Friday, October 13

Robots run amok -- and then things get dicey

Source: Miami Herald

Friday the 13th throws everything off-kilter, including television. Tonight's TV is a bizarre grab bag of the factory seconds of American culture: robots, slasher flicks and game shows. And the most off-kilter thing: It's all pretty enjoyable.

Start with Battlestar Galactica, and start early by catching the repeat of last week's special two-hour episode at 1 p.m. (Or set your TiVo for the 3 a.m. Saturday showing.) Then keep watching at 9 p.m. as the third season of this intellectually challenging and highly entertaining series rolls out.

When this reimagined version of the hokey 1970s kiddie show debuted in 2003, Galactica was mostly a post-9/11 rumination on technology run amok: Computerized robots rebelled against their human masters and sent them fleeing across the universe in search of refuge. When they finally settled in an interstellar backwater, on a harsh but survivable planet called New Caprica, the robots (or Cylons, as they're called) promptly found and subjugated them.

As the new season begins, human resistance to the Cylon occupation has developed. Its main weapon: suicide bombers. ''Desperate people take desperate measures,'' explains one resistance leader. The Cylons, who insist they're only trying to help, nonetheless retaliate ''by arresting innocent people in the dead of night, detaining them indefinitely without charge, torturing them for information,'' as one human leader protests from her jail cell. Humans who join an alien-backed police force are so bitterly hated that they must do their work in ski-mask disguise.

New Caprica, in short, seems not to be located in a galaxy far, far away, but someplace in the vicinity of Baghdad. If you can buy Sunni death squads as freedom fighters and George W. Bush as a robot (could the way he pronounces ''nuclear'' just be a programming bug?) Galactica is that metaphoric paradise you've been dreaming of, probably complete with 71 Cylon virgins.

Fortunately, executive producer Ronald D. Moore is too fine a dramatist to turn his show into a simple-minded exercise in Bush-bashing. Easy enough to ignore the politics when there's so much else going on between the humans and robots, ranging from miscegenation to theological tiffs. (Unlike the polytheist humans, the robots believe in one God, but don't seem to grasp the implications: By enslaving and killing humans, they are persecuting their creators.) Not to mention the sheer horrific sci-fi delight of the human attempts to fight an enemy that's essentially an easily reparable bucket of bolts. ''That's five times you've killed me,'' a Cylon gently reproves his human concubine, who's just stabbed him in the neck.

Daffy Hollywood politics also briefly disfigure Going to Pieces: The Rise and Fall of the Slasher Film, the otherwise brilliant documentary airing on the Starz movie channel tonight. Referring to a period at the end of the 1980s when the splatter genre seemed to be on the wane, the narrator solemnly intones: "The Reagan era of greed had come to an end, bleeding the slasher genre dry.''

The precise influence of Reaganomics on movies in which maniacs hacked up baby-sitters with chainsaws remains abundantly unclear. And in any case, the movies that jump-started the slasher genre -- Halloween and Friday the 13th -- were made while Jimmy Carter was president. (Hmmm. Could he have been a Republican Cylon in disguise?)

But when Going to Pieces stays out of politics -- which, happily, is practically always -- it's more fun than a bucket of gouged-out eyeballs, a dark (OK, sick) masterpiece in which seemingly normal people like director John Carpenter cackle madly that there's "nothing I like more than going into a movie and seeing somebody get their head ripped off.''

Covering the genre from its relatively bloodless progenitor Psycho to such recent slaughterhouse flicks as Saw and Hostel, from landmark films like A Nightmare on Elm Street to squalid obscurities like Blood Wedding, Going to Pieces leaves no stone or severed limb unturned.

It catalogs the effects on human flesh of chainsaws, hacksaws, axes, meathooks, machetes, clawhammers and reindeer antlers. It explains stuff you've always wanted to know, like what to put in the goop necessary to simulate an exploding brain. (Apple cores and shrimp dip. You're welcome.)

And it documents how the slasher genre can unhinge even the most upright Hollywood citizen. The producers of Happy Birthday to Me recall how thrilled they were to get a ''real'' director -- J. Lee Thompson, who did The Guns of Navarone -- from outside the genre for their flick, then practically had to sedate him. ''He kept screaming for blood, more blood,'' recalls one. "We had to tone him down, because he was running around throwing blood all over the place and it was obscuring the killings.''

If that seems at once amusing and disquieting, so does 1 vs 100, NBC's new game show, which one participant aptly describes as ''like Jeopardy! on speed.'' It pits a single contestant against a mob (which can include anybody from teams of surfers and waitresses to other game-show champs) in a battle to see who can answer more trivia questions with a million bucks the ultimate prize. 1 vs 100 is undeniably fun, but what does it say that three times as many members of the mob knew which chair Paula Abdul sits in on American Idol as could pick the first name of the secretary general of the United Nations from the choices Juan, Henry and Kofi? Or that 8 percent of the mob actually believed there's a Hawaiian appetizer called the ca-ca combo?

Newshound: SciFi

No comments: