by Lucius Shepard
In the years before the death of rock and roll, back when Big Oil was the name of a crappy blues band from Muskegon and crows wearing sunglasses plucked rusty solos from their barbed wire perches, there used to be something called Alternative or Indie Rock. It was a vital and necessary part of the music, a vein of creativity and eccentricity that refreshed and invigorated the mainstream. But then one day the purveyors of corporate rock turned Indie into a marketing category and, to cut a long story short, they essentially killed the entire indie scene and we were overrun by a superfluity of Brittanys and Biebers . . . and by so-called “indie” acts that are in effect the Madame Tussaud’s version of rock and roll. That is a gross oversimplification of how things went down, of course, but work with me here.
Today more-or-less the same thing is happening to indie film. Whereas once an independent film was defined by a low budget and an emphasis on character and story, now—though we still have indie films that fit that description—we’re seeing increasing numbers of “indie” movies with eight-figure budgets, movie stars and the support of if not the studios, then of important Hollywood people and their important money: Films like Sideways that affect indie values, but are basically R-rated sitcoms and soap operas that play to middlebrow intellectuals, giving them the impression that what they have witnessed is intrinsically more intellectually nourishing than an episode of S**t My Dad Says. Sundance and other film festivals once intended as showcases for indie pictures have become a home to major studio promotions and strutting directors and overmedicated actors—you stand as good a chance of running into Lindsay Lohan at next year’s Sundance wearing mink chaps and strips of Scotch tape over her naughty bits as you do of meeting any diehard indie folk. This has squeezed a good many excellent films out of the festival line-ups that offer them their best hope of securing wide distribution, and as a result our theatrical choices have become increasingly limited. It doesn’t take much imagination to see where this is leading: thousands of multiplexes all across the nation playing half-a-dozen mega-movies that make today’s most moronic films seem like the full-bodied descendants of Citizen Kane and nurture audiences of dim-witted proles who, when the evil space folk arrive, will mistake their menace for the deliverance promised by Republican congressmen and will rush forward eagerly to be eaten, vaporized, or conveyed en masse to the planet Boovah where they will be sold as house pets, neglected, and ultimately flushed down the alien equivalent of a toilet into the muck beneath, there to breed a newly debased form of humanity.
Is this an overstatement?
To anyone who has endured the first decade of America’s new millennium, it might be seen as a relatively optimistic prognosis.
We’re currently experiencing a wave of science fiction films made on the cheap that in one way or another qualify for indie status—films like Moon, District 9, and, the indie-est of them all, Gareth Edwards’ debut feature, Monsters. Edwards shot his movie on a micro-budget (a reported 15K) in Central America and Texas, with a crew consisting of himself, a sound man, and two actors. The script was improvised and the secondary actors were amateurs hired from the indigenous population (including a man hired ten minutes before his scenes were shot who does a nice job of portraying a usurious ticket seller). As the story goes, a NASA probe carrying samples of alien life crashed in Mexico six years before and from those samples has developed a population of many-tentacled land octopi (or squid) the size of apartment blocks. This has created an infected zone that occupies much of northern and central Mexico and is subject not only to attacks by the monsters, but to firefights and intermittent bombing by US forces. Most of the people native to the region are too poor to relocate and so they live amidst the ruins, in a landscape littered with huge alien corpses, shattered tanks, and downed warplanes, suffering the assaults of monsters and soldiers and bombs alike—suggesting that the cure may be as bad as the disease, graffiti on a demolished building reads Who Are The Monsters? An immense fortified wall stands along the United States-Mexican border, but has proved ineffective at containing the aliens and has been abandoned. Though there are obvious parallels to be drawn between the scenario of the film and the real-world problems shared by Mexico and the US, Edwards doesn’t belabor the point . . . but even if he did, so what? Those problems are worth restating now and again. We have a sufficiency of films with no political substance whatsoever. Lack of substance has only recently been recognized as a virtue by Hollywood
Into this brutalized environment comes a cynical photojournalist, Andrew Kaulder (Scoot McNairy), hoping to obtain pictures of the monsters and their victims—as he himself states he’ll be paid nothing for a photo of a happy child, yet can make fifty thousand for the photo of a child killed by the monsters. When directed by his employer to escort his daughter Samantha (Whitney Able) to the coast where she can get a ferry to the States, Kaulder reluctantly agrees. They arrive at the coast and purchase a ticket, but before the ferry can leave, the ticket is stolen, and they are forced to travel upriver and then overland through the heart of the infected zone to the border. During the journey they grow close and this is where the film separates itself from the general run of monster flicks, for it becomes evident that Edwards’ focus is not fixed upon the SFnal elements of his story—he’s not in the least concerned with a solution to the problem of the aliens, with the improbable, world-saving heroics that are usually the focus of genre movies, but instead is interested in the burgeoning romance between Samantha and Caulder, and in the lives of the people dwelling in the infected zone.
If you’re looking for a classic monster movie with tons of action and gore and jump-scares up the wazoo, Monsters is definitely not your cup of tea. However, I was predisposed to like the movie because for quite a while I’ve wanted to see films that used science fiction to shade their story, to color it, rather than resort to the Johnny’s-Got-A-Problem type of plot that dominates genre cinema. And like it I did. Shot without the use of filters, the movie has a great naturalistic look and the CGI effects (handled by Edwards, whose background is in special effects) are excellent, more realistic than the FX in many mega-budget films. I thought at first that the two leads, McNair and Able, were underplaying their roles, but as the movie went along at its patient, fever-dream-like pace, I realized this was part of Edwards’ design—their uncertainty and the understated quality of their growing relationship expresses the confusion of their circumstance, the hesitancy of people trapped in a situation with which they are ill-prepared to cope. By focusing on the ordinary and eschewing spectacle, Edwards’ cleverly constructed movie brings a mumblecore approach to the genre that is both refreshing and emotionally nuanced . . . and yet the picture ends on a note that captures the sense of wonder so often associated with science fiction, one that resonates perfectly with the fates of its two main characters.
Something To Keep An Eye Out For: End of Animal, a film by new Korean director Jo Sung-Hee, has been receiving a lot of hype and I was lucky enough to score a copy. A young, very pregnant woman, Soon-Yung, is on her way to see her mother, riding in a taxi along a deserted road. The driver picks up a teenager, his face hidden by the bill of a baseball cap, who begins to tell Soon-Yung details of her life that he could not possibly know. Not long afterward, an apocalyptic even occurs. Cars and cell phones are rendered inoperable, and Soon-Yung finds herself abandoned, alone on the road, imperiled by every stranger she encounters. End of Animal is a dark and violent movie with religious/supernatural overtones—think David Koepp’s EM-pulse movie The Trigger Effect if it had been scripted by Cormac McCarthy. The picture is currently making the festival rounds and I have no idea when or if it will get a wide release; but you might want to seek it out in case it disappears. It suffers somewhat from budgetary constraints and has a few pacing problems, but otherwise is disturbing and brilliant, an auspicious feature debut that is all the more astonishing when you consider that Jo Sung-Hee made the film as a student project.
Skyline an example of the more expensive (ten-million budget) indie flick, is brought to us by the team who created AVP: Requiem, Greg and Colin Strause, who bill themselves as the Brothers Strause (it’s unclear whether this is done to capture some Old World cachet or is born of a sense of irony). It, too, is an alien invasion picture that focuses on the fates of a small group of people and, like Edwards, the Brothers Strause began their careers as special effects craftsmen; but there all resemblance between the two pictures ends. Jarrod (Eric Balfour) and his girlfriend, the newly pregnant Elaine (Scottie Thompson), arrive in LA to help Jarrod’s BFF, Terry (Donald Faison of Scrubs), celebrate his birthday, partying and subsequently staying overnight in his penthouse atop a waterfront apartment building. During the night blue lights beam down from the sky—stare into the light and capillaries burst on your skin, your eyes turn milky as in death, and then you disappear (remarkably, this rather extensive damage reverses itself if the victim should happen to survive the siren summons—it strikes me that having a few impaired survivors might have added a layer of depth to an almost depthless story). Shortly thereafter, vast mother ships appear floating above the city and are seen lifting thousands of humans through the air up into their maws. Flights of bio-mech fighters that resemble elements of the Matrix army sweep the city for survivors, as do huge bio-mech creatures that resemble a cross between a really, really big dog and a Transformer with an insect mouth. Natch, Earth fights back with Stealth fighters and helicopters, but they are soon knocked from the sky and it appears that humanity is beaten, doomed, defunct.
Jarrod and Elaine share a last kiss as they are sucked up into the sky and, if that were not ridiculous enough, this leads to one of the most risible endings in cinematic history.
Skyline is a film that, like so many genre pictures, is moved along by the stupidity of its characters. For instance, one of the characters observes that there are no ships hovering over the water and so the group attempts to get to the marina, where they plan to steal a boat and head out to sea. They fail to recognize what must be obvious—that the reason for the absence of people-hunting ships out on the ocean is that there are no people there. This sort of script tactic works well enough when the characters are fleshed out sufficiently to attract our interest, our sympathy, but the writing in Skyline verges on the pre-literate, the plot is a mash-up of Cloverfield, The Matrix, and several other films, and the characters are so ineptly realized and given such cliché-ridden dialog that any such identification is impossible.
The ending sets up the notion of a franchise, but judging by the reaction of the audience with whom I saw it—i.e., dead silence with the occasional outburst of laughter—one would think a sequel is unlikely. Indeed, if a sequel is made then I suspect we are closer to our new home on Planet Boovah than I dared to imagine.