Enemy (2013)

enemypostrrThe final shot of Denis Villeneuve’s surreal Enemy had me jumping out of my chair- its absolutely shocking and terrifying. I’m not certain what that shot actually means, because the film is something of an enigma, reminding me throughout of early Cronenberg movies. There is the weird sense of not knowing what is reality, and of a character having the fabric of reality pulled from under him: in Videodrome (1982), this is caused by a signal in a pirate video feed affecting the characters brain, while in Enemy it seems to be a video rental recommendation that triggers the main characters crisis. And of course the idea of twins/dominant personalities etc reminds of Cronenberg’s Dead Ringers (1988). Enemy is a relentlessly dark, fascinating film and another example of just how impressive a film-maker Villeneuve is.

However, if you don’t like spiders, it might be best to give this film a wide berth, because it uses spiders as a major part of its surrealist imagery. The film opens at a clandestine sex show being witnessed by a group of men: after a woman apparently masturbates to orgasm in front of them, a second woman stands naked but for high heels, a menacing-looking tarantula spider then unveiled at her feet. One of the attendees, Anthony (Jake Gyllenhaal) can only look through his fingers, evidently more scared of the spider than aroused by the woman or sense of danger. The scene ends with the woman apparently about to crush the spider under her heel. Spiders will become a regular motif during the film, usually haunting dream imagery- we see a giant spider over the city, a naked woman walking down a corridor with a spider’s head, and that final shot where I nearly lost my lunch. Spiders mean something. There also seems to be a visual motif for webs- whether it be the fractured glass of a window in a car accident, or in the street cables/telephone wires in the sky. 

enemy2If you have not seen this film, it might be best not to read the remainder of this post if you intend to give it a go, because I’m going to spend much of the rest of this trying to decipher the film and unravel what it might mean (albeit having only seeing it once, I’m likely wide of the mark). As well as certain Cronenberg movies, this film also reminds me of David Lynch movies, particularly my favourite, Mulholland Drive. Enemy is a mystery, a masterfully obtuse film that only suggests that it can make sense, that there is an internal code that can be used to decipher any meaning. For all I know, there may not be any solution.

Adam (Jake Gyllenhaal) is a college professor living in a quiet, rather monotonous, uneventful life in Toronto. He doesn’t seem to have any freinds or much of a social life, and he seems unable to really connect with his girlfriend Mary (Melanie Laurent) other than on a basic physical level- they don’t seem to talk and he seems more attentive to marking his course work: they have an argument and she leaves. He seems so emasculated he doesn’t go after her. 

(Adam’s lectures concern “bread and circuses”, how totalitarian states placate the masses through diversions of entertainment, such as the coliseum of Rome: does this also reference diversions such as the sex show frequented by groups of men we see at the start of the film? Or indeed the virtual escape of films and cinema?)

A colleague at the college recommends a film, Where There’s a Will There’s a Way, and while Adam replies “I don’t like movies” (which may have further implications later on), when Adam passes a video store he rents the film out. He watches it, and then during the night wakes up from a strange dream and goes back to his laptop and plays part of the film again, upon which he realises one of the extras playing a hotel bellhop looks just like him (albeit minus Adam’s beard). Its not clear if he missed this when first watching the film, or if the film has changed- or perhaps if Adam is now imagining the likeness, ‘seeing’ this face in the background of a scene (triggered by the nightmare?) and a sign that he’s beginning to lose his grip of reality. Or perhaps he’s remembering?

Looking up the films credits, he investigates the actor who looks like him- discovering that this apparent twin is Anthony Claire, stage name Daniel Saint Claire, an actor whose talent agency is (conveniently/suspiciously/alarmingly) nearby. Clearly beginning to obsess over this strange doppelganger, Adam gets into the talent agency, is mistaken for being Anthony, who hasn’t been seen there for awhile, and is given a package marked for Anthony’s attention which reveals Anthony’s address (we will later discover that the package also contains a key, which likely links directly to the opening scene at the sex show, which possibly infers the whole film is some elaborate loop or one that holds multiple loops within one greater loop). From the address on the packet Adam divulges Anthony’s phone number and calls it, but Anthony’s pregnant wife Helen (Sarah Gadon) answers- she mistakes Adam’s voice for that of Anthony, and believes he is playing a prank call on her. At first amused she becomes frightened by Adam’s refusal to ‘fess up to the prank and abruptly ends the call. When Adam marshals the courage to ring again, Anthony answers, angry at who he believes is a stalker.

Neither man seems aware the other even existed, and they are indeed quite identical (Anthony now sporting the beard too) and each gets mistaken for the other: actually, however, the men’s personalities are quite tellingly different, Adam quiet and introverted, Anthony confident and assertive. Perhaps they are two facets of one personality, broken.

Now, strange things seem to be happening with Time in this film- in this respect it feels rather like a Christopher Nolan movie. I may be wrong about this, and having only seen the film this one time I cannot be certain, but I think the film is actually some strange loop, or loops within loops. And clearly, I’m not at all certain we have a reliable narrator, and that things we are seeing can be relied upon as ‘real’. Although the film seems to suggest the two men are two separate individuals, each living in seperate, quite distinct apartments with different women, I have to wonder. Helen berates Anthony for an affair, claiming that he is seeing ‘her’ again- I think she is referring to Mary.  Also, Adam searches a box of photos at home and discovers one of him in which half the photo has been cut out, hiding the second person in the photograph: later when he gets in Anthony’s apartment, he sees the same photo, now whole, on display in a frame, with the photo revealing the second person to be Helen. Are we witnessing two time periods, with Adam/Anthony losing his mind and slipping between the two? Anthony pursues, and has sex with, Mary; Adam sneaks into Anthony’s apartment and has sex with Helen (the latter suspecting who he really is but being attracted to him).

Anthony goes to visit his mother (Isabella Rossellini!) who congratulates him on having a proper job and no longer wasting his time trying be a successful actor. So was Anthony an actor who gave it all up to be a history professor, when he ‘becomes’ Adam, if that’s the case, which of them ‘belongs’ in the past and which in the future? I began to think my seperate timelines/multiple personalities theory had some weight, but its doesn’t completely hold true.

A complication is that Helen is as mystified/horrified by the implications of her husbands doppelganger as the men are themselves- Helen visits the college and chances upon Adam, who does not recognise her, they have a conversation in which Adam thinks he is simply making small talk with a stranger, and he leaves, upon which she calls Anthony on her mobile and he answers, wondering where she is, apparently elsewhere- but of course we cannot see Adam as he has gone into the building and may have answered the phone himself, now adopting Anthony’s personality. Helen is upset, can’t understand what is going on- unless of course she KNOWS what is going on, and that she knows that he is suffering from a multiple personality disorder or some kind of schizophrenia, fearing perhaps he is not taking medication and he is slipping back into twin personalities/getting confused. 

The cast is uniformly excellent. Its possibly the finest performance I’ve seen from Gyllenhaal, and the women are brilliant (although Rossellini basically has just a cameo, its a very pleasant one). An intrusive, yet ambient score grates as it gets under your skin sonically; the visual effects are convincing (and at times horrifying). The ending suggests Villeneuve could make one hell of a horror film someday.  

It is a confusing, fascinating, quite disturbing film. Its some kind of genius. It again demonstrates that Villeneuve is without any doubt one of the most exciting and interesting directors working today: his filmography is really quite remarkable. Enemy displays some familiar fascinations of Villeneuve- the lingering shots of the city skyline, of buildings and location, remind of Polytechnique and Blade Runner 2049. The dark mood and slow pace reminds of most every film of his; but of all his films, Enemy feels unusual in its absolute morbid darkness, its Cronenbergian sense of unreliable reality. Maybe its an alien spider invasion movie, an arachnoid Invasion of the Body Snatchers and our protagonist is the only one who realises what is really going on. Maybe its a nod to Lovecraft’s From Beyond or Philip K Dick’s Valis, and Adam is glimpsing (through the spider images) reality pushing in on the ‘bubble’ of our perceived reality. Who knows? All I know is that the film creeped me out and really got under my skin.  

Long Live the (Betamax) Flesh

vid1Videodrome (Blu-ray)

We’ll spice up this October Horror fest with a bit of body horror, and no-one does body horror quite like David Cronenberg. So its another welcome slice of the unwatched Blu-ray pile with last year’s Arrow release of Videodrome finally getting put in the player.

In much the same way as Field of Dreams always seems to me to be the perfect Ray Bradbury movie, though he never wrote the story it was based on, so Videodrome always feels like the definitive Philip K Dick story. Okay, PKD never dealt with deviant sex or body horror in his stories, but Videodrome’s faltering sense of reality and perceptions of time and self, and its dysfunctional every-man hero, seems to be pure Philip K Dick. As chief protagonist Max Renn’s reality disintegrates you’re never sure what’s real or what isn’t, increasingly hallucinatory sequences twisting reality so far that, for much of the movie, the viewer is questioning everything he sees and the nature of reality itself. Indeed, one of the characters, Brian O’Blivion, is actually dead, only existing on hundreds of videocassettes in a sort of virtual existence: what could be more PKD than that (memories of his Mercer-ism from his story Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep spring to mind)?

Decades after its release, the film remains a visceral experience, tactile in its analogue horrors (fleshy, ‘breathing’ videotapes and CRT televisions), compared to the digital-streaming world we live in today. There is something cosy and familiar about the old technologies of my youth, loading cassettes into top-loading video players, video drop-outs and tracking errors.Its also incredibly prescient too, with television ‘lives’ more ‘real’ than reality, predating celebrity culture and having hundreds of satellite/cable channels- back when this was released, the UK only had four channels and I don’t believe any of them were 24-hour transmissions, either. Feels like a different world.

Tim Lucas in his commentary track refers to a circular element of the film that was new to me- he describes the final shot of Max shooting himself in the head being followed by the start of the film with Max waking up in his apartment, stirred back to reality by the voice of his assistant’s wake-up message on his television. Its a new interpretation of the film to me and quite a seductive one. A very-noir horror, Max caught in a never-ending loop of hallucinatory reality. Videodrome is still a startling, strange and mystifying film, and James Woods is utterly brilliant. Great stuff.

A Tale of Two Recalls

tr10

He awoke- and wanted Mars. The Valleys, he thought. What would it be like to trudge among them? Great and greater yet: the dream grew as he became fully conscious, the dream and the yearning. He could almost feel the enveloping presence of the other world, which only Government agents and high officials had seen. A Clerk like himself? Not Likely.

-Philip K Dick, We Can Remember It For You Wholesale, 1965. 

tr11The other night I watched the 1990 Total Recall, and the following night the 2012 remake/reboot. Call it an experiment- and don’t try it at home, kiddies, it’ll possibly fry your mind.

Neither film has much to do with the Philip K Dick original short story. If David Cronenberg had managed to film his version starring Richard Dreyfuss or William Hurt then maybe things would be different. The box-office failure of the high-budget Dune led to the films original producer Dino De Laurentiis, in an effort to save his company, selling the rights to Carolco pictures, who bought the rights at the behest of Arnold Schwarzenegger, at the time in the prime of his movie career.

Schwarzenegger saw the film as a perfect action vehicle for himself and progressed the project himself- it was his decision to hire Paul Verhoeven for instance, being highly impressed by Robocop. The influence of Robocop would dominate the film- casting Ronny Cox as the main villain, and the hiring of many of Robocop‘s backroom staff- cinematographer Jost Vacano, production designer William Sandell, editor Frank Urioste, make-up effect wizard Rob Bottin. Philip K Dick’s original story was increasingly less and less of an issue as the film transformed into a sci-fi pulp successor to the uber-violent Robocop.

tor12Back in the day this was why I had something of a love’hate relationship with the film; on the one hand it was one of the most memorable cinema experiences of my life (watching it at a special midnight preview event, to this day I have never seen a film in such a wild atmosphere of rampant testosterone and noisy appreciation of action films), on the other it was a terrible adaptation of the PKD original. It was the second major film to be based on a PKD story (following Blade Runner) but it didn’t feel like a PKD story at all- at least Blade Runner had the mood and some of the subtext (what is human?) of its source material. Total Recall didn’t seem to have anything from the PKD story; there is no bloody violence or muscle-bound heroes, or mutants or alien reactors , not even a trip to Mars, in the PKD story. It was  dumbed-down into a spectacularly violent action film featuring at the time incredible WTF violence as Schwarzenegger blew away the bad guys and saved the planet.

I’m being rather unfair to the film there but at the time that was how I felt. On the surface that was all the film was, and viewers could simply watch it as a literal telling of the story of Schwarzenegger saving Mars and be happy with that (even if that drew the ire of PKD fans).  But even then there was a sophistication to the film, a subtext regards the nature of reality and what was real (the final fade to white a lovely nod to a rather darker reading of the film) that suggested more of the spirit of PKD than might be initially guessed. Indeed, watching the film over the years its blatantly obvious that everything is just happening in Doug Quaid’s head, it’s a mindtrip either gone horribly wrong (leaving him lobotomised) or perfectly right (leading him waking up at Recall Inc. having had the ‘holiday’ of a lifetime)- it’s up to the viewer which. The idea that what we are watching is really happening anywhere other than in Quaid’s head is just, well, crazy. The story is preposterous, the science nuts (Mars as depicted clearly isn’t the reality, instead it’s a glorious pulp fantasy). The only way it works is if its a Recall package playing out in his head.

The film is over 25 years old now but it plays as well as it ever did- indeed the years have been very kind to the film. Sure some of the optical effects are showing their age (as is some very early CGI) but the film is still superior to so many action films that we have seen since. There is a brutality to it, and a joyful extravagance and glorious inventiveness to the action and the spectacle. Arnie shoving the probe up his nose to extract the tracking bug, the woman’s head splitting apart to reveal Arnie hiding within, the vast landscapes depicting the Red Mars of pulp dreams, the bloody violence… it’s a magnificent ride. It may not be a very good PKD adaptation, but it is a very good sci-fi action film.

tor13So why, why, why did anyone think a remake was a good idea? Of all the misguided projects arising from Hollywood’s current penchant of remakes and reboots, why would a remake of Total Recall be seen as anything good? It was hardly from a desire to make a film more faithful to the PKD original. Okay, we don’t have mutants or a trip to Mars but what we do have is just as confused a mess as Doug Quaids fantasy mindtrip of the first film. The idea that the adventure might be a fantasy, that nothing of it is real, is quickly dropped from the remake and what we are seeing is evidently ‘real’, silly as it is.

This is the biggest difference between the two films- clearly the originals sense of doubt about what is real was felt too highbrow for modern audiences.  Likewise the 1990 film had its own definitive ‘look’ whereas like so many modern films, the 2012 Total Recall spent a lot of time looking forward by looking back, particularly to Blade Runner and Minority Report. So much so, indeed, that at times it seems more a remake of those two films than the 1990 Total Recall- we have the rain-drenched, crowded neon streets of Blade Runner, the zooming rail-cars and chase scenes and sterile sets of Minority Report.

There isn’t much of a plot to the 2012 film- it’s more of a long chase/action scene, of elaborate effects sequences that could play out in silence and pretty much tell the story, such as it is. Which is what so many modern Hollywood films do, when you think about it.

Watching the original film, it’s clearly a Schwarzenegger vehicle, a film only he could star in, a film targeted chiefly at his fans. It’s playful and violent but is true to itself- that Verhoeven could manage to layer in some subtext about the reality of what we were watching is a bonus but hardly the chief thrust of the film. And while Schwarzenegger had a worldwide fan-base in 1990, it is clearly film aimed at an American audience; references to ESPN for instance and Mars looking like some mutant Disneyland.  The 2012 film on the other hand is just a soulless construct, the actors fairly faceless and devoid of character, the film a series of storyboarded action sequences designed to be globally distributed to an international audience requiring minor dubbing of its perfunctory dialogue. Yes its very pretty but none of it means anything. Even the original’s violence has been diluted to the standard cartoon cgi theatrics of modern action films. It looks spectacular but we feel nothing, the protagonists as inhuman and artificial as the robot police chasing them.

tor14The image above- it could just as easily be a shot from Blade Runner or Minority Report. Colin Farrell is a better actor than Arnold Schwarzenegger and deserves a better film than he has here- this is what is so frustrating about the whole project. My one main contention with the original film is that PKDs stories were always about the Everyman- people like us caught in strange situations and reality-warping moments, and if there was ever any point to another Total Recall it was to return to the original We Can Remember It For You Wholesale and the casting someone of  Colin Farrell’s ability was a step towards that. But modern Hollywood action films are more stupid and one-dimensional than I ever thought the 1990 film was. Watching films like this, I wonder why bother with ‘real’ actors at all- the use of CGI virtual actors seems almost inevitable now, perhaps one day even swapping faces to match the ethnicity of the audience watching them.

So anyway, two nights, two very different Total Recalls. I’m sure I would be kinder to the 2012 film had I not been re-watching it the night after watching the original. It certainly looks spectacular and the visual effects are on the whole very photo-realistic, but after watching the 1990 film before it, it is clear that the 2012 film is a soulless digital construct compared to the analogue original. The question ‘What Is Real?’ lingers in the mind during the end-credits of the 1990 film, but during the 2012 film’s end-credits that question isn’t even necessary. None of it is real; it’s all artifice now. Philip K Dick would be proud of that irony at least.