Category Archives: Sci-Fi

But not to last: Blade Runner 2049 ***½

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on October 14, 2017)

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Empathy, evidently, existed only within the human community, whereas intelligence to some degree could be found in every phylum and order including the arachnida.

—from Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick

What truly defines “being human”? Philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre wrote that “existence precedes and rules essence”. One must assume that he was talking about human beings, because after all, he was one, offering his (“its”?) definition as to what “being human” is.

Which begs this question: what sparks “existence”? To which people usually answer some “thing” or some “one”. I opened my 2015 review of Neill Blomkamp’s Chappie with this quote from mathematician and cryptologist I.J. Good (an associate of Alan Turing):

Let an ultra-intelligent machine be defined as a machine that can far surpass all the intellectual activities of any man…however clever. Since the design of machines is one of these intellectual activities, an ultra-intelligent machine could design even better machines; there would then unquestionably be an ‘intelligence explosion’, and the intelligence of man would be left far behind. Thus, the first ultra-intelligent machine is the last invention that man need ever make, provided that the machine is docile enough to tell us how to keep it under control.

Such questions and suppositions form the core of Blade Runner, Ridley Scott’s 1982 sci-fi noir about a dystopian near-future where the presence of commercially manufactured “replicants” (near-humans with specialized functions and a built-in 4-year life span) has become routine.

Should there ever be a need to ascertain whether “someone” is a human or a replicant, a procedure called the Voight-Kampf Test is administered. In essence, this series of questions (in conjunction with careful monitoring of autonomic physical responses like heart rate) determines whether or not the subject has empathy for others.

In one scene, “blade runner” Deckard (Harrison Ford), whose job is to hunt down and “retire” aberrant replicants, reluctantly indulges the creator/CEO of the company that manufactures them by giving the test to the CEO’s assistant (a woman Deckard has no reason to suspect as being anything but human).

When “Rachel” (Sean Young) does turn out to be a replicant, the usually unflappable Deckard is agog; once he’s informed “she” (an advanced prototype) is completely unaware she’s not an employee of the company but rather its “product”, he’s perplexed. “How could it not know what it is?” he demands.

In The Philosophy of Neo-Noir (edited by Mark T. Conard), there is an essay with a unique angle on the film by Judith Barad, called “Blade Runner and Sartre”. She writes:

Although the replicants of Blade Runner are engineered to act and reason as humans, they can’t choose their own essence. This inability is, in Sartre’s view, what differentiates any manufactured being from humans. The replicants fulfill a certain function; as members of a series, they didn’t choose their essence. […]

To be human means to create oneself–the emotions one chooses to feel, the beliefs one chooses to retain, and the actions one chooses to perform. […]

In Sartre’s terms, Deckard thinks of replicants as things that exist only to fulfill the essence, the purpose created for them by human beings. At the same time, he is unaware that he has allowed his society to program this belief, a prejudice, into his mind. […]

Blade Runner and Sartre urge us to escape this programming and become authentically human.

If you are a fan of the film, you are likely aware that the two biggest unanswered questions left hanging in 1982 were 1) Was Rachel’s “authentically human” sense of empathy programmed…or was she truly the breakthrough that her “creator” seemed to infer by his cryptic comment that she was “special”? and 2) the biggie I’ve seen people nearly come to blows over: Was Deckard himself a replicant?

Questions…

I imagine the most burning question you have about Denis Villeneuve’s Blade Runner 2049 is: “Are the ‘big’ questions answered?” Don’t ask me. I just do eyes. Which is to say, this is a difficult film to review without risking spoilers, so I am not going into any great detail on plot points (the least I can do for those of you who have made it this far into my “review” and are starting to worry you’ve stumbled into a Philosophy 101 class).

I can assure you that I am not a replicant, because when I heard someone was going to tackle a sequel to an idiosyncratic sci-fi  classic with a rabid cult following like Blade Runner, I was fully prepared to have empathy for whoever ended up at the helm. Ridley Scott was originally slated to do it himself, but for whatever reason or circumstance ended up as producer, with Villeneuve directing. I can’t help but speculate that he felt the same pressure that Peter Hyams surely experienced making 2010: The Year We Make Contact.

As implied in the title, the story is set 30 years after the events in the original film. The protagonist is a blade runner named “K” (Ryan Gosling) who, like Deckard, works for the LAPD. Newer-model replicants are more docile (like electric sheep?). However, there are still enough of the older, buggier models lurking out there in the ether to warrant keeping the blade runners on active duty. This is evidenced right out of the gate, as we watch K being left with no choice but to “retire” a truculent gentleman out in the boonies.

When K detects skeletal remains on the recently retired replicant’s property, it sets off an investigation that catches the keen interest of many parties, from K’s commanding officer at the Department (Robin Wright) to the powerful CEO of the monopolistic android-manufacturing Tyrell Corporation (Jared Leto). And yes, one Rick Deckard as well (Harrison Ford). What ensues actually has less in common with the original Blade Runner…as it does with Children of Men, Logan’s Run, and Angel Heart.

Bad news first? The story line is not as deep or complex as the film makers undoubtedly want you to think. The narrative is essentially a 90 minute script (by original Blade Runner co-screenwriter Hampton Fancher and Michael Green), stretched to a 164-minute run time.

However, the “language” of film being two-fold (aural and visual), I must say the visual language of Blade Runner 2049 is mesmerizing. This is due in no small part to the artful eye of cinematographer Roger Deakins (Sid and Nancy, Stormy Monday, Fargo, A Beautiful Mind, Skyfall, et.al), who really knocks it out of the park.

While I alluded to the lengthiness of the film (and you will need to clear some time), I was never bored. In fact, I savored the leisurely pace and immersive visuals; so many sci-fi films these days needlessly assault the eardrums and are so jarringly flash-cut as to induce vertigo (keep in mind that cerebral sci-fi films like Kubrick’s 2001 and Tartovsky’s Solaris were panned upon initial release as being slow-moving or overlong…like this 1000+ word review).

Gosling delivers another one of his Steve McQueen-ish performances (which some might call deadpan…but it works). In addition to Ford (who has 15 minutes or so of screen time), there is a cameo that should delight fans of the original (and his origami skills have not waned). Leto’s choices are…interesting; they may have better served him as a Bond villain; ditto for his “henchwoman” (played with aplomb by Sylvia Hoeks), recalling Famke Janssen’s “Xenia Onatopp” in Goldeneye. Ana de Armas does the best she can as a holographic companion that feels lifted from Steve De Jarnatt’s 1988 film Cherry 2000.

All in all, Villeneuve has made a sequel that faithfully adheres to the ethos and the physical universe of the original film. It doesn’t necessarily add anything to the original; nor on the other hand does it diminish its “stand-alone” status. You may not find answers to all of those questions I discussed earlier, but you could find yourself still thinking about this film long after the credits roll.

After all, as the acrobatic “Pris” declared in the 1982 film (by way of quoting Descartes), “I think, therefore I am.” Isn’t that what makes us human? OK, that character was a replicant, but that’s beside the point. At least she “lived”, right?

But then again, who does?

The art of being: R.I.P. Harry Dean Stanton

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on September 17, 2017)

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Harry Dean Stanton died on November 15. Who? You know…the guy who was in the thing. He was 91 years old, but that’s a moot point. He fell out of his crib careworn and world-weary. That is not intended to be a flip observation. He was timeless, and will remain so. Most people couldn’t pick him out of a lineup; but as soon as you put him in front of a camera, you could not miss the story in his eyes. It was the story of humanity.

He was born in Kentucky in 1926; his mother was a cook and his father a barber and tobacco farmer. He served in WW 2 as a Navy cook (he was on a tank landing ship in the Battle of Okinawa), and after the war cut his teeth as an actor working with the Pasadena Playhouse.

He made his screen debut in 1957 in a forgettable western, which nonetheless led to a fairly steady stream of small movie parts and television work. Still, he obviously stood out to casting directors, who started to get him progressively meatier parts from the mid-60s onward. He never stopped working; you may have seen him in David Lynch’s recent Twin Peaks revamp on Showtime, and was quite memorable in HBO’s Big Love.

It didn’t matter whether he played a convict on a chain gang, a 1940s L.A. homicide detective, street corner preacher, repo man, crew member on a space merchant vessel, ranch hand, mysterious drifter, or Molly Ringwald’s dad in a teen comedy…from the moment his character popped on screen, there was something all at once familiar about him.

Of course he was a trained actor; but I’ll be damned if I ever saw him “act”. He simply “was”…and it worked. I don’t think he sweated the small stuff, and that was his secret. Like all the great actors, he just let it happen. That is not to say that he didn’t focus on the work. From accounts I have read, he could be “difficult” with directors; but not to appease his own ego, rather always in service of the character he was playing. He wanted to get it “right”. From my observation, he never failed to. Here are my top 10 film picks:

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Cool Hand Luke– “Still shakin’ the bush, boss!” Paul Newman shines (and sweats buckets) in his iconic role as the eponymous character in this 1967 drama, a ne’er do well from a southern burg who ends up on a chain gang. He gets busted for cutting the heads off of parking meters while on a drunken spree, but by the end of this sly allegory, astute viewers will glean that his real crime is being a non-conformist. Stuart Rosenberg directs; sharp script by Donn Pearce and Frank Pierson. Highlights include Strother Martin’s “failure to communicate” speech, Harry Dean Stanton singing “The Midnight Special”, that (ahem) car wash scene and George Kennedy’s Best Supporting Actor performance.

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Rancho Deluxe– This criminally underappreciated 1975 Frank Perry comedy-drama sports a marvelously droll original screenplay by novelist Thomas McGuane. Jeff Bridges and Sam Waterston star as a pair of modern-day cattle rustlers in Montana. Great ensemble work from the entire cast, which includes Elizabeth Ashley (her best role), Slim Pickens, Clifton James, and Harry Dean Stanton as a bumbling cow hand. Stanton’s part is relatively minor, but it showcases the fact that he had a talent for understated comedy.

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Farewell, My Lovely– This 1975 entry, one of a relative handful of films directed by renowned 1960s photographer/TV ad creator Dick Richards, is an atmospheric remake of the 1944 film noir Murder My Sweet (both films were adapted from the same Raymond Chandler novel). Robert Mitchum is at his world-weary best as detective Philip Marlowe, who is hired by a paroled convict (Jack O’Halloran) to track down his girlfriend, who has made herself scarce since he went to the joint. Per usual, Marlowe finds himself in a tangled web of corruption and deceit. Also featuring Charlotte Rampling, John Ireland, and Sylvia Miles. Stanton is memorable as a perpetually pissed off homicide detective.

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Straight Time– Ulu Grosbard (The Subject Was Roses, True Confessions) delivers one of the finest character studies of the late 70s with this gritty 1978 portrait of a paroled burglar (Dustin Hoffman) trying to keep his nose clean. Unfortunately, his goading parole officer (M. Emmett Walsh) is bent on tripping him up. One thing leads to another, and it’s back to a life of crime. Excellent performances abound, from the likes of Theresa Russell, Gary Busey, Kathy Bates, and Stanton (as one of Hoffman’s partners-in-crime).

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Wise Blood– One of director John Huston’s finer latter-career films, this 1979 comedy-drama was adapted by Benedict Fitzgerald from a Flannery O’Connor novel. Brad Dourif stars as a young dirt-poor Southerner who is desperate to make his mark on the world. He decides that the quickest shortcut to grab the public’s attention is to become a crusading, fire-and-brimstone preacher. Stanton is simply wonderful here as a veteran street corner proselytizer (and con man) who mentors the young man in the ways of spiritual hustling.

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Alien– Ridley Scott’s first (and best) entry in what has become a never-ending (albeit lucrative) franchise is the least bombastic and most character-driven of the series. This 1979 sci-fi thriller concerns the workaday crew of a space merchant vessel who are forced to deal with the, erm, complications that ensue after the discovery of an otherworldly stowaway on board. It’s a taut, nail-biting affair from start to finish, with outstanding production design. A great cast helps: Sigourney Weaver, Tom Skerrit, John Hurt, Ian Holm, Yaphet Kotto, Veronica Cartwright, and of course, Harry Dean Stanton!

Escape from New York– John Carpenter directed this 1981 action-thriller set in the dystopian near-future of 1997 (ah, those were the days). N.Y.C. has been converted into a penal colony. Air Force One has been downed by terrorists, but not before the POTUS (Donald Pleasence) bails in his escape pod, which lands in Manhattan, where he is kidnapped by “inmates”. The police commissioner (ever squinty-eyed Lee van Cleef) enlists the help of Snake Plissken (Kurt Russell), a fellow war vet who is now one of America’s most notorious criminals.

Imaginative, darkly funny and entertaining, despite an obviously limited budget. Carpenter and co-writer Nick Castle even slip in a little subtext of Nixonian paranoia. Also with Ernest Borgnine, Adrienne Barbeau, Isaac Hayes (the Duke of N.Y.!), and Stanton, who steals all his scenes as “Brain”. Carpenter also composed the theme.

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Repo Man– This 1984 punk-rock/sci-fi black comedy version of Rebel without a Cause is actually one of the more coherent efforts from mercurial U.K. filmmaker Alex Cox. Emilio Estevez is suitably sullen as disenfranchised L.A. punk Otto, who stumbles into a gig as a “repo man” after losing his job, getting dumped by his girlfriend and deciding to disown his parents. As he is indoctrinated into the samurai-like “code” of the repo man by sage veteran Bud (Harry Dean Stanton, in another masterful deadpan performance) Otto begins to realize that he’s found his true calling.

A subplot involving a mentally fried government scientist on the run, driving around with a mysterious, glowing “whatsit” in the trunk is an obvious homage to Robert Aldrich’s 1955 noir, Kiss Me Deadly. Cox tosses a UFO conspiracy into the mix, and makes good use of L.A. locations. The fabulous soundtrack includes Iggy Pop, Black Flag, and The Circle Jerks.

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Paris, Texas– What is it with European filmmakers and their obsession with the American West? Perhaps it’s all that wide open space, interpreted by the creative eye as a blank, limitless canvas. At any rate, director Wim Wenders and DP Robby Muller paint themselves a lovely desert Southwest landscape for this enigmatic, languidly paced 1984 melodrama (written by Sam Shepard and L.M. Kit Carson). With Shepard on board, you know that the protagonist is going to be a troubled, troubled man-and nothing says “rode hard and put up wet” like the careworn tributaries of Harry Dean Stanton’s weather-beaten face.

In what is arguably his career-best performance, he plays a man who has been missing for 4 years after abandoning his wife (Nastassja Kinski) and their young son. One day he reappears, with a tight-lipped countenance and a 1000-yard stare that tells you this guy is on a return trip from out where Jesus lost his shoes. Now it’s up to his brother (Dean Stockwell) to help him assemble the jigsaw. Stanton delivers an astonishing monologue in the film’s denouement that reminds us what a good actor does.

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Pretty in Pink– This may be damning with faint praise, but I have always found this 1986 film to be the most enjoyable and eminently watchable of the otherwise interchangeable slew of John Hughes teen dramedies that inundated theaters in the 1980s. Actually, Hughes did not direct this one (he handed that chore over to Howard Deutch)…but it remains very much a “John Hughes film”.

Molly Ringwald stars as a young woman from the poor side of the tracks who gets wooed by a “preppie” from a well-to-do family (Andrew McCarthy). Their respective peers are very disapproving. Much romantic angst ensues; but lots of laughs as well. At its heart, it’s a sweet story, helped  by excellent performances. Stanton (out of place as he may seem) lends realism to the proceedings as Ringwald’s father; the scenes they share exude genuine warmth.

 

…And here he is, doing what a good actor does. One for the ages.

Blu-ray reissue: Metropolis (2001) ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on July 22, 2017)

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Metropolis – Eureka Blu-ray (Region “B”)

Japanese director Rintaro’s visually resplendent 2001 anime is based on Osama Tezuka’s manga re-imagining of Fritz Lang’s 1927 silent film classic. The narrative (adapted by Akira director Katsuhiro Otomo) is framed as a detective story (not unlike Blade Runner), with a PI and his nephew attempting to unravel the mystery of Tima, a fugitive robot girl who has become a pawn in a byzantine conspiracy involving a powerful and corrupt family that rules Metropolis. Intelligent writing, imaginative production design and beautifully realized animation make this a must-see. Extras include interviews with cast and crew, and a “making of” documentary.

[Note: Region “B” edition; a multi-region Blu-ray player is required]

Blu-ray reissue: Man Facing Southeast ****

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on July 22, 2017)

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Man Facing Southeast – Kino-Lorber Blu-ray

I originally caught this 1986 sleeper from Argentina on Cinemax 30 years ago and have been seeking it ever since. Kino-Lorber’s Blu-ray edition signals the film’s first domestic availability in a digital format.

Writer-director Eliseo Subiela’s drama is a deceptively simple tale of a mysterious mental patient (Hugo Soto) who no one on staff at the facility he is housed in can remember admitting. Yet, there he is; a soft-spoken yet oddly charismatic young man who claims to be an extra-terrestrial, sent to Earth to save humanity from themselves. He develops a complex relationship with the head psychiatrist (Lorenzo Quinteros) who becomes fascinated with his case.

While sold as a “sci-fi” tale, it’s hard to pigeonhole; the film is equal parts fable,  family drama, and Christ allegory (think King of Hearts meets The Day the Earth Stood Still). Powerful and touching. Extras include interviews with Subiela, Soto, and DP Ricardo de Angelis.

SIFF 2017: Time Trap *

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 27, 2017)

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The discovery of a rusted-out VW van near the entrance of an underground cavern prompts a Texas professor/spelunker to investigate what happened to his parents, who mysteriously vanished decades before. Concerned that the professor himself may have now disappeared, two of his students organize a search party, dragging several other friends and young siblings along. From that point forward, it’s an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink miss-mash of time portals, Spanish conquistadors, Neanderthals, aliens, The Fountain of Youth, a magic ring and the end of the world. The only thing missing is a cohesive narrative (and perhaps a MST3K riff track?). Co-directors Mark Dennis and Ben Foster desperately want us to connect the dots with 1980s films like The Goonies. So I’ll play along: this is the most indecipherable sci-fi mess since Tobe Hooper’s Lifeforce.

SIFF 2017: Rocketmen **

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 20, 2017)

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Well, if you (like me) have completely missed out on the web series concerning “…the deranged comedic adventures of Seattle’s little-known protectors, The Department of Municipal Rocketry”, have I got news for you. It’s now been distilled into a handy feature film. The result? A feature film that looks like a web series. On film. As someone who loves cheesy 50s sci-fi and the old Republic serials, I “get” what writer-director-animator Webster Crowell was going for here; his cast is obviously having fun, and his self-animated special effects are cleverly interwoven, but-it never quite takes off.

Blu-ray reissue: The Quiet Earth ****

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 10, 2016)

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The Quiet Earth Film Movement Classics Blu-ray

In the realm of “end of the world” movies, there are two genre entries in particular, both from the mid-80s, that I have become emotionally attached to (for whatever reason). One of them is Miracle Mile (my review), and the other is this 1985 New Zealand import, which has garnered a huge cult following.

Bruno Lawrence (Smash Palace) delivers a tour de force performance, playing a scientist who may (or may not) have had a hand in a government research project mishap that has apparently wiped out everyone on Earth except him. The plot thickens when he discovers that there are at least two other survivors-a man and a woman. The three-character dynamic is reminiscent of a 1959 nuclear holocaust tale called The World, the Flesh and the Devil, but it’s safe to say that the similarities end there. By the time you reach the mind-blowing finale, you’ll find yourself closer to Andrei Tarkovsky’s territory (Solaris).

Director Geoff Murphy never topped this effort; although his 1992 film Freejack, with Mick Jagger as a time-traveling bounty hunter, is worth a peek. Film Movement’s Blu-ray features a gorgeous 2k transfer, and a commentary track by critic Odie Henderson and astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson (although-even Tyson can’t explain that ending!).

Blu-ray reissue: The Man Who Fell to Earth ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 3, 2016)

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The Man Who Fell to Earth: 40th Anniversary Collector’s Edition                  Studio Canal Region “B” Blu-ray*

 If there was ever a film and a star that were made for each other, it was director Nicolas Roeg’s mind-blowing 1976 adaptation of Walter Tevis’ novel The Man Who Fell to Earth, and the late great David Bowie.

Several years after retiring his “Ziggy Stardust” persona, Bowie was coaxed back to the outer limits of the galaxy to play Thomas Jerome Newton, an alien from a drought-stricken planet who crash-lands on Earth. Gleaning Earth as a water source, Newton formulates a long-range plan for transporting the precious resource back to his home world. In the interim, he becomes an enigmatic hi-tech magnate (makes you wonder where Bill Gates really came from).

A one-of-a-kind film, with excellent supporting performances from Candy Clark, Rip Torn and Buck Henry. The Studio Canal Edition has a gorgeous new 4K transfer, a second disc packed with extras, and a bonus CD of “Papa” John Phillips’ soundtrack.  Lionsgate will be releasing the domestic version of this set in January 2017.

*Note: Region “B” requires a region-free player (they’re getting cheaper!).

SIFF 2016: Vintage Tomorrows **

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 14, 2016)

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I’m not going to liken Byrd McDonald’s doc about hardcore steam punks to an extended Portlandia vignette, and I’ve nothing against a little harmless role-playing fun amongst consenting adults. That said-the more out of their way interviewees go to defensively insist they are not just privileged, white Victorian Era nostalgia junkies who dig Jules Verne and love wearing goggles and pith helmets…the more so they seem. Or perhaps I’m just the stick in the mud that can’t see the ball players but for all the corn.

SIFF 2015: Beti and Amare ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 23, 2015)

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It’s an old story: In the midst of the Italo-Abyssinian War, teenage Ethiopian girl meets mute alien boy, who has hatched from an egg that has appeared out of nowhere next to a desert well. Girl brings boy to her uncle’s isolated home, where she is hiding out from Mussolini’s invading forces and marauding members of the local militia while her uncle is traveling. Romance ensues (how many times have we seen that tale on the silver screen?). German writer-director-DP-editor-producer Andy Siege has crafted a fairly impressive debut feature that is equal parts harrowing war drama, psychological thriller and sci-fi fantasy. I don’t know if these were conscious influences, but Siege’s film strongly recalls Roman Polanski’s 1965 psychodrama Repulsion, and 1970s-era Nicolas Roeg (more specifically, The Man Who Fell to Earth and Walkabout).