Monday, December 20, 2010

Gremlins 2: The New Batch

Joe Dante has a brief vocal cameo in Gremlins 2: The New Batch as a television director, but the role he was really born to play was mad scientist. He should be in some 1950s horror film, where all the monsters are rubber and dry ice, and everyone still screams no matter how fake they look. Until he perfects his time machine, he’ll always be a man slightly out of time, but that’s what makes him such an effective satirist. He’s just slightly out of sync with reality. And Gremlins 2 is one of Dr. Dante’s more devilish experiments, an imagined world where Hulk Hogan exists alongside Rambo, while Batman shares a room with Alvin and the Chipmunks and Bugs Bunny introduces a story that includes characters based on Grandpa Munster and Miss Piggy. This is the quest for a unified theory of pop culture.

The film begins with Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck squabbling over who gets to ride the Warner Bros. shield. It’s a characteristically cheeky move on Dante’s part, a sly feint that momentarily confuses the audience. Did we pick up the wrong movie? The reassuring chirps and squeals of little Gizmo soon come along to set us straight, so quickly that we don’t even realize Dante just tricked us into staring at the Warner Bros. logo for a good minute. Not that he's being a good company man here. He's just reminding us who signs the cheques. Beneath all of the film’s haphazard pop-culture references, there is some semblance of order after all. There is indeed a place where Bugs Bunny and Gizmo can plausibly and peacefully co-exist—on a legal document in some lawyer’s office listing the intellectual property of Warner Bros. Entertainment, Inc.

Dante is tuned in to the signals that clutter the air. The film feels like 50 different television channels playing at once: pure buzzing information overload. Do you want narrative cohesion? Do not look here. The film is not the story, but the nonsense that flies above it like a flock of well-fed pigeons (no one escapes untarnished). The only unity in all this chaos is the monolithic corporate order that underwrites the proceedings, from the familiar shield at the beginning to the film’s fictional Clamp empire, which swallows up everything in sight and spits out a newer, shinier, crappier version of the world it is devouring. It’s an awful reality, and all we can do is live in, whether we’re eternally guileless Billy, who deals with the devil as honourably as one can or tenacious Grandpa Fred, a washed-up horror-movie host who seizes hold of the Gremlin crisis to become the reporter he always wanted to be.

The anarchic energy found only briefly in the original—mostly in the debauched all-Gremlin party in the town bar—takes over the sequel. The wildest parts of Dante’s imagination are given free rein, to good effect. All of the references may threaten to overwhelm the film, but the director is keen on pushing towards the breaking point. There’s even a mid-film interruption where the Gremlins take over the projection room and threaten to put on Snow White and the Seven Dwarves. Luckily, Hulk Hogan is in the audience—one ripped yellow tank top later and we’re back on track. The film abounds in scattershot satire aimed at the media and corporate culture; every scene is rife with parodies and homages, surprising visual conceits and ridiculous puns (two characters meet in a chic Canadian restaurant which seemingly exists only to provide an excuse for a chocolate moose gag).

Unlike the first Gremlins, this film doesn’t really have anything lucid to say about the world, preferring to echo the noise of modern culture rather than trying to shout above the din. This is less a coherent story than a foundation for sight gags. But if anything, it’s superior to the original. This is a lesson in kamikaze sequel-making at its finest. The small-town hokiness of the first film is roundly mocked, while the normal expectations of a sequel are avoided (cute little Gizmo spends much of the film being tortured instead of making cooing sounds and puppy-eyes for the camera). Dante dive-bombs the original, blasting it out of our memories and making the possibility of further sequels all but inconceivable. Could you follow this mess with anything other than a broom?

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