The Failure of the Bayformers

It’s crazy to look back on it now, but I actually liked Michael Bay’s first Transformers movie.

Hell, I still do. Not that the movie doesn’t have its issues, but there’s a touch of Spielbergian magic to the whole thing that made it shine; it’s a traditional, relatable rite of passage story about a boy getting his first car, a car that just happens to be an alien robot. The action was believable, the characters were likable and the Transformers themselves were wonderfully adapted from their toy/cartoon/comic versions with a surprising sense of affection, right down to the unexpected surprise of Peter Cullen returning to voice Optimus Prime. There were some annoying Bay-moments™, no doubt, but the strengths he does have as a director overcame them.

So yes, I liked the original.

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And that’s exactly why the sequels have been so utterly disappointing.

See, the problem with the Transformers sequels hasn’t just been the weak, infantile character development (the entire narrative arc of our protagonist is based on the fact that he’s scared to say “I love you” to his girlfriend? Seriously?), the nonsensical storylines, or even the bastardization of the Transformers mythos. Yes, all of that is true. Yes, the movies are poor. But the reason that they’re so aggravating is because within each Transformers sequel – this newest entry, Age of Extinction, in particular – lies the seed of something that could actually be really, really good, and everyone involved in making the movie is too lazy to actually put the effort in.  Why?  Because they know they can get away with it. 

The special effects and action scenes in these movies are, without a doubt, absolutely stunning. Beautiful, even. But every time these movies come close to developing a meaningful plot—

Look, it’s not that they fumble. It’s not that the writers, director, producers or whoever is in charge of this thing are stupid, because they clearly aren’t. No, the problem is that whoever is in charge of this mess, whether it’s Michael Bay or someone else, he/she just doesn’t care. And it shows. These movies put in just enough effort to create a popcorn blockbuster, but not the extra effort to make something meaningful out of it.  Why make a good movie if you can make a bad one, and still be successful?

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It’s pretty clear that these movies are enormously disrespectful to the Transformers mythos, even to those who know nothing about Transformers.  But let’s pretend, for a moment, that there was no Transformers before Michael Bay came around. Let’s pretend, just for the hell of it, that the Autobot/Decepticon conflict didn’t exist before the movies. If that’s the case, the movies wouldn’t be any less frustrating, because they would still be using potentially interesting ideas and then throwing them away for the sake of lowbrow punchlines.

Here’s some food for thought: Age of Extinction is an overpacked, overlong movie.  Okay, but you know why? Because believe it or not, it actually has four—count ‘em, four—separate storylines mashed into the same movie. All four of these plots have potential. And all four of them are wasted. Don’t believe me? Listen:

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Plot 1: A broke, single, hard luck inventor dad (Mark Wahlberg) struggles to scrounge up the money for his unappreciative daughter to go to college – and when working on an old truck, finds out that it’s actually Optimus Prime.

This is the plot that they showed in the trailers, which was smart, because it got people into theaters. It’s relatable. It’s human. It has the same Spielbergian sense of magical reality as the “boy and his car” plot from the first movie. Personally, I think it would’ve been smarter for the dad to be a mechanic instead of an inventor – more realistic – but still, it works. One can imagine that, in a perfect script, the science fiction/Autobot plotline would somehow connect to this one in a way where a common, deeper theme is found – perhaps a theme about fatherhood, about what it’s like to support a child who doesn’t appreciate that support, whatever. There’s additional potential (that gets squandered) when Wahlberg and Optimus discuss the concept of a soul, a theme which (in a better movie) could have been an emotional high point. Either way, the working class father/daughter plot presents plenty of storyline options.

Except that the daughter is inconsistently characterized. Is she really unappreciative? Or is she actually kind, generous and supportive?  Is she even interested in going to college—and if so, what for? Is she only in the movie because Michael Boy wants a “hot girl” character, and didn’t bother giving her a realistic personality (BINGO!)? And while we’re at it, who the hell is this annoying “best friend” character who supposedly works for the inventor?

Like I said, the plot has potential. Wahlberg is one of the highlights of the movie, and he does the best he can. But there’s little attempt to expand the dad/daughter story beyond its most basic elements, and once the daughter’s obnoxious twenty-something boyfriend is introduced, the script falls back on pretty standard clichés. But that’s okay, because we have plot number 2…

Uh...cyborg dinosaurs?

Uh…cyborg dinosaurs?

Plot 2: Oh boy, aliens killed the dinosaurs! And they created the Transformers…and now they’re ready to come back and collect their old toys!

Okay. Yes.  So the idea of alien creators (in the Transformers universe, these are called Quintessons) isn’t the most original plot of all time, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have the potential—again, there’s that word—for some pretty epic, mind-bending plot developments. Right?

Except that this idea – possibly the biggest one in the movie, considering it basically pits a Godlike entity against the Autobots and Earth – is totally forgotten about for most of the runtime. Oh, it flickers on the screen every now and again, and it definitely is part of the movie’s climax, but it’s hard not to feel like the whole thing was thrown in more as a setup for the next movie than anything else.  And with a storyline this big, it can’t be thrown in.  It demands attention.  It needs to be the focus.

But okay. I’ll accept it.  They want to do a new trilogy, right? Got to plant some seeds. But if that’s the case, they could’ve planted them in a way that implied that they have some idea where they’re going.  We’ve already seen the Egyptian pyramids being put together, a new take on the moon landing, and now the dinosaurs going extinct.  How many historical events on Earth are we going to see reimagined?  And furthermore, will this beaded string of hints and clues ever get tied together?

The “creators” are barely mentioned throughout the movie, and so much else is going on that the viewer mostly forgets about them. And when the classic Dinobots arrive on the scene, they seem to be thrown in with no setup and no explanation.  Are they somehow connected to how the real dinosaurs went extinct?  What’s the deal?  The viewer wants to believe that the next movie might offer clear answers, emotional high notes and maybe even catharsis, but past experience demonstrates otherwise.

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Plot 3: The evil, dark, corrupt United States government wants to kill off all of the remaining Transformers.

I get what they were going for here. I do. It’s an allegorical statement on illegal immigration, and a pretty clear one at that. It also brings to mind the terrible way that this country has often treated old war veterans.  I just wish that if they were going to do a statement on something, they’d actually, you know, follow through on it.

And by that, I mean actually give it some depth. Examine the real issue, instead of just glancing at it and nodding. Kelsey Grammer does a good job in his role, though, and this plot is actually a pretty good way to follow up on all of the destruction that has been done in the previous movies. The main problem with this plot isn’t that it’s a bad storyline—it’s that with all of the other stories going on simultaneously, it has no room to breathe.

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Plot 4: Steve Jobs creates his OWN Transformers

Okay, so it’s not actually Steve Jobs. But for all intents and purposes, that’s who Stanley Tucci is playing here.  As usual, he does a great job.

Basically, the idea here is that a multimillion dollar technological corporation gets a hold of the metal that the Transformers are made of, copyrights it as “transformium,” and then creates their own Transformers for mass merchandising purposes. And these Transformers, being man-made, aren’t just the equals to their alien predecessors; they’re better, stronger and able to reshape themselves into literally anything. Unfortunately, when one of the man-made Transformers gains consciousness—Galvatron, the robot made from Megatron’s spare parts– let’s just say that the big guy has his own ideas about how to do things.

Now, putting aside the humorous fact that a Michael Bay movie (a movie inspired by a line of action figures) is making a statement about over-commercialized American society, this storyline is actually the best one in the movie. It inspires a number of the movie’s most intriguing moments.  In particular, there’s one noteworthy sequence where the Autobots face off against Tucci’s character, who informs them that “they don’t matter anymore.”

There’s a sort of postmodern near-brilliance to this notion. The idea that the Autobots – who are, remember, inspired by a line of action figures—now have to face their own obsolescence in the presence of new, improved, brightly-colored toys, is clever.  It makes the viewer consider the fate of all technology. Laptops, cars, microwaves, cell phones—every few years, every piece of technology that we cherish will be replaced by the new, more colorful model with brighter colors. As Optimus Prime stands there facing Stanley Tucci, essentially being informed that his hardware is out of date, the mighty Autobot leader suddenly seems small and helpless.  He’s been turned into a dated old flip phone, rendered helpless before the new iPhone.

In addition, this is the first major storyline since the original movie to bring something new to the series. Every other movie has dealt with how these alien entities came to Earth in the past, influenced history and are now coming back with violent intentions. This plot, in contrast, shows how humans can become their own worst enemies. It shows how scientific progress can corrupt us if used incorrectly. It (potentially!) makes us question the way we casually dispose of outdated technology and childhood toys.

So yes, this storyline is good.

But then it’s crammed in with three other storylines, and it has no room to breathe.

Oops.

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Yes, I know. Christopher Nolan did it in all three Batman movies—but that’s because Nolan is a master storyteller who knows how to weave his storylines together, how to make each character arc resonate, how to have a purpose behind the whole thing. Michael Bay doesn’t care about story—he’s an overeager, hyperactive type who really cares about the big explosions—and as a result, whatever storyline he uses is really only a way to fill time between said explosions. That’s why he uses juvenile humor so much; he doesn’t know how else to keep you interested when he’s not blowing up alien spaceships.

That’s why this movie is so frustrating; not because it’s bad, but because it could be good. Every time there’s a hint of depth, it is quickly tossed aside for the sake of another throwaway joke. The movie’s conclusion is a long, dragged out mess, because by that point they’ve written themselves into a corner.  While Steve Jobs is running through the city with a bomb, the Autobots have to stop Galvatron and his man-made robot army, while they simultaneously have to stop Lockdown from attacking the city with his giant evil UFO, while they also have to stop Kelsey Grammer from doing…something, and in the meantime (don’t forget!), these alien creators are out there somewhere, doing something. Oh yes, and here’s the Dinobots…

It doesn’t make sense, because it doesn’t care to make sense.

And while we’re on the subject of other stupid things:

  1. The football. Yes, the football.
  2. The Autobots. Evidently, someone got the memo that much of the audience couldn’t tell the robots apart in the previous movies, and decided to respond by turning all of the new Autobots into exaggerated cartoon characters. Look, disbelief can only be stretched so far. I can accept the notions that the robots can speak English.  But when they present a supposedly alien robot that, for one, smokes a cigar—with what lungs, and what happens when the cigar burns out?—and on top of that, has a prominent beer gut (how does a robot get overweight?), it suddenly becomes very difficult to take it seriously. Then we have an Autobot with a trenchcoat, made of…uh, metal?  And finally, an Autobot that looks and behaves exactly like a samurai.
  3. The “boyfriend” character. Totally unlikeable, but for some reason the audience is expected to root for him in the end. I don’t know why.
  4. Inconsistent characterization for the Autobots, and a general lack of heroism.  The general immorality of the “heroic” characters here genuinely bugs me, and honestly, that might even be my biggest issue with the film.  How are we supposed to root for these guys?  I’ve never seen Optimus Prime so grim, impulsive and antagonistic as Michael Bay portrays him.  In Age of Extinction, his new tendency to flip out, break things and make constant death threats doesn’t ring true to the noble leader he’s normally portrayed as. Bumblebee is even worse; although everyone’s favorite yellow Autobot has always had a youthful energy about him, he’s never acted like a rampaging toddler before.  And the three new “heroes” are even worse.  Drift is a stereotype, Crosshairs seems to be the Autobot version of Starscream, and Hound, the John Goodman Autobot, is a violence-loving sociopath; there’s even a scene where Hound executes an innocent, caged alien creature just for being “ugly” (see Film Crit Hulk’s review for more on this). When the main heroes are so quick to violence, the viewer starts to wonder who they’re supposed to be cheering for.
  5. Possibly the stupidest, most disturbing scene in the film is the one where Optimus convinces the Dinobots to join him and take down Galvatron.  How does he do it, you ask?  Perhaps a stirring, monumental speech?  Maybe the Dinobots see the great Autobot leader in danger, and they rise to the occasion?  Nope.  He just takes out a sword and fights them.  And as he fights, going on and on about how if they fight for him they can have “freedom,” he suddenly takes a sword to Grimlock’s throat and threatens him that he must “fight for my freedom, or die.”  You know what this means? That Optimus is a hypocrite, warning a fellow warrior (who has been imprisoned for God knows how long) that if he doesn’t fight for the freedom of the Autobots, then he will kill him.  Freedom?  Not quite.
  6. Optimus Prime just flies off into space, even doing the classic Christopher Reeve Superman spin around the world.  If he could fly the whole movie, then why didn’t he–ahh, never mind.  I give up.

It’s easy to make stupid jokes. It’s easy to film an explosion.  But it’s damn hard to make people care about an imaginary world, or the characters that populate it. And that’s why these movies fail as worthwhile entertainment, box office success notwithstanding, because they don’t bother even trying to reach for more. The Bayformers movies are thoroughly content to be popcorn entertainment, with no deeper meaning.

Sure, it’s fun.  It’s exciting.  It has nice explosions.  But it’s a film that falls apart moments after you finish viewing it, as a depressing realization sets in—that was it? And that’s the key to why these movies have been so financially successful, and yet why reactions continue to be so universally mixed and/or negative. Sure, they’re really entertaining, but they’re really lacking something, too. And that something is, simply enough, effort. 

Honestly, these movies pale in comparison to the eighties cartoon that they draw so much inspiration from.  Hell, it’s not even a comparison; the cartoon is a classic, and for good reason.  The animated Transformers: The Movie, back in 1986, had more genuine emotion in one scene – and yes, you know exactly which scene I’m talking about – than this live action series has mustered out of four movies.

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Looking back on the first Michael Bay Transformers movie, back in 2007, it’s really a shame to see where the series has gone. The first movie had its flaws, but the future seemed bright.  Against all expectations, this was a series full of potential.

Well, that potential has officially been wasted. We’ll see what the next movie looks like, but I’m not getting my hopes up.

Before Blade Runner, there was “The Bladerunner”

Sure, most fans know that Ridley Scott’s seminal science fiction classic, Blade Runner, is a film adaption of the equally classic science fiction novel, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, by Philip K. Dick.  What most people don’t know is where the title came from; while Decker’s job is referred to as a “blade runner” within the film, this job is instead called a bounty hunter in the novel. Clearly, Blade Runner is a more evocative title – and definitely a dicier job title – but what inspired the change?

Where did that title come from?

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The answer to that question, my friends, is that a sci-fi author and physician by the name of Dr. Alan E. Nourse wrote a book called The Bladerunner in 1974.

Now before anyone gets too excited, Nourse’s The Bladerunner has absolutely nothing to do with the Ridley Scott’s movie, other than both of them sharing a futuristic setting.  In 1979, Nourse’s novel was adapted into a screenplay by William S. Burroughs, also titled Blade Runner, which went unproduced and unmade. So, when Ridley Scott and co went about making their film version of Philip K. Dick’s novel, and started bandying about titles – understandably, a mouthful like Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? wasn’t going to fit so well on the posters – one of the screenwriters, Hampton Fancher, suggested the title “Blade Runner” based on Burrough’s screenplay. Ridley loved it, bought all rights to the title, and the rest is history.

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So, that said. Now that we know that Nourse’s The Bladerunner has nothing to do with the movie, a new question is raised: is the original Bladerunner any good? And for that matter, what’s it about?

Nourse’s pre-cyberpunk, edgy political story – which deals with themes that are remarkably topical in today’s economic climate, to the point where one wonders why no studio executive has scooped up the rights yet – is, at its core, a science fiction thriller about healthcare. Yes, healthcare, that familiar word we’re hearing on the news everyday. In The Bladerunner, Nourse envisions a future where the costs of healthcare have skyrocketed to such an extent that the government can no longer afford to provide decent healthcare coverage to the general population.  To combat the problem, a new law is passed.  A controversial law.  A law that provides excellent healthcare to anyone willing to pay the price for qualification – and that price is sterilization.

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Photo taken at Body Worlds Vital in Boston.

Basically, this means that only a few people get treated; seriously, even when those harsh flu symptoms last a bit longer than they should, do you really want to destroy your ability to ever continue your lineage, in one fell swoop? Luckily, there is one solution: underground doctors, and the so-called bladerunners that supply them with their illegal medical supplies.

So our primary protagonist is a club-footed teenager known as Billy Gimp, a bladerunner who works together with Doctor John Long and nurse Molly Barret to perform illegal surgeries on those who aren’t willing to pay the sterilization price. The risks are high, the potential legal ramifications deadly – but when a viral infection spreads rapidly across a population that isn’t willing to go to the hospital, the underground doctors and the bladerunners that supply them are about to become more important than anyone could have ever imagined.

Nourse’s novel is a story that’s focused on big ideas, a feature that is both its greatest strength and its greatest weakness. The concepts that Nourse explores – from the downsides that come from overmedicating the population to the even worse problem of under-medicating – are fascinating, and the terrible “solution” that the government institutes in this novel is painted credibly. The fallout is equally believable, as anti-healthcare extremist groups break out, Big Brother-style monitoring becomes increasingly prevalent, and the lack of new medical students leads to the development of computerized robot doctors to replace the human ones. Nourse does an excellent job of portraying these ideas with enough verisimilitude that none of it feels over the top, and all of the futuristic technology is practical and down to earth. The future United States that is portrayed in The Bladerunner feels terrifyingly real.

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But while the ideas of The Bladerunner are intriguing, the novel suffers a bit when it comes to the human element. It often seems that the novel is so focused on debating its ideas that the actual characters never quite come to life. Billy Gimp is by far the most fleshed out character; Billy is a child trapped in an adult world, longing for fatherly acceptance from Doctor Long and hoping that someday the doctor will fix his clubfoot.   Still, the reader is left wishing to know more of Billy’s back story. What was Billy’s life like before he was a bladerunner?   What events shaped him into the person he is today? For that matter, what does he do when he’s not on the job? The author never really explores the characters in any depth , which is probably the only thing that has kept this novel from being recognized as a science fiction classic.

But overall, The Bladerunner is a book that deserves more acclaim. Its area of focus is highly unique, its allegorical message is interesting and most importantly, it asks hard questions that don’t come with easy answers. And although it deals with dark subjects, The Bladerunner possesses an endearing earnestness that makes it impossibly likable; a strong sense of idealism runs through the narrative, a belief that nothing is ever hopeless.  Putting the title aside, hopefully Alan Nourse’s The Bladerunner will someday receive the recognition it deserves.

A slice of Aronofsky’s “Pi”

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Truth is a complicated, abstract idea, and truth seekers come in all forms. Some search for truth in religion. Others do it through art. Some seek to find the truth within numbers.

Max Cohen, the protagonist of Darren Aronofsky’s debut film, Pi, is a man of the latter category. “One, mathematics is the language of nature,” he states. “Two, everything around us can be represented and understood through numbers.” Despite the urgings of his mentor, Sol, Max is a man driven by a quest for meaning – a man driven to the point of obsession, obsession with the very numbers he seeks the answer from, obsession that leads to hallucinations, paranoia and, by the startling conclusion of the film, a complete mental breakdown.

Pi is a dark, intelligent psychological thriller, with a tone and style somewhere between David Lynch’s Eraserhead and Rod Serling’s Twilight Zone. It’s a daring film that asks a profound question. A question that has haunted men for millennia, and that we may never find an easy answer to:

Is there meaning in life, nature and the universe—a pattern that brings it all together, perhaps? Or is everything simply chaos?

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Pi , like much of Aronofsky’s work (including the recent Noah) is an intense examination of a man’s search for God. It’s about a quest for truth. And like many similar quests in fiction – from Victor Frankenstein’s monster to Johnny Truant’s book obsession in Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves – the road that Max goes on is one fraught with deadly ramifications upon his psychological state, finally leading to a shocking ending that’s not easily forgotten.

Though Aronofsky has directed many films since 1998, Pi remains– to me, at least – his most fascinating work.

 

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The Top Ten Genre Adaptations/Sequels/Remakes that Hollywood Should Make

So hey, when are they gonna make the movie?

When it comes to genre fans – and I use the word “genre” here as an umbrella term, so that I can group all horror/sci-fi/fantasy/etc. properties under one roof –  we’ve all got our own ideas about which of our favorite properties should be put up on the big screen – or which properties should be rebooted, remade or just generally “fixed.”  For every horror fan clamoring for them to finally get off their asses and make an awesome, Jason-focused Friday the 13th flick  (ahem), there’s another one shouting that what Hollywood really needs to do is make a big-budget, Christoper Nolan-ized version of Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers.  So when one compiles a top ten list such as this one, I feel strongly that it’s best to chuck any attempt at objectivity out the window.  When one writes a top ten list like this, it’s incredibly silly that pretend that he or she is speaking for anyone other than himself or herself.

I mean, seriously?  The truth is, you’ll never find an objective top ten list.  Top ten lists are automatically subjective by their very nature; they exist as a way for us feeble mortals to make-believe that we have some kind of control over the universe, so much control, in fact, that we can actually organize it according to our whims.

So, without further ado, here is my highly subjective list of the top ten potential sci-fi/horror/fantasy/speculative/yadda-yadda-yadda properties that Hollywood should take under consideration:

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10. Brave New World, directed by Ridley Scott

When it comes to the great dystopian novels, I’ll admit that I’m highly partial to George Orwell’s 1984.  However, there’s a lot to be said for Aldous Huxley’s horrifically prophetic vision of a world consumed by its obsession with trivialities, drug-induced brainwashing and genetically-engineered test tube babies…and unlike 1984, which in the actual year of 1984 was marvelously adapted into a film starring John Hurt, there has yet to be a great adaption of Huxley’s novel.

Really, it’s a bit of a shock that this movie hasn’t happened yet.  In today’s world, where society is being consumed by wave after wave of mindlessly solipsistic Facebook statuses and Tweets, people spend most of their time amusing themselves instead of seeking out knowledge, actual human interaction is lowering and we’re coming closer and closer to becoming the genetically-engineered humans that Huxley envisioned in 1931, a Brave New World film could possibly open up the general public’s eyes about the inherent danger of what Huxley was warning us about, all those years ago.

Now, why do I name Ridley Scott as the director?  One – because Scott has previously expressed interest.  Two – because I can’t imagine a director who could possibly have a more interesting, more appropriate cinematic vision of Huxley’s world.  Considering that Scott is the man who directed such films as Alien, Blade Runner, Prometheus and the famous 1984 Apple Macintosh commercial, Brave New World would definitely be right up his alley.

So, that’s ten. What’s number nine?  Don’t worry, this is an obvious one…

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9.  Evil Dead 4, AKA Army of Darkness 2, AKA whatever the hell they want to call it

Yeah, that’s right.  I said Evil Dead Four—not Two.  While I actually was surprised by how much I enjoyed the Evil Dead remake, I still don’t really look at it as a true Evil Dead film. Let’s face it, while Evil Dead 1 might’ve been a “real” horror flick, for most of us Evil Dead fans, the film that really made us fall in love with this franchise was Evil Dead II: Dead by Dawn, with its splattery combination of horror, scathing satire and Three Stooges-style slapstick.

Now, even though Evil Dead II and Army of Darkness are easily two of my favorite movies of all time, there’s a reason that this one is relatively low on my highly subjective top ten list; because really, we don’t need an Evil Dead 4.  Sam Raimi’s original Evil Dead trilogy actually stands pretty well on its own; there’s a definitive character arc for Ash Williams, and the way that the franchise cleverly slides from all-out horror to goofy, Ray Harryhausen-style pastiche is really quite brilliant.

If Sam Raimi does ever move ahead on a proposed fourth movie (which has been “in the workings” for the last two decades) and stays faithful to the quirky low-budget feel of the original three, then I’ll definitely be in the front row…but as it is, I’m pretty happy with the original trilogy, as is.

So, no, the fans don’t need an Evil Dead 4.  But do we want it?  Hell yeah, we do.

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8. Martian Manhunter

So, here’s one that’s  totally out of left field.

Yes, I know that this might seem bizarrely random.  Most people will only recognize this green-skinned Martian shapechanger – real name J’onn J’onnz – from the Justice League cartoon.  Even in the comics, Martian Manhunter is primarily known only as a member of the team, and his individual comic appearances are pretty limited.   DC Comics has never really given Martian Manhunter much of a chance to strike out on his own; since the New 52 event, he’s even been exiled from the Justice League!

However, there’s a tremendous amount of untapped potential in this character – and I think that film is absolutely the proper medium for him.  Why?  How can they do it?  You wanna know?  Okay, I’ll tell you how to make a badass Martian Manhunter movie on a low budget, and how make it sell:

Focus on Detective John Jones.

For those of us who aren’t serious comic geeks, I’ll explain:  back in his earlier appearances (and occasionally in the years afterward, as well as in his TV appearances on Smallville) Martian Manhunter, as a shapeshafter, took on the “earthling” identity of a detective named John Jones.

So then, my proposal is this; make a dark, gritty, noir-style detective story starring Detective Jones, where everything at first seems down-to-earth, realistic and suitably Nolan-ized.  This way, it will fit perfectly within the post-Man of Steel DC film universe  –and then slowly, carefully, allow the sci-fi elements to bleed into the narrative, as the film slowly unveils the fact that Jones’ actual identity is J’onn J’onnzz, an alien, and that he has come to Earth for a very specific reason.  From here, we can reveal that the seemingly “realistic” world we’ve been inhabiting up until this point isn’t quite what it seems.

…and that, my friends, is how you make a Martian Manhunter movie work.

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7. Duke Nukem

These days, ol’ Duke Nukem’s street reputation isn’t necessarily in the best shape around; the misogynistic, stogie-smokin’, ultimate action hero stereotype has been a bit wounded ever since the development cycle of Duke Nukem Forever passed the ten year mark.

However, DNF aside, there’s no denying that in the 90s, Duke Nukem 3D was one of the best games around; back when its contemporaries  were still imitating the dark, space station corridors of Doom, 3D Realms was blowing the competition away with its combination of gut-busting humor, real life settings, startling interactivity (“I can use the pool table? I can use the urinal?!”) and a central character who – unlike the vast majority of computer game protagonists – couldn’t keep his mouth shut.  Duke was always full of one-liners after one-liners, simultaneously mocking and celebrating all of the action movies he was playing homage to.

As a movie, Duke Nukem would be pretty tough to successfully adapt; the biggest risk I can see is that filmmakers might allow the material to be too goofy, humorous and/or lewd, to the point where it became unwatchable.  What made Duke 3D work so well – and what most of the Duke games that have come afterward seem to forget – is that while Duke himself was certainly a ridiculous character, the alien invasion taking place around him was a lot darker—and even scary, at points.

No, to make a Duke Nukem movie work, what we need is some like Paul Verhoeven – or at the very least, someone who can master that Verhoeven-esque approach to these sorts of action movies.  Why?  Because in many ways, Duke 3D is like a video game version of a Verhoeven sci-fi movie. Verhoeven was the director of Robocop, Total Recall and Starship Troopers, all three of which are highly satirical and at times quite humorous, yet always maintain just enough seriousness to make the threat still be menacing.  If Duke ever hits the silver screen, that’s exactly the kind of approach that’ll make it really shine.

Photograph by Wilfried Bauer.

Photograph by Wilfried Bauer.

6. At The Mountains of Madness

Guillermo Del Toro (the director of Pan’s Labyrinth, Hellboy and Pacific Rim) has been fighting to make this happen for years; it’s one of those “seems too good to be true” scenarios, but God, let’s keep our fingers crossed.

The many works of H.P. Lovecraft, though widely celebrated in horror circles across the world, have been largely untouched by cinema…largely because, for the most part, they’re pretty unfilmable. Lovecraft’s cold, wordy prose –  and his “monsters” that are more likely to drive men insane with a mere glance than they are to slash through horny teenagers – would be extremely difficult to successfully transfer to celluloid without betraying their essence.  Sure, Re-Animator was awesome, but the original Herbert West: Re-Animator story was extremely different from Lovecraft’s other stories to begin with, and the film’s success was due less to Lovecraft than to it being a wonderfully dark, cynical tribute to 50s horror/sci-fi flicks.

At the Mountains of Madness, though, has enormous potential on the big screen.  Compared to Lovecraft’s shorter works, Mountains of Madness has a far more developed storyline, a number of fascinatingly creepy visuals and a very unique vision that’s about as Lovecraftian as a Lovecraft tale can get.  There’s probably no better director for this than Del Toro, but since Del Toro’s efforts to film this have been fraught with peril, and he seems to have several dozen different projects on his plate at any given time, the chances of this movie happening – at least in the near future – seem pretty slim.

Art by Bernie Wrightson.

Art by Bernie Wrightson.

5. A REAL Frankenstein movie

Yeah, you heard me.  Don’t get me wrong, the 1931 James Whale film is a classic – a classic that I still watch today.  But it has almost nothing to do with Mary Shelley’s original novel.

And I know what you’re thinking; didn’t Kenneth Branagh’s movie faithfully translate the book?  Well, not really.  Sure, it followed the storyline more faithfully than any Frankenstein movie before it, at times almost down to the letter – but in doing this, Branagh’s film completely and utterly sacrificed the dark, gothic tone of the original work.  This isn’t a minor point, because while the film is faithful to the novel on a surface level, all of the content’s meaning, passion and importance is stripped away from it.  Sure, the Branagh film follows the same plot points as the novel, but it rushes through them so quickly – in a blurry deluge of bad acting, bright colors and over-the-top sequences – that I find it hard to imagine that any Mary Shelley diehards were particularly satisfied.

No, I think it’s time that we finally had a real, authentic Frankenstein movie.  A movie that’s true to the spirit of the book, highlighting the classic Prometheus-inspired themes and capturing the tortured nature of Shelley’s protagonist, Victor Frankenstein.

Visually, it seems obvious to me that the movie should take inspiration from the gothic, ink-heavy drawings of Bernie Wrightson (see above image).  No artist has better captured the novel’s eerie atmosphere, and his depiction of the creature is easily the best ever; just imagine Wrightson’s monster with hideous yellow skin, grinning fiendishly as it quietly stalks the Arctic mountains.  Seriously, the visuals alone could be breathtaking.

This is another project that Guillermo Del Toro has mentioned quite a bit, dangling it before our eyes like a rare coin.  C’mon, Guillermo.  Let’s make it happen.

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4. Deathlok

This is a total shot in the dark, I know.  Deathlok, though he’s easily one of the most fascinating antiheroes in Marvel Comics history, is a fairly obscure character.  Over the years, Deathlok has been sidelined, forgotten about or mucked around with many times, but the central concept has never lost its potency.

Created in the 1970s – and thus predating such popular franchises as the Terminator, Robocop and Neuromancer – the early Deathlok comic books told the story of Luther Manning, a soldier who is killed in action, only to reawaken when his mind is placed in the body of a ruthless killing machine.   Now wandering through the ruins of New York City in a horrifying, post-apocalyptic future, Deathlok rebels against his programming and takes the fight for freedom back to his corporate tormentors.

So, how can Marvel Studios make this work as a movie?

Hire me to write the script, that’s how!  But in all seriousness, while I recognize the unlikelihood of this movie ever happening (especially with that Robocop remake on the horizon), I think that a Deathlok film could make an excellent addition to the Marvel Cinematic Universe.  The technological, transhumanist themes that Deathlok explores are very rooted in contemporary fears, concerns and lifestyles.  We’re all slowly becoming cyborgs, but is it right for this to happen? Should we allow technology to infiltrate every aspect of our lives, and if we do, are we still human beings?

My suggestion?  Take cues from the excellent 2010 limited series, Deathlok: The Demolisher, but focus more on Luther’s humanity than the comic did.   Deathlok is an amazing sci-fi movie just waiting to happen; hopefully someday, the right executive will be brave enough to take a chance on it.

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3. I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream

Originally published in 1967, Harlan Ellison’s post-apocalyptic short story is one of the darkest, most unrelentingly brutal science fiction stories of all time.  Set in the future, I Have No Mouth  tells the story of AM – a highly-emotional, brilliant supercomputer that gains consciousness and, in a fit of rage, uses it to completely obliterate the human race.  Still not satisfied, AM spares only four men and one woman from this mass genocide, and proceeds to subject these five people to a variety of hellish tortures—both physical and psychological—keeping them alive for over a century of pain, suffering and guilt.  AM doesn’t have any master plan.  He’s not the classic cool, calculating, methodical machine that most science fiction stories depict.  No, he’s just angry.  He’s already destroyed the human race and the tortures he conducts on these five remaining humans – Ted, Benny, Ellen, Gorrister and Nimdok – is nothing more than the final stage of a long, drawn out, pointless revenge.

I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream is one of the most horrifying science fiction stories of its kind.  Movies likes Cube, Saw and the like owe Ellison’s tale a great debt; it was certainly an enormous inspiration for me when I wrote my 2011 novella, EnslavementWhile there might be budgetary concerns, I think that with a thrifty director and a great cast, this could be an edgy science fiction thriller for the ages.

Now, as far as expanding the short story into a full movie, and giving it a proper narrative arc?  There’s an easy solution for that: follow the game.  By that, I mean the excellent 1995 computer game of the same name which, with supervision from Ellison himself, was a terrific adaptation of the novel and easily  one of the most underrated point-and-click adventure games of the 90s.  The game provides an excellent blueprint for how to expand the characters and where to take the plot.  The game fills in the back story for all five characters, showing us how each of them has deep, personal flaws that made them attractive to AM – particularly Nimdok, who is revealed to be a former Nazi scientist.

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2. David Lynch’s The Metamorphosis

Oh come on, this is obvious!  A match made in heaven!  How has it possibly not happened yet?

Franz Kafka’s famously surreal short story – the depressing tale of Gregor Samsa, a man who wakes up as a gigantic insect and is subsequently mistreated by the very family he once worked so hard for – is the sort of bizarre tale that seems made for the director of such surrealistic works as Eraserhead, Blue Velvet and and Dumbland.  It’s not just the premise, it’s the execution.  Much like Lynch’s work, The Metamorphosis doesn’t overly dramatize its insane premise; it presents it very matter-of-factly, never trying to explain it.  It treats Gregor Samsa’s mutation much as if he had suddenly became infected with leprosy or AIDS.

So, why hasn’t this happened yet?  Well…I wouldn’t totally rule it out.

As it turns out, David Lynch has actually been attracted to Kafka’s story for a long, long time.  In fact, he actually wrote a script for it all the way back in the early 80s.  He has demonstrated interest in resuming the project a number of times, but never committed himself due to such concerns as budget, a desire to revise his script and so on.

So hey, maybe it’ll happen someday.  We can hope.   In the meantime, as we cross our fingers, here are Mr. Lynch’s own thoughts on the subject:

“It’s a story that millions of people have read and about a hundred-thousand people have written about, and each one has seen it from a slightly different angle. But…it’s just rich with things. But there’s a certain kind of dark humor that I love about Kafka and it is his stuff that thrills me to my soul. It’s just a completely perfect mood and story and characters. I like pretty nearly everything about it.”

– David Lynch

 

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Art by Jae Lee.

1. The Dark Tower

And finally, we come to this…as if anything else could have taken the top spot.

This one has almost happened a number of times, but no one’s yet had the guts to pull the trigger, and it’s easy to understand why.  Stephen King’s enormous, seven book fantasy/horror/sci-fi epic, the Dark Tower series has the potential to be the next huge Hollywood franchise – but if it isn’t done absolutely perfectly, it could also be the next devastating flop.

The series is Stephen King’s magnum opus, his great epic, and it not only ties together all of his work – from The Stand  to Salem’s Lot – but it also manages to reference such diverse sources as The Wizard of Oz, Doctor Doom and Harry Potter.  It’s an undertaking that would intimidate any filmmaker.  It has all of the potential to be the next Lord of the Rings, if the producers play their cards right.

If.  That’s the key word: if. The Dark Tower is a series that they really, really can’t afford to mess up, so the fact that everyone in Hollywood is stepping very carefully around is honestly a very good sign.

I’m sure it’ll happen someday.  It might be five years from now, or ten, but I have no doubt that at some point we’ll see Roland chasing the man in black through the desert.  It’s just a question of when that happens…and really, if we want to see the magnificent adaptation that these books deserve, let’s hope they don’t rush it.

 

So, there’s my attempt at numbering reality.  Thoughts?  comments?  Your own highly subjective top ten lists?  Fire away!

-Nicholas Conley

Why David Lynch’s “Dumbland” is Smarter than it Looks

I’ll admit, about two minutes into Dumbland—the 2002 web series/”cartoon” by David Lynch—I almost turned it off.

Of course, I was already wary of the series before even starting; it’s a bit difficult to watch something with a ridiculous title like “Dumbland” without at least some trepidation.  I mean, Dumbland?  Seriously?

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However, I’ve always been fascinated by the work of Dumbland creator David Lynch, as I stated in my coffee blog.  From Eraserhead to The Straight Story, Lynch is a remarkably unique filmmaker; his meditative, Dada-influenced approach to films is compellingly absurd, and his work—while often highly uncomfortable to watch—has a way of carving a permanent scar upon the viewer’s subconscious, branding the viewer’s memories in a way that resembles the lingering discomfort we experience after an especially bad nightmare.  In fact, Lynch’s films operate much on the same level as a nightmare; his perverse creations seem laughable at first glance, but the actual experience of watching those creations is inexplicably disturbing.

Though some might resist labeling Lynch’s work as “horror,” Lynch’s twisted sensibilities get right to the essence of what horror is supposed to be.  His films are frightening.  They’re unnerving.  They make the viewer uncomfortable, sometimes for days on end.  While many horror films might give you a couple jump scares, Lynch’s horror is the kind that never leaves you.

As an artist, I admire Lynch.  I admire his approach, his unflinching honesty, his darkly sincere voice.

So despite my apprehensions—and despite my immediate disdain for “Randy,” the unlikable main character—I  gave Dumbland a chance.   I stuck it out.  I stuck it out through all of the coarseness, all of the crude animation, all of the nauseating repetition, all of the (seemingly) exploitative profanity…and in the end, I was surprised to realize that despite its crudity, Dumbland proved to be a highly worthwhile viewing experience.

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Watching Dumbland certainly isn’t enjoyable, but that’s the entire point; Dumbland is a razor-sharp, darkly satirical commentary on the perversity of contemporary suburbia.  It’s a critique of Western culture.  A critique so harsh and so relentlessly vicious that it would make South Park blush—and it gets away with all of this by carefully cloaking itself in the masterful disguise of “just another stupid internet cartoon.”

“It is of course, however, no surprise that most critics –ranging from Lynch cult fans to structuralist cinephiles– totally miss the point of the series’ much necessary raison d’être. While structuralists attack the “crudeness” and alleged “pointlessness” of the series, using the infamous accusation of “weirdness for weirdness’ sake,” supposed Lynch fans simply relish in that alleged “reasonless weirdness,” without care or respect to any sort of real artistry or social commentary. Both camps of critical reception seem to be oblivious to the true brilliance and intensity at work here, and even more oblivious to the message, as well as Lynch’s origins: the Camus-inspired Theatre of the Absurd, the movements of Dada and Anti-Art, and the overall surrealism Lynch is perfecting, following of course in the footsteps of Buñuel and Dali. There is a lot of progression, sincerity, satire, and stark beauty in Lynch’s work –all of which impatiently ignored by critics, under the pretense of “incomprehensibility.””

– David Durnell, Sisyphus and Suburbia: A Contextual Study of David Lynch’s Dumbland

The “perversity of contemporary suburbia” is one of Lynch’s most recurring themes, especially in both Blue Velvet and Twin Peaks, but the quirky filmmaker has never tackled it in quite so scathing a manner as he does here. The setting of Dumbland‘s eight episodes is simple; in the armpit of suburbia there lives a bald, violent, idiotic man named Randy, who seemingly never leaves the confines of his front lawn.  As a result, Randy’s life is hopelessly boring.  He spends most of his time throwing around his son and wife; on the rare instances when “intruders” from the outside world enter Randy’s domain, he responds to them with violence.  The only exception to this is when his “friend” – a character resembling the cowboy from Mulholland Drive – comes over, and the two of them have a “friendly” conversation how much they enjoy hunting and killing things.

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The result of this is that even though Dumbland bombards the audience with a slew of irritating burp, fart and violence jokes – jokes which at first seem characteristic of a bad Adult Swim cartoon – it soon becomes clear that these “jokes” aren’t supposed to be funny.  Once the bleakness of Randy’s world becomes fully visible, Dumbland quickly becomes a terribly depressing, even nauseating series to watch.

Randy is hopelessly stupid.  He possesses no ambition, no drive and no motivation to improve himself. His attraction to violence is so great that, in the absence of victims, he even becomes violent toward himself.  Randy frequently hurts people.  He’s constantly confused, disoriented and angry.  He passively watches his child’s gums bleeding, torments his wife and generally shows little understanding of anything around him.  He abuses everyone near him, and is utterly oblivious to the damage he causes; in the world of Dumbland, it appears that Randy’s behavior  has been tolerated and accepted for so long that he sees nothing wrong with it.

His narcissism is best displayed in the episode “Get the Stick!”, when a nameless man choking on a stick in his mouth suddenly breaks into Randy’s yard.  At the desperate urging of his son, Randy tries to “help” the man – but instead of simply removing the stick or cutting it in half, he instead effectively pulverizes the man into oblivion, at which point the ruined man wanders into the road and is run over.  The only reply to this that Randy can muster up – his barbaric feelings on the horrible murder he’s just committed – is to be irritated, because in his words, “The fucker never even said thank you.”

But Randy, despite his ignorance, isn’t happy with his life; he’s intensely miserable, frustrated and angry, with no outlet to express his feelings other than his frequent acts of violence.  He’s a pathetic man, and the disturbing hopelessness of his character – and his isolation from the world surrounding him – demonstrates what Dumbland is really all about; when a doctor inspects Randy in the third episode, the doctor revealingly diagnoses the sociopathic man as being “perfectly normal.”

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Randy is symbolic of the overall infantilization of society.  He’s the gruesome portrait of a puerile, solipsistic contemporary man; a burping, farting, shallow character, a character who truly believes himself to be the center of the world.  His absurd fate at the end of the series – which is illustrated with Lynch’s usual unflinching eye toward the darker and more bizarre areas of our psyche – brings the series full circle, as Randy’s violent tendencies finally catch up to him.

I don’t believe that David Lynch is a cynic.  The giddy idealism buried within such movies as Blue Velvet is fairly evident, once one looks past the dark surface.  However, I do believe that Lynch is a creator who isn’t afraid to open up the most evil parts of his own mind and display them to the world, which is why much of his work is so uncomfortable; we recognize the truth in it.  Dumbland, despite its cartoony appearance, is possibly one of the darkest works that Lynch has ever created.  It’s certainly not the best introduction to Lynch – for that, I suggest something more like Blue Velvet or Mulholland Drive – but for those of us who already understand Lynch’s work, Dumbland is an absolute must-see.

-Nicholas Conley