Saturday, July 24, 2021

Thundarr the Barbarian in "Valley of the Man-Apes"



In “Valley of the Man-Apes,” Thundarr, Ariel and Ookla ride through Death Canyon when they spy intelligent ape creatures digging in the desert there.  

Led by the malevolent, human-hating ape creature called Simius, the apes unearth a giant robotic ape paw.  It is the hand of a mythological figure called “The Mighty One.”  

Worse, Simius and his minions are hell-bent on re-assembling the giant ape, and seek out the robot’s missing animatronic limbs.

Thundarr and his friends clash with Simius at an abandoned movie studio, but it is too late to stop him from completing his task. Simius puts together the Mighty One, a giant ape and movie prop from before the holocaust.  Worse, he still functions, and becomes a terrifying weapon.

Now Thundarr and his friends must defeat the giant mecha-ape using an abandoned World War II airplane, one flown (by Ariel) with magic. 




“Valley of the Man-Apes” is another really entertaining winner for Thundarr the Barbarian  (1980 – 1982).  

The episode qualifies essentially, as a pastiche of Planet of the Apes (1968) and King Kong (1977).  To wit: intelligent apes attempt to make war against humanoid (or elf-in) villagers using a giant robotic ape.  

But the ape is defeated in a battle with a pre-holocaust plane, and that fate is reminiscent of King Kong’s death in his famous cinematic outings.


Even more delightfully, “Valley of the Man-Apes” stages much of is action at an ancient movie studio, and specifically a western ghost town there.  One battle sequence hauls out -- purposefully – every Western movie “saloon” cliché imaginable in about a minute long span.  Thundarr swings from a chandelier, there is fight over and across the central saloon bar, and even a piano in the corner comes into play..

There’s also some wicked, under-the-surface humor here.  Simius and his monkey friends are attempting to re-assemble, essentially, a giant prop of King Kong, one operated by robotics.  

In real life, Dino De Laurentiis never quite got his Kong robot to work on the set of the 1976 King Kong, but that robot (and his behind-the-scenes story…) is nonetheless the clear inspiration for this narrative.  “Valley of the Man Apes” thus functions both as action-packed adventure, and subtle satire of Hollywood, from its depiction of the cowboy milieu to Tinsel Town’s over-spending on special effects gimmicks that have no chance of working as intended.

Filled with clever allusions to Planet of the Apes, King Kong and Hollywood history in general, “Valley of the Man-Apes” is one of the best and smartest Thundarr episodes, one that stands alongside such efforts as “Stalker from the Stars” and “Island of the Body Snatchers.”

Wednesday, July 21, 2021

Guest Post: Black Widow (2021)



God Help The Tyrannical Russian Agent Murderer/Brainwasher Who Comes Between Me And My Sister…"

By Jonas Schwartz


After years of speculation and promise from the MCU, the standalone Black Widow has finally reached theaters -- and, for an additional fee option, on Disney+.  The action film rests solely on the high caliber cast and without them, the pedestrian writing and direction would have dragged the film to the depths of the hollow DC films. Oscar® winner Rachel Weisz, Stranger Things, star David Harbour, and wunderkind Florence Pugh work with Scarlett Johansson to keep audiences captivated.

In 1995 Ohio, a typical American family receives the signal that the jig is up.  It turns out none of the “family” are blood-related, but an active Russian sleeper cell. They have been discovered by S.H.I.E.L.D, and escape to Cuba for a meetup with their leader, General Dreykov (Ray Winstone), to pass along the intel they stole. He sends the father-figure, Alexei Shostakov/Red Guardian (Harbour), and the mother-figure, Melina Vostokoff/Black Widow (Weisz), back to Russia and the two little girls to the mysterious “Red Room’ to be trained and turned into assassins Natasha Romanoff (Johansson) and Yelena Belova (Pugh).  

The film flashforwards to the time between Captain America: Civil Wars and Avengers: Infinity Wars, where Natasha is currently wanted by the government for the ramifications of breaking the Sokovia Accords along with Steve Rogers/Captain America. Her former “sister” Yelena pulls Natasha back into a mission regarding fellow Black Widow agents, mind-controlled by a nefarious former enemy. The two break their surrogate father out of Russian prison and rendezvous with their surrogate mother in an off-the-boards mission to save Earth from an evil plot of world domination. 



Directed by newcomer Cate Shortland and written by Eric Pearson (Thor: Ragnarok and Godzilla Vs Kong), the film lacks a compelling storyline, and the action scenes are underwhelming. Black Widow’s biggest problem is its lack of urgency.  The current film takes place long behind where the MCU is currently residing. Audiences must re-remember the consternations of Captain America: Civil Wars and follow a character who died several films ago. Had the film been made during Phase 3 before Infinity Wars, it would have had more impact. As it is now, only the post-credit sequence (really the best moment in the entire film) takes place in the current MCU world. When one goes back and re-binges the MCU films, their hearts and minds are focused on the tasks at hand, but to have a new film act as a prequel of a protagonist who has now passed away, feels like an also-ran

So, is Black Widow worth watching? Without question. Because of the performances. Weisz, Harbour, Johansson, and especially Pugh seep subtext and unwritten cohesion into the film as they deal with past rejections, betrayals, and frustrations, and attempt to re-create a familial bond that had many years ago been thrusted on them for purposes against the United States. Edit out the chases, the explosions, the double and triple-crosses, turn off the volume completely, and you still have a family drama as in-depth as a Eugene O’Neill play. It is just not from the dialogue, but it’s all there in those talented actors’ eyes. 

Saturday, July 17, 2021

Thundarr the Barbarian in "Stalker from the Stars"



In “Stalker from the Stars,” Thundarr and Ariel seek help for Ookla the Mok, who is suffering from a terrible cold.  His friends take him to a village built on the ruins of a pre-holocaust amusement park, and soon find the kindly humanoids there in mortal danger.

Specifically, an alien vampire creature has arrived on Earth and is cocooning the unsuspecting humans of the village, and keeping them as food for his long journey between stars.  

When Ariel is cocooned and captured, Thundarr must rescue her before the creature leaves the planet for good.



Perhaps more than any episode since “Island of the Body Snatchers,” “Stalker from the Stars” expresses best the reasons why I love and admire Thundarr: The Barbarian (1980 – 1982).  

Specifically, this (very good) episode highlights the brilliant and imaginative visuals I love to discuss in these reviews, but also a distinct horror vibe.  There are aspects of this episode that are, simply, terrifying.  I appreciate that in my Saturday morning entertainment.  We forget it sometimes, but kids like a good scare now and again. A little terror is good for the soul.

Here, hapless, defenseless humans are under siege from an alien carnivore and vampire of insect-like shape. This monstrous creature bursts out of walls, mirrors and floors to capture his unsuspecting prey, and then cocoons them to keep as food.  He carries them to a chamber on his organic-looking spaceship -- the equivalent of a meat freezer -- for his long journey to another world.

All this material is creepy enough on its own, but “Stalker from the Stars” sets all the action at a ruined, 2000-year old amusement park.  This setting reminds us of a happy place, but the events here are dark through and through.  Thundarr, for instance, terms the “The Tunnel of Love” an “evil and dark place.” That’s a wickedly funny description that suggests the writers and artists on the series were having a lot of fun with the 1980s apocalypse mentality.


In short order in “Stalker from the Stars,” humans are abducted at merry-go-rounds, a shooting gallery, and more “fun” locales.  Mok is attacked in a Hall of Mirrors, and Thundarr engages the space creature on a roller coaster ride, the Cyclone.





“Stalker from the Stars” would seem a great deal more pedestrian sans its unusual setting of a post-apocalyptic amusement park in ruins. 

And since the episode establishes that the roller-coaster ride is called the Cyclone, we can assume that this adventure occurs in the ruins of Coney Island.

Aliens don’t often (if ever…) appear in Thundarr episodes, a fact which alone distinguishes this episode from its brethren.  

But once more, I love Thundarr the Barbarian’s dark, beating heart, which boasts the audacity to turn places of fun -- casinos, playgrounds and now an amusement park -- into terrifying and monstrous locales. 

The subversive idea is that when the world ends, we will go with it, but our “happy” artifacts will remain behind to – vacantly --dot the landscape, and baffle whatever “creatures” should inherit the Earth.

Wednesday, July 07, 2021

Summer of '91: Terminator 2: Judgment Day


"The unknown future rolls toward us. I face it, for the first time, with a sense of hope. Because if a machine, a Terminator, can learn the value of human life, maybe we can too."

- Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton), in Terminator 2: Judgment Day.



While never quite the lean, ruthless thrill machine that its blockbuster 1984 predecessor was, Terminator 2: Judgment Day boasts other delights and virtues. For one thing, it continues  the story of the frequently imperiled Connors with stirring intensity and amazing pyrotechnics and stunts. 

And -- perhaps more significantly -- it provides the genre one of its most amazing and influential villains: Robert Patrick as the T-1000, a shape-shifting, CGI-morphing leviathan.


I still vividly recall seeing this film theatrically in 1991 and being blown away not just by Patrick’s steady, focused performance, but also by the elaborate and confident special effects presentation of the character.

Patrick carries his strength not merely in his narrow, athletic form (a far cry from the bulging, super-muscular Schwarzenegger) but in his predatory, all-seeing eyes, which showcase enormous power and drive.

If Robert Patrick were not completely convincing in his role, this movie wouldn’t work, plain and simple. But he’s up to the task, and thus creates a classic villain. A true testament to his powerful presence is the fact that throughout the film, Arnold truly seems imperiled and outclassed by his enemy. Given Arnold's size and weight advantage over Patrick, that's an astounding accomplishment.

In terms of mechanics, the T-1000 was created through the twin techniques of morphing and warping.  Morphing is described as the "seamless transition" between two images or shapes, and generally uses points in common (like the shape of a nose, or a mouth...) as the basis for the transition. 


In the early 1990s, these visual fx techniques became the de rigueur effects in genre films, appearing in such efforts as Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (1991) and Sleepwalkers (1992). Although morphing can apparently be traced all the way back to the 1980s and ILM work in The Golden Child (1986) and Willow (1987), Terminator 2: Judgment Day represents, perhaps, the finest and most meticulous utilization of the pioneering technique, again placing Cameron at the vanguard of technical achievement.


Comparing The Terminator to Terminator 2, one can see that the sequel -- while still a serious film obsessed with fate and man's self-destructive tendencies -- is remarkably less bleak in tone. As the quotation at the top of this review indicates, a sense of " hope" permeates the sequel. 

Notably, Cameron also mines the Terminator character (Arnold's, I mean) for laughs. The T-800 is the proverbial fish-out-of-water, unable to understand key aspects of the human equation, including how to smile, or why human beings cry. This set-up fits in very well with Cameron's career-long obsession with the outsider; the person unfamiliar with a world/class system who steps in and attempts to navigate it, all while simultaneously pointing out its deficits. The outsider can be social gadfly or observer, and reveal a new perspective about the film's dominant coalition (Ripley as the non-marine/non-Company exec in Aliens; Jack a Dawson lower-class passenger on the Titanic, etc.). 

In Terminator 2: Judgment Day, the T-800's "learning" mechanism (his method of becoming more human) is utilized by Cameron with laser-like precision to transmit a very specific thematic point:  If a Terminator can "learn" the value of human life, than there's hope for us conflicted, self-destructive humans in that regard too.

And once more, this lesson fits in with the film's real life historical context: 1991 was the year of the first Gulf War, the first televised war which saw the deployment of  precision or "surgical strikes" on enemy targets.

Underneath the impressive Defense Department briefings on the War -- replete with stunning camera imagery of bombs striking targets -- the truth was evident. Our automated weapons had made a quantum leap forward in accuracy and destructive power since the Vietnam War Era. The Terminator (and SkyNet too) thus did not seem so far out of reach, given the (automated) tech we saw deployed in Desert Storm. Today, we are even further down that road with our automated Predator drones and the like.

In terms of theme and vision, Terminator 2 also appears obsessed with the idea of forging a positive future for the planet Earth. Not necessarily for this generation, perhaps, but certainly for the children of the 1990s. John Connor (Edward Furlong) is only ten years old in this film (which makes it set in 1994), and he very much becomes the focus of two distinctive parental figures: Sarah Connor, and the T-101. Accordingly, Cameron frequently showcases images of children in the film, either fighting with toy guns, or seen at a playground that becomes -- terrifyingly -- the setting for a nuclear holocaust.

Ultimately more complex, if less driving and focused than The TerminatorT2 also derives significant energy from audience expectations; playing ably on our preconceived beliefs about the series. 

And again, Cameron was on the vanguard of a movement in cinema here. The 1990s represented the era of the great self-reflexive genre movie, from efforts such as John Carpenter's In The Mouth of Madness to Wes Craven's New Nightmare and the popular Scream saga. Part of this Terminator sequel's appeal rests strongly in the creative fashion that it re-shuffles the cards of the Terminator deck to present new outcomes, and new twists and turns. The film gently mocks the franchise and the cultural obsession with "political correctness," transforming the Terminator into a "kinder, gentler" model who only shoots out kneecaps.

"It's not everyday you find out that you're responsible for 3 billion deaths."


Facing defeat and destruction in the 21st century, SkyNet sends another Terminator into the past to destroy resistance leader John Connor.

This time, however, the attacking machine is even more advanced than before: a T-1000 (Robert Patrick) made of "poly-mimetic" alloy and a machine that can assume the shape of any human being it physically "samples."

Fortunately, General John Connor manages to send a protector for his younger self through the time displacement equipment too, in this instance a re-programmed T-800 (Arnold Schwarzenegger).

The T-800 is programmed not only to defend Connor from the T-1000, but to obey the ten year old's (Furlong) every command.  This quality comes in handy when the T-1000 attempts to "acquire" Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton), now incarcerated at the Pescadero mental hospital, and John orders the T-800 to mount a rescue operation.

After John, Sarah and the T-800 flee the sanitarium, they must make a decision about how they intend to stop "Judgment Day," the occasion in August of 1997 when a self-aware SkyNet precipitates a nuclear war.  Key to Sarah and John's decision-making process is Miles Dyson (Joe Morton), the man working at CyberDyne Systems who develops SkyNet in the first place.

Sarah attempts to kill Dyson in cold blood to prevent the dark future from coming to fruition, but John and the Terminator stop her and propose a different course.  They will destroy all of Dyson's working, including the prototype chips (left over from the 1984 Terminator).

The mission is successful, but Dyson dies in the attempt.  Finally, the T-1000 re-acquires the Connors, and the T-800 must put his life on the line to stop an opponent of far greater strength and abilities.  At stake is the future of the human race itself.

I know now why you cry. But it's something I can never do.


Although overly-long and somewhat heavy-handed at times, Terminator 2 still works nimbly as a self-reflexive thriller that dances a veritable ballet on the audience’s knowledge of the first film.

For instance, as in the first film, this sequel opens with two men appearing from the apocalyptic future. One is thin and lean, and very human-looking. The other is the pumped-up juggernaut Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Because of the earlier film, viewers are conditioned to expect Schwarzenegger as villain again, and look for the Michael Biehn-ish Robert Patrick to be a sympathetic hero. Of course, the opposite is true instead.  Our pre-conceived beliefs are used against us.

Secondly, Terminator 2 takes the unlikely but clever step of transforming Linda Hamilton’s character, Sarah Connor, into a Terminator herself. I’m not referring merely to her amped-up physique, either, but rather her very life philosophy.

Here, Sarah sets out to murder a man named Miles Dyson (Joe Morton) before he can complete SkyNet, the system that ultimately destroys mankind and births the terminators. In essence then, Sarah is adopting the approach of the machines she hates so much; killing a person BEFORE that person actually commits a crime. Just as SkyNet sent back a Terminator in 1984 to murder Sarah before she gave birth to John, so does Sarah endeavor to kill Dyson before he gives birth, in a very real sense, to SkyNet.

The implication of this approach, of course, is that Sarah -- in preparing for the future -- has sacrificed the very thing worth fighting for, her humanity itself.

Terminator 2 very much concerns Sarah's loss of humanity, and her opportunity to re-discover it, in large parts due to her son, John. As the movie begins, Sarah is lost and overcome with pain about the future that awaits mankind. But John ultimately teaches Sarah that it is okay to hope again, that the future is "not set," and that there is "no fate but what we make."

This sequel to The Terminator is also fascinating for the manner in which it incorporates the dominant social critique that “these films” (meaning the films of Schwarzenegger and Cameron, I suppose) are “too violent.”

In Terminator 2, young John makes Schwarzennegger’s emotionless machine promise not to kill any more humans, and the compromised Terminator spends the remainder of the film shooting up cops’ knee caps. This is quite funny, and it’s deliberately on point with what was happening in the culture of the nineties. In other words, it's inventive, unconventional and politically-correct all at the same time.  It's not the eighties anymore, and Arnold has, in a sense, been domesticated. At least a little...

Like so many horror films of the 1990s, Terminator 2 also concern the American family and the modern changes in the shape of the American family. Sarah Connor comes to the conclusion that instead of providing her boy, John, a flesh-and-blood, human father figure, the Terminator played by Arnold is the sanest answer in an insane world. The Terminator won’t grow old, won’t leave, and will never hurt John. He will always be there for the boy, she realizes, and in vetting this idea, the movie states something important about men and machines.

When more and more American families were drifting towards divorce in the 1990s or outsourcing child care to nannies and day-cares, it’s not that odd that a woman should wish for the “ultimate nanny” – an unstoppable robot – to protect her son. This also fits with the crisis in masculinity played out in films of the era, including Brian De Palma's Raising Cain (1992). Men of the 1990s were supposed to be sensitive and masculine, strong and sympathetic, peaceful and -- in a single instant -- relentless protectors of the family unit.  Arnie's character dispenses with such contradictory input and sticks to his programming.  He has no conflict about what he should be, even if others impose on him their own set of rules. Still, he manages to get the job done.


Although it spends relatively little time in the post-apocalyptic future compared to The TerminatorT2 is nonetheless haunted by the specter of nuclear war, another familiar Cameron obsession. In this case,  no less than five views of a playground are featured in the film. The playground is seen at peace (before the war, in Sarah's dream), in flames (during the war), and ruined (after the war), behind the prowling, murderous Terminators. 

The pervasive playground imagery reminds viewers again and again what is at stake if humans take the unfortunate and unnecessary step of rendering this planet virtually uninhabitable: the innocent will suffer

Children do not boast ideologies or political parties, and do not care about issues like nationalism. They are collateral damage in any such  bloody conflict, and the prominent placement of the playground -- the domain of the child -- throughout the film makes this point abundantly plain.

At one point in the film, the T-800 also gazes upon two children fighting with toy guns and notes that it is in our nature to destroy ourselves. The idea seems to be that as children grow and develop, these tendencies towards competition and aggression emerge fully, and move off the proverbial playground into matters of politics and international confrontation. That may be the root of our problem.

It's interesting and also telling that Cameron has the T-800 make this observation about man in relation to children, and then later has Sarah Connor voice the conceit that males only know how to destroy, rather than to create life. This seems a little like the pot calling the kettle black given Sarah's hardcore actions in the film, and yet one can't really deny the truth of the observation, either. Women have simply not been afforded the reins of power as frequently as have men, historically-speaking, so guilt must fall upon the male of the species more heavily for our legacy of war and destruction. It's an unpleasant truth, but a truth nonetheless.

But yet again, that sense of hope sneaks into the movie.  John Connor -- a male child -- proves able to curb the killing instincts of Sarah Connor and the T-800 here, paving the way for what ostensibly should be a positive future. In almost all genre films, children represent the opportunity for a better future or better tomorrow, and T2: Judgment Day adheres to that trend. It is possible to change, to correct our course, but sometimes it isn't this generation, but the next that sees that potential.

I'll now state the obvious in regards to the film: The action sequences here are truly exceptional. The film’s first major set-piece, involving a truck, a motor-bike and a motorcycle in motion, is a high-point, featuring stunning stunts and seamless cutting.

The finale, in a factory and lead works also proves highly dynamic, with the T-1000’s death scene seeming like an homage to Carpenter’s The Thing

But of course -- as we know from Cameron's other films -- the magic of the director's films occurs not just in the staging of the action, but in Cameron's capacity to make the action stirring.  He makes the action affect us on an immersing, emotional level.  Here, we have characters we truly come to care about (Sarah, John and the T-800) and so we feel heavily invested in the narrative's outcome.  I'm not ashamed to admit it, but when the T-800 sacrifices himself in the lead works, I always get a bit misty-eyed.   

For John, he is losing a father and a best friend. And the T-800 has finally learned what it means to be human, and in doing so come to the conclusion that self-sacrifice is necessary. It's a great, even inspirational ending, if one sadly marred by the cheesy "thumbs up" gesture that accompanies the beloved character's demise.  

T2 is a bigger film than its immediate predecessor, and more ambitious in many ways. It isn't however, quite as hungry, quite as lean as the 1984 original. There's a sense here that the movie knows it is a blockbuster, and doesn't have to deliver on quite the same visceral level. Still a great film, of course, but these days I prefer, at least slightly, the first entry in the franchise.

Monday, July 05, 2021

Guest Post: A Quiet Place, Part II (2021)


A Quiet Place, Part II: 


The Kick-Ass Kids Are Alright


By Jonas Schwartz

 

A Quiet Place, Part II, which has already been a bonanza at the post-lockdown box office, arrives on Paramount Plus on July 12, and John Krasinski has managed to make lightning strike twice with this spine-tingling second filmPart IIcaptures the horror and anxiety of the first film while building up its characters’ growth and setting up for all-out war in a future Part III.

 

The sequel (or second in the eventual trilogy) focuses on how the events of the first film have forced the Abbott’s children, Marcus (Noah Jupe) and particularly Regan (Millicent Simmonds) to step up after the death of their father, Lee (Krasinski). Though their mother (Emily Blunt) continues to be a force of strength for the family, with her caring for an infant child, one whose screams could lead the vicious creatures right to them, the narrative relies on Regan’s resilience and Marcus’s slow but essential maturity in this new age.

 


The film cleverly begins in the past, the first day the alien monsters drop to earth and attack. The audience is reminded of the past, with Lee Abbott still the quick-thinking leader of the family, and is even drawn back to the original film’s horrific opening by Lee’s trip to the same 5-and-10 store in THIS prologue. The first scene gives a glimpse of other countries under attack and introduces the townspeople who will be the aliens’ first victims. The prologue also establishes an important new character to the sequel, Emmett (Cillian Murphy), who could become a major antagonist or substitute patriarch. 

 

Director Krasinski, who also wrote the script, quickly flashes forward to moments after the original film has ended and Lee has already sacrificed himself to save his family. Almost immediately, he brings the family to dire straits and then quicky separates them, which gives each character an opportunity to suit up and not just be a dead weight on the family. The resourceful Regan — whose deafness becomes an asset — takes the helm quickly, like a short-stack Sigourney Weaver, venturing out, testing her enemies, and seeking not only escape but hope for a monster-free world. Marcus takes a slower path that resembles Barbara, the catatonic victim of Night of the Living Dead. Tasked with keeping his infant brother safe, he makes jaw dropping mistakes, thinks only on instinct (panic actually), and puts everyone in danger. But the film has hope in the new man of the house’s eventual initiative. 

 

The final act expertly juxtaposes the separated characters’ actions so that, though each is miles from the other, they subconsciously work together as a unit to destroy the menace. It is agile use of cross-cutting, sound, and narrative ingenuity. 

 

Though supported by a talented cast, Simmonds steals the film as the teenager who accesses her limitations and uses them as a weapon. She is casting central’s perfect version of a damsel in distress — small, innocent, hearing impaired — but she’s 100 percent modern Samurai warrior and is exciting to follow. 


As in many middle entries in a trilogy, A Quiet Place, Part II shifts the story only slightly askew to keep the audience intrigued for the climax of the final film. For that reason, much of this film will need to be reexamined after watching Part III in the future. Because so little is still understood — How many creatures actually crashed on earth? Are they the strategic antagonists or merely hench-monsters to something even more nefarious? How has the rest of the world dealt with this invasion? — the meat of the story may still come later. A Quiet Place, Part II gives enough of a bridge to invest the audience in things to come. 

Saturday, July 03, 2021

Thundarr the Barbarian in "Master of the Stolen Sunsword"


In “Master of the Stolen Sunsword,” Thundarr and his friends Ariel and Ookla endure a “mega storm” of red-hued lightning and rain in the hills of Hollywood.

In short order, the trio is attacked by wizards and their sky dragon. Thundarr’s sun-sword is damaged in the battle, and requires re-charging.  The group heads to the one of the “poorest villages in the world” to accomplish that task: Beverly Hills.

Unfortunately, a deadly wizard, Yando, gains possession of the sword, and plans to make his own weapon, one charged with “negative lightning.”


As I’ve written before in these brief reviews of Thundarr The Barbarian, for me the greatest joy of this animated Saturday morning series remains its visualizations of a post-apocalyptic world. 

Because the series is animated, the writers and artists had great freedom to visualize amazing ruins and other imaginative post-apocalyptic landscapes.  This is a refreshing quality that live-action series, like Ark II (1976), simply couldn’t afford, as reader SGB has pointed out.  That series features endless desert vistas, but very few ruins or relics of the “old” world.

In “Master of the Stolen Sunsword,” the setting is the Hollywood Hills, and then downtown Beverly Hills.  At one point, we see the evil Wizard’s “Magical Palace,” which seems to be a stand-in for Disney Land.  

And finally, the Griffith Observatory also plays prominently in the action.  In particular, the structure has lava pools roiling beneath it, and it is only there that the sun-sword can be re-charged.




Although it is very much under the surface of the action, “Master of the Sunsword” makes some nice jokes at the expense of the entertainment industry.  

In the land of illusion, for instance, the evil wizard isn’t a wizard at all…just the village scholar pretending, or “acting” as a sorcerer. 

And it is ironic, of course, that the wealthy Beverly Hills has been transformed into the third-world of the post-apocalyptic age. It is not only poor, but one of the poorest places on the planet.  How the mighty have fallen…

Given these touches, this episode of Thundarr the Barbarian is very amusing, even if the narrative is pretty much the same old stuff featured every week.

Thursday, July 01, 2021

Independence Day Resurgence (2016)


So, it took twenty long years for filmmakers Roland Emmerich and Dean Devlin to give audiences…this movie.

I won’t mince words about it: Independence Day: Resurgence (2016) is a terrible, awful, no good movie. 

I’ll go further. This is quite possibly the worst big budget studio release in a generation, or at least since I’ve been reviewing movies.  

Big, would-be emotional moments in Emmerich’s Independence Day: Resurgence fail utterly, and even the supposedly spectacular action scenes are flat and lifeless. Beloved characters and actors return to the franchise, and have almost no impact whatsoever.

Now, I know there are readers out there who hate Independence Day (1996) with a passion, but I don’t feel that way. 

For all its inherent, generic, goofiness, ID4 remains a nineties pop-culture touchstone. The scene of the alien flying saucer destroying the White House is absolutely iconic. 

And the dramatic material, while schmaltzy, nonetheless carries authentic emotional impact. President Whitmore’s (Bill Pullman) final, inspirational speech in the film, about the human race joined as one, finally, in opposition to an outside threat, is remarkably delivered.  It also captures an idea often spoken, by the likes of President Reagan and others: that the human race will only truly be united in opposition to an alien attack.  

If the Earth is at stake we will come together as one.

For whatever flaws the 1996 film possesses -- namely and most importantly, the relentless pandering to a wide audience -- ID4 still feels like a huge pop culture event; one with grand, carefully orchestrated special effects, and an ominous sense of build-up and tension as the alien attack on Earth commences.

The new film, Resurgence feels utterly slapdash in comparison. It looks like a cash grab that should have been released in 1998, two years after the original film premiered so as to capitalize on some of the good will generated by the original film.

But this is twenty years later -- not two years -- later, and Independence Day: Resurgence is a disaster of epic proportions. It’s shocking, actually, to watch the whole enterprise go up in smoke before your eyes.


Twenty years after an alien invasion nearly destroyed humanity, the human race is once again thriving. 

Utilizing technology reverse-engineered from captured and shot-down alien ships, the Earth Space Defense, sponsored by the UN, has established based on the Moon, and operates from an HQ at Area 51.

As the twenty year mark nears, however, a mission to the Congo -- consisting of scientist David Levinson (Jeff Goldblum), Dr. Marceaux (Charlotte Gainesbourg) and the warlord Umbutu (Deobia Oparei) -- discovers that a crashed alien ship has been transmitting a distress signal to deep space.

Similarly, those who were once telepathically-linked to the aliens -- including ex-President Whitmore (Pullman) and Dr. Okun (Brent Spiner) -- begin receiving mental impressions again.

Meanwhile, at Earth’s Moonbase, where hot-dog pilot Jake Morrison (Liam Hemsworth) is stationed, a small spherical ship approaches. It is shot down immediately, but is not actually part of the invasion. Instead it harbors the secret to defeating the aliens, known as “Harvesters.”

Soon, a 3,000 mile-in-diameter Harvester vessel approaches and destroys Earth’s defenses. It begins to drill into the Earth in an attempt to remove Earth’s core, killing the planet.

Levinson, however, believes, that there is a way to stop the procedure. The aliens possess a hive mind, and killing the Queen will stop the drilling operation.



There is a good (and very Japanese-ish/kaiju or Gerry Anderson-ish) idea embedded in Independence Day: Resurgence, but that’s about it. 

Specifically, the movie features the idea of a unified Earth developing a multi-national defense force against external threats.  It's a pseudo SHADO.  

All the Earth planes and ship designs featured in the film are futuristic in design, powered by the alien’ anti-gravity technology.  There isn’t a lot of dialogue about this upgrade in the film, which actually works in the movie’s favor.  It is a brand new world we encounter here, twenty years after the invasion, and a lot of the technological progress is (rightly) un-commented upon.  Rather, it is merely accepted as being a fact of life.

Beyond that idea, there’s not much here to recommend Resurgence to thoughtful audiences. The movie features three creative specific failures worth describing in detail. One involves the actual invasion, the second involves the new characters, created for the sequel, and last regards the handling of the characters who return from the original.

Let’s take each issue in turn.

In Independence Day, there was a slow-burn build up to the attack, and accordingly, a sense of suspense and mounting anxiety.  The aliens didn’t just arrive and start smashing landmarks. A signal was detected, suggesting a coordinated attack around the globe, and then a mysterious countdown.  That countdown was detected too late, and an evacuation of government sites began, only half-successfully.

I understand that the mystery is gone now about the alien intent. We know they are hostile. So the same card can't be played a second time.  

However, the whole premise of this movie seems to be, simply, that bigger is better. That’s it: shock and awe, CG style.  

Accordingly, we get a huge spaceship arrive, latch on to the planet, and pretty much wipe through Europe in one over-the-top scene. The ship is huge, the destruction is huge too, but it is over in a few short moments. There’s no sense of a pitched battle, no sense of the people who live in the affected city (London).  It’s a digital cartoon, without human scale, and therefore, without human impact.


The second such scene, with Julius Levinson’s boat escaping the giant space ship, is played more for laughs than horror, and it feels impossible. We know he is going to survive, even as every other ship in the sea is pulped. Why, because he's the movie's indestructible comic relief.

The special effects are lacking in human impact, perhaps, because the new human characters are conceived and performed in the most generic way imaginable. 

Liam Hemsworth, Jessie Usher, and Maika Monroe are utterly forgettable as this “next generation” of characters, and the audience doesn’t ever come to truly care about them. They never leave a footprint on your mind, let alone on your heart.  Jake (Hemsworth) and Hiller (Usher) are given some back-story conflict that goes nowhere and means nothing. It's just a way to waste time, and make you feel that there is a "history" to these cardboard creation.


But you know the movie is failing on a catastrophic level when it looks, for a minute, that the young heroes have died in an escape from an alien saucer, and you find you just don’t care.  The movie’s soundtrack rises to a crescendo, and you realize that you are supposed to be concerned, engaged.  You are supposed to care.

You don’t. 

I can’t remember, offhand, another blockbuster movie where the crowd-pleasing moments, the big victories, the prospective failures, fall so utterly, horribly flat. The young, underwear-model cast is never able to generate any real or genuine interest on the part of the audience.


The returning characters don’t fare all that much better.  Bill Pullman registers strongly as President Whitmore at first, but then the character is sacrificed for what is, finally, a meaningless death. He gives another speech that is supposed to register as inspiring and stirring, but plays as a pale shadow of the original ID4 oratory.  His death, again, doesn't reach the emotional heights the movie aims for.


Judd Hirsch continues to be over-the-top as the senior Levinson, while Jeff Goldblum feels oddly disconnected from the material, simply walking through the part. By contrast, Vivica A. Fox gets what should be a powerful death scene, but again…the moment carries almost no emotional weight. She's been given so little screen time here, that there is no chance to reconnect with her.

Of all the original characters, Dr. Okun is the only one who comes off well. Brent Spiner steals practically every scene he is in, but even he can only do so much heavy lifting.  He gets the last lines of the film, which should be a rallying cry for the sequel, but feels more like a slapdash joke.


At his best, director Roland Emmerich can rouse audiences with efforts such as Stargate (1994) or Independence Day (1996), and at his worst, he provides audiences empty thrills and brain-dead narratives like 10,000 BC (2008) and 2012 (2009). His Godzilla (1998), widely-derided, falls somewhere in the middle of the pack.

Independence Day: Resurgence is a new career low, as it leaves out even the emptiest of thrills. The whole movie flies on automatic pilot, with no apparent creative investment. It's all just a formula, without heart, without emotional connection or creative distinction. We have no idea, from this film, why we should love these characters, or invest in their world.

The title of this sequel was once proposed as Independence Day: Forever.

How about Independence Day: Forget It.

Wednesday, June 30, 2021

Independence Day (1996)


"In less than an hour, aircraft from here will join others from around the world. And you will be launching the largest aerial battle in the history of mankind. "Mankind." That word should have new meaning for all of us today. We can't be consumed by our petty differences anymore. We will be united in our common interests. Perhaps it's fate that today is the Fourth of July, and you will once again be fighting for our freedom. Not from tyranny, oppression, or persecution, but from annihilation. We are fighting for our right to live. To exist. And should we win the day, the Fourth of July will no longer be known as an American holiday, but as the day the world declared in one voice: "We will not go quietly into the night!" We will not vanish without a fight! We're going to live on! We're going to survive! Today we celebrate our Independence Day! "

- President Whitmore (Bill Pullman) delivers an historic address in Independence Day (1996).



Independence Day (1996) remains one of the big “event” movies of the 1990's, a sci-fi blockbuster of monumental, almost unimaginable proportions.  The crowd-pleasing film successfully tapped into the decade’s unending fascination with aliens and UFOs (The X-Files, for example) and significantly augmented that interest too, resulting in a slew of further alien films and TV programs from Dark Skies (1996) to Men in Black (1997).

As an inside-the-industry cautionary tale, Independence Day also represented the (unfortunate) cementing of the Emmerich/Devlin blockbuster “formula” -- a revival of 1970s disaster film tropes. This format would meet its Waterloo in 1998’s Godzilla, but nonetheless continues right into the last decade with films such as the dreadful 2012 (2010).

Of all the Emmerich genre fare, I’m most fond of 1994’s Stargate, as it seems to strike the right balance between spectacle and intelligence.  After that film’s release, the scales in further efforts kept tipping towards spectacle and away from brains, and so the ensuing films suffer mightily for the imbalance. 

That established, I was certainly part of the enthusiastic audience for Independence Day upon its summer release, and I still remember how great the film looked on the big screen.  A recent re-watch confirms how terrific the miniature effects remain.  The scenes of awesome alien saucers lumbering to position over major world cities -- though obviously reminiscent of Kenneth Johnson’s V (1984) -- remain downright staggering.

What ages Independence Day most significantly, instead, is the pervasive shtick and the schmaltzy, sentimentality-drenched characters. At every step of the way during its narrative, Independence Day punctures its end-of-the-world majesty and gravitas with low humor and over-the-top sentimentality, qualities which today render the whole affair close to camp. 

Science fiction fans, of course, experienced conniption fits over Independence Day’s unlikely finale: a third act which sees an Earth-produced computer virus successfully uploaded to an alien computer aboard a mother-ship, thus giving humans the opportunity to strike back…on July 4th, no less. 

The movie doesn’t pay even lip service to the idea that aliens from another solar system might have developed anti-virus software (!), let alone computer systems totally incompatible with our 20th century Earth technology. 

Given how badly things go for Earth in the first hour of Independence Day, it’s difficult to countenance the film’s final veer into outright fantasy as every heroic campaign – with split-second timing – comes together perfectly.

Despite my misgivings about the film’s humor, sentimentality, and narrative resolution, however, I still find the grave, apocalyptic, anxiety-provoking tone of Independence Day’s first hour worthwhile, especially the President’s grim choice to deploy nuclear weapons in an American city to drive off the aliens.   

It would be absolutely foolish to deny, too, that some of Independence Day’s imagery has become iconic in the annals of cinema history.  We all remember that portentous shot of hovering saucer pulping the White House for instance.  Thus -- even while criticizing this over-sized beast -- I've got to give the Devil his due for getting matters right on a visual terms

In terms of theme, Independence Day works overtime to remind all of us that although we are separated by oceans and other Earthly partitions, we are all nonetheless citizens of the same planet. It’s a laudable message in an age of hyper-partisanship to be certain, even if delivered with little nuance or subtlety.  This through-line in the film is consistently and well-conveyed, both in terms of incident and in the make-up of the diverse dramatis personae.  Who would have imagined our precious Earth could be saved by a war veteran, a drunk crop-duster, a Jewish cable repairman and an African-American fighter pilot?

Movie critics were understandably divided on Independence Day.  At The New York Times, Janet Maslin wrote: “Guess what: "Independence Day" lives up to expectations in a rush of gleeful, audience-friendly exhilaration, with inspiring notions of bravery that depart nicely from the macho cynicism of this movie season. Its innocence and enthusiasm are so welcome that this new spin on "Star Wars" is likely to wreak worldwide box-office havoc, the kind that will make the space aliens' onscreen antics look like small change.

Writing for The Washington Post, Rita Kempley opined: "Independence Day" is primarily a $70 million kid's toy, a star-spangled excess of Roman candles and commando games designed to draw repeat business from 9- to 12-year-old boys. Little girls won't find any role models among the barnstormers, though a plucky exotic dancer is featured among the heroines. Even with the end of the world in sight, she shakes her booty. It's for her kid. No, really.  Maybe the moviemakers' mission was to boldly go where everyone in Hollywood has gone before: the bank.

Honestly, I can see both sides of the critical equation in this case. Independence Day is such dumb fun, and yet fun nonetheless.

“A toast...to the end of the world.”


The people of planet Earth watch with anxiety and wonder as three-dozen alien saucers descend from orbital space to take up positions over cities around the globe.  President Whitmore (Bill Pullman), a former jet pilot in Desert Storm, advises calm, but new information from genius cable repair man David Levinson (Jeff Goldblum) suggests the alien ships have initiated a countdown and are preparing a coordinated attack.

As the countdown ends, Levinson’s suspicions are confirmed, and the alien ships destroy Los Angeles, Washington D.C., New York and other population hubs. President Whitmore survives the attack on the Oval Office and escapes by Air Force One.  He promptly orders a retaliatory strike.  Pilot, top-gun, and would-be astronaut Steven Hiller (Will Smith) downs an alien ship during battle, and captures one of the fearsome aliens for study.  The rest of the fight, however, is a rout, and the U.S. jets are unable to penetrate alien shields.  Humanity stands upon the edge of extinction.

The President visits the secret military base at Area 51, and learns there that scientists there have been experimenting with an alien ship for close to fifty years.  When Hiller arrives, the President attempts to communicate with Hiller's captured alien, but finds the being implacably hostile.  The aliens, he soon learns, are like locusts.  They travel from solar system to solar system using up planetary systems and then moving on…leaving only carnage and waste in their wake.

After nuclear weapons prove ineffective against the aliens, President Whitmore is at a loss how to save the planet, or the human race.  But David comes through again.  He believes he can take the captured alien ship at Area 51 to the mother-ship and upload a computer virus there, thus bringing down alien shields…at least for a few minutes.  When Steven volunteers to fly that risky mission, it’s up to the President himself to coordinate and lead a huge aerial attack against the alien saucers, both in America, and world-wide…

It's a fine line between standing behind a principle and hiding behind one. You can tolerate a little compromise, if you're actually managing to get something accomplished.


For a film about such a terrifying topic – an alien invasion – Independence Day frequently plays thing...light.  At least a half-dozen major supporting characters in the film are defined by their shtick. Judd Hirsch plays a nagging Jewish Dad, Julius Levinson, and his lines and delivery are pure Borscht Belt ham-bone.   Harvey Fierstein plays another kitschy character, Marty, who hams it up and makes jokes about his therapist and his (presumably overbearing...) mother.  Harry Connick Jr. portrays a cocksure pilot who provides the film at least one dopey gay joke.

But the worst character is likely Randy Quaid’s Russell Casse, a drunken crop-duster (and alien abductee) who joins the air battle against the aliens during the film's denouement.  Quaid’s dialogue is so incredibly dreadful that it has become the stuff of legend and MST3K fodder.  “I picked the wrong day to stop drinking,” springs immediately to mind. 

Among all these actors hamming it up and stealing time, Brent Spiner likely fares the best as aging ex-hippie and scientist Dr. Okun. Spiner comes off as weird and eccentric, but not so dreadfully hammy that you want to turn away from the screen in shame for watching.  His last scene -- played with alien tentacles pressing against his larynx -- is also genuinely unsettling.

Why do I have a problem with the film's pervasive moments of low humor?  Well, Independence Day already boasts Jeff Goldblum and Will Smith continually cracking wise in leading roles.  Their dialogue is dreadful too, from "Welcome to Earth" to "Now that's what I call a close encounter!"  Given all this material from our leads, do we really need Judd Hirsch, Harvey Fierstein, Harry Connick Jr., Randy Quaid and even Brent Spiner dishing out lame one liners too?  The ubiquitous nature of these characters makes Independence Day, at times, resemble an overblown sitcom.  Maybe if the material were stronger, these characters would not seem so objectionable. I guess what I'm saying, is that these moments are rarely actually funny.

Another weak character is Secretary of Defense Nimzicki (James Rebhorn), a man who in one scene advises the full scale nuking of many American cities, but in a later scene argues against a “risky” maneuver to attack the alien mother-ship and upload the virus.  His objections to the (ultimately) successful plan make no sense, and aren’t consistent with the “war hawk” image he projects in the film all along; a guy who advises going to Def-Con 2 before the President has made his final decision.  Instead, Nimzicki is contradictory simply so the audience can boo at him, and the President can dress him down…thus appearing tough and resolute. 


While I have real disdain for much of the writing and characterization in Independence Day, I do feel that the film's visuals often still shock, and often still carry real emotional resonance.  One shot, set on July 3rd, reveals the Statue of Liberty toppled, face down in the harbor...a massive saucer hovering low in the sky.  Colored in autumnal browns,  this is a terrifying composition of American culture annihilated.  

It’s tough indeed to compete with the amazing Statue of Liberty imagery of Planet of the Apes, yet this moment in Independence Day remains quite upsetting.    The film is also anxiety-provoking in the way it reveals American military might crushed before a more technologically-advanced enemy.  The battle sequences, the nuclear option, and other heavy moments are all deeply scary because one realizes that if America can’t save the world…the world ain’t getting saved.  Indeed, Independence Day plays up the alien threat so successfully in terms of spectacular visuals and special effects that there’s almost no way the scripted, climactic victory can ring true.  It’s like we’ve slipped into an alternate movie or something.


The first half of Independence Day is undeniably the strongest, as alien saucers push through storm and cloud fronts, and emerge over our cities, casting dark shadows upon bewildered and amazed populations.  These moments continue to impress, and pack an almost visceral gut punch.  We’ve all wondered if, one day, we’ll wake up to something like this imagery…a new dawn in which we learn definitively we are no longer alone.   As much as I deride Independence Day’s silly humor and bad dialogue, I have no quibbles whatsoever with the way that these scenes of “arrival” are vetted.  As I said in my introduction, many of these scenes still carry a staggering punch.

From its first shots to its final ones, Independence Day also makes an interesting point about mankind being unified by a threat from the outside.  The film opens with imagery of a plaque on the moon which reads “We came in peace for all mankind.”  That’s a wonderful thought, the movie seems to suggest, but then the filmmakers set up a paradigm by which that hopeful expression of common cause is tested.  Suddenly, all mankind must work together to defeat the alien threat, putting competition and petty differences aside.  This idea is expressed through scenes set in Iraq, the location of America’s most recent war (Gulf War I).  There, in the desert, British and Iraqi soldiers join the battle against the mother ships.  The implication of such scenes is that mankind is indeed capable of working together.


The same idea is presented in the film in the (positive) character of President Whitmore.  Before the alien crisis, he is viewed not as a warrior, but as a “wimp.” He can’t even get his Crime Bill passed by a hostile Congress. Whitmore laments that “it’s just not simple, anymore” and that people don’t seem to understand that compromise is the only path towards moving everyone ahead, together.  He then works with the nations of the world to defeat the aliens, and in the process transforms an American holiday into an Earth holiday.   Again, the message implicit in Independence Day is that we can apply ourselves to solve big problems, not just alien invasions. Why can’t we all band together to keep our neighbors and our neighbors' children from starving? Or to eliminate poverty? Once we acknowledge our common humanity, petty partisan differences shouldn’t really matter, should they?

In this sense, Independence Day -- set in part on July 4th -- acknowledges a new, evolved brand of patriotism. It is a patriotism not merely to party or to one nation, but to all of humanity.  As a fan of Star Trek and a person who believes we can achieve great things if we sometimes accept compromise, I appreciate the film’s ultimate message of hope about human nature. This consistently-applied theme almost mollifies my concerns about the film’s ridiculous and ill-conceived conclusion, and the surfeit of characters who spew cliché after cliché, bad joke after bad joke.  Almost, but not quite.  Still, I know I'm spitting in the wind against an 800 million dollar blockbuster, a veritable entertainment machine.

So am I a hopeless sentimental for recognizing Independence Day’s entertainment and social value, even amidst so many stupid groaners and moments of cynical, calculated humor?  

Or, like Randy Quaid's character...did I just pick the wrong day to stop drinking?

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