Friday, October 14, 2011


"Greetings, my friends! You are interested in the unknown. The mysterious. The unexplainable. That is why you are here. And now, for the first time, we are bringing you the full story of what happened. We are giving you all the evidence based only on the secret testimony of the miserable souls who survived this terrifying ordeal. The incidents, places. My friends, we cannot keep this a secret any longer. Can your heart stand the shocking facts of the true story of Edward D. Wood Jr.?"

-- Criswell (Jeffrey Jones) narrates the opening of Tim Burton's Ed Wood (1994)

It would have been abundantly easy to make the bio-pic Ed Wood (1994) a mean-spirited film about the so-called "worst director of all time."  It would have been safe -- and it would have gone mostly unquestioned -- if director Tim Burton had created a film version of Wood's life that aped the mocking tone of books such as the Medveds' popular Golden Turkey Awards

But Burton does not select that easy, familiar route here. 

Instead of crafting a film about someone who -- by accepted and widely-held standards -- made incredibly "bad" movies, Burton creates a film about someone who was inspired by and actually in love with the movie-making process. 

In other words, Tim Burton's Ed Wood is not about those characteristics and talents that separated Ed Wood from Orson Welles.  It's about the qualities those legendary cinema talents have in common. 

And that simple conceit makes Ed Wood not merely a heartfelt, emotional story of artistic endurance, but, in some sense, an inspirational tale about overcoming obstacles (including the entrenched obstacles of Tinsel Town...) and the primacy of pursuing one's own vision. 

Naturally, this film is not strictly "true," since Ed Wood never really met Orson Welles, and since details of Bela Lugosi's career and life have been altered to some degree for dramatic purposes.  And yet Ed Wood feels emotionally true because Burton sees in Wood an indomitable figure -- an eternal optimist -- who despite the mocking of the masses and the disinterest of  Hollywood power did precisely what he desired...and is remembered and even loved for it.

Like so many Tim Burton films, Ed Wood concerns a protagonist who is far afield from what society-at-large terms "the norm."   However, Wood's response to his own apparent "strangeness" is not isolation, resentment or even bitterness.  Instead, as the film reveals beautifully, Ed Wood creates a "bubble" of acceptance for those "hunted" and "despised" individuals who don't conform, either socially or sexually to society's rules or standards.   Importantly, Ed's world of film making is one entirely without harsh judgement...or judgement of any kind for that matter

In fact, Burton views that very absence of judgement as the critical key to an understanding of the film's lead character. 

Off-the-set, Ed judges no one's individual strangeness, and on set, he does not judge at all when an actor knocks over a cardboard tombstone, bumbles his lines of dialogue, or otherwise missteps during a take.   It is not in Ed's nature to pass judgement on others, according to Burton, only to enthusiastically support the world he and his friends now share.  The director thus paints a picture of a man who was more interested in the act of film making than, necessarily, the results of that process.

Filmed in crisp black-and-white, Ed Wood is a fairy tale about one man's triumph over a world that systematically shuns him.  Accordingly, the film is visually represented as a collision between cruel, harsh Tinsel Town and the individual fantasy worlds of Wood's unique imagination.  Burton does not shy away from harshness or ugliness in expressing this conjunction of spheres.  The needle tracks on Bela Lugosi's arm speak of a terrible world and a terrible personal surrender. 

And the ubiquitous white "Hollywood" sign looms over the film in a powerful way too: a constant shadow and explicit reminder  of the crushing "weight" of silver screen dreams.  And yet, contrarily, in some very lovely two-shots, Burton expresses well how there can be friendship and companionship  "outside" the normal world, if only one is willing to forgo "judgement."

In showcasing a special friendship -- the friendship of Bela Lugosi and Ed Wood -- Burton creates in Ed Wood "a tender, midnight-madness parable about a determined moviemaker."  And yet it's more than that colorful description too.  In some manner, Burton's film is actually about how to cope with the reality of Hollywood.  You can't change a monolith.  No, you must change how you see (and treat) the industry, and through that trajectory navigate your own path to an individual version of success. 

In the final analysis, that's the lesson of Ed Wood.  Be your own man; have your own vision...and stick to your goals tenaciously.  Despite Eddie's hardships in the film, Ed Wood is uplifting because Burton suggests the character is nothing less than indomitable.

"Ed, this isn't the real world. You've surrounded yourself with a bunch of weirdos."

Ed Wood tells the story of a young artist on hopeful but rocky ascent.  Although Ed (Johnny Depp) has assembled an entourage of colorful actors, including girlfriend Dolores (Sarah Jessica Parker) to support his work, he's bedeviled by bad reviews and a lack of interest by the public at large. 

When Wood's new play, Casual Company opens in L.A., it is met with disinterest and negativity, but Ed is able to see the silver lining around every cloud.  When a famous movie critic comments positively on the Army costumes that appear in the play, Ed trumpets his production's "realism."

Soon, Ed learns that Screen Classics is preparing a movie based on the sex change of Christine Jorgensen.  Because of his own fetish for angora and women's clothing, Ed pitches himself as director for the project.  At first he is rebuffed, but then, serendipitously, Ed meets Bela Lugosi (Martin Landau), the former screen Dracula who has not worked in years.  Ed returns to Screen Classics and pitches Bela as a participant in the sex change picture, and history is made.  Before long, Ed shoots Glen or Glenda, an autobiographical film about men who "feel comfortable" in women's clothes.

After Glen or Glenda bombs, Ed dives into his next project, Bride of the Atom (soon to be titled Bride of the Monster).  He casts wrestler Tor Johnson (George Steele) as the monstrous henchman Lobo, and Lugosi as a villainous mad scientist.  Loretta King (Juliet Landau) becomes his lead actress when she intimates (falsely...) that she has the money and inclination to support the production, a fact which alienates Dolores.  While they make Bride of the Atom, Bela and Ed deepen their friendship, and Ed learns that Bela is a morphine addict.  After the film is completed, Ed helps Bela check into rehab.

Following the disappointing reception of Bride of the Monster, Bela passes away, leaving a despondent Ed.  But with a small film reel consisting of footage of Bela that he shot before the actor passed away, Ed realizes he possesses "the acorn" of a great tree.  With funding secured from a fundamentalist Baptist church, Ed plans to resurrect Lugosi on screen one last time for his magnum opus: Plan 9 from Outer Space.  Committed to making a final film "for Bela," Wood pulls together his friends, including Bunny Breckinridge (Bill Murray), the great Criswell (Jeffrey Jones), Vampira (Lisa Marie) and Tor Johnson.

Finally, countenancing interference from the baptists on the set, Ed stands to lose everything until a fateful chance encounter with Orson Welles...

"Eddie is the only fella in town who doesn't judge people."

In Ed Wood, screenplay by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszweski, the audience meets a number of outsiders and misfits who discover a sense of belonging in the movie-making world that Wood creates. 

Primary among these characters is the great (if prideful and foul-mouthed...) Bela Lugosi, who has been shunned by Hollywood because of his drug addiction.  Lugosi lives in a tiny house, in near-poverty, and hopes to somehow turn everything around; to return to greatness.  

"Eddie, I'm obsolete," he tells Wood.  "I have nothing to live for."   He also notes that no one in Hollywood "gives two fucks for Bela."  This is the tragedy of Lugosi.  He has gone from being a movie star to less than zero, and this is a story we see played out again and again in Hollywood, across the decades.

By participating in Wood's films, Lugosi once more feels good about himself; that he is doing again, the very thing he loves. The dark side of this equation, which Ed Wood hints at but doesn't delve into, is the specter of exploitation.  Was Wood merely "using" Lugosi to get his films made? 

That question has been raised many times, but in terms of the film itself, it's clear that Wood is on the side of the angels, and that he cares deeply for Bela and Bela's well-being.  In fact, it is widely reported that Burton's mentor/student relationship with the late Vincent Price helped him to identify and understand the Wood/Lugosi friendship.  Those of us who have been fortunate enough to interact with "famous" personalities in the industry understand very well the nature of the film's central friendship.  A relationship that begins as hero worship becomes one, very shortly, in which we start to detect the foibles and flaws of a real human being.  Someone who is an icon becomes exposed as a "real" human being, and as time goes on, we see that this is exactly as it should be.  Out of that realization of common humanity comes a new, deeper form of friendship, one eminently more meaningful and "real" than celebrity worship.   Ed Wood captures this type of relationship beautifully, and in sometimes haunting terms.

Importantly, the Bela/ Wood  relationship is tinged with tragedy in Ed Wood from their first fateful meeting.  When Wood initially encounters the faded star of Dracula, he sees him in a store for a coffin. 

Therefore, the audience first sees Lugosi in repose, with his arms folded over his chest...apparently already dead. 

This particular composition recurs in the film at least two times: once when Lugosi is in rehab, and once, finally, when he has passed away.  From his first appearance in the film, then, Lugosi is associated on screen with death, and that's very much the point.  Before he meets Eddie, Lugosi is indeed "dead" in terms of his screen career.  He claims he has not worked in four years and that he is obsolete.  Ed "resurrects" Lugosi for his films, just as -- finally -- Eddie resurrects Lugosi in Plan 9 from Outer Space, bringing the actor once more to life for audiences after his death.

The friendship between Lugosi and Wood is very much at the heart of Ed Wood, and both roles are impeccably performed.  Landau earned an Academy Award for his heartfelt, often very funny performance as Lugosi, and rightfully so.  Again, in a notable example of art imitating life, Landau himself had gone through a kind of "career death" in the mid-1980s before a resurgence that saw him headlining in films such as Tucker: A Man and His Dream (1987) and Woody Allen's Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989).  Landau is at his expressive best here portraying a man who is not just addicted to morphine, but to movie-making the magic of the silver screen.  It's clear that only one thing makes Lugosi well: the opportunity to practice his art. 

When Lugosi delivers an impassioned speech for Wood's Bride of the Monster, the words are highly self-reflexive.   He says: "Home. I have no home. like an animal -- the jungle is my home! But I will show the world that I can be its master. I shall perfect my own race of people -- a race of atomic supermen which will conquer the world!

In a weird, science-fictional way, this strange speech is very much about identity; about the homes we choose to make, rather than the "homes" from which we came, or which others attempt to assimilate us into.  Lugosi's character here is talking about not merely independence, but about re-shaping the world to his desires and needs.  And in a very real way, that's clearly what Ed has accomplished in his life.  In his film world, Wood has "perfected" his own "race of people," in his entourage, hasn't he?  "Hunted and despised" that entourage may be, but together, the group is doing what it wants to do, and in Eddie's mind, making art; telling "the stories" that he wants to tell.  On Eddie's own terms, he is a success.

Other than Lugosi, other individuals also thrive in Ed's "safe" and non-judgmental world.  Bunny Breckinridge, an openly homosexual man, is accepted without question.  In fact, he is so inspired by Ed's "coming out" in Glen or Glenda that he plans to undergo a long-anticipated sex change operation.  "It's something I've wanted to do for a long time," he says. "But it wasn't until I saw your movie that I realized I have to take action! Goodbye, penis!" 

As silly as that dialogue clearly plays, it does a good job of revealing Ed's positive influence on those around him.  His creation of a "bubble of safety" allows people like Lugosi and Breckinridge to find a safe harbor in an often-cruel town.   Notably, the woman he falls in love with, Kathy, passes the same test.  Ed informs her up front about his cross-dressing habits and she accepts them, no ifs, ands or buts.  Once Eddie knows that Kathy is accepting, little else matters. 

Watching Ed Wood, we come to understand and realize the magic of this specific Burton "outsider."

 "How do you do it?"  Bunny asks Wood.   "How do you get all your friends to get baptized, just so you can make a monster movie?" 

In large part, Burton's film is about answering that very important question,  What the director finds is that Ed boasts two qualities that draw people to his cause: passion and optimism. 

In the first case, Eddie believes wholeheartedly in the films he creates, whatever their (obvious) short-comings.  And on the other front, Ed is indomitable in spirit.  The only way to survive in Hollywood (or as a writer, even) is to believe in yourself, and keep trying, no matter what.  Because you will face failures, you will face criticism, and you will deal with acerbic, cruel gatekeepers who want to keep you out of their privileged domains. 

But Eddie never lets those assholes get him down, at least for very long, and the script often references this fact.  When Eddie is told by a studio head that he made "the worst movie ever," his immediate response is "my next one will be better."  

When at the end of the film, Eddie suggests driving to Las Vegas, his girlfriend Kathy (Patricia Arquette) reminds him that it is raining, and that it is a five hour ride to Vegas.  Wood's response is, again, characteristic of his optimism: "It's only a five hour drive and it'll probably stop by the time we get to the desert. Heck, it'll probably stop by the time we get around the corner. Let's go."

Those upbeat words embody Ed Wood as a person nd also, not to a small degree,  incidentally, the nature of film making. 

If you're going to let yourself be stopped by a little things like the rain, you'll never make it as a director. 

Orson Welles knew it...and Ed Wood knew it too.    They didn't stop making films when confronted with rain, weird casting decisions (Charlton Heston as a Mexican?) or funding problems.  No, they soldiered on, and their films became famous and beloved.

Again, considerations of quality don't necessarily enter the picture here.  There are as many people out there, no doubt, who love Plan 9 as there are those who love Citizen Kane.  And, as I wrote above, Ed Wood is much more about the qualities those films and their directors share, not the ones that separate them.

If Ed Wood has any sense of cruelty in it, it likely involves the unsympathetic treatment of the Dolores Fuller character.  In the script, she is the voice of the outside world; of harsh reality.  She calls Ed and his friends "weirdos."  She passes judgement on the movies (calling them "terrible") and she has trouble accepting Eddie for who he is (a cross-dresser). 

This unsympathetic description may not match reality, but it works for the film, because it's absolutely critical that there is an "outside" voice for society encoded in the narrative.  We need to see how Ed is seen by the world at large, and the movie depiction of Fuller is the one who provides that perspective.  There must be a doubter in Eddie's world, and Dolores drew the short straw, I guess, in the script-writing phase.

Ed Wood gives the director of Plan 9 From Outer Space the happy ending his real life plainly did not have.  In real life, Ed Wood died relatively poor while writing pulpy novels and making soft-core nudie/monster flicks.  In Burton's romanticized version of Wood's life, however, Wood finds the adoration of the masses at a well-attended movie premiere, and heads off for brave new horizons with his true love, Kathy. 

"This is the one they'll remember me for," Wood declares triumphantly, of Plan 9 From Outer Space

Of course, Wood was right in this assertion, but not in the way he may have wished to be right. We do remember him for that film today.  But it's because the film is so bad.

And yet, even so ironic a line is not played cheaply by Depp or by Burton.  Instead, there's a breathtaking innocence and vulnerability in Depp's line reading.  Wood is happy with what he has accomplished, and uttering a comment that is, to him, accurate.  Burton's film ends with a pounding rain storm outside the premiere-- a sign that Wood's journey is not to remain a smooth one -- but as we leave the film, he is happy and resolute.  He has honored his friend and told his story the way he wanted. He has succeeded.  I absolutely love that this film boasts the audacity to turn the world renowned "worst movie of all time" into, essentially, a high-point for Wood rather than his Waterloo, and that's such an inventive, ingenious way of countenancing this biography.  Where others see failure and derision, Burton shows us success...a valediction.

Burton's films are often extremely colorful and extremely lush, and Ed Wood stands in stark contrast to that normal approach.  The director often holds up misfits and outcasts as heroes or role models too, but in Ed Wood, there's a special alchemy to consider on that front.   The milieu of movie making adds a kind of extra layer of meaning to the tale.

Artists can control their art to some degree, but they can't control the response to it.  Hence the insecurity of so many filmmakers, writers and actors.  What if we bomb?  What if we step up to bat...and strike out?   Ed Wood is very much about that notion; with Tim Burton himself exploring the idea of being an Ed Wood, a talent "hunted" and "despised" for sticking to his own, admittedly-bizarre perspective of the world. 

And for that reason, "this is the one" I'll always remember Tim Burton for.  I admire many of his films (namely Edward Scissorhands and Big Fish), but Ed Wood is the one that really gets to me on a deep, emotional level.  It reminds me that failure may be inescapable, even inevitable, but that our response to failure is the thing that separates the real artist from the wannabe or poseur. 

Make the worst movie ever made?  The next one will be better...

Next week: Pee Wee's Big Adventure (1985)

From the Archive: John Carpenter's The Thing (1982)

"I know I'm human. And if you were all these things, then you'd just attack me right now, so some of you are still human. This thing doesn't want to show itself, it wants to hide inside an imitation. It'll fight if it has to, but it's vulnerable out in the open. If it takes us over, then it has no more enemies, nobody left to kill it. And then it's won."

-- MacReady (Kurt Russell) strategizes in John Carpenter's The Thing.

In the waning days of the summer of 1982, my parents took me to an afternoon matinee, a double-feature at a second-run theater in Los Angeles. I couldn’t have guessed so beforehand, but this excursion to the movies was a life-changing event for me.

That description sounds like unwarranted hyperbole until you understand that the double-bill consisted of Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner and John Carpenter’s The Thing.

Imagine -- just for a moment -- seeing those particular films back-to-back, one after the other, on the big screen.

Then consider the impact these two genre films have on our pop culture had over time. It's...staggering.

If you think about it, both productions share more in common than may appear obvious at first blush. Primarily, both Blade Runner and The Thing explore the existential angst of what it means to be human. Protagonists in each film combat creatures that mimic or imitate the human shape, but are indistinctly inhuman. In both films, the impostor is also an infiltrator...virtually unrecognizable -- hidden -- in a larger population. Both films also feature ambiguous endings: we're not exactly certain if humanity is victorious. In far more grounded terms, both genre movies have outlived overwhelming mainstream critical disdain and poor box-office receipts.

Indeed, Blade Runner and The Thing have emerged as two of the most beloved (and forward-looking…) films of the Age of Reagan. They've defined the direction of their respective genres too.

Suffice it to say, I had much to think about in the days and weeks (and months and years…) following that double feature matinee. So today, in keeping with my recent John Carpenter theme here on the blog, I want to gaze at The Thing, the film that almost literally cost John Carpenter his career in Hollywood.

Why? Well, in the summer of Spielberg's E.T. -- in the days of the Moral Majority -- a great many critics found Carpenter’s trailblazing horror film…questionable. On one notorious occasion, the auteur was actually termed a “pornographer of violence” for what was, in essence, a faithful visual recreation of a short story written in 1938 (“Who Goes There?” by John W. Campbell). The moral watch guards weren't alone in their condemnation of The Thing; an older generation of horror fans raised on Howard Hawks' original version of The Thing also seemed to reflexively dislike this remake. This dislike was in spite of many deliberate (and elaborate) Carpenter homages to that famous screen predecessor.

I summarized the poisonous critical reception to The Thing in my book, The Films of John Carpenter (McFarland; 2000), but for context and history, I wanted to provide at least a handful of quotes here and now, so you might accurately glean a sense of the absolute vitriol spewed at the film and its helmsman.

Newsweek called The Thing an example of “the New Aesthetic – atrocity for atrocity’s sake.” (David Ansen; Newsweek: “Frozen Slime,” June 28, 1982). Reviewing the film for Starlog, Alan Spencer wrote: “It’s my contention that John Carpenter was never meant to direct science fiction horror movies. Here’s some things he’d be better suited to direct: Traffic accidents, train wrecks and public floggings….” (Starlog # 64, November 1982, page 69.)

And that’s just the tip of the bloody iceberg, to adopt an appropriate metaphor.

Yet today John Carpenter’s The Thing is widely acknowledged as a masterpiece. It resides in the top 250 movies of all-time on the IMDB (at #173), and I counted it as the best horror film of its decade in Horror Films of the 1980s (McFarland; 2007).

Of The Thing, The Village Voice’s Scott Foundas wrote in 2008: “this spatial masterpiece of desolate Arctic vistas at odds with close-quarters claustrophobia has...been hailed as a high totem of modern horror-making. There remains something deeply unnerving about Carpenter's ambiguity as to whether the movie's shape-shifting alien is distorting its hosts' personalities or merely revealing something of their primal selves.”

For me, The Thing stands the test of time as a great film for several reasons. It’s not only the film’s finely-honed sense of paranoia that makes it a remarkable achievement, but the glacial, icy feelings of personal “alienation” from society that the story and presentation seem to evoke so powerfully.

Furthermore, John Carpenter’s The Thing involves not just alienation from civilization. It also makes a very squeamish, very uneasy case for the frailty and fragility of the human form itself; call it alienation of the flesh.

Additionally, it’s difficult not to interpret the “invasion” by the shape-shifting thing as an early harbinger of AIDS, a malady whispered about at the time of the film’s genesis as a “wasting disease” or “The Gay Plague.” In much more general form, the film succeeds in raising hackles over the universal fear of contagion, of disease…of the body subverted, co-opted and deformed by an implacable and invisible intruder. If not AIDS, the invader could be cancer, another STD, even old age itself.

Finally, The Thing represents such a singular experience because of the titular monster. Never before in the history of the horror film had audiences witnessed such an elusive, transcendent entity: a life-form in constant evolution and motion, never pausing -- never stopping -- long enough for us to get a grasp of what it "was." Although Scott's Alien was undeniably brilliant and fascinating in its depiction of an alien life-cycle, that life-cycle still had, ultimately, a recognizable shape and a direction (egg, face hugger, chest burster, adult drone...). By contrast, Carpenter's "Thing" was always...becoming.

There also begin to arise a sense in late 70s-early 80s America that the person next door – your very neighbor -- could actually be a monster in disguise…a person that, despite all physical appearances to the contrary, could be harboring monstrous, murderous secrets (think David Lynch's Blue Velvet [1986]).

In part, this uncertainty about the nature of "the next door neighbor" was a result of an unexpected reversal in population migration patterns. Whereas in earlier decades of the 20th century, people from small-towns had moved to the big cities (as part of industrialization…), in the early 1980s we saw “counter-urbanization:” a flight or escape from metropolitan population centers in favor of quieter, emptier areas, whether rural or suburban. This pattern was possible because of increased car production and affordability, and governmental incentives that made new home construction and home-ownership easier.

But the evils and eccentricities that some people (rightly or wrongly) associated with “big” cities also came home to roost in suburban America in this process of counter-urbanization. The Evils were named, in some cases, Ted Bundy, or John Wayne Gacy. On the surface: normal appearing. The truth: monsters in human shape.
As I’ve written before in regards to this epoch, the combination of inexpensive air transportation and the uniquely American tendency to put down roots far from one’s original home, assured that the neighbors within your average “Cuesta Verde” might be ethically or morally separate from the ideals of those living around them.

In a sense, this was true American integration: blacks and whites living peacably next door; Yankees and Confederates amicably perched across a drive-way; Christians and atheists on the same cul-de-sac; gays and straights sharing a common backyard, etc. Most of the time this was good -- we learn from each other's differences -- but in isolated circumstances (if your neighbor happened to be Jeffrey Dahmner, for instance)...not so much. With a burgeoning tabloid media developing on young cable TV, it was the negative and sensational incidents which became widely known and disseminated.

The ambiguity about what evil might dwell in "the house next door” created an age of uncertainty in which people didn’t really know -- and therefore could not always trust -- their neighbors. The result: deeper alienation, suspicion and even paranoia.

John Carpenter’s The Thing is very deliberately crafted in this world of estrangement and alienation. Consider that all the men at Outpost 31 have left behind their mother society (America), much as many disaffected youngsters in the early 1970s attempted to leave the American culture for "new" communal societies. An early version of Bill Lancaster's script allegedly revealed MacReady’s specific sense of “displacement” after the Vietnam War, another expression of alienation from country.

Specifically, the men of Outpost 31 carry with them the three tell-tale psychological signs or symtpoms of alienation. These are: social isolation, the absence of norms; and, finally, a life lacking meaning.

Let's go down that list. At Outpost 31, there is no sense of “norms” whatsoever. The men stationed there have chosen life in a frozen, inhospitable wasteland. There are no women present, and thus no opportunity to procreate (a rejection of the long-held Western belief of "be fruitful and multiply.") Because of the continent’s wintry storms, the Outpost is almost perpetually out of contact with the remainder of the world. Thus, the men there easily fit the definition of “socially isolated.”

Furthermore, these men in self-imposed exile from society don’t seem to perform much by way of legitimate scientific research. We are never told about a single ongoing project being completed or processed, for example. The “work” life and 9:00 to 5:00 routine that we live and die by in the States is thus entirely absent in The Thing, replaced by something…else. Not only do these men not reproduce...they don't produce.

It’s a life of what some conservative critics might exaggeratedly term “liberal permissiveness.” Think about it: the men of Outpost 31 don’t even provide for themselves or their continued survival. Rather, their supplies are all shipped in from elsewhere; making the camp, in essence, the ultimate welfare state. And, when the Thing arrives, Fuchs suggests as antidote (or rather, preventative…) the re-assertion of traditional/conservative values; that all the denizens (gasp!) prepare their own food…that they cook their own meals (increasingly a rarity in the fast-food American culture of the late 20th century).

Instead of actually producing anything of use to the larger culture (in terms of scientific discoveries), the men of Outpost 31 (like Palmer…) incessantly smoke weed, play computer chess with mechanical partners, drink whiskey (MacReady), watch game show reruns on TV, including Let’s Make a Deal (Childs and Palmer), and spend abundant amounts of time lounging in the communal “rec room.” There, an arcade game console and a pool table achieve visual prominence in many compositions. In one scene, model-kit boxes -- another fun hobby (but not strictly a useful endeavor...) -- can be viewed on a book shelf too.

Without a productive routine or overriding set of societal norms, the leisurely lives of these men clearly lack any sort of larger meaning. Instead, it is a life of exaggerated petty grievances and arguments. Nauls complains when a “disrespectful” man throws his dirty clothes in the kitchen garbage. But hypocritically, Nauls is rather disrespectful too. When Bennings (who is attempting to relax after being shot in the legs…) asks Nauls to turn down his radio, Nauls just…turns it up. It's a culture of self-gratification and no responsibility or common purpose. As scholar Thomas Doherty observed, this Thing features "a collection of autonomous, angry, unpleasant and self-interested individuals, as chilly and as the stark Antarctican landscape they inhabit." ("Genre, Gender and the Aliens Trilogy." The Dread of Difference: Gender and the Horror Film, University of Texas Press, 1996, page 191.)

It is not until the arrival of the impostor – the chameleon - that the men are roused to that missing common purpose. They choose to fight back against the common enemy, but are already so alienated from one another (and from life itself...) that their efforts are largely unsuccessful. At one point, Blair states he doesn’t know whom to trust, and MacReady cynically suggests another traditional/conservative (but not terribly effective...) ameliorative: “Why don’t you trust in the Lord?”

Because the men of Outpost 31 don’t trust each other, their plans to defeat the Thing continually fail. Fuchs commits suicide rather than fight what he believes is a hopeless battle. Blair destroys all the vehicles and radio equipment rather than trust that his fellow man will do the right thing and help him stop the Thing there and then (before reaching society). Palmer refuses to search alongside Windows. MacReady maintains loose authority and leadership over the group only because he is equipped, alternately, with gun, flame-thrower and dynamite. He leads the others by holding them at bay, and uses draconian force to keep them in line. He shoots Clark (Richard Masur) in the head, for instance, when Clark attempts a decapitation strike.

Scholar Jonathan Lake Crane writes that the Carpenter film is "exquisitely constructed to deny every attempt from the pathetic to the brilliant, on the part of its supposed protagonists, to master their world." (Terror and Everyday Life: Singular Moments in the History of the Horror Film, Sage Publications, 1994, page 137.). Sounds like a microcosm in America, circa 1978-1982. Several hundred of our citizens were held hostage in Iraq for over a year, and even with our supposed military might, we could not successfully rescue them (Operation Iron Claw; April 24, 1980). By contrast, there was a post-war sense of triumphalism, camaraderie, and even romance in Hawks' The Thing.

Yet in this Carpenter version there is no brotherhood to speak of, only distrust and cynicism.

What Crane is talking about there is the inevitable end result, perhaps, of excessive alienation: powerlessness. In the end, a lone man, MacReady is able to battle the thing barely to a draw. The film’s end is ambiguous in regards to his victory. He could be The Thing, fellow survivor Childs could be the Thing, or the Thing could still be “out there." Not one of those options is particularly attractive, or decisive.

Carpenter’s careful selection of visuals gets at the leitmotif of alienation in some intriguing and artistic ways. He often positions his camera at the center of a circle (or half-circle), gazing out from that point, so that the men of Outpost 31 are facing the audience, and essentially, surrounding the audience in a kind of half-moon configuration (representative perhaps, of the way we are surrounded by our larger society). We search in their “human” faces for sign of contagion and contamination, but can’t find it. We don't know what anyone is thinking, whether man or "Thing." Often this is so because their human expressions are “cloaked” behind large goggles, shielded in parka hoods, or otherwise obscured. The larger point is certainly that we can't read what is in a person (or monster's...) heart from a facial expression. Evil can hide behind a pleasant human face, or even a familiar one.

As viewers, we seek out signs of common humanity among those who surround us, but are, many times in The Thing, denied a view of the eyes, the window to the soul. Thus, in some small way, we begin to understand the existential crisis of these alienated men. The Thing has arrived and deviously replaced some members of the circle, but because each denizen has lived a life of isolation, leisure and even “disrespect,” the intuiting of the humanity of those around us is impossible. We have no history of humanity by which to judge the potential "thingness" of a neighbor. In The Los Angeles Times, reviewer Linda Gross (on June 25, 1982), appropriately described The Thing as “bereft, despairing and nihilistic” and noted that the most disturbing aspect of Carpenter's film is its “terrible absence of love.”

Indeed, the “alienated” dramatis personae of The Thing have squandered and ignored their common humanity for too long, and now, when their lives are threatened, attempt lamely to re-assert it. This is what I call The Planet of the Apes Principle of Character Arc. In that film, Charlton Heston’s Taylor is a misanthrope who leaves behind the human race (on a deep space mission) only to find himself in the position of forcibly becoming mankind’s only defender (in the face of Ape Culture). The socially isolated outcasts of Outpost 31 of The Thing have similarly shunned and abandoned their world but, by battling the Thing, are forced to be society’s (unlikely and unsuccessful) defenders. MacReady alone seems worthy of that honor, though he is never delineated in larger-than-life terms. He makes many a mistake (killing Clark, trusting Nauls, suggesting Gary is the saboteur...)

Again, you might think that a movie about a battle between emotional humanity and alien assimilator would highlight the differences between species, but the important take away from The Thing is that the alien is pretty much undetectable in a world where we don’t know our neighbors, don’t understand our countrymen, and have “checked” out from the normal ebb and flow of society. The Thing’s great power is not that it is super strong, but that it has found a place where it can successfully hide. In some ways, it is but a measly coward -- hiding and just waiting out the other cowards. It would rather “pretend” to be one of the pack than either engage or combat the culture of the enemy.

Is That a Man in There? Or Something Else? – Alienation of the Flesh

The Thing serves as the first movement in John Carpenter’s self-named “Apocalypse Trilogy” (followed by 1987’s Prince of Darkness and 1994’s In The Mouth of Madness), and most genre fans are familiar with the general outline of the story, either from the remarkable Campbell literary work, or the 1950s Howard Hawks version, The Thing from Another World (1951).

In short, John Carpenter’s The Thing lands us in freezing Antarctica during the winter of 1982. A strange incident occurs at American Outpost 31, when a Norwegian helicopter breaks the peace and silence of snow.

The foreign chopper pilot and his cohort seem to be relentlessly (and madly...) pursuing a dog, a malamute. The pilot attempts to kill the canine, but in the ensuing scuffle the helicopter is destroyed and an armed Norwegian is shot dead by Outpost 31’s macho commander, Garry (Moffat).

Curious about what could have possibly driven the Norwegian scientists to such heights of apparent insanity, Outpost 31's Doc Copper (Richard Dysart) and helicopter pilot R.J. MacReady (Kurt Russell) travel to the foreign camp and find it utterly ruined, destroyed. Record tapes reveal that the Norwegians unearthed a flying saucer – and an alien – frozen in the ice for 100,000 years. They used Thermite charges to bring both to the surface. MacReady and Copper bring back the tapes, and also the inhuman, half-burned corpse of...something.

Before long, the men of Outpost 31 must grapple with the fact that an alien life form is loose in their camp. It is a chameleon who can perfectly imitate human beings right down to the minutest memories and speech patterns. Dr. Blair (Wilford Brimley) calculates that after 27,000 hours from first contact with the civilized world, the entire planet Earth will be infected by the extra-terrestrial shape shifter. MacReady and the others must now determine -- in short order -- who is a “thing” and who is a man, and arrange for a blood serum test to help them identify the interloper (or interlopers) hiding in their midst.

Nobody Trusts Anybody Now: Alienation from the World At Large

The political and societal turbulence of the 1970s (from Vietnam to Watergate to the Energy Crisis to Three Mile Island) gave rise in some cases to a deepening sense of personal, community and spiritual dissatisfaction in America of the late 1970s and early 1980s.

One might term this mood the “spirit of the times,” but whatever we call it, many Americans began to feel deep misgivings about the status quo, about an increasingly untrustworthy, shallow, unjust, and material culture. The nation’s confidence – which had so memorably suffered a “crisis” in Carter’s America - had eroded.

Punk/thrash music gave voice to this sense of discontentment in popular music throughout the 1980s; and horror films such as George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead (1978) and The Amityville Horror (1979) pinpointed sources of anxiety in the consumer culture and such seemingly-sturdy American cultural pillars as home-ownership. In these visions, the faceless masses at the local shopping mall were actually slobbering zombies, and monthly mortgage payments could run you out of your too-expensive house faster than your average demonic possession.

The flesh betrays us.

That’s a core theme of John Carpenter’s The Thing. In fact, the director makes viewers feel acutely uncomfortable about the softness or weakness of the protective “flesh” that represents our “armor” from a painful and sharp outside world. To adopt a politically charged term, The Thing reveals that our flesh is…a porous border.

That point is hammered home via Carpenter’s canny use of insert shots in The Thing. I suspect this may be the very reason the film was derided as being so overtly violent and bloody, but again, the critics didn’t ask themselves why; or question what Carpenter was attempting to accomplish with these unblinking close-ups of grotesque wounds and other “gore” shots. These compositions do serve a purpose, a very important one in the narrative.

In short order in The Thing we see: (in inserts/cutaways) a dead Norwegian with an eye blown out. We witness a perforated knee (belonging to Bennings) undergoing surgery as Copper stitches it up. The tender skin pulls and gives as the doctor sews it. Later (and also in close inserts) we see fingers sliced open with silver scalpels and then the wounded digits squeezed and pressed so tightly that blood spurts out (copiously...) into small containers.

I’m not done yet….

We also see human skin stretched (in Naul’s death scene…), burned (in the case of Fuchs), and ripped apart (in the case of Windows). We witness our very blood appear in various forms too; frozen in icicles (after a Norwegian’s suicide attempt in the cold), burned and singed under hot copper wire (in the serum test), and discarded as though spilled, spoiled milk in Doc Copper’s sabotaged refrigerator. But this is not atrocity for atrocity's sake: it's a catalogue of the flesh's...pliable and soft nature.

Carpenter doesn’t spare audiences a detailed, blunt-faced autopsy scene either. We watch Blair conduct a clinical examination of the dead “thing,” extracting and tagging various internal organs in the process. The scene culminates with a slow-motion shot of Blair hanging his head in disgust – as though he is suppressing the urge to vomit – before we fade slowly to black.

One at a time, we might question these individual moments as gratuitous or unnecessary. Taken together, however, these moments represent a directorial tactic: a full-scale attack on mainstream sensibilities; an uncomfortable forced realization that we are inherently fragile creatures operating inside fragile, easily damaged bodies. Many horror movies thrive on exploiting fears, but only the most transgressive and honest of them assert so plainly the weakness of our human vessels, the nearness of mortality, and our real proximity to destruction.

And this is under normal “earthly” circumstances.

What the Thing does to human bodies is…savage. A human chest becomes a giant fanged maw and snaps off Copper’s arms. In the same scene, Norris’s head stretches (like stringy mozzarella cheese…) from a burning corpse, then miraculously sprouts ridged spider legs and bulbous eye-chutes. Then it skitters away from a threat, a literal phoenix re-born from the flames.

We also see the innocent face of a beautiful dog peel apart into several fleshy, flower petals. We witness eyes open up -- awake -- inside lumpy fat pockets. We see human faces lodged inside the skin, alive, moving and aware. Again, the flesh that we cherish is perverted to serve something...alien. Inimical. It is overwheming to countenance because there's no sense of movie decorum about it: it's a blunt, almost documentary-style presentation of bodies shattered and mutilated before our eyes in something akin to real-time. Because the special effects are so good, we don't sense trickery or phoniness.

On and on the horror of the flesh goes, and the result is inescapable: we recognize just how vulnerable we really are to an invader from within; from disease. The “alien” in The Thing is extra-terrestrial on the literal level, but symbolic of something else entirely. On a metaphorical level, these disturbing visuals of our flesh subverted and twisted remind us of real-life microscopic invaders; of a fear of infection, of disease, of sickness

Author and scholar Eduard Guerrero (in “AIDS as Monster in Science Fiction and Horror Cinema”) suggested that The Thing’s progression through Outpost 31 was a metaphor for the new and mysterious AIDS epidemic unfolding in America in the early 1980s. Specifically, he noted that “the monster’s mode of operation clearly parallels the AIDS virus’ geometric spread” and that the “great fear” driving the Carpenter film was that of “not being able to detect those who have been penetrated and replicated” by the titular monster. (Guerrero, Eduard. Journal of Popular Film and Television, Volume # 18, Fall, 1990, pages 87 -93.)

Guerrero also wrote that certain aspects of The Thing served as a metaphor for the homosexual life-style, making note of the same-sex characters living in a self-indulgent lifestyle (remember the “liberal permissiveness” and “lack of norms” I listed above?) I’m not sure entirely how I feel about this analysis, but it certainly tracks with the movie. And it is indeed critical to note the importance of the “blood test” in The Thing's gestalt; the very test that in real life detects Hepatitis, AIDS and other illnesses. Yet another transmission method for AIDS involves intravenous drug use and shared needles. Accordingly, John Carpenter’s The Thing also features several close-ups of syringes lancing human skin…another resonant image of the 1980s and another uncomfortable image of flesh subverted. Even the Thing’s style-of-attack -- “ripping through clothes” (especially underwear) -- seems to connote some form of sexual aggression or sexual transmission. Carpenter’s Prince of Darkness made the AIDS metaphor even explicit: with an “Evil” force (Satan himself…) passed between partners by -- well, there's no polite way to say it -- ejaculated fluid.

The anxiety and paranoia of The Thing involves what I termed the “fragility” or “frailty” of the flesh in The Films of John Carpenter. Although it is not politically correct to admit it, we still often shun the sick, the diseased. Reagan never made a speech about AIDS until 1987, and we all remember those crazy stories from the 1980s about people contracting AIDS from sitting down on public restroom toilets. Carpenter himself had touched on the topic of societal response to disease in The Fog, but there the subject was Leprosy and how the overriding “fear of the sick” gave Antonio Bay’s co-conspirators the cover they needed to exploit the leper, Blake. If movies reflect the times of their creation, then The Thing -- in selecting a disease-based Bogeyman -- certainly reflects the atmosphere of paranoia and dread about a new and unknown disease on the rise in the 1980s.

The Thing succeeds in no small part because it exploits this universal fear ruthlessly. We all dread getting sick; we all fear contagion. And if we don’t know our neighbors, how do we know they aren’t sick? If contact can come by touch…shouldn’t we lock our doors?

It’s a matter of vanity too; not merely a health concern. Sickness leads to death, but sickness also steals beauty and robs one of physical perfection. And lord knows the 1980s was the era of films such as Perfect (1983), the Jane Fonda aerobics trend, and songs such as Olivia Newton John’s “Physical.” (1981). These were all glorifications of physical beautiful, not "inner" beauty.

It Could Have Imitated a Million Life Forms on a Million Planets: Man is the Warmest Place to Hide

As much as Howard Hawks’ The Thing From Another World remains admired – and rightly so – that superb 1950s film simply can’t hold a candle to John Carpenter’s remake in terms of the visualization of the monster. James Arness played a big-headed humanoid -- a “walking-carrot” -- in the original.

Things in the 1982 film are much more…complex. We witness the alien invader in dozens, perhaps literally hundreds of different incarnation, each new and frightening, each “morphing” before our very eyes into another unimaginable, Lovecraftian-style horror.

These amazing effects were accomplished on set by Rob Bottin, and there was no digital tinkering or CGI involved whatsoever. That fact alone should earn the film a high degree of admiration. And having watched John Carpenter’s The Thing again this week, I can state unequivocally that the practical effects hold up far better than those of most CGI epics (think An American Werewolf in Paris [1997].

The “monster” effects in The Thing are revolutionary, gorgeous and horrifying, but unlike computer generated images, they still appear real, even to the trained eye. I believe this is because – as objects created and manipulated in the real world -- they carry weight; they obey gravity, and they appear to have substance. In David Cronenberg’s The Fly remake of 1986, Jeff Goldblum observed that computers don’t understand flesh, and to a large extent, I maintain that is also true of CGI today.

The organic, mutable nature of the alien “flesh” in The Thing somehow reads as true or authentic, even today (perhaps even more so today, since younger audiences may be unaccustomed to the “old fashioned” approach to horror effects). It's not just that the creature's always-changing nature is revolutionary, it's that the depiction of that shape-shifting threat is revolutionary too.

The effects are even more effective because of the careful way Carpenter directs his actors and stages the scenes with the beast. Simply put, these moments are…utter pandemonium.

In an otherwise restrained, almost buttoned-down film, the “attack” scenes stand-out as absolute masterpieces of chaos. Things go wrong on a regular basis. Innocent bystanders get burned, macho men shriek in horror, and the alien does everything in its power to survive. Twisting, stretching, ripping, pulling at the flesh in ways that no audience prior to 1982 could have conceived.

You’ve got to be fucking kidding me!” one character exclaims, as the Thing – now a spidery-mutation – unceremoniously tip-toes past a group of humans with their attention diverted elsewhere. Ironically, the person making that very human exhortation (Palmer) was already a thing at that point. I remember that exact line reading -- and that moment -- in the movie theater experience in Los Angeles. The audience burst to life, laughing, screaming...thoroughly involved. That dialogue of disbelief perfectly mirrored the effect of the scene on the matinee crowd. We were astonished, agape, horrified...nervous. Nobody, and I mean nobody had ever seen anything like this before. Not even in Alien.

Behind only the picturesque The Fog, perhaps, The Thing boasts Carpenter’s finest visual evocation of place and space. His 1982 film feels claustrophobic and cloistered due to Carpenter’s relentlessly tight framing. Often times, he stages whooshing, racings hots through narrow hallways from a first person, P.O.V. perspective so it feels like we’re running through the cluttered, tight corridors ourselves. Other times, he offers shiver-provoking montages of “empty” rooms (much as he did in the finale of Halloween [1978]). The purpose is the same in both instances: to chart the space where the powerful nemesis is absent. We know the Bogeyman (Myers or the Thing…) is about somewhere, but Carpenter takes us on a tour of all the places where he isn’t in a successful effort to generate suspense and build anticipation.

I began this review by comparing, at least a little bit, Blade Runner and The Thing. In the end, what separates the humans from the Replicants of Scott’s film is simply life-span. The Androids live for four years instead of seventy or so. By the end of Blade Runner, however, even that rule may need revision. In The Thing, we can't distinguish between man and thing even to that minimal degree. Ambiguity reigns and we never truly gain insight into how a “replicated” or “imitated” human is different (or inferior...) from the genetic source material.

For instance, the Thing imitates Norris so perfectly that the imitation suffers from the same coronary condition as the original human being. The Thing…has a heart attack. It’s clear too that the monster boasts the ability to absorb the memories and speech patterns of the host organism, since it is able to successfully hide inside Norris, Palmer and others for a rather considerable length of time. This raises an important question. If a “replicated” person is so accurate an imitation -- down to memories and a heart problem -- how exactly is it different from us?

The only answer we have for sure is that the Thing is characterized by a more developed sense of survival. Every piece of it – every cell – seems bred for survival. When we bleed, it’s just “tissue” as MacReady notes smartly. When a Thing bleeds…it’s every particle, every cell, for itself. Italic

But there’s still so much we don’t know. When the Thing imitates more than one person at the same time, for instance, it doesn’t appear to communicate or team up with other infected "things;" with kindred. Palmer and Norris, by my reckoning, are both “Things” at the same time…but they don’t appear to collaborate or help one another. Again, hiding is the monster’s primary mode of operation…even when there are other "allies"/monsters about that it could seek assistance from. Honestly, the Thing doesn’t seem to care for its fellow “thing” any more than the men of Outpost 31 care for one another.

The existential question is this: if the Thing imitates us, down to the most minute physical similarities and mental quirks…is it…in fact…us? Only 'us" with super-cells that will resist death? If that’s the only difference, is there, perhaps, a claim to be made that The Thing somehow perfects the imperfect human being? I mean, a Thing as human can change shape and escape from any physical threat…and it can regenerate itself from one tiny particle. But at the same time, it still possess all our weaknesses, both physical and by inference, emotional. So..can a Is an imitation of love the same thing as love?

It’s important to note that the Thing doesn’t want to take over the Earth in the hoary, conventional ID4 sense. It doesn’t have an agenda for invasion (like, for example, the Daleks…). It merely wants to hide, and in doing so, survive. It will take over every human on Earth to accomplish that aim, but not as an aggressive imperialist invader seeking territory…but as a fearful creature finding a pathway to survival. Perhaps an anti-social world can only be dominated by an anti-social alien…

I suppose what I’m getting at is this philosophical question: what is the substantive, existential difference between a “thing” and a "person?" Both are flesh and blood. Both have human memories and human failings. And both want to survive. Carpenter’s film asks that question as much as does Blade Runner (and did so long before the re-imagined Battlestar Galactica went over the same territory). The Thing ultimately provides no answers, and -- as in the best works of art -- we are left to seek them for ourselves. This too infuriated many an audience. Viewers wanted closure, answers, and a sense of victory over the "monster." What Carpenter gave them instead was an ambiguous meditation on the frigid state of humanity in 1982.

Who won? Who was still human? Did it even matter anymore?

In the final analysis, how do we know we aren’t already living in a world composed of “things?”

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Sci-Fi Wisdom of the Week

"Visions are worth fighting for. Why spend your life making someone else's dreams?"

- Ed Wood (1994);

(to be reviewed here tomorrow as part of our retrospective of Tim Burton's films). 

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

From the Archive: Star Trek: The Motion Picture Enterprise Bridge (Mego; 1980)

It must have been 1980 or 1981, I guess; a bitterly cold winter's day as I recall. I was at the massive (and legendary...) Englishtown flea market in New Jersey with my family, searching out toy treasures. At that time in my life, that would have meant Planet of the Apes, Star Wars, Space:1999 or Star Trek figures, to put a fine point on the matter.

Bundled in a warm winter jacket and sipping hot chocolate out of a Styrofoam cup, my lips shivering, I soon came across a toy that I had never seen before and have only rarely seen since. And which today, I prize.

It's the Star Trek: The Motion Picture "U.S.S. Enterprise Bridge" from Mego Corporation, released 1980. I found it mint in its box at the flea market that day...selling for one dollar. Needless to say, I bought it. And I still had allowance to spare...

I've kept this toy with me
ever since - during all my geographical moves from New Jersey to Virginia to North Carolina, though the toy box is long, long gone.

A few years back, I bought a new one (with box...) on E-Bay for significantly more than one dollar. Why? Well, I had always promised myself that if I saw another of these rare toys, and it was under a certain price threshold, I would get it, since I had played mine out and all the decals had basically rubbed off.

To explain further about this toy, it is not the famous "spinning transporter" Bridge playset from Mego; from the original TV series.

No, this is the movie Enterprise bridge from Star Trek: The Motion Picture. The box legend says it all, capturing the glory of this toy: "take command of the helm and recreate all the adventure of the crew of the starship Enterprise."

How many of us X'ers, as kids, wanted to do just that?

I know I did, and since the movies were from my era growing up, the 1979 -1991 era, this was the bridge I wanted. The bridge V'Ger's probe attacked. The bridge Kirk returned to after a 2.5 year absence after the five year mission; the bridge from which he faced "KHAN!"

"All scaled for Mego 3 3/4 inch Star Trek crew" figures, this bridge "measures over 24 inches long and 12 inches wide and features" the following: "Working Docking Port," "Helm Control Center," "Navigational Station," "Captain's Chair," "Science Center," Communications Console" and "Authentic Decals."

Trademarked 1980 by Mego Corp, to follow the release of the first Star Trek movie, the box also suggested you can dock this bridge "with the Vulcan shuttle (sold separately)," a toy that to my knowledge was never widely released.  What's really awesome is that the you can see the prototype toy in the picture on the side, if you look closely enough at the  the box,

I guess there's a certain kind of kid (a geek, I suppose?) who would rather sit inside and play with action figures than go outside and throw a ball around, and that was certainly me.

But what's even funnier is that the bridge isn't exactly a "hub of action." I mean, it's a place with control panels and chairs where the action figures...sit.

When I think of the Star Wars toys from Kenner, I remember the Ewok village, the Death Star (with trash compactor!) the Rebel Hoth base and more...places of action and battle! But then Star Trek was (and is...) for a certain kind of kid too. I mean, I don't want to diss or dismiss Star Wars because I love it too, but the thrill of Star Trek is the notion of a team of people exploring the unknown together. The bridge is the gateway to that unknown, that cosmic mystery. Any kind of alien being or space phenomenon or wormhole could appear on our view screen, and off we go into the realm of the undiscovered, the new, the imaginative.

Truth be told, this toy is made of flimsy, lightweight plastic and held together only by tiny adhesive stickers. The controls are just decals, flat and uninteresting. There are no lights, no whirring parts. And compared to Kenner's wonderful (and extremely sturdy...) Star Wars toys, this Enterprise bridge absolutely  pales in comparison.

And yet - again - the child who loves Star Trek knows these things don't really matter. It's what we bring to the human adventure, our imagination, that counts, and this bridge - deficits and all - is still the command center that carries our mental starships into new worlds to meet new life forms and new civilizations...

Boldly go...