Posts Tagged ‘movie’

War of the Worlds Tripod Attack
 

No one would have believed in the last years of the nineteenth century that this world was being watched keenly and closely by intelligences greater than man’s and yet as mortal as his own; that as men busied themselves about their various concerns they were scrutinised and studied, perhaps almost as narrowly as a man with a microscope might scrutinise the transient creaturesthat swarm and multiply in a drop of water. With infinite complacency men went to and fro over this globe about their little affairs, serene in their assurance of their empire over matter. It is possible that the infusoria under the microscope do the same.  No one gave a thought to the older worlds of space as sources of human danger, or thought of them only to dismiss the idea of life upon them as impossible or improbable. It is curious to recall some of the mental habits of those departed days. At most terrestrial men fancied there might be other men upon Mars, perhaps inferior to themselves and ready to welcome a missionary enterprise.

Yet across the gulf of space, minds that are to our minds as ours are to those of the beasts that perish, intellects vast and cool and unsympathetic, regarded this earth with envious eyes, and slowly and surely drew their plans against us. And early in the twentieth century came the great disillusionment.

–          H.G. Wells, The War of the Worlds (1898)

Is it the terrorists?!?”, a doe-eyed Dakota Fanning shrieks (all her lines are delivered at a brain-melting high-pitched keen) to her father (Tom Cruise in unconvincing Joe Six-Pack drag) while, in the rear-view mirror, friends and neighbours disintegrate into dust, filling the air with greasy white ash and settling at the feet of sinister iron colossuses.

Dakota Fanning

Welcome to the Desert of the frigging Real, Dakota Fanning.

Stephen Spielberg’s 2005 adaptation of H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds comprises the second installment of his 9/11 trilogy.  If Munich considered the need for vengeance, and if Minority Report considered the dangers of the corresponding constriction of civil liberties, then his War of the Worlds is about nothing less, and nothing else, than the raw, incomprehensible horror of those first few hours of the attack on New York City.

“We didn’t set out to play upon the tremendous paranoia and anxiety about terrorism in the environment right now,” Spielberg was quoted as saying in Entertainment Weekly while promoting the film, “but we do live in the shadow of 9/11. And every iteration of this story has occurred during anxious times in history. Orson Welles made his radio play right before World War II. George Pal made his movie in the middle of the Cold War. And now I’m making mine” (Spielberg in Ryan).[1]

WOTW scare

Oh, Orson, you SCAMP.

Wells’ masterpiece has, like Finney’s novel The Body Snatchers, become a leitmotif in popular culture, retold and reconfigured freely every few decades by another auteur’s cultural temperature-taking (the word “auteur” is here applied with quantumly vacillating quotation marks).  Whether virtue or defect, however, Spielberg’s War of the Worlds is faithful to his source material, indeed is nearly verbatim, in one crucial detail: the opening narration.

But I am not convinced he understands its purpose.

War of the Worlds, in all its incarnations, is about the terrible moment when Judgment comes.  The Other arrives howling from the abyss, without words, without reason, and plunges our world into perdition’s fire.  Zizek, echoing Freud, called the Neighbour “primarily a thing, a traumatic intruder, someone whose way of life…disturbs us, throws the balance of our way of life off the rails” (On Violence 59).  This Spielberg seems to grasp, and it is precisely to this end that he has used Wells’ classic to explore the dreadful eruption (or, perhaps more truly, irruption) of the Real that 9/11 represented (throughout the movie, the image recurs of one of the main characters staring out at us through a pane of shattered glass, as though the film itself pathologically and compulsively duplicates this perforation of “reality’s” fragile lens).  He understands the awful terror in being beheld by the ineffable and found wanting, as the scene (invented for his version) in which the Martian ship’s monstrous eyestalk insinuates itself through the family’s subterranean hiding place, implacably seeking them like an avenging angel of the superego, makes clear.[2]

But Spielberg has not understood one crucial detail: in the mythopoetic pattern of Wells’ War of the Worlds, we are meant to be the Martians.

Spielberg’s version is about the terror, but that is all it is about.  His story is, as usual, one of the indomitable triumph of the family over adversity, culminating in the saccharine Hallmark-card reconciliation at movie’s end.  He describes the film as “a wake-up call to face our fears as we confront a force intent on destroying our way of life” (Spielberg in Reader’s Digest).  The enemy is not just unknown; it is unknowable; Spielberg is governed by the same logic which somehow made George W. Bush’s explanation of the motives of the men who perpetrated the attacks on the World Trade Center – that “they hate us for our freedoms” – an acceptable answer.  To question the motives of the aliens (or the terorrists) is akin to questioning why Gargamel is after the Smurfs: perhaps to kill them, perhaps to eat them (and at least for a while because they are somehow a necessary ingredient in transmuting lead to gold) – the point is that he’s evil; any other motive merely extends from this Aristotelian first premise.

gargamel bin laden

"Gargamel hates us for our freedoms!" For most Americans, the motives of both these figures remains equally unclear - and irrelevant.

Kenneth Miller, in reviewing the film, sings damning alleluias:

Martian death rays and war machines lay waste to civilization — but the bad guys get wiped out by a virus to which humans are immune. Their traits as people give the Earthlings the strength and resilience their enemies lack. That’s the real theme of Spielberg’s War of the Worlds: When all hell breaks loose, Cruise’s character, Ray Ferrier, overcomes his shortcomings as a dad and a human being. He’s one man, struggling against evil for the sake of his family. It’s not an entirely happy ending — the title is War of the Worlds, after all. But don’t discount the hidden strength Ferrier has inside — the strength of his humanity (Miller).

The gap in logic which Miller’s review contains (“aliens are destroyed by virus”, therefore “our traits as people – the strength of our humanity – give us resilience enemies lack”) is not his own; it is a cohesive rendering of the film’s message.  We deserve survival, our goodness is identical to our humanity, so God will furnish it.  For Spielberg, the Martian susceptibility to Earth’s diseases is an act of Providence.  For Spielberg, the trust in God that America stamps into its coins has not proven counterfeit.

To this end, Spielberg deploys Wells’ original opening (quoted in full at the beginning of this essay) because it seems to him, of course, to license exactly the reading he wishes to further.  The narration is read in the film at a folksy, leisurely pace by Morgan Freeman, who has made a career playing what Spike Lee called “Super Duper Magical Negroes” – patient, wise engines of exposition and enlightenment,[3] while the opening image, the presumed gaze of this lackadaisical, authoritative/ authorizing/ authorial voice, is of those same bacteria that will eventually kill the Martians, busily going about their business within the dewdrop of a leaf – the tiny saviors about to be implemented in God’s (Morgan Freeman’s?) wonderful salvific plan.

bacteria

Spielberg's film begins with a "zoom-out" from the bacteria which Wells makes the bane of the Martian invaders. For Spielberg, these microscopic foes represent Divine Providence. For Wells, however, they are a symbol of dumb luck and the dangerous risks of colonization.

It is ironic, given this microscopic view, that Spielberg has not looked close enough.

Wells’ beginning is about a terrible conflation: the Martians behave just as we behave; the Martians invade just as we invade.  Like the first dreadful clangs of a requiem, Wells begins his theme of cultural annihilation with a series of metaphors that vector around humanity’s horrfying similarity to the Martians: just like us, just like us but now we are the observed; now we are under the microscope.

Tripod

"I am an allegory for the decadence and imminent collapse of the Victorian Empire! ZORP ZORP!" Alas, critical inquiry cannot fully explain the martians' magnificent pimp-walks.

If Spielberg had read more closely, he would have seen in Wells’ slim novella a parable for the rotting Victorian empire, a creature that had once, too, beheld the world with envious eyes, and now, in its dying anemic spasms, realizes too late that it has spread too fast, too thin, and exposed itself to indigenous pathogens it cannot not hope to metabolize.  He would have seen in the Martians an invader with technologies that outclass the beset “colonized” and hungry for the resources these wretched beasts squat upon, scorching the earth to call it peace.  He would have seen that Wells has very carefully and surely made the eyes that gaze across the gulf of space our own.

With War of the Worlds, Wells in many ways gave birth to science fiction – and in the same moment, made it a vehicle, not merely for imagining the purgative, apocalyptic gaze of the Other, but a tool for reconfiguring ourselves as that Other.  He made it a means of parallax: for beholding the monster, but also for beholding that we are that monster.  The masterstroke is in that first opening movement; the rest merely elaborates the melody.  The true horror of Wells’ War of the Worlds, which has utterly eluded so many of its adapters and interpreters, is that there is nothing alien about its aliens.  We do not just for a moment gaze with their eyes; they gaze, always, with ours.  Behold the Other – ourselves.

Had Spielberg understood this, he would, indeed, have seen an opportunity in adapting War of the Worlds to comment on the aftermath of 9/11, and call, as Wells had done, a civilization to judgment.

And little Dakota Fanning, cowering in the backseat of an SUV as poison-light seared the horizon behind her, would have screeched what she should have screeched: Is it the Americans?!?


[1] How his 2004 film Terminal, which followed Minority Report but preceded both Munich and War, and treats a fumbling buffoon stuck in an airport (played by perennial fumbling buffoon Tom Hanks), links into these three films would require a second viewing I find myself unwilling to extend it.  Perhaps, as in ancient drama, or as Marx so famously observed, tragedy must be followed by farce, and thus the film is a meditation on the horrors of longer wait-times while Homeland Security subjects the more darker-skinned (or, in Hanks’ case, more hilariously accented) of passengers to their perverse, procrustean ministrations.

[2] This moment of the merciless, relentless Real seems to haunt Spielberg’s oeuvre; recall in particular the “pre-crime” cops of Minority Report, who know your sins before you have committed them (yet always arrive just in time to cause maximum drama and collateral damage to all points of ingress in apprehending their targets), or the ludicrous (yet no less terrifying) moment in Jurassic Park when the dinosaurs pursuing the children unlock the door in order to gain access to the kitchen.


[3] While there is no shortage to examples in his career, see especially Shawshank Redemption, Robin Hood, Seven, Driving Miss Daisy, both of Christopher Nolan’s Batman films, the host of documentaries he narrates, and, at the ultimate zenith of the form,  the two “Almighty” films, in which Freeman literally plays God.

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Easy A Poster

While crossing a shallow but turbulent river, a powerful surge overtook Teresa of Avila, knocking her from her donkey and down into the mud.  As she sat up, wiping her eyes and wringing out her clothes, she saw the Lord appear, sitting on her overturned cart.

“That, Teresa,” he said with a smile, “is how I treat my friends.”

“And that, Lord,” she replied, “is why you have so few of them!”

Oh god, the filthy things I want to do to this movie. 

The religious mysticism student in me wants to talk about Stone’s heroine as what Robertson Davies called a “fool-saint” – a quasi-martyr who gives of themselves until nothing is left, even when their actions seem counter to conventional morality.  Olive has a lot in common with Davies’ Mary Dempster – and indeed with all the best saints: not the cloyingly pious, and not the glorified bureaucrats, but the crazy motherfuckers who ate shrubs and talked to birds and lived on top of pillars or in weird little holes and reconquered France and yes, who shouted at Jesus while he was chillaxing next to their donkey in a river.

The other part of me, the semiotician, wants to talk about Olive not as saint, but as author.  The film gets a lot of mileage out of comparing Olive to Hester Prynne from The Scarlet Letter, and it certainly makes for some striking visuals (and ensembles) – but Olive runs circles around dumb old Hester when it comes to fucking owning it – another narrative Olive reshapes to her ends (the film is full not only of Olive’s personal-address webcasts, but footage from old films from dawn-of-cinema to brat pack; Olive explains the world by taking bits of story and recutting them to taste, just like she does her outfits).  Contrary to what the poster claims, this is not the story of Olive the social outcast, but of a girl who seizes the narrative by the throat, over and over again, and makes it her bitch. Who learns to control the flow, and spin, and valence of information, and who most importantly, by film’s end, learns where the lacunas go, and where the line of disclosure warps and ends.  

Wood-Chuck

Also, Penn Badgley occasionally pops into the story dressed as a wood-chuck. Because this is (ostensibly) a rom-com, however, he has a decidedly better time of falling in love with a lunatic devoted to a mission of self-ruination than that one sexy monk from PASSION OF JOAN OF ARC does. Better hair, too.

Either way, the film is about the slippery way story shapes being.  At one point, Lisa Kudrow’s late-arriving character declares that Olive “can’t be a slut because sluts can never admit it”, but Olive is already well on the way to realizing the opposite is true: you can’t be a slut unless you let someone tell you you are.  Kudrow’s hissed, staccato “who would you believe?!?” when Olive threatens to speak truth to cuntiness is only the opposite side of Kudrow’s “whores lack self-awareness!” coin: approval of the Non-du-Pere granted, and rescinded.  Olive don’t play that game.  Her final address to her webcam made me cheer in my seat; if every girl in the audience had the same revelation, we would have an apocalypse (the best kind) on our hands. 

The film is getting a lot of comparisons to Saved, and I suppose that’s fair – but unlike Saved, Easy A refuses to stabilize Olive’s moral compass; it lets her twist in the wind, and decide for herself what the ethical thing to do is.  It both refuses to make organized Christianity the (only) bad guy by making the Jesus-freaks a vocal but by no means monopolizing group (characters distasteful and pleasant alike both express their contempt for Amanda Bynes frankly staggeringly genius turn as an honest-to-God psychopath – don’t retire yet, Amanda Bynes! I don’t know who you are, but obviously you are AWESOME!), and by much more realistically identifying the (cartoon) mob not as Christian maniacs, but normal kids – even former best friends.  Olive’s parents are cavity-inducingly wholesome (the film may well have been pitched as “what if Burton’s Catwoman had had a stable and supportive home-life?”) but they are also patently clueless, as are her teachers – in fact, the film twice pulls a neat reversal with its faculty where Olive becomes not their pupil, but their, well, redeemer in the most gratingly Christian way – she suffers, and takes on their sins, so they don’t have to.  Saved is about looking at the dumb motherfuckers of the planet and saying “you know what? Fuck ’em.”  Easy A is about how you’ve got to rescue their dumb asses from the cave, too. 

Bernini's Teresa of Avila

"Communion with God? Well, it's like an angel, shoving an arrow made of molten gold repeatedly into your crotch until you dissolve into inundating folds of orgasmic pleasure." Teresa makes being raped by the Divine seem not so bad, but Olive (and Jaye Tyler) may have a different take.

The story of Abraham and Isaac bothers a lot of people because they trip on Isaac – it’s tough not to sympathize, after all, with the kid who’s dutifully preparing his own sacrificial altar because daddy has a notion (and if you think that’s fucked, try reading the infinitely-more-fuckeded story of Jephthah and his daughter, which has the same beginning but significantly one less handy goat). 

But the point of the Abraham story, and the reason he is the father of the People of the Book, is because he was willing in that moment to give up the thing he loved most, defy every instinct, and every ethical code – just because God said to.  That’s the part about religion that terrifies people like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens.  Because it’s crazy, and gross, and means you don’t even really exist – you’re just the universe’s butt-monkey (and if you haven’t watched Wonderfalls before, you really, really should).  Olive does the crazy thing, the thing everyone tells her is wrong (including herself!), just because she knows it’s what she has to do (the scene of her attempting to find solace or guidance in religion, and repeatedly getting shit on, INCLUDING AN EMPTY FUCKING CONFESSIONAL, okay, is maybe my favourite bit.  Saved ain’t got SHIT on that bizness).

The film keeps trying to be a John Hughes movie.  With apologies to John Hughes, thank God it isn’t.  It’s uneven, and rough, and in places feels like a tonally-wonky first draft, but it’s also fecklessly, scrappily charming, and if I had a teenage girl I’d make her watch it every fucking week. 

And if anyone can explain WTF is up with all the oranges in every single shot, I will give you a dollar.

Final Score: 8.4/10

I didn't realize the tagline was a WARNING.

Imagine the most boring person you know describing their dream from last night to you.  For 2 and a half hours.

There is a moment during Inception when Ellen Page’s (groaningly named) Ariadne beholds DiCaprio’s dreamscape and gasps with wonder: “You made this?” We are meant to be dazzled by the vista; this, after all, is the film’s purest version of creativity unbridled and the human mind unfettered. But all we see is endless, faceless skyscrapers extending into oblivion. Welcome to the creative vision of Christopher Nolan, apparently.

One need only compare it to Tarsem Singh’s The Cell to understand what a colossal failure of artistic innovation Inception represents. Nolan opens the Pandora’s Box of a film set in the dream-world only to slam it closed and bind it shut in ludicrously constrictive rules: characters can calculate MATHEMATICALLY AND EXACTLY how long a dream will seem (this expands exponentially, and with no loss in precision, as the dreamworlds concatenate); if you die in a dream you wake up – except of course when you don’t, due to another set of stupid made-up rules.  I never imagined a movie about dreaming would be so obsessed with timelines, guidelines, caveats, and mechanics.  Say what you will about Jennifer goddamn Lopez, but Singh’s The Cell (and to a lesser extent, The Fall) is a film where both the characters and the story recognize and exploit dream-logic both in world-building and navigation.  Inception is a categoric failure of imagination – a film with the budget and concept to literally get away with anything, but damningly low on vision.

For example, in a scene where DiCaprio recruits Page as a kind of dream-architect, he follows at her heels, whining at her for fucking too much with reality because she buckles a bridge or adds some accent mirrors. In the shot now famous from the trailers, Page realizes how much power she now has as she folds Paris in half overhead, and takes the job because as an architect, she gasps, “there’s nothing quite like it” – but she never dares do anything like this again.

Apparently given a world free from physics and limitations, the world’s greatest architect designs worlds that look pretty much exactly like downtown Chicago. Sounds a lot like Nolan himself, actually.

Chicago Street View

Behold! The pinnacle of the human imagination unbound, as captured by Google street view.

I think the most telling and damning moment is when Gordon-Levitt explains the Penrose Stairs to us. Rather than giving us a gleeful MC Escher moment, the film weaponizes and euthanizes all the joy and fun out of this possibility. “A paradox”, he grimly intones both times he uses them, so he can beat up another Agent Smith. And then the camera FULLY PANS DOWN AND SHOWS US THE TRICK. The Penrose Stairs, instead of being an impossible-thing-made-possible, are just a way to service a story riddled with plot-holes and half-baked character concepts.  One of the biggest:

There are few problems that cannot be solved by moving to France.The grubby denizens of the interweb (above artist unknown) have been gleefully skewering Inception’s many glaring plotholes for months, but in the film’s defense, there are few problems in life that cannot be solved by moving to Paris. (exceptions: “I am crippled by debut-de-siecle ennui”; “I am attempting to overcome the collapse of my relationship with Chuck Bass“; “I am being mercilessly persecuted for my racio-ethno-religious identity”.)

The film is indeed a descendant of Kubrick-by-way-of-Tarkovsky – full of shrewish dead wives (Poor Marion Cotillard – still, Polly Pocket Femme Fatale is still better than all-suffering wife in Nine) and long hallways of great import – but the difference is that both these directors used their rules (and broke them) precisely because they knew that their power came from the something terrible, the something senseless, hovering at the margins. Nolan’s world has no such danger. It’s just another lifeless heist movie – it just placed its routine action sequences in a nesting doll rather than sequentially.

Which is fine; don’t get me wrong, I love a good action movie (though i don’t think they need be quite so stiff and humourless in order to be potent).  But Christopher Nolan found a magic lamp, and when the genie emerged, he asked for…a regular lamp.

Don’t even get me started on this fucking nonsense.

Final Grade: 6.7/10