An opportunity to see the new release of a famous filmmaker is one that must be taken. Watching a movie from the likes of Tarantino, Scorsese or Fincher is being a part of film history. Even though you have seen their old films, seeing a new one in theaters creates a better understanding of the intended experience because they are made to be shown on the big screen. David Cronenberg is one of those directors.
I would not call myself a fan, but I like what Cronenberg does. He uses practical effects, his direction is flawless, his themes reach depths horror directors can only dream of, and his satire, though intensely Canadian, is fun and insightful. Even his more conventional works like A History of Violence and Eastern Promises stand alongside The Fly and Naked Lunch. If you have any interest in body horror and/or satire, Cronenberg deserves your time. Should you begin with Maps to the Stars or one of his earlier films?
If you have seen the trailer, I understand if you are apprehensive to buy a ticket. One cannot deny Stars has probably one of the worst ever made. In my experience, however, the more worse the trailer (Superbad), the better the movie, and vice-versa (X-Men Origins: Wolverine (seriously, that movie is total garbage; thanks Gavin Hood, you fuck)). Turns out, my trailer theory was proven correct.
The story centers on an ensemble of characters, but the protagonist is Agatha, played by Mia Wasikowska, a burn victim and newcomer to Hollywood. Her stay conflicts with the lives of Havana, played by Julianne Moore, the daughter of a deceased starlet, and Benjie, played by Evan Bird, a child actor on his way to fame. Cristina, played by Olivia Williams, and Stafford, played by John Cusack, Benjie’s parents, become involved in the chaos that ensues.
Cronenberg specializes in body horror. His movies create a sense of discomfort using sexuality, phobias, and realism in the effects. With great direction, the moments of horror are presented in such a way that you feel what is happening on screen. Since A History of Violence he has diverged from his signature, peppering in a few moments here and there.
In Stars he moves back to his roots while adopting many aspects of psychological horror. Family is the most apparent theme and the idea of mental illness passed down from generation to generation. It is inevitable and unavoidable, no matter how hard you try to hide it. The theme is so clearly defined it borders on satire. I cannot get into why that is because of spoilers, but it gets ridiculous towards the end.
One example I can provide is that of Havana. As she prepares for a role her mother Clarice played, she is haunted by hallucinations of a younger Clarice taunting her for being old, having fabricated memories about an abusive childhood, and being irrelevant. The dynamic between them is a reverse of when narcissistic parents live through their children. Havana becomes so desperate to be her mother she loses her mind. Even after she achieves her goal, Havana is left wanting and cannot move on.
Stars would not succeed without its fantastic cast. Everyone is good, especially those in minor roles, with a standout performance from Julianne Moore. She epitomizes the archetypical Hollywood starlet that wants the world, but is held back by reality. Imagine Norma Desmond from Sunset Blvd on a combination of prescription drugs and a mental illness.
For the dark tone and disturbing content, Stars is unintentionally funny at times. As the film progresses, especially after a few key revelations, the humor begins to decline, maintaining a consistent tone. And as stated before, the story gets very ridiculous, but if you are used to Cronenberg and Canadian satire, there is nothing to complain about.
In addition to a compelling family drama, Maps of the Stars is a movie about the effects of stardom on one’s psyche. It may come off pretentious at times, but it is well worth your time and money. However, if you are unfamiliar with Cronenberg, I recommend watching one of his previous films to develop a better understanding of who he is and how he tells stories. I also recommend Antiviral from Cronenberg’s son Brandon.