At the Movies: Dead Bodies; Avatar vs. The Angry Red Planet

I watched an odd Irish film a few nights back, DEAD BODIES (2003), about a guy who accidentally kills his ex-girlfriend (who had moved back in to his apartment because after they broke up she found she couldn’t get along with going back to living with her mother). So, because he’d pushed past her leaving his place to get out of an argument, he reasons she must have tripped and fell, and scared he’ll be arrested for manslaughter he pretends she’d left already and then takes the body out to the woods and buries it. The problem is, as he digs the hole, he discovers there’s already a body there — so girlfriend gets dumped on top.  So a dog digging in the woods leads to ex-girlfriend’s body’s discovery, followed by police also finding body #2 and identifying it as a politician’s wife who’d disappeared eight years ago. . . .  And, the thing is, the movie wasn’t played for comedy but was serious (and a bit sad) pretty much all the way through.

However there’s a little bit more.  The investigating policeman seems to have a past and, well, the original guy gets himself a new girlfriend who may have an agenda too.  Or maybe the guy’s just the world’s biggest loser.  Nevertheless, the film walks a knife-thin line between absurdity (check girlfriend #1, you’ll be glad when she’s gone!) and nihilism (it’s billed on the cover as suspense except nobody much seems to give a damn; for me, in fact, it’s reminiscent of the final scenes of the original NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD where, even if you do everything right to survive the night, you’re still shot the next morning — and here nobody even makes the attempt to do things right).  Moreover, it was nominated for seven Irish Film and Television Awards and won in three categories (Best Actor for lead Andrew Scott, Best Editing, and Best Sound/Sound Editing).  So, while I almost regret having to say it, I think DEAD BODIES will be worth a second look.

Then several weeks back (life intervenes, I’m only getting around to reviewing them now) the Fox HD channel finally showed AVATAR (2009 — gee, it doesn’t seem that long back) and, the following night, perusing the freebies on the local cable’s “Movies on Demand” I ran across 1959’s THE ANGRY RED PLANET.  Thus seen back to back, the thing that struck me is they tell the same story.  ANGRY RED PLANET begins with the discovery of the presumed lost first ship to Mars in a near-Earth orbit, allowing ground control to signal the ship’s computer to bring it back to base.  Two of four crew members are still aboard, the Pretty, Young, Civilian Female Assistant Scientist and  the Handsome Young Captain, the latter of whom has a space fungus of some sort growing on his arm that threatens to take over his entire body.  Also the data tapes the ship should have detailing what happened have been erased and, when they ask the assistant scientist, she more or less goes into shock, so they (and we) have to find out the story via hypnosis (and flashback).  AVATAR has to do with an Earthling base on an alien planet where folks want to mine a rare mineral called “unobtainium” (for which, Heaven help me, I chronically mentally substituted the old ROCKY AND BULLWINKLE SHOW’s “upsidaisium”), trying to get in good with the natives (or at least learn where the stuff is and, if they can’t be talked into cooperating, where their vulnerabilities are) via mind transplants into cloned native bodies.

So, the ANGRY RED space crew consists of four stock characters, seen in various manifestations from the mid 1940s (World War II films at first, later Cold War era science fiction) to at least the mid ‘60s:  1. The Handsome Young Captain, 2. the Pretty Civilian Female Assistant Scientist, 3. the Older Usually Civilian Head Scientist, and 4. the Mildly Obnoxious Working Class Joe Who’s Often from Brooklyn  (in this case a non-commissioned officer who actually references Brooklyn, but who doesn’t really attempt the accent).  Also, just so you’ll know — and this isn’t really a spoiler, just straight formula — #s 3 and 4 will be least likely to survive.  In AVATAR, however, they’re brought back in new guises, #1 becoming a wounded, wheelchair-bound Marine who’s mind-transferred into a  Handsome Young Native (who later becomes a planet-wide high chief), #2 a Pretty Native Female (an on the ground expert, as it were, who mentors #1 — and also just happens to be the local chief’s daughter), #3 an Older Female Civilian Head Scientist, and #4 a promotion to More-Than-Just-Mildly Obnoxious Head Officer With Working Class Manners.  As for survival, you have your scorecards.  Things don’t go too well in AVATAR, however, though much of the earlier part of the film concerns various adventures the hero has in learning about the planet (one of which, the flying reptile lesson, is eerily reminiscent of a more extended sequence in 2002’s DINOTOPIA).  It seems the upsi-oops-unobtanium is underneath one of only (I think) four World Trees which, since the natives consider these sacred, is not a good omen, and to which the Head Scientist adds some vague mumbo-jumbo about the whole planet having maybe some kind of hive mind.  Fighting ensues, the upshot of which is most of the humans are kicked off because, well, while we humans have made admirably enormous scientific and technological strides, they’ve far outstripped our abilities at socialization (particularly with non-human species).  In ANGRY RED, on the other hand, once into the flashback we see the crew having various adventures in which they learn about Mars (a three-eyed monster is seen through the landed spaceship’s porthole, a plant tries to eat the Pretty Female Assistant [setting up a stock Rescue by the Handsome Young Captain situation — by AVATAR standards ANGRY RED is blatantly sexist, Cappy’s continually tying to put the make on her aboard the ship too, but then it was made 50 years before], a lake monster attacks just as they spot a distant Martian city, a giant amoeba-like goo thing attempts to absorb the ship, and the ship is held on the planet for a time by a mysterious force field) as well as hear the Older Head Scientist opine some vague mumbo-jumbo about the whole planet having maybe some kind of hive mind.   The upshot of which is, the force field having finally let the ship go, the hypnosis having been a success, the means to cure the Captain’s space fungus (a souvenir of the amoeba-like goo thing) learned, a final non-erased data tape is discovered in which we see the three-eyed monster telling us that our scientific and technological advancement has far outstripped our abilities at socialization and Don’t Come Back.

Are these films worth seeing?  Yes.  (Granted ANGRY RED PLANET contains sexism — well, let’s face it, once he’s cured of the Martian goo, the Captain nowadays would probably be up on sexual harassment charges — and AVATAR a sort of queasy noble savage/Native American ambience that I suspect might irritate me mightily if I were Native American myself, but, even with one just three years old, perhaps these films can be seen as simply typical of their times, and possibly even of extra sociological interest for it.)  The “message,” if not ground-breaking, holds up well enough and the story line, if a bit simplistic, provides sufficient adventure for a good night’s entertainment.  The special effects, though, are something else:  ANGRY RED PLANET, once boots are on the ground, is angry and red through a system of ultra low budget red-tinted stock with occasional solarization, with puppet monsters (did I mention the combination giant rat/bat/crab/spider?) against actually well done matte backgrounds.  These intersperse with aboard-ship scenes that are strictly standard providing a contrast that, if perhaps not even intended to be “realistic,” are even better.  They’re interesting.  And with AVATAR I can say almost the same thing.  Much, much, much, much more expensively done with state of the art computer effects (the only fault of which is that occasionally one remembers what’s being watched is still essentially a cartoon — the fault in this case, though, being much more the viewer’s than the presenters’) contrasted with grittier, pretty much standard by today’s taste scenes on the human base.  But as for the “on the ground” scenes in AVATAR, cartoons or no, the impression is beautiful.

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