Voyagers (2021)

I remember discussing Aniara and High Life as sister films when they first went into wide release in 2019: two ice-cold space travel narratives about the doomed prospects of humanity surviving the next few decades of Climate Change decimation.  And now we have met those sisters’ goofy little brother in Voyagers: a trashy YA space thriller on a similar subject but without their sense of purpose or coherence.  It’s difficult to say whether Voyagers is “about” the same existential concerns as Aniara or High Life.  If Voyagers is about anything at all, it might just be a grim warning that teenage hormones are dangerous for space travel.  Mostly, it’s just a mockbuster echo of themes that have been tackled in much more thoughtful, substantial works before it (including Equals and The Lord of the Flies, among the two already mentioned), ensuring that it will only be exciting to a teen audience young enough to not have seen this exact ground tread before.  Thankfully, genre filmmaking doesn’t have to be entirely novel to be worthwhile; it just has to be entertaining.

Like in Aniara and High Life, Voyagers follows a doomed, decades-spanning mission to preserve the human race in the farthest reaches of outer space, leaving a decaying Earth behind.  It skips over the more complexly philosophical and moralistic conflicts of its smarter sister films so it can quickly get to the good stuff: shirtless teen boys wrestling on a spaceship.  Where Aniara and High Life will ask big-concept sci-fi questions about the ethics of forcibly bringing children into a world that is already ending before our eyes, Voyagers instead rapidly ages those children until they’re hormonal powder-kegs, then smashes them together like Barbie dolls in PG-13 friendly make-out sessions.  It occasionally pretends to be about the chaotic selfishness of human nature or the dangerous appeal of populist right-wing politics, but it’s heart not really in it.  This is not a cinema of ideals or ideas.  This is a thirst-trap movie for teens where everyone involved is their age, horny, inexplicably heterosexual, and the boys among them love to wrestle.  The only reason it’s even set in outer space is that sometimes a hatch will open so the boys’ shirts will fly right off into the vacuum, revealing their abs for the swooning audience at home.

Voyagers is a bad movie.  It’s also a strangely compelling one.  There are some truly chaotic editing choices in its early stretch when the starbound teens first discover the joys of living horny & unmedicated, their minds’ eye opened to universe in rapid-fire montage of Ed Woodian stock footage.  Not since Lucy has a film so confidently dived headfirst into stock-footage psychedelia on this level of sublime inanity.  It’s too bad that editing-room giddiness cools down once the horny teen violence heats up; if they had worked in tandem this could’ve been worthy of Midnight Movie programming for decades into the future.  Instead, it’s the kind of so-bad-it’s-decently-entertaining novelty that you shamefully watch on the couch alone, shuttering the windows to hide your shame from the neighbors.  I wouldn’t recommend the film so much as I would bashfully admit that I had a fun time watching it – my appreciation crumbling under any scrutiny or pushback against its many, many faults.  If you want a Good Movie, watch High Life or Aniara.  That’s not what Voyagers is for.

-Brandon Ledet

Lagniappe Podcast: Snowpiercer (2013)

For this lagniappe episode of the podcast, Boomer and Brandon discuss Bong Joon-ho’s English-language debut Snowpiercer, which was selected as Swampflix’s Movie of the Year in our very first week as a website.

You can stay up to date with our podcast through SoundCloudSpotifyiTunesStitcherYouTubeTuneIn, or by following the links below.

– Brandon Ledet & Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Aniara (2019)

Among the big-city dwellers who were lucky enough to see it on the big screen, Claire Denis’s High Life proved to be one of the year’s more divisive films. That work’s stubbornly esoteric allegories about climate change & humanity’s isolation in an uncaring universe could either register as captivating or exhaustively boring depending on its audience’s sensibilities – an effect Denis only amplified by rooting the story in prolonged, systemic cruelty. Even the Swampflix crew was divided on the film’s merits, with Boomer filing a negative review for it the same week CC & I sang its praises on the podcast. In some ways, I wish that same awe-and-vitriol divide had been afforded to this year’s other brutal space travel allegory, Aniara, which shares a lot of thematic ground with High Life when considered in the abstract. Instead, Aniara has been suffering the much worse fate of not being talked about at all. Ever since it premiered at TIFF last year, Aniara has been damned with faint praise as a decent-enough, 3-star sci-fi yarn, which naturally stirs up a lot less critical conversation than the wild, alienating swings of Denis’s film. That’s a shame, since it covers similar thematic territory as the more divisive, attention-grabbing work in a way I think a lot more people would be receptive to. And it’s just sitting right there on Hulu, largely unwatched & undiscussed.

Maybe it’s only genre nerds who’ve spent hundreds of hours watching SyFy Channel reruns of venerated series like Star Trek & Battlestar Galactica who would be greatly excited by Aniara’s melancholy space travel mood. It shares existential climate change themes with High Life, but its story is much more linear & traditionally structured than its arthouse counterpart. At least, it appears that way in the early goings. As the boundaryless void of outer space and the meaningless of time for those drifting across it becomes increasingly apparent, the movie gradually blossoms into its own blissfully bizarre object. No matter how familiar the film’s storytelling structure & spaceship setting may first appear, it’s ultimately a surreal, existential descent into despair that processes the horrors of climate change through a deep-space travel narrative. It features a bisexual female scientist as the lead, dabbles in the psychedelia of futuristic space-cult religions, and argues that maybe bringing new children into a dying world isn’t necessarily the best idea – a tough, but worthwhile topic given our current path to extinction. No film that embodies all those potentially alienating elements should be brushed off as “conventional,” no matter how familiar its tone & setting might feel to sci-fi television storytelling ritual. It’s just that it’s more adventurous & ambitious in its ideas than it is in its formal structure, which could be said about plenty sci-fi classics of the past.

A massive spaceship ferrying a routine transportation haul of human passengers from Earth to Mars is unexpectedly thrown off-course by space junk debris. The captain of the ship informs his horrified passengers that their trip will now take months instead of hours. Those months turn into years as it becomes increasingly unclear whether the ship will ever return home at all. The organic supplies that generate fresh food & oxygen gradually start to rot. Drifting through space with no hope or purpose, the passengers search for higher meaning & easy escapism in their severely limited environment. This mostly entails visits to Mima – a machine that broadcasts holodeck-style images of Nature into the minds of its users. Even before they were stranded on this spaceship, this imagery belonged to a nostalgic past before Earth was wrecked by climate change. Through Mima, it’s now twice removed from its original source, and becomes an addictive tool for mental escapism in what’s essentially a prison ship. Of course, this shipwide abuse of Mima is not sustainable in the long run; the demands of the passengers far outweigh the supply. As the passengers search for other, grander ways to find meaning in their endless drift into the void of deep space (and wrestle with the morality of bringing newborns into such a nihilistic environment), we experience daily life on the titular ship through the eyes of Mima’s operator – who suffers the full spectrum of love, loss, labor, and search for purpose while her years adrift endlessly accumulate.

I’d readily recommend Aniara to any & all sci-fi nerds who’ve ever gotten hooked on a long-running space travel series. I’d especially recommend it to those who were intrigued but frustrated by High Life earlier this year. Personally, both films hit me in about the same way on a thematic level, but I found it easier to buy into the linear, structured drama of Aniara on an emotional one (not least of all due to a stunner of a lead performance from Emelle Jonsson). I appreciated High Life more for its arthouse craft, whereas Aniara left me gutted and terrified for our inevitable near-future doom as a species. Both works are worthy of attention & discussion, even if you end up falling in love with neither.

-Brandon Ledet

Glen Pitre vs. Hurricane Katrina

There are many large-format movie screens spread across the city’s too-plentiful AMC multiplexes that profess to be “IMAX” theaters. It isn’t until you visit the city’s only true IMAX screen at the Aquarium that you realize how blatant of a lie those faux-MAX screens are by comparison. I was most recently confronted with that contextual reminder myself at a New Orleans Film Fest screening of the gross-out romantic body horror Are We Not Cats?. Watching the full hideous majesty of that film’s trichophagia & self-surgery on a skyscraper-scale movie screen was a memorably horrific experience, one that makes me wonder why that cinematic resource isn’t put to better use more often. Instead of regularly projecting similar artsy-fartsy monstrosities like The Neon Demon, Climax, or We Are the Flesh on the city’s biggest movie screen, it’s a resource that’s wasted on bullshit nature documentaries produced by tech nerds like Greg MacGillivray. Having developed three new cameras specifically designed to optimize the IMAX format himself, MacGillivray is seemingly more personally passionate about technical accomplishments than cinematic poetry. His movies boast titles like Dolphins, Coral Reef Adventure, Arabia 3D, and Greece: Secrets of the Past. They’re more concerned with format than they are with content, using the IMAX tech he helped develop more as an amusement park attraction than a theatrical tool. To me, the biggest offense in this waste of local theatrical space is that our one IMAX screen is regularly used to relive the horrors of Hurricane Katrina for visiting tourists, as if that event were just another Coral Reef Adventure, ripe for entertainment. It’s also an offense that directly concerns our current Movie of the Month.

When Glen Pitre directed Belizaire the Cajun in the mid-80s, he seemed poised to graduate from making low-budget, Cajun-French “gumbo Westerns” for local markets to directing much bigger indie affairs for legitimate festival distribution. Belizaire the Cajun’s presence at high-profile festivals like Sundance & Cannes offered a much wider platform for Pitre’s Cajun-fried indie movies, and you can find pictures of the former Cut Off resident rubbing elbows with the likes of Spike Lee & Jim Jarmusch while working that circuit. Those bigger productions never materialized, though. After a couple ignored thrillers & made-for-TV productions, Pitre retreated from the narrative feature format and sought to preserve & promote Cajun culture in a different way: by making documentaries. Pitre has dedicated the last few decades of his career to documentaries on local Nature & local culture, with a special focus on the dangers of wetlands erosion. That’s how Pitre found himself in collaboration with California tech nerd Greg MacGillivray. With funding from The Weather Channel to produce a program on Climate Change and funding from The Audubon Institute to educate tourists on the dangers of wetlands erosion, Pitre wrote and co-directed a 40-minute documentary for MacGillivray titled Hurricane on the Bayou. If the documentary short were made at any other time in Louisiana history, it would have been forgotten by now – no more worthy of discussion or easy to access than any of Pitre’s other nondescript local docs. Unfortunately, it began filming three months before the coast was wrecked by Hurricane Katrina in 2005, so it’s been playing in constant rotation in the city’s only legitimate IMAX screen for almost fifteen years now. Hurricane on the Bayou is, for worse or for much worse, the most easily accessible Glen Pitre film in terms of both theatrical and home video distribution.

Hurricane on the Bayou was originally conceived as a hypothetical “what if” scenario, warning gravely of the damage a high-category hurricane might cause without a healthy wetlands barrier protecting the coast. From what I can gather from the “Making Of” featurette produced by The Weather Channel, the film was already in post-production when Katrina hit. What had previously been filmed for IMAX theater distribution was a tidy educational film in which a baby-faced, Disney Channel-ready Amana Shaw took the audience on a tour of our actively disappearing wetlands inbetween narrating a fictional familial drama played out by real-life alligators and staging awkward fais do-do jam sessions with fellow local musicians Tab Benoit & Alan Toussaint (R.I.P.). Besides its large-format Nature footage, the other major showcase of IMAX tech lied in its Rescue 911-level dramatic reenactments of a 1950s Hurricane disaster, complete with CGI simulations of what a modern storm might look like – which is what I assume drew MacGillivray to the project in the first place. After Katrina hit, the tasteful thing to do would’ve been to abandon the project entirely and eat the loss. Instead, the crew retuned from Los Angeles to fight past local blockades and sneak their way back into the city to shoot large-format misery porn. Where MacGillivray’s projects would usually capture the majesty of swimming dolphins or some other screensaver bullshit, he instead hauled expensive, ginormous cameras around a flooded New Orleans to capture a city in emotional turmoil (including a now emotionally devastated Amanda Shaw). He then slapped a few paragraphs of narration from Meryl Strep on top to afford that exploitation an air of prestige. It’s gross. The project never should have been completed, much less have been allowed to play on continuous loop for fifteen years so that drunken tourists have a place to escape the sun for an hour of passive, air-conditioned entertainment.

I don’t think any less of Pitre for participating in this NOLAsploitation documentary. Watching the ”Making Of” featurette, it’s clear his heart was in the right place. Pitre gets incredibly choked up recounting the hell of filming in post-Katrina floodwaters, describing the roadside corpses & decimated cityscape as if he had navigated a warzone. The stated purpose of the documentary was to promote “good stewardship of our habitat” in the context of preserving wetlands (this was before Katrina floods were recontextualized as a man-made infrastructure disaster, another reason why this film should disappear forever), but Pitre is much more truthful about its actual effect. He explains that “people need to see it” on the biggest screen possible, since Katrina’s full impact isn’t truly felt on small-screen TV news reports. The way that documented misery clashes with the cutesy Amanda Shaw tour of the city & CGI disaster porn filmed before Katrina doesn’t sit right with me at all, but I at least empathize with his motivations to see the project through. Still, catching a glimpse of Pitre sporting a Belizaire the Cajun promotional t-shirt while guiding his Los Angeles collaborators through the swamp makes me incredibly sad. Why isn’t that the kind of movie being screened at the city’s only IMAX theater, along with other underserved local productions like Dirty Rice or Cane River? At the very least, this far out from Katrina we should have a more updated, nuanced documentary on the wetlands erosion topic screening in that format. Or, better yet, MacGillivray could supply us with a localized version of his Coral Reef Adventure frivolities – maybe one where gators & turtles swim around in swamp water for 40 minutes to zydeco music (which is exactly how Hurricane on the Bayou begins). After recently seeing A Real Movie in that impressive venue, it’s just such a shame to know that this miserable, exploitative dreck is what’s eating up its screentime – almost exclusively to the benefit of tourists. It also being the only readily available Glen Pitre film, as opposed to something like Belizaire the Cajun, is only the bitterest of lagniappe.

For more on May’s Movie of the Month, the 1986 historical drama Belizaire the Cajun, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film and last week’s look at its modernized counterpoint, Dirty Rice (1997).

-Brandon Ledet

First Reformed (2018)

Sometime in the mid-2000s, back when I would do this kind of thing regularly, I found myself at an outdoor punk show at a squat/co-op in the Marigny, waiting to see a traveling hardcore band called Talk Me Off. One of the opening acts, the only one I honestly remember, was not another noisy rock act, but rather a slideshow and a political sermon. I sat in the warm, boot-stomped grass listening to a lengthy spiel about an environmental activist group’s successes in deforestation protests, patiently nodding along with the local punks who were gracious to not nod off entirely. I was mentally transported back to that oddly booked punk show this week while watching Paul Schrader’s latest directorial effort, First Reformed. Like the environmentally-minded slideshow enthusiasts who did their best to keep a gaggle of riled-up punks’ attention that night, First Reformed offers an admirable political sermon about modern humanity’s responsibility in the face of world-devastating climate change, but in an entertainment medium that’s not especially useful or interesting. Both Schrader and those real-life activists made a worthwhile political point in their respective sermons, but they did so in such bizarrely niche settings that they were essentially preaching to the already-converted. Given the audience & the delivery in both settings, it all just felt like wasted effort.

Hawke stars in First Reformed as Reverend Toller, an alcoholic holy man in crisis. His crisis of Faith is slightly different from the usual Silence of God anxieties expressed by Bergman & Scorsese in the past. He’s more worried here about whether humanity deserves God’s forgiveness for what it’s done to a planet in peril. He preaches to a tiny congregation in a historical church in Albany, New York that has become more of a souvenir shop than an effective religious institution. Cedric the Entertainer costars as the pastor of a nearby, nondenominational megachurch that is much more successful in reaching people (and making money), but also fearful of alienating its patrons with substantial political rhetoric. The politics of modern religion weigh on Reverend Toller’s mind with great anguish as he counsels a young mother from his delegation (Amanda Seyfried), who is afraid she is losing her husband to radical environmental activist causes. Long, drawn-out theological discussions about what Earth will look like in 2050 and what responsibility Christian leadership has in challenging political apathy to the world’s gradual destruction eat up most of the film’s runtime, often in hideous digital photography close-ups. Occasional bursts of violence or slips into supernatural mediation will disrupt these theological & political debates, but for the most part the film is an environmentalist tirade that alternates between being a frustrated call to action and a gradual acceptance of humanity’s impending doom.

There’s a clear parallel between Reverend Toller’s voiceover narration here and the similarly structured sermons Robert De Niro delivers in Schrader’s early-career script for Taxi Driver. The difference is that Toller’s righteous, dangerously violent theological stance actually has a worthwhile point to it, while Bickle’s misanthropy was coded as vile moral decay. Toller shares many of Bickle’s self-destructive tendencies, barely covering up his declining health with gallons of hard liquor & Pepto Bismol as he limps towards making a grand political statement at the film’s cathartic end. There might a figurative correlation between his failing body and the continual desecration of the planet, but for the most part his deliberately poor health recalls the self-destructive martyrdom that runs throughout Taxi Driver as well. Toller also shares Bickle’s unseemly sexual repression (a very common theme in Schrader’s writing), but doesn’t allow that guilt to express itself externally in as pronounced of a way. The main difference between them is that Bickle’s “cause” was mostly an excuse to enact male rage in a society that he found despicable for (to put it lightly) questionable reasons, while Toller’s own moral anguish about humanity’s negative impact on the planet actually as a point. The agreeability of the moral outrage makes the approach much less distinct & engaging in the process, leaving only room for the audience to nod along in recognition. The comparison also does First Reformed no favors in that Scorsese directed the hell out of Taxi Driver, capturing one of the dingiest visions of NYC grime to ever stain celluloid, while Schrader’s vision only escapes the limitations of its digital cinematography in two standout scenes (you’ll know ‘em when you see ‘em) and the production design choice of a really cool, eyeball-shaped lamp.

It’s probably safe to say that Schrader is well aware that First Reformed is “a little preachy,” but I think it’s worth questioning who, exactly, he’s preaching to. I can’t deny the truth of a character pleading that the Earth’s destruction “isn’t some distant future. You will live to see this,” but it’s likely to safe to say that the arthouse cinema crowd who will turn out for this picture in the first place already knows that. Reductively speaking, First Reformed is two good scenes & one great lamp, all tied together by an agreeable political sermon. That’s not going to do much to grab the attention of anyone besides the people who already support your cause, no more so than dragging our slide projector out to a late-night punk show. Without Travis Bickle’s moral repugnance making his physical & mental decline a complexly difficult crisis to engage with, Reverend Toller’s unraveling feels like a much less interesting, less essential retread of territory Schrader has explored onscreen before, even if the political anxiety driving it this time is more relatable.

-Brandon Ledet