Friday, November 13, 2015

The Utopia around the Bend

In previous blogs I’ve offered several possible reasons for the popularity of apocalyptic fiction, but one reason might be just a wish to escape from an unsatisfying existence, even if the total obliteration of civilization is a little hard on one’s neighbors. Of course, escape can be had less destructively by going elsewhere. In Interstellar elsewhere is another solar system in another galaxy. In Tomorrowland it’s another dimension: one which holds a lesson about self-fulfilling prophecies. Sometimes, though, the destination can be more mundane, and this is the case in the teen drama Paper Towns; like so many recent movies, it is based on a YA novel. In Self/less, however, the destination is more extraordinary. I watched both movies this week.

Paper Towns (2015)
The title refers to a copyright device used by commercial mapmakers. General information cannot be copyrighted, so to protect their work publishers commonly invent nonexistent towns. In other words, they give some spot in the middle of nowhere a name, and print the name on their maps. Fiction can be copyrighted, so if this fictional name pops up on a competitor’s map an action for copyright violation can be filed.

Plot: In Orlando, Florida, Quentin at age 9 notices the unconventional girl Margo the day she and her family move into a house across the street. Margo is restless, pensive, and adventurous. Quentin has a crush on her and so he sometimes joins her on her strange adventures, which often involve breaking and entering. She drifts away from him, however, and by high school she has a circle of popular friends that doesn’t include Quentin. Yet one thing doesn’t change: dissatisfied as ever with life as it is, she seems always to be searching for something. One night near the end of senior year she knocks on Quentin’s window, something she hasn’t done for years, and induces him to join her on a night of prankish revenge; the targets are her circle of “friends” who, she believes, betrayed her trust. The next day she doesn’t appear in school and Quentin learns that she has left home. This is something she has done before at various times, so her parents are more exasperated than worried. Besides, at age 18, she is free to go where she wants. As always was her habit, she left obscure clues to her whereabouts. Convinced he is in love with Margo, Quentin follows the clues and concludes she has gone to a paper town in upstate New York. Quentin and four other classmates drive north to find Margo.

The bulk of the movie is the road trip with Quentin and friends. The film is reminiscent in an odd way of the classic 80s Brat Pack movie The Breakfast Club in that it is mostly teen characters verbally expressing their teen angst and desires. Does Margo find what she seeks at the end of the road? Do any of the characters? Is Quentin really in love, and if so is it requited? Is location the real issue? The answers are spoilers, so the viewer, if interested, can watch the movie to find out.

Not all teen movies transcend their target demographic, and this is not one that does. I suspect teens, by and large, will like it, but adults might find themselves looking at their watches. I did.

Self/less (2015)
One way to escape (if you can figure out the technical details) is to leave your own body behind. I suspect Tarsem Singh’s Self/less was inspired primarily by the 1966 scifi drama Seconds starring Rock Hudson, though strictly speaking it isn’t a remake, the ’66 flick is better, and the transfer of consciousness is a plot device used in many books and movies. [I employed it in a couple of my own short stories including Graduation Day] Self/less has a dismal rating on Rotten Tomatoes. It is not really as bad as all that, but time and again it missed opportunities to be better.

Damien (Ben Kingsley) is an aging one-percenter with mere months to live. He learns of a secret process called “shedding” developed by an eccentric scientist, and pays a quarter of billion dollars for a new body (Ryan Reynolds) and a new identity. The transfer of his identity into the new body is a success and Damien, now going by the name Edward, still has plenty of resources to live the life of rich playboy, which for a while is what he does. He has been told the new body was genetically engineered and grown in a lab, but when Edward fails to take his medication he gets flashbacks and realizes the body belonged (or perhaps, properly, belongs) to someone else. He clandestinely learns more about his host, and then deliberately seeks out the wife and daughter of the corpus’ previous occupant. This endangers the secrecy of the body-swap organization, which responds violently, leading to car chases and flying bullets.

Part of the problem with the script/acting/direction is that the Damien we meet at the beginning of the movie showed no inclination for the sort of selfless heroics that he demonstrates as Edward. It is hard to regard him in any way as the same person. On the contrary, the original Damien strikes us as someone who would take his medication for suppressing flashbacks and not worry too much about the source of his new body. The movie hints at several philosophical questions about mortality, wealth, and morality, but doesn’t ever do more than hint. The scriptwriters and actors perhaps would have been better either to explore those questions or to take a more lighthearted approach as in, for example, Face Off. As it stands, Self/less is somewhat somber for an adventure film, and for all its potential, is no more than OK.

Damien extended his life by relocating to another body, and arguably that is reason enough to do it. As was the case with the traveling teens of Paper Towns, however, the new location is not necessarily a recipe for happiness. If you can’t be happy in your own skin, you’re not likely to be happy in someone else’s.

Frank Sinatra - Under My Skin


  1. I would probably have a hard time with Paper Town as well. I just can't relate to modern teens (I have a hard enough time with adults) though as you said, I'm probably not the target market for the film.

    I thought I would really enjoy Seconds, but really it didn't do that much for me. It seemed like an extended Twilight Zone episode in some ways--though I loved the Twilight Zone TV series. Face Off I liked even less. Self/less seems like a good idea for a movie, but perhaps executed poorly. Kingsley is generally watchable however.

    1. The best movies are of their time/place/demographic but transcend it -- adults can enjoy the better Disney cartoons for example. Most flicks don't manage the feat.

      Self/less had very good actors. It's too bad they didn't have a better script.

  2. And when I saw the trailer for "Self/less" I thought, hey, that sounds like "Seconds". :) I thought that a pretty good remake could be made of that older film, but it sounds like they got their wires crossed in the script process. That's a shame, because the concept has potential.

    As you said body swapping to extend life has been around for a long time. One of my favorite H.P. Lovecraft stories, "The Case of Charles Dexter Ward" deal with that. They made a pretty solid movie out of it called "The Resurrected".

    I've never actually seen "Seconds", but it looks intriguing. And that score by Goldsmith is a doozy!

    1. I think the producers were concerned that audiences wouldn't sit for an identity crisis (though it works for Hamlet), so they pushed for Self/less to be an action film. This might have worked -- it almost did -- but the action seemed grafted. One could get rid of the body swap and cut right to the action with some lame excuse -- "the bad guys want to kill this good guy because of xyz" -- and viewers would not notice anything was missing.