OKAY, GIVEN that . . .
No one's releasing any movies this weekend.
You can't escape the M-thing at this particularly epochal moment in history.
Everyone swears they're staying in this New Year's . . .
I thought I'd recommend 10 videotapes to rock in the new year and that other big event that really doesn't begin until 2001, but try telling that to retailers.
So, how about 10 visions of the future, as shown in the movies? Or more accurately, the 10 most entertaining and rentable depictions of the future, in my humble opinion?
And of course some of those visions would not have been possible without the likes of authors Anthony Burgess, for "A Clockwork Orange"; Harlan Ellison, whose works inspired the script for "The Terminator"; Philip K. Dick, whose "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?" was the basis for "Blade Runner"; Arthur C. Clarke, who wrote "2001: A Space Odyssey" with Kubrick; and Pierre Boulle, whose novel started the "Planet of the Apes" phenomenon, including the movie, four sequels and two TV series.
The list, then, in alphabetical order:
ALIEN (1979, 117 minutes) -- On a routine mission (hey, it's always a routine mission, isn't it?) the crew of a commercial spacecraft discovers a predatory, rapidly multiplying species -- which has the unnerving capacity to destroy any life forms by analyzing their genetic weaknesses -- has infiltrated their vessel. Director Ridley Scott creates an intriguing society-in-miniature: the crew members, with their macho talk and dashboard mementos around their work pods, are the futuristic equivalent of truck drivers. But female astronaut Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) is a powerful personality, whose gender is refreshingly irrelevant to her strength of purpose. Her emotionless cool equals that of any male action hero. There's a sense of classical myth here, too: The spaceship is the Minotaur's lair; and the alien -- another female protagonist, incidentally -- has the destructive blood of the hydra.
BLADE RUNNER (1982, 114 minutes) -- Set in the year 2020, director Ridley Scott's vision of Los Angeles is a neo-Tokyo concrete jungle, with towering monolothic towers, Asian beauties on electronic overhead billboards, packs of vendors peddling strange quasi-sushi delicacies and a world full of sky taxis and multileveled walkways. In this world, humankind is served by "replicants," robot slaves whose programming has become so sophisticated, it's almost impossible to tell them apart from humans.
Harrison Ford plays Decker, a retired cop who's called back to track down a renegade group of replicants (led by Rutger Hauer in what remains his finest screen role) who have decided their programmed mortality of four years is no longer acceptable.
The movie is a masterpiece of set design. But it's much more than that: It's an affecting vision of what it means to be human. Incidentally, there are dueling versions of this movie: the original, which featured Decker's voice-over narration, and the director's cut, released in the 1990s, which doesn't. The endings are also slightly different, but both are great in their own way.
BRAZIL (1985, 131 minutes) -- For this Orwellian vision of the future, director Terry Gilliam (who wrote the script with playwrights Charles McKeown and Tom Stoppard) delved into the past. The movie -- another brilliant collection of outlandish sets -- is a Big Brother fantasy that seems to be set in a future right out of the late 1950s; bureaucracy has become a serpentine creeping evil. Jonathan Pryce plays a file clerk, whose small-scale fight to preserve his individuality is assumed to be subversive by the police state in which he lives. This is the future as perhaps devised by George Orwell and Salvador Dali, with a little of Monty Python's Flying Circus (the immortal comedy troupe for which Gilliam did his early animation) on the side. Look for Robert De Niro's hilarious cameo in which he almost literally comes out of the woodwork, and the gruesome spectacle of an aging woman's attempts to look young by stretching her facial skin taut against her skull with the aid of what appear to be clothespins.
A CLOCKWORK ORANGE (1971, 137 minutes) -- In director Stanley Kubrick's elegantly realized but dark fantasy, set sometime in the Not Too Distant, England has become a two-tiered society of upper-class hedonists and terrorizing thugs who seek gratification through murder, mayhem and rape. When one such thug called Alex (Malcolm McDowell) is convicted of murder, he becomes the guinea pig for an experimental procedure in which he is programmed to become violently ill at the mere thought of sex and violence. Kubrick choreographs the scenes of violence with almost balletic attention; we are seduced by it, even as we are disgusted. And again, this is a future as envisioned in the past. It was adapted from Anthony Burgess's brilliant Cold War-era novel, which also created a "slanguage" for the young punks called Nadsat -- clearly derived from Russian. Kubrick's rather unhuman qualities -- the director never did understand his own species -- inform this satire perfectly. And the movie's icy, ironic tone is made intentionally disconcerting by the use of Alex -- the drama's most evil character -- as the narrator.
PLANET OF THE APES (1968, 112 minutes) -- Franklin J. Schaffner directed this enduring drama about the really distant future, in which an astronaut called Taylor (Charlton Heston) is one of three astronauts who find themselves inadvertently transported 20 centuries into the future. They arrive at a planet much like Earth, in which upright chimpanzees, gorillas and orangutans rule society while human beings are considered as inferior, slave material. With the help of a furry companion, Taylor evades the hostile simian forces, only to discover an astounding truth about this planet. Although many aspects of this film may seem hokey -- including Roddy McDowall, Kim Hunter and others in monkey suits -- the script is an intelligent, witty satire. And its eerie punch line remains surprisingly effective, even after all this time. Rod Serling had a hand in the screenplay.
ROAD WARRIOR (1981, 97 minutes) -- In this Australian-made cult classic, set just after the big bomb, humankind has devolved into a plundering, feudalistic society of post-apocalyptic warriors who live in small fortress-defended communities. Since transportation is vital in this desertscape, gasoline has replaced money as the world's most precious commodity. The story: When an army of thieves and cutthroats surrounds one such community to steal their gas, an outsider called Max (a very young Mel Gibson) agrees to help the besieged ones by transporting their supply to a safe place. The movie is essentially a prolonged chase scene, as Max fends off marauders who attack him from the ground and the air. George Miller's action flick never lets up for a moment.
STAR TREK: GENERATIONS (1994, 117 minutes) -- This "Star Trek" movie -- the seventh in the big screen series -- may be the ultimate Star Trek adventure. While it doesn't have Spock (Leonard Nimoy reportedly got his ears out of joint over his paltry role), it has everything else: Captains James T. Kirk (William Shatner) and Jean-Luc Picard (Patrick Stewart), a generation apart, meet. Their mission: to stop Dr. Soran (Malcolm McDowell) from holocaust-minded mayhem. The scenario, written by Ronald D. Moore and Brannon Braga, is a rich and absorbing saga that involves post-Gene Roddenberry musings on mortality, clashes with Soran (picture McDowell as Sting) and renegade Klingons, the usual techno troubleshooting (damn those fluctuations in the warp plasma relays!) and Picard's journey into a time-fluid entity known as the Nexus. The special effects by Industrial Light & Magic, including a spectacular intergalactic crash landing, are fantastic. But best of all is the comedy, which transports you through "Generations" at enjoyable warp speed.
"I take it the odds are against us and the situation's grim?" asks Kirk, tongue firmly place in cheek.
THE TERMINATOR (1984, 108 minutes) -- This was the first great movie in director James Cameron's amazing career. A cyborg (Arnold Schwarzenegger) is sent from the future to rub out present-day (well, '80s present-day) waitress Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton). She's the future mother, you see, of a human hero who'll save the Earth one day from the cyborgs. A brilliant premise from Gale Anne Hurd, and a superb movie by Cameron. It also begat a tremendous sequel, "Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991)" and a third "Terminator" movie to come, which will feature Schwarzenegger again, with Cameron at the helm.
What's fantastic in this movie -- and its sequel -- is not special effects, it's the story. There's a retrofitted, biblical quality to this mother of a future savior who bulks up in the sequel and kicks butt. Both movies remain the best things Schwarzenegger has done. And they marks the beginning of his career of tough, quotable lines. "I'll be back," he says matter of factly to a desk clerk who has not provided the information he wants. The Terminator gets into his monster vehicle and drives right into the building. Yeah, he's back.
12 MONKEYS (1995, 129 minutes) -- Once again, director Terry Gilliam steps up to see the future. And once again, the visual experience is brilliant. After a lethal virus wipes out most of the human race in 1996, about 1 percent of the population lives underground. It is now the year 2035.
Bruce Willis plays James Cole, a convict who reluctantly volunteers to be sent back to 1996 to isolate the cause of the virus -- thought to have been spread by the "Army of the Twelve Monkeys." But he's accidentally transported to 1990, where he's arrested and locked up in an asylum. Brad Pitt plays his asylum mate (this is Pitt's greatest performance, by the way), who's also the apparently lunatic son of a famous scientist and virus expert. The story, which takes us all over the place, including the battlefields of World War I, is deeply intriguing. And Gilliam gives us unforgettable scenes to savor, such as the spectacle of bears and lions roaming a deserted, snowbound Philadelphia.
2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY (1968, 139 minutes) -- This seminal movie, which caused thousands of drug culture types to lie down, speechless and awed, still holds up, man. The story, written by director Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke, doesn't develop so much as emerge. Deep in the voyage of the spaceship Discovery, an onboard computer called HAL 9000 starts to develop some rebellious ways. To the horror of one astronaut (Keir Dullea), it becomes clear that HAL (voice of Douglas Rain) has other things on his mind than the spaceship's mission. Suddenly the movie's apparently indifferent tone becomes a chilling backdrop for HAL's emerging menace. And the great emptiness of space outside the ship becomes increasingly vast.
The movie seems to span every possible permutation of humankind with one of the great beginnings in movie history -- the stunningly photographed "Dawn of Man" sequence -- and a finale that brings everything full circle. And, of course, this is the movie that brought majesty to space with Kubrick's juxtaposition of the Discovery in space with the "Waltz of the Blue Danube" on the soundtrack.