Tuesday, March 22, 2011

The Last Dinosaur now available on DVD

My good friend and fellow blogger, J.D. of  Radiator Heaven, has just made me aware of a new cult-TV movie release and I wanted to pass it on. 

The (amazing) Warner Bros. Archive  is now listing the Rankin-Bass production The Last Dinosaur for sale.

I wholeheartedly recommend this made-for-tv movie if you are a fan of such efforts as The Land that Time Forgot (1975) or the original Land of the Lost (1974-1977). 

The special effects may not win any awards by Jurassic Park (1993) standards, but there's a lot of interesting stuff going on in the tele-movie.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I write often here about the ways a film's form (the choice of shots, the selection of soundtrack, etc.) can and should reflect a form's thematic content. Look - for just a moment - beneath the rubbery monsters in The Last Dinosaur, and you'll see what I did: that the film's themes are reflected by the film's shape. In particular, The Last Dinosaur finds methods to associate Thrust with machismo (and then tie that machismo to a fading, dying age). From the selection of his name (we all know what thrusting regards, don't we?), we understand something about Maston. His conveyance - the polar "borer" is another phallic reference (one literally knocked around by Thrust's competitor in "size" for dominance, the T-Rex).

And the film's oddly-captivating theme song explicitly equates Thrust with "the last dinosaur." In fact, the entire film is scored (by Maury Laws) in counter-intuitive but highly-effective fashion: as a kind of folksy, tragic (and yet highly sentimental) requiem for a man who has outlived his time, and his usefulness. The only place for Thrust and his views is...the past.

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

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

I could have written this review entirely about The Last Dinosaur's consistent literary allusions to Melville's Moby Dick had I wanted to, but I felt that the battle of the sexes angle was much more trenchant to an understanding of the film's heart.

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

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

4 comments:

  1. Thanks for the shout-out! I noticed that this film was a new addition to their archive and when I did some digging to find out what it was all about (I had never heard of it before), I came across your review!

    The clip that's available on WB's site certainly looks intriguing and if its any indiction, the print looks pristine!

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  2. Hi J.D:

    Thank you so much for notifying me about this release. You made my day!

    I've been waiting a long time for a pristine print of this very-intriguing monster film with a sub-text from the 1970s, and now that wait is over.

    Thank you, my friend!

    best,
    JKM

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  3. This looks good. I have some WB Archive discs, which I have mix feelings towards. On the one hand you have films that have been kept away from DVD distribution (and may not even been on VHS, for that matter) that finally get to see the light of day for fans. That's an enormous plus. However, at times WB's pricing takes advantage of those same fans they wish to serve with these offerings. The lack of extras and no remastering of the old prints makes you wonder what you're ultimately paying for compared to the studio releases (of old and new movies). It's not that it will stop me acquiring films that I want a copy of (DARK OF THE SUN is an old great Rod Taylor actioner coming later to WBA that I'm anxious for). But, does irk me. Thanks to you and J.D. for the heads up.

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  4. An official DVD of this came out in an extras packed edition in Japan about two years ago. The Japanese disc also has the English dubbed version. It was supposed to have been a theatrical release here, but ended up on TV instead. I'm curious how the WB print stacks up to the Japanese one. I've not seen the R2 disc, but a friend has it.

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