Strange Days

Here’s a cult classic you don’t hear about often. But that’s the way of cult classics, isn’t it? You never hear about them until you stray into the fan community and they insist that you have to see it. You finally do and then maybe, just maybe, you yourself become an accolade. Once that happens, you might eventually become aware of the community of fans that’s out there – most likely they have an internet fansite going – they spread the word and make sure the movie is listed as a “sleeper hit” or a “hidden gem”.

Yeah, that’s about how I came to see the movie Strange Days. I can remember when it came out back in 95, how little fanfare and attention it got and how briefly it was in theaters. In fact, I didn’t even hear about it again until recently when it turned up on somebody’s top ten lists of the best sci-fi movies. Upon further investigation, I found that this movie made it onto a lot of people’s lists, even a few professional ones. And since I committed to covering sci-fi cult-classics awhile back, I thought I’d check this one out. And, I am pleased to say, I was pretty impressed.

(Background—>):
In spite of being well-received by critics, this movie did quite poorly at the box office. Surprising, considering the all-star cast and the fact that James Cameron co-wrote and produced the thing. And when I stay all-star, I mean all-star! Ray Fiennes, Angela Basset, Juliet Lewis, Tom Sizemore, Vincent D’Onofrio, and Michael Winscott all had main roles in this movie (this last guy you may remember as the creepy villain from The Crow, and every other movie he’s ever done for that matter!)

However, as is often the case, the movie went on to attract a cult following who enjoyed the movies cyberpunk elements, its millennial theme and dark, paranoid feel. And with few exceptions, the acting and delivery was quite good. Ray Fiennes excels at being the sleazy but redeemable huckster, Basset as his concerned and beleaguered friend, and Winscott as the creepy, paranoid control-freak. Juliet Lewis came off as a little labored, but then again, her dialogue was kind of the cheesy, looks good on paper stuff. Still, she manages to pull off the abused, damaged damsel quite convincingly (draw whatever inference you will from that ;)).

In addition, the movie did a good job of capturing that pervasive sense of millennial madness that was beginning to manifest around the early-mid nineties. While things like the Y2K virus quickly became a cliche, especially after they proved baseless, the years leading up to the millennium were not without their share of fears, concerns and a general sense of imminence. Many people, both religious and secular, predicted doom, thinking the world would end. Others predicted a sort of social cataclysm, that mobs and rioters would take to the streets and begin looting, especially if all the grids went down. But most, I think, were just worried that the madness and hysteria would be self-fulfilling, that some riots and crackdowns might happen before everyone realized that the world wasn’t ending.

Also, the technological aspects of this movie were quite interesting. Mainly, they centers on a form of virtual entertainment known as the SQUID (Superconducting Quantum Interference Device), a device which can record and playback events directly from the wearers cerebral cortex. This predicted the internet phenomena in many ways, the concept of “viral videos” and snuff films being the main plot device in the story. And one of the major events in the movie, the murder of an outspoken hip-hop artist and the controversy surrounding it, predicted the death of Tupac Shakur, which took place around a year later.

(Content—>):
The movie opens on the last days of December, 1999. Violent crime and gang warfare are getting out of control, and in the midst of all this, a major recording artist and activist named Jeriko One (Glenn Plummer) is killed. Meanwhile, a woman is being chased by two policemen, played by Vicent D’Onofrio and William Fichtner, who clearly want to kill her. Seems she saw something and was wearing a SQUID at the time, and when she gets away, the policemen retrieve the device and realize she got it all on tape (disc, whatever!).

Meanwhile, we meet Lenny Nero (Ray Fiennes), a former LAPD officer who has since turned to the world of contraband and sleaze, selling SQUID tapes to anyone looking for a break from reality or themselves. However, Nero has a rule that he never sells “blackjacks” (i.e. snuff films), because he considers himself a purveyor of experiences, not a peddler of smut! His friends, Lornette ‘Mace’ Mason (Angela Basset) and Max Peltier (Tom Sizemore) are also former LAPD officers who have since retired. Mason now does private security while Justin is a private eye. They don’t approve of what Nero does, but stick by him because of their friendship, and in Mason’s case, feelings of unrequited love.

Things begin to unfold when the woman who was being chased, named Iris (Brigette Bako), finds Nero at a bar. She claims someone is trying to kill her and has to flee, but that she recorded the entire thing on a disc and dropped it in his car. However, his car is soon towed and he’s unable to figure out what she was talking about. Shortly thereafter, a “blackjack” is dropped off at his house that shows someone killing her. Nero is freaked, especially since when he last saw her, Iris also told him that their mutual friend and Nero’s former lover, Faith Justin (Juliette Lewis), is in danger as well. This presents Nero with an opportunity to see her, only to be told by her and her manager that he’s not wanted. In between telling him that they are through, Justin is sure to relate that she’s also afraid because her manager, Philo Gant (Michael Winscott), is becoming increasingly paranoid and controlling. Spurned, Nero shows Mason and Peltier the blackjack and they are similarly shocked.

Shortly thereafter, Nero and Mason go to pick up his car so they can see what Iris dropped off and run into the same two officers who were chasing Iris earlier. They narrowly escape them and then view the tape, where it shows these same officers murdering Jeriko in cold blood. Shortly thereafter, Nero finds his supplier, Tick (Richard Edson), dead from an overdose of the SQUID. It looks like an accident, but Peltier suspects foul play since what appears to be an isolated case of murder might have something to do with a larger conspiracy he’s been hearing about. According to Peltier, there is a militant movement coming from City Hall and the LAPD who are determined to bring the city under control, even if it involves death squads! Because Jeriko was a major activist who was bringing the gangs of LA together to reign in the LAPD and the cities politicians, these squads would have been targeting him.

They then go to pick up Faith who is at a New Years party being hosted Philo. She reveals to them that she knows what going on, that Philo has become a total “wirehead” (i.e. SQUID-addict), who’s in the habit of having his artists followed because of his increasing paranoia. Iris was his mole and was tailing Jeriko, and was therefore with him when he was murdered. When she showed the tape to Philo, he feared for his business, beat her up, burnt the tape and told her killer where to find her. However, she made a copy in advance which she then put in Nero’s car. They now understand why Faith was afraid and trying to keep Nero away. Clearly, she feared for her life as well and didn’t want him getting involved. They all agree they should release the tape, but both Peltier and Nero worry about the impact it will have – i.e. a full-scale war between the gangs and the LAPD.

However, their rescue attempt is thwarted as Philo and his thugs intervene. Faith is then taken to his suite where she expects to die. After arguing and regrouping, Nero and Mason decide to attempt to rescue her again. Meanwhile, the streets are filled with people celebrating, rioting, and signs boasting “2K”. In the midst of the rowdy chaos, Mason and Nero manage to sneak into Philo’s party, Nero attempts to rescue Faith while Mason confronts the police commissioner and slips him the disk. Mason gets into Philo’s suite but finds him dead, and that Peltier, his friend, is the one who killed him. Seems he and Faith have been having an affair, and that HE was the one who murdered Iris and sent the tapes to Nero. He also confesses that the whole conspiracy theory was just his way of keeping Nero away from the authorities. In the end, it was all just a “traffic stop gone wrong”.

While this might seem like a letdown, I actually preferred it to the alternative. Rather than there being some big conspiracy that goes all the way to the top, the real motivating factor in all this was just random violence. And it is for this reason that Peltier did what he did. In a world as messed up as theirs, he believes what matters most is getting what you can before you’re murdered senselessly. In any case, Faith comes in and distracts him long enough for Nero to get the upper hand and they fight. Nero gets a knife in his back (symbolic since his friend betrayed him) but manages to toss Peltier from the balcony in the end.

Down below, Mason has been forced to flee the party when the two crooked officers spot her and begin chasing her through a crowd. She subdues them, but then is set upon by several riot cops. She is cornered and beaten, and it looks like its all over until a number of people in the crowd decide to help her out. A big fight, symbolic of the war they were anticipating, begins, but is broken up when the commissioner arrives and reveals he’s seen what’s on the disc. The two officers are arrested, one eats his gun while the other – D’Onofrio, in true psychotic form – tries to shoot Basset and is gunned down!

The movie ends with the New Year being rung in. Yes, in spite of the shooting, several deaths and a near riot, the countdown happens as planned and people cheer. Ah whatever, it’s New Year’s right? No sense letting a few fatalities ruin the biggest party of the millennium. Everyone is merry, people kiss (even some riot troops and civilians), and of course, Nero and Mason hook up! Seems he’s finally taken the hint and broken it off with Faith who, let’s face it, is more trouble than she’s worth. War is averted, the New Year arrives without the apocalypse, and there’s resolution all around!

(Synopsis—>):
Overall, I can see why this movie was a cult hit and why it didn’t do so well in theaters. For one, it wasn’t the usual big-budget splashy action flick Cameron is famous for, and it didn’t have a faithful marketing effort behind it. And that’s to be expected from a noire, cyberpunk thriller such as this, studios just don’t seem to know how to peddle and pigeon hole it. However, given its obvious depth and signs of quality, I think it was inevitable that audiences would take notice of it, adding it to their lists of favorites alongside movies like Blade Runner and Akira.

For one, the movie managed to capture, years in advance, the feeling of paranoia that surrounded the actual millennium. Ultimately, these fears proved to be baseless (just like in the movie!), which was one of the things I found subtly brilliant here. Long before the myth of Y2K began to circulate, it was easy to see how people would treat the millennium with a certain degree of paranoia. The religiously minded would fear that the apocalypse was at hand, the paranoid would expect riots, and others believed the world’s infrastructure to all go down! But of course, the clock struck twelve… and nothing happened. And, the plot where a hip-hop artist/activist is murdered in many ways predicted the feelings of loss and suspicion that followed Tupac’s death. Many of his die-hard fans continue to say he was assassinated, some even that he’s still alive!

In addition, the concept of VR technology and human experience was explored in depth and I found this very effective as well. On the one hand, the SQUID technology is just like a drug, something people do to escape their daily lives. On the other, there’s a lot of time dedicated to showing how something like this would have a negative impact on people’s memories and experiences by depriving them of authenticity. On several occasions, Nero is criticized for not being able to let go of the past, mainly because he keeps reliving it with his SQUID. The character of Mason says at one point that memories are meant to fade. Ergo, reliving his old experiences is depriving him of the ability to move on.

But what was best was the twist at the end. Ultimately, the threat came from close to home rather than from death squads or in the form of some big, shadowy conspiracy. All along, the characters are moving about thinking that they are witnesses to an assassination and that they can’t trust the authorities. But in the end, it turns out that the “assassination” was just a random act of violence – albeit with disastrous consequences if it went public – and that it’s their best friend they can’t trust. All of this is in keeping with the central theme and setting of the movie, which again, is millennial madness and an impending set of doom, all of which proves baseless in the end.

Movies like this one remind me that Cameron had a keen mind and some pretty cool ideas way back when. So… what happened? How did he go from Aliens, T2 and Strange Days to “I’m king of the world” and “Unobtainium”? Was it the money? Must be the money. Screws up everything!

Strange Days:
Entertainment Value: 7/10 (admittedly, not the funnest movie around)
Plot: 9/10
Direction: 8/10
Total: 8/10

Da Terminator!

Back in 1984, a budding director named James Cameron was working on two projects almost simultaneously, both of which would go on to become some of the most successful sci-fi franchises in history. These were the time-traveling cyber-thriller The Terminator and the long awaited sequel known as Aliens. And not only were they well received at the box office, both went on to become classics in their own right, earning a cult following and spawning even more sequels. Yep, the guy could write and direct back in the day, before success and fame went to his head and he got all… Titanicy! Fans of said movie might disagree, but I think it just went downhill from there! I mean, Avatar? C’mon people, that was just a rehashing of Titanic and Aliens with a whole lot of Pocahontas ripped off and plastered on.

But that’s neither here nor there (I’m so gonna trash that movie later!). Right now, I wanna talk about the movie that started it for James and turned Arny from a champion body builder and B-list actor into an A-list movie star (Which reminds me, at some point I got to review Conan, his other break-out hit!) And a warning, you can’t get into this movie without talking about Arny, a lot! So plenty of biopic info will be coming up throughout the course of this review, be warned! So without further ado, let’s get to reviewing this baddest of bad-boys!

(Background—>)
In truth, Arny was first approached by the studio to play the role of Kyle Reese. However, after reading the script, he said he would rather play the role of the murdering cyborg. After meeting with Schwarzenegger, whom he had no intention of casting in the role, Cameron became convinced. And it worked! Anry’s presence, his bad-guy face, and his imposing demeanor sold people on the Terminator. Even his accent, which was still pretty thick, seemed believable coming from a synthetic human. And while it got mixed reviews at first because of its violence, many critics saw unmistakable quality in it, hailing its tense pace, its cool action, and its storyline. In time, these positive reviews would become the general consensus, and Cameron was inspired to make the sequel. T2 did better at the box office, but compared to The Terminator‘s modest budget and overall gross, the original’s performance was far more impressive. He would NOT be involved in the later movies, which was good for him. They did not hold a candle to his original creations!

(Content—>)
The movie opens with a brief intro showing us the post-apocalyptic world of Judgement Day, explaining that there’s been a nuclear holocaust and that machines are waging a war on all those humans who still remain. Its just a taste of things to come, nothing long or drawn out. And then, we move to modern-day LA. There’s a big burst of light, and Arny standing naked in the street. He has a run in with some thugs, the leader of whom is Bill Paxton (or Hudson, as he was known in Aliens), and deprives them of their clothes. He even brutally kills one of them just to make his point: don’t mess with evil-Terminator Arny! Simultaneously, Kyle Reese (Michael Biehn, Hicks from Aliens. Holy recycling actors Batman!) shows up and is going through the same motions. Like Arny, he is in a rush to find clothes, weapons, and the whereabouts on one Sarah Connor. Yet somehow, Reese seems to be having a harder time of it. Funny how being a cybernetic powerhouse who’s not afraid to brutally kill makes life easier! In fact, after visiting a gun store and making only one gaff about plasma cannons, Arny ups his body count to two! But seriously, what was up with that line: “phased plasma cannon in the 40 watt range”. Really? Wouldn’t a Terminator be programmed with what weapons were available in 1984; them detailed files Arny mentioned in the second movie? Ah well, comic relief before he blew the unsuspected store owner away, I guess.

We also get to see Sarah Conner (Linda Hamilton), who for all intents and purposes seems like a regular, run of the mill lady. Naturally, we are wondering why Arny is out to kill her, and what Reese wants with her. But one thing we are sure of, Arny DEFINITELY wants to kill her. The way he is tracking down and murdering anyone named Sarah Conner in the greater LA area would seem to indicate that. As for Reese, his intentions become abundantly clear when the three of them – him, Sarah and Arny – finally come together in a barroom shootout. I can attest to the fact that this scene is one of the most tense in the entire movie. Arny comes in, Kyle shoves his way through the crowd as soon as he sees him, Arny levels his gun at Sarah’s head, she is frozen with terror, and Reese brings his gun to bear. The sound is faint for much of this… but when Reese fires, the sound returns! BOOM, BOOM, BOOM… and Arny drops! Naturally, he doesn’t stay down, and Reese has to unload what’s left of his ammo into him before he can reveal his true purpose. He makes this abundantly clear when he bends down to grab hold of Sarah’s arm and says the classic line: “Come with me if you want to live!” Naturally, she does. And in the course of fleeing from Arny, Reese fills her in on the whole situation.

In short, on Aug. 29th, 1997, a nuclear holocaust will take the lives of 3 billion people, in an event known (appropriately) as Judgement Day. The culprit is a machine known as Skynet, an AI created by humans that turned on them and spawned an entire race of machines that were designed to hunt down and destroy all human life. They are known (also appropriately!) as Terminators. Most survivors were herded into camps for what Reese refers to as “orderly disposal”, echoes of the holocaust. But one man rallied them turned them into the Resistance. His name: John Connor, Sarah’s unborn son. Shortly before Reese traveled back in time, the Resistance had broken into the machine HQ and destroyed Skynet. Hence, the machines sent a Terminator back in time to kill John Conner before he ever existed. What makes this semi-believable is the fact that at first, Sarah doesn’t believe him and tries to flee. There’s none of this “you saved my life and your we have obvious chemistry… so sure, I’ll go with you” crap. But Reese’s insistence plus the sheer unbelievability of his story manages to convince her. Cyborgs created a time machine so they could travel back in time, from the post-apocalyptic future, and kill the woman who will give birth to the boy who will lead humanity to victory over them. Hell, you can’t make shit like that up! Unless you’re James Cameron… The fact that he’s protecting her while a homicidal Arny will stop at nothing to kill her might have been an added push.

What follows in some more tense scenes where Reese and Connor attempt to flee from the Arny bot. Both he and Reese are wounded in one exchange, forcing Arny to cut out one of his synthetic eyes and wear shades. The look was born! But then Reese and Sarah Conner are arrested, Reese is charged with kidnapping, and Sarah is told that he’s a psycho, and not to listen to him! The chief also tries to allay her fears with what immediately becomes some famous last words: “There are thirty cops in this building. You’re safe.” Arny of course find them, enters and gives HIS famous words to the clerk who tells him visiting hours are over: “I’ll be back!” And boy was he ever! After driving his car through the front doors, he whoops out the artillery and proceeds to murder seventeen officers. That’s ballsy for any bad guy, lord knows the only policemen who are allowed to die in an action movie are the ones who are three days to retirement! But in the carnage, Reese manages to escape and pulls Sarah Connor out. They both then double-time it out of town.

Then, with a little privacy and some trust established, we get to see the relationship that’s taking root between Reese and Connor. Cameron also takes this opportunity to give us additional glimpses of the future. Up until this point, this was done through Reese having flashbacks and nightmares. At this point, it takes the form of Reese conveying everything John Connor told him to share with her, which includes anecdotes about the war. This is important since she will give birth to the future commander of the resistance and he needs to be prepped! Some cool temporal paradox stuff happening here. But wait, it get’s better! Eventually, Reese confesses that he always loved Sarah – well, not so much her, but the idea of her. Her picture is something he’s kept, its a little worse for wear, but still manages to capture her determination and beauty (keep this in mind, it comes up later!). Then, they have sex, and Sarah gets pregnant with – drumroll! – the future John Connor! Yes, as it turns out, Reese is Connor’s father due to this same temporal paradox, whom he will meet and become the protege of in the future. So in addition to this being a post-apocalyptic, time-travelling sci-fi thriller, it comes complete with a big twist! And not just one…

Back to Arny, who must get creative in order to find Connor again. This he does by finding her mother and takes her call when she does the obligatory good daughter thing and calls just to let her know she’s all right. He then gets the address of the hotel where they’re staying. Luckily, Connor and Reese are on top of things. Like good soldiers, they were ready to mobilize, even did some shopping so they could build some homemade plastic explosives. Another car chase ensues, Reese gets severely wounded this time, and Arny gets unseated from his motor bike, hit by an 18-wheeler, and has more of his face ripped off. The look evolves! We also get famous one-liner number two when Arny commandeers the 18-wheeler. After tossing the driver, he turns to the passenger with a half-revealed cyborg face and says… “Get out!” Of course, the guy does! When a killer cyborg steps into your vehicle with half his face missing and tells you to move it, you don’t say no! Shortly thereafter, the 18-wheeler crashes and they think Arny is dead. But no! The fully revealed Terminator crawls from the flames (symbolism moment here, harking back to the intro!) and advances on them.

And of course, Reese sacrifices himself to blow the thing in two, but Sarah is forced to deliver the finishing blow by crushing it in an hydraulic press! But before she does, she gives her own big one-liner: “YOU’RE TERMINATED, MOTHERFUCKER!” Hey, Arny can’t get em all! The movie then cuts to several months later, with Sarah, now pregnant, driving through Mexico. She’s making a recording for her John, and a small boy comes and snaps her picture. Remember that photo Reese had of her, the one that made her fall in love with him? Yep, this is it! And as we will learn in the movie that’s to come, the remains of the Arny bot were recovered… the seeds of Skynet’s creation have been sowed. The paradox is complete! And Sarah drives off into a coming storm, which is both literal and metaphorical. Yep, good line to end it on. “There’s a storms coming,” says the Mexican man. “I know,” says Connor. Cue apocalyptic music and roll credits!

(Synopsis—>)
All throughout this movie, there is a tension that in undeniable. Whether its Reese’s painful flashbacks, the Terminators constant pursuit, or the fact that the police are pursuing them as well, there’s a pace and a tempo that never lets up. It’s downright uncomfortable, the feeling of danger and impending death always there. Though the sequel was arguably more fun and a lot more impressive in terms of effects, the original was a lot grittier and emotionally honest. In a way, it kinds of like Alien and its sequel, the former being packed full of terror and claustrophobia, the latter being a big-ass thriller that relied more on action. Unfortunate that Cameron was only involved in the creation of the latter, otherwise you could say there was a clear pattern. The original sets up the plot and has a deliberately harsh tone, the latter finishes it off and is entertaining in the process. And while the latter might have overshadowed the former in terms of box office gross and overall impact, the former remains the more critically acclaimed cult-hit because its arguably smarter, if less flashy. Not to mention that from top to bottom, the feel, music and direction of the original are faithful to its central themes. One really gets the feeling throughout that this is a movie about the apocalypse and a horrific war that is yet to come. Not only that, but the time travel stuff is intriguing and thoughtful. As Sarah says at one point to Reese: “You keep speaking about things I haven’t done yet, past tense!” She is abundantly clear on the fact that she’s not comfortable with how Reese and people from his time see her, as some kind of hero. But in the end, she has to find the strength to become what she needs to be, something which she passes on to John Connor, a sense of terrible purpose.

In any case, it made for a good movie. But the real points came in the form of the plot, which was a compelling story about fate and free-will. The future is happening because of what happens in the past. They are trying to prevent the machines from altering the future, but in the process, they end up creating it. Cool, and virtually seamless. Because, as I’m sure I said in my Terminator: Salvation review, the good guys not only ensured the birth of John Connor (and hence their eventual victory over the machines), they also ensured the existence of the machines in the first place. Funny how that works, temporal tampering has the power to give and the power to take away. The real genius of it, and the thing that always bakes my noodle, is the notion that the future we know is the result of all our actions. That might seem like fatalism, but its actually far more complex. Fate implies that the future is set, when in fact, things don’t happen in spite of what you do, but because of it. Oy, I just went cross-eyed! These plot twists also set up the plot for a sequel very nicely. Now that John Connor’s existence is assured, he must prepared for the future. At the same time, he and Sarah must see what they can do to prevent it. And of course, with the war still on the horizon and the rise of the machines still to come, we can bet our bottom dollar that they will make another attempt to kill Connor before they lose the war.

And like I said, this movie set Arny and Cameron up FOR LIFE. Cameron would go on to make Aliens before directing his big-budget action-packed sequel, and Arny would land role after role in the big action line-up of the 1980’s. Funny too how that worked out. Arny had all kinds of difficulty getting work at first because of his accent and, amazingly, his name! Director’s initially thought it was too long and hard to pronounce, and that his speech would always be a stumbling block. But thanks to The Terminator, Arny went on to be famous and all those agents and producers who doubted him were left eating crow! And of course, when it came time to make the sequel, Cameron would bring Arny back and give him a chance to reprise his role, this time as the good guy, which was in keeping with Arny’s true character. Linda Hamilton would be back too, reprising her role as Sarah Conner and raising the stakes by becoming the ultimate female bad-ass!

More on that in my review, T2! Like Arny, I too will be back! (Sorry, I had to!)

The Terminator:
Entertainment Value: 8/10
Plot: 9/10
Direction: 9/10
Total: 8.5/10

AKIRA!

I’ll admit it, I don’t watch a lot of Anime. I know, that probably makes me a bad geek. But what can I say? You gotta be into that kind of thing and apparently, I’m not. But over the years, I’ve managed to find a few titles that I did like. Ninja Scroll, Vampire Hunter D, and – best of all – Akira! Yes, not only was this the best piece of Anime I’ve ever seen, it managed to tell a story that still intrigues me years later. Not long ago, I watched it for what felt like the umpteenth time and found that it I still get wrapped up by its stunning visual effects, existential ideas, and its post-apocalyptic, cyberpunk theme. I tell ya, the animators spared no expense when it came to visuals, and the story-writing and direction was reminiscent of Kubrick in a lot of ways. Much of what is happening is shown, not told, and those watching it might therefore feel the need to see it more than once. But enough gushing, time to get to the review!

(Background—>)
The movie Akira was actually based on the Manga series of the same name by Katsuhiro Otomo, who was also brought in to direct the movie. The movie condensed the storyline of the six original Manga novels, but kept all of the major themes and plot elements. Much like the comic, the movie is set in Neo-Tokyo, a post-apocalyptic, dystopian future city where biker gangs rule the streets and an authoritarian government is hiding secrets about human experiments. It was well received by critics when it was first released in 1988 and has gone to become one of the top-rated animated movies of all time, and of course it attracted a cult following in the process. However, there were also some critics who panned it, claiming that it did a poor job of condensing six volumes of Manga into one two hour movie and cut corners in the process (fans of the Dune series can no doubt relate!) These critics tended to be in the minority though, with fans and critics alike hailing the end product for its visual style, its imaginings of a dark future, and its attention to detail. I, if it hasn’t been made clear already, am one of them!

(Content—>)
The movie opens on a silent, birds-eye view of Tokyo in 1988, right before it is vaporized by what looks like a nuclear attack. The entire city is engulfed in light and things white out. The scene then changes to an orbital view, where the white light fades and we see what look like thermal images of Tokyo harbor. The white turns to red, which turns to blue, and the outline of a new city, build on the ashes of the old, appears. And then, a close up on the massive crater that was Tokyo and the name in big red letters… AKIRA! What is awesome about this scene is that there is virtually no sound at the beginning. You hear what sounds like a strong wind, but that’s all until the title rolls and a caption tells us that the setting is Neo-Tokyo, 31 years after WWIII. When the sound rolls, its just a series of loud, metallic pangs that chill you to your bones! An effective opening, conveying a sense of apocalypticism and dread, punctuating the visuals and making it clear that more horror and fright are on the way!

We then move to the streets of Neo-Tokyo where we meet the main characters of Shotoro Kaneda, the leader of a Bosozoku biker gang, and his buds. They’re up to their usual thing, battling the Clowns (a rival gang) and making a big mess of the streets in the process. Meanwhile, student and civilian protests are taking place not far away and the riot police are out in full force trying to contain them, shooting them with tear gas canisters and beating them with truncheons. In between all this, a man who is clearly a member of some underground cell is running through the streets and trying to stay ahead of the police. With him is a small boy who he appears to be rescuing, and we can tell he’s no ordinary child because his skin is blue! The resistance man is then shot when they run into the riot police’s barricade, and the boy gives us a preview of some freaky powers when he screams and shatters all the windows in the area, sending everybody running. In the crowd, a young girl and an older man are watching, themselves members of this same underground, and become perplexed when they see the blue boy disappear.

We go back to Kaneda and his biker gang, who appear to have routed the Clowns and are now chasing them down. Tetsuo, the obvious runt of the litter, gets seperated as he tries to chase down too Clowns, and ends up running into the blue-skinned boy. A mere second before impact, the boy freaks out again and Tetsuo’s bike explodes, sending him into the pavement. Kaneda and the others show up just in time to see him wounded but not killed, and the blue boy as well who’s appearance shocks them. Military choppers and shadowy figures show up seconds later, with some big mustached Colonel and an older, blue-skinned person leading them. The boy is taken away, the elder one scolding him for trying to get into the outside world where they don’t belong. Tetsuo is taken as well, with Kaneda and the rest unable to help because they are at gunpoint and face down on the asphalt.

This sets off the three intertwining plot elements that make up the movie. One the one hand, we have Kaneda and his friends trying to find Tetsuo, all the while trying to survive in the hostile environment that is Neo-Tokyo. We have the resistance looking to get back into some government facility so they can free these blue-skinned kids – known as the Espers, clearly the subject of experiments and covert activities. And we have the Colonel, who’s running said facility, overseeing the experiments on these individuals, and trying to figure out what to do with Tetsuo. It becomes clear after just a few scenes that his exposure to this small child is changing him, in the psionic sense, and now they must figure out what to do about it. While he presents an interesting phenomena, a normal person changed through accidental exposure, there are hints that this chance encounter could bring disaster.

In between all this, we get numerous snapshots of what life is like in the post-apocalyptic city, and all of it is interesting and awesome. The police are overworked trying to control a population that is beginning to become unruly after the shock and horror of a nuclear holocaust and the push to rebuild. The public school system is clogged with orphans who’s parents died in the war and who have to turn to biker gangs and deviant behavior to express themselves. And behind it all, there is the shadowy government project being run by the Colonel, who is haunted by the visions the blue kids are showing him and a name which might be a person, a phenomena, or both… Akira! At one point, in a scene that is both expository and foreshadowing, we are shown an underground facility where a massive cryogenic unit sits and waits. As they inspect it, the Colonel is reminded of conversations he had with the resident scientist about the children could be the next phase in evolution, how it is frightening, and how he fears for the city. In any case, we see a name on the big cryogenic unit… AKIRA! Whoever or whatever this is, its clear that the blue kids are related, and that the war itself might have had something to do with it.

At about this time, Tetsuo manages to escape from the military facility. He finds his girlfriend, Kaori, steals Kaneda’s bike, and makes plans with her to get out of the city. Unfortunately, some Clowns find them and begin beating the crap out of them. Luckily, Kaneda and his buds were on their tale and manage to intervene, but clearly something’s wrong. In the course of taking his revenge on one of the Clowns, Tetsuo begins to lose it. When they try to stop him, he starts to lose it and says that someday he’ll show all of them (case of foreshadowing here). To make matters worse, he starts experiencing intense migraines and has apocalyptic visions. He sees the city crumbling, his body falling apart, and hears the name Akira ringing like a shrill bell in his mind. And, wouldn’t you know it, the military shows up again and hauls him away! It seems that whatever is happening to Tetsuo is beyond his control, and naturally, his friends are even more determined now to find him and figure out what’s going on.

Paralleling this, we get a scene where one of the government bureaucrats is meeting with the leader of the resistance. The two watch a public protest where a religious cult begins burning TV’s and other “decadent” possessions, calling forth the name of Akira as some sort of messianic prophet and saying that the time for atonement has come. The bureaucrat explains how this is a sign, how the city is saturated and begiinning to rot like “an overripe fruit”, and how Akira is the seed that will soon fall and grow into a new order (clever metaphor). We are still not sure who or what Akira is at this point, but its clear that whoever or whatever it is, everyone is looking to it for deliverance. The resistance and their bureaucratic ally want it to pave the way to the future, the government wants to keep it under wraps, and the people on the streets see it as the name of the messiah. Real cool! From all of this, we see that at all levels of society, the name Akira is a secretive, powerful, and dangerous thing.

Along the way, Kaneda finds out about the resistance and begins making common cause with them. This begins when he notices that a particular young woman named Kei, whom he is obviously infatuated with, has a way of showing up repeatedly wherever and whenever shit is going down. At first, he was just trying to nail her; but in time, he comes to realize that she is part of an underground cell that is looking to expose a government secret, the same one that Tetsuo is now part of. They agree that they can help each other, mainly because she and her friends can get inside the facility and she is sympathetic with Kaneda’s desire to save his friend. Eventually, they succeed, but their attempt at a rescue coincides with another, scarier development.

In the facility, Tetsuo is still changing, and the process is getting beyond all control. His psionic abilities are reaching dangerous proportions, and he wants answers! He has come to see that there are others like him (the Espers), which happens after a psychedelic episode where the children enter his room in the guises of childhood toys and transform them into nightmarish creatures that try to devour him. It’s not quite clear why they do this, perhaps they grew scared of him and wanted to put him in his place. It is clear to them from their visions of a catastrophic future that Tetsuo is a threat, so perhaps this was their way of telling him to behave. In any case, this scene is nothing short of art! At once nightmarish, hallucinogenic and psychedlic, it manages to intrigue, creep out and terrify, in that order. And, ironically but fittingly, it ends when Tetsuo accidentally cuts himself and the children are terrified by the site blood and flee. However, Tetsuo is now angry and abundantly aware that he is not alone. He sees in his mind’s eye where the Esper’s nursery is, and sets out to find it, them, and the answers he seeks.

In the process, a number of attendees and guards try to stop him, but he makes short work of them all. Yes, Tetsuo has come to understand that whatever is changing him has given him some freaky powers, including the power to kill with a simple thought. As he walks along the hallway, he kills numerous people in sick and ugly ways, a clear indication of his descent into madness and a preview of what’s to come. Once he reaches the blue kids’ nursery, they begin fighting it out with their crazy mind powers, and the effects used to illustrate this are not just cool, they’re crazy! One really gets the sense of the psychic and psychotic; music, effects and dialogue all coming together to intrigue and scare the viewer! In the course of all this, Tetsuo gleams a name from their minds. Seems their is another like them, someone who is even more powerful than the Espers and Tetsuo combined. Tetsuo wants to find this person, this… Akira! He even manages to get the location from their minds before they are interrupted.

That interruption comes in the form of Kaneda and Kei who have successfully broken in amidst the chaos. They have a brief rendezvous, but Kaneda’s attempts to get Tetsuo to leave with them fail. Seems Tetsuo thinks he’s beyond Kaneda’s help now, and that he’s in charge and ready to show him what’s what, as promised earlier. The Colonel and more men enter and attempt to stop Tetsuo, but he kills even more people, destroys the nursery, and flies from the facility (much to his own surprise). Seems his body is now flying him on autopilot and taking him out into the city to find the last known location of the fabled Akira. The Colonel and his troops are then forced to declare martial law, in part because of Tetsuo’s escape, but also because the government has decided that he is not fit to run the program anymore and try to arrest him. After a brief scene where some bureaucrats show up and a minor gunfight ensues, the Colonel orders his troops to arrest all members of the government and get their asses to where Tetsuo is heading! He means business now!

Meanwhile, Kaneda and Kei have been arrested and stuck in a cell. Here,Kei begins to explain exactly what they think Akira represents. In a word: evolution! Essentially, Kei says that the power that has driven single cell organisms and reptiles to evolve into spaceship-making, atom-splitting humans is still at work. Harnessed in the human genome is a ton of energy that is just waiting to manifest itself in the form of freaky powers, the kind that Tetsuo and the Espers now demonstrate. Kei begins to become distant as it is made clear that one of the Espers, the young girl, is speaking through her. She explains that in the past, this process went horribly wrong, but someday soon, it would become a reality and their kind would exist freely. Kaneda is totally lost, but that doesn’t matter for long. Kei snaps out of her dream-like puppet state and reveals that the door to their cell is now open. Seems the Espers are pulling strings to make sure the two of them get out.

With the help of voiceover, they even say that they plan on using the girl to stop Testuo. And they don’t make it far before they put that plan into action. After meeting up with Kai, another member of the biker gang, Kaneda is told that a rampaging Tetsuo killed one of other members. He’s pissed, but is made even more pissed when the Espers show up and make Kei come with her. She walks away (on water, no less), and leaves Kaneda fuming angrily over how helpless he feels. Caught between a friend who’s gone rogue and some freaky kids who are using his would-be girlfriend for their own purposes, all the while caught up in plot he can’t begin to understand, he decides to set out on his own to find Tetsuo and end him!

Speaking of which, we meet up with Tetsuo next and see that he’s been stalking the streets and killing anyone who gets in his way, all the while seeking the other secret facility where, as we saw earlier, Akira is housed. This is without a doubt one of the best parts of the movie, as the street people, seeing some psionic boy in a red cape (yep, he fashions himself a cape!) become convinced that Tetsuo is Akira and start following him like a messiah. They all die, naturally, as Tetsuo’s is forced to fight his way through soldiers and his powers cause untold amounts of collateral damage. When he finally reaches the facility, just outside the uncompleted Olympic Stadium (bit of a side story to that one), he runs into Kei again and they fight. Not so much “they”, more like the Espers fight Tetsuo through her, but of course he beats them/her and breaks into the facility anyway. As soon as he cracks open the cryogenic seals that hold Akira, the Colonel arrived outside the stadium and begins to fill him in via a megaphone.

We then get the big moment of truth: turns out the facility was holding the remains of a boy, a boy named Akira. He is what caused Tokyo’s annihilation in 1988, as he was an evolutionary curiosity that evolved beyond anyone’s control. After the explosion, which started WWIII since everyone thought Tokyo was under nuclear attack, his remains were sealed away for future study. That’s it, that’s all! No mind-blowing conspiracy, no earth-shattering answers, just a bunch of test tubes and tissue samples in formaldehyde. And as for the conspiracy, that was just the government trying to keep the truth of Akira under wraps so they could study it in the hopes of preventing the same thing from happening again. Hence why they’ve been holding the Espers in a sealed location, seems they were Akira’s fellow potentates who survived the obliteration.

Tetsuo is obviously phased and disappointed, but he’s quickly snapped out of it with the arrival of Kaneda. The two get into it as Kaneda tries to talk him down, but a fight quickly ensues with Kaneda employing a captured laser gun and Tetsuo using his freaky powers. The government jumps in and tries to kill Tetsuo with their orbital laser satellite, but this only manages to critically injure Tetsuo by blowing off his arm. The kid proves beyond their control again, and flies into orbit where he takes over the satellite and then crashes it. This, however, gives Kaneda, Kei, and Kai a chance to escape.

A lull follows as the Colonel and his forces lick their wounds, Tetsuo fashions a new arm out of random machine parts, and Kaneda, Kei, and Kai recharge the laser gun and keep each other company. Some time later, they all meet up inside the stadium, where Tetsuo has placed the remains of Akira on a sort of shrine and is sitting in the chair he has fashioned into a sort of throne. Symbolism! The Colonel urges Tetsuo to come home, but he refuses. He is once again losing control and its beginning to show in his body, which is sprouting amorphous blob-like appendages! He is also losing his mind, at once amused and in terrible pain over what’s happening all around him. The Espers show up and begin praying to the remains of Akira, hoping to get some kind of instruction or deliverance. Seems they too revere him since he was the first to undergo what they are experiencing now.

Tetsuo’s girlfriend Kaori is also drawn to the stadium, but she soon dies as Tetsuo’s loses all control over his body and it consumes her. Kaneda returns, shooting his laser and trying to bring Tetsuo down, but the attempts appear to be in vain. Even Tetsuo is being killed by his own abilities now and there doesn’t appear to be any way to stop it. And the scientists watching it all are stunned when the queer instruments they have that measure psionic abilities go off the charts and begin to show the “Akira pattern”. And then, in a blinding burst of revelation (destructive, apocalyptic, revelation!) Akira appears to the Espers! His white light, much as it did at the beginning, starts consuming the stadium and Tetsuo’s amorphous body. Kaneda is willing to risk his own life to pull Tetsuo from the expanding ball of light, but the Espers decide they will take Tetsuo with them and save Kaneda by sacrificing themselves. Essentially, they are going into the light, which means either death, transcendence, or a little of both. Kaneda, Kei, and everyone else, will be sent back in the process so they can live on.

However, Kaneda is still inside the light for a moment and experiences what can only be described as a taste of transcendence, or possibly the afterlife. It is a totally mind-blowing scene, biggest one of the movie, as he watches entire city blocks get mangled in the light, catches glimpses from their and Tetsuo’s life, and hears the Espers speaking to him about the meaning of it all. He gets a chance to say good-bye to his friend, who appears before him as a blinding ball of light, and sees moments of their lives together. He then wakes up next to Kei, safe and sound. Might sound cheesy, but trust me, its sad, meaningful, and above all, awesome to behold. All the more so because you’re not being told what’s happening, you gotta figure it out on your own. The vivid imagery and passing bits of explanation paint a picture, but you’re left pondering what it means.

Meanwhile, the city is once again in ruins, even though Kei, Kai and Kaneda survived. The Colonel has also survived, having found shelter in a nearby tunnel when the apocalyptic light show began. Clearly, they are the survivors of this new apocalypse, and it is to them that the responsibility to rebuild once more falls. The Espers end things by reiterating their final message, how things are changing, and though the world may not be ready, someday what they have will become a reality. “It has already begun…” they say at the end. By it, of course, they mean the next leap in human evolution, where we will evolve beyond flesh and blood bodies and become unrestrained forces of pure consciousness, with all kinds of freaky psionic abilities! Yes, the day will come when we shall all be… Akira!

(Synopsis—>)
Okay, I’m feeling mind-blown just recounting all this. Like I said before, this movie did things right, relying on a sort of show-don’t-tell philosophy, psychedelic and existential themes, and an attention to detail that is unsurpassed. From a technical standpoint, there was also the stunning visual effects and a great combination of music, sound and visuals to punctuate the plot and dialogue. But the thing I liked most was the depth and development shown by the plot and thematic elements of the story. For example, the clear religious themes: First off, there was the coming of the messiah and the End of Days. There was also the Garden of Eden or Deluge Myth that was present at the end. Lastly, there is the Fall. All of these were present at one time or another, the first being a recurring theme while the others became clear closer to the end. The fascinating and gritty use of them all was awesome, terrifying and hugely intriguing.

Then, of course, there was the plot. You’d think that with the archetypal and religious tones that were at work, you’d get some cliches or cardboard cut-out characters. But, interestingly enough, the characters were pretty damn realistic throughout. They are at once cynical, greedy, scared, brutal, and sympathetic, no one a crystal-clear good guy or bad guy. Whether it was the overwrought bureaucrats, the cautious and troubled Colonel, the street toughs who see each other as a family, the fallen Tetsuo or the romantic scientists, every character felt genuine and justifiable. Just like real people, everyone is motivated by their own combination of things, no one is perfect, and everyone just wants to do what they think is right. That, plus the fact that the story doesn’t end happily, but with some hope, was also very realistic. In the event that human beings actually began manifesting psionic powers, we can expect that the results would be frightening and probably disastrous. And in all likelihood, it would take a few disasters before humanity found a way to control it or live with it.

That being said, the movie could also be a bit daunting at times. Towards the end, the action sequences and dialogue did get a little drawn out and could even feel emotionally taxing. Like with a lot of movies of its kind, there were moments where I was just like “enough death and destruction! Get on with it, already!” But for the most part, this is effective in that it conveys the right feel and attitude. After all, death, destruction and the apocalypse are not neat and tidy things. They are painful, demoralizing and downright brutal! One would expect scenes or total destruction and terrible strife to be sad and terrible, so I can only say that Katsohiro’s direction was realistic in that respect and in keeping with the overall tone of the movie. Speaking of which, the movie also showed some very obvious insight into the mentality of destruction and holocaust. All throughout the movie, there is a sense of shock and horror at work, and it comes out in full force at the end. But unlike your average disaster movie, the destruction in Akira wasn’t some cheap attempt at action-porn, it was the real deal!

And you really get the sense that this speaks directly to a sense of cultural experience, Japan being a nation that has not only experienced earthquakes, tsunamis and volcanoes regularly in the course of its history, but is also the only country on the planet that has experienced the horrors of a nuclear attack. When one sees the blast at the beginning, the flashing, cooling orbital view, and then the big, black crater, one immediately thinks of Hiroshima, and not just the physical impact but the terrible psychological toll it took as well. All the scenes involving the orphaned kids, the apocalyptic dreams, the post-war reconstruction; you really feel like Katsohiro was relying on the real-life experiences of those who had been there.

Oh, and one final note: I’ve since seen two versions of the movie, the original VHS release that was available back in the 90’s, and a more recent version which was clearly dubbed in Japan. The Japanese dubbed one is actually more faithful to the original dialogue, but my advice would be to get the version that was dubbed by Hollywood studios. The translation was better, and the dialogue and voices more effective and less cheesy. Don’t know what it is about Japanese voice actors, but the men sound too gruff and the ladies too high-pitched! Also, in what I am assuming was the original Japanese script, the dialogue was also remarkably less subtle. If you can see both versions and compare for yourselves, you’ll see what I mean.

But other than that, this movie is an enduring classic for me. Its appeal is cultish, its style awesome, and its effects stunning even though they are over twenty years old by now. I look forward to the live-action American remake of this movie, starring Leonardo DiCaprio and set for release sometime in the next year, or possibly 2013. One has to wonder how they will spin things and if they plan on sticking to the grit and realism of the original. I sincerely hope so, otherwise I might have to give it a scathing review!

AKIRA
Entertainment Value: 8/10
Plot: 9/10
Direction: 10/10 (Yo!)

Total: 9/10

More Reviews!

Hello all! Turns out, I came up with some additional titles to review sooner than I would have thought. Since I started doing them, friends have made recommendations which I felt I had to acknowledge. In addition, more crappy and awesome titles came to mind. And last, but certainly not least, I’ve been made aware of more classics that I didn’t even realized qualified. And then there was the Matrix trilogy. A no-brainer, given its impact and influence, but which somehow still managed to slip under my radar! So, here’s the list of my next fifteen reviews! Again, this list is not written in stone, the order may change and additional titles will make it in based on friend’s recommendations or the slightest whim! Enjoy!

1. I, Robot
2. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
3. 28 Days Later
4. Equilibrium (Aug. 14th)
5. Sunshine
6. Children of Men
7. Watchmen
8. Tron: Legacy
9. The Matrix
10. Matrix Sequels
11. Wall-E
12. Twelve Monkeys
13. Iron Man
14. Universal Soldier
15. The Road Warrior

Of Alien…

Not long ago, I reviewed a movie that had the honor of being not only one of the best sci-fi movies of all time, but one of the best movies period. That movie was Blade Runner, one of Ridley Scott’s most enduring classics. So it is with great pleasure that I dedicate this next review to another one of his masterpieces, the cult classic known as Alien. However, one can scarcely get into this movie without at least mentioning the franchise it spawned. Indeed, Alien went on to become not only a commercial success, but a cult-hit that inspired three sequels, two cross-overs, several video games, and even books and comics. Many of said sequels sucked, the less said about the crossovers the better, and Scott himself was not attached to any of the sequels as director. But that does not change the fact that the Aliens franchise was, at it’s core, one of the most original and inspired science fiction franchises of all time.

(Background—>)
Over the years, this movie inspired lasting praise, not the least of which came from literary critics who drew parallels between it and classical literary sources. These included H.P. Lovecraft’s At the Mountain of Madness, not because the movie was similar in terms of storyline, but in terms of its “dread-building mystery”. Upon the release of the Director’s Cut, Roger Ebert listed the movie in his Great Movies column, calling it “one of the most influential of modern action pictures”, and praising it for its pacing, artful direction, and how it took its time to build tension. It was also a commercial success, something many classics don’t see until years after their release. But enough of what others thought about it, let’s get to what I thought about it! Cue the opening sequence!

(Content—>)
Alien opens on the scene of a massive vessel traveling through deep space. The passengers, haulers who work for the mega corporation Weylan-Yutani, are in deep sleep and awaiting their safe return to Earth space with their shipment of ore. However, a distress signal from a neighboring planet brings them out of deep-sleep and sets them on course for this planet. Upon waking, they learn of the signal and their change in course, and are quickly told that company policy demands that they answer the call, otherwise they will lose their “shares” when the shipment is brought in. Through all this, we are immediately made made aware of two things: One, corporate monopolies control all shipping and mining in this universe; and two, that the company maintains loyalty by appealing to their employees greed. Another thing which we are made aware of is the concept of cryogenic-units which are used to keep people preserved during deep space travel in this universe. While the Alien franchise didn’t invent this concept (I believe Arthur C Clarke has that honor) it did much to popularize it. One can scarcely pick up a hard sci-fi book without reading a bit about “hypersleep”, “cryosleep”, “reefersleep”, and the like.

Skip ahead to the planet where the distress signal is originating from, and we are confronted with an alien derelict which I can only describe as awesome! Really, truly, alien looking! In the course of spelunking through the cloudy and oddly shaped interior (you can feel the tension building!), they encounter a field of eggs. One of these eggs opens up when the XO – Kane, played by John Hurt – gets near, and let’s lose a spidery parasite that attaches itself to his face. After he’s returned to the ship, the crew learns that there’s nothing they can do for him now, since the parasite will kill him if it’s disturbed, and that it has acid fpr blood and therefore can’t be removed without causing serious harm to the ship. They learn this second fact the hard way, giving the thing a tiny cut causes an acid spill that melts through two decks! And in a space ship, holes are not something you want! But, as luck would have it, the parasite falls off and dies all by itself. Problem solved, right?

Well, no… shortly after losing the spidery thing and waking up, Kane ups and dies, in the most graphic and horrible way imaginable! This is another aspect of the movie that was both novel and original for its time, the concept of the chest exploding alien! They gestate inside you, scary enough, and then emerge as this nightmarish, toothy thing with spindly arms and a long, segmented tail. In any case, the crew jettisons Kane’s body and is just beginning to breathe normally again when the fully-grown thing of nightmares kills another member of their crew. What follows is a claustrophobic, mad rush to kill the alien, but those attempts quickly fail. The ships Captain (Tom Skerritt) is one of the first to fall, leaving Lt. Ripley (played by Sigourney Weaver) now in charge. She soon realizes that the company wants the alien taken alive, and is even willing to sacrifice the crew to get their hands on it. She further learns that one of crew – Ash, played by Ian Holm – is a corporate mole who’s job, it now seems, is to make sure this directive is followed to the letter. Oh, and did I mention he’s an android?

As soon as he’s found out, Ash tries to kill Ripley, but she and her crew manage to take him down and get some answers from him. He confirms that the company wants the alien and the rest of them are expendable, and is also sure to leave them with some cryptic words: “You still don’t understand what you’re dealing with, do you? Perfect organism. Its structural perfection is matched only by its hostility.” “You admire it,” says one of the crewmen, to which Ash replies: “I admire its purity. A survivor… unclouded by conscience, remorse, or delusions of morality.” Classic lines! Then, just to be prick, he let’s them know exactly how slim their odds of survival are: “I cannot lie to you about your chances, but… you have my sympathies”. Naturally, they say “screw it!” and decide to scuttle the ship. But the alien creature is no slouch and manages to kill all but Ripley and the ships resident cat. To this day, I am not sure what the point of the cat was. Maybe to provide some tension; I mean nothing is more scary than a cat jumping out of nowhere during an already tense scene, right? In any case, she finally kills the alien by blasting it out the airlock of her shuttle and burning it with one of the ships thrusters. She is then left alone to drift home, and files a heartfelt report of how all her friends were killed in deep space by a hostile creature of unknown origin.

(Synopsis—>)
To be honest, this movie was a tad uncomfortable at times, at least when compared to the sequel. But then again, that was the whole point of the movie, wasn’t it? It was meant to feel uncomfortable, claustrophobic, and paranoid, because that it exactly what you would expect to feel if you were in that situation. Put yourself in a spaceship, surrounding by vacuum, then imagine you have a hostile organism on your hands that has the run of the place, and is both an expert hunter and hider. What feelings come to mind? Claustrophobia, since you’d feel like your trapped with it, and agoraphobia because you know you can’t just open a door and run outside. For these reasons, and because of the amazing artwork, set designs, the concept of the aliens, and of course the theme of personal and corporate greed, Alien deserves full credit for getting the ball rolling on the whole of the franchise. But really, it was never meant to be a standalone piece, so comparing it to the sequel is not really fair or warranted. If anything, this film and it’s sequel are companion pieces, Aliens picking up where Alien left off and expanding on it, something which it did very well. But more on that next time, stay tuned!

Alien:
Entertainment Value: 8/10
Plot: 8/10
Direction: 9/10
Total: 8.5/10

Blade Runner!

Third on the queue, the sci-fi and cult classic Blade Runner! Thank God too, since my first two reviews were both about movies I really didn’t like. While it’s fun to bash bad movies, it can leave a bad taste in your mouth. Good movies are like Listerine that way, they cleanse the critical palette, renew your faith in the visual medium. And as promised when I first decided to do reviews, movies based on books would receive special mention, especially movies that differed greatly from the books that inspired them. Truth be told, I had Blade Runner in mind when I made that statement, and a number of other Philip K Dick stories that went on to become films. In fact, the movies Minority Report, Paycheck, Impostor, The Adjustment Bureau, and Screamers were all movies based on Dick’s stories (which I plan to review soon enough!). And in every case, the films were quite different from the original works. You might even say it’s the Philip K Dick curse: to see your novels and short stories inspire film adaptations, but only after you’ve died and always with big changes! And without a doubt, Blade Runner was the most extreme case of this curse at work. In terms of plot, story, and especially tone and setting, the movie was vastly different from the novel. I’d say shame on the people who made this movie, but the truth is, it kind of worked in their favor…

(Background—>)
A few years back, I finally got around to reading Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? which was the original title of the novel that would be the basis for the Blade Runner movie. Having already seen the movie, I found the novel quite surprising, and at times, downright odd. But it’s message and style eventually won me over, as did the comical and satirical aspects that Dick made use of. Whereas the movie was set in a Los Angeles of the future – a noire, dystopian crowded cityscape marked by flying cars and massive video advertisements on the sides of skyscrapers – the novel takes place in a relatively depopulated post-apocalyptic LA where the only people who remain are those who are either too poor or don’t have the requisite IQ levels to get a pass off-world. These colonies get a passing mention in the movie in the form of ads being broadcast from flying zeppelins, but the focus is overwhelmingly on life in the city. Another major difference is the lack of satirical consumer goods that were in the original novel: emotional dialers that people use to set their moods and empathy boxes that are basically TV’s that provide an interactive emotional experience. Both were touches of genius, hilarious but also very interesting in how they help to advance the story.

But by far, the greatest difference between the novel and the movie was in terms of theme. Whereas the novel was very much concerned with the fine line between artifice and authenticity (the robots representing the former), the movie depicted the Replicants (the AI’s) as tragic figures who are given the gift of life, only to have it taken away in the form of slavery, four-year lifespans, and “retirement” (i.e. execution) if they break the rules. So really, the book was a touch more simple in how it perceived machines: as cold and heartless, characterized by false animals, false humans, and nuclear arms. The movie depicted this in more complicated terms, blurring the lines between artificial and authentic, human and machine. Whereas in the book we don’t much care about the Replicants, in the movie, they are about the only characters we sympathize with.

(Content—>)
The movie opens on the city of Los Angeles in the future, circa 2019, where a Blade Runner detective has gone to the Tyrell Corp (the maker of Replicants for off-world use) to issue a Voight-Kampff test to one of the employees. This test, we soon learn, measures emotional responses and is the only way to tell the difference between a Replicant and a human. This is because the latest models (known as Nexus 6’s) have surpassed humans in all aspects, but still have a hard time mimicking human emotions. The Tyrell Corporations motto is “more human than human” for a reason, you see. And for reasons of legality that are mentioned in the movie’s preamble, no Replicants are allowed on Earth, so anyone suspected of being one is required to take the test and then “retired” if they fail. Upon realizing why he’s being tested, the employee shoots the Blade Runner and escapes. Guess he failed!

We then move to the character of Rick Deckard (played by Harrison Ford), who is enjoying a bowl of noodles at a street vendor when a bunch of LA police men approach him and demand he come with them. In this scene, we are given a ground level view of the noire city, as well as a taste of cityspeak. This lingo is the language of the street in the Blade Runner universe, a mishmash of various tongues which is illustrated beautifully by the character of Gaff (played by Edward James Olmos). Deckard goes with them and is told by his old chief that he’s needed again, and despite his reluctance, he takes the job. As his boss says, “you’re not cop, you’re little people!”, meaning he really has no choice in the matter. What follows is an admittedly expository scene, but a totally justified one, where we learn who the “bad guys” are as well as some other pertinent facts. For example, we learn that in addition to their difficulty approximating human emotions, Nexus 6’s also have a four year lifespan that ensures that they will never be able to overcome this flaw. Too much time, too many memories, and they might become totally indistinguishable from the rest of us. Spine tingly!

Afterward, Deckard goes to the Tyrell corp to meet the CEO and learn what he can from them. Sidenote: I could be wrong but I think the set designers got an award for the design of this one building. Part sky scraper, part Ziggurat, totally awesome! Here, we meet not only Tyrell himself, but a Replicant named Rachael (played by Sean Young). She represents a new breed of machine specially created by Tyrell to test out a new idea: giving Replicants memories so they’ll have an easier time dealing with emotions. After running the Voight-Kampff test on her, Deckard is both intrigued and frightened by her, a feeling that haunts him for the rest of the movie, and that I believe is meant to represent the love-hate relationship humanity has with technology. What is also interesting is that she doesn’t yet know that she’s a machine, but once the test is done, she overhears Deckard talking to Tyrell and is shattered by the news.

The movie then splits between the Replicant party, led by a unit named Batty (Rutger Hauer) who is trying to find the men most directly responsible for their creation, and Deckard who is trying to find the Replicants and determine why they came to Earth in the first place. In between, there are the scenes that catalog the budding romance between Deckard and Rachael, who herself seems to be torn between her attraction to Deckard on the one hand, and disgust over what he does. This part of the story, more than anything, helps to illustrate the blurred line that exists between artificial and real. While a relationship between the two of them would certainly be considered taboo, neither of them can resist the allure of the other. Over time, Rachael appears to make peace with the fact that she is a machine, and Deckard seems to get over it as well (wink wink!)

Ultimately, Batty and what is left of his companions (because Deckard keeps killing them), make their way to Tyrell himself. Their whole purpose, we learn, was to find a way to extend their lives. What follows is, in my opinion, one of the best scenes in cinematic history. In the course of a very civilized conversation, Batty is told that there is no way to extend his life, and never was. His hopes, and everything they did in order to get to Earth and find Tyrell, were therefore in vain. Tyrell tries to comfort him by telling him that “the candle that burns half as long burns twice as bright.” He further tells him to let go of whatever guilt he harbors for all the things he did to get to Earth and see him, that he should “revel in his time”. But, overcome by anger and grief, Batty kills Tyrell and escapes from the building. One of the things that makes this scene so good is the fact that you genuinely get the feeling that a sort of father-son dynamic (or that of a man meeting his God) is taking place between them. In addition, you can feel the pain being exuded by Hauer as he kills Tyrell. Obviously it pains him to murder his “father”, but he’s got nothing to lose and just needs someone to blame for the fact that he’s going to die and is helpless to do anything about it.

Shortly thereafter, a confrontation ensues between Deckard and Batty at the Replicant’s hideout. And in spite of the fact that Deckard has now killed all his companions and he is poised to deliver the death blow, Batty chooses instead to save his life. His final scene, as he sits half-naked in the rain holding a dove, are yet another example of cinematic genius. “I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe…” he says, the rain dripping from his face. “Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhauser gate. All those moments will be lost in time… like tears in rain… Time to die.” So sad, even Harris Ford shed tears, and he’s fricking Han Solo and Indiana Jones! The police then show up, Gaff let’s him know that his girlfriend’s secret is out, but that he left her alone. As he says, “It’s a shame she won’t live. But then again, who does?” Whether or not he’s referring to the fact that she will eventually be hunted down, or to her four year lifespan, is still a bit of a mystery to me. But in either case, by the end, Deckard is finished with being a Blade Runner and runs off with Rachael, finding a measure of redemption through his relationship with her.

(Synopsis—>)
Blade Runner was panned by some critics who didn’t like the pacing of it, and my own wife remarked the first time she saw it that she felt a little let down. But of course she, and I imagine many of those critics, were expected an action movie and not the cinematic tour de force that it was. With a name like Blade Runner, you kinda sorta think it’s going to be an action flick. But upon seeing it for a second time, her feelings changed and she saw the depth it undeniably has. And despite doing poorly at the box office, time has been very good to this movie, elevating it to the status of a cult classic and an example of cinematic gold. In fact, over the years it has appeared on numerous top 100 lists, not only as one of the best sci-fi movies of all time, but also one of the best movies period. Who am to argue? And hell, why would I even want to? I love this movie!

Blade Runner:
Entertainment value: 7/10 (admittedly, bit slow in places)
Plot: 8/10
Direction: 10/10 baby!
Overall: 8.5/10

Independence Day!

Welcome back! For my second review, as promised, I will be covering the enduring (ahem) “classic” of Independence Day. Though it has been repeatedly panned by critics, is an undoubted cheese-fest and full of plot holes and Deus Ex Machina plot twists, I have to admit that I actually liked this movie when it first came out. Years later, it remains a sort of guilty pleasure for me, something I routinely poke fun at, but will still sit and watch. If nothing else, its rah rah tempo, stupid one-liners and over the top action are good for a laugh, and maybe a little excitement. Just be advised, taking this movie seriously is not advisable… But, since I gotta review it, I’m going to have to do just that. Wish me luck!

(Background—>)
Not that long ago, while discussing this movie over dinner, some friends mentioned that they thought this was a Michael Bay movie. They were wrong, of course. In truth, Roland Emmerich directed it, but the mistake was understandable. Much like Bay, Emmerich has a reputation for making movies that are all form and special effects, always lacking in depth, plot and character development. To illustrate, here are some of the movies he made after Independence Day: Godzilla (1998), The Patriot (2000), The Day After Tomorrow (2004) and 2012 (2009). In addition, he’s also been known to rip off other movies from time to time. Consider the Patriot, which was basically Braveheart meets the American Revolution, or Independence Day’s constant borrowing from other sci-fi movies: Star Wars, Close Encounters, War of the Worlds… the list goes on. And in many respects, his later directorial ventures were obvious attempts to recreate the cash cow that Independence Day turned out to be. Still, one can’t deny that things kind of came together for him with this movie. But putting its commercial success aside, let’s get down to dissecting this bad boy!

(Content—>)
The movie opens with a shot of the Apollo landing site, where a shadow slowly covers Old Glory. The shot then pans to Earth where alien ships begin to slowly move into the frame. With this one shot, the audience is exposed to two of Emmerich’s characteristic moves: using landmarks every chance he gets, and ripping off other franchises. Star Wars fans will immediately know what I’m talking about, remember how all the originals began with ships moving into frame from behind the camera? Yeah, well the same thing is happening here. Cut to Earth where dozens of characters, most of whom we’ll never see again, are busy talking about the objects moving into Earth orbit. Will Smith (a marine fighter pilot) the president (a former fighter pilot, played by Bill Pullman), and the crazy alcoholic played by Randy Quaid (another former fighter pilot!), and all his other characters are hurriedly introduced, showing how this event is being perceived by the different people all over the country. Here is yet another characteristic Emmerich move, putting way too many people into a movie, most of whom do nothing except say a line to move the plot along, then either die or are never heard from again.

Moving on, the tension begins to build as everyone begins to ask the obvious: what are they doing here? Naturally, we are shown multiple shots of people all over the world reacting, all of them stupid and cheesy. Some people are thrilled, some think they’ve brought Elvis back, and of course Quaid launches into a drunken rant about how they abducted him way back when (which is apparently why he’s a drunk in the first place). Then, in the movie’s first totally implausible twist, a cable repair man played by Jeff Goldblum discovers that the aliens are using Earth’s satellites to broadcast a countdown signal to all their ships, which are at that moment poised over Earth’s major cities (fans of the V series will recognize this is another case of Emmerich ripping off a respected sci-fi franchise!) Anyhoo, Goldblum discovers this, and brings it to the president, who he just happens to have an in with because he ex-wife works for him. He has to, you see, because somehow the government has missed all this. Yes, that’s right, the US government, in possession of the best scientific minds and cryptologists thanks to NASA, the NSA, the CIA, etc, failed to notice something a cable repair man picked up on. Emmerich himself seemed to recognize the implausibility of this and wrote in an explanation of sorts. Apparently the signal was “subtle”. Yeah, good to know the guy who installs HBO on your home entertainment system is smarter than the guys who send rockets into space and hunt terrorists for a living!

Incidentally, I should take this opportunity to mention all the expository dialogue which takes place within the first thirty minutes. As if it wasn’t clear already, we are made blatantly aware of the fact that Goldblum and his ex-wife still love each other, Will Smith is planning on marrying Vivica A Fox, that he wants to go into space (hint hint!) and that the president is a former soldier who can’t tell a lie! You know, when you have to actually tell the audience what they are supposed to be feeling, it kind of comes off as lazy. But that’s in keeping with Emmerich’s style I guess, pictures instead of words and a few quick and cheesy lines instead of slow, gradual character development. Always taking the short route, eh Emmerich?

In any case, Goldblum warns them, they take him seriously, and the countdown is on! The aliens are clearly going to attack… and then they do! Boom, blam, kapow! The aliens blow up all the landmarks they’ve chosen to hover over and that we are so familiar with. The Chrysler building, the White House, and… I dunno, downtown LA? Yeah, that shot was kind of devoid of landmarks, but I’m guessing blowing up the Hollywood sign just seemed too over the top for this movie. But showing the Statue of Liberty wrecked and toppled over into New York Harbor in the very next shot did not, apparently. What follows is a desperate fight scene where Will Smith’s fighter squadron attacks the LA ship, and in a scene totally ripped off from Star Wars: Return of the Jedi, the entire squadron has to do the whole “pull up, all craft pull up!” thing. Why? The ship has shields, wouldn’t you know? And they are about to fly right into them! Naturally, Smith survives, even if his whole squadron, including his wisecracking friend (played by Henry Connick Jr) gets killed. He even manages to take an alien prisoner, knocking him out between one-liners. “I wrecked your plane!” Whack! “Welcome to Earth!” “Now that’s what I call a close encounter!” One would think he would be a bit sad that all his friends and comrades just got their asses shot to hell, but whatever man, its Will Smith! People expect a certain amount of cool catch-phrases from the man and he has to deliver. It’s in his contract…

Back to Airforce One, where the president, Goldblum, his ex-wife, stereotype dad, and about a half dozen other cardboard stand-ins are talking, we learn that some people knew about these aliens already and kept quiet about it. Even as a teenager when I first saw this, I began thinking to myself “Oh God no, they wouldn’t!” But then, they did! Turns out, and in keeping with Emmerich’s tendency to take the quick and easy road, Area 51 really does exist, and that it really does house the bodies of those aliens who crash-landed at Roswell in 1947, along with their spacecraft. So naturally, that is where they go. Which also happens to be (holy coincidence!) where Will Smith is heading to at that very moment. Why he would be doing that is something not worth considering, that’d just complicate things at this point. I mean, its not like LA and Area 51 are that far apart, right? Actually, there’s about 400 km (or 250 miles) between them. And, as all Marines know, if you get into a dogfight with an alien and happen to take it prisoner, no matter where you are, you should start dragging its carcass to the secret airbase in the middle of the Nevada Desert. Just makes sense! Okay, and in another act of total contrivance, it just so happens that Randy Quaid and a caravan of Winnebagos are heading that way too. So basically, all of the main characters are converging on this one place! How convenient! As if that wasn’t enough, as soon as they all get there, Will Smith steals a helicopter, flies back to LA (what happened to all those alien space craft that were shooting their planes down?) and just happens to find Vivica A Fox and the First Lady, who just happened to find each other after the city got flattened. Just how small is LA anyway?

Then, more expository stuff happens. The prez talks to the weird scientist in charge (played by Brent Spiner, aka. Data from Star Trek TNG) about the aliens and their gear. They then do an alien autopsy on the one Smith captured, which goes horribly wrong when it wakes up and has no restraints to contend with (c’mon people!). And the prez talks to it and finds out they want Earth’s resources because “they’re like locusts”. This is just one of many shallow environmental statements made by this movie, but I digress. This prompts them to try and nuke one of the ships, but wouldn’t you know it, those darn shields are impervious to thermonuclear weapons too! So Goldblum, after yet another expository speech where Judd talks to him about keeping the faith, comes up with an idea. He decides he’s going to infect the alien ship with a computer virus! Not only that, he’s going to fly into the alien mothership, Trojan Horse style, along with Will Smith who just happens to know how to fly the recovered alien spacecraft now (for no other reason than because he saw one in action) and upload the virus there and then set off a nuke to disorient them. Where do I start to explain all the things that are totally weak and crappy about this climax?

Well, for starters, it’s yet another rip-off, this time of HG Wells’ War of the Worlds, where the alien invaders were brought down by actual viruses. But more importantly, there’s the sheer implausibility of the whole idea! For example, are we really to believe that a cable repair man, regardless of how much time he spent at MIT, could design a computer virus that would be capable of disabling alien technology? And are we really to believe that Will Smith can fly an alien spacecraft simply because he saw “how it maneuvers”? And let’s not forget, the ship is 50 years old at this point, you gotta figure the aliens have transponders or some such thing on their ships. How else would they keep track of them? You’d have to think that they’d see it coming and notice it was reported missing 50 years ago and get a little suspicious. But to ask these questions at this point in the movie would be pointless. Hopefully everyone has realized its just easier not to take it seriously. In any case, everything hinges on their ability to get onto the mothership and upload this virus (wait, how did they even know they could get onto it? Never mind!) and on the ability of the US to coordinate a worldwide counter-attack while the shields are down. Again, Emmerich manages to acknowledge the absurdity of all this by having one of his characters (in this case, the jagoff Secretary of Defense) expresses all kinds of doubts. Emmerich promptly shuts those down by having the prez fire the man, mainly because he’s a jagoff! But then again, even Goldblum has his doubts, but Emmerich dismisses them too: “You really think you can fly that thing?” he asks. “You really think you can do all that bullshit you just said?” Nuff said!

In any case, in spite of some predictable road bumps designed to keep the tension up, the plan works. The prez decides to lead the attack… Why? Because he’s a pilot, remember? Not to mention a cardboard cut-out hero. Naturally, he gives a speech that is blatantly American, though it attempts to be international in tone. Yeah, America’s saving the world, so from now on July 4th will be a global holiday. Yay, American culture conquers the world by saving it! Woo… Oh, and Quaid will be flying too, mainly because all the characters have to be swept up in the same plot tsunami again. Everything seems like it might fail when, whattayaknow, Quaid flies his plane into the alien ship’s gun. He gets some personal and comical revenge by killing the bastards that abducted him, and the ship blows up. Now forgetting how stupidly implausible this is (the way to bring down the alien ship is basically the equivalent of plugging the barrel of the gun with your finger???), its also horribly over the top. Of course its the guy who has a family and has been a deadbeat dad up until this point that’s going to redeem himself in a final act of self-sacrifice! But the funniest thing is, how quickly everyone forgets about him. “You should be proud of your father,” says one of the military men. “I am,” says the eldest son, and that’s it. No grief, no anger, no denial. He’s gone, I’m cool!

To make matters even more implausible, Smith and Goldblum somehow manage to survive, despite the fact that they blew up the alien mother ship with a nuke that sent them hurling towards Earth from the resulting shock wave. And then, in the desert, the balance of the main characters watch flaming debris fall through the atmosphere and Will Smith says to his new son: “I promised you some fireworks, boy!” Yeah, nothing like genocide and falling debris, some so big it could take out an entire city, to put you in the festive spirit! I mean c’mon, I know they were trying to exterminate you, but you don’t wipe out an entire race and not feel just the slightest degree of regret or remorse in the process! But again, I’m making the mistake of taking this movie seriously. The big, over the top ending is entertaining, if nothing else, and the big fireworks display only drives the blatant Americanism home. So what the hell! Cue over the top music, and roll credits…

(Synopsis—>)
As I’ve said already in this review, this movie is a guilty pleasure for me. It’s fun, rewatchable, and always good for a laugh. In fact, you might say it was a success for exactly those reasons, and maybe that’s what Emmerich himself was going for. Even if the plot is thin as paper, the characters cardboard cut-outs and the dialogue so cheesy it makes you want to laugh out loud, no one can deny that it was some pretty harmless fun. But if his subsequent movies are taken into account, you begin to see a certain pattern in Emmerich’s movies that are genuinely bothersome. For instance, his constant use and destruction of famous landmarks and his far too many characters – most of whom are, at best, one-dimensional, at worst, total stereotypes.

There’s also the massive plot holes, contrivances, and over the top action sequences. But worst of all, it just seems like all of these are shallow attempts at evoking emotion and the goal is just to get to the next action sequence. Every movie he’s made since has these exact same elements, and it just seems lazy. Everything always feels rushed, minimal time being dedicated to establishing tension, developing characters, or creating back story before something blows up and people start to die. The destroying of landmarks, killing off hundreds of minor characters at once, relying on one-liners and cheesy dialogue to make people care, it just seems like he’s just taking the easy route.

In addition, all his movies have the same central theme to them: the lone hero, the outcast or underestimated soul, who somehow knows more than all the experts and manages to see the threat coming, but is ignored. Ultimately, he saves the day, and course, there’s always the bit about the girl he loved, lost, and will win back once he saves the day. While this is a rather weak basis for a main character, they are typically the only one in his scripts that ever rise above the status of total caricature.

So, go ahead Emmerich. Count your millions and keep making crap fests. You’re hurting no one, so I can bear you no ill will. And besides, you made me laugh and kept me entertained with this first crap fest, so I guess I owe you something. Independence Day: harmless fun, but check your brain at the door.

ID:
Entertainment Value: 8/10!
Plot: 2/10
Direction: 3/10
Total: 6/10