Saturday, July 20, 2024

40 Years Ago: The NeverEnding Story (1984)

The NeverEnding Story (1984), a child-like, innocent fantasy film made in Germany by director Wolfgang Peterson.  His is a name you will recognize immediately for his efforts in the genre like Enemy Mine (1985) and those outside it too, such as Das Boot (1981).

The NeverEnding Story also features stellar practical effects from Brian Johnson, the accomplished special effects director and guru behind Space: 1999's (1975 -1977) miniatures and pyrotechnics, plus the effects of The Empire Strikes Back (1980) and Aliens (1986). Many of the landscapes and creatures Johnson devised for this cinematic effort remain positively wondrous a quarter-century on.  

Both tonally and visually, The NeverEnding Story boasts a softer, more whimsical vibe than the film's appreciably darker and more adult contemporaries,  Krull or Legend for instance. But the world The NeverEnding Story so ably depicts is also refreshingly fanciful and indeed, a bit surreal; what Variety called a "flight of pure fancy."

I realize the 40 year old movie won't be everybody's cup of tea, however.  It's not all Rrc battles, clashing armies and sword fights; and there's never any sense that this tale is part of some larger, realistic, otherworldly saga.  

Instead, as valuable description of the film's atmosphere, let me quote the Boston Globe's Michael Blowen.  He termed the movie "so wonderfully appropriate to children that it seems to have been made by kids.  But there is enough artistic merit in the tale to enchant adults equally."

Looking back today, it's clear that The NeverEnding Story succeeds most powerfully indeed as this "dual track"-styled fantasy that Blowen hints at.  On one hand, this is a  genre film starring children and intended for children; alive with adventure, whimsy and excitement.  On another level all together, however, adults can enjoy the film because it cleverly references (albeit symbolically), the vicissitudes of adult life.  

When young Atreyu (Noah Hathaway) faces several dangerous tasks in the film, it is not just adventure or ordinary fairy tale creatures he countenances, but existential dilemmas about self, about the human psychology.

In the beginning, it is always dark.... 

A dangerous book: The NeverEnding Story.

The NeverEnding Story's particular narrative arises from a popular and critically-acclaimed literary work by German writer, Michael Ende. Alas, Ende was allegedly unhappy with the film's translation of his 1979 book, in part, perhaps, because it depicts only the first half of his narrative. At the box office, the 27 million-dollar film was considered a bomb, though (lesser) sequels were eventually produced.  Critical reviews were mixed.  

In The NeverEnding Story, a sad boy named Bastian (Barret Oliver) is doing poorly in school after the untimely death of his mother.  His father is cold and distant, and Bastian feels alone, rudderless. At school, he is relentlessly bullied by his classmates, and the world feels devoid of hope; of warmth.

One day, Bastian hides from the bullies in a book store and learns from an old man named Koreander (Thomas Hill) of a strange book; a book that is different from all others.  It is called "The NeverEnding Story."   Koreander claims that it is not a safe book.  He hints it can actually transport the reader to another world, another time.

Alone in an attic, Bastian reads the mysterious book. It tells of a mythical world called Fantasia where a creeping "Nothing" is devouring the world a land at-a-time. 

A young boy, about Bastian's age -- Atreyu -- is summoned to the Ivory Tower to embark on a heroic quest.  The land's Empress is dying of a strange malady, one tied to the existence and spread of "The Nothing."  Atreyu must learn how to cure the Empress's disease, an act which should simultaneously stop the "The Nothing."  But it will not be easy.

Early on, Atreyu loses his beloved white steed, Artex, in the "Swamp of Sadness," attempting to contact "The Ancient One" -- a giant old turtle "allergic" to young people.  

There, Atreyu begs the apathetic old creature -- who lives by the motto "we don't even care whether or not we care" -- for help.  The Old One finally informs the boy warrior that he must travel ten thousand miles to the South Oracle if he hopes to get his answer about the Empress.

Fortunately, a luck dragon named Falcor rescues Atreyu from sinking further into the Swamp of Sadness, and transports him to the Southern Oracle.  There, with the help of two kindly elves, Engywook and Urgl, Atreyu faces two critical tests.  

First, he must walk through a gate in which is self-worth is judged.  If his self-worth is found lacking, two giant statues will destroy him with eye-mounted particle beam weapons.

The second test at the Southern Gates is the "magical mirror test."  There, Atreyu must gaze into a mirror and countenance his true self.  Here, brave men learn that they are cowards inside.  And kind men learn that they have been cruel.

Surviving both tests, Atreyu learns that he must next pass beyond the "boundaries" of Fantasia to save his world and his queen.  This is something of a trick answer, however, as he learns from his feral nemesis, Gmork.  

As Gmork confides in the warrior about Fantasia: "It's the world of human fantasy. Every part, every creature of it, is a piece of the dreams and hopes of mankind. Therefore, it has no boundaries."

In the end, worlds collide. Atreyu needs the help (and the belief) of Bastian in his world; and Bastian must be the one to save the Empress, even though at first he can't quite make himself believe that he can help.  As the Empress notes, Bastian "simply can't imagine that one little boy could be that important."

But, of course, he is...

We don't know how much longer we can withstand the nothing. 

A beacon of hope in Fantasia, The "Ivory Tower."

In the synopsis above, one can easily detect how the dangerous, fanciful quests in Atreyu's Fantasia (Fantastica in the Ende book...) translate into relevant messages about human life here on Earth, and in particular, the challenges of adulthood.

"The Swamp of Sadness," for instance, is a place that -- if you stop to dwell -- you sink further and further.  

In other words, this specific trap is a metaphor for self-pity.  If you stop to focus on how sad you are, how depressed you feel, you just keep sinking.  And the further you sink, the harder it is to escape; to pull yourself up.  Sadness creates more sadness.

And the Ancient Guardian?  

He represents apathy and old age; wherein acceptance of "how things are" has overcome the desperate need of  hungry youth to change (even save...) the world.  Appropriate then that this guardian should be visualized as a turtle...since he can just hide from everything in his over-sized shell, never to face reality.  As the movie notes, "There's no fool like an old fool!"

The Southern Gate's first test, of "self worth," also relates to us, right here, everyday.  If we don't believe in ourselves and what we can accomplish under our own steam, how can we make others believe in us or our abilities?  Feelings of strong self-esteem and self-worth must by need precede all quests of "self actualization," right? If you don't believe you can do something in the first place, why try?

The second Oracle test -- also encountered before victory -- involves facing yourself.  There are all sorts of "monsters" and crises to fear in our everyday lives, but none of those beasts is worse or more terrifying than self-reflection;  how we sometimes view and judge ourselves.  

The magical mirror test asks us to solemnly reflect on who we are; on who we have become.  Are we the good people we could be?  Or are we hypocrites hiding behind platitudes about being good? When we look in the mirror, which face do we see?

Even the movie's nebulous but effective central threat is contextualized as a danger to the psychology; a danger to self.  What's at stake if you have low self-esteem, if you sink into depression, and you don't see yourself truthfully in that mirror of conscience?  

Well, the creeping Nothing around you -- and inside you -- just grows and grows.  

"It's the emptiness that's left," Gmork says, describing the "Nothing."   "It's like a despair, destroying this world...Because people have begun to lose their hopes and forget their dreams. So the Nothing grows stronger."

So, meet 1984's The NeverEnding Story: the self-help book of fantasy cinema, in which every challenge Atreyu faces alludes to the book's reader, Bastian, and his unique set of challenges.  Not to mention our challenges too.

Should he wallow in self-pity in despair, with the end result that the quicksand will consume him?  Should he hate himself because he is sad, and not pulling himself up by his bootstraps as his Dad desires?

If Bastian succumbs to these visions of himself (and does not see his own self worth), the Nothing consumes him...just as it consumes Fantasia.  The answer, of course, is to believe in himself, and this message is not as heavy handed as it might have been, in part because of the delightful fantasy trappings.  

It's amusing and also rather charming to see our grown-up fears (of depression) and foibles (like low self-esteem) made manifest into the physical genre trappings of the heroic quest; dangers to be avoided and beaten down.  Depression as a swamp. Apathy as a turtle inside his shell. Self-worth as a hurdle that must be crossed, etc.

Another highly commendable aspect of The NeverEnding Story is how it views imagination and education.  

Of course, the act of reading (and of imagining the adventures of literary figures) is championed here as a way of dealing with unpleasantness in real life; unpleasantness like death, and like bullying.  Reading is the catalyst of everything important in the film: the introduction to adventure and the key to saving the world.  As Julie Salomon wrote in The Wall Street Journal back in 1984, The NeverEnding Story "brings back the early excitement of reading as a child, when the act of turning pages took on a magical quality."

But more than that, I appreciate how The NeverEnding Story turns the idea of "the Ivory Tower" on its ear.  In metaphor, the Ivory Tower has become synonymous with something negative.  The phrase Ivory Tower widely "refers to a world or atmosphere where intellectuals engage in pursuits that are disconnected from the practical concerns of everyday life."

Today, people decry Ivory Tower residents as "elitists" or as being somehow bad, even evil.  Instead, ignorance and anti-intellectualism are raised up as virtues, instead.   Don't read the newspaper?  Great!  Don't know geography?  Terrific. Who's the leader of Pakistan?  Don't know? Don't care?  Outstanding.  

Well, as The NeverEnding Story makes plain, nothing bad EVER originates from the Ivory Tower.  Self-enrichment and education are universal any reality.  There is no down side to being smart; to  gathering knowledge; to being a resident of this "Ivory Tower."

Ask yourself, what do others gain by keeping another person away from learning, away from the proverbial Ivory Tower? By keeping others ignorant? That's the danger of anti-intellectualism right there; that someone will "bully" another being into being something less than what he or she could be.   

Gmork makes the case aptly:  "People who have no hopes are easy to control; and whoever has the control... has the power."

When you tie together The NeverEnding Story's multiple strands of education (and learning to read, to experience literary worlds), imagination (putting yourself into the literary fantasy...)  and self-worth to the movie's paradise -- "The Ivory Tower," --  you get the point plainly.   

It's a message perfectly suited for adults and kids: don't for a minute believe that one person can't be important.

The question, for viewers, of course, is simply: are you interested in a fantasy film created in this vein, a fantasy film in which the advice "never give up, and good luck will find you," is championed at the expense of more mature, nuanced themes.   

I can easily imagine that, before having a son, I might have felt that this message was somehow cheesy or over-the-top.   But being the parent of a seven-year old, I find myself appreciating The NeverEnding Story more than ever before.  The movie is fun and inventive, and it has a light touch with this material. I find it audacious and courageous that a fantasy movie should take the form of, literally, the aforementioned "self-help book."   

Now, I don't know that I would want other fantasies to emulate this mold; but in this case, the unusual symbolism successfully differentiates The NeverEnding Story from its many brethren of the early 1980s. The result is that the movie is distinctive...and memorable.

Of course, not everyone agreed.  Critic Vincent Canby wrote, of the movie's approach: "When the movie is not sounding like ''The Pre-Teen- Ager's Guide to Existentialism,'' it's simply a series of resolutely unexciting encounters between Atreyu and the creatures that alternately help and hinder his mission."

Perhaps that's true, but what about when the movie does sound like a Pre-Teen Ager's Guide to Existentialism?  For me, that's where this movie's worth ultimately resides; in the idea of real life foibles and crises made manifest in fantasy terrain.  I don't think the movie's great strength --  the brawny central conceit -- should be discounted quite so readily.

Having a luck dragon with you is the only way to go on a quest...
Falcor, the Luck Dragon...looks suspiciously like a puppy.

The other factor that distinguishes The NeverEnding Story today is the film's pre-CGI visualization of Fantasia.  

In fact, this movie, -- much like The Dark Crystal (1982) -- is a wonderful testament to the things practical effects can achieve given an adequate budget and a sense of unrestrained imagination.  Here, an entire world is built from the ground up; and it's a world of leviathan Rock Biters, racing snails, Sadness Swamps, weird "elf-tech," and much more.  

Using prosthetics, gorgeous sets, miniatures, and mattes -- and no digital backgrounds or monsters whatsoever -- the makers of this film support the storyline with their droll, highly-detailed creations.  Some of these creations are really, really weird, mind you.  

For instance, the Rock Biter is an amazing, idiosyncratic and wholly individual thing. He's crazy-looking, and yet he's got real personality and character.  I can't say he looks "real"; more like something you'd imagine from Alice in Wonderland.  And yet he has weight and presence, and when he is sad, you feel his pain.  In the movie, the Rock Biter contemplates giving himself to the Nothing, essentially committing suicide, and the pathos is authentic.  A bad special effect could not have accomplished that feeling.

Today, some of the flying effects don't hold up; certainly that is true.  The ending of the movie also feels sudden, and a little too convenient.

But nonetheless, The NeverEnding Story still has...something.  It may not be what we desire of a fantasy as "serious"  grown-ups, but trenchantly it does recall such youthful stories as Peter Pan and Alice in Wonderland.

Empire's Ian Nathan wrote of The NeverEnding Story: "This was sweet and charming at the time but now it just lacks either the comedy or sophistication of kids' fantasy film that we've all become accustomed to."

I agree with him that The NeverEnding Story remains sweet and charming.  And the film's sense of sophistication arises from the central conceit of turning human emotions -- depression, self-hatred, apathy -- into the trials of a heroic, fantasy quest.  

But I know what he means.   

There's the sense after watching the film that, somehow, The NeverEnding Story isn't merely child-like, it's actually childish.  

I'll leave it up to each individual viewer to decide if that's the film's ultimate weakness, or true blue strength.

Monday, July 15, 2024

Guest Post: Late Night with the Devil (2024)

Late Night With The Devil, The Ratings Are Killer

by Jonas Schwartz-Own


The demonic time capsule of the tumultuous 1970s, Late Night With The Devil, is a mastery of the Me Generation mise-en-scène. The production design is pitch perfect in its dreariness, visually evoking dread in a tale of television and the desperation for success.


Halloween 1977, Night Owls with Jack Delroy is fighting to beat the ratings of that epoch, The Tonight Show With Johnny Carson. But while Johnny features A-Listers Jane Fonda, Mark Hamill, and Burt Reynolds as guests, Jack Delroy (David Dastmalchian) and his third-rate studio book grade-Z hacks and charlatans, yet still mysteriously pull in viewers. To celebrate the holiday, Jack brings on a side-show psychic (Fayssal Bazzi), a former magician turned skeptic (Ian Bliss), a reluctant parapsychologist (Laura Gordon) and her charge, a young survivor of a mass suicide cult (Ingrid Torelli). The little girl appears to have been invaded by a demonic being. Would an exorcism lift Jack to the top of the ratings?


Brother-writer/directors Colin and Cameron Cairnes successfully capture ‘70s television so well, audiences may mistake the footage for being actually shot in 1977. The burnt colors of the set and costume design pallet, the tacky suits the actors wear, and muted tones of the cinematography pull the viewers through the looking glass. The opening, a montage of the chaotic ‘70s, works well on its own. Though it’s obvious the narration, provided by horror icon Michael Ironside, pays homage to the schlocky In Search Of…” series with Leonard Nimoy or to the opening of Texas Chainsaw Massacre, it’s too on the nose, and sets an overstated tone. The visuals themselves would have been better.  


It works well for the plot twists that the film set and its occupants are amateurish, despite the show’s high ratings. It suggests more milquetoast daytime fare, like the news show Panorama or The Dinah Shore Show, than the late -night master Johnny Carson or his competition. The camerawork also hammers home the shoddiness of the crew with its zooms and camera angles. 


Besides the blandness of the boob tube, the directors slyly reference two major classics of the era. The most obvious is Friedkin’The Exorcist with its tale of a child possessed, as well as a visual reference to Jack MacGowran’s death. The directors also allude to Brian DePalma’s Carrie – the little girl’s long hair dripping down resembles everyone’s favorite prom queen, the screen splits to share different conversations at the same time, and the TV audience climbing over each other and tripping over seats is almost shot-for-shot the gymnasium carnage. 


The lead cast is outstanding.  Dastmalchian masters smarminess with a faux warmth hiding contempt that many late night guests notice from their hosts. Bliss is hilariously supercilious, as the debunker whose delusion of dominance is revealed by endlessly pontificating. Torelli unhinges the audience every time the camera hangs on her. With a haunting smile and menacingly calm demeaner, she’s the embodiment of a Manson girl. 


Some of the smaller roles though are a bit stiff, like Jack’s cameraman, which lifts the audience from believing that the terror is real in the behind-the-scenes moments. 


While their writing could use a bit more refinement (the opening and the fantasy denouement are both more over the top than necessary), Late Night With The Devil exposes the fresh talent of the Cairnes brothers, particularly with their direction.  

Saturday, July 13, 2024

40 Years Ago: The Last Starfighter (1984)

During an era in which computer-generated special effects are often over-utilized, the phrase "it looks like a video game" has frequently been deployed by film critics as a cutting insult. 

In the case of Nick Castle's forty-year old outer space epic, The Last Starfighter (1984), however, the phrase is actually a compliment.

This is especially true if one subscribes to the critical theory -- as I do -- that a movie's shape or form ought to reinforce and supplement the movie's content.

Here, The Last Starfighter's video-game-themed visuals and flourishes -- primarily featuring outer-space warfare -- hark back to the movie's central concept: that of an earthbound arcade video game serving as a futuristic sword-in-the-stone, Excalibur test that uncovers hidden greatness and heroism among certain players..

And one quality I especially admire about The Last Starfighter today is that it this Excalibur test concerns skill and ability and not blood-lines.  

Alex  Rogan makes it to outer space (and escapes his trailer park origins...) based on his own abilities, not because he has the "right" genetic heritage, or midichlorians, or what have you.  

That's a message that bears repeating today, especially when it is becoming more and more difficult to achieve success if you are not rich, or from the right family.

“Things change. Always do.  You’ll get your chance. The import thing is: when it comes, you’ve got grab it with both hands and hold on tight.”

The Last Starfighter depicts the heroic journey of young Alex Rogan (Lance Guest), a man searching for meaning in his life. 

Alex lives in a "flea-speck" trailer court -- the Starlite-Starbrite -- along with his Mom and little brother, Lewis. He has been turned down for a college loan, and now plans to partake in "a world-wide tour to nowhere."

Alex is also in love with the gorgeous Maggie (Catherine Mary Stewart), a girl who seems afraid to cast her eyes and aspirations beyond the confines of their small world. 

"The truth is," he tells her, "you're scared of leaving the trailer park." But Alex actively desires an escape from his life of quiet desperation.

And to his surprise, he gets his wish...

When Alex achieves the new high score on an arcade game called Starfighter, he is promptly recruited by a flamboyant alien named Centauri (Robert Preston). 

After a lightning-fast journey to the stars, Alex must then save the peaceful planet Rylos from the invading space armada of the traitorous Zur and the barbaric Ko-Dan fleet. 

At first Alex refuses to fight in this dangerous galactic confrontation, but soon he accepts his destiny as a Starfighter, and -- with the help of an Iguana-like co-pilot named Grig (Dan O'Herlihy) -- takes on "The Black Terror of the Ko-Dan" in a ship called a GunStar. 

"Death is a primitive concept."

Along with Walt Disney's Tron (1982), The Last Starfighter is one of the earliest Hollywood productions to eschew models, miniatures, and motion-control photography for a new way.

Instead or relying on tried-and-true physical techniques, the film deploys digital representations of spaceships, planet surfaces, star-bases and the like in its various visual effects sequences. 

From space cars to GunStars, from the force-field of the breached Frontier to the Rylosian base, every image in The Last Starfighter is computer-generated.

These CG creations indeed appear primitive and lacking-in-necessary-detail to our trained, experienced 21st century eyes, but nonetheless, they still interact meaningfully with The Last Starfighter's subject matter and core themes. 

Specifically, Alex Rogan's cry of jubilation that real outer space combat is "just like the game!" is meant literally. 

Space battles intentionally look like golden age video game battles, and spaceship read-outs resemble the arcade game interface/console. 

When Alex grabs the joystick on his GunStar and blasts Ko-Dan fighters to smithereens for the first time, the audience is meant to remember and embrace Alex's experience with the arcade model; and indeed, its own experiences playing video games.

This is an important element of The Last Starfighter. The film forges a positive connection between our grounded reality -- our popular forms of entertainment such as video games -- and the intergalactic society of the stars, which the film uses explicitly as a metaphor for achieving one's dreams and goals.

Released during the aforementioned video game's so-called Golden Age (1982-1987) -- the epoch of home systems such as the Atari 2600, Intellivision, Colecovision and Vectrex -- The Last Starfighter thus develops an idea that every gamer has at least briefly, or perhaps subconsciously, entertained.

Simply stated, that idea is that the immersing video game platform is a gateway or training-ground that leads straight to real life adventure. The player thus imagines -- or wishes himself -- essentially, into the world of the game. 

A 1983 anthology film, Nightmares offers a darker contemplation of the same wish-fulfillment notion, landing Emilio Estevez's character into a deadly contest based on a fictional video game called "The Bishop of Battle. 

But in The Last Starfighter, Alex realizes his dream of escape (and personal importance...) via his skill in video games...and actually comes to touch the stars.

These two productions function as two sides of the same coin, and both acknowledge something brewing in the American pop culture at the dawn of video game popularity: the experiential nature of the new medium and the manner in which some players view reflexes and talents honed in the game world as real-life tools. 

Thus video games are no mere entertainment, and certainly not a waste of time.  They are, in fact, teaching tools.

Any film attempting to make this point in cinematic terms should indeed utilize special effects that audiences directly associate with the visuals of early era video games. Both Nightmares and The Last Starfighter accomplish that feat. 

In the latter case, the visuals of a Star Trek or a Star Wars film wouldn't work as cleverly here as do the CG effects. The audience wouldn't make the leap so cleanly from game to reality without the game-like special effects to connect the realms, or, more aptly, to connect the dreams with the achievement of the dreams.

While integrating the up-to-date video game craze of its time, The Last Starfighter also puts a mythical, classical spin on its tale. Specifically, the movie terms the Starfighter arcade game, an "Excalibur" test, alluding to the Arthurian legends of Camelot. 

Or, to adopt the movie's terminology itself: "only a few were found to possess the gift." Thus a joystick jockey isn't just a simple player then, but a hero-in-waiting, a king-in-the-making. One ready to pull the sword from the stone and accept his or her true destiny as hero. This approach to heroism is also splendidly democratic: anybody with the skill and talent can become a Starfighter. Station in life -- or point of origin -- (like a trailer park) doesn't matter.

What remains so much fun about The Last Starfighter today is the manner in which it imaginatively and humorously integrates the entertainment past (films like Star Wars and Arthurian literature) with what it views as the "future" of mass entertainment (video-games; CG effects).

This means that Robert Preston -- playing an alien named Centauri -- offers a variation on his beloved character from Morton DaCosta's classic The Music Man (1962). Like Harold Hill in that production, Centauri arrives at his destination (Starlite Starbrite Trailer Court, not River City) in a disguise of sorts. And like Harold Hill, Centauri's primary concern seems to be wealth. Of course, in the end, the scoundrel is revealed to have -- surprise! -- a heart of gold. That's true in both films.

Also, in keeping with the video game aesthetic of The Last Starfighter, Centauri's/Hill's colorful language has been updated. "You bet your asteroids," he quips at one point, and the audience just knows he's referring not to space-going rocks...but rather to Atari's 1979 arcade game, Asteroids.

And when a Ko-Dan weapon targets a vulnerable starbase, the high-tech screens inside that facility cut to a real-time image of a streaking-missile or bomb that could have been lifted right from Dave Theurer's initiative for Atari, Missile Command (1980). A weapon with a trail inches irrevocably towards its destination, an unprotected (unshielded) installation. What follows -- just as in the game - is total annihilation.

The Last Starfighter even offers a metaphysical spin on life and death, and one also related to the Tao of video games. After Centauri is believed dead, he returns to life (just in time for a happy ending). He claims to have simply been "dormant."

Of course, in video games, our avatars die and are re-born on a regular basis every time we hit the reset or start button on our consoles. 

In the world of The Last Starfighter, as in the world of video games, death is not a permanent state of's actually a "primitive concept" according to Grig.  We live to fight another day and death may just be that "unseen dimension" in which we've activated the "off" switch till the next contest, the next burst of "life" and action.

The Last Starfighter is a lot of fun, and a memorable genre film overall...if not always a great one. 

Watching it today, one can see how it suffers from a case of that 1980s affliction called "the cutes." Specifically, there's a lot of sub-adolescent humor involving Alex's little brother, and it's just seems goofy and unnecessary today. 

Of course, Lewis serves a purpose in the plot beyond the wise-cracks and young-skewing humor too. Near film's end, we see him applying himself to the Starfighter arcade game. The next generation awaits its turn...

But when The Last Starfighter fires on all thrusters, it really works. It captures what few films that followed Star Wars managed to re-create: a sense or aura of unfettered fun.

Appropriately, the film's final shot is a memorable and even stirring one. The camera is aimed towards the Heavens, as Alex, Maggie and Grig return to the stars aboard the accelerating GunStar. 

But below the GunStar -- closer to us in the shot, at the lower left-hand corner of the frame -- stands the neon, flickering star icon/sign of the Starlite/Starbrite Trailer Park.

Like so much of the film's visuals, that neon, colored light seems a reflection of down-to-Earth technology, of the video game graphics of the day.

The image is simple and basic, but still a beacon in the night calling us to adventure. And oppositely, calling adventure to us.

In one closing shot, we get both our grounded reality (the reality of video games) and the dream of a better one: a rocket ship bound for adventure. It's a beautiful and valedictory image, and if you consider The Last Starfighter a film about dreaming big dreams, a meaningful one too.

Early in The Last Starfighter, Alex notes with despair that he is "only" a kid from Earth, not a starfighter. Centauri replies that "if that's what you think, that's all you'll ever be." 

We can't all be heroes and starfighters, but Centauri's words remind audiences that when humans apply themselves, opportunities arise. When we dream (even if we're "dreaming" video games...), we imagine new possibilities.

A high score in life opens up all sorts of doorways. Not just to outer space, but to adventures unknown and great. And when we hear the words, "Greetings Starfighter," it's our responsibility to grab the joystick, kick in the thrusters, and go for the gusto. 

In suggesting that very course of action, The Last Starfighter may not be great art, but in its own entertaining way, it's an inspiring genre film, and one worthy of a re-visit.  The film is as fresh and fun, and rousing as it was four decades ago.

Monday, July 01, 2024

30 Years Ago: The Shadow (1994)

In terms of comic-book or superhero films, there’s a long-standing rule that Hollywood producers have forgotten on multiple occasions.

Period genre films fail at the box office.

Indeed, Hollywood history is littered with the corpses of period superhero or comic-book movies with titles such as Doc Savage: Man of Bronze (1975), Dick Tracy (1990), The Rocketeer (1991), The Shadow (1994), The Phantom (1998), Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow (2004) and John Carter (2012).

All these films either adapt older properties that are no longer popular enough to generate popular success, or are new properties that serve as homages (like Raiders of the Lost Ark [1982]…) to the decade of the 1930s.

Either way, these films don't meet with widespread audience approbation.

Because these films all failed, however, that does not necessarily mean that they are artistic failures.  

Indeed, I count The Rocketeer, Sky Captain and John Carter as remarkable successes in terms of universe-building, and in the successful re-capturing an earlier era in entertainment. 

I’m conflicted on Warren Beatty’s Dick Tracy. It’s a beautifully-made film, but largely an empty one, at least in terms of human interest.

Then, there's The Shadow, the 1994 Russell Mulcahy adaptation of the Walter B. Gibson character created in 1931, and it occupies a slot close to Dick Tracy in terms of my admiration assessment.  

There are several powerful and successful elements at work in the film, and the jaunty, tongue-in-cheek tone makes it less dire (and less difficult to sit through) than Beatty’s 1990 comic-book film.

Some critics of the day saw these virtues and made note of them. Jeff Laffel at Films in Review observed, for instance, that The Shadow was a “lot less pretentious” than Tim Burton’s Batman (1989) and a “whole lot of fun.”  

In Cinefantastique, James Faller felt that the movie had “much to recommend it,” but that there was “never much sense of urgency or identification with the title character.”  

On the opposite end of the spectrum, The New York Post’s Michael Medved called The Shadow “the most embarrassing big studio bomb of the summer.”

I don’t find the thirty year old movie embarrassing in the slightest.  

The Shadow is a fun if overlong movie, buttressed by Alec Baldwin’s game performance.  I do agree with Faller that, by film’s end, the film feels more like a breezy, occasionally diverting effort than a compelling, necessary movie.

“The clouded mind sees nothing.”

In the early twentieth century, not long after the First World War -- in far off Tibet -- American ex-patriot Lamont Cranston (Alec Baldwin) has become a ruthless warlord who terrorizes the locals. 

One day, he is abducted from his HQ and brought before a Tulpa, a Tibetan instructor who teaches him how to ‘cloud’ the minds of enemies.  He will pay for his crimes by fighting other criminals.

Years later, Lamont lives in New York and operates as ‘The Shadow,’ a vigilante who strikes fear into the heart of Manhattan’s gangsters. The Shadow also controls, from his sanctum, a network of associates/agents who owe him favors since he saved their lives. 

As Lamont falls in love with Margo Lane (Penelope Anne Miller), the telepathic daughter of a scientist (Ian McKellen), a new threat rises. 

The evil Shiwan Khan (John Lone) arrives in NYC to take over the world. He wields a deadly weapon, thanks to Dr. Lane; a Beryllium sphere, or atom bomb!

“You know what evil lurks in the heart of men.”

One quality that makes The Shadow a lot of fun is its bubbly, tongue-in-cheek sense of humor.  The film doesn't take itself too seriously, and that makes the re-assertion of dark superhero tropes bearable at times.

Also, Alec Baldwin -- who would have been the ultimate Batman in the eighties and nineties -- is perfect as the urbane, and faintly sinister Lamont Cranston. 

Baldwin plays a man whom the audience can believe truly boasts a seething dark side. Not only is he saturnine in appearance, with piercing eyes, but he possesses a gravelly, authoritarian voice. In 1994, Baldwin was the perfect choice for The Shadow, especially given the character’s roots in radio (a voice-driven art form).  He looks right, and he sounds right too.

The Shadow’s opening scene set in Tibet also seems, in some crucial way, to forecast one of the crucial (and best) sequences in Christopher Nolan's Batman Begins (2005).  There, as you may recall, Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale traveled to Ladakhi, a location inhabited by people of Tibetan descent. 

There, he trained to become a great warrior (and consequently a superhero), and master his fear. That’s pretty much what happens in the prologue of The Shadow, with the path of Lamont’s life altered forever by is training at the hands of the Tulpa. 

In some ways, this period of Far Eastern training works better, at least in terms of character consistency, in The Shadow. 

Batman may be “the dark knight,” based on his childhood traumas, but Lamont is recruited to his superhero calling because, literally, of the darkness coruscating inside him. 

He is picked for training because he carries some essential understanding -- based on his history as the “Butcher of Lhasa” -- of his own psyche. He knows what evil lurks in the heart of men as The Shadow, because that evil lurks within him.  But Cranston's training has helped him master it.  

At least most of the time.

If The Shadow’s prologue forecasts Batman Begins, then it is fair to state the opposite case too. 

The Shadow also feels very much like a child of Tim Burton’s Batman. The first scene after the Tibetan prologue in The Shadow, for example, imitates the opening scene of Batman to an uncomfortable degree. Just as the mysterious Batman terrorized street level criminals in Gotham City in that film, The Shadow here confronts a number of thugs on the Brooklyn Bridge.  

It is fair, to state, of course, that all superhero films feature scenes of heroes in criminals in conflict. 

But just consider the underlying feeling or details at work in both sequences.  

Specifically, the Shadow and Batman are both such terrifying presences that leave their respective criminals shaking and quaking in horror at their existence.  

In both cases, the hero has become a near-mythical or superhero monster, not merely a superhero.  There is a connection, in both cases, with darkness, monstrosity, and villainy. The Batman and The Shadow are both icons of fright, in these productions, at least before the audience gets to know them. They strike fear into the heart of men.

Superman doesn't do that. And neither did Adam West's Batman. Post-Dark Knight/Frank Miller, superheroes at the cinema had to be thee brooding, creatures of the night, stalking their prey under moonlight.

Also to the downside, the love affair in The Shadow between Margo Lane and Lamont Cranston feels very de rigueur, much like the unholy combination of the Superman/Lois Lane relationship, and the Batman/Vicky Vale relationship.  

Like the former, the love interest is named “Lane” and represents a “threat” to the hero because of some experience or knowledge she brings to the table, either as a hardcore investigative reporter or a psychic,  

And like Vicky, Margo “gets inside,” finding access to the hero’s dark, closed off world.

I don’t believe that The Shadow is as visually compelling or inventive as Dick Tracy is.  That film’s overwhelming and distinctive color scheme -- as well as its fidelity to keeping action sequences confined to individual “frames”-- resulted in a singular entertainment.  Yet The Shadow does a remarkably effective and impressive job creating 1930s New York City, and locations such as The Cobalt Club, The Empire State Building, the Monolith Hotel, and the aforementioned Brooklyn Bridge.

I should also note the film’s “prophetic” touches. There are some fun moments in The Shadow that require one to understand the history of America since the 1930s. For example, Khan quips at one point about creating a “New World Order,” and that was a critical comment of the first President Bush’s era in American politics. 

By bringing in the future, through lines of dialogue such as this, The Shadow proves in fact, that it is not about a sinister and complex world, but an innocent one. The appeal is thus nostalgic.

Today, I'm not sure that's a quality the the film should have aimed for.

And even though The Shadow is actually one of the key influences behind the Batman mythos, the long-lived hero comes off in this film like a knock-off of such modern heroes as Batman, or even Darkman. 

Furthermore, the film's supporting characters -- Roy Tam, Margo Lane, Moe Shrevnitz -- are unfamiliar to most audiences.  Sure, they are faithful to The Shadow’s history, but there’s the feeling this feeling about the film that it is about ten-to-twenty years too late to please those who grew up with the Gibson character.

A sequel to The Shadow might have had the opportunity to build on the good things presented in this film (especially the Baldwin performance), but audiences never got the chance for a return engagement.  Instead, this film simultaneously seemed too new and too much the same not to ‘cloud’ the minds of its confused audience.

As I’ve noted, I like The Shadow. I think it’s a notch or two better than Beatty’s Dick Tracy, at least as pure, human entertainment.  

But I also think The Shadow proves the point that period superhero movies represent a tricky bet at the box office.

When we look to our silver screen superheroes, we don't want the adventures of yesteryear.  Instead, we want cutting edge technology and characters, apparently.  

Too late, The Shadow knows this.

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