Tag Archives: Science Fiction

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: INFINITY POOL (2023)

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DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , , Jalil Lespert, Cleopatra Coleman,

PLOT: A foreign couple on vacation accidentally run down a local while driving drunk and learn of that country’s strange legal arrangement: in death penalty cases, for a generous monetary donation, they can substitute a clone for execution.

Still from infinity Pool (2023)

WHY IT MIGHT JOIN THE APOCRYPHA: Cronenberg fils continues his plunge into the deep end of human darkness with Infinity Pool, a feverish nightmare of sin and excess spiked with hallucinogens.

COMMENTS: Infinity Pool takes place in an uncertain locale—some island paradise that might be in some Adriatic outpost of Eastern Europe (where it was actually filmed), or the Muslim world, or Oceania. Detective Thresh, tourists’ point of contact with the otherwise unseen government, has a vaguely Nazi-ish aura about him. Street signs and license plates are written in an alien language unknown on this planet. The time is also uncertain: for all intents and purposes the story is set in the modern day, except that this unknown backwater inexplicably possesses cloning technology, including complete personality and memory duplicating, that must be centuries away from realization. In short, Infinity Pool contains within it exactly what it needs to enact its parable, nothing more or less. The insular reality of the setting is as isolated as an all-inclusive resort protected from contact with the populace by huge fences and armed guards, where only a filtered simulacrum of authentic culture exists.

Cinematographer Karim Hussain, who has shot every B. Cronenberg film so far, uses disorienting techniques—vertical 360 pans, extreme closeups of lips and eyelashes, a strange shot where Thomas Kretschmann‘s silhouette turns into a pinheaded alien—to remind us that we’re in an exotic land defying norms and expectations. These stylistic excesses are capped by two epilepsy-warning, -styled psychedelic montages—one deployed to the depict the psychological effect of the doubling process, one the result of an orgy sparked by an indigenous hallucinogen—featuring swirling lights, disco balls, nude women, and, most disturbingly, a nipple oozing… something. These heavy techniques magnify Infinity Pool‘s weighty mood of moral doom.

Skarsgård is good as James, a writer who reveals less and less character as the film progresses. His decline is inevitable and believable: who among us would have the courage to defy the devil’s bargain Thresh offers to escape permanent oblivion? Still, Mia Goth dominates the film, cementing her position as horror’s nonpareil femme fatale of the moment. The ginger domme grows larger as Skarsgård shrinks. She has a wine-guzzling blast as a depraved seductress peeling away masks to reveal what seem to be infinite layers of evil.

The events of Infinity Pool work as pure moral horror, but also operate on a two-tiered satirical layer. As a social critique, the film illustrates first-world exploitation of poorer countries, while on an individual level it plumbs the perverse depths of self-destructive behavior. The rich selfishly appropriate local culture by stealing grotesque ceremonial masks for a disguise to perpetrate additional crimes. Meanwhile, sinking into hideous hedonistic excess, James finds himself engaging in shockingly literal self-abuse. The rich treat the poor as expendable, and James objectifies himself to escape responsibility for his own crimes. The premise naturally invites speculation about the nature of identity: an exact clone of myself with all my memories isn’t exactly me, but what is it? A mystery and a horror.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“If you’re willing to surf on the wonderfully weird and wild wavelength of ‘Infinity Pool’ it is indeed a singular, and unforgettable, ride.”–Katie Walsh, Los Angeles Times (contemporaneous)

IT CAME FROM THE READER-SUGGESTED QUEUE: VEGAS IN SPACE (1991)

DIRECTED BY: Phillip R. Ford

FEATURING: Doris Fish, Miss X, Ginger Quest, Ramona Fischer, Lori Naslund, Tippi

PLOT: Space troopers go undercover on the planet Clitoris in the fabled women-only city of Vegas in Space, where a plot to steal Queen Neuva Gabor’s jewels threatens the galaxy.

Still from Vegas in Space (1991)

COMMENTS: Can you critique camp? Is there even any point? The very act of trying to evaluate it immediately denotes you as someone who could never “get it.” If you’re not turned off by the credit “Based on the party by Ginger Quest”, it’s not as though a cogent analysis of the plot is going to scare you away.

So let’s raise a martini glass to the DIY-fabulous vibe that permeates Vegas In Space. For a sci-fi epic, the film is almost deliberately ramshackle, with landscapes that look less realistic than the opening credits of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood and sets that rival After Last Season. But who cares about covering the walls with tinsel and tin foil when you’ve got a chance to put your energies where they really count: costumes and makeup. This is first and foremost a drag show, and the queens of Vegas In Space take advantage of the opportunity to go beyond the usual outrageousness of the format, combining the traditional bitchy repartée with an array of colorful skin paints and unusual alien prosthetics. If you paid your money for “intergalactic drag show,” you will not walk away disappointed.

There’s a charmingly catty spirit to the enterprise. The film is loaded with entendres that barely work up the nerve to be single. Snipes are mean but toothless. But the filmmakers seem to actually be interested in the plot, of all things, which leads Vegas In Space to commit the sin that would be most appalling to any self-respecting drag queen: it gets boring. As the space captain and Vegas’ queen of police bicker over who stole the jewels and what the consequences will be for the galaxy, it’s impossible to avoid thinking, “Who cares?” We’re here for the drag queens; do not try to save the cat.

With the main joke of the movie out of the way early on, filling out an hour and a half is going to take some (and I really am sorry for this) padding. There’s an eyebrow-raising interlude in which Captain Tracey and Queen Veneer encounter an ancient creature called a Drag, who is surmised to be the missing link that led to the evolution of womankind. There’s also a creepy dream sequence for one of Tracey’s lieutenants, the secretly competent Sheila Shadows, who has surreal visions of the coming catastrophe. But even the film seems to recognize these are mere distractions, as we quickly get back to the plot development that matters most: the Earth trio’s cabaret show. 

As mentioned, the overall vibe is “we’re amazing and we don’t really care what you think,” and for a film allegedly based on a party, that’s fitting. And it’s to the filmmakers’ credit, in light of the considerably more fraught behind-the-scenes tale. Ford and Fish shot the movie in fits and spurts over the course of 18 months at the start of the 80s, and then scrounged up money wherever possible for post-production over the course of the next eight years. Fish actually died of complications from AIDS before the film was finally released, meaning Vegas In Space stands as an unlikely valediction. So there’s a level at which it’s remarkable we got a film at all.

Ultimately, whether or not this ends up being a fun night out likely depends on the audience. For the devoted, Vegas In Space is a long-awaited induction of sci-fi into the drag canon. For the curious, it’s a novel diversion. For weird movie aficionados, it’s probably a busted queen.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

Vegas in Space certainly earns its cult status just for how weird it is, especially with its intentionally tacky aesthetic… If you’re a fan of campy sci-fi, you might get some enjoyment here, but there are better options. Overall, Vegas in Space might appeal more to drag fans, but it’s only watchable as a curiosity.” – Matt, Film Nerd

(This movie was nominated for review by Baal, who deemed it “Troma crossdressing campsploitation.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

CAPSULE: THE ELECTRIC MAN (2022)

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DIRECTED BY: B. Luciano Barsuglia

FEATURING: , James Di Giacomo, Rachel Riley

PLOT: A meter reader is zapped by 12,000 volts by a faulty transformer and finds himself experiencing different realities.

COMMENTS: “This movie was inspired by the things that really happen that cannot be explained, that nobody else will believe.” This disclaimer, which appears during the closing credits, possibly should have introduced The Electric Man—and in another reality, perhaps it did. Possibilities, be they decisions ill-made, opportunities missed, or words said or left unsaid, are squarely on B. Luciano Barsuglia’s mind, and in his latest film he allows himself to muse at length about them. The impossible is merely an unconceived likelihood flowing from different decisions in a different plane; at the same time, with the free mingling of fate and free will, the end destination—for Barsuglia, you, me, everyone—is never in doubt.

These heady concepts are presented within a Room-style universe of stilted dialogue and non-traditional editing choices. That said, perhaps I feel this way only because I’ve never been to California. Whether it be the Wiseau-isms of San Francisco or the incongruous irritation of every performer in Barsuglia’s LA-set time-slip drama, maybe those are real, and those of us nestled away in a Mid-Atlantic-Accented center of calm are the odd ones. Regardless, there is a lot to overlook while Tracy (the titular “Electric Man”), Quinn (his on-again-off-again hippie-styled bowling buddy), Rose (Tracy’s love; possibly a vampire, and presumably a ballerina), and all the rest try to make sense of the strange shifts in the protagonist’s perception. After his fatal (then resuscitative) encounter with a transformer (one whose dilapidation screamed “run!” to a layman like myself), his mundane existence becomes a series of slightly less mundane vignettes as he is forced to converse, and philosophize, on the fly.

Though I am loathe to say it, the word “crummy” is the best way to describe the production. The actors all deliver their lines badly (presumably even Tom Sizemore, as I could not even tell which of the pissed-off, gesture-happy characters he performed as). The discourse was cut awkwardly, not just with strange little pauses, but some bad sound editing cutting off the ends of words. And the screenwriting, too, makes me wonder at the language of origin. Who (in LA or otherwise) queries, “Is that what I’m to understand?”; and why the strangely specific estimate, by Tracy’s dead(?) father after being electrocuted by his son, “Shit! That felt like… 110 volts!”

Despite these constant kicks from my belief-suspension groove, The Electric Man did do one thing making it worthy of a highly-caveated recommendation: it made me think. Alternate realities, and their dizzying effects on a psyche, are nothing new, but Basuglia’s contemplations were both considered and, from time to time, rather droll. Tracy chatting in a Lutheran church with a broken-down Jesus, or his late night hospital meeting with Satan (“Please, call me Luke.”; “Is this Hell?”; “It’s Long Beach”), or his reality sliding into a grisly finish—there are interesting things here; fun things, too. And as so often is the case when I encounter a film like this, I am hopeful that the filmmaker goes on to great things—if not in this reality, then at least an adjacent one.

The Electric Man is currently streaming free on Tubi. Should that deal end, it can also be purchased or rented on-demand.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Writer/director B. Luciano Barsuglia (Social Distance, Impact Event) ramps up the strangeness as Trace finds himself dealing not only with his girlfriend Rose (Rachel Riley, Moon Creek Cemetery, Edgar Allan Poe’s Lighthouse Keeper) a stripper who might also be a vampire but becoming unstuck in time and space… The Electric Man is a spiritual/philosophical journey wrapped up in the guise of a science fiction/fantasy film.” -Jim Morazzini, Voices from the Balcony (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: ELECTRIC DREAMS (1984)

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DIRECTED BY: Steve Barron

FEATURING: Lenny von Dohlen, Virginia Madsen, Maxwell Caulfield, Bud Cort

PLOT: A socially inept architect buys a newfangled home computer to help him in his work, but an accident bestows sentience upon the machine and inadvertently helps spark a romance with the cellist who lives upstairs; tensions flare when the computer’s newfound emotions blossom into jealousy.

Still from Electric Dreams (1984)

COMMENTS: Steve Barron has multiple feature film credits, including the first Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie. He has also directed several TV miniseries and episodes. But who are we kidding? If you really want to talk about the man’s directorial c.v., then you need to recognize that Steve Barron is an MTV god. From the dawn of the genre, some of the most memorable, enduring music videos ever made find Steve Barron in the director’s chair. That’s where Barron’s career truly excelled. So it’s only appropriate that when he was hired to helm his first feature film, the result was akin to an extended music video.

Like any decent video, Electric Dreams lives and dies by its montages, and fortunately it has many of them. Whenever nebbishy Miles (Lenny von Dohlen in full proto-David Schwimmer mode) wants to do something, it’s likely going to be accomplished in a montage: wiring his apartment to be controlled by his mainframe Alexa ancestor;  struggling to design an earthquake-proof brick;  romping around Alcatraz with his new girlfriend. The film’s most successful sequence is a literal music video, a duet between cellist Madeline and Miles’ computer that showcases the work of composer/electronica pioneer . As editor Peter Honess splices together clips from cinematographer Alex Thomson’s swooping camera to the beat of a propulsive pop tune, the sequences are genuinely energizing, only to be cooled off by the return to the Cyrano-lite plot. It’s not that the movie lacks for dialogue scenes or traditional means of delivering the story. They’re just not where Electric Dreams shines. Those little 3-minute morsels of video ecstasy give the film its juice.

The movie knows it, too, because they let a lot of the story ideas fall by the wayside. Early on, Miles’ technophobia seems like it might be a justifiable fear of a too-powerful computerized singularity with omnipresent cameras and techie doodads, but that concern is quickly abandoned. Miles appears to have a rival for Madeline’s affections, a classic 80s villainous blonde hunk in the person of Maxwell Caulfield, but that, too, never amounts to much. It sometimes feels like nothing that can’t be delivered via montage is worth following. Indeed, the film falters when it has to engage in dialogue, such as Madeline’s determined ignorance toward Miles’ behavior, or the arguments between Miles and his increasingly whiny computer Edgar (although God help me, I chuckled everytime Edgar called him by his typo-induced moniker “Moles”). Electric Dreams is a high-concept movie that doesn’t want to go any further than its concept.

That said, there’s an extraordinary level of foresight at play. Our first look at Miles’ world is one where technology is pervasive and everyone has outsourced their attention to electronics; this is 1984, but the fears of then could easily be the complaints of today. And the breadth of abilities that the computers of 1984 can accomplish are startlingly forward-looking, from the internet of things to CAD to catfishing. A scene where Edgar vengefully destroys Miles’ credit must have seemed like the stuff of fantasy 40 years ago, and yet here we are, in thrall to and afraid of our machines. A lot of science fiction movies have tried really hard to see the future in ways the Electric Dreams pulls off almost as an afterthought.

It’s a genuine shame that Electric Dreams doesn’t have a more prominent place in the conversation when it comes to identifying the most 80s movie ever made. Whatever qualities the film you think deserves the title holds, I can assure you that Electric Dreams has it in ample supply. The fashion and hairstyles, the steady use of jingle-laden advertisements, a young and effervescent Virginia Madsen. And most of all, that synth-fueled song score featuring luminaries of the day like Culture Club, Jeff Lynne, Heaven 17, and a real earworm of a theme song sung by Human League’s Phil Oakey. All that adds up to a movie that has aged into its weirdness over time, reading as stranger in retrospect thanks in part to its unexpected precognitive abilities and Mr. Barron’s skill with a montage. So it’s not a great movie. But it is, like, totally awesome.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Perhaps it’s because the world resembles our own so much, that the fact that everything is just slightly wrong seems intensely magnified. Perhaps it’s because computers are no longer mystical, and the things that the movie tries to sell as ‘what the hell, who knows how these damn things work, anyway?’ do not seem plausible in any way. Perhaps it’s seeing people doing what we do, only they have ’80s clothes and ’80s hair. Whatever the hell is doing it, it means that Electric Dreams is like reading a transcript of an opium dream – you can see real life underpinning it, but the effect is otherworldly and uncanny, and it’s the most amazing damn thing.

Which is exactly why I feel like I’d have ignored if not hated this movie when it was new: all of the things that seem dazzlingly weird about it now were just the world outside in 1984.” – Tim Brayton, Antagony and Ecstasy

(This movie was nominated for review by Brad. Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

CAPSULE: ESCAPE TO THE SILVER GLOBE (2021)

Ucieczka Na Srebrny Glob

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DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Xawery Żuławski, Małgorzata Braunek, , Krzysztof Zanussi, Janusz Zaorski

PLOT: A documentary on the making of On the Silver Globe, Andrzej Żuławski’s adaptation of his great-uncle’s “The Lunar Trilogy.”

COMMENTSOn the Silver Globe is the other notorious Andrzej Żuławski film, although not yet as widely known as Possession. That’s not surprising, knowing the science fiction epic’s troubled production history. Globe was pivotal in many ways. Had it been completed on time, it would have been the largest science fiction film made in Europe at the time, and could have put Żuławski on a different career path had things worked out… perhaps.

Understanding that career path, which Kuba Mikurda lays out in detail, is key to everything in Escape. Via interviews with crew and family members (his brother and oldest son on camera; his ex-wife is heard on audio) and archival interviews with Żuławski, we see the director from his start as an assistant to Andrzej Wadja to directing his first two features. The second, Diabel [The Devil] (1972), got noticed by government authorities and resulted in Żuławski’s exile from Poland… for the first time. He returned to Poland in 1976 to make On the Silver Globe, a large scale sci-fi epic, during an economic crisis. Its cost made it a huge target in the political sphere. Escape does a good job making the political situation clear to audiences. Best of all, it features behind-the-scenes footage of Żuławski at work. It also doesn’t shy away from an unflattering portrait of Żuławski, recognizing him as a brilliant filmmaker, but a man with many issues when it came to interpersonal relations. Escape addresses the dissolution of his family during his first exile (which created the creative fodder for Possession), as well as giving insight on his later years.

Escape from the Silver Globe accomplishes several things. Besides serving as an in-depth look at a film that was just a legend for many years and is now ripe for discovery by audiences, it’s an approachable introduction, especially for Western audiences, to Żuławski and his work.

Escape will be released on Blu-ray by French distributor Le Chat Qui Fume (The Smoking Cat) as a stand-alone, and also as part of a long awaited boxset of Żuławski’s “Polish Trilogy” (The Third Part of the Night, The Devil and On the Silver Globe), which was previously available only in Japan. Unfortunately, it will not have English subtitles. That seems to also be the case with a German release from Camera Obscura. It has been confirmed that there will be a U.S. distributor, but no official announcement has been made at the time of this review.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Oscillating somewhere between Andrei Tarkovsky’s cerebral sci-fi and Alejandro Jodorowsky’s intricate surrealist iconography, On the Silver Globe was all set to mark a critical turning point – not just for Żuławski and Polish filmmaking, but for international cinema at large… [Escape] never falls into the trap of boredom, simulating the contagious energy of a Żuławski picture, and the love and fascination at the heart of this project are truly palpable.”– Marina Ashioti, Little White Lies (festival screening)