Adam's Top 10 Genre Films - Part Two
The list concludes. Spoilers ahead.
In deep space, the hatch of an escape vessel is forced open. The dark interior contains the body of Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver), held in suspended animation. She is revived and told that decades have elapsed while she was unconscious, since entering the state after her encounter with the sleek, strange, predatory life form that killed her crewmates on the Nostromo. But the planet where that ship brought the creature aboard has since been colonized, and word from the inhabitants has ceased mysteriously. Soon Ripley will agree to accompany an armed contingent to the colony. She only just woke up, and will plunge headlong back into a nightmare.
The science fiction world that James Cameron presents in Aliens is a believable one. The technology, settings, and armament on display are not distant from that of our modern world. There is a rigorous logic in its futuristic extrapolation - a space faring mankind that rings true. Take, for instance, the power loader, a large mechanical suit with expanding, rotating clamps at the ends of its arms for lifting cargo. It's stuttering movements give it a sense of weight, and the sounds which accompany those movements have the quality of actual mechanisms at work. It is painted a cautionary yellow, and flashing safety beacons adorn its chassis, both touches that might be forgotten in a lesser film. Here that level of detail is ever present.
But a believable world is not necessarily a welcoming one. Even when in its subdued moments, the photography evokes an unease with cold lighting or the stark, utilitarian interiors of military spacecraft. A sense of dread pervades. Eventually these more conventional surroundings are replaced by the labyrinthine corridors of the derelict colony facility. In its darkness hide alien drones and their cavernous nest. Within this setting the film unleashes a potent combination of frenetic, skin crawling terror and intense, heart pounding action. Both of these elements are executed with absolute precision, each intensely thrilling in their way. One feeds off of the other, the horror being relieved momentarily as protagonists fight back, only for the futility of their efforts to be exposed in the next wave of fright. Stretches of maddening anticipation of violence giving way to the madness of violence itself. Accompanying Ripley on this tour of duty through a sci-fi Vietnam is an indelible group of soldiers. Stoic Corporal Hicks (no one bests Michael Biehn at portraying stoicism), tough Vasquez, vibrant Hudson, charismatic Apone, and every other member of the team leave an impression. Lance Henriksen's Bishop is an unforgettable portrayal of a distinct, soft-spoken, dutiful, deeply sympathetic artificial human.
None of those who set down on moon LV-426 and enter what remains of the base there are prepared for what awaits them, except perhaps Ripley herself. She has figuratively been here before. The group quickly finds themselves stranded, and atmospheric storms, failing communications transmitters, and rapidly dwindling resources conspire against them at every turn. Things go from bad to worse not because characters take a foolish wrong step, but despite their taking all of the right ones. In this way the film strikes a subtle vein of existential horror. The characters are smart and they plan correctly but harsh reality undoes every effort they make to escape. Cameron is not lazy about the challenges he puts before his characters, and he expertly makes us doubt the possibility of their survival.
But the most dire and deadly threat facing our protagonists is the horde of extra terrestrial grim reapers which hides in every dark crevice waiting to strike. Their attacks are as relentless and unforgiving as the action of the film itself. The marines are well armed, but firing on the creatures puts you at risk of being splashed with their corrosive blood. Even their wounds wound you. The biology of the aliens is a primally unsettling marriage of the arthropodal (skeletal, armored, sleek), and the slimy and membranous (slimy, dripping, toxic). All of our natural aversions, here wrapped up into one organism. Luckily they are brought to life by superb, timeless practical effects craftsmanship, allowing them to reach their maximum on - screen potential to frighten. In keeping with the consistent resourcefulness of the production, only six or so creature suits were fabricated, and these are used to represent the overwhelming, seemingly inexhaustible multitude which slowly wears down the protagonists.
Somehow amidst these monsters, in this beyond hostile environment, a small girl named Newt has managed to survive. She has an instinctual understanding of the xenomorph's habits and a mental map of the facility's safer areas. In her, Ripley sees a fellow survivor and at length a surrogate daughter. Beyond maternal instinct, though, is the desperate companionship of two people caught in a war zone. Weaver's contribution to the film's emotional component cannot be overestimated. She possesses the authentic, vulnerable bravery and fortitude of someone persevering through a truly hellish onslaught. Her interactions with Newt convey a light humor and sweetness, an easing of their common trauma. The two of them, along with Hicks and Bishop, suggest a makeshift family, and cements for the film a core of humanity that increases the audience's fear for the characters' fates.
Symmetrically, there is another, opposing maternal force at work in the lower levels of the structure, one just as devoted to its children, and she is brought to life by one of the pinnacle achievements in the history of special effects. Ripley descends into the bottom levels of the colony base, into the deepest, living tunnels of the alien nest, where few traces of human architecture are still visible. Here, the imposing Queen Alien is revealed in a slow pan from the abdomen, busy laying eggs, to the multi-limbed body, and finally terminating at the enormous flared crest of the head. The shot is a perfectly forboding introduction, and is magnified by the absence of music. When James Horner's score does engage, though, it is of the most propulsive, edge of your seat kind imaginable.
The first time I saw Aliens, I was a kid quite unprepared for the powerful impact it would have upon me. My father had rented it for us to watch, and when it was over, I couldn't stop shuddering - literally shaking from exhilaration, terror, and relief. I couldn't sleep when I laid down, every shadow waiting to unleash a monster with acidic blood. I'll never forget the image of their silhouetted forms unfurling in the foreground after the marines awaken them. This wasn't solely because the movie was scary, though. I was wired because it was also the scariest movie that I'd ever loved this much. Kinetically propulsive and visceral, it also had a cinematic power that was equally impressive. Though I might not have been able to exactly articulate this at the time, my subconscious likely absorbed it on some level.
Just as important, the movie was also emotionally impactful. It had put me through the ringer with characters I'd come to care about. They had become fictional companions, and I had shared in their fear. Aliens had reached me in the way that it did - that it still does - because while simultaneously being a flawless two hour I.V. drip of cinematic adrenaline, it is also a masterwork by a master filmmaker. By sheer will and a meticulous determination that is present in every frame, James Cameron achieved the unthinkable. He had actually delivered a sequel to a classic that fulfilled the impossible demands of that task. In so doing, he also created one of the greatest sci-fi films ever made, one that leaves you exhausted in the best possible way.
Golgo 13: The Professional
Many stories centering on assassins concern the thresholds of the protagonist's conscience. They have grown weary of their immoral vocation, or refuse a job that is too deplorable, putting them into conflict with their employer. They've had a change of heart, a moral epiphany, and no longer will they agree to take human life for profit. Golgo 13: The Professional is not one of these stories.
The assassin known by the code name Golgo 13 (and sometimes as Duke Togo) first appeared in a Japanese comics magazine in 1968, and his creator, writer and artist Takao Saito, has produced stories continually since - as of this writing, he still is. This makes Golgo 13 the longest running manga still in circulation, and despite this its central character remains extremely mysterious. This holds true in the film as well - his origins have only been speculated about by other characters, and he himself rarely speaks or expresses anything telling. But we get to know him in perhaps a more meaningful way simply by observing him at his deadly craft. We see that he covers his tracks obsessively and that he is an almost superhuman marksman. He indulges in sex with various women and is unshakably dedicated to delivering on his contracts. Saito has compared him to a Japanese salaryman, exhibiting the same endurance and patience. He represents loyalty to the quiet, precise execution of a task. Action over words.
Golgo 13's most important characteristic, though, may be his lack of morality. He will kill anyone obstructing his contract, or who could be a witness, without a second thought. Sexual partners are mere objects to him. I struggled with these elements of the film in its early scenes, as I wasn't at the time very acquainted with the idea of a main character who wasn't at least passingly righteous. This was perhaps my earliest introduction to the idea of an unethical protagonist, and it added to the thrill of the viewing experience, though the movie is hardly lacking in excitement.
Designed as an adult, unrestrained, action packed crime thriller, the film is overflowing with sex and violence, and visually designed to appropriate that tone. Character designs lean toward the realistic, including human faces and anatomical proportions. Vehicles, and particularly firearms hold closely our actual world, though there are a few villains who have more exotic appearances and abilities. Most of director Osamu Dezaki's aesthetic has a grounded, photographic sensibility more in tune with live action films of the 70's and 80's, but shot through with splashes of psychedelia, strange camerawork, and still images. The content, look, and tone of the movie are all fairly mature, and further convinced me that animation is a medium like any other, capable of telling any kind of story, or showing any kind of idea, with the added advantage of full visual control. It was also just fun and enlightening for my teenage self to watch something THIS grown up, via the Trojan horse of Japanese animation. I long for a day when American animation expands its own horizons to allow for such freedom.
Golgo 13 quickly became - and remains - one of my favorite fictional characters of all time. In fact he's probably very high on the list. But why, if he's so immoral, so merciless? Perhaps there is an appeal in someone who is self reliant and lives on his own terms. He has no care for the world at large or its laws and makes no apologies for it. His actions are the result of pure, focused intent. Fully self aware and without doubt or regret, he is the philosophically independent assassin. He's also extremely skilled at what he does, and though what he does may be wrong, one can admire the work ethic, the appeal of someone who is very good at their job. The allure of the master craftsman. Another reason that I love the character is the result of how we are introduced to him through this very movie.
When I first saw it, I started out wondering if I could get behind a cold blooded killer as the lead, and I ended up cheering him on without reservation by the end. This is because of who opposes him in the narrative. The opening sees Golgo 13 assassinating the adult son of wealthy and influential businessman Leonard Dawson. In retaliation, Dawson uses his considerable power to track down and kill the assassin, utilizing every branch of law enforcement and the military to do so. He attempts to kill Golgo 13 while the latter is fulfilling another contract. The assassin makes one of his signature ''impossible'' shots, only to afterward find an enormous contingent waiting to open fire on him. He is shot, but escapes alive. That having failed, Dawson widens his search to the underworld for hired killers of his own. He is consumed with revenge, and to the frightening, towering, sinewy contortionist mercenary known as Snake, he offers his grown daughter for payment. Despite her protests, the deal is struck. The movie does not shy away from evil, and here any remaining sympathy for a grieving father is erased.
Dawson has become something worse than the man who killed his son, having traversed the distance between grieving father and disgusting megalomaniac. Golgo 13 sets out to put an end to the wealthy devil, but it won't be easy. Through a feat of almost perverse storytelling, one is rooting for the assassin at this point, as he ascends Dawson's skyscraper floor by floor, heading for the man himself. He faces a myriad of deadly traps and challenges that have been placed in his way, including armed helicopters brought to life by a kitschy example of primitive, early CGI. My favorite of the waiting threats is a duo of hired killers by the names of Gold and Silver, whose briefly recounted origin is rich and intimidating. They put even Golgo 13 on the defensive in an intensely visceral sequence of hand to hand combat. But the sum total of what Dawson throws at him may not be enough. Right up until the movie's nihilistic last minute plot twist, we know that there's only one, inevitable ending. Dawson has made repeated attempts on the life of the world's most formidable assassin, and there is a grave price to pay for that. Just as impertinent, he interrupted the man's work.
''You'll forgive me if I don't stay around to watch. I just can't cope with the freaky stuff.'' - Barry Convex (Les Carlson)
David Cronenberg's Videodrome constantly presents the viewer with dual worlds. The world comprised of video footage found within the the world of the movie itself, and the realms of mind and body. The film's opening sees Max Renn (James Woods) awakened by a programmed, taped reminder playing from his VCR, an immediate insinuation of video imagery into the sharp, subdued cinematography of Mark Irwin. The recording features a female co worker speaking to him as though she is in the room, telling him to get up and briefing him on his schedule. But perhaps, fundamentally, she is in the room. Max runs a small television broadcast station known for airing hyper violent and erotic content. He states that this tendency toward salacious material is economically driven - the only way he can drum up enough viewership to survive against legitimate networks.
Lately, he's been searching the airwaves for something more harsh and visceral than usual, something to really grab viewers. The character is a partial surrogate for the director in this way, wanting to present new and unusual experiences to his audience. Cronenberg overwhelmingly succeeds at that here. He is my favorite filmmaker, and the daring, transgressive content, wildly imaginative images, and ambitious Cartesian ideas found in Videodrome are a primary reason for that.
Using a pirated TV satellite dish, Max stumbles across a violent, taboo program called Videodrome. His search for the signal's source leads him to Brian O'blivion, specifically to the library of video cassettes that house his thoughts. The late O'blivion (Jack Creley) recorded what is essentially the contents of his conscious mind on tape, achieving a kind of immortality. His daughter, Bianca (Sonja Smits), curates the catalog, allowing him to continue to make appearances on television, but always via a television screen. O'blivion had experimented with television transmission and discovered a signal that caused changes in those exposed to it. He developed a brain tumor and began experiencing transcendental thoughts and hallucinations after being exposed himself. But, as he explains to Max from his video afterlife, the tumor wasn't causing these visions, but was caused by them. In fact, the growth in his brain was not a tumor at all, but the vestigial stage of a new organ growing in the body to accommodate the increased perception triggered by the signal. Perception guides human reality, and this expanded consciousness incited a very real biological change in it's host.
Max was also exposed to the signal when it was picked up by his satellite. It turns out that this was the intended result of a conspiracy by O'blivion's enemy, Barry Convex (Les Carlson) to use both Max and his TV station to control the signal, and by extension, human consciousness, for their own ends. It is no accident that the villain in a David Cronenberg movie is out to control and repress thought. Max's own biological changes have already manifested by this point, as a stomach rash (cleverly introduced many scenes earlier) which has deepened into a large, scar-like vertical orifice. The Freudian gash can be used to hide a pistol, which is then itself transformed into a weapon whose projectiles cause their targets to explode from rapid tissue growth. A cancer gun.
Unfortunately for Max, the slit can also be a receptacle for videotapes, and these can be used to control his actions when inserted. He has become a blood and guts VCR. The mind can change the body, and video is the new format of the mind. Convex thus uses Max as an agent with some success, until he is sent after Bianca O'blivion. She, like her father is a disciple of The New Flesh, an underground group opposed to Convex, believing in the transcendental freedom offered by the signal, and its potential for humanity. Because if ideas can now be recorded onto tape, if the mind can overcome reality and transform the biological self, can we step beyond the body altogether? The new flesh awaits...
Gamera 2: Attack of Legion
The daikaiju (giant monster) subgenre properly began in 1954 with Ishiro Honda's Gojira, and four decades later, it would reach an artistic pinnacle with Shusuke Kaneko's Gamera trilogy. Gamera, a gargantuan, bipedal, flying turtle with tusks, first appeared on film 11 years after Godzilla, and became popular in his own right, starring in several films before Daiei, the studio that produced them, collapsed. But Kaneko and his collaborators would bring him shrieking back to life for three incredible films that are no less than a kaiju fan's dream come true.
The basic story of Attack of the Legion is not terribly original: a meteor brings a hostile alien life form to earth, and Gamera must fight it. But it's the intelligence injected into every aspect of that concept which not only elevates the formula, but validates it. I am a staunch defender of formula, especially as relates to subgenres. There are a limited number of archetypal stories to tell in general, and the constraints of a very specific mode of fiction, like the kaiju genre, make repetition of certain elements inevitable. In fact, the reason that I have picked this film to represent the trilogy is because it proves that formula isn't the enemy. Attack of the Legion doesn't reject tradition, it shows it at it's best, honoring what came before, while reinvigorating it. But make no mistake, each movie of the trio is spectacular.
One of the strokes of brilliance by the filmmakers, including master screenwriter Kazunori Ito (Ghost in the Shell, Patlabor 1 and 2), is the way in which the threat of the alien organism established, step by step. The creatures are called by the Biblical name Legion for their numbers. Electrical activity disrupts their ability to communicate with each other, for instance, so they attack large cities, seeing them as a threat. Once they've taken root in a population center, they foster the sprouting of an enormous plant with which they share a symbiotic relationship. The presence of the plant increases oxygen levels to a degree that is toxic to humans - a kind of natural terraforming. Once the plant blooms, it will proceed to launch a seed into space, carrying itself and Legion to a new location - it is likely that this projectile was the ''meteorite'' which brought them to our world at the opening of the film. Unfortunately, as if all of this wasn't dangerous enough, the launching of the seed is in an explosive detonation capable of leveling many city blocks.
When the movie's protagonists discover all of this, they realize that the aliens are an enemy to the world not because of any malicious intention, but because every instinctual step they take to assure their own natural survival endangers ours. We're enemies to each other because coexistence on this planet is a biological impossibility. This genius take on the alien invader trope liberates the story from moral implications and establishes the film's central conflict as one of a primarily scientific nature. Most of the film's main characters are scientists, and are presented in a refreshingly positive light. But if they are going to defeat Legion, they are going to need a big reptilian helping hand.
Perhaps better than any other filmmakers, Kaneko and special effects director Shinji Higuchi understand how to best capture the monumental scope inherent in a battle between immense, towering creatures. They often photograph them from far away, which gives context to their size in relationship to the surroundings, and also mimics how most onlookers would probably witness the events. In closer angles, the use of the foreground is paramount. There is hardly a single shot without some form of architecture, debris, or smoke layered into the image, because no matter how good an effect may look, enveloping and obscuring it with familiar visual touchstones keeps it grounded. The photography itself has a richness that is rare in the genre, with atmospheric lighting giving appropriately grandiose flare to the large scale of its subjects. One shot sees a charred Gamera, having gone into a frozen healing state, lit by a setting sun. Another sees his foe standing in the foreground of a wall of flame.
Of course, these monsters look very impressive on their own. Gamera is availed of most of the predatory aspects of reptiles, boasting a strikingly massive sharply crested shell, claws on his hands, and even a thorny talon jutting from each elbow. He also flies by emitting glowing jet fire from the openings in his carapace, and can become a spinning missile while aloft. The heroic monster is capable of spitting extremely destructive fireballs, and may have even more surprises up his sleeve. For Gamera's massive size, he is nonetheless dwarfed by his enemy. In addition to being a destructive swarm, Legion counts a giant among its members. Truly alien in appearance, it may be the most visually striking kaiju ever seen on film. A sort of bony, upright arthropod, its body is perfectly symmetrical. The trunk, or torso, is evenly arrayed with multiple, skeletal, limbs, almost giving the impression that it is wearing a crab on its back. The head resembles a large blade, with a long protuberance pointing outward from directly between its luminescent blue eyes. This ''blade'' splits open bilaterally to reveal a core of electromagnetic energy that can cast out damaging bolts. The character is a peerless triumph of visual design, an abstract sculpture carved by extraterrestrial evolution.
The monster showdown works because of the thoroughness with which the film establishes both the stakes and the verisimilitude of the threat. If Legion propagates, we die - it's as simple as that, and the tenacity that Legion shows in following its instincts rings with eerily natural truth. It has a primal impetus to fulfill a life cycle that is fatal to us, and that urge cannot be bargained with or coerced. Our hand is forced. We are shown the terrible consequence of Gamera failing to fully stop the launching of one of the seeds in the city of Sendai. This also shows that Gamera can be beaten. Another reason we're given to be invested is the likeability of the film's human characters, all of whom feel relatable thanks to understated performances by the cast. One can't help but sympathize with them as struggle to contribute what they can of their scientific knowledge and believably human bravery to solving the crisis. We don't want them come to harm, which draws us into the fight. Obviously, none of these storytelling techniques are new. Seeing them executed so masterfully in this classic monster movie, one can understand why they've lasted so long in the first place.
The Road Warrior
When one thinks of the zombie genre, what comes to mind very probably owes its existence to George Romero. The director of Night of the Living Dead and its sequels established all of the tropes and conventions that continue to define films and television shows centered around shambling undead. Thankfully, he and his influence are usually given the acknowledgement that they are due. Now, think of the post - apocalyptic wasteland. A desert where people clothed in odd attire or armor - culled together from whatever could be found - drive vehicles similarly built from stray mechanical remnants. They are caught in a violent fight for survival against savage neo - barbarians who have shed their humanity. The archetypal post - apocalypse, as most of us think of it, owes its creation to director George Miller and his collaborators. They showed us an unforgettable vision of the world after the world in this 1981 sequel to Mad Max.
The phrase ''pure cinema'' essentially refers to films which express themselves primarily or totally through attributes exclusive to the medium. Obviously this includes all of the possible manifestations of imagery and composition, as well as movement and editing, by which time itself can be manipulated. A simpler interpretation would be to state that the more a film adheres to this principle, the easier it would be to understand if watched without sound. The Road Warrior shows instead of tells. Max (Mel Gibson) has only sixteen lines of dialogue, and yet nothing could be added to improve his tough, charismatic performance. What he does is what matters, and actions alone are valuable in the desolate outback where the movie takes place. The subject and concept aren't just served by the pure cinema approach, they demand it, idea and form melded into a single, beautiful, action - packed whole.
The striking natural beauty of the film is the work of master cinematographer Dean Semler. The grit and texture of every rusted car and every weathered leather boot is surrounded by an expanse of sky and desert that is immense, desolate and breathtaking. Sequences shot at dusk burn into the mind. Without civilization to restrict it, the land itself reasserts dominance. Inseparable from how the images look is the way they move. The film communicates through sequences of speeding vehicular carnage. Skeletal buggies, burly slapdash assault machines on four wheels, and a heavily armored semi truck careen wildly through the barren expanse. They ram, sideswipe, and crash into one another, all while their drivers fire arrows and bullets, and attempt to leap from one moving vehicle to another in order to overtake the enemy. It is a showcase for incredible, wildly treacherous stunt work, and despite the level of simultaneous activity, the viewer is never confused.
The editing on display in Miller's sequences is an object lesson in how to handle cinematic action. Spacial geography is maintained throughout, even when the events on display seem capable of exploding through the frame. Knowing where the participants and their vehicles are at a given moment allows one to follow the story of the battle, and remain invested. The relentless rhythm of the proceedings gives the impression that anything can go wrong at any moment. The frequency of sudden death validates this feeling, raising the tension. In the era before CGI, the devastating collisions of both man and machine are largely real, and they are captured here in a way that evokes their full impact.
Action sequences may be the most thorough, appropriate use of the artistic tools of cinema. They utilize motion, and the relationship of the camera to objects within an environment. They engage the capability of editing to build an interaction between images and time which conveys an idea or story. Because action is a story. And George Miller's indelible, thrilling, haunting masterpiece proves it to be as legitimate a means to tell a story as any. A story about the perseverance of humanity in a society gone over the edge, of doing a courageous thing in defiance of savagery. The tale of a man named Max, who recovered his better self, who drove an eighteen wheeler on a deadly mission for a group of people in need. People who would forever after remember him as the Road Warrior.