Terminator Salvation: Apocalypse and Transhumanism

Will the new TERMINATOR explore apocalyptic anxiety regarding technology and nuclear annihilation in a new way?
The local fire station used to be located a few more blocks to the east of us. Within the last couple of months, the local city police and fire departments secured separate facilities, which means that the fire department is now much closer than  it used to be in the past. On the one hand, that’s a good thing because it means that their response to emergencies and fires in the neighborhood will be much quicker. On the other hand, this means that the weekly testing of the emergency fire siren every Thursday evening is now much louder, and thus able to send more chills down my spine than when it was slightly farther away. Every time I hear this siren, which sounds exactly like the air raid sirens of my youth, it takes me back to my elementary school years when my fellow students and I would hide under our desks in drills that prepared us for the possibility of nuclear missile strikes. With the breakup of the former Soviet Union and improvements in international relations, such preparations and the resulting childhood fears are largely a thing of the past (with the situations in North Korea, Pakistan, and Russia such drills may return), but for those of us who lived in the last few decades of the Cold War, the wail of the sirens serve as a reminder of fears of nuclear apocalypse.
Fears and scenarios depicting The End are found throughout cultures and religions, going back to the earliest times of humanity. Just as we need stories to explain where we have come from and why we are here, we also need stories to explain our inevitable ending. As Elizabeth Rosen has commented, “The story of apocalypse has become a part of our social consciousness, part of a mythology about endings that hovers in the cultural background and is just as real and influential as our myths of origin.” As an explanatory myth, apocalyptic “is an organizing principle imposed on an overwhelming, seemingly disordered universe” (Apocalyptic Transformation: Apocalypse and the Postmodern Imagination[Rowman & Littlefield, 2008]).
In Western culture, apocalyptic has been rooted in the Judeo-Christian tradition which continues to exert strong influences and much of the vocabulary related to considerations of the End. But various cultural circumstances have contributed to the shifting use of our apocalyptic vocabulary, as well as a change in the way in which the apocalypse is construed altogether. So while in its Judeo-Christian context, “apocalypse” referred to a revelation of divine vindication in the face of persecution and seeming cultural disorder, in contemporary usage “apocalypse” is now used as a term that refers to an overarching catastrophe that threatens the existence and present form of the human race. In addition to a change in vocabulary with reference to the End, late- or post-modernity also adds a new twist to the apocalypse, not only moving beyond the Judeo-Christian framework but also critiquing the notion of apocalyptic itself, producing variations in conceptions of the End that introduce new moral ambiguities and at times question whether the End really is the End or more of a radical form of transition and transformation.
Science fiction has a long connection with apocalyptic fears, going back to the early pulp magazines, later moving into radio, motion pictures, and television. It has presented the basis of its apocalyptic nightmares in any number of ways, from fears of alien invasion, nature threatening extinction, religious apocalypse, or science and technology out of control. Douglas Cowan, in an entry in The Oxford Handbook of Millennialism, recognizes each of these as categories for science fiction’s exploration of apocalyptic, and notes that “[w]ith the advent of nuclear weapons at the end of the Second World War, science came into its own as the midwife of apocalypse. For the first time in its history, humankind had the ability to destroy itself utterly, and few in the technological nations were left unaware of this fact.” It is not surprising, then, that a number of science fiction films have connected various aspects of technology such as computers that threaten to take over the world (COLOSSUS: THE FORBIN PROJECT [1970]) to the use of nuclear weapons that threaten to bring about the destruction of humanity (WAR GAMES [1983]).
One science fiction film franchise has stood out in dealing with the apocalypse and combining it with fears of advancing technology in the form of computers, nuclear weapons, robotics, and artificial intelligence. In 1984 director James Cameron released THE TERMINATOR, a combination of action adventure with science fiction in an interesting storyline about a future computer network, Skynet, that would launch nuclear missiles in an effort to destroy humanity and take over the planet for machines. As the battle raged into the future and the victory of the machines seemed uncertain, Skynet would create a race of cybernetic organisms, killing machines, one of which would be sent into the past in order to kill the mother of a future leader of the human resistance efforts.
THE TERMINATOR did well at the box office and struck a chord in the 1980s with the Reagan Administration and its talk of the Soviet Union as an “evil empire,” and growing fears of nuclear confrontation between the Superpowers. It would be several years before a sequel was produced; in 1991 Cameron surpassed his initial exploration of cyborg apocalypse with TERMINATOR 2: JUDGMENT DAY. This second installment in the franchise upped the ante in conflict, moving beyond a terminator hunting a human being to pit Terminator against Terminator. This battle was done with great special effects, computer generated as well as makeup, created by the legendary Stan Winston.
While this battling Terminator scenario made for great action and visual spectacle in T2, without its moorings in a compelling story the idea fizzled with the next installment, TERMINATOR 3: THE RISE OF THE MACHINES (2003). This film pitted two different versions of Terminator cybernetic organisms in mortal combat in ways that looked like “World Wrestling Federation or Ultimate Fighting Champion meets the gender wars.” With this cinematic entry the franchise seemed to have reached its end.
Fast forward to 2009 and the Terminator franchise shows the possibility of new life and potential vitality, particularly if it can reconnect strong visual effects and battling Terminators with the apocalyptic storyline that provide its initial strength. Director McG, previously connected with efforts such as THE O.C. and the CHARLIE’S ANGELS movies, seeks to revitalize the TERMINATOR franchise with TERMINATOR SALVATION, scheduled to open in theaters in the U.S. on May 21. The film’s official website provides the following plot synopsis:

In the highly anticipated new installment of The Terminator film franchise, set in post-apocalyptic 2018, Christian Bale stars as John Connor, the man fated to lead the human resistance against Skynet and its army of Terminators. But the future Connor was raised to believe in is altered in part by the appearance of Marcus Wright (Sam Worthington), a stranger whose last memory is of being on death row. Connor must decide whether Marcus has been sent from the future, or rescued from the past. As Skynet prepares its final onslaught, Connor and Marcus both embark on an odyssey that takes them into the heart of Skynet’s operations, where they uncover the terrible secret behind the possible annihilation of mankind.

TERMINATOR SALVATION promises to break new ground in a number of ways. First, it will be the first film in the series that does not feature Arnold Schwarzenegger. Instead, the director was able to lure Christian Bale to the project as John Connor, an actor who is known for his strong personal investment in films (such as his dramatic weight loss for THE MACHINIST) and who drew acclaim in last summer’s blockbuster THE DARK KNIGHT. Second, the trailers for the film provide hints at what may be an interesting plot development that can take the overarching storyline to new places in connection with the idea of technological apocalypse.

Christian Bale and Sam Worthington
Christian Bale and Sam Worthington

For a while now, many blogs and websites have reacted to early “leaked” details of TERMINATOR SALVATION, specifically speculating on the identity of the Marcus Wright character. Some have thought that the film will depict him as a human working in league with Skynet. Since this early speculation trailers for the film have become available, and they suggest an even more dramatic possibility for Wright, and one more in keeping with a developing apocalyptic myth that seeks to come to grips with technology, specifically in the form of robots.
The shorter trailers for TERMINATOR SALVATION provide only a glimpse of what is presented for a greater period in the four-minute trailer (embedded at the top of this post).  In a tense conversation, Connor  – with a weapon pointed at Wright – asks, “What are you?” The camera shifts from Connor to a tight shot of Wright revealing a human face with an underlying metal skeleton at the outer edges where the human skin has separated from the artificial face. At this juncture Wright replies, “I’m the only hope you have.”
We have seen the combination of cyborg and human before in the TERMINATOR films as Skynet developed killing machines that closely approximated the human so as to make them more efficient hunters. But does this next installment in the franchise hint at something more? Is this hope connected to the film’s title TERMINATOR SALVATION, and if so, what is the substance of that hope?
Our anxieties related to our relationship with technology, particularly as it becomes more sophisticated, and in its computer and robotic expressions come ever closer to approximating the human, touch on at least two areas, including identity and relationship. As technology produces new robotic limbs that replace our own, and as new forms of robotics mimic human intelligence and emotion, this raises questions about our identity and our uniqueness. Will it be possible for such expressions of technology to approximate the human in ways that raise questions about the personhood of our technological creations (one of many disturbing questions raised by Spielberg’s neglected and multifaceted A.I: ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE)?
In terms of relationship we have always had an uneasy connection with technology. We love the gadgets that make our lives easier, and usually take them for granted, until malfunction or power failure makes them inaccessible. Beyond this, what happens when these fruits of technology threaten our lives? It is worth noting that scholars have noted a decided shift in the apocalyptic narrative from its earlier religious expressions to more secular and technological ones that coincided with the first nuclear explosion.
It is dangerous to speculate too much on a film that has yet to be released, based upon brief glimpses from a trailer, but TERMINATOR SALVATION may provide a new element in response to our anxieties and fears over our relationship with technology, that of synthesis. If this is part of the storyline, then once again science fiction presents a futuristic possibility, but one only slightly ahead of the present. An intellectual movement exists called transhumanism or sometimes posthumanism. This has been defined as the combination of technology with human beings in such a way as to “enhance human intellectual, physical, and psychological abilities.” All well and good as we think of Steve Austin in the 1970s television series THE BIONIC MAN, and war veterans with robotic limbs replacing those lost in battle. But many have wondered how far transhumanism might be taken, going so far as to change human beings into something entirely nonhuman or posthuman as part of an ongoing process of evolution and social transformation.
If TERMINATOR SALVATION does indeed present Wright as a human-machine hybrid, then it moves the franchise into interesting new ground, not only in terms of the possibility of surviving nuclear attack, and moving us beyond the action of humans battling Terminators, but also possibly forging new apocalyptic myths related to technology. This will raise new questions about what it means to be human, and the fearful spectre of the possibility of the posthuman. If McG does take the TERMINATOR franchise in this direction he will indeed revitalize it, and inject an important element of philosophical, cultural, social, and theological consideration.

Wonder Awards 2009: Rationale of a Conflicted Contrarian

As cinema buffs and Hollywood’s elite await the Academy Awards this weekend, Cinefantastique Online has addressed the unfortunate lack of critical appreciation for films of the fantastic through its 2009 Wonder Awards. As in any other subjective human endeavor those of us who voted on the nominations disagreed at times with the selections of others. While that is to be expected, some of us took it a step further and split our votes in certain areas in ways that might seem in conflict. For my own part, I voted for WALL-E as the Best Film, and also selected THE DARK KNIGHT for Best Screenplay (by Jonathan and Christopher Nolan). In what follows I will explain the rationale for my voting process, and also comment on why, in my view, HELLBOY 2 should have won for Best Makeup over BENJAMIN BUTTON.
I must admit that voting for this year’s Wonder Awards was difficult. Films of the fantastic are now both plentiful and produced with great quality, and in a way I was thankful to be placed on the horns of a dilemma as I voted from the list of nominees. When it came to my selection for Best Film I immediately experienced great personal angst, being torn between WALL-E and THE DARK KNIGHT as two exemplary films for the year. I decided early on to skip this part of the voting process and to make my other selections before coming back to my deliberations in this category. This tactic was partially successful in that it delayed the inevitable in the Best Film Category, but as I scrolled through the categories and nominees I faced similar dilemmas and a developing conflict over not only individual films, but the best way in which to acknowledge their contribution to fantastic cinema in differing categories. I wondered, was it necessary to vote holistically for a given film throughout each of the different categories, or if not, what about the possibility of more diversity in voting that recognizes the strengths of both films in differing ways?
The way I resolved my conundrum, as I mentioned at the beginning, was to select WALL-E as Best Film, and THE DARK KNIGHT for Best Screenplay. How then to explain my conflicting choice? In my thinking WALL-E was the best overall cinematic experience of the fantastic for 2009. This film took computer animation to new heights, from the height of its realism and the detail of its opening scenes as it depicted a dystopian vision of a planet decimated by pollution, to the depth of emotion the animators were able to invest in its leading characters, Wall-E and Eve. In addition to its visual beauty, the film also told a very human story through its robotic characters as well as the humans adrift in space and in need of a healthy reconnection with the Earth, their own bodies, and community. Surely the screenplay was a part of this great film, but in my view it is possible to recognize the overall value of this film as Best Picture, and yet to leave room to acknowledge the value of another strong nominee as a great candidate in another category but which fell short of Best Picture.
This brings me to my selection of THE DARK KNIGHT for Best Screenplay. This film took the box office by storm last summer, which is intriguing in that it was inspired by Frank Miller’s depiction of the character in his graphic novel BATMAN: THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS (1986). As I have commented on my blog, the box office success of THE DARK KNIGHT is somewhat surprising in that it addresses issues related to the Bush Administration’s “war on terror” and, like Frank Miller in the graphic novel, seems to do so in ways that approve of vigilantism on issues like the wiretapping of private citizens and violent means of prisoner interrogation. Through such vigilante actions, the heroes presented in THE DARK KNIGHT, both Batman and Commissioner Gordon, are late modern characters reflecting the ambiguity of our times and a recognition that there isn’t always a clear line between good and evil, no good guys dressed in white and bad guys in black with clear demarcations between them.
This most recent depiction of Batman moves him from the realm of the cardboard comic book characters of the past and places him in a scenario closer to our muddied world where, following Nietzsche’s dictum, the hero has looked into the abyss and the abyss has looked into him. As a result, the hero becomes a little darker, and as Heather Duda notes in The Monster Hunter in Modern Popular Culture (McFarland, 2008), the heroic monster hunter must also be acknowledged as being a little monstrous himself (and now herself with figures like Ripley and Buffy in the ALIEN films and BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER, respectively).
I grant that many viewers may not have taken such depth of social commentary away from their viewing of THE DARK KNIGHT, but it is there as some have acknowledged. The more complex and ambiguous Batman may be attributed to the screenplay writers who took the various conceptions and expressions of Batman in the past and then updated him in light of Miller’s graphic novel and contemporary cultural considerations so that he could be a hero for our time responding to our fears and foes. For rising to such a difficult challenge through their writing I believe that THE DARK KNIGHT should be the recipient of the Best Screenplay award, even while the film falls short overall in my estimation as Best Film.
Ron Perlman in waist-up makeup for Hellboy 2In the area of Best Makeup the clear winner in my opinion is HELLBOY 2. Yes, the makeup effects of THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON are impressive as Brad Pitt’s character ages in reverse. They certainly compliment this great fantasy story, but in my view they do not make an overall contribution to the film as HELLBOY 2’s makeup effects do or to the depth at which we see them in the latter’s makeup efforts. In the case of BENJAMIN BUTTON the makeup effects must be believable and are certainly integral to the storytelling as we experience the strange journey of a man who moves forward through time and yet grows biologically younger. But the makeup effects in this case are not as broad or as central as in HELLBOY 2. In Hellboy’s world we shift from a fantasy story within the real world as in the case of BUTTON, to the portrayal of a fantasy world involving elves and fairies who inhabit realms closer to ancient mythologies and fantasy stories like Tolkien’s Middle Earth. The makeup effects created for HELLBOY 2 are thus more broad, rich in expression, and central to the storytelling, and for these reasons HELLBOY 2 is the clear winner over THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON in my thinking.
Surely we can agree to disagree over these issues. I know that my view many times is in the minority. Personally I didn’t find THE EXORCIST scary, and I have no idea how Bravo could include scenes from WILLIE WONKA & THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY and THE WIZARD OF OZ in their “100 Scariest Movie Moments,” or choose JAWS as the number one film of fright. But heck, they didn’t include me in the talking heads commentary or ask my opinions in the matter. I recognize that at times my views are outside the mainstream, even among fans of the fantastic. But at least with my selections for the 2009 Wonder Awards readers have a glimpse into my conflict as a contrarian.

Werewolves Rising: Underworld launches a new wave of Lycans

Underworld: Rise of the Lycans
Underworld: Rise of the Lycans

The film franchise that successfully combines vampires and werewolves and which also involves a romantic element hit the theaters once again last weekend and did fairly well in box office returns. I’m not talking about the second installment in the TWILIGHT series, but rather, UNDERWORLD: THE RISE OF THE LYCANS. This latest and perhaps last chapter in the UNDERWORLD narrative is something of a prequel, taking the viewer to a time before the first film’s narrative in order to provide an exploration of how the lycans (short for lycanthropes – i.e., werewolves) broke from partnership and service to the vampires, lauching an ongoing warfare between the two monstrous species.
Benicio Del Toro as the Wolf Man
Benicio Del Toro as the Wolf Man

This film will not be the only one to explore werewolves in 2009 with November representing a furry month that will include a fresh remake of THE WOLF MAN starring Benicio del Toro and featuring makeup by Rick Baker, and NEW MOON, the next film in the TWILIGHT series set to explore the conflict between vampires and werewolves only hinted at in the first film. But while many of the classic monsters immortalized in film have been the focus of popular and academic exploration, especially the vampire and Dr. Frankenstein’s creature, like the mummy, the werewolf has received comparatively little exploration.
Gordon Melton’s encyclopedic Vampire Book discusses the ancient origins of the werewolf in the folklore of various peoples around the world. The werewolf myth is part of a broad collection of myths in cultures with stories of human transformations into various types of animals. One of the oldest comes from ancient Greek mythology, with the word Lycaon from which we derive the term “lycanthropy.” Europe has been the source of some of the most influential folklore in Hollywood horror’s depictions of the werewolf, which reached a peak in the Middle Ages when lycanthropy was attributed to satanic influence along with witchcraft and sorcery. Melton also notes that in the mythic and literary history of various creatures in mythology that werewolves and vampires crossed paths in the past long before Hollywood cinema thrust the creatures together.
In terms of literary development, the werewolf appeared in three novels in the nineteenth century, with George W. M. Reynold’s Wagner the Wehrwolf recognized as one of the most significant. However, it was Guy Endore’s 1934 novel The Werewolf of Paris that would attract the most attention and become influential in the cinematic development of werewolf mythology. Endore’s book (or at least its title) was the inspiration for Universal Pictures’ first exploration of the lycanthrope in THE WEREWOLF OF LONDON.
Lon Chaney Jr. as the Wolf Man

However, it was Universal’s next film, THE WOLF MAN with Lon Chaney, Jr., that would cement the werewolf in popular culture so that the creature would become an iconic figure. This film would become something of a template for Western audiences in their understanding of werewolf mythology, with subsequent films providing deviations and modifications from this basic narrative core. As David Skal describes the impact of THE WOLF MAN and the subsequent werewolf films derived from this classic in the development of the mythology, “The Wolf Man’s saga was the most consistent and sustained monster myth of [World War II], beginning with the first year of America’s direct involvement, and finishing up just in time for Hiroshima.”
We might also remember that, UNDERWORLD’s pairing of vampires and werewolves is not the first time this has taken place in film. 1943’s THE RETURN OF THE VAMPIRE by Columbia Pictures did so, as did three films by Universal through the mid to late 1940s.
2009’s two films exploring the werewolf is significant for this horror creature, but it still falls slightly short in comparison with 1981, a year that Marco Lanzagorta calls “The Year of the Wolf” due to the release of three werewolf pictures that year including THE HOWLING, AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON, and WOLFEN. The werewolf may not be as popular as the vampire or the zombie in popular culture, but perhaps this year’s exploration of the transforming beast from within indicates that we still find the creature fascinating as it provides us with yet another facet of exploring the submersed dark side of human nature that surfaces all too frequently without the need for a full moon or gypsy curses.

Of Folklore and Fatherhood: THE UNBORN and Cinematic Reflection

At the conclusion of 2008 television ads promoted upcoming movies for the new year, and THE UNBORN caught my eye. At that time I was impressed by the trailers, which can be dangerous in that many times studios do a great job of making the trailers better than the actual films they promote. Even so, several aspects of THE UNBORN held promise for me, from the ghost story and possession elements, to the presence and potential gravitas of veteran fantasy actor Gary Oldman, and the visual influences of Japanese horror. To a great extent the film lived up to my anticipation as an average horror film, opening last weekend and ranking third in box office receipts.

Gary Oldman and Odette Yustman
Gary Oldman and Odette Yustman

Two additional elements of THE UNBORN held special appeal for me and are worthy of further reflection. First, although the film touches on the issues of possession and exorcism, common elements from any number of horror films since the 1970s, it does so by way of different source material. In the United States, most past possession and demonological films such as THE EXORCIST and THE OMEN, to more recent efforts such as THE EXORCISM OF EMILY ROSE, have tended to find their narrative grounding for the supernatural in the Christian tradition with its concepts of God, Satan, and possession. THE UNBORN breaks new ground in basing its narrative in Jewish folklore and mysticism. The movie’s heroine, Casey Beldon (played by Odette Yustman), comes to discover that her nightmares and ghostly visitations are the result of a dybbuk, defined by the Encyclopedia Britanica online as “a disembodied human spirit that, because of former sins, wanders restlessly until it finds a haven in the body of a living person.” In order to learn more about how to combat this supernatural creature Casey consults a volume of Jewish mysticism from the Kabbalah. Given that the text is written in Hebrew, she visits Rabbi Sendak, a skeptical clergyman who is eventually forced by his own supernatural experiences to come to grips with the reality of the situation facing her.
Not only does THE UNBORN break new ground in basing its supernatural premise upon Jewish rather than Christian mythology, but it also joins these common religious traditions together in the effort to destroy the focus of evil. In this process, Rabbi Sendak assembles an exorcism team which includes a Christian minister. Although the form of the exorcism has a distinctly Jewish flavor, the narrative of the film states through the Christian minister that the dybbuk predate human religion, and that there are common elements in exorcisms across religions and cultures, and it is these elements to which the dybbuk respond. Although some may find horror films which touch on possession and exorcism tiresome given the frequently trodden ground for these ideas, the infusion of new folklore and mythology as the foundation for the supernatural, as well as the cooperative efforts of religious traditions with a common historical heritage, were refreshing aspects of THE UNBORN’s narrative. I can only hope that Hollywood horror will be inspired through this effort to mine the depths of cultural and religious mythology (as has been done with breathtaking artistry and storytelling by Guillermo del Toro in PAN’S LABYRINTH and HELLBOY II) for additional source material for future cinematic treatments.
The second aspect of the film worth noting is the presence of the evil child. This feature surfaces in both the dybbuk which embodies in the form of a dead child from the past, as well as the influence the dybbuk has on a human child who is used to send words of warning and as the instrument of the dybbuk’s murderous wrath. Once again the viewer might complain that the presence of evil children is a well trodden if not tired convention in horror. But its depiction in the UNBORN indicates that angst over issues related to children, from motherhood, to the unborn, and the hopeful innocence of children, remain significant issues that trouble us in the late modern period, and for which horror provides a means of expressing these concerns.
We live in a time which truncates, and at time obliterates, the innocence of childhood. Children today have an awareness of and grapple with ideas and challenges that previous generations did not encounter until later in life. We are rightly concerned about the likelihood that growing up too fast will taint children that represent the future of our society. And what of those children who wrestle with circumstances that deprive them of the allegedly clean slate that most children benefit from? As the father of a son who fought with and eventually lost the battle with the personal “demons” of depression and bipolar, I am sympathetic to our culture’s continued interest in the horror figure of the evil child that enables us to wrestle with our conceptions of children, parenthood, and the societies in which they are raised. Perhaps we continue to find them so intriguing and frightening (as evidenced vividly in films like PET SEMATARY) because they remind us of our sacred responsibilities in child rearing and protection, and the all too common failures we experience in that process.
As I left the theater last weekend after watching THE UNBORN I did so with a feeling of mild satisfaction. The film was an average horror story: I did not waste my ticket price, but then again, I will not rush to add the film to my DVD collection. Even so, it incorporates interesting story elements indicative of the multifaceted and complex nature of horror and the fantastic that is so intriguing to reflect upon.

Framing Monsters: Joshua Bellin explores social alienation in fantasy films

[EDITOR’S NOTE: John W. Morehead of TheoFantastique kindly offers us this excerpt of his extensive interview with Joshua David Bellin, author of Framing Monsters: Fantasy Film and Social Alienation.] I have read many books and academic articles that probe deeply into horror and science fiction film, television, and literature, but rarely can such analysis be found related to fantasy. For those interested in such an exploration seek no more. Joshua Bellin has done us a great service, providing us with both an academic exploration and a treat for fantasy film enthusiasts. Bellin is part of the School of Arts and Sciences at LaRoche College, and he is the author of a number of books including . Thankfully he loves to talk about monsters and fantasy film, and he made some time to discuss these as they relate to his book’s thesis.
TheoFantastique: Josh, thanks for writing your book and addressing fantasy films. Some of what follows in our discussion as you flesh out your book’s thesis may be a bitter pill to swallow for some readers. So let’s begin where you begin in your book. Even though you offer a critique of fantasy films as perpetuating problematic social and cultural phenomenon, you are a fantasy film fan. In fact, the original King Kong is your favorite film. Can you share a little of your appreciation for fantasy films, and how this is nevertheless connected to an academic analysis of what might be considered the “dark side” of this genre?
Josh Bellin: I can’t remember a time that I wasn’t a fan of fantasy film. I’ve tended to mark watershed moments in my life via the fantasy films current at the time: Star Wars came out when I was on the verge of my teen years, Jurassic Park appeared just before I got married, The Fellowship of the Ring coincided with my first full-time academic job, and so on. But King Kong was special. I first saw it when I was five years old, and it absolutely changed my life. The combination of amazing visuals and compelling narrative gripped me, inspired me, made me believe that the world was alive with mystery and wonder. I drew books of monsters (most of them looking exactly like Kong!), I dreamed of becoming a stop-motion artist, I drafted countless (unfinished) fantasy novels. In a way, I think my love of fantasy led me to academia; my passion for research and teaching reflects my belief in transcendence, in limitless possibility, and this belief in turn can be traced to my lifelong love affair with worlds of fantasy.
But as I’ve grown, and as my academic training has encouraged me to read literary and cultural texts closely and critically, I’ve become more reflective about fantasy films and my own relationship to them. I’ve come to believe that fantasy films, as cultural texts, are invariably connected to their social, historical, and political contexts, which means they’re also connected to the prevailing prejudices of their time and place. And I’ve had to ask myself how I can love films that frequently promulgate social attitudes I find repugnant: racism, sexism, mistreatment of the mentally and physically different, and so forth. That was the germ of my book: asking myself that question, which is really a moral question more so than an academic question. So this book is the most personal of all my books, the one that touches not only on my research interests but on my history, my self-definition, and my sense of purpose as a human being. Because after all this, I’m still a diehard fan, and that means I need to reconcile my very different personal and professional responses to these films.
TheoFantastique: Can you summarize the thesis of your book?
Josh Bellin: The book’s thesis grows out of the question I just posed: how can I—or more broadly, how can we, as individuals and as members of past and present societies—be so strongly attracted to films that often promote our worst qualities rather than our best? My answer is that fantasy films are particularly adept at representing these negative qualities in ways that insulate viewers from recognizing them or, more specifically, from taking responsibility for them. Because fantasy films can so easily be dismissed as “pure” or “escapist” entertainment, because viewers and reviewers alike tend to divorce fantasy films from social and historical reality, such films become ideal sites for harboring the social and historical beliefs we most wish to distance ourselves from. So when Depression-era viewers watched Kong, which I situate within the context of twentieth-century racism and segregation, they were able to luxuriate in feelings of fear and hatred toward African Americans while simultaneously denying that they held such attitudes or that the film reinforced them. But of course, that’s what makes these films particularly powerful vehicles of social alienation, the phrase I use to suggest the whole range of processes by which marginalized groups are stereotyped, victimized, and scapegoated: fantasy films’ resistance to critical scrutiny enables them to perpetuate loathsome social ideologies under the guise of “harmless entertainment.”
I should also say here—and this has helped me in my own struggle to reconcile my feelings about fantasy films—that the very qualities that make these films such powerful vehicles of alienation can also make them vehicles of liberation: because the genre is steeped in histories of alienation, it can become a fertile ground for investigating, critiquing, and rejecting such histories.

JURASSIC PARK's rampaging T-Rex.

TheoFantastique: In chapter four of your book you discuss gender, the feminine, and the idea of family values in connection with Jurassic Park. You take the position that this film actually confirms notions of patriarchy in connection with family values. Can you give readers a few threads of your argument and how dinosaurs like the rampaging T. rex might be construed as supporting patriarchy vs. the feminine seeking to rise above patriarchal subordination?
Josh Bellin: The book’s fourth chapter marks a shift from “classic” fantasy films to films of the past few decades; I was attempting to show that it wasn’t only in some supposedly benighted past era that fantasy films upheld processes of social alienation. So the fourth chapter, “Dragon Ladies”—a title I’m very proud of, by the way!—focused on the role of monstrous women in contemporary fantasy films. This is one of the most frequently discussed topics in studies of horror and science fiction film; the original Alien film touched off a flurry of feminist studies detailing how male discomfort with female sexuality manifests itself onscreen. But my concern with these studies is that they tend to fall into the trap of universalizing (and thereby de-historicizing) representations of the monstrous feminine; their argument tends to be that men are always and everywhere repulsed, and in identical ways, by female genitalia and reproductive functions. Though this may be true for all I know, such studies overlook the quite specific and historically shifting discourses surrounding women, reproduction, and the family that held sway during the era of the Alien series, the Jurassic Park films, Species, and the other monstrous-women films I discuss. The eighties and nineties were the heyday of the so-called “family values” crusade, when ideologues in or near the Reagan and Bush administrations popularized the belief that the collapse of patriarchal power, the rise of mother-headed families (especially among African American communities), and the degradation of a “culture of life” had destroyed the “traditional” family, with disastrous cultural results. And if you look at the first Jurassic Park, you see all the rhetoric of the family-values campaign: irresponsible men who dabble in reproductive processes outside the sanctioned family unit give rise to super-empowered females whom they are then unable to control. In this light, the whole subplot about Dr. Grant’s initial distaste for children and his subsequent heroic shepherding of Lex and Tim across the female-ruled Park (a subplot that, interestingly, plays next to no part in the novel on which the film was based) becomes an argument for the reassertion of male authority over a feminized wilderness.

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Commentary: The Legend of Hell House as Neglected and Eclipsed Classic

By John W. Morehead of TheoFantastique

Most of the great horror films are remembered by viewers and at times go on to become classics. Yet other films that are just as well done never seem to capture the imaginations of viewing audiences. This is the case with two horror films of the 1970s, THE EXORCIST, which has become one of the classic horror films of that decade and beyond, and THE LEGEND OF HELL HOUSE, a well made horror film that received far less attention. Why the disparity of attention by fans and critics alike?

I suggest two reasons to account for this phenomenon. First, just as E.T. captured the imagination of audiences in the 1980s with its fantasy depiction of an alien that eclipsed the John Carpenter’s darker vision of alien visitation in THE THING, so THE EXORCIST may have eclipsed THE LEGEND OF HELL HOUSE for audiences in the 1970s. In addition, another dynamic may have been at work:

Secondly, THE EXORCIST seems to have been released at a time when social and cultural circumstances strongly favored its expression of horror both in terms of its visual presentation as well as its subject matter in how supernatural evil is identified. The 1970s in America was a time of increasing crime and violence, and this was paralleled in many of the popular films of the times such as DIRTY HARRY. It should be no surprise that a horror film that depicts evil through subtlety and atmosphere would not be as well received as one that explicitly and graphically presents it. In addition to the visual elements the subject matter is also culturally significant. The Exorcist was one of several films released during the late 1960s and into the 1970s that touched on the satanic and the demonic as informed specifically by the Christian tradition. 1968 saw the release of ROSEMARY’S BABY, and what would become the first of the THE OMEN franchise was released in 1976. American culture of the 1970s seemed to have a growing preference for a form of supernatural evil connected to Christian conceptions of the demonic. This may be due to a variety of reasons, including the growing dominance of the Religious Right, the establishment of various satanic organizations in this period such as the infamous Church of Satan in San Francisco, the influence of various anti-cult organizations, and the prevalance of pop occult themes in heavy metal music. All of these elements contributed to an environment where Christian demonologies became popularized and helped provide an atmosphere for audience horror preferences. In this context it seems that invisible paranormal evil was not nearly as attractive to viewing audiences as the literal embodiment of ultimate satanic evil.

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Film Commentary: Beowulf as Anti-Christian?

BeowulfThe film BEOWULF has become the object of differing interpretations as to how depicts paganism in relation to Christianity. I recently reviewed the film in order to address these differing perspectives. Below is an excerpt of the resulting article that I posted at TheoFantastique:

I searched the Internet yesterday to familiarize myself with Christian interpretations BEOWULF and I found two views at opposite ends of the interpretive spectrum. On the one hand Christianity Today magazine included a review of the film that was very positive, so much so that it makes the claim that, “Screenwriters Gaiman and Avery have actually taken the spiritual imagery even further, heightening Christianity’s clash with the pagan Norse religions and orienting a plot that is shot through with biblical imagery.” The review goes further and states that “the animators’ inspiration was simple—a six-foot-six, incredibly muscular, Norse Jesus Christ.” On the other end of the spectrum National Review Online posted commentary with the title “Anti-Christian Crusade,” and the subtitle “Beowulf the latest installment in Hollywood’s attempt to reconfigure history.” With these radically different interpretations in mind as the film relates or doesn’t relate to Christianity, what are we to think of this artistically and technically beautiful piece of cinema that takes realistic computer generated animation to a new level?
The film, like the ancient folk epic upon which it is based, reflects a sixth century A.D. Anglo-Saxon culture, including the paganism of the time. In my viewing the film only included three direct references to Christianity, including two specific references and one general reference from the Judeo-Christian tradition. The first direct reference comes in the form of a question near the beginning where a query was made of the king which he dismissed as to whether sacrifices should be made not only to the Norse gods of paganism but also the “new Roman god Christ Jesus.” The second reference comes toward the end of the film where Beowulf as king laments the loss of the time of heroes, battles, and monsters. In Beowulf’s view the “Christ god has killed it leaving humankind with nothing but weeping martyrs…” The general reference to the Judeo-Christian tradition comes with a reference to the “sins of the fathers,” an allusion to an Old Testament passage which refers to the sins committed by the fathers visiting their children if they are not addressed properly by the fathers themselves.
With these three references to Christianity, which of the two interpretations of the film’s treatment of Christianity seem most accurate? The positive assessment, or the negative one? I’d like to argue that neither does justice and that another view is in order. Taken in the historical and cultural context of the story itself, the remarks made by the characters in relation to Christianity make perfect sense and seem to be a natural way in which sixth century Norse pagans, steeped in heroes, monsters, and battles, and deities that engaged in such eploits, would have reacted to Christianity and its offer of a new, suffering god and way of life advocating pacifism. Taken in context the remarks seem quite natural to the story and do not seem to reflect anti-Christian bias. On the other hand, in my view it is also a great stretch to see the film as inclusive of biblical imagery, and there surely is no support for the notion that Beowulf is modeled after a “Norse Jesus Christ.” The latter claim is reminiscent of Christopher Deacy’s concern over the frequet and inappropriate appropriation of Christ-figures in films where they do not exist. The reason for these differing interpretations is clear. If film viewers interpret the film in light of their presuppositions about Christianity and popular culture, then these presuppositions will result in the divergent interpretations we see represented by Christians along an interpretive spectrum.
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Interview: Arnold Kunert on the 50th Anniversary DVD of "20 Million Miles to Earth"

20 Million Miles to Earth DVDArnold Kunert is the friend and agent of Ray Harryhausen, the legendary stop-motion animator and special effects wizard. In the past Arnold was interviewed at TheoFantastique in general on Ray’s work and career. In the following interview Arnold made some time to talk specifically about the colorized 50th anniversary edition of Ray’s classic film 20 MILLION MILES TO EARTH.
TheoFantastique: This film has been a favorite of Harryhausen fans for decades since its release. The disc of special features in this anniversary edition includes commentary from folks like Rick Baker, John Landis, Tim Burton and other giants of Hollywood in fantasy films. So the film resonated with the well known members of its audience over the decades as well as among many more rank and file fans. It seems to stand out from other science fiction films from the same timeframe as well. Can you discuss some of the elements and features of this film that seem to make it memorable for fans? Continue reading “Interview: Arnold Kunert on the 50th Anniversary DVD of "20 Million Miles to Earth"”

30 Days of Night and the Development of Vampire Symbolism

By John W. Morehead of TheoFantastique

30 DAYS OF NIGHT, the popular graphic novel by Steve Niles, now a motion picture available on DVD, may include an30 Days of Night Movie Poster interesting development in the vampire mythologic constructed in response to concerns over recent depictions of the icon as well as the increasing popularity of the zombie. In a blog post titled “30 DAYS OF NIGHT and the Oppositional Reconstruction of Vampire Symbolism,” I discuss this thesis:

As horror movie fans and culture watchers know, the vampire has a long history of popularity in film and pop culture, so much so that the vampire has enjoyed great dominance as a horror figure in any number of pop cultural expressions. But the cultural dominance of the vampire has given way in recent years to that of the zombie. Zombie films have been made with increasing frequency, and this may have resulted in the impression by some that the vampire may have lost some of its “edge” as a social and cultural symbol of horror. It appears to this writer that those associated with the cinematic treatment of 30 DAYS OF NIGHT (perhaps those associated with the graphic novel as well) have made a conscious effort to address this phenomenon through the reconstruction of the vampire as a figure that moves far beyond its expressions in the past as a romantic, brooding, and at times comical figure to a fresh embodiment of evil, perhaps a figure reconstructed through this film as a form of opposition to the zombie. Continue reading “30 Days of Night and the Development of Vampire Symbolism”

Interview: Marc Scott Zicree Discusses Rod Serling and "The Twilight Zone Companion"

By John W. Morehead of TheoFantastique

“You’re traveling through another dimension, a dimension not only of sight and sound but of mind; a journey into a wondrous land whose boundaries are that of imagination. That’s the signpost up ahead – your next stop, the Twilight Zone!”

Without doubt one of the classic television programs from the late 1950s into the 1960s is THE TWILIGHT ZONE. For many, myself included, this program was a formative one whether the viewer is a child, teen or an adult. To this day it remains a source of fascination for me, as well for countless numbers of people.
For Christmas in 2006 one of the gifts I received was Marc Scott Zicree’s The Twilight Zone Companion, 2nd ed. (Los Angeles: Silman-James Press, 1989). After reading through the book and enjoying it immensely I contacted Marc through his website. Marc agreed to participate in an interview, but due to his very busy schedule as a writer and producer we were like two ships passing in the night. Just recently we were finally able to connect for a phone interview. The interview at TheoFantastique makes for an interesting exploration of Rod Serling, the fantasy and science fiction writer’s craft, and the continuing legacy of THE TWILIGHT ZONE, as Zicree discusses the influences on Serling’s writing creativity, as well as the ongoing influence of the program in film and television, plus Serling’s penchant for addressing social issues in the guise of science-fiction… Continue reading “Interview: Marc Scott Zicree Discusses Rod Serling and "The Twilight Zone Companion"”