Friday, April 30, 2010

CULT TV FLASHBACK #107: The A-Team: "Children of Jamestown" (1983)

During the original NBC run of The A-Team (1983 - 1986), my father had a word he used to describe the Stephen J. Cannell, Frank Lupo series:

Diverting.

Now, diverting can mean "entertaining" or "amusing," but it can also mean to "turn aside" or "distract from a serious occupation."

In the case of The A-Team, my Dad probably meant all of the above.


The A-Team is a vintage action series of unmatched cartoon violence, colorful but superficial characters, outrageous stunts...and not much narrative or thematic depth to speak of. But taken on those very limited terms, The A-Team truly and fully "diverts."

What does this mean, exactly? Well, even today, you can't take your eyes off the bloody thing.

Oh, there are significant causes to complain, I suppose, if that's your stock and trade. Nobody on the show ever dies or is badly wounded...even in the most horrific car crash or gun-fight.

And women? They are pretty much utilized as set decoration.

How about realism? Well, let's just say that any TV series featuring John Saxon as a drugged-out religious cult leader probably isn't aiming strictly for realism.

But again, you either take a series like this on its own terms, or you don't take it at all. Your rational, logical mind may complain or rebel about some very important aspects of storyline, plot resolution and yeah, physics, but after watching an A-Team episode you may nonetheless find yourself smiling almost uncontrollably. There's a joie-de-vivre about the players on this classic TV program, and it acts like a giant black hole...sucking you in, even if you put up resistance.


The A-Team, which aired for 98 hour-long episodes, follows a group of Vietnam veterans hunted by the U.S. military. Renegades and modern-day cowboys, these team members now serve as sort of on-the-run mercenaries.


So, as the series' opening narration reminds viewers -- at least before staccato machine-gun fire kicks in -- "if you have a problem, if no one else can help, and if you can find them, maybe you can hire... The A-Team.

Team members include leader John "Hannibal" Smith (George Peppard), whose catchphrase is "I love it when a plan comes together," charming con man Lt. Templeton "Face" Peck (Dirk Benedict), crazy helicopter pilot "Howling Mad" Murdock (Dwight Schultz) and perpetually-cranky mechanic/driver B.A. (Bad Attitude) Baracus, played by Mr. T. Melina Culea portrays reporter Amy Allen in the early seasons of the series.

The first season A-Team episode "Children of Jamestown" is a perfect representation of the series' aesthetic. It begins in mid-mission (and in relatively tense fashion, I was surprised to see...) with the team attempting the rescue of ra ich girl from the clutches of Martin James (Saxon), a sun-glass wearing, religious cult leader. The freed girl is delivered safely to her wealthy father, but Face, B.A., Hannibal and Amy are captured and taken to the Jamestown compound for "judgment."

There, the A-Team is granted an audience before James, who pretentiously recites a poem to them. Hannibal recites a poem in kind: "Hickory, Dickory, Dock..." he begins.

Outraged, James orders his machine-gun armed acolytes -- hulking muscle men in brown monks robes -- to free the prisoners and then hunt them down. In a convoy of surplus Army jeeps that the compound conveniently maintains


So, it's kind of like The Most Dangerous Game at Jonestown...

Now, right here, an engaged (and sober) viewer will start asking some mighty pertinent questions. Why do these macho, grim acolytes feel it necessary to wear monk robes? More trenchantly, what do they get by serving the egotistical and difficult (and clearly bonkers) James? Why did they join the order? Furthermore, why all the jeeps and machine guns at a religious commune? What is the religious foundation for this order that it can incorporate both monks robes and heavy artillery?


But okay, the A-Team requires an army to fight every week, and in this episode, we get an army plus a wacky cult leader. It might not make strict sense, but there you have it.

So anyway, the A-Team escapes to a nearby farm, where a farmer and his gorgeous daughter live in fear of the cult and the cult leader. The family helps the team out, and Face has a little romance with the farmer's daughter, unaware, apparently, that the "farmer's daughter" scenario is the set-up of too many dirty jokes to count.

But hey! This is no ordinary farmer, let me tell you. He also happens to be an artist who sculpts metal in his spare time. His back yard thus resembles an auto junk yard. So in short order, Hannibal, B.A., Amy and Face construct a flame-thrower turret on top of a commandeered jeep. Then, using a hot water heater and acetylene tanks, they build a missile launcher.

Then they take the battle right to James, who is leading his jeep convoy against the uncooperative farmer.

I love it when a plan comes together. Don't you?

I've watched several seasons of Mission: Impossible (1966-1973) recently, and was very, very impressed. Every single week, that series played matters absolutely straight, with a real, sincere attempt to seem realistic...even with strange gadgets, face-masks, and complicated plots in the mix. In other words, Mission: Impossible crafted a larger sense of "truth" around its stories, settings and characters. And the suspense was almost universally intense.

The A-Team, by contrast, plays nothing straight. It's a knowing put-up job from start-to-finish. For instance, this episode doesn't look seriously at cults, or at cult leaders. It doesn't examine the reasons why a farmer in the middle of nowhere would also have a machine shop. Nor does the narrative see the main characters -- except for Amy -- break a sweat. Instead, the narrative is but a hook for the action scenes and a lot of admittedly funny jokes.

What holds "this plan" together, in simple terms is the grace of the performers, and the unfettered sense of violent fun. Again, I can't argue that the A-Team is socially valuable stuff, only that -- as my Dad stated so memorably on a Tuesday night long, long ago -- it "diverts."

The A-Team hangs a lot on the chemistry between the actors. So it's a good thing they're such an agreeable bunch. Watching Face describe "the jazz," or having Hannibal get mad over the fact that James has taken his prized boots may not sound like scintillating television, but somehow -- with these guys, with these jokers, -- that's exactly what it is.

"Children of Jamestown" attempts, at one point, to wax serious, with Baracus telling Amy that the only to get through a situation like this is to "accept death." Why? Because it "frees you."

And the playful attitude of the A-Team TV series, I suppose, "frees you" too. After an especially hard day's work, the the knowing silliness of this show is oddly infectious.

I featured the A-Team as my cult-tv flashback today because, very shortly, a feature film revival (starring Liam Neeson as Hannibal) will be playing in theaters. I'm sure the temptation will be to update the series by making the film "dark" and "bloody." But in keeping with the tenor, spirit and odd fun of this weird old TV show, I hope the movie evidences absolutely no redeeming social value whatsoever.

It should remember instead just to include..."the jazz." If it doesn't, well -- to coin a phrase -- I pity the fool....

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Every Town Has An Elm Street: The Tao of Freddy K.

In William Schoell and James Spencer's superlative companion, The Nightmare Never Ends: The Official History of Freddy Krueger and the Nightmare on Elm Street Films (Citadel, 1992), director and horror icon Wes Craven briefly recounts the youthful experience that led him to create cinematic dream-killer Freddy Krueger.

Specifically, Craven reported that -- as an eleven year-old -- he awoke one night from slumber to the sound of strange, scuffling sounds outside his bedroom window.


Young Craven got up out of his bed, went to the window, and gazed down to the avenue below. There, a mysterious stranger stood. The man looked up at the window and met young Craven's stare. A terrified Craven hid for several minutes.


When Craven returned to the window, the stranger was still standing there; still looking up at the window...in the exact same position. He hadn't moved.

Then, the man entered Wes Craven's building, slowly climbed the stairs to the family apartment -- his footsteps audible -- and neared the front door...

"As an adult, I can look back and say that that was one of the most profoundly frightening experiences I have ever had," Craven told the authors of The Nightmare Never Ends. "That guy has never left my mind, nor has the feeling of how frightening an adult stranger can be. He was not only frightening, but he was amused by the fact that he was frightening and able to anticipate my inner thoughts..." (page 179).

Meet Freddy Krueger, the villain of Craven's A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), and unarguably the most popular movie boogeyman of a generation.

This Friday the legend of Freddy K. is re-born with a big budget remake of the seminal Nightmare on Elm Street but -- disappointingly -- without Craven's input, advice or participation.

Considering the imminent silver-screen re-birth of Krueger, this seemed like the ideal time to go back and remember those qualities that made Robert Englund's Freddy such a powerful cultural influence in the mid-to-late 1980s.

1. When the Parents Are Away, Freddy Plays:

In Craven's original film, Freddy's teenage victims have literally no place to turn.

Tina's Mom is more interested in shacking up with her boyfriend than in helping Tina (Amanda Wyss) deal with her night terrors. Nancy's Mom (Ronee Blakeley) is a (mostly) useless drunk. Nancy's Dad (John Saxon) is a police detective, and always "on the job." Instead of listening to Nancy and helping her fight Freddy Krueger, he uses Nancy as bait to catch the wrong person (Rod). Glenn's Dad, Mr. Lantz (Ed Call) hangs-up on Nancy when she calls to check up on Glenn (Johnny Depp). "You've got to be firm with these kids!" he barks. The price of that self-righteous telephone hang-up: Glenn gets torn up by Freddy in the blood-flood to end all blood floods.

The adult world depicted in A Nightmare on Elm Street is not one friendly to children. In fact, local children sing the famous jump rope song ("one, two, Freddy's coming for you...") from one generation to the next, to warn one another about Krueger and his monstrous actions. The parents themselves are too busy burying the past; too busy burying the "truth" in the hope that what they repress and deny will simply stay buried. Of course, it doesn't.

Freddy visits the sins of the parents (murder) on the children, and because their parents aren't honest with them, the children of Elm Street don't even know why this is happening to them.

Writing for People in May of 1985, critic Ralph Novak wrote that "Craven is something of a generational turncoat. While he is 35, all of his adult characters have the intelligence and courage of cantaloupes."

That's exactly right...by design. Nightmare on Elm Street is about the younger generation learning to make it on its own; about recognizing the terrors of adulthood. And yes, there are some things worse than lying or obfuscating parents.

And that's what Freddy is: the amused stranger from Craven's childhood who enjoys terrorizing children because he can.

There's something especially upsetting about this aspect of Freddy, the fact that he preys on children, on the young. The world can be a pretty frightening place even for adults (even without Krueger) in it, but just imagine being eighteen and finding out that this guy is after you. One of my favorite lines from the original film is Nancy's (Heather Langenkamp) shocked realization that -- without sleep -- she "looks twenty." That comment is so innocent, and yet so dead-pan. She means it. Not being forty years old like me for instance, she doesn't see that it's funny...that twenty years old is just a blip on the radar. Freddy is such a monster because he destroys such innocence. And he relishes the job.

2.) Freddy is the Man of Your Dreams:
Freddy is also incredibly frightening because, much like Michael Myers, he's utterly inescapable.

The great white shark from Jaws can't kill you if you don't go into the ocean, for instance. However, everyone must sleep sooner or later. Everybody has to dream. And that's the field where Freddy stalks his prey, on the dream plateau. Freddy can afford to be patient because he knows that he always has the home-field advantage. He lives in dreams, and we just visit that often-surreal place.

The dream sequences of a Nightmare on Elm Street -- at least before some of the more outrageous rubber reality set-pieces of the sequels set-in -- all play cannily on very basic human fears. That we're being chased for instance, and that our feet get, essentially, stuck in mud. Or that there's something hiding in the bubble bath unseen...where we're vulnerable. Or that the monster chasing us can stretch beyond human proportions to grab us.

Freddy scares us because we're all vulnerable to the irrationality of dreams. But again, Freddy thrives there. He uses that irrationality, that vulnerability against us. Our nightmare landscape is his playground.

3.) To Be Or Not To Be: That is the Question Freddy Poses:

I always say that Nancy Thompson is Hamlet for the horror set.

Consider that A Nightmare on Elm Street serves as a direct thematic counterpoint to John Carpenter's Halloween (1978).

In Halloween, Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) sits in high school English class while an unseen adult teacher drones on about "fate" and "destiny." In the midst of the class, Laurie sees Michael Myers' car on the street: she thus glimpses her fate. As the teacher explains on the soundtrack that "you can't escape fate," we are led (through the visuals) to understand the connection: that Laurie cannot escape her impending connection to an escaped serial killer.
By contrast, A Nightmare on Elm Street finds Nancy Thomas in another high school English class as a teacher discusses the resourcefulness of the melancholy prince in Shakespeare's Hamlet. The teacher notes that Hamlet "stamps out the lies" of his mother, something which Nancy will do in Elm Street as well, and that the prince "probes and digs" to find the truth. Again, that's the very task Nancy undertakes: seeking information about the life and death of Freddy Krueger, and her parents' role in his murder.

The Elm Street philosophy suggest that only by digging beneath the surface, by learning the truth of a thing, can one overcome the sins of one's parents and survive. The key to beating Freddy is to know and understand him: to see that he thrives on the energy of your hate, and then rob him of that energy.

4.) Freddy is the 1980s Personified: Apocalypse, Armageddon, and Deficit Spending


I realize that my conservative friends and readers get exasperated with me for pointing out some, er, unpleasant facets of the Ronald Reagan years in America.

Like the fact that Reagan repeatedly expressed a belief that we were living in the Bilbical End Times.

Like the fact that he joked about bombing Russia on an open mic, or claimed, erroneously that nuclear missiles could be recalled after launch.

Or that his tax cuts for the utra-rich turned an 80 billion dollar deficit into a 200 billion deficit in just two years.

Or that 35 million more Americans lived below the poverty line in 1983 than did before he was inaugurated.

It was in this decade, as well, that middle-class American families, by trying to keep up with the yuppie Joneses, had to become two-income households. And that meant the advent of the "latch-key kid" syndrome: the child who came home from school to find...nobody at home.

All of this context plays into the terror that is Freddy Krueger. The sins of the father -- the national debt -- is visited onto the children; just as the sins of the father (murder) was visited upon the children of Elm Street. More than that, the ascent of Freddy - a hellish demon -- in supposedly secure middle America suggested nothing less than an apocalypse in the making.

In Freddy's Dead we saw what ultimately became of Freddy's Springwood. As you may recall, the affluent community had turned into a ghost-town. And today, to continue the economic metaphor, there are hundreds of small towns in America where Main Street looks just like Springwood: places where the economic policies of the last thirty years have destroyed prosperity.

This is who Freddy was. Who Freddy has been for a quarter-century.
After Friday, I'm not sure who he will be. If the talents behind the remake are smart, they have paid adequate note to our unsettled times; to America's continuing dreads and fears.

If the new Freddy can tap into these 2010 bugaboos, then the long-lived dream demon will survive the translation to the next generation.

If Freddy becomes, instead, just a ring-master shepherding a circus of impressive special effects, this new iteration of the legend may not carry the power of his predecessor. I wish Craven had been involved in the making of the film; at least then we would know for certain that the film would carry some sub textual meaning, or genuflect to the ideas that have currency in today's America.

If you're interested in reading more about Freddy and his creator's history, don't forget to check out my 1998 book:
Wes Craven: The Art of Horror.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Collectible of the Week: Big Jim Rescue Rig (Mattel; 1971)






Well, I haven't focused much on nostalgia and toys here for a while (since before Christmas 2009, and my post on Kenner's Super Powers Line, I believe.)

But, as you may or may not recall, I have been endeavoring to get for my boy, Joel (age 3) the entire Big Jim toy line that I had as a kid. Of course, this occurs as time and budget permits...or whenever the mood strikes and I get a few minutes alone on E-Bay. Don't tell Kathryn! (Kidding, Honey, really...).

I have already acquired for Joel the Big Jim Camper, the Sky Commander playset and the Big Jim Safari House. But just this week, I nabbed one of the most well-known vehicles from the Mattel line: The Big Jim "Rescue Rig" from 1971.

The rig, though made from the same mold as the sports van, is a bit longer than the camper, and originally sold for about $13.00 back in the disco decade. The huge vehicle, described as "a large mobile unit," features an "Adjustable Rescue Boom" cherry picker, plus such accessories as a fire-axe and hook pole. The Rescue Rig came originally with a remote control "communications center" that could "relay six emergency calls" too. Unlike the camper, the Rescue Rig's entire aft section opens up to serve as a kind of first-aid station.

Replete with intensive care unit and rescue basket, the Big Jim "Rescue Rig" is quite the cool 1970s toy actually, and Joel's arrived yesterday afternoon in the mail (in a huge box.)

As of 8:30 am this morning, The Rescue Rig has already done approximately 100 "rescue runs" down our long drive-way...and is no doubt bound for further adventures in the wilds of our back yard.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: Star Trek V: The Final Frontier (1989)

As I mentioned here yesterday, I often receive e-mails asking me to review specific films. One of the most oft-requested reviews is for Star Trek V: The Final Frontier (1989), which is widely-regarded as the worst Star Trek film to feature the original cast.

I don't know this for certain, but I strongly suspect this particular review is requested in the hope that somehow, some way, this poorly-reviewed William Shatner film might be rehabilitated in popular imagination. For instance, requests for a review of Star Trek V: The Final Frontier spiked after my positive review of The Motion Picture last year. My supposition thus leads me to believe that a lot of Star Trek fans must enjoy the oft-derided film, and are seeking valid, well-enunciated arguments in support of it.

I can relate to that.

After all, I am a Star Trek fan, and can probably see the silver-lining in every Star Trek movie ever made. So I am happy to enumerate the aspects I appreciate and like about Star Trek V: The Final Frontier.

However, for the record, it is also necessary for me to note where and when things went dramatically wrong with the movie. So -- to quote Joss Whedon -- this review isn't going to be all "hugs and puppies."

That established, there are indeed many components of Star Trek V: The Final Frontier worth lauding, and I will explain in detail below why I feel that way.

Let's start, however, with a brief re-cap of the plot. This fifth Star Trek picks up with Captain Kirk (William Shatner) and his crew on vacation on Earth -- in a the paradise-like setting of Yosemite -- when a dangerous hostage situation unfolds in the Neutral Zone. There, on Nimbus III -- on the "planet of Galactic Peace" -- a Vulcan renegade named Sybok (Laurence Luckinbill) has taken hostage the Romulan, Klingon and Federation counsels. He has done so with an army of devout "believers." Sybok's gambit is to capture a starship so he can set a course for the center of the Galaxy and find the mythical planet Sha Ka Ree (named after Sean Connery), where he believes "God" awaits.

An unprepared U.S.S. Enterprise, with only a skeleton crew aboard, is assigned to rescue the hostages. The attempt fails, and Sybok commandeers the Enterprise using his particular brand of Vulcan brainwashing to persuade the crew to follow him. In particular, he frees each man he encounters of his "secret pain." Kirk soon learns that Sybok is Spock's (Leonard Nimoy) half-brother, who rejected Vulcan dogma and came to believe that emotion, not logic, was the key to enlightenment.

With a Klingon bird of prey in hot pursuit, the Enterprise passes through the Great Barrier at the center of the galaxy and encounters a mysterious planet. There, on the surface, awaits a creature who claims to be "God." Kirk questions the Being, and soon a vision of Heaven goes to Hell.

Because It's There: The Search for the Ultimate Knowledge; The Search for a Film's Noble Intentions

From Captain Kirk's effort to climb El Capitan at Yosemite National Park in the film's first scene to Sybok's probe through the foreboding Great Barrier, Star Trek V: The Final Frontier concerns, in large part, a typically-Star Trek conceit: the human quest to reach a higher summit and to find at that apex a new or deeper truth about existence.

When Mr. Spock asks Kirk why he would involve himself in an endeavor as dangerous as climbing a mountain, Kirk answers simply, "because it's there." That's a simplistic but apt way to describe one of our basic human drives. What our eyes detect, we want to explore, to experience. Enlightenment, for us, is often attained on the next plateau.


Sybok terms his search for "God" the search for the "ultimate knowledge" and he too seeks to climb a mountain after a fashion: penetrating the Great Barrier which protects a secret at the center of our galaxy. The means by which Sybok conducts his quest are not entirely kosher, however (kidnapping diplomats and hijacking a starship). But his quest, though coupled with his vanity, is sincere. An outcast among his Vulcan brethren, Sybok believes that if he can "locate" God, his beliefs will be validated, re-examined.

At one point late in the film, Kirk seems to realize that Sybok and he share a similar drive; that he has stubbornly refused Sybok the same liberty he affords himself, not merely to "go climb a rock," but to see, literally, what awaits at the mountain-top. Upon this realization, Kirk gazes knowingly at an old-fashioned captains' wheel in the Enterprise's observation deck. His hand brushes across a bronze plaque engraved with the legend "Where No Man Has Gone Before," a re-iteration of the franchise's "bold," trademark phrase.

It should be noted here that Star Trek V: The Final Frontier is not out on a limb, franchise-wise, in exploring the existence of "God" or a planet from which life sprang. On the former front, the Enterprise encountered the Greek God Apollo in the second-season episode "Who Mourns for Adonis" and on the latter front, discovered the planet "Eden" in the third season adventure "The Way to Eden."

What remains laudable about Star Trek V: The Final Frontier, however, is that screenwriter David Loughery, with director Shatner and producer Harve Bennett, carry their central metaphor (discovery of the ultimate knowledge) to the hearts of the beloved franchise characters. Star Trek V very much concerns not just for the external quest for the divine, but a personal and human desire to understand the meaning of life. Or, at the very least, the path to understanding the meaning of life.

What that comes down to is one lengthy scene set in the observation deck. There are no phasers, transporters, starships, Klingons or special effects anywhere. Instead, the scene involves Kirk, Spock, Bones and Sybok grappling with their personal beliefs, with their sense of personal identity and history, even. Sybok attempts to convert Spock and McCoy to his agenda by using his hypnotic powers of the mind. "Each man hides a secret pain. Share yours with me and gain strength from the sharing," he offers. One at a time, Kirk's allies fall. Then Sybok comes to Kirk, and the good captain steadfastly refuses Sybok's brand of personal enlightenment.

In refusing to share his pain, Kirk notes to Dr. McCoy (DeForest Kelley) that "you know that pain and guilt can't be taken away with a wave of a magic wand. They're the things we carry with us, the things that make us who we are. If we lose them, we lose ourselves. I don't want my pain taken away! I need my pain!"

This specific back-and-forth is the heart of Star Trek V: The Final Frontier. The Kirk/Sybok confrontation embodies the difference between Catholic Guilt (as represented by Kirk), and New Age "release" (as represented by Sybok). In terms of a short explanation, Catholic guilt is, essentially a melancholy or world-weariness brought about by an examined life. It's the constant questioning and re-parsing of decisions and history (some call it Scrupulosity). And if you know Star Trek, you understand that this sense of melancholy is, for lack of a better word, very Kirkian.

As a starship captain, James Kirk has sent men and women to their deaths and made tough calls. But he has never been one to do so blindly, or without consideration of the consequences. "My God, Bones, what have I done?" He asks after destroying the Enterprise in The Search for Spock, and that's just one, quick example of his reflective nature. In short, Kirk belabors his decisions, so much so that McCoy had to once tell him (in "Balance of Terror") not to obsess; not to "destroy the one called Kirk."

What Captain Kirk believes - and what is crucial to his success as a starship captain -- is that he must carry and remember the guilt associated with his tough decisions. He must re-hash those choices and constantly relive them, or during the next crisis, he will fail. His decisions are part of him; he is the cumulative result of those choices, and to lose them would be -- in his very words here -- "to lose himself."

By contrast, Sybok promises an escape from melancholy. His abilities permit him to "erase" the presence of pain all-together. This a kind of touchy-feely, New Age balm in which a person lets go of pain (via, for example, ACT: Active Release Technique!) and then, once freed, suddenly sees the light.

Sybok's approach arises from the counter-culture movement of the 1960s (the era of the Original Series), and might be described -- albeit in glib fashion -- as "Do what feels right" (a turn-of-phrase Spock himself uses in the 2009 Star Trek). But Sybok is a master of semantics. He doesn't "control minds," he says, he "frees" them. Left unexamined by Sybok is Kirk's interrogative: once freed from pain, what does a person have left? Isn't pain, borne by experience a part of our core psychological make-up? The New Age depiction of Sybok in Star Trek V: The Final Frontier led critic David Denby to term this entry "the most Californian" of the Star Trek films (New York, June 19,1989, page 68).

In countenancing the false god of Sha Ka Ree, these belief systems collide. Sybok -- freed of pain and self-reflection -- is unaware of his own tragic flaws. Eventually he sees them, terming them "arrogance" and "vanity." But Kirk, who has always carried his choices with him, is able to face the malevolent alien with a sense of composure and entirely appropriate suspicion. Kirk is able, essentially, to ask "the Almighty for his I.D." because he has maintained his Catholic sense of guilt. He's been around the block too many times to be cowed by an alien who wants his ship.

The lengthy scene in the observation deck, during which Sybok attempts to shatter the powerful triumvirate of Kirk, Spock and McCoy is probably the best in the film. Shatner shoots it well too, with Sybok intersecting the perimeters of this famous character "triangle" (of id, ego, and super-ego) and then, visually, scattering its points to the corners of the room.

And then, after Kirk's powerful argument and assertion of Catholic Guilt, the triangle (depicted visually, with the three characters as "points") is re-asserted and re-constructed. Sybok is both literally and symbolically forced out of their unified "space."

In point of fact, Shatner uses this triangular, three-person blocking pattern a lot in the film. Variety did not like the movie, but noted the power of this particular sequence in its original review: "Shatner, rises to the occasion," the magazine wrote, "in directing a dramatic sequence of the mystical Luckinbill teaching Nimoy and DeForest Kelley to re-experience their long-buried traumas. The re-creations of Spock's rejection by his father after his birth and Kelley's euthanasia of his own father are moving highlights."

While discussing Shatner, I should also add -- no doubt controversially -- that Shatner has a fine eye for visual composition. The opening scene on the cracked, arid plain of Nimbus III, and the follow-up scene set at Yosemite reveal that he has an eye not just for capturing natural beauty, but for utilizing the full breadth of the frame. As a director, Shatner came out of television (helming episodes of T.J. Hooker), but his visual approach doesn't suggest a TV mentality. On the contrary, I would argue that there are moments in Star Trek V: The Final Frontier that remain the most inherently cinematic of the film series, after Wise's Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979) and Abrams' big-budget reboot of 2009.

What Does God Need With a Starship? Pinpointing the Divine Inside The Human Heart and in the Natural World

I've noted above how Star Trek V: The Final Frontier involves the search for the ultimate knowledge, and uses two distinctive viewpoints (Catholic Guilt embodied by Kirk and New Age philosophy embodied by Sybok) to get at that knowledge.

What's important, after that "quest" is the film's conclusion about the specific "ultimate knowledge" gleaned.

In short order, in Star Trek V: The Final Frontier, the angry Old Testament-styled God-Alien reveals his true colors and demonstrates a capricious, violent-side. After Kirk asks "what does God need with a starship," "God" is wrathful. And this is what the site Common Sense Atheism suggested was really being asked by our secular, humanist hero.

"One might ask, "What does God need with animal sacrifice? With a human sacrifice? With a catastrophic flood? With billions of galaxies and trillions of stars and millions of unstoppably destructive black holes? What does God need with congenital diseases and a planet made of shifting plates that cause earthquakes and tsunamis? Isn't the whole point of omnipotence that God could make a good world without all these needlessly silly or harmful phenomena?" Moreover, why should humans obey the commands of someone as capricious, jealous, petty, and violent as the God of the Jewish scriptures?"

This critical line of thought reminds me of my experience seeing Star Trek V: The Final Frontier in the theater with my girlfriend at the time, who is Jewish.

Afterwards, she was utterly convinced that Kirk and company had indeed encountered the Biblical, Old Testament God. And that they had, in fact, destroyed Him. Her reasoning for this belief was that "God" as depicted in the film looked and acted in the very fashion of the Old-Testament God.

On the former, front (God's appearance), The Journal of Religion and Film, in a piece "Any Gods Out There?" by John S. Schultes, opined: "This being appears in the stereotypical Westernized figure of the "Father God" as depicted in art. He has a giant head, disembodied, depicting an older man with a kind face, flowing white hair and booming voice."

On the latter front, behavior, there are also important commonalities. The Old Testament God was cruel, self-righteous, unjust, demanding, and acting according to a closely-held personal agenda (moving in a mysterious way?) without thought of courtesy or explanation to humans. Consider that the Old Testament God destroyed whole cities (like those of Sodom and Gomorrah), and that it's his plan to kill us by the billion-fold in the End Times, if we don't believe in him. The Old Testament God is indeed one of violence and punishment.

And this is precisely how Star Trek V: The Final Frontier depicts this creature. He wants to deliver his power -- his violence and judgment -- to "every corner of creation." Naturally, Kirk can't allow this.

Over the years, I have come to agree with my former-girlfriend's assessment. The alien portrayed in Star Trek V: The Final Frontier may indeed be the Old Testament God of our legends. Just as Apollo was indeed, Apollo of Greek Myth in "Who Mourns for Adonis."

And, in fact, Captain Kirk kills God. (Or rather, it's a cooperative venture with the Klingons...). In doing so, Kirk frees humanity (and the universe itself) from the oppression of superstition, judgment and tyranny.

The ultimate knowledge, according to this Trek is that God only exists "right here; the human heart," as Kirk notes near the film's conclusion. Accordingly, The Journal of Religion and Society explains that this is a narrative wrinkle true to "the collective history of Classic Star Trek," a re-assertion of Roddenberry-esque, secular principles. In his essay, "From Captain Stormfield to Captain Kirk, Two 20th Century Representations of Heaven, scholar Michel Clasquin concludes:

"In "Final Frontier", Heaven turns out to be Hell: the optimism is deferred until the heroes have returned to the man-made heaven of the United Federation of Planets. The film ends where it began: with Spock, Kirk and McCoy on furlough in a thoroughly tamed Earth wilderness. This, the film tells us, is the true Heaven, the secular New Jerusalem that humans, Vulcans and a smattering of other species will build for themselves in the 24th century, a world in which the outward heavenly conditions reflect the true Heaven that resides in the human heart."

Clasquin's point here demands a re-evaluation of the book-end Yosemite camping scenes of Star Trek V: The Final Frontier. Many critics complained that the film takes a long time to get started, since the crew must "laboriously" be re-gathered from vacation. However, if Star Trek V: The Final Frontier's point is that "God" resides in man's heart (And is man himself) and that the Garden of Eden, or Heaven itself is "a tamed Earth wilderness," -- a finely-developed sense of responsible environmentalism, in fact -- then these two sequences of "nature" prove absolutely necessary to the narrative. Heaven on Earth is within our grasp, the movie seems to note. We don't have to die to get there. We just have to act responsibly, as stewards, of our planet (or in Star Trek's universe, planets, plural). The human heart, and the Beautiful Earth: these are Star Trek V: The Final Frontier's (atheist) optimistic views of where, ultimately, Divinity resides.

All I Can Say is, They Don't Make 'Em Like They Used To: A Movie Shattered (not Shatnered...) by Poor Execution

William Shatner handles many of the visual aspects of Star Trek V: The Final Frontier with flair and distinction. He is badly undercut, however, by three catastrophic weaknesses. The first such weakness involves interference in the very story he wanted to tell. The second involves inferior special effects, and the third involves slipshod editing.

On the first front, William Shatner sought initially to make a serious, even bloody movie concerning fanatical religious cults and God imagery. His plan was shit-canned in large part, by Paramount Studios. Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1986) had just proven a major success, and the Powers That Be judged this was so because the movie evidenced a terrific sense of humor, particularly fish-out-of-water humor. The edict came down that Star Trek V: The Final Frontier had to include the same level of humor as its predecessor.

Frankly, this was the kiss of death. The humor in Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home grew organically out of the situation: advanced people of the 23rd century being forced to deal with people and activities of the "primitive" year 1986.

Above, I described the thematic principles of Star Trek V: seeking the ultimate summit, both externally and internally, and discovering that the Divine is inside us -- or is, actually, the Human Heart. How exactly, does Scotty knocking himself out on a ceiling beam, or Uhura performing a fan dance, or Chekov rehashing his "wessel" shtick fit that conceit?

The short answer is that it doesn't. Such humor had to be grafted on here, and it shows. It's forced, iawkward, and entirely unnecessary. The inclusion of so much humor actually runs counter to the grandeur and seriousness of the story Shatner hoped to tell.

And then -- in typical bean-counter nonsense, what does Paramount do next? Well, it advertises and markets Star Trek V: The Final Frontier with the ad-line "why are they putting seat belts in theaters this summer?" suggesting that the movie was an action-packed roller-coaster ride. This is after they demanded the movie be a comedy! Talk about assuring audience dissatisfaction! Tell audiences that the movie they are about to see is super-exciting and action-packed, and then give them Vulcan nerve-pinches on horses, Uhura and Scotty flirting with each other, and crewmen singing "Row, Row, Row Your Boat."

The second aspect of Star Trek V: The Final Frontier that damages it so egregiously involves the special visual effects. A movie like this -- about the search for God, no less -- must feature absolutely inspiring and immaculate, awesome visuals. We must believe in the universe that includes Sha Ka Ree, and the God Creature. Originally, Shatner envisioned Sha Ka Ree turning into a kind of Bosch-ean Hell, with demons and rivers of fire. But what we get instead is a glowing Santa Claus-head in a beam of light, and...a desert planet. What's worse is that many visuals don't seem to match-up. When Kirk's shuttle flies over the God planet initially, the surface of the world looks like a microscopic landscape (a sort of God's Eye view of the head-of-a-pin, as it were). But when the shuttle lands, the planet just looks like a desert. This is Heaven?

Perhaps Star Trek V could have surmounted this problem, since the TV series was never about special effects anyway, but about ideas. But the special effects in Star Trek V: The Final Frontier fail to even adequately render believable and "real" such commonplace Star Trek things as starships in motion or photon torpedo blasts. Watching Star Trek V: The Final Frontier is a little bit like watching Golan and Globus's Superman IV: The Quest for Peace (1986): the cheapness of the effects just make you wince, and stands in stark contrast to a franchise's glory days.

And the editing! Oh dear. Star Trek V: The Final Frontier is edited -- in polite terms -- in disastrous fashion. During Kirk, Spock and McCoy's escape on rocket boots through an Enterprise turbo shaft, the same deck numbers repeat, in plain view. When Kirk falls from his perch high on El Capitan, the movie cuts to a lengthy shot of Shatner, in front of a rear-projection background, flapping his arms. And just take a look at how Kirk's weight, make-up, hair-cut and disposition shifts back-and-forth in his final scene with General Koord and General Klaa aboard the Klingon Bird of Prey. This was due to post-production re-shoots when the original ending was deemed unacceptable.

Forget the script (which might have worked without the studio-demanded humor). Forget the acting (which is pure Star Trek ham bone -- and, in my estimation, perfect for a futuristic passion play), it's the editing that scuttles this film. Whether it's allowing us the time to notice that Sybok's haircut and outfit change on Sha Ka Ree, or permitting us to linger too long on visible wires in two fight scenes, Star Trek V's cutting is just not up to par.

There's a Star Trek fan out there on the Net who has taken it upon himself to re-edit Star Trek V: The Final Frontier, and you know something? It's a worthy enterprise. Preferably, Shatner should do a director's cut, and trim his misbegotten film down to a mean, lean eighty-five minutes. The worst editing, effects, and jokey moments would be excised, and audiences would be surprised, perhaps, how visual, how dynamic, how meaningful (even spiritual?) this Final Frontier could be, sans the theatrical release's considerable problems.

Let's face it, modern criticism often thrives on hyperbole, so it's fun and dramatic to declare that Star Trek V: The Final Frontier is one of the ten worst science fiction films EVER! The only problem is, it's not necessarily true. I don't even know that it's actually the worst Star Trek film, to be blunt. One of the women I saw Star Trek: Insurrection with actually threw up during a screening. She wasn't sick. It wasn't what she ate. It was the movie. She vomited somewhere after Spiner's Gilbert and Sullivan rendition, Patrick Stewart's mambo, and before Gates McFadden -- the best physician of the 24th century and Counselor Troi-- made a passing reference to their "boobs."

Star Trek V: The Final Frontier conforms to Muir's Snowball Rule of Movie Viewing. Allow me to explain. Because Star Trek V: The Final Frontier is perceived by the majority of critics and Star Trek fans as "bad," everything about the film gets criticized, when -- in point of fact -- many other Star Trek movies feature many of the same goofy errors. For instance, I have read some Star Trek fans complain vociferously about the fact that the Enterprise travels to the center of the galaxy here in a matter of hours. The fact that in First Contact, the Enterprise gets from the Romulan Neutral Zone to Earth in time to join a battle against the Borg, already in progress, goes unnoticed or at least uncommented upon. So, the starship got there in like, you know, a few minutes, I guess. But because First Contact is beloved and evaluated as good, it generally doesn't garner the same level of negative attention or scrutiny. When it fails in a spot here or there, it gets a pass.

Whereas, by contrast, the details in Star Trek V: The Final Frontier definitely get heavier scrutiny. The "bad movie" snowball, once rolling down a hill, just grows larger and larger. We forgive less and less.

Star Trek V: The Final Frontier is an ambitious failure. But ambitious may be the operative word here. The movie certainly aimed high, and hoped to chart some fascinating spiritual and philosophical ground that is true to the Star Trek line and heritage. But plainly, the execution leaves a lot to be desired.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Five Years Ago...

...on April 23, 2005, I began writing my "reflections" about film and television in this space.

Some 1,600+ posts later, I'm still having a great time. In fact, my biggest disappointment in 2010 is that my writing deadlines and responsibilities off-line are keeping me from posting more stuff online.

My introductory post, from 2005, began like this:

"Hello everybody, welcome to my blog. And to start us off, I quote the illustrious Admiral James Stockdale: "Who am I? Why am I here?"

Good questions...

My name is John Muir. and I'm a published author who writes under the name John Kenneth Muir, not because I'm pretentious or anything (though I am...) but because - for some reason - there are a lot of writers out there named John Muir.

Specifically, there's the great American naturalist from the last century, and also a fellow who writes about fixing Volkswagens. Others too, I think. In the age of the Internet, I realized I had to distinguish myself a little for Google, Yahoo, Lycos, Ask Jeeves and other search engines, so for the record, I'm the John Muir (the John Kenneth Muir...) who writes about film and television for a living.

And I know nothing about Volkswagens, so don't ask...

To let you know a little bit about my work, I'm the author of fifteen published books and several articles and short stories. I live in Monroe, North Carolina and work out of my home office penning books on film and television.

You may (or may not...) know some of my titles. From Applause Theatre and Cinema Books I've written: An Askew View: The Films of Kevin Smith (2002), The Unseen Force: The Films of Sam Raimi (2004), and Best in Show: the Films of Christopher Guest and Company (2004).

McFarland, a publisher here in North Carolina, has published eleven of my books, including award winners Terror Television (A Booklist Editor's Choice, 2001), Horror Films of the 1970s (A Booklist Editor's Choice, 2002 and ALA "Best of the Best" Reference Book '03), and 2004's The Encyclopedia of Superheroes on Film and Television.

I've written about prominent horror directors (Wes Craven: The Art of Horror [1998], The Films of John Carpenter [2000], Eaten Alive at a Chainsaw Massacre: The Films of Tobe Hooper [2003]) and several TV series studies, including Exploring Space:1999 (1997), An Analytical Guide to TV's Battlestar Galactica (1998), A Critical History of Doctor Who on Television (1999), A History an Analysis of Blake's 7 (2000), and An Analytical Guide to TV's One Step Beyond (2001)...

That answers the first question, who am I? The second question, why am I here? involves pop culture, film and TV. I hope I can utilize this space to discuss, debate and ponder trends in movies and TV programs...Basically, I just hope to create an ongoing journal about contemporary and classic entertainment."

In the five years since I offered that opening gambit, I've written six additional books (Horror Films of the 1980s, The Rock'n'Roll Film Encyclopedia, Mercy in Her Eyes: The Films of Mira Nair, TV Year, Music on Film: This is Spinal Tap), and updated one (Encyclopedia of Superheroes on Film/TV; 2nd Edition).


I've also written essays for published anthologies (Battlestar Galactica and Philosophy, Ken Russell: Re-Viewing England's Last Mannerist), penned short stories (Space:1999 Shepherd Moon), and even created an award-nominated web-series, The House Between, that lasted three seasons and twenty-one episodes. And heck, I'm raising a three year old kid, which feels like a full-time (but wonderful and very rewarding) job.

But through all that, this blog has been a part of my daily creative process. So to celebrate my fifth anniversary, I'm including links to some of my most popular reviews. Again, these are, in a sense, your selections; the links most visited by readers of this site. Interestingly, these most-"read" reviews don't always seem to be the ones that generate the most comments. Not sure why that is.

Movies:

1. Jaws (1975)
2. The X-Files: I Want to Believe (2008)
3. Body Double (1984)
4. Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979)
5. The Black Hole (1979)

TV programs:

1. Otherworld (1985)
2. Battlestar Galactica (2005)
3. Space:1999: "Dragon's Domain" (1975)
4. The Vampire Diaries (2009)
5. Harsh Realm (2000)


Toys:

5. Space:1999 Eagle 1 Spaceship

Essays/Interviews:

1. An Interview with Chris Carter
2. Don't Tell Them What You Saw: Les Diaboliques vs. Diabolique
3.
The Tao of Michael Myers

My most-requested (by-readers) movie reviews, which I'll be presenting soon are: Blade Runner (1982), Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, Star Trek V: The Final Frontier (I've been promising this one for a while...) and Session 9.


The TV series I am most often asked to review is SGU, followed by Caprica. I've got SGU in my queue, and when a full season of Caprica is available, I'll get to that too. Promise.

So -- five years in -- a humble thank you for staying with me and this blog. The best is yet to come.

Best,
JKM

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Now Available For Pre-Order!


My latest book is now up at Amazon.com for pre-order. It's part of a new series by Limelight Editions called "Music on Film." Order your copy today!

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Dede Allen (1923 - 2010)

The film world has lost one of its giants and trailblazers. On Saturday, film editor Dede Allen, best known for her convention-shattering work on Arthur Penn's Bonnie & Clyde (1968) passed away.

From Carrie Rickey at The Philadelphia Inquirer
:

Before Dede Allen, the sound you heard matched the image on the screen. But when Allen spliced The Hustler (1961), locating the psychology of each scene in the establishing shot (the ambitious glint in Paul Newman's eye, the collision of balls on the pool table to indicate the collision of wills between "Fast Eddie" Felson and his rival Minnesota Fats) and overlapping the sound from the forthcoming scene as a segue between sequences, everything changed. Allen didn't think editing should be codified like a textbook but rather allusive like a poem. (Her mentor, Robert Wise - the film editor on Citizen Kane, who hired her to cut his Odds Against Tomorrow - is said to have encouraged her experimentation.)

Dede Allen also edited the free-form, counter-culture masterpiece Alice's Restaurant (1969), hard-nosed Serpico (1973), Dog Day Afternoon (1978), Warren Beatty's epic Reds (1981) and even the Gen X touchstone The Breakfast Club (1985).

As Felicia Lee noted in The New York Times, Allen "revolutionized images with a staccato style that gave a story a sense of constant motion."

In other words, Allen is -- for all intents and purposes -- the mother of modern film editing. If you love how the films of the late 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s "move" and "speak" (how they visually express their narratives), then you have Dede Allen to thank for it. Allen will be missed, but her talent will never be forgotten, not so long as film history is remembered, debated and cherished.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Klaatu Barada Nikto: The Day(s) The Earth Stood Still

In 1940, as war raged across Europe, author Harry Bates' (1900-1981) short story "Farewell to the Master" was first published in Astounding Science Fiction Magazine.

"Farewell to the Master" depicted mankind's first real engagement with other-worldly life. In particular, a spherical or "ovoid" alien vessel materialized in Washington D.C. on September 16th of some future year, arriving in "the blink of an eye."


Aboard this highly-advanced craft, which showed "not the slightest break or crack" in its "perfect smoothness" were two "time-space travelers." One was a humanoid named Klaatu, described in prose as a "benign God" and possessing "great wisdom." Klaatu was accompanied by an imposing, green-hued robot called Gnut.

Unfortunately, these alien representatives were greeted with violence by the human race. A religious fanatic, fearing that Klaatu was "the Devil," shot him dead. This act is described by Bates as "the shame of the human race," and the remainder of the story involves photographer Cliff Sutherland's discovery that Gnut is attempting to resurrect Klaatu. The final twist: the robot Gnut is not Klaatu's servant, but rather...his master.

Considering this ending, Bates' tale concerned our human-centric assumptions; our arrogant belief that the human shape of life would -- even on other planets -- be blessed with a superiority over other forms. But clearly, on Gnut's world, robotic (or what we term artificial) life had flourished, rising above familiar biological forms like man. So "Farewell to the Master" served, perhaps, as an object lesson that mankind was not the center of the universe.

On another level, the tale might have been interpreted by some -- especially on the eve of the most destructive, technological war in all of human history up to that time -- as a warning not to permit our modern machinery to overwhelm and dominate us.

If you are interested in knowing more about "Farewell to the Master," Bates' original story is available online here, for your perusal (and free too, I might add).

Join us and Live in Peace, or Pursue Your Present Course and Face Obliteration: The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951)

In 1951, director Robert Wise brought to the silver screen a big-budget (for the time) adaptation of "Farewell to the Master" by Edmund H. North, titled The Day The Earth Stood Still.

Once again, the context behind the film was international warfare. At the time the film was prepared and released, the Korean War was being waged. But there had also been a dramatic shift since 1940 and "Farewell to the Master." By 1951, the atom bomb was available for use (after deployment at the end of World War II in Japan), and now, it seemed, mankind truly had the means by which to obliterate himself and even his planet

In The Day The Earth Stood Still, the humanoid Klaatu (Michael Rennie) -- now the master -- and his robot servant, re-named Gort, land in Washington D.C. in a flying saucer. They are met by the U.S. military. Klaatu is again shot and injured, this time by a twitchy American soldier. He recovers, and asks to meet with world leaders. Instead, American authorities hold him in custody, and Gort escapes.

Under the alias "Mr. Carpenter," Klaatu soon intermingles with the citizens of Earth. He befriends lovely Helen Benson (Patricia Neal) and her son, Bobby Benson (Billy Gray). He talks to a leading Earth scientist (Sam Jaffe), visits Arlington National Cemetery and the Lincoln Monument, and is ultimately sold-out by Helen's boyfriend, Tom Stephens (Hugh Marlowe). When Klaatu is shot dead by U.S. authorities, the hulking robot Gort resurrects him and permits the visitor to deliver a final, staggering message to the people of Earth. In part, it goes like this:

"The universe grows smaller every day, and the threat of aggression by any group, anywhere, can no longer be tolerated. There must be security for all, or no one is secure.

Now, this does not mean giving up any freedom, except the freedom to act irresponsibly. Your ancestors knew this when they made laws to govern themselves and hired policemen to enforce them.

We, of the other planets, have long accepted this principle. We have an organization for the mutual protection of all planets and for the complete elimination of aggression. The test of any such higher authority is, of course, the police force that supports it. For our policemen, we created a race of robots. Their function is to patrol the planets in spaceships like this one and preserve the peace. In matters of aggression, we have given them absolute power over us. This power cannot be revoked. At the first sign of violence, they act automatically against the aggressor. The penalty for provoking their action is too terrible to risk.

The result is, we live in peace, without arms or armies, secure in the knowledge that we are free from aggression and war. Free to pursue more... profitable enterprises. Now, we do not pretend to have achieved perfection, but we do have a system, and it works. I came here to give you these facts. It is no concern of ours how you run your own planet, but if you threaten to extend your violence, this Earth of yours will be reduced to a burned-out cinder."

In a time of war, when the "Red Scare" (fear of Communism) was in full swing, it was downright shocking for an American studio film to suggest that America and the world, literally, disarm. Though there's still the possibility of capitalism encoded in Klaatu's speech (he mentions the pursuit of "profitable enterprises," specifically), this lecture calls for not just an end to war here on Earth, but an end to gun ownership all together. I can't imagine that message playing particularly well in the American south. In 1951 or now.

Some people have suggested that Klaatu's solution to world war in The Day The Earth Stood Still is fascist in nature (since everyone is under the thumb of robot police force...), but in some ways the fictional solution of Wise's film actually mirrors the eventual Cold War accommodation over nuclear Armageddon. The threat of mutually assured destruction served as a deterrent to their use. We lived under this fear for decades, and neither The Soviet Union nor the United States ever launched missiles against one other. We didn't have omnipotent robots watching over us, but we knew that the first sign of aggression on our part would merit an equally grievous response on the part of our enemy.

Other scholars have interpreted The Day The Earth Stood Still as as an overt Christ metaphor. A man of peace, Klaatu, descends from the Heavens and is killed by ignorant men representing conventional authority (not Rome, but America). Klaatu is then resurrected, and walks among his fellow man with a message of peace, and yes, cosmic brotherhood. Afterwards, Klaatu returns to the Heavens above, rejoining his kind.

Even Klaatu's alias on Earth -- "Mr. Carpenter" -- suggests Jesus of Nazareth's one-time occupation. And, further inclined to analyze the film's details, one even might suggest that Tom Stephens is Klaatu's "Judas," betraying the alien for the promise of riches (alien jewels, in particular). Authors Kenneth Von Gunden and Stuart H. Stock excavated this Christ metaphor in detail in their text, The Twenty All-Time Greatest Science Fiction Films (General Publishing Company, Lt., Canada, 1982), noting that screenwriter North "admitted" that the parallels "were intentional."(page 44).

Today, there's little doubt that The Day The Earth Stood Still powerful message of peace and brotherhood would be greeted by some audiences as a socialist treatise, one that impedes personal liberty, and threatens the Second Amendment. On the other hand, look where our continued violence has brought us in 2010. Six decades after The Day The Earth Stood Still, the world is still at war, and mankind is still divided. No doubt this is why the film is still revered today. Humanity seems on stuck on a dark path unless there is an intervention, divine or alien, in our future.

Your Problem is Not Technology. Your Problem is You: The Day The Earth Stood Still (2008).

If the Robert Wise Day The Earth Stood Still posited a kindly, mankind-loving Jesus-styled alien in the person hood of Michael Rennie's Klaatu, then the remake directed by Scott Derrickson in 2008 lays down God's law, Old Testament-style. This movie returns to "Farewell to the Master's" vision of the alien craft as a featureless, smooth ovoid, but sticks to the Klaatu-Gort relationship of the 1951 film.

Klaatu himself, however, has changed dramatically from his previous incarnation. Here (as played by Keanu Reeves), he is a wrathful God who adopts human form (as God often adopted human form in the Old Testament stories).

After Klaatu/God's "angel" -- a man who has toiled on Earth in human form for seventy years -- reports that mankind will never change his destructive ways, Klaatu makes plans to wipe the slate clean; to erase human sin from the surface of the Earth. "If you die, the Earth survives," he tells one human.

The first thing Klaatu does, however, is preserve all the other animal species of the planet in small spheres explicitly termed "arks" by the screenplay. This development also harks back to the Old Testament, Book of Genesis tale of Noah and the Great Flood. The Earth is to be destroyed because of "man's wickedness."

Then, Klaatu lets loose a swarm of all-devouring metal insects to destroy man's technology and even mankind himself. This severe punishment serves as the technological equivalent of the Book of Exodus's Plague of Locusts, visited upon Egypt at a time of corruption (and a belief in "false" gods). The destruction caused by these technological bugs in Derrickson's film echoes the warning from Exodus. "They will cover the face of the ground so that it cannot be seen. They will devour what little you have left after the hail, including every tree that is growing in your fields."

Finally, when Klaatu experiences a change of heart and decides to save mankind, this God-figure visits the last Plague of the Book of Exodus upon our planet: "The Plague of Darkness." Specifically, Klaatu's ship emits an electro-magnetic pulse that destroys all technology on Earth, plunging the species both metaphorically and literally into "night." In the Old Testament, the darkness lasted but three days. On Earth, our technological"night" is to be the new normal, with no end. Ever.

In Wise's atom-age film, the Jesus-like Klaatu issued Earth the verbal warning I reproduced above, but he also revealed his "miraculous" powers. For a half-hour, he interrupted all electrical power on Earth before restoring it (hence the title of the film).

By contrast, in the 2008 version, Klaatu adopts no such half-measures. He punishes us for our mistreatment of the planet and each other, thus acting as a wrathful judge, and cold, emotionless lawgiver. No warnings this time.

The message is clear: in 2008 the human race is past ultimatums and warnings from space. The only thing that will change the human race is a wiping of the slate, pushing us to "the precipice" of extinction. This is the course God in the form of Klaatu ultimately chooses for us, and his change of heart (opting not to destroy us), also fits with Old Testament theology. In the Old Testament, God could not predict would agents of free moral choices would do; and here, Klaatu is unexpectedly swayed by the humanity of Helen Benson (Jennifer Connelly) and her son. He alters his trajectory, but the punishment he selects is hardly mild.

The remake of The Day The Earth Stood Still was not warmly received. In part, this is because it is a remake of a remarkable and landmark film; one that has been lauded as one of the greatest in the history of the medium. Longtime fans of the 1950s version feel nostalgia about it, and will clearly accept no substitutes. Or remakes.

Yet this is a clever, careful and knowing remake in so many ways. It cannily re-contextualizes the original film's Christ analogy as an Old Testament metaphor, down to its concepts of apocalypse (orchestrated by locusts) and Klaatu's aloof, cold-hearted demeanor.

And, in keeping with the post-911 world, this Day The Earth Stood Still also plays dramatically for keeps. It acknowledges that we have reached a "tipping point" in terms of our mistreatment of the environment and notes that things "can't be the same" if the Earth is to survive; that our current lifestyle is unsustainable.

My appreciation of the 2008 remake may not sit well with some -- especially with fans of the original film, I suppose -- but in all the right ways, this Day The Earth Stood Still speaks to us with the same urgency that Wise's film spoke to the men and women of the early atomic age. Some viewers complained of the remake that it was too personal, too intimate; that Klaatu should have -- in the tradition of the original film -- issued a speech and a warning to the world. But in keeping with the Old Testament contextualization of this story, it's clear that God has no responsibility to okay his actions with us. He moves in mysterious ways, and owes us no explanations. And as I stated before, the time for warnings and brief demonstrations is long past.

In 1940, 1951 and 2008, the story of The Day The Earth Stood Still has carried a didactic purpose. The written words of Bates alerted us to the reality that technological warfare could overwhelm us and make us slaves to the machine. The 1950s movie from the great Robert Wise obsessed about our drift towards self-annihilation. And in 2008, the classic tale was angrily, vehemently re-parsed to comment on our mistreatment of the planet.

In all versions, however there exists hope. The steadfast belief that, as Helen Benson puts it -- "we can change" before it is too late.

We should all hope she's right.

Friday, April 16, 2010

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: The Last Starfighter (1984)

During an era in which computer-generated special effects are often over-utilized, the phrase "it looks like a video game" has frequently been deployed by film critics as a cutting insult.

In the case of Nick Castle's quarter-century-old The Last Starfighter (1984), however, the phrase is actually a compliment.

This is especially true if one subscribes to the critical theory that a movie's shape ought to reinforce and supplement the movie's content.

Here, The Last Starfighter's video-game-themed visuals and flourishes -- primarily featuring outer-space warfare -- hark back to the movie's central concept: that of an earthbound arcade video game serving as a futuristic sword-in-the-stone test that uncovers hidden greatness and heroism.
The Last Starfighter depicts the heroic journey of young Alex Rogan (Lance Guest), a man searching for meaning in his life. Alex lives in a "flea-speck" trailer court -- the Starlite-Starbrite -- along with his Mom and little brother, Lewis. He has been turned down for a college loan, and now plans to partake in "a world-wide tour to nowhere."

Alex is also in love with the gorgeous Maggie (Catherine Mary Stewart), a girl who seems afraid to cast her eyes and aspirations beyond the confines of their small world. "The truth is," he tells her, "you're scared of leaving the trailer park." But Alex actively desires an escape from his life of quiet desperation.

And to his surprise, he gets his wish...

When Alex achieves the new high score on an arcade game called Starfighter, he is promptly recruited by a flamboyant alien named Centauri (Robert Preston). After a lightning-fast journey to the stars, Alex must then save the peaceful planet Rylos from the invading space armada of the traitorous Zur and the barbaric Ko-Dan fleet.

At first Alex refuses to fight in this dangerous galactic confrontation, but soon he accepts his destiny as a Starfighter, and -- with the help of an Iguana-like co-pilot named Grig (Dan O'Herlihy) -- takes on "The Black Terror of the Ko-Dan" in a ship called a GunStar.

And everything --- the ship, the universe, the weaponry -- is right out of Starfighter. The game is thus revealed to be an incredibly accurate simulation and training ground rather than a mere "game;" a past-time that many don't accept as worthwhile. When Alex informs his Mother that he has achieved the high score, for instance, she blows off his achievement with a casual, "that's nice." She doesn't get it. She doesn't understand. To Alex, this is important stuff...
Along with Walt Disney's Tron (1982), The Last Starfighter is one of the earliest Hollywood productions to eschew models, miniatures, and motion-control photography for a new way.

Instead or relying on tried-and-true physical techniques, the film deploys digital representations of spaceships, planet surfaces, star-bases and the like in its various visual effects sequences. From space cars to GunStars, from the force-field of the breached Frontier to the Rylosian base, everything in The Last Starfighter is entirely computer-generated.


These CG creations indeed appear primitive and lacking-in-necessary-detail to our trained, experienced 21st century eyes, but nonetheless, they still interact meaningfully with The Last Starfighter's subject matter and core themes.

Specifically, Alex Rogan's cry of jubilation that real outer space combat is "just like the game!" is meant literally. Space battles intentionally look like golden age video game battles, and spaceship read-outs resemble the arcade game interface/console. When Alex grabs the joystick on his GunStar and blasts Ko-Dan fighters to smithereens for the first time, the audience is meant to remember and embrace Alex's experience with the arcade model; and indeed, its own experiences playing video games.

This is an important element of The Last Starfighter. The film forges a positive connection between our grounded reality -- our popular forms of entertainment such as video games -- and the intergalactic society of the stars, which the film uses explicitly as a metaphor for achieving one's dreams and goals.

Released during the aforementioned video game 's so-called Golden Age (1982-1987) -- the epoch of home systems such as the Atari 2600, Intellivision, Colecovision and Vectrex -- The Last Starfighter thus develops an idea that every gamer -- at one point or another -- has at least briefly, or perhaps subconsciously, entertained.

Simply stated, that idea is that the immersing video game platform is a gateway or training-ground that leads straight to real life adventure. The player thus imagines -- or wishes himself -- essentially, into the world of the game.

A 1983 anthology film, Nightmares offers a darker contemplation of the same wish-fulfillment notion, landing Emilio Estevez's character into a deadly contest based on a fictional video game called "The Bishop of Battle. In The Last Starfighter, Alex realizes his dream of escape (and personal importance...) via his skill in video games...and actually comes to touch the stars.

These two productions function as two sides of the same coin, and both acknowledge something brewing in the American pop culture at the dawn of video game popularity: the experiential nature of the new medium, and the manner in which some players view reflexes and talents honed in the game world as real life tools.

Any film attempting to make this point in cinematic terms should indeed utilize special effects that audiences directly associate with the visuals of early era video games. Both Nightmares and The Last Starfighter accomplish that feat. In the latter case, the visuals of a Star Trek or a Star Wars film wouldn't work as cleverly here as do the CG effects: the audience wouldn't make the leap so cleanly from game to reality without the game-like special effects to connect the realms, to connect the dreams with the achievement of the dreams.

While integrating the up-to-date video game craze of its time, The Last Starfighter also puts a mythical, classical spin on its tale. Specifically, the movie terms the Starfighter arcade game, an "Excalibur" test, alluding to the Arthurian legends of Camelot.

Or, to adopt the movie's terminology itself: "only a few were found to possess the gift." Thus a joystick jockey isn't just a simple player then, but a hero-in-waiting, a king-in-the-making. One ready to pull the sword from the stone and accept his or her true destiny as hero. This approach to heroism is also splendidly democratic: anybody with the skill and talent can become a Starfighter. Station in life -- or point of origin -- (like a trailer park) doesn't matter.

What remains so much fun about The Last Starfighter today is the manner in which it imaginatively and humorously integrates the entertainment past (film and literature) with what it views as the "future" of mass entertainment (video-games; CG effects).

This means that Robert Preston -- playing an alien named Centauri -- offers a variation on his beloved character from Morton DaCosta's classic The Music Man (1962). Like Harold Hill in that production, Centauri arrives at his destination (Starlite Starbrite Trailer Court, not River City) in a disguise of sorts. And like Harold Hill, Centauri's primary concern seems to be wealth. Of course, in the end, the scoundrel is revealed to have -- surprise! -- a heart of gold. That's true in both films.

Also, in keeping with the video game aesthetic of The Last Starfighter, Centauri's/Hill's colorful language has been updated. "You bet your asteroids," he quips at one point, and the audience just knows he's referring not to space-going rocks...but rather to Atari's 1979 arcade game, Asteroids.

And when a Ko-Dan weapon targets a vulnerable starbase, the high-tech screens inside that facility cut to a real-time image of a streaking-missile or bomb that could have been lifted right from Dave Theurer's initiative for Atari, Missile Command (1980). A weapon with a trail inches irrevocably towards its destination, an unprotected (unshielded) installation. What follows -- just as in the game - is total annihilation.

The Last Starfighter
even offers a metaphysical spin on life and death, and one also related to the tao of video games. After Centauri is believed dead, he returns to life (just in time for a happy ending). He claims to have simply been "dormant."

Of course, in video games, our avatars die and are re-born on a regular basis every time we hit the reset or start button on our consoles. In the world of The Last Starfighter, as in the world of video games, death is not a permanent state of affairs. We live to fight another day and death may just be that "unseen dimension" in which we've activated the "off" switch till the next contest, the next burst of "life" and action.

The Last Starfighter is a lot of fun, and a memorable genre film overall...if not always a great one. Watching it today, one can see how it suffers from a case of that 1980s affliction called "the cutes." Specifically, there's a lot of sub-adolescent humor involving Alex's little brother, and it's just seems goofy and unnecessary today. Of course, Lewis serves a purpose in the plot beyond the wise-cracks and young-skewing humor too. Near film's end, we see him applying himself to the Starfighter arcade game. The next generation awaits its turn...

But when The Last Starfighter works on all thrusters, it really works. Appropriately, the film's final shot is a memorable and even stirring one. The camera is aimed towards the Heavens, as Alex, Maggie and Grig return to the stars aboard the accelerating GunStar. But below the GunStar -- closer to us in the shot, at the lower left-hand corner of the frame -- stands the neon, flickering star icon/sign of the Starlite/Starbrite Trailer Park.

Like so much of the film's visuals, that neon, colored light seems a reflection of down-to-Earth technology, of the video game graphics of the day (the 1980s). The image is simple and basic -- but still a beacon in the night calling us to adventure. And oppositely, calling adventure to us.

In one closing shot, we get both our grounded reality (the reality of video games) and the dream of a better one: a rocket ship bound for adventure. It's a beautiful and valedictory image, and if you consider The Last Starfighter a film about dreaming big dreams, a meaningful one too.

Early in The Last Starfighter, Alex notes with despair that he is "only" a kid from Earth, not a starfighter. Centauri replies that "if that's what you think, that's all you'll ever be."

We can't all be heroes and starfighters, but Centauri's words remind audiences that when humans apply themselves opportunities arise. When we dream (even if we're "dreaming" video games), we imagine new possibilities. A voyage to Mars in 2030, perhaps?

A high score in life opens up all sorts of doorways. Not just to outer space, but to adventures unknown and great. And when we hear the words, "Greetings Starfighter," it's our responsibility to grab the joystick, kick in the thrusters, and go for the gusto.

In suggesting that course of action, The Last Starfighter may not be great art, but in its own entertaining way, it's certainly an inspiring genre film, and one worthy of a re-visit today.

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