Tuesday, May 31, 2011
Top Ten Science Fiction Movies Part 2
6.Five Million Years To Earth (Quatermass and the Pit), 1967, Director: Roy Ward Baker
This is the best of the Quatermass series, and Nigel Kneale's best movie, period. If the special visual effects were as good as the script, the movie would be the best SF film ever, nudging out even Forbidden Planet, but...the visual effects really bite. There was talk about a remake for a while there...I believe Alex Proyas was planning something. There aren't too many classic films that should be remade, but Five Million Years is one of them...the Martian racial purge and the destruction of London positively cry out for modern digital effects. Also, it wouldn't be a bad thing if a remake was beefed up with some of the material from the BBC TV version....the movie adaptation was very good, but some of the smart stuff was cut out, principally regarding the way in which the evil Martian phenomena at the end are being powered.
The story seems to be a kind of critique of Childhood's End. In Arthur C. Clarke's classic, our primitive stupid civilization is pretty much brought to an end, for good or ill, by the arrival of aliens who look kind of like devils. It's a great book, but I never cared for it...why should we like these aliens, anyway? Nigel Kneale seems to have had the same reaction...he gives us aliens who look like devils and...they're really devilish. In fact, five million years ago, when they tried to colonize the earth by proxy, they succeeded in infecting us with all their demonic attributes, and everything's been much scarier since then...but I'm getting ahead of myself.
In this go-round, Quatermass is finally played by an actor who's a good fit for the role, Andrew Keir, whom some of you might remember from Rob Roy, where he embodied much benevolence and gravitas as the Duke of Argyle. In FMYTE he's much more sympathetic than Brian Donlevy ever was as Quatermass, although he's still pretty sharp-tongued...he also has the added advantage of being a Brit playing a Brit in a Brit space agency.
As the movie opens, Quatermass is still trying to get his space program (literally) off the ground, but he's being thwarted by short-sighted bureaucrats and the nasty, completely unimaginative Colonel Breen (Julian Glover), who just can't see any point in peaceful applications of rocket technology. When something that seems to be an old Nazi rocket from WWII is unearthed in the London subway, Breen is sent to check it out, and Quatermass tags along, for reasons I don't quite recall; even though it's immediately obvious that the thing isn't a V weapon. Breen goes with that explanation, while Quatermass knows that they're dealing with something extremely strange. Attempts to drill into the ship fail, although the drill imparts enough energy to the ship for it to decide to open up, revealing a clutch of long-dead alien insects with tripod-like legs, the bugs bearing rather a resemblance to the Selenites in First Men in the Moon. Exposed to air, the things begin to disintegrate real quick, although some are preserved by Dr. Roney (James Donald) a scientist who winds up working with Quatermass. Breen dismisses the creatures as fakes, but Quatermass knows better...digging into the history of the neighborhood (the street name is Hob's Lane, Hob being one of Satan's many nom de nyms or pseudoplumes), he discovers that the place has been associated with the Devil for a very long time...there have been sightings of "hideous dwarfs" that go back all the way to the Middle Ages. Bizarre mutant hominid fossils with expanded skulls are unearthed in the vicinity of the ship...Quatermass begins to piece together a wild (but of course correct) theory that's sure to displease his superiors.
He speculates that the bugs were ancient Martians, from a period when the red planet could still support life...realizing their planet was dying, the insects got hold of some earth-apes, and modified them, turning them into creatures that were still terrestrial physically, our ancestors in fact, but psychologically and culturally Martian. For some reason, this attempt to pass on the Martian Way didn't take, and we never find out why, but Quatermass and crew soon discover that it's a damn good thing that it didn't.
The guy who tried to drill into the ship earlier is collecting his stuff...the ship subjects him to a wild hallucination of life on Mars. Manifesting scary psychic powers, he goes running about making an extreme nuisance of himself, until he winds up in a church. Quatermass and Roney find him there, under the watchful eye of the pastor, who's convinced that the man's been subjected to some sort of frightful evil, a proposition that Quatermass eagerly agrees to. Quatermass interviews the drill-guy, who tells him about what things were like in his Martian visions...the sky was brown, and the place was full of creatures "leaping and hopping." Quatermass decides to make a recording of one of these hallucinations.
Fortunately, Roney, who's rather an all-purpose scientist, has a machine which can record brainwaves and render them into images. When we get a glimpse of his interior state, we see that he's always subconsciously in a lovely little English village...he just never got enough of that Martian mental heritage. When the machine's installed in the spaceship, Quatermass tries to operate it and can't, but Roney's assistant Barbara (Barbara Shelley) can, and she produces a little movie of a ghastly martian racial purge...the Martians, you see, had a horrendous totalitarian hive society, and they had every intention of passing it on to us. In fact, everything that sucks about human beings derives from the Martians, and our Martian tendencies are lurking just under the surface in most people, just waiting to burst forth.
Quatermass shows the movie to his bosses, who think it's a bunch of bosh...Breen pushes ahead with a plan to hold a press conference, and reveal the ship as a Nazi weapon on national TV. This turns out to be a spectacularly awful idea...when the generators for the kleig lights are turned on, the ship sucks in enough power to really start cooking, and it begins to broadcast a signal to activate everyone's inner Martian. Militarist organization-man Breen is so completely Martian that he falls to his knees in a sort of trance, and the ship burns him up.
But not all Londoners are susceptible...Roney isn't, of course....Quatermass is kind of middling. But the streets start to fill up with troops of psionic zombies, who sense anyone or anything that's different, animals as well as people, and exterminate them....
The climax, which involves a giant Martian plasma-head and Roney butt-wiggling a huge construction crane into the apparition, in order to ground its energy, is sheerly ridiculous...the basic idea is no good, and the special effects are quite awful. In fact, most of the FX in the film just aren't up to it, as I mentioned at the beginning of this piece...the racial purge on Mars, involving as it does, a whole bunch of jiggery little rod-puppets, is particularly risible.
But it doesn't really matter that much. The film floods your noggin with awesomely unsettling ideas pretty early on, and it maintains a very high level of inspiration for most of the runtime. There are long stretches where the writing is simply textbook SF, and the dialogue is all beautifully delivered by great Brit character actors who truly know their stuff. Late one night in South Bend, when my wife was going to Notre Dame back in the seventies, I blundered into this film and was completely enthralled...I've talked it up to everyone I know ever since. One of my favorite things about my youngest son, Nick, is that he watched this movie over and over again when he was quite a young kid...I knew I could expect great things from him. The movie is Hammer's single finest achievement. Buy several copies.
And for God's sake, keep your damn inner Martian down.
7. Time After Time, 1979, Director, Nicholas Meyer
I guess Nicholas Meyer is primarily known to SF fans as the guy who made the best Star Trek film, Wrath of Khan, which almost made it on this list; he also did Trek four, which was the second-best Trek Film, and Star Trek 6, which was just okay. But for my money, his most striking contribution to SF cinema was his H.G. Wells-Jack the Ripper movie, Time After Time, which came out in 1979, and didn't attract too much attention, as I recall.
He'd made a big name for himself with The Seven Percent Solution, and based TAT on an unpublished unfinished novel by a college buddy named Karl Alexander...Meyer had a guy named Steve Hayes write a complete story, then worked on the screenplay himself...the final script was pretty remarkable. When I went to see the movie at a theater in South Bend, some guy was shouting comments and making fun of it...I liked the movie so much that I threatened to go back and beat the shit out of him. He clammed up, lucky for him.
The movie begins in London, late nineteenth century...Jack the Ripper adds another victim to his tally...a bit later that evening, we find ourselves at the home of social critic and novelist H.G. Wells (Malcolm Mcdowell), who has a bunch of his friends over. Wells loses a chess game to Dr. John Leslie Stevenson (David Warner), who makes it quite plain that he thinks Wells' utopian ideas are all crap; he says he always beats Wells at Chess because he always knows what Wells is going to do. When Wells tells him that he'll beat him one day, Stevens on says yes..."When you know what I'm going to do."
Wells has everyone gather round, and informs them that he's invented a time machine...it's down in the cellar, and he shows them how it works, explaining that it's got a key that keeps it from returning to the present, and a feature that sends a passenger flying through time without the machine...why you'd want a feature like that, I don't know, but the machine has one.
Anyway, his disquisition is interrupted when some bobbies show up at the house...they've tracked Spring Heel'd Jack to Wells's domicile...a bloody surgical bag reveals Stevenson to be the killer. But Stevenson has slipped down into the cellar, gotten into the time machine, and booked.
But he doesn't have that non-return key...once he arrived wherever he went, the machine came right back, and appears right in front of Wells after everybody leaves. Deciding he can't let Stevenson go running around butchering people in utopia, he resolves to follow him and bring him back...he gets into the machine and off he goes.
The time-travel visuals that follow are pretty silly...Meyer obviously decided not to mimic the time-travel stuff in Time Machine, which was very literal but also idiotic, using lots of time-lapse stuff---the sequence in TAT involves semi-psychedelic business and radio and TV broadcasts, and oscilloscopes, etc. Of course, I think if you were actually travelling through time in a machine, you wouldn't see a damn thing, but what the hell. Film is a visual medium...you gotta have something on the screen.
But once Wells arrives in the future, the writing settles down and gets pretty sharp. From his dashboard, he knows when Stevenson was going to arrive; turns out the machine was on loan to a museum in San Francisco, and that's where both he and Wells have wound up. Wells breaks his glasses; but the museum has his old writing-desk, and he has some spare specs in the drawer. After being yelled at by a guard, he heads out in pursuit of Stevenson. Reasoning that Stevenson will need money, Wells starts to hit every bank in town, asking about a Brit who's trying to exchange old stuff for fresh American currency. As he goes about town, Wells is fascinated by what he sees, but discovers that the future isn't very Utopian at all...when he tries to spend a night in a church, he asks God to overlook his atheism, only to have a priest kick him out onto the street.
Finally Wells finds an English bank and asks an employee, Amy Robbins (Mary Steenburgen) about tall limies with strange currency. She knows just who he's talking about, and she and Wells get friendly real quick. He thinks he's going to bowl her over with his free-love patter, but she's pretty liberated, and she shocks the hell out of him....he winds up at her place and spends the night.
The next day, though, Stevenson shows up at the bank again, to gets some more greenbacks...Amy lets it slip that someone's been looking for him...he concludes it can only be Wells...from this point on, it's cat-and-mouse in San Francisco between Wells and Jack the Ripper, who finds nasty modern American quite congenial, or would, if he didn't have to contend with his old fuddy-duddy friend from the previous century.
There aren't too many plotholes...the worst is when Wells and Amy use the machine at the museum to go into the future at one point, and she sees a newspaper that says she's been killed...I've never been able to figure out why Wells would insist they go back to the past. But by that time, you're completely hooked, and the movie works up a whole lot of suspense, delivering some nifty twists. Most of the time-travel stuff is extremely well-handled, and seems quite Wellsian. On the other hand, Wells might not have cared for the film's anti-utopian themes...I suppose it would it would depend on whether or not we asked the utopian socialist that wrote Things to Come, or the extremely pessimistic younger Wells, who wrote The Time Machine. For what it's worth, it would've been the latter fellow back during the 1890's...but that's rather a quibble, especially when you remember that he never had a Time Machine.
I completely fell in love with Mary Steenburgen by the way...was most unhappy when I learned her marriage to Malcolm Macdowell folded.
8. Bladerunner, 1982, Director, Ridley Scott
When I saw this again, there were a number of things I just had to choke down. I still thought the movie deserved to be on this list, but there sure was a lot of extremely silly dated stuff. Most of the problems derive from the fact that film simply isn't set far enough in the future, although that's a very common failing in SF films. You take Demolition Man, for example. I really like the movie, think it works quite well as a comedy, but...holy shit. Film came out in '93, and it proffers the notion that the US will be totally disintegrating by '97, and we'll have fabulous suspended animation procedures that will ennable the authorities (the whole political system is completely different) to deal with convicts by freezing them or something.
Well, Bladerunner isn't that extreme, although...maybe it almost is.
Admittedly, it came out in the sacred cinematic year of 1982, and it's set in 2019, so you've got much more time for all this great stuff to happen...except that we're already to 2011 and we don't have flying cars, or replicants, the climate of LA hasn't turned rainy, and we don't have interstellar travel which involves some sort of warfare (with who? People? Aliens?). We can afford (catch?) real snakes if we want them, we've got much better computers than the folks in 2019...and so on.
Then there are things that are just plain incoherent and dumb...why do you need a Voight-Kampf test to spot replicants, when you can just give a sample of tissue to some guy, who can just pop it under an electron microscope, and see the manufacturer's signature or trademark or whatever? For that matter, why do you need a VK test when you can just look at a replicant in the dark, and see that their eyes are glowing, an effect which is so noticeable that guys who manufacture replicant eyes have great big red pupils in the neon eye-signs that they hang outside their places of business?
Problem is, Ridley Scott is way too much of a visualist for his own good. Of course, I'm a writer, and I don't think too highly of the visual arts, but this movie could just plain make more sense if it wanted to---among other things, you could've solved about seventy percent of your problems if you'd just been willing to set the thing at some unnamed point in the future...simple as that. But no, Ridley's got to distract himself with haunting if mystifying images of weird Asians, and lots of fog, and light raking over intriguing surfaces...regarding the Asian biz, he went on to make a wholly Asian action flick, which made Tokyo look like Bladerunner...although Lost in Translation manages to be a whole lot weirder, Asian and more fantastic than either movie.
So, you say, why is Mr. Rogers wasting his typewritten breath on Bladerunner? Well, it's got a bunch of really interesting Philip K. Dick ideas embedded in it, and it does quite a good job with them. Questions about memory, personal identity, and human rights are absolutely central to the film---yeah, it has its share of action, but that's really not what carries the thing. It isn't like Total Recall, for example, where the genuinely cool Dick material (sounds terrible, doesn't it?) got completely overwhelmed by huge doses of completely assinine Paul Verhoeven butchery.
Basically, Bladerunner is an SF hard-boiled detective film; this was rather more obvious in the original theatrical version, which had a voiceover from Harrison Ford. Some people prefer that version to the director's cut that's floating around these days; frankly, the voiceover never bothered me, but I'm also of the opinion that it wasn't necessary plotwise. Having the movie set in a futuristic version of LA makes it even more Raymond Chandlerish; some of the scenes seem to have been directly influenced by The Big Sleep. And the whole detective angle meshes very nicely with the science-fiction---you have this guy going around asking questions, and in this instance, the questions happen to be very big and consequential ones.
In this case, our protag is a hardboiled cop named Rick Deckard (Ford, of course), who's a Bladerunner, which is to say, a killer specializing in the extermination of criminal replicants. Replicants are artificial people grown for specialized tasks...there's a new line of them called Nexus-6 that make really good assassins and soldiers, but there's been a rebellion off-world, and Nexus-Sixes have been banned from earth.
But a handful have gotten here, and they're trying to infiltrate the Tyrell Corporation, which grows them for very big bucks. As the film opens, one of the replicants, Leon (Brion James)is applying for a job at Tyrell...but he's got to pass a Voight-Kampf test, which reveals if you're genuinely human. Even though we have the aforementioned absurdities regarding the test, the scene is pretty effective, and we learn a whole lot about replicants, at least the sort that Leon is...the fellow running the test asks a series of questions, then studies retinal responses. We find out in short order that Leon is pretty childlike, and emotionally stunted, very literal-minded, and has a limited vocabulary---he knows what a turtle is, but not a tortoise. When he's told he's walking in a desert, it disturbs him that he hasn't been told which one, and so on. Finally he realizes he's failing the test, and he just pulls a gun and pumps bullets into his questioner.
Cut to Deckard, who's trying to enjoy some noodles in rainy depressing future LA...Gaff (Edward James Olmos, in scary contact lenses) arrives and whisks him off to Bladerunner headquarters, where Bryant (M. Emmet Walsh), Deckard's former boss, tells Deckard that he needs to come out of retirement, because he's the best, and hunt down those damn Nexus Sixes. Deckard doesn't want to, but Bryant reminds him that he's "Little people" if he's not a cop, and Deckard takes the hint. He's instructed to run a VK test on a Nexus-6 over at the Tyrell Corporation, and goes there in a nifty flying car; he meets the big genius, Tyrell himself (creepily played by Joe Turkel) and is told to run the test on a human being first, namely Tyrell's gorgeous secretary Rachel(Sean Young). This is the second scene where the movie begins to vibrate really interestingly; asking Rachel a series of queasy questions, Deckard begins to realizes that he's dealing with a very human-like replicant, who never knew that she's not real---at least until right now. It takes him a long time to do this, though, and when he's done, she's really really upset...after she's dismissed by Tyrell, Deckard asks him how she could possibly have thought she was human...Tyrell informs him that she's been implanted with fake memories, supplied by Tyrell's niece.
Later on, at his apartment, Deckard just wants to get drunk, but is confronted by Rachel, who tries to convince him that she's real, by showing him photographs of her when she was a kid...when he doesn't buy this, she runs off in tears. We discover that replicants are obsessed with photographs, because most of them don't have memories, or partial ones at best...we notice that Deckard himself has lots of photographs, and we begin to suspect that he might be a replicant too...after all, he could've just been brand new when Gaff picked him up, and his memories of previous replicant-fights might be fake. All of this serves pretty niftily to get the audience (yours truly at least,) ruminating on the nature of their own reality, and what constitutes genuine personhood. Locke holds that a human being, who started off as a blank slate, is individuated by their memories; does this mean that Rachel is, in some sense, actually Tyrell's niece if she has a complete set of her memories? Furthermore, given the "more human than human" qualities of the replicants, some at least, in what sense are they not human? Why shouldn't they have rights? Some of them seem to be little more than biological machines, but at what point do machines become genuine persons?
It should come as no surprise that the movie comes down pretty heavily on the replicants' side...the scenes with Rachel are heartbreaking, you feel very bad for her, and you really start to like the Nexus Sixes that Deckard is trying to kill, even though they're merciless and ferocious...their evil qualities have been completely imposed on them. Moreover, they seem to be acquiring consciences, which were not part of the original program, I presume...one gets the impression that the replicant leader Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer, who should've become a much bigger deal) led his revolt at least in part because he was beginning to detest what he was doing. Moreover, the replicants can fall in love; Leon had a thing going on with one called Zhora (Joanna Cassidy), and we see that very clearly after Deckard wastes her...later in the movie, we learn that Roy Batty was in love with Pris (Darryl Hannah).
The sense that the replicant enterprise is extremely monstrous gets more and more powerful until Roy finally manages to penetrate Tyrell headquarters and meet the man who designed him... Roy, who's only about four years old, has realized he's going to die (a four-year lifespan was built into the Nexus Sixes as a fail-safe measure)and he means to force Tyrell to divulge the secret of prolonging his life. But Tyrell informs him that it's impossible, and he seems to be telling the truth---not sure exactly why he wouldn't lie, and pretend to arrange some phony surgery perhaps. But he's apparently really looked into the matter; problem is, the genetic information they'd need to neutralize is so completely wedded to a replicant that it can't be extracted or shut down...every technique they've tried results in viruses so deadly that the subjects die before they leave the operating table. Tyrell, who seems to be genuinely proud of Roy, then tries to mollify---or perhaps even comfort him---by reminding him of the spectacular, amazing life he's lived; Roy seems to be rather moved, but kills him anyway, then murders the little genetic-engineer drelb who secured Roy's meeting with Tyrell....after the killings, as he descends in an elevator, Roy is obviously tormented by what he's just done, more proof that he's becoming more human all the time.
Ultimately he goes after Deckard, who's just wasted Pris...painting his face with her blood, he chases Deckard all over the place. Ultimately he has a chance to kill him...and lets him live. He recounts a few details of those spectacular exploits of his...you realize that Tyrell's advice actually made an impression on him...then, most Christlike, he gives up the spirit, releasing a dove that soars up into some foggy light...Deckard winds up with Rachel, and they escape to some part of the country that's still nice for some reason.
I was insufficiently impressed with the film's excellences the first time I saw it, and most of the audience was too; the movie wasn't a hit. Given the combination of Harrison Ford, and Science Fiction, the director of Alien, and special effects by the guy who did them in Close Encounters, I think everyone was expecting something less noirish and more Spielbergian or Lucaslike. But Bladerunner simply isn't interested in providing the sort of satisfactions you get in other movies. It has some funny moments, but mostly it's dead serious, and the SF isn't escapist...you wind up thinking about your own memories, your own nature, why you should be treated like a human being, and the very real possibility that we're going to have corporations or governments growing zillions of non-people who don't have rights but should. In that sense, it shows you something like an actual future that might come to pass, and you find yourself thinking that its flaws are rather less real than its considerable virtues.
9. The Terminator, 1984, Director, James Cameron
What a beautifully-constructed little film this is. It's a crisp hundred and four minutes long, the pace never flags, and even though the movie's got huge doses of action, the characterizations are all great, and there's loads of first-class time-travel SF. As a matter of fact, it has a lot of the same kind of virtues as Time After Time....only with a much higher body count.
Cameron admitted the story was influenced by Harlan Ellison's work...the result was a lawsuit. If you look at the end credits, you'll see that Harlan gets a mention...I presume he got some money too. But on some level, he should've been happy with the movie, even if he was ripped off...Cameron hit it out of the park, and at least he had the sense to steal from someone who knew what he was doing. It's noteworthy that none of Cameron's other films are any where near as good in the script department...they just keep on getting longer, and more complicated, and make progressively less sense.
But he was making lean, mean savvy stuff way back when. The opening shots, of great big war-machines crushing hundreds of human skulls, set the tone real quick...in the future, human beings will be having it out with evil robots in a ripped-up post-apocalyptic landscape. I have, as a matter of fact, been waiting quite some time for a sequel which really uses that future and that imagery...seems like a no-brainer to me...but what do I know?
After some cool credits with scary futuristic letters crawling across the screen, and a nifty theme from Brad Fiedel, we get chucked into a pretty headlong story. A robot assassin (Arnold Schwarzenegger) from that horrible future has come to the present to kill off the mother of John Connor, a guy who will ultimately lead a successful revolt against the robots. But Connor has sent back one of his most trusted soldiers, Kyle Reese (Michael Beihn), to protect his mom, Sarah (Linda Hamilton). Pretty much the whole first third of the movie involves the robot and Reese maneuvering around 1980's LA, trying to find her...even before the real action kicks in, a load of people get snuffed by the robot. Both he and Reese are using the phone book to track Sarah down...the robot is, of course, wasting every Sarah Connor he can find. The most remarkable thing about all this is that there aren't any stupid coincidences...pretty much everything makes sense...both the robot and Reese are getting their respective jobs done acting exactly like combatants from the future. The movie tells you where they get their clothes from, where they get their guns, and how the Terminator finds out where Sarah is after he's killed her roommate instead of her...most movies, let alone SF movies, aren't anywhere near this well constructed.
Anyway, Sarah's heard about the ongoing Sarah Conor massacre, and has taken refuge in a disco...she's spotted Kyle and thinks he's her real problem, but just as the terminator is about to snuff her, Reese doses the robot with blast after blast of buckshot. The terminator goes down temporarily, and Reese escapes with Sarah in a cop car.
A bunch of breathless exposition follows. Reese tells her all about John Connor and the robots...basically, the terminator is a combat chassis covered in actual human tissue so that it can fool people. As for the whole robot regime, it came about when a system of defense computers actually developed consciousness, decided the whole human race was a threat, and started nuking the US, The USSR, and I guess, everyone else...
We learn all this is a middle of a big car chase, by the way...the robot and the cops are after our protags, and the robot is listening in the police radio.Reese and Sarah get caught by the police, while the robot crashes his vehicle and heads off to gets some heavier artillery.
At the police station, Reese is questioned by a psychologist, which gives us yet another great venue for some more exposition, most of it about the niceties of time-travel...we learn that it's only possible for organic creatures, and that's why neither the robot nor Reese could bring future weapons---"nothing non-living" would go. But we also find out that the terminator could make it because he's encased in living tissue. Why the machines would create a time-travel system that only allows biologicals, I don't know...but I suppose it's less nonsensical than the whole idea of time travel itself.
The robot arrives at the police station, shoots it up...Sarah and Reese escape in the confusion...while the robot's making some much-needed to repairs to his bullet-riddled self, Reese gets busy with Sarah, and winds up impregnating her with John Conor...ultimately the robots have succeeded mainly in bringing her together with John's farther, making John possible. But she's still got to survive..and when she makes an incautious phone call to her mother up at Big Bear, the Terminator, pretending to be mom, finds out where she's hiding, and the climactic chase is on...
The movie has tremendous fun with time travel...lot of stuff about paradoxes and unintended consequences. As I said, the robots wind up bringing about precisely the outcome they were trying to prevent...Sarah's got to worry about whether or not to tell her son who his father was, since it would be harder for John to send him...Kyle Reese, equipped with an old Polaroid of Sarah to he can recognize her, falls in love with her before he ever even meets her...pregnant with Kyle's kid, She stops at a Mexican gas-station where she's polaroided by a little Mexican kid, who presents her with the picture that will make Kyle fall in love with her, although Kyle's already dead...it's all very ingenious, and poignant, too. The final scene, where the Mexican gas-station guy says, "There's a storm coming," and Sarah says, "I know," and we see her driving off into the shadow of this huge thunderhead, is fantastic stuff, one of the best movie endings ever.
I was much less happy with the second Terminator, although a lot of people preferred it...it thought it was nearly twice as long and half as smart. It did have a lot of impressive groundbreaking special effects, but the writing wasn't nearly as good. Trouble was, the theatrical version had most of its brains cut out, in favor of the big money shots...a lot of troubling things were explained in those deleted scenes, such as why the good terminator was getting more human mentally, or why the Robert Patrick terminator was getting so incompetent at the end...but mostly, the thing was an illustration of how a vast increase in budget can't compensate for a less than adequate script. Moreover, I really hated the fact that they saved the day at the end and the war didn't happen...it kinda invalidated the end of the first film.
I thought the third film was much better than it had a right to be...I particularly liked the pretty downbeat ending. As for the fourth movie, I thought it was lousy, although I'd really been looking forward to it. Since it took place in the future, after the nuking, I thought that, at last, they're going to make the movie with the giant tracked robots and the skulls! But no, we got something else entirely, and it wasn't really what we wanted to see...
10. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, 2004, Director, Michel Gondry
Whew, after The Terminator, it was rather a desert for real cinematic SF. In my opinion, every single one of Cameron's movies was less smart than the one preceding it...well maybe Terminator 2 was better than The Abyss. Those big Roland Emmerich things were frequently entertaining, but all of them were profoundly stupid. The Star Wars prequels were completely devoid of the kind of zip that that made the original flick so engaging, and all you had to fall back on was the effects, because you sure as hell couldn't fall back on the acting or the dialogue...as for any kind of relationship to actual science...well, there was none of that. District Nine had a lot of things going for it, but its science fiction left much to be desired...you have to buy into things like an alien fluid that operates their technology but also turns you into an alien, starting with your arm, if you inhale some of it...sheesh.
Nope the only SF film during this period that I'd single out is Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. The movie was an extremely weird sell, even though it starred Jim Carrey...there was an understandable attempt to pass it off as a typical Carrey comedy, but people saw through that...it did mediocre business, although it probably didn't cost too much. Fact is, the primary effect that it dishes up is just plain horror...it's extremely nightmarish. But it's also pretty Philip K. Dicklike...Dicklike in reverse. It's as if Lacuna is the opposite of the Recall company...they take your memories out, rather than giving you fake ones.
For about the first fifteen minutes of the movie, you really have no idea that it's going to have any sort of SF element at all. We get Jim Carrey's character, nerdy Joel Barish, meeting Kate Winslet's Clementine Kruczynski on the train back to NYC from Montauk. She's fairly crazy and out there, with multi-colored hair and an extremely brash manner. Even though they're very different, they hit it off...he winds up at her apartment, which is all full of strange countercultural stuff, and they have some drinks while listening to music from an old Bollywood snake woman movie called Nagin. She makes him pretty uncomfortable, but he likes the experience enough to keep on going with her...the movie does quite an excellent job in depicting the awkward early stages of a relationship. Everything seems to be going okay...then there's a fade-out, and we finally get the credits.
When we get back to Joel, everything seems to have gone to shit with him and Clementine...this seems to be a flash-forward, although we find out ultimately that it's a flashback. He's already broken up with her, but then he finds out that things are even worse than he thought...she's had him erased from her memory by a company called Lacuna. He goes to their crummy office to find out if the whole memory erasure thing is really possible, learns it is from Dr. Mierzwiak (Tom Wilkinson), and decides to have the procedure done on himself---that is to say, have Clementine erased from his memory.
Now, obviously, this memory-erasure technique is something we don't have yet, as Joel initially points out to Dr. Mierzwiak. But the movie just accepts it as a sort of a given, rather like Wells' time machine. They just have this technique. But once they assert this, the idea's developed quite powerfully. At first, Joel's a little worried...he asks if the technique doesn't damage the brain...the good doctor replies, "Well, technically it is brain damage...about on a par with a night of heavy drinking...nothing you'll ever miss." He then asks Joel to bring every piece of memorabilia he associates with Clementine. That done, Joel puts his head into a monitor, and is shown all the junk he brought in...looking at each piece, he fetches up the relevant memories...this causes various spots to light up on monitors, and Mierzwiak makes a map of all the places where Clementine can be found in Joel's brain.
Afterward, Joel goes home, and takes a pill that puts him into a real deep sleep; and after he's down, Mierzwiak's boys park their nondescript white van outside, get their gear out of the back, and go into Joel's apartment, hook his head into another rig, and spend the night drinking beer, partying with Mierzwiak's dishy secretary Mary (Kirsten Dunst) and erasing Clementine from his brain. We alternate between Joel's mental states and their shenanigans...as they light up one memory after another, he finds himself back at this or that place, which then goes out of focus and dark as the memory is destroyed. Very swiftly, he concludes that he really doesn't like this process, and gets more and more terrified...no matter where he goes in his mind, he begins to suspect that someone is spying on him, present in some way....we discover that one of Mierzwiak's idiots, Patrick (Elijah Wood),worked on Clementine, and has used the information he discovered to seduce her...principally, he's mined every thing she remembered about Joel, and he's kinda inflicting that whole relation ship on her again, only, of course, she doesn't remember it...
As the night progresses, we learn that even though Mary is carousing with Mierzwiak's other idiot, Stan(Mark Ruffalo), she's much more fixated on the doctor himself...down inside Joel's brain, we see him begin to take active steps to try to retain his memories of Clementine, and after a while, she's actively accompanying him through all his memories. He manages to get enough control of the process to bring her into memories of things where she wasn't present...the whole erasure process comes to a halt. This might seem arbitrary, but really it's not...eventually we learn that the technique is quite imperfect at best, and that it has to be done to some people repeatedly...either that, or they just drift back into the same relationships they had before, thinking they're doing it for the first time.
Dr. Mierzwiak is called to the house...he's much more skillful with his process than his assistants, and as Mary looks on adoringly, he locates Joel in a part of his own brain where he shouldn't be, and starts chasing him down. The erasure sequences get more and more harrowing, characterized by first-rate special effects...we realize that that flash-forward towards the beginning was actually a flashback when Joel meets Clementine at a party on Montauk. Just before Clementine is seemingly extirpated forever, she tells Joel to "meet her in Montauk." Then the process is apparently completed.
Mierzwiak has a great sense of accomplishment...but we discover that Mary really has serious designs on him, and he's willing to give her a tumble, even though he's married. However, his wife has discovered that Mary is with him, and she's really pissed, because Mary had had a previous affair with him, and had had her memory erased, at the wife's insistence. "Don't be a monster," the wife says, and tells him to tell Mary, which he does...Mary reacts with horror, swipes Mierzwiak's files, and mails them to all his patients, many of whom have been having their memories erased repeatedly, only to have their lives go off the rails the same way, or have the memories come back...
As for Joel, the only thing he seems to have left of Clementine is that strange desire to visit Montauk, and as we already know, he does...they hit it off again. But then they read the stuff Mary has sent out, and realize how terribly things had gone for them before. Even so, knowing that it could turn out the same way, they decide to give it another shot...happy ending...
The direction, by Video specialist Michel Gondry, is first-rate...the romance between Carrey and Winslet really clicks, and when it goes south, it really goes south. But the movie is also excellent as a horror film, and a textbook demonstration of the proper way to use digital effects. Gondry's transitions are particularly novel and unsettling, very reminiscent of real dreams. He also had a hand in the story, with Charlie Kaufman, and Pierre Bismuth; Kaufman did the screenplay...I don't think there's a single misstep in the writing. I've watched the movie mutiple times; just watched it again. Highly recommended. Makes Inception, which dealt with similar material, look just like the overproduced twaddle it is.