Friday, April 08, 2016

HIGHLANDER (1986) and I

I have a strange history with this film. I first saw HIGHLANDER (1986) back in 1986 in the theater on the campus of the University of Alabama at Birmingham. I was stunned that my student ID was all that was needed to go inside and see this and any other movie the school decided to show. (Yes, there is a story about what I was doing enrolled at UAB but this isn't about that. Stay focused people!) I was excited to see this new science fiction/fantasy film starring the great Sean Connery and the prospect of sword wielding and decapitations made me vibrate with energy. After the film was over I quietly exited the theater, drove home and spent the next day or so trying to decide what I thought. And 30 years later I guess I am still doing that.

I've seen the film six or seven times over the years and each time I come away slightly frustrated, mildly entertained and puzzled over the whole affair. It was one of the first movies I ever saw that I immediately knew was missing scenes. It was the only explanation possible for what I had seen. There seemed to be big chunks of the story that were just gone from what I watched - scenes that I was sure would make things clearer or at least answer some of the obvious questions the movie left dangling. So many things are just thrown at the viewer with no elaboration! We are told by Connery's character that this mutant (?) group of immortal people are occasionally born at random around the world with no understanding of what causes them to exist. We're told they can sense each other, are drawn to each other and must battle each other to the death. The only effective method of killing these immortals is by cutting off their heads so they fight each other with swords even in modern day New York City.

But - and this is the central problem at the heart of the film - The natural question of WHY is never addressed in the movie! Why must they fight? Why only removal of the head? What is this famed 'Prize' that they are battling to obtain? And why would they want it? In other words -What the hell is driving these immortals to act the way they act? Add to this the obvious question of how in the hell Connery's ancient Egyptian-by-way-of-Spain character knows this information. Or why, if he is fated to battle these other immortals he would go out of his way to inform, train and become a father figure to Christopher Lambert's character at all. (Or why an Egyptian sounds so damned Scottish in the first place - but let's not get sidetracked by the film's bizarre casting or we'll be here all night.) The film doesn't give us any answers and, indeed, seems completely unaware that anyone would ask the questions in the first place.

But the multitude of questions about this strange cult of immortals is just one of the elements that make the film so interesting to me. Director Russell Mulcahy simply cannot keep his camera still and he has it sweep and glide around every location and set in the film until I almost need Dramamine. Sometimes this stylistic choice is fun or even smoothly effective but more often than not it draws attention to itself in the worst way. "Look at me! I'm moving the camera all over the place! Here - watch me put it on a helicopter now! Wheeee!"

As I stated earlier I was confident that there were missing parts of this film and at different times over the video release history of HIGHLANDER I've thought I was going to finally see these explanatory scenes. Years ago a VHS of the 'Director's Cut' was released and I sought it out to discover several minuets of additional footage that gave more detail for side characters or added some more flashbacks - which was interesting. But the hoped for explanation of the immortals and their driving force was left just as murky as ever. Dammit. And so, I revisit the film every few years and once again am entertained enough to watch the entire thing and frustrated enough to bitch to whoever will listen - lucky you. And I know the eventual TV series offshoot built an explanation (supposedly) for all this crap but I am not interested in that. I don't care to watch hours of mediocre television for something that should have been in the freakin' original film!

So, in the end, I have to say I've finally come to terms with this film now. I watched it the other night, have mused on my reactions to it 30 years on and have realized that I kind of like the stupid thing. It's a great example of so many of the things that went wrong in 1980's cinema - flash over substance, style over coherency, an aversion to telling an actual story - and is kind of fun for that reason. I don't know if it's good but I think I like it. A little.

One day I need to write about mad sequel. Whowsa! 

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