Friday, November 23, 2012

Movie Review: Son of Frankenstein (1939)

[Note: Once again, the review of this 70+ year old movie contains spoilers]

Son of Frankenstein represents the third of Universal Studio's Frankenstein films and the final appearance of Boris Karloff as the Creature. In the first film, Frankenstein (1931), we saw the creation of the monster by Henry Frankenstein (Colin Clive) in his laboratory in an abandoned medieval watchtower and the Creature's subsequent rampage. The Creature is believed to be killed at the end of the first movie as the windmill he escapes to is burned down by a torch wielding mob. The first sequel, The Bride of Frankenstein (1935), begins while the wreckage of the windmill is still smoking. The Creature, which survived the fire when he fell into a cistern below the windmill, immediately begins a second, much more subdued rampage. Eventually, Frankenstein's creation gains a friend in the form of a blind hermit. The Creature learns to talk and, at the prompting of would-be monster maker Dr. Pretorius (Ernest Thesiger), demands that Frankenstein build him a companion. The monster-making is a success while the matchmaking is not. After telling his creator to leave and save himself, the Creature declares "we belong dead!" before throwing a switch that overloads Frankenstein's equipment and destroys the tower. This of course kills the Creature...

Well, actually it doesn't. And, to top it off, in this second sequel the Creature is no longer capable of speech. These are the biggest qualms I have with Son of Frankenstein. As much as I disliked the first half of The Bride of Frankenstein, once the monster learns to talk the film takes a sharp turn and becomes the film it should have been. The final scene of the first sequel is absolutely perfect and is a highpoint of classic cinema. Then Son of Frankenstein comes along and undoes all the good stuff. The only thing carried over from The Bride of Frankenstein is the exploded tower located within easy walking distance of Castle Frankenstein... wait, what? In the previous movies the Frankenstein family had a nice home in town. Henry Frankenstein deliberately chose the watchtower as the site of his laboratory for its remoteness. Why do they suddenly have an ancestral castle on the same grounds as the ruined tower? This latter inconsistency doesn't bother me as much as the fact that Son of Frankenstein effectively ignores all the plot and character development of the preceding film, but it is a bit distracting.

Anyway, the movie begins with a meeting of the town council of Frankenstein (the town is apparently named after the barons' family now). The councilors are concerned about the fact that Baron Wolf von Frankenstein (Basil Rathbone), son of the deceased Henry Frankenstein, will soon arrive with his family to claim Castle Frankenstein. The townsfolk haven't forgotten about the death and horror that Henry's creation brought to their village and the name Frankenstein is now a curse among them. When the young baron and his family get off the train, they're given a cold welcome by the locals. Frankenstein attempts a lame apology, but it's obvious that he admires his father's work.

It was at this point that I realized that, deliberately or not, The Bride of Frankenstein's awkward attempt to shift the era in which the story takes place works to Son of Frankenstein's advantage. The original film appeared to be set in the year in which it was filmed (i.e., the early '30s) while the first sequel moved the story back to what seemed to be the late 1800s. The events of Frankenstein delayed the wedding of Henry Frankenstein and Elizabeth until immediately before the creation of the Bride in The Bride of Frankenstein. However, the protagonist of the second sequel is Wolf von Frankenstein; the adult son of Henry Frankenstein who is married and has a young son of his own. The clothing and automobiles indicate that this sequel takes place in the '30s, which could only be the case if the events of The Bride of Frankenstein were indeed meant to occur decades before the movie was filmed.

Also interested in Wolf von Frankenstein's arrival is Ygor (Bela Lugosi). As I mentioned in my review of Frankenstein, the only hunchback present during the creation of the first monster was Fritz, who was killed shortly thereafter. Ygor had also been in the grave robbing business until he was convicted and hanged for it. Although the hanging broke his neck and he was pronounced dead, the now-deformed Ygor eventually revived. Since he was hanged as sentenced, and since he had been declared dead, the authorities decided that he should simply be considered dead. Rejected, Ygor began to lurk around the then-abandoned Castle Frankenstein and the ruined watchtower, moving at will throughout the buildings thanks to a series of secret passages. He continues to hide on the grounds even after the Frankensteins move into the castle.

As a medical doctor and as the scientist's son, Wolf von Frankenstein can't help but to be fascinated by Henry Frankenstein's work. However, he has no serious intention to continue his father's legacy; a fact the townsfolk don't believe for a moment. The kindly Inspector Krogh (Lionel Atwill) begins to visit the castle, ostensibly to offer the family his protection in case they have troubles with the villagers. This is at least partially motivated by the fact that six prominent citizens of the town have died recently under mysterious circumstances; the townsfolk blame the supposedly dead monster. However, Krogh eventually makes it clear that there will be no monster-making on his watch. Frankenstein, still eager to defend his father's reputation, challenges the Inspector to list a single confirmed atrocity committed by the Creature. This proves to be a mistake; the Inspector is missing his right arm due to an unfortunate childhood encounter with the monster.

Not long after settling into the castle, Frankenstein investigates the ruins of his father's laboratory. He notes, among other things, that a pit of boiling sulfur was exposed when the watchtower exploded (plot point!). Also noteworthy is the presence of the skulking Ygor, who has need of the services of a Frankenstein with a medical degree. He takes the young baron into the underground chamber where Frankenstein's father and grandfather are buried. Ygor leads him to the back of the chamber where his sick friend lies. I'll give you three guesses as to who Ygor's friend is.

That's right; Ygor's friend is the not quite dead Creature. The monster had survived the watchtower's explosion and had remained on the premises for years until Ygor found him. He had recently fallen into a coma after having been struck by lightning. The statement that the Creature had been "hunting" at the time of the accident, Ygor's suspicious behavior, and the fact that Ygor is played by Bela Lugosi, indicate that their relationship may not be based on a simple need for mutual companionship.

Eager to learn more about the "miracle" that his father achieved, Frankenstein uses a tarp as a makeshift roof and begins to study the comatose monster in his father's old laboratory with the aide of his faithful butler and lab assistant, Benson (Edgar Norton). Even while unconscious, the Creature's blood pressure is three times higher than normal, his heart rate is incredibly high, and the two bullets in his chest seem to have little effect on him. The Creature's physiology proves to be superhuman at the cellular level, as well. Eventually, Frankenstein attempts to jump start the monster with a jolt of electricity. When this fails to revive the Creature, Frankenstein declares that nothing more can be done.

When Inspector Krogh visits again, Frankenstein is clearly nervous and chooses his words carefully; no, he's not been making monsters in his father's laboratory (it's technically true since he's actually trying to wake up a preexisting monster). A visit from Frankenstein's son, Peter (Donnie Dunagan), offers the baron an excuse for breaking off an uncomfortable line of questioning... well, at least until Peter starts talking about the giant that visited him in his room. The giant seemed friendly enough so the boy gave him a picture book. Frankenstein, visibly disturbed, excuses himself and claims that he has to get back to an experiment (which is technically true, I guess).

The doctor arrives in an empty laboratory where the comatose monster is noticeably absent. Frankenstein pockets a knife and is starting to prepare some sort of chemical concoction (a poison or a tranquilizer maybe?) when the Creature arrives. The monster is clearly confused and disturbed. He half-heartedly begins to strangle his creator's son until Ygor arrives and calls the monster off. Frankenstein, realizing that the Creature obeys only Ygor, tells him to keep the monster in the tower until the doctor can find some way to fix his mental derangement. In Ygor's estimation, however, the monster's current condition is perfectly acceptable.

As the astute viewer may have guessed, Ygor has been using his influence over the monster to exact his revenge on the jury that sentenced him to be hanged. Six are already dead and two more are scheduled to meet Ygor's friend. The townsfolk begin to get restless when those two are finally killed. To make matters worse, Benson disappeared after visiting the watchtower and hasn't been seen since the night of the most recent murders. While Frankenstein confronts Ygor about the dead jurors, Inspector Krogh manages to question Peter while his father is away. Peter tells the Inspector that the giant visited him again and gave him a watch. The dedication inside the watch cover shows that it belongs to the missing butler.

Before Frankenstein can send his wife and son off to Brussels (supposedly for nothing more than an innocent vacation), a mob gathers at the gates of Castle Frankenstein. Inspector Krogh makes yet another visit and delivers the news that the mob has agreed to disperse if Frankenstein is arrested. The Inspector allows himself to be delayed in his duty, knowing that Frankenstein is not directly involved in the murders but suspecting that the doctor knows a lot more than he claims. Frankenstein declares that Ygor is somehow involved and vows to throw him off his lands. While the baron rushes off, the Inspector finds the secret passageway in Peter's room that has allowed the Creature to visit the boy. Within the passage is Benson's dead body.

Ygor attacks Frankenstein the moment he enters the watchtower. The doctor came prepared, though, and the man who survived the gallows doesn't survive the bullets put into his chest (or maybe he does; Ygor returns in the third sequel). Almost as soon as Frankenstein leaves, the Creature arrives to find his friend dead and cries out in despair. While destroying the laboratory in anger, he happens to see the picture book Peter gave him earlier. His thoughts turning to revenge, the Creature uses the secret passage to enter Peter's room and kidnap him.

The Creature takes Peter to the watchtower and very nearly throws him into the boiling sulfur pit. However, as the only living being that has shown him any kindness, the monster finds that he can't bring himself to kill the boy. When Krogh shows up, the Creature becomes violent and attacks the Inspector. He manages to rip off Krogh's fake arm and gets a few bullets in the chest in return. The hot lead fails to slow the monster. Frankenstein has more success when he grabs hold of a rope and swings himself into the Creature, knocking him off balance and causing him to fall into the boiling pit. Thus the Creature is finally destroyed... or not (Lon Chaney Jr. replaces Boris Karloff in the role when the Creature returns in The Ghost of Frankenstein (1942)).

With the apparent destruction of the monster (you'd think they'd realize by now that a monster isn't really dead if there isn't a body), Wolf von Frankenstein finally restores the family name by granting the castle and its grounds to the town.

I'm torn on this movie. Unlike its predecessor, it's consistently good. I much prefer Basil Rathbone's Wolf von Frankenstein to Colin Clive's Henry Frankenstein, Lionel Atwill's Inspector Krogh makes for a good secondary hero, and I enjoyed every minute that Bela Lugosi was on the screen. Even though Boris Karloff's creature can be a murderous brute, he still manages to earn some sympathy. The film doesn't even inflict any odious comic relief characters on us (I still hate the damage that Minnie did to the first sequel). And yet I can't stand that everything good about The Bride of Frankenstein has been undone or ignored.

Without explanation, all the Creature's character development from the previous movie has been wiped away, relegating him to the role of superhuman menace that he had in the original film. The confused mute that we see in Son of Frankenstein might as well have just crawled out of the ruins of Frankenstein's burning windmill. Only the shattered remains of the watchtower laboratory remind us that a despairing Creature once proclaimed "we belong dead!" before trying to end his and the Bride's unnatural lives. I was genuinely disappointed to realize that the Creature may have survived to see another film, but we had lost the powerful character Boris Karloff gave us in the The Bride of Frankenstein.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Movie Review: Avatar (2009)

[This review contains mild spoilers since the movie's huge box office numbers suggest that I might be one of the last people to have seen it.]

After having depleted the Earth and effectively destroyed its biosphere, humanity has spread to the stars in search of natural resources. By the year 2154 the Resources Development Administration (RDA) has begun to heavily mine Pandora, a rain forest-covered moon orbiting the gas giant Polyphemus. The mineral that most interests RDA is unobtanium; an extremely rare element with vaguely defined properties. (The more common spelling of this frequently recurring fictitious element is "unobtainium".)

Unfortunately for RDA, Pandora is also inhabited by a sentient species called the Na'vi, a clan of which lives inside an enormous tree (simply called "Hometree" by the natives) that grows over some of the richest deposits of unobtanium. Irreconcilable differences between the Na'vi and humanity have led to the failure of all previous attempts to negotiate with the large blue natives. Dialogue early in the film suggests that the trigger-happy security force lead by Colonel Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang) is to blame for much of the difficulty.

In a final attempt to relocate the natives relatively peacefully, RDA has brought in a group of scientists to carry out the Avatar Program. An avatar is an artificially grown Na'vi-human hybrid that is controlled remotely by the human whose DNA was used in its production. During the connection, the operator essentially becomes the avatar while remaining completely oblivious to his or her human body that remains in the operator's booth. The use of avatars not only allows the scientists to more easily explore the moon (the fauna is highly dangerous and the atmosphere is unbreathable for humans), but it also facilitates interaction between humans and Na'vi. The head of the Avatar Project, Dr. Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver) briefly ran a school among the aliens that succeeded in teaching English to a surprising number of them. Although the avatars are very similar to the Na'vi, they're different enough that the aliens readily recognize the "dreamwalkers" (the use of human-style clothing doesn't exactly make for great camouflage, either). Augustine's time among the aliens has earned her some of their trust, but most see the avatars as unnatural, soulless creatures.

Our protagonist is paraplegic ex-marine Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), who lost the use of his legs in the line of duty. Unlike his fellow avatar operators, who are scientists that have studied Na'vi language and culture extensively, Jake was chosen merely because his scientist twin-brother was murdered shortly before he was to leave for Pandora. Jake may not be a highly trained scientist, but the fact that his DNA is identical to that of his brother means that his avatar won't go to waste.

Sully arrives at Pandora after spending the multi-year trip in cryosleep. Augustine thinks Sully is another dumb gunslinger while Colonel Quaritch sees him as someone who can get inside Na'vi society and serve as an intelligence source. It's revealed that RDA intends to bulldoze Hometree relatively soon in order to get to the unobtanium desposit. The RDA administrator, Parker Selfridge (Giovanni Ribisi) and Colonel Quaritch want Sully to convince the aliens to leave the tree willingly, but the bulldozers will be coming whether they leave or not.

Although Augustine gives Sully the dirty job as the team's bodyguard, the ex-marine is just happy to be able to walk again through his avatar. During his first mission, though, Sully is separated from his group when he's chased by a predator. He eventually loses the creature but becomes thoroughly lost himself. While wandering in the jungle, a female native sees him from a distance and begins to draw her bow. The only thing that prevents her from killing him is a feathered type of seed that lands on the tip of her arrow. She begins to follow him at a discreet distance.

That night, Sully's avatar is attacked by hyena-like predators. Just as he's about to be overwhelmed, the female Na'vi, Neytiri (Zoe Saldana), comes to his rescue. Sully tries to thank her, but Neytiri is disgusted that Sully's clumsiness brought the predators to him and made it necessary to kill them. Sully insists on following her anyway, which Neytiri tries to prevent until Sully becomes surrounded by the odd seeds. The seeds turn out to be from a sacred tree and their presence is taken as an omen by Neytiri. She takes Sully to meet her clan (she just so happens to be the daughter of the chieftain) where she is ordered to teach him the ways of the Na'vi to see if the human's "insanity" can be cured.

Sully starts to sympathize with the Na'vi and falls in love with Neytiri. He also learns that the Na'vi's worship of a nature goddess they call Eywa isn't merely native mythology; all plant and animal life on Pandora is neurologically linked, with the moon's trees acting as a type of neural network. Eywa is effectively the collective consciousness of the world's biosphere. Thus enlightened, Sully eventually proves his worthiness to the clan and is adopted into it. When the bulldozers finally come, Sully attempts to disable them and ends up making an enemy of Colonel Quaritch. Sully is allowed one more chance to inhabit his avatar in order to attempt some last minute negotiations with the clan, but his subsequent failure gets him branded as a traitor by both the humans and the aliens. As Hometree burns, Sully's avatar is left unconscious on the forest floor and his human body is thrown in the brig. A daring rescue puts Sully back in a hidden avatar operator's booth. When the Na'vi's trust is regained, Sully organizes a resistance to his former employers.

Let's go over the good stuff first:
For starters, Avatar doesn't commit the unpardonable movie sin; i.e., it isn't boring. I actually enjoyed the movie quite a bit. James Cameron and Weta Digital are justly credited with creating one of the most visually impressive films ever, with nearly flawless CGI and motion capture effects. Pandora's animal and plant life look amazing while the design of the human technology is impressive in its own way. As soon as I saw the RDA's Amplified Mobility Platform walkers (which look like they stepped straight out of Warhammer 40,000), I immediately wanted one. (Note to filmmakers: if you make your villains' weapons cooler than your heroes', the audience might want to identify with the bad guys.)

Certain sci-fi elements are also interesting. The Na'vi's faith in Eywa and their worship of trees are obviously meant to be analogous to the various beliefs, whether literal or figurative, of a variety of ancient religions and of many environmentalists. I don't share those beliefs, but I'm a sucker for any concept wrapped in a good sci-fi package. Once the mythology is stripped away and it's revealed that Pandora's biosphere is linked in a way that Earth's never was, even I can understand the Na'vi's tree hugger mentality. Hidden in what appears to be a long braid, each member of the Na'vi has an exposed nerve bundle that corresponds to similar bundles on Pandora's other animals. When these bundles come into contact, the Na'vi and the animals form a mental bond. The bundles can even be used to link with Pandora's trees. One particular tree, the Tree of Souls, contains the memories of generations of Na'vi, which the living natives can access.

Obviously the Na'vi refuse to allow the humans to harm the trees because they're an essential part of the moon's linked biosphere. This is particularly true of Hometree since it's a major node in the network. Later in the film it's implied that the world's high degree of biological interconnectivity has given rise to a real intelligence that the natives know as Eywa. And just as the bodies of terrestrial creatures can muster antibodies to protect themselves from infection, Eywa is apparently able to direct the various life forms of which it's composed to defend against the human invaders.

Now for the film's weaknesses:
Avatar certainly has a lot of eye candy and several interesting ideas for sci-fi buffs. Unfortunately, like the Star Wars prequels, a lot of effort went into the visuals and general ideas and not quite as much into the plot or the characters. When I saw the first trailers I thought, "Oh, so Cameron made Dances with Wolves... In Space!" Now that I've seen the movie I realize that my first impression was pretty accurate. For all its sci-fi window dressing, the story of Avatar has already been done and has been done better. The movie is predictable to the point of absurdity. This problem is most eloquently summarized by Eric D. Snider: "Once the basics have been established and the story starts moving, you could stop the film at any point, guess what’s going to happen next, and be right almost every time."

Much of Avatar's predictability stems from the fact that Cameron infused the film with ham-fisted anti-imperialist and anti-business messages. My problem is not necessarily that the movie has a leftward slant (conservatives have to get used to that), but that Cameron chose to present his heroes and villains in a comically stereotypical way.

The good guys are obviously the Na'vi. While the aliens' biology is interesting, their culture is not. They may look like giant blue aliens, but they're essentially a generic and idealized race of Native Americans... in space! At least the Native Americans in Dances with Wolves (1990) were portrayed as real people; much of that movie revolves around the conflict between the Sioux and Pawnee tribes. In Avatar there appears to be no rivalry between the various tribes of Na'vi. All was peace and love among the Na'vi until the eeevil humans arrived.

And then there are the villains. Our first view of the RDA complex might as well have had SYMBOLISM flashing in big letters across the screen. The drab facility has huge refinery-style smokestacks belching smoke and flame into Pandora's blue sky. This scene makes little sense given that it's set in the year 2154 when humanity has the capability of interstellar travel. Is RDA actually supposed to be using fossil fuels? If so, why are the emissions of this 22nd century facility worse than those of modern facilities? Is RDA supposed to be like one of those ridiculous villains from the Captain Planet cartoon series who deliberately pollutes?

Then we see how RDA is organized, with Selfridge acting as the nominal administrator while the head of security, Colonel Quaritch, serves as the de facto authority. RDA might as well be called "Military-Industrial Complex, Inc." Both Selfridge and Quaritch are callous individuals who care little for the natives' lives, let alone their land rights. Selfridge actually calls the Na'vi "fly-bitten savages", although he occasionally has the decency to look uncomfortable with the thought of killing them outright if they don't relocate. Quaritch, on the other hand, is downright eager to send his army directly into Hometree. If Avatar had been made during the golden age of film, the climax would have seen Neytiri tied up and about to be run over by a slow moving bulldozer while a fiendishly chuckling Colonel twirled his long black mustache.

James Cameron completely stacks the deck by giving us utterly irredeemable two-dimensional villains. The movie tries to convince us that Sully's change of allegiance is a hard decision, but it's an obvious choice for anybody with a hint of conscience. Cameron's Na'vi are the noblest of beings while RDA's administrators are motivated by pure, unadulterated greed. I have to wonder if Cameron or the makers of tripe like Captain Planet really believe that businessmen and corporations are so cartoonishly evil. Does Cameron even know where the plastic, metal, silicon, and electricity that make his movies possible come from? It's the height of hypocrisy for someone like Cameron to praise a culture such as the Na'vi's and deride the modern lifestyle when he owns an 8,272 square foot mansion. That's a mighty big glass house to be throwing stones in.

What Cameron's story really needs is moral complexity as well as a true dilemma for the protagonist. Sci-fi and Fantasy writer Orson Scott Card excels at this. While his novels often have bad guys, Card always portrays them as human beings who do bad things rather than as caricatures that the reader is expected to reflexively hate. At the same time, his heroes have realistic flaws or weaknesses. Often the conflict between Card's characters or societies stem from misunderstandings or unfortunate circumstances rather than from evil intentions or actions.

Avatar could have been so much better if RDA's personnel weren't so comically evil and the conflict between the Na'vi and the humans were more realistic. A much more nuanced version could have gone something like this:

RDA has established itself on Pandora in order to mine unobtanium. Earth is a dying world and the rare energy-producing mineral may very well be its final hope. In this version, however, money is an incentive but not the primary motive; Administrator Selfridge is proud of his role in trying to save mankind. Unfortunately, his concern for his own species has made him insensitive to the rights of the Na'vi and the health of Pandora. Recent communications with Earth suggest that circumstances there are worsening. RDA's schedule has thus been shortened since any unobtanium will require nearly seven years' worth of travel to reach Earth. 'Desperate times call for desperate measures' has become the administrator's motto.

Colonel Quaritch is no longer the mustache twirling villain but a career soldier who follows the civilian authority (in this case, Selfridge) and generally keeps his opinions to himself. Like Selfridge, he understands the importance of the mission to humanity. To him, the Na'vi represent a threat to the success of that mission. He takes no pleasure in the thought of displacing the Na'vi and, having an extensive knowledge of military history, recognizes the parallels between his current assignment and the notorious Trail of Tears. However, human civilization, to which he owes his loyalty, faces an existential crisis. In addition, Quaritch values his men and sees their safety as his responsibility. During his time on Pandora, the Colonel has become embittered by the losses his force has suffered from attacks by Na'vi clans.

The Na'vi of this revised Avatar remain self aware and retain their nature-worshiping culture. However, the film would more fully consider how the Na'vi would be affected by developing on a world where all plant and animal life are interconnected. Eywa, the super-consciousness formed by that interconnectedness, permeates their conscious and subconscious minds. Although capable of speech, so much of the beings' language is dependent on non-verbal communication through Pandora's neural network that to reach a true understanding with humans is nearly impossible. Although they can seemingly speak the same language, and despite RDA's good-faith efforts to communicate with them, humanity is utterly alien to the Na'vi and vice versa. This leads to frequent conflict and has made Selfridge and Quaritch even more desperate.

As RDA's scientists begin to study Pandora through their avatars, they become aware of the presence of the super-consciousness. Jake Sully's brain is more sensitive to Eywa and he begins to better understand the Na'vi's point of view, especially as he spends time with Neytiri. Even more importantly, he understands that RDA's actions could seriously damage Pandora's unique biosphere and, by disrupting the super-consciousness, devastate the Na'vi physiologically as well as culturally. Given the choice between obtaining a mineral that might help humanity, whose irresponsibility landed it in its current situation, and preserving a vibrant culture that still has a future, Sully chooses to side with his adopted species. The humans' desperation results in a large scale conflict with the natives and Sully must fight against his own people to preserve the Na'vi long enough to reach some sort of accord.

I have no idea whether a more balanced take would have been as popular as what Cameron delivered. By the end of Cameron's movie, just about any viewer will find himself cheering on the Na'vi as they kill the human invaders. A version in which even the villains have flawed but understandable motives would make every Na'vi and human death a tragedy. I'm not sure if that would have sold more tickets, but I think it would have made the story a lot more evenhanded and convinced many viewers to think of Avatar as something more than just eye candy.

But I have to admit that I look forward to the sequels.


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