Tag Archives: science fiction

Three-Minute Review: The faculty (1998)

Summary:

What happens when you pit high school students against an alien invasion? You actually get a pretty good sci-fi thriller that’s a little underrated and totally worth watching. And, that’s just what happens in The Faculty, as high school students from Herrington High have to put aside petty bickering to battle an otherworldly aggressor before it leaves their little town and takes over the world.

Behind the Scenes:

The film is directed by Robert Rodriguez who is an exquisite director all around (see From Dusk Till Dawn [1996]), and he excels at this kind of pacing and storytelling, which seems to involve the struggle of evil forces against misanthropes and outsiders.

Elijah Wood and Josh Hartnett are also 90s icons that really lift this film into even higher highs; also, Jon Steward and Robert Patrick play literal members of the faculty that don’t have the children’s best interests at heart.

Takeaway:

The Faculty triumphs because it takes Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978) and simply moves the story to a high school, which creates a new interpretation of an age-old fear: can we trust those around us?

The genre shift of communist-paranoia to teen-romp in a suburbia works so effortlessly that as a viewer, I was immediately sucked into the story. I think it has some great acting, some truly terrifying scenes (swimming pool climax), and excellent pacing. It helps put 90s horror on the good side of classic cinema.

I think The Faculty gets left in the dark a lot when considering other 90s horror films, but it’s really good in my opinion. If you haven’t checked it out in a while—you really should.

My Five Favorite Horror Films

Halloween is fast approaching like the shambling footsteps of the corporal undead, and what better way to celebrate the ghoulish holiday then by watching your favorite horror movies? As such, I would like to offer you boils and ghouls (hee hee) my list of favorite horror films of all time. Some are new (ish), some are old, and some are timeless, like some unknown, ancient horror in the depths of an aging manor on a blackened hilltop—but, nonetheless, each holds a special place in my gory, bleeding heart.

The Thing (1982)

I have so much to say about this film but limited space (self-imposed). So, I’ll be brief in saying it is as close to a masterpiece a horror director can achieve, or even a film for that matter. The Thing deals with cold isolation—from the world and from each other—and it’s also about trust. The Room’s (2003) tagline is “Can you really trust anybody?” which only kind of makes sense, but if it was The Thing’s tagline then it would make perfect sense! This film works because both themes (isolation and trust) are never broken, and never is this truer than when R.J. MacReady (Kurt Russell) is trying to weed out the alien by administering a test of his own devising, which involves setting heat to blood samples. Right up until the monster reveals itself, everyone is guessing as to who is still human and who has been assimilated; in other words, nobody knows if they can trust one another and on top of that, they are all alone on a frozen continent with relief months away.

The cast also does an amazing job—from Wilford Brimley’s pessimistic portrayal of Dr. Blair to Keith David’s role as Childs. They really all give an effortless portrayal of their characters. The real life isolation of the cast certainly contributed to the camaraderie on screen, and a funny anecdote about just how isolated the actors were is relayed in a documentary regarding the film when Director John Carpenter discusses a near-death experience on an isolated mountain, which featured their transport bus almost going over a cliff-face and very nearly to their doom.

More than that, what really makes The Thing great is Rob Bottin’s practical effects, which rely on prosthetic makeup, a double amputee, and lifelike replicas that explode with gorgeous violence. If you have never seen this movie, you simply must watch it. It’s one of the best and is an education in how to tell a grotesque and terrifying tale.

Alien (1979)

A running theme in movies I enjoy, which I didn’t realize until I formed this list, is isolation. The idea that a group of characters have a small place to exist while the fear of violence assails them appeals to me. With less room to move, characters must develop or the movie becomes stagnant, and the audience either becomes bored or turns on the protagonists.

Alien (1979) achieves where so many similar films fail. This includes creating compelling characters in distress and confusion. The harrowing onslaught of a mostly unseen enemy blinds the protagonists with paranoia and speculation as to how they will survive. The sheer fact that they allowed the character of Dallas (played by Tom Skerritt) to go try to flush the Xenomorph out of a claustrophobic’s worst nightmare.

Likewise, Sigourney Weaver’s performance as Ripley and the subtle performance of John Hurt as Kane, whose gory death is a revelation for viewers and the crew of the Nostromo, add to the realism and effectiveness of the film. Even if you’ve seen Alien, watch it again. The throat rape and chest-bursting will continue to haunt your dreams.

Sunshine (1999)

I don’t hear much fanfare for Sunshine, but I know its popular among sci-fi fans because it appears on “Best of …” lists often enough. Sunshine is yet another story on my list of lonely isolation aboard the spaceship Icarus II. After its predecessor becomes lost on a previous mission, the new space crew must chart a course toward the sun with the intention of dropping a nuclear payload, which will hopefully end a perpetual winter on Earth.

The mission is dire, indeed, and yet the filmmakers create a believable world filled with excellent plot development and strong casting. The score, too, is moving and overshadows some moments of lackluster special effects. And when a film can transcend its limitations (budget, casting, etc) then that probably means you have something good on your hands.

What makes Sunshine far superior, than say, Interstellar (2014) or Gravity (2013) is the balancing of storytelling which veers from science fiction adventure to slasher movie. Danny Boyle does a fantastic job directing this sharp shift with a keen eye to previous details and adequate pacing. Unlike many science fiction films, this is not just another 2001 (1968) ripoff or an attempt at mundane space horror. It’s the real deal.

Quarantine (2008)

Quarantine (2008) stands out as one of the finer attempts at a “found footage” title that I’ve ever seen, and it was one of the first of its genre to actually engross me into the short-lived lives of the characters. The decision to cast unfamiliar actors was a smart move and having the monsters downplayed compared to the mystery of their incarceration makes the film more jarring and definitely disturbing.

The added effect of cuing the audience to the conclusion was subtle enough as to not deem reproach. What is more, the apartment complex is claustrophobic and the narrow hallways and passages become familiar by the end of the movie. I can’t think of too many films where, as the viewer, I could probably find my way around the complex if given the chance.

I should also say that it’s scary as hell.

Kill List (2011)

I must admit, I watched this movie last year, and I was saddened that I had not seen it sooner. It has some flaws but subsequent viewings reveal a carefully plotted film, and disturbing implications, which while common for horror films, is uncommon to be so relevant upon further screenings. In other words, everything in Kill List means something: every little piece of dialogue, every altercation, every character, and every scene plays into the overall narrative and conclusion.

Thankfully, Kill List is on the good side of relentless—never questioning the intelligence of the audience to put two and two together. If given the chance, I guarantee it will stay high on your list of favorite horror films after the first time you watch it.

 

Futility and Nuclear Annihilation in “Beneath the Planet of the Apes”

The follow-up to the legendary classic Planet of the Apes (1968) is a strange one, which I think is fair to say, but it’s also far more speculative than the first in the series and deserves a little more credit for its theme and ambition.

Beneath the Planet of the Apes (1970) picks up where the original left off, and features a second astronaut (James Franciscus) landing on the monkey planet in search of Taylor (Charlton Heston).

After stumbling upon a series of clues and realizing that he is in fact not on a different planet but on Earth and in its own post-apocalyptic future, Brent discovers a group of humans who have survived the war with the apes living deep beneath the planet’s surface. As a society of telepathic remnants who revere a massive “Doomsday Bomb,” the mutant humans decide that the inevitable ape invasion of the “Forbidden Zone” must result in the triggering of the bomb itself. It is up to Taylor and Brent to stop them from setting off the weapon to prevent the destruction of the planet.

Clearly, Beneath the Planet of the Apes was inspired by the nuclear tensions relevant the decade preceding the production of the film and the concerns for what the future held in such a hostile environment. Was it possible that every living thing on the planet could be wiped out by mutually assured destruction? It was undoubtedly on everyone’s mind during the era the film was made.

What the film does well, and what its predecessor accomplished, too, is play off the xenophobic fears of the warring factions involved in the film’s plot—especially the apes—but it also employs the real-world tensions of foreign policy that had Americans on edge from the Nuclear Age onward, partially because the idea of “diplomacy” to the common citizen is either alien or seems an easy task to execute without realizing that money and power needlessly convolute even the most minute aspects of policy in the political realm.

I should say that the human characters—other than Taylor and Brent—have a similar cynical sheen over their characterization, which is to say that human rationale, over ape rationale, doesn’t leave the film unscathed. The telepathic, underground-dwelling humanoids are clearly encumbered by their own fears of annihilation; so much so, that they would rather destroy the planet than let it fall into the hands of a few damn, dirty apes. The irony is all too real.

And, spoiler alert, that’s exactly what happens in a bafflingly genius move on the film’s part: the two main protagonists are killed and the world is destroyed by the “Doomsday Bomb” in the climactic throes of a monkey frenzy. It’s bleak but it speaks to the futility of the time, or at least the feelings of futility in the hearts of every American strolling the streets of what could be a suburban nuclear holocaust if the prevailing attitudes reached a fever pitch.

Of course, there is also a recurring theme in the “Planet of the Apes” series of racism (or in this case ‘speciesism’) that resonates in the Trump-era, but one that was surely apparent when Obama was president, and when this film was made in the 1970s.

Unquestionably, Dr. Zaius’s outburst toward Taylor at the end of the film is a reflection of this: “You ask me to help you?! Man is evil! Capable of nothing but destruction!” That sentiment can be taken as an all-encompassing look at Man itself and its countless fractured relationships within its own race; after all, Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated only a few short years earlier and the tumult of race relations is still an ongoing issue even through basic public services such as housing and policing. In response to Dr. Zaius, Taylor’s final expression of hatred toward the apes is just as fitting: he exclaims, “You….bloody….bastard,” and falls forward, triggering the “Doomsday Bomb,” killing everyone and himself.

It’s very Charlton Heston-y.

What I think the film is trying to tell us in so many words is: “If we don’t buck up and knock off the schoolyard antics—we are all going to die,” and I think this gives the film a “timelessness” in a way. Not in the “Forest Gump” or “Shawshank Redemption” timeless sort of way, but in the “2001” or “Blade Runner” sort of timelessness.

With that being said, the film certainly has its problems—lack of concision, cheap effects, some rambling plot ideas—but it’s a pretty solid exploration of a very dark real-world theme and one that definitely rests somewhere near the heart of political science—futile political motivation. We definitely see this theme in US foreign policy (“us” over “them”), in other country’s treatment of their civilians (the use of violence and coercion), and in the capitalist paradigm rampant in emerging global markets (profit over human life).

That is to say, there is a lot going on in this film that is both prescient and appropriate, from the themes to the story, which makes it all the more engaging, and, frankly—that ending is pretty dang cool because it’s legitimately “shit or get off the pot,” and, boy, the filmmakers went for it.

I will end this post with the closing narration of the film, just after the planet explodes in nuclear annihilation, which I think is more than appropriate:

“In one of the countless billions of galaxies in the universe lies a medium-sized star. And one of its satellites, a green and insignificant planet, is now dead.”