They Live (1988, Directed by John Carpenter) English 7

Starring Roddy Piper, Keith David, Meg Foster, Peter Jason, Sy Richardson, Raymond St. Jacques

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(7-Very Good Film)

Satirical. Biting. Ingenious.

“They live. We sleep.” John Carpenter’s satire imagines a world where aliens disguised as humans represent the elite, upper class, controlling the media and enslaving people’s thoughts through subliminal messages. Famed wrestler Rowdy Roddy Piper is a limited actor but a likable, working-class hero playing a drifter named George. George stumbles upon a pair of glasses that see through the aliens’ artificial walls and reveal the truth (conveyed in black and white with vintage special effects). But people are so comfortable in their sleepwalking, mass-controlled lives, it seems impossible for George to convince anyone of what’s going on. They Live is prime satire mixed in with ’50s sci-fi storytelling. It’s smart, funny, as relevant as ever, and creative as hell. Its theme would be expanded years later in the Wachowski siblings’ classic The Matrix.

-Walter Tyrone Howard-

(891)

The Horror of Party Beach (1964, Directed by Del Tenney) English 3

Starring John Scott, Alice Lyon, Allan Laurel, Eulabelle Moore, Marilyn Clarke, Agustin Mayor

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(3-Horrible Film)

Laughable. Mindless. Unscary.

Deep down in the waters off of a Connecticut beach lives a new species of sea life. Grotesquely altered by radioactive waste, these corrupted creatures are heading for land and I’m prepared to be horrified- it is The Horror at Party Beach, after all- but then, the creatures surface, looking like an H.R Pufnstuf character. Once we see the “monsters,” the rest of the movie becomes a bad joke. To be honest, the movie was never good. From the start, the acting is wooden (in that independent-filmmaking, amateurish sort of way) and the dialogue is absurd. The characters are nondescript, all except Eulabelle, the black maid that made me roll my eyes with every line she’s given to read. The music sucks too.

-Walter Tyrone Howard-

(853)

12 Monkeys (1995, Directed by Terry Gilliam) English 10

Starring Bruce Willis, Madeleine Stowe, Brad Pitt, Christopher Plummer, David Morse, Christopher Meloni

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(10-Masterpiece)

Intriguing. Vivid. Thrilling.

The year is 2035. Lions and other feral animals roam the post-apocalyptic cityscape. It’s been nearly 40 years since a deadly virus wiped out most of humanity. James Cole (Willis), a prisoner, is sent back in time to locate the source so that a cure might be created. He gets sent back too far and his pursuit of the virus’ origin is derailed by his being locked up as criminally insane. Based on a short film by Chris Marker, La Jetée, Terry Gilliam uses this intriguing premise to fashion his bizarre version of a classic Hitchcock film (there are several references to Vertigo in the picture). You have a protagonist, Cole, thrust into a situation with dire implications, mostly against his will, who begins doubting his own sanity. Along the way, there are several red herrings and an odd but satisfying romance with his doctor, Kathyrn Railly (Stowe). 12 Monkeys is a skewed vision of the future matched with a delirious odyssey through time. I, for one, have never been able to fully wrap my head around the paradoxes or the implications made throughout the film, but I love these kinds of thrillers. Think of Hitchcock’s 39 Steps, one of the most entertaining films ever made, wherein the protagonist is chained to a woman who loathes him, while unknown enemies chase them. We get that recycled wonderfully here with Cole and Kathryn.

-Walter Tyrone Howard-

(833)

Terminator: Dark Fate (2019, Directed by Tim Miller) English 7

Starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, Linda Hamilton, Mackenzie Davis, Natalia Reyes, Gabriel Luna, Diego Boneta

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(7-Very Good Film)

Exciting. Engaging. Unnecessary.

The Terminator franchise has officially been milked to death, so on the one hand, Terminator: Dark Fate is a film that no one asked for and not enough people went to see based on its box-office performance, but on the other hand, Terminator: Dark Fate is a solid film with engaging characters and a handful of exciting action scenes. Had Rise of the Machines, Salvation, and Genesys never happened and Dark Fate was the third in the series, I believe it would have been a hit. As it stands, it pretends those inferior sequels never happened anyways. The premise for this entry is even more iconoclastic than Genesys, but it’s an interesting one. John Connor is dead and a new threat to the AI’s world domination emerges in the form of Dani Ramos (Reyes), a Mexican woman working in an automobile factory. Sent to terminate her is Rev-9 (Luna), a prototype with the ability to split into two. Sent to protect her is Grace (Davis), a human woman from the future with mechanical augmentations. Both Linda Hamilton and Schwarzenegger show up later in the picture and they’re both great and the highlights of Dark Fate, but the newcomers make a strong enough impression while we await the old vets. There’s nothing very surprising about Dark Fate. It’s not like seeing CGI used so seamlessly for the first time or finding out Schwarzenegger is a good guy now in T2. Terminator and T2 were special. Terminator: Dark Fate is just a good film, but after the last few entries, I’ll take it.

-Walter Tyrone Howard-

(798)

Blade Runner: The Depth of Sci-Fi (1982, Directed by Ridley Scott) English 10

Starring Harrison Ford, Sean Young, Rutger Hauer, Edward James Olmos, Darryl Hannah, William Sanderson, M. Emmet Walsh

(10-Masterpiece)

Stunning. Masterful. Provocative.

Science fiction can take the concerns of its time as well as timeless concerns and present them to an audience in a unique and entertaining way. British novelist H.G Wells played a huge role in jumpstarting this tradition. His works dealt with themes as diverse as man’s struggle versus technology, man’s fear of the unknown, and identity crisis like in The Invisible Man (1897). Jules Verne successfully foretold of the submarine, man’s ability to fly across the world, and space travel. E.M Forster in his novella, The Machine Stops, rather sagely wrote about a future society that would rely so heavily on technology that it would eventually be unable to function without it. The works of the early science fiction writers bore a complexity and a weight that made it a premier genre for boundary-pushing and exploration. Great science fiction has always challenged what society accepts, explored what is impossible to explore, and posed questions that aren’t often asked.

Science fiction film had its holy grail as early as 1927 in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. In its dystopian contours, we have a literal embodiment of high class to low-class society; the haves and the have-nots. Following its protagonist, Freder, from the high class pleasure garden to the oppressive urban sprawl of low society as he searches for the women he’s infatuated with, Metropolis introduced both political (social injustice, societal hierarchy) and philosophical (the nature of men, what separates man from machine) themes to science fiction film, and became the benchmark for all the films that followed.

This is where Blade Runner, with its vast urban dystopia, picks up, reflecting a sort of decline of human emotion. Based on Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, it was the first of Phillip K. Dick’s novels to be adapted for the silver screen. The novel, like classic works of noir, both in the form of literature and film, dealt with issues of identity, and the filmmaking team spotlight this aspect of it through noir-fused sets and style; Venetian blinds, hardboiled detective, dames who mean trouble but also have a soft side, and even voice over depending on which version you watch.

Dick’s story of a seemingly obdurate cop seeking to kill six near-perfect androids would become a film marvel in the hands of director Ridley Scott (fresh off of his first sci-fi hit, Alien), and, despite many glaring changes in the book’s transfer to film-the significance of animals is made vague and the principal character of J.R Isadora is lost completely-the main theme or question of what it means to be human is captured beautifully and provocatively. Blade Runner is a heavily philosophical film with religious undercurrents coloring its quiet moments. Is it any wonder then that upon release, the movie saw middling returns at the box office and was misunderstood by many prominent critics? Famed film critic Pauline Kael wrote, “It forces passivity on you,” in her review for The New Yorker. Janet Maslin for the New York Times opined, “A film that has neither strong characters nor a strong story.” And Roger Ebert said of Ridley Scott, “He seems more concerned with creating his film worlds than populating them with plausible characters, and that’s the trouble this time. Blade Runner is a stunningly interesting visual achievement, but a failure as a story. The movie has the same trouble as the replicants: Instead of flesh and blood, its dreams are of mechanical men.” Twenty-five years later, however, Ebert re-analyzed the film adding it to his canon of “Great Movies”, remarking on his earlier quibbles, “This seems a strange complaint, given that so much of the movie concerns who is, and is not, human, and what it means to be human anyway.” I believe this point is where any analysis and discussion of Blade Runner beyond the spectacular superficial elements should begin. While many of the themes of Do Androids Dream of Sleep are still present within Scott’s text, the latter feels more concentrated compared to the former which felt to me like a self-published work; brilliant but without the mark of a real editor.

Blade Runner stars Harrison Ford as Rick Deckard, a former detective with Los Angeles’ Police Department, who is brought back to expose and hunt down five replicants (androids bioengineered to perfection). Deckard gives every indication of being the hard-worn but duty-bound cop; incorruptible and without any apparent life outside of being a cop. On the trail of the replicants Leon, Zhora, Pris, and their charismatic and uber-Aryan leader Roy, Deckard is soon corrupted by the fifth android, Rachael. He knows she is an android and finds himself increasingly drawn to her against his better judgment. Deckard finds and terminates Zhora, Pris, gets help from Rachael with Leon and meets up with Roy on the rooftops in an extended climax with bizarre spiritual implications. He then runs off with Rachael into the unknown, and the credits roll over the uncertainty of our first viewing.  But Blade Runner gets better every time you watch it. It is the greatest embodiment of the question, what makes someone human?

Before looking at how the film addresses this question with the replicants and Deckard, I’d first like to point out its use of men and women in broad strokes to convey this theme. For one thing, the humans in the movie are highly individualistic, and that is a generous way of describing their solemn, lonely existence. Consider the character of J.F Sebastian (played by William Sanderson). As a genetic designer, he is one of three men responsible for the creation of the replicants. Pris accompanies him to his home, which is filled with animated toys that keep him company. His lone source of human contact seems to be the occasional chess game with the boss, Tyrell. He works constantly. Consorts with inanimate objects. Plays chess. Sits alone his massive apartment. This hardly feels like the life of a flesh and blood man. His appearance, too, lends itself to conspiracy theories of him being an android. The blood in his cheeks feels painted on and he wears the same clothes in the few scenes he occupies. But I interpret his solitude as an example of how isolated humanity is, and how the androids have picked up where humans have dropped the ball.

Similarly, there is the master himself. The grand designer, sitting alone atop his own private tower of Babylon. Again we have the motif of humanity isolating itself; cut off from other humans, cut off from relationships, cut off from emotions. Dr. Elden Tyrell is the creator; the life-giver. Before I get to the religious connotations of that, let us first look at him as simply another human in the story. No wife; no children; no house pets. He is married to his work, and I believe he says something about Rachael being like a daughter or something. What does it say about humanity when people are seeking artificial means of forming relationships rather than organically finding love and companionship? That is if they are even seeking, which most characters are not. How many married couples are seen in the film? How many children? I don’t remember any, and I would guess the notions of family and togetherness have migrated to Off-world colonies along with the people of means. Sci-fi films have long envisioned nightmarish futures and dystopias, but Blade Runner’s vision isn’t as off-kilter visually compared to the present. Its nightmare concerns the muted emotional aspects of humanity under the influence of some unknown conformity. The third human responsible for the androids is Hannibal Chew. He rounds out and drives home the point about the characters we can most safely assume are humans, as he too is seen working robotically at his work designing the eyes of the androids. Is there nothing left for humans but their work? We don’t get any sense of three-dimensionality out of any human character. We get no sense of them aspiring to anything.

Now we come to Rick Deckard, who I like to believe is a replicant, but will read as a human for this discussion. He lives to work, and the only hint of extracurricular interests comes about halfway through the film when we see he has a piano in his apartment. Deckard in that same scene quite cruelly breaks down Rachael’s faith in her own memory and identity; memory and identity also being crucial themes. He proves to her that her memories are manufactured, and the film later whispers questions about his memories when another cop leaves an origami folding of a unicorn that harkens back to Deckard’s dreams on the subject. How much can anyone trust their own memory?

Deckard has a foolproof way of identifying androids. No matter how convincing, how thorough the established illusion, he can identify a replicant based on their inability to empathize. To this effect, he administers the Voight-Kampff test described in the film’s original press kit as, “A very advanced form of lie detector that measures contractions of the iris muscle and the presence of invisible airborne particles emitted from the body. The bellows were designed for the latter function and give the machine the menacing air of a sinister insect. The VK is used primarily by Blade Runners to determine if a suspect is truly human by measuring the degree of his empathic response through carefully worded questions and statements.” He needles his subjects about various strange things happening to animals and gauges their response. This sets up a very convenient line between humans and androids-humans can empathize, replicants cannot. Except this delineation falls apart throughout the film. Take the scene where Zhora is retired by Deckard for example. She is gunned down in the street with dozens of people breezing by. They keep moving. Most significantly, at the film’s end, Roy saves the man who killed his friends and tried to kill him. Is this a sign of grace from a being that has killed its creator and become its own judge of life and death?

In the novel, maybe the movie as well, Tyrell asks Deckard if he has ever used the Voight-Kampff test on himself. Aside from just being another occurrence where the text plays with our conception of who is and isn’t a human, the moment also points to a level of reflexivity that is lacking in the human characters but present in the androids. In essence, does Deckard ever question? Does he ever doubt? Apparently not for much of the film, until Rachael introduces it to his life. We see Deckard struggle with his emotional ties to someone he needs to kill, plus the physical aspects of that situation. Then, in the love scene in the apartment, he struggles to remain detached while convincing her that she is not human. He appears to waver a little as a result of his action, and I think we can see him empathize with her and her newfound knowledge. The combination of these doubts and frustrations lead to him taking her forcefully. It is an unusually attractive, aberrant, problematic, enigmatic scene as at a base visual level we have an attractive male movie star forcing his way with an attractive woman that raises all kinds of questions of consent and misogyny. For me, the scene represents Deckard’s awakening, wherein you have a male character flooded with an overwhelming load of novel feelings not knowing what to do with them, and trying to convince himself that she is merely a tool that can be used as needed. You can see how that comes close to not distant enough levels of misogyny present in films past, but here, I feel there is a dire subtext that makes the segment absolutely necessary. First, as repulsive a notion as it may be depending on your reading of the scene, this is the first time where we can begin to empathize with Deckard. He is flesh and blood after all, and he accepts her gift of love (albeit in a brutal manner) at long last. The scene also harkens back to classic noir where women are constantly getting pushed around and having to prove their angelic interiors to violent brooding male protagonists. We like those male protagonists and begin to like Deckard precisely for those flaws that are so apparent because it makes the characters more human.

Next, we have Roy, the super being/replicant/more human than human/Christ-figure.“We’re not computers, Sebastian, we’re physical,” he says. He is dying. He feels his time coming to an end and wants more. This is a deeply human trait, and because his time is so finite, he searches for his maker for answers. The implications of this are readily apparent and separate the androids from the humans in a way that feels inverted. His sporadic utterances throughout the film move between ominous and wise, when he says things like, “Quite an experience to live in fear, isn’t it? That’s what it is to be a slave.” I could picture him easily having followers in our society. There is the crystal clear subtext in the film of Roy being a Christ-figure. Not a metaphor or a direct representation of Christ but someone who has a certain resemblance. His creator, Tyrell, informs Deckard that the motto in making the replicants was “more human than human,” which itself bears an apt description of the Christian conception of Christ. He experiences high levels of pain, sees the worst men have to offer, inspires others to follow, and ultimately allows his worst enemy to live, before he, himself, dies. For Roy, it is not a question of can he do what humans can, because he can do anything a human can better and to the extreme.

John Scalzi, in his Rough Guide to Sci-fi Movies, talks about science fiction’s ability to blend genres, styles, and subgenres. He says, “Science fiction does not contain itself to neat categories, and science fiction fans do not content themselves with one genre of film.” This points to what makes science fiction a genre capable of immense depth. Blade Runner at once rediscovered and reset the mold, and in its wake, we’ve seen other great films like AI: Artificial Intelligence (Steven Spielberg, 2001), Wall-E (Andrew Stanton, 2008), and Ex-Machina (Andrew Garland, 2015) explore this issue of what constitutes being human. Rick Deckard, talking about his enemy Roy Batty, summed up this theme in the end monologue for the original version (read without remembering Harrison Ford’s performance of this dialogue), “I don’t know why he saved my life. Maybe in those last moments, he loved life more than he ever had before. Not just his life – anybody’s life; my life. All he’d wanted were the same answers the rest of us want. Where did I come from? Where am I going? How long have I got? All I could do was sit there and watch him die.”

-Walter Tyrone Howard-

(789)

Arrival (2016, Directed by Denis Villeneuve) English 5

Starring Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker, Michael Stuhlbarg, Mark O’Brien, Tzi Ma

(5-Okay Film)

Slow. Monotonous. Opaque.

How to describe this film’s plot? I suppose it is fitting for a film so concerned with the passing of time to be an unbound, nonlinear work. All I can claim to understand clearly is that Amy Adams plays a linguistics professor asked to assist in communication with a group of aliens that have recently materialized. Critics have praised the confident pacing, but, in my book, that usually means slow and boring. I’ve also realized about myself that I don’t care for friendly aliens when it comes to movies. Give me the childish aliens vs. humans narrative every time over this well-crafted “intelligent” film. A film has to be entertaining before it can be anything else.

-Walter Tyrone Howard-

(779)

Videodrome (1983, Directed by David Cronenberg) English 8

Starring James Woods, Debbie Harry, Sonja Smits, Leslie Carlson, Peter Dvorsky, Jackl Creley

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(8-Exceptional Film)

Bizarre. Unnerving. Unforgettable.

Max Renn (Woods) runs a sleazy television station that pushes sex and violence with its programming. Always on the lookout for new material, Renn stumbles upon Videodrome, a pirated show made under mysterious circumstances that takes gratuitous sex and violence to new heights. Renn becomes obsessed with the show but when he does a little digging, reality and Videodrome begin to blend together, and he finds that what he thought was staged might actually be genuine snuff films. Directed by David Cronenberg, master of body horror, this movie alternates between seeming to have a lot of plot to digest and the plot apparently not mattering at all, and yet, I was never frustrated. From wonder to disgust, it’s best to watch and move with Videodrome as it goes from one striking image to the next. What’s it saying though? Is Renn corrupted by what he’s watching? Desensitized by sex and violence on television to the point where he has to look for stronger material to feel anything? I don’t have an answer but I’m certain I’ll watch this film again and again searching.

-Walter Tyrone Howard-

(707)