In Part I of my “Go Ask Alice” posts, I suggested that your money might be better spent renting the SyFy Channel’s update of the Alice in Wonderland story called Alice and waiting to see Tim Burton’s version on cable. While I enjoyed much of Burton’s film, I honestly have no faults with the SyFy version (though the lyricism of the original is gone from the latter). Those familiar with SyFy Saturday film offerings should be reasonably skeptical here, but unlike those z-rate bad CGI throwaways, Alice is a medium budget film, has both new comers and accomplished actors and actresses, and a well written script.
Like Burton’s version, SyFy’s Alice also stars a grown up main character in a Wonderland set in the far of future from the time of the original story. This time the mid-to-late 20 something Alice lives with her mother and believes her father abandoned them when she was just a girl. She is drawn into the world of Wonderland through the capture of her boyfriend and potential fiance Jack, who is seemingly kidnapped by the White Rabbit. Thus begins an adventure that is more 1960s 007 than Victorian classic in which Alice holds the key to restoring both Wonderland and the lives of enslaved human beings.
At the center of the plot for SyFy’s version of the classic tale is a sort of Brave New World dependence on drugs to make the Wonderland population docile and obedient. To quote Director, Nick Willing:
“What I was interested in was [the idea of] being able to manufacture your emotions. One of the things I fear may happen to us is that we swap genuine emotions for something that is given to us. We cry at the television commercial and think that those tears are genuine. I was fascinated with, not so much in how these things could be addictive, but how we are slowly constructing a world where we swap genuine emotions or something which is manufactured cheaply. Wonderland seemed to be a good place to set that in because the Queen of Hearts has that kind of personality in the book.” (SyFy)
In this world, the “soma” comes from the milking of human emotions against their will and without their knowledge. The White Rabbit, an organization of henchmen trained to serve the interests of the Queen of Hearts, use the Looking Glass to enter the human world and steal unsuspecting humans for the procedure. These humans, called “oysters” because of the “precious pearl” of emotions inside them, are then put in a trance state and sent to the Casino where neurotransmitters in the floor collect their emotional responses to sexual stimulus, success at gambling, and other similar emotions. Like the oysters in the original Alice and Wonderland, the humans are entirely consumed by the people supposedly caring for and keeping them safe. Their emotions fuel a legal drug trade that is robbing Wonderland of its sanity, strength, and sense of purpose. Among those in charge are the re-imagined Walrus and Carpenter who are in control of the emotions extraction science and who, in the case of the Carpenter, ensure Alice’s import to revolution.
Standing against the tide is the resistance made up of a series of human versions of anthropomorphised animal characters from the book.
There are no animals in Alice, unless you count the completely erased Cheshire cat. Instead, each of the characters has been re-imagined as human on both sides of the war. As I’ve already said, the White Rabbit is no langer a bunny in a top coat but instead a white haired man in a full suit with two ponytails down his back like rabbit ears. Alongside him, and his fellow henchmen who wear the mark of the White Rabbit organization, is Mad March (the hare). Willing’s March is a goon straight out of Goodfellas with a heavy accent and a pension for violence. A previous accident has left him without a head, so in keeping with the animals as human theme, Mad March’s head has been replaced by a porcelain rabbit head.
The “animals” on the resistance side are no less imaginative. Dodo has been transformed from a bird into a cunning leader of the resistance played by Tim Curry. Where the original Dodo and the “caucus race” highlighted the problems with governmental caucus during the late 1800s, the re-imagined Dodo questions the efficacy of a resistance in which winning matters more than the people for whom one fights. Tim Curry’s Dodo is willing to kill both oysters and Wonderlanders to overthrow the Queen of Hearts and he is willing to do so without consulting the rest of the resistance leadership. Moreover, at one point in his struggle with Hatter, he tells the members of his cell (also animals in the original) that they will not have to live in the basement any longer, implying that his real motivation is his own personal power over the political system of Wonderland. Whether you read Dodo as a beleaguered rebel who has sold his idealism for the follies of power over others or as a dogmatic leader who was really never as interested in the people as he was being at the helm of the cause, this re-imagining is a powerful though brief critique of politics on the left.
Perhaps the best re-imagining of an animal character is the Caterpillar, who is now the eccentric head of the resistance. While he is visually stunning in his velvet smoking jacket that resembles the actual animal, gone is the seemingly nonsensical wisdom and condescending majestic of the character. Instead, this Caterpillar knows exactly who Alice is and why she is needed. Though he still seems to float outside of both worlds, he lets Alice know in no uncertain terms what is at stake in the struggle for Wonderland. Like Burton’s White Queen, he also asks Alice to choose the burden she must bear, but unlike Burton’s White Queen, he comes across as both compassionate and burdened by the struggle around him. As the alternative face of resistance, he both contextualizes why Dodo would have grown weary with his underground machinations and why real activism requires a commitment to The People (both the oppressed and those who have not yet learned that oppression exists) as much as the ideas for social justice to be successful.
While all of these characters are truly innovative and seeing how they translate is its own kind of magic, the absence of the Cheshire Cat illustrates what is lost in the SyFy version. Instead of the magical disappearing creature who is both wise and wily, we get an ordinary cat who walks through one scene in order to direct Alice’s attention to where she must go. In the original the animals provided both the biting critique and the whimsy of the text, their poetry and lyrical deconstruction of words and ideology was essential to the wonder in the land. SyFy’s Alice has neither lyricism nor much non-human magic, in fact, in a very literal sense, magic is replaced by technology. For die-hards of the original, the absences here will be a major stumbling block and yet, as some one who loves the lyricism and what it represents in the orignal Alice in Wonderland, I can’t say this version is worse, rather it is unique and intriguing despite its key differences. (I would also add that Willing’s Hatter is in some ways the way I would imagine the Cheshire Cat as human. His spikey hair, humor, and ability to move between the Queendom and the resistance with guile, is very similar to the dual agent I assume the Cat would be in Willing’s Wonderland, and yet, I think Willing really should have put his immense imagination toward transforming the Cheshire Cat as a character in his own right.)
You will also note that the absence of animals also means the absence of comment on the treatment of animals.
Women and/or Feminism
The conflict in SyFy’s Alice is between the resistance and the Hearts. Men outnumber women on both sides of the conflict, and in fact, the resistance is almost exclusively populated by men versus the Hearts which have some key female players. This is obviously problematic; what kind of new world will Wonderlanders have if there are no high ranking female resistance fighters? Nevertheless, the women on all sides of the conflict represent intelligent, savvy, and self-directed characters who do what they want to get what they want.
In the real world, Alice is a martial arts expert with commitment issues. One of Willing’s most subtle comments on gender politics, is the way he consistently blocks the characters in fight scenes so that the men of the resistance try to position Alice behind them but ultimately Alice must come from behind to protect both herself and them. Time and again, it is Alice who rescues them from impossible odds with her physical strength and bravery. Though, like the original, she often marches into situations without a clue how she will handle them, she also comes up with some of the best plans to rescue her father, her friends, and the humans.
Where her feminism may falter, is in the fact that Alice is motivated by her heterosexual love affair with Jack. All though she will not go with Jack when he invites her to meet his mother, she follows him through the Looking Glass when she thinks he is in danger. Her decision is far from lovestruck, she actually falls into the Looking Glass while demanding the White Rabbit agent tell her what he has done to Jack. Nevertheless, she does not go to Wonderland out of curiosity or interest but rather to find her boyfriend.
Despite all of the stories about the oppressive reign of the Queen of Hearts, during the first half of the movie Alice cares very little about the oppression in Wonderland. Instead, she continues to redirect everyone to her quest to save Jack. When Hatter tells her that she has inspired him to join the resistance in earnest and fight for his people’s freedom, Alice actually gets upset because she is starting to like him and his decision for the greater good means he can’t spend all his time following her around. This is hardly revolutionary sexual politics here. All though her motivation changes near the end of the film, toward saving all of the humans, her story still ends with the kind of family romance tale of patriarchy’s past. (And just to be clear, it is a romantic tale in which I too rooted for the man Alice chooses and was swept away by their reunion, but it is still problematic that Alice’s story ends with “alas dear reader, I married him.”)
The Queen of Hearts in Alice is true to the original in her myopia and her cruelty. Unlike Burton, who reduces the Queen to a differently-abled meglomaniac whose psychosis is a direct result of her “laughable” physical difference, Willing gives us a Queen drunk on power. She runs the kingdom with a heavy hand not because she is unloved, the King loves her, but because she is easily bored and does not tolerate incompetence. Her commitment to the mining of human emotions is also more complex than simply oppressing one group of people (humans) in order to oppress another (Wonderlanders); in this version, the drugs keep Wonderland’s economy booming and an economic depression at bay. Much like Dodo then, the Queen is a commentary on investment in power by any means necessary. Like Thatcher, the Queen of Hearts uses the master’s tools to run the Queendom and those tools are based upon and honed in oppression. For those who support a feminist narrative invested in female leadership at any cost, the Queen of Hearts has done her part. She employs a vast amount of the population, works to keep the economy prosperous, has ended overt war, and is respected as the most powerful person in the land and yet, she is a violent, slave-owning, leader who spies on and terrifies her people and revels in the psychotic aspects of her rule. Hardly the woman anyone would want in charge or representing the face of feminism.
The Duchess/ Dittiger/SyFy
Rounding out the female cast is the Duchess, Jack’s fiance. I must admit that what I love about her is that she looks like she was torn from the pages of Barbarella with her long tresses, heavy eye make-up, and go go boots. As implied, where Alice represents female brain and braun and the Queen of Hearts represents corrupt female leadership, the Duchess is all female sexual power. While many will dismiss her as just another pretty face in a short skirt, the Queen of Hearts tells us the Duchess is one of her best operatives. Not only is she good at getting information and manipulating men around her, but it soon becomes clear that the Duchess is no coquette. Instead, she understands that in the largely male world of Wonderland her survival depends on the ability to both manipulate men and align with powerful women. Like Alice, in the course of the story, she never compromises her own integrity for power. And while she does feel considerably jealous of Alice, Willing makes sure not to play up unilateral violence or internalized sexism between the two women beyond the Duchess’ reducing Alice with a glare. There is something wonderful about how Willing allows the Duchess to work while still making Alice the object of desire in the room; in lesser hands, these moments would have come off as trite, useless female infighting, or simply a game of who is prettier (which they do play but only until everyone’s motivations are finally on the table).
The Duchess, Jack, and Alice/ Dittiger/SyFy
While I would not say that these characters are all feminist or even that the majority of them are, they are far more complex than either the orignal Alice in Wonderland or Tim Burton’s film make women out to be. I liked that each one of the main female characters had both positive and negative characteristics, that they were motivated by both individual feeling and larger structural issues, and that at no time did the script degenerate into a “cat fight” that demeaned one or more of the women involved. Instead Willing’s directorial eye seems to treat each of these women with respect even as he remains true to the critique of the Queen and her Queendom.
This is not to say that film is without unnecessary eye candy. The casino is populated by Vegas Show Girls and mini-skirted black jack dealers whose job is to look pretty and keep the peace. Most of these girls have no names and no lines and are simply background. And while the femme in me revels at the Duchess’ outfits and thinks they are appropriate for the role she plays, some will likely take offense to how much skin she shows and that her major power comes from seduction.
The only woman on the side of the resistance, besides Alice, is a mouse; literally a woman playing what was once a mouse in the original text. She dresses like a 1950s housewife and squeaks her way through her role. However, when she believes the resistance is threatened she steps up, showing a steely resolve that is otherwise absent from the character.
10 of clubs/dittiger/SyFy
Willing also does a great job of taking a film originally set in England and remembering that it can populate it with anyone. While there are no people of color in major roles, there are two in recurring ones. Both the Nine and Ten of Clubs are played by men of color, one Asian-Canadian and one Latino. Both of these characters are high ranking officers in the Queens court and empowered to put even her son and her spies in check when they are not following the Queens demands. The Nine of Clubs, played by Alessandro Juliani, formerly Commander Gaeta on BSG, is so important that the King of Hearts stays his execution when the King orders him killed in a rage.
There are no major female characters of color in Alice. However, Carmelina Cupo, who is 1/2 Italian and 1/2 Latina, plays the only dealer in the Casino with a speaking role. Like the men of color in the Queens court, Cupo holds a position that is seemingly interchangeable and yet integral to the running of the entire Queendom. Cupo also tries to stand up to Alice when Alice begins the overthrow of the Hearts.
The near absence of women of color calls the Duchess’ role into question. As the femme fatale, her blonde-haired blue-eyed, alabaster skinned, presence as the woman everyone wants reaffirms white hegemony through sexual desire. Not only is she Barbie but she is a Duchess to Cupo’s black jack girl. And yet, in a world in which woc are absent, Willing really does take the Barbie as beautiful myth to task by making Alice the center of everyone’s attention and desire and recasting Alice as a dark haired, intelligent, and physically strong woman. Ultimately, the critical eye he takes to white women does not negate the need for more women of color in this film.
It is always easy to excuse away why there are no characters of color in fantasy or sci-fi, especially when the material was written in the past. What astounds me about how easy it is, is the fact that people are willing to accept talking animals, singing plants, or even aliens and twenty tentacled demons before they are willing to ask why there are no people of color or queer folk in fantasy land. While Willing doesn’t offer us major poc characters, or any queer ones, I for one am grateful he at least tried.
Frewer as the White Knight/Dittiger/SyFy
As I said in my review of Burton’s Alice and Wonderland, the ableism of that movie is entirely invented when it comes to physical difference. Willing therefore neither needs nor uses similar devices in his plot. In fact, he has stripped Hatter of his supposed madness, which readers of the book will know was more of a disguise than an imbalance anyway, and replaced it with cunning and know-how.
There is one character who is clearly “mad”: The White Knight. Matt Frewer, who usually delights, was grating as the seemingly unstable man who has taken on the White Knight persona in lieu of there being any surviving Knights from the war. His madness however is indistinguishable from his actual psychic abilities and pure luck. In many ways, Willing offers us a character whose abilities are more in keeping with the idea of people, regardless of ability, as differently-abled; while the sane characters in his script are prone to inexplicable behavior, the mad man in Alice is often able to use his “madness” to get the job done. When he fails, he fails due to cowardice not mental instability.
What Alice lacks in whimsy and lyricism, it more than makes up for in intrigue and innovation. The story is compelling from beginning to end. Instead of giving us trite and transparent venues and flat characters, Alice and it’s Director, Willing, gives us a vibrant, three dimensional, reimagining in which each and every character is complex. (Though I didn’t spend time on them in this review, It should also be noted that Potts does a superb job as Hatter and the re-imagining of Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum as mindbending torturers for the Queen is inspired.) Willing also retains both the class critique of the original and adds to it a critical eye to modern societal issues and what they mean for who we are becoming. His criticism of leadership and his subtle exploration of resistance are far more powerful than much of what we get in this world of blogging, twitter, and headline news.
My only criticisms are that the Cheshire Cat is missing and the White Knight is truly annoying. When Frewer is centered in the scene, I literally found myself holding my head and looking away. But other than that, I did not want to miss a minute and neither should you.
If you didn’t see it on cable in December, you can rent it at your local video store, check it out through Netflix, or buy it for fairly cheap on both itunes and local video stores. I guarantee you that in comparison to the over-hyped and underwhelming Burton version, you will think it is money well spent.