Saturday, March 03, 2012

Saturday Morning TV Blogging: Jason of Star Command: "Web of the Star Witch" (September 29, 1979)






In "Web of the Star Witch," the third episode of Jason of Star Command’s second season, Jason’s apparently abandoned Star Fire returns to the Star Command docking bay.  Commander Stone (John Russell) is concerned over the strange arrival, and with good reason.  In secret, one of Dragos’ minions has infiltrated the base, and is planning to set a time bomb.

Meanwhile, Jason and Samantha run afoul of the evil Queen Medusa (Francine York), who desperately wants Jason to join her in seizing control of the galaxy.  After Jason refuses to team up with the villainess, he and Samantha utilize Medusa’s matter transmitter to return to Star Command, and help Stone and Parsafoot with a search for the ticking bomb…

All in all, "Web of the Star Witch" is perhaps a bit more exciting than “Frozen in Space,” (which I call “Frozen in Place.”)  There’s a little bit more intrigue in this narrative, and in terms of visuals, the episode features a terrific stop-motion alien monster.  


Watching Jason and Samantha face off against this unusual star beast, I was reminded immediately of Jason and the Argonauts (1962), and then considered again how the swashbuckling fantasy world of Ray Harryhausen seems to be one of the key inspirations of Jason of Star Command.  Consider the similarities: a heroic leader and his courageous team  -- with Samantha as a kind of female, amnesiac Hercules -- facing off against evil creatures and aliens.  In the same sense as Jason and the Argonauts, Jason of Star Command is tremendous fun, and filled with surprisingly effective special effects for a Saturday morning TV show.

Of course, some of the character mechanics don’t make a lot of sense.  Why would Medusa risk everything she has gained working with Dragos on the slim chance that Jason would join her? In terms of motivation, it doesn’t seem likely, and, of course, Jason rejects her call to join up.  “My allegiance is to Star Command and a free galaxy,” he tells her, and his words aren't exactly a surprise.

What seems missing from “Web of the Star Witch” is a larger overall plot-line, or arc.  Each Jason of Star Command features a terrible threat to Jason and to Star Command, and yet it all feels terribly random, as though Dragos is just throwing everything (including the kitchen sink…) at his opponents.  


Dragos would seem a more effective villain if the audience felt he actually had a multi-piece strategy.  On the other hand, if space terrorism is his goal, perhaps Drago is effective in "terrorizing" Star Command.

Another nice touch in “Web of the Star Witch” involves the development of Commander Stone, perhaps the season’s most intriguing personality.  Here, he demonstrates his people’s ability to implant mental directives directly in the minds of other individuals.  Specifically, he subdues an alien creature with the instruction to “rest.”  He does so by placing two fingers against the alien’s temple.   This ability looks like the Vulcan mind meld in practice, but acts like the Vulcan nerve pinch.  Regardless, it passes for a pretty cool ability.

“Web of the Star Witch” also demonstrates how WiKi has become an easy crutch for  series writers.  In this story, the tiny robot destroys the chains binding Samantha and Jason, overloads an alien computer, and saves the day again and again.  He has become, in short order, Jason’s “Get out of Jail Free” card.  He’s virtually indestructible too.

Although the presentation of Queen Medusa is hackneyed (she even possesses a magic wand...), “Web of the Star Witch” remains a pretty fast-paced half-hour, and at least gets Jason back to Star Command, so he can introduce Samantha to the rest of the gang. 


Next week: "Beyond the Stars."

Jason of Star Command: Second Season Opening Credits

Friday, March 02, 2012

The Films of 1982: (From the Archives): Blade Runner


Although released to decidedly mixed reviews and audience ennui in the summer of 1982, Ridley Scott's Blade Runner has since ascended to the pinnacle of the sci-fi cinema Valhalla.  In fact, the Scott film is often mentioned in the same breath as Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) as, perhaps, the greatest sci-fi film yet produced.

Entertainment Weekly’s Owen Gleiberman has written thatBlade Runner is a singular and enthralling experience. Never mind the plot. From its spectacular opening shot, a hellishly beautiful vision of 21st-century Los Angeles, the movie casts a druggy, hypnotic spell.”  

Reviewing the director’s cut of the film The Boston Globe wrote that the film was “a triumph of production design and cinematic mood.

As many reviews suggest, much of Blade Runner's now sterling reputation arises from the film's meticulously-crafted, pioneering production design and dazzling visual presentation.  An heir to Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1926), the 1982 Scott film visualizes a world of corporate control, class warfare, and the next-stage in our understanding of what it means to be man…or machine.  

Or as a special effects guru on the film noted to Richard Corliss in his Time Magazine review, “The environment in the film is almost a protagonist.”

Yet Blade Runner's triumph isn't merely one of forward-thinking, dramatic visualization. The film assiduously echoes the up-to-the-minute social worries of the era in which it was crafted (the 1980s), and obsesses on an issue that remains of great importance in our nation, even today: race.

Set in the future year of 2019 -- in a monolithic, blighted metropolis -- Blade Runner presents a future world in which business and technology have ballooned to titanic proportions and dwarfed the human spirit.

Advertisements for Coca-Cola and other products stand several stories high.  

And as human dwellings reach closer to the very sky itself, the more grand and opulent those residences appear. 

The lucky rich are literally awash in warm golden light, as though access to the sun is itself a perk of wealth. We see this fact visualized in the classical, clean lines of Tyrell's (Joe Turkel) sun-soaked penthouse apartment: a veritable Mount Olympus, and a home not just for a Man, but for a God on Earth.

Meanwhile, far down below on street level...it's a roiling Hell of ugly industry, punk fashion, neon lights, steam, and ubiquitous rain. 

The hungry and the poor toil there like mindless ants, mostly unnoticed by those living in luxury and wealth high above. 

Again, it’s illustrative to consider Metropolis, and the idea there of a split “future” society: rich men above the Earth, living in opulent gardens and residences, while the lower class, the workers, dwell beneath the ground, in a utilitarian city carved out of rock.  Blade Runner takes that status quo, but adds a layer of fantastic new special effects visualizations to it.

Thematically, the world of Blade Runner might best be expressed by a throwaway line featured in the film: “If you're not a cop, you're little people.” 

And if you're not human, if you're a Replicant, you aren't even little people.

Importantly, that dynamic represents the core of the film's race-based statement. That mankind has played God by creating the Replicants, but then steadfastly refused to acknowledge this creation, this child, with the very dignities we all cherish every day: equality and liberty.

Like all underclasses throughout history, the android Replicants in Blade Runner are known by a derogatory slang term: skin-jobs. And Replicants also boast a built-in expiration date that makes them seem less than fully human: they die four years after their "incept date."

As you may well imagine, this fact doesn't sit well with some Replicants, and that's what precipitates much of the action in the film. A cadre of Replicants returns to Earth (from off-world) on a spiritual quest; on a search for more life that, in sub textual terms, might be interpreted as the search for racial equality.  The Replicants don’t want to be classified inferior, their very lives and identities unimportant and unrecognized.  They want equality (and more life)…fucker.

Man Has Made His Match. Now It's His Problem.

In narrative terms, Blade Runner revolves around the hunt and pursuit of six renegade replicants. 

Yep, I wrote six, and that's according to Los Angeles' police chief, Bryant (M. Emmet Walsh) in explicitly stated dialogue. 

This number is important to note, especially according to one specific interpretation of the film. But more on that reading later.

The man doing the hunting in this case is the laconic, hard-boiled and lonely Deckard (Harrison Ford), a former detective in a special police squad called Blade Runners. Blade Runners are famous for "retiring" skin jobs.

The quarry this time includes Leon (Brion James), Zhora (Joanna Cassidy), Pris (Daryl Hannah) and Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer). And yes, that's only four names, even though Bryant specifically mentioned six replicants.

Over the course of his investigation, Deckard questions the latest model of Replicant, a new upgrade built by the Tyrell Corporation named Rachel (Sean Young). "More human than human" as the slogan goes, and Rachel doesn't realize she's actually a machine. She even boasts distinctive memories from her childhood. But these memories are really just clever implants; the memories of "Tyrell's niece."

Deckard soon falls in love with the winsome, confused Rachel and -- depending on which version of the film you see -- also experiences strange dreams of a unicorn in a primeval forest. After hunting down the last of the Replicants, Deckard must decide if he should pursue his romantic relationship with a Replicant.

Meanwhile, the aggrieved Replicants go in search of their God, Tyrell, only to learn that he knowingly created not children...but slaves.

"I Think It Was Manufactured Locally:" 1980s Terrors Lurking in Los Angeles, 2019

Early in the 1980s, many citizens in the United States of America feared that the country had a new, powerful and sinister competitor: Japan.  At the time, that Pacific  nation excelled in industry, manufacturing, and the development of new technologies. 

Importantly, Japan was also the United States' main international creditor in this era, and it benefited financially from a forty-to-fifty-billion dollar trade gap with the United States.

In particular, the Japanese auto industry seemed to be cleaning Detroit's clock. Many World War II veterans who had fought in the Pacific and had witnessed the draconian, brutal behavior of the Japanese in a time of conflict, perceived a new danger to America.

As a character in Die Hard (1988) knowingly jokes, "Pearl Harbor didn't work" so Japan was conquering the United States economically: with "VCRs." There were many Americans of the Greatest Generation who felt precisely that way in the early 1980s, and my beloved, now-deceased paternal grandfather was one of them. He never bought a Japanese car.

Although structurally and visually a deliberate reprise of the 1940s film noir (an era, incidentally of actual rather than economic war with Japan), one of Blade Runner's many undercurrents involves this 1980s incursion of Japanese business interests in future America.

In particular, it appears that in 2019, American business (always ahead of the curve and looking for ways to stay alive....), has assimilated Japanese business interests into its very structure so as to continue turning huge profits and remain on the top of the food chain.  

Or, as authors Douglas Kellner, Flo Leibowitz and Michael Ryan wrote in their essay, Blade Runner: A Diagnostic Critique (Jump Cut, February 1985, pages 6-8):

"Crowds of people mill through rain-soaked streets, evoking common fears about overpopulation and "foreigners" overrunning future cities. On the East and West coasts of the U.S., for example, Japanese ramen and sushi cafes have replaced U.S. fast food chains, and visibly prominent are many Asian merchants and street people. The film here seems to articulate paranoia about Japanese capitalism "taking over" the United States. Nevertheless, the film’s city (Los Angeles) seems under the hegemony of U.S. capitalism, which now seems to have incorporated its rivals into its structure. The society’s economic structure combines small, street-merchant-style, "free enterprise" with paternalistic capitalist control. Most of the merchants in the film are Asian or European, whereas the corporate president and executives of the Tyrell Corporation are all North Americans."

So Blade Runner acknowledges the timely fear of a Japanese take-over in America, but puts a spin on it. Even the resourceful Japanese have become slaves to a Corporate Nation – the 1% -- in the future.

Similarly, Replicants -- constructed piece-meal in Mom/Dad, Asian-controlled shops such as the Eye Factory run by Chew (James Hong) -- are another symbol of Big Business run amok in the future of Blade Runner; of the consumer culture of the 1980s carried to the next level. It's a world where human beings use other beings (androids) for pleasure, to fight wars, and to perform menial tasks that humans apparently no longer wish to do.

And yes, this description today rather uncannily mirrors how immigrants are viewed in modern American society. Interestingly, the film suggests that Big Business will go along with a new influx of workers from other nations, and even co-opt that work force so to stay on "top," literally, of the situation (living high, high above it, in palatial skyscrapers).

"Is This to Be An Empathy Test?" A Replicant Civil Rights Movement in Blade Runner

In the World War II era, a dedicated drive towards equality for all U.S. citizens was begun here at home. The 1940s was the epoch of Roosevelt's Executive Order 8802, which opened up new job possibilities for African-Americans. It was also the era in which white-only primaries were judged unconstitutional by the Supreme Court.

Importantly, the noir era in film was also the age of Truman's National Committee on Civil Rights, CORE (Congress of Racial Equality), and the election of Chicago's William Dawson in the House of Representatives. There was still a long way to go, but the long march towards racial equality was beginning in earnest.

Blade Runner explicitly discusses race and the history of race inequality in America. As I noted above, it speaks deliberately and forcefully in the film language (noir) of the 1940s, an era when race was a concern in the United States as enumerated above.

More than that, the Replicants in the film are described in historically racist terms, ones involving the nature of their skin, not the quality of their character. They are not "colored" or "negro," but "skin-jobs. Replicants are not considered "fully" human, and again, this reflects our very history: In 1789, in the Constitution, African-Americans were considered 3/5s of a person...not the equivalent of a white person, in other words. 

Why is this important?  If you see someone as being less than fully human (like, say an "illegal"), that descriptor makes it much easier to enslave them, or to deny them basic human rights. In the film, Roy Batty acknowledges this fact and contextualizes his experience, and the experience of the Replicants…as slavery. He discusses with Deckard what "it is to be a slave."

I suppose there is no need to describe Deckard's hunt of the Replicants as a "high-tech lynching" but certainly, the Replicants are treated harshly as a matter of course in 2019. Deckard shoots Zhora in the back, exposing the ugly truth that Replicants have no legal rights in this society. They are not arrested and afforded due process of law. They are not innocent until proven guilty. 

Instead, Replicants are shot on sight because of what they are, not because of their conduct. This is the essential characteristic of institutional racism: denying people freedom not because of their behavior; but because of their origin, skin color and heritage. 

If you desire to delve deeply into the visuals of Blade Runner, consider that Zhora is murdered while crashing through a series of transparent glass barriers, a metaphor, perhaps, for the oft-mentioned "glass ceiling" that keeps racial/ethnic minorities from achieving high level positions in society.

Leon attempts to kill Deckard and says to him, "painful to live in fear, isn't it?" And that too is a crucial part of the racial equation. For the Replicants, it's the knowledge that they can be shot and killed at any time simply for living in a city where the authorities deem they do not belong. For Latinos in Arizona today, it's the knowledge that you can be asked for your papers by armed police simply because of your skin color.

You can travel pretty deep down the rabbit hole with this interpretation of the film, if that's your inclination. There's a test in Blade Runner for determining if a person is human or Replicant, and it is called a "Voigt-Kampff" Test. That name sounds uncomfortably like Hitler's manifesto Mein Kampf, doesn't it? And when we think of the Nazis, we remember their belief in racial purity, the subjugating of "lesser" races, right? The Voight-Kampf functions as a tool to identify one such lesser race: the Replicant.

And interestingly, what this test seeks is the "empathy" response in the iris, in the eyeball.  "Empathy," of course, has become a racial code word in America today, as we saw during the last two Supreme Court justice nominating processes. What Blade Runner doesn't make plain, however, is if Replicants possess a surfeit or lack of empathy in their iris responses.  What do humans possess?  More or less empathy than a Replicant?

Fnally, what's abundantly clear in Blade Runner is that Replicants are people too. They are, as the saying goes, more human than human.  They love, they mourn, and they want what all human beings want: more life. In fact, the Replicants undergo a real spiritual quest in the film. They seek to find their God, Tyrell, and petition him for more life. They seek forgiveness from him too, at least after a fashion, for their brutal methods of self-preservation. In answer, they are told by Tyrell, Our Corporate God, that they have done nothing "the God of biomechanics wouldn't let you into heaven for."

Of course, the Replicants then kill God, but the relevant point is that Replicants, like humans, seek to understand their very nature, and turn to the divine for that knowledge.

Roy Batty does even more than that, however. He not only seeks answers from his God, but, ultimately, shows mercy to his enemies, which is something you cannot say for the police in Blade Runner. Batty could kill Deckard...but chooses to save his life instead.  In his final moment of life, he decides that life is too beautiful to snuff out, even in an enemy.

In this beautiful and emotionally-wrenching climactic scene of Blade Runner, Batty is depicted grasping a white dove as his time on Earth runs out. 

This bird is a representation of the Holy Spirit in Christian Mythology, and a symbolic signifier that Batty is truly one of God's creatures and, through his mercy, has earned the right to be considered such. 

When the dove flies heavenward, released by Batty, the image suggests that Batty's soul has fled his body; that he was more than just a machine.  Like all of us, he possesses a spirit.

You've Done A Man's Job, or Less Human Than Human: The Deckard Equation

One of the key questions regarding Blade Runner involves its protagonist, Deckard. Director Ridley Scott has suggested that Deckard is, in fact, a Replicant himself. Harrison Ford has gone on record as saying he believes the opposite, that Deckard is human.

As in all great art, a case can probably be made either way.

If Deckard is a Replicant, then he is clearly "passing" as a human being, and that seems to fit in with the film's racial overtones.  

Indeed, there are passages of dialogue in the film that hint at Deckard's mechanical nature. In particular, Gaff (Edward James Olmos) tells Deckard after Batty is dead that the blade runner performed a "man's job." In other words, a job worthy of a man, or a human being.  This description could be interpreted to mean that the Replicant Deckard has performed as well as a human would under similar circumstances. It is thus a race-centric remark (Hey, you did good….for a black guy!) and thus an acknowledgment of Deckard's genetic origin.

Also, Gaff leaves behind at Deckard's apartment a small origami Unicorn.  In the director's cut of Blade Runner, Deckard dreams of a unicorn in the forest. If Gaff is aware that all Replicants are encoded with the unicorn dream as part of their unusual genetic make-up, then he has left behind the origami unicorn to help Deckard understand the truth about himself. If only Deckard can put it all together...

In the final battle at the Bradbury building, Batty also says to Deckard "let's see what you're made of," as if there is a question about Deckard truly is made of, genetically-speaking. 

Well, what is Deckard made of?

The following fight scene suggests that our hero is made of much the same stuff as Batty. 

Notice that in the ensuing fight, Scott's camera catches both Deckard and Batty mending damaged hands at roughly the same time, through the art of cross-cutting. 

This editing choice could represent a subtle, visual connection. Both men share something in common: an injury. 

On one level this could simply be an indication that a Replicant boasts the same survival instinct as a human does.

On another level, it could mean that these men share a different kind of "kinship," Replicant-hood, if that's a word. 

Also, it's important to note that both Batty and Deckard are slaves, though in service of different masters. But this too could be interpreted either way. To demonstrate, perhaps, that the gulf between human and Replicant is not so wide; or more pointedly, to sub-textually suggest that both men are Replicants.

Lastly, remember that Bryant discussed six free Replicants.  Yet the movie depicts four Replicants, and notes that one (the fifth?) was killed attempting to cross a border, a fence (a death which again, reeks of racial connotations in today's America).

That leaves one Replicant remaining, right?

So who is the sixth and final Replicant?  It can't be Rachel, because when Bryant conveys the story of the six Replicants to Deckard, Rachel has not yet left the custodianship of Tyrell.  Therefore, by process of elimination, the sixth Replicant must be Deckard himself.

Finally, the very form that Blade Runner utilizes -- the film noir detective story -- suggests Deckard's mechanical heritage. In the best film noir movies, the investigation by a detective leads, inevitably, to some shattering personal revelation.

Consider Johnny Favorite's journey of self-discovery in a Blade Runner contemporary, Angel Heart (1987), or the shattering revelation by Faye Dunaway's character in Polanski's Chinatown (1974). 

In noir, we must conclude that the ultimate discovery is not who-did-it.

Rather, it is "who am I?," the discovery or assertion of identity

If Deckard is indeed a Replicant, then the film adheres closely to this noir format and tradition That's ultimately why I favor this interpretation (that Deckard is a machine); it seems encoded in the film's very DNA.

On the other side of the equation, if Deckard is not a replicant, then, at the very least the film's racial overtones carry an optimistic message to go out on. If even a Blade Runner can fall in love with a Replicant, as Deckard does here, then there is hope yet for the human race to overcome bigotry and prejudice. There is some hope of future equality for these artificial people.

But whether Deckard is a Replicant or a human being, Blade Runner remains a brilliantly-conceived and dynamically-executed motion picture. By co-opting the film noir approach, Ridley Scott's film creates not only a daring vision of the future, but subconsciously evokes a time period in American history when racism was more up-front and blatant than it is today. The film noir approach thus grants some breathing room for the film to contextualize the Replicant experience of 2019 in language that we all understand and recognize, at least subconsciously.

Blade Runner is so packed with fascinating ideas and subtexts (like the quest for immortality; for example), that it's almost impossible to do the film any sort of justice in one blog post.  As critic Rita Kempley wrote in The Washington Post (back in 1992): 

"Every viewing of "Blade Runner" brings new discoveries..."

Movie Trailer: Blade Runner (1982)

Thursday, March 01, 2012

CHOICE recommends Horror Films of the 1990s



A new review for my book, Horror Films of the 1990s!

CHOICE, Current Reviews for Academic Libraries, writes

"Muir is probably the best known, if not the best authority on contemporary horror films, and this latest edition in his ongoing series (Horror Films of the 1970s, 2002; Horror Films of the 1980s....) will be a welcome edition to the library of any fan of the genre....the body of each entry is devoted to Muir's excellent commentary...Highly recommended."

CULT-TV FLASHBACK #150: Land of the Giants: "Crash" (September 23, 1968)

The final Irwin Allen sci-fi TV initiative of the 1960s, Land of the Giant (1968 - 1970) ran for two seasons and fifty-one hour-long episodes on ABC, and involved a group of desperate castaways trapped on a dangerous world of gigantic humanoids and other over-sized threats.

The first episode of Land of the Giants, written by Anthony Wilson and directed by Irwin Allen, "Crash" commences on the far future date of June 12, 1983.  

A sub-orbital ship, The Spindrift, encounters "solar turbulence" upon final sub-orbital approach to London.  Before long, the small vessel crashes on a strange world, and the crew and passengers encounter the peculiar dangers of this planet, namely giant spiders, cats, lizards...and (apparently) humans.

The Spindrift crew contingent includes Gary Conway as Captain Steve Burton (Gary Conway), co-pilot Dan Erickson (Don Marshall), and Betty (Heather Young), the stewardess or flight attendant.  


The passengers include the Dr. Smith-like trouble-maker, Alexander Fitzhugh (Kurt Kaszner), a young boy, Barry (Stefan Arngrim), the beautiful Valerie (Deanna Lund), and an impatient businessman, Mark Wilson (Don Matheson).

In "Crash," Steve and Valerie are captured while exploring the jungle surrounding the downed Spindrift and abducted to a laboratory inside a scientist's (Dan Watters) insect specimen container.  

The alien scientist -- a dead ringer for a young George Lucas -- discovers his unusual trophies, and straps the helpless captives to specimen slides, where he prods the helpless humans with scalpel and pencil.  

In short order, Dan and Mark engineer a rescue, exploding a gas line in the giant's laboratory as a distraction.

All together once more, the Spindrift team takes refuge in a garbage dump, even as an angry dog nears...

Like much of Irwin Allen's work in cult television, Land of the Giants is long on production values and action, and short on inventive character development or social commentary. Here, in the premiere episode, the same existential threat repeats again and again.  In "The Crash," our heroes are endangered by one gigantic creature after another, which leaves the women screaming in terror.  

It gets a bit old before even the first hour is over...

Despite the relative emptiness of the narrative in terms of stock characters and villains, "Crash" remains quite an accomplishment in terms of special effects and production design.  The mist-enshrouded jungle studio set, for example, is colossal, and more-than-convincing for its day.  

Additionally,  it's important to recall that Land of the Giants was crafted well before the age of CGI and digital effects, so the over-sized sets and props all had to be constructed, and then meticulously matched with "regular"-sized live-action footage.  By and large, the special effects haven't aged very much at all, and are still incredibly effective.  This is as it should be: each episode of Land of the Giants was budgeted at a then-whopping $250,000 dollars.

Sometimes, the strong effects actually do create high drama. Good tension arises in "Crash," for instance, when the George Lucas lookalike giant pursues the escaping Earthers to a small gutter, and then stretches his arm into the tunnel after them, shouting "come back."  The scene represents a dazzling and effective blend of viewpoints and effect techniques.  

In terms of the continuing series, "Crash" also sets the tenor for Land of the Giants.  Here, Steve and Valerie quickly debate about whether or not they should attempt peaceful communication with the planet's giants.  Valerie wants to try, but Steve insists they will merely be treated as "six inch tall" freaks. 

Very rapidly, it is Steve's view of things that legitimized by the events of the episode, since even a scientist is not inclined to treat the tiny people very well.

By episode's end, the castaways from the Spindrift, including Barry's dog, Chipper, end up at "the bottom of the barrel," a garbage dump, and encounter a vicious dog there.   Already the die is cast: this is a world of danger, and the giants are to be treated as enemies.

Over the course of two years, Land of the Giants presented much information (some of it contradictory, if memory serves) about the planet of the Giants.  The Giants, for instance, had an awareness of Earth's existence and were also conscious that transit between the two worlds was possible.  Yet, at the same time, the giants did not seem to be as technologically-advanced as Earth of 1983.  Various episodes of the series saw the castaways either attempting to repair their ship and leave the dangerous planet, or effect change on the planet itself, which seemed to be ruled by a repressive totalitarian state.


I grew up watching Allen's Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea and Lost in Space, but not The Time Tunnel or Land of the Giants.  Accordingly, I find the latter two programs a bit difficult to "get into" today, and even a bit empty in terms of ideas, characters and situations.   In short, I admire how Land of the Giants looks in terms of design and execution, but that isn't enough to keep me tuned in for the full fifty-one hours.  

Rather, I see Land of the Giants as intriguing because it fits entirely Allen's basic formula in science fiction television: showcasing, essentially, how technology can go wrong, stranding people in time, outer space, or other hostile environmental domains.  

In at least three of Allen's programs -- excluding Voyage --  the technologically-superior people end up forsaking the advanced tools of technology to "live off the land," more or less, and embrace a more primitive, pioneer life-style.   I suspect Allen's TV work looks this way, in part, because of the popularity of the Western genre on television in the 1960s.  

But also, as you can detect in many Star Trek episodes of the day ("The Ultimate Computer," for instance), there existed a general distrust of technological progress in the late 1960s, mainly in the form of computers and automation.  I submit that Lost in Space, Time Tunnel and Land of the Giants all key off both the rampant techno-phobia of the decade while also hoping, contrarily, to tap the "Camelot"-styled optimism of the age as well.  These two opposing impulses make Allen's series somewhat schizophrenic, but also damn interesting, at least on a broad, analytical  level.

Sci-Fi Wisdom of the Week



"I thought you were supposed to be good. Aren't you the "good" man?"

- Blade Runner (1982), to be reviewed here tomorrow.

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Davy Jones (1945 - 2012)

I'm saddened to report the news that Davy Jones, singer for the Monkees, has passed away at the age of sixty-six.  He apparently died of a massive heart attack.

I believe this terribly sad news is going to hit many folks of my generation (and a little older) pretty hard. Young Davy Jones was one of the earliest of the pop-culture/teenage "heart throbs," immortalized not just on The Monkees (1966 - 1968) and in the film Head (1968), but in a popular episode of The Brady Bunch, "Getting Davy Jones" (1971) as well.

I remember watching The Monkees religiously in reruns as a kid, well after the initial Beatles and Monkees crazes had died down.  And yet the series was still popular in the mid-1970s when I watched, and I remember owning at least one Monkees album.

Like Star Trek, Gilligan's Island, Lost in Space, The Twilight Zone, The Brady Bunch and I Love Lucy, The Monkees remains a Generation X touchstone, and Davy Jones was a crucial element of it.  Today, I still remember Ben Stiller's 1990s riff on The Monkees, called "The Grungies," and how it satirized the offbeat stylistic/humorous flourishes of the 1960s series.  I suppose certain people will always consider The Monkees a TV-cash-in on The Beatles, but the great thing about television is that it offers you the opportunity to get to know characters in a series more intimately than a film does, over a period of weeks, months, and years.

That's what happened with The Monkees.  The group -- Mickey, Peter, Mike and Davy -- came into our living rooms and quickly become friends.  They never left us, at least not in our memories, and we never forgot them.

One thing is for certain, Davy Jones brought a lot of joy into the lives of my generation as it was growing up, and losing him now is a difficult proposition.  My sympathies go out to his family for the loss of a tremendous talent.

Below I've embedded some of Mr. Jones memorable musical performances.

Rest in peace, Davy Jones...












Support My Blog Button Now Working...

Hi Folks,

I've had some very generous readers here attempt to send me donations for the blog, using the button appearing on the right side-bar.  Problem is, it hasn't been working right.

I've tried over and over to get it operational, to no avail. So I finally gave up the ghost and switched to Paypal for this service.  But the donation button to the right is now (at last...) working properly.

So without sounding too craven (I hope...) donate away!

And thank you very much for your support.

Now back to your regularly scheduled blogging...

best,
John

Memory Bank: Star Trek Fotonovels (Mandala Productions; 1977 - 1978)


With the dawn of the home video market and the VHS format also came the death of the niche publication known as the "photonovel."  

If you grew up in the late 1970s and early 1980s, you'll no doubt recall that photonovels represented an essential part of "fandom"  during that span.  Since you couldn't easily watch your favorite films or TV programs any time you wanted, save for the convenient or lucky rerun, the photonovel offered one the valuable opportunity to revisit favorite productions like Star Trek: The Motion Picture, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Battlestar Galactica, Buck Rogers or even Outland. 

In essence, the photonovel was a visual re-telling of a movie or TV episode that featured hundreds (perhaps even thousands...) of frames or stills from that production, as well as "balloon" dialogue (like a comic book) from the script or teleplay.  

The photonovels were gorgeous to look at, featured details you might have missed while watching the film, and also served as an important lesson in film grammar  In other words, you could see, moment to moment, how directors and editors had chosen to compose the action in various productions.  If you were an aspiring filmmaker or film critic, this last plus was a real kick.

In 1977 and 1978, an outfit called Mandala Productions, working for Bantam, released ten episodes of Star Trek in the photonovel or "fotonovel" format.  These episodes included "City on the Edge of Forever," "Where No Man Has Gone Before," "The Trouble with Tribbles," "A Taste of Armageddon," "Metamorphosis," "All Our Yesterdays," "The Galileo Seven," "A Piece of the Action," "Devil in the Dark" and "Day of the Dove."  

Each thick-bound fotonovel from Mandala featured "over 300" color photographs from the episode adapted, and even more than that.  Each fotonovel also featured reader mail and a cast list with descriptions of important characters.  Even better, following each adaptation was a "glossary" that provided definitions for things such as "sensors," "Pergium," "Thermo-Concrete," and more. 

Some editions even featured interviews with guest cast (Mariette Hartley was featured in #6: "All our Yesterdays"), a story quiz, and a sneak preview of the next Fotonovel.

As I wrote recently, I spent the better part of some of my youthful summers on six-week-long camping trips across the U.S., traveling from New Jersey to California and back.  I've seen just about every state in the country, save for Alaska and Hawaii at this point.  

Anyway, since we were making our family journey in a Ford van, we often went for long driving spells from state to state.  Regardless, I was away from the TV -- horrors! -- for long spells of time, and so these Star Trek Fotonovels went with me.  My edition of "Day of the Dove" has fallen apart, and my favorite edition of the bunch, "Where No Man Has Gone Before," is close behind it.  I loved "Where No Man..." so much because it was a pilot episode, and therefore filled with oddities such as the goose-neck screens, the phaser rifle and the transparent communicator.  The fotonovel gave me the opportunity to eat all of the detail up on this "alternate" Trek tech.

I've kept my Mandala Star Trek Fotonovels to this day, though of course, Star Trek is now available for our viewing pleasure on DVD, on Netflix, on Amazon and elsewhere.  

Still, there's something absolutely wonderful about experiencing the series in this colorful paperback format...





Collectible of the Week: Alien Resurrection Movie Edition Action Figures (Kenner; 1997)



No bones about it, Alien Resurrection is my least favorite "pure" Alien movie.  There's something vaguely cartoonish and campy about the affair that I find troublesome and irksome, though I readily admit there are moments and scenes I cherish.

But none of those moments feature Dan Hedaya, I assure you.

At the very least, the crew of the Betty gave us an early glimpse of Joss Whedon's Firefly concept. and as usual, Sigourney Weaver was terrific as Ripley.

Anyway, in the year of Alien Resurrection's release (also the year of Starship Troopers), Kenner -- a company that had already released some terrific Alien and Predator-styled toys in the early 1990s -- released a "movie edition" set of six action figures from the fourth Alien movie.  These were relatively large figures compared to the earlier editions, about six-inches in height.

The toy box described the film's milieu in rather verbose terms:

"The Future.  An old enemy.  The perfect predator.  A zealous assembly of scientists and officials conducting the experimental wedding of human and alien genes...A band of renegade space smugglers and the mysterious appearance of a woman linked to an alien species dangerous beyond calculation!  The result is a peril reborn and more shockingly monstrous than ever before!"

Kenner produced two protagonists for this variation on their Aliens line, the aforementioned Ripley, described as "warrant officer" and "alien behavioral expert," and Winona Ryder's android, Call, described plainly as the "mechanic of the Betty Ship."

The alien side was represented by the warrior ("drone to the Alien queen,") the battle-scarred alien ("combat ravaged warrior drone"), the Aqua Alien ("genetically enhanced aquatic alien") and finally, the Newborn ("genetic human/alien hybrid").

The likenesses on the human(oid) characters are pretty good, and alien drone, Newborn and battle scarred aliens all look pretty awesome, as you can hopefully see.

The aquatic alien was not featured in the film, though there was an underwater scene in the film designed and executed as an homage to The Poseidon Adventure.  I understand that the Newborn alien is pretty unpopular with Alien fans because, heck, why mess with perfection when it comes to these xenomorphs, but it's certainly a ghoulish-looking thing.

Another nice touch: many of the figures come complete with awesome miniature toys, including facehuggers, a small alien queen, and...a blood-spattered chestburster. 

Now, my son Joel has never ever seen any of the Alien movies...I would never allow that at his tender age.  But he loves the monster action figures, particularly the Newborn and the chest-burster.  Except he just thinks the chestburster is a red-speckled worm monster/baby alien...

Cloned from a Mutual Zygote: Cinematic Joan of Arc(s)


Tuesday, February 28, 2012

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: Dream House (2011)


I must confess that it’s difficult to write a meaningful review of the 2011 psychological horror film, Dream House starring Daniel Craig, Rachel Weisz, and Naomi Watts without revealing the specifics of the twisting narrative.  

Of course, if you happen to watch the film’s trailer, it gives away the whole story anyway, so perhaps I needn’t worry…

I don’t usually resort to spoiler warnings in my reviews, but in fairness, I should do so here.  Please read no further if you still hope to be surprised by the details of Dream House.

Still here?

All right, then. 

Dream House not only stars three of today’s finest actors, it is directed by Jim Sheridan, the talent who gave us greats and near greats like My Left Foot (1989), The Field (1990), In The Name of the Father (1993) and Brothers (2009).  Given such an impressive pedigree, you’d expect that Dream House would be more than your by-the-numbers, throwaway Hollywood would-be blockbuster. 

Unfortunately, that’s precisely what the film is.

In short, if you’ve seen Shutter Island (2009) or John Carpenter’s The Ward (2010), you’ve pretty much seen Dream House too.  The movie progresses along starkly predictable lines, and with precious little variation from established formula.  Additionally, the film reduces the mysteries of the after-life to the sentimental platitudes of Ghost Whisperer or Touched by an Angel.   That some of this treacle is actually emotionally affecting is a tribute to the quality of the actors, and their commitment to the boilerplate material.


Dream House is the tale of a family man, Will Atenton (Craig), who quits his job as an editor in Manhattan to write the great American novel at a rustic but expensive home in picturesque Connecticut.  There, he lives with his wife, Libby (Weisz) and his two cute-as-button young daughters.

Soon, strange things occur at the house.  Teenagers camp out in the basement. Interlopers stand at the windows and stare inside.  Night visitors seem to lurk everywhere.  Before long, Will learns that the previous occupants of the house -- a family also consisting of a wife and two daughters -- were murdered by a man named Peter Ward, the family patriarch. 

In exploring the crime further, Will is shocked to learn that he is actually Peter Ward, and that he went mad after killing his family.  The “spirits” of his family in the house are apparently mere manifestations of his twisted, sick mind.  He invented the appellation “Will Atenton” in an attempt to deny his previous reality.


Yet Will/Peter is certain he would never kill his beloved family.  He senses that the key to what really happened to his loved ones resides with a neighbor, Ann Patterson (Watts), who has been battling with her estranged husband for custody of their daughter.

If you watch Dream House with a careful eye, you’ll recognize The Sixth Sense (1999) gambit in play. Namely, Rachel Weisz’s character, Libby, never interacts with any other character and is never seen by anyone other than Will.  Police and neighbors come and go all the time, and Libby is always conveniently in the background or off-screen when the interaction occurs.  Once you become aware of this tactic, Dream House’s first narrative twist is patently obvious.

At about the forty-five minute point, Will Atenton – attention! -- learns the truth about his identity (telegraphed by the last name “Ward”) and spends the remainder of the picture attempting to clear his sullied name.  The film’s final twist revolves around the idea that the ghosts of Will’s family aren’t mere figments of his imagination.  They are actual ghosts that can affect their environment, at least to some degree. This proves a convenient development, since the murderer rears his head again after five years, and threatens to kill Will.

The setting of Dream House is wintry, chilly and commendably melancholy.  The score is appropriately lugubrious.  You know from the first frames that something is legitimately amiss, and yet the film offers few genuine surprises.  


One of them involves an authentically disturbing sequence wherein Will’s children begin to spontaneously manifest the bloody symptoms of the gunshot wounds that killed them.  If you are a parent, you’ll find this moment utterly horrifying. It’s downright traumatic, and expertly vetted.

But the rest of the film is less spiky, daring, and blunt.  Although Will/Peter is clearly delusional and confrontational, nobody in a position of authority thinks to put him away.  Even when he visits his previous sanitarium, the doctors there don’t lock Will up.  One physician even explicitly notes he is “a danger” to himself “and to others,” however.  Of course, if a doctor truly believed such a thing, he would be legally and morally obligated to act upon his diagnosis, and that doesn’t happen.

Dream House hits a few other false notes.  For instance, Will learns that the ghosts of his family are real and waiting for him in the afterlife, and yet he is forced to say goodbye to them at the tearful climax.  Why say goodbye at all?

If I were separated from my wife and son and I knew they were alive in some spectral form – essentially still playing house, for eternity – I’d surely join them at my earliest possible convenience.  It would be one thing if the film established that suicide would prevent Will from a rendezvous with his loved ones, but it doesn’t. 

Instead, the ghosts are present and available to the sight and touch so long as the screenplay requires them to be.  Then, when the movie wants to make the point about Will moving on with his life, the ghosts arbitrarily must leave, and he can’t see them anymore.  It all feels a bit manipulative.  That the tender goodbye between husband and wife works as well as it does, again, is because of Craig and Weisz.

Finally, the film’s last and most insulting touch -- that Will writes a best-selling book about his experience -- is a gross testament to our culture’s desperate desire for fame and fortune.  So, Will has lost his wife and daughters at a young age…but hell, at least he’s rich!

If you gaze at Dream House long and hard enough, you begin to see how it wanted to be something other than a mechanical retread of the delusional protagonist story we’ve seen everywhere from Identity (2000) to the aforementioned Shutter Island and The Ward.  


For example, there are many scenes here which nicely stress the gulf between idealized self and real life, perfect life vs. shattered life.  We see it in the décor of the house, which zips back and forth between looking idyllic and dilapidated.  We can see it in Will himself, who changes hair-dos and fashion sense whenever he becomes Peter.  This is an interesting conceit, and yet the movie doesn’t really want to go with it. It would rather tell a The Fugitive (1993)-styled story of a man falsely accused of murder than the story of a man who, by necessity of psychological trauma, became two people. 

But, of course, to accept that Will is schizophrenic, we must believe that he remembers absolutely nobody from his time as Peter.  Not his cell-mates, not his doctor, and not his fellow inmates at the half-way house.  And even more suspiciously, none of these folks confront him as Will, either. They just shoot him vaguely menacing looks from a distance.  These unmotivated close-ups of wary police officers, doctors and other strangers happen so many times in the film that the editing gives the game away.  We know much too soon (even without benefit of the trailer) that Will is Peter. 

Dream House’s narrative also stalls out after a while, as if it is marking time for the next twist.  For instance, we are told that Will can learn if he is really Peter by checking for a scar on the side of his head. 

It takes him a long, long time to get around to that simple and certain test.

Because Dream House is so perfunctory and familiar a tale, the only real distinction it might achieve would be in term of visualization. I found this to be abundantly true of Carpenter’s The Ward for instance. Although the story resolved in a familiar fashion, the gleeful zeal of Carpenter’s 1960s exploitation approach ameliorated the tale’s predictability.  Similarly, Shutter Island was so byzantine and elaborate that Scorsese was able to achieve much doubt and anxiety within the familiar frame work.  But Dream House doesn’t possess much by way of flair in execution.  The “two worlds” conceit I noted above is more than adequately addressed in terms of wardrobe and production design, but it could have also been applied to visual composition too, so that the world according to Will/Peter feels different and different times.

Ultimately, Dream House fails by being a bit schizophrenic itself.  It wants to be all things to all demographics.  It wants to create a world of mental delusion for Will, and suggest that his ghosts are real personalities, impacting the environment.  It wants to make Will the guilty identity of a shamed and ruined Peter, but it doesn’t really want Peter to be ruined or shamed, either.  He's got to be a conventional heroic figure, and of course, he couldn't be guilty of a terrible crime, right?

In zig-zagging so enthusiastically between premises, Dream House feels like a movie built on a foundation of shifting sand.