Blandly Titled "Incarnate" is, like a dream, forgettable.

2 stars out of 4

As I mentioned in last week’s column, I make a concerted effort to see any movie with a Satanic theme because I spent a lot of my childhood scared shitless of the devil.  Not only does this make the movies a bit scarier for me because of some vestigial terror, but it does double duty as a bit of therapy. 

But it can have a negative effect too, because I am more disappointed by a bad movie about the devil than I am any other kind of horror film.  Can’t they see what makes him so scary?  Why can’t they all be as complex and disturbing as, say, Robert Eggers’s fascinating The Witch?  As audacious in their casting as Constantine (a seriously underappreciated action horror film; watch it again for the great Tilda Swinton as a gender-swapped Gabriel and Peter Stormare as a literally unctuous Satan)?  As literary in its pretentions as The Ninth Gate?  As just-plain-wacky as The Devil’s Advocate?

How come they’re so often as dull as The Incarnation?  Is it one of Old Scratch's evil plans to bore us so?

You can tell how rote Incarnate will be from the first five minutes.  A young boy with the requisite bowl haircut (the haircut of horror movie children, boys and girls alike, since at least Danny from Kubrick's Shining adaptation, if not before) is menaced by a growling homeless woman as he and his mother, played by Game of Thrones’ Carice van Houten, enter their apartment building.  This is a misstep; the film seems to think that a homeless woman with mental health issues is an appropriate first scare, and it is not.  From a liberal perspective, class- and mental-health shaming are cheaply offensive, and from the horror fanatic’s view, there has only ever been one scary homeless person in the history of horror film, and it was in Hellraiser.  Two, if you count the dwarf from Don’t Look Now, although I cannot recall from that film whether she owns a home, rents, or has another arrangement.

At any rate, the snarling-homeless-person is a trope that has been used so often that its inclusion in a contemporary horror film feels like it should be a red herring, a distraction from something more sophisticated and less obvious.  Not so in Incarnate, which has, moments later, the homeless woman dropping from the ceiling onto the aforementioned Bowl Haircut Boy, possessing him.

We know this because he spends the remainder of the film sitting cross-legged on the floor of his bedroom, staring.  We are invited to shiver with fear at the sight of a boy sitting quietly.  I am not a parent, but I have worked in retail for a long time and there are times when a child’s bawling mixes perfectly with the awful pop song playing with tinny cheeriness over the store’s speakers.  Perhaps the song is "Best Day of My Life" by American Authors, one of the worst songs ever written, and one which plays constantly at every place I have ever worked.  In such moments I like to thank God that the kids are not sitting quietly, possessed.  But personal experience ought not to effect critical acumen.  The actor playing Bowl Haircut Boy, it must be noted, is very good at remaining still. 

The movie also stars Aaron Eckhart as a someone who is not an exorcist (“Let’s get one thing straight,” he growls early on.  “I’m not an exorcist).  He is, instead, an evictor.  He goes into the heads of people who are possessed and evicts the demon, although the specifics of this are vague and largely cobbled together out of more memorable films.  There are story and character beats collected here as cheaply as if they fell out the back of a truck.  Think Inception, The Matrix, The Shining and The Omen all boiled together, after the English style, until they lose all flavor and shape. 

At one point Bowl Haircut Boy kills a man by lifting him into the air and then dropping him from a height of about seven feet.  Now, malnutrition and a lack of exercise have rendered me nearly as fragile as a fat little dauphin, but I think that even I could survive a fall like that. But in the film the descent is fatal.  Perhaps there is a subplot somewhere on the cutting room floor in which they reveal that the man has glass bones, or is allergic to the floor. 

Since Aaron Eckhart the evictor must go into people’s minds, the viewer is forgiven for hoping that there’ll be some trippy shit once they go into Bowl Haircut Boy’s demonic dream.  Not so.  The boy dreams that he is in a public park and then later a carnival.  It is as if Inception took place in Norman Rockwell’s afternoon catnap. 

The Arch-Demon, when we meet her, is in the guise of (surprise) a scary old lady who mutters mock-demonic gibberish about torturing everyone the Evictor loves.  This occurs for no reason.  The demon has no reason to dislike him, except that it gives the movie a reason to start and, by extension, eventually and mercifully end. 

Things would be whole plots in other movies are dispensed with in one or two lines of dialogue so vague as to be funny.  At one point, Eckhart the Evictor tells us his origin story.

“When I was 29, I discovered I could enter into the dreams of people possessed by the devil.” 

How was this discovery made?  This seems like the kind of thing that would be difficult to accidentally discover.  Did he work at a day care for possessed kids at nap time?  Was it maybe on a long flight?  I assume that might have been an interesting story for us to hear, but the movie, maybe because it is bored with itself, keeps it to itself. 

I cannot say anything more about the movie because it was instantly forgettable, and so I have already forgotten all but the broadest strokes.  There was something about a capsule of blood harvested from a Vatican exorcist, I think.  There was also something about a car crash, which I think was supposed to be tragic.  Also, a lot of the actresses looked the same. 

One thing is for certain – no one sheds a tear for the poor homeless woman who gets her neck broken in the first scene.  Maybe if she had been an heiress or something the movie would have cared enough to at least give her a name.  I think that Bowl Haircut Boy must have had a name, but it was not memorable enough to recall it.  All that I clearly remember, in fact, was sitting quietly staring straight ahead, like a thing possessed.

Magicians and Alchemists against Donald Trump or, How Speculative Fiction Will Get Us Through

The day after Donald Trump was voted President Elect of the United States, I was in a daze.  It was an event so strange and terrifying that it even now sounds like the elevator pitch to a bizarre alternate history or a satirical joke - like a crazy stunt for Sharknado 5.  Even so, these things have now come to pass in the stark light of day, and the political repercussions will be real, and probably not very funny.  While I am not equipped to ponder what those repercussions will be, I can say without fear of histrionics that I feel deeply for all the people that, for whatever reason, fear a Trump presidency.  His platform has often been xenophobic, racist, and sexist, and to me, these are unforgivable faults in a politician. 

And so, being who I am, I tried to reckon with my shock by going to the movies; I saw Doctor Strange.  In 3D, no less.  As escapist fare it was beyond reproach, as if Inception had focused less on mock-profundity and tried harder to be dumb fun.  But I am not here to review the film (though I do love reviewing films and television, and plan to write them often here, if you’ll have me).

Books and film (and music and visual art and anything else that are creatively composed and thoughtfully consumed) are not just escapist entertainment, even those which are examples of the broad genre of speculative fiction.  Horror films are good for more than a mere hour or two of pleasant anxiety, they find a way to process fears that are otherwise repressed or difficult to access.  Fantasy novels do not merely create a world better or bigger or more appealing than ours, they allow us to more clearly see our own from different perspectives.  Super-hero stories are not just excuses to destroy cities and topple buildings and make people run and jump, they are also our American fantasies.  As such, they serve as the more morally-minded counterpart to the American Dream: they’re not merely about getting rich, although superheroes are often rich as well, they are about using power to help people, or in the very least, stop those that wish to hurt the innocent. 

The best examples of all these genres show us ourselves in a strange new light.  Like Shakespeare’s The Tempest (a seminal work of fantasy if ever there was one, featuring a wizard, a monster, magic books and other genre mainstays) they show us a “brave new world”.  And that world, for all of its otherworldly elements, tells us something about our own. 

Doctor Strange, for instance, involves a group of wizard-like occultists who are able to tap into the powers of other worlds and use them to change our own.  They can open windows into these other worlds and step through them at will, or, in one case, show these worlds to disbelieving normal folk.  In the film, these occult wizards can leave their body to travel on astral planes, and access places where the rules are different.  They do this principally by waving their hands around in the air, often while running and jumping.  Wouldn’t that be nice? 

Although, of course, such people really exist. 

No less a towering figure than Alan Moore, who I honestly believe is one of the greatest and most important writers alive, believes that he is a magician.  This is not so say that he is hurling himself through other worlds ala Dr. Strange (not necessarily anyway), but to say that he can, after a fashion, construct new worlds.  As he himself said,

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“Do I believe, for example, that by using magic I could fly? No. How would you get around gravity? Impossible. Do I believe that I might be able to project my consciousness into a very, very vivid simulation of flying? Yeah. Yes, I've done that. Yes, that works.”

He has also said “[t]here is very little difference between magic and art. To me, the ultimate act of magic is to create something from nothing…”  I agree with the spirit of the statement, but not all of the specifics.  His brilliant opus Watchmen didn’t create something out of nothing, as Dr. Strange might conjure a portal or an astral sword, or whatever the case may be.  Rather, it was nothing less than a work of transmutation: an alchemical "great work".  He took the anxieties and aspirations of the last few decades of American history and combined it the text of American superheroes, one of the 20th century’s most fanciful daydreams.  In doing so, it created something, if not new, certainly startling.  Like so many of the best works of speculative fiction, it aimed, if not to save us, at least to think about how we might be saved. 

I would venture to say that speculative fiction tends toward the liberal, asking us to sympathize with characters that we would not otherwise find appealing.  Science fiction like J. J. Abrams' re-imagining of Westworld insists that robots or androids should have the same rights as humans, and thus makes us consider what the inalienable rights of a human, therefore, ought to be.  And if a science fiction film presents us with a dystopia, it forces us to consider our own proximity or lack thereof to utopia.  Speculative fiction is always already political, even if that context changes through time, or means something different to someone else. 

In short, even Doctor Strange can be viewed (or read, as it were) as a metaphor for the role of the speculative writer and artist in today’s world - our own, but not our only one.  It is a world which is often beautiful and marvelous and magical in its own right, but which will sometimes fall short of our notion of what a world really ought to be.  What is Doctor Strange and its ilk, if not a kind of corrective to that world? 

This has been a roundabout way of suggesting two things that may not be great recompense to those who are hurt and afraid of Trump’s presidency, but which nevertheless comfort me a great deal. 

One is that great art (not just of the speculative kind, but certainly that as well) will continue to help us to make sense of, encapsulate and protest the “real” world, but so even will the merely highly entertaining art.  This is a function of all stories and tales, but I think that in many ways works of genre fiction come by it most honestly because in not having to represent perfectly all of the contingencies of contemporary reality, they can pluck nerves that cannot be as easily reached by pure realism.  This will not cease with Trump as President.  In fact, I’d lay good odds on it becoming more pronounced.

And the second point I would like to suggest is that writing (and its corollary, reading), as magical/alchemical acts, really do make things happen in the real world.  It might do to be reminded that television’s first multi-racial kiss was on Star Trek

In one scene of Doctor Strange, two characters debate whether it is kosher, ethically speaking, to “draw power from a dark dimension” in order to change the world.  I do not see this as a bad thing at all.  In these troubling times, though not yet devoid of hope, I would expect nothing less from our writers and creators of speculative fiction.  And I very much look forward to reading and watching the kinds of speculative fiction, humane, outraged, or virtuous, that will help us understand where we are going, and how to get somewhere better.

If this has become a dark dimension for some of us who believe that everyone should be equal and that hatred and fear will get us nowhere, we will simply have to transmute it into something else, first in the diverting forms of fantastic fictions, and then with the courage of our convictions.