“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!

It occurs to me, gentle reader, that perhaps this series has a curious structure to it. The posts are getting longer and, hopefully, building upon each other. However, this structure might make it confusing to read. Maybe it’s better to read it in reverse order, with the posts hopefully cascading to tell a larger story. Like the verses in “I Have  A Song to Sing, O!”

Or maybe not. Anyway, our journey has now brought us to the 1995 007 flick, GoldenEye.

GoldenEye is, in my opinion, the best James Bond movie. Now, my opinion could be biased by the fact that it is the first James Bond movie I ever saw. But I don’t think so. Part of the reason is that Brosnan is not my favorite Bond; not even close, and yet I still enjoy this film the most.

The key thing with all James Bond films is that they are walking a fine line. You can’t take James Bond too seriously, because, well, the whole premise is basically ridiculous. The early Connery films established a somewhat over-the-top, tongue-in-cheek tone.

Unfortunately, the 1970s happened, and this tone got carried to a new extreme during the Roger Moore era, which saw Bond films that ranged from pseudo-blaxploitation to rip-offs of Star Wars.  And that was before we even got to Octopussy and A View to a Kill. <shudder>

The Timothy Dalton era wasn’t really even an era, consisting as it did of only two films: The Living Daylights, which still has some residual silliness inherited from the Roger Moore tradition, and the serious and gritty Licence to Kill, a clear forerunner of the darker tone of the Craig era.

It’s a shame Dalton didn’t sign up for one more turn as 007 in GoldenEye, because it’s the one that finally hit that proper medium. It isn’t outright camp like the Moore films, but it has enough awareness of its genre not to try and be some sort of grim, realistic thriller.

And we should expect nothing less! Because it was made in the ’90s, and the whole point of this exercise is that the ’90s were the halcyon days of action movies. GoldenEye isn’t a great film, and I would grade it as distinctly inferior to the preceding three films I’ve reviewed in this series, but there’s no doubt in my mind it is the best Bond film, and the best that’s likely to be made for some while.

There are even some moments of social commentary, incredible as it may seem. Like when Bond goes wandering amid a wasteland of Soviet relics to meet the leader of the Janus crime syndicate, with the implication being that Bond himself is another holdover from the Cold War. The film asks: with the U.S.S.R. gone, what is even the point of an operative like 007?

The whole movie is kind of a farewell to Cold War thrillers. Large portions of it are set in Russia, with Russian villains, and Russian super-weapons, and a brief discussion of the repatriation of the Cossacks in the aftermath of World War II. It’s a meditation, to the extent that any action movie can be called a “meditation,” on what all the tropes of the spy genre would look like in the unipolar moment.

Because what was a spy to do, at The End of History? For that matter, what were these huge, military-industrial complexes with vast arsenals of experimental weapons built up over decades to do? (The answer to both, GoldenEye suggests, is “fall into the hands of terrorists and madmen.”)

But that’s another story, for another decade. In the ’90s, it was still all just fun and games, and James Bond could be counted on to save the world with his sexy sidekicks and his cool gadgets, and even the blundering, bumbling American CIA could show up for a cameo at the end.

I can’t end this review without mentioning GoldenEye‘s most enduring legacy: the spin-off video game that proved to be one of the most influential of its era, and which remains legendary in gaming circles to this day.  Do they still do video game spin-offs of movies these days? I haven’t heard about any. Games based on movies have a reputation for being awful; and yet we see that it was done successfully at least once, in that strange, gauzily-remembered decade between the fall of the Berlin Wall and Y2K. It seems the knowledge once existed, though it has subsequently been lost. Like Greek Fire.

[Update: check out my friend Pat Prescott’s response to this post. His take on the movie is very different than mine, and while I stand by my opinion, I admit he makes some good points. But then, he’s a real Bond expert, having seen all the films many times. One thing I hope to encourage with this series is for people to post their own opinions on the films I discuss.]

If this movie had been made a decade or two later, it would have inspired a fan backlash.

Do you doubt me? This is the film that transforms Sarah Connor from the ordinary young waitress of the original movie into a hardboiled commando, athletic and capable of handling firearms with ease. You can’t tell me that people wouldn’t complain about the change. As if that weren’t enough, now the T-800 is a good guy, fighting to protect the young John Connor. “But how did that even work?” the Comic Book Guys of the world may ask. “How does it fit with the established lore?”

But T2‘s biggest crime against the franchise is the subversion of The Terminator‘s original theme. The first film is fatalistic, with the coming nuclear war caused by Skynet understood as an inevitable outcome.

T2 says otherwise; that “there is no fate but what we make for ourselves.” It totally undercuts the original’s theme. Not to mention opening a whole new can of worms about multiple timelines, in addition to the paradoxes that are implicit in every time travel story.

All these are valid criticisms. But it doesn’t change the fact that Terminator 2 is still a really great action movie. Yes, it replaces The Terminator‘s grittiness with some pretty over-the-top and cartoonish action sequences, most notably the use of an M134 minigun as a precision non-lethal weapon to avoid casualties. Just… no. Or rather, only in the movies. Though I am come to sing T2‘s praises, I’m not going to sit here and tell you it’s believable.

But look: this was the ’90s, and the ’90s were pretty optimistic. The Cold War was over! It had been won not with guns and bombs, but with blue jeans! It was The End of History!

This might sound silly nowadays, and yet, I think, it was the attitude that made ’90s pop culture so damn infectious. Terminator 2 is lighter than both The Terminator and Terminator 3. And that, I submit, is because it was made after the renewed US-Soviet tensions of the ’80s and before the post-9/11 2000s. It captures the mood of the era, by willing to be a fun Arnold Schwarzenegger movie where the killer robot says things like “Hasta la vista, baby.”

Is The Terminator a “better” movie? I dunno, depends what you mean by “better.” In some ways, sure. But in terms of being a fun action movie that you can just enjoy and walk out of feeling like the good guys won and the bad guys lost, Terminator 2 is better.

This is why I contend that Terminator 2 is the perfect movie to encapsulate what I mean when I speak of ’90s action movies. It kicked off a style of film that would rule the decade. And moreover, it was the last decade that films like Terminator 2 could rule, exactly because fandoms had not yet organized to talk about them.

All the films I’m going to talk about in this series could not be made now, for one reason or another. And that’s partially why I want to write about them, because (you may laugh) I think these films say something about their time, and, perhaps, by way of reflection, our time as well.

But that’s only secondary. The main reason is that ’90s action movies are freaking fun, and that’s why I like watching them. James Cameron, for all his faults, sure knows how to make a good action picture. Even when he goes and makes something that’s nothing but a rip-off of Ferngully meets Dances With Wolves, the action sequences are still good. And here was Cameron at his peak, making a film with one high-speed action scene after another. I think the canal chase is my favorite part. You’ve got to love the way Arnold flips that shotgun around.

That said, let’s not forget the prelude to that sequence, when the T-1000 and the T-800 hunt John Connor through the mall. Watching it now, of course, I’m highly nostalgic. Malls are a feature of the ’90s that has since been devoured by the internet. In reality, it turned out that “Skynet” needed no nuclear missiles to take over the world; it just needed a ton of server space.

Sorry; I’m getting philosophical again. I do that sometimes when I write about movies. You’re still here, so maybe you like it, or at least are willing to tolerate it. Philosophy is a wonderful thing, and it’s delightful to find it sprinkled around the edges of our favorite movies.

But it can never be the main thing. Ultimately, movies are at their best when they show us a world we can get lost in, give us characters we can love and hate, and above all else, tell us a good story. The films I’m going to discuss all do that, and that’s why I’m revisiting them now. Come join me, won’t you? Or should I say, “Come with me if you want to live… the ’90s over again.”

Every now and then, I get the idea to write something and it won’t go away until I do it. I feel like I can’t do anything else until I’ve gotten it out of my system.

Last August, I got the idea that it would be fun to write about some of my favorite action movies from the 1990s. And I worked on it off and on until, finally, I’ve got a decent series of posts together. I’ve selected nine films. I thought about listing them here, but then I thought maybe it would be more fun if I surprise you with each one, although longtime readers can probably guess at least some of them.

My plan is to post each Monday, beginning next week, February 7. And no, this won’t interfere with the weekly Friday book review, so fear not if you’re only here for those. Hopefully, this will be fun, and a pleasant way of making winter Mondays less dreary.

Note the title of this post does not include the word “review.” This isn’t a review in the typical sense. It’s long and rambling, even by my standards. But I promised Trent Lewin that I would share my thoughts on it when I finally saw it. (You can read Trent’s take here.) So, here goes.

The Book

I reviewed the book Dune here, on what was originally going to be the release date for the movie. I won’t bother rehashing everything I said there. Instead, I’ll just say that Frank Herbert went to write an article about sand dunes in Oregon, got fascinated with ecology and messianic leaders, and did a bunch of magic mushrooms. The resulting book is about what you would expect. It is interesting, multifaceted, and more than a bit bizarre. In some superficial ways, it’s just a good ol’ fashioned Sword and Planet adventure, with a hero who defeats his enemies, claims his birthright, and marries a princess… but if you’re expecting an Edgar Rice Burroughs yarn, your reaction is likely to be “WTF did I just read?”

Actually, that will probably be your reaction no matter what. It was mine, and I even (mostly) liked the book. It’s different, and I respect that. My biggest problem with the book is also a problem with the movie, so I’ll hold off on discussing that until later.

Jodorowsky’s Dune

In the early 1970s, Alejandro Jodorowsky planned to adapt the book into an epic film. The project never got off the ground, but did result in a sprawling collection of interesting storyboards and concept art, which you can see here. The artists appear to have taken the magic mushroom elements and run with them. The project spawned a documentary, which I have not seen, but which Josh Sawyer describes the ending of as follows:

“Alejandro says that in the end the actual making of the film would have ruined it, because it was absolutely perfect in his mind.”

Remember this.

Lynch’s Dune

After Jodorowsky’s attempt failed, Dino de Laurentiis bought the rights, and hired David Lynch to direct an adaptation, released in 1984. This film is a cult classic, but in my opinion, it’s a mess. The worst part is the constant voice-overs used to convey characters’ thoughts. This is in keeping with Herbert’s writing style, but it just goes to show you what worked on the page won’t work in a movie.

All that said, the film does have a unique and unsettling aesthetic, which is probably the most essential quality for any Dune adaptation. There’s no doubt Lynch had a vision, though it was a weird and probably not mass-marketable one. Not to mention that the special FX of the ’80s were just not up to creating the stuff he was trying to portray.

Villeneuve‘s Dune 

Psych! First, I have to talk about some other Villeneuve movies. This is the third one of his I’ve seen, the others being Arrival, which was pretty good, and Blade Runner 2049, which was turgid. It’s hard to make something cyberpunk that I don’t like, and yet 2049 managed to do it. So, I can’t say I was super-optimistic going into Dune.

But I watched it. I even got the “limited edition pain box” version, because, well, how could I not, with a name like that?

So what is the deal with this movie? Is it good? Is it bad? Does it do what it’s supposed to do? Come to that, what is it supposed to do?

Uh oh. It looks like we’ve run into a problem before we’ve even started. We can’t analyze Dune without understanding what a movie adaptation should be doing. So I guess more work is needed. Hold the phone, everybody!

Lean’s Dune?

Before Lynch, even before Jodorowsky, Sir David Lean was offered a chance at directing Dune, but he turned it down.

I sort of understand this, because Lean wasn’t a science fiction guy. But nevertheless, this is a tragedy of epic proportions. Because Lean was the director most qualified to direct Dune. Of course, I should stipulate that he would need his frequent collaborator, screenwriter Robert Bolt.

Lean and Bolt created one of the greatest desert epics ever made, Lawrence of Arabia. If you read my review of the Dune novel above, you know my thoughts on Lawrence‘s influence on the entire Dune universe as Herbert conceived it. It’s profound. Lawrence of Arabia is an incredible adaptation of an extremely complex book, T.E. Lawrence’s Seven Pillars of Wisdom. In fact, it’s pretty much the gold standard by which I judge all other cinematic adaptations.

It’s a completely faithful adaptation, but not in the sense that Bolt took every single thing in the book and included it in his script. That would be impossible. Rather, it’s faithful in the sense that it captures everything Lawrence records in his memoir: his initial hopes for a grand future for the Arab revolt, his own conflicted psychological turmoil, and his ultimate disillusionment at the cynical manipulation of himself and the men he led by the generals and politicians of the Great Powers. You feel all of it in the final scene as the broken Lawrence rides off to return to England, a motorcycle engine growling ominously nearby as the screen fades to black.

Ultimately, Lawrence of Arabia is about how an introverted, troubled, brilliant officer tried to accomplish something great by playing the role of a leader that deep down, he knew he never could be. And Dune, as a series, is about much the same thing. Frank Herbert said:

“The bottom line of the Dune trilogy is: beware of heroes. Much better [to] rely on your own judgment, and your own mistakes.”

“Lawrence of Arabia” was a hero. “Paul Muad’dib,” the “Kwisatz Haderach,” is a hero. But at some level, T.E. Lawrence and Paul Atreides know, more than anyone else, that it’s just a role; a story created to fit a preconceived pattern in the minds of the masses.

In a sense, Dune itself is an adaptation of Lawrence of Arabia, just in space, with psychic witches and sandworms.

On Heroes and Hero-Worship

Okay, I’m cheating now. That’s a book by Thomas Carlyle, which I have not read, although my understanding is it’s a series of essays about historical figures like Cromwell, Napoleon, etc. who rose to power. I suppose I should have picked a more creative title for this section, but what I actually want to talk about is hero-worship.

It so happens I’m reading Garibaldi’s Defence of the Roman Republic by George MacCaulay Trevelyan at the moment. It’s pretty much the definition of a hagiography, as Trevelyan makes no effort whatsoever to hide his blind adoration of Garibaldi.

Garibaldi is an interesting figure, with his own parallels to Paul Atreides. He too led a guerrilla war that battled great dynasties and inspired an impressive cult following in England with tales of his heroics. Indeed, he is one of those romantic figures of Mediterranean politics that should, I think, inform any interpretation of Dune, because Dune is heavily influenced by a powerful strain of Machiavellian political theory in its depiction of warring aristocratic houses and shifting family alliances.

Really, almost everything in Dune has some analogue in actual, if mostly forgotten history; which I suspect is why its world is one that so many people get absorbed in. It has echoes of things dimly remembered, or not even remembered, but somehow with a feeling of eminent plausibility, like having a dream that you think you’ve had before.

Villeneuve‘s Dune (For Real This Time)

Having established all that, we are now finally prepared to attack the question of whether the new Dune movie is any good or not. The answer will ride on whether or not it conveys the theme and mood of its source material.

The answer is… well, sorta.

Dune gets most of the little things right. The art direction is excellent. The acting is good. The atmosphere generally feels alien. Almost everything shown is a scene depicted in the book. Not only does it copy the things I liked about the book, but it even conveys the things I didn’t like. One of these is that I find Paul unlikable in the book, and I find him unlikable in the movies. Now, given the Herbert quote above, I think that may be deliberate. Because Paul isn’t a hero, but everybody worships him as such, you come away with the feeling that he’s a fraud. In every depiction, Leto is so much better and more interesting, and in both book and film, I feel like the story starts running out of steam at the point where he dies.

That makes the story weaker in my opinion, but I’m willing to give the movie a pass on this since I have the same problem with the book.

More significantly, though, there are places where Dune still feels like a product of the cinematic fads of the 2020s. One example is the damned washed-out lens filter. The scene that highlights this most is when Duke Leto and Gurney Halleck are looking over their newly-acquired holdings on Arrakis. Halleck tells Leto the sun is getting too high, and they can’t stay out. And sure, you can see there’s some sun, and imagine it’s probably hot.

But you don’t feel the heat. You don’t viscerally sense the sun beating down on you. In Lawrence of Arabia, you do.

This is the feeling I had throughout the movie. It’s good, it’s solid, but it’s also just not quite willing to take that extra step that propels it into timelessness. And timelessness is a very important quality for Dune.

If there’s one place where Lynch’s Dune has an advantage, it’s that the aesthetic is so weird it creates a uniquely alien vibe that really does convey the feeling that you’re in another world. I’m not saying that it’s a better film. It’s seriously not; it’s kind of a 1980s cheesefest if I’m being honest. But I am saying, Dune, more than most films, is one where a sense of aesthetics is incredibly important.

This is probably a little bit harsh on my part, I’ll admit. Every movie is of course a product of its time. Even Lawrence of Arabia, for as well as it holds up overall, has a few elements that date it as a 1960s Epic Motion Picture, like Maurice Jarre’s occasionally over-the-top soundtrack. If the problem could be reduced to a matter of lens filters, I wouldn’t complain about it. (Much.)

No, the problem here goes even deeper. And it goes right to the heart of what the core appeal of Dune is.

“Any road followed precisely to its end leads precisely nowhere.”

The universe of Dune is effectively a post-Enlightenment society. It’s not a coincidence that much of the book draws inspiration from pre-Enlightenment societies. In fact, the central idea of Dune is the rejection of rationality, from the Butlerian Jihad that destroyed Artificial Intelligences to the heavy emphasis on mind-altering drugs and visions. There is no evidence of Enlightenment concepts like “constitutional government” or “individual liberty.”

In my opinion, this is why the whole thing feels so weird and foreign. We are a society based on Reason, and on encountering a society that is not based on Reason, but on instinct, superstition, heredity and above all else, power, we feel like we have stepped into another universe altogether. (Although, if you think about it, considering the Enlightenment began in the 16th century, such societies are actually the norm, and we are the exception.)

This comes through very clearly in the book, which is one reason there are things in the book that, to be blunt, make absolutely no sense whatsoever.  They’re not supposed to. Remember: magic mushrooms.

This movie, although it has no shortage of visions, hallucinations and other weirdness, doesn’t convey that. I’m not sure exactly why. Arrival did a good job of messing with the viewer’s mind to the point that if you want to understand the plot, you have to perceive time as a Möbius strip, which is also basically the state Paul is in by the time he meets the Fremen. Yet, I never got that feeling of otherworldly eeriness that’s so integral to the Dune experience.

Actually, no. There was one scene where I did get it. The creepy chant that plays while the Sardaukar soldiers are gearing up to attack Arrakis gave me the uncanny feeling of witnessing something completely alien to my own perception of reality. I liked that scene a lot.

Otherwise, though… it was an unremarkable movie. Not bad by any means, and with some enjoyable visuals and interesting shots. It just felt hollow and meaningless, which is in a way tragic because it tried so hard to be faithful to its source material that it lacked the boldness to do something truly unusual… which, paradoxically, is exactly what made its source material good to begin with.

But recall the words of Jodorowsky paraphrased above. Perhaps there can never be a perfect Dune adaptation because the universe of Dune can only be formed in the mind of the reader. And for every reader, it compiles slightly differently, as a unique and fragile structure, and to try and preserve or share this creation is a fool’s errand.

“But Berthold, this is one of those made-for-TV Christmas movies!”

“I know, but what can I say? I enjoy them. Some are better than others, and this is one of the best.”

“But last year you said the same thing about Christmas Crush, and one of your friends saw it on your recommendation and thought it was terrible!”

“Well, Christmas Crush does have a very millennial sense of humor to it, which I think may not be for everyone. The jokes in it come from the awkward conversations and ironic coincidences. Not everyone’s cup of tea. I should have mentioned that.”

“Okay, fine. So, why do you think this movie is so good?”

“It really comes down to the relationship between the protagonists. Jessie Temple is a tough, no-nonsense cop assigned to protect witness Dean Cupo until he can testify. She’s not just waiting around for a prince to sweep her off her feet like many of the female characters in these kinds of movies. She and Dean do a lot of verbal sparring at first, which makes sense, but then gradually they bond over little things, like a shared love of old horror movies.”

“It’s still sounds cheesy to me.”

“Well, yeah; and I’d be lying if I said it’s not. But, it’s a holiday movie. You don’t go watching a Christmas movie in the hopes that you’ll discover some sort of edgy, avant-garde experimental film. You watch it because you want to see a cozily familiar drama performed by likable characters. See my comments about pantomime in the Christmas Crush review.”

“No, I don’t think I will. Can’t you stay on topic?”

“Sure. Most Christmas movies are just too saccharine for my taste. Nothing whatsoever happens. It’s like, ‘Oh, I fell in love with the Prince of Monte Carlo! Oh, but there was some trivial misunderstanding and now we broke up! Oh, but now it turns out we cleared it up and we’ll get married!’ It’s all so vapid.”

“Uh huh.”

“Whereas a movie like A Christmas Witness has some real plot to it. How many Hallmark Christmas movies end with armed standoffs? I mean, yes, you know how the journey’s going to end, but at least you feel like you went somewhere.”

“Hmmmm.”

“I get that you’re skeptical, and I respect that. And I’m not saying, ‘Oh, man this movie is great! It should win all the Academy Awards! Go home, Lawrence of Arabia, we have a new cinematic classic!’ I’m not saying that.”

“That’s good.”

“It’s just that it’s pleasant holiday entertainment. When I sit down to watch a Christmas movie, I really don’t want my expectations subverted, or to get a dark, hardboiled mystery, full of mistrust and morally ambiguous characters. But nor do I want something so sugary-sweet that it makes my teeth hurt. This movie gets the balance just right for me.”

“I see. Well, I can’t say you’ve convinced me, but maybe some of those people out there will feel differently about what you’ve said. Thank you for your time.”