X-Men, Keanu and Other Mutants

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In the U.S., films in the horror and science fiction genres are the movie rhinestones that alchemize into box office gold, thanks to a loyal contingent of dateless 14-year-old boys on a Friday night. At Cannes they are usually orphan children; here, the preferred genre is the minimalist melodrama.

But even high-art programmers know that films are also movies. So this year Cannes had a quartet of horror-SF pictures. Two, X-Men The Last Stand and the Taiwanese thriller Silk, showed out of competition in the main selection. Richard Linklater's A Scanner Darkly played in the official sidebar Un Certain Regard. The fourth film, Bong Joon-ho's The Host was in the independent Directors' Fortnight program.

The Fortnight had a winner with The Host, which imagines a sea monster, Nessie mixed with Godzilla, rising from the Han River to terrorize the good people of Seoul. Variety's Todd McCarthy called it the surprise hit of the Festival, saying it "provoked widespread comparison to Jaws and Alien in its scare quotient and filmmaking expertise." So many buyers were turned away from packed early screenings that more had to be scheduled.

Expect this to show up in the Toronto Film Festival's Midnight Madness genre program. But can The Host break the longstanding tradition of horror-fan xenophobia and be a stateside hit in its Korean-language version? Or will it be re-tinkered into a dubbed version with American actors in extra scenes, as Raymond Burr was shoehorned into the original 1954 Godzilla? Only time, and exhibitors' avarice, will tell.

Silk, directed by Su Chao-bin, tries a sciencey twist on the ghostly-kid genre spawned in Japan by The Ring and imitated by movie industries from Hong Kong's to Hollywood's. Beginning with that favorite Asian movie trope — sending some disposable Caucasian to his violent death — Silk focus on a Taipei research project that has managed, through some anti-gravity gizmo called the Menger Sponge, to capture the ghost of a nine-year old boy. Guess what? The death-child escapes.

The movie has enough plot for three good movies, or at least three better ones than this. There are two tragic mother-son pairs, two suicides, a grotty autopsy, a car crash and much spectral infiltration of supporting characters. (They stick their ghostly heart through your rib cage, then squeeze). I found the movie wearying and stayed only because Mary C., who had to leave after the first hour, wanted to know how it came out. The short answer: boy gets girl, ghosts run wild. And that wasn't worth waiting for. But if you've always wanted to see a scene in which a drunk accidentally pees through a ghost, Silk will satisfy your craving.

D for Dick

A Scanner Darkly was the second of two films at Cannes this year by writer-director Linklater, and I'll start by saying it's better than the other Linklater item, Fast Food Nation, which so far has tied Richard Kelly's Southland Tales as the Festival's biggest flop. This one is an adaptation of a 1977 novel by that crucial and deeply disturbing SF visionary, Philip K. Dick. It's Dick's memoir of his addiction to painkillers and other drugs, as refracted through the sci-fi-delic prose style of his later years.

If A Scanner Darkly can be synopsized... you know, I'm not going to try. The whole enterprise is too dizzyingly oneiric. I'll just say that everyone is after a drug called Substance D, for Death (and for Dick). Also that the two leading characters are a drug-addled renegade, Robert Arctor, and his pursuer, an undercover cop named Fred — and that both are the same person. See? It's complicated.

A Scanner Darkly is a live-action animated film. That is, Linklater first shot scenes with his star cast of actors — including Keanu Reeves (as Arctor/Fred), Robert Downey Jr., Woody Harrelson and Winona Ryder — and then had artists trace over the images, adding such fantasy elements as bugs crawling over one druggie and a protean "scramble suit," worn by Fred to disguise his identity (whatever that is). At times a face is given a kind of Jell-O elasticity. Linklater first used this process, called rotoscoping, five years ago in Waking Life. It's appropriate to the subject, and is used artfully, though with a dilution in dramatic coherence. The technique is beguiling, the narrative impact weak.

Linklater, though, can be credited with two achievements. For one thing, he has made the first close adaptation of a Dick novel (Blade Runner had many epiphanies, but it bore only a superficial resemblance to the author's Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep). For another, he has underlined the similarities of two decades marked by governmental snooping into its citizens' business and brains: the 70s, when the Nixon White House amassed a long Enemies List and used the FBI and its own resources to get dirt on suspected troublemakers, and our own, when anyone's telephone chats and email messages are in danger of winding up in a printout on the desk of a National Security Agency cybersleuth. All praise to Linklater for making this connection. Or maybe political history did it for him.

Last night's screening started 10 minutes late, because, we were told, the stars and director were delayed in traffic. When he walked onto the Debussy stage, flanked by Reeves and Downey, Linklater wanted the audience to know that Scanner was, among other things, a comedy. Yet the movie never matched the onstage raillery of Downey, who grabbed the mike and announced, "Would the person with the Peugeot please move your goddam car? You're blocking traffic on the Croisette."

X for Xtraneous

Cannes' marquee genre item was X-Men The Last Stand, which after its Cannes world premiere opens today on 3,688 North American screens. Gitesh Pandya of Box Office Guru predicts this third installment of the X-Men franchise will rake in $108 million over the four-day Memorial weekend.

If so, it will be out of moviegoers' habit (X-Men and X2: X-Men United earned a cumulative $700 million at the worldwide box office) rather than any special fizz or glitter in the new episode.

The premise has promise: science has created a technology to "correct" the mutant-X gene. (If it were an X chromosome, of course, there'd be only X-women.) In yet another anti-Bush metaphor, the government wants to round up and purify, neuter and basically get rid of our eccentric super-heroes, thus creating a more stable, homogeneous society. Get it? For mutant, read Mexican.

The movie is at pains to prove it has no color prejudice. It give us one blue creature who's benign (Kelsey Grammer's hirsute Hank McCoy, head of the Ministry of Mutant Affairs) and one blue meanie (Rebecca Romijn's Mystique). But it has no secret technology to transform tired ideas into a vivid movie. Instead it ransacks the fantasy-film trunk for hand-me-down thrills, and counts on the sleek beauty of Romijn, Famke Janssen (quite fetching as Class 5 mutant Jean Gray) Halle Berry (the wonder weather woman Storm) to lure the boy market into theaters. For the rest of us, there's the spectacle of Patrick Stewart exploding into particles.

How many distinguished veterans of the Royal Shakesepeare Company does it take to make a bi-g-budget trashy movie? Well, two. Paging Ian McKellen as Magneto. In X2, this evil genius — a Hannibal Lector with preternatural powers — was briefly lured to the side of Good. Now he backslides into his natural malevolence. Donning a mask that looks like the one South Park's Butters wears when he turns into Professor Chaos, Magneto performs one impressive fit of mischief: he teleports one end of the Golden Gate Bridge from Sausalito to Alcatraz.

McKellen does another fine job in what has become his second career: infusing a bluff, wily menace into blockbusters in need of some perking up. (By Monday, given his appearances in X3 and The Da Vinci Code, this eminent Shakespearean is likely to become the movie actor seen by the most paying customers in a single weekend.)

As comic book and movie franchise, X-Men has built a canny metaphor on the feeling of virtually all teenagers that they are outcasts, weirdos, mutants. Raging hormones will do that, and the X-Men, though no longer kids, remain locked in their adolescent attitudes. The producers of X-Men The Last Stand, and the countless fantasy films Hollywood will generate this summer and in years to come, are trusting that their prime audience stays adolescent and faithful forever.

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