100 Exceptional American Movies in 10 Genres: Speculative, 10-6

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.


10) Arrival (2016), directed by Denis Villeneuve

“What if communicating with aliens allowed us to expand our own consciousness?”

Getting past the fact that the premise of the movie is based on a linguistic hypothesis that has been pretty soundly debunked (roughly the equivalent of believing that everyone going to a psychiatrist is getting a Freudian session), Arrival is an exceptional movie. In Close Encounters, the best the only good part of the movie has to do with the way people figure out how to communicate with the aliens through light and sound. Arrival kills the mystery of “What are the aliens and what do they want?” in favor of the more comprehensible and thus more engrossing “Let’s find out what they want.” It is difficult to create a movie about forging communication between two parties – aside from Close Encounter, which elides the difficulties, the closest I can get is The Miracle Worker – and Arrival does its best work when Louise (Amy Adams) is making strategies to teach the heptapods new words while using advanced computer analysis to decipher the messages that Abbott and Costello give her through the glass. Those messages are visually perfect; not only are they beautifully designed, but each one seems similar enough to the others that we can guess that they must have some structure. Whether or not you like the idea that learning the alien language allows Louise’s mind to exist outside of a timeline depends largely, I’d guess, on how familiar you are beforehand with the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. (Also, Louise is a linguist who is also given as an expert in Portuguese and Farsi; that kind of person is not unlike a psychiatrist who is also a pharmacist.) Personally, I’m fond of her statement from the start of the movie that she no longer believes in “beginnings and endings,” which I think has a solemn truth to it.

Something I appreciate about Arrival is how it builds so much anticipation in the first few minutes of Louise being brought out to Wyoming, where the “American” giant pod is. The movie does not waste time; within minutes, Louise is headed up to the heptapods themselves (although we have no idea what’s up there when they start moving). It’s almost shocking to see so much progress in so little time; usually there’s a great deal of hemming and hawing and discussion of “necessary risk” before anyone gets this close to a planned encounter such as this one. (I vividly remember seeing this in the theater and saying to myself, Already?) But the team is sent up in their giant orange suits without any of the pseudo-drama, and they ascend slowly into the pod, surrounded by this terrific blackness. The gravity disappears. And in the setting that becomes as important as any other in the film, black walls on three sides and ceiling and floor the same, the orange-suited scientists and soldiers stare at the foggy, white wall opposite. It is magnificently austere, a scene in three colors, maybe four tops, and it reflects the awesome simplicity of what the humans are trying to do: understand.

9) The Iron Giant (1999), directed by Brad Bird

“What if, at the height of the Cold War, a boy discovered a superweapon with the ability to feel?”

So far, we are two-for-two on “the military/intelligence arm of the United States government responds to a friendly extraterrestrial by trying to blow it up,” and I promise not all of these movies work on that premise. But I’ll be darned if both movies don’t fill in that tricky little Scantron bubble heavy and dark (and correct, who are we kidding).

The rate at which the Iron Giant (Vin Diesel) learns to feel is one of the pleasant surprises of his movie. Teaching him how to talk and what to eat and what not to eat is more charming on paper than it is in practice, even though I think it does a good job of showing us what Hogarth (Eli Marienthal) is like when he finally gets to interact with someone he considers a friend. Our first real indication of his emotional intelligence comes when he learns that the character most like him in the comic books that Hogarth adores is a villain; he doesn’t like villains. He likes Superman. Hogarth convinces the Giant that he can be what he wants to be, a lesson that the Giant takes to the heart he’s developing. Despite the fact that he is a weapon as deadly as any atomic bomb that the United States (or the Soviet Union) might be able to wield, he comes to a point where he does not care to unleash his arsenal even in self-defense. Dean (Harry Connick, Jr.), the erstwhile beatnik whose destiny in life is to run a junkyard, chews out the Giant (who needs metal for sustenance) for chewing on one of his pieces of scrapmetal sculpture; the Giant, kindly enough, refashions the piece he’s been gnawing into an attractively floral work and sets it down for his new benefactor. When he accidentally halves the amount of water in a small, cold lake that Hogarth is (unwisely) swimming in by doing a cannonball, he seems to take Hogarth’s cue that he’s done something kind of goofy; bless the animators who turned the Iron Giant into someone who could be physically silly enough to get along with a preteen boy. The most magical step on the Giant’s emotional journey, and of course the saddest, is the deer he makes friends with. The deer is nervous but doesn’t bolt; it sniffs the Giant’s huge fingertip. Certainly it must have sensed, as animals can sense, the kindness in the strange colossal form in front of him. And if the Giant could have cried, he would have when he saw the deer’s corpse moments later, shot down by a hunter. I suppose this is why the first thirty minutes or so of the movie seem almost totally removed from the rest; those are so cerebral compared to the touching story being told as the Giant accesses his humanity.

Similarly, Hogarth turns into more of a human being over the course of the movie. The boy who accidentally set a squirrel loose in his mother’s workplace – the squirrel he kept as a pet because he can’t make friends – works into being a friend relatively well. Much of his early talk with the Giant is whiny high-pitched admonition and disbelief that a robot from outer space doesn’t know how to get along in coastal Maine. He tries to hide the Giant in a barn out of his mother’s sight with the same kind of gusto that he tried to hide varmints from her not long before. It takes some time – much the same period of time that the Giant needs to learn language and human custom – before he views the Giant as an equal and not the coolest, most troublesome pet any boy ever had. The Giant stops short of becoming a father figure, but he is a supreme protector. On a very literal level, he fills the void that Hogarth never vocally says he needs filled. We know that Hogarth’s dad was a fighter pilot, presumably in World War II, and since the movie takes place in 1957 it is highly unlikely that Hogarth ever met him. It’s a strong element of the movie, one that’s brought into the story around the same time Hogarth begins to expand his perspective on the Giant.

8) The China Syndrome (1979), directed by James Bridges

“What if an unsafe nuclear power plant were pushed to run at full capacity anyway?”

Here’s an interesting thought experiment. Imagine you’re Jack Godell (Jack Lemmon), and you’ve discovered through a terrifying near-catastrophe and a lot of independent research that the nuclear power plant you run, Ventana, has been cheaply made. People who are supposed to do inspections aren’t doing them. The plant’s owner refuses to do any kind of serious diagnostics or fixes because that would cost him a tremendous sum of money. You’re being strong-armed by the hired toughs your boss has sent to take care of your heterodox opinion. What’s your course of action? Godell takes what is arguably the most radical step imaginable: he hijacks the plant at gunpoint and calls for the reporters, played by Jane Fonda and Michael Douglas, to film a statement he wants to make about the plant and its unreliability. Should his demands go unmet, he’ll blow Ventana (and, incidentally, Los Angeles) to kingdom come. (There aren’t a whole bunch of white terrorists in movies, but if there’s some list I don’t know about, certainly Godell belongs toward the top.) Do you concur with Godell? Don’t you think he might have been able to get that interview out with slightly less drama? Or does the theatrically insane level he’s willing to go to lend credence to his argument? The movie problematizes his approach; when a SWAT team shoots Godell dead during the interview, but not before he’s managed to make himself appear sane and reasoned as opposed to deranged, it certainly seems that he would have had better luck being filmed at a coffee shop or a supermarket or a bank.

As everyone knows, the speculative capital of The China Syndrome took on a life of its own when it preceded the Three Mile Island accident by less than two weeks, and Chernobyl by a mere eighty-five months. One is inclined to forgive, if very slowly, the people at the real-life nuclear plants who made foolish mistakes and who nearly brought Armageddon to Pennsylvania and Pripyat, respectively. The characters in The China Syndrome present a rather different scenario; there is a conspiracy of avarice which drives the central action of the film, not momentary idiocy. McCormack (Richard Herd) makes staggeringly irresponsible decisions because he doesn’t want to lose millions on an inactive power plant and the repairs that would need to occur. DeYoung (Scott Brady) and Gibson (James Hampton), high-level employees at the plant, go along with McCormack out of whatever misplaced loyalty they have to money or their own comfort. As nuclear power becomes less and less fashionable in this country, the speculative nature of what uncontrolled capital can do has been answered on a much larger, deadlier front: the United States economy. If The China Syndrome could so neatly predict nuclear meltdowns, why can’t it be a vehicle for predicting what disaster results from capitalism run amok?

7) Edward Scissorhands (1990), directed by Tim Burton

“What if a family adopted a young man with giant blades for fingers who had never been socialized?”

After the bungled burglary of Jim’s dad’s house, people in the close-knit, unnamed town where the movie is set begin to view Edward (Johnny Depp) differently than they had before. Their fascination turned to adulation at one point; now that adulation has turned to mistrust. There’s a shift in public perception too away from his “hands” and toward epithets and ugly classifications like “freak” or “delinquent.” The hands matter less, although there are moments yet to come in the film where they’ll matter a great deal. But for the townspeople (a word that makes it sound like this takes place in 15th Century Germany and not like, Florida), Edward is more a JD type than anything else. It’s interesting that they turn on the person who was their cultural hub for some weeks so quickly, but maybe not surprising. In this town, every father leaves for work simultaneously, pulling out of his driveway at the exact same time; no woman gets out of her bathrobe until there’s a barbecue to go to. It’s maybe the clearest sign that the movie can give that people are capable of moving past how special Edward is and can just lump him in with the other teenagers (insofar as Edward has an age) they know. Edward doesn’t seem to have much of an opinion about his newfound fame, other than the fact that he seems to like the people he’s meeting even if he doesn’t understand everything they do or say to him. He also knows even before he’s been properly socialized that he does not like to hurt people, or even inconvenience them. (He shares the first trait, at least, with the Iron Giant.) When Kim (Winona Ryder) comes home in the middle of the night to find a cyborg in her bed, Edward walks away from her room as quickly and inconspicuously as possible. He knows he’s done damage, both to this strange girl he’s interested in and to her water bed, and he doesn’t intend to stick around to do any more.

Before Edward, the ultimate outsider in this burg must have been Peg Bundy (Dianne Wiest) (with the possible exception of the chief of police, who appears to be the only black person in this entire place). It’s not simply that she finds Edward at the creepy old castle and decides to bring him home like he was a stray cat. She is the only person who would have gone up there in the first place. The same quality that compels her to sell Avon products door-to-door, (although “sell” is a strong word, given her track record) is the one that compels her to take Edward home. She has perspective, a sense of what’s fitting. A woman with two kids in school should find opportunities to do what she’s interested in even if her cohort sits at home all day, waiting for an interesting morsel of gossip to fall through the telephone. Lonely people with scissorhands shouldn’t be alone. Everyone has opinions in this town, perhaps too many of them, but Peg is alone in having some good reason for her opinions. The “what if” of Edward Scissorhands rests in what this small town, overshadowed by a gloomy castle but itself brightly colored and neatly kept, would be without Peg. There’s a strange, youthful man in this movie who fascinates us, but it’s his interactions with his gentle adoptive mother in particular that keep the story moving to its inevitable but generous ending.

6) Tootsie (1982), directed by Sydney Pollack

“How long (I know, the format, sue me) could a method actor get away with secretly playing a woman before it started to obliterate his personal life?”

The answer, as Tootsie shows us, is “not very long at all.” Michael Dorsey (Dustin Hoffman) has a drag-it-out fight with his agent (Sydney Pollack) over, among other things, Michael’s ornery objection to what tomatoes do and don’t do. George tells his client that Michael’s reputation is totally poisonous; no one will hire you, he says. Not long after, in his “Dorothy Michaels” drag, Michael reveals two secrets to his incredulous agent: first, it’s him, Michael Dorsey, and second, he just got hired. It’s the tip of the iceberg. He has to fend off his chauvinist director, Ron Carlisle (Dabney Coleman) as well as his lecherous co-star, John Van Horn (George Gaynes), as well as a co-star’s very kind father, Les (Charles Durning). Ron is a tyrant and John a louche, but Les is a widower and a truly decent man; more than anything else, the relationship between Dorothy and Les is my strongest piece of proof that Michael has taken his act too far. One might call on the close friendship that Julie (Jessica Lange) builds with Dorothy, but Julie didn’t have marriage on her mind, either. Meanwhile, Michael becomes an even bigger pain in the butt in his original personal life. Jeff (Bill Murray) is Michael’s roommate and a writer whose play, Return to the Love Canal, is in development hell for obvious reasons; his social life goes out the window when Michael, wary of the image he’s trying to project with Dorothy, begins to order his buddy around. Saddest of all is Sandy’s (Teri Garr) plight. She and Michael have a thing before he goes full Dorothy. (Cruelly, the role of “Emily Kimberly” is a role that Sandy was going for that Michael helped her try to get.) They continue to have a thing that Michael increasingly blows off as he falls for Julie. So no: “not very long at all.”

Van Horn steals the movie’s absolute best one-liner out of the mouth of Michael or Sandy. He knows that Dorothy Michaels has a roommate. When Michael finally figures out how he’ll manage to get out of the double role which has consumed his life, it ends with a live soap opera episode for the ages in which Emily Kimberly reveals herself to be a character of Michael’s invention, Edward Kimberly. The fallout on set is just jawdropping; Lubitsch wishes he had come up with that scene. And it’s topped off with Van Horn’s meek, uncharacteristically sincere question: “Does Jeff know?” “Does Jeff know?” is the keystone of this movie, even more than Michael’s control freak qualities, even more than Julie’s picture of a woman in the tail end of the second wave. (Picturing this movie from Julie’s perspective instead of Michael’s makes it smarter but almost certainly less funny. C’est dommage.) It’s the line that shows Michael was so convincing as Dorothy that it might well have been possible for him to about lose his mind playing her. And it’s the line that prefaces another statement which gets to the heart of the picture. Michael has tracked down Julie after the infamous Edward Kimberly episode and, while he’s allergic to actual apologies, gives one that’s about as close to honest as he can get. I was a better man with you as a woman than I was a man as a man, he says (paraphrased). It doesn’t fix the immense trouble that Michael has caused for everyone who has invested fifteen minutes in him, but it’s a confession that, for the first time, he knows he’s not omnipotent. He can only be an improving person, not two people of totally different quality.

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