Thursday, January 13, 2011

It's the End of the World as We Know it and I Feel... Bored

We are a culture obsessed with its own destruction.  This is quite funny because we are also a culture that believes in its own inherent superiority and immortality.  We are also a culture that believes in breast implants, keeping up with the Kardashians (whoever the fuck they are), penis piercing, Bill O'Reilly, novels about vampires that sparkle in the sunlight and fuck teenage girls, (supposedly) comedic movies about people with the last name Focker, oganized religion, female singers shooting something out of their breasts be it fireworks or whipped cream, invading countries looking for weapons of mass destruction that don't exist, and texting.  Perhaps we feel some kind of inate cultural guilt and deep down inside we know that our disappearance from the earth wouldn't necessarily be a bad thing. 

Or perhaps it's egotistical.  One of the reasons apocalyptic fantasies are so engaging is because of the way we have constructed them.  The scenario is always (basically) the same: some force, be it natural, human, or extraterrestrial, ends up destroying 99% of the human population leaving a small group or groups to either A) Fight back against this destructive force,  B) Wander the barren wastelands trying to eke out a living, C) Fight other people in the aftermath of the catastrophe, D) Quest for an item or place to help rebuild society to its (supposed) former glory, E) Having sex with beautiful post-apocalyptic women who seemto be unaffected by disease or poor hygiene or damading radiation which have hadsuch a detrimental effect on everybody else around her, or F) Any combination of the above.  The key to post-apocalyptic movies (moreso than other genres) is the question: What would you do?  The conceit of the audience of any post-apocalyptic story is that they will be the ones who somehow survive the Ultimate Catastrophe.  In this type of fantasy one aways imagines oneself as one of the lucky (?) few who survive and not one of the millions who perished and so, whether consciously or unconsciously, we, as the audience, put ourselves in that position in the context of the narrative.  What if the polar ice caps melted and the whole world was flooded?  What if a virus broke out that either killed most of the population or turned them into walking corpses with nothing better to do than eat you alive?  What if somebody dropped "the bomb" and wiped out most of human exitence?

This kind of fantasy narrative plays to the ego because in order for us to engage with the fantasy we put ourselves in the position of the survivors, which by necessity means we think of ourselves as exceptional.  Either by design or through our own ingenuity we will have survived.  The idea of surviving the apocalyse, should it indeed occur, is, in essence, the idea of celebrity.   You're one in a million.  One in a billion.  You are the sperm that made it.

But probably not.

Just by simple averages you are most likely dead.  If 99% of the human population was wiped out tomorrow, your chances are simply not that good.  You are not some lone gunman wandering the wastes like Mel Gibson in THE ROAD WARRIOR.  You are most likely one of the skulls crushed by a T-800 in the opening sequence of TERMINATOR 2.  But you don't believe that.  And that's OK.  The effectiveness of a post-apocalyptic movie -and indeed our society itself- is predicated on the fact that you are just as unique as everybody else.  And we all understand this at least on some amorphous, subconscious level.  We are all the heroes of our own personal narratives and so it is only natural that in a hypathetical narrative (in this case the future) each of us s still the centre of the universe. This is imortant because it keeps us from killing ourselves in record numbers.  Besides, there'll probably be a meteorite or an infected monkey or a freak storm to kill most of us off anyway.  It's only a matter of time really.  I mean, it could be as soon 2012.  One can only hope.

The most egocentric of post-apocalyptic movies are not actually post-apocalyptic movies, but fall into that category by default.  These are the movies that deal with the apocalypse itself.  I suppose these might simply be called apocalyptic movies, but that sounds kind of crazy and depressing like one of those nut jobs running through the streets carrying a sign that says "Repent, For The End is Nigh" or "Vote For John McCain" or "Buy Soy Milk."  Fucking crazies.  No, post-apocalyptic has a nice ring to it, like you've accomplished somethng: you've survived the apocalypse.  Congratulations.  It's like winning the lottery only instead of winning money you win the chance to try to survive in a cold, harsh world where the only way to survive is to scrounge for food and clothing and try to avoid the zombies or aliens or cyborgs or Cyborg Alien Nazi Zombie Vampire Clones (I totally call that fucking movie title, Copyright from now until infinity years) and suicide is actually starting to look like a pretty good alternative.  But that hasn't happened yet.  The apocalypse has just begun.  So now we need an enemy.  For a movie that centres around the apocalypse you need some kind of active agent to fight against: a virus or plague is just plain boring.  It could take years to watch billions of people die.  The classic Man vs. Nature doesn't really work here either.  You can't actually fight back against the weather, and this makes for a shitty movie like THE DAY AFTER TOMORROW.  Zombies are a good choice, and my personal favourite, but for the ultimate unite-the-human-race-against-a-common-enemy-which-we-can-heroically-fight-back-against-with-sometimes-sexy-results bad guy we tend to look for otherworldy invaders: namely aliens.  No, not that dude from Mexico who spoke very little English and who you hired to fix your toilet even though you were pretty sure he wasn't really a plumber, but he was cheap and his wife was hot and up or anything (and I mean ANYthing).  I'm talking extraterrestrials.

In narratives there's basically two types of extraterrestrials: the passive explorers or the ass-kicking annihilators.  They either travel a billion light years in ships that can make the Kessel run in less han twelve parsecs to drop in and say "Hi" or to enslave and kill us for some evil purpose (but most likely harvestingour natural resources and to sleep with our women in multiple, increasingly erotic positions).  Aliens are great because they provid a tangibe enemy who, although always technologically superior, is still perceived as beatable, though sometimes just barely.  Whenever I think "alien apocalyptic summer blockbuster movie" the first thing that obviously comes to mind is INDEPENDENCE DAY, which for some reason tried to tie in an American nationalistic message with a narrative about psychic space reptiles trying to wipe out human civilization.  I recently went to see SKYLINE and I couldn't help but draw comparisans between these two movies because they are so similar in subject matter: basically aliens come down in giant ships to major cities and start fucking shit up and we are powerless to stop it.  However, where INDEPENDENCE DAY mildly succeeded SKYLINE depressingly failed even though these two movies are practically sisters.

The plot of SKYLINE follows a group of friends, well really two friends and a bunch of acquaintances, who wake up after a party to find that Los Angeles is besieged by aliens who are abducting citizens en masse for what is obviously a sinister purpose (we later find out that these particular aliens love human brains, maybe for use as aphrodesiacs, we don't know, it's unclear, but I'm pretty sure that was the reason).  The rest of the movie basically illustrates how totally fucked we all are by showing how impervious the aliens are to our "conventional" weapons.  (At one point the army comes in and drops a nuke on the mothership.  This seems to destroy the vessel, but then the move promptly shows that the alien technology includes regenerative powers, which means even if you do manage to destroy some of their technology it will simply repair itself, Borg-style.  There's always something with these fucking aliens...)  I hesitate to use the word "movie" because what SKYLINE really was was a collection of scenes kind of cobbled together.  There was no real plot per se, rather a bunch of scenes where characters argued about what to do and then usually did nothing except maybe die.

So while SKYLINE failed from a narrative point of view, and in many ways from a filmmaking point of view, I was really intrigued by the thematic elements especially in relation to INDEPENDENCE DAY.  Whereas INDEPENDENCE DAY was about a bunch of scientists and government officials who had the inside scoop (so to speak) on the whole alien invasion thing, SKYLINE was about a bunch of random dudes who had absolutely no idea what the fuck was going on.  They didn't have access to fighter jets and they had no idea about any secret signal the aliens were using to coordinate their attack an they didn't have access to Area 51 or an eccentric Brent Spiner to fill them in on what was going on.  This is something that really struck me about SKYLINE: how aware it was of itself and its genre.  The makers of INDEPENDENCE DAY went out of their way to make give it this bloated epic scale, SKYLINE seemed to be trying to do the opposite.  The makers of SKYLINE seemed to be purposely making it as un-epic as possible.  And I think part of the reason for this was because they (wrongly) thought that if they made the characters less grandiose (ie. instead of a President of the United States we get a struggling artist) and showed an alien invasion from the point of view of oblivious citizens that this would appeal more to the audience who would probably be in the same position (metaphorically) if this ever happened and allow them to more easily engage with the movie.  Actually all it did was limit them narratively and creatively.  The characters were always helpless at all times and I simply could not empathize with them at all.  Instead of thinking "What would I do?" the only question that came to my mind was "Why don't they do something?"  Instead of drawing me deeper into the narrative this attempt to show the alien invasion from the point of John Q Everyman had the opposite effect because the answer to my question was always blatantly obvious: because they can't.  The filmmakers not only disempowered their characters but in so doing disempowered their audiences as well. 

Initially, I liked the concept of watching the invasion from the point of view of ordinary citizens. (Just like I liked the concept of three new STAR WARS movies back in 1999.  We all know how that turned out.)  Or maybe more accurately I wanted to like the concept.  Because I am an ordinary citizen.  But then as I watched SKYLINE I realized that ordinary citizens sucked goat balls.  I had been stripped of the egotistical idea of my own specialness.  I wasn't the misunderstood mutant warrior in WATERWORLD.  I was one of the corpses at the bottom of the ocean who happened to look out the window in time to see the tidal wave then turned back to the lesbian porn I was watching on my laptop and pumped a little faster hoping to squeeze one last one out before I drowned.

The thing is SKYLINE could have been a decent popcorn flick that I might have picked up eventually in the cheap bin at Wal-Mart, but only after seriously weighing the pros and cons of buying PINEAPPLE EXPRESS instead.  Now it will go down in history as worse than THE POSTMAN and I AM LEGEND combined.  It's movies like this that make the common person make cynical comments about Hollywood like the one that will follow this sentence.  SKYLINE was a clearcut case of style over substance.  It's like the big (and sometimes slightly less big) studios think that it's audiences are a bunch of fat kids and if they put enough icing on pile of dog shit we will gladly eat it and hopefully be fooled into thinking it is actually chocolate cake and then thank them for it.  Even the icing wasn't all that sweet.  The special effects were outstanding, there's no doubt, but even the actors had no real star power to blind us and distract us from the mess of a movie.  The most recognizable faces were Eric Balfour (SIX FEET UNDER, THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE remake) and David Zayas (Batista from DEXTER.  Got to love that fucking hat, dude.)  Not to mention the fact that the filmmakers couldn't decide what to do with he most interesting thread of the whole movie which was Balfour's character seemingly getting some kind of super powers after being twice exposed to some kind of alien hypno-ray.  I suppose the tacked on ending (which was so obviously setting up a sequel that they might as well have just shown the trailer for the goddamn thing at the end of the credits) kind of covered it, but not really.

If you want to immerse yourself in post-apocalyptia then go check out THE ROAD WARRIOR, or PLANET OF THE APES, ZOMBIELAND, DAWN OF THE DEAD, or do yourself a real favour and check out THE ROAD.  Overall SKYLINE was about as satisfying as an orgy with a bunch of department store mannequins.  My rating is 4/10 = One Alien Invader's Head Sucking the Brain Out of A Living Human Being Simply Because He Can



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