Tuesday, June 30, 2015

The X-Files - S1:E3 "Squeeze"

[ S1:E2 "Deep Throat" <<< Season 1 >>> S1:E4 "Conduit" ]

A colleague invites Scully to assist in the investigation of a series of mysterious murders, and she must confront the stigma of working with "Spooky" Mulder, and grapple with her desire to advance her career and earn a respectable reputation. But what she (and we, the audience) finds so fascinating about Mulder - and what most of his detractors in the greater arena of law enforcement don't realize - is how often his outlandish theories turn out to be correct. This time, he links the murders to a series of cases dating back ninety years, and suspects the culprit may be some kind of mutant. "It's like all the horrible acts that humans are capable of somehow gave birth to some kind of human monster."

Squeeze is the first "monster-of-the-week" episode of The X-Files. If I make any disparaging comments about monster-of-the-week episodes, know that it's only in reaction to fans who don't have a proper appreciation for the episodes that advance the series' mythology. Monster-of-the-week episodes are great - they're like miniature horror movies - and the best ones can be counted among some of the best episodes in the series. Certainly, it gives the writers an opportunity to get creative. But serial drama beats the episodic format, and while this episode is fun to watch (with a chilling climax, and sequel potential!), let's be honest - it's the game-changing episodes that uncover details of the government conspiracy involving extraterrestrials that we look forward to watching the most.

Memorable quotes:

Mulder: Do you think I'm spooky?

Scully: You knew they wouldn't believe you, why did you push it?
Mulder: Maybe I run into so many people who are hostile, just because they can't open their minds to the possibilities, that sometimes the need to mess with their heads outweighs the millstone of humiliation.

Scully: Oh my God, Mulder, it smells like... I think it's bile.
Mulder: Is there any way I can get it off my fingers quickly without betraying my cool exterior?

Monday, June 29, 2015

The X-Files - S1:E2 "Deep Throat"

[ S1:E1 "Pilot" <<< Season 1 >>> S1:E3 "Squeeze" ]

The opening credits sequence makes its debut here (I once threw a "dance party" to extended length remixes of the show's main theme), closing on the iconic phrase "The Truth Is Out There". The music, composed by Mark Snow, is worth mentioning, as it perfectly complements the eerie atmosphere of the show. It made such an impression on me that I bought a CD of background tracks from the show in an era that predated my later obsession with music.

In the second episode of the series, Mulder drags Scully out to a UFO hotspot - an air force base rumored to have received some of the wreckage from the infamous Roswell crash - and risks his life to catch a glimpse of an alleged "military UFO". While the pilot episode tipped the balance toward the paranormal, this episode brings the government conspiracy angle to the forefront, introducing Mulder's first informant - Deep Throat (Jerry Hardin) - who contrasts the Smoking Man's tight-lipped detachment with a protective interest in Mulder's search for the truth. Also look for a young Seth Green in a bit part as a stoner!

Memorable quotes:

Scully: Just because I can't explain it, doesn't mean I'm gonna believe they were UFOs.
Mulder: 'Unidentified Flying Objects' - I think that fits the description pretty well. Tell me I'm crazy.
Scully: Mulder, you're crazy.

Deep Throat: Mr. Mulder, why are those like yourself who believe in the existence of extraterrestrial life on this earth not dissuaded by all the evidence to the contrary?
Mulder: Because, all the evidence to the contrary is not entirely dissuasive.
Deep Throat: Precisely.
Mulder: They're here, aren't they?
Deep Throat: Mr. Mulder, they've been here for a long, long time.

Sunday, June 28, 2015

The X-Files - S1:E1 "Pilot"

[ Season 1 >>> S1:E2 "Deep Throat" ]

In this first episode we are introduced not only to the main themes of the show (suspected alien abductions, mysterious implants, and missing time all make an appearance, framed in the context of an FBI procedural, with undeniable implications of government conspiracy), but also to its principal players. Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson) is a former medical student initially assigned to debunk The X-Files, a private project involving the FBI's collection of unsolved and unexplained cases, initiated by eccentric yet charismatic Fox "Spooky" Mulder (David Duchovny).

Scully's scientific skepticism butts heads with Mulder's belief in the paranormal (in the first example of the series' cleverly written dialogue between these two perfectly counterbalanced personalities), inspired by a traumatic childhood experience in which his sister vanished from their home. But the pair's first investigation together provides enough evidence to pique Scully's curiosity (and prove that Mulder's not simply crazy) - even if that evidence inevitably ends up stolen or destroyed by unidentified parties (with high connections in the government). Representing the latter is the grim-faced Smoking Man (William B. Davis), a government agent always lurking in the background with a subtly sinister air (though understated, without yet any [audible] speaking parts). It's a strong first episode, that lays out a captivating blueprint for the series ahead.

Memorable quotes:

Mulder: Sorry, nobody down here but the FBI's most unwanted.

Mulder: Now, 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.
Mulder: That's why they put the 'I' in FBI.

Saturday, June 27, 2015

Reopening The X-Files

This is an event that's been a long time coming, but my experience with Chris Carter's sci-fi/horror alien conspiracy TV series The X-Files has always been driven by opportunity. When it first premiered circa 1993 (incidentally, the same year that Jurassic Park came out), I didn't start watching it - but I was aware of it. I saw commercials for it, and I initially thought it was a movie, due to its subject nature. Fire In The Sky came out that year, too (a harrowing film I would describe as torture porn for the alien abduction generation), which I saw in theaters and subsequently paid for in the form of nightmares. I was probably just getting into my alien abduction phase at that time, spurred on by another TV series from the '90s - the supernatural and documentary-ish Sightings. But I had no idea in 1993 that The X-Files would become such a groundbreaking television show.

It was actually four years later that FX announced a unique event - an episode-a-day airing of the entire first four seasons of The X-Files, in order - that I finally caught the wave of the show. By that time, I had been thinking that The X-Files was a show I'd like to watch, but I didn't want to jump in right in the middle. So this event was the perfect opportunity for me to get up to speed with the show, and I dedicated myself (even going so far as using the little TV in the basement when I was grounded and lost bedroom TV privileges) to gluing myself to the TV screen to watch episode after episode, until I was caught up. It took longer than that summer to get up to speed, so I actually started taping the new episodes in the fifth season in anticipation of the time I would be ready to watch them, but eventually I reached that point when I could make the weekly appointment to watch the new episodes as they aired each Sunday night. And The X-Files became one of my favorite TV shows of all time.

After that season, the first movie was released, which I got to see in the theaters, and was a really exciting experience for me. It was the perfect distillation of The X-Files in movie form. Then the show continued, but it began to get a little long in the tooth. The mythology which had been so exciting to follow (even in the absence of any concrete answers after five or six years) started to grow too convoluted, and even the excitement of finally introducing actual aliens into the show seemed to take away from the suspense of not knowing that made the show so intriguing in the past. When David Duchovny left the show as a regular character, that was the final straw - and I tuned out. No offense to Robert Patrick who took his place (as a different character), who I think is a fine actor, but you just can't do The X-Files without Fox Mulder.

Even so, in the ensuing years, I've felt a little guilty that I never got to see how the show ended. I watched the second movie when it came out, I Want To Believe, which seemed a little like an apology from the creators and a return to form, and though response to it wasn't very strong, I felt that it acted like a suitable coda to the series. Still, I had it in the back of my mind that I would eventually have to go back and rewatch the series someday, and finally catch the last couple of seasons that I had missed. I remember seeing the full series DVD box set in the store, and not quite being ready to shell out a hefty price for it. Then, just this past year, I noticed the series was available on Netflix. But a nine season show is still a significant time commitment. I know people who could binge it without a second thought, but I'm not like that. It took me a few years to finish Buffy The Vampire Slayer (just this past October), and that show was only seven seasons long.

But then, it was announced that the original creators and stars of The X-Files were coming back to put together a short run of brand new episodes. I may be a little skeptical of how well this quintessential '90s show can capture the modern zeitgeist in a world that seems to have moved beyond the scare of UFOs and alien abductions, but the creators are confident that the government conspiracy aspect of the show, at least, is as timely as ever. And you can bet I'll be tuning in to watch it, just to see Mulder and Scully back together doing what they do best. And that's when it hit me - if ever there was a perfect time for me to rewatch The X-Files, this is it. I don't like the pressure of having to watch so much TV in a limited time frame, with a real deadline (the new episodes are scheduled to begin airing at the end of next January, after the Superbowl), but there'll never be a better reason for it than this. And, considering that my first introduction to the show was under eerily similar circumstances - I take that as a sign that this is meant to be.

So, over the next seven months (that's less than a month per season!), I'm going to do my best (with no absolute guarantee that I'll finish in time), to watch nine seasons - that's 202 episodes, or approximately 150 hours of television - of The X-Files. And I'll try to keep you up to date with a running commentary of my thoughts on the episodes as I go through them. I realized only too late that I should have reviewed the seasons of Buffy as I watched them, instead of waiting until I was finished with the whole show, but I won't make that mistake again. So, I don't know if I'm going to do it episodically, or season by season (the latter probably allows for more wiggle room, lower requirements for commentary, and thus less time spent writing when I could be watching), but stay tuned for the first installment of my journey through The X-Files, coming to you anywhere from tomorrow to within a month's time!

Season 1 (24 episodes)
Season 2 (25 episodes)
Season 3 (24 episodes)
Season 4 (24 episodes)
Season 5 (20 episodes)
The X-Files: Fight The Future (1998)
Season 6 (22 episodes)
Season 7 (22 episodes)
Season 8 (21 episodes)
Season 9 (20 episodes)
The X-Files: I Want To Believe (2008)

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Jurassic World (2015)

Warning: The following post may contain spoilers.

I grew up with Jurassic Park. My generation was the Jurassic Park generation. Jurassic Park was the movie of my childhood. I remember my excitement at the fantastic premise when I first started seeing trailers for it - a movie about an amusement park where they bring dinosaurs back to life?! And when it came out, around about the time I was 9 years old, I ended up seeing it a record number of times in the theater. I don't remember the count, but it was at least seven, and may have been as high as eleven. It takes a really good movie for me to want to see it in the theater twice; more than that is nearly unheard of.

What made Jurassic Park such a great movie? First and foremost, it was based on a brilliant novel by one of the preeminent science fiction (with an emphasis on science - Jurassic Park introduced me to chaos theory long before I earned my physics degree in college) authors of the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. It had a killer premise - rife with potential for both action/terror (depending on how you approach it) and intelligent story-telling - with great, memorable characters. The movie was well-cast, well-paced, well-scored, and well-directed by a master of Hollywood blockbusters - Steven Spielberg - in his prime. And the effects were great, too. It became (and still remains) the best dinosaur movie ever made.

I read the book it was based on (after seeing the movie) in elementary school - being a bit mature, it was one of those books that other kids used to give me sidelong glances for carrying around. Then I read the sequel, The Lost World, when it came out. The movie sequel followed, but, as sequels usually do, it failed to live up to the quality of either the original, or the book it was only loosely based on, despite bringing back one of my favorite characters, mathematician Ian Malcolm. The most memorable thing about the movie sequel was a tense moment involving the T. rex and a car dangling over a cliff, and a forced attempt to bring the T. rex to the mainland (à la King Kong) - a potential story thread I'd daydreamed about since day one, but failed to live up to expectations. Perhaps the movie's most egregious error was completely ignoring the one point of sequel-bait that the original Jurassic Park had featured (and which still remains untouched): Nedry's canister of embryos.

A few years later Jurassic Park III came out, but even bringing Dr. Alan Grant back into the fold couldn't save it from being a mostly forgettable flop. The source material had already dried up by then, and advances in paleontology were leading to much-maligned design changes (enter the feathered raptor). Also, in a misguided attempt to one-up its predecessors, JP III arbitrarily introduced a bigger, badder dino (the Spinosaurus) to outperform the T. rex. (As we shall see, Jurassic World rectified both of those mistakes). Despite also expanding on the terrifying implications of the Velociraptors' intelligence, the most memorable scene in this movie involved Pterodactyls.

The franchise ran out of steam at this point, and what followed was over a decade of silence. Then, rumors of a new Jurassic Park movie began to surface, and it seemed that people were ready to give the series a fresh start. I admit that even I, after being less than impressed with the previous two sequels, was willing to believe that this new Jurassic Park movie would be different, and could do justice to the legacy of the original film. And now, having seen it, I believe that it does.

In a wise decision, Jurassic World mostly ignores the two sequels, but directly references the original. Here, we see the late John Hammond's dream finally brought to life (in spite of the earlier catastrophe) - a tropical vacation spot that marries an amusement park with a museum and a zoo, featuring the spectacle of living, breathing dinosaurs brought back from eons of extinction. The cautionary tale of the first Jurassic Park involved the dangers of man taking the reins of evolution from out of the hands of nature, and vainly bringing some of history's most dangerous predators back to life to coexist with humans.

Jurassic World takes it a step further - this time, it's the creation of a personalized hybrid, by demand from greedy corporations, and inspired by an increasingly jaded public, that, with its combination of size, unprecedented intelligence, predatory instincts, and other assorted evolutionary adaptations - the result of a mixed genetic cocktail of DNA - breaks loose and wreaks havoc across the island. This is the Indominus rex - a more plausible and intriguing variation of what Jurassic Park III's Spinosaurus wanted to be - and for all intents and purposes, an adaptation of the Carnotaurus from Michael Crichton's The Lost World, which I've been itching to see on the big screen for nigh on twenty years, since it was absent from the movie version of that Jurassic Park sequel.

The human element in Jurassic World is enjoyable enough to watch, if not completely remarkable. The humor seems to overpower the drama, as the main leads' romance isn't as compelling as Alan Grant and Ellie Sattler's more mature relationship in Jurassic Park. And the two kids in this movie aren't nearly as memorable as Lex ("I'm a hacker!") and Tim ("the human piece of toast") were. But it's worth noting that the male lead in Jurassic World (played by Chris Pratt), is basically a Robert Muldoon character (who was excellent but underused in Jurassic Park), elevated to the level of a lead à la Dr. Alan Grant.

But the real characters in Jurassic World are the dinosaurs. When Jurassic Park came out, it revolutionized the way dinosaurs were depicted on film. Inspired by Michael Crichton's true science approach, and based on the latest findings of paleontology, dinosaurs like the T. rex and the Brachiosaurus, in particular, were shown to stand and move in a more horizontal rather than traditionally upright position. But by the time the sequel came out, some of the details - such as the T. rex's motion-based vision - were being called into question, and the behavior of some of the dinosaurs changed accordingly (breaking plot consistency). Historical accuracy became a point of contention, and by the time Jurassic Park III came out, scientists were beginning to speculate on the possibility that some dinosaurs (including the Velociraptor) may have been feathered, like birds, rather than scaly, like reptiles.

The problem, from a narrative standpoint, is that birds are generally not as scary as reptiles. Well, Jurassic World deals with that problem in a very succinct and elegant fashion. Since de-extinction is not an exact process in the first place - DNA strands from long-extinct species have to be approximated, and filled in with fragments from other organisms - and since the company is already genetically manufacturing its own customized animals, considering that they are a corporate, profit-minded entity, it's not a stretch to believe that they would engineer dinosaurs that look sleeker and scarier, and maybe are even bigger, or have a few more teeth, or what have you, than would be historically accurate, all for the sake of putting on a good show for their customers. Lead research scientist Henry Wu says about as much, in fewer words, in a key scene during the movie.

The dinosaurs in Jurassic World may not be as unequivocal the threats they were in Jurassic Park - although even when helping or cooperating with humans, they are still dangerous - but that's a side effect of being able to have the audience sympathize with some of them. And while Jurassic Park succeeded as a violent thriller, twenty years have passed since then, and people have grown sympathetic toward the reptilian mascots of the franchise. While the I. rex is the clear villain in this movie, the raptors are its anti-heros. And as a longtime fan of Jurassic Park, I enjoyed the tag team between the raptors and the T. rex during the spectacular climax, which was littered with respectful homages to the original movie.

There's a little bit of cheesiness peppered throughout the movie, but I chalk that up to this being a self-conscious revival of an old and beloved franchise, resurrected for a new generation of fans (yet with its old fans kept in mind). Jurassic World isn't quite what Jurassic Park was two decades ago, perhaps, but I don't think that there really could be another Jurassic Park today, without completely reinventing itself - and I don't think that's what the producers or the audience really wants. It's more of a fun action flick than an intelligent thriller, but I feel that it's a worthy successor to the original - certainly much more so than the other two sequels we've had. I feel like Jurassic World is a Jurassic Park for a new generation - a generation where Jurassic Park has been around for a while; a generation that, like the people who visit the resort in the movie, aren't wowed simply by seeing dinosaurs in the flesh anymore. And isn't that just what Jurassic World should be?