Monday, March 20, 2023

40 Years Ago: Special Bulletin

Many folks of my generation still vividly recall the first prime-time broadcast of the grim TV movie, The Day After (1983). That landmark tele-film, directed by Nicholas Meyer, gazed at life in the American heartland immediately following a devastating nuclear exchange. 

So powerful in imagery and so bleak in narrative, The Day After actually altered the course of real-life international politics. After watching the TV-movie, President Reagan re-committed himself to peace with the Soviet Union, a strong shift away from the "we start bombing in five minutes"/"Evil Empire"-rhetoric of his young administration.

Although not as widely remembered as The Day After, another TV-movie of 1983 also dealt powerfully with the issue of nuclear annihilation.

On March 20, 1983, NBC aired a startling program from director Edward Zwick titled Special Bulletin that -- despite a disclaimer -- presented itself as an authentic news broadcast. In other words, Special Bulletin was the TV equivalent of Orson Welles' notorious 1938 War of the Worlds radio presentation.

Special Bulletin commences innocuously with an advertisement for the (fictional) RBS Network, replete with its catch-phrase, "we're moving up!" In the middle of the advertisement for game shows and soap operas, the screen goes to static and the title "Special Bulletin" pops up. Suddenly, we're in a bustling network news room following a breaking story in Charleston, South Carolina.

Specifically, a small tug boat has pulled into the Port of Charleston and is carrying aboard her a group of American terrorists.

After a shoot-out with dock security, a reporter and his cameraman are captured by the terrorists and taken hostages aboard the ship, the Liberty May. The terrorists promptly request a direct feed to RBS, so they can make their demands known to the world at large.

After very little discussion, RBS agrees to the terrorists' terms and soon the leader of the group, Bruce Limon (The Thing's David Clennon) speaks.  

According to his wishes, the U.S. will turn over 968 warhead detonators in its nuclear arsenal, or the terrorists will explode a home-made nuclear bomb in Charleston, effectively destroying the city and all of its people.  

Limon, we soon learn from the news reporters,  is a former Pentagon official who is upset at the hard-right shift in American policy to the belief that nuclear war is winnable.

Along with a brilliant physicist, Dr. McKeeson (David Rasche), Limon believes that nuclear blackmail is the only option left to save the planet from itself. He plans to illustrate "what we all have to fear," should his attempt at unilateral disarmament be rejected.

Without even the smallest hint of artifice, Special Bulletin structures itself as a real news program of the epoch, right down to communication glitches, infrequent bursts of static, shaky-images and the occasional dopey remark from a reporter or anchor-person.  

As RBS news anchors John Woodley (Ed Flanders) and Susan Miles (Kathryn Walker) monitor the crisis, as nuclear terrorism becomes "stark reality," we are asked to follow the story down blind alleys, countenance talking-head blowhard pundits, and detect truth in a multitude of conflicting images, all rendered on (appropriately) cheap-looking video.

The presentation of the story is pitch-perfect, in large part due to excellent supporting performances by the likes of Christopher Allport, Lane Smith and a very young Michael Madsen. Nobody show-boats and no one has a really substantive role, either. These are just "reporters on the street" and interviewees, reacting to events as they unfold. A perfect ensemble piece.

Occasionally the news anchors in Special Bulletin cut back to the live feed to watch events spiral out of control aboard Limon's ship, but they also consult experts on nuclear technology, and check in with reporters at the F.B.I Headquarters, the Pentagon, and on Capitol Hill. It's an effective, whip-smart presentation in a mock-documentary-style, and one that reportedly had quite a few Americans (especially in the South) wondering if the film could possibly be the real thing. I remember that at school the day after Special Bulletin first aired, all of my friends were talking about it and also the film's absolutely take-no-prisoners approach to storytelling.

As Special Bulletin continues into the story's second day and it is confirmed that McKeeson and Limon indeed have an operational nuclear bomb, an evacuation of Charleston commences. A countdown clock ticks down the minutes till 6:00 pm, the time when the terrorists have threatened to detonate their weapon. Meanwhile, on Capitol Hill, politicians dither about "negotiating with terrorists" and argue about whether an accommodation can or should be reached.

The last fifteen minutes of the film involve a government ruse to appease the terrorists, and a bloody assault by U.S. soldiers on the Liberty May. The terrorists are put down effectively, but the bomb still ticks down towards destruction. Then, terror follows short-lived relief. In the last few moments of the film, something truly unthinkable occurs, and in a weird, unsettling way, Limon's point about the hazards of nuclear weapons is made.

We see exactly what we have to fear in the event of a nuclear exchange.

Today, it's almost impossible to watch Special Bulletin without thinking of the harrowing events we've seen on the nightly news since 2001 and the 9/11 attacks. For instance, the evacuation of Charleston goes poorly, and one local reporter explains in detail about how the city's plans were not detailed enough, and did not take into account traffic congestion and other problems. This seems very much reminiscent of what our country witnessed during and after Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans in the mid-2000s.

But in general, what Special Bulletin gets so dead-on accurate is the horrifying sense of chaotic life spontaneously unfolding before our eyes, out-of-control, on the TV as our journalists and "experts" try to play catch-up in a game of TV ping-pong. I suppose the feeling here is roughly analogous to what seem people call the"fog of war:" False reports come to light, and even though we're watching events unfold live, we hesitate to believe our eyes that such a thing can happen here, in the United States.

I still remember listening to radio reports on 9/11 that the National Mall was on fire, and that Air Force One was imperiled. Neither of those things were actually true, but in the heat of the moment, reporters (and listeners and viewers) believed the reports.  Facts only became plain much, much later.

Thematically, Special Bulletin boasts two primary themes.

The first involves the media itself. How complicit is the media, the film asks, in creating and extending situations like the one depicted here?  In the film, RBS gives over a live feed to the terrorists, an act which gives their demands a national audience, and which spurs panic in the citizenry.  There's something to be said for the argument that had Limon and McKeeson not been given access to television, their plan would have failed rather dramatically. Or at the very least, the situation would have developed far more slowly, and allowed for a more reasoned response by the government. The movie explicitly raises a question about the role of the press: is it a witness to this story, or part of the story, or both?

More than that even, the film looks at the way TV networks package and "sell" crises for higher ratings. Here, a colorful logo -- wrapped in stars and stripes -- pops up that reads "Flashpoint: America Under Siege." The logo even comes with its own dramatic theme song. Although the news people are undeniably presented as heroic and straightforward in the film itself, there's also an undercurrent here; the uncomfortable feeling that RBS is riding this crisis all the way to the bank, with "exclusive" control of the live feed and a direct line to the action. At one point, McKeeson points this out to John Woodley, asking why RBS hasn't shared the feed with the other networks.

The end of Special Bulletin delivers a one-two punch that is hard to shake. After the nuclear bomb detonates and Charleston is no more, there is a period of mourning -- 3 days to be exact -- on RBS before the media begins to seek news stories elsewhere. 

This is, perhaps, the tele-film's sharpest and most incendiary insight.  

There's always more grist needed for the mill, and that fact is even more true today, in the age of cable television and the 24-hour news cycle than it was in the 1980s. We move willy-nilly from crisis to crisis without taking a breath because we have to be worried about something -- anything -- all the time.  

Don't touch that dial!  America Under Siege, indeed.

The second thematic concern of Special Bulletin involves, pretty clearly, the colossal danger of nuclear weapons.  

The "terrorists" in the film are actually concerned citizens who nonetheless cross the line and can't see how they have let their ideology blind them.  hey are hypocrites, threatening to destroy innocent people with nukes because the government can't see how dangerous nukes are to innocent people.  

Long story short, you can't preach peace by threatening force.  

And the government is culpable in all of this too. Attempting to look strong and resolute, the President and his people first attempt to dismiss the terrorists as hoaxers, and then seek to trick and manipulate them, finally overtaking them by force. The government experts never acknowledge or seem to believe Dr. McKeeson's all-too-sincere testimony that he has protected the bomb with an "anti-tamper" device. The government, essentially, plays a high-stakes game with the city of Charleston...and loses the gamble.

The message encoded in Special Bulletin is that nukes as deterrents or nukes as weapons are much too dangerous to trifle with, for ideologues in any party.  Why?  Purely and simply because the destruction caused by nuclear weapons is immense, beyond our worst imagining.

In Special Bulletin, Charleston is destroyed -- rendered a desert -- and a whole swath of South Carolina will remain uninhabitable for years to come following the detonation. And that's just the result of one nuke.  Imagine America's arsenal of 968 warheads in action, and the kind of devastation it could render.  This is destruction on a Biblical scale, and we would be fools to forget that fact. The final scenes of the film, set in a burning Charleston, with reports of "people burned beyond recognition" are the stuff or real nightmares.

One part a critique of the news business as show business, and one part a blunt-faced look at the terrifying power of nuclear weapons, Special Bulletin remains a blazing, unforgettable viewing experience. As far as mock-documentary films go, it's deftly-presented, and will leave you pondering, among other things, our strange, self-destructive nature.    

Not only are we fully capable of destroying ourselves, it seems. We actually want front row seats to the show.

Friday, March 17, 2023

50 Years Ago Today: Godzilla vs Megalon

Released on this day in 1973, Godzilla vs. Megalon, was not released in the United States until 1976, the very year of King Kong’s return to the silver screen under the auspices of Dino De Laurentiis.

Accordingly, this Japanese monster mash was a huge success in an America primed for a new monster movie.  

Godzilla vs. Megalon’s American success may have been due in part to the evocative and colorful poster art of the film which dramatically aped King Kong’s and showed Godzilla and Megalon standing astride the World Trade Center’s Twin Towers.

Needless to say, in the actual film, Godzilla and Megalon never got close to Manhattan, or anywhere in the Western Hemisphere, for that matter. Still, that poster is gorgeous.

After an incredibly successful run at the American box office, Godzilla vs. Megalon took another victory lap, airing on prime-time NBC in 1977 -- in an hour-long slot -- and it drew impressive ratings. John Belushi hosted the presentation.

In the early 1990s, the Mystery Science Theater 3000 (1988 – 1999) gang riffed on Godzilla vs. Megalon to great comedic effect, and for years the series’ opening credits showed a clip of Godzilla’s impressive -- and bizarrely humorous -- jump kick in the movie.

Despite all the pop culture success and sense of nostalgia that surrounds this election year entry of the Godzilla saga, Godzilla vs. Megalon has never struck me as a particularly good movie, or a particularly strong entry in the Godzilla canon.

The reason why is simple: the movie needs more Godzilla and less Jet Jaguar.

The underwater kingdom of Seatopia sends a giant creature called Megalon, to destroy the surface world, which has been conducting dangerous nuclear tests for years, and therefore is threatening all life on the Earth. 

Meanwhile, a Japanese scientist, Goro and his young nephew, Rokuro test an amazing new robot called Jet Jaguar that becomes of great importance to the Seatopians and Megalon.  

Realizing that their robot can help save the world, Goro and Rokuro summon Jaguar to call on the help of Godzilla, who is now living on Monster Island.

But the Seatopians also call for reinforcements, and tag the monstrous Gigan to help Megalon destroy Godzilla.

With the survival of Tokyo and the world hanging in the balance, Jet Jaguar grows to enormous size to team up with Godzilla.

Simply put,Godzilla vs. Megalon is not one of my favorite Godzilla movies. In part, Godzilla vs. Megalon fails because Godzilla does not even appear until late in the action, and seems to be an after-thought in the narrative. Instead, the film functions largely as origin story for the unknown and new hero: Jet Jaguar, a robot with the baffling ability to grow to Godzilla-esque proportions and then shrink back.

How on Earth (or Seatopia for that matter) is his metal so flexible that it can stretch to giant size and then retract to human size?   

Alas, even putting aside such question of logic, Jet Jaguar -- a kind of poor man’s Ultraman -- just can’t carry the story on his silver shoulders, or make-up for Godzilla’s frequent absence.  Imagine a James Bond film in which 007 didn’t appear until sometime late in the second act, and you get the idea.

Godzilla vs. Megalon is not entirely bereft of good ideas, to be certain. Though barely enunciated, there’s absolutely a critique here about nuclear arms that fits in with the franchise’s noble tradition of questioning atomic power and man’s usage of it.  

Here, the Seatopians send Megalon to the surface because of the nuclear testing performed by the nations of the world.  

The Seatopians’ final solution to a world risking destruction…is to destroy that world.  Thus, they attempt to wring peace out of war, a metaphor very clear to audiences in the Vietnam Era of “You have to destroy the village to save it.”  

Still, this message does not transmit nearly as powerfully as the anti-pollution message of the superior Godzilla vs. Hedorah.

I would be a curmudgeon if I didn’t note that the movie features some really fun battles.  

That aforementioned Godzilla jump kick, for instance, is just so bizarre, gravity-defying and over-the-top.  I don’t know how it could elicit anything but laughs, but it is a clear indicator that the films of this era have moved definitively into fantasy territory.  

In the final analysis, however, this film looks like a TV pilot for a Jet Jaguar series, with Godzilla coming in for a cameo tag team, and that fact doesn’t do the big green dragon any favors. 

People go to see Godzilla movies for Godzilla, and in some critical sense, Godzilla vs. Megalon breaks (or at least severely stretches…) that contract with the audience with its bait-and-switch strategy.

Sunday, March 12, 2023

30 Years Ago; Fire in the Sky

On November 5, 1975, in Sitgreave National Forest in Arizona, blue-collar logger Travis Walton disappeared without a trace. Five friends and co-workers, including so-called "pillar of the community," Mike Rogers, re-counted a harrowing tale of a flying saucer encounter...but the local authorities immediately suspected a more earthbound solution: foul play

But then Walton miraculously returned -- more or less intact -- to the small town of Snowflake five days later, and gave the world one of the most notorious "alien abduction" cases ever reported. The media, UFOlogists and sight-seekers descended on the town, creating a circus atmosphere.Some investigators believed Walton's incredible tale of flying saucers, alien abduction, Greys, and probing medical tests, especially since it is one of the few UFO-related stories to feature multiple eyewitnesses (and furthermore, eyewitnesses who have passed lie detector tests on more than one occasion). Other investigators viewed the bizarre incident as a brilliantly and elaborately orchestrated hoax. 

On the latter front, the skeptics pointed to Walton's apparent involvement in a check fraud scam some years earlier, and the fact that the alien abduction drama The UFO Incident had aired on television shortly before his disappearance. Is that where Travis got the idea to "stage" his own disappearance? Was this all just a scheme to hit "the big time" and make some money from the story-hungry national tabloids?

Where does the truth reside? Of course, we can never know the answer for certain, but 1993's drama Fire in the Sky, written by Tracy Torme and directed by Robert Lieberman dramatizes Travis Walton's unusual story from the perspective of the men who initially reported this "close encounter." 

What remains so unique about Fire in the Sky is that it eschews sensationalism and focuses intently on the human cost of those involved in Travis's disappearance, particularly family man Mike Rogers. 

Robert Patrick ably and sympathetically portrays Rogers, and despite his second billing, Fire in the Sky is really his movie. We follow the agonized, haunted Rogers as he deals with his own pervasive guilt over leaving an unconscious Travis behind in a field on the night of the UFO encounter, as he becomes a pariah in Snowflake, and as his family and friends turn against him one-by-one. 

Adding insult to injury, even Travis ultimately blames Rogers for his actions on the night of November 5, without truly considering that Rogers -- as leader of a logging crew -- had four other men he was responsible for protecting in that situation. In terms of drama, it's illuminating to note how the UFO encounter reflects the dynamics of the already-existing friendship between Travis and Mike. (In the film) Travis daydreams of opening up a huge motorcycle dealership with Mike. He flits from one get-rich-quick-scheme to the next, never landing long enough to consider reality. He speaks of romantic notions like love (for Mike's sister, Dana), and doesn't seem tethered to any real responsibilities. 

Mike is the polar opposite: "grounded" by conventional concerns like mortgage, money and family. He has no time to fantasize about impossible things. He's worried about the next paycheck, the next contract...the well-being of his daughters and wife. When the UFO spirits away Travis -- whose feet are already metaphorically off-the-ground -- it is again, Mike who must clean-up and interface with the unpleasantness of the "real world." He must contend with the responsibilities and repercussions associated with Travis's disappearance and return. Mike must be the stalwart leader of men and still, somehow, hold out hope for their joined future, so that his co-workers don't succumb to hysteria and pressure from law enforcement. 

Travis's encounter with the aliens (aboard their spaceship) in Fire in the Sky is dramatized in the film's last fifteen minutes or so, in a self-contained set-piece. The depiction of the alien ship (exterior and interior) leans heavily towards the terrifying, an interpretation which doesn't accurately reflect Walton's real-life testimony about his experience. In fact, screenwriter Torme reportedly apologized for the frightening views of the aliens in the film, noting that the "horror" aspect of the journey had been insisted upon by higher-ups in the production. 

Yet, in terms of theme and narrative, the horror movie approach to the alien experience remains undeniably effective because it seems to scare Travis straight. After he returns to Earth and recovers (arriving almost as a newborn: naked and in the fetal position), he stops dreaming impossible dreams, marries Mike's sister, and commits to a stable job and the family life. He has metaphorically been "reborn." By contrast, a shattered Mike -- who has taken all the heat for Travis over his sojourn -- retreats from the world entirely; at least until Travis arrives offering conciliation and forgiveness. Rogers -- a meat and potatoes guy if there ever was one -- has been forced to open his mind to possibilities (to dreams and fantasies?) he had never before considered, so he has become a reflection of Travis, pre-ordeal. 

When they resume their friendship, Mike and Travis again balance one other. The alien abduction scene in Fire in the Sky is probably the scene that most viewers remember most from the film. And that's entirely understandable, as it presents the interior of the alien spaceship as a world approximating a charnel house: a dark, dank locale of enormous and inhuman suffering and pain. With vertigo-provoking photography, we travel with Travis (via flashback..) inside an extra-terrestrial chamber that looks like something akin to the mad cannibal house in Tobe Hooper's seminal Texas Chain Saw Massacre. We are even treated to a trademark Hooper shot from that film: a close-up view of a victim's eyeball, wide and almost popping with unbearable terror. 

The alien spaceship set-piece begins as Travis -- feeling pancake syrup fall on his face after hiding under a kitchen table -- recalls a similar feeling: something moist and goopy touching his lips aboard the alien ship. He opens his eyes to find himself inside a chamber that resembles a fleshy coffin made of coruscating human fat tissue. Travis then breaks through a membrane wall only to find himself weightless inside a huge, organic chamber. He finds himself in a room of alien space suits, and there is a splendid jolt involving one such space suit coming to life, unobserved, behind him.Then Travis is captured by aliens and dragged down a claustrophobic tunnel to an examining room.

The long trip to the operating theater is grotesque, and horrifying. The floors are ashy -- as if composed of ground-up human bone. Relics of previous experiments have been mindlessly cast-off everywhere: eye glasses, boots, sneakers, etc. Then the aliens come at Travis with unclean, byzantine surgical instruments including saws, drills and needles. It's clear that these aliens -- unaware or uninterested in human pain and discomfort -- boast a very different concept of "hygiene" than we do. Lieberman's camera then barrels down from a high angle, right into Travis's terrified face, and it's here that we get that familiar Hooper eyeball shot.

Without exaggeration, this fifteen-minute or-so sequence in Fire in the Sky is a masterpiece of production design, special effects, camera-work and editing. There is a deeply diabolical, intelligent nature to these alien invaders (they have the eyes of old men...), and you never once get a sense that you are looking at animatronics, constructed sets, or special effects. On the contrary, the persistent use of the P.O.V. perspective lands us in Travis's (shaking...) boots as he countenances the impossible, and the terrifying.

There are aspects of Fire in the Sky that simply don't work, which is the reason why, I suspect, the film has not achieved much mainstream or genre critical success. The police procedural aspects of the tale (seemingly de rigueur in the 1990s) go nowhere and fail to resolve in any satisfactory fashion. And, for much of the film, Travis (D.B Sweeney) remains an enigma; an opaque "dreamer" but not so much an identifiable or individual personality. And I also suspect that many audience members were non-plussed by the film's straight-faced dramatic approach. The film more or less takes Walton's incredible story as simple fact, rather than attempting to punch holes in it, and then proceeds to calculate the human toll of such a strange encounter.

Where it counts most: as a human story of loyalty and friendship, and one focusing on Mike Rogers, Fire in the Sky succeeds. And that (admittedly-inaccurate) tour of an alien saucer remains nightmare fodder, pure and simple. Taken in tandem, an image starts to coalesce here: of simple, groping humanity opening his eyes to the great mysteries of our time, and coming to understand that his connection to other men is the thing he needs to take with him into that vast unknown.

Monday, March 06, 2023

Invaders from Mars (1953)

For science fiction and horror movie aficionados of a certain age, there’s a split-rail fence, curved-wooded path, and sandpit that lurks somewhere in the recesses of the memory. It is the location of childhood nightmares and a weird reality or dream state from which you cannot awake. At least not fully.


That location doesn’t exist in The Twilight Zone, though it certainly could. Instead, it’s the setting for the alien terror in the 1953 movie, Invaders from Mars, from director William Cameron Menzies.

The film has been restored with loving attention in 4K UHD and is available now from Ignite Films. And, in short, Invaders from Mars has never looked better.


The film concerns a young boy, David MacLean (Jimmy Hunt), who awakens one night from slumber to a terrible disturbance. The boy looks out his bedroom window and sees a flying saucer at that distant hill, disappearing into that sandpit beyond the split-rail fence.


His father, George (Leif Erickson) goes out to investigate, but comes back altered; strange, cold, and callous. Soon, after Dad takes David’s mother (Hillary Brooke) up to the sandpit too, the same thing happens to her. Alone and afraid, David seeks help from the town police, but the adult world is not welcoming to him, or his wild story of strange aliens in the backyard.


Fortunately, a psychologist, Dr. Patricia Blake (Helena Carter), believes David’s tale, and with the help of a local astronomer, Dr. Kelston (Arthur Franz), contacts the U.S. Military for help. A wild night follows, as Martians and Americans clash in an underground, earthen labyrinth.


But when it ends, has David ended his nightmare, or begun it all over again?


“Don’t Go Spreading Stories…”


I have written before, and I hope persuasively, too, about the ways that Invaders from Mars and Phantasm (1979) share a theme and point of view. Both genre pictures concern the way that a young boy, on the verge of growing up, contends with the mysteries and nightmares of adult life. 


In Phantasm, Michael must learn about the permanency of death, and so he conjures up his wild story about the Tall Man. In short, it is easier to battle a boogeyman than to face the grievous loss of parents, or a brother.  He distracts himself with a “monster,” and a fight, and then he needn’t think about those who have died.


Invaders from Mars is not very different. But in this case, young David MacLean learns about what it means to grow up, and that lesson includes grappling with the idea that his parents are sexual beings, and that he, in adolescence, is starting to see the world in those terms. 


The explicit terror in the film, for example, involves a Martian device, a drill not unlike a phallus, penetrating the back of the human neck. After this “act” of drilling, the victims are different; sharing secrets, uncommunicative to children, and in David’s eyes his parents no longer love him. At the very least, their attention is elsewhere. 

Then, David turns his own attention to lovely Dr. Blake, and he becomes, in a real sense, her champion and hero. The film is a little boy’s fantasy of growing up, protecting, and being wanted by a beautiful woman.  And since the movie begins and ends in that adolescent boy’s bedroom, one can parse the whole work of art as a kind of nocturnal dream about growing up. David corrals the military. David rescues Dr. Blake. David operates the Martian laser weapon.  And, of course, he’s what, ten years old?


Like Michael in Phantasm, David creates a world for himself in which he doesn’t have to deal with the difficult questions of maturity. Instead, he’s a pint-sized action hero.


In their book, Twenty All-Time Great Science Fiction Films (Arlington House; 1982), authors Kenneth Von Gunden and Stuart H. Stock write meaningfully about the film’s central point of view, that of a child: 


IFM [Invaders from Mars] gives us a child’s perception of the parent-child relationship – an exaggerated view in which parents are kind and loving one moment and in the next for no apparent reason, cruel and hateful…IFM offers the child a convenient explanation for such changes. It’s not that the child has misbehaved, or that parents might have problems of their own, but that some outside force…has interfered to cause the change.” (Page 83)


What remains remarkable (and admirable) about the Menzies film, seventy years later, is the way that the visuals match and mirror the dream qualities of the plot. For example, the film’s sets ar expressionist in design, with young David journeying to a minimalist police station, and finding himself dwarfed by the furniture there.  Absolutely everything is over-sized there, except him. A different shot, in a jail cell, reveals bars reflected on David’s face, and the inference is that we are living in a child’s world. One where only children can tell who is good and who is evil.

One early scene finds David consigned to the rear of the frame, as his altered father, and his mother, converse in the foreground. The old adage that children should be seen but not heard comes immediately to mind.  David is an afterthought in the moment, and the director’s choice of framing tells us just how unimportant he is to his parents. Or maybe how unimportant he feels.


Across the last seven decades, there has been much debate about the nature of this low budget film.  It relies on stock-footage. It re-uses the same sets. And Invaders from Mars’ story doesn’t strictly make sense as we understand it. And the ending?  Well, the ending suggests the adventure is an endless loop, all about to happen again. It is a nightmare from which David cannot awake. The debate is about whether these touches are intentional, or a result of a low budget.


No one has had the last word on this point, but the exigencies of production, in this case, help Invaders from Mars maintain its creepy tenor.  The fact that the scientist’s laboratory is the same set as the police station, only plays into the film’s weird, dream-like quality. 

And the shots of the Martian drones (or “mutants”) running through their subterranean caves are repeated, sometimes it feels endlessly. But again, that idea of a loop, of something happening over and over, only reinforces the film’s unnerving finale, which explicitly suggests the invasion is starting all over again too. Indeed the film keeps remaking itself, before it even finishes. The audience sees one character (Dad) go into the sinkhole, then another (Mom), then another (a police officer), then another (an army man).  


That’s why the film’s backyard locale is so unforgettable. It’s a treacherous sinkhole, but it shouldn’t be. David knows the truth, and no one else will believe him. The price for that disbelief is more life lost to the Martians.


Will audiences today, trained to see inconsistencies in plot, acting, and other facets of storytelling find the film worthwhile? It depends largely how open one is to letting Invaders from Mars’ “dream logic” wash over you. I suppose.  


The film’s early scenes with David’s parents turned into alien servants, are terrific, creepy as hell and suggest all manners of interpersonal alienation, and dysfunctional family dynamics. As the film goes on, and it becomes rah-rah, Cold War propaganda for the U.S. Army, Invaders from Mars retains its strangeness, but nonetheless loses some of it most intriguing luster.

One thing is for certain, Menzies had a plan, and he executed it brilliantly. From the sickly green hue that suffuses much of the film, to the over-sized sets, to the central idea of a child’s perspective coloring the action, Invaders from Mars feels like a disturbing dream. These qualities keep the film alive in the psyche, and after seventy years, that’s no small feat.


Thursday, March 02, 2023

90 Years Ago: King Kong (1933)

King Kong (1933) premiered in NYC 90 years ago. 

The film commences with a title card that recites an old Arabian proverb:  “And lo, the beast looked upon the face of beauty.  And it stood its hand from killing.  And from that day it was as one dead.”

This on-screen legend frames the famous monster movie as a beauty-and-the-beast story, though King Kong has been interpreted quite frequently over the decades as a coded social critique as well.  

No less prominent a figure than director Quentin Tarantino has interpreted the Merian C. Cooper (1893 – 1973)/Ernest Schoedsack (1893 -1979) film as an “allegory about the transatlantic slave trade and America’s fear of the black male.”

I recently re-watched the original King Kong in preparation for this review, and can’t deny that the sub-textual material is present.  Nor can I deny that the film is mindlessly racist and sexist by today’s standards, at  least at certain junctures.

But I was struck by another intriguing aspect of this famous monster movie as well.  

In short, this 1933 fantasy film seems very world-weary, and disappointed with the predictability, safety and even bureaucracy of modernity. Accordingly, the film positions itself as an escape from modernity.

The modern world, represented by the gleaming skyscrapers and skyline of New York Harbor in the film’s inaugural shot, is a place that -- especially during a financial Great Depression -- can’t seem to provide much of anything to people in terms of answers, or even sustenance. 

Instead, people like filmmaker Carl Denham (Robert Armstrong) actively seek the “thrill of a lifetime” outside of modernity, in places such as Africa or the West Indies.  This desire for freedom and excitement is contextualized as the thrill of something new, or conversely, the thrill of something very old, and very natural…but never-before-seen and recorded by modern eyes or cameras.

Denham sees it as his mission to show “something new” to a depression-weary people. The first such “new” thing he finds, for example, is the untested screen presence of Ann Darrow (Fay Wray).  Denham’s bosses want a female to appear in his latest motion picture to ramp up the box office grosses, and Denham must kowtow to their wishes.  But the “reckless” Denham goes out and finds a female star on his own, in his own way. He discovers the young woman, Ann, attempting to steal an apple from a fruit stand, on the verge of starvation.  

He essentially offers her an escape from modernity too.  

Denham then goes in search of that elusive “something new” on Skull Island, far beyond the well-populated waters of New York Harbor….beyond the horizon itself. An old legend in the South Seas tells of an “island held in the grip of fear…”  

Kong’s island stands in unexplored, mysterious waters, beyond a gateway made of natural reefs. And Kong himself -- the ultimate unknown or something new -- exists behind yet another barrier, a large perimeter wall built by an ancient society of natives.  

To find Kong -- to find something new and natural, then -- one must pierce all the various “gates” of modernity, and head straight back into the less-calculated, less buttoned-down past…even to prehistoric times.  

The sea voyage of the Venture (a name meaning “risky or daring journey”) is accordingly one that escorts audiences and the film’s dramatis personae through a series of doorways leading from staid modernity to unfettered antiquity, and “freedom.”

This freedom is first expressed in terms of the rigidity of New York’s bureaucracy, where Denham learns that an insurance company plans to halt his voyage because of the dangerous explosives he is transporting.  Denham orders an early departure to assure there are no such further impediments to his…entrepreneurship.   

Once en route, Ann and Jack Driscoll (Bruce Cabot) let down their guards and fall in love. This is a big deal for Jack, who finds that women are a “bother,” but comes to change his mind.  Something about the open air of the sea makes them connect, and come to love one another.

In modernity...

...the search for new faces and new things begins...

Beyond the reefs...

...and behind the wall...

...lives Kong.

King Kong’s final act -- with Kong returned to New York City as Denham’s captive -- reverses the film’s conceits regarding freedom.  

Once found by Denham, “freedom” (represented by Kong himself) becomes a commodity not to discover and enjoy, but to exploit, and share (at a price) with those dwelling in modernity. People will pay good money to vicariously experience the danger of Kong Island, the expedition, and Kong himself.   The giant ape is billed as “The Eighth Wonder of the World,” something human eyes have never seen before. 

To put a fine point on it, Kong -- the thing beyond modernity, the thing with the capacity to thrill a jaded modern audience -- is brought back and caged, but Denham quickly learns that no chains and no bars can hold him for long. Instead, Kong runs free and, by nearly reaching the clouds atop the Empire State Building, eludes modernity again.  Modernity and nature, or freedom, cannot exist side-by-side, the film suggests.

If one considers the biography of the film’s producer/co-director, Merian Cooper, one can see how these ideas of escaping adventure-crushing modernity and pinpointing thrills in incorruptible nature fit in well with his career and biography.  An air force pilot during World War I and a founding member of Pan Am Airways, Cooper directed several early films such as Chang (1927) which were, essentially, travelogues set in far-flung, wild locales. That film, for instance, famously featured an elephant stampede.  

For long stretches, King Kong plays like a travelogue or documentary, with hearty men of adventurous spirit witnessing beasts never-before-seen. In short, the film is a safari into the wildest jungle ever, with the most spectacular beasts in cinema history.  “Safari” is a Swahili word meaning “long journey,” and a safari usually involves explorers or other adventurous-types going where no man has gone before for the express purpose of seeing new wild life.   

Yet, what remains so interesting about this juxtaposition of a fantasy setting with the safari motif is that Cooper has utilized a tool of modernity -- film -- to bring this story back to his audience.  In fact, it’s not only modernity on display in King Kong’s creation, but pioneering technical innovation as well.  The Willis O’Brien stop-motion effects and optical composites look staggeringly good even to this day, particularly in black-and-white, a schema which hides seams beautifully.  

Thus, one can gaze upon King Kong as the work of a man who looked at the world, couldn’t see any new kingdoms to conquer, and so utilized technology to create something from whole-cloth that his audience had never before witnessed: a prehistoric world populated by the “dinosaur family” of Skull Island. He uses special effects to bring to life creatures people have read about, but never seen “alive.”

This travelogue or safari approach to the film precludes, to some degree, much in terms of humanity or characterization. After Ann is taken by Kong to the interior of Skull Island, the film descends into a series of (still) harrowing fight sequences and battles, but always with a new animal on display, front-and-center in the frame.  

In short order the audience “discovers” Kong, a stegosaurus, an apatosaurus, a T-Rex, a giant snake, and a pterodactyl.  The film’s soundtrack, largely, is a sustained scream from Fay Wray, from about the forty-five minute point on. People don’t talk or relate as people, they just delve deeper and deeper into the prehistoric jungle, and attempt to survive each new animal featured on the safari.

The Skull Island Safari #1

The Skull Island Safari #2

The Skull Island Safari #3

The Skull Island Safari #4

I also noted on this viewing that more than ever, King Kong boasts a strong reflexive quality. Carl Denham takes a camera and a girl, Ann, into the jungle to make an adventure movie, a new kind of safari in a different kind of habitat. 

But the movie that the audience is watching -- King Kong -- is also a safari…with a pretty girl fronting it.  When Denham complains about having to kowtow to studio bosses, one feels that the comment originates from Cooper himself. Denham is clearly his surrogate figure.

While we watch a safari film, Denham is also making a safari film.

A girl is needed to front both films.  Hence the presence of lovely Fay Wray.

Fans of later generations of King Kong – in 1976 and 2005 – will be surprised upon returning to this 1933 classic that there is almost no reciprocal relationship between Kong and his bride, Ann. He may love her, but here it’s an unrequited love.  She never moves beyond terror for the “beast,” whatever he may feel for her.  By Son of Kong (1933) and Mighty Joe Young (1949), a sympathy or love for “the beast” is added as a crucial element of the equation, but it is definitively not present in this film. 

Certainly, one can look at King Kong today and consider it a beauty and the beast story, though beauty has but distaste and fear for her groom.  

And certainly, one can see how Kong himself is a stand-in figure for a proud African slave, dragged from his country in chains to provide the entertainment for an elitist society that is both fearful and envious of him.  But the quality that makes King Kong so great is its sense or spirit of adventure.  

The film steadfastly takes us through the gates of a real world lacking magic, happiness, and perhaps even romance, and reminds us that there are places and things on this Earth yet unseen by man.  And those things, fierce or beautiful, still have the capacity to surprise us, and perhaps change us for the better if we don’t abuse or exploit them.

I suspect one reason that King Kong has survived for roughly eighty years at this juncture, and translated ably from one generation to another, is that many of us still want to believe in our own capacity to be surprised and delighted by nature.  The film is a non-stop safari of vicarious thrills and terrors, a spectacle in the truest sense of the word (meaning that it shows the audience things never before captured on film).  

Even today, King Kong exists to show bored and world-weary audiences that there is more in Heaven and Earth than is dreamed of in "safe" modernity.  

And even today, the film’s spirit of adventure -- if not divine -- is at least as “royal” as its title indicates.

40 Years Ago: Special Bulletin

Many folks of my generation still vividly recall the first prime-time broadcast of the grim TV movie,  The Day After  (1983). That landmark ...