Saturday, November 08, 2014

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: Korg 70,000 BC: "Trapped" (September 7, 1974)

“Neanderthal Man left no written records of his history, just some bones, tools and burial mounds. This story is based upon assumptions and theories drawn from those artifacts. It might have happened in 70,000 B.C… ”

-Burgess Meredith’s weekly closing narration, on Korg 70,000 BC.

Korg 70,000 BC (1974), is a Saturday morning live-action adventure/fantasy series from Hanna-Barbera.

The program was created by the late Fred Freiberger (1915 – 2003), a controversial producer who toiled on such TV series as Star Trek (1966 – 1969), Space: 1999 (1975 – 1977), The Six Million Dollar Man (1974 – 1978), and The Wild, Wild West (1966).

Korg 70,000 BC ran for just one season on ABC forty years ago. The series follows the adventures of a Neanderthal family headed by the “great hunter” Korg (Jim Malinda). The others in his tribe included his wife, Mara (Naomi Pollack), the hunter Bok, who is also Korg’s brother (Bill Ewing), daughter Ree (Janelle Pransky) and sons Tane (Christopher Man) and Tor (Charles Morteo). 

Korg ran from September 7, 1974 to late August 1975 and each episode of this half-hour series usually features a relatively simple story, and one that concerns family values. Specifically, the stories are about people helping each other in a dangerous, sometimes incomprehensible world.

In terms of the series primary characters, we understand today that Neanderthals are a subspecies of homo sapiens who died out roughly 40,000 years ago. There seem to be two competing schools of thought about their extinction. Either the Neanderthal died because of climate change -- a cold snap in ancient Europe that they couldn’t survive -- or they inter-married with humans and were absorbed into the populace.

Today we also know that the pop culture image of Neanderthals as knuckle-dragging, hairy brutes is most likely inaccurate.

Neanderthals actually possessed a large cranial capacity (their brains were bigger than ours are…) and they were likely no more hairy than human beings. Neanderthals may have also possessed better eyesight and a more robust physical build than early humans did.  Certainly, we know they built advanced tools (including boats), and weren’t strictly carnivorous, as originally believed.

On Korg, the Neanderthal family speaks perfect English, which is a little disconcerting at first, and though they have those stereotypical sloping foreheads, are nonetheless depicted as intelligent and caring, if not knowledgeable in a modern sense of that word. 

In the first episode of the series, “Trapped,” we meet the Korg family near its home cave, and our narrator Meredith describes the hunt for food as a “constant” in its life. 

Meanwhile, the Korg children play with a stick and discover the concept of the lever in short order. Almost immediately thereafter, an earthquake occurs, trapping the adults inside the cave with no escape route. 

Korg, Mara, Tane and Bok must contend with an unstable ledge in a rear chamber and a swarm of bats if they hope to survive, and the children attempt to use the newly-discovered lever to remove the fallen rocks from the cave’s opening…

Directed by Irving Moore, “Trapped” is a not-terribly scintillating introduction to the series.  Later episodes are better.  But much of the screen-time here involves Korg, Mara, Bok and Tane navigating an unstable ledge on the cave’s interior. Yet because of production limitations, the ledge doesn’t seem particularly dangerous.  Indeed, the group has to cross it a second time, and does so without incident (or even mention).

Also, the writing in “Trapped” smacks of contrivances. Ree and Tor discover how to use a lever (or see-saw) just minutes before that very tool will prove necessary to save their parents and sibling. Of course, this is how TV (and particularly kid’s TV of the 1970s…) works, but still, the writing here is predictable and feels “prehistoric” by today’s standards.  Later episodes, again, are more dynamic.

Although there are occasionally some nice shots of wildlife in the show, Korg 70,000 BC's biggest deficit is that it looks to be filmed in contemporary and familiar Southern California, not a dangerous prehistoric landscape.  Some episodes (such as “The Running Fight”) are filmed at Vasquez Rocks, which at least looks vaguely prehistoric, though it is all-too familiar these days.

One strength of Korg: the caveman make-up holds up very well (at least as well as Worf's make-up on TNG.). You don’t ever get the sense you are looking at make-up or prosthetics here, just at real characters.

As a kid I watched Korg religiously, though I was always disappointed that the cavemen didn't fight dinosaurs…which of course would be inaccurate.  Still, that’s probably why I liked Land of the Lost better, even if Korg 70,000 BC took pains to present its material as accurately as possible for kid's television and for the state of learning about Neanderthals in the 1970s.

Next week: “The Guide”

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: Bravestarr: "Thoren the Slave Master"

In “Thoren the Slave Master,” an alien arrives at New Texas, in search of slaves from the local population. The bandit Tex Hex obliges, plotting to capture Prairie People for Thoren, all in exchange for a missile weapon that could destroy Fort Kerium.

Soon, however, the tables are turned on Tex Hex. Thoren miniaturizes not only the Prairie People for easy transport back to his home planet, but Tex Hex as well. Then, so his prisoners can’t escape, Thoren holds the miniaturized captives in tiny cages.

BraveStarr attempts to rescue the Prairie People, but is captured and miniaturized himself.  Now he and Tex Hex must work together to stop Thoren’s scheme…

This episode of BraveStarr is an example of our old friend (and narrative trope): My Enemy, My ally. 

In stories of this nature, protagonists and antagonists must work together to conquer a common threat, putting all differences aside…at least for a while.  The same story was called “Survival” on Gerry Anderson’s UFO (1970), “The Trap” on Planet of the Apes (1974), and “The Enemy” on Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987 – 1994). 

Here, BraveStarr states the obvious conclusion – “We work together, or we don’t get out” -- and even Tex Hex can’t help but see the logic of his argument. 

The episode’s final message is one well in line with the My Enemy/My ally Trope: follow “The Golden Rule” and do unto others as you would have done to you.

Beyond this trope, “Thoren the Slave Master” treads into ethnic stereotypes with its depiction of the slave-driver.  Thoren is dressed exactly like an Arabian character from Aladdin, drawing a direct line from Arab culture to slavery. The series is essentially an Old West story set in space, so it might have been better to draw on the experience of Chinese immigrants working on the railroad in the American West, or something of that nature.

Another, final, observation: Thoren’s evil robots look to me like steroidal versions of Mystery Science Theater’s (1989 – 1999) Tom Servo, right down to the beak and the shape of the head...

Friday, November 07, 2014

The Girdler Guide: Day of the Animals (1977)

Our selection this week for The Girdler Guide is Day of the Animals (1977), a “revenge of nature”-styled horror film starring Christopher George, Leslie Nielsen, Michael Ansara, and Lynda Day George. The horror film opens with a title card that notes “fluorocarbon gases used in aerosol spray cans are seriously damaging the Earth’s protective ozone layer.”

The card continues, stating that “potentially dangerous amounts of ultra-violet rays are reaching the surface of our planet, adversely affecting all living things. This motion picture dramatizes what COULD happen in the near future if we continue to do nothing to stop the damage to nature’s protective shield for life on this planet.”

Although Day of the Animals, then, is clearly eco-conscious, critics at the time of its release nonetheless felt that its heart was actually in the exploitation business. Writing in The New York Times, Lawrence Van Gelder wrote that despite Day of the Animal’sputative concern for the environment, it is calculated more to incite terror than inspire restraint.”

Writing in The Horror Film Handbook (1982), however, horror scholar Alan Frank, at least, noted that the film is directed with “zest,” which may be one of the nice compliments Girdler, a regional filmmaker from Kentucky, ever received regarding his work.

Today, Day of the Animals is remembered for opening on the same day as a little film called Star Wars (1977), and thus -- not surprisingly -- it failed to repeat the same gonzo business as Girdler’s previous film, the blockbuster Jaws (1975) knock-off Grizzly (1976). 

Day of the Animals is also a lot less fun than that (not-very-good) horror film, and lacking in the pure, imaginative zaniness that would characterize Girdler’s next (and final) effort, The Manitou (1978).

Although Day of the Animals features some lovely visualizations -- particularly a motif tying the sun’s glare to the anti-social activities occurring below, in the mountains -- the film never quite gets over the inherent implausibility of its premise that animals are not only attacking human-kind, but working together across species-lines to do it.

“I feel like every animal out there is watching us.”

Steve Buckner (George), a dedicated trail-master, leads a survival hike up into the High Sierras. Among his wards are an irritating advertising man, Jensen (Nielsen), a high-school biology professor (Richard Jaeger), a reporter (Lynda Day George), an American Indian, Daniel Santee (Michael Ansara), and a bickering couple, the Youngs.

Unfortunately, the group is destined for terror because a hole in the ozone layer permits dangerous ultra-violet radiation into the atmosphere, causing animals on the mountain to coordinate attacks against human beings. A wolf attacks one camper by night. Bob-cats lurk in hiding, and dogs gather for a final assault.

Faced with such existential threats, Steve’s group splinters, and Jensen attempts to seize command…

“My God! They’re like an army!”

There’s a funny typo in my book, Horror Films of the 1970s (2002) that I would like to correct one day if given the chance to edit a second edition. In the Day of the Animals review on page 460, I apparently mis-typed “ultra-violet” rays at one juncture as “ultra-violent” rays.

And I wonder, honestly, if William Girdler and his team of filmmakers made this film, actually, about “ultra-violent” rays raining down on Earth, because, clearly, animals --and some humans too -- in the film begin to behave savagely, and physically-aggressive when impacted by the sun’s light.   

Of course, we know that UV rays don’t actually do this. Such exposure causes sun-burn, and degenerative changes in skin and blood cells, leading, in some circumstances to skin cancer or cataracts. But UV exposure doesn’t make people (or animals) act psycho.

I can accept the premise of sun-rays driving animals and people to irrational, ultra-violent behavior, but what is much more difficult to accept in the film is the idea that animals -- lions, and bobcats and bears --would all work together in coordinated fashion (and in close proximity) to take down human interlopers in the forest. 

It’s the same problem I had with the happy final shot of The Lost World: Jurassic Park 2 (1997), which saw dinosaurs of all types (carnivorous and vegetarian) trudging around the island together in peace, again in close proximity, without murdering one another. 

Here, there’s a well-staged, but ridiculous shot of different wild animals on a mountain together, stalking human prey.  It would have made much more sense, I believe, if the animals in the film were depicted as working not only against mankind, but against each other.  The hikers would, at that point, be in the middle of all-out war, but not a directed attack against humanity.

Because, really, what cosmic ray could turn animals aggressive, but aggressive only against people?  The premise would have more surface validity of the rays simply drove all animals berserk, causing wanton violence. 

Following this train of thought, one must wonder why -- when Leslie Nielsen’s character, Mr. Jensen, is impacted by the ozone rays -- he doesn’t begin acting to that same animal agenda?  Instead, he just goes off as some kind of Alpha Male Predator, and wrestles a bear…bare-chested.

The exact nature of the threat in Day of the Animals is never quite pinned down, either. Have the animals acquired some kind of “virus” as the dialogue at the end of the film suggests?

And that virus was caused by a hole in the ozone layer?  Huh?

The more it tries to explain itself, the less that Day of the Animals makes any kind of sense.

Still, the film boasts as some good qualities that deserve a mention. Girdler crafts a meaningful visual connection between the sun burning high in the sky and its impact on the denizens of Earth far below. Many frames in the film are dominated by compositions of radiant sunlight, or rings of sunlight beaming outward from the distant orb. Some shots are over-exposed and literally glowing so as to foster the notion of the sunlight (and the insidious ultra-violet light) suffusing absolutely every corner of creation.

Another scene, shows Girdler’s facility with orchestrating good shots. One character, Frank Young (John Cedar) takes his injured wife Mandy (Susan Backline) down the mountainside to get help…when they are set upon by buzzards. There’s a ridiculous rear-projection shot of Mandy falling onto the rocks at the climax of the scene, beset by the vultures, but also a terrific show of Frank, as he watches what’s happening. As he looks down, the camera -- positioned below and in front of him -- moves unexpectedly down the first few feet of the ravine, and it’s an inventive perspective which suggests, again, that Girdler’s facility with visuals was growing more accomplished with each film.

Day of the Animals may also be considered memorable for Leslie Nielsen’s chewing-the-scenery portrayal of Jensen.  The character is a two-dimensional asshole, but that doesn’t stop Nielsen from going for the gusto. For the first half of the film he’s a constant, nagging irritant who badly needs a punch in the mouth (which George’s character finally delivers) Then, in the second half of the film, Jensen goes off the rails, and becomes this kind of super macho survivalist nutcase. He attempts to rape a young woman because he sees it as the law of the jungle, and as his right. “You see what you want, you take it!” he exclaims, before telling his would-be victim “I own you.” 

Then, of course, Nielsen rips off his shirt and goes mano e mano with a grizzly bear. Nothing about the character or his transformation is subtle, but Nielsen certainly makes Jensen a character you love to hate.

Also, some of the film’s final scenes -- with Army soldiers in haz-mat suits patrolling a deserted town after the establishment of martial law -- carry a certain modern resonance. As is the case in the ever-popular zombie apocalypse, there is a feeling in Day of the Animals of the authorities dealing with an outbreak or event that they didn’t expect, and are unprepared to defeat.

Day of the Animals fits well into the “revenge of nature” sub-genre that was popular in the 1970s. From Frogs (1972) and Night of the Lepus (1972) to Empire of the Ants (1977) and Kingdom of the Spiders (1977), the horror films of this type and era were obsessed with the idea that Mother Nature would one day have enough of man’s polluting ways, and send the animal kingdom to punish him.  Day of the Animals is probably somewhere in the middle of the aforementioned pack in terms of its quality.  It’s not as looney-tunes as Lepus, but nor as genuinely terrifying as Kingdom. 

In terms of Girdler’s film canon, I’d place Day of the Animals somewhere in the middle of the pack too.  It isn’t as well-made as The Manitou, and it lacks the ingenuity of Asylum of Satan.  It is, however, much better than either Abby (1976) or Three on a Meathook (1976).

Next week, the Girdler Guide concludes with The Manitou.

Movie Trailer: Day of the Animals (1977)

Thursday, November 06, 2014

The Force Awakens

Everyone on the Internet has their own opinion, of course (and is writing about that opinion, to boot...), but the title for the next Star Wars installment has officially been announced: The Force Awakens (2015).

Here's my two-cents (*approximate value*): the title feels a little...soft. 

There is no "revenge," no "attack" and no "striking back" going on here. 

A key aspect of the Star Wars saga has always been the steadfast focus on intense, dynaic action (think the speeder chase in ROTJ or the AT-AT strike on Hoth in The Empire Strikes Back). 

The Force Awakens doesn't continue that action-driven title legacy.

There's also no indication of the franchise's pulp inspiration here. A lot of folks didn't like the title The Phantom Menace, but love it or hate it, that title sounded legitimately like a 1930s chapter-play, and just the kind of production George Lucas based Star Wars on to create his pastiche in the first place. It felt right, especially given the 1930s, Art Deco appearance of Coruscant and the Old Republic.

And as of yet, there's also no real artistic symmetry with The Force Awakens, either. By that I mean that the first trilogy ended in Return of the Jedi, and the prequel trilogy ended with Revenge of the Sith.  

There's a reflection, or balance there, for certain.  One side, light or dark, is making a triumphant move (either vengeance or restoration) in each final chapter.  

There is no symmetry here with The Phantom Menace, either.

A caveat: There *may* be some sense of symmetry with the title A New Hope, which could translate, I suppose, to Hope Awakens. But you have to really intellectualize The Force Awakens to come up with that connection. 

And besides, A New Hope was added as a sub-title well after a hard-action-sounding movie called Star Wars was a blockbuster success. It's a good thing too, because "A New Hope" isn't particularly exciting as a chapter header. 

What does The Force Awakens state as a title?
Alas, I suspect it is a coded message to old-school fans that the movie is pretty much going to be a rehash of the OT, based on J.J. Abrams' feelings of nostalgia and sentimentality for it. It's also a not exactly subtle swipe at the prequel trilogy. That feels a little craven, a little commercial, a little desperate to me.  Like those films or not, the prequels are part of the Star Wars experience at this point.

The new title sort of says, "The Force was sleeping but now...

....It's baaaaaaack!!!!"

Lastly, on a nuts-and-bolts level, The Force Awakens doesn't make a tremendous amount of sense. Is The Force a sentient thing that slumbers?  

If the title were The Dark Side Awakes, that might be different, and somewhat more specific. The Force Awakens is so generic (and again, soft...) as to mean nothing.

So I'm sure I'll love the movie. I'm a big defender -- no apologies, no back-tracks -- of Star Trek: Into Darkness (2013) and it had a lousy title.

But at this point, I feel the title of Episode VII is a bit vanilla.  

As always, I'm open to contrary arguments and opinions.

At Flashbak: We All Go a Little Mad Sometimes: The Five Most Blatant Knock-Offs of Psycho (1960)

Last week I had a great time revisiting the Psycho film franchise here on the blog, so my latest Flashbak list considers knock-offs of Hitchcock's classic.

"On release, Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) was not only a huge box office success and a magnet for controversy regarding its violence, the film also set the horror genre on a brand new trajectory. 

Suddenly, new horror movies found themselves slavishly aping the twists and turns of Psycho, which include “The Janet Leigh Trick” (killing off a major character early in the action), the red herring killer (whose surprise identity is revealed in the final act), and the “realistic” psychological reason of his or her dementia (a condition such as schizophrenia, for example).

Meanwhile, other Psycho knock-offs attempt to recast the twisted Bates family dynamic (and Oedipal Complex…) in a new fashion.

With those qualifications in mind, these are the five most blatant Psycho knock-offs:"

Cult-Movie Review: Space Station 76 (2014)

Just about my favorite period of science fiction film and television endured from 1968 (and 2001: A Space Odyssey) to 1976, the heyday of Space: 1999.

During this all-too-brief a span, writers, directors and production designers imagined mankind reaching out -- and sometimes faltering -- on his journey to the stars.

Sometimes man’s technology -- whether HAL the computer, or dangerous nuclear waste facilities located on the lunar surface -- vexed him. Yet despite such crises, mankind was on the very brink of some great awakening about himself, and about the nature not merely of the cosmos, but existence itself. 

This promising future, as presented in films like Moon Zero Two (1969), and Journey to the Far Side of the Sun (1969) and on television programming like UFO (1970) or Earth II (1972), had crisp, white, minimalist lines and bright lights. It featured talking computers, video-phones, and characters who faced the realm of outer space with a cool, even dispassionate temperament, at least at times.

The new film Space Station 76 (2014) from director Jake Plotnick imagines that this early-seventies vision of the future endured, and then actually came to pass. 

In other words, the seventies never ended.

Instead, we took these visions of the disco decade with us not just to the turn of the Millennium, but into the very “space age” future itself.

Accordingly, Space Station 76 features some intriguing anachronisms. In this future age, for example, gay men are still firmly in the closet. African-Americans don’t get assigned to the most “exclusive” space ships. Astronauts smoke cigarettes. Kids watch recorded entertainment on giant VCR recorders and VHS tapes.  And the latest fashion trends from Earth are displayed not on the Internet (which doesn’t exist…), but on imported-from-Earth GAF View-Master discs.

Yet despite an overt lack of the social and technological progress that we recognize and covet in 2014, men and women in this “future” live on space stations, see robot therapists, and travel the stars together.

So the future is fantastic and…retro.

Space Station 76’s premise is abundantly tricky and fun, and the film’s knowledgeable visuals make it an absolute must-see for fans of 1970s science fiction.  Several sets and ship designs will, certainly, ring a bell for genre fans.

The film also deals powerfully, at times, with its central metaphor that people are like asteroids. They fly together “in space” in close proximity but never touch, and never actually connect on a meaningful level. 

Instead, sometimes they merely collide, smashing into one another with catastrophic force.

Perhaps not surprisingly, there’s a feeling of widespread malaise among the characters in Space Station ‘76 and a spiritual emptiness too. Not coincidentally, those things are part and parcel of the 1970s aesthetic as well.

Conspicuous consumption arose (as did President Carter’s “crisis of confidence”) in the seventies when many people began to fill the empty places inside with the pursuit of material things, including wealth.  This shift towards material avarice -- which came to symbolize America in Reagan’s Era -- is embodied in Space Station 76 through the overt failure of several adult relationships, and the burning desire of space station residents to move to Starship 8, a destination which features, among other things, a shopping mall.

Unfortunately, and despite all its intelligence and promise, Space Station 76 struggles mightily to find a consistent tone. The film vacillates between grim, The Ice Storm (1997)-like revelations about human relationships and overt physical comedy, But it never finds the right mode for coherently blending the two. Some of the characters, including the vixen Misty, come off as barely-two dimensional cartoons, whereas others, like Liv Tyler’s Marlowe, seem more realistic.

This inconsistent approach to the material and characters means that those seeking a laugh-out loud comedy will be disappointed by the general seriousness of the enterprise, and those seeking a consistent, dedicated story about life in this “retro universe” will find the bows to conventional, crowd-pleasing humor distracting.

Space Station 76 is smart and knowledgeable in its discussion of the 1970s, science fiction visions of that time period, and human nature, so it’s a shame that, in the final analysis, the film doesn’t come together quite as well as it should have.

“Just relax and let the drugs work.”

A new warrant officer, Lt. Cmdr Jessica Marlowe (Liv Tyler), boards Space Station 76 following the departure of the well-liked Daniel, who left because of some secret scandal.

Captain Glenn (Patrick Wilson) has told various crew members different stories about Daniel’s absence, including the lies that he was promoted, and that he suffered a family crisis. The truth is that Glenn and Daniel were lovers, but that Glenn has not yet accepted his homosexuality, even as he finds himself longing for Daniel’s companionship.

Meanwhile, the ship’s technician, Ted (Matt Bomer) is trapped in an unhappy marriage with Misty (Marisa Coughlan), who is having an affair with another crewman, Steve (Jerry O’Donnell). 

Medicated by the station’s therapist, a robot called Dr. Bot, Misty is also the insecure mother of a young child: Sunshine (Kylie Rogers).

As Marlowe settles in, she and Ted start growing attracted to one another, and Marlow befriends Sunshine, to Misty’s chagrin.

Meanwhile, Captain Glenn is unhappy working with Marlowe because of his feelings about Daniel, and Steve’s wife, Donna (Kali Rocha) is looking to move to luxurious and exclusive Starship 8.

As the holiday season nears, interpersonal stresses on Space Station 76 increase, and a deadly asteroid approaches on a collision course…

“Your whole vibe is stressing me.”

In terms of its visuals, Space Station 76 takes knowing and loving inspiration from the science fiction cinema and television programming of the 1970s. 

The shuttle pod which first carries Marlowe to the station, for instance, looks very much like the Seeker from the Filmation live-action Saturday morning series Space Academy (1977).

Additionally, Marlowe spends much time in the film inside a hydroponics dome, the interior and exterior of which both resemble a similar garden dome on the Valley Forge, from Douglas Trumball’s Silent Running (1972). Domes of this very design later appeared on other productions of the 1970s including Battlestar Galactica (1978) and The Starlost (1973).

Space Station 76 also uses a device similar to an actual 1976 film in one scene. Captain Glenn talks to Daniel on a multi-colored hologram communicator, one that reflects the imagery of Logan's Run (1976) and its hologram.

More intriguingly, perhaps, the interiors for Space Station 76 -- with their white lights and white walls – closely resemble the corridors of Moonbase Alpha in Space: 1999.  

One panel seen in the film -- of three horizontal lighting ellipses -- actually looks like it was transplanted directly from that Anderson-ian facility.

Impressively, Space Station 76’s thematic approach is in fact visualized through this Moonbase Alpha corridor style. Early in the film, we see young Sunshine, replete with a purple crayon, coloring on the immaculate white walls. She scrawls the word “home” on the ivory panels as well.

The moment is not merely a call-back to Harold and the Purple Crayon (1955), but a visual representation of the film’s leitmotif. The purple scribbling on the white wall represents the idea of messy humanity imposing his chaotic nature on an artificial world of immaculate perfection and balance. The characters in Space Station 76 are deeply flawed, even tragic in nature, and they are out of place, and out-of-balance, with their perfectly calibrated environs.

Space Station 76’s robot therapist, Dr. Bot, is also a product of nostalgia for an earlier age of “futurist” imaginings. The robot shrink is actually Tomy’s Verbot, a toy from the early 1980s. The toy was advertised as being a real robot with “a dazzling personality” who would “blink and smile at your request.”

Dr. Bot in the film is not much more advanced than this description suggests, and he offers only off-the-shelf wisdom and platitudes.  In a way, the robot psychologist’s nature as a proverb-quoting automaton may be an oblique reference to the robots in Disney’s The Black Hole (1979), who quoted Cicero and other philosophers. So again, a call back to the disco decade’s space operas.

All these visual touches make one aware that Space Station 76 has been created with a humorous eye towards our historic (and therefore deeply flawed…) visions of the future. When the film adheres to this concept, and crafts jokes based on the fallacies of those historic visions, it is indeed rather funny.  

There’s a scene here in which Keir Dullea from 2001: A Space Odyssey video-phones Marlowe, his daughter, and they share a conversation.  But all the emotional heart of the moment is sacrificed -- thus reinforcing the theme that people talk, but don’t connect -- because Dullea’s character can’t find the right place to sit on camera for the video phone to operate correctly. He ends up half off-screen, a funny moment which makes one grasp, instantly, the impracticality of such a device.

Other moments, such as Glenn’s periodic suicide attempts -- which are prevented by the station’s computer -- don’t work very well at all, and seem downright cartoony compared to the film’s relatively straight-faced exploration of relationship woes. I get the idea, of course.  The late 1960s and early 1970s gave us talking computers that controlled space flight, telemetry, life-support and so forth.  Think about HAL in 2001 or Alpha’s Main Computer on 1999 noting, in a moment of catastrophe that “Human Decision” is “Required.” 

Here, Glenn makes the choice to kill himself, but computer protocols keep overriding his very human decision.

In terms of its overall story, Space Station 76’s inspiration seems to be The Ice Storm (1997), a film based on the 1994 book by Rick Moody.

The novel and the film both concerned an American middle-class family in the 1970s, post-Watergate, and during a time of sexual experimentation. Everything was being questioned in that span, from marriage, to patriotism (because of Vietnam), to the competence of the U.S. Government.  Even marriage -- or perhaps, more accurately -- monogamy, was on the table.  

Space Station 76 deals with similar concerns.  Here families are coming apart at the seams, and there is one galvanizing outside event that serves as a manifestation of their disquiet, not a winter ice storm, but an approaching asteroid on collision course.

Although slapstick humor is always fun, Space Station 76 would have been a stronger film, perhaps had it not strayed so far from the tone of The Ice Storm, which is more cynical and darkly caustic than outright silly. The sillier moments in this retro space film seem out of left field, while the more serious ones, for the most part, are genuinely affecting. Played straight (at least on the surface), the film would have felt more powerful, and less scatter-shot.

There’s so much going on in Space Station 76, and I don’t mean to give the impression that the film is a failure.  I admire it quite a bit both for its canny knowledge of the films and TV shows I love, and for the manner in which its visual form -- asteroids and malfunctioning video chats -- represent interpersonal alienation. 

But the over-the-top jokes tend pull the whole affair back down to Earth.

Movie Trailer: Space Station 76 (2014)

Wednesday, November 05, 2014

At Flashbak: The Five Best Resident Alien Characters of 1970s Cult Television

My new list at Flashbak remembers the coolest and best "resident alien" characters of 1970s sci-fi TV.

"A “resident” alien is a being who, despite his or her nature as an “other” is actually a good guy, or at least an ally of the story’s protagonists. 

The 1960s gave the world the ultimate cult-TV resident aliens: the half-Vulcan, half-human Mr. Spock (Leonard Nimoy) on Star Trek. (1966 – 1969) and the Time Lord Doctor in Doctor Who (1963 – 1989). 

Both figures were of tremendous popularity and continued to be seen on sci-fi TV in the following decade on Star Trek: The Animated Series (1973) and Doctor Who, respectively, the latter of which survived until almost the 1990s.

Remembering the 1970s, however, there are several memorable “resident” aliens created during that decade too.

Below are my choices for the best, or most memorable of such characters..."

The Black Hole “Assortment of Fun” (Western Publishing Company, Inc; 1979)

The year 1979 was one of my favorites in childhood, no doubt because it saw the release of Star Trek: The Motion Picture, Buck Rogers in the 25th Century, Alien, Moonraker, and last but not least, Disney’s The Black Hole.  I collected toys, magazines, model-kits, comic-books, novelizations and more from each of those productions.

But as a fourth grader, I really, really loved The Black Hole.  

This boxed set from Western Publishing Company, Inc., includes many activity books and paper toys based on the film including a “Little Golden Book,” “A Golden Poster Storybook,” A Golden Book of Things to Do,” “A Press-Out Book,” “A Coloring  Book,” “Crayons” and “2 Robot Puppets.” 

The two robot puppets, as you might surmise, are V.I.N.Cent and Maximillian  And the press-out book allows the intrepid kid to build paper versions of the Cygnus and the Palomino.

The back of the box describes the set as “an astronomical assortment of fun that’s out of this world,” and to a ten-year old kid, that’s precisely what it was.  

I remember that my (now-deceased) grandfather bought me this box set at a five-and-dime at the Jersey shore in the summer of 1980, and that during the whole week at the beach, I wanted to stay inside the rental and play with the Black Hole ships and robots.  My parents had to force me to actually go to the ocean.

I know…I’m a geek.  But one of my favorite parts of this toy is a paper backdrop of the Cygnus bridge, and small cut-outs of all the major characters, from Captain Holland and to Commander Reinhardt.

To this day, I remember that beach trip because of this very toy set, my grandfather's gift, and the time I spent imagining further adventures and sequels to The Black Hole.

Lunchbox of the Week: The Black Hole (Aladdin; 1979)

The Black Hole (1979) Colorforms Adventure Set