Monday, September 28, 2015

Sci-Fi September Quick Picks and Pans

Kronos (1957) Jeff Morrow and Barbara Lawrence star as Dr. Leslie Gaskell and Vera Hunter, in one of the most unconventional alien invasion flicks to come out of the ‘50s. We never see the aliens that originate from a distant world. Instead, the first wave of a planetary conquest comes in the form of a 100-foot robot, dubbed “Kronos” (after one of the Titans in Greek mythology). After a large meteorite crashes off the coast of Mexico, a huge, boxlike robot emerges from the sea, and proceeds to absorb energy, leaving a wake of destruction behind it. The slow build-up works to the film’s advantage, taking time to establish the characters as they tirelessly endeavor to find a way to stop the giant automaton (it’s always nice to see a movie that casts scientists in a positive light). The leads are appealing, although I wanted to shake Dr. Gaskell for being oblivious to his girlfriend’s advances. I’m not sure what the female equivalent of blue balls is, but whatever it’s called, she’s got ‘em, Relationship difficulties aside, it’s an underrated mini-classic.

Rating: ****. Available on DVD

Destination Moon (1950) This Technicolor space adventure from producer George Pal, director Irving Pichel, and based on a novel by Robert A. Heinlein (who also co-wrote the screenplay), strives for scientific accuracy over fanciful speculation. In a whimsical, but educational sequence, we’re treated to a Woody Woodpecker cartoon, describing the physics of a moon rocket. It’s too bad the rest of the film doesn’t match this high point, with its idealistic, but wooden leads, and an annoying crewmember (our nominal “everyman”) who sounds like Bugs Bunny, and claims the rocket “won’t woik.”      

Destination Moon doesn’t exactly prophesize the Apollo missions, with its anti-government, pro-private industry message. Instead of a NASA-like space agency, the movie opines wealthy corporate moguls will foot the bill for an atomic moon rocket. It’s also hard to swallow that a successful mission could be mounted on such short notice, with an untested crew and ship. It’s still fun to watch the astronauts band together to work through the perils of space travel.

Rating: ***.  Available on DVD

Cube 2: Hypercube (2002) Director Andrzej Sekula’s decent follow-up to Vincenzo Natali’s clever sci-fi/existential horror hybrid plays more like a remake than a sequel. Once again, a group of unrelated (or are they?) people are stuck in a multi-room complex, riddled with booby traps. This time around, the rooms occupy four dimensions, and appear to traverse time and space. Although the boundaries are virtually limitless, the booby traps aren’t quite as clever as the ones in the original movie, and the characters spend more time bickering instead of searching for a way out. Cube 2 can’t quite duplicate the mind-bending experience of the first film, but it’s worth a look if you’re a fan of the first film.

Rating: ***. Available on DVD

Woman in the Moon (aka: Frau im Mond) (1929) Writer/director Fritz Lang and writer Thea von Harbou’s (adapted from her novel) space epic spends far too much time with a melodramatic plot, and too little time basking in a sense of wonder over the subject matter. Rocket designers Wolf Helius (Willy Fritsch) and Hans Windegger (Gustav von Wangenheim) are in love with the same woman, Friede Velten (Gerda Maurus, who also appeared in Lang’s Spies). Joining them on their voyage to the moon are a crusty old professor, a shifty industrial saboteur with a Hitler hairdo, and plucky kid who stows away in a spacesuit. Despite the fact that they’re on the flippin’ moon, all they can think of is to squabble amongst each other. Woman in the Moon gets some things right (multiple rocket stages, weightlessness and a countdown preceding the launch), but fudges on the rest of the facts. According to the filmmakers, we’re led to believe there’s a breathable atmosphere on the moon, and we should probably pack a light jacket, because it gets a little chilly at night. Although it’s far from Lang’s best, it’s worth a look.

Rating: ***. Available on DVD

Robot Stories (2003) Writer/director Greg Pak’s low budget anthology film tells four unrelated tales about relationships, loss and childhood. In the first vignette, a professional couple looking to start a family must live with a robot baby to prove their worthiness as parents. The second (and best) segment isn’t science fiction at all, but an affecting drama about a mother coping with her estranged adult son, after he’s lapsed into a coma. She attempts to mend their lost bond, and somehow revive him, by piecing together his collection of vintage toy robots (anyone familiar with the Micronauts figures should enjoy this bit of ‘70s nostalgia). The rest of the film is an exercise in the law of diminishing returns. The third vignette features an android office worker in a generic office setting with equally generic employees. The fourth story isn’t about robots at all, but concern’s a dying elderly man’s decision whether or not to have his memories archived in a computer database. The production values are TV grade, the effects are minimal, and the acting is uneven, but the movie has its heart in the right place. My advice: skip the remaining two segments.

Rating: ***. Available on DVD

Split Second (1992) Despite the negative buzz I had heard about the film, I was always curious to see Split Second. Maybe because of its star, its relative scarcity and intriguing, albeit derivative premise, I was ready to give the movie the benefit of the doubt. I should have listened to the naysayers. An unseen assailant stalks the shadowy corners of future London, ripping out the hearts of its victims. Rutger Hauer plays stereotypical cop on the edge Harley Stone, who lost his original partner to the creature, and wants another shot at destroying it. His obnoxious sidekick tries to be funny and edgy, and fails miserably on both counts. Kim Cattrall, Michael J. Pollard, Pete Postlethwaite and Ian Dury (!) are wasted in thankless roles. When you finally catch a glimpse of the barely seen creature, it resembles a cheap xenomorph look-alike. Save your time and watch the original Predator or first two Alien flicks again.

Rating: *½. Available on DVD (Out of Print) and  Hulu Streaming

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

The Black Hole

(1979) Directed by Gary Nelson; Written by Jeb Rosebrook and Gerry Day; Based on a story by: Jeb Rosebrook, Bob Barbash and Richard H. Landau; Starring: Maximilian Schell, Anthony Perkins, Yvette Mimieux, Ernest Borgnine, Robert Forster and Joseph Bottoms; Available on DVD

Rating: ***

“There is not, and never was, a definitive ending written. Even the credited screenwriters did not write the actual ending we have on the film. They took the story up to the last seven minutes and stopped.” – Gary Nelson (excerpt from 1979 interview with Jim Steranko, Mediascene)

“The risk is incidental, compared to the possibility to possess the great truth of the unknown. There, long-cherished laws of nature simply do not apply, they vanish.” – Dr. Hans Reinhardt (Maximilian Schell)

Note: Democracy has spoken. By the narrowest of margins, The Black Hole triumphed over Logan’s Run in my informal Twitter poll. Thanks to all who voted.

1979 was a banner year for space-bound epics with three (count ‘em, three) movies: Star Trek: The Motion Picture, The Black Hole and Alien (by far, the best of the bunch). Two were aiming for big-budget spectacle, while the last employed impressive effects, but to tell a more claustrophobic story. The Black Hole was the only one of the three that I didn’t have the pleasure of seeing in the theater, due to the fact I had two older brothers who regarded Disney as purveyors of kid stuff. I’ve since watched it on home video several times, so it’s become as entrenched in my synapses as its other two contemporaries.

The eponymous, enigmatic space phenomenon (; has been the mainstay of numerous science fiction stories, and remains ripe for exploitation as a plot device. There’s something poetic and terrifying about a celestial body that generates gravitational forces so powerful, even light can’t escape. Of course, no one really knows what would happen if a spacecraft could survive the crushing effects of a black hole, but some have speculated it could be a possible conduit through time and space.  

In the opening scene, the crew members of the deep-space exploration craft Palomino discover an enormous vessel, the U.S.S. Cygnus. The ship, believed lost two decades ago, is perched at the edge of a massive black hole. Although the rest of the Cygnus’s crew vanished, famed researcher Dr. Hans Reinhardt (Maximilian Schell), resembling a disco Captain Nemo, is alive and well. He’s created an anti-gravity field that can counteract the gravitational effects, and intends to survive a journey through the center.

While there are undeniable elements of 2001: A Space Odyssey and Forbidden Planet in the film, Walt Disney Studios undoubtedly called upon its own 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea as the primary template. I’m not aware if the filmmakers ever conceded these parallels, but there are too many to dismiss. The Nautilus becomes the Cygnus, the aforementioned Nemo becomes Dr. Reinhardt, Professor Aronnax is Dr. Alex Durant (Anthony Perkins), Ned Land is Lieutenant Pizer (Joseph Bottoms), and Nemo’s loyal first mate becomes the diabolical robot Maximilian.* In one scene, we witness a burial at space that recalls an underwater burial in the earlier film. In another sequence, Reinhardt provides a tour of the Cygnus’ power supply that recalls similar scenes in Forbidden Planet (the vast Krell underground complex) and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (the Nautilus’ atomic reactor).

* Fun fact: In case you’re wondering, the robot was named Maximilian before Maximilian Schell was cast as Dr. Reinhardt.

Schell does a laudable job as the egomaniacal genius Reinhardt, but he’s no James Mason.* Dr. Reinhardt and Captain Nemo are both driven men, not interested in the human cost of their endeavors, but that’s where the similarities begin and end. Nemo is much more sympathetic, as a man who’s lost his wife and children to the profiteers of war. Insanity begets insanity, as he vows revenge against those who destroyed his family. By comparison, Reinhardt’s motives are more two-dimensional, as the stereotypical mad scientist who won’t let pesky meddlers get in the way of scientific advancement.

* In a 1979 interview, Nelson conceded: “Perhaps, he didn’t tap his full potential in the film, but only because the subject and the script did not have the real depth of some of his past work.” (ibid)  Nelson’s comment seems to reveal more about the director’s contempt for the material, rather than Schell’s  

Reinhardt’s robot guard Maximilian never utters a word, reminding us that less is sometimes more. With his vaguely human shape, a glowing port where eyes should be, dark red finish and appendages pointed upward like devil’s horns, he’s a truly frightening creation. Maximilian teaches us an important lesson: nothing good can come out of endowing a robot with spinning blade hands. Occupying more screen time, but to lesser effect are two cute R2D2-esque robots, VINCENT (voiced by Roddy McDowell), who spews aphorisms like nobody’s business, and BOB (voiced by Slim Pickens), who speaks with a stereotypical “Texas” accent (He was programmed in Houston, get it?). In an early scene, VINCENT and Maximilian square off in the equivalent of a robot pissing contest, foreshadowing their inevitable confrontation. The Cygnus also boasts a goose-stepping robot army with faces that suspiciously resemble Darth Vader. Why a research vessel would need an automaton army is beyond me, but I suppose the Disney higher-ups felt you could never have enough robots. In one of the film’s low points, VINCENT squares off against one of the army’s top soldiers in a shooting contest.  

Despite some tonal miscalculations, The Black Hole features some of the most beautiful, awe-inspiring effects in any science fiction film, all of which were done in-house. Peter Ellenshaw, along with his son Harrison, supervised the effects shots and detailed matte paintings. The Cygnus resembles a gothic cathedral, with its illuminated framework, vaulted corridors and grandiose proportions. In one visually spectacular, but highly improbable shot, a giant meteor rolls through the middle of the ship. In all likelihood, it would have obliterated the Cygnus and its occupants, but it sure looks great. The black hole itself was created using a swirling mixture of liquids in a backlit plexiglass tank, and is suitably mesmerizing. It’s unfortunate that some other effects work isn’t nearly as effective, with shots of the cast members and robots floating through a weightless environment on very visible wires.  

If The Black Hole’s reach exceeds its grasp, it’s likely on account of the growing pains Disney experienced with its first PG-rated movie, aiming for something more “adult,” but without alienating the kiddos. The finished result is a film that contains dark and brooding themes, while catering to some more juvenile sensibilities (in a perfunctory Star Wars-type laser battle, one character actually exclaims “Yee-haw!”). The filmmakers were clearly gunning for a 2001-style ending, with a final sequence that aims for something ethereal and spiritual, but winds up heavy handed and moralistic. Even if the conclusion is more Roland Emmerich than Stanley Kubrick, you have to give Nelson and crew credit for attempting something profound. After repeated viewings, The Black Hole still leaves me feeling dissonant about the film I wanted it to be, versus the mixed bag that exists. At the end of the day, however, I would much rather see a film such as this, which aims for the stars and misses, rather than one that ploughs through the dirt and succeeds.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Things to Come

(1936) Directed by William Cameron Menzies; Written by H.G. Wells; Based on the novel The Shape of Things to Come by H.G. Wells; Starring: Raymond Massey, Edward Chapman, Ralph Richardson, Margaretta Scott and Cedric Hardwicke; Available on Blu-ray and DVD

Rating: ***½

“War can be a highly stimulating thing, but you can overdo a stimulant.” – John Cabal (Raymond Massey)

“All the balderdash one finds in such a film as Fritz Lange’s (sic) Metropolis about “robot workers” and ultra skyscrapers, etc., etc., should be cleared out of your minds before you work on this film. As a general rule you may take it that whatever Lange (sic) did in Metropolis is the exact opposite of what we want done here.” – H.G. Wells (excerpt from his memo to the visual effects team)

H.G. Wells made his first foray into motion pictures with an adaptation of his 1933 future-history novel, The Shape of Things to Come. Originally titled Whither Mankind, a reference to one of his socio-political speeches, the film was eventually released as Things to Come (aka: H.G. Wells’ Things to Come). Wells’s collaboration with producer Alexander Korda and director William Cameron Menzies was not a harmonious one, as the prolific author insisted on supervising every aspect of the creative process.* According to historian Christopher Frayling, Wells wrote numerous memos to the filmmakers, providing guidelines about casting, costumes and effects.** Unfortunately, since Wells wasn’t a filmmaker, he couldn’t adequately articulate what he wanted to see, resulting in a laborious process of trial and error.

* Fun fact #1: Although Wells succeeded in micromanaging most of the production, he lost the battle to have only his name appear in the film’s credits.

** Fun fact #2: At Wells’s insistence, his son Frank assisted the producer’s brother, Vincent with the art direction.

The original version of Things to Come was 130 minutes, but numerous cuts over the years whittled the running time closer to approximately 90 minutes (The Criterion DVD clocks in at a relatively brisk 97 minutes). While the novel covered the years 1929 to 2105, the film version, spans 1940 through 2036, and divides the story into three distinct time periods. Each of the three periods is set in the generic Everytown, which serves as a common thread.

The story begins on Christmas Eve, 1940, the dawn of a great global war. As the citizens of Everytown celebrate, a massive air strike is about to occur. The filmmakers capture the panic and mass destruction that ensues, prefiguring the real-life blitzkrieg attacks that were just around the corner for World War II England. In the context of the film, however, Wells is careful not to mention the opponents on either side. John Cabal (Raymond Massey) is a young idealist who joins the fight against the unnamed adversary. In a later scene, he comforts a dying pilot whose plane he shot down.

The second segment takes place in 1970, after the war has ended. It’s easy to see how this segment could have influenced the Mad Max films, nearly a half-century later, with its depiction of post-apocalyptic tribes fighting over the rubble of civilization. Humanity has devolved into a quasi-dark age, and Everytown is under the rule of a warlord known as The Boss (Ralph Richardson).* Margaretta Scott plays one of the film’s most interesting and under-utilized characters, Roxana. As his de facto queen, she observes how the present version of civilization can’t continue, and unlike her short-sighted partner, sees peace as the inevitable answer. An elderly, white-haired Cabal returns to his home town, arriving in a sleek monoplane and wearing an enormous bubble helmet. He represents the Wings of the World, a shadowy, technologically superior organization that aims to bring an end to the petty squabbles, and rule humanity through a benevolent world council. The council plans to subdue the masses with their fleet of massive airplanes, which dispense the “gas of peace,” a sort of non-lethal chemical warfare.

* Fun fact #3: According to film historian David Kalat, Richardson fashioned The Boss after Benito Mussolini, despite the fact that Wells wanted the character to be generic.

The third segment depicts the future Everytown of 2036, built on the ruins of the devastated landscape. The city of tomorrow is a wonderfully dated 1930s version of the 21st century, with its underground skyline (Wells believed future societies would build down, not up), artificial sunlight, raised moving walkways and glass elevators. The residents stroll about in broad-shouldered tunics without pants, and sport long, flowing capes. Raymond Massey returns as John Cabal’s descendent, Oswald, who presides over Everytown, and plans a space launch, using a gargantuan “space gun.” But all is not well in this utopia, as the rabble-rouser Theotocopulos* (Sir Cedric Hardwicke) attempts to thwart the launch, and spurs social unrest, citing dissatisfaction with this rapidly progressing society.

* Fun fact #4: Ernest Thesiger, fresh off of The Bride of Frankenstein, was originally cast as Theotocopulos. His scenes were shot, but when Wells disapproved of the footage, Hardwicke was re-cast in the role. Thesiger appeared in Wells’s lighter (and arguably more enjoyable) follow-up, The Man Who Could Work Miracles.

Things to Come was Wells’s polemic against the ills that plagued society. As a keen observer of history, he attempted to extrapolate from current events, and create a blueprint for the forward progress of humankind, but his squeaky clean vision carried some unsavory implications. Wells failed to consider that an oligarchy, even with benign intentions, could become corrupted over time. A central governing body, with no checks or balances, would leave no room for individualists and malcontents. He also doesn’t make a very strong argument for living underground, or why artificial sunlight would be preferable to natural sunlight. Constructing the subterranean city of the future would probably require a much greater expenditure of time, physical effort and material resources, compared to simply building up. Also, everyone in the world of 2036 looks and dresses the same, reinforcing the homogenous themes.

As the reflection of one man’s singular concept of a future society, Things to Come excels. As a whole, the film is a mixed bag. It’s visually spectacular, but far too preachy, sparing no opportunity to bring everything to an abrupt halt, so one of the characters can proselytize to the audience. On the other hand, the film does an admirable job reflecting the era when it was made, depicting social unrest, provincialism and looming global war. By comparison, Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, which Wells harshly criticized, seems more relevant to modern society, with its themes of dehumanization and urban sprawl. In contrast, Things to Come is a bit of a quaint relic; compelling to look at, but full of outdated platitudes. All the same, it’s fascinating retro look at a future that never was.

Monday, September 7, 2015

The Once Over Twice: Dark City

(1998) Directed by Alex Proyas; Written by Alex Proyas, Lem Dobbs and David Goyer; Starring: Rufus Sewell, Kiefer Sutherland, Jennifer Connelly, William Hurt, Richard O’Brien and Ian Richardson; Available on Blu-ray and DVD

Rating: ****

“The original idea came from me wanting to, I guess, combine a hard-boiled detective with the science fiction genre, and out of my desire to create a film involving these two very opposed styles of film.” – Alex Proyas

“The Strangers represent, I suppose, what we could become if we lost our souls.” – David Goyer

Due to Dark City’s central conceit, it’s difficult to discuss the film without revealing some key plot points. If you haven’t seen the movie and want to remain spoiler free, you might want to revisit this review at a later date. Otherwise, let’s jump in…

Director/co-writer Alex Proyas’ ambitious follow-up to The Crow, covers similar gothic territory, but covers a larger scope: the fate of an entire population. This sci-fi noir takes place in a metropolis trapped in perennial night. Proyas and production designer Patrick Tatopoulos (with George Liddle) borrowed from several decades for the film’s signature look, although the 1930s-1940s aesthetic prevails. Shot in Australia over a period of 80 days on 55 sets, Dark City immerses us in a world that appears at once alien and familiar,* recalling an old-time Northeastern American city from our collective memories.

* One of the film’s touches is its depiction of an automat, modeled after the ubiquitous Horn & Hardart eating establishments, which were a ubiquitous part of New York and Philadelphia’s early 20th century urban landscape.  

The film begins with a mystery, as John Murdoch (Rufus Sewell) wakes up in a bathtub, confused about who he is, and what he‘s doing in a strange hotel room. He attempts to piece together his hazy memories by looking for clues in the city, and discovers he’s wanted for the killing of several prostitutes. Although he has no recollection of the murders, he vaguely recalls being estranged from his wife Emma (Jennifer Connelly), who recently had an affair with another man, and a childhood spent in Shell Beach. Sewell was chosen by Proyas because the director felt Murdoch’s quest for identity would be more believable if the audience wasn’t accustomed to the actor. Sewell is appealing as our guide to this inhospitable city, conveying the right blend of naiveté and irritation about his predicament. We share his surprise as he uncovers his latent abilities to “tune,” or re-arrange matter at will. We also share his frustration, as he tries to uncover the truth behind the city, and his quest for the elusive Shell Beach.

The black-clad Strangers are the hive-minded puppet masters who orchestrate the city’s activities. Their bodies are mere vessels for the alien creatures that reside within. They reside in a vast underground complex, deep below the city, where they master time and matter through psychic-controlled machinery. They continually shuffle the city, people and memories in new combinations, in an effort to uncover the mysteries of the human soul. Richard O’Brien stands out as the Stranger, Mr. Hand, who shares Murdoch’s memories and tracks his movements. His sociopathic demeanor belies his keen fascination with the human species and the value of individuality. Ian Richardson and Bruce Spence are also memorable as Strangers Mr. Book and Mr. Wall. 

Kiefer Sutherland plays against type as the sniveling psychiatrist Dr. Schreber, who assists the Strangers with their insidious human experiments. He creates and implants new memories in the city’s residents, observing the individual differences and the resulting interactions when roles are reversed. Schreber fashions custom mixtures of memories and emotions, like mixing pigments on a canvas to create new colors, injecting the resultant biochemical cocktail into the unwilling recipients’ frontal lobes.* His betrayal of humanity stems more from self-preservation than malice, as he lives in constant fear of retaliation by the alien overlords. But we sense he’s just biding his time until he can find a way to turn against them. Schreber spends his spare time in a swimming pool, a passive-aggressive statement against his aquaphobic captors.

* Current research suggests long-term memories are primarilystored in the brain’s pre-frontal cortex, although pre-fabricated memories in a syringe might be stretching things a wee bit.

The spiral shape recurs throughout the film, signifying an inexorable pathway, like a rat following Dr. Schreber’s maze. In one shot, the city itself is revealed to be a spiral shape, reinforcing the metaphor. Former policeman Walenski (Colin Friels) draws the spirals with an obsessive-compulsive fervor. His madness masks the fact that he’s discovered the truth about the city and its inhabitants, with everyone following a pre-determined path. Inevitability might also describe the relationship between Murdoch and Emma. She can’t accept her husband’s assessment that their marriage (and by extension, her betrayal), was nothing but a fabrication, suggesting their bond transcends any pre-programmed roles.  

Visually, Dark City is a masterpiece, but as a movie about celebrating humanity it leaves me feeling somewhat cold and distanced from the characters. But it’s a wonderful exercise in style as substance (as opposed to style over substance), and the images have remained embossed in my brain. Detailed sets, miniature models and CGI are blended judiciously to create a city that’s constantly being constructed and de-constructed. The only effects that fall short are the computer-rendered creatures that reside within the Strangers, which are only briefly seen.  

Dark City invites frequent comparisons to such dystopian films as Blade Runner and Metropolis (I would also throw in Gotham City from Tim Burton’s Batman), with elements such as invented memories and towering skylines. Screenwriter Lem Dobbs, however, cited the works of George Orwell as one of his primary influences. Whatever the inspirations, conscious or subconscious, the end result is far from derivative. Most similarities are superficial, relying partially on our collective memories of earlier films to make an association. Dark City demands our attention, and is open to multiple interpretations. The fact that it didn’t thrive at the box office suggests 1998 audiences wanted less challenging fare. Oddly enough, many of the same existential themes of reality and identity were explored, perhaps in a flashier package, in the following year’s hit, The Matrix. Regardless of its initial reception, Dark City has earned a loyal following, and is worthy of reassessment. Alex Proyas’ best effort to date proves his mettle as a true visionary, despite some of the career misfires that followed. It would be nice to see him eventually return to such territory.