You have to understand that my family went into Wonder Woman 1984 on Christmas Day with high hopes. We love movies, especially a good, traditional Jewish Christmas Day movie watching, and my almost-seven-year-old, especially, adores Wonder Woman. Blame my own childhood nostalgia. A few months ago, I bought her one of those old brown Fisher Price tape decks and a lot of tapes off Ebay. The belt (which the seller had replaced with a hair tie) needed replacing almost immediately, and it still hisses, but the moment I got it working she lugged it off to her room.
“I love it, Mom,” she said, closing her door on me to tuck herself in with a book-on-tape of Fisher-price Presents Wonder Woman: The Cheetah on the Prowl, “I feel like a teenager.”
Apparently, what teenagers do is listen to the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Coming Out of Their Shells Tour and the aforementioned Wonder Woman tape ad nauseum every night before bed. Suddenly, my child — who previously had only imbibed comic book culture through DC Super Hero Girls, could tell you all about Steve Trevor, the real Princess Diana, and the Cheetah.
(Not “Cheetah.” I’ve mad that mistake one too many times for her liking.)
She cajoled me into watching 2017’s Wonder Woman with her a few months ago, despite my own hesitations over the PG-13 rating. It’s a pandemic, I had important things to do, like doomscrolling facebook, etc. I thought the movie was cromulent. And so we were excited to soak up some Amazonian goodness on Christmas Day, even if we couldn’t enjoy the movie in an actual theater like the good agnostic Jews that we are.
And I must say, twenty minutes in, we were all tickled! Yes, the movie seemed predictable, but at least it had a sense of humor about itself. Really, that’s all I’ve always wanted from Superhero films. I was always more of a fan of queer-coded camp Adam West Batman than grimdark latent homophobia Batman, and WW84 seemed like it was capable of laughing at itself, at least a little, at least at first.
It was somewhere near the two hour mark that the shine started to wear off. My six-year-old remained into it, but, let’s face it — she’s a child, and her level of engagement is generally: is Wonder Woman cool? Does she use her golden lasso of truth? Though I will say I think she was the only person disappointed by Diana’s golden armor.
“Those wings are stupid,” she said. “Wonder Woman’s costume isn’t golden.”
Mostly, though, she quickly got tired of her dad and me pointing out plot holes and scenes lifted from older movies. “IGLOO!” she shouted — our family safe word that we use to pause difficult subjects so we can all decompress. So we iglood, and took our complaints to more receptive audiences, like our high school acquaintances on facebook, some of whom, against all sense and good taste, seemed to have enjoyed the film.
And really, to be fair to our kid and our high school pals, our complaints about Wonder Woman 1984 aren’t all that interesting: after the halfway point, it feels like any Zack Snyder superhero flick. The villains, while better than most (Kristen Wiig in particular is an underutilized gem), are framed in a way that’s variously slut shamey or vaguely racist, and does The Cheetah actually murder that guy? How does renouncing wishes work anyway? Consent??! Are we really comfortable with all this anti-Arab visual rhetoric? Really? Mostly, though, the movie got boring, the action was long, and it felt drab and humorless. God, it’s fucking 2020, this movie is set in another era entirely, and I just want to laugh and stop wondering if this CGI wouldn’t look so bad if I were watching it in an actual frigging theater, only I can’t, because there’s a freaking pandemic.
Cut to last night, New Year’s Eve: we’re flipping through streaming channels searching for something to watch. And somehow — I think based on our Halloween-season viewing of Rick Moranis’ Little Shop of Horrors — a movie called Voyage of the Rock Aliens pops up for free on my recommendations on Amazon Prime. I’m not quite sure what spurred me to watch the trailer over my daughter’s objections (it’s not Wonder Woman, after all), but I managed to point out that it’s set in the 1980s (not mentioning that it was filmed in the 80s), just like the overpriced, acid-wash clad American Girl doll Santa just bought her for Christmas.
“Look,” I tell her, pointing to the girl in the grainy trailer, “She has a side ponytail and a scrunchy, too, just like Courtney.”
Unlike that dude whose body Chris Pine inhabits, my child consented. We settled in with our take-out Indian food to watch.
And look, I can’t tell you this movie is good, but it’s also not-not good. In the first five minutes, we’re introduced, in true rock opera style, to two warring factions on some post apocalyptic wasteland, whose children — Pia Zadora, and a Michael Jackson lookalike who, confusingly, is actually Jermaine Jackson — are apparently in love, and I found myself explaining both Romeo and Juliet to my child, as well as the term “trope.”
And then the scene shifts to a spaceship shaped like a guitar, inhabited by a crew of pink-clad Devo lookalikes and their robot commander, and maybe they’re also robots? On the hunt for the roots of rock’n’roll, apparently, for some reason, and they decide to land on Earth instead of the planet Malox (I am not making this up). And then the scene shifts again, to some beach scene with a bunch of greasers and a lurking, hungry sea tentacle, and Pia Zadora is back but she seems to have no relationship to her previous incarnation and I wonder if it’s some sort of cosmic cyclic thing, like we’re going to be treated to another Romeo and Juliet story, but apparently not, because the post-apocalyptic (pre-historic?) scene never comes up or is mentioned again.
But! What we get instead is simultaneously deeply weird and glorious and often seems to presage better and better known movies, like the aliens transport themselves to Earth via a phone booth that looks just like the one in Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventures, complete with blue smoke effects and overstuffed with aliens, only this movie came out in 1984, five years before Bill & Ted, and there’s a weaselly guy that a bully tells to wash his car just like Biff Tannen does in Back to the Future, but in this case it’s rendered even funnier than the whole George McFly schtick, because the dweeb goes along with it, happily, scrubbing down every surface touched by Frankie, the Patrick Swayze lookalike who has apparently replaced Jermaine Jackson as Pia Zadora’s love interest. Pia Zadora shortly brags (in song form, because this is a rock opera) that Frankie “brings out the lover in me” and I find myself telling my child, in the sex-positive ways of my household, that this girl probably enjoys having sex with her boyfriend, which is awkward, but it feels better than explaining that Kristen Wiig is bad, I guess, for wanting to be like Diana (even though my child also wants to be like Diana).
This is the point where my spouse and I pulled out our phones and started googling, because Voyage of the Rock Aliens isn’t, like, NOT-bad but it’s also confusingly good. But there’s not much on the internet about it: one cult movie page from back just beyond the myspace-era and a wikipedia page and that’s . . . it. We learn that the bands in it are real, actual bands, which explains why the music is surprisingly decent, even if every song sounds a little bit like a more popular 80s song, if only you could put your finger on it. Like someone searched “Material Girl” on a stock music site and dubbed in whatever came up. But, hell, somehow the soundtrack manages to be more rocking and period-appropriate than the soundtrack to WW84. And I also learn that the screenwriter was trying to capture a very specific feeling:
It’s a little like sitting home and watching TV late on a Saturday night, all the while switching channels from 5 to 9 to 11 and to 13, On channel 5 they’re airing an old Beach Party movie; on 9 one about alien invaders; on 11 a film about a mad, homicidal maniac on the loose; and on 13 a rock ‘n roll program.
And if I can be excused for being breathless, it works. Voyage of the Rock Aliens does exactly what it sets out to do, and it does it well, and oddly, beyond the film’s prologue, which doesn’t come up again (but then: does the prologue in WW84 really come up again, or does it fool us into thinking it does because we’re reading it supportively as an audience? Okay, okay, igloo on the Wonder Woman stuff), it’s both coherent and cohesive. Like. That sea monster that attacks the beach party appears on several occasions. Pia Zadora’s love of sex is made oddly plot relevant and — even more oddly, given the era — refreshingly celebrated. The whole movie is like this. Well-thought out. At one point, in what could be a one-off gag and completely cringe-worthy, some patients escape from a Home for the Criminally Insane — but even though one of the characters looks like Igor, and spends the movie chainsaw murdering people, in the end he is treated humanely and romantically matched with . . . well, I won’t spoil it. This movie might be exactly as old as I am, but hardly anyone’s seen it, anyway.
And it’s funny. Really, genuinely, intelligently funny. With funny jokes about cops! And, oh, you get to watch the other guy from A River Runs Through It stalk through a high school shirtless with a small mountain lion while singing about the nature of the beast, and it’s not clear if the nature of the beast is his nature or the romantic problems at hand (er, that his girlfriend dumped him to join a band with a rock alien because he keeps wailing on dweebs) but it works simultaneously on both levels, and it’s been awhile since I’ve seen a movie that makes me think hard enough about its symbolism that I am distracted from the fact that it’s 2020 and the world is falling apart around us. But there I was, distracted.
“This is the best movie ever, mom!” my child enthused as the shirtless actor writhed on a rock.
My spouse, story-nerd that he is, piped up halfway through: “I think this film fits Film Crit Hulk’s definition of a masterpiece.” I have to agree. As Hulk (in true, Hulkian, all-caps style) wrote in more innocent days:
WE WATCH MOVIES IN ORDER TO HAVE A LARGER EXPERIENCE. WE DO NOT WATCH THEM SIMPLY TO APPRECIATE ARTISTRY, OR NOTE EXECUTION. WE GO FOR SOMETHING DEEPER. WHETHER IT IS BEING MOVED, ENGAGING A THEMATIC COMPLEXITY OR EVEN FOR THE SIMPLE JOY OF BEING TRULY PRESENT.
On New Years, no one in my family iglood. “That was really good, Mom,” the kid said, “Can we watch that every New Year’s?” and somehow this transitioned seamlessly into introducing her to the wonders of Mystery Science Theater 3000, which meant it was a very good New Year’s indeed.
And look, I’m not going to tell you that you need to watch Voyage of the Rock Aliens right now (though you should! it’s free with Prime! and wonderful!) but the experience has me hoping for something new from movies in 2021. I spent the first half of quarantine white knuckling it through media like Watchmen and The Plot Against America, sure that I needed to engage with the darkness that was all around us. That’s still important. But it’s not all that we need.
We need humor, too. Levity. Light. Escapism, but joyous escapism. Something more than a grim checklist of plot points that media is supposed to hit. I’m ready for the movies to take me somewhere else. To a spaceship. To ancient Greece. To 1984. To a town called Speelburgh (apparently) in the good ol’ US of A.