The Hills Have Eyes 2

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

If The Hills Have Eyes '05 derives meaning from nuclear guilt, then The Hills Have Eyes 2 is born out of military regret. Minutes into the film, Buck Private Napoli offers a timid defense of his politics and his CONVERSATION NOT CONFRONTATION bumper sticker: he just doesn't think the President should lie so much. Our representative of the military, Sergeant Millstone (nice solid name), offers a reasonable defense - it's the Prez's job - and we have our basic party lines. Well, our highest-ranking representative available; there was a Colonel recently, but he was speared through the chest and thrown off a cliff.

Our highest-ranking military representative, in turn, will die, and sooner rather than later. Our next de facto commanding officer will get his soon after.

We know from Hills '78/'05 that this lanky leftist, whose moment of compassion just cost his entire squad their lives, is to be our centerpiece. The ne minus ultra of an inept squad, he has the longest possible character arc to violent retaliatory rage. Sarge disregards his mild insistence that his name is Napoli - and so PVT Napoli will henceforth be Napoleon: a great military leader.

(Sarge will also refer to Napoli as Private Pyle, longtime military shorthand for incompetence and naïveté, but in post-1987 cinema, also an optional assaultive nickname for a mind who can't handle it, ref. Full Metal Jacket.)

The Hills Have Eyes films ('78 and '05) are both about the journey from average guy (preferably pacifist) to victim to - well, not aggressor, but something resembling it: to violent defender, maybe, or unhinged, unwilling combatant. Both contain a point at which the beleaguered Doug goes into battle by necessity, but with full knowledge of his actions.

The Hills Have Eyes 2 considers a basic parallel, but doesn't quite have the same dedication. Napoleon can't entirely make up his mind - he starts expectably scared, gradually forced by circumstance to move forward. As leadership figures fall away, he rises to the challenge in baby steps, never really gaining momentum. He's pushed along, his reactions mildly, uselessly intelligent, but never as bright as we should expect from the skinniest, least gung-ho soldier in a squad, badly in need of a chance to prove himself. His Eagle Scout background is solely useful for a single knot. He continues his path not with growing, internalized frustration, but with uncertainty: he backs going into the cave, then favors going after the captured Missy. Later, he pleads with Amber not to go after Missy.

It doesn't matter much, really, because the defining moment for Doug comes at the end; we don't get to see what becomes of him. In 2005, Alexandre Aja recreated Craven's 1977 moment, roughly: the film's climax, at which our former pacifist bludgeons, viciously and uncontrollably, his prostrate opponent.

Nap reaches this point about an hour in.

Then Amber reaches it a bit later. Then Missy reaches it. Then Napoleon reaches it again.

It's not that a single downward bayonet stab is the same as an epic, red-washed freakout, but in a film series where the single key moment is a loss of control accompanied by a repeated bludgeoning of a fully horizontal opponent beneath a once-peaceful victim, a downward stab carries more than just another torsoful of M-16 bullets - and the Cravens and Weisz revealingly choose to dispatch more than half of the creatures that way.

So why kick them when they're down? When Missy kicks her unconscious rapist in the head, there's no surprise. When she sledgehammers her freshly revived rapist repeatedly in the groin, the filmmakers attempt to offer a middle ground. No viewer would think that a character taking the opportunity to strike her rapist in the groin constitutes reaching the edge in the way Doug's fit of anger does. Both Amber and Napoleon drive bayonets downward at the heads and torsos of their combatants without necessarily suffering any loss of sanity. These perfectly reasonable deathblows, though, negate the centerpiece of the film series. Why echo Doug's assault if you don't mean it?

They both lose control momentarily, striking more than necessary, accompanied by yelling, but none of the attacks are character-changing in the way we understand Doug's to be. Unless The Hills Have Eyes 2 intends to mediate. With soldiers, it can afford to do so. As Sarge points out, their training hasn't been particularly successful, and so our dubious heroes occupy a nebulous point: less tactical than soldiers, better armed than civilians. Starting as novice soldiers, this isn't a transformation of victim to aggressor or pacifist to warrior, but one of rookies to vets. They expected one thing, led up the nonproverbial mountain path by their commanding officer. Once there, they found themselves in a different scenario, found their lives were at risk in a way they hadn't expected, and found themselves changed as a group and as individuals by the experience of having to die and kill. In other words, they set out to help, to search and rescue, and found themselves at war.

In other other words, tens of thousands of National Guard troops have been deployed to the Middle East, up to a third of the total Army occupying force at times. Guard troops remaining home share equipment between states to make up for the equipment sent to Iraq. Thousands of National Guard troops from Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama, along with generators and high-water vehicles sorely missed by U.S. rescue efforts, watched television broadcasts in Baghdad as Hurricane Katrina leveled the states they had signed up to guard.

In 2006, Congress authorized suspension of the law that prohibits using National Guard and military forces for police-type actions within U.S. In the same year, Bush called for 6000 National Guard troops (from the current 350) to work bouncer duty on the Mexican border.

Pointedly, our squad is National Guard, not Army. With the film taking place on a military installation, it could as easily have been the Army, but they're here to refer to the Guard unfairly called to duty. The mission they are given, the Cravens say, is not their true duty. They spend the course of this film looking in a cave for a bad guy, trying to bail out their teammates, who are in there because of improper communication and handling by the higher-ups. The parallel isn't subtle.

Our introduction to this particular squad comes in Kandahar, Afghanistan. It takes seconds for us to realize they didn't know what they were doing there, in any sense of the phrase.

Soon after our troops stumble through their primary warzone exercise, the movie pulls back to explain what has just happened: their visit to Kandahar was a bluff. It had been hoped that they would gain valuable experience, but they weren't prepared for what they found in Afghanistan, and the experience has served only to reveal their unreadiness. The commanding officer is disappointed: these kids weren't ready for war.

It may seem overly specific and politically motivated to say so, but the film gives it away with a final post-credits disclaimer: May the missions they are given be worthy of the sacrifices they will make.

A look back to the 2005 Hills Have Eyes confirms it all on one more level. The bad guy we're looking for is one created by our own militarism. The nuclear themes of the first film have been dropped, but there's still a roomful of plastic generals, mired in permanent dealings. The original family was born out of nuclear hunger, and by extension, its descendant Papa Hades and clan are also here by virtue of our military meddling (one mutant wears U.S. Army garb to underscore the point). The conflict has been updated to the relevant National Guard-related issues, and we face again the lessons of real-life U.S. geopolitical engineering. In the 2007 real world, the cave-dwelling bogeyman du jour is one we supplied with machine guns and training. The Cravens present a 2007 filmic world no different. We're still free - encouraged, even - to be horrified by the bad guy's actions -- but there's no denying that we brought this on ourselves.

Reviewed by Matthew Abrams
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