After Take Shelter, I’ll definitely sign up for another Jeff Nichols/Michael Shannon drama about impending doom. This one is maybe more ambitious, definitely more confusingly plotted, and has less well-defined characters and relationships. Shannon and childhood friend Joel Edgerton have kidnapped Shannon’s magic son Alton from a doomsday cult and with help from Shannon’s (ex-?)wife Kirsten Dunst and federal agent Adam Driver they take Alton to fulfill his destiny by ascending to Tomorrowland.
Pretty sure this was meant to evoke the string of psychic-child adventure stories in the late 1970’s: Firestarter (the novel, if not the film) and The Fury. In fact I was so busy trying to remember how Firestarter ends that I may have missed some details about the doomsday cult and why exactly they wanted Alton – or maybe they weren’t even sure of that themselves. If not an instant classic, at least a cool-looking, mysterious movie, full of great acting and shocking moments (I leapt when satellite parts rained down on the gas station). I always appreciate sci-fi stories that show glimpses of larger worlds and deeper mysteries than the film has the time or inclination to explain.
This counted as the kickoff to Cannes Month, since Nichols’ previous movie Mud played Cannes, and his second film of 2016 Loving is about to premiere there. Although I would’ve watched it anyway.
For some reason, the emotional core of this film seems to have gone missing — I can see where it’s supposed to reside, but the love Alton’s parents feel for him is oddly abstract, perhaps because E.T. seems more human than he does.
The bad guys trace [our heroes’ car] through an insurance bill left on a kitchen counter, because even Midnight Special’s sense of conspiracy is grounded in the commonplace. The only explicitly poetic line the movie allows itself is spoken by the cult’s neckless goon, played by character actor Bill Camp. Sitting in his truck, he says, “I was an electrician, certified in two states. What do I know of these things?” This is the most the viewer will ever learn about him. Midnight Special defines characters through what they can’t understand, contrasting fear of the unknown with faith in it, and flipping the supernatural into a metaphor for the everyday.
From J. Romney’s review intro:
Cinema has rarely felt so much like a son et lumière as it did in a brief period in the early ’80s, when suddenly shafts of light came shooting out of movie images, as if the screen had been slashed. It became a defining image of Steven Spielberg’s films — Close Encounters, E.T., and Poltergeist too, if you want to count that as one of his … In their purest and most glaring form, those shafts of light had something of the quality of angelic revelation about them. Certainly, you suspected that cinematographers such as Vilmos Zsigmond and Allen Daviau had taken a close look at certain academic religious paintings of the 19th century, or perhaps at Renaissance church sculpture, with their sheaves of marble emulating beams from the divine. At any rate, it came as a shock to get the impression from these films — and with such eye-searing intensity — that cinema was a matter of light streaming directly out of the screen, rather than just bounced off it. The motif was a powerful way of restoring, if not a holy, at least an authentically otherworldly dimension to cinema.
“As an aphrodisiast, Dr. Stringfellow proposes the use of synthetic aphrodisiac drugs to assist those who wish to attain a fully three-dimensional sexuality.”
I rented this on VHS from Movies Worth Seeing (RIP) back in 2000-2002, watched and hated it. Now it’s in lovely high-def on my Scanners blu-ray, and I am older and more tolerant, so time to give it another shot. And I still hate it, but the visuals are extremely sharp and it has interesting resonance with Scanners.
The story, or perhaps the backstory, is told via narrator, with total silence at all other times (so no sync sound on the action). Eight subjects underwent brain surgery to extend the natural electrochemical network of the human brain to provide telepathic capabilities. So far so Scanners, but there’s more. The psychics are said to have strange reactions when in the same room as each other, and one “pierced his skull with an electric drill, an act of considerable symbolic significance.”
It’s set at a sanatorium in the woods, which I admit is wonderfully well photographed, as are the actors. The guy who we’ll call the star wears a cape with a giant amulet and carries a cane. I wish I could get away with this look, but I can’t – and neither can he. He appears at all times to be a pretentious film student, which would sink the movie if it didn’t sink itself in other ways, by being dull at all times, by depriving us of sound except for the posh intellectual narration, by having the psychics suck on pacifiers. He even uses slow-mo at times, as if the movie wasn’t already slow enough. In recent interviews, Cronenberg says it works better if you’re stoned. Four of the seven actors were also in Crimes of the Future, which I was going to double-feature with this but chickened out, and one actor got as far as The Dead Zone 13 years later.
“I’m one of you.”
“You’re one of me.”
Entrancing movie, full of oddball performances. Mostly bought the blu-ray because the cover art is so outstanding, but this was a pleasure to watch again. Completely holds up, even the scene where Cameron scans a computer (because, it’s explained, computers have nervous systems) through its modem over a payphone, since the movie itself seems to fully believe all the crazy stuff it’s telling us. But how come powerful psychics never notice gun-toting killers sneaking up behind them?
Patrick “The Prisoner” McGoohan runs a security company’s scanner program, recruits Cameron (Stephen Lack, later in Dead Ringers) off the streets, but the security company’s head security dude Keller (Lawrence Dane of Darkman 2) is secretly in cahoots with evil scanner Revok (the great Michael Ironside, later of Starship Troopers and Total Recall). Cameron tries to recruit reclusive artist Pierce (Cronenberg regular Robert Silverman, looking like Chris Guest in Waiting for Guffman) then teams up with Kim (Jennifer O’Neill of Fulci’s The Psychic) and her crew, scanner war ensues. Cameron and Revok are evenly matched, since it turns out they’re uber-scanner siblings, sons of McGoohan, so the final scan-off gets pretty extreme.
Cronenberg’s follow-up to The Brood, which I should also rewatch. Warped, piercing keyboard soundtrack by Howard Shore. The scanner-controlling drug is named Ephemerol, which is a bit of genius I’m surprised hasn’t been used elsewhere (discounting Scanners sequels).
There had been all sorts of rumors — and trashy paperbacks — about Soviet ESP experiments and their application to spying and warfare, which eventually inspired a U.S. program that would have some of its peculiar history told in Jon Ronson’s nonfiction study The Men Who Stare at Goats (2004), made into a film in 2009. In Scanners, Cronenberg evokes this shadowy area of paranormal research, as well as contemporary scandals involving botched drug testing, the less-than-ethical behavior of some sectors of the pharmaceutical industry, and the rise of private security and espionage outfits… The finale… can be seen as an optimistic mirror of the pessimistic finish of Dead Ringers, allowing for the mutual survival of the doppelgänger brothers in one melded form rather than ending in their shared death… It’s unusual in the run of films dealing with psychic psychopaths in exploring telepathy as well as telekinesis, and also touches—in its “human modem” sequence—on the fusion of man and machine that becomes central to Videodrome and The Fly.
So, in the straightforward ending, pre-crime dept. head Max Von Sydow murdered precog Samantha Morton’s inconvenient mother and good cop Colin Farrell, while Cruise’s ex-wife springs him from The Attic to bring justice and a happy ending. But an article Katy found says the ending is too idyllic and perhaps Cruise never awoke from The Attic, but actually dreams the last half hour Brazil-style. I love that the movie works either way.
Highlights: creepy doctor Peter Stormare and the following scene with retina-scanning spiders invading his apartment complex, Cruise escaping via auto assembly line, Morton’s freaked-out performance, the still-exciting technology and how most of it is becoming real. Katy is hung up on the mismatched architecture/design styles of all the interiors.
Feels like it’s trying too hard to be a cult hit, and the pacing is often weird, with our somnambulist hero Dave always moving and speaking slower than you’d expect, and its universe and logic seem simultaneously under- and over-developed (maybe since it’s an incomplete adaptation of the source comic), but overall a damned fun flick, unlike anything else out there, and a welcome return to weird-movie-making for Coscarelli ten years after Bubba Ho-Tep.
Attempts at plot summary would be ridiculous, but here are some people and things.
Tall Man as dark-eyed priest:
Basement meat monster summoned by Obscure Object snake girl, destroyed by Dr. Marconi phone call:
Paul Giamatti as viewer-surrogate reporter:
Glynn Turman as evidence-destroying, hero-threatening rogue cop:
Church of Dave & John: clothing and masks optional
Dave nearly falls into pit of Korrok before monster is destroyed by humanity-saving suicide-bomber dog:
Two kids are playing while the girl’s parents (Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie) are inside. Girl drowns in a pond wearing a red jacket. Donald senses danger and rushes outside, too late. Roeg is in top form, between Walkabout and Man Who Fell to Earth, with editing that kept making me say “whoa” out loud, and this must be one of the most thrilling movie openings (and endings) ever. Wonder if this is what Trier was aiming to outdo with his own child-death opening of Antichrist.
The family is in Venice while Donald works on architectural restorations. Julie meets a blind psychic who says her dead daughter is happy, is troubled by this but wants to see the psychic again if she has contact with the daughter. Donald is experiencing spooky visions and having near-fatal accidents, while incidentally, there seems to be a murderer on the loose and the psychic tells him he’s in danger and should get out of town. The movie continues building atmosphere without much story to speak of, until Donald has a fatal encounter with the local murderer, a midget women with a red jacket like the daughter’s and a sharp knife. Predates The Shining in featuring characters who can see visions of the future but this doesn’t actually help them.
Now that I’ve seen this, I wonder if Cronenberg was attempting a grotesque parody/reference with The Brood. Original story by Daphne du Maurier (The Birds & Rebecca). Nominated for all the Baftas, winning cinematography. Blind psychic Hilary Mason later appeared in a couple Stuart Gordon movies.
Need to see again… and again.
It’s an odd feeling, the realisation that you may have to revisit films at every stage of your life. I thought I’d “done” Don’t Look Now. I had no idea. I suppose I should have had a clue as it’s a Roeg film. It’s a kaleidoscope of meaning. I’m looking forward to seeing it again in 10 years’ time.
Whew, a not-too-good late-70’s-looking thriller with hardly any thrills, this wasn’t nearly as good as I’d hoped it’d be. Funny how in a week I went from watching John Cassavetes masterpiece Faces to watching a movie that ends with John Cassavetes exploding.
Movie opens in “Mid East 1977.” Kirk Douglas (below) loses his psychic son Robin to evildoer Cassavetes who subjects him to experiments we’re barely shown for reasons we are never told (and JC doesn’t seem to sweat it when Robin is killed at the end). Kirk goes deep undercover to rescue his son, enlisting Carrie‘s Amy Irving (who gets killed by a car in a botched escape) and psychic troubled girl Carrie Snodgress to help him infiltrate the secretly Cassavetes-backed psychic rest home run by Charles Durning (the president in Twilight’s Last Gleaming). Kirk finds his son but Robin has turned evil and they both plummet to their deaths from the roof. Carrie is miffed and explodes John Cassavetes again and again from fifty-six different camera angles.
A brief timeline of stories featuring psychic kids and exploding bodies:
– Carrie (King, 74)
– The Fury (John Farris, 76)
– Carrie (De Palma, 76)
– The Fury (De Palma, 78)
– Firestarter (King, 80)
– Scanners (Cronenberg, 81)
– Firestarter (Mark Lester, 84)
One of those cool De Palma signature perspective shots:
Cassavetes (you can tell he’s evil by the black-gloved hand in a black arm cast) with Charles Durning:
Robin (Andrew Stevens, vet of 70+ crappy movies) looks like he’s wolfing out, but really he’s hanging off a rooftop from his father’s arm full of psychic rage: