Friday, November 12, 2010

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: The NeverEnding Story (1984)

Today, we return to the blog's ongoing survey of the fantasy films of the 1980s. 

Last week, we remembered the visually-impressive and wholly entertaining Krull  (1983), a swashbuckling pastiche of every "heroic journey" story from Arthurian legend right-up through Star Wars (1977) and Tron (1982).   

Now, we turn our attention to 1984's quirky and heart-felt The NeverEnding Story (1984), a more child-like, innocent fantasy film made in Germany by director Wolfgang Peterson.  His is a name you will recognize immediately for his efforts in the genre like Enemy Mine (1985) and those outside it too, such as Das Boot (1981).

The NeverEnding Story also features stellar practical effects from Brian Johnson, the accomplished special effects director amd guru behind Space: 1999's (1975 -1977) miniatures and pyrotechnics, plus the effects of The Empire Strikes Back (1980) and Aliens (1986).  Many of the landscapes and creatures Johnson devised for this cinematic effort remain positively wondrous a quarter-century on. 

Both tonally and visually, The NeverEnding Story boasts a softer, more whimsical vibe than the film's appreciably darker and more adult contemporaries,  Krull or Legend for instance.  But the world  The NeverEnding Story so ably depicts is also refreshingly fanciful and indeed, a bit surreal; what Variety called a "flight of pure fancy."

I realize the movie won't be everybody's cup of tea, however.  It's not all orc battles, clashing armies and sword fights; and there's never any sense that this tale is part of some larger, realistic, otherworldly saga. 

Instead, as valuable description of the film's atmosphere, let me quote the Boston Globe's Michael Blowen.  He termed the movie "so wonderfully appropriate to children that it seems to have been made by kids.  But there is enough artistic merit in the tale to enchant adults equally."

Looking back today, it's clear that The NeverEnding Story succeeds most powerfully indeed as this "dual track"-styled fantasy that Blowen hints at.  On one hand, this is a  genre film starring children and intended for children; alive with adventure, whimsy and excitement.  On another level all together, however, adults can enjoy the film because it cleverly references (albeit symbolically), the vicissitudes of adult life. 
When young Atreyu (Noah Hathaway) faces several dangerous tasks in the film, it is not just adventure or ordinary fairy tale creatures he countenances, but existential dilemmas about self, about the human psychology.

In the beginning, it is always dark....

A dangerous book: The NeverEnding Story.
The NeverEnding Story's particular narrative arises from a popular and critically-acclaimed literary work by German writer, Michael Ende. Alas, Ende was allegedly unhappy with the film's translation of his 1979 book, in part, perhaps, because it depicts only the first half of his narrative. At the box office, the 27 million-dollar film was considered a bomb, though (lesser) sequels were eventually produced.  Critical reviews were mixed. 

In The NeverEnding Story, a sad boy named Bastian (Barret Oliver) is doing poorly in school after the untimely death of his mother.  His father is cold and distant, and Bastian feels alone, rudderless. At school, he is relentlessly bullied by his classmates, and the world feels devoid of hope; of warmth.

One day, Bastian hides from the bullies in a book store and learns from an old man named Koreander (Thomas Hill) of a strange book; a book that is different from all others.  It is called "The NeverEnding Story."   Koreander claims that it is not a safe book.  He hints it can actually transport the reader to another world, another time.

Alone in an attic, Bastian reads the mysterious book. It tells of a mythical world called Fantasia where a creeping "Nothing" is devouring the world a land at-a-time. 

A young boy, about Bastian's age -- Atreyu -- is summoned to the Ivory Tower to embark on a heroic quest.  The land's Empress is dying of a strange malady, one tied to the existence and spread of "The Nothing."  Atreyu must learn how to cure the Empress's disease, an act which should simultaneously stop the "The Nothing."  But it will not be easy.

Early on, Atreyu loses his beloved white steed, Artex, in the "Swamp of Sadness," attempting to contact "The Ancient One" -- a giant old turtle "allergic" to young people. 

There, Atreyu begs the apathetic old creature -- who lives by the motto "we don't even care whether or not we care" -- for help.  The Old One finally informs the boy warrior that he must travel ten thousand miles to the South Oracle if he hopes to get his answer about the Empress.

Fortunately, a luck dragon named Falcor rescues Atreyu from sinking further into the Swamp of Sadness, and transports him to the Southern Oracle.  There, with the help of two kindly elves, Engywook and Urgl, Atreyu faces two critical tests. 

First, he must walk through a gate in which is self-worth is judged.  If his self-worth is found lacking, two giant statues will destroy him with eye-mounted particle beam weapons.

The second test at the Southern Gates is the "magical mirror test."  There, Atreyu must gaze into a mirror and countenance his true self.  Here, brave men learn that they are cowards inside.  And kind men learn that they have been cruel.

Surviving both tests, Atreyu learns that he must next pass beyond the "boundaries" of Fantasia to save his world and his queen.  This is something of a trick answer, however, as he learns from his feral nemesis, Gmork. 

As Gmork confides in the warrior about Fantasia: "It's the world of human fantasy. Every part, every creature of it, is a piece of the dreams and hopes of mankind. Therefore, it has no boundaries."

In the end, worlds collide. Atreyu needs the help (and the belief) of Bastian in his world; and Bastian must be the one to save the Empress, even though at first he can't quite make himself believe that he can help.  As the Empress notes, Bastian "simply can't imagine that one little boy could be that important."

But, of course, he is...

We don't know how much longer we can withstand the nothing.
A beacon of hope in Fantasia, The "Ivory Tower."
In the synopsis above, one can easily detect how the dangerous, fanciful quests in Atreyu's Fantasia (Fantastica in the Ende book...) translate into relevant messages about human life here on Earth, and in particular, the challenges of adulthood.

"The Swamp of Sadness," for instance, is a place that -- if you stop to dwell -- you sink further and further.  In other words, this specific trap is a metaphor for self-pity.  If you stop to focus on how sad you are, how depressed you feel, you just keep sinking.  And the further you sink, the harder it is to escape; to pull yourself up.  Sadness creates more sadness.

And the Ancient Guardian?  He represents apathy and old age; wherein acceptance of "how things are" has overcome the desperate need of  hungry youth to change (even save...) the world.  Appropriate then that this guardian should be visualized as a turtle...since he can just hide from everything in his over sized shell, never to face reality.  As the movie notes, "There's no fool like an old fool!"

The Southern Gate's first test, of "self worth," also relates to us, right here, everyday.  If we don't believe in ourselves and what we can accomplish under our own steam, how can we make others believe in us or our abilities?  Feelings of strong self-esteem and self-worth must by need precede all quests of "self actualization," right? If you don't believe you can do something in the first place, why try?

The second Oracle test -- also encountered before victory -- involves facing yourself.  There are all sorts of "monsters" and crises to fear in our everyday lives, but none of those beasts is worse or more terrifying than self-reflection;  how we sometimes view and judge ourselves

The magical mirror test asks us to solemnly reflect on who we are; on who we have become.  Are we the good people we could be?  Or are we hypocrites hiding behind platitudes about being good? When we look in the mirror, which face do we see?

Even the movie's nebulous but effective central threat is contextualized as a danger to the psychology; a danger to self.  What's at stake if you have low self-esteem, if you sink into depression, and you don't see yourself truthfully in that mirror of conscience? 

Well, the creeping Nothing around you -- and inside you -- just grows and grows.  "It's the emptiness that's left," Gmork says, describing the "Nothing."   "It's like a despair, destroying this world...Because people have begun to lose their hopes and forget their dreams. So the Nothing grows stronger."

So, meet 1984's The NeverEnding Story: the self-help book of fantasy cinema, in which every challenge Atreyu faces alludes to the book's reader, Bastian, and his unique set of challenges.  Not to mention our challenges too.

Should he wallow in self-pity in despair, with the end result that the quicksand will consume him?  Should he hate himself because he is sad, and not pulling himself up by his bootstraps as his Dad desires?

If Bastian succumbs to these visions of himself (and does not see his own self worth), the Nothing consumes him...just as it consumes Fantasia.  The answer, of course, is to believe in himself, and this message is not as heavy handed as it might have been, in part because of the delightful fantasy trappings. 

It's amusing and also rather charming to see our grown-up fears (of depression) and foibles (like low self-esteem) made manifest into the physical genre trappings of the heroic quest; dangers to be avoided and beaten down.  Depression as a swamp. Apathy as a turtle inside his shell. Self-worth as a hurdle that must be crossed, etc.

Another highly commendable aspect of The NeverEnding Story is how it views imagination and education

Of course, the act of reading (and of imagining the adventures of literary figures) is championed here as a way of dealing with unpleasantness in real life; unpleasantness like death, and like bullying.  Reading is the catalyst of everything important in the film: the introduction to adventure and the key to saving the world.  As Julie Salomon wrote in The Wall Street Journal back in 1984, The NeverEnding Story "brings back the early excitement of reading as a child, when the act of turning pages took on a magical quality."

But more than that, I appreciate how The NeverEnding Story turns the idea of "the Ivory Tower" on its ear.  In metaphor, the Ivory Tower has become synonymous with something negative.  The phrase Ivory Tower widely "refers to a world or atmosphere where intellectuals engage in pursuits that are disconnected from the practical concerns of everyday life."

Today, people decry Ivory Tower residents as "elitists" or as being somehow bad, even evil.  Instead, ignorance and anti-intellectualism are raised up as virtues, instead.   Don't read the newspaper?  Great!  Don't know geography?  Terrific. Who's the leader of Pakistan?  Don't know?  Outstanding. 

Well, as The NeverEnding Story makes plain, nothing bad EVER originates from the Ivory Tower.  Self-enrichment and education are universal any reality.  There is no down side to being smart; to  gathering knowledge; to being a resident of this "Ivory Tower."

Ask yourself, what do others gain by keeping another person away from learning, away from the proverbial Ivory Tower? By keeping others ignorant?  That's the danger of anti-intellectualism right there; that someone will "bully" another being into being something less than what he or she could be.  

Gmork makes the case aptly:  "People who have no hopes are easy to control; and whoever has the control... has the power."

When you tie together The NeverEnding Story's multiple strands of education (and learning to read, to experience literary worlds), imagination (putting yourself into the literary fantasy...)  and self-worth to the movie's paradise -- "The Ivory Tower," --  you get the point plainly.  

It's a message perfectly suited for adults and kids: don't for a minute believe that one person can't be important.

The question, for viewers, of course, is simply: are you interested in a fantasy film created in this vein, a fantasy film in which the advice "never give up, and good luck will find you," is championed at the expense of more mature, nuanced themes.  

I can easily imagine that, before having a son, I might have felt that this message was somehow cheesy or over-the-top.   But being the parent of a four-year old, I find myself appreciating The NeverEnding Story more than ever before.  The movie is fun and inventive, and it has a light touch with this material. I find it audacious and courageous that a fantasy movie should take the form of, literally, the aforementioned "self-help book."  

Now, I don't know that I would want other fantasies to emulate this mold; but in this case, the unusual symbolism successfully differentiates The NeverEnding Story from its many brethren of the early 1980s.  The result is that the movie is distinctive...and memorable.

Of course, not everyone agreed.  Critic Vincent Canby wrote, of the movie's approach: "When the movie is not sounding like ''The Pre-Teen- Ager's Guide to Existentialism,'' it's simply a series of resolutely unexciting encounters between Atreyu and the creatures that alternately help and hinder his mission."

Perhaps that's true, but what about when the movie does sound like a Pre-Teen Ager's Guide to Existentialism?  For me, that's where this movie's worth ultimately resides; in the idea of real life foibles and crises made manifest in fantasy terrain.  I don't think the movie's great strength --  the brawny central conceit -- should be discounted quite so readily.

Having a luck dragon with you is the only way to go on a quest...

Falcor, the Luck Dragon...looks suspiciously like a puppy.

The other factor that distinguishes The NeverEnding Story today is the film's pre-CGI visualization of Fantasia. 

In fact, this movie, -- much like The Dark Crystal (1982) -- is a wonderful testament to the things practical effects can achieve given an adequate budget and a sense of unrestrained imagination.  Here, an entire world is built from the ground up; and it's a world of leviathan Rock Biters, racing snails, Sadness Swamps, weird "elf-tech," and much more. 

Using prosthetics, gorgeous sets, miniatures, and mattes -- and no digital backgrounds or monsters whatsoever -- the makers of this film support the storyline with their droll, highly-detailed creations.  Some of these creations are really, really weird, mind you. 

For instance, the Rock Biter is an amazing, idiosyncratic and wholly individual thing. He's crazy-looking, and yet he's got real personality and character.  I can't say he looks "real"; more like something you'd imagine from Alice in Wonderland.  And yet he has weight and presence, and when he is sad, you feel his pain.  In the movie, the Rock Biter contemplates giving himself to the Nothing, essentially committing suicide, and the pathos is authentic.  A bad special effect could not have accomplished that feeling.

Today, some of the flying effects don't hold up; certainly that is true.  The ending of the movie also feels sudden, and a little too convenient.

Also, I can't honestly say there's a scene here of as much emotional maturity as what we got during the "Widow of the Web" interlude in Krull

But nonetheless, The NeverEnding Story still has...something.  It may not be what we desire of a fantasy as "serious"  grown-ups, but trenchantly it does recall such youthful stories as Peter Pan and Alice in Wonderland.

Empire's Ian Nathan wrote of The NeverEnding Story: "This was sweet and charming at the time but now it just lacks either the comedy or sophistication of kids' fantasy film that we've all become accustomed to."

I agree with him that The NeverEnding Story remains sweet and charming.  And the film's sense of sophistication arises from the central conceit of turning human emotions -- depression, self-hatred, apathy -- into the trials of a heroic, fantasy quest.  

But I know what he means.  

There's the sense after watching the film that, somehow, The NeverEnding Story isn't merely child-like, it's actually childish. 

I'll leave it up to each individual viewer to decide if that's the film's ultimate weakness, or true strength.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

What I'm Reading Now: Horror Noir - Where Cinema's Dark Sisters Meet

"They call her film noir. Black film. Personified as a woman, lady noir is a clever, darkly beautiful femme fatale who executes the grimmest and most mysterious decrees of fate.  Death and lust attend her, murder and obsession are her companions...

...But wait, noir has a twisted sister, a twin of even blacker reputation. Morbid and irrational, she is even more depraved and given to violence than her sibling.  She also travels in dark realms of fate and death, madness and murder, but journeys even deeper into blackness.  She consorts with mounters out of hell and demons of the void.  She is horror itself."

- Paul Meehan, Horror Noir: "Introduction" (McFarland; 2010; page 3).

CULT TV FLASHBACK 122: Farscape: "The Way We Weren't" (2000)

I've been re-visiting Farscape (1999 - 2003) for the last several weeks, and am very much enjoying this second look at one of the greatest space adventures in TV history.  

Back in the day, I actually had the honor of writing original short stories for The Official Farscape Magazine (particularly "Make a Wish" and "That Old Voodoo" back in 2002)  and one of my greatest career disappointments remains the fact that Farscape was unceremoniously canceled just as the possibility arose that I might get to pen an epic series novel based on a proposal I wrote for Tor called "Dominar." 


But long story short: as much as I was heavily into Farscape when it originally aired -- and I absolutely loved writing original fiction in that universe -- the DVD sets were cost-prohibitive until about a year ago, so I never went back to re-visit a space adventure program I positively adored on first run. 

Then I purchased the more affordable Complete Series DVD set last Christmas, and finally -- only in the last month or so -- got around to screening the series again from the very beginning.  And it's already been an amazing ride; each episode brings up strong memories of why I fell in love with the series back in 1999.

Although the Henson/O'Bannon series is widely commented on and praised for the colorful, original and utterly wonderful presentation of aliens and other-worldly environments -- I just watched an episode called "Home on the Remains"  that took place entirely inside the carcass of a giant space creature -- Farscape nonetheless appears to  reach its apex of quality when focusing front-and-center on its very conflicted and very flawed dramatis personae.

Case in point is the jaw-dropping, heart-breaking "The Way We Weren't," a grim if thoroughly involving episode from Farscape's second season, which originally aired on the Sci-Fi Channel in April of 2000. 

"The Way We Weren't" moves with a relentless sense of urgency, pace and inevitability, and spares the main characters (and thus the viewer) no pain whatsoever.  There are no lengthy excursions to other worlds in this particular story; and no "new" alien creations, either.  Instead, the sharp focus is on...the intimate; on inner space, if you will.

In fact, this particular installment points to the reason I deeply admire Farscape so much, even on a second viewing a decade later.  The overall stance/philosophy here is realistic rather than overtly operatic, idealistic, or heroic. 

This creative approach boasts two distinct advantages. 

One: the sense of realism in terms of character interaction and history grounds the far-out proceedings.  Farscape is visually dazzling in a fashion that few science fiction series have ever achieved (Space: 1999 is another notable example of such an achievement), and if the characters in Farscape were all perfect, idealized beings (as is the case on TNG, for instance...), there would be nothing to hold onto; no way to identify with the adventures or their participants.  The colorful world of Farscape and its inhabitants would seem remote.

And two: the realistic, fully-dimensional approach to the colorful characters makes their eventual bonding and infrequent unions of purpose and mission seem all the more grand and inspiring. 

The main characters on Farscape are exiles, thieves, cheats, a fish-out-of-water, and even an ex-fascist.  When this motley crew gets it together and somehow beats the Powers that Be, you not only sigh with relief, you actually cheer.  

In short, the series' writers keep setting the main characters at each other's throats, separated by their divisions and differences, experiencing set-backs and then -- at just the right time -- they bring everyone back together.  It can be quite rousing, even rather emotional at times. 

Farscape brilliantly mastered this particular narrative structure.

But getting to specifics, in the second season's "The Way We Weren't," Chiana (Gigi Edgley) unexpectedly discovers a shocking video recording.  It depicts the brutal murder of Moya's first pilot by Peacekeepers...under the direction of draconian Captain Crais (Lani Tupu). 

This is a double shock, actually, because no one aboard the bio-ship even knew that Moya's current Pilot was not her first. 

Aeryn participates in the brutal murder of a Pilot.
The next surprise is that one of the Peacekeeper soldiers carrying out the brutal blaster massacre is none other than current Moya resident, Aeryn Sun (Claudia Black).  

Pilot and Aeryn have long since learned to get along, and even bonded, so this recording could be a huge problem.

And of course, it is.  As usual, Rygel makes trouble for his shipmates and sees to it that Pilot gets his hands (claws?) on the violent recording. 

Angry, Pilot promptly demands that Aeryn leave Moya permanently.  She is no longer welcome. 

The scenes involving Pilot's out-of-control rage and Aeryn's deep, sincere regret are incredibly raw and incredibly powerful in "The Way We Weren't.   You will swear, countenancing Pilot's unrestrained grief and rage, that this is a real alien being and not an accomplished special effect; not a "muppet."

Reluctantly, Aeryn agrees to depart from Moya, and no one seems eager to keep her around.  Only John (Ben Browder) is at all sympathetic

Still Aeryn asks for forgiveness from Pilot and Moya.  Importantly, she doesn't try to evade responsibility for her act of murder, she simply states that she is "no longer" the "same person" she was when she pulled that trigger so long ago.   To the others aboard Moya, this hardly seems like an excuse, given Aeryn's culpability. 

This dynamic amongst the crew (D'Argo, Chiana, Zahn, and Rygel)  powerfully illuminates an important issue in modern American culture vis-a-vis crime and punishment.  When a person has committed a crime, but changed in the years since that we punish that person for his or her initial deed, or honor the redemption?  When pronouncing punishment, do we consider good deeds or positive "change" as mitigating factors? 

Aeryn has no right to ask for mercy and understanding, especially seeing how -- in the episode's flashbacks -- she also callously betrays the man she loves, a Peacekeeper officer with deep feelings for her.  And yet Aeryn is right...she isn't the same person anymore. We've seen her save her ship-mates and Moya herself on more than one occasion.

Pilot wants to "see the stars."  Maybe too much.
"The Way We Weren't" is downright fascinating in its depiction of Aeryn during her Peacekeeper past, and in terms of revealing how limited a person she once was in terms of her connections to others, her aspirations, even in the simple terms of her imagination.

But then, commendably, the story goes one better and reveals, also via flashback, Pilot's original connection with Moya too.   

Shockingly, even this kindly creature -- a veritable rock of stability on the Leviathan since the series' premiere-- boasts a personal history that he is ashamed of too...and also keeping secrets about. 

Specifically, Pilot was never approved to be "joined" with Moya (or any Leviathan), and so teamed with the Peacekeepers to link with Moya outside of the hierarchy of his people and his laws.   Pilot was impatient.  He wanted to "see the stars" and he didn't want to wait. 

That burning desire,that impatience, led Pilot to commit a grievous error...a crime.

In this way, Pilot is as much responsible for the first pilot's death as is Aeryn...and he knows it.  The knowledge of this guilt, the memory of this betrayal, nearly destroys Pilot, in fact.  In an agonizing moment, he literally rips himself out of his piloting console, a suicidal act which immobilizes Moya, but also -- ironically -- frees Pilot of the pain he has always felt because of his actions, and also because of his "artificial" joining to the Leviathan.

In "The Way We Weren't," Aeryn's and Pilot's personal stories mirror and parallel one another in unqieu artistic fashion.  Aeryn once committed a betrayal against her lover to get what she wanted (an assignment flying prowlers, for heaven's sake), and Pilot essentially did the same thing.  He let himself be manipulated by Crais and the Peacekeepers so that he could achieve his dream of joining with a Leviathan.  He was a willing pawn.

As John Crichton notes in the episode, everyone has secrets in their past; secrets that they don't want exposed, and "The Way We Weren't" is a beautiful and edgy excavation of Aeryn and Pilot's deepest, darkest skeletons.  

The episode works so well because it never candy coats what these characters did in the past.  It never makes excuses for their mistakes and behavior.  It just reveals that Pilot and Aeryn have made mistakes, and that, today, they truly are different people.  That's a lot like real life, no?

"The Way We Weren't" also features several stand-out scenes and visualizations.  The flashback moments are rendered in a kind of bleached-out, de-saturated palette, which lends a deeper feeling of "colorlessness" to the milieu of the Peacekeepers; who all march in lock-step and don't deviate from rigid behavior and personal emotional repression. 

It's a world without real love -- as Aeryn describes it to John -- and in one of the episode's most interesting scenes, Aeryn leverages what authentically seems like true love for a simple job transfer.  This is an unheroic, unflattering view of Aeryn. She was once so limited, so parochial, she didn't even know how to value love -- the human (okay, Sebacean...) connection -- over an assignment she liked.  You feel pity for her.

The second scene from the episode that I find deeply affecting finds Aeryn's lover, Valerek, visiting Pilot on what I assume is Pilot's home world.  Pilot is ensconced in a planetary surface of heavy though sitting in a swamp or a bog.  High above him, the black, clear sky is filled with bright stars.  A shooting star even races by overhead.  In this moment, you can understand the young Pilot's yearning and impatience to be free. 

To escape from the restraining fog below and touch those distant constellations above... 

If you're a fan of space adventures, or even just science fiction in general, you've likely felt this simple tug before: to leave behind the mundane environment of terra firma and touch the magic and mystery of the stars. 

I admire how this scene looks; and especially how it plays.  And again, I must state how endearing, how emotionally-resonant the performance by Pilot (voiced by Lani Tupu) truly is in this moment.  You look at those big expressive, alien eyes and you don't see a technician's carefully calibrated creation; you see a fully-realized alien being longing for an escape from his earthbound existence.

Without ever being preachy or pushing hard some kind of overt "moral" message, "The Way We Weren't" engenders real viewer sympathy for Aeryn and Pilot through these two powerful sequences. 

With Aeryn for following her ambition instead of her heart. 

And with Pilot for letting his impatience to achieve a dream get the better of him. 

But the important thing to consider is this simple fact: the mistakes these aliens make are easily ones we could see ourselves making.  Following orders we shouldn't have followed. Or skipping a crucial step to get ahead of someone else.

Once more, the point is that in a heightened world of lasers, starbursts, alien wizards, monsters, and incredible fantasy, Farscape gives us a peek at recognizable, flawed individuals.   So we identify with them.   We like them; even when they make poor choices.  Rygel is actually my favorite character on the program, and I think the series' realistic approach is another reason why. He's such a thorn-in-the-side and a royal (literally...) pain-in-the-ass, but Rygel's motives (if not stomachs) are entirely human.

Pilot is lowered into Moya's command console...for the first time.

"The Way We Weren't" dispatches with larger  Farscape story arc concerns like Scorpius's pursuit, blossoming romances, and the desperation for provisions. 

It simply and elegantly reveals characters who have made terrible mistakes and, who -- more than anything, --wish they hadn't.

In this episode, Aeryn and Pilot both get second chances.  Aeryn gets to stay aboard Moya, and Pilot -- putting all the years of pain and guilt aside -- finally achieves his dream: a natural joining with the Leviathan he clearly loves.

It's silly to write this, but this Farscape denouement may just bring a tear to your eye.  We all hope for forgiveness.  So we relate.

I realize I'm just a season-and-a-half in re-screening Farscape at this point, but "The Way We Weren't" is certainly the best, most powerful episode I've seen thus far.  It's one hell of an episode, in one hell of a series.

Tuesday, November 09, 2010

Book Review: Richard Matheson on Screen

"There's nothing more of a pariah in this business than the writer after the script is written..."

-Richard Matheson, in Richard Matheson on Screen, by Matthew R. Bradley, McFarland, 2010, page 221.

For the last sixty or so years, there has been no more important an author in genre film and television than Richard Matheson. 

His novel, I am Legend has been adapted to film no less than three times, and the landmark text also inspired George Romero's living dead cycle. 

Similarly, it was Matheson's script for Duel (1972) that launched the film career of director Steven Spielberg. 

The accomplishments hardly end there.  Matheson was responsible for adapting to television what soon became the highest-rated TV movie of the 1970s, The Night Stalker (1972).  He also penned the Kolchak sequel, Night Strangler (1973).

Additionally, Matheson has left his indelible, individual stamp on episodic televison.  A primary contributor to Rod Serling's The Twilight Zone, he authored the teleplays for such Zone classics as "Nick of Time," "The Invaders," "Death Ship" and "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet."  

Later, Matheson wrote for Thriller ("The Return of Andrew Bentley"), Star Trek ("The Enemy Within"), Night Gallery ("The Funeral") and countless other programs that we recognize today as classics of the medium.  This assessment exists, in no small part, because of Matheson's efforts.  

Ponder, for instance, just how deeply "The Enemy Within" impacted Star Trek history, and how elements of that particular tale (about a transporter malfunction) were repeated in the franchise right up into the 1990s. Voyager's "Tuvix" is one notable example of this pattern.

Considering the truly impressive breadth of Matheson's career and its impact on genre programming and movies, a new book by author Matthew R. Bradley -- Richard Matheson on Screen --  really has its work cut out for it.  Matheson's career is vast; his subject matter varied, and his creative contributions...virtually ubiquitous.

Fortunately, Bradley is resolutely the right man for this task.  Without relying on hyperbole, without resorting to blind praise, Bradley carefully and patiently charts the multi-decade film and television contributions of this remarkable talent, a man who has achieved more in Hollywood than virtually any other writer you can name.  Yes, even more than Stephen King. 

Because of Bradley's attention to detail and straight-forward, informative writing style, Richard Matheson on Screen is a work of solid scholarship, and more than that, a compelling window on a one-in-a-million career.  I particularly enjoyed the book's commentary regarding authorship in film and television; what it means and how it is seen within the industry. 

On page 157, for instance, Matheson is quoted discussing how Hitchcock, not Robert Bloch, gets the lion's share of the credit for Psycho, and how probably the same  fact is true of Spielberg regarding Duel.  That's just the nature of how we all "talk" film in the culture, and Matheson  isn't being strident in pointing it out...merely truthful. 

He's also admirably consistent in his discussion. After cogently discussing the primacy of a good script, Matheson then proves totally fair-minded when the tables are turned.  For instance, Matheson adapted The Night Stalker from Jeff Rice's novel, The Kolchak Papers, and he is quick to credit Rice with writing a crackling good yarn in the first place; something that he, as the adapting author, could then move to the milieu of television.  The entire Kolchak section of the book is quite fascinating, in fact, particularly Matheson's impressions of legendary producer/director Dan Curtis.

Richard Matheson on Screen is organized by chronological order, beginning with The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957) and going right up through Will Smith's I am Legend (2007) and a brief section on "Other Unproduced Projects."  Bradley devotes considerable space to each production, with over fifty of them highlighted and discussed in exhaustive detail.

Within each section, Bradley provides a clear, concise introduction and background information.  Then generally, he gets out of the way.  He lets interview material with Matheson -- from a wide variety of sources, including those the author conducted himself for the great magazine Filmfax --  recount the interesting details of the story.  I think this is a very clever, very thoughtful, very respectful way of approaching the book.  Bradley is excellent with words and with organizing his material, but he never makes the book about him; or how he turns a sentence.  He willfully keeps out of the limelight and at the same time weaves an extremely thorough, extremely involving narrative. His writing is crisp and clear.  He's a good guide.

There's an abundance of interesting anecdotes in the book as well.  I enjoyed reading about the manner in which Universal cannibalized footage from Duel for an episode of The Incredible Hulk, and also appreciated the discussion of Somewhere in Time, a film that outlived its box office performance to become a beloved cult movie  There's talk here of an unmade sequel, as well as a discussion of a third, never-produced Kolchak tele-film, The Night Killers, apparently scuttled by no less a personality than Darren McGavin.

Ultimately the words of Richard Matheson in the foreword provide the best review of this carefully-crafted chronology.  It is a "meticulously thought-out history" of the author's script work of "50 plus years," presented with "care and good taste."  I'll get out of the way of Matheson's words too, and just  say I concur with that assessment.

Finally, I would also recommend as a companion piece to this book an August 16th, 2002 live telephone interview with Mr Matheson conducted by Dr. Howard Margolin at Destinies: The Voice of Science Fiction.

Matthew Bradley's Richard Matheson on Screen: A History of the Filmed Works is available for purchase at McFarland or at

The Cult-TV Faces of: The Dogged Pursuer

Monday, November 08, 2010

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: Splice (2010)

Since its literary beginnings long ago, the horror genre has been obsessed with the idea of mankind creating life via unnatural, perhaps even unholy means. 

Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (1818), and H.G. Wells' The Island of Dr. Moreau (1896) are two important, legendary works that gaze at this idea; of the "modern Prometheus" re-shaping life to his new, and not entirely wise specifications.  Playing God, or "tampering in God's domain," as the cliche goes.

In terms of horror films, the decade of the 1990s represents the new golden age (after the 1950s) of such "science run amok" movies. 

 Movies such as The Unborn (1991) Jurassic Park (1993),  Species (1995), The Island of Dr. Moreau (1996), Alien Resurrection (1997), Mimic (1997), The X-Files: Fight the Future (1998), Deep Blue Sea (1999) and others all reflect rising American fears in the age of the Human Genome Project about the "DNA genie" being released from the bottle.

Given this particular historical context, it's no surprise that Vinenzo Natali's recently-released Splice (2010) was first envisioned/conceived as the director's follow-up to Cube in 1997.  Natali's new film thus feels very much of a piece with the above-listed 1990s productions; efforts in which Dr. Frankenstein's heirs manipulate modern genetic science to create dinosaurs, chimeras, aliens, insects, viruses and other beasties, often for "good causes," like the cure of Alzheimer's (Deep Blue Sea), or "Stricklers Disease" (Mimic), etc.

Intriguingly, the specific plot line of Splice also reaches all the way back to an obscure 1976 "science run amok" horror flick starring Rock Hudson and Barbara Carrera, titled Embryo

In that effort from director Ralph Nelson, a scientist named Paul Holliston (Hudson) re-shaped a fourteen-week old human fetus with "placental lactagen," a special growth hormone.  What he created, in a matter of days, was a fully-formed 25-year old woman -- Carrera's Victoria -- who knew nothing of the world and therefore was never appropriately socialized. 

Holliston taught his creation to read the Bible, to play chess, and to otherwise entertain him, before eventually becoming his "daughter's" -- *ahem* -- lover as well.  In Embryo,  the amoral Victoria was driven to commit murder over a hormonal imbalance that caused her to age and wither at a highly accelerated rate.

If you've seen Splice, you will recognize some notable similarities in narrative detail.  Natali's film involves two incredibly arrogant 21s century genetic engineers -- Elsa (Sarah Polley) and Clive (Adrien Brody) -- who decide to introduce human DNA into their revolutionary experiments involving chimeras. 

Little Dren. She has her mommy's eyes...
And yes indeed, Elsa and Clive are named after the great actors who played the lead roles in the landmark 1935 film Bride of Frankenstein: Elsa Lanchester and Colin Clive.

Working in secret for a big pharmaceutical corporation, Elsa and Clive create a not-quite human creature called Dren (first Abigail Chu and then Delphine Chaneau), a female being that is part-amphibious.  Dren also boasts an accelerated life-span, which means she will live, age and die while Elsa and Clive can watch and take notes, essentially.  She's their living petri dish.

Like Embryo's Victoria before her, Dren is lonely, confused and unsocialized, and Elsa - especially at first -- treats the creature has her own biological child.  There are good reasons for this, as the film makes clear in the later sequences set on Elsa's wintry and foreboding family farm.  Specifically, Elsa used her own DNA to create the "human" part of Dren.

Then, as an adolescent, Dren turns her burgeoning physical affections unexpectedly towards her "father," Clive...much in the same fashion as occurred in Embryo.

Yet, what makes Splice more than just a modern variation on an old tale like Embryo is its laser-like focus on the concept of Elsa and Clive not just as bad scientists, necessarily..but as bad parents

Together, Elsa, Clive and Dren form a family unit, yet the parents here don't seem to take their familial responsibilities  seriously.  Dren wants to bond with the adults, and still they just consider her a "mistake" they made after -- on a whim --noting "what's the worst that could happen?" when they decided to make a life.

Truly, this movie concerns those things that occur when irresponsibility conceiving a life is followed by a deeper moral wrong: irresponsibility in rearing that life.  Elsa quickly proves to be a psychologically-troubled, capricious Mother-Figure, playing out her own personal family drama on this new and innocent creation.  One scene finds Elsa cruelly and vindictively strapping Dren to a surgical table, cutting off a portion of her "alien" anatomy.  It's genuinely disturbing. The first thing Elsa does is take off Dren's clothes, an indication that the girl is not human to her; no more than a specimen.  A mother's "love" can be taken away just like that.

Then, weak-willed Clive makes the ultimate physical and emotional betrayal and has sexual intercourse with Dren, an adolescent who considers him a father-figure.  At best he's weak. At worst, he's monstrous.
Grown-up Dren, with Mom looking over her shoulder.

And that's the key to understanding Splice and it's modus operandi.. 

The "monsters" here are Elsa and Clive -- two arrogant, flippant, self-involved scientists/parents, who -- through their ill-considered actions -- irreparably harm another individual. 

Dren may be genetically different from her parents, but she is nonetheless a result of her biological nature (which they created) and her terrible upbringing (which they are also responsible for). 

Dren might be inhuman, but Elsa and Clive are inhumane.

Watching this film, you'll feel tremendous sympathy for the Dren character.  When she commits the equivalent of a rape at film's end (when she is no longer quite the Dren we know...) the horrid act may be all about instinct and the need of all living things to reproduce. Or it may be about the fact that she was -- if not raped by Clive -- at least emotionally and sexually violated by a man she trusted and loved.  What did she learn from this act? And from Elsa's cruel, heartless domination?

Like parent like kid?  Is this the generational cycle of violence and abuse, made manifest?  Dren was abused, and now she is the abuser.

From the movie's very first shot -- in which we gaze out of the birth canal at parents Clive and Elsa -- Splice asks viewers to contextualize the film as a story about what it means to be a parent.  It asks the viewer to weigh this couple's behavior, and ask some important moral questions about it.  Is this another life or is this just an experiment?  Is this about another being's sovereignty and rights, or is it about "what we can learn?" 

As parents, what are our responsibilities to new life?

It's very heady stuff, and if you read this blog often, you know I tend to admire horror movies that function gracefully on more than one level.  It's great if a horror movie is scary, for instance.  But a genre film achieves lasting greatness when it tells us something about our own human existence.  I think Splice pretty well qualifies on that rarefied second front. 

All along through the film, I kept thinking of my own actions -- my own behavior as a parent -- since the birth of my son.  I was aghast at how easily Clive and Elsa could rationalize away the pain and suffering they put Dren through.  How could you treat your children like this?  Like property.

The answer, of course, is that human adults abuse children every day.  Although Clive and Elsa possess special talents vis-a-vis their creation of life, they aren't out-of-the-norm in how they see child rearing, apparently.

In Splice, I especially admired how the film mirrors the life of a parent, from child's conception through adolescence, but with these two "bad" parents as our surrogates and negative examples. 

When Dren is first born, Elsa and Clive lose a lot of sleep, have no time for intimacy, and worry about things like messy feeding times.  And while taking care of their child around the clock, their work at the office suffers.

Anyone who has raised a baby knows how authentic these moments feel.  Sleep deprivation.  Frustration.  Loneliness.  But also great joy as your infant starts to become an individual with a real personality and takes amazing first steps into the larger world: speaking, relating, learning.   These passages involving Dren's growth and development in Splice are simply stellar, and deeply affecting in a very human, very intimate way.

But this is a horror film, of course, and something goes wrong.  At some point, Elsa and Clive forsake their roles as parents, and when -- threatened by Dren's rebellion in adolescence -- try to write her off as an "experiment."  They try to control her; reign her in; make her act in the fashion they desire.

Of course, this is part of parenting I have not yet really experienced, but will, no doubt.  At some point, children stop being cuddly and fun, and start to become demanding, rebellious and self-directed.  A good parent allows that growth to happen responsibly and a bad parent, I guess, begins to act antagonistically and imperiously.  Bad parents fail to recognize their children as individuals and not as extensions of their own desires.  That's what happens to Clive and Elsa.  When they don't like what Dren has done, they shout, "this experiment is over."  Like that's the end of it.  Like the life just never existed, never flourished, never interacted with them.

So yes, Splice is a view of arrogant, out-of-control, cutting-edge science.  But more than that, even, Splice is a view of arrogant, out-of-control, modern parenting.

Which do you think is the bigger threat, going forward?

Splice works better as twisted family drama than as straight-up horror film.  The battle sequences in a wintry thicket at the climax feel pre-programmed and rote, and I found myself wishing the story could have been resolved through character interaction rather than special effects sequences and shovel bludgeonings.  But the first two-thirds of this Frankenstein story will really tug at your heart.  Dren is a fantastic creation, and the film's special effects never disappoint.

The problem is that you come to identify so much with Dren that at film's end -- when the makers want to put Dren back in the "monster box" -- you can't quite believe it.  You can't quite get on board.  Not after you've seen how her parents treat her.  Not after you've seen her alone in that barn loving her pet cat...her only companion.

And also, who can truly blame Dren for her final, violent acts?  Her parents had it coming.  In fact, as the final scene proves, Elsa is willing to make the same mistake twice.

What's the worst that could happen?