You can read up on the basis for this series here, and also find links to other posts in the series.
Movies I’ve reviewed on this site have a link in the title which you can follow to read my full review.
5) The Thing (1982), directed by John Carpenter
It’s worth noting that the Thing, alien, being, whatever you want to call it, has to land in Antarctica for this movie to function; it must remain frozen in the ice, biding its time for millennia, until a Norwegian team (cue Kurt Russell singing, “You say ‘Norwegian,’ and I say ‘Swedish’…”) cracks it out. From there, when it makes its way to an American research station after having escaped/destroyed the Norwegians, that lab becomes a haunted house. The Thing deploys one of the great cinematic scenarios – a changeable, inscrutable monster who might be anybody – in a place that is meant to stand up to the deadly elements of the harshest place on Earth. By the end of the film, that place has been blown to bits and its people are no better. I like that in every version of the story – the short story, “Who Goes There?,” by Don Stuart, the Christian Nyby picture The Thing from Another World – it comes to the attention of scientists. The vanguard of human knowledge and learning and critical thinking are present to combat the Thing, and yet that vanguard is so limited in the scope of what it can do without force and fire. The Thing from Another World, which debuted in 1951, is the most optimistic entry of the bunch, and even that one ends with a warning. In any case, the trappings and structures of humanity’s forefront simply cannot stand. They must be destroyed in the end. One of my favorite pieces of trivia from this movie is that the Norwegian base and the American base are actually the same set; they just blew up the American one and filmed inside the smoking ruin last.
The Antarctic base is, in many ways, an extremely simple structure. It has rectangular rooms – the dog pen, the lounge, the storage units – and long, slender hallways. But haunted houses, almost by definition, must have hallways leading to nowhere and creaking stairs with ruin and decay everywhere. I love that in The Thing, the scientists and pilots and grunts at the base turn their state of the art facility into a haunted house all by themselves. It gains that status as, bit by bit, everything at the base gets the destructive treatment. Blair (Wilford Brimley) sabotages the helicopter and snowmobiles. The dog pen is lit on fire, as that’s where the Thing first begins to change, and then extinguished. When the Thing is caught in the middle of transforming into one of the men at the base, it gets dynamited. The operating room and the rec room both take serious beatings from flamethrowers; the longer the movie runs and the fewer men are left, the more willing everyone is to let the flames burn a little longer. There is a cataclysmic explosion at the end of the movie, as the Thing takes a bizarre form and seems dangerously close to killing Macready; how he and Childs (Keith David) survive the blasts which take up the base is something of a mystery. The two of them – neither able to believe the other is human, neither equipped to last more than hours in the Antarctic cold without food or warmth or supplies – can do little more than sit near to each other in the orange glow of the night and share a drink.
4) Thelma and Louise (1991), directed by Ridley Scott
The story of a woman who staves off a the rape of her best friend by shooting and killing the prospective rapist, who doesn’t report the killing to the police and goes on the run instead, who decides to flee to Mexico without going through Texas, could only have taken place in the American Southwest. The route from Big 8 country, Arkansas to Oklahoma, to New Mexico to Arizona is an essential element to this movie; we know it because the opening credits take us there first before we ever get Thelma (Geena Davis) or Louise (Susan Sarandon). The dive bar where Harlan (Timothy Carhart) picks up Thelma and then tries to assault her is line-dancing Americana down to the danger inherent in such places, where a man believes that he should get what he wants because he wants it. The motel where Thelma and Louise were robbed, the convenience store Thelma holds up now that she knows how it’s done, the endless highways and oilfields are all essential to the story: they are as quotidian and predictable as the situation that Thelma and Louise are trying to escape from. The only difference is that Louise is an exceptional person herself; with a few kicks in the rear end to get her there, Thelma becomes that way too. Louise has the guts to pull the trigger and Thelma adapts to the lifestyle of outcasts on the road. No one could have guessed, least of all themselves, that they would blow up a tractor trailer out of some well-earned spite.
When Thelma and Louise wants to, it can be gorgeous movie. As in Bonnie and Clyde or McCabe & Mrs. Miller, a pair of similarly unconventional “and” movies taking place to the west of the Mississippi, the land is crucial. Thelma and Louise invites comparisons to Bonnie and Clyde through the name and through the one-sentence plot synopsis, but there are strong connections to the earth itself. In both movies it is arid except when it ain’t. Dust spills everywhere and a car can be seen miles away because of the trail it leaves. The wind blows but never quite howls. Mountains rise up in the distance and disappear in the blink of a cut. The Grand Canyon, where the chase memorably ends (even if it’s not actually the Grand Canyon, not even a little bit) is the only fitting place where this rambling southwestern story could come to a close. It has something in common with our heroines; it used to be nothing special at all, but give it some time and outside pressure and it becomes, in the most literal sense of the world, awesome.
3) Apollo 13 (1995), directed by Ron Howard
“I’ll be walking in a place where there’s 400 degrees difference between sunlight and shadow,” Jim Lovell (Tom Hanks) says to a team of reporters interviewing him before he and his crew leave Earth. “I can’t imagine ever topping that.” Memorably, he doesn’t quite get that far; he has to stay in the lunar module for the majority of his voyage from the Earth to the Moon and back again. Meanwhile, back in Houston, mission control – in their own characteristic setting, a massive room with fluorescent lighting and rows of computer terminals and a bunch of white guys in white shirts – tries to figure out how they’ll keep Lovell, Fred Haise (Bill Paxton), and Jack Swigert (Kevin Bacon) from dying gruesome deaths on their watch. Those two settings, along with the simulator where Ken Mattingly (Gary Sinise) and John Aaron (Loren Dean) try to figure out how to power up the command module with minimal electricity, dominate the meat of the movie. It is one of the most technical movie environments ever. Certainly Inception or Interstellar, to pick on Christopher Nolan, are more technical in the sense that the rules governing those movies are stringent and abstruse. But Apollo 13 requires only a small knowledge of physics to build drama, and makes up the difference with a MOCR (Mission Operations Control Room) and a lunar module interior that are filled to the brim with knobs, switches, and arguing people.
Apollo 13 occasionally cuts into space, in that relatively short distance between one rocky planet and its small rocky satellite, and we are reminded of the vastness outside the claustrophobic space where three men have to wait out the better part of a week, not knowing if it will be their last. Compared to space, the moon seems like a paradise. When they get close enough to the lunar surface that they can begin to see landmarks, formations, their landing site – all of it a sight that Lovell saw on Apollo 8 – Lovell begins to envision what it would have been like to step down onto the Moon. It’s the only scene of the movie (excepting the footage of Neil Armstrong stepping onto the lunar surface, which we see early on) to take place there, and it’s incredibly powerful. Much of the movie’s power is drawn from the ache of losing the opportunity of doing something which only a few people have ever done. (In real life, the astronauts turned their thoughts to “We’re fighting for our lives” a lot faster than that.) Lovell looks back at the Earth in that scene after having bounced on the moon a little and drawn the fingers of his gloves through the dust. James Horner’s score blares triumphantly and dolefully as he looks back home. Earth is so far away but seemingly so near, like a parent watching a child on the playground. The “lifeboat” that the three astronauts are in is a prison, not even powerful enough to save them on its own. What stands outside of it is the most fascinating, dream-worthy expanse known to humankind and the most unforgiving.
2) Avatar (2009), directed by James Cameron
It feels stupid coming up with a rationale for why the location of Avatar – the distant planet Pandora, for those of you who have forgotten this movie’s painfully generic proper nouns – is one of the great ones in American cinema. If you saw it in theaters, it was simply stupefying. And I’m not sure that we can recreate the effect, either. Valerian, which is losing money as I write this, is the latest sci-fi movie reliant on its special effects to crater at the box office. Battleship, John Carter, Ender’s Game, Jupiter Ascending, Passengers – each one had a giant budget, each one failed to make a dent in moviegoers’ pocketbooks or hearts. As much criticism as Avatar has taken for being simplistic and probably a little racist (and I have been on that train for a very long time), this movie can still point to the scoreboard. Looking back on its release, I really don’t remember people saying, “Oh, what a great love story” or “Such stirring action sequences!” or “Wow, a truly incisive and original plot.” People were talking about the look of it – almost down to the feel of it – and what it was like to see a movie so grandiose and magnificent on a big screen. For everyone who says that theaters are dying and home entertainment is the Way of the Future, I’m sure they’re right and they can take whatever prize there is for feeling that way. I just know that Avatar is a different movie when I watch it on my laptop or my little television than it was at a cineplex. It is fundamentally different. In a weird way I think Avatar is like the evolution of Mary Poppins or Who Framed Roger Rabbit: the animation is just more encompassing compared to the flesh-and-blood folks who pop up sometimes.
I don’t have Avatar ranked first overall because I’m not sure that it needed to be set on Pandora, with the CGI and motion-capture and all that, to make the movie function. Certainly it’s better that way, but I think the movie probably could have been made somewhere between Seattle and Vancouver, adding in CGI as necessary, without doing this thing deluxe. It’s a better movie because it goes the extra digital mile, but it’s always going to be held up by the simplicity of its plot and the uglier side of its message. If you shut your brain off for a while and let yourself be dazzled by the Hallelujah Mountains, then this is a really great movie all because of its glorious setting.
1) 12 Angry Men (1957), directed by Sidney Lumet
And then there’s 12 Angry Men, a movie which quite literally could not be more different from Avatar. Better than ninety percent of the film is placed in a single, crowded room, filled with, y’know, the title characters, and on a day which is alternately sweltering and thundering. We don’t see much more of the weather than what can be told by sweat, jackets on the back of chairs, rain against the window, an inadequate wire fan struggling about as much as the men in that cloister. 12 Angry Men is a potboiler in all senses of the world, and there’s not an actor on screen who lets us forget it. Some of them are more vocal about the heat than others; some of them simply perspire away. If we can’t forget about the heat because the actors won’t let us, then the size of the little room these men are in is unforgettable because Lumet shoots it that way. It seems impossible that real jury rooms could be so narrow as this, so tight and difficult to maneuver. (I would not want to be convicted by men who were in a room that looks like cotton after you put it through the dryer a few times.) But Lumet gives us these twelve men, and Henry Fonda keeps them there without mercy. Tell someone before the movie starts that they’ll honestly wonder if one juror might stab another in that room, and they’d laugh; let them watch half an hour and they’d think it was a miracle everyone gets out unscathed.
This movie has the kind of origin story that would never happen now, and certainly not in this order: television play, actual play, feature film. That origin makes it clear enough why it’s so barebones. A TV play doesn’t want extravagant settings for obvious reasons, and 12 Angry Men could be performed with props you could requisition from a single middle-class home: table, chairs…switchblade, depending on the middle-class home you’re borrowing from. I love that there’s nothing fancy about the setting because it so perfectly reflects the men (and, more importantly, the ideals) of the group itself; indeed, I have a hard time believing that such a group could exist sixty years later. An architect is the first one to suggest the defendant is “not guilty.” An entrepreneur is the last. An ad exec and a stockbroker are in the room, but so are a house painter and a mechanic. They are a real slice of city life in the late ’50s, stuck in an all too real little room together.