– Brandon Ledet & Mark “Boomer” Redmond
– Brandon Ledet & Mark “Boomer” Redmond
It turns out not every movie adaptation of the 1958 novel The Body Snatchers is Great; some are just Okay. The 1956 and the 1978 adaptations—both titled The Invasion of the Body Snatchers—are reputable sci-fi horror classics, but that streak apparently ended when the material was imported into the 1990s. Body Snatchers ’93 had ample talent behind it to match the reputation of its looming predecessors, including the same producer as Invasion ’78 (Robert H. Solo) and creative contributions from genre film legends Abel Ferrara (director), Stuart Gordon (co-writer), and Larry Cohen (story). Unfortunately, that deep talent pool doesn’t amount to much onscreen. This particular Body Snatchers is serviceable but forgettable, something that might be easier to overlook if there weren’t so many superior realizations of the same material to compare it to.
Whereas the first two Body Snatchers adaptations explored themes of Conservatism, conformity, and paranoia in American cities & suburbs, this 90s Kids™ update moves its action to a military base. A moody teen brat who’d rather listen to her Walkman than her parents is horrified when her family moves to the rigid, regimented confinement of a military base to accommodate her dad’s career. That horror over militarized conformity only worsens when alien pod people start replacing the humans among the macho brutes in her midst, eventually including the few burnout friends she’s made on the base and members of her own immediate family. The manifestations of that horror are familiar: alien tendrils invading sleeping victims’ orifices and already-converted pod people snitching on still-human holdouts with hideous shrieks. They’re just updated with a new backdrop location & updated 90s era effects.
Weirdly, the film that most makes Body Snatchers ’93 feel obsolete is not any of the preceding direct adaptations of its source material but rather a loosely-inspired work that arrived to theaters five years later. Between the film’s 90s grunge sensibilities and its moody teen girl POV, it recalls a lot of what Robert Rodriguez later achieved to greater success in The Faculty. Body Snatchers is dourer & less fun than Rodriguez’s film, though, which I suppose is the Abel Ferrara touch. As a result, it’s difficult to find much in this film worth recommending that hasn’t been bested elsewhere, except maybe in a few standalone scares: a deflated goo-filled skull here, an alien-infested bathtub there, etc. Still, it’s a moderately serviceable sci-fi horror that sneaks in a few effective chills & practical gore showcases in a tight 87min window – even if they aren’t in service of something spectacularly unique.
I remember being thoroughly charmed by Aardman Animations’ Shaun the Sheep movie five years ago, but I don’t remember much of anything about the movie or what happens in it. I suspect that’s because not much of anything happens in it at all. Adapting the Wallace & Gromit spin-off series for the big screen meant having to upscale the adorable sheep’s stop-motion farmland hijinks with a trip to The Big City to mark the occasion. Aardman did a great job of downplaying that necessity, though, keeping Shaun’s fish-out-of-water antics amongst urban chaos as low-key & pleasantly charming as possible. Unfortunately, it seems that the sequel had to go even bigger in scale to justify its own existence and lost some of that low-key charm in the process. You can even feel the sequel’s mood-deflating excess in its Michael Bay flavored title, Farmageddon, which is maybe the exact opposite of what you’d want from a low-stakes animated comedy about a cute sheep.
In theory, I’m all for a War of the Worlds inspired sci-fi throwback within the Shaun the Sheep universe. The eerie theremin soundtrack cues, spooky green lights, and 1950s throwback UFOs that differentiate Farmageddon from the first Shaun the Sheep movie land it squarely in my aesthetic wheelhouse. It’s the cutesy, impish alien creature that toddles out of those UFOs that killed the mood for me. In a slightly altered repeat of the first film, Shaun has to travel into town to help an alien creature that crash landed near his farm find her spaceship so she can travel home. This prompts a very familiar series of gags where Shaun has to hide the fact that he’s a sheep operating undercover in People Places, except this time he’s also covering for a purple, childlike space alien who’s constantly hyperactive from guzzling too much candy & soda. I know I shouldn’t fault a kids’ movie for featuring an obnoxious, brightly colored alien mascot character with magical powers and a bottomless love for sugar; she’s not designed for my entertainment. Still, it’s an impossible fault to ignore, considering that all of the funniest gags in the film involve the sheep on the farm and not the sci-fi add-ons referenced in the title.
There’s no reason to be too harsh here. Although Farmageddon is nowhere near as successful as the first Shaun the Sheep movie, it’s still cute & charming enough to be worthy of a lazy-afternoon watch. Its space alien Poochie character and godawful Top 40s pop music soundtrack threaten to tank the entire enterprise, but the Aardman brand is too strong to allow that to happen. This is still an adorably animated stop-motion love letter to silent comedy greats of the past like Chaplin, Keaton, and Tati – one with winking Film Geek references to movies like Modern Times & 2001: A Space Odyssey. If it can use the brightly colored sugar rush of its alien mascot to hook younger children into that Antique Cinema nerdom (and sci-fi genre nerdom to boot), who am I to complain? I missed the low-key charms of the first film while tagging along behind that purple, sugar-addled beast, but Farmageddon still occasionally gave me something to smile about elsewhere.
One of the pitfalls of regularly watching genre movies is that they start to blend together if you don’t diversify your diet. The way genre films can repeat and reshape the same story templates into thousands of uniquely meaningful variations is a beautiful thing. However, if you watch, say, five varying riffs on The Thing or Groundhog Day in a month the barriers that distinguish each individual film start to break down. All of that is to say that the modestly budgeted Lovecraftian horror The Beach House was very poorly timed, to no particular fault of the film itself. In a year where The Beach House has to compete for attention with fellow new releases Color Out of Space, Sea Fever, and The Rental—all of which cover nearly identical genre territory with much larger budgets & creative resources—it has almost no chance of standing out as its own distinct vision. Still, the benefit of working within the realm of genre is that these familiar templates have their own guaranteed entertainment payoffs baked into their recipes. It took me a while to warm up to The Beach House as a worthwhile, distinct product, but it does eventually get pretty gnarly while staging its climactic mayhem, conjuring a few memorably horrid images that will continue to haunt me despite the rest of the film’s overbearing familiarity.
(Like in Sea Fever), The Beach House features an aspiring scientist, who (like in The Rental) finds herself in a tense social situation while intoxicated with her boyfriend and a strange couple at vacation home, until (like in Color Out of Space) an extraterrestrial infection mutates the people & landscape around her into a grotesque Lovecraftian hellscape. It’s not just the familiarity with these archetypes & settings that makes the film difficult to sink into. The melodramatic CW Network-flavored acting style and the influence of drugs & alcohol also confuse what’s intentionally off in the protagonist’s surroundings and what’s just mistakenly inauthentic & cheesy. It’s impossible to fully get your footing in the film’s early goings, where it’s unclear whether there’s already something sinister in the air or if the dialogue is just being unevenly performed by the subprofessionals the modest budget could afford. Things quickly pick up once the parameters of the beachside Lovecraft horror become explicitly clear, though, and the hideous chaos of the back half more or less erases the tedium of its build-up. I’m not sure the film has anything more to say than “Don’t take edibles with strangers in an unfamiliar location” or “Never trust a fuckboy named Randall” but its pseudoscientific descent into primordial horror is well staged once it gets past those first-act speed bumps.
There are a few isolated, truly grotesque images in The Beach House that should perk up any horror nerds who make it past the doldrums of the film’s early stirrings. Whether seeking out those scattered nightmare visions for their own sake is enough to justify watching an entire movie is dependent on your own appetite for this kind of material. That’s especially true in a year where it’s bested in nearly every way by Color Out of Space in particular, which goes so much further in both its supernatural mayhem and its off-putting performances that The Beach House almost feels wholly redundant, if not just poorly timed. It might have fared better in a different year, but I can’t pretend that it registers as anything particularly memorable in our current context.
Every year for my birthday, I watch an Arnold Schwarzenegger movie as a gift to myself. Something about that Austrian galoot’s heyday as the live-action cartoon version of an American action star makes me warmly nostalgic in a way no other media can. This year, I took a risk by revisiting one of the lesser loved action flicks from the final days of Arnie’s golden era, just a few years before he switched from explosions to politics. The 6th Day held up much better than expected as a dumb-as-rocks nostalgia trip, though, with the camp value of its early-aughts futurism aging like fine wine over the past couple decades. More importantly, it was surprisingly solid Schwarzenegger Birthday programming (something I should remember for future celebrations). Not only does the film deliver two Arnies for the price of one, but it’s also set on his own character’s birthday for at least the first half of the film. My only regret is not timing my viewing where I could have blown out my birthday candles at the same time as my favorite muscled-up goofball.
In short, The 6th Day presents an alternate reality where Joel Schumacher directed Total Recall, and it’s just as delightfully stupid & gaudy as that sounds. In the near future—”sooner than you think”—a Totally American Dad (and helicopter pilot for an X-treme sports snowboarding company) has his life derailed when he is cloned against his will by an evil Bill Gates type and his scientist lackeys. Horrified to discover that he’s been replaced in his home (and marital bed) by his own clone, Schwarzenegger vows to take down the Evil Scientist Dweebs who ruined his life with the only tools he knows: punches, explosions, and one-liners. Beyond the chase scenes & mustache-twirling villainy that earns the film its vintage action movie credentials, The 6th Day is essentially just a collection of kitschy predictions of what the “future” is going to look like circa 2015. Some of these predictions are supposed to read as Super Cool to the macho set: the continued sports world dominance of the XFL, remote control helicopters you can pilot with video game joysticks, programmable slutty hologram girlfriends, etc. Most predictions are supposed to be terrifying & dystopian: the criminalization of tobacco use, creepy robot smart-dolls made for little girls and, most importantly, the Dolly the Sheep cloning experiments being extended to creating human life. And Schwarzenegger’s at the center of it all, just trying his best to be a good Husband & Dad like every red-blooded American should.
Admittedly, The 6th Day can’t compete with the very best of Schwarzenegger’s macho American caricatures, as seen in trash-action classics like Commando & The Running Man. Still, it’s charming to see him doing his thing so many years after he already spoofed himself for it in Last Action Hero. Playing off the film’s cloning theme, Arnie lands not one but two “Go screw yourself” one-liners, as well as the self-referential zinger “I might be back.” That is comedy, folks. There’s also something adorable about his character’s quest to return to a life of chomping cigars and making love with his wife, which is positioned as being in direct opposition to The Modern World. The details surrounding this macho, all-American throwback kitsch can be surprisingly grotesque, as the cloning gimmick at the center of the movie essentially makes human bodies disposable and, thus, fair game to dismantle. No amount of severed thumbs, limbs, or intestines can fully pave over the childlike naivete at the film’s core, though, and the violence ends up coming across as more live-action Looney Tunes than anything genuinely severe. The 6th Day is a little overlong and very much overwhelmingly macho, but it’s mostly a hoot. It will likely never enjoy the same Cult Classic reputation as other brainless action spectacles from Schwarzenegger’s prime, but I find it to be one of those classics’ better late-career clones. I can’t wait to blow out my birthday candles with Unkie Arnie on my next revisit.
One of the major benefits of genre filmmaking is that you can repeat & mutate stories audiences have seen hundreds of times before and still make them freshly exciting. In its most basic terms, the Brazilian whatsit Bacurau is a delicately surreal sci-fi take on “The Most Dangerous Game”, a short story that has been reshaped into countless genre films as wide ranging in tone & purpose as Hard Target, The Hunt, The Pest, and Slave Girls from Beyond Infinity. Bacurau is so deliberately disorienting in its own psychedelic mutation of “The Most Dangerous Game”, however, that it’s not until well into its runtime that you even recognize that’s what it’s going for, despite the story’s cultural familiarity. It’s a film that’s so gradually, subtly escalated that you don’t notice how truly batshit its central scenario is until you’re deep in the thick of it. Yet, it incorporates trashier genre filmmaking signifiers like screen-wipe transitions, extreme split-diopter framing, 1950s UFOs, and the casting of Udo Kier as its central villain so as not to lose its traditional action movie cred while pursuing its more artsy-fartsy ambitions. This is a film that uses familiar tropes & techniques to tell a story we’ve all heard before in a new style & context that achieves something freshly exciting with those antique building blocks. In other words, it’s genre filmmaking at its finest.
The title Bacurau refers to a fictional small town in near-future Brazil, “a few years from now.” The town begins the film in mourning, having lost its community leader & matriarch to old age. Then, the town descends into full on crisis mode as it is mysteriously erased from all online maps of Brazil and is surveilled by retro UFO-shaped drones. The film delays allowing its audience any solid footing for as long as it can, deliberately bewildering us in the first act to mimic the mental state of the Bacurau citizenry. Once the hunting-humans-for-sport aspect of its plot emerges from the confusion, however, the crisis only becomes exponentially more intriguing & thrilling. Like all great genre films, Bacuaru deploys its familiar plot template to address something intimately specific & fresh in metaphor that its premise has not been applied to before (not to my knowledge, anyway). This small Brazilian community is literally hunted from all sides by outside capitalists who see them as subhuman: gun-crazy American tourists, wealthy São Paulino elitists from the opposite end of the country, and even their own local government. It’s a literalized exaggeration of the kinds of exploitation that strains nearly all low-income POC communities no matter how remote, which only makes the exaggerated ultraviolence of the town’s bloody revenge on their oppressors all the more satisfying once it inevitably arrives.
If there’s any clear message being communicated in Bacurau, it’s to be found in the film’s emphasis on community & solidarity. Part of the reason it’s so difficult to get your footing in the first act is that the film has no clear protagonist. Each member of the community is allowed their own command of the film’s POV in time, and it’s the way they equally value each other’s contributions to the town’s daily survival (from doctor to musician to sex worker) that eventually sees them through what looks like an impossible crisis. Meanwhile, the racist, capitalist scum who seek to destroy the people of Bacurau for frivolous entertainment end up destroying each other in the process instead, as their selfishness & individualism makes them too weak to function. There’s a lot to praise in the way the film reshapes its “Most Dangerous Game” inspiration source to make it freshly exciting in both its aesthetics & politics. If nothing else, it has a low-key hallucinatory effect in its matter-of-fact handling of surreal circumstances that I can only compare to other recent South American films of a similar political bent: Monos, Zama, Icaros, Good Manners, Electric Swan, etc. It’s the focus on communal solidarity and de-emphasis of the individual that really distinguishes the film as something freshly exciting for me, though, especially considering the action genre’s long history of Lone Muscle Man hero worship.
Bacurau traffics in such familiar tones & thematic territories that it takes a while to fully register just how overwhelmingly odd it is in its distinguishing details. It’s clearly one of the stranger new releases I’ve seen so far this year, but I don’t know that I fully realized that until I was fully immersed in its climactic bloodbath. This is genre cinema alchemy, the kind of bizarro outlier that reminds us why repeating these stories in new, evolving contexts is a worthwhile practice in the first place.
– Mark “Boomer” Redmond & Brandon Ledet
In some ways, I’m a little bummed that I didn’t have the chance to see the absurdist sci-fi chiller Vivarium on the big screen (due to this year’s ongoing COVID-19 closures). Not only is the theatrical environment my preferred way of experiencing any movie for the first time, but I suspect this film’s discomforting twists & turns would have been especially fun with a gasping crowd. At the same time, discovering this film alone at home might have been a blessing. Watching it in public almost certainly would have been one of those cringy experiences where I’m the only person in the room laughing at a film’s dark, peculiar sense of humor, and it’s probably for the best that I spared fellow theater-goers that annoyance. I knew this film was going to be grim & abrasive; I just didn’t expect that it was going to be so funny. It has a very cruel but highly successful sense of humor to it (almost exclusively about resenting your own spouse & child).
Imogen Poots & Jesse Eisenberg costar as a young couple in search of a suburban starter home to begin their life together, only to get trapped in a hellishly bland eternity of supernatural imprisonment in that very abode. Their relationship here, while explicitly romantic & monogamous, is no less combative than it was when they first paired up as violent nemeses in last year’s The Art of Self-Defense. The cookie-cutter suburban neighborhood they’re trapped in is an endlessly repeating grid of identical CGI houses, resembling more of a board game or a Sims neighborhood than an irl landscape. They’re completely isolated—quarantined, if you will—in a flavorless suburban prison, interrupted only by Amazon deliveries of their daily necessities and the arrival of the world’s most annoying child, whom they are obligated to raise to adulthood. It’s all an unveiled, naked metaphor about how frustrating & unfulfilling the suburban nuclear family lifestyle can be, and it only gets ghastlier as they sink further into their excruciatingly pointless domestic routine.
I’m not surprised to discover that this film is divisive, even among horror & sci-fi nerds who’d normally be on its wavelength. The central metaphor is unashamedly blatant; the disruptive child character is 1000x more shrill & frustrating than even the kid in The Babadook; and watching a young couple become exponentially sick of each other for 97 minutes is a deliberately tough sit. All I can say is that its antiromantic misanthropy really worked for me. I was even outright delighted by it, which feels perverse to say about a film that is so relentlessly miserable in tone. Vivarium is a cartoon exaggeration of the long-simmering frustrations & resentments that accompany even the most successful of romantic partnerships. It gawks at the traditional, decades-long monogamous marriage as if it were a sideshow attraction at the county fair, amused but disgusted by the freakish unnatural behavior we’re all supposed to aspire to.
Maybe going straight to VOD this year was ultimately the perfect release strategy for this film, since months of social distancing has cranked up the heat on any & all minor annoyances couples already had simmering on the backburner in a way that should help the movie resonate with its literally captive audience. If nothing else, watching this exhausted, joyless couple stare slack-jawed at their hyperactive child as it runs screeching through their house/prison felt familiar to a COVID-specific variety of tweets where parents complain about not being able to ship their kids off to daycare for a much-needed breather. Selfishly, I’m also a little glad I was blocked from catching it on the big screen because I almost certainly would have been laughing a little too loud at the film’s cruelly antiromantic absurdism, only making the experience even more grating for my fellow moviegoers. It’s already abrasive enough without my braying contributions.
It’s a certification that has been in motion for a few years now, but Palm Springs has officially solidified the Groundhog Day time-loop plot as its own independent movie genre. Over the past few years, we’ve seen the repeated-day time loop story pioneered in the Harold Ramis classic mutated by a wide range of genre films that have switched up its very specific high-concept premise by plugging it into outlandish sci-fi & horror scenarios: Happy Death Day, Edge of Tomorrow, Russian Doll, Triangle, etc. With Palm Springs, the genre has now come full circle, forgoing the need to alter the Groundhog Day formula in any way and instead just repeating it wholesale. This is a lightly absurdist romcom in which an SNL veteran (Andy Samberg instead of Bill Murray) plays a directionless, disillusioned grump (amusingly described in this instance as a “pretentious sadboy”) who falls in love with an unlikely suitress while learning to care about other people and life in general. And it easily manages to be its own thing, completely independent of Groundhog Day‘s own cynicism-melting loopiness, which is why this feels like the exact moment the genre became its own self-contained entity. We no longer need alien invasions or King Cake Baby slasher villains to distinguish these time-loop movies from their Groundhog Day inspiration source. There’s a wide enough playing field now that a novelty angle on the material is no longer necessary.
What I appreciated most about Palm Springs‘s participation in the Time Loop romcom formula is that it pushes the genre forward by acknowledging the audience’s familiarity with it and jumping into the flow of things way downstream. We join Samberg’s delirious supernatural rut thousands of years into the never-ending cycle, long past the point where his sanity or determination could be expected to be maintained. It’s like joining Groundhog’s Day deep into its second hour, when Murray has long gotten past any attempts to rationalize his way out of his time prison and instead entertains himself with meaningless pranks like teaching the titular groundhog how to drive. Samberg’s helped out of this maddening rut (and led through a series of escalating for-their-own-sake gags) by a love interest (Cristin Milotti) who finds herself at the start of the same go-nowhere journey, which does revert the film back to the time-loop romcom’s original narrative template in some ways. Still, by jumpstarting Samberg’s time-loop delirium thousands of cycles ahead of the opening credits, the movie allows for more bizarre & more immediate payoffs than it would if it belabored the explanation of how he got there. We’ve all seen Groundhog Day; we get it. If we’re going to keep endlessly repeating that same story into infinity, we might as well acknowledge that cultural familiarity and push the premise to its most absurd extremes.
It’s worth pondering why this such an often-repeated story template (besides the fact that Groundhog Day is often taught to future filmmakers in Screenwriting 101 courses). Palm Springs seems to believe that the time-loop scenario is an excellent metaphor for flawed, depressive characters who are stuck in a never-ending personal rut, which is more or less exactly how it was originally applied to Bill Murray’s cynical grump archetype in the first place. This is ultimately a romcom about two stuck, go-nowhere people whose self-destructive internal ruts become external & literal due to a supernatural phenomenon (until they inevitably help each other out the loop by falling in love). There’s an element of that exact metaphor in each central character of the Groundhog Day facsimiles I’ve seen to date, though. If Palm Springs really clarified anything about the time-loop premise’s metaphorical relatability, it’s in how similar this absurd supernatural scenario is to our mundane everyday lives in the real world. It might be the COVID-19 incited rut we’ve all been living through while socially distanced in our homes over recent months that has me thinking this way, but reliving the same goddamn day in the same goddamn space over & over again doesn’t sound like an outlandish sci-fi scenario right now; it just sounds like life. I have even come to a lot of the same philosophical conclusions Samberg’s time-rattled character has much further into his loopy rut than I am: nothing matters; there is no god; causing pain to others for your own amusement is spiritually unfulfilling; and you might as well find love where you can, because nothing is worse than going through this shit alone.
Given the genre’s apparent never-ending adaptability and its resonance with the mundane routines of everyday life, I doubt Palm Springs will be the last of the repeated-day time loop romcoms we’ll see this decade. If anything, the film feels like it’s normalizing the act of repeating Groundhog Day‘s formula wholesale instead of attempting to discover a fresh angle on the material, so it’s essentially opening the floodgates for other participants in the genre to rush through. It may prove to be one of the more consistently funny & surprising repetitions of the formula, though, thanks to its willingness to immediately dive into the deep end of what this outlandish premise can allow instead of just toeing the water. It may also prove to be one of the better-remembered specimens of its ilk too, since it has a literally captive audience stuck at home with nothing much else to do except watch the new Andy Samberg comedy on Hulu. Popstar was much wilder & funnier in its own participation in a much-repeated genre template, but hardly anyone actually watched it. This has a much bigger chance of actually making a cultural impact just because we’ve all been forced into a never-ending collective rut thanks to the pandemic.