Star Wars Meets the Uncanny Valley

leias

I finally broke down and saw the new Star Wars movie, Rogue One, last week. I wasn’t avoiding it, necessarily…but I wasn’t in any hurry to see it, either…I have mixed feelings about something that plays around so close to the edges of the original movie, the one they now call Episode 4. But then again if Attack of the Clones couldn’t ruin Star Wars for me, probably nothing could.

I found it, um, mostly harmless. I had been warned that there would be a lot of CGI Peter Cushing, and this was only moderately creepy. If anyone is going to keep making movies after they’re dead, it should be Cushing and Christopher Lee, who were in about a thousand films between them during their lifetimes.

The big surprise came at the end, when a familiar white-robed, brown-haired figure appeared facing away from the camera. I didn’t think they’d actually show her face, but then there it was: a digital recreation of young Carrie Fisher, looking more or less as she did back in 1977.

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Apocalypse Now/Hearts of Darkness: Ch. 21

(2:15:03–2:27:07)

Image assembled by Dado Saboya

“All plots tend to move deathward.”
______— Don DeLillo, White Noise

Endings are hard, as is well-documented in Hearts of Darkness, where we see Francis Coppola struggling to find some way to bring his project to a conclusion. In the original screenplay Apocalypse Now ended with a huge firefight that, in the context of what the movie had become, would have been completely incongruous. So Herr Coppola was left to concoct some way to wrap things up that would satisfy.

About the only thing that was never in doubt, it seems, is that Kurtz would die. This is the event toward which the entire movie has been building. It is the same event toward which every story builds, one way or another: yours, mine, and everybody we know’s. Deal with it.

* * *

To backtrack a little: In the runup to the climax, everybody is preparing. The natives are in the preliminary stages of a ritual. Kurtz is brooding in his compound, gathering his thoughts, girding himself for the end he knows is coming. Willard is back at the boat getting his game face on; he paints himself with camouflage as the radio — i.e. the world he has left behind — clamors, unsuccessfully, for his attention.

They were going to make me a major for this. And I wasn’t even in their fucking army anymore.

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Apocalypse Now/Hearts of Darkness: Ch. 20

(2:08:19–2:15:02)

Francis Coppola directed Apocalypse Now, but for six minutes or so here, it’s Marlon Brando’s show. The movie is going to sink or swim on Brando’s portrayal of, as Coppola says in Hearts of Darkness,

A character of a monumental nature who is struggling with the extremities of his soul — and is struggling with them on such a level that you are in awe of it — and is destroyed by them.

This is a tall order for an actor. Although in some respects Brando presented an obstacle that Coppola had to overcome to finish the movie, in another way Coppola was relying on Brando to get him out of the corner he’d painted himself into. Apocalypse Now had no real structured ending at this point, and after flailing about for awhile Coppola decided to just wing it, hoping that Brando would be so brilliant and charismatic that audiences would buy him as this grand, tragic figure.
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Apocalypse Now/Hearts of Darkness: Ch. 19

(2:04:18–2:08:18)

Marlon Brando as photographed by Dennis Hopper, looking very Dr. Evil-ish

This Colonel Kurtz sure runs hot and cold. Yesterday he put Willard in a cage and dropped a severed head in his lap (several “giving head“ jokes suggest themselves, but I am above that). Today he has the captain brought inside and given rice and cigarettes, then reads aloud to him from T.S. Eliot’s “The Hollow Men.” (Though given the way it is staged, you might more accurately say that Kurtz is reading aloud to no one in particular, and Willard just happens to be there.)

Not much really happens in this scene, but it is noteworthy as the only time, I think ever, that Marlon Brando and Dennis Hopper acted together…and even at that, they’re not exactly in the same room. According to one commentary track I listened to, their interaction here is not unlike their real relationship — Brando did not care for Hopper, actually did call him a “mutt” and throw things at him. This makes sense, because while they were both nuts, Brando was crazy in a much quieter and more elegant way, while Hopper was speedy and flamboyant. Also, I think Brando needed all the attention all the time, and having Hopper around would tend to detract from that. (However: When looking for images to accompany this post, I discovered that Brando had let Hopper photograph him, so maybe the preceding is all bullshit. Maybe at the end of the day they hung out together, like the wolf and the sheepdog in the cartoons.)

Hopper’s spiel here about fractions, dialectics, and Venus is a minor classic. It is completely loopy and yet makes perfect sense, and I have to believe it is mostly improvised — no one could write that, I don’t think. Having delivered it, he disappears, not to be seen or heard from again in this movie.

As I mentioned previously, a scene where the photojournalist is killed by Captain Colby was shot but not used in the movie, and it’s probably just as well. I don’t think many people who saw Apocalypse Now sat around scratching their heads going “Gee, I wonder what happened to the Dennis Hopper character?”, just like no one asks what the hell Lance has been up to all this time. The whole ending is so dreamlike and bizarre that people can appear and disappear and it seems natural.

The Hopper character’s last words seem apropos here:

This is the way the fucking world ends! Look at this fucking shit we’re in, man! Not with a bang, with a whimper. And with a whimper, I’m fucking splitting, jack!

Apocalypse Now/Hearts of Darkness: Ch. 18

(2:01:45–2:04:17)

Not a super-good day for Chef, either.

So you think you’re having a bad day? Captain Willard has been locked in a cage barely big enough to stand up in, his only sustenance a ladle of water and a few puffs of cigarette provided by the nameless photojournalist. A hot and humid tropical day has given way to monsoon-style rains, and after a quick cut back to Chef at the boat, we find Willard slumped over, covered in mud, appearing to have abandoned all hope.

But that’s not the worst of it. From out of the darkness Kurtz appears, like a figure from some absurd nightmare, his giant bald head decorated with camouflage war paint. He drops Chef’s severed head into Willard’s lap, and I don’t care who you are, that’s going to freak you out a little bit. No wonder Willard loses his cool demeanor for the first time since the opening scene, screaming and thrashing around until he can finally get the head off him.

Why, you might ask, does Kurtz feel compelled to put Willard through this ordeal when he wants Willard to tell his tale, presumably putting the most favorable spin on it? I don’t exactly know, and I’m not sure FFC does either. Maybe he would say that Kurtz wants to test Willard, push him to the very edge of what he can take. Or maybe that Kurtz is, after all, crazy and dangerous, and not a man to be trifled with.

In any case, that’s some messed-up shit to pull on a guy, and the relationship between Kurtz and Willard — off to such a promising start — may now require some damage control. How will Kurtz win him back — read him some poetry or something?