Letter From The Editor - Issue 59 - October 2017

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Writing Fantasy

  
At The Picture Show
October 2007

Look closer...

With the hype pointed elsewhere, a few under-seen, overlooked and underrated films slipped through the cracks


Note: Many of these are recent films, as I've noticed some of the best sci-fi/fantasy of the last few years being unfortunately overlooked in favor of, often, more marketable fare. I do, however, intend to do a separate column on older, forgotten films, which will include a couple of the older entries on this list as well as many others.
Oh, so you saw The Matrix, did you? Six times in the theatres, you say?

What's that? You stood in line for how many hours to get into every Lord of the Rings movie on opening day?

You grew up on Star Wars? You were raised by Spielberg, Gilliam, Scott, Cameron and Burton? You've marveled at 2001: A Space Odyssey? You joined the masses at the cineplexes for every installment of every superhero franchise?

All that, and you just ignored a few of the best, most interesting films of the last few decades. Maybe you saw them, maybe (probably, in many cases) you didn't. Either way, for those interested in daring, thought-provoking filmmaking, these few deserve another look.


A.I.: Artificial Intelligence (2001)
Directed by Steven Spielberg

Go ahead - call me an apologist. Specifically, call me a Spielberg apologist. I can take it.

But keep in mind that I detested, loathed his War of the Worlds, which many other people inexplicably liked despite its one-dimensional themes, zero-dimensional characters, half-baked story arc and unforgivable final 15 minutes. But that's another story. We're here for an even more divisive Spielberg epic, 2000's A.I.: Artificial Intelligence.

Say what you like. That it goes on for 20 minutes too long. (Agreed.) That Kubrick could have done it better. (Quite possibly.) That you desperately wish Hayley Joel Osment had been able to stay a little boy FOREVER! (Sure, why not?)

I can agree that the film's coda leaves something to be desired, mostly because it is so unnecessary - and comes directly on the heels of what would have been a perfect and beautiful ending at the bottom of the sea. The final section, though nicely handled in and of itself, relieves the film of its haunting vision and replaces it with something that - while following the logical momentum as a sci-fi Pinocchio - has more of a disarming effect than a powerful one.

However, the more I've watched the film the more I'm convinced that what comes before the final section is a near-masterpiece. Aside from that flaw, one of the other primary complaints against A.I. is the collision between the two minds behind the film - Kubrick, with his cynicism and paranoia, and Spielberg, with his warmth and sentimentality.

But it is just that that, intentionally or not, enhances the film's internal workings. It is the clash between their two differing styles and worldviews that works in concert with the movie, because A.I. is itself a constant clash between seemingly diametrically opposed forces - between advanced technology and raw humanity, between ethics and laws, between emotion and logic, between action and responsibility.

Against a backdrop of an anxious, technologically advanced world in constant flux, Spielberg crafts a story in which he can explore basic human emotions and larger-than-life questions at once. He involves us in a story in which he crosses familial and paternal issues with social ones. As the Mecha-child David (Osment) assimilates with his human family, a sibling rivalry develops. As David unwittingly brings fear and harm to his new parents and new brother, the movie confronts us with huge dilemmas regarding the ethics of such beings, and about human responsibilities to our own creations.

He certainly isn't human . . . even though he's been crafted with the utmost detail. The other "Mechas" we meet throughout the film seem to have some semblance of human emotion, and certainly have human survival instincts. But they can't "die," right? They can only "break." Right?

Spielberg certainly treats his mechanical characters humanely. David's apparent humanity is framed in stark, sad contrast with the realities of his mechanical nature. Often, he seems heartbreakingly unaware of why he has to be so different from everyone else. (The spinach-eating scene, for instance. His drop-off in the woods for another. Or, when he's stuck in the cage and told he's just a machine and explains, "I'm a boy.")

We see Mechas rummaging through scraps like beggars, scavenging for new parts, pieces and appendages. We even get a more-than-subtle suggestion that the ability to differentiate between human and Mecha is getting a bit blurrier. ("You are sure he's not a man?" grumbles a brilliantly uncaring Brendan Gleeson. "We wouldn't want a repeat of the Trenton incident.")

This creates parallels between real-life problems between different racial and social groups, and Spielberg is able to touch on such issues as cultural imbalance, xenophobia, racism, genocide and potentially other ethical issues like abortion, the death penalty, cloning, etc. Human minds are behind the Mechas and all the problems that come with them, but where does responsibility come in? How should we treat these . . . machines? ("I am not . . . a toy," Teddy the super-toy insists.)

Spielberg being who he is, the film is enhanced by his technical and visual flair, making its best parts all the more stunning to look at and experience. ("Experience" isn't a word most movies can stake any claim to.) His eye for visuals and detail has never been better, utilizing noir techniques (as he did later in Minority Report) and stunning production design to create a world that takes the dystopian wasteland of Blade Runner to a different level.

The extraordinary middle section - starting with Gigolo Joe's first appearance, through the terrifyingly Kubrickian Flesh Fair sequence (once again expounding on the late director's preoccupation with dehumanization) up until we experience Rouge City - is virtuoso filmmaking.

And Osment, after getting an Oscar nomination for The Sixth Sense, is even better in A.I. (by a significant degree, I think, given the range his role in this movie requires).

The questions and conflicts, of course, are more interesting than any potential answers, which might be why the final section comes across the wrong way. It's too definitive, too out of place and makes too little sense.

Regardless, the film persists in the memory; flaw(s) aside, very few films of recent years have accomplished so much in two-and-a-half hours.

Filmmakers are often (unfairly) judged against themselves. (I'll discuss that even more when we get to M. Night Shyamalan's Unbreakable.) They become defined by the early work that established them. For critics, audiences and Generation X-ers alike, Spielberg will always be remembered in sci-fi for E.T. and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, not to mention all his other early blockbusters. A problem that sometimes arises is that people may not allow them to adapt artistically, or at least resist when they attempt to. That might be the case with some of Spielberg's recent work, A.I. included. This is a dark, moody and difficult film, much different and far more ambitious than his early classics. For this reason and certainly other legitimate reasons, it hasn't been embraced by as many, though it is a tremendously admirable work. (The same is true of Minority Report, which I feel is the best film of his entire career, but which will likely never be clung to in the same way as kids who grew up in the '80s clung to E.T.)

Over the last few years, Spielberg has made a pretty major shift as a director. He has taken major chances with three of his recent projects, the previously mentioned A.I. and Minority Report as well as Munich. None of the three made nearly as much at the box-office as his early films - or as War of the Worlds, for that matter. And yet they remain three of the most interesting and challenging films of his great, long career. A.I. may have been the genesis of a fascinating new direction.


Alphaville (1965)
Directed by Jean-Luc Godard

When we think of science fiction - especially in the post-2001 and Star Wars era - we generally think of expansive sets, imaginative toys and gadgets, and expensive special effects.

But then seeing a film like Jean-Luc Godard's Alphaville is a reminder that the genre can be just as potent without those things. Depends on what the filmmakers are after, I guess. And how limited their resources are. In the case of Godard, one has to think that, if he were just coming into the movie business today and decided to try his hand at sci-fi, he'd still go small-scale.

In his dystopian sci-fi allegory Alphaville, the emphasis isn't on the blatantly futuristic. Instead, the film plays more like an alternate version of 20th Century realities. The choice to use actual Parisian settings rather than an expensive set works to the film's advantage. In keeping us on familiar ground, the social relevance is easily translatable and more potent than it might be if the film relied on loads of exposition. (In fact, the only thing truly out of this world in Alphaville is the beauty of its female co-star, Anna Karina. I'm telling you, I wish I had a time machine.)

He uses these familiar settings and character types, but infuses it all with a sense of paranoia and coldness to represent the film's computer-controlled world, in which emotional expression is an alien concept.

The bureaucracy that holds the grip of power in Alphaville is reminiscent of oppressive and fascist dogmas, and the case could be made that the system in place (i.e. the all-powerful Alpha 60 computer) does the same job as might some oppressive dictator, only systematically, without thinking, which is a whole other kind of disturbing.

For that reason and others, Alphaville has to be considered one of Godard's more overtly political films, even if it never goes as far as the satirically hellish society of Weekend.

Alphaville takes certain other thematic elements we might be familiar with - i.e. dehumanization, a concept that comes up again and again in the best science fiction - and takes them to the extreme. The film's citizens are expected to be, essentially, automatons.

Sure, the way the film presents its ideas may be a little obvious and straightforward, and the ending may not be satisfactory to all. But Alphaville often seems to be left out of the discussion when people talk about either Godard or science fiction, and in both cases it deserves mention.


The Butcher Boy (1997)
Directed by Neil Jordan

Neil Jordan's sensibilities have always been a bit on the grotesque side. That he's been able to get any mainstream notoriety is an accomplishment in itself. His The Company of Wolves explored the strange sexual allegory of Little Red Riding Hood. We completely twisted our expectations of a romantic thriller in The Crying Game. And in The Butcher Boy, he takes what seems to be merely an eccentric look at an anxious, alienated little kid and turns it into something much more dark, sinister and, yes, funny.

We meet angry young Francie Brady, son to a suicidal mother and a drunk father, desperately optimistic, always walking around with a chip on his shoulder that causes him to take out his anger on the snooty Nugent family. Sounds like a movie about childhood angst and alienation, and it is, but it goes into territory that is rarely the result of angst, much less childhood. The Butcher Boy becomes less a straightforward narrative and more a skewed experience of Francie's own crooked, fantastical interpretation of things - a bizarre, hallucinogenic experience inside his increasingly agitated mind. Consider the way he keeps carrying on conversations with his father, all the while keeping the flies off the dead, stinking corpse. Or his discussions with the Virgin Mary. Or his justifications for his final, climactic act for which the title gets its name. The film could be horror, fantasy or comedy - depending on which character's point of view you want to consider.

The brilliance of Jordan's filmmaking here is the way he gets us caught up in our protagonist's mind, so that we completely accept those realities and understand them, no matter how horrified or uncertain we may be at the same time. Most films that look through the alternate reality of a disturbed person ultimately end up presenting their stories through a more omniscient, third-person viewpoint - you know, just to make it easier. The Butcher Boy does not, and in taking that approach becomes more imaginative - even in the simple, real-world settings of the Irish countryside - than other fantasy films that spend time creating their worlds externally, rather than internally.


Dark City (1998)
Directed by Alex Proyas

To many (Roger Ebert among them), this is already regarded as a modern classic. I mention it mostly because it has been completely overshadowed and thrown to the side by the similarly-themed The Matrix. And so, even though it has gained popularity since its original release, I'm compelled to mention it anyway.

The two were released about a year apart and, conceptually at least, involved many of the same ideas - i.e. that the world we live in is not really our own. Certainly not an original concept when it comes to sci-fi - there have been variations on that theme for ages. But both of these films stood out.

This is nothing against The Matrix, which I love, but simply acknowledgment that Dark City deserves a whole lotta love, too. Implanted memory, one man transcending systematic subjugation by another life form - these are among the things the two films have in common. But their approaches are very different. Dark City relies less on action and more on the dance between the villains and the hero.

If The Matrix is a sci-fi Western, Dark City is a pure Gothic, sci-fi noir, set in a constantly re-manufactured world (every night when the clock strikes midnight) that draws its influence straight out of German expressionism and film noir. The Strangers' gangster-like wardrobe and the pale pallor of their faces simultaneously reflects their own plight (their race is dying) and affection for a bygone era. ("We use your dead as vessels," says Mr. Hand.)

That, of course, corresponds perfectly with the crisis that a few characters find themselves waking up to - they can't remember anything. Not anything specific, anyway. Their memories, their childhoods, their loves and hates, how to get to Shell Beach - it's all a blur. And for a couple of characters - Detective Walenksi in particular - the superficiality of such an existence, the absolute lack of any individual identity, is too much to handle.

The Strangers took over this dark city to try to find what it was that made humans human, implanting manufactured memories and ambiguous pasts to discover it. As John Murdoch (or is he?) says, "You went looking in the wrong place."


Dead Alive (1992)
Directed by Peter Jackson

These days, people sometimes forget: When Lord of the Rings first got under way, Peter Jackson was considered a curious choice. Here was this weird filmmaker from New Zealand who made bizarre, twisted little movies that nobody in America saw. And he was adapting one of the most beloved series of the last century? Nevermind his talent or the fact that LotR was his passion project - to the naked eye, he was just some cult director. It would be like Michel Gondry suddenly signing on for a $200 million Civil War epic.

But his earlier work like Dead Alive, Heavenly Creatures and Meet the Feebles may provide a better look into his own sensibilities than anything he did on Middle Earth. Not that those movies are better than the Rings trilogy or King Kong, but they certainly illustrate a distinctly un-mainstream voice. Dead Alive is Jackson's take on zombies. And overbearing, needy mothers. And safety standards for rare rat monkeys.

And romance!

We've all seen plenty of zombie movies before, but most have probably never seen one in which a horrible disfigured zombie baby is placed in a blender. (The baby is the result of a pair of rotting, melting zombie lovers who quite literally chew each others' faces off as they hilariously/repulsively fornicate on the kitchen table.) I first saw Dead Alive on a day several years ago in which I was in a particularly depressed mood; I sought out the video store, with my only objective being that my choice of rental be as ruthlessly and gratuitously violent as possible. I landed on this, never stopped laughing, and felt much healthier.

Dead Alive is in the same vein of Sam Raimi's Evil Dead series, but I happen to think it's better than any of them - even without that Bruce Campbell goodiness. Nothing against Evil Dead, but rarely have I ever seen a movie so committed to the sick, the macabre, the bloody and the uproariously funny as Dead Alive.


Eyes Without a Face (1960)
Directed by Georges Franju

These days, "horror" is created with dismemberments, things jumping out of shadows, torture chambers, immortal killing machines and, naturally, chainsaws. But so many great horror films of the past created their horror, their suspense, their fear solely through images. Georges Franju's Eyes Without a Face is one of those films.

I know - many of us have been raised on American slasher movies. That's horror, right? The last thing some want to hear about is some quiet, arty little French movie.

Sure, quiet and arty it may be, but that doesn't mean it can't be an incredibly suspenseful, disturbing piece of horror cinema. Remember that great scene in The Silence of the Lambs when Hannibal Lecter escapes from maximum security by carefully slicing off another man's face, wearing it as his own and being taken away in an ambulance? Well, that's kind of the idea behind Eyes Without a Face. The daughter of a brilliant surgeon suffers horrible disfigurement in a car accident, and daddy makes it his life's work to successfully transplant another girl's face onto his daughter's.

Some people will do just about anything for family.

What's most disturbing is how Dr. Genessier goes about trying his little experiment. After all, there's not much he can do with skin from some corpse. He has to take matters into his own hands. He has to seek out young girls - beautiful ones, of course - and lure them on, laying down all his best charm and trying not to let on that he, in fact, intends to cut their faces off as a present to his daughter.

Like Hitchcock, Franju builds his tension slowly, through subtle exposition and character development. It's the kind of tension that sneaks up on you. There are moments in this film of extraordinary suspense and terror. The payoffs are, naturally, much less explicit than what we have come to expect from the genre now, but more potent than most of what passes for horror payoff these days. (Even so, there is one awe-inspiring scene in which we clearly see the good doctor at work.)

L.A. Times critic Kenneth Turan wrote an essay a few years ago lamenting Franju's lack of notoriety, and the underappreciation of Eyes Without a Face. I'll let him finish, as he can do so more eloquently than I:

Despite its gruesome plot, one of the hallmarks of "Eyes" is the austerity with which it's made, how little that is blatantly horrific (including Christiane's face) Shufftan's discreet black-and-white camera work allows us to see. The reason, Franju explained, is that he envisioned "Eyes" as "an anguish film. It's a quieter mood than horror . . . more internal, more penetrating. It's horror in homeopathic doses."

In part because of this delicacy, Franju and Shufftan's remarkable gift for the visual makes this the spookiest of movies, filled with elegant and poetic images that express longing, terror and despair.


Gattaca (1997)
Directed by Andrew Niccol

Generally speaking, inspiring movies about the human spirit - Oscar nominations notwithstanding - tend to try so hard to tug at our heartstrings that they end up repelling all but the most gullible. That oddly doesn't seem to be the case in Gattaca, maybe because the odds Vincent (Ethan Hawke) is up against are so systematically oppressive that it's impossible not to want someone to break through it.

This is not just someone overcoming a bad break or unfortunate circumstances. This is not Rudy. This is a film about someone transcending the trends of human nature, in a society in which his "kind" has been segregated from the rest, forever marginalized. We sympathize precisely because what he's attempting is, according to the rules, not only not allowed, but not possible.

Like so much of the dystopian futures painted by other science fiction books and films, the future in Gattaca has been overrun by a form of institutional utopia. We no longer have to be hampered by bad genes, health problems, etc. - parents can avoid that sort of thing well before birth. And even so, if there are people who haven't been genetically engineered to be bigger, stronger, faster, smarter, prettier, it doesn't much matter - we just won't allow them to be anything. They can mop our floors.

The threatening aspect of this society is how it leaves no margin for error in its own rules. One of the film's biggest strengths is its attention to certain details - or rather, its attention to Vincent's attention to such details, the way he removes all hair and skin follicles each day, from both his body and his work surroundings. The plot that develops is a natural byproduct of such a micro-managed universe, and the way in which it corresponds with Vincent's past and future is both moving and cathartic.

Writer/director Andrew Niccol may not always succeed (Simone anyone?), but when he does (The Truman Show anyone?), he shows himself to be a filmmaker with a firm grasp of the trends and fears of our society. In an era when controversy has and continues to rage over issues like cloning and stem-cell research, Gattaca seems more relevant than ever.


Kairo (2001)
Directed by Kiyoshi Kurosawa

The effectiveness of Kairo (Pulse) creeps up on you. It seems like a creepy horror movie, but ends up being more than that. People start mysteriously disappearing and reappearing in ghostly form, and that sounds like just the recipe for a scare-fest. But Kiyoshi Kurosawa has more than that on his mind.

As highfalutin as it sounds, Kairo is a disturbing existential meditation on the human condition. Its real villain is the proliferation of communicative technologies that separate us rather than bringing us together - the internet in particular. The ghosts aren't there just to be there, they actually represent something. Most horror movies these days claim to be allegorical in some sense, but few succeed. Maybe because most of them are too preoccupied with the action or the jump-scares.

Kairo is slow and methodical, and gets more haunting as it goes on. The modern landscape gets emptier and emptier. It's a kind of apocalypse we aren't used to seeing in movies. Kairo sees the modern emphasis on technological means as a spiritual death of sorts, so the characters' deaths have more weight than simply supplying the movie with a body count or scare quotient.

Naturally, when an American studio took it and re-made it a couple years back, it mostly misunderstood it and turned it into something easier and dumber. By emphasizing the "scary" stuff over the substance, it was not only less thought-provoking but far less scary. Perhaps the filmmakers behind the remake should have actually watched the original.


Primer (2004)
Directed by Shane Carruth

If you've got a DeLorean, I suppose it's rather easy - and fun - to go to the past, and the future, and back. You've got Doc Brown to tell you how it works, and all you've gotta do is make sure your parents have sex and don't get killed by cowboys. Easy enough.

But what if time travel wasn't so easy? What if it was an accident? What if you don't understand what you're doing? What if what you don't understand starts to take a serious toll - both mentally and physically, both within you and outside of you - on several different versions of you that were the unintended byproduct of your experiment? What if you can't control the consequences? What if things can only get worse?

These questions and many more sit at the heart of Primer, the most unique and thought-provoking take on time-travel I've ever seen. A small Sundance hit a few years ago, it was written and directed by a former engineer, Shane Carruth, and follows a pair of engineers - Aaron (Carruth) and Abe (David Sullivan) - who quite accidentally create a unique time-travel device, one that requires a much more difficult process than those commonly seen in time-travel movies.

To try to explain exactly what happens - and how, and why - would be pointless. Primer is a film that requires multiple viewings to wrap your head entirely around everything and try to piece it all together. And even then, you've probably gotten a lot farther than the characters themselves, who by the end of the film have long since lost the ability to completely control or even understand their own creation.

It's a ballsy move for a filmmaker to leave his viewers on such unsteady footing, but Primer is completely committed to what it is doing. Carruth does not set out just to confuse us, nor is he just trying to be ambiguous. Look again - the scientific and intellectual chaos that he creates is exactly at the heart of what the film is trying to accomplish. And it accomplishes it beautifully.

Many people who think about these things - myself included - are troubled by the seeming paradoxes that come with the concept of time travel. "I'll see your paradoxes," Carruth is saying, "and I'll raise you a whole new set of 'em."

Primer presents its time/space-bending concepts in a context in which we have never seen them. Potentially frustrating? OK. I'll see your frustration, and I'll raise you thought-provoking, mind-bending and stimulating.

Oh, and brilliant.


Solaris (2002)
Directed by Steven Soderbergh

OK, I agree with you. You're right. Tarkovsky's original Solaris is a superior film - more in-depth, more intellectual and more ambitious. Fine. That's out of the way.

Steven Soderbergh's version can hardly be compared to the 1972 classic. It's an entirely different film, focusing its attention on different aspects and different ramifications of the same basic premise, which is broad enough to accommodate both films.

Both revolve around the same premise. Chris Kelvin (a psychiatrist in this one, an astronaut in the original) is sent to investigate a series of mysterious occurrences on the space station orbiting the planet Solaris. When he gets there (watch the movie for a more in-depth explanation), he learns that those aboard are being visited, somehow, by facsimiles of people from their past. Chris gets a jolt when he wakes up in bed with his wife, who committed suicide many years ago. These figures are a form of communication between the humans and the planet Solaris; the planet itself is a vibrant life form, one that not even the brilliant scientists aboard can figure out.

Of course, the approaches and techniques of Tarkovsky and Soderbergh are vastly different. (No one made films like Tarkovsky did. Some find him overly ponderous; I find him fascinating. He just asks that you take the time.) The 1972 focused more on the cosmic ramifications of the story, while the remake is more introspective, intently focusing on instinctive human emotions and impulses. Love, guilt, logic, passion, anger . . . a couple of the best scenes in the film involve his "wife," Rheya (Natascha McElhone) discovering her own nature and realizing that she is merely an amalgamation of Chris' memories, and nothing else.

The way Soderbergh uses Chris' memories to develop not only the creation of his wife on board the ship, but his own reasoning as to what to do about the situation, is beautiful. It adds to the urgency and uncertainty of Chris' situation, and forces us to consider what we might do in the same situation.

If you've seen the original, you'll remember that it left us with a big reveal, and then ended ambiguously. The remake retains some of the ambiguity, but comes to more conclusions. And I, for one, happen to prefer the final scene in Soderbergh's version to the famous final shot in Tarkovsky's.

Still, looked at closely, they are more similar than some may have realized - the original just takes a lot longer to explore it, while Soderbergh tries to express himself in fewer words. His simplicity works to the film's advantage. Solaris is one of Soderbergh's most visually accomplished films, and that is one of the things that makes it so haunting. His beautiful imagery paired with Cliff Martinez' stark, minimalist score make this version a more instinctively powerful one, if not quite as intellectually satisfying as its predecessor.


The Trial (1962)
Directed by Orson Welles

Maybe this is cheating, because one can't conclusively label The Trial as sci-fi, fantasy or horror. But stylistically, at least, it seems to incorporate elements of all three. The opening sequence, for example - as Josef K.'s apartment gets overrun by men looking through his life and things without any explanation, answering every question with a non-answer, a non-sequitur or another question - is scarier to me than most of what we see in horror movies. And the film does explore Josef's psychological horror, does it not?

Either way, The Trial surely doesn't belong anywhere near the genre of "realism," right? Right. This is a masterful and terrifying vision, existing in a universe that surely incorporates the feelings of all the darkest fantasies.

Few will argue that it fits easily into any of the aforementioned genres; I mention it specifically because, like Godard and Alphaville, this film seems to get overlooked whenever people bring up Orson Welles.

Yet I grow more and more convinced every time I watch it that it's one of his very best. The premise itself is enough to make you uneasy, but I always call attention to one sequence in particular that seems to carry the essence of the film. Josef (Anthony Perkins) is at the theatre, seen from a low angle with the tall balcony overlooking him, suggesting a packed, massive audience. Suddenly he is called out of the theatre - it's time for his trial. He is led into the courtroom, only . . .

The court sequence - in which Josef offers his impassioned defense, even though he has not been accused of any specific crime or wrongdoing - is one of the best-conceived scenes I've ever seen. Look at the design of the room itself. Like the theatre we've just left, there is a stage at the front of the room (which he has to climb up to in order to "plead his case," if you can call it that) and he is surrounded by a full-blown audience - complete with a tall balcony eerily reminiscent of the theatre. His audience spontaneously applauds, and just as quickly erupts in laughter, without rhyme or reason. It's quite remarkable just how unnerving it all is. We genuinely experience his fear and anxiety, and that lasts - it builds - for the rest of the film until the almost-inevitable climax.

How one can exactly describe the surreal world in which The Trial exists is difficult. I suppose that's true of most everything that comes from Kafka. But no matter what you want to call it, it is a bizarre and legitimately scary alternate reality - maybe that doesn't make it truly fantasy or horror, but like it or not, it's pretty close.


Unbreakable (2000)
Directed by M. Night Shyamalan

Once again, a filmmaker falls victim to his own success. It's a common dilemma, particularly for young directors. They put out a hit that for one reason or another comes to define them. And when it comes time to make that next movie, they are unfortunately judged not on the quality of that next movie, but on how it compares to its predecessor. And I don't even mean whether or not it's better or worse - it's different than that. People just seem to want the same movie again. Their expectations have been set, and if they're not met, they reject it.

When Jackie Brown came out, people essentially wanted Pulp Fiction 2. And so they failed to realize that JB, despite being another Tarantino crime movie, was simply a different type - and thus they failed to realize how exceptional it was.

The same was the case after M. Night Shyamalan after his The Sixth Sense was the pop-culture phenomenon of 1999. People scoffed at his follow-up, Unbreakable - and I submit that many people did so because it was different. It wasn't a suspense movie as they had expected; it wasn't scary; it wasn't even really a "thriller." Instead, it was a deeply realized character study and experimental, real-life take on comic-book mythology. Sure, it had a twist ending that some people weren't satisfied with (even though it is absolutely essential). But the overall effect was vastly different than The Sixth Sense.

It is also his best and most complete film. What Shyamalan offers us is a rather profound study of the character of a would-be superhero in a real-world setting. In many of the best comic-book movies, special attention is paid to character. Bruce Wayne's self-discovery and guilt in Batman Begins. Superman's choice of love over his own powers in Superman II.

And, of course, superhero movies always involve fate.

Unbreakable is entirely about those things - David Dunn's discovery of his own fate, his own purpose. Shyamalan gives us a sad, flawed everyman who is missing something, but doesn't know what it is. He gives us the bold, eccentric Elijah (Samuel L. Jackson), his complete opposite who begins to shed some light on David's destiny. Gradually and ingeniously, Shyamalan develops the two characters' relationship and their contrasting fates. These are two wounded men - as are most superheroes and their nemeses - who can only discover themselves through discovering one another. Throughout this discovery process, we get a poignant portrait of David's relationship with his wife (Robin Wright Penn, one of the best actresses in the business) and son, and Elijah's painful childhood.

Like comic books, Shyamalan emphasizes the two characters as opposites. Like comic books, he gives our hero one weakness - water, his Kryptonite. Like so many of the best comic books, the objective isn't solely to beat the bad guy and get the girl, but to examine characters and themes in-depth. Shyamalan's visual experiments in the film are just as ambitious, utilizing specific colors to represent the heroes and villains (emphasized particularly well in the pivotal scene in the train station) and mirrored surfaces to reflect Elijah, a.k.a. Mr. Glass. These are not there just for gratuitous symbolism, as some have claimed, but are a very creative expansion on common comic-book techniques. Even James Newton Howard's wonderful musical score sounds almost like a sad, mournful superhero theme song.

Like many comics we may have read, Unbreakable examines alienation, mortality, the fear of weakness, the fear of oneself. And in the exceptional third act, starting at the train station and climaxing in the powerful and disturbing showdown at the house, David Dunn - like Bruce Wayne and Peter Parker before him - accepts his fate. Unbreakable may not have been the big box-office fodder of many of Shyamalan's other films, but it is his most complex and deeply-examined work. Now if only he could stop out-thinking himself and his critics, maybe he could get his career back on track.

Read more by Chris Bellamy


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