Saturday, March 02, 2013

From the Archive: 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.

From the Archive: The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1958)

"When I started out, the amazing image on the screen was quite rare. Today, spectacular and amazing imagery is so profuse that it's commonplace. The astounding is no longer astounding, because you're inundated on television and on the movie screen with the most amazing visuals."

- Ray Harryhausen, in an interview at Bright Lights Film Journal with Damien Love, entitled "Monsters Inc." (2007)


For a certain generation of filmmaker and film-goer, special effects artist and art director Ray Harryhausen remains a seminal influence. 

Talents as diverse as Tim Burton,  Dennis Muren, Steven Spielberg, Phil Tippet, and Sam Raimi count the gentleman as such, and have honored Harryhausen's impressive career and talent in numerous cinematic tributes and homages across the years. 

What is Army of Darkness (1992), after all, but a twisted appreciation of Harryhausen-esque tropes and techniques?

Harryhausen himself has given the world such memorable fantasy films as Mysterious Island (1961) and Clash of the Titans (1981), but for many Generation X'ers, he is also very fondly remembered for his Sinbad franchise: a troika of adventure/fantasy films (spanning 1958 - 1977) that, in many significant ways, represented the best fantasy game in town for swashbuckling kids in an era pre-Star Wars (1977).  

In the last several weeks, I've introduced my five-year old son Joel to the Sinbad films, and he's become an avid fan.  We're a little bummed, actually, that there are only three Sinbad movies to watch together, so the final "Saturdays with Sinbad" installment here will include a look at arguably Harryhausen's best film in this vein, 1963's Jason and the Argonauts ,just to cap things off in style.

But our topic here today is the first Sinbad movie, entitled The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1958).  Rated G and lasting a scant 88 minutes, this classic adventure film is a collaboration between Harryhausen, producer Charles Schneer and director Nathan Juran. Harryhausen's first color film, The 7th Voyage of Sinbad was made on a then-healthy budget of two-million dollars.   Released by Columbia Pictures, the film grossed over six million dollars and was considered a huge hit...and one that led to many further Harryhausen fantasy films in the next decade or so.

Longtime readers of mythology will recognize the name "Sinbad" as having come from Middle Eastern sources.  A Persian, Sinbad the sailor was a mythical sea-goer who countenanced magical and monstrous adventures on the sea and on the land in and around Africa and South Asia.   He was known to have had seven famous trials, or voyages.  In Hollywood, Sinbad appeared in such films as Sinbad the Sailor (1947) starring Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., before becoming the iconic fantasy hero headlining Harryhausen's trilogy.

In The 7th Voyage of Sinbad, Captain Sinbad (Kerwin Mathews) returns home from sea to marry lovely Princess Parisa (Kathryn Grant) and seal the peace between his nation and hers. 

Unfortunately, this love affair is disrupted by the diabolical presence of Sokurah the Magician (Torin Thatcher), who needs Sinbad to return him to the island where he was found, and where he lost a magical genie's lamp to a monstrous cyclops.

To assure Sinbad's loyalty, Sokurah uses a wicked spell to shrink Parisa down to the size of a doll, and then informs the sea captain that he can "cure" her, but only on the island of the Cyclops.  Sinbad has no choice but to comply with Sokurah's plan.  With the Princess and his crew in tow, he sets sail for the island of Colossa. 

There, Sinbad and his bride-to-be face challenges from the cyclops, Sakurah's fire-breathing dragon, a two-headed roc, and even an ambulatory skeleton.  To help win the day, Sinbad and Parisa must free the entrapped Genie, who appears to them as a young boy (Richard Eyer) longing to escape his imprisonment.

Short on dialogue and that romantic mushy "stuff" but long on thrilling battle sequences, The 7th Voyage of Sinbad is a spectacle for the eyes, especially if one is an admirer of stop-motion animation, or "Dynamation" as it is termed here. 

In short order, the filmmakers trot out a variety of impressive mythical giant beasts, and the coordination between the live-action components and the film's animated components remains breathtaking.   I can't imagine the discipline and patience required to painstakingly match the two media, least of all to the accomplished degree on display here; one which affords breath, dimension, life and personality to the creatures, most notably the cyclops. 

Here is the up-and-downside of the Harryhausen special effects techniques as I countenance them.

Pro: the monsters generally move more convincingly than with CGI, in part because they must obey real life gravity -- just as we must -- rather than some computerized approximation of gravity. 

On the negative side, in terms of color balance and integration in the action, CGI -- at least today's CGI -- may get the nod as superior.  In this film, for instance, it's always obvious that the monster and the humans who share the same shots exist in two separate dimensions, a back one and a front one.  This realization takes away from the overall impact of the effects. 

I fully realize that such a conclusion probably reads much like heresy to a whole generation of dedicated film goer, and I once read the memorable phrase (in regards to The Land That Time Forgot [1975] that Hell hath no fury "like a stop-motion animation fan scorned," but it's still likely the truth.  The special effects in this film are amazing and that's why they inspired a generation of fantasy filmmakers, but it's foolish and unnecessary to argue that they surpass something like Avatar, for instance. 

Like all films, The 7th Voyage of Sinbad is a product of its time, and must be judged in the context of its time.  And in its time, it was simply the very best.  That fifty-four years later we have moved on from the stop-motion animation triumphs of Harryhausen in no way reflects negatively on what the film achieved, the impact it garnered, or the fervor it provoked.

What The 7th Voyage of Sinbad still possesses in abundance is...innocence.  This is a a good-humored family adventure in the best sense, immensely enjoyable and appropriate for both parent and child.  There's some fun swashbuckling adventure here, most notably in a climactic chasm swing that forecasts a trademark moment in Star Wars (1977).

There's also a subtle "family" message underneath all the action in The 7th Voyage of Sinbad.  In particular, by film's end, Sinbad, Parisa and the child genie have joined forces to form an unconventional family unit.  They have pulled together, and will face the future together.

Watching the film as an adult, I especially enjoyed Torin Thatcher's performance as the evil sorcerer, and Bernard Herrmann's brilliant, pulse-pounding score, which in a very authentic sense also affords breath and life to Harryhausen's fantastic stop-motion creations.

As a kid, The 7th Voyage of Sinbad was one of my all-time favorite fantasy films.  Watching it in 2012, I enjoyed it, but it certainly seems a bit simplistic in terms of storyline and presentation.  It is what it is: an entertaining screen adventure and spectacle from an age when such films weren't commonplace.  The high point of the movie likely remains the intense, splendidly-choreographed and executed battle between Sinbad and the skeleton warrior.  But even that triumph was greatly expanded upon in Jason and the Argonauts.

I realize it is probably apocryphal to write such words, but Joel and I really got on-board the Sinbad bandwagon full swing with The Golden Voyage of Sinbad (1974).  That film -- made during the "new freedom" of the 1970s -- is a little edgier, a little sexier, a little darker, and allows Sinbad to actually be a Muslim, rather than simply an American cowboy hero transposed to the Ancient Middle East, replete with nuclear family.  I first saw The Golden Voyage of Sinbad in theaters back in 1974 as a five year old, so I have an affinity for it as "my" Sinbad, but judging from Joel's reaction, he definitely feels the same way.   The characters are a little better differentiated in Golden Voyage, and the quest (to assemble a golden tablet out of three segments) definitely captures the attention better than the elementary, nay rudimentary, plot of 7th Voyage.

History may record 7th Voyage of Sinbad as the best Sinbad movie because it came first in the cycle, but at this point, I recommend you also give The Golden Voyage a second look.  I'll be reviewing that film right here next week for "Saturday with Sinbad" installment # 2.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Pop Art: Coloring Books (Star Trek Edition)

From the Archives: Collectible of the Week: Pulsar Life Systems Center

In the year 1976, toy companies across the U.S.A. rushed to compete with Kenner's super-successful The Six Million Dollar Man toy-line.  Mattel, for instance, devised PULSAR, "the ultimate man of adventure." 

About the same size as the Steve Austin figure, PULSAR came outfitted in a nifty red and black uniform, but when you took off his shirt you could see all of his chest organs -- heart and lungs -- pumping awat. 

Also, PULSAR's head could flip-up, and different mission disks could be inserted into his brain.

PULSAR's enemy was the evil HYPNOS, and the hero's base of operation was this ultra-awesome Life Systems Center. 

The packaging described this base as a "re-energizing and reprogramming machine" and it features an x-ray screen, a "power pak and scanner," a "brain probe light," a "mission programmer," "control dial" and "remote activator."  With the Life Systems Center you could double-check X-rays, "light-scan" PULSAR's brain, "set all systems" and activate "vital organs" (which always help on a secret mission, I guess.)

Designed for "ages over 3" this Mattel toy ran on 2 AA batteries (not included).  I still have PULSAR, HYPNOS and the Life Systems Center, though the center is missing many parts (including some tubing and the actual X-Ray screen).  Mine doesn't function at all, either, and as you can see from the photos, the box is pretty badly damaged at this point.

Still, I love the whole PULSAR line from Mattel, even though I'm not entirely certain what's so special or adventurous about a guy who shows off his internal organs for all to see, or can be controlled by a disk drive in his brain.

Model Kit of the Week #18: The Spindrift

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

From the Archive: Forbidden Planet (1956)

"At times loud and frenzied, literally encircling the viewer with sight, sound, and fury, and at other times subtle and silently unnerving, Forbidden Planet is, on every conceivable level, a work of commercial art."

- Jeff Rovin. A Pictorial History of Science Fiction Films. Citadel Press, 1975, page 78.

To assess the dynamic in purely Generation X-friendly terms, Forbidden Planet is to the 1950s what Star Wars is to the 1970s.

Or perhaps what 2001: A Space Odyssey is to the 1960s.

In other words, Forbidden Planet is a visual space odyssey so involving, so expertly presented, so beautifully designed that it endures as a landmark in the history of the cinema. 

Even fifty-five years after its theatrical debut, Forbidden Planet still impresses, and on some level even terrifies, in significant degree due to the eerie "electronic tonalities" of the score devised by Louis and Bebe Barron.

Today, this 1956 film from director Fred M. Wilcox and writers Cyril Hume and Irving Block remains one of the boomer generation's most important genre touchstones, and has been referenced directly and indirectly in  a wide-range of high-profile sf productions including Serenity (2005) and Gene Roddenberry's original Star Trek (1966 - 1969).  

The film's mostly-invisible villain, "The Monster from the Id," is one that is still well-known by name in the pop culture lexicon.

At the movie's core, Forbidden Planet concerns an anxious fear not of technology itself, but of the human application of technology.  Or, more directly, human hubris.  The film reveals that for mankind (much like the ancient Krell), the stars can be our destination.  But our species could also lose everything it holds dear by failing to understand the greatest mystery of the universe: the human psyche.

Buttressed by "superior special effects" (Science Fiction Films. Bison Books Corp., 1984, page 39), Forbidden Planet truly  "thought big" and thus shines yet as one of the most imaginative and compelling movie visions of the future. 

As a kid of the 1970s,  I grew up frequently reading in the protean genre press about how Forbidden Planet was one of the greatest science fiction movies ever made.  Regardless of factors such as generational loyalty or nostalgia, those testimonials are absolutely, positively accurate.  This has been one of my favorite and most beloved films for a long time.

Delightfully, even if divorced from its Atomic Age original context, Forbidden Planet remains provocative.  The film remembers what so many science fiction visions of today fail to acknowledge; the fact that human beings -- and human problems -- must remain at the heart of any forward-thinking work of art. 

After all, when man reaches the stars he will still be man, and his decisions and wisdom (or lack thereof) will always spark the most invigorating of dramas.  Awe-inspiring special effects are one thing (and Forbidden Planet certainly deploys such effects brilliantly), but a story that connects to us, here and now, on an emotional level trumps such technical achievements every time.

"The secret devil of every soul set loose on the planet all at once..."

In the 23rd century, mankind endeavors to to conquer space, thanks in large-part to the invention of the hyper-drive, which makes interstellar travel possible.

As Forbidden Planet commences, space cruiser C-57D under command of stolid J.J. Adams (Leslie Nielson) approaches Altair IV, a world previously visited some two decades earlier by the Bellerophon. 

On approach to Altair IV, Adams and his ship are warned away from the planet by Dr. Morbius (Walter Pidgeon), who insists that he won't be responsible for the outcome should Adams ignore his counsel.

Adams sets down anyway on the craggy surface of the planet and soon encounters Robby the Robot, Morbius's highly-advanced mechanical servant.  Robby takes Adams, "Doc" Ostrow (Warren Stevens) and Lt. Farman (Jack Kelly) back to Morbius's home, where they meet the man.

The grave, serious Morbius is the last surviving original member of the Bellerophon expedition and reports that "some dark, terrible, incomprehensible force" killed the other humans on his crew.  However, he has been safe and secure in the intervening nineteen years, living alone on the planet with just Robby (his construct; something he "tinkered together") and his beautiful if naive daughter, Altaira (Anne Francis).

The ship's crew responds enthusiastically (*ahem*) to the lovely Altaira, even as Adams determines he must contact home base to request further instructions regarding Morbius.

Unfortunately, the cruiser's long range communication apparatus, the "Klystron Transmitter" is sabotaged at night by an unknown, apparently invisible foe.

In the days ahead, Morbius introduces Adams and Doc to the great archaeological find of Altair IV.  Beneath the scientist's house, inside a vast subterranean complex, stands an ancient power generator belonging to an alien race called the Krell.  The colossal machine -- whose exact purpose remains unknown -- is all that remains of the once super-advanced people.

In fact, the Krell were so advanced that they visited Earth before man even walked the Earth, and brought back samples of the planet's wildlife, including tigers and deer. 

In one impressive alien laboratory, Morbius demonstrates a Krell educational game, a "brain boost" machine that he himself has experimented on, augmenting his own natural intellect in the process.   

Alarmingly, Morbius also reports that the Krell civilization vanished in one night, on the eve of an almost divine achievement: the creation of a device that could render unnecessary all forms of physical instrumentality.

Awed and a little disturbed by Morbius's alien discoveries, Adams believes Earth  and the "United Planets" must be permitted to share in the wealth.  Morbius objects to the captain's interference, however.  

As if in response, the terrifying invisible foe returns again and again, night by night, growing ever stronger...and ever more murderous.

"We're all part monsters in our subconscious.  So we have laws and religion."

As any college level English student can dutifully attest, Forbidden Planet appears loosely based on William Shakespeare's play The Tempest (1610). 

That work by the Bard revolves around Prospero, a man who has lived on a remote island with his daughter Miranda for twelve years. 

Prospero is served by a spirit called "Ariel" and uses the auspices of Ariel's magic to create a  storm (a tempest) at sea.  The storm causes a shipwreck and draws important visitors (Alonso, Ferdinand, etc.) to Prospero's island for his unique purposes of personal and family renewal. 

Importantly, also residing on Prospero's island is Caliban (think cannibal): a monster who utilizes magic for much darker purposes. In the end, Prospero renounces magic and Ariel is set free from servitude, while Miranda and King Alonso's son, Ferdinand, are free to marry.

Shakespeare's last play, The Tempest is frequently assessed a highly-reflexive work of art because it compares Prospero's use of magic with the magic of the theater.  Prospero's renunciation of magic at play's end is thus said to represent Shakespeare's own pull-back from the stage; his professional retirement, essentially.  The Tempest is also widely considered a "post-colonial effort," drawing specific interest because of the way that Prospero treats (and mistreats?) Caliban, Ariel and the other denizens of the faraway island. 

Forbidden Planet certaily shares an abundance of common narrative and thematic points with Shakespeare's final literary endeavor.  If you substitute Altair IV for the remote island, Morbius for Prospero, and Altaira for Miranda, the comparison begins to take shape.  Captain J.J. Adams -- as love interest for Altaira/Miranda -- is at least part Ferdinand, and the extraordinary Robby the Robot fits the bill as Ariel, the servant of Morbius/Prospero. 

What seems rather unique about the transference of The Tempest's scenarios to the futuristic realm of Forbidden Planet is that the makers of this classic sci-fi film have made some very intriguing switches or substitutions.  

Here, technology -- alien technology -- replaces magic or the occult.  Robby is not a "fairy" or "spirit" like Ariel, but rather a thinking machine created from super-advanced technology; Krell technology.  Just consider  Clarke's third law, of 1961.  Advanced technology -- machines beyond our understanding -- appear as baffling as magic, right?

Furthermore, the film's "thing of darkness," to turn a Shakespearean phrase (Act II, Scene II), is positioned as a psychological, interior force, rather than as an exterior personality, Caliban.   It is the scientist/wizard's "id" in Forbidden Planet that creates problems, not a fellow and less honorable practitioner of the magical arts.  

Indeed, Forbidden Planet purposefully re-contextualizes Shakespeare's line in The Tempest that "we are such stuff as dreams are made of," so as to readily incorporate the the Id, which is one third of the human psychic apparatus as delineated by Sigmund Freud. 

Id is instinct.  Id is chaos.  It is aggression and destruction, with no overriding sense of morality, and it operates on passion and desire. Often, our nocturnal dreams  and phantasms are seen as the representative outlet of the Id, and in Forbidden Planet, Morbius -- immediately before his heroic demise -- explicitly names dreams as devious originator of his unpardonable sins. 

"What man can remember his own dreams?" Morbius asks desperately, suggesting that consciously he is fully separate from the the instinctive human urges which created the Monster from the Id and committed murder.  The truth is that the Monster here is actually a reflection of his basest, most primitive self.  Something that -- even in the era of space travel -- man cannot fully expunge.

Another substantial difference to consider when comparing The Tempest to Forbidden Planet involves the manner in which Morbius uses Robby.  Though it is clear from Morbius's demonstrations involving the robot that the scientist holds a kind of spell over him --  able to render Robby immobile with a simple voice command --  Morbius does not utilize Robby to bring visitors to his world. 

On the contrary, Morbius explicitly shuns such visitors while the cruiser is still in orbit.  This act separates him rather dramatically from his literary predecessor, Prospero.  In the denouement of both works, however, the non-human servant (Ariel/Robby) is freed from his master and takes part in the navigation away from the island/planet.  In Forbidden Planet's final scene, we see Robby at the controls of C-57D, having adjusted rather nicely to his new environs.

There are major differences in tenor as well.  In no significant or meaningful way does Forbidden Planet attempt to draw parallels between the technology of the Krell, for instance and the technological art form of film. 

On the contrary, Forbidden Planet plays its story completely straight, sometimes even underplaying moments so as to more fully erect a sense of complete, overwhelming reality about the film's universe.  Again, the idea at the root of the film is not a comparison of magic to art, but a comparison, rather, of  future technology to more current events, circa the mid-1950s.

In the Atomic Age, a literal Pandora's Box was opened thanks to the creation of The Bomb, and many people feared what could happen when mankind "tampers in God's domain."    That's the explicit fear of Forbidden Planet and the lesson to draw from the unfortunate, god-like Krell.  The film is about achieving a technological awareness that our species is not yet emotionally ready, not yet wise enough, to countenance.  No one man can possess such great power, and possibly use it wisely.

In terms of the post-colonial aspects of Shakespeare's work, again, Forbidden Planet differs significantly.  It is of interest here that both Morbius and Altaira treat Robby as a servant, but this seems no more than an oblique comment on human views of artificial intelligence, hardly applicable to the idea of post-colonial paternalism or racism.

The comparison to The Tempest appears most illuminating in understanding Forbidden Planet's theme: that of man harnessing a tool (whether magic or technology) responsibly.  The brief reference to the "Bellerophon" (the name of the first ship to visit Altair IV) expertly cements this thematic strand.  In Greek myth, Bellerophon is a demi-God and son of Poseidon who commits the crime of arrogance or hubris.  He attempts to fly Pegasus to Mount Olympus to reach the Gods, until Zeus retaliates (with a gad-fly), and Bellerophon falls back to Earth, forever broken by the experience.

Quite clearly, Morbius (a Bellerophon crew member) is the one who dramatically overreaches in Forbidden Planet, attempting to gain access to divine knowledge which is not his right nor his destiny.  Morbius's tale and Bellerophon's myth are both explicitly cautionary tales about human overreach.  In the film, J.J. Adams seems to recognize this in his impromptu requiem for the good doctor, and notes that the name Morbius will one day "remind us that we are, after all, not God.." 

Even the (unseen) demise of the Bellerophon space ship in Forbidden Planet seems to harken back to the myth.  Morbius describes how, during take off, it was pulled back and "vaporized," in flight.  Were the colonists going to share the secrets of the Krell with the outside world?  Were they reaching for Mount Olympus when they were downed?

"...a new scale of physical scientific values..."

An undeniable and perennial pleasure of Forbidden Planet is the style and epic scope of visual presentation.  This is a film that occurs entirely on a distant planet, and therefore involves both futuristic human technology and alien technology with absolutely no relation to Earth and our history or design aesthetics.

Consequently, no earthbound locations are featured -- redressed or not -- in Forbidden Planet, and nor were the film's makers able to rely on our modern digital technology (CGI).  Instead, a vast sound stage is converted into the expansive landing area of the C-57D, and some of the most impressive matte paintings you've ever seen are deployed, along with exceptional miniatures and some opticals, to diagram the world and scope of the Krell technology.

Morbius's house represents a splendid vision of what homes of the future might look like, from the inclusion of a "household disintegrator beam" disposal unit, to metal shutters, to an architectural scheme that incorporates both natural rock and plant-life right into the home's hearth. 

Although the C-57D's familiar "flying saucer" design may seem antiquated to some viewers, the interior of the ship is constructed in full, and in laborious detail: a multi-level affair with a central control station, hide-away bunk beds, and a "deceleration" post for braking (after light-speed).  And the impressive scene in which this craft lands on Altair -- and ladders descend and crew disembark -- plays as absolutely real, in part because so much of the craft's exterior has also been constructed to scale. 

Late in the film, Morbius takes Adams and Doc Ostrow on that extended tour of "the Krell Wonders" and this portion of the film is nothing less-than-awe-inspiring because of the visualizations, successfully living up to Morbius's high-minded description of a "new scale of physical values."   Morbius's matter-of-fact lecture during this tour only serves once more to effectively ground the film in a very substantial form of reality.  This is literally a tour, with a sort of teacher relating to us information about energy usage, power systems and more.  It might seem dry and lifeless to some, but the technical dialogue and professorial delivery actually serve a terrific purpose.  This approach enhances the believability of the enterprise.

This tour -- which plays as educational and real -- is a powerful contrast to the film's most visceral, memorable scene: the Monster from the Id's sustained attack upon the landed cruiser by night.  This particularly riveting sequence, with blazing laser weapons, crackling force-fields, and some unique wire-work (utilized to express the visual of spacemen caught in the grasp of the invisible monster) is still awe-inspiring and terrifying.  The famous monster is visible only sporadically -- an animated energy beast -- and thus terror is rigorously maintained.  The electronic tonalities I mentioned at the outset of the review also help out in maintaining the horror.  This planet and its monstrous denizen not only appear alien, but sound alien as well.  The monster's unearthly howl is not easily forgotten.

Some of the film's vistas also nicely eschew technology human ana alien for more natural settings.  There's an almost poetic shot and matte painting of the grave yard where the Bellerophon dead are buried.  Another shot evocative of the best pulp space art involves Altair at night, with two luminous moons hanging low in the black sky. 

In terms of design creativity then, Forbidden Planet is right off the charts.  Even today, science fiction films visualize holograms, force-fields, lasers and robots in much the same fashion as those concepts are crafted here.  Certainly, robots today are a little more streamlined than the wonderful Robby, but he remains quite impressive (and oddly lovable).  The New York Times' reviewer's words about him still hold up too.  He called Robby "a phenomenal mechanical man who can do more things in his small body than a roomful of business machines. He can make dresses, brew bourbon whisky, perform feats of Herculean strength and speak 187 languages, which emerged through a neon-lighted grille. What's more, he has the cultivated manner of a gentleman's gentleman. He is the prettiest piece of mechanism on Planet Altaire."  Easy, then, to detect why this robot has been beloved for several generations now.

In fact, if imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then the makers of Forbidden Planet should feel remarkably flattered.  Star Trek adopted the film's "United Planets" template lock, stock and barrel, the captain/doctor relationship, and the Chief Quinn character (a Scotty-like miracle-worker) as part of its core, while Star Wars' C-3PO -- another robot of many languages --  and Lost in Space's B9 certainly owe much to Robby in concept and design.  We call this homage, of course. 

In the annals of cult television history, even The Tempest-like tale of a father and daughter living alone on a distant planet together has been oft-repeated, in Star Trek's "Requiem for Methuselah" and Space:1999's "The Metamorph" to name but two.  It is also said that Dr. Who's serial "Planet of Evil" derives from Forbidden Planet in name and concept.  It's a story of a scientist's good-intentioned overreach and devolution into a monster on a faraway world.

Forbidden Planet is a product of its time, and that means, among other things, that no racial minorities are featured in the film at all, which today may likely trouble some folks.  Also, Alta is defined in the film largely by her reactions and relationships with the men in her life.   She goes from being an obedient daughter, to being an obedient romantic partner.  She's not the independent spirit we might expect in today's cinema. 

But of course, the film was created in 1956, not 2011 and so was a projection of the future that included the America of that era as the foundation of everything.  Despite such concerns, Forbidden Planet remains a terrific and sometimes startling example of what traditional Hollywood can achieve in the genre when equipped with a good budget, a strong and literate script, and the most imaginative effects and production design possible for the day.

Forbidden Planet isn't a movie that was just "tinkered together" and nor is it "an obsolete" thing.  Contrarily, it's a sci-fi masterpiece that both inspires and warns us about our trajectory heading out there, into the Great Unknown.  

From Prospero in the 1600s to Dr. Morbius in the 23rd century, the human condition, it seems, remains a fragile, mysterious, and magical thing.

Theme Song of the Week: The Far Out Space Nuts

Monday, February 25, 2013

The Cult-TV Faces of: Mines

Not Identified: One Step Beyond: "Epilogue."

Identified by Hugh: Lost in Space: "Blast Off into Space."

Identified by Hugh: Star Trek: "The Devil in the Dark."

Identified by Chris G: Star Trek: "The Cloud Minders."

Identified by Donald G. Doctor Who: "The Monster of Peladon."

Identified by Donald G. The Six Million Dollar Man: "The Midas Touch."

Identified by SGB: Space:1999 "The Metamorph."

Identified by Hugh: Battlestar Galactica: "Saga of a Star World."

Not Identified: Buck Rogers in the 25th Century: "Twiki is Missing."

Identified by SGB: The X-Files: "Paper Clip."

Identified by Woodchuckgod: Farscape: "Home on the Remains."

Television and Cinema Verities #59

"It’s funny because someone one asked me about why I dressed the girls like that, and I said, “Do you not get the metaphor there? The girls are in a brothel performing for men in the dark. In the fantasy sequences, the men in the dark are us. The men in the dark are basically me; dorky sci-fi kids.”

Director Zack Snyder discusses Sucker Punch (2011) at Film School Rejects

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Cult-TV Gallery: Guest Stars of The Starlost (1973 - 1974)

Sterling Hayden ("Voyage of Discovery")

John Colicos ("The Goddess Calabra.")

Barry Morse ("The Goddess Calabra").

Simon Oakland ("And Only Man is Vile").

Percy Rodrigues ("Circuit of Death")

Walter Koenig ("The Alien Oro," "The Return of Oro").

Donnelly Rhodes ("The Implant People")

Antoinette Bower ("The Beehive")

Cult-TV Blogging: The Starlost: "Space Precinct" (January 5, 1974)

“Space Precinct” is the sixteenth and final episode of The Starlost (1973 – 1974), and entry that seems like it belongs in another TV series all together.

The episode commences as Garth (Robin Ward) decides he wants to return home to Cypress Corners.  He’s tired of following Devon around from dome to dome, and achieving nothing.  He says a fond farewell to his friends, and then is quickly intercepted by the Intra-Ark Police Force, led by Chief Rathe (Ivor Barry).  Rathe takes Garth to his parked cruiser, and promises to train him as a detective.

This training will come in handy, Rathe insists, because he and his team are leaving the Ark permanently.  Rathe wants to link his expert investigative abilities with the crew of a space platform in a nearby solar system.  There humanoid aliens, led by Reena (Nuala Fitzgerald) are worried that various factions are plotting a war over rare mineral rights.  Rathe could help, he believes.

While Devon (Keir Dullea) and Rachel (Gay Rowan) become trapped in a space elevator without oxygen, Garth must solve a mystery of his own.  Someone is blocking Rathe’s cruiser from taking off, and the window for launch is closing.  Is the culprit Reena, or Rathe’s faithful assistant, Tek (Diane Dewey)?

Watching this episode, one must wonder if there were plans afoot to spin Robin Ward’s character Garth off in his own science fiction series, one involving the space police.  I can certainly understand that temptation.  Garth is the most likable of the characters on The Starlost.  And finally, the space police milieu would provide his character the skill-set training so often missing from the series.  Too often, the characters (from an Amish community, remember…) exhibit technical-know-how beyond reason and sense.  Training in the space precinct would at least rectify that error. 

Still, this is an ignominious ending for The Starlost.  Devon and Rachel spend the whole hour either choking in their space suits or unconscious in that airlock.  It’s a sad end point for Devon, who started out as a fascinating and intriguing character, but ends having accomplished absolutely nothing.

Similarly, the series once again fails to explain why qualified individuals -- police personnel and their space pilots -- refuse to help the Ark avoid its collision course with the Class G solar star.  This episode is actually worse than most in that particular regard.  The police are actually abandoning their post on the ark, to go join an alien solar system! 

Wouldn’t you love to see your well-trained, tax-supported law enforcement officials just pack up and leave in the middle of a life-and-death crisis?

“Space Precinct,” and thus The Starlost end on a mild cliffhanger.  Garth is asked to stay with the precinct and train for a year (before leaving the Ark for that solar system), and he says he’ll think about it.

Cue end credits.

If The Starlost had continued, would Garth have been back in the next episode with Garth and Devon?  Or would he have remained with Rathe, in training?  We’ll never know…

So The Starlost comes to an end, and so does this cult-blogging retrospective.

I’ll confess: watching the series was sometimes a chore.  I often fell asleep in episodes and then had to start over.  But I am a huge fan of 1970s science fiction television, and I really wanted to get through all The Starlost episodes, and see it all for myself.  I have read too often that it is the worst series of all time, and I just had to know, according to my own aesthetic criteria, how the series compared to others.   

Contrarily, some folks may try to cover-up the series’ abundant flaws in the glow of nostalgia, but in the end that policy of censorship serves no one and no particular purpose. The fact of the matter is that the series is extremely flawed in terms of execution. 

“Worst ever” is a tough call, however, and the competition is fierce (Lexx anyone? Starhunter? Galactica 1980?)

I suppose I consider The Starlost a a needlessly squandered opportunity.  The series premise is actually one of the very best in cult-tv history.  The idea of several populations, separated and trapped unknowingly, on a starship, is one worthy of more consistent and intelligent exploration.  The focus of the overall story could have been on bridging the gulf between cultures and trying to find common ground upon which to avert disaster.  The Ark should have been a microcosm for Earth based on the idea that we all have to come together despite different religions and beliefs for the common good of the planet.  We can only avert disaster by pooling our resources and working together.

Of the sixteen episodes made, the pilot “Voyage of Discovery” is by far and away the finest.  It establishes Devon and his situation ably, and creates intrigue about the character, his challenge, and the location of that challenge.  I also rather like the two Walter Koenig episodes “The Alien Oro” and “Return of Oro.”

Of all the civilizations of the week, I enjoyed the visit to “The Implant People” the most, partly because o Donnelly Rhodes’ great performance. 

And in terms of episodes about the Earth Ship Ark’s inner workings, I admired the audacity and nuttiness of “Circuit of Death,” which saw Devon and a scientist miniaturized so as to conduct repairs on a damaged computer chip.  There are great visuals there of miniature people walking on giant circuit boards, while regular-sized people (gazing through a window) watch with anxiety.

But some episodes were just tremendously baffling. 

Too often, Garth, Devon and Rachel happened upon a dome with just one or two denizens, denizens who had murky and inconsistent backgrounds.  In “And Only Man is Vile,” “Farthing’s Comet” and “The Beehive” we had to wonder how skilled scientists had been trained in Ark systems and technology some four hundred years after the devastating accident that plunged the vessel into a New Dark Ages.

Similarly, episodes such as “The Astro-Medics,” and “Space Precinct” suggested a functional modern Ark hierarchy where certainly there should have been nothing of the sort. 

And if there were functioning emergency medical services and police officers on the Ark, why weren’t they helping to restore order, or unify the ship, or most importantly, avert the deadly collision?  In terms of the lead characters, why wouldn’t Devon, Garth or Rachel ask for a ride back to the facilities that had trained the medics and police, in hopes of honing their own skills to save the Ark?

It’s very easy to mock The Starlost because of the bad chroma-key effects, but in large part the effects didn’t bother me, or strike me as a considerable problem.  If better stories had been vetted, nobody would have complained about the cheap backdrops or dopey-looking miniatures, in my opinion.  After all, classic Doctor Who features plenty of atrocious special effects and costumes, but the series’ holds up because the writing was often so strong, and the concepts so powerfully vetted.

Next week, I begin blogging a different series on Sundays: Star Blazers (1979).