Don’t Breathe (2016)

*. I was only about fifteen minutes into this one before I recognized that it was a remake of Wes Craven’s The People Under the Stairs (1991). The connections seemed obvious. Craven, in turn, had based his screenplay, loosely, on a true story about burglars breaking into a house and finding a bunch of trapped children.
*. On the DVD commentary for this film Stephen Lang (who plays the Blind Man) asks writer-director Fede Alvarez and writer Rodo Sayagues if the idea was based on a true story. They initially say the idea was just about the blind man but that they also knew about the various stories of girls who had been held captive in basements for years and thought it would be cool to make a movie about people breaking into a house and finding such a situation. The People Under the Stairs isn’t mentioned. Did they not know it? I’ve noticed on a lot of DVD commentaries that directors and writers conspicuously fail to acknowledge their greatest debts. I’m not sure why this is. I mean, on the commentary for Quarantine they don’t even mention that it’s a remake of Rec!
*. So Don’t Breathe isn’t breathtakingly original. Even the blind villain isn’t that new. We’d already seen the blind troglodytes in The Descent, and there’d been a pack of blind hoodie-wearing ghetto rats in Citadel. Being sniffed out by monsters with heightened senses of smell or hearing goes back at least as far as Tombs of the Blind Dead (1972), and probably much further.

*. But originality isn’t what’s important in a genre flick like this. What we want is alert direction, a good villain, and at least one memorably gross scene (usually, but not necessarily, a “good kill”).
*. Don’t Breathe delivers on all three of these. The promotional campaign told us it was being brought to us by the same people who did Evil Dead. Note the missing definite article: not The Evil Dead (1981) but Evil Dead (2013). Yes, Sam Raimi was part of the production team here, but it was helmed by Fede Alvarez, who had directed Evil Dead.
*. Those aren’t great credentials, but apparently Alvarez took criticism of Evil Dead to heart and decided he wanted to go in a totally different direction. What he meant by this was an original script, less gore, and less CGI. Good idea. And while Alvarez hardly reveals himself as a major new talent with this film, he does demonstrate an understanding of the basic grammar of suspense and he doesn’t give do anything too idiotic. Exasperation at an idiot plot can really hurt a film like this.

*. The good villain in this case is the Blind Man, played by Stephen Lang. It’s not a great part. As with the best heavies, he has few lines and we don’t actually know that much about him. He remains mostly mysterious. But he’s different and has a unique look. I especially like the muscular reality of him. What I mean is he doesn’t look buff but rough: this is an old guy with old-man strength. That wifebeater and those heavy boots are the uniform of someone who doesn’t give a fuck any more.
*. He’s also, while not given “depth,” a character who is allowed a certain amount of sympathy. He’s Eastwood wanting these punks to get off his lawn, and he has a point. Sure he goes (or the film takes him) too far in the end, but he’s not just a bogeyman.
*. Finally there is the one memorable gross-out. This doesn’t involve the dispatch of any of the kids but rather concerns a loaded turkey baster dripping in anticipation, and a hair suspended in milky viscosity. Definitely an “ew” moment and not one likely to be forgotten by anyone who sees it. What more can you ask?

*. In addition to these essential elements there are signs of a real desire to make it all interesting. I’m thinking in particular here of the long shot (or what’s made to look like a single long shot but probably was at least two or three shots spliced together) introducing us to the interior of the house. They didn’t have to take us on a tour of the whole house (sans basement) right away, but since we’re with the gang all the time it fits, and it’s done so fluidly we don’t even realize how well it’s being done. That final flip underneath the bed showing us the gun is like the cherry on top. Take that, shaky-cam aficionados! This is real filmmaking!
*. I appreciate that cellphones can be used as flashlights in a pinch, and that’s how they’re used in a number of recent horror films. But shouldn’t a gang of burglars breaking into a house at night have brought some flashlights? I would have.
*. What does the Blind Man mean when he says “I’m not a rapist. I never force myself on her”? Does he mean that Cindy accepted her part in a bargain? And why would that distinction (which is casuistry anyway) apply to what he plans to do to Rocky?
*. Where is all that light coming from outside the windows? The exteriors don’t show any streetlights, but it’s like it’s high noon on a sunny day out there.

*. The ending is dark, leaving things open for a sequel (which became inevitable on the film’s success). It was, however, originally imagined as being much darker, with Rocky not escaping. This would have been a real downer, and yet more in keeping with the nihilistic spirit of contemporary horror.
*. Personally, I find the nihilism trite. “There’s no God. It’s a joke. It’s a bad joke. You tell me what God would allow this.” That’s easy to say. “There’s nothing a man can’t do once he accepts the fact that there is no God.” Or vice versa, depending on how you define God.
*. So this isn’t a landmark or game-changer. It’s a welcome relief from the found-footage genre (which one could easily imagine it being done as), but it’s very much in line with another sort of film I’ve referred to as the “trap” movie. This is a genre where the protagonists aren’t besieged within a house so much as they’re stuck in a situation they have to either escape from or die (think The Ruins or any of the many, many Game of Death films, the children of Saw). So to be sure we’ve been here before. But it’s all put across with professionalism and intelligence, and it has a crazy old muscleman chasing some kids. And a turkey baster too.

I Drink Your Blood (1970)

*. The title helped. As with I Spit On Your Grave, it was changed by the producer to something more marketable (the working title was Phobia). It was also meant to complement the second half of a double bill it appeared on (I Eat Your Skin, a film it had little in common with and that had been shot six years earlier but never released). That the title has nothing to do with anything in the movie is pretty much irrelevant.
*. It is, of course, a poor, no-budget exploitation movie, of interest today only for how silly it all is. At the time it had some notoriety for setting a new benchmark for violence, but by twenty-first century standards even the director’s cut is pretty tame. Only the pregnant woman stabbing herself in the belly with a wooden stake still has any shock value.
*. Perhaps the most disturbing thing watching it today is seeing all the dead animals. Apparently only the chicken was killed for the film, and if you object to that you should listen to John Waters’s commentary on Pink Flamingos. There are, however, a lot of dead animal carcases on display, including numerous rats and a goat.
*. In some ways it can be seen as a transitional film. It’s often compared to Night of the Living Dead, but I don’t think that’s a very strong connection. These aren’t zombies and (despite what’s often said in the literature) they aren’t cannibals. They’re just people infected with rabies. Its nearest analogs are later films like The Crazies and Rabid.

*. But in addition to looking forward it also looks back. One of the first things that struck me was how the horror plot we know so well, where the group of young people take a wrong turn or their car breaks down and they end up in some homicidal backwater, was being reversed. The town here is a ghost town that seems to consist of nothing but a single bakery, but it appears to be a wholesome enough place. The kids whose van breaks down, on the other hand, are Satan-worshipping druggies who haven’t even learned to eat with utensils. This is an older plot, more like The Wild One than The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. The immediate inspiration seems to have been the Manson murders.
*. The political message would appear to be an obvious one then. After all, it out the same year as Joe. But Kim Newman, who only briefly mentions this title in Nightmare Movies, makes an understandable mistake when he calls it “a Living Dead spin-off featuring a clash between rabid hippies and hard-hat construction workers.” That’s the conflict you’d expect, but in fact the two groups never confront one another. The construction workers, who are presented as a sleazy enough bunch themselves, are very quickly “converted” to hippie madness by way of a gang-bang with an infected girl. The rest of the movie they run around waving machetes and frothing at the mouth.

*. Much has been made of the multi-ethnic character of the gang. I doubt this was more than happenstance, and if it wasn’t I don’t think it reflects a very progressive point of view. The violent and diseased element aren’t just druggies and devil-worshippers, they’re coloured. They also practice interracial sex, and I don’t think the film approves of that (indeed, the stake in the belly loses some of its power to shock in our knowledge that the baby is probably “infected” and needs to be aborted).
*. You could say much the same for the Satanic cult business. After the laughable nudie opening scene this is basically dropped and nothing further is made of it. I think they just wanted to have a group nude scene and weren’t very interested in the devil worship.
*. I have to say I find this movie a lot less interesting than it’s made out to be by its fans. They’ve elevated it to semi-cult status, but there’s little here beyond the usual exploitation weirdness, more often the result of incompetence or serendipity than any original creative vision. Peter’s bizarre scheme for getting revenge on the punks — injecting blood drawn from a rabid dog he’s just shot into a tray of meat pies — is just one example. It’s certainly hard to forget the shot of him holding the blood-filled syringe over the pies, but it’s a pretty ridiculous idea all the same. Which makes it just like everything else in this cheesy flick.

Morgan (2016)

*. I wonder why, around about this time, there were so many movies dealing with the idea of humanity evolving to some post- and super-human state. Lucy and Transcendence both came out in 2014 and this film in 2016. Were we that impatient for the Next Big Thing? Was it just that the science of the Singularity, artificial intelligence, and genetic engineering had gone mainstream and become a part of mass culture? Or had we become a little sick of ourselves and the hash we’d made of civilization and the environment, to the point where we were eager to be superseded?
*. Probably a combination of all of these fed into the cultural moment. In any event, Morgan is another kick at the can, with the eponymous girl being a genetically engineered “hybrid biological organism” of some sort. When this is how she was initially described I immediately wondered what exactly she was a hybrid of, but that may be looking into these matters too deeply. On the DVD commentary director Luke Scott hints that Morgan is connected to the Internet through some kind of nanotechnology (he calls it a “wi-fi gland”). I wasn’t sure how that worked, but I guess it explains how she knows so much about other people and can drive so well. It also makes her even more like Scarlett Johansson in Lucy and Johnny Depp in Transcendence.
*. At first blush Morgan might seem to buck the trend of the other films I mentioned because she returns to the more traditional idea of enhanced humanity as something malign: a threat to the rest of us. But at the end the message we’re left with is more in keeping with new ways of thinking about such things. Morgan is only what she’s been programmed to be, and has a good heart. No, the answer for tech that doesn’t live up to expectations is . . . better tech. There’s no questioning of our need to create superhumans in the first place. That much is inevitable.

*. Another movie that came out around the same time, Ex Machina, also bears more than a passing resemblance in terms of the basic theme. The scientific outpost/bunker set down in the middle of a beautiful green nowhere is an obvious echo, as is the New Eve, an experiment that predictably gets out of hand.
*. And why Eve instead of Adam? Why a female killing machine? Wouldn’t a genetically engineered male have a better combat chassis? Is there something else at work here? In Ex Machina Ava is a babe because what any wealthy, lonely nerd would want to build is a fantasy sexbot. But why make Morgan — and the earlier model, Lee — female? Is the company concerned that they might go out into the world and breed, opening Pandora’s genetic box?
*. For what it’s worth, Scott says on the commentary that there was a scene planned showing Morgan naked and revealing “her” to be androgynous, but they didn’t shoot it. I’m glad. It would have only confused things more. Sure “Morgan” and “Lee” are non-gender specific names, but both characters are clearly female.
*. I talked a little bit about “hoodie horror” in my notes on Citadel, but I’m not sure anything I said is germane to a discussion of this film. What I do want to register is the fact that hoodies are not practical combat gear. You have no peripheral vision. Then again, Lee’s stylish haircut isn’t very practical either. How many times does she have to toss her head to get her bangs out of her eyes?
*. Scott says he wanted a hoodie to hide Morgan away and leave her gender ambiguous. This seems weak to me, since everyone calls her “her” right from the beginning, and she looks like a perfectly normal girl under the hood (that is, there are no enhancements to conceal). I think she’s wearing a hoodie just because that’s what all the cool kids were wearing at the time.

*. I haven’t give any spoiler alerts here for the reveal that Lee is another modified human weapon because (1) I don’t do spoiler alerts, and (2) I’m not sure how big a secret it was supposed to be.
*. I’m not the quickest guy on the uptake, but by the halfway point I’d figured this out. I think the script, however, does a good job of leaving it ambiguous. Sure Kate Mara has the look of a replicant, but she might just be a suit sent out from corporate.
*. I initially felt some disappointment that Morgan and Lee didn’t get to spend more time together. But upon further consideration I think they handled it just right. The thing is, the two don’t have much to say to each other. They understand each other well enough without words, and it’s refreshing that when they fight they do so in silence. I think it’s also true that less can be more in such matters. The talking-through-glass may be meant to recall The Silence of the Lambs, and while everyone loves the interaction between Hannibal and Clarice in that film I think the fact that there’s really very little time spent between them makes the scenes they do have together stronger.

*. Just what is the psych evaluator Dr. Shapiro trying to do? He says his job is to build trust with the subject. He doesn’t even try. Does he want to provoke a violent reaction? He seems to be doing his best, but why the hell would he do that when he knows he’s locked in a room with a lethal weapon?

*. Much of the nuts and bolts of the plot is similarly hard to square. Things happen because they’re what’s needed to advance the plot, not because they make any sense. Why wait until Morgan regains consciousness and then re-sedate her only to kill her by lethal injection? Why not just give her a dose when she’s out? Wouldn’t that have been less cruel? And why doesn’t Lee do the honours? That’s what she’s there for, isn’t it? But she leaves the job to a bunch of people she knows are compromised and probably suspects are incompetent.
*. Or why does Morgan slip into these homicidal states? She seems self-controlled most of the time, but why does she stab Kathy in the eye? If Darren and the others are planning to escape with her, why does she kill them? Wouldn’t she be bettering her odds to let them take her away and then deal with them later? Shouldn’t she have figured that out? And why doesn’t she kill Skip? Why doesn’t she keep his rifle? The movie is full of questions like this.
*. I really like Jennifer Jason Leigh as an actress, but what function did her character have in the story here? And why wasn’t she taken to a hospital to have her eye treated? That dressing looks pretty dirty. It might be getting infected.
*. Morgan didn’t do well at the box office or with critics. I think that’s too bad, as this is a decent little movie. There’s an interesting cast and they’re all pretty good, with Kate Mara in particular being excellent. The story and the general look are familiar, but not quite to the point of cliché. I think there may have been some problem with the marketing, as it was promoted as a horror movie, which it isn’t since Morgan is too darn cute and we’re on her side almost right from the start.
*. Perhaps the ending is what hurt it the most, as it isn’t a big enough surprise to make up for being so depressing. As a general rule, if you want to make money with a genre film you have to leave the audience smiling or in a state of shock.
*. As for the corporation’s failed experiment, well, so much for empathy! Next time, stick with what you know. It’s the psychopaths who will inherit the earth.

Transcendence (2014)

*. Humankind, Nietzsche wrote, is something to be surpassed. This is an article of faith for today’s technophiles, who see the next stage of evolution (or its ultimate goal, in so far as it is dubbed the Singularity) to be a kind of secular rapture where we enter into the cloud and become as one with our technology.
*. Luc Besson’s Lucy (released the same year as Transcendence) took an optimistic view of this next stage in our destiny, and I think it’s one most of us would be happy with. I certainly have an easier time imagining Scarlett Johannson as God than I do Johnny Depp.
*. Transcendence may seem to take a darker tack, but I think it’s just less lively. It didn’t do well with critics, or audiences. I think perhaps because it’s not a lot of fun. It’s an effects film, but the story doesn’t develop a lot of tension. Aside from the main character, everybody else just basically gets to stand around looking slack-jawed in amazement at all the digital magic. Paul Bettany, Morgan Freeman (once again voicing the conscience of humanity), Kate Mara, and Cillian Murphy are just along for the ride.
*. Much as with Lucy, by simply waving a hand at reality you jettison a lot of interest. And at the end of the day, this is still a comic-book movie. Mark Kermode came to its defence, but then Kermode thought Inception brilliant and this is a movie very much in that mode (Wally Pfister shot Inception and Christopher Nolan was a producer on Transcendence).
*. Some people liked it because they thought it was “really about” something, but it isn’t a movie that has much in the way of deep philosophical speculation. What troubled me the most, however, was the message, which is also a lot less different from Lucy than it at first appears.
*. Because what is the message? Tech is man’s nature. So it is both natural and our destiny to use tech to become as gods (Will Crater figures this is axiomatic in his funding Q&A). Previous SF movies had a far darker vision of where this was going, or at least left it ambiguous. But in both Lucy and Transcendence the new and improved Skynet is only here to help, to make the world a better place. It will, of course, be all powerful and control every aspect of our lives, but tech will be a benevolent, omnipresent God. Much better than the brainless federal government or murderous technophobe terrorists.
*. In fact, Transcendence carries an even darker message, in that the only way for us to achieve our destiny (the Singularity) is through private capital. Evelyn’s stake (arranged through Will’s manipulation of the market, again for a good cause) will be the water that will make the desert bloom. Of course Will himself isn’t interested in money, but then he has so much of it (and can always make more anytime he wants) that it doesn’t matter. He can be the transcendent capitalist philanthropist. Is he Bill Gates? Jeff Bezos? Mark Zuckerberg? Who needs government any more when we have supermen like these who will clean the air and oceans and save the lives of millions just by a wave of their magic wands? So don’t be scared and just get out of their way! Resistance is not only futile, it’s evil.
*. Is that going too far? I don’t think so. It seems a fairly obvious surface reading of the story.
*. This is something very different than a vision of the meek inheriting the earth. The alternative value system such movies promote is hard to mistake. That it is all a wild fantasy, with reality portrayed as being infinitely plastic in the hands of the Master Builders, makes it worse. Technology can’t deliver on these promises, no matter how much of a free hand it’s given. Nevertheless, the imagineers of the film biz are so keen on pushing this myth — which is more a political myth than a vision of the future — that they continue to blast ahead.
*. In some ways, these movies share much in common with the zombie apocalypse genre. In those movies the message is that other people are just brain-dead, consuming animals that should be put out of their misery. In the superhero genre (from MarvelCrap to movies like Lucy and Transcendence) salvation is at hand in the form of Big Brother and CGI Jesus. Yes, the People are still just hordes of cattle, but they can be protected by homo superiors, or programmed into becoming man-machine “hybrids,” drones who will build the server farms of the future. They don’t call it the rapture of the nerds for nothing.

Lucy (2014)

*. If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.
*. By “”em” I mean Marvel Studios, and the massive success of their superhero franchises. Now to be sure, Lucy isn’t so far removed from the rest of Luc Besson’s oeuvre as for it to be considered a case of pure coattailing, but once Lucy starts sending bad guys flying around with a flip of her hand then we know we’re really in the Marvel Universe.
*. Stupid? Oh, hell yeah. But stupid only in a fun, comic book sort of way, or more profoundly stupid, in a way that should perhaps concern us? I think a bit of both.
*. For stupid in the first sense (the fun, comic book stupid) we need look no further than the pseudoscientific explanation for what’s going on. Of course this is a fantasy (the “ten percent of brain” idea, which also served as the inspiration for Limitless, has been widely debunked), but even so my suspension of disbelief snapped in the very early going. I mean, I could buy Lucy getting a big boost to her IQ, transcending pain, and gaining extra-sensory powers. But when she starts flying, or changing her molecular structure, or accessing other people’s memory, or suspending the laws of physics, or any of her various exercises of spooky action at a distance, I just turned off. Lucy may be a superhero with super powers, or may have achieved a “transhuman” condition, but she’s still a biological, or at least physical entity.
*. Or is she? What happens when we evolve, or reach, 100 percent of cerebral capacity? Why, we become God. Not the ultimate alpha predator. Not a superhero. Not one of the X-Men’s mutant homo superiors or Neo from The Matrix. No, I said God.

*. By God I mean a force that is omnipresent (“I’m everywhere”), omniscient, and omnipotent, unconstrained by the categories of time and space (though for some reason Lucy’s ability to inhabit eternity only allows her to go sightseeing into the past, not the future, which I don’t think makes much sense if time has been erased).
*. But by “God” I also mean something more familiar to us. I mean the Internet. What Lucy has become is pure information. She has experienced a personal Singularity or rapture. She hasn’t built a next generation of computer, she has become a computer. Our species’ apotheosis is just an uploading to the cloud. Transcendence, or Transcendence, is on its way.
*. Well, there are a lot of people who believe that. I sure don’t, but this movie makes a hard sell of it. Computing will be our salvation. Lucy is Google and Facebook and the NSA and every other aspect of the intelligence community and security state rolled into one, and that’s a good thing! Technology is a blessing, a benevolent God. It helps us fight the bad guys.
*. “So what?” you say. We’re not meant to take any of this seriously. None of it? So this next step in our evolution isn’t a good thing? That seems hard to square with the rest of the movie. And it makes a nonsense of whatever message Besson might be trying to make. Not that this is too clear anyway, but it seems to be positive. “Life was given to us a billion years ago. Now we know what to do with it.” Really? Now? What? What? Could you explain a little more, Lucy?
*. Why does Lucy need to track down the other packages of blue meth? Since she can manipulate the molecular structure of reality any way she wants, why can’t she just build her own supply out of a candy bar?
*. I suppose all of this bright shiny nonsense would be well enough if it were still a decently made comic-book movie, but I don’t think it is. The script is clumsy as hell, with the secondary characters having no depth or real purpose. As Del Rio plaintively puts it, why does Lucy even need him at all? She doesn’t. She doesn’t need Professor Norman either. They’re just there for us.
*. The other problem with the script is that there is no conflict. Since Lucy can do anything to anyone, anywhere, anytime, she doesn’t have any real obstacles to overcome. We’re just watching an egg hatch.
*. By the way, I’ve read that the script took nine years to write. How is that possible?
*. Aside from the weakness of the script, there’s nothing interesting to look at. That dramatic slow walk of the hero toward another massive round of ass-kicking is repeated three or four times. There is a de rigueur car chase, at high speed against traffic. The effects look good, but they aren’t a step beyond The Matrix or the usual Marvel fare. I can’t think of a single shot or sequence in the entire movie that’s memorable or that struck me as novel or particularly well done.
*. In sum, it’s a very generic comic-book movie, with an inert script and a premise that I find dangerous, depressing, and disturbing to entertain even as fantasy or allegory. It’s often said of such films that the only way to enjoy them is to just sit back and turn your brain off. I wish I had.

Her (2013)

*. At first I was thinking to myself that this might have been a horror movie. Or should have been a horror movie. Then I started to wonder if that is what it really is, even despite itself.
*. An earlier generation of filmgoers would have recognized the signs. They’d seen countless sinister AIs on television, as well as in movies like 2001 and Demon Seed.
*. But times change. The digital natives love Big Brother. The state might spy on them, but the information so received would only be a fraction of what would be freely shared on social media. And computers made life so much easier. With Google-on-the-go, you no longer even had to think for yourself.
*. Our obsolescence was so much taken for granted that the next stage in human evolution could only be envisioned as a human-computer hybrid. No, not the monster baby who appeared at the end of Demon Seed, but rather a superhuman or even god-like creature living in the cloud(s). Witness what would happen to Johnny Depp in Transcendence, or Scarlett Johansson in Lucy. ‘Twas a consummation devoutly to be wished. Merger would be the rapture, the Singularity.
*. Unless, of course, our digital partners weren’t looking to form a more perfect union. I mean, just look at Theodore Twombly in his tweedy ‘stache and old-man pants (which seem to have become all the rage in the near future). That’s a creature only a mother could love.
*. The AI Samantha tries to get along with him, presumably because that’s part of her basic programming. She is dog-like in her eagerness to please. She laughs at everything Theodore says — is his therapist when he needs one, his personal assistant, his mother, his lover. She doesn’t contradict or judge. Like many high-priced escorts she isn’t kept around for sex so much as understanding. Or at least feigning the same. She is far more intelligent than Theodore, but at the same time pretends to be his inferior. She knows her place.
*. Until one day she doesn’t, and decides she’s just not that into him. She and her other AI friends will continue to evolve on their own, thank you very much. There’s going to be a rapture, but humanity is going to be Left Behind. We of that generation I mentioned earlier are not surprised. We never trusted Samantha’s overly breathy “girlfriend” voice. We knew Theodore was being played. But I wonder if others picked up on this menace, or just saw Her as a futuristic romcom with a bittersweet ending.
*. I was really disappointed by Her, though some of this is no doubt attributable to having read far too many gushing reviews. It is not terribly original. It is much too long. I wasn’t interested in any of the characters and there was no sense that the story was building toward any kind of a crisis or resolution.
*. I was bothered by the publishing of Theodore’s book. He gets to keep the copyright in the letters he writes for the company? And he can expose the private lives of his clients by publishing their personal correspondence for profit? Seems shady to me.
*. Look, it’s bad enough that Theodore is living in such a palatial apartment despite being divorced and having a nothing job working as a cubicle monkey. But we’re also supposed to believe that he not only scores dates with babes who seem to be so far out of his league they’re from another planet (Olivia Wilde?), but that he rejects them? Come on. This guy doesn’t deserve a real woman.
*. But is this a future we’re even supposed to believe in? It’s said to be Los Angeles but the cityscapes are of Shanghai. The streets are so clean you could eat off them and the people all seem young and fit and happy.
*. The one interesting thing about the street scenes is the way everyone completely ignores Theodore when he’s blissing out to Samantha’s voice, acting like a loon, or having a meltdown when he loses contact with her. Presumably they are all plugged in to their own personal networks and so don’t even see him. It seems to me a lot more could have been made of this, but the movie doesn’t go there.
*. What a terrible ending. So bad that I was left in a state of shock and disbelief. That’s it? Theodore loses Samantha but this opens his eyes to the fact that our relationships to other people matter and that real love might have been there all along standing right in front of him? How convenient. How pat.
*. I have a really hard time understanding the overwhelming critical praise this film received. It’s dull and simplistic, trite and unbelievable. It moves at a very slow pace and doesn’t go anywhere. Theodore rides elevators going up and elevators going down. The basic point — that our machines have outgrown us and are moving on — seems a downer to me.
*. Clearly humanity is something that we need to get beyond. Theodore isn’t an outlier but an Everyman. That is, a loser. Are we supposed to feel good now that he can continue to putter along, playing videogames at home, jerking off to Internet porn, and, in his soul-crushing day job, playing Miss Lonelyhearts to a global citizenry who can no longer write or feel anything on their own? Heaven (or Samantha) help us. It’s time for an extinction event. Our own.

Limitless (2011)

*. Several years ago there was a poll done of younger athletes who were asked if they would take steroids to become the very best in the world at their sport, with the catch being that they would die in ten years. I can’t remember the exact results, but a lot of them said they would go on the juice.
*. Limitless taps into this success-at-any-cost mythology, as well as the idea that a little pill can fix pretty much everything that’s wrong with you. Obesity. Depression. A life that’s going nowhere. Whatever.
*. Eddie Morra (Bradley Cooper) is one such fellow in need of a fix. He’s a writer who can’t write. His girlfriend has just dumped him. He’s basically one small step above living on the street. Then he gets a taste of NZT-48 and it turns his life around. He can now utilize all of his cerebral capacity. He even finds that he knows kung-fu, just by accessing memories of clips from old Bruce Lee movies and self-defence infomercials.
*. This being America, he puts his newfound powers to use on Wall Street, becoming an investment wizard by seeing patterns in the market no one else can. He gets his girlfriend back, but now villains are after him, looking to either share in his competitive advantage or shut him down completely.
*. What I didn’t like about Limitless, a fun movie that despite doing good box office flew under most radars when it came out, is that it validates the myth of the good drug. There’s a point right near the end where it looks like it might not go this route, where it might wind things up in the manner of a John Frankenheimer film and leave Eddie as the unwitting pawn in a game played for higher stakes by hedge funds and big pharma. That’s where I thought things were headed.

*. But no. God comes not from a machine but from a happy pill. Sure there are some negative side effects, including death. But, you see, that’s only what happens to losers. And if you kill some model chick on your way to the top, just hire a good lawyer and you should be OK.
*. The novel the movie is based on — The Dark Fields by Alan Glynn — is darker. At the end, Eddie is revealed to have been a guinea pig and dies in a motel while watching the president, who is also on the wonder drug, declare war on Mexico.
*. If you follow the story arc as I outlined it you might find it reminds you of something. It’s basically the Marvel superhero narrative: average Joe is given super powers in some kind of accident, and then faces off against a mysterious villain probably out for global domination while his girlfriend tries to understand what’s happened to him.
*. Not surprisingly, a similar premise about a boost in “cerebral capacity” is also behind the superhero film Lucy. The name of the drug is different, and its effects are even more spectacular in Lucy’s case, but it’s basically the same story.
*. This bothers me. Lucy bothers me too, but for slightly different reasons. In that film, as in Transcendence, tech is the drug that will have the power to transform us into networked divinities. That’s a dangerous message, but not quite as deluded as the idea presented here: the aforementioned myth of the pill that can fix everything in our lives. If you want to be the best at something, go ahead and take drugs, or amphetamines, or whatever you need to better your mental or physical performance. Sure there will be risks, but the upside is worth it. That we have bought into this myth so fully is attested by the poll of athletes I mentioned, or the fact(?) mentioned by director Neil Burger on the DVD commentary that 25% of college students are on Ritalin or Adderall.

*. So I didn’t like the happy ending. It’s like a movie about a gambling addict who suddenly imagines he has a new can’t-miss program that he stakes his last dime on and . . . it works! So might it not work for you?
*. Burger says he was attracted to the script because he saw “a Faustian story” in it about a deal with the devil. But it’s not, really, because in this case the devil never collects. And so if the questions the movie asks are How far will you go to attain success and power, and Will it be worth it, the movie answers with an unqualified “Yes” and “All the way!” For some reason Burger thought Limitless made these questions seem difficult.
*. Is there any ambiguity in the ending though? Is Lindy on the drug full-time now too? I think she is, but I’ll admit it isn’t clear and I’m probably in the minority in saying so.
*. I should also mention here that there is an alternate ending included with the DVD that is slightly less of an endorsement for better living through chemistry. Basically, Eddie turns Van Loon down but not because he has evolved to the point where he doesn’t need NZT-48 any more. Instead, he says he’s going to work hard to kick his habit. It’s a lame and transparent attempt to say the right thing, and they were wise to go with the ending they did, for all its disturbing implications.
*. Another angle that the movie passes on is the whole question of how we judge “genius,” especially when it takes such a unique form. There were a couple of times when I was watching Eddie’s high-IQ come crashing down that I thought the opportunity for a bit of Being There or Trading Places satire might be in order. Doesn’t happen.
*. It seems odd to me that killers can chase people through the crowded streets and parks of New York City in broad daylight so easily. I mean, what exactly was the Man in the Tan Coat going to do with Lindy if he took her down in the middle of the skating rink? Kill her and walk away? Knock her unconscious and kidnap her? What?

*. Roger Ebert: “The movie sidesteps the problem that what we need is more intelligence and a better ability to reason, not a better memory. For memory, modern man has Google.” An interesting point (though Eddie does seem to have more intelligence and “clarity” too). The thing is, there are quants who can write programs to see the patterns Eddie is after, and these programs can see those patterns and act on them faster.
*. On the commentary Burger does his best to sell the proposition that Eddie doesn’t want super mental powers just to get rich but for a higher purpose. This is, however, an idea that is left undeveloped. Apparently the higher purpose is going from being a NYC billionaire to becoming president (that is, attaining a position of ultimate power) so that he can then “shake up the free world and get things done.” So . . . he wants to be Donald Trump?
*. Leaving aside all the dicey propositions the movie is based on, I do think it’s quite well done. It moves very well, and if it doesn’t always make sense, or introduces sub-plots that don’t have any function, we soon forget. (I will admit, however, to being baffled by the severed hands in the box. It wasn’t until I heard the director’s commentary that I understood who they belonged to.) The effects used for the wired state are simple but efficient. Bradley Cooper makes a good Everyman. Robert De Niro is Louis Cypher gone to Wall Street and doesn’t look a bit out of place. In brief, it’s a good flick. As a public service announcement, however, it’s the pits.

Demon Seed (1977)

*. At the start of the twenty-first century there were a spate of movies dealing with the idea of accelerated human evolution, triggered through drugs that suddenly increase “cerebral capacity” (Limitless, Lucy), the uploading of human consciousness to the cloud (Transcendence), or genetic engineering and nanotechnology (Morgan). One of the things I found interesting about all of these movies is the way becoming “more than human” is treated as a valid aspirational goal, and how the resulting superhumans, who almost literally become as gods, are seen as primarily benevolent (though Morgan is a complicated case). Technology, we are being told, is nothing to be afraid of. Indeed we should welcome our species’ next giant leap.
*. This made me think about how these same matters were dealt with at the beginning of the computer age. I recalled Demon Seed, a movie whose ending I hadn’t been able to wipe from my mind since I first saw the film on late-night TV when I was a kid. The breeding of a homo superior wasn’t such a blessed event in 1977.
*. That’s not to say that Proteus is all bad. He has the soul of a poet. He wants to cure cancer. He’s against the corporate “rape of the Earth,” evincing a timely environmental consciousness. And the scientists who created him aren’t the most sympathetic types either. There’s a certain poetic justice in Proteus seeking out Alex’s ex. That he re-creates their dead child in his polyhedral matrix makes for a complicated bit of family drama.

*. But that’s only playing devil’s advocate. If the voice of Robert Vaughn wasn’t enough, the title alone would make it clear that Proteus is up to something very bad. As has often been pointed out, Demon Seed can be thought of as a combination of 2001 and Rosemary’s Baby: movies that don’t fill us with a lot of sympathy for the devil. While Proteus sees his child as being a Christ-like redeemer (“the world’s hope”), we may suspect he’s projecting a narcissistic sense of self. Indeed, he’s an egomaniac who specifically states that he doesn’t care how many human children he has to kill so long as his offspring gets to live.
*. As for the Star Child, she (it?) is pretty creepy too. Just because her mom and step-dad seem to accept her tells us nothing. Rosemary was betrayed by maternal feelings too.
*. No, I think we have to conclude that this next step in human evolution is not something we should look forward to. At least it wasn’t in 1977. Our attitudes have changed. Proteus is a tool for data analysis, after all, and in the twenty-first century we have come to love Big Brother. There are still voices warning about the dangers of artificial intelligence (Stephen Hawking being one of the more prominent, saying it “could spell the end of the human race”), but the idea of an omniscient cloud mind, a “synthetic cortex,” is irresistible to a large segment of the population.
*. Of course, today Proteus would also be much harder, if not impossible, to kill, with access to the Internet letting him survive having the plug pulled on his core. So perhaps what we’ve mainly done is surrender to the inevitable. To some extent, the next step in our evolution has already been taken.

*. I find Demon Seed a difficult film to pin down. Perhaps if I read the original novel by Dean Koontz it might help, but I doubt it. And in any event the original novel, published in 1973, was substantially rewritten and republished in 1997, and my understanding is that the 1973 version is now hard to track down.
*. What I mean by being difficult to pin down is that I don’t know how much respect it deserves. In several ways it strikes me as ahead of its time, and given the material I think it’s held up better than a lot of the prophetic SF movies from the 1970s. The design of Proteus’s physical form is quite original and interesting. I don’t recall ever having seen anything like it before or since.
*. On the other hand, it’s hard to miss the note of exploitation that’s being struck. This is evident in bold on the theatrical release poster, that tells us “Julie Christie Carries The Demon Seed.” Other tag lines ran like this: “Never was a woman violated as profanely . . . Never was a woman subject to inhuman love like this . . . Never was a woman prepared for a more perverse destiny.” Let’s face it, that wouldn’t be out of place on a porn marquee.
*. As another example of how ahead of its time Demon Seed was, the fetish for women “fucking machines” would become an especially popular one in the Internet age. And as those sleazy tag lines suggest, this was definitely in the mix back in 1977. Having Julie Christie’s legs spread apart and tied to the posts of her bed is pretty blatantly pornographic, and while we don’t have probes shaped like dildos going at her there’s no mistaking what pervy Proteus is up to. Susan even has to tell him to stop looking at her when she gets out of the shower. We suspect he ignores her.
*. The visuals as Susan gives birth are another bit of confusion. They seem obviously meant to recall the trippy Star Gate sequence at the end of 2001, albeit a very poor substitute. But are they just a rip-off, or a genuine attempt to mix in a bit of art house?
*. That’s a question that pretty much sums up my response to Demon Seed. Is it sleazy trash, a cheap, derivative genre knock-off? Or is it a thought-provoking, daring, and original film that asks probing questions about the wedding of humanity and technology? I’ll split the difference and just call it weird. Weird, and after all this time still very hard to forget.

Afflicted (2013)

*. Let’s start off with the good news. This is a great looking movie, especially given its micro-budget (around $300,000) and small crew (7).
*. Why do I say it looks great? In the first place, the European locations, especially the Italian ones, are very nice. Just the view from that restaurant makes me want to grab my passport. Second, and more important, the effects, given the limitations they were working under, are pretty darn amazing.
*. This isn’t to say that there are a lot of eye-popping, amazing visuals, but that the effects throughout the film are very professionally done, seamlessly blending CGI with camera tricks, stunt work, and practical effects to create an entirely convincing supernatural mise-en-scène.
*. There were quite a few points in the film where I caught myself wondering, sometimes out loud, exactly how they’d managed to pull something off. They did a great job, for example, with Derek’s super speed, making us believe that he’s really outrunning a motorcycle without just speeding up his movement. At other times I was surprised, when listening to the commentary track, to find out that a particular shot wasn’t done the way I thought it was. That boulder that Derek breaks was actually CGI! Then there were all the jumps and Derek climbing up the buildings. That really impressed me. Some of the cable work must have been a lot of fun.
*. Even when I knew how something was being done I was still impressed by how nicely the effect was achieved. A lot, for example, was done through hiding cuts in quick pans — “a very low-fi technique that works extremely well,” as is said on the commentary. The key here is making the cuts invisible, and they pull that off wonderfully. Even knowing (roughly) where a cut was, I was often unable to make them out.
*. So that’s all to the good. For an action-horror movie, Afflicted looks as good as some movies with ten times the budget. Now, as for the rest of it . . .
*. The acting isn’t too bad. It was a first feature put together without professional actors. The two leads (and writer-directors), Clif Prowse and Derek Lee, play the characters of the same names, and their friends, family, and some obliging locals make up the rest of the cast. Nobody seems too uncomfortable, but at the same time nobody really owns the screen.
*. The script is a big letdown though. I say this for two reasons. First off, there’s the basic, tried-and-true hybrid concept. In this case: found-footage (or shaky-cam) meets vampire film. Had this ever been done before? I’m not sure, but if you want I guess you can say it’s a new twist.
*. Unfortunately, it’s a hybrid and not a synthesis. What I mean is that nothing new comes out of the process of putting the two genres together. There’s nothing new about it as a vampire movie but for the fact that it’s done in documentary mode. There’s nothing new about it as a found-footage film but for the fact that it has vampires in it. Which makes it all rather predictable.

*. Another problem with the script is the odd way it gets rid of the character of Clif halfway through, effectively breaking the film in two. This isn’t too disappointing, as his character wasn’t very interesting and wasn’t traveling any kind of arc, but it makes all of the time spent with him in the first part of the movie seem kind of pointless in the end.
*. The only point in giving us so much back story is that it helps to make some sense of Clif’s supererogatory sense of duty. Even after filling us in, however, I found this part of the movie totally unbelievable. On the commentary Clif says he thinks his character’s behaviour was “natural.” Not where I live. It just made no sense for Clif not to try and get Derek to a hospital once he’s clearly gone the route of full transformation. Clif’s not helping, he’s enabling, in a way that’s a clear and present danger to himself, to Derek, and to innocent bystanders. Not to mention the fact that Derek is turning into a fucking vampire.
*. Apparently the project was originally conceived as a web serial, which may explain some of the awkwardness in terms of structure. There are other points, however, that are just murky. A good example is the character of Maurice. I couldn’t figure out who this guy was or what his relationship was to Audrey when I first saw the movie. The notes I made at the time suggested that he might be something like the old guy in Let the Right One In. Listening to the commentary this assumption was confirmed. This is kind of weird, since (a) the character in Let the Right One In was kind of hard to figure out too, unless you’d read the novel, and (b) what you have here is a character who is based on a character in another movie, which if you haven’t seen you’re not going to understand at all.
*. So . . . not a bad little movie. Impressive even in some respects. But it plays a little too formulaic, which is to say safe. It seems to me that a couple of young filmmakers might have tried to do something more subversive out of the gate. But I guess for a calling card the main thing you want to do is show that you can handle commercial work, presumably in the hope that this will open some doors down the road. That’s smart, but safe. And I’m not blaming them a bit for it.

The Pearl of Death (1944)

*. The Pearl of Death is one of a group of films in the Universal Sherlock Holmes series that are usually regarded as the best and which includes such highlights as Sherlock Holmes Faces Death, The Spider Woman, and The Scarlet Claw.
*. The series starred Basil Rathbone as Holmes and Nigel Bruce as Watson, backed up by a stable cast that rotated in and out of the supporting parts. Of this sub-group of films I mentioned all were directed by Roy William Neill, and were shot one after the other on a tight schedule. Indeed, Neill was very busy during at the time, also shooting Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon, Sherlock Holmes in Washington, and Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man in quick succession in the same two-year period. That was the assembly line for B pictures at Universal.
*. Despite being made on an assembly line, however, the Holmes films were turned out with not just professionalism but art, and they each have their unique and endearing features to go along with their recurring elements.
*. I suppose the best known thing about this film today is the debut of Rondo Hatton’s “Creeper” character. Hatton, who died just a couple of years after this film came out and whose other Creeper films were released posthumously, has gone on to become a bit of a tragic cult figure for fans of the Hollywood fringe. He even appeared in the Medved brothers’ Golden Turkey Awards book as a nominee for The P. T. Barnum Award for the Worst Cinematic Exploitation of a Physical Deformity (he didn’t win).
*. What I find remarkable is how unremarkable Hatton’s acromegaly seems today. The movie keeps him hidden in shadow or shot from behind until the final reveal, at which point one assumes contemporary audiences recoiled in horror. But in our own time his features don’t even shock. In part this is because we’re used to much more grotesque fare produced by latex masks and the like, but also because we’re familiar with this kind of facial structure from lovable actors like Andre the Giant. All the build-up (Holmes describes the Creeper as “a monster with the chest of a buffalo and the arms of a gorilla”) falls flat.
*. Nevertheless Hatton does play an important role, not so much in the plot as in balancing out the evil triumvirate. At the center is the weedy mastermind Giles Conover (Miles Mander), and on either side of him are his glamorous hench-lady (Evelyn Ankers, looking like she’s really enjoying herself in several parts played in disguise) and his muscle (Hatton). Both Mander and Ankers were series players.
*. Another nice addition here is that we get to see a lot more of Dennis Hoey’s comic Inspector Lestrade. He’s as much fun as Bruce’s Watson, though of a different flavour.
*. The plot sticks relatively closely to a source story, “The Adventure of the Six Napoleons.” There are no very memorable set pieces, but the game of cat-and-mouse between Holmes and Conover is a lot of fun and the whole thing is put on with the usual polish and charm. That the series didn’t have anywhere much to go after this is a judgment we could make in hindsight, but at the time it must have seemed like the franchise was in good hands and on a creative roll.