Friday, June 03, 2011

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: On the Beach (1959)

"Who would ever have believed that human beings would be stupid enough to blow themselves off the face of the Earth?"

- On the Beach

Stanley Kramer's On the Beach (1959) is a film about humankind learning to accept, with some measure of grace, the end of everything. 

In this grim adaptation of Nevil Shute's 1957 novel about nuclear war and aftermath, radioactive dust is systematically ending all human life on Earth.  There are no places to hide, no higher forces to appeal to, and no do-overs.  This is a world without hope, but in the final analysis, one not without some measure of dignity. 

That's cold comfort, however, given what mankind stands to lose.

And that's really what On the Beach proves such a wonderful reminder of: all those wondrous things about living on this beautiful green planet. Like being a father and a husband.  Like falling in love.  Choosing to live how you wish to live, and with whom.  Getting drunk, even.  All these human activities shall disappear forever, as the last survivors of humankind succumb to an atmosphere that he himself has poisoned. 

As we see at point-blank range, and frequently in intense, emotional close-ups, the survivors wish for more time.  They wish for a future.  They desire a happy ending.  They just want hope. But the movie's most effective and impressive point -- pushed quietly if deftly -- is that all those wishes died when the bombs fell.  The time for good wishes would have been before man set about to annihilate his brothers. 

One difficult-to-accept aspect of this, for the survivors, is that they didn't launch the war.  They didn't press the red button.  But they will die -- the human race itself, will die -- because someone else did.  In a way, On the Beach concerns the ultimate form of tyranny: the recognition of the fact that a few old men, in seats of power around the world, could kill billions in an instant because of a simple difference in ideological beliefs.   Individual liberty is nothing but a convenient illusion so long as nuclear weapons exist, because such weapons can destroy not just those deemed responsible for crimes, but whole populations; innocent and guilty alike.

Produced more than fifty years ago, On the Beach remains incredibly haunting today, almost paralyzing even, in its unblinking intensity.  It's a serious, artfully-crafted piece of work, and it suggests something very important, as New York Times critic Bosley Crowther observed: "life is a beautiful treasure and man should do all he can to save it from annihilation, while there is still time." 

Or, as the stirring, tragic final image of the film reminds those of us, explicitly, in the audience: "there is still time, brother."  Time enough for man to avoid the mistakes we see played out so dramatically in this impressive and deeply sad post-apocalyptic effort. 

We've successfully heeded that message for half-a-century since On the Beach, and for all our sakes, I hope we continue to do so.  But On the Beach should be required viewing for every politician who takes an oath of office, the globe around, just to be certain.

There isn't time. No time to love... nothing to remember... nothing worth remembering.

Set in the year 1964, some time after a worldwide nuclear war, On the Beach tells the tale of the U.S. submarine Sawfish (Scorpion in the novel), as it arrives in Melbourne, Australia. 

Captained by Dwight Lionel Towers (Gregory Peck), the Sawfish and her crew have escaped the radioactive dust in the atmosphere, but are aware that deadly fall-out will strike Australia in a matter of months if not weeks, killing all the people left alive.

A young Australian lieutenant, Peter Holmes (Anthony Perkins) is assigned to the Sawfish as a liaison officer, along with a guilt-ridden scientist, Julian Fletcher (Fred Astaire).  They join Captain Towers as he prepares for a new mission.  Specifically, he is to travel north to determine if "the Jorgensen Effect" is fact or merely (hopeful...) theory. 

The scientific hypothesis proposes that the terminal levels of radiation may be dissipating because of wintry weather patterns...a fact which could provide a sliver hope for the humans still alive in the southern hemisphere and counting down to death. 

Another mystery is also to be solved. A cryptic message in Morse Code is originating in San Diego (Seattle in the book) and the Australian authorities want to solve the mystery.  How could someone have survived in the mainland U.S.A. after the war?

Before the Sawfish sets sail on its mission of last hope, On the Beach focuses a great deal on the personal lives of the dramatis personae.  Peter is a new father, and married to an impressionable young woman, Mary (Donna Anderson).  When Peter learns that he could be away -- at sea -- when the fall-out hits Australia, he solicits suicide pills for his wife and infant daughter, Jenny, a fact which greatly disturbs Mary.

Meanwhile, Captain Towers, who has lost a wife and two children in the war, begins to feel increasingly attracted to Moira Davidson (Ava Gardner), a single woman and an alcoholic. 

As much as Towers appreciates Moira's companionship, he can't let go of the family he lost in America, and always speaks of it in the present and future tense.  At one point, he mistakenly calls Moira "Sharon," after his wife. Oddly, Moira is not bothered by this slip-of-the-tongue.  To be treated like a "wife," she suggests, is better than how she has often treated herself, before the war.

In time, Sawfish's mission proves a double failure.  Julian determines that radiation readings are strong and growing stronger, meaning that the fall-out will still strike Australia in weeks.  And the cryptic message from San Diego is a cruel joke: a window-shade tugging on a fallen coke bottle, over the telegraph equipment. The sad truth is that no one is left alive in the United States.  Still, one desperate officer jumps ship to die in his home-town.

As On the Beach reaches its solemn, inescapable conclusion, all the film's main characters must determine how they wish to face their imminent demise.  Peter, Mary and Jenny remain a family to the end, before taking the suicide pills.  Though increasingly in love with Moira, Dwight decides to return to America with his ship and they can die at home.  And old Julian, who has re-fitted a Ferrari and won the Grand Prix, chooses his own way of leaving this Earth as well: carbon monoxide poisoning. 

The final shots of the film provide us glimpses of an eerily empty Melbourne -- rendered eternally silent and lonely -- by the end of all human life on the planet.

We're all doomed, you know. The whole, silly, drunken, pathetic lot of us. Doomed by the air we're about to breathe.

The most obvious quality to admire in On the Beach is its resolute lack of Hollywood happy ending bullshit.  

The audience is told at the beginning of the film that poisonous radiation will kill everyone in Australia in a matter of weeks...and that's precisely what happens.

There's no third act miracle here, no sign from the Divine that man is blessed and forgiven for his trespasses.  The movie holds out hope for the characters (in the form of the Morse Code message from America, and the possibility of the Jorgensen Effect) but then methodically squashes those hopes.  

Kramer diagrams this disappointment -- this death of hope -- largely by showcasing shattered human faces.  There's one stunning sequence set on the submarine, in which Captain Towers surveys the dead west coast of America by periscope.  He doesn't say a word after countenancing the emptiness of San Francisco, he just steps down from the periscope, moved beyond words.  Another officer follows.  Then another.  Their expressions speak volumes about what they've seen...and how it makes them feel.

In exploring this world without hope, On the Beach asks the viewer to contemplate what it means to live when there is no such thing as a long term future.  It's a world in which your young children won't get the chance to grow up.  A world in which you won't still be alive for the trout season in a few months.  A world in which romantic relationships have no time to mature or develop.  What becomes of human interaction in such a world?  What, finally, becomes important when there is no time left?

On the Beach has been criticized, from time to time, because all the characters in the film evidence such remarkable restraint and dignity in facing the end of Life As We Know It.  But it's important to remember that this isn't an out-of-control zombie apocalypse.  Here, the infrastructure of Melbourne is intact and operating.  There are shortages of gas, but no shortages of food, or even alcohol, as the movie points out.  The people here aren't overtly endangered by an "enemy" in their midst, nor by a break down of all civilization.  They are simply and horribly faced with the specter of imminent death, blowing in the wind, towards them.  In this environment, they can steal food, rob banks, and kill each other, but those activities wouldn't change a lick the inevitability of their dilemma.  They are going to die now no matter what.  Survival is literally not an option, even if they fight tooth and nail (and break the law) for it. 

Accordingly, the film depicts human beings as nobly grappling with the inevitable.  The characters must each answer the question: what is important to you, today?  If you are to take your last breath in just hours, where do you want to draw that breath, and with whom?  Julian decides to race in the Grand Prix, a fiery race that brings death just a few weeks earlier to some of the less fortunate racers.  Peter and Mary cuddle in bed, before the end, discussing the time they first met "on the beach," and what they felt as they fell in love.  Dwight decides that he belongs at home, with his men, if he can make it back to U.S. waters.  And on and on it goes, right down the line, as each human being makes a final decision. 

How these men and women decide to die is as important, to quote The Wrath of Khan, as how they decided to live.

As you may surmise, On the Beach is not a happy film.  But it is a worthwhile one, and one beautifully-visualized, thanks to Stanley Kramer's direction. 

Early scenes in the film visually reflect Towers' uncertainty about his new social situation and status in Melbourne (a widower? single?), with askew, cockeyed angles, for example.  And Kramer's insistence on dramatic, extreme close-ups renders the story far more intimate than many cinematic "end of the world" offerings.  This film features characters who, while not necessarily flamboyant or colorful, you won't ever forget. They aren't heroes or villains, or larger-than-life in any way.  They are, quite appropriately, surrogates for us.  Just people who, more than anything, would like to live. We see ourselves in their faces, in their tears.

In particular, Gregory Peck delivers an absolutely heart-breaking monologue mid-way through the film, about the death of his family (and also about the death of the future).  He speaks the affecting words in a halting, uncertain, but driving fashion, as if Dwight is forcing himself to get through it.  It rings abundantly true: an admission both of weakness and strength, of a love that can't just go away, even in the face of death. 

Perkins and Anderson are deeply affecting throughout as well, but especially in their final moments of life, described above.  I can't imagine the horror that Peter faces here: knowing that he must administer suicide pills to his child and wife, and then -- finally -- join them.   Talk about a decision you can't imagine making...
If On the Beach boasts any weaknesses, they are mostly a result of the inability to create convincing post-nuclear vistas.  In the novel, for instance, the Golden Gate Bridge had collapsed, if memory serves.  In the film, the bridge is still standing, and San Francisco -- though empty -- looks whole. 

In reality, the city should be destroyed, and there should be some sign of corpses in the streets.  In the film, one character states that people separate from other people, from groups, when they go to die.  The observation may be accurate, but in the event of a catastrophic and sudden attack like this, it's likely that some people wouldn't make it to sanctuary, or would die in public places, I submit.  On the Beach makes it seem as if all our architecture would remain standing in the event of all-out global war, and it's simply not very believable.  Effective, yes, in the sense that we can reflect upon how desolate our cities look like without their human builders, but not necessarily believable.

There have been some critics who also complain that On the Beach is over-long and talky, but don't you heed them.  This is a literate, complicated film about a handful of likable, "average" people facing an end they can't prevent or stop.  It's not about bombs dropping, or battles being waged.  It's about grappling -- on a personal level -- with the knowledge that your own kind has destroyed the world and that you have very little time left to set your affairs straight.

Is it wishful thinking that mankind -- after blowing the planet up -- would behave with dignity on his deathbed? 

Perhaps, but to quote Fred Astaire in this film, "I'm not against wishful thinking. Not now."

Wednesday, June 01, 2011

Collectible of the Week: Star Wars Return of the Jedi CAP-2 Captivator (Kenner; 1983)

This is the Return of the Jedi (1983) edition of the CAP-2 Captivator by Kenner, a Star Wars "mini-rig" that was not featured in the Original Trilogy. 

You'd think that with all the amazing ship and vehicle designs featured in the Lucasfilm movies, Kenner would not have had to resort to coming up with new toy designs, but here was CAP-2, along with INT-4 (which looked like a mini AT-ST...), the MTV-7 (I want my MTV...), the MLC-3, and PDT-8. 

All these mini-rigs accommodated the small Kenner action figures so that you "could create your own Star Wars Adventures."

I always felt that CAP-2 Captivator was actually the coolest (and perhaps most outlandish...) of the Star Wars mini-rigs collection.  It features "suction cup feet" so you can "hide CAP-2 in secret places." 

I don't remember that as a design feature on other vehicles of the Evil Galactic Empire, but it's fun to make this thing climb walls, anyway. 

Also, the CAP-2 features rear-mounted, silver-painted teeth that can grip action figures.  This way, you can "capture Rebel prisoners and take them to Darth Vader."  Additionally, the cockpit opens and holds one action figure. 

On all the art for this edition of the CAP-2, bounty hunter Bossk is driving the CAP-2.  He's one mean customer, so watch out if the CAP-2 is headed in your means business!

Sci-Fi Wisdom of the Week

"One cannot behold the face of the gorgon and live!"

- Forbidden Planet (1956)

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Sci-Tech # 3: Alpha Moonbase Edition

"Space: 1999" had a style, a feel, a look of its own." - Martin Landau (Lee Goldberg. Starlog: "Martin Landau Space-Age Hero." July 1986, page 45).

"...Space:1999 is like Star Trek shot full of methedrine.  It is the most flashy, gorgeous sci-fi trip ever to appear on TV.  Watching it each week is very close to being under the influence of a consciousness altering drug. - Benjamin Stein. The Wall Street Journal: "Sailing Along on a Moon-Base Way."

Though TV reviewers were often quick to criticize the storylines on Gerry and Sylvia Anderson's Space: 1999, most nonetheless agreed that the visualizations of this classic series were unimpeachable. 

For example, TV/Radio columnist Charlie Hanna termed the sci-fi program a "visual feast," and The New York Times critic John J. O'Connor noted that the "visual lavishness is apparent from the dazzling array of electronic gadgets and hardware to the "moon city" costumes designed by Rudi Gerneich."

In the same vein, Newsweek observed that "Not since Stanley Kubrick's '2001' have sci-fi freaks had the chance to trip out on so much surrealistic gimmickry."

I can add my own testimony to this effusive praise.  When I initially watched Space:1999 back in 1975, I was certain that this was indeed what the future would look like.  It just seemed right and appropriate that by the year 1999 we'd all be able to communicate across mini-tv screens thanks to devices such as the useful commlock.  And, of course, furniture and interior decoration would be immaculate, minimalist, and stream-lined by the eve of the 21st century, right?

Okay.  It didn't quite turn out that way, but you can't convince me that it shouldn't have turned out that way.

So for today, and my third installment of Sci-Tech, I want to present some of my favorite imagery of Moonbase Alpha from Space:1999.  As you may recall from my previous entries on Star Trek's "The Cage" and Land of the Lost's Altrusia, the mission of these infrequent Sci-Tech posts is to gaze at the technology/production design/effects work of popular cult-tv series.

The sets  for Space: 1999 were created by production designer Keith Wilson, and the exterior miniatures by special effects director Brian Johnson.   In both cases, these gentlemen did extraordinary work.  In short, they accomplished three critical things: 

First, they created believable technology with one foot in the future and one in the present.  In Space:1999, for instance, you'll see control rooms, nuclear generating plants, and high-tech medical units, but at the same time, you can note characters reading books, adjusting thermostats in their crew quarters, and even tanning themselves in a solarium ("Force of Life.") 

In practice, this is quite an extraordinary combination.  Despite the clean, minimal lines of Moonbase Alpha construction, crew quarters boast a sense of individuality and recognizable humanity ("Matter of Life and Death."), Areas of heavy use such as laboratories, as seen in "Breakaway" and "Voyager's Return," are cluttered and over-crowded.  In other words -- despite the immaculate white conception of Moonbase Alpha -- man will be man, even in the future.  He will use the "space" on the Moon in just the way he does here on Earth; and that way isn't always clean and austere...or even neat.  Victor Bergman's laboratory is another example of this design approach.

Secondly, the designers of Space:1999 didn't skimp on a sense of scope, meaning that the vistas and views of Moonbase Alpha appeared more legitimately cinematic and impressive than virtually any other sci-fi series sets in history up to 1978 including Star Trek, wherein the Enterprise bridge famously did not include a ceiling.  

The control center of Moonbase Alpha, Main Mission, is a perfect example of this aesthetic.  It is a vast, two-story affair replete with a ledge and observation area, as well as a kind of mission control pit where analysts toil on a regular basis.  Attached to Main Mission -- with a wall as a huge sliding door -- is the Commander's office.  For privacy, Commander Koenig can shut the door to Main Mission.  In cases of emergency, he can open the door, and his desk overlooks the Big Screen and his workers.    What must be noted about this is that both Main Mission and the Commander's office are vast.   The two (joined) sets present the appearance of a real life, sprawling complex.

Scope is sometimes achieved other ways on the series as well.  Miniatures do the trick to convey passage on the useful Travel Tube, and in rare instances, Space:1999 joins live-action footage with rear-projection footage of Eagles and their hangar bay.  Again, there's a powerful aura of a fully-operational Moonbase here.

Third, and equally important, the amazing technology and design of Alpha and the Eagles were merely the starting point of this adventure.  Week after week, our impressive views of Earth's high-tech turn-of-the-century moonbase were one-upped, essentially, by mind-blowing alien landscapes and worlds,  as featured in episodes such as "Guardian of Piri," "Missing Link," "War Games," "The Last Enemy" and so on. 

After many of those trippy adventures, the high-tech environs of Moonbase Alpha felt not like a dazzling vision of a future age, but rather like "home," even fostering a sense of security. By creating alien worlds of such blazing distinction and originality, the makers of Space:1999 actually made their "future" Earth technology seem all the more believable (and desirable).

It would be impossible to write this post without commenting just a little on the Eagle, one of the most beloved spaceship designs of cult-televisions.  These craft are perfectly in keeping with Moonbase Alpha: as remarkable embodiments of "near future" technology.    No flying saucers or stream-lined nacelles in this world.  Rather, the utilitarian Eagles consist of interconnected modules, retro-rockets, landing pads and nose-cones.  All these facets are recognizable as dramatic extrapolations from the then-current Apollo program.  Again, Space:1999 had one foot in the future, and one in the present.
This is how Brian Johnson described the creation of the Eagles, in an interview with me almost a decade ago (on the advent of Space:1999's release on DVD):

"I was in my "modular" design mode in those days. I reasoned that it made sense to make Pods that were interchangeable. The command pod could serve as a lifeboat, Eagles could be "chained" together, etc...My basic ideas came from looking at dragonflies and insects of all sorts. I copied nature to some degree - I think it made the Eagle believable."

Believability, scope, and then imagination. These are the sturdy foundations of Space:1999's set and model designs.   Below is a brief gallery showcasing Moonbase Alpha as it appeared in Year One.  Finally, I should add that these sets, models and designs look even more remarkable on Blu Ray.
Looking up to the Commander's office.

Gazing at Main Mission's "Big Screen."

Minimalism meets clutter: a fully functioning machine laboratory.

A Room with a view.  Note the globe of Earth cast in gray and black to match the rest of the set.

Clock, communicator and more: The comm-post.

Against a backdrop of stars: a repair-man with a tool kit.

Remote control flying an Eagle.

The travel tube

A nuclear power plant of the future.

The Solarium

Behind our heroes, a hanger bay filled with Eagles.

An Eagle spacecraft, with special module (from "Breakaway.")

Moonbase Alpha

Monday, May 30, 2011

The Cult-TV Faces of: Suspended Animation

Identified by Brian: The Twilight Zone: "The Rip-Van Winkle Caper"

Identified by Brian:  The Twilight Zone: "The Long Morrow"

Identified by Brian: Lost in Space: "The Reluctant Stowaway"

Identified by Brian: Star Trek: "Space Seed"

Identified by Linda: The Starlost: "Lazarus in the Mist."

Identified by Brian: Doctor Who: "The Ark in Space"

Identified by Brian: Space:1999 "Earthbound"

Identified by Brian: Space:1999 "The Exiles"

Identified by Brian: Logan's Run (The Series): "Crypt"

Identified by Brian: Space Academy "Countdown"

Identified by Will: Battlestar Galactica: "Greetings from Earth."

Identified by HPrice: Blake's 7: "Time Squad"

Identified by Brian: Buck Rogers in the 25th Century ("Pilot")

Identified by Brian: Star Trek: The Next Generation: "The Neutral Zone"

Identified by Will: Earth 2: "Pilot"

Identified by Brian: Star Trek Voyager: "The 37s"

Identified by Brian: Farscape "Season of Death"

Not Identified: The Outer Limits (New Series): "Stasis"

Identified by Brian: Futurama ("Pilot")