Codependent Lesbian Space Alien Seeks Same (2011)

There was a point sometime in the past decade—at least as early as 2014’s Sharknado 2: The Second One—where I completely lost my appetite for ironic “bad”-on-purpose schlock.  Even retro broadcasts of Mystery Science Theatre 3000 have lost their luster for me, as I often find myself wishing I was just watching the B-movies being mocked without all the Gen-X sarcasm spoiling the mood.  Based on its title, its blatant Ed Wood homages, and its $10 budget, I was worried that Codependent Lesbian Space Alien Seeks Same would be the exact kind of lazy B-movie throwback that I’ve lost my appetite for in recent years.  I was wrong. It’s incredibly funny & heartwarming, joining the ranks of the few rare examples of digital-era retro schlock that’s genuinely entertaining as the genre relics it’s parodying: Don’t Let the Riverbeast Get You!, B.C. Butcher, The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra, etc.  Its cheap digital sheen & buzzing room tones almost scared me away in the very first scene, but by the end I was wishing it was a pilot for a What We Do in the Shadows-style sitcom instead of a standalone film.

The titular lovelorn Lesbian Space Aliens are basically a rehash of The Coneheads, complete with bald caps and robotic vocal inflections.  They’ve been exiled to Earth from planet Zots because their “big emotions” are eroding their homeworld’s ozone layer.  The plan is for the trio of romantic misfits to enter the dating pool in NYC, where they’re sure to have their hearts broken and return to Zots emotionally numb.  While one of the Zotsians is a shameless flirt seeking “hot alien-on-Earthling action,” the other two are just painfully lonely.  Their romantic mishaps on the NYC singles scene are mostly an absurd excuse to make tragicomic observations about the quirks of lesbian dating – the kinds of anxious “Are we being friendly or are we flirting?” observations that still routinely make the rounds on Twitter.  Every character in their orbit is oddly loveable in their downtrodden, softspoken misery – right down to the self-deprecating G-men who’re assigned to uncover their UFO launching site.  And when one alien does make a genuine romantic connection, it’s more satisfying than any mainstream romcom storyline Hollywood has produced in decades.

I’m not surprised to learn that Codependent Lesbian Space Alien Seeks Same originated as a queer-culture stage play in the early 90s, nearly two decades before its movie adaptation.  Its writing & performances are much better defined than most backyard digi movies on its production level, and its retro-schlock patina is more of a launching pad for its humor than it is the entire joke.  The film was met with high praise when it premiered at Sundance & Out Fest in the early 2010s but hasn’t had much of a cultural impact in the decade since.  Anecdotally, it appears to have a low number of viewers but a high satisfaction rate, and director Madeleine Olnek at least went on to helm the more robust production Wild Nights with Emily (with Susan Ziegler, the actor who plays the codependent lesbian space alien Zoinx, in tow).  I totally get audiences’ general suspicion of low-budget, “bad”-on-purpose B-movie parodies like this, but it’s one of the good ones – meaning it’s one that has a sincere heart beating in its chest, just beneath its irony-coated novelty skeleton.

-Brandon Ledet

The Matrix Resurrections (2021)

There’s a brilliant sequence in RoboCop 2 where a boardroom full of market testers discuss what a new & improved RobCop should look & act like. Their conflicting input confuses his already perfected programming & design, rendering the rebooted RoboCop 2.0 entirely useless.  It’s a hilarious example of a movie sequel arguing against its own existence, mocking the concept of diluting a pure, original concept with a profit-obsessed aim for mass appeal.  Given RoboCop 2‘s general reputation as an empty-headed misfire, I’m not surprised that The Matrix Resurrections is proving to be a divisive work among general audiences, since it expands that exact brand of self-loathing meta-humor into a feature-length screed against corporate franchise filmmaking at large.  The Wachowskis reportedly did not want another Matrix film to happen, but Warner Brothers was going to reboot their iconic cyberpunk series with or without their input.  Lana stepped in on her own to save their work from falling into the wrong creative hands, then used the opportunity to condemn the very idea of making a nostalgia-bait Matrix sequel in the first place.  Using Neo as an avatar, she practically stares directly into the camera to declare, “This movie should not exist,” in open defiance of the IP-addicted movie industry that forced her hand.  It’s as hilarious now as it was in RoboCop 2, and in this case the critique is drawn out to feature length.

The opening fifteen minutes of Resurrections plays like a worst-nightmare scenario of what a 2020s Matrix sequel could be.  New, hip, young characters revisit and replay exact scenes from the original 1999 movie, trading quips about how totally awesome Neo & Trinity were in their time.  It’s an escalation of the callbacks & Easter eggs that superhero nerds crave in each new big-budget fan-pleaser, turning those cheap nostalgia pops into full-on cosplay & highlight reels.  Not only is that obsession with past triumphs a disappointing turn for a series that felt genuinely revolutionary when it premiered, but it’s also self-defeating in the way it draws comparisons between the original film’s exquisite fight choreography & cinematography and the blurry, incoherent mess of Resurrections’s own action sequences.  Then, that disastrous opening sequence is revealed to be a video game simulation designed by a still-alive Neo himself (rotting at another miserable desk job in-Matrix under his deadname, Thomas Anderson), and Resurrections starts editorializing about those modern industry-standard shortcomings in soulless, movie-by-committee sequels.  It turns out the film is not the worst-nightmare version of The Matrix 4; it’s Lana Wachowski’s New Nightmare: a platform for her to reflect on the core philosophy of her most iconic work while lashing out at a movie industry that seeks to dilute & pervert it for an easy cash-in.  It’s an A+ prank, both on the audience and on the higher-ups at Warner Brothers.

It may be a stretch to assume that Resurrections‘ unwieldy 148min runtime was also a metatextual joke about the cumbersome length of modern Hollywood action franchises (or maybe not, considering that it taunts the audience with an ironic post-credits punchline after a 15-minute scroll).  Either way, I appreciate that Wachowski never drops her searing industry commentary once she gets into the thick of the film’s actual plot.  She approaches the ongoing philosophic & romantic conflicts of The Matrix‘s core players—Neo & Trinity—with full, open-hearted sincerity.  She just frames the doomed revolutionary couple’s strive for a happy ending as a heist plot, where she (again, through Neo) has to infiltrate her movie studio’s evil lair to rescue their fairy-tale romance before it’s killed forever.  Along the way, she continually cracks meme-culture jokes about bots, MILFs, Handsome Chads, “binary” code, and Arthur Read’s clenched fist – never letting up on her meta-commentary on the way movies and the Internet have changed in the two decades since Neo chose the red pill.  Wachowski may open Resurrections arguing “This movie should not exist,” but she follows it up with a “But while we’re here . . .” addendum that allows her to sincerely grapple with the lives & loves of characters she’s obviously still emotionally & creatively invested in.  It’s a volatile mix of sincere sentimentality and ironic shitposting, one that’s sure to alienate plenty of uptight nerds in one or both directions.

I was not this enthusiastic about The Matrix Reloaded or The Matrix Revolutions when James & I revisited them for the podcast last year.  I really wanted to join the freaks on Film Twitter in reclaiming those back-to-back sequels as something that was wrongly dismissed in their time, but they really are exhaustingly dull – especially considering how vibrant the original film still feels.  Some of the action in the earlier sequels is delightfully over-the-top, but for the most part they turn what started as a very simple, tactile sci-fi allegory into trivial superhero fluff.  The Matrix Resurrections is their functional opposite.  This time around, the action is underwhelming, but the ideas are explosively combative in a way that totally makes up for it.  Fans who’ve swooned for every entry in this series are going to be over-the-moon for its epic Neo-Trinity romance plot no matter how they feel about the film’s self-critical meta-commentary.  I’m here to report as a Matrix-sequel heretic that the film is a triumph no matter how invested you are in that emotional core; it’s the most I’ve appreciated a Wachowski movie since The Matrix ’99, entirely because of its cynicism over how the world (and the movie industry in particular) has gotten worse since 1999.

-Brandon Ledet

Bonus Features: Lifeforce (1985)

Our current Movie of the Month, 1985’s Lifeforce, finds screenwriter Dan O’Bannon returning to the retro sci-fi horror he revived to great success in Ridley Scott’s Alien (and, less famously, in John Carpenter’s Dark Star).  Just like in Alien, Lifeforce follows an unprepared crew of astronauts who are lured by a mysterious distress signal to a hostile alien landscape (in this case, on the surface of Halley’s Comet), where they’re hunted by the horrific creatures who inhabit it (in this case, soul-sucking nudist vampires).  By the time those creatures become stowaways on the space crew’s return to Earth, it’s clear that O’Bannon was recalling a very specific subgenre of Atomic Age sci-fi from his youth in both films; what’s unclear is what exact retro sci-fi titles he was referencing.

After revisiting Alien and watching Lifeforce for the first time this year, I did find myself curious about what Atomic Age sci-fi cheapies had influenced their shared tropes.  What I found was a group of cheap, quaint space travel pictures with a remarkable narrative overlap in O’Bannon’s screenplays.  Alien & Lifeforce are both updated to the modern horror tastes of their times, but there were plenty of retro space travel cheapies that mapped out the future details of their shared plot structure.  Here are a few recommended titles if you enjoyed our Movie of the Month and want to see the vintage prototypes for its distinctly 1980s mayhem.

It! The Terror from Beyond Space (1958)

You can’t ask for a much more straightforward, no-frills prototype for O’Bannon’s stowaway space alien invasions than It! The Terror from Beyond Space.  Even though the film’s rubber-masked pig-man is more adorable than scary, the way it hides in the rafters & crawl spaces of its Earthling victims’ spaceship is pure Alien.  It’s the kind of 1950s space travel thriller where the poster declares “$50,000 guaranteed by a renowned insurance company to the first person who can prove It is not on Mars now!” (despite the fact that It spends most of the runtime on a spaceship, not its Martian home planet).  It also laid out a roadmap to the kinds of stowaway alien invasion movies that O’Bannon would later emulate in his two biggest productions.

It!  The Terror Beyond Space even introduces its Earthling spaceship crew chatting around the dinner table, which is how audiences got familiar with the crew of Nostromo in Alien.  The stark difference here is that the women onboard the ship are mostly around to serve the men coffee at that table, and to tend to their wounds after the Martian creature attacks.  O’Bannon originally wrote Eleanor Ripley as a man, and his domineering nudist vampire villain in Lifeforce isn’t exactly the personification of Feminism, but you still have to credit him for giving his women characters something more to do than hang around as waitresses & cheerleaders.

Queen of Blood (1966)

In a lot of ways Queen of Blood is the least substantial of these Alien prototypes, if not only because it’s one of those AIP/Corman cheapies that were built out of Americanized scraps of better-funded, more imaginative Soviet sci-fi films — lurking among throwaway titles like Battle Beyond the Sun & Voyage to the Planet of Prehistoric Women.  It’s the one that most closely resembles the plot of Lifeforce, though, in that its stowaway alien invader is a wordless, beautiful woman who feeds on the blood of men like a vampire.  You’d think that of all the retro sci-fi films of this ilk this would be the one titled Planet of the Vampires—since Mario Bava’s own eerie Alien prototype doesn’t feature any actual vampires—but the title Queen of Blood is just as badass, so we’ll have to let that slide.

It’s hard to know exactly what to praise in Queen of Blood, since so much of its sci-fi spectacle is borrowed wholesale from the Soviet film Mechte Navstrechu, but its titular, green-skinned vampire queen is fabulous; she’s got a whole Juno Birch thing going on and it’s wonderful.  Not for nothing, but the film’s space crew also include prominent female scientists who actively save the day as the horndog men around them fall victim to the vampire, which is more than you can say for either Lifeforce or It!  The Terror Beyond Space.

The Green Slime (1968)

If you want to see the retro Alien prototype at its goofiest, you likely won’t do any better than 1968’s The Green Slime, a sci-fi creature feature collaboration between MGM and the Japanese studio Toei.  From its funky psych-rock theme song to its adorable X from Outer Space-style miniatures, to its slimy rubber monster, The Green Slime is pure kitsch.  Many of its plot details overlap with the specifics of Alien, though, despite that goofiness: its stowaway creatures’ lethally corrosive blood, its menacing stockpile of alien eggs, its doomed crew members’ refusal to adhere to proper quarantine protocol, etc.  You can practically picture little baby O’Bannon propped in front of his cathode-ray TV scribbling notes on how to tell an alien invasion story.

The Green Slime was mocked on the pilot episode for Mystery Science Theatre 3000, and it’s easy to see why they thought it left enough dead air for the show’s riffing to fill.  Its adorable old-school special effects work compensates for its lethargic pacing issues, though, and it’s the only film on this list that even vaguely resembles the batshit goofballery that O’Bannon would later indulge in Lifeforce.  It’s a shame that Lifeforce didn’t have its own titular theme song, though, since the one for The Green Slime is such a delight:

-Brandon Ledet

Lagniappe Podcast: The Visitor (1979)

For this lagniappe episode of the podcast, BoomerBrandon, and Alli discusthe psychedelic sci-fi horror The Visitor (1979), a chaotic mix of psychic space aliens, killer birds, and Satanic blood cults.

00:00 Welcome

01:11 The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993)
03:24 Don’t Hang Up (2016)
05:22 In the Earth (2021)
09:27 Gaia (2021)
10:50 A Nasty Piece of Work (2019)
12:55 A Muppet Christmas Carol (1992)
18:33 The Innocents (1961)
23:23 Streets of Fire (1984)
27:00 The Hellstrom Chronicle (1971)

30:03 The Visitor (1979)
50:50 Deadly Games (1989)

You can stay up to date with our podcast through SoundCloudSpotifyiTunesStitcherTuneIn, or by following the links on this page.

– The Lagniappe Podcast Crew

Movie of the Month: Lifeforce (1985)

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 HannaBoomer, and Britnee watch Lifeforce (1985).

Brandon:  Lifeforce is a Golan-Globus production directed by The Texas Chainsaw Massacre‘s Tobe Hooper and adapted from the sci-fi pulp novel The Space Vampires by Dan O’Bannon, screenwriter for Alien.  It is an absurdly lavish production for a Cannon Group film—or really for any film with this chaotic of an imagination—especially considering the scrappier genre pictures its creators usually helm. 

It starts as an Alien-style sci-fi pulp throwback where dormant “space vampires” are discovered in both bat & humanoid form on an abandoned spaceship parked on Haley’s Comet, then brought back to London for scientific examination.  Once the lead vampire awakes on the autopsy table and sucks the electrified “lifeforce” out of the first nearby victim, the boundaries of the film’s genre classification explode into every possible direction.  This is at times an alien invasion film, a body-possession story, a sci-fi spin on vampire lore, a post-Romero zombie apocalypse picture, and an all-around genre meltdown whatsit that keeps piling new, upsetting ideas onto each subsequent sequence until you’re crushed by the enormity of its imagination.  With Lifeforce, Hooper & O’Bannon found the rare freedom to stage a gross-out B-picture on a proper Hollywood blockbuster budget, and they indulged every bizarre idea they could conjure in the process – complete with extravagant practical effects and a swashbuckling action-hero score performed by The London Symphony Orchestra.

I’ve been meaning to make time for Lifeforce since as far back as our buddies at the We Love to Watch podcast covered it five years ago.  I am not surprised that I loved it, but I was delighted to discover how much its space-vampire mayhem is a supernatural form of erotic menace, which is my #1 horror sweet spot.  It would have been more than enough for the soul-sucking space-vampires to turn Earthlings into exploding dust-zombies & leaky bloodsacks, but what really made me fall in love is how they start the process by hypnotizing their victims with intense horniness. 

Like with Alien, Dan O’Bannon is playing with the psychosexual terror lurking just below the surface of retro sci-fi relics like Queen of Blood & The Astounding She-Monster, but the approach to modernizing that erotic menace is much more heteronormative here than with the male-pregnancy & penetrative fears of H.R. Giger’s iconic alien designs.  Lifeforce portrays modern-day London as a city of sexually repressed Conservative men whose greatest fear is a confident, nude woman.  The lead nudist vampire is not only too sexy & self-assured for the terminally British subs who fall under her spell, she also terrorizes them by linking that intense erotic attraction to the blurred gender boundaries of their own psyches.  Some of the best scenes of the film are when her victims describe her as “the most overwhelmingly feminine presence [they’ve] ever encountered” or when she confesses that her physical form is just a projection of the femininity trapped inside their own minds.  By the time a silhouette of her breasts is framed as if it were Nosferatu‘s creeping shadow, I was fully in love with the way this film attacks its uptight macho victims through the vulnerability of their erotic imaginations.  I love a good wet nightmare, and it was endlessly fun to watch them squirm.

Hanna, what do you make of this film’s sexual & gender politics?  Does its erotic terror add anything substantial to the more traditional zombie & vampire scares that throw London into chaos, or does it just feel like an exploitative excuse to cram some straight-boy-marketed nudity onto the screen?

Hanna: Boy howdy!  Lifeforce was one of the exponentially wildest things I’ve seen in recent memory.  Brandon, I think you mentioned The Wicker Man during our screening, which is the exact vein of horny fear I found in this movie; the ill-fated, repressed sexualities of Anglo-Saxon men never cease to delight me.  I was completely on board with a beautiful naked woman walking her way—unbelievably slowly—through quivering throngs of Brits.

Overall, Lifeforce is a fantastic addition to the vampire canon, which has always had lots to say about the terror of sex and sexuality.  Most of the vampire movies I’ve seen feature naturally hot, youthful vamps, lounging around in sensuous mansions.  I’ll never turn down a coven of hot Draculas, but I loved that these vampires of Lifeforce were truly horrifying space hell beasts using the fantasies of their hosts to craft their appearances (I like to imagine the other aliens that these vampires have sucked dry throughout the galaxy – imagine the hottest tentacled space glob in the universe).  Human sexuality is so specific to particular events and images at different moments of a person’s life that I think lots of people don’t understand where their kinks and preferences come from.  I loved that moment Brandon mentioned when the lead space vampire (named “Space Girl” in the credits, which tickles me) tells Col. Carlsen that she’s the manifestation of his femininity; he’s totally locked that aspect of his sexuality away from himself, but it’s plainly obvious and extremely easy to exploit.  What would Space Girl find in my mind?  I kind of want to know, but I kind of don’t!

I do have to say that I was a little disappointed by the exclusive focus on heteronormative sexuality.  On one hand, part of the humor of this movie is that Space Girl exerts minimal effort while successfully throwing London into unchecked chaos with her cadre of androgynous space vampire hunks, due in large part to the desperately horny male leaders of foundational institutions.  Clearly, this was the correct tack to take from a strategic standpoint.  It’s just that for a super sexy movie that featuring exploding dust zombies, shapeshifting space vampires, and a floating, coagulated blob comprised of torrents of Sir Patrick Stewart’s blood, couldn’t we have gotten just a little touch of queer flirtation?  (I guess she sucks the life force out of a woman in the park, but we don’t actually see it happen, so I’m not counting it!) We get a little touch of that in the femininity scene, but I wish the movie would have delved into even kinkier territory.

Boomer, I thought these space vampires were a great direction for film’s hall of vampires.  What did you think?  How do these monsters compare to their terrestrial blueprints? 

Boomer: I was also hung up on the vampires’ heteronormativity.  We spend so much full-frontal time with Space Girl that I could draw her labia from memory right now, weeks after seeing the movie, but we (of course) had plentiful and abundant convenient censorship of our hot space twunks’ docking equipment. I suppose it’s logical that a film that exists solely because of the male gaze and which requires the ubiquity of the male gaze to make narrative sense should also cater solely to it, but that doesn’t mean one can’t complain about it. 

Unusually for me, I prefer my vampire fiction mystical rather than scientific.  It’s not just because most sci-fi vampire films are pretty bad (Daybreakers immediately comes to mind, followed by Bloodsuckers and Ultraviolet); there are plenty of terrible supernatural vampire movies. Still, when measuring good against bad, the ratio of good sci-fi vampires to bad ones skews much more negatively than their magical brethren. As much as I liked Lifeforce, that this (blessed) mess counts as one of the good ones kind of tells you everything that you need to know, right? I just like it when vampires have to glamour people or have to be invited in; I think it makes for more interesting storytelling than vampirism-as-a-virus or, as is the case here, vampires are extraterrestrial beings that suck out life force.  When it comes to twists on the lore, however, there was one thing that I really did like: the reanimation of victims who must likewise consume life energy, and which turn to dust if unable to do so.  The effects in these scenes were nothing short of spectacular, and they were the best part of the film.  I know that they must have been remastered at some point, but those puppets were really something fascinating to behold. 

One of the things that I did have some trouble with was the pacing, especially with regards to character introductions.  For the first 20 minutes or so, it’s like watching 2001 (or Star Trek: The Motion Picture) on fast-forward as spectacular vistas and space structures are explored, before we’re suddenly in a very boring office space, and we’re figuratively and literally down to earth for the rest of the movie.  There’s not that much interesting about any of the spaces we explore (other than that one lady’s apartment with the Liza Minnelli poster), and it felt like every 20 minutes a new guy just sort of walked into the view of the camera and the film became about him for a while.  I wasn’t sure who was supposed to be our protagonist, which left me spinning.  That our leads were all largely indistinguishable white dudes also contributed to this for me; when Steve Railsback reappeared after not having been seen since the ship exploration sequence, I thought he was the same character as the guy who had exploded into dust in the scene immediately prior.  Was this also an issue for you, Britnee?  Did the pacing work for you? 

Britnee: When looking back on the scenery in Lifeforce, all I can recall is the color brown. All of those wood paneled walls and dull office spaces made the sets feel a little musty. The one major exception is when the space crew explores the mysterious 150-mile-long spacecraft (a scale I still can’t wrap my head around). I loved the uncomfortable rectum-looking entrance that leads them to the collection of dried-up bat creatures and the hive of nude “humans” in glass containers. I wasn’t ready to leave that funky space place so quickly. I wanted to see more compartments of the craft explored. There was 150 miles of it after all, and they only went through what seemed to be less than a mile. I know poking around the craft would cost money, but with the massive budget for this film, the money was obviously there. It just should have been spent better. 

As for the pacing, I was so focused on all of the space vampire mayhem that I didn’t pay much attention to all of the boring white guys who were main characters . . . unless they were getting their life sucked out of them and exploding into dust. It was pretty difficult to keep up with who was who and how they plugged into all of the insanity, but it didn’t really bother me because just about everything else in the movie was so much fun. 

Lagniappe

Britnee: Lifeforce would do so well as an animated series. I saw that there was talk about a potential remake, but it seems like animation would be the way to go. That way, there would be fewer financial limitations, so all the freaky stuff could be even freakier. 

Boomer: That both of our male leads (at least I think they’re our leads) had hard-C alliterative names (Colonel Carlsen and Colonel Colin Caine) was a real detriment.  But once Kat pointed out that Carlsen was Steve Railsback, aka Duane Barry, I could at least keep track of him. 

Brandon: I was initially disappointed by the lack of onscreen peen myself, but the more I think about how much this movie is about straight men’s psychosexual discomforts the more I’m okay with it.  If you’re going to frame your lusty B-movie this strictly through male gaze, you need to at least interrogate the limitations & vulnerabilities of that gaze, and I think Lifeforce does that well.  Rather than a remake, I think there’s an angle for a spinoff sequel that follows the two Nude Dudes around the entire night instead of Space Girl, since most of their adventures were off-screen.  Coming to Hulu as soon as Disney buys up the Cannon Group catalog, after they’ve gobbled up the rest of the pop media landscape.

Hanna: Speaking of constant female nudity, my favorite tidbit of trivia about Lifeforce is that it was extremely difficult to find a female lead willing to be naked for the entire movie. Hooper had to resort to chartering a plane of German actresses to London after failing to find an English actress; by the time the actresses got to London, they had collectively agreed not to audition for the part. Thank God for Mathilda May! Maybe it would have been too much trouble to get some peen in the picture; I’m glad we got at least a little ethereal, vampiric nakedness.

Upcoming Movies of the Month
January: The Top Films of 2021

-The Swampflix Crew

Mandibles (2021)

Swampflix’s collective pick for the best movie of 2020 was an absurdist horror comedy about a killer deerskin jacket.  Deerskin felt like a career high for notorious French prankster Quentin Dupieux, especially in its sharp self-satirical humor about the macho narcissism of filmmaking as an artform.  The follow-up to that violently silly triumph finds Dupieux backsliding into his more typical comedies about Nothing.  Dupieux’s calling-card feature Rubber—the one about the killer, telekinetic car tire—announced him as an absurdist whose humor was rooted in the total absence of reason or purpose, one of the cruelest jokes of life.  Mandibles fits snugly in that “no reason” comedy paradigm, the exact thing Dupieux is known to excel at.  It’s only a disappointment in that Deerskin felt like a turn signal for a new direction in his career.  On its own terms, it’s a total hoot.

In Mandibles, two bumbling criminals adopt & corrupt a gigantic housefly so it can join them in acts of petty theft.  That’s it.  The entire film is about two dumb buds being dumb buds who now have a weird pet.  One is a beach bum; the other works eventless shifts at his parents’ highway gas station.  The unexpected discovery of the housefly seems like a free ticket out of the lifelong buddies’ lifelong rut, but the resulting journey essentially amounts to a couple sleepovers & pool parties.  They’re two overgrown man-children who inevitably fuck up everything they touch, recalling the adorable doofuses of mainstream Farrelly Brothers comedies of yesteryear.  That retro humor is underlined in the film’s 1990s set design & costuming, which includes an overload of pink denim, cassette tapes, and Lisa Frank unicorn imagery.  The only stray element that elevates the film above its Dumb and Dumberest surface charms is Dominique – their adopted mutant fly.

Quentin Dupieux totally gets away with reverting to autopilot for this “no reason” comedy, solely on the virtue of its jokes being very funny.  I laughed a lot, I was surprised by every new get-rich-goofily scheme, and it was all over in less than 80 minutes.  It’s hard to complain about that.  It’s also hard to dismiss the novelty that Dominique brings to screen, rendered in a combination of CGI & traditional puppetry.  I can’t claim I’ve never seen anything like her before, at least not after the giant flea vignette in 2016’s Tale of Tales.  Still, every inane buzzing sound & insectoid head tilt Dominique delivers as the unlikely straight-man in the central comedy trio earns its laughs.  I’d like to see a post-Deerskin Dupieux evolve into a more purposeful satirist with pointed things to say about life and art.  His career-guiding thesis that life and art are ultimately meaningless rings true no matter how many times he repeats it, though, and this time he flavors that repetition with a cool-looking creature.  That’s enough for me.

-Brandon Ledet

Dune (2021)

My best friend has recently taken to watching Quantum Leap, so I was trying to describe the premise of the show to my born-in-1995 significant other, and I did so mostly with lines from the show’s opening. If you’re reading this site, I assume you remember the gist. Theorizing that one could travel within their own lifetime, Dr. Sam Beckett stepped into the quantum leap accelerator and disappeared. Yada yada, yada, setting right what once went wrong, always hoping that the next leap would be the leap home, that sort of thing. I’ve never read Dune. I saw the David Lynch version precisely once when I was quite young (for its Sci-Fi Channel Scinema Event premiere, so … September 1999), and although I was a little bit older when the same station broadcast its self-produced Frank Herbert’s Dune miniseries in 2000, when I tell you that I can’t recall a single thing about it other than that Matt Keeslar was in it, I mean that I can’t recall a single thing about it other than Matt Keeslar. I didn’t even remember that William Hurt was in it until I just looked it up on Wikipedia, and I love that guy. I remembered bits and pieces of Virginia Madsen dressed like the Childlike Empress delivering a huge dump of exposition at the beginning of the 1984 film, mostly her saying the word “spice” a lot. When Brandon asked if I was planning to see the new Dune and if I planned to write about it, asking if I had any personal connection to the source material, I refrained from elaborating that I once bore witness to a not-entirely-cohesive explanation of the novel’s plot while on a largely unsuccessful date, attempting to grasp the relevance of why Kyle McLachlan was named after a mouse while sitting outside of the cafe that used to be next to Funky Monkey and trying to hear my companion’s thin voice over the Number 11 bus loudly idling right next to us. Other than that, most of my Dune knowledge came from an (admittedly ill-informed) Lindsay Ellis video mocking the Lynch adaptation, which was nonetheless beloved by a certain group of my friends; we still sometimes quote “All aboard the party worm, Harkonnens aren’t invited!” to one another. 

Suffice it to say, I gave myself a quick idea of the general plot with a little Wikipedia skim before making my way to the theater, and although it’s complicated, it’s also not impenetrable Coruscant bullshit, either; it makes sense. Some twenty millennia from now, mankind has scattered amongst the stars and settled into fiefdom, with planets ruled by various royal houses who all swear fealty to an emperor. Space travel is enabled by use of the spice melange, a resource found only on the planet Arrakis, a desert world nicknamed “Dune” and inhabited by giant worm creatures and the scavengers known as the Fremen. As our story opens, the emperor has transferred control of Arrakis from its previous caretakers, the morally bankrupt House Harkonnen, to the more popular House Atreides. This is a ploy to weaken the emperor-threatening Atreides family, who are inexperienced with handling the harsh Dune and the demands of mining spice in such an inhospitable environment. Duke Leto Atreides, along with his concubine Jessica and their teenage son Paul, journey to Arrakis with their retinue;  Leto seeks to ally with the Fremen by extending an olive branch rather than carrying on an antagonist relationship with them as the Harkonnens had. Jessica has her own agenda, being a member of the mysterious religious order of the Bene Gesserit, a sisterhood of mystics who have been secretly carrying out a galactic eugenics experiment to create a messiah; despite being instructed to bear only daughters for Leto, she gave birth to Paul out of her love for the Duke. The sisters of the order are practiced in both martial arts, stress conditioning, and a kind of super neuro linguistic programming technique called The Voice. 

That’s the backstory, anyway. It’s here that I’ll also admit that I was slightly exaggerating my lack of familiarity with Dune up at the top there, after a fashion. The narrative has always seemed needlessly confusing to me (although it’s pared down here to be extremely parsable for a general audience, not least of all because everybody in 2021 understands fealty, house affiliations, and the like thanks to Game of Thrones), but someone who has spent as much down time reading TV Tropes as I have in the past 13 years doesn’t escape that kind of wiki rabbit-holing without garnering some useless knowledge. So yes, I know a little something about Mentats (human computers who do calculations in lieu of machines due to anti-mechanist sentiment held over following a devastating war between humans and AI), ego-memory (the individual memory of one of the individuals in the chain of matrilinear genetic memory curated by the Bene Gesserit using refined sand worm bile), and kanly (the strictures that allowed for certain forms of socially and legally acceptable conflict and combat between great houses to avoid the potentially greater loss of life resulting from outright war or atomic weaponry). But none of that is really relevant for the narrative of Denis Villeneuve’s Dune, all you really need to know is what I’ve outlined for you, and even that’s mostly well-communicated in the text of the film. Or the part of it that’s relevant for this film, anyway.

Duke Leto is herein portrayed by Oscar Isaac, and Lady Jessica is played by Rebecca Ferguson, whom I adore. Since part of the Bene Gesserit’s plan is creating the whitest, twinkiest little messiah you ever did see, we’ve got our whitest, twinkiest actor Timothée Chalamet as Paul. Stellan Skarsgård is unrecognizable as Baron Harkonnen, and Jason Momoa is momoa-ing it up as Duncan Idaho, the super warrior guy that has been training Paul in combat and who spends some time embedded with the Fremen on Arrakis in preparation for the Atreides family’s arrival. Josh Brolin is also there, and Zendaya is Meechee Chani, a Fremen woman about whom Paul has visions. Because of the eugenics, remember. 

So, yeah, about that. The day after I saw the movie, I saw this tweet, in which a person made a blanket statement about what they perceived to be the racist, sexist, gender essentialist, and homophobic intent of Dune, based solely on reading various plot outlines across different wikis. And that person appears, based upon feedback from readers who engaged with the text directly instead of through secondary sources, to be quite wrong about the thesis of Dune. That’s the danger of engaging only with content instead of context, which is the whole reason that freshman composition courses stress the importance of using both primary and secondary sources. And you know, I hope and pray that if I ever make a public declaration that is just flat out incorrect, that I’ll have the humility and to not double down on being an ignorant stubborn asshole. I think about people like this lady after getting ratio’d regarding her extremely niche pet peeve of … people eating bread, or that guy from The Long Winters saw a teachable moment and decided to do the opposite of teaching, or that person who dropped this worm-riddled take about relationships and then smugly got off on pretending that all the responses, even the ones made in good faith, were all in bad faith and thus proved their point (luckily the term “asshole” is not gendered). So when this person, who in general is someone with whom I agree about most cultural critique, responded with, essentially, “lol, even though the error was mine, all feedback will be considered in bad faith regardless of accuracy or intent.” And what’s most frustrating about this—other than everybody has fucking worms in their brain and lacks the humility to even acknowledge when they misread something—is that this person isn’t wrong per se about the Dune film (that they claim not to have watched). 

As a text, Dune (the novel) can be entirely about how racism, eugenics, white saviorism, etc. are all not only facile but also dangerous, but this film opts to drop its cliffhanger at a point where that hasn’t been made clear. However, unless this film were going to be six hours long (or 4.5, as the miniseries was), it arguably can’t get to the narrative point where it doubles back on audience expectation that what appears to be a straightforward western white savior narrative of a kind that they’ve seen before. To invert assumptions, it has to exist in the form that it’s in, and that’s not a bad thing, but our instant gratification, humility-scorning, wikipedia skimming, knee-jerk presumption culture has reached a point where we actually fail to recognize and realize that this is a problem of consumption and commodification. This comes from the left just as often as it does from the right, but there’s a profound inability among the left to see that large IP-holding monoliths have spoonfed audiences for so long that they said consumers have reached a point where no one has the patience to allow time for a narrative to actually create a compelling condemnation of moral ills, and that they themselves are not immune to that kind of indoctrination. Selling the idea of activism as reading a wiki and developing a thesis about a text without engaging with the primary source is part of the commodification of art into yet another thing to mindlessly tweet about without consideration of one’s own foolishness. 

Consider this: Erstwhile Roommate of Boomer had different feelings about Dune than I did. He hated the ending, describing it to me (before I saw it) as “basically a lightsaber fight” and comparing the way that the Fremen crawl around on the rock face in the film’s concluding sequence as something “straight out of West Side Story.” After I saw it and we were texting about it, he sent me a message saying “Tell me you didn’t expect them to start snapping their fingers and closing in like the Sharks.” It reminded me of when I explained the ending of Batman v. Superman mostly talking about the different musical leitmotifs that were used in the climax, as to me that was (and remains) the most interesting thing that happened in the last hour of that movie; this included a (poor) reenactment of the guitar-heavy Wonder Woman theme. Years later, when he saw the movie, that had somehow morphed in his memory into being a story about how the film ended with a literal musical battle, and he was disappointed. But he didn’t have to go on Twitter and say something like “Well excuse me very much for hearing that plot synopsis and thinking that maybe it would be a better movie if it ended with a battle of the bands instead of whatever it actually ended with” because he never went online and proudly declared his misunderstanding in the first place. And the thing is, that the Fremen looked like the Sharks never crossed my mind. But that doesn’t make his reading any less real or true, because he’s engaging with the text directly, not projecting because he’d rather appear to be “better” than the text by not engaging with it. I can’t and don’t agree with that particular sentiment, but that’s ok! It’s still legitimate. 

Anyway, this has, as it often does, turned into less of a review of this movie and more of a jeremiad about how exhausting the discourse is and what that means for our society. Dune is good. It’s great, even. Although I don’t think it’s a good idea for megacorps to try and pressure people who aren’t ready, people who are immunocompromised, people who lack vaccine access, and people who are victims of anti-science rhetoric to the point of complete dissociation from reality to go back to theaters so that they can “see Dune on the biggest screen possible,” I can affirm that I don’t regret that decision. I don’t want to be the Boss Baby vibes guy, but there was an actual moment where the vistas and visuals of the movie made me gasp a little with their beauty, and my first thought was “Disney Star Wars could never.” Dune is good. See it. 

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

The Lawnmower Man (1992)

Considering its appeal as a vintage novelty horror about the evils of virtual reality, I had no choice but to enjoy The Lawnmower Man.  The film opens with a gravely sincere title card warning that virtual reality will be “in widespread use” by “the turn of the millennium”, which despite its “millions of positive uses” could lead to “a new form of mind control.”  It’s the exact kind of instantly dated cash-in on fad technology that’s dismissed for being embarrassingly obsolete in the years following in its initial release, but then ages wonderfully as a cultural time capsule of its era as the decades roll on.  Listening to the radical computer programmers of The Lawnmower Man pontificate about how virtual reality is “a new electric dimension” that “holds the key to the next evolution of the human mind” is hilariously goofy in hindsight, especially when paired with the cutting-edge CG graphics of its early-90s video game VR.  It’s also a great snapshot of how far-out & psychedelic the concept of immersive gaming was at that time, so that the film has just as much value as an anthropological record as it does as an accidental comedy.  I had just as much fun revisiting it in the 2020s as a cultural relic as I had watching it as a totally normal cable-broadcast horror flick as a 90s kid.  Still, it really pushed the outer limits of how much bullshit I’m willing to put up with to indulge in the precious Outdated Vintage Tech goofballery I love to see in my killer-computer genre movies.  It turns out the answer is “way too much”.

Pierce Brosnan stars as a put-upon research scientist for the sinister corporation Virtual Space Industries, working to expand the capabilities of the human mind through experiments in virtual reality.  He goes rogue when the company perverts his research to develop weapons instead of developing the human mind, leaving him jobless and bored.  From there, The Lawnmower Man turns into a mad scientist story, with Brosnan continuing the VR experiments in his basement on an unwitting human subject.  He establishes a Frankenstein-and-monster relationship with his neighborhood’s landscaper, a “born-dumb” “halfwit” played by Jeff Fahey.  Luckily, Fahey plays the mentally disabled test subject as more of an overgrown child than a broad-strokes exaggeration of real-life neurodivergent tics; or at least it helped that I watched Will Sasso completely biff the same type of role in Drop Dead Gorgeous the night before.  It’s still embarrassing to watch, though, and the only true saving grace is that his humble beginnings as a “poor idiot” don’t last long.  The mad scientist’s VR research works way too well, in fact.  The titular lawnmower man goes full galaxy-brain at an alarming speed, zooming right past neurotypical adult mental functions to becoming a self-declared “CyberChrist” with godlike powers over all minds and computers in his immediate vicinity.  In his early kills as a virtual reality god, he uses telekinesis to launch his lawnmower at his former bullies’ bigoted faces.  Later, he obliterates his enemies by pixelating them to death, erasing them from existence as if he were just deleting them from a hard drive.  I don’t know that I could describe it any better than Letterboxd user LauraJacoves, who succinctly declared it “Flowers for AlgeTron“.

Of course, the ickiness of Jeff Fahey being asked to play mentally disabled is a huge hurdle to enjoying The Lawnmower Man, and most of the film’s problems are rooted in its depictions of reality-reality.  If you can get past that discomfort, though, the movie is a hoot.  It’s overloaded with one-of-a-kind vintage CGI sequences that attempt to blow the audience’s mind with the endless possibilities of VR but instead feel like a hokey tour of mid-90s screensavers.  In one sequence, two virtual figures engage in literal cybersex then morph into a single dragonfly that soars over matrix-grid mountains.  In another, the mad scientist crams physical illustrations of human knowledge directly into his pet project’s brain, which rumbles with brainstorms & brainquakes in stressed-out overload.  It’s a true wonder, one that can only be described by the fake 90s slang the youngest member of the cast roadtests while playing the mildly psychedelic video games: “Sketched!” “Dudical!”  It’s a shame that The Lawnmower Man couldn’t have been more immersed in its totally dudical virtual world, like a 1990s update to Tron.  At the very least, it could have sidestepped the queasiness of the Jeff Fahey performance by sticking to Brosnan’s initial test subjects: chimpanzees.  There’s an early sequence where militarized chimps are navigating the mad-sketched VR landscapes while armed with assault rifles as if this were a high-concept first-person shooter.  I understand the Big City Tech vs. Rural Bumpkins dynamic the movie was aiming for, but it could’ve easily kept all of its best images if Brosnan had stuck to experimenting on himself and his chimps (minus the cybersex).

What’s really funny is that if The Lawnmower Man had dropped its titular lawnmower man test subject, it also would’ve sidestepped a lot of unnecessary legal trouble.  Horror legend Stephen King successfully sued to have his name removed from the film’s promotional materials and home video products, since it bares essentially no likeness to his original short story (about an occultist landscaper who answers to a new boss, Pan).  If the film were instead about Killer CyberChimps or if the mad scientist character had become the killer CyberChrist himself the movie would almost certainly be a more widely beloved cult classic – one with fewer legal fees added to its production & distribution budget and, let’s face it, one with a much better title for a novelty sci-fi horror of its era.  As is, it’s a lot of over-the-top vintage fun; you just have to put up with some totally unnecessary bullshit to enjoy it.

-Brandon Ledet

Plan 9 from Outer Space (1959)

It’s impossible to distinguish which version of Ed Wood I think of as a personal hero: the alcoholic crossdresser who lived a tough life as an underappreciated outsider artist or the much sunnier, apocryphal version of him presented in Tim Burton’s 1994 biopic.  Either way, Ed Wood is undeniably a great film (despite how some of its casting choices may have aged), second only to Pee-wee’s Big Adventure as Burton’s career best.  It was surely my first exposure to Wood’s art & legacy, priming me for a genuine appreciation of the kind of enthusiastic D.I.Y. filmmaking most modern audiences mock as “so bad it’s good” schlock. Before Burton’s loving, reformative biopic polished up Ed Wood’s reputation, his biggest claim to fame was being posthumously burdened with a Golden Turkey “Award” for The Worst Director of All Time in the 1980s – mainly for his career-defining opus Plan 9 from Outer Space.  Personally, I don’t believe Wood was capable of making The Worst Film of All Time.  Wherever his work may have suffered from improper funding or technical ineptitude, Wood vastly overcompensated with a chaotic, personal passion for the artform.  Despite being locked out of proper studio filmmaking channels, Wood’s stream-of-consciousness writing style and delirious sense of self-confidence led to some of the most spectacularly bizarre self-financed genre pictures of his era.  The actual worst movies of all time are dispassionate, impersonal, unmemorable bores – movies Ed Wood was incapable of making.  Whether I only believe that because of his myth-making biopic is something I’ll never be able to fully decipher; I happened to be born late enough in the game that Burton’s hagiographic version of Wood reached me before the dweebs at The Gold Turkey Awards could poison my brain.

Plan 9 from Outer Space was never my personal favorite Ed Wood flick (that meager honorific belongs to Glen or Glenda), but it’s easy enough to understand how it became his most widely known.  If nothing else, its gleeful genre-nerd mashup of Atomic Age sci-fi tropes, celebrity vampires, graveyard-set zombie attacks, and pro wrestling monsters is enough of a pop media overload to distract from what it lacks in financing or technical skill (as if those weren’t also a highlight in their own way).  Whereas Glen or Glenda was a self-portrait of his life as a closeted crossdresser, Plan 9 is a self-portrait of his life as a genre movie fanboy.  Both films were written in a manic, straight-from-the-id haste due to their budget constrictions, exposing the bargain bin auteur’s naked psyche without petty concerns like narrative logic or good taste blocking the view.  Originally titled Graverobbers from Outer Space, the film’s basic concept of space aliens commanding an army of Earth’s undead was always going to be a mash-up of Atomic Age sci-fi & zombie movie tropes.  It’s the way Wood crammed his social circle of Hollywood “weirdies” into that basic genre mash-up that really explodes the film into post-modern delirium.  Without explanation or internal justification, this aliens-and-zombies novelty picture suddenly involves celebrity vampires Bela Lugosi & Vampira, a guest segment of the locally televised astrology program Criswell Predicts, and the gargantuan pro wrestler Tor Johnson – all essentially playing themselves with no real relation to the alien graverobber plot.  The film was pitched to independent investors as a way to cash-in on then-recent newspaper reports of UFO sightings in Hollywood.  Instead, it mutated into a collection of all the assorted pop culture ephemera that made Ed Wood fall in love with Hollywood as an aspiring, underfunded filmmaker; all that was missing was a few cowboys airlifted from a serial Western.

Besides its genre-melding collection of aliens, zombies, vampires, and pro wrestlers on a single graveyard set, I think the main reason Plan 9 is more popular than Glen or Glenda is that it moves at a slower, quieter pace.  It’s perfectly calibrated for MST3k-style live commentary in that way, making it a much likelier candidate for drunken Midnight Movie screenings and “so-bad-it’s-good” mockery.  Glen or Glenda pummels the audience with a scatterbrained editing style & an overbearing narration track that leave little room for any individual image or idea to be scrutinized before it moves on to the next.  By contrast, Plan 9 is in no rush to get anywhere, feeling more like a Halloween-themed hangout film than a proper creature feature.  There’s plenty of time for audiences to point & laugh at the visible strings that hold up its model-kit UFOs, or the cardboard cut-out gravestones that tip over whenever bumped into, or the lighting’s alternation between night-day-night settings within a single scene.  It’s the kind of “bad movie” that invites the audience to feel superior to the material at hand, which is especially attractive to teenage cynics who are first starting to get into low-budget schlock.  I’m getting to the point in my life where that above-it-all MST3k mockery no longer appeals to me.  These types of unskilled, underfunded novelty films read more to me as quirky Outsider Art than they do some kind of subprofessional embarrassment.  By that standard, Ed Wood is truly one of the greats, having made several D.I.Y. messterpieces that were personal to his interests as an artist & as a Hollywood weirdo but still endure as crowd-pleasing party films a half-century later.  The experience of watching Plan 9 from Outer Space is too fun for it to be “the worst” of anything, no matter how clumsy Wood was in his rush to get something on celluloid before his budget ran dry.

I’m grateful to the Tim Burton biopic for introducing me to Ed Wood as a filmmaker and a personality.  I’m even more grateful to Rhino’s mid-90s Deluxe Ed Wood Boxset of the films covered in the Burton version of his story, collecting Glen or Glenda, Bride of the Monster, and Plan 9 from Outer Space on three VHS tapes bound in a fuzzy pink angora slip case.  I lost track of my copy of that boxset years ago, as I let go of the tape-eating VCRs that were collecting dust on my TV stand.  It’s been easy enough to buy those films individually on DVD in the decades since, but they’re long overdue for the cleaned-up HD restoration treatment that so many low-budget genre films are lavished with on the niche Blu Ray market these days.  The pink angora slip case is optional, but it gets stranger every year that the unholy trinity of American schlockteurs—Wood, Wishman, and Meyer—are all missing from the vintage media restoration market.  I wonder if my genuine appreciation of Ed Wood’s art is solely a result of growing up in the exact 1990s sweet spot: after Burton rehabilitated his earlier reputation as The Worst Director of All Time and Rhino had released his Greatest Hits as an easily accessible boxset presented in an up-to-date format.  That was almost three decades ago; we’re long overdue for another Ed Wood career refresher, starting with a proper physical media release for the movie that made him infamous.

-Brandon Ledet

Fish Story (2009)

When I think of punk, I think fast, cheap, amateur, messy.  It’s a chaotic genre, usually delivered in short, aggressive bursts of unchecked youthful id.  That’s why I’m a little shocked by how belabored & sluggish the 2009 punk film Fish Story can feel.  A fractured anthology film about how a punk song improbably saves the world from a near-future apocalypse, Fish Story is weirdly patient & calm.  It’s guided by erratic indulgences in horror, action, and sci-fi genre tropes, but they’re all collected in a low-key, overlong journey through time – loosely sketching out the ways an unpopular, largely forgotten punk song can change the world if it falls into the right hands at the right moment.  Its pacing & story structure feel more befitting of a prog rock concept album than a punk-single 45.

In the not-too-distant future of 2012, an aloof record store owner rattles off obscure punk trivia to his few scraggly customers while a giant meteor outside the window threatens to destroy the entire planet in mere hours. His fixation on the obscure punk single “Fish Story” (which plays at least a dozen times throughout the film) turns out to be more relevant to Earth’s impending doom than the record store burnouts could possibly imagine.  The movie splits its time between seemingly unconnected characters in the decades since that single’s recording in 1975.  We meet nerdy record collectors on a sleazy road trip in 1982, a Nostradamus-worshipping death cult awaiting the apocalypse in 1999, a martial-artist “champion of justice” thwarting terrorists in 2009, as well as the band who recorded the song that improbably connects them all (and the post-WWII author who directly inspired its lyrics).  It’s all very sprawling & complicated and in no rush to connect its disparate dots until the very last minute before the meteor is supposed to strike.

If I had to guess why Fish Story feels so bogged down by its sprawling narrative, it’s because it’s adapted from a novel.  This feels like the kind of adaptation that chose to keep Everything from its source material rather than thoughtfully translating it to the more expedient, visual qualities of its new medium.  It does admittedly tie all its loose-end timelines together in a satisfying way with an uncharacteristically concise, powerful ending, but that only amounts to about five minutes of relief after two hours of mediocre build-up.  To be honest, the film works best as an advertisement for it source material.  I can totally see how its everything-is-connected story structure and pop-culture-obsessive references to media like Power Rangers, Gundam, Under Siege, and Armageddon would be a blast to read on the page, even as they feel a little too weighed down on the screen. The movie itself is fine, I guess, but I can’t imagine ever watching it again when much punchier Japanese punk films like Wild Zero & We Are Little Zombies are sitting right there.

-Brandon Ledet