Similar films: Scary Movie
Stars: Anna Faris, Kate Winslet, Kristen Bell, Gerard Butler, Emma Stone, Uma Thruman, Elizabeth Banks, Hugh Jackman, Johnny Knoxville, Halle Berry
Genre: Sketch Comedy
Along perhaps with A Haunted House this is the easy film of 2013 to hate. But I still tried to give it a chance when I watched in on Netflix. Unfortunately, it really is just that bad. It's awful.
I like Absurdist Sketch Comedies. I foolishly had a slimmer of hope that this may be a sort of throwback to great films like And Now for Something Completely Different, The Meaning of Life, or The Kentucky Fried Movie, with the hilarious humor of something like Airplane!, The Naked Gun, or Top Secret!. Not the case. The Absurdist Parody truly died with things like Scary Movie and Epic Movie. Gone are the days of Monty Python and Zucker, Abrahams and Zucker, and all we are left with is Seltzer-Friedberg, the Wayans Bros., and of course the Farrelly Bros. Movie 43 is merely a continuation of this unfunny trend.
And unfunny is really all it is. I have a dark, arguably twisted humor; I often laugh at things that most would consider to be in bad taste or even sick. If something is tasteless and funny then I'll laugh at it. But when something like Movie 43 comes along, which is tasteless but unfunny, then what's the point? The sketches in this film just aren't funny. They're unfinished jokes. They set up a scenario and go nowhere with it. The situation never works with the humor, like, say, a Flying Circus sketch would. 94 minutes later and I'm still waiting for the punchline. But there is none.
And the humor itself seemingly attempts to shock, but it does so in the worst possible way. Films like Airplane! or Naked Gun constantly shocked the audience, but they didn't do so with vulgarities and period blood, they did it with the unexpected, the surreal. Wikipedia describes Surreal Humor as "arising from a subversion of audience's expectations, so that amusement is founded on unpredictability, separate from a logical analysis of the situation. The humor derived gets its appeal from the fact that the situation described is so ridiculous or unlikely." It takes wit to craft comedic literalisms and illogical yet clever punchlines. Movie 43 may be absurd, with things like leprechauns and neck balls, but it never utilizes those things to form a joke; those things are the jokes.
A good Absurdist Comedy will make the audience laugh by playing with their expectations. Shocking, surprising, and amusing the viewer when they bring the nonsensical out of something completely ordinary. A situation that people are used to seeing play out in other films or in their own lives will be used to show the viewer something in a different way, and make them laugh while doing it. This is where Movie 43 fails. It tries to shock with mere vulgarities and taboos, but in that it becomes so very predictable. It never shows you anything from a new perspective, it never turns the ordinary into the extraordinary, it never surprises you with an actual joke. In one sketch a girl wants her boyfriend to poop on her; that's the shocking part, but I know where it's going to end before it even gets there: with a bunch of poop everywhere. Movie 43 starts with the surprises, and thus its punchlines never surprise. A movie like Airplane! will start with the regular and explore the irregular through that, always ending on a hilarious and unpredictable punchline, that isn't so much a lack of logic as it is a twisting of logic; unexpected but never random. A bit from Airplane!:
"You got a letter from headquarters this morning."
"What is it?"
"It's a big building where generals meet, but that's not important."It's a simple joke and hardly one of Airplane!'s funniest, but it's a good example of a play on casual reasoning; the shock comes from the defiance of expectations. When he asks what is it we naturally understand that he's talking about the letter, not about headquarters. But the film shows you a different way of looking at it. Movie 43 says: hey wouldn't it be funny if a guy had balls on his neck, or if a girlfriend wanted her boyfriend to poop on her, or if some guy actually caught a leprechaun; but it never does anything with those ideas. It never forms an actual joke. Those things are unexpected, sure, and yes they may be ridiculous and unlikely, but they're also random and directionless. It starts with the punchline instead of building up to it.
The amount of wasted talent in this film exceeds perhaps any other movie ever made. There's some great actors in here, but the film never demands any worthwhile acting from them anyway. It's embarrassingly unfunny, tasteless without wit, and justifies itself by pretending to be satirical (it's not). It's not "a Kentucky Fried Movie for the modern age," as the producer described it. It's just a shitty modern age comedy. There's not many movies worse than this one.
Reportedly, Trey Parker, Matt Stone, and the Zucker Bros. were initially involved with the film but eventually all backed out. It's not hard to imagine why. While I'm sure we would have gotten a slightly better film if they had stayed on board, I'm also glad they didn't waste their talents and soil their names on something so pointless.
Wednesday, October 30, 2013
Friday, October 18, 2013
When people talk about Escape From Tomorrow, a movie filmed in Disney World without Disney's permission, all they ever seem to focus on is the development side of it. While it is an impressive accomplishment in guerrilla filmmaking, I feel that the film itself deserves more attention. The what, to me, is just as impressive and fascinating as the how.
This will be less of a review and more of an analysis and interpretation of Escape From Tomorrow. Of course this is only my personal interpretation and doesn't necessarily mean it's correct. It's just how I viewed it. This is intended for people who have already seen the film and assumes that you are at least somewhat familiar with the plot and production of the film. Naturally spoilers will follow.
The film's title tells us a lot. The film's main character, Jim, is a husband and father who is severely displeased with his life and wants to escape this life he's created for himself, he wants to alter his life to lead to a more agreeable future. The film's title also suggests a kind of child-like mentality: the idea of living completely in the present, embracing the moment and not worrying at all about the future or any consequences it might bring. A puer aeternus complex, or peter pan syndrome, if you will.
The films starts with a scene shot on a roller coaster. As the plot unfolds it will prove to be one big roller coaster ride, but for now it seems like a perfectly normal, happy, fun environment. That is, of course, until a passenger on the coaster is startlingly decapitated by a low-hanging archway. This opening establishes a number of things right away: (1) not everything is sunshine and roses, (2) be prepared for the worst, and (3) Disney World is a place where someone can easily lose their head, both figuratively and literally. In the case of our main character Jim, it's the former.
Jim, along with his wife, son, and daughter, is on the last day of his vacation at Disney World when he receives a phone call from his boss informing him that he's lost his job. This is important because it gives the push Jim needed to really examine, and even attempt to change, his life. Jim seemingly loves his children, but him and his wife, Emily, are constantly at odds with each other and seem to be not only always arguing and bickering, but to be severely depressed and unhappy as well. Jim, faced with an existential midlife crisis analogous to perhaps David Byrne in the song Once in a Lifetime ("You may ask yourself, well, how did I get here?"), comes to realize that he's not happy with his lifestyle and that his family isn't quite the dream family he may have imagined when he got married. In a fusion of sadness, confusion, helplessness, and the vibrant overwhelming happiness that is Disney World, Jim's mind starts to not just wander but delude as well. He doesn't just want to let the days go by and let things continue the same as they ever were. He wants change.
The film takes place almost completely from Jim's perspective. The world we see is the world of Jim's delusion. The first chance Jim sees for escape is in two young, beautiful French girls, who he imagines are flirting with him and leading him on. He spends much of the film following these two French girls around through the park and on rides, often imagining himself riding with them. All the meanwhile, any time spent with his wife only makes him retreat further into delusion. He can't even seem to kiss or dance with his wife. On one ride he hallucinates and imagines his wife turning to him and saying that she hates him and that their son isn't really his. This does two things: (1) it supports Jim's suspicions that his wife doesn't love him and (2) it makes it easier for him to breakaway from his family; it's a convenient excuse: he convinces himself that his wife doesn't even love him and that his child isn't even really his; so why worry about them?
Jim continues to chase these French girls around, at one point almost even confronting them in a pool, only to be stopped by his wife and left to depressingly float face down in the water ("let the water hold me down"). He also encounters a nurse, whom he goes to because his daughter scraped her knee, who he imagines is flirting with him. When he leaves the nurse's office the nurse begins to weep. Again, this is all from Jim's perspective. He imagines that the nurse was so disappointed that she couldn't have him that she began to cry. Later in the film Jim imagines that the employees dressed up as Disney Princesses are part of a prostitution ring. This all just supports his delusion that the world is his to take; that he can have any and every woman he wants if he so chooses. His delusion began because he was unhappy with his current lifestyle; to escape this lifestyle he creates a delusion that is welcoming. A fantasy that offers an ideal and convenient alternative to his unhappy marriage.
Later he meets an older woman. A succubus. She wears a gemstone amulet around her neck that entrances Jim. She tells him that the turkey leg he's eating is actually Emu meat. "Why don't they just call it that?" Jim asks, still enjoying the meat. "Would you really buy it if they did?" she replies. Here we see at work the theme of getting something you didn't ask for. Jim wanted a perfect marriage but what he got was an unhappy one. He would have never got married if he knew it'd be unhappy beforehand, just as he'd of never bought Emu meat. Next thing you know Jim blacks out and wakes up in the middle of having sex with this temptress, his hands tied to the bed posts. After she climaxes he takes his daughter and quickly leaves the temptress's hotel room, feeling slightly ashamed. It's sort of an awakening for Jim; it doesn't take him out of his delusion but it does make him slightly aware of it and its consequences.
In a confusion and semi-self-awareness, Jim starts drinking and gets more drunk than he should, as he and his wife only continue to argue. For a brief moment Emily sees into Jim's delusion. But of course she doesn't see the playful French girls that Jim sees. When she looks at one of the French girls she sees nothing but a twisted and evil face, the real evil and destruction that they really are. She begins piecing things together: him telling their son that she's beautiful in an "Emily Dickinson type of way," him staring at the French girls in the pool and nearly approaching them, him reading a book about learning French, the mysterious phone call he received at the beginning of the film. She sees that Jim is deluded.
Jim once again retreats into his delusions, riding on the Epcot ride called Soarin', his head high in the clouds, he imagines a beautiful woman before him. "Soon you'll be mine, Jim." She is the antithesis to Emily. She's beautiful and embracing. She is his dream wife.
The first act of the film was Jim's journey into temptation and delusion. The second act was Jim drinking himself away in confusion and denial. The third act, as we'll see, is Jim's struggle to save his reality.
Right before the third act begins Jim imagines one of the two French girls walking up to him and kissing his daughter on the cheek, and then the three of them joining hands and cheerfully walking off onto a spaceship (the spaceship represented by the ride Spaceship Earth). This is a very revealing scene. It isn't merely sexual desire Jim wants. It isn't just polygamy or lashing out at his wife that drives him. It's the desire for the perfect family. But something brings him back down to reality for a moment: the spaceship doesn't launch him into his dreams, it explodes with him and his daughter inside it. This is Jim's revelation. He finally realizes his naivete and that his desires are unrealistic and can only lead to his and his family's destruction.
Back in reality, which Jim finally inhabits, one of the French girls walks up to him and asks him to come with her. "You speak English?" Jim says, surprised. We're back down on Earth now. Jim always imagined that the girls spoke only French because he saw them as being something exotic and new. A foreign, escapist desire. The reality is that they're just two French girls, very possibly even from America, who of course speak English. "I can't," Jim says, no longer delusional, "I'm afraid that if I come with you something bad is going to happen." He confronts his inner demons and resists them. But messing with the devil has its consequences. "But if you don't, something will," she responds, and spits in his face, giving Jim a "cat flu" (a clever antipode to Mickey Mouse) that was reportedly going around the park.
Perhaps Jim is still partly delusional, or perhaps he's experiencing immediate symptoms of cat flu, or perhaps reality is revealing its own surreal nature, but either way Jim soon finds himself captured by what seems to be a German robot scientist who has a secret base under Spaceship Earth. The scientist delves into Jim's imagination and we see all of his previous delusions flash before us. "You've got quite an imagination," the scientist remarks, "just like old W[alt Disney]. He died, while all this [Disney World] was still in its early stages." The comparison between Jim and Walt Disney is an odd one but perhaps a relevant one. Just like Walt Disney had never lived long enough to see Disney World completed, Jim will not live long enough to see his own kingdom, his family fully built. But Jim doesn't want that. If he is still in his delusion he's aware of it and is fighting to escape it. He breaks free and goes to find his daughter, who he's lost in the confusion. He somehow finds himself pulled towards the temptress's room from earlier, which he enters using the key card he accidentally took from her. Inside he finds his daughter dressed as Snow White lying in a bed of flowers. He runs to her and awakens her with a loving kiss. He tries to take his daughter and leave but the temptress's amulet is preventing him and threatening to bring him back into delusion. He is tempted by this witch but at the same time she is taking his family (directly represented here by his daughter) away from him. It is only once his own daughter grabs the amulet and shatters it that the spell is broken.
Jim gets back to his hotel room, where his wife and son are already sleeping, and puts his daughter to bed, singing her "There's a Long Trail A-Winding" ("There's a long, long trail a-winding/Into the land of my dreams/Where the nightingales are singing/And the white moon beams/There's a long, long night of waiting/Until my dreams all come true/Till the day when I'll be going down/That long, long trail with you). He himself goes into the bathroom and suffers his cat flu full on. It ends up killing him. His wife finds him dead in the morning with cat eyes, a big smile on his face, and a bloodied bathroom. Hilarious looking nazi-like Disney employees arrive and clean up the bathroom and haul away Jim's corpse in a body bag. Now, whether or not Jim really had cat flu is arguable. It could have been just a delusion of its own. We could still be seeing the world from Jim's perspective even after he's dead; or seeing it from how Jim imagined it would happen. As if he sort of constructed his own death. There's a few things to support this: all the things that happen when he dies had been planted in the film beforehand: (1) it was the nurse who told Jim about cat flu, (2) Jim mentioned to the nurse that he takes Vitamin C pills, which is what he tried to remedy his cat flu with while he was dying, (3) earlier in the film, from his balcony, he saw a van arrive and a Disney employee get out of it; the same type of employee that would later carry his body away and the same type of van that his corpse would be loaded into. His subconscious could have fabricated his death based on various memories from the last day. Cat flu could very easily be part of his delusion. He could have died any number of ways, perhaps he killed himself, overdosing on his own pills. Either way isn't really important, but I found it worth noting.
In the last moments of the film we see the van holding Jim's corpse drive away from Disney World, back to reality, and at the same time we see an SUV pull up and Jim gets out, dressed in fancier clothes (the same clothes he wore in his imagination when the German scientist looked into his mind), with his dream wife (the same one from the Soarin' ride) and two different children, and checks into Disney World. He failed to make his dream a reality and he died in his fantasy. He died in Disney World. His fantasy can never exist in reality, but Disney World is separated from reality. It is the land of fake smiles and impossible happiness. ("Time isn't holding us, time isn't after us.") Eventually the cat catches up with the mouse.
Disney World/Disneyland really was the perfect setting for a film of this kind. Having a family crumble and seeing a man who never got the perfect family he wanted break down in the Magic Kingdom, "The Happiest Place on Earth," seems only suiting. "You can't be happy all the time," the temptress remarked at one point in the film. But yet Disney World sort of has that perfect family aesthetic. That Sears catalog neatness. Even to this day Disney gives off that 1950s American nuclear family ideal (Disneyland was built in the 1950s, Disney World in the 60s). But this film takes us on a black-and-white journey to the most colorful place on Earth. Happiness like that, perfection like that, just isn't realistic. Jim found that out.
Escape From Tomorrow is almost like a dysfunctional 1950s film. It's shot in black-and-white like many films of the 50s, but it lacks the precise and calculated lighting that so defined those Hollywood movies. It deals with a nuclear family but it lacks the perfection and happy ending. It has a score reminiscent of 50s Hollywood movies, almost of Disney movies, yet the score isn't orchestrating melodrama, it's orchestrating the surreal destruction of a man. It's based around fantasies but it's no fairy tale. It can somewhat be seen as a comment on 1950s ideals, and of the non-stop-happiness that Disney tries to maintain.
The title of the film really is perfect. The film is about a man not liking where his life is headed but who also hasn't really grown up yet. He wants to live in his fantasy forever. But, unlike Peter Pan, and unlike the temptress witch that threatens him, he must grow up and face the harsh reality in order to save his daughter and family. Because of Jim's delusions of a perfect life, represented by Disney World, his family is constantly punished with the consequences. Only he can stop their suffering.
One element I failed to talk about, mostly because I couldn't really figure out how to fit it in, was Jim's son, Elliot. If Jim is puer aeternus then Elliot is certainly Oedipus. Throughout the film it constantly seems as if Elliot is slowly taking Jim's place; is this one of Jim's fears that lead to his delusion or is it a part of his delusion? Towards the beginning of the film Elliot intentionally locks his father out of the hotel room, and then cuddles up in the same bed with his mother/Jim's wife. In fact, it seems Elliot is always sleeping in the same bed as his mother, and indeed the mother seems to more enjoy spending time with her son than with her husband. She also treats Jim like a child and Elliot like an adult. And to be fair, Elliot is more mature than Jim is. At one point, when Jim is throwing up on a ride, Elliot laughs at him. At another point, when we first see the French girls on the train, Jim seems to imagine them being flirty toward shim, but from the viewer's perspective it looks like they're looking at Elliot. Again, at the end of the film, we see Jim in the bathroom dying and he pleads for help from his son but what does Elliot do? He shuts the bathroom door on him and goes back to sleep, leaving him to die. Another interesting part is when after Jim has died and the Disney employees are cleaning up, one of the employees puts his hand on Elliot's head in a sort of Vulcan mind-meld fashion and gives Elliot the memories of riding the Buzz Lightyear ride and then gives him a Buzz Lightyear pin (because no one can be sad in Disney World, even if their dad dies!). Elliot had been begging his father to take him on the Buzz Lightyear ride all day but his father never did. Jim had rather of been in the spinning tea pots with the Frecnh girls than waiting in line for the Buzz Lightyear ride with his son and when the ride was shut down it was, as we find out later from the German robot, indirectly Jim's fault. Elliot couldn't get what he wanted until his father died. Quite sinister. But, if you subscribe to the idea that I offered before, that even after Jim's death we are seeing things from his perspective, that he imagined what his death and post-death would be like, then it could be viewed that Jim finally did end up giving his son what he wanted, at least in his mind.
The Oedipal nature of Elliot could also bring up another alternative interpretation: that we aren't seeing the world from Jim's perspective, but rather from Elliot's. Elliot holds a sort of resentment for his father and he imagines his father to be the despicable and adulterous man we see him as. Could Elliot be the delusional one? Creating fantasies to support his own hatred of his father? Not only that, but Elliot also seems to set his father up to make him look bad in the eyes of his mother. After all, he did tell her that he said she looked like Emily Dickinson. Maybe Elliot even told his father that it was the Dumbo necklace she wanted instead of the Minnie Mouse one. Or maybe he told her about the French girls he was following. Innocent child or evil mastermind? Curious. I still subscribe to the idea that the film is through Jim's eyes, but it's an interesting thought nonetheless.
Escape From Tomorrow can be viewed many ways. In fact, that's what I like about it. It never felt incoherent or convoluted, it just felt challenging. It leaves the figuring out up to you and it's designed in such a way that can support varying interpretations. It's an interesting film that, I feel, goes further than a simple Disney satire. It's a film that I'd imagine will leave me with different interpretations as time goes on.
Friday, October 11, 2013
Purchase from Amazon: DVD
Other films by Edward L. Cahn: Zombies of Mora Tau, Invasion of the Saucer Men, It! The Terror from Beyond Space, Invisible Invaders
Similar films: Night of the Living Dead
Director: Edward L. Cahn
Stars: Richard Denning, Angela Stevens, Tristram Coffin
Genre: Science Fiction, Zombie
An American gangster teams up with a German scientist to get revenge on his enemies by controlling corpses reanimated with atomic energy.
The monster movies of the 30s used electricity, the ones of the 50s used atomic energy. Both themes were certainly products of their times. The story of Creature with the Atom Brain was written by legendary sci-fi/horror screenwriter Curt Siodmak. You've almost certainly watched one of his stories; he's written some real classics: The Invisible Man Returns, Invisible Agent, Black Friday, The Ape, The Wolf Man, Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, I Walked With a Zombie, Son of Dracula, House of Frankenstein, The Beast With Five Fingers, Bride of the Gorilla, The Magnetic Monster, Riders to the Stars, and the list goes on. He's certainly left a large impact on the world of sci-fi and horror films, and largely carried the genres through the 1940s.
Creature with the Atom Brain is one of Siodmak's lesser-known scripts, and it's definitely not his best work, but it remains enjoyable nonetheless.
The story involves remote controlled reanimated corpses doing the evil bidding of a gangster. This film is a fine example of a pre-Romero non-voodoo zombie movie. Most pre-Romero zombie movies (including Siodmak's own I Walked With a Zombie) had mindless, enslaved zombies that were controlled by voodoo magic and followed the desire of their master, not the desire to eat brains. Creature with the Atom Brain represents a bit of a half-way point between voodoo zombies and flesh-eating zombies. In other words, it's a modernized evolution of the voodoo zombie. The role of the zombies here are very similar to voodoo zombies: they are created by a scientist rather than a necromancer and controlled with science rather than brainwashed with magic, but nonetheless function like a voodoo zombie. They still lack the animality of Romero zombies. That being said, they do strongly resemble Romero zombies and this film helped to move the zombie away from voodoo and more towards science--more towards the type of zombie we're familiar with today.
The film was directed by Edward L. Cahn, who is a bit of a legend in his own right as well. This marks his first science-fiction film, having previously done mostly crime films, most of which have since been forgotten. This shift to science-fiction surely worked out well for him; after this film he went on to direct minor classic like Zombies of Mora Tau (another good pre-Romero zombie film), Invasion of the Saucer Men, It! The Terror from Beyond Space, Invisible Invaders, and plenty of other 50s b-movies. Cahn was a surprisingly competent director. In this film we see some very interesting scenes and camerawork, from the beautifully shot opening to the mostly well shot driving scenes.
Rounding out the trio is Sam Katzman, who produced the film. Katzman produced a lot of films throughout his career, many of them fitting into the b-movie horror category, like The Corpse Vanishes and The Giant Claw.
There wasn't much make-up involved in Creature with the Atom Brain. The "creatures" at the very most may have had some make-up that made them look a bit paler, but most likely not. All they had was a strip across their foreheads representing that their brains were operated on. One effect, though, was actually quite ahead of its time. This film is notable for being one of the very first films to utilize what are known as squibs, a miniature explosive device used to simulate gunshot wounds. We're used to seeing this effect nowadays, being that countless films since have utilized it, but I'm sure it seemed very realistic and impressive (and indeed unnerving) to movie-goers of the time.
Richard Denning, who you may recognize from Creature from the Black Lagoon or Target Earth or Day the World Ended or The Black Scorpion, plays the main character in here. He does a good job. In fact, all the actors in here do a very solid job; somewhat of a rarity for these sort of movies.
Like so many 50s b-movies of the sci-fi or horror persuasion, Creature with the Atom Brain lacks the budget for exciting effects or impressive action or amazing performances or interesting concepts. Because of this there's nothing really noteworthy about it. It's not exactly boring--it's enjoyable enough--but it's not exactly memorable or interesting either.
It'd be wrong to call Creature with the Atom Brain a good movie. It's not. Is it bad? Not quite. There's certainly better films out there, though, even among the 50s b-movie crowd. If you like these types of movies like I do, then you'll have some fun with it though I can guarantee you've seen better. If you're interested in exploring the history of zombie films, then this is a worthwhile footnote to explore. Otherwise, it's not a necessary watch.
Monday, October 7, 2013
Other films by Edward Bernds: Return of the Fly, Queen of Outer Space
Similar films: The Time Machine, Planet of the Apes
Director: Edward Bernds
Stars: Hugh Marlowe, Rod Taylor, Nancy Gates
Genre: Science Fiction, Post-Apocalyptic
A spaceship's crew is returning from a trip to Mars when something goes wrong and they find themselves transported to a post-apocalyptic future where mankind has been forced underground to survive.
World Without End undoubtedly took inspiration from H.G. Well's classic novel The Time Machine (coincidentally, Rod Taylor who plays Herbert in this film later went on to star in the 1960 film adaptation of The Time Machine). Obviously it was Wells that pretty much invented the modern concept of the time-travel story, but the similarities go even further. In The Time Machine we see an advanced human race living on the surface of Earth and a savage mutated species living underground. World Without End sort of reverses this, but it's the same idea nonetheless: advanced humans live safely underground while savage beasts roam the surface. Also like in The Time Machine, the advanced humans in World Without End have lost their confidence and will to fight.
World Without End perhaps lacks some of the powerful commentary and originality that the H.G. Wells novel had, but as far as time-travel tales go it gets the job done.
When we look back on the science-fiction films of the 1950s most of us first think of the campy b-movies with low budgets and cheap effects. It's true that many sci-fi films of the 50s had very low budgets and because of the low budgets had almost always been in black-and-white and lacked a wide-screen format. Don't let the Technicolor in World Without End fool you: it's most certainly a low-budget b-movie. The film's poster proudly states that it's "CinemaScope's first Science-Fiction Thriller," but don't let this fool you either. While most 50s sci-fi was in black-and-white, plenty of larger-budgeted sci-fi movies like Destination Moon, When Worlds Collide, The War of the Worlds, This Island Earth, Forbidden Planet, et al were shot in color. So When Worlds Collide is far from being the first Technicolor sci-fi film. Nor is it the first sci-fi film shot in wide-screen, with that credit going to 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea from 1954. It's also not really a "thriller" like it claims to be.
It's exaggerated and misleading poster only fits the film more neatly into the many sci-fi b-movies of its time. (Oh yeah, and that awesome looking crystal-like giant holding that giant clock on the poster? Not in the actual movie.)
The reason World Without End was shot in Technicolor and CinemaScope despite having a low-budget and coming out in a time when most b-movies were in black-and-white is because Allied Artists, who produced the film, had a bad "poverty row" reputation that they wanted to shake. To do this they gave a little extra money to this film, allowing it to be shot in color and wide-screen and to exceed the 60-70 minutes runtime that many of the studio's other films had. Too bad there still wasn't enough budget for anything besides the technical aspects.
Some of the special effects look very good. The spaceship scenes are visually engaging. The design and costume work of the one-eyed mutated beasts is also impressive; they look both grotesque and unique. Some of the other effects aren't quite as good. The giant mechanical spiders that the main characters encounter in a cave look terribly lifeless and rubbery. The sets and costumes of the underground society, though charming, have that very cheesy retro-futuristic look. They still look pretty good at times anyway.
Edward Bernds directed this feature. He directed tons of b-movies throughout the 40s all the way to the 60s. Perhaps his most remembered work, along with a handful of Three Stooges movies, is Return of the Fly starring Vincent Price, which was a sequel to classic monster movie The Fly. If anyone has watched Queen of Outer Space or Valley of the Dragons, both directed by Bernds, then they may recognize the same mechanical spiders that were used in this film. (Again: not a big budget director.)
Hugh Marlowe stars in here, who also starred in 1951's The Day the Earth Stood Still and later in Earth vs. the Flying Saucers. His performance isn't exactly good (according to the director Marlowe only got the role because he was willing to work for a very low salary, and he was often lazy and unprepared) but it's passable. The real star here is pre-fame Rod Taylor. This was his first major role and he does a great job. He'd later go on to star in films like The Time Machine, The Birds, and he even made an appearance in Inglorious Basterds. Another possibly recognizable face is that of the beautiful Nancy Gates. She does a good job as the ultra-mini-skirt wearing babe (it's no surprise that all the girls in here are not only beautiful but also dressed in very revealing clothing; Alberto Vargas, one of the most notable pin-up girl artists of all-time, worked on the costume and set sketches for the film).
World Without End is an enjoyable film throughout. For a low-budget film it's extremely watchable. It features some interesting themes (even if most of them are ripped straight from Wells) and some cool special effects and set/costume design (even if most of the time it looks cheesy and dated). Its low budget certainly shows but at the same time its use of color and wide screen format help separate it from the countless other b-movies of the 50s. That doesn't necessarily mean it's the best 50s sci-fi has to offer--far from it. But solid nonetheless. Not terribly impressive compared to other works; merely enjoyable.
Friday, October 4, 2013
+Great use of setting
+Good use of sound and silence
-Too much use of music/dialogue
-Sentimentality occasionally feels overdone
-Holds the viewer's hand a bit
Other films by Alfonso Cuaron: And Your Mother Too, Children of Men
Similar films: Moon, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Silent Running, The Tree of Life
Director: Alfonso Cuarón
Stars: Sandra Bullock, George Clooney
Genre: Science Fiction, Thriller
Veteran astronaut Matt Kowalski and newbie Dr. Ryan Stone are on a space shuttle mission in the orbit of Earth when unexpected debris from an exploded satellite causes them more trouble than they asked for. Trapped in space with oxygen running low, they must find a means of getting back to Earth.
The concept is very straight-forward. It's narrative is very linear and to-the-point, but its execution is something else entirely. The entire film takes place in space and features only two characters, but the distant Earth is constantly present in the background and in the characters' minds that it almost feels like an unreachable second setting and space plays so active a role that it almost feels like a third character in and of itself.
And man, does this film utilize its setting well. James Cameron called it "the best space film ever done" and I might just agree with him. Ultra wide shots (the film only used wide angle lenses) and multiple long takes help convey the vastness and solitude of space. Even the 3D did well to add an extra sense of depth to the massive abyss. On the other hand, great use of POV shots and extreme close-ups help to put you in the shoes of the main character. You will often feel as dizzy and disoriented as the main character (not that space even has an inherent orient), you'll feel the same helplessness, desperation, and even lack of breath.
Space is alive in its nothingness, active in its indifference. "I hate space," Sandra Bullock's character mumbles at one point. Gravity shows us emotional people reacting to an unfeeling void. Space is a constant source of danger and suspense. The tension in this film is crazy. It's edge-of-your-seat stuff. The idea of losing grip and drifting away into space with no control over your movement is such a scary thought, both physically and psychologically, and the film knows this. It at times has as unnerving of an atmosphere as a horror film might. As a thriller it is certainly incredibly thrilling.
There's some good use of sound, but more importantly, great contrasting use of silence. The silence of course reinforces the massiveness and desolation of space. There is a musical score, done by Steven Price, and while the score itself is fine, it's certainly no rival to the silence. As the director has said, "There's no sound in space, but there's music in movies." That is of course true, and of course music is used to build tension or help convey the emotions of a scene, but I would have liked to have seen less music and more silence, as I feel that the silence is one of Gravity's best tools, far more valuable and effective than the music.
There was also, I felt, too much dialogue. For a film largely about one person floating through space, you'd expect less. Some of it is perfectly warranted, like transmitting "in the blind" to Mission Control in hopes they'll receive the message, and even Sandra Bullock's character talking to herself felt natural most of the time as she was established as a very solitary person, so it's completely believable that she'd occasionally murmur a thing or two to herself. Still though, there could have been less talking and, again, more use of space's inherent silence. A lot of the dialogue felt unnecessary. There's also a lot of sentimentality in here (the scene with Bullock's character and the Chinese guy on the radio was terribly unenjoyable). Again, a lot of it is warranted, especially if you view the film as an allegory for grieving and rebirth, but some of it felt overdone or unnecessary.
The film does hold your hand a little bit. Only a little though. Sandra Bullock will talk to herself just to remind the audience that there's satellite debris hurling towards her. Even the beginning of the film felt the need to inform the viewer that there is no sound in space because there is no air for the vibrations to travel through. As if anyone over 12 isn't aware of such a common scientific fact.
But we should be thankful that Gravity didn't end up being a typical Hollywood blockbuster, which it very well could have been. The two characters could have easily fallen into numerous romance conventions, scenes taking place on Earth could have easily been implemented, more characters added, etc. Luckily director Alfonso Cuarón is of much more talent than that.
Another behind-the-scenes talent is cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki. He's worked on many of Cuarón's previous works as well as many of Terrence Malick's films (including The Tree of Life which not only has equally beautiful cinematography as Gravity but curiously deals with many of the same themes as well). As if you couldn't already guess, the cinematography here is amazing and Lubezki, along with Cuarón, undoubtedly played a major part in making the film as stunning as it is. The engulfing blackness is humbling, the distant stars beautiful, and the massive Earth jaw-dropping.
In front of the camera Sandra Bullock and George Clooney do a fine job as well. Bullock carries the film, being the only character on-screen for the majority of the film. I haven't seen many Bullock films, but it wouldn't surprise me if this is one of the best performances of her career. Clooney has a less frequent role, playing a character we're all familiar with from Clooney: laid-back and suave. While this is definitely Bullock's movie, Clooney adds a welcomed dimension to the film, contrasting Bullock's character with his likable, calm, and humorous personality. The two are, for movie stars, fairly convincing astronauts (the director didn't allow them to wear any make-up, which adds a bit of realism to their appearances).
Like the other big Mexican film director Guillermo del Toro, who, with Pacific Rim earlier this year, made the film he would have wanted to watch as a child, a film which relies on stunning visuals that just weren't possible no more than 15 years ago; Alfonso Cuarón, quoted as saying that he made the film that he would have loved to see when he was young, achieved very much the same thing with Gravity. Gravity is a technical masterpiece, a milestone in special effects, and just completely awe-inspiring and stunning. Much like Pacific Rim. And Gravity does, at times, feel like a mindless special effects roller coaster thrill ride, being little more than a demonstration of technical ability. But there is more to Gravity than that. In movies every shot serves a purpose, every scene a motive, and every word a meaning. If you care enough to watch closely it's nearly impossible to miss the clear depth, symbolism, and metaphor that the director crafted.
[Spoilers in this paragraph:] Dr. Ryan Stone is mourning her daughter; she takes escape to its utmost extreme: she literally leaves Earth. In this orbit she experiences a rebirth. She often accepts death, whether it be from the debris flying towards her or the seemingly impossible task of getting back down to Earth; she has nothing to live for. But gravity pulls and Dr. Stone must fall before she can get back up (get it? Stone? Ha!). There was always a reason for her to live, for her to try and survive, and it was always there tugging at her, she just had to realize it. She had to allow gravity to do its job. Allow herself to be pulled back down to Earth, back down to reality, back down to solid ground. This is her rebirth, her umbilical cord-like tether has been cut and she must find herself alone. And when she gets back to Earth and finally reaches land for the first time in the entire film, something she can finally plant her feet on, she nearly falls back down while trying to get up (remember, she just spent the whole film floating in zero gravity and swimming. Walking is a foreign concept to her body.) "No, not this time," she says, her face nearly hitting the sand, and rises to her feet. She's done falling. Gravity doesn't need to pull her back down anymore, she's already grounded, all she has to do is stand up.
There's even more subtle, less meaningful things you may have missed in the film. For example, in the Russian space station there's chess pieces flying around and in the Chinese space station there's a ping pong paddle floating around. There's some other light-hearted moments like this throughout the film, and some not so light-hearted, but I'll leave them for you to find on your own.
In conclusion, Gravity is an amazing visual spectacle but it proves that that's not all it is. It is genius in its minimalism and thrilling in its execution. It is one of the greatest films of the year, and will likely prove to be one of the greatest of all-time. Arguably Cuarón's best work to date and a worthwhile experience for any lover of cinema.