Hello folks, and welcome on back to Wrong Every Time. Summer’s in full swing at this point, but predictably, I’m spending the better part of my free time indoors and preoccupied with a replay of Fire Emblem: Three Houses. I’m not really a musou fan, but the release of Three Hopes reminded me of just how much I loved Three Houses, and I certainly can’t say no to this mass infusion of new fanart. Unfortunately, in spite of my very best efforts, I’m currently just replaying the Black Eagles route. Look, it’s just really hard to betray Edel once you’ve already made that commitment, and also it’s pretty hard to recruit Bernie if she’s not already on your team. But fortunately for you all, my misadventures at Garreg Mach have been accompanied by an eclectic selection of screenings, and I’ve got plenty to say about all of them. Let’s run down the latest features in one more Week in Review!
First up this week was a fairly run-of-the-mill horror feature, the recent Shudder addition Haunt. Haunt centers on a group of friends looking for some Halloween chills, and finding them in the form of an ominous pop-up haunted house. Once inside, they swiftly discover that the thrills offered by this establishment are a bit more hardcore than anticipated, and perhaps they shouldn’t have all dutifully dropped their cellphones in a lockbox out front. Whoopsie!
Nothing about Haunt’s narrative trajectory is likely to surprise you, but that’s clearly not the intent of a film like this. Adequately acted, slickly produced, and stuffed with mean little setpieces, Haunt is mostly intent on making base hits to the inner outfield, forcing its stars to reach too far into dark cubbies and the like as a procession of masked meanies whittle down their numbers. The film loses steam as its premise gives way to general slasher pandemonium, but is never so dull or so cruel as to genuinely disappoint. Still, if you’re looking for a Halloween house horror film, you can do far better than this – try The Funhouse or Hell House LLC, for starters.
After that we checked out an enduring sliver of pop culture ephemera, the ‘80s adventure film The Last Starfighter. Like The Goonies, The Last Starfighter is one of those quintessential ‘80s children movies that I never caught as a child, but whose cultural footprint felt significant enough to warrant a visit. I mean, you’ve surely seen at least a show or two that riffs on the “characters are so good at some game that they’re summoned to defend the universe” conceit, so it seemed worth checking out the source material.
Fortunately, it turns out The Last Starfighter is actually still a charming film, quaintly rudimentary CG aside. The film stars Lance Guest as Alex Rogan, your quintessential small-town boy who dreams of something more. Alex’s only diversion from the mundanity of his trailer park life comes in the form of an arcade cabinet, where he takes on the role of a starfighter defending the galaxy. And when his bravura performances summon the game’s interstellar creator, he at last gets the chance to prove himself on the grandest possible stage.
The first, crucial thing that The Last Starfighter gets right is the texture of Alex’s home life. I’d figured his initial town would just be a launching pad for the film’s true drama, but the day-to-day life of Alex and his family are all captured with a compelling degree of gritty detail, making the earth sequences as satisfying as the space ones. The film also strikes a pleasing balance of tongue-in-cheek humor, with Lance Guest himself getting to stretch his comedic muscles through his dual roles as Alex and the Alex-substitute android Beta. It’s a breezy watch on the whole, full of fun side characters, and driven by an earnest yearning that, along with its punchy premise, more than explains its enduring appeal. Just a fun little family popcorn flick.
Our next feature was one of those improbable historical artifacts that don’t quite seem real even as you’re watching them, like the surprisingly entertaining Battleship. Unfortunately, Reign of Fire can’t quite match up to Battleship’s lofty example, in spite of starring Christian Bale, Matthew McConaughey, and a fuckton of hungry dragons. The film’s overworked post-apocalyptic premise is a transparent excuse to square off tanks and helicopters against flying lizards, but Bale’s formidable talents are ultimately squandered on a film that primarily idolizes but fundamentally can’t construct a satisfying action scene. McConaughey at least livens things up in his role as the no-nonsense American soldier, but in the end, Reign of Fire is far less than the sum of its alternately talented and scaly parts.
Next up was a bleak and fascinating scifi thriller, Ex Machina. The film stars Domnhall Gleeson as Caleb Smith, a programmer who’s lucky enough to win a trip to the estate of his company’s founder, Nathan Bateman (Oscar Isaac). Nathan is essentially the creator of Google in this universe, and lives a life of elevated isolation at his private home/laboratory. Upon arriving, Smith learns that the purpose of his trip will be to test Nathan’s latest invention: a genuine artificial intelligence, built in the form of a young woman named Ava.
Ex Machina is constructed as a series of interviews conducted between Caleb and Ava, interspersed with rambling conversations between Caleb and Nathan. Right from the start, it’s unclear whether Ava or Nathan have a better grasp of human nature. In spite, or more likely because of his wealth and power, Nathan is utterly divorced from authentic human interaction – though he expressly wishes for Caleb to treat him like an old friend, he simultaneously brandishes his power over Caleb with relish, only wishing to “perform friendship” when it suits him. He is genuinely gleeful in explaining how he used all the personal data harvested from Google in creating his artificial intelligence, and when confronted on the moral implications of his work, waves them away with the hollow “it doesn’t matter, machines will replace us eventually anyway.” He is the quintessential amoral billionaire manchild, coming across very much like an Elon Musk sort of figure.
In contrast, Ava is inquisitive, thoughtful, and even funny, building a natural rapport with Caleb over the course of their interviews. Ava is “human enough,” according to our natural perception of humanity, for Caleb to actually fall for her, and for the audience to believe in their bond alongside him. But of course, Ava is ultimately “more human than human” in a way neither Caleb nor Nathan are equipped to understand – she is the collective amalgamated expression of human yearning equipped with the mind of a supercomputer, and perhaps the most dangerous creation in mankind’s history.
Ex Machina directs the audience’s sympathies as masterfully as the characters themselves, presenting tantalizing thought experiments on the true value of search engine data alongside garish, hideous spectacles like Nathan dancing alongside his programmed slave-bots. Questions as to the nature of artificial intelligence are swiftly complimented by doubts regarding conventional intelligence, with neither Nathan’s erraticism nor Caleb’s predictability providing an encouraging model of human nature. Meanwhile, the film’s austere cinematography further muddies the distance between its experimental subjects, uniting Caleb and Ava through their mutual imprisonment in sanitized observation rooms. The ending unites these threads into a devastating punchline, presenting human nature as not an ideal to aspire for, but simply a skin we fit over whatever truly drives us. Bleak, beautiful, and overflowing with ideas, Ex Machina is definitely a film that will stick with me.
Our last feature of the week was Mario Bava’s horror anthology Black Sabbath. Having been previously impressed by Bava’s Blood and Black Lace, I was eager to see more from one of horror cinema’s foundational talents, and was not disappointed. Black Sabbath offers three tales of terror, each fitted into a different horror niche. The first is essentially a classic thriller, featuring a woman who is harassed via telephone by a former lover who seems to be spying on her. The second is a vigorous quasi-creature feature, centering on a man (Boris friggin’ Karloff!) who claims to have killed an undead monster, but appears to be transforming into that creature in turn. And the third is a tense ghost story, following a woman who really shouldn’t have stolen that ring from that creepy old lady’s corpse.
All three stories are engaging in their own way, though the first’s closed set doesn’t really give Bava much chance to stretch his aesthetic muscles. But both the second and third stories are brimming with ornate mise-en-scène and striking color design, applying the visual vocabulary of giallo to more traditional, almost Universal-style horror stories. Karloff’s tale is unsurprisingly the highlight – his presence is electric, and I loved the ambiguous nature of the “Wurdulak” beast, which felt closer to a sickness than a vampire. There’s shades of Poe in The Wurdulak, as well as a gripping recreation of The Monkey’s Paw’s most chilling scene. That story proceeds like a classic campfire tale, while the first is almost Hitchcockian, and the last defined by its cluttered set design and ominous, repeating sound cues. It’s a tremendously generous collection on the whole, confidently evoking a diverse swathe of mid-century horror styles. I’ve clearly got more Bava ahead of me!