We Call It the Ego Trip: Total Recall

November 6, 2011

I think my heart may actually have broken a little when I heard a remake of Total Recall (1990) was in the works.

I’m not one to typically condemn them off the bat; people tend to forget John Carpenter’s brilliant The Thing (1982) was itself a remake of The Thing from Another World (1951) while recently Let Me In (2010) proved to be surprisingly good localisation of Let the Right One In (2008), so why the outrage here you might ask? Another Arnie actioner from two decades ago, with excessive amounts of violence, explosions and – of course – one liners. What exactly is there to get so fired up about?

Well the film is smart. Not obviously so – indeed it actively attempts to hide it beneath the carnage and set pieces – but certainly more intelligent than the incendiary wrapping paper might have you believe. Much like Paul Verhoeven’s earlier Robocop it performs that remarkable sci-fi movie balancing act, delivering the high thrill entertainment craved by masses without insulting its audience’s intelligence either. Brains and Brawn if you will.

As usual I’ll be taking an analytical rather than ‘reviewer’ approach here, so if you haven’t seen Total Recall read on with caution.

The setup for the story is lifted almost directly from Philip K Dick short story ‘We Can Remember It for You Wholesale’ (1966) with dissatisfied construction worker Douglas Quaid (Schwarzenegger) visiting the company ‘Rekall’ for a memory implant – a sort of futuristic supersavers alternative to a real holiday, providing fake memories of a seemingly real vacation with the added thrill of an adopted persona, in this case a secret agent.

From this point onwards the original short descended into typical PK Dick territory as our protagonist stumbles upon a series of increasingly outlandish buried memories, making it tempting to bemoan how the film differs by heading into more familiar conspiracy-thriller territory. With Quaid revealed to really be a brainwashed secret agent the action kicks into gear and Schwarzenegger is naturally given a chance to flex his muscles; always fun, always predictable…

Or not as it turns out. In spite of all this a layered narrative gradually emerges, which manages to remain remarkably true to the paranoid spirit of Dick’s writing. The film has a pair of twists (spoilerphobes you have been warned), one of which forms an integral part of the plot and another which lurks in the background.

Heading to Mars as instructed by a recording of his former self ‘Hauser’, Quaid blindly pursues the truth that was erased from his head and covered up by the colony’s corporate tyrant Cohagaan, hooking up with resistance fighters, their mutant leader Kuato and his former lover Melina in the process. The major and obvious twist is his discovery that as Hauser he worked with Cohagaan, the brainwashing being planned to help him infiltrate the resistance and find Kuato as “the perfect mole”.

As might be expected though ‘Quaid’ is effectively a different person at this stage minus Hauser’s memories and proceeds to destroy the corporate monopoly on the planet regardless; having discovered the aforementioned ‘truth’ that an oxygen producing alien reactor was excavated but left off by Cohagaan to preserve control, he forcibly activates it and frees Mars giving the red planet a blue sky. Another straight forward case of Arnie saves the day. Right? Wrong.

About halfway through the film the spokesman for Rekall Dr. Edgemar visits Quaid – along with his formerly murderous fake wife – and attempts to convince him everything that’s followed his botched memory implant is a delusion, having never left the chair he was strapped in for the procedure:

It’s all cast aside – violently – as an elaborate bit of deception as movie switches back to the main plot, but is there any assurance that this is reality? As Quaid himself puts it just before the ending credits “what if this is a dream?” There’s no shocking reveal of Quaid lobotomised in the implant chair as I’m sure there would (will) be were the film made today. It seemingly delivers a typical Hollywood ending, but upon repeated viewings subtle little clues start to become apparent supporting the idea that this is indeed a fantasy.

Take the line Edgemar yells at Quaid in the video: “The walls of reality will come crashing down around you. One minute, you’re the savior of the rebel cause; next thing you know, you’ll be Cohaagen’s bosom buddy. You’ll even have fantasies about alien civilizations.” In effect this has just outlined the plot for the remainder of the film. It’s fleeting but the accuracy of the prediction is uncanny.

Other visual cues strengthen this idea with mirror images becoming a running motif in possible suggestion of the other, illusion or desired image. The architecture adds as well with a notably sharp contrast between Earth and Mars; the former being all flat modernist concrete the latter being far more chaotic, ramshackle and interesting – a tonal shift which emphasises the excitement Quaid becomes involved with compared to the boredom of his previous life.

The biggest clue however is somewhat daringly hidden right at start of the film, specifically during the trip to Rekall. While they’re setting up the implant there’s a throwaway line from a background technician, partially spoken over by a doctor: “That’s a new one, blue sky on Mars.” This reference blows the conclusion of the film wide open, almost unshakably proving the delusional angle and yet somehow I missed it until my third viewing.

More interesting than the twist itself perhaps is what it means for the overblown antics which form this delusion. Rather than the crusading hero we are presented with the sad fantasy of a married man, trapped in a dead end job and longing to be something more. The salesman at Rekall even refers to the implant package as “the ego trip.” As a man who built a career on fulfilling masculine power fantasies in his adrenaline fuelled pictures, casting Arnold Schwarzenegger as Quaid results in a double edged portrayal – serving up wish fulfilment with an undermining edge of self parody. The action junkies get what they want but these are knowing, ironic thrills served with a pinch of salt.

Total Recall isn’t typically considered cyberpunk, but while it may lack the usual ‘high technology, low humanity’ focus its metaphysical undertones (and basis in Philip K Dick, a precursor to the genre) makes me think otherwise. Either way, it definitely helped pave the way for plenty of other intelligent sci-fi blockbusters which followed; The Matrix (1999) featured a ‘red pill’ much like the one offered by Edgemar to return to realty and it’s hard not to compare the similarity in theme and structure to the recent Inception (2010).

Why don’t I want a remake? Because there was nothing which needed fixing with the original; a guilty pleasure which isn’t really guilty, providing excitement for the eyes and stimulation for the intellect. Proof that science fiction cinema can keep both camps happy.

Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth

October 19, 2011

It’s been a while since a work of fiction has given me nightmares. Before I crashed head first into puberty just about anything could scare me, with glimpses of TV past 9 p.m. or the child catcher liable to provoke frantic checks under the bed and a flashlight clamped within sweaty hands for the next few evenings. Still as time presses on and experience adds up one can’t help but be desensitized to the scares of old, making the genuinely horrific all the more memorable for its scarcity.

So it is that when I say Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth (1989) is the stuff of nightmares, I mean it. This is less heroic empowerment fantasy and more intense psychological horror.

The 80’s had already seen one industry grabbing reinvention of Batman in the form of Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns (1986) but it would perhaps be more accurate considering Arkham to be a deconstruction of the iconic crime fighter. For the most part, in spite of the Caped Crusader’s presence this rarely feels like a hero comic; casting off the usual adventure elements in pursuit of something much more surreal and disturbing.

The writer Grant Morrison – now a well renowned industry figure – describes the comic as being a reaction to the ‘very literal, “realistic” “left brain” treatment of superheroes’ which had become popularised at the time by Watchmen (1987) and its ilk. Here with our ‘hero’ being coerced into visiting the titular psychiatric hospital by a hostage situation, the story presents a far more vulnerable and uncertain Batman than most other works in the canon, standing in sharp contrast to the decisive, powerful vigilante imprinted on the cultural consciousness. While violence is present, the focus is moved away from physical confrontation towards something of a philosophical battle against Arkham’s inmates with the core of the narrative possessing a dreamlike tone. In essence an offensive is taken on Batman’s sanity, challenging the formerly clearcut boundary between hero and psychopath, questioning whether he really belongs outside at all.

Amplifying this unsettling atmosphere by no small amount, the unique artwork of Dave McKean doesn’t so much add to the comic as feel symbiotically integral to the experience. The illustrations possess an unconventional painterly quality, avoiding the medium’s typical hard lines and flat colouring in favour of expressive blurring and gritty, dense texturing. It’s a style which also has enormous range going from eerily realistic to bizarre photo collages and surreal imagery – perhaps to reflect the changes in mood and gradual erosion of sanity throughout. Apparently McKean has retrospectively criticised his approach at the time as hampering the storytelling, but ironically I feel it actually strengthens it.

There are other clever little visual touches too such as the pencil sketched scenes near the beginning, emphasising a tangible sense of dreariness to external reality before entering the asylum. Character designs take on a distinctly unusual quality aswell; the Joker in particular possessing devilish, bulging features and an over-exposed glow of white make up making him seem more inhuman than ever. Batman meanwhile often appears animalistic, with the suit appearing to be inseparably fused to the man echoing his namesake in the most literal sense and giving him the air of some sinister gothic monstrosity. As the joker puts it when a henchmen suggests unmasking him: “That IS his real face.”

I’m still missing a large portion the story here though, while it might be assumed Batman is automatically the central character he shares a significant portion of the narrative with Amadeus Arkham, the asylum’s troubled founder. In a thread running parallel to the hero’s we see how the founder attempts to cure madness in others only to be inevitably consumed by it himself, creating a worrying comparison to Batman’s own crusade against crime. Just as Amadeus is shown to be far too close to insanity to define it himself, under scrutiny Batman is not too dissimilar to the colourful villains he locks away – a traumatized vigilante dressed as a bat suddenly struggling to justify his actions.

It gets under the skin and presents a disturbing perspective on the Batman mythology, but remains utterly compelling from start to finish. Most superhero narratives see their leads become dispirited and drop the ‘super’ mantle at some point or another, before reclaiming it to ‘become’ xyz-man again. Arkham Asylum takes a unique path by having Batman do the exact opposite for its conclusion – to admit that when all’s said and done he really is “just a man”.

Contemplating its wider context, I imagine this was a considerably important stepping stone in the continued evolution of comic books as a creative medium too. Neil Gaiman’s Sandman (1989-1996) and its metaphysical themes feel like a logical continuation of those sparked here, while I doubt that Dave McKean’s involvement as cover artist was coincidental either. I realise the relevance to my own work is pretty tenuous in most respects, but I felt there was value in writing about Arkham – if for nothing else – because of its daring  experimentation within a genre which often feels constrained by convention and for how considerably removed it is from my usual reading material.

To put it another way: anything which has the power to give me nightmares these days has definitely got something right, though it may still have some ground to cover on the child catcher…

Bad Karma: The Running Man

October 14, 2011

Just to clarify, this is not the Schwarzenegger vehicle of the same name nor is it Carol Reed’s 1969 film but an 80’s anime short of rather different character to both.

I’m actually familiar with the director Yoshiaki Kawajiri’s later work and honestly much of it’s the kind of  ‘violence and sex’ fare which has characterized the west’s typical view of the medium. However, while this short certainly has its fair share of shocks in common with such video nasties, it’s an altogether more sophisticated affair than might be expected.

Still, I will caution you that the video contains several moments of strong horror. Consider yourself forewarned:

There is a cut down, english dubbed version on youtube which was apparently shown on MTV, but beside suffering lower image quality I chose the untranslated video as it illustrates how much of the story is told in the visuals.  It would be a stretch to call it subtle, but it is atmospheric and – most importantly – memorable.

The telekinesis the champion racer – Zach Hugh – uses to destroy his rivals and the eerie conclusion arguably pushes things into supernatural territory, but the aesthetics and theme of karma being repaid definitely have a cyberpunk feel to them. There’s clearly high technology on display (especially if his powers were created artificially)  and the low humanity is starkly portrayed in his ruthless elimination of competitors.

It makes for a nice narrative crescendo in the way the race begins as a fairly gritty, realistic affair but progressively becomes stranger and more disturbing, cumulating in the otherworldly victory lap; something which again echoes the cyberpunk tendency of revealing chaotic darkness beneath seemingly ordered surfaces.

It’s simple and perhaps not palatable to everyone, but as an uncompromising piece of sci-fi horror it’s got plenty of impact.

A Dark Mirror: P3rsp3ctiv3

October 4, 2011

I discovered this short through Cyberpunk Review a while ago and had been meaning to share it for sometime given its obvious genre relevance.

The writer, director and lead actor – Mehmet Can Koçak – describes P3rsp3ctiv3 (or Perspective if  L33t isn’t your thing)  as ‘a tribute to the cyberpunk genre’ and in this respect it may not be massively original, but thanks to the slick execution and strong social message it turns out to be rather more impressive than might be expected.

POV camera work is an idea that’s in danger of being worn out in mainstream cinema, but here its connection to the subject matter makes it perfect for the scenario, feeling integral rather than tacked on. It reminds me most prominently of Strange Days (1995) and the ‘squid’ technology it featured in the way the viewer is literally thrown into the world, but also in how a cynically realistic outlook is adopted on its application. Just as the internet is used by many in the pursuit of pornography, here the near limitless potential of a seamless VR experience is used/abused for virtual sex – no matter how advanced society becomes our base instincts still apply.

The visuals have a few nice nods too. There’s the usual industrial dystopia stylings on show but it’s offset by a few interesting touches; the simulation is run on a massively upgraded Commodore 64 – possibly in acknowledgement of cyberpunk’s birth decade or simply to give a scavenger aesthetic to the scenario – while the ending also shows that no matter how high tech a rig may be it will always be susceptible to the most common or unlikely of failings; be it a crash or cockroach.

As I’ve mentioned/raved on about, the focus of my graphic is considerations of how we humanise technology through our use of it. In this case Perspective supports the idea but not in positive way. In creating an idealised version of himself for the simulation the protagonist unwittingly creates a mirror which shows him up as something altogether more unpleasant than intended. If the technology here is humanised, it’s done so in the sense that it replicates our more troublesome sexual and violent urges.

The Ultimate Enemy is still Man: Outland

September 28, 2011

There have been times I’ve purposefully turned a blind eye to wrong doing. Usually small inconsequential things that were unlikely to cause real harm, others not so much. I’m not proud of it and I’ve nearly always regretted it, but it still happens and I think I can venture to say I’m not alone in my guilt. It’s a regrettably human trait, but when we’re surrounded by others who are willing to ignore a problem there are exceptionally few who will risk rocking the boat.

I was recommended Outland (1981) – not to be mistaken with Outlander (2008) – by Paul Gravett a few months ago as an example of an “intense environment” in space comparable to my own setting of Branch, so finding it at bargain price I gave it a much overdue watch.

The synopsis is a familiar one: set aboard a future mining colony on the Jupiter moon ‘Io’ the arrival of a new police Marshall William O’Neil (Sean Connery) stirs up trouble amongst workers, administration and fellow officers alike as he begins investigating a string of unexplained suicides. It’s an admittedly simple setup which stripped of its sci-fi setting, might just as easily be a traditional cop thriller or western of the ‘law man visiting a corrupt locale’ template. At the same time, just as Paul Gravett’s recommendation indicated, I would argue that the setting is one of the film’s most distinctive features.

Being set in a location so distantly removed from civilisation it’s the perfect scenario for human behaviour to go astray, with boundless greed and corporate corruption lent credibility through the environment. Taking a hard sci-fi approach, visually the movie has aged quite well thanks to the functional design seemingly drawing upon traditional mines and oil rigs. There are some surprisingly considerate details too further enforcing the ‘form follows function’ design approach – if you’ll excuse me being a total nerd – perishable foodstuffs are a rarity onboard, believable safety measures are shown and the only firearms used by the police are shotguns; an obvious precaution against puncturing walls and causing decompression. Just about everything has a grimy, worn in quality which on most occasions proves entirely immersive, essentially feeling like a living breathing work space rather than a glorified stage set.

Of particular note is the impressive claustrophobia nurtured throughout adding to the intensity with very little in the way of open spaces and the few there are being dimly lit, gloomy hovels. Even during sequences in the vacuum the grubby space suits perpetuate the sensation of being cramped, leaving the occupants and viewer no escape from the oppressive atmosphere. I’d also like to draw attention to the recurring motif of a hexagonal tunnel (below), for me a visual which creates a disturbing connotation to bee hives in light of station’s obsession with productivity at any cost.

It’s the latter aspects which I would most likely draw upon in my own work, attempting to replicate the feel of a tangible universe through effective implementation of a used future aesthetic. I’ve already researched local industrial estates as a part of my inspiration so the functional, work ready feel of film is of most obvious use to me. But more than this, I suppose what I really want to capture that Outland does so well is the sense of being trapped, overwhelmed and having no escape.

It couldn’t really be called cyberpunk mind you. ‘Low humanity‘ is on display throughout but the technology is incidental with the thematic focus being the enduring greed of humankind rather than the ramifications of killer robots, genetic engineering, cyborgs or computers. Indeed, the film is quite remarkable in this regard for its sheer restraint and maturity. There is some action along with obligatory moments of gross out horror but for the most part this is a slow burner with atmosphere and story taking precedence of crowd pleasing set pieces.

In line with this, the central cast are somewhat offbeat aswell. Yes, O’Niel is played by Sean Connery but he makes for an atypical protagonist compared to typical macho men of the 80’s, there’s a weariness to the character which meshes perfectly with the environment and offsets the usual ‘lone hero’ clichés. Rather than being the traditional man with nothing to lose™ he’s shown to be a more dimensional human being with a great deal to lose in the form of his travel jaded wife and child.

Additionally, I’d like to highlight the lack of so-called “eye candy” for men. The only major female character Dr. Lazarus (Frances Sternhagen) is thankfully not the plucky young recruit; being bitter, middle-aged and sensibly clothed for the duration. She also serves as a good parallel to O’niel, being similarly disillusioned with the situation on station and having some great snarky dialogue. At any rate, for once its nice to have an older cast who don’t seem preoccupied with being photogenic.

On the downside the film does have its failings. For all the emphasis on realism it still indulges in the erroneous assumption that space suit and airlock decompression causes the body to explode, there’s at least one redundant plot twist and overdubbed child actors should frankly be forbidden from cinema. The real elephant in the room though is simply how heavily indebted to Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979) it is; everything from the opening titles to the gritty used future aesthetic wears the Alien stamp but in spite of its obvious aspiration Outland never really approaches the brilliance of its predecessor – I couldn’t quite shake the feeling there was xenomorph shaped hole in the film…

There are standout moments however, my favourite being where O’Niel – having uncovered and destroyed the administration’s drug supply – discovers he has been marked for death. Realising he can’t even count on the other police officers for protection, he walks into the crowded worker dining hall and quite literally asks them if anyone can help him; a request no one answers. Considering the situation out on the far reaches of human development with the only common motive for work being greed, it’s a scene that’s chilling but also utterly believable. Everyone would much rather turn a blind eye than risk what they have on a trivial instance of justice in the middle of nowhere.

Outland isn’t a great film, but it is a surprisingly good one. Alien may have taught us that in space no one can hear you scream, but Outland tells us that even if someone does hear you the chances are they won’t give a damn.