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

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