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by Adam Ferenz

1984. Written by James Cameron and Gale Anne Hurd. Directed by James Cameron. Starring: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Linda Hamilton, Michael Biehn and Paul Winfield.

Present day, Los Angeles, 1984. A hulking, naked male figure arrives in a flash of light in an alley, soon followed by another man, slimmer, also nude. The first man proceeds to kill a punk and steal his clothing, before vanishing into the night. The other steals the clothing off a homeless man and slips away from a pursuing police office. Later that day, Sarah Connor, a young waitress, is having a truly miserable day at work. It is about the get a lot worse.

The two men are from the future, where the machines of a defense system have taken control and systemically eradicated the majority of the human population, whose survivors are lead by John Connor, the as-yet-to-be-born son of Sarah, and, as we find out, Kyle, the second man to arrive. John sent Kyle back, to trace his mother and protect her from the Terminator, the first man, a cybernetic being sent to kill her. The Terminator begins by killing two other Sarah Connors, as the data from the future did not specify which Sarah Connor was the mother of the leader of the resistance. Only her name and city, and a year.

As one can expect, Sarah only gradually believes Kyle’s story, while the police never do. Not even after the Terminator upends the precinct, sending Sarah and Kyle once again on the run from the Terminator, who follows them. During the 24 hours they run from the killing machine, they build a small arsenal and make love-thus making their son-before the Terminator locates them. Kyle dies trying to stop the machine, which Sarah finally does, by crushing the construct in a steel press. At the end of the film, she is seen driving into a storm, somewhere in Mexico, a young boy having just snapped the photograph that John had apparently given Kyle in order to properly identify her.

The Terminator is a classic of a different sort. It endures for reasons not obvious, yet undeniable once discovered. Not only is Schwarzenegger a star, but Linda Hamilton, as Sarah Connor, is allowed to be that rare thing in movies: a three dimensional heroine. What’s that, you say? She suddenly becomes a bad ass at the end, so how is that three dimensional? Well, let’s back it up a minute. If you were suddenly stalked by a relentless killing machine from the future, would you shrug your shoulders and go “ok, fine, let’s kick ass?” No. You would be afraid, and then curious and probably, at the end, resolute. You would learn, quickly, how to survive, by trial and error. Just as Sarah does here. She is funny, warm, brave and real. Say what you will about James Cameron, but he writes some damn fine female characters. Co-written here, by his then wife, and producer, Gale Anne Hurd.
If the film is about anything, it is survival and fate. But, mainly, this is, to use the vernacular, a balls to the wall action picture with hair on its chest. While there are clunky moments-such as The Terminator fixing his eye, a sequence in which one can easily tell there is a robotic Schwarzenneger, rather than convincing prosthetics-and no, this doesn’t help sell the Terminator as a cyborg, because until then, it had looked convincingly human-can be overlooked, because the film is so tightly constructed.

We meet our protagonist, antagonist, and spend a little time to learn what is happening, and why, then spend the rest of the film running from The Terminator or trying to destroy it. The film takes much of what had happened in science fiction since Star Wars, such as Blade Runner and its dark future, and the rise of computers and speculation about artificial intelligence, which had long been around-don’t forget the Turing Test-and put it in a blender. What came out the other side was a work which was not immediately revolutionary, but which has nonetheless had an impact.

The future scenes of the film, set after Skynet has taken over control of Earth and nearly wiped out the human race, features a lot of night scenes, and scraggly survivors-mostly soldiers crawling through the carnage, including over mountains of skulls, which the machines of Skynet also crush in their path as they pursue the humans. The Present Day is juxtaposed with this, different only in the proliferation of machines, with everyday death still happening, especially now that a Terminator is on the loose.

The scenes owe a bit to the rough aesthetic of the earlier Escape from New York, and juxtapose nicely with the Present Day portion of the film. It is this duality, man and machine, future and present, destiny and uncertainty, which plays a major thematic role in the film. Yet, the film is not heavy on themes and philosophy. Instead, it is interested in dropping you into the middle of some intense action and seeing how far you can go, to make you feel as though you too are being hunted. This is not a film without heart, however, as the final scene, Sarah, now pregnant, rides off into a storm, holding the picture that her unborn son will one day give to his father, so that his mother might live, and he might be born.

This loop, of course, is worth talking about a bit. It is something revisited in both the second and third films, but in this one, establishes the idea of a closed circuit, and of fixed destiny, of what has to happen having to happen because it happened. As Battlestar Galactic put it, all this has happened before and will happen again. John sent his father back in time with the picture taken of his mother at the end of the film, a picture that had to be take so John could give Kyle Reese the photograph, to find Sarah, to have the night of passion with her, and to die weakening the Terminator so she could kill it and run off to give birth to and train John.

If none of this makes much sense, you aren’t alone. It’s the one place in the movie where you see both how well done the film is, and how creaky it is. This is why I feel it is best to focus not on the philosophical implications of predestination and looping, and instead examine the heart and action of the film, and I do mean the action scenes, the set pieces. These are magnificent, perhaps none more so than the final sequence in which the Terminator tries to run Sarah down on the side of the road, is blown up in his truck, loses his skin, and then chases Sarah and a wounded Kyle Reese, into a factory, where Kyle blows the terminator in half, dying in the process, before the machine, still pursuing Sarah, is destroyed by her when she crushes it in a metal press.

The film has many such moments, from the assault on the precinct, in which the Terminator utters the famous line “I’ll be back” before plowing into the front door with a vehicle and gunning down every officer it encounters, to the first showdown between Kyle and the Terminator, in a bar, when Kyle saves Sarah’s life. And all of this is in service to the birth of an action hero. Kyle may be the soldier, but it is Sarah who wins the day with her courage and resolve, brought out by the situation and some guidance and support from Reese. This is the rare action film in which the characterization happens in large part through the action, something which George Miller used to even greater effect in his instant classic Mad Max: Fury Road. Had to get that plug in, folks.

So, what does this all mean and why is this the second straight rambling bloviating work from me about a film? That is because once again, this is not a superbly deep film, but it is a superbly entertaining one. A film which, while beginning to date, still presaged an age of extreme AI, and the all out action films of the coming years. A film which most definitely belongs on this list, because it is indeed one of the great science fiction works of all time. So, go see it for the first time, or the hundredth time. Enjoy the film however you must. But, do see it, and remember…be kind to your machines…

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(53) Akira

akira-1988-original

Bob Clark

Today, we reach one of the definitive anime experiences of the past 30 years, Katsuhiro Otomo’s Akira. Along with that, some musings on what it means to predict the future, and what we’re best left looking forward to in all tomorrow’s apocalypses.

http://cinemaville.podbean.com/e/cinemaville-7-akira/?token=4e5b7897f300b330544494a88dd30545

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hell-or-high-water

Screen capture from “Hell or High Water,” one of the best films of 2016

by Sam Juliano

One more week and we’ll be scraping our shoes on the foot mat of September, with the Labor Day weekend to follow shortly thereafter.  Seems like it all flew by us in record-breaking fashion, but conventional belief has always asserted that the older you get the faster things move forward.  The temperatures have been high, typical of late August, though the past week has been marginally cooler than those it preceeded.

The science-fiction countdown is just about half way completed and that too is rather amazing when you consider it seems we just launched it.  The essays have been simply superlative and a small but reliable group of commenters have been carrying their weight in some terrific comment threads.  Many thanks to all especially John Grant, Jamie Uhler, Bob Clark and Robert Hornak for their vigorous participation.  But others have been wonderful in that capacity as well.  We are now reaching the stage of the countdown (the upper half) where all the real fun should begin.

Lucille and I have been out and around the past week, though I have continued a torrid pace of home viewing, if not quite as intense as the past four.  We took in an amateur production of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman in a grungy and oppressively hot Manhattan back-room theater on Saturday night, and it turned out to be hugely problematic for so many reasons, but since I know those who brought it to fruition I’ll refrain from any other commentary.  I’ll leave Miller himself to turn in his grave.  This is the seventh time I have attended this play on the stage in my lifetime, and even taught it once to high school juniors. (more…)

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ET - 1

by Robert Hornak

Note/confession: E.T. is one of my favorite films of all time, and not just from a nostalgic point of view, though that is indeed an unquenchable part of it, but from a pure cinema, pure demonstration of skill point of view… and yet, for all that love, I won’t at all be giving it the loving treatment here that it deserves. This will not be an essay equal to my respect for the movie – let’s just say today I’ll be working without storyboards. Trouble is, I’ve had a terrible week time-wise, with unexpected responsibilities and a tectonic shift in my usual schedule. This isn’t a plea for sympathy (unless you just want to give me some), rather a set up to suggest that this is exactly the right time to see, think about, and say a few words about the movie: I believe it’s a story about childhood for adults who are overwhelmed by adulthood and who too often forget what it was like to yearn so purely. When I watch the movie, it stunts and expands in equal measure – an emotional projection of the squashy guy’s bizarro stretchy-neck. It stunts because every time I see it, I’m right back to being 11 and seeing it for the first time – it simply hasn’t lost any of the power of its first run for me. It’s so densely of its time (in terms of mise-en-scène and in terms of its ubiquitous grip on/embodiment of whatever the ’80s were), that I sink right back into its world from the moment Williams’ quiet, weirdly-hollow music plays over the thumb-scrawled title, and I’m with it right through to the still-teary end. But it expands by my life experience since that first viewing, by the fact that I’ve got the baggage of all the hundreds (conservative estimate) of times I’ve lost somebody, was disappointed by a negated desire, got sideswiped by a sudden change of life plans, or simply sank into sadness over a friend long gone by proximity or worse. It’s my movie (and everyone has one or more of these) that lets me be young again and grows into something more meaningful as time extracts its years, precisely because those years are passing. (more…)

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romance

by Stephen Mullen

The Island of Lost Souls is another of those films that might be more horror and adventure yarn than science fiction, though it is certainly science fiction. The basic plot is SF – a mad scientist in his lair, short-cutting evolution with surgery and cellular manipulation, creating monsters to roam the world – though none of this is given a lot of weight. Dr. Moreau’s fictional science is treated as the given of the story, and they move on from there. But the film is also science fiction at a more significant level. The horror themes (monsters, body horror, the slippages of identity and so on) run alongside themes more associated with science fiction: man vs. nature; science’s attempts to control nature, with mixed results; the question of progress, whether progress is necessarily an improvement, whether it is reversible, and so on. These themes run all through the film, they are embedded in its style as much as its story; the story, the film, present a microcosm of dystopia, and a dystopia very much made by human attempts at science. Its science fiction is wrapped around its horror tropes and vice versa – working very well at both.

Criterion’s edition of the film contains an interview with Gerry Casales and Mark Mothersbaugh of Devo, taking about the film’s influence on their ideas and music, its relevance to 1970s Akron, and so on. What did they see in it? They talk about Ghoulardi (who showed it on late night television); they talk about Kent State (where they were students at the time of the shootings); they talk about de-evolution, about the film and its look (its masks, shadows, monsters) and its themes, and what it meant to them. They mention a strange fact – how this film set on a lost jungle island in the south seas looks like what’s outside their doors – 5 o’clock at the Goodyear plant, says Mothersbaugh. It’s true – the film has a strong dose of German expressionism in its veins, and the beast men emerging from one of Moreau’s stone doors and passing a wall where their shadows loom as they shuffle out of the shot, bent knees and backs, look like factory workers shuffling out after their shifts. The same image turns up in another 70s era rust belt song, Pere Ubu’s “Heart of Darkness”: “Image object illusion, go down to the corner, where none of the faces fit a human form, nothing I see there isn’t deformed, maybe in a secret lab works Dr. Moreau” – it’s less the images of deformity that catch you, than the beginning – go down to the corner – this is what it looks like, now, today, Cleveland in the 70s.

shadowbeast

(more…)

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58. Ex-Machina (2015)

exmachinsert5

by Adam Ferenz

January/April 2015, 108 minutes. written and directed by Alex Garland. Starring: Alicia Vikander, Oscar Isaac, Domhnall Gleeson.

Ex Machina is a film which takes one quite by surprise. This is territory which seems to have already been covered by the giants of the Cyberpunk field, such as Dick and Gibson. Even a touch of Asimov, and his I, Robot work. Yet, this is an altogether more original and tightly wound tale than it first appears. The focus is on a seemingly reclusive genius, the employee he brings to a woodland laboratory and the humanoid creation that they begin testing.The humanoid is known as Ava, and she is the result of years of experiments by Nathan Batemen, who has brought Caleb Smith to his woodland retreat-also a high security laboratory-for an indefinite period of testing the responses of Caleb and Ava to one another. This, Caleb recognizes, is part of the Turing Test, which in part holds that true artificial intelligence will only be achieved when a human being fails to recognize an AI as an AI.

In the laboratory is one other, a silent Asian woman, Kyoko. As the film progresses, we discover that she is an earlier experiment by Batemen. As the film unfolds, Caleb and Batemen come to be suspicious of one another, with Ava seemingly in danger of being turned into spare parts following this stage of evolution, which involves a liquid gel brain and realistic skin over an advanced, non-biological, frame. A frame which, Batemen lets Caleb know, includes a working vagina. This is important, because Caleb does indeed become interested in, even aroused, by Ava, and discovers that Nathan has had intercourse with his creations. (more…)

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stranger-than-paradise-1

© 2016 by James Clark

As an adage, “Never underestimate a filmmaker’s first feature,” may be overrated. (Think of Michelangelo Antonioni’s disaster, Story of a Love Affair [1950].) But, in the case of Jim Jarmusch, I think anyone who wants to measure what’s up with him and his work can’t spend enough time on Stranger than Paradise (1984). (Jarmusch did produce a student project, Permanent Vacation, in 1980; but here we want to see what happens when school’s out.)

Proximity to college film studies (even after an extended trip to Paris) could be limiting or liberating—it all depends on what the novice brings to the cultural/ academic poker table. Where, then, did he come across that beat generation testament, Pull My Daisy (1959); and how did he run with it? Pull My Daisy, a film by Robert Frank from a screenplay by Jack Kerouac, brings to collision course a stuffy bishop and his stuffy wife (invited by the wife of a railway brakeman-cum-writer) with uninvited bohemian friends of the man of the house. (The locals include Allen Ginsberg and, more interestingly, Delphine Seyrig, as the lady of the house.) This self-consciously overkill insurrection, by those self-assured to be hipster legends on having charmed the pants off Gotham’s media, for the sake of ridiculing the whole sweep of American life, shows that update of the Marx Brothers implicitly feeling entitled to the keys of the planet on the basis of their self-satisfaction with their acuity and virtue. (more…)

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