Category Archives: Dystopian

Life after people: The Road **1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 5, 2009)

Sadly, this is pretty close to how I envision my retirement.

You know what they say-“Misery loves company”. The dark shadow of apocalyptic doom looming over every other Hollywood release recently would seem to bear this out. “Hey, half my friends and relatives might be out of work, no one can afford health coverage, food bank cupboards are bare and we may be headed into a Hundred Year’s War in Afghanistan…but at least I’m not as bad off as that poor random bastard getting swallowed up by a huge molten crack in the earth on the screen-woo hoo!”

And now The Road (based on Cormac McCarthy’s novel) has trudged into theaters, close on the heels of 9 and 2012. This one makes the latter two films look like a carefree romp in the fields.

Unlike 2012, which is the equivalent of disaster movie porn (utilizing just enough perfunctory bits of narrative to justify stringing together all the “money shots” involving volcanic eruptions, violent temblors, tidal surges and other assorted earth-shattering ka-booms), The Road is more concerned with the post-coital conversation, as it were. The earth moved, a few of us survived…now what? How do we live? How do we eat? How do we get from “A” to “B”? How do we treat each other? Will civilization eventually rise from the ashes and right itself, or is it back to flint arrows and re-discovering the wheel?

The nature of the World Changing Event that put them in their predicament is not quite specified, but the latter film’s two protagonists, notated in the credits simply as Man (Viggo Mortensen) and Boy (Kody Smit-McPhee) are wandering about in a cold, ashen environment resembling a nuclear winter. Curiously, we see stands of brush or trees spontaneously combusting on occasion, although there is no obvious scientific explanation offered or inferred as to the cause.

This is not a post-apocalyptic milieu a la Beyond Thunderdome, with relatively well-scrubbed characters sporting pearly whites, fashionable post-punk wardrobes and colorful personalities. The people in this hard scrabble landscape actually look like people would look without access to a hot shower, a bar of soap, toothpaste or a change of clothes for months (possibly years) at a time. We are talking grime. Serious grime. Let’s not even discuss the teeth (dental hygienists are warned: The Road will give you nightmares).

Nearly everybody appears malnourished, as well. It’s survival of the fittest, but hardly anyone is fit. Have I mentioned that this is a pretty bleak and depressing scenario? The story (such as it is) is pretty simple, really. The Man and the Boy are slowly, painfully making tracks to the coast, where they hope that the environment is more palatable (one would assume; the reasons are not made quite clear).

Along the way, they scrounge for food and shelter, ever on the lookout for roving bands of post-apocalyptic highwaymen, who would just as soon blow you away first and then search your corpse for whatever meager provisions you might have squirreled away in your clothing. The pair’s desperate walkabout becomes progressively more nightmarish; they barely escape the clutches of a motley crew not unlike the mountain men in Deliverance, only to then run into the family from The Hills Have Eyes.

The only respite from the relentlessly grim proceedings is provided by sporadic flashbacks in the form of the Man’s uneasy dreams about his long-dead wife (Charlize Theron)-although those memories are not necessarily all pleasant ones, either.

I have not read the book; I will take the word of my friend who I saw it with that it is a pretty faithful adaptation (by Joe Penhall). Perhaps it is too faithful, as the film is a somewhat static and stagy affair. Director John Hillcoat (who helmed the 2005 sleeper The Proposition, which I really liked) sustains a dark and foreboding atmosphere; thanks to  DP Javier Aguirresarobe (quite a contrast to his sunny photography for Woody Allen’s Vicky Cristina Barcelona).

Still, something was missing for me, although it is tough to pinpoint. It certainly was not the fault of the cast. Mortensen and Theron are always interesting to watch, and I thought young Smit-McPhee was very good. Robert Duvall is barely recognizable for most of his brief appearance, and if you blink you’ll miss Guy Pearce’s cameo (everyone’s well-disguised by those stunt teeth). I wasn’t bored, but I wasn’t on the edge of my seat, either. This may not be the road you want to take. Then again, misery loves…oh, never mind.

Zippy little number: 9 ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on September 12, 2009)

A stitch in time saves…oh, never mind.

I haven’t been shy about relaying my general aversion to the Pixar school of animation. It leaves me cold; it doesn’t feel “lived in” and lacks the relative warmth of hand-drawn cel animation. It’s too…digital (I liken it to the “vinyl vs. CD” argument). Perhaps I have an innate fear of technology that I have yet to come to grips with.

How ironic that one of the first such animated films to catch my fancy is a post-apocalyptic sci-fi tale about a world where the warmth of the human imprint has been eradicated by cold, detached machines. That is the premise of 9, an imaginative variation on a well-worn genre, directed by Shane Acker and produced by Tim Burton.

The story centers on a diminutive, sentient, semi-organic laboratory creation named “9”, a cross between Frankenstein and Pinocchio who looks like a voodoo doll stitched together with recycled burlap and held intact by a handy zip-up front. He awakens one day on the floor of a lab, Rip van Winkle style, to a decimated, desolate and very strange world, alongside the scientist who created him (long dead).

As he wanders about getting his bearings, it becomes apparent  the machines have “taken over”. Very nasty machines, like a frightful predatory contraption resembling a T. Rex that might be constructed in a fever dream by a demented Erector Set enthusiast. When a chance encounter throws “9” in with a tribe of similar beings who have also survived the apocalypse, a possibility arises that some spark of hope and humanity might still remain-somewhere.

The “fear of technology” theme has been a sci-fi film staple, from Fritz Lang’s 1927 film Metropolis, to The Terminator and beyond. In fact, while I was watching 9, I was thinking that if Fritz Lang were alive today and were to work with computer animation, he would probably cook something up that “looked” very similar to this film.

At times I was also reminded of the otherworldly films by the Brothers Quay (Street of Crocodiles), all set to a moody soundtrack by Danny Elfman. The film is so wonderfully atmospheric and visually stunning that I was willing to overlook its (inevitable?) disintegration into loud, repetitive action sequences and an abrupt denouement.

I’d be curious to know if the director (who created the original story from which Pamela Pettler adapted her screenplay) was inspired by The Lord of the Rings. His film is, after all about a “fellowship” of nine who set about  on a quest to save their world from the dark forces which are bent on destroying it (and the fact that our little Frodo-like animated hero is voiced by Elijah Wood adds fuel to that fire). Other familiar voices: Christopher Plummer, Martin Landau, Jennifer Connelly, John C. Reilly, and the ever-loopy Crispin Glover.

So what’s with all the “nines” at the box office? Numerologists must be having a field day with the convergence of District 9, Acker’s 9, and the imminent Nine (the film adaptation of the Broadway musical based on Fellini’s 8½). Hmm…maybe the machines should take over soon. It might be time to hit the “reset” button for Hollywood.

Oops! Wrong planet: District 9 ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on August 15, 2009)

It’s hip on the mothership.

The alien invaders have come knock knock knockin’ on the box office door to signal their seasonal pilgrimage to the local multiplex. Okay, technically, in the case of District 9, the aliens aren’t necessarily “invaders” so much as…refugees, who have the misfortune of running out of gas (in a matter of speaking) while hovering over South Africa. Boy, did they make a wrong turn.

We learn from a montage that 20-odd years have passed since the aliens first made contact; in the interim the South African government has evacuated the malnourished populace from their gargantuan mothership and introduced them to the joys of township living. The aliens, referred to derogatorily as “prawns” due to their crustacean-like physiology, develop a proclivity for tinned cat food, and resign themselves to living the slum life whilst the global debate about what ultimately should be done about them drags on.

In the meantime, the government has contracted a private company to micro-manage the residents of “District 9” (official speak for the area where the aliens are interred). The company, Multi-National United, has taken a keen interest in unlocking the secret to operating the alien weaponry that was confiscated; much to their chagrin, the hardware does not respond to human touch.

While one of the company’s officials (Sharlto Copley, as the type of officious, soullessly cheerful bureaucrat you love to hate) is serving eviction notices in one of the slums, he stumbles into a situation that soon turns him into a political football in the brewing conflict between the disgruntled aliens and their human oppressors.

Writer-director Neill Blomkamp is a “discovery” by producer Peter Jackson, who originally enlisted the up-and-comer to help develop a feature film adaptation of the Halo video game (a project which looks  to be on permanent hold). As you watch District 9, you glean why Jackson has banked on this previously unknown filmmaker; he certainly has an imaginative style and a flair for kinetic action sequences.

Although the film eventually descends into a somewhat predicable flurry of loud explosions and splattering viscera, it does sport a rousing first half, thanks to the terrific production design, outstanding alien creature effects and the gripping docu-realism. It’s not for the squeamish; if you are, you might want to take a pass.

As for the political allegory, while it can safely be assumed and is definitely implied (especially considering South Africa’s history) it is not necessarily ladled on with a trowel. I didn’t get the impression that the filmmakers were trying to make it the central theme; sometimes, a sci-fi story…is just a sci-fi story.

There is some controversy regarding the film’s depiction of Nigerian nationals who live among the aliens. The characters in question are a Nigerian crime lord and his evil henchmen, who profit off the refugees via prostitution, extortion and black marketeering. In the context of the narrative, I thought those characters served the story (perhaps we could have done without the anachronistic witch doctor). This is not the first movie of its kind (nor will it be the last), but it is one of the more original genre entries in recent memory.

Love is blue: Watchmen **1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on March 21, 2009)

I was a weird kid. I never went for the superhero comic books in a big way. I do vaguely recall going through a Classics Illustrated period (Journey to the Center of the Earth kicked major ass, and I think I wore out my copy of Treasure Island). Then, when I was around 9 or 10, I discovered MAD magazine…and all bets were off. I made an exception when I discovered the Adventures of Tin Tin books in my early 20s, but steered clear of  the Marvel/DC stable of caped crusaders, endowed with Special Powers and clad in skin tight suits.

So, I knew going in that I was not in the target audience for Watchmen, the latest graphic novel-to-film adaptation from the DC Comics stable. For those unacquainted with graphic novels, just think Classics Illustrated with sex, ultra-violence and just enough substantive exposition to help you convince yourself you’re reading something akin to literature (sounds like a great pitch for an HBO series). Despite my misgivings about the genre, I was unexpectedly dazzled by Sin City a few years back; so I tried to keep an open mind.

Director Zack Snyder (300) had a formidable task; not only did he have to condense a 12 volume series of graphic novels into feature film length, but he had to deliver a product that would both placate detail-obsessed fan boys and entertain the rest of us without leaving us confounded (or dozing) when the auditorium lights come up.

I can’t speak for the fan boys, but I found the establishing premise of the film intriguing. The story is set in a sort of parallel universe version of mid-1980s America, where an altered course of history has radically changed the sociopolitical fabric of the country from WW 2 onward. The ‘x’ factor lays in an assortment of free-agent superheroes and heroines who have lent their talents to the U.S. armed forces since the 1940s. Actually, super-‘spooks’ might be a more accurate descriptive, as an Oliver Stone style back-story montage behind the opening credits appears to indicate.

In this version of history, thanks to these caped crusaders, America “wins” the Vietnam War. And disturbingly, President Richard M. Nixon has been elected for a fifth term (in this reality, Woodward and Bernstein have been “neutralized”). The Cold War is still in full swing, with a possible nuke-out with the Soviets looming on the horizon. In our post 9-11 world, with the economy on the brink of collapse, this actually plays like a quaint scenario, n’est-ce pas?

With one exception, these superheroes are not blessed with invulnerability; they are just as fragile and flawed as any schmuck on the street; the moral compass doesn’t always exactly point to Truth, Justice and the American Way, either. By 1985, the vigilantes have fallen out of favor with the fickle public; masked avenging has been subsequently outlawed and most have been driven into retirement, or gone underground. When one of the retirees is murdered, it’s time to get the band back together, spearheaded by Rorschach (Jackie Earle Haley). The mystery, as they say, is afoot.

After a promising start, the story bogs down. The screenplay (adapted by David Hayter and Alex Tse) while complex and cerebral for what is essentially an action film, is a bit too complex and cerebral for its own good. Pains are taken to flesh out  the back story of each character; this is a good thing, but can be a double edged sword. On the one hand, it raises the bar on the cardboard  characterizations you usually get in a superhero movie. Unfortunately, it also accounts for most of the 162 minute running time. By the time  credits rolled, I had completely forgotten  that there was a mystery afoot.

Still, there was a lot I liked about the film. It has a  “dark city” noir atmosphere that I’m a sucker for, as well as great costume and set design. The performances are  uneven,  possibly attributable to the sometimes overreaching script. Jackie Earle Haley is a standout as Rorschach; I enjoyed his Chandleresque voice-over performance, which vacillates somewhere between Clint Eastwood’s menacing whisper and Lawrence Tierney’s caustic growl.

Billy Crudup, Malin Akerman, Patrick Wilson, Jeffrey Dean Morgan and Carla Gugino are all quite good. I didn’t recognize Matt “Max Headroom” Frewer as “Moloch the Mystic” until the credits rolled. The film has an interesting soundtrack; although I had mixed feelings about hearing a somewhat lengthy lift from Philip Glass’ symphonic score for Koyaanasqatsi (a film I’ve seen many  times).

Still, the sci-fi geek/film noir enthusiast inside of me was hooked by the Blade Runner-like mash-up of those two genres (not that I’m suggesting that this is in the same league as Ridley Scott’s cult classic). You can take that as a guarded recommendation.

Two bongs up! Six degrees of Woody Harrelson: Scanners (***) & Grass (***1/2)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on January 27, 2007)

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Richard Linklater entered the sci-fi arena in 2006 with his adaptation of the late Phillip K. Dick’s semi-autobiographical novel A Scanner Darkly (now on DVD). Set in a not-so-distant future L.A., the story injects themes of existential dilemma, drug-fueled paranoia and Orwellian government surveillance  into what is otherwise a fairly standard “undercover-cop-who’s-gone-too-deep” yarn.

Keanu Reeves stars as a dazed and confused narc that has become helplessly addicted to the mind-altering drug that he has been assigned to help eradicate (“substance D”). Robert Downey Jr., Woody Harrelson, Winona Ryder and Linklater alumni Rory Cochrane are his fellow D-heads who may not exactly be whom they appear to be on the surface. Adding to the mood of hallucinatory psychosis is Linklater’s use of rotoscoping (as per his underrated Waking Life). The rotoscoping technique does present challenges to the actors; Downey, with his Chaplinesque knack for physical expression, pulls it off best, while the more inert performers like Reeves and Ryder are quite literally akin to oil paintings.

Linklater’s script keeps fairly close to its source material-particularly in relation to the more cerebral elements (Linklater’s propensity for lots of talk and little action may be a turn-off for those expecting another Minority Report). Depending on what you bring with you, the film is a) a cautionary tale about addiction, b) a warning about encroaching technocracy, c) an indictment on the government’s “war” on drugs, d) a really cool flick to watch while stoned, e) the longest 99 minutes of your life or f) all of the above.

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Speaking of the “war” on drugs-here’s a sleeper you may have missed. Grass is a unique, well-produced documentary dealing (er, pun intended) with the history of anti-marijuana legislation  in the United States. Far from a dry history lesson, the film builds its own “counter-myth” of sorts, by exposing the hypocrisy of the government’s anti-marijuana propaganda machine over the years; from the  histrionics of the 1930’s howler Reefer Madness to the Reagan administration’s “Just Say No” campaign in the 1980’s.

There is also an eye-opening  tally of all the tax money the various law-enforcement agencies have spent (thrown away?) attempting to eradicate marijuana usage…from the days of Elliot Ness to the present. The filmmakers ladle some well-chosen period music over a wealth of archive footage (maximized for full ironic effect). Woody Harrelson, who has famously lived through a series of herb-related legal problems, off-screen, narrates with winking bemusement. Whether you are for or against legalization, you should find this one quite informative and highly (sorry!) entertaining.