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Come With Me If You Want to Live: #13, The Terminator

Posted in best science fiction, Film, Movies, Science Fiction, Top Fifty Films with tags , , , , , , , on July 29, 2012 by top50sf

1984

Director:  James Cameron

Cast:  Arnold Schwarzenegger, Michael Biehn, Linda Hamilton, Paul Winfield, Bill Paxton, Lance Henriksen, Bess Motta, Earl Boen, Rick Rossovich

Introduction     Plot Summary     Impressions     Wrap-up

My rating:  Class A (3/7, hot white star).  A strange little gem of a film, this one.  It doesn’t know if it wants to be a thoughtful time travel paradox film, a love story embedded in that paradox, an action movie, or a horror film.  On the other hand, it’s generally pretty successful on each of those levels, sometimes in spite of itself.

Introduction

Once upon a time a Canadian boy named James Cameron moved to California at the age of 17, saw the movie Star Wars (he would have been about 24 at the time) and decided to make movies.  Largely self-taught, he became a model maker at Roger Corman‘s studio and knocked around the fringes of the movie industry in various roles until he became the special effects director for Pirhana II: The Spawning.  When the producer of that film fired the director, he tapped Cameron for the job, though he subsequently fired Cameron as well.  Cameron stuck with the film as an editor and special effects guru.  To add insult to injury, Cameron developed food poisoning while in Rome during the editing phase of the project.  Happily, while sick, Cameron had a dream featuring a robot—in some reports, the robot was sent from the future to kill him (www.amazingcameron.com) while in others, the dream consisted of a metallic torso wielding kitchen knives and dragging itself out of an explosion (The Futurist by Rebecca Winters Keegan).  In any event, the idea for The Terminator was born.

Cameron and his friend Bill Wisher began to flesh out his idea, initially conceiving of two terminators, one a cyborg and the other made of liquid metal (though the second robot couldn’t be filmed using the technology at the time and so Cameron reluctantly scrapped the idea, at least until 1991’s Terminator II: Judgment Day).  By the by, Cameron’s agent hated the idea and Cameron fired his agent because he had so much faith in the idea.  At any rate, Cameron sold the idea and script to Gale Ann Hurd, a co-worker from the Roger Corman days, for one dollar as long as Cameron got to direct.[1]  In order to secure funding for the movie, Cameron sent his friend Lance Henrikson in first dressed as a terminator, and John Daly of Hemdale Film Corporation agreed to fund the film, and Orion Pictures to distribute it.

I suppose this just goes to show that Cameron knew he had an interesting idea, and he was tenacious enough, and believed in himself enough, to push the idea until he got it done.  He would have been about 24 when he saw Star Wars, and perhaps 29 when The Terminator got the go-ahead.  He created an enduring science fiction franchise which is still going strong now, having spawned four movies and a television series.  By some estimates, the franchise has outperformed, at least financially, the Indiana Jones franchise, which is saying something.  Current ownership of the franchise appears to reside in the hands of Pacificor, a hedge fund.[2]

The Terminator itself was made for a budget of about $6.5 million, and grossed $78 million from the box office.  It received largely positive critical reviews at opening, though some commentators thought it was too violent, too lurid, and too pretentious.  As time passed, the movie’s detractors grew quiet and the critical and fan response grew more and more positive—Rotten Tomatoes gives the film a 100% fresh rating, and Metacritic 84/100.  Positive recognition by the American Film Institute followed, andThe Terminator has been selected for inclusion in the National Film Registry.

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Ain’t Misbehavin’: #23, Serenity

Posted in best science fiction, Film, Movies, Science Fiction, Top Fifty Films with tags , , , , , , , , , , on June 17, 2012 by top50sf

2005

Director:  Joss Whedon

Cast:  Nathan Fillion, Summer Glau, Gina Torres, Alan Tudyk, Morena Baccarin, Adam Baldwin, Jewel Staite, Sean Maher, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Ron Glass, David Krumholtz, Michael Hitchcock

Introduction     Plot Summary     Impressions     Wrap-up

My rating:  Class F (4/7, relatively hot yellow-white star).  Not being a huge fan of Joss Whedon (though not particularly opposed to him, either) and never having watched the series Firefly, I was surprised at how much—at least at first glance—I liked this movie.  Unfortunately, its flaws, which mostly revolve around the dialogue and some significant plot issues, show up after a little thought, though for the most part the ride is sufficiently fast and furious that it may take a little while for you to realize what’s wrong with the movie.

Introduction

So Joss Whedon is really hot right now, what with the success of The Avengers movie (already the third highest grossing film of all time) and all that.  And he’s had a degree of commercial success on television (Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel come to mind), where he’s also developed legions of rabid fans.  Serenity is, however, based on the television series Firefly (2002), which was something of a disappointment to the Fox television network—Fox cancelled the show after airing only eleven episodes (out of a total of fourteen, one of which was the two hour pilot).  In spite of strong fan response, the show never really bounced back or found another network.  DVD sales, however, were strong, moving over 500,000 units in the first year alone.  In 2011, The Science Channel ran all fourteen episodes in the intended order (a departure from Fox’s presentation).

Whedon reportedly really, really loved Firefly, and he was committed to bringing it back in some form.  He finally managed to convince Universal Studios that he could make the film for under $40 million and do it in fifty days (instead of the normal eighty days of shooting for modern movies), and his original script came in at 190 pages, attempting to cover all of the plot points raised in the first fourteen episodes.  At Universal’s direction, he cut back the plot and was successful in filming in less than eighty days.

The television series represented a fusion of space opera with the western, a concept which Whedon essentially invented.  One of Whedon’s other goals was to show “regular people,” as opposed to the movers and the shakers.  Put another way, the show is about the “nobodies” who “get squished by policy.”  Or as Whedon stated, the show is about the kind of people that the shiny white gleaming Enterprise would pass right by….

Unfortunately for Whedon and his ensemble cast, and despite strong critical response and high anticipation, the film only opened at #2 at the box office and spent only two weeks in the top ten, ultimately grossing $25.5 million.  When all was said and done, the movie almost broke even.  Critical response was generally very positive, though there were exceptions.

Plot (Contains Spoilers)

Setup:  Mankind has spread to the stars, or at least an extra-solar system, with some thirty planetary bodies which have been terraformed.  The central planets, or the Alliance—a fusion of United States and Chinese elements—waged a war for control of the outer planetary bodies, and won.  In the wake of that war, Captain Malcolm “Mal” Reynolds (Nathan Fillion) of the firefly-class starship Serenity assembles a motley crew and ekes out a precarious existence trying to make enough to live on without drawing the attention, and ire, of the Alliance.  As it turns out, both Reynolds and his second-in-command Zoe Alleyne Washburne (Gina Torres) fought on the side of the losers in the civil war, and are survivors of the Battle of Serenity Valley.

That’s not all that’s going on, though.  Simon Tam (Sean Maher), a surgeon, is aboard and pays for his passage with medical services; he’s accompanied by his sister River (Summer Glau).  Unbeknownst to any of the other members of the crew, Simon broke River, a powerful psychic, out of a secret Alliance facility where she was conditioned to fight and to serve the Alliance.  And not even Simon and River know that the Alliance has sent an Operative, a man with no name and no recorded history, to recover her.  Simon intends to safeguard his sister at all costs, but Mal insists that the sister—he’s aware of her psychic gifts as a “reader,” will come in handy on what amounts to a corporate payroll snatch.  Simon opposes this use of his sister, but is helpless to stop it.

And so the stage is set….

Skip the summary and jump to impressions!

Short summary:  I’m going to be rather careful here, so you’ll get a few spoilers—but not many, as the central mysteries of the film (the Reavers and River Tam) tie together in an unexpected manner.  Instead, I’ll point out that Mal’s raid, intended to capture a corporate payroll, is disrupted by the approach of the dreaded Reavers.  River senses their approach, and our plucky heroes flee the scene.  Of course the Reavers chase them, and of course they successfully evade the Reavers, but the conflict between Mal and Simon comes to a head and Simon declares that he will take his sister off Serenity after she’s gotten her share of the bounty for the raid.

Unfortunately, things don’t quite work out as intended.  When Mal and Jayne Cobb (Adam Baldwin) go to get the bounty, something strange happens to River:  upon viewing a television commercial, she goes blank-faced, and then attacks every individual in the room.  She injures and kills everyone in sight in a surprising balletic dance of death, including injuring Jayne severely, and is stopped from shooting Mal only by her brother’s appearance.  Speaking the “safe words” taught him by the people who helped him infiltrate the facility where River was held and conditioned, he forces her into sleep.

As a result, River and Simon wind up staying on the ship, and the quest to find out what’s going on winds up involving the entire crew.

Impressions

The visual effects in Serenity are pretty impressive, and become more impressive when you realize that Whedon did them all on a budget.  The movie lacks traditional space battles, instead focusing on human-scale violence (for the most part), but even so, Whedon achieved an incredible look and feel for the movie especially given how little money he had to work with.  CGI, for example, was right out in that early chase scene in which the Reavers, in a hovercraft-style vehicle which might have been spaceworthy, chase the crew of the Serenity who are on a “mule,” some kind of hovercraft which serves them for hauling goods and people about.  That scene was accomplished by putting a dummy mule vehicle on a crane arm, which they then filmed driving down Templin Highway in California.

No matter how you slice it, though, the look and feel of Serenity is nothing short of amazing, and the special effects are wonderful.

The music, scored by David Newman (he has a rather famous cousin named Randy) and performed by the Hollywood Studio Symphony, is pretty good.  It is evocative of Aaron Copeland’s Appalachian Spring, Billy the Kidd, and Rodeo, quintessentially American symphonic music which captures a pioneer spirit and the vast scale of space while remaining warmly human.  The music, I’m told, is not as quirky as that of the series, and it also tracks modern cinema’s bombastic action cues, but it also features an eclectic mix of of acoustic guitar, banjo, flute, percussion, and full symphony orchestra.  All in all, Serenity is backed by an effective score.

The perfomances are, by and large, at least adequate, and in some cases considerably more than that.  Nathan Fillion, Gina Torres and Adam Baldwin all shine in their respective roles as Mal, Zoe and Jayne, people capable of considerable violence—although they are all, also, people with more going on upstairs than they are inclined to let on.  Sean Maher’s Simon Tam is a very different kind of character, but he convincingly displays a touching naivete and an abiding and overriding love for his sister and is one of the movie’s standouts.  Every actor, it seems, gets their chance to lift the bushel and show off their light just a little bit, and it’s always in a way that’s consistent with the characters.  Jewel Staite’s Kaylee Frye gets some wonderfully angry moments, while Alan Tudyk’s Wash Washburne displays competence as a pilot and glee at the idea that a little girl beat up one of his macho crewmates.  Morena Baccarin’s Inara Serra shows her moral fiber and is one of the only people aboard who dares to criticize Mal.  Summer Glau, in some ways, has less to work with than the others in spite of her character’s ferocity and psychic power, but she gets in a good line or two and is the character around which all the others move.  I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Chiwetel Ejiofor’s performance as the Operative, as he is—unlike the crew and passengers of the Serenity—a serene man who genuinely believes in what he’s doing, which is to hunt down and kill River Tam before she can do harm to the Alliance.  Two other names, by the way, stand out—actors Sarah Paulson and Tamara Taylor.  Both have small roles but absolutely dominate the screen during their performances, and are actors I always seem to notice.

Structurally, there’s something wrong with the plot and the pacing, though I’m having a hard time putting my finger on it.  Ultimately, the movie feels like two episodes of a television show, each an hour or so long.  In addition, the mystery of River Tam, and what she might know, is all so ambiguous and nebulous a motive for the rest of the characters that it feels somehow forced.  Don’t get me wrong—there’s a good story there, and Whedon’s meticulous plot construction feeds that mystery, along with vital clues, at every step of the way.  Still, somehow the development feels episodic rather than flowing to a natural conclusion.

There is a major plothole, too, though the explanation for it requires a look at the plot itself…

———–   BEGIN SPOILERS   ———-

What happened on Miranda, which was nothing less than the death of an entire planet full of people, and within the last ten years or so, was covered up by the highest officials in the Alliance.  I find it difficult to believe that an entire planet full of people could die with so little notice that our characters have trouble even remembering that Miranda was a planet.  Add to that that the mysterious Reavers hang out near Miranda, and every conspiracy theorist in the universe, never mind investigative journalists and government watchgroups, would begin to ask some tough questions.  To put it another way, the revelation of the central mystery—that the government accidentally killed an entire planet full of people and created a group of subhuman raiders who eat people alive, which group now threatens the other planets near Miranda—depends on a frankly incredible and unbelievable fact: that no one realizes that something went wrong on Miranda that was abnormal.  Most people don’t even remember Miranda at all.

Willing suspension of disbelief can only go so far, Mr. Whedon, and I’m afraid that here you’ve pushed past that particular boundary.

———-   END SPOILERS   ———-

Another problem with Serenity is the somewhat sophomoric creation of tension.  In one scene, Simon asks his sister if she’s okay with leaving Serenity and the crew behind—he’s worried, but wants to keep his sister happy, too.  She replies that “it isn’t safe,” and he turns away.  After at least a full second, and long after Simon has turned and cannot hear her, she continues “…for them.”  That’s the kind of overly theatrical touch that always bothers me.  The only reason to put something like that into a scene is to convey information directly to the audience without showing it to the characters, and for some reason that always bothers me.

One other thing about Serenity bothers me to no end, and that’s Whedon’s trademark “witty dialogue.”  It’s supposed to be funny and flip, but to me, it undercuts the seriousness of the story.  It is probably significant that as the movie progresses, and more and more information comes to light, fewer and fewer jokes get cracked.  Still, consider the opening sequence of the film, in which the following occurs:

Wash:  This landing is going to get pretty interesting.

Mal:  Define interesting.

Wash:  Oh God, oh God, oh God, we’re all going to die?

Mal (over the ship’s intercom):  This is the captain.  We have a little problem with our entry sequence…so we may experience some slight turbulence and then explode.

Seconds later, after Mal has left the cockpit…

Jayne:  We’re gonna explode?  I don’t wanna explode…

If that’s your idea of snappy, witty and comic dialog, then Serenity is your kind of movie.  If it’s not…well, either have a high tolerance for it, or watch something else.

Wrap-up

Am I sorry I watched Serenity?  Absolutely not.  It’s a flawed movie, certainly, but it’s visually stimulating, well scored and rather well acted, and it keeps moving at a breakneck pace almost as soon as the exposition is done.  In fact, it moves so fast and so smoothly that the movie’s flaws weren’t evident to me at first blush.  That’s something of a compliment, by the way.  Whedon plays absolutely fair, too, giving the viewer all the clues available to his characters (and then some, actually), to the horrific secret underlying (and driving) the story.  I suspect that to fans of the television series, the completion of the main character arcs is also deeply satisfying.

Fortunately for me, the witty banter ends before it becomes too cloying, and the speed of events really hides the few plot holes and poorly conceived scenes.  Don’t get me wrong—this is not, by any stretch of the imagination, a bad movie, and it’s a great deal of fun.  If you can contrive to catch it, it’s worth a look.

Such Stuff As Dreams Are Made On: #18, The Forbidden Planet

Posted in best science fiction, Film, Movies, Science Fiction, Top Fifty Films with tags , , , , , , , , , on June 17, 2012 by top50sf

1956

Director:  Fred M. Wilcox

Cast:  Leslie Nielsen, Anne Francis, Walter Pidgeon, Jack Kelly, Warren Stevens

Introduction     Plot Summary     Impressions     Wrap-up

My rating: Class B (2/7, a very hot blue-white star).  Really, I suppose I’m being a bit of a jerk in giving this only a Class B, since it is one of the true classics of the genre with an enduring influence, amazing look and feel, unique music, and some stellar performances.  There are a few poor acting jobs, though, and the effects are somewhat dated now, but other than that, this is THE movie that put science fiction in the movies.

Introduction

With characters, a setting and some plot elements that hearken to the Bard‘s The Tempest, a science fiction movie had better have a thoughtful and intriguing storyline and some strong performers, or it’s going to be a disaster.  Fortunately, The Forbidden Planet has a thoughtful storyline, with some action and danger, as well as romance and comedy, thrown into the mix.  Some of the performances are stellar, and even the weak ones are still fun.

The movie brought a lot of firsts to the screen:  the first science fiction film by MGM, the first science fiction film set off Earth, the first movie with humans traveling in their own starship, the first movie with an electronic score, and the first appearance of Robbie the Robot (who would go on to appear in movies and television into the first decade of the 21st century).

The Forbidden Planet was a commercial success, earning about $23.5 million on a budget of just under $5 million; it ran from April to September of 1956 in Grauman’s Chinese Theater.  Subsequently the film has been lionized by critics and gained a substantial following.  It also had a tremendous influence on later science fiction, informing television’s Star Trek in several ways (Gene Rodenberry stated that the film was one of his inspirations for the series), showing up as an episode of Dr. Who, and giving The Great Machine to television’s Babylon 5 (while the show’s creators were not conscious of the parallel, the special effects crew who created the visuals were).

Plot

Setup:  Earth Cruiser C57-D is on a mission to Altair IV to discover what happened to the crew of the Bellerophon which was to make landfall there.  After thirteen months in transit through space, they transit to speeds below that of light and begin to look for the thriving colony they hope to find.  It isn’t there, but the sole survivor of the Bellerophon, Dr. Morbius, radios them and warns them to stay away from Altair IV or he cannot be responsible for the consequences.  But orders are orders, and so the cruiser sets down some distance from Morbius’ home.  They haven’t been down long when a ground car driven by Robby the Robot arrives and offers to take three of the crew to Morbius.  Once in his home, Morbius tells them that he’s the last survivor of the Bellerophon, the crew of which was killed off by some mysterious “planetary force” which vaporized the Bellerophon when the survivors tried to escape.  He also unwillingly introduces his daughter Altaira to the men.  She is fascinated by them, and they by her, while Morbius warns the men that he is afraid of what will happen now that people not immune to the planetary force are on Altair IV.  And the stage is set!

Skip the summary and jump to impressions!

Short summary: Morbius is a philologist, a scientist who studies languages, and what makes Altair IV interesting to him is that it was the home of the Krell, a race of god-like creatures who were intellectually and morally superior to mankind.  In a single night, however, the Krell race was mysteriously destroyed, and Morbius studies their remaining technology in order to figure out how it works.  He reveals this information only grudgingly, and after the Earth cruiser is sabotaged in some unknown manner—perhaps indicating that the mysterious planetary force is once again stirring.  In the meantime, Altaira is fascinated by, and exerts considerable fascination over, the crew of the cruiser.

And that, my friends, is all you’re going to get.  If you haven’t seen it, the story is sufficiently interesting, and the plot’s development depends on surprise, that you really do need to see it.  And of course if you have seen it you don’t need the summary!

Impressions

The production history of the movie begins with a script for Fatal Planet, a science fiction B movie aimed at children and written by Irving Block and Allen Adler.  Somehow, Block and Adler wound up pitching the film to MGM, a decidedly non-B-movie studio.  MGM elected to film the movie at a budget of $1 million dollars, a relatively small budget, but something strange happened along the way: MGM brought in the novelist and screenwriter Cyril Hume (a descendant of the philosopher David Hume who gained fame by writing Tarzan scripts) to rewrite the script, and somehow the movie acquired gravitas and depth.  MGM doubled the budget when they realized that they had a potential hit on their hands.  Still, MGM was uneasy about the film, particularly its electronic score, and so they sneak previewed the movie to test audiences before the editing was even finished.  Audience response was so positive that MGM decided to release the film as it was—so in a sense the movie that made it into theaters was an unfinished one.  That roughness shows in some places….

This movie is in color, so it represents something of a departure for 1950s science fiction.  It must have been a big budget film in its time—the $5 million it took to make it in 1956 would be about $40 million in 2010 dollars.  That money shows in a lot of ways; Robby the Robot was a $125,000 investment in a single prop, for example.  But the movie makes good use of all that money in creating vistas of an alien planet, a futuristic home, and the still-functioning remnants of a high-technology civilization, including labs and power stations.  The entire movie was shot indoors on sets at MGM’s Culver City location, with exterior shots simulated by some of the best matte paintings of the time.

One of the key visual effects is the monster—you can’t have a science fiction story called The Forbidden Planet without a monster, now can you?  The monster was created with animation, using the work of Joshua Meador, an accomplished animator from Disney Studios.  The fact that the monster is animated is all too obvious, but then it’s not a material being, which is clear almost from the outset.  To modern eyes, the effect is not wholly successful, but it is pretty good….  It helps, of course, that the animated monster moves quickly and is seldom on the screen for too long—though details such as the monster’s goatee (an important visual clue as to what’s really going on on Altair IV) slip past on a first viewing as a result.

The music, while ambitious and interesting, is not wholly successful—though it is one of the most eerie soundtracks I’ve ever heard.  The first electronic music soundtrack in movie history, it is definitely unique.  Electronic music pioneers Francis and Bebe Barron put together the film’s “electronic tonalities” to create a unique, and historically unusual, soundtrack for the film.  Their score preceded the invention of the synthesizer by some eight years, and used unique electronic circuits for each sound—circuits which would often burn out during the process of sound generation, making the actual sounds difficult if not impossible to reproduce exactly.  Additional effects such as reverberation, delays, reversals and speed changes were added to the taped sounds.

In the sleeve to the film’s soundtrack, the Barrons stated that

We design and construct electronic circuits which function electronically in a manner remarkably similar to the way that lower life-forms function psychologically.  In scoring Forbidden Planet—as in all of our work—we created individual cybernetics circuits for particular themes and leit motifs, rather than using standard sound generators. Actually, each circuit has a characteristic activity pattern as well as a “voice”.  We were delighted to hear people tell us that the tonalities in The Forbidden Planet remind them of what their dreams sound like.

It has been reported that during the preview of the film, when the Earth cruiser lands on Altair, the audience broke out into spontaneous applause due to the film’s electronic music.  Since the Barrons were not members of the Musician’s Guild, their work could not be considered for an Academy Award in either the soundtrack or sound effects categories, and that is why they were credited with the film’s “electronic tonalities.”

There are three major characters in the film:  Leslie Nielson’s Commander John J. Adams, Anne Francis’ Altaira “Alta” Morbius, and Walter Pidgeon’s Dr. Edward Morbius.  Nielson turns in a relatively understated performance, a military man who is going to do his job no matter what.  He’s also protective of not just his men but all the people around him, and he resists his growing feelings for Altaira until they overwhelm him.  It is a strong performance, and Nielson’s chops as a leading man are much in evidence.  Francis, in the meantime, portrays the seventeen year old Alta with a believable naivete as she meets men to whom she is not related, and growing confidence as she steps out from her father’s forbidding shadow.  Francis’ performance is the lynchpin of the film’s plotline, and she really excelled in the role’s comic, romantic and dramatic elements.  Finally, Pidgeon does a solid job.  His character must provide the relatively soulless exposition necessary to the film’s story, and his character echoes the intellectual precision and emotionlessness of the Krell he idolizes.  The character is also arrogant and willful, and these qualities come through in spades.  It is important that the character’s repressed emotions break free, however, during the development of the plotline, and it is here that Pidgeon is not wholly successful.  There is a certain stiffness to his emotional outbursts, almost as if they were choreographed rather than natural, and that stiffness robs the film of some of its emotional punch.  On the other hand, the repressed Morbius is an intellectual, rather than emotional, intelligence, and perhaps Pidgeon’s performance is intended to evoke those characteristics.

Some of the other performances are well worth noting.  Robby the Robot was operated by Frankie Darro, and his voice was provided by Marvin Miller—though the film does not specifically credit the actor.  Miller’s stentorian, deep-voiced tones convey a dry wit, and Robby, the analog of The Tempest‘s Ariel, has a definite personality which comes through loud and clear.  Isaac Asimov’s laws of robotics, as well as the name Robby, also inform the robot’s character—and the former is a significant element of the plot.  Two secondary characters—Warren Stevens’ Lieutenant “Doc” Ostrow and Jack Kelly’s Lieutenant Jerry Farman—are of considerable importance to the film, and the actors give strong performances.  Kelly, in particular, gives an appropriately smarmy and sneaky tone to the Farman character, though Farman is also redeemed before his arc is finished.  Stevens does a strong job, even delivering the line “Monsters from the id!” with considerable aplomb.

One performance in particular hits a sour note:  Earl Holliman’s “Cookie.”  The role is intended to provide comic relief, and it does, but Holliman’s performance is forced rather than natural.  Another actor, Richard Anderson (he plays Chief Quinn), is primarily of note because he later played Oscar Goldwin in television’s The Six Million Dollar Man and The Bionic Woman—though his performance is certainly good enough in this film.

The plot line is not strictly derivative of The Tempest.  Instead, the fallen civilization of the Krell is without parallel in cinematic history.  The mystery of their technology, and the relationship between that technology and the Krell’s destruction and the “planetary force” which destroyed the Bellerophon and its crew, is central to the film and one of the more imaginative and well-conceived science fiction plot lines.  In addition, psychology and mankind’s essential nature play as much of a role in the plot as do science.

Thematically the film upends and updates its progenitor The Tempest, with alien super-science substituting for The Tempest‘s magic.  The Tempest’s self-aware self-references to the magic and illusion of the theater itself perhaps hide the idea that Prospero uses a rational and academic sorcery (contrasted to the evil of Sycorax’s black magic) to good ends and effect—an idea which would have been taken quite seriously in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, when witches were still burned at the stake and alchemists still worked to find the philosopher’s stone.  In the place of magic, however, The Forbidden Planet offers us the super-science of the Krell, a race of god-like rational beings who were intellectually and morally one million years in advance of humanity.  And that super-science, combined with the essentially animal nature of mankind (and before us, the Krell themselves) wreaks destruction and tragedy.

The anti-science, anti-scientist theme of the film could have been (at least in part) a reaction to the development and public announcement of the first hydrogen bomb in 1953.  Between the horrors of nuclear warfare and the beginning of the Cold War, the idea that science—and by extension, passionless scientists who failed to see the full implications of their work—could destroy humanity must have been a chilling, and relatively new, idea.  That idea informs The Forbidden Planet in no small way.  Set against the ideals of science, the film instead offers a warmly human relationship between Alta and Commander Adams, a relationship that is directly threated by the super-science of the Krell as wielded, albeit unknowingly, by Morbius.

Wrap-up

The Forbidden Planet is a truely classic film, of interest not only to science fiction fans but also to fans of cinema.  It proved to be hugely influential, and was one of the first science fiction film which had real depth and story to it, along with a compelling scientific mystery the secret of which was integral to the plot.  It is well worth watching in its own right, however, because it is tremendously entertaining on several levels.  Add to that some interesting scientific speculations, as well as ground-breaking music and interesting philosophical underpinnings, and you have a movie which is simply fantastic.  Do yourself a favor—the next time it comes on TNT, sit down and watch it.

Other Takes on the Film:

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*  No, I don’t often read Conservapedia, being rather more liberal personally, but I often find opposing viewpoints interesting and worth looking into.  In addition, this is a fine, if somewhat limited, analysis of the movie with a unique viewpoint.  Jump back to the blog.

Too Much Novel for One Movie: Detour for Dune

Posted in best science fiction, Film, Movies, Science Fiction, Top Fifty Films with tags , , , , , on May 24, 2012 by top50sf

1984

Director:  David Lynch

Cast: Kyle MacLachlan, Francesca Annis, Everett McGill, Sting, Max von Sydow, Jose Ferrer, Sian Phillips, Virginia Madsen, Patrick Stewart, Sean Young, Brad Dourif, Linda Hunt, Kenneth McMillan, Jurgen Prochnow, Dean Stockwell

Introduction     Plot Summary     Impressions     Wrap-up

My rating:  Class F (4/7, rather hot yellow-white star).  An ambitious train wreck of a film, Dune was too much novel for one film, and it shows.  However, it is not without its charm, especially visually (though there are places where the effects fail or are poorly conceived), and the movie is entertaining even if it is ultimately a rather silly, pointless and flat adaptation of a remarkable novel.  Put another way, without reference to the 1965 novel, the movie is okay—and there are hints that it might have been a remarkable achievement if director David Lynch’s vision had been accomplished.

Introduction

The novel Dune is one of the most widely read and best selling science fiction novels of all time, as I mentioned in my post What Makes Science Fiction Popular?  It must have seemed like a no-brainer for a movie adaptation when they first started looking at it, and before anyone really looked too hard at the complicated plot with its complicated setting and complicated backgrounds.  And it may be that the novel’s complexity contributed to a lengthy term of development hell.  It also appears that the early phases of development had their influence over the movie which surfaced in 1984.

In brief, in 1971 Arthur P. Jacobs (the producer of the Planet of the Apes movie and its progeny) optioned the rights to the book.  The project went through two or three directors, as well as two scriptwriters, before Jacobs died in 1973 before filming could begin.  In 1974, the project was purchased by a French consortium, and Alejandro Jodorowsky was to direct.  Jodorowsky planned an ambitious ten hour feature, starring or involving such luminaries as Salvador Dali, Orson Welles, Gloria Swanson, David Carradine, Geraldine Chaplin, Alain Delon, Hervé Villechaize and Mick Jagger, with music to be composed and performed by Pink Floyd.  The pre-production unit included the British artist Chris Foss, French illustrator Moebius, and H. R. Giger, with Dan O’Bannon (he wrote Alien and was a scriptwriter for Total Recall) heading up the special effects department.  After spending $2 million in the pre-production phase—they completed the script, the storyboards, and designs—financial backing dried up.

After Jodorowsky’s failed attempt, the film rights were sold to Dino de Laurentis.  In 1978 de Laurentis commissioned Frank Herbert—author of the novel—to write a script, but it was too long, and hence in 1979 he turned to Ridley Scott as director, Rudolph Wurlitzer as scriptwriter, and H. R. Giger (again) for design work.  Scott envisioned a two movie sequence, and felt that Wurlitzer had delivered a script which captured the essence of the novel.  However, this attempt, too, failed, as Scott’s brother passed away and he did not feel he could commit to the two and a half years it would take to bring Dune to the big screen (he turned instead to 1982’s Blade Runner).  In 1981, de Laurentis renegotiated the film rights and included the sequels to the novel Dune (Dune Messiah and Children of Dune, to name the next two novels).  At this point de Laurentis hired David Lynch (Eraserhead and The Elephant Man) as director and scriptwriter, even though Lynch had not read the book or had any interest in science fiction before being hired.  The script went through six drafts before shooting began.

Lynch did not have final cut authority over the film, and he attributes its failure (and that is Lynch’s own word) to that fact.  It is obvious that Lynch appreciated the novel, however:

Herbert’s book incorporates dream sequences, complex textures, different levels of meaning and symbolism; it concerns people, their emotions, their fears and goals—and also provides an opportunity to create whole new worlds by combining elements in ways that have never been done before.

Dune cost more than $45 million to make, and it earned a mere $26 million or so at the box office.  It was, by any definition, a flop.  Critical response to the film was incredibly negative, with Siskel and Ebert calling it the worst film of the year.  One critic compared it to taking a final exam, while another stated that it was the “most obscenely homophobic film” he’d ever seen.  It was lambasted as “hollow” and “cold,” with a complexity requiring over a half hour of screen time spent in exposition.  In one of the most pithy complaints about the film, reviewer Janet Maslin stated that “[s]everal of the characters in Dune are psychic, which puts them in the unique position of being able to understand what goes on in the movie.”

Plot (Contains Spoilers)

Setup:  In the year 10,191, humanity has spread to the stars in an Imperium, ruled on its face by House Corrino in the person of the Padishah Emperor Shaddam Corrino IV.  In reality, the Emperor must defer to the Spacing Guild, which has a monopoly on space travel since its navigators are the only ones who can enable space travel—though this process requires the spice melange, found only on the planet Arrakis, which is also known as Dune.  The Emperor also has to worry about the lesser Great Houses, who are always jockeying for position, including House Atreides and House Harknonnen.  The Bene Gesserit Sisterhood also exercises a great deal of influence behind the scenes, largely due to clever placement of its Sisters as providers of specialized services as well as the number of wives, concubines and mothers in the Great Houses.  The Sisterhood has been breeding humanity in a ninety-some generation project with the intent of creating, and then controlling, a super-being they call the Kwisatz Hadderach.  Paul Atreides, the son of Duke Leto and the Bene Gesserit Lady Jessica, is a product of that breeding project.  Meanwhile, the Emperor gets wind of Duke Leto Atreides developing a secret army using a new weapon based on sound, and decides to destroy Duke Leto in order to maintain his own position.  The Emperor takes the planet Dune away from the Harkonnens and gives it to House Atreides instead, but this is the bait for a trap:  the Emperor intends to secretly assist the Harkonnens to destroy House Atreides once they are on Dune but before they have truly settled in and made it their own.

And so the stage is set….

And yes, I realize that this is an unusually complex setup for a movie.  What can I say?  All of it is straight out of the novel, albeit with some modifications, and the very complexity of the setting makes Lynch’s approach to setting up the movie interesting.  Therefore, let me show you how Lynch and the film set up the story in three short scenes, lasting a total of just more than ten minutes:

Scene One is a voice exposition by the Princess Irulan, daughter of the Padishah Emperor Shaddam Corrino IV, and reminiscent of Herbert’s chapter epigrams of the Princess’ purported histories of the time before Paul Atreides became Emperor himself.  She sets the stage at the year 10,191 (presumably AD, though that’s not clear), and the known universe is ruled by her father.  One substance, the spice known as melange, is the most precious material in the universe.  The spice extends life, expands human consciousness, and gives the Spacing Guild the power to fold space, thereby enabling space travel.  And this unique substance is available only from the planet Arrakis, also known as Dune.  Dune’s inhabitants, the Fremen, await their messiah, who will lead them to freedom.

Scene Two is another expository scene, in this case a voiceover with graphics purporting to be a secret report by the Spacing Guild.  This scene, two mimics the device of the novel’s appendices, some of which are also secret reports.  The report identifies four planets and their associated factions as possibly endangering spice production.  The first planet is Arrakis, also known as Dune, and home to the Fremen.  The second is Caladan, home to House Atreides; the third, Giedi Prime, home to House Harkonnen, the mortal enemies of the Atreides clan; and the fourth is Kaitain, home to House Corrino, and the Emperor of the known universe.  The Guild sends a navigator to demand details from the Emperor.

Scene Three is a more conventional one, and it shows us that meeting between the Emperor and the guild navigator, a monstrously mutated person who no longer resembles the rest of humanity, lays out the rest of the foundation for the film.  The Emperor is aware that House Atreides, led by the increasingly popular Duke Leto, is developing a secret army utilizing sound in some new way.  In order to get rid of House Atreides without appearing to do so, the Emperor turns over the Harkonnen fief of Arrakis to House Atreides, where the Duke Leto Atreides is to take over spice production.  But this plum assignment is actually a trap, as the Emperor intends that Baron Vladimir Harkonnen will, with secret assistance from the Emperor’s own troops, eliminate House Atreides.  The Guild sees “plans within plans,” but agrees to the plot as long as Duke Leto’s son Paul is killed.  The Emperor’s Truthsayer, a mysterious woman of the Bene Gesserit sisterhood, learns of these matters with the Emperor’s connivance, and resolves to journey to Caladan to see young Paul Atreides.

And so the stage is set (again)….

Skip the summary and jump to impressions!

Short summary:  There is no such thing as a short summary to a movie like this.  It opens with ten minutes spent laying out the basic facts necessary to begin to follow the action, before we ever see the hero of the film, the young Paul Atreides.  I’ll try, if you wish, but it’s probably not going to be pretty.

Boy’s family is a potential threat to the government.  Boy’s family is targeted for destruction by the powers that be.  Boy’s family moves to the planet Dune, knowing it’s a trap.  Thanks to a traitor in Boy’s family, as well as the Government’s help, Boy’s father is killed and Boy and Boy’s mother are forced to hide.  While in hiding, Boy meets Girl.  Boy develops the powers he was bred for.  Boy falls in love with Girl.  Boy takes control of oil—oops, I mean spice—production.  Government comes after Boy.  Boy uses his powers and takes down the Government. Boy becomes a god.  And the day is saved!

Er…wow.  Okay, maybe it is possible to sum up the movie in one fell swoop.  Just be aware that the foregoing paragraph is an almost criminal simplification of a very complicated story….

Impressions

One of the best things about the movie is its visual appeal, and that is certainly David Lynch’s touch at work.  He used innovative techniques—single camera filming and light flex (in which a scene is shot through a reflection of a color filter), just to name two—along with amazing design elements to create a stunningly beautiful vision of the future.  Lynch paid attention to every detail, and there are some really great ones, to make the film look good.

In terms of design, there is a unique and almost baroque look to the buildings, space ships, and technologies at play.  Consider the “house shields” of the Atreides ducal residence on Arrakis: each corner of the shield is an ornate L shaped metallic cap which actually rises from the ground as the shield effect develops.  Or consider the film’s ornithopters, a sort of blocky, stubby-winged air craft which was completely unique to film at the time.  The design elements are simply unprecedented in film, and everywhere you look there are intiguing visual details.

Or look at the costuming.  Women’s gowns are ornate, billowing affairs which ripple behind them as they walk; men’s military uniforms are formal and old-fashioned costumes which capture the romance of England’s Regency era.  The Fremen stillsuits, on the other hand, have a sleek, no-nonsense look which epitomizes the Fremen culture from which they come.

Basically, there is nothing on the screen which has not been carefully considered and designed, with thought about what that look says about the culture or faction from which it originated.  That thoughtfulness gives the film a unique and amazing look and feel.

It is unfortunate, then—and given the movie’s enormous budget, genuinely surprising—that some of the effects fall flat.  In particular, the scene in which the Guild navigator “folds space” to enable House Atreides to travel from Caladan to Arrakis is weak.  Lynch has commented that this segment was never truly finished, and it shows.  First, the mutated navigator creature looks unreal—like any movie monster, it is far more successful when it is shadowed, and can’t be clearly seen.  Next, the entity is clearly emitting pulses of light from its anus.  Yes, that’s right, the Guild’s navigator, a worm-like thing, excretes light as part of the space folding process.  Oh, it also spits it out, but nevertheless, the excretion takes place.  In a strange sequence, three planets are lit up by the creature’s spitting, and the last appears to be either Caladan or Giedi Prime—and not Arrakis, their destination.  That planet is the second one to be so identified, but in spite of that visual defect, it is to Arrakis that they go.  And the colored rings of light, the swimming stars—they all look rather silly.  The omnipresent green screen failure—in which a character’s outline is sharper than it should be—and obvious superimposition of disparate elements, primarily explosions and blaster fire—also mar the effects.  Given the amount of money involved, these failings are egregious even for an early ’80s film.

The music of the film is grand and complex.  Scored by the band Toto (!) with a contribution (“Prophecy Theme”) by Brian Eno, and performed by the Vienna Symphony Orchestra and the Vienna Volksoper Choir, it has a suitably orchestral sweep which matches the film’s operatic scope.  In places, of course, there are jarring moments.  Here and there an electric guitar strikes a recurring motif which simply doesn’t fit the rest of the movie’s identity.  It’s almost as if the composers had seen the de Laurentis production of Flash Gordon (1981) and wanted to evoke both it and the grandeur of Star Wars at the same time, with decidely ineffectual results.

The acting performances are a mixed bag in this film.  Kyle MacLachlan, as Paul Atreides, and Francesca Annis, as the Lady Jessica, turn in stellar performances—which is only fitting, given how much time the novel spends developing their characters, and given the two’s proven competence as actors.  Jurgen Prochnow, as Duke Leto Atreides, makes the most of his screen time and dominates many of his scenes, fitting given his character’s place in the feudal hierarchy.  And there is no denying that the three are by turns beautiful and noble, the visual essence of royalty and noblesse oblige.

Still other performances rise to high levels precisely because of the underlying characters’ one dimensional nature.  Kenneth McMillan’s Baron Vladimir Harknonnen and Sting’s Feyd-Rautha Harkonnen are cartoonish, over-the-top performances in which the two actors chew up all the scenery in sight.  The always engaging Linda Hunt turns in a remarkably (and appropriately) creepy performance as the Shadout Mapes, and Sian Phillips’ Reverend Mother Gaius Helen Mohiam is a mysterious woman with a purpose who embodies every ambiguously powerful woman ever born (though with some directorial flaws, as she is commanded to silence and yet makes inarticulate noises, thereby undercutting the film’s theme).  A very young though recognizable Alicia Witt also turns in a deliciously eerie and disturbing performance as Paul’s younger sister (and Leto’s posthumous child), the abomination Alia.  Finally, Patrick Stewart’s turn as young Paul’s mentor Gurney Halleck, the warrior-troubadour, is tremendous fun.

Everett McGill’s Stilgar, one of the key characters of the novel, a surrogate father to Paul-in-exile, turns in a curiously ambivalent performance.  Stilgar is a Fremen, a strong warrior leader who is nevertheless as moved by love as he is by hate, and yet an eminently practical man as well, shaped by the harsh desert environment he inhabits.  Strangely, the script seems to slight this important paternal influence, though McGill does what he can with what the script serves up.  A key scene between Stilgar and Paul, which takes place on the back of one of Arrakis’ giant sand worms, in which Paul takes his place as the legendary and prophesied messiah, never occurs; Stilgar is in the grip of the legend and his culture’s myth by this point.

Other performances, however, fall a little flat, a little stilted, and to some degree that is because of the script and the film itself.  The wiley mentat Thufir Hawat, played by Freddie Jones, never quite seems to gel (and a scene deletion robs this character of the completion of his arc).  The equally important twisted mentat Piter De Vries, servant of the Harkonnens, played by Brad Dourif, also fails to captivate, though at least Dourif gets to play off Sting and McMillan at some points.  It may be that the mentats—a concept not explored or even explained by the movie (blame another scene deletion for that)—fall flat because they are “human computers.”  Their dialogue is stilted and contains odd pauses, and their emotions are somewhat repressed, making the performances seem a little lifeless.  Virginia Madsen’s Princess Irulan, who has little screen time but significantly introduces the movie and its background concepts, gives a stiff performance in the opening scene, full of further odd pauses and strange pronunciations, though in the remainder of the film she is adequate.

I have a major quibble with one particular device used in the movie: the voiced thoughts of the characters. Dune was written in a third person omniscient viewpoint, and Herbert has no compunctions about exploring his characters’ internal mindscapes and monologues.  In some ways this technique drives his characterizations, since he can get inside a character’s head and show the reader exactly what is going on.  The movie attempts to mimic this by including the unvoiced thoughts of characters on the screen as vocalizations—a jarring device that routinely disrupts the flow of the film and shatters the illusion of reality.  If it had only happened once or twice, it would have been more acceptable, but the routine use of the device felt clumsy and a little silly, and reminds the viewer again and again of the essentially false nature of the events on-screen.

The movie’s story is in three basic parts, one of the clearest three act structures of any movie I’ve reviewed in this blog, excepting only Things to Come.  In Act I, the basic exposition takes place, and the Atreides family willingly steps into the trap in the hopes that recognizing the trap will enable them to disarm it.  They collectively fail, and Duke Leto is killed and Paul and Jessica flee into the desert.  In Act II, Paul takes on the religious mantle of messiah to the native Fremen, consolidates his hold on Dune, and launches a war, culminating in his taking the Water of Life and becoming the messiah he has pretended to be.  And in Act III, Paul reverses the trap, lures the Harkonnens, the Emperor, the Guild and the Sisterhood to Dune, and defeats them all.

On paper, the three act structure looks pretty good.  In practice, sometimes the clear divisions between acts interrupt the flow of the narrative and the development of a movie’s themes, and that’s exactly what happened here.  In Act I Paul is surrounded by his formative influences, and the interplay of human emotion sustains the film and makes it interesting.  In Act II, Paul is separated from all but one of those formative influences, and the remaining one, Lady Jessica, inexplicably recedes into the background.  Paul’s growth into his own man—and also into the literal “Hand of God”—takes place without the characters we have grown to know and love, and the movie fails to do much to show his new connections or give the viewer a reason to like the new characters (Chani and Stilgar, for example).  Act II changes the focus of the film, and it has a negative effect on the film.

Part of the negative impact centers on the the gap between the operatic sweep of the universe-altering events on the screen and the human scale of the participants in those events.  Act I is warm and human and focused on human emotions, while in Act II, the pace of the movie speeds up and the focus changes.  Two years of teaching, personal development and unending warfare vanish in two minutes of exposition.  We are told of, but never see, the development of the great love between Paul and Chani.  By the third act, in which Paul has lured Baron Harkonnen and Emperor Corrino into the trap which is Arrakis, the film has pulled its focus back from a merely human act of revenge and instead shows us Paul’s god-like status—and the viewer is left somewhat unconnected from the events on the screen.  That disconnect is even odder given how successful the movie is at invoking both the large—in the form of immense vistas of the deserts, huge buildings filled with people, and the panorama of the battlefield—and the small—in its single camera focus on individuals and its mastery of light and shadow.

The theme of the film is very different from the themes explored in the novel.  As Herbert himself put it, “Paul was a man playing god, not a god who could make it rain.”  Lynch’s movie is an exploration of a man who becomes, quite literally, “the Hand of God” and fulfills the Fremen prophecy of a messiah.  Seen from this perspective, and ignoring for a moment the tremendous complexities of the storyline and its enormous cast of characters, the movie is reasonably successful.  Paul takes the Water of Life and declaims to his dead father (or, perhaps, to God or the higher power who might be said to be his father in a non-biological sense) “the Sleeper has awakened.”  Paul takes on the abilities of the mysterious Spacing Guild, as well as the powers of the Bene Gesserit Sisterhood, along with who knows what else—demonstrating a control over sound, the ability to kill with a word, telepathy, control over the worms of Dune, and the power to control the weather in a very short period of time.

David Lynch has never said much about Dune other than that he regards it as a failure, and that his lack of final cut authority was a major element in that failure.  The DVD had some deleted scenes, though, and having viewed them, I suspect that had those scenes been in the film that the movie’s pacing, structural and thematic flaws may have been lessened—or even eliminated.

Rafaella de Laurentis, in the introduction to the deleted scenes, tells us when shooting ended, a group including Lynch, Rafaella and Dino de Laurentis laid out four hours worth of filming with blank scenes where special effects had not yet been completed.  The goal was to identify what they would need to do to bring the film in at something closer to two hours, which is what Universal, the film’s distributor, asked for.  Those six or seven scenes, which felt incomplete and which may well be lost in their whole forms, suggest that Lynch intended to invoke and develop the religious transformation from the very beginning of the film.  Instead, after the deletions, Lynch was permitted to add one scene—that in which Paul takes the Water of Life, summons the sandworms and transforms into the Hand of God—which was intended to capture the essence of the deleted scenes.  It failed to wholly do so, converting a gradual transformation which begins in the opening scenes of the film into a pivot point—a sort of non-organic, not fully anticipated change in direction.

Specifically, the deleted scenes emphasize the Bene Gesserit’s role in the breeding scheme and get the Kwisatz Hadderach idea out in front of the viewer in the first moments of the film, when Princess Irulan’s opening scene takes place (something of critical importance, given that the last line of the theatrical cut, spoken by Alicia Witt, was “And how can this be?  For he is the Kwisatz Hadderach!”).  The mentat place in the political and social order is at least mentioned, and the Guild’s ability to control the Emperor, as well as the Bene Gesserit Sisterhood’s secret plans to create a god-like entity under their control, all are explicitly stated instead of reduced to background elements.  They also explain the Fremen prophecy of a messiah who will lead them to true freedom, and emphasize that while the Guild and the Emperor and the Bene Gesserit all have their plans, the Fremen have a secret of their own, and that is in service to “a higher power.”  Parenthetically, one of those scenes is a wonderful interaction between the incomparable Linda Hunt’s Shadout Mapes and Francesca Annis’ Lady Jessica which, while overdramatic, was a great deal of fun to watch.

If those scenes had not been deleted, and instead the religious transformation had developed as Lynch appears to have intended, the film’s second half might have felt less like a change in focus and more like a fulfillment of the movie’s early promise.  And the third act, the climactic battle in which Paul’s forces defeat those of the Emperor and the Harkonnens, as well as pulling the fangs of both the Sisterhood and the Guild, might have had more emotional power as the full realization of Act II’s religious transformation.

The theatrical cut of the film runs about two hours and fifteen minutes.  According to Rafaella de Laurentis, there was never a completed “director’s cut” and that version of the film is all that ever existed until the extended edition was released.  The extended edition—which credits Alan Smithee as director, since Lynch refused to let Universal put his name on it—-runs two hours and fifty-seven minutes, a mere forty-three more minutes.  And yet in that forty-three minutes, in an attempt to make the film more comprehensible to the casual viewer, someone has managed to completely wreck a film which was already problematic.  Eight minutes of exposition, told over matte paintings which might well be pre-production artwork, precede the original opening scene—and bring the movie’s initial exposition to something along the lines of eighteen minutes.  Eighteen minutes of screen time before we get to the protagonist!  Eighteen minutes of exposition in which we are told, instead of shown, how the universe works—and some points are repeated during that exposition.  The narrator shows up again here and there during the course of the extended edition with more matte paintings, and unfinished clips are woven into the film from the cutting room floor and, disturbingly, as repetitions from earlier points in the film (a spaceship landing which is visible only once in the theatrical cut, for example, shows up three or four times in the extended edition, even though the destination is different in each of the scenes).

In other words, the extended edition represents a response to the idea that the film is confusing and hard to follow—which is probably true—which rather neatly illustrates that David Lynch knew what he was doing….

Wrap-up

If Total Recall is an example of a difficult development process because there’s not enough in the original story to carry a film, then Dune is an example of the reverse—there’s simply too much story in the original novel to be captured in a film.  In both cases lengthy and troubled development processes provide ample warning that a catastrophe is well under way.  Add to that the fact that you had too many cooks in the kitchen here, with very different ideas about how the meal was supposed to turn out, and you have a recipe for disaster.  The movie is a complicated, unfocused mess.

For all that, though, there are facets of the movie which shine.  The opening three scenes, with their economical and efficient delivery of the necessary background, were an astonishing achievement which also echoed their source.  The movie’s effects are largely successful, and some of the performances are magnificent.  Finally, the design and camera work for the film is simply fantastic, creating an amazing world and culture which is worth the price of admission all by itself.

There is much to be said, too, of the differences between the movie and the novel.  I am personally quite fascinated by the differences in the Spacing Guild’s emphasis on mathematics, the Mentat focus on data processing, and the Bene Gesserit Sisterhood’s primacy in the arena of self-knowledge and self-control as methods of developing human potential to the fullest.  And the change to the “wierding way” of fighting to include sound weapons so as to avoid, in Lynch’s words, “kung-fu on sand dunes,” is almost a story in itself.  On another note, the parallels between Dune, the Fremen and the spice to the Middle East, the culture of Islam and oil are also worth examining.  But I have tried to keep the focus on the film as a stand-alone work of art in its own right.

Examined in that light, Dune is an entertaining, though overly complex and difficult, movie which fails to fully or effectively develop its main theme and has some issues with pacing and focus.  It fails to fully exploit the emotional power of Paul’s revenge on those who have wronged him, and almost wholly neglects the Fremen enslavement and rise to power over their oppressors.  But it is also a visual feast with some nice acting, in some ways a cinematic triumph, and it does repay the effort spent in watching and following its complex plot structures.  It’s not a Top 50 film, but it’s an interesting movie and it has a lot to teach us.

#21: Earth vs. The Flying Saucers

Posted in best science fiction, Film, Movies, Science Fiction, Top Fifty Films with tags , , , , , , , , on May 14, 2012 by top50sf

1956

Director:  Fred F. Sears

Cast:  Hugh Marlowe, Joan Taylor, Morris Ankrum

Introduction     Plot Summary     UFO Lore     Impressions     Wrap-up

My rating:  Class A (3/7, rather hot white star).  In some ways a cinematic time capsule of the fifties, this movie also embodies the more recognizable aspects of UFO lore.  Though its pacing is rather slow, and the characterization is somewhat weak, it’s still an amazing ride with special effects that hold up quite well even now.

Introduction

The concept behind this movie is hardly a new one; Wells’ The War of the Worlds certainly did it first, both as a novel (1898) and as a movie (1953) (previously reviewed at #40).  There can be little doubt that that movie paved the way for this one, but Earth Vs. The Flying Saucers is unique in two respects: it encapsulates many of the most recognizable aspects of the already existing flying saucer lore, and it incorporates some impressive special effects by stop motion master Ray Harryhausen.  It is also the forerunner of the more modern Mars Attacks and Independence Day.

The movie credits its inspiration with the non-fiction Flying Saucers From Outer Space by Donald Keyhoe, a writer of science fiction and weird fantasy for pulp magazines.  Ray Harryhausen, the effects designer who did the saucers and some of the falling buildings, as well as the colorization process, worked closely with George Adamski, who is probably one of the first “contactees” in UFOology (at least until Adamski grew so paranoid that Harryhausen could no longer work with him), in designing the look and feel of the flying saucers.  Since these two men were instrumental in the growing field of UFOology, it makes sense that the movie strikes such a familiar tone with modern viewers.

The movie comes in two versions, the original black and white and a colorized version—the colorization process was supervised by Ray Harryhausen himself.  We watched the colorized version.

Plot (Contains Spoilers)

Setup:  Our hero, Dr. Russell Marvin, and his new wife Carol, are deeply involved in Project Skyhook, a satellite program which has put ten satellites of the proposed twelve into orbit.  And yet something is happening—none of the satellites are operating properly.  And all over the globe, people sight mysterious flying saucers.  One follows Dr. and Mrs. Marvin in their car on the way to Project Skyhook.  The next day, at the launch of the eleventh satellite, the aliens arrive in one of their flying saucers and land.  The guards open fire, and the aliens respond with deadly force, killing almost everyone on site and burying the Marvins in the rubble….

Skip the summary and jump to impressions!

Short summary:  Boy and girl elope.  Boy and Girl return to work.  Aliens attack.  Boy and Girl escape.  Boy and Girl meet with the authorities.  Boy meets Aliens.  Aliens deliver an ultimatum and say they will take over in 56 days.  Boy develops a weapon against the flying saucers.  Boy uses the weapon on one, and it works.  The aliens attack.  Boy’s weapon, now in mass production, continues to work.  Though battered and damaged, the Earth is saved!

UFO Lore

The look and feel of this movie is so iconic, and so well-matched to the body of UFO lore which inspired it, that it bears discussion.*  In June 1947, an American pilot, Kenneth Arnold, saw (or claimed to have seen) nine disc-like shapes flying at supersonic speeds near Mount Rainier in Washington state.  The incident garnered nation-wide news coverage, and was quickly followed by numerous additional sightings and the use of the term “flying saucer.”  In July of that same year, the United States Air Force announced that a “flying disk” had crashed near Roswell, New Mexico, though a day later, the Air Force stated that it was a weather balloon, and not a UFO.  The two incidents sparked a widespread interest in UFOs and flying saucers.

Public interest was so great that the United States government was forced to investigate the issue.  In 1948, the United States initiated Project Sign, which investigated the unidentified flying object phenomenon.  Most of the project’s investigators favored the extraterrestrial origin theory, and the project was terminated by a report which the Pentagon did not like.  Next up was Project Grudge, a 1949 investigation which was intended to follow standard intelligence procedures—the implication being, of course, that Project Sign had been hopelessly contaminated by faulty work.  The Grudge Report concluded that UFOs were the result of misidentification.  From 1952 to 1970, the United States investigated UFO sightings under the auspices of Project Bluebook.  Bluebook was to conclude that there was no military threat to the United States and that the sightings were not of extraterrestrial craft.

Donald Keyhoe, the writer of the book which inspired the movie, was a former Marine pilot and successful writer who became a major figure in the emerging UFO phenomenon.  He investigated the Arnold sighting and after some initial skepticism concluded that they were real.  He wrote “Flying Saucers Are Real” for the magazine True (published in 1950), and it may have been the most widely read and discussed magazine article in United States history.  He followed it up with two books, The Flying Saucers Are Real in 1950 and Flying Saucers From Outer Space in 1953.

George Adamski, the other major UFO figure behind the scenes of this film, emerged in about 1953 as one of the more influential “contactees.”  He popularized his story in Flying Saucers Have Landed, in which he claimed to have seen UFOs in 1946 and 1950, and then to have met a man from Venus when his scoutship landed.  Adamski had a national following, and as recently as 2003, was still the subject of news articles even though he had been dead since 1965.  Adamski’s descriptions became the base for much of Harryhausen’s work on the flying saucers in this film.

Impressions

In many ways, the presence of this film in the Top 50 Films list is a surprise, since it’s definitely a B movie.  That shows up in the script, the acting, the music—everything but the effects and the look and feel of the movie, in fact.  Sears directed an astonishing 29 films, including this one, in the period from 1953 to 1957, and most of them on six day shooting schedules.  So the movie is not high art by any stretch of the imagination.

Hugh Marlowe, who played Dr. Russell Marvin, usually played supporting actors or secondary leading men (though he was in a number of classic films, including Meet Me in St. Louis, All About Eve and The Day the Earth Stood Still).  He does a workman-like job, successfully though not brilliantly portraying a man who feels driven to act in spite of bureaucratic inertia as well as a recently married man deeply in love with his new wife.  Marlowe does shine in a few places, particularly when he’s given the idea for a sort of gun based first on sonic and then on magnetic principles designed to bring down the alien flying saucers; his excitement over scientific principles and the possibility of a weapon seems genuine.

Joan Taylor, in the role of Carol Marvin, also does a solid but not spectacular job.  Best remembered as Milly Scott in television’s The Rifleman and for her role in 20 Million Miles to Earth (another Harryhausen movie), Taylor raised three children and had a full career as an actress.  She also wrote the script for 1997’s Fools Rush In.  At any rate, Taylor does an adequate job with a role without a great deal of meat to it—she’s mainly the attractive woman, a secretary, who ties her husband to her father, General Hanley, who is largely a source of exposition rather than a full-fledged character.  Her horror and disgust, at least, seem real, as does her love for her husband, and the woman is no shrinking violet but rather a brave woman who won’t be separated from her husband even in the face of danger.

You might get the idea from the foregoing that characterization is not the forte of this movie, and you’d be right.  Earth vs. The Flying Saucers is a 1950s action movie, where the action is the thing and everything else in the movie is subordinate to it.  The characters are not particularly well-drawn, being ideas and plot devices more than people, and the focus of the movie is always on the mystery of the alien flying saucers and their mysterious goals.  In other words, it’s all about the alien invasion, and the people are secondary to that.  The plot is meticulously constructed, mind you, with all the right ingredients in place, but they’re all there to get us to the aliens attacking.

General Hanley (played by Morris Ankrum), Carol’s father, is a perfect example of that meticulous plot construction.  Less a character and more a plot device, he serves to move the plot along by explaining to Dr. Marvin what’s happened to his satellites.  The hapless general is captured by the evil aliens, and his mind is drained dry in their infinite indexing computer so they can use his knowledge, becoming a mindless zombie in the process.  Later still, he’s unceremoniously dumped out of a flying saucer to drive home the idea that the aliens are evil and up to no good.  So he’s not really a character—he’s General Exposition at first, and then General Example second.

So what are the aliens up to?  Well, they’re the survivors of a “disintegrated” solar system (no word on how or why that might have happened), and they need a place to live.  They’ve picked Earth, since it can support them, and they intend to enslave the technologically inferior humans.  They’re a wizened and ancient race with atrophied senses and strength who rely on their technology and their suits for everything.  The entire setup, of course, is an excuse for some striking imagery of a world—especially the immediately recognizable Washington, D.C.—under siege by aliens with superior technology.

That technology, however, is marvelous.  They can translate human languages, travel to the stars in the blink of an eye, disintegrate matter, take over the radio broadcasts of Earth, steal knowledge from a man’s brain…the movie even takes the idea of Einstein’s relativity and presents a bastardized explanation of time contraction.  The science is all plausible and the only real hole anywhere in the film is the aliens’ failure to realize that their message to Dr. Marvin would be so fast he wouldn’t realize it was a message.

The saucers, their weapons, and the aliens—along with their attacks—are the real stars of the film.  And the effects hold up surprisingly well.  They’re stop motion, state of the art at the time and dated now, so the effects appear rather fake to the modern eye.  And at the same time, they’re undeniably eye-catching and fun to watch.  The colorization process was also extremely well done; there were points where I simply forgot I was watching a colorized film, though it’s impossible to lose sight of the fact that it’s a 1950s film.

Wrap-up

Earth vs. The Flying Saucers is not high art, and it’s not particularly well-paced or dramatic.  The aliens don’t have a deep and disturbing goal, they just want a place to live with some ready slaves.  But it is a lot of fun, and it offers an intriguing glimpse into ’50s attitudes toward science, the possibility of intelligent life elsewhere in the universe, and war.  All in all, it is a fun and culturally relevant movie which captures the essence of the UFO movement at a time near its birth.  If you love classic movies, science fiction or the ’50s, then this is one to watch.

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*  I address only the third, and most modern, of the roots of UFO lore, since it began less than ten years before this movie saw print.  The other two roots are the end of  the 19th century’s “mystery airships” and the “foo fighters” of World War II.  Of course, there are many other historical references to mystery lights and things in the sky, and depending on how you interpret things—I’m looking at you, Erich Von Daniken—there is substantial evidence for alien astronauts visiting the Earth throughout and perhaps before recorded history.  Jump back to starting point.

Detour: A Scanner Darkly

Posted in best science fiction, Film, Movies, Science Fiction, Top Fifty Films with tags , , , , , , , , , on May 6, 2012 by top50sf

2006

Director:  Richard Linklater

Cast:  Keanu Reeves, Robert Downey, Jr., Woody Harrelson, Winona Ryder, Rory Cochrane

Introduction     Plot Summary     Impressions     Wrap-up

My rating:  Class B (2/7, a very hot blue-white star).  Strangely engrossing and hypnotic, A Scanner Darkly is richly evocative of ’70s drug culture, steeped in paranoia, and sufficiently bumpy in terms of plot twists to offer a fun ride even if you know what’s going on.  Darkly funny and sad, this is one to watch.

Introduction

Philip K. Dick is one of the giants of science fiction, publishing in, and in the wake of, the New Wave from 1955 to his death in 1982, with a surprising ten posthumous novels as well.  Dick’s works, while not widely known outside the science fiction world in his lifetime, have subsequently become much more famous, with twelve films* adapted from various short stories and novels since his death, including Blade Runner, the number one film on our list.

Given Dick’s pedigree, A Scanner Darkly seemed like a movie worth taking a look at, and it draws heavily upon Dick’s personal experiences with the drug culture—in fact, Dick once stated that it was the first novel he had written while not on speed.  Other favorite Dick themes abound:  the fragility of reality, the nature of personal identity, and everyday working people as opposed to the cultural or political elite.

The film also makes extensive use of rotoscoping—actually, the entire film is rotoscoped.  That means that the movie was filmed and then animators painstakingly traced over each individual frame of the film.  The term comes from the original projection equipment, which put the film images on a piece of frosted glass which the animators used to do their work.  It gives the film a unique look and feel which suits its themes and caused some critics to compare the drug culture to “the dark world of comic books.”

The film was initially released in seventeen theaters, with a slightly larger release following.  Shot for a budget of about $8.7 million, it made only $7.7 million world-wide, and critical response to it was mixed.  Critics such as The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, the Village Voice, and others commented on its hypnotic appeal and singled out Robert Downey Jr.’s performance as one of the best supporting actor performances of the year.  However, media such as Entertainment Weekly, The Guardian and The New York Daily News pegged it as murky and overly talk-oriented, with a plot that goes nowhere.  The division seems clear: the arty folks like the movie, while the more down-to-earth crowd doesn’t.  The movie has a 68% fresh rating at Rotten Tomatoes and 73% from Metacritic.

Plot (Contains Spoilers)

Setup:  America has lost the war on drugs, though the country is fighting a valiant rear-guard action against Substance D, a strongly addictive drug which causes hallucinations.  Its side effects, over time, cause the user to experience cognitive defects and permanent, presumably physical, brain damage.  Bob Arctor, an undercover policeman, works in the equivalent of a narcotics division and is assigned to break into a Substance D distribution ring.  His girlfriend, Donna, is a cocaine addict who sells him Substance D, and his two roommates, James Barris and Ernie Luckman, as well as his friend Charles Freck, are fellow drug users.  Arctor, who wears a scramble suit at work which conceals his identity and uses the codename Fred, is assigned to spy on his own household by his boss, Hank—who also wears a scramble suit.  And so the stage is set!

Skip the summary and jump to impressions!

Short summary:  Boy is a member of the police force’s drug division.  He wears a scramble suit while at work, and his coworkers do not know who he is.  Boy is assigned to penetrate a distribution ring for “Substance D,” a dangerous drug with some nasty side effects.  Boy is subsequently given orders to spy on his own household (he has two roommates, an associate of the group and a girlfriend) in an attempt to break the Substance D ring.  Drug-fueled hijinks ensue as Boy becomes addicted to, and then brain-damaged by, Substance D.  Boy’s roommate reports Boy and Boy’s Girlfriend as terrorists.  Boy’s roommate is arrested for furnishing false information to the police.  Boy gets put into New Path, a rehabilitation facility.  Boy is badly brain-damaged and subsequently brainwashed.  Boy’s girlfriend turns out to be his police supervisor.  Boy goes to work at New Path’s farm.  Boy discovers New Path is the source of Substance D.  Boy resolves to take one of the plants to his friends at Thanksgiving.  The day is saved!

Impressions

The interpolated rotoscope technique—which amounts to computerized animation of previously filmed live-action video—dominates the film’s visual look.  This particular technique relies on vector keyframes to create the “in-between” frames automatically, but human artists had to do the basic work, and it took fifteen months and $2 million more than expected.  The reason for the rotoscoping?  Linklater, the director, wanted to do animation for adults, or so he has said.  I can only surmise, however, that the scramble suits were at the base of the decision to animate, as any special effects for the suits would probably be quite difficult to pull off successfully.

At any rate, the animation is darkly realistic, and as a viewer I never lost sight of the fact that there was a real live-action film at the core of A Scanner Darkly.  The animation creates a hypnotic effect which mirrors the hallucinatory quality of the drug Substance D, and it also creates a slight air of unreality, of something a little off, which pervades the film thematically and therefore gives the movie’s look a unique tie to its meanings.

The music is also unique, starting with acoustic instruments and adding electric guitar and bass, then transforming them into something which sounds as if it might have been synthesized.  Graham Reynolds, a Texas composer, put together the basic score which includes about 44 minutes of music.  While not especially memorable, the music does a nice job and it fits the look and feel of the film.  The soundtrack also features songs by Radiohead.

The acting is pretty darn good.  Keanu Reeves, as Bob Arctor, delivers precisely the sort of confused, almost bumbling, performance which the role calls for.  Reeves seldom delivers awesome performances, but he may be underrated as an actor.  Here he gives exactly what the film needs, as does Woody Harrelson in his role as the laid-back, likeable Ernie Luckman, and Rory Cochrane as the hapless Charles Freck (an associate, but not a roommate, who is apparently much further down the road to disaster in his Substance D addiction).  All three performers do a nice job with roles which don’t call for them to stretch too far.

The true standouts are Robert Downey, Jr. and Wynona Rider.  The former plays the arrogant and self-centered James Barris, a man who is paranoid, selfish, and traitorous, but not without a certain wry charm.  Downey’s performance is inspired, frenetic, and convincing.  The latter plays Arctor’s girlfriend, cocaine addict, and Substance D dealer Donna Hawthorne.  While Rider doesn’t give a tour de force, she must convey substantial emotion as it is revealed that she is code name Hank, Arctor’s boss in the police force, real name Audrey, who knowingly sacrifices Arctor without his knowledge or consent so that the police can bust New Path.  Without Audrey’s confession to her fellow policeman Mike, the film would make less sense, and the decision to sacrifice Bob Arctor would be a much colder, crueler event—instead of the tragedy which it seems to be in the film.

The film addresses the issue of excessive drug use and the sense of unreality which participants in the drug culture sometimes experience.  Put simply, many drug users simply do not live in the same world as the rest of us, and the movie offers a glimpse into their world.  Here the rotoscoping makes sense, giving, as it does, an air of unreality to what is in fact real.  The various characters’ hallucinations merge seamlessly into reality due in part to the animation technique.  And as Arctor begins to suffer brain damage from his use of Substance D, one of Dick’s other themes, that of the loss of personal identity, surfaces.

It is significant that Arctor’s brain damage and loss of identity first manifest as memories of a life that never was, when he was married and had children and lived in a clean and well-kept version of the same house.  Arctor’s life that never was is what he could have had without the drugs.

In some ways the aimlessness of the characters seems harmless.  They are, to a man, self-destructive idiots who lack ambition and drive, and do not seem interested in making connections with the rest of the world.  For all that they are, to a conventional mindset, a waste of space and human potential, they are only dangerous to themselves and each other.  The only arrest which takes place, that of James Barris, is due to his faking a tape and turning in Arctor and Hawthorne as members of a terrorist group.  The true villains of the piece, the dealers and manufacturers who profit from the waste of human potential, go unpunished—though there is a hint that retribution is coming.

As a prediction of the future, A Scanner Darkly failed.  America has not yet lost the war on drugs to such an extent that 20% of the nation could be classed as addicts, and we do not yet tolerate the loss of freedoms which the film seems to take for granted.  On the other hand, we also don’t have anything quite like Substance D available to us, either.  And the police spying which takes place, since it takes place in Arctor’s house with his consent, is at least partially defensible (though arguably still in violation of the 4th Amendment).

The film ends with a version of the novel’s Afterword, in which Dick listed a number of people he knew who had suffered permanant injury as a result of sustained drug use.  Dick’s own name, Phil, appears with the notation “pancreatic damage.”

The title of the novel and the film echoes a biblical passage, I Corinthians 13, which may be one of the most famous (and beautiful) passages in the Bible.  The relevant portion is

When I was a child, I spake as a child, I thought as a child.  But when I became a man, I put away childish things.  For now we see through a glass, darkly, but then, face to face.  Now I know in part, but then I shall know even as I am also known.  And now abideth faith, hope and love, these three, but the greatest of these is love.

The King James Bible uses the word “charity” while most translations use the word “love.”  In the original Greek, the word is agape, a word difficult to translate but dealing with love for all mankind.  While the chapter is often used as the core of a wedding ceremony, the chapter has always seemed to me to deal with the transforming power of love for one’s fellow man, and of the necessity for mankind to treat one another well.  Dick’s reference of this particular biblical passage may indicate that he wants us to deal with the nation’s drug problem with charity and thoughtfulness, or it may simply be a powerful phrase (so powerful that it brought the relevant passage back to my attention, and which then surfaced in my own review title of Buck Rogers) which indicates that the beholder cannot see everything clearly in all cases.

Wrap-up

A Scanner Darkly is not for everyone, and I suspect that a number of viewers will be disgusted or turned off by the antics of the drugged out roommates.  Others will find it funny without being particularly moved by it.  Still others will find the rotoscoping too much, too distracting.

If you’re one of those who enjoys a tightly-themed, loosely plotted psychodrama, however, I strongly recommend this film.  It’s sad, it’s moving, it’s funny, and it features two very strong performances which make it well worth the price of admission.

Related articles

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* The twelve films, and their original printed versions, are:

  • Blade Runner, a Ridley Scott film which is ranked #1 on the Top 50 Films List, based on the 1968 novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?  Starring Harrison Ford, the film was very different from the novel but Dick actually saw this one (he died four months after it was released) and liked what Scott had done with the film;
  • Total Recall, a 1990 Paul Verhoeven film starring Arnold Schwarzenager, based on the 1966 short story “We Can Remember It For You Wholesale,” reviewed in this blog as a detour;
  • Confessions d’un Barjo, 1992, French film, based on the non-fiction Confessions of a Crap Artist.  The novel, written in 1959, was published in 1975;
  • Screamers, 1995, directed by Christian Duguay, starring Peter Weller, and based on the chilling short story “Second Variety,” which was originally published in 1953;
  • Minority Report, 2002, directed by Steven Spielberg and starring Tom Cruise, based on the 1956 short story “The Minority Report;”
  • Imposter, 2002, directed by Gary Fleder and starring Gary Sinese, Madeleine Stowe and Vincent D’Onofrio, based on the 1953 story “Imposter;”
  • Paycheck, 2003, directed by John Woo and starring Ben Affleck, based on the 1953 short story “Paycheck;”
  • A Scanner Darkly, which probably needs no further information since that’s what this entry is about;
  • Next, 2007, directed by Lee Tamahori and starring Nicolas Cage, based on the 1954 novelette “The Golden Man,” which is now in the public domain;
  • Radio Free Albemuth, 2010, directed by John Alan Simon and starring Alanis Morissette, based on the 1985 novel Radio Free Albemuth, and which, though screened at various theatrical festivals, has yet to enjoy US theatrical release;
  • The Adjustment Bureau, 2011, directed by George Nolfi, starring Matt Damon, based on the 1954 short story “Adjustment Team;” and
  • Total Recall, 2012, directed by Len Wiseman and starring Colin Farrell, as a second remake of the short story “We Can Remember It For You Wholesale.”

Two more of his works are in production in some stage, the short story “King of the Elves” as a Walt Disney animated feature and the novel Ubik, currently in negotiation as a film adaptation.  Rumors persist of adaptations of The Man in the High Castle into a miniseries by Ridley Scott and a film adaptation of the novel Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said.

Each of the short stories referenced above can be found in the collection Selected Stories of Philip K. Dick.

Jump back

When I Was A Child, I Spake As A Child: Detour for Buck Rogers in the 25th Century

Posted in best science fiction, Film, Movies, Science Fiction, television, Top Fifty Films, TV with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 29, 2012 by top50sf

1979

Director:  Daniel Haller

Cast:  Gil Gerard, Erin Gray, Pamela Hensley, Tim O’Conner, Felix Silla, Mel Blanc (voice only), Duke Butler, Henry Silva

Introduction     Plot Summary     Impressions     Wrap-up

My rating:  Class G (a medium yellow star, much like our own sun, 5/7).  An ambitious attempt at witty, arch dialogue steeped in late seventies culture and set in one of the most venerable science fiction universes in existence, this one falls flat on its face to my adult mindset, but it was a tremendous amount of fun.

Fan trailer (not the theatrical trailer):

And the series introduction (from season 2), which is something of a classic:

Introduction

Folks, this baby has a serious science fiction pedigree.

In 1928, Philip Francis Nowlan wrote a novella, Armageddon 2419 A.D., which appeared in the pages of Amazing Stories and detailed the adventures of Tony Rogers, a veteran who wakes in the year 2419 to find America conquered by the Han.  In 1929, his follow-up novella, The Air Lords of Han, completed the story he’d begun and symbolically freed the United States from its foreign overlords.  While not politically correct today—the two novellas embody the thinking behind “the Yellow Peril“—they were great fun, and promoted ideas of sexual equality and technological development.  And to be fair, the Han turned out to be the product of alien miscegenation, though that emerges in the last pages of the second novella.  Both can be downloaded for free from the pages of Project Gutenberg.

Nowlan freed the imaginations of a generation; the two stories proved to be so popular that they spawned the first science fiction comic strip, Buck Rogers, in 1929.  The comic strip ran for thirty-seven years, ending in 1967 and experiencing a brief four-year revival in 1979 (the same year as this movie).

The character also appeared in a 1932 radio program—the first science fiction radio program, in fact—which ran until 1947.  The 1933 World’s Fair in Chicago featured a ten minute film strip called Buck Rogers in the 25th Century: An Interplanetary Battle with the Tiger Men of Mars.  In 1939, Universal Pictures produced a twelve-part serial starring Buster Crabbe (who appears in a cameo in the first two-part episode of the 1979 series) which would be edited into three separate feature-film versions (in 1953, as Planet Outlaws, in 1965 for television as Destination Saturn and finally in the ’70s as Buck Rogers).  Buck also came to the ABC television network for a year or so in 1950 in the form of a thirty-minute long, live broadcast television series, of which there are no surviving prints.

In its own way, Buck Rogers may be a bigger cultural phenomenon than any of the other existing franchises in the science fiction world.  Only Flash Gordon comes close to it in terms of longevity (Buck Rogers is the original and Flash Gordon something of an imitator).  So in 1977, when Star Wars revolutionized theatrical story-telling, helped to change movie-goers’ expectations, demonstrated the power of special effects, and revived the space opera, it was perhaps inevitable that Buck—who is no longer protected by copyright, apparently—would be back.

After all, that’s a big market to ignore.

Enter Glen Larson, a relatively successful American television producer in the wake of his Battlestar Galactica (a television show cancelled after one season due to declining ratings and increasing cost over-runs).  As part of the marketing efforts, the two-hour long pilot would be edited into theatrical form and released in the United States, much like Battlestar Galactica itself.  And that’s how you and I got to be here, talking about Buck Rogers.

The movie, or the pilot if you prefer, keeps a lot of the elements of the original concepts, but re-imagines them for a 1970s audience.  Also unlike its immediate predecessors, this is definitely a light-hearted romp intended to be fun, and it fairly oozes sexiness.  It’s not entirely successful in the witty banter department, and some of the comic elements fall a little flat, but it’s easy to see what the show was going for…

A final word before we get to the good stuff:  it’s impossible to evaluate this film as a movie on its own, because the series was so iconic, and people remember it so well.  I’ll do my best to keep the movie in my sights, and not hare off on tangents related to the series.

Short summary:  Boy takes a five hundred year nap.  Boy meets Bad Girl.  Bad Girl decides to use Boy to conquer Earth.  Boy meets Good Girl.  Good Girl is convinced that Boy is a plant.  Boy has trouble adjusting to life in the future.  Good Girl’s side tries Boy as a traitor and convicts him.  Boy escapes and runs to Bad Girl’s ship, planning to fix her good.  Bad Girl tries to seduce Boy.  Boy escapes Bad Girl.  Boy destroys Bad Girl’s heavily armed fighters, while Good Girl leads an attack on Bad Girl’s space ship.  Buck escapes.  The day is saved!

Setup:  Buck Rogers, an astronaut, commands Ranger 3, a shuttle-like starship which suffers a malfunction in its life support system, freezing Buck Rogers for 504 years.  He is discovered by Princess Ardala’s Draconian flagship, taken aboard, and drugged.  The princess and her right hand, Kane, elect to place a tracking beacon on Ranger 3 and program its autopilot to return to Earth.  They hope that Earth’s Defense Directorate will take Ranger 3 through the secret passage past the Earth’s force field, thereby enabling the Draconian Empire to conquer a beleaguered Earth.  The plan works, up to a point, but the tracking beacon is discovered and the Defense Directorate concludes that Buck Rogers is a traitor….

Impressions

I really, really wanted to like this movie.  A lot of people did—it did well enough on broadcast and on theatrical release to get a green light for the series.  And I have very fond memories of the show as well.

How unfortunate, then, that those memories and impressions are based on the mind and experiences of a fairly sheltered twelve year old boy.

From this, you might gather that the movie did not hold up very well, and you’d be right.  Don’t get me wrong—it’s enjoyable, in its way, and fine children’s television (though with an overtly sexy quality which, as a parent, I might well have wanted my children to avoid, but then a lot of ’70s TV had a similar quality).  But it’s not high art, and it’s not especially well-done.

Let’s start with the special effects.  They actually aged rather well in some ways, even though a lot of them were based on re-tooled Battlestar Galactica ideas and props.  The Earth Defense Directorate’s starfighters, for example, were the first model developed for Battlestar Galactica‘s vipers, and that series’ landrams and distinctive laser bolts—sound and all—show up here.  It’s rather obvious that some money went into the show, and the effects—almost certainly scale models combined with animation, and perhaps some green screen work—hold up rather well, all things considered.

The computer-generated images, on the other hand—prevalent in displays intended to mimic radar or tactical screens—are remarkably primitive.  They don’t even look as good as an actual radar screen, though they probably were state of the art at the time.  The fact that the action on the computer screens doesn’t always match the “real” action which the movie showed in its full blazing glory was something of a problem.

As for the rest of the movie’s look…no ifs, ands or buts, this is science fiction as envisioned in the disco era, and it’s heavily laden with sex appeal (for both genders).  The hair styles, the in-story music, the clothing—all is filtered through the age of disco.  Tight spandex in flashy colors predominates.  Erin Gray, who played Wilma Deering, has commented that one reason that Wilma seldom sat was because the spandex suit was so very tight.  One commentator referred to Gil Gerard’s outfit as “polish sausage” (I couldn’t have made that up if I’d tried).  And Pamela Hensley’s Princess Ardala has a definite look and style all her own….

Musically the film is rather forgettable.  The stirring opening sequence of the series—perhaps one of the best in television history, which still has the capacity to evoke a thrill—is yet to be.  Instead, the Buck Rogers theme song is softened, sounding rather like seventies soft pop, with uneven vocals, played over images of beautiful woman in revealing costumes lounging about on giant lighted letters spelling out “Buck Rogers.”  No, I’m not kidding.  You really have to see it to believe it, and unfortunately the only video I could find was a web cam capture.  Still, here it is:

The acting is uneven, at best.  Gil Gerard, as Buck Rogers, displays a boyish charm and a ready smile.  Gerard shines as a drugged astronaut, and he projects confidence and competence as well as any actor out there.  He dishes out the cheesy lines with a ready smile and a sense of insouciance that almost works; about the only place he truly fails is in the witty banter and maudlin “I’m five hundred years out of my own time” elements.  Unfortunately, those are the most important aspects of the character….

Erin Gray’s character, Wilma Deering, in the movie/pilot is quite a bit different from the character you may remember from the series.  She’s not vivacious and half in love with Buck; she’s cold, arrogant and not very competent.  That’s a factor of the writing; the sparkling, merry and beautiful warrior woman is in there, peeking out, but we get only glimpses of her in the pilot.  Gray does a competent, if not stellar, job, basically ham-strung by the script.

That changes for the series, of course, and the following clip captures the chemistry of the two leads, and shows off some of the good, and the bad, the series incorporated:

Pamela Hensley, who plays Princess Ardala, is perhaps the standout actor.  She never shows a trace of self-consciousness, even as she struts around in a sequin-bedecked bikini with the most bling-encrusted viking-inspired hat ever to grace the imagination of the maddest hatter ever born.  Ardala is sly, confident, manipulative, and sneaky, and Hensley, a strikingly attractive woman, brings all of this off with a grace which makes me wonder why she didn’t go on to become a huge star (her last major role was as the titular character’s lawyer buddy in Matt Houston).

By the way, the two characters, Wilma Deering and Princess Ardala, do not care for one another:

The narrative itself is remarkably cheesy and inept.  Buck succeeds as a fighter pilot because he turns off the combat computers and goes it with plain old American ingenuity and know-how (“use the Force, Luke”).  He almost single-handedly turns a losing situation around by shoving bombs up fighter tailpipes while sneaking around on the Princess’ “Draconian Flagship,” thereby destroying the ship’s entire offensive capability, all the while being caught by only one of the ship’s personnel, Tiger-Man—who he kills by stuffing yet another bomb into his belt and kicking him off-screen.  And what’s he doing in an Earth Defense Directorate uniform at the reception for Princess Ardala?  In fact, what’s he doing at the reception at all?  It’s silly, it’s hokey, and it’s stupid.

There are some other strange or simply incomplete things going on in the movie and then in the series.  Dr. Huer, the elderly gentleman who may or may not be one of Earth’s rulers, runs the Earth Defense Directorate.  He also may be Earth’s ambassador.  On the other hand, it’s the Computer Council that apparently rules the planet, but they also function as Buck’s jury in his treason trial.  How the two fit together is a complete mystery.  And don’t get me started on Dr. Theopolis, who spends much of the movie as Buck’s greatest defender—even pointing out how handsome Buck is.  There are undertones of love at first sight at work there, and that was actually a little disturbing—not the gender issue, since computers don’t have genders, but the idea of a computer forming such a quick and irrational attachment.  Much of the movie feels like it was just thrown up on the screen without serious regard for how everything actually fit together, or what the real background was.

On the other hand…it’s great fun.  I think that may be one of the reasons the movie worked as entertainment.  It’s not supposed to be taken seriously, and it’s all about great visuals, sexy people, cool effects, and adventure.  And in that sense, Buck Rogers in the 25th Century does deliver.  It delivers best for children, who might be entertained by Twiki the robot, as opposed to being irritated—Twiki is in some ways the spiritual predecessor to Jar Jar Binks.  In fact the series which flowed out of the pilot became quite a bit lighter in the first season, though that trend reversed in the second season, as Gil Gerard himself agitated for a more serious tone almost from the beginning.

Wrap-up

I won’t say that seeing the movie as an adult destroyed part of my childhood, but it did bring into startling focus how little judgement and taste I had as a twelve year old.  As I say, this movie is great fun, but it’s also pure schlock.  Take a trip down memory lane, by all means, and watch this again, but don’t expect too much from it!

The sheer unadulterated mass of fan commentary, web sites, Youtube clips and everything else Buck Rogers out there on the web make it clear that a lot of people remember this movie/series very fondly.  I couldn’t give a better endorsement for the series’ impact if I’d tried, so obviously it had something going for it.

It had so much going for it that the “remake” rumors have swirled for the last two years or so.  IMDB lists the movie as “in development,” and MovieInsider.com states that it will be directed by Paul W.S. Anderson, with a slew of producers lined up and at work.  If it pans out, it could be good fun!

I leave you with a fascinating segment from British Television’s Channel 4, which captures a lot of the fun and the good things about the show, and which helped me to sort out my mixed feelings….

And lastly, just for kicks, some video which makes it clear why America loved Erin Gray so much:

Some other takes on the show:

The upcoming movie (from CinemaBlend):