Saturday, November 21, 2020

Stealth Science Fiction Movies Two: Electric Boogaloo (Will That Joke Ever Get Old? Never!): SF Movies That People Don’t Think of Immediately as SF Movies Because There Aren’t Any Kilbots or Xenomorphs or Wormholes or… [PART TWO of THREE]

Ivan in the Infinity Room:
science fiction has taken over real life.

This concept of mine was covered more in-depth last time, but in a nutshell, there is a notion in film appreciation that hasn’t been identified, or at least labeled and codified yet, what I call the
Stealth Science Fiction Film.

Some flicks, the minute you eyeball ’em, you know they’re sci-fi. Alien planets, or monsters, or intergalactic space federations. It’s obvious, whether the flick is high-brow (Arrival) or low-brow (Galaxy of Terror).

Others, not so much… It has to be pointed out that they are science fiction…. Last time, I noted how certain movies strongly avoided the SF label, as that was considered by the “cognoscenti” to be juvenile or indicative of base frivolity, and if you were making a serious dramatic film and wanted to be taken sincerely, letting your movie get called sci-fi might not actually help.

Last time we looked at these Stealth Sci-Fi Flicks:

Earthquake (1974)
Dr. No (1962)
The President’s Analyst (1967)
The China Syndrome (1979)
Seconds (1966)

Today, it will be a much more eclectic group, dealing less with the technocratic status quo and its disruptions—and how those disruptions are dealt with by agents of/within those systems (as all of the last entry’s film dealt with to some extent),

This is what Consensus Reality
is all about...

and more with lonely outsiders and how they must deal with the pressures from The Normals and their damnable, vicious Consensus Reality….

Each of this entry’s films is a stand-out, and all are quite political in their own ways. They are all worth seeing if you still haven’t yet.

The movies on today’s list haven’t avoided the SF label so much, as, if anything, they have been mislabeled, or simply overlooked as to belonging to the genre.

In alphabetical order:

Carrie (1976)
The Man in the White Suit (1951)
Punishment Park (1971)
Repo Man (1984)

*[Yeah, yeah, yeah… SPOILERS, dude.]*

Carrie (1976)

Directed by Brian De Palma
Produced by Paul Monash
Screenplay by Lawrence D. Cohen
Based on the novel by Stephen King

Science fiction has always crossed over into horror (from way before Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, and on since then), but due to the high religiosity that goes on in Carrie, mainly from Carrie’s mother’s bizarro Evangelicalism, overflowing with fire and brimstone (and an anti-sex bias so twisted and convoluted it seems to make the looney lady more lustful in her derangement), viewers may forget that the unfortunate Carrie White (a heartbreaking and Oscar-nominated Sissy Spacek) has been given (blessed and cursed with) telepathic powers. (And don’t blame Stephen King! On page two of the paperback, he used the word “telekinesis.”)

In the insular world of the film, they speak of her ability in supernatural and occult terms, but that’s only their narrow religious interpretation of a scientific phenomenon. Telepathy is science fiction. Just like Alien is horror and SF, and so is Carrie. Events are put into motion as the bullied and picked-upon Carrie achieves puberty, and her powers grow stronger—and more tied to her increasingly volatile emotions.

In a sense, it’s the flipside to The Exorcist, which took a clinical, somewhat documentarian look at a supernatural phenomenon, especially the early and middle sequences of Friedkin’s blockbuster, like Regan’s spinal tap. Carrie instead goes big with the drama and heightened theatrics. In The Exorcist, people tried to be as rational and logical as possible—until they had nowhere else to turn; in Carrie, there are EMOTIONS spilling all over the place.

The "stinger" in
John Boorman's

According to a DVD director’s commentary (not sure on which edition), De Palma set out to make a “tragic opera,” and it’s with that template that he manages to make Carrie so memorable and heartbreaking (and terrifying, actually—even if its “stinger ending” and coda is a swipe from Boorman’s Deliverance). Which is for the best; when De Palma tries with the obvious SF elements (like The Fury or Mission to Mars), he tends to out-Kubrick Kubrick in the “coldness” department, and Carrie didn’t need that.

When De Palma uses his “tricks” in Carrie, like the split-screen, it’s effective because we care that Carrie’s been emotionally hurt in such a vicious manner, and we want to join her in absolute and total revenge. For me, the split-screen during Carrie’s retaliation at the prom is also a wonderful evocation of how a telepath might be aware of everything in its arena, as they scan and manipulate the surroundings, choosing respective victims and weapons. A great use of a simple optical effect.

In Stephen King’s 1974 epistolary novel, the tortured girl—who is described in the book as being morbidly obese, with a galloping case of teen acne—doesn’t just burn down the high school dance: After the prom goes south, Carrie White really rains hell on her sleepy Maine village. She telepathically opens all gas mains and fuel pumps, while setting fires everywhere, and the whole place is an exploding inferno, with a death toll in the hundreds.

Budget restraints prevented De Palma from staging such an epic conflagration, but large-scale pyrotechnics before Carrie’s ultimate confrontation with her unbalanced mother would steal the dramatic thunder those moments demand.

But if you are interested in seeing an approximation what Carrie’s small-town apocalypse might be like, check out the climax of the 1982 Sylvester Stallone movie First Blood for the scenes of Rambo shooting up the backwoods hick town. When King taught college-level creative writing, David Morrell’s novel First Blood (1972) was one of his textbooks, and in the penultimate scenes of Carrie, there’s a vengeance-driven Armageddon very similar in content, placement, and pace to that in Morrell’s work. It’s King’s first novel, so he’s allowed to “appropriate” some material…. 

What’s interesting to me as a movie geek is how the cinematic versions of both First Blood and Carrie severely tone down their “Massacres in Mayberry,” but for completely different reasons: Carrie’s was budgetary, as discussed above. But in the novel First Blood, the character of Rambo is a PTSD-deranged maniac who kills many, many people, some quite ruthlessly, with a cop gutted with a straight razor at one point. A gorehound’s delight (and I deffo prefer the book over the movie), First Blood racks up a high body count, with Rambo exceptionally bloodthirsty in how he pushes back—but that’s only in the book. Stallone wanted the character to be much, much, much more sympathetic, and in the film only kills one man, and that’s accidentally, and otherwise only wrecks property, staying a “good boy scout.” Yawn.

FUN FACT: Did you know that Carrie and Star Wars shared their casting sessions? Some of the actors who appeared in one, actually auditioned for the other. Imagine P.J. Soles as Princes Leia, or Carrie Fisher as one of the bratty nymphets screeching, “Plug it up! Plug it up!”
George Lucas and De Palma were pals, and it was De Palma and screenwriter Jay Cocks who edited, revised, and rewrote the opening crawl for Star Wars ’77 after the crawl in the rough cut was an info-dump snooze.

[And I have no idea why blogger is messing with my fonts... I gotta check on this....]

The Man in the White Suit (1951)

Directed by Alexander Mackendrick
Produced by Michael Balcon (for Ealing Studios)
Screenplay by Roger MacDougall, John Dighton, and Alexander Mackendrick
Based on a play by Roger MacDougall

A chemist (a charmingly determined—if not truculent—Alec Guinness) invents a new artificial fabric that is indestructible and never needs laundering. It’s something that could help millions of people globally—except the factory workers and factory owners who would be out of jobs and profits, respectively, and all the other people who would be negatively impacted by this disruptive new invention (shopkeepers, distributors, soap manufacturers, producers of cotton and wool, all the people who work for them, et cetera). All potentially impacted participants that are aware of the situation put aside their socio-economic differences to squelch Guinness and his egalitarian invention, but the wily scientist gives them the slip and goes on the run, despite every hand against him….

The Lady in the
White Latex Dress

Viewers remember the film’s sharp socio-economic satire more than the SF elements, and really, that is what’s important, and what makes the movie such a classic. A witty, literate, and socially aware script brought to life by some of Britain’s top thesps, guided by a brilliant and incisive director—if The Man in the White Suit isn’t in heavy rotation on TCM, it should be.

But a glowing, man-made fabric that never gets dirty or wears out is definitely a SF plot, and great SF storytelling always looks beyond the superficial joys of a new piece of technology and towards how that new tech will potentially change our lives, for better or worse, and sometimes those changes even arrive in unexpected ways—just as The Man in the White Suit shows. (Great soundtrack, too, by the way.)

Punishment Park (1971)

Directed & written by Peter Watkins
Produced by Susan Martin

Continuing with another film that uses SF as a lens to examine contemporary issues, 1971’s Punishment Park is a grueling piece of agitprop looking at a right-wing overreaction to anti-war activists.

Set NOW (circa 1970), but in an alternate reality where Nixon has invoked ultra-draconian anti-sedition laws, with leftists, hippies, and protestors being shipped en masse to “judgement camps” like Punishment Park.

Now, stuff like that happened (COINTELPRO, anyone?)—but what’s science fictional here is how the volume is turned up to “11.”

At Punishment Park, everybody is found guilty—and even if your crime was simply to protest the war—the penalty is either 20 years in prison, or trying to make it through the park: crossing 50 miles of hot, forbidding desert with no food, water, or shade in three days to reach an American flag, signaling freedom. The thing is, you’re being chased by heavily armed state police and national guardsmen in radio-equipped jeeps and patrol cars.

None of the convicted detainees chooses prison, however, provoking the asking of the question, is this purely dramatic license; or, insanity—do they all think they can survive this sort of unholy endurance test? Or, is it indicative that life in the Nixonian slaughterhouse is so rotten and hopeless that choices have been boiled down to death or freedom?

Punishment Park may sound similar to such science fiction “fight for your life” movies as Battle Royale, Turkey Shoot, or The Hunger Games, but it’s infinitely more gut-wrenching and worrying because it could have happened—and still might.

There’s nothing “fantastic” in the film, no laser rifles or special tracking devices: It’s heavily-armed policemen (and the scene where the sheriff demonstrates the police pump-shotgun is chilling) hunting unarmed civilians, and the starkest example of Philip K. Dick’s Black Iron Prison possible. As this faux-documentary unspools, the level of tension keeps grinding higher and higher, until all nerves are fraught, and the cops’ trigger-fingers are getting very itchy….

(If you want to put Punishment Park in a specific genre, try “Savage Cinema,” those harsh movies where the human identity is reduced to meat, and base savagery is the only path, like Soldier Blue, Straw Dogs or The Last House on the Left.)

In light of…well, everything that’s been going on in this country, as far as I’m concerned, Punishment Park makes more sense than ever, and I thank all that’s holy that it is science fiction—and pray it stays that way.

Repo Man (1984)

Directed & written by Alex Cox
Produced by Jonathan Wacks & Peter McCarthy

Starting with the scorching theme by Iggy Pop, a perfect collection of Punk Rock songs accompanies this “always intense” tale of a disaffected, angry juvenile delinquent, who, along with auto repo men, revolutionaries, cultists, secret government agents, and other assorted obsessives, chase after and clash over a most peculiar car. 

Many critics have noted that the milieu of
Repo Man is one where it feels like the apocalypse has already happened—the bombs have already dropped, and everything’s falling apart—and it’s one where alien corpses thawing out in the trunk of a 1964 Chevy Malibu doesn’t seem that uncommon, really.

The kissing cousin to the “Big Whatsit” in the suitcase in Robert Aldrich’s classic Kiss Me Deadly (1955; another sort-of stealth sci-fi flick), the trunk of this ’64 Malibu is something that if you’re hapless or stupid enough to open, ZAP: You’re vaporized via animation that’s almost a tribute to the human-disintegration scene from 1953’s The War of the Worlds, where you see the unfortunate victim glow, then we see their skeleton inside the glow, then they’re gone. (But more likely, it’s a reference to the then-recently aired The Day After (1983), where nuclear annihilation is rendered as being as instantaneous and colorful—and as essentially harmless (at least, on a subconscious level)—as a 1950s sci-fi epic.)

Regarding vaporization: I do love how the shoes remain in Repo Man, smoldering and smoking on the ground, like the aliens couldn’t even be bothered to disintegrate the whole body—
and I would squeal in childish glee if that little touch was itself a reference/shout-out to a similar scene in John Wayne’s ultra-hawkish, obscenely stereotypical, pro-war propaganda flick The Green Berets (1968—it was the height of the war, and y’know what? This movie was a smash hit): A Special Forces soldier gets obliterated by a mortar, and after the flash, all that’s left on the ground is one of the poor G.I.’s jungle boots, sputtering sparks and dry-ice smoke. Ewwwww!
[In high school, I wrote an essay about that particular scene in The Green Berets, and how it made me laugh my ass off (especially David Janssen’s frantic screams of “Where is he?!? Where is he?!?”) but I didn’t understand why it made me laugh so much—until my professor at the time, the great Christopher Woodman, told me that what I had discovered was “Camp” (as in, the Susan Sontag kind). Dude, I was psyched!]

Repo Man
opens on the worst day in the life of punk rocker Otto—he gets fired, catches his girlfriend in bed with his best friend, and is financially betrayed by his useless baby boomer parents—and we follow him as he is tricked into working as an automobile repossessor, a repo man. Basically, a legal car thief.

This is an exciting, fun movie—with good car chases even! Shot by expert German cinematographer Robby Mueller, the film also has a great “L.A. vibe,” using the uncommon locations well, and familiar locations, like the Los Angeles River, expertly. Caustically hilarious, and thoroughly anti-authoritarian in its social commentary, the movie is a perfect showcase for comedy “call-backs” (“Plate of shrimp…”), as well as interconnected storylines. It’s as if the densely-packed and character-driven script had been workshopped via an improvisational comedy method, like “The Harold.”

The film is energetic, almost hyperactive, but thankfully never “zany.” Akin to some of the best Punk Rock, Repo Man is a combination of genres—Youth Picture, L.A. Neo-Noir (think Walter Hill’s excellent The Driver), Costa-Gavras-style Conspiracy Thriller—but all through the comedic lens that an outsider’s perception brings. Otto is the film’s outsider, but so was writer-director Cox: a left-wing Englishman living in very Republican (Clockwork) Orange County. 

Consider another top-shelf example of a Punk Rock Movie, Dan O’Bannon’s insanely delightful The Return of the Living Dead (like Repo Man, released in 1984, dead center in the Reagan reign): This flick combines Youth Picture, Horror, Conspiracy, and ups the ante by introducing two serious mindfucks—that the original The Night of the Living Dead was based on a true story (?!?), and that zombies are immune to headshots. In fact, a major plot point is that absolutely nothing kills them. That’s very punk rock. (Similar to Repo Man, The Return of the Living Dead also has a fantastic soundtrack; dripping with more ghoulishly-flavored tunes, though, than Repo’s more hardcore playlist.)

Like The Return of the Living Dead, Repo Man is lightning in a bottle that has been impossible for anyone to replicate, and something Alex Cox has unfortunately never really recaptured after Sid & Nancy. (And WHERE is Cox’s adaptation of Harry Harrison’s hilarious Bill, the Galactic Hero anyway?) 

This picture isn’t a sci-fi flick at first glance, it’s a Punk Rock movie, perhaps the greatest ever. But Punk and sci-fi have always enjoyed each other’s company, and it is that goofy UFOs/Roswell element—capped by the Chevy Malibu’sultimate leap into hyperspace{And isn't it positively Lovecraftian how the decomposing aliens have infected the auto with their radiation?}that makes Repo Man really Punk and not just Social Protest at High Volume. 

Next Time:

You do know those movies about potential DOOMSDAYS are sci-fi, right?


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