a conventional action flik.

 

Last Man on Earth’s low budget, oddly enough, works in its favor, giving the film a stark simplicity reflecting the character’s plight. It gives a degree of documentary realism which makes it all the more disturbing. Also, the “romance” element which is in the later two films is not present in Last Man on Earth. Price does not allow himself to be seduced by the female who appears, instead maintaining his scientific detachment. And from that we can learn a lot.

 

(I’d also comment that Omega Man is a bit dated, with its hippies and Afro hairstyles; on the other hand, you get to see Charlton Heston do his thing and there is that incredible scene where he screams “there are no phones ringing!”)

 

 

ENEMY FROM SPACE

Two middle aged guys -- a scientist and a police bureaucrat -- take on an alien invasion of Britain, sometime in the deeps of the Cold War. Enemy from Space, aka Quatermass 2, was the second in the Hammer series following the career of the eponymous Professor Alan Quatermass, played here by Brian Donlevy; John Longden is Inspector Lomax. The movie shows the value of intellect, experience and determination. And as noted, these are middle aged men, not the usual cardboard action heroes. Out-thinking the foe is more important than out-shooting him, though there is plenty of gunplay in the movie's end.

 

Enemy from Space is full of stunning sequences, such as one where Quatermass, decked out in a toxic hazard protective suit, infiltrates the aliens' earthside base with its leviathan central dome and gazes upon the inner secret which has robbed humans of their free will. Men must look at the heart of darkness in order to be liberated, and all that sort of thing.

 

Enemy from Space is set sometime in 1950s Britain, where society seems normal but underneath the surface alien organisms are taking over the citizenry's minds. There's a definitive Orwellian aspect to the proceedings, with wall posters mandating silence, paramilitary security in gas masks, and people chanting the party line--or else! It's made all the more real by the location shooting, with some nice views of London and the countryside in the waning days of empire. Much of the movie was filmed at the surreal industrial cathedral of an oil refinery, doubling as the aforementioned alien base. Perhaps this is a metaphor for how the great things which men have built have been perverted against them by a system controlled by hostile forces.

 

But fear not, in the end Quatermass pushes through and wakes up the right people. The finale is in a bizarre battle fought out amidst the gothic industrial geometry as men free mankind, and there's even a nuke going off; then again, it was the 1950s! But really, what Enemy from Space is about is facing up to the truth and sticking to it in the face of an alienated society. That's something we need to see more of in these decadent days.

 

Orwell would understand.

 

 

BATMAN FOREVER:

This third entry in the Batman series got kind of panned, but there is good stuff in here. Batman Forever is something about Batman (Val Kilmer) fighting an alliance of evil between Two-Face (Tommy Lee Jones) and the Riddler (Jim Carrey). Along the way, Batman picks up a new partner, Robin (Chris O’Donnell). There’s some good mentoring between the veteran Bruce Wayne (Kilmer) and newcomer Dick Grayson (O’Donnell’s alter ego), especially where the veteran tells the incipient super-hero of the consequences of violence. Kilmer’s not preachy, he just lays it out as it is and lets O’Donnell make his own choices. Grayson takes off but later returns, proclaiming himself to be not just Wayne’s friend but also a partner.

 

Nichole Kidman plays a police psychiatrist, but she is not the femme fatale of the other Batman movies. Most of the time she is made up in pasty white makeup and black clothing such that she looks like a walking ghost.  She's the yin to Batman's yang.

 

One significant scene has Bruce Wayne (aka Batman) and Edward Nigma (aka the Riddler) at a party that puts the “d” in decadence. Each is dancing with one of the hottest women in Hollywood (Drew Barrymore, Kidman) but the men ignore the respective babe in their arms for the battle of wills between the two of them. Kilmer then finds himself in a mind control machine that draws from him his inner fears, and which will later be used against him. (Kilmer seems to have played this scene in the way he wanted to play Jim Morrison in Oliver Stone’s The Doors.)

 

In the end, Batman/Bruce Wayne has to confront and overcome his inner demons, while the bad guys are unable to do the same (and thus they self-destruct). The movie closes out with Batman leaving Nichole Kidman behind to fight evil along with his new partner, Robin.

 

I watched Batman Forever once more, and there's an interesting sub-text which, while out in the open, may be easy to miss amongst all the explosions. The two villains of the piece, Two Face and Riddler, both have feminine qualities of epic cliche nature. This is more obvious with the Riddler, with his wild swings of emotion leading unto hysteria. But even Two Face who, in the comics, was something of a calculating figure, gets in touch with his feminine side as he literally bursts into tears over a failed ambush against the Batman. In the jewel heist scene, we see these two bad guys regaling themselves in baubles and letting it all hang out like Cosmo Girl shopping divas.

 

Perhaps it is simply Carrey's over the top acting style pushing the usually laid back Jones into seeing who can steal the most scenes. One of the themes of the movie is the struggle between the yin and yang in each person, which might be typified as male side versus female side. (The yin-yang symbolism is blatant with Two Face's parachute and later Dr. Meridian's bifurcated dream warden doll.)

 

To go out on a limb here -- after all, Batman Forever is pop entertainment -- I'd say that the movie can be interpreted as a struggle between the masculine and feminine sides within men. The bad guys fail to resolve this struggle, cross the sexual identity line, act like caricatured females, and descend into chaos. Emotions, feelings, intuition, dominate them. At one point in the movie, Two Face realizes what has become of him and acknowledges, "Emotion is always the enemy of true justice." But it's only a temporary reprieve, as Batman understands Two Face's manic drives and uses them to literally bring about his fall. As for Riddler, he ends up in a padded cell, dragged or driven there by his own green eyed jealousy of Bruce Wayne.

 

Batman/Bruce Wayne must also face the struggle between reason and emotion. Chase Meridian is the fulcrum between the two sides, herself a rational observer who sees through, perhaps too late, the dual identities (see my comment at the end of this review). The interjection of the Chase element puts Batman/Bruce Wayne in the position of being jealous of his alternating alter egos. It's the internal conflict that caused his foes to self-destruct. But he does not let himself be dragged into hormone driven vendettas, and defeats his fears instead of giving in to them. When the crisis comes, Batman/Bruce Wayne controls his emotions and reason triumphs. 

 

(One more thing: in the scene in the third act where Bruce and Chase are on ths sofa in Wayne Manor, after they kiss, look into the fireplace. You can see the logs or whatever forming a shape evocative of the Batman insignia, and at the same time, Chase gets a look of enlightenment. She realizes at this moment that Bruce Wayne is Batman, and vice versa. Just thought I'd mention that!)

 

 

THE TRUMAN SHOW:

The situation is the stuff of paranoid delusion and nightmare alienation—your family, your friends, your home town, your entire life, are all one big conspiracy being perpetuated against you by omniscient and unseen forces. Robert Heinlein used a similar theme in his short story, “They”, where an insane asylum inmate is convinced that the world is a series of false fronts created by god-like being to keep him from knowing his true identity—and in the end, he turns out to be right.

 

The Truman Show turns this nightmare into a gentle satire. Jim Carrey is the Truman Burbank of the title. Truman has lived his entire life in the perfect town with the perfect wife and perfect job. But he suspects that something is not quite right. It’s the day he glimpses his long lost father on a crowded street before the latter is "disappeared". This encounter propels Truman on his quest for the truth.

 

The movie becomes Truman’s journey to break free. But it’s not simply to escape the city-sized sound stage in which he is trapped. It’s also to overcome the smothering of his wife and mother, who are really actresses playing their roles. The former exploits sex and the latter uses guilt to keep him in check.

 

It’s interesting that the triggering event for Truman’s quest is his search for his father. And it is that rare film which emphasizes the importance of men in their children’s lives. But there is more to recommend The Truman Show than that. It’s really about a man who goes his own way. Truman resists all the blandishments that society has to offer and, like a modern Magellan, strikes out for parts unknown until he literally comes to the end of his world. And in his final challenge, he literally breaks on through to the other side.

 

The movie has some very interesting scenes. In one, Truman asks his “wife” (really, an actress playing his wife) a very important question: why does she want to have children with him when she obviously can not stand him? It’s a question a lot of men might ask today, why do so many women want to get married when they show nothing but contempt for men.

 

The Truman Show is also a good family film. Jim Carrey plays Truman with restraint, humor, insight and a touch of weariness, as if the strain of the perfect life is slowly causing him to unravel. There's a couple of nice bits where he invents characters in his bathroom mirror, literally reflecting on his life. Mercifully, there is a minimum of four letter words (I’ve always contended that the use of four letter words is poor writing since it shows the author can not get his ideas across in any other way.)

 

If the film has a flaw, it is that Truman’s final decision to escape happens without any explanation as to how he figured out that his supposedly long lost “father” was just another actor. (In an early draft of the screenplay, the triggering event is when he opens a dictionary and finds the word "Trumanesque" in it, referring to him.)

 

By the way, circa 1999 several movies came out in which a hero questions his view of reality and/or society: The Truman Show, Fight Club, The Matrix, eXistenZ, Thirteenth Floor, Dark City. It’s all reminiscent of the 1960s Situationalist International concept of the Society of the Spectacle: that modern technology was creating a world in which people were reduced to the role of spectators in their own lives. 

 

 

SIGNS

Signs is a movie that you will either like or dislike. Not love or hate--it's not strong enough to evoke either. Graham Hess (Mel Gibson) is a former Episcopal priest who has lost his faith. The movie then follows him as he regains it. Of course, it's not simply about religion, but about faith in oneself. The triggering event is an alien invasion. The movie rather cleverly puts the aliens in the background and not until the end is the viewer really certain that there are actual UFOs descending upon the Earth. And this is where some of the dislike comes in, because the aliens make little sense:  they find water toxic, but they land on a planet (Earth) whose surface is, what, 80% H20? And which has precipitation all over the place? Huh?

 

But the thing is, the movie's not about the vagaries of alien invaders. It is about men facing crisis, and finding the strength to overcome it. One nice touch is that Graham's bother, Merill (Joaquin Phoenix), lives with him and his two children. We see the two men working together, their respective strengths adding to something that is greater than the sum of its parts.

 

 

DARK CITY

This is sort of an “iffy” entry into the recommendations because there is a (yuck!) romance element in the movie (though it’s part of the façade). Dark City starts as classic film noire: a man wakes up in a sleazy hotel room with a murdered woman’s corpse and a bad case of amnesia—but then it turns into a science fiction fable about a man discovering his inner powers.

 

What makes this such a movie for men is that the three male leads, Rufus Sewell (the amnesiac turned hero), Kiefer Sutherland (the mad scientist with a bad case of guilty conscience), and William Hurt (the cynical cop who’s willing to give a guy a break) all work together as a team, each using their unique powers to win through.

 

Yeah, there’s some yucky romance stuff in there, but it’s the price you pay for saving the world. In one scene a detective comes to the realization that his wife is not really his wife, and that everyone in the city is literally running around in circles like rats in a maze, perhaps a metaphor for how too many people live their lives.

 

One thing that is annoying is that a narrator explains the back story in the first five minutes of the film, as if the studio thought that the audience could not figure it out for themselves. Oh well. If you can imagine Alfred Hitchcock directing an Original Twilight Zone episode with special effects by George Lucas, you’d get the picture about Dark City.

 

I watched Dark City again the other night. One other thing that puts it into the realm of "iffy" movies is that the Rufus Sewell character is assigned what amount to godlike powers via fiat...a literal deus ex machina, given that the alien "visitors" use a gargantuan machine to assist them in changing the scenes. I think a hero ought to earn his powers, and what makes this all the more ominous is that by the end of the movie, Sewell has in effect made himself the god of this world, not only purging the garden of the alien snakes or chtuloids or whatever, but literally letting there be light. I dunno, this seems to be a little too much power to entrust to one man. We can perhaps see him as a Prometheus-like character, bringing fire to a humanity that has been kept in the dark, but in the end, Prometheus paid for his defiance of the gods, restoring balance to the cosmos.

 

 

TIME BANDITS

This is what used to be called a "boy's" adventure. It's about Kevin Lotterby (Craig Warnock), an eleven year old lad who hitches a ride with a gang of time traveling dwarves, first to various historical eras and then into a Mordor like land in which he has to confront Evil--quite literally! Along the way, Kevin shows pluck, determination, quick thinking, and not a little luck. And despite the havoc being wrought in four dimensions, he emerges all the better for it, returning home a better man, uh, boy, uh whatever.

 

Kevin starts off in a middle class suburb in England. His parents seem to have everything as seen on the TV which they apparently worship, but there is still something missing. Like a family life, and like adventure. Kevin finds both when the aforementioned dwarves dragoon him along on their travels through time, aided by a map stolen from the Supreme Being who is in hot pursuit. In a series of vignettes, the time bandits meet Napoleon (the one sequence in the film which misfires insofar as it relies on a single joke, beaten to death), Robin Hood (Python veteran John Cleese in an, uh, unique interpretation of the Sherwood Forest legend), and The Illiad's King Agamemnon (Sean Connery, who else?). The Agamemnon sequence is especially touching, as Kevin finds the father figure which a television saturated modern world has long since placed beyond the pale.

 

Then it's off to the Time of Legends for a confrontation with Evil (David Warner). Kevin has to deal with cages suspended over abysses, a labyrinth, and what appears to be a hopeless final battle. Not to worry, the Supreme Being (Ralph Richardson, who else?) does the deus ex machina thing and everything is righted. Sort of.

 

Time Bandits was directed by Monthy Python's Terry Gilliam, and assorted Pythonites appear in the film. Yet it really is not a Monty Python kind of show. The movie lacks the cynicism and absurdism--it actually makes sense. And it makes you realize what boys can do. The film comes across much better today, some three decades after its release. We can see today the removal of men from boy's lives via the divorce-industrial complex and the welfare state, the family being replaced by the increasingly mind numbing nature of television and consumer culture. As the movie's final line states, "It's Evil, don't touch it!" So look at Time Bandits as the raising of a flag of defiance, staking a claim to doing stuff for real and thereby liberating oneself. And remember: Kill Your Television!

 

 

THINGS TO COME (1936)

I'll have to admit, Things to Come comes off on the clunky side by modern standards. At several points in the film, things come to a halt so characters can make speeches to the camera. But Things to Come is something of a marvel of film making for its time, written by science fiction pioneer H. G. Wells and portraying a century or so of future history. The movie was made in 1936 and starts in 1940 with another world war breaking out in Europe. There is a riveting documentary style portrayal of the destruction of England via air raids, followed by a new Dark Ages descending on the world, and then building of a new technocratic civilization which launches a spacecraft with a young couple to the Moon while the great masses storm the citadel of reason.

 

I'm including Things to Come because it provides a vision of what  men believed was to be the future. Destruction followed by rebirth. The movie parallels much of mid-20th century science fiction authors such as Heinlein, Asimov and Clark in its assumption that the future is with science, rationality and space exploration. It assumes that men must take control and overcome primal emotions. Raymond Massey portrays John Cabal and then his son Oswald as the epitome of, well, science, rationality and aerospace engineering, Randian men of the mind as it were. The Cabal's cabal is contrasted to Ralph Richardson's "Boss," a thuggish if likable warlord ruling the ruins of a bombed out England; and to Cedric Hardwicke's future sculptor Theotocopulos who rouses the rabble against the space program (the latter, incidentally, using a Vernian giant cannon to fire a spacecraft to Lunar orbit--something which reportedly caused the American Rocket Society no small annoyance!). The heroes are the scientists, engineers,  and aerospace pioneers, fields in which men hold the lead.

 

I mentioned characters making speeches to the camera. During one of the aerial battles of the movie's world war, we see John Cabal shoot down an intruding bomber, then land so as to attempt the rescue of its pilot. Cabal then asks why men have to kill each other. It seems a bit corny these days, and has more to do with World War I notions of fighter pilots as chivalrous opponents as opposed to the realities of air combat ("scientific murder," I believe was the term than American ace Eddie Rickenbacker used). But it does bring up the point that if men would stop fighting each other and realize their common interests, they might reclaim their rightful places.

 

Looking back, one can take a contrary view of Thing to Come. Modern societies are increasingly of the planned technocratic and globalized variety which the movie advocates. One can argue that the difference is that today's technocracy is based on emotion, irrationality and feelings as opposed to science and progress. Certainly, the USA has seen the end of its manned space program (remember, by 2001 we were supposed to have bases on the Moon and odysseys to the outer planets). I'll also note in passing that the Cabal's technocratic aristocracy seems to be parodied in Star Wars, with Peter Cushing's governor Tarkin and the general staff of the Death Star. In Lucas' universe, magic in the form of the Force trumps technology. 

 

Well, maybe in the movies.

 

Robert Heinlein has stated that the scientific method will save us. His pseudo-future history projected a period termed the "Crazy Years" to be followed by true civilization. Think long term. Not feel, but think. Science seems to be largely a product of men and their unique view of the world. It's something which needs to be seized to create a true future.

 

And perhaps gets us back on track to the stars.

 

 

EQUILIBRIUM:

Equilibrium has Christian Bale reclaiming his own humanity in the face of a numbed-out society. The movie is set in a future derivative of Fahrenheit 451, The Matrix, Nineteen Eighty-Four and Metropolis, and the characters are somewhat on the detached side, though this is perhaps intentional. Significantly, male rebels are shown to be the bearers of art, culture and liberty. There are a couple of women in the film, but they do not usurp men's roles, nor do they act as weak and helpless heroines to be rescued—instead, they complement the male characters with their own strengths.

 

The central control mechanism of Equibrium's dystopian future is a daily dose of mood suppressing drugs. One thinks of Ritalin in these circumstances. I especially liked the scene where Bale’s aesthetic senses awaken when he inadvertently plays a record of Beethoven’s Ninth while searching a museum of banned artwork. You literally see his eyes opening.

 

There is also some nice father-son interaction, especially the scene at the end where Bale’s son saves him from the secret police, and afterwards junior tells him, “You taught me well”. Amen, brother.


 

 

ROLLERBALL:

James Caan is Jonathan E, the Number One player of Rollerball, the murderous game of utopia. He has privilege, fame and women, but risks it all when the rulers tell him he must retire.

 

Rollerball was part of that wave of "thinking person's" science fiction films which were released in the decade prior to Star Wars, and included 2001: a Space Odyssey and Soylent Green. Producer Norman Jewison made Rollerball  as a cautionary tale about violence, the media, and people trading their freedom for security. And it has a lot to say about these things today three decades after it was released.

 

Jewison gives a well realized future where all is well, sort of. The buildings are monuments of glass and chrome, the people trim and fashionable. No paramilitary police are kicking in doors and hauling away people to the local gulag. In fact, there's only one weapon shown in the entire movie, a supercharged pistol which partygoers use to incinerate a woodline. Beneath the surface things are not quite so hot. Like there are no more libraries, shades of Farenheit 451. One odd sequence has Caan trying to get information out of what is apparently the world's one and only computer, called "Zero", but Zero just quite isn't cooperating today. Well, the movie was made long before Bill Gates became a household name.

 

Anyway, Caan has to make some hard decisions. In order to get him out of the game, the corporate rulers (who are now also the government) keep changing the rules.  Like no penalties. And no substitutions. And no time limits. So by the final game in the playoffs, Rollerball has become a deathmatch. You see, what they are afraid of is that Jonathan E is subverting the game's propaganda message, that individual action is futile. Of course, he proves that it isn't.

 

Along the way, he has to give up a lot of stuff. His one close friend among the other players is rendered braindead in a skirmish with the Tokyo team. His mistress, with whom he has a reasonably friendly (if business-like) relationship, is replaced by another female, this time a corporate spy (whom he dispatches with ease). Towards the end, he rejects a reconciliation with his once beloved wife (not so easy) in order to stay true to himself.

 

One of the more powerful scenes of the movie is in the locker room just before he goes into the final game. Everyone is suited up for combat. Caan looks over his teammates, but by now they are all strangers, faceless behind their helmets. He rolls on into the arena, ready to do battle, one man alone.

 

 

ALIENS:

This may seem and odd entry, given that it stars Sigourney Weaver, but Aliens has a vision of what a lot of men thought women’s liberation was going to be about: women actually living up to the standards of men and everybody getting down together.

 

Aliens has Weaver and a sexually integrated squad of spaceborne marines going up against the eponymous aliens on a cyberpunk-biomech décor planet. The female marines are neither the weak and helpless heroines of yore, nor the anti-male harridans of present films. They pick up their assault rifles and do their jobs without any hysterics, flirting or feminist cliché spewing. Oh yeah, the aliens are equal opportunity slashers of both male and female flesh.

 

Yes, a subtle romantic relationship develops between Weaver and one of the marines, but it is rightly understated in the film. The movie is also useful for its realistic  portrayal of the cohesion and disintegration of the troopers. The women are neither victims nor heroes, they’re grunts, just like the men. Too bad it never worked out this way in reality.

 

 

PANDORUM:

I have to admit, I picked this one up on DVD only because I had someone recommend it to me. It seemed from the wrapper to be just one more Alien  rip-off mixed with a dungeon crawl on a giant spaceship. And for the first 20 minutes or so, that is pretty much how it seemed to be going.

 

Then Pandorum  got interesting.

 

Really interesting.

 

We find out that Pandorum  is the name of a psychosis which afflicts crews of spaceships. But it is more than that, and after the credits finished rolling, I had to admit I had seen, almost against my wishes, something that was quite profound. In many ways, Pandorum  is a re-telling of Milton's epic, Paradise Lost.  There's a fallen angel in the works. And a loner adventuring through a demonic world. And people who have been expelled from Paradise. And a redemption. It all comes together at the end, when the protagonist realize that it is not the ship that is making the voyage, but himself.

 

One reason I really liked Pandorum  is that its makers avoided the temptation to retread the usual cliches. It is set in the science fiction noir future (think the extremes of Alien Resurrection  and New Battlestar Galactica) as opposed to the science fiction heroic future (do not think Star Trek or Star Wars). Even then, there are some brilliant scenes. Such as when the adventurers stumble upon a low rent survivor who gives them the low down on what really  happened to the ship, telling his tale as allegory and myth, backed up by etchings on a wall right out of an over-the-edge Dore. There are also some nice twists in there, especially the revelation at the end as to where the ship is actually located. More importantly, the characters realize where they are located in relationship to their inner selves. The movie is about real issues, and by real issues I do not mean who can rack up the biggest body count. Yeah, we have the obligatory warrior female stock character, right out of the cliche clone banks. She does her thing. But it's the male lead who uses his superior sanity to win the day.

 

One is reminded of Aristotle's three great plot lines: man against the gods; man against man; man against himself. The first two are in the movie in obvious ways. One of the protagonists turns out to have set himself up as the divinity of this closed universe and must be overcome. Then there are the obligatory fights against mutated creatures who roam the dying ship's corridors.

 

But mostly Pandorum  is about man against himself. Both protagonists must confront their inner demons. One surrenders, the other does not. And therein lies what makes this movie so effective. As with every other epic from Gilgamesh through the Grail Knights and Lord of the Rings, the real journey is not geographical but spiritual. In Pandorum, one man defeats his inner demons, thereby leading humanity into the future. The real struggle is the internal one, the one which builds great civilizations. Man overcomes his darker nature and brings other people to the light.

 

It's what science fiction ought to be about.

 

 

STAR WARS: ATTACK OF THE CLONES:

This is another odd entry. I included Clones mainly because it has some portrayals of female-male dynamics that ring true. Apprentice-Jedi Anakin Skywalker tries to get the attention of all-around galactic babe Padme Amadalla (Natalie Portman) by being the nice guy. In return, she publicly humiliates him by treating him as a child (calling him “Annie” in front of his peers). It’s only later in the movie, after Anakin has slaughtered a village full of civilians, that she decides she is in love with this bad boy.

 

The turning point comes when, following the massacre, Padme approaches Anakin with a serving tray, a symbol of her deciding to submit to him. After all, he has “proven” himself a “real” man by killing the innocent as well as the guilty. Now freed from responsibility for her actions, she galavants around the galaxy with the young Sith lord in training and joins in the general bloodbath (OK, it’s mainly robots and insect-like aliens who are getting chopped up, Lucas wants to keep the movie suitable for young ‘uns, so “lubricant bath”?).

 

By the end of the movie Anakin has begun his descent into the Dark Side of the Force, so Padme just has to marry him. It’s all an abject lesson for NiceGuys on what it takes to win some women…and why they may find it is not worth the effort, in a galaxy not too long ago nor too far away.

 

 

DUNE (David Lynch director):

 

“Father, the sleeper has awakened!”

 

Great line from David Lynch’s film adaptation of Frank Herbert’s classic science fiction novel, "Dune". It's about a young man who realizes his messianic powers on a desert planet, sole source of the "spice", the drug without which the Galaxy can not live. The book became a sci-fi classic, but it was not until the success of Star Wars that the studios would risk filming it.

 

The first act of the movie has some good interaction between the doomed Duke Leto Atreides (Jurgen Prochnow) and his son and heir, Paul (Kyle MacLachlan). Paul’s desire to avenge his father’s demise at the hands of the Galactic Empire’s minions motivates much of the action, though this isn’t simply a revenge movie—Paul seeks to fulfill the destiny he promised to his father, to awaken the “sleeping” powers within him.

 

Herbert’s future is not PC (after all, the book was written before the “1960s”). Both men and women develop the powers unique to their own sexes. One premise is that a revolt against “thinking machines” (what we’d today call computers) forced people to develop their mental abilities. So there are male quasi-religious orders of thinkers (Mentats) and warriors (Sardaukar, Fedaykin), and female orders of genetic manipulators (Bene Gesserit). Each is strong in their own sphere and no one goes into the other sex's bailiwick. Men and women are "worlds" apart.

 

Paul's mother, Jessica, is a noble character. She drops out of the sisterhood (in this case, the Bene Gesserit) in order to support both her husband and son. And there are some good scenes of her and Paul working together to cross a desert while pursued by giant sand worms. They then hook up with the Fremen, holy warriors waiting for a messiah to lead them and Paul fits the bill.

 

Paul finally realizes his powers by going into the desert and doing that which is forbidden, taking the "water of life", though why it is so important is never adequately explained. He then has the mystic revelation and can fulfill his destiny. Like Prometheus, he breaks the bounds of convention.

 

Dune can be a confusing movie to watch if you have not read the book (and if you have read the book, you might read too much into the film). The last half seems rushed, and many of the character relationships are never quite fulfilled. It’s perhaps best to just sit back and let it flow through your consciousness. A lot of the movie is in mantra-like one-liners (“The worm is the spice, the spice is the worm”; "Soon they'll be folding space, far off in the control rooms of spice gas"). The movie’s flaw isn’t so much that it cut out too much of the book, but that it maintained too many pointless subplots while neglecting Herbert’s intent, that the rise of a hero is not necessarily a good thing.

 

There are several different cuts of the film floating about. The original theatrical release was 2 hours and 17 minutes, while various television and video releases have added another 40 minutes' worth of (poorly edited) footage. The DVD has several more cut scenes.

 

The Science Fiction Channel did a Dune mini-series a few years back which was a much more literal adaptation of the book. It also got into the book’s political nuances, though at times it can be a bit uneven: you can see where the special effects budget ran out!

 

I did want to make a couple more observations about the Lynch Dune.  One  thing I find interesting is that it is one of the few Hollywood movies since the 1950s to take religion seriously, and with religion of a manly sort. The movie has a biblical epic sense to it. Paul as Maudib or the Mahdi or the Kwizatch Haderach knock-off is, as Princess Irulan tells us, the "Hand of God." And our hero of sorts is backed up by prophecies, religious visions,  quasi-monastic orders, and music right out of a DeMille flick. Dune's religion is of the patriarchal variety, with Paul as the man who breaks free of the female Bene Gesserit, a rebellion of a teenage patriarch against the earth mothers on far off Arrakis. Frank Herbert's hero goes to the place where women dare not venture to lead mankind into a new path.

 

Another is the scene where Paul takes the Water of Life and has the consciousness expanded revelation that "the Worm is the Spice, the Spice is the Worm." Of course, this is a reference to the metaphysical unity of all things. Think of it as Huxley's Doors of Perception--especially since Kyle MacLachlen later went on to play Ray Manzarek in The Doors and there is a scene in there were they go to the desert to have mystic drug visions, though I'd venture to say that Dune  did it better. In any event, it shows the real exploration is into inner space, and such voyages are how men lead civilization into great leaps forward.

 

Just thought I would mention all that and spice up the review.

 

Dune Extended

 

The other night I watched the extended version of the David Lynch Dune  as part of another project on which I am working. As noted, the editing of this version can be truly atrocious in places. Which is unfortunate because there are several scenes which had items of interest. In one, Duncan Idaho returns from the desert to tell Duke Leto that the planet hides an incredible secret...and you can see the revelation in Idaho's eyes. It's a rare authentic metaphysical moment on screen, a nexus at which a transcendent truth is recognized. Lynch got so much more out of that one scene than all the CGI and special effects in the galaxy would have accomplished. And it communicates the commencement of an awakening which Paul Atreides will later complete.

 

Another scene has the Duke, Paul and their top officers meeting with Dr. Kynes. It's laid back with Gurney Halleck first entertaining by playing his balliset in the Duke's study, a slice of life among the guys. The men move into agreement, the Atreides will ally with the Fremen whom Dr. Kynes covertly leads. (It's also a payoff to an earlier scene implying there is more to Kynes than meets the eye.)  Add in a ceremonial touch as Duke Leto symbolically and physically shares water, a sort of baptism on the desert planet in which the liquid is precious (see the photo above).  

 

Then there's a confrontation between Jessica and the Shadout Mapes, a Fremen servant who brings her a crysknife as a deadly gift (the knife is made from the tooth of a giant sandworm). The scene is a bit mangled, and the DVD extras section includes a couple of lines which were left out (depending on how you look at it, they either explain what is going on or confuse things all the more!). Jessica is strong without having to go into the absurdist martial arts acrobatics which seem de riguer these filmic days of ersatz female warrior antics. She upends the situation neatly by outthinking her foe, turning a potential assassination into a declaration of loyalty. Good breeding in action.

 


Towards the end, Fremen honcho Stilgar takes Paul into the sanctum to show him the "mystery of mysteries,"  how the Water of Life is brought forth from a drowned sandworm. The scene looks unfinished, and actually appears to have been originally scripted to appear at an earlier point in the movie. Yet it does have a certain haunting quality, the mentoring of a young warrior into the inner secrets. It sets up Paul's later taking of the Water of Life in the desert, unlocking his ability to transcend himself. This is the thing which Frank Herbert tells us men must do--operate on echelons above the mundane.

 

And that, as they say on Dune, will lead us out of darkness.

 

 

 

 

 

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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EOF