Retro Nostalgia: Aliens (1986) and Ripley’s Maternities (Some Rambly Thoughts)

(What follows are some random thoughts I had while re-watching James Cameron's Aliens.  I'd love to open up a nice discussion about the film, so feel free to leave a comment agreeing/disagreeing with or adding to my argument(s).)

I've always loved the relationship between Ripley and Hicks.  Obviously, it's implied that there's a significant romantic link between them, but the film makes light of it through jokes, in part so the very real problem -- survival in the face of certain death -- never falls prey to the romantic narrative underneath.  And there's also a sense -- for me, anyway -- that Ripley and Hicks don't
actually have to develop a romantic relationship for there to be something between them.
A lot of people also read Aliens as a narrative about maternity.  I've started to think about the narrative as a metaphor for unexpected parenthood (and child mortality), too.  If you think about it, the first chunk of the film focuses on Ripley's return to the world; one of the reveals is the death of her child, whose death she cannot prevent.  While an inaccurate metaphor for infant mortality or some equally naturalistic death of one's child, these sections of the film seem remarkably like a story about a parent dealing with the death of a child.  In this interpretation, Burke takes the form of a father (I can't think of a single mention of the biological father of Ripley's daughter, so I assume one of the two is out of the picture -- probably Ripley, which is unusual in the real world).  Since Burke represents Ripley for the Weyland-Yutani Corporation, who seem to be the ones in control of everything, he also acts as a kind of father figure in the remotest sense.  Her relationship with him, as such, is strained by his link to the Company and to her past (i.e., the death of her child, etc.).  I also think there's something profoundly disturbing to read into Burke's actions near the end of the film, in which he tries to infect/impregnate Newt and Ripley with xenomorphs (a rape and child abuse metaphor?).

The other maternity narrative is one we've all probably heard before:  Ripley's "adoption" of Newt.  I think of Newt not necessarily as the adopted child in a traditional sense, but more as a discovery of a child you didn't know you had.  Ripley jumps into the role of mother figure quite naturally (she is technically a mother, after all), but she also seems to acknowledge the distance between them.  These two elements suggest to me that Newt is supposed to take the place of an unexpected child.  But I'll admit that this idea is not as thought out as I would like.
I won't suggest that Aliens is a perfect film from a feminist perspective, but it's hard to imagine it as anything else.  Every aspect of the narrative involves questions about the place of women in worlds that for so long have been the domain of men.  After all, in 1986, women didn't serve in combat positions in the U.S.  In Aliens, they do (even Ripley, though she sort of gets roped into it).  Women are shown doing a lot of things our culture likes to tell them they can't do.  They can have children and work jobs "meant for men."  They can serve in the military, use weapons or heavy machinery, fly complicated aircraft, fight for themselves, and on and on and on.  True, most of the women die in this movie, but so do most of the men.  This is one of the reasons why I love this movie.  It doesn't pander to a masculine audience in the same way as other SF action movies.  Ripley isn't eye candy here.  She doesn't run around bending over so you can see her toned abs or the curves of her breasts or her toosh or whatever (not that she's not physically attractive, mind, but most of the characters in this movie end up covered in filth and wounds; the whole Megan-Fox-bends-over-a-car-so-we-can-stare-and-her-tumtum wouldn't make any sense in that context).  If anything, what makes Ripley such an attractive character is the fact that she is a character.  And, honestly, I think she's probably the greatest female protagonist in all of science fiction.

But maybe I'm stretching with that last statement...


Note:  I may return to this film for the Retro Nostalgia feature.  Keep an eye out for that.

Retro Nostalgia: Contact (1997) and Conflating Faith and Science and Its Hopeful Ethos

Anyone with a passing familiarity with Carl Sagan's popularization of science will recall his profound optimism, both with humanity's scientific endeavors and its almost desperate need to strive for "more."  I think it's fair to say that he imagined science as humanity's great thrust to greatness -- to controlling itself and its environment.  After all, he famously said that "[imagination] will often carry us to worlds that never were. But without it we go nowhere."  And while he was not a religious man, he didn't fear suggesting that science could provide a spiritual vision of the world:

Science is not only compatible with spirituality; it is a profound source of spirituality. When we recognize our place in an immensity of light‐years and in the passage of ages, when we grasp the intricacy, beauty, and subtlety of life, then that soaring feeling, that sense of elation and humility combined, is surely spiritual. So are our emotions in the presence of great art or music or literature, or acts of exemplary selfless courage such as those of Mohandas Gandhi or Martin Luther King, Jr. The notion that science and spirituality are somehow mutually exclusive does a disservice to both.
Sagan's optimism, understandably, bleeds through the narrative of the film adaptation of Contact (1997) (how could it not?).  Ellie's father, Ted (David Morse), for example, answers his young daughter's (Jena Malone) question about life in the universe by cleverly playing the "it's too damned big of a universe" card -- he suggests that if there isn't anyone else out there, then all that space is wasted.  Adult Ellie (Jodie Foster) eventually relays these lines to preacher/religious popularist Palmer Joss (Matthew McConaughey), who also repeats them to the world after Ellie's return from her mission and the media firestorm of the perceived failure of the project (not to mention Ellie's implication that faith in her story is necessary).
What's fascinating about the film (and, I suspect, the book, which I have not read) is its refusal to shy away from implying that this optimism will ultimately form the basis for a faith argument for science.  In the end, it is that unison of religion and science which offers one of Sagan's most optimistic visions:  namely, that science and religion could ever unify in an increasingly hostile political environment. Palmer and Ellie are themselves stand-ins for these respective fields, suggesting that the romantic conclusion of their narrative must be deferred too, lest faith be rested from the audience on all counts.  Sagan must have been quite hopeful for the future of science to have imagined a world where the greatest religious "threat" to science is an attractive religious guru who can see the writing on the wall.  Hence why the last line in the above quote is so crucial:  "The notion that science and spirituality are somehow mutually exclusive does a disservice to both."  Contact is essentially Sagan's spiritual mind at work, imagining all the possibilities of the science and spiritual realms coming together for the same united purpose:  seeking some deeper truth about the universe -- science on the natural questions; spirituality on the questions about understanding our place in a suddenly crowded universe.  Sadly, if Contact had been written in the late 2000s, Sagan might have seemed naive.
Perhaps that's actually a good thing.  When people called for more optimistic SF in 2009-2010 (resulting in Vries' Shine Anthology), they must have had Contact on the mind, if not in actuality, then in spirit.  Contact is a film that strives to find the positive in a world bloated with bureaucracy, religious terrorists, and fear (it is also a largely male world we are presented, with some exceptions).  The government wants to control everything, the vain scientists want to use Ellie's discovery to further their own careers, even at the expense of others, the people at large cower or clamber in supplication before things they do not yet understand, and, finally, the religious extremists, seeing this great moment as a threat to their authority, want to destroy the entire project, even if that means preventing humanity's next great leap forward.

Ellie's almost desperate need to remain involved, to discover whatever is "on the other side," to leap into the darkness and bring back answers, holds her up in this storm.  She won't participate in the politics or the glory of discovery; she only wants to discover, to know, to understand.  Unlike the people around her, with the exception, perhaps, of Palmer and a handful of minor characters, Ellie has only one desire:  to use this momentous occasion to understand humanity's place in the universe.  It's her optimistic view of the world that I find so pleasant.  She truly believes in the mission, not because it will bring her material wealth in the future, but because taking the leap of faith by building and using the machine will actually advance human knowledge.  She is the idealized scientist (the film actually offers a foil to this idealized image; he dies -- not insignificantly).
But whereas Ellie's journey to discover "the answers" proves successful, the world at large is left in the dark. The aliens, descended from a collective who occasionally reach out to new species as those species reach the next stage in their technological evolution, prevent anything but 17 minutes of static from being recorded during Ellie's trip.  In a final nerve wracking scene, Ellie must defend herself against a verbal onslaught by the government, almost as if in a mirror of McCarthyism.  The irony?  For a government so encumbered with religious thought, they cannot accept her meek request that everyone has to take what she says on faith (she doesn't put things in those exact words, but that has to do with her apprehension over faith).  It's not made clear whether the government does take her seriously, or if they see this as an opportunity to attack her and the billionaire financial backer who made the project possible.
Regardless, the fusion of science and faith in those final moments reminds us that the divide between the spiritual and scientific realms is anything but absolute.  Rather, conflating the two can provide the necessary impetus for growth that humanity needs.  In this case, that growth is the desire to continue reaching out, stretching our little fingers just a little further to join our brethren in the sky.  In a way, this film is as much about science and faith as it is about the American space program.  Neil Degrasse Tyson is noted for discussing something related to this:  the dreams of a nation.  He reminds us that the Soviet Union's space program became the driving force for America's stretch to the heavens, and that once we realized that our "enemies" weren't going to make it to the moon, we stopped stretching.  In the variations of his quotes about dreams, I prefer this one (taken from the video at the bottom of the page):  "Nobody's dreaming about tomorrow anymore. The most powerful agency on the dreams of a nation is currently underfunded to do what it needs to do, and that's making dreams come true."

Unlike the shock factor of Sputnik, which, as Tyson suggests (and many other NASA historians), galvanized the U.S. space program, Contact suggests that the next driving force for human exploration into space could be the knowledge and faith that we're not alone.  Rather than falling into the trap of violence (as Stephen Hawking would many years later), Sagan presents that next stage as familial.  By taking that next leap, we will join the brotherhood/sisterhood of species and become part of something greater than ourselves.  We no longer have to fear loneliness, pointlessness, or the terror of the void.  That, I think, is the most optimistic message of the entire film.  And I think we should embrace it.

Retro Nostalgia: Gattaca (1997) and Framing the Multivalent Ethical Dilemma

Before Andrew Niccol's Gattaca (1997) begins in earnest, we are compelled to think about its underlying ethical dilemma:  is a meritocratic system based on (mostly pre-selected) genetic variables justified, even if that means denying some people equal access simply because their genes say there is something wrong with them?  If you have seen the film, then you know how the story ends -- the genetic "weakling" succeeds at doing the impossible, throwing into question the very notion that one's genetics are an absolute determination of one's potential.  Thus, one possible side question is:  without the aforementioned meritocratic system, would Vincent/Jerome have fought so hard to succeed?  Questions like this are why films like Gattaca, The Truman Show, The Minority Report and, to a lesser extent, District 9, Logan's Run, and
Soylent Green (just to name a few) are such profound models of ethical problems put in action.
Gattaca is one of the few films that does so directly, offering the following William Gaylin quote in first the few moments: "I not only think that we will tamper with Mother Nature, I think Mother wants us to."  It is difficult to tell whether the film is a direct response to Gaylin's belief, a partial acceptance of the principle, or a violent refutation.  I am, however, partial to violence.  Gaylin's quote is put in place without context, almost as if to tell us that this is a future we very well might see -- and soon -- not because it is "happening now," but because we will give in to Mother Nature's demand.  The natural progression for an intelligent, technology-oriented species such as ourselves is to tamper with what makes us "us."  In one sense, you might think of Gattaca as Andrew Niccol's answer to that notion:  yes, we might do it, but the ramifications will create an underclass marked (just like with race or gender) by factors beyond their control. The moral quagmire, however, makes race and gender look relatively tame.*
Unlike most (if not all) arguments about race or gender, there is a logic behind Gattaca's worldview.  There are no real, scientific differences between Caucasian, African, Asian, and so on -- at least, not differences that matter in a meritocratic sense.  But the opposite is true for Vincent/Jerome; he is, in fact, a genetic "weakling," containing within him flaws that limit his lifespan and his cognitive/physical abilities.  A world where such information is freely available, as it is in Gattaca, has two main options:  it can discard all other subjective factors for selection, or it can shift to the only seemingly objective standard by which to judge people's capabilities -- genetics.  It's a purely logical system, when you get right down to it, and that, in a sense, is what makes Gattaca a more disturbing dystopia than more violent, direct incarnations.
But underneath this is another important factor:  choice.  William Gaylin's quote suggests that we'll tamper because that's what nature wants, implying that genetic augmentation and genetic meritocracies are natural progressions for human civilization.  Yet doing so will mean punishing people for their parents' behavior.  Vincent/Jerome, as a "god child" (someone born with natural "chance"), is not a participant in his creation; thus, all the disadvantages his genetics offer are ones he could not change even if he wanted to.  The dilemma, as such, is yet another question:  if ability is mostly determined by one's genetics, and many jobs require a great deal of natural ability, do we relegate entire segments of the population to menial labor in order to increase "productivity" despite the fact that many of those people had no hand in their own creation?  And is doing so the best course of action for this society?
Yes, it is (says Gattaca in my mind).  And we're not supposed to feel particularly good about that prospect, in part because most of us recognize the terrifyingly logical discrimination at the heart of the film.  In the end, Gattaca wants us to reject this entire idea, to throw our chips in with Vincent/Jerome -- after all, he does exceed his genetically-determined potential.  But Vincent/Jerome is the exception that proves the rule.  There is no way to know if his success will shatter the perceptions of his world, though it is possible to read the various events in the final moments of the film as leading to that conclusion.  However, I tend to see the end as confirmation:  Vincent's/Jerome's success isn't public, and, therefore, whatever change he might represent for this genetic meritocracy can never be fulfilled.  We will tamper with Mother Nature, yes, but we will also have to accept and adapt to its vulgar consequences.

(Can you tell I'm a not terribly optimistic about genetic testing?)


*When I say "tame," I am referring to the concept's logic, not to the historical treatment of groups based on race or gender.  From a conceptual point of view, race and gender, for the most part, are illogical.  We know this only because we live in a world where the vast majority of us agree that having different skin or gender does not mean that you are, by default, inferior to another group.  The only way to maintain that belief in any pure sense is to intentionally maintain paradoxes in one's mind -- I think these paradoxes are what compels some to violence, since the psyche cannot keep contradictory ideas afloat if such ideas are connected to identity construction.

Retro Nostalgia: Mars Attacks (1996) and Its Detached Timestamp

Long-time viewers of science fiction film will likely recognize Tim Burton's homage to 50s/60s SF cinema.  How could they not?  From the narrative undertones of the Cold War's nuclear fears to its borrowing and twisting of the narrative structure of H. G. Wells' War of the Worlds and its 1953 adaptation, which helped solidify a developing SF cinematic aesthetic (the Orson Welles radio drama certainly stuck Wells' terrifying tale of alien invasion in the public consciousness beforehand), the film is in every way a mockery of the 50s and 60s.*  But it's not simply the politics or the narrative that make the 1996 alien invasion comedy Mars Attacks! an amusing bedfellow of or foil to the 1950s (and 60s).  Rather, its visuals are an at times direct parody/assault on the material and social logic of the era, despite having no clear temporal placement of its own -- after all, the film is neither set in the 1950s, nor the 1990s, and instead
merges or maps the span of historical time over itself (a palimpsest).
Part of the reason I am mashing the 50s and 60s together here is because Mars Attacks! is never fixed to a specific decade.  It is, in a sense, trapped in the limbo of transition between two cultures we like to think as distinct, but which bleed into one another.  The Beehive (B-52) hairstyle, after all, didn't gain popular momentum until the 60s, despite existing as early as 1954.  There are times when the film veers a hard right into 60s territory (most notably through cars and the flashy fashion of Vegas that conjures images of a somewhat neutered, caricatured Hunter S. Thompson), but it frequently bounces back, merging the two periods -- both understandably important to SF cinema -- into one incoherent mishmash.  I'll refer to this as the 50s Transition to save space (roughly the late 50s to the early 60s).

A primary example of this assault on 50s Transition culture is the aptly named Martian Girl played by Lisa Marie (seen in the above image).  Her swaying, robotic walking style, her absurd hair style (a greatly exaggerated B-52), and her eye-catching pointed breasts are all digs on the visual culture of the 1950s Transition.  She is at once a clone of the era and a play on the sex symbol of the era:  Marilyn Monroe (minus the hair).
Or, perhaps, a mix of Monroe and another female icon of the time:  Audrey Hepburn from Breakfast at Tiffany's.
The exaggeration of the Martian Girl's features -- to the point of perfect exaggeration, even -- seems, in my mind, to make light of the hyper-commercialized culture that arose at the turn of the century and solidified after WW2, one which hyper-sexualized certain "ideal" forms of women, fashion, etc. (or, to put it another way, created a specific set of images for the era that were hyper-sexualized).  After all, she is, in every way, a "perfect" 50s Transition girl.  Except that she isn't.  She's a grotesque perfection that draws attention to the fact that she isn't real.  Her features are too perfect.  Too exaggerated.  Blame it on the aliens for translating their own genetic monoculture onto our own.

Much of the film's fashion aesthetics draw upon the transitional era, almost to comedic effect, sometimes by exaggeration and sometimes by simply cloning things that already existed.  Some of this is deliberate.  Annette Bening, for example, modeled her performance as Barbara Land on Ann Margret from Viva Las Vegas.  The resemblance is clear.  This shouldn't surprise us, of course, because the mish mash was intended by the writers and Burton himself, who imagined Mars Attacks! as an homage to 50s scifi flicks, with a heavy dose of mockery.  Whether they intended to critique the culture of the 50s Transition is hard to say.  I like to think this was an unintended consequence of transplanting a cultural period into a different cinematic paradigm.  Rather than stare with nostalgic eyes at a bygone era, we are compelled to think about what made the 50s Transition fascinating and thankfully dead at the same time.

I could probably say more about this topic, but I won't.  That would require tracing all the ways Mars Attacks! explores 50s SF and the 50s Transition period (as mockery, parody, or direct homage).  Maybe for another time!


*The 1953 adaptation of War of the Worlds was nominated for three Academy Awards and has since been included in the Library of Congress catalogue.

Retro Nostalgia: The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), the Hero Scientist, and the Possible Utopia(?)

There's something truly nostalgic about SF narratives that make the scientist the hero.  There aren't a lot of those narratives left, if we're honest.  Characters use science, sure, but they are rarely the creators of science, or its purveyors.  But not the old school SF movies.  Oh no.  In a lot of those stories, scientists are front and center.  They're occasionally the bad guy, but they're always the ones figuring things out, discovering the new and amazing things about the world.  Even in Forbidden Planet, in which the main scientist is, for all intensive purposes, the villain (well, not really -- his id is the villain), the romanticism of science and the scientist is crucial to the plot.

The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) falls into the positive variety of these pro-scientist films.  Most of us know the story, primarily because it was recently remade into what I can only describe as a film without any substance:  an alien named Klaatu appears on Earth, which terrifies the hairless ape creatures; Klaatu desperately tried to make humanity listen to him, but in the end, he's forced to use the threat of annihilation to, we hope, bring humanity in line -- for self-
preservation of course.  Throughout this somewhat dystopian plot -- aliens telling us we have to shape up or die is hardly utopian, after all -- we are gifted with several reminders that the scientists are the true "rational" ones on Earth (hang in there -- I'll critique this later).  There are two perfectly solid examples of this, which I'll approach in semi-chronological order.
First, there's Dr. Barnhardt, who is effectively the "most intelligent man" in the continental United States (or, at the very least, the smartest man in D.C.).  When Klaatu first seeks his help, he discovers the Dr. working on a complicated math equation on a chalkboard -- perhaps one of the most common cliches of science given to us by movies (Indiana Jones, anyone?) -- the purpose of which is never explained.  But the reason Klaatu wants Barnhardt's help is because the regular folks haven't exactly been forthcoming.  Let's face it, when your first day on Earth is spent getting shot by a bunch of trigger happy young men riding on tanks, and then shoved into a hospital and kept there against your will, followed by a long-winded explanation that your puny little alien brain -- which managed to get you 250,000,000 miles across space -- can't possibly comprehend human politics...well, you'd probably skip town and seek out someone who just has to be rational.  And Dr. Barnhardt, it turns out, is supremely rational.  He not only has science smarts -- though not nearly as much as Klaatu, with all his math magic -- but he also recognizes the utter stupidity of provoking an alien race into using violence as a communication method.  

When violence, trickery, imprisonment, and rampant fear-mongering (hooray yellow journalism) are the societal response to your presence, it makes a lot of sense to respond in kind.  But Dr. Barnhardt desperately wants to avoid that.  He convinces Klaatu that perhaps a non-violent demonstration would look better and then proceeds to set up a meeting between Mr. Alien and a bunch of unnamed, but certainly important scientists.  In other words, the only ones who actually take Klaatu seriously as someone genuinely interested in Earth's well being are scientists.  The military just wants to shove Klaatu under the watchful eyes of unsophisticated, disinterested guards and subject him to nationalistic politics; the scientists want to help Klaatu make his point.  Oh, and since I haven't mentioned it yet, you really can't avoid the 1951 political message here.  By 1951, the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. were the only countries actively testing nuclear weapons, though certainly not the only ones working on them.  The rise of atomic/nuclear weapons so concerned the world that it led to the Cold War (which you all already know) and to Oppenheimer (who worked on the Manhattan Project) declaring the invention of the atomic bomb a grave mistake:
We knew the world would not be the same. A few people laughed, a few people cried. Most people were silent. I remembered the line from the Hindu scripture, the Bhagavad Gita; Vishnu is trying to persuade the Prince that he should do his duty and, to impress him, takes on his multi-armed form and says, 'Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.' I suppose we all thought that, one way or another.
Ironically, Klaatu's race literally became the destroyer of worlds (he's our second science example, actually).  By the end of The Day the Earth Stood Still, Klaatu has no choice but to warn humanity that if they continue on this destructive, nuclear path, they will compel his species to neutralize (annihilate) the Earth for the benefit of everyone else.  But in his final speech, he also tells us one crucial fact:  science has provided the resolution to the natural inclination towards violence among intelligent life (I interpret his words to suggest that there are other intelligent species out there).  Thus, Gort, the "monstrous machine" of the story, is little more than the product of scientists to curb violent tendencies -- there are many like it that sit around as a giant deterrent against poor behavior, which has somehow created a peaceful society that is both supremely powerful and disinterested in violence except when the equilibrium of their society is threatened.  So much for that narrative about nuclear weapons, right?  After all, if the reason behind nuclear armament is to deter your enemy from attacking you, then Gort is little more than a giant, walking robotic nuke (minus the radiation).
If we're honest, this is all a remarkably utopian view of the scientist.  So many novels and films have tried to imagine utopian societies and failed miserably, either intentionally or because utopias simply don't work.  But is there something inherently dystopian about creating your own self-"cleaning" agent?  If Gort is a society's solution to preventing violence and progressing forward (and it works), then I can't help leaning towards the utopian, if only because minor sacrifices in freedoms are outweighed by the security of the peaceful progression of a society.  And The Day the Earth Stood Still doesn't hesitate to remind us that Klaatu's people have improved just about everything about themselves:  they can travel great distances in little time; they can heal at an alarming rate; they are immeasurably smart (by human standards); they have created astonishing technologies (by human standards); and they have increased their average lifespan to 130 years (I honestly think this is pathetically low, but I suppose when half your young people were dying in war, 130 sounded really good in 1951).  Those sound like good things, if you ask me.  I'd much rather cure diseases that spend an eternity blowing people to smithereens.

Yet, I can't feeling uncomfortable about, well, feeling comfortable with Klaatu's people.  To draw on my American heritage, I find myself conflicted by the sacrifices necessary to achieve a society governed by robotic overlords.  After all, it's not exactly clear how Gort functions as a semi-intelligent machine.  What are his criteria for "violence"?  Can he evolve to account for changes in destructive behavior?  With all the discussion we're having about bullying these days, it doesn't seem outside the realm of possibility that Gort would have to adapt to account for emotionally destructive methods too.  I don't know if that's stretching too far.  But there's no indication that Gort actually adapts.  Klaatu only tells us that Gort responds to violence, not mean behavior.  Thus, the fundamental problem with the future proposed by Klaatu for humanity is its universality.  Or, to put it in another way:  it is rigid and uncompromising.  Klaatu's people have chosen a set of moral standards for behavior that cannot account for the complexities of actual society.  Many religious texts do the same thing; religions have had to respond to a progressing society by reconsidering how to re-frame various religious teachings (slavery in the Bible or, more recently, racism in Mormon teachings).  In that sense, The Day the Earth Stood Still really does fall into the tradition of impossible utopias that expose their own flaws.  Klaatu's people are a dream one moment, and a nightmare the next.  There is no such thing as a static culture, after all.

Retro Nostalgia: The Dark Crystal (1982) and the Necessity of a Remake

When I first saw The Dark Crystal over a decade ago, I recall feeling amazed by the story.  As kids, I think we have a tendency to open ourselves to imaginative possibilities that adults have closed themselves off to (possibly because adults have "seen it all").  Watching The Dark Crystal as a kid was like jumping headfirst into my own imagination.*  Re-watching the film brought back some of those mostly-nostalgic memories, in particular because the world of The Dark Crystal is a fully realized one.  There are enormous sets, moving plants and critters, unique characters, and astonishing puppetry.  It's hard not to marvel at how much effort went into making this film.

The problem?  Time has not been kind to Jim Henson's 1982 classic.  Unlike The Labyrinth, which survives its ancient green screen and sometimes stiff puppetry largely because it is a quirky fantasy flick for kids, The Dark Crystal simply doesn't hold up as well.  The stiff puppetry, a product of the time more than anything else, reminds us that we're looking at, well, puppets; to suspend disbelief, we have to trick our minds in ways we generally wouldn't have to.  This is true of
almost all of the characters, with exception to Fizzgig, whose rambunctious behavior offers a few purely comical moments.**  The rest?  Stiff.  Their mouths barely move and their facial expressions are limited.  That said, you'll find nuance in the bodily movements of the characters; the puppet masters -- ha! -- did their best to make up for the lackluster facial performances by turning those bodies into canvases all on their own.  I'll never have that kind of skill, which is why I admire it so.
I say this not because I think The Dark Crystal is a bad movie.  To say that, I would have to dislike much about The Labyrinth, even if I acknowledge that the latter receives some leeway due to tone.  For its time, The Dark Crystal was ambitious, to say the least.  It took all the glamour of the Jim Henson puppeteer studios and merged it with the mythical narratives of epic fantasy.  Critics were right to liken it to a Muppet version of a Tolkien story (The Hobbit, perhaps).  It has the right kind of characters, world, and elements to facilitate an epic fantasy narrative, right down even to the somewhat cliche "chosen one" plot line.  Most of these things work in its favor.  The film made $30mil in profit, though its sequel, Power of the Dark Crystal, has been in development limbo since the 80s, and it remains one of the highest grossing Henson films ever made.

I bring all this up because I think that it's time someone remade The Dark Crystal.  Hear me out, if you will.

I'm not a fan of remakes.  In fact, I think most remakes shouldn't exist, though the almighty dollar will keep them coming for decades to come.  But The Dark Crystal is the type of film that would benefit from modern technology, set design, budgets, and so on, in part because its original format, though beautiful for its time, has not aged particularly well (and don't get me started on the annoying voice over that explains everything that has happened in the world up to the start of the narrative proper).  Contemporary puppetry, when properly funded, can produce more advanced characters and designs with developed facial features and facial mobility.  Those characters who seem somewhat stiff will come to life in a way they never have before.  The result?  Characters we all can easily connect to.  We'll still know they're puppets, but we'll suspend our disbelief more readily if the characters look, move, and act like real people.  Just look at what they did for The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy (skip to 7:05):
And that's not even the best they could have done.  With advances in animatronic technologies and so on and so forth, you could create characters that practically cry on their own.  Throw in a little CG to help blend the sets and character together -- and no more than "a little" -- and you've got a mixture for what might be the most ambitious remake ever conceived.

Of course, if Hollywood tried to remake The Dark Crystal, they'd probably CG everything and leave out the puppetry -- assuming the Henson company would let them.  I think this would be a grave mistake, but it's not like Hollywood is afraid to send out stinkers and pretty everything up with lens flares and explosions these days.  My only hope is that remaking The Dark Crystal will do honor to the original and add new life to a world that deserves the best adaptation possible.  There's so much to love about The Dark Crystal, from its classic heroic quest to its complete absence of human characters*** to its settings, scenery, and depth.  Who wouldn't want to see it re-imagined once more?

This is where everyone chimes in with their thoughts.  Do you think a remake of The Dark Crystal would be a good idea?
This is the most adorable character in the entire movie.  Fizzgig!


*No wonder I couldn't get enough of Fraggle Rock as a kid...

**He's sort of like a dog thing.  It's hard to explain.

***If not for the fact that I desperately want to see this film remade, I might have talked about the curious absence of human characters in The Dark Crystal.  Perhaps for another time...

Retro Nostalgia: Legend (1985) and the Power of Innocence

(A different subtitle might say this:  "A World of Oppositions, Stricken By Their Equilibrium."  This, of course, assumes I will follow Jason Sanford's story-title-generation process for these features.  I'll leave artistic license aside for now...)

One of the curious things about Ridley Scott's 1985 fairy tale -- appropriately entitled Legend -- is how desperately it clings to its fairy tale origins.  I do not mean "desperate" in a negative sense; rather, I see Legend as trying to avoid falling into the trap of its own making precisely so it can maintain its format in a way that benefits the fairy tale that is its heart.  Thus, what begins as a saccharine childish fantasy of naive, star-crossed lovers from different worlds (Princess Lily from the Court of Men and Jack from the Court of Nature) falls into the abyss of its darkest undercurrents (love, betrayal, darkness, blood, and utter wickedness) before it is righted by a
terribly cheesy narrative reversion (it was a sort-of-dream) and a return to normalcy -- Jack and Lily part, presumably to repeat similar events the next day, always a step away from "completing" their relationship (marriage, more or less).
It's perhaps because of this structural necessity that I love Legend in ways befitting greater works.  Despite the narrative tricks, the sometimes too-cutesy plot points andcharacter quirks, and so on, I am drawn to the narrative's return to a static universe.  True, the Lord of Darkness and his wicked goblins (Blix, expertly played by Alice Playten, still terrifies me)* disrupt the perfect world of Jack and Lily by assassinating one of the two living unicorns and shrouding the world in cold and darkness, but all of his damage is instantly reversed in the last 10 minutes of the film when Jack is allowed to jump back into the forest pool and retrieve his love's ring.  The only indication that anything ever happened is the convenient arrival of Gump and his dwarf friends -- themselves aids to Jack in his quest -- with the two unicorns.  Only even in that moment the world is magically righted again, because the unicorns cannot, as far as the film makes clear, magically rebirth young in a matter of seconds, thus proving to us that the only true change to the world is that of memory.  Historical time is disrupted to return us to a special alternate world of "perfection."
For lack of a better term, I am calling this necessity for a static fairy tale world (a utopia, perhaps) the politics of innocence.  Legend never shies away from its affair with innocence, reminding us from the start that Princess Lily (Mia Sara) is naive, perfect, inquisitive, and ultimately unaware of the very real dangers in the world -- one of her "royal subjects" even tells her so in the opening scenes.  Jack (Tom Cruise), too, suffers from this naivety, though with at least some awareness that certain "codes of conduct" should not be broken -- which is exactly what he allows to happen.
Innocence is so central to the story of Legend that it even dominates the conscious thoughts of the principal villain:  the Lord of Darkness (Tim Curry).  In a revealing scene -- because, why not, right? -- he admits his unquenchable desire for Princess Lily, calling upon his faceless father for advice, who tells him that he must "turn" her to darkness.  After all, the very person whose existence as an "innocent" was required to end the joyous reign of the unicorns -- Lily being a diversion and temptation of sorts -- must be the object of focus here, not because she's a woman, but because she embodies a certain fairy tale stereotype of a woman.

I don't want to read this movie as a stereotype of ideal womanhood** -- naive, innocent, and in need of controlling.  Why?  Because I think a more compelling view of this film is to imagine how it operates through a variety of innocences, some of them products of a misogynistic fairy tale tradition and others governed by the profound static-ness of Legend's world.  Nobody is left unaffected by the power of innocence, whether Jack, who cannot seem to grasp the fact that Lily is a "free spirit" who has no concept of boundaries (perhaps because she is a rebellious youth); the Lord of Darkness, who is compelled by desire to cross the social barriers befitting a, well, lord of darkness; or even the unicorns, who are just as tempted by Lily as by Jack (who, it appears, they trust well enough to let him know where they will be).
This is the profound power of innocence, whether embodied in the ideal image of Lily (virginal, free, beautiful, and sweet as rain) or in the internal philosophy of a fairy tale, where innocence destroys itself, only to be reborn exactly where it began.  Legend is only static because innocence is cyclical.  For the world to return to its original place -- a world of life, beauty, and wonder -- no trace of the real consequences of the temptation of innocence can remain.  It's an almost childlike reversion, if you will -- as if Legend were the child that had to be returned to us, pre-influence (say, pre-Janet Jackson).  The audience, however, can't return.  Ever.  The world might right itself, but we will always remember, like parents remember their children's experiences, that something has occurred and that, just as innocence and light are cycles of power, so too are the darkest recesses innocence and light produce.  The Lord of Darkness is right:  he is in all of us, and he will return one day, perhaps in a different form, but returned nonetheless.  Regardless, historical time shifts, because we know the history as it actually happens, and narrative time swings back around to start all over again.  Rinse and repeat.

Stepping out for a moment, I think it's interesting to consider how this might apply to the narrative if we consider Legend either as a children's fable OR as an adult fantasy.  For me, Legend is far too dark to fall under the traditional children's fable, if only because the imagery, sound, and tone are undeniably macabre.  At least in Disney movies, the villains sing a song.  Here, the only one who sings is Lily, while all else is nearly gory in detail -- excessive, vivid, and all too real.  To think of Legend as an adult fable, then, means perhaps realizing how innocence compels us to action in the real world.  We, in a sense, are always trying to keep the Lord of Darkness at bay, if only so we can protect the illusion of a utopia for ourselves and for our children.  Princess Lily, then, is more than just an embodiment of ideas, stereotypes, and innocence; she is also a reflection of the eternal battle between child-like perfection and "evil."
And on that note, I will sign off...


*There's also Meg Mucklebones, played by Robert Picardo of Star Trek:  Voyager fame, who appears on screen for only a few minutes and terrifies me enough remind me why I didn't get to watch a lot of fantasy movies when I was a kid...
**Though this is a valid reading to take.

Retro Nostalgia: Logan’s Run (1976) and the Infantilization of Humanity

(Note:  There are a few spoilers below. If you have not seen Logan's Run and want to, I recommend watching it before you read this post.  I'm not ruining the entire movie or anything; I just know that I would prefer a completely untainted first viewing.  If you don't care about a few spoilers, then read on.

Note 2:  This is a little late.  It should have appeared yesterday.  I hope you'll forgive me, considering that I didn't have the film selected until late Sunday evening.)

Many of you already know that I am currently teaching an American dystopia class.  One of the novels I had considered teaching was William F. Nolan and George Clayton Johnson's Logan's Run, which was later turned into a 1976 film (discussed here) and a 1977 TV series (which I have never seen).  There are a few more novels/stories in the series/universe and a new film adaptation is currently in the works.  As a piece of dystopia, the film plays on a number of the social concerns of the 1960s and the 1970s, among them the population boom scare fed by Paul R. Ehrlich
(founder of the Zero Population Growth movement, now called Population Connection), which inspired Harry Harrison's Make Room! Make Room!, and the "social revolution" of the period (particularly among the younger generations).  Logan's Run, thus, imagines a future in which the outside world has collapsed -- for reasons we are never told, because nobody is alive to remember it -- resulting in a self-contained, futuristic community where life is artificially ended at age 30 and, so we're told, the entire system runs on a 1-to-1 cyclical rebirth process.  There is no population growth because growth would crash the system, and the population is perpetually kept in the "dark" about the inner workings of Carrousel (the communal celebration of disintegration/termination that occurs whenever a group reaches maturity -- 30).  It's that darkness that I want to talk about here.
Only those who run really fast get away long enough to run more.
Part of what makes Logan's Run such a terrifying future -- despite it's somewhat dated, uber-70s presentation -- is how it explores what absolute equilibrium produces in a culture (albeit, a largely Western, white culture, if this film is any indication).  Looking back through much of my reading, I can draw comparisons to William Golding's Lord of the Flies or even Jack London's The Iron Heel, each works which imagine dystopian spaces wherein humanity's violent inner nature is exposed.  Much like Lord of the Flies, the future of Logan's Run is one in which some children are made to fend for themselves (albeit, in an isolated sense), only Golding's novel never imagines what the children on the island will look like in 20 years -- Logan's Run does.  So while the children in the Cathedral -- where the "feral ones" go -- may appear savage and tribal,* we are reminded that the "adults" (those that reach 15 -- a.k.a. middle age) will be cast out of such societies to live among the rest of humanity.  Where this might seem barbaric to a viewer, it is important to note that we learn almost nothing about how children are raised in the dominant culture, wherein our heroes spend their days drinking, having sex, and generally "enjoying" their lives (presumably toddlers are not engaging in such activities too).  What we do know is that those barbaric, tribal children in Cathedral are no less barbaric and tribal than the people they isolate themselves from by electing to live only among people their age.
Jessica is the only main character who thinks the world is, well,
wrong, but because it's the 1970s, and the filmmakers decided
not to take that whole "2nd Wave Feminism" thing seriously, she
basically spends the whole movie acting like a child^2.
In other words:  the narrative wants us to imagine, if only for a moment, that Logan's dominant culture is the civilized one because it has all the amenities of a civilized culture, if only so we're able to forget that Logan and his friend, Francis, are members of a security caste who have semantically argued their way out of considering terminating runners -- people who don't show up for Carrousel -- as murder.  The film, then, is a trick.  Here is the grand old utopia, replete with perpetually safe sex, all the drink you could ever want, food, clothing, housing, and so on and so forth, reminding us that it is a utopia by showing us just how utopic it is by comparison.  Oh, trickery, I know you so well.

And that's just it.  Logan's culture is not a utopia (we know this, of course, but Logan doesn't).  In fact, what Logan soon discovers is that "renewal" at Carrousel never actually happens (you're disintegrated and that's it), that even your friends will hunt you down if you run, and that his world is one of infantilization.  How could it not be?  The "state" becomes the "mother," the "father" disappears entirely, and the people are made into subservient children.  Or, in the case of the feral children in Cathedral, there is no mother, there is no father, and subservience is guaranteed by isolation and a caste system that exiles those who are too old.  
This is the only picture I could find with Francis looking
like the crazy person he becomes in the film...
The feral children (they call them "cubs"), however, are a mirror.  They are what Logan's friend Francis will become when he learns of Logan's betrayal (semi-betrayal, really, since Logan is initially following the orders of the "mother" system).  In a fit of childish revenge, Francis stalks Logan into Cathedral, and then across half of the domed city, growing increasingly more irate, more mad, and more like a child seeking his father -- Logan.  As a stand-in for the entire Sandman force (those who terminate Runners), Francis represents the feral nature of man -- which this society has suppressed through rampant pleasure -- bubbling to the surface.  Feral children no more, for Francis becomes that child in adult form, rampaging in a desperate attempt to reclaim the old world, in which he and his best friend enjoy everything together like a child with its parents.  It's the ultimate form of infantilization:  dependency on the "state" and dependency on the "surrogate parent."

That's not to suggest that Logan and Jessica (who I have only mentioned in a caption because she's honestly just a pretty face in this film, which fails the Bechdel test a million times over) are less infantilized in Logan's Run.  Rather, they are childish in a rather revealing way.  Whereas Francis and the feral children of Cathedral are indicative of the psychological toll of suppressing thought (via the "state") and suppressing interrogation (on the part of the "state" and the "individual"), Logan and Jessica are the polar opposites:  children who cannot control their curiosity.  Thus, when they manage to escape their domed city, some of their first experiences are literally first experiences -- and they respond to those experiences like children might.  Curiosity.
If you didn't know, this guy won two Oscars for previous performances.
A wonderful example of this more positive infantilization is when Logan and Jessica discover the unnamed Old Man in the fallen city of Washington, D.C. (the viewer knows the city; the characters do not).  Having grown up in a world without wrinkles and white/grey hair, they are shocked at the Old Man's appearance.  Is this what happens when you grow old?  Doesn't it hurt to have all those "cracks" in your face?  How did you get here (or, perhaps more humorously:  if you were a baby, where did you come from)?  Jessica then touches the Old Man's face, foreshadowing the ending:  the domed city collapses because the truth in Logan's mind shatters the computerized system that runs everything, and everyone is forced outside, where they discover the Old Man and, in a kind of touching orgy, begin to feel his face (I must admit that this is a rather adorable moment).  Of course, Jessica and Logan are initially interrupted by Francis, who has finally lost his mind -- thus, the cycle of violent infantilization is complete (suppression, terror, madness).

This is perhaps why I find Logan's Run such a compelling narrative, and also a somewhat terrifying future.  To imagine a world in which we are all violent or confused children is to imagine the collapse of true civilization.  Logan's Run imagines a city of trickery, for we can only accept the utopian ideals as utopian if we suppress the knowledge that the people who exist there are themselves mere fixtures in a cyclical culture that has no hope of progressing because it suppresses the very idea of "progress."  After all, if pregnancy is not a problem in the dome city -- it isn't -- what purpose does dying at 30 serve if not to keep people from spending too much time questioning?

And that's all I've got to say for the moment.  Feel free to add your thoughts in the comments!


*They are portrayed as savage and tribal, which is certainly a problematic association.  I'd also like to clarify that the world if Logan's Run does not literally throw children into the wild in the same way as Lord of the Flies.  I am simply referring to the way the feral children are presented.

Retro Nostalgia: The Bourne Identity (2002) and the Politics of Amnesia

One of the things that fascinates me about the Bourne movies is the question raised by his amnesia within the ideology of terrorism (read:  War on Terrorism, etc.).  To think about Bourne's amnesia as a symptom of a particular form of national ideology is to understand that his amnesia is not simply a convenient plot device (though it is one), but also a symptom of a public amnesia.  In other words, just as Bourne's condition enables him to alter the real by making it imaginary -- i.e., changing one's identity entirely -- so too do the cast of characters who use ignorance (or willful amnesia) to wipe themselves clean of culpability (ex. Ward Abbott).  The public does not know, and those that do know fulfill one of three identities:  1) true amnesiac; 2) willful amnesiac; and 3) maintenance amnesiac (Conklin, who maintains the barrier between those that don't need to know (the public) and those that don't want to know (Abbott)).

Bourne's identity, however, is split by a seeming contradiction.  On the one hand, his amnesia defines him as one who does not know himself; on the other, he is defined by what he does not (or cannot or will not) remember, but about which others have profound knowledge.  To not know
oneself, therefore, does not necessarily mean one cannot be known, as is the state of the amnesiac in nature.  But for Bourne, those with knowledge of his true self are those who want him buried, not least of all because awareness of self threatens the security of the system. 

Here the political moment rears its ugly head.  To have knowledge of the undesirable opens a new series of relations:  1) the one who knows, but doesn't want to know (Bourne); 2) the one who doesn't know (the public); 3) the one who doesn't know, but doesn't want to know (Abbott); and 4) the one who knows (Conklin).  It becomes crucial for #3 and #4 to keep #2 in the dark, because the public is the body who ultimately controls the others.  But the public's lack of knowledge is a choice, albeit one that reads more like a handwaving than a direct order (if the order were given, they would know what is being done in their name); they live in perpetual amnesia. 
For Bourne, however, the question stems from who he was before and who he has become after the traumatic moment.  This makes him dangerous not least of all to Conklin (#4), but to the mental security of the public (#2).  Just as Bourne's identity is shattered by the realization of who he was, so too is the public's identity subject to traumatic exposure.  Thus the threat that Bourne poses:  forcing a public to re-imagine itself in light of torture, assassination, and rampant civil rights abuses, all part of an image of American selfhood that cannot exist concurrantly with the image Americans have made for themselves.  That Bourne exists in this political structure suggests, I think, something profound about the Bourne movies:  an awareness of what the years immediately following 9/11 have done to the public consciousness -- namely, put us all into a relation between amnesiacs.

Bourne, however, does reject the past he cannot remember -- and its attending identity -- before knowing who he really is or what he has really done.  In choosing not to remember, he attempts, albeit unsuccessfully (see The Bourne Supremacy), to erase the traumatic through accepting the amnesiatic moment.  But in that erasure, his position in the relation of amnesiacs shifts only in relation to the public, who will never know so long as Bourne tries to move on with his life.  For Conklin and Abbott (the latter more in the second film than here), there is no possibility of security; Bourne will always constitute a threat until he is brought back into the fold or destroyed.  And yet, as the movies show, in holding dogmatically to the desire to control knowledge, the system which Conklin maintains and Abbott reboots (and Noah Vosen takes up in The Bourne Ultimatum) inevitably collapses under its own weight.  To put it another way, systematic extermination of the 1st of the four relations (i.e., the one who knows, but doesn't want to know) results in exposing one's hand and opens holes in the structure to be exploited.

None of this is a perfect explanation of what I'm trying to get at.  Obviously Abbott has some knowledge of Conklin's activities, but I take as given that Abbott only set up the system, but intentionally extricated himself from the chain of information to make it possible to feign ignorance.  And I have left out the women in the film (specifically, Marie), but only because I suspect they will play a more crucial role in future Bourne-related posts.  I hope what I've tried to elucidate gives some indication of the complexity of the social dynamics of the film.  If not, then I'll make myself the amnesiac and pretend this post doesn't exist.

Feel free to let me know what you think of The Bourne Identity, or to poke holes into what I'm saying.  The comments are yours!

Retro Nostalgia: The Fifth Element (1997) and the Legacy of Camp

The Fifth Element is one of those films that the genre community loves not because it is a good film, but because it's actually pretty awful, and intentionally so.  At least, that's how I interpret it.  It has always seemed like a film that deliberately sought out science fiction's pension for high-flying, mythological fantasy (in space).  In some sense, it's the opposite of Starships Troopers, released in the same year.  Both films are satires:  Starship Troopers a more socio-political satire of the military industrial complex, and The Fifth Element a satire of genre -- or what I call the  "legacy of camp."
What amuses me about The Fifth Element is how easily it manipulates genre conventions to produce a narrative that functions in part through humorous hyperbole, and yet never needs to make a whole lot of sense.  The central premise, for those that don't know or only vaguely remember, is much like any Doctor Who season finale:  some kind of evil, ancient alien force appears out of nowhere (in the form of a planet that gobbles up aggressive energy, like missiles, to increase its size), and the only one who can stop it is a genetically engineered messiah (Leeloo, played by Milla Jovovich) and an ex-soldier.  Of course, there are lots of obstacles in the way:  an inept human government/military, an evil corporate loon with the weirdest hairdo in history (Gary Oldman), some evil mercenary space orcs, and a couple of socially awkward priests.  Let's also not forget that one of the most important scenes in the entire movie is an opera/faux-future-pop mashup laid over Leeloo's comical smackdown of those absurd space orcs.  And did I mention that the music in said scene is performed by a blue alien diva with tentacles?  Yeah.
The plot is eccentric enough -- and ever so genre -- but the film's technological imagination is where the nonsensical really shines.  Take, for example, the main city:  hover cars are everywhere, despite societal evidence that this would be a complete disaster; Chinese restaurants deliver in person, flying around in makeshift sailing ships; Korben Dallas (Bruce Willis) has enough high-powered rifles to make even an NRA activist scared (and apparently he's not the only one); and homes are equipped with self-cleaning showers and other gadgets that would make Bill Gates wet himself.  Elsewhere, we're to believe that scientists can reconstruct any biological being from a handful of cells; luxury cruise ships roam the stars undefended, while mercenaries destroy everything they're paid to eliminate; and aliens of unimaginable cleverness (who made Leeloo) are so inept at protecting their own ships that their destruction becomes a convenient plot device.  It's the kind of movie that, if it took itself seriously, would fall apart the moment someone started to think about it all.

But The Fifth Element doesn't take itself too seriously.  It's camp through and through.  The acting is overboard, right down to a somewhat dumbfounded Tommy Lister playing President of, well, everything and Gary Oldman pulling out all the stops as the ridiculous Zorg, weird hairdo, accent, and all.  It's as if the creators sat down one day and said, "How can we make this movie so ridiculous it's actually entertaining?"  And it's that willingness to embrace the campy side of SF that makes The Fifth Element one of those rare humorous gems, memorable not for being a gamestopper like 2001:  A Space Odyssey or Blade Runner, but for being that absurd movie we can all watch and love together.  It never needed to be a good movie.  It only ever needed to be that right mixture of camp and humor (a skill Joss Whedon has learned to master quite well).
This is where I have to wonder:  What other films do the same thing?  Do they work as well as The Fifth Element?  Why or why not?


Retro Nostalgia is the product of my compulsive re-watching of classic and/or quality science fiction and fantasy films (and their related components).  In each feature, I'll cover some element of a particular film that interests me, sometimes from an academic perspective and other times as a simple fan.  Previous columns can be easily found via the "Movie Rants" label.