Right from the opening title sequence – a distorted black and white close up of an eye – it’s apparent that Seconds is going to be an extraordinary film. It is experimental, more in the vein of a classy European art film than a Hollywood movie.
Seconds (1966) is part horror, part psychological thriller, and part science fiction. Ahead of its time, and yet shot in black and white, edgy and yet starring mainstream Hollywood actor Rock Hudson – it’s an intriguing cocktail.
The story revolves around a successful, but jaded, banker who signs a Faustian contract with a secretive organisation called ‘the Company’. They blackmail him to ensure he buys their service: they provide new lives for their customers. His death is faked, and he undergoes plastic surgery. ‘Reborn’ as a younger, more attractive, Tony Wilson, and primed for his new life as a bohemian artist – what can go wrong?
Arthur Hamilton is sweating the small stuff, anxious about the mundane nature of his life: unable to enjoy himself, distanced from his devoted wife, estranged from his grown up daughter. Like Charles Strickland in Somerset Maugham’s, The Moon and the Sixpence, he is compelled to run away from his middle class existence and seek a more ‘authentic’ existence. Like the artist Paul Gauguin, who inspired The Moon and the Sixpence, Arthur Hamilton also reinvents himself as a painter.
Seconds goes beyond a Twilight Zone-esque sci-fi horror, or a James Bond thriller. It’s a critique of Western materialism, exploring social dissatisfaction with consumer culture – and the quest for personal fulfilment.
Stranger Things reads like a sequence of loving homages to 1980s films, and cultural references. It comes across as a knowing celebration of the 80s rather than an uninspired rip-off of the past. The audience is expected to get the references as visual gags, but the story does not depend on it. The narrative fuses monster horror with relationships and the coming of age theme. These are explored through the 12-year-old’s circle of friends who meet to play a Dungeons and Dragons-like game; the missing boys older brother (his relationship with a girl from college); and the wreckage of parental relationships, and dysfunctional adult relationships in general.
There are obvious parallels with a range of films like ET (1982) with many scenes directly referencing the film: the kids on their bikes evading authority figures, men in biohazard suits, and a mysterious girl (who is essentially the ‘extra-terrestrial’ character). The mother’s attempt to communicate with her missing son has many of the elements of Poltergeist (1982) – her house possessed by a paranormal world, and the monster coming through the walls, most obviously when its face presses against the wall (like it’s pressing against an elastic membrane). Her obsession about connecting to something otherworldly has echoes of Close Encounters (1977). The whole coming of age theme, and their circle of friends (the banter, in-jokes, and name calling) is reminiscent of Stand by Me (1986). There’s even a scene when the kids walk along train tracks, exactly like the film.
The pre-teenagers are treated as adults, with real emotional bonding and friendships. Although the season one story has different offshoots, the pre-teenager’s friendship circle remains the emotional core of the story.
Planet Earth (1974) is a post-apocalyptic film set in 2133. Following a nuclear holocaust the USA has been replaced by a series of self-governing nations who are being guided towards more enlightened social systems by the technologically sophisticated city of PAX.
When one of its citizens is injured in a confrontation with aggressive mutants Dylan Hunt is sent on a mission to rescue a missing surgeon (the only person capable of saving the injured man). Dylan allows himself to be captured by the Confederacy of Ruth, a female dominated society where the women have enslaved the male population by lacing the food with a drug that makes the men docile and afraid of women.
The futuristic city of PAX with its educated population sees itself as the guardians of the post-apocalyptic world. PAX is the vision of a rational Modernist world and while it does superficially resemble the ‘Domed City’ in Logan’s Run (1976) with speedy tube trains and gleaming white spaces it believes in a compassionate and humanistic view of the world in contrast to the ‘Domed City’s’ AI controlled technocracy. The Confederacy of Ruth is a dystopian upside-down world where gender politics has run out of control. The inverted power hierarchy resembles Planet of the Apes – in both these dystopian worlds the men are kept in holding pens fit for animals. The Planet of the Apes influence even stretches to Planet Earth.
As a TV pilot Planet Earth was intended to be the first instalment of a new Star Trek-like series. Dylan Hunt and his PAX team could travel via the underground shuttle train from one post-apocalyptic society to another. In each of these episodes the team would come into contact with a new society and fresh problems to solve. The violent mutants (a kind of futuristic motorbike gang) could be used to bump up the threat levels when required.
Planet Earth epitomises the liberal optimism of 1970s America with PAX as a futuristic United Nations pushing for social progress and peaceful co-existence. But, as a production with a limited budget and a sub-par plot Planet Earth lacks a wow-factor and viewed from today’s perspective it reads like a dated historical document of its time, a comic over-reaction to the gender politics of the 1970s, wrapped up in a reassuringly conventional message.
Originally intended as the pilot episode of a TV series, half-way through shooting Mulholland Drive (2001) became a film. The story centres around a Film Noir mystery: ‘Rita’, suffering from amnesia, befriends and seduces Betty, and together they attempt to unravel ‘Rita’s’ mysterious past.
‘Rita’ turns out to be a poisonous character – a classic femme fatale. She selfishly uses Betty’s connections and aspirations for her own success. ‘Rita’ and Betty are attracted to one another, and their friendship turns into a romance, and then, finally, ‘Rita’s’ domination of Betty. It’s refreshing to see a film with two female leads, and to observe the changing power dynamics between them. Betty is a sweet natured naïf, while ‘Rita’ is a hawk, who dominates everything and everyone around her.
The story explorers ‘Rita’s’ take-over of Betty’s life: turning the wholesome American cliché of Hollywood success into a darkly traumatic event: psychosis, breakdown, attempted murder, and suicide. This is handled through the director’s surreal, and artistic vision.
David Lynch interprets reality as a surreal experience, one could argue, presenting the real as surreal makes it more ‘realistic’. He also enjoys using the language of surrealism, which makes Mulholland Drive an ode to the power of the sub-conscious. It pays games with audience expectations – this discord was probably accentuated by the film changing mid-project from a TV pilot into a film.