Friday, January 15, 2010

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: Halloween 2 (2009)

Director Rob Zombie's latest horror film raises a question that nobody was dying to have answered. Is it possible to make an absolutely brilliant horror movie that everybody -- and I mean everybody -- despises?

His sequel to a remake, Halloween 2 (2009), is such a film. It has outraged horror enthusiasts, paying audiences, and critics around the globe, and it will likely be reviled, dismissed, and spit upon for decades to come.

Why? The movie is an absolutely unsparing and bleak, balls-to-the-wall expression of Zombie's personal vision of humanity as irredeemably corrupt and sleazy. It is the cinematic equivalent of a middle-finger directed at the audience. Zombie was essentially offered a blank check from Malek Akkad to pursue his personal vision on this Halloween sequel, and that's precisely what he does. Relentlessly.

To wit, there is only one even marginally likable human being in the entire film: Brad Dourif's Sheriff Brackett. Everyone else is literally scum-of-the-earth. Once a dogged hero, Dr. Loomis (Malcolm McDowell) is portrayed here as a horny, exploitative fame seeker, both a fraud and a suck-up.

Laurie Strode (Scout Taylor-Compton) isn't a heroic final girl either. Rather, she is shrill, self-absorbed, mentally cracked, and teetering on the verge of violent psychosis. She is not noble, likable or heroic in any sense. She expresses every situation with the epithet "fuck this." It ought to be a bumper sticker.

Even lovely, long-suffering Annie (Danielle Harris) is impatient, crass, and utterly rude in the way she expresses herself. She has a moment in the film when she is being confrontational with a helpful police officer and is so mean and nasty that you begin to wonder: how has it come to this? Are we a nation of rage-a-holics, just ready to go off on anybody, at anytime?

It isn't just individuals that are corrupt and worthless. Zombie hates authority in general, and that comes through loud and clear too. The police (even as led by kindly Dourif) are portrayed as impotent...useless.

Psychotherapy (as represented by Laurie's psychologist, Margot Kidder), is ribbed as a touchy-feely waste of time. And journalists? They just want more grist for the mill.

I'm not saying any of this commentary is utterly untrue or always off-the-mark in terms of our world. Only that there is nothing to lighten the mood here; no character to really identify with, follow, or admire as an entrance point into Zombie's uncompromising vision.

The result is plain. There is not a sliver of happiness in Halloween 2; no light, and no hope. No joy exists in this white-trash world of pain, death, betrayal and murder. Ideas like grief, sadness, redemption, tragedy or fear are only things to be joked about on late night TV with Weird Al Yankovic. Nobody is going reach out and give someone else a helping hand.

The only place Laurie finds even the barest measure of relief or happiness in Halloween 2 is in the bottle; in alcohol consumption. When she gets falling-down drunk at a Halloween party, that is the only opportunity in which she can "let go" of the pain that dominates her existence. And even here, director Zombie doesn't grant the audience respite: he undercuts Laurie's moment of beer-induced cutting-loose by cross-cutting it with images of Michael Myers strangling one of her best friends in the back of the van. Even when pain is made numb by booze, suffering goes on elsewhere in the world.

So...did I mention the movie is bleak?

It goes even further. Zombie continues his systematic dismantling of the Halloween "brand" by removing Michael's mask from most of the action and revealing him to be simply....a psychotic giant with a Grizzly Adams beard. And then the screenplay firmly identifies the root causes of Michael's homicidal rage: He often hallucinates the ghost of his mother (Sheri Moon Zombie), who tells him he must unleash a "river of blood" to bring her back to life. Michael accommodates this wish, but now we have a clear motivational window onto his homicidal soul: he's a Momma's Boy extraordinaire. Accordingly, Halloween 2 may just be the biggest paean to mother love in the horror genre since Hitchcock's Psycho (1960).

It is perhaps strange to talk about violence being enjoyable or entertaining, or suspenseful, but the violence in previous Halloween films has always been depicted at a more removed, subtle, culturally decent level. Carpenter's initial film relied on suspense (and musical zingers), not blood shed, to achieve terror. And the most of the follow-up films didn't linger on the suffering of Michael's victims either. Zombie also turns this franchise convention upside down

Early in the film, we follow Annie -- wounded by Myers --to the hospital, and watch in nauseating, realistic close-up as the doctors wash, drain, sew-up and otherwise tend to her knife wounds. It is a document of misery. And it goes on for several minutes. Is it realistic? Yes. Is it pleasant to watch? No.

Similarly, Michael proves not merely violent in this film, but brutally sadistic: he literally turns one victim's face into unrecognizable pulp. And though, in Halloween, there was dialogue indicating that Michael Myers ate a dog, Zombie decides to show us that feast here. He cross-cuts between a scene of Dourif chowing down pizza, pretending to be a neanderthal man, with Michael Myers ripping apart the flesh of a dead dog...and eating it. Again, it's not scary...just kind of nauseating.

The grounds to which to dislike Halloween 2 are all here in abundance. The "fun" horror of Halloween has been replaced by a lingering, gruesome close-up view of pain, suffering and death. Who could possibly find "enjoyment" in that?

And the heroic characters we have lived with and grown up with for thirty years -- Loomis and Strode, particularly -- are made not just into more fallible, recognizable humans, but utterly despicable ones.

And sans his iconic mask -- and now given to primal grunts of effort during his kills -- Myers is no longer a mythic, larger-than-life threat. He's just a run of the mill Dahmer or Bundy.

The Shape no more. The Bogeyman no more. This Michael is mankind as the ultimate monster.

Given all this, it is difficult to imagine someone who has liked other Halloween films liking this one. Zombie's movie -- the tenth in the durable and now predictable horror franchise -- wilfully and determinedly undercuts every image, every character, every concept of the property as it has existed for three decades. Anyone expecting a fun, jolting horror experience will be disappointed. This film is a bucket of cold water in the face.

Yet at the same time, I found Halloween 2 absolutely absorbing. It is undeniably the unfettered vision of one committed, empowered artist. It is uncluttered by committee-thinking; unburdened by the desire to please the audience, and it is absolutely extraordinary in terms of the visuals, and especially the editing. As a critic, I often deride horror movies that take the safe route; the run-of-the-mill, conventional approach. You can't accuse Rob Zombie of that pitfall here. Nothing in Halloween 2 is run-of-the-mill. So while the whole movie feels like you've spent two hours circling a dirty toilet bowl, it's an exquisitely-filmed toilet bowl. Zombie has a great eye for every nauseating, degenerate detail. His world feels real, complete and powerful.

So yes, Halloween 2 is skanky, skeezy, corrupt, degenerate and excessive. But you know what? I really admired it once I accepted it. I couldn't let go of John Carpenter's Halloween while watching Zombie's 2007 remake, in part because Zombie re-staged much of the action from the classic 1978 picture in slavish -- and inferior -- detail. His original "vision" was corrupted by his need to pay homage to what Carpenter clearly did better.

Wisely, Zombie's Halloween 2 doesn't imitate Carpenter's work (or the 1981 sequel) in any substantive fashion after an early chase in a hospital. Instead, Zombie freely pursues his inner demons and does his own thing with a minimum of creative interference. Pleasence's Loomis and Curtis's Strode couldn't exist in this cinematic hell...but the beauty of that is that they don't have to. Zombie populates his Halloween 2 with the "people" he sees in that world, and while I would never, ever want to live in that world, it's all of a particular piece. It's unified ugliness, at least.

Furthermore, Zombie provides two pitch-perfect scenes that argue cogently for this franchise's right to exist in this dark, depressing realm. I didn't expect intellectual gamesmanship from Zombie, not when he so frequently prefers a bludgeon, but it's there in glorious detail.

In the first instance, Zombie stages a scene between Laurie and her psychologist in the office. Behind them,on the wall hangs a big Rorschach poster. It is white in the center, black around the edges. Laurie is asked what she sees in it, and she replies that she sees a white horse (a reflection of Michael's vision of his mother). Fine. But if you look closely at that Rorschach spot, there's something else the audience sees: a big white spot, with two black "eyes."

What we are looking at, no doubt, is a kind of Rorschach version of Michael Myers' famous Shatner mask. It is a ghostly white face...upon which our fear is reflected. Laurie's psychologist establishes the blot could be "whatever you think it is," and that is Zombie's specific "out" in choosing and executing this narrative, stylistic path. He has looked at the Rorschach-like mask of the Shape and then written this movie based on what he saw. In his head. This vision of Michael Myers is what Zombie imagined in the lines of that famous, Rorschach-like mask.

Later in Halloween 2, there's a scene in which Annie, Laurie and Sheriff Brackett share a pizza together for dinner. Brackett starts to discuss the great actor Lee Marvin, and the actor's fantastic, colorful, romantic films of the 1960s-1970s: Cat Ballou, The Professionals, Paint Your Wagon. Well, the two teenagers sharing this conversation with Brackett look as though he has just shit diarrhea on their dinner. They don't know who Lee Marvin is; and furthermore, they don't care. That artificial world of musicals, westerns and movie decorum is as distant to today's youth as is Ancient Latin. That's not the world they live in. That's not the world this movie lives in either.

Again, this is Zombie's studied and important comment upon the Halloween mythos. John Carpenter's Halloween -- with all its brilliant 1970s film values -- is the Lee Marvin in this particular comparison. It is something well-remembered by the older generation but something that -- Zombie suggests -- doesn't carry cultural currency or relevant meaning in the world of today's youth. Musicals are gone. Artifice is gone. Romance is gone. What we have today is ugly, naturalistic entertainment for an ugly world. Zombie seems to understand that fact, and this scene spells it out quite explicitly. In a sense, this Lee Marvin metaphor justifies Zombie's approach to Halloween 2.

In terms of his visuals and editing, Zombie is truly audacious. He intercuts Brackett's discovery of Annie's corpse with home movies of Annie as a happy little girl. It's a breathtaking, and enormously affecting conceit. Without a doubt, it makes you "feel" the impact of this death more than just about any other in the Halloween film cycle. You understand what loss feels like for Brackett. It's heart-rending.

At other times, Zombie ramps up the violence during Michael's rampages so that the very film stock itself seems to convulse and spasm with rage. It's like we're tied into Myer's pulse itself. Some scenes with Michael Myers traversing beautiful natural landscapes alone, or walking through town by moonlight are positively lyrical in presentation. Lastly, the film's final coda -- accompanied by the unexpected and ironic strains of "Love Hurts" -- synthesizes everything we need to understand about this Zombie universe: the pain, agony and psychosis of a life destroyed by violence; of violence brought on by love and hate

Let me be clear: I would never make a Halloween movie like this. I don't prefer my Halloween movies like this. But it's my job as a critic to give the devil his due: there's something enormously absorbing, immersing and impactful about this die-hard approach to the Halloween universe. There are, indeed, moments of pure genius in this movie. It's widely regarded as a fiasco, I realize, but the director's cut that I watched is a fascinating and bloody work of art.

Once more, my therapist wife Kathryn helped me clarify my thoughts about a movie. After Halloween 2 ended (and after a moment or two of stunned silence), I asked her what she thought. She said "It was absolutely amazing....and I never, ever, EVER want to see it again."

That's exactly how I feel. There are aspects of this one-of-a-kind film that should be lauded (the style; the editing, the unity of vision). But I never ever want to re-visit this hateful, corrupt, hopeless world.

In Carpenter's universe, the terror is iconic; Michael Myers is the Bogeyman and Dr. Loomis is St. George slaying the dragon. In Zombie's universe, hardcore, bitter reality has replaced such mythic touches to produce a grounded "real" Halloween for our times.

I worry for our times.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

CULT TV FLASHBACK #97: Harper's Island (2009)

In the annals of terror television history, we've seen vampiric soap operas (Dark Shadows, Kindred: The Embraced), paranormal investigations (The X-Files; Fringe), monsters-of-the-week (Kolchak: The Night Stalker), and even a super-powered "final girl" kicking demonic butt (Buffy the Vampire Slayer).

But Ari Schlossberg's Harper Island -- which aired in prime time last year on CBS -- is the first and only attempt I can recall that faithfully adapts the 1980s slasher movie paradigm to a weekly dramatic format.

It's an interesting and brash experiment: all thirteen hour-long episodes of this drama tell --essentially-- the equivalent of one highly-detailed slasher story. Accordingly, the series skillfully deploys the familiar symbols, misdirections and tricks of the paradigm popularized by such films as Halloween, Prom Night, Friday the 13th, My Bloody Valentine, as well as more recent additions to the sub-genre, including Scream (1996) and I Know What You Did Last Summer (1997).

The central narrative (or organizing principle) of Harper's Island involves wedding nuptials: the union of two different "classes" on the small coastal island off Washington State.

Wealthy socialite Trish Wellington (Katie Cassidy) -- a so-called "swell" plans to marry seasonal "worker"/fisherman Henry Dunn (Christopher Gorham). And her tyrannical father (Richard Burgi) is none too pleased about that.

With huge wedding party in tow -- both groomsmen and bridesmaids -- the youngsters descend upon the island, party beyond all reason, and plan for the big day. Also returning to Harper's Island for the first time in seven years is Abby Mills (Elaine Cassidy), Henry's best friend and childhood playmate.

Why has Abby been away from home so long? Well, in keeping with the slasher paradigm, it's "the transgression" or "crime in the past" that holds the answer. Seven years ago, an unstoppable bogeyman named John Wakefield (Callum Keith Rennie) went on a killing spree on the island, and massacred several people with a head spade (a fishing device used for decapitating whales...). On his spree, Wakefield hanged Abby's mother (Sarah-Jane Redmond), and basically destroyed the economy of the island in the process. Abby's dad is the island's sheriff, and he supposedly killed Wakefield (think Harry Warden). But to this day, the Sheriff is obsessed with Wakefield.

Then, on the week of Trish and Henry's wedding, Wakefield-style killings begin again on Harper's Island -- using the head spade (and the killer's m.o. of hanging...), and soon all the would-be victims suspects that a) Wakefield isn't dead. Or b.) there's a copycat in the wedding party.

Also in keeping with the slasher paradigm, the villain of Harper's Island is a mad killer or bogeyman who has been wronged and suffered a terrible transgression or crime. This act/crime in the past is the precipitating factor in "flipping" said individual from normal to homicidal (think Friday the 13th, Mrs. Voorhees, and her vendetta against camp counselors after their negligence towards her son in 1958).

Other characters here are also pulled right off the slasher concept anyway. We have bitches (sassy, attitudinal and pulchritudinous young women...) in the bridesmaid party, plus practical jokers and smarmy jocks like Sully (Matt Barr) on Henry's side. These characters form much of the initial victim pool. The series also offers a Cassandra figure and final girl in tortured Abby; a personality who warns people again and again that Wakefield is back, but is met with disbelief or skepticism.

Also in accordance with the familiar slasher formula, the first big death in the series premiere (after the gory face severing by boat propeller...) involves a well-known but affordable celebrity: guest star Harry Hamlin (as Uncle Marty). Again, think Drew Barrymore in Scream.

There's plenty of partying here too, so vice precedes slice and dice, . And did I mention that there are multiple red herrings? Clues point away from the culprit, there are blind alleys about stolen "drug money" and other assorted sub-plots that keep us off the trail of the real killer and off-balance as the murders pile up.

And finally, what Harper's Island truly concerns is family matters (think Laurie Strode as Michael Myers' sister...). The new quasi-Wakefield murder spree centers around relations; relatives and family members both known and secret.

The other conceit here is that every week, a major character dies...horribly. No exceptions. And the episodes are (amusingly) titled after the sound of the week's brutal demise. Thus various installments are titled "Thwack," "Sploosh," "Gurgle," "Seep," "Snap," Splash" and my personal, macabre favorite: "Thack, Splat, Sizzle."

So indeed, Harper's Island is a knowing slasher pastiche, and the pertinent question becomes this: why extend the repetitive, narrow slasher formula (usually limited to 90 minutes, tops) to a duration six or seven times as long? The answer is simple: characterization.

Oftentimes (at least in the lesser examples), slasher movies are accused of featuring cookie-cutter characters of limited dimension. Yet the 13 hours of Harper's Island allow for a deeper sense of identification; so that audiences truly get to know and like some of the victims; the people we're "losing" on a regular basis. It's not such a big deal in the early episodes, when you don't know the victim so well. But by episodes 11 thru 13, when the head spade falls (always rigidly between the 37 and 40 minute point...), you feel authentic terror and remorse as you realize only few characters are left; and you're likely going to lose somebody you care about. I should add that Harper's Island boasts a mean streak a mile wide, doesn't play favorites, and almost never relies on narrative cheats. It's...relentless.

The thirteen episode format provides Harper's Island with some great and entirely unexpected character development, actually. The aforementioned Sully starts out like every obnoxious frat guy you've ever seen in a slasher movie since Reagan was in office, but by the end of the series becomes something quite different. And there are two great characters - Chloe (Cameron Richardson) and Cal (Adam Campbell) -- that you will absolutely fall in love with over the span of the series. Even Trish -- the spoiled little rich girl -- ultimately proves to be a figure far more tragic and touching than her shallow character description would indicate.

The danger in extending the slasher movie formula to a thirteen week series is, of course, that the writers lose focus; that the sense of danger dissipates; and that the blind alleys take away from the overall pace. Surprisingly, Harper's Island very ably avoids these pitfalls. One subplot involving drug money that starts out as the reddest of red herrings has a throwaway punctuation that is breathtaking, ironic, and pretty damn clever.

Harper's Island also attempts to adhere to the realm of plausibility as much as possible given the permutations of the format. For instance, is never really explained in most slasher films how bogeymen like Jason or Harry Warden always manage to get to the right place at the right time -- unseen and unnoticed - to kill the one victim who happens to be vulnerable at that instant. In this series, the killer utilizes a series of tunnels honeycombing the island, built during the Prohibition Era. Perhaps not a perfect solution, but at least reality is addressed.

I can't (and won't) make the argument that Harper's Island is deep, artistic, or socially relevant. All I can say is that - if watched in its entirety over the course of a few days -- the series proves highly diverting, and entertaining. It's a kick. As my wife Kathryn said when we finished the final episode: "I can't believe I'm saying this. But that was really, really fun..."

So bottom line: Harper's Island is a bloody (and really, really gory...) riot. It's perfectly structured, so that you unwittingly respond like Pavlov's Dog every time the 37 minute mark hits, wondering who is going to die next. The last two episodes are titled "Gasp" and "Sigh," and are perfectly named. A fter the final credits roll, you kind of catch your breath, shake your head, and fight the urge to giggle. Audacious and creative, Harper's Island is gloriously violent, gleefully frivolous, and a hell of a good time.

Monday, January 11, 2010

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: Jennifer's Body (2009)

"Hell is a teenage girl."

-- Anita "Needy" (Amanda Seyfried) waxes philosophical in Jennifer's Body (2009)

Well, here's a toughie...

The funny quote about teenage girls -- excerpted at the top of this review -- reflects the element I most appreciated about Jennifer's Body (2009), a bracing, black horror-comedy from writer Diablo Cody and director Karyn Kusama.

In the spirit of that line, Jennifer's Body is droll, cynical, harsh-to-the-max, and undeniably clever.

However, the film doesn't quite work as a horror piece, and the pervasive (if delightful politically-incorrect...) humor engenders an overall sense of distance from the material.

Indeed, many aspects of the film's narrative are handled with such kookiness that the viewer ends up feeling wholly removed from the characters and their dilemmas. Some viewers may interpret this sense of distance from the nuts-and-bolts horror aspects of the film as actually making fun of the genre. Which probably explains why so many horror-conscious critics panned Jennifer's Body. Some viewed the piece as a slap in the face. And they may have a point: for horror to work well, it can't be scatter shot and inconsistent; you can't just throw anything and everything at the screen and hope it all sticks (unless you're Sam Raimi engineering a blood flood).

Yet, Jennifer's Body boasts something I find infinitely valuable in horror films: a distinctive world original voice. Too many horror movies today rely on recycled world-views and conventional wisdom, and Jennifer's Body, for all the flaws it plainly evidences is determinedly different. Although it is garbed in the costume of a horror film, the movie's purpose is plainly satire in the mold of Juvenal, meaning it is contemptuous, abrasive, savage and in-your-face.

Personally, I wholeheartedly approve of that.

Here, the target is America's high school culture and the changes mores of our young people. Specifically, the film involves a floundering, obscure indie band, Low Shoulder, that can't make it big and thus resorts to Satanism for dummies to achieve fifteen minutes of fame. Such Satanism requires the sacrifice of a virgin, only the band can't find one...

Surely, this is exactly how Ashlee Simpson, Paris Hilton, the Gosselins and other non-talents achieved their place in the spotlight...right?

Rather daringly, Jennifer's Body also contemptuously gazes at our society's tendency to first rubberneck at human disaster; and then move on with touchy-feely, popcorn platitudes and mock catharsis. We saw it after Columbine; we saw it after 9/11 too. Between endless, exploitative footage of bloodied students at a high school shooting or the Twin Towers falling down, the news networks spouted truisms about "faith," "American strength," traditional values," etc. We were thus permitted to gawk at tragedy, and then turn around and feel good about ourselves. Yay us!

In Jennifer's Body, Cody comments on one town's "tragedy boner" after a tragic bar fire (brought on by the Satanists' agenda), and the media's obsession with the least until another tragedy comes along. Then, when it's time for someone else's fifteen minutes of fame, "sorrow" proves to be "last week's emotion" in the town of Devil's Kettle. The movie even delves into the strange myths that the media creates and perpetuates during such national tragedies. Remember how CNN reported on a non-existent Trench coat Mafia at Columbine? Or told us how one brave Christian girl dared to tell the Columbine killers she believed in God before she was shot? Pure fiction both. Here, the pure fiction is that the band Low Shoulder bravely rescued townspeople from the fire. Of course, this myth just makes the performers that much more famous. They even give the tragedy a theme song...

Jennifer's Body
also gazes at our society's disturbing trend of sexualizing younger and younger females; the way that attire, pop music, and societal expectations transform adolescent girls into powerful objects of male sexual desire. That's almost precisely what vapid Jennifer (Megan Fox) becomes after becoming inhabited by a demon.

Only this sex object bites back.

In the end, when some of Jennifer's power (not the evil part, I guess..) is transplanted into nerdy Anita, the movie provides an unmistakable message of female empowerment; a taking back and controlling of the mini-skirted, skinny, bare-midriff Bratz/Britney Spears image society relentlessly forces on our young girls. If you think I'm making too much of this trend, go to any Target or Wal Mart store and just take a gander at the clothes being designed and marketed to ten year old girls. You won't doubt me. It makes me glad I'm raising a boy, not a girl. (And hell, I'm a liberal...)

Jennifer Body's secret weapon is Megan Fox, who -- let's face it -- has been a willing vehicle for the exploitation of the young female form in pop culture cinema. As such, she's perfect in the role of wolf in sheep's clothing. Only Nixon could go to China, and all that. And I'll say this for any doubters: Fox can act. Her performance here is quite accomplished because it takes the material at face value and doesn't camp it up, which would have been disastrous. Instead, Fox cheerily spouts the most cynical, filthy, sexual dialogue you can imagine, and does it with the aura and attitude of total naivete and youth. At one point, she discusses the physical after-effects of anal sex with the wondrous, guilelessness...of a virgin; a paradoxical contradiction. When demonically possessed of voracious appetites, Fox's Jennifer is a warning to the youth-obsessed, male-dominated culture that inappropriately sexualizes these girls: be careful what you wish for.

Given the message of female empowerment and the distinctive mode of communication here (Cody's zippy, pop-culture heavy dialogue), Jennifer's Body is clearly this generation's answer to the original Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1992) -- the movie, not the TV show. And interestingly, it shares in common that old movie's central flaw: it isn't scary in the slightest. Jennifer's Body makes the terminal mistake of playing the villains and their evil plans for laughs. Rutger Hauer and Pee Wee Herman kind of camped it up in Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1992) and the result was that the bottom fell out of the satire; the horror wasn't grounded in anything genuinely horrific. Though Fox doesn't play her villainous role in campy fashion, the movie's other villains -- a group of "emo" "Satanists with awesome hair cuts" -- are so silly, so over-the-top, so obvious, that -- again -- the bottom falls out of the movie. There's no sense of menace. Without it, the movie just kind of bops from one set-piece to another, with half-thought-out ideas taking the forefront. For instance, Anita is mildly psychic..sometimes.

I would also be remiss if I didn't point out a lesbian kiss late in the film that -- entirely contrary to the movie's thematic point --panders the male culture's interest in seeing two hot women get it on.

I understand that there's been a kind of backlash against Diablo Cody; the belief that Cody's dialogue is too hip; too glib. I disagree: the dialogue is the best thing about Jennifer's Body, in tandem with Fox's blunt delivery. This may be a matter of subjective taste, but I would rather watch a film witha distinctive (even if occasionally annoying) voice, than a cookie-cutter product extruded from the Hollywood assembly line. Finally, I'll offer this caveat: Jennifer's Body may play better a few years from now, once we've separated ourselves from this particular moment in history and can thus more easily detect the very context that Jennifer's Body satirizes.

So how's this for a guarded recommendation: Jennifer's Body is "freaktarded." It' a pretty good comedy and a pretty lousy horror film.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

A Matter of Order: A Survey of Anti-Matter Men in Classic TV Space Adventures

One concept that has obsessed the writers of space adventure television over the decades involves a tricky substance (or anti-substance?) known as anti-matter.

Here's a short, simple (and hopefully accurate...) definition of anti-matter: it's a substance that, when combined with an equal amount of matter, converts all substance to energy.

Also, every particle of matter has a corresponding anti-particle of anti-matter. Got it?

Anti-matter actually exists in our galaxy, but is relatively rare. For instance, NASA has reported the existence of an anti-matter cloud 10,000 lights across -- one generating the energy equivalent of 10,000 suns -- near galactic center. (If it hasn't been named, may I humbly suggest: "The Great Barrier...?")

Encoded in this definition and concept of anti-matter is the tantalizing seed of dramatic invention. If every particle of matter boasts an opposite anti-particle of anti-matter, then we all possess anti-matter duplicates, right?

And if we possess anti-matter duplicates, that must mean that there is an anti-matter universe where all our anti-matter counterparts dwell, no? See? The possibilities in storytelling are endless. Consider, would an anti-matter duplicate of yourself have your personality, or the antithesis -- the negative -- of your personality?

There's an implicit and dramatic danger inherent in the concept of anti-matter too: if matter and anti-matter should touch, utter annihilation (energy output...) results (likely in the form of x-rays and gamma rays, I think...). So, if we should extend our reach into the world of anti-matter, would man acquire knowledge, or only actualize his own self-destruction?

The Alternative Factor: Everything Within Range of Our Instruments Almost Winked Out...

Gene Roddenberry's Star Trek (1966-1969) was one of the first genre TV series to tackle the concept -- and the dramatic possibilities -- of anti-matter. In terms of background information, we learned in the classic series that the starship Enterprise was powered by the energy created from a matter/anti-matter intermix reaction in Scotty's beloved engines.

But anti-matter itself became a central plot point in a first season episode entitled "The Alternative Factor." In this story by Don Ingalls and directed by Gerd Oswald, the Enterprise (on stardate 3087.6) experiences a cosmic winking out -- a literal brush with cosmic non-existence. The terrible phenomenon is felt in every quadrant of the galaxy simultaneously, and seems to center on the very planet the Enterprise is orbiting. Kirk and crew soon encounter on the planet surface a madman, a humanoid named Lazarus (Robert Brown), who claims to be hunting a "creature" who is "anti-life," who "lives to destroy."

Spock and Kirk soon deduce that Lazarus is actually stalking his own counter-part from an opposite universe; an anti-matter universe. Worse, if the two Lazarus counterparts should meet -- in either physical universe -- both universes will be destroyed. It will be the end of all existence. Everywhere.

"The Alternative Factor" also posits a bridge between matter and anti-matter universes; a a kind of "magnetic corridor" or "safety valve that keeps eternity from winking out." For a being of the "minus" universe to enter the "positive" universe (and vice-versa...) this safety valve must first be breached. "The Alternative Factors" resolves with Captain Kirk trapping both Lazarus counterparts in that safety valve for all eternity; essentially destroying the only entrance and exits (Lazarus's time ship, which is powered by dilithium crystals) with the ship's mighty phaser banks. There, in that sealed-off safety valve. the good and evil Lazarus will battle for all eternity, but matter and anti-matter universes will be safe, at least.

The name "Lazarus" originates from a Hebrew word or name, meaning, essentially "God's Assistant," and that's the role that Lazarus explicitly plays in "The Alternative Factor." Or, at least one Lazarus fulfills that role. In offering to spend an eternity at the mercy of his evil self, the good Lazarus preserves all of God's handiwork: creation itself, for all time.

The word "Lazarus" -- in science -- also refers to a thing or organism that is mysteriously resurrected after being believed dead. The Lazarus of Star Trek also fits that particular bill. Here, Lazarus re-appears on his home planet generations after all his people have disappeared...after they have become extinct due to the matter/anti-matter conflict. So Lazarus is resurrected in the far future of his own time-line; after his very race is dead.

What remains most interesting about "The Alternative Factor," -- which is generally considered a weak episode of classic Trek -- is that, in keeping with the series' humanist, psychological bent -- the resolution of the cosmic, existential crisis comes from humanoid sacrifice and selflessness. The entire universe -- all of creation itself -- is preserved by the act of one mortal man. There is no God or God Being controlling this universe; but rather a fallible man who has "sacrificed" himself for the rest of us.

Ironically, this also means that all successive generations of Star Trek exist in a universe wherein existence itself is held in the delicate hands of one, fallible man (Lazarus). We have occasionally seen in Star Trek how Starfleet has issued a few draconian directives: the Omega Directive (which results in a search and destroy mission should a particle of a substance called Omega be discovered...) and the General Order that establishes a death penalty should any Starfleet officer visit the planet Talos IV. Given the fragility of the universe itself, and Lazarus's importance to that survival, it seems that every Starfleet captain would have standing orders to kill him on sight, should he re-appear. Why? Because if Lazarus ever meets his counterpart in our space (or negative space...) all is destroyed.

In the case of Star Trek's "The Alternative Factor," we learn something about the structure of existence itself: an anti-matter universe exists; and a bridge to that universe exists too. Ultimately, dealing with either is playing with fire. Exploring the anti-matter realm (or even opening the door to the anti-matter realm) is equated literally with letting the genie (or Lazarus) out of the bottle.

Planet of Evil: You've Come to the End of Your Piece of Elastic

In 1975, during the Tom Baker years, the Time Lord known as the Doctor also had a brush with anti-matter and the order of existence. The serial was called "Planet of Evil" and it was written by Louis Marks. In the year 37,166, on the planet Zeta Minor, "at the very edge of the known universe," a fallible Morestran scientist named Sorenson (Frederick Jaeger) has discovered what he believes to be an energy source that can replace his planet's dying sun. That inexhaustible supply of energy comes from -- you guessed it -- anti-matter.

When Sorenson attempts to leave Zeta Minor with several canisters of anti-matter crystals in his possession, his action activates a kind of Monster from the Anti-Matter universe whose job it is to retrieve those crystals. The creature arises from a gaping black pit on the jungle surface of the planet, and it carries out this mission with murderous intensity...even able to hold a powerful spaceship in orbit. The Doctor unwittingly falls into the pit on Zeta Minor, but is able to engineer a truce: the return of the anti-matter fcrystals or the safe evacuation of the Morestran rescue ship.

Also, in a Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde touch, Sorenson physically changes due to his exposure to the anti-matter crystals. He is "infected" by the anti-matter, his "brain cells" destroyed, rendering him a "murderous brute." In other words, he pays the price for tampering in the order of things.

As in the case of "The Alternative Factor," the universe of Doctor Who thus posits an anti-matter universe "opposite" to our own domain of matter. Here, there is not a magnetic corridor or safety valve to reckon with, but rather the black, bottomless pit, which seems to bridge universes too. And again, we get the implicit notion of an ordered existence. Anti-matter is to remain in the anti-matter universe (or on the cusp of the anti-matter universe: Zeta Minor) no matter what, and there are mechanisms in place to assure that is so (the rampaging monster). When man (or Morestran) transgresses this law, he activates the mechanism that keeps matter and anti-matter from combining in annihilation.

Matter Never Dies: Life and Death, Balance and Imbalance.

The denizens of Moonbase Alpha twice had brushes with anti-matter life-forms in the series Space:1999 (1975 - 1977). In the first season episode by Johnny Byrne (based on a story by Art Wallace) -- "Matter of Life and Death," --- an anti-matter sentinel takes the form of Helena Russell's husband, Lee (Richard Johnson) and cryptically warns the wandering Alphans not to settle on a planet of anti-matter called Terra Nova.

In the episode's final act, after the sentinel's warning is ignored, we see what Doctor Who and Star Trek only hinted at: total, absolute, fiery annihilation. On the surface of Terra Nova, the planet is ravaged by earthquakes, and the Alphan exploration party is killed. In space, the moon itself explodes. All is lost. Fortunately, a last minute re-set occurs after Lee Russell appears to Helena again and warns her not to let Commander John Koenig make the same mistake twice. Terra Nova cannot be their home; physical laws must be obeyed at all costs. Order must be restored and matter and anti-matter must remain forever separae.

In the second season episode, "A Matter of Balance," -- set 1702 days after the moon's breakaway from Earth -- an anti-matter population is far less helpful (and forgiving) than Lee Russell was. A sinister alien named Vindrus (Stuart Wilson) of the planet Sunim ("Minus" spelled backwards) exeutes a plan to drag the Alphans into the anti-matter universe. This is necessary because the anti-matter universe is a true opposite to ours: instead of evolving "forward" it is a time before the big bang and to non-existence itself. Eventually, according to Vindrus, all life in his anti-matter universe will "revert" to the primordial slime of pre-existence. Thus Vindrus hopes to land the Alphans in this degenerating universe of death. But to do so, Vindrus must obey the laws of nature: he must maintain "balance." For every Sunim individual who comes into the matter universe, one Alphan must be transported to the anti-matter universe in place.

In both of these Space:1999 stories the underlying principal is the order of the universe; the belief that physical laws that must be obeyed if existence is to continue chugging along as it is. Even the villain, Vindrus must obey the laws of the universe, in this case, preserving a balance. And Lee Russell was, in a sense, preserving order as well: keeping matter out of contact with anti-matter on a remote world.

In each of these four examples of sci-fi programs featuring anti-matter then, there is an unspoken law that seems corollary to the old sci-fi movie canard "do not tamper in God's domain." Only in these cases, it is not God or a supreme being that is being tampered with, but the nature of existence itself. Each story posits a brand of "repair" mechanism that can heal existence if man is foolish enough to tamper: a safety valve between universes ("The Alternative Favtor"), a monster that collects anti-matter should it be dispersed in the matter universe ("Planet of Evil"), a lonely sentinel warning against matter-anti-matter mixing ("A Matter of Life and Death"") and even a physical law of "one for one" that prohibts large scale crossing over of universes or realities ("A Matter of Balance.")

Other space adventure programming of the classic period (1965 - 1980) also deployed anti-matter as a narrative device. A Lost in Space episode entitled "The Anti-Matter Man" (written by Sutton Roley and airing December 27, 1967) created a villainous doppelganger of Professor Robinson, one who casts no shadow and is a "bad father." In this case, opposite or "anti-matter" was equated not just with being "negative" in physical nature, but evil in psychological nature (like the mad Lazarus of "The Alternative Factor.") The balance that was restored was not just universal; but personal...the balance of the nuclear family.

Each in uinque fashion, Star Trek, Doctor Who, Space:1999 and Lost in Space viewed Anti-Matter universes and Anti-Matter Men as forces of disorder; ones that threatened the very existence of our universe. These were forces better left alone, or at least respected, the various series concluded. One might extrapolate this edict as a kind of "space" environmental message. A warning not to plunder resources we don't understand; not to harness an energy source more dangerous than "nuclear fission," as the Doctor described anti-matter. When we go forward into the mysteries of space; we must tread responsibly.

Albert Einstein once wrote that "there is no logical way to the discovery" of elemental laws; that there is "only the way of intution, which is helped by a feeling for the order lying behind the appearance." Every one of these fictional TV encounters with anti-matter may be scientifically inccurate, even occasionally ridiculous, yet each narrative helps us to understand -- through intuition and imagination -- the "feeling of order" behind the existence of anti-matter; behind the secret order of the universe itself.