Tag Archives: film

Equilibrium and The Realism of Foolishness

(This column is posted at www.StevenSavage.com and Steve’s Tumblr.  Find out more at my newsletter.)

I recently got to see Equilibrium (2002), a movie best described as “a dystopian art film with gun-fu.” We follow the story of John Preston (Christian Bale), an enforcer in a future of emotion-suppressing drugs and underground smugglers of art. The film got limited marketing in the United States, and more’s the pity – it’s a beautifully done film made for only $20 million.

On the surface, the premise seems silly – to prevent war, people must take emotion-deadening drugs and avoid sensory experiences like art. Specialized enforcers known as Grammaton Clerics use gun-fu and their calculating minds to hunt down “sense offenders.” It’s a concept you’d expect on a second-tier episode of The Orville or a Star Trek series, if well done.

As I analyzed this well-done film, something haunted me. I kept analyzing the seemingly half-baked premise of “we must stop emotion and be rational. That’s when I realized – I’d seen people express similar views in real life.

Those online enough (such as myself) are painfully aware of people who declare how rational they are. Such self-congratulating would-be rationalists are quick to say how other people are irrational and emotional. These people – almost inevitably white men – obviously think they should be in charge of “the other.”

I have no problem imagining these pseudo-rationalists trying to medicate their emotions to unleash their supposed great mental powers. It takes me little effort to imagine some guru or internet personality selling them drugs or supplements to do so. The internet has produced enough would-be gurus claiming to lead people to a paradise of rational thought (again, almost always white men).

Equilibrium seems to be built on a simplistic premise, but many people base their own lives on shallow ideas. That is what haunted me about Equilibrium – the idea people would hate their own emotions and claim to build a rational world is too real.

I take this as a reminder to be careful when judging fictional settings. They may seem too simple – but forget that some people hold very simplistic views. They may seem overly complex, but life can be complicated. The question is neither simplicity nor complexity, sophistication or crudity – but do they help us think and feel.

In the case of Equilibrium, beyond the considerable artistry, it shows a “rationalist” society as a horrible place. The washed-out dark gray of the existence, the emotionally-numbed sadism, were awful. In short, Equilibrium says of its seemingly simplistic world, “yes, this would be awful, yes it would fall apart.”

Then I cast my gaze on the internet and see men declaring their rationalism, their freedom of emotion. I see them dead inside or burning in a rage they call “critical thinking,” insulting people on the internet. They would try to build a world like Equilibrium while saying it was something else.

Let us be careful judging fiction. We may find it is judging us and judging others more than we realized.

Steven Savage

Strange Days: Regretful Artificial Memories

(This column is posted at www.StevenSavage.com and Steve’s Tumblr.  Find out more at my newsletter.)

Strange Days is one of those films more people have heard about than seen. “That cyberpunk film with Ralph Fiennes” is how I usually hear it summed up. Though this 1995 movie has quite a pedigree – written by James Cameron, directed by Kathryn Bigelow – it did not do well in the theater. When I saw it recently, I could see why; Strange Days is a mostly-courageous, mostly-creative film that mostly ignored popular trends.

Seen now, one can see the audacity, and though there are flaws of the “mostly” variety, there’s much to take away.

The Hollow Man

In 1999, right before the end of the millennium, ex-cop Lenny is busy selling the ultimate high – people’s recorded memories. A recording technology called SQUID, once meant for police work, now serves as a way to relive people’s experiences. A bustling underground in other’s lives emerged, and the sleazy-but charming Lenny is ready to make a buck.

When we meet Lenny (Ralph Finnes), he’s reliving the memories of a crime someone else committed – another high on a portable disk. We soon realize his entire life is trading memories, some contracted for, some sold, all with a market. He relishes his role as a merchant of dreams, even if a little bit of con and trickery is needed.

But Lenny’s life and joy are as false as his fake designer watches. When not trading for experiences, he keeps reliving his life with his former girlfriend Faith (Juliette Lewis). She’s moved on to live with eccentric but powerful music producer Philo (Michael Wincott), while Lenny keeps reliving the same days off of a disk. His life is just a loop of other people’s memories and his recorded ones.

The film explores Lenny slowly and has a rare quality – the courage to explore a concept. The SQUID is the only difference between our worlds, and our gateway to Lenny’s world is Lenny. By seeing his life – and his addiction – we get a natural feel for the impact of technology on people.

Of course, Lenny, is missing a lot of what’s going on.

A Small Man In The Big Picture

Lenny’s world is a small one of recordings, sales, and his two friends. Detective Max (Tom Sizemore, as charmingly sleazy as Fiennes) helps him with cons and provides information. Bodyguard and driver Mace (an incredible Angela Bassett) provides transport and muscle, as well as common sense. They also help him navigate the larger world – and his problems because Lenny is a damaged man.

The Los Angeles of the film is damaged as well and all too believable. Police brutality is a constant, and communities conflict. The murder of a famous Rapper on Philo’s label threatens to set the city aflame. One can almost understand why Lenny finds customers – who wouldn’t want to escape? Lenny’s own withdrawal and delusions seem entirely sensible.

Lenny may be trying to escape himself, but he can’t escape after consuming a random memory disk someone dropped in his car.

Hell Is Other People

The memories Lenny finds are of a brutal rape and murder of a prostitute in his circle – from the killer’s view. These scenes are disturbing, raw, and ugly – and pumped straight into Lenny’s mind.

Though these vicious memories are horrible on screen, they’re made more horrible by seeing Lenny’s reaction. We jump-cut between the POV murder and Lenny’s horrified expression as he cries and tries to make sense of what he’s living. We do not just see what is going on, Fiennes makes us feel what is going on and what he is experiencing.

Despite the disturbing nature of this sequence, the courage of the film is on display here. First, the film extrapolates how a sick mind might use the technology. We’ve seen Lenny’s customers buy sex or POV robberies, but now we’re forced to reckon with how far people may go. It’s not hard to look at this scene and say, “Yes, people would do this. Yes, they would pay for it.”

But just as – or more – courageous is the scene comes off as a critique of POV Slasher movies. Often these films put people in the shoes of the killer as they go about their gruesome business. Through Lenny – and Fiennes’s performance – he experiences the killer’s mind and how disgusting it is.

Lenny, the dealer of a modern-day electronic drug, has just had the ultimate bad trip.

An Erratic Path

The film follows Lenny, Max, Mace, and the others as they deal with the city on edge, the question of the murder, and their own problems. At this point, summing up the film is both difficult but would also spoil too much.

It would spoil too much because, at heart, this is a kind of murder-mystery film. It is the kind of movie – like a human memory – you have to experience to see the winding path and where it goes. Without spoiling, let us say it is like life – some things are dramatic when small, and some dramatic things turn out to be illusions.  Strange Days isn’t afraid to be messy or disappoint you appropriately.

Unfortunately, the difficulty in explaining the film is that sometimes the film overexplains. The film’s courage gives out in parts, where you don’t have slow revelations but large infodumps. These are not as satisfying, and I could easily give away huge parts in a few sentences – because that’s how the film does it.

The ending ends up both exciting and disappointing. There are believable ugly and beautiful plot twists, next to feel-good tropes and violence out of an opera. For all it’s courage, too many parts near the end seem contrived to be audience-pleasers. These parts are in stark contrast to the film’s, gritty, messy mood – Lenny’s world isn’t clean, and neither should the end of his tale be.

Seventy-Five Percent Courageous

Though I am critical of parts of the film, I have to applaud the sheer commitment to its core ideas for most of the movie. The film is willing to extrapolate on technology. The story is messy in most of the right splots because life is messy. There are elements that I cannot see people being brave enough to include today.

I may critique the film, but that’s because it only falters when it loses that courage that infuses so much of it. The film feels easy in so many ways, sprinting forward with its ideas horrible and wonderful, so when it trips, you feel the jolt. I’ll take courage most of the time over cowardice predominating.

None of my critiques are directed at the cast, who are uniformly excellent. Fiennes is absolutely believable as Lenny. Basset’s Mace is a real bad-ass. You can feel the cast’s courage, and indeed they carry the film when it’s bravery isn’t apparent.

Stumble Towards Greatness

The lesson that stays with me from the film is that in creativity, courage always beats cowardice. Even partial courage is better when it predominates. This film may not have done well at the box office, but it has been re-evaluated in time, and that validates the flawed bravery of the movie.

Much like its protagonist, the film is imperfect and has shallow moments, but it does keep going. If you don’t stop, maybe you get to a place that’s better.

Steven Savage

Raiding Stars For A Vision

(This column is posted at www.StevenSavage.com and Steve’s Tumblr.  Find out more at my newsletter.)

I’m a fan of Rifftrax and Mystery Science Theater 3000. This is because I love B movies and odd things, often they’re more revealing of the human condition than supposedly “good” and “popular” things. I find the humor of Riffers often tells us a lot about ourselves – be they dealing with a flawed movie or a popular one like the Rifftrax crew does.

Recently, I attended a Rifftrax of the half-Kickstarted film Star Raiders: The Adventures of Saber Raine. It was a film that was difficult to classify, and though the Riffing was fun, there’s a considerable amount to learn from this film. Three people cracking insightful jokes isn’t enough to really dive into what this was – and why it could have been better.

The film itself seemed to be an attempt to do pulp science fiction – it was essentially a 21st-century attempt to do a kind of 80’s-direct-to-video take on pulp SF. Chisel-jawed Saber Raine, former military space hero turned mercenary, is hired to rescue a prince and princess from a mysterious alien and his legion of cyborg zombies. There is, of course, more to the story as our hero and his group battle towards their targets on a war-torn world.

By description? It sounds like it should be a lot of fun. In reality, Star Raiders was a strange patchwork of things that never felt fully executed, a pile of ideas and scenes and concepts. It was a film that felt like its creators never fully realized it, partially because there were limits on money and actors, but partly as they didn’t quite seem to know what they wanted. I had fun – I would have enjoyed it on its own as that pushes some of my buttons – but it’s an erratic movie.

For instance, there were wonderfully retro spaceship designs that seemed to have come out of the ’30s and 40’s – and some excellent CGI. There was a villain with an army of cyborg zombies out for vengeance due to a centuries-old injustice – a great reason to raise an army of cyborg zombies. At least one swordfight appeared onscreen as per unwritten rules of pulp SF. Dramatic backstories were the order of the day as we find out the history of an alien race.

Sounds fun? Except . . .

The script managed to be sparse then over the top. Worldbuilding was dropped on us in giant globs between scenes that weren’t that needed. A few actors needed more coaching, even though some were obviously giving their all. Things got almost-explained. Some plot twists (such as a romance) seemed grafted on for no good reason. The feel of the film veered wildly, as if unable to settle on how its inspirations should work.

Star Raiders is a film that should have been better than it was, even when it managed to overcome its flaws. It was clear some of the cast was fighting to make it work no matter what. I was very impressed with martial artist Tyler Weaver Jr. – though it was clear his acting skills needed work, he charged ahead with a loveable lack of inhibition and some serious action skills.

So I began asking myself – what would have made it work? Quickly, I came to realize something that my friend Serdar summarized as follows:

“The greatest entertainments of any era either totally embody their moment in time, or seem outside of time altogether.”

Star Raiders was the child of many parents, many inspirations – from the ’30s to the 21st century. But they never quite gelled, never came together. It felt disjointed, as if the people behind it didn’t know what it should be, but thought they did. Perhaps it’s history – having to be finished on Kickstarter – was part of it.

I wanted to like it. Like Wolfcop and Manborg, it was an attempt to embrace something cheesy and fun and sincere. In fact, I did kind of like it, in the sense I could feel the heartbeat beneath the surface – it wanted to be a retro SF adventure but never settled on how.

It didn’t achieve the feel of a given decade, being a patchwork of inspirations. There was passion there, but unfocused, embracing neither a given decade nor a coherent fusion.

It had a lot of story but didn’t seem to know what it wanted to do with it. It was clear there was an attempt at worldbuilding, establishing an entire galaxy of people and politics. Someone loved their idea and didn’t know what to do with it.

There were obvious budget issues but forget those. The staff didn’t seem to care, and I respect that – it didn’t stop them.

Some actors needed to do better; clearly, some coaching was needed. It didn’t stop them, which I respect.

When I look it over, I think what Star Raiders lacked was not money or talent or enthusiasm – it charged on uninhibitedly. It was that its staff needed to sit down and figure out what they wanted. Was it going to be more of a given genre? Was it going for a more timeless feel? How would the intricate worldbuilding come out to enforce the feeling?

Star Raiders, despite its pause for Kickstarter funds, felt like what it really needed was a pause for everyone to figure out what it was at heart, to grasp that enthusiasm beneath the idea and weave it into something stronger.

The lesson here is the one Serdar stated. You can go for a feel for a time, or you can touch on the timeless. You might even be able to weave several times together as Star Raiders attempted. But to create a work, you have to know what to embrace to bring it out; you need a vision, a sense of place, of where you’re going.

For me, I wish the crew behind Star Raiders and films like them well. May they find their vision (and perhaps their sequels) and embrace it. We all need a place to go, creatively.

Steven Savage