Tuesday, December 16, 2008

But sometimes the "bad" ones make ya think

In my previous potpourri collection, I linked to one person's take on the "best sci-fi remakes." Here's another perspective on the "10 worst sci-fi remakes." Oddly, you'll notice some of the same films on both lists.

Of the listed "worst" films on that list, I agree with them all. However, when you get into the "runners up," you'll see two movies that I love, Vanilla Sky and Solaris. I'm sure part of the problem many critics and viewers had with both of these is that they are remakes of critically adored foreign films (Amenabar's Abre los Ojos and Tarkovsky's Solaris). Remaking a beloved foreign language film naturally puts you into somewhat of a cultural gutter, as many think you have to "dumb down" the original material in order to appeal to the popcorn munching masses in the US market. And there's probably a kernel (get it?) of truth to that. I've seen both versions of both movies, and though there are some concessions made in the translations, the central ideas and questions posed by both films remain intact.

One of the first blog posts I ever made (back on my old blog) was related to a rewatching of Solaris and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotted Mind:
Watched two of my favorite movies yesterday: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotted Mind and Vanilla Sky. Yes, I know one stars Tom Cruise. And yes, I know he's one llama and a chimp away from being Michael Jackson. But dammit, he still made some good movies before the whole couch jumping and Dark Lord Xenu shit. The fascinating thing about both these movies is that they ask one of the most critical questions you can face: what is real?

Is the person that you love or loved the way you see them or they way they are? Or is it some combination? Much like two different people can look at the same cloud formation, and one sees a bunny and the other sees a cheese grater. Your perception of a person is based on a multiplicity of things: what they tell you about themselves (that you can or cannot verify or trust); what you personally observe; the effect of what they do and say and how it impacts you; the filter of your own experiences and values; what others tell you about this person; your own insecurities, hopes, wants and needs and obviously the affection you feel for the person. And does it have a cause and effect component? For example, does how you view someone make them behave in a way that justifies their reality in your worldview? But what is the real truth? Or even, is there a real truth at all? Is there simply a core that is the collection of our behaviors and actions, and the rest of our essence is the way others view us giving each viewer their own separate interpretation of the same person (you) but therefore creating a number of different yous that all exist in the same time and space? Is it possible to change this person, by changing your own worldview? What triggers this?

The central conceit of both movies is that there is no clear cut answer -- no clear cut you or your other. If you entered an altered reality, would things be exactly the same, or if you knew that going in, could you actually change things? Can you strip away the biases and experiences and ever see anyone for what they really are? Does the love and affection your feel, and the truths you think you believe, prevent you from realizing they are psychotic, dangerous or cruel? Or are they that way because you created them that way? (VS) Or, if you stripped away the memory and experiences that shaped (or created) the person in your eyes, would you fall in love exactly the same way and relive things tangibly exactly the same way again? (ESSM)

What is REAL?

BTW, another movie that expertly, though somberly and with a sci-fi twist, plays with these same notions is Solaris.

Good sci-fi asks the "what if" questions. What if computers develop a personality? What if artificial intelligence aggressively pursues its own self-preservation? What happens if you mess with the time-space continuum? What happens if you have first contact with an alien species? What is the next next step for human evolution?

What I like about the movies mentioned above is that they all wrap their plots in sci-fi trappings and technology, but turn the central questions inward to the human condition. What exactly is real? Are the memories that we recall from the past truly a "recording" of the way events actually happened, or an "alternate reality" created through the prism of our own perceptions? And even in real time, are events unfolding with a "universal truth" or does each individual perception create unlimited, divergent timelines of individual realities?

Flicks that play with those questions in macro (like Total Recall or The Matrix) can make for great, thought-provoking and action packed entertainment. But I find that the movies that bring those stories down a personal level, like Eternal Sunshine, Solaris and Vanilla Sky, stick with me longer and make me ask some unsettling questions about my own human experience.

But no matter how philosophical you get, the Planet of the Apes remake still blows.

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