Monday, September 28, 2009

Leave La France! Chapter 15: Bad Influences

The french are not known particularly for their sci-fi. With the exception of Jean-Pierre Jeunet's output (which is decidedly hard to pigeonhole. There are sci-fi elements to be found in his first films, though it's a touch more antiquated and Fritz Langy in Delicatessen and City of Lost Children. Alien: Resurrection is most assuredly sci-fi, but it wasn't exactly his idea, was it? If 20th Century Fox drove a dump truck full of money to my house with a screenplay on top, you can bet I might not scrutinize it) there have been precious few cinematic journeys into the scientific and strange. It's fitting that the first real instance of Sci-Fi in France was a dissection of dystopian fiction mixed with noir called Alphaville by the master of audacious cinematic (ir)reverence Jean-Luc Godard. The man changed the face of cinema so I guess if anyone was going to make the country’s first genre picture it may as well be him. Leos Carax's Mauvais Sang followed much the same tack in 1986. Rene Laloux's animated film La Planète Sauvage is about the only thing produced in country that can be read as sci-fi until late into the first decade of the 21st century. And to make things even more incestuous the first of them was directed by none other than Marc Caro, Jeunet's co-director on Delicatessen and City of Lost Children. And as soon as they wrapped production (or possibly just before they started), Caro's first assistant director Franck Vestiel thought he might like to helm just such a project and started production on another quite like it. Neither is quite as good as they could have been, but they aspire to provoke thought which is more than can be said of most of their peers across the Atlantic.

Dante 01
by Marc Caro
Through voice over, we're told that everything begins in a primordial fire, just as we see the rockets of a space shuttle ignite. The woman's voice tells us that if someone were to examine their story, they could do worse than starting with the arrival of the shuttle. They, as we'll soon learn, are three scientists, two security guards and seven psychiatric patients. The shuttle is docking at a floating sanatorium orbiting a planet called Dante apparently engulfed in the fire of a thousand volcanos or some such thing. The narrator is one of the scientists and her name is Persephone. She uses phrases like "antechamber of hell", so you know what a blast this place must be. She and her colleague Charon are humourless and have clearly been out here too long. Their newest transplant, a doctor called Elisa, surmises as much the instant she meets them. Persephone and Charon fill Elisa in on the way things work, just as the same thing goes on with the inmates. Elisa isn't the only new transplant, you see, she also came with a freeze-dried inmate with no name. The new guy is weird-looking and doesn't talk. He meets the others as he defrosts; there's Cesar the de facto leader and the only face you'll recognize (he's Jeunet regular Dominique Pinon), Attila who's either under the thumb of Charon or vice versa, Raspoutine a doe-eyed zealot who believes the new guy is Saint Georges sent by god to defend them, Boudda whose religious beliefs lead him to offer to strangle the new guy to death and lastly Moloch and Lazare, two heavies who do Cesar's bidding because they seem to like bossing people around (the Crabbe and Goyle of the nut house, if you will). The regulars explain the what happens normally around the ship but they're are about to discover there's something nothing normal about either newcomer.

Charon has Atilla look into Elisa's file through a secret communication channel because back in the real world, using computers for evil was what the prisoner was best at. Before he can learn much, Elisa explains to Persephone and Charon that she has a new bit of therapy that 'the company' sent her to try out. It involves nanotechnology and she seems to think that by injecting tiny robots into the bloodstream of crazies she can modify their behavior. She gets her first opportunity when the staff gases the inmate's living quarters (which happens whenever they get too rowdy), putting them all to sleep and allowing the guards, CR and BR, to collect blood samples and bring one of them, Boudda, up into their lab. Charon is reluctant at first but agrees when she tries it on Boudda and he calms down significantly; Persephone wants no part of it. Boudda and the others see the incident as something else entirely. Before the gassing started, the new guy stood over him and had a vision wherein he saw an amphibious-looking arachnid not unlike a rubbery rendering of a face hugger from Alien, but bright orange instead of traditional grey, inside of his fellow inmate's chest. No one else can see what he sees and thus don't respond when the new guy pulls the spider out and eats it. Boudda and Raspoutine interpret the incident as the new guy, whom they nickname Saint Georges, performing a miracle by relieving his pain. Cesar, perhaps sensing that their support could mean an end to his reign of admittedly limited power, has Moloch and Lazare try to kill Saint Georges. Raspoutine intervenes and cuts Moloch's throat but following another of Saint Georges' visions, CR and BR can find nothing wrong with him when they gas the inmates to get a closer look.

These miracles begin affecting everyone. Persephone questions her belief in science and refuses to let Elisa put her nano-face huggers inside Saint Georges bloodstream. Charon overrules her and they try anyway but Saint Georges wakes from his sleep and escapes back into the inmates quarters. Cesar maintains that Saint Georges is evil until, one more spider-eating vision later, he cures the dictator of the nano-technology that Elisa gave him. Atilla finally finds out what Elisa's been sent here to do and responds by seizing control of the ship's controls and setting a collision course for Dante. They have about an hour before their on the fiery surface of the planet and the only way that Charon can see to save everyone is to get to the manual piloting chamber below the floor of the inmates quarters, which means confronting them for the first time. Elisa, of course, has her own plans and so for that matter does Saint Georges.

With all famous partnerships that break up, the tendency is to try and examine their solo work to determine who brought what to the table. When Caro split from Jeunet, he did precious little before Dante 01, giving us ample time to figure out that what exactly he had contributed to their two collaborations. Jeunet clearly was responsible for the touching, quirky romances and heart-warming friendships at the core of their films, whereas the bug-eyed weirdness and confrontational, claustrophobic angles were all courtesy of Caro. Which means that the geniuses at 20th Century Fox took the wrong co-director to make Alien: Resurrection. If Caro had been put in charge, the result may have been salvageable, as it was clearly he who had the killer instincts required to handle the more grim and gooey aspects of the movie. Coincidentally or not, the one film that comes immediately to mind when I think of possible influences on Dante 01 is David Fincher’s Alien³. Like in that film misshapen bald heads, amber-tinted production design, gothic prison sets, and a plot set in motion by the arrival of a visitor are all present. I rather liked the look of Alien³ and so consequently enjoyed the look of Dante 01, even if those common design elements and the frenetic quality of the action have been turned up to 11. Like Fincher, Caro used a specific and beautiful look in order to better spin a yarn steeped in religious thought and ancient tales involving dragons, juxtaposing the timeless with the ‘futuristic’.

Fincher, of course, had a stout 150 or so minutes with which to give his gorgeous production design all the attention it deserved. Caro had 81 minutes and a hell of a lot more story to tell. Yet, all in all, Dante 01 is a much better movie than both Alien³ and Alien: Resurrection because it moves at too quick a pace for you to get bogged down in its unanswered questions and biggest flaws. In fact, if I have one problem with Dante 01 it’s that it doesn’t address its biggest mystery. We know right from the start that Saint Georges is no ordinary prisoner, and we also know that Elisa is up to no good and yet we learn nothing about either of them. Elisa clearly knows something’s up with him, she was sent in the same shuttle with him to that big psych ward in the sky, and the company trusts her enough to let her administer bloodspiders so why doesn’t she know anything about Saint Georges’ abilities? Does no one know that he has psychic power? What do they allow him to do exactly; can he heal anything? The ambiguity is not unwelcome, per se, as this is a sci-fi film and I would have rioted in the non-existent aisles if someone had sat us down at the end to let us know exactly what we’ve been watching. Really I don’t mind so much, it’s just that Caro had crafted a neat little potboiler and I expected him to be able to answer some of the more pressing questions he poses. I don't think it would have taken away from the film’s greatest strengths to learn where Saint Georges came from or whether he was supposed to figure into some larger plan or other.

Marc Caro’s first assistant director Franck Vestiel must have liked the taste of sci-fi films with more questions than answers he got while working on Dante 01 because his own take on the genre followed shortly after. The only problem is that if he came up with any answers at all he sure didn’t feel like sharing.

Eden Log
by Franck Vestiel
We open a man covered in mud who, for like two hours, crawls through a cave to the entrance to a big labyrinthine facility. He is greeted at the entrance by a myriad of voices, each in a different language, welcoming him to Eden Log. He goes inside and works his way up several stories, via broken ceilings, vents and elevators that no person could be expected to fit through. Along the way he picks up several clues as to what’s going on, even if he doesn’t understand them; I think he’s got amnesia but seeing as the man never says a word it’s pretty hard to tell one way or the other what’s going through his mind. Anyway, he finds recordings made just before whatever catastrophe killed everybody took place alongside people who seem to have fused with giant plants before dying. Shortly after he finds two things that give him irrefutable evidence that whatever was going on in Eden Log was not on the level. First are the armed guards who seem to know who he is and try to apprehend him. Second are the Descent-style mutants waiting for him around every corner.

Just before things start to get super-repetitive, our mudman comes across a botanist or biologist or some such ologist, who hides out in her apartment in a HAZMAT suit. She runs some tests on him and she doesn’t like what she sees. I think what we’re supposed to gather from this is that he’s got a higher predisposition towards turning into a tree or a mutant. She tries to flee, leaving him to die at the hands of the mutants, but he catches up to her and then rapes her in a service elevator. Maybe. It’s hard to tell, but he keeps roaring and grimacing and she alternates between seeming to enjoy it and clearly not. Afterwards, they join forces to evade the soldiers, but they both wind up caught anyway. The ending makes little to no sense, even if it looks kinda cool.
I think what’s going on here is that the man from the mud is actually the architect or president of Eden Log, so it’s totally fucking ironic that he’s like in the mud and being attacked and shit, right? No, that part doesn’t make any sense. If he’s actually important, why does no one recognize him? Why do the soldiers initially try to kill him? Why doesn’t the botanist speak to him by name? Moreover, what’s the point of Eden Log (the facility, not the film. Although....)? What work was being done before the great mutant-causing, tree-mating cave-in? If these are the side-effects of working there, I can’t imagine anyone paying millions of dollars in grant money to open this place. Also, there are a number of crucial design flaws which I’m sure were designed simply because they looked cool: anytime we find a recorded message, it’s projected on the spot where it was also recorded. This makes no sense from a technological standpoint. Why would you want a recorded film to project on your face, instead of on the wall opposite? Why did some people turn to mutants and others to trees? How did our man end up in the mud, way the hell away from everyone else, if he’s so important? Just what is he doing at the end of the film, other than miming that scene from Darren Aronofsky's The Fountain? Was Eden Log designed for that, or was he doing something illegal? This is a movie where the proposition of questions was, aside from production design, the most important thing on the agenda. Everything kinda crumbles under scrutiny.

Vestiel, whose movie is in his second language, is almost as bad at directing extras as Jean Rollin. The dialogue that the soldiers deliver is so stilted and hackneyed that it feels stolen from a video game, along with the plot. The mutants feel lifted in much the same way. They look like their more vicious older brothers from Neil Marshall’s The Descent, yet pose no threat because our mudman lays them out with little to no problem whenever he encounters them. One of the film’s greatest problem is that the majority of its set-pieces are borrowed or stolen, and together they retain nothing of their original power because they have to fit into the weak storyline. Clearly Vestiel put a lot of thought into the look and feel of the film, and its best images, those of the treemen and half destroyed laboratories, are really quite stunning. I just wish he had either let someone else direct or given the script a little more thought.
So neither film has all the answers to the many questions they pose, but a film that seems to designed to make you think about anything is better than one that insists you shut your brain off. These films were given direct-to-dvd releases, by Dimension Extreme and Magnet Releasing respectively, in the states presumably because they couldn’t secure theatrical distribution. Let me just say that in the summer of 2009 alone theatres in the United States were hit with Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, Gamer and Terminator: Salvation, so I’m a little pissed off at America right now. Personally I think Eden Log would have done pretty well with the teenage boy set in this country, what with it’s chic boiler room set design, video game plot devices, and faux-philosophical subtext; It could have been the next Matrix. Apparently I wasn't the only one who thought so because Christian Alvart's Pandorum, a film produced by Paul W.S. Anderson or as I like to call him The Greatest Living Filmmaker, is a pretty flagrant rip-off. We have guys in a big Alien-esque environment who don't know anything. There are Descent-style mutants with Road Warrior costumes, a lot of destruction, a botanist/biologist love interest, silly ass fight scenes and a big profound ending. So despite my issues with it someone somewhere thought Eden Log was cool enough to steal from and erase all of its subtlety in the process. Well, I guess it’s been a hundred years and stateside audiences still can’t quite cope with foreign films so I’m stuck a pessimist’s optimist. People don’t realize that there are films they might quite enjoy if they’re willing to read; they don’t have to settle for Michael Bay or Paul W.S. Anderson.

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