Tuesday, January 31, 2012

CULT TV FLASHBACK #148: Star Trek: The Next Generation: The Royale (1989)

This year is the 25th anniversary of Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987 - 1994), though truthfully, I find that fact nearly impossible to believe.   In the past few months, I've been looking back at Next Gen episodes that I suspect are better than their reputations indicate, and thus far I've featured the first season stories "11001001" and "Skin of Evil." 

To briefly reiterate what I wrote in the earlier posts, I'm not gazing at acknowledged series classics (such as "Best of Both Worlds" or "Yesterday's Enterprise"), at least not initially, because most Trekkies already know those episodes are good ones.  Instead, my goal is to excavate some of the rougher jewels in the catalogue, and perhaps spur a more positive evaluation or re-think.  Long story short: sometimes the ambitious failures look far more interesting in retrospect than the obvious triumphs.

Last week, I defended Apollo 18 (2011), a found-footage horror movie everyone seems to hate.  In keeping with that theme, today I'm going out on a limb again  to remember a Star Trek: The Next Generation episode that nobody seems to like either, but which I nonetheless enjoy and believe boasts some merit.

Some context: The main problem that plagued Star Trek: The Next Generation during its first season, as I perceive it, is that the crew of the Enterprise-D appears rather smug and self-satisfied. 

In various episodes our heroes rail against patriotism ("Encounter at Farpoint"), eating red meat ("Lonely Among Us"), patriarchy and matriarchy ("Angel One,") and even capitalism ("The Last Outpost," "The Neutral Zone.")

I have absolutely no beef at all with any of that social commentary, or any of those particular ideological stances.  I welcome the gadfly approach to exploring issues of the late twentieth century.

Rather, my problem is in how the social commentary is often broached.  I realize the humans of The Next Generation are "evolved" ones (and I like that idea too...) but in too many episodes, these 24th century humans lecture, preach and harrumph about how man overcame his age of "barbarism." 

There's a looking-down-their-collective noses at races like the Anticans and Selay, or the denizens of "Angel One" that is, frankly, unappealing, and a bit too self-congratulatory.

When this smug vibe is coupled with the fact that the Enterprise is the  flagship of the Federation, and therefore technologically superior to almost all comers (including the new enemy, the Ferengi), a real sense of drama and conflict bleeds away from many first season installments of Star Trek: The Next Generation

Everything seems too easy for this team.  Specifically, the Enterprise crew often defeats the bad guys without too much difficulty, and usually through extended "talk."  Riker convinces an Ancient Guardian, Portal, not to be hostile -- through talk -- in "The Last Outpost."  Picard resolves a dilemma with a silicon life form -- again by talk -- in "Home Soil."  

Over and over, a spirit of danger and adventure -- a core element of the original Star Trek series -- seems missing from the first season of The Next Generation.  Getting through some of these early episodes (like "Haven," or "The Battle," or "Code of Honor," or "The Last Outpost") is really a tough slog.

But I give kudos to the creators and writers of Star Trek: The Next Generation because, by the end of the first season, they were clearly working out the kinks in the less-than-satisfactory format.  Episodes such as "Heart of Glory," "Skin of Evil," and "Conspiracy" ramped up the danger level in the stories, and boasted a more unpredictable aura than the first segments.

And if you had to give Star Trek: The Next Generation's second season catalog a name or theme, I would call it, simply, "A Kick in the Complacency." 

That's the term Captain Picard (Patrick Stewart) famously coined in the stellar episode "Q-Who," which introduced the cybernetic organisms, the Borg, to the series.  Surveying the episodes of the second season, you can detect how a number of the stories explicitly involve pulling the rug out from under the Enterprise crew, and showcasing the fact that outer space may be wondrous...but it's also dangerous and mysterious. 

And even more importantly, the Enterprise isn't always the big man on campus.  Other forces out there in space may be superior in terms of their understanding of the universe and technological capacities.  The upshot of many of these episodes is that the crew's smugness is kicked off rather dramatically. And that's a very good thing for the development of the series, which would hit its stride (and apex) in Season Three.

The "Kick in the Complacency" episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation's second season include "Where Silence Has Lease,"during which the Enterprise explores a black spot in space that seems to twist and defy the principles of physics.  Then there's "Elementary Dear Data," wherein Starfleet technology and a slip-of-the-tongue on the part of a fallible human being (Geordi) create a deadly menace for the Enterprise.  Similarly, "Unnatural Selection" showcases how Dr. Pulaski's (Diana Muldaur's) hubris nearly gets her killed, vis-a-vis a deadly disease. 

The "Kick in the Complacency" segments reach their pinnacle with "Q Who, " which finds the Enterprise outmatched in every conceivable way during that initial encounter with the Borg.   But two relatively unpopular episodes are also necessary steps in that journey towards this zenith.  These programs are "Time Squared" and "The Royale." 

In "Time Squared," the crew is  asked to solve a life-and-death riddle that involves "anti-sense," to put it mildly.  No easy answers are provided regarding the hows and whys of the story.  In this tale, an incarnation of Captain Picard from six hours in the future returns to the present, with a warning of the Enterprise's destruction.  The incident is baffling, but Starfleet officers should occasionally be knocked for a loop by a WTF moment in outer space, and that's what "Time Squared" gives a pensive, traumatized Picard.

But for today, I've picked "The Royale" as the tale of this nature I wanted to focus intently upon. 

As I mentioned above, it seems everybody hates "The Royale." 

Episode writer Tracy Torme hates it.  Fans despise it.  Critics don't like it either.  You may even find it named on lists for the worst ten episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation

And yet, I'll be honest, I've always enjoyed "The Royale" given the parameters of the "kick in the complacency" second season.  This episode fits that recurring theme well, and more than that, adheres beautifully to the Star Trek tradition of presenting "fish out of water" comedies.

To briefly recap the plot, "The Royale" commences as the Enterprise, on a clue from the Klingons, discovers the debris from a 22nd Century NASA ship in orbit around remote Theta 8.   While studying the mystery of Fermat's last theorem, Captain Picard orders Cmdr. Riker to take an away team to the planet surface, where a single structure has been detected in an oxygen-nitrogen envelope (beneath planet-wide ammonia storms).

Riker, Data and Worf soon discover that the structure is a 20th century hotel and casino, the Royale. 

Though human in appearance, the beings inhabiting the structure are not authentic life forms.  And yet they seem to be marching along on their own bizarre story lines.

Riker, Data and Worf find a clue regarding this mystery in one of the hotel state rooms. They discover the skeletal remains of Colonel Richey, an officer on the destroyed NASA ship. 

Richey's diary reveals that aliens interfaced with his vessel and accidentally killed all the Terran crew members save for him.  Apparently in payment over their accidental actions, the aliens built Richey a world based on a book -- The Hotel Royale -- they found aboard the NASA ship.  Then, they deposited Richey in that world....where he would spend the rest of his days. 

They thought they had built him a paradise, but it turned out to be Hell...

Trapped in the Royale, Riker, Data and Worf realize that the key to escape rests in resolving the (bad) novel's major plot points.  From the Enterprise, Picard and Troi help out by reading the novel...which proves trying. 

After the away team escapes, Riker wonders about the whole incident, and Picard concludes that some mysteries simply have no logical resolution...

The first and most significant thing to understand about "The Royale" is how well the episode fits into Star Trek convention.  The franchise boasts a long tradition of bewildered crew members interfacing with other time periods from human history.  We see this in programs such as "Tomorrow is Yesterday" and the film, Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1986).  The fish-out-of-water humor in such tales allows us to see our confident Starfleet heroes from another perspective; from a perspective of vulnerability.  They are truly strangers in a strange land, trying to account for human culture at an earlier stage of development.  

What's commendable about "The Royale" (in the same way that "Spectre of the Gun" is kind of cool) is that the writer has not relied on the commonly-seen Trek tropes of either time travel or the "holodeck adventure" to vet this particular fish-out-of-water story.  Instead, Torme (Keith Mills on screen) wraps the human adventure inside an alien-based mystery.

In specific terms, "The Royale" finds humor in Worf and Data's responses to the hotel/casino staff and clientele.  Already out of place among 24th century humans, the Klingon and Soong android are even more baffled (and in Worf's case, irritated...) by human behavior inside the strange structure.  The future depicted in Star Trek is not a hedonistic one (usually, save for Risa...), but this casino is a den of hedonism.  Here, humanity is at his worst: avaricious, thieving, gluttonous.  It's a strong contrast to the Utopian world we see on the Enterprise.

Some good character humor also emerges from Picard, aboard the Enterprise.  This is the guy who is, for lack of a better word, a dedicated scholar.  The good captain knows Shakespeare backwards and forwards (as "Hide and Q" demonstrates), and considers James Joyce light reading ("Captain's Holiday.")  Here he's forced to dive into a bad dime-store novel, and it's clear he's impatient with the process...and the subject material.

But in addition to "The Royale's" sense of humor (which involves Worf using a 20th century telephone and Data playing blackjack), the episode works admirably as a kind of spine-tingling mystery. 

"In our arrogance, we feel we're so advanced," Picard notes early in the episode, and that's the "theorem" of "The Royale."  The crew encounters an alien "shrine" that seems to make no sense because it is based entirely on a limited, alien understanding of our culture.

This is one strange corner of the universe, both a little funny, a little scary and a little sad.  And it suggests nicely that not all "first contacts" go smoothly, or as expected.

I also appreciate the idea portrayed here, and carried over from "A Piece of the Action" on the Original Series, that no one book should be used as a model for an entire culture; that no single tome should be taken literally as the guide to life

And yes, I absolutely view this as a  pointed commentary and critique of people who interpret The Bible (or any religious book) literally.  Meaning that the Earth is only 6,000 years old and Jesus rode dinosaurs around the streets of the Roman Empire.   In ways "subtle and gross," to quote Q, "The Royale" reminds us that no one book explains the mystery or wonder of human nature.  Humanity is more complex than any one vision contained between two covers.

In that light, "The Royale" is one of the few Star Trek episodes that can be legitimately called surreal or absurdist.  Here, you have the unexpected juxtapositions one expects of the surreal (a 20th century casino on an inhospitable planet, a revolving door in the middle of a black void, etc.), but more than that, a meditation on the human tendency to seek the meaning of life in a situation wherein such a conclusion is unknowable

In "The Royale," a terrible, dime-store book becomes the basis for alien contact and the continuance of human life, but the book itself is a collection of conventions and cliches.  How could anyone think life is really like a bad crime novel?  Well, if you're an alien...you wouldn't pick up those nuances, I suppose.  Cliches are cliches because we encounter them so often. Presumably, aliens would not recognize them as such because they've never read a book from Earth.

I also appreciate the episode's conceit that  the aliens tried to inject some meaning into their accidental actions, but by doing so robbed Richey's remaining days of meaning and thus only compounded their error.   It's a pretty deft formulation, I submit.

Why didn't Star Trek  tread more often into the surreal?  Well, that's the rub, and part of the reason that I suspect "The Royale" is disliked by many fans.  Famously, Star Trek is about mankind mastering his destiny, discovering the meaning of life, conquering technology, medicine and space itself.  Surrealism could be interpreted as an opposite philosophy.  Absurdism suggests say that no such domination of existence is possible, because life is inherently meaningless.   Magic in Star Trek is merely technology we don't understand yet, a point of development we have not yet reached, but the underlying message is that we WILL get there, one day.  If the universe is surreal in nature, then this is not the case at all.

Ironically, Star Trek: The Next Generation is at its dramatic best when the paradise of the UFP is challenged, when there is an acknowledgment that the human equation has not been solved, and when the status quo is up-ended.  The "Kick in the Complacency" episodes remember that the human adventure is merely "beginning" and not yet settled.  Stories like "The Royale" are indeed about the human adventure just beginning; about the starting point of self-knowledge not the ending point.  It's my bias, but I  tend to prefer that point of attack in terms of sci-fi drama.

There was a great Twilight Zone episode entitled "Elegy," about astronauts encountering a planet of apparently frozen humanoids, carefully posed (by someone) in the midst of their daily routines.  The planet turned out to be not a wax museum, nor a moment of frozen time.  Instead, the humans were all dead and stuffed by a kind of galactic funeral director/taxidermist.  In some sense, "The Royale" captures the same absurd vibe as that episode.  It features a world that shouldn't be threatening...but is.  And that threat exists because aliens are not always understandable.

Some mysteries just can't be solved, as Captain Picard reminds us in "The Royale."

I believe that in "Kick in the Complacency" episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation such as "The Royale," the series began to restore the necessary danger to the enterprise (ahem) of space travel.  A core component of drama involves the notion that our heroes always must be endangered.  They can't always possess the upper hand, or the most powerful phaser banks.  Real drama is wrought from facing an enemy who is more powerful, or who holds all the cards, to use a "Royale"-based metaphor.  

In the final analysis, "The Royale" is spiky and weird and funny, and a bit disturbing, and it reminds the audience that human beings -- no matter how advanced or evolved -- can't always see and understand the mysteries of the infinite.

No, "The Royale" certainly isn't one of the twenty-five greatest Star Trek: The Next Generation episodes, but it fits in well with the second season's overall milieu.  It's good for a re-watch on these terms especially in conjunction with "Time Squared and "Q-Who."  That's the great thing about Star Trek existing as a long-lived TV series rather than a movie series.  There's time to visit these strange, oddball corners of the universe, and no need to tell a "huge" story about universal Armageddon every week.

"The Royale" may be off-message, a narrative detour of sorts.  But it's one worth taking, at least every now and again, especially when you a need a kick in your own complacency.

TNG Teaser: "The Royale"

Theme Song of the Week: The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (1968 - 1970)

Monday, January 30, 2012

The Cult-TV Faces of: The Most Dangerous Game

Identified by Hugh: Lost in Space: "Hunter's Moon."


Identified by Le0pard13: Rory Calhoun in Gilligan's Island: "The Hunter."

Identified by Hugh: Space:1999: "Devil's Planet"

Identified by George Eichler: Logan's Run: "The Capture."

Identified by Chris G.: The Incredible Hulk: "The Snare."

Identified by Jay-Jay: Star Trek: Deep Space Nine: "Captive Pursuit."

Identified by Hugh: Buffy the Vampire Slayer: "Homecoming"


Identified by Hugh: The Simpsons: "Survival of the Fattest"

Identified by Hugh: Dollhouse: "The Target."

Television and Cinema Verities: In the Words of the Creators # 4

"I knew Rod [Serling] and he knew me as a director, and he was a splendid person to work with, and a real supporter.  He called me up and asked me to meet him for drinks.  Well, once we were at the bar, Serling told me he was going to be producing and writing an anthology series of his own. He assured me that The Twilight Zone was going to be pure fantasy, with no discussion of proof of psychic powers...[H]e was a class act.  He just wanted to let me know, in person, that he wasn't going to rip us off."

- One Step Beyond host and director John Newland (1917 - 2000) on his meeting with Rod Serling, prior to the first airing of The Twilight Zone in 1959.  From Filmfax Plus #101, Jan/March 2004, page 97.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

CULT TV BLOGGING: The Fantastic Journey: "Children of the Gods" (February 24, 1977)

In The Fantastic Journey's fourth episode, "Children of the Gods," our wayward travelers in the Bermuda Triangle -- Varian, Scott, Lianna, Fred, Willaway and Sil-El --  happen into a strange province that reveals signs of both the ancient past, namely Greek ruins from 500 BC, and the distant future, particularly a bombed-out, ruined metropolis on the horizon.

Very soon, the travelers learn that the city remains inhabited, but only by a tribe of uniformed, militant teenagers and children.  All the grown-ups -- "The Elders"-- have been driven off by "the Power," a particle beam weapon,  after making some children their slaves.  Entrenched in the society then, is a deep-seated mistrust of adults of all stripes.

When Willaway enters the sacred Greek temple and finds a cache of high-tech laser weapons, he is promptly sentenced to death by Alpha, leader of the children, for his trespass. 

Realizing only he can save Willaway from impending execution, Scott prepares for  ceremonial combat with Alpha.  If he wins,  he can take the leadership role in the society and save his friend's life...

In reading the synopsis of "Children of the Gods," you'll probably recognize several literary and TV influences.  In terms of literature, the episode harks back to William Golding's 1954 novel, Lord of the Flies, which involved a society crafted solely by children.  In the novel, that society was designed to serve as a microcosm for all of human society, and the author debated human nature.  In "Children of the Gods," the same issue is broached. 

Specifically, The Fantastic Journey appears to subscribe to the idea that power corrupts.  Here, Alpha is just as much a tyrant as any adult who ruled before him.  "You've become the very thing you say you hate," Varian informs Alpha, near episode's conclusion, sounding very Captain Kirk-like. 

Another issue roiling in "Children of the Gods" is clearly the Generation Gap, the notion that adults and teens are literally enemies, locked in a war for all time.  There can be no peace between them, apparently.

If you're a fan of Star Trek and other televised science fiction, "Children of the Gods" may strongly remind you of the first season Trek episode, "Miri," which also concerned a society where children had graduated to positions of power and authority, and deeply disliked adults, or "Grups." 

In both stories, the children are finally reminded of their common humanity, and of the fact that the "leader" will soon be an adult, himself.  

The Lord of the Flies premise also  appeared throughout science fiction film and television in the 1970s quite a bit, from the "cubs" in Logan's Run (1976), to the "Children of Methuselah" episode of The Starlost in 1973.  

In terms of The Fantastic Journey's continuity and development, "Children of the Gods" accents a number of elements that would appear again and again in the series.  Here, Willaway's curiosity gets the better of him, and he inserts himself into the middle of a crisis.   We'll see that again. Perhaps more importantly, Willaway is often utilized by writers as the informal historian of the group.  In "Children of the Gods," he recognizes the Greek ruins, and quotes Pindar (522 - 443 BC), a lyric poet and author of choral songs.  Uniquely, Pindar often wrote of athletic victories and championships in Greece, and his "temple" here is the site of the society's combat rituals. 

Willaway also gets to demonstrate again his characteristic world-weariness when he wonders: "Are people ever going to stop killing each other?"

In terms of other character touches in "Children of the Gods," Varian again uses his handy sonic energizer, which is able to "manipulate matter" this week, and Lianna demonstrates the ability to render enemies  unconcious by placing her hands on their temples.  It's sort of a Vulcan nerve pinch variation, I guess you'd say. 

In both instances, these "tools" feel a little bit like crutches.  They are easy outs for the characters (and for writers...) when confrontations occur.

Other than Willaway -- who is featured in a great visual composition as he appears from behind a Greek bust -- Ike Eisenmann's Scott probably comes off the best in "Children of the Gods."  His character boasts a strong sense of morality, and a sympathetic heart.  Here, Scott volunteers for ritual combat with Alpha -- a much taller, stronger teenager -- knowing he will lose, but that he has no choice but to make the attempt.  He's a brave and likeable kid.  This is not a small accomplishment in terms of performance and character development since a lot of "sci fi kids" like Wesley Crusher or Adric end up somehow angering sci-fi fans, and, I think, unconsciously activating a sense of fandom's own deep-seated self-loathing.  

Meanwhile, our young doctor Fred (Carl Franklin) is as under-utilized as ever in "Children of the Gods," though the beginning of a Spock-McCoy bickering relationship between Fred and Willaway has now begun in earnest.  At least that gives him something to do, other thanmerely recite hip 1970s slang.

Taken in toto, "Children of the Gods" is a solid if somewhat uninspiring episode of The Fantastic Journey.  The theme about endless war -- and children repeating the mistakes of their fathers -- is a good, if familiar one.  There's not a lot new to see here, and so the episode plays as a little flat.  Some of the same issues of war and peace would be better handled in the next installment, "A Dream of Conquest," with guest star John Saxon.

Next week on cult-tv blogging: "A Dream of Conquest."

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Saturday with Sinbad: Jason and the Argonauts (1963)

Ray Harryhausen's Jason and the Argonauts (1963) looks more beautiful than ever on the high-definition Blu Ray format, and after the relative disappointment of Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger (1977), I felt much relief over that fact. 

I wasn't yet born when Jason and the Argonauts was released theatrically, but it was a staple of my youth nonetheless.  Whenever the film aired on national or local TV, I always tried to catch it (remember, this was the age before VHS, before Cable TV, even...).  It's nice to see that the fantasy has held up so well, even after nearly fifty years.  It's like revisiting an old friend and finding him still in fighting shape.

Watching Jason and the Argonauts  again in 2012, I liked it better than any of the Sinbad films, except for Golden Voyage (1974), which remains my favorite Harryhausen fantasy because it accounts for Sinbad's ethnicity and features a darker story about the "cost" of black magic.

Jason and the Argonauts is, perhaps, nearly as simplistic as 7th Voyage was in terms of characterization, but the film still holds together well.  This may be so because it has Greek mythology to fall back on as a rich resource for creature origins and compelling story points.

Jason was the Greek who, in Argonautica, embarked upon a dangerous quest for the Golden Fleece.  The men who accompanied him on the journey, including Hercules, Hylas and Orpheus, were called "The Argonauts."   On the journey, Jason fell for the high priestess, Medea, but their lives went rather badly down hill after he brought her home...as you may recall.

In broad terms, the quest for the Golden Fleece forms the basis of the Harryhausen film, directed by Don Chaffey.   Here, Jason of Thessaly (Todd Armstrong) seeks the fleece to help "heal" his war-torn country and assume his rightful place on the throne.  To dp so, he must defeat the tyrannical usurper, Pelias (Douglas Wilmer).  With the help of Hera (Honor Blackman), Jason makes sail with a team of heroes for the end of the world, where the Fleece is reportedly housed (and protected by a multi-headed beast called the Hydra).

En route to the Golden Fleece, the Argo encounters a giant bronze statue, Talos.  A confrontation with the living statue costs Jason two of his most valuable crew members, Hylas and Hercules.  Later, Jason defends  the fallen King Phineas (Patrick Troughton) from vicious Harpies in direct defiance of Zeus's will and in exchange for exact details about the location of the Fleece.  The rescued Phineas reveals that the Golden Fleece resides in distant Colchis, and Jason sets sail.

After reaching Colchis, Jason falls in love with the gorgeous priestess Medea (Nancy Kovack).  She helps him steal the Golden Fleece and defeat the Hydra. 

But Colchis's king, Aeetes, is not ready to give up his treasure.  Using the Hydra's mystical teeth, he "grows" an army of sinister skeletons to confront and challenge Jason....

If you boast any familiarity with Greek myth, you'll notice some changes in the old lore here.  For one thing, Talos was encountered on the way home from Colchis in myth, not on the beginning stages of the voyage. 

For another thing, the film glosses over the inconvenient plot point that Hercules and Hylas were likely lovers.  In the film, Hercules goes off in search of Hylas, and never returns to the Argo, but the two men are just *ahem* devoted "friends."  And in myth, Hylas was not crushed to death by Talos either, but had an entirely different fate...which is why Hercules went in search of him in the first place.  Here, you wonder where Hercules could possibly go to search for Hylas since the island is so small, and since Hylas's corpse is stuck underneath the fallen Talos...

And, of course, this 1963 film ends incredibly abruptly after Jason and Medea return to the Argo.  Therefore, we don't get to see Jason reclaim the throne, or the bloody, murderous falling out between Jason and his new love.  As an adult, I would have loved to see some of those mythic elements incorporated.

Still, one can pretty easily detect that the significant changes made in Jason's story were an effort to keep the material appropriate for children.  Also, the encounters featured here make the most of Harryhausen's stop-motion capabilities.  The movie features a battle with Talos, a last-minute rescue from Poseidon, a struggle with flying harpies, and, of course, the famous skeleton sword fight.

I'm still in awe of that particular sword fight.  It is choreographed and executed with deftness and even brilliance.  The skeletons seem very much alive in terms of movement and demeanor, but the human actors really out-do themselves too in "selling" this particular special effects set-piece.  You can usually tell if an actor misses a mark, is looking in the wrong place, or is holding back with his sword thrusts and parries.  None of that occurs here.  The battle seems virtually flawless.  Perhaps not surprisingly, this battle is my son Joel's favorite Harryhausen set-piece, and probably mine too.  A real show-stopper.

I believe where Jason and the Argonauts probably gets the nod over The 7th Voyage of Sinbad is in its deliberate subtext about man and the Gods.  Here, we see a terrific depiction of Mount Olympus, one that looks a lot like Harryhausen's Clash of the Titans in 1981. 

But beyond that, the film gives us the unique example in 'blasphemer' Jason, a human who attempts to make his way without the interference of the Gods, and yet uses Hera's help some five times to achieve his victory. 

It's kind of hypocritical for Jason to lambast the Gods, and then accept their help, but still, an important idea is transmitted.  Man must chart his own course in the world, without the luxury or curse of interfering Gods.

I feel that this is actually a message you can detect throughout all the Harryhausen fantasy films, and a prime reason they survive and are remembered with such fondness.  All of his fantasies, whether they involve Sinbad, Perseus or Jason, concern brave men fighting out-sized odds with resourcefulness, humility and decency.  The Harryhausen hero vanquishes monsters and magicians not for famor n glory, but because he must help others.  There's an optimistic undercurrent to these films; the idea that man is absolutely indomitable, even in the face of Harpies, Cyclops, the Minoton, living statues, dragons, and skeletons.

That's a message I hope Joel has intuited and internalized during the course of our Harryhausen film odyssey.

Movie Trailer: Jason and the Argonauts (1963)

Friday, January 27, 2012

The Films of 1982: Class of 1984

Some movies appeal to the intellect and others go for the heart. 

Or, in the case of Class of 1984, right for the jugular. 

This visceral 1982 exploitation film lives up to its sub-genre in spades.  Mark Lester's Class of 1984 gamely exploits widely-held "generation gap"-styled  fears, happily stokes extreme paranoia and anger towards failed American institutions (such as the police and public school sysstems) and finally descends into bloody violence the likes of which one usually expects to see only in a rape-and-revenge film

If dissected, coldly, rationally and intellectually in the cold light of day, Class of 1984 hardly holds together as a film at all.  It doesn't make sense even on a basic narrative level.  But in the darkness of a movie auditorium -- or your living room -- the film veritably pulsates with wild, anarchic energy.  It "feels" dangerous to watch, and puts you on edge from the very first frame.  Class of 1984 emerges from an era when exploitation films like this were made not merely with commendable gusto, but absolute fearlessness, plus a strong grounding in film style.

Given the film's emotional approach to its subject matter, it's an authentic surprise that Class of 1984's most valuable player is not a bomb thrower (like Van Patten's effectively dramatized gang leader, Stegman), but a perfect gentleman.  The late Roddy McDowall here plays a put-upon biology teacher, Terry Corrigan, just about at the end of his rope.  McDowall crafts his character with the sensitivity and intelligence one expects from this great actor. In fact, his performance grounds Class of 1984 in understandable, relatable humanity, when only blood and guts appeared to be on the syllabus. 

And yet even McDowall's appeal is an emotional, not intellectual one.  We feel the guy's pain almost as our yet, yet still want to ask him logical questions like: how about looking for another job?  Or not attempting vehicular homicide...?

Breathing life into Class of 1984's rambunctious tale of students gone wild is an old, widespread, real-life fear, a generation gap if you will.  Basically, the adult generation demonizes and "fears" the up-and-coming generation as a wild, apocalyptic, uncontrollable one.  Since the 1950s, teenagers have been an easy scapegoat for society's problems in this regard.  You can find generation gap films in the fifties, sixties, seventies, eighties, and nineties without conducting a wide or deep search.

But in the late 1970s and early 1980s, it indeed looked like things were falling apart to some folk, and this element of American culture played into the fear about the future, and the future generation.  New York City became a hub for urban blight and ruin in efforts such as The Warriors (1979), Fort Apache: The Bronx (1981), Escape from New York (1981) and Wolfen (1981). 

In terms of teens, about a thousand murders a year were committed by them in 1982, and the trend grew worse until about 1994, when the trends sharply reversed.  But the early 1980s remains the age of an irrational fear of teenagers, some of whom were even termed "super predators" in the mainstream press.  Similarly, the media often recounted horrific tales of skyrocketing  drug abuse and prostitution among teens.  This Zeitgeist is perfectly captured by student thug Stegman's immortal line (put to music by Alice Cooper in Class of 1984):

"I am the future."

The narrative model for Class of 1984 appears to be director Richard Brooks' Blackboard Jungle (1955).  Often described as the very first "rock and roll" movie, Blackboard Jungle follows an English teacher, Rick Dadier (Glenn Ford) as he takes a new teaching job and runs afoul of violent juvenile delinquents including Miller (Sidney Poitier), Artie (Vic Morrow) and Stocker (Paul Mazursky). 

At home, Dadier's wife, Ann (Anne Francis) suffers from extreme anxiety over her husband's teaching assignment, and this anxiety could jeopardize her pregnancy.  During the course of the film, a gentle math teacher, played by Richard Kiley, sees his record album collection destroyed by the out-of-control students.  The film ends with Dadier earning the respect of his students after winning a knife-fight with Artie.

Blackboard Jungle opened with a passage that contextualized this strange tale of students gone crazy: "We in the United States are fortunate to have a school system that is a tribute to our communities and to our faith in American youth.  Today, we are concerned with juvenile delinquency -- its causes and its effects. We are especially concerned when the delinquency boils over into our schools.  The scenes and incidences depicted here are fictional."

Class of 1984 apes Blackboard Jungle significantly.  Here, there's another new teacher as protagonist, his pregnant wife, several out-of-control teenagers, and a teacher friend who undergoes a terrible loss, in this case the murder of his school room rabbits.  Even the didactic Blackboard Jungle prologue has a corollary in Class of 1984.

Specifically, a title card informs audiences that "last year" (presumably 1981...), there were "280,000 incidents of violence by students against their teachers and classmates."  The card concludes with an ominous note; that the "following film is based partially on a true event."  And yes, the word "partial" certainly leaves the filmmakers quite a degree of wiggle room, and they exploit the loophole to its fullest.

In plot and thematic focus, Class of 1984 is much like Blackboard Jungle on speed.  The films are of different generations, and from different narrative and cinematic traditions, and yet they both reveal a disdain and fear of teenagers, the "next generation."  That's apparently a recurring value in American culture, but Class of 1984 is the more hardcore presentation.  This 1982 film descends into violence and death, rails against failed institutions (such as law enforcement) and resolves not in amity, but in bloody, mortal combat between the generations.  It's final title card, which I won't reveal here, is a testament to the film's cynicism, and yet, it's impossible to deny that the film's finale -- gory as it is -- satisfies the heart.

"Face the music, teacher, teacher..."

 Written by Tom Holland, Class of 1984 depicts the story of Mr. Andrew Norris (Perry King), a high school music teacher who has just transferred to the difficult Lincoln High...where students must go through metal detectors before entering the school house. 

Very quickly, Mr. Norris runs afoul of a violent gang, one led by the brilliant but psychotic Peter Stegman (Timothy Van Patten).  Stegman is not only a bully, but an entrepreneur of sorts, running drugs and a prostitution ring in school.   He is always protected by a gang of enforcers, including a grunting neo nazi, and a skinny heroin addict.

When a music student dies from a drug overdose-spawned accident, Norris vows to punish the "pusher," Stegman (Van Patten).  Although Norris's friend and fellow teacher, Terry Corrigan (Roddy McDowall) urges caution and restraint, Norris ignores his advice and spurs a a war between gang and teachers.  The warfare eventually takes Terry's life, and  causes another music student, Arthur (Michael J. Fox) severe injury.  On the night of a big school concert, Stegman and his goons break into Norris's house and gang rape his very pregnant wife, Diane (Merrie Lynn Ross). 

Realizing the impotent local police and school administration can't help him seek justice, Norris exacts bloody vengeance with fire, table saw (!), and automobile.

"What's the matter with you? What's the matter with me? What's the matter with matter?"

I wrote in my introduction that Class of 1984 doesn't really hold together on a logical or cerebral level.  In part, this is because the film really stacks the deck in Stegman's favor.  In doing so, it makes school bureaucrats and policemen look like ineffectual idiots. 

Al Waxman's detective, in particular, informs Norris that unless someone "sees" Stegman committing a crime, nothing can be done to stop him. 

This fact (ahem) is abundantly untrue in our legal system, and has never been true in our legal system, as I hope discerning viewers would realize.  Eyewitness accounts, forensic science (finger prints!) and even confessions are also helpful when putting away bad elements.  Much of Class of 1984's emotional argument about bad kids stems from this fully-expressed idea of helplessness; this idea that even the law itself is powerless to stop teenage super predators on the rampage.  It's the same irrational thought that underlines much of the cinema of Charles Bronson, and appeals mainly to paranoids.  Our laws just protect criminals!

In more specific terms, the film must jump through some wacky hoops to keep Stegman and his thugs out of jail.  Arthur -- the very young Michael J. Fox -- has witnessed a drug deal, but won't testify as to this fact, thus allowing Stegman to remain on the loose.  Norris spends much of the film trying to get Arthur to testify against Stegman, but he won't.  Then, Arthur is stabbed by one of Stegman's new lackeys, and finally, Arthur agrees to testify.  But here's the rub: he only apparently testifies against the lackey who stabbed him, not against Stegman, whom he witnessed selling drugs.  It makes no sense at all.  In for a penny, in for a pound, right Arthur?  Sensibly, there's no reason why the kid wouldn't tell the police everything he knows, at least to get Stegman off the street for the length of an investigation.

The worst aspect of the film, however, is that it lives up to the Principal's critique of his own school, that "the bad ones take so much of our attention." 

This idea is literalized when, during a brilliant concert performance of the 1812 Overture by the school band, Stegman's corpse -- hanged by a rope -- breaks through a stain glass window on the ceiling. 

In other words, the students who have done well and achieved a victory in the concert see their thunder utterly stolen by the bad kid...one more time.  But Class of 1984 doesn't recognize this.  It treats the finale as a triumph, a victory.  It is, I suppose, in the sense that Stegman dies and Norris and his wife survive.  But what about the kids who staked their futures on the concert?

A better ending, I submit, would have seen Norris dispatch the gang, and then return to conduct the orchestra triumphantly.  Instead, the movie just reinforces the idea that good kids get lost in the battle, and are treated with less importance than the bad ones.  Since the film makes you root and support the music students, the visual reiteration of the school principal's negative point is odd and counterproductive, to say the least.

And yet, of course, none of this matters a lick. 

Class of 1984 is an effective and brutal little film, one that activates the primitive impulses of your mind, and makes you absolutely long for vengeance.  This blood lust is achieved not just through violent acts, but through some pretty fine acting.  Once more, I must pinpoint Roddy McDowall's performance, which lifts the whole enterprise.  In particular, he has a scene in which he explains to King's newcomer, Norris, why he became a teacher in the first place.  It was to touch young lives in a meaningful way, to offer students a real connection to a world larger than their concerns.  But his hopes have been quashed and destroyed.  The students of Lincoln High want nothing from Corrigan. Nothing.  There's no fact, no theory, no idea, no message about life that he can impart to them, and so his life has become meaningless. 

Accordingly, Corrigan (McDowall) decides that the best way to teach these kids is not with a carrot, but with a stick. He holds his class at gunpoint and begins implementing a snap quiz about biology wherein the students better answer correctly.  Or else

In these two scenes, McDowall affords Class of 1984 its human heart.  I realize that movies such as this one don't get nominated for Academy Awards, but goddamn if McDowall didn't absolutely deserve one for his work here.  Sometimes the great work of an actor involves not taking high-falutin material and simply giving it just due, but working on a more problematic script, and elevating the whole affair.  As foolish, illogical and anger-baiting as the rest of Class of 1984 remains, McDowall represents a stark contrast.  Through Corrigan, we see the human toll on the teachers at Lincoln High, and this quality absolutely grounds the picture and makes it more than a simple reach for blood lust.

But you'll feel blood lust too. 

I think that's because, inherently, all human beings covet justice.  We want to see the good rewarded and the bad punished.  And yet our legal system doesn't universally reach a just conclusion.  So we get angry when we see bad people get away, and good people hurt.   We get angry when we see the law, and our schools, and policemen, fail in what we perceive as their duty.

On this front, Class of 1984 turns Stegman into an absolute monster, one who has escaped the law and operates with no fear of being caught.  By the end of the film -- after gang rape and other crimes -- you really do thirst for the deaths of the gang members.  The film obliges in a glorious, bloody denouement. 

You may regret your blood lust after the film ends, but during it, Class of 1984 brilliantly plucks all the right notes of indignation and outrage.  It certainly leaves you feeling...emotionally sated.

You may rightly ask yourself why you want to see a movie that doesn't make sense if you step back and examine it rationally.  Or one that provokes your most animal instincts and thirst for vengeance.  Or that simplifies a real, mult-ifaceted problem so much that it becomes the basic law of the jungle: kill or be killed. 

I don't believe I can satisfactorily answer those questions, except to suggest that all human beings possess a multitude of psychological shades.  As evolved and civilized as we might like to believe we are, there is still that part of our psyche that longs for the re-assertion of justice, even if it is bloody justice.  Bluntly described, Class of 1984 resonates with something powerful in the psyche.  The film is extremely effective in delivering what it sets out to give us, and the one-two assault of humanity (in McDowall's performance) and inhumanity (in Van Patten's) makes the bloody movie almost impossible to resist. 

Rationally, I can see how Class of 1984 panders to the worst in human nature.  Emotionally, I don't care that this is the case because the film does speak to some basic truth about our human need to see justice prevail.  I can't deny feeling a thrill when Roddy McDowall picks up a gun and begins to lecture his out-of-control class about biology.  It's not rational, but when I write here, I'm supposed to level with you, and express myself honestly.  For me, this movie worked.

In my book, irrationality aside, Class of 1984 gets a passing grade.  But Roddy is the one who did all the extra credit.

Next week: Poltergeist (1982)

Movie Trailer: Class of 1984 (1982)

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Sci-FI Wisdom of the Week

"Life is pain. Pain is everything."

- Class of 1984 (1982), to be reviewed here tomorrow.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Collectible Update: The secret origins of Freddy Krueger

Last Halloween, I blogged about the Matchbox Talking Freddy Krueger doll from the 1980s that was so scary it was removed from toy store shelves (for frightening children...).

Well, the Internet can be a most amazing place, and recently, I was contacted via e-mail about this great 1980s collectible by the toy's original sculptor, Rich Roland. 

Mr. Roland wrote me to provide some new background about the toy, including photographs of his Freddy sculpt.

He writes:

"I took a few photos for you to see the original size of Freddy's head, close up and un-painted."

"It's my artist's proof casting at full scale of the polished wax sculpt super-master I created, that eventually would be burnt out of the mold, lost wax method. This way they have bunches of seamless vinyls to use as masters and go into production. Castings shrink 3.5% each time, so by the time it gets to market it's 7% smaller than my original."
"At the risk of boring you any more with this techno talk, just imagine how washed out and small Talking Freddy doll was by the time it was bought out from Matchbox and sold at Spencer Gifts by a new manufacturer years after the toy was banned from the shelves because of the AFA and conservative mentalities you mentioned. Right on. It was a first! Ha. The news even made it to Entertainment Tonight. I have the event somewhere on VHS packed in the attic somewhere..."

Mr. Roland also passes along the news that his love of monsters runs in the family.  His daughter, Tina -- who at age 5 was terrified of the Freddy Doll in her living room -- has gone on to design several interesting characters and creatures of her own.  You can check out Tina Roland's web site, here.

I want to thank Mr. Roland for sharing with me and the readers some more history behind the creation of such a memorable 1980s collectible...

Collectible of the Week: Zeo Deluxe Pyramidas (Bandai; 1996)

"The new ZEO ZORDS: To help the ZEO RANGERS defend the world from the new menace of MACHINE QUEEN, ZORDON gives them the ZEO ZORDS - robotic battle machines. When more power is needed, the ZEO ZORDs morph together to form even stronger combinations. Will they be powerful enough to defeat MACHINE QUEEN?"

- The legend that appears on Pyramidas's toy box.

Power Rangers Zeo (1996) -- a sequel or continuation to Mighty Morphin Power Rangers -- brought new suits, new gadgets, new robots, and most importantly, new toys to the rapidly expanding Power Rangers (Super Sentai) universe.

Among the most unique -- and most awe-inspiring due to its scale -- was Pyramidas, a crucial element of the new "Zeo Zord System." 

Specifically, Deluxe Pyramidis, the "carrier Zord," could combine with the Deluxe Red Battlezord and the Deluxe Zeo Megazord to form the devastating Zeo Ultrazord.

Got that?

The colossal Pyramidas, who is well over a foot tall, could even transform into four modes on his own:

Pyramid mode, carrier mode, attack mode (as a robot) and "open mode" where he could hold all the Zeo Zords inside three separate and distinct interior chambers.

My five year old son and I both enjoy not just giant combining robots, but play sets, and Pyramadis is, effectively, both. 

The only problem is that Pyramidas is so large, Joel has some trouble manipulating him.  I can't stress it enough...this thing is huge.  He's a goliath in our living room (much to my wife's chagrin).

Although I'm not a huge fan of the Power Ranger TV series -- I simply haven't watched enough of them to really get into that universe -- I'm an absolute sucker for the franchie toys, and the Zeo Zords seem like some of the best in terms of design.  Joel seems to agree.  He already has the Deluxe Zeo Megazord, Pyramidis, the Super Zeo Megazord and Warrior Wheel.  On the look-out for Auric...

Interestingly, Joel also boasts no interest in the actual Rangers or the "evil space aliens" they fight. 

Nope.  This is all about the toys, and Pyramidas (as I hope the photos reveal) is a pretty darn amazing one.

Cloned from a Mutual Zygote # 4: Dragos and Lord Dredd

(First suggested by Dr. Howard Margolin, host of Destinies: The Voice of Science Fiction)

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: Apollo 18 (2011)

"Fate has ordained that the men who went to the Moon to explore in peace will stay on the Moon to rest in peace..."

- Apollo 18 (2011)

Nearly every movie critic in the world apparently hated Apollo 18 (2011), a found-footage horror movie about a doomed, 1974 NASA mission to the moon. 

The film's narrative involves two American astronauts, Anderson (Warren Christie) and Walker (Lloyd Owen), who -- over a span of days on a secret, D.O.D. supervised moon mission, -- come to grapple with malevolent alien critters on the lunar surface. 

As the situation grows more desperate, the alarmed duo seeks to rendezvous with their orbiting capsule, unaware that a larger conspiracy hangs over the mission...

The Boston Globe called Apollo 18 a "snooze," The Orlando Sentinel noted it "flat out does not work," New York Magazine called it "80 minutes of dead air," Variety said it was a "stunt," Village Voice used the film to suggest the subgenre of found footage horrors "should remain lost," and Entertainment Weekly opined that Apollo 18 had "no atmosphere." 

On and on, down the line, Apollo 18 has been totally reviled. 

Which means, to me anyway, it must be worthy of closer inspection...

Actually, I read a great many reviews of the film before I saw Apollo 18 and tallied some of the criticism ahead of time.  For instance, one critic argued that the astronauts featured in the film don't appear to bounce around the moon, but walk normally, as they would on Earth. In our gravity. 

Patently not true. 

You can clearly see the astronauts bouncing right along there on the lunar surface, as if out of an episode of Space: 1999 (1975 - 1977). 

Another critic diminished the film on the basis that the surviving crew members attempt to mate a Russian lunar lander and American space capsule in space, when "everybody knows" (!) their systems wouldn't be compatible for such a rendezvous. 

Again, this description is patently untrue in terms of the specifics the movie actually establishes.  In the film, the astronauts -- attempting to meet up -- plan to get close enough in space so that the astronaut in the CCCP lander can "space walk" to the American capsule from the Russian lander.  A ship-to-ship link-up is explicitly dismissed on-screen as impossible.

Another outraged apparent science "expert" argued that the film doesn't feature a time-lapse between the men on the moon and mission control on Earth during radio transmissions. 

I'm certain this so-called science expert also complained in Star Wars when there were sounds and explosions reverberating in space, right? 

And besides, this argument doesn't bear much scrutiny given the details of how Apollo 18 is intentionally presented.  The film we are witnessing here consists of "uploaded" footage from a truth-seeking group called "lunar truth."  Said footage (hours of it; days of it...) has been heavily edited by this group (hence the film's many jump cuts), and some compositions even showcase white spotlights or irises around background alien movement; revealing how the footage has been augmented by editors to make certain some visual aspects are "easier" to parse. 

In other words, the footage we are seeing (as the film) has been intentionally organized and assembled, and we are seeing that assembly.  Thus, a time-lapse could have been edited out for viewing ease.

Given this fact, and the exigencies of dramatic license in movie-making, is it really such a stretch to accept an abbreviation of the Earth/moon time lapse in terms of radio?  Or is this "mistake," as the critic states, a disqualifying factor in terms of overall quality?

One after the other, an attentive viewer can absolutely demolish a great many of the absurd complaints hurled at Apollo 18, if he or she just actually, you know, watches and listens to what happens on screen. 

Now, I'm not declaring this movie is an unheralded masterpiece.  Rather, I merely assert that this film is in no way, shape, or form the dreadful enterprise so many reviewers enthusiastically described.  And, it's certainly an intriguing twist on the now-popular found-footage formula; one much more original, interesting, and intelligent, for instance, than the umpteen Paranormal Activity movies. 

In fact, Apollo 18 is a moderately effective, eminently respectable horror film and certainly worthy of your time, if only for one viewing.  You may leave a screening feeling it doesn't quite come off, but you may also be pleased that you've witnessed, essentially, an ambitious failure.

And indeed, Apollo 18 is a remarkably ambitious effort in terms of the burgeoning found footage genre.  Consider that the found footage-type film (Blair Witch Project, [REC], The Last Exorcism] is frequently a low-budget exercise primarily about transforming weaknesses (such as lack of budget and no big name actors) into a kind of expressionistic, experiential strength.  Cloverfield (2008) stands as a notable exception to this trend in terms of scope and budget. 

Now, I don't know the budget for Apollo 18, but I can readily assert, after watching it, that tremendous attention has been paid to making certain that the film's sets and wardrobes are appropriate and correct to the 1970s time period.   The film grain is right too.  The movie looks like an actual vintage space program mission.  So if you enjoy that era of the American space program, you'll likely find plenty of retro (low) tech wonders to enjoy here, from the Lunar Lander interior to the Rover mock-up.  The Russian LK capsule also really looks like it could have been a product of that era.

Even more dramatically, the creation of the moon's environment is visually stunning.  I can't begin to imagine how this vast, desolate landscape was recreated so ably, so authentically on a low budget, but the makers of Apollo 18 didn't just easily pinch something off here (as is the case with some found footage films).  Instead writer Brian Miller and director Gonzalo Lopez-Gallego  made a serious period-piece...on another fucking planet (or rather, natural satellite, I guess).  How many other found-footage films go so far to build a complete context and world around their horror milieu? 

Not many.

In terms of the found footage approach, Apollo 18 by-and-large sticks to the rules it sets up.  There's one scene wherein an exterior camera runs out of film during the middle of a scene, and suddenly we're in another scene all-together, in an entirely different conversation.   No explanations, no exposition.  It's a good touch that feels realistic.

Many moments in the film are also distorted by static and other picture disruptions.  In fact, some of the visual disturbances take away from the viewer's ability to follow the narrative and identify fully with the characters.   There's indeed something a little distancing here.  But again, that's the price for a found-footage film in these circumstances.  Apollo 18 must seem like a real moon mission, and truthfully, it accomplishes that feat.

I suppose the most legitimate question about the film is: how did this footage get back to Earth?  The only reasonable answer comes in the form of paranoia and conspiracy.  On several occasions, Mission Control on Earth claims it knows exactly what's happening on the moon; meaning that Earth is somehow (mysteriously) receiving visual transmissions from the astronauts.   Again, I don't necessarily see this omission as something that destroys the entire film, but rather a mystery.

Look, I can complain about the dopey, out-of-proportion critical response to this movie till the cows come home, but in the final analysis, the film must stand on its own as a work of art.  And on its own terms, I would argue Apollo 18 is at least moderately interesting in terms of narrative, highly dynamic in terms of visuals, and indeed quite suspenseful.  The film works hard at a slow, steady-build towards terror, and features two absolutely nerve-jangling jump scares.  I'm an old-hand at anticipating this kind of thing, and yet I popped up from my seat at two separate instances. 

The "dead air" that so many critics complained of -- the authentic, work-a-day approach to the space program -- is actually the very thing that makes these jump scares so blazingly effective.  The jolts arrive in contrast to the almost boring minute-to-minute operation of the space capsule.  We're not expecting such moments, and so when they arrive...we're walloped.  Again, I feel this approach is, at minimum, respectable.  The film attempts to ape the work-a-day feel of the real Apollo missions, and then uses that grounding in a reality we all recognize to leap off into breathtaking, heart-pounding horror.

The story details of Apollo 18 certainly owe something to an old Outer Limits episode, "The Invisible Enemy," about another space mission that unexpectedly finds hostile alien life on a seemingly deserted world.  In both cases, the monsters actually hide in plain sight, and boast a kind of sinister brand of intelligence.  What differentiates Apollo 18, again, is the visually-dynamic presentation of the setting, the horrifying nature of the alien threat, and the astronaut's bewildered response to it. 

But Apollo 18 thrives most powerfully on the fact that the two astronauts on the surface really have no options for long-term survival.  They are alone, outnumbered, abandoned, running low on air, and increasingly desperate.  There's a moment inside a deep crater -- lit only by sporadically flashing lights -- that gets, most powerfully, at this atmosphere of total vulnerability. 

The found-footage genre reaches its apex of success, in my opinion, when it transports you so successfully into another life or world that you start to get a little panicky yourself.  Like you are actually there....and unsafe.   I felt that way in The Blair Witch Project (1999), as the kid filmmakers neared the weird, isolated house in the middle of the forest, and I felt it here too, when one astronaut was alone, trying to help his friend at the lip of a crater, and on the very cusp of being the last human being alive on the Moon...with no possibility of help or escape.  

Now, I don't know if the critics who hated this movie possess a deficit of imagination or I possess a surfeit of it, but I found this element of the film very effective; a brand of throat-tightening terror that is hard to shake off or invalidate.  Imagine being alone out there...separated from...everything.  In many ways, Apollo 18's central scenario is the ultimate horror crucible, the ultimate human nightmare.  The movie has a great high-concept, and a great, dynamic visualization of it.  In a few shots, we see Earth hanging in the black sky, thousands of miles away and tiny, and this composition is almost unimaginable in terms of the loneliness it projects.

Apollo 18 asks you to live, essentially, in an extended moment of fear and total isolation, and there's a touching moment during which one astronaut -- knowing he shall never see home again -- plays a tape recording of his wife and son over and over again; reaching out for something, anything human and comforting. Again, critics want to tell you the characters in the film are indistinguishible and you never care about them.  Watch and experience this scene of human longing and sepration and then see if you think that claim is entirely fair.

I should also add, perhaps that Apollo 18 exists within in the milieu of "conspiracy" films about the space program (think: Capricorn One [1978]).  Here, Watergate gets an explicit mention too.  We live in a similar age of suspicion today, obsessed on Trutherism, Birtherism and the like.  Today's widespread fear of big, out of control, arrogant government, is also reflected, to some extent in Apollo 18's depiction of patriotic Americans left callously to die on the moon.  Is this the best we can do for our national heroes?  For those who dare to expand the frontiers of human knowledge? Are we failing our best men and women?

So Apollo 18 speaks to the Zeitgeist of the day, is authentically scary at points, and is visually unlike any found-footage film ever made.  Those are the strengths it brings to the table.   The weaknesses, in my opinion, stem from the fact that you know too early where the film is headed (and how it will end), and that some moments of the deliberate space program "vibe" drag on too long (a claim which one might also legitimately make, by the way, of Kubrick's masterpiece, 2001: A Space Odyssey).

So, a good attempt that falls a little short, or a total, horrible flame out?  I'd vote for the former. In my opinion, it's too bad so many folks believe Apollo 18 should have been scrubbed before lift-off, when, in some respects, it clearly points out a new trajectory for found footage films; one that may help the subgenre expand and grow beyond the current reach and scope of so many...paranormal activities. 

Nighttime nurseries can only be explored so many times before ennui sets in, but the dimensions of space are, of course, limitless.

National Twilight Zone Day: "Come Wander with Me"

There are, perhaps, several episodes of Rod Serling's classic   The Twilight Zone  (1959-1964) more sharply-written, more morally-valuab...