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Tuesday, June 30, 2015

The Judas Project (1990)

Written and Directed by James H. Barden

John O'Banion:  Jesse
Ramy Zada:  Jude
Richard Herd:  Cunningham

There's been a parallel Hollywood for a few decades--one that churns out product for the endless market of right-wing Christians who don't want to expose themselves to secular media. While it used to just be a Rapture panic movie or documentary about how society is deteriorating, there's a huge variety of Christianist media available for the undiscerning consumer now. Instead of just watching A Thief in the Night in a church basement there have been theatrical releases for the Nicolas Cage-starring Left Behind reboot as well as movies like God's Not Dead (which is more or less a feature-length adaptation of a chain letter email about secular book learnin' getting its comeuppance from a Christian college student) or Moms' Night Out--a comedy about a succession of crazy things that happen over a single night that apes the poster font of The Hangover but wants to leave all the sex, drugs and profanity out due to its target audience's lack of preference for That Kind Of Thing.

But today's film is one that I remember seeing a newspaper ad for back when I was in high school--I'd never heard of it but even when I was fifteen I realized that an ad with Jesus menaced by black helicopters was the promise of something truly special. I couldn't talk any friends with drivers' licenses into going to catch this on a whim for the one week it was playing at one theater, so I never had an informed opinion of the movie until now. I'm quite interested in seeing how it plays out, because it was made six years before Fox News started broadcasting, two years before Bill Clinton became President and twelve years before the cracker Taliban decided Islam is the biggest threat facing America. 1990 would have been a year when the far-right Christianists were trying to shut down abortion across America, but that started about ten minutes after Roe v. Wade was decided and it's continued to 2015 (and will keep going onward, I'm betting). It'll be a time capsule of not just right-wing social anxiety but also a look at what they expect out of God; it's supposed to be a retelling of the Gospels but in (then) contemporary times. It shouldn't be anything less than fascinating as a sociocultural text, whether or not the movie itself is worth a damn.

First element of note--this DVD print is absolutely horrible. It's full frame and grainy; it might even be a VHS transfer. Which doesn't help anything because the first images are car headlights and a searchlight from a traffic helicopter at night; streaky white blotches of light on a pitch black screen. This eventually resolves into a white dude holding his hands up on a beach as men with assault rifles surround him. Whoever they are, they're working plainclothes--dudes in JC Penney suits and one guy in a knockoff Members Only jacket. If they're supposed to be the forces of darkness, they need a better wardrobe. Everyone knows the devil wears Armani.

The guy in the Mimbers Enly jacket walks up to the surrounded dude, gazes longingly into his eyes and then does a full-on Mexican Soap Opera quality eye bug, screaming the question "WHYYYYY? <echo> <echo> <echo> <echo> <echo>" before we get a "Two Years Earlier.." title card.

So what happened two years earlier? Well, it starts with another poorly lit night scene. This time it's at a beach, with a coast guard boat and an ambulance looking for someone. A conveniently plot-relevant news reporter is doing a story on a fisherman swept out to sea three hours ago; as long as there's a vehicle to show on camera, the TV station will keep someone out there. You never know; they might get lucky and catch a shot of a corpse being hauled out of the water.

The search boat fires off a flare and people on the beach start running with semi-purposeful activity. The guy who got surrounded by gun-toting goons in the flash-forward walks towards the rescue crews as they pull the dead fisherman out of the surf and towards an ambulance that probably isn't going to be able to do anything for him but get him to the morgue on time. The ambulance attendants uncover the drowning victim's face so that his mother can experience the maximum emotional trauma (I imagined a young Lou Bloom standing off to the side with his 80 pound camcorder and a sickening grin). Future Captured Fugitive Guy lays his hand on the body of the young fisherman, who spits up some of the ocean and comes back to life. And the news reporter just plain has to have visions of Emmy awards dancing in her head as she gives the miracle worker a name. It's "Jesse", which means we certainly have our Christ figure ready to go. Everyone in the crowd except for one guy in a fishing vest and baseball cap is stunned and happy; that guy looks suspicious and conflicted, so I'm betting we have our Judas also as well.

After the opening title we get Jesse healing an old blind man on a beach (with a POV shot of the man's sight returning, which is a totally boss effect that does not require a budget in order to work, just a little planning and forethought from the filmmakers). Jesse also takes the crutches away from a maimed veteran, who can now walk without pain. Jude, the Conflicted Looking Stalker Guy observes from a distance. Jesse tells his (lily white) crowd of followers that God finds value in everyone's life; he's just making sure everyone he can reach has a chance to experience the full quality of their life. John O'Banion makes an interesting choice--he's underplaying Jesus here. Instead of being full of sound and fury he's just quietly confident about himself and his message. He's also one of the only people in the scene not using an umbrella, but the rain didn't show up on the film (or at least it got lost in the transfer to VHS-quality DVD). Jesse talks to the stalker guy, but the boom mike guy didn't pick up whatever he was saying. Whatever it was, it makes the other man run away like a total goofball, flailing and spazzing his way over the dunes to a waiting conversion van with a fishing platform attached to the front grill. He drives slowly off as I start doing an a capella version of the Truth or Dare driving theme. Hey, you gotta make your own entertainment with these movies some times.

After a jump cut, we meet Jesse and the other guy at a bar; the new face is still not convinced that a dead person can get up and walk off just because someone places a hand on his torso. The obvious answer is that Jesse is a 17th level cleric, or the divine will incarnate (which the new guy actually says as a theory which he immediately discards; this isn't going to be like zombie movies where nobody's ever heard of zombie movies before--it would appear that Jesse is living and working in a world that has heard of Christ and is waiting for His return). Jesse's "Why do you choose to disbelieve what you already believe in your heart is true?" is a clunky line, delivered poorly, but it's also quite a good question.

Jude doesn't answer this question directly, but he does say that everybody has a price and wants to know what Jesse's is. Jesse says he's not charging for his healings--they are gifts and people are free to freely take them. New Guy doesn't understand why Jesse just walked away after pulling off a genuine according-to-Hoyle miracle--he can't wrap his mind around Jesse's motivation. I mean, I know I'd at least want lunch and a tank of gas for restoring life to a drowning victim. I'm not greedy but even resurrectionists have to eat. Jude asks Jesse why he doesn't go on television with his abilities, and Jesse asks "To do what?", which is actually another really good question. Jude jokes that Jesse could take over the world, but Jesse doesn't really think that's a good plan and wonders what the step after that would involve.

We get into Blazingly Obvious Metaphor territory during this conversation; Jude says he's never known the pure and unconditional love from God, or any other type of love while he's been alive. He's got plenty of experience with hatred and fear, though, and learned to respect power and money rather than anything positive. Jesse just looks kind of sad during the monologue, since he isn't able to reach Jude. Jude doesn't understand where Jesse is coming from, and can't believe in anything he doesn't understand. I like that the whole conversation is taking place at a slightly run-down bar and grill; Christ, in the Gospels, was someone who spent time with the rejected and the lost--when he talked to the rich, it was to tell them that they'd never get into heaven unless they helped the poor (the verse about a camel going through the eye of a needle is the one time that "Biblical literalists" discover the need for nuance in Bible reading; it doesn't mean what it says, you understand, it's a metaphor for something that is tough but can eventually be done. Sure thing, dude.)

Speaking of the rich and powerful, there's two of them conspiring in a mansion. They've got surveillance photos of people that wield some power in the world; apparently the doughy white middle-aged businessman snapping his fingers to signal the guy with the slide projector to go hit the "forward" button is keeping tabs on anyone that might threaten his spot at the top of the social pyramid. After a judge, a general and a woman politician he comes to Jesse at the diner. His Smithers says they've been keeping tabs on Jesse for two years or so; the guy in charge says to start a file on Jesse in case they need to destroy him if he tries to become a world power. I would guess that there's already a file if they've been monitoring Jesse for two years, but what do I know?

Mr. Cunningham the businessman, looks a little bit like Ted Kennedy and a little bit like Donald Trump. I'm not sure if he's supposed to be a representation of either of them or if he's just the white dude in a power suit they happened to cast. It also turns out that for all his authority and the ease with which Cunningham gives orders, he takes them as well. Mr. Poneras, a name that cries out for an online anagram generator, scoots past the secretary to bust Cunningham's chops about leaving him out of the meeting that just concluded. Poneras declares himself to be "the voice of the Church", which leads to all kinds of unsavory implications because the actor (Jeff Corey, who has the longest IMDB listing out of anyone in the film) looks exceptionally Jewish. Is the film hinting at a Jewish conspiracy to control Christianity, or was Corey just the best person who auditioned for the part? Too bad there's no commentary track.

Poneras is fed up with Jesse's "healings and resurrections" bullshit, and demands that Cunningham stops whatever Jesse is up to. The main reason Poneras wants Jesse stopped is that whatever church he represents didn't say it was all right to go around healing people. Perhaps if Jesse just filled out his permits correctly he'd be all right, but I doubt it. Cunningham doesn't think there's much to this Jesse issue while Poneras is openly worried that every person listening to or following Jesse is one that will no longer listen to him or his superiors. The church official says Cunningham's going to be destroyed when Jesse really starts flexing his influence; Cunninghas says Poneras is much more likely to get the chop than he is--Cunningham has power and influence that Jesse can use, while Poneras doesn't.

Meanwhile, on a camping trip, Jude is telling a friend that he thinks he's got Jesse figured out--by getting people to believe in him and follow him, Jesse will be able to exercise an unprecedented amount of power and influence over the world. And if Jude is the one telling Jesse what to do, he'll have the world comfortably under his control. Jesse walks up behind him with a trio of followers and asks Jude the natural question:  "And then what?"; Jude walks off rather than giving an answer. Jesse tells his companions that power in and of itself isn't bad, it's just the way people use it that can be beneficial or not. Judging from the look on Jude's face as he thinks about everything he can do with Jesse's influence, he's not going to be one of the ones you can trust with any significant level of power.

Jesse asks one of his followers (named John, and this is the first scene he's had any dialogue) to walk with him to the top of a nearby summit so he can explain why Jesse's on Earth and what he plans to do. John, two other followers, and Jesse go off for a nature hike reminiscent of the underwhelming boar hunt from the first season of Game of Thrones. The top of the mountain is lovely, though, and Jesse climbs to the absolute peak of stone before summoning a massive storm cloud (and the score goes all Raiders of the Lost Ark on us). Lightning coils around like Space Godzilla's beam weapon and the Voiceover of God declares that Jesse is His son, and that he is well pleased with him. Balls of light fly down from the center of the black cloud, incarnate briefly as angelic figures made of light, and fly away (making me wonder if Mr. Boogalow and Mr. Topps are due to put in an appearance). Once the special effects taper off Jesse tells his friends there's nothing to be afraid of; John faints anyway.

Jesse gives his three followers the authority to do works on Earth and Heaven, and also tells them that he knows he's going to have to give up his life to redeem the poor sinners on Earth. His friends don't want to hear that, but Jesse says it's his task to die and theirs to tell the world about him. The scenes where Jesse is talking with his friends have a low-key, natural vibe to them that jar horribly with the second-tier special effects from the storm sequence.

The next lessons Jesse tries to teach people (a crowd of a couple dozen extras listening to him with expressions ranging from rapt absorption to dull surprise) involve forgiving your enemies and living as a reflection of God's love; one of his main followers mention that everyone's cold and hungry after his speech. Jude says that there's barely enough food to make lunch for one of his followers, but Jesse just smiles tolerantly while a Ron Silver looking dude spies on him with binoculars from an indeterminate distance away. Jude gets pressed into service handing out bread and cheese to everyone (and gets his picture taken by the Ron Silver impersonator, who's keeping tabs on Jesse and his merry men). Everyone gets fed (and the filmmakers wisely don't try for anything big in this sequence--it's just five people feeding several dozen with an impossibly long-lasting baguette and wedge of cheddar cheese). Even Jude gets into the swing of things, laughing out loud at the impossibility of what he's doing while he's doing it. I'm so impressed by the low-key sincerity of the film that I'm not going to gripe about the weaksauce folk song on the soundtrack during this section. Ron Silver stalks off while Jesse and his pals share a group hug.

Some time after that (it's night, Jesse's walking by himself and by the Dixieland jazz on the soundtrack my assumption is that he's supposed to be in New Orleans). A heavily accented woman named Asa walks up and informs Jesse that Mr. Cunningham is going to hold a private meeting with him the next evening. Jesse agrees and the pair go their separate ways. Ron Silver's clone turns out to be Asa's driver.

Later that night, I think, a trio of ladies of the evening walk past Jesse in a blurry shot. He converts one to the path of righteousness by whispering a command ("Find Christ in your heart") before walking off into the blurry, low-definition distance and sleeping on the streets with the wretched and forgotten. It's another low-key moment in a movie I was expecting to be histrionic and to the right of Lyndon Larouche.

The next day, at Cunningham's mansion, Jesse gets guided by the big man himself into a room full of people; his host essays the priceless line "I'm sure you recognize some of our more renowned world leaders" to the Son of God. Cunningham also provides seats for the four apostles that have come along with Jesse to the meeting. Turns out that Cunningham wants Jesse there because the world is tipping into chaos (he mentions unrest in the Communist world; in a blow to "Bible prophecy" enthusiasts who kept predicting Armageddon as a showdown with the USSR, there wouldn't be a Soviet Union by 1992). He's gearing up to make a sales pitch to Jesse--he thinks the world needs a single leader that can keep everyone in line and obedient. Jesse asks if that's what Cunningham and the others really think of him; Cunningham says yes, it is. He doesn't believe in or like the idea of divine authority, but he's willing to work with it (or, if he has to, under it) to bring order.

Poneras, also at this meeting, tells Jesse that he needs to adjust his attitude and become a team player--for the first time, we see Jesse really, really angry as he shouts at the religious figure that he came to help the world, not control it. Jesse also calls Poneras out for lying to the world and for his "religiosity", which is like being religious except without all the parts about helping other people and loving your enemies. I'm a little bit ticked that they didn't cast an actor who looked more like Jerry Falwell or Pat Robertson to play Poneras, but perhaps that was something the filmmakers didn't think they could get away with two years after Robertson ran for President. It's also very telling that the actor playing Poneras looks quite Jewish; the only person in the film that you can say that about. More than a decade before Mel Gibson's Jesus snuff film, this movie featured a white dude as Christ. And the possibilities the filmmakers squandered by making Jesse black are pretty much endless, though I'm certain an American fundamentalist audience wouldn't have accepted that in 1990. They probably wouldn't accept it now, for that matter.

Jesse tells the assembled potentates and leaders all the different types of people and what they need out of life; he says only God can be all things that everyone needs at the same time. Poneras sneers at him, saying that God doesn't spend time with whores and beggars, and shouts at Jesse to say that the assembled world leaders in that room could make him into something beautiful. Jesse asks Poneras how rotting flesh would have any concept of beauty, which has to really sting coming from the Son of God. Jesse also tells Poneras that he's the light that Poneras and his fellow religious authorities want to destroy (which I actually agree with). He tells off the assembled one percenters and leaves with his apostles--although notably, Jude stays behind with the rich and connected. After he leaves, Poneras idly muses that one person's death could potentially save a nation. But he's not talking about anyone in specific, so don't worry about it.

Later on, Jesse and his disciples are at a boat dock, apparently ready to go out on a fishing trip. Ron Silver's lookalike is there, with another man that's drawing a bead on Jesse with a rifle--instead of seeing the camera's POV from the earlier shots as Faux Ron Silver was spying on him, now it's a telescopic scope, putting the viewer in the place of a man who wants to try and assassinate the Messiah. Jesse looks directly into the scope and the hitman silently refuses to take the shot, jacking the shell out of his gun and walking off as Ron Silver's duplicate berates him. Rather than put up with any more abuse, the hitman clocks his handler with the rifle butt and knocks him down a flight of stairs, then tells him to tell Poneras that if he wants Jesse dead he'll have to pull the trigger himself.

At a small-time carnival, Jude and Asa are wandering around the midway. I don't actually know all of what Asa was telling Jude because her accent is indecipherable. But plans are changing, and if Jude sees the hitman he's supposed to call Asa and let her know. After he gets his instructions, Jude walks off to get a funnel cake and Asa stands there looking ominous. The scene shifts to a campfire where Jesse tells his followers that he knows they don't fully believe in him, even after everything they've seen. He's not just moping, though--he says tonight even his most faithful and devoted friends are going to forsake him. He says he's not going to use strength against his enemies and that none of his followers will be able to understand why he makes that choice. He also says that Satan will test his followers, and that they will deny knowing him three times before the night is over. Heavy stuff. And again, John O'Banion chooses to play the Messiah as completely human among his friends. He might be speaking parables and using King James Version language, but he's not trying for awe and bombast in his performance. It's a much more human Jesus than I was expecting. He tells Peter that if he has faith, it'll all work out in the end and that after the events of that night, it'll be up to the followers rather than the leader. And then the helicopter and cop cars swarm in, which means the first hour or so of the movie was a flashback explaining how we got to the beach with Jesse getting surrounded by gun-toting authority figures. Jude shows up for his histrionic "WHYYYY?" again, which is even more jarring and out-of-place after the restrained and naturalistic performances from the entire cast. He also gives Jesse a kiss on the cheek, betraying him in front of the police and playing out his part in the drama.

When Jude gets back to his apartment, he finds Jackson the hired killer going through his payoff (thirty pieces of silver, of course; that's the going price for a betrayal). Jackson says he doesn't deal in deception, just death. But he's not there to take Jude out; instead Jackson says that he's convinced Jesse is the actual son of God and that he's powerless to help Him now that he knows what's going on. Jude, for his part, says he was hoping to push Jesse into taking over rather than submitting to his death--hoping that this time things would play out differently. Nice job, Jude. There's also more than a little denial at work; Jude tells Jackson (and what the heck is with all the J names in this movie?) that Cunningham needs Jesse too much to just get him killed. Jackson counters by saying that Cunningham still thinks there's a chance that Jesse will join his group while Poneras just wants the son of God out of the way so he can keep running the religion the way he likes it. But Jackson really just wants to know why Jude was able to follow Jesse and still betray him; Jude doesn't have any answer for that, let alone a good one.

Jude returns to Cunningham's mansion while another limp folk song (which bogarts some of "Goodbye Stranger" for its lyrics) plaps down onto the soundtrack. He throws the suitcase full of silver pieces over the fence and peels out in his custom van (the song becomes slightly more rockin' at this point), passing everyone in front of him on a two-lane road until he pulls over on a beach; this scene doesn't really do anything other than eat up screen time and possibly apply leveraged synergy for the soundtrack.

Elsewhere, in a falling-down barn, Jesse is being punched in the face repeatedly while his apostles look on helplessly. Cunningham orders an end to the torture, at least for the time being, and tells Jesse that he figured it out--the Son of God wants to destroy him. Jesse replies saying that everyone can choose what they want to do. When asked why Poneras wants him dead, Jesse says it's because he wants to redeem the world, and Poneras can't stand the idea of that happening when it's some nobody from nowhere without political and economic power--Poneras would rather destroy the new Christ than stand by the sidelines as a witness to power he can't have.

Cunningham, shaken by Jesse's refusal to bow down to the man who can have him killed, backs away and tells Poneras that if he wants Jesse dead he'll have to do it himself. So it's Poneras' turn to step up and tell Jesse that he's going to lose, since none of the people beating on the Son of God have been hit by lightning or stricken mute. He calls Peter (the largest and most physically imposing of the disciples) forward and it's time for Peter to deny that he knows Jesse three times. I'm not certain in the world of the film how much of this is just the prophecy of Christ's incarnation, death and return playing itself out again and how much of it is the characters realizing which parts they're being called upon to play. The various characters in the film all know about Christianity and should know at least the broad outlines of the story they're in. But they continue to work against Jesse even though they know the ending and Poneras, especially, should be aware that he's not the good guy--and what his eventual fate is likely to be for torturing and killing the Messiah.

But whether or not he realizes what part he's playing, Poneras gives the kill order to a half dozen of his security goons (who look more like mall cops than Special Forces soldiers); his personal killers are also wearing some kind of badge on their left breast pockets. I would have expected the U.N. logo because the lunatic Christianist right wing has been promising a United Nations takeover for decades but I didn't get a good enough look at the badge to tell what the logo actually was. Jesse and his disciples get shoved over to the execution plot where Poneras himself puts the crown of thorns on Jesse's head (how he kept from destroying his hands, I do not know).

Interestingly enough, when Poneras refers to Jesse as a king who needs a crown, there is no reference made to Jesse being the king of the Jews. He's just the king of everyone in the late 20th century retelling. A gigantic dark cloud fills the sky as Jesse's body is hauled up to a barn beam; God might be showing his displeasure but it doesn't stop Poneras' goons from climbing ladders with mallets and nine inch nails. They hammer the spikes into Jesse's palms, not his wrists (as was the practice in actual crucifixions) and Jesse asks his Father to forgive his tormenters, since they don't know what they're doing. Which, in the retelling where everyone knows about Christianity, cannot be the case.

Jackson, the killer, is also strung up on a barn beam but didn't rate the full spikes-through-the-appendages treatment; he asks to accompany Jesse on his journey so that the crucified man can say "Today shalt thou dwell with me in paradise". The audience knows the dialogue just as much as the characters do at this point, but the lightning storm that allows Jesse's followers to get away was not something I was expecting. While Poneras chases down the disciples personally, Jesse breathes his last and his spirit leaves his body (by means of a cartoon effect that rather cheapens the whole scene). After Jesse's soul escapes, one of the security goons stabs his body with a convenient spear and gets struck by cartoon lightning--looks like he missed his cue earlier, but Jesse's going to need a wound in his side in order to play his part after he gets resurrected.

Poneras flees arthritically through a matte painting of a graveyard before stumbling into an open-roofed mausoleum and falling into a small pit. The Voice of God intones "You never knew Me" before the burial vaults explode and the spirits of the dead ascend into the sky. In a product placement meant to resonate with complete assholes, one of the Raptured souls is a Confederate officer in his dress uniform. Played by the film's director, no less. After some more Raiders of the Lost Ark motifs on the score, a massive gout of fire falls out of the storm cloud to immolate Poneras. Less than half a mile away, Jude goes into the barn and looks up at Jesse's body, catches a drop of blood on his hand and ties a noose for himself in a fit of despair. And I find myself wondering just how much free will any of the characters would have had. If you knew you were playing out the New Testament and realized you were going to be Judas, wouldn't you try to do things differently--if for no other reason than you knew the ending and didn't want to be the bad guy?

Later there's a funeral procession for Jesse attended by hundreds of people; Peter is waiting for the horse-drawn wagon carrying the coffin as it passes by Cunningham's mansion. When he calls out for his friend and reaches for the coffin, a horse-mounted cop shows off a slow-motion closeup of his sweaty armpit while raising his truncheon. Peter gets beaten to the ground while all the mourners pass him by. The other disciples show up and take Peter to safety while not one but two tepid folk songs swell on the soundtrack and the followers all reminisce about Jesse through flashbacks to scenes that never happened in the movie. This manages to utterly destroy the momentum of the narrative before Jesse appears in an aura of white light to Peter on a beach where the disciple was wandering and the two men embrace. The frame freezes and the image pulls back; I was hoping for a THE BEGINNING title card and was ultimately disappointed.

I was disappointed twice by this movie--the first time because it's actually a lot better made than I was expecting. There's not a lot of flair in the camerawork but it's solidly framed and blocked; the performances are uniformly adequate with nobody particularly hamming anything up or being distractingly awful. There are lots of different locations (the mansion looks like a mansion instead of a soundstage or a Best Western conference room), and things keep moving along for the 97 minutes of run time. I was hoping for a histrionic fiasco and got what amounts to a well made TV movie.

The second way the film disappointed me was much worse to the story and the subtext, because the filmmakers had a series of extremely muddled views about what they were doing and what kind of Christ they wanted to depict. The Jesus of the Bible was a revolutionary who was executed as a terrorist by the state; if there was really going to be an American version of the Gospel set in 1990 then Jesse should have been sent to the electric chair by the power of the secular government, not killed in a barn by the goon squad for a religious leader. For that matter, characters just keep saying Poneras is a "religious" leader without ever mentioning which religion it is. He wears business suits rather than, say, a cardinal's robes, papal vestments, Hasidic garb or an imam's robes. The possibility of looking at American Christianity and the ways it rejects Jesus' actual teachings would have made for an endlessly fascinating movie but James H. Barden obviously wasn't going to do anything in that direction.

I've often said that religion in America is experiencing a decline because the people who speak for Christianity in the public sphere might as well have been hand-picked by Satan to turn people away from it. This movie isn't going to be winning any converts back, but at least it won't drive them from the church any faster than any of the people stepping in front of an open mike to rant about their own moral bona fides before declaring that same-sex marriage is a sign of the End Times (just like every other sociopolitical event since 1843 has also been seen). I've been an atheist since I was thirteen years old and this hasn't done anything to change my opinion on anything about Christianity.

But I'm even madder at poster designers who come up with something awesome for a movie that can't even begin to live up to it.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

The Gorgon (1964)

Screenplay by John Gilling, based on an original story by J. Llewellyn Devine
Directed by Terence Fisher

Christopher Lee:  Professor Karl Meister
Peter Cushing:  Dr. Namaroff
Barbara Shelley:  Carla Hoffman
Patrick Troughton:  Inspector Kanof
Prudence Hyman:  The Gorgon

When Christopher Lee died, several of the remembrances that I read online mentioned that he was persuaded to play Dracula for Hammer Studios several times by reminding him of all the people that would be out of work if he didn't put the cape and fangs on one more time. Movies are a collaborative art form; there's costumers, set dressers, lighting and sound crew, cameramen, choreographers, effects men, stuntmen (though Lee reportedly did all his own stunts, up to and including the light saber fights in the Star Wars prequels), and of course the musicians that score the movie and the dude who paints the sweet castle-on-a-mounting matte painting shown during the opening credits of this film. Even though nobody was going to confuse Hammer for Warner Brothers, they were a thriving studio for many years and it's because of the efforts of lifelong friends Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing that they were able to stay that way.

I'm guessing--though I don't have any actual information about this--that both actors were starting to chafe a little bit under the requirements of making two or three horror movies a year. In this one, Lee plays the hero and Cushing the antagonist, and that had to have been interesting for each man (for the novelty value alone, if nothing else). It's the only movie I know of where they switched roles like that. Interested Lee and Cushing fans should track down Nothing But the Night if they can; it's the only film I know of where the two actors played characters on the same side (and both on the side of law and order, for that matter). Anyway, this is Lee's eleventh (!) movie for Hammer, and this time he gets to be the protagonist.

The credits run over that aforementioned totally boss matte painting of the castle by the village of Vandorf while a woman vocalizes over the score (my guess is that the composer had a 45 of "Johnny Remember Me" lying around when writing this piece of music). A scrolling text bar zips by, telling us the name of the castle and that there's a monster lurking around at the turn of the century waiting for another victim. Thank goodness for that; that's why we're here.

In a house located in one of the remotest spots of the matte painting, an artist is drawing a topless model (we, the audience, only see her back or from the shoulders up as she poses; Hammer was always the classiest of exploitation studios). The artist says he'll marry her as soon as he's financially stable. This is the wrong thing to say and the woman's face falls; Bruno the artist compounds his errors by trying to find out why the model is crying. I'm betting even the kids in 1964 figured out that he'd knocked his friend and life-study model up before she tells him. Bruno says he's going to her father and tell him he's going to live up to his obligations. That's the crappiest proposal I've ever even heard of. Bruno stomps off into the woods at night to find the unnamed model's dad and tell him the good news. She follows him, sees something terrible by the light of the full moon and screams. I'm not sure if she's the Expository Casualty or Bruno is, or if it's actually both of them.

The next morning, at Doctor Namaroff's hospital, Peter Cushing is looking at some purple stuff under a microscope. By the way, Christopher Lee was always jealous of Cushing's ability to act with props and always look like he knows what he's doing; watch Cushing in this scene. I believe he knows how to prepare a slide for a microscope that would have been really high tech in the gaslight age. His assistant Carla lets him know that "they" are bringing a body in. That seems to happen to Cushing a lot when he plays a doctor. Before the body can be delivered, Inspector Kanof stops by to let the audience know that the authority figures in Vandorf know a hell of a lot more about what's going on than they're letting on. It also means that viewers get to see the second Doctor wearing a Prussian helmet spike. This movie is an embarrassment of riches.

Kanof and Namaroff talk about the number of unsolved deaths over the last half-decade or so and
obliquely hint at framing Bruno for it; the artist is missing in the wake of the unspecified tragedy. Operation:  This Guy Is From Out Of Town So Let's Blame Him hits a snag immediately when Namaroff learns who the artist is (was?):  the son of someone he went to university with, and who is now a doctor of literature. Namaroff only wants to tear his old friend's heart out once, so he's going to wait until Bruno's body is found before notifying his father of the tragedy rather than tell him his son's missing and then update him with news of Bruno's death.

Meanwhile, Carla's bringing in that body for Namaroff to look at; the hand hanging off the gurney is greyish and when she bonks it into a piece of ironwork, one of the fingers snaps clean off, accompanied by a musical sting. A nearby unrelated madwoman shrieks and tries to escape the hospital; Namaroff prescribes a straitjacket for her and antiseptic for the cuts and scrapes that a nurse and orderly sustained while dealing with the crazy person. Then it's time for him to notice Carla's silent freakout over the statue / corpse of the artist's model on her gurney and for the good doctor to ask how he's supposed to perform an autopsy on what amounts to a statue.

In the nearby forest, Kanof and his men find Bruno, but they're going to need a Ouija board if they want to interrogate him. He's hanging from a tree limb with his face all scraped and scratched. There's a jump cut to an inquest blaming Bruno for Sascha's death, and also letting the audience know that the dead girl from the start of the film was named Sascha. Kanof and Sacha's father tell the presiding coroner all kinds of things about Bruno's alcoholism and violent temper, while Namaroff is only asked to testify about the wounds on Sascha's body (not on anything about Bruno). When it's Professor Heitz's chance to testify about his son he mentions the local unsolved murders and accuses the town's movers and shakers of rigging up a show trial to blame a dead person for everything that's been going wrong for the last half decade. Professor Heitz has a great tirade here, capping it off with the prediction that the verdict will be murder and suicide, ruining Bruno's name in order to declare that everything's all right now and that everyone can stop worrying about the previous killings. The professor dedicates the rest of his life, if that's what it takes, to clearing Bruno's name.

As predicted, Sascha's death is blamed on Bruno, who then presumably killed himself in a spasm of remorse. There's a great silent reaction shot on Heitz in this scene, and then everyone files out of the courtroom, the grieving father leaving last. Back at Namaroff's mansion / clinic / asylum / comic book store, Carla asks--with some justifiable anger--why Namaroff didn't point out that the other murder victims in the area had been turned to stone. I don't care how drunk you are, it's hard to petrify your fiancee in a fit of inebriated rage. Carla says she's positive that Bruno was innocent "because she has come back". Before that can be explained any further, Heitz's arrival is announced and Namaroff dismisses his assistant so he can have a private talk. Namaroff understands where his old friend and classmate is coming from, but also says that if things work out just the right way--or the wrong one--anyone could become a murderer.

Heitz says that he's going to find out whatever it is that's going on in Vandorf. He suspects a variation on Bad Day at Black Rock--something bad in the past is being covered up in the present. Namaroff is facing away from him when Heitz talks about how everyone's living in terrified denial so only the audience gets to see the sick horror passing over Peter Cushing's face when Namaroff thinks about the past coming to light. Looks like Heitz is cruising to get his suspicions confirmed over the next act, I'd say. Namaroff says he can't add anything to his testimony; Heitz blindsides him with a question about someone or something named Megaera (which, happily enough, reminds me of the incredibly cruddy robot from The Mysterians).

This is Moguera. Christopher Lee could destroy it without breaking a sweat.

Heitz, of course, is playing a character in 1903 or thereabouts; he has no idea that Japan thought MechaGonzo should be presented as a credible threat. No, he's talking about one of three sisters from ancient Greek myths. In the myth cycle, the three Gorgons were the immortal Stheno and Euryale, while Medusa (the most famous one) was revealed to be completely mortal when Perseus gave her a haircut from the neck up. Speaking of hair, of course, one must mention that the Gorgons had poisonous serpents instead of hair, and were supposed to be hideous enough to turn men or women to stone as a side effect of beholding their hideous countenances.

Megaera is supposed to be the last Gorgon, fleeing to the matte painting of a European castle in a forest after her two sisters were slain (according to Heitz). Whether she's replacing Stheno or Euryale is never revealed; one can assume that Medusa would always be on the list because she's the one everyone knows about. Namaroff claims that old legends of gods and monsters are just stories the ignorant tell each other to explain the world; Heitz says until something is disproven, it must be assumed to exist. I'm not sure I buy that, but then again this movie is called The Gorgon so Heitz is almost certainly right. Dr. Namaroff tells his old friend to leave; he's afraid Heitz is going to die if he stays. Heitz says he's clearing his son's name and that's that.

The first step in proving Bruno Heitz didn't kill anyone involves the professor--staying in the house that his son had rented as an art studio--reading up on the Vandorf legend in a book called The Vandorf Legend. He doesn't get much past the title page when a crowd of Vandorfers smashes a window, throws a torch in to burn the place down (his butler demonstrates textbook aplomb by just fetching a broom to beat the flames out) and a crowd jostles inside to slap Heitz around. They don't get much farther than that when Kanof arrives and frightens the crowd off. The top cop in town says that Heitz should leave since he's not welcome and the small police force won't be able to protect him every time someone tries to burn his place down and murder him. Heitz refuses to bow to societal pressure and Kanof says that now that he's warned the professor, his responsibilities have ended.

Heitz figures it's time for backup, instructing his butler to contact Professor Meister of Leipzig University. That turns out to be Sir Christopher Lee, visibly uncomfortable with the prop artwork he's supposed to be studying (check out the "what the hell do I do with this thing?" look on his face after he says to give his regards to Paul Heitz's father over in Vandorf). He sends Professor Heitz's other son off to join the main plot at the end of this short interlude.

That's all we're getting of Lee for the time being; back in Vandorf, Heitz is working his way through some research (with the window behind him boarded up to prevent another arson attempt) when he hears a woman singing faintly in the distance. Since he's in a Hammer movie he decides to investigate. In the dark night. When he suspects that an immortal monster is claiming victims, and he knows that a mob of human antagonists wants him dead. Clouds pull away from the full moon, and while Heitz walks through the forest and towards that castle from the matte painting the music gets all suspenseful. Several false jump scares are detonated in close succession. Then Heitz sees a snake-haired woman in a flowing green gown behind a pillar and screams, running out of the castle and back to the house that Bruno rented.

Back at Heitz-Haus, the professor calls for his butler and there's a quite boss "grey skin and hair" petrification makeup effect to show that Heitz is soon going to be as dead as his son. He writes a letter to his son Paul, telling his butler Hans that only Paul is to read it. He gets through the entire letter before succumbing to the Gorgon's stare. The next morning, Paul Heitz gets to see the death certificate from Dr. Namaroff but the police won't let him view his father's body (Namaroff:  "It's a police state. They don't have to give reasons."). Turns out the officially recorded cause of death was heart failure, but Paul has the three-page (!) letter from his father that says he's turning to stone.

Paul is smart enough not to hand that letter over to Namaroff, and also points out quite sensibly that people don't keep writing through heart failure (and obviously they do keep on scribbling as they turn to stone cell by cell). Namaroff tries to play the "you don't really think that an ancient mythological character killed your dad" card, but Paul isn't having any of it whatsoever. And since nobody's letting Paul look at his father's body, there's no easy way to disprove any of Paul's claims via his father's dying declarations. Namaroff tells Paul that he'll get a chance to voice all his objections at the inquest into his father's death, whenever that happens to be. Then he politely shows the young man out of his office.

Paul goes wandering about the house and courtyard of the rented house that's probably still paid up till the end of the month (in the daylight, because he's not openly suicidal). A figure moves around behind him, but we're only in the second act so it can't be Megaera yet. Instead, it's Carla, waiting for him. She offers to help Paul with his quest, and says that Namaroff doesn't know that she's trying to help Paul and he'd be furious (or as furious as Peter Cushing at his most mannered could be) if he found out. Paul isn't sure he buys the "it's a gorgon" answer but he can tell minutes after arriving in town that something's up; Carla says that she knows Megaera is out there and that she sometimes entered the very house that they're in. The doctors and other authority figures in Vandorf try to pretend that everything's copacetic and Namaroff himself refuses to admit that weird creatures from millennia past haunt the forests and ruins of East Prussia because he can't accept that the world is anything less than orderly clockwork.

Carla leaves as Paul says he hopes they'll meet again; then it's time for another scene at night where Paul reads notes about what he's up against--out loud for the benefit of the audience. Meanwhile, at Namaroff's institute, Carla recites all kinds of facts about the Gorgons as the doctor listens. It's pretty dull, but at least we learn that in the Hammerverse, the term "gorgonized" is used to describe anyone turned to stone. I choose to believe you can use it for any case of petrifaction, not just Gorgon-specific ones. Kind of like saying "Xerox" as a verb rather than "photocopy". It turns out that Carla was reciting as much of the late Professor Heitz's hidden letter as she could memorize before Paul got back to the rented house.

This scene is interrupted by the chief orderly announcing that the madwoman from earlier in the film has escaped, and that he's gonna kill her when he finds her. Namaroff is less than thrilled with this declaration and demands that the woman be brought back alive. And that night there's yet another full moon, another gust of wind, and all that kind of thing. Like an utter dumbass, Paul goes out into the night when he hears singing and gets drenched in an Instant Downpour(TM). He sees the reflection of Megaera in the reflecting pool in his courtyard (and man alive, does that snake wig look awful when it's threatening him) and staggers off to the house. He catches another glimpse of her in the mirror and carefully flails his way down the rain-slick steps to try and escape.

He does not get turned to stone; instead, he wakes up in a hospital bed with Carla looking down at him and smiling as he comes out of his sweaty coma. Dr. Namaroff comes to visit him, fresh from the examining room where he was looking at the corpse of the madwoman that escaped earlier. He tells Paul that he's been out cold for five solid days and that he was found next to the reflecting pool in his courtyard after an apparent fall. Paul says he saw a Gorgon face in the pool before he collapsed, but if he did really see it he's the first person who lived through that experience.

Namaroff shows Paul a mirror (the poor cat's hair has gone grey and he looks absolutely awful) as a way to demonstrate that he's still in a bad way and should listen to medical advice re:  resting up and not trying to find out about Gorgons in the forest. That night Paul wakes up from a nightmare in one of the most ridiculous "flail around and wake up screaming" displays I have witnessed in three and a half decades of watching monster movies. Carla runs in to comfort him and the music goes more romantic than I was expecting--maybe she likes the silent type, because if Paul was in a five day coma immediately after arriving in town there wouldn't be a chance for her to get to know him and fall in love.

Namaroff tries to give Paul the brush off and send him out of town--at least partly out of concern for the man's safety, I think--but the younger man resolves to stick around and see what's going on. And to kill the monster, because he's refusing to live in terror of it and doesn't want any future victims on his conscience. Namaroff is concerned about this; he calls in his bruiser of an orderly and says not to let "her" out of his sight since it's a full moon that night. ANOTHER full moon. The orderly wonders if there's any danger to Carla (the only remaining female character in the film that doesn't have snakes for hair) and the doctor says she's "close to death". Well, it's a horror film and it's got a female monster that only shows up on the increasingly frequent nights of the full moon; there's also only one other woman in the whole damn movie...looks like we're dealing with a were-Gorgon here. That's a concept so dumb and awesome that this deliberately paced stately movie cannot hope to live up to it.

It wouldn't be a Hammer movie without a little grave-robbing, so Paul goes to exhume dear old Dad. They bury 'em shallow in East Hammervania, as it turns out, so Paul doesn't even risk his shoeshine before finding the coffin. And inside, of course, is a solid statue that looks like his father. He realizes that the professor's death was no boating accident. And just as soon as he gets that fact past his suspension of disbelief Carla shows up in a full body cloak and hood. She reveals that she read the letter from Paul's father (as a way to get information to Dr. Namaroff). Since the revelations are coming fast and furious, Carla tells Paul that Dr. Namaroff is in love with her and jealous of anyone that might win her heart. Like Paul already has.

The pair pledge their love to each other (after all, they've known each other a whole day and a half or so) but Carla says she can't leave Vandorf, though she doesn't explain why. Unless the were-gorgon is also shifting genders, it's because there aren't any other living female characters in the film. She flees from Paul by the light of yet another full moon and Paul goes back to his rented dining room to feel bad about things. The door bell (an actual bell) rings, and it's Professor Meister. I'm even happier to see this arrival than Paul is, because I was promised Christopher Lee and the movie's two-thirds of the way over before he showed up for anything more substantial than a five line scene in an office.

Meister is irascible, ill-tempered and an utterly welcome sight after everyone else was so mannered and underplayed. He's also instantly concerned for Paul, who forgot that he looks like death warmed over. Meister was worried for his student and wants to know what the heck Paul's been up to for so long in Vandorf. Thankfully, the camera cuts to Namaroff examining the dead madwoman in his autopsy chamber rather than catch the audience up on the five or six events that have happened over the last fifty minutes of movie.

Namaroff and Carla talk for a bit while the doctor removes the madwoman's brain (in a probable sop to censors as well as a function of the limitations of the movie's budget, Cushing's hands are out of frame while he opens the autopsy subject's skull and removes the brain, but we do get to see him put it into a beaker full of preservative fluid like the world's nastiest cocktail garnish). The conversation between doctor and assistant reveals that Carla has no idea that she's the one turning into Megaera on full moon nights and turning random victims into agonized statues. Namaroff refuses to tell Carla if she's the one turning into the Gorgon until he's "sure", whatever form that would take.

Over in the courtyard, Meister is going over Paul's story and tells the younger man that he must have lived through seeing Megaera because he only caught sight of her reflection, which was debilitating but not fatal. It's amazing how much Lee's vocal bass tones make the viewer accept this torrent of bullshit. He just sounds so authoritative. There's still some wheel-spinning in the dialogue about whether or not the sight of the Gorgon in the water feature was a hallucination but it's still just a treat to listen to Lee work through the dialogue.

At Kanof's office, he refuses to do whatever it is Meister and Paul want him to do (Meister:  "Don't use long words, Inspector. They don't suit you.") Meister, like all academics, is politically connected and cheerfully informs Kanof that the Foreign Secretary is a friend of his brothers, and he could cause all kinds of difficulties for the police chief without even trying. Kanof, like most authoritarian bullies, folds instantly and fetches the citizenship cards and guest visas of every non-citizen woman who registered to live in Vandorf over the last decade. There's only a few files to go through, and Meister immediately fixes on Carla Hoffman's citizenship application. He also notes that the spate of supernatural killings started since Hoffman arrived in town, although two years after she moved to Vandorf. Armed with this piece of information, Meister takes his leave of Inspector Kanof after warning him that any mobs of democratic citizens will get beaten down like chumps if they try any foolishness with him.

Meister's next plan is to talk to Namaroff, but the doctor says he is unavailable. Before sending Carla back to act as his social secretary, he tries to find out if she went walking with Paul Heitz the previous night. This conversation reveals that he uses Ratoff the chief orderly to follow her around from time to time and Carla's fed up with what she interprets as his neurotic jealousy of any man that might show interest in her (and it's not really the rather miscast Cushing's fault, but I'd really have loved to see Donald Pleasence play the good doctor because he'd be fantastic at showing the concern, fear, lust, denial, guilt and self-loathing moving through Namaroff's personality). Carla relays the doctor's message to Heitz, but also tells the young man to meet her at the local ruined castle at seven the next morning.

When Heitz gets there it's still ruined, but at least there isn't the eighth consecutive full moon in a row shining down (I'm guessing that Carla has started to put two and two together about whether or not she's got adult-onset lycanthropy). But everyone else in Vandorf is frightened of the castle so she can talk privately with Paul. She says she will skip town with him, and they share an embrace that can only be described as "early 60s British levels of passion". Carla wants to leave that very moment but Paul and Meister are sticking around in order to find Megaera and stop her. He's too dense to realize that Carla's the focus for the Gorgon attacks (though, to be fair, he's been in town for maybe two weeks and was in a coma for one of them).

When Paul leaves the castle, Ratoff follows him without the other man noticing. But Meister sneaks up on Ratoff, who wasn't expecting his target to have backup. Heitz survives the assassination attempt and now Meister isn't willing to take "I'm too busy" for an answer when booking an appointment with Namaroff. Meister sneaks into the clinic and breaks into a locked filing cabinet (the lock signals to him which drawer has the really important papers, of course). Carla sneaks out while Meister boosts Carla's HR report from Namaroff's file cabinet; Meister and Heitz know that Carla suffers from periodic recurring episodes of amnesia (which should have shut her nursing career down instantly). Every time there's a full moon Carla experiences a fugue state when Megaera's spirit takes her over and anyone that encounters her risks being turned into a statue. Bonus points to Meister for instantly realizing that every "Carla loses her wits" episode matches to a full moon. That dude is sharp.

Meister tries to get Paul to accept the workings of the curse that's afflicted Carla, but it's a bit too much to swallow for the younger, love-struck man. And to be fair it's also completely ridiculous. Meister also mentions that there's another full moon that night, so whatever's going to happen with Miss Hoffman will be going down that very night. Paul's argument with Meister gets interrupted when Carla, being attacked by Ratoff, calls for his help (putting something like sixty-five percent of the main cast on screen at the same time). Meister discreetly wanders off so Carla and Paul can look deeply into each others' eyes and Carla says she could have fled Vandorf yesterday but she can't bring herself to leave today for some odd unexplainable reason.

Then the door rings and Namaroff and Kanof are outside with a couple of goon squad cops (meaning that everyone but Ratoff from the main cast is in the same house). Namaroff wants to know where Carla is and Paul lies to his face. Kanof goes to search the place (he bothered to get a warrant because he knows that he's got to stay legit thanks to Meister's political clout). And finally it's time for Cushing and Lee to play off each other in the third-act revelations about Carla and Dr. Namaroff. The highlight of their exchange is Meister returning the knife that Ratoff threw at Paul, but missed.

During their argument, Meister grabs Namaroff with one hand and has a blade in the other; when Kanof comes down the stairs sans Carla he pulls his gun, which outranks Ratoff's knife by at least fifty points. However, since the person the cops are looking for is nowhere to be found, Namaroff and the police leave. Nobody even kicks a table over or anything on the way out in a fit of pique--these British movies are classy. It turns out that Paul got a train ticket to Leipzig for his new girlfriend, and she'd already fled the house with a suitcase when the police arrived.

Meister knows more about what's going on than Paul does, and tells his student that Carla won't make it to Leipzig. Paul takes it badly, but it turns out that Carla's perfectly safe--she's the victim of the curse so she can't be turned to stone, and none of the police are willing to search for her outside because they all know what happens in Vandorf on nights when the moon is full and some poor sucker has to go outside. Paul calls the hotel in Leipzig that Carla was supposed to stay at, but she hasn't arrived. Paul tries to go out looking for her but Meister slaps the plan right out of him (he's very concerned for Heitz, but damn if that didn't look like a slap that would kill an unprotected man). 

Later, when it's completely dark out, Paul absconds out a second-floor window and goes looking for Carla. The police arrive shortly after he leaves with an arrest warrant for kidnapping; Meister goes looking for him and it turns out that whenever Kanof is looking for someone at that rented house they've already left. Meister refuses to go to the police station and goes out the second-floor window himself. 

That's as good a way as any to get Paul and Meister to the ruined castle (Namaroff is already there, armed with a saber--though I'm not sure if even he knows if he's planning to use it on Carla, Megaera, Paul, Meister or his own throat). Paul grabs a candlestick and starts flailing at Namaroff while Meister makes his way through the dark woods. During the melee, Megaera shows up (and that snake wig doesn't look any better this time). Both Paul and Dr. Namaroff lose hold of their weapons by the end of the fight, but Namaroff picks the sword back up and goes looking for Megaera. Unfortunately for him he takes a quick peek to see where she's gone and the answer is "right in front of you, and goodbye". Paul goes to the doctor's body (right by a conveniently placed gigantic mirror) as the Gorgon sneaks up behind him; once again, the person creeping up on Paul doesn't notice Meister behind them and Megaera gets herself decapitated. Paul got a good look in her eyes before Meister sliced the monster's head off, though, and is turning to stone even as the "dead lycanthrope turns back into their human form" phenomenon takes effect on Carla's severed head. He dies reaching for her while Meister says that she's free of the curse; roll credits on quite the bummer ending. I'm guessing that Hammer didn't see the potential for lots of Gorgon movies the way they went for Dracula, Frankenstein and Mummy pictures.

Woof. I'd seen this one eight years ago or so, and I forgot how dull and poorly paced it was; it's fitting that I watched it as a tribute to the recently deceased Christopher Lee because he enlivens every frame of the film that he's in (although he does look faintly ridiculous with the prop he's examining in his first scene). The stone makeup is decently chilling, the performers all do a nice job, and there's glimmers of something neat in the movie but overall it's a lesser effort from Hammer. I wish I could say otherwise, but I've got to be accurate. The monster's ridiculous (apparently there was an actress who said she'd be willing to wear a wig made of live snakes as the effect but the producers decided not to do that), the characters are all marched around by the demands of the plot, barely anything happens for huge swaths of the film and it's not until the very end that we even find out the ruined castle is called Castle Borski. Several more passes over the script were needed to beat this one into shape. For Hammer completists and the novelty value of Cushing and Lee switching parts only.


Checkpoint Telstar and several other blogs are paying tribute to the late Sir Christopher Lee with a roundtable.

Micro-Brewed Reviews:  The Devil Rides Out

Cinemasochist Apocalypse:  Rasputin, the Mad Monk

Terrible Claw Reviews:  Horror Express

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

June Bugs: Starship Troopers (1997)

Screenplay by Ed Neuemeier, based on the book by Robert A. Heinlein*
Directed by Paul Verhoeven

*I can't remember where I read it, but supposedly this script started out as something called Bug Attack on Outpost 9. After it was purchased, the legal department of the studio pointed out the similarities to Robert Heinlein's novel and the simplest and easiest fix involved just buying the movie rights to the book and making this film. I think I recall hearing that Paul Verhoeven had never read the novel.

Casper Van Dien:  Johnny Rico
Dina Meyer:  Dizzy Flores
Denise Richards:  Lt. Carmen Ibanez
Neil Patrick Harris:  Carl Jenkins

With Jake Busey, Clancy Brown, Michael Ironside, Seth Gilliam, Dean Norris and RUE MCCLANAHAN as the blinded biology teacher, if you can believe that

I only started this blog two and a half years ago; by the standards of the B movie scene online I'm quite the neophyte., Teleport City, and the gone but not forgotten Stomp Tokyo and Cold Fusion Reviews all got their starts minutes after the internet had pictures on it, and back when webrings were a thing. They--and dozens of other sites--had the chance to kick this movie around for a good long while. Although anyone who did so when it came out in 1997 would have missed the most intriguing aspect of the film--it plays out like the satire of a war that hadn't happened yet when it came out. I'm not the first one to notice this (or even the second one), But this movie really does play out like David Rees wrote a screenplay called Get Your Bug War On. And after the first two June Bugs movies, I owed myself something ludicrously entertaining. So here we are.

The film starts with the science-fiction equivalent of a newsreel exposition dump; furthermore, it packages the entire backstory into a handy 90 seconds or so of graphics and voiceover. A recruiting commercial for the Terran Mobile Infantry features square-jawed, carefully-selected soldiers (there's one "ethnic" one shown right before the apple-cheeked Aryan boy who wants to join up). The first use of the phrase "Service Guarantees Citizenship" occurs here, though the film doesn't bother explaining what it means. There's also some kind of brief infomercial / propaganda spot for the improved meteor-destroying planetary defenses that leads--via a mouse pointer and the prompt "Do you want to know more?"--to an explanation of Klendathu, a planet in a binary-sun system that has an endless supply of big rocks to chuck at Earth from across the galaxy. (Parenthetically, if the aliens are capable of throwing meteors and hitting Earth from the distance they're allegedy doing it from, the human race should roll over and die to save time--that's a feat more difficult that standing on top of a moving train in Tokyo and hitting a golf ball hard enough to reach New York City and precisely enough to break a specific window in the Empire State Building). The Terran one-world government declares that Klendathu--the bug homeworld--must be destroyed to preserve the safety of all mankind.

The exposition feed gets interrupted to a live feed from the invasion fleet (complete with news graphics meant to clue the audience in to what they're watching and how they should feel about it). And this is as good a time as any to point out to readers that the film isn't supposed to just be a narrative; it's got commercial breaks and news flashes woven into the story. It's my surmise that what we, the audience, are watching is the Terran Mobile Infantry equivalent of something like Top Gun or Red Dawn--a big dumb action movie meant to get the audience all riled up to whip some enemy ass. It's not meant to be a manual of military tactics (and thank Christ for that, because the most elaborate maneuvers the audience sees are literally "land on a planet, walk a few hundred yards, and start shooting at the alien bugs" level stuff). It's also the reason that a remarkably white cast is playing characters named Juan Rico and Carmen Ibanez--although I've got a little bit more to say about that later.

A middle-aged white reporter in combat fatigues gives a live update from the Klendathu invasion and becomes the first depicted casualty when an eight-foot tall alien bug with massive jaws and claw spikes picks him up, rag-dolls him for a little while and bites him in half--and since I'm still irritated at how long it took the marabunta to show up in The Naked Jungle, I was overjoyed to see a lethal alien insect beast show up a mere two minutes into the film. A couple other characters (including his unseen cameraman) follow the reporter into death and one of the soldiers takes a bug claw through the thigh before the image dissolves into static and the title "One Year Earlier" shows up on the screen as the camera pulls back to show the star field filling the image is just the desktop graphic on a high school student's in-desk computer screen. Juan "Johnny" Rico is fucking around sketching his girlfriend when he's supposed to be paying attention to Mr. Rasczak in his moral instruction class. Rasczak is missing his left hand; he, like several other maimed characters, can be assumed to be veterans of whatever future wars the human race is fighting.

There's another dollop of exposition dropped on the audience here; Rasczak gives a history lesson written by the eventual winners, where "social scientists" almost brought about the end of humanity through their permissiveness and military veterans took over to guide humanity to a brighter destiny. It looks like Rico isn't the only one not paying attention; another student tries to explain why only military veterans are given the right to vote in this future world and gets it wrong (he says it's a reward for faithful service; the teacher says it's violence applied to a political end). While Rasczak explains that violence solves more issues than any other technique, Johnny Rico sends a self-drawn cartoon of himself and his girlfriend Carmen kissing (incidentally, this film features stylus-controlled tablet computers as standard high school teen possessions; stack that prediction up alongside the DVD playing Dick Jones' death taunt to Bob Morton in RoboCop and it does look like Verhoeven or his screenwriters got some things quite right about technology in the future). Rasczak tells his students none of them understand civic virtue before the bell rings and Rico and Carmen check the giant telescreen for their math final scores. Carmen scored a 97 (foreshadowing Denise Richards' eventual appearance as a nuclear physicist in a James Bond movie); Rico managed a whopping 35%. As he might say, that's almost a tenth of Carmen's score.

Rico's friend Carl Jenkins shows up to razz him for being dogshit at math (and to show the audience that Doogie Howser is in this movie; it occupies a berth in one of the lulls in Neil Patrick Harris' career but he is unquestionably the best thing in it--the guy's a trouper on the Donald Pleasence level, refusing to phone in his performance and showing the audience how ridiculous the whole thing is). After the riveting "math comparison" scene it's time for a biology class where the scarred and blinded bio teacher (Rue McClanahan, and don't I wish I knew what the hell one of the Golden Girls was doing in a satiric movie about a bug war) tells her students that the giant alien ticks they're dissecting contribute their entire existence to their societies, don't know fear and reproduce much faster than humans, making them superior in several ways. The Arachnids are exceptionally advanced alien bugs, according to the bio teacher, and present an existential threat to human existence.

But enough of that lecture (and half a dozen grossout gags related to alien bug organs and slime, and Carmen throwing up at the stink in the bio lab), it's time to hang out with Carl and Johnny. Carl is a psychic trying to hone his skills with Johnny's assistance, but it turns out that young Mr. Rico has no psionic potential whatsoever. When Carl's pet marmot Cyrano interferes with the study, the psychic sends him off on a prank to bother Carl's mom--which demonstrates that he does have some kind of abilities, though he says he can't influence humans. ("Yet".)

It's time for more high school whatnot, with an indoor football game between the Tigers (Johnny's school) and the Giants (someone else). When one of the Sharks wipes out into the stands he lands at Carmen's feet and makes an instant impression (it doesn't hurt that he mentions he's going to the Fleet academy the next day). Johnny and the new guy get into a testosterone-fueled pissing match on the field and Rico spaces out just in time to get flattened during a play. But he gets serious for the next play and scores the winning touchdown, and hey, wasn't there a bug war in this film?

The football scene is also the first clue that the film's supposed to be taking place in Buenos Aires, which I would not have guessed at all from the overwhelming majority of the cast, which ranges in tone from fishbelly to snow to mayonnaise. There's two possibilities that come to mind for why this is (three, actually, if you count "it was that way in the book"). First, that Verhoeven is making fun of the whitewashing that Hollywood can be counted on to perform when casting a film--it's how we got milky pale Benedict Cumberbatch cast as a person named Khan Noonien Singh as well as Emma Stone playing a character called Allison Ng. The second possibilty is significantly darker; can you imagine how a military empire with Hugo Boss uniforms might wind up with a South American city filled exclusively with white people?

Anyway, after the game and before the big dance Johnny's parents get all up in his grill about the Federal Service brochure sent to their house and tell him that he's going to Harvard, not into the Terran military (they even set up a bribe to Zegema Beach, wherever that is, to talk him out of it). Then he goes to the dance, where the other point in a romantic triangle that Johnny barely perceives snags him for a dance. It's Dizzy Flores, another white person with an ethnic name. Her pursuit of Rico makes for some of the best jokes in the Rifftrax take on this movie; I bow to their inherent superiority and won't be trying to beat them at mocking this part of the film. Anyway, Johnny cuts out on their dance to talk to Mr. Rasczak, making me type that name again, and gets some actually valid advice from his teacher--he gets told that he's free to make up his own mind, so he ought to go do that.

Turns out the other football guy is named Zander; he was talking with Carmen and Johnny cuts in to their chat in order to get his girlfriend on the dance floor for the last dance. Significantly (if this movie is supposed to be Hollywood propaganda from the world it's set in), as soon as Johnny tells Carmen he's going to join the military she says her father isn't home that night. See, kids? If you join the dictatorship army you'll get laid!

The next morning there's a big swearing-in ceremony where hundreds of bright young lads and lassies pledge their lives to the Federation for two years (or more if it's deemed necessary). The paper-pusher who stamps their official Oath Certificates says to Johnny that the Terran Mobile Infantry made him the man he is, which is not very good news because the guy is missing one hand and both legs. Carl is bound for military intelligence and Carmen's going to be a pilot, because both of them are smarter than Johnny.

Johnny's dad takes it pretty hard and there's a big soap-opera quality shouting match (complete with Johnny saying "I am not going on vacation! I want to be a citizen!", which is so clunky it has to be intentional). He winds up alienating both parents and making his way to the military transport hub with the clothes on his back and nothing else in the world. He and Carmen share one last kiss (and say they love each other for the first time) before she leaves on a rapid shuttle transport and there's a commercial break at a dramatically appropriate moment.

The commercials include kids getting free souvenir bullets from Mobile Infantry recruits and the announcement of a live execution at 6 PM on every channel (the murderer scheduled to die is a silent cameo from the screenwriter). There's also a news bulletin dedicated to showing ghastly carnage on a forbidden colony set up in the "quarantine zone" near Arachnid-controlled space. Dozens of dismembered bodies lie all over the shake-and-bake colony, and then it's time to return to the film (for once, the "Do you want to know more?" is answered in the negative).

And since that commercial break serves as the dividing line between acts I and II, there's a big change of scenery. Johnny's now at a training camp being verbally and physically abused--along with all the other cadets--by the terrifying figure of Career Sergeant Zim (Clancy Brown, making expert use of his voice and physicality). The first "sergeant bellowing at the new recruits" scene establishes that the Mobile Infantry is not expecting most of the newbies to make it into the service; any time someone wants to quit, they can resign and walk down Washout Lane. It's an effective way to make sure only the most dedicated men and women (for the Mobile Infantry is co-ed, which it was not in the novel) make it into the meat grinder. It might also be Verhoeven supplying some more background diegetically, but all the officers and instructors in the M.I. camp are men (Fleet, which depends on qualities other than the physical, depicts women in command of some of their ships and training).

Right after Zim breaks the hell out of the token redneck recruit's arm, a new cadet shows up--looks like Dizzy Flores has pulled strings to get herself assigned to this very platoon! She also lands a punch on Zim, to his visible surprise. Then it's time for mess (and for Casper Van Dien's face to be perfectly centered as he tells Ace Levy to get to the back of the line rather than cutting in; it's a shot that could have been on a propaganda poster as the meathead jock enforces the rules to another meathead). There's also another "Zim hurts a cadet" scene when Ace takes a throwing knife to the hand to demonstrate some principle or other that doesn't even make sense within the frame of the movie. It's a treat to hear Clancy Brown yell for a medic right after that, though.

During a shower scene (with plenty of fodder for the male gaze) one of the recruits asks why everyone joined; some are in it for the money, some for a change of scenery, and one woman says it's a lot easier to get a eugenic license once you've served. Again, not to hugely belabor the point, but you know who else tried to take control of his country's reproductive future, right? There's also a videotaped letter to Carmen that Johnny tries to send without other M.I. cadets mooning the camera (he fails at this). The letter serves as a transition device--we pull back from the camera's point of view as Johnny is on screen to Carmen at a desk watching it, so there's some Fleet training action to observe next. It turns out that Zander (the football guy from the other team) is the trainee instructor, so there's another face from the first act showing up again. It turns out that Carmen's a natural pilot, and her superlative reflexes and spatial sense both serving as natural advantages for her military career.

Meanwhile, back with the M.I. group, there's some kind of laser tag training exercise (with vests that painfully shock people who get hit); Johnny and Dizzy have their backs to the wall. In the manner of all kids' movies, a football play from the first act gets deployed in the second to devastating effect. Johnny also picks up a defeated soldier's gun and dual-wields for the big finish before capturing the opposing team's flag. Zim, observing the exercise, assigns Johnny to the position of "squad leader", which has been mentioned as a thing to aspire to multiple times. Back in the bunkhouse, Johnny's at least nice enough to tell Dizzy that he couldn't have gotten the position without her, and offers friendship (which she's willing to settle for, though she mostly just wants to jump his bones). Things look better for Dizzy once it turns out that the letter Johnny got in the most recent mail call is more of a "Dear John" than a "Love you forever" kind of thing.

Things go a lot worse for Johnny after that--a live-fire training exercise leads to the death of a recruit. Big dumb redneck Breckenridge takes a bullet to the skull when he has a helmet malfunction; after Johnny takes a look at the equipment someone else got shot with a shock-laser and sprayed ammo all over Hell's creation. Which, honestly, would have happened multiple times on the assault course by now. The inquest after Breckenridge's death assigns (fully justified) guilt to Rico, and he gets ten lashes at the base whipping post. It's probably significant that the soldier assigned to bullwhip Rico is a black man. I can't imagine that you'd accidentally cast a black actor for your sadomasochistic punishment scene.

Back in Fleet, it turns out that Carmen is such a natural astronavigator that she figured out a better course than Zander could (even with his greater experience). Their imminent spit-swapping session on the bridge is interrupted by a gravitational field that shouldn't be there (signaled by coffee in a mug tilting at a severe angle); the pair of trainees manage to get the ship out of the way of the incoming asteroid with minor damage rather than getting splattered on it like a bug on a windshield. Unfortunately their communications systems got scraped off the ship so there's no way to warn the rest of Fleet that the Arachnids have chucked another big rock at Earth.

After his whipping, Rico's planning to quit the Mobile Infantry in the wake of his self-doubt. He figures he took his legally required beating for Breckenridge's death but doesn't think he ever belonged in the service. His videoscreen call home to his parents to announce that he's quitting the service goes quite well at first (they're just happy to hear from him and that he's come to his senses), and then goes suddenly dark before cutting out in a burst of static. Rico's on his way out of the base camp when the news breaks; even when everyone in camp is running to look at the big videoscreen Verhoeven keeps Rico at the absolute center of the frame. And, inevitably, it turns out that the big rock fired by the Arachnids at Earth hit Buenos Aires--killing millions of people in an attack out of nowhere and giving Johnny the reason to re-enlist in the Mobile Infantry. Dizzy's opinions never really get consulted about the massive casualties and devastation, because she isn't the protagonist and she is a woman.

Johnny goes to talk to the base commander to try and de-de-enlist, and the hidebound military professionals who only go by the book are swayed when they learn that his family was in Buenos Aires, going so far as to claim they don't think the signature on his washout paperwork is genuine before re-enstating him in the M.I. The Federal Network offers up a brand new "golden insignia reflecting flames" logo for the next info dump / commercial break / third act notification system. There's a clip of a dead dog crushed by rubble followed by its owner(?) exactly centered in the frame saying the only good bug is a dead bug. The head of the military dictatorship, Sky Marshal Dienes, says that it's time to scrape the entire Arachnid species off the galaxy so that humanity is never again threatened by an exterior foe.

There's also a moment where Neil Patrick Harris, in a uniform that looks like it was Casual Freitag for the SS, tortures and kills a captured Arachnid as a public service announcement explaining where to shoot them for an effective result. There's also a clip of laughing children stomping on cockroaches for their part in the victory drive, and then the assault on Klendathu (the Arachnid homeworld) begins, which is also where the narrative started a little under an hour ago.

There's some "talking to the troops" footage from the reporter who got bitten in half on the raid in teh first two minutes of the movie; he asks for opinions about how the war is going to go and mentions that some people think it's possible to live and let live with the Arachnids (the resulting response has Rico--perfectly centered in the frame again--saying he's from Buenos Aires and that genocide is the only option). Just before he can get shitfaced and tattooed with his chums from the Mobile Infantry, Johnny gets spotted by Carmen, who's off duty in the same spaceport. They have an uncomfortable talk and then Zander shows up to piss in Johnny's cornflakes by making it obvious that when he says he and Carmen are a "flight team" he's talking about much more. Johnny says he doesn't want to get in a ruckus with a superior officer, so Zander calmly says he's willing to disregard rank. That leads to a punch in the face and a pretty evenly matched brawl; the M.I. people drag Johnny away while Zander's Fleet-mates hold him back. Then it's time for matching "Death from Above" skull tattoos etched in by laser and the drop down to Klendathu. This sequence, by the way, has a truly amazing score courtesy of Basil Poledouris.

The Arachnid troops on the planet's surface fire pale blue burning plasma up at the Fleet ships in orbit; it turns out that what military intelligence thought would be a negligible threat is really something that will be blasting Fleet out of the sky. It doesn't go any better on the ground--there's just more footage of Bug war before everything goes utterly pear-shaped. There's thousands of soldier-cast Arachnids on the ground, but the plasma-venting tank beetles the size of tractor-trailers are new. Those are the things taking care of Fleet in orbit; two rocket-launcher shots from two M.I. soldiers take care of a pair of the plasma-tank bugs (which probably clears a cone of safe airspace above Rico's platoon). The officer leading the charge gets shanked instantly by one bug, which takes concentrated fire from half a dozen grunts before it goes down. Then a hundred or so charge in and it's Murder City for the human characters. A good half-gallon or so of Cast Thinner gets mixed in to the movie as the Arachnids dismember and decapitate their way through the characters. Mere moments after the first charge there's a general retreat and every living soldier beats feet for the landing pods. Those that make it to the boats before they take off survive; those that aren't fast enough hopefully saved a grenade for themselves because that's faster than whatever the Arachnids were going to do. Rico empties his main gun and takes a Bug claw through the thigh; he's down to some kind of close-combat shotgun and foul language when the second Arachnid attacks him and the screen goes black.

And then we get the somber Federal Network logo (no more flames and promises of vengeance; now it's time to reflect soberly on the hundred thousand soldiers who died in the first hour of combat on Klendathu). Sky Marshal Dienes steps down in atonement for the colossal fuckup; Sky Marshal Tahat Meru takes over wearing an identical uniform, with an identical haircut, and continuing an identical policy of total extermination of the Arachnids (this scene manages to be a great meet-the-new-boss-same-as-the-old-boss comment through the sheer force of cinematography, lighting and costume choices). There's also a brief clip from the Federal Network version of Hannity and Colmes, where a daffy idiot claims there's just no way the bugs could be smart and the approved political stance of "they sure as hell can" gets put forth by someone looking significantly smarter.

Carmen brings her ship in to the massive space station, with every surviving Federation craft showing horrific battle damage (one of them is in the process of still exploding when she pulls up to her docking port). Inside it's pretty much the same thing, but with human beings instead of space ships. Looks like there's going to be more limbless vets teaching civics in the planet's high schools. There are over 300,000 casualties listed on a giant scrolling wall screen--instead of showing his bad math grades, this time we see that John Rico was killed in action along with hundreds of thousands of others. Carmen is stunned to see that he's gone but it turns out to just be that most common of military phenomena, a paperwork error. Johnny's sedated in a tissue regenerator tank and gets a three-day vacation while his gaping leg wound gets repaired.

When he's out of the tank he, Ace Levy and Dizzy get transferred to a new squad--Levy hears their lieutenant drives his soldiers hard but that they've also got the best kill count out of anyone who dropped down to Klendathu. Johnny naturally assumes that he's going to be the best soldier in the new outfit (he's been quite lucky so far, all things considered) and a pair of black veterans give him static about that. And again, I don't think it's an accident that the square-jawed white hero faces opposition from inside the ranks from nonwhites; there's multiple times in the movie that a black soldier doesn't like Johnny until he does something awesome in combat and then later the same character says they appreciate what he's done. It plays out like an adaptation of a children's book for white supremacists. And considering that the USA was a white supremacist nation in 1959, when Heinlein's book was published, that's exactly what it is. (Levy, by the way, gets a punch in the face when he comments on how the lieutenant has a fearsome reputation, which results in a blonde, blue-eyed man getting shown his place by a black woman for disrespecting the unit commander; the movie shows that he unquestionably deserved getting smacked down.)

Inevitably, after that kind of buildup, it's time to meet the lieutenant. He's a balding, middle-aged white guy with a robotic left hand. And now I have to double-check the spelling of Rasczak over and over. Looks like there's at least one person that made it out of Buenos Aires after the attack. And whether or not he liked the students he was teaching at his previous day job, he's certainly ready to get some vengeance. He tells the three new soldiers that if they don't do their job, he'll kill them himself to free up space on the org chart for someone who will. Then he says there's a new plan for the war--instead of throwing hundreds of thousands of foot soldiers at Tango Urilla, the Fleet's going to bomb the crap out of everything and send the Mobile Infantry in to wipe up the remaining enemy forces.

The first phase of that plan works out perfectly; turns out the Arachnid soldier caste bugs can't fly so napalm bombing runs take care of them pretty handily. Also, the CG effects for the bugs hold up remarkably well for a movie that's eighteen years old. Then it's time for the second phase of the plan; Lieutenant Rasczak gives orders to nuke any underground Arachnid tunnels as his platoon, the Roughnecks, spread out to kill anything that lived through the bombing run. Watkins (the black soldier that's currently the best in the platoon) takes Rico and Flores along with him to sweep for stragglers and gets sprayed with an Evil Dead amount of green bug blood when they find one.

Rico finds a bug tunnel and it turns out that "nuke" wasn't a euphemism--the M.I. uses micro-nuke smart missiles to clean out the holes, which might not be the safest thing in the world to pop off right next to soldiers that haven't been issued any radiation suits or gas masks. The fight is actually going well for the human forces until a massive tanker-truck sized bug breaks out from the ground and sprays corrosive flaming chemicals over everyone that isn't fast enough to get out of the way. Rico jumps on the back of the bug and blows a hole in its armor, then chucks in a grenade and leaps off in an action sequence that reportedly broke one of Casper Van Dien's ribs. This is enough for Rasczak to actually take a look at the new guy, realize that it's someone from one of his classes back on Earth, and give Rico a battlefield promotion to corporal "until you're dead or I find someone better".

That night, it's time for everyone to drink and dance and toss footballs around to blow off a little steam ("Have fun! That's an order!"); Rico's still pining for the Fleet pilot he can't have and blows Dizzy off when she asks him to dance, but Rasczak gives him some advice--don't pass up a good thing. This results in Dizzy and Johnny in a tent and out of uniform. Before that happens, there's the surreal sight of black soldiers dancing happily to "Dixie", as played by Ace Levy on a plastic violin of the FUTURE!, speaking of white supremacist imagery.

Fun time with Rico and Flores almost winds up cancelled when the lieutenant unzips the tent flap they're in and tells Rico to pack up and ride out in ten minutes; there's a distress call the Roughnecks are responding to on "Planet P", another bug-infested desert hellhole. When he sees that Rico is fraternizing with a soldier under his direct command he raises the time limit to twenty minutes rather than putting his corporal up on charges.

Planet P looks like Space Afghanistan; plenty of mountains for cover and deserts for wide-open spaces. The rocks tumbling down those mountains in the distance have to have been knocked down by something, and the lieutenant and Rico see buglike shapes moving in the distance. When the radio trooper gets sent to higher ground a flying bug impales him and carries him off; the lieutenant shoots the doomed soldier himself as a mercy and Johnny comes marching into another battlefield promotion right before the Roughnecks find a seemingly abandoned outpost perforated with bullet holes and with dozens of human and Arachnid casualties arrayed on the decks.

The lieutenant says they need a retrieval craft; he's not sticking around for another massacre. While waiting for a dropship the soldiers set up a defensive perimeter and try to figure out what happened in the compound. They find some previously unseen bug type about the size of a breadbox and a soldier with a massive circular scalp wound and a hollow skull. Even after stepping over dozens of dismembered bodies, that's got to shake the Roughnecks up a little. It's not much of a morale booster when they find a general hiding in the camp refrigerator; the officer is pretty obviously dancing on the edge of madness but he provides vital intelligence. It turns out the bugs have psychics on their side as well, and they've induced the soldiers on the base to make a distress call in order to set a trap. The Roughnecks were lucky enough to respond, and they're going to be on the pointy end of Space Rorke's Drift in a matter of minutes.

In fact, it's the arrival of a gigantic Arachnid swarm that prevents Rasczak from shooting the general as a risk to morale. The following action sequence is the standout of the movie, with the outnumbered soldiers equipped only with what they were carrying to stand against an endless tide of Arachnid soldiers. The soldier bugs are tiger-striped, which makes them stand out nicely in the tan/grey desert scenery--I wonder if that's a clue that Klendathu isn't their home world either. Regardless, it's go time. The bugs are smart enough to send the flying warriors against the heavy-weapons crews in the observation towers and Rico shooting one out of the sky accidentally turns the general into a red smear on the outpost deck. Adios, Marshall Bell. I couldn't remember where I'd seen you before until I hit you IMDB page and found you were the prison warden in Diggstown.

The battle is going quite badly for the Mobile Infantry; they're shooting dozens of bugs but the Arachnids are using the hive-mind approved tactic of climbing up the mountain of warrior-caste bodies to get into the outpost. The retrieval boat is on the way but they'll have to land inside the outpost itself because there's no clear ground outside it and no way for the M.I. troops to get to it without being butchered. Thankfully, Fleet has a naturally gifted flight team that's capable of performing a navigational feat nobody's ever attempted.

Lieutenant Rasczak gets bitten nearly in half by a bug that tunnels under the outpost, and Dizzy gets impaled four times (!) by a soldier bug before they can get to the retrieval boat. Johnny stumbles into another battlefield promotion and the retrieval ship makes it out with maybe a little more than half of the soldiers that landed on Planet P's surface. Dizzy dies on the way back to the mothership after saying she's okay with embracing the cold hand of death because she got to have Johnny before it happened. Rico's request for a planet-wide airstrike is denied; turns out that the Sky Marshal herself wants to try something new on Planet P.

Before that operation can happen, it's time for the spacegoing equivalent of a burial at sea; Rico (perfectly centered in the frame, as all the propaganda speeches are) says that a citizen is the noblest of humans, because they make the safety of their race their own personal responsibility. Dizzy's coffin is jettisoned into the void and the funeral detail is dismissed after an officer from the Psionic Corps shows up. It's Carl, looking haunted and cadaverous by the demands placed on his mind and soul by the war. One of those demands was sending the Roughnecks down into a situation that could have been a trap, because if it was a trap that would mean a brain-caste bug was on the planet. Capturing one of those would be the equivalent of breaking the Enigma codes; it was worth risking a platoon of grunts to find out if the Federation could capture an enemy general. And, of course, telling the Expendable Meat they were walking into a trap would have warned the brain bug that something was wrong. It just turns out that Rasczak, and then Rico, were effective enough battlefield commanders to get some of the troops off Planet P alive.

Now that the Federation knows there's a brain bug hiding in a spider hole somewhere on Planet P it's time to capture it. Johnny is officially promoted to Lieutenant (it's good for one's career to have a colonel in military intelligence pulling for you) and Johnny says he'll serve until he gets killed or Carl finds someone better. On the planet's surface, Johnny's apparently in the "fake it till you make it" phase of command--he just repeats the things Rasczak told him and goes from there. Or he's supposed to be really inspiring--it's Casper Van Dien, so I can't tell.

It's now time for the Mobile Infantry to try and capture a brain-caste bug. Which probably isn't going to go so well for them; every time they show up for a fight they get murdered by the dozens if they're lucky and the hundreds of thousands if they aren't. Up in orbit, the Bug plasma is doing a number on the Earth ships, but it doesn't look to be the complete rout that it was before, not least because now the pilots expect it and can try to evade the shots. Not that it works out for Carmen's ship; it gets blown in half seconds before a warp jump out of the system. The captain goes down with the ship (more or less involuntarily; she's caught in a closing bulkhead door and won't be going anywhere with a crushed spine even if that hadn't killed her). The two-person escape pod containing Zander and Carmen makes it out of the ship just before it gets blown to fragments. Johnny (thanks to Ace) happens to hear the distress call and sees the escape capsule land; unfortunately, just after he gets the coordinates that will let him rescue his old girlfriend a swarm of Arachnids surrounds to two pilots. For the first time in the movie the soldiers don't just go into Murder Mode the second they come into contact with humans, which is actually worse than if they'd just started shanking the pair of officers.

The bugs inflict disabling but not immediately lethal injuries on Carmen and Zander (which is contrary to all the doctrine that the Earth forces know about them); Johnny even cancels the rescue mission before it starts because he knows that the Arachnids don't take prisoners. But down in the tunnels he gets a gut feeling about which tunnel to go down, and that Carmen is waiting at the end of it. He gets two volunteers (Ace and Watkins, who is played by Seth "I played Carver on The Wire" Gilliam) to go with him and find Carmen.

They'd best hurry, because the brain bug turns out to be a slime-dripping Freudian nightmare for a face, complete with a dentata spike that sucks out Zander's brains. Welp, it looks like Chekhov's Emptied Skull from the previous act just paid off. Zander spits at the brain bug before it kills him, and says that one day a human's going to wipe out the entire Arachnid race. He didn't say "species", which you might have guessed, but "race". I'm betting that ties in to the whole "fascist dictatorship run by genocidal maniacs" theme. After Zander gets his skull emptied, Carmen uses the other pilot's boot knife to sever the dentata spike and preserve whatever is in Denise Richard's head to live and fight another day. The soldier bugs would probably tear her into postage-stamp sized pieces for that but Johnny walks up with a live nuclear grenade at just that moment; since the brain bug has ingested at least one Federation officer's grey matter it knows what that conical beeping thing in Johnny's hand is. Rico forces a stalemate (the brain bug needs to be carried around by lots of little servitor beetle looking things, and can't get away quickly, so while it's still in the blast radius the soldiers can't attack). Once the brain bug is safe in a tunnel, though, it's go time for all the Arachnid soldiers. The four Terrans make a fighting retreat but Watkins gets horribly wounded and takes the nuke to go Full Gorman when he gets overrun, leaving the three white actors to run away from a fireball when the blastwave hits. Outside of the tunnel, it turns out that the rest of the Roughnecks captured the brain bug thanks to a drill sergeant who voluntarily demoted himself to private in order to get into the war; it's the brutal sadist Sergeant Zim who managed to find the bug leader (it's the one that Carmen disarmed, so it can't even poke at anyone); under psychic interrogation, Carl determines the perhaps self-evident fact that it's afraid. Cheers all around for an actually successful mission!

Carl, Carmen and Johnny walk past throngs of cheering soldiers while they talk about how great it is that the common soldier was able to capture a brain-cast Arachnid and how that means the war is going to be over just as soon as humanity learns how to out-think the bug menace. And that means it's time for one last Federal Network signal cut-in, telling the viewer that victory is inevitable with brand new weapons, improved ships (which the Federation is going to need, since so many of the old ones are forming debris rings around Klendathu or Planet P). The war goes on forever, and it's going to need millions of recruits to jump into the meat grinder before the mission is accomplished.

I'm positive that Paul Verhoeven didn't tell the main actors that he was going to be casting them in a feature length sick joke that would put people who looked like the cast of Beverly Hills 90210 into the eternal war in the grim darkness of the future. There's one thing I hadn't mentioned about the director up until now--when he was a child, he grew up in Nazi-controlled territory; his family lived in The Hague, where the German military was in control of the Netherlands during the 1940s. When he was five years old he lived in Reich-controlled territory and he's probably got a completely different view than Robert Heinlein about whether or not a military-controlled dictatorship is a great idea for a system of government. He might have left out the Iron Man-style power armor suits from the novel--I'm guessing that he was told that the studio had the budget for the bugs but not the M.I. suits--but he kept the rancid core of the politics completely intact and spent the entire running time of the film taking jabs at them.

Audiences didn't really know what to make of the film (I remember seeing it on opening night, about eighteen years ago from this writing, and being irritated that the power armor was completely gone while still enjoying the gore-splattered ultraviolence). Critics were mildly impressed with the film (it's 63% fresh on Rotten Tomatoes) and it made enough money for a pair of direct-to-video sequels, one of which has Casper Van Dien returning to the franchise to make some house payments. He has the absolutely perfect look for a Terran Mobile Infantry hero; he's also wooden enough that he's a perfect match for a film made to glorify a monstrous system and try to get lunkheads to join the military and fight for Mother Terra against the ravening hordes of the Arachnid menace. But there were plenty of people just like him fighting for their Fatherland, and I can't imagine that after RoboCop, Verhoeven lost his ability to write satire set in the future and saturated with gore.

Of course, that doesn't say anything good at all about America, given that our own response to an attack out of nowhere four years after this film came out was another endless war in the desert against an enemy that's supposed to be an existential threat to our very society. It's too bad that we finally caught up with the satire in order to turn it into a tragedy that currently has no end in sight. The movie's good, but it's not that good.


This is one of Checkpoint Telstar's entries in this year's June Bugs roundtable. The other June Bugs films are:

Skeeter, Caved In:  Prehistoric Terror, and Millennium Bug from Cinemasochist Apocalypse;

Them! and Bug from Micro-Brewed Reviews;

Godzilla vs. Megaguirus and Rebirth of Mothra at Terrible Claw Reviews.