90s Rewind: The X-Files: Fight the Future (1998)

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Logline: FBI Special Agents Fox Mulder and Dana Scully investigate a global conspiracy to colonize the Earth with extraterrestrial life.

In 1993, Chris Carter’s science fiction series The X-Files premiered on the Fox network and became a cultural phenomenon.  The series included a mix of stand-alone episodes involving a wide variety of paranormal phenomena and mythology episodes that focused on an ongoing storyline involving extraterrestrial life and a government conspiracy. This plot thread served as the basis for the first X-Files film, The X-Files: Fight the Future. 

Released in the summer of 1998, Fight the Future was written by series creator Chris Carter and directed by Rob Bowman, who had directed many episodes of the television series.  Fight the Future was designed to appeal to both fans and new comers alike and for the most part, it succeeds.  While I feel Mulder and Scully’s adventures are best suited for the small screen, I do appreciate Fight the Future in all of its widescreen glory.

Originally, Chris Carter planned to end The X-Files after five seasons and continue with a series of films.  However, because the series was so profitable, the show continued for four additional seasons, not to mention a second film and a six-episode Event Series, which premiered in January of 2016.  Fight the Future was released between the fifth and sixth seasons, to a positive reception.

Carter takes full advantage of the bigger budget and the film is epic in scope.  The visuals are stellar and hold up to this day.  The alien colonization plot is nothing more than a vehicle to explore the central relationship between Mulder and Scully.  Their love for one another is strictly platonic at this point but the emotional bond between these two is undeniable.

Ultimately, Fight the Future is a movie for the shippers.  It teases fans with the ever-growing sexual tension between the agents.  The ultimate tease occurs during a scene in which Mulder and Scully nearly kiss before Dana collapses to the floor.  David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson are wonderful and have such incredible chemistry onscreen that much of the joy lies in simply watching them interact.  My only wish is that Anderson had more to do.  She spends a lot of the film incapacitated.

Fight the Future adds little to the overall mythology of the series.  However, it is an entertaining “popcorn movie” that reminds fans why they fell in love with Mulder and Scully in the first place.

Rating (out of ****): ***

 

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A Favorite Series: The X-Files Part 1: Seasons 1-5

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The X-Files is an American science fiction series created by Chris Carter that ran for nine seasons on the Fox network from 1993-2002, spanning 201 episodes.  There were also two X-Files films released: The X-Files: Fight the Future (1998) and The X-Files: I Want to Believe (2008).  In January 2016, David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson reprised their roles as FBI Agents Fox Mulder and Dana Scully for a six-episode event series, which has been dubbed by many fans as season 10.

The X-Files concerns two FBI agents, Mulder and Scully, who investigate unsolved cases involving paranormal phenomena.  Mulder believes in the existence of extraterrestrial life and a government conspiracy while Scully is the skeptic, always applying a rigorous scientific code to her work.  The series includes a mix of mythology episodes that explore the alien conspiracy and monster-of-the-week installments, stand-alone entries that involve a wide variety of paranormal activity.

The X-Files is not entirely consistent.  The series has its fair share of mediocre episodes but there are also many excellent installments.  The real magic of the series lies in its stars, Duchovny and Anderson who have such incredible on-screen chemistry.  A lot of the fun lies in watching these two actors interact.  Other series regulars include Mitch Pileggi’s Assistant Director Walter Skinner and William B. Davis’ villainous Cigarette Smoking Man.  Duchovny and Anderson starred in the first seven seasons.  In the underrated eighth season, Anderson starred alongside Robert Patrick’s Agent John Doggett while Duchovny appeared only intermittently.  The disappointing ninth season starred Anderson, Patrick, and Annabeth Gish as Agent Monica Reyes.  Duchovny appears only in the underwhelming series finale.

The X-Files is more than just a TV show.  It is a pop culture phenomenon that has garnered a huge, loyal fanbase.  I started watching the series at age 11 and continued intermittently through the years until I finally finished it at age 24.  The X-Files is a blend of various genres including science fiction, drama, horror, and comedy.  One of the show’s strengths is that it does not take itself too seriously and at times, can be hilarious.  Darin Morgan and Vince Gilligan are my favorite writers on the series.  Darin Morgan had an incredible talent for incorporating comedic elements.  He contributed season 2’s Humbug and a handful of episodes from season 3, all of which are among my favorites.  Vince Gilligan was with the series from season 2 until the end.  He would go on to create the fantastic series, Breaking Bad, starring Bryan Cranston, who appears in the sixth season episode Drive.  My favorite season is the third, which is the most consistently great year of the show.  The X-Files remains one of the most iconic television shows of the 1990s.

The first five seasons of The X-Files were filmed in Vancouver, British Columbia,  before production was moved to Los Angeles, California for seasons 6-9.  I will cover Seasons 1-5 in Part 1 of my X-Files retrospective and seasons 6-9 in Part 2.  I will include separate posts for the event series and the two feature films.

Here are my thoughts on each of the first five seasons:

Season 1 (1993-1994) (24 episodes):

Like a lot of TV shows, the premiere season of The X-Files is one in which the writers were still finding their way and there are plenty of misses.  The first season is pretty evenly split between episodes that are great and ones that are mediocre and there really isn’t much in between.  Some of the show’s best and worst episodes can be found in the first season.

Season 2 (1994-1995) (25 episodes):

Like the first season, season 2 of The X-Files features some of the show’s best and worst episodes.  It certainly is an improvement over the first season though and there is a lot less mediocrity.  There is more experimentation in the second season, as the writers continue to find the show’s unique voice.  The mythology episodes are very strong here and there are many memorable stand-alone entries as well.

Season 3 (1995-1996) (24 episodes):

As stated before, the third season is my favorite.  Both my favorite mythology episode and favorite Monster-of-the-Week episode can be found in this season.  It is arguably the show’s strongest year and is when The X-Files went from cult TV hit to cultural phenomenon.  Season three is also the year of Darin Morgan.  The writer contributed three episodes this season, all of which rank among the show’s best.  The mythology is still very strong here.

Season 4 (1996-1997) (24 episodes)

The dark fourth season is regarded by many as the show’s best.  While I do not agree with this assertion, there is no denying that season 4 is a strong batch of episodes but not quite as strong as the stellar third season.  The mythology in the fourth season begins to become bloated and convoluted even while a feature film loomed on the horizon.

Season 5 (1997-1998) (20 episodes)

The fifth season saw the series at the height of its popularity.  Re-shoots on the movie, which had been filmed between the third and fourth seasons, resulted in less episodes than normal.  It was the final season to be filmed in Vancouver.  Every episode in season 5 is at least decent and there are also some of the best episodes that the show has to offer here.

The following are my favorite episodes from seasons 1-5:

Season 1:

Pilot

Mulder: “When convention and science offer us no answers, might we not finally turn to the fantastic as a plausibility?”

Scully: “What I find fantastic is any notion that there are answers beyond the realm of science. The answers are there. You just have to know where to look.”

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Logline: Working on their first case together, Agents Mulder and Scully investigate a series of unsolved deaths that Mulder believes are linked to alien abduction.

The X-Files’ first episode is one of the best pilots I have seen for any series.  It is the perfect introduction to the world of The X-Files.  Even in the first episode, Duchovny and Anderson are great together onscreen and have such an interesting dynamic, which was the foundation on which the series was built.

Squeeze

Mulder: “Do you think I’m spooky?”

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Logline: Mulder and Scully must stop a genetic mutant serial killer who feeds on human livers and has the ability to squeeze into small spaces.

The series’ first Monster-of-the-Week episode is a classic featuring Eugene Victor Tooms, who would return in the appropriately titled sequel, Tooms later in the season.  Not only does this episode show that The X-Files is more than a show about aliens but it also introduces one of its most memorable monsters.

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Mulder: (the three men on the expedition are undressing to check each other for signs of infection) “Before anyone passes judgment, may I remind you, we are in the Arctic.”

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Logline: Mulder and Scully are sent to a remote Alaskan outpost where a team of geophysicists have killed each other after becoming infected by a parasitic alien life form.

This installment is a tribute to John Carpenter’s 1982 horror classic The Thing and it is loads of fun.  Trapping a group of paranoid characters together in a confined space makes for great drama.

Tooms

Scully: “Mulder, I wouldn’t put myself on the line for anybody but you.”

Mulder: “If there’s an iced tea in that bag, it could be love.”

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Logline: The genetic mutant Eugene Tooms is released from prison and Mulder is convinced he will kill again.

This sequel may be even better than its predecessor.  I love the final scene with the escalator.

The Erlenmeyer Flask

Deep Throat: “Trust…no one.”

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Logline: Mulder’s informant Deep Throat tips him to a case involving a fugitive and the cloning of extraterrestrial viruses.

This season finale is an excellent conclusion to the first year and turns up the volume on the series mythology.  I love the final scene, which mirrors the first episode and brings the season full circle.

Season 2:

One Breath

Smoking Man: “Don’t try and threaten me, Mulder.  I’ve watched presidents die.

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Logline: As Scully is comatose and close to death, Mulder frantically searches for answers to her mysterious disappearance.

The conclusion to the great story arc that began with Duane Barry and Ascension, One Breath is a beautiful episode and proves that the series can handle emotionally driven entries with ease.

Die Hand Die Verletzt

Mulder: “Did you really think you could call up the Devil and ask him to behave.”

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Logline: Mulder and Scully investigate a ritualistic murder of a teenager who may have been killed by the local high school’s PTA, who worship Satan.

Die Hand Die Verletzt is one of the earliest episodes to exhibit noticeably comedic elements without being an all-out comedy episode as Darin Morgan’s first script, Humbug would be six episodes later.  However, the seemingly lighthearted nature of the episode takes a dark turn when a young girl recounts memories of sexual abuse.  Die Hand is an episode where everything works and its various elements combine to make a truly excellent installment.

Colony/End Game

Scully: Did you find what you were looking for?

Mulder: No…no.  But I found something I’d thought I’d lost.  Faith to keep looking.

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Logline: Mulder and Scully investigate the deaths of human clones who were murdered by a shape-shifting assassin.

This is a riveting two-part episode that has some fantastic visual effects and production design.  The X-Files can be so cinematic at times.  The set piece featuring the submarine submerged in ice is a marvel.  These episodes also introduce one of the show’s most memorable guest characters – the Alien Bounty Hunter.

Humbug

Dr. Blockhead: “Did you know that through the protective Chinese practice of Tiea Bu Shan, you can train your testicles to draw up into your abdomen?”

Mulder: “Oh, I’m doing that as we speak.”

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Logline: The agents search for a serial killer in a small town inhabited primarily by sideshow performers and persons with physical deformities.

Darin Morgan’s first episode as a writer on the series, Humbug is a classic X-File and has the perfect blend of comedy and horror that Morgan did so well.  Morgan would go on to pen the season 3 episodes, Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose, War of the Coprophages, and Jose Chung’s From Outer Space, all of which rank among my absolute favorites.

Anasazi

Albert Hosteen: “In the desert, things find a way to survive. Secrets are like this too. They push their way up through the sands of deception so men can know them.”

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Logline: Mulder receives an encrypted computer disk containing proof that the government has known about the existence of extraterrestrial life since the 1940s.

The second season finale begins what is arguably the best mythology story arc in the series.

Season 3:

The Blessing Way/Paper Clip

Smoking Man: “What is this?”

Skinner: “This is where you pucker up and kiss my ass.”

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Logline: Scully’s career and life is in jeopardy and Mulder is missing and presumed dead while the Smoking Man continues to seek the stolen files.

Along with Anasazi, The Blessing Way and Paper Clip comprise the show’s greatest myth arc.  For me, Paper Clip is easily the show’s single most perfect mythology episode.  It all feels so epic and is relentlessly paced.

Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose

Scully: “Nobody does anything without a reason.”

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Logline: Mulder and Scully seek the aid of a man who has psychic abilities as they search for a serial killer who is targeting fortune tellers.

If Paper Clip is the show’s best mythology episode, then Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose is its finest Monster-of-the-Week installment.  A complex rumination on fate and what motivates people to do what they do, the episode features a great Emmy-winning performance from Peter Boyle.

War of the Coprophages

Scully: “I’m not going to ask if you just said what I think you just said because I know it’s what you just said.”

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Logline: In a small town, people are seemingly being attacked by swarms of cockroaches.

Even Darin Morgan’s weakest script is a damn-near masterpiece and one of the series’ best episodes.  Cockroaches always get under my skin so this episode proved particularly effective in the gross-out category.

Piper Maru/Apocrypha

Commander Johansen: “Conscience, it’s just the voices of the dead trying to save us from our own damnation”

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Logline: A French salvage ship uncovers a World War II fighter plane and inadvertently releases a mysterious black liquid that jumps hosts and which Mulder believes is extraterrestrial in origin.

This relentlessly paced two-part mythology episode introduces the black oil, which would become a pivotal part of the series mythology.  These episodes also mark the return of Nicholas Lea’s immortal Alex Krycek, a character who is always fun to watch.

Pusher

Scully: “Please explain to me the scientific nature of the whammy.”

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Logline: Mulder and Scully are up against a dangerous man who has the ability to will people to kill themselves.

Written by Vince Gilligan, this episode is absolutely riveting from start to finish and features one of the agents’ most memorable adversaries, Robert Patrick Modell.

Jose Chung’s From Outer Space

Scully: “That was Detective Manners. He said they just found your bleepin’ UFO.”

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Logline: Scully recounts an alleged UFO abduction case for a renowned author who is researching for his latest novel.

Jose Chung’s From Outer Space is an absurd parody and deconstruction of the series that is both funny and touching.  It is a great send off from my favorite writer on the series.

Quagmire

Scully: “…you’re like Ahab. You’re so consumed by your personal vengeance against life, whether it be its inherent cruelties or its mysteries, that everything takes on a warped significance to fit your megalomaniacal cosmology.”

Mulder: “Scully, are you coming on to me?”

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Logline: Mulder believes that a series of lakeside deaths in a small Georgian town were caused by a creature who the locals affectionately call “Big Blue.”

Easily, one of the most underrated and overlooked episodes of the series, Quagmire is a standard Monster-of-the-Week installment that explores people’s reliance on stories and folklore but also Mulder and Scully and their personal struggles.  Their conversation on the rock is beautifully written.

Wetwired

Mulder: “Scully, you are the only one I trust.”

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Logline: Mulder and Scully investigate a series of murders linked to a device that alters television signals and people’s behavior.

Another underrated episode, Wetwired is a paranoia-infused installment with great visual flair and direction.  The concept is similar to that of season 2’s Blood, another great, underrated episode but here, it is done even better.

Season 4:

Home

Scully: “Mulder, it looks like this child has been afflicted with every birth defect known to science.”

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Logline: A dead and deformed baby is found buried in a field in a small town in Pennsylvania, causing Mulder and Scully to investigate the Peacocks: an inbred family of brothers living on a farm.

Fox only aired this controversial episode once.  It shocked audiences and received a lot of negative backlash at the time but is now regarded as one of the show’s best episodes and for good reason.  It is hard to believe that Home aired on network television.  It is Glen Morgan and James Wong’s finest script for the series, taking what is essentially trashy B horror movie material and turning it into something intelligent and beautifully structured.  Home is hands-down the most terrifying episode of The X-Files.  It is an examination of the dialectic between traditional ways of living and modern culture.  It shocks and surprises even as it pulls you in with its delicious indictment of the American dream.

Unruhe

Scully: “For truly to pursue monsters, we must understand them. We must venture into their minds. Only in doing so: do we risk letting them venture into ours?”

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Logline: Distorted photographs offer Mulder and Scully a glimpse inside the mind of a troubled man who kidnaps women and lobotomizes them.

Another brilliant Vince Gilligan-penned episode, Unruhe is an incredibly creepy and tense hour of television.  Guest actor Taylor Vince is excellent, making Gerry Schanuz one of Mulder and Scully’s most memorable adversaries.  Interestingly enough, in the near-twenty years since this episode aired, the technology that the story is built around-film cameras-has all but disappeared.  It is a reminder that besides being a brilliant television series, The X-Files is a product of its time and will be forever associated with the ’90s.

Paper Hearts 

Scully: “You said it yourself, once: A dream is an answer to a question we haven’t learned how to ask.”

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Logline: A series of dreams leads Mulder to believe his sister was abducted by a child murderer who he put away years earlier.

The impetus for Mulder’s beliefs and search for the truth was the abduction of his sister, Samantha when he was a child.  This storyline was the focus of several episodes throughout the series.  This Vince Gilligan-penned entry may be the best of these; it is an emotionally gripping episode with a winning guest performance from Tom Noonan.

Never Again

Betty: “You’d break my heart over a cheap redhead?”

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Logline: While Mulder is on vacation, Scully goes on a date with a recent divorcee whose new tattoo seems to have a life of its own.

The X-Files is a show that more often than not, follows a specific formula.  Never Again, an excellent Scully-centric entry, is an episode that departs radically from that formula and the results are brilliant.  This is the last script that Glen Morgan and James Wong wrote for the original series.  This writing duo was with the show from its beginning and helmed Squeeze, the first Monster-of-the-Week installment.  Each of the four scripts they wrote for the fourth season is, in many ways, a radical departure from anything the show has done before or since.  In Never Again, the viewer gets a rare glimpse into Scully’s personal life and how her relationship with Mulder is affecting her negatively.  Gillian Anderson is amazing as always.  The final scene with her and Mulder is brilliant.  This episode was originally going to be directed by Quentin Tarantino but a dispute with the Directors Guild prevented him from doing it.  Rob Bowman does excellent work in his place.  Bowman is clearly one of the show’s most kinetic directors, lending a cinematic, visually stunning look.  Never Again is gorgeously shot and is a devastating and beautiful episode.  It is a fitting farewell from two of the show’s best writers.

Memento Mori

Skinner: “You can’t ask the truth of a man who trades in lies.”

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Logline: Mulder seeks answers to the cause of Scully’s cancer, which he believes is linked to her abduction.

Memento Mori is a beautiful, heart wrenching episode in which Scully comes to terms with the fact that she has an inoperable cancer.  Gillian Anderson won an Emmy largely for her work in this episode.

Zero Sum

Smoking Man: “Yours isn’t the first gun I’ve had pointed at my face, Mr. Skinner.”

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Logline: Skinner becomes involved in a dangerous game of cat and mouse with the Cigarette Smoking Man as people are mysteriously being killed by swarms of bees.

A.D. Walter Skinner is a great character and this is the second time the show focuses on him.  The results are stunning.  The interactions between he and CSM are classic and who can forget those bees?

Season 5:

Redux II

Smoking Man: “Quit the FBI, come work for me.  I can make your problems go away.”

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Logline: Scully is hospitalized and close to death while the Cigarette Smoking Man offers Mulder a cure to her cancer.

The first part of this two-part season premiere is a huge disappointment with its lengthy voice-over and messy script.  However, the second part, Redux II is one of the show’s best episodes.  Even if the episode is full of red herrings, it is still a riveting installment.  Gillian Anderson is amazing and her scenes with her family and Mulder are genuinely moving.  Cigarette Smoking Man is “killed” for the first of three times.  One thing The X-Files was never good at was letting go of its characters, including Mulder and Scully.

The Post-Modern Prometheus

Scully: “Is there anything you don’t believe in, Mulder?”

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Logline: Mulder and Scully travel to a rural town, where a genetic experiment has grown out of control.

One of the show’s greatest strengths is its ability to take huge leaps of tonal shifts between certain episodes.  Some episodes, such as Memento Mori, are dead serious and others are pure comedy, like The Post-Modern Prometheus, a fantastic homage to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.  Visually stunning, funny, bizarre, and genuinely moving, this episode is representative of some of Chris Carter’s absolute best work as a writer and director.

Bad Blood

Scully: “Why would a real vampire need fake fangs?”

Mulder: “Fangs are very rarely mentioned in the folklore. Real vampires aren’t actually thought to have them.”

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Logline: Mulder and Scully must report to Skinner after Mulder killed a boy he believed to be a vampire.

Cited by Gillian Anderson as her favorite episode of the series, Bad Blood is hilarious.  It was penned by Vince Gilligan who proves himself a worthy heir to Darin Morgan.  This episode is also a testament to how well Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny work together and both actors have great comedic quips.

The Pine Bluff Variant

Mulder: “If you don’t hear from me by midnight, feed my fish.”

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Logline: Scully becomes suspicious that Mulder is aiding an anti-government terrorist group who are experimenting with a biological weapon.

By far John Shiban’s best solo script on The X-Files, The Pine Bluff Variant is the kind of paranoid conspiracy thriller that the show excels at.  The episode moves along at a breakneck pace and feels like a feature film in its grandeur.

The End

Smoking Man: “You look surprised.  Is it that I’m here or that I’m alive?”

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Logline: Mulder and Scully investigate an assassination attempt on a young boy with special abilities.

The End is quite literally the end of an era for the show.  It was the last episode to be produced and filmed in Vancouver, British Columbia and the last episode before the first feature film.  An excellent season finale, The End reunites the entire Syndicate again and introduces two new characters – Diana Fowley and Gibson Praise.  The final scene, in which Mulder’s office is in flames, is iconic.

Stay tuned for posts on seasons 6-9, the event series, and the two films.  The truth is out there.

Carpenter Retro: They Live (1988)

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Logline: A drifter acquires a pair of sunglasses that allow him to see that the ruling class is in fact made up of aliens who are concealing their appearance and using subliminal messages in mass media to manipulate humans.

“I have come here to chew bubblegum and kick some ass, and I’m all out of bubblegum.”  They Live was the last film that John Carpenter made in the 1980s and it stands as one of his best.  A delicious mix of science fiction, satire, and ’80s macho action, They Live is Carpenter’s most political film.  Its social commentary provides an important message that is just as pertinent today.

Written, directed, and scored by Carpenter, They Live pays homage to 1950s sci-fi films, namely Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956).  The film is based in part on Ray Nelson’s short story “Eight O’Clock in the Morning.”  Self-indulgent 80s action aside, They Live has some important messages that are undeniably relevant.  The film criticizes mass consumerism, media manipulation, displacement of the lower classes, and inequality of wealth and power.  In an interview conducted recently, Carpenter stated, “The ’80s never ended.  The consumerism has gotten bigger since then.  It’s all still going on. That’s why it seems prescient.”

They Live stars Roddy Piper, a professional wrestler turned actor and Keith David, who also appeared in The Thing (1982).  They Live came at the tail end of a decade that heralded macho action heroes and the film is well aware of this fact.  Laden with testosterone, They Live features one of the best fight scenes ever committed to celluloid.  The fight, between Piper and David, lasts more than six minutes and is funny, visceral, and extremely well choreographed.  My favorite sequence in the film, though is the first time the nameless Piper character puts on the sunglasses and sees the world as it actually is.  Billboards, magazines, and other forms of media are in fact subliminal messages, like “CONSUME,” “OBEY,” and “NO INDEPENDENT THOUGHT.”  A wad of cash in a vendor’s hand reads, “THIS IS YOUR GOD.”  It is a quiet, brilliant sequence that reaches absolute sublimity.

They Live may be cheesy but it is lots of fun.  Produced on a limited budget with B-movie aesthetics, this Carpenter classic is often overlooked and deserves more attention.  It seems fitting that They Live was the final film that Carpenter made in the ’80s, as it criticizes the excessive consumerism that defined the Regan era and remains with us to this day.

Rating (out of ****): ***1/2

Carpenter Retro: Prince of Darkness (1987)

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Logline: A research team investigates a mysterious green liquid found in a church cellar.

Written and directed by John Carpenter, Prince of Darkness marks the filmmaker’s return to low budget, independent cinema.  It is the second installment in Carpenter’s so-called “Apocalypse trilogy,” which began with The Thing (1982) and would conclude with In the Mouth of Madness (1995).

Prince of Darkness is by no means a great film but it is certainly an intriguing one.   The film has echoes of earlier, Carpenter classics, namely Assault on Precinct 13 (1976) and The Thing (1982).  The film stars Donald Pleasence, who also appeared in Halloween (1978) and Escape from New York (1981), as a Catholic priest.  Pleasence, an underrated actor, is great as always.  Pleasence appears alongside Victor Wong, who is equally wonderful as a college professor who takes his graduate students to a Los Angeles church to investigate a mysterious green goo.  The graduate students, unfortunately, are not compelling characters and do little to warrant our sympathy.

Despite its weak characters, the film features great direction and a strong score from Carpenter.  With its limited budget, the film features excellent makeup effects.  The plot may seem nonsensical most of the time but the tone is spot-on and there is plenty of suspense.

Though successful, Prince of Darkness was released to largely negative reviews but like so many of Carpenter’s films, has been subject to re-evaluation.  It is now considered one of his most underrated features.

Prince of Darkness is a solid film that explores the dichotomy between science and religion.  Its surreal imagery, like a mirror that separates two dimensions, is unforgettable.  Prince of Darkness is certainly not one of Carpenter’s best films but it may very well be his creepiest.

Rating (out of ****): ***

In Theaters: The Edge of Seventeen (2016)

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Logline: After her best friend starts dating her older brother, high school junior Nadine feels more alone than ever.

Kelly Fremon Craig’s directorial debut The Edge of Seventeen is one of the most honest teen films to come along in decades.  With a winning script from James L. Brooks, The Edge of Seventeen avoids all of the cliches that plague many films of this nature and feels undeniably real.

All of the characters are complex and interesting.  Hailee Steinfeld is excellent as Nadine, who is as awkward as they come.  Blake Jenner is also great as Nadine’s older brother Darian, who transcends the trappings of his jock image to show a deeper side.  Woody Harrelson steals the show as Nadine’s history teacher, Mr. Bruner.  Both Nadine and Mr. Bruner have a certain unspoken respect for one another and their banter is hilarious.

The Edge of Seventeen successfully captures the awkwardness of being a teenager.  It is smart, funny, and features great performances.  The Edge of Seventeen is one of the most interesting films of 2016 and should not be missed.

Rating (out of ****): ***1/2

Carpenter Retro: Dark Star (1974)

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Logline: Things go terribly wrong for a small crew of astronauts traveling through the far reaches of space.

Dark Star is a solid debut from John Carpenter, who wrote the film with Dan O’Bannon while they were students at the University of Southern California.  Originally a student film, Dark Star was seen by producer Jack H. Harris, who obtained the rights.  After additional footage was shot, Dark Star was released theatrically in April, 1974 to a mixed reception.  It has since become a cosmic cult classic.

Dark Star signaled the arrival of two new talents – John Carpenter and Dan O’Bannon.  Carpenter would go on to direct such classics as Halloween (1978) and The Thing (1982) and O’Bannon would go on to write such films as Alien (1979) and Total Recall (1990).  Carpenter directed, produced, and scored Dark Star while O’Bannon edited and starred in the film as Sgt. Pinback.  He also acted as a production designer and visual effects supervisor.

Dark Star is crude and a little rough around the edges but has a certain charm.  The film is a comedy that subverts long established sci-fi tropes.  Instead of the clean-cut action heroes seen in sci-fi films of the 1950s and 60s, the characters in Dark Star are bearded hippies.  These blue-collar astronauts are not unlike the crew of the Nostromo in Alien.  It is easy to see how Dark Star served as the prototype for Alien, especially during a sequence in which Pinback chases after the infamous “beachball” alien.

The film is quite funny at times.  In one exceptionally funny scene, Pinback replays clips from his video diary in which he complains about his other crew members.  There are also elements that parody Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) that work remarkably well.

Despite its simplicity, Dark Star is a solid film in its own right.  It launched the career of one of genre cinema’s most talented auteurs – John Carpenter and had a huge influence on science fiction films in the years to come.

Rating (out of ****): ***

Carpenter Retro: Big Trouble in Little China (1986)

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Logline: A wise-cracking truck driver becomes ensnared in a centuries-old battle in Chinatown involving black magic and a 2000-year-old magician named Lo Pan.

John Carpenter’s Big Trouble in Little China was a critical and commercial failure when it was released in the summer of 1986 but has gained a huge cult following in the years since its release.  After the film bombed at the box office, Carpenter decided he had had enough of Hollywood and returned to his independent filmmaking roots.  While I respect Big Trouble in Little China for what it is, I do not particularly like the film.

A fantasy action film in which anything goes, the film takes all the conventions and cliches of martial arts movies and turns them on their head.  The result is something of an oddity.  The film starts off promising but quickly becomes repetitive and all over the place.  Kim Cattrall is pretty wooden and Dennis Dun’s one-liners become annoying rather quickly.  Kurt Russell, on the other hand, is pretty enjoyable as the non-traditional hero Jack Burton who is endlessly quotable.  “This is gonna take crackerjack timing.”  As a whole though, the characters are poorly developed and uninteresting.  Despite my ambivalent feelings toward the film, I admire the production design.  The fight scenes are quite impressive and have the movement and fluidity that the fights in Escape from New York (1981) lacked.

Hollywood never turns down a chance to remake older films and a remake of Big Trouble in Little China is looming on the horizon with Dwayne Johnson set to star as Jack Burton.  Despite its now very positive reputation, Big Trouble in Little China does little for me.  Overall, it is a disappointing spectacle that favors style over substance.

Rating (out of ****): **1/2

Carpenter Retro: Starman (1984)

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Logline: An extraterrestrial being takes the form of a young widow’s husband and the pair must travel across the country together.

Though John Carpenter is most associated with horror films, the filmmaker has explored various genres.  Carpenter’s 1984 film Starman is one of his most unusual in terms of its romantic narrative and lack of stylistic flair.  In other words, Starman feels like one of the most commercial films John Carpenter made, especially during his prime (late 1970s/80s).  Starman is a solid, if unremarkable, romance disguised as a science fiction film.

John Carpenter is one of the most misunderstood filmmakers of the 20th century.  He was typecast as a horror director after the success of Halloween (1978) and many of his best films were not well-received at the time of their release.  The truth is that Carpenter had an incredible range, which is clearly evident in Starman.  The film does not have the usual stylistic tendencies of a Carpenter flick.  Rather, he focuses on the tender love story at the heart of the film.  There is also some great comedy.  The film stars Jeff Bridges, who delivers a stellar performance as an alien who takes the form of a human being.  Karen Allen is very good as Jenny Hardin, the young widow who shows him how to love.

Starman has a lot going for it but I cannot say I love the film.  It all comes down to preference.  I am not too keen on love stories and Starman is exactly that: a love story between an extraterrestrial being and a woman.  If anything, it is worth watching Jeff Bridges play an alien who slowly learns what it means to be human.

Rating (out of ****): ***

Carpenter Retro: Christine (1983)

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Logline: A teenage boy’s personality changes drastically after he purchases a ’58 Plymouth Fury that seems to have a mind of its own.

Christine is commonly regarded as one of John Carpenter’s lesser films so I had no expectations before watching it.  To my surprise, I loved the film and would argue that it is one of the filmmaker’s finest works.  Christine marks the first and only collaboration between two horror greats – John Carpenter and author Stephen King.

On paper, the film’s premise sounds incredibly silly.  A teenage boy becomes possessed by a car.  In the hands of John Carpenter though, the material never seems ridiculous and is highly entertaining.  The film strikes the perfect balance of horror, comedy, and teen angst.  The film wisely takes its time to establish the characters, their relationships, and the world they inhabit.  Keith Gordon is fantastic in the lead role of Arnie and his transformation is completely believable.  Harry Dean Stanton and Robert Prosky are a delight to watch in supporting roles.

Christine features excellent direction from Carpenter and there are some gorgeous shot compositions.  The cinematography by Donald M. Morgan is stellar and the film is quite beautiful.  Furthermore, Christine, a ’58 Plymouth Fury, is a sleek and gorgeous car that manages to be menacing at the same time.  The visual effects are wonderful and still hold up to this day.  The film also features one of Carpenter’s best scores.  Composed with frequent collaborator Alan Howarth, the score is quintessential Carpenter with its synthesizers and roaring bass line.  The soundtrack also features a melange of great rock ‘n’ roll tunes from the 50s.

Christine is a film rich with great scenes.  One of my favorites is when Christine rebuilds herself for the first time in the garage in front of Arnie.  Being that this is an 80s movie, the film features a giant explosion at a gas station.  It is a great scene, though and includes one of the film’s most iconic moments.  Christine, in flames, pursues Buddy (William Ostrander) down an open road.  The finale, in which Dennis (John Stockwell) and Leigh (Alexandra Paul) attempt to destroy Christine with a bulldozer, does not disappoint.

Christine received a lukewarm response from critics at the time and was a disappointment at the box office.  It has since become a cult classic but has never been given the recognition it so rightfully deserves.  Christine is one of John Carpenter’s best films and one of the best adaptations of Stephen King’s work.  A film that comments on America’s obsession with cars and conjures up nostalgia for the 1950s, Christine needs to be reevaluated.  It is a true Carpenter classic and a unique piece of 80s horror cinema.

Rating (out of ****): ****

Carpenter Retro: The Thing (1982)

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Logline: At a research station in Antarctica, a group of men fight for survival against a shape shifting alien that assimilates anything it touches.

In 1982, after a successful streak at the box office, John Carpenter was approached by Universal Studios to direct an updated version of The Thing from Another World (1951).  Though not well received at the time of its release, John Carpenter’s The Thing has become a cult classic and is rightfully considered one of the greatest horror films of all time.

One of the key differences between the 1951 film and the 1982 version is that Carpenter’s alien is able to shape shift and assume the appearance of whomever it comes into contact with.  Carpenter hired 23-year old Rob Bottin to realize the amazing creature effects seen in the film.  The effects, which are quite gruesome and not for the squeamish, are remarkable and still hold up to this day.  Cinematographer Dean Cundey’s lighting does not receive enough credit and was essential in making the creature effects look as good as they do in the film.

Whereas the 1951 film deals with the fear and paranoia of communism albeit subtly, the 1982 film focuses on the fear and paranoia of the men, none of whom trust one another.  The Thing is very much an ensemble piece with Kurt Russell leading the all-male cast.  Nearly all of the actors were New York stage performers prior to the film and all of the performances are top notch.  Before shooting began, Carpenter insisted that Universal provide the cast and crew two weeks of rehearsal on a soundstage.  This allowed the actors ample time to perform and get to know one another before the cameras started rolling.  As a result, the performances are enriched and one gets the sense that these characters have known each other for quite some time.  The Norwegian dog in the film, who was half wolf/half malamute breed, is amazing.  Jed gives what must be the single greatest animal performance in the history of film.

On a purely visual level, The Thing is stunning.  Each scene is beautifully directed and there are some gorgeous shot compositions.  The score, composed by the great Ennio Morricone, seems to take a lesson from Carpenter in its subtlety.  In fact, Carpenter himself is responsible for some of the film’s musical cues.  Regardless, it is a great score.

The Thing is a highly rewatchable film.  This can be attributed to the great characters and performances, impressive direction, wonderful creature effects, and because it’s so much fun to watch.  The film has not aged a bit and moves along at a breakneck pace.  In a film full of memorable scenes, my favorite sequence is the blood test.  The suspense and tension in this pivotal scene are high.  Even after having seen it multiple times, I am still yelling at the screen.

The Thing is one of the few instances in which the remake is far superior to the original.  The Thing marked the first time Carpenter worked on a big budget film.  It is baffling that the film was not well received at the time of its release by critics and audiences alike.  The Thing could not compete with Steven Spielberg’s E.T. the Extraterrestrial, which had been released several weeks beforehand.  The Thing has since become one of the most celebrated films of Carpenter’s career and may beat out Halloween (1978) as my favorite Carpenter flick.  The Thing is nothing short of a horror masterpiece and one of this film buff’s personal favorites.

Rating (out of ****): ****

Warning: Clip contains spoilers.