Our Favorites: Conspiracy Theory Movies.
It’s time for another installment of the award-show feature where we look at our favorite films, actors, and actresses in a given genre. Seeing as this month we’re looking at conspiracy theories, we’re going to broaden the top category to include every major vein of conspiracy that’s been given any significant treatment in movies (and I mean actual movies, not Revenge of the Chupacabra or any of the million “proof” documentaries floating around on Netflix.)
1. Aliens are Among Us!
Contenders: The X-Files, They Live!, Men in Black, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Cocoon.
The Winner: Men in Black (1997)
This film series took the conspiracy theory ubiquitous at the time (and no doubt amped up by the wildly popular X-Files series) and ran with it, adding charm, humor, and spectacular effects. K (Tommy Lee Jones) is a member of a secret para-governmental agency that keeps aliens on earth a secret, bounces hostile ET’s and mind-wipes people who may have seen anything suspicious. He recruits a new partner, J (Will Smith) who learns first hand that all of the alien legends and popular fascination is mostly true, but only the tip of the iceberg.
2. Secret Powerful Organizations are Hiding the Truth (about Something?!)
Contenders: The Skulls, National Treasure, The Da Vinci Code, Syriana, The X-Files.
Winner: The Da Vinci Code (2006)
This film is a grab bag of classical conspiracy tropes. Powerful secretive organization with global reach? The Vatican will do nicely! Ties to a famous eccentric figure in history? Says so in the title! A plucky outsider with no training in detection finding what whole scads of highly trained and motivated professionals can’t see? We’ve got a frumpy academic symbologist (thanks liberal arts majors) with a weird comb-over played by Tom Hanks, so we’re good to go. Finally, do we have a puzzle made of unrelated topics, cryptic gibberish, and a woeful misunderstanding of history, science, politics and common sense? Check to all of the above.
Robert Langdon (Hanks) is an academic in a niche field who is drawn into a mysterious murder which has ties to both Da Vinci, the Church, and a rumored secret society which believes Jesus had a child and the Church covered it up. He gets stalked by a creepy albino assassin (which really blends in, great choice of cover…) and gets endlessly lectured by Magneto before finally solving the puzzle by thatching together all of the bull shit. This movie was based on the wildly popular book, which in turn was based on a brain embolism and a spelling error in a French manuscript. No joke.
3. Cryptozoological Animals are Real!
Contenders: Harry and the Hendersons, Anaconda, Baby, The Mothman Prophecies.
The Winner: The Mothman Prophecies (2002)
The goal of an urban legend is to scare the piss out of listeners, and The Mothman accomplishes that in spades. It is ostensibly a humanoid creature with wings and glowing red eyes who shows up in an area shortly before a tragedy. Despite its sinister looks and propensity for peering into windows late at night, it actually is beneficial as it is supposed to leave cryptic messages to a select few people, which if heeded can help to lessen the death toll of the oncoming tragedy.
Richard Gere plays a big city journalist headed to a pumpkin patch town in West Virginia to follow up on reports of odd sightings. Once there, he is confronted by the being itself, that can contact him even through a disconnected phone. The odd audio clues it gives Gere help him to unravel a mystery that saves both himself and others from a potentially catastrophic accident. All while being incredibly creepy and the kind of nightmare fuel that has kept me from ever giving this movie a second viewing. Those glowing red eyes? Fuck that. Fuck all over that.
4. Political Assassinations and Cover-Ups
Contenders: JFK, Conspirators, The Parallax View, The Manchurian Candidate.
The Winner: JFK (1991)
The Kennedy assassination is the mother of all conspiracy theories. Besides Elvis still being alive, there’s been no high profile death covered in so many movies, both great and awful. Oliver Stone (who definitely seems to be drinking his own Kool-Aid on this subject) assembles a stellar cast and a copious amount of footage to make his case for the second shooter on the grassy knoll. By the end of this film, you will instinctively flinch every time you hear the phrase “back…and to the left.”
New Orlean’s District Attorney Jim Garrison (Kevin Costner) is a dog with a bone, and that bone is the Kennedy assassination. When he discovers evidence and footage that don’t jibe with the single shooter narrative, he pursues his case all the way to the top, despite a cabal of hush-men and enforcers targeting him and his family.
Best Actor in a Conspiracy Film
Contenders: Robert Redford, David Duchovny, Tom Hanks, Gene Hackman.
The Winner: Gene Hackman
While Redfords’s 3 Days of the Condor may be one of the best conspiracy films ever made, Hackman wins this category by dint of his body of work. The guy has been in more conspiracy thrillers than Shaq has been in commercials. The Conversation, Enemy of the State, The Firm, Absolute Power, and The Package are just a smattering. Seriously, the list would look like a telephone book page. Hackman’s acerbic wit and glorious angry face make him a natural in the genre which usually focuses on a tough as nails loner who is smarter than organizations with billions of dollars, millions of cover stories, and thousands of hit-men. Being pissed off and sarcastic is just part of the job description.
Best Actress in a Conspiracy Film
Contenders: Julia Roberts, Helen Mirren, Sandra Bullock, Gillian Anderson.
The Winner: Julia Roberts
Roberts wins by having two top notch performances in a loony toons movie: The Pelican Brief, and the aptly titled Conspiracy Theory. She manages to nail the role of the skeptic who has seen too much (sorry Gillian Anderson, I know that that’s your milkshake she’s sipping!) She helps to sell the wild eyed theories around her by being that uncommon blend of deeply mistrustful but open to believing bat-shit theories. Given that she famously played Erin Brokovich, who is currently inhaling deeply from the fumes of the anti-science cesspit that has become California, I foresee Julia Roberts getting a chance to star in another conspiracy theory movie in the near future…
Best Worst Documentary
Contenders: Loose Change, Food Inc., Syrius, Zeitgeist the Movie, Tupac Assassination II: The Reckoning.
The Winner: Loose Change
Despite the fact that I love that Tupac Assassination has not only two films to its name, but also a bitching sub-title, I have to give this category to the ultimate conspiracy nut-job flick, Loose Change, which posits that the 9/11 terrorist attacks were misrepresented in several ways. This film actually went through 3 or 4 revisions, as each of their hilariously bogus theories got shot in the foot and limped back home to get patched up with further misinformation and hyperventilating. Therefore it is hard to state definitely which assertion they are making at any given time, except that the official account is a hoax and a closely guarded government conspiracy. This documentary series gained life on the internet before making its way to a full length film and several showings on FOX, which should surprise nobody. It spawned hundreds of imitators and became the formula for theory buffs to present their cases on any number of other subjects. For opening the floodgate of quasi-respectability to numerous other loons, this documentary wins the prize for Best Worst Documentary.