ARQ (2016)

I love bottle movies. There’s something that appeals to the wannabe filmmaker in me that is totally enraptured by films that take place almost entirely in one location, from independent horror cheapies that far exceed expectations like Housebound, higher profile haunted house flicks like Burnt Offerings, and high concept claustrophobic pieces that are successful beyond expectations, like Paranormal Activity and Alien. Of course, with that, you also end up with a lot of direct-to-video–and occasionally wide released–garbage fare starring the director’s family, friends, and fellow church-goers (i.e., not actors), and sometimes you end up with something that straddles the line, like Beyond the Gates, which is a movie that’s obviously low-budgeted but uses that to its advantage to make a pretty charming movie.

You’ll notice that all of the movies mentioned in the above paragraph are horror movies, and there’re a few reasons for this. First and foremost, horror movies are generally the cheapest to make and easiest to market, making their production a great entry point for first-time filmmakers (as mentioned in the DVD interviews that accompanied Sole Survivor, one of my first reviews for this site). There are plenty of housebound (no pun intended) family or personal drama films produced this way, but the occasional Repulsion that slips through the cracks is the exception, not the rule. Most of the time, you end up with something tedious and poorly edited that ends up on Red Letter Media’s The Wheel of the Worst, waiting to be mocked.

Netflix in particular has really embraced this with their original films, with movies like Hush and I am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House. This is probably more for budgetary reasons than for any ideological reason, but it’s working for them and I don’t foresee them putting a stop to this soon. This is also the case for ARQ, a sci-fi time loop thriller starring Robbie Amell (The Flash, the remade The Tomorrow People) and Rachael Taylor (Jessica Jones).

The film opens as Renton (Amell) catapults awake in a room with blacked-out windows, next to Hannah (Taylor). Moments later, the door bursts open and three masked and armed men enter to drag the two of them to Renton’s basement, where they are bound. The three men identify themselves as Sonny (Shaun Benson), Father (Gray Powell), and Brother (Jacob Neayem), and demand that Renton hand over his currency. Through expository dialogue, we learn that Renton used to be a military engineer for Torus Corporation, where he worked on development of a perpetual motion machine that was intended for use as a generator. Torus has become a de facto government opposed by a disorganized rebellion known as the Bloc, which the home invaders claim to be aligned with. When Renton is killed, he awakes back in bed with Hannah, again and again, using his knowledge from each previous cycle in an attempt to break free.

It’s an interesting premise, if not an original one. Starting with Groundhog Day, and although it was codified in a comedy film, it’s become a fairly standard science fiction narrative, popping up in Star Trek: The Next Generation, Farscape, Doctor Who (naturally), and even Supernatural. Its use is so common that a week before I watched this movie it was the centerpiece of the most recent episode of Dark Matter, which, as always, subverted and played with the idea in a refreshing and fun way. ARQ is likewise a fresh take, but it’s mired down by too much front-loaded world-building exposition, with terminology being introduced early and not explained for 30 minutes, which is a major problem in a film that barely crosses the finish line at 88 minutes total. There’s certainly something interesting about the universe that this film inhabits, but its presentation is hamstrung by poor choices about what plot elements should take precedence. Consider that the shows mentioned above played with this plot structure and managed to be intriguing and elicit investment despite the potential for repetitiveness in a mere 42-46 minutes; ARQ feels like it’s treading water long before it hits that minute mark.

Amell may not be the strongest actor in the world, but the performance he turns in here is bland and generic; any handsome face could fill this role. This may not be a mark against him, however, as Taylor was one of the subtler (but no less meaningful) strengths of Jessica Jones and she’s barely more than a cardboard stand-up here. One must conclude that the problems are probably in the directing and editing and not in the performers, although a more subtle actor in the role of Renton may have salvaged some of the films more bathetic moments. As it stands, the film is discomfiting in that it feels rushed and cluttered with exposition, and not in a good way. It’s worth a watch for people interested in bottle movies, or in Groundhog Day loop scenarios, but offers little else.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Gandahar (1988)

French animator René Laloux is well known & respected for his debut feature, Fantastic Planet, a gorgeous work of political sci-fi psychedelia, but people unfairly treat his career as if he only ever directed that one film. Laloux actually directed three feature films (along with several shorts) in the Fantastic Planet style, each tied to similar themes of anti-fascism political empathy and each visually striking in their traditionalist, but psychedelic hand drawn animation. The last of these films, Gandahar, even came close to breaking through to mainstream success in America. Dubbed by American voice actors like Glenn Close, Bridgette Fonda, and Penn Jillette & slightly edited for sexual content, Gandahar was distributed in North America under the title Light Years by the Weinstein Company. Arriving during the 80s fantasy boom of titles like Legend, Labyrinth, and Ladyhawke & guided in translation by sci-fi heavyweight Isaac Asimov, Gandahar was in the exact right position to make a lasting mark on the public consciousness. Instead, it’s faded into relative obscurity, not having nearly as much of a cultural footprint as Fantastic Planet. It’s a shame too, because the film feels just as worthwhile as that bonafide classic, even in its compromised American form.

The title Gandahar refers to a sort of space alien Eden, a matriarchal hippie paradise in the stars ruled by Nature & peace. The Counsel of Women who govern Gandahar follow a strict boobs-out-for-empowerment philosophy that affords the film a wealth of National Geographic-style desexualized nudity. Their way of life is dedicated to a preference for organic Nature over manmade technology, an ethos that is challenged when their reverie is disrupted by war-hungry robots. Black, personality-free machines invade Gandahar and zap citizens into stone, like God punishing Sodom. This threat is clearly coded as a robotic stand-in for Nazi invaders a hateful force hellbent on destroying the diversifying concept of the individual self. They rebuke a life lived for freedom & pleasure, exemplified by Gandahar, and their mindless loyalty to a single Master gives them great strength in that conviction. To save their people, The Counsel of Women deploys a single male savior, Sylvain, on a journey to find salvation outside his home world Paradise. In his adventures to save Gandahar, Sylvain discovers love, time travel, the true evils of The Master, and a community of mutants who call into question whether Gandahar was ever the utopia it was reported to be before the robots even invaded.

All in all, Gandahar plays like a mashup between an extended He-Man and the Masters of the Universe episode and animated cover art from the prog band Yes. Its central metaphor about robo-Nazi invaders and the value of the individual self never extends too far beyond the robots shooting lasers out of their Hitler salutes and talking up threatening masterplans like “The Final Annihilation.” It’s possible that some of that subtext was stronger in the unadulterated French cut of the film, but it’s not what makes Gandahar special anyway. Laloux’s visual Dungeons & Dragons-flavored fantasy, overrun with odd details like alien bugs suckling off humanoid breasts, flying manta ray dragon beasts, and Godzilla-like kaiju is the main treat in Gandahar, as it was in Laloux’s biggest hit, Fantastic Planet. Clashing the organic, Cronenbergian terrors of his alien landscapes with a then-modern 80s synth score is more than enough to justify giving Gandahar a second look. Laloux’s political metaphors may feel like an outdated hippie fantasy, but his visual style is far too fascinating on its own accord to suffer under that shortcoming. Gandahar may not offer anything terribly new that wasn’t seen before in Fantastic Planet besides a distinctly 80s soundtrack, but a more of the same proposition shouldn’t be a problem for anyone captivated by Laloux’s eternally striking visual art.

-Brandon Ledet

The Jetsons & WWE: Robo-WrestleMania (2017)

Look, I’m solidly, repeatedly on record as being a fan of WWE’s recent team-ups with long-dead Hanna-Barbera properties. Two Scooby-Doo crossovers (WrestleMania Mystery & Curse of the Speed Demon) and one Flintstones detour (Stone Age SmackDown) into this newborn era of Hanna-Barbera pro wrestling cartoons, I haven’t had a single sour experience yet. The larger than life personalities of “WWE Superstars” entering the far-out worlds of Bedrock dinos, fake ghosts, monster trucks, and Scooby Snacks is a perfect fit, especially since WWE likes to maintain the illusion of producing PG content despite building its entire empire on “fantasy violence.” WWE’s fourth collaboration with Hanna-Barbera, while not my favorite crossover so far, is no different in the way it delivers the absurd, over the top fantasy violence goods in a cartoon setting. The Jetsons & WWE: Robo-WrestleMania is the first new Jetsons content produced in nearly three decades, a feature that might mark a lowpoint in terms of that property’s overall quality, but still had me giggly over the way it handles a very specific kind of larger than life absurdity that only a pro wrestling cartoon can deliver.

This is one of those situations where an IMDb plot synopsis is all the information you really need to know if you’d be interested: “A snowstorm freezes Big Show solid for decades. When he finally thaws out, Elroy and George help him build wrestle bots. When Big Show uses them to take over their city, the Jetsons go back in time to enlist help from WWE Superstars.” Well, technically, that synopsis isn’t exactly accurate. You see, The Big Show doesn’t build wrestle bots himself; he overtakes pre-existing robots with his wrestling prowess after discovering in horror that World Wrestling Entertainment has evolved into World Wrobot Entertainment (the second “w” is silent) while he was frozen, making his livelihood an obsolete practice. There’s a dual level of fantasy going on here: one where The Big Show is currently in contention to be the World Heavyweight Champion (those days are long gone) and one where WWE is still thriving 100 years in the future. Whatever automated dystopia pro wrestling slips into is likely imminent too, as the wrestling bots featured in the film are mechanical versions of current superstars: Robo-Roman Reigns, Robo-Seth Rollins, Robo-Dolph Ziggler, etc. I guess there’s a third level of fantasy at work too, you know, the one where lil’ Elroy Jetson invents time travel for a middle school science fair. That aspect of the film can’t really compare to the spectacle of human vs robot pro wrestling, though. Really, what could?

The Jetsons’ presence in Robo-WrestleMania is secondary at best. Besides the initial thrill of having the long dead television show’s iconic theme music (a cheap pop that’s later repeated for a gag where WWE Superstars are similarly introduced) as well as the dead-on impersonations of the new voice cast, the Jetsons mostly just provide an appropriate backdrop for the robotic & time-traveling hijinks of the much more interesting pro wrestling personalities they mix with. A lot of the property’s “women be shoppin'”/men are workaholics humor feels uncomfortably outdated in a modern context. Rosie the sarcastic robot maid remains the only fresh & amusing aspect of the original Jetsons dynamic. She gets in some great lines here about how “If [The Big Show] makes a mess on the carpet, I am not cleaning it up” or about how Robo-Roman Reigns really turns her on/pushes her buttons. I also appreciated a gag where George accidentally wins a wrestling match and when asked to provide his in-ring name, he bills himself as the amusingly generic Future Guy. Again, though, it’s mostly just the Jetson’s futuristic setting that provides anything of value for the WWE Superstars to bounce off of, but it’s a context that pays off nicely

The biggest surprise of Robo-WrestleMania​ is how much effort The Big Show put it his vocal performance. I didn’t have much confidence in watching a kids’ film starting the lug after suffering through the abysmal (even by WWE Studios standards) Knucklehead. He plays a great heel here, though, anchoring the film with the larger than life, enraged growl of a classic decades-old wrestling promo, redundantly declaring himself to be “the world heavyweight championship of the world.” I’d even dare say there’s an ounce of genuine pathos to the way the living giant feels physically awkward in an automated future where his body & his profession are essentially now obsolete. I even wonder if that robo-wrestling angle was a mode of sly writer’s room commentary on the way pro wrestling has been morally sanitized & made less physically risky in the PG, publicly traded modern era. There’s some similarly satirical jabs at Roman Reigns’s persona here: he charges his fist as if he’s gearing up for his patented “Superman punch” only to fire off an autograph for a fan; Rosie only likes his robo-version for his good looks; his robo-version’s stilted, mechanical delivery of his “Believe that” catchphrase sounds oddly reminiscent of some of his on-mic botches in real life; etc. For the most part, though, Roman and the rest of the WWE Superstars take just as much of a backseat as the Jetsons do. This is The Big Show’s, uh, big show and he delivers surprisingly strongly in that animated spotlight.

I was mildly, pleasantly amused by Robo-WrestleMania just as I have been with all of these Hanna-Barbera pro wrestling crossovers. Still, I feel like the opportunities presented by these cartoon backdrops aren’t being fully exploited to match the inherent absurdity of the wrestlers who populate them. Besides the wrestling robots & off hand references to Seth Rollins’s frequent claim that he’s “The Future of WWE,” the 100 years in the future setting of Robo-WrestleMania isn’t pushed to its full potential. Imagine all of the places a cartoon about a time traveling pro wrestlers could go; I’d argue this movie settled on the least interesting one. Thinking about the self-aware psychedelia of what could pop up in a New Day cartoon or how much weirder a Jetsons crossover could’ve been if it were produced while Stardust was still with the company (something I’ve called for in every review of these damned things so far) makes me mourn for the things that could be if these crossovers strayed a little further from the wrestling ring and a little deeper into the personas of the weirdos who work in it. The Jetsons & WWE: Robo-WrestleMania is admirably silly as is, though, and it works remarkably well as a redemptive palette cleanser for The Big Show, who really needed it after the dregs of Knucklehead.

-Brandon Ledet

Beyond the Time Barrier (1960)

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I honestly don’t expect a lot out of my genre films in terms of dialogue or narrative. The most tepid performances & the most dully hamfisted morality play plot structures are totally excusable to me as long as the film can make up for its shortcomings in terms of style. Something that really tickled me about the time travel sci-fi cheapie Beyond the Time Barrier is that it wholly commits its entire style/aesthetic to a single-minded image: the triangle. According to this film everything in the future is made of triangles: doorways, TV screens, desks, windows, goatees. Even the (too frequent) transitional wipes between scenes are triangle shaped, a choice that dives head first into stylistic overkill. Beyond the Time Barrier‘s anti-nuclear war message wasn’t likely to stand out too much amidst much better films with the same technology-has-gone-too-far-too-fast sentiment: Godzilla, Them!, The Fly, etc. The way it wholly commits to an all-triangles future makes for an interesting, memorable look for such a dinky little cheapie, though, and I have great respect for genre films with that kind of stylistic followthrough.

A US Air Force pilot in the dead center of the Cold War space race flies a newly designed aircraft into the upper atmosphere that speeds beyond the sound barrier, breaking “the time barrier” and landing in the year 2024. After a brief 28 Days Later style tour of Earth’s desolated surface (something to look forward to next election cycle, I guess), he becomes a victim of a surveillance state tasing, gets dragged to an Oz-like “citadel,” and is imprisoned in a bell jar. His new temporal home is a sort of space age variation on the HG Wells classic The Time Machine. Radioactive mutants roaming the wasteland outside the citadel are rounded up & imprisoned underground (behind trangle-shaped jail cell bars, of course). Those not fully mutated were left sterile & abandoned by the humans who escaped to the new colonies on Venus & Mars. They plan to breed their latest captor, the American alpha male pilot, with their last hope: a telepathic mute daughter of their new nobility. She is a strange cocktail of the ideal 1950s macho male fantasy (cheerful, quiet, smart, obedient), but our hero longs to return to his own time anyway, escaping a life as a future-gigolo so that he can selflessly warn the people of Earth that their Cold War nuclear proliferation will lead to a global plague. The variation in the plot here is that the planet never had a chance to be destroyed in a nuclear war because merely testing the bombs poisoned the atmosphere enough to cause a global unraveling, but otherwise it’s not so different from any other atomic age paranoia sci-fi you can conjure. It just happens to feature more triangles than you’re used to.

Does our hero make it back to his own time to warn the people of Earth about the consequences of their evil atomic ways? I’ll bet you can answer that question for yourself. Again, there’s nothing especially radical about Beyond the Time Barrier in terms of narrative, but the film does manage to get by on the strength of its detail. Besides the Mid-Century Modern sleekness of its triangular future world, the film also features some nifty moments of plague-zombie chaos and a cool Twilight Zone reveal about how time travel can drastically affect the way your body ages. Of course, with a genre film this evidently cheap there’s going to be details that are only good for a laugh: Ed Woodian reliance on stock footage, oscillating bleep bloop machines, adorably pathetic aircraft miniatures, brushed off explanations of psuedo-science peppered with phrases like “certain mathematical equations . . .”; you get the picture. A little camp value is more than welcome in a small scale genre picture like this, though. Beyond the Time Barrier is efficient in its omni-triangle futurism, and consistently goofy in its heavy-handed sci-fi browbeating. As someone who watches way too many of these things on a regular basis, I can gladly say that was more than enough to make this one worthwhile. I’ve seen plenty of other films with the exact same basic structure play out with much less entertainment value & far less style, even if all of this film’s style was tossed in one trangle-shaped basket.

-Brandon Ledet

An Evening with Richard Kelly: A Southland Tales (2007) Q&A

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“No film is every really finished, just abandoned by the filmmaker.”

This is the philosophy, or rather one of the facets of the real-life and filmmaking philosophies, of Richard Kelly. In something of a MotM miracle, I received an email last week advising that Austin’s Alamo Drafthouse would be hosting a screening of Kelly’s 2007 opus Southland Tales, with an introduction by the director and a Q&A following the film. As discussed in our email roundtable, I was a fan of Donnie Darko when it was first brought to my attention in 2003, when a DVD of the film was passed around like wildfire at the Louisiana School for Math, Science, and the Arts. Although time and distance (and a strong wave of hype backlash as the film caught on outside of the cult scene) have dulled my teenage enthusiasm for the film, my interest in Kelly’s work was piqued again by our viewing of The Box, a film I didn’t love but haven’t been able to stop thinking about. I never got the chance to see Southland Tales before this past Sunday, but I’m glad that my first viewing experience was on the big screen and not limited to the comparatively tiny television in my living room.

What’s the film about? I’ll try to be as succinct as I can: Southland Tales takes place in an alternate 2008, where post-9/11 paranoia and the overreach of infringement upon civil liberties that followed that incident has been further exacerbated by a nuclear attack on American soil (Texas, to be precise). The draft has been reinstated, interstate travel is extremely restricted, and citizens are heavily monitored via the use of information network USIdent and the deployment of heavily militarized Urban Pacification Units, which seem to have taken the place of standard police forces. The Republican Party, most notably represented by Texas Senator and potential VP Bobby Frost (Holmes Osborne) and his wife, NSA Deputy Director cum USIdent overlord Nana Mae (Miranda Richardson), is seeking to swing California to the red in order to ensure the continued power of USIdent and the party. Popular action star Boxer Santaros (Dwayne Johnson), the husband of the Frosts’ daughter Madeleine (Mandy Moore), has recently awoken in the desert with amnesia; he makes his way into the arms of Krysta Now (Sarah Michelle Gellar), a psychic porn star seeking to expand her media and merchandise empires through diversification. Krysta has recently completed a screenplay entitled The Power, which foretells the end of the world.

Elsewhere, the underground liberal forces of the Neo-Marxists oppose the Republican Party (this entire group is composed almost entirely of former SNL cast members, including but not limited to Nora Dunn, Amy Poehler, and Cheri Oteri). Their current plan involves staging a racially-motivated police shooting committed by haunted veteran Roland Taverner posing as his twin brother Ronald (Seann William Scott), an UPU officer; the intention is to have this captured on film by Boxer during a ride-along for research purposes, then use the footage to discredit Bush’s apparent successors. Their machinations are held in check by a series of double-crosses that undermine their ability to take any real political action. Elsewhere elsewhere, the wizard Baron von Westphalen (Wallace Shawn) has invented both a device that uses the power of the ocean to generate wireless electricity as well as several injectable liquids of various colors that are used as drugs for both recreational and psychic purposes. He and his band of assorted cronies (Bai Ling, Curtis Armstrong, Zelda Rubinsten, and Beth Grant) move throughout the various factions at play, gaining political power and prestige while well aware that the alternative energy source that they have created could bring about the end of humanity. And all of this is narrated by Pilot Abilene (Justin Timberlake), a former movie star whose face was disfigured by friendly fire in Iraq after he was drafted. And, hey, if you were starting to think any of this was too straightforward, don’t worry; there are also stable time loops, predestination paradoxes, mistaken identities, and all the other Kelly elements you’ve come to know and, perhaps, love. Plus a lip-synch music video.

Part multimedia experiment, part time travel film, part jeremiad prophecy of the dangers of unchecked rightwing expansion into surveillance and homeland policing, part philosophy lecture, but mostly a political satire, Southland Tales has been called many things: unwatchable, convoluted, pretentious, and incomprehensible. For my money, however, the film (and its expanded materials, which I hesitate to call “supplementary” given that they were always intended to be part of the experience) is simply too ambitious to ever have any kind of mainstream penetration, even on the level that Darko did. There’s also been a lot of name-calling and assumptions with regards to Kelly’s ego and affectations of intellectualism, even from those of us here at Swampflix; in person, however, Kelly comes across as approachable, well-spoken, thoughtful, and shy (and he’s a total babe as well– look up a picture or two if you haven’t already done yourself this great service; those triceps are poppin’). Kelly directed this film when he was twenty-nine; that’s my age, and all I have to show for a life is a stack of unopened mail and a heap of student loan debt that I’ll finish paying off seven years after I’m dead– if I’m lucky.

In case you weren’t aware, Southland was originally envisioned as the final three chapters in a six-chapter arc, with the first three components released as graphic novels (Kelly said that when these materials, which were not quite complete at the time of the Cannes premiere, were given to the press, they sneered). There is a certain feeling of incompleteness that can be felt in the film as a result, but this is not the same thing as saying that the film is, as Kelly said in his introduction, “unfinished.” There’s certainly an element of that in play in the theatrical version that was screened, but I didn’t find it as distracting as others have. He discussed the nature of the release of the film, the way that certain visual effects were never quite completed due to the fact that the money for said polishing was to have come from one studio that held the international distribution rights, but there were issues with the domestic distributor. It’s all information that you can find elsewhere, I’m sure, so I won’t get into it here. There were some new tidbits that were shared in the Q&A that I’ll share here, though.

Why is Janeane Garofalo in the final scene? In the earlier, longer version of the film that was screened at Cannes, there is an additional subplot in which Garofalo plays a general who is engaged in a Dungeons & Dragons game with veteran Simon Theory (Kevin Smith) and a couple of other characters, with that game serving as an additional metaphorical layer to the events of the film, just line the screenplay for The Power. (I did see a credit for a D&D consultant in the final credits, which confused me until this was explained.)

Was this movie inspired by Brazil? Yes, Kelly loves Brazil.

Where did the character names come from? Kelly discussed that there’s a music to character names, and described how some come from more obvious sources (like the Robert Frost-quoting Senator Bobby Frost), and some a bit more obscure from sources both historical (like the von Westphalen family, whose true allegiances are obvious from the outset for those who know Jenny von Westphalen was the wife of Karl Marx), and literary (the Taverners share their surname with Jason Taverner, protagonist of Philip K. Dick’s Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said, which shares a rightwing autocratic dictatorship with Southland). So, like many of the references to extratextual real-world works that we mentioned in The Box discussion, they’re present less because Kelly wants to prove how smart he is and more because he thinks we’re all on his level, which is a compliment more than anything else.

Why so many Saturday Night Live actors? Besides the aforementioned Poehler, Oteri, Dunn, and Garofalo, other SNL alums include Jon Lovitz and John Larroquette. I really liked Kelly’s answer to this question; when we talk about political satire, at least in America, SNL is the troupe that is on the cutting edge of that discussion.

Is the recurring theme of free will versus predestination representative of a personal philosophy or just something that Kelly finds intriguing to play with on film? This was my question, and was admittedly a little longer in the actual asking (which involved referencing the Job-like structure of The Box and eschatological nature of Southland, leading Richard Kelly to compliment me personally, so take that, world!), but Kelly stated that this was something that he thinks about a lot, that humans beings are often bandied about by forces outside of their control, and how much agency any of us have at all (one audience member asked about Krysta Now’s agency in regards to the film, but I missed the answer to that one trying to calm myself enough to ask my question). Kelly had previously mentioned that Southland was intended to be a cathartic film experience; given that the themes of the film boil down to the idea that salvation comes from forgiving the self, which is an entirely internal emotional journey, I think that this could be reflective of that idea. Forgiving one’s self, like Taverner does in the film’s final moments, removes the external elements of predestination and is purely an act of personal decision, and through that comes real existential relief.

Whatever happened to the Norma Lewis prosthetic foot prop? This one I had to ask for Britnee, per her final thoughts on The Box. As it turns out, Kelly’s father, who really did work on the Mars Viking Lander project, did something similar for Kelly’s mother, whose own foot was disfigured, not unlike Norma’s. As for the prop, Kelly said he would have to make some calls to be absolutely certain, but he’s pretty sure it’s in a props warehouse in Boston.

For more on September’s Movie of the Month, Richard Kelly’s sci-fi mystery thriller The Box, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film and last week’s look at how the film works as a literary adaptation.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Episode #10 of The Swampflix Podcast: Top Ten Time Travel Movies & Martyrs (2008)

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Welcome to Episode #10 of The Swampflix Podcast! For our tenth episode, James & Brandon discuss their top ten time travel films of all time with author/blogger/friend Bryan Perkins. Also, James makes Brandon watch the French-Canadian “extremist” horror Martyrs (2008). Enjoy!

Production note: The musical “bumps” between segments were also provided by James.

-James Cohn & Brandon Ledet

Timecrimes (2008)

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threehalfstar

The only thing I knew about the Spanish sci-fi thriller Timecrimes going in is that people often accuse the time travel horror Triangle of blatantly ripping it off. It’s easy to see how that accusation gets tossed around. Both films feature a similarly-masked killer and a tortured/confused protagonist stuck in a Groundhog Day-type time loop that becomes increasingly inevitable each time it plays out & progresses. Although Timecrimes beat Triangle to the punch in some ways I found myself less in love with what it delivers than the much more supernaturally bizarre film that followed. It’s probably best for Timecrimes‘s sake to ignore that comparison entirely & enjoy it for its own small scale, economical thriller charms. It works perfectly well outside that context & is a must see time travel thriller for sci-fi junkies on its own terms.

Timecrimes begins with a fairly typical horror film setup: a married, middle-aged man is violently punished (stabbed in the arm) for ogling a young topless woman through binoculars while he is supposedly bird-watching with his wife. Things get much stranger form there once he’s tricked into entering a time machine that brings him back to that exact same time of day. In order to avoid altering the trajectory of time already established he forces the young woman, a kind stranger, to disrobe so his alternate version can ogle her through binoculars. You can already see where this is headed, I’m sure. A lot of the fun in Timecrimes is in watching the ever-complicating plot set up its Rube Goldberg machinations & to scratch your head over its self-creating paradoxes. You know exactly where the plot is headed, but expect many twists & betrayals to be revealed in the process and it’s fascinating to watch a character climb into his own grave and then retroactively dig it. As the time machine operator puts it, “The machine doesn’t solve problems. In fact, it creates them.” As these “problems” stack up to an insurmountable fever pitch Timecrimes finds a nice little groove for itself, like needle slowly spiraling inwards on a record.

Although nicely layered, Timecrimes‘s plot structure is a lot less complicated than similar time loop features like Triangle or Groundhog Day or, the most complex of them all, Primer. What I most appreciated about the film, though, was not its structural complexity, but its interest in constructing a moral dilemma. It’s difficult to tell for sure if the film’s protagonist is an objectively bad person or just a victim of circumstance doing objectively bad things in order to maintain the integrity of his preferred timeline. It’s also interesting how the film turns the passive ogling of a stranger’s body into something much more violent & predatory. By the end of the film when he proclaims, “I had no choice” in regards to his escalating mess of questionable offenses, it’s all too easy to call bullshit. He had plenty of choices. He just chose to be selfish & self-preserving at every turn.

Timecrimes was obviously made on a shoestring budget, which often shows in the acting & script (I’ve never seen anyone so goofily trick a stranger into a time machine outside a UCB sketch before), but it makes the most out of its resources. Time-marking talismans like Blondie’s “Pictures of You” & the masked killer’s Darkman-esque getup are brilliant uses of simple tools at the film’s disposal and it really does get a lot of mileage out of the moral crisis of its plot despite its trashier impulses. If Triangle “borrowed” heavily from Timecrimes, I’d say it improved on its formula significantly, but the film really is an enjoyable, efficient sci-fi thriller in its own right and there’s more than enough room in this world for both works to be their wonderfully strange, independent selves, regardless of when they were released in time.

-Brandon Ledet

Primer (2004)

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threehalfstar

In some ways Primer is the film The Martian was only pretending to be. The Matt Damon sci-fi action “comedy” (well, comedy by the Golden Globes’ measurement, anyway) was a hit last year that had people praising its supposedly ultra-scientific nerd-speak for not talking down to its audience & constructing a plot around basic old-fashioned problem-solving. Personally, I had a hard time seeing The Martian as much more than a crowd-pleaser balanced between a rescue mission drama & a big budget disaster pic, maybe with a little found footage thriller tossed in for flavor. Shane Carruth’s dirt cheap time travel paradox Primer, on the other hand, feels like truly authentic problem-solving nerd-speak. I can tell it’s authentic because I have no idea what’s going on and will probably need several more viewings & a notepad to catch up. The Martian may have charmed audiences into thinking they were getting the pure, uncut nerdy goods, but Primer was the real deal primo shit. I don’t think that it’s necessarily a better or more admirable movie for not speaking to a wide audience in a more toned-down, accessible version of nerd-speak, but I do think it was much closer to the intricate, intelligent movie a lot of people seemed to think they watched when they describe the much more audience-friendly The Martian.

Shane Carruth writes, directs, produces, scores, edits, and stars in this cerebral sci-fi cheapie about two tech world bros who accidentally discover a closed circuit version of time travel that allows them to loop into the future & back into their temporal starting point. It’s a little like a microwave that makes an instant, self-contained Groundhog Day experience. Before they realize what they’re even working on (it’s initially referred to as “the thing” & “the device”) the film pokes a little insider fun at the in-the-garage tech startup world of properties like Steve Jobs & Silicon Valley. Ancient analog equipment & other corner-cutting attempts to save money are played for subtle humor. All tech bros wear a Mormon-like uniform of a white dress shirt & striped tie. Corporate lingo is casually tossed around in a condescending tone. Carruth obviously knows this world intimately & it shows on the screen, but Primer doesn’t really come alive until it leaves the tech startup world behind & dives head first into the unknown. It’s about 30min into the film’s very slim runtime when mutliple timeline paradox versions of our unreliable narrator bros start constructing a mind puzzle for the audience to tinker with as they pull rugs, reveal betrayals, and get too comfy with a powerful force of nature they have no business manipulating in the first place: time.

I haven’t seen Carruth’s sophomore film, Upstream Color, since it left the theater in 2012, but I found that work to be an unmitigated masterpiece, one I mentally return to often just to mull over its many cerebral pleasures. In that context Primer feels like a young director with a limited budget just getting his legs. Much like Patrick Brice’s dual 2015 releases Creep & The Overnight, Primer is an exciting example of just how much a filmmaker can accomplish with a great script & a near-nonexistent budget (reportedly $7000 in Primer‘s case). The acting isn’t quite up to snuff with the writing here. The leads have a tendency to read their lines in a mumbled, stabby attack that often makes them difficult to decipher, especially in early scenes when they’re constructing & tweaking “the device.” However, the film has a lot of fun both tangling up a plot that would take hundreds of viewings to fully unravel & in delivering weird time travel one-liners like “Are you hungry? I haven’t eaten since later this afternoon,” and “It’s going to be a long day,” (meant literally). Primer makes a virtue out of telling, not showing and I feel like a lot of true-nerd science geeks probably would get the most out of its paradoxical conundrums & moral dilemmas.

Personally, I enjoyed & appreciated the film’s small-scale, verbal pleasures, but found a whole lot more to unpack in Carruth’s followup that was a hell of a lot more interesting than just mapping out what transpired plot-wise (which apparently is a thing entire fan sites Primer has inspired to do). Folks who enjoyed the nerdy step-by-step problem solving of The Martian would probably get even more out of it than I did. However, be forewarned. This movie is actually the real deal.

-Brandon Ledet

Ivan Vasilievich Changes Profession (1973)

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fourstar

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Self-described as a “non-science fiction, not quite realistic, and not strictly historical film” and a “comedy of anxieties” Ivan Vasilievich Changes Profession (sometimes distributed under the ridiculous title Ivan Vasilievich: Back to the Future) is both just like & completely unique from every zany comedy title that immediately comes to mind. It’s easy to see echoes of the film’s sense of flippant, whimsical humor in works as varied as Monty Python, Scooby-Doo, and ZAZ comedies, but at the same time I can honestly say I’ve never seen anything exactly like it before. I’m not sure how many Soviet Russian slapstick comedies the average American movie buff watches in their lifetime, but this was a first for me.

Ivan Vasilievich Changes Profession is remarkable for its ability to dabble in the same visual play & artistic pranksterism as titles like the infamous, surreal Czech comedy Daisies while maintaining the accessibility of a sketch comedy show or a weekly sitcom. It’s about as fun as any crossroads between camp & high art as you’re ever likely to see and it’s one that boasts an unlikely specificity & context due to its USSR setting. Rarely is a comedy this artistically rich so recommendable for its entertainment value & basic humorous appeal to audiences who would normally turn up their noses at the idea of watching a hoity-toity foreign film outright. I could easily see it sitting among the works of folks like Michel Gondry & Wes Anderson as the perfectly attractive gateway drug to drag youngsters into a life of art cinema geekery. Basically, I’m saying I greatly enjoyed this film as an adult, but really wish someone had shown it to me in high school. It would’ve saved me a lot of time in helping define & develop my own cinematic tastes.

The film’s plot is an exercise in cartoonish artificiality. A scientist/inventor risks losing the attentions of his beautiful actress wife by constantly hammering away at his latest project: a time machine. On the first, disastrous operation of his “apparatus”, the scientist opens the wall to his apartment to a hundreds-years-old castle setting and, through machinations not worth describing in detail, winds up swapping the places of his landlord, Ivan Vasilievich, with the 16th century dictator Ivan the Terrible. The landlord has a difficult time adjusting to his new digs. He’s initially mistaken for a demon by his newfound contemporaries before he disastrously assumes the throne of Ivan the Terrible in disguise (in addition to sharing a name & similarly predatory occupations, they also share an exact likeness). The “real” Ivan the Terrible, by contrast, does fairly well in the modern world. After briefly struggling with confounding inventions like recorded music, lightbulbs, and racy pin-ups, he somewhat comfortably settles into a world that still finds his demanding, violent attributes disconcertingly appealing. While the befuddled scientist struggles to return both Ivans to their proper places in time, the film bifurcates itself into being both a fish out of water comedy in modern times & a violent comedy of errors in ancient ones. It’s all very silly.

It’s difficult to describe the plot of Ivan Vassiliech without making it sound like a very thin, minimal work. Indeed, even certain gags within the film feel like something out of Benny Hill sketch or a mimicry of silent-era hamming. What’s most incredible about this film to me is in the way it distinguishes itself in the details. Its central time-bending apparatus is bizarre mess of sciency vagueness that makes Rick Moranis‘s goofy shrink ray in Honey I Shrunk the Kinds look downright realistic by comparison. Visual techniques like alternating between color and black & white film and mixing live action photography with animation heightens the film’s consistent playfulness to its own unique artform. The shattered fourth wall & movie-within-a-movie meta structure leads to inspired gags like the “real” Ivan the Terrible auditioning for a leading part in a movie about Ivan the Terrible. Ivan Vasilievich is flexible enough to both impress the idea with its meticulous, color-coded set design & to inspire guttural laughter with lines like “Please don’t put me to death, kind sir!” It’s an old-fashioned song & dance comedy that leaves enough room for genuine awe in its majestic Russian castle settings, which are used almost like a playground. Even the would-be bummer of a cop-out ending is significantly softened by the very polite concluding title card of “Ciao! Thank you for your attention.”

Ivan Vasilievich Changes Profession hits that perfect sweet spot of smart, well-crafted cinema that’s also eager to please & easy to digest. As soon as the first watch I felt like it had already been in my life for decades, like a fuzzy memory triggered by a particular scent. That kind of instant familiarity is difficult to come by, especially with a product this silly & this finely tuned.

-Brandon Ledet

Terminator Genisys (2015)

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threehalfstar

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In the recent flood of reboots, remakes, reimaginings and good, old-fashioned sequels that have effectively taken over Hollywood, there’s been an occasional uproar about what these films are doing to the credibility of the films they’re resurrecting. A few rehashes of long-dead properties have been lauded as critical darlings (such as the fever dream action monster Mad Max: Fury Road), but a lot of them have been met with aploplectic rage, such as Paul Feig’s not-even-released-yet take on Ghostbusters. Part of what Feig is getting flack for is tampering with the original formula, trying his damnedest to give his reboot its own reason to exist, and being met with a resounding opposition that claims he’s “ruining their childhood.” It’s sort of a damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t endeavor, creatively speaking, since studios are pouring so much money into these retreads instead of fresh material, but it’d also be entirely pointless to just remake the original film faithfully, except with temporal markers like smart phones & drone-operated cameras to provide modern context (like in the utterly useless Poltergeist remake).

Terminator Genisys has a fun time not only acknowledging the fact that reboots & sequels have a tendency to tarnish the memory of the films that came before them (according to a hypersensitive few), but it revels in the idea. Using the time travel paradox theme from the first couple films in the series, Genisys tinkers with & dismantles its predecessors in a dismissive, disrespectful way that feels alarmingly bold for a film that eventually amounts to a long string of chase scenes. The first hour of the film features a jumble of timelines that interact not only with the 1984 & 1991 stories told in The Terminator & T-2: Judgement Day, but also fleshes out some of the 2024 revolution, makes a pitstop in 1972 that changes the whole game of the first film, and sets up an entirely new Skynet timeline that needs to be dismantled in 2017. It’s a doozy of an opening sequence that features cheap, literal imitations of exact scenes from the earlier movies & repurposes them for its own ends, the implications of how it unravels the first two films be damned. I respect its moxy in this respect, even if the execution was far from flawless.

There’s a televised news report in Terminator Genisys that features the hilariously self-aware headline “Has Genisys gone too far?” This plays like a direct nod to how the film is not only disrespectful to its audience as Terminator fans, but also calls them out as a bunch of technology-obsessed dolts who would allow a computer program to end human existence as long as it promised to make their lives easier. The idea of a killer app that links all of the world’s smartphone technology into one conveniently vulnerable control is far from unique. At the very least, I’ve already seen that concept play out twice this year in Furious 7 & Avengers: Age of Ultron. It’s still interesting to see it tie into an action movie’s larger overriding idea that its own audience is worth disdain. There are so many shots of people emptily gazing into their smart phones as a doomsday scenario swirls around them that even Arnold Schwarzenegger’s give-the-people-what-they-want one-liners like “I’ll be back” feel like a dig at the audience’s expectations. It’s so weird to see a film both fulfil movie-goer’s desire to see an old scenario play out yet again & subvert that desire by tearing apart the timelines of the original films by making them irrelevant, or as Schwarzenegger’s cyborg says of himself in this film, obsolete.

Speaking of Arnold, he’s the only enjoyable member of the film’s cast, performing with a weary, but endearing charm that says both “I’m too old for this shit” & “This is all I know how to do”. As a lifelong fan, I’m delighted by the idea of Arnold stretching himself to try new things, but if that means more snoozers like Maggie instead of the one-liner-fueled killing machine performances like in Genisys & the surprisingly enjoyable The Last Stand, I’m also more than happy to just see him filling this role for the rest of his life. No one else in the cast makes much of an impression at all, which (along with a who-cares 2017 climax sequence) tampers my enthusiasm for the film a bit, but that’s okay too.

Look, this is a franchise that’s already been dragged through the mud. Its first two entries are undeniable classics, but Terminator 3 & worse yet, Salvation weren’t exactly memorable cinema. Although I admire Terminator Genisys‘ mission to go back in time & effectively murder its predecessors, it’s an impossible mission. No matter what, those movies still exist & they’re still great. You can revisit your un-ruined childhood anytime you want through Netflix or blu-Rays or murderous smart phone apps or whatever you like, really. They’re still there. We just now also have a serviceable sequel that jumbles the timelines of those films into a barely-coherent mess just to watch its audience squirm under the pressure. I happen to find that tactic pretty hilarious, even if it did have trouble sticking the landing.

-Brandon Ledet