Little Joe (2019)
Not rated, and I have to say that I'm stymied on this one. It is a horror movie...kind of. There are deaths. But most of the movie is even beyond tame. It's an almost completely sedate film. Horrible things happen and the reactions are almost lithium fueled. It's really hard to even place this on the MPAA rating. I'd say R for intended audience, but PG-13 for content. Either way, I don't have that decision to make.
DIRECTOR: Jessica Hausner
I never thought I would be in a position to take requests. I straight up got a request for this movie and I never would have heard of it had it not been for the request. I'm curious about what spawned this request. How did someone stumble across this? Were they perusing Hulu and saw this movie starring Ben Whishaw? Because that's the potential narrative of how I would have discovered this. Or maybe I'm so out of the loop that I used to be in that this is the movie that all my film nerd friends are into. Regardless, I'm going to approach this movie completely without context and try to break down what exactly I watched.
I don't know, man. Part of me wants to say that this is Little Shop of Horrors. The other part of me is leaning harder into Invasion of the Body Snatchers. I can safely say that plant-based horror is actually a thing. But this is a movie that almost uncelebrates the films that came before it. While plotwise, there are a lot of beats that come from Invasion of the Body Snatchers, the movie almost seems ashamed of the horror tropes that came before it. It simultaneously celebrates and fears the way horror movies are made. Because this is a quiet movie. As much as this is a question about behavior and fearing change, the movie is almost shielded by its direction. The movie uses this absolutely bananas color palate, often focusing with contrasting colors against a sanitized whiteness. There are stark reds and intense purples while actors are giving their most quiet performances imaginable. The movie dares the audience to sleep during it because it can't be bothered to have big emotions. Part of me thinks that this is a reaction to the A24 horror movement with its attached artsiness to monstrous situations. I do think that the direction and the action seems a little artificial and stylized, simply for the sake of being so. But it mostly does work. Some movies are okay with being quiet and personal and Hausner probably used this opportunity to sell that idea.
The reason that Invasion of the Body Snatchers matters so much is that it served as allegory. Yeah, it was an allegory for something that I genuinely hated, the fear of Communism. (This has been debated and I ask that people read the liner notes to the Criterion edition of Invasion of the Body Snatchers LaserDisc for more. You know you have that thing laying around and have been meaning to read it.) When Body Snatchers asked people to question the loyalty of their neighbors, the allegory gained this importance. (I can't stress enough that this message is gross, but I also appreciate art stepping out of the entertainment realm.) While Little Joe has the same story, the question about the allegiances of others, I don't really have the crisp and clear allegory. I suppose, like I tried supposing with Body Snatchers, that we could be talking about the rise of Q and Trump movement. Yeah, it's British, but this is happening worldwide in some form or another. We have become distrustful of one another and we need an understanding for what created this.
But this is where Little Joe might actually have legs as something independent of its forefathers. Let's pretend the allegory for the rise of militant conservatism next door is the message. That's actually pretty rad. But let's say that it is that. The idea that this didn't come from the stars actually matters. When Body Snatchers say that an alien menace has invaded us, it becomes both xenophobic / critical of the other. Someone else has done this. But Little Joe stresses that the protagonist was initially the advocate for the creation of this flower. Alice, with Chris, spat in the face of God with science and have destroyed humanity. (Mind you, I adore that there is no actual conclusive result stating that the flower is the cause of these changes in behavior. I really like that, BTW.) But if that is the case, instead of blaming the other, it is a criticism of the self. That tends to be the case with the science-gone-wrong trope. If we were to unpack that allegory, it is actually pretty damning of the liberal left.
Let's take a look at that. Again, I am still processing this theory and I don't necessarily agree with anything that unravels from this deep dive. The creation of the Little Joe flower was done with the best of intentions. It was a dangerous move to mess with the status quo to make the world a better place through the creation of odorous flowers. But by forcing nature to take an alternate turn from the way it was going (even though the attempt to make Little Joe was aiming to undo genetic manipulation), this parasitical creature was created that would potential erase free will. With a 2019 release, the movie would have been a commentary on the rise of extreme conservatism in the wake of a progressive era. I will say that I've subscribed to the notion that extremism has been bred in America --and the West as a whole --in attempts to balance out the extremism of the previous regime. Clinton led to Bush. Bush led to Obama. Obama led to Trump. With the use of science as the origins to the creation of Little Joe, I can't help but it is a reproach of our culture. We did this to ourselves.
But again, it might not even be an allegory. Unlike the Communism thing with Body Snatchers, it doesn't exactly wear its message on its sleeve. As much as I like the read that I just gave Little Joe, I also only give it a modicum of validity. I like imbuing stories, particularly science fiction stories, with meaning. For all I know, I'm probably wrong. So that leaves me a movie that dances outside of my logic and reason. So I can then appreciate the movie for one thing: the fact that it doesn't quite give me the answer.
With other plant horror films, we have a clear answer with what is going on. Perhaps the other characters aren't let in on the dramatic irony, but the audience knows that the pod people come from outer space. Hausman really goes out of her way to stress that we don't know what is going on with the changes in behavior. At one point, it really seems like she was going to tell us. Joe and Selma mess with Alice and confirm her worst suspicions, only to cast greater doubt on the true nature of everyone's change in behavior. Yeah, it really seems like the plants are messing with everyone. The data that came from the interviews is particularly damning. The escalation of violent / suicidal behavior at the biotech firm is horrifying. But all of this is the world of cinema. We see what we want to see. For all we all know, the message of the film is that people change and that we don't necessarily like change. The smartest thing that the movie did was never tell me that the plants were doing this the whole time. That's a work of genius.
But in terms of liking the movie, I don't know if it did what it was supposed to. There's not a ton of people that I would recommend this to, despite the fact that it was recommended to me. It was like a decent episode of The Twilight Zone that went a little too long for me. I like me some Twilight Zone and will totally watch whatever I can, but I don't know if I would sell individual episodes as a whole meal. I think a lot of it comes from the stylization of it. Yeah, I like stylized storytelling, but the style seemed just there for the sake of being stylized. That makes a pretty picture, but it also makes it a forgettable movie.
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Film is great. It can challenge us. It can entertain us. It can puzzle us. It can awaken us.
Mr. H has watched an upsetting amount of movies. They bring him a level of joy that few things have achieved.