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 affairs...it'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.

Saturday, June 29, 2024

40 Years Ago: Conan The Destroyer (1984)


After a high-flying first film in the franchise – due in large part to director John Milius’s symbolic visuals -- the cinematic Conan saga loses some dramatic altitude with this average but not disastrous follow-up, 1984’s Conan the Destroyer.  
The sequel film, now 40 years old, is a fairly innocuous -- but also fairly childish -- adventure that adopts the wrong tack in terms of Conan’s motivations, and ham-handedly defines him as a gullible hulk rather than as a cunning warrior.  
In short, it’s difficult to believe Conan would become involved in this adventure’s “quest,” especially for the specific reasons that he does. The literary Conan -- and the Conan of Milius’s film -- would know better. 
Furthermore, the precise quest that Conan undertakes in this film from Richard Fleischer -- while picturesque at times thanks to some good 1980s special effects -- nonetheless feels like a tightly-budgeted one. 
Specifically, the major battle sequences are all small potatoes in scope and execution… especially compared to Conan the Barbarian. These fights are relatively uninvolving affairs shot with little distinction, on small sets, and featuring uninspiring creatures that Conan would easily dispatch under many circumstances.  
Also, the film abandons the principle of preparedness by which Conan defeated the legions of Thulsa Doom in the finale of Conan the Barbarian.  Thus the fights here seem more like impromptu wrestling matches than warrior-against-warrior combat.
With some rather under-compelling performers in the secondary roles, Conan the Destroyer just feels a lot like a middling, second-rate sequel to a legitimate masterpiece. It’s not a Superman III (1983) or Superman IV (1986) styled disaster, to be certain, but the second Conan film nonetheless disappoints, falling far short of its superior model.


“We shall both have everything we want through magic.”
Queen Taramis (Sarah Douglas) of Shadizar recruits the great warrior Conan (Arnold Schwarzenegger) for a quest.  After promising Conan that she can resurrect his lost love, Valeria, she entices him to take her niece, Jehnna (Olivia D’Abo) to retrieve a sacred jewel that can awaken Dagoth, the “dreaming God.”
Conan, with his sidekick, Malak the Thief (Tracey Walter) agrees to Taramis’s terms, even though the warrior is not thrilled to be accompanied by the captain of the Queen’s guard, Bombaata (Wilt Chamberlain). 
Conan is also unaware that Taramis’s true plan involves sacrificing Jehnna in order to awaken Dagoth.
After recruiting his wizard friend Akiro (Mako) from cannibals, and freeing Zula (Grace Jones) -- a warrior facing down angry villagers that she has robbed -- Conan and his team retrieve the jewel from the castle of Toth-Amon (Pat Roach). In a Hall of Mirrors, Conan defeats the wizard in close quarters combat.
Later, at an ancient temple, Jehnna and Conan retrieve the horn of Dagoth, and Bombaata springs his trap, abducting Jehnna and taking her prize back to Queen Taramis.
Conan rides back to Shadizar to save Jehnna, and to stop the monstrous Dagoth…who has awakened to wreak havoc on the world of man.

 “It seems that men like women warriors.”

It appears that many of Conan the Destroyer’s problems arise with the basic premise, and Conan’s participation in this particular adventure.

Specifically, Taramis promises Conan that she can return Valeria to him, and Conan much too easily accepts both the possibility of such a resurrection, and the Queen’s motivations for delivering on her promise. 

The Conan of literature and film has always had a tremendous suspicion of magic, and yet here he decides to undertake a quest which will have magical results (the re-birth of a God…), so that he can be the beneficiary of other magical results (the re-birth of his would-be queen).

In short, it just doesn’t seem like Conan to take Taramis at her word about such a grave matter. He should be more suspicious of the Queen and her promises, especially given Sarah Douglas’s haughty (but good…) performance.  She doesn’t exactly inspire trust.

Conan should know that Valeria cannot return to him and that even if she could, it would be…unnatural.   

A better screenplay might have been tweaked to reflect the idea that Conan undertakes this quest for different reasons, ones entirely his own, and probably concerning the fact that he senses a terrible danger.  

Or, simply, the screenplay might have had one scene --  just one scene -- in which Conan questioned the use of magic to restore Valeria.  

Under those circumstances would Valeria want to be restored?  

Conan -- Valeria’s soul mate -- would know the answer instinctively.

Beyond Conan’s willingness to accept that his beloved Valeria can and will return to him, I find it highly unlikely that this warrior would go on a quest in which the end game is, quite clearly, resurrecting a slumbering God.

Conan has almost as little use for Gods as he does for magic.  

So why would Conan agree to help recover an object that could bring about the reign of a dark, monstrous figure, even if he doesn’t know the specifics of how dark or how monstrous the revived Dagoth would actually be?

Arnold Schwarzenegger is once again much more than satisfactory as Conan, but there are times during the film when the adventure seems more appropriate to some other fantasy character, not the man from Cimmeria.   Conan the Barbarian dramatized the story of how Conan was forged and tempered, how he became a man.  It was a vital story to tell.  Conan the Destroyer plays like a boiler-plate adventure, and not one that is particularly notable in Conan’s life.

It’s also plain -- since this film is rated PG, not R -- that Conan the Destroyer begins the unfortunate process of mainstreaming Conan, of making him “acceptable” to parents and other establishment figures worried about “morality.”  

To wit, there is almost no sex in the film at all. Conan is absolutely chaste here. There are no interludes like the kinky one with the witch/demon in Conan the Barbarian. One might argue that Conan is in mourning, of course, but sex has been subtracted not just from his character, but from the film’s very DNA.

Similarly, there is much less gore here than in the previous film, though we do witness Conan’s decapitation of a cannibal while saving the wizard.  The violence is all just more…palatable, and therefore less involving, and less exciting.

The straight-forward, kiddie-friendly approach to the Conan universe might have worked more effectively if there was a larger, more spectacular background tapestry upon which to rely.  Although there are some impressive shots in the film of animal bones in the desert, and mystical and mysterious kingdoms, the big action set-pieces prove remarkable unmemorable.

The Hall of Mirrors sequence doesn’t make a lot of sense given the way the special effects play out, because Conan is able to determine which “reflection” is the real monster without hardship or confusion. 
Secondly, the creature’s make-up in this scene is horrible.  

And thirdly, this sequence is one of the movie’s two big fights, and it occurs in a small room, and with almost no elaboration or detail. It’s just a grudge match.

Worse, the climax in the Queen’s kingdom plays as a repeat of Hall of Mirrors battle. Dagoth awakes, and he looks like a Dark God as imagined by H.P. Lovecraft.  But he is no more difficult to put down than the mirror creature was.  And again, the battle takes place in one room, with Conan indulging, basically, in one-on-one combat.  It just feels very small potatoes, very rushed, especially compared, again, to the first film’s set-pieces. 

I have read that some critics and viewers have a problem with Grace Jones’ character, Zula, but for me, she worked just fine.  Zula doesn’t talk too much, she’s useful in a fight, and there’s no sentimentalizing of the character to any significant degree.  She’s the kind of sidekick I prefer in such fare: a capable and loyal fighter who doesn’t feel the need to crack jokes all the time.

For me, the characters who don’t work are, primarily, Malak and Bombaata.  Malak is second-rate comic relief, and not particularly useful in a fight, or any other pinch, which makes one wonder why Conan keeps him around.  

In Wilt Chamberlain’s hands, Bombaata lacks any sense of genuine menace at all, either physical or psychological.  He just comes off as…flat. 

Meanwhile, Olivia D’Abo has the thankless task of playing the Lynn Holly Johnson (For Your Eyes Only) role to Schwarzenegger’s Conan, lusting eternally after him, but too young for the barbarian to take seriously as a sexual conquest. D’Abo is capable in the role, but again, Jehnna is not particularly well-defined.  She knows all aspects of the Dagoth legend by heart, except the particulars of her role in it?

There’s a whole lot of walkin’ in Conan the Destroyer (a flaw in many modern fantasy films, I find…), and while the scenery is relatively beautiful, the relative “emptiness” of the narrative leaves one time to ponder how disappointing the film is, or how out-of-character Conan seems, or how the film might have been better without some of the stunt casting, like Chamberlain.

Less audacious, less raunchy, less downright naughty than Conan the Barbarian, this 1984 sequel is straight-forward and often fun, but it is not the Conan sequel most of us hoped for, even with Arnold Schwarzenegger inhabiting the role for a second time. 

The first film remains a work of pop art of the first order, a magnificent epic that comments on aspects of our society, and which conveys its meaning through deftly-executed symbolic imagery. 

Conan the Destroyer’s approach is entirely more mundane and workman-like. The movie entertains moderately, moment-to-moment, but that is not accomplishment near grand enough for this particular barbarian.

Monday, June 17, 2024

60 Years Ago: Robinson Crusoe on Mars (1964)


George Pal and Byron Haskin’s Robinson Crusoe on Mars (1964) is sixty years old this year and remains beloved by the generation that grew up with it. 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 2024 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 what modern critics would call 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 sixty years ago on the basis of knowledge we possess today, but if Robinson Crusoe on Mars is judged not to pass muster by any 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.

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 sixty 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.

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