Monday, August 31, 2020

Mars Movie Binge: Robinson Crusoe on Mars (1964)


George Pal and Byron Haskin’s Robinson Crusoe on Mars (1964) remains beloved by the generation that grew up with it in the late 1960's. By and large, genre critics praised the sci-fi film upon its original theatrical release and soon after, as well.

For example, author and scholar Jeff Rovin termed the film an “excellent and offbeat ride” and a “thoroughly convincing retelling of the classic tale” in A Pictorial History of Science Fiction Films (Citadel Press; 1975, page 131).

And while noting that the film is “not fast-paced,” the authors of Twenty All-Time Great Science Fiction Films observed that Robinson Crusoe on Mars “succeeds…in its ability to evoke a sense of wonder in the minds of its audience at the exploration of a new and different kind of world.” 

Furthermore, the same authors wrote that director Haskin accomplished this task by making Mars itself one of the film’s essential or key characters (Arlington House; 1982, page 174).

That last observation is the most trenchant one because Robinson Crusoe on Mars impresses even today on the basis of many of its colorful and dynamic visualizations. Shot in Death Valley and buttressed by some still-impressive matte paintings, the film feels both authentic and vivid in its depiction of a desolate, lonely planetary surface. 

At times in the film, the landscape itself feels almost oppressive in its craggy, mountainous appearance, and at other junctures -- such as the discovery of the polar ice caps -- it appears downright wondrous.  The film conveys the idea of not just a single locale, but of an entire, harsh ecosystem, and that’s quite an accomplishment.


In terms of narrative, Robinson Crusoe on Mars succeeds too because it clearly has the literary model -- Daniel Defoe’s 1719 book -- to fall back on, and it needn’t veer too far from that impressive source material.

In fact, by retelling Defoe’s famous story in a “final frontier” setting, the 1964 film suggests some universal qualities about mankind. Specifically, Robinson Crusoe on Mars meditates about both the human desire to survive even when survival is damn near impossible, and about our need for companionship.  

In fact, companionship is right up there with the other essentials to human life -- air, food, and water -- and Robinson Crusoe on Mars does a good job of exploring that powerful notion. 

I count Robinson Crusoe as one of my favorite stories of all time, and find that in 2015 Robinson Crusoe on Mars still captures the essence of that classic tale well, even if all the details of life on Mars in the film don’t conform to modern scientific knowledge. 

Indeed, this George Pal production remains just the brand of imaginative, colorful sci-fi epic that spurred my fascination with outer space and other worlds in the first place. And in its exploration of companionship as a key “resource” permitting humans to survive in any frontier, Robinson Crusoe on Mars makes a case about man in space that we must not forget.

When at last we travel to the stars, we should go in great numbers, because we will likely find it impossible to thrive there in isolation. As Robinson Crusoe on Mars reminds us, we need each other, whether here on Earth, in darkest space, or on the surface of the red planet.


In the near future, Mars Gravity Probe 1 narrowly avoids a disaster in planetary orbit, specifically a collision with an asteroid.

Unfortunately, the ship cannot hold altitude after altering its trajectory, and the crew must eject from the vessel.  

Kit Draper (Paul Mantee) lands his craft in a crater, scuttling it, and finds that his commanding officer, McReady (Adam West) has died during his landing attempt. The ship’s monkey, Mona (The Woolly Monkey), however, has survived.

With Mona in tow, Draper attempts to solve the problems of human survival on Mars. He finds the atmosphere thin, and therefore breathable only for short durations, and must determine a way to maintain a breathable air supply. With the use of native rocks, he does just that.  Draper’s next problem is locating water on Mars. When Mona doesn’t evidence signs of thirst, Draper decides to investigate her daily routine, and discovers a water source.

Sometime later, Draper sees a ship landing in the distance, and realizes that it is an interstellar craft.  Alien slavers have come to Mars, but one of their slaves -- whom Crusoe names Friday (Victor Lundin) -- escapes from their custody. The two survivors become friends, and set about to evade the aliens for as long as possible.

Draper and Friday make a long trek to the polar ice caps, and there receive a happy transmission from an Earth vessel and rescue ship.


Robinson Crusoe on Mars remembers and translates to the “space age” virtually all of the important story beats of the famous Defoe literary antecedent. 

In Robinson Crusoe, as you may recall, the sea-going protagonist escapes a shipwreck, and salvages what he can from it, with only the captain’s dog (and a cat or two) for companions. Crusoe then lives on an inhospitable island alone for some time, dwelling in a cave and growing his own food. 

Over the course of his stay on the island, Crusoe becomes more religious, reading the Bible, and ultimately saves a man, whom he names Friday, from cannibals. He eventually converts Friday to Christianity, and together the men leave the island on an English ship.

In Robinson Crusoe on Mars, Kip Draper is marooned on the planet Mars, rather than on an island. He has no humans to keep him company, but rather an animal companion like the captain’s dog: the monkey named Mona.  The alien slavers substitute for the novel’s cannibals, and of course, Crusoe’s Friday is a one-to-one corollary with Draper’s alien friend. The topic of the Divine and religion come up in both stories as well, with Draper quoting Scripture to the alien at times in the film. Finally, the two men are rescued by an Earth ship as the film closes. 


Beyond its relocation of narrative points from the Defoe story, Robinson Crusoe on Mars’ strongest interlude occurs shortly before Draper first encounters Friday. He is ensconced in his home cave, at night, and the shadow of a humanoid falls across his transparent-rock cave door. Draper opens the door and suddenly encounters a silent, zombie-like McReady, who refuses to speak to him, or even acknowledge him. 

Draper awakens --sleepwalking -- and realizes he has experienced a nightmare. This scene is creepy as hell, from the first appearance of the silhouette (surrounded by weird Martian lighting), to McReady’s unearthly demeanor as Draper desperately tries to make him talk to him. The scene beautifully expresses the absolute terror of Draper’s predicament as the only intelligent being, essentially, on an entire planet. He also, no doubt, feels survivor’s guilt. He lived, and McReady didn’t.

Importantly, this sequence in the film follows those in which the resourceful Draper has licked a number of survival problems. He has learned how to breathe on Mars (using yellow, air-producing rocks) and he has found food and water. 

But the problem of companionship is not something he can tackle alone, and his so Draper fears his mind will fall apart, that he will start to lose his grip on sanity. Draper notes that the “hairiest” problem for astronauts is “isolation,” and also makes a special point of describing how for astronaut training he was in an isolation tank for a month to prepare for the hazards of lonely space travel. But, as he says, he knew, at that point, that he would be with people again. At this juncture, there is no certainty. He could live the rest of his days without seeing anyone else. That is a tremendous psychic weight to carry. Thus the movie equates companionship with the survival necessities of air or water, or food.

If the small, intimate scene of McReady’s visitation sells Draper’s terror at being the only living being on Mars (outside of Mona), then the many shots of the astronaut traversing the landscape alone help enormously as well. 

In sustained long shot after sustained long shot, we witness Draper making his way from one dead zone to another, from one rocky outcropping to the next. Seen against the land, he looks truly small, truly insignificant.  Some shots see the camera pointed at our eye level (and below) so that we don’t even see the red sky.  Instead, we see a lot of ground.  On one hand, this prevents the need for every shot to be fixed with a Martian skyline in post-production. On the other hand, the effect is that we see just this one tiny figure moving against a sea of rock and sand.  He seems truly lost there.



But impressively, the film’s visuals aren’t boring or repetitive, and don’t sacrifice interest, even considering the desert landscape. There’s one scene set in a grotto or grove, where Draper goes swimming, and the view is magnificently imaginative.  


At another point, Draper and Friday seek to escape the slavers, and head down into a subterranean world, where they must navigate a narrow ledge. 


Again, the effects work is stunning, and a reminder of how Hollywood successfully performed “world building” in an age before CGI.  The film’s final visual flourish plays as catharsis and relief. We see Friday and Draper at the polar ice caps, surrounded by cleansing water and immaculate white ice.  They have been delivered from the red, fiery Hell of Mars’ surface.  This is a great note to go out on.


Robinson Crusoe on Mars also features, perhaps to its detriment, a strong colonial tone. Almost immediately after meeting Friday, Crusoe assumes his superiority over his new friend and tells him that he is the boss, demands that Friday learn English, and attempts to convert him to his own religion.  In 1964, this attitude would not have been questioned, but today it seems as dated as the portrayal of Mars’ atmosphere as breathable by humans.  

Later films of this type, like Enemy Mine (1985), go out of their way to suggest that representatives of different cultures have much to teach each other, but here a lot of the teaching is one way: Draper to Friday. In fairness, however, this was also the nature of the Defoe literary work. It concerned a "civilized" Englishman sharing his culture (and breeding) with a savage.


It is not fair, perhaps, nor entirely appropriate, to judge a film made fifty years ago on the basis of knowledge we possess today, but if Robinson Crusoe on Mars is judged not to pass muster by some viewers today, it is likely because the film doesn’t conform to our 21st century fund of knowledge about the red planet.  

To put this another way, film lovers and science fiction lovers can and will look past this particular deficit, and judge the film accordingly, based on its historical context. But there will be some viewers who can’t do that, and who will be put off by Robinson Crusoe on Mars’ flights of fancy about a Mars consisting of subterranean water pools, ample (purple) vegetation, and a breathable atmosphere.  Today in September 2015 -- we know that part of this depiction may actually be accurate! On Monday, NASA announced that there are flowing, salt-water streams on Mars, so perhaps in this one regard the film is ahead of its time.

The film’s re-use of some stock props and miniatures, such as the costumes from Destination: Moon (1950) and the Martian war machines from War of the Worlds (1953) -- as well as some oft-repeated footage of those alien ships -- may prove more legitimately disturbing to some fans than do these scientific errors.  The alien slaver ships are seen, in particular, in the same three or four shots, and these shots are repeated over and over again. For a film that features such lush visuals in other arenas, the sort of cheap-jack depiction of the slavers is doubly disappointing. 


These points diminish Robinson Crusoe on Mars significantly, but they do suggest how far ahead of their time later works, like 1968’s 2001: A Space Odyssey were by comparison. In some ways, the Pal film feels like the last gasp of a 1950s version of outer space, while Kubrick’s film (followed by efforts like Moon Zero Two and Journey to the Far Side of the Sun) feel much more modern. 

Yet what doesn’t age Robinson Crusoe on Mars -- and indeed what renders it relevant more than fifty years later -- is its focus on the human equation, and its message that friendship is as nourishing -- and as necessary -- to the human animal as oxygen, or fresh water.

Saturday, August 29, 2020

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Flashback: Big John, Little John (1976)


Big John, Little John (1976) is a short-lived, live-action Saturday morning series from Lloyd and Sherwood Schwartz (1916-2011).  

Sherwood, as you may recall, is the creator of Gilligan’s Island (1964-1967), It’s About Time (1966-1967), and The Brady Bunch (1969-1974).  

This series ran for just one season -- and thirteen half-hour episodes -- on NBC and concerned science teacher John Martin (Herb Edelman) of Madison Junior High School.  

On vacation at Ponce De Leon Park with his wife, Marjorie (Joyce Bulifant) and son Ricky (Mike Darnell), John drinks from the Fountain of Youth and it changes his life.  Before long, his body begins to undergo a transformation. 




Now John randomly goes from being forty years old to just twelve, and then back again.  Unfortunately, the “change can happen anywhere, anytime,” especially when John “doesn’t expect it.” 

In the first episode, “a Sizeable Problem” John undergoes the transformation for the first time, and becomes twelve years old (and played by Robbie Rist) just as he must interview for the position of head of the science department at his school.  

John tells his wife and son what is going on, and they help to keep his secret.  In age twelve mode, John says he is Martin’s nephew, John, someone who is staying with the family.  This lie is accepted by virtually everyone.



Meanwhile, John’s perpetual nemesis in Big John, Little John is Mrs. Bertha Bottomly (Olive Dunbar), the stern school principal who is always in danger of learning his secret and firing him.

For its thirteen episode run, Big John, Little John treads all-to-familiar sitcom material, as John must navigate his random transformations and not get caught by the school authorities.  

One episode, “Peter Panic” sees Mrs. Bottomly cast Big John as Captain Hook and Little John as Peter in a school play of Peter Pan. Now he must be in two places at the same time! 

Another story, “Very Little John” involves a case of mistaken identity.  Big John believes that he can “dilute” the aging transformation by drinking excessive amounts of water (!) and thus remain an adult.  He conducts this experiment in dilution when Marjorie and Rick are away from home.  While they are gone, however he agrees to take care of a neighbor’s baby.  So when Marjorie and Rick return, they mistake the infant for Little John, and believe that the dilution has changed him into a one year old.


As you may suspect, the jokes in Big John, Little John are pretty lame most of the time, and common sense is in short supply among the characters.  

For example, it is never really explained why John can’t notify authorities (particularly scientific authorities) about his physical situation, and allow them to witness the transformation for themselves.  He could become the world’s most famous and perhaps richest man. 

Similarly, John never shares with other scientists the location of the Fountain of Youth, even though young and old alike could benefit from its effects.

Instead, Big John, Little John is all about its formula -- John suddenly finding himself in awkward situations as either an incongruously placed child or an adult -- and that formula is hammered home relentlessly.

Today, the Sherwood brand of sitcom this series represents is pretty much completely dead, so Big John, Little John feels like a relic from not just a different time, but a different culture all together.  

In fact, the series seems frozen in amber, like the mosquitoes of Jurassic Park.  Big John, Little John repeats the same formula again and again, telling the same story as the characters fail to grow or learn, week-to-week.

I have vivid memories of watching Big John, Little John in 1976, when I was six years old.  At the same time, I remember not liking it terribly much, and yet feeling compelled to watch it because there was, essentially, nothing else on TV…and Saturday morning TV was an important ritual for kids in those days.  

Today, you can satisfy your hunger for Big John, Little John 1976 nostalgia with a look at the introductory theme song/montage, embedded below.  This sequence I remember very well, particularly the images of John Martin drinking from the Fountain of Youth.  Also, this title sequence depicts John going from age forty to thirty-three, to twenty-five, to nineteen, to twelve.  But only the 40 year old and 12 year old John are ever featured in the actual stories.





Thursday, August 27, 2020

Predator Binge: The Predator (2018)




The big question about Shane Black's The Predator (2018) is simply: how can a film featuring so many good ideas be executed so poorly?

This is one of those movies, not entirely unlike Ridley Scott's Alien: Covenant (2017), that brims with ingenuity and invention, but ends up feeling like little more than a missed opportunity.

The Predator features more than a half-dozen great and imaginative concepts, and yet the movie is scuttled by terrible performances, bad pacing, and underwhelming action scenes. The last Predator film, Predators (2010) is an absolute masterpiece by comparison.  

Predators also possessed some radical ingenuity in the way it introduced new concepts to the franchise (like Predator dogs, or a Predator nature preserve), but it managed, more importantly, to present a thrill-a-minute rollercoaster ride. That film was exciting and suspenseful.

The Predator is grievously short on momentum and thrills, and feels like a cartoon version of the franchise material. In the end, it is little more than a bad action film with a legacy title, despite the innovative ideas it introduces (and then drops).

In short, The Predator is insulting to the inelligence, and ultimately nothing more than a string of mildly interesting moments.


"You want to know if someone fucked an alien?"

An American sniper, Quinn McKenna (Boyd Holbrook) sees a hostage rescue mission for the U.S. military go awry when a spaceschip crashes nearby, depositing an alien predator at the scene.

McKenna is able to get his hands on some of the alien's technology, including weaponry and a personal cloaking device, and he has the material shipped back to his home.  Unfortunately, the predator helmet and weapon's gauntlet end up in the possession of his son, Rory (Jacob Tremblay), who has Asperger's Syndrome. The boy begins to experiment with and control the devices as Halloween nears.

Meanwhile, Dr. Casey Brackett (Olivia Munn) is summoned to Project Stargazer to examine the captured Predator. The alien quickly murders many of the scientists, and escapes the premises. This spurs Traeger (Sterling Brown), the man in charge off the project, to launch a man -- alien? -- hunt.

With his story of aliens discredited by his own command structure, Quinn is arrested by the military, and he joins up with a team of so-called "loonies," soldiers who have also fallen out of favor with the U.S. government.  Quinn also teams up with Brackett and the loonies to save his son, who is now the target of the Predator.  

But the Predator is being hunted too, by an "upgrade" from his own world, a mega-predator who wishes to prevent the alien from giving humanity a great gift.


"Would you like to meet a predator?"

It may take a while to unpack the preceding film synopsis, but hopefully one can detect some of the film's cleverness from a general description of the narrative.  But, I'd like to spell out a bit more of it, breaking down that ingenuity into diffferent categories.

First, of course, there's the fan service. Jake Busey, for instance, plays Sean Keys in The Predator, son of Gary Busey's character from Predator 2 (1990). Secondly, in the Stargazer laboratory the makeshift alien sphere created by a Predator and used by Alexa Woods (Sanaa Lathan) in AVP (2004) is seen.  Similarly, predator incursions in 1987 and 1997 are mentioned by name, as is a Lawrence Gordon Middle School. 

A bit more intriguing are the film's unique and clever retcons.  In previous Predator films, viewers witnessed the aliens ripping out, and taking as trophies, human spinal cords.  As it turns out, this violent behavior is not merely for trophy-keeping after all, but an attempt to take the DNA of the best and most capable fighters.

It turns out, the Predators are constantly upgrading hemselves, and they hunt not just for sport, but to improve their species. 


Another retcon: the temperature plays a crucial role in this narrative. Predator (1987) and Predator 2 (1990) established that Predators only visit Earth during the hottest years. The Predator goes further, noting that the visits are becoming more frequent because of global warming, and that the Predators may be taking human DNA to preserve humanities as a species before we annihilate ourselves. Once momre, established lore is re-purposed in a fresh way.

In terms of dramatic structure and characters, The Predator makes for a fascinating book-end to the 1987 John McTiernan original. In that film, Arnie's Dutch and his team were lionized as the greatest warriors/soldiers on the planet. The film concerned a "band of brothers" in a sense, and that band was unified through its capabilities.

The Predator travels all the way to the other extreme, teaming the capable McKenna with a band of "loonies," who have been forsaken by the military. These soldiers are the disowned, the derided, the downgraded, and the forgotten of the U.S. military.  Yet they achieve redemption by the climax, and prove just as loyal to McKenna as Dutch's team proved to him. The two teams actually make for intriguing mirror images. In both teams, for instance, there is a characer who tells foul dirty jokes. Taken together, Predator and The Predator offer an intriguing commentary on what it means to be a soldier, at both ends of the spectrum, feted, or despised.  This also seems a commentary on our times, when conformity is praised. Here, the heroes are diverse, yet valuable.


In terms of homage, the first scene in The Predator recalls virtualy every creative element of the '87 film. There's a soldier, a jungle, a helicopter, an invisible alien, green blood, and even a skinned human being.  There's even a terrestrial missio gone wrong. This short introductory scene gathers all the elements that made the first film in the franchise so successful, and utilizes them as the starting point for this sequel. Again, the set-up suggests intelligence and cleverness that the rest of the film simply fails to build on.

There are other positive points to write about regarding The Predator. The film boasts a great sense of humor, at least when it isn't relying on off-color jokes. For instance, there is a running gag here about the name off the aliens. Dr. Brackett doesn't like that they have been termed "predators," instead of sport-hunters, and this point gets made more than once. In essence, the characters are noting that the very name of the franchise is ill-conceived.

And, of course, the final battle showcases some ingenuity in terms of how it deploys Predator technology. In particular, make certain never to get in the way of a Predator force-field that is about to activate.

Some critics have compained about he film's other new wrinkle, that the Predators view autism/Asperger's as an upgrade of humanity, not a condition to be corrected.  This commentary may or may not be ill-considered, or insensitive, but the theme certainly adds another wrinkle to the mythos. At the very least, the idea suggests that Shane Black was attempting to think about this "old" franchise in a new and ambitious way. And, again, in terms of reality, it is good to see a character with Asperger's (or Tourette Syndrom, for that matter) treated as more than a condition, but as a person with feelings, relationships, and intrinsic value. 

Above, I rattled off a whole bunch of things about The Predator that I liked, and that are laudable. And yet, the film doesn't often transmit as smart, or intellectual, but rather as straight-up stupid. I understand that the 1987 was simplistic, but that doesn't make it stupid. Instead, there was a fun sort of gamesmanship to that film, as it set up the ultimate contest between an alien hunter, and a human soldier, played by Arnold.  Ultimately, that battle took center stage, as each combatant was stripped of technology, and forced to rely on instincts and abilities.

The 2018 edition of the franchise boasts nothing comparable. It just careens from one interesting idea to the next in the most hamhanded, rudimentary fashion.

In fact, the plot doesn't hold up well at all.  For instance, the "regular" Predator is apparently on humanity's side, and is resisting the other Predators and their DNA program. This predator brings a gift to Earth to save humanity.  Yet, when this alien wakes up at Project Stargazer, the predator indulges in a bloody massacre of scientists and soldiers, brutally murdering virtually everyone in a laboratory.

Why would he do this, after bringing a gift to humanity?  Wouldn't he want to tell them what he has brought the people of the Earth?

It's not a problem with communication, either, as some may suggest.  As the film reveals later on, the Predator boasts a kind of universal translator technollogy, and it can translate the alien language to English. So why would the predator go on a killing spree if the intent is to give humanity a gift?  This makes no sense.

Secondly, why would Traeger not see the value of having a highly decorated sniper on his team? He is a smart guy, yet his downfall is caused by his horrible treatment of McKenna and his son.  Why not bring McKenna into the fold, since he now knows about the existence of the aliens and alien technology? If Trager is as smart as he thinks he is, he would certainly know to recruit a decorated sniper.  (Just imagine if McKenna had been present in the lab when the predator went apeship. Fewer people would have died.)


The film boasts other problems as well, such as the fate of (a terribly-rendered) CGI predator dog. It gets locked in the back of a truck during the final batttle, but there is no follow-up about what happens to it next.

Overall, the film also seems to highlight more (misguided) man-vs-man action, than man vs. alien battling.  Soldiers fight each other at the drop of a hat, in one underwhelming stand-off after another.  Perhaps these moments could have felt more natural or organic, but the cast doesn't do well with the mock heroic/threatening dialogue.

Thomas Jane is wasted in the film, and Olivia Munn looks as though she wandered in from the latest Sy Fy Channel monster movie, failing to supply her character much charm, or intelligence, or eve humanity. The same could be said for Holbrook. Brown is wasted too, in a one-dimensional villain role. Every character is a one-note personality.


I have enjoyed, with caveats, every Predator movie between 1987 and 2018, at least enough to give each entry a positive review (save for the atrocious crossover, AVPR, in 2007). This dynamic changes with The Predator, a film I feel no more than intermittent appreciation for. Overall it is an insult to the legacy of this sturdy franchise.

In short, I agree with Brackett's cutting dismissal of the alien organism: "Not my space-animal."

Wednesday, August 26, 2020

Predator Binge: Predators (2010)


Given the nature of Hollywood product in the 2010, many of my efforts in daily film criticism here involve the assessment of sequels, remakes, prequels and even re-imaginations.  

These are the three most important benchmarks, in considering the worth of a sequel film, in my estimation.

1. Is there a sufficient measure of fidelity and respect for the original material?  In other words, does the sequel appear to honor what was positive and beloved about the movie that spawned it? 

Bad sequels, by contrast, tend often to undercut the very qualities that were good about the original, usually in a cynical attempt to cash in quickly and bring in a strong first-weekend haul.

2. Does the sequel add to the franchise mythos in some significant or valuable way?

Is the world established by the original film enlarged and opened-up by the efforts of the sequel, or reduced by them?  

Again, this is vitally important. If we are treading deeper into a particular fantasy world, are the discoveries there worth excavating? Or, in some fashion, do the new discoveries ruin and conflict with what we already now?  Do they sour the brand?

3. Finally -- and this may be the most important criterion -- does the sequel also function as a stand-alone work of art in some significant way?  

What concerns me here is this idea: if you were to see the sequel in question alone, with no pre-conceived notions, and with no knowledge of the original, would the film make you want to see the previous entry?  

This third criterion is vital to a judgment of the film not merely as sequel; but as an independent example of cinematic art.  Can the sequel stand  proudly on its own two feet?

If you consider a few great sequels in film history, like The Godfather Part II (1974), The Empire Strikes Back (1980), The Road Warrior (1982), and Aliens (1986), for instance, each film fulfills all three of the above-listed criteria.  


So it is a relief to report that 2010's Predators is both a good sequel and a good film in its own right, if perhaps not in the class of the four high-watermark sequels I tagged above.

Let's weigh each of these sequel benchmarks one-at-a-time, vis-a-vis Predators.  

First, has this sequel been crafted with a sense of both seriousness and fidelity to its beloved source material (the 1987 McTiernan film, Predator)?

The answer is undeniably "yes."  

Predators lands us back in the modern warfare/soldier milieu of the 1987 Predator, and also re-introduces the familiar alien hunter and his preferred territory: a steamy, overgrown jungle.  

Furthermore, the design of the titular monster is abundantly faithful to what came before; and the Predators act in a fashion audiences understand and recognize.  To wit, the film remembers how a Predator can tricks its prey with a cloak of invisibility, and also with vocal mimicry (a duck call...), for instance.  

Attentive audiences will also note a reprise of Alan Silvestri's accomplished Predator scores, and a climactic nod to Little Richard's "Long Tall Sally," which was featured in the Schwarzenegger edition from  the Reagan Era.

Much more importantly, however, in terms of seeming  faithful and honoring the Predator legacy, Predators avoids a dramatic structural mistake I have seen cropping up in more and more sequels and re-imaginations of late.  

This mistake is simply to assume that because a modern audience boasts some familiarity with the film's central monster or villain, it is permissible and  even desirable to simply cut to the chase (cue the CGI...) and forgo suspense and atmospheric build-up.  It's like the filmmakers can't be bothered or patient enough to make the old monster seem fresh -- and scary -- again.

This is an arena where Predators really thrives. Director Nimrod Antal opens with a bravura action sequence involving soldiers in atmospheric free-fall, but then lands the confused human protagonists in a jungle of mystery and ambiguity.  

Of course, we immediately understand that they are being hunted by Predators, but the characters do not know this important fact; at least not initially.  Commendably, the movie takes its time to build character recognition of the grim situation, and also develop ably the alien landscape of a Predator "game preserve." On the latter front, there's a fantastic, visually-stunning ,and truly epic reveal early in the film, when the "hunted" soldiers realize they aren't in Kansas anymore.

It's a trap with no escape, and this film makes you feel the terror of the soldiers at being outmatched, marooned on unfamiliar, unfriendly turf.

The Predators don't actually appear on-screen until approximately the half-hour point of the film, and Antal uses his first-act duration wisely.  He builds up an atmosphere of fear and uncertainty that lasts throughout the film. In this case, he is a patient director, and doesn't show us the monster in extreme close-up in the first minute of the film...the way that we saw New Freddy in the remake of A Nightmare on Elm Street, by contrast.


Also, Laurence Fishburne appears in the film as a kind of hybrid version of Quint from Jaws (1975) and Kurtz from Apocalypse Now (1979).  His purpose is to function as the film's "voice of fear."  He has survived who-knows-how-many encounters with the Predators and remains abundantly terrified of them.  

This is a powerful, unsettling fact, because we associate Laurence Fishburne with the messianic, nearly invincible Morpheus from The Matrix Trilogy, a character of great heroism and presence.  Here, that same towering man is reduced to blubbering insanity.  

As I wrote in my review of Jaws, sometimes fear can be generated in considerable doses by a technique I term information overload; by storytelling.  Consider the famous U.S.S. Indianapolis story that Quint told his shipmates aboard the Orca.  It's the scariest damn thing in the movie because it's personal; because it is intimate.  Quint was there, he saw it happen...and he survived.

Fishburne's character, Nolan, serves the same function in Predators; not merely acting as the voice of fear...but as the voice of personal experience.  

Again, Predators is nowhere near as good or powerful a film as Jaws, obviously, but the narrative approach here is commendable. Rather than using overt flashbacks of the confrontations Nolan describes so apprehensively, Antal maintains the mystery and power of the film's alien creatures by focusing on the frightened storyteller; on his voice; on his words.  This approach allows the audience to experience this man's terror and madness. An action scene would have been spectacular, but a strong man's sense of personal fear can be even more powerful. 

This is what honoring a franchise is all about.  

By contrast, a negative example might help explain this point better. In AVP: Requiem (2007), Aliens and Predators landed on modern-day Earth...and mid-west small-town folks basically defeated them and survived. Children were among the survivors. This victory in our day and age made two breeds of fearsome aliens look weak and inconsequential.  

In previous Alien films, colonial marines and androids were decimated, ship's crews were killed, and Ripley sacrificed her life to assure that an alien could not get to Mother Earth, where it would run rampant and destroy all this "bullshit"  that we think is so important. 

Requiem retroactively shat on all of Ripley's amazing accomplishments by having a 21st century town-sheriff with a shotgun outsmart and survive an encounter with not one kind of alien menace, but two. What's the big deal Ripley, huh? 

That's dishonoring a franchise.

That's dishonoring two, actually.

Predators makes no similar mistakes.  It develops at a good pace and plays fair with an alien race we have seen in previous films. It maintains the dignity of a beloved screen monster. And even the creature design is better too. By AVP: Requiem, the Predators looked like squat, overweight wrestlers rather than lean, seven-foot-tall hunters from another world.


Okay, benchmark two.   Does the film add to the mythos of the franchise?  When the fantasy world of the franchise is opened up, does it add to our knowledge, or contradict it?

Again, Predators is successful.  

The film reveals that Predators train and control monstrous alien hunting dogs (with a whistle, no less), and clearly this revelation fits into the hunting milieu we associate with the previous films, so that's to the good.  

And secondly, the film's inventive setting -- a planetary game preserve -- also fits in with what we understand about the Predators; that hunting is their primary sport, and that they entertain themselves with a variety of game, in a variety of settings.

Another facet of the film I felt was successful involved the introduction of warring breeds of Predators.  Apparently, this society features some pretty serious racial divisions. In other words, we get a look at a Predator we know...and also a fearsome one that we do not know.  

The new breed of aliens does not feel overtly out-of-place (like the Newcomer in Alien Resurrection, for instance), but rather a natural extension of what we know of the Predators: that they are warlike and highly-competitive.  

The film also picks up on one of the few good ideas of AVP (2004):  that Predators can, on occasion, work with their prey if the situation demands it.

Finally, we get to the third benchmark: does the film stand on its own two feet?

Again, I believe it does. 

The script is highly literate, finding time to quote that great hunter, Ernest Hemingway.  But more importantly, the movie strikes on a worthwhile theme: that the Predators -- the monsters of another world -- are battling the monsters of our world.  Here, the Predators test their mettle against guns-for- hire, death squad murderers, drug runners sociopaths, snipers, Yakuza and other individuals who have turned murder into a profitable art. They truly are the predators of our civilization.


This is not really an idea enunciated in any previous Predator movie, and it comments on the world of 2015.  We've had almost twenty years of non-stop war now when you consider American troops still serving in Afghanistan and Iraq..  Murder is big business on Earth at the moment and so Predators (written over a decade ago) feels not just smart, but actually relevant to the 21st century.

For all these reasons, this is the best Predator movie since the original in 1987.  That's not to say the film doesn't have some flaws. For one thing, you can guess right off the bat who the last three survivors of the film will be. It's easy...and a bit too predictable, even if the film attempts valiantly to throw in two inventive, climactic curve-balls.

Yet, that quibble almost doesn't matter when you get a sturdy sequel that demonstrates respect for its source material, opens up the universe of that source material, and tells a solid, standalone story at the same time.


The Predators featured in this film are involved in a process of evolution; making themselves better killers.  I was pleasantly surprised that the filmmakers sought an evolution of sorts too.  In sequels.  

The end result?  They made a good one. 

Tuesday, August 25, 2020

Predator Binge: Predator 2 (1990)


The opening shot of Predator 2 (1990) is a remarkable one. 

Director Stephen Hopkins’ camera rockets over a dense jungle landscape, thus reminding audiences of the 1987 John McTiernan film and its Central American locale.  

Then -- as the camera continues to speed over myriad tree tops -- it pans up to reveal…modern Los Angeles, the urban jungle, on the horizon.

This composition is a great visual way to connect the two films in the franchise, and a sure sign that Hopkins boasts an active intellect and more to the point, a great eye. 

It’s as if the last moments of Predator have become, literally, the first moments of Predator 2.  




Predator 2 is also appreciated by many horror movie fans because it provides the first cinematic evidence of a “shared” universe with another beloved franchise: Alien (1979).  

During the climax of this sequel cop/warrior Mike Harrigan (Danny Glover) finds his way aboard a grounded Predator spaceship and sees a trophy room that boasts a Giger-style alien skull. 

At first blush this might seem like a throwaway moment, but, certainly, it paves the way for the Alien vs. Predator movies of the 2000s. Already, Dark Horse had seen success by pairing the two monsters in a comic series, but Predator 2 is the first such evidence of a shared universe on the silver screen.

Whether that’s a good thing or not, I’ll leave up to you, the reader, but Predator 2 intimates a shared history between two great movie monsters in a way that isn’t entirely obvious or craven (like, say, Freddy’s finger knives dragging Jason’s hockey mask down to Hell.) 

Instead, the reveal of the alien skull in Predator 2 is an awesome moment that expands significantly both franchises.We now know that Predators have defeated the acid-dripping, silver-jawed monstrosities, and likewise that those monstrosities have been around since well before Ripley’s first encounter with them. This moment in the film thus succeeds in the manner that was intended.  It tantalizes us with possibilities, and with a history/relationship we don’t fully understand...but can imagine.  Sadly, this summer's Alien: Covenant (2017), largely overwrites this history, since the android David doesn't create the Xenomorph we know (and love?) until centuries after the events of this film.

 

This sequel also shares much with another science fiction film of 1990: RoboCop 2.

For example, both Predator 2 and RoboCop 2 feature moments that suggest the tabloidization of American news, the rise of such fare as Inside Edition or A Current Affair. Both films also worry about runaway crime rates in America at the time, and obsess on the notion of our streets becoming the battleground for drug and gang wars.  

And both films -- truly -- are anarchic in visualization, graphic violence and tone, suggesting that the near future will be a time of visceral, bloody horror, sensational news and beleaguered infrastructure. 

In both films, the cops can barely hold their own.

Predator 2 never quite reaches the provocative and anarchic highs or lows of RoboCop 2 but -- to its ever-lasting credit -- the Hopkins sequel is more than willing to acknowledge the humor inherent in its central scenario. 


At one point, the hulking Predator ends up in the bathroom of a cranky old woman, and at another juncture attacks a busload of commuters (including a Bernard Goetz character…) simply because they are all armed. 

This scene may represent the best argument for gun control ever put to genre film: Don’t carry a weapon on your way to work, because the Predator -- while on safari -- interprets all gun-owners as “soldiers” and wipes them out with extreme prejudice. Seriously, this film imagines Bernard Goetz-vigilantism as the norm of 1997, and it's a commentary right in line with the imaginings of the RoboCop films.

I admire many aspects of Predator 2 and consider it a worthwhile sequel overall, yet I don’t see it necessarily as an equal to its predecessor in terms of suspense and storytelling. The movie occasionally suffers a bad case of Alien-itis too: cribbing too liberally from 20th Century Fox’s other space monster franchise.

That tendency doesn’t help the film to cement its own individual identity, and works against the director's best efforts.




“Shit happens.”

In the near-future year of 1997, Los Angeles is choking under perpetual smog, and its streets are a war-zone.  

There, rival gangs -- the Jamaicans and the Colombians -- duke it out for superiority. One of the city’s best cops, Mike Harrigan (Glover) attempts to bring order to the streets, but soon finds that a third, chaotic element has been added to the summertime bloodshed.

In particular, a stealthy alien hunter or predator has arrived in L.A. and begun picking off gang members, as well as cops like Harrigan’s trusted friend, Danny (Ruben Blades).

When a federal agent, Keyes (Gary Busey) begins interfering in his investigation, Harrigan suspects a dark secret.  

He soon comes face to face with the intimidating alien hunter, and learns that Keyes and his men are planning to capture it…




“There’s a new king in the streets.”

When I think back on Predator, the images that stay with me, in particular, come from the last third of the picture. There, Arnold’s character, Dutch went up against the Predator with no advanced technology in a primordial jungle, and won.  

The battle could have occurred in prehistoric times.

Obviously, a sequel to Predator couldn’t plumb the identical imagery or locale, or even concept, and so Predator 2 tries hard to carve an original space for itself.  The sequel notes, for example, that in the 1990s, “cops” are the warriors of civilization, fighting back criminals on the streets and protecting an endangered populace.  

This is a valid concept, and also feels very much of the epoch. If you gaze at the 1990s, and consider series such as Law and Order (1990 – 2010), or movies such as The First Power (1990), Fallen (1998), Resurrection (1999) or End of Days (1999) it’s not difficult to see how the police procedural format became incredibly popular, and dominated genre entertainment.

Predator 2 fits in with that trend, and Danny Glover makes for a very different kind of “soldier” than Arnie did. Both men are fiercely protective of their teams, but Harrigan is -- living up to his name: “harried” -- forced to accommodate multiple levels of hierarchy and bureaucracy in a fashion that Dutch simply did not.  Dutch eventually had to deal with Dillon’s duplicity (as Harrigan deals with Keyes’ secrecy and cover story), but Harrigan is more constrained from the get-go based on his job, his heavily populated “arena” of battle, and other factors of late 20th century human civilization.. 

One way to gaze at the Predator franchise is simply as a study of soldiers, an examination of the qualities that go into the making of a good one. Predator, Predator 2, and Predators (2010) have different things to tell audiences on that topic, and all the observations are intriguing. Certainly, Predator suggests that  good or advanced weapons don’t make for the best soldiers.  

Predator 2 seems to suggest that a good soldier succeeds by overcoming not his enemy, but those unofficial enemies who make his task more difficult. Harrigan must contend with the presence of innocent civilians, bureaucrats, and infrastructural impediments on his mission to stop the alien hunter. Meanwhile, Predators seems to suggest that real soldiers are a breed apart, and that breed seems to span all cultures.

The downside to Predator 2’s approach is simply that as soon as you have a rampaging alien creature in familiar, city environs, some moments there are going to read as…funny. You can’t play on the feelings of isolation that you might in the jungle setting.  

So when a Predator crashes through a bathroom wall here and nearly runs into an old woman brandishing a broom, you’re in a whole different kind of territory. The last act of the film suffers from a tonal ping-pong between action, comedy, and horror. I prefer the back-to-basics, straight-on approach of Predator’s finale in the jungle. It’s more pure, somehow; more consistent.

Predator 2, at times, seems to verge on camp. If the film featured a more pronounced, consistent social commentary (as is clearly the case in the gonzo-crazy RoboCop 2), the tone-changes in Predator 2 might have tracked better. I like Gary Busey just fine, but his presence -- and line readings -- ratchet up the tongue-in-cheek aspects of the film.


Lions, and tigers and bears. Oh my.

In the introduction, I also noted creeping Alien clichés in this film. There’s one scene here in which right-thinking Harrigan watches on a row of high-tech monitors as wrong-thinking Keyes leads an ill-fated attack against the Predator. The Predator decimates the team, and Harrigan -- tired of being on the sidelines -- steps up to save the day, or win the battle.  

This scene is an exact mirror of a scene in Cameron’s Aliens (1986).  There, Ripley watches on a row of monitors as the Colonial Marines get their asses kicked on Sub Level 3. She must take action herself, because she is right, and Lt. Gorman is so clearly wrong.  

There's even a similar deer-in-the-headlights moment in Predator 2 for  one Gorman surrogate, Garber (Adam Baldwin).



Similarly, Harrigan appropriates a Ripley-ish line from Alien, while talking to Keyes. “You admire the son of a bitch,” he realizes. 

This is also what Ripley realized vis-à-vis Ash and the xenomorph in the Ridley Scott 1979 original

It’s just baffling that a film seeking so aggressively to artistically break free from its successful predecessor would mindlessly ape another film series at the same. These moments are transparently derivative, and undo some of the creative success Hopkins achieves with this sequel.

Still, I appreciate the final revelations of Predator 2. These moments prove chilling. One of the final scenes, inside the spaceship, features not only an alien skull, but evidence that the Predators have been interacting with humans for a very, very long time indeed. They have been here, are here now, and will return soon.  




That’s a creepy thought, and I love how the old Predator leader demonstrates grudging respect for Harrigan, his prey, by gifting him a gun from the 1700s…a souvenir emblematic of their differences, and shared history.

Writing for The Washington Post, review Rita Kempley wrote persuasively of Predator 2’s “dismal irony” and “brooding fatalism” (November 21, 1990). 

I like those qualities too, and I enjoy this sequel quite a bit. I’ll take it over AVP: Requiem (2007) or Alien Resurrection (1997) any day. Predator 2 doesn’t scuttle its franchise, and in some ways it expands the cycle's reach in a wonderful, creative way.   

And yet the tonal lapses into comedy and rip-off territory prevent Predator 2 from being a truly great sequel to one of the best action-horror films of the eighties.

Elm St. Binge: A Nightmare on Elm Street V: The Dream Child (1989)

In many ways, the  Elm Street  movies are a lot like the James Bond films. Consider: there is one larger-than-life figure at the center of e...