Dip into films' beautiful disasters

June 27, 2008|By MICHAEL SRAGOW

The great Sam Peckinpah once said, "It's not just blowing up a bridge, it's the way you blow up a bridge."

That's how I feel about apocalyptic or dystopian movies. It's not just blowing up the world, it's the way you blow up the world.

Pundits are questioning Pixar's decision to base WALL-E on a trash-strewn Earth, a robot hero and humans who've evolved into pudding pops. The last laugh should be on the naysayers as audiences discover the inventiveness, wit, emotion - and, yes, hope - that director Andrew Stanton and his team have invested in every inch of their sometimes bleak and barbed design.

Of course, filming a cautionary tale without making it strident, or making audiences despondent, presents a steep challenge to filmmakers. For my money, even the gifted Alfonso Cuaron (Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban) flubbed that challenge with Children of Men.

But many moviemakers have covered the screen with art or entertainment glory when depicting humankind at its worst. Here's a handful of films that present beauty, humor or thrills - as well as fear - as humanity flirts with the end of days.

"Metropolis" (1927): When Fritz Lang's portrait of a dream city-turned-nightmare premiered in Berlin, no one had seen anything like it. H.G. Wells called it "quite the silliest movie." Yet George Lucas and Ridley Scott borrowed from it for Star Wars: Episode II - Attack of the Clones and Blade Runner, respectively. James Whale's laboratories in Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein gave off the same whiff of retro-futuristic medievalism as the lair of Lang's mad scientist Rotwang; Rotwang himself was reborn as the title character of Stanley Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove; and Rotwang's femme-fatale robot, Hel, became Kubrick's HAL in 20 01. At the center of this towering spectacle, which includes a flashback to the Tower of Babel, is class warfare between workers who live underground and the elite living the high life in their skyscrapers. But the movie's imaginative extremism is what still drives audiences wild. When the robot wiggles near-naked in front of wealthy men and winks at them with her mechanical eyes, these guys are lost. (Actually, what's nightmarish to us is how sexy the robot is when she's just a featureless automaton.)

"Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb" (1963): Dr. Strangelove started out as Kubrick's somber response to the nuclear brinkmanship of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Laboring on the screenplay while their stomachs rumbled in the wee hours of the night, Kubrick and his frequent collaborator, James B. Harris, wondered: What would happen if the denizens of their War Room were in the same position? Would they order out to the Gayety Delicatessen for sandwiches? Months later, Kubrick hired writer Terry Southern to help him counterpoint nuclear horror with absurdity. The result is a masterpiece of deadpan drollery.

"Planet of the Apes" (1968): The original, like the source novel by Pierre Boulle, was a scintillating mix of sci-fi adventure and allegory that spawned four big-screen follow-ups, a live-action TV series and a Saturday morning cartoon show - all before Tim Burton got his hands on it. Younger kids loved the talking apes on the mystery planet who lorded over pathetic humans. College kids loved what they and Charlton Heston's astronaut antihero said, which replayed the slogans of the Vietnam and civil rights era in simian drag. Underneath the sweeping action, the whole movie was a take on "monkey see, monkey do," containing parables of minority persecution and revolt in both the ape and human realms.

"2001: A Space Odyssey" (1968): More apes. With typical audacity, Kubrick began his picture with tribes of ape men competing for food and water and being nudged into humanhood by a mysterious, perfect ebony slab that inspires their use of weaponry. The movie starts with the emergence of Homo sapiens; it ends with the emergence of Homo who-knows. Keir Dullea, the lone survivor of a space mission to Jupiter, undergoes a strange death and transfiguration under the spell of the same (or an identical) black slab. He becomes a figure in an astral fetal sac. Is he an upwardly mobile, evolutionary mutation or a monster capable of crushing a planet between his fingers? The movie's most famous character is the space mission's evil super-computer, HAL, but what makes it haunting are the existential questions that Kubrick leaves hanging in midair.

"Weekend " (1969): Do you want to feel good about driving less? Jean-Luc Godard's phantasmagoria of a road movie plays better now than it did 40 years ago: It brought road rage to the edge of infinity and turned a traffic jam into a paradigm for the end of civilization as we know it. Suggested escapist alternative: George Miller's original Mad Max (1978).

" The Terminator" (1984): Every piece of action in James Cameron's exciting and intricate B movie adds to the master plan of the plot, in which a 2029 computer network sends a cyborg into the past to kill the mother of a future resistance leader. When Arnold Schwarzenegger took a scalpel to his wounded eyeball in the movie, it was an act of black-comic aggression: pop Luis Bunuel. When he ran over a toy truck, viewers realized that his world had gone beyond dog-eat-dog to machine-eat-machine. In my favorite subplot, dogs were able to sniff out intruders in the good guys' ranks. In his own comic-book fashion, Cameron expressed a genuine, organic point of view - he was against nuclear war and mechanization, and also against arrogant social planning.

michael.sragow@baltsun.com

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