00:00 Hurricane Ida Relief:
02:43 Blow Out (1981)
03:41 NiNoKuni (2020)
05:50 Forest of Piano
06:50 The X-Files
09:53 Star Trek
– The Lagniappe Podcast Crew
00:00 Hurricane Ida Relief:
02:43 Blow Out (1981)
03:41 NiNoKuni (2020)
05:50 Forest of Piano
06:50 The X-Files
09:53 Star Trek
– The Lagniappe Podcast Crew
Welcome to Episode #142 of The Swampflix Podcast. For this episode, Brandon is joined by temporary shelter-mate Sabre to stave off the boredom of Hurricane Ida power outages with our very first solar-powered podcast — discussing the movies they’ve been watching while waiting for the post-storm world to return to normalcy.
02:50 Heathers vs. Mean Girls
05:35 Death Becomes Her
08:15 Jellyfish Eyes
– The Podcast Crew
Understandably, there have been hundreds of attempts to make timely COVID-era films over the past year and a half. Most of these productions are on the level of Doug Liman’s Locked Down: throwaway novelties of limited scope & budget that’re only worthwhile as cultural time capsules of the minor inconveniences and quirks of daily life that define this never-ending global pandemic for most people surviving it. I’m interested in this burgeoning exploitation genre the way I am with most fad-cinema novelties of the past: disco musicals, aerobics-craze horrors, sports dramas about skateboarders, etc. There is something especially cynical & dark about exploiting COVID-era “lockdown life”, though, since this particular global “fad” comes with a real-life bodycount in the millions. From what I’ve seen so far, there have only been three works of COVID cinema that have really grappled with the grief, isolation, and exhaustion of the pandemic: the “screenlife” cyberghost story Host, the Bo Burnham video diary Inside, and Ben Wheatley’s psychedelic folk horror In the Earth. This is likely a cinematic subject we’ll be unraveling for the rest of our lives, since it affects every last person on the planet, but genuinely great films made in the thick of this ongoing crisis have so far been in short supply.
For its part, In the Earth smartly reflects on the maddening grief of COVID-19 indirectly, from a distance. Its characters discuss the social isolation of quarantine and the bureaucratic discomforts of routine testing, but they never specify the exact scope or nature of the virus they’re protecting themselves from. It’s less about the specific daily safety measures of COVID in particular, but more about how a year of social & spiritual isolation has permanently remapped their brains in chaotic, fucked up ways. By stepping away from the lockdown restrictions of city life to instead stage its COVID-flavored horror show in the woods, it recontextualizes this never-ending global crisis as a dual Man vs. Nature and Man vs. Man struggle, attempting to document something a little more philosophical about the absurdity, violence, and emptiness of living right now. Its two central villains are trying to directly bargain with Nature through science and through religious mysticism, respectively, as if all our modern ills can only be solved by radically overhauling the way we live among each other on this planet (which feels right, even if nearly impossible).
A field researcher is guided by a park ranger into the thick of British wilderness, searching for a rogue scientist who’s gone off the grid and off the rails in her recent experiments. They eventually find the mad scientist, who is directly communicating with trees trough a convoluted system of strobe lights & synthesizers she’s arranged in the woods like a sinister art instillation. In her mind, this human-to-Nature line of communication could potentially unlock some great, authentic power that will help us better understand (and potentially command) our place in the global ecosystem. The philosophical counterpoint to her experiment and the main obstacle on our journey to her is an axe-wielding maniac who stalks the woods. His plan to reconnect with Nature involves local folklore rituals that honor the elder god Parnag Fegg, The Spirit of the Woods. The advocate for science and the advocate for religion are both violently insane, of course, but they have a way of luring in the two new interlopers in the woods with calm, disarmingly kind demeanors that make them vulnerable to their respective extremist rhetoric. These are extreme times, after all, and the social isolation of the past year has made us all a little batty in our own special ways.
I can’t tell you exactly what Ben Wheatley was trying to communicate with this gory, psychedelic horror show, nor do I really want to hear the specifics of his intent. As a horror movie, it’s perfectly entertaining & unsettling mix of sci-fi, folk horror, and woodland slasher genre tropes. The surgical details of the axe wounds are just as effectively upsetting as the psychedelic freak-outs of its strobe light centerpiece. As a nightmare reflection of our collective, COVID-era mindset, it’s much more difficult to pin down exactly what it’s doing except to say that it’s impressively strange, upsetting stuff considering its limited scope & budget. So many movies being made in and about these times are so caught up in the mundane, practical details of daily life that they never transcend the novelty of its setting. In the Earth is a rare example of COVID Cinema that aims for something a little more intangible and indescribable — something that captures the existential horrors of current life rather than the logistical ones.
Our current Movie of the Month, 1992’s Sneakers, is a mainstream thriller about elite hackers played by middle-aged movie stars instead of teenage Mall Goths. As a “cyberpunk” thriller about elite early-internet hackers, it is absurdly un-hip. I’ve come to expect my movie hackers to be young, androgynous perverts dressed in glossy patent leather, not near-geriatric celebrities who tuck in their shirt-tails. However, as a big-budget Dad Movie that plays with 90s-specific cyberterror anxieties, I found it solidly entertaining. It feels like a dispatch from a bygone studio filmmaking era when movie stars actually drove ticket sales, so that their importance on the screen is stressed way more than directorial style or production design – which are slick enough here but deliberately avoid calling attention to themselves. Even among the movie’s biggest fans, I get the sense that it satisfies most as a comfort watch steeped in nostalgia for that era, right down to the clunkiness of its landline phones and desktop computers.
I appreciate Sneakers‘s appeal as a star-studded studio thriller, but I personally prefer my Evil Technology movies to be just a smidge goofier, sexier, or more stylistically over the top. Thankfully there are plenty of trashier, less reputable 90s thrillers about computer hackers to choose from. Here are a few recommended titles if you enjoyed our Movie of the Month but want to see something a little less sensible.
The Net (1995)
For something just a smidge goofier than Sneakers that still sticks to the mainstream star-vehicle format, I’d recommend the much-mocked but highly entertaining The Net. The Net stars Sandra Bullock as a loner computer hacker, vulnerable to attack because she’s friendless in the world. Watching Bullock’s slovenly hacker eat junk food & code in her “cyberchat” computer dungeon really pushes her Sweetheart Next Door onscreen persona into absurdly unbelievable territory. Bullock’s inability to lose herself in a role comes hand in hand with movie star celebrity, a suspension of disbelief audiences are willing to accommodate because we love seeing these megastars perform, Everyday Sweethearts or no. It’s the same suspension of disbelief that asks us to buy a middle-age Robert Redford as the hippest computer genius on the planet or Dan Ackroyd as a Mall Goth conspiracy theorist, when more reasonable casting would’ve skewed younger or nerdier.
Besides Bullock’s natural star power & effortless charm, The Net’s main draw for modern audiences is its glimpse at 1990s era fears & misunderstandings of online culture, which is pushed to a much goofier extreme than the standard political thriller beats of Sneakers. The film’s main conflict involves an encrypted floppy disc that hackers are willing to murder Bullock’s online slob to obtain, exploiting then-contemporary audiences’ fears of the vulnerability of digitally stored information. Characters anxiously explain the vulnerability of our “electronic shadow” in a world where “our entire lives are in the computer,” waiting to be hacked. The film’s tagline bellows, “Her driver’s license. Her bank account. Her credit card. Her identity. DELETED.” Most of The Net‘s basic thriller elements derive from Bullock’s helplessness in the face of this online identity persecution limiting her mobility & capital as she protects the McGuffinous floppy disc. On the sillier end, there are also primitive AOL-era emojis, in-dialogue explanations of terms like “IRL” (all-caps), and exchanges like “You’re hacker too?,” “Isn’t everybody?,” to help color The Net as a so-bad-it’s-good early Internet relic.
Where The Net truly gets good for me is in its lack of confidence that its chosen subject is sufficiently cinematic. Unsure audiences will bother reading online chatroom text to themselves, Bullock’s computer “helpfully” reads out the chatter in exaggerated robotic voice synthesizers. Discontented with merely displaying online data in matter-of-fact presentation, harsh music video edits & slashing sound cues are deployed to make computer readouts more “dynamic” (read: obnoxious). To add some explosive energy to the onscreen thrills, the film’s evil hacker syndicate graduate from hijacking online personal data to hijacking personal airplanes – essentially hacking victims to death in fiery crashes. It’s all deeply, incurably silly, a tone that only improves with time as its moment in tech becomes more obsolete. Whereas Sneakers molds a traditional, reasonable political thriller formula onto a 90s cyberterror setting, The Net goes out of its way to stress the contemporary gimmickry of his computer hacker plot to the point of delirium.
For something “sexier” than Sneakers, I’d point to the Michael Douglas erotic thriller Disclosure, which features the middle-age movie star in yet another deadly battle with a femme fatale who desperately wants to fuck him to death . . . this time with computer hacking! Douglas stars as a misogynist computer programmer whose daily sexist microaggressions are turned back on him a thousandfold by his new bombshell boss (and sexual harasser), played by Demi Moore. It literalizes the 90s-era War of the Sexes in the same queasy way all these mainstream erotic thrillers do, which you’re either going to be on board for or not. However, this particular example is flavored with an Early Internet tech obsession that includes wide-eyed wonder at cell phones, emails, video calls, and CD-ROMs – placing it in the same techno-espionage realm as Sneakers, just with the absurdity dialed to 11.
There is no actual, consensual sex in Disclosure, despite its erotic thriller patina. Most of the frank, adult conversations about sexuality are contained to legal mediations about the gendered nature of consent and power in the workplace. The actual computer hacking portion is also minimal in its screentime, but once it arrives it is a doozy. The climax of the film is staged in a Virtual Reality simulation of a filing cabinet in a digital hallway, with Michael Douglas frantically searching for confidential files while a Matrixed-out killbot version of Demi Moore systematically deletes them with VR lasers. Of all the examples of movies overreaching in their attempts to make computer hacking look visually dynamic and Cool, this is easily up there in the techno-absurdism Hall of Fame. It’s also lot more thrilling than it sounds on paper, depending on your taste for this kind of horned-up, technophobic trash.
And of course, no list of 90s computer-hacking thrillers would be complete without the over-styled, undercooked excess of 1995’s Hackers. When I was picturing my ideal version of Sneakers—young perverts in fetish gear throwing around the word “elite” as if it were the ultimate honor—I’m pretty sure I was just picturing Hackers . . . a film I had never seen before. Whereas Sneakers is careful to present its corporate espionage computer hacking in a reasonable, rational context that’s careful not to deviate too far from the mainstream thriller norm, Hackers fully commits to its Computer Hacking: The Movie gimmickry. Jonny Lee Miller stars as a child hacker (alias Zero Cool) who has to lay low after being convicted for hacking into the systems of major American banks, then emerges as a hip teen hacker (new alias Crash Override) who’s pinched for a similar corporate espionage crime he did not commit. Will he and his elite-hacker friends be able to out-hack their evil-hacker enemies to clear their names before they’re sent to prison? Who cares? The real draw here is the rapid-edit visualizations of computer hacking in action, wherein Zero/Crash closes his eyes and zones out to psychedelic clips of vintage TV shows & pop culture ephemera while his hands furiously clack away at his light-up keyboard, techno constantly blaring in the background.
Is it possible to be nostalgic for something while you’re watching it for the first time? Hackers has everything I want in movies: tons of style, no substance, mystical visualizations of The Internet, wet dreams about crossdressing, Matthew Lillard, etc. In the abstract, I recognize that Sneakers is technically the better film, but its competence keeps it from achieving anything half as fun or as surreal as this 90s-teen derivative. I very much appreciated Sneakers as is, but I spent its entire runtime re-imagining it as my ideal version of a 90s computer-hacking thriller . . . only to later discover that Hackers already is that exact ideal. It’s, without question, the most ridiculous and most essential film in this set. Hack the planet!
It had been sixteen long months since I last saw a movie projected in a proper cinema. Early in the pandemic, I went out for a nice restaurant meal and a screening of The Invisible Man on a Friday night, fully aware that it would be my last taste of either indulgence for a good long while. Over a year later, I pulled up to AMC Elmwood listening to the mayor on the radio strongly “advising” indoor mask wearing again due to the rapid local spread of the Delta Variant (one week before that advisory snowballed into a mandate). So maybe this long-delayed return trip would also be my last taste of moviegoing for a long while; maybe it would be the only chance I had to see a movie at the megaplex in all of 2021. I made it count by watching some vapid trash.
The first Escape Room was a surprise delight: the rare example of an early-January gimmick thriller that actually lives up to its preposterous premise: “What if escape rooms, but for real?” That premise was also smartly designed to support as many sequels as audiences could care to see. There are some vague motions towards toppling the impossibly widespread conspiracy network that set up the film’s lethal escape room death traps, but for the most part the series is so far all about the rooms themselves. Escape Room 2: Tournament of Champions isn’t as surprising nor as tense as its predecessor, but its death traps are plentiful and plenty preposterous, including an electrified subway car, a city-block acid bath, and an “art deco bank of death.” There’s nowhere for the series to go in terms of worldbuilding or metaphorical purpose, so all it can really do is continue to escalate the size & cruelty of its death traps until the entire planet and life itself are all one giant escape room. I sincerely hope we see enough sequels for it to get there; these are great braindead popcorn flicks.
Foolishly, I borrowed the first Escape Room from the library the week before watching its sequel in theaters, thinking I’d need a refresher on the lore & surviving characters before diving into a new chapter. After 25min of AMC’s trailers and commercials, Tournament of Champions included a recap highlight of the first film – effectively a “Previously on . . .” TV show recap of everything I needed to know, making that rewatch redundant. I did appreciate a few things about watching both Escape Rooms as a double feature, though, even if was unnecessary. As a pair, they were a much-needed balm after being repeatedly burned by the inferior Cube series in recent weeks, which has a similar knack for preposterous traps but only a small fraction of the follow-through. They also best the Saw films in that regard, mostly in their aversion to torturous cruelty – solemnly acknowledging the lives lost without reveling in the grisly details of their demise. As much as I’d like to praise these films as survivors’ guilt thrillers with a critical eye towards audiences’ bloodlust, though, the truth is their death contraptions are just entertainingly absurd.
Watching the original Escape Room at home, then watching Tournament of Champions at my old AMC Elmwood haunt only reinforced the things I miss about the theatrical environment. I’m convinced the first Escape Room is the better film, but I had a lot more fun watching the sequel big & loud with a (sparsely populated but sparsely masked) crowd. I was once again fully, properly immersed in a feature film, by which I mean I couldn’t check my phone every half-second my attention lagged. I’d love to make that experience a regular routine again, even if for the inanest bullshit movies imaginable. Sixteen months is a long, long wait for that simple of an indulgence, but I also don’t know how I often I want to sit for hours in a dark room with the general public right now, all things considered.
“They sure don’t make [X] like they used to” is something that I either never tire of hearing or can’t stand to hear someone say, depending upon who’s making the statement and what they’re complaining about. “They sure don’t make gender theory like they used to” is a statement that could go either way, varying wildly depending on whether it’s a radical person at your local DSA meeting or a talking head on any news outlet. “They sure don’t make Confederate monuments like they used to” is a delight to hear if the person saying it is pleased, but would be a huge red (and treasonous) flag if the speaker is wistful for the days when they could indulge in their Lost Cause nonsense without inspection. Nothing in life is ever really stable, but one thing that they’re still making just like they used to are contemporary(ish) medium-to-hard sci-fi dramas about Things Going Wrong in Space.
Medical researcher Zoe Levenson (Anna Kendrick) originally applied for a position with space exploration agency Hyperion because she thought that “I was rejected by Hyperion” would be a funny story to tell at parties. To her surprise, she was accepted for a position for a two-year Mars mission, alongside biologist David Kim (Daniel Dae Kim), whose work revolves around the possibility of using algae as a feasible atmosphere conversion medium. Leading the mission is Commander Marina Barnett (Toni Collette), for whom this is a bittersweet journey, as it marks her third and final interplanetary trip. Their ship, the MTS-42, has an interesting configuration: the upper stage booster remains attached to the ship proper by a tether, and using centrifugal interia, provides artificial gravity for the crew. After a bumpy takeoff, the astronauts get down to the business of making the journey to Mars, but it turns out that this was no run-of-the-mill shaky departure: the ship’s weight is off due to the presence of Michael Adams (Shamier Anderson), a support engineer working as part of Hyperion’s ground crew, who was caught between two modules and trapped aboard the vessel. Worse still, his presence has inadvertently damaged the ship’s carbon dioxide scrubbers, which are needed to ensure a breathable atmosphere for the astronauts and their accidental stowaway for the entirety of their journey.
Although Stowaway is set in the not-too-distant future, as evidenced by the way that a trip to Mars is treated as a semi-regular aeroscience practice and the lack of a NASA presence (Hyperion is never identified as a government agency or a private corporation; its international crew implies the latter but the genuine concern that home base demonstrates regarding the lives of its astronauts implies the former). It’s still part of the genealogy of films that can trace their ancestry back to The Right Stuff but were defined as a genre by Apollo 13: realistic space dangers. Stowaway doesn’t break the mold that also created The Martian and Gravity, but it’s also not really breaking the mold of Tom Godwin’s 1954 short story “The Cold Equations,” from which it draws its primary dilemma. “Equations,” which itself draws inspiration from works going back to the nineteenth century, takes its title from the calculations needed when a starfaring vessel whose margins of error are very small finds those margins exceeded by a stowaway (an intentional one in that text), in order to determine if there’s a way for both pilot and passenger to survive. There isn’t; the stowaway passenger in “Equations” makes the ultimate sacrifice upon realizing that her actions, however well-intentioned if poorly-informed, threaten the lives of an entire colony.
That it fails to break that mold isn’t necessarily a bad thing, however. “The Cold Equations” is considered a classic sci-fi story with values that resonate across time for a reason. Stowaway also circumvents two potential problems with updates to the central conflict of “Equations” as well: the ship in “Equations” is pretty clearly in violation of common sense safety standards (it was published 16 years before OSHA went into effect, after all) by failing to provide for even the smallest margin of error, and the teenaged stowaway intentionally boarded the vessel to see her brother. In Stowaway, we instead have an engineer who was accidentally injured and knocked unconscious before being sealed behind a panel prior to liftoff, meaning that he is an innocent in this situation; secondly, it’s not merely a matter that the ship can’t support more than three people, but that the scrubbers that are the safety precaution and could enable them to make it to Mars with an extra person on board are damaged. Every attempt is made to find another solution, including using the algae from Kim’s experiment to try and produce sufficient oxygen to make the rest of the flight, and a daring and thrilling climb across the tether to the second stage booster to collect any remaining oxygen from its tanks in an attempt to extend MTS-42’s atmospheric supply until they reach Mars, but ultimately, just as in “Equations,” not everyone will make it out alive.
Stowaway isn’t likely to blow the average audience member away. Its appeal lies largely in its similarity to what’s come before in the Things Going Wrong in Space genre and applying hard contemporary science to its familiar plot, but therein lies its weakness; there’s nothing here that you haven’t seen before. The minimal cast is strongly composed, but although no one’s phoning it in, everyone involved knows that this isn’t their opus, so it’s no one’s career best performance either. Anderson is a standout, given that he’s the least seasoned cast member, and Kendrick manages charm and gravitas in equal measures in a rare non-comedic role. I have a feeling that this would play better on the big screen; I certainly remember being captivated by Gravity and Interstellar while watching them in theaters, and Stowaway has sequences that feel stifled on my TV at home. Hopefully, we’ll see writer-director Joe Penna’s next feature large and beautiful, but in the meantime, this one’s on Netflix if you’re itching for a near-future sci-fi tragedy.
-Mark “Boomer” Redmond
There’s a certain kind of low-budget indie comedy that’s packed with the hippest, funniest comedians you know . . . who just sorta sit around with nothing to do. They’re not so much hangout films as they are grotesque wastes of talent. What’s frustrating about the recent “dark romantic comedy” Happily is that starts as something conceptually, visually exciting in its first act, only to devolve into one of those comedy-scene talent wasters as it quickly runs out of ideas. Happily opens with a wicked black humor and a heightened visual style that recalls what everyone was drooling over with Game Night back in 2018. Unfortunately, it leads with all its best gags & ideas, so after a while you’re just kinda hanging out with hip L.A. comedians in a nice house – which isn’t so bad but also isn’t so great.
Joel McHale & Kerry Bishé star as a couple whose persistent happiness and mutual lust—as if they were still newlyweds after 14 years of marriage—crazes everyone around them. Their cutesy PDA and ease with conflict resolution is first presented as a mild annoyance to their more realistically jaded, coupled friends. Then, Stephen Root appears at their doorstep like the mysterious G-Man in Richard Kelly’s The Box, explaining that their lovey-dovey behavior is supernaturally deranged, a cosmic defect he needs to fix with an injectable fluorescent serum. That Twilight Zone intrusion on the otherwise formulaic plot feels like it should be the start to a wild, twisty ride. Instead, it abruptly halts the movie’s momentum, forcing it to retreat to a low-key couple’s getaway weekend in a bland Californian mansion with its tail tucked between its legs.
In its first half-hour, Happily is incredibly stylish for such an obviously cheap production. Red color gels, eerie dreams, disco beats, and an infinite sea of repeating office cubicles overwhelm the familiarity of the film’s genre trappings, underlining the absurdity of its main couple’s commitment to their “happily ever after” romance. Once it gets derailed into couples’ getaway weekend limbo, all that visual style and cosmic horror just evaporates. The talented cast of welcome faces—Paul Scheer, Kirby Howell-Baptiste, Natalie Morales, Charlyne Yi, Jon Daly, Breckin Meyer, etc.—becomes the main draw instead of the dark Twilight Zone surrealism, which is a real shame. There are plenty of other films where you could watch hipster comedians act like cruel, bitter assholes in a lavish locale. The early style and humor of Happily promised something much more conceptually and aesthetically unique.
And since there isn’t much more to say about the toothless hangout comedy that Happily unfortunately devolves into, I’ll just point to a few recent titles on its budget level that are much more emphatically committed to the biting dark humor of their high-concept, anti-romantic premises: Cheap Thrills, The One I Love, and It’s a Disaster. Those are good movies, and this is almost one too.
Unless we’re discussing titans of the medium like Hayao Miyazaki or Satoshi Kon, I’m shamefully unfamiliar with most anime. As the last thriving refuge for traditional hand drawn animation, I respect the artistry of anime greatly. I’m just more of an admirer than I am a “fan,” since claiming that latter designation implies you’re extremely well versed and deeply opinionated about the medium in a way I’ll never be able to match. Saying you’re an Anime Fan is like saying you’re a fan of superhero comics or Star Trek or any other extremely nerdy artform with a decades-spanning history; you better know your obscure, inconsequential trivia down to the last detail, or you’re in for a gatekeeping headache. Case in point: I finally watched the landmark anime series Cowboy Bebop for the first time since it popped up on Hulu last year, over two decades after its initial run. If I were an anime fan, that kind of blindspot would be a source of shame I’d have to hide from my cannibalistic anime nerd friends. Since I’m a casual admirer, though, I get to walk away unscathed — the same as I did when Netflix started streaming Neon Genesis Evangelion a couple years back.
Unsurprisingly, the Cowboy Bebop series is pretty good. A mash-up of neo-noir, neo-Western, and space travel sci-fi tropes, it’s fairly accessible to casual anime admirers with an appreciation for old-fashioned genre filmmaking. I found it to be hit-or-miss by episode, but mostly as a matter of personal taste. The standalone villain-of-the-week episodes were mostly fantastic—especially the ones that veered into my beloved subgenre of spaceship horror—but I was largely indifferent to the show’s overarching Spike vs. Vicious storyline: a prolonged, vague neo-noir plot with no sense of propulsion or purpose. If I were recommending the show to a similarly anime-ignorant friend, I’d try my best to save their time with a Best Of list of standalone episodes to burn through: the ones with the killer fridge mold, the virtual reality cult, the mushroom trip, the annoying cowboy, and the deranged clown. If you haven’t seen Cowboy Bebop by now you likely don’t need to watch all 11 hours of the series; you just need a taste, if not only for general pop culture familiarity. I likely would’ve said the same thing about the monster-of-the-week episodes of The X-Files, though, and I watched that show religiously as it aired, so your mileage may vary.
Luckily, you don’t even have to watch those five Best Of episodes (“Toys in the Attic”, “Brain Scratch”, “Mushroom Samba”, “Cowboy Funk,” “Pierrot le Fou”) to get a proper taste of Cowboy Bebop. The series conveniently concluded with a standalone villain-of-the-week movie that also sidesteps the energy-draining Spike vs. Vicious storyline entirely, allowing for one final ride with your new favorite spacetraveling bounty hunters. Cowboy Bebop: The Movie dials the clock back a few episodes into the series before the bounty hunter crew is disbanded (and partially killed) to offer a taste of the show at its prime. In this extended, posthumous episode, the crew is attempting to capture bio-terrorists on Mars (styled to look suspiciously similar to 1990s NYC) before they release a deadly virus in a densely populated crowd. The viral outbreak is planned to be staged at a jack-o-lantern-themed variation of the Macy’s Day Parade, making the film a low-key Halloween movie of sorts. The crew selfishly bickers among themselves, tries to score the bounty on their own, falters, then reforms at the last minute to save the day. It’s quintessential Cowboy Bebop in that way.
The problem with recommending Cowboy Bebop: The Movie (subtitled Knocking on Heaven’s Door) as a crash course overview of the show is that it’s way too goddamn long. You could watch all five of the Best Of episodes I mentioned in less time than it would take you to watch this one feature film, and it never hits the same highs as the series proper at its best. You’d have to trim 30-40 minutes off this thing to make it an enticing alternative for newcomers, and I imagine even long-time fans of the show had their own patience tested with this two-hour standalone. Cowboy Bebop: The Movie isn’t Cowboy Bebop at its most creative or most exciting. However, it is Cowboy Bebop at its most functional. The main draw of the film is seeing a somewhat scrappy, experimental series funded with proper time & budget to get its details in order. The personal & professional dynamics among the space crew are never as clearly defined on the show as they are in the movie, where even lesser side characters like Ein & Edward are fully integrated into the daily business of intergalactic bountyhunting in a way that finally makes sense. More importantly, the animation itself is afforded way more resources to flourish. On the show, the intrusion of CG animation felt like a budget-cutting measure; here it looks purposefully surreal in a more thoughtfully mapped-out hand drawn backdrop. Whereas most “The Movie” versions of TV shows go big with their plots, locations, and scope to justify the jump from the small screen, Cowboy Bebop: The Movie only goes big on its look.
If I had only watched Cowboy Bebop: The Movie for an overview taste of the show, I might’ve assumed the series was a lot more creatively limited than what the best bounty-of-the-week episodes had to offer. It’s a good episode of the series, but it’s too long and too tame to be a great one. However, I did find it to be a great “What If” illustration of how much more visually spectacular the TV show might’ve been if it had the time & money to luxuriate in production the way the movie did. It’s fun to look back on the production limitations of the five Best Of episodes I mentioned and imagine them even more visually extravagant in their animation, since I now know what that might look like. Regardless of that hypothetical, I very much love them as-is. You might even call me a fan.
I love the 1996 sci-fi comedy film Space Jam, by which I mean I was 10 years old in 1996. Even as an adult, I find the movie fascinating as a corporate cashgrab mash-em-up of two disparate but popular brands—Looney Tunes & Michael Jordan—that accidently stumbled into sublimely silly post-modern absurdism. The contortions Space Jam forces itself into to highlight both a post-baseball, career-reflective Michael Jordan and a hyperviolent, physics-defying cartoon bunny are incredible to watch, both from a place of ironic detachment and as in-the-moment entertainment. Of course, it’s impossible for me to claim that Space Jam is objectively good, considering that anyone who was not a child in the mid-90s seems to despise it as a cultural scourge rather than just a middling, studio-made kids’ film. I just want to confess up-front that I’m a Space Jam apologist; I even prefer it to the Joe Dante Looney Tunes film that supposedly fixed all its faults (according to more respectable tastemakers). That way I can I credibly say I went into Space Jam: A New Legacy genuinely hopeful that I would enjoy the experience. I did not watch this long-delayed sequel just to lazily dunk on it or call it out as the death knell of modern cinema. I thought it might be fun.
Space Jam: A New Legacy is devoid of fun. It succeeds neither as intentional comedy nor as accidental absurdism. It lacks the shameless commitment to its own crass commercialism that the pushed the original Space Jam to the point of post-modern delirium. Like the worst cash-grab sequels, it does its best to retrace the steps of its predecessor while suppressing all its strangest, most exciting ideas to the margins. A New Legacy simply subs out Michael Jordan for his modern-day equivalent in LeBron James, then hangs up the towel. James teams up with Bugs Bunny and other Looney Tunes characters to win a cosmic game of basketball so he can get back to his family . . . except this time the game is staged in a computer server instead of outer space. That venue change allows the new Space Jam to rope in as many background characters as it can from the full library of Warner Bros. Entertainment IP – including blasphemous “cameos” from “cinematic universes” like The Matrix, The Devils, Casablanca, A Clockwork Orange, and What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?. That’s the kind of naked corporate-synergy flexing that has professional critics decrying the film as “an abomination”, “an apocalyptic horror movie”, and a “swirling CGI garbage tornado.” Those layup hit-pieces were preloaded before the movie was actually screened for critics, though. What really holds A New Legacy back is that it keeps its only new, exciting idea—that intrusion of characters from classic films outside the Looney Tunes brand—relegated to the background. King Kong, The Penguin, and Baby Jane Hudson should have been shooting hoops alongside LeBron James and Bugs Bunny, not cheering them on from the sidelines in blurred-out crowd shots.
It’s most widely being compared to Spielberg’s post-apocalyptic VR thriller Ready Player One (which is much more critical of this kind of self-aggrandizing IP worship than it’s given credit for), but the basic premise of Space Jam: A New Legacy actually lands much closer to the underappreciated sci-fi bummer The Congress. In a dystopian vision that only rings truer to out shithole reality every year, The Congress imagines a world where celebrities no longer physically perform in mass-distributed art, but instead are scanned-into a computer system that simulates their screen presence in AI emulations. It’s the ultimate movie studio power grab, one we’ve seen echoed in real-life simulations of deceased performers in films like Rogue One (Peter Cushing), Furious 7 (Paul Walker) and, most recently, the ethically-shaky documentary Roadrunner (Anthony Bordain). In Space Jam: A New Legacy, LeBron James is offered the same opportunity: being scanned into the Warner Bros. “serververse” so his likeness can be plugged into whatever intellectual property the mega-corporation can scoop up before Disney gets to it first. A New Legacy even maintains some of the dystopian undercurrent of Ready Player One & The Congress, with human beings cheering on the Looney Tunes team on one side of the court, fictional-product characters cheering on the opposing team of villains, and Don Cheadle orchestrating the entire event from the center as an evil algorithm MC (the film’s only decent, fully committed performance). No matter how much its pile-on of disparate IPs in a single locale is supposed to register as Fun! and Cool!, the Warner Bros. studio itself is clearly positioned as the main villain of the piece, in direct opposition to its human, terrified audience, which it literally holds captive.
It’s a shame that idea wasn’t pushed further. If the entire point of this movie was for Warner Bros. to show off its extensive collection of intellectual properties, it should have just flooded the screen with them to the point where the audience was crushed under their immensity. Instead, it just sweeps them to the background so LeBron James can cosplay as a late-career Michael Jordan by recreating the exact plot beats & character dynamics of the original Space Jam in a new locale. At least doubling down on its grotesque display of corporate synergy could’ve been memorable. As is, there’s nothing offered here worth sitting through A New Legacy to see, which I’m saying even as the rare dumdum who loves the original Space Jam, The Congress and, to a lesser extent, Ready Player One. There are technically jokes in this movie, but none of them are funny (save maybe a couple throwback Silent Cinema gags featuring Wile E. Coyote). It’s a full half-hour longer than the original, sacrificing the breakneck pacing that makes it such a breezy watch. LeBron James is too concerned with being lauded as both the greatest basketball player to have ever lived and the ultimate family man to do anything risky or interesting with the material. Even with all those missteps, though, A New Legacy‘s greatest sin is that it doesn’t push its one deviation from the original Space Jam to its furthest possible extreme. Humorless movie nerds were already going to be pissed about it dragging characters from beloved classics down to the level of a Space Jam sequel no matter what, so there’s no reason for the movie to be timid about its shameless Warner Bros. IP promotion. Fuck it. Show Pennywise spin-dunking in Immortan Joe’s face, then high-fiving Free Willy and planting a sloppy kiss on Lego Catwoman’s blocky lips. If you’re going to be blasphemous, at least have fun with it.
For this lagniappe episode of the podcast, Boomer, Brandon, and Alli discuss the sequel & prequel to the high-concept Canuxploitation sci-fi thriller Cube (1997): Cube² – Hypercube (2002) & Cube Zero (2004).
37:30 Cube 2: Hypercube (2002)
57:50 Cube Zero (2004)
– The Lagniappe Podcast Crew