Saturday, December 06, 2008

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: Wanted (2008)

There's no getting around a simple fact. This movie hates you.

For evidence of that assertion, I point you to Wanted's protagonist, Wesley Gibson (Atonement's James McAvoy). He offers a running commentary in the form of a Tyler-Durden-esque voice-over narration. At one point, he opines that he doesn't want to be a "loser like you" (meaning, literally, the people in the audience; the people who paid good money to see this film).

Then, during Wanted's denouement, Wesley breaks the fourth wall, gazes directly into the camera -- brazenly looking us in the eyes -- and asks us what we've done lately to improve our dreary lives.

Well, Mr. Gibson, in response to your call-out, here's a list of the things I haven't done lately:

I haven't heartlessly killed a thousand rats by strapping time bombs to their furry little backs.

I haven't made sport of fat people in front of a room full of co-workers.

And I haven't shot and murdered my own father based on the coded, rotten fruit of a magical loom.

I haven't utilized innocent drivers on public roads as human shields during fierce car chases, either.

And nor have I dragged uninvolved passengers on a commercial train into my personal war with gun-toting, bullet-curving enemies; an act which is directly responsible for their untimely deaths when the train careens down an impossibly huge chasm.

I've seen mean-spirited movies before (one of my faves: From Dusk Till Dawn [1995]), but Wanted takes the cake. This movie isn't merely's vicious. And actually, to drop an over-used term, it's fascist.

Allow me to explain.

Wanted concerns a young loser, Wesley, who is plucked from a routine, humdrum life of quiet desperation and recruited into a secret society of assassins, The Fraternity. A key aspect of fascism, is, of course, the indoctrination of a follower into an elite organization. Once there, he is made to feel special through propaganda, group-think and military training.

Significantly, Wesley is recruited into the Fraternity not on the basis of his intellect or physical prowess, but rather his highly-treasured blood-line. He carries "the blood of a killer" in his veins, and is, according to the Fraternity - "a caged lion." In other words, the abilities to curve bullets and shoot the wings off of a fly, etc, are inherited traits.

Just as Nazis considered themselves a master race (Aryans) at the top of a racial hierarchy, so does the Fraternity consider itself above the remainder of the feeble human race. You can see this truth expressed in the way the Fraternity's missions are handled: non-Fraternity civilians are tools, pawns, in assassinations. They are to be used, abused, pushed around, but otherwise unnecessary and without value. If they should die in a train fight, well, so be it.

Furthermore, fascists often believe it is their sacred mission to maintain the balance of culture and civilization. In Wanted, The Fraternity maintains such balance with the help of the aforementioned magical loom, "forging stability out of chaos." So the Fraternity knows better than we do. It decides who lives and dies, based on its own beliefs and values.

When Wesley begins to ask for the reasons why certain people must be assassinated, his answer comes in the form of propaganda. Specifically, he learns of the Fraternity's thousand year history, and the secret code of the loom...which spells out on thread the names of those it wants terminated.

And, in fascist tradition, all direct questioning and dissent is met with harsh response. Wesley's trainer, Fox (Angelina Jolie) tells Wesley the story of another Fraternity assassin who "questioned" his orders from the loom and didn't commit the murder he was assigned. The sad result was a dead Federal judge, and a little girl scarred and traumatized for life. This propaganda makes Wesley cowboy up and he proceeds to kill his quarry (a man he does not even know...), without judgment, without remorse, without further analysis. Fox's story discouraged him from seeking his own answers.

The authority of the Loom (and those who control it), is absolute. This is the authoritarian aspect of fascism: the subscription to a dictatorship without question.

Wesley himself becomes the personification of the Nazi (and pseudo-Nietzschean) ideal of the Ubermensch. He is a person for whom pain and and joy soon become inseparable (his training involves both rampant ego stroking and intense physical abuse).

Ultimately, he even becomes the self-appointed arbiter of "new" values. Wesley eventually learns that the Fraternity is evil, and sets about to destroy it, but he does so, significantly, by upholding the fascist Fraternity code. In essence, he simply substitutes his "new" authority for the old leader's, -- Sloan's (Morgan Freeman) -- authority. Never once in the film are the methods - the heartlessness and mindlessness -- of the Fraternity discussed or rejected. Murder is okay. Using human shields is okay. Following the loom's orders are okay. Sloan was evil, because he substituted his will for the loom's. But in the end, that's also Wesley's path.

There's a dangerous wish-fulfillment aspect to Wanted, one that also appears at least quasi-fascist. Wesley is lifted from his hum-drum life, his mind-deadening job as an "account manager" and singled-out as The One. Wesley doesn't need to be smart, he doesn't need to study, he doesn't even need to exercise regularly or eat right to be The One. No, he has a better destiny than that.

And as soon as this obvious fact is realized by society (or by the Fraternity) he is granted instant access to untold riches (3 million dollars), not to mention beautiful women like Angelina Jolie. And...Wesley is handed a gun and told to take away life. Armed with the knowledge that he is The Chosen One (with appropriate bank account), Wesley gets to choose right and wrong. Why? Because, as the soundtrack tells us, "somebody has to pay." Someone tricked Wesley into thinking he was a keyboard monkey; a cuckold.

And all those who wronged him will pay for that. Couldn't they see his radiant greatness? That he was a noble beast, a "caged lion?" That he carries Aryan blood?

If you consider movies to be the dreams of our collective culture, then Wanted reveals that our culture is pretty damn sick. The film is imaginative, to be certain, but it is so in a mean, slick way. The action is beautiful, the special effects a marvel, but the bare soul of Wanted is corrupt. The movie thrives on ugly impulses, on disturbing wish-fulfillment. Let's tell off the boss. Let's show those other lowly drivers on the road who's in charge. Don't get in my way.

I'm better than you, so F U C K Y O U.

Those are the very letters, in fact, spelled-out in mid-air when Wesley caps his best friend with the butt of his keyboard. The letter keys fly at the camera in slow-motion, permitting us to read the epithet.

To get away from these heavier issues, let me mention some of my other reservations about Wanted. For one thing, it seems to have exactly the same plot as Jumper (2008), which featured another person (Hayden Christensen) plucked from obscurity with superpowers and recruited into a long-lived, mythological cult.

I liked Jumper better. Which is saying something.

Secondly, the film cribs all the best lines and concepts from Fight Club (1999), Star Wars (1977) and The Matrix (1999) and throws them into a blender, totally mangling the themes informing those great movies.

From Fight Club, Wanted steals the central character's voice. Wesley, like Tyler Durden is a disaffected worker with a cynical attitude and a catchy turn-of-phrase, one who shows us his messed-up world in scorching voice-over narration. Wesley even has the gall to mention the "Ikea table" he purchased in a catalog, a direct lift from Tyler Durden's catalog-person-rant.

Yet Fight Club concerned breaking out from the so-called Ikea Mentality; from escaping the Planet Starbucks culture. From resisting the carefully programmed hierarchy that asks us to make conspicuous consumption our true God. Fincher's film wasn't fascist. To the contrary, it was violently anti-fascist, urging civil disobedience and even violence in the effort to topple rampant, avaricious, soul-deadening Corporatism. Fight Club tells us we don't have to be servants to the Machine; Wanted tells us that we are losers, and that's all we can be if we don't carry the master bloodline.

From Star Wars, Wanted imports several core concepts. First and foremost is the idea of the son carrying on the legacy of the father. As Luke is to Anakin, so is Wesley to Cross. When Wesley joins the Fraternity he is given his father's light saber...I mean, his pistol. Sloan even says words similar to Obi-Wan's in A New Hope. "This gun belonged to your father."

And of course, Wesley confronts his father in battle, not realizing that it is his actually his father he faces. His father, in the end, turns out to be good...and even saves Wesley's life. But Star Wars concerned the notion of fear, and the way that fear leads one to give into hate, to the Dark Side. Luke was different than his father. He believed there was still goodness in Darth Vader, and refused to kill him. Wesley has no such reckoning. He simply uses the code of the Fraternity to undo the Fraternity. He doesn't come up with a "better" way to win. There is no difference, in Wanted, between the techniques of the good guys and the techniques of the bad guys.

From The Matrix we again see the idea of a work-a-day Joe plucked from obscurity to be "The One." But Neo fought for the survival of the human race, and fulfilled a prophetic role in crafting a new world order. At the end of the day, he truly did bring balance to the machine/human relationship. He brought peace, or at least a truce. In Wanted, Wesley simply uses the tricks of the Fraternity to destroy the Fraternity. But again -- crucially -- the methods and rules of the Fraternity are not overturned by anything better, anything more human or more humane. Wesley's last moment is just a taunt to us. We're losers.

I suppose there might exist critical grounds on which a critic could defend Wanted, but they are all shallow. And they all deny what the film is really about. The movie has awesome special effects. The sound track is rockin! Angelina Jolie is hot. The action is thrilling. The movie is well-edited. The pace is blazing. The movie's just a harmless video game! Why so serious?

Well, according to some people, the Nazis knew how to put on a pretty good show too, didn't they?

hates us. And I'm returning the sentiment.

Uncle Forry (1916 - 2008)

Some sad news today: The "original" sci-fi fan and memorabilia collector has passed away. On December 4th, 2008, the world lost Mr. Forrest J. of the towering genre figures of the twentieth century.

Ackerman -- known as the "# 1 Fan Personality" in many genre circles, -- was a literary agent, a passionate advocate for horror movies, and a damn fine writer in his own right (The Frankenscience Monster, The Ackermanthology The Sci-Fi World of Forrest J. Ackerman, Dr. Acula's Thrilling Tales of the Uncanny, etc.)

Most fans, however, remember Ackerman as the enthusiastic editor-in-chief of Warren's classic magazine, Famous Monsters of Filmland (1958-1983). It's no exaggeration to state that it was this periodical that launched the genre press in the United States, and likely worldwide. Avowed aficionados of the magazine include Peter Jackson, John Landis, Steven Spielberg, Stephen King, and George Lucas. We probably can't accurately calculate how many great movies (not to mention great books...) the world has seen because the creators were avid readers of Famous Monsters.

Also, we would likely never have had Starlog, Fantastic Films, Cinescape, Cinefantastique, Fangoria, The Monster Times, Epi-Log, Scary Monsters, Filmfax or the other magazines that have honorably followed in Famous Monsters' revered footsteps.

Known widely as a generous soul (he hosted "open houses" for fans at his Acker-Mansion for years), Mr. Ackerman also won a Bram Stoker lifetime achievement award in 1997. With Mr. Ackerman's passing in 2008, a significant chapter of science fiction and horror history closes.

Reflections on Film and Television offers its heartfelt condolences to the Ackerman family, and celebrates the life of an American original.

Friday, December 05, 2008

William Katt at 11:30 pm on Destinies

Don't forget: William Katt -- The Greatest American Hero himself -- is on Destinies: The Voice of Science Fiction tonight at 11:30 pm, EST. You can listen in here, at WUSB FM.

CULT TV FLASHBACK # 65: The Greatest American Hero (1981 - 1983)

Tonight on Destinies: The Voice of Science Fiction, host Dr. Howard Margolin hosts William Katt, the star of The Greatest American Hero (and such films as Butch and Sundance: The Early Days [1979], Baby: Secret of the Lost Legend [1985], and House [1986])

You can tune in to the radio broadcast here. Mr. Katt will be discussing not only the 1981-1983 superhero series with Dr. Margolin, but also the much-anticipated comic-book continuation. Should be a great show. It airs at 11:30 pm on WUSB 90.1

In honor of Mr. Katt's appearance on Destinies this evening, I'm going to focus today on writer/producer Stephen J. Cannell's classic superhero production from the early 1980s.

The Greatest American Hero's two-hour pilot was unveiled on ABC stations the night of March 18, 1981. The inaugural episode and ensuing series focused on a special education teacher at Whitney High School-turned-superhero, Ralph Hinkley (William Katt).

Ralph was a divorced father of a little boy, and "Mr. H." (as his students called him) was experiencing difficulties on the job with his unruly new class (which was populated by such future star performers as Michael Pare, and Faye Grant as "Love Me Rhonda..."). Ralph was essentially a bleeding-heart liberal and do-gooder at heart, and he felt that he "ought to be able to do some good" with his class full of behavioral problems. Trying to bond with them, he decided to take his class on an impromptu "geological trip" to the desert.

On the way to the desert, however, one of the rougher students, Tony (Pare) found himself in a confrontation with a by-the-book patriot and F.B.I. agent Bill Maxwell (Robert Culp). Bill was there investigating a case with his ill-fated partner, John, that involved -- at least tangentially -- the weak, wimpy Vice President (Richard Herd) of the United States --- think the first George Bush circa 1980 --- and a dangerous white-supremacist cult.

After the school bus breaks down in the desert, Ralph meets up with Bill again by nightfall, when the agent's car goes out of control. In a unique variation of the opening episode of The Invaders ("Beachhead"), the two men are then approached by a colossal UFO.

Only here, the flying saucer doesn't house invading aliens with jutting pinkies, but rather concerned humanitarians, like Klaatu from The Day The Earth Stood Still. Utilizing Bill's dead partner as their vessel, the aliens inform Bill and Ralph that the two men must work together to save the troubled planet from annihilation. To aid the men in this worthwhile endeavor, the aliens provide a special suit (and instruction manual...) that will grant Ralph "unearthly powers."

"You can change things," the men are told. "You can save this planet from destruction..."

And so an uneasy alliance is forged between Ralph and Bill. It's the beginning of a beautiful friendship, actually, but the two men don't realize it yet. Of course, there are bumps in the road along the way. In the pilot, for instance, Ralph manages to lose the suit's instruction manual in the desert, meaning that he must literally "wing it" when it comes to flying and other superhero skills. On his first test flight, he crashes into a wall head first. And this is after getting take-off advice from a young Superman fan...

As we soon learn, Bill and Ralph have very different ideas about how, exactly, the world should be saved. Bill envisions Ralph as a kind of Cold War avenger flying to Eastern Europe and smashing Russian strongholds. Ralph is more a world peace kind of guy.

Almost immediately, the "suit" also causes Ralph strife in his home life. He misses an important custody hearing for his son (because he gets locked up in an asylum...), and the suit causes constant stress in his romantic relationship with lovely but acerbic Pam Davidson (Connie Sellecca), his girlfriend and attorney.

For three winning seasons on ABC, the Ralph-Bill-Pam triumvirate of The Greatest American Hero battled terrorists, saboteurs, Russian spies, mobsters and an alien or two with an abundance of heart, and more importantly, perfect comedic timing.

The actors on the program shared a terrific chemistry, a welcome facet that rendered the not-always-stellar storylines of secondary importance. The audience (this author included) enjoyed watching the characters interact and grow each week. Even watching the episodes today, you can detect a jaunty, joie-de-vivre among the performers and their characters. The Greatest American Hero was never campy, as some may be wont to write, but rather delightful and witty.

And, of course, The Greatest American Hero features one of the most memorable TV theme songs of all time. "Believe it Or Not", by Mike Post and sung by Joey Scarbury was a huge mainstream hit in 1981, and today remains a Generation X pop culture touchstone. (It was even featured - satirically - in Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 911, as President George W. Bush lands on the aircraft carrier with the banner "Mission Accomplished" behind him.) The song also appeared in a January 24, 2002 episode of The Tick titled "Arthur, Interrupted." The story involved a superhero intervention (it is a life-style choice, after all...) and featured a superhero deprogrammer, played by Dave Foley, who would dance around his office to the Greatest American Hero theme song.

The original Greatest American Hero pilot makes use of the theme song in a clever way. Although it is heard in instrumental format over the opening credits (a helicopter flyby over L.A.), the vocals are not sung until the valedictory moment of the episode, after the denouement in which Ralph, Bill and Pam have been successful in saving the President of the United States from the bad guys and the power-hungry Vice President. We see Ralph cruising over the city (by night...) rightly proud of his accomplishment, and the song (with vocals) kicks in. It's a little bit like reserving the famous James Bond theme until the coda of Casino Royale (2006): a moment of maximum thematic impact that renders the song touching and inspiring at the same time.

Over the course of forty episodes and three seasons, Ralph Hinkley became more adept at marshaling his super powers, despite owning no instruction manual. In "Here's Looking At You Kid," he learned how to become invisible, in "Now You See It," he learned that the suit granted him precognitive abilities, and so forth. As important as the super power development, however was the character development across the various installment. The characters quickly developed fun catchphrases (Bill's use of the word "scenario," for instance, or the phrase "this is the one the suit was meant for,")

Episodes also delved into personal matters. In "My Heroes Have Always Been Cowboys," Ralph was able to see himself and his new role as superhero champion in context with his own boyhood hero, the Lone Ranger. Bill suffered a mid-life crisis ("The Best Desk Scenario") too, and Pam and Ralph even got married by series end ("The Newlywed Game.")

Another admirable aspect of The Greatest American Hero is the self-reflexive, post-modern tone. This is a series that concerns a legitimate everyman coping with the fantastic, the surreal even. The humor arose from the fact that Ralph, Pam and Bill were highly aware -- not oblivious -- of the ridiculous nature of the situations they often found themselves in. This was an approach later adopted by series such as Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman in the 1990s, but The Greatest American Hero was a TV pioneer on this front. Ralph's original reaction to the suit (basically red long underwear...) is an example a realistic "oh, please...would you look at this thing?" And the Superman jokes are numerous and amusing, particularly Ralph's admonition to Pam that she is already "one step ahead of Lois Lane, since she never found out Clark Kent is Superman."

DC Comics, however, wasn't amused by virtually any aspect of The Greatest American Hero. The company sued the makers of the series for copyright infringement and sought to kill the program in the crib. DC's beef was that it felt Ralph Hinkley was "patterned" after Superman. DC imperiously requested "all infringing negatives, tapes, photographs and advertisements" related to the ABC program "be delivered to DC Comics for destruction."

A U.S. District Court Judge thankfully ruled against DC, noting that there were "numerous differences" in the productions. That, for instance, in The Greatest American Hero, the lead character was "an ordinary person who reluctantly takes on abnormal abilities and is comically inept," whereas Superman boasted super powers "with grace and confidence."

The lawsuit wasn't The Greatest American Hero's only concern, either. A mere twelve days (on March 30, 1981) after the series premiered, a man named John Hinckley Jr. (a friend, incidentally of the Bush family) severely wounded President Ronald Reagan in a botched assassination attempt. Again, the hero's name on The Greatest American Hero was Ralph Hinkley, and ABC feared a public backlash. Accordingly, Ralph's last name was mysteriously changed to "Hanley" for a time, until the incident blew over.

In many ways, The Greatest American Hero represents the missing link of superhero TV programs. It is not hopelessly campy like some sixties superheroes (Batman, Captain Nice, Mr. Terrific). Nor does it blissfully ignore "the reality" (and occasional absurdity) of superheroes dwelling in "normal life" (like, to some extent, The Six Million Dollar Man or Wonder Woman).

And unlike many of today's unnecessarily dark, endlessly-angsty, violence-prone superheroes, The Greatest American Hero also boasts a great sense of fun about itself. I watched some episodes this week in preparation for this post and excepting some dated special effects, the shows hold up beautifully.

This series possesses the increasingly rare quality known as charm. I hope the new continuation will follow suit.

The Greatest American Hero - The Complete Series (Free Cape and Notebook Included) is currently available on DVD. Don't forget to listen to William Katt talk about the classic series tonight on Destinies: The Voice of Science Fiction.

Thursday, December 04, 2008

RETRO TOY FLASHBACK # 81: Qonto (Bandai; 1978)

It was Christmas morning in Glen Ridge, New Jersey. The year: 1978. The big present of the season (and, perhaps, my of my young life...) was the Atari VCS that my wonderful parents had purchased for my sister and me.

But also lodged under the Christmas tree with care were two small boxes with my name on them. I opened them and was perplexed (but happily so...) at what I found.

The toys were Japanese. So I couldn't read the labels. But that's okay, I could see through the "bubble" and was enticed by what I saw.

One toy was a little white metal robot named "Qonto" (known as Tonto in some circles.) In the other box was his silver-and-gray metal "space saucer" which could fire missiles. Both were made by Bandai.

I didn't know it at the time, but these two unique toys came from a Japanese Star Wars rip-off movie entitled Message from Space.

Now, even at the time, I knew of the title. I had seen commercials for the movie on television and become sotra obsessed with it. For one thing, it looked like there was a space pirate ship in it (replete with solar sails...) I had desperately wanted to see the movie for my ninth birthday (December 3rd, 1978), but I remember that when we arrived at the theater (the only bloomin' theater in New Jersey showing the Japanese import...), the movie had already mysteriously left the premises. It seemed I was destined never to see it...

Still, I had Qonto and his space saucer to play with. I never knew how they fit into the film's plot, yet the toys were cool enough on their own. Qonto had removable hands, for instance, and you could "plug" in various attachments, such as laser weaponry. And you could open up the robot's skull and there was a cooling fan ensconced there, over a circuitry decal. Which again, I thought was neat.

I haven't thought much about Qonto and his space saucer in years, but last week, I ventured up into my attic -- I'm attempting to weed through my collection.

And what should I find?

A very worse-for-wear Bandai Qonto and his space saucer. These days, Qonto is missing one arm and all his attachments, but boy did these toys bring back some serious memories.

Anyway, below is a youtube video of a variaton on the Qonto I owned. Below that is the Message from Space trailer, and if I'm not mistaken, you can catch a glimpse of old Qonto there too.

Finally, I have to add that Joel -- who has shown more interest in cars, trucks, tools and sugar harvester combines (!) -- than in my toys, has become absolutely consumed with Qonto too. He can say "Qonto" and "saucer" and keeps asking me to see "robots."

His indoctrination has begun...

Theme Song of the Week # 36: The Adventures of Superman (1951-1958)

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

COMIC-BOOK FLASHBACK # 14: Action Comics # 1 (June, 1938)

We all start somewhere, and the long-lived legend of Superman, the Man of Steel, begins right here, with Action Comics # 1, dated June of 1938. The comic -- which today is worth considerably more than its 1938 price-- sold originally for 10 cents.

Written by Jerome Siegel and Joe Shuster, Action Comics # 1 introduces Superman as an infant. He arrives from a "distant planet" that has been destroyed "by old age." A scientist living there sent his son to Earth so the goy would survive the disaster. Once he arrives, the baby is discovered by "a passing motorist" and sent to "an orphanage."

When he "reaches maturity," Clark Kent/Superman devotes himself to fighting crime and becoming the "champion of the oppressed." The issue thoughtfully provides some statistics on Superman's powers at this early stage of his career: He can leap 1/8th of a mile, hurdle a 20 story building, and "nothing less than a bursting shell could penetrate his skin."

The comic is actually rather episodic, breezing through Superman's origin in a few frames, and then getting on immediately to crime-fighting business. Superman races to the governor's mansion (of Metropolis, presumably) and proves the innocence of a woman slated to die. He provides the governor the real criminal (tied and gagged) just in the nick of time.

This act causes a ruckus, and Clark's editor at the newspaper "The Daily Star" assigns him to cover this strange Superman character.

Later in the same comic, Superman combats a wife-beater ("You're not fighting a woman, now!") and rescues sexy Lois Lane from a thug she embarrassed at a night club. The issue ends with Superman exposing the corruption of Senator Barrows in Washington D.C.

Why feature this particular comic-book on my blog today? Well, first, I wanted to post about something older than I am, and it's my 39th birthday. So this fits the bill.

Secondly, Action Comics # 1 serves as a powerful reminder to me that all pop culture sci-fi/horror franchises evolve dramatically over time; nay that they must evolve if they are to speak powerfully to ensuing generations.

I mean just look at the details here again for a moment: Clark Kent works at the Daily Star not The Daily Planet, as we've come to know the Metropolis paper of record.

His planet of origin is not referred to by name (as Krypton), and furthermore, it dies of "old age" not some strange orbital calamity.

On top of that, Superman's powers are not the product of Earth's yellow sun. Quite to the contrary, Action Comics # 1 clearly establishes that all the people of Superman's planet shared his incredible strength because of a "physical structure millions of years advanced" of our own. The issue further specifies (in a side-bar called "A SCIENTIFIC EXPLANATION OF CLARK KENT'S AMAZING STRENGTH") that "upon reaching maturity" all those on Krypton "became gifted with Titanic Strength!"

That's not it either. Here, Superman isn't discovered and raised by the Kents...but rather found by a passerby and raised at a damn orphanage. And his strength...though much less than what we expect of the character today. I mean, this comic-book basically states flat out that an exploding bullet-shell would pierce his skin. It also limits the scale of his jumping ability, and his speed. No orbital joy rides for this Man of Steel, I guess...

I think there's something significant about all this.

If we are to take all of this data as literal, then absolutely every iteration of Superman in the ensuing decades in comic-book form, on film, and on television, is actually -- technically -- a "re-imagination" of the character. Maybe people should be nicer to Smallville, given where and how the mythos began.

I suppose my point (if I have one at all), is merely that James Bond, Batman, Star Trek and other such franchises change drastically across the decades, from conception to maturity. And over time,it is actually those "changes" that become the gospel.

As we ready ourselves for a re-imagined Star Trek movie in May 209, I'm going to keep Action Comics # 1 in mind. It originated the character of Superman; it started the ball rolling; but Superman as a character (and as a universe) matured and got better over time, across the years. It's possible that new iterations of our favorite legends -- even Star Trek -- will do the same.

And that's why both patience and optimism -- or at least cautious optimism -- is justified. At least until we can see the movie with our own eyes.

40 - 1 = 39

Heaven help me, I'm 39 years old today. I don't usually feel old, but Joel woke up this morning at 4:30 am and is running me around in circles (before my first cup of coffee, even...). I know I'm just 39 years young, but it's hard to remember that before sunrise.

At least I have some hope that on my 40th birthday, I can sleep in.

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: The Shape of Things to Come (1979)

"Welcome to a universe of robots with the power to perform wonders. And men with the will to destroy worlds..."

- from the trailer to The Shape of Things to Come (1979)'s a prime chunk of aged cheese from the disco decade: the Canadian-produced "re-imagination" of H.G. Wells' The Shape of Things to Come.

Of course, Wells' original story of pacifism, socialism and futurism (filmed in 1936 the first time) has been re-purposed here for the swinging 1970s as a swashbuckling Star Wars (1977)-style space adventure, replete with friendly robots and gigantic spaceships.

Directed by George McGowan, The Shape of Things to Come is set the "tomorrow after tomorrow" (which, yes, now that you mention it, creeps by at its petty pace...). Earth is a polluted wasteland devastated by the "Great Robot Wars" and man dwells mostly on the moon, in a colony called New Washington (populated, no doubt, by New Lobbyists).

But this "thriving" colony has a problem: to survive the deadly radiation on the moon(?),the colonists must constantly import the "miracle drug" called RADIC-Q-2.

And unfortunately, RADIC-Q-2 can only be found on the distant planet called Delta 3. There, the evil Omus -- Jack Palance in a gold-quilted uniform with fancy blue cape -- has launched an insurrection with re-programmed mining robots as his minions. He has unseated the legal governor, referred to in the movie only as "Nikki."

So Governor Nikki (a shrill, deeply confused Carol Lynley) and her six or seven retainers are ousted from the Delta Three Capital Citadel, and now live in the wild. The wild, meaning Canada in autumn. The Nikki regime dead-enders plot to return to power by battling the lumbering mining droids...with large plastic pipes. It's like Queen Amidala's plight in The Phantom Menace...only dumber.
Where's Jar-Jar when you need him?

Meanwhile, the power-mad Omus crashes a cargo ship into New Washington to get the attention of the city's nominal leader, Dr. John Cabal (Space:1999's Barry Morse). Omus then threatens to halt shipments of the much-needed RADIC-Q-2 to the inhabitants unless the moon council appoints him supreme commander of the Moon, Earth and all the outposts in the solar system. Cabal refuses.

From his city command center -- a chamber which combines Commander Adama's space map from Battlestar Galactica with the giant red Computer Crystal from Logan's Run -- Cabal plots a response. Fortunately, his Honeywell brand computers are still operating in this distant future-- you can actually see the logo!! Nice to know that the company survived the Great Robot Wars, no?

Anyway, Cabal decides to take out Omus using his super new experimental space ship: Star Streak! Only problem: the ship is entirely untested. I should mention that Star Streak is depicted in miniature here; constructed of commercially available model kit parts including AMT's K-7 Space Station from Star Trek's "The Trouble with Tribbles." Master Computer Lomax pessimistically states that the Cabal mission will likely meet with "disaster" or "malfunction." Oopsy.

Caball decides to go after Omus anyway, bringing along his son, Jason (Nicholas Campbell), a hottie control room technician named, Kim (The Boogens'[1982] Ann-Marie Benton) and a re-re-re-programmed mining robot called Sparks. Why are they always named Sparks?

After a brief side-trip to Earth -- in which Jason and Kim meet the platinum-headed Children of the Damned, all suffering from fatal radiation poisoning -- the Star Streak runs afoul of a weird, rear-projected magnetic space disturbance. This unusual phenomenon compels Kim, John and Jason to lurch around their control room in slow-motion contortions of agony. It's an inept ballet of idiocy, but the Star Streak emerges from it...conveniently in orbit of Delta 3.

There, our heroes join forces with Governor "Nikki," while Jack Palance puts a pickle-jar on his head and tests a doomsday weapon on John Cabal. The device makes Cabal shimmy around a room and spit up blood. Eventually, our heroes win the day...and Delta 3 explodes.

So where the hell are our heroes going to get more RADIC-Q-2? That's just one question you'd be better off not to ask as The Shape of Things To Come fades to welcoming black. How bad is The Shape of Things to Come? Well, let me put it this way: it makes Space Mutiny look like high art by comparison. It makes Star Crash look like Shakespeare. It makes Starship Invasions look like James Joyce. Shall I go on?

The Shape of Things to Come relentlessly, shamelessly and endlessly apes Star Wars, beginning with the opening shot: the familiar "flyover" of a gigantic spaceship. Only here, the shot is repeated about twenty times, from every conceivable angle, as the massive cargo ship bears down on New Washington. And after a few scenes with Sparks, the film's de rigueur R2-D2 rip-off, you'll be begging for mercy. The robot not only spouts poetry, referring to Kim as his "Dark Lady of the Sonnet," but he can orchestrate "bilocational transference," or -- I shit you not -- a "BLT" for short. Hold the mayo.

By the way, Sparks also has floppy, Lost In Space-style robot arms...Oh, the pain. The pain.

Jack Palance matriculated to Buck Rogers in the 25th Century shortly after this movie, playing essentially the same role, except that he was named Kaleel. His character was shipping much-needed food to the Directorate on Earth from the planet Vistula. The food was actually poisoned, and he was plotting an overthrow of Huer and company. Meanwhile, Ann-Marie Benton also showed up on Buck an assassin bent on capturing the perfect robot, Twiki!

However, the actor whom I feel most sorry for here is the late Barry Morse. Here he is, back on the moon (and in charge of the base this time!), but in a film without even a tenth of the production value that Space:1999 boasted. As usual, Morse comports himself with dignity, but the screenplay does him no favors.

At one critical juncture in The Shape of Things to Come, the evil Omus falls prey to his own doomsday weapon. Jack Palance clutches his head and pleads madly: "Turn it off! Turn it off!"

My sentiments exactly. If this is the shape of things to come, I want out.