Alien (1979)

Ash (Ian Holm), Ripley (Sigourney Weaver), Dallas (Tom Skerritt) and Kane (John Hurt) view a readout about the atmosphere of another planet. An “Alien” awaits.

Directed by Ridley Scott. Screenplay by Dan O’Bannon; story by Dan O’Bannon and Ronald Shusett. Produced by Gordon Carroll, David Giler, Walter Hill. Music by Jerry Goldsmith. Photographed by Derek Vanlint. Edited by Terry Rawlings, Peter Weatherley. Production designed by Michael Seymour. Starring Tom Skerritt, Sigourney Weaver, Veronica Cartwright, Harry Dean Stanton, John Hurt, Ian Holm.

There are several factors that make Ridley Scott’s Alien so masterful, but its most crucial ingredient is intelligence. It’s cerebral. It asks questions. Instead of following an impatient need to get to shock surprises, it values deliberation, expressing genuine curiosity for a ship and crew, the nuts and bolts of long-term space travel, the genuine eeriness of an extraterrestrial landscape, and the creature that is eventually found there. It observes specific people doing their jobs, and notes how that reveals things about them. Even after a threat is established, the crew tries desperately to stay collected: when panic finally takes control, we witness the professionalism slip away. This strategy of Alien, to depict characters reacting smartly to a mounting terror, is key. It treats the cast as more than props, and it raises the stakes: instead of being about morons who are picked off one by one, it is about clever people trying to deal with a crisis with the tools they have, the best they can.

What also makes Alien work is its tone—cool and a little detached (note the opening sequence, where the camera walks through spaces and literally waits for things to happen in them). It’s unromantic, placing it worlds away from Star Wars (1977) and more towards the area of 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and the “hard” science fiction of Joseph E. Campbell, where the heroes are scientists and realists that solve problems with cold logic rather than melodrama. When attacks occur, the moments are never oversold, as if the movie doesn’t care too much if everybody dies. And when considering the infinity of the cosmos, it barely matters if they do, a point which is underlined by long shots that heighten the characters’ insignificance. After one major sequence, the expected sentimentality is avoided: instead of grief, no one has anything to say. It even gives a voice for this clinical perspective with the character of Ash (Ian Holm), who says about the alien: “I admire it’s purity, it’s sense of survival; unclouded by conscience, remorse, or delusions of morality.” This is a point-of-view that the film sees as unfortunate, but not unsympathetic.

The result is a horror thriller with a curious pull. Some movies overtly try to draw you in, but Alien doesn’t really seem to care. That gives it a special flavor, since we end up being drawn in anyway. It borrows the aloof methodology enjoyed by Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) and some plot points from Howard Hawks’ The Thing From Another World (1951, based on a story by the aforementioned Campbell). But it raises these elements by adding an element of bafflement: not just towards the physiological make up of the alien creature, but also its origins. It appears to originate from a sophisticated culture, which makes its brutal behavior even more frightening; the dichotomy itself directly teases human comprehension, as if we do not deserve the answer to this paradox. As long as we’re piling on Alien’s obvious influences, let’s put at the top the work of horror-writer H.P. Lovecraft, who was not so much a great writer as he had great concepts he liked to write about, on the edge of human understanding. Certainly Alien’s central conceit, of an extraterrestrial creature who’s mere existence corrupts and destroys the humans it touches, would have made him smile. Yet the film is more than a compilation of references—it’s a skillful picture that frankly, deserved to start one of the most iconic horror franchises ever, regardless of the quality of that franchise itself.

Alien is frequently described as “truckers in space.” That’s not the plot, but it is the aesthetic: one of mercenary trade workers living in an adopted home. The opening scenes work hard, and yet appear effortless in how they ground the story in a realistic milieu: the Nostromo is a commercial vessel towing 20 million tons of mineral ore, and its seven crew members are awakened from hypersleep to groggily realize that they are not near Earth, but instead have been diverted to an unknown planet. The captain, Dallas (Tom Skerritt) consults with the shipboard computer, MOTHER, and learns they have been ordered by their employers (“The Company”) to investigate a mysterious signal that may indicate an alien intelligence. The crew cares not a whit about the signal, or aliens, or anything but their incomplete, lengthy journey home. But the option to ignore the signal is dismissed when Ash, the science officer, stipulates in no uncertain terms that not obeying the order would cause a forfeiture of their shares. The dialogue in a lot of the early scenes is, frankly, standard. What makes it sparkle is the actors, who regard each other with familiarity but not camaraderie, and pepper their lines with hints of buried histories and past greivances. They feel like an actual working group of professionals, especially in the way they half-sell the pretense to each other that they work well together.

Their landing on the planet is a complex and nerve-wracking team effort, even with their experience. The planet itself harbors a violent storm and a disquieting terrain, and when Dallas, Lambert (Veronica Cartright) and Kane (John Hurt) venture out into the cold, they are dwarfed first by their own landing strut and later by the landscape itself, which is gray and craggy, like a boneyard. The particulars of the Nostromo’s endeavor are sold by little moments: the damage done to the ship by the landing, and the way the search party is isolated by interference that neutralizes radio contact. The first sign of a crashed (?) alien ship, which is massive. Then, the vast interior corridors which are dark, confusing, and don’t conform to any human sensibility. Back on the ship, the arbitrary class divide is referenced when Parker and Brett (Yaphett Koto, Harry Dean Stanton), the engineers, resent the presence of Ripley (Sigourney Weaver), who comes down to supervise their repairs before being distracted by the mission. Of the early passages, perhaps the most quietly unnerving moment is when Ripley decodes the mystery beacon as potentially a warning, not an SOS, and Ash rightly rebukes her attempt to go after the landing party, with fatalism: “What’s the point?” By the time she catches up with them, after all, they’ll know if it was a warning or not.

A different film would answer that question about the warning, and also try to explain the sight that greets them inside the alien ship, the skeleton of a massive “space jockey,” his chest pierced from within. The chest bit is explained, eventually (natch), but much of the story of the ship remains oblique; the film’s central mystery is pushed aside when the story becomes about survival: Kane, in his unsettling trip to the alien cargo bay, comes across a hold full of eggs, one of which opens to reveal a creature that attaches itself to Kane’s face. When they return to the ship, Ripley refuses to open the hatch, fearing a biological contagion. Again, smart. You’d think something like that is narratively pointless (they get in anyway), but it tells us a lot about Ripley: her authority, her ability to be cold. She doesn’t take it personally when Lambert accosts her, and her later confrontation with Ash about why he let the organism in is a matter of safety, not pride. She’s a good officer, and with what they’re up against, she will need to be.

Ash’s fascination with the creature is shown long before its commented upon; he’s frequently talking about it, analyzing it, rebuffing Ripley’s attempts to quarantine or destroy it when it finally detaches from Kane’s face. It is later suggested that he may have a buried motivation for his interest in the creature, but that explains his manipulations, not the intellectual thrill he seems to receive from it. How can one not be fascinated by an acid-blooded monster that inseminates a host through its mouth and causes the seed to briefly incubate into a tiny new life form, which emerges from the stomach of the victim with gruesome finality? Alien’s power to shock and disturb definitely grows organically from the way it depicts an alien that co-opts human biology with sex, leaving Kane to give birth to an evil…thing with a phallic head and tiny, clenched teeth dripping with mucus—the Freudian inspirations here are…undeniable, without even taking into account one character’s final appearance on screen is when a tentacle slithers up their pant leg. H.R. Giger, the alien’s creator, describes his monster as “the embodiment of the fear of rape,” and indeed the alien’s behavior plays on this fear by making the act gender-neutral, escalating it into a primal metaphor.

This becomes more apparent in the last hour of the film, When the alien, now fully grown. Even then, however, it keeps to the shadows. We never get a full look, instead getting just hints at its overall shape, or close-ups that don’t mollify our concerns about its viciousness. The film keeps its distance from the alien, sometimes out of fear, yes, but other times the camera seems to emanate a bit of awe and wonder—as if this is an event documented not by a human but by another intelligence that didn’t quite know how to feel about what is happening.

Characterizations are lean but not thin—the movie never resorts to unwelcome backstory, but refuses to cynically turn them all into ciphers. The screenplay is effective in how it views the characters as individuals: Dallas is a good captain but too trusting, Brett is monosyllabic and grim, and Parker is fun-loving and avaricious, which underlines the increase in tension when his smile finally fades. Cartright, as Lambert, is stuck with the role of the woman who crumbles under pressure, but this has value, too, as it reinforces the notion that these are normal people reacting to incalculable pressure. The scene that follows Dallas’ disappearance is today a little lesson about how to successfully graph a horror film: notice how each character reacts differently: Lambert despairingly, Ash silently, Parker with insubordination, and Ripley with a fraying sense of control.

The film is astonishingly well-made, utilizing ‘70’s-era lighting that evokes environs that run hot and cold: from the womblike computer room (of MOTHER) to the steely blues of the command center to the near-monochrome alien surface. The photography, by Derek Vanlint, captures details that flesh out the spaceship as lived-in: gas valves and steam, dirt and grit, fingerprints, and when the alien comes aboard, it sheds its own trail of slime and skin in its wake.  Scene after scene features arresting compositions, from the floodlights filling the thick fog of the alien world to the long takes that make the ship’s layout understandable. It’s one of those movies that is so good looking, it feels like its own portfolio of concept art, and you’re tempted, at times, to forget the story and watch it like a painting.

Jerry Goldsmith’s score is an interesting case. It works wonderfully in the movie—but then, much of it that was recorded was not used in the film: many were re-scored and several cues were actually replaced (or “tracked”) with Goldsmith’s music from different films. I’ve heard the Goldsmith music on album, and it’s terrific. But Ridley Scott and editor Terry Rawlings removed a good deal of it, and I can’t say they were wrong, because Goldsmith’s cues are intrusive and pushy—they insist on the tension rather than suggest it. Take his main title, for example, which originally was majestic and grand, and in the film is creepy, filled with obscure chattering and timid woodwinds. The film approach is better: more appropriate, more reflective. It doesn’t try too hard. The only time I think the film’s music selection fails is during the scene where the crew tracks the acidic alien blood eating through multiple decks of the ship–the music is too spritely and jarring.

There are a lot of strengths here, but the biggest is Weaver, as Ripley. It would be no surprise to first-time viewers of Alien that the story eventually boils down to being entirely hers—by making her the only survivor, she became the star of the franchise. Everybody knows this. What’s intriguing about the character is that it was decided after the script was written that Ripley would be a woman—all seven characters were conceived to be either gender, but by making the lead female, it shifted the direction of the story and, in my estimation, made it work: there’s lovely irony in Kane, a man, being the one who gives birth and Ripley, a woman, being the most determined to destroy it. Ripley is prone to emotion, but not overly so, and Weaver’s performance possesses a commanding toughness that goes against the grain for horror films, where most of the time women are victims or sex objects. Even when Alien puts her in a t-shirt and panties, it’s done to make her vulnerable, not break the momentum with eye candy. Between her turn here and in the follow-up, Aliens (for which she got an Oscar nomination), Weaver cemented the ability of a woman to open an action picture, and has influenced the  pop-culture zeitgeist ever since, establishing a cottage industry of mainstream entertainments feature ass-kicking women. The Bride, Sarah Connor, Buffy Summers, Yu Shu Lien… All heirs to Ellen Ripley.

Ellen, of course is a name not mentioned in Alien—Ripley doesn’t get her first name until James Cameron’s Aliens (1986), which is a sequel that is plenty fun but not quite in the same league as the original. The series continued with David Fincher’s mean-spirited, modestly intriguing follow-up Alien³ (1991) before dribbling into irrelevancy with Jean Pierre-Jenuet’s misguided Alien Resurrection (1997). (The two Alien vs. Predator films are best ignored.) Even at its worst, however, the series holds a unique interest, because each entry bears a maker’s mark quite different from the others—no one would confuse Cameron’s feminist war parable with Fincher’s ode to nihilism, or Jenuet’s efforts to make a self-parodying medical shoot-em-up. Nor would any of those approaches be mistaken for what Ridley Scott does here, creating a creepy aura that favors mysteries and quiet contemplation. This approach recalls film school exercises where several directors are asked to shoot the same script—it becomes rather exhilarating to watch talented directors take the same material and put their own, unique spin on it.

For Ridley Scott, life would never be the same. Scott was 41 when he made Alien—in other words he was certainly a late bloomer, since this film jump-started his career (after his debut, the barely-noticed The Deulists). He would go on to be a prolific and valuable director, one of our most adventurous and smart, going on to direct the sci-fi classic Blade Runner, as well as Thelma and Louise, Matchstick Men, Black Hawk Down, American Gangster, and the intelligent Crusades epic Kingdom of Heaven. He has made weak films (Gladiator), and he has made bad films (Hannibal, Black Rain, 1492, Robin Hood), but even then he has never made a boring one, because he gives a subject his all. With Alien, his oft-criticized dispassionate directorial style is a perfect companion for this story, evoking not just the necessary fright, but also the awe, the nervousness, the loneliness of being adrift in a universe capable of springing surprises as nasty as the alien.

What is striking about Alien is that it hasn’t really dated. There’s a few effects shots that are no longer impressive, and its computer science these days looks no more an extension of our present than From the Earth to the Moon. But its scare strategies, its abilities to induce fear, are timeless. The approach and style are correct for the material, and the film savors craftsmanship: character development, plot, theme. History has shown that a bad horror film can still make a killing at the box office, but Scott wasn’t interested in that–he wanted to make a good one, and he did. Recent rumblings have stated that Scott is interested in going back to Alien, perhaps directing a prequel. I wish him the best. I just hope he has the good sense not to delve too deep in the buried mysteries of Alien, and even if he does I hope he has the good sense not to try to answer them. I don’t really wish to know where the space jockey came from, or the origin of the creatures, or any of that stuff. Some things man was not meant to know. Just fear.

NOTES: There are two versions of Alien, the 1979 theatrical cut and the 2003 in-name-only “director’s cut.” The director’s cut makes some unfortunate editing choices that sap the energy out of some of the suspense sequences and makes some unfortunate here-and-there cuts. It also adds a scene towards the end that gives more information on the alien biological process, adds more screen time for Tom Skerritt as Dallas, and answers Lambert’s earlier question of what happened to the alien ship’s crew. But it breaks up the momentum of the third act. I recommend the theatrical cut.

I give cursory attention here to the sexual undertones that permeate Alien. For more analysis, I recommend Tim Dirks’ detailed review of Alien at filmsite.org, and David McIntee’s book Beautiful Monsters: The Unofficial and Unauthorized Guide to the Alien and Predator Films (2005, Telos Publishing). Roger Ebert’s Great Movies review of Alien helped inform some of the research and discussion points for this review–I’d be remiss not to note it.


Battlefield Earth (2000)

Terl (John Travolta) tries to strangle Johnny "Goodboy" Tyler (Barry Pepper). Sadly, the director, screenwriter and crew were unharmed. "Battlefield Earth."

Directed by Roger Christian. Screenplay by Corey Mandell and J.D. Shapiro, based on the novel by L. Ron Hubbard. Produced by Jonathan D. Krane, Elie Samaha, John Travolta. Music by Elia Cmiral. Photographed by Giles Nuttgens. Edited by Robin Russell. Production designed by Patrick Tatopoulis. Starring John Travolta, Barry Pepper, Forest Whitaker, Kim Coates, Sabine Karsenti, Michael Byrne, Christian Tessier, Sylvain Landry, Richard Tyson.

“Never underestimate what a little leverage can do, rat brain.”

Where do we begin?

Simply put, Battlefield Earth is to sci-fi epics what the Hindenberg was to Zeppelin flights. It is appalling in its waste of resources, pathetic in its timidity of imagination, unpleasant to look at, and comprehensive in its utter badness. No one ever sets out to make a dreadful film, but Battlefield Earth feels surprisingly thorough in its rottenness, as if it was designed by some mysterious intelligence that hates science-fiction, hates epics, hates movies, hates life. To “enjoy” it, one must not only suspend disbelief, but also intelligence, as well as faith in art’s capacity to do anything of worth. The special effects are woefully inadequate, the dialogue witless, and the film tries to compensate for its flaws by slamming the viewer with jump cuts, inappropriate rattle-and-boom sound effects, and a rummy-dum-dum musical score that is the orchestral equivalent of pushing a synthesizer’s demo button.  The cinematography is not only strange, but hasty, as if the film is aware it keeps making the wrong decisions, and wants to cut away from them as quickly as possible. The lighting is putrid when it’s not drab, and it has more needless Dutch angles than an Amsterdam extra-credit geometry class. It has portentous lines like “Hope is an admirable quality, but causes aren’t.” What? Oh and there’s a quick cameo where Kelly Preston licks her husband, John Travolta, with a six-inch tongue. Yeah. I could go on (and will, for a little while) but the bottom line is this: Battlefield Earth is not a film that was made, it is an atrocity that was committed.

The movie is based on L. Ron Hubbard’s 1980 doorstop of a novel, which is a two-fisted ode to 50’s pulp fiction, pitched at a very very modest intelligence level. The movie is worse than in its inspiration, however, since Hubbard was a hack who strived to be great, while the filmmakers are incompetents who strive to be hacks. His story, which is about evil aliens who rule the Earth in the year 3000, and the dim-witted remaining humans who engineer an uprising, can possibly be decoded as an appeal to Hubbard’s religion of Scientology. It has a liberal sprinkling of cheesy space opera (reportedly heavily embraced in Scientology mythology) and hints at the organization’s detestation of mental therapy (the evil aliens are called “Psychlos,” after all…psychlo…psycho…psychi…psychiatry? Get it?!). However, tying it to Travolta’s…erm, controversial religion, is a bit of a dodge, because the film is bad on its own merits, and not because of obscure connections that would mark it a Scientology recruitment video. Playing devil’s advocate, however, it may be partially successful on that level, if only because prolonged exposure to Battlefield Earth will certainly cause a viewer to doubt the existence of their own God.

We’re dropped in right away, as we’re shown an unconvincing CGI model of planet Earth, which blends with live action thanks to a cheap Photoshop effect. The movie’s title goes Battlefield Earth, A Saga of the Year 3000, and then immediately another title comes up saying “Man is an endangered species.” Um…is that part of the title, too? Not sure. Confusing. This is minute one, folks. Yes, man is indeed an endangered species, living in tribes in mountain hideaways, wearing rags, and speaking in semi-refined English, as if the extras from Quest for Fire had unearthed an old VHS tape of Masterpiece Theater. Almost everything to be said about the acting and the story can be described in the opening scene, where the hero, Johnny “Goodboy” Tyler (Barry Pepper), returns home with some medicine and is told “The Gods took your father in the night.” Johnny clenches his teeth and squints, like he stubbed his toe, and then explodes in rage, throwing his medicine into the air and screaming, while the camera goes into slow-mo and the music swells with counterfeit angst. The father is never mentioned again. So much for him.

Johnny does a little dance for the tribe and then strikes out on his own, venturing into the post-apocalyptic ruins of Denver, which is not a very convincing set. Post-apocalyptic movies like The Road, 28 Days Later and 12 Monkeys have done it better. Hell, the original Twilight Zone did it better. Anyway, this is the point where Johnny is picked up by the Psychlos. Who are the Psychlos? I’m glad you asked, although you may not be. They’re humanoid aliens who clomp around in six-inch-heel boots, rubbery outfits, nasty nose-mounted breathing tubes, white pancake makeup, and dreadlocks that cause them to look like lesser cosplay entries at a Doctor Who convention. The Psychlos are big and loud and kind of stupid, none more so than the leader of security in Denver, Terl (John Travolta).

Travolta. Oh, how to best describe Travolta’s performance? Campy? Silly? Unconvincing? Embarrassing? Oh, that’s a strong contender. Jaw-dropping? Yes, there’s that. Tra-volting? Now I’m just being cute. Travolta, as an actor, is clearly in love with every choice he’s making, and every choice is dead wrong. He creates a mincing, fey despot that is intentionally hammy, combining with demonstrative hand gestures and rhythmic, flamboyant cadences. And then you get the cherry on top, a hint of an English accent, overall creating a portrayal that’s…semi-Shakespearean? Oh, dear. Yes, it’s a terrifically toxic ice cream sundae of performance art. When he screeches at underlings and throws insults at Johnny, the “stupid man-animal,” he’s not acting, he’s “acting,” as if the only way to play a villain is to exist at a right angle from this material. That’s odd, because, as both a Scientologist and enabler of this vanity project, it would be his job to take this totally seriously (if anyone could). Travolta just cannot do villains (see a somewhat similar turn in John Woo’s terrible action pic Broken Arrow). He undermines every action with obnoxious ticks, self-effacing little quirks to show he’s only kidding. Here, he’s saddled with alien dentures, glazed contact lenses, disgusting fingernails and a makeup team that seems to despise him. He looks ridiculous, sounds ridiculous, why does he not feel ridiculous? He does laugh a lot: a stereotypical, “villain”-style crow that would make even Snidely Whiplash ashamed. Really, on the scale of sci-fi threats, Terl ranks somewhere below Quark the Ferengi. Oh, and he also has a sidekick, Ker (Forest Whitaker), whom I will not reference outside of this very sentence, because Whitaker is a wonderful, Oscar-winning actor (see The Last King of Scotland) who has miraculously managed to survive this wreck, and I wish to assist him in keeping his presence in this mistake locked under key.

The Psychlos are, apparently, the most awesome and crafty aliens in the universe. (Citation needed.) They’re a race motivated by one thing: money—gold, specifically. There are long stretches in Battlefield Earth where Terl negotiates with banking clans and plots to locate more gold deposits…You know, gold that the Psychlos weren’t able to locate or mine with their “advanced technology” over the course of one thousand years. (Does the screenplay realize how long a thousand years is? I’m legitimately asking.) These bits try a little bizarre social satire on for size, positioning the Psychlos as a send-up of bureaucratic capitalism run amok. But these jokes are not funny, not one of them. Anyway, since Psychlos can’t breathe in the Terran atmosphere, they enslave Johnny and his fellow cavemen to mine the gold for them, after zapping Johnny with lots of knowledge thanks to a supercomputer. Oh, yeah, this will go well. Johnny, now that he has ideas in his head, starts to formulate a secret resistance against the alien overlords, using fighter planes and explosives, training his friends via an operating (?) flight simulator. Johnny’s plan is dependent on Terl being an idiot: instead of mining gold, he and his unsupervised (!) compatriots break into Fort Knox and supply Terl with smelted bars of gold (?!) instead of unrefined ore. Terl, along with the rest of the Psychlos, had no idea that the gold was there (?!?!), and thinks the humans, with no access to a refinery, a furnace, or even a hot stove, have made the gold ore into bricks overnight (?!?!?!). He’s not even a tad impressed by this, and still regards the humans as imbeciles ([?!]²) Think about how much sense this makes. Now imagine an entire film existing at this level, and you’ve got the hang of it.

That’s pretty much the plot; from that simple description, you can instantly understand everything that happens before it does, thanks to decades of watching extravagant adventure epics that also ape the Joseph Campbell model, all of which (even the ones I haven’t seen) I can state without question are better than this. It’s not that Battlefield Earth’s concepts are stale, it’s mainly the fact that they’re delivered with such bloodless, rote recitation. There’s a reason why stories with this general thrust (peon forms rebellion against tyrant) can move us, but not when they lack conviction. You know how, with wax paper and a crayon, you can make rubbings that loosely resemble real objects, but lack the realness and heft? Battlefield Earth is like a story that is 100% rubbings, as the film imports elements from Star Wars, Buck Rodgers, Top Gun, Planet of the Apes…oh, just name something vaguely action-pop-culturey, and it’s in here, all part of the same glorious nonsense stew. The way the film plays, the motivation for the audience to care is, apparently, none of our business.

A lot of these problems, of course, lie within Hubbard’s 1,000+ page book, only the first half of which is covered in the film. (Yep, the sequel potential was built-in from the start.) Hubbard reportedly wrote it as a deliberately old-fashioned ode to 1950’s dime-store science fiction. By making it deliberately flawed, you see, he could hide his deficiencies as a writer (this is often referred to as the “George Lucas Strategy”). Its story is so dumb, however, that even Robert A. Heinlein would have introduced it to the nearest wastebasket. The movie makes a few changes to Hubbard’s text, eliminating some of the didactic backstory about the evil psycholog—er, Psychlos, and toning down the racism (example: in the book, his effeminate, stereotypically Asian aliens are called “Chinkos,” because…because…because Hubbard was such a good person, that’s why). But then director Roger Christian got ahold of the material—Christian’s former claim to fame was a unit director on…wait for it…Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace. Between him and Travolta (who produced, and was apparently in the driver’s seat of this Pinto) they made a fearsome disaster. The story may be deeply stupid, but that doesn’t explain the really awful acting, or the wretched look of the film, which slathers on primary greens and blues with harsh, amateurish key lighting. Nor does it explain why Christian tilts almost every single shot, as if he thinks he’s remaking The Third Man. If it’s to help make the Psychlos look taller and more intimidating, why does that approach not even come close to working? The film’s overall cheapness can be explained, I think, since Franchise Pictures, the production company, was later indicted for fraud, having reported overinflated budgets on this and other films. Somewhere, Max Bialystock is smiling.

Films like Battlefield Earth are special things—they are cinematic near-death experiences that prompt one to re-examine their own critical impulses. It’s third act, a half-hearted attempt to recapture the hellzapoppin climax of Independence Day, only makes one think about the reasons why Independence Day (not a great film) is still better than this. It promotes a newfound respect in artists that perhaps fail, but mean well, and to reflect that there is a difference between them and those who attempt to manufacture filmic Ponzi schemes. And it engenders more thoughts. Thoughts like: when compiling lists of thoroughly terrible movies, why are so often many of them sci-fi films? And how did a bunch of guys previously living as cavemen manage to operate military planes in time for the big action climax?  And are we supposed to understand the reason why the planet Psychlo blows up at the end, and were any innocents killed? And if not, are we meant to assume every Psychlo in the universe is a bad guy, and if so, is that racist? And how many Star Wars rip-offs can fit into one movie, anyway? And what’s the most legally safe way that I can speculate on how exactly the book managed to reach the New York Times bestseller list? Enough. At some point, you should stop and move on. And please…avoid the really dangerous thoughts, like “Why isn’t there a colon in the title?” Absolutely no good will come from imagining a version of this movie that is even one jot longer.

GRADE: F – – (Two minuses. You heard me.)

NOTES: You can read co-screenwriter J.D. Shapiro’s apology for Battlefield Earth right here. To date, Travolta himself has failed to apologize. Also, if you’re intrigued by frightening levels of self-congratulatory delusion, you may wish to brave Roger Christian’s audio commentary on Warner Bros.’ DVD release, a back-patting post-disaster affair that claims the film is a misunderstood classic that will be vindicated by time, an epic that is so ambitious, it is even “Schindler’s List-like in places.”

And that is a direct quote.

PREVIOUS TIME PERIOD: 2007 – Gone Baby Gone

NEXT TIME PERIOD: 1964 – A Hard Day’s Night

A.I.: Artificial Intelligence (2001)

David (Haley Joel Osment) wants his mommy (not pictured) in “A.I.: Artificial Intelligence.”

Directed by Steven Spielberg. Screenplay by Steven Spielberg; screen story by Ian Watson, based on the short story “Supertoys Last All Summer Long” by Brian Aldiss. Music by John Williams. Photographed by Janusz Kaminski. Edited by Michael Kahn. Production designed by Rick Carter. Starring Haley Joel Osment, Frances O’Connor, Sam Robards, Jake Thomas, Jude Law, William Hurt.

There is a scene in Steven Spielberg’s A.I.: Artificial Intelligence that occurs at about the halfway mark–one that perhaps best illustrates the film’s uneasy command of its subject matter. A mechanical lifeform (or mecha) that looks and sounds exactly like a little boy is dragged into the middle of a “Flesh Fair,” where such creatures are destroyed on stage in a variety of imaginative ways, all before a large, cheering crowd. The boy, named David (Haley Joel Osment), is put under a vat of battery acid, and audience members are urged to make a lucky toss that will connect with a target, tip over the acid, and destroy David where he stands. A swarthy impresario (Brendan Gleeson) urges the audience not to be fooled by David’s appearance. But when David starts pleading for his life, the crowd turns inquisitive, then hostile, and after a pregnant pause, everyone in the cheap seats begins to throw things—not at poor David, but at the carny who dragged the “boy” on stage. The film posits that among the hundreds gathered to participate in an organized event that celebrates vicious cruelty towards machines, not a single one would reject David’s artifice and try to kill him on the spot. See, that’s the thing. I feel like someone would have.

Pessimistic? Maybe. But for me it signifies the chief disconnect between A.I.’s concepts and execution: sentimentality that frequently thwarts its own attempts to be probing. A.I., which tells the tale of a mecha gifted (or perhaps cursed) with the ability to feel permanent love in a world that hates and fears him, is filled with dazzling images and heady ideas, but its inability to fully engage with those same ideas makes it one of the most frustrating film experiences of the last decade. It crosses a lot of sub-genres (adventure, psychological thriller, sci-fi dystopia, quasi-religious allegory,  and even one or two horror elements) but it also cuts corners with how it approaches them.  Tonally, it veers all over the place, which would have been interesting. But the fuzzy-wuzzy throughline it suggests makes every single element feel trivial and disjointed. It’s maybe the kindest movie about a bleak future that you’ll ever see.

It is difficult to discuss A.I. without mentioning its history. Sooner or later, you start talking about the fact that it could have been made by Stanley Kubrick. A.I. is indeed the brainchild of Kubrick, based on a short story by Brian Aldiss, labored on for years, orphaned by Kubrick’s death in 1999. Steven Spielberg picked up the reins to finally bring this vision to the screen, and you can see on a superficial level why Spielberg, the most successful commercial director of our time, might have been the right choice for this material: its epic scope, sci-fi thrills, and blending of the fantastic and homespun fit him like a glove. It is in A.I.’s emotional center, however, that Spielberg missteps, because he bluntly enforces an empathy with his hero that is unwavering and unambiguous. The decision to make David a focal point is not an unsound one, but it is a challenge, and would have benefitted from Kubrick’s more clinical approach. Spielberg, on the other hand, loves too easily, and is unwilling to ask the big questions about David’s psychological makeup. Instead, he prefers to tell an inherently chilling story in the sweetest terms possible. David’s plot even elbows more poignant ones out of the way, which would be a fine approach for a film about emotional distance, but not one that presumes a sympathetic pull. If David is a being who is held captive by his own passions, then the movie should stand outside those feelings and examine them, not fall for them.

The film operates in four movements, the first of which makes some effort to underline the most unpleasant aspects of the premise.  We begin with Monica Swinton (Frances O’Connor), an middle-class housewife, grieving over her son Martin (Jake Thomas), who is stricken with an unknown illness and frozen in medical suspended animation. Her husband Henry (Sam Robards), desperate to shake Monica out of her reverie, agrees to house the robot David, who can be programmed to feel love, in what amounts to a glorified beta test. David, in his out-of-the-box programming, is inhumanly friendly, and peers into Monica’s daily routines with wide-eyed wonder. Monica is at first horrified (she screams at her husband, who seems to have his own problem with understanding human emotions), but she gradually comes to accept David in her household, leading to a remarkably acted scene where she “imprints” on David: speaking a string of code words that transform the dead-eyed little droid into a loving son. David’s face falls ever so slightly into something more recognizably human, and suddenly calls Monica “mommy,” which is answered by O’Connor’s finest acting moment in the movie: a flash of guilt swallowed up by hope.

There’s something very unnerving about a stranger treating you with familiarity, and David’s use of “mommy” in this sequence is more than a little creepy. But the movie misses the moment, and goes for warmth. Way too much of it. David is not human (let’s be clear about this), and while Monica may have asked what her husband was thinking in bringing David home, what is she thinking? The steps to her essentially adopting David are made rapid and murky, and when she activates his love program, we’re already thinking of the ramifications: how can David function as a child for them without aging, possessing no bodily functions, no opinions, or having a full range of emotions? That Monica is so desperate for a child that she will accept a false one is an interesting concept, pointing to a sense of self-destruction within her, but the scene is presented dripping in simple syrup. Is she even thinking about what might happen if Martin comes home?

Obviously not. Martin, of course, does return home, and the ensuing battle between the two children for parental affection is dampened by David’s lack of culpability: at every step he is made out to be a victim, which robs the narrative of desperately needed nuance. Dialogue references a more potentially complicated worldview, like when a regretful Henry speculates that if David knows how to love, “maybe he can learn to hate.” But aside from one moment towards the end, this seed of doubt is intended only to motivate Monica; after David is perceived to have intentionally hurt Martin, she abandons David alone in the woods, giving him a few desperate instructions to avoid being captured, and then speeding away, with a talking teddy bear named Teddy (voice of Jack Angel) as his only companion. It’s a striking scene, beautifully acted; but it’s also completely oversold by overbearing music and shot selections. The more it tells you how to feel, the more one rebels at how slanted and mawkish it is. Wouldn’t it be more complex if Monica’s decision was more defensible? I’m intrigued by the drama of a family that would essentially throw a child out with the trash, but this is the kind of movie that has to gloss over that point in order to preserve its own conventional narrative. There’s a word for that kind of thing: “flawed.”

We now open up the second (more episodic) portion of the film, where David wanders the woods in an attempt to win back his mother’s love by trying to find The Blue Fairy (he is a student of Pinnochio). He encounters a subculture of droids, and a human wasteland of filth clubs and robot abuse forums that can best be called “Philip K. Dickensian.” Here we get the Flesh Fair, and a sequence of mechas picking over the corpses of their comrades for spare parts, and a trip to Rouge City, capital of the sex trades. It looks like a futuristic Atlantic City, only with a bit more depravity. All very inventive, even if the sudden increase in scope sits ill at ease with the opening; they don’t quite feel part of the same world.

This section is also where David encounters Gigolo Joe (Jude Law), a sexbot framed for murder, who has a puerile understanding of women. David feels love, but Joe makes it, and together they form a curious pair. Jude Law is very good in the role, especially its physicality (note the exquisitely timed moment where he pauses to watch the star of a holographic commercial, and perfectly mimics his theatrical body language, or his little tap dance in the woods). But Joe only exists to give David someone worldly to talk to, and occasionally hijack control of the plot’s momentum (David is frequently relegated to a passive observer in his own journey). Joe’s not a character; he’s a device (literally); his set-up is far too lengthy, and his exit is unsatisfying.

Eventually, David’s quest brings him to face to face with his creator, Professor Hobby (William Hurt), who operates his company in the flooded ruins of Manhattan (would a major robotics firm still work out of such a place?). Hurt, a gifted and subtle actor, brings all the he can to a role that is never fully sketched in, because the movie is not about him, even though maybe it should have been (kind of like Monica). A grieving parent, he gave his dead son’s face to David, and hopes to fill thousands of homes with his model, which is more and more disturbing if you think about it. A.I.’s most edgy and daring material is found here, including the moment (alluded to earlier) where David finds dozens of copies of himself, and also attacks a functioning model out of jealous rage, so desperate for his mommy’s love. In the second half of the film, this is the rare moment that completely works, because it dares to address David’s desires as petty and small. He is broken, and this is effective. But this is also when, arguably, A.I. completely loses its way, because it doesn’t have the temerity to stick to its vision. So David tries to commit suicide, until he sees a statue of The Blue Fairy in the submerged Coney Island, so he goes down for a closer look, and his vehicle becomes trapped and…and…and…

Well. As I said, there’s a fourth portion here, which begins thousands of years in the future, when all humans are gone (only a robot could have an epilogue that exists thousands of years later, yet still feel an emotional continuity). An advanced group of supermechas, who look confusingly like aliens, find David encased in ice and create for him…well… What can be said is that this epilogue is played quite straight, creating a quantifiable catharisis…but the only way to truly accept it, I think, is to accept an ironic subtext, but that seems to fully go against the emotional cues we’re given. I would argue that the ending is an experiment conducted by the supermechas, and only “real” insomuch as it fulfills David’s needs in a way that reality could not, so perhaps it is real enough? But in this same ending, with its warm lighting and John Williams’ overbearing score, Spielberg again tips his hand into treacle. Instead of asking us to think, he distracts with a final downbeat that urges us to have a good cry. I don’t think that’s the correct approach.

A.I.: Artificial Intelligence (an ironic title, since the film ends up being about reaching a purely emotional truth) wants to be taken as a serious science fiction film, but is it? It does give us things to think about: the responsibility a creator has to his creations (biological and artificial), the question of what love really is, and the mental quandaries that people can feel when their loved ones are replaced by things. The evolution of self-awareness. The existence of the soul, and how that influences those who are built without one. The unattainable dreams that all creatures pursue. And that’s not even getting into the Freudian subtext of a boy who loves his mother and only his mother (speculation about the connection between Spielberg’s own broken home and this theme would go here, I guess–note that Henry never imprints on David). There’s a load of intriguing material here.

What harms A.I., unfortunately, is the fact that it is an intellectual puzzle presented by an emotional poet. I know that is not fair to either man, and I also do not know for a fact that Stanley Kubrick would have made a better film. But I think he would have made a more complex one, because he would have seen David as a subject, but not a hero, and would have given us a tour of his futuristic labyrinth without holding our hand. I also suspect Kubrick’s well-known cynicism would have been well-matched with his concepts, unlike Spielberg, who seems determined to find a white-bread bottom to the most disturbing imagery. And the four-part structure probably would have cohered better, because they potentially add up to a grimness that Spielberg is unwilling to embrace. Kubrick might have used the incidental human characters as a way to help illustrate the fall of man, but Spielberg’s direction is flat in this regard, and the apocalyptic elements come through only in dialogue. At every turn, the rough edges are discreetly sanded away; the more Spielberg tells us what to feel, the more we bristle at his conceit that there are easy answers in the world he has helped create. A lot of ideas are imagined, but they are free-standing, and don’t pay off. It feels facile.

And yet, I cannot dismiss A.I.: Artificial Intelligence. Its superficialities are mesmerizing: the special effects, now almost ten years old, still carry their weight, and they are perfectly married to Janusz Kaminski’s photography, which favors harsh backlighting and graniness. Together, they create, well…not “reality,” but a persuasive alternate reality. And although I feel the emphasis on emotions are a betrayal of the concept, the performances are exquisite, even when they’re let down by the script (the screenplay is by Spielberg, and writing dialogue is not his strong suit). It is always compelling, sometimes thrilling, and if it is no masterpiece, it is at the very least a fascinating failure. Or maybe it isn’t even a failure any more than it is a success; perhaps it’s neutral. Even if it is annoying that the film offers tantalizing ideas and then leaves you empty-handed, you can almost see that as Kubrick’s final wicked joke from the grave. Scientists, storytellers, God. All creators, and they giveth so much. And then they taketh away.

Grade: C

NEXT TIME PERIOD: 1927 – The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog

PREVIOUS TIME PERIOD: 1999 – Election

The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the Eighth Dimension (1984)

Buckaroo Banzai (Peter Weller) and the Hong Kong Cavaliers (various) assemble in "The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the Eighth Dimension."

Directed by W.D. Richter. Written by Earl Mac Rauch. Produced by Neil Canton, W.D. Richter. Photographed by Fred J. Koenekamp. Edited by George Bowers, Richard Marks. Production designed by J. Michael Riva. Music by Michael Boddicker. Starring Peter Weller, John Lithgow, Ellen Barkin, Jeff Goldblum, Christopher Lloyd, Lewis Smith, Rosalind Cash, Robert Ito, Pepe Serna, Ronald Lacey, Matt Clark, Clancy Brown, William Traylor, Carl Lumbly, Vincent Shiavelli, Dan Hedaya.

Yes, that’s really the title.

For a movie with the name that it does, The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the Eighth Dimension is curiously low on energy. There’s plenty of intended comedy, but it mostly falls flat. Its plot is confusing and unfocused, never really exciting. Scenes noodle around aimlessly, almost as if a lesson in studied irrelevancy. It can’t even muster the archness or attitude that one expects would be already built into material like this. Here is a movie that means to mash-up incomprehensible old serials and dime-comic heroism with a potentially sweet love story, and yet it doesn’t seem to care very much about serials, heroes, or even romance. You’d think something with a title like The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the Eighth Dimension would be bursting with creativity and self-confidence. It would have to, right? And yet it’s listless and uninspired. How weird.

Of course, weird is the name of the game with Buckaroo Banzai, and that’s not exactly where the flaw lies. It’s a charming idea: take a story that feels ripped from the shared universe of Saturday matinée serials,  30’s comic books, radio programs and dog-eared paperbacks, and overload them with plot and backstory cranked to 11, so that the whole experience makes one feel uncannily like they walked into the middle of something rather than it’s start. It’s like someone made a smoothie of twelve different ongoing plots. So far, so Star Wars. It sounds potentially fun.

But it isn’t. Like a lot of films that are meant to be throwbacks to earlier ages, Buckaroo Banzai makes the mistake of thinking that because its inspirations were carelessly slapped together, it can get by the same way. What makes movies like this work is when they homage the past in a style that is witty and fresh, not lazy. When they are affectionate to their sources, but not willing to copy their mistakes. To compare the two approaches, consider Steven Spielberg’s Raiders of the Lost Ark, which is a shallow whirligig of a movie experience—but it’s done so well, with such humor and love that it’s impossible to care. Now compare that to every scene in Buckaroo Banzai, which are stilted and routine. The whole thing is routine.

But I get ahead of myself. That’s okay, so does Buckaroo Banzai—it starts with a title scroll that is about three paragraphs and probably should have been twelve. Buckaroo (for that is indeed his name) is a kindred spirit to Doc Savage: a test pilot/adventurer/secret agent/troubleshooter/rock star/physicist/neurosurgeon/all-around superstar. That’s a lot of slashes, and he has a loyal cadre of adventurer buddies, the Hong Kong Cavaliers, that help in his experiments and generally hang on his every word. He lives in a world where his rocket car can turn into a multidimensional transport with just a few top secret modifications, and where a symposium on new technology can turn into a hostage negotiation with evil aliens desperate to possess his invention. He’s the kind of guy who, whenever he does something even mildly heroic, there’s always at least five or six civilians on hand to gather round, watch, and exclaim “It’s Buckaroo Banzai!” So, given all that, why is the guy so freakin’ boring? He’s played by Peter Weller, who adopts an act that is supposed to be James Bond-style cool, but comes across as disaffected and indifferent. I like the guy, I really do. But the world’s most charismatic man he is not.

Buckaroo’s villains involve the aforementioned aliens, who are known as the Red Lectroids. They were banished from their home planet into the never-never-land of the eighth dimension, until Dr. Emilio Lizardo (John Lithgow) staged a multi-dimensional experiment and got possessed by the leader of the aliens, Lord John Whorfin (all the aliens are named John, which is kind of funny). That was many years ago, and now some of the other Lectroids have infiltrated human society, under cover of an evil corporation called Yoyodyne Propulsion Systems: their ultimate plan is to use their brand-new “tri-wing bomber” to open a rift between dimensions, rescue their still-trapped comrades and return to their home planet and stage a coup. Probably wipe out Earth, too, since they generally look down on humans as “monkey boys.” You can never trust those aliens.

Sounds like enough? No, there’s more. I haven’t gotten a chance to mention Penny Priddy (Ellen Barkin), who is the twin sister of Buckaroo’s deceased wife (that’s not really treated like the miraculous thing that is is, which is kind of funny). That they engage in a romance probably goes without saying. Certainly the movie thinks so, because it barely ends up saying it. Also, there are Black Lectroids wandering around, and they eventually team up with Buckaroo Banzai to defeat the Red Lectroids, with some misunderstandings along the way. All of the Lectroids have human disguises: the black ones look like Rastafarians, and the red ones look like Caucasians, which is politically correct, I guess. Dr. Lizardo, by the way, has an utterly bizarre comic-book-style Italian accent (“History is-a made at-night. Character is-a-what you are in-thadark!”), which makes every line hilarious, or maybe “hilarious,” or perhaps unintentionally hilarious, or perhaps intentionally unintentionally hilarious. So it goes. Should I mention New Jersey (Jeff Goldblum), another neurosurgeon who joins the Cavaliers and is constantly dressed as a Roy Rodgers-style cowboy? Why? I don’t know why. How about the bizarre alien spore that attaches itself to Buckaroo’s rocket car? Or the scene where Lord Whorfin triggers a flashback for the audience by clasping jumper cables onto his skull? Oh, and did I mention that the main character’s name is Buckaroo Banzai?

You can kind of sense here that the plot is not really the point, and that’s fair enough. Banzai clearly tries to claim as its genre the twee sci-fi parody, trying to build a house in the same neighborhood as The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Red Dwarf, and others of that ilk. But the tone of the whole enterprise is curiously muted: you’re constantly expecting the wackiness to fully break loose, and it never really does. Weller does everything he can to play the role straight, and the Hong Kong Cavaliers seem curiously adrift: they’ve obviously been given quirky roles to play, and yet they never get a chance to really play them. It gets really unwieldy when there are seven main characters in the story, and yet none of them are allowed to have a point of view on anything; they’re distinctive only in the different costumes they wear. Even the songs, where Banzai is backed up by the Cavaliers, are strange: they’re not allowed to be ironic, or humorous, or good, or fun, or anything except a lengthy celebration of bad 80’s bar rock. It’s like they were desperate for screen time and thought “hell, let’s make him a musician, too.” It just fills up time with irrelevant sequences, and breaks the already-precarious momentum.

I see what they were trying for, and there are little elements that strike the perfect note: Barkin has good moments as the seriously confused Penny (who may or may not be brainwashed to kill Buckaroo). The story, which weaves in and out of actual history (such as the role of Orson Welles’ War of the Worlds broadcast in the alien invasion) is good for a chuckle.The cinematography celebrates the mid-80’s with its cheesy rock ballads, silly hair, goofy fashions rubbing elbows with nice suits, and inspirational power walks (most especially in the end credits, which is worth sticking around for and maybe the best part of the film). I like the little touches, such as closing titles promise a non-existant sequel: you get the feeling that this isn’t a movie so much as a privileged peek into a parallel universe, where Buckaroo Banzai is a thriving franchise. When the president of the US must make a fateful decision, he asks, in a Strangelovian way, for “the declaration of war – the short form!” And there’s something comfortingly zen about Buckaroo’s philosophy, which he encapsulates nicely when a bar crowd begins to make fun of a sobbing Penny: “Hey, hey. Don’t be mean. Because remember, no matter where you go…there you are.”

But it’s all very lightweight, and it never rotates its campy story into true satire, or at the very least, cheerful schlock.  No one goes to a movie called The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the Eighth Dimension for deep insights, but how about some sheer fun? With its cartoonish, unthreatening villains and heroes who barely seem to care, very little seems to ever be at stake, even when the screenplay is making portentous statements about the end of the world. The last line of Buckaroo Banzai is “so what? Big deal,” and that’s a rather appropriate (if unintentional) summary.

There’s a lesson, here, I think. Pop-culture pastiches need to have drive and direction just like any other film. You can’t get by on just a concept, it eventually comes across as smug and cheap. I would enjoy nothing better than to experience another, different adventure set in the Banzai universe, where the story is more enjoyable, the cast is better utilized, and the audience exits feeling giddy and punch-drunk rather than just confused. I can think of no better way to end a statement about  The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the Eighth Dimension than to say that it just doesn’t inspire much to talk about except for its title, which is rather disappointing. Buckaroo may believe that “no matter where you go, there you are,” but in this case I prefer the thoughts of Gertrude Stein: “There’s no ‘there’ there.”

GRADE: C-

NEXT TIME PERIOD: 1940 – His Girl Friday

PREVIOUS TIME PERIOD: 1938 – The Adventures of Robin Hood

Le Voyage Dans La Lune [A Trip to the Moon] (1902)

A cast-iron cannon gives six explorers the adventure of a lifetime in "A Trip to the Moon."

Produced, edited and directed by Georges Méliès. Written by Georges Méliès and Gaston Méliès. Photographed by Michaut Lucien Tainguy. Starring Victor André, Bleuette Bernon, Brunnet, Jeanne d’Alcy, Henri Delannoy, Depierre, Farjaut, Kelm, Georges Méliès.

In a sense, the most curious aspect of Georges Méliès’ A Trip to the Moon is that it speaks to the modern age more than one would expect. Has it aged? Of course, especially in its uneasy usage of new-fangled “editing” and primitive “effects.” Yet it is contemporary, even downright familiar in certain respects. Its primary purpose: to be straightforward and entertaining. No thought required. It’s less of a story and more a collection of sensational set pieces: the launch of a huge missile, the exploration of an eerie lunar terrain, and a visit to an alien fortress populated by spiteful monsters. Character development is downplayed. Its depth is thimble-sized. Any substance that can be gleaned from it is mostly unintentional. All it wants is to be a fun novelty, and exhibit an amazing adventure. It gets the job done, and does it in less than fifteen minutes. There’s a lesson in that, I think.

The film does require some perspective, though. In an era where computers are capable of doing so much heavy lifting in conveying the fantastic, one must constantly seek out reminders that A Trip to the Moon’s pervasive special effects were, at the time, cutting-edge. Though modern audiences may well snicker at the obviously painted backdrops, clunky transitions and stubbornly motionless camera set-ups, when the film first premiered, audiences were thrilled out of their minds. If you’re really looking, you can even see why: accepting the film on its own terms, it works a curious spell. Because A Trip to the Moon is silent, it enforces a dreamlike quality on itself that the stylized backdrops and effects add to, even during “normal” scenes set on Earth (notice the exaggerated perspectives of the science hall in the first scene). These choices can not quite be deemed realistic, but they create a seductive…well, alternate reality, I suppose.

Of course, running counter to reality is the name of the game in A Trip to the Moon, which ultimately takes such delight in imagining flights of fancy that it seems a churlish act to make notes. Notes such as: how could you actually get a capsule to the moon by shooting it out of a giant gun? Plus, the moon has no atmosphere, which would make living conditions for either friend or foe rather difficult. Also, jumping off a cliff while on the moon will most likely not send you plummeting down back to the surface of the Earth. In addition, I can do some research later, but I’m fairly certain scientists and thinkers of the time didn’t show up to work every day dressed in pointy caps and wizard gowns, as Méliès depicts. And so on.

But, cataloging those “mistakes,” or even arguing about whether or not they are mistakes (rather than conscious choices), is beside the point. Instead of taking it to task for what it doesn’t do, let’s remember what it did. A Trip to the Moon is a series of firsts: one of the first fiction films, first adventure film, first sci-fi film. Méliès’ tale owes much to Victorian-era adventure novels, as well as the sub-genre now labeled as “steampunk” (that is: adventure tales that exist in a somewhat alternate technological universe). It is also specifically indebted to two novels from the period: “From the Earth to the Moon” (1865) by Jules Verne and “The First Men in the Moon” (1901) by H.G. Welles, combining the mode of conveyance from the first with the alien civilization encountered in the second. Before you complain that these two books are uncredited as inspirations—therefore, rip-off!—please know that there are absolutely no credits in the film, to anyone, anywhere. Somewhere, agents are having panic attacks.

The film opens with a committee of scientists led by Prof. Barbenfouillis (Méliès himself), who proposes…you guessed it, a trip to the moon. They will cast a giant pistol out of iron, load a space capsule shaped like a bullet, climb inside, and launch themselves straight to the moon’s surface. Yup. In order to map out their journey, he helpfully draws a diagram of the Earth, the moon and the space capsule on the chalkboard (not to scale). When one of his peers, not without reason, suggests that he is mad to come up with such a goofy plan, the rest of the room shouts him down before hurling papers at him. Realistic? Um, no. But it’s fun. The unnamed dissenter is the sole instance, as it stands, of real individuality in the entire film: for the rest of the narrative, the scientists will more or less operate together as one mind during their exploits, since at this point the close-up is an innovation not quite discovered. Therefore, if you haven’t seen the film, just imagine that every frame is a long shot of six 40-something bearded white men scampering about, and you’re in the ballpark.

With everyone now committed to the Barbenfouillis’ folly, the group takes a trip to his outdoor factory, as carpenters, upholsterers, metallurgists and others work hard to put the finishing touches on the giant space capsule. Well…relatively giant. It’s about the size of six men, which is awfully convenient, because that’s exactly the number of people who will end up going. As they climb up to the roof of the building to watch the laborers cast the giant cannon, we get an extraordinary view of the foundry. Dozens of smokestacks, all working in concert, belch gas high into the air as the molten iron is poured; a landscape of industry and harsh metal stretches as far as the eye can see. All this, dedicated to the great goal of sending a man to the moon. It is uncanny at conveying the emotional heft of the enterprise: the optimism brought on by the industrial age, reflected by the exuberance of the men, is so powerful that one can’t help but feel a little stirred.

Later on. You’d think it’d be weeks or months, but as far as the film’s concerned, it is as if it’s that very afternoon. The six men pile into the tiny projectile, wearing suits and topcoats, carrying umbrellas, bringing no supplies or provisions. They neglect to even pack a lunch. Then comes a shot that is, really, really nice. A little window in the clouds has parted to provide a picaresque view of the moon, and so the giant cannon is aimed towards that window, its shaft extending towards infinity, as man explosively enters this new age of exploration. The image has more than a few Freudian implications, made more explicit by the puffy cloud cover in the sky, peeling away to provide a perfect view of the target. Is it just me? Maybe it is; I do apologize.

Next comes the famous moment. A man’s face slowly appears in the moon before getting a rude surprise in his eye (via a rather jerky jump-cut): it’s the space capsule, of course, sticking into the moon’s surface and causing him some mild irritation. Even when playing with brand-new toys, Méliès is able to kid himself, just a little: this “man in the moon” is never seen again, his presence just a for a quick gag. We then see the craft crash again to the surface, this time from a more grounded perspective. As soon as the men exit the pod, it sinks into the ground, eliciting no comment from the wily explorers; that’s more a conscious theatrical device than a huge nitpick. Tired from their journey, the men poke around the surface for a few moments before producing blankets and bedding down for a light snooze. Yes, a nap. On the moon. The men are certainly excited to be on the moon, but man, they’re beat. The image of six middle-aged gentlemen camping on the surface of the moon is worth the price of admission all by itself (though…you can see the film for free). Before long, the men are fast asleep, dreaming of mischievous gods and goddesses, and women.

Mainly women. The sexual politics here are interesting, because female characters occupy a curious position in A Trip to the Moon: not dismissed, but certainly not part of the expedition, either. Women are assistants that present the leads with large extended telescopes during the opening sequence. (Hmm.) Later, the same women push the large projectile into the space cannon, breaking character and then waving to the camera after doing so, as if they just can’t help themselves from taking this “movie” they’re in not very seriously. Later still, the same women (perhaps–it’s difficult to be sure without credits) appear in dreams as twinkling stars who shrewishly admonish the men for their audacity in partaking in such a voyage. Women come across in the film generally as well-meaning, but timid, preoccupied with more domestic issues. Of course, in 1902 female scientists were uncommon, but not unheard of (see Marie Curie). The film’s own presumption is that daring risks in science are clearly a gentleman’s pursuit, and sometimes you wonder if this group of men took a trip off-planet just to “escape from the girls” for a bit, like a glorified version of having a guys’ night at the bar.

Of course, the men do not find peace of mind, they find fearsome aliens. After the god Phoebus casts a snowstorm on the foolish mortals (yes, a snowstorm), they venture down into the canyons below. There, a strange mushroom forest awaits, and they are soon beset by bizarre creatures that scurry about like acrobats. These are the Selenites. The men make no attempt to reason or even communicate with these creatures, which is kind of presumptuous. They also do not seem genuinely frightened, just excited (this reaction has become typical by this point). They immediately swat at the aliens with their umbrellas, making them dissipate into puffs of smoke like video game targets. The Selenites are generally regarded by the explorers as sub-human, an implication that is made explicit when the group is captured and brought before the king. Barbenfoullis grabs the proud monarch and throws him to the ground before giving him a good thwack with the umbrella. Poof! Not a king to linger on in the Selenite history books, I think. The whole sequence is over with quickly, but it plays today like a strange, quick parody of French Imperialism: when in doubt, attack the indigenous and kill their king. Even in unenlightened times, it’s hard to imagine that regicide was an accepted diplomatic strategy. It just makes things inconvenient.

The murder of their king angers the Selenites, which is perhaps understandable. A merry chase ensues, as the scientists run back to their pod, which has conveniently rematerialized above a jagged cliff. They struggle to push the pod over the cliff and return to the Earth: here we see the ancient horror cliché of “the car won’t start” given its first cinematic usage. With the aliens gaining on them, one scientist hoists himself down below the pod using a tiny tether, and uses his weight to pull it over. A lone Selenite manages to climb aboard the back of the pod before it departs, and it falls down, down…into the Earth’s ocean. You would think that the heavy scientist is being set up for a heroic sacrifice, but he is not. Nor is the stowaway Selenite ever referred to again: did he turn to dust during re-entry? These set-ups don’t exactly have narrative payoffs. They simply raise the suspense, which is not an altogether unworthy goal. After one shot paying a visit to the ocean floor (again achieved with backdrops, creating an otherworldly effect), the scientists return home. Fin.

The film’s ending is indeed abrupt (a parade sequence as the scientists are celebrated for their achievement was shot, cut, and has now been restored to some prints), but for such a simple story, I think an extended denouement (or perhaps any) is unnecessary. Denouements are for morals, themes restated, lessons learned. None of that applies, and that’s fine. However, the fact that the story does not lend itself to such things is the exact reason why it must be counted as an important film, but not necessarily a great one: it’s not really about anything, except itself. It deploys a story to support interesting special effects, when the key to making something lasting, is of course to do it the other way around. Time marches on, storytelling has refined, effects have gotten better, and now the movie reveals itself as little more than a curiosity. That is not a hard criticism, because at least it tells its shallow story with brevity and some skill, which is something that many filmmakers would do well to remember. But still, it is shallow. Fun for the first time, but not exactly worth multiple visits. Of course, the sad irony is that these days, the public would be hard pressed not to say the same about the moon itself.

But at least we made reasonably sure that it is not full of evil Selenites.

GRADE: B

*

NOTES: More information on Le Voyage Dans La Lune can be found at IMDB, and you may also want to check Wikipedia if you bring a grain of salt. Tim Dirks’ page about the film on Filmsite.org is also worth a look.

Youtube also has a few videos up that may be of interest. First is the entire short film, with an added musical score by Erich Wolfgang Korngold and Laurence Rosenthal. Enterprising Youtubers have come up with their own enhancements to the film, such as this one, which dubs in an original techno/synth-pop score. It works curiously well. Also, check out the Smashing Pumpkins’ “Tonight, Tonight” music video from 1996, which takes inspiration from A Trip to the Moon.

For more information on why iron-based space travel never truly caught on, please visit http://www.nasa.gov.

NEXT TIME PERIOD: 1955 – Bad Day At Black Rock