Saturday, October 05, 2013

Netflix's Turkey Farm

I have taken some time away from Islam, the government shutdown, Obamacare, the buffoonery in Washington D.C., the news media, and other pressing issues to report on that great alternative to programmed TV and exorbitantly priced big screen theaters: Netflix.  My mind needed a rest, or a change of scenery.

Netflix is a priceless (well, a relatively cheap) way to watch recent movie releases and TV series or miniseries. Its chief value to me is to be able to watch "oldies" without commercial interruption and on my own viewing schedule. YouTube carries many of those oldies, as well, but usually in parts that often don’t match up or are missing.

But I couldn't help but notice, when I scroll through all the categories of choices that Netflix offers, that it carries dozens and dozens of turkeys. Netflix seems to be the final resting place for films that couldn't earn their keep on the big screen or were never seen there, or were released as TV specials, or not released anywhere at all except on DVDs. It is also the graveyard or retirement home of many a TV series.  

One reason I watched these turkeys (and also many of their bigger-budget parents), and never will again, is to see how directors and screenwriters deal with emergency ethics, which is what all these films deal with. How those ethics are dramatized is a reflection on the state of reason in the culture as a driving force. Which, at least from a moral standpoint, is virtually nil.

Emergency ethics entails problem solving. Reason apparently played no role in either the decisions to make these turkeys or in imbuing their characters with reason. Rational problem solving, in turn, entails the weighing of values, one's own values, not the values expressed by a consensus, a majority, a group, or by "mankind."

A "turkey" in my cinematic lexicon can be defined as: A low-budget, independently financed and produced film cranked out to cater to filmgoers or couch potatoes obsessed with natural or manmade "environmental" disasters, apocalypses, the price of fooling with or "raping" the "ecosystem," ends of civilization, ends of the world, science fiction dystopias, and any other theme that blames man for his particular perilous circumstance or for his hubris or arrogance or for his mere existence.

I've already written about two Netflix blockbusters, productions that have measurably higher standards of directing, acting, cinematography, and scripting: the Kevin Spacey House of Cards and Jenji Kohan's Orange is the New Black. In terms of all secondary attributes, they are far and away superior to the turkeys, past and present. But they all have one or more things in common. Fundamentally, they are the celluloid or digital offspring of liberal/leftist politics, and liberal/leftist morality. Netflix has picked up the Spacey and Kohan series for new rounds of viewing.

What follows are the titles and their Netflix synopses in italics, accompanied by my own notes.

The Road, 2009:  Set in a post-apocalyptic future, this end-of-days tale follows two survivors, a father and son, who navigate an ash-covered wasteland in search of a better life -- with only a sliver of hope that salvation awaits them at the end of their journey. This is the oddest of the lot. No explanation is given for the desolate landscape that the two main characters wander through in search of food and shelter. It was shot mostly through a filtering gray lens to emphasize the dreariness, with occasional flashback color footage of the lives of the characters before the apocalypse. The characters are always complaining about the cold, and the sky is an unrelieved gray, so it must be because of "global cooling." There are no live trees, no birds or animals. I'm guessing that Detroit was where much of the urban devastation was filmed. The story is a struggle leading up to ultimate defeat with no attempts at profundity. Episodes of survival are unconnected. Emergency ethics moral: Live like a cave man, or a homeless person with a shopping cart.  Mutter or whisper inaudibly platitudes about love and hope.

Apollo 18, 2011: If you buy in to official statements, Apollo 17 was NASA's last manned mission to the moon. But what if found footage of a secret Apollo mission that had taken place the following year could prove otherwise -- and explain why we haven't gone back? A kind of conspiracy theory story about an Apollo mission that went to investigate a Soviet moon landing. The astronauts are attacked by roach-sized insects that live as rocks in a crater. They can turn over moon buggies and chew up flags and skitter into your space helmet. Jerkily shot as though through personal video cameras, à la Cloverfield (2008), its CGI is passable but the story is banal. Emergency ethics: Lose your mind when the irrational suddenly appears.

Under the Dome, 2013: An invisible and mysterious force field descends upon a small fictional town in the United States, trapping residents inside, cut off from the rest of civilization. The trapped townsfolk must discover the secrets and purpose of the "dome" and its origins, while coming to learn more than they ever knew about each other. The synopsis says it all. The characters are so "ordinary" and their dialogue so banal that one really doesn't want to know more about them. By the end of the miniseries, the impregnable transparent "dome" remains inexplicable. Is it an alien experiment? A secret government program? An act of God? Mother Nature punishing man? The series was renewed for a second season in 2014, with metaphysics-gone-mad horror writer Stephen King to script the premiere episode.

The Walking Dead, 2010-2013: In the wake of a zombie apocalypse that desolates the world as we know it, a group of survivors led by police officer Rick Grimes holds on to the hope of humanity by banding together to wage a never-ending fight for their own survival. This series, renewed by AMC, actually features some mature albeit erratic adult introspection and value judgments, though the metaphysically impossible conflict, with zombies, is unfortunately the venue. Filmed mostly in Georgia, it isn't a cheap production. It's the only series in this genre that incorporates some actual non-zombie human conflict and resolution.

Category 8, 2013: When a government experiment to harness the sun's power goes horribly awry and sends a massive fireball hurtling toward Earth, it's up to a renegade scientist to save the planet by reversing the cataclysm -- against seemingly impossible odds. Straight off, the bad guys are identifiable, such as the Secretary of Defense and a private firm contracted by the DOD to develop an energy concentrator that shoots the sun and can somehow collect the energy of the resulting solar flare to blast enemy satellites. The "renegade" scientist is a snarky, anti-war, anti-establishment aging hippy creature working out of a barn powered by solar panels, and who has boring and distracting personal issues with his daughter's fiancé, a cadet cop. Satellites fall from the sky by the hundreds, even the space station, the earth's core stops spinning, but, somehow, cell phones work perfectly. The snarling, hippy-dippy scientist saves the day, twice, with his outside-of-the-box physics. Emergency ethics? At series end, the "renegade" scientist almost seems to regret having saved mankind.

Survivors, 2008-2010: When a deadly strain of flu decimates the world's population, a scrappy group of survivors find themselves struggling to exist in a world devoid of electricity, running water and government services. Distributed by the BBC, this British series is slow to reveal its anti-business agenda. In one episode, an Oxford classics professor becomes a slave-owner running a coal mine, and it's revealed at the end that the virus was manufactured by a pharmaceutical company and it got loose. The series develops several subplots to which it devotes considerable footage – such as the insidious designs of a government survival colony, and a gang of boy-scroungers lorded over by a Fagin-like murderer – and then forgets them by series end. Emergency ethics? Gotta find my son, who may have survived the plague. Everyone else subordinates his values to the plus-size heroine's.

100ᵒ Below Zero, 2013: When a series of volcanic eruptions rips through Europe, the subsequent ash cloud blocks out the sun. As the continent plunges into a new ice age, an American couple must find their college-aged kids and get them out of Paris before it freezes over. This is the cheesiest of the lot, an American-Canadian production, with characterizations, dialogue, and special effects so flat and bogus one can't help but think that the staff in the cutting room laughed their heads off as they put it together tongue-in-cheek, or perhaps even blindfolded. Emergency ethics? Gotta find my kids in Paris. Never mind the Styrofoam bricks and concrete that bounce on the streets of Paris during an earthquake, which is simulated by someone shaking the camera, and the character claiming it's really cold, with no visible breath in the supposedly frigid air.
The Core, 2003: The Earth's inner core has stopped spinning, and scientist Josh Keyes must discover why -- before the world literally falls apart -- by burrowing into the planet's center in a vessel piloted by Maj. Beck Childs and Col. Robert Iverson. Why did it stop spinning? No answer, but man must have had something to do with it. A plucky band of stereotyped characters plan to detonate a nuclear bomb to nudge the core into moving again. The vessel they ride looks suspiciously like a tricked-up cigar tube. Believe it or not, at the end, whales save the day when they "sing" to the cigar tube trapped at the bottom of the Marianna Trench because they think it's another whale. Emergency ethics? Gotta save the planet.

Invasion: Earth, 1998: Earth becomes a battleground in a full-scale intergalactic war when the Royal Air Force erroneously shoots down an unidentified flying object. With the planet's future at stake, can the world work together to protect itself? This older series had an interesting opening, the London Blitz, shot in period black and white, when an alien spacecraft's escape pod crashes into the rubble of a bombed section of the city during an air raid. Why did it crash? Did the Luftwaffe shoot it down? Did it get snagged by one of the dirigibles? No answer. Fast forward to the present when a British fighter jet shoots down a similar spacecraft. From there, the plot becomes so complicated, twisted, and implausible (even for space aliens) all one can do is shake one's head. Most of it is set in Scotland. I got the distinct impression that the series was made exclusively to provide employment for the cast. Emergency ethics? Gotta save the human race from those giant insects.

Revolution, 2012: Three companions go on a quest to uncover the truth about a mysterious blackout that caused all electricity to stop working 15 years earlier. Again, the villains are the government and contractors co-opted by nefarious bureaucrats who want to use a technology that uses nanobots to control electricity and as a cure for diseases. Or something. The experiment went wrong. The nanobots ate the electricity. Lights out. Anarchy and chaos ensue. In this one, the U.S. has collapsed into several independent republics, most of them ruled over by brutal tyrants. I think I identified some of the cast from the Lost super-series. Emergency ethics? Pragmatism.  

Vanishing on 7th Street, 2011: When a power outage plunges Detroit into total darkness, a disparate group of individuals find themselves alone. Soon the daylight begins to disappear and as the survivors gather in an abandoned tavern, they realize the darkness is out to get them. This is probably the most hilarious and unintentionally allegorical synopsis of the bunch I've selected here, because it couldn't have been set in a better place than in bankrupt and shrinking Detroit. I did not watch this one. The synopsis warned me off.

These films seek to cash in on the box office appeal of Hollywood's multi-million dollar, multi-star disaster productions (recently, e.g., Elysium and I Am Legend, the first about how "we" ruined the earth and started class warfare, the second about the consequences of fooling with Mother Nature), but with less money, working with hackneyed scripts, clunky special effects, and employing largely unknown and therefore cheaper casts.

Until I subscribed to Netflix, I had only a vague inkling of just how much contemporary rubbish Hollywood or "off-Hollywood" had ever produced. Technically, in another era, the turkeys discussed here would have been dubbed "B" films. While not as irredeemably awful as, say, Edward Wood's Plan 9 From Outer Space, with few exceptions (those with the bigger budgets) the selections are noticeably creaky and almost as ill-conceived and slap-dash as was Wood's opus.

There are numerous older clunkers available on Netflix, as well, spanning all past decades. Some of them are well done, such as Henry Hathaway's The Dark Corner, which, aside from it being a "dark" detective story, is interesting especially because it reveals that Lucille Ball was an excellent dramatic actress, and not the addle-headed comedienne most people remember her as.

These films and series are what one Washington Post critic would call "disposable popcorn spectacles." I would say that about most first-run films that have come out over the past twenty years. But, more and more, "B" films or turkeys, in attempts to emulate the Hollywood "blockbusters," seem to be little more than excuses for CGI wonks to show off their expertise (or lack of it) in creating illusions of collapsing skyscrapers, repellent zombies, disgusting alien insects, firestorms, earthquakes, tidal waves, and other usually man-caused natural phenomena, with the story content secondary and usually defaulting to a collectivist or self-sacrificing template.

Well, enough of this. Someone – or something – is knocking on my front door. Probably an Obamacare zombie or "navigator" wanting to know why I haven't visited the local "insurance exchange." I knew I should've practiced my decapitation skills.

Or maybe it's just a Secret Service guy in a turkey costume on a mission to assassinate me.


Tim C said...

Wow, your capacity for pain in doing this research is pretty noteworthy. While MST3k seldom made too many value-judgements in their jokes (though occasionally doing so - "Another successful sexual intervention by the Roman Catholic church" comes to mind - in _Girls Town_ IIRC), I suggest you may find their work to be a useful treatment after this project.

Edward Cline said...

Tim C: It was far less painful than watching Obama saying he has everything under control, and since you didn't build that National Park, you can't go there. Ed

Edward Cline said...

By way of contrast to the turkeys, I just finished watching on Netflix a restored 1914 French movie, "Fantômas: The False Magistrate," a 1.5 hour-long crime thriller. The English subtitles didn't distract from the overall quality of the production. It's about a French judge who exchanges places with a notorious thief and murderer in jail in Belgium so the man can escape to France, where he'll be arrested for his crimes there. The plot, based on a serial novel, was ingenious. Of course, the criminal, Fantômas, doesn't know he's been tricked and that his gang in France really didn't arrange his freedom from the Belgian prison. The restored film is missing some sequences, but everything added up at the end. Even though it was in black and white, the cinematography was on a par with the best one can see today.

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