Last week I reviewed Vicious Lips, a horrid wreck of a sci-fi monster movie that’s redeemed only by its abundance of camp and cheese. Feel free to look that review over if the premise captures your interest, and maybe give it a watch if you think it’s for you, but be warned that this analysis will be full of spoilers. Because, y’know, it’s so criminal to spoil a thirty-year old cult schlockfest.
Anyway, one kernel of thoughtfulness present in Vicious Lips’ clunky script is its nuanced take on the moral of what it means to aspire, and how one manages those aspirations. A simple “follow your dreams” this film is not. Although its message is overt in only a brief section of the script, trawling the film (especially its climax) for symbolism dredges up some fascinatingly complex themes.
In case you missed it, the plot of the film follows Judy Jetson, a plucky young singer pulled from a talent show by skeevy band manager Matty Asher to join new wave band the Vicious Lips. Matty needs Judy to replace Ace Lucas, their late lead singer who quit the band literal moments before walking right into an auto accident. To avoid confusion and to spare reprinting the promotional material, Judy is rechristened with Ace Lucas’ name, much to the chagrin of her mourning bandmates Bree, Wynzi, and Mandoa. After their first gig together, they’re invited to perform at nightclub owner Maxine Mortogo’s Radioactive Dream on the other side of the galaxy. They steal a spaceship to make the gig, but end up crash landing on a deserted planet halfway there. They send Matty out into the desert to find help, but unbeknownst to the Vicious Lips, that leaves them alone with a Venusian beast that was aboard their stolen spacecraft.
While the beast lurks in the spaceship’s vents and walkways, Judy struggles to bond with her bandmates, who rebuff her attempts at conversation and jab at her greenness whenever possible. Just before the climax of the film, where the Venusian beast escapes from its holding cell and terrorizes the Vicious Lips, the following exchange occurs between Judy and Wynzi.
JUDY: Boy Wynzi, you sure have a lot of make-up. You change so much all the time, it’s hard to tell what you really look like.
WYNZI: This is me. Under all this shit is shit. Just like my life.
JUDY: Ever think about quitting?
WYNZI: Never. If I didn’t have the band, I have nothing.
JUDY: I’ll do anything to make it, Wynzi. Anything.
WYNZI: Would you have sex with a fungi dwarf?
JUDY: Gross! No way!
WYNZI: I did. That was really a low point.
JUDY: What happens if you don’t make it?
JUDY: What happens if you don’t make it?
WYNZI: What do you mean by that?
JUDY: I’m just wondering!
WYNZI: Go away.
Judy’s question pierces Wynzi’s attitude like a knife, prompting her to dismiss and deflect the question. Wynzi and the other Vicious Lips want to be in a band – they want to play music, they want to succeed, they want to “make it” – but they don’t care. Wynzi’s drug-addled apathy reflects her lack of genuine passion for what she does; the Vicious Lips play music because that’s all they have, hence “without the band, I’d have nothing.” Despite their apathy towards what they do, the suggestion that the Vicious Lips may fail entirely, that they might not “make it” as Judy asks, prods a tender weak spot in their state of denial. The Vicious Lips exist in limbo between success and failure. Success involves more work and seriousness than they’re willing to put in, failure involves, well, failing. Wynzi is stuck firmly in the complacent comfort zone of just getting by. If they don’t make it to “the dream?” Eh, so what, but that’s the kind of attitude that may doom their careers to crash land, too.
Soon after, another bandmate, Mandoa, finds a contact number for another singer-seeking band among Judy’s belongings, prompting the following dialogue:
MANDOA: I thought you wanted to be in our band.
JUDY: I haven’t decided what I want yet.
MANDOA: Matty picked it right.
MANDOA: Your name, “Ace.” You’re just like her. Little girl on the outside. Shark on the inside. Like you.
JUDY: Maybe you’re right. Maybe I am like her. Smart.
MANDOA: And I haven’t decided if I want you singing if we make the Dream.
JUDY: Can’t do that. Matty said –
MANDOA: Matty’s out, honey. So are you.
JUDY: Others won’t let you do that. You need a voice. I make your shitty little band.
The aforementioned complacency may be why Judy’s addition to the band provokes such hostility from her fellow band members. Judy is an optimistic and wide-eyed talent eager to be a star. She’s willing to put in the work, she’s willing to rise to the top, and it’s her performance that nabs the band their gig at Maxine’s Radioactive Dream. Judy’s ambition poses a threat to the status quo: if someone actually determined to go the distance joins the band, what does that mean for their comfortably stagnating lifestyles? That’s what separates Judy from her bandmates. While the rest of the Vicious Lips want to be rock stars, but don’t care about it, Judy cares very much about what she does, which is why her deliberate efforts to fit in with the band are met with such frigidity. When they rebuke her, she fights back, claiming that she makes their “shitty little band,” threatening that it’s nothing more than a springboard for bigger and better things. Remember, though, what Judy said when she was confronted with her extra contact number: she hasn’t decided what she wants yet. And that’s where Judy reveals herself to not be the very model of affirmation she seems to be – despite being so confident about being in a band, does she really want to be there?
Soon after this argument, the Venusian beast breaks into the spaceship, chasing Judy out of the ship and into a nearby set of desert ruins. While avoiding the monster, she’s captured by a band of cannibals, who are seemingly led by Maxine Motongo. Escaping, she encounters a handsome, tuxedoed man named Brock Christian, who tries to talk Judy into quitting the band and going home. However, his debonair demeanor belies the fact that he’s just a hallucination, and is actually the Venusian beast. Rescued by a seemingly benevolent cannibal, she’s pulled into a safe clearing – but her savior turns out to be the late Ace Lucas, whose attitude towards Judy quickly turns murderous.
ACE: Stole my name, witch.
JUDY: No I didn’t, they gave it to me!
ACE: Trying to take my place?
JUDY: No, no, you quit the band!
ACE: Stole my name, witch.
ACE: Now I want it back! Give it to me!
JUDY: You can take it, it’s yours!
Ace disappears – another hallucination – as Judy is rescued by Mandoa, but the Venusian beast pounces on her bandmate, forcing Judy to flee again. Running scared through the desert ruins, she’s surrounded by her now-zombified bandmates and manager, who have joined the horde of cannibals cornering her against a wall with graffiti writing “Roc Star [sic]” until…until…she wakes up in Maxine’s Radioactive Dream, having fainted, with all of the film’s events presumably since the crash having been in her head.
So was everything in the Vicious Lips’ journey a subconscious dream had by the passed out Judy? If so, then it makes sense to psychoanalyze it for symbolism and significance. There’s certainly a lot to unpack in the film’s climax, so let’s take it bit by bit.
The Venusian beast, having been, unbeknownst to the Vicious Lips, aboard the spacecraft they stole from the very beginning, represents impending doom and disaster that may befall a band at any moment. After all, Ace Lucas was killed in a sudden auto accident. No member of the Vicious Lips is particularly safe, especially when they all lead such high-risk lifestyles as an intergalactic new wave band. Even Wynzi had a “low point” involving sex with a fungi dwarf. The Venusian beast symbolizes all of the danger that comes with being a vicious lip. The fact that in a Wizard of Oz esque “and you were there!” twist the Venusian beast in her dream was actually the usher (or some kind of manager) for Maxine’s club, the link between joining the band and encountering this danger – being forced to encounter it in order to succeed – is made even stronger. The Venusian beast is what welcomes Judy to “the dream.”
The cannibals, led by “Maxine,” consume Judy’s manager and bandmates and eerily close in on her just as she awakens from having fainted. Akin to a rabid fanbase or the consumptive nature of the music industry, these cannibals want to literally eat the naïve Judy alive. They’ve already gotten to her colleagues – and they’ve become cannibals themselves – and it really shows how alone Judy is. She was plucked from a high school talent show on a whim, and any familial relations or otherwise that she may have had beforehand aren’t addressed. She’s thrust into this world of vice and music without any idea of how it works, which makes her so, so vulnerable. One may think that it’s easy to hang onto one’s optimism but by depicting her bandmates and manager, and even Ace Lucas, as zombies, she’s shown that one can very easily have that attitude devoured out of them, leaving nothing but a hollow and apathetic husk poised to convert another wannabe into their ranks. These cannibals are the world poised to mob her, chew her up and spit her back out, and potentially transform her into a creature as soulless and depraved as them.
Ace Lucas, appearing as a hallucination, screams at a whimpering Judy for taking her place and name. If there has ever been a stronger metaphor for the importance of “finding your voice,” I’d like to see it. Haunted by the specter of Ace Lucas’ legacy, this scene is the culmination of all the pressure placed on Judy to conform to Ace’s former role in the band ever since Matty recruited her from her talent show. Has Judy ever really been in charge of what she’s been doing? Has she ever been able to express herself as a member of the Vicious Lips? No. From the very beginning she’s nothing but a replacement for Ace Lucas, cajoled into conflating aspiration with imitation. Judy’s panic stems from realizing that she has been groomed to replace her identify with that of her predecessor, all starting with the substitution of her name.
Brock Christian, whose surname has very explicit conservative connotations, almost succeeds in coaxing Judy out of her musical dreams until he tells her that she should instead “settle down and make babies.” That’s the specific remark that snaps Judy out of the trance, revealing that Brock has been the Venusian beast – danger – all along. Just like Wynzi couldn’t stand being confronted with the suggestion of failure, Judy couldn’t imagine resigning herself to a boring and domestic life. It’s worth stating that there’s nothing inherently wrong with that, but Judy has dreams, dammit! Dreams that go beyond the realm domestic! These dreams may bring danger, doubt, and risk, but such things are inseparable from such bold aspirations, which is why quashing the image of Brock brings her back into conflict with the Venusian beast. She’s averse to the idea of wasting away as a traditional mother, dreams unfulfilled, but she’s also frightened by the danger that chasing “the dream” involves. The danger chases her while she chases “the dream,” and all she can hope to do is be one step ahead.
In the end, after being revived from fainting, Judy and her bandmates finally do take the stage at Maxine’s Radioactive Dream, and they bring down the house with a high-energy, high-attitude show. Seemingly invigorated by her traumatic dream, Judy has arrived at “the dream,” more confident and more self-assured than before. And her bandmates are there with her, possibly more willing to grow as a band with Judy at the helm. Flashing back to various scenes from her hallucination while performing, Judy acknowledges the danger that she has to face while chasing her dreams, but has resolved to not let that slow her down.
So what does it all mean? The Vicious Lips band members are sleepwalking through their careers, doing what they do without any real passion for their profession. Judy excitedly and impulsively rushed into the band, and was surprised and frightened by all of the risk and danger that suddenly surrounded her. When chasing “the dream,” one must not only be enamored and fulfilled by it, like Judy, but must be aware and accepting of the risks that come with it. Otherwise, you may be scared into throwing your aspirations away for a comfortable and low-risk, but abysmally boring and unfulfilling alternative. Without passion, you’ll lull yourself into an apathetic status quo, but passion alone isn’t enough: you have to be strong enough to support that passion through hardship, otherwise it won’t last.
So take a page from the Vicious Lips, kids: stay strong and follow your dreams! And hopefully the only Venusian beasts and cannibals you encounter will be purely metaphorical.