Tag Archives: Dystopian

REPORT: THE COMPLETE METROPOLIS [1927] (2010 RESTORATION)

DIRECTED BY: Fritz Lang

FEATURING: Brigitte Helm, Gustav Fröhlich, Rudolf Klein-Rogge, Alfred Abel

PLOT: The futuristic city of Metropolis is divided into a wealthy, hedonistic, and patriarchal

Restored still from The Complete Metropolis

above-ground, and the beaten-down workers who serve them below.  When the son of the city’s leader falls in love with a revolutionary worker, a chain of events is set in motion that ultimately sways the balance of power.

WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST: While its story is standard allegorical fare and the performances are often melodramatic, the sheer inventiveness and visual splendor of Metropolis warrants its status as quintessential science fiction.  It set the standard for a host of weird films that came after it and has several iconically bizarre scenes and characters.  Taking into account its importance in film history, it is certainly worthy of the Weird Movie List.

COMMENTS: In a futuristic society functioning solely on a complex network of machines, the workers are beaten down to the point of exhausted submission, while the leaders squander their riches on pleasures of the flesh.  Freder (Gustav Fröhlich), the son of the “Master of Metropolis” Joh Fredersen (Alfred Abel), leaves the pleasure garden cultivated for the spoiled sons of the elite and discovers the horrific conditions threatening his subterranean “brothers and sisters” who operate the machines.  His instant fairytale ardor for the saintly revolutionary Maria (Brigitte Helm) encourages him to become the prophesied Mediator, a man who will act as the “heart” between the brain above and the hands below.  When Joh Fredersen fears a workers’ rebellion, he enlists mad scientist and former romantic rival Rotwang (Rudolf Klein-Rogge) to disguise his newly-fashioned robot into a replica of Maria, so that the automaton can destroy their faith in a mediator.

Settling into my usual stage-right balcony seat at Cambridge’s historic Brattle Theatre, I felt privileged to see such a landmark early film on a big screen, and in its complete form, no less!  An introductory title card explained that the 30 minutes or so of missing footage found in a Buenos Aires museum were shot on 16 mm and would appear in different format than the rest of the remastered film.  The few scenes still unaccounted for would be described in similar title cards.  As the music swelled over a series of pumping pistons and grinding machinery, I was once again whisked away into the simultaneously dark and resplendent world of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis.

The new footage details much of the subplot involving the “Thin Man”, a devious fellow hired by Joh Fredersen to spy on his son.  In the prior version of the film he was a forgettable, barely relevant character, relegated primarily to expository title cards for his missing scenes.  Now he is integral to the stories of the stalwart Josophat (Freder’s assistant) and Georgy/11811, a worker who trades places with Freder.  One of the most impressive new scenes is a montage of Yoshiwara, the city’s pleasure district, in which Georgy traipses about the brightly-lit saloons with pearl-draped multi-ethnic women.  It’s a visually memorable scene with several shots merged together in a mosaic to capture the Las Vegas-like over-saturation of the place.

Unfortunately the new footage was not remastered before theater release, and while I appreciate the speed with which it was put together, I did bemoan the grainy, darkened quality of the restored scenes.  The main advantage is that it makes them noticeable so any viewer can ascertain what was missing from the more familiar version.  It’s also lamentable that the film was shown in a digital presentation, but I’m not sure if that applies to all theater screenings or just the Brattle’s.  All told these are minor complaints, and the overall effect of seeing a visionary classic in its near-complete form (about 5 minutes are still lost) is breathtaking on a big screen and required viewing for any fan of science-fiction, silent film, or just great movies in general.

Riddled with shifting loyalties and a large number of characters, Metropolis spreads its complex narrative across two and a half hours of ornate sets and meticulously-planned shots.  The lively orchestral and onomatopoetic score captures the mood of each moment perfectly, magnifying the enthusiastic performances.  Helm is mesmerizing in her dual role as Maria and her robotic doppelganger: alternately a glass-eyed saint and twitchy, devilish rabble-rouser.  Klein-Rogge is the other standout as the manic inventor Rotwang, twisting his metal hand into a claw and arching his eyebrows with mad fervor as he slithers around catacombs and dingy laboratories.

It could benefit from better pacing and a more organized plot structure, and the added scenes don’t help the already dragging and plot-holed story, but the sheer wonder and imagination with which Metropolis is filmed combine with intense performances and a heartfelt message to establish it as a true masterpiece of filmmaking.  Now that it is available in its most complete form, its weird visuals and ambitious story can be fully appreciated for all their muddled religious iconography, forward-thinking mechanics, impressive effects, and allegorical implications.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…adds even more depth to a delirious, dreamlike class parable whose dystopia still feels exhilaratingly modern.”–David Fear, Time Out New York (restored version)

CAPSULE: REPO! THE GENETIC OPERA (2008)

DIRECTED BY: Darren Lynn Bousman

FEATURING: Anthony Head, Paul Sorvino, Alexa Vega, Sarah Brightman, , Paris Hilton

PLOT: A worldwide epidemic leaves humanity on the brink, but a biotechnology

Still from Repo! The Genetic Opera (2008)

company saves everyone…for a price.  Anyone unwilling or unable to pay becomes the prey of a killing machine known as the Repo Man, who repossesses organs after he kills deadbeats!

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Musicals, by their very nature, are weird, pseudo-realities that insist that in some situations, you just HAVE to sing.  And dance. And harmonize with other people who also sing.  And dance.  And while it is difficult to say how that is not weird, Repo! The Genetic Opera manages to be oh-so pedestrian.  Despite a plot that is a very distinct hybrid of Parts: The Clonus Horror, any random season of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer”, and Tommy, there is no real imagination here, no sense of true creative force or even the vaguest idea how to be artistically subversive.  It’s just throwaway horror movie culture pap that would have been forgotten already if it weren’t so damn awful.

COMMENTS:  Every now and then a movie comes along that is so strikingly different and weird, people just have to stand up and take notice.  Such a movie can become a cult film overnight, igniting passionate statements online like “[Repo!] is such an amazing and very cool artistically rich and collaboratively ingenious of characters with rich metal Gothic and opera soul.”  But then again, sometimes a movie can seem original at first glance yet really be quite plain when one takes a closer look.  Such is the case with Repo! The Genetic Opera.  It is a collection of ideas from the bowels of the Joss Whedon fan-club message boards that is not so much weird as it is totally silly.  To the casual observer, this might look like something that hasn’t been done before, but all it is at closer inspection is a series of things that have been done before, Continue reading CAPSULE: REPO! THE GENETIC OPERA (2008)

CAPSULE: HARDWARE (1990)

DIRECTED BY: Richard Stanley

FEATURING: , Stacey Travis, Lemmy, voice of Iggy Pop

PLOT: A desert wanderer in a post-apocalyptic wasteland discovers a relic.  It’s the dismembered skeleton of a cyborg used by the government in the war that destroyed civilization, and when a man conveniently buys the creepy-looking thing for his metal sculptress girlfriend (!!!), she pieces it back together and unleashes a mechanical nightmare upon both of them.

Still from Hardware (1990)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Hardware suffers from a terrible bout of conventionalism.  It’s essentially a post-apocalyptic version of Alien set in the confines of a ratty apartment complex.  There’s nothing truly weird about it, other than the cast, which is lousy with hard rock stars.

COMMENTS: Well, it must be said outright that this movie wasn’t bad.  It was breezy, very streamlined.  This is a cyberpunk horror movie about a robot run amok, simple as that.  Usually, a post-apocalyptic sci-fi likes to wax poetic and lament on our ever-dwindling lack of human compassion and kindness toward our Mother Earth.  And I don’t have a problem with that, but when your movie is actually about a killer robot and not about the fate of man’s heart as we hurtle deeper into the future, perhaps being an armchair philosopher is not par for the course.  The plot is based on a story in the British comic staple “2000 A.D”. called “SHOK! Walter’s Robo-Tale”, and it certainly takes the cyberpunk vibe from that series and really goes with it despite a $1.5 million budget.

Well, it’s the 21’st century (THE FUTURE!!!!), and America is devastated by an undisclosed nuclear disaster.  People have to make a living any way they can, and many times that includes scavenging the technology of the past.  One disturbing fellow, called a Zone Tripper, finds the menacing remains of a robot (it is called a cyborg, but since there there are no organic mechanisms implemented into the device, let’s just assume they wanted it to sound cooler than just a plain ol’ robot) in the distant, post-apocalyptic desert.  This intimidating fellow comes to sell his scrap at the typical oddball junk broker Continue reading CAPSULE: HARDWARE (1990)

CAPSULE: ALICE (2009)

DIRECTED BY: Nick Willing

FEATURING: Caterina Scorsone, Andrew Lee Potts, Kathy Bates, Matt Frewer, Colm Meaney, Philip Winchester, Eugene Lipinski, Tim Curry, Harry Dean Stanton

PLOT: Karate-instructor Alice finds herself in Wonderland, 150 years after her

Still from Alice (2009 miniseries)

predecessor of the same name; things have changed drastically, as the Red Queen now rules a totalitarian society with an economy that depends on a fresh supply of people from our world to keep the natives pacified.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Alice is an imaginative, solid fantasy/adventure/comedy/romance, but it has only a few shadings of weird to it.  A SyFy channel production, it passes as “surreal” by basic cable standards, but this is the big time, guys.

COMMENTS: Tonally, Alice is only distantly related to Lewis Carroll’s “Alice in Wonderland,” but at least the movie has a decent explanation for that: 150 years have passed since Alice first fell down the rabbit hole, in which time technological advances and two world wars changed our world’s landscape and psyche forever.  An equal length of time passed in Wonderland, and things there have changed for the worse, as well.  They’ve developed automatic weapons, for one thing; for another, the anthropomorphic animals have evolved into full-fledged humans, with complex motivations and back stories.  Most importantly, thanks to the Queen of Hearts’ tyrannical rule, the halcyon days of whiling away the time with wordplay, nonsense verse and tea parties have been replaced by a deadly power struggle between the Queen, who controls the populace through narcotizing potions of curious manufacture, and various underground resistance movements.  That synopsis makes Alice sound a bit darker than it actually is; in fact, there’s plenty of comedy and whimsy running about in this postmodern Wonderland.  Much of the silly fun is provided by Kathy Bates’ arrogant Queen (always a plum role in Alice adaptations), who reminds Alice that she’s “the most powerful woman in the history of literature.”   The most memorable comic performance; however, goes to Matt Frewer’s White Knight, a bumbling, mumbling relic with delusions of grandeur.  As we might hope in an Alice movie, the costumes and set design are a plus.  Instead of a castle, the Wonderland monarchy has set up shop inside a 1960’s mod casino that might have come out of an Austin Powers movie.  Weird notes are struck by an assassin with a Brooklyn accent and a porcelain rabbit’s head, and Alice’s hypnotic interrogation in “The Truth Room” by the Naziesque Drs. Dee and Dum.  All of the major characters from Carroll’s books are referenced, often in clever ways, and part of the fun of the movie is in catching the cameos and tributes to minor characters (the unexpected appearance of the Borogoves is a particular favorite).  Downsides to the production are cheap CGI (a disappointing Jabberwock), action sequences that often fall flat (karate instructor or not, it’s difficult to credit the sylphlike Alice repeatedly knocking grown men about like cardboard cutouts), and a grand finale that swiftly gallops from merely contrived to the utterly cornball.  The cameos by cult icons Curry (as Dodo) and Stanton (as Caterpillar) are short and disappointing.  Still, Alice‘s strengths overcome it’s weaknesses, and the movie delivers solid entertainment.  The adventure and romance threads are balanced with narrative skill, the comic relief generally works, and its three hour running time allows it to invest Wonderland and its characters with an impressive amount of detail without ever seriously dragging.

British director Willing specializes in the underutilized miniseries format.  He made a star-studded, straightforward adaptation of Alice and Wonderland for NBC in 1999, featuring Whoopi Goldberg, Ben Kingsley, Martin Short, and Miranda Richardson, and others.  He also helmed Tin Man, a 2007 “re-imaging” that did for Frank Baum’s The Wizard of Oz what Alice did for Carroll’s books.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“What ultimately sinks ‘Alice’ is that it is too normal. Carroll’s nonsense, anarchy and druggy weirdness always turned the tale into a fevered dream. Here, Alice disappears instead into a tired missing-father subplot.”–Randee Dawn, The Hollywood Reporter (TV broadcast)

CAPSULE: AUTOMATONS (2006)

DIRECTED BY: James Felix McKenny

FEATURING: Christine Spencer, Angus Scrimm

PLOT: The lone survivor of a devastated nation lives in an underground bunker; her only companions are the voice recordings of a long-dead scientist and the robots she sends out to do battle with the enemy on the planet’s poisoned surface.

Still from Automatons (2006)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Much of the underground hype regarding this 2006 indie from James Felix McKenny and Glass Eye Pix likens Automatons to a cross between Eraserhead and Ed Wood, with Guy Maddin‘s name bandied about for good measure. There is nothing remotely arthouse or surreal about Atomatons, however, and the only identifying aesthetic McKenney might share with Maddin is an obsessive love of a genre. Maddin’s love of baroque silent film expressiveness hardly compares to McKenney’s hard-on for 1950’s sci-fi kitsch. That’s the problem with hype; it usually tends to be a disservice, and is so here.

COMMENTS: Automatons is not weird or surreal. That is not to say it does not have merit or is a film without interest. Is it a thought-provoking, intelligent film, worth comparing to some of the better, more compact Outer Limits episodes? No. The post-apocalyptic scenario of a lone survivor is a really, really old one that has been around since Robot Monster (1953) and is repeated in Omega Man, Mad Max and countless movies.

The robots themselves look like they just stepped out of an old “Superman” TV episode, but without the awkwardly quirky personality of those 50s tintypes. Angus Scrimm (Phantasm) is the professor who instructs heroine Christine Spencer through a series of pre-recorded videos. The biggest problem here lies in Spencer’s flat acting, which fails to project the necessary charisma needed in this type of project.

Where Automatons takes an admirable independent risk is in its lethargic pacing, which, despite the plot and acting, creates a hypnotic milieu. Long, static takes, along with the much repeated Scrimm transmissions, are, at first, odd, then oddly compelling. This is the one surprising, indeed endearing quality about Automatons.  It refuses to cater to commercial pacing. Some mistake that for an arthouse quality or made predictable, banal comparisons, such as that to Eraserhead. Automatons does not possess that organic, wistful Lynch quality. It is grounded in the love of its genre. The later battle scenes and the gruesome deaths have a certain grainy style derived from its 8 mm source, but this is an often utilized stylistic ploy in genre indies, and is not what gives Automatons its original flavor.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

Automatons is what happens when Eraserhead and Tetsuo the Iron Man bong themselves into oblivion and collaborate on a minimalist avant-garde sci-fi cheapie shot in a toolshed… Robot radness acheived!”–Nathan Lee, The Village Voice (contemporaneous)

LIST CANDIDATE: EDEN LOG (2007)

DIRECTED BY:  Franck Vestiel

FEATURING:  Clovis Comillca, , Zohar Wexleser

PLOT: A man named Tolbiac (Cornillac) awakens with amnesia alongside rotting corpses in a high-tech underground wasteland. He must find his way out of a massive labyrinth deep within the earth. To do so he has to collect and assimilate data and unravel clues to the bizarre circumstances in which he finds himself.

Still from Eden Log

WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST: Shot entirely indoors in an underground setting, this unusual science fiction film blurs the line between supposed reality and apparent fantasy. Told visually, with minimal dialogue, the bizarre circumstances and setting disorient the viewer. One must see through the protagonist’s eyes to decipher his otherworldly experience. The fact that he has no memory and his world seems just as alien to him as it does to us heightens the challenge.

COMMENTS: Eden Log is told mainly with pictures. It is set in the near future. There is refreshingly little exposition. There are no long and grandiose on-screen paragraphs or narration at the inception telling about a land far, far away in a time long ago. As a result, the story is a bit murky.

The viewer must piece the action together from the protagonist’s experiences, which unfold from his point of view. The meaning of some events is not clearly delineated, and the beholder must learn how to interpret them. One must suspend disbelief to accept certain aspects of the plot, and one is never sure until the end how to understand some of Tolbiac’s impressions and experiences. It is, at first, hard to tell what is real and what is fantasy.

Tolbiac starts out at the bottom of a ruined, high-tech subterranean maze in pool of Continue reading LIST CANDIDATE: EDEN LOG (2007)

RECOMMENDED AS WEIRD: VISIONEERS (2008)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Jared Drake

FEATURING: Zach Galifianakis, , Mía Maestro, Missi Pyle, Chris Coppola

PLOT: Repressed corporate employees the world over are literally bursting apart from frustration. Innocuous worker George Winsterhammerman must deal with his huge corporate employer’s misguided and demeaning attempts to remedy the malady. But could the source of the problem be the perpetual brain-numbing proselytizing of the very corporations themselves?

Still from Visioneers (2008)


WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST: Visioneers is an unconventional metaphor about the illogic of artificial business and social constructs.

COMMENTS: Set in the not so distant future, Visioneers is a satirical black comedy about the absurdity of corporate culture, futile optimism, and the ridiculous nature of self-help schemes. George Washington Winsterhammerman works for the fictitious Jeffers Corporation, a giant corporate bureaucracy. His mid-level workaday job is mundane and unfulfilling. The PA system bombards him hourly with optimistic corporate pep talk encouraging productivity.

Everything is business as usual until George and his personal office staff are made aware that around the world, people are spontaneously exploding—literally. The root of the problem stems from lives of quiet desperation and repression. It seems that everywhere, people are being forced to pay lip service to falsely optimistic corporate culture and to suppress human emotion and rational thought.

The constant denial of emotions, the enforced phony business visages, and the frustration of coping with senseless bureaucracies takes its toll. The pent-up stress and officially-enforced anal-retentiveness is causing employees everywhere to literally burst apart into a spray of atomized blood and body parts as surely as if a fuse had been lit to a rectally embedded stick of dynamite. The Jeffers Corporation frantically imposes an endless series of misguided remedies, accompanying them with futile reassurances and encouragement not to explode.

Meanwhile, George has his own worries to deal with. He and his wife are unhappy, he struggles with impotence, his ex-convict, whackjob brother founds a freedom-of-expression movement in George’s backyard, and George worries that he too will explode under all of the confusion and pressure. His employer and physician instruct him to relieve stress via a cascade of absurd quack remedies and bizarre devices, such as a “happiness hat” that comes equipped with a mobile of the solar system. Try as he might, George cannot make any of these remedies reduce his anxiety.  Finally, George has to confront the question of whether or not a lifestyle of mindless productivity, absurd Orwellian bureaucracy, and smiley-faced denial actually provides a positive, substantially meaningful conduit to reality and the human condition.

In the way it addresses the effect of irrational propaganda on the human psyche, Visioneers is reminiscent of Eugene Ionesco’s “Rhinoceros,” with human explosions stemming from modern workplace dogma replacing rhino metamorphosis from political indoctrination.

Visioneers furnishes an effective metaphor for the artificial constructs of the modern world. The film is very funny until it misses its chance to top its premise near the end, when it changes into a personal triumph of self-actualization for the protagonist. With great irony, Visioneers becomes the very thing that it condemns and satirizes; a sort of inspirational icon, akin to the posters on your bosses’ walls with the motivational messages printed at the bottom.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…gently absurdist… quirky satire wears its influences on its dystopian sleeve, but an amiable cast and some surprising poignancy add up to Orwell that ends well.”–Michael Rechtshaffen, The Hollywood Reporter (contemporaneous)