Saturday, July 1, 2017

Neglected Sci-Fi Month Quick Picks and Pans

A Boy and His Dog (1974) For those who like their post apocalypse science fiction with a sardonic edge, this movie hits the spot. It’s easy to see how the film influenced Mad Max, and many other post-apocalyptic flicks that followed in its wake. Apparently, Harlan Ellison didn’t like this adaptation of his story (big surprise), adapted and directed by L.Q. Jones, but that shouldn’t stop you from checking it out. Don Johnson plays the “boy,” Vic, who roams the wasteland with his telepathic dog Blood (played by Tiger).  It doesn’t take very long to realize which one from the duo possesses the most brains, as they scavenge for food and the occasional woman. Vic’s life takes an interesting twist when he’s lured to an underground community by Quilla (Susanne Benton). Lou Craddock (Jason Robards) presides over the subterranean enclave, which appears stuck in a Norman Rockwell-esque past. A Boy and His Dog paints a bleak portrait of humanity, reduced to our baser instincts, where the pendulum swings between anarchy and totalitarianism. It’s a film that’s horrifying and funny in equal measures, with an ending that somehow manages to be a punch to the gut with a wink.

Rating: ****. Available on Blu-ray and DVD

Encounter at Raven’s Gate (aka: Incident at Raven’s Gate) (1988) If David Lynch directed an ozploitation movie, it might look something like this. This curiosity, directed by Rolf de Heer and filmed in South Australia, won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, but it’s ideal for those who enjoy more questions than answers. Eddie (Steven Vidler), a recent parolee, lives with his brother and his wife on a farm in a dusty town tucked away in the outback. Strange things are afoot when the town’s residents succumb to a host of erratic behavior and unexplained occurrences, which could be the product of (unseen) alien intervention. A shady government researcher (Terry Camilleri), seems to be part of a conspiracy (perhaps in cahoots with the aliens) to incite fear and paranoia. Incident at Raven’s Gate belies its small budget with an assortment of inventive camera tricks, editing and lighting, creating an experience unlike anything else.

Rating: ***½. Available on DVD (Out of print) and Amazon Prime Video

Ikarie IX-B (aka: Voyage to the End of the Universe) (1963) This Czech science fiction film, based on a novel by Stanislaw Lem, is better known in these parts by its English language title, Voyage to the End of the Universe. The spaceship Icarus and its crew travel on a voyage to Alpha Centauri, on a quest for intelligent life. Along the way, they encounter a derelict spacecraft, and contract a strange form of illness. Director Jindrich Polák and the cast do a fine job depicting the day to day monotony of a long space voyage, as well as the psychological consequences of time dilation (dealing with the prospect of returning to find everyone significantly older). Unlike many American films from the era, it’s far from a cautionary tale, but a hopeful film about space travel.

Rating: ***½. Available on DVD (region 2)

The Blood of Heroes (aka: Salute of the Jugger) (1989) Writer/director David Webb Peoples (the screenwriter for Blade Runner) takes a unique spin on the post-apocalypse sub-genre. The film doesn’t propose some hopeful future, but accepts the dismal reality of the world Peoples created. The film focuses on a brutal sport, which uses a dog skull as a ball. Rutger Hauer stars as Sallow, an aging team captain seeking one last bit of glory, and Joan Chen is his eager apprentice Kidda. The team ventures to an underground city, where players compete and die for the amusement of a decadent ruling class. It’s an uncompromising, albeit dark change of pace from the usual “change the system” sort of movie.

Note: The transfer quality of the Region 1 Anchor Bay DVD was abysmal. I’m not sure if the Region 2 DVD looks or sounds any better, but it’s the longer cut of the film.

Rating: ***½. Available on DVD

Brainstorm (1983) It’s unfortunate that Brainstorm is best remembered for the wrong reason - as Natalie Wood’s final film, released after her untimely death. Even if director Douglas Trumbull’s (working from a Bruce Joel Rubin script) reach exceeds his grasp, it’s an ambitious attempt at doing something more than a standard escapist popcorn flick. Michael Brace and Lillian Reynolds (Christopher Walken and Louise Fletcher) develop a device which enables users to re-experience someone else’s experience. Wood plays Karen Brace, Michael’s estranged wife. Trumbull tries to push the cinematic envelope to make the experiences come to life, including dual aspect ratios (expanding to a Super Panavision widescreen format).

The story turns into intrigue when some government baddies, enabled by unscrupulous CEO Alex Terson (Cliff Robertson) try to usurp the invention for dubious purposes. What starts out as an intriguing premise becomes muddled by the movie’s end, no thanks to some misguided and incongruous slapstick thrown in (an automated factory goes haywire), and a few half-baked scenes (due to efforts to edit around existing footage of Wood). As a result, the final product seems less than it could have been. I don’t usually advocate remakes, but given the material’s potential, some enterprising filmmaker might be able to improve the original.

Rating: ***. Available on Blu-ray and DVD

The Land Unknown (1957) Navy researchers and a plucky reporter (Shirley Patterson) embark on a dangerous Antarctic expedition. After an unfortunate run-in with a mysterious flying creature, their helicopter, damaged and low on fuel lands in a jungle oasis, tucked away inside a crater. They discover a harsh landscape, unchanged for millions of years. Their challenge is to stay alive, long enough to repair their craft, and before their potential rescuers retreat for the frigid winter months. The Land Unknown won’t win many points for originality or a balanced portrayal of the sexes. The heroine is almost raped by a survivor from a previous expedition twice, but proceeds to defend him. Faults aside, it’s decent mindless entertainment, with some fun creature effects.

Rating: ***. Available on DVD

Another Earth (2011) On the eve of a mirror Earth appearing in the sky, Rhoda (Brit Marling) collides with a car carrying a family, killing a mother and son and injuring John Burroughs (William Mapother) the father. Director Mike Cahill’s (who also co-wrote the screenplay with Marling) film works better as a drama than science fiction, with its emphasis on the characters and their damaged lives, while the second Earth serves as an extended metaphor for, loss, regret and redemption. Rhoda tries to make amends, striking up an unlikely relationship with John. Meanwhile, she enters a contest to travel to the doppelganger Earth, hoping to have a second chance at life. It’s a noble attempt at trying something different, but I wish it had as much courage to play with the ramifications of a mirror earth as it did with the dramatic elements.

Rating: ***. Available on Blu-ray and DVD


  1. Barry just hoping that you will coming soon with the idea to set a festival with all almost underground films all over the nation it will be fun

    1. Hi Joaquin. Thanks for visiting, and for the suggestion! I'm always looking for new theme ideas, so I appreciate the input.