VIEWS ON FILM -
The GRINDHOUSE: Reviews
“Sometimes you just have to see CONGO twice”.
Absolutely have to get that across before diving into this whole “Dumbed down or more accessible” thing. Like laying out a set of individual pearls on the table, then in the end stringing them together into one elegant necklace, we promise this will all make “piece-fits-snuggly-into-piece” logical sense in the end. Anyway …
Those who've perused the occasional GullCottage article or two know our "CONGO philosophy", holding true in both the arts in particular ... and life in general. We’ve been Michael Crichton disciples since 1973 upon our first reading of his published screenplay to WESTWORLD. That was it, baby! From that day forward we knew exactly what we wanted to do for the rest of our lives. We then backtracked and read his earlier (novels) THE ANDROMEDA STRAIN and THE TERMINAL MAN then, in succession as they were released, THE GREAT TRAIN ROBBERY, EATERS OF THE DEAD (aka THE 13TH WARRIOR) and onward. But to this day our all time fave Crichton remains 1980’s CONGO.
A whoppingly entertaining high tech version of R. Rider Haggard’s KING SOLOMON’S MINES, it detailed the fast and furious exploits of an American expeditionary team commissioned by a computer firm to race their Japanese counterparts to a hitherto-thought-to-be-mythical lost jungle city buried beneath the ancient flow of a volcano, wherein lay a rare breed of raw diamonds - the properties of which can be used to manufacture the next generation of super defense computers which use laser light as a power source (and transmission medium) rather than electricity. WHEW! And oh yeah, a sign language speaking ape named “Amy” (based on the real life sign languaging gorilla “Koko”) would be used to help them navigate the serpentine jungle interior.
Ten years later the world would fall in love with Crichton’s equally pulp-inspired JURASSIC PARK. But for us, as awesome as JURASSIC was, CONGO would be top tier Crichton at his creative best. After all in certain respects JURASSIC was kind of a reworking of some of the narrative elements of WESTWORLD anyway, wasn’t it? Y’know, a high tech amusement park where a malfunction leads to the exhibits going haywire and killing the guests? Anyway, it was with CONGO we also came to realize a recurring theme within Crichton: namely that he created (or more accurately RE-created) high tech versions of old-school pulp genres. As such we suddenly recognized THE ANDROMEDA STRAIN as a clever reworking of THE WAR OF THE WORLDS - only with the alien invader being a deadly presumably space born virus. We realized that THE TERMINAL MAN owed it’s soul to Shelly’s FRANKENSTEIN, that EATERS took it's inspiration from BEOWULF (with a bit of THE SONG OF ROLAND tossed in for good measure), and later how JURASSIC would proceed from Conan Doyle, AIRFRAME from Arthur Hailey, TIMELINE - a rift on Twain’s A CONNECTICUT YANKEE IN KING ARTHUR’S COURT and so on.
Crichton and his work (and CONGO in particular) had not only become a personal stanchion in our own creative development, but also a part of a time in our lives. And from that point on any adaptation of his work would not only be judged by us based on it’s faithfulness to the “sacred text” of the novel, but also (unbeknownst to us at the time) by the extremely subjective sifting medium of our own personal perception as it related to our childhood when first exposed to those novels. In other words, it would now be impossible to separate the experience of reading a particular Crichton novel for the first time from the time in our lives when we read it. Quite unfairly, every adaptation of said novel would now have to compete with that personal nostalgia too. This "personal subjective connection" to an original work becomes the central theme of our first entry in this trio of articles,“THE KOBAYASHI MARU OF ‘THE FORCE AWAKENS’”. But we'll get back to that in a moment. For the time being fast forward from the 1980 CONGO novel to Friday June 9th, 1995.
CONGO (film version - 1995)
Over the intervening 15 years since first reading CONGO, a number of attempts to turn it into a film had come and gone. At one point John Carpenter was said to be involved, then at another it was even reported that Steven Spielberg and George Lucas had been toying with the idea of folding the story into the plotline of a new Indiana Jones adventure. At long last the project was a "go" under producers Kathleen Kennedy & Frank Marshall - who’d together produced a number of Spielberg’s films over the years. And it would be directed by Marshall himself (who'd recently proven his cinematic chops with the superlative survival drama ALIVE) from a screenplay by Pulitzer and Oscar winning writer John Patrick Shanley (MOONSTRUCK). Wow! Not too shabby!
With that murderer’s row of talent involved try to imagine how gut-stuck we were upon first viewing of the CONGO (euphemistically referred to as) "film" on opening day. "Film"? What's the Elmore Leonard line from GET SHORTY - "I've seen better film on teeth"? Whew! Two other not-so-flattering four letter words actually came to mind that day. And one of them also began with "F". Heartbreakingly barely recognizable as having proceeded from the book of the same name, not only had the “race to the lost city” structure been jettisoned – along with the super-computer angle. And we could have lived with that. Really, we could have. But, more importantly, the entire tone had been changed to a form of camp not far removed from the Adam West BATMAN tv series of the 1960s; this tonal shift most egregiously realized in the addition of the Tim Curry Romanian expeditionary financier “Herkermer Homolka” (a character created for the film). The attendant “jokes” and “humor” of this interpretation of CONGO were of such a head-scratchingly / mind-numbing sort we kept half-expecting to see Jerry Lewis pop his head out from a window as Batman and Robin scaled the side of a badly realized special FX highrise. Yeah, we were that blown away and horrified. Interestingly however, because our reaction was so severe, one possibility haunted us …
“It really couldn’t have been THAT bad!”, a faint little voice said, “Yeah, that's gotta be it. You’re just so in love with the book and all it represents to you, that you didn’t, ... . No, you couldn't watch the film objectively. NO film could ever live up to the fifteen years of expectations you'd placed upon this one, so you really need to see it again, … y’know, in order to this time around experience it for what it WAS and IS as opposed to what you created beforehand in your head, 'cause that just ain't artistically fair, Bro!".
So, that Sunday we listened to the voice, got up bright and early, and went to see CONGO again. And, lo and behold, NO! We weren't mistaken. It really was that freakin' bad! But at least we now knew for certain it wasn’t just our "unfair" imagination running amuck. All this to say …
Three of the most popular films of 2015 – STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS, SPECTRE and AMERICAN SNIPER, have also amazingly been three of the most divisive and (in some respects) surprisingly emotionally incendiary. To a degree one would expect such a response from something like AMERICAN SNIPER, which, based on very recent true life history, still carries a bit of personal sting for those who view it.
Upon closer inspection, what’s more fascinating is how THE FORCE AWAKENS and SPECTRE, while the wildest of fiction (I mean, you can't get more unreal than STAR WARS and James Bond, right?), also carry a great deal of personal emotions (and sometimes sting) to those who view them, simply because they’re the latest editions of franchises which have been in our lives for nearly a half century. As such they're intrinsically connected to the personal histories / childhoods / upbringing, etc. of not only the current viewer, but also to their parents and maybe even grandparents as well. So is it really even possible to view them objectively? Is it conceivable that, in the same way in which Crichton’s stories (and CONGO in particular) represent / represented more to us than “a nifty yarn”, that so too do the STAR WARS and Bond franchises carry an equal amount of not only nostalgia, but emotional and psychological weight with that nostalgia, varrying from viewer to viewer? As such there are bound to be some severe opinions about them, no?
We were already in the midst of penning individual pieces on AMERICAN SNIPER and THE FORCE AWAKENS, and outlining another on SPECTRE, when it occurred to us that all three had a common thread running throughout them – that all three films were accused by some of “dumbing down” their respective genres, while lauded by others as a welcome respite from a lazy complacency which some felt had settled over them. AMERICAN SNIPER in particular is still fiercely debated and accepted as a "borderline fascist simplification of a complex issue” by one lot, and as “a searing anti-war indictment” by another. But how and why does this extremely polar interpretation come into being?
With this trio of articles, we’re doing the “See CONGO twice, … or maybe even three or four times” thing. You’ll even notice each film features the standard GullCottage "scale of 1 to 5" star rating system (denoting "poor", "fair", "good", "very good" and "excellent"), but three times for each film instead of one – as our opinion of said film under discussion may have varied with each successive viewing.
But don't be too quick to immediately write off all popular entertainment as "empty-headed popcorn fodder". For, upon taking
the time to step back and reevaluate, one can at times find layers of subtext
(intended and otherwise) which may have been lost upon first viewing. When a writer or songsmith or other artist sits down and asks themselves, "What to me is scary, romantic or funny?" the answer will usually lay just outside his or her own window, or on the latest news story caught before they hit the sack last night. For the individual audience member watching / reading / listening to that artist / creator's work, what registers as scary, romantic or funny to them will depend on what they saw outside their window last night. And this will differ not just between audience members, but often between the audience member and the artist / creator. You don't have to be Freud to know these fears, hang-ups, desires, etc. swim within our subconscious and have egress in our nightly dreams. And those dreams keep us from emotionally imploding and going bonkers the next day at work or school or other gathering place within polite society. Film is but another form ..., another realization of the dream state. And even within the most fanciful of films (ESPECIALLY within the most fanciful) these fears, wishes, et al rise to the surface.
See, and you thought STAR WARS and Bond were just "dumb fun stuff", didn't you? Well, sometimes yes, and sometimes no. Anyway, as we delve into this trilogy of articles, try to remind oneself, and be aware of the fact that, while it's okay to have already formulated opinions about said films under discussion (as well as others which they kind of / sort of represent), sometimes our already “opinionated nostalgia” may have initially colored the perception to the point of blinding us to hidden cinematic treasures buried within that which you maybe initially didn't give a second glance. It is the point, ... it is the hope of this mini-series of articles to help break that very common, very standard train of thought. Hey, we're not asking much. Just that every now and then you remember that in relationships, in life, and (of course) with film ...
Sometimes you just need to see CONGO twice.
Enjoy the read. And definitely let us know what you think by clicking the "Contact Us" link up in the top left-hand menu bar. Just two requests - keep it cool and keep it smart.
Have a good one.
In other words, “You just can’t win!”.
Yeah, we kinda thought most folks “in the know” (as they say) would not only get, but also dig that analogous title up there. For the handful not aware of the term "Kobayashi Maru" - and how and why over the past near 35 years it’s gone beyond the genre realm to actually / genuinely enter the pop culture lexicon, Wikipedia sums it up more succinctly than we ever could.
“The ‘Kobayashi Maru’ is a test in the fictional STAR TREK universe. It is a Starfleet training exercise designed to test the character of cadets in the command track at Starfleet Academy. The Kobayashi Maru test was first depicted in the opening scene of the film STAR TREK II: THE WRATH OF KHAN and also appears in the 2009 film STAR TREK. Screenwriter Jack B. Sowards is credited with inventing the test, naming it after a friend whose last name was Kobayashi. The test's name is occasionally used among Star Trek fans or those familiar with the series to describe a no-win scenario, or a solution that involves redefining the problem and testing one's character.
The notional primary goal of the exercise is to rescue the civilian vessel Kobayashi Maru in a simulated battle with the Klingons. The disabled ship is located in the Klingon Neutral Zone, and any Starfleet ship entering the zone would cause an interstellar incident. The approaching cadet crew must decide whether to attempt rescue of the Kobayashi Maru crew – endangering their own ship and lives – or leave the Kobayashi Maru to certain destruction. If the cadet chooses to attempt rescue, the simulation is designed to guarantee that the ship is destroyed with the loss of all crew members.”