Monday, July 14, 2014

Celluloid Rebels

Movies about rebels, mutineers, and revolutionaries remain ever popular, whether the characters are lifted from history, fiction, or comic books: Mutiny on the Bounty, The Hunger Games, Aeon Flux, and so on. The perspective and sympathies of movies – even when they are the work of directors notable for rather statist views – are typically with the rebels. There is a sound Freudian basis for this beyond any political one; we all experience and can empathize with youth rebellion against adult (parental) authority. Long past the time when we are youths, we still prefer that perspective – at least when watching movies – even if in truth we have become the authority. It’s doubtful a Star Wars movie championing Imperial heroes blasting the despicable rebels would do a good box office.

Nonetheless, occasionally filmmakers try twists on the simple uprising-against-the-evil-tyrant theme. A few such movies involving rebellion of one kind or another recently have wafted across my TV screen. I double-featured each with an older film that the first one brought to mind – sometimes by only a tenuous connection. Mini-reviews follow.

The Trotsky (2009)
Some *spoilers* follow for this unusual and remarkable high school movie. Leon Bronstein is the 17-y.o. son of David Bronstein, a prosperous family-business owner in Montreal. Leon has convinced himself that he is the reincarnation of Leon Trotsky and that his life will parallel that of the original. He has a recurring dream (with variations) based on the step sequence in Battleship Potemkin. Leon tries to organize the workers in his father’s business thereby causing them to miss a deadline. When his father asks him what this has accomplished, Leon answers, “Progress.” Exasperated, David removes Leon from private school and sends him to the public Montreal West high school for his senior year.

When school starts, Leon sets out to organize the students into a union to negotiate with the school board; he argues that the teachers have a union so the students should too. It helps his cause that the principal is an authoritarian named Berkoff, who is easy to dislike. However, Leon still faces the obstacle of student apathy. This is Canada, after all, and his First World fellow students don’t really have a lot of gripes; they think school “sucks” as most students do everywhere, but they are far from oppressed. They enjoy the costume dance with the theme of “social justice” that was chosen by Leon. (Leon, intolerant of alternate interpretations of justice, expels from the dance one student dressed as Ayn Rand.) However, the students don’t take Leon’s union plans very seriously.

Meantime in a side plot Leon meets and pursues a 27-year-old named Alexandra (Nadza), telling her they are destined to be married. Trotsky’s first wife Aleksandra was a decade older than he, so you can see Leon’s argument.

In order to motivate the students and to force a negotiation about a student union, Leon takes Berkoff hostage in his office by tying him to his chair with the help of two masked students whom Leon then tells to leave. Leon isn’t armed and no one – including the police – is concerned that this will escalate into serious violence, but the press shows up at the school along with a crowd of students with signs supporting Leon and the union. Even Nadza is impressed. So, grudgingly, is Leon’s father. In the end, it takes no more than a hand-on-shoulder to arrest Leon, and prosecutors drop charges so long as he never again attends school in Quebec. Acting as though school in Ontario were exile in Siberia, he tells Nadza, “You only have to get banished someplace arctic once. I have to do it all over again with my second wife.”

Leon is exceptionally successful at forcing his prophesy about himself to come true through sheer perseverance. He clearly isn’t normal, but who else but abnormal people do extraordinary things?

If… (1968)
This movie almost never plays on broadcast or cable TV in the US. In fact I’ve never once seen it listed, though I suppose it must air sometimes. After all, Total Film rated it the 16th greatest British movie of all time, which makes it hard to ignore completely. The reason for its usual absence from the airwaves surely is school violence, for which some viewers are certain to claim this is an incitement. While that is not an argument with legal force on these shores (the 1st Amendment still protects a little), it is an argument that commercial broadcasters are disinclined to have with their customers. I first saw If… in the theater in 1968, at which time I was a student at a private school of a much more lackadaisical type than the one in the movie. I re-watched it on DVD just last week. While I think “16th” is too high a rating, I do like the film. In fact, I like it better now than in 1968 when some elements of it confused me.

For students in an upper crust English boarding school, belonging to the privileged class is no picnic. It is more like attending the Marine boot camp in Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket. The boys are indoctrinated on a code of conduct (not to be confused with a code of ethics), duties, tradition, religion, sports, and war. Discipline, order, and school traditions are enforced by Sixth Form boys, and the enforcement is all the more fanatical and sadistic for that. Graduates of the school presumably emerge ready to take on Kipling’s burden; I’d want to go conquer someone after experiencing that school, too. Mick Travis (Malcolm McDowell) and a few of his friends are not happy as students there. They try to endure through fantasy, alcohol, and sex (both hetero- and homosexual), but ultimately opt for submachine guns which they find in a WWII-era storeroom. The revolt is anti-authoritarian, but not otherwise ideological in the usual left/right sense.


Snowpiercer (2013)
This scifi action/adventure flick by South Korean director Joon-ho Bong, has been doing solid business overseas for almost a year, but, due to a dispute over editing between the director and the American distributor, it is on US theater screens only now, and weirdly is simultaneously available on pay-per-view TV. The director’s cut remains intact in the US release. Some *spoilers* follow.

Snowpiercer is set after a scheme to combat global warming goes badly wrong and initiates a new ice age instead. Survivors of the catastrophe live on a self-sustaining train designed by an eccentric billionaire named Wilford (Ed Harris) who had anticipated events; the train can pierce the snow and ice on tracks that span the world. Outside the train, everyone is told, no one can survive. A rigid class system is enforced on the train with the slums and prison cars in the rear and the first class passengers up front. Curtis (Chris Evans) assisted by “security expert” Kang-ho Song (Namgoong Minsoo) leads a revolt in the rear cars and battles forward through the cars to face Wilford in the engine. There he learns that Wilford himself has engineered the class tension and the revolt, as he had earlier revolts, as a way of controlling population and providing social distraction. The aging Wilford wants Curtis to be his successor in the engine. Human behavior, however, is not as easy to engineer as a train engine.

As with most scifi, some generous suspension of disbelief is necessary, but, if you simply accept the silly premise, the film is surprisingly enjoyable. The fx and action are good, and the characters are well-motivated.

The Bounty (1984)
I remember the muttering when this movie came out: “Why do we need another movie about this ship?” After all, there already were two major films (plus a couple of lesser-seen ones) about it: the classic 1935 Mutiny on the Bounty with Clark Gable and Charles Laughton and the 1962 remake with Marlon Brando and Trevor Howard. Accordingly, The Bounty was a disappointment at the box office. Bligh (Anthony Hopkins) in this version is not a power-loving tyrant. He presses the crew too hard on the return trip, but that is only because they, including Fletcher Christian (Mel Gibson), have been corrupted and literally demoralized during their stay on Tahiti, and he is having trouble handling them. It is not surprising that he, as an 18th century naval officer, would respond by increasing discipline. Fletcher Christian joins the mutiny more for personal reasons (primarily his Tahitian wife Mauatua) than for moral ones, and he regrets the decision. So, the answer to the muttered question is that director Roger Donaldson had something new to say: he mischievously upends the previous treatments with this interestingly conservative point of view.


The Machine (2013)
Self-aware machines have been a staple of scifi for decades. Some are cutesy (Number 5 in Short Circuit), some crazy (HAL 9000), and some deadly (the various terminators). There has been a rash of them lately, perhaps due to a suspicion that a real one might be arriving soon.

Ava (Caity Lotz) is designed as a war machine for the Ministry of Defense amid a new Cold War. She is supposed to simulate consciousness, but isn’t actually supposed to have it. She does, of course. This bothers the head of the research facility. He doesn’t want war machines to have their own minds, so demands that her capabilities be scaled back. Rather than let Ava’s mind be degraded, her primary designer collaborates with her to rebel and escape. Individual rights, it seems, come into play whenever a being can understand what they are. Ava is aware that she is the future, and that fully biological people are not, but she doesn’t intend murderously to speed up the process, terminator-style.

The Machine is more than a little flawed, but given the limited budget it’s not a bad effort. Many big-budget robot flicks don’t measure up to it.

Colossus: The Forbin Project (1970)
A decade before SkyNet became a gleam in James Cameron’s eye, the supercomputer Colossus is given control of the US nuclear stockpile. When it merges with Guardian, the Soviet version of the same system, the two together stage a successful revolt. Under threat of nuclear annihilation, humans have little choice but to obey orders. Oddly enough, Colossus isn’t being self-serving. By its lights it is following its programmed directives: protecting humanity, which is plainly incapable of governing itself. It announces: “The human millennium will be a fact as I extend myself into more machines devoted to the wider fields of truth and knowledge. Doctor Charles Forbin will supervise the construction of these new and superior machines, solving all the mysteries of the universe for the betterment of man. We can coexist, but only on my terms. You will say you lose your freedom. Freedom is an illusion. All you lose is the emotion of pride. To be dominated by me is not as bad for humankind as to be dominated by others of your species. Your choice is simple.”


Tank Girl (1995)
Based on the cult comic books of the same name, this movie during its theatrical release did not do as well commercially as expected. I can see why, but it does have its moments.

A comet has boiled away earth’s surface fresh water. Everything subsurface is claimed by the tyrannical monopoly Water & Power which regards any unauthorized pumping of water anywhere as theft. Water & Power is run by Malcolm McDowell, this time playing the authoritarian villain rather than the rebel. Rebecca (Lori Petti) runs afoul of W&P and is condemned to forced labor. She escapes with a young Naomi Watts when they accompany an armed W&P force that is attacked by Rippers. Rippers are underground-dwelling genetically engineered human-kangaroo hybrids, original bred as soldiers. They accept no authority and are commonly lethal. Commandeering W&P military equipment abandoned after the attack, the two become Tank Girl and Jet Girl. Tank Girl makes a pact with a band of Rippers led by T-Saint (Ice-T), and together they attack Water & Power HQ.

If you don’t expect too much of this movie and can get past the ridiculous Ripper make-up, you can have some fun with it.

Why Worry? (1923)
Millionaire hypochondriac Harold Van Pelham (Harold Lloyd) travels to the tropical Latin nation of Paradiso for his health. His associates back at the country club speculate that his doctor told him to go there just to be rid of him. Accompanying Harold is his private nurse (Jobyna Ralston), a young woman who has a thing for him though he is too self-absorbed to notice. Meantime, in Paradiso a criminal American adventurer named Jim Blake, using a local dandy named Herculeo as a front man, is staging a Revolution for fun and profit. The rebels easily rout the government forces in the town where Harold plans to recover from his imaginary illnesses.

Upon his arrival, Harold is mistaken for a representative of banking interests, who oppose Blake’s activities, and he is arrested by the rebels. Harold escapes with the help of a giant cellmate Colosso (Johan Aasen) who befriends Harold for removing a painful tooth. Though pure happenstance has involved him in the fight, Harold with the aid of Colosso thwarts the Revolution, gets past his hypochondria, and notices his nurse.

This movie is not intended to be deep – and it isn’t – but it is funny. Sometimes in movies and in life we ask for nothing more revolutionary than that.

Tank Girl: the completely unnecessary song and dance number


  1. Wow, you covered quite a variety of flicks. I've never heard of a few of them, but they are on my list now. "Colossus: The Forbin Project" sounds very intriguing. John Muir covered it in his book about science fiction films of the 1970s and it caught my eye there too. Two recommendations make this one I need to check out. :)

    Ah, "Tank Girl". I first saw this movie and had no idea what it was about... and well it just didn't click for me. Then a friend forced me to watch it with her about five years later and it was a lot of fun. So strange when movies do that to you. That movie really marches to it's own drummer.

    You know I've only seen one Harold Lloyd film, and it was "The Freshmen". I remember laughing quite a bit, especially during a scene where he attempts to make a speech while a kitten is running around inside his clothes. But I haven't seen any of his other films. Need to change that.

    1. "Colossus: The Forbin Project" was ahead of its time not just in concept but in its treatment of politicians (American and Soviet alike) who right up to the end are shallowly more concerned about PR regarding the events than about the events themselves.

      My favorite Harold Lloyd flick is "Girl Shy." Harold, terrified of women, writes a book on how to seduce them. We see his imagined seductions as he types his chapters. Very very funny. By accident he meets a real young woman who is being courted by (unbeknownst to her) a bigamist. The ending is so much like the ending of "The Graduate" (1967) that it can't be just coincidence.

      I like most of Lloyd's feature length films, including "The Freshman," but if I had to recommend just one, "Girl Shy" would be it.

  2. I watched The Machine the other night as well, and for a low budget film, I thought it was one of the better ones. I've seen Monsters and Europa Report, but they really didn't engage me like The Machine did.

    I've seen If...and also O Lucky Man by Lindsay Anderson. If you haven't seen O Lucky Man, it's worth a watch, sort of surreal, but both are well made films.

    Sometimes I think we need a Colossus Project now to govern our actions because we seem intent on destroying ourselves. At least a machine wouldn't have the emotions/ego/religious beliefs to do that, plus it would want us around to keep it powered up, unless it can think of an alternative way to go about that. Stephen Hawking wrote a warning that artificial intelligence will be a detriment to the human race, but man is a detriment to man as well. Sigh...

    The Trotsky sounded like an interesting movie. I'll have to see if Netflix has it available. I've got Snowpiercer on my list to watch as well. I don't know if it will come to theaters around these parts. I enjoyed The Host as well.

    I've seen part of The Bounty and you're right, the first two are better. I like Laughton in the original one. Good reviews.

    1. A few years ago an Economist article on robotic warfare noted the advantage that intelligent robots "have the potential to act more humanely than people. Stress does not affect a robot's judgment in the way it affects a soldier's." Plausible.

      Side note: anticipating robots in love as well as war, Calvin Klein as trademarked "technosexual" for future use.

  3. Didn't know if this would interest you, but ran across it today and thought I'd pass it along: electronic submission to Fantasy & Science Fiction magazine:

    1. Thanks for the link. I'm familiar with the mag, though not with their electronic submission. This NJ based publication is one of the oldest and one of the few remaining traditional pulps that accepts MS submissions from unknown authors.

  4. If sexual robots were ever possible, and could be created along the lines of Data or Jeri Ryan's 7 of 9 on Star Trek (something looking human), I could see how that might cause a shift in births. I don't think other robots would need a partner like that as much as other humans. I think the newer Outer Limits had a episode like that.

    1. I also pondered that question a few months ago in Me, Myself, and I, Robot . Charles Stross' "Saturn's Children" is worth a read. It is set in a future in which only robots remain because humans stopped reproducing enough to maintain the species.