July 14, 2014

Devil of a role

I noted in my review of R.I.P.D. the lazy tendency to equate "ugly" and "evil." Though in the "realistic" world of crime drama, the opposite is true. Watching Law & Order, you could be forgiven for concluding that every crime in New York City was committed by a well-coiffed Manhattanite.

And yet the stereotype stubbornly persists in the F&SF realms. One of the nice things about Frozen was having the handsome young prince be the villain. Space opera especially seems fixated on humanity's struggles with grotesque alien creatures. (That "hive mind" thing is getting old too.)

This does open the door to B-grade actioners like Species and Lifeforce that play against type by casting a fashion model as the alien villainess and giving her many opportunities to take off her clothes. Though these movies could also be read as Victorian allegories about the dangers of sex.

Darth Vader was most interesting when he was cool and wanted to "end this destructive conflict and bring order to the galaxy." Then the whole thing degraded into a mud wrestling match, reducing the moral stakes in Star Wars to white hat/black hat terms that make old westerns look sophisticated.

Compare, for example, these two quite different depictions of the devil by Ray Wise in Reaper and Peter Stormare in Constantine. Ray Wise's performance in particular is a perfect illustration of C.S. Lewis's observation that

The greatest evil . . . is conceived and ordered (moved, seconded, carried, and minuted) in clean, carpeted, warmed, and well-lighted offices, by quiet men with white collars and cut fingernails and smooth-shaven cheeks who do not need to raise their voice.

Peter Stormare only shows up in the last ten minutes of the movie, yet appears fully realized as Constantine's thus-far invisible antagonist (though not, in fact, his real enemy).

And then there's Al Pacino playing the devil, who ever since Milton made him the biggest anti-hero in literature (with all the best lines to boot), has no doubt been dying to be played by Al Pacino. Again opposite Keanu Reeves in The Devil's Advocate.

The creepy in these scenes comes from their characters, not from the special effects department and certainly not from their appearances. Granted, we're back in rich white dude territory (so they must be bad). But at least they're bad with reasons, motivations, and no apologies.

Jagi Lamplighter points to the equally galling trend in "literary fiction fantasy" of making bad guys not really bad but misunderstood (unless they're rich white dudes). I give the silly Independence Day a wide pass because it insists that, naw, these aliens are just plain nasty.

I mean, they go around destroying all kinds of stuff without filing an Environmental Impact Statement first. The gall!

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The Big Bad

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# posted by Blogger Katherine Woodbury
7/14/2014 11:08 AM   
Actually, this comment is related more to an earlier post, but your current post reminded me of my latest reaction to The Hobbit movies. I find it interesting that Jackson's villains in The Hobbit movies, while still technically "ugly", have become incredibly cool: Azog is revengeful and snarky, and he has an enchanting white Warg. Azog's son Bolg is a hunk (and hunts with beautiful elegance). Smaug is sly and, like Azog, has an attractive feline look. The mythical abstract (on the one hand) and clunky (on the other) bad of LOTR has been replaced with a whole slew of bad (and ambiguous) antagonists with agendas.

Granted, the bad guys still aren't the most important aspect of the films (I give Jackson kudos for concentrating instead on making extreme good guys like Gandalf cool in their own right, something that is also extremely difficult to do!), but Jackson's bad guys have definitely entered the Stargate realm of fun and fantastic to watch!