Saturday, October 04, 2008

The House Between 3.0 (Trailer B)

This modified THB 3.0 trailer is playing at the Monsterfest Convention today!

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: Equilibrium (2002)

On the set of the second season of The House Between, some of my cast and crew members unexpectedly scooped up prop guns and began enthusiastically indulging in the art of "Gun-Kata," the mathematical discipline of (gun) battle practiced by the ascetic Grammaton Clerics in the 2002 Orwellian epic, Equilibrium.

I had absolutely no idea what my friends were doing, and worried that some of them had gone inexplicably bonkers. Then Tony Mercer -- glock in hand -- explained to me about Equilibrium (and "Gun-Kata"). Backing away slowly from my armed friend, I made a note to myself that I needed to see this movie.

And voila - I've finally seen it! I'm just sorry it took me this long. Because Equilibrium is a highly entertaining pastiche of Fahrenheit 451, Logan's Run, 1984 and The Matrix; one that rather unexpectedly boasts a heart and a brain. The film also features some great stylized action sequences, although bad (or rather, dated...) CGI spoils the coup-de-grace, a villain (Taye Diggs) losing his head (or face) in a climactic sword duel.

Equilibrium tells the story of 21st century Earth after a devastating World War III. Realizing that mankind could never "survive a fourth" war, and that our own "volatile natures" are at fault, A New World Order outlaws...human feelings. Accordingly, the global population willingly doses itself several times a day with useful new pacification drug called "Prozium." it suppresses all emotions, which is described by Big Brother as a "disease."

By the way, Prozium (read: Prozac) is amusingly referred to by the Great Leader (named Father) as "the opiate of our masses" and "the glue of our Great Society." The film thus simultaneously alludes to Karl Marx and LBJ, two political leaders undeniably on the left side of the spectrum.

But there's a problem in this Brave New World: our runaway feelings can be aroused by virtually anything: love, grief, ecstasy, pain...and especially great art. Which means that literature, music and art must also be outlawed by the state, or rated "EC-10" -- forbidden. This facet of Equilibrium's narrative is no doubt a not-too-subtle reference to the unfortunate trend in the 1990s towards political correctness, and the way that craven politicians scored points with "value voters" by attempting to "rate" music and violent video games (Joe Lieberman, j'accuse.)

In this totalitarian society, those who willingly indulge in feelngs, in emotion -- going off their "dosing" -- are amusingly termed "sense offenders." They are eradicated (with extreme prejudice) by a disciplined constabulary called The Grammaton Clerics: stoic, highly-centered men that have refined gunfighting to a set of mathematical equations (hence the Gun-Kata).

Echoing the Firemen of Fahrenheit 451, The Grammaton Clerics burn books and other historical treasures. In one egregious case, we witness paintings -- including The Mona Lisa -- go up in flames. And also like Fahrenheit 451, an organized resistance has flowered, one which indulges in "sense offenses" and hides valuable literary works (and jazz albums) in secret rooms. The film's protagonist, a cleric named Preston happens across one of these rooms, and his reaction upon hearing "forbidden" music represents one of the movie's emotional high points. Another one involves his unexpected, last-minute rescue of a dog. If that scene -- a firing squad for pets -- doesn't have you squirming with discomfort and empathy, you must have ice water flowing in your veins.

Speaking of ice water in your veins, ascetic John Preston (Christian Bale) is the best of the Grammaton Clerics. He is so cold-blooded he even executes his partner, Cleric Partridge (Sean Bean) for failing to turn in contraband (a book of poetry by Yeats). But one day, Preston accidentally goes off his Prozium and begins unexpectedly to...feel. Suddenly, he has regrets about the fact that his wife -- a secret resistance fighter -- was taken away by the state for "summary combustion" (meaning incineration). Preston is suddenly fascinated by books too; and moved to tears by jazz music. For the first time, the world even appears...colorful. Before long, Preston is finding inventive ways to save books from the fire, shield resisters (decried as "terrorists" by the State), rescue endangered puppies, and even attempting to assassinate Father, the figurehead of the oppressive regime.

If any of this material sounds oddly familiar, it should. Both Fahrenheit 451 and Logan's Run (books and films) focus on law enforcement agents (Fireman or Sandmen) of an oppressive totalitarian regime who -- because of a woman's influence in both cases -- become symbols and leaders of the resistance; ultimately challenging the status quo. Equilibrium follows that template closely, and the important woman in this film is named Mary O'Brien (Emily Watson). She is captured by the State, and held for summary combustion...but there's something about this particular sense offender that touches Preston; that reminds him of his late wife, perhaps.

Watson also speaks the words that come to define the resistance, and not coincidentally the movie's thematic point: "Without love, without sorrow, without anger...breath is just a clock." In other words, if we can't be ourselves -- if we can't be human -- is life worth living? Or is it just a dull, beating countdown to non-existence?

Some critics also view Equilibrium almost entirely as a Matrix knock-off (timing is everything, isn't it?), though there is evidence for that accusation only in the visual presentation of Cleric John Preston. Christian Bale -- with his hair slicked back and outfitted in a high-collared black frock -- certainly resembles Keanu Reeves' Neo a little too closely. And I guess you might argue too that Equilibrium, like The Matrix, seeks to apply some weird combo of martial arts/special effects to the updated fight sequences (bullet time vs. Gun-Kata). But other than those mostly unimportant elements, the two films couldn't be further apart. The Matrix concerns layers of reality. Equilibrium is about the ways we deaden this reality; particularly with mood-altering pharmaceuticals that take "the edge off" pesky emotions. Again, a pertinent indictment of now -- the Age of Ritalin -- an epoch in which we chemically adjust the moods of even our youngest children.

Equilibrium offers another helpful philosophical nugget, one that seems especially valuable in these post-911 tumultuous times. "Without law, there is no logic...only mayhem." In regards to this statement, Preston has finally awakened to the truth that The State commits murder (a sense offense, no?) for its own agenda while ostensibly outlawing murder amongst the populace. It is hypocrisy pure and simple. Like waging war for the purposes of protecting peace. It is Orwellian double-think.

I enjoyed Equilibrium a great deal, and recognized the nods of homage to various man-against-the-system science fiction films of the 1960s and 1970s. The action sequences are engaging too, and oddly beautiful, like a bizarre ballet (particularly one dark sequence wherein the only illumination is the staccato flare of gunfire). My only real beef with the movie is that it seems far too easy to take down Father, his Cleric defenders and the Government. That's the same flaw in Logan's Run (1976), you say? Well, in that film, Logan de-stabilizes a controlling computer, and if I've learned anything from using Microsoft Windows for years, it's that de-stabilizing a computer isn't a very hard thing to do. In Equilibrium, by contrast, we must believe that one Cleric could simultaneously defeat all the clerics (not to mention that a ready and armed Resistance was just sitting around waiting for Preston to come along.)

Now, you might argue this point with me. You might say that Preston is the one cleric who "feels," and that this human quality of emotion grants him an advantage of over his brethren. But what are the mathematical odds (given the fact that gun fights and sword fights are algebraically calculated here) that not even one other Cleric would get lucky and land a death blow before Preston completed his task?

I'm a sucker for happy endings in the right context, and I always like to see the little guy beat City Hall, but overturning a ruthless totalitarian society should require a bit more than one man...and Gun-Kata, don't you think? The ending of Equilibrium rings false, when so much of the film plays as bitingly honest. After all, this is a movie clever enough to understand the sentimental value of a sea shell or the scent of a woman's perfume on a ribbon. It understands the million little things that we, as emotional humans, attach meaning to. Any movie smart enough to express that idea doesn't need to resolve in a sword fight and bad CGI.

Thursday, October 02, 2008

CULT TV REVIEW: Fringe: "The Arrival'

Last week, while bemoaning Fringe's highly repetitive plot structure, I offered my own personal template for episodes of the series. As you may recall, the template went something like this:

1. There is a strange and/or horrific attack (or incident) in the shocking prologue.

2. Dr. Bishop has cutesie-poo insane moment

3. Mystery clue dropped as to Peter's background and nature.

4. Olivia investigates the case-of-the-week and ties it to "the Pattern," after making mention of her relationship with Agent Scott.

5. The case of the week involves something paranormal or "fringe" Dr. Bishop worked on once directly (but because of his cutesie-poo insanity has conveniently forgotten about, until it comes up in this new context). Also conveniently, Bishop knows of a functional device built just for solving this case. Deus ex machina alert!

6. Case leads back to Massive Dynamic.

7. Olivia interviews Blair Brown's character at Massive Dynamic, and she "denies all knowledge."

8. The case of the week is solved, but many questions remain about Massive Dynamic and the conspiracy/Pattern , so we can have future episodes that tell us just as little.

9. Epilogue: something's going on with John Scott (Mark Valley), the dead FBI agent.

This week's episode, "The Arrival" -- the best tale of the series thus far -- adheres mostly to this by-now overly-familiar formula, but also breaks away a little. Enough, anyway, not to make the hour a total bore.

First the bad. There is indeed a horrific incident in the opening prologue (a subterranean missile pops up at a Brooklyn construction site and causes massive damage; #1). Dr. Bishop again has his trademark cutesie-poo insane moment, here over his desire for a root-beer float (#2). Also, there is a mystery clue dropped about Peter's background (#3), the case ties back to the Pattern and somebody makes mention of Olivia's relationship with Agent Scott (#4). Also, Dr. Bishop has previously been associated with this case (as we learn in "The Arrival's" denouement; # 5). Finally, the episode ends with a nod to Agent Scott's condition (#9).

However, last week I looked to Fringe -- challenged it, really -- to break the mold in even one of the above nine categories. And if I'm being objective here, I must note that in "The Arrival," it did just that. To wit: Blair Brown did not guest star this week; and the case (of the subterranean torpedo...) did not lead directly back to Massive Dynamic.

Too incremental a change? Hey, I'll take what I can get...

Actually, as I noted above, I liked this episode the best out of the four I've watched so far. The mystery is genuine (the origin and nature of the torpedo...), and furthermore, there's no rush to solve the mystery in forty-five minutes. The secrets of the device remain ambiguous to say the least, and I appreciate the restraint. I hate being spoon-fed explanations all the time and much prefer a slow-building, multi-faceted mystery.

I was also fascinated in "The Arrival" by the presence of "The Observer," a bald, hairless "watcher" who mysteriously appears at Pattern-related crime scenes. I don't know if "Mr. No Brow" (as Peter calls him...) is an alien, a time-traveler (from the future) or an emotionless android, but the presence of this mind-reading figure added significantly to "The Arrival's" narrative. Hero? Villain? Impartial witness? I'm very curious to find out. Finally, Fringe is proving interesting.

Also, Joshua Jackson -- the standout performer on the series -- was awarded with a more substantial part in "The Arrival." I'm not talking about his predictable "should I stay or should I go" dilemma, but rather his conflict with his father, which results in what we see in this episode: a real love/hate relationship. I'm glad the makers of Fringe are also giving Peter some new duties as a "civilian consultant to the Department of Homeland Security," because in the last three episodes the character as pretty-much wasted on exposition or wise-cracks. Also, some mysteries of Peter's background are solved here. That's all I'll say, in case you haven't watched the episode yet.

In toto, "The Arrival" seems like a step in the right direction for Fringe. Like Mr. No Brow himself, I'll continue to "observe" the series next week; and hope that it continues to rely on only five or six out of the nine conventions which have appeared in episodes thus far. I read today that the series has been picked up for a full season. That gives Fringe adequate time to improve, I hope.

Muir in View Magazine discusses... Chucky!

Did I mention that I'm absolutely huge in Germany?

Just kidding. But this month, I am quoted in the German magazine called View. It's a big, glossy, impressive magazine. Kind of like what Life used to be. (The magazine, not the breakfast cereal...).

In honor of Halloween and the twentieth anniversary of Child's Play (1988), the mag's editors asked me to comment on the film's cinematic and cultural success and longevity. So yep, I may not on The View with Whoopi Goldberg and Joy Behar, but I'm definitely in View Magazine.


Here's a bit of what I wrote originally (not all of which got into the magazine:)

On Child's Play's popularity:

First, it seems like -- whether they admit it or not -- many people are terrified of dolls in real life. Malevolent dolls are a staple of horror genre going back decades, appearing on TV shows such as The Twilight Zone (where the doll's name was "Talky Tina," for instance.) We seem to fear these toys almost instinctively, so it's the idea that something that mimics our life actually has life itself. As a murderous, living doll, Chucky taps into a common, even universal human fear.

Secondly, Child's Play (1988) is not merely an effective and scary horror film, it serves as an amusing satire of the out-of-control American consumer culture in the 1980s. In particular, the film alludes to the Cabbage Patch Doll craze of 1983, in which supply could not keep up with demand, and some American consumers behaved badly (even rioting) to get their hands on these "designer dolls."

What was ironic, of course, is that these Cabbage Patch Dolls were rather Chucky, of course, is rather ugly, himself. In the film, Mrs. Barkley is reduced to buying a Good Guys Doll from a hobo, because she cannot afford one in a toy store, a reference to the "despised" outsider (a homeless person) in the eighties. Child's Play also deals explicitly with the idea that in the late 1980s, childrens' toy merchandising efforts had literally gone insane. Every toy, it seemed, in that era (from Smurfs to My Little Pony to G.I. Joe) boasted a catchphrase, a television program, a breakfast cereal, a line of clothing, and toys galore to help "sell" the product.

Again, Child's Play explicitly comments on this idea, developing a whole line of Good Guys products to go with the doll. So Child's Play offered the best of all combinations: It was simultaneously a scary movie, a funny movie, and a scathing social commentary on the culture that produced it.

On the progression of the Chucky franchise:

Chucky's descent from legitimate (though satirical...) cinema "boogeyman" to silly figure-of-fun matches Freddy Krueger (A Nightmare on Elm Street's) similar descent. There's a saying that familiarity breeds contempt, and in terms of the horror genre, the more familiar the audience is with a screen monster, the harder it is to make that monster appear fresh and scary. Therefore, as in the later Chucky films and later Elm Street films, the "monster" begins to crack jokes or becomes less menacing. The situations become more comical. Believability is sacrificed for jokes. The horror diminishes and the comedy comes to the forefront. I personally prefer the original Child's Play to all the sequels. It offers the best balance of terror, satire and laughs. Though, I must say, Bride of Chucky (1998) was engaging and even audacious at times.

On comparing Child's Play to other 1980s horror films:

Well, in the early 1980s, the slasher paradigm ruled the genre. This meant that masked killers armed with machetes hunted down and killed teenagers in variation after variation on a theme (with titles such as Happy Birthday to Me, My Bloody Valentine, Prom Night, Terror Train etc.) Later in the 1980s, Wes Craven injected the notion of "rubber reality" -- the supernatural -- into the slasher formula with the watershed A Nightmare on Elm Street. Freddy Krueger wasn't merely a slasher, he was a dream demon, a supernatural avenger. Chucky fits into the pattern of the late 1980s rubber reality trend because he is too a supernatural killer: a doll imbued with the malevolent life-force of a serial killer. (One who commands voodoo powers, no less).

Yet, to some extent, at least, Child's Play generally escaped both the slasher and rubber reality label because the film centered on "the American family" (not merely horny teenagers), and because it commented ironically on what was happening in the consumer culture. It was smarter, wittier, and sharper than the average slasher or rubber reality sequel, and this made a huge difference in terms of audience reception. Child's Play felt not like a familiar retread...but a bracing (and intelligent) original vision.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Theme Song of the Week # 29: Rod Serling's Night Gallery (1970-1973)

Biggest Quarter EVER

Dear Readers,

I just wanted to say a heartfelt "thanks" to all of you -- the readership here on Reflections on Film/TV.

Because of you, the blog is today completing the biggest quarter since I began this site in Q2 2005. The previous highest quarter was Q1 2008 -- when The House Between 2.0 aired and the blog attracted a record number of views.

Well, now the blog has exceeded that already exceptional high by a whopping six thousand views.

In part, this is because my review of X-Files: I Want To Believe drew record audiences back around August 1st; but its also because many readers who found that review have decided to hang around to see what's next.

Thank you for making this record happen; and I hope you will continue to stay tuned as we finish out 2008 and move into 2009. Much more retro and cult goodness yet to come...

With appreciation and affection


Monday, September 29, 2008

CULT TV REVIEW: Planet Earth (1974)

Planet Earth (1974) represents creator Gene Roddenberry's second effort to get his Genesis II (1973) series premise aired on American network television. As you will remember, Genesis II concerned a 20th century scientist, Dylan Hunt (Alex Cord) awaking in 2133 AD and helping the pacifist organization called PAX (Latin for peace) restore the "best of the past" while ignoring "the worst."

Because of his 20th century knowledge and know-how (and because of a system of sub-shuttles "honeycombing" the post-apocalyptic world...), Dylan proved a perfect "agent" of PAX to accomplish this critical mission of planetary reconstruction (think Irish monks in the Dark Ages...). Still, Dylan Hunt had to overcome his own twentieth century addiction to violence and killing.

Star Trek fans will also recall that Gene Roddenberry created two pilots for that classic NBC series, before the series was finally picked up for network television. Specifically, Star Trek underwent a radical change in leading man (from Jeffrey Hunt to William Shatner), and shifted radically in tone from the first pilot ("The Cage") to the second one ("Where No Man Has Gone Before.") In particular, the "cerebral," introspective nature of "The Cage" was replaced by a more action-packed, upbeat tone for Shatner's first episode, "Where No Man..."

One can detect a nearly identical shift at work from Genesis II to Planet Earth. In Genesis II, the brave men and women of PAX lived underground, in dark, depressing (and dimly lit) caverns. In Planet Earth, PAX folk live above ground, in a shiny, technological metropolis (replete with flower gardens and elaborate skyscrapers). Even Dylan Hunt's first voice-over is more upbeat and bright in language, explaining to the audience that in 2133 AD the land is "renewed," and the "air and water are pure again."

In Genesis II, the people of PAX wore simple garments and looked like Roman slaves. In Planet Earth, the people of PAX wear form-fitting and futuristic uniforms that are brightly reminiscent of Star Trek.

In Genesis II, PAX had no advanced technology or advanced medicine. By contrast, Planet Earth reveals a PAX replete with handheld computers, view-screens and large computer banks. The people of PAX are also more knowledgeable here, and there are doctors available who can perform advanced "bioplastic" heart surgery. These changes reveal a completely made-over PAX, one which (like the United Federation of Planets) is a virtual utopia.

Other changes have been made as well. A "recurring" enemy in the form of the barbaric mutants called "The Kreeg" has been added to the mix. These dangerous mutants, like the Klingons of modern day Trek incarnations, boast ridged (or bumpy) foreheads and a style of life geared heavily towards the militaristic. The Kreeg drive around the post-apocalyptic landscape in ancient, souped-up automobiles, and carry twentieth century fire-arms. Basically, It's like Mad Max with Klingons.

Some character relationships have also been tarted up to be as colorful and dynamic as the new environs. The flirtatious relationship between Dylan Hunt (here played by John Saxon) and sexy Harper-Smythe (Janet Margolin) is more pronounced. The other members of Hunt's "Team 21" include the hulking Isiah (Ted Cassidy) and a physician named Baylock (Christopher Cary) who is an "Esper" capable of healing wounds with his mind. Baylock and Isiah share a friendly rivalry that is reminiscent of the Spock/Bones relationship on Star Trek, with Baylock dismissively referring to Isiah as a "savage" when Cassidy's character kneels down in prayer at one point.

Perhaps most significant is the change in Dylan Hunt himself. Saxon's version of the character is a man of action (like Kirk); one who is firmly in command this time around. He barks orders, plots strategy and is a firm, decisive leader, with precious little of the introspection or moodiness of Cord's incarnation. Honestly, John Saxon is a much better lead in this particular role, and his central performance holds Planet Earth together pretty damn well. Like Shatner's Kirk, he is a combination of physical agility/beauty and charming arrogance/swagger.

Another Star Trekkian touch: Dylan Hunt chronicles his adventures in a handheld device (a 1970s blackberry!). It's not the captain's log, but damn close. Instead, he calls it "a log report to the PAX council."

Given the changes to a punchier, more upbeat tone, philosophy is also played down in Planet Earth. Genesis II ended with the high-minded pacifists of PAX lecturing to Dylan Hunt (who had just saved them all from nuclear annihilation...) about the evils of violence and murder. In Planet Earth, the PAX folk are still peaceful in nature (they continue to use sedative darts as their primary weapons, called PAXer darts. for instance), but they never stop the action to wax philosophic or lecture about pacifism. And judging by the fight sequences here, the people of PAX have also learned the fine art of self-defense.

Directed by the late, great Marc Daniels (who helmed many episodes of Star Trek), Planet Earth (co-written by Juanita Bartlett and Roddenberry and produced by Robert Justman) also features a plot that is easier, in some sense, to identify with. In the opening minutes of the episode, gentle Pater Kimbridge, a leader of PAX, is wounded during a kerfuffle with the Kreeg. Dylan and Team 21 get Kimbridge back to Pax, but they require the skills of a surgeon named John Connor to save the old man's life. Unfortunately, Connor disappeared a year earlier in an "unexplored region" ruled by a matriarchy called "The Confederacy."

There in the confederacy, "males are bought and sold like caged animals." Hunt wonders aloud -- is this "women's lib...or women's lib gone mad?" Anyway, he resolves to infiltrate the Confederacy as a slave "owned" (as property) by Harper-Smythe, to locate John Connor and rescue his dying friend. He has just sixty hours to accomplish this task. What Planet Earth establishes with Dylan's mission is the bond of friendship between Kimbridge and Hunt. Hunt states that Kimbridge "is" PAX; both "grace" and "warmth." So underlining the action and weird central scenario in this pilot is a narrative that could have come from Star Trek; about the lengths friends will go to for friends.

Once inside the Confederacy of Ruth, Hunt becomes the property of a dominatrix named Marg (Diana Muldaur), who wins ownership of him in combat with Harper-Smythe. Marg decides she wants him to be a "breeder" (yes!), and Dylan soon learns that all the males here -- called "Dinks" -- are rendered docile by a drug extract (in their gruelish food...) that controls the human "fear/fascination" response. Unfortunately, a side-effect of this drug is sterility. Fewer and fewer children are being born in the Confederacy. The mission is now two-fold for Dylan: set right this topsy-turvy culture (men's lib!) and find the missing Dr. John Connor.

Unfortunately, that's easier said than done. Hunt soon rebels against training, and Marg notes that "the human male is an unstable creature." She trains him herself (yippee!), forcing a tied-up Hunt to ingest a full vial of the dangerous extract, rendering him docile. But, in the best teeth-grinding, jaw-clenching tradition of Captain Kirk, Hunt fights the effects of the drug.

Once again, here's a Gene Roddenberry story with a decidedly kinky bent. Dylan Hunt is soon remanded to Marg's home as a "breeder" and once there he promises her that he's, uh...well...good in bed. He claims he has fourteen wives and that his body is attuned to "different practices" than The Mistress might be familiar with. Marg and Hunt share a scene that includes bottles of wine, a bullwhip (whoo-hoo!), and ultimately.. a bed. In the sack, Marg and Dylan proceed discuss the failure of both 20th century men's lib and post-apocalyptic women's lib as governing philosophies, and settle on "people's lib." Yep, in the words of Dylan Hunt, it's all just a "little non-verbal mutual respect."

Before long, the Kreeg attack the Confederacy, but Dylan has executed a plan to free the Dinks from their drug-induced docility and stand-up and fight. In the end, PAX outsiders, Dinks and Mistresses fight back the violent Kreegs (led by John Quade) and Dylan and Harper-Smythe get Connor back to PAX to save Kimbridge's life.

I hadn't seen Planet Earth in probably fifteen years, and my memory has always been that it wasn't as good; wasn't as "pure" perhaps, as the original, Genesis II. However, on a fresh viewing, I must admit, I actually prefer Planet Earth. John Saxon seems very comfortable (and appealing) as a leader of men (and women), and he's adept with the romantic and action bits. He's also highly charismatic and appears to be enjoying himself.

And that "light" Star Trek sense of esprit-de-corps and joie-de-vivre is definitely present too, so Saxon understands the style. True, there's less philosophical grandstanding, but the lighter touch is fun and entertaining, and it easily (and humorously) makes points about the timeless "battle of the sexes." Parts of the episode play well as satire; and in toto, Planet Earth is a lot less heavy-handed and grave than Genesis II. This is a planet you wouldn't mind visiting every week.

By making PAX more advanced in Planet Earth, Roddenberry is also better able to compare and contrast various cultures and societies. It's very difficult to be a committed pacifist when you live in desperation (underground in caves; wearing rags); a little easier to do so when some of the basic necessities of life -- like sunlight -- are met. The unisex uniforms also forge a sharp visual distinction between PAX and the other cultures too. The character dynamics here also seem more promising, or at least more colorful.

Alas, Planet Earth didn't make the grade either, and never went to series. A third attempt with this formula, also starring John Saxon (this time as Captain Anthony Vico) -- entitled Strange New World (1975) -- was next. Roddenberry had reduced involvement in that pilot, and it too failed to become a series.

Like Genesis II, Planet Earth has yet to have an official DVD release. Let's hope we see one soon.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

CULT (TV) MOVIE REVIEW: The Last Dinosaur (1977)

Can a badly dated B movie about rampaging dinosaurs actually be more than just a badly-dated B movie about rampaging dinosaurs? That is the paramount question one must confront during an attentive viewing of the 1977 Rankin/Bass television movie, The Last Dinosaur.

Or to put it another way, -- per This is Spinal Tap -- there's a fine line between stupid and clever.

And yes, The Last Dinosaur navigates that line. With giant, clompy Tyrannosaurus feet.

Because, as dopey and inconsequential as The Last Dinosaur may appear at first glance, with the seventies era man-in-suit monsters and wacky fantasy premise (tropical paradise discovered in the polar ice caps!), this Japanese/American co-production also (rather surprisingly...) fulfills one criterion I apply to the finest genre movies. It states something important about the cultural context in which it was crafted; it reveals to us something important about the times; in this case the turbulent 1970s.

Specifically, the titular last dinosaur here is not merely a rogue tyrannosaurus dominating a land that time forgot; but rather the film's protagonist, a raging male chauvinist, an alpha male of excessive virility and masculinity, the appropriately (if humorously...) named Maston Thrust (played by a drunk-seeming Richard Boone).

As the film's boozy theme song notes, "there's nothing new" (for this manly throwback) in an emasculating modern world; one that no longer recognizes his (macho) form of supremacy and domination. So Thrust is literally a "dinosaur" of the late twentieth century, and thus the movie concerns the twilight of unquestioned white male supremacy in the age of ascendant women's lib; and the age immediately preceding stifling political correctness.

But before I excavate too deeply into The Last Dinosaur's deeper meaning, I want to recount the plot for those who haven't seen the film (which aired on American TV on February 11, 1977), or who haven't seen it in a while.

As the film opens, big game hunter, Maston Thrust is feeling noticeably past his prime, seeking his last hurrah. During the film's opening credits, Thrust's latest one night stand (whom he soon ditches...) leafs through his impressive photo album of memories, and we see Thrust's biography in photographs, in images. It is a life of exceptional accomplishment: enlistment in the U.S. Army, battling the Nazis in World War II, setting up a robust and successful global oil exploration company (Thrust Industries), leading safari expeditions to Africa -- even battling with namby-pamby animal rights activists.

Thrust, the great white hunter, soon pinpoints his white whale -- his much-sought after last hurrah -- in the surprising form of a Tyrannosaurus Rex. You see, one of Thrust's drilling expeditions, while ensconced on a phallic-shaped laser drill/vehicle called a "polar borer," has discovered a prehistoric refuge in the polar caps. The only survivor of that mission is prissy, effete "seventies"-style man Chuck Wave (Steve Keats), who saw his four companions eaten by the T-Rex. It was, Wave claims "an enormous animal." Twenty-feet high, forty-feet long, and weighing eight tons, the Tyrannosaurus is, according to Thrust, "the greatest carnivore that ever lived" and the "king of dinosaurs." The dinosaur represents a challenge Thrust can't ignore. He considers himself a king among men, after all.

Accordingly, Maston assembles an expedition to return to the prehistoric land and "study" the beast. Said expedition includes Nobel prize winning scientist Dr. Kawamoto (Tetsu Nakamura), a Masai tracker named Bunta (Luther Rackley) and Wave himself. A female photographer, Francisca "Frankie" Banks (Joan Van Ark) is also assigned to join Thrust on the voyage, but he blocks her participation with blatant and forceful chauvinism. "There's no woman going on this trip!" he barks. "I've never taken a woman on safari before!"

But Frankie is wily, and knows how to ingratiate herself with Thrust. At a party celebrating the group's departure (at a Japanese restaurant), this professional gal dresses up as a Japanese servant girl, and then seductively disrobes for Maston under a pagoda. Thrust is tantalized by the attention of the young, attractive woman, and then Frankie takes him back to her boudoir for more convincing. There, while they are in bed together smooching, Frankie surprises Mast by showing a slide show of her photographs. He was expecting to get laid, (and the movie chickens out and doesn't show us if they have sex or not; but the implication is that they did.)

Anyway, the expedition (with Frankie along, naturally...) travels to the prehistoric world, and things quickly go awry. The T-Rex soon crushes poor Dr. Kawamoto underfoot and wrecks the polar borer, rolling it into a vast dinosaur bone yard.

The expedition is trapped for a long time in this perilous world. As the months go by, the marooned 20th century folk devolve after a fashion. They learn to hunt, to skin animals, and to survive without modern conveniences. They must fight for the available food with a local caveman tribe.

A cave woman, nicknamed Hazel (don't ask...) joins the ad-hoc family, as Thrust becomes increasingly obsessed, Ahab-style, with hunting and killing the murderous T-Rex. Thrust constructs a cross-bow and -- eventually -- a giant catapult -- to combat his own personal Moby Dick.

Frankie, now reduced to role of cave mother --- cooking in the cave for the hunters (the men: Wave, Bunta and Maston) -- also finds herself increasingly attracted to Wave, who -- at the very least -- seems to respect her mind. This change of fortune upsets macho Thrust, who wants Frankie to remain the Eve to his Adam in this strange, lost-in-time world.

"Here's where life is. Pure and simple," Thrust tells her. "What's back there for you? Confusion?" If you're paying attention at this point, you realize what this dialogue really means: back in the twentieth century world (where she is an accomplished and prize-winning photo-journalist), Thrust believes Frankie can't be the "real" woman that she is here, in this prehistoric world (where she fills her biological imperative of serving man, apparently). Frankie ultimately rejects this argument.

In the end, the T-Rex survives the catapult, and Wave repairs the polar borer. Wave and Frankie return home, leaving Maston Thrust -- the throwback -- in his real natural environment: the prehistoric world. It is there, finally, in The Last Dinosaur's closing sequence that Thrust meets Hazel's (the cave woman's) come-hither eyes. The camera pertinently cuts to two extended "freeze frames" (a la Jules & Jim): one for each character. This technique establishes the connection between the character.

What this "extended moment" represents, essentially, in terms of film grammar, is that Maston has indeed found his suitable mate; one who will always acknowledge his male superiority and not travel outside the bounds of the traditional male/female roles he clearly prefers. Not coincidentally, it was Hazel who -- sometime earlier in the film -- went to Maston's bed (in a cave) and returned to him his rifle site...a device by which he could "see" better. What she was doing with that site, actually, was giving Thrust the means to see her; perhaps. An option other than the "modern" woman, Frankie who has not been so steadfast.

So what are we to make of all this? Well, for just a moment, consider the mid-1970s, the era this film emerged from. This was the epoch of the ERA (which was up for a vote in the House of Representatives in 1971; and in the Senate by 1972). This was the epoch of the Roe vs. Wade Supreme Court decision (1973), and the battle for a woman to have a say in reproductive rights (a battle joined in earnest with the wide distribution of the birth control pill in 1960).

This was the age of feminism on blazing intellectual and political "second wave" ascent. Prominent feminists in the culture included Gloria Steinem (a founder of the National Women's Political Caucus in 1971), Shulamith Firestone (author of The Dialectic of Sex: The Case for Feminist Revolution [1970]), Germaine Greer (The Female Eunuch [1970]), and Kate Milett (Sexual Politics [1970]).

The old fashioned dominant white male -- the Don Draper of AMC's Mad Men, for instance -- had to reckon with a tectonic shift in culture and, for the first time, charges of sexism. Accordingly, The Last Dinosaur is about the last gasp of honest, unadulterated American machismo (and chauvinism) as a pointedly anti-feminist response.

At film's conclusion, Frankie says compassionately of the T-Rex, "It's the last one." Thrust's response is illuminating. He says: "So am I." He positions himself as the last of his species then, the last "macho man." Thrust is an unapologetic hunter (and therefore enemy of animal rights activists), an unapologetic womanizer (as seen by his treatment of his one-night-stand; whom he literally tells to suck on a bullet...) and so the film establishes that he cannot survive as "the last one" in a modern, equal-rights culture. Therefore, The Last Dinosaur strands Thrust in a world more to his liking -- literally a prehistoric world. It is there, with a pointedly un-liberated cave-woman as his mate, that he will spend the rest of his days.

Frankie, by contrast, is a liberated contemporary woman of the disco decade. She experiences a taste of life as a prehistoric domestic woman (a metaphor for marriage?) and doesn't much care for it. She adheres to modern values ("After all we've been through, I'd like to think that we're still civilized enough to be compassionate."), and more importantly -- in her seduction of Thrust for her own means and ends, proves herself a heroine in the true spirit of Germaine Greer. Where Greer worried that "women have somehow been separated from their libido, from their faculty of desire, from their sexuality," Frankie freely expresses (and revels) in her sexuality with both Wave and Maston Thrust. She is attracted to both men, but ultimately whom she chooses as a mate (Wave) is her choice, not that of either man. She hightails it back to the 20th century, leaving Thrust, the last of his breed, behind.

I write often here about the ways a film's form (the choice of shots, the selection of soundtrack, etc.) can and should reflect a form's thematic content. Look - for just a moment - beneath the rubbery monsters in The Last Dinosaur, and you'll see what I did: that the film's themes are reflected by the film's shape. In particular, The Last Dinosaur finds methods to associate Thrust with machismo (and then tie that machismo to a fading, dying age). From the selection of his name (we all know what thrusting regards, don't we?), we understand something about Maston. His conveyance - the polar "borer" is another phallic reference (one literally knocked around by Thrust's competitor in "size" for dominance, the T-Rex). And the film's oddly-captivating theme song explicitly equates Thrust with "the last dinosaur." In fact, the entire film is scored (by Maury Laws) in counter-intuitive but highly-effective fashion: as a kind of folksy, tragic (and yet highly sentimental) requiem for a man who has outlived his time, and his usefulness. The only place for Thrust and his views is...the past.

I've already commented on the deployment here of freeze frames, and how they are utilized to explicitly (and visually) establish the burgeoning connection between Thrust and Hazel, yet there are other visual flourishes as well. For instance, when the group is defeated by the dinosaur and their polar borer taken away (a castration for Thrust?), the film cuts to an impressive (and slow...) pull-back that lets the reality of their entrapment (and alienation from their environment) settle in.

Slow-motion photography is utilized during the climax, to squeeze out the suspense. And even though the titular dinosaur is clearly but a man in a rubbery suit, the film doesn't make the same mistake as many monster movies do. It remembers to often shoot the beast from an extreme low angle (rather than eye level...) to forge a sense of power and menace. I've ribbed the antiquated special effects here quite a bit, but I must state this too: some of the composites between live actors and (admittedly-fake looking dinosaur) are absolutely exceptional. The composites hold up gloriously, even if the monster costumes don't. Hopefully you can see this from some of the photos I've posted. I defy you to find the matte lines.

I could have written this review entirely about The Last Dinosaur's consistent literary allusions to Melville's Moby Dick had I wanted to, but I felt that the battle of the sexes angle was much more trenchant to an understanding of the film's heart. The Last Dinosaur, for all the hammy performances, creaky zooms, cheesy effects and portentous dialogue, serves as a relatively unique social commentary about the end of a roiling era; about the twilight of the macho white man's cultural dominance. As this film points out, he was rapidly becoming an endangered species who - in the 1970s (and before Reagan, anyway...) - was finding himself more and more out-of-step with modern Western culture (where sensitive Alan Alda would soon be held up as a paragon of type). But make no mistake, the film doesn't glorify Maston Thrust. He's not a role model. The film exiles him to pre-history because he can't change; because he can't grow. Still, as Thrust himself seems to realize, he'd rather rule in Hell than serve (or be caged...) in 20th century heaven.

So hell yeah, The Last Dinosaur is an old fashioned, retro monster movie, but in playing on more than one thematic level (and with a modicum of good film style) it certainly fits my definition of B movie (low budget) classic. This is every bit the film I wanted Dinosaurus! (1960) to be just a few weeks ago. An effort that - though undeniably dated and passe - nonetheless has some red meat on those dinosaur bones.