Sunday, 21 November 2010

Genre Specific: 'Tin Messiah!'

With Christmas just around the corner, the gritty kernel within the pearl of cinematic certainty that is Genre Specific kneels before those Mechanical Messiahs that have redeemed the silver screen.

Genre Specific: 'Tin Messiah!'

More than twenty years ago, French importer Phillipe Bruneau was approached by a Japanese toy designer with a piece of kit to slay the Christmas market. "Formidable…", a non-plussed Bruneau must surely have sighed as he was handed the prototype - a simple crucifix with a very traditional looking figure of Jesus attached. But imagine the burgeoning Gallic surprise when, with only a few twists of the toy's extremities, the eager designer transformed the totemic gee-gaw from the crucified Messiah into a heavily armed monster robot. "He was sure it would sell", Bruneau spluttered later, "because it made Christ into a winner!"
Jesus: The Missing Years?
This story tells us two things: One is that nearly a hundred and fifty years after Japan had it's economic cherry plucked by the Treaty of Kanagawa, the Japanese still viewed the rest of the world with a mixture of surprise and an avuncular indulgence toward our childlike, barbaric cultures. The other is that while mankind designs its Gods to protect and reassure, it also has a masochistic streak a mile wide that yearns for a bit of iron behind the divine velvet glove.

At least, that’s what The Movies have told us ever since the moment Michael Rennie touched down in 1951's The Day The Earth Stood Still. An emissary dispatched from a distant world where advanced civilisations are browning it over humanity’s ever increasing appetite for destruction, Rennie has come to herald a new era, but despite his pompous philosophising and a perfectly wholesome fondness for children, he's no saviour. No, in true biblical style, it's the servant who is the master: like a monumental silver wang, Klaatu's robot Gort is the presence that drenches the movie in the juice of incipient destruction. This Messiah has come to save the galaxy from the human race and the human race from itself in the shape of a massive platinum knob-bot whose message of enduring peace comes with the threat of genocide on an unimaginable scale.
Keanu Reeves, hang your head!
Gort is the pre-Christian notion of the Hebrew messiah writ large, the Greek Christos that was common currency in the ancient world. He comes to usher in a new era armed with the sword (Death Ray), not the olive branch (Cup of Tea, or Local Equivalent) but life is also his to give. The scene in which Klaatu is restored to life by the hulking, emotionless Gort is a moving, beatific testament of faith in the redeeming power of technology. In the age of impending global H-bombery, it was a brave – read: unfashionably optimistic - line to take.

The Garden of Eden was the campground upon which special effects kingpin Donald Trumbull pitched his 1972 space weepy, Silent Running – the mung-bean handwringer that finds rogue ecologist Bruce Dern tending to the last of Earth's vegetation on a curiously de-populated star-ship after slaughtering the rest of the crew during a greenery disagreement (they wanted to ditch the 'herb garden', he wanted to kill them all with a shovel).
Are friends electric?
At the film's heart are Huey, Dewey and Louie, three boxy robots named after Donald Duck's revolting, grasping nephews and jury-rigged by Dern to tend the vast domed gardens now that the rest of the crew have been reduced to fertiliser. As they float through the cosmos and the little drones begin to achieve a state of child-like goodness, it becomes clear that things can't end well. We're left, at the last, with one of the most tragic and beautiful scenes of zero-g horticulture in film history, as a single drone tends the last trees in the universe with a battered old watering can like God alone in His garden drifting forever through nothingness.

In the go-go Eighties, such dewey-eyed feel-goodery was given the bum’s rush by the turbo-charged ‘gizmo schmaltz’ of Short Circuit. It could have been just another cash-in on the Computer Club market but director John Badham turned in a new take on Oz's Tin Man-In-Search-Of-A-Heart in which the presence of Ally Sheedy – the queen of geek Lolitas who made thousands of indie kid virgins mess their skudders in The Breakfast Club - was a bonus in a tale of a rogue US Army killing machine discovering it's soul (read: staunch Republican values). But what is the arrival in Sheedy's burger van of Number Five - the newly blissed-out robo-hippy in question - but a mecha-sexual take on the visit of the Archangel Gabriel to the Virgin Mary..?
Second choice Steve.
But of all the metal saviours to have graced the silver screen, it's curious that the most remarkable wasn't dreamed up by some Industrial Light and Magic toker or Scientology-toting megastar but by an English poet attempting to reconcile his children to the passing of their mother. Ted Hughes' epic poem ‘The Iron Giant’ was the source for the 1999 film that returned to the roots of animation with a stylised evocation of 1950's American small town paranoia. All the elements of the metallurgical messiah come together when a fatherless boy rescues a huge mecha-man crucified on power cables in the field out back, thereby showing him the beauty and weakness of humanity and allowing the Giant to overcome his own destructive tendencies in the process. 

Director Brad Bird stripped away the ambiguity of Hughes' original to get to the heart of the matter; "What if," he asked,"a gun didn't want to be a gun? What if a gun…had a soul?" It's impossible to ignore the religious overtones - the Giant becomes not human, but something more perfect. His transformation is from a machine designed for destruction to a being for whom self-sacrifice is an unregretted destiny; a colossal tractor-chewing Christ in the shape of a robot built for war.
Squatter's right
In the end, Bruneau's Japanese toy maker had got it the wrong way round. The great tales of man-made life are about the journey from inhumanity to god-like transcendence; the ability to fire armour-piercing shells from conveniently-placed nail-wounds barely comes into it. Our desire for redemption as revealed in the stories we tell shears the mechanical of it's destructive potential and leaves a being that demonstrates the heights to which man can aspire, transforming machine into Messiah.


Messianic tendencies…

I Robot (2004, Alex Proyas)
Android Sonny actually is The Chosen One but no-one takes him seriously because the production designers have made him look like a big jerky sperm. Asimov's ideas are in there somewhere but they're hard to see for all the flying glass.

Bicentennial Man (1999, Chris Columbus)
Twinkly-eyed emoticon Robin Williams is a robot developing a soul, but philosophy is incidental to this family interloper feel-good drama. The theme was tackled with more depth and maturity in ‘Metal Mickey’.

…and most definitely Not The Messiah...

Heartbeeps (1981, Allan Arkush)
Andy Kaufman and Bernadette Peters as robo-servants in love and on the lam? Should have been fried comedy gold but actually settled Kaufman's big-screen hash.

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