Saturday, January 14, 2012

Saturday with Sinbad: The Golden Voyage of Sinbad (1974)

Released in 1974, The Golden Voyage of Sinbad, as I wrote last weekend, is my Sinbad movie.  I saw it theatrically as a five-year old, and was absolutely mesmerized by the sword-fights, the Ray Harryhausen monster action (filmed in stop-motion called "Dynarama") and the fantasy setting, on the lost island of Lemuria.

Even though I  boast a strong childhood connection to this film, however, I still maintain that it is actually superior, quality-wise, to both its predecessor, 1958's 7th Voyage of Sinbad and its successor, 1977's Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger

This is so largely because the screenplay is far more consistent regarding its villain, Koura (Tom Baker) and his powers, and even is largely consistent in terms of the monsters Sinbad encounters: they are manifestations of the sorcerer's power, not just random beasts walking around.

In the film, Koura establishes that to "summon the demons of darkness there is a consumes part of me," and that line is a key to much of the film's action and narrative.  Koura seeks an ancient Lemurian amulet (shattered into three pieces) because by using his dark forces, he has aged himself...his life-force ebbs.  The tablet will lead him to a fountain of youth where he can rejuvenate himself. 

In terms of the monsters, save for a centaur and a griffin, Sinbad battles monsters that Koura puts up to block the sailor's path; to stop him from finding the fountain first.  These monsters include a tiny, flying harpie (shades of Jason of the Argonauts), a ship's mast/statue come to life, and a multi-armed statue of Kali.  The lengthy, incredibly-rendered sword-fight with Kali is the undisputed highlight of the film, a terrific set-piece that still captures the imagination. 

But the point is that Koura's magic is used to a specific end, and consistently so, throughout the film.  If you look back at Sakurah in 7th Voyage of Sinbad (played brilliantly by the great Torin Thatcher), he merely wanted a genie lamp and would stop at nothing to get it, and then happened to keep a dragon as a pet in his subterranean headquarters on the island of the Cyclops. 

These ideas didn't stick together as well as those you find here, and we did not understand the nature of Sakurah's evil; his motivation for it.  His power also seemed to have no downside or cost.  Worse, Sinbad seemed to interact with Sakurah as if he trusted him for much of the film, when it it was obvious to everyone with eyes that he was evil...or at least scheming  There was some screenplay...muddle there.

In The Golden Voyage, Koura's quest is plain, and he even becomes a somewhat sympathetic character because we know and understand what he is after, and what is at stake for him if he fails.  He's a great villain, and Tom Baker is terrific in the role.  After watching Dr. Who for all these years, I had forgotten how masterfully he could turn his charismatic screen presence sinister.

Unlike its predecessor, The Golden Voyage of Sinbad also reveals some of the flavor of Sinbad's ancient world -- like the fact that he is a Muslim -- by allowing him to utter comments about and proverbs from Allah.  This may sound like a small or inconsequential thing, but 7th Voyage of Sinbad essentially made Sinbad an American cowboy in classical Baghdad, one heading-up what became a 1950s American nuclear family.  He had no colors, no shades, no sense of being from somewhere other than America.

The Golden Voyage of Sinbad isn't about Islam in any meaningful way, but it acknowledges at least, the truth that Sinbad originates from a different cultural tradition than many of those in the audience.  Today, with all the rampant Islamophobia, I doubt even the harmless mentions of Allah and religion in Golden Voyage of Sinbad would be permitted in a mainstream film, which is a sad development.    The history of the world, and the history of mythology, shouldn't be a football for contemporary ideological differences...but they are.  Sinbad comes to us from a defined time, place and tradition in the world, and to ignore his place of origin is like ignoring the fact that Clark Kent was raised in Smallville, or that James Bond is English.

I also appreciate The Golden Voyage of Sinbad more than the other Sinbad films for two further, specific reasons.  First, it actually differentiates between the crew men on Sinbad's vessel, offering us some comic relief in the form of one man.   This is important. In the other two Sinbad films, the crew men have no personalities, no differentiation, and no memorable identities.

And secondly The Golden Voyage allows Sinbad -- this time John Phillip Law -- to be a little less wholesome and pure.  Here, he brings Caroline Munro's slave girl, Margiana, along to Lemuria, and it's not because she plays a good game of chess, if you know what I mean.  There's some (harmless) sexual innuendo, obviously, and as an adult, that's far more interesting to watch than the innocent, "pure" love of Sinbad and his betrothed (nowhere in sight here, by the way....) in 7th Voyage.  

What I'm getting at in this review, without offending anyone, I hope, is that The Golden Voyage of Sinbad -- perhaps owing to its post-James Bond milieu -- is a bit less simplistic in narrative, in style, and in detail than its esteemed and rightly-appreciated predecessor.  

The message here is that evil -- though powerful in allure -- carries a "weight" or "cost," and that's a terrific message to impart to children learning the differences between right and wrong.   The sub-plot involving a prince in a mask, Vizier (Douglas Wilmer), also conveys a nice little lesson.  Though ugly on the outside (because of burns inflicted by Koura), Vizier is beautiful on the inside...and that beauty eventually comes to the surface. 

And by the way, I noted with interest that the moment here wherein Vizier removes his golden mask and stuns the hostile natives of Lemuria was repeated hook, line and sinker in the Buck Rogers in the 25th Century episode "Journey to Oasis," with Mark Lenard. 

Good ideas in the genre never die...they just get recycled.

The Golden Voyage of Sinbad is my five year old son's favorite Sinbad movie too, and it was easily his favorite Harryhausen fantasy until last night when he encountered -- and fell head over heels in love with -- Jason and the Argonauts. 

This morning, he and I have already re-enacted -- with toy swords -- Jason's climactic fight with a skeleton army (spawned from hydra teeth...).   I have the bruises to show for it.

Next week: Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger (1977)

Friday, January 13, 2012

The Films of 1982: Megaforce

Director Hal Needham's action epic Megaforce (1982) represents my first and perhaps most unforgettable lesson in movie hype and PR. I remember reading about the film in the pages of Starlog Magazine back in 1982 and anticipating an exciting, action-packed, and fresh movie-going experience. 

Missile-launching motorcycles? Flashy and futuristic, laser-equipped all-terrain vehicles with lightning bolts emblazoned on their sides?  International war and sashbuckling adventure?  A hero (Ace Hunter) like no other before him? 

How could it go wrong?

Well, my friends: deeds, not words...

For bad movie fanatics, Megaforce is understandably legend. This is a movie highlighting horrible special effects, mainly because of a weird over-reliance on rear projection even in moments that don't really require it.

If you add to those bad effects some unaccountably bizarre performances (Barry Bostwick, j'accuse),  dialogue so wretched you can't believe you're actually hearing it, and an over-abundance of loving but ultimately dull close-ups of vehicles and weaponry, you begin to understand Megaforce's appeal to those who cherish bad film making. 

In general, I attempt to look for a movie's good side when I pen a review. I seek out unexcavated or unappreciated qualities of subtext and film style, for instance. But Megaforce doesn't have a good side.

Actually, that's not entirely true. 

Megaforce never takes itself too seriously, and that, at least, is a blessing.  It is a film delighted by its own rampant stupidity and by its parochial viewpoints regarding racial diversity, sexual equality, American military interventionism, and other topics. 

In some weird way, this profound, proud stupidity makes the film bearable. Knocking it too hard is like kicking an over-affectionate puppy.  Yes, the movie is dumb and terribly cheesy, but Megaforce still provokes chuckles of spectacular disbelief actually grows on you in its childish one-dimensionality and un-ending desire to please. 

For example, the film's final sequence still has me in complete awe of its utter ridiculousness, a ridiculousness so profound and inconceivable that it deserves not scorn, but kudos. Quite simply, you can't imagine anything like it. It involves a moment wherein the most glorious of a filmmaker's intentions are crushed and annihilated under the enormous weight of incompetent execution. What must have read as exciting and inspiring on the page is rendered ludicrous and embarrassing in practice.

Well, maybe you can imagine something like Megaforce if you've seen the incredibly funny Team America: World Police (2004), which perfects the Megaforce alchemy by making the jingoism, sexism, and racism intentionally humorous.

Turns out, that was the key...

In short, Megaforce strides arrogantly across the screen like it is indeed the ultimate adventure movie -- spandexed chest puffed-up and proud -- and yet every step along the movie's victory march is saddled by an unknowing hilarity. If you like this sort of thing, Megaforce will indeed float your boat.

Just don't park in my harbor.

"Well, if it's a comfortable tour you're looking for, I have connections at Disneyland!"

In Megaforce, the nation of Sardun faces aggression from its neighbor Gamibia, whose military is now under the control of a diabolical mercenary named Guerrera (Henry Silva). 

Two representatives from Sardun, the lovely Major Zara (Persis Khambatta) and the stuffy General Byrne-White (Edward Mulhare) visit the United States to enlist the services of Megaforce to defend their country from this new threat.

Megaforce is an international organization operating under the auspices of SCUFF (Supreme Command United Freedom Force) and commanded by Ace Hunter (Barry Bostwick), who once trained and served with Guerrara and knows his moves. 

While Megaforce plans "Operation Hook, Line and Sinker" to destroy Guerrera's considerable military forces and bring him to justice, Zara endures several tests to join Megaforce. She passes all of them with flying colors, including a skydiving exercise and a battle simulation, but Hunter still refuses entry on the grounds that every man in Megaforce shares the same mind (!) and that a stranger in the midst of the group would negatively affect the esprit de corps.  Meanwhile, Zara and Ace share a romantic attraction...

Megaforce drops its powerful, high-tech vehicles into Gamibia, and devastates Guerrara's headquarters.  fter the mission, however, "political exigencies" leave the team stranded on the ground.

Worse, Guerrara has maneuvered his surviving forces into a dry lake bed: the only geography nearby where recovery planes can land to retrieve the deployed Megaforce. 

Ace plots a daring new strategy to face down Guerrara (who has stolen his prized cigarette lighter...) and to get his men into the air, and back on home soil.

"It's all on the wheel. It all comes around."

Epitomizing Megaforce's strange world view -- not to mention fashion sense -- is Barry Bostwick's gung-ho protagonist, Ace Hunter. 

As you can see from the photographs accompanying this post, throughout Megaforce Commander Ace Hunter wears a skin-tight, golden body suit that makes him look as though he should be singing back-up beside Marilyn McCoo and Andy Gibb. 

And perched atop this Apollo's royal mop of blond hair -- like a crown -- rests a Dirk Diggler head band.

So, this is the practical "gear" Megaforce expects our soldiers to adopt in the future (meaning the 21st century).

Who needs body armor, after all, when your flesh and blood are protected by skin-tight spandex and head bands?  The wardrobe is incredibly silly, and harks back to Olivia Newton John's video for (Let's Get) "Physical" rather than any established military tradition. 

But to his credit, Bostwick owns it. No gesture is too big for his Ace Hunter, no non-sequitur too dumb. Ace is a grinning, quipping, blow-dried, shiny paragon of American 1980s might. And this is an important thing. Remember that as late as 1979, America was in a severe slump regarding its military's, uh...prowess. There was the failed attempt to rescue the hostages in Iran, and President Reagan promised a revival of our military, both in terms of morale and funding.

But I don't think gold spandex jumpsuits were what he had in mind.

Nonetheless, Megaforce ends with a kind of valedictory signature shot -- form echoing content? -- as the triumphant Commander Hunter faces the camera, and proffers a trademark gesture for the ages: an enthusiastic kiss planted upon a triumphant thumbs-up. 

Then, in the time-honored tradition of bad 1970s and 1980s series television, we get a lingering freeze frame of Hunter offering that hand signal to the audience, sort of the ultimate visual "kiss off."  

This witless finale, the icing on the cake as it were, follows up a sequence in which Hunter taunts his enemy, Guerrera with the line that "good guys always win, even in the eighties" and then jets away on a flying motorcycle...with wings.  That line of dialogue is perfect for the film, being fully emblematic of  Megaforce's black-and-white brand of triumphal but shallow thinking.

For instance, the film makes a big deal about the fact that nobody in Megaforce possesses a rank.  Everybody is equal (except the commander).  So it's a kind of glorified, military meritocracy.  But then, of course, when a woman, Major Zara, qualifies in spades to serve in the unit, she is denied entrance on the basis that she doesn't share the men's camaraderie. Is this also a legitimate dis-qualifier, we must wonder, for new men approaching the group? 

More succinctly: how can any newcomer enter Megaforce if the pre-existing solidarity of the corp is the primary consideration regarding entry?  It's clear that the idea here -- especially from all the dialogue about women fighting -- is that girls should stay out-of-battle and leave the fighting to men.  So despite the egalitarian reputation of Megaforce, it disqualifies legitimate recruits on the basis of sex. 

If that's not enough, the film attempts to mine humor early on from the fact that a member of Megaforce listens to classical music and can quote Shakespeare on a moment's notice. And get this...he's black!  Isn't that a riot?  A black dude who can appreciate great music...and can even read! What a hoot!

When you couple the sexist and racist attitudes of the film's creators with Megaforce's negative commentary on stiff-upper-lipped foreigners (tight-ass surrender monkeys who aren't there for you when the chips are down...), you start to get an idea of the film's juvenile, closed-off world-view.

One very funny scene also notes that in the last fiscal year, Megaforce has spent over 40,000 dollars just to clean up its 10 million square foot underground base.  Obviously, budget cuts don't apply to defense spending, right? 

Nice to know where our hard-earned tax dollars are going: rainbow cloud-spewing motorcycles equipped with "holographs" (of women frolicking in the ocean surf, naturally...).

The many unquestioned assumptions of Megaforce about African-Americans, women, and military interventions are made all the funnier, however, because of the very *ahem*  form-fitting costumes of the athletic and fit men in the "unit" and the fact that their motorcycle smoke screens spew not red, white and blue exhaust, but all the aforementioned colors of the rainbow.   

What's the secret message here?

Don't ask, don't tell...

It would be easy to dismiss all of these silly aspects of Megaforce if any tension whatsoever were created around the team's mission to take out Guerrera.

Instead, Silva -- one of the three people in the world who looks less comfortable in a tank and helmet than did former governor Michael Dukakis -- plays all his scenes for laughs, buddying it up with Bostwick's Hunter to an alarming degree.  It's another example of the movie's steroidal male bonding (see: Michael Beck's entire performance as Dallas...) but it plays like something out of The Cannonball Run. Nobody can be bothered to actually create an authentic character or take things too seriously...the movie's just a party, and an excuse to blow things up.

A former stunt man, Hal Needham obviously boasts a reputation for making solid action films and for filming stunts well. Yet the stunts in Megaforce are mostly rendered ridiculous by the dramatic over use of rear-projection. A sky diving "love scene" between Khambatta and Bostwick looks atrocious because of this selection of techniques, and Hunter's triumphal flight to a helicopter is as egregiously phony. 

Some moments, however, do carry a kind of visual power.  There's a shot of two transport planes banking over the treacherous desert landscape that is legitimately impressive, but otherwise the movie doesn't achieve much in terms of shock and awe.  Many missiles are fired. Many motorcycles do pop-a-wheelies. But the important details -- like who is shooting from what position -- are left virtually unattended.

To see how an international thriller like this might really be vetted with skill and intelligence, one need look no further than another film of 1982 vintage: Clint Eastwood's Firefox.  Although that film also relies on dated special effects in its finale, it otherwise manages to craft a believable and tense world around its futuristic technology.

Megaforce may be loved as a film that's so bad it's good, but I don't think Ace Hunter would have appreciated the sentiment.

Sadly, to quote the great man...that's the way it is.

Megaforce Trailer

Thursday, January 12, 2012

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: Another Earth (2011)

"Within our lifetimes we've marveled as biologists have managed to look at ever smaller and smaller things. And astronomers have looked further and further into the dark night sky, back in time, and out in space. But maybe the most mysterious of all is neither the small nor the large: it's us, up close. Could we even recognize ourselves, and if we did, would we know ourselves?"

- Another Earth (2011)

The year 2011 was the season for cinematic astrology. 

By that, I mean audiences last year unexpectedly received a troika of challenging science-fiction films involving the relationship between cosmic phenomena and events in the human world. 

Malick's impressive The Tree of Life concerned the juxtaposition between the bigness of all Creation, and the apparent smallness of one boy's mid-20th century turbulent journey to adulthood. 

Lars von Trier's magnificent and jagged Melancholia saw the psychological condition of depression literalized as a world-destroying, invader planet. 

And Mike Cahill's celebrated low budget feature debut, Another Earth suggests that even if we fail here on Earth, we may have doppelgangers living a better, more fruitful life on a duplicate sphere hanging in the night sky.  If only we could meet them...

One must wonder: what's in the water that all three of these projects should arrive in cinemas in the same twelve month span

I can only play amateur psychologist, but I wonder if the similarity in premises among the three films is due, simply, to our fatigue with the ongoing national dialogue and our sense of victimization from invisible but "malefic forces" (to quote The Texas Chain Saw Massacre...) we can't seem to understand, let alone control.   The Occupy Movement has cogently pointed out that the remote and unseen (the powerful 1 percent) -- like the gravity pull of some unseen planet -- can have deleterious effects on the rest of us (the 99'ers).

Indeed, it's as if we're all trapped under the eclipsing shadow of a malevolent heavenly body, never quite certain we'll see the daylight again  The question underlining these films (especially Melancholia and Another Earth) is thus mainly one of exasperation. 

What's it going to take us to lift us out of our collective funk?  A new planet in Earth's sphere of influence?

And given our recent spate of bad luck, it's probably going to collide with us, anyhow...

Although it lacks the visual lyricism of The Tree of Life and the in-your-face, paranoid genius of Melancholia, Another Earth remains an intriguing and affecting meditation on the philosophical notion that life so often seems to come down to one moment, and -- barring the surprise arrival of a rogue planet in orbit -- we don't get second chances.  We can only choose one path.

"...and now you begin to wonder, what else is different?"

Another Earth is the story of young Rhoda -- an entrancing Brit Marling -- a promising M.I.T. student who, on the night of the discovery of a duplicate Earth becomes involved in a terrible car accident. 

While racing down a seemingly empty street and furtively gazing the night sky for signs of the new world, she crashes her speeding car into a parked vehicle.  In that vehicle is a Yale music professor, John Burroughs (William Maypother) and his family.   John's wife and son die instantly on impact.  John's son, in fact, is thrown from the car entirely, and we see his little body shattered on a nearby side-walk.

Rhoda goes to jail for her crime, and is released four years later.  Although she has served her time for society's purposes, Rhoda continues to serve time in terms of her own conscience.  She simply can't let go of the lives she has destroyed. 

Among those, of course, is her own. 

All the potential, all the possibilities of her life, have evaporated.  Instead of pursuing her once-promising education and career, Rhoda opts instead for a kind of continuing purgatory; opting to become a janitor at a local high school.

One day, Rhoda learns that a company called "United Space Ventures" is promoting an essay contest for a "free ride" on a spaceship bound for the mysterious new neighbor, Earth Two.  Rhoda writes an essay about her situation for the competition, noting that, historically speaking, explorers have not necessarily been bold heroes, but rather convicts, felons and people otherwise "living on the edge."  Thus she is a perfect candidate.  Why does she want to go?  To escape life on an Earth where she is a criminal; to run away from herself and her deeds.

Then, one day, feeling a surfeit of shame and guilt, Rhoda inexplicably visits the home of John Burroughs.  She finds him living alone in a kind of perpetual drunken state, still grieving his dead family.  Pretending to be employed with a maid service, Rhoda begins to clean up his house for him.  Over the weeks, Rhoda and john develop a friendship and a romance, but she doesn't tell him who she really is.   And he doesn't know, either, because she was a minor when the accident occurred and he never looked at the court documents.

While their relationship develops, news about Earth Two arrives in dribs and drabs.  The planet is not just Earth-like, but an exact duplicate of our world...a mirror image.

And if that's the case, there may another Rhoda out there.  And another John Burroughs.  And there's the possibility, too, that events have unfolded differently...

"Is that me better than this me?"

A great line from the original and remade Solaris suggests that humans don't go to outer space looking for aliens...but for mirrors.

Another Earth pivots on this notion, depicting the tale of a mirror planet that offers the characters opportunity for...well...reflection. 

If the "alternate" Rhoda of Earth Two didn't negligently kill John's family and didn't go to jail, what did she become?  What could she become? 

And even if she became something different, was her destiny and "core" personality the same on both Earths?  The film's final scene suggests that no matter what path she eventually takes, Rhoda will find a way to win the contest to visit the "other" world.  She will be involved either as an M.I.T. graduate, or as a self-loathing janitor doing penance for her crimes.  The last image of the film, though determinedly ambiguous, makes this idea, at the very least, implicit.

Another highly-underrated film in science fiction film history, Gerry Anderson's Journey to the Far Side of the Sun (1969) also dealt with the concept of a mirror Earth. Though that film more overtly concerned international espionage and space travel, it shares with Another Earth a fascination with the idea that "there's another you out there."

In other words, what would you tell yourself, if you met yourself?  Don't stop at that stop-light? 

Or, as Rhoda cynically notes "better luck next time?"  

Would we have legitimate wisdom to impart to our alternate selves?  Would -- and should we --even categorize a duplicate self as...self?  Or, given the "broken mirror" hypothesis which states that the two planets severed their synchronicity at mutual discovery, are the doppelgangers authentically two separate, distinct individuals?

For much of its running time, Another Earth is mostly a character study, gazing at a woman who has made a terrible mistake and would like to undo it...but can't.  Your patience for the film will likely depend largely on your acceptance of Rhoda's plight, and understanding that human beings are intrinsically irrational creatures.  There's simply no rational way to explain some of Rhoda's behavior towards John as portrayed in the film.  In fact, at times it feels downright cruel, since she is hiding crucial information from him. 

But that too is part of the movie's unique alchemy:  would even a duplicate "you" always understand why you do things a certain way, or act in a certain fashion?  Probably not.

Director Mike Cahill doesn't yet boast the technical chops of a Malick or a von Trier, but hell, how would you like to be launched into that select company your first time out?  What I mean is that Another Earth, though intriguing and well-done, lacks much of the visual distinction you'll find on display in The Tree of Life or Melancholia.  It's shot cheaply, and Cahill doesn't meaningfully use form to reflect content.  There's a lot of hand-held back and forth in the composition, but nothing that really augments the screenplay's meaning or internal heart.

Yet in the final analysis what makes Another Earth shine nearly as brightly as The Tree of Life or Melancholia is Marling's excavation of the Rhoda character.  I wrote above that Marling's performance is entrancing, and it truly is.  You'll quickly fall in love with Marling's face, and with the tragic character she assiduously and painstakingly crafts.  Given the personal nature of the story and the thematic through-line of "what would you say to yourself if you could?," the strong, intimate portrayal of Rhoda really carries the film.

Netfix describes Another Earth as a "sci-fi romance," and that's a laughably bad description of the film's content and aura.  Like Melancholia or The Tree of Life, this enterprise is about cinematic astrology, about how a cosmic body touches the human soul, and forever changes it. 

Take it on those terms, and in the context of this strange 2011 movie trend, and you won't be disappointed. 

Sci-Fi Wisdom of the Week

"Oh, I just wanted to say goodbye and remind you...the good guys always win, even in the eighties."

- Ace Hunter (Barry Bostwick) in Megaforce (1982), to be reviewed here tomorrow.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Collectible of the Week: Castle Grayskull (Mattel; 1982)

"I have the POWER!"

By the time that Mattel released its amazing He-Man and the Masters of the Universe toy line in 1982, I was a young teenager and no longer supposed to be interested in toys. 

*Ahem.* We all know how well that idea turned out, right?

Anyway, because of my dawning adulthood, I never owned much in terms of He-Man toys of the 1980s, but some of my cousins did, and so I often got a close look at these neat fantasy-oriented toys.  One of the coolest items from the line was the over-sized Castle Grayskull mock-up, a giant green playset that could house the various He-Man figures and provide hours of interactive fun to imaginative kids. 

On the animated TV series, Grayskull was home to the Sorceress, but the toy looks a lot more like the home of Prince, He-Man.  The giant set features a handle for easy transport, and opens up to reveal two interior "halves" of the castle. 

Inside Grayskull, you can find a weapons rack, a working elevator (activated by a pull-string), a "combat trainer" for He-Man, and a draw-bridge door that resembles a mouth, replete with teeth and tongue molded in plastic.

Also inside the castle is a nifty throne room and trap door, which may be the most awesome feature of this particular toy.  Although my model of Grayskull no longer has all the inserts and stickers, young fans of The Masters of the Universe could also decorate their castle interiors with decals of mystical-looking computer controls, vent grates, and the like.

Castle Grayskull was also guarded by a rampart-mounted laser cannon, and decorated with a two-sided flag that could fly He-Man's colors.  My version of the castle also has a tower "add on" that houses He-Man's talon fighter.

I recently got my hands on a Castle Grayskull here in Charlotte, and one in very good condition, for my son, Joel, who has just begun to watch the cartoon series on Netflix streaming. 

He loves the toy more than the TV show, and this playset gets hauled out just about every day, though sometimes Grayskull services not He-Man, but Lego Hero Factory soldiers, or Joel's Micromen/Acroyear collection. 

Still, just seeing this great old toy brings me right  back to the days of 1982, when I really, really wanted to own one, but was too "grown up" to have the power of Grayskull for myself... 

Cloned from a Mutual Zygote #2: Boushh and The Breen

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

CULT TV BLOGGING: The Fantastic Journey: "Vortex" (February 3, 1977)

"Even as the first man walked upright from his neanderthal cave, man was also taking his first step on the moon, and there's only a thin tissue of consciousness separating one event from another."

- Varian describes the theory of the "space-time continuum" or "time-lock" at the heart of The Fantastic Journey (1977)

In "Vortex," the inaugural episode of The Fantastic Journey, a group of marine biology students led by Professor Paul Jordan (Scott Thomas), chart a small ship called the Yonder in Coral Cove, Florida, and head out to the high seas for a summer of deep sea studies.   The date is June 19, 1976.

Among Jordan's group are physician Fred Walters (Carl Franklin), and Jordan's adolescent son, Scott (Ike Eisenmann).  Other students include Jill (Karen Somerville) and Eve (Susan Howard).

Once at sea, the Yonder crew spots a strange green cloud on the horizon. The cloud soon pursues, intercepts and traps the ship.  Once inside the emerald haze, everyone on board the small vessel hears the deafening sound of ringing bells, as though hundreds of ships are facing the same struggle simultaneously. 

After losing consciousness, the crew and passengers of the Yonder awake on a strange, mist-enshrouded island that seems to stretch "forever" in Scott's words. 

Soon, the new arrivals are secretly observed by what appears to be an Arawak, a Native American man...really Varian (Jared Martin).  Eventually, Varian makes contact with the group and reveals that he is actually a (former) resident of the 23rd century.  He reports that in his time, people use music to heal ("to restore balance to the emotions and to the mind") and that all the races of Earth have melded into one; one that has given up war.  He describes humans as non-aggressive people, ones who "waste nothing."   Unfortunately for Varian, his spaceship was pulled into the Bermuda Triangle, much like the Yonder, and he has been marooned on the strange island for some time.

Varian further describes the unique character of this enigmatic land mass, one that even "the superior physics" of his own time cannot adequately explain.  In short, he reports that all times -- future, past and present -- seem to exist on the island simultaneously, amidst a honeycomb of "zones."    There is only a "thin tissue of consciousness" separating one from the other, a kind of magnetic or electric field.threshold that can be pierced by touch.

This explanation, though strange, helps the Jordans understand why, nearby, sixteenth century pirates, led by Sir Camden (Ian McShane), dominate the landscape. 

In fact, one of the Jordans' group, Jill, is captured by Camden, forcing action on the part of Jordan.  Varian offers to help retrieve her.  But in keeping with his pacifist beliefs, Varian refuses to engage in violence or murder.

After Jill is rescued by Varian and Jordan, Jordan's group heads onto the next province, unaware that "The Triumvirate" -- Guardians of the City of Atlantium -- are watching closely.  The city requires a "new body" for its power source, a pulsating brain called "The Source," and Scott looks like a perfect candidate...

The Jordans continue to explore their island, splitting up into two groups.  When Scott reaches Atlantium with Varian and Fred, he learns that Eve, Jill and even his own father, Paul, have been "transferred" home safely, leaving them behind at the strange metropolis.

A vortex is commonly defined as a "whirling mass," and so "Vortex" proves an apt title for The Fantastic Journey's somewhat disjointed pilot episode.  This initial segment of this 1970s cult-tv series spins out so many concepts and ideas -- and goes in so many zig-zagging directions -- that it's hard to keep everything straight.  Behind-the-scenes, the creators of the series faced a strong head-wind: the network kept changing its mind about cast-members, and also kept interfering with the general series concept.

In particular, authors Mark Garcia and Mark Phillips report in Science Fiction Series Volume 1 (McFarland; 1996) that actor Desi Arnaz, Jr. played a significant role in the original unaired installment as a World War II pilot trapped in the Bermuda Triangle, but that his role was entirely omitted from the aired version.  Additionally, the original teleplay by One Step Beyond (1959 - 1961) scribe Merwin Gerard and Ken Pettus was re-tooled to include the new character of Varian (Jared Martin), a man from the 23rd century.

And the changes kept on coming. 

The network, NBC, apparently demanded that the heroes of Fantastic Journey could never again encounter events or people from earlier historical eras on the series (after the pirates) because the past was "boring."  They could only encounter "futuristic" time zones. 

Furthermore, newly lensed footage had to be incorporated into the already-shot pilot to explain the disappearance of three primary characters: Scott's father, Paul Jordan, Eve Costigan, and Jill Sands. 

This new material involved footage of actor Gary Collins as Dar-L, a sinister representative from a neighboring time-zone, and character from the second episode, "Atlantium."  Yet all this footage is inserted rather clumsily.

So to clarify this "honeycomb" of overlaying plots, further:  we have the original story of marine biologists -- the Jordans and Professor Jordan's students -- stranded in an island in the Bermuda Triangle, but minus a crucial central character (played by Arnaz, Jr.).  Then, we have a re-vamped story introducing Varian and his 23rd century world.  And then, on top of that, we get an explanation for the disappearance of the main replacement protagonist, Paul Jordan, and the original leading lady, Eve, and an introduction to the second episode.  Whew!  Talk about trying to do a lot with very little time...

At the same time the pilot for The Fantastic Journey attempts to deal with this veritable "musical chairs" of rotating cast members, "Vortex"depicts the tale of 1970s Americans encountering 16th century pirates, a tale that is ultimately given the short end of the stick, and plays out in extremely simplistic, aborted terms.  McShane's Camden captures Jill and when she is freed successfully is never heard from again.   Did he just give up his pursuit?  What happened to him?  Given the network's dislike of "historical" elements in the series, the whole plot about involving the 16th century  privateers feels rudimentary at best and kind of slipshod at worst.

In terms of internal logistics and believability, it is also very hard to swallow that Paul Jordan -- a concerned father -- would simply leave behind his son, Paul, in the Bermuda Triangle, even if he believed wholly that Varian and Fred were good (temporary) wards.  What father would leave behind his son on an incredible island of unknown dangers?

Given the many problems in bringing "Vortex" to air, it's really  something of a wonder that the episode works as well as it does.  The episode's first twenty minutes are particularly engaging, as the Yonder encounters that menacing green cloud on the horizon, and is absorbed into it.  As I noted in the synopsis above, we hear the cacophonous sound of ringing ship bells as the transition into the Bermuda Triangle occurs, a cheep but effectively unsettling method of suggesting that, somehow, all disappearances are occurring simultaneously (since all time zones exist side-by-side in the Devil's Triangle).

The discovery of the island is also effective. It's probably more accurate to call this jungle location a "continent," as we see that it is huge...apparently endless.  The mystery components of the episode work well as Scott concludes "it's like we're not even in the same world...anymore."   Less effective, however, are the cuts to stock footage during the Jordan's "safari."  The episode cuts from the Jordans, looking agape on all sides, to views of animals from the around the noticeably stock material (and in various, clashing environments.)

Perhaps the most powerful and effective moment in the pilot episode involves Varian's description of himself and the future world from which he hails.  This is a beautifully written monologue by Katharyn Powers and Michael Michaelian, and delivered with tremendous sensitivity by Jared Martin.    The speech goes, in part: 

"In 2230, man on Earth has unlimited resources because he's tapped the greatest resource of all, which is his mind.  Our machines are efficient and silent, and our cities are built miles high so that the land outside is free to grow food and sustain wildlife.  The five races have melded into one.  There's no more war, and no more countries.  It's just Earth.  We're productive, non-aggressive people.  We waste nothing: time, imagination, energy, effort.  Because we believe these things are the very essence of life."

I must admit, it's this kind of unfettered idealism and optimism about mankind's future that perpetually draws me, in large part to science fiction, Star Trek and yes, even The Fantastic Journey. I believe that, as a species, we possess the seeds of greatness within us, and that it is possible to achieve a world like the one Varian describes.  It's not easy, but it's a destination worth fighting for, and worth believing in.  

For the five minutes or so in which Varian explains the nature of his future paradise, The Fantastic Journey's "Vortex" truly soars.  The episode -- or at least this segment of it -- possesses a real vision and world-view.  Varian is a pacifist, a healer, a thinker and a humanitarian, and he is differentiated from the likes of Spock or Mark Harris (The Man From Atlantis) in the fact he is not an "other," meaning an alien.   He is one of us...only a better version of our nature.  The world Varian describes, incidentally, is also one that Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987 - 1994) sought to develop, showcasing how man in the future would not succumb to self-destructive urges but rather, improve himself as a species.

After this high-point in "Vortex," however, the show is mostly a "run around" -- a story wherein characters are captured and required rescue.  And then the pilot ends poorly as a set-up for episode two, with the unbelievable idea of a father abandoning his son in the Bermuda Triangle.  I understand that in terms of theme, the idea at work here is the building of a "new" family with Varian as father, Scott as son, Lianna as Mom, Sil-El as pet, and Fred and Willoway as good/naughty uncles, but it might have been better to describe Paul as murdered by Dar-L (along with Eve and Jill) rather than as merely negligent.   Paul's decision to leave the island without Scott just doesn't ring true, especially since earlier in "Vortex" we see him desperately trying to find Scott when the boy goes missing.

Conceptually, "Vortex" (and thus The Fantastic Journey) commences with an historical incident (and one also featured, at least tangentially in Steven Spielberg's 1977 film, Close Encounters).  Specifically, the prologue of "Vortex" involves the famous last sortie of Flight 19 on December 5, 1945.  History records that  on that date five Navy Avengers, on a navigation training flight, disappeared from intsruments near the Bermuda Triangle and have never (to this day...) been recovered.  It is known that the planes' compasses ceased to operate before the disappearance, and an issue of American Legion Magazine in 1962 reported that one of the pilots, upon his last transmission, reported that the water was "green."

If you can watch "Vortex" today, you'll see how original scribe Merwin Gerard -- who frequently co-opted reports of the paranormal for One Step Beyond episodes -- depicted the specifics of the  incident relatively faithfully.  We get shots here of the Avengers in mid-air, and close-ups of compasses going haywire.  And of course, the green cloud on the ocean surface fits right in with the (apocryphal?) transmission reporting "green" water.  Whether you believe in the Bermuda Triangle or think the idea is pure hooey, it's rewarding that The Fantastic Journey at least attempted to get the details of the disappearance theory (or myth) down accurately, and then spun a unique science fiction story from it.

"Vortex" introduces two critical elements to the developing The Fantastic Journey format. 

The first is the "invisible threshold" which separates time zones.  When people cross through these thresholds, we see blobs of energy and light surrounding the travelers.  This effect is utilized throughout the program to signal the transition to a new time and place. 

And secondly, the episode introduces Varian's very handy, very cool all-purpose hand device, the "Sonic Energizer," which resembles an electronic tuning fork.  It's part medical tricorder, part Sonic-screwdriver, and absolutely awesome I'd love to have a toy mock-up of the prop.  As you might guess, in a show with wandering protagonists, no standing sets, and no "landing party" equipment, Varian's sonic energizer comes in handy.

 Next episode: "Atlantium."

Theme Song of the Week: The Fantastic Journey (1977)

Monday, January 09, 2012

The Cult-TV Faces of: Tombstones

Identified by: David Colohan: The Twilight Zone: "Come Wander with Me."

Identified by Randal Graves: Star Trek: "Where No Man Has Gone Before."

Identified by SGB: Rod Serling's Night Gallery: "The Cemetery."

Identified by Randal Graves: The Incredible Hulk" Pilot and series credits montage.

Identified by Hugh: Buck Rogers in the 25th Century: "Awakening"

Identified by Randal Graves: The X-Files: "DeadAlive."

Identified by Randal Graves: Buffy the Vampire Slayer: "The Gift."

Identified by Hugh: Farscape: "Revenging Angel"

Identified by Hugh: Smallville: "Finale"

Identified by David Colohan: The Vampire Diaries: "Pilot"

Television and Cinema Verities: In the Words of the Creators # 1

"I always had this question that I would ask myself and I would ask the writers as we went forward. Why this story? And why this story now? Those questions set the bar high, and they were relevant philosophically and dramatically to their times. It's important, as a television writer, to ask yourself that question. It deepens the work. That's not to say it's always a good thing. Sometimes it makes it less accessible or more intellectual than it needs to be."

- X-Files and Millennium creator Chris Carter discusses story with me in an interview from December 2009.

Sunday, January 08, 2012

CULT TV BLOGGING: The Fantastic Journey (1977)

Back when I started this blog (waaaaaay back in 2005....) I occasionally blogged short-lived cult-tv series in their totality, including Logan's Run (1977),  Push, Nevada (2002) and Surface (2005). 

Since then, I've also occasionally launched on cult-tv blogging jags for the likes of Quark (1978), Star Maidens (1976), and episodes of Rod Serling's Night Gallery (1970-1973). 

Well, I figured this is a good time to get back to that old habit. 

Therefore, I've decided to blog over the next few weeks the series The Fantastic Journey (1977), a sci-fi program which aired for ten hour-long episodes back in the watershed year of Star Wars

I selected this particular cult series because I've always enjoyed it, it doesn't represent a vast investment in time (like blogging the entirety of Stargate, for instance...), the cast of characters remains intriguing, and because The Fantastic Journey is a cult series I'd like to see released on DVD or blu ray in the States.

With The Starlost and Man from Atlantis now available, and Logan's Run (the series) due in April, it's about time we get The Fantastic Journey too.  Along with Salvage One, Project UFO and Cliffhangers, this memorable series is one of the last 1970s cult programs not yet returned to contemporary pop culture for a second assessment.

For the uninitiated, The Fantastic Journey  -- initially known as "The Incredible Island" -- aired on NBC Thursday nights (at 8:00 pm) mainly in February and March of 1977.   Created by Bruce Lansbury, the story was story-edited, at least for a time, by Dorothy Fontana, one of the greatest writers of science fiction television during the 1960s and 1970s.

In terms of concept, The Fantastic Journey played on the in-vogue "Bermuda Triangle" craze of the disco decade.  Specifically, the series involved a group of marine biologists who inadvertently became snared by a menacing green cloud in the Bermuda Triangle, and then washed ashore on a mysterious, immense, timeless island.  This mysterious island consisted of "honeycombs" of  unique time zones, each one different from the next.  Local legends reported that a wayward traveler could find his way home to his own epoch by visiting a mecca called "Evoland," where "instantaneous transfer" equipment existed.

The Fantastic Journey underwent numerous cast changes in short order, and the first few episodes showcase this revolving door in terms of both personnel and concepts.  Eventually, the primary lead characters on the series became Varian (Jared Martin), a musical healer from the 23rd century, Dr. Fred Walters (Carl Franklin), an African-American medical student from 1976, teenager Scott Jordan (Ike Eisenmann), the manipulative and wily Dr. Willoway (Roddy McDowall), and telepathic/empathic alien/human hybrid, Liana (Katie Saylor), and her highly-intelligent cat, Sil-El.  

To put it another way, Varian was added in a late draft of the pilot, Liana in the second aired episode ("Atlantium") and Willoway in the third episode ("Beyond the Mountain"), if that tally provides a sense of how unsettled the cast was, even as the series was broadcast.

The creation of the series was rushed, no doubt, and the pilot episode "Vortex" certainly showcases this sense of zigging and zagging in many different direction. "We had very short prep time," story editor Dorothy Fontana informed me during an interview I conducted in 2001 for Filmfax: "The pilot was sold in November and we had to be on the air the following January. It was a race to get scripts ready that we could shoot, and get rolling, and actually have a show to put on the air by January. Adding to the problem, there were many cast changes from the pilot. The parents of the boy [Ike Eisenmann] were written out of the format, and we had a woman character, Lianna [Katie Saylor] in the second story ["Atlantium"].

"Roddy McDowell came along in the third episode, actually, ["Beyond the Mountain,']" Fontana noted. "In that case, I had rewritten that episode, and my job was to create a character that would attract Roddy McDowall to him. And then we liked Willoway so much that we wanted to continue him in further shows. He liked the character too, and became a regular."
"We were so rushed, doing re-writes, settling in, and trying to figure out who the characters were," Fontana explained. "After about the sixth show, we knew where we were going and were ready to run with it. Of course, at that point we started getting pre-empted, and the network started doing all those things networks do when they want to get rid of a show."

And get rid of The Fantastic Journey NBC did, cancelling the program in March of 1977. Just scant months before Star Wars revived interest in science fiction in a big way.

So in the coming weeks, between other posts here -- on The Films of 1982, Sinbad -- and more, look for an episode-by-episode retrospective of The Fantastic Journey.  The first show in the queue is that problematic pilot, the 90 minute initial outing, "Vortex."