Thursday, June 14, 2012

James Cameron Roundtable #1: Xenogenesis

Individual reviews are useful, but film criticism is a dialogue, not a monologue. Our sister site, G-Blatt's Dreams, has teamed up with The Film Temple on the James Cameron Roundtable.
I grew up loving Arnold Schwarzenegger. Like any red-blooded American male, I liked watching things go boom real good, and Arnold's movies were more entertaining than those of most other action heroes. But I noticed that most of his best films were directed by one guy: James Cameron. When I saw Aliens at a young aged and realized Cameron had directed this as well, and I knew he was someone I'd have to keep in my mind. Over time I've grown to appreciate what he can do with an action movie- he makes it exciting, coherent, and often thought-provoking where the Michael Bays and Tony Scotts of the world go for incoherence and dunderheaded politics. I've grown to appreciate trickier Cameron films likeThe Abyss and even the backlash-machine Titanic. There are few pulp filmmakers as gifted as Cameron, and I'll cherish his best work for the rest of my days. Even if Avatar is a snoozer. I’m Max O’Connell of The Film Temple, he’s Loren Greenblatt of G-Blatt’s Dreams, and we’ve got some things to say, starting with his short film Xenogenesis.

Max’s Grade: 60 (B-)
Loren’s Grade: B-

Loren Greenblatt: When I meet James Cameron, I’m going to ask him: “In Xenogenesis, what ever happened to that guy hanging on the ledge? Did he make it?”

Max O’Connell: Yeah…it’s a bit of a clunky piece of storytelling, you might say.

LG: It’s his first time.

MO: It is his first time, but it opens up with this…it kind of reminds me of that scene in David Lynch’s Dune where Lynch throws a bunch of exposition at the audience and we’re already confused as to what’s going on.

LG: Ah yes, the “let’s explain EVERYTHING approach.

MO: While explaining nothing. It’s like we’re going to be tested on this.

LG: Xenogenesis, for those of you who don’t know, is basically James Cameron’s demo reel. It was supposed to be a demo for an actual film he wanted to make. It was financed for $20,000 by some dentists who wanted a tax write-off. They figured, “Oh, this is sci-fi, it’s 1978, the year after Star Wars, it’s like Star Wars, it’ll be a big hit.” They pulled out when they saw it and realized it was not like Star Wars at all, and that it was kind of…weird. It starts off with a series of matte paintings that I assume James Cameron did because he can draw like a motherfucker. There’s this narration that makes no sense.

MO: It’s very vague.

LG: It’s not like narration you would do for a movie. It’s like narration you would do for a commercial. “IN A WORLD IN THE FAR OFF DISTANCE A WOMAN RAISED BY MACHINES ONLY KNOWS LOVE!”

MO: It’s a very poor B-movie type narration.

LG: I recently saw my very first Ed Wood movie. It’s kinda like that.

MO: It really is that bad. It would fit right in with Plan 9 or Glen or Glenda.

LG: Then the movie proper starts, and we see this giant room with this guy wandering around. To me it looks like this standard Star Wars-y thing where there’s a wall with lights cut out. But, hey, $20,000, it’s not gonna be Avatar yet. Then...well why don’t you explain the robot.

MO: It’s kind of interesting, because the robot looks almost exactly like the Hunter-Killers (or HKs) from the Terminator franchise. The world of the film is a very sleek Star Wars-ish corridor, and the doors open (it’s one of those WHOOSH doors from science-fiction) and the HK prototype comes out, and there’s a big fight where it comes after him. It’s strange, because it seems to be some sort of a maintenance robot, because it’s dusting and picking things up, and then it attacks.

LG: That said, it’s amazing stop-motion animation for $20,000 in 1978. This is good quality FX. Nobody was doing this outside of Star Wars.

MO: Then there’s a long passage where it’s going after him, and it looks like it’s about to kill him until his girlfriend enters in some sort of spider-robot that’s similar in concept to the mech-suit from Aliens. The person’s movements control where this suit goes and what it does, and then there’s a battle.


MO: Well, it’s impressive considering that it’s a 12-minute short with a low budget.

LG: We gotta talk about the guy (William Wisher).

MO: Oh, terrible actor.

LG: The short features a number of solid special effects, but every special-effects film features a turkey shot. In this one, the guy is hanging off a ledge. He hangs off this ledge, and it’s clear that the set was constructed horizontally, and they just tilted the camera.

MO: It’s not convincing in the least.

LG: It’d help if the guy was struggling a bit, but he’s just hanging there. He’s practically laying down with a pillow under his head.

MO: There’s a part where he’s resting his arms like someone would on a flat surface. It’s pretty bad. Any of the effect shots actually dealing with the humans are less convincing. When it’s just the machines, though, the film takes off.

LG: One thing I noticed in Cameron’s filmmaking is that at key moments, he goes to slow-motion. Here, when the guy falls near the ledge, it’s not super-slow-motion, but…

MO: It’s enough to let you know what you’re watching is important. It’s not amped up to ridiculous levels the way Zach Snyder might, but it works.

LG:  another thing I thought was interesting was the lasers. They didn’t have the “phew-phew” sound-effects like you might expect…they kind of sound like fax machines.

MO: It’s interesting in its own way that he’s playing with sound design this early in his career, because his later films work with it really well.

LG: The guy clearly has some idea of what to do behind the camera. Cameron is not a Film Brat like Spielberg or Lucas or Coppola, he started as a truck driver…which is interesting because you see a lot of blue-collar heroes in his films. But in high school, he drew, he read a lot of bad paperback science fiction. It’s clear in a lot of ways. That opening narration is the worst. It’s like every bad sci-fi novel from the 70s.

MO: But his sense of how the technology works is fantastic. The way the woman uses the mech suit is a bit silly looking, but you see how her movement controls the technology. When she uses the laser, it eventually goes to read “OUT OF BATTERY- RECHARGE”, which is great. It’s like a lot of Cameron films, where we learn the technology, however great, is limited.

LG: One of the things I love about a lot of Cameron films like Terminator 2 is that it’s not one of those films where the guns have infinite bullets. In any other film, it’s something to avoid, because it gets in the way of stuff. Cameron uses technology’s limits to enhance the storytelling and create suspence. He does it here for the first time and he’ll do it again in the Terminator movies.

MO: Oh yeah, it’s in The Abyss, it’s in Titanic to some degree, it’s in Aliens.

LG: And the motions of the woman controlling the mech suit look silly, but how did it look when you first saw people using the Wii remote?

MO: There’s a very tactile sense of how it works, and that’s what’s important.

LG: It’s very important to emphasize that Cameron built these models- huge, very impressive models. Little wheels and treads, you see how it all works. Doing this today, it would all be CGI. And even if it were good CGI (and it’s hard to buy decent CGI for $20,000 unless you do it yourself), it would not be as tactile or as interesting to look at. There’s a quality to movement that you get with stop-motion.

MO: It looks too fluid, in a way.

LG: This isn’t an essential film, but you see how a lot of things he’s working with from the very beginning will occur throughout his filmography.

MO: One thing I liked in particular was…I made a joke about a “nuclear tanning light” that the HK-prototype uses to attack the people. It looks ridiculous, but in a way it’s his first exploration of the dark side of technology through nuclear weapons, which is something he’ll explore throughout his films. It’s in the Terminator movies, it’s in Aliens, it’s in The Abyss, it’s in True Lies.

LG: Are we sure that it’s nuclear?

MO: It’s glowing green and it sucks life out of people, I’m calling it nuclear.

LG: Fair enough. Oh, what about the Bernard Herrmann score?

MO: Oh, yeah, the Bernard Herrmann temp tracks are…probably effective in their original context, but it’s pretty silly here. It doesn’t help that he doesn’t really know how to direct actors yet, so when the music is providing all of the emotion it’s a bit goofy.  One other thing I’d like to say: Star Wars is a pretty big influence in the design of this thing, but something Cameron got from Lucas that you don’t see as much here is that sense of kineticism that runs throughout his films. This is a bit clunky and just a little plodding. Part of it is because he’s just starting out, but there it is.

LG: Well, there is a slightly more deliberate pacing to his films. The way he does action, it’s like- BEAT…BEAT….BEAT to a rhythm that’s slower than some Cameron films. There’s a sense of escalation. He also slows down the action to consider the ideas behind the action scenes.

MO: Oh yeah, they certainly move moment-by-moment, but the moments are pretty fast-paced. But yeah, I see what you mean.

LG: It’s an important part to his style. When it’s bad, it comes off his clunky. When it’s good, it’s brilliant.

MO: And we see a little bit of both in Xenogenesis.

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