My thanks to Priya, for the invitation to make another visit to her blog.
This time I’d like to discuss three films that I saw (relatively) recently.
The first one I saw by accident rather than design, and was Skull Island. The film we planned to see was sold out (Logan). That’s not a ringing endorsement for any film — go see it if the main screen sells out.
Skull Island is the latest incarnation of the King Kong story. Kong’s first screen outing was in 1933. He has come around almost generationally, and is famous enough to warrant his own wiki entry. This observes that his cinematic visits range from “a rampaging monster to a tragic antihero.”
In this version, Kong falls somewhere in between. There’s an environmental angle to the story, and much pyrotechnic noise. I saw this film with my friend Nik. He observed that the story moved fast and didn’t waste a lot of time on build up. It jumped straight in, treating the audience as either mature enough, or familiar enough, not to have to lay many foundations. This is a film built on well-established Kong lore and an audience that knows what it’s about to get (even if that includes not getting into Logan). It’s pretty efficient in moving Kong from rampaging monster to hero and it sits firmly between the other two films that I can report on, The Magnificent Seven and Get Out. Skull Island is determinedly middle of the road, successful on its own terms, and trimmed of most narrative fat.
Get Out, directed by Jordan Peele, was described by The Guardian as a “comedy-horror hybrid.” That could put it as a relative of Skull Island. In another sense, it definitely is if we apply the critic James Baldwin’s observations of the original RKO Kong of 1933. That film, Baldwin observed, was an overt riff on black representation as hysterically animalistic and savage.
Get Out also arrives at a time when science fiction contains loud voices decrying diversity and criticising those writers whose stories include non-white characters. Those voices reject the benefit of such stories and argue that they are examples of “virtue signalling” and message fiction. Message fiction, its critics say, is where the message outweighs all other considerations, especially in telling the story and making the film (or novel) entertaining. As one commentator has said, “Let’s shove more message fiction down their throats! My cause comes before their enjoyment!”
The schism in science fiction is magnified into the far greater one in western society itself. We are in the age of extremes: Brexit, Corbyn, the near miss that was Le Pen in France. Long held certainties are in question. And, of course, looming over everything is the remarkable phrase, President Donald Trump.
And none of this is fiction. Not even the most outlandish science fiction. In this context, where fiction is outdone by fact, Get Out posits the story of a black man, Chris, driving from his comfortable middle-class New York home to Alabama. Chris has been invited to meet his girlfriend Rose’s family. Rose’s family live in a huge estate in Alabama. That premise could be lifted from Poitier’s Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner from 1967 — then projected through the lens of both horror and science fiction. I’ll avoid any spoilers, which will hamper how far I can discuss the film, but what makes Get Out work for me is a combination of its confident construction, its understanding of pace and its ability to be relevant (you know, having a message) to our modern concerns. This might be distilled down to having a story worth telling, telling it well and entertaining the audience at the same time.
Small details established early on become crucial by the end of the film. At the same time the film is not just a horror story, or a series of attempts to make the audience jump. This is because the film’s Director, Jordan Peele, asks us to emotionally invest in the characters’ lives.
A staple of horror is that things begin very normally — Chris’ life is urban, comfortable, even humdrum. Things then begin to steadily deviate from normal. In this case, as we journey further south and closer to Rose’s family. On the drive down the couple hit a deer — a jump scare and also a distressing and bloody encounter. A policeman arrives and immediately asks Chris for his ID. It’s Rose who challenges the white police officer, criticising his attitude to a black man. So we’ve encountered two events — the death of an animal and the threat of a police officer. Neither instance is fantastical, and yet they add to the accumulation of tension and discomfort.
On the estate, the awaiting family ranges from the enthusiastically liberal to the loutish and offensive. In between are those family members who find Chris awkward to be around. These reactions were the ones Chris anticipated at the outset. So far, the story is more social drama than horror. However, by this point we’ve already been given cues that will resonate later in the film (thus demonstrating the novice film maker Peele’s confident control of his material).
Almost everyone Chris meets is white, and the setting resonates with the memory of a former slave state in the antebellum South. The black characters are mostly servants and they remain distinctly uncommunicative, or weirdly out of sync in their behaviour. Indeed, it is the black characters, and their disjointed presence, that creates the gateway into the horror as the skin of normal white culture is increasingly peeled back. It’s this aspect of the narrative that is most important, as its details accrete like coral. It’s built out of the black servants’ disturbed presence and the reactions of the white characters to them. Soon the film steps entirely off the path of normality and reveals itself as a genre piece. The genteel veneer hides menace, the minor characters hide secrets and the smallest details imply warnings of the looming terror.
Most audiences have been satisfied with the jump scares and surprises, while more schooled genre viewers have taken the extra pleasure that the film provides with its understanding of horror and SF tropes. Peele presents more “otherworldly elements” — hypnotic suggestion, out of body experiences and experiments on human subjects that would fit within David Cronenberg’s body horror films. We even get grainy video footage of the 1980s that looks like the Dharma Project from Lost, or that moment in Quatermass where a major plot development is explained by silent film footage.
As I said earlier, I am constrained by not spoiling the film by talking about its details. But I can add that the film could not be more relevant in the current climate. This may explain Get Out’s numbers: it cost $4.5 million dollars and took $33.3 million on its opening weekend. It’s now surpassed the $165 million mark in the US alone. In financial terms, Get Out is a success, but as a film it also understands its genre and respects its antecedents — in a more sophisticated echo of Skull Island’s relationship with the original King Kong.
Just as Get Out has its antecedents, so does the third film. That is Antoine Fuqua’s remake of The Magnificent Seven (originally filmed in 1960). I watched the original film many times as a child and note, slightly to my surprise, that it’s well over 50 years old. The original is also too slow by today’s standards and while good, it’s not a film that transcends changes in taste to remain wholly accessible (in the way Casablanca, The Maltese Falcon and The Searchers do).
The remake did everything that the previously mentioned Sad Puppies would hate. The remake is still an adventure, and still a western, but it’s aware of cultural change, the concept of discrimination and that a film can be both a western and bring a message. The new Seven are a careful mix of minorities, including Chinese and Native Americans, and are led by a black man (Denzel Washington). The film ticks further boxes, effectively it’s The Magnificent Eight, with the female lead (Haley Bennett) fulfilling an active, gun-toting role that may leave the Puppies conflicted as she’s a woman who fails to stay in the kitchen, but at least she respects the Second Amendment.
The remake replicates the original in that three of the Seven survive. There’s deviation in exactly who, with the Steve McQueen/Chris Pratt role getting a heroic death this time around. Watching the remake, without knowing too much detail, I felt confident in identifying that the Native American was going to survive (a cultural apology for their historic slaughter). Similarly, it was unsurprising that the villains are carefully not Mexicans, they’re white men. And worse than white men, they’re capitalists — it’s the railroad men that menace the town now.
My objections to the film don’t really relate to any of the above. The remake is in some way treading the same ground as the other films — conscious of history and current contexts and also addressing the original film’s lack of strong parts for women. More fundamentally, however, the film fails in the areas that Get Out and even Skull Island excelled at. Seven‘s mechanical execution is dull and lacks any flair.
Fuqua is a workmanlike director but Training Day and the Equaliser are both better thrillers. More surprising for me was that the film was co-written by Nic Pizzolatto. Those unfamiliar with his writing will be pleasantly surprised by series one of HBO’s True Detective. But, similarly to The Magnificent Seven, they will find series two less pleasant (or rewarding). Pizzolatto appears to be talented by uneven.
With the Seven, as you know not all of them will survive, it’s the quality of their deaths that distinguish them. Here, Pizzolatto and Fuqua missed the boat. There are two prominent Indians, the good one and the bad one (which itself is reductive). In this version, the villainous Indian is dressed in the US Army’s uniform, denoting that he’s sold out other Indians in the past and as an ex-soldier, he’s part of the same military-industrial complex that brings the threat of the railroad. He menaces the town’s white women but it’s OK because they’re rescued by the good Indian. The two Indians fight and the good one kills the bad one. That recounting summarises my emotional investment in that moment. That fight, if thought out more carefully, could have been more dramatic, more complex and more satisfying. And therein is the problem with the film as an entertainment. In terms of understanding the Native American relationship with Americans (either then or now) would require another film entirely.
That leaves Get Out firmly top of the heap from the three films considered here. But it would be on top of just about any heap this year.
Dev Agarwal is a science fiction and fantasy writer. His fiction has appeared in a variety of magazines and anthologies in Britain and overseas. Dev is an associate editor for Ireland’s Albedo One and has recently begun editing Focus, the magazine on writing science fiction, for the British Science Fiction Association.