Wednesday, September 30, 2020

Space Month Quick Picks and Pans


Aniara (2018) In the near(ish) future, Earth has suffered one ecological disaster after another, prompting a mass exodus to Mars. A massive luxury spaceship (with an interior that seems to have been designed by Ikea) ferrying a group of would-be colonists embarks on its three-week journey to Mars. Disaster strikes, however, when an emergency course correction results in a breach in the ship’s reactor, forcing the craft to dump its nuclear fuel to prevent another catastrophe. The change in direction sends the giant spacecraft hurtling in the wrong direction, without the means to turn around. The rest of the film follows the passengers and crew over the next several years, as they vacillate between hope and despair, attempting to comprehend their new reality on a voyage without end. This thoughtful Swedish science fiction film from writer/directors Pella Kågerman and Hugo Lilja is a darkly existential science fiction with a fatalistic streak (Director Claire Denis explored similar themes in High Life, released the same year). It’s thought-provoking stuff, but undeniably bleak. Warning: you might need a hug after watching this.

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

Cosmic Voyage (aka: Cosmic Journey) (1936) This fun silent Soviet film from director Vasily Zhuravlyov balances hard science with whimsical adventures. Set in the near future of 1946, a determined inventor (Sergey Komarov) plans a journey to Earth’s satellite in his giant rocket. Despite efforts from his detractors to derail the mission, he travels to the moon with his assistant (Ksenia Moskalenko) and an eager boy scout (or the Russian equivalent) in tow. They encounter weightlessness along the way, and explore the rocky lunar surface. Cosmic Voyage features some impressive visuals (including stop-motion animation to depict their lunar adventures), which rival the imagery in Things to Come (also from 1936). It’s a thoroughly charming excursion, which never takes itself too seriously. Good fun.  

Rating: ***½. Available on DVD and YouTube

Prospect (2018) Writer/directors Christopher Caldwell and Zeek Earl’s space western starts as a tale of survival and greed, but morphs into something more. Damon and Cee (Jay Duplass and Sophie Thatcher), a father and daughter prospector team, land on a forest moon, and must contend with toxic dust and hostile competitors, also looking to strike it rich. When he meets his untimely demise, Cee must survive on her own, forming an uneasy alliance with Ezra (Pedro Pascal of The Mandalorian fame) an enigmatic, soft-spoken prospector. Prospect does a lot on a small budget (reportedly in the neighborhood of $3 million), with good use of location shots (filmed in in Washington State’s Hoh rainforest) and some decent CGI (used sparingly). The performances, especially by Thatcher and Pascal, are uniformly solid. At its heart, it’s a simple tale that reminds us that people are not always who they seem to be, and companionship can come from the unlikeliest of places.

Rating: ***½. Available on Blu-ray, DVD, Hulu and Kanopy

In the Dust of the Stars (aka: Im Staub der Sterne) (1976) This groovy offering from East Germany’s DEFA Studios needs to be seen to be believed. Cosmonauts respond to a distress signal, but when they arrive on the planet TEM 4, their host denies anything’s wrong. He does his best to distract the puzzled space travelers (with funky, drug-filled parties and interpretive dancing) to hasten their departure, although one crewmember suspects their minds have been tampered with. This would be a great midnight movie candidate thanks to the plethora of weird hairstyles and bizarre costumes, some (ahem) interesting dance moves, and a cartoonishly evil leader (who looks like a dead ringer for Airplane’s Stephen Stucker). Pacing issues bog the movie down a bit, but it’s worth a look just to see how wacky movies could get behind the Iron Curtain.

Rating: ***. Available on DVD (Out of print) and Kanopy


Supernova (2000) This space obtusity suffers from an identity crisis. Is it an action thriller, a space-based romance, a brooding character study, or a cerebral science fiction tale? The infamously troubled production (director Walter Hill was fired, and credited as Thomas Lee) juggles all of these elements, but handles none of them well. A sociopathic survivor from a mining outpost brings a glowing whatsit that might be the end to humanity onboard a deep-space rescue ship. The movie never fully explores the ramifications of the alien artifact. Instead, it spends most of its time with a predictable cat and mouse plot and trying to make us believe that James Spader and Angela Bassett (both dependable actors) are attracted to each other. The lack of chemistry between the leads is just endemic of the rest of the cast and filmmakers, who just seem to be going through the motions.

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

Queen of Outer Space (1958) A rocket ship’s planned rendezvous with a space station is thwarted when the station is annihilated by a death ray. To avoid certain destruction, the crew (clad in costumes pilfered from Forbidden Planet) divert their rocket ship and crash land on Venus, where they encounter a civilization ruled by women. Based on the sexist attitudes and behavior of the astronauts, it’s easy to see why Venusian society shunned men. Inexplicably, many of the Venusians find them irresistible. There’s kitsch appeal, thanks to the goofy plot and the casting of Zsa Zsa Gabor as the leader of a revolt, but that only takes you so far. Technicolor and Cinemascope can’t save this one from being a groan-worth bore. You’re better off watching one of the many genuine genre classics from the era (take your pick).

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



War Between the Planets (aka: Il Pianeta Errante) (1966) Catastrophes on Earth are linked to a rogue planet that’s flying through the solar system, creating a destructive “wind” in the vacuum of space (don’t break your brain trying to make sense of it). The insipid narration doesn’t do this movie any favors, and far too much celluloid is wasted on a dull love triangle with an uncharismatic lead, played by Giacomo Rossi Stuart (although his hair is quite a special effect). At virtually the last minute, when a team of astronauts attempt to destroy the alien planet, they discover that it’s a vast living thing. Sadly, this admittedly intriguing concept is never fully explored. Instead, we’re tormented by more drama between characters we don’t care about.

Rating: **. Available on Amazon Prime and Tubi


Cat-Women of the Moon (1953) Here’s another entry in the curious lost-civilization-of-outer-space-Amazons sub-genre. This time four men and a woman embark on a perilous voyage to the moon. Once they’re in space, navigator Helen Salinger (Marie Windsor) somehow finds time to pull out her hairbrush and a compact. She’s stuck in the middle of a love triangle between the gruff commander and a trigger-happy astronaut, who believes in shooting first (with a revolver that has unlimited ammunition) and forgetting to ask questions later. Meanwhile, her mind is controlled by a society of moon women in black leotards. They exert their feminine whiles to influence the other crew members so they can steal the Earth ship and take over the planet. It’s one small step for space movies, one giant leap backward for positive women’s roles. Don’t bother.

Rating: *½. Available on DVD and Tubi

Sunday, September 20, 2020



(1985) Directed by Tobe Hooper; Written by Dan O’Bannon and Don Jakoby; Based on the novel Space Vampires by Colin Wilson; Starring: Steve Railsback, Mathilda May, Peter Firth, Frank Finlay and Patrick Stewart; Available on Blu-ray and DVD

Rating: ***½ 

 “…It’s about relationships. About the relationship between men and women, and how that can turn. It can be about how there can be a dominance in a relationship, how it can flip-flop back and forth, and it had all of those incredible things that I grew up wanting to see…” – Tobe Hooper (from 2013 DVD commentary)

“…as I was a dancer, I was used to have (sic) a special relationship with the body – it was a work instrument, I was not into anything provocative. I was just a dancer. So that maybe is the reason they chose me, because I was not using the body in terms of seduction.” – Mathilda May (from 2013 interview, “Dangerous Beauty”)

Note: This review refers to the longer “International Cut,” which includes additional footage, expands on the story, and restores Henry Mancini’s original score.

Mention Lifeforce, and the first thing that likely springs to mind for most folks are the scenes depicting a certain young French actress walking around au naturel. While those sequences certainly leave an (Ahem!) lasting impression, there’s much more to the film than that. Look beneath the surface trappings of gratuitous nudity, gory makeup and glowy special effects, and you’ll find a movie that isn’t afraid to ask the big questions. Director Tobe Hooper was approached by Cannon Films’ Menahem Golan to adapt Collin Wilson’s 1976 novel Space Vampires* into a big budget (for Cannon, at least) film. The British-based, 120-day shoot required the use of EMI-Elstree studios Stage 6 (referred to as the Star Wars stage), and utilized some of the top effects people of the day, notably, John Dykstra of Star Wars and Star Trek: The Motion Picture fame.

* Fun Fact #1: The film originally shared the same title as the novel, but Hooper recalled “there was an allergic reaction to what was considered a B-title.”

 During a joint NASA/ESA mission to intercept Halley’s comet, Col Tom Carlsen (Steve Railsback) of the spaceship Churchill and his crew pick up something extraordinary: a massive alien ship in the tail of the comet. The commander decides to divert the mission to the mysterious spacecraft, which upon closer inspection has an organic appearance. As Carlsen and his fellow astronauts make their brief foray* into the ship’s cavernous hulk, they encounter the desiccated floating bodies of large bat-like creatures. Another chamber yields a more surprising discovery, with what appear to be three humans (one woman and two men)** entombed in crystalline sarcophagi. The ship returns to Earth, with the three bodies and alien remains in tow, but meets with calamity along the way. A rescue crew reaches the Churchill in Earth orbit, only to find the interior and astronauts charred beyond recognition. Somehow, the residents of the clear coffins appear to be unscathed from the fiery accident, and are brought to terra firma for further scrutiny. Before you can say “bringing them back to Earth was a terrible idea,” the humanoids escape their containers, and proceed to feast on the life energy of every hapless person they encounter. We soon learn, however, that Carlsen also avoided destruction on the Churchill, utilizing the ship’s escape capsule*** in the nick of time. British authorities take Carlsen into custody, as he harbors the secret about what occurred on the doomed mission, and may possess the key to stopping the rampage of the space vampires.

* Fun Fact #2: To simulate the astronauts floating in space, Hooper and company utilized the same team responsible for the flying rig used in Superman: The Movie (1978).

 ** Fun Fact #3: Billy Idol was originally approached to play one of the male space vampires, but when casting plans fell through, the filmmakers brought in Chris Jagger (Mick’s younger brother) for the part. 

 *** Side Note: Considering the crew’s size, the escape pod (which conjured images of the tiny space capsule from the 1965 schlock-fest Monster a Go-Go), seems ridiculously small. Apparently designed for one lucky astronaut, it begs the question: How would they decide who lived and who died?

 If there’s a solitary raison d'être for Lifeforce, it’s French actress Mathilda May, who commands attention whenever she’s on screen. May was cast after an exhaustive worldwide search (Hooper claimed approximately 50 actresses auditioned for the part)* for someone who would play a role that demanded excessive nudity.** May’s background as a professional dancer proved especially invaluable in her depiction of an alien presence, with her precisely controlled movement. She mesmerizes whenever she’s on the screen, conveying the right balance of otherworldly beauty and subtle menace. To the men who encounter her, she’s a siren – they’re powerless to resist her charms, even though meeting her won’t end well. She establishes an inextricable bond with Carlsen, which horrifies and tantalizes him in equal parts. She’s an ideal construct culled from his vision of an ideal woman, illusory and unobtainable (“I am the feminine in your mind.”).

 * Fun Fact #4: According to Hooper, Olivia Hussey was among the actresses considered for the role. Some male actors that were considered for various other characters included Klaus Kinski, Terrence Stamp, and John Gielgud.

** In his DVD commentary, Hooper glibly stated, “It was like her costume.” 

Instead of focusing on Col. Carlsen’s obsession, I wish it had spent more time with Dr. Hans Fallada (Frank Finlay), a clear nod to Professor Quatermass in the Hammer films and BBC adaptations. Fallada is fascinated by the alien visitors and their implications. He opines that the creatures visited Earth long ago, giving rise to the vampire folklore and legends. It’s an intriguing story element that could have been developed further, rather than concentrating on tracking down the rogue vampires. The clunky middle act gets bogged down with Carlsen assisting British agents led by SAS agent Colin Caine (Peter Firth). No one questions his histrionics in his zeal to find the female space vampire, who’s jumped to a new body. Inexplicably, he’s given free rein to slap around a woman (Nancy Paul) suspected of harboring the malevolent vampire’s spirit and abuse sanitarium director Dr. Armstrong (Patrick Stewart), who has also been afflicted.

Unlike some traditional vampire films, the vampire rules are inconsistent. It’s unclear whether direct contact or mere proximity are necessary for a spirit to jump from body to body. The original three vampires, while insatiable, don’t appear to weaken rapidly, whereas the infected humans wither away at an accelerated rate, becoming the “walking shriveled” (Hooper’s term). Also, why does the female vampire possess a sexual magnetism toward men, but the male vampires don’t seem to have a similar effect on women? Taking this a step further, why couldn’t the vampires have had a similar mesmeric effect towards people of the same sex? With the exception of a brief kiss between two men (which is a bit of cheat, since one is inhabited by the female vampire’s spirit), the film restricts itself to heterosexual attraction, and overwhelmingly appeals to the male gaze. This limits the myriad possibilities of sex as lure, restricting the implicit theme to a superficial “women are scary”

The $25 million Cannon production was met with mostly mixed to negative reviews when it was first released, no thanks in part to the butchered U.S. version (at distributor Tri-Star’s insistence). Lifeforce has since gained a loyal following, not simply because of Mathilda May’s inimitable presence, but its wildly ambitious story. It boldly suggests something extraterrestrial in origin influenced human history and folklore, inhabiting our myths and fears. The climactic scene of mass pandemonium on the streets of London is reminiscent of the dénouement to Quatermass and the Pit (1967), which shares similar themes. At the same time, the story isn’t nearly as focused as Quatermass, but it’s a noble effort nevertheless. Lifeforce manages to balance some heady ideas with some good old-fashioned exploitation, creating an entertaining mix. It didn’t play it safe. If only more genre films would follow its lead. 

Tuesday, September 8, 2020

Space Truckers

(1996) Directed by Stuart Gordon; Written by Ted Mann and Stuart Gordon; Starring: Dennis Hopper, Stephen Dorff, Debi Mazar, Charles Dance, George Wendt and Vernon Wells; Available on Blu-ray (Region B) and DVD (Out of Print)

Rating: ***

“I had this idea that had been kicking around for years about truck drivers in space, and had gotten to be friendly with Ted Mann (co-writer), and it turns out that both of us were frustrated astronauts, and when we were kids, that’s what we both had dreamed about, going into space… And when I told him the idea of blue-collar people in space, just doing their jobs, he really responded, and we started just throwing together a treatment.” – Stuart Gordon (excerpt from 2018 featurette, “Space Trucking with Stuart Gordon”) 

The late, great Stuart Gordon will forever be associated with his H.P. Lovecraft adaptations, particularly Re-Animator (1985) and From Beyond (1986). A deeper dive into his filmography, however, yields some surprising titles, spanning multiple genres. Produced on a budget of $27 million,* the sci-fi/comedy Space Truckers** was his largest-budgeted film to date. It was filmed on a sound stage at Ardmore Studios in Ireland,*** where a nearby beach served as a desert. While the film saw some overseas distribution, it wasn’t released theatrically in the U.S., instead debuting on HBO.

* Fun Fact #1: The filmmakers were approached by Universal, which would have added more money into the film’s production and distribution, but one of the film’s producers turned the studio down. 

** Fun Fact #2: According to Stuart Gordon, Stephen Dorff’s agent wasn’t enamored with “Space Truckers,” so the actor’s contract included a clause that gave him a final say on the title.

*** Fun Fact #3: Gordon remarked that while the movie’s final title was in limbo, Variety listed the film as “Untitled Irish Space Movie.”

If you took the space diner scene from Spaceballs (1987), minus the chestburster, and turned it into its own movie, you might get something like this. Set within our solar system circa 2196 (or 2145, depending on which of the film’s trailers you believe), Space Truckers depicts the blue-collar side of space colonization, with people performing the intensive manual labor required to keep things going. The space truckers are the life blood of the colonies, shipping goods throughout the solar system. After veteran trucker John Canyon (Dennis Hopper)* has a falling out with his boss Keller (George Keller), he accepts a lucrative but risky assignment, hauling an illegal payload to Earth with no questions asked. He has a thing for Cindy (Debi Mazar), a waitress at the truck stop’s greasy spoon, and finds the perfect way to win her hand (if not her heart). Canyon agrees to take her with him to Earth, where she can be reunited with her mother, if she agrees to marry him. Enter plucky but inexperienced novice trucker Mike Pucci (Stephen Dorff), who connives his way into tagging along. The mismatched trio soon learn that they’re in for much more than anyone had anticipated when they tangle with a cargo of biomechanical battle drones, and encounter ruthless space pirates, led by Macanudo (Charles Dance).

* Fun Fact #4: According to Gordon, the mercurial Hopper commented that he was the “worst” director he’d ever worked with.

Despite any disagreements Dennis Hopper might have had with Gordon, he does a fine job portraying the irascible trucker Canyon. He doesn’t take any crap from anyone, and is prepared to fight for what he believes in. Beneath his crusty exterior, though, it’s easy to see he has a soft spot for hard luck cases like Cindy and Mike. Debi Mazar is good as flighty, New York-accented Cindy. Unlike Canyon, she’s more than willing to compromise her ideals if she can get ahead. Stephen Dorff, especially as Cindy’s object of affection, is significantly less convincing. Their romance seems perfunctory at best, with little on-screen chemistry. Considering her character’s choices throughout the film, it’s a safe bet that she’d sell him out if she found a better opportunity. Charles Dance threatens to steal the show from everyone else as the cybernetic space pirate Macanudo. It’s obvious he enjoyed playing the sneering villain (apparently, he was encouraged by his daughter to play the part). Also, be sure to watch for fun cameos from Stuart Gordon regulars Barbara Crampton and Carolyn Purdy-Gordon (the director’s wife).

Space Truckers keeps its metaphorical tongue firmly planted in its cheek, which carries through to the whimsical flourishes of the space designs. Gordon stated that he made a conscious effort to include color in the typically colorless environment of space, including garish floating billboards and custom paint jobs on the truckers’ ships. The living spaces/interiors have a lived-in look (based on concepts by Ron Cobb), similar to Outland (1981), but the truck stop diner’s curved floor owes a debt of gratitude to the design of the spacecraft Discovery’s main interior in 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). In contrast to Cobb’s nuts and bolts approach, Hajime Sorayama designed the appearance of the sleek cybernetic warriors.* Gordon commented that, in retrospect, he wished all the effects were CGI. Personally, I’m glad this wasn’t the case. The practical, model-based effects hold up the best, while the early CGI effects show their limitations. In a scene where Canyon punches one of Keller’s thugs, there’s an unconvincing spray of computer-animated blood and a floating tooth that resembles a popcorn kernel. Likewise, the computer-rendered pirate ship resembles video game graphics (Yes, I know they’ve gotten much better in 20+ years). Comparatively, the practical effects are much more compelling, if not exactly realistic (e.g., Canyon’s rig, The Pachyderm 2000, and various makeup effects and prosthetics). Among the most memorable creations are the “square pigs” that fit neatly in their cubical pens.

* Fun Fact #5: In order to match the decidedly feminine body contours in Sorayama’s concept artwork, the robots were all played by female models.

Considering Gordon was working with a larger budget, Space Truckers doesn’t look like an expensive production, which works to its advantage. It’s a B picture through and through, more interested in off-kilter ideas (whether they work or not) than surface gloss. Space Truckers doesn’t have a big message (other than greed, corruption and the lust for power will always be around), and never takes itself too seriously. It’s just trying to have a good time, inviting us along for the ride. So, grab a cold one (or two), sit back, and take in the view.