WHAT DOES THE PROTAGONIST WANT? Glenn Howard is some kind of media mogul. He has, literally, fallen asleep at the wheel and driven his car into a ditch. He awakens to find himself thrust 46 years into the future. He wants, logically enough, to know how this came to pass.
WHAT DOES THE PROTAGONIST GET? Although the people of the future are puzzled as to how Howard got there, the powers that be are happy to have him and generously show him around the LA of the future. As the philosophy of this new society gradually comes into focus, Howard becomes radicalized and eventually recruited by a revolutionary society.
In my Hollywood travels, I am often asked to adapt this or that popular work of fantasy. When doing this, what I need to do first is remove the metaphor and see if the story still works.
A few years back, they asked me to adapt Osamu Tezuka’s Astroboy for the American movie screen. The story of Astroboy is: a brilliant scientist’s son dies in a car wreck and so the brilliant scientist spends all his company’s money and resources to build a robot replica of the son. The robot looks and acts like his little boy but, much to the scientist’s chagrin, does not grow. Well of course it doesn’t grow, it’s a robot. So the scientist, filled with rage and self-hatred (and not feeling quite so brilliant any more), sells the robot to a robot circus.
Now then: we don’t have little-boy robots in this world, so I had to think what Astroboy was a metaphor for.
What I came up with is this: a man has a son, and the son dies, so the man has another son, and is disappointed and outraged that the second son does not turn out to be a good replacement for the first son. So he turns his back on the second son, unable to love him.
What would this spurned second son do? He doesn’t know what he has done to incur his father’s disappointment. He doesn’t even know that there was a first son. The second son, it occurred to me, would do everything in his power in order to gain the thing that the first son got just by being born: his father’s love. In the case of a real-life little boy, that would mean working hard, overcoming grief and hardship in order to become the best he could possibly be. In the case of Astroboy, it would have to mean nothing less than saving the world from, I don’t know, a mad scientist’s evil robot or something. Astroboy would have to become the most powerful entity on the planet, all in the hopes of gaining his father’s love.
Anyway, that’s how I got the job writing the Astroboy screenplay. (That movie, the reader will surely be aware, didn’t get made. Such is life.)
The Matrix has a wonderful, daring, innovative screenplay, a killer hook and a terrific metaphor. (It also has probably the best tag-line I’ve ever heard in a movie trailer: Lawrence Fishburne intoning “Unfortunately, I cannot tell you what the Matrix is; you have to experience it for yourself.”)
Neo is convinced that something is not right with this world. That “something not right” turns out to be (spoiler alert) that the world we know is actually a vast computer simulation, created in order to distract us from the fact that we are actually living in tubs of pink goo and powering the machines that actually rule the world.
That’s the killer hook. And you know what? I’m going to bet that it turns out that, in reality, the world we know is not actually a vast computer simulation, and that we do not actually live in tubs of pink goo. The Matrix, then, is the metaphor.
A metaphor for what? Well, you know, the corporate machine, that all-consuming, media-driven monster that has us surrounded, gets us from every possible angle and keeps us so amused, confused and abused that we willingly give our lives to it. That thing. How shall we behave in this world? How can we balance our desire to be free with our need to be a part of the world? Can we “free our minds” from this pervasive corporate monster? What happens if we “unplug” from the world? What would we find “out there?” Will we be happier? These are the real, everyday, pertinent questions The Matrix had to offer its audience.
(This is the same metaphor used in the Alien movies, the corporate culture that would rather invite a rapacious, heartless monster intothe world rather than pass up an opportunity for profit.)
The good folks who made The Matrix, unsurprisingly, found themselves with a substantial hit on their hands and decided to make two more movies based in the same world back to back. Why not? The world created in The Matrix is fascinating and well-worth the time spent investigating it. The Matrix Reloaded and The Matrix Revolutions, while not as fluid dramatically as the first movie, are still visually stunning and philosophically complex. The action sequences are nothing less than stupefying and the dense intellectual underpinnings are, well, they’re dense enough that this viewer has had to watch the movies three times in order to begin to grasp just what the hell some of the characters are talking about.
And there’s where I think the problem lies, why the second two movies fail to engage on the same level as the first. The second two movies take place in a world so fascinating that the fimmakers decided to abandon their metaphor, and make a movie about the imaginary world. Or rather, the filmmakers’ ambitions are so vast that they decided (or planned all along) to expand their metaphor of late-corporate media culture to include philosophical notions of the nature of human life so vast and complex that they appear to be all-but opaque, and certainly uncinematic. To get around this problem, they include action sequences of mind-boggling immensity and plot twists startling in their ordinariness (the bumbling recruit who saves the day, the hot-shot pilot who bucks staggering odds to get her ship to dock, the Mexican standoff with the effete, sneering Frenchman). The action sequences demand to be seen again and again, and in between one can begin to make sense of long, motionless scenes about “systemic anomalies.”
This is the same problem I have with Dune or Lord of the Rings — I can’t locate the metaphor in these works. I know other people, many other people apparently, do not have this problem. But as for me, I’m not interested in the vast complexity of an imaginary world, I’m interested in this world. I attend a drama so that I might better understand how to live my life; what do the second two Matrix movies offer in this regard?
Texture is important.
These three movies have very little to do with each other, except that they are set in imaginary societies where people’s freedoms are curtailed in ways we would find objectionable, and they were all at the video store at the same time as I was looking for Futuristic Dystopias to study. And I suppose you could say that all three have male leads who are very good actors but stop short of being movie stars.
(Incidentally, if there’s one thing all nightmare futures have in common, its that they all predict less freedom for their citizens. Why won’t anyone make a movie about a nightmare future where everyone has too much freedom? Well, I suppose that’s Idiocracy, actually.)
For my purposes here, they also all point to the importance of texture in this kind of movie. I know this from Blade Runner, but Ridley Scott knew it from Metropolis. If you get it wrong, your dark, futurist nightmare dates quickly, feels constrained and silly. If you get it right, the texture makes the movie worth watching all by itself.
The Man Who Fell to Earth, for instance, is an example of a movie with a lot on its mind, but very little effort is spent on making us believe we are seeing the future. The Island, meanwhile, has expended tons of effort in bringing us a vision of the future, but has very little on its mind.
The future of Code 46 seems completely plausible, almost here already. The cars are the same cars we drive now and the buildings are the same ones we work in. Apartments are smaller and have computer screens built into glass walls, and some quirky new words have worked their way into the language (like “papelle” and “cover” and “outside”), but there have been no radical leaps forward in fashion or architecture. Tim Robbins and Samantha Morton meet and fall in love and that creates problems for them, but none of the weird things they have in their lives feel any more novel to them as computers and cell phones seem to us. Designer “viruses” are just a part of their everyday life, along with “new fingers” and “memory albums” and the remote possibility of having sex with the clone of one’s mother. Director Michael Winterbottom even has the actors pitch their dialogue in a rushed murmur so that we have to lean forward to catch what they’re saying. It doesn’t feel like a movie about the future, it feels like a movie from the future, in the same way that Barry Lyndon feels like a movie about the 18th century made in the 18th century.
Dark City is a, well, it’s a weird movie. A bunch of aliens have abducted a bunch of Earthlings and built a pretend city for them in the middle of space so they can study them and learn about the human soul. For some reason, they’ve decided to make the city a Fake New York circa 1940s. At the end of every day, the aliens stop time and rearrange the city, along with everyone’s lives, then start up time again to see how people react. Rufus Sewell is an Earthling who, for whatever reason, cottons to the aliens’ plan and finds himself able to rearrange physical matter his own self. (The movie is so weird that telling you all this doesn’t really even give anything away — all this is revealed within Act I.) The texture here is overstuffed, overheated, delirious. Cityscapes are obviously, unapologetically miniatures or computer-generated, doorways melt or appear out of nowhere, leading to streets, outer space or plunges. Furniture stretches, walls expand, dishes and tchotchkes appear out of nowhere. Streets are too narrow and lead to nowhere, everything feels like a movie set, which is partly the point. It all works toward creating a sense that anything might happen. Sort of funhouse version of The Matrix.
Metropolis is still the gold standard for this kind of movie. The sets and effects, mind-blowing for their time, are still mind-blowing 80 years later. The plot makes as much sense as Dark City, with the same kind of delirium present as well, but also carries with it a Serious Message about class warfare. The son of an industrialist falls in love with a mysterious crusader and learns about the sorry life of the workers who make Metropolis run. The industrialist father, wishing to put the woman’s crusade to an end, asks a scientist friend to give his newly-created robot the face of the crusader, then train the robot to go and tell the workers to give up. The scientist has his own personal vendetta against the industrialist and gives the robot-woman instructions to get the workers to revolt against the city thus provoking an apocolypse that threatens to kill the workers’ children, start a revolution and kill the industrialist’s son. With a plot like that, the visuals better be pretty fantastic, and Metropolis does not disappoint; it’s stuffed full of gigantic, complex sets with swelling tides of humanity coursing through them. And the special-effects aren’t impressive “for their time,” they’re impressive for, say, 1977. The effect is incalcuable. The mighty cityscapes with their elevated walkways, spotless streets and canyon-like vantages give an impression of overwhelming inhumanity while still maintaining their beauty and power.
(The theme of Metropolis, stated many times throughout, is “The Head and Hands must have a Mediator, which must be the Heart.” Lang doesn’t seem to be arguing that the upper class is bad, just that they need to keep in touch with the lower class who make their machines run and maybe don’t be so cruel to them. Otherwise they seem to be perfectly nice people.)
The current Kino Video release is also the most complete assemblage of film elements of this movie and a near-complete restoration, and the results are jaw-dropping. The print looks brand-new, scratchless, spotless, bright and lustrous. As an added bonus, the score of the original run has been re-recorded, the goal being to present the movie as close as possible to its original premiere. I’ve seen Metropolis before, but this felt like a completely different movie.
Scarlett: YOU! Ewan: Who, me?
WARNING: TOTAL MASSIVE SPOILERS
WHAT DOES BIG BROTHER WANT? Big Brother wants to provide wealthy people with the means to live longer.
WHAT DOES THE REBEL WANT? The rebel, as it happens, also wants to live longer. This is contrary to Big Brother’s plans.
WHAT DOES THE REBEL GET? This is a very expensive movie. The rebel must not merely succeed in achieving longer life; he must also free all the other oppressed people.
IS THERE AN UPPER CLASS IN THIS DYSTOPIA, AND DO THEY HAVE ANY FUN? There is and they do, which is kind of why the story exists in the first place.
DOES SOCIETY CHANGE AS A RESULT OF THE REBEL’S ACTIONS? Totally and unequivocably. Like I say, this is a very expensive movie; failure is not an option.
NOTES: There is much to recommend this movie, which in many regards is a hugely sophisticated piece of filmmaking. The production design is complex, sleek and elegant, the direction is fluid, unfussy and direct and the big action setpieces are flabbergasting. There’s an extended sequence in Act 2 that encompasses a footrace, a series of car crashes, a highway chase, flying motorcycles, an airborne helicopter pursuit through futuristic city streets, a dive through a skyscraper and a delirious plunge down the other side. The vision of the near-future is credible, unique and detailed. Loads of atmosphere. In Act 3 there’s some wonderful acting when Ewan McGregor meets himself. It’s short on character but stops short of becoming shallow.
It was also a notorious bomb last year (reported production budget: $126 million, domestic gross $36 million) and while there is a lot to like about it I can kind of see why it failed.
First there’s the title, which does not inspire excitement and which is says nothing about the movie. It would have been better to call it Clones on the Run, because it works pretty well on that level. Second, there’s something a little fuzzy about the concept, which I can’t discuss without spoiling the narrative, so read no further if you dislike having your movies spoiled.
Ewanand Scarlett are clones, raised in an underground clone city amid a whole big society of clones. None of the clones know they’re clones; they all think they’re survivors of a ruined planet and are lucky to have any life at all. This underground society of clones exists because they’re part of a business run by evil Dr. Merrick, who clones rich people for a lot of money so that they can have organs to replace theirs as they get older. When a rich person in the outer world becomes ill, their clone must be sacrificed. Dr. Merrick deals with this inevitability by inventing the contrivance of The Lottery, wherin, from time to time, a lucky clone will be selected to go to live on “The Island,” which is supposedly the last uncontaminated spot on the face of the Earth. Hence the title.
Ewan discovers one day that the world is, in fact, not ruined, and that the clones selected to go to “The Island” are, in fact, carved up like meat for their organs and tossed away. His gf Scarlett is scheduled to be sent to The Island that very afternoon, so he grabs her and the two of them escape out into the world, in order to seek their “sponsors” (ie the people they are clones of) and get some answers for why things are the way they are. This is all very upsetting to evil Dr. Merrick, because, see, in spite of all his money, it’s apparently illegal to create living, breathing, feeling, thinking human beings and then slaughter them.
Eventually Ewan and Scarlett get what they’re looking for, but that’s not good enough for Ewan, who decides in a rushed fourth act that it’s not good enough to merely get out of the underground clone city with his life and a sexy babe, he must also return to the underground clone city and free everyone who’s imprisoned there.
Here’s the problem as I see it:
Our society has no underground cities full of unjustly imprisoned clones yearning to breathe free. It’s not really a problem that needs to be addressed at the moment. There are no corporate giants creating clone societies and bending the rules about how those clones are raised. I can see that such a world might exist in the time frame that the movie is talking about, but it doesn’t exist now. And for some reason it’s hard to work up much feeling for the innocent clones because they actually have very pleasant lives where they live and eat and drink and dream and have jobs and clean clothes and good health. Yes, they’re raised for slaughter but they seem to be taken pretty good care of up to that point.
For a narrative like this to function, it seems to me, there must be a strong, easily identified metaphor at work. Clones as living, breathing spare-parts lockers doesn’t seem to be a metaphor for anything. You could make the argument that they represent the way the rich consider it the poor’s duty to cook their food, take care of their children, fight their wars and die so that they might get on with their fabulous lives, and that’s a very good point to make, but the movie doesn’t present the issue as one of a class war. It moves along at its swift, entertaining clip, showing us all the cool design, stunts and action it has in its bag, but doesn’t seem to stop to consider what it might actually be about.
There’s also the question of Dr. Merrick’s plan. According to the narrative, he tells people that the clones are merely organs and stuff in a vegetative state somewhere. But he has found that the organs fail if they’re not attached to an active brain. So instead of apologising to his clients and giving them their money back, he builds a gigantic underground clone society, complete with skyscraper-sized buildings, sophisticated holograph projections to convince the clones they’re in a magical paradise, a complicated backstory that has to be taught and reinforced at every turn, and a massive staff to take care of all this. Yet with this enormous construction project and the tens of thousands of workers it would take to build and maintain it, word has never gotten out that Dr. Merrick has perhaps bent the rules on the “vegetative clones” thing. That calls for extremely tight security, yet Ewan manages to climb up a ladder and into a forbidden level with no trouble at all.
Maybe the problem lies in the bifurcated nature of the movie. The first half is a sci-fi epic and the second half is an action epic, but once the Big Reveal has been revealed, the movie’s store of Big Ideas has been depleted and it must rely on adrenaline and heroics (both of which the director excels at) to get to the finish line. It seems that if you want to make a movie where It Turns Out They’re All Clones, that has to be the end of Act II (of three), not the end of the Act I (of four). (Another problem is that The Island has four distinct acts — the second two feel more like a sequel to the first two, not a continuation of it.)
Thomas Jerome Newton is from another planet. In a piece of canny 1970s casting, he is played by David Bowie.
Newton has come to Earth with a number of extremely valuable patents tucked under his arm. His plan is: find the world’s greatest patent attorney, form a gigantic corporation that will generate hundreds of millions of dollars of income, and use the money to — to — well, that’s the part where I get lost.
Apparently his planet is in trouble. They’re all out of water, and they desperately need water to — to — well I’m sure they need it to live, but all we ever see in the movie is that they use copious amounts of it in the course of their marital duties. But that’s enough, fine. Thomas Jerome Newton needs water or else he can’t fly through the air in sexual ecstasy with his wife in huge cascades of water. So he’s come to Earth because we have water. It’s like we’re a giant-sized Pleasure Chest store for him. “Be right back honey, I have to pop down to Earth for some lubricant.”
He knows how Earthlings talk and think and what they value. He knows all this because he’s been watching our television for decades on his home planet. He knows we’re motivated by greed and materialism and he’s got a plan to use that greed to make a pile of money and — and — well again I’m less clear on that.
After many decades of living on Earth and building his fortune, he builds a spaceship to go back home. What his plan is, I don’t know. He’s not going to bring back a ton of water to his waterless planet and we’ve seen that his wife and children are already dead.
Now that I think of it, what’s going on on Newton’s home planet? There seem to be only three people living there, his wife and kids. They don’t have a house or food, all they have is a charmingly home-made papier-mache beehive with sails that trundles along on a track. Yet somehow they got it together to send Newton to another planet, so presumably there’s a space center somewhere with rockets and a launchpad and people running it and all that stuff you need to send people into space. Otherwise, why wouldn’t Newton just bring his wife and kids along?
But no, they stay behind and never age, because apparently the folks on Newton’s home planet don’t age, even the children remain the same size for decades. And they wait by the trundling beehive, because — because — well I’m not clear on that either. I think the trundling beehive is the planet’s mass-transit system, but since the beehive has stopped permanently in one spot there doesn’t seem to be much reason to wait there for Daddy to come home.
Anyway, after a very long time, Newton compiles his wealth to build a spaceship to get back home. I don’t know what he’s going to do once he gets home, maybe he’s just a scout for Earth and he’s setting up his gigantic corporation so that he can start bringing his people here and have them live in splendor.
Just as he’s getting ready to get on his spaceship to go home, he gets kidnapped by — by — by an evil somebody, and his patent attorney is killed by the same evil somebody. It’s unclear. Is it another corporation, is it the government? Somebody wants to derail Newton’s plans and they will stop at nothing to do it.
Newton is placed in exile in a hotel under guard. He is studied by scientists. The scientists seem both convinced that there’s nothing unusual about Newton and convinced that he is an alien. In any case they make him very uncomfortable and he has no choice but to take comfort in large amounts of gin.
Eventually everyone loses interest in him and he escapes out into the world. He makes a recording to be broadcast into space where his wife might hear it. We never hear the recording but I’m guessing the message on it is something like: “Dear Wife: had a plan to use human greed to get water to us so we could havesex again but got screwed over by the same human greed I was hoping to exploit. Never coming back. Sorry. Best to the kids. PS: Don’t wait by the Beehive Station lying in the sand for decades — for God’s sake GO HOME!”
Strictly speaking, the movie falls into science-fiction, but as we can see, it is not the nuts-and-bolts wing of the genre but rather the spiritual/societal analysis wing. Indeed, the movie is content to explain very little at all, in spite of being well over two hours long.
The production design is perfunctory. Newton’s inventions, which are supposed to be futuristic and amazing, are clunky, ugly and unappealing. His rocket-building center is housed within a grain-elevator complex with nothing but chain-link fences for security. Decades pass within but it remains steadfastly 1976. Earthlings get old and grey and fat but records are still pressed on vinyl and cost less than five dollars, men still wear polyester leisure suits, and Newton even drives the same car throughout. It’s as though Newton’s arrival on Earth brought the evolution of human design to a screeching halt.
The movie’s strategy of ignoring explanations has its strengths. It’s moody and jarring and elusive, and Bowie is cooler than cool as the slowly dissipating visitor who becomes, alas, too accustomed to Earth ways. In fact, I think that’s the real point of the movie after all, not to tell the story of aliens and government conspiracies but to dramatise the story of an idealistic young man who enters the world with a clear purpose and to show his increasing anxiety at being co-opted, distracted and annihlated by the inevitable crushing forces of capitalist greed and human frailty. (Bowie, apparently, felt a strong connection to the character — he used images from the movie on two consecutive album covers — but did he realize that he, too, would eventually become human, falling from stardom to mere showbizhood? Or is that, in fact, the subtext to his performance?)
This being the 70s, there’s also lots of nudity.
David Bowie would later reprise the “weird guy with a miraculous invention” role in The Prestige. Rip Torn, who plays the only guy who knows Newton’s secret, would reprise the “guy who knows there are aliens on Earth” role in the Men in Black franchise.
WHAT DOES BIG BROTHER WANT? Big Brother wants only to feed the world. Who doesn’t want to feed the world? Go Big Brother!
WHAT DOES THE REBEL WANT? The rebel wants only to solve the murder of Joseph Cotten. Who wouldn’t want to solve the murder of Joseph Cotten? Go rebel!
WHAT DOES THE REBEL GET? The rebel does, indeed solve the murder of Joseph Cotten. And a whole lot more.
IS THERE AN UPPER CLASS, AND DO THEY HAVE ANY FUN? There is and they do. They have clean apartments, soap, hot water, towels, alcohol, you name it. Fun ahoy!
DOES SOCIETY CHANGE AS A RESULT OF THE REBEL’S ACTIONS? Well, he sticks a defiant, bloody hand in the air and says “Somehow we’ve got to stop them!” before he’s carted off to Waste Disposal, so I guess that counts for something.
NOTES: By far the best-constructed, most entertaining of the Charlton Heston sci-fi world-gone-wrong trilogy. Like Blade Runner and Minority Report, it tells us its skewed worldview through the guise of a detective story. It’s not a very complicated detective story, but the sheer level of detail brought to the worldview is convincing and pervasive. It’s not so much the physical details — the design world, in 2022, has ground to a dead halt in 1973 — but the characters’ attitudes, the sheer level of acceptance everyone has of “well, this is how the world is.” This is introduced most vividly in the opening assassination scene — the assassin isn’t a bad guy and neither is the victim; one’s been hired to kill the other and they both just kind of sigh and get on with it. That stunning scene sets the tone for the whole movie: people just kind of accept living in cars, or having to pedal a bicycle for their own electricity, or having dozens of homeless people living in their stairwell. Women just kind of accept being treated as chattel and having police detectives ransack their house, stealing everything that isn’t nailed down. The poor just kind of accept that there will be shortages, and when they riot, they just kind of accept that the police will respond with bulldozers. It’s not pleasant, but what are you gonna do? Everyone, rich and poor alike, just kind of accepts that everything is rotten and there isn’t anything you can do about it. It’s the apathy in the movie that gets to you, not the production design, and it shows how a single idea and a mastery of tone can go a long way toward carrying a movie. Because, let’s face it, the detective story in this movie is practically nonexistent. The protagonist barely does any detective work at all; he punches people and asks them what’s going on while his elderly pal reads books and then goes asks somebody what’s going on and then they tell him. There is no puzzle or layers of intrigue, rather it’s riddled with cliches (the detective gets involved with the doomed dame, pursues the hot case too far and catches heat from his superiors, blah de blah de blah). The triumph is all tone and the looks on people’s faces. When Chuck Connors shoots a priest in the head in a confessional, neither party seems surprised or even particularly uspet by the encounter.
It’s a shock to hear phrases like “Greenhouse effect” tossed around in a movie made in 1973, especially when the result of that effect is the world described here. The whole thing seems creepily plausible, a world where an assassin has to go to a special contact to acquire a meathook but has no trouble getting a handgun.
Edward G. Robinson’s performance is as good as everyone remembers it and in a way, Soylent Green is a love story between Heston and Robinson, just as Double Indemnity is a love story between Fred MacMurray and Robinson. I guess he was just that lovable.
WHAT DOES BIG BROTHER WANT? Well, there is no “Big Brother” per se, but society wants perfection, and it knows how to get it.
WHAT DOES THE REBEL WANT? Same as anybody, to go into space. I think “space” here represents “heaven.” The protagonist has been damned by unfortunate birth to hell; he’s going to fool the gatekeepers of heaven into letting him slip by.
WHAT DOES THE REBEL GET? With the aid of an unfortunate perfect-guy (who condemns himself to flames of perdition just as the protagonist is lifted into heaven), plus the love of a beautiful woman (nothing, NOTHING is accomplished in a Futuristic Dystopia without the love of a beautiful woman), plus the last-minute good will of a company doctor, he gets his wish.
DOES SOCIETY CHANGE AS A RESULT OF THE REBEL’S ACTIONS? Revolution isn’t really the protagonist’s goal here, and not even escape really. He wants to belong; he wants to know he’s good enough to go to heaven. The screenwriter chose the term “Valid” for a reason.
NOTES: The theme of the movie, it seems to me, is Will. Does the protagonist have sufficient will to achieve his goal? Does he have what it takes to overcome his genetic predisposition, switch identities with another guy, keep up the ruse for years, endure loneliness, constant, obsessive vigilance in cleanliness, break his own legs, live with Jude Law?
The fimmakers face a problem, of course: genetic science and astrophysics are dull, cerebral subjects. How to juice up the narrative and compel audience interest? MURDER! MURDER MOST FOUL, that’s how. And so, on his way to the stars, our protagonist gets caught up in a murder investigation that seems important only to the police. Indeed, no one seems interested in or excited by anything in this sterile, unpopulated future; to be excited, I suppose, would be to be less than perfect, which everyone is, or pretends to be.
Our protagonist is totally obsessed, to a ridiculous degree, with getting to the stars, and yet, with days to go before launch and a murder investigation breathing down his neck, he decides to take a chance in romancing Uma Thurman. This in spite of the risk of exposure, the unhygenic quality of sexual contact, the possibility of getting “girl germs” and the fact that Uma doesn’t seem to have much of a pulse. Perhaps he feels that if he can’t reach the stars in heaven he can at least have one in his bed on Earth.
Then, cleared from his murder investigation, given a clean bill of health from his corporation, and ready for launch, the protagonist must still face down his brother/detective for one last suicidal swim. Boys, as the saying goes, will be boys.
One of my posters pointed out in the previous entry that the society of Gattaca is filled with genetic flaws despite science’s best efforts, but I’m not sure that’s what the movie is trying to say. There is the usual assortment of Valids and In-Valids in society it seems, and they all seem to get along okay, although the Valids seem to lord it over the mutts a little bit. There is the six-fingered pianist, but it’s unclear from the script whether the pianist is a genetic freak or a planned accident — that is, is he another kind of outsider, like the protagonist, an In-Valid who has overcome his genetic deformity to find a place in Valid society, or did his parents actually give him six fingers on purpose so that he could become a great pianist? “That piece can only be played with six fingers,” says Uma, indicating that the piece in question was composed specifically for someone genetically modified.
It is time to separate the wheat from the chaff.
Here is a list of movies:
A Clockwork Orange
V For Vendetta
A Scanner Darkly
If you, like me, are a Hollywood screenwriter, you will see not one but two lists here. There is a short list of movies that were very successful and a longer list of movies that were not successful. We’re not talking about artistic success here, just boxoffice. A few of them were smash hits, some were middling disappointments, some were high-profile disasters and others escaped the notice of almost everyone.
My job is to figure out why. Why did audiences connect with some of these movies and not others?
They all share the Futuristic Dystopia element, which puts them in the realm of sci-fi, but some of them mix in other genre elements as well. Blade Runner and Minority Report are detective stories, The Island and The Matrix feature action-film elements.
Each has a single protagonist in opposition to his or her society. That society is either (a) forthrightly awful or (b) awful with a sweet candy-coating that must be peeled away before the awfulness can be tasted.
The key, it seems to me, is in the journey of the protagonist. Specifically, the protagonist must be active, and must represent something unique and important.
Let’s compare The Matrix and V For Vendetta. Same filmmakers, similar storyline. In Act I of The Matrix, Neo is chosen, as The One, to undergo a test. He is pulled from his world and shown “reality.” In Act II he undergoes rigorous training, all the while doubting that he is, in fact, The One. In Act III, a crisis emerges and he must face his destiny, face his oppressors, prove his worth and emerge, triumphant, as The One. In V For Vendetta, Evey is not The One, she is Some Woman who gets into trouble one night. She does not undergo rigorous training, she gets brainwashed by a mysterious stranger who won’t take off his mask. And in Act III, a popular movement forms, but how much does that have to do with Evey’s actions?
The protagonist’s journey need not be heroic. Alex in A Clockwork Orange is an equal-opportunity thug, victimizing rich and poor alike, seeking nothing out of life but the opportunity to beat, maim, kill and rape. He’s motivated by the basest of human desires, but we like Alex because he’s pure; he’s smart and resourceful and he has a whale of a time. He enjoys his life. Society wants to take from Alex not only his opportunity to rape and kill but his desire to do so. As bad as Alex is, a society that would take away free will is seen as worse.
In Brazil, Sam has a clear goal, but has no idea how to achieve it. He gets jerked around a lot, cringeingly accepting indignity after indignity for a very long time. When he does finally rebel he is immediately punished so severely that he must retreat into a very long fantasy sequence. It’s also worth noting that Sam is not The One, but rather gains his role of protagonist quite by accident, when a fly falls into a telex machine, starting the narrative in motion.
Rollerball, interestingly, is a sports movie. The plot is the same as every boxing noir: the athlete just wants to play a good game but the powers-that-be want him to take a dive for the short-end money. It takes a very simple old story and puts it in a dazzling new context.
In Fahrenheit 451, Montag wants something clear and understandable, but thuddingly uncinematic — he wants to read. The enormity of that still hasn’t quite sunk in for me yet — a movie about a guy who’s only desire is to curl up with a good book. Rod Serling in The Twilight Zone knew that that’s no protagonist, that’s an antihero.
I’m off to have dinner with Mr. James Urbaniak, so I’ll leave this for now, but there is much more to be discussed here. Any information regarding the protagonists’ journeys of, say, Zardoz (which I haven’t seen) or Gattaca (which I haven’t seen in a long time) or any other movie not yet discussed is greatly appreciated.
WHAT DOES BIG BROTHER WANT? Big Brother wants people to be happy, and books don’t make people happy. They are filled with lies, made-up stories, silliness, sophistry and fake drama. Why do so many people insist on being unhappy?
WHAT DOES THE REBEL WANT? Montag (Oskar Werner) burns books for a living. He’s comfortable and respected, but he is also is bored and mopey. He craves intellectual stimulus. His wife, Julie Christie, is a babbling idiot and the TV is filled with political fiction, propaganda and nonsensical gibberish. He finds his desired stimulus in the form of sexy neighbor Julie Christie (again with the sexy neighbor — if there were not attractive women in futuristic dystopias, there would never be any rebellion at all!) and, less cinematically, in the pages of Charles Dickens. When that turns out to be asking too much, he wants to get out of town and keep the literary flame alive.
WHAT DOES THE REBEL GET? A whole heap of trouble.
DOES THE SOCIETY CHANGE THROUGH THE ACTIONS OF THE REBEL? Not to any measurable degree. But the protagonist does find a way to rebel that has some positive effect and yet adheres to the letter of the law. Wait — the rebels want to adhere to the letter of the law — and that’s their brilliant idea? What the hell kind of movie is this?
NOTES: Handsomely produced and well-intentioned, it’s hard to get excited about this movie. There is no drama or conflict to its argument, there is no “other side” to it — who would make a movie promoting the burning of books? This is not to say that there should be an “other side” to a movie about totalitarianism, but even The Matrix allowed that there would be some people who would be happier living in pink goo with an electrode in their brain.
Wait a minute — why are some of the day’s leading cinematic lights making a movie that encourages people to spend their time reading books? Obviously the position of film in the minds of the world’s teenagers was in a much more secure position at the time.
Truffaut (wait — this lumbering, earnest, dour, leaden, humorless, stilted movie is directed by Francois Truffaut? [author shakes head vigorously, Bugs-Bunny style]) itseems, made this movie about reading books in order to indict what he saw as a greater evil — not book-burning or totalitarian government but television. One day, mark my words, there will be a video game about a society intent on destroying films.
The occasional sparks of cinematic interest, like subtle use of backwards-motion and the dead-end double-casting of Julie Christie as Idiot Harpy/Sparkling Intellectual don’t do much to raise the pulse of this movie. Its heart is in the right place, it’s just not beating very strongly.
By the end of the movie (spoiler alert!) Montag’s wife has left him, he’s burned his supervisor alive and he’s on the run from the law. He finds a commune in the woods (commune in the woods!) where the people memorize books in order to keep them alive until the dark ages lift. I always liked that idea, a little community where each person’s job would be to memorize a book. I always felt that if it came down to it, I would pick Samuel Beckett’s Endgame.
WHAT DOES BIG BROTHER WANT? I’ve seen this movie a number of times and you know? I’m not sure. They seem to want to maintain the status quo, through a gigantic, inefficient bueraucracy. Citizenry is not controlled per se, but they certainly are kept in their places through this massively inefficient system that makes it impossible to get anywhere or do anything.
WHAT DOES THE REBEL WANT? Like Winston Smith and THX-1138, Sam wants the embrace of a good woman, in this case Jill, literally the woman of Sam’s dreams. Beyond that, Sam, spectacularly, has no plan; once he gets his mitts on Jill he is completely at a loss and must think fast to improvise a plan. And Sam’s just not that good an improvisor.
WHAT DOES THE REBEL GET? Oh, it doesn’t end well for the rebel.
IS THERE AN UPPER CLASS, AND DO THEY HAVE ANY FUN? There is and they do, although their fun is occasionally interrupted by “terrorist attacks” (which are never explained) and botched plastic surgeries. But even the upper class gets bossed around by waitstaff and bueraucrats and, this being England, everyone is terribly afraid of what others think of them.
DOES THE SOCIETY CHANGE AS A RESULT OF THE REBEL’S ACTIONS? In his dreams.
NOTES: Strangely, Jesus Christ is a major character in both this movie and in THX-1138. I’m not sure why. It doesn’t make sense for an oppressive dictatorship to choose Christianity as a state religion, as it does in THX, and whatever metaphorical connection there is to the narrative of either film eludes me. Neither THX nor Sam are particularly Christ-like; they confront no authority and are not sacrificed for the sake of publicity. They stand for nothing outside of themselves. I think the Christmas motif running through Brazil is there to emphasize the hypocrisy of the society’s priorities, but again I’m not sure. Strangely, in Sam’s dreams (however much of the movie those constitute) one of the symbols tossed on the rubbish heap by the robot samurai is a neon cross. So it seems like the movie is saying that the evil bueraucracy that Sam fights against is trying to destroy, among other things, Christianity. Is Gilliam pro-Christianity or anti? After Life of Brian I would have guessed anti (Christianity, not Christ), but here he seems to want to make some distinction between Christ and society’s perversion of the Christ message.
I love the idea that everything in the movie happens because there’s a guy running around out there fixing people’s heating problems without the proper paperwork.
One question that haunts me is, are there terrorists at all, after all? If not, who’s blowing stuff up?
Another question is, where does Sam’s dream begin? Does it begin at the start of his torture session, or much earlier?
Terry Gilliam’s movies are generally filled with Gilliamisms, but they are here this time in full force: the fish-eye lenses, the overstuffed production design, the imaginative, extensive use of miniatures, the sets a little too small to contain the action.
The acting is generally strong in this movie with Katherine Helmond a particular standout, but I gotta say, Michael Palin is freaking amazing. I’ve always been a fan, but his performance here as a polite, efficient, paternal torturer is just astonishing. Plus, for my personal delight, there are no fewer than than three strongly Steven-Rattazzi-like actors in this movie: Jonathan Pryce, Ian Holm and Bob Hoskins, all of whom Rattazzi has been compared to in his career (strangely, with usually the word “Pakistani” appended, as in “Steven Rattazzi resembles a Pakistani Ian Holm in his role in Cymbeline,” this about a man named Rattazzi). Terry Gilliam should just have Rattazzi play all the male roles in his movies and be done with it.