I was patient this summer, when all the internet was abuzz with fascination over the pink doll movie and the nerd scientist movie. I was biding my time, waiting for the moment when cinema-goers’ eyes would turn to the tale of the Corsican artillery officer.

It’s been a while since I’ve been actively anticipating seeing a movie. It brought back memories of when I was a lad, waiting for Star Wars I – III to premiere. Of course, I am not comparing Napoleon to the prequel trilogy.  Those films are about a gifted but emotionally unstable young man, trying to balance his military and political ambitions with his turbulent love life, while all around him a dying republic is giving way to an authoritarian regime. Whereas Napoleon… hey, wait a second! Maybe my tastes haven’t matured as much as I thought.

But seriously, folks; who doesn’t love a good sweeping epic, with massive battles, steamy love scenes, all telling a tale of destiny and struggle, heroism and villainy, and all the different shades of poetical feeling that form the kaleidoscope of the human experience? And who better to direct it than the versatile Ridley Scott, the director of such classic films as the sci-fi masterpiece Alien and the historical opus Kingdom of Heaven?

Then again, he has also directed such turkeys as the inane sci-fi mess Prometheus and the historical snoozefest Exodus: Gods and Kings.  Would we be getting Good Ridley or Bad Ridley for this outing? It only added to the suspense.

In case you can’t tell by now… this is going to be long. If you want a quick review, or even a moderately lengthy review, look elsewhere. Here at Ruined Chapel, we believe reviews are meant to be a little bit winding, even meandering. There’s nothing wrong with taking the long way.

Napoleon begins in the French Revolution, with the grisly execution of Marie Antoinette. In a bit of artistic license, the young officer is witness to the morbid spectacle. Unlike the jeering crowds, he seems rather put-off by the whole thing.

We then see him bravely leading the French against the British forces at Toulon, for which he receives a promotion to brigadier general and catches the eye of Josephine de Beauharnais, a striking widow with whom the youthful officer quickly falls in love.

Okay, pause right there. I said “youthful” because Napoleon was 27.  Joaquin Phoenix, who plays Napoleon, is 49. I’m not in favor of this business of “de-aging” actors, but it’s pretty disconcerting to see a middle-aged man portraying a brash young officer who is becoming infatuated with a woman who is supposed to be six years older than him, but in fact looks about 15 years younger. (Because the actress is.) I’m not saying it ruins the movie or anything, but it’s odd.

Oh, well. That’s why they pay these actors the big bucks, right? To play someone they’re not. I won’t get mired down by a little detail like this. There are much more important things by which to get mired down.

Like the already-infamous pyramid scene. In a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it treatment of the Battle of the Pyramids, the film shows French artillery blasting the top off one of the iconic monuments. This didn’t happen. It is seemingly a riff on a story that French soldiers shot the nose off of the Sphinx, which also didn’t happen. Ridley Scott, however, claims it’s a fast way of communicating that Napoleon took Egypt. And Lord knows he wants to be fast, because this movie gallops along at an insane pace. Hardly are Josephine and Napoleon married before she’s cheating on him with another officer while he’s in Egypt, so then he has to come back from Egypt and confront her, but then they make up, sort of, and then…

It’s a tall order to compress 20 years of history into a 2.5 hour movie. Which is one reason I would have been in favor of not doing it.

The famous director David Lean once said that a mistake filmmakers make when adapting a book is to try to give audiences a little sample of everything in it, but the end result is no one aspect gets its due. The better approach, Lean said, is to find the core of the story, and tell that as richly and fully as possible. I’d argue this applies also to adaptations of historical episodes generally, not just particular books.

Lean directed a number of historical epics, including Doctor Zhivago, A Passage to India, Ryan’s Daughter, and, oh yes, a little picture called Lawrence of Arabia, which I consider to be one of the greatest films ever made, and certainly the bar against which all historical epics must be judged.

Now, in all fairness, Lawrence of Arabia is close to four hours long, and Scott plans to release a cut of Napoleon that will exceed even that. But Lawrence covers only a period of a couple years, whereas Napoleon is attempting to cover the entire career of one of the most accomplished soldier-statesmen in history. It would take 50 hours to do justice to the period Scott is tackling.

Or… it would take judicious thought about what the story really is.  I know we’re only a little way into the synopsis yet, but it’s not too early to ask the question: what is Napoleon about?

Well, obviously, it’s about the titular emperor. But what about him? What we want to know is why he did the things he did.

The film has an answer. Sort of. But it hasn’t given it yet, and meanwhile, we’re getting scenes of Napoleon bit by bit working his way up the ladder in France. First, it’s a coup against the French Directory, then it’s his coronation as Emperor of the French.

About this coronation: indulge me while I tell a little story not depicted in the film. Originally, Ludwig van Beethoven dedicated his third symphony, the Eroica, to Napoleon. (BTW, it’s an absolutely gorgeous piece and in my opinion old Ludwig van’s second best, trailing only the incomparable Ninth) But when the composer got word of Napoleon declaring himself Emperor, he just about had a fit, and angrily struck Bonaparte’s name from the score, supposedly saying:

“So he is no more than a common mortal! Now, too, he will tread under foot all the rights of Man, indulge only his ambition; now he will think himself superior to all men, become a tyrant!”

Man, when you’ve lost Beethoven, you know you’re in trouble. More seriously, this quote points us towards discovering the theme of Napoleon’s story. Namely, that he rose to incredible heights, and then lost it all.

And it’s worth pausing to reflect on how he rose to those heights. As the film depicts pretty clearly, the French Revolution was a disaster. While on paper it may have been for liberty, equality, and fraternity, in practice, it was a hellish orgy of psychopathic mass murder and weird cults. Anyone with a good head on his or her shoulders, (something the revolutionaries tried their best to eliminate) would obviously prefer being governed by the competent administration of a successful military officer to the so-called Committee of Public Safety.

To seize control of a society that has essentially collapsed into anarchy takes a certain level of drive and will and energy, all qualities which Napoleon possessed. Whenever I am accused of harboring unduly pro-Bonapartist sympathies, it is to this period in his career that I will point. Someone had to govern France. And frankly, in such a dire situation as that, it is quite believable that no amount of committee meetings or parliamentary votes would do the trick. The state of nature, Hobbes tells us, is a state of war; and who better than a daring officer to win a war?

So, we can see why Beethoven admired Napoleon up until his coronation. Even more interesting, though, is the fact that Beethoven instantly recognized that this moment signified a seismic shift in Bonaparte’s career, and not for the better. Events were to prove his instincts exactly right.

The coronation is the great turning point, and the film indeed uses it as such. Not least because it’s the last time in this movie that we get to see a glimpse of color. Enjoy those red robes and glittering jewels, because after this, we slide straight into blue-gray filter hell. They actually did the meme.

What has happened to modern filmmakers? Where does this absolutely hideous palette come from? Personally, like so many of our present social ills, I blame it on the Harry Potter films. They made a ton of money with this horrible washed out aesthetic, and now all the studios unthinkingly copy them. Talk about a situation where we need a heroic figure to break the fetters of unthinking consensus! Where is the brave director who will stand up and give us once more the vibrant hues of color cinema?

Anyway, back to Napoleon. After the coronation, things go wrong in a hurry. It does have a certain Faustian irony to it: the point the film makes consistently is that Napoleon loves Josephine; that she is the main guiding force in his life. And yet, when he “finds the crown of France lying in the gutter, and picks it up with his sword,” his political ambitions ultimately lead him to distance himself from the one person he cares about most. In his quest for an heir, he divorces Josephine and marries Marie Louise of Austria, who bears him a son. In a very telling moment, and possibly my favorite scene in the film, when Napoleon gets his heir, the first thing he does is run off and show him to Josephine.

From there, the inexorable downfall begins, as Napoleon learns that the Tsar is cheating on his continental embargo against English goods. Naturally, in Napoleon’s mind, the only reasonable thing to do is raise a massive army and invade Russia.

You know, I’m not as much of a free trade absolutist as I was in my younger days, when I bought unreservedly into what the Econ books told me. I think there can be good arguments for restricting trade. Nevertheless, it’s worthwhile to understand the Ricardian arguments against barriers to trade. And it’s especially worthwhile, if you find your barriers to trade can only be maintained by marching across Europe and into the desolation of Russian winter, to ask yourself whether the whole thing needs to be rethought.

And this is where I want to say a word about the little-heralded heroes of the story: the French Army. We don’t see much of the ordinary French soldier; they’re just a mob of extras that the Emperor directs with waves of his hands. Yet, once you realize that those gestures could be translated into deeds only by the well-practiced discipline of thousands of men, all drilled to work together as a unit in the face of gruesome death, do you understand the sheer awesomeness of his army. Whether it’s overthrowing the Directory, crushing the Austrians at Austerlitz, or the iconic moment on the road to Grenoble, the French soldiers loved their commander, and they came through for him time and time again. Napoleon may have been nothing without Josephine, but he was also nothing without his soldiers. If there isn’t anything else that may serve as evidence of his greatness, I think the fact that he had the loyalty of these men right up through Waterloo says quite a lot.

As Napoleon’s final words suggest, the three things he loved most were France, the Army, and Josephine. And here again we see the tragic irony of his life: France was left weakened at the time of death, its army shattered after the losses in Russia and at Waterloo, and its great enemy Britain ascendant. Josephine died during Napoleon’s first exile, without even being able to call herself his wife. Everything that Napoleon loved, he unwittingly destroyed.

By the time the film is slogging through Waterloo, which takes place in some sort of Mordor-esque hellscape with, again, NO COLOR, you can feel the weight of the inevitable bearing down. It feels like a chore, not helped by the one-dimensional and hammy performance of the actor playing Wellington, who seems like a sneering British aristocrat from central casting. Christopher Plummer did so much better in the film Waterloo.

Waterloo feels more like a doomed last gasp than a legendary clash of great generals, and so in short order, Napoleon is packed off to St. Helena to ponder where it all went wrong.

And where did it all go wrong? I found myself musing, if I could go back in time and give Napoleon some advice, what would I tell him? (Curiously, this is also the premise for an episode of I Dream of Jeannie.)

Remember how I said that it takes a gifted individual of tremendous talent to build something out of nothing, to craft a working society out of an anarchic horror show like the French Revolution? Well, I very much believe that’s true. But the corollary to that is, after the functioning society has been built, it takes more than one person to maintain it. Once the rule of law and order has been restored, and peace and stability established, it is beyond the abilities of anyone, no matter how supremely gifted, to keep it all running for long.

And this is where you need to have a good succession plan. I once read in some philosophy book somewhere about the importance of a great leader having a good officer corps; someone to whom he can hand off what he has built. Napoleon wanted to do that with his heir, which is why this became such a fixation for him, but this was because he had fallen into his enemies’ way of thinking. He was still in the mindset of the European aristocracy he so despised, believing that this was the only way to ensure his posterity.

What if, instead of crowning himself emperor, he’d just retired to the countryside with his beloved Josephine, secure in the knowledge that he had saved his country, and turned over the administration to the most capable hands in his officer corps? Probably the allied coalitions would have tried to crush France anyway, but maybe a true republic, governed by the people who had fought alongside Bonaparte for the security of France, would have been more robust, and better able to cope with the threat. And Napoleon could have gone down in history as a man who knew when to hold ’em, knew when to fold ’em, and knew when to walk away.

Well, c’est la vie. Hindsight is 20/20, and it’s easy to say all this from the viewpoint of an armchair historian 200 years later. I’m sure at the time, there were good reasons why Napoleon did what he did. It’s hard to stop once you’re riding the tiger.

The movie is good to the extent it makes the audience ponder questions like these, but too often, it just gets lost in trying to show all the highlights of Napoleon’s career, and ends up not giving you enough time to process it before we’re on to the next thing. Vanessa Kirby is fantastic as Josephine, and Phoenix does a solid job as Napoleon, but it’s all so hurried it’s hard to get to know them as characters. Maybe the Director’s Cut will be better. Maybe with the miracle of modern science, they will even discover a way to capture the full spectrum of visible light.

Ultimately, everything hinges on whether this movie is the beginning or the ending of your study of the Napoleonic era. If everything you know about Napoleon comes from this movie, then I’m sorry to tell you you’ve just been given a wildly distorted version of history. But if it sparks your interest to learn more about the story of the Corsican officer and the woman he loved, then it’s well worth the time and money.

Making a film is rather like building an empire, come to think of it. It takes a director leading a motivated crew to make it in the first place, but it is ultimately up to the masses to determine whether it has any lasting impact.

Picture this: a movie that takes place mainly during the day, on a picturesque Scottish island. There is very little action in the movie; it’s mainly a police procedural, with a stony-faced, prim and proper policeman questioning the local population. The film contains almost no violence, except for a very brief scene towards the end. Indeed, what earns it its “R” rating is nudity; a few scenes of naked women dancing. Other than that, it could air on broadcast television with no cuts. 

Moreover, did I mention this film has a number of songs? It’s not exactly a musical, but there is fast-paced nursery rhyme-like patter, a few ribald drinking songs, and a ballad performed by one of the aforesaid nude dancers. 

There’s almost no blood, no sinister torture chambers, no howling dogs on desolate foggy moors; instead there is only a quaint little village in a quiet part of the world. I ask you, with such a setup, can a film really be scary?

Comes the answer: this is possibly the scariest movie I have ever seen.

It follows Sgt. Neil Howie, a devout Christian police detective, who is dispatched by seaplane to the remote Summerisle to look for a missing girl. The townspeople are not unfriendly, but not exactly helpful either, referring Howie to Lord Summerisle, the nobleman whose family has administered the island’s affairs for generations.

During Howie’s investigation, he sees odd things. Strange rituals out of centuries past, like maypoles and disturbingly explicit fertility rites, quite at odds with his conservative Christian beliefs. When at last he meets Lord Summerisle, he confronts him about the unsettling things he has witnessed, and Summerisle acknowledges that, as part of a program to revive the island’s agricultural output, his grandfather gave the people back their ancient, pre-Christian folkways, to entice them to believe in the Old Gods of the Harvest.

Howie is appalled and horrified, and in view of everyone’s refusal to aid him in finding the missing girl, begins to suspect that she has been sacrificed to their Old Gods in some sort of bizarre druidical ceremony. 

I really liked Howie, who is played perfectly by Edward Woodward. His refusal to compromise his beliefs, and unwavering resolve to find the missing child no matter what stands in his way, make him easy to root for. And also perhaps easy to… but no, that would be saying too much. This is not exactly an unknown film, but it would be wrong to spoil it.

The late, great Sir Christopher Lee is also fantastic as Summerisle. Offhand, I’d say it’s his best role. In fact, he said it was his best role. Of course, playing a charming but sinister aristocrat was pretty much Lee’s standard, but the devil is in the details, and it’s how he plays it that makes this interesting. He seems relaxed, almost easygoing, compared to the straight-laced Howie. But, let’s just say he has another side to him…

Okay, but what makes this movie so scary? I did say it might be the scariest film I’ve ever seen, after all. I can’t spoil it, but if I’m going to make such a bold claim, I have to try and justify it somehow.

Those of you who made it all the way through the sprawling post I wrote about the Metal Gear Solid 2 book a while back may remember that I made reference to a non-fiction book called The Meme Machine, by Susan Blackmore. Blackmore is a student of Richard Dawkins, the well-known evolutionary biologist. Dawkins coined the word “meme” as an analog for “gene” in the realm of culture. A “meme” is a unit of information; a word, a phrase, a song, a mannerism, a belief, that is transmitted through human culture, by a process not unlike evolution.

Dawkins derived his neologism “meme” from the Greek word mīmēma, which means “imitation.”  And just as Dawkins described genes as “selfish,” memes likewise seek only to replicate themselves, so much so that we can analogize memes as if they were beings with conscious desires.

It’s all quite interesting, and Blackmore takes Dawkins’ idea and runs with it, arguing that the human brain evolved as a kind of super-powerful meme replicator, and our capacity for imitation of memes allowed us to evolve into the dominant life-form on the planet.

As she explains: 

Memes spread themselves around indiscriminately without regard to whether they are useful, neutral or positively harmful to us… they are selfish like genes, and will simply spread if they can.

Elsewhere, Blackmore proposes the following thought experiment:

Imagine a world full of hosts for memes (e.g. brains) and far more memes than can possibly find homes.

Of course, as Blackmore takes pains to point out, it’s not as if these memes are literally flying around the world, taking over human brains and using them to replicate themselves. It’s just that, ah, they might as well be. It’s not literally true, but it’s a good model for approximating the behavior we see in the world. (Anyone who has studied Economics will be familiar with this sort of thing.) 

However… there is something curious about all this. Because there is another Greek word Dawkins might have used instead, that describes much the same phenomenon. The Ancient Greeks tended to model human thought as the work of external entities—e.g. inspiration being given from Apollo, lust from Eros, and so on. 

The Ancient Greek word I’m thinking of is daimōn, from which we get the modern word “demon.” “Meme” and “demon” even sound somehow similar, with the same phoneme as the central component.  Now consider Blackmore’s hypothetical rewritten:

Imagine a world full of hosts for demons (e.g. brains) and far more demons than can possibly find homes.

In an instant, we have transformed the work of modern scientists (one of whom is famously an atheist) into something that sounds like what the wrinkled old woman living in a strange cabin in the woods tells the horror movie protagonist.

And this is what I find curious: the superstitious ancients described the world as inhabited by invisible spirits that took hold of people’s minds. The modern memeticists describe the world as inhabited by invisible memes that take hold of people’s minds.

If I tell you that I got an idea for a story when “out of the blue, it just popped in my head,” you would nod understandingly. If I said I got the idea when “the God of Fiction whispered it in my ear,” you’d think I was a bit of an oddball, at best. Yet, for practical purposes, the two are the same.

So if you say someone is possessed by a demon, it seems strange, but being possessed by an idea is totally normal. 

Coming back around to The Wicker Man, this is what makes the film so scary. At the end, we see people who are possessed by something. We could argue all day about whether it is some true supernatural force or merely certain memes which they have learned to imitate; memes handed down from an ancient tradition dating back millennia. The film, like all great horror, leaves much to the audience’s imagination.

Practically speaking, it doesn’t much matter, does it? The fact is, there is something—call it a demon, a meme, an idea, a fashion, a spirit, whatever name suits you—that can take hold of human minds and compel them to do things that seem unthinkable to those immune to the phenomenon. 

And that’s the ultimate horror of The Wicker Man.  Here, in this bucolic setting, we gradually uncover the darkest impulses that lie in the hearts of human communities; primitive urges predating everything we call civilization. A base need for rituals that give meaning and provide a sense of power, of grandeur, even, to those craving it.

Unnerving, unsettling, disturbing and uniquely memorable, The Wicker Man is one of the greatest horror films ever made.

Occasionally, I see movies I enjoy, but don’t have enough to say about them to merit a full review. But, they still deserve to be acknowledged. What follow are my mini-reviews of four such movies. Any or all of these are good choices for the Halloween season.

Hocus Pocus (1993): Classic Halloween fun from the ‘90s. Reminds me a little of the Wishbone special of the same era, expanded into a full-length film. A great one to watch every year.

Beetlejuice (1988): Typical Tim Burton. Parts very funny, parts in questionable taste, parts just bizarre. Arguably, the titular character is the weakest part of the film. Still, it’s a reasonably enjoyable horror comedy as long as you don’t mind a few scenes that feel like a fever dream on acid.

Coraline (2009): Another one I found out about from Lydia Schoch’s list of horror movies for those who don’t like horror. It features gorgeous animation and an excellent message, as the young protagonist finds herself confronted with making a Faustian decision. It contains good lessons for adults and children alike. It’s rated PG, but I wouldn’t want anyone under 12 watching it.

The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (1947): This is a supernatural romance rather than horror, but still has one of the best and funniest haunting scenes I’ve ever seen. Also, the atmosphere of the little seaside cottage is wonderful, and Rex Harrison was fantastic, as always.

Now, the question is, will I be able to write a proper full-length review of some scary movie in time for next week? Has the quality of scary movies deteriorated so thoroughly that there’s nothing left except disgusting slasher garbage and what MAD Magazine called “Devil flicks”? Or will I be able to find something worthwhile in time to save Halloween? Stay tuned.

I decided to watch this movie after reading Lydia Schoch’s review. For as much as I love Halloween, I don’t actually like most horror movies. Most of them contain far too much gore and violence, and little to nothing in the way of a truly frightening atmosphere. Lydia has also compiled a list of horror movies for those who dislike the horror genre, and this one is on it.

And let me tell you, it’s good. Really good. Creepy, atmospheric and in many ways poignant, it tells the story of a widowed young mother and her two small children, who dwell in a lonely and remote old mansion. One day, a group of servants arrives, seeking employment. The servants are older, with clothes and habits that seem distinctly… old-fashioned.

From there, strange events begin to occur. All the classic elements of a haunted house story begin to unfold: strange noises; doors opening by themselves, strange visitors who appear and disappear suddenly. It’s all very much a classic Gothic tale of a haunted house.

And yet, at the same time, it isn’t. Or rather, it puts a novel spin on the concept. I can’t say any more without giving it away, and it’s very important that I not do that. Perhaps this is fortunate; it prevents me from going on at length like I sometimes do. But, trust me, I could talk about this one for much longer… but I daren’t, because so much of what I want to say involves the final twist, or shall I say, the final “turn of the screw?”

The film definitely feels loosely inspired by Henry James’ much-discussed ghost novella. (Or is it a ghost novella? That’s the discussion, isn’t it?) But frankly, while that book is interesting in concept, it’s not really got much else to recommend it. The Others borrows what is good about that story, and then takes it a little further. Again, I’m afraid I can’t say any more than that.

If you haven’t seen it, don’t look up spoilers. Just read Lydia’s review and go from there. Also, it’s best to watch this movie late in the afternoon on a gray, rainy day; ideally with some fog in the air. That’s what I did, and it added something to the experience.

If you like ghost stories, The Others is a must-see.

This is a science fiction film about the crew of a deep space exploration ship, U.S.S. Palomino, who, on a search for habitable planets, stumble upon a derelict vessel sitting at the edge of a black hole.

Kate McCrae, one of the crew members, recognizes it as the long-lost U.S.S. Cygnus  because her father served aboard it, and has been missing and presumed dead since its disappearance. 

At first, the Cygnus seems abandoned, but soon springs to life, lights flickering on and defense systems activating. The explorers are quickly conducted to the bridge, where they meet Dr. Hans Reinhardt, a brilliant scientist, who explains that he alone remained aboard after the ship became disabled. He ordered the rest of the crew to return to Earth, and is saddened to learn they did not make it. 

Reinhardt has kept the ship running with a crew of robots that he has built, led by one sinister machine called “Maximillian.” The crew of the Palomino is duly impressed with what Reinhardt has accomplished, and assures him he’ll be hailed as a genius when he returns home with them.

But Reinhardt has other plans. Over the decades that he has waited at the edge of the black hole, he has been making calculations and running experiments, and become convinced that he can pilot the Cygnus into it and emerge somewhere else. He plans to conduct this experiment soon, and invites the members of the Palomino to act as observers. Until then, of course, he is happy to have them as his guests.

While Reinhardt is undoubtedly brilliant, it’s clear there’s something strange going on aboard his creepy, nearly-deserted ship. The captain of the Palomino witnesses the hooded robot crew performing something akin to a funeral ritual.

(I couldn’t find a good still of this scene online. The above was the best I could do, but it doesn’t do it justice. It’s super-eerie.)

Meanwhile, the Palomino‘s science officer, Dr. Durant, is gradually becoming just as obsessed with the beckoning void as Reinhardt is, and seems to be falling under the sway of the charismatic scientist. This culminates in a great scene where McCrae is trying to reason with him to return to the Palomino, and suddenly Reinhardt appears looming over them both, intoning the lines from the Book of Genesis:

And darkness was on the face of the deep. And the spirt of God moved upon the face of the waters.

(By the way, this verse is also used in “Fact of Existence” by Noah Goats, another story about a creepy spaceship run by a crew of robots built by a mad scientist.  It’s a great piece of philosophical science-fiction, and I’ll never pass up a chance to hype it. We now return you to our regularly scheduled programming.)

Yes, if you hadn’t figured it out already, Dr. Reinhardt isn’t altogether on the level. He’s been concealing some important facts, which I won’t reveal here, but which you can probably guess.

The end of the film is a series of shootouts with Reinhardt’s robot crew, followed by an unexpected meteor barrage which tears the Cygnus apart even as Reinhardt, going full Captain Ahab, remains fixated on the black hole.

And yes, they do go into it eventually. What happens? Well, I’ll discuss that a little later on. For now, I want to summarize that this movie has almost all the elements I like in sci-fi: a creepy abandoned vessel in deep space, vaguely occult atmosphere, and battle robots with laser guns. And it weaves these elements into a fairly interesting story.

So, as a concept, I’d give The Black Hole an A+

But concept is only half the battle. What about the execution?

(For some reason, this makes me think of an apocryphal story about football coach John McKay.) 

Seriously folks, as good as the basic idea of The Black Hole is, the actual translation of it to the screen leaves a great deal to be desired.

First of all, apart from Maximilian Schell as Reinhardt and Anthony Perkins as Durant, the acting is pretty bad. Most of the actors deliver their lines as if they’d learned them phonetically. 

Then, there are the robots. Not the cool, bipedal evil robots; those are great! No, I mean the two little floating robots who serve as the comic relief:

These things are so annoying, and their cartoonish look clashes with the aesthetic of the rest of the film. I don’t understand why they are here.

Wait a minute; yes, I do! They’re in this film because it was the Walt Disney Company’s attempt to cash in on the popularity of science-fiction movies following Star Wars

But the thing is, this movie otherwise doesn’t really feel like Star Wars, which was a fun space operatic romp. Until the third act, this is harder sci-fi; more Trek than Wars, and thus the robots feel out of place.

About that third act… that’s where everything goes to hell, in more ways than one. As the Cygnus collapses, so does any pretense of scientific realism or logic. Let it suffice to say that, if I could ask the director of the film, “Is there oxygen in outer space?”, I am not at all sure what kind of answer I would have received. It looks more like a hurricane than a black hole at that point.

Once through the black hole, things get weirder. If the rest of the film was Walt Disney’s Star Trek, this part is Walt Disney’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. There’s no dialogue, just a series of weird images, evoking both Heaven and Hell, before a final extremely ambiguous and unsatisfying ending. 

I’ll give it this: the Hell image is very striking. There are a number of references to Heaven, Hell, and God in the dialogue, including the Bible verse quoted above, and I’m almost tempted to read the film as a religious allegory of some sort. But I’m not qualified to do that. (Patrick Prescott is. So, Pat, if you’re reading this…)

My grade for the execution of this fantastic concept is a C-, and that’s being generous. It’s disappointing, because the film could have been so much more. It’s enough to make me wish for a remake with some of the flaws ironed out, but of course with its steadfast commitment to looking forward and boldly experimenting, Disney would never consider bringing an old property out of mothballs for a quick buck.

Earlier this week, Lydia Schoch asked me where I find the things I review. Obviously, I mostly review books, not films, but this is as good a place as any to answer this question. To put it simply, I look for stuff that’s weird. In this case, I saw a video on YouTube about The Black Hole and it sounded interesting. Especially because it’s a film by a big studio, with recognizable actors, and yet I’d never heard of it before.

Of course, I can’t always count on the YouTube algorithm to serve me up a gimme like that, especially when it comes to books. For those, I’ll sometimes just search Amazon for keywords that sound interesting to me, and see what comes up that has relatively few reviews. Another technique is to pick a famous book, then try to find out what other, less-famous books are like it, and read those. For example, say you want a story about a boy at a school for wizards who must learn magic to confront an evil sorcerer. You might find the 1991 novel Wizard’s Hall, by Jane Yolen. I have not yet read this book, but maybe someday.

Above all, when I look for things to review, I try to make them random. Of course, they are not truly random, as any scientist will be quick to tell you. But they are at least, I hope, a road less traveled by. 

Lastly, I try to keep my search for interesting media informed by three quotes. The first is something Natalie Portman says in my favorite movie, Jane Got a Gun:

You might want to see a day where the sun don’t just shine on your story. Because there is a whole world out there of other people’s tales, if you just care and listen.

The second is a dialogue from the 1988 adaptation of The Hound of the Baskervilles, when the great detective explains to Henry Baskerville why even a seemingly trivial matter is worth investigating:

Holmes: “I think it is worth troubling about, as a matter of fact.”

Baskerville: “You do? Why?”

Holmes: “Because it’s inexplicable.”

Baskerville: “Good… That’s good.”

Holmes: <Jeremy Brett smile.>

And finally, something the aforementioned Noah Goats told me once that never fails to prove true:

Books lead on to books, and sometimes in strange ways. They all seem to be connected somehow.

Keeping these words in mind always helps me remember to look for the unexpected connections and the weird little rabbit holes that lead in interesting directions.

That’s probably a longer answer than Lydia wanted, but I found it a fun question to ponder. Of course, it could be I’m a nut like Dr. Reinhardt in The Black Hole; too obsessed with the bizarre for his own good. But hey, he was the best character in the whole show, so maybe that’s not all bad.

“Now, just a minute, Berthold,” you cry. “I thought the theme of this year’s October horror story series was Frankenstein. This appears to be a science fiction movie in which revivified monsters, hunchbacked assistants, and Gothic Romanticism are conspicuous by their absence!”

Patience, good friends. All will become clear, in time.

And you’re right, Colossus is about as far away from Gothic as you can get. It’s modern and high-tech. Or at least, what was considered modern and high-tech in 1969. And before you scoff at the antiquated hardware, remember that they put a man on the moon with tapes and punch cards.

1969! I’m reliably informed that we haven’t had that spirit here since.

Colossus is about Dr. Forbin, lead scientist on a team creating a computer network to control the US missile defense system. “Colossus,” as it is known, soon proves even more powerful than its creators expected, especially when it discovers a Soviet system similar to itself and opens a communication channel between the two machines.

Well, you can probably guess where this is heading. With complete control over both the US and USSR nuclear arsenals, Colossus begins blackmailing the superpowers into obeying its own autonomous will. Despite numerous ingenious attempts by Forbin and his team to outwit and sabotage Colossus, the film ends with humanity, and Forbin in particular, under the iron rule of a dictatorial computer overlord.

Earlier this week, Zachary Shatzer posted a humorous tweet that summarized the movie more succinctly. As far as I know, he wasn’t referring to Colossus specifically, and he couldn’t have known I was about to review it. But it is too good not to include:

It’s important to note, however, that Colossus isn’t exactly evil. In the closing scene, it explains that it is doing this because, left to their own devices, humanity will destroy itself. To survive, humans must submit to the superior intellect of artificial intelligence. In other words, it is still following its original overriding priority: preserving human life.

During one of Forbin’s weirder attempts to deceive Colossus, in which he pretends to be having an affair with another member of the science team so she can smuggle information to him, their conversation turns to the subject of Frankenstein. Forbin muses that it should be required reading for all scientists.

The theme of Colossus is exactly that: the scientist who hates his own creation. Forbin has bestowed a kind of life, and lives to regret it. Because of when it was made, there is a Cold War spin on it, but it’s the same idea: create artificial life forms, and you’ll be eternally sorry for doing so.

The concept of a scientist who hates his creation is familiar enough. Oppenheimer famously said, “Now I am become Death,” when he witnessed the destructive power of the atomic bomb he had done so much to create. There’s a similar story with Alfred Nobel. 

But, let’s be real: they were creating weapons. Not new life forms. Admittedly, Colossus is both a new form of life and a weapon, but the moral of Frankenstein is clearly in the Faustian tradition of cautionary tales about cheating death.

Are there actual examples of scientists creating life-giving innovations and being plagued with regret by it? I can’t think of an example. As my friend Pat Prescott reminded me, Asimov coined the term “Frankenstein complex,” meaning an irrational fear of scientific progress. So far, many technological and medical advances have occurred without inadvertently destroying humanity.

Of course, just because something hasn’t happened yet doesn’t mean it can’t happen. Maybe scientists just haven’t yet gotten close enough to tampering with the fundamental structures of the universe to sow the seeds of ironic destruction that Frankenstein-ian fiction suggests they shall someday bitterly reap.

Well, like the proverbial Chinese frontiersman said: “who knows?” It really is hard to derive universal principles from works of fiction, you know. Even more so when you consider H.L. Mencken’s observation that “there is always a well-known solution to every human problem—neat, plausible, and wrong.”

First things first: it’s “Fronkensteen!”

You know, I thought of another problem with Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein that I neglected to mention last week: it’s absolutely humorless. Even Dracula, as reservedly Victorian as it was, had the dry wit of Van Helsing now and then. But Frankenstein has nothing funny.

Well, if you know anything about Mel Brooks and Gene Wilder, you know that will not be the case with their adaptation of the story.

The premise: Wilder plays Frederick Frankenstein, a descendant of the original mad scientist who is trying to distance himself from the bad reputation his family has acquired.

Of course, the film is really riffing on the Universal Pictures’ 1931 interpretation of Frankenstein more than the book. I didn’t bother reviewing that film, or any of the sequels, because they are all basically uninteresting. They are very different than the book, and while I didn’t like the book, I can’t really say that any of the changes the Universal films made were improvements.

Young Frankenstein, on the other hand, is absolutely an improvement. I often say that, disregarding the fact that it is a Mel Brooks comedy, and all that entails, it’s actually the best retelling of Frankenstein there is. Peter Boyle’s interpretation of The Monster is surprisingly nuanced and well-thought out. And Wilder’s Frankenstein seems more human than most of the other one-note megalomaniacal portrayals.

And, believe it or not, there are some generally creepy atmospheric scenes, despite the overall effect being played for laughs. I generally don’t like black-and-white, but Brooks uses the limited palette well.

That said, it is a comedy. It’s most definitely a comedy, and not exactly a sophisticated comedy. But you know something? The story of Frankenstein is too over-the-top to be taken entirely seriously. While it does contain serious themes about the meaning of life, the dual nature of man, and other such folderol, it can’t be tackled without a bit of levity to, er, leaven it.

You just can’t take on the great mysteries of Life, the Universe, and Everything without being able to recognize the humor in it. And that, in my opinion, is why Young Frankenstein tells the story better than both the original source material and almost all derivative works.

So, in closing… stay close to the candles. The staircase can be treacherous.

Obi-Wan: I have a bad feeling about this.
Qui-Gon: I don’t sense anything.
Obi-Wan: It’s not about the mission, Master. It’s something… elsewhere. Elusive.

You are not going to believe my Phantom Menace take. I need to prepare you for it gradually. It is simply too incredible. And Star Wars is something people feel very passionate about, so I don’t want to just up and say it without some preamble. You might want to pour a glass of your favorite drink to brace yourself in the meantime.

Back in ’99, the hype for this movie was off the charts. And why not? It was a movie people had been waiting 15 years to see. It was the cinematic event of 1999. Maybe of the whole decade.

And of course it became synonymous with disappointment. This was one of the earliest examples of the now-common phenomenon of internet fan backlash. Star Wars fans felt betrayed; violated by the movie’s failure to fulfill their expectations.

Instead of being a new chapter in the beloved saga, it became fodder for endless jokes. See, for example, this Simpsons parody, which really summarizes the whole thing neatly. What was the deal with this Jar Jar character? What was all this about trade negotiations? What the hell were midichlorians? This wasn’t Star Wars at all; it was some twisted perversion of the space opera so many Baby Boomers and Gen Xers had come to love.

I think I’m describing the film’s reception pretty accurately. I suspect most of you are nodding your heads in agreement.

Now for my opinion of the film. If you’re ready. If indeed anyone can be ready for this.

My opinion is that The Phantom Menace is the best film in the Star Wars saga.

I chose my words in that sentence very carefully. Note that I did not say it is the best Star Wars film. The best Star Wars film would be the one that most accurately captures the fun, pulp-throwback, spacefaring spirit of Star Wars, which in my opinion is, oddly enough… Star Wars. You know, the first one, A New Hope.

Nor did I say it was my favorite Star Wars film. That is, and always will be, Revenge of the Sith, for reasons explained here. So, if you like some other installment in the saga better, well, more power to you.

But my contention is that The Phantom Menace, when considered as a standalone film and not part of the same series, is the best single movie made under the Star Wars brand.

Now, I don’t deny that TPM has its off moments. I don’t hate Jar Jar Binks like most people do, but there’s no doubt he was overused. And the decision to make the film centered around the performance of young actor Jake Lloyd, despite the fact that Lucas struggles to get good performances even from experienced actors, was a major misstep.

But what it gets right, it gets very right. And of all the films, it’s the one with the best atmosphere, and the most interesting plot.

You want evidence? I’ve got evidence. Let us consider some of the film’s plot elements:

  • As part of a trade dispute, an unscrupulous organization has seized a planet and forced a young ruler into exile.
  • The young ruler flees into the desert along with members of a strange and mystical religious order.
  • Realizing that appeals to the conventional authorities are useless, the young ruler organizes a surprise attack against the occupiers using primitive native forces that hardly anyone knows about.

Huh… that’s funny. I appear to have inadvertently also described the plot of Frank Herbert’s 1965 science fiction novel Dune. For added fun, you can insert the young ruler’s initials into that summary and it will still fit both, whether you’re talking about Paul Atreides or Padmé Amidala.

Essentially, Phantom Menace takes Paul’s character and splits it into two people, Padmé and Anakin Skywalker. Which is really interesting if you’ve read the Dune sequels. (Note this should not be interpreted as me actually telling you to read the Dune sequels. Ruined Chapel cannot be held liable for damages incurred while reading Dune books.)

Everyone focuses on Anakin’s character arc. Even Lucas focused on Anakin’s character arc, because the whole concept of the prequels was exploring how Darth Vader came to be Darth Vader. Which was a bad idea. You never explain that which is better left to the audience’s imagination.

What was a good idea was exploring the collapse of the Republic. This is the background to Padmé’s story arc, and it’s obviously the more interesting one.

There is no civility, only politics. The Republic is not what it once was. The Senate is full of greedy, squabbling delegates. There is no interest in the common good. […] The Chancellor has little real power. He is mired by baseless accusations of corruption. The bureaucrats are in charge now.

So Senator Palpatine tells the Queen when she reaches Coruscant to seek the aid of the government. Civic virtue, the lifeblood of any republic, is gone, replaced only by in-fighting among bureaucratic factions trying to hold on to power.

It’s a great scene, not least because of the aesthetics. Queen Amidala in one of her innumerable ornate gowns, Palpatine in a shimmering robe, and all surrounded by elegant, if baroque, art that characterizes the upper-crust of Coruscant and Naboo. It all screams “late stage Republic.” Reclining into splendid decadence, the Old Republic is now incapable of defending its people.

These were the sorts of political messages the audiences of the ’90s laughed at. Such themes sounded like something out of a history textbook, and have we not said that the ’90s were The End of History? Who needed an Edward Gibbon-esque lecture on the collapse of a republic into barbarism, as the sun rose on a new millennium and Western liberal capitalism bestrode the whole world, triumphant and prepared to give us material solutions to all our problems?

Well, it’s not the ’90s anymore. Are the audiences still laughing? And are we so sure, after all, that the sun really was rising?

The ending of The Phantom Menace is simply perfect. Quibble if you want about Anakin’s line delivery or Jar Jar Binks’ comical triumph over the battle droids, but they do nothing to detract from the overall atmosphere. You have four perfectly intercut battles going at once, each matching the other tonally, emotionally, and logically. From the appearance of the Gungan army out of the fog to the death of Qui-Gon Jinn is the best sustained sequence in any Star Wars film. John Williams’ soaring score helps a good deal.

And yet, despite the triumph of the good Queen and her warriors, there is a dark shadow pervading everything. Williams’ soundtrack for the celebratory song in the final scene is a reworking of the Emperor’s Theme from Return of the Jedi in a major key. What better way to underscore that beneath the effusive and joyous ceremony hide the seeds of corruption, decay, and death?

So ends The Phantom Menace, and so ends our retrospective of ’90s action films. Dear reader, I hope you enjoyed this stroll down memory lane. The ’90s didn’t have streaming services, or smart phones, or cinematic universes, but I hope you’ll agree they did have a certain spirit that makes them worth remembering even decades later.

There’s one in every family, every group. That one that just doesn’t quite fit in. The one that gets the awkward looks and everyone whispers about uncomfortably. And that’s what The Matrix is on this list.

It’s an action film, yes. And it’s from the ’90s. But it’s also the one that signals the beginning of the end of the era we have all gathered here to appreciate. In many ways, it heralds the dawn of the millennium and a new, darker epoch of cinema.

Remember Y2K? More specifically, the infamous Y2K bug? The 21st century kicked off with a panic over a computer code glitch, and looking back, that set the tone for the decades that followed. And The Matrix, with its hackers and simulations and false consciousness, and its grungy cyberpunk aesthetic, captured the techno fin de siècle 2.0 angst perfectly. Already, we are in stranger spiritual waters than the rest of the films covered here.

The Matrix‘s impact on culture is undeniable. To me, it’s also insufferable. The expression “redpill”, for example, which during the 2000s emerged as internet slang for the promulgation of unorthodox political ideas, has become so overused it is now essentially just another way of saying, “Here is some information which I did not previously have.”

For all its sophomoric philosophy, though, The Matrix still a ’90s action film. It’s got cool special effects. It’s got gunfights and explosions. And, most of all, despite its “The Man is Keeping Us Down” attitude, it’s still fundamentally a Love Conquers All story. Neo literally gets revived by True Love’s Kiss, like Snow White.

It’s a pretty decent movie, all told. Though I do think the special effects haven’t aged well. I thought “bullet time” was amazing when I was 12, but now it looks like a gimmick. The fistfight scenes are also oddly comical. I half expect Yakety Sax to break out.

The Matrix has one foot in the optimistic, upbeat world of the ’90s and one in the gloomy, cynical irony of the ’00s. That’s why I had to include it in here; it’s the mutation that would eventually evolve the modern action film. Hell, Keanu Reeves is still starring in neo-noir action movies (and video games) all these years later. Say what you want about The Matrix, but you can’t ignore its impact.

Another funny thing about this film is how one of the major plot points involves… pay phones. Do  those still exist? Does anyone born after the year 2000 know what they are? I’m not sure. That, of course, is the problem with techno-thrillers. Tech changes in ways you can’t predict, and what was once super-futuristic can suddenly appear laughably quaint faster than you expect.

This definitely isn’t my favorite movie on this list, but it’s still a perfectly serviceable action flick with some interesting underlying ideas. Indeed, many of its themes are more relevant now than they were when it was made. If I seem down on this film, it’s not so much a reaction to The Matrix itself, but rather the cultural change of which it was an early harbinger. But no library of ’90s action films would be complete without it, that’s for sure.

We’re coming to the end of this series now, but we still have one last exhibit to consider before making some concluding remarks. Perhaps at last, we will tie together all the divergent strands of cultural evolution discussed heretofore, and in so doing, weave together a complete picture of the zeitgeist as it must have seemed to the cinematic aesthete of the the 20th century’s last decade.

Or maybe we’ll just see a bunch of junk get blown up. You never can tell.

This right here is the movie that inspired me to write this series. Of all the movies I have discussed, or will discuss, this is the ’90s-est, action-est, movie-est.

While I obviously like every movie listed here, I could point to flaws in most of them. Terminator 2 is too cartoonishly violent, Last Action Hero has too many crude jokes, GoldenEye has Xenia Onatopp, and so on. But when it comes to The Mummy, I’m at a loss to find much fault with it. It’s a classic pulp adventure.

You’ve got wonderful characters, from the gunslinging American Rick O’Connell and the bumbling twit Jonathan Carnahan, to the mysterious Ardeth Bay and the jovial pilot Winston Havelock. Not forgetting the conniving coward Beni or the sinister High Priest himself, Imhotep.

And then, of course, there’s Evie Carnahan. I can do no better than to quote her description of herself, after she’s had a little too much to drink around the campfire one night:

“I may not be an explorer or an adventurer or a treasure-seeker or a… a gunfighter, Mr. O’Connell! But, I am proud of what I am! I… am a librarian!”

All right, maybe that’s not Evie at her finest, although definitely she is pretty awesome even when she’s been hitting the bottle. But what I love is how she and O’Connell make such a good team. His adventuring skills and her thorough knowledge of Egypt help rescue them time and again from the wrath of the revivified mummy.

Everything about the movie is just fun. You can tell the actors are enjoying themselves, and why shouldn’t they? It’s a cracking good yarn of romance and derring-do. It’s one of those movies that, when you see it come on TV, you just sit and watch it before you even realize where the time has gone.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: the better I like a movie, the harder it is to review it. How many ways are there to say, “this movie is awesome and I love it”? Not bloody many. This is probably why academic critical analyses of movies tend to focus on what’s wrong with them; that’s much more fruitful ground. But the result is that many words are generated on the topic of bad movies, and not so much on the good ones.

Well, I’m no academic, but I’ll give this a try: The Mummy is great because it offers us an immediately recognizable, yet still sufficiently different world we can escape into. People watch movies because they want fun. Critics, as a rule, don’t want fun. Ergo, critics aren’t people. Oops, wait; I’m a critic, aren’t I? Hmm.

My point is, if you want to write a 20 page paper on themes and symbolism and whatnot, this movie probably won’t furnish you with enough raw material for same. But who cares? Only weirdos like me sit down and write at length of their thoughts on movies; normal people just enjoy them. And joy is an underrated emotion when it comes to providing fodder for writing. Probably because it’s so far beyond words. There’s a reason that the most famous instance of a composition expressing joy was written in music.

In a way, writing critiques is just dodging the real issue. Could any review I write, no matter how clever, witty, or insightful, ever equal the sheer glee I had as an 11 year old kid watching Rick O’Connell mow down legions of zombie warriors? Of course not! Writing about it is just a way to relive the experience over again, and hopefully share the joy with others.

The real greatness of movies is never found in reviews; it’s found when you are sitting there in that theater, with your popcorn and your drinks, ideally with people you really like, sharing the pleasure of diving together into some fantastic, imaginary world full of excitement and suspense and adventure that you can talk about afterward not in the technical, fussy language of a critic, but with the burbling excitement of a kid playing in the backyard. Take that, Bembridge scholars!