Saturday, March 26, 2011

Sci-Fi Wisdom of the Week

"My father once told me, "We don't choose the things we believe in; they choose us."

- Minority Report (2002)

Friday, March 25, 2011

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: Silent Running (1972)

"It calls back a time when there were flowers all over the Earth. And there were valleys. And there were plains of tall green grass that you could lie down in; you could go to sleep in. And there were blue skies, and there was fresh air.  And there were things growing all over the place, not just in some domed enclosures blasted some millions of miles out into space."

- Freeman Lowell (Bruce Dern) remembers the long-gone beauties of Earth in Silent Running (1972).

Douglas Trumball's 1972 environmental space film, Silent Running opens with a series of gorgeous, extreme close-up views of colorful flowers in bloom, and the diverse animal life surrounding these plants: a snail, a turtle, and a toad, in order. 

As the camera pushes in towards the red, pink and yellow blossoms, we detect that the petals are wet and glistening with translucent water drops. 

What Trumball's probing camera gazes at -- in extreme proximity during the film's inaugural and majestic angles --  is a thriving ecosystem; an inter-connected biological system in perfect and serene balance.  The considerable size and prominence of these plants and animals in the frame makes audiences feel as though they are witnessing a whole planet in microcosm, a world in its multitudinous, assorted entirety.

The remainder of Silent Running, in a more nuanced fashion than it has often been given credit for by critics, audiences and ideologues, concerns another biological system, that belonging to technological man aboard the American Airlines Space Freighter, Valley Forge. 

Specifically, this technological ecosystem becomes imbalanced due to the acts of one man, the symbolically-named "Freeman" Lowell (Bruce Dern).  In short order, Lowell makes a life-and-death choice entirely consistent with the "Conservation" Pledge he has sworn to uphold, but it is a decision that he cannot possibly live with as a thinking, moral human being.

So while many critics and audiences seek to pigeonhole Silent Running alternately as a conservative warning against rampaging eco-terrorists (presumably Lowell in this case) or a bleeding heart, liberal ode to "tree hugging," the truth is, predictably, much more complicated. 

What Silent Running truly concerns is a man who does what he passionately believes is the right thing...and then almost immediately regrets the imbalance he has initiated in his own life, his own psychology, and aboard his ship. 

There's something very realistic and poignant in both Lowell's capricious actions and his guilty reactions to them.  Seldom in life are such grave decisions made and executed without real consequences for the decision-maker, and Silent Running is Lowell's tale in that regard.  He achieves something wonderful in one very important, nearly cosmic sense (the preservation of the Earth's last forest), but the price for his actions is his own sanity, and even more than that, his belief in himself as a moral and "good" human being.

On Earth, everywhere you go, the temperature is 75 degrees. Everything is the same; all the people are exactly the same. Now what kind of life is that?

Silent Running depicts the tale of gardener and astronaut Freeman Lowell.   Aboard the space freighter Valley Forge, he lovingly tends to the last surviving forests from planet Earth. 

At some point in the past, all the world's forests were transported into space aboard such ships (with monikers such as Sequoia and Berkshire). 

Lowell has been patiently waiting for the day when man will realize the errors of his ways, redeem the Earth, and recall the forests.  Lowell even harbors hopes of becoming the director of a new "Parks and Forests" system, since he alone among his shipmates appreciates the living forests and the fruit they bear.

However, when an announcement arrives from Earth authority, it is not what Freeman had expected or hoped for.  Instead of reclaiming the forests, the terrestrial governments have decided on "cutbacks."  The forests will be launched from the freighters and destroyed in nuclear detonations.  Nature itself is to be abandoned by the human race.

Lowell protests this final solution to his shipmates, but they are young, callow souls, who only want to return home, and could care less that the last forests on Earth are not "disposable" like so many elements of mankind's technological world. 

While watching forests explode in terrifying nuclear blasts, Lowell makes a rash decision: he protects one of his forest domes from a shipmate...killing the crew man in the process. 

Then Lowell repeats that fateful decision, trapping the last two crewman inside one of the Valley Forge's geodesic domes as it launches into deep space and is destroyed.

Now a murderer three-times over, Lowell goes on "silent running," and takes the Valley Forge through the turbulent rings of Saturn.  During the escape maneuver, one of the Valley Forge's small maintenance drones, number 3, is destroyed.

Separated from his home world and his fellow man, Lowell begins to lose his grip on sanity.  He re-programs the surviving drones, re-named Huey and Dewey, to keep him company.  They learn to play poker with him (and promptly beat him...) and they even become gardeners under Lowell's ministrations.

When Earth authorities finally catch up with Lowell, he realizes he has one last chance to save the sole surviving forest.  He tasks Dewey with tending to the forest -- for eternity -- and launches the forest dome on a trajectory for deepest space. 

Alone and guilty over his violent actions, Lowell then destroys himself, the malfunctioning Huey, and the Valley Forge itself.

She's never going to be able to see the simple wonder of a leaf in her hand. Because there's not going to be any trees. Now you think about that.

Silent Running paints a not very pretty picture of our immediate future, and thus qualifies as a dystopian vision.  On Earth, man has apparently populated the world to such a degree that two things have (presumably) occurred. 

In the first case, there is no room for plant life on the surface. In the second instance, plant life apparently can't even survive or thrive on the planet anymore because of factors such as pollution, or littering.  Thus space freighters carry the surviving forests to the stars with human custodians aboard.  Freeman Lowell, one such custodian, recalls the Presidential announcement that gave birth to the Valley Forge's mission during a voice-over flashback:

"On this first day of a new century we humbly beg forgiveness and dedicate these last forests of our once beautiful nation to the hope that they will one day return and grace our foul earth. Until that day may God bless these gardens and the brave men who care for them."

Although we never see Earth in the film, Silent Running's dystopia isn't all-together foreign to those of us living today.  We detect in the film's fictional future the end game of an environmental battle being waged on Earth and in America right now. 

On the one hand, there are those who want to preserve our planet's natural landscape.  These people believe that human beings are tasked -- in our short time here on Earth -- with responsibly maintaining that which God, or Mother Earth, has given us.  We are mere shepherds of the land until we can hand off this important care-taking duty to our children, the next generation. 

Then there are those who want to mine the land, drill the land, log the land, and extract from nature everything of possible value for business and personal profit.  These folks usually want to undertake such invasive action in the cheapest, quickest way possible, which ultimately equates to a disruption of the wild.  The goal is to make our lives more comfortable, and less expensive, but the means are destructive.

If you couple this latter approach of environmental management to the increasingly-real idea of a plastic, disposable culture, you arrive at the world imagined so powerfully by Trumball and Silent Running.  The astronauts aboard Valley Forge have never eaten real fruit or vegetables; depending instead on "synthetic" substances for sustenance.   They also don't see any value in the forests.  In an early scene, the crew men playfully and loudly ride motorized buggies into the garden domes, disrupting the habitat without a care, or even a thought.

Lowell attempts to remind his less insightful crew mates that the decision to nuke the forests because of budgetary shortfalls is not one that mankind can come back from.   Unlike the synthetic food supplies stacked in the ship's cargo hold, the forests are not replaceable.  Once the forests and their wildlife are gone, they're gone, and man is only left with what the president called "the foul Earth."

When Lowell decides to preserve the last forest, at the expense of his shipmates' lives, he is committing murder to be certain, but he is also, we should remember, upholding his sworn duty.  Not long ago, the President was asking God to bless "the brave men" who protected the gardens, and he honored their mission of conservation, even begging forgiveness for destroying the planet's natural beauty. 

More than that, Lowell in particular has sworn a very specific oath, "The Conservation Pledge," which reads: "I give my pledge as an American to save and faithfully to defend from waste the natural resources of my country -- its soil and minerals, its forests, waters, and wildlife."

In some sense, Lowell is honoring his word and the service he selected by rescuing the Earth's last forest preserve.  Yet to fulfill that oath, he commits the murder of his fellow man, and that is, simply, an immoral act.  In upholding his sworn duty, Lowell has violated another, equally as critical moral law.   His awareness of this violation begins to drive him crazy, and occasionally, Trumball jump cuts to images of the Lowell's dead crew, jump cuts that are meant to represent Lowell's memories veritably attacking his mind; reminding him of his culpability, of his inescapable guilt.

I believe that many viewers -- especially ideology-minded ones -- face a difficult journey with Silent Running because it proposes two ideas that we assume contradict each other, but don't, actually.  These are, A: the last forest should be saved, and Lowell is right to save it.  And B: it is wrong for Lowell to kill his crew mates to save the forest. 

Both A and B are true, and exist side-by-side in the film. 

Lowell accomplishes a good...very badly, if that makes sense.  And he is not just a wanton murderer, as his expressions of guilty conscience reveal.  Rather, he is a fully-dimensional character who both commits a great right and a great wrong.  He is a flawed, fallible human being.

Life is often this complex, but movies rarely are.  Silent Running asks viewers to countenance a man who wants to save the last forest of Earth, and does, but pays too a high a personal and moral price to achieve that noble end.

Silent Running is truly remarkable, I submit, because it also reveals how Lowell unbalances his own ecosystem -- the Valley Forge -- by his rash decision-making; just as the choice to nuke the forest domes was rash.  Before long, he's the fellow driving through the empty ship in a buggy -- in a pointed reflection of the earlier scene of his crew mates doing so -- and he wreaks just as much havoc as the other men did.  Not by running over the grass and the woods of the forest, but by colliding with and seriously damaging one of the expressive little drones. 

Another drone, Luey, also pays the price for Lowell's actions.  Lowell steers the ship through the rings of Saturn, and the drone is lost...killed, when yanked from the ship's hull.  With Luey dead, only two drones remain to maintain the ship. 

The ecosystem of the Valley Forge is -- again -- unbalanced by Lowell's choices.  He then keeps programming and re-programming the surviving maintenance drones to better serve his personal needs.  To serve as his doctors (for an impromptu surgery), to play games with him, to garden for him. 

This is a metaphor for man's treatment of nature: it must service us and adapt to us, even as our needs change and evolve.  Lowell is thus no better and no less capricious than the men down on Earth who were begging God for forgiveness one day and then nuking the last forests the next.

I've often discussed Silent Running with people who wonder what the last half of the film, involving the drones, really has to do with the first half of the film, about Lowell's decision to save the forest.  The answer is plain and straightforward: the last acts of the film reveal Lowell to be as  mercurial and controlling of his available resources (including the drones, ostensibly life-forms) as the people of the Earth were.  But in at least one instance, he certainly committed a "good" by saving the forest.

I thus submit the film is morally complex, rather than simple-minded or facile, as many reviews have argued.  Silent Running is not anti-technology either, because in the end, it is a man-made drone tending the forest, inside a man-made, technological shell. 

The forests would have died long ago without man's technology.  In some senses, that's the example of harmony man should and could emulate: building and re-building eco-systems in balance.   From its first evocative shot of nature in extreme-close-up harmony, Silent Running,concerns the way that man balances or unbalances his environs, whether on Earth or aboard the Valley Forge.  That's the takeaway message.

Written by Steve Bochco, Michael Cimino and Deric Washburn, Silent Running is one of those early-1970s, pre-Star Wars treasures that, unencumbered by blockbuster expectations, moves freely and imaginatively to tell its unique story in its own individual way. 

The movie is basically a one-man show, with Dern interacting, sometimes wildly, with the drones and even the forest.  Silent Running boasts its own sometimes-mellow, sometimes-hysterical rhythm too, a rhythm augmented by Joan Baez's musical performances of ""Rejoice in the Sun" and "Silent Running." 

I can't recall many times that folk music has accompanied grand outer space vistas (outside of the ironic use of "Benson, Arizona" in Dark Star [1975]), but the musical compositions and lyrics here strike just the right note of individual personality, sadness and wistfulness.  The songs ably support the film's episodic, elegiac, and eccentric story-telling style and structure.

Given Trumball's incredible talent and experience on 2001: A Space Odyssey, it probably goes without saying that the special effects sequences in Silent Running are extraordinary.  This effects work brilliantly holds up today, and the Saturn's ring sequence remains a highlight of the film.  Perhaps most importantly, the exterior views of the film's central location, Valley Forge, remain totally convincing, and totally realistic.  These sequences were later used -- over five years later -- in Battlestar Galactica.

In the end, Silent Running, I think, concerns man's lack of wisdom controlling the world and creatures around him.  That stance applies equally to nature and technology, given the film's narrative details.  And the movie even ends on a poetic apex, one not easily forgotten.  Freeman Lowell -- just minutes before committing suicide -- describes a youthful experience placing a note inside a bottle and tossing it into the ocean; wondering if anyone will ever find it and read the note.

As the film makes plain, Lowell has done the same thing on Valley Forge, but on a much grander scale.  He has sent a forest in a bottle of sorts, across the void of space...hoping someone will find it, and treasure it. 

It's up to future man -- hopefully on a better, more balanced track -- to find that lonely, lost bottle and remember the gift he has foolishly rejected and actively sought to destroy  The emotional folk songs sung by Baez speak of "sorrow running deep" at the loss of a great treasure, and the film concludes on the lonely image of a solitary drone -- with watering can -- tending to mankind's forsaken wards.  It is an image that suggests environment and technology going on  and on, but without man.

So Silent Running is a film about a world of "no more beauty," and "no more imagination,"  in which "nobody cares" about what God or Mother Nature gave us to care for.  But the film leaves open the possibility of hope that it won't always be that way.

Or, as Freeman Lowell says, "Don't you think it's time that someone should have a dream again?"

Thursday, March 24, 2011

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: Babylon A.D. (2008)

Babylon A.D. (2008), based on a cyberpunk novel by Maurice Dantec, is one of those sci-fi movies that you stick with -- even though you have reservations -- in hopes that all the intriguing elements are going to somehow come together in the end.

Alas, in this case, the film's admittedly interesting ingredients don't ever truly cohere. As a result, you might leave a screening feeling disappointed, sensing some missed opportunities. 

Or to put it another way, Babylon A.D. is a fascinating story only half-told; one inadequately rendered in any significant human dimension.

Babylon A.D. is set in a near future world of dystopian proportions, and stars Vin Diesel as a world-weary mercenary named Toorop.  He's recruited by another mercenary, Gorsky (Gerard Depardieu) to smuggle a Noelite nun, Sister Rebekha (Michelle Yeoh) and an unusually empathetic young woman, Aurora (Melanie Theirry) across East Europe and into New York City. 

He's got six days to do it.

Toorop is a guy who doesn't ask many questions, especially when he is a promised a passport back into his beloved homeland, the United States, as reward for the successful delivery of Aurora to the CEO of the Church of Neolites (Charlotte Rampling). 

But along the  action-packed cross-continental journey (by train, by sub, by jet-ski, and by plane), the smuggler sees things that make him wonder about Aurora's true nature.  She has the power to powerfully empathize with other life, including cloned animals, and boasts an instinct for both healing and understanding the wounded.

Is Aurora carrying a virus that could wipe out an entire metropolis?  Or is she actually the next step in human evolution?  In short, Toorop isn't certain if Aurora is savior or destroyer of man.  In the end, he finally gets his answer, thanks to a clandestine meeting with Aurora's "father."

Babylon A.D. follows the cyberpunk playbook pretty faithfully.  The film depicts a future society, post-2017, of "mega corporations."  Here, even Organized Religion is Big Business, and the Noelite leaders regularly check to see if their stock options are "sky high" or falling. 

More than that, these religious business-people believe that their professional trade is "miracles" and that people such as Aurora can be trademarked.    Religion in this world is about selling people something they desperately want, spirituality, and about getting rich.

The impressive look of New York City -- a step below Blade Runner (1982) perhaps -- affirms the importance of corporations in this near future milieu.  Skyscraper exteriors are multi-story advertisements and commercials.  Corporate logos appear on every surface imaginable, even on the sides of planes and city taxis.  Clearly, big business is the way of the future, if we are to believe Babylon A.D.'s vision.

But Babylon A.D. is also a cyberpunk vision because it ponders a dystopian future in which high technology does not raise all ships, so-to-speak.  The early portions of the film highlight life outside of the rich United States, in Serbia and Russia, respectively, and these are places of degrading infrastructure, miserable housing, failed technology, and populaces living in abject poverty.  The human beings dwelling in these countries seem to live in spaces that aren't really designed (or safe) for people. 

In accordance with this idea, twice in the film Toorop is forced to contend with items that don't work properly: a hand-gun and lighter, in particular.  The overall impression is thus of a used-up world, squeezing the last drops of viability out of late twentieth-century technology and wealth.

But it is the character of Aurora who points the film most clearly in the direction of cyberpunk literature.  She is the daughter of both biology and technology, anticipating a new epoch in which man and machine are mated.  Some futurists refer to this new age as "Singularity," and the movie gets much mileage out of the idea that machines are now developing faster than the human race is.  Aurora, we soon learn, is pregnant: a "vessel" for the next step in our very evolution.

Cyberpunk has much in common with film noir, too, so you won't be surprised to learn that the film opens with a laconic voice-over narration from Diesel (as Toorop), debating the future.  "Save the planet?  What for?"  He asks, sounding a lot like Riddick.  

Toorop then contrasts that line of dialogue with his own example of "bumper sticker philosophy" as he calls it: "Life's a bitch and then you die."  

Toorop himself is pretty clearly a noir hero: an outsider living on the margins of society, trying to stay uninvolved and yet secretly hoping for a reason to become involved again; to reignite his connection to the human race.  He finds that connection, surprisingly, in a revival of his spirituality.  Certainly, Babylon A.D. speaks a lot in the language of faith: Aurora's journey across the globe takes six days, there's a human populace "starving for miracles" and, yes, there's also the idea of immaculate conception.

As I wrote above, all of these elements are authentically intriguing and worth noting. Yet Matthew Kassovitz's film remains incoherent; as though it has been edited with a blunt hatchet.  We literally leap from set-piece to set-piece without rhyme or reason.  We don't always understand, exactly, where the characters are and what they're doing in any particular place.   For instance, Toorop, Rebekha and Aurora find themselves running on a gigantic ice field with other Russian refugees at the start of one scene, and the moment leads to a bloodbath at a parked submarine.  Yet we don't know how anyone got there or what's going on.  Instead, the scene plays as if someone blew a whistle, and all the actors started simultaneously running a race.

In truth, the film doesn't always seem certain which forces are pursuing Aurora, and for what reason.  Several apparent thugs follow Toorop through a colorful, atmospheric bazaar and ensuing terrorist attack at a train station, and thus seem to be our bad guys.  They are involved in an extensive fight sequence, and yet they have no reason to approach Toorop with hostility given what we later in the film learn about their allegiances.

And the action scenes -- such as a drone attack on two jet-skis -- feature impressive special effects but not the right tone.  They play as unrealistically heroic or comic-bookish in what is otherwise supposed to be a grim, realistic world.  

But the most significant problem is that Babylon A.D. fails on a human, emotional level.  The story of Aurora -- as a messiah and Mary Figure -- is one that should be beautiful and inspiring, yet it isn't.  Aurora is too remote a figure to sympathize with, and we don't understand her motives for most of  the adventure. 

Toorop's final revelation (about saving the planet again, one life at a time) feels more than a little facile and easy because the audience never truly feels or experiences the connection between this mercenary and Aurora.  We know it's there and we want to feel it, but the movie lurches mechanically from plot point to plot point instead of adequately developing the characters' relationships. 

Babylon A.D. is supposed to be a story about the dawn of a great new age for the human race, and the rebirth of one man's faith, but the film's closing line, "Ain't that a bitch?" hardly feels like an appropriate or worthy apotheosis given the circumstances. 

Because this cyberpunk film features a future world that already seems very familiar to us (from the likes of Blade Runner and Johnny Mnemonic, for instance), the only way Babylon A.D. could have differentiated itself  from the cyberpunk pack would have been in the handling of the unconventional relationship between Toorop and Aurora.  This is where the filmmakers should have focused; on the emotional content of Aurora's journey; not the spectacle and danger of the actual trip.

So instead of being a movie about the wondrous joining of man to machine, Babylon A.D. feels like a movie made by a machine instead; one programmed to know and regurgitate every action cliche in the book. 

Ain't that a bitch?

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Tom McLoughlin Interview at The Modest Proposal

Joseph Maddrey, my producer on The House Between (2007 - 2009) and the writer/producer of Nightmares in Red, White and Blue (2009) has prepared and conducted a book-length interview with director Tom McLoughlin, the talent behind such classic eighties horror films as One Dark Night (1983) and Jason Lives: Friday the 13th Part VI  (1986). 

During his career, McLoughlin has done everything from playing a robot (Captain S.T.A.R. in The Black Hole [1979]) to adapting a Stephen King story to film.

Maddrey's project is currently being excerpted at The Modest Proposal, here, and I wanted to point out the article to readers of this blog who enjoy the horror genre.

Here's a snippet from "Art Imitates Life... and Death: A Conversation with Tom McLoughlin:"

In 1990, you adapted Stephen King's short story "Sometimes They Come Back" to the screen. Are you a Stephen King fan?

I'm a huge Stephen King fan. Obviously he saw the same Twilight Zones we all saw, the same Outer Limits, the same Corman movies—he loved that stuff—and because of his writing talent he was able to take those basic ideas and stories and fill them with the thoughts of his characters. That's his brilliance. He shows us our dreams and our nightmares in [his characters'] thoughts, which allows his readers to have a personal relationship with the stories.

In my opinion, most of the Stephen King movies don't work. You can't get that same experience [of the characters' thoughts], so the filmmakers usually substitute something else. The movies that really succeeded were the ones that had stronger characters—Carrie, The Dead Zone, The Stand. But a lot of the other ones didn't quite get there for me, because you're trying to condense something that's so rich in the books into 90 minutes of screen time. You can sell a title and you can sell the idea, but it's got to be fleshed out differently.

I think that's what Sometimes They Come Back suffered from—lit wasn't fleshed out properly. The writers had to expand a short story, so they put a lot of "the best of Stephen King" moments into it. Like the evil car [from Christine]... a lot of things like that were borrowed from other works to flesh out the story.

I have to admit that when I watched Sometimes They Come Back, I was confused about the nature of the monsters. Are they ghosts or are they the living dead? Do they exist in the flesh or only in the main character's imagination? What are the rules?

When Dino DeLaurentiis offered the project to me, I remember saying to him, "This really doesn't work." The writers had moved on because they were not going to do another rewrite without being paid a fortune, so Dino brought in Tim Kring, the future creator of Heroes. Tim is a great guy and very smart, and we saw eye to eye right away. But whenever you deal with Dino, there are a lot of stipulations—"don't lose this, don't lose that, because I like that..." So we were trying to Frankenstein things together...

Please check out the rest of Maddrey's interview at The Modest Proposal for a very involving and informative read.

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."

Back from Space:2011 at Hampden-Sydney College

Well, we just pulled up to the old Muir homestead here in North Carolina, after a long weekend in Virginia and a morning on the highway.

But yesterday, I spent a delightful day at the gorgeous Hampden-Sydney College campus, meeting with faculty and students, guest-teaching a few classes, and then presenting my afternoon lecture, Space: 2011 - American Culture and the Final Frontier.

I started the day by sitting in on an Honors Seminar about Star Trek, and discussing my status as a kind of "lapsed Trekker." 

We spoke about Star Trek as a possible "faith," and I described the context in which I discovered Star Trek as a kid, back in the 1970s.     The teachers in this seminar were absolutely amazing, and I only wish I had been able to attend a seminar like this as an undergraduate twenty years ago. 

And yes, I'm that old.

Following the Trek seminar, I attended a film studies course, and was thrilled to discuss with the students the four Alien films, and the various decades in which they first appeared.  This was another really terrific class, headed by an extraordinary teacher with deep knowledge about film and film history.  I'm only sorry I couldn't be present to listen in on the upcoming lecture on No Country for Old Men.
Then, I headed into a general Astronomy class in the Gilmer Building and discussed with the students the scientific errors featured in some famous science fiction movies and television programs, and debated the line between scientific accuracy and imagination/artistic license. 

In this talk, I opened with the Han Solo "parsec" line from Star Wars, and then introduced Isaac Asimov's three criteria for errors in science fiction productions (from his editorial, "Is Space:1999 More Fi Than Sci?"): errors of dramatic necessity, errors out of commercial consideration, and errors out of ignorance.  We talked about Space: 1999, Star Trek, Battle LA, and much more.  Again, I enjoyed getting to spend time with this particular professor, who is a brilliant guy and a great gentleman to boot.

At about noon, I sat in on a two-hour lunch with another dedicated and stimulating group of students and professors.  We talked everything from philosophy in science fiction and Robert Heinlein to Land of the Lost, to the role of women in Star Trek: The Next Generation. 

Then, come the end of the day, at 4:30 pm, I presented my public lecture about American culture and outer space TV series.  I opened with a quote from Solaris (1972) about humans not really wishing to see something alien in space, but instead  hoping to countenance "mirrors." 

In other words, films and television shows are mirrors on our times, our fears, our hopes and our potential. 

Then we went decade-by-decade, discussing the historical and cultural contexts of Star Trek, Space:1999, Battlestar Galactica, V, Star Trek: The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, Farscape, Battlestar Galactica (remake) and V (remake). 

There was some great back and forth in the discussion, with audience members asking terrific questions about the artistry of video games, the different nature of American versus British sci-fi TV, and even a query about how "on the nose" recent productions like BSG and V seemed in comparison to the more allegorical, subtler shows of yesteryear.

To cap off the day, Kathryn, Joel and I were treated to a wonderful dinner with two amazing professors who I am very proud to call friends, where the discussion ranged from Star Trek and Space:1999 to Red Dwarf, The Starlost and even Buck Rogers.

So I enjoyed my day at Hampden-Sydney College tremendously, and was highly impressed by the caliber and intensity of the students (some of whom were tackling a philosophy paper related to identity and the Farscape episode "Eat Me"), as well as the kindness, generosity and expertise of the teaching faculty.

All in all, it was a pretty spectacular day, and one I won't soon forget.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Sci-Fi Wisdom of the Week

"Don't give me any of that intelligent life crap, just give me something I can blow up."

- Dark Star (1974)