I saw two movies this week that took me back a bit to my Cold War Childhood. We GenXers don’t talk a lot about growing up under the black cloud of Imminent Nuclear Destruction, but it shaped our formative years. The government and media did everything they could to remind us that we were doomed – DOOMED – by using everything from Nuclear Bomb Drills in school (no shit, we had to get under our desks, similar to the Earthquake Drill except even in the 4th grade we didn’t bother since we were pretty sure if the bombs were coming, our desks weren’t going to help) to forcing us to watch THE DAY AFTER. This was an interminable mini series on tv (well, it was 2 hrs long, but it seemed interminable) that was extremely controversial because, according to news commentators, it might not be super awesome to traumatize our youth with images of people with their skin peeling off after the Soviets dropped nukes across the Heartland – yet, everyone should watch it so they know what we’re in for! We were actually warned not to watch it alone. But we should watch it. To be prepared. Seriously.
To help us distract ourselves from our inevitable destruction at the hands of the Soviet Union, there were, thank Atari, video game arcades. Which brings me to the first movie I watched this week that reminded me of my youth. I thoroughly enjoyed Wreck It Ralph. It was cute, sentimental, and lovely to watch the 8-bit memories float in front of me. It had a redeeming end and a sweet plot. But most of all, it had the greatest cameo ever: Q*bert! This brought back so many fabulous memories. Particularly, though, it was that one week in April 1984 when I gloriously held the position of High Scorer on the Q*bert in the Pearlridge Mall. Yes, you heard me right: HIGH SCORE ON Q*BERT. You might have thought that the year after Thriller was released would be a let down. But no. April. 1984. High Score on Q*bert. It was a good month. It was also a good month for another reason. I turned 13 that month. I became… a teenager.
Which brings me to the second movie I saw this week that reminded me of those halcyon days of abject nuclear terror and group shame when one missed a step in the Thriller dance. Red Dawn. I didn’t go see this one when it came out in the theater because I was dubious. How could the iconic triumphal film of my formative Cold War Youth ever be adequately remade? But now that it’s out on cable, I was tempted by the little voice in my head that reminded me how much better the Total Recall remake was than the original (come ON, Colin Farrel vs. Schwarzenegger? Don’t cross me on this one.). But Red Dawn? How do you translate a film built completely on the premise that the Cold War becomes Hot (the very event of which we were at that moment in time deathly afraid) into one that is relevant in 2012? I was willing to give it a try. Because just watching the new one reminded me of that summer of 1984 when the original was released.
The best – absolute BEST – thing about the original Red Dawn was that it was the very first movie released with a PG-13 rating. And when it came out in the summer of 1984, I was goddamned THIRTEEN YEARS OLD.
Now that I’ve seen the new one, I find I’m not as offended as I thought I’d be. I’m glad that it was different enough that the original masterpiece was truly preserved. It had a good cast (I’ll get to that in a minute). The only reason the invasion was more implausible this time around is that we really aren’t living in a time of tangible fear of invasion. The key to the original is that we actually believed it could happen. We weren’t even living in a time of tangible fear of invasion 10 years ago when George W. Bush told us we were. In our 2012 version, it isn’t nuclear war that paralyzes the United States but an EMP that knocks out both coasts prior to the invasion. Probably the plot was best summed up in the first half hour of the film when Matty utters, “North Korea? That doesn’t make any sense.”
Our modern day Red Dawn takes place in Spokane, WA (in my Pacific Northwest neck of the woods.) Why the North Koreans would just parachute into populated Spokane neighborhoods seems odd, since I can pretty much guarantee that every household in Spokane has at least six hunting rifles at the ready, not to mention a very well equipped militia population sprinkled in the surrounding mileage of Spokane. Anyhooooo, a main change in the character build-up is that Jed, the oldest brother, has military training in our modern version, which is helpful. Also all the kids have the advantage of years of Call of Duty and Halo practice… which isn’t really an advantage after all, evidently.
I thought Chris Hemsworth made a good Jed in his new incarnation because it was different enough (no one could do a repeat of what I think was Patrick Swayze’s finest performance ever –and DON’T argue Roadhouse, that’s in a class of its own). And I was impressed with Josh-from-Drake-and-Josh’s Matty (wow has he lost some pounds!). The original Matty was Charlie Sheen, whose portrayal was not as intense as his brother’s portrayal of Two-Bit the year before in The Outsiders (also with Patrick Swayze as the older brother – it was that kind of decade. We all needed Patrick Swayze as our older brother just to get through).
My 1984 heartthrob, however, was C. Thomas Howell (omg, I had ALL the TeenBeat magazine that he was on the cover!), who played the tragic Robert. In our modern version, Peeta Mellark plays Robert and is not so tragic this time around (possibly because he is distracted by the fact he will have to run straight from his fight with the North Koreans into another fucked up live action game with Katniss in a matter of months). And while Peeta/Robert’s “Wolverines!” call in the iconic scene was okay, nothing could match the original Robert’s war cry in my mind.
It was gratifying to see the Wolverines gain some multicultural dimension, and the girls, though not as badass as pre-nose-job-Jennifer-Grey, weren’t awful. There were more explosions of course, and instead of an Air Force pilot, the Wolverines come across three Marines from the Free Zone. I thought it was a little wimpy that they avoided the tragic way Robert originally dealt with Daryl … in this one Daryl is more self-sacrificial. But then, we can’t tarnish The Peeta.
At one point, the Wolverines rob a Subway shop for food and it struck me as a little odd that people were still going to eat at a Subway during a North Korean occupation. But it’s Spokane, so who can say. Of course, when they listen to “Radio Free America” the music is CCR – because, what other music are you going to play during a counterinsurgency? In perhaps a nod to 1984, or perhaps just a nod to reality, the North Koreans aren’t actually very good at their jobs, so the Russian Special Forces have to come in to try to get the Wolverines. It made me wonder if we just didn’t want to deal with the fallout of having to admit it’s actually going to be the Chinese who get us… not via the invasion route, but probably more the “uh dude, you owe me money” route.
In the end, I missed the symbolism of the Partisan Rock and the ode to the children who saved the world during World War III, but maybe we just needed that more obvious reassurance back then.
1984 – it didn’t turn out to be as horrible as George Orwell predicted…. though that whole Newspeak thing really worked well for Reagan. It was a sacred year. It was the year the Macintosh personal computer was first available to American consumers. It was the year Michael Jackson’s hair spontaneously combusted during the filming of a Pepsi commercial. It was the year Lionel Ritchie sang “All Night Long” at the Closing Ceremonies at the Los Angeles Summer Olympics (oh by the way, OJ Simpson carried the torch that year). It was also the year of the Bhopal disaster, the famine in Ethiopia, and Bernie Goetz’s vigilante shootings. It was the year the CIA first introduced crack cocaine into the streets of Los Angeles (hmmm…coincidence that was where the Olympics were that year?) in what we would later learn was an alternate funding stream for their fun little venture with the Contras in Nicaragua at the behest of a guy named Oliver North.
But we didn’t know any of that yet. We didn’t know the next year would bring something called Perestroika. We didn’t know that within five years, the terror we lived with our entire childhood would be suddenly gone… so anti-climatically that we still regret we ever watched THE DAY AFTER. And certainly it was a pretty major let down that the Cold War was not won with the drama and honor that we believed it would be after watching Red Dawn that glorious summer of 1984.
I don’t feel like we’ll have too much trouble with the North Koreans in the end either.