Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (2011)

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Compared to Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy most films appear to simply be extended commercials with music videos for the emotional parts. Telling the story of Soviet infiltration of the British secret services through an interlocking series of clues, this film takes the approach that Agatha Christie might use for one of her cerebral murder cases and applies it instead to international espionage. It will never outsell The Avengers because in this film, every detail is part of the mechanism that builds up to an intense finale for its ultimate revelation. Even more damning, themes in this movie illustrate human narcissism, how the West was destroyed by the same individualistic self-interest that made it strong, and the importance of honor, loyalty and truthfulness.

Gary Oldman stars as John le CarrĂ©’s character George Smiley, modulated from the outsider nerd in the book to a methodical and highly analytical man who finds much of society around him to be short-sighted and erroneous. Like the best characters from literature, he endures civilization as it is but upholds it as it is at its best, creating a worldview that would approve of the mythological analysis of the human soul as found in Slayer lyrics or the darker days of grindcore. Exiled from his position at MI6 because of his refusal to endorse a new and magical source of Soviet secrets, and passed over by those who built careers on it, Smiley hunts for a “mole” or double-agent who is compromising British intelligence whenever it tries to operate in enemy territory. Unlike those who have taken over his former role, he searches through the type of logical analysis and study of the relationship between details that made sleuths like Sherlock Holmes, Ellery Queen, Hercule Poirot, the Continental Op, Phillip Marlowe and Miss Jane Marple legends in their field.

Sadly for most modern audiences, this film requires attention. No detail is spurious and every scene follows from the systematic and interlocking pursuit of details. In addition, the filmmakers layer that story with parallel themes of love and loss, loyalty and motivation, and strength of character versus the tendency to appeal to pleasant but erroneous notions that receive the aplomb of journalists, politicians and the faceless voting masses. While its logicality deserves praise, the emotionality of this film in bringing out the loneliness of its characters and the equal isolation of the struggle for truth, as not a motivator but a shaper and revelation of personality, enhances a solid story into an epic one. The acting is brilliant without being self-absorbed — no one in this film looks like they are acting, or resembles other characters they have played in other films — and the soundtrack is minimal and on point, the cinematography both bleak and elegant, and the directing and editing show a perfect sense of timing that both preserves atmosphere and cuts out anything but the powerful. Of the films made in the 2010s, this will either be the best or in the top three, because movies this intense rarely come along at a rate of more than a handful per generation.

Hot Fuzz (2007)

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In the grand tradition of send-ups like Naked Gun, Tropic Thunder and Tucker and Dale Versus Evil, this goofy UK film tears apart movie stereotypes and cliches while providing relatively harmless laughs. It bears no relation to reality and exists solely as distraction but serves an important role in revealing movie tropes for the empty and implausible scenarios they are.

As in most good films, it begins with hyperbole and descends into satire. A super-cop from the city moves to a small town where he finds that mysterious deaths are going unreported. He investigates and finds a dark secret to this idyllic and seemingly useless place. Because of his inner conviction that law and order is important, he takes on the bad guys with impossible odds against him. Since this is a family film, there are no major surprises in the plot, and the filmmakers focused on texture instead. Like most films of this genre, internal plot features are repeated in different contexts to achieve both continuity and contrast. Characters, while one-dimensional, also exist as people with relatively complex motivations formed from a balance of self-interest and goodwill. What initially seem like simply stereotypes expand to show the reasons behind the behavior, reducing the implied mindlessness of lifestyle choices. This allows the filmmakers to mutilate, spindle and destroy those roles and bring out the absurdity of our time.

Comedy cannot be bloodless. In this film, the prime targets are the vast hypocrisy of a society that, like the idyllic town in this film, has given up on finding reason for its actions. It operates on rote, driven by money and obedient to mindless rules, and these two behaviors get the most ire. Throughout the movie, classic movie moments are revisited and destroyed with mockery. Characters twist and erode their own character types of the type one might expect in a Hollywood blockbuster. Through it all, the film manages to make its characters likeable by showing them as relatively simple people working on simple rules that they have found generally guide them to the right places in a world that is chaotic and beyond control. While no surprises or great profundity come from Hot Fuzz, what makes it powerful is that in the process of satirizing a situation, and then movies themselves, it also mocks the absurdity of our current era and the uselessness of people within it. Like all good comedy, this approach results in well-needed laughs and increasing cynicism toward “the way things are always done around here.”

The Babadook (2014)

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Old school horror books often focused on plotlines where an inner psychological trauma became manifested in a physical evil. Metaphorically, this plot generates a lot of appeal because it mimics the worst of the human condition: neurotic and blinded to our own inner corruption, we humans have a tendency to act out our psychological dysfunction on the world. The horror story takes this only one step further by mythologizing it, and putting abstract dysfunction into a visual form so we can recognize it, unlike when it remains within us.

The Babadook takes on this plot family — comparable to riff archetype in metal — and makes of it a movie that is one-half tedium and one-half incoherence. It holds up the metaphor reasonably well, but loses sight of its purpose early on, and like many movies with female directors, concentrates on “atmosphere” to the point of making the audience lose sympathy for the characters. Although it brings itself full circle without pandering to the easy options for plot conclusion, such as character insanity or dream, its failure to make sense of the challenge to the main character, Amelia, renders the storyline into gibberish at the end.

The setup is simple: Amelia has a son, Samuel, who was born on the day her husband died. The husband, Oskar, was killed in a car crash on a rainy night as he drove Amelia to the hospital to birth Samuel. Seven years later, she still becomes morbid and withdrawn as the day that Samuel was born approaches. The child, on the other hand, never has a guilt-free birthday party. Working the standard pointless modern job, and struggling with her own inability to snap out of her reverie, Amelia struggles with the more profound problem of Samuel, who acts like a child with severe emotional problems. As the movie goes on, both Amelia and Samuel essentially retreat or are exiled from the world as their increasingly bizarre and dangerous behavior threatens others.

During the midst of this, Samuel finds a pop-up book that tells the story of a creature called the Babadook. The book is written in annoying sing-song rhyme, but it makes its point that is essential to the metaphor of the story: the more you deny the presence of the Babadook, the more he takes over you. The obvious analogy to grief itself, and the inability to escape or unwillingness to give up prolonged mourning, shows us the weakness in Amelia that allows evil to enter… or escape. In some of the most tired plot devices in horror, the book keeps re-appearing after being destroyed or hidden, adding new lines to the rhyme as life falls apart for Amelia and Samuel.

Like many other modern films, The Babadook features characters who are chronically sleep-deprived. This bit of realism resonates with audiences, so many of the newer generation of psychological horror films adopt it. Here it is worn to death and repeated to the point of tedium during the first half of the film. At the midpoint of the film, everyone changes roles. Samuel, the useless and destructive child, suddenly becomes responsible. Amelia suddenly spaces out and becomes useless. Unfortunately for all viewers of this film, the remaining “suspense” repeats the same three techniques very slowly so we understand the atmosphere, and as a result avoids sheer tedium but replaces it with predictability and storyline nonsense as characters undergo brain damage in order to allow the plot to stay together. That and gratuitous (and mostly ineffectual) pet death are supposed to shock us into dropping our iPhones into our arugula salad and calling our husband who are working late at their corporate jobs, in hysterics at how “shocking” it all is. Except that it is not. It is babble.

This film could have been great because the metaphor resonates with us all in this time of intense victimhood. For it to do that, however, it would have to overcome its favorable view of victimhood and get serious about its own metaphor, producing a creature that is believable which mimics grief in its ability to consume people, instead of just making them go crazy and act completely against common sense, which makes it impossible for the audience to identify with them. The plot needed a careful structuring to show the reason for the projection of grief into this creature, and then needed some kind of plot device that defeats the evil. It has neither of these. It hides behind sloppy screenwriting which it justifies with the idea that it enhances the mystery or atmosphere, but it does neither. This script is incomplete and what was there did not stretch for the full length of the film.

The Babadook falls short of not only its own potential, but the standard it would need to meet for the experienced suspense-horror audience, but could easily have achieved greatness. The acting — especially by Essie Davis as Amelia — is very well-executed. Cinematography does not strike an excessive note, nor does it stand out as particularly excellent, but it rises far above mediocre. The problem of the storyline dooms this film. “Atmosphere” serves as a cop-out for what really needed to be done: to tell the story of grief and self-pity with an unblinking eye, and by showing us that psychology as a metaphorical monster, revealing what must be done to defeat that crippling choice and sensation in ourselves.

Final Destination 2 (2003)

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Horror movies, like death metal songs, take one or more basic forms derived from the experience being described which symbolizes a psychological state in the user. Much like childhood night terrors, one form of horror movie is the pursuit themed movie. Final Destination 2 offers a new take on this which expands it into almost postmodern territory: death itself pursues a cast of characters and, because death is metaphysical but can influence the physical world, they find themselves pursued to paranoia because there is no tangible enemy to avoid or beat.

The plot of the Final Destination series stays invariant in its approach: an event which will bring death to a group of people is destined to occur, one of these people has a premonition, and the group avoids death, only to find that it has not forgotten them and like an engineer checking items off a “to do” list, comes after them invisibly and craftily. Death stalks its victims through a variety of Rube Goldberg contraptions made from everyday objects seeming to conspire toward evil ends, which is what makes this movie so fun. No situation is innocent because ordinarily innocent surroundings can, when twisted by the brilliant hand of doom, become fatal for the relatively ordinary and normally blithe people in these films.

Like the characters in the movie, the audience is driven to paranoia because these events have a conspiratorial nature. As the old saying goes, the whole is greater than the sum of the parts, and when small parts are combined with fiendish intelligence, they make death traps that could hide behind any door and every life event. This raises terror to a new level, because instead of characters approaching a known evil, the threat to their lives hides among the ordinary, and life must go on, so they try to survive with as much normalcy as possible despite feeling the breath of death on their necks at every moment. For a death metal fan, this resembles life itself, as “only death is real” and we are aware of the fragility of life, and banish superstition not only with cartoon fantasy visions of the afterlife but with the religious way that people view human life as being independent of nature, chance and anything beyond what we intend, as mediated by careers, commerce and laws.

Perhaps the most telling moment of the underlying thematic material in this film becoming clear involves a character who, having seen another character terminated in gory excess, goes on a lengthy neurotic breakdown rant in which he screams repeatedly, as if trying to convince himself more than others, “I control my life.” Other characters launch into worlds of human construction to hide from death: one talks about her career, another immerses himself in drugs, and another in mourning and self-pity. All come to doom except the few who manage to be both realist and focus on survival, and become aware of the metaphysical and take the threat seriously even though they do not understand it. Final Destination 2 effectively parrots back to modern people (in a more interesting form) the existential terror of death in the anonymous city where at any minute our technology and social order can collapse and leave a trail of victims.

The original Final Destination focused on a plane crash but the second in the series works with the more mundane threats to the modern citizen, which in a way are more terrifying despite the constant mysterious disappearance, shooting down and crashes of planes that have become a staple of the news of late. In this film, death lurks everywhere and a plan exists for each of us determining when we die. This offends our post-Enlightenment sense of being masters of our own fate and wiser than nature, because in this case death acts more like a force of nature than a ghost or spirit, making it terrifying, systematic and relentless.

Knowing the horror genre well, apparently, the filmmakers do not fail to follow the pattern of horror films, which is that characters struggle against their own denial before they encounter a supernatural force, and then only those willing to both believe in it as real and learn about it to fight it on its own terms can prevail. This formula proves effective because it is a metaphor (for Ara) for our own process of learning in life, where our assumptions prove insufficient and we must recognize the failure, drop our pretense of control, and then learn about what we oppose in order to get past it. Tightly scripted and edited, this film keeps suspense high but not uniformly so, creating a graceful story arc which accelerates rapidly before its peak, delivering all of the thrills and wisdom of a horror film in a compact package.

Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure (1989)

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When future history is written, either on the scraps of a dead civilization or the new frontiers of a restored one, it may include a mention of Generation X as a precipice between old and new. In 1989, waves of thought were already concentrating on the idea Francis Fukuyama would express a few years later, which was that history was pretty much over and a final human form had been found. Now, the thought ran, we only had to figure out the parts of life that were not government or economics.

Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure dropped into this fertile climate like a bomb of pleasant discomfiture. Its ostensibly pleasant message resonated with a nation caught in indecision. The 1960s had legitimized every behavior, but lacking the comforting direction of the 1940s, it felt adrift. It was somewhat clear the Cold War was winding down and change would happen soon. It would arrive in a void of purpose that unsettled Americans. We had prosperity, relative peace and working social institutions, but life still echoed with a basic emptiness.

The plot involves two Southern California kids who, coming from unstable families, have decided to chuck everything and be in a hard rock band. Their challenge awaiting them is that, being disengaged from public reality entirely, they are about to fail history and with it, a year of high school, which will lead to their separation and the death of the band. With the help of a visitor from the future (George Carlin) the two set off to explore history in order to learn what school could not teach them.

Science-fiction nerds will note rather cruelly that this movie may have borrowed its basic plot device from a British series of the 1960s, Dr. Who. Where the Doctor ventured in a call box, American time travelers got a phone booth. Otherwise, the devices resemble each other to a great degree. The plot follows a simple course of introducing the dilemma, then a series of essentially short skits involving a mockery of different historical periods, followed by a somewhat complex confrontation between historical characters and the 1989 world and then a pleasant and satisfying conclusion.

It would be a mistake to write this movie off as shallow, however. Bill and Ted are two of the most wounded characters to occupy the screen during the 1980s. Both have shattered family origins, low self-esteem, and are perplexed by a world that seems like commercials projected onto screens behind which people wallow in insecurity, doubt and meaninglessness. As many did during the 1980s, they hide behind idiocy as a way of shielding themselves from expectations. They find adults hard to take seriously because adults are focused on methods and results, but not quality of experience. Bill and Ted delineate themselves as characters by their pursuit of something above what they know as life, starting with actually having purpose, even if they have no idea how to go about it.

They launch into their adventure with a jovial carefree attitude that dramatically contrasts the adults of the day. Where 1980s authority figures are rigid and demanding, Bill and Ted look to the value of a given experience in itself. As they go through history, this makes them able to adapt to many different circumstances from which they borrow historical personages. On being brought to the setting of the movie in San Dimas, CA, these figures interact with modern locals and quickly show themselves to be far more competent than your average citizen of the modern era. This movie makes contemporary people look like blockheads who depend on rules and rigid social order to keep themselves from drifting into oblivion, and quickly show a kinship between Bill, Ted and their historical counterparts: all of them dream not only bigger, but of something better, even when simply pursuing their own pleasures. In contrast to the spraypaint color and fake tans of Southern California, the historical humans are a flash of brightness like lightning.

Most of us will find the ending to this film somewhat cheesy, but there is no way to avoid it with a plot that completes itself with a finite achievement; emotional closure does not occur, so the filmmakers allow us a few moments of comedic absurdity with one exception. Look for psychoanalysis to make an appearance and underline a vital plot point in the final few minutes of the film. As always, this movie shows a clash between Baby Boomers, who grew up in a world with order and assume it still exists, and Bill and Ted — symbols for Generation X — who awoke in a world that made no sense, was vapid and had no sense of its own history.

In undertaking their journey through greatness of the past, Bill and Ted in many ways summarize their own time. It struggled with literal threats like the Wild West, political instability, invasions, religious wars and neurosis, but now returns back to its roots in the Socratic questions about the value in life itself. This alludes to what Fukuyama wrote about, which is the question before humanity: become mere materialists, or rise above? Bill and Ted answer with a resounding Be excellent to each other, a message that resonated with many back at the end of the Cold War in its transformative formula for a quantitative world to improve itself instead of stagnating.

Tron (1982)

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Before William Gibson and the eventual cinematization of his ideas, The Matrix, but after Shockwave Rider and The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, Tron captured the imagination of the public with a movie that adapted the Star Wars series to take place inside a computer. More of a culmination of ideas and a reduction of them to a tangible form than an entirely new idea on its own, Tron defined the cyberpunk wave of science fiction by laying out the basic ingredients of all of its future drama. The result is a visually compelling movie that compares to Metropolis and Blade Runner for its graceful but imposing artistic representation of its topic.

Set in approximately the same time in which it was filmed, this movie follows the path of a hacker trying to find proof that he wrote a massively successful video game which has been stolen by a 1980s style evil large corporate entity. The only glitch is that the secret exists only within the massive mainframe computer that, like the AIs in The Moon is a Harsh Mistress and Neuromancer, assists that corporate entity… and may partially control it. The mainframe is controlled by a program that resembles the early worms that conquered much of the internet in that it absorbs smaller programs and uses them, zombie-like, as its agents, slowly gaining power as it absorbs more code. In the process of trying to gain entry to the machine, the hacker is captured and digitized by it. Now he must break through its security to escape.

At this point, it becomes necessary to point out that there are two movies in Tron. One is a science fiction story that summarizes much of the thinking about virtual reality from the previous decade, and another is a movie that — look at the logo on the cover — applies the Disney-style Hollywood treatment to make a story dramatic and yet accessible. The two do not completely integrate and the science fiction dominates most of the first two-thirds of the movie, at which point its storyline becomes obvious and Hollywood takes over for the touchdown. The great strength of this movie is that it made visualizations of computer concepts in the way that has always distinguished Disney productions; its most poignant image, perhaps borrowed a little bit from Thomas Pynchon, is of the neon-light modern city and how it resembles a visual representation of computer programs.

Where Pynchon compared the lighted city skyline to circuit boards, Tron makes programs into lighted cityscapes that resemble circuit boards, but represent the interaction of programs, users and data. Gibson took this image further and removed the city from it, making it merely a cool-looking abstract space that overlapped with the city but did not directly represent it. Much as both Pynchon and Gibson were influenced by W.S. Burroughs, in this story the computer realm resembles Interzone, or a place where the symbolic becomes real and yet the real can be manipulated by symbols. If you need that dumbed down to a stupefactive level, go see The Matrix, which is 5,000 times more Hollywood-Disney than Tron and is designed to neutralize the power of these concepts.

In Burroughs, Nietzsche comes to life (from On Truth and Lies in a Non-Moral Sense): words manipulate like program code written right into our brains, and the only solution is to decode the message and compare it to reality, at which point one can escape. The Matrix is like the French Revolution writ large onto the screen, in that some simplistic evil corporation keeps everyone in a state of illusion — much like movies and TV including The Matrix do — by creating a false reality. When they wake up, recognizing that the reality is false is enough, and suddenly everyone comes together and sings kumbaya and celebrates the fact that they are all free now. Sound familiar? Yes, it is the standard movie plot of everything from Revenge of the Nerds to Three Days of the Condor. It also compares somewhat to other movies from the same genre of mood as this one and the same time period, such as Blade Runner and Wargames, each of which involves a man fighting technology for liberation theme.

The interesting science fiction movie within Tron starts at the moment that man is digitized into the machine. Most cyberspace dramas focus on the virtual becoming real, but in this case the real becomes virtual and must find a way to escape from the machine. The movie misses out on what may be the real story, which is how changing data in a machine can change real life, by putting the protagonist Flynn (Jeff Bridges, a spiral cut ham) into the machine. If one bit in your record at the DMV or credit bureau becomes changed, your life will take a radically different turn. By focusing on the escape itself instead, Tron manages to spin itself into an interesting tale where a man must play several video games and win before he can break out into the machine itself, circumvent its security measures and then disable the rogue program that controls it.

This “escape” theme works well but disconnects real from virtual worlds, which makes it difficult to have any central narrative except the liberation of the machine itself, which conveniently also liberates the information Flynn needs. For the first two-thirds of the movie, Tron plays with its ability to visualize video games as if the participant were inside of them, and works out a few basic computer concepts in visual form as well, which was necessary to prepare the mainstream audience to understand the weird gadgets that were only just beginning to penetrate homes. When the Hollywoodization takes over, the final third of the movie becomes more like Star Wars and your typical 1980s adventure movie, which causes a somewhat incoherent sequence to segue into a happy ending.

As a movie from its time period, Tron holds up brilliantly over thirty years later. The graphics still look believable and the basic metaphor of man in machine as a program fighting for survival against assimilation strikes a chord with our own struggle to avoid having our brains taken over by the endless memes, advertising, political promises, slogans and trends that keep our modern world under control. While the ending is both slightly confused, fairly derivative and moronically basic in the way only Hollywood can do, it does not detract from an otherwise intriguing and imaginative film that may be one of the more impressive works of quasi-apocalyptic cinema from that era.

Demolition Man (1993)

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Cult movies must take on an attitude similar to heavy metal and horror films: as outsiders looking in at a society whose institutions and ideals are entirely corrupted by what humans wish were true, and populated by humans who refuse to see the obvious because of their socially-defined rules and ideals which deny reality. Every good horror film involves people fighting an evil or mortal threat, but first they must fight themselves and purge from within the assumptions that make them useless, then get their war faces on and conquer the enemy or perish.

In that respect, Demolition Man is more like sci-fi horror cloaked beneath an action film. The plot is simple: ballbusting cop John “Demolition Man” Spartan (Sylvester Stallone) is convicted of mass murder for an arrest gone awry and imprisoned in a cryostasis facility. Forty years later, the vile criminal Simon Phoenix — portrayed with humor and energy by the engaging Wesley Snipes — is thawed by what looks like a computer error. Phoenix emerges into a new world: under a utopian system of government, people have become equal parts politically correct and 1980s “have a nice day” posi-culture, rendering them utterly useless against any real threat. The criminal rages across the land and in helpless confusion, the neutered future denizens thaw Spartan and send him out to get the bad guy in a decision summarized as “it takes a maniac to catch a maniac.” The movie follows Spartan as he tries to both capture Phoenix and deal with the shadowy forces that threaten revolution in this future paradise that may not be as paradisic as it claims to be. Aiding him is officer Lenina Huxley (Sandra Bullock) who although she accepts her future world as perfect, also grates against its insipid pacifism and the boredom created by its regimentation of all activity into simple steps with almost no consequences.

The underlying influence on this movie is Brave New World, alluded to not only by the use of both Vladimir Lenin and Brave New World author Aldous Huxley to construct the name of the heroine, but also revealed in the type of hell into which Spartan falls: a society dedicated to avoiding conflict and maintaining safety that has eliminated all risk, adventure, masculinity and fun. Demolition Man shows us the horror of a society that we design based on our fears. This future world has no purpose except the negative purpose of avoiding bad vibes, risk and conflict. As officer Huxley discovers, this makes for not only a boring society, but a docile one which is manipulated by leaders who are not corrupt in the ordinary sense of accepting bribes, but in a moral and spiritual sense in that they wish to stamp out all defects and create a kind of varied uniformity that resembles the hipster scene in AD 2015. John Spartan, like heavy metal, represents the primal id of humanity which desires intense experience more than it wants safety like the neurotic ego. Simon Phoenix represents the lurking psychic shadow of such a civilization, motivated only to destroy because he rightfully detests the precious snowflake-world he finds himself in, and also because as someone entirely devoid of soul his only pleasures are found through dominating others. His addiction to victimization of others makes him a menace in any age, but the future world is entirely unprepared to deal with him because it has made is own emptiness a positive value. This conflict plays out throughout the film as Spartan finds himself caught between docile social engineers and anarchic revolutionaries.

Naturally with Stallone in this movie it requires high levels of carefully choreographed violence, but these are brainier — taking advantage of the anticipated “cult” audience — than those in big blockbusters like The Expendables which converge on the moronic. Bullock, known best for romantic comedy roles, performs convincingly as a character who is blithely indoctrinated in her new world order on the surface, but covertly hoping for something of significance to distinguish her days from one another. In particular, her comedic timing is exceptional. Stallone also reveals why action films favor him through his ability to deliver absurd lines which are both masochistic-masculinist and cryptically insightful. As the film progresses, these characters converge on a middle ground and understand each other, which brings out one of the themes of the movie: while designing utopia is a terrible idea, the anarchic void also threatens, and people are desperate for a middle zone where they are both not living in fear of random violence and also not managed like slaughterhouse animals.

Demolition Man deserves every bit of its cult movie credential. Some of these scenes are painful to watch because of the high ingenue factor of people in the future, but like other movies in this vein such as Idiocracy, the pain is necessary to reveal the full absurdity of the type of goal that our politicians, entertainers and corporate overlords routinely announce as desirable. Although this movie is hammy, it is not ham-handed in that a viewer can appreciate it as a simple story without worrying about its implications, but that layer of interpretation lurks beneath the surface and brings out an emotional depth that action films normally do not have. In this satirical treatment the crisis of humanity’s attempt to manage itself becomes painfully clear, and while these characters represent broad positions in that battle, these roles occur within the spectrum of this question and allow the allegory to work without being reduced to the level of pure personal drama. Movies such as this make us fear our wishful thinking and realize that perhaps our best intentions — with which the road to hell is paved as folklore informs us — will create a prison for our souls that only raw animal violence and blind will to crush what is empty can resolve.

Dredd (2012)

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Dredd takes 1950s noire themes and explodes them into a 21st century action film wrapped around a 1980s concept, but does so successfully and produces a thoughtful action film with a subtle but revelatory character study which makes it both fit together as a realistic drama and uphold the standards of its comic book origins.

The film takes place in a 24th century dystopian sprawl that is what remains of the USA. 800 million people live in Mega-City One, where over 17,000 crimes are committed daily. To keep up with the decay, police and courts have been combined into one forces: the Judges. Roughly analogous to medieval knights, these warriors roam the city and find criminals and administer punishment on the spot, including death. One detail that most fail to notice about this film is that in the poorest areas of Mega-City, just about every person is on welfare. In the Peachtrees Tower where most of the action takes place, 96% of the residents are on welfare. This gives Dredd a realistic take on dystopia, which is that it is a dystopia-utopia where good intentions and expanding humanity have led to an unstable situation.

Karl Urban creates from Judge Dredd the most believable film version yet, restraining verbal expression to the minimum but using pauses and body language to convey more nuanced reactions. Dredd follows the Judge as he takes a new colleague, Anderson, into a futuristic equivalent of the apocalyptic Section 8 housing in American cities today in pursuit of evil drug dealers who are terrorizing the helpless residents. This part of the plot feels like a 1980s holdover and my guess is that most of the people who took exception to this movie did so as a reaction to this aspect of the plot. However, the drug angle takes no greater significance in the plot than to introduce wealthy bad guys with infinite men to spare so that Dredd and friends have someone to fight that will result in a high body count which will disturb no one because of zero sympathy for the dead. The movie adds a 21st century comic book feel by incorporating technological and metaphysical aspects to the plot, expanding it from a pure adrenaline action flick to more of a science fiction hybrid, in a slightly less nuanced version of what Aliens and Terminator did, which is to create a realistic situation in which technology fails and bravery must prevail, and thus bring out some depth to the characters. Urban’s Dredd grimaces and gruffly commands his way through the movie but increasingly reveals the complex mentation required for someone to dedicate his life to thankless fighting of evil with certainty of ultimate death, giving us the most believable Dredd yet.

While not all of this film will appeal to those who find comic books one-dimensional, the filmmakers did their best to rein in those impulses while still delivering enough violence and terror to give this movie the impact it needs to be convincing. Eschewing the approach of the 1990s Stallone Dredd, Urban’s Dredd exists in a world that is more noire than superhero: dark hopeless human existence in which the Judges are more pathological authoritarians than happy heroes, and humanity is revealed as the mewling parasite that it seems to be. In the end, the film is both entertaining and compelling, giving this character fullness in an energetic retelling of a tale as much concerned with order versus chaos as the old Westerns and King Arthur era stories that surely inspired the creation of this one as much as its futuristic dystopian setting.

Devil (2010)

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This film combines supernatural horror with the time-honored formula of detective stories, which is the “locked room” mystery. In this case, the locked room is an elevator in which five people are stranded during a power outage. As time goes on, and evil acts accumulate, it becomes clear that one of the people in the elevator is in fact working in service to darkness and impurity.

M. Night Shyamalan prides himself in making atmospheric films with semi-philosophical ideas lurking under the surface, but it is safer to say that Devil takes a Miltonian approach to expressing a religious message that ends up being more gnostic than the convenient externalization of Satan which with modern religion addresses evil. While the intent of the film is made clear, it strays far from the two thwarts to quality expression of idea in film, which are the blunt propaganda of contemporary religious cinema and the concealed satisfaction with deconstruction of all values — with the breakdown supplanting re-evaluation — that is the hallmark of Hollywood. In this film, Satan plays an active role in the judgment of humanity.

Locked-room mysteries tend to be research projects into either or both of the psychology of the people in the room or their pasts, looking for a bridge between characters. The sixth character here is an investigating police officer who struggles daily with the agony of loss of his wife and child in a DUI hit and run accident. Seen through his eyes, the presence of evil becomes less supernatural and more a case of human self-absorption causing negative results in reality as illusion collides with consistency. Locked outside of the elevator and many floors away, he investigates the people in the elevator with the help of telephones, the internet and other people, searching to get to the bottom of the mystery.

The result is less atmospheric than a fast-paced mystery or a mid-paced thriller, with enough gore and suspense to drive the plot forward and make solving the mystery seem an urgent necessity. Whether these actors are as good as their craft as it seems, or it is the fusion of director and actors, they achieve the greatest of all cinematic triumphs which is true suspension of disbelief: unlike most movies, they do not seem like actors, even stage actors as the more celebrated movies display. Instead they come across as everyday people who speak their lines more clearly and make their gestures more visible. Tightly edited, the film avoids the use of tedium to offset the suspense, and thankfully the script avoids any of the “instant replay” dialogue that more confused films used to replay complex plots. Instead, it moves along normally, with the tension of an observer who increasingly sees his task as more of a battle between good and evil than an everyday mystery. The conclusion is neither a baffling surprise nor as predictable as the average film, and continues the suspense until it can streamline into a sustaining emotional ambiance.

Doom (2005)

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The rise of a new medium catches everyone by surprise, especially those who are trying to make it succeed. In the case of video gaming, the medium existed for many years before it came to maturity with the full-featured video games of the late 1990s, spurred on by the massive success of first-person shooter Doom, itself a followup on the renovation of the classic 1980s video game Wolfenstein with Wolfenstein 3D. Then, for reasons unknown, someone made a movie based in the world of Doom, and… it was good.

At the point in time when Doom III, the most proximate inspiration for this movie, emerged, video games had transitioned into something like a film which required user engagement. With full plot lines, accessories for the characters (we might blame 1980s Star Wars figures for this), ability to use in-game utilities to uncover plot, and complex goals to hide the banality of constant machine gun warfare, the new games hybridized all of the successful tropes of video games of the previous decade with the gestures of action movies that succeeded. This gave them new complexity and made the transition to movie more challenging if the film hoped to differentiate itself from the game. Early efforts were often horrifyingly bad. Doom corrects this with a fast-paced, tight-edited movie that keeps the plot of the game at its center, and pays extensive tribute to the game without becoming a string of in-jokes. This film could be watched without any knowledge of the game and it would be as compelling, as it is in fact brainier and more compelling than the average action film.

Doom begins in California, where a team of Marines are heading out to Las Vegas, NV, where an interstellar portal that opens on Mars has been discovered. Borrowing this idea from Edgar Rice Burroughs, the film mixes in bits of Stargate, Aliens and Starship Troopers to show us a group of hard-fighting colonial marines sent on a mission with few specifics. They discover an outbreak of a zombie-like disease which turns out to be a genetic mutation. The wrinkle is that this mutation does not so much change people as reveal what they actually are, and this creates a layer of character depth to the movie which proves instrumental to its plot and steers around the worst of the endless waves of enemies effect that early first-person shooters demonstrated. That being said, this film is designed as an action movie for young men, and so it adheres to the requirements of pleasing that audience. The hammy Dwayne Johnson delivers his usual stern facial muscles and straining deltoids, but his performance is not as central to the movie as the posters might have you believe. Ultra-gruff cinematic violence expert Karl Urban plays opposite to alternatively plain and striking Rosamund Pike, with whom the filmmakers pander to anticipated audience taste by ensuring that her relatively reserved clothing reveals the outline of breasts and nipples in every scene. That is the pulp fiction nature of both video games and action movies, however, and Doom pulls it off by being good-natured but not obsessive. The characters are part of the scenery, albeit scenery that evolves with the plot. As the film progresses, the character drama takes over, and then in one of the most enjoyable breaks in film history, the movie goes into first-person shooter mode for a finale that pays full loving tribute to the original video game.

Perhaps Doom will never be mentioned in East End coffee klatches or fashion magazines, and it may never attract more than a small die-hard cult audience, but it can be appreciated for its renovation of an otherwise uptight sub-genre of film and its ability to make what might otherwise easily deviate into idiot territory into a thoughtful and suspenseful film. The violence of raw first-person shooters here distills, as in Aliens but with less emphasis on pure suspense, to a game of anticipation in which characters must react suddenly to unexpected threats while in the midst of confusion and incredulity as they discover what is going on. The result is part mystery, mostly action film, and part the oldest type of sci-fi which is the exploration of the human being as revealed by his technology, in this case genetic engineering and 21st century violence.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TtXFlzZa-QA