Movie of the Month: Strange Days (1995)

Every month one of us makes the rest of the crew watch a movie they’ve never seen before and we discuss it afterwards. This month Brandon made Hanna, Boomer, and Britnee watch Strange Days (1995).

Brandon: Long before she was routinely churning out Oscar Buzz dramas about wartime brutality, Kathryn Bigelow had a much more exciting, subversive career as a genre film auteur. Her early catalog of slickly stylized, darkly brooding genre pictures was a fitting evolution from her educational background as a painter, providing her a sturdy canvas for bold visions with evocative themes. The problem was that no one seemed to give a shit. Bigelow scored a surprise hit with the X-treme Sports bromance thriller Point Break, but it was an anomaly among her other underseen, money-losing experiments in stylized genre filmmaking: her 1950s motorcycle gang throwback The Loveless, her neo-Western vampire tale Near Dark, her apocalyptic sci-fi epic Strange Days, etc. As Bigelow’s profile has ballooned in the decades since—thanks partly to being the first & only woman ever to win an Oscar for Best Director—these titles have gradually earned film-nerd prestige as cult classics, but their distribution & cultural clout still remain disappointingly muted considering what they achieve onscreen. For instance, I was only able to see Strange Days for the first time this year because I happened to pick up a long out-of-print DVD of the film at a local thrift store, as it is not currently streaming or available for purchase in any official capacity. That’s absolutely baffling to me, considering that the film plays like a major 1990s blockbuster of great cultural importance, not some esoteric art film that appeals to few and has been seen by even fewer.

Released in 1995, Strange Days is set in the near-future apocalypse of Y2K. Like a (much) bigger budget version of former Movie of the Month Last Night, Bigelow’s film uses the ceremonial end of the Millennium on New Year’s Eve, 1999, to signal a complete societal breakdown and possible end of life as we know it. However, in this case the apocalypse seems to be less of a literal cosmic or technological event than it is a political shift that amplifies the various crises of contemporary mid-90s Los Angeles. Blatantly influenced by real-life cultural events like the Rodney King riots, the O.J. Simpson trial, and the Lorena Bobbitt saga, Strange Days is an allegorical amplification of its own times more than it is a predictor of future events – a time-honored tradition in science-fiction worldbuilding. Yet, its central conflict was incredibly prescient about the way virtual reality technology, misogynistic abuse in the entertainment industry, and documentation of systemically racist police brutality would play out in the following couple decades. Along with her creative partner (and already then-former husband) James Cameron, Bigelow framed the social & political crises of the 1990s as the beginning of the End Times. The scary thing is that it feels like we’re still living in the exact downward trajectory depicted onscreen.

Ralph Fiennes stars as Lenny: a former, disgraced LAPD officer who makes a greasy living selling virtual reality clips of real-world crimes & home-made pornography for a black-market technology known as S.Q.U.I.D. (Superconducting Quantum Interference Device). The Cronenbergian SQUID device allows users to live in the head of the filmmakers who record those clips – feeling their emotions & physical sensations on top of seeing through their eyes. Beyond selling literal memories on the black market, Lenny is also hopelessly stuck in his own past – bitter about being ejected from an increasingly corrupt police force, obsessed with former girlfriend Faith (a routinely abused grunge rocker played by Juliette Lewis, who curiously performs Rid of Me-era PJ Harvey songs throughout the film), and exploiting the bottomless kindness of an old friend who’s obviously in love with him (Angela Bassett, an eternal badass) even though she’s way out of his league. Lenny’s already pitiful existence as a Los Angeles bottom-feeder spirals further out of control once he stumbles into possession of VR clips confirming a conspiracy theory that his former employers, the pigs at the notoriously racist LAPD, executed political-minded rapper Jeriko One (Glenn Plummer), who threatened a revolution that would overturn the power structure of the entire city, if not the world. Faced with a rare opportunity to expose the LAPD for the corrupt, racist murderers they truly are, Lenny must decide what’s most important to him: reclaiming the supposed glories of his own curdled past or fighting for a brighter future for others who need his help. The city-wide Y2K celebration rages into a fever pitch around him as he reluctantly follows this conflict to an inevitably violent, Hellish climax. Also, Angela Bassett’s there to kick corrupt-cop ass & save the day whenever Lenny fails to do the right thing – far too often.

Strange Days lost tens of millions of dollars at the American box office, a commercial failure that threatened to permanently derail Kathryn Bigelow’s directorial career. It’s only gotten more thematically relevant as bodycam-documented police brutality, #metoo testaments of ritualized sexual assault in the entertainment industry, and advancements in virtual-reality escapism have escalated in the decades since, but I don’t know that it would have been a hit today either. Hell, I don’t know that this movie could have been made today, at least not on this scale. Its production budget, thematic ambitions, and unflinching brutality make it out to be a one-of-a-kind miracle that it was ever greenlit in any era, since these kinds of financial-risk blockbusters are usually not allowed to be this politically alienating or emotionally unpleasant. Hanna, what do you make of Stranger Days’s dual nature as commercial filmmaking and provocative art? Do you think it satisfies more as a big-budget action spectacle or as a seething political provocation? Or is it stuck somewhere between those two sensibilities, failing to satisfy as either?

Hanna: CW: Rape

I was definitely more drawn to the existential and political threads in Strange Days; I am especially always down for the exploration of technology-facilitated escapism and the feedback loop of social decline that inevitably follows. I think it’s totally fitting that Lenny is motivated into action by a cruel corruption of his black-market product– a particularly heinous snuff film which provides a first-person POV of a brutal rape. It reminded me a little of YouTube, starting out as a platform for AFV-esque bloopers and cat videos but being unable keep the thinly-veiled child pornography from creeping past the censors. Eventually the things that help us forget how awful the world is will be corrupted by the awfulness of the world, at which point we have to do something about the real world or (more likely) find a new outlet of escape. I appreciated Strange Days’s unwavering portrait of how brutal the world is for people whose realities are so politically fraught (like Jeriko One) that they can’t afford to slip into the mind of an 18-year-old girl taking a shower for the fun of it, and how important it is for people who can (like Lenny) to reckon with the actual world instead of feeding off of stale pleasures.

The film didn’t quite shine as much as a blockbuster for me, mainly because of how completely grimy and disgusting I felt throughout and afterwards: Lenny is as weaselly as he could be without being totally unlikeable (although I really appreciated his cacophonous silk ensembles); the villains represented and practiced the full spectrum of physical, sexual, and emotional, and political violence; and the first-person rape scenes were absolutely grotesque. I don’t usually have a problem with unpleasant movies, but I like my commercial cyber-noir films to have a little more heart. In that respect, Angela Bassett is Strange Days’s saving grace as Mace – she is a blast to watch in the action scenes, and serves as the only source of real compassion for the movie. I was also deeply in love with the sheer scale (and diversity!) of the confetti-riddled New Year’s party at the end of the film, which wouldn’t have been possible with an indie budget.

I really struggle with the brutality of this movie – on one hand I think it is absolutely thematically critical, and it’s such a relief when the abscess of horrible people is kind-of washed away (although the upstanding moral center of the police commissioner seemed a little too good to be true). On the other hand, two and a half hours of that was a real doozy. On the other other hand, I think Strange Days being difficult to watch is part of the point – it’s like we’re SQUIDing a feature-length tape from one of the extras, or from Kathryn Bigelow’s demented psyche. I’m all twisted up. What do you think, Britnee? Is Strange Days worth the brutality? Do you think there are things Bigelow could have done to make the ride a little smoother without compromising the story?

Britnee: That’s a question that’s been weighing on my mind since we initially watched Strange Days. Suffering through the intense scenes of rape and racial violence was difficult, and that’s the reaction that I think Bigelow was aiming for. This type of brutality is all too common in today’s modern world, and it’s crazy how this Y2K sci-fi movie from the mid-90s remains so relevant. She was onto something for sure. Here we are in 2019, and the same crap is happening. Bigelow really understands how shitty humanity truly is, and that point is made clear in Strange Days. Now, could this point have been made without going as far as she did with the POV rape scene? I think so. The moment it’s made obvious that a rape is about to occur, the scene could have ended. We didn’t need to be subjected to witnessing the rape to understand what was happening.

Even though there are brutal, hard-to-watch moments in Strange Days, I don’t think that should deter anyone from watching the film. The film itself is pretty amazing and thought provoking, so fast forwarding through a few minutes of this over two hour movie won’t spoil the experience one bit. Honestly, other than the POV rape scene, the amount of violence in Strange Days is no different than any other action movie.

I think everyone in the crew would agree with me saying that Angela Basset is the star of the show. Her Mace character is a complete badass, and she completely outshines everyone else, especially Lenny. Boomer, what would Strange Days look like without Mace? Could the film survive the absence of that character?

Boomer: This is such a good question. This movie lives and dies based on Angela Bassett. In fact, despite never having seen the movie before, there are two particular images from it that are permanently lodged in my subconscious: Mace in her bodyguard/chauffeur uniform (a style I think I’ve been unconsciously trying to emulate for most of my life) and her face as the colorful confetti falls around her like so much technicolor snow. I concluded that those two shots must have been included in a promo for the film’s airing on the Syfy (ugh) channel back when it was still Sci-Fi (much better); digging through the TV archives, it looks like there were four airings in November 1998, two in May of 1999, and one in September of 1999, all of which line up perfectly with the timeline in my mind of when these images would have found their way into my brain and gotten stuck there. And before you ask–yes, there was an airing on New Year’s Day 2000, smack dab in between the thematically similar Until the End of the World and the generically titled The Apocalypse (presumably this one), which was itself followed by Night of the Comet, a personal favorite. That promo (which I can’t find anywhere) may even explain my lifelong obsession with and adoration of Angela Bassett although that could also be chalked up to seeing What’s Love Got to Do With It at a very young age.

There’s essentially no film without Mace, at least not one with a character with whom the audience can sympathize and empathize. I found it difficult to identify with Nero, despite the fact that he’s our viewpoint character and the ostensible protagonist. We’ve all been on the blunt end of a relationship that ended badly, finding ourselves in a situation wherein we still care deeply about our ex after they’ve moved on, but Nero’s ongoing obsession with and attachment to Faith, above and beyond being an unsubtle metaphor, is off-puttingly pathetic. Sure, he cares about her, and she’s undoubtedly gotten herself into a bad situation with the abusive Gant, but she’s a big girl and making her own (truly terrible) decisions; given the revelation at the end about who else she’s been sleeping with and why, Nero comes across as even more of an idiotic galoot. The “Faith” that lives in his mind (and his clips) is pure artifice, and for all his charisma and supposed worldliness, his inability to comprehend his own myopia makes him pitiful, not pitiable. In contrast, Mace is a total badass; she doesn’t have to feint at cowardice in order to get close to those she fights and then fight dirty like Nero, she just stands tall (and stylish) and refuses to flinch in the face of mad dogs, burning cars, and raging Pris cosplayers. Without Mace in his life, Nero may have made it to Retinal Fetish unharmed, but he for sure would have been killed at the hands of Steckler and Engelman long before the final villain got a chance to enact his plan.

There was only one thing about Mace that I didn’t like, and that was the fact that she and Nero ended the film with a kiss. I understand the symbolism and all, especially given that the fact that the film’s chronometer keeps ticking even after the new year, showing that the world didn’t end and life does, in fact, go on. It’s sweet, but I would have preferred an ending in which their relationship remained platonic. I understand that her affection for him comes as a result of his tenderness with her son (even keeping him in a different room while the kid’s father is taken out in handcuffs so he doesn’t have to see his father being arrested) in spite of the racial tension between the LAPD and working class people of color, but her devotion to him as a result of a single (admittedly important) act of kindness despite a years-long friendship characterized by his selfishness makes her seem, in some ways, no better than Nero in his continued allegiance to Faith. In a movie that is otherwise ahead of its time with regards to social commentary and exhilarating visuals, their final kiss feels like a concession to the discourse of the time (I felt much the same way in the film’s final minutes, which move from an “all cops in this system are corrupt” to showing that the middle-aged white commissioner is actually sympathetic to the plight of the downtrodden). What do you think, Brandon? Is this a concession for a mainstream audience, or am I being too hard on a movie that I genuinely loved and enjoyed?

Brandon: That kiss played as more bittersweet than crowd-pleasing to me, but mostly because I never saw their relationship as platonic to begin with. The parallel between Nero’s unrequited obsession with his ex and Mace’s unrequited obsession with Nero is a tragic presence throughout the film, one that mirrors the SQUID technology’s commodification of dwelling on past & memories. Nero and Mace are both emotionally stuck in place in a way that makes them ineffective human beings, not to mention ineffective heroes. The difference between them is that Nero knows exactly how much heartache that unrequited desire causes, but still uses it to his own petty advantage. He knows from his own experience that Mace’s love for him means she would do anything for him, and nearly every exchange they share in the movie involves him exploiting that devotion to accomplish his own small-minded goals. It’s up to Mace to hold him accountable to be a hero in the one instance where he can make a positive effect on the world, since his natural impulse is to use the Jeriko One tape to yet again shoehorn his greasy self back into his ex’s life, unwelcome and uninvited. He’s the ultimate toxic dirtbag crush in that way, so when Mace kisses him at the end it feels like she’s only sinking deeper into a romantic pattern everyone else knows is bad for her – despite the swelling triumph of the moment.

For me, the crowd-pleasing Hollywood Ending element at play is the police commissioner’s last-minute turnaround, which has already been referenced briefly a couple times above. It does seem odd that a film so allegorically tethered to the systemic racism of the Rodney King-era LAPD in particular would backpedal in its final moments to downplay the problem as a few bad apples spoiling the bunch. Hanna, you mentioned that the appalled police commissioner saving the day seemed to good to be true for you as well. How much do you think that Hollywood Ending undercuts the film’s commentary on the racism & brutality of the LAPD? Does it ultimately feel soft on cops as a societal menace or is the criticism of police as an institution earlier in the film strong enough to survive the “happy” ending?

Hanna: I absolutely think it was too soft on cops; it definitely felt like a “bad apples” ending when I was hoping for a “bad apple tree” ending. One of key elements of horror in race-based police brutality– before, during, and after the Rodney King riots – is that there is little to no possibility of justice for victims, family, or community members; the system works to protect itself above all else, resulting in acquittals or minimal sentencing for acts of outrageous violence performed by police officers. The institutional preservation of racist cops has been so critical to the existence of our law enforcement system that it seems kind of ridiculous for a film documenting the depravity and moral perils of Y2K urban life to leave it out. Sure, it would have been heartbreaking for the commissioner to double down on the scumminess of law enforcement by ordering Mace’s arrest or refusing to arrest his own officers, but it would have felt more true to life and to the nihilistic Strange Days universe. Maybe Bigelow wanted the ending to reflect the type of justice that the United States should work towards in the next millennium (in which case I would have at least appreciated a nod to institutional rot in the higher ranks); maybe she wanted to shoehorn a shred of optimism into Strange Days. I also imagine that a corrupt commissioner taking down the only ray of light in this movie might not test well with audiences.

One thing that really stood out to me about Strange Days, and crystallized its pre-Y2K identity, is the aura of derision surrounding the SQUIDs. In Strange Days the SQUID tech seems to be purely black-market outside of the police force, and SQUID addicts (called “wireheads) are publicly scorned. In 2019, documenting and sharing every aspect of life for the sake of others in multiple modes of media has become ubiquitous, as has living vicariously through the videos and posts of people living glamorous, exhilarating lives. The only missing component is the simultaneous sensory experience, which honestly doesn’t seem too far off. Britnee, what did you think of the SQUID and pre-Y2K tech anxiety in Strange Days?

Britnee: When reminded that this film did come out in 1995, the SQUID technology in Strange Days does have a speculative sci-fi vibe. It just seems like the ridiculous type of futuristic tech that could only be made up in movies. Yet, it turns out that it’s not too far out there when considering the direction our modern world is going with tech. As Hannah mentioned, there’s a widespread obsession with having every waking moment of life recorded, and it’s becoming deadly. Take, for instance, Facebook Live. At first, it seemed like the only people using the platform were old high school classmates selling crap from pyramid schemes during Facebook Live “parties,” and all of a sudden, this technology was being used to live-stream shootings from the POV of actual killers. Even those obnoxious gender reveal videos are becoming deadly. Recently, a plane crashed while dumping a punch of pink water over a gender reveal party and a grandmother died during a gender reveal explosion. The age-old “keeping up with the Joneses” attitude is being amplified by modern tech, and everyone wants to do something wilder than the next person to get viral video fame. I swear, one day some idiot is going to make a gender reveal weapon of mass destruction and nuke us all. That’s exactly how the world is going to end. The trajectory of livestreaming and everyday video documenting does remind me of the SQUID. It started out as innocent fun and blew up into something totally dangerous.

The look of the SQUID and its mechanics honestly freaked me out so much. The idea of giving up control of my body and feelings to experience someone else’s is very unsettling. And the risk of being lost in a permanent brain fry like the black market dealer Tick (aka Sonny Bono’s long lost brother) really does a number on my blood pressure. When sensory SQUID-like tech starts to hit the market, I am going to stay so far away from that shit. Memories and feelings are private, and the idea of sharing them, much less having someone experience them without consent, is, for lack of better term, icky. Boomer, if Bigelow were to create Strange Days in 2019, what would the SQUID look like? How would it be used/distributed?

Boomer: The SQUID is ridiculous looking, but at least it doesn’t have the nauseating aspects of the things from Existenz, so that’s something, at least. We’ve already seen some level of VR in our world with the rise of the PS4 VR system and the Oculus Rift, but for something that is as fully immersive as the SQUID appears to be, it is definitely going to be something that requires access to more than just the eyes and ears, and it won’t be as interactive as the programs designed for those systems. It’s not like anyone playing back the Jeriko One cartridge or the opening robbery footage would be able to alter the outcome, so it’s not really a “game,” it’s more of a movie that you experience (despite Nero’s admonition that it’s “not ‘like TV, only better;'” it kind of has to be). Although you can gather all the information that you would need to create a purely audio/visual experience from external equipment that we have now (glasses with cameras, microphones), and those things could eventually be minimized even further (contact lenses that feed to a video, in-ear aids that could actually record what one is hearing), neural access would still require something that’s not too dissimilar from what we see on-screen, although the transmission of it would probably include the internet and not mini-discs. And, hopefully, one would be able to wear one without a horrible wig that screams “villain” from the first moment one appears on-screen (ahem). The real question is how Nero is able to sell the experience of being a woman taking a shower. No way is the SQUID water safe.

Lagniappe

Brandon: I love that the SQUID technology is so new & low-tech that the black-market equipment is still prohibitively bulky. In order to “secretly” record someone with the device you have to accessorize your outfit with a fanny pack & an obnoxious wig to conceal the device, so the price of violating other people’s privacy it is that you look like an absolute jackass. Considering how the disastrous PR for Google Glass played out just a few years ago, that ended up being yet another prescient detail from this eerily accurate premonition of the shithole future we’re currently living in.

Hanna: I think it’s a little ironic that Strange Days was able to perfectly predict a cellphone-equivalent tool for citizens to use against institutional abuses (including police brutality), but was unable to predict the continued apathy of police commissioners in the face of damning video evidence.

Boomer: While checking to see if there was anything else that might have sparked my lifelong Angela Bassett fascination, I learned that she played Betty Shabazz in two separate, unrelated films (notably in Malcolm X, but also in Mario van Peebles’s Panther). Let’s also all take a moment to note how deeply fucked up it is that the main IMDb image for Brigitte Bako, the actress playing Iris, is taken from this film and is in fact the shot directly after her killer opens her eyelids?

Britnee: The few moments that we get of Tick’s pet lizard are some of my favorite parts of Strange Days. I wish the little guy would have had more screen time. Apparently, I’m not the only person that recognized his prominent role in the film as I found a fantastic little webpage for this Eastern Collared Lizard.

Upcoming Movies of the Month
January: The Top Films of 2019
February: The Top Films of the 2010s

-The Swampflix Crew

The Late, Great Planet Mirth VI: A Thief in the Night (1972)

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three star

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Welcome to The Late Great Planet Mirth, an ongoing series in which a reformed survivor of PreMillenialist Dispensationalism explores the often silly, occasionally absurd, and sometimes surprisingly compelling tropes, traits, and treasures of films about the Rapture. Get caught up in it with us!

“A man and wife asleep in bed; she hears a noise and turns her head– he’s gone. I wish we’d all been ready.”

This is basically the plot of A Thief in the Night, but first, a little history.

Christian musician Larry Norman was a pioneer, although not everyone was ready for his unique blend of then-modern folksy rock ‘n’ roll when Upon This Rock came out in 1969. Stodgy preachers like Jerry Falwell and especially Jimmy Swaggart saw the use of contemporary music stylings to evangelize as “a sinful compromise with worldliness* and immoral sensuality.” Modern music is often a point of contention for this particular subculture, as the many hours I endured being reminded that listening to “secular music” was a sin at Bethany Christian School (instead of learning about, you know, science or something) can attest– not that it mattered, given that this is the same lesson I was getting at home. One of my favorite Christian propaganda films, Rock: It’s Your Decision, is about this very topic, and I can remember the shelf of books in my fundamentalist school’s library that featured Swaggart’s Religious Rock n’ Roll – A Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing alongside Phil Phillips delightfully tangled Turmoil in the Toybox, which is basically Helen Lovejoy’s “Won’t someone please think of the children!” mixed with paranoia that Care Bears and Star Wars are pathways to such evils as Communism, witchcraft, and “Eastern mysticism.”

This same shelf also contained the laughably dated The Unhappy Gays: What Everyone Should Know About Homosexuality, written by future Left Behind co-conspirator Tim LaHaye. This is ironic, given that the title of LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins’s most famous work is actually taken from “I Wish We’d All Been Ready,” the same Larry Norman song excerpted at the top of this article is taken: “There’s no time to change your mind; The son has come and you’ve been left behind.” Even now, nearly ten years into my apostasy, I really enjoy this track: it’s creepy, contemplative, moody, and doesn’t shy away from some of the darker imagery and ideas that inform PMD eschatology and ideation, like children starving to death and demons dining on some unspecified meal (in one lyric alone it manages to take the fate of children into greater consideration than the LB series does in some 4500 pages). It’s haunting, and thus it’s no surprise that it has helped to popularize a certain vision of the post-Rapture world that has  come to be accepted by the PMDs as sacrosanct without really questioning its origin, much the same way that the Hell envisioned by fundamentalists is more Dante than Daniel.

“I Wish We’d All Been Ready” is also the opening musical number of 1972’s A Thief in the Night, playing out over the opening credits and segueing into what appears to be a youth group meeting attended by our heroine Patty (Patty Dunning), a young woman who is consistently identified in promotional materials as “caught up in living for the present with little concern for the future,” even though that’s not terribly accurate. Sure, she occasionally goes to the lake to have fun with her friends, but while there they often engage in conversation about the future, spirituality, and other heady topics that most teenagers probably spend much less time fretting about.

The lead singer of the band and apparent leader of this youth group is Duane (Duane Coller), who reminds his friends that the Rapture could be coming any minute, and that it’s important to be truly saved in order to ensure that they are not left behind to experience the Tribulation. Patty’s love interest Jim (Mike Niday) is a Certified True Believer™, but Patty and her family attend a church with a looser (read, for the sake of this film’s intended audience: a more liberal and less literal and thus not scriptural and in fact heretical) approach to spirituality; her pastor, Matthew Turner (Russell S. Doughten Jr., also a writer on the film) is less fire-and- brimstone and more peace-and- brotherhood, which the Rapture-ready believers watching the film are supposed to recognize as being sinfully misleading. Patty notes that this PMD eschatology is something she’s never heard before, but agrees to attend a service with Jim, where she hears the “truth” for the first time.

The Rapture (sort of) happens at the forty minute mark of this seventy minute movie, but it feels a lot longer due to a few overlong plot cul-de- sacs. The boys over at Red Letter Media coined the term “shoot the rodeo” in their seventh “Wheel of the Worst” video to describe any time that a film crew decides to shoot a real life event that is happening nearby in order to enhance production value (just like the kids in Super 8). This is why Clint Eastwood’s character in Play Misty for Me goes to a super boring jazz festival for a while, and (presumably) why there’s a dog frisbee competition at the beginning of Flight of the Navigator. It seems like a watersports event must have been happening in or around Des Moines at the time that Thief was being shot, because our gaggle of main characters seem to spend an awful lot of time at the lake. Jim is bitten by a snake at work at one point, requiring a discussion about the fact that there is no antidote, so the hospital is flying in a snake farmer to give a transfusion in the hopes that the antibodies he’s built up will save Jim’s life. It’s not as exciting as it sounds (although it’s not boring per se, just belabored), and several trips to the hospital later, Jim and Patty get married. Things are fairly blissful for the young Iowans; until one day Patty’s asleep in bed, she hears a noise and turns her head, Jim’s gone! I wish we’d all been ready!

The radio tells about the sudden disappearance of millions of people, and Patty knows the truth. Just as Nicolae Carpathia would set up New Babylon and its accompanied One World Government in the Left Behind series, and Franco Macalusso erected the O.N.E. in the sequels to Apocalypse, the presumable Antichrist (whom we don’t meet in this installment) has the United Nations create the Imperium of Total Emergency (U.N.I.T.E.)**, and soon it’s binary triple sixes for everybody! You get a Mark of the Beast! And you get a Mark of the Beast!

Patty’s other friends waste no time falling in line with the new world order, as even her old pastor shows up at the Mark facility and says that he wants to be a good citizen before getting his forehead tattooed. Patty flirts with the idea of getting Marked because without it, she can’t buy food or anything else that she needs (a reference to Revelation 13:17). Patty is relentlessly pursued by the forces of U.N.I.T.E., embodied by a single van full of Antichrist cronies, until she is trapped on a bridge and, in attempting to escape, falls to her apparent death in the waters below.

Psych! Patty wakes up; it was all a dream. Except double psych! It was a dream, but she has awoken moments after the Rapture has taken her husband and the rest of the real Christians. She screams us out into the end card, which states “The End . . . Is Near!”

The most striking thing about A Thief in the Night is how competent it is, especially in comparison to other films in this subgenre. It’s been too long since I watched the Left Behind films starring Kirk Cameron to make definitive statements about their quality, but I don’t recall them with any particular fondness and seem to remember them being more banal than a manila folder, while Apocalypse seemed like it was made by someone who had heard of these “moving pictures” but never seen one before. Although there are some stretches that are pretty dull, Thief was made by someone who knew what they were doing. There’s clever (if very, very dated) editing, decent production value, and even a few really great sight gags (my favorite is the post-Rapture church sign that reads “The end is nea– ,” demonstrating that some  church underling got taken in the twinkling of an eye in the middle of a dull chore).

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It’s not a great film by a long shot, but it’s definitely a worthwhile endeavor. The film it reminds me of most, actually, is Mark of the Witch. It’s not just the amateurish acting, the surprising competency of a wet-behind- the-ears cast and crew, or the dated visuals and cinematography: the people making this movie had fun, and you can tell. It’s a far cry from more dour (if also more entertaining in its own way) fare like Revelation or Judgment. It’s a film that sets out to scare its audience, but out of love, not scorn or spite. That’s the real miracle.

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*When used in this context, “worldliness” means an investment in the material (and thus sinful, carnal) world, rather than the more common, secular definition meaning “sophisticated.”

**This is early evidence of the influence of the far-right John Birch Society on PMD thinking; JBS was claiming that the United Nations was merely the first step toward building a one world government as early as 1959. It comes through even more clearly in the Left Behind books, which is no surprise given that the aforementioned LaHaye was a card-carrying John Bircher. I highly recommend checking out the Wikipedia page on the JBS while you can; if literal Nazi Richard Spencer gets any closer to the White House, it’ll likely be Ministry of Truth’d within 72 hours. For other further reading, my man Fred Clark has a couple of blog posts that serve as good introductions to what PMDs think the UN is and a discussion of the bizarre, self-deceptive cognitive dissonance required to buy that nonsense.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

The Late, Great Planet Mirth V: Future Tense (1990), and a Jeremiad for America

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three star

Welcome to The Late Great Planet Mirth, an ongoing series in which a reformed survivor of PreMillenialist Dispensationalism explores the often silly, occasionally absurd, and sometimes surprisingly compelling tropes, traits, and treasures of films about the Rapture. Get caught up in it with us!

As the end of the world approaches, it’s time to get back into the swing of things with a look at more premillenialist dispensational fearmongering with Future Tense. I thought about moving on to the older tetralogy of Rapture flicks that I remember from rainy recesses at Christian school, starting with 1972’s Thief in the Night, but those films are harder to track down, so I went with this 1990 half-hour evangelism video instead. Tense was produced and distributed by Mars Hill Productions shortly after that ministry’s 1988 split from their parent organization, Youth for Christ/Houston, following the division’s formation in 1977. The plot, such as it is, concerns newly born again student Michael Cummings (A.J. Merrill), who joined the Christian faith after leaving his atheistic home for college. His attempts to share this good news are rebuffed by his parents, so he records a tape in order to preach at them without interruption tell them about his newfound Savior and warn them about a spooky metaphorical dream he had about the Rapture, and how they can avoid being left behind.

Of particular interest is the way that this film was created as a proselytization aid and how that actually informs the viewing experience in a positive way. The Apocalypse series shows the Rapture event happening very early, and is largely concerned with the Tribulation period that follows and how new converts will have to live in that supposed future; the Left Behind series (both the books and films) were also more invested in what follows the Rapture than being prepared for it, and when we talk about the Thief series soon we’ll see many of these same ideas. For all that Tim LaHaye, Jerry B. Jenkins, Hal Lindsey, and their ilk may like to think of themselves as selfless Jeremiahs come to warn unbelievers of a doomy future and by their warning save the lost, there’s a sense of smugness that pervades their work, a depraved (and frankly unChristian) desire not to save souls from damnation but lord their rightness over them. They don’t look forward to the Rapture because they’ll finally be with God, they look forward to being proven right in their eschatology: “We were right and you were wrong, so get ready for Wormwood and Babylon, sinners.” Future Tense, for all that it may fail to adequately connect with an audience that is not already “Rapture Ready” is genuinely and earnestly concerned with the viewer’s salvation, for better or worse. Despite its short run time (which, like Apocalypse and many films created for Christians to use as evangelism tools, includes a montage sequence during which your Christian friend showing you this video is supposed to offer to pray with you), Future Tense crams in more humanity than the entire Left Behind oeuvre, which should be properly lauded.

Also notable in this film is that Michael’s father (John Shannon) voices many of the secular—as opposed to scriptural—objections to Rapture ideology that PMDs hear in the real world, making this one of the more realistic Rapture flicks, although this does not render the short without flaw. The purveyors of this kind of Christian media exist within such an ideological echo chamber that they seem unable to actually comprehend that the viewing audience isn’t already invested in their worldview and the beliefs thereof. For instance, in one scene Michael’s father states that “For as long as [he] can remember” there have been doomsayers predicting the end of the world, and he’s right! For instance, Hilary of Poitiers, whose Commentarius in Evangelium Matthaei is the oldest complete extant Latin commentary on Matthew, predicted that the world would end in 365 CE. When we get to Thief in the Night, we’ll see a Lindsey-influenced PMD pastor state that the then-impending 1980s apocalypse must mean that the Antichrist was already politically active in that film’s production year of 1972; Martin of Tours said essentially the same thing: “There is no doubt that the Antichrist has already been born. Firmly established already in his early years, he will, after reaching maturity, achieve supreme power.” Of course, Martin was predicting a world expiration date of 400 CE, a good fifteen centuries earlier than Lindsey. All of this has happened before, and all of it will happen again.

The filmmakers, of course, don’t intend for Michael’s father to be seen as a voice of reason; his protestations are supposed to ring hollow in the ears of True Believers, but the producers fail to consider that the real intended audience, the unsaved, needs to be presented with some kind of rebuttal to Mr. Cummings’s rhetoric if they’re going to be swayed by this video. His smugness is undoubtedly meant to be read as the most deleterious form of prideful arrogance: the kind that damns others as well as oneself. We’re meant to pity him and his family because they will be left behind and because he refuses to listen to his son, but what aspect of his recounting of historical apocalypse hoaxes is inaccurate? What concerns does he have that don’t demand an answer, one which the evangelist should be ready to present? Ultimately, the fact that counter arguments are invoked but not discussed undermines the intended message.

Instead, what we are left with as a result is less a sermon than a text that can be read as an unintentional short-form presentation about one man’s mental illness, and how his fanaticism about his newfound faith and the accompanying dreams (or hallucinations, if you will) have a harrowing effect on his relationship with his family. He calls his parents, anxiously weeping and begging his parents to join his religious sect, warning them that, if they do not come to believe what he does, they will suffer. His younger sister is affected most strongly by these warnings, becoming paranoid about the end of the world. After all, Michael is her older brother; she respects and admires him. Couldn’t he be right? Mr. Cummings, unsure of how to deal with his son’s deteriorating sanity and worried for his daughter, forbids discussion of this Rapture nonsense in his home. And there’s Mrs. Cummings, caught in the middle, so desperate to reach out to her beloved firstborn but unable to do so because every phone call ends in admonitions and premonitions of darkness to come. When she refuses to play along, he sends them a recording of his ramblings so that they can’t interrupt his stream-of- consciousness diatribe.

That’s not the story that Mars Hill set out to make, but that’s what’s on screen.

So, what have we learned from Future Tense? We’ve learned that PMD media can be genuinely human when it focuses less on shaming those who will be left behind and more on building the flock. We’ve learned that a fundamental misunderstanding of (or an unconscious unwillingness to empathize with) the intended audience can turn an evangelistic parable into a dire warning about the perils of religious susceptibility. But most of all we’ve learned that, if your loved ones won’t listen to you, the best solution is to give them an audio cassette and an ultimatum.

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“A jeremiad is a long literary work, usually in prose, but sometimes in verse, in which the author bitterly laments the state of society and its morals in a serious tone of sustained invective, and always contains a prophecy of society’s imminent downfall.” – definition via Wikipedia

A tangent here, if you will indulge me. There is no mention of the “Antichrist” in Future Tense, although that figure is often a major player in most of these films. We live in dark days, and whether or not we (as individuals or as a nation) emerge from the next four years at all is in question. I have to ask, what is the Antichrist? Many modern Christians interpret the term to mean a singular entity, even though this is . . . not really textually accurate. A more correct reading is that the term describes a system of ideas that are antithetical to the actual teachings of Jesus, such as: condemning usury and calling upon money lenders to forsake their trade and follow him; finding the image of God in the faces of the sick, the elderly, and those of a foreign land, and caring for them as one would for Christ himself; rebuking the adherents of a religious doctrine that curried political favor by supporting the oppressor and the status quo; encouraging de-escalation as the truest means of seeking peace; discouraging the accumulation of wealth at the expense of the destitute; and, most importantly, loving one’s neighbor, without caveat. I never wanted to be Hal Lindsey or Martin of Tours, but let me say this now while we are still here: the spirit of the Antichrist is very much alive in our current social and political systems, and within the religion which claims to follow Christ. If there is a physical embodiment of that spirit, his ascension is upon us. It’s enough to make a man consider conversion.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Cronenberg, Luxury Cars, and the End of the World

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I’m going to try to keep this short & reductive, so as not to get unnecessarily mean. There was a weird detail to our December Movie of the Month, the apocalyptic Canadian black comedy Last Night, that reminded me to finally check out a work I’ve been putting off for years. However, much like how our conversation around the Laura Dern black comedy Citizen Ruth lead me to finally pulling the trigger on David Lynch’s Inland Empire only to find it an exhaustingly ugly, empty exercise in art film pretension, Last Night similarly lead me astray. In the film, cult Canadian director David Cronenberg plays a distressed business man who spends his (and everyone else’s) last day alive at the office, making sure things run smoothly in the world’s final moments before its mysterious doomsday mechanism arrives. It’s when Cronenberg’s character, conveniently named David, leaves the office that Last Night‘s scenario begins to feel eerily familiar. David calmly navigates the world-crumbling chaos & riotous hooliganism taking over Toronto from the comfort of his expensive-looking luxury car. Watching this unfold, I thought I had accidentally entered some kind of time loop, as it’s this exact scenario that Cronenberg directs Twilight vet & honorary Death Grips member Robert Pattinson through in his 2012 film Cosmopolis. The major difference there is that in Last Night this is a single detail in a large, thematically fulfilling tapestry, while in Cosmopolis it’s the entire exhaustingly cold, empty journey.

I’ve had a DVD copy of Cosmopolis lurking in my to-watch pile since the mass Blockbuster Video close-out sales of 2013. I was smart to stay far away as long as I could resist. I’m not at all hostile towards the basic idea of a feature length film about Robert Pattinson venturing across town in a limousine solely to get a haircut. After all, I was fairly ecstatic about the film Locke, in which Tom Hardy makes a series of phone calls to orchestrate a concrete pour from the driver’s seat of a car. Cosmopolis had a lot more going on than Locke in terms of set pieces & range of characters; Pattinson occasionally leaves the relative safety if his “office” limo to visit a basketball court or a bookstore or, of course, a barber shop. The purpose of the film’s dialogue is much more difficult to pin down, though, aiming more for philosophical musings on existentialism and capitalist vampirism than any linear narrative. It was all white noise to me, recalling the empty-headed speculation of Southland Tales without the energy or humor. With the detached coldness of an absurdist stage play or a going-through-the-motions table reading, Cosmopolis provides very little for its audience to hold onto. It has some interesting cultural context, considering how it’s dead rat-brandishing protesters that surround the all-important office limo mirror the time’s Occupy movement and I’ll admit that Pattinson is entertaining enough to carry his beyond-demanding lead role. It just ultimately signified nothing to me, despite the fact that I was very much positive on Cronenberg’s similarly detached Hollywood satire Maps to the Stars. Don’t ask me why that is, because I honestly have no clue.

I’m not sure that Cronenberg’s apocalyptic car ride in Last Night influenced his choices in directing Cosmopolis in any way. Not only was the latter film adapted from a Don DeLillo-penned novel, there are some pretty major differences between his character’s business man coldness and Robert Pattinson’s. Last Night‘s business dude seems to be a kind, gentle man despite the emotionless way Cronenberg portrays him. Cosmopolis‘s protagonist, by contrast, is a heartless brute & a money-grubbing sociopath, making the film feel like Gossip Girl’s Chuck Bass: The Movie. In that case, the world is crumbling because of a man-made financial crisis; in Last Night we don’t know why the world is ending, just the humanist ways it’s many characters grieve its loss. When Last Night ends we see strangers comfort each other & fight through personal insecurities to achieve intimate, emotional connections in their final moments. When Robert Pattinson finally reaches the barber in Cosmopolis, he gets a terrible, asymmetric haircut. I’ll leave it to you to guess which result I found more satisfying and to draw connections on why Cronenberg would be attracted to two disparate, dialogue-heavy projects in which wealthy businessmen calmly drive through a crumbling society in the comfort of a luxury vehicle. In the mean time I’ll be trying to forget the frustration & boredom I suffered when I finally pushed play on Cosmopolis . . . or eagerly awaiting the end of the world. Whichever comes first would be fine.

For more on December’s Movie of the Month, the apocalyptic black comedy Last Night, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film, this look at its studio comedy equivalent Seeking a Friend for the End of the World (2012), and last week’s gaze into the bright explosions of its Michael Bay contemporary, Armageddon (1988).

-Brandon Ledet

Episode #20 of The Swampflix Podcast: The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (2005) & The Battle of 1998’s Celestial Apocalypses

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Welcome to Episode #20 of The Swampflix Podcast! For our twentieth episode, the last of 2016, Brandon & CC discuss two films from 1998 about Americans blowing up a celestial body before it blows them up first: Armageddon & Deep Impact. Also, CC makes Brandon watch the irreverent sci-fi comedy The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (2005) for the first time. Enjoy!

-CC Chapman & Brandon Ledet

Armageddon (1998) Doesn’t Contrast the Small Scale Apocalypse Narrative of Last Night (1999), It Explodes It

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When Last Night played the festival circuit in 1998, critics made a big deal about how its small scale, intimate depiction of the Apocalypse was entirely antithetical to Michael Bay’s massive explosion orgy of the same year, Armageddon. Almost a decade later, it’s still an interesting point of contrast. There are obvious ways that an indie budget Canadian black comedy wouldn’t match up to a massive Hollywood special effects spectacle, mostly in terms of scale. Armageddon is packed to the gills with recognizable faces (Bruce Willis, Billy Bob Thornton, Ben Affleck, Liv Tyler, Steve Buscemi, Owen Wilson, so many more), while Last Night boasts the muted star power of niche Canadian indie superdarlings like David Cronenberg & a before-she-was-minorly-famous Sarah Polley. Last Night saves money & energy by not at all addressing the mechanism for the world’s end, instead focusing on the personal reactions of a small group of people to the grief it inspires; Armageddon dedicates more than half of its bloated 150min runtime to blowing up an asteroid “the size of Texas.” Last Night limits its scope to the city of Toronto, while Armageddon attempts to span the entire globe (or at least a version of the globe where the USA eats up 60% of the terrain) and utterly destroys three major cities in the process. These financial & genre differences are to be expected from the get go, though. What’s really interesting outside the two doomsday films’ sense of scale is the relative blackness of their souls.

For all of Last Night‘s Gen-X cynicism & neurotic existentialism, it’s above all else a humanist story. We join the world well after it has accepted its impending communal death and although the film often chooses to laugh through the pain, it makes a point to celebrate the way characters, often strangers, comfort each other in their shared moment of grief. Armageddon is an entirely different kind of beast. The Apocalypse depicted in Michael Bay’s film is not a crisis that must be accepted & emotionally processed; it’s an obstacle that can be overcome by a tough son of a bitch American badass who blows stuff up real good. We first meet our supposed hero (Willis) launching golf balls at oil spill protestors & chasing an employee around his rig with his adult daughter. The black-hearted conservative fantasy continues when he & his rag tag crew of “roughnecks” (who at one point, no joke, self-describe as “a bunch of daddies”) are recruited to blow up the Texas-sized asteroid, because the pansy nerds at NASA just could not get the job done. So much of Bay’s film is outright despicable. Steve Buscemi’s asked to charmingly deliver a torrent of pedophile humor. Every depiction of a foreign country (who apparently all sit on their hands while America saves the day) is cartoonish in its culture-gazing, especially in the comic relief of its Chinese businessmen. One of the film’s many climactic crises is solved when a man violently tosses aside a trained female astronaut (with practically no dialogue) to bang on a machine with a wrench & yell at it until it works. Thousands of lives are lost as entire cities crumble, but less thought is given to casualties than to finding more space for yet another Aesosmith song or a lengthy assembling-the-team montage. Armageddon doesn’t muster one ounce of the compassion or the empathy of Last Night and often feels actively deplorable in its views on humanity, both political & spiritual. Still, I can’t shake the feeling that the film is worthwhile in its own right.

As ugly as Armageddon‘s hostile, conservative soul in its terms of narrative & dialogue, it’s an absolutely gorgeous film to behold. With the low attention span of a Hausu or a Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, Bay’s camera carefully considers each kinetic set-up and somehow turns a succession of beautifully crafted shots into a rapid fire assault on the senses & sensibilities of its audience. The way Last Night understands basic human fears & intimacies and the way they galvanize in timed of widespread crisis is impressive, but I don’t think the film ever approaches Armageddon‘s attention to filmmaking as a craft. It’s not even a question of budget, either. Even when you ignore for a minute all of the CGI buildings and hand-built miniatures Bay can’t resist gleefully exploding every few narrative beats, he has a distinct touch as a stylist. I’m not sure McKellar can claim the same in Last Night. The intense colors, framing, and rhythms of Armageddon are far above the film’s intelligence level in terms of plot & dialogue and it’s fascinating to watch something so smartly beautiful used for such an ugly, evil purpose.

I don’t mean to imply that Armageddon needs to be reassessed as some kind of overlooked masterpiece. If anything, it’d full-blown camp spectacle. Details like the opening narration about dinosaurs and the unfathomably awful animal crackers seduction scene had me howling with laughter, when I’m fairly sure that was far from their intent. Last Night‘s joke about the world’s biggest (and presumably final) guitar jam playing Bachman Turner Overdrive’s “Taking Care of Business” was the only gag that got that big of a laugh out of me, even though I’d say that film is the one that “deserves” to be championed as a lost classic. Armageddon is much more firmly in the so-bad-it’s-good side of that divide. It takes everything touching, mysterious, and humanist about Last Night and explodes it into a mean-spirited spectacle of jingoistic hero worship & casual misogyny. And yet, I found myself floored by Bay’s disaster epic for the entirety of its impossibly bloated runtime, a reaction I certainly did not expect on this revisit. Last Night is the more artful, empathetic portrait of humanity in crisis and fulfils every desire you’d have for a small budget indie about the Apocalypse. Armageddon, on the other hand, refuses to be ignored as a remarkable achievement in its own right, even if it is the exact polar opposite of McKellar’s black comedy and, arguably, a loud exemplifier of the worst aspects of modern Hollywood blockbuster filmmaking. As deplorable as Armageddon is as a Death Wish-style conservative fantasy piece, I’ll never sarcastically deride its inclusion in the Criterion Collection again. I get its appeal now, despite my better judgement.

For more on December’s Movie of the Month, the apocalyptic black comedy Last Night, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film & last week’s look at its studio comedy equivalent Seeking a Friend for the End of the World (2012).

-Brandon Ledet

Last Night (1999)’s Studio Comedy Equivalent in Seeking a Friend for the End of the World (2012)

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The Y2K scare in the late 90s lead to a brief cinema trend of End of the World features, but there weren’t many out there quite like our December Movie of the Month, Last Night. The Don McKellar-helmed black comedy strayed from the alarmist thriller beats of titles like Armageddon, Deep Impact, and End of Days to chase a much more realistic, resigned Gen-X vibe of sullen gloom & gallows humor in the face the Apocalypse. Much more recently, End of the World cinema trended once again, this time likely inspired by the supposed end of the Mayan Calendar in 2012. Among the traditional alarmist thrillers this time around (like the appropriately titled 2012) there were actually a good number of mainstream comedies on the topic: This Is the End, The World’s End, It’s a Disaster, etc. Only one of these Armageddon comedies of the 2010s managed to match the weirdly subdued in a time of crisis vibe of Last Night. Seeking a Friend for the End of the World is a much more minor & less stylistically focused work than Last Night, but it still makes for an interesting companion piece for McKellar’s Canadian cult classic. It not only reflects the way humor & pop culture attitude had shifted in the decade or so between their releases, but also points to how Hollywood convention could’ve made McKellar’s piece a much less interesting work if it weren’t a dirt cheap indie.

Both Last Night & Seeking a Friend for the End of the World center their tales of a world unraveling on a neurotic male protagonist who faces dying alone after the recent departure of his romantic partner & the impending doom of an inevitable Apocalypse. Unlike Patrick’s wife in Last Night, who died before the announcement of the world’s end, Steve Carell’s protagonist in Seeking a Friend loses his own wife to infidelity and she bolts from their marriage in the opening scene. In both features, the leads are neurotic men who can’t will themselves to join in the orgiastic parties surrounding them as they wrestle with their grief, but instead take unexpected comfort in newly-formed intimacies with total strangers (Sandra Oh in Last Night, Kiera Knightly in Seeking a Friend). News broadcasts continue to the bitter end in both films; insurance & gas companies continue to function; riots overtake the cities; characters obsess over curating their life-ending soundtracks, including off-screen radio DJs. What really ties the films together outside of their narrative details, however, is their general search for an authentic response to a world-ending crisis. Once the initial shock of a Doomsday scenario fades, what does worldwide grief look like and how can it be reflected in the personal response of a lone protagonist? Last Night and Seeking a Friend for the End of the World stand out from their temporal peers & reflect each other’s unique tones through this pursuit of a believable, down tempo Apocalypse.

As much as I enjoy Seeking a Friend as a down tempo comedy, however, I don’t think it quite measures up to the significance of Last Night as a unique work. Last Night is an odd little duck. It may feature a Gen-X 90s tone in its humor (along with a unfortunate influence from Woody Allen neuroticism), but it does carve out a very specific space that’s indicative of Don McKellar’s authorial voice. Seeking a Friend, by contrast, feels very conventional for a major studio comedy, a project by committee. Where Last Night finds small moments of shared, nonverbal intimacy, Seeking a Friend filters its entire plot into a familiar romcom formula. It also trades in Last Night‘s everything-is-connected ensemble cast structure for a more traditionally linear road trip narrative and unfortunately allows its female lead slip into something of a manic pixie dream girl cliché, which is far from the devastating performance Sandra Oh gives in her role. Most tellingly, Last Night never feels the need to explain how or why the world is ending because it doesn’t necessarily inform its characters’ behavior, but Seeking a Friend feels the need to spell it out in the very first scene. You can readily see exact gags that reflect each other in both works. The brilliant “Taking Care of Business” guitar jam gag in Last Night is reflected in Seeking a Friend’s End of the World Awareness Concert & its radio DJ promising “a countdown to the End of Days along with all of your classic rock favorites.” Craig from Last Night‘s pursuit of bucket list sexual experiences is represented in Seeking a Friend by a family restaurant called Friendly’s that’s devolved into a nonstop pansexual orgy. The movies do share a lot of content in their smaller details. However, Last Night employs them for a much more unique effect than the cookie cutter comedy beats of Seeking a Friend (as funny as they can be).

I think what’s most interesting here is just how normalized the idea of a low stakes response to the end of the world had become between 1999 & 2012. Don McKellar’s Apocalypse comedy is a dirt cheap production with a small cast & limited scope. Seeking a Friend, by contrast, features two recognizable stars (along with a long list of the time’s comedic up & comers: Patton Oswalt, Rob Corddry, Rob Huebel, Amy Schumer, Gillian Jacobs, TJ Miller, I’m out of breath) and spreads its story out over a wide range of road trip-driven set pieces. It’s far from a summer blockbuster in terms of scale, but it still boasts the generic feel of a studio-funded romantic comedy, however dark. When Don McKellar made Last Night in 1999, concluding an ensemble cast black comedy with a bright light signifying the Apocalypse was weird fodder for an off-kilter, low budget indie production. By 2012, it was familiar enough territory for a major studio romcom starring two household names. That’s a fairly quick turnaround on pop culture sensibilities, all things considered.

For more on December’s Movie of the Month, the lucid dreaming fantasy drama Paperhouse, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film.

-Brandon Ledet

Movie of the Month: Last Night (1999)

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Every month one of us makes the rest of the crew watch a movie they’ve never seen before & we discuss it afterwards. This month Alli made Brandon, Boomer, and Britnee watch Last Night (1999).

Alli: Primarily an actor, this is the first feature film Don McKellar directed. When approached by a film project about the Y2K scare, he became inspired to make a movie about the end of the world. Last Night is about the end of the world, but it’s not about explosions, catastrophic earthquakes, super volcanoes, global climate change, or even about the physical mechanism causing it at all. Told in loosely interconnected vignettes, It’s a movie about how people would react to the last moments they have left.

McKellar plays Patrick Wheeler, a sarcastic, neurotic loner, who just wants to enjoy some solitude on his last night, much to the dismay of his parents. As he comes back home from an awkward “Christmas” dinner with his family, he meets Sandra (Sandra Oh), who wants to get home to her husband (David Cronenberg) before the world ends.  In between, Jennifer (Sarah Polley), Patrick’s sister parties in the street, Donna (Tracy Wright) works in an office by herself dancing to the oldies, Craig (Callum Keith Rennie) hooks up with everyone, and Patrick’s family watches home videos. Slowly the movie counts down to midnight when the world will end.

Britnee, did you like the premise of an apocalyptic movie focusing on just the people, or were you missing the cause of it all?

Britnee: The idea of an apocalyptic movie focusing on human life rather than extreme environmental events seems like something that I would really enjoy, but I didn’t have the most pleasurable experience watching Last Night. I was so frustrated with just about every single character throughout the entire movie, especially Sandra. She was such a robot, and although this was more than likely purposefully done, I wanted to pull my hair out watching her unsuccessfully make her journey home to her husband before the world ends. Just watching her choose between two bottles of wine in the looted convenience store drove me crazy! Her last hours of human life were wasted by her lollygagging around the city, and the sad part is that she didn’t even seem as though she was happy or at peace with the fact that the world is ending. The only characters who were not total disappointments were Jennifer and Craig because they made the most out of their last few hours on Earth when compared to everyone else. I get that this film took a more comical approach to the end of the world, and it may seem as though I’m taking the film a bit to seriously, but my nerves were completely shot by the end.

Speaking of the ending, I was really shocked at the way the film concluded. As Patrick and Sandra each have a pistol romantically pressed against each other’s skulls, one would expect their brain juice to be splatter all over the place as the countdown to the world’s end get in the single digits. Of course, a film as unpredictable as Last Night would not end in such an expected way. They both pull the guns away from each other after the countdown is over, and instead of bursting into flames (or whatever is supposed to happen to humans when the world ends), they start making out. It wasn’t a disappointing ending at all, but it just didn’t feel very satisfying. I think I wasn’t satisfied with the ending because I didn’t vibe with Patrick and Sandra’s nonchalant characters.

Boomer, were you satisfied by the not-so-morbid ending of Last Night? Were you bored by Patrick and Sandra’s relationship?

Boomer: Usually, you and I are pretty in-sync when it comes to MotM flicks, Britnee. This time, though, it looks like we had contrary opinions. I loved this movie much more than I expected to, and while I thought that the relationship between Patrick and Sandra was one of the less compelling elements in the larger, more engaging gestalt, it certainly didn’t rub me the wrong way in the way that it seems to have affected you. With regards to the ending, however, I have to admit that I found it more sad than expected (not even counting the death of Cronenberg’s Duncan); for the entire film, I kept expecting the other shoe to drop, for some last minute miracle to fend off the end of the world. The general atmosphere of the nineties hung so low and thick over the ambiance of the film that I kept expecting all the Sturm und Drang about the end of the world to be a lot of sound and fury that signified nothing, much like the Y2K bug (which, to be fair, could have been as disastrous a technological issue as was advertised were it not for the efforts of computer engineers to prevent the “crash”). It wasn’t until sometime around the 10 PM chyron that I realized that night wasn’t falling and began to accept that the end of the world might be legitimate.

I did find Sandra and Patrick to be compelling, although I felt a greater empathy for Sandra, especially as her quiet desperation to die with agency, instead of falling victim to the indifferent vicissitudes of fate, escalated as that agency slipped through her fingers.  Patrick’s initial scenes painted him somewhat unsympathetically; though we later got some insight into his past that informed this behavior, that poor first impression never quite left me. Overall, although we spend most of the film with these two, I was more captivated by the quieter moments that we spent with other characters, and the human condition demonstrated therein. I was particularly captivated by the woman on the trolley whose existential crisis has left her in a state of near catatonia, as well as the silent acceptance of death that played out as Geneviève Bujold’s Mme. Carlton spends her final hour in a mostly empty music hall.

So, here’s the part where I make a confession. I wrote the above paragraph on the day before the night of the election, and today is the day after. There’s a lot of anxiety in the air today, especially among and on behalf of LGBTQIA folk, people of color, and those of non-Christian faiths. The number of hate crimes against the historically disenfranchised has skyrocketed already, and many among us are afraid of what’s to come. Whether or not a societal collapse is inevitable (as it is in this film) or avertable (as Y2K was), Last Night speaks to me more strongly now than it did just a week ago when I first saw it. Will we have an initial outburst of rabblerousing and violence that peaks and dies as we all accept, and perhaps embrace, the end as it comes? Only time will tell.

Brandon, did you find that particular premise, of a society that panics and then accepts its death with dignity (for the most part) believable? As a concept, it mostly exists to set the table for the human drama to unfold in a world that mostly reflects ours, with focus on the subtle apprehension thereof rather than having characters deal with the fallout of a radically different social environment (as is usually the case in films with this subject matter). If it is believable, why? If not, why does it work anyway?

Brandon: I think the major reason Last Night works as well as it does for me might be the very reason it frustrated Britnee. There’s a defeatist resignation to most of the characters that I found fascinating from scene to scene, whether it manifested in strong convictions like Sandra’s determined quest for a romantic suicide or the more delusional avoidance of unpleasant thoughts from folks like Patrick’s nostalgic parents and the woman on the go-nowhere bus. There are no non-believers in this world. Everyone has accepted that The End is nigh, from the mentally deranged, self-appointed town crier to the well-tailored business man with a wealthy homestead. And yet, although there’s no real point for society to continue to carry on, the gas company makes sure their utilities keep flowing, news broadcasts continue to air, sex work still thrives, and so on. I think the major reason this all resonates as realistic to me is that the panic before the calm, much like the exact cause for the impending Apocalypse, occurs two whole months before the film begins. We aren’t privy to the moment when the world accepts its doomed fate. We only witness their mental unraveling once the dust of the initial panic has settled. They’ve had two months to come to terms with their collective ruin and although everything is calm on the surface (like when Sandra is picking out her last bottle of wine in the decimated grocery store), mental anguish finds its own way to disrupt the facade: a nihilistic approach to sexual experimentation, a choreographed romantic suicide, a dissent into meaningless acts of violence & vandalism, etc.

Like Boomer said, it’s difficult to discuss this particular film this particular week without relating it to the doom & gloom of the disastrous election that’s just behind us. The idea that as inauguration day approaches in the next two months, this End of the World feeling we’re enduring will become normalized & emotionally dulling is a nightmare, but a realistic one. With all national travesties I’ve witnessed in my lifetime (9/11, Hurricane Katrina, recent years’ recordings of consequence-free police brutality/murder, etc.) there’s always an immediate, media-covered mass mania that’s then followed by a more subtle, muted aftereffect that’s far more damaging to the collective psyche, yet typically ignored as complacency sets in. Last Night pictures an entire society (Toronto, to be specific) with a shared PTSD, a collective mental anguish that expresses itself in a variety of quietly dysfunctional ways. This is far more realistic to me than what an End of the World scenario usually looks like in cinema (consider, for instance, Last Night‘s contemporary, Armageddon) and I think beginning & ending the film within that post-acceptance existential crisis was a brilliant move on McKellar’s part. Trying to capture the initial panic might not have rang nearly as true and I’ve only seen a couple films in the years before or since that approach The End in the same way (Seeking a Friend for the End of the World being the most immediate example that comes to mind). It’s feeling especially likely this week that we might get a chance within our own lifetimes to see exactly how realistic that actually is, so maybe time will tell.

The only thing that McKellar didn’t get exactly right for me (and I’m sensing this same complaint coming from both Boomer & Britnee) is his own performance in the lead role. There’s a lot of 90s genre convention in this movie that I’m totally on board with: the laid back Gen-X vibe, the all-in-one-day temporal setting, the everyone-is-connected vignette structure. I just can’t get past parts of McKellar’s performance as Patrick. He seems to believe that the character he wrote for himself is more likable than he really is, as if his 90s-specific cynicism is something to be celebrated in the face of so many deluded phonies who don’t “get it” the way he does. It’s true that Patrick gradually becomes more sympathetic as the film goes on, but a lot of his dialogue felt like the early efforts of a first-time writer-director, while other, better actors in the film did a much more artful job with the material. It reminded me a lot of the sore-thumb performances Tarantino sometimes delivers in his own films, despite the apparent fact that acting really isn’t his forte. Alli, do you think McKellar’s performance is a detriment to his own movie? I find myself wondering if Last Night (which I should stress that I really enjoyed on the whole) might’ve been improved if he were merely a side character, replaced by another actor, or removed completely, but that might just be my personal desire for Cronenberg, Oh, and Polley to grab more of a spotlight clouding my judgement.

Alli: I didn’t expect the timing of us watching this to be so apt. Sorry for being such a downer, everyone. I actually chose it because I think the countdown makes it a good New Year’s Eve movie, which I guess is still being a downer in a different way.

The first time I watched this movie I was definitely uncomfortable with Patrick as a character. At first he’s just rude and unpleasant. After that, he’s detached and sarcastic. I would say that McKellar’s performance in the role is very stiff and awkward. I think he fell less into the Tarantino and more into a Woody Allen trap, playing the “lovable” asshole. “Lovable” here defined as intolerable. I’m glad he doesn’t stay that way for the whole movie, but I think if more of his tragic story could have been revealed earlier on it would have made me more sympathetic.

A movie with more from Duncan (Cronenberg) would be great. I really do want to know how he ended up getting home even though Sandra was having a hell of a time.  Actually I would be really curious to see this movie with any of the other characters having a bigger role. It’s really compelling to have a movie full of characters where all of them, for me anyway, are interesting. They all have their sad goals and just barely hidden animosity for how unfair it all is. I think one of the things this movie does really well is showing all kinds of coping, which basically boils down to what kind of weird jerk are you in a crisis. I think I understand where Britnee is coming from in that they’re all very narcissistic in their own way, with the exception of Jennifer and her boyfriend, who are just along for the ride.  It’s all about their personal expectations at the end, letting themselves down seems like a bigger concern than imminent death.

Speaking of expectations, something really interesting to me about this movie is the soundtrack. It feels so personal to every character and setting. Everyone is concerned with setting just the right atmosphere. There’s a DJ committed to playing his favorite top 500 songs of all time with no requests, which is an eclectic blend of oldies. Patrick’s parents are continuing the Christmas tunes. Craig has his 70’s funk. Patrick himself seems preoccupied with finding the perfect end of the world music debating on various classical composers. It ends on Pete Seeger’s rendition of “Guantanamera“, which when I looked it up was also used in the Godfather Part II in the New Years scene in Havana.  I don’t know if that was an intentional coincidence with the New Year’s imagery or just an exercise of what is the strangest song you could go out on.

Britnee, what do you make of the soundtrack? Is it all just as big of a disappointment as everything else everyone is doing? I think another thing this movie invites is the question of how we would personally choose to spend our last hours. Do you have  a song in mind?

Britnee: I actually thought the soundtrack was pretty entertaining, especially Craig’s sex music. I’m pretty sure that Craig had the same sexy funk song on repeat for each encounter, and I let out a ton of good laughs each time the song came on. Honestly, Craig is probably my favorite character in the movie, and maybe his own personal “soundtrack” has more to do with this than I thought. I also completely forgot about the radio DJ and his personal music countdown until you mentioned it. That guy was living his best life, even though he only had a couple of hours left of the best life he was living. The film’s soundtrack really does play a bigger role in Last Night than in most films because everyone’s own personal soundtrack really represents their personalities. This would explain why Patrick got on my nerves too. He just couldn’t pick a damn song!

If I could have my end of the world song, I would hands down pick “Cloudbusting” by Kate Bush. I would need a song that would make me feel as though the end of the world is not truly the end of everything. The lyrics “I just know that something good is going to happen. And I don’t know when, but just saying it could even make it happen” reminds me of having hope in the most dire situations, and I would definitely need that reassurance while waiting for the world to end.

Boomer, If you had to spend your final hours on Earth with just one character from this movie, who would it be and why?

Boomer: Hands down, I would spend my last day with Craig. I was inordinately excited when I saw Callum “Canada’s Brad Pitt” Rennie’s name in the opening crawl, and found myself a little disappointed that Patrick didn’t take him up on his offer. Regardless of sexual orientation, who could turn down an end of days romp in the hay with 1998 vintage Rennie? I certainly couldn’t. On a less shallow note, I think that Donna and I would have a good time together as the curtain fell on our world. Between her unrestrained dancing to the music on the radio (more on that in a moment), her secret drinking (in moderation) and the relative reasonableness of her final desires (knock shit off desks, get plowed), she seems like an agreeable and pleasant person to know, end of the world or not. I also can’t stop thinking about Jessica Booker’s Rose: her restrained indignation about people’s misplaced priorities and her resignation to spending her last hours with a family to which she doesn’t technically belong, watching their home movies. You can be my granny anytime, Rose.

Speaking of music, I appreciate this discussion pointing out how each person approaches the preparation of a soundtrack for the end of the world; what should be a relatively effortless task is treated by various characters with varying degrees of solemnity and gravitas. It’s a lot easier to make a playlist that suits your mood and activities in 2016 than it was in 1998, but I don’t think that I’d find it any easier to choose the musical arrangement of my transcendence to oblivion with Spotify or Grooveshark than it would be with a stack of CDs or records (other than to say I would definitely not be in attendance at Menzies’s show). I find myself in disagreement with Britnee again, however (why is this movie tearing us apart?!); I didn’t care for the soundtrack overall. As a longtime DJ at KNWD and KLSU and former Chief Announcer at the latter, I appreciate the prominence of the unseen man whose voice touches different scenes. I won’t deny that a bittersweet smile broke across my face when he threw his playlog to the wind and broadcast what he wanted, but the movie truly revealed the narrowness of its budget when it came to the music selection. The final song was fine, given the way that it was woven into the narrative, but I would think that I’d recognize more than one or two tracks on the countdown of the “greatest songs of all time.”

To backtrack a little to our nihilism in the face of the gestating sea-to-shining-sea fascist regime, I’ve always prided myself on my belief that my worldview would more or less mirror Patrick’s: quiet acceptance of the end. When my friends would compare plans to bug out in the face of viral epidemics, bunker down against the nuclear song of fire and ice, or imagine themselves as the one who fought off a crazy with an assault rifle, I never wanted to participate; I instead pointed out that the majority of people would die in the first wave and that I accepted without complaint that I would be one of them. Who knows where any of us will be a year from now (history tells us that they come for artists, writers, and teachers first, and the registry for the last of these is already slouching toward Megiddo, DC, waiting to be born), but I can say that I never expected that the end would come with whispery goose-stepping past the Lincoln Memorial and Tila Tequila declaring “sig heil.” I’ve been less self-assured of late. Like Britnee, I am afraid: afraid for myself, afraid for my Muslim neighbors, afraid for every person with flesh that errs on the far side of ochre, afraid for my queer brothers and sisters, afraid of a bleak future that extends to the horizon and afraid of how far that future might extend beyond the rim of my sight. All I know is that I’ve been getting a lot of mileage out of Patrick’s final scene in recent days: “ln a way, l feel kind of privileged. I mean, it’s the biggest thing that ever happened, and we’re gonna be there. I mean, no one was there to witness the beginning, but we’re gonna be there at the end.”

Brandon, it seems I’ve gone a little maudlin, although no more so than is called for in these dark days, I’m afraid. Let me ask: which character’s final moments do you feel best reflect how you would imagine you’d face your last day? Whose final moments resonate with you most, on a personal level?

Brandon: It’s much easier for me to answer that question than I’d care to admit, since I’ve already thought about it a lot. Like Boomer, I always pictured myself just sort of accepting immediate demise in a Doomsday scenario. I’m deeply creeped out by “doomsday preppers” who stockpile weapons & escape plans for a possible Apocalypse, since it seems like they’re actually looking forward to humanity’s final moments in an exceedingly unseemly way (with John Goodman’s recent performance as a prepper type in 10 Cloverfield Lane being a great illustration of what I mean by that). My own final day in a planned-ahead-of-time Apocalypse would likely fall on one of the two sides of Patrick’s family, depending on what kind of endgame scenario we’re talking about. If we’re talking a real life Trumpian death by nuclear holocaust (or whatever other kind of holocaust our president-elect could easily trigger in office), I’d probably go out like Patrick’s parents. I’d spend my final hours glumly going through my things, eating a nice meal with loved ones, and (although I don’t particularly care about Christmas) staging one final run-through of a favorite holiday or activity: Halloween, Mardi Gras, my birthday, a film marathon, something like that. On the other hand, if we’re talking a natural or supernatural event like the one hinted at in Last Night, a demise far outside humanity’s control, I’d like to think I’d go out like Patrick’s sister, Jennifer, played by Sarah Polley. I’d love to spend my final minutes strapping on a stupid party hat, raising a bottle of champagne to the soon-to-disappear sky, and yelling drunkenly with a bunch of other doomed idiots celebrating their own final moments on this garbage planet. There’s a the-band-keeps-playing-as-the-ship-sinks vibe to that mentality that I’ve always closely identified with (which is probably why one last Mardi Gras ranks so high on my list of wishes & wants).

Speaking of that partying until the bitter end mentality, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention my favorite gag of the entire film in this conversation. There’s a very brief scene in which a news report details the world’s largest guitar jam taking place in humanity’s hour of crisis. The song the doomed souls decide to play & sing together? Bachman-Turner Overdrive’s “Taking Care of Business,” one of the most inane pop songs I could imagine given the severity of the setting and, like Boomer pointed out, one of the only songs of any cultural significance the film shelled out money for. We’ve been pretty dour as we talk over this film’s themes & tone, which is to be expected given the total shit show 2016 has been on the whole and the imminent doom we’re staring down ourselves, but it’d be a shame if we didn’t make it clear that it’s successfully funny as a comedy as well. Although understandably bleak, Last Night is consistently humorous throughout and there’s a brilliance to the brevity of that “Taking Care of Business” gag that sums up the believable way the film portrays mass mania in the face of humanity’s impending extinction.

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Lagniappe

Brandon: I think it’s worth repeating that although this film was framed and marketed as a Y2K movie, it doesn’t need or rely on that cultural context for longevity in its significance. Even if he wasn’t particularly smart about casting himself as the lead role, McKellar was dead on in completely avoiding direct mention of the machinations of the Apocalypse in the story and instead focusing on humanity’s reaction to the crisis. Besides straining the limitations of the budget, any kind of asteroid or Y2K bug or killer spiders or what have you threatening the world might’ve reduced Last Night to a novelty (again, just look to Michael Bay’s Armageddon for context there). By avoiding the narrative gratification of knowing exactly what’s going on globally and instead focusing on the small details of interpersonal drama within that crisis, McKellar made something a lot more significant and potentially timeless, which is a funny thing to say about a work that feels so Gen-X 90s in its resigned shrug of a tone.

Britnee: Last Night and the conversation we had about the movie has made me realize that I am super scared about the end of the world. I think that may be why I didn’t vibe well with the movie. I wasn’t able to connect with any character because no one was screaming and freaking out like I would have been. If no one hears from me for a few weeks, please check for me in my closet. I’ll probably be in the fetal position in the corner.

Boomer: I don’t know what song I would choose to be my doomsday knell, but I can tell you that last week at karaoke there was only one song on my mind: the late Leonard’s “Everybody Knows.” It seemed the most apropos (well, actually, “Democracy” seemed most suited for the situation, but I wasn’t prepared to be on stage for eight straight minutes): “Everybody knows that the dice are loaded / Everybody rolls with their fingers crossed / Everybody knows the war is over / Everybody knows the good guys lost / Everybody knows the fight was fixed / The poor stay poor, the rich get rich / That’s how it goes / Everybody knows.”

Alli: It’s interesting to be living in a time that we sort of have to think about the end of it all. It’s also interesting to watch a quiet, personal take. While we’re not exactly in the same circumstances as Patrick and co, Last Night feels eerily relevant. I guess while we’re making plans and if we’re just looking at the current situation, I think I have to regretfully inform everyone that I’d be joining in with the hooligans and smashing stuff up. I need a good primal scream and to smash some things.  If we’re talking about a natural event though, I think I’d have a big party and make a lot of food for anyone who wants to come.

Upcoming Movies of the Month
January: The Top Films of 2016
February: Brandon presents Society (1992)

-The Swampflix Crew

The Earth Dies Screaming (1964)

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Sometimes efficiency is the most impressive quality a movie can boast, especially in the case of schlocky genre fare. From the outside looking in, The Earth Dies Screaming might not appear to be much. As an alien invasion sci-fi horror from the drive-in 60s that barely clocks in at an hour’s length, it’d be easy to dismiss the film outright as a filler title on some indistinct double bill. The film is far more interesting than its pedigree would lead you to believe, however, and one of its best qualities is that it recognizes the limits of its somewhat slight premise and chooses to stick to the point. The Earth Dies Screaming smartly avoids overexplaining the exact scope & nature of its murderous alien threat and instead uses the mystery & minute to minute deadly obstacles posed by its otherworldly dread to propel the plot forward through several unexpected gear shifts until the whole thing’s over before you know it. The film may look cheaply made & hastily produced, but you gotta respect that kind of genre flick efficiency.

Although you can pinpoint other genre films that have utilized individual elements of The Earth Dies Screaming for more fully realized conflicts, this particular cheapie achieves a very specific aesthetic by gathering all of those elements in a single, well-tuned vehicle. I kind of feel like the genre film equivalent of a fine wine snob while watching this one, detecting hints of 28 Days later, The Village of the Damned, and The Night of the Living Dead with a strong The Day the Earth Stood Still undertone rounding out the bouquet. In the film’s dialogue-free five minute opening most of the world’s population is seemingly struck dead by a mysterious gas, later revealed to have been released by a malicious alien race. Planes, trains, and automobiles crash as their individual pilots are strewn about, lifeless. The few survivors in a rural England town find themselves isolated form the world with no radio or television broadcasts seemingly able to make it through the chaos. The horrors don’t end there, though, as an army of killer alien robots is deployed to sweep the streets of any temporarily lucky survivors and, just in case that wasn’t enough, they’re followed by an undead, mindcontrolled zombie hoard. The alien threat of The Earth Dies Screaming is one thing after another, a continually shifting obstacle course that pummels its audience and its victims with just the right rhythm to remain surprising & just the right runtime to never outwear its welcome.

I guess there might be some kind of lesson at the heart of this film about the best attribute of humanity being in comradery. Our would-be victims (ranging from a drunken cad to a young pregnant woman to an all-American alpha male, all strangers) find their best chance of survival in their ability to solve their differences & work together as a unit. That aspect of the film’s formula is faint at best, though, especially when compared to more heavy-handed message pieces like The Day the Earth Stood Still or nuclear paranoia monster pictures like Godzilla or Them!. Here, the alien threat has no real discernible intent outside pure malice. There’s no source or ending for the attack and instead of worrying about context the film instead eats up its runtime with details like its robots’ Touch of Death executions & its zombies’ whiteout contacts. In the age where big budget action franchises have no foreseeable end in sight & follow a carnival act trajectory of promising the next big thing down the road without ever having to deliver a self-contained product (much like pro wrestling or, better yet, those films’ comic book source material), there’s a satisfying quality to this kind of genre filmmaking simplicity that’s more than a little refreshing. Despite what’s promised in this film’s (undeniably badass) title, the Earth could actually use a lot more of this contextless, go-for-broke efficiency.

-Brandon Ledet

X-Men: Apocalypse (2016)

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I’ve only enjoyed 1 out of 4 of the major superhero releases that have hit theaters so far this year. Well, 2 out of 5 if the new Ninja Turtles movie counts (I am silly & weak). Either way, those are not great numbers & I’m starting to wonder if I’m the problem, not the films themselves. X-Men: Apocalypse, Batman v. Superman, and Deadpool all have their rabid defenders (especially that last one, unfortunately), but they each gave me a distinct “What am I even doing here?” anxiety while watching them in the theater, as if I had accidentally stumbled into the wrong prayer service at a funeral home. I was hoping that Apocalypse was going to be a repeat of the Days of Future Past scenario where critical consensus was  little harsh on what was mostly a decent, ambitious-but-messy superhero plot. Instead I found myself scratching my head for the entirety of its massive 147 min runtime, questioning why I left the house in the first place & silently wishing the apocalypse promised in the title would actually end this franchise for good. Of course, producers don’t think that way & Apocalypse wound up functioning as not one, but two franchise reboots for a property that’s already hit the reset button twice in the last five years.

The worst thing about that reset button is that it frames X-Men in a world without consequence. It’s fairly common for a superhero movie to have a seemingly insurmountable Big Bad threaten to End It All for vaguely hateful personal reasons that apparently call for the destruction of all life. Apocalypse‘s titular Big Bad even conforms to the recently omnipresent trope of the supervillain threatening to end humanity in order to “save the world” or whatever. As we saw at the end of Days of Future Past, though, this is a series where the slate can be wiped clean with the mere wave of a hand, so that threat is thoroughly empty. New, hip teens can be brought in to replace the aging X-Men of yesteryear with essentially no notice or pretense. If Apocalypse destroys Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters or the entire planet that hosts it, it’s no matter. A couple CGI-aided actors in leather jumpsuits can stand around in an empty field and put it all back together using only their minds & magic fingertips. So many tiny parts are interchangeable in the X-Men series that the big picture never changes at all. A character’s sibling can die in an explosion, leading to single moment of solemn reflection, but then be forgotten forever because nothing truly matters. Another character may have gotten not one, but two origin stories before in the very same franchise, but why not toss out a third for the sake of a violent comedy bit? Who gives a shit? Wipe away a memory, create an alternate universe, regress a character’s age & allegiance until they look like a Hot Topic/Disney’s Descendants knockoff of their former selves: there’s a million ways to erase history for in-the-moment convenience & X-Men: Apocalypse‘s single spark of ambition is the way it’s hellbent on exploiting them all.

Apocalypse frames its story around some Gods of Egypt-type nonsense in its early machinations, but its true gimmick/reason for existing is to make a superhero version of VH1’s I Love the 80s. How do we know it’s the 80s? In case the Cold War communism & Hot Tub Time Machine-style “Look at these goofy clothes!” visual cues aren’t enough, a character helpfully declares, “Welcome to the 80s,” a line that’s so amusingly mishandled that it recalls a moment in Tremors 4: The Legend Begins where a character anachronistically explains, “Well, this is The Old West . . .” 2011’s X-Men: First Class was an actually-refreshing mashing of the reset button, revitalizing an exhausted franchise by giving it some 60s mod spy media swank & a few fresh faces. Days of Future Past brought in some 70s political intrigue & sci-fi wankery that managed to keep the period piece angle fresh. I’m not sure what, if anything, the 80s setting brings to the table in Apocalypse: Cyclops wearing Ray-Bans? A trip to the mall? The film even missed an opportunity to include “Walk Like an Egyptian” on the soundtrack, which seems like a huge oversight considering the its dual timelines. The temporal setting plays like a vague afterthought handled mostly by the costuming department instead of directly influencing the plot or form. I’m interested to see how the 90s nostalgia is handled in the next installment’s natural progression, but Apocalypse‘s That’s So 80s stylization leaves little room for a promising future (past) there.

With the plot of Apocalypse not worth much thought or examination (a mean baddie from ancient times fails to destroy the world in the 80s & Wolverine pops in for brief contract-fulfillment), it’s probably best to discuss the film in terms of how it handles its many rebooted, retweaked characters. Honestly, though, there’s not a whole lot going on there either. Jennifer Lawrence looks downright miserable as Mystique, grimly going through the motions in the guise of a disaffected 80s punk. Newcomers Sophie Turner & Tye Sheridan are disappointingly dull in their respective roles as Jean Grey & Cyclops, especially considering the promise of their just-getting-revved-up careers, but at least that’s somewhat faithful to the charisma vacuum established by Famke Janssen & James Marsden in past entries? Wolverine is thankfully relegated to a cameo role here after getting more than his share of screen time in past entries, but since that role once again returns to his Origins it plays disappointingly like a Groundhog Day purgatory of a mutant/actor who can’t escape his past. Quicksilver’s literal show-stopping gag from the last film is repeated here as a special effects centerpiece, but I have a hard time caring about it much either, given the character’s winking-at-the-camera “Ain’t I a stinker?” PG Deadpool humor. The immensely talented Rose Byrne also returns only to be a continual butt of a joke that’s never quite funny. Only Michael Fassbender’s turn as Magneto registers as exceptional in any way, but the emotional severity of his work feels like it’s in an entirely different movie than the grey mush that surrounds him, so when he yells, “Is this what you want from me?! Is this what I am?!” at an indifferent god, it plays as overwrought & entirely out of place.

That leaves the conundrum of Oscar Isaac’s villainous performance as Apocalypse, which, while not necessarily great, stands out as the film’s sole source of entertainment value for me. Guardians of the Galaxy had a weird way of stealing Lee Pace’s sex appeal by turning him blue & covering up his luscious eyebrows. Apocalypse does one better and blues/obscures Oscar Isaac’s entire beautiful face, even accentuating his nose with a phallic cleft that recalls Dan Aykroyd’s prosthetic dick nose in the cinematic abomination Nothing But Trouble. Isaac’s performance is even stranger than his make-up, though. I swear he’s doing a dead-on, goth-bent impersonation of Tony Shalhoub throughout the film as he continually breaks the fourth wall & delivers Anonymous/Redditor-type monologues that would make Ben Kingsley’s Iron Man 3 baddie The Mandarin blush at their inanity. Isaac & Apocalypse are underutilized & more silly than threatening, but they’re easily the most entertaining aspect of a film that’s largely a pleasureless void. This may go down in history in Isaac’s worst performance in a so-far phenomenal career, but I gotta admit it was a lot of fun to watch.

I may have missed a few details here or there while periodically rolling my eyes during X-Men: Apocalypse, but I saw enough of the film’s zany 80s wardrobe, seriously questionable CGI, and wildly out-of-place body horror (don’t worry; there’s no permanent consequences for physical dismemberment here either) to get the gist. The movie sucks. Worse yet, it knows it sucks, as evidenced by Jean Grey’s admission after a screening of Return of the Jedi, “At least we can all agree the third one is always the worst.” Not only is that statement oddly anachronistic (the endless sequel cycle was not quite solid yet in 1983 outside Jaws & Star Wars), it also draws attention to the mess X-Men has made of itself at large. Is this the third entry in the franchise (starting, presumably, with First Class)? Feels more like the ninth for me, considering everything that’s branched off from Bryan Singer’s original adaptation in 2000. In the 16 years that have followed, the series has seen some highs & lows of note (those two Wolverine standalones being especially rough), but I don’t know if it’s ever felt this lifeless or devoid of purpose. What are we still doing here? What’s the point of any of this if it all can be fixed & rebuilt with the light shake of a CG Etch-A-Sketch? Why was the series’s eternally malleable gene mutation theme not put to any metaphorical use here, despite it being the one thing that distinguishes it from the rest of the superhero pack?  Without that metaphorical distinction, what reason does the audience have to show up in the first place? I don’t have the answers & it doesn’t seem that Bryan Singer does either.

At best X-Men: Apocalypse feels like it’s treading water until it can deliver a Totally 90s nostalgia trip in its upcoming sequel. And it knows that it’s delivering a mediocre product in the mean time, as evidenced by statements before & after the screening noting that the movie’s production created thousands of jobs for hardworking folks who are just doing their best, as if buying a theater ticket for yet another drab superhero disaster is somehow an act of charity & not a total waste of hard-earned money. I remain dubious to that point.

-Brandon Ledet