Cloud Atlas – 2012

Cloud Atlas – 2012

This is one of my top 5 favorite movies of all time.  The movie is incredibly profound in its overall theme which is stated so beautifully at several points in the film.  It says, “Our Lives are not our own.  From womb to tomb, we are bound to others.  Past and Present.  And by each crime and every kindness, we birth our future.”  It basically means that everything we do has consequences that can ripple throughout eternity.

Cloud Atlas tells 6 different stories, all at the same time.  The stories are all interesting in their own right, but what makes them so fascinating as they are told in tandem with each other, is that we can follow certain threads that link the stories together.  The first takes place in the Pacific Islands in 1849.  After that, Cambridge and Edinburgh in 1936.  Next is San Francisco in 1973.  Next is London in 2012.  Then we are given Neo Soul in 2144.  And finally, we have Big Isle, 106 winters after The Fall in the year 2321.

It is an incredibly intellectual film.  You really have to pay attention to what is going on, what is said, and who is saying it.  You have to watch for hidden clues and meanings.  You have to try to be an objective observer, and yet lose yourself in the subtext of the film’s underlying philosophy.  It is not an easy film to watch.  As a matter of fact, the film generally gets mixed reviews from critics.  Some, like me, believe the movie to be a masterwork of cinematic artistry.  Others just find it confusing and consequently forgettable.

Critic Calum Marsh called it, “a unique and unparalleled disaster,” and that, “its badness is fundamental, an essential aspect of the concept and its execution that I suspect is impossible to remedy or rectify.”  I got this from Wikipedia.  But just calling a movie bad doesn’t make it bad.   See, I love the movie so much that I had to understand why Mr. Marsh hated it so profoundly.  So I looked up the complete review that he wrote.  He lost the first half of his credibility right at the beginning when he said that it had 7 stories going on instead of 6.  He lost the second half when he got through his extensive review without having a single good thing to say about any aspect of the film.  From the script to the acting, from the makeup to the cinematography, from the philosophical themes to the music, from the visuals to the editing, he couldn’t find a single thing about the film that wasn’t horribly awful.  Marsh needs to understand that such an extreme position makes him lose his credibility as a critic.  But then, in his 660 word review, nearly half it was just ranting, insulting, name calling, and verbal bashing.  So I can easily discount his impossibly negative opinion.  No film merits such a review.  Even the most widely panned films of all time like Ishtar, Gigli, or even Manos: The Hands of Fate have some minor merits to their credit.

In my own assessment, there are many reasons why Cloud Atlas was so great.  It is important to note that the phenomenal ensemble cast play various roles, each showing up as different characters in each of the different stories.  The various roles played by a single actor vary in race and gender.  It is profound in showing the idea of reincarnation and souls that are connected lifetime after lifetime.  Characters that know each other in one timeline have an unexplainable sense of recognition in the next.

The stories are all told at the same time with amazing editing that takes us from story to story in sometimes rapid succession.  But it all works.  Each plot has its own look and feel that is quite distinct from the others, making it easy to follow each of the varied narratives.  And through the genius of this broken and overlapping storytelling, the connections between them become quite evident.  The different plots are so complexly interwoven that even though it will take up a significant portion of this review, I would like to copy just the 6 plot summaries from Wikipedia.

“Tribesman Zachry Bailey recounts stories to his grandchildren on an extraterrestrial Earth colony.

Pacific Islands, 1849

Adam Ewing, an American lawyer, has come to the Chatham Islands to conclude a business arrangement with Reverend Horrox and his father-in-law. In Horrox’s plantation, he witnesses the whipping of a Moriori slave, Autua, who later Stows away on the ship. Autua confronts Ewing and convinces him to advocate for Autua to join the crew as a free man. Dr Henry Goose slowly poisons Ewing, claiming it is the cure for a parasitic worm, to steal Ewing’s valuables. As Goose administers the fatal dose, Autua saves Ewing. Returning to the United States, Ewing and his wife Tilda denounce her father’s complicity in slavery and leave to join the abolition movement.

Cambridge/Edinburgh, 1936

Robert Frobisher, a young English composer, finds work as an amanuensis to aging composer Vyvyan Ayrs, allowing Frobisher the time and inspiration to compose his own masterpiece, “The Cloud Atlas Sextet”. Frobisher begins reading Ewing’s journal, which he has found with the latter portion missing, among the books at Ayrs’s mansion. Ayrs demands credit for “The Cloud Atlas Sextet” and threatens to expose Frobisher’s homosexuality if he refuses. Frobisher shoots Ayrs and flees to a hotel, where he uses the name Ewing. He finishes “The Cloud Atlas Sextet” and commits suicide with a gun just before his lover Rufus Sixsmith arrives.

San Francisco, 1973

Journalist Luisa Rey meets an older Rufus Sixsmith, now a nuclear physicist. Sixsmith tips off Rey to a conspiracy regarding the safety of a new nuclear reactor run by Lloyd Hooks, but is killed by Hooks’s hitman, Bill Smoke, before he can give her a report that proves it. Rey finds Frobisher’s letters to Sixsmith and tracks down a vinyl recording of Frobisher’s “Cloud Atlas Sextet”. Isaac Sachs, another scientist at the power plant, passes her a copy of Sixsmith’s report. Smoke kills Sachs by blowing up his plane and runs Rey’s car off a bridge. She escapes but the report is destroyed. With help from the plant’s head of security, Joe Napier, Rey evades another attempt on her life, which results in Smoke’s death. With another copy of the report obtained from Sixsmith’s niece, she exposes the plot to use a nuclear accident for the benefit of oil company executives, who are indicted as a result.

London, 2012

Sixty-five-year-old publisher Timothy Cavendish reaps a windfall when Dermot Hoggins, the gangster author of Knuckle Sandwich, murders a critic who gave the novel a harsh review, generating huge sales. When Hoggins’s brothers threaten Cavendish’s life for Hoggins’s share of the profits, Cavendish asks for help from his wealthy brother, Denholme, who tells him to hide at Aurora House. On the way there, Cavendish reads a manuscript of a novel based on Luisa Rey’s story, and recalls his relationship with a woman named Ursula. He visits the house where she lived with her parents and discovers that she still lives there. Believing Aurora House is a hotel, Timothy signs papers “voluntarily” committing himself; in fact, Aurora House is a nursing home (in Ayrs’s old mansion). Denholme reveals to Timothy that he sent him there as revenge for Timothy’s affair with Denholme’s wife Georgette. The head nurse, Noakes, is abusive, and contact with the outside world is denied. Cavendish escapes with three other residents. He resumes his relationship with Ursula and writes a screenplay of his experience.

Neo Seoul, 2144

Sonmi-451 is a “fabricant”, a human cloned for slave labor, living as a server at a fast food restaurant in a dystopian South Korea. She is exposed to ideas of rebellion by another fabricant and friend, Yoona-939. After witnessing Yoona being killed for rebelling, Sonmi is rescued from captivity by Commander Hae-Joo Chang, a rebel. He exposes Sonmi to the larger world, including the banned writings of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and a film version of Timothy Cavendish’s “ghastly ordeal”. They are found and Sonmi is captured. Hae-Joo rescues her, introduces her to the leader of the rebel movement, and shows her that clones are not freed at the end of their contract but killed and recycled into food for other clones. Sonmi makes a public broadcast of her story and manifesto. The authorities intervene to halt the broadcast; Hae-Joo is killed in the firefight and Sonmi is recaptured. After recounting her story to an archivist, she is executed.

Big Isle (Hawaii), 106 winters after the Fall (2321)

Zachry Bailey lives in a primitive post-apocalyptic society called the Valley on the Big Island of Hawaii. The Valley tribesmen worship Sonmi-451; their sacred text is taken from the broadcast of her manifesto. Zachry is plagued by visions of a demonic figure called Old Georgie, who urges him to give in to his fears. Zachry, his brother-in-law Adam, and his nephew are attacked by the cannibalistic Kona tribe. Zachry runs into hiding and his companions are murdered. His village is visited by Meronym, a member of the Prescients, an advanced society using the last remnants of high technology. Meronym’s mission is to find a remote communication station on Mauna Sol and send a message to Earth’s off-world colonies. Catkin, Zachry’s niece, falls sick, and in exchange for saving her, Zachry agrees to guide Meronym to the station, where Meronym reveals the true story of Sonmi-451. Returning, Zachry finds his tribe slaughtered by the Kona. He kills the sleeping Kona chief and rescues Catkin, and Meronym saves them both from the returning Kona and is in turn saved by Zachry. Zachry and Catkin join Meronym and the Prescients as their ship leaves Big Island.”

Five actors played parts in all 6 timelines: Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Jim Sturgess, Hugh Grant, and Hugo Weaving.  For example, Hanks played Dr. Henry Goose in 1849, an unnamed hotel manager in 1936, Isaac Sachs in 1973, Dermot Hoggins in 2012, a Cavendish Look-a-like actor in 2144, and Zachry in 2321.  Berry played a native woman in 1849, Jocasta Ayrs in 1936, Luisa Rey in 1973, an Indian party guest in 2012, Ovid, a medical doctor who removes Sonmi’s slave collar in 2144, and Meronym in 2321.  Hugh Grant played Rev. Giles Horrox in 1849, a hotel heavy in 1936, Lloyd Hooks in 1973, Denholme Cavendish in 2012, Seer Rhee, the slave operator at the fast food restaurant in 2144, and the chief of the Kona cannibals in 2321.

Other wonderful actors like Ben Whishaw, Jim Broadbent, Susan Sarandon, Keith David, and James D’Arcy also play multiple roles, though they do not appear in every different timeline.  The only lead role played by a lesser known actress was Doona Bae, playing the part of Sonmi-451 in the 2144 timeline.

The script itself is nothing short of genius and was put together by Lana Wachowski, Andy Wachowski, and Tom Tykwer, based on the incredible book of the same name, written by David Mitchell.  The way the stories are linked is fascinating to put together.  In fact, I have actually read the book and can say that the movie was structured differently than the book.  The film told all the stories at the same time so that the common threads of character and theme in each timeline could be seen to overlap and mingle.  The book broke all the stories except one into two parts.  The pattern can be seen as 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1, with 1 being the story of Adam Ewing, and 6 being the story of Zachry.  Each telling has its advantages and disadvantages, but each was structured to fit its medium.  The film would not have been so effective if it had been structured like the book and vice-versa.

As each actor passed back and forth between the different stories, they were often unrecognizable as the same person.  And this is all due to the magic of a team of 45 makeup artists.  The makeup, prosthetics, and hairstyling, in addition to the wonderful costume design made for a visually stunning journey.  The special effects were spectacular, especially in the Neo Soul storyline.

And then there was the music.  The film’s score was not only gorgeous and lush, with common themes running throughout the different eras of the movie, but it was also a distinct part of the plot.  The Cloud Atlas Sextet, written by the character of Robert Frobisher in the 1936 timeline, and listened to in the 1973 timeline, and played briefly in the 2144 timeline, was haunting and insightful.  It was yet another plot device that helped to tie the various stories together.

Another such plot device was a recurring, comet-shaped birthmark that showed up on the main character in each story.  It appeared on Adam Ewing’s Chest, Robert Frobisher’s lower back, Luisa Rey’s shoulder, Timothy Cavendish’s upper back, Sonmi-451’s neck, and the back of Zachry’s head.  It was just an intriguing little mark that drew attention to the running theme of reincarnation and the idea of history repeating itself.

Some of my favorite parts of the movie stand out to me as especially well done.  There was the depiction of the soul-mate kind of relationship between Frobisher and Sixsmith, though strangely enough, the two characters never spoke any lines to each other.  I also loved Timothy Cavendish’s daring escape from Aurora House.  Hugo Weaving’s portrayal of Nurse Noakes was both funny and frightening.  And the bar fight that allowed him and his friends to get away was so perfect.  Get a bunch of drunk Scotsmen to fight for you, and you can’t lose.

I loved just about everything in the two latest timelines.  Sonmi-451’s tragic and yet inspiring story was one that touched the heart, especially when the horrifying underbelly of the all-too-believable dystopian society is revealed, mirroring the famous tale of Soylent Green, where the dead are secretly turned into food to feed the living.  Doona Bae was wonderful as the doomed fabricant whose courage changed the world and made her a goddess.

And I think my favorite parts of the movie were those that took place in the 2321 timeline.  Hanks and Berry were awesome as Zachry and Meronym.  The language they used was sometimes difficult to follow.  It was as if English had evolved into a broken and half-forgotten dialect.  But the actors spoke it easily, making it sound natural.  The look of the sequences which combined primitive simplicity and savagery with the remnants of fantastic technology was perfectly executed.  Even Hugo Weaving, playing the part of Old Georgie, the devil, according to Zachry’s beliefs, was wonderfully creepy as he constantly tried to get Zachry to give in to his fears and darker impulses.

Cloud Atlas was a phenomenal movie.  It was quite possibly one of the most ambitious undertakings in cinematic history, but the Wachowskis along with Tom Tykwer made it work.  This movie blows me out of the water every time I watch it.  I highly recommend watching it.  But be wary.  Keep in mind that just because it might be difficult to understand, doesn’t mean it is bad.  The movie requires the viewers to use their brains.  And when is that ever a bad thing, especially when there is so much there to think about and imagine?

1992 – Howards End

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Howard’s End – 1992

“OK, round up the usual suspects.  Look up the cast from Room With a View.  Get on the phone to Helena Bonham Carter, Emma Thompson, Maggie Smith… Maggie’s not available?  Alright, call Vanessa Redgrave.  Get Anthony Hopkins and… Yeah, sure, why not?  Get Simon Callow over here.  Oh, and see how many of them can come back next year for Remains of the Day.”  I know.  That assessment is not at all a fair one.  Emma Thompson wasn’t even in Room With a View.  But it isn’t very far from the truth.

This is another one of those slow and dull British Merchant-Ivory period dramas.  It dealt with, you guessed it, issues of class, social propriety, mixed in with a bit of romance.  Was it a bad film?   Of course not.  It was well-made and had some pretty spot-on acting.  The sets and costumes were elegant and the overall aesthetic was pleasant and somewhat nostalgic.  But if you look at other films like Room With a View, Maurice, and Remains of the Day, and you get the same actors playing the same kinds of parts, dealing with the same kinds of issues.  The movie itself wasn’t dull.  The genre is.

I think it is because of my American sensibility.  Class isn’t as much of an issue here in the United States.  In England, it seems to be everything.  Otherwise, why do they spend so much time focusing on it?  But it is also because period pieces, while quaint, are pretty far removed from my modern sensibility.  Some of the issues and complications these films have would not work in a modern movie.

The story revolved around three families, each representing a different social class.  The Schlegel family, which consists of three siblings: Margaret, the eldest, played by Emma Thompson, Helen, the youngest, played by Helena Bonham Carter, and Tibby, played by Adrien Ross Magenty.  They represent the enlightened bourgeoisie who find it fashionable to care about the poor.  Then there are the Wilcoxes, representing the wealthy capitalists who are slowly replacing the aristocracy, made up of Ruth and Henry, played by Vanessa Redgrave and Anthony Hopkins, and their three children, Charles, Paul, and Evie, played by James Wilby, Joseph Bennett, and Jemma Redgrave.  There was also Dolly Wilcox, Charles’ wife, played by Susie Lindeman.  Then there are the Basts, Leonard and Jacky, played by Samuel West and Nicola Duffett, who represent the lower-middle class, and who become the unwitting targets of Helen Schlegel’s crusade to help the poor.

Yes, there are a lot of characters, but I didn’t find it too hard to keep them all separated.  The plot offered few little romance stories, but not the ones you think you are going to see.  So along with the talented cast, that kept things interesting.  But I think some of the film’s biggest drama was supposed to be things like the rift that formed between Margaret and Helen because Margaret decides to marry the widowed Henry Wilcox.  How dare you marry a rich man when he has such a horribly dismissive attitude toward the poor?  Or Henry’s admission that he’d once had an extramarital affair with Jacky Bast before she’d been married, though Margaret forgave him immediately, without judging him.

You know, I think that’s the problem I had with the movie.  The drama just wasn’t that deep, or wasn’t handled in a very serious manner.  The plot seemed very episodic and when there was a conflict, it was generally solved pretty quickly.  The movie covered a span of years, following the ins, outs, and interactions between the families, but didn’t really go very far in terms of action.  Even when Helen returns home pregnant and unwed, and it is revealed that Mr. Bast is the father, the issue is quickly resolved.  Paul Wilcox goes into a rage and accidentally kills him.  He is arrested and goes to jail fort murder, an interesting sequence that could have lasted fifteen or twenty minutes.  But the whole sub-plot takes up about eight minutes of the two and a half hour movie.

The music was nice, but not very original.  The only original music, composed by Richard Robbins, was used for the opening titles and the closing credits.  Everything else was well-known classical pieces, mostly piano music.  I suppose it was appropriate for the film, but not terribly original.  And the underscoring, while good, was either soft, slow, introspective, and romantic, or more cheerful and jaunty than it seemed it should have been, which had the effect of lightning the mood of dramatic moments that could otherwise have made the film more gripping.

But in doing my research, I found that the fates of the three families were a metaphor for the changing class system in England.  In fact, I think Wikipedia found a great way of saying it which I will quote here.  “In both the film and the novel, the final ownership of Howards End is emblematic of new class relations in Britain. It is the wealth of the new industrialists (the Wilcoxes), married to the politically reforming vision of liberalism (the Schlegels,) which will make amends and reward the children of the underprivileged (the Basts); whereupon Howards End is revealed as an instrument of poetic justice and redemption.”  Nicely put.

1997 – Contact

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Contact – 1997

 

Spoiler Alert

 

This is actually one of my top 5 favorite movies of all time.  There are so many things that this film did right.  The casting was spot-on, the acting was incredible, the special effects were phenomenal, the realism of the plot was undeniable, the cinematography was amazing, the musical score was perfect, the script was intelligent, and the climax was exciting.  How’s that for a single movie?

I’ve seen this film over and over, and it never gets boring.  Jody Foster is wonderful as Dr. Eleanor Arroway, a brilliant astronomer and scientist who is obsessed with the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, or SETI.  The film does a great job of developing her character so that when she finds what she is looking for, we really get to understand her actions and beliefs that propel her to the movie’s climactic ending.  Foster turned in a powerful performance.  In my humble opinion, it is one of the best performances of her career, and that is saying a lot.

The film also stars Matthew McConaughey as Palmer Joss, a theologian with whom Ellie falls in love.  And therein lies one of the most fascinating and well-written aspects of the film.  Screenwriters, James V. Hart and Michael Goldenberg, did an incredible job of looking at the hypothetical situation of human discovery of intelligent life in outer space from both points of view: scientific and religious.  Each side is brilliantly explained in an easily understandable and thought-provoking way.

The film explores what would actually happen if, in our modern world, we actually found such life in the universe.  How would the general populace react to it?  How would religious groups react?  The government?  The scientific community?  In the story, Ellie nearly ruins her career in her impossible search for alien life.  Few people share her beliefs.  But when she hears a radio signal coming from deep space, she is suddenly taken seriously.

James Woods plays Michael Kitz, the skeptical National Security Advisor who is constantly at odds with Ellie as she pursues her science-fiction-like goals.  The signal that she hears is a radio signal that had left earth in 1936, traveled 26 light-years to the star constellation called Vega, and then was sent back to Earth, hugely amplified.  Along with the signal is 60,000 pages of encrypted data that has to be decoded.

Ellie’s main scientific rival is David Drumlin, played by Tom Skerritt.  He is one of the most frustrating characters in the film.  Before the message, he was always the first to ridicule Ellie for her SETI work.  After the message, he swooped in over and over again to take credit for her long years of hard work.  The decoded data turns out to be blueprints for building a mysterious machine.  Eventually, it is revealed that the structure is a fantastic transport device, the likes of which the world has never seen.

Again, the realism of the movie is perfect.  The plot goes into how the government takes over the project and slowly squeezes Ellie out of the picture.  But Ellie’s long-time benefactor, eccentric billionaire and engineer, S. R. Hadden, played by John Hurt, goes out of his way to keep her involved in what he calls “The Game of the Mellenium.”

I loved one of the philosophical arguments that the movie made.  When Ellie says of the aliens, “There is no reason to believe their intentions are hostile,” Kitz responds by asking, “Why is it the position of the egghead stat that aliens would always be benign?  Why is that Doctor?”  She replies, “We pose no threat to them.  It would be like us going out of our way to destroy a few microbes on some anthill in Africa.”  Drumlin chimes in, saying, “That’s a very interesting analogy.  And how guilty would we feel if we went and destroyed a few microbes on an anthill in Africa?”  Things like that which were so cleverly presented just fire my imagination and make me think.  Great dialogue!

The US Government decides to build the machine, and the film goes into the long and arduous process of choosing a single human to go into the transport pod, presumably to be Earth’s first ambassador to extraterrestrial life.  Ellie is on the list, but once again, Drumlin crushes her dreams by taking the position for himself.  But then a cult of religious fanatics, led by a man called Joseph, played by Jake Busey, become terrorists and sabotage the machine, killing Drumlin, in the process.  But Hadden surprises Ellie with the revelation that he has secretly built a second machine of his own.  He chooses Ellie to go.

The design of the machine itself was both fantastical and realistic, at least within the confines of the science-fiction plot.  The gigantic device used spinning concentric rings that generated massive amounts of electromagnetic energy, thus opening a wormhole that would carry the transport pod across the galaxy.  As Ellie was catapulted into space, the special effects went into overdrive.  Her journey through the wormhole was amazingly well done.  I loved how they showed ghostly images of her face emerging from her head, saying dialogue that she hadn’t yet said.  And the phrase, “They’re alive!” was both exciting and ominous at the same time. It made the point that time itself was being twisted.

And the beautiful images of her journey into the unknown were spellbinding.  When she finally reached her destination, the magical representation of a special place that was taken from her mind, a drawing of a beautiful beach she had made as a child, was a feast for the eyes.  The glowing, crystalline water, the swaying palm trees, and the bright, sparkling sky full of stars, was just gorgeous.

Then came the part of the movie that many people didn’t like, but I loved it.  The alien that came to greet her took the form of her long-dead father, played by David Morse.  He spoke lovingly toward her and had a little conversation with her saying, “You’re an interesting species.  An interesting mix.  You’re capable of such beautiful dreams and such horrible nightmares.  You feel so lost, so cut off, so alone, only you’re not.  See, in all our searching, the only thing we’ve found that makes the emptiness bearable, is each other.”  Wonderfully said.

But the movie doesn’t stop there.  It goes on to show that as the transport pod dropped through the machine, it, in fact didn’t go anywhere.  Ellie’s journey to the center of the galaxy, which was supposed to have taken about 18 hours, never took place.  Kits and nearly everyone else on the planet accuse her of making up her entire experience, or at the very least hallucinating it.  And you know there would be skeptics that would refuse to believe her.  A public hearing is held in which she is forced to admit that she may have imagined the whole thing.

But she refuses to deny what happened.  It shows how she, as a woman who has lived her entire life believing only what her senses can show her, now has to believe in her experience through unshakable faith.  And that, for me is the real magic of the movie’s philosophy.  It shows that there is absolutely no reason why science and religion cannot work in perfect harmony with each other, a belief I have long held to be true.  It is something that I think is stated very clearly and very beautifully in the movie.

And one last aspect of the movie that I found fascinating was the fact that Kitz, who is the head of the inquiry attacking Ellie’s fantastical story, seems to be completely aware that she is telling the truth.  The movie makes the point of saying that during the few seconds it took for the pod to drop through the machine, 18 hours have passed for Ellie.  But two things happened in those few seconds that would seem to confirm Ellie’s story.  First is the fact that the chair which had been bolted to the pod’s ceiling had been torn off and crushed against a wall.  This couldn’t have happened in only a few seconds.  And if it had, Ellie would not have had time to unstrap herself from the chair before it was destroyed.  Second was the fact that her camera recorded over 18 hours of static footage.  Kitz knew these things, yet covered up the information in what felt like a government conspiracy.    You know it would happen!!

Other actors in the film who did a great job are Jena Malone, playing young Ellie, William Fichtner as Ellie’s blind co-worker Kent, Geoffrey Blake as Fisher, Ellie’s lab assistant, and Angela Basset as Rachel Constantine, the White House Chief of Staff.  I also loved how they made thing even more realistic by using real celebrities playing themselves like Larry King, Bryant Gumbel, Jay Leno, and even real footage of President Bill Clinton.

And I have to mention the wonderful score by Alan Silvesrtri.  It was exciting and intense when it needed to be, and yet intimate and personal at the other times.  It had a grandeur about it that was perfect for the epic nature of the story.  Silvestri is truly a master of his craft.

As I did my research for the movie I read about a number of different plot holes, most of which were minor enough not to be noticed by anyone but a real aerospace scientist or astronomer.  But one glaring hole that I have always wondered about was the idea that Ellie used the machine to travel to the center of the galaxy, but nobody believed her.  Why did they not use the machine again and send another person through to either confirm or deny her experience.  I mean, here they have this multi-billion dollar piece of technology, and they don’t think to use it again to compare the results?  Of course they would!

I also learned that the book that the movie is based on goes into much greater detail about the science of the fictional plot.  They also explain a lot more about the aliens that Ellie encounters, and goes even further to show and confirm the presence of God in nature and outer space.  As one reviewer wrote, “If you like the movie I’d recommend the book. It gives much more insight on the aliens, and expands the scope as there are a number of scientists that participate rather than just one from America, and goes more in depth into the science. It also attempts to show that religion and science can get along. My favorite part is at the very end of the book where Sagan shows how God hid a message in the very fabric of the cosmos, that we could only read when we were ready.”

It kind of makes me want to read the book now.  Either way, the one catch phrase that the movie makes use of 3 times, is both profound and thought-provoking.  One person would ask, “Do you believe aliens exist?” to which someone else would reply, “I don’t know.  But if it is just us, it seems like an awful waste of space.”

Truer words were never spoken.

2001 – A.I. Artificial Intelligence

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A.I. Artificial Intelligence – 2001

Spoiler Alert

This was a phenomenal movie, one of those films that was so sweet and beautiful that there are parts that I can’t ever watch without crying.  The movie was about the moral implications of creating artificial intelligence with the ability to mimic real emotions.  To do this, it used the fairy tale of Pinocchio as a plot device, the main thrust of the movie’s story arch.  Just like the wooden boy in the old story wanted to become a real boy, so too did the metal boy in A.I.

And it did it in such a beautiful and meaningful way.  The film starts out explaining that the story takes place in a world where Global warming has caused the sea levels to rise, submerging all the major coastal cities of the world, including New York.  The offices of one of the most prominent robotics companies is based in the drowned city.

The film is intelligent and makes you think about what you are watching and listening to.  Because of the global warming, the earth’s population has been drastically reduced.  As a result, many of the needs of society are fulfilled by mecha, robots who can simulate human appearance, behavior, and emotion.  Right off the bat, when the character of Professor Hobby, one of the leading robotics scientists, played by William Hurt, suggests that a mecha can be programmed with real human emotions, one of his fellow scientists asks the big question.  If we create a machine that can feel emotions, what is our responsibility to that machine?

It is recognized as a moral question, and if you think about it, it is a monumentally important question.  We create a mecha that can love.  That mecha will outlast us.  That machine will never grow old, never die.  Thus, the love that it feels will never fade or diminish.  Just as a parent is responsible for a human child, would we not then be responsible for our artificial creations?  What happens to them after we are gone?

And even on a smaller level, if we create a machine that loves us, what happens if our own emotions shift.  What happens to that mecha’s love when a newer model is created or even if our own fluid emotions change?  The machine’s emotions cannot change.  Well, in the story, that is pretty much what happens.

Sam Robards and Frances O’Connor play Henry and Monica Swinton.  Their son, Martin, played by Jake Thomas, has been placed in suspended animation until a cure for his rare and fatal disease can be found.  In order to help Monica let go of her son, who medical science cannot help, a mecha child is created.  Thus David, masterfully played by Haley Joel Osment, is introduced.

Osment’s performance was nothing short of genius.  The child actor had already proven himself in other dramatic films such as 1991’s The Sixth Sense, and 2000’s Pay it Forward.  He was a phenomenon!  He was an amazing actor, a wonderful and rare thing in a child.  At 12 or 13 years old when A.I. was filmed, his performance was more impressive than many established adult actors.  I cannot say enough good things about his incredible sense of emotional gravitas, his perfect sense of dramatic timing, and his ability to create a fully developed character.

The drama of the film comes in when a cure is discovered for Martin’s illness and he comes home.  David now has a child-like, pure love for Monica.  When a sibling rivalry develops between the organic child and the mechanical, both of them vying for love and attention, Monica, understandably chooses her own child over David.  Granted, it is much more complicated than that, but the emotional content is inherently powerful.

The scene where Monica, unwilling to take David back to the factory that made him, abandons him in the wilderness and tells him to run.  It was at this point that David exceeded his programing and came up with a way to make Monica love him as much as she loved Martin.  Inspired by the fairy tale of Pinocchio, David goes on a quest to find the fabled Blue Fairy so that she can turn him into a real boy.

By this point in the movie, my eyes are already tearing up.  And I’m sure that everybody has their own moments of emotional intensity.  Mine comes at a very specific moment.  Here’s the set-up.  David is joined on his quest by two companions.  First is a super-toy that David had received from Monica, an android teddy-bear named Teddy, voiced by Jack Angel.  The other is a male prostitute mecha named Gigolo Joe, played by Jude Law.  They each help David in their own ways.

After surviving a dark and gruesome experience at a flesh fair, a place where humans revel in the horrible destruction of mecha, saying that they are abominations against humanity, David and Joe become friends.  Joe learns that David is searching for a woman called Blue Fairy.  Believing that he knows all there is to know about women, and that the best place to find them is in a Las Vegas kind of place called Rouge City, they hitch a ride to the city of sin.  While there, they visit Dr. Know, voiced by Robin Williams.  It is a fun and whimsical mechanical character that gives answers in an almost comical way.  They use all their money to ask the computerized questioning service to learn the nature and whereabouts of the Blue Fairy, not understanding that she isn’t real.

Actually, understanding is the wrong word.  David knows, intellectually, that she is a myth.  But his love for Monica is so great that he chooses to believe that the Blue Fairy is real.  So powerful is his love that he desperately clings to the impossible idea that he can be made into a real boy so that Monica will love him.  He refuses to believe that he cannot be made real.  As Joe and David question Dr. Know, it becomes clear that the Blue Fairy is not real and cannot be found, until Joe figures out the right question to ask.

He tells Dr. Know to combine “Flat Fact” and “Fairy Tale.”  Then David carefully asks, “How can the Blue Fairy make a robot into a real live boy?”  Suddenly, the lights go dark and a low and ominous hum can be heard in the background.  All signs of the whimsical Dr. Know vanish and the following text begins to scroll up in front of David and Joe, as serious as a catharsis.  Robin Williams was brilliant as he read:

“Come away O human child

To the waters and the wild

With a fairy hand in hand

For the world’s more full of weeping

Than you can understand.

Your quest will be perilous

Yet the reward is beyond price.

In his book,

‘HOW CAN A ROBOT BECOME HUMAN,’

Professor ALLEN HOBBY writes

of the power which

will transform Mecha into Orga.”

David asks, “Will you tell me how to find her?”  The voice replies, “Discovery is quite possible.  Our Blue Fairy does exist in one place and one place only: at the end of the world where the lions weep.  Here is the place dreams are born.”  And Joe chimes in ominously “Many a mecha has gone to the end of the world, never to come back.”  Oh my God!  I don’t know why this little scene hits me so hard emotionally, but here is where the tears really start to flow!

And I can’t discuss the emotional content of the movie without mentioning the music.  John Williams does it again, turning in a score that encapsulated the beauty and purity of David’s love for Monica.  It was peaceful and calming, slightly melancholy, almost sad, but always intimate and happy.  Parts of the soundtrack featured two notable artists, Lara Fabian, and Josh Groban.  It was simply beautiful in its own right, but powerful when underscoring the beauty of the movie.  Williams was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Original Score.

Now, I have to admit that the ending of the movie was a little hard to understand.  The first time I watched this movie, when it first came out in 2001, I didn’t get it.  David and Joe journey to the partially submerged New York.  There, David meets Professor Hobby and learns that he is not unique.  He was a prototype that was being crafted for mass production.  In a fit of depression, he attempts to commit suicide by throwing himself into the water.

Joe saves him, though they are separated forever.  But while he is under the water, David sees a vision of the Blue Fairy, renewing his belief in the fairy tale.  He uses a submersible vehicle to approach her.  It is the drowned ruins of Coney Island, displaying a Pinocchio attraction.  Unfortunately, David, along with Teddy, become trapped under a collapsing Ferris Wheel.  There David beseeches the statue of the Blue Fairy to turn him into a real boy.  He continues making his wish as years and years go by.

The earth freezes under another ice age, and still David continues his prayer, until his internal power source drains away.  Eventually, he is discovered by strange alien-like beings, and here is where I originally got lost.  I thought they actually were aliens.  I didn’t get that they were actually what the world’s mecha evolved into after the humans had died away.  They revive David and try to give him what he desires.

Using a lock of Monica’s hair, which Teddy had saved, the advanced mecha are able to revive Monica, but only for a single day.  David is allowed to spend that one perfect day with her, but once it is over, the simulated Monica would go to sleep and never wake up.  And the process could never be repeated.

It is the best day in David’s life, the best day he could ever have.

But again, the ending was beautiful and I can’t watch it without some serious tears.  Before Monica closes her eyes for the last time, she tells David that she loves him, which is all he ever wanted to hear.  The final narration bears repeating: “That was the everlasting moment he had been waiting for.  And the moment had passed for Monica was sound asleep.  More than merely asleep.  Should he shake her, she would never rouse.  So David went to sleep, too.  And for the first time in his life, he went to that place where dreams are born.”  In other words, happy, content, and finally fulfilled, David turns himself off forever and dies.

The film’s director, Stephen Spielberg really seemed to outdo himself in the creation of this film.  The sensitivity he expresses, the purity of child-like wonder and belief, the intellectual and moral issues that are explored, and the technical expertise with which the special effects were crafted, was all so amazing.  The story was captivating and engaging.  The characters were fantastic.  The visuals were spellbinding.  And the acting was first-rate.  Some have called it Spielberg’s masterpiece, and I’m almost apt to agree.

Almost.  Spielberg has put out a lot of pretty amazing movies.  It is hard to choose just one.

1999 / 2003 – The Matrix Franchise

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The Matrix – 1999

The Matrix Reloaded – 2003

The Matrix Revolutions – 2003

 

When it comes to modern science fiction, this franchise is one of the big ones.  It is a film that fires the imagination, makes you think, touches on philosophy and religion, is inventive and groundbreaking, and above all it super fun to watch.  It is a sci-fi, action-adventure, kung-fu fantasy.  These movies have it all.  And I have to talk about all three of the films as if they were one because the overall story arc is continuous and complete.

But the franchise, as a whole, is larger than even the three films.  The larger story was continued in anime, comic books, and video games, all of which were canonical.  It is widely recognized as one of the greatest sci-fi franchises of the 90s, if not of all time.  True, I hear a lot of film snobs say that the first movie was incredible, and the two sequels pretty much sucked.  But I beg to differ!  A lot!  The sequels were awesome!  Let me explain why, which I can do without even going into the plot.

The first film was new and interesting.  It was smart and engaging.  It was using filming techniques and special effects that had never been seen before.  It set up an awesome cast of characters that were heroic and beyond bad-assed!  But the movie’s main shtick was steampunk and action, mostly in the form of kung-fu fighting.  In the sequels they stuck with that shtick.  They just upped the stakes, and increased the fantasy elements.  But it was still, primarily, a kung-fu fighting movie at its heart.

Take it for what it was and enjoy it, I say.  People might claim that they had seen it all before, and on some level that might be true.  But I’d wager to say that they have never seen it done in such an exciting and unique way.  The special effects were stunning… well, most of them were, but I’ll address that in a bit.  The dramatically stylized visuals were fantastic.  The story, which drew from many different narrative tropes, has been told many times in many different movies and books.  But nobody had ever told it exactly like The Matrix.

Keanu Reeves, plays a cyber-hacker, codenamed Neo.  He is searching for meaning in a life he finds meaningless.  He is approached by Trinity, played by Carrie Anne Moss.  She says that she knows what he is looking for, and the answers to his questions can be found in a mysterious man known as Morpheus, played by Lawrence Fishburn.  But before he can meet Morpheus, Neo is captured by men who look like CIA operatives in black suits and sunglasses, led by a sinister man called Agent Smith.

There’s the set-up.  The story is too long and complex for me to give a concise synopsis.  If you want the story, read the basic plot on Wikipedia or better yet, watch the movies, if you have not already seen them.  What I plan to do in this review is mention some the things I liked and a few of the things I didn’t like.

For example, I loved the cyberpunk look of the whole thing.  The costumes, the hairstyles, the virtual environments.  The entire thing was eye candy from one end to the other.  And the special slow motion effects with people doing super-human acrobatic moves, defying the laws of physics, were so amazing.  When I think of the Matrix franchise, it is those “inside the Matrix” aesthetics that first come to mind.

The second is the look of the grubby post-apocalyptic “real” world.  The incredible CGI environments, the dirty, torn clothing, the rough, rusty insides of the hover-ships.  It was, in its own way, just as cool as the other reality.  However, I have to ask – did everyone have to wear sweaters with that same kind of vertical unraveling, or was that just the popular style?  I mean, I get it.  These people are run down and everything is supposed to look damaged.  But it looked like a costume designer found a single technique to make the sweaters look damaged and said. “Yes! Just do that to all of them.  What?  Yes, ALL of them!”

I hear a lot of people criticize the plot of the second film, and even more people criticize the plot of the third film.  In the first film, they spent most of their time establishing the conditions and back-story of the universe, and the characters.  The second movie develops those things and turns the action up a notch, giving Neo a chance to learn what he can do with the super powers he discovered at the end of the first film.  The third film increases the action yet again and gives us an epic conclusion with Neo evolving into the messianic figure he was supposed to be since the very beginning.  The overall story arc follows a logical progression to a climactic conclusion.

So I went on to the internet and tried to look up why people don’t like the sequels.  Some say that they didn’t have as much grip or intensity as the first movie.  Some say that they weren’t as philosophically deep or that they seemed to be dumbed down.  Some say they were too philosophical and required too much thinking.  Others say that they focused too much on the war to save Zion from the machines instead of on focusing freeing more people from the Matrix.  What it really comes down to is that after the spectacular first film, everybody had their own expectations about what the sequels should be.  They all got their hopes up and very few people got exactly what they wanted or were expecting.

One of my favorite things about the movies are their action scenes.  The action sequences in the first film were exciting and introduced us to the new and innovative special effects.  The opening scene with Trinity running from Agents over the rooftops was just a thrilling way to start the whole thing off.  The kung-fu sequences, first between Noe and Morpheus were fun and were actually integral to the plot.  Then the part when Neo finally fought the agents and learned how to beat them was super exciting, because while his mind was in the Matrix, his body was in danger of being killed by sentinels.

The second movie had the great chase on the freeway and the fight with the Merovingian’s men in the great hall.  There was also the fight between Neo and the hundred Agent Smiths.  But though the scene was pretty cool, I have to say that this is the first time I noticed the franchise’s biggest failing.  It was a big budget movie that had the services of some of the industry’s best CGI programmers.  But there were times when the live footage of Keanu and Hugo were mixed with CGI images of them that were horribly obvious.  Sometimes they looked plastic, rubbery, one dimensional, and just terribly done. This is mostly evident in the 2nd and 3rd movies.  For such a big budget film, I expect better.

Then the third movie had the awesome battle for the docks at Zion and the final climactic battle between Neo and Agent Smith.  Sure, these sequences were mostly CGI, but that made them no less exciting to watch, especially the battle for the docks.  It was chaotic and fast paced, and with the added suspense of the Hammer’s high speed approach, it was just awesome filmmaking!

Now there are two characters that I’d like to mention.  The Oracle and the Architect.  The Oracle was a great and memorable character, played in the first two films by Gloria Foster, and in the 3rd film by Mary Alice.  And I liked that the change in the character’s appearance is addressed as part of the plot.  She is always calm and eerily insightful.  The Architect, played by Helmut Bakaitis, was also perfectly cast and wonderfully portrayed as a cold and insanely logical machine.

The character of the Merovingian, played by Lambert Wilson, may have been too long winded and full of himself, but that brings me to the point that I found it a wonderfully interesting concept that he, his beautiful wife Persephone, the Oracle, the Architect, and even Agent Smith were all programs, each having a unique personality, like real people.  But this was a sci-fi/fantasy film.  So why not?  It was just a fun joy-ride from beginning to end.  It made me think, it made me excited, it drew me in to its epic nature and its wonderfully imagined world.  I loved all three of the movies in the franchise and found that I can forgive the small lapses into bad CGI.

And I would be remiss if I did not mention several actors who gave life to some very memorable characters.  Joe Pantoliano as the treasonous Cypher, Jada Pinket Smith as Niobe, Captain of the Logos, Harold Perrineau as Link, Morpheus’ pilot of the Nebuchadnezzar, Randall Duk Kim as the Keymaker, Harry Lennix as Commander Lock, Neil and Adrian Rayment as the evil twins, and Collin Chow as the Oracles servant Seraph, all did a great job and helped to make The Matrix one of the greatest science fiction franchises of all time.

Poltergeist – 1982

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This is actually one of my top 5 favorite movies of all time, which is odd because I am generally not a big fan of horror movies.  But I discovered this movie when I was a kid and have loved it ever since.  The casting was perfect, the acting was great, the story was powerful, the special effects were incredible, and even the emotional drama was compelling.

This movie spawned two sequels and a remake, but if you ask me, none of these was able to match the original.  The story starts out in the peaceful little paradise of Cuesta Verde, California.  It is suburban heaven.  The Freeling family is your typical family.  Steven and his wife Diane, played by Craig T. Nelson and JoeBeth Williams, are parents to three beautiful children, Dana, Robbie, and Carol Anne, played by Dominique Dunn, Oliver Robbins, and Heather O’Rourke.

The Freeling family is terrorized by violent and malevolent ghosts who focus on, and abduct the 5 year old Carol Anne.  The family enlists the help of a team of parapsychologists made up of Dr. Lesh, played by Beatrice Straight, Ryan, played by Richard Lawson, and Marty, played by Martin Casella.  The team moves in with the Freelings to study the paranormal phenomenon.  They are shocked and horrified by the wild and physically dangerous nature of the haunting.

The bizarre and seeming random acts of supernatural violence grow and increase, getting worse and worse each time.  After several horrific encounters with the evil spirit, Marty leaves and refuses to return to the house, but Dr. Lesh and Ryan return with the help of a spiritual medium.  She is Tangina Barrons, played by Zelda Rubenstein.  In my humble opinion, she was the film’s biggest failing, but we’ll get to that in a bit.

Tangina takes the fight to the ghosts and mounts a rescue mission in which Diane, with a rope tied around her waist, goes into the spirit world to find Carol Anne.  The rescue is successful and Tangina leaves, declaring that, “This house is clean.”  But oh, how wrong she is.

Steven decides that the family is moving immediately.  While Steven and Dana are away, Diane, Robbie, and Carol Anne are left alone in the house.  With only a few hours more remaining before their departure, the poltergeist attacks again, this time pulling out all the stops.  Diane is nearly raped by an invisible attacker while Robbie is attacked by a terrifying clown doll.

Diane is forced into the back yard where she falls into the swimming pool.  Coffins begin erupting from the ground and skeletons fill the pool as Diane struggles to get out.  Following her children’s frantic screaming, she makes her way into the house and to the children’s bedroom.  When she opens the door, she is nearly sucked into the gaping maw of the beast as it is attempting to swallow Robbie and Carol Anne.

She rescues them and flees the house as rotting corpses begin shooting up through the floor.  Steven and Dana arrive and the family drives away together, finally safe from the demonic force.  As they escape, the anger of the beast follows them down the street, blowing up gas lines and fire hydrants.  The hunger of the poltergeist is so great that it literally consumes the entire house, leaving an empty lot.

As you can imagine, the movie was a special effects extravaganza.  Director Tobe Hooper, known at the time for his work on the Texas Chainsaw Massacre, spearheaded the project, though, if not for his involvement with the movie E.T. the Extra Terrestrial, it might have been Stephen Spielberg.  However, it is interesting to note that a greater involvement from Spielberg is rumored to have taken place.  Spielberg has been quoted as saying, ”Tobe isn’t… a take-charge sort of guy. If a question was asked and an answer wasn’t immediately forthcoming, I’d jump in and say what we could do. Tobe would nod agreement, and that became the process of collaboration.”

Alright, so I mentioned that Zelda Rubenstein was the film’s only real failing.  She was supposed to be physically strange and there was no doubt, she certainly was.  But she was so weird that she was a little distracting.  She looked and sounded like a munchkin from the Wizard of Oz.  She seemed to detract from the intensity of the horror.  True, she actually won the Saturn Award for Best Supporting Actress, but she seemed to be a strange kind of comic relief in a film where everything is played completely straight.  Still, despite her high-pitched, nasal voice, and her plump, midget’s stature, she did have a few moments of intensity that matched the rest of the cast.

My favorites in the cast were JoBeth Williams, Craig T. Nelson, and Beatrice Straight.  JoBeth’s role was both physically and emotionally demanding.  She played the part of a mother whose daughter has been abducted by ghosts.  She knows that there is a demonic force that is restraining and manipulating her little girl, and that there is nothing she can do to stop it.  Can you imagine?  And the end of the film where she is attacked by the invisible assailant, and then nearly sucked into the spirit world was just thrilling!

Nelson was also great and played the part of the terrified and worried father.  He was just wonderful.  Everybody had their big scream moments, and his were just as intense as the rest of them.  The part where he is holding the rope that is tied to his wife as she is going after Carol Anne is just great.  He hears Tangina telling the spirits to go into “the light” but doesn’t understand.  He panics and tries to pull Diane back, but what he pulls out of the portal is a gigantic skull with fiery eyes.  Steven is so terrified that he lets go of the rope.

Something interesting about that scene, though.  They show shots of Steven as he is holding the rope and trying to pull it back in.  But then they show a few shots of Tangina as she is talking to the spirits.  Watch the shadow on the wall behind Tangina.  I think it is supposed to be Steven’s shadow, but look closely.  What is the shadow doing?  It is hard to tell, but when the camera goes back to Steven pulling the rope, it doesn’t match the shadow at all.  Back to Tangina, and the shadow is still doing something different.  Whether that was intentional or not, that just made the scene infinitely more creepy for me!

Beatrice Straight was wonderful as Dr. Lesh.  I loved the scene in which she is trying to explain the evil spirits and the afterlife to Robbie.  She had this very calming voice and yet it was intense at the same time.  Her performance was engaging and very memorable.  Also, the moment before Diane goes into the portal, as Diane and Steven kiss, the expression of emotional empathy on her face as she watches the two lovers is so perfect.  Straight really did a great job in this strange and wonderful film.

The special effects for the movie were really something special.  This movie was made before the era of CGI and digital effects.  Many of the effects were practical effects, though there was certainly some animation effects as well.  The practical effects were generally more effective and the animation was often obvious.  For example the part where Diane is shoved up the wall and onto the ceiling was very well done.  The entire room had to have been on hydraulics and rotated so that Williams could appear to slide up the wall.  It was very well done.  But the earlier scene where a ghostly, skeletal hand jumps out of the television to reach for Carol Anne, while well done, is obviously hand-drawn animation.  But what do you expect for 1982?

The soundtrack, written by Jerry Goldsmith, was also something special.  I own the soundtrack and read in the album notes that the entire score was written before Goldsmith had seen any of the filmed footage, a fact I find absolutely impressive.  It was so perfectly suited to the movie and the supernatural subject matter.  The innocent and child-like theme for Carol Anne, the quasi-religious theme for the “other side”, and the jarring and terrifying theme for the Beast, were all so expertly crafted.  Well done Goldsmith!

Now, I’m not saying that this was a perfect film.  Sure, it had a few inconsistencies, plot holes, and editing mistakes, but I’m ok with them.  Some of them are easily noticeable, but easy to overlook.  They make the movie no less enjoyable to watch.

For example, during the abduction, Carol Anne is holding on to the bed frame for dear life as she is being sucked into the portal in the closet.  You see her grasping the wooden frame with one hand until she can’t hold on any longer.  The frame is obviously broken, and her hand clearly slips off the end of a broken piece.  Then we see her flying across the room, a large piece of the broken frame still gripped in both hands.  Then, a moment later we see the bed frame with a large piece broken off.  But not to worry.  Later on in the movie, we see the bed frame whole and undamaged again.

Another little thing that always catches my attention is in the scene where Diane has just rescued Carol Anne from the spirit realm.  The two are covered from head to toe in red slime.  They are put into a bath tub full of water.  The wider shot shows Carol Anne with most of the slime cleared away from her hair and forehead.  Then a close-up shot of her face shows her hair and forehead thickly covered with the slime.  Then the wider shot once again shows her forehead nearly clean.  It is a little thing, but it catches my attention every time I watch it.

And now I have to take a moment to mention the clown.  Ok, what kind of terrible parents would get such a terrifying clown doll for their children?  I mean, really!  That clown doll was one of the scariest things in the movie even before its face turned overtly demonic.  It was scarier than the tree that knocked out a window to grab Robbie in an attempt to eat him, a window that, I might add, was remarkably fixed the next time we see it.  It was scarier than the part where Marty is tricked into thinking that he is pulling all the flesh off of his face.  It was even scarier than the dragon-like skeleton that prevents Diane from reaching her children in the film’s climax.  The clown is supposed to be a happy child’s toy, but its maniacal grin and its insane, demonic eyes would be enough to give anyone nightmares.  Then, when it attacks Robbie and drags him under the bed, we love seeing the little boy fight back and rip out its stuffing.

Just as an interesting note, in my research, I found that in 1982, a novelization of the film had been written.  It contained some very interesting things which were not in the film, one of which explains the clown doll a little bit.  I will quote from Wikipedia which said, “While the film focuses mainly on the Freeling family, much of the book leans toward the relationship between Tangina and Dr. Lesh away from the family.  The novel also expands upon the many scenes that took place in the film, such as the Freeling’s living room being visited by night by outer dimensional entities of fire and shadows, and an extended version of the kitchen scene in which Marty watches the steak crawl across a countertop.  In the book, Marty is frozen in place and is skeletonized by spiders and rats.  There are also additional elements not in the film, such as Robbie’s mysterious discovery of the clown doll in the yard during his birthday party, and a benevolent spirit, “The Waiting Woman”, who protects Carol Anne in the spirit world.”  Interesting…

 

The Abyss – 1989

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The Abyss – 1989

I love this movie.  But if you ask people about The Abyss, many of them will probably say that it was an OK movie that had a stupid ending.  But I beg to differ!  If you watch the director’s cut, the ending makes a whole lot more sense.  The script was very brilliantly crafted and the plot had a pacing and a flow that was remarkably deliberate and incredibly well thought out.  Everything in the film had significance and led very naturally into what came next.  It all made sense, despite its science fiction nature.

This film had it all.  Great character development, great acting, action, suspense, drama, romance, and a very specific moral agenda.  It had incredible “Oh my god!” moments that were enhanced by a great soundtrack and groundbreaking special effects.  Like all my other favorite films, this is one I could watch over and over again without ever losing interest.

The Abyss stars Ed Harris as Virgil “Bud” Brigman and Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio as his hard-nosed wife Lindsay.  He is an oil rigger on an experimental underwater oil drilling facility that she designed.  Along with them are a colorful cast of minor characters, like the paranoid conspiracy theorist, Hippy, played by Todd Graff, a bulky Marine Vet named Catfish, played by Leo Burmester, and a honky-tonk country girl called Lisa “One Night” Standing, played by Kimberly Scott, and several others, all of whom are fiercely loyal to Bud who has the quality of being a natural leader.  They refer to Lindsay as the “Queen Bitch of the Universe.”

But film actually starts in a U.S military submarine.  They are sailing in deep water along an abysmal trench that is at least three miles deep.  They begin tracking an unidentified object moving through the water at incredible speeds.  The mysterious object makes specific course changes, indicating intelligence, and they think it is a Russian vessel or possibly a missile.  It passes by them and causes all their power to shut down, but when the power comes back on, the find that they are seconds away from a collision with a rock wall.  The impact causes the sub to flood with water, killing the crew and sinking the vessel.

The military makes a deal with the oil company and sends a team of Navy Seals down to the oil rigging vessel named Deep Core, which is about a mile below the surface, and several hours away from the trench.  The civilian oil workers and their diving equipment are used to assist the Seals in their search and rescue mission.  But while the submarine is being searched, an oil rigger named Jammer, played by John Bedford, sees something that terrifies him.  He damages his oxygen tank and sees a glowing vision.

I know that might sound a little lengthy, but it is a great set-up for the rest of the film.  My favorite actors in the film are Harris and Mastrantonio.  They both really played their parts well and had a great on-screen chemistry together.  The scene where Lindsay drowns was intense and unnerving to watch, just like it was supposed to be.

And I have to give a special thumbs up to a fun performance by Leo Burmester.  Sure, Catfish is a minor character, but I have always liked the way the actor took the small role and made it memorable.  And we can’t forget Michael Biehn as Lt. Coffey, the Navy Seal who gets the bends and goes off the deep end, and tries to start a war with the aliens that live at the bottom of the trench.  It is they who have been visiting the humans and scaring them half to death.  All except Lindsay.  She somehow develops a friendly relationship with them.  In the famous water tentacle scene, they want to learn more about the humans so they explore Deep Core using a solid column of water like we would use an underwater camera.

But I would have to say that my favorite scene in the film is the one where the hurricane on the surface causes the control platform to get thrown out of place before the umbilical can be removed from Deep Core.  Not only is the submerged oil rig dragged along the ocean floor, the crane holding the umbilical is ripped from the platform and crashes into the water.  The horror as the wreckage plummets toward Bud and his crew is one of the most intense parts of the film.  It misses the rig by mere feet, landing on the edge of the oceanic trench.  For a few seconds, relief washes over them until it is slowly replaced with terror as the wreckage teeters and falls over the edge, nearly pulling the damaged oil rig into the abyss.  It gets my heart racing every time!

And then there is the knife fight, the submersible battle, the drowning scene, Bud’s daring dive into the abyss to disarm Coffey’s nuclear warhead (made possible by the use of breathable liquid which allowed him to avoid pressure sickness and death), the aliens rescuing Bud, their rise to the surface, and their warning to the human race to stop the violence and the war.  It was all so well done!

Then there was the wonderful soundtrack by Alan Sylvestri, a film score composer who always has a talent for capturing the feeling of the film he is writing for.  This time, he really used sound to portray cold, dark ocean depths.  Also, the mysterious and beautiful aliens are enhanced by his ethereal music.

Director James Cameron, who is known for daring, big budget films, did not disappoint.  The scope of the underwater sets and environments that were built for the making of the movie were incredible.  “Two specially constructed tanks were used. The first one held 7.5 million US gallons of water, was 55 feet deep and 209 feet across. At the time, it was the largest fresh-water filtered tank in the world. Additional scenes were shot in the second tank, an unused turbine pit, which held 2.5 million US gallons of water. As the production crew rushed to finish painting the main tank, millions of gallons of water poured in and took five days to fill. The Deepcore rig was anchored to a 90-ton concrete column at the bottom of the large tank. It consisted of six partial and complete modules that took over half a year to plan and build from scratch.”

The special effect of the alien water tentacle was incredibly well done and was something that nobody had ever seen before.  Apparently, it took 6 months for the effects team to perfect it, using techniques that had never before been attempted.  But the result was incredible!

The director’s cut ending was really heavy on the “give peace a chance… or else,” angle.  But that sentiment was really downplayed in the theatrical release.  That might explain why such a great movie performed so badly at the box office.  Still, the film is well-respected today, and it has long been one of my personal favorites.

Close Encounters of the Third Kind – 1977

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Close Encounters of the Third Kind – 1977

 

This has long been one of my favorite science fiction films.  There are so many films out there that depict aliens as evil or war-like.  The films in which aliens are depicted as benign are not as easy to find.  I can think of 1997’s Contact, 1982’s E.T. The Extra Terrestrial (another Spielberg film), or even 1984’s Starman.  I know that there are plenty of others, but other movies like 1996’s Independence Day, 2002’s Signs, and even older films like War of the Worlds from 1953, and 1956’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers, portray other-worldly visitors as conquerors.

However, Stephen Spielberg had a different vision of life from outer space, and he took a fascinating approach to the subject.  We have all heard any number of strange tales about unexplained disappearances throughout the world, fighter planes gone missing or ocean vessels lost at sea.  Well, Close Encounters shows a few of those vehicles turning up in unlikely or even impossible places.  They show no signs of age or ware, and their crews are conspicuously absent.  French scientist Claude Lacombe, played by Francois Truffaut is sent to investigate, along with his interpreter, cartographer, David Laughlin, played by Bob Balaban.

Meanwhile, in Muncie, Indiana, Roy Neary, played by Richard Dreyfuss and Jillian Guiler, played by Melinda Dillon, each have frightening direct contact experiences with the aliens.  Jillian’s son Barry is forcibly abducted in a wonderfully creepy scene in which the visitors assault them in their home for the sole purpose of taking the child.  They alien’s motives are completely mysterious.

Now what is so fascinating about Spielberg’s story is that Roy, Jillian, and many other people are implanted with a psychic vision that they cannot explain.  They become obsessed with UFOs and the image of a strange tower or mountain.  In Roy and Jillian, the vision is so strong that it drives them insane.

I loved the way Dreyfuss played his part.  His descent into madness is heart-wrenching as it destroys his life.  He gets fired from his job and his wife leaves him.  Roy, terrified by what is happening to him, is more than once brought to tears as his sanity disintegrates.  But every time he sees anything that even vaguely resembles the shape of the mountain, he goes into an immediate trance and becomes fixated on whatever it is, whether it is a pile of shaving cream or a mound of mashed potatoes.

The visions drive Roy and Jillian to Devil’s Tower in Wyoming.  I loved how the visions were like an invitation to a meeting in which the aliens planned to make formal contact with humans.  And what a meeting!  The final sequence of the film lasted about 35 minutes, and we are treated to fantastic flying ships, strange lights, menacing cloud formations, a gigantic city-sized mother ship, and three different kinds of strange white-bodied aliens.

And, of course, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the music of John Williams, which was an integral part of the plot.  That famous and iconic 5 note musical phrase is a staple of popular culture, synonymous with alien abductions.  If you ask me, Williams is a genius and a master of his craft.  He takes a little melody that, honestly doesn’t sound particularly melodic by itself, and he turns it into something that is amazingly melodic and even grand and lofty.

I’ve been trying to find any real flaws with the movie and am having trouble finding any.  The special effects hold up perfectly well, even for a modern viewer.  The story was so fascinating and well-written that whenever I watch the film, I get completely wrapped-up and engrossed in it.  If you ask me, this is Spielberg at his finest.

I can never get over how perfect Dreyfuss and Dillon were for their parts, and how awesome they both were.  I have watched the little documentary about the making of the movie which is included on the DVD.  There are interviews with the cast and Spielberg, himself.  I learned that, originally, Dillon didn’t want to take the part.  She had no desire to do a science fiction film.  Also, Teri Garr, who played Roy’s wife Ronnie, wanted to do the film, but wanted the part of Jillian.  Fortunately Dillon accepted the part and was cast just two days before filming began.

Jillian’s son, Barry, a pivotal role in the film, was played by Cary Guffy.  He was only 4 years old when the movie was filmed, and he was also interviewed for the documentary.  Funny enough, he still has the same face.  It is said that Spielberg is wonderful with children and employed wonderful tricks to get the young actor to give the proper reactions and desired facial expressions.  He would have a man appear on the set in a clown costume or a gorilla suit when he wanted surprise or fear, or give Cary toys when he wanted delight.  Guffy recounted it as a wonderful experience.

Obviously, this is one of my favorite science fiction movies and I’m sure I will watch it many more times in my life.  It never gets old for me.  It is always fresh and fascinating.  It touches my imagination in all the right places.  I am intrigued by both its light side and its darker nature.  But now the movie is nearly 40 years old.  So I’ve no doubt that there are a lot of people that have never seen it.  Even people who are sci-fi fans!  I say to them – go see it!  You’ll be glad you did!