A Storytelling Autopsy: Jason X

What follows is not a review, or even a proper critical evaluation of JASON X. Instead, I'll try to peel back the storytelling mechanics to explain why this space-faring entry in the franchise still haunts us.

(warning: spoilers follow, in the improbable case you haven't seen the film.)

The long delay between JASON GOES TO HELL and the tenth chapter in the Jason Voorhees decathlon was by no means intentional.  When New Line procured the rights to the FRIDAY franchise, their whole intention was to bring FREDDY VS. JASON to fruition, a goal bedeviled by unworkable screenplays, waves of fan apathy and antagonism, and the evolution of New Line Cinema from its origin as an exploitation-based independent to a major force in motion picture distribution. This was no longer the company that produced the original NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET; the company was now more at home producing and marketing the LORD OF THE RINGS trilogy. Where would the ninth sequel to a modest, two-decade old slasher flick figure in the company's asset portfolio?  What, exactly, would receive a green light?

Compounding the issue, a standing, non-negotiable order had been handed down: a new FRIDAY THE 13TH could not in any way interfere with the long-planned Freddy crossover picture, which was in development even as the film that would ultimately become JASON X was being pitched.  There was the challenge: create a commercially viable film with the company's newly raised profit expectations without tripping any of the wires that would eventually feed the acknowledged mammoth property FREDDY VS. JASON.

Why thrust a masked maniac into outer space? Just as James Bond was launched into orbit in response to the blockbuster, game-changing release of STAR WARS, Jason was strapped to a rocket in an attempt to find relevance in a market crowded by George Lucas' immensely successful prequel trilogy and  Peter Jackson's Academy Awards-winning Tolkien adaptations.  Adding a strong fantasy or science fiction element must have seemed like exactly the stunt gimmick that the series needed to keep the character fresh in the public mind.  An added benefit of a far-future, sci-fi setting was that, by design, the time-line would not intrude on FREDDY VS. JASON.

Ironically, JASON X would look to ancient Egypt, or at least the Golden Age of Hollywood’s depiction of it, for the basic framework of a film set in the future.  Borrowing heavily from Universal's 1932 Boris Karloff vehicle, THE MUMMY, JASON X tells the story of an ancient villain, fueled by misguided vengeance, who is brought by archaeologists from his tomb in the “old world” to the new.  Once aboard the Grendel, JASON, like Im-Ho-Tep before him, resumes his pursuit of a woman from his own time.

Reincarnation doesn’t play a role here—Rowan is brought directly from the near future to the far in order to serve as an identifying point for the viewer. But this plot mechanism is introduced more out of tradition than necessity, since the environment aboard the spaceship is never, ever alien. In fact, society, gender roles, military structure, and politics don’t seem to have changed at all since the early 21st century.This presents the film with the first of its many challenges: how to utilize the new setting effectively without straying outside the lines of the elements that FRIDAY must contain. Ultimately, in order to facilitate the requisite

Yes, an argument could be made that the nano-medical technology in the movie qualifies as a legitimate departure from established FRIDAY-lore. On a technical level, that's true, but viewed in a wider context, not at all. Jason, after all, has been resurrected by lightning, a psychic blond, underwater electrical lines, and-- here, even-- proximity to sex, in practical terms, he doesn't need the nanobots, they only sped up the process.  Even the Grendel, in spite of its elaborate futuristic design, is really indistinguishable from MANHATTAN's traditional nautical vessel the Lazarus. The science fiction trappings never inform the plot itself.  And that's the film's central conceptual problem.

That aside, JASON X is a far more divisive film among fans than it probably deserves. As pure pulp, it delivers better than many of the previous entries. It goes far out of its way to deliver a familiar experience, never introducing ideas out of whole cloth (as in GOES TO HELL), never further disrupting the series already-damaged time-line (NEW BLOOD, MANHATTAN), and doesn't force a fundamental change on the series' core character (fear of water in FREDDY VS. JASON). JASON X has remarkable fidelity to the earlier movies, smartly circumnavigating through its sometimes muddy history to create a bedrock mythology. This is the film that finally states it outright: Jason Voorhees cannot be killed, his blood lust can never be satiated, he can regenerate lost and damaged body parts. These are all concepts just off screen in the previous installments, but here they are added fearlessly to cannon.

"Jason in space” is a stumbling block for many fans, and it's an understandable position. What made the original FRIDAY THE 13TH so effective was its simplicity and translatability. Anyone who has ever spent a summer at a camp, or who has gone camping, or just grew up in a rural community could immediately relate to the situation. Even today, when help seems never more than a GPS-enabled smart phone call away, there's an unnerving sense of isolation and helplessness that radiates from the idea of a setting like Camp Crystal Lake. It's harder to conjure up those same primal fears on a spaceship full of horny twentysomethings.  A film like ALIEN, with its similar setting, succeeds because the world it builds is fully realized but never comfortable. Even before the xenomorph launches itself out of its egg, Ridley Scott's film has a sense of cold dread and unease. JASON X, designed as lighter fare, never feels particularly grounded, let alone dangerous, at all, and as such falls victim to the audience's temptations to root for the villain and whoop through the murder scenes. It's a recipe for an empty movie experience.

One curious decision for a film straddling the science fiction genre is choice to tell the story through images rather than characters. Typically, these types of movies uses dialogue between characters to explain the parameters of the world in which the film takes place. In TERMINATOR 2, for instance, Sarah Conner narrates key sections of the film and other times explains the plot to her son- and the audience- in conversation. That way, the viewer has a clear idea of the scope and design of the playing field the drama will unfold upon.  Here, however, there are scant moments where characters explain anything. The nanobots, for instance, are shown at work without any detailed explanation of how the tiny machines actually build to tissue, match blood types, and overcome cellular rejection. This may well be because the Todd Farmer, the screenwriter, saw the explanation as irrelevant to the action at hand. It does make you wonder why, for instance, why the bots haven't accidentally created cybernetic lifeforms on a regular basis. Why would anyone die? Couldn't the entire cast, after meeting their demises at Jason's hands, be brought back as cyborgs? The limitation of visual storytelling, so different than the overly-analytical approach of, say, STAR TREK- is that the world of JASON X is never clearly defined. As such, the viewer cannot anticipate what would or would not work as the story unfolds, which forces the experience to be more passive than previous installments. You can always ponder what you would do to survive the events of PART II, but here, that's impossible.

JASON X's saving grace is its pace. There's no break in the action for its entire duration- blood, breasts, or special effects, there's always something colorful and compelling on screen. And if it all feels a little (or a lot) contrived, that's a small price to pay for the thrill of frozen heads slammed into metal tabletops, military grunts slowly rotating down giant drill bits, and an uber-attractive girl diced into cubes by metal grates. This is a film that knows exactly what it is and sets out to deliver the goods, without the aid of metaphor, anchoring motifs, or any other storytelling frills. This is pure, loud, bloody escapism. And on that level, it works.

In its final moments, JASON X decides to reinvent the body of its title player, but makes absolutely no attempt to at all alter the character himself. He may be made of glittery chrome metal, but he's still the same murderous psycho underneath his new clothes. The same can be said of the film, which proudly repaints its walls without changing the floor plan.  For some, the film fails because of the new paint scheme. For others, it fails because it didn't become the film that the new appearance suggested it should. And for yet others, a minority, it works perfectly as a winking, nodding, self-aware but unpretentious popcorn flick.

After this, the series stopped fighting with its fans and found a new opponent.
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