Long-form online media magazine We Are the Mutants makes the jump to the land of physical paperback with their titular first book. Penned collectively by editor-in-chief Kelly Roberts and senior editors Michael Grasso and Richard McKenna, the trio trade off in-depth essays which attempt to re-examine the America of the Cold War through the lens of cult and genre filmmaking across the 20-year span between the darkest days of the Vietnam War and the end of President Reagan’s second term in office.
Blockbuster auteurs like Francis Ford Coppola, George Lucas, and Steven Spielberg are largely talked around in favour of a focus on the more fringe media of the time – your Punishment Parks, your Sorcerers, your Suburbias – with the bigger examined-to-death touchstones of the period, like Alien or Poltergeist, being brought in as (often-unfavourable) comparison pieces.
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The results, ultimately, are mixed and the quality varies from essay to essay. We Are the Mutants is an overall approachable read for something that can gesture towards the academic, in its heavy quoting from other sources all diligently noted in the back pages. All three writers do a great job of detailing the social, cultural, and political moods of the time, eying critically the shortcomings of each purported revolutionary movement when it comes to intersectionality.
I was pleasantly surprised to find that prior knowledge of the films examined is not required to follow along, but also that said write-ups don’t turn into reams upon reams of criticism-free synopsising. There’s not a whole lot of technical analysis, how the craft of each film reinforces their messages, but that feels like a conscious choice to keep the essays’ flows from getting bogged down, and the mentions of production design when they do crop up are cleanly delivered.
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After an extensive introduction setting the scene – one which arguably runs a little too long in its efforts to cover almost every base – Mutants takes the form of a series of close analysis essays putting two films in conversation with each other. Looking for parallels, contrasts, links between them. Some of those connections are fairly obvious. Silent Running sharing space with Phase IV as two films with attempted environmentalist bents taking place in the fad of bio-domes. Death Wish against Escape From New York as two different apocalyptic takes on 70s inner city New York. Grasso’s essay pairing up Alien with Sorcerer to demonstrate the shared anti-corpo pro-blue-collar horror inherent in each is a particularly effective essay, and his ties back into the “cargo cult” streak of the era intertwine both movies intrinsically with their time period.
Other connections are less obvious but prove inspired and may provide an enriched experience upon revisiting the films. Roberts’ essay comparing the 1966 Rock Hudson identity-replacement thriller Seconds with Melvin Van Peebles’ 1970 race-swap satire Watermelon Man demonstrates the differing yet not-all-too-different ways both films explored White male middle-class malaise in the late-60s. Switching between both films every couple of paragraphs, rather than the book’s usual structure of segmenting each film in an essay to its own half, the unlikely parallels are really interesting and satisfyingly brought together by the end.
The penultimate essay, penned by McKenna, pairs up nuclear-war drama Testament with queer AIDS drama Parting Glances to examine the two ever-present apocalypses, one a never-realised threat and the other an active destroyer allowed to unforgivably fester, weighing on the minds of Americans in the mid-80s. These are extremely strong pieces of film criticism that demonstrate the value of Mutants’ outsider viewpoints.
But some of these essays, I feel, do some Elastigirl-level stretching to try and make their theses work. The first essay proper, pairing Roman Polanski’s seminal Rosemary’s Baby with Roger Corman’s exploitation hit Bloody Mama, is the book’s longest but never seems to figure out what its overall point is. I think it’s trying to examine the late-60s backlash to progressive movements expressed in both films, but that gets lost in way too many digressions and a limp ending.
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McKenna’s essay comparing Michael Mann’s Manhunter with the forgotten Disney fantasy Dragonslayer similarly spends a lot of time flailing for connections it can’t quite make, in service of a point – a refutation(?) of the simplistic hero narratives pushed forward by Lucas’ mega-hit Star Wars – which never gains much substance. Weakest of all is the very last, seeing Roberts match up two mega-hits, Lethal Weapon and Basic Instinct, for an incoherent mish-mash of male misogyny, emotional impotence, cowboy cop attitudes amongst others that requires some truly tortuous associations and devolves into borderline fan-fic by the end. (Any piece of academic or critical analysis which uses the phrase “because it’s obvious what should have happened” for its concluding passage needs re-sending to the drawing board.)
Outside of some essays not carrying their share of the weight, We Are the Mutants can also be a needlessly difficult book to read. I stand by my earlier comment that it’s an “approachable” read in how it tackles the substance and analysis contained within. But the presentation and construction of that substance can be rough, indulgent, wayward.
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Extended, heavily-verbose, excessively punctuated with every single weapon in that repertoire, near-paragraph-long run-on sentences are the norm rather than the exception. And those paragraphs can take up almost an entire page before they break. Many of those sentences and paragraphs contain multiple bracket-laden diversions that prove overwhelming to keep track of. In paperback, it can be really exhausting, a remnant of the outlet’s online origins. The fact that I, somebody who continues to be guilty of these crimes (and used to be way worse), am taking notice of this should reveal how severe of a problem it is. A stronger editorial hand could’ve been utilised.
Like I said, the substance of the content contained within We Are the Mutants frequently ranges from good to great. Satisfying and thought-provoking regardless of one’s level of film literacy, even if the truncated conclusion fails to cohere a wider point to these various essays. When all of these writers are on, they produce some strong critical analysis which provides fresh perspectives on this thoroughly-mined period of film history. But a few bum essays and a general undisciplined delivery of the book overall hold it back from being a must-own.
We Are the Mutants is out now in eBook and paperback from Repeater Books.