Friday, January 8, 2016

John Carpenter, part XXIV: Land of the free


And so it finally begins.  Welcome to Late Period Carpenter.

Directed by John Carpenter
Written by Debra Hill, Kurt Russell, and John Carpenter
With Kurt Russell (Snake Plissken), Stacey Keach (Malloy), Michelle Forbes (Brazen), Steve Buscemi (Maps to the Stars Eddie), Peter Fonda (Pipeline), Bruce Campbell (Surgeon General of Beverly Hills), Pam Grier (Hershe Las Palmas), Georges Corraface (Cuervo Jones), and Cliff Robertson (The President of the United States)

Spoiler alert: high

Last time, we had an occasion to discuss remakes, and the difference between the good ones and bad ones: the good ones, if they don't take the material in an entirely new direction, justify themselves somehow, whether it's by expanding the material (take Peter Jackson's King Kong as an example), wrinkling up the story with a new addition (that's where we decided John Carpenter's own Village of the Damned fell), or—at the very least—bringing new filmmaking techniques and technologies to the table, allowing an old story to be told with all-new flash (like Gareth Edwards' Godzilla, or, for a remake that actually surpassed its original, Marty Scorsese's Cape Fear).  We pondered bad remakes too—stuff like Kimberly Pierce's Carrie, or the miscarriage we wound up with when some idiot tried to remake My Bloody Valentine—which honestly seem to be trying to remove everything that made the original good, to the point of actually abandoning key parts of the story, without ever replacing them with anything remotely worthwhile.  So, what if we were confronted with a remake that rehashed the plot of a tolerably great original, beat for beat, simultaneously hollowing out the original's old ideas and wearing their skin while also coming up with a whole host of its own new ideas—most of which are either terrible, terribly executed, or both? And, in the midst of all that, what if it also burned through enormous (and uncharacteristic) sums of money in order to update its visuals for a new era, but in the process made a movie that not only looks much worse, but, indeed, is stupidly ugly even without reference to its moody, handsome predecessor?

Well, that probably means that we're talking about John Carpenter's remake of his own Escape From New York, which he conceived as an alleged sequel called Escape From L.A., though the very word "sequel," implying a continuation of a story already told, rather than its regurgitation, has rarely been more terribly abused than it is here.

And bear in mind I'm a big defender of Die Harder.

But let's pause here: shouldn't we take at least a moment to reflect upon the magnitude of Carpenter's achievements up to this point?  If we disregard TV movies—and I'm personally quite pleased to disregard Elvis—we have a career of unparalleled consistency.  To me, the name "John Carpenter" means nothing less than nineteen years and twelve theatrical features in a row that never once dipped below "very good"—and which were often better than great, to the point of being essentially flawless.  Your mileage, of course, may vary: not everyone is a fan of everything.  But no matter how jaundiced your eye might be, between 1976 (Assault on Precinct 13) and 1995 (the all-out masterpiece In the Mouth of Madness, followed quickly by Village), when you look at JC, you know you're looking at the man behind some of the most interesting and best-made films of the whole era.

I didn't come to praise Caesar, though, and with that out of the way, I suppose there's no use in continuing to avoid the inevitable: the impressive suckage John Carpenter wrought with the actual subject of this review.

Back at the turn of the millennium—four years into the future from Carpenter's perspective—an earthquake of unprecedented scale shook the Left Coast, tearing a sizeable chunk right out of the Southern Californian mainland.  The quake was interpreted as a veritable sign from an angry God, and the subsequent thirteen years have been marked by the ascendance of a brand of fascistic Christian Dominionism even more toxic and austere than the one we've had to deal with in real life.  So, by 2013, where we begin our tale in earnest, the new American President—no longer an elected office, mind you—has outlawed all manner of fun, from fornication to gambling to not being a Christian, all the way up to the consumption of red meat (!) and the ownership of firearms (seriously, though, just who the hell is this man's constituency?).  Those caught breaking the President's commandments are exiled to the new island of Los Angeles—not unlike a certain other metropolis turned insular prison.  L.A. has thus become a haven for the weirdos, the nonconformists, and the general scum of the Earth, though what this actually means, in terms of the film, is that the heavily-armed gang leader who rules over this island prison is Latino, rather than black.

That selfsame gang leader—named Cuervo Jones, because why the hell shouldn't he be?—wears the guise of a revolutionary prophet, and we discover he's also an avid fan of Internet dating: Jones has, over the course of many romantic Skype conversations, seduced the President's teenybopping daughter Utopia to his cause.  Having made the transformation to Hot Marxist Slut, young Utopia hijacks Air Force Three and pops its survival pod while it's over L.A., delivering to Jones both herself and the thing he really wants: the President's remote control to the Sword of Damocles, a constellation of killer satellites capable of delivering high-impact EMPs to any point on the globe—or, to the whole thing at once.

This, of course, is where Snake Plissken comes into the picture, and there is little need to recap the plot from here on in, because it's literally the exact same scenario as the first Escape, with the names changed.  Still, I'd probably be remiss if I didn't at least mention the weak jabs at social commentary the screenwriters get up to with La-La Land, like Bruce Campbell's kind of dire turn as the Surgeon General of Beverly Hills (a sort of plastic surgery Frankenstein, played even more broadly than that description already implies), or Peter Fonda's cameo as Pipeline, a groovy surfer dude (I sort of like Pipeline, though his existence precipitates one of the most iconically bad things about the film), or the Muslim convert punk rock girl Snake runs into, whom I interpret charitably as Carpenter's attempt to depict the kind of screwloose, sometimes self-contradictory characters who give Los Angeles its wacky personality.  Pam Grier's around too, as a transwoman colleague of Snake's, and I guess she's the most interesting side character in the film, though her existence leads to the second worst set-piece in the film; anyway, it's either her, or Steve Buscemi's Maps to the Stars Eddie, the kind of slimy, untrustworthy sort that Buscemi could play in his sleep, and does.  (Meanwhile, the film's unwillingness to do so much as one single interesting thing with its insane Christian President—or to even explore how his operatives fit into his Dominionist ideology—is unforgivably boring.)

In order to draft Escape From L.A., Carpenter reunited not only with ex-girlfriend and ex-producer Debra Hill, but with Kurt Russell as well.  And I would prefer not to blame him, given that he's not actually a writer, and given also that Russell the Actor is not the reason that L.A. is bad.  But the trio, together and apart, had been gestating ideas for an Escape sequel ever since the mid-80s; yet somehow, the product of three smart human beings thinking things over for ten years was nothing more than the half-dozen half-baked episodes that make up this film.

And that is, in the end, all that L.A. is: a collection of vignettes, none of which rise to the level of world-building accomplished by the first film, each of them loosely organized around the lackadaisically-pursued central maguffin, and all of them tonally deranged in a way that no Carpenter movie has ever been.  In a word, L.A. is fucking goofy.

Okay, two words.

It's the sort of movie that would be fun if it were, you know, fun; but L.A.'s too slapdash to even be consistently giddy with its own possibilities.  As a reslt, it's not even an enjoyable embarassment, on the level of a Hudson Hawk.

It doesn't help that L.A. abandons the gritty urban aesthetic that helped ground the excesses of the first Escape—and I realize that Midwestern slums don't burn to the ground every day (and, furthermore, that cinematographer Gary Kibbe only ever approached Dean Cundey on his very best day), but the screaming plastic falseness of L.A.'s misspent budget is absolutely no substitute.  (And whether that falseness winds up a piece of commentary in itself makes no nevermind to me.)  So, while New York gained a lot of traction from its awkward yet burly action on the streets of East St. Louis, all L.A. gets is a bunch of overproduced and direly undercooked violence, like a car chase that feels like Raiders of the Lost Ark done with only one tenth the talent (and not even one tenth the money), and which ends with the phoniest gunfight ever seen in the West.  L.A. takes Carpenter and Nick Castle's dumbly-radical comic book for teens, and turns it into a Saturday morning cartoon for moronic children with especially negligent parents.  Considering it either as a sequel or as a remake, it's altogether something of a betrayal.  It doesn't understand the mood that made its original work even on those rare occasions that it tries to recreate it—and on this count, we shouldn't let Carpenter's latterday musical collaborator Shirley Walker off the hook, since New York wouldn't be half the experience it is without Carpenter and Alan Howarth's extraordinary dirge of a score.  Carpenter and Walker equal that achievement only when they're directly ripping it off (which is not, in point of fact, often enough).  Of course, the demonstrably inferior craft of L.A. pales in comparison to its most hilarious problem, which is the surfeit of unbelievably shitty visual effects: if you have a burning need to know just how not ready-for-prime-time cheap CGI was back in 1996, then my friend, Escape From L.A. is definitely the movie for you.  (Indeed, it might be Matthew Vaughn's favorite movie.)

Yet the worst of L.A. has nothing to do with its largely awful visualization, however, nor its overly-obvious sense of humor, nor even its dumbassed failure to find a consistent (or at least consistently interesting) mood.  The worst is L.A.'s unhealthy compulsion to pattern itself upon the original Escape, in everything from direct visual quotes (there is a shot in the submarine that Snake takes to L.A. that is so precise a replica of the Gullfire interior it may as well have been frames lifted from the 1981 print), to specific story beats (Cuervo Jones has the same need to subject Snake to gladiatorial games as the Duke of New York), to character roles ("the Muslim Punk" is just "the Girl in Chock Full O' Nuts, '96").  L.A. caps it off with rhyming production design decisions that don't even make sense in the context of this movie, if we (unwisely) try to take it on its own terms as a new story; the absolute nadir of the film, surfing Snake included, is when we see that Shining Path fighter and Marxist superhero Cuervo Jones, not to be outdone by the Duke's hood chandelier, has placed upon his car a fucking disco ball.  After that disco ball, I lost all faith in Escape From L.A. as a movie that might somehow still find its own identity and deliver an experience of its own.  My lack of faith was certainly not disappointed.

But then... there's that ending.  To the extent that L.A. is mostly a dull, loud, obnoxious slog, one is not likely to be prepared for the surprise of its very end, a long, enigmatic, and extraordinarily powerful close-up of Russell that dares you to try to understand what Snake Plissken is thinking.  Snake, you see, has made the decision to steal the Sword of Damocles—and has just used it to end the world.  The perfect finale to a much better movie than the one we've just watched, it's as exquisitely nihilist an image as anything in Carpenter's whole nihilistic career—his most gleeful apocalypse of all.  It's a moment that offers you the opportunity to vicariously enjoy the destruction of the shitty civilization that we sometimes perceive our own world to be—and, in our darkest fantasies, have always wanted to see get washed away.  If only the rest of the movie justified a fade to black this good.

Score:  5/10

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