Scanners

Scanners

Is David Cronenberg’s “Scanners” (1981) an early attempt to make a darker, grittier superhero movie (i.e. a predecessor to Christopher Nolan) or is its more realistic tone a result of it being an original story, devoid of any comic book influence?

“Scanners” is set in a world where certain people have developed uncanny mental abilities. There are obvious parallels to the X-Men, which was by this time an almost twenty-year-old comic book franchise, but also around this time there was a bizarre pop culture fascination with “mentalists,” people who claimed to have actual telepathic and psychokinetic powers. They went on tour and appeared on talk shows, mesmerizing people with magic tricks touted as genuine superpowers. So was Cronenberg an X-Men fan or a mentalism enthusiast?

In 1981, the superhero genre was in its infancy. Early television adaptations of Batman and Superman were campy and cartoony, as was Richard Donner’s “Superman” (1978). Please don’t misinterpret this as criticism. “Superman” is a colorful adventure filled with humor and light-hearted fun. It leaves you with a good feeling. This was the leading and only comic book movie until “Superman II” in the summer of 1981. Hence, if Cronenberg had been trying to steer the superhero genre into darker, grittier territory, he would have been very much ahead of his time.

“Scanners” does have some surface similarities to the X-Men. The scanners are essentially mutants. Two rivals emerge, one a maniac bent on the subjugation of non-scanners and one a scientist intent on stopping him. Still, it seems unlikely that anyone could read those comics, filled with color, goofy costumes, and disco dancing, and be inspired to produce a film like “Scanners” with its shoot-outs and corporate intrigue.

The film’s realistic tone is more likely a result of the fact that it’s an extrapolation of the real life mentalism phenomenon. It accepts the mentalists’ claims and then tackles the questions that naturally arise: Where do their powers come from? How exactly do they work? And why are they just bending spoons on Donahue? Wouldn’t some of them eventually try to use their powers to control or dominate normal people?

All of the above I was pondering during the movie, which tells you something about how engaging it is. The most glaring problem with “Scanners” is its lead actor. I don’t remember his name and it’s not worth looking up. His character has an interesting backstory (revealed as a surprise near the end) but the actor has an inexplicably vacant affect and when his character takes over the story it becomes tedious to watch him in scene after scene.

It’s unfortunate because Michael Ironside is a treat as Revok, the villain of the picture. He delivers an intensity that recalls the best of Jack Nicholson. The scenes that focus on him are filled with tension (especially that one unforgettable scene…), and we’re left to imagine how neat it would have been if the film had focused on him and his relationship with Dr. Ruth, the unfortunately-named scientist determined to stop his plans, instead of the bland and forgettable Hero. But I guess that’s the problem with most superhero movies.

Oh, but this isn’t a superhero movie. Or is it? I’m still wondering.

The Empire Strikes Back

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It’s December 31st, 2015, and by now everyone in the galaxy has seen “The Force Awakens.” I thought this would be a good time to revisit “The Empire Strikes Back” (1980), aka the first sequel to “Star Wars” (1977). “Empire” is most notable for its originality – a rare quality in a sequel – and for taking some major risks.

Here’s where Lucas’s independence worked in his favor. If Disney had owned Lucasfilm back then, “Empire” might have mirrored “Star Wars” more closely. It might have been about the Rebels discovering a second Death Star under construction and Yoda would have been played by an elderly human who, like Obi-Wan, would have accompanied the heroes on their mission and dispensed occasional wisdom/Force training. (And incidentally, it probably would have been called “Star Wars 2.”)

Instead, the heroes were split up; Han and Leia were pursued by an obsessed Darth Vader and Luke traveled to a swamp for long, slow scenes in which a puppet taught him about the mystical workings of the universe. And the movie ends with one hero captured and another dismembered. This was the sequel to the biggest blockbuster of all time.

But it worked beautifully. It gave fans what they wanted, i.e. the characters they loved, but it scattered them throughout these worlds and situations we never would have imagined.

If you’re sensing a veiled criticism of “The Force Awakens,” you’re not far off. I loved a lot of choices that J.J. Abrams made, especially the return to practical effects and real sets. Story-wise they played it safe and basically mirrored the plot of “Star Wars” but, to be fair, the film had the weighty task of establishing a lot of new characters and conflicts. Its main objective was to make us care about the new cast of characters, and in this “The Force Awakens” succeeded where “The Phantom Menace” (1999) failed miserably. Rey, Poe, Kylo, and BB-8 all have their admirers now. I don’t recall legions of fans being won over by Qui-Gon, Amidala, and that CGI rabbit who shall not be named. So, much like “Star Wars,” “The Force Awakens” provided some fun visuals and introduced a host of heroes and villains that fans loved; mission accomplished. Some laziness in the plot can be forgiven. (This time.)

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Yoda in “The Empire Strikes Back”

And while we’re on the subject of risk taking, I want to point out again that Yoda was played by a puppet. This was unprecedented. While the Muppets were hugely popular by 1980, and performed alongside humans regularly, there was never any attempt to make them lifelike. The conceit in the Muppet universe is that these characters are just accepted as normal people even though they look like crazy puppets. Yoda, on the other hand (*wink*), was meant to be taken seriously as a living, breathing creature. The fact that they even tried this is commendable, but his enormous success as a character is astonishing.

“The Empire Strikes Back” is well regarded as one of the best sequels of all time. It reunited the characters from the first movie and tossed them into new territory. It introduced new characters that would come to be beloved. Most importantly, it took some major risks. Let’s just say, Episode VIII has a lot to live up to.

 

Close Encounters of the Third Kind (Special Edition)

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Steven Spielberg’s “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” (1977) is possibly the “Spielbergiest” of all the titles in the exalted director’s filmography. It tells the story of several people who experience strange encounters and then set out on a quest to discover the truth about them. But what is it exactly that makes one film Spielbergier than another? Let’s consider this…

1. Fantasy/Sci-Fi Element
While Spielberg has always had a love for historical dramas (“The Color Purple,” “Saving Private Ryan,” “Lincoln”), the name Spielberg still conjures images of giant sharks, alien visitors, dinosaurs, and mystical artifacts. I submit that a film with a fantasy or science fiction story is Spielbergier than one without, and “Close Encounters,” with its alien spaceship mystery, clearly qualifies.

2. Strong, Believable Characters
A Spielbergy story is propelled by, and elevated by, the characters. They feel real and relatable, and we don’t find ourselves waiting around for the next special effects sequence. The performances in “Close Encounters,” particularly by Richard Dreyfuss and Melinda Dillon, feel believable and naturalistic, and their characters are every bit as compelling as the effects.

3. Children in Danger
Spielberg regularly puts children directly in the path of whatever malevolent force is at work in his movies, be it the shark in “Jaws,” the creepy government agents in “E.T.,” or the dinosaurs of the “Jurassic Park” films. “Close Encounters” is no exception, featuring a toddler who is ripped from his mother’s desperate grasp and whisked away in a UFO.

4. Oohs and Ahhs
The quintessential Spielberg shot is “People Looking.” You know the one. The characters are frozen in awe. They stare at something amazing. The camera is low and either pulls in closer or pans from one person to the next. And there’s always an underlying tension; Dr. Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum) summed this up perfectly in Spielberg’s “The Lost World” (1997): “Yeah, ‘Ooh, ahh!’ That’s how it always starts. Then later there’s running and screaming.”

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People Looking

By the end of “Close Encounters,” the aliens’ motivations are still unclear. The Encounter is filled with both awe and tension. Would the aliens extend a hand in friendship or the business end of a death ray?

5. A Personal Connection
Perhaps the main reason “Close Encounters” feels so Spielbergy is the director’s long personal connection to the subject matter. Spielberg traces the origins of the story to his childhood when he viewed a meteor shower with his dad. Later, at age 17, he made a full length film about alien encounters, from which he recreated several sequences, and even specific shots, for “Close Encounters.”

The result is an incredibly rich film that connected with audiences despite being released in the wake of the first “Star Wars” craze. It is essential viewing for fans of science fiction, Spielberg, or generally any human who enjoys motion pictures.

Surprisingly, Spielberg was never quite satisfied with “Close Encounters.” His editing process had been cut short by Columbia Pictures when, on the brink of financial ruin and in desperate need of a hit, the studio insisted on rushing his alien movie to theaters in time for Christmas ’77. The move saved the studio, but Spielberg was left unhappy.

Enter the 1980 Special Edition. This redo was the result of a compromise between the studio and the director. Spielberg would get to tinker with the edit, adding a scene here and trimming a scene there, producing a cut that he was satisfied with. In return, he would create an all-new sequence for the ending, depicting the inside of the alien mothership, which the studio could tease in the marketing campaign for the film’s reissue (see the Special Edition trailer below). Spielberg later admitted this was a mistake, that it ruined some of the mystique of the aliens, and he removed the offending sequence from the third and final official version in 1998.

Thus, the 1980 Special Edition is widely regarded as the lousiest of the three extant versions, but aside from the superfluous ending, the other changes actually improved the pacing and character development, and in a film packed with memorable images, the Special Edition included a new one: the discovery of the cargo vessel in the middle of the Gobi Desert.

Whether you prefer the Theatrical Version, the Special Edition, or the Collector’s Edition is a matter of taste, but they are really only minor variations. The core of the “Close Encounters” story remains the same in all of them. You identify with the characters, you marvel at the aliens. As you watch, you become frozen. Your eyes are wide and your mouth is slightly agape. Perhaps more than with any of his other films, you feel the full impact of the Spielberg touch, which transforms his audience into his favorite shot.

Star Wars

Star-Wars-Movie-Poster-1977-originalSomehow I managed to not see “Star Wars” (1977) until I was in high school, sometime in the mid-90s. Even at that late date it, watching it for the first time was like receiving a blow to the head.

Here is a film that grabs you by the shirt collar and hurls you on an interplanetary adventure that is, above all, fun. And somehow it was plunked into the middle of the 1970s. Its closest cinematic relatives, the “Flash Gordon” serials, existed forty years prior, and by 1977, fun and adventure had all but disappeared from the movies. “Star Wars” can be credited for reviving them.

That begins to explain its importance in cinematic history. But why does it continue to connect with audiences? I grew up in the wake of its release, and my childhood was packed with fantasy adventure films that were inspired by it. If anything, it should have appeared dated, even slow-paced, by the time I got around to seeing it. Instead, it became one of my favorite films.

I think the reason has something to do with the film’s “used future” aesthetic. That is, it places us in a fully realized alien galaxy. Technology is worn and battered. Locations are dirty. Each alien has a unique culture. In the “Star Wars” universe, each object, each location, each character, and the galaxy as a whole, has a history. At each moment it teases the imagination with glimpses of these stories left untold.

“Star Wars” tells of how young Luke Skywalker left his family farm to pursue the legacy of his starship pilot father. This unfolds within the context of a galactic civil war, of which we only learn about obliquely. For all its expansiveness, “Star Wars” is indeed only a small “episode,” if you will, of a larger saga. It raises tantalizing questions. Who is the man behind Darth Vader’s mask? Who is the Emperor, and how did he come to power? What exactly happened to Luke’s father? What is Hyperspace? What was Alderaan like? Who is Jabba? And on and on.

Of course, the success of “Star Wars” resulted in sequels, comic books, novels, video games, TV series, encyclopedias, and databases that provide officially licensed answers to any question about any minor character, ship, or location. But what a magical time it must have been when all you had was your memory of this two-hourlong movie, your handful of action figures, and your imagination.

It’s no wonder so many fans felt personally betrayed by the prequel trilogy. They spent two decades dreaming up stories about Anakin Skywalker and the twisted Senator who rose to power and became Emperor. Even if it had been a competent motion picture it would have disappointed many fans, but its spectacular failure on the most basic levels sent a shockwave of despair through the nerd-space continuum.

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One small example: C-3PO, my favorite character from “Star Wars.” A sensible backstory for him would have included: 1) his manufacture, or at least the mention of his manufacture, by a galactic robotics corporation, 2) his original owner, who would have been a wealthy individual or business, i.e. someone who could afford cutting edge technology and who would have need for a protocol droid, and 3) the development of his persnickety personality as a result of this privileged lifestyle.

If we accept the existing plot of “The Phantom Menace” for the time being, it would have been much more satisfying for C-3PO to have been the property of Queen Amidala, or even the Trade Federation. In fact, one of the first characters we meet in Episode 1 was a protocol droid in the employ of the Neimoidians. What a perfect role that would have been for C-3PO, especially since he was the first character we meet in the opening scene of “Star Wars.”

Imagine that he somehow gets caught up in the Jedis’ escape from the Trade Federation and is dragged from his comfortable, climate-controlled ship on this adventure into space and onto the wild, dangerous, muddy swamps of Naboo. He would hate it, and complain endlessly, as he should. Then he would meet R2-D2 on the Naboo cruiser and learn something about bravery from him. Over the course of the film, 3PO would develop a repressed admiration for the little droid and we would see the beginning of a lifelong friendship.

As a bonus, C-3PO’s presence in the sidekick role would have completely eliminated the need for Jar Jar Binks.

But instead of this, C-3PO was built by a slave boy on a poor, remote desert planet. For some reason, the boy wanted to build an exact replica of a protocol droid. It doesn’t make sense, and it doesn’t capitalize on the character’s established traits. That’s the prequel trilogy in a nutshell.

We can hope that J.J. Abrams makes better use of his opportunity. Here again, the fans have been imagining the future of these characters for three decades now, and in very few months we will finally see the official story of what happened after the fall of the Empire.

So what will happen to 3PO? Well, he’ll be a 70-ish-year-old droid at this point. His hardware is probably obsolete. Newer protocol droids can probably translate 6 billion forms of communication and have sleeker designs with more fluid limbs that allow them to perform more tasks. Perhaps they’d be programmed to be more friendly and easy-going. This would infuriate 3PO even more. The antagonism between 3PO and his newer model could make a great comedic subplot.

I imagine the offspring of Han and Leia having varied reactions to him. One would be baffled, another would gush over his retro design. When the time came for their adventure, they might even consider leaving him behind. Their grandparents’ quaint robots are fine to keep around for nostalgic value, but on a dangerous mission they would be an encumbrance. But somehow or other, he’d get involved with the story and would eventually get a chance to triumph over his replacement.

We will see. One thing is certain: the endless stories thought up in the imaginations of countless moviegoers will continue for decades to come. All thanks to George Lucas and his silly space adventure film.