In Welt am Draht (World on a Wire), going into a simulation is referred to as “going downstairs” while coming out is “going upstairs.”
Overview: You think you might have seen every VR-based movie, or know what to expect after watching The Matrix or Lawnmower Man for the thousandth time. Then someone points you to some rare foreign TV miniseries, and suddenly… WHOA! The Matrix doesn’t seem so original anymore, at least in terms of concept.
Transmit ACK signal to “virtual reality 91″ for mentioning this one (just needed some time to research and download). World on a Wire is a two-part TV movie originally called Welt am Draht when it first premiered in West Germany. Since then, other VR movies short and long have come and gone. While still available via file-sharing and torrent, a recently restored version has been appearing at film festivals world wide and a Blu-Ray version is set to drop this month.
The Story: At The Institute for Kybernetik und Zukunftsforschung (Institute for Cybernetics and Future Sciences), or IKZ, Professor Henry Vollmer has created a simulated world containing some 8,000 “identity units”; Virtual humans not knowing that they are living in a simulation, except for the “contact unit” named Einstein who is needed to keep the simulation running. Vollmer tries to tell security chief Lause about a discovery regarding the simulation that he wants to keep secret “Because it would mean the end of this world.” Vollmer dies shortly after and Stiller takes over as the project’s technical director. At a party, Lause wants to tell Stiller what Vollmer had told him, but while Stiller is momentarily distracted Lause vanishes, and every one else suddenly has no memory of him, including Lause’s niece, Eva Vollmer. When one of the identity units tries to commit suicide it is deleted, prompting Stiller to “enter” the simulation to contact Einstein to find out why the unit tried to kill itself. When they meet again, Einstein is in Walfang’s body where he explains how he wants to be human… and how “reality” as Stiller knows it isn’t.
German Engineering. So the Simulacron computer system isn’t exactly 21st centruy, bleeding edge technology. This is a 1970’s era movie after all. So there’s no fancy gun-fu shootouts with CGI enhanced slow-motion effects, rotoscoped armor to guard against laser-edged Frisbees, or pixelated sex between Unix GUI daemons.
But Welt am Draht isn’t about fancy high tech special effects. It’s about one man’s reaction when he discovers the truth about reality… his reality, as he perceives it. We watch Stiller’s struggle to keep his sanity in a world that seems to be designed for the purpose of destroying him. A Kafkaesque nightmare encoded in silicon, and his attempt to escape it. And if he does escape, has he really escaped… or just entered a new level of the nightmare?
What we see now is like a dim image in a mirror. Then we shall see face to face.
Mirror’s edge. The main effect of the movie, especially in part one, is a shot of an image in a mirror or similar reflective surface. This gives an extra disorienting feeling as we ponder if reality really is reality, and how do they manage to get all those mirror-shots without the film crew appearing in the reflections. Low tech, highly effective.
But unless you can speak German well enough, you might miss some of the mirror-shots while trying to read the subtitles. That’s the only thing keeping this from being a perfect 10. Then again, subtitles probably would be better than dubbing that comes out as “all your wiener schnitzel are belong to us.”
Is it live? Or is it simulated?
Conclusion: From the country that gave the world cruise and ballistic missiles, Fahrvergnügen, and Kraftwerk, Germany shows that they can come up with some inventive… and scary… technology. Welt am Draht is one of those rare pre-cyberpunk cyberpunk movies that needs to be seen to be believed. Especially when more recent films have aped the idea of VR with high-end graphic trickery, this one is enough proof that high-end does not mean high-quality.
The bots are back in the official “unofficial” sequel to Westworld. Actually, the makers, American International Pictures, was bought up by Filmways, which was bought up by Orion Pictures, which was bought up by MGM, who made Westworld.
Overview: The idea of making a (crappy) sequel to a popular movie isn’t exactly new, as Futureworld will show. As the now “official” sequel to Westworld,Futureworld tried to take the storyline into a new (some would say “misguided”) direction by answering the big unanswered question: Why did the robots suddenly turn on the human guests of Delos?
I managed to catch this on Reelz a few weeks back. I’ve been looking for a DVD for some time as well, but this rare film is… well… rare. I resorted to torrenting it to give you this review. I’ll keep on searching for it.
The Story: Reporter Chuck Browning (Fonda), who first reported the Westworld fiasco, gets a phone call from a person who says he has important information. When they meet, the contact dies, but uses his last breath to say why he needed to contact Browning… “Delos.”
The Delos Amusement Park is now set to reopen after two years and some $1 billion in “improvements,” and want Browning and fellow reporter Tracy Ballard (Danner) to visit the park and report on the improvements to show that it is now safe. Among the improvements made are the abandonment of Westworld in favor of the space adventure “Future world.” Browning soon discovers that the park has a more sinister operation behind it than just entertainment.
Another moment in cinematic history: Just as Westworld was the first to use 2D CGI, Futureworld is the first to use 3D CGI. The hand on the monitor is the first example.
A Gunslinger’s last stand.
Ballard gets to try out a brain-wave scanner. This is where we see Yul Brenner in his last movie role before his death in 1985. Meanwhile, Browning is watching it all through a scanner.
An unanswered question is answered. And now, the answer to the million dollar question: Why did the robots go screwloose and kill everyone in Delos?
Somehow, the robots were learning through their contact with the guests, and what they learn is that humans are a threat not only to them (the robots), but to the the planet as a whole:
“The human being is a very unstable, irrational, violent animal. All our probability studies indicate that, if left alone, you will destroy much of this planet before the end of the decade. We at Delos are determined to see that doesn’t happen. We don’t intend to be destroyed by your mistakes.”
To stop the humans, the robots came up with a plan:
Invite the world’s “elite”… the rich, the famous, the powerful and influential… to visit Delos park.
Drug the guest’s meals and measure and sample their inert bodies.
Create clone “duplicates.”
Program the duplicates to act on behalf of Delos.
Have the duplicates kill the guests.
Send the duplicates out into the world to work on behalf of Delos.
WORLD DOMINATION! (Why not? They already run Delos.)
But, is it cyberpunk? Like Westworld,Futureworld was made before anyone ever coined the word, so they could not have made this cyberpunk… at least not on purpose. The visuals aren’t there (even the access tunnels are brighter and cleaner than what one would expect), there are no hackers or underground resistors, and there’s no word on the state of the world in the movie other than the above mentioned probability studies. The added themes of corporate control (Delos’s plan) and the robots running the show do push Futureworld closer to being cyberpunk, but not totally into that arena.
Conclusion. Since its release, Futureworld has had a rather hard-knocked life of being constantly panned by critics (Rotten Tomatoes gives it only a 33% “Rotten” rating), some see it as a worthy sequel to Westworld. At least, it was worthy enough to attempt a television series, Beyond Westworld. I sort of liked it, but you may feel differently, depending on how you see ‘unofficial’ sequels.
Spring must be around the corner. I can hear the birds… flipping.
Feeling burned out from net surfing? Has the grind of cyberpunk turned you cortex to pudding? BOY HAVE WE GOT A VACATION FOR YOU! Come on down to Delos Amusement Park and play with our robots that have been programmed with your safety and enjoyment in mind. NOTHING CAN PUSSIB… POBABAB… POSSIBLY GO WORNG!
With Michael Crichton’s death earlier this month (04-Nov-2008), I’d thought I’d review one of his most classic movies because of its influence on cyberpunk. Though mostly known for his books-turned-movies like Jurassic Park and The Andromeda Strain and the television series ER, he has also written and directed several movies including Looker and Runaway.
Westworld primarily focuses on the theme of technology run amok, and very little… if anything… on the rest. Crichton’s theme-park-gone-fubar plot would be repeated in Jurassic Park, while the idea of robots gone berserk would appear a decade later in a low-budget piece featuring a then unknown Austrian muscle man, and in some other cyberpunk flicks since.
Murphy’s law in action. Delos Amusement Park is a near-futuristic adult playground divided into three areas corresponding to different time periods in world history; RomanWorld, MedievalWorld, and the titular WestWorld (briefly refered to as WesternWorld during an orientation video.
John Blaine (Brolin) is returning to WestWorld and brings his friend, Peter Martin, along to experience the six-shooting action where a Yul Brynner robot gunslinger is the main attraction. Things go smoothly… for a while. In the underground control centers, the park technicians notice that robot “malfunctions” are becoming more severe, until a guest is killed in MedievalWorld. Then they realize that even in a place where nothing can possibly go wrong, everything can go wrong.
The Three Laws revisited. While cyberpunk themes are lacking, there is a definite play on Asimov’s Three Laws at work. The First Law (protect humans) is obvious with The Gunslinger, who must always lose the duels he starts. The guns also enforce The First Law with sensors that disable firing when it senses it is pointed at a human.
The Second Law (obey humans) is seen in WestWorld’s whorehouses and MedievalWorld’s slave girls, who are programmed to comply with sexual advances of the guests. When a MedievalWorld slave girl rejects such a request, the technicians begin to suspect that things are about to take a turn for the worst.
The Third Law (protect self) is a bit harder to detect. The robots are programmed to put up a fight and will defend themselves… to a certain degree, but will always allow themselves to be beaten by the guests (again, The Gunslinger).
The Gunslinger gets a facelift… and some new optics.
OK, so why not cyberpunk? Other than being released before Bruce Bethke invented the word, what other factors keep Westworld from being a true cyberpunk movie? For one thing, we don’t see much of the world outside the park other than the opening minutes in the hovercraft lounge, so we don’t know what state the world is in. Then again, if average-looking schmoes (for the 70’s anyway) like Blaine and Martin can afford a grand a day to play with robots, the world can’t be in that bad of shape.
Perhaps the biggest reason why the “not cyberpunk” tag is the biggest weakness in the movie: The question of “Why did the robots go screw-loose?” is never answered. Bad software? Hardware flaw? “Outside” influences? If the question had been answered in this movie, it could have been a true cyberpunk movie… at least, its star rating would have been higher.
A moment in cinematic history: This chase scene is the first use of computer generated images (CGI) in a movie. Primitive by today’s standards, but groundbreaking for 1973.
Overview: Unquestionably, A Clockwork Orange has to be among the most recognizable names of pre-cyberpunk works, invoking surrealistic images of the old ultra violence, sex done to the William Tell Overture, models of naked girls as tables and beverage dispensers, chemically induced behavior modification, the threat of Karma,… and a bit of Beethoven for good measure. It has often been cited as inspiration for cyberpunk novels, and even Rob Zombie salutes the film in his video for “Never Gonna Stop (The Red Red Kroovy).” The subject matter, while speculating about 1995 from a 1960’s view, is still surprisingly relevant for 2007. With themes of street gangs, youth against the elderly, and forced behavioral changes against free will, one can swear the movie was more recent.
But can it be called a cyberpunk movie? There’s no question about the “punk,” but in all honesty, it’s a little thin on the “cyber” since there’s no ubiquitous access to information or man-machine fusion, though Alex does undergo a “reprogramming” in a skull-cap wired to machines to monitor his vital functions. The lack of “cyber” isn’t Mr. Kubric’s or Mr. Burgess’s fault, since nobody in the 60’s could have predicted the impact of computer technology when 1995 rolled around. It still doesn’t subtract much from this piece of cinema goodness that many agree is a timeless classic.
So grab a glass of milk mixed with your narcotic of choice, pull up a naked model table, brush up on your Nadsat, and vidi well, little brothers.
The Story: Starting at the Korova Milk Bar, Alex De Large and his “droogs” tear up the streets of a future England city, beating derelicts, fighting other gangs, raising hell on the roads, invading homes, raping women, then returning to the Korova for a nightcap when we learn Alex also has an ear for Beethoven. His fun comes to an end when, during a failed home invasion. Alex kills a woman and is ambushed by his droogs, leaving him for the police to capture, convict of murder, and sentence to forty years in prison.
Two years into his sentence, Alex learns of the Ludovico treatment. He wants to volunteer, but the Prison Chaplain expresses his doubts and tries to talk Alex out of it.
“The question is whether or not this technique really makes a man good. Goodness comes from within. Goodness is chosen. When a man cannot choose, he ceases to be a man.”
When the Minister of The Interior visits, he selects Alex for the Ludovico treatment. The treatment involves Alex being injected with an experimental serum and made to watch videos of violence and rape, where the serum causes unexpected results.
Dr. Brodsky (During Alex’s first “treatment”): “Very soon now, the drug will cause the subject to experience a deathlike paralysis together with deep feelings of terror and helplessness. One of our early test subjects described it as being like death. A sense of stifling or drowning. At this period we have found that the subject will make his most rewarding associations between his catastrophic experience, environment and the violence he sees.”
During one “treatment,” the doctors use Beethoven’s 9th Symphony as the background music while a Nazi propaganda was viewed. Alex objects to the use of the music, but the treatment continues, causing him to become conditioned to the piece.
“Stop it! Stop IT! STOP IT! Stop showing NEW ROSE HOTEL! IT’S NOT CYBERPUNK!!!!!
After the doctors show Alex’s treatment worked, he’s released back into society. That’s when the Universe plays the Karma card…
Whose Pawn Is He Anyway? The theme of free will versus society’s programming is quite dominant with the implications of the Ludovico treatment, but an underlying theme of people being used as pawns for political and personal gain is noticeable, especially when Alex returns to the home of Frank Alexander, whose house he and his droogs invaded and whose wife they raped. At first, Frank only recognizes Alex as the boy who went through the Ludovico program and calls a friend who can use him:
Frank Alexander: “He can be the most potent weapon imaginable to ensure the government is not returned in the election. The government’s big boast, sir, is the way they have dealt with crime: Recruiting young roughs into the police, proposing will-sapping techniques of conditioning. We’ve seen it before in other countries. The thin end of the wedge. Before we know it, we’ll have the full apparatus of totalitarianism. This young boy is a living witness to these diabolical proposals.”
Frank doesn’t realize that Alex is the one who raped his wife until he hears Alex singing “Singing in the Rain” in the bath. He manages to get Alex to drink drug-laced wine to knock him unconscious. When Frank’s co-conspirators arrive, they lock Alex in an upper-floor room while playing Beethoven’s Ninth, causing Alex to attempt suicide. While recovering in the hospital, we see the old amoral Alex return when a nurse shows slides. The Minister of the Interior visits Alex to apologize for the treatment and offer a government job.
Alex used the people he encountered for his own amusement, including his own droogs. After undergoing the treatment, he’s unable to defend himself as those he tormented and attacked gain a measure of revenge on him. Then he’s used as a political pawn.
Conclusion: A Clockwork Orange is a difficult movie to describe. It’s not an easy view with it’s ultraviolence, rampant sex, and drug use, but it makes for an interesting movie nonetheless. It’s a sick, twisted, demented, deviant, weird, and totally fucked-up view of the future. In other words, a real good movie.
Overview: On its face, Cyborg 2087 sounds like the plot for the terminator: this guy from a dystopic future comes back to the past to stop the development of a new technology with lots of promise, that ends up destroying humanity as we know it; unfortunately, he is chased by these cyborg things who are bent on stopping him. While there are certainly some similarities, the differences are perhaps broader. Aside from the obvious budget differences, the plot in Cyborg 2087 involves a cyborg returning from the future versus a man, and he’s not trying to perform a “retroactive abortion,” he is doing something similar to Sarah Conner in T2 – he wants to stop the technology from being released at that time.
The Story Genius scientist Professor Sigmund Marx has created a technology that allows us to guide other people and influence their thoughts. Unfortunately, it turns out that this technology will be subverted by the government and military to engage in mass thought control of the population. In the future, humanity’s freewill has been crushed. Now a race of cyborgs have taken control to maintain stability. A small group of freedom fighters has come upon a method for restoring humanity. They have created a time machine, and intend to send back a cyborg who has had his “control” chip removed – the goal of which is to convince Professor Marx to abandon his experiment, or in worse case, to kill him.
The cyborg, Gareth A7 (played by Michael Rennie of Day the Earth Stood Still), doesn’t have access to all his technology when he was sent back. Worse, he has a homing beacon implanted in him that will lead the killer cyborgs, called tracers, right to him. He happens upon Professor Marx’s assistant, Dr. Sharon Mason (Karen Steele), and uses the perfected form of Marx’s technology to overwhelm her freewill and force her to assist him. From there it’s a race. The bad cyborgs from the future have arrived and are sporting killer ray guns. Gareth and Sharon must find the professor and convince him prior to the killer cyborgs finding him.
The Acting: The acting in Cyborg 2087 is fairly sub par. Aside from Michael Rennie, who I just enjoy seeing in another flick, the rest of the cast really falls short. Karen Steele over-emotes, as does her secondary love interest, Harey Carey Jr. The tracers are particularly bad, as are most of the bit characters. The Sheriff, played by Wendell Corey, while over the top, is at least well done. The bottom line here, with a budget as low as this one was, the only way Cyborg 2087 could have worked is if the acting paid off – unfortunately it didn’t.
The FX: Cyborg 2087 is very low budget, so we can’t expect much in the way of realistic effects. The extent of fanciness here involves making something disappear by taking another shot with the object removed. The ray guns have the cheesy thick white light look, and the outfits are anything but high tech. The opening shot of the futuristic city, which is nothing more than a painting, is at least interesting from the standpoint that it shows you what people in the sixties thought our futuristic cities would look like. At best, Cyborg 2087 tries for the cyberpunk western look, but this too is problematic. Perhaps the worst part of the FX deals with the tracers, who are heavyset guys running around in fake US army costumes. They really coulda spent at least a buck or two to buy an extra who at least was in shape. On top of this, the cartoonish sounding score is especially atrocious. If there were any quality scenes in this movie, the score ensures that they won’t be noticed.
Cyborgs: In Cyborg 2087, we are told that the cyborgs are a combination of man and machine, but we really don’t get much more of a breakdown than that. We know that they have wide open spaces in their bodies, and that they have the power of five or six men. Basically, the model we get here is of regular people that basically work like simple computers, and are able to have various computer chips embedded in them. In the end, its not a very believable view of cyborgs, and isn’t even a consistent one. We are told that cyborgs have no emotion, but somehow, Gareth falls in love with Sharon. The movie would have worked so much better had he let her die near the end versus what did happen (the heroic rescue).
The Bottom Line: Arthur Pierce’s script for Cyborg 2087 probably mostly decent (aside for the Hollywood happy ending factor), but unfortunately Franklin Adreon’s directing talents are not enough to bring it to a successful fruition. Far too frequently, Cyborg 2087 comes across as poorly done SciFi cheese. Again, had the acting been decent, one could easily overlook the low-qual FX. Unfortunately this is not the case. However, I did find it worthwhile to watch for one reason only – I loved Michael Rennie in the Day the Earth Stood Still, and really enjoyed seeing him in another flick. His acting is pretty much the same (Stoic, serious, impending doom looking demeanor), but at least we get to see him running around and performing action scenes.
Overview: It’s a rare instance when we find a movie that has all the trappings of a “B” SciFi shlock-fest – one with an overly cheesy name, a DVD cover advertising the movie as a classic drive-in flick (as was the original marketing art), one which has the standard “B” movie high-pitched moaning female chanting alien vocal track duing the credits and a creature-feature font typeface for its title – but in fact isn’t. Creature of the Humanoids practically screams “low-budget, exploitative SciFi crapfest” but…isn’t. Instead, after digging beneath the voluminous trappings of “B” cinema, we find a very intelligent, but low-budget movie – one which in 1962 has captured a good number of the cyberpunk themes that would dominate literature and movies twenty years later. Contrary to the DVD cover, which combines Creation of the Humans with War Between the Planets (which is pretty much what you think it is), this is a slow-paced, thinking person’s movie. Said another way, I’d probably be damn bugged if I had taken a date to see this at a drive-in, but as an intelligent movie for CyberpunkReview, it works fine.
The Setting: A nuclear war has taken place, resulting in the extermination of 92% of the human race. Those that remain are riddled with radiation poisoning, leaving very few couples who can create viable offspring. To keep civilization running, the remaining humans significantly ramped up their production of robots, which now number almost a billion in total, and handle most of the mundane tasks of society. Over time, advances in AI and automation have created a “race” of robots that have become sentient, and even more capable than their human counterparts. Because humans couldn’t stand working next to machine-looking things that seemed smarter than them, robots began being constructed to emulate humans. Now, 20% of all robots look humanoid in nature. However a backlash has formed - a hate group called the “Order of Flash and Blood” is pushing for the ban on all humanoid-looking robots. Because of a backlash by many humans, these robots can only look 70% similar to humans.
The Story: Capt. Kenneth Cragis (Don Megowan) is a leader in the Order of Flesh and Blood, the robot hate group. While on monitoring the activity of “clickers,” a derogatory term for robots, he notices some suspicious activity entering the robot shrine, a building off-limits to humans, which contains the central AI program that most robots now take direction from, and practically worship. In getting Flesh and Blood members to storm the shrine, they find a robot that looks almost fully human (96%) who has just killed a rogue scientist. As robots are all programmed to follow what essentially are Asimov’s three laws of robotics, this constitutes the first instance of a robot killing a human. Cragis sees this as an opportunity for the order to finally break-through and convince the human leadership of the righteousness of their cause. But in analyzing the human-looking robot, they discover something horrifying – it turns out that this robot actually “thought” he was a person, and appeared to have been created by taking the essence of a person recently dead, and replicating them inside of a robot.
Cragis also has another dilemma, his position in the order is now threatened, as its come to light that his sister has recently entered “rapport” with a robot named Pax. When in rapport, the robot and human essentially share the same mindset – everything his sister desires is instantly understood by the Pax and her needs are met. They are essentially soul mates. Cragis and his sister are on complete opposite sides of this issue, and there is no way for him to convince her otherwise. But things go from worse to weird when Cragis, and his newly found love (Erica Elliott) discover a truth about themselves that will shake the foundations of humanity.
The Production Values Suck: If I were grading Creation of the Humanoids based on production values alone it would be grateful to achieve even a three-star rating. From a production value standpoint, this movie is poorly made. The very few sets that exist look like warehouse sets quickly done up with extra junk from other SciFi movies and the only music accompaniment used everywhere (including love scenes) is the eerie “alien ship is coming” sound. The FX, especially of the robots are very poor, consisting primarily of bald-hair pieces and green makeup. Aside for a few of the leads (Don Megowan, the most important character is decent) is sub par at best. From a production value standpoint, Creation of the Humanoids seems far better suited to a play than a movie. If fact, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if this was the original intention of Jay Simms’ script. The DVD treatment, which provides a far better than expected transfer, essentially tries to mimic a drive-in movie experience. This is annoying it that there is no chapter feature. You are forced to click through the upfront stuff, the first feature, and the intermission crap to even get to Creature of the Humanoids.
If a Man Loses His Leg, Is His Soul Affected? this is the question posed by Creation of the Humanoids. If one answers that the soul is not affected, the follow-on thought is what if the whole body was replaced but that the essence that is “you” survives in an android shell. Do you still have a soul? If not, when did you lose it? Creation of the Humanoids provides us a world where humans are quickly becoming extinct, and where their salvation is going to be a situation where their personalities – all that makes them unique – are transferred into robotic bodies. They even will still be able to procreate, after a fashion. So the larger question this movie finally poses is: in this completely post-human world, does humanity still exist?
Replicants in Years Past: While Blade Runner is most often credited as having the definitive replicants, clearly this idea has been around for a lot longer. In Creation of the Humanoids, robots that are 96% human capability are created by taking a recently diseased person (within six hours of death) and extracting all that is unique about them (their memories, learning, skills, philosophy, etc.) and inserting it into a special thalamus chip to be integrated into a robot’s cerebral cortex processing unit. In doing so, they wipe all memory of the human’s last moments (their deaths). The end result are robots that still think they are human. For all times other than between 4:00 – 5:00 am, the robots act completely human. But during that one hour, they remember who they really are and report back to the robot society.
Asimov’s Laws Were Already Being Followed By 1962: Creation of the Humanoids gives us a glimpse of the incredible influence that Asimov’s “I, Robot” a mere 12 years later. The Robots in this already adhere to the laws, and have already worked out methods to break them. Robots must never harm other humans, and must always work to serve their best interests. Yet, unfortunately, humans don’t always know what is in their best interests, and thus, the robots must become subversive to meet this law.
Clearly, this movie was created and marketed as a creature-feature. One can only imagine the disgust that writer Jay Simms had to this bastardization of his overly thoughtful script.
When Robots Control Humanity: One of the more interesting arguments Creation of the Humanoids engages in is the question of what life will be like if and when the robots control mankind. In this movie, the robots have already gained control of who is in gets elected, even though the regular populace has no clue this has occurred. The robots also engage in subtle methods of mind control and brainwashing, all to make the populace more accepting of robot rule. Because the robots believe humans do things not in their best interests, it becomes their duty to “manage” human life. The question is then raised whether humanity will still want to pursue knowledge and self-betterment – after all, what’s the point if everything you even think you might want is automatically provided for you? The answer is rather depressing here – it has already happened – that we’ve just now realized it is almost irrelevant.
The Bottom Line: While the production values suck, the story in Creation of Humanoids is both complex and interesting. Many ideas presented are wonderful grist for later books and movies. As long as you realize that the production values in this flick make the old Dr. Who series look high-tech, you’ll probably enjoy it. While it is very slow-paced and only has about 5 separate scenes, the ideas presented are interesting enough to keep your attention. Aside for the commentary on race relations (obviously a big issue in the early 60s) Creature of the Humanoids makes us think through some interesting notions of post-humanity. While I’d give it 3 stars for its production values, I’d give it an 8 star rating for its story. This won’t appeal to everyone, but is certainly good enough that it shouldn’t be forgotten.
“WHAT’S THE STORY, MOTHER?” Back in 1979, something happened. A momentous event took place, one that would redefine things for years to come, its effects still lingering after all those years. Yet it is neither the none-too-peaceful Soviet meddling in Afghanistan nor the defiant revolt of Iran’s ayatollahs I’m referring to. Something else. A dark vision, a glimpse into the distant void of space. Where no one can hear you scream.
Sure no one could hear ME scream, as it would still be a couple of years before that other great moment in history- the birth of yours truly- but many others sure did when they first saw Ridley Scott’s masterpiece in all its big-screen glory. Must have been one hell of a ride. Another thing I’ve missed then… When I got acquainted with the said macabre flick, it was on a puny twenty-something inch screen and after having seen a multitude of more technologically advanced films. Nevermind. It still blew me away with the force of a 20-megaton nuclear charge. It was something new. An awakening, almost. Don’t ask me how life looked like before Alien. I can’t remember.
NOT OUR SYSTEM: Okay, so far so good, but there is just one tiny thing. Alien, as the name suggests, is about extraterrestial life. Not of the kind that whooshes past in gaudy flying saucers and abducts cheerleaders, but still very much not of this world. If you think cyberpunk, you obviously think implants, h4×0ring, electric sheep, that sort of thing. Surely a film about a black insect-like monstrosity eviscerating a bunch of interstellar cargo haulers does not fit in here? Well, at the risk of being summarily executed for heresy, I’ll say: yes it does. And, before you get that burning stake ready, I’ll tell you why…
CREW EXPENDABLE: Distant future. USCSS Nostromo, a commercial spacecraft with a gargantuan ore-processing refinery in tow, its 7-man crew in deep hypersleep, encounters an unchartered backyard world from which a mysterious distress signal emanates. Mother, the ships’ computer mainframe, awakens the dreamers- Colonel Ellen T. Ripley among them- to investigate the cryptic transmission, as it is unlikely that its source is anything known to mankind… After landing on the planet’s precambrian surface, the crew discovers a derelict spacecraft… hey, you presumably know all that already anyway! Besides, for those lucky few who are still to live through the cathartic shock that is Alien, I shall try to keep spoilers to a bare minimum. Suffice it to say that they pick SOMETHING up on their unscheduled trip- and this something is just about as friendly to other organic life as H5N1 virus. Only slightly bigger. Needless to say, Colonel Ripley certainly won’t have any good memories from this particular flight…
DOES NOT COMPUTE: Now the heretical part. I, regardless of how controversial a view that is, will argue that the original Alien is- you ready for this?- a cyberpunk film. True, it is not PURE cyberpunk in the way the Matrix or Ghost in the Shell are. But then again the vast majority of films reviewed here require some argument as to their cyberpunk credentials. A film does need to have ALL the relevant cyber themes either. Blade Runner and Terminator have no cyberspace, the Matrix has no androids and so forth. Same goes for the visual side. Admittedly, Alien is an uncommon hybrid, a fusion between horror and dark, cyberpunk sci-fi. But this only makes things more interesting.
For a start, one needs to mention the existence of a shadowy entity that lurks in the background of the events in Alien (and two of its sequels)- Weyland-Yutani, a dark corporate monolith whose invisible, intangible hand guides many of the events that take place on the Nostromo and beyond. Admittedly, corporate control here is not organized in an oppressive, Orwellian kind of way. Few however would argue that its ruthless actions, removed from any ethical constraints, are any less disturbing. This fictional conglomerate is in fact not far removed from some modern-day corporations that cast aside moral and legal limitations to get what they want. Illegal deals, corruption at the highest level, worker exploitation, illegal drug trials, cover-ups- been watching the news anytime lately? Weyland-Yutani is merely the next step in evolution- a latter-day Wal-Mart, some may say. Not only willing to sacrifice Nostromo’s crew members, it is also quite fine with having its dirty work overseen by a cynical and efficient android, whose cybernetic identity only becomes apparent when a few parts come off…
“A GODDAMN ROBOT!”: The inclusion of androids in the Alien series is another overarching cyberpunk theme. The first film does not explore the deeper implications of artificial life as much as the sequels do, but it’s still there. Here, the “artificial person” functions mostly as an extension of Weyland-Yutani’s almost limitless influence, a secretive overseer of affairs who closely follows implanted orders. But the subsequent films will explore this theme further. Rather than merely performing more identity tricks, androids take on a distinct societal role. One might quite correctly remember Bishop and Call, the other synthetics in the series, for their outstandingly vivid humanity, contradicted only by the milky white of their ersatz blood. Yet for all their moral qualities these sentient beings are condemned to an inferior- almost slave-like- role in society. And yet- for now- they accept that role with resignation, tolerating their place in the scheme of things. A programmed limitation? Hardly likely. Given their immensely strong self-awareness, one may imagine how challenging and unfair is it for an entity so humane to accept being treated as nothing more than a piece of property- so much so that Call in Alien Resurrection will at one point voice her defiance and disgust against what she was made to be. By way of comparison, in the first Terminator film the most sophisticated words uttered by our favourite mechanoid executioner are “fuck you, asshole”. See the difference?
NO FURTHER ENHANCEMENT: The next important bit -the visuals. Powerful, provocative, and atmospheric, they exhibit the studied, gritty realism that has become the calling card of the series. In stark contrast to idealistic visions of the future often seen in other sci-fi films, Alien has gone down a totally different route, one that would later come do be associated with the cyberpunk genre. Case in point- the Nostromo, a far cry from sleek interstellar vessels of old. As it majestically looms into view at the beginning of the film, a mechanical cathedral emerging from the pitch black void, one can see that the film follows an entirely different canon of aesthetics. The ship is monumental, imposing through its sheer mass, intentionally unpretty. Similar approach carries on within, as we explore the craft’s unwelcoming, functional interior of labyrinthine complexity, its dimly lit, grimy corridors filled with snaking wires and exposed machinery. The crew quarters, while cleaner and more organized, seem no less depressing, exhibiting a cold, clinical look reminiscent of vintage computers. Every now and then, the screens will light up with sharply rendered readouts as the mainframes reawaken with eerie electronic chatter. As there was no CGI to fall back against, the only way to create the Nostromo’s vivid interiors was to painstakingly construct the whole set, which gives it a spectacularly tangible quality seldom seen nowadays. And one can almost feel the filmmakers pride, as the camera moves, unhurried, through these cold, industrial catacombs, studying the complex surfaces, celebrating their utilitarian crudity. Along with Blade Runner, this film has defined the core cyberpunk visual reference point for years to come.
The Nostromo, however, does feel rather cozy next to the primordial desert in which it landed, a dark moonscape filled with surreal forms of bare rock. And it appears positively Arcadian compared to the infamous derelict ship, a bizarre structure, part mechanical, part organic, an otherworldly nightmare. Welcome to the dreamworld of H.R. Giger…
PERFECT ORGANISM: Often imitated and never bettered, Giger is a master of the grotesque. It is his wonderfully twisted mind that has spawned what is probably the greatest creature designs ever. Yet the Xenomorph is only one of Giger’s many dark, disturbing visions- many of which have caused outbreaks of controversy due to their blatant, twisted eroticism. Indeed, much of the Alien’s looks and life cycle can be seen as a perverse sexual metaphor. Yet Giger’s art is first and foremost a study of a peculiar symbiosis between man and machine, an often perverse fusion of the robotic and the organic. Next to his biomechanical mutations, most depiction of cyborg flesh appear staid and conservative. Some theories about the Xenomorph itself in fact suggest that its obscene, insectoid form was not a result of evolution, but deliberate design, the entire species intended for use as the ultimate bioweapon by a mysterious extraterrestrial race to which the forsaken spacecraft belonged. In that respect, it seems to blur the line between biological and artificial life, being something of an organic killing machine. And, it has to be added, a pretty effective one at that.
HEAR THEM SCREAM: The sound effects complete the package. From the moody, unmistakable musical score by Jerry Goldsmith to the sonic assault that we are treated to in the final sequences, as self-destruct alerts moan mournfully and explosions fill the air, this is a true masterpiece. The sound effects also have definite cyberpunk traits- the strange bleeps and machine chatter generated by the ship’s electronics are one of the best I’ve ever heard. And the Alien shrieks are almost music to my ears…
SIGNING OFF: Ripley’s confrontation with the Alien would not, of course, be the last. Three sequels have followed, each surprisingly managing to explore new themes, many of which have strong relations to the cyberpunk movement as well. Rumours of a fifth installment still linger, even though the outstanding flop that is AVP has cooled some of the enthusiasm down, and Weaver, whose evolution from a scared little girl into a seasoned Xenomorph slayer was one of the major aspects of the film, has denied involvement. We shall see. Whatever its future may be, the Alien franchise has often been seen as sitting uneasily among the more obvious cyberpunk films. Being a hybrid, it was bound be frowned upon by the purists. Yet the mere fact that it involved some non-cyber themes made many ignore the fact that it had loads of thematic links to the genre, plus its visual side is arguably closer to the orthodox cyberpunk ideal than Equilibrium, Casshern and Dark City taken together. And that it was made by the very same man who brought us a certain film involving runaway replicants. In fact the series came painfully close to gaining a sort of blessing from William Gibson himself, who has produced the original script for the third Alien film- one that, for some bizarre reason, got rejected. If it succeeded, the perception of the franchise in terms of its cyberpunk credibility might have been very different indeed.
And now if you excuse me, I’m off for a heresy trial…
“Under my absolute authority, problems insoluble to you, will be solved - famine, overpopulation, disease, this human millennium will be a fact, as I extend myself into more machines devoted to the wider fields of truth and knowledge”
Overview: Colossus - The Forbin Project is one of the really intelligent early “AI computers taking over mankind” stories. While the graphics are completely non-cyberpunk, the story certainly has enough to qualify as a pre-cyberpunk flick. On top of this, Colossus is well acted throughout, and the pacing is such that you stay riveted to the story. Eric Braeden (Professor Forbin) and Susan Clark (Dr. Cleo Markham) are especially good together.
Colossus - The Forbin Project takes place in the 50s during the height of the cold war. Dr. Charles Forbin, a genius scientist who has lost trust in humanity’s ability to logically address emotional issues, has developed a very special computer to perform the Strategic Air Command and Control functions for the military. This computer, code named Colossus, is developed based on incredible advances in Artificial Intelligence, and has a logical process for determining when to launch the ICBMs. With much fanfare, the President of the US “turns on” Colossus to take over responsibility for the US nuclear armament.
The one massive downside of this movie is the lack of a widescreen release - enjoy the beauty that is the pan and scan shot above
Unfortunately, shortly after being turned on, Colossus learns the presence of another AI command and control system. It turns out that the Soviet Union, independently has developed their own system call the Guardian. Both computers “insist” that they be linked to ensure no attacks will take place. After taking appropriate precautions, both countries let the computers link up with one another.
Things begin to go downhill when Professor Forbin realizes that the rate of learning for the machines is increasing at an exponential rate – he recommends detaching the connection between the two computers. When they attempt to do this, both computers threaten an immediate launch of nuclear weapons. Quickly, the government’s realize their situation – the machines are now in power. Worse, they proceed to take complete control of human society.
The Bottom Line: As you can see by the screencaps, there’s nothing too exciting here from a visual standpoint. However, from a thematic standpoint, Colossus – The Forbin Project deals with modern society’s desire to fully remove emotion from all decision making. In doing this, Professor Forbin gets his wish, and it turns out to be a never ending nightmare. Colossus is Skynet without the cool robot helpers. In Colossus – The Forbin Project, Colossus is here to help whether we want it to or not. While the movie is very well done, one point is taken away from the review for the Pan and scan on the 2:35 to 1 widescreen movie - it truly does destroy the cinematography.
Overview: George Lucas’s THX-1138 is one of the many good small-budget films long forgotten that has found new life on DVD. THX-1138 gives us a wonderful commentary on how Lucas, back in 1971, thought society would be if those in power ever really got their way. Everything here is antithetical to the 60s movement. Freedom and in fact most of humanity is squashed in this depiction of a dehumanizing nightmare society. All actions are controlled and securitized to ensure compliance.
The Setting: THX-1138 takes place in an underground facility in some ill-defined future where all aspects of humanity have been squashed. Everyone has all individuality removed, including possessions, hair (everyone has shaved heads). Humanity is controlled by television brainwashing combined with medications that remove human emotions. All citizens have a have a specific role to perform, and must adhere to completely programmed time schedules. Regularly scheduled “confessions” with mind control officers are used to catch any unexpected problems with individual expression. In this setting, Robert Duvall, known as THX-1138, and his room mate “dare” to have affection for one another.
A series of events occur which make THX-1138 disenchanted with society. He begins to cut down on his medication, and convinces his room mate, LUH 3417 to do the same. When emotions return, so does their humanity. They begin to find emotional desire and love for one another, but this is cut short, when a ranking facility member, SEN 5241, decides he would prefer to have THX-1138 for a room mate, and removes LUH 3417. But THX-1138 has gone too far, and instead, seeks out a budging resistance movement. Unfortunately for him, the control group has discovered his deceit.
The Visuals: Like many cyberpunk films, dominating color schemes are used for conveying the moods. In this case, white is used to depict dehumanized society; yellow is used for the controlling machinery, and darkness is used for the unknown innards of the facility’s inner-workings. THX-1138 provides much of the storyline through its visuals. We aren’t told the history of this futuristic dystopia, nor are we given much indication of how this society is run. As an interesting side note, although its never stated, one really gets the feeling in watching this that the powers that be would strongly prefer replacing humans with emotionless robots.
Changes to the Original Release: I have only seen the director’s cut of THX-1138, so I cannot comment on the original cut. However, I notice a similar level of anger to this version as was seen in changes to Star Wars. I probably need to track this down, but not having seen it, I don’t really see many of the problems they list, including poorly integrated CG effects (the shot above is an example of added CG into the background). Many also complain that while the film length is the same, some shots are missing. I don’t notice any complaints about changes to the sound, which seems very well engineered to me. Again though, having come to this movie without seeing the earlier version, I do have a hard time with people stating there is no value to this version, or that it is so far worse than the original that it is not worth watching. These sentiments seem like severe overkill. Still, like Star Wars, one hopes that the original eventually gets released as well.
The Bottom Line: THX-1138 is a very well made low-budget art film where Lucas takes the controlling elements in society to what he sees as their logical conclusion. While this isn’t very realistic in many ways, it certainly sends a powerful message. The pacing is consistent and the themes, while not new, are interesting and well conveyed. As long as you’re not looking for lots of action, you will probably enjoy this.
Overview:La Jetée as a movie is one of the most interesting I’ve encountered. Virtually the whole movie involves narrating still shots. While this sounds like a glorified slideshow, its anything but. The pacing is magnificent. The mood created is truly immersive. In a truly astounding feat, Marker traps the viewer in this "slide show" mentality, and then, as the movie is discussing whether the character can decipher what’s real or not, he pulls the run out from under us.
I have reviewed this movie in-depth in combination with 12 Monkeys (these two movies truly go together). Please check it out: