Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (1972)

Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (1972) Director: J. Lee Thompson

“Lousy human bastards!”

Rating: 3 out of 5.

The setting is North America, 1991 (18 years later the events of 1971’s Escape from the Planet of the Apes). The intelligent baby chimp from the previous film (the offspring of Cornelius and Zira) has been smuggled away by Armando (Ricardo Montalbán) but a deadly virus has struck earth from space and it has destroyed all of earth’s cats and dogs for some reason. Now, the apes have been enslaved by a one-world dystopian government. The baby chimp Caesar is played by Roddy McDowall who previously played Caesar’s father Cornelius in three of the earlier films, and after Armando is captured, interrogated by the gestapo, and forced to kill himself, Caesar keeps silent and assimilates among the ape slaves. After witnessing horrendous crimes and abuses of power, he soon leads an uprising with the support of his girlfriend Lisa (Natalie Trundy), though in the end Caesar makes efforts to rise above the allure of cruelty.

This fourth installment in the Planet of the Apes series was shot at Century City and at UC Irvine –the use of some clever camera work with the outdoor sets gave the impression of a dark futuristic city. This was initially intended to be the conclusion to the Apes series, but it was later expanded into a fifth film the following year before being rebooted again decades later. The plot for Conquest draws upon themes directly taken from the civil rights movement, as well as the Watts riots in Los Angeles at the time, making this perhaps the most explicitly political film in the series. It serves as a metaphor for the revolutionary spirit of the ’60s and ’70s. Conquest was shot on a low budget, but I still thought this was a surprisingly powerful entry into the series. The film drags at points, but I thought it was perhaps the best Apes story since the original Planet of the Apes, which none of the sequels come close to rivaling. Whereas in the original the theme of nuclear war looms large, in Conquest the primary concern is enslavement and social unrest. It is a fitting movie to reflect the mood of the era, and perhaps in some ways it holds a mirror up to our own age, as well. Interestingly enough, the 2011 reboot Rise of the Planet of the Apes was a somewhat loose remake of Conquest of the Planet of the Apes.

Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) Review

Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) Director: Don Siegel

“Your new bodies are growing in there. They’re taking you over cell for cell, atom for atom. There is no pain. Suddenly, while you’re asleep, they’ll absorb your minds, your memories and you’re reborn into an untroubled world.”

Rating: 4 out of 5.

A classic of 1950s science fiction horror, Invasion of the Body Snatchers is based on Jack Finney’s three-part serialized novel simply entitled The Body Snatchers (published in Collier’s in 1955). The film rights were acquired by veteran Hollywood producer Walter Wanger, who had just been released from prison following an attempted murder incident (he suspected his wife was having an affair). The incident actually later became part of the inspiration behind Billy Wilder’s The Apartment (1960). Starring Kevin McCarthy and Dana Wynter, Invasion of the Body Snatchers is about an alien invasion experienced in a small fictional California town known as Santa Mira. Alien spores have been dropped all over town and as they hatch, the egg “plant pods” spawn doppelgängers of already existing people on earth. It is a “quiet” invasion in which the aliens intend to replace humans in pursuit of a more homogenous world, though interestingly not via a hostile, military takeover a la H.G. Wells’s War of the Worlds. Instead, the aliens attempt a benevolent approach. These bubbling, oozing pods hatch and grow into human duplicates –in a way, the alien hatching foreshadows Ridley Scott’s Alien. If people fall asleep, they run the risk of being “snatched” by these emotionless aliens. The unsettling fear of falling asleep will be revisited time and again in movies like A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) and classic shows like The Twilight Zone.

Who can be trusted? Which people are authentically human? The film is told in a flashback by Dr. Miles Bennell (Kevin McCarthy) as he recounts his escape from the body snatchers alongside Becky Driscoll (Dana Wynter) until she falls asleep momentarily while hiding out in an abandoned mineshaft and Dr. Bennell is left to escape alone. In the end, we return to Dr. Bennell who has recently been picked up from the highway after banging on cars, screaming about an alien invasion. In his testimony to a psychiatrist, he is nearly declared insane, until a truck driver is wheeled into the hospital corroborating the pod invasion. Dr. Bennell breathes a sigh of relief while the hospital flies into a frenzy. Ironically, while desperate to escape the encroaching hive mind of the aliens, Dr. Bennell finally finds relief and validation within his own group, fellow humans sharing the same view. Safety in numbers. Perhaps this is a slightly more cynical movie than initially meets the eye.

The Northman (2022) Review

The Northman (2022) Director: Robert Eggers

“Evil begets evil…”

Rating: 5 out of 5.

In another masterfully striking cinematic feast, Robert Eggers turns to the legendary tale of Amleth (the basis for Shakespeare’s Hamlet) as the epic Viking aesthetic continues its contemporary revival. Having been impressed with Eggers’s previous two films, The Witch (2015) and The Lighthouse (2019), and looking forward to his forthcoming adaptation of Nosferatu, I was eager to see The Northman, and it did not disappoint. This is a tale of brutal Viking revenge in the form of one man’s epic odyssey. Sadly, it was a financial flop despite presenting incredible cinematography, a great score, and great performances all around. My one quibble with the film concerns the odd effects used in various intermittent visions of the future, but The Northman is still an extraordinary picture.

It begins in the year AD 895. The Viking King Aurvandill (Ethan Hawke) returns home from his conquests to his wife (Nicole Kidman) and son Amleth (Oscar Novak). There is an unsettling sense of elemental pagan magic in this film. This world is as vast as it is terrifying –only the truly strong and vicious survive. One night during a Nordic ritual (featuring Willem Dafoe as Heimir the fool), Amleth pledges complete loyalty to his father, to avenge him at all cost. Shortly thereafter, Aurvandill is attacked and beheaded by his brother Fjölnir (Claes Bang) in a coup d’état. The village is ransacked as Amleth narrowly escapes on the open sea headed for the land of the Rus (Russia).

Years later, we find an adult Amleth (Alexander Skarsgård) as part of a marauding band of berserker Vikings, raiding and pillaging towns, until one day a temple seer calls upon him to avenge his father. Thus, he disguises himself as a Christian slave and travels across the sea where he is taken into the house of Fjölnir in Iceland, who has since lost his stolen kingdom. He has also taken Amleth’s mother as his own. One night, he meets a mysterious shaman who channels the severed head of Heimir the fool (in a fascinating parody of Sir Yorick’s skull in Shakespeare’s Hamlet). Upon the full moon, Amleth battles the undead Mound Dweller and wins a prized sword which will be used by Amleth to exact his revenge, according to a dark prophecy. Gradually, Amleth garners the favor of Fjölnir’s house, and he falls in love with fellow slave, Olga (Anya Taylor-Joy). In time, Amleth reveals his true identity to his mother, but she shockingly claims that Amleth was conceived by rape and that she was actually party to King Aurvandill downfall. She draws stark comparisons to Clytemnestra or Lady Macbeth.

Olga becomes pregnant with twins, and she and Amleth try to escape until Amleth realizes he can never truly be free of Fjölnir. He returns and slaughters Fjölnir’s entire family –carving out Fjölnir’s son’s heart and then killing his own mother– before Amleth and Fjölnir duel in a fiery nude battle at the edge of a volcano (“the Gates of Hel”). The bloody fight ends with Fjölnir beheaded but Amleth is also killed. The film ends as Amleth is whisked off to the gates of Valhalla amidst a vision of Olga raising their twins –one of whom will become queen.

Rife with ancient Nordic mythology, fabled superstitions, and dark elemental brutality, The Northman exposes the folly of revenge. This is not the brooding ennui-ridden Hamlet of Shakespeare. Instead, this is a hunching brute, a ferocious, remorseless killer –a man who carries out the bloodlust of familial revenge, and commits the grave act of matricide, only to bring a plague upon himself. He cannot escape his own fate. It is an ominous reminder of the depths of human nature, and the hideous shadow of the premodern world which still looms over us today. The Northman is not a classic hero’s journey. In a more predictable narrative, Amleth might have conquered Fjölnir and ruled his kingdom alongside Olga, but instead he finds his quest for vengeance somewhat confusing. Should he stay and fight? Or leave in peace? Perhaps Fjölnir was not the brutal scheming uncle he remembered as a child. Perhaps he was simply persuaded by Amleth’s conniving and seemingly a-moral mother. Perhaps vengeance does not offer the sweet gratification Amleth had once anticipated.

Top Gun (1986) Review

Top Gun (1986) Director: Tony Scott

“I feel the need, the need for speed!”

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Directed by Tony Scott, the younger brother of Ridley Scott, Top Gun is one of those ’80s movies that received lukewarm reviews upon release, but has since become a cult classic among fans. Right down to the cornball dialogue and the Kenny Loggins’s “Danger Zone” refrain coupled with other hits like “Take My Breath Away,” this movie is an amusing popcorn action flick that is simply pure fun and entertainment. Tom Cruise plays a cocky aviator named Pete “Maverick” Mitchell who launches a risky move along with his radar navigator nicknamed “Goose” (Anthony Edwards) which saves a fellow pilot’s life over the Indian Ocean and lands them in the elite Naval training program in San Diego known as “Top Gun.” While there, Maverick falls in love with Charlotte “Charlie” Blackwood (Kelly McGillis) and gains a nemesis, “Iceman” (Val Kilmer). Sadly, in a high stakes maneuver, Goose is killed. This leads to Maverick’s low point as he considers quitting Top Gun, but he pulls himself together as he and Iceman are deployed into hostile territory where they earn each other’s mutual respect and Maverick finally forgives himself for the death of Goose. In the end, Maverick decides to return to Top Gun as an instructor.

Amazingly, it took 36 years to produce a sequel to Top Gun, one of the longest runs in Hollywood history. I have not yet seen the sequel but its rave reviews have enticed me to watch it soon. Tragically, Kelly McGillis was snubbed for the sequel –she faced considerable hardship in life after two men broke into her New York and assaulted her, and then again after relocating to North Carolina, her home was once again broken into and vandalized by an assailant. Despite her absence, the sequel has been highly praised as Tom Cruise continues his quest to revive the modern action film from its lazy green-screen-ification.