Space siren Velana tries to seduce Spaceboy with prolonged eye contact and wearing a bejeweled unitard.
Space siren Velana tries to seduce Spaceboy with prolonged eye contact and wearing a bejeweled unitard.
DIRECTED BY: Jean-Luc Godard
PLOT: Detective Lemmy Caution sneaks into a soulless, computer-controlled metropolis in search of a fellow agent, and eventually sets about destroying the entire enterprise.
WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Alphaville is Godard’s angry screed against the inhumanity of the modern world. Appropriately, he adopts a low-tech approach to depict a future world governed by mathematics and free of human passion, and lets the awkward collision of noir and science fiction create a naturally unsettling, thought-provoking landscape.
COMMENTS: There’s a story of how Alphaville came to be that is not strictly necessary to understanding the film, but which does offer an intriguing insight into the mind of its fiercely independent director. FBI agent Lemmy Caution was the creation of a British novelist, and was portrayed in seven French-language films by expatriate actor Eddie Constantine. Audiences came to know Caution as an archetype of the grizzled tough guy who is as apt to use his fists as his wits to solve problems. Godard evidently decided that this character would be the perfect antidote to a universe where a computer has extinguished human emotion, so he created a plot that brought the detective into the future. But knowing the havoc his plan would wreak, Godard enlisted his assistant director to draft a false treatment based on one of the original books, which was presented to the moneymen who eventually bankrolled the picture. Cash in hand, Godard set about making a movie of his own design with the cheeky subtitle une étrange aventure de Lemmy Caution (A Strange Adventure of Lemmy Caution), essentially obliterating the character and derailing Constantine’s career.
It’s a clever bit of legerdemain as well as a fascinating example of cultural appropriation. But I tell this story because it offers a useful insight into some of Godard’s unusual choices in Alphaville. Soulless, dystopian futures were hardly without precedent, but as far as Godard is concerned, Paris in 1965 already is just such a dystopia. He carefully avoids the most familiar sights of the City of Lights, using newer buildings and designs to reflect the changing soul of the city. But even without futuristic flourishes or scenic adornment, Alphaville the city is unmistakably Paris, with modern architecture and new devices—Caution’s Instamatic camera and Ford Galaxie were startling new innovations for the time—standing in for the future-as-now. For this reason, Godard isn’t just stealing Lemmy Caution to be his bad boy. He needs the constant of Lemmy Caution to hold on to, because he’s out to show that the modern world has become completely detached from humanity; the detective is essential as a familiar icon of a blood-and-guts world to stand up to the soul-sucking new. And even if you aren’t familiar with the character specifically, Constantine’s recognizable hard-as-nails portrayal marks him as the thing that doesn’t belong in Alphaville. Like Mike Hammer showing up in Brave New World, Lemmy Caution is here to stand out, representing humanity in all its passion and even ugliness. He is discordant just by being.
Part of what makes everything so uncomfortable is how normal it all looks, with just one thing put off-kilter to turn the prism. Caution checks into a nice hotel room and is escorted by a helpful but disengaged employee who immediately takes off her dress in anticipation of being used for sex. Every room has a helpful dictionary, which is regularly replaced with a new volume to reflect the words that have been stricken from the vocabulary at the computer’s direction. Familiar cities still exist in the outside, but their names are slightly off. Leading citizens watch passively as rebels—in full-throated protest against the computerized dictatorship—are executed in a swimming pool, after which bathing beauties haul away the bodies. Perhaps the most distressing disconnect is heroine Natasha, a dark-eyed beauty whose status as the daughter of Alphaville’s creator is curiously irrelevant. When she makes a bold proclamation at the film’s conclusion—“Je t’aime”—it signals a connection with her humanity, but the words are chillingly unpracticed, as she tries them on like a pair of shoes that have yet to be broken in.
The most science fictional element is α60, the computer that runs Alphaville and saps the population of its humanity. Godard could never have envisioned the computer as the placid and murderous HAL 9000 or the charmingly imperious Ultron. Instead, α60 is malevolent, a mob boss with a voice that mangles speech as easily as its master plan mangles souls. The computer speaks bluntly of mankind’s doom, and only Caution seems capable of (or interested in) saying no.
Godard isn’t subtle. The scientist who runs the central computer is named von Braun, a blatant call-out to the German scientist who masterminded America’s moon rocket program. As if that weren’t sufficiently on-the-nose, we learn that von Braun previously went by the name Nosferatu. And when Caution destroys α60 with a few carefully chosen words from Jorge Luis Borges, the effect is so catastrophic that human beings are suddenly unable to walk. Faced with going big or going home, he lays it all on the table.
Because Godard has no time for subtlety. He sees the cataclysm happening in real time. He is demanding that the world rise up against those who would place formulas above poems. Humanity is dying, he says, and Alphaville is his howl at the dying of the light.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“It begins as a fast-moving prank that combines the amusing agitations of a character on the order of James Bond and the highly pictorial fascinations of a slick science-fiction mystery, and it makes for some brisk satiric mischief when it is zipping along in this vein. Then, half way through, it swings abruptly into a solemn allegorical account of this suddenly sobered fellow with a weird computer-controlled society, and the whole thing becomes a tedious tussle with intellectual banalities.” – Bosley Crowther, The New York Times (contemporaneous)
(This movie was nominated for review by ubermolch. Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)
DIRECTED BY: Claire Denis
FEATURING: , , Andre Benjamin,
PLOT: A scientist performs strange reproductive research on a crew on a mission to gather data about a black hole.
WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Its mixture of weird sex with celestial mystery is compelling and disturbing. High Life won’t be easily forgotten.
COMMENTS: History is colored by the struggles surrounding the expression of human horniness. Cinema is no exception. As sexuality is emotionally subverted or converted in art, whether romantic or pornographic, the message remains clear: it ultimately finds a way to express itself, regardless of individual morality. Sexuality can be thought of as a separate, living entity within us.
In High Life, the new space thriller from Claire Denis, there is a lot of sex, especially masturbation, that feels alien. The mixture of organic sexuality (represented here by a focus on bodily fluids) with classic sci-fi ponderings (i.e. black holes) provides a powerful and thought-provoking punch in the groin. Filled with bleak procreative grotesqueries, it delivers an emotionally rich cosmonautic narrative without once mentioning time travel. High Life contains enough original and confounding content to render it quite bizarre. It certainly deserves a deeper look.
It cannot be overstated how uncomfortable it can be to watch High Life. There is one scene midway through the picture that’s close to unbearable, and it certainly won’t fit to everyone’s taste. The sudden brutality of the violence is appalling, but it does serve a purpose. The discomfort that comes from viewing the unpleasantries is contrasted with central character Monte’s (Pattinson) paternal relationship with an infant, Willow, who is seen cooing and crying her way through the ship’s combination of banal décor and retro-futurist digitalism. Willow, herself a manipulated product of human fluids, is a symbol of life’s purity, inspiring monkish Monte to care for her. While his character is chaste and heroic, a sense of his moral authority is established as the choices and experiences of the other characters reflect their sexual natures. Here is where the movie gets very weird.
In High Life, sexuality is a physical and spiritual entity that signifies moral authority, which becomes a force that determines the actions of the characters. While we see all manner of bodily fluids voluntarily and involuntarily issue forth from the characters—including breast milk, urine, blood, water and (of course) semen—the events of the plot are staged as a battle of wills. As the crew approaches a black hole, things spiral out of control, and Denis links the chaos to the sexual behaviors or non-behaviors of the characters. The crew’s power dynamics, expressed through masturbation and sexual longing—along with their attempted manipulations of each other’s bodily fluids—demonstrate the range of outcomes from drives that can either push humanity forward or lead to destruction. The lingering black hole excavation subplot ties these relationships together through a powerful combination of brooding celestial images and a dark ambient score suggesting the human void of violence and manipulation is inherent in time and space. The sounds and images of High Life, while grounded in the iconography of classics like 2001 and Solaris, are breathtaking and original, reimagining a bleak universe inhabited by a moral consciousness. A baby cries, alarms go off, dogs growl, multi-colored fluids are excreted, collected, and tampered with, as the central plot gives a shove and not a thrust.
The slowly-revealed plot concerns a group of convicts on a mission to gather data from the singularity of a black hole. As they proceed, an alpha-female scientist (a convict herself, played by Binoche) conducts experiments for the purpose of birthing the first child in space. It sounds simple, but the presentation of these events is a truly weird experience. Creepy masturbation, oozing fluids, violent outbursts, and that lingering shot of a pulsating black hole invoke a mixture of the nihilism of some unholy Lars von Trier/David Cronenberg hybrid with the mystifying obscurity of . Anchoring the mayhem is Binoche and her sinister, witchy performance, her smirk belying pure deviltry with human frailty, while the black void of space accentuates the ensuing drama. High Life satisfies in spite of its unpleasantness, and the ending provides ambiguity for further discussion. It’s worth noting that the recent release of the first actual black hole image pairs nicely with the timing of this picture’s release. Ultimately, your ability to enjoy High Life will boil down to whether you enjoy being challenged and provoked—something a truly weird movie probably should do. By that token, this movie deserves recognition and further discussion.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
Czlowiek z magicznym pudelkiem
DIRECTED BY: Bodo Kox
FEATURING: Piotr Polak, Olga Boladz, Sebastian Stankiewicz
PLOT: In Warsaw in the near future, an amnesiac man (whose memory may have been wiped by the government) goes to work as a janitor and falls in love with a superior, but the past inevitably catches up to him.
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Although it has a record player that plays postcards, a radio that tunes itself to the self-hypnosis channel, and a government that’s possibly putting hallucinogenic drugs in the water supply, it’s not quite strange enough for us. It is well outside the boundaries of what an average person expects to find in a low budget dystopian sci-fi thriller, however.
COMMENTS: Specialty distributor Artsploitation fulfills a crucial film niche by taking chances on arty, low-budget genre fare from (mostly) outside the English-speaking world. I’m discovering a pattern, however: always skip their horror offerings, and take a flier on their weird fantasy or sci-fi offerings. You may find a hit or two. The Man with the Magic Box fits that general strategy, and although it’s not a breakout film for the distributor, it is an interesting one.
Magic Box takes place a mere 13 years in the future. Its dystopian aspirations echo Brazil and Blade Runner, it name checks Men in Black, and it pays direct homage to a scene in Fight Club, but despite all the tributes to his influences, Bodo Kox’s film does become its own thing. If you can swallow the big, implausible plot twist, your hundred minutes in Warsaw, 2030 will be well-spent.
This future society feels more advanced than a single decade forward in time; but at the same time it’s a cinematically familiar future, and one that’s anxious to create a deliberate link to Poland’s Communist past. At first, placing amnesiac Adam in a pre-WWII-era flat seems like a cost-cutting measure to save precious prop money that might be spent on futuristic doo-dads, but it turns out there is a purpose behind the setting—it allows Adam to find the titular “magic box.” The film alternates between scenes set in 2033 and in the past, with a few set entirely in the “superconsciousness” or in a virtual reality “Alice in Wonderland” themed park. The World of Tomorrow utilizes an antiseptic silver-blue metallic color scheme, while a grungy sepia-brown denotes the past. Secret police roam both landscapes. The future is full of cost-conscious innovations like cybernetic eyes, invisible cell phones, pets that resemble robotic vacuum cleaners, talking mailboxes, and limited Internet access, along with a few big effects like a terrorist attack that levels a skyscraper. The film uses its limited CGI budget with considerable economy to create a universe that feels fairly real.
Piotr Polak’s Adam is a bit of a blank slate. He’s an awkward weirdo, but he doesn’t attract too much attention because everyone in the future is a self-absorbed weirdo, oblivious to other people’s eccentricities. The closest thing Adam finds to a friend is Sebastian, the autistic janitor who trains him for his new minimum wage job and who lives in a closet. But it’s Adam’s fast-talking, model-skinny love interest Gloria (Olga Boladz), a hot-to-trot executive at the miscellaneous firm where Adam is sent to clean, who makes the biggest impression. She’s odd even by this world’s standards, addicted to slumming it with attractive custodians in a world where any interest in sex appears to be fairly taboo. And, she can really pull off an optical illusion hoop skirt. Gloria starts at the periphery but moves towards the center as the film progresses.
In true 1984 fashion, the apparatchiks of The Man in the Magic Box try to stamp out romantic love as the final obstacle to complete loyalty to the State. As previously mentioned, the film explicitly draws parallels between Communist Poland and the world of the near future it prophesies. The depressing implication is that totalitarianism is the natural state of Poland (and possibly of humanity), and any other system is a temporary aberration.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
DIRECTED BY: Shôjirô Nishimi, Guillaume “Run” Renard
FEATURING: Voices of Kenn Michael, Vince Staples, Michael Chiklis, Dino Andrade, Giancarlo Esposito, RZA (English-language dub)
PLOT: Angelino leads a dead-end existence with his flaming-skulled roommate Vinz in a city without hope until a truck accident leads to some freaky superpowers and crazy violence against an unstoppable invasion.
COMMENTS: Through some twist of fate, 2019 has been shaping up to be “The Year of the French Film” for me. Whether bearing witness to psycho-dream bombast, bracing myself against existenti-o-action chicanery, or enduring millennialist tedium, I have fallen quite firmly into a pulsating realm of Gallic sensibilities. Add to these titles something offbeat, exciting, and abbreviated: MFKZ. Before diving into the creamy center of this review, let me first assert the following: I am not, and have never been, on the pay-roll of Canal+, StudioCanal, or Société des Cinéromans. To paraphrase a famous North-of-France poet, I was neither born French nor achieved Frenchness, but somehow seem to have had Frenchness thrust upon me.
Having managed to hold down his pizza delivery job for almost three weeks, Angelino is forced to hand in his delivery scooter after getting smashed a bit by an oncoming truck. What distracted him? Why, the lovely Luna, who shows up in his life just enough to screw it up. Not that he needs any help with that. He’s constantly in fear of the omnipresent psycho gangs, he’s two months behind in his rent for his crummy apartment (though at least the cockroaches are friendly), his roommate and best friend Vinz (Vince Staples) is even less employed than he is (possibly owing to the fact that his head is a flame-crowned skull), and his other friend is a conspiracy-theory-spouting spaz of a cat (or something). Still, after a bad headache from his concussion and a nasty encounter with S.W.A.T.-y police goons, things start looking up as he discovers he’s suddenly got powers of strength, speed, and stamina quite beyond the norm. Good thing, too, because ‘Lino and his pals uncover a sinister plan from outer space.
For some reason I feel compelled to preemptively defend the “Recommended” label. I didn’t feel this way while watching it—it was an absolute hoot, combining lots of neato visual gimmicks (the high-speed chase by some “Men In Black” guys pursuing a hijacked ice cream van is a great bit, mixing gritty Bakshi with Grand Theft Auto), clever visual references (keep an eye out for “El Topo‘s” bodega), and recurring sci-fi/noir craziness that kept me elated throughout. The plot-line is just about as ridiculous as you can have without becoming incomprehensible, and the protagonists are wedged seamlessly into their urban milieu. And there’s a Shakespeare-spouting mega-thug, voiced by none other than RZA. But I digress.
I’ve read a number of reviews for MFKZ, and most of them are pretty down on the whole thing. This might simply be a case of a love-it/hate-it divide, with the majority falling in the latter category, but I’m almost certain I detected an undercurrent of sneering dismissiveness. MFKZ is full of life: never-say-die heroes, never-seem-to-die villains, and never-have-I-seen-such-detail backdrops. Nishimi and Renard have together created a beautifully realized genre classic: slacker-everyman saves the world and oh yeah, there are a bunch of tentacle monsters.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“Any film encompassing Nazi-punching lucha libre wrestlers and top secret moonbases should by rights be huge fun, but even Renard finds himself conceding, ‘What the F*** is Going On?’ in a mid-film graphic. Enjoyment will depend on a tolerance for that randomness teenagers apparently find hilarious.”–Mike McCahill, The Guardian (contemporaneous)
FEATURING:, Dre Pahich, Cal Kuniholm, Brian Narelle
PLOT: A tiny crew of astronauts is on a maintenance mission to wipe out unstable planets, while contending with beach-ball shaped aliens, megalomaniac AI smart bombs, toilet paper shoratges, and their own petty disputes.
WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Dark Star explores just enough dark matter to make it a heavy contender for the List, given its narrow category of sci-fi-comedy. The main things holding it back are that it hasn’t aged well, it’s a shoestring budget production with a syrupy pace, and the fact that it really could have fit a few more ideas into its runtime. But some details demand its consideration, such as the theme song: still the only country-and-western quantum-physics love-ballad so far in cinematic history. And a damned catchy one!
COMMENTS: Dark Star is such an enduring and beloved cult film that nothing I could say here could dent its reputation. It marks the origin of two heavy-weight genre-film talents: director John Carpenter, of Halloween, The Thing, Big Trouble in Little China, and They Live fame, and Dan O’Bannon, who would go on to pen the screenplays for Alien, The Return of the Living Dead, Lifeforce, and Total Recall. This is about the film you’d expect if you gave these two juggernaut talents a camera and turned them loose when they were students on a dormitory budget. Dark Star is a sci-fi comedy and a clever satire on the Golden Age of science fiction. It cheerfully plunders your memory if you grew up munching “Analog” and “F&SF” magazines and pulpy sci-fi paperbacks from thrift store spinner racks (that’d be me!), in the same way plunders grindhouse cinema. This is all done with a relaxed, broken-in pace, giving it a unique tone even among sci-fi comedies.
The crew of the good ship Dark Star are on a 20+ year mission in deep space to detonate unstable planets around star systems wherever they may find them, to clear space for potential future colonization. They get pep talk video transmissions from Earth mission control with a ten-year delay; the crew has tenuous support at best and their mission is not particularly urgent. They’re a crew of expendable red-shirts. Indeed, Commander Powell is dead already, but kept as a meat popsicle able to telepathically counsel the crew. Morale is in the pits: Talby (Dre Pahich) has retreated to the observation bubble where he avoids as much responsibility as he can, Doolittle (Brian Narelle) escapes with daydreams of his good old days surfing in Malibu, Boiler (Cal Kuniholm) fitfully takes out his aggression with laser rifle target practice, and Pinback (Dan O’Bannon) has adopted a farting orange ball alien, whom he seems to identify with more than the rest of the team. In between, the crew’s intense boredom and frustration makes them lash out at each other with testy, passive-aggressive acts of random pettiness.
Outside of all that, there really isn’t much of a plot. We have a crew of burnouts who have allowed their beards and mustaches to grow into Freak Brothers‘ territory, surrounded by banks of computer monitors and endless colorful buttons and switches, earning this movie the well-deserved moniker of “hippies in space.” Everything electronic talks, from the ship’s guiding computer to each individual bomb (note that this movie predates “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy”). The hilarious alien gets loose and Pinback has to chase it down, in an extended slapstick sequence that brings him to peril in an elevator shaft. Various computer and electronics malfunctions cause the sentient bombs to go haywire, creating a crisis where the crew must talk a bomb down from exploding with the ship still attached. Funny throwaway moments are all over; the crew tokes doobies in joyless resignation, and thumbs through D.C. Comics’ romance titles. And of course, numerous sci-fi works from the classics up to that year are referenced, including, without spoiling it, a Ray Bradbury short story—you’ll know it when you see it.
Dark Star‘s cult following today is at least halfway due to the intelligence at the core of its lightweight premise. It is a grand piss-take on the science fiction epic blockbuster, a genre at that time still in its salad days. Ironically, Carpenter and O’Bannon would go on from here to make some of the most definitive movies in that very genre. Dark Star counters the unfolding corridors of wonder reflected in David Bowman’s eyes with caustic pragmatism: space travel sucks when you run out of toilet paper. There are no Captain Kirks or Mr. Spocks here to deliver ringing speeches about the nobility of mankind’s quest for discovery. When new stars or intelligent lifeforms are discovered, Lt. Doolittle sneers “Who cares?” and “Find me something I can blow up!” Have Stephen Spielberg and his imitators given you the impression that our first contact with alien life forms will be a sweeping cosmic epiphany? Naw, it’ll probably be something like the orange ball with horrid clawed feet which has to be chased and corralled like a rowdy puppy. Dark Star pops our Atomic Age balloon to remind us that no matter what amazing things humans accomplish, most of our problems will still be with us just because we’re dumb monkeys who can barely get anything done through the choking bureaucracy that is our only form of self-governance. This makes Dark Star a contender for the very first cyberpunk movie. Ain’t it groovy?
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“‘Dark Star’ is one of the damnedest science fiction movies I’ve ever seen, a berserk combination of space opera, intelligent bombs, and beach balls from other worlds.”–Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times (contemporaneous)
OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST:
Looking back at John Carpenter’s Dark Star – An in-depth review and tribute by Lawrence Brooks at “Den of Geek”
(This movie was nominated for review by “Roland Mangan.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)
DIRECTED BY: Al White
FEATURING: Virginia Gardner
PLOT: Aubrey is understandably depressed: her best friend dies, and soon after the end of the world arrives in the form of an invasion of alien monsters.
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Starfish is a weird exercise with interesting ideas and a good performance from Gardner, but its mopey and lingering moments drag it down. Still, it’s a promising, professional-looking debut from Al White.
COMMENTS: Just like Starfish‘s heroine, whenever I get tired of the hassle of dealing with other people, I sometimes fantasize that an apocalypse has hit and wiped out everyone but me. I’m free to roam around grocery store aisles and grab all the bags of Lays Sour Cream Potato Chips I can carry, and eat all the pints of Ben & Jerry’s before they melt.
This is a common solipsistic daydream, even though we all realize that this predicament would be nightmarish in reality. For Aubrey, both the fantasy and the tragedy of this scenario become “real.” I put “real” in quotes, because it’s clear that depopulated world in Starfish is a metaphor for the protagonist’s bereavement and isolation. The death of her best friend and confidant sparks her crisis, but a guilty memory that we glimpse in fragments as Starfish (slowly) progresses fuels her alienation. Starfish does not spell out its underlying story in sxplicit detail; it’s more impressionistic and often dreamlike. The literal plot is inessential: there’s no attempt to make the end of the world seem reasonable, no serious explanation of where the monsters that roam the streets came from, little backstory on the survivors who occasionally break the silence to speak to Aubrey via walkie-talkie. The “mixtape” she assembles is a roadmap to redemption (it contains seven songs, just like the Seven Stages of Grief), and the “signal” is a pure MacGuffin. And so, given the symbolic nature of the script, the ending may be a bit too ambiguous for the audience’s liking; after everything Aubrey’s been through, it would have been nice to end on a more unconditionally hopeful note. (The ending we got would have been perfect for a different movie.)
Virginia Gardner deserves praise for carrying the film; she’s alone in almost every scene, usually either talking to herself or bouncing ideas off a turtle. Gardner conveys a real sense of loneliness—nothing that she does (or wears) matters, yet she carries on, finding a purpose and dragging herself through the wreckage of the world. The deliberate pacing, which punctuates long pauses with brief, intense bursts of crisis, aids in conveying that sensibility. And yes, while slow at times, the movie is duly weird, with frequent dream sequences—from the dinner settings that suddenly turn weightless to a radical (if brief) stylistic change at the halfway point (I won’t spoil the surprise, but it would have been more of a shock in a less-strange movie). Underwater, surf and oceanic imagery (including a reading from the opening of “Moby Dick”) flood the film, further reinforcing the sense of loneliness, as if Aubrey is marooned on a desert isle or bobbing alone on a life raft far at sea. Or in the process of slowly drowning.
It’s not a movie for those who value plot, but Starfish earns a recommendation for anyone who appreciates a heavy dose of psychological drama in their genre films.
Debuting director Al White (also known as A.T. White) also heads the U.K. based band Ghostlight. He wrote all the songs heard in the film, from the spooky cello cues to all seven of the indie-pop mixtape songs (a number of which have a silly “They Might be Giants” vibe; others rock). He’s got talent and is still young, and idealistic: he says that all of his profits will be donated to cancer research. Starfish plays at select theaters throughout the U.S. through April. Click here for a list of screenings. Home video/streaming dates have not yet been announced.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY: