On the last episode of The B-Movies Podcast, which was named after erstwhile child actress and neopunk chanteuse of The Pretty Reckless, Taylor Momsen, William “Bibbs” Bibbiani and I came to blows over Steven Soderbergh's supposed final feature film Side Effects. While we both enjoyed the film, and both gave it a recommendation, I was, personally, a little put off by the film's second-half devolution from a sophisticated political drama about America's casual addiction to prescription drugs and the insidious presence of Big Pharma in our lives, into a rote John Grisham-like thriller about twists, double-crosses, conspiracies, and a secret lesbian affair that you couldn't possibly predict. William felt that the political messages escaped intact. I feel that they were buried under a lightweight mound of nougat.
Either way, there was indeed a political viewpoint to at least part of Side Effects, whose presence only enriched the film as a whole. Most thrillers, you may find, however twisty and riddled with crime they may be, usually boil down to a basic massage about doing right in the world, and struggling against those who would do malfeasance. It's only when a film taps directly into a recent issue that it can transcend, like Side Effects, into something timely and topical. If a film is skilled enough, it can sneak a message into its thriller tropes without an audience noting, or at least noticing right away. Sometimes, the whole point of the “thriller” part is to barely mask a very overt political agenda (think of both of the Atlas Shrugged movies in that regard). Either way, it is now our time to compile. William “Bibbs” Bibbiani and I will scour our cluttered brains, and present to you, here and now, a few thrillers that had a message. I choose to start with...
Contagion (dir. Steven Soderbergh, 2011)
Soderbergh actually made a film that was of a piece with his recent Contagion when he made Side Effects. Contagion is a plague thriller that, very methodically and scientifically, traces the practical results of a deadly plague released upon the human population. We see the panic in the streets, the race for a cure, and the unfortunate political wrangling involved in finding a political auto da fé. Contagion, however, begins with “day 2,” and we don't get to see “day 1” until the very end of the film. When we finally see “day 1,” we finally see what Contagion was getting at. The virus that threatened to wipe out a considerable percentage of humanity was not released by an evil megacorporation. It was not the result of swapping monkeys to pet stores as in Outbreak. It just so happens that the wrong bat met the wrong pig, causing their respective danders to mix, making the virus. Why did that bat meet that pig at that moment? The bat was scared from its home in the trees. What scared it? Why, a bulldozer that was clearcutting the forest where it lived. In a brief moment, we see that Contagion was a cautionary tale about deforestation. An unexpected and subtle message from a film that was about panic and illness and death for nearly 2 hours.
Pleasantville (dir. Gary Ross, 1998)
A ripe premise for a broad sitcom plot, Pleasantville's setup involved a teenage boy (Tobey Maguire) who, obsessed with his favorite '50s TV show, is granted a magical remote control by a mysterious TV repairman (Don Knotts). The remote control causes he and his slutty sister (Reese Witherspoon) to be magically zapped into the world of Pleasantville, a universe that is akin to where the Cleavers live, but without the edgy darkness. And while the screenwriter does go for a lot of the obvious slapstick jokes that such a premise would inevitably produce (they're in black-and-white, the characters don't know what swear words are, the universe stops at the end of the street), Pleasantville eventually morphs into something more interesting and dynamic. The presence of two '90s kids in this idealized '50s universe upsets the order of things, and soon, objects and people begin to appear in color. The color tends to coincide with some sort of soulful or intellectual awakening. The kids have sex for the first time, and are now in color. Some people begin reading more sophisticated books. Eventually the film becomes about how we must learn to balance our naïve, perhaps dated idealism that we take from old TV shows, and mix them with the exhilaration of new catharsis and the modern world. Life is about idealism, yes, but it's also about a living a full experience. It's a pretty good film, and sneakily complex for something with a magical remote control in it.
The Day After Tomorrow (dir. Roland Emmerich, 2004)
Yes, humans tend to treat the planet like crap, gobbling up its natural resources, belching exhaust into the air, and basically behaving like wasteful children. For decades, now, though, environmentalists have been testing our impact on the health of the planet, and finding some alarming things about how bad things have gotten. Many films have dealt with environmentalism in professional ways; the documentary lecture An Inconvenient Truth merely pointed out the science of our damage, although, by being hosted by onetime vice president Al Gore, it became a political film. A film that was decidedly less political was Roland Emmerich's clunky epic The Day After Tomorrow, which posited that our damage to the planet would become so bad so quickly, that the planet would react by essentially throwing itself into an impromptu ice age just to stop us. The film is harrowing, if not pretty stupid, featuring a scene wherein Jake Gyllenhaal runs down a library hallway from an speedily encroaching cold snap that would freeze him to death; like you see the walls freezing right up to him, and he running away on foot. The film was basically an excuse to show off awesome special effects, but it was, at its heart, an environmentalist film.
Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (dir. Nicholas Meyer, 1991)
The Klingon moon of Praxis has exploded in a mining accident, wounding the Klingon Empire beyond self-sustained repair. The Klingons, long-time enemies with the United Federation of Planets, now must negotiate a treaty with them in order to keep the Empire alive. This is a dicey proposition for many Federation members, Captain Kirk (William Shatner) included. Eventually, Kirk finds himself in the middle of a plot to assassinate Klingon leaders and sabotage the treaty. Star Trek has always been playfully notorious for taking well-known political issues of the day, and masking them in fun science fiction conceits. Only a small amount of scrutiny reveals that Star Trek VI is actually a Cold War metaphor, recasting the Russians as the Klingons, and the Americans as The Federation. 1991 saw a Russian coup, and the fall of the Iron Curtain. Even though Star Trek VI is easily one of the better Trek films, and contains a clever murder mystery, it is, in fact, an intelligent look at how the world would react to a new peaceful relationship between the U.S. and the former USSR.
Godzilla (dir. Ishiro Honda, 1954)
It's about a giant lizard that walks out of the ocean and stomps on various Japanese cities. You know it, even if you haven't seen it. The monster, Godzilla, is a cultural icon all over the world. There are, all told, 31 feature films with Godzilla in them, and their reputation is one of clunky and kind-of-silly monster mayhem for kids. Watching it again, though, you'll find the original Godzilla to be a surprisingly somber film, full of lamentation and death. That's because, even though it was a sci-fi monster movie writ large, Godzilla was also intended as a well-known and easily-decoded metaphor for the atomic bomb. America dropped a few nuclear bombs, if you'll recall, on Japan just a few years before Godzilla was made, and even by the mid-1950s, the effects of the bomb were still being felt, and not just culturally. Sea life was still being killed and mutated by residual radiation, and sailors were becoming sick years after the bombs were dropped. What if that radiation mutated a lizard-whale monster, made it grow to 300 feet, and it wandered up on shore to meet us? And what if the only way to defeat the monster was to employ a weapon even more dangerous than the bomb that ultimately created it? Godzilla, a fun goofy monster film, all about living down the death of a previous generation. It makes you think.
From the Desk of William Bibbiani:
You can learn a lot about a writer by asking them what their latest story is about. Fledgling scribes will probably start with the plot, and the very, very start of the plot at that, including information that isn’t revealed in the actual novel/screenplay/what-have-you because they think you need to know it to really “get” them. More experienced authors will usually either say, “It’s about ____ pages long” (I hate it when they do that) or they will condense the narrative to a well-phrased logline that gives you the gist of the storyline but leaves the rest to your (hopefully ignited) imagination. “It’s about a pair of doofus teenagers who travel back in time so they can ace their history paper.” That’s Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure, in case you didn’t get it.
But I think my favorite response is when they actually tell you what their story really means. This means they’re not just telling you the plot, they’re telling you why that plot matters. Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure is about two kids going back in time to ace their history paper, yes, but why bother telling that story at all? What is Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure really “about?” Well, it’s about making history come alive for young audiences who are more invested in contemporary pop culture than in the important real-life events that actually inspired that culture. It’s about emphasizing the importance of education to achieve your life’s ambitions, whatever they are, since Bill S. Preston, Esq. and Ted “Theodore” Logan won’t be able form a rock band and inspire their world with music if they can’t at least graduate from high school.
You can make a movie that isn’t really “about” anything, or at least that is about something so fundamentally trite that it might as well not be (“love conquers all” is only a powerful message in the same respect that “I miss my ex-girlfriend” is an original sentiment for a pop song). You can also make a film that is so overwhelmingly on message, even if you personally agree with that message, that you can’t enjoy the plot. A great message movie marries these two elements – the story and the actual point of that story – so effectively that audiences are entertained and enlightened simultaneously. They enjoy the “movie” part of the movie, and they only understand and accept the message of the movie as a result.
Message films are hard to make. Filmmakers need to make sure that audiences understand the point of the movie but aren’t bludgeoned over the head with it either. Some of the worst movies ever made get this balance wrong. I’m pretty sure that Witney’s example of The Day After Tomorrow qualifies. I know that the treacly Pay It Forward does. Don’t even get me started on Billy Jack. But I think Side Effects does a pretty good job of it. Steven Sodebergh attaches the first half of a message movie, the part with all the intriguing observations about the real world, with the second half of a pulse-pounding thriller. Side Effects introduces the troubling world of Big Pharma, and all the issues that it raises in our daily lives, but circumvents the sort of finale that would climax in big, heartfelt and all-but-inevitably cloying speeches in favor of intrigue, mystery and murder. I think the point comes across just fine. Doubly so, in fact, because I was so entertained that I didn’t resent the film for making it in the first place.
But here’s the part where I recommend some thrillers with a message that I think get the balance at least mostly right, are worth your time and, if you’re a writer, definitely worth your study. (I’m still trying to figure out how Pleasantville qualifies as a thriller, mind you, but whatever. One of my picks is a little "iffy" too.)
WarGames (dir. John Badham, 1983)
There’s a lot of talk these days about the desensitization of youth because of violent video games. Back in 1983, director John Badham made a film that used the burgeoning pastime/art form as a metaphor for teenaged self-involvement, and I think that’s a more relevant message by far. Matthew Broderick plays David, a young computer whiz who hacks into a computer company to play their games early, not realizing that his spirited round of “Global Thermonuclear War” is actually a program designed by the U.S. government to start one. With a nuclear holocaust of his own, naïve devising looming, it’s up to David to solve the mess he himself started by thinking war was, well, just a game. And the climactic “Tic-Tac-Toe” metaphor remains one of the strongest allegories for the Cold War that I’ve ever encountered, because it’s just as entertaining a notion as it is a meaningful one.
Reefer Madness: The Movie Musical (dir. Andy Fickman, 2005)
The original Reefer Madness is now, quite famously, one of the worst movies ever made, largely because it has a ridiculous message about the EVILS!!! of marijuana, and oversells it to the nth degree with little to no factual evidence to back it up. In 2005, Andy Fickman directed a musical version of the same film, aptly titled Reefer Madness: The Movie Musical, that used the exact same overzealous plot to illustrate the inherent absurdity of scare-tactic propaganda and, in effect, neutralize that very art form’s ability to manipulate its audiences. Kristen Bell and Christian Campbell star as an impossibly innocent young couple whose lives are utterly destroyed by smoking out a couple of times. Alan Cumming co-stars as a diabolical trickster using their so-called “true” story to terrify a PTA meeting into believing the world’s ills can be distilled into a single, solitary “other.” The message is blunt as hell, but the movie itself is so broad, colorful and funny that it totally balances out.
Iron Man (dir. Jon Favreau, 2008)
A billionaire weapons tycoon is permanently disabled by his own inventions, and starts using that very technology to right the wrongs perpetrated his corporation and his own selfish pursuit of personal glory at the expense of others? How could Iron Man “not” be a message movie? But it’s such a freaking good one. Robert Downey Jr.’s impossibly charming performance as Tony Stark makes our hero a lovable cad even before he gets his comeuppance, but he also has the dramatic chops necessary to reverse his moral stance without sacrificing the superficial qualities that made Stark so charming in the first place. The story, set largely in the Middle East and the boardrooms of corporate America, is impossibly relevant but so laser-focused on the external machinations of the superhero plot that they never seem overblown. And the action is just awesome, isn’t it? Iron Man is only getting better with age.
Machete (dirs. Ethan Maniquis & Robert Rodriguez, 2010)
There’s so much national conversation about dangers of illegal immigration, and so much of it coming from individuals sounding like paranoid fanatics (whether or not they have a real argument to make), that Machete seems completely justified in going way, way, WAY over the top to mount an opposing argument. Machete, a spin-off of the cult classic Grindhouse, stars Danny Trejo as the title character, an illegal immigrant hired to assassinate an anti-immigration politician played by Robert De Niro. It’s all a big conspiracy, however, to martyr De Niro and get his fascistic plans for the Mexican border passed into law. Naturally, they picked the wrong fall guy, and Danny Trejo takes the fight to the racist a-holes who underestimate the strength, skills and cultural pride of our neighbors to the south. The message of Machete seems to be that illegal immigrants aren’t just people too, but are also quite probably total badasses who should be welcomed into the United States with open arms. That’s a big, heavy theme to lay on audiences, but it’s conveyed with such broad, hilarious strokes that it goes down very, very easy.
Source Code (dir. Duncan Jones, 2011)
One of the better, and easily one of the most underrated, post-9/11 message movies is Duncan Jones’s Source Code, a sci-fi thriller about Capt. Colter Stevens (Jake Gyllenhaal), a helicopter pilot enlisted into a top secret military project that projects his mind into a victim of a terrorist bombing, just eight minutes before their untimely death. His mission is to figure out who is responsible for the attack, but the hero can’t stop himself from trying to prevent the disaster over and over again, even though he’s repeatedly told that changing the past is impossible. The story is pure sci-fi mumbo jumbo, but the philosophies are message movie through and through. Stevens, and the audience along with him, is pulled into the lives of the very victims that Colter’s handlers refuse to treat as anything but a series of ones and zeroes. Betwixt the genre trappings, Source Code is a serious reminder that the victims of a tragedy are more than a cautionary tale, or worse, a statistic. It’s one of the most human Hollywood productions in years, and all the more effective being an engaging thrill ride simultaneously.