Raptors in the Forest

Over a hundred years of cinema history and people still ask “what is your favorite movie?” as if it’s nothing but mindless chit-chat or a way to break the ice on a first date.

The question drives cinephiles crazy because it should be impossible to answer, but the truth is everyone who loves movies always knows their answer. Maybe they keep a rotating list of five or ten so they can switch it up at a party and seem smarter/funnier/cooler/sexier than they really are, but in your heart of hearts you only have one answer, no matter how dumb or pretentious or pop.

I’ve known my answer since 1993, when I was watching TV cross-legged on the living room floor and a commercial for Jurassic Park changed the course of my entire life.

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The things that came after — leaving Washington State for Los Angeles, ridiculous amounts of school debt, ten plus years of struggling to make rent as an underpaid production assistant on such gems as Ninja Cheerleaders —  weren’t a reality yet. In the spring of 1993 the whole of life was just a twelve-year-old boy experiencing joy to a degree he didn’t know was possible, leaping off the carpet and running through the house yelling and leaping in big arcs like a maniac.

Nostalgia distorts this moment into a perfect movie scene. My mother’s potted plants draped beside the television like jungle vines. Floating dust highlighted streaks of sunlight from the windows. The shot of a t-rex in a side view mirror infused me with adrenaline and propelled me weightlessly down the hall.

Retrospect is what reminds me of the bemused look on my father’s face and the frustrated confusion from my grandmother — who was in the late stages of Alzheimer’s — as she tried to wrap her mind around the quivering, wide-eye little geek who wanted desperately for her to share his enthusiasm.

With her disease this was just one of many times this scenario played out, though it’s the one that sticks with me the most. The uncrossable distance between us was of course age and dementia, made worse by my chaotic rambling, but in truth that same disconnect was always present when I tried to talk to others about movies, stories, and art.

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Like everyone who identifies with so-called “geek culture” it was late night zombie movies and Mystery Science Theater 3000 that called to me as a child. Though I was raised blue collar, movies and TV were never a reward at the end of the day for a job well done, they were simply everything that I cared about and consumed my mind every waking hour.

I feel like lots of people care about the rules of prose, but few look at film and television as a sort of language and try to process what they’re watching on any kind of critical level. But I always learned best through story. And given that I was homeschooled up until I went to college, I had an enormous amount of free time to watch movies and television.

As a result, I thought in movie shots. I intuited film grammar from an early age and could pick out jarring edits before I could knew what to call them (the first time I learned about “crossing the line” I was so excited that I wasn’t the only freak who cared about these things!).

My parents tell stories of me pausing a movie, standing up in front of my friends, and getting angry at them for not understanding what the scene was really about. When it came to movies I could find lots of folks who enjoyed them, but no one who understood them or why they were so important.

It was a seemingly impossible divide, whether with peers or my aging grandmother.

That film obsession came to a head with Jurassic Park. From the opening THUD of brand new surround sound technology, that entire theater was as reverent as a church, faces forward, minds and souls open to whatever flashed on screen.

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When I walked out of the theater, my life had changed. I’ve experienced religious and romantic and self-induced highs in my life since,  but I’ll be damned if that brightly-colored dino thriller didn’t match them all in its own way.

I’ve read a lot about the incredible audience reactions to Star Wars and Jaws — two movies I adore but was too young to experience in the theater — but the awe in the cineplex for Jurassic Park was stunning, and all I knew was that I had to see the movie as many times as possible.

Every day I scanned the newspaper until I found the t-rex skeleton logo in the movie listings whenever the film played at the local second-run theater.

Luckily, tickets at The Liberty were about a buck, so it was possible to scrounge up enough loose change during a long summer day, pillaging couch cushions and scouring the parking lot of our apartment complex.

After the third or fourth viewing, when those jeeps stopped in the rain my friends and I would rush through the aisles into the lobby and up the stairs to the bathroom where we’d watch the mirror shake as the t-rex approached, our reflections quivering like those famous cups of water.

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Soon I had every line memorized and once recited the film beginning to end, complete with proper inflection, gestures, and dramatic pauses, totally unaware that my infatuation was inadvertently preparing me for a future career in screenwriting.

About the time I placed my first ever pre-order for the VHS release in October of ’94 (a mind-blowing new concept at the time), my parents got word that they lost their job.

They managed our apartment complex, but that task was being farmed out to a nation-wide leasing company. And since part of their salary included free housing, this also meant we were out of a home. They quickly lined up another management job with onsite housing, but it was still under construction and way behind schedule.

Luckily, my folks had recently purchased a tiny piece of wooded property near the town of Elma, Washington. It was intended as an investment, but we now found ourselves living in the woods on an indefinite vacation.

Days were spent fishing and swimming and riding bikes on dirt trails. After dark we’d play cribbage and UNO around the campfire while my father read aloud from the highbrow works of Patrick McManus, and we’d close out the evening listening to Jim French on the KIRO Mystery Playhouse.

But evenings grew colder and the weather got worse. Nighttime in my tent brought the sounds of creaking trees that reminded me of dilophosaurus calls, the thunder in the hills of a hunting t-rex. And after a while, imagination gave way to worry.

Slowly it dawned on me that my family was essentially homeless. The daytime fishing trips weren’t just fun, they were functional, producing many of our dinners. Suddenly the nighttime trips to the local Lake Arrowhead Community Clubouse to take showers seemed less adventurous.

Finally October rolled around and my parents drove me to Suncoast Video to pick up my VHS of Jurassic Park. We had no television, let alone a VCR, so it lived in my tent safely under the pillow, where I’d pull it out and study the case with a flashlight.

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I memorized the crew listed on the front, the still images from the movie printed on the back, and I’d project the entire movie in my own mind. Lips whispering dialog, visualizing every edit, until we moved into our new home where I could finally press play.

The mid-‘90s were a watershed time for cinema, often overlooked. The end of New Wave in the late ‘70s lead to the corporate blockbusters that we still see today, and in many ways Jurassic Park marks a more subtle cinematic shift from personal to impersonal blockbusters.

Just look at the other top-grossing adventures and thrillers for 1993: The Fugitive, The Firm, Indecent Proposal, Cliffhanger, and The Pelican Brief. They have varying degrees of budget but all of them share a very personal scope that we rarely see these days. They are movies about one person or a small group fighting for survival.

The next year brought us True Lies and Speed and Clear and Present Danger, all “small stakes” blockbusters in their own way, but steadily growing larger. And then in 1995 we got the return of James Bond with Goldeneye and the end-of-world scope of Waterworld.

But the tide turned in 1996 with Independence Day, where old-school flying saucers threatened to destroy the whole of Earth.

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The next year brought us The Lost World, where Spielberg’s dinos set foot in San Diego and destroyed the surrounding architecture, and then in 1998 — with the trifecta of Armageddon, Godzilla, and Deep Impact — mainstream Hollywood movies officially shifted to the so-called “disaster porn” that we see so much of today.

Compared to what we get now with D.C.’s heroes demolishing entire cities and Marvel flicks threatening the destroy the known universe, Jurassic Park’s simple little story about a handful of people trying to escape an island and save their own lives seems almost quaint.

And yet it holds up surprisingly well.

The film industry may have evolved, but Jurassic Park remains a perfect specimen in the fossil record. At over 800 million dollars in 1993 (more now thanks to inflation and the 3D re-release), it was at the top of the boxoffice food chain.

Sure it owes a lot of its success to the groundbreaking VFX, but more than that it was a primal little story about the importance of  living and re-producing. Remember that life finds a way not only through gender-bending dinos but also Alan Grant’s eventual acceptance of children, shifting him from a lone hunter to a nurturing father figure.

In this way he survives not only the dangerous Isla Nublar but his own evolutionary cul-de-sac of personal growth. By protecting the next generation, he’s no longer obsolete.

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As a kid I didn’t think much about why I was so obsessed with Jurassic Park. It had sci-fi dinosaurs and I was a teenage boy, enough said. It just made perfect sense to spend days daydreaming about it, to re-read the book until the cover fell off, to sleep with the VHS cassette under my pillow.

But thinking back on our lives in the Fall of ’94, when the campfire wasn’t just about roasting marshmallows but also about keeping us warm, I realize that it was really all about our survival.

A well-made blockbuster will hit the pause button on your life, allow your mind to soar, and help you connect the dots of a much larger picture. There’s a reason Hollywood was dubbed a “dream factory.” Well-made big-budget Hollywood fare is a salve for the subconscious, working just like dreams to help you process the real concerns of life.

When I decided to move to Los Angeles and make movies, like so many others I tried my hand at esoteric art films and preachy independent dramas that mistook earnestness for drama. It took a while to shed pretension and understand that creating or enjoying escapism doesn’t need to be mindless and is in fact essential to how we function as people.

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For me, Jurassic Park is more than fun dialog, incredible special effects, and the stunning wonder of dinosaurs. It’s about heroes who used their brains and wit and could still barely survive.

Their noble achievement was to keep going, endure, and just get out of that damn jungle. Just how, in the end, my family made its own way out of the forest. In a world of hungry beasts and violent storms, we found a way.

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Next Stop FURY ROAD – Part One: The Original Mad Max

I moonlight as a writer over at Movie Moron, and when I found out my pal and fellow writer David Williams (DNWilliams) hadn’t seen the original Mad Max trilogy, I shot him in the heart I insisted that he watch them so we could geek out together.

Now he’s racing to finish them before the fourth installment FURY ROAD (all CAPS mandatory) hits theaters this Friday. This is the result. Enjoy!

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DNWilliams:  Hey dude! I didn’t get a chance to check out Beyond Thunderdome yet.

DalmatianJaws (me):  No worries! That can be its own thing or we’ll make a joke about refusing to talk about it.

DNW:  I actually watched a little clip or two, and I really like the aesthetic progression of this series based on what I saw of Beyond Thunderdome, but we’ll get to that. It’s a shame to hear it doesn’t quite deserve to look so good by most people’s estimation.

DJ:  Yeah, I actually love Thunderdome, it has some flaws that people cling to because they stick out in comparison to Road Warrior, which is nearly flawless. But taken on its own it’s quite good. I have theories about why it is the way it is, but that’s down the road.

DNW:  Okay, interesting. There’s every chance I might like it quite a bit then.

DJ:  It’s this franchise’s Return of the Jedi. Amazing parts strung together in a clumsy way. Still awesome, but not as finely tuned as the first two. And all the fans hate the cuter aspects of it.

DNW:  I’m down for some cuteness after the harshness of these first two! Hopefully I haven’t spoken too soon…

DJ: You ready to talk about Mad Max … who doesn’t become Mad Max until the last fifteen minutes of the movie?

DNW:  Yes, let’s talk Mr Rockatansky. I feel like the name of the character is a pretty clear indicator of the kind of movie Miller is interested in making.

DJ:  Yep. Right away this movie is set in a world that makes no sense to the audience’s real life experience, but makes sense in its own right. People call this a “post-apocalypse” movie but it’s not. It’s a world on the brink of apocalypse, and society is fraying so everyone’s a little bit bonkers.

DNW:  That term rarely makes sense, we should really be calling them “apocalyptic” movies for the most part, but yeah. We’re immediately greeted with a bunch of weird stuff, which is the kind of plunge-you-right-in world-building I tend to enjoy. There’s just a barrage of off-key things that pretty much no other movie would present you with unexplained: Anarchie Road, a sniper looking at a couple having sex in public, and then there’s the police. These are like no police you’ve ever seen in anything, ever. I mean, I’m sure it has its influences but these are like … how would you describe them? Biker-gang/greaser cops? Sorta?

MadMax_GooseDJ:  It’s weird, but weird in a way that feels purposeful so you trust the movie knows what it’s doing. It’s not just that the world is weird and the cops are weird, you get the feeling the cops are that rough in response to the roughness of the world, so you sense a cause and effect. Helps you accept it as real. At least it seemed that way to me. To an Aussie audience it probably felt less sci-fi. In an interview, Miller talks about how the movie was inspired by all the brutal road fatalities in Australia at the time.

 DNW:  What you’re saying regarding “it seems like a dystopian future, but also kinda just…Australia”, I totally see where you’re coming from.

DJ:  Haha, yes. There’s a brilliant Australian movie called Wake in Fright that feels like it could take place in this first Mad Max movie almost. During the first screening someone stood up and yelled “that’s not us!” And one of the actors stood up and yelled back “shut up mate, it IS us!”

DNW:  That recent Guy Pearce movie The Rover went for the same thing, where it evoked a hellscape by just finding the most dilapidated and unwelcoming things that exist today and portraying it as the totality of society. It’s something similar to what I love about Jean-Luc Godard’s Alphaville, where his version of this shiny awesome future is just all of the most modern buildings in Paris.

DJ:  That’s a great comparison!  And just as you’re going “WTF is going on!?” then we get the wonderful, controlled calmness of Max’s intro. Don’t worry audience, here’s your hero. Who we are going to totally destroy at the end of the movie.
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DNW:  He gets the long, extended, mysterious figure that you know is cool and important intro too. Very Bond. It did surprise me watching the film just how functional “Mad” Max was.

DJ:  Very sure of itself considering it came from a young filmmaker too.

DNW: And Mel Gibson sounds Australian, which is just surreal. He doesn’t even sound Australian in real life anymore.

DJ:  Yep. This movie did well internationally, but in the States it didn’t do so hot. They dubbed over all the Australian accents to make them sound American. I’ve seen clips of it, it’s awful. Anyway, two years later that’s why they took the “Mad Max 2” title and turned it into Road Warrior, because of us dumb Americans. Everyone went nutso over Road Warrior but never saw the first one. Years later home video goes boom, people rent it, and go “what the hell is all this lovey dovey stuff with the wife and kid?!”
MadMax_JessieDNW:  The Road Warrior deserves its own title honestly.

DJ:  DISAGREE

DNW: It doesn’t rely on the original movie to be enjoyable at all.

DJ: Well, enjoyable … I can totally get that. But there is a LOT more emotional resonance if you know what he used to be and what he lost.

DNW:  I dunno, it feels almost like a prequel, it’s backstory stuff for a character who’s cool in the next movie because of this aura around him. We know everything has been taken from him in that movie, but I don’t feel like it’s necessary to have seen it all unfold. The Road Warrior is fairly standalone, and Max in that movie is very reminiscent of The Man With No Name.

DJ:  I was just about to make that reference!

DNW:  This first film is more Mann than Leone, with a protagonist that’s a gruff beast of a man when he’s out doing his thing, but he has this really stable home life that anchors him. Until, you know, it doesn’t.

DJ:  But I still think you’re wrong. It couldn’t be a prequel, otherwise why is he soft in Mad Max? The greatest thing about the two is that you start him off a softie, make him hard and brutal … then in the next movie he’s gone too far down that road and by the end he’s redeemed himself by helping strangers.

DNW:  He’s not really soft through and through though, there’s just a duality that evaporates.

DJ:  This is one of my favorite franchises because the character evolves but the plots are totally new. But I agree on the duality.

DNW:  I get that. I’m not claiming there’s no benefit to having both movies exist the way they do, but it doesn’t surprise me at all that people were satisfied by The Road Warrior alone. The Road Warrior is more immersive too, in that it’s even less recognizable as our world than Mad Max is.

DJ:  Absolutely, you’re totally right about that. It obviously did just fine on its own. In talking about this it’s so clear to see the Western influences on these movies. Mad Max has a lot of High Noon, Road Warrior has a lot of Sergio Leone.
 
DNW:  The impression I have of this series (having seen half of it, and seen footage from the next two installments) is that George Miller made Mad Max and was like “well, I can do that better”, so he had a sequel that refined what made the original work, and did it with more flare. The visuals of Beyond Thunderdome signal the same approach, whether he was successful or not. The steps moving from the overcast skies, green roadsides, Hot Wheels-looking cars and tarmac roads of Mad Max to the arid landscapes, ever-more outlandish fetish gear and monochromatic production design of Fury Road make it seem like Miller treats each Mad Max movie as some kind of do-over.

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DJ:  Absolutely. Things get bigger in each one. And they actually acknowledge the evolution in the story directly, because in each one the world gets harsher and deeper into the apocalypse (nukes go off between Road Warrior and Thunderdome, for example).  So I’d say less of a do-over and more of “how can I get this next one closer to what’s in my head?!”

DNW:  Yeah, that’s exactly what I’m trying to get at.

(*Editor’s Note* So was Miller, per this interview in Heavy Metal back from 1985.)

DJ:  Maybe that’s why Fury Road looks like the Mad Max we made up when we played with our G.I. Joes after watching the first three movies. He’s finally got the things he needs to get to that absolute HOLY SHIT stuff he’s been building towards.

DNW:  It’s interesting, because it’s within the one franchise. It’s like if the Wes Anderson of Grand Budapest Hotel were still telling stories about the characters and situations of Bottle Rocket.

DJ:  Yeah, totally! So after that great slow reveal of Mad Max we get more awesome crashes. Let’s talk about those crashes a bit.

DNW:  There’s some really good stunt work at play here.

DJ:  Yeah, they’re so small by today’s standards, but so obviously real that they’re way more gripping in a lot of ways. It might be later in the film, but at one point a biker eats it and his bike rolls over him in slow motion and he bashes his head on a curb … watching it bend his neck and knowing it’s real … just so intense. You can’t fake that.

DNW: Because this movie doesn’t really live or die on its plot. It’s very streamlined.

DJ:  So, after this opening where Max and his crew take out this nutso driver called Nightrider, we’re treated to a little break with our friend Toecutter, the first of incredibly memorable Mad Max villains.

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DNW:  One-eyebrow dude.

DJ:  Played by Hugh Keays-Byrne, who is also Immorten Joe in Fury Road only with a mask on so we don’t recognize him.

immortan-joeDNW:  You know, for a guy with one eyebrow to be called Toecutter, and for the name to stick, there’s got to be a serious story there because surely the go-to would be Left Brow or something similar.

DJ:  I love character names like that, especially when the go unexplained. Even if it’s not a name … I love the idea that Brad Pitt’s character in Inglorious Basterds has a noose scar on his neck but never talks about it. Anyway, Toecutter and “The Acolytes” come riding into a railroad town to get the dead body of their friend Nightrider … it’s right out of a Western!

DNW:  Totally.

DJ:  They see a young couple drive away because they’re scared and the gang goes after them. Almost like wild animals. Move slowly you might be alright, but if you run it triggers their chase instinct and they take you out. SO TENSE!

DNW:  It’s the logical extreme of these leather-clad gangs that have been seen onscreen since at least The Wild One.

DJ:  Yep.

DNW:  The results of this pursuit though… I feel like the narrative doesn’t really take care to address it, it just kind of happens and is horrific.

DJ:  Isn’t it a major plot point though? They rape the girl, the cops arrest the guy … but the town is so scared that no one shows up for his trial so they let the rapist go? And this sets the cops off on their mission on the roads to take the gang out?

DNW:  That’s what I mean, it’s a motivating factor for our heroes. When something this brutal is used in a story, it’s just more palatable when it’s not presented so graphically.

DJ:  That’s why Max’s cop buddy (named Goose in a prescient steal from Top Gun) pulls out the Supercharger! Iconic ride, yo!

MadMax_gifDNW: When something like this is presented graphically, I feel like it needs to be more than a plot device.

DJ: So you mean it needs to create a thread that carries through the movie? Like the movie becomes about avenging the girl?

DNW:  It’s not just a gender thing, they rape both of them, right? Or at least I thought that was implied when the guy was running away with a bloodied rear (hope I’m not confusing scenes). But yeah, there’s something inherently more personal about this kind of of thing when depicted to this extent. It’s the face vs statistic thing. I think this is why Miller pulled in Eve Ensler of Vagina Monologues fame to consult on Fury Road, because he’s concerned with things like this, but I don’t know how naturally handling it all comes to him as a storyteller

DJ:  That’s a fascinating point, actually. If it happened off screen it’s kind of like marking it off a list, but by making it more personal it’s more powerful, but somehow feels off when they just move on from it? I have to say I agree, even though it didn’t bother me when I watched it. Although using rape (especially the rape of women) to motivate men to action is bothersome.

DNW:  Coming at it with fresh eyes, having little idea about the content of the movie doubtless had an effect on my perspective.

DJ:  Absolutely. Then we get into this back and forth between cops and gang … until the gang sabotage’s Goose’s motorcycle, which leads to his terrible disfiguring death.

DNW:  Some of the lead-up to that is my favorite stuff in the film. There’s the line “so long as the paperwork’s clean you boys can do what you like out there” which is so defining of the whole status quo, I love it. Then we get that pier scene with the gang that’s just chilling. When the camera is looking out over the water it feels otherworldly. Goose gets that nightclub scene too.

DJ:  Yep, this movie slows down for tone, tension, and world building. It’s not all adrenaline. This whole sequence leads to that powerful scene where Max looks at the disfigured face of Goose.

DNW:  The Max looking at Goose in the hospital thing is over the top in the best possible sense.

DJ:  Then he totally runs away! And then quits his job! And then runs away even more to get ice cream with his wife!

DNW:  That sequence of events totally deserves an exclamation point after each moment. It’s the not unfamiliar “you killed my partner” moment (though I struggle to think of where I’ve seen it elsewhere, it’s just ingrained) amped up.

DJ:  How about that scene where he quits? Staging it in that rotting stairwell, with his boss shirtless and watering tiny plans while that music plays … so genius. So weird. I’ve heard a lot of conversations about whether or not his boss is gay, and I just read online that his name is Fifi … so I think that decides it. But I love that they never talk about it, it’s just there (and the actor talks about the audience reaction to that scene in this reunion video).

DNW:  His orientation never occurred to me. There’s just so much fetish and sado-masochistic iconography in play I didn’t really think of it in terms of character as I probably should have. I just figured it was era-appropriate.

           MadMax_Fifi “They say people don’t believe in heroes anymore.
Well damn them! You and me, Max, we’re gonna give them back their heroes!”

DJ: Amazing line of dialog. And he’s totally right and totally wrong at the same time.

DNW:  That line – you mean he’s right and wrong in terms of the lack of purity/righteousness in the hero, or something else?

DJ:  They totally give the world a hero, but he’s damaged and terrible and not heroic at all at the end. And in terms of cinema as a whole, the movie starts out building a true hero and then totally blow him up into cinema’s most iconic anti-hero. I think it’s why the ending is so powerful and spawned three sequels spanning decades. The irony is that Max totally wins and finally defeats the gang, but the world totally wins because it destroys him in the process.

DNW:  He’s a terminal crazy with a bronze badge to say he’s one of the good guys.

DJ:  So the rest of the movie is pretty simple. Max sees where his life is headed so he quits and runs off with his wife.

DNW:  Having him quit is an interesting move.

DJ: He doesn’t feel like a coward, he feels smart. But at the same time you want your action! But that sequence works because you know all that time that something’s gonna happen. Something terrible.

DNW:  Really reminded me of Michael Mann’s Thief, where James Caan has this dream life for one brief sequence. It’s a departure from the story that’s been told in a way that makes it foreboding.

DJ: I haven’t seen Thief, if you can believe it, but that sounds about right.

DNW: You’d love Thief. Have you seen Manhunter? There’s commonality with the beginning of that film too. Only without the tragic element.

DJ: All this time with the wife works for me too. There’s good chemistry. It’s super hokey and a little dated … but let’s face it most guys want this at the end of the day. It’s totally not true to life (she’s always happy and gorgeous, the kid’s never crying) but with all the talk of heroes and all the nutso stuff we’ve seen out in the world, you know it’s all just glamor.

DNW: Max’s wife, Joanne Samuel, is pretty good. The ‘crazy about you’ callback works, and the fact that they went with the word crazy there is cute.

DJ: And I love that instead of just running afoul of the gangs, she encounters them, gets away, and THEN they track her down again. They just keep ratcheting tension.

DNW: Fills you with dread, for sure. It makes the “victory” feel so hollow too, with the loss coming so late in the game. It’s so brutal.

DJ: Yeah, it’s really not a revenge film, it’s a weird mix of Western, cop drama, and action flick that coalesces into a fifteen minute revenge film that everyone remembers. I love the shot when they kill Max’s wife and child …

MadMax_wifedeathDJ: … but it makes no sense that they could do that on motorcycles without falling off. Also, why didn’t she run into a field where she’d have a better chance.

DNW: Yeah, I think they abandoned logic a little there, but it’s an okay point to abandon it at. Like we said, the focus is already on the dread of the situation, how it’s executed is less consequential, at least for me.

DJ: Agreed, it was powerful when I first saw it and it’s only on re-watches that you think about it.

DNW: Right, I can’t claim either was a concern for me having only seen it once. And it’s so late in the story, there’s not really anything left afterwards for it to undermine.

DJ: After that I love  just how dark they go and how clever they get. Max just destroys this gang in a long sequence. And Toecutter’s not last either. He goes out with a great eye-popping moment …

MadMax_eyesLiterally.

DJ: … but the last and most brutal death is at the end with Johnny.

DNW: The hack-through-your-own-leg-or-explode kill?

DJ: Max could just kill him, but instead he gives him a “choice’ which really isn’t a choice at all. He just gets the dude to torture himself before the car blows. Freaking incredible scene. It would fit right in with Road Warrior.

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DNW: I don’t have a huge bloodlust or anything, but I could watch a whole movie of Max just giving scum horrible ultimatums like that. And it’s not something they had to show to sell. It’s damn gruesome in my mind alone. The finale of this film is essentially an extended prologue to The Road Warrior.

DJ: I think it sells because of how much time you’ve spent in the world and with Max and family. A lot of people call this first film “boring” until the end, but don’t realize the whole ending works because of all the “boring” stuff.

DNW: I see where people are coming from though, just looking at the poster for Mad Max – that could be a poster for The Road Warrior rather than this movie.

MadMax_posterDNW: It looks like it’s going to be a more Awesome with a capital A film than it is. JJ Abrams had a similar feeling about the Escape From New York poster- that film never shows you the Statue of Liberty’s head in the middle of the street despite the really iconic imagery the movie was sold on, which is why Cloverfield gives us that visual. I think if you saw The Road Warrior first as well, that would mess you up. Mad Max is so procedural by comparison.

DJ: I can totally get that. I had a similar issue with Escape from New York … only I thought it wasn’t just misleading but also boring (there’s that word again).

DNW: It’s like the poster artist got closer to where Miller’s head was at than Miller did, but like you said, this movie functions

And that’s about it! Later this week I’ll post our conversation about The Road Warrior.

It’s an Animal Thing: Why Riddick is a Franchise with Teeth

You aren’t afraid of the dark, are you?

Less than a year after The Matrix caused a sci-fi frenzy, Universal dumped its low-budget space flick Pitch Black into the desert of February film releases and left it to die. But like its feral anti-hero, the film survived, earning over twice its production budget and building a strong fan base.

The movie’s breakout character, Riddick, was a charismatic barbarian with a messy code of ethics and a wicked tongue. When he wasn’t spouting tough-guy dialog and shaving his head with a piece of shrapnel and axle grease, he was waxing poetic in voice-over narration. The result was a clever, layered character who was played to perfection by a relatively unknown Vin Diesel. The role got him into the Fast and the Furious franchise which launched a year later, propelling him into stardom.

MSDPIBL EC001
Everyone standing behind him … not so much.

The film itself is a lean, mean endeavor. On the surface it’s a basic “crash and survive” adventure tale, but underneath David Twohy honed a wonderful script about guilt and second chances, basing his story on work from Jim and Ken Wheat, a sci-fi writing duo who worked within the Star Wars and A Nightmare on Elm Street franchises.

Early on it’s clear Twohy (who also directed) is great at two important yet often neglected elements to great visual storytelling: he writes colorful, layered characters and puts them in rich, unique settings.

From the opening scenes where Radha Mitchell’s space pilot, Fry, attempts to jettison all of her sleeping passengers in an attempt to save herself, it’s clear there’s more going on than the average adventure flick. When she’s thwarted by the other pilot and lands the ship safely, the character drama ratchets to intense levels as the survivors laud her with praise for saving their necks.

It’s a gutsy way to open the movie. Expectations are low, with audiences needing only screams and blood to justify the ticket price. By setting the bar so high so early, Twohy forced himself to dig deep for the payoff, and it resulted in a wonderful, richly rewarding ending.

When asked about his film Cabin in the Woods and why he and co-writer Joss Whedon decided to reveal early on that the entire scenario was controlled by a scientific facility, Goddard replied:

“Put all your cards on the table right away, and then that will force you to come up with new cards.”

Judging by the fantastic ending to Cabin in the Woods — which manages to genuinely surprise its audience without coming completely out of left field — his comment is true. Still, it’s often the harder road, so Twohy’s opening sequence to Pitch Black is commendable in a sci-fi market that so often saves character reveals to create a forced sense of mystery (I’m looking at you Oblivion, John Carter, and Star Trek Into Darkness).

Another element that sets this film apart is the production design. The art department created an extraordinary world on a tiny budget, from the sarcophagus filled with contraband booze and ancient weapons (again the theme of dark secrets) to the strange bone trees rising from the skeletons of alien behemoths, to the Lovecraftian demons that lurk under the soil, the Riddick universe was quickly established as wild and imaginative, yet strangely realistic.

PitchBlackCritterIt’s no George Lucas space pig, but it will do.

The crowning moment of Pitch Black is not the awesome monsters, it’s a scene between Fry and Riddick in the warm glow of a waiting escape shuttle, debating whether to face the darkness and rescue the other survivors or save their own necks.

It’s here that all the deft character work pays off. Fry’s motivation is clear; she needs Riddick’s animalistic fighting skills to survive the mission. But when Riddick has the opportunity to fly the ship away, he decides instead to debate Fry on the merits of heroism. There are lots of scenes like this at the ends of films and few of them feel realistic and justified. Why would the characters stop for a chat in the middle of all that mayhem?

The thing is, Riddick isn’t screwing with Fry just to be dramatic, he’s testing her like a child testing boundaries. It’s here that Riddick’s backstory comes into play. Abandoned in a dumpster, raised in the prison system, hounded by immoral mercenaries masquerading as officers of the law, Riddick is pushing back against Fry’s moral outrage. He knows she almost jettisoned her entire crew, so why the change of heart? When he finally pushes her to the limit, making her admit she will fail so save her crew but has to try anyway, he utters a single word: “interesting.”

This is more than a cocky one-liner, it’s the first time Riddick has seen a true adult. In this moment, Pitch Black coalesces into a bloody, brutal coming-of-age story.

Pitch_Black_vin_dieselJust like the works of Judy Blume.

The final line sums up the entire character arc. As the survivors fly off into space, someone asks Riddick what they will do if they are found by mercenaries. Riddick replies with a shrug, “tell them Riddick’s dead. He died somewhere on that planet.”

I’ll kill you with my teacup.

Pitch Black did well in theaters and incredibly well on DVD. This, coupled with Vin Diesel’s rising star power, paved the way for the sequel.

But where do you go when your lead character has changed from vicious badass to moral defender?

Twohy’s answer was to focus on the greater universe, taking his 105 million dollar budget (compared to Pitch Black’s 23 million) and showing the various planets and cultures surrounding the original story.

The result was a standalone adventure with strangely pluralized title The Chronicles of Riddick, a riotous, mildly-campy space romp that lacked the thematic focus of the original, but kept the fun dialog and fantastic production design.

Generally considered a flop, the film has its defenders (of which I am one). A great article from Little White Lies highlights the fact that in the three years between the two films, sci-fi audiences were subjected to terrible Star Wars prequels, a lame duck final Star Trek movie, Tim Burton’s infamous Planet of the Apes reboot, and Disney’s Treasure Planet, collectively culling from pre-established stories dating from 1977 to 1883. This alone makes Twohy’s diverse, original sci-fi world worthy of an audience, but despite unavoidable comparisons to the far better Pitch Black, taken on its own merits The Chronicles of Riddick is genuinely a good movie.

The opening sequence puts us in familiar territory: Riddick is on the run from mercenaries on a hostile planet. As he leaps across bottomless chasms threaded through maze-like ridges of rock, it’s clear that Twohy’s knack for world-building has returned for the sequel. The ships that chase Riddick have external harnesses holding armed men, fully exposed to the elements, tell us that the ship is not designed for space travel, indicating there must be a larger ship standing by. Simple details like this harken back to the glory days of Star Wars, when a simple laser sword pulled from a basket created a sense of a greater universe far better than showing thousands of laser swords in every single shot.

Where Chronicles loses most people is with the Necromongers, a race of death-worshiping mystics that strut around in cumbersome armor and spout clunky dialog.

NecroSo, how do I look … why are you laughing?

The Necromongers may be campy but they are also clever and unique to a sci-fi franchise, diving headlong into the supernatural. Their ship design is mesmerizing, enormous monoliths adorned with Rushmore-style faces that plunge from deep space and embed themselves deep into a planet’s crust.

The Necromonger mythology also works to subvert the usual blockbuster’s adherence to the Joseph Campbell monomyth. Riddick may be the so-called “chosen one”, but he is the chosen one for a sinister, world-devouring death cult, which works well for a hero who likes to drink human blood and chase it with peppermint schnapps.

This video has a lot more to say on the subject. It’s not only insightful, but it also has a puppet so you should watch it.

After setting up the Necromongers and the fact they want Riddick dead, the movie resets itself on the prison planet of Crematoria. It’s here where some of the film’s best moments take place, as Riddick befriends a super cool lizard cat, kills an inmate with a teacup, and literally outruns sunshine.

Riddick_hellhound_Kitty!

The entire Crematoria segment feels a bit forced within the entire scope of the story, but as a self-contained section it’s top notch.

The film’s third act is filled with more pouty Necromonger monologues and weird-ass visuals, but boasts a clever and game-changing twist: Riddick inadvertently becomes the leader of the Necromongers. It’s this final moment that might be the nail in the coffin for fans and critics alike, since it changes the main character from feral underdog to empire leader.

The Chronicles of Riddick is so vastly different from Pitch Black in scope and tone that it went the way of Weezer’s Pinkerton album. It was doomed to fail before it started, finding that sweet spot of hypocrisy with a voracious movie audience that clamors for something original yet often rejects new things.

Many critics missed the point, like Benjamin Strong’s review for the Village Voice which spent a whopping one paragraph dissecting the movie and the rest of its creative energy on a stupid pun for the title.  Another somewhat embarrassing review from Salon used trendy, catch-all criticisms (such as accusing the film of confusing “MTV style” editing), attacked Vin Diesel personally for his career choices that had nothing to do with the Riddick films, and blatantly missed the mark by claiming The Chronicles of Riddick re-hashed tropes from The Lord of the Rings and The Matrix, when in fact the movie defies and deconstructs those tropes.

While it’s clear The Chronicles of Riddick lacked the narrative focus and thematic punch of the first film, it’s still a grand, clever adventure with more thrills than the average blockbuster.

Lenser

Admittedly, this dude was a little weird.

Three down … you see where I’m going with this?

Nine years after The Chronicles of Riddick, Twohy got his third chance with the Riddick character. Whether it was the critical backlash or smaller budget, he returned to the familiar Pitch Black set up of “crash and survive” though maintained the narrative thread from Chronicles.

Currently in theaters, Riddick is a great little flick that thrills and chills to varying degrees of success. Large sections border on brilliant, while others feel merely adequate. As per usual, the visuals are stunning and the dialog is snappy, and the overall  film feels like a sort of apology for making the Riddick character too civilized.

The story begins after Riddick is betrayed, kicked out of the Necromonger clan, and left for dead in a barren wasteland of rock. Almost a standalone film, the first third follows Riddick as he fights off a pack of wild dogs, treats his wounds, encounters a new deadly space critter, and finds a way to defeat it and journey out of the wasteland to the fertile fields beyond.

This journey takes months and it’s rare to see a genre flick take so much time to set up its tale. Slow but never boring, it’s easily the best part of the film, and a credit to Vin Diesel’s acting skills and the VFX team that made his CGI canine companion a realistic, enduring character instead of a cutsie gimmick.

riddick-3-concept-art-01It’s kind of like Old Yeller in space (spoiler).

It’s during this section where we see a flashback of Riddick in his Necromonger glory days, sitting dejected on a throne while four naked concubines beckon him to their orgy. The once virile Riddick spares them the barest of glances before he resumes his brooding.

If this impotence metaphor wasn’t clear enough, a few scenes later Riddick encounters this film’s space creature, a sharp-toothed mouth mounted between two legs, counter-balanced by a long, fanged tail. Dependent on water to survive, the creature lurks in shallow pools, raising its wicked, poisonous tail out of the water to strike. The sexual metaphors continue as an impending rain storm threatens to loosen the soil and release thousands of these monsters.

Riddick-monster2It’s like Jurassic Park, but with penises instead of velociraptors.

The main story kicks off when Riddick discovers a mercenary way station and sets off a distress beacon.

Two sets of mercenaries descend on the location, and Twohy wisely delineates between the two teams, making one evil and the other good. While the narrative paints in some pretty broad strokes — the “bad” mercenaries kill an innocent woman for fun within ten minutes of landing, for example — this clear cut delineation allows for Riddick to slaughter enough people to attain the R-rating that fans wanted while keeping the “hero” part of his his anti-hero mantle.

Despite a few repetitive moments (the movie boasts not one, not two, but three stand-off sequences, all in a row) the movie thrives on clever kills and the weird chemistry between Riddick and the lone female mercenary named Dahl (sound it out).  Played by Katee Sackhoff, Dahl states early on that she’s a lesbian, yet stares with mild interest whenever Riddick lays verbal claim to her body.

riddick_katee_sackhoff_vin_dieselPure chemistry.

By the time Dahl straddles Riddick with a seductive smile, the message from Twohy and Diesel is loud and clear: Riddick got his balls back. That may lack the dramatic nuance of Pitch Black (and raise a few eyebrows about the tired male fantasy of converting lesbians), but it’s great to see a summer flick that isn’t white-washed for mass audience appeal and a PG-13 rating.

While the film’s third act is the very definition of mediocre (the classic definition of “in the middle”, not the recent, bizarre definition of “worst thing ever made according to this one guy on Twitter”), depending far too much on Pitch Black‘s finale and losing sight of its thematic through line, Riddick still boasts some deftly handled action and general badassery. It’s final moments may lack the dramatic heights of  Pitch Black, but it still soars far above the recent batch of lackluster genre flicks.

riddick BIKE-14Richard B. Riddick
(Baldius Heroeclyes)

Since its creation, the Riddick franchise has struggled for life. From the first film’s harsh indie production in the Australian outback, to the harsher critical backlash against the sequel, to the the financing troubles of this third picture, the trilogy is the ultimate cinematic underdog. Vin Diesel even went so far as to leverage his own house as collateral with the financing company for Riddick, making him effectively homeless if they failed to finish the movie.

It’s a special sort of story that incites that kind of moxy from its creators, and despite the franchise’s detractors, the films have had consistently lucrative box-office (despite popular opinion, The Chronicles of Riddick was not the financial disaster it was made out to be), proving it’s the fanbase that has the final say.

Over the course of three movies, Twohy has created a clever, visceral science-fiction experience that’s unlike anything else out there. It ranges from inspired drama to bawdy escapism, but it does it all with flair and fine craftsmanship. It’s a franchise that should have been dead long ago, but keeps fighting for life, and with any luck our summers will be filled with more flawed and fantastic Riddick adventures.