Saturday, January 31, 2015

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: Korg 70,000 B.C. "The Story of Lumi"

In “The Story of Lumi,” there has been no rain in Korg Valley for six weeks, and the available water supply is all used up.  It is a difficult, four day journey to the Big River for more water, and no guarantee that it has not dried up too.  Mara (Naomi Pollack) is worried about Korg’s journey.

As Korg (Jim Malinda) and his family ponder how to weather the water crisis, they encounter a girl named Lumi from another tribe.  She was separated from her family while they were out looking for water. 

Although water is in grievously short supply, Korg shares the family’s supply with Lumi, who is only a child.

Two hunters from Lumi’s tribe arrive at the cave to retrieve the girl, but steal all of Korg’s remaining water supply at the same time.  Lumi, now a friend, begs them not to, but they pay no heed.

When Lumi becomes trapped on a cliff-side however, Korg’s family helps the hunters rescue her, and makes an accommodation regarding the stolen water.

Another visitor joins the Korg family, and another crisis arises involving how to divvy up resources, in “The Story of Lumi.” 

So once more, Korg 70,000 B.C. goes over some familiar territory. Actually, this is the third episode in three weeks to recycle the same basic narrative: a visitor arrives, uses resources, causes a crisis, and leaves after an encounter with another tribe. This repetitive storytelling is disappointing and surprising, because earlier episodes were more diverse in storytelling.

Much of the story here takes place at Vasquez Rocks, especially in the final act, and the sequence with Korg building a make-shift ladder out of a tree in order to rescue Lumi still works nicely.

A couple weeks back I tagged “cooperation” as one of the key recurring themes of the series.  Here, Korg again shows his decency, and helps Lumi and her family, despite the fact that they have stolen from his family.  I don’t know how historically realistic this is, but it helps to remember the show was made for 70s audiences, even if it concerns Neanderthals in pre-history.  I can’t help but wonder if, really, Korg’s decency would have marked him as being weak, at least according to competitors for the same resources.

Next week: “Tor’s First Hunt.” 

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: Secrets of Isis: "Fool's Dare"

In “Fool’s Dare,” directed by Hollingsworth Morse, two of Cindy Lee’s friends dare her to enter a locked auto junk yard.  She accepts the dare, trespasses, and almost immediately runs afoul of a car theft ring.

Coincidentally, this ring of thieves has just stolen Mrs. Thomas’s car!

Before long, it’s Isis to the rescue...

The third episode of Filmation’s Secrets of Isis features a pre-Halloween (1978) guest appearance by the great Charles Cyphers. Cyphers played Haddonfield’s Sheriff Brackett, but he was on the opposite side of the law here, portraying a car thief. In fact, he plays the nastiest of the bunch.

In this episode, Isis deals with indignity of having her car stolen, which isn’t something that often happens to superheroes, but at least in this case it leads her to Cindy Lee’s rescue. The message of the episode is that kids shouldn’t feel pressured to do something (whether drugs, or entering a locked auto junkyard) and instead “listen to your own inner voice.”

The series is still adding some interesting powers for Isis at this relatively early juncture. Here, her head-piece glows and she can see through the eyes of her pet crow, Tut, who is a regular sidekick at this point.  Tut flies into the junkyard ahead of Isis, and gets the lay of the land.  But Tut is usually seen in the classroom.

Friday, January 30, 2015

Cult-Movie Review: Lucy (2014)

All life on Earth -- and throughout the universe itself -- is connected.

Human beings would see that fact, and live very differently if only they used their brains to a fuller extent. 

That’s the two-part message underlying director Luc Besson’s electric and imaginative Lucy (2014), an action-infused variation on Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968).

Much like that classic sci-fi film, Lucy features scenes set at the dawn of man (or dawn of woman, in this case…), and escorts viewers on a stunning third act “ultimate trip” that diagrams the next step of evolution.

Although some reviewers have complained that the Besson film relies on a discredited scientific theory -- the notation that humans utilize only a measly ten percent of their brain -- the concept, faulty or not, works efficiently and poetically in terms of the film’s artistry and message.

This cinematic short-hand about the human brain is the avenue by which Besson explores and charts the idea of our potential, and our too-frequent failure to manifest it. It’s the artist’s way of noting that we all possess the tools to be better, but have trouble accessing them.

If you look around the globe and see the strife and crises brewing in so many places, Besson’s message is one that gets to the very heart of human nature. Lucy powerfully implies that by merely being smarter, we can understand life and each other better. The key to self-knowledge (and true knowledge too) is not to be ignorant or closed off, but to open yourself up, to grow…to acknowledge the vastness of the scheme of things. It is the strong tree that bends, the brittle one that breaks.

To my delight, Besson is a highly visual film director, one universally aware of symbolism, and he relies strongly on the fundamentals of film grammar to forge his points about the nature of life. Therefore, Lucy’s visuals express its content beautifully.  Many images are not only stunning and memorable but resonate in a very specific way. They have been tailored, it appears, to remind viewers that even though we don’t see and think about our connections to our past, to other species on Earth, or to the stars, an invisible bond nonetheless connects us all.

It would be a drag -- and Lucy would be much less visceral too -- if Besson relied merely on words to craft a narrative exploring his central idea. Instead, the viewer experiences ninety minutes of blazing action, and climactic, even transcendent imagery that may make you appreciate both humanity’s smallness in the cosmic sea, and, paradoxically, its bigness too.

Scarlett Johannson, so unforgettable in Under the Skin (2014) proves a remarkable talent here as well. Her character, Lucy, is the key to the film’s success. She plays an “every woman” who one day opens her eyes from a waking-slumber to realize she exists in a much larger universe than she ever imagined. She is so busy being buffeted around from task to task that she can’t stop to really look at her life. The events of the film give her that opportunity.

Seen in light of these ideas -- of awakening, connection, and transcendence -- Lucy is hardly the dumb action movie some critics called it. Instead, it’s a colorful, dynamic, questioning work of art, and in my book we can never get enough films of such imagination and wonder.

“Ignorance brings chaos, not knowledge.”

A young American woman in Taiwan, Lucy (Johansson) gets tricked by a duplicitous boyfriend, Richard (Pilou Asbaek), into delivering a locked briefcase to a local gangster, Mr. Jang (Choi Min-Sik) at his hotel. 

After Richard is killed, Lucy is forced to open the mysterious case. Inside are several tubes of a synthetic drug called CPH4.

Lucy is ordered to become a drug mule for Jang, and to transport the drugs in her stomach to another city.  But after her delivery of the drugs, Lucy is held hostage and brutalized by thugs. After being kicked savagely in the gut, the CPH4 seeps into Lucy’s blood-stream, and she begins to undergo an amazing transformation.

Suddenly, Lucy’s brain begins to re-wire itself, making new connections and opening new doorways. 
Lucy contacts a renowned professor, Dr. Samuel Norman (Morgan Freeman) who has studied the potential of the human brain, and makes him aware of her  surprising evolution. She is now capable of telepathy, the mental control of radio waves, and other strange powers.  But, her new intelligence has also shown Lucy that her “life cycle” may not last more than 24 hours if she doesn’t acquire additional quantities of the drug.

Lucy goes in search of the other drug mules, while promising Dr. Norman that she won’t die without “passing” on the information she has learned, preferably in the form of a new supercomputer and its data drive. 

A French police officer, Del Rio (Amr Waked) helps Lucy in her quest.

As the twenty-four hours near an end, and Lucy uses 100% of her brain’s potential, she undertakes a mental trip to the dawn of time, and to the ends of the universe itself. But Mr. Jang also comes looking for the woman who stole his drugs…

“We humans are more concerned with having than being.”

Lucy’s character arc in Besson’s film is a good one. When first the audience meets Lucy, she informs her boyfriend, Richard, that she is, in essence, scattered, “concentrating on so many things.”

The routine and details of life are oppressing her in some way, so that she can’t be her best self…and she knows it. This is how daily life is for so many of us; so many competing calls for attention; so many things to do.

But before long, Lucy discovers the means by which to improve herself, and see life not as a series of insoluble challenges. Rather, she recognizes that the key to self-knowledge already exists within her.  

It comes not from owning things, but -- rather like the dolphin who can echo-locate by natural means (an example in the film…) -- by exploring the idea of being.

Some may suggest the presence of a strongly feminist message here, and that is appropriate. As the film starts, Lucy is buffeted by others, forced into action by both Richard and Mr. Jang. They assume control of her life and her actions, and Lucy finds herself in constant danger, and in pain under that stewardship.  When Lucy begins to transform, however, she takes control and ownership over her life, and her understanding of it.  No long is she so scattered that she can be blown like the wind from one horrible task to another.  Now it is she -- armed with knowledge and a sense of agency -- who will control her own path, and her own journey.

But outside of sex roles and politics, a part of understanding “being” is also the open acknowledgment that we are all connected in time and space.

To express the concept of connection, Besson relies heavily, at least at the beginning of the film, on the technique of cross-cutting

When Lucy is dragged into Richard’s mess, and she faces the possibility of being executed by thugs, Besson cuts to a big cat -- a cheetah -- on a Savannah, hunting a frightened but alerted gazelle. These images are connected in terms of metaphor, and the cross-cutting from one scene to the other makes the point.  The gazelle and Lucy share the same feelings of terror and the same instincts of fight or flight when faced with an existential threat: a dangerous predator.

It would not be necessary to include this symbolic metaphor if all Besson intended here was to showcase Lucy’s fear.  Instead, the cross-cutting makes it plain that Lucy and the gazelle are one in the same; life possessed of the same feelings and the same fears; dwelling in the same universe where mortality is feared, and death is something to be avoided at all costs, and desperately if necessary.

The visuals in this case, clue us into the fact that the film concerns connections not only across the human world, but across other species as well. 

In terms of humans, it’s impossible not to notice the eclectic, rainbow make-up of the film’s dramatis personae. Lucy is a Caucasian female. Professor Samuel Norman is an African-American male. Pierre Del Rio is a Parisian cop. Mr. Jang is a Korean mobster.  They all become connected -- from Taipei to Berlin to Paris -- in one story, all playing their “part,” as it were.  So again, even the casting denotes a form of the film’s message, that every person, no matter their origin or ethnicity, is connected. Lucy is truly a global, or intercultural effort.

The subtext of connection goes deeper. It comes to include time. Lucy travels back in time to prehistory during her “ultimate trip,” and connects with another Lucy, the hominin, or human ancestor, who walked upright on Earth over three million years ago. 

The modern, evolving Lucy (Johannson), herald of the future, touches the fingertips of the primitive Lucy, symbol of the past or beginning, and the entirety of human history is connected. 

The same image also recalls Michelangelo’s fresco, The Creation of Adam, in the Sistine Chapel.  There, God breathes life into Adam by touch, by outstretched digit.  Lucy’s variation on this idea also involves the touching of digits. The idea is that our past breathes life into the future, and maybe, perhaps, our future even breathes life into our past. Therefore, all time periods are connected, and that there is, actually, no real past or future, only the connection that stretches between all forms of life

Certainly, the film’s imagery after that touch, of Lucy witnessing the Big Bang, and even the pre-Big Bang (when coruscating, living matter seems to be squeezed into our universe through a black hole…), suggests the idea that space and time are one, and that we, are, literally, stardust, matter that was present when the universe began.

The film’s final reckoning, that Lucy outgrows the need to be tethered to a particular corporeal form, or a particular moment in history, supports this reading of the film.  “I am everywhere,” she reports, and by that, I also assume she means that she is every-when, capable of interfacing with every corner of creation in every epoch of time…simultaneously.

To evolve, at least in this particular cinematic world, is not to become the star child, but -- by reaching the limits of biology and physiological potential -- to conquer physical death; and even the need to be contained or housed in a body. If all life goes back to the Big Bang, and all life is connected, then death is not real, is it?

We never really die,” Lucy suggests.

Take away all the high-minded metaphysics and all the spectacular special effects, and Lucy’s message is really simple and straight-forward: We live in a world in which we narrow our gaze, because to comprehend the immensity of it all would be…well, scary.We’ve codified our existence to bring it down to human size, to make it comprehensible. We’ve created a scale so we can forget its unfathomable scale,” she declares.

Indeed. Some of us forget that our lives are finite because we focus on a litany of day-to-day responsibilities and occupations. We have tunnel vision. We create a human scale so we don’t see the unfathomable scale, or the things that scare us.

Lucy itself performs the opposite task. 

It presents as a dazzling, fast-moving action film, and then progressively expands itself to reckon with human nature, the nature of the cosmos, and, finally, transcendentalism. It ends with an acknowledgment that we are all connected, if only we seek those connections and don’t limit the scale of our lives.   Lucy, who was one of us, “concentrating on so many things,” has been freed to see the things that matter, on a universal scale. 

We were given the gift life, and Lucy tells us that her example tells us “what to do with it.”

I love and admire films that ask me to stretch my vision and see things in a new or fresh way. Lucy succeeds in that task, and with guns blazing to boot.

Movie Trailer: Lucy (2014)

Thursday, January 29, 2015

At Flashbak: They Stick Like Magic! A Gallery of Colorform Adventure Sets (1966 – 1980)

Now at Flashbak, a gallery of my Colorforms collection!

"Last week here on Flashbak, I remembered “Fotonovels” or “Photostories,” and tagged those publications as one way that kids of previous generations could remember the experience of their favorite movie or TV program in the pre-VCR age.

Today, I remember another popular item from the same time and having roughly the same purpose: the Colorform Adventure Set, or “Cartoon Kit” as it was sometimes known.  In broad terms, Colorforms sets consist of vinyl-sheet figures, ships, or objects, and a cardboard background upon which they can be set, and re-set.

Colorforms were first created in 1951, and in 1957 the company began to license popular entertainment characters such as Popeye for their sets.

In the year 2000, the Toy Industry of America named Colorforms one of the best toys of the 20th century, and in 2011, Time Magazine named them as one of the 100 best toys “ever.”

Colorforms often came with brochures or booklets demonstrating for kids “one of the many” scenes they could make with their new toy.  And parents were informed, likewise that “your child now joins millions of others in the same age group in a happy growing experience.”

For Colorforms, according the booklet, possess “rare educational value” helping your child with six important skills: “Finger dexterity,” “sense of spatial relationship,” “size matching,” “building ability,” “color sense” and “sense of neatness and order.”

When I grew up in the seventies, Colorforms proved a key and constant element of childhood, and today I want to feature pictures from my home collection, and some of my very favorite sets. 

Basically every sci-fi franchise you could think of in the 1970s and 1980s had Colorforms sets to accompany them, from Star Trek (1966 – 1969) and Battlestar Galactica (1978 – 1979) to Planet of the Apes (1968) and Gremlins (1984). I had as many as I could get my hands on, and I’ve managed to keep several sets across the decades.

Here are five examples of the Colorforms adventure sets, circa 1966 – 1980..."

Cult-TV Review: The Man in the High Castle (2015)

(Here there be spoilers...proceed at your own risk.)

The Man in the High Castle (2015) is a new and impressive pilot from X-Files writer Frank Spotnitz and director Ridley Scott. It is being featured as part of Amazon's second annual pilot season.

The filmmakers have worked with great skill and artistry to adapt the Hugo Award-winning 1962 novel by Philip K. Dick to a visual format. Dick’s story has been termed an “alternate history” science fiction story, meaning it ponders what might happen had history gone differently.  

In this case, the Axis Power won World War II, and have since carved up America. Imperial Japan now controls the West Coast, and Nazi Germany controls the East Coast, with a “neutral zone” in the mid-west separating fiefdoms.  

The series is set in 1962, some dozen or so years after the end of the war.

The Man in the High Castle pilot focuses primarily on two characters, one living in Japanese San Francisco, the other in Nazi-run New York, as they make separate, unplanned pilgrimages to Canon City, in the Neutral Zone. 

Making the journey from the west is Julianna Crain (Alexa Davalos).  

Making it from the east is Joe Blake (Luke Kleintank). 

Independently of each other as well, each character carries notable contraband: a film reel titled “The Grasshopper Lies Heavy,” which showcases documentary footage of the West -- FDR, and Winston Churchill -- winning World War II for the Allies.  

Since this did not happen, apparently, in Joe and Julianna’s particular reality, that means that the world -- reality itself -- is false in some way not yet understood.

The pilot episode commences in terrifying fashion, as images of American sovereignty and power are overcome by the relentless march of the Axis Powers.  

Scored to a morose, creepy version of “Edelweiss,” from The Sound of Music (1959), the introductory montage is unforgettable.  The funereal tone makes viewers aware that they have entered a world without freedom and liberty, where the face of Lady Liberty has fallen under a shroud of darkness. It’s an effective and ominous note to start out on, and the opening montage is quite powerful.

From there, the narrative moves crisply and cleanly o introduce this “brave new world” of the 1960s.  Rock Hudson and June Allyson are still making movies for Hollywood, but America is not the same country any more. 

Joe Blake seeks to join the Resistance movement in New York, while Julianna sees her sister Trudy gunned down in cold blood by the Japanese regime for her role in the resistance. Both characters take up the same odyssey from opposite sides of the country, and by pilot’s end, meet one another.  

And, of course, there’s a final twist that will leave you gasping.

The pilot also contends with the specter of a new Cold War. 

Hitler is aged and dying in this alternate reality, and his would-be successors (Goebbels, Himmler, and Rommel) are scrambling for power. This means trouble for Japan, because many in the Nazi hierarchy believe that the U.S. should not have been partitioned. Instead, it should have been taken for Germany. Accordingly, nuclear weapons stand ready to bomb the Japanese island as well as San Francisco.  It’s possible that the world will plunge into an all-out war…again. 

Some characters in the drama believe that they can use the I-Ching, an ancient divination text, to determine what shape the future will take.

In the original novel by Dick, The Grasshopper Lies Heavy was a book, not a film, but I liked this update and change because TV is a visual art-form, and the existence of a documentary film establishes better than words on a page would that the world featured in the series could be false, or perhaps, merely one world in a massive multi-verse. 

If a series should develop, the exact nature and origin of this book will no doubt be a major plot line.  How did get to this universe?  Is this universe real?  Is it a game?  A simulation?  A parallel reality? 

A clever and intelligent writer like Spotnitz can spin the narrative in any tricky direction, hinting at multiple possibilities, and keeping us on our toes for many seasons. Certainly, the pilot episode is well-crafted, particularly in its attention to small details.

For example, there’s one scene of utter horror that occurs while Joe is on the road. He stops his truck, and speaks to a police-man. 

Ash suddenly falls from the sky like snow. 

Joe is perplexed, and the policeman reports that a hospital is nearby. And Tuesday is the day of the week that said hospital burns cripples, the terminally ill, and other “drags on the state.” 

Blake is eating a sandwich when this revelation occurs. Watch him closely as he regards his meal. His unguarded response (or lack of one) is a clue about his character's nature. But this little throwaway moment captures the terror and inhumanity of the Axis Powers more powerfully than could a scene involving Nazi soldiers and large scale combat. We understand immediately how this America is different from ours.  

Here, death panels are really…and burning every Tuesday.

The Man in the High Castle introduces a number of good concepts that could well serve a long-term series, including the belief that “fate is fluid” and that “destiny is in the hands of man.”  It would be incredibly intriguing to see this idea play out, across a Japanese/Nazi Cold War, and across a dedicated resistance movement.  

Already, The Man in The High Castle is extraordinary, imaginative television, dominated by strong performances, crisp writing and surprisingly good production values. On that last front, there’s a shot of Nazi Time Square here that will make your jaw drop.  

Let's hope this one makes the cut.  I'm still in mourning over Amazon's treatment of The After. Let's hope it doesn't make the same mistake twice. The Man in the High Castle could very well be the Game of Thrones for the alternate reality sub-genre...if Amazon doesn't kill it in the cradle, that is.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Late Night Blogging: More Supermarionation Adverts

Coming Soon: The Fantastic Four (2015)

Fireball XL5 (1962 - 1963): "Flight to Danger"

In “Flight to Danger,” the second episode of Fireball XL5 (1962 – 1963), Astronaut 90 is working hard to get his “astronaut wings” so that he can become the best controller in World Space Patrol History.

Although nervous about his progress, Steve Zodiac shepherds Astronaut 90 through the training program.

First up: landing Fireball XL5 safely at Space City.  It’s not a pretty landing, but 90 succeeds in the mission and pilots the craft to safe touchdown.

Next, 90 must launch the XL-1 successfully in orbit to show he is capable of “directing space traffic” and again, he succeeds. 

However, the final stage of the astronaut training program involves the “psychological strain of being completely alone in space.”  To that end, 90 must fly a space capsule alone in space to demonstrate his “endurance” and “aptitude.”

Unfortunately, a freak malfunction causes 90’s atomic motor to become dislodged in flight, and the capsule is destroyed in a terrible explosion.

Zodiac, Venus and the Fireball XL5 crew go in search of 90 but find only debris.

But 90 survives, proving resourceful and earning those astronaut wings…

“Flight to Danger” is a solid, effectively-written and executed episode of Gerry Anderson’s Supermarionation series Fireball XL5. It is concerned primarily with character development, and one character’s progress through a training program.  

The character in training is Astronaut 90, and he is a young, insecure man that the audience (and Steve Zodiac) come to care for.  There’s no standard pulp stuff here about death rays or alien plots to invade Earth, only a narrative that reveals more about the world of Fireball XL5, particularly astronaut training.

The episode is strong in terms of how it treats other characters as well. Steve Zodiac shows confidence in Astronaut 90 and is a good mentor.  At one point, he even laments his presence in Space City Mission Control, noting that he’s “strictly an action guy,” not a push-button guy. 

Commander Zero also is handled well, coming off as a bit of an obsessive-compulsive who worries about every aspect of every mission. This is a good quality to have in a man in control of a vast space program, but his angst adds a sense of humanity to the character.

“Flight to Danger” also deals with real, nuts-and-bolts aspect of a space program, such as coping with feelings of isolation, loneliness and even claustrophobia in space.  This is one reason I have always enjoyed Anderson’s works.  Set in the near future, these productions typically remember that man is capable of great things, but also tethered to Earth (and his history) by his psychological foibles.  This is a contrast, somewhat, to the world envisioned by latter-day Star Trek, in comparison.

I also enjoyed a weird visual in this episode: sweating puppets! 

At a few junctures in “Flight to Danger,” we see that Zodiac and the others -- their nerves tingling -- are perspiring heavily. It’s a weird touch to see sweat glistening on wooden puppets, but another bow, in some weird way, to Gerry Anderson’s realistic approach to human crises.

Finally, this episode features Steve and Venus at her beach house enjoying a night “of musical relaxation.” 

I thought for certain that this was a metaphor for a more adult pastime, but sure enough the episode cuts to the Fireball crew enjoying music together in her house…

Fireball XL5 Jetmobile

Pop Art: Fireball XL5 (Little Golden Book Edition)

Fireball XL5 Space City Playset

Model Kit of the Week: Fireball XL5 (Kitmaster)

Lunchbox of the Week: Fireball XL5

Board Game of the Week: Fireball XL5 (Milton Bradley)

Theme Song of the Week: Fireball XL5 (1962)

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Lost in Space 50th Anniversary Blogging: "The Hungry Sea" (October 13, 1965)

In “The Hungry Sea,” Penny (Angela Cartwright) and Will (Bill Mumy) are rescued from the dead city tomb by the rest of the family and Don (Mark Goddard). They all flee from the city to the Jupiter 2, only to learn (from the Robot) of the planet’s irregular orbit.

If the Robinson family doesn’t seek warmer ground, it will all freeze to death -- even in the safety of the Jupiter 2 -- within an hour. 

As the temperature drops precipitously outside, the Robinsons and Major West board the chariot and head across a lake of ice, bound for warmer temperatures. A petulant Dr. Smith (Jonathan Harris) refuses to leave the Jupiter 2, however, and stays behind.

En route to warmer territory, the Robinsons are shocked to learn that the temperature is now rising again.  They can return home!

But to do so, they must survive a scorching sun, and a sea of ice now turned to churning, roiling water…

“The Hungry Sea” is another rip-roaring Lost in Space adventure episode that could be classified as a transplanted Western.  If you ignore the sci-fi bells-and-whistles, what you really have here is a story of pioneers attempting to survive in a new and dangerous land.

That land is dangerous, the weather is dangerous, and the people -- in such a crisis -- grow tense and irritable.  Through it all, however, the central unit of human civilization, the family, holds together and tries to find and acknowledge cause for hope.

I am not a religious persona at all, as most of you know, but I enjoyed the moment in “The Hungry Sea” wherein the Robinsons huddle together and pray, and read a verse from their Bible. They give thanks, according to their belief system, for their continued survival in the most difficult of circumstances. There’s just something humble and true about this moment.  No matter where man goes, or how far he travels, he will take his identity and world-view with him.  In a new land, anything from home -- family, Scripture, the basic necessities -- is something to grab onto, and to hold tight.

Here we see a lovely family -- like yours our mine -- on an alien world trying desperately to survive against impossible odds, and stopping to acknowledge forces in the universe larger than itself. 

Again, I’m an avowed (and happy) atheist, but this moment is beautifully presented, and suggests the universality of the human condition.

I especially enjoy “The Hungry Sea,” too because it is another chariot-centric episode.  Here, the Robinsons pile into their all-terrain vehicle, and it carries them across ice fields, and -- terrifyingly – a swirling, hungry sea. 

The special effects that depict both of these obstacles are well-vetted, and hold up nicely after fifty years.  As far as I’m concerned, Lost in Space is at its best not contending with so-called alien life-forms or invasions, but simply showcasing how difficult the pioneers have it in an environment very unlike Earth’s.  With a little ingenuity, the writers could have stuck to this template, and avoided a lot of the silliness that is to come.

There are only two things in “The Hungry Sea” that I found troublesome. 

First, Smith has only an hour to live before he freezes to death on the Jupiter 2.  Fortunately, the temperature rises, and he survives. 

But, we just saw in a recent episode that the suspended animation tubes/facilities on the craft still function.  Smith was imprisoned in one such tube – frozen – for a spell in a previous episode.  If he risks being frozen now, why not go into a tube and ride out the freezing temperatures in suspended animation?  In fact, the whole family could have stayed at the Jupiter 2 and used their respective tubes, though West and Smith would have been out of luck. 

But again, it’s an option that should have been weighed.  John and Maureen might have left their children in the suspended animation tubes, while they sought warmer land on such a treacherous journey.

Secondly, I am intrigued about how dangerous this planet is turning out to be.  I love the moment in the episode when the sun starts to scorch the Robinsons’ make-shift encampment, and the chariot gets too hot to touch. 

But, again, this is really is one hell of an irregular orbit.  Since the Robinsons are stuck on this world for a while, that means the wild extremes of weather should repeat, and repeat often.  But, at least so far as I know, they don’t.  The settles should be dealing with this cycle of extreme heat/cold more frequently, right?  And of course, if that is true, it would be hell on the crops.

“The Hungry Sea ends with a radar blip bearing down on the Jupiter 2, and that leads us to our next story: “Welcome Stranger.”

Cult-Movie Review: RoboCop 2 (1990)

Any viewing of RoboCop 2 (1990) in 2015 is bound to raise one significant question.  

Is this sequel a step further than the original 1987 science fiction film in terms of its embedded social critique, or, quite simply, is it a step too far?

That is the terrain of debate concerning the film and its legacy, and, I must confess, I have been on both sides of the issue over the years.

When I first screened this sequel in theaters when I was twenty or so, I felt that the filmmakers had gone too far with the overt physical violence and gore. The film unsettled and disturbed me, and in my callow youth, that meant I didn’t like it; that something felt wrong about the movie.

On recent re-watch, however, I feel quite the opposite: that RoboCop 2 has actually achieved the near-impossible.

It is a sequel that absolutely honors the anarchic spirit of the original Verhoeven film while delving meaningfully into both the main character’s (Murphy) psychology and the nature of his exaggeratedly pro-business world.

Scenes that once seemed alarmingly graphic and crafted with the intent only to debauch, now stand up as carefully-measured statements about the excesses of a world where money is everything, and decency is on steep decline.

In terms of fidelity to the original film, RoboCop 2 recreates, explicitly, the street crime/board room criminal dynamic and comparison we saw so carefully crafted in Verhoeven’s production. As you may recall, murderer Boddicker and VP Jones in the first film both quipped about “good business” being where you find it. 

This one line of dialogue explicitly connected street level criminals to the untouchable crooks inhabiting corporate offices. They were the same animal. They just wore different clothes, and drew their power from different sources.

RoboCop 2 has a line like that too. It is spoken by both Cain (Tom Noonan), an ambitious and wacko drug dealer, and The Old Man (Dan O’Herlihy), CEO of the incredibly powerful OCP.

That line? 

Made in America. We’re going to make that mean something again.”

Accordingly, RoboCop 2 keeps raising the bar in terms of its social commentary. It tackles the supposed crack epidemic of the late 1980s and early 1990s, and the rising tide of political correctness from the same era. And it ven makes a final, scorching commentary (and moral conclusion) about the direction of a world run for businessmen by businessmen.

In short, RoboCop 2 is a worthy sequel, and a valid, daring work of art...perhaps more so than most critics -- this one included -- have acknowledged.

“I am a machine, nothing more.”

In Old Detroit, the police are striking again for higher wages, and OCP (Omni Consumer Products) nears the launch of its gentrification project: Delta City.

While the scourge of a new narcotic called “nuke” decimates the poor of Detroit, OCP’s Old Man (O’Herlihy) plots to create a new and updated RoboCop model to patrol the streets, and clean them up. An ambitious executive, Dr. Juliette Faxx (Belinda Bauer) spearheads the search for a new candidate.

Murphy (Peter Weller), meanwhile, has been experiencing old memories of his human life. He has even gone to the home of his former wife and child, attempting to understand from them what he is. Naturally, they are upset to see him, and threaten to sue OCP. 

When confronted by his wife, finally, Murphy is forced (by OCP) to acknowledge that he “just a machine,” not a man. He is property, a product...nothing more.

As Detroit is forced into bankruptcy by OCP, a drug dealer Cain (Noonan) and his youthful associate, Hob (Gabriel Damon) continue to sell their illegal product and make a killing.  RoboCop makes it his mission to stop Cain, but is scuttled by Dr. Faxx, who forces the cyborg obey a new set of directives that serve only to muddy his sense of dedication to law and order.

After Cain is arrested and mortally wounded, the psychotic criminal becomes Dr. Faxx’s candidate for the RoboCop 2 project.

An addict himself, the new cyborg will run on a fuel consisting of nuke.  

And on the day of his unveiling, Cain and RoboCop go to war for the future of Detroit.

“If businessmen can buy our rights, like stock….we don’t realize what we’re losing…”

Directed by Irvin Kershner (1923 – 201), RoboCop 2 intentionally and often amusingly pushes the world-view of RoboCop a step or two further. 

Thus the trappings of OCP here begin to resemble something even more nefarious than big business run amok. Indeed, they begin to resemble famous, historical Nazi symbols; representations of militant fascism on the march.  

Corporatism, of course, is a key element of fascism. In a fascist state, wealthy, private business owners or “job creators” hold all the power while workers are disenfranchised and dis-empowered. They lose the right to collectively bargain and serve at the whim of employers who can do whatever they please, often with the blessing of the state.

Here, specifically, the fearsome new RoboCop 2 dons a head-piece that overtly resembles a Nazi soldier’s helmet, and the Old Man is depicted standing before a giant, wall-sized tapestry of scarlet coloring, like a flag from a Nazi Rally in Berlin.

But instead of featuring a swastika in the middle of that sea of crimson, OCP’s corporate logo is present instead on the tapestry. One ideology of fascism has replaced another. But we recognize this evil by its alternate face, don't we?

As I like to note frequently, designs don’t happen by accident in a film of this size, budget and imagination. Everything you see and detect, down to the last color, down to the last decoration, is present by intent.  So it is safe to establish that RoboCop 2 imagines a world in which right wing extremism takes hold, and, over time, transitions into overt fascism. That slope itself -- being pro-business to fascist -- is part of the film’s debate. 

The Old Man goes from sitting behind a desk that features a photograph of him with a figure who very much resembles President Reagan, to standing before the very Nazi-like tapestry or flag of OCP. 

And no, I am not calling President Reagan a Nazi in any way, shape or form, only noting that one quality of good science fiction involves gazing at the present, and extrapolating from that present a possible (imaginary) future.  

Plenty of science fiction films imagine over-bearing Statism for example (Z.P.G. [1973] is one), but the makers of this franchise considered the eighties and imagined how the policies of Reagan’s America might spin out into this “future” world not of free enterprise, but reckless, out-of-control enterprise. Reagan and his America are thus the starting point for that extrapolation in the RoboCop franchise, and the fascism featured in the sequel is the end point. There’s a line or progression there, and reality is one thing, and RoboCop 2’s imaginings a cautionary tale.

Beyond drawing the connection between laissez-faire economic policy, big business, and a fascist state, this sequel also gets exactly right the anti-science, anti-environment aspect of such a world view. 

In particular, these aspects of the culture emerge in the film's funny TV commercials. This too is a direct hold-over from Verhoeven’s vision: the idea that a corporate controlled media can and will say anything as “happy” news (and as advertisements) so long as the rich stay rich and the poor remain poor.

Here, the anti-environment angle comes out in a story reported on Media Break. There’s been a nuclear disaster in the Amazon, with acres of natural forest destroyed in a firebal.  The journalists report that environmentalists are incensed. 

Leeza Gibbons’ blond anchorwoman replies with a guffaw that environmentalists are always incensed.  In other words, an unsafe nuclear reactor has destroyed one of the great treasures of the planet, but the people who are worthy of derision and blame are those who would seek to protect the environment.

Pesky environmentalists! Damn tree-huggers who care more about the planet than about making money!

Another sequence involves a commercial for Sun Block 5000. The advert begins with a vapid model reporting that “ever since we lost the Ozone…” she can’t sit by the pool in California.  At least not without her sun bock, which comes with a warning that it could cause skin cancer.  

Again, the scene perfectly encapsulates the recklessly pro-business nature of this fictional world. It wasn’t a profitable enterprise, apparently, to save the environment and the Ozone Layer, but it could be profitable to sell a product to protect people from sun rays: Sun Block 5000.  Of course, since business isn’t regulated in this world, that product itself comes with a surgeon general’s warning that it could cause skin cancer.

RoboCop 2 ruthlessly makes the point that nothing in this world can be allowed to stand in the way of making a profit. Not safety, not the environment, not science. And the corporate media is just the delivery boy for the pro-business agenda.

In terms of real-life happenings, RoboCop 2, keys on two crucial historical aspects of the George H.W. Bush Years, 1988 – 1992. The first was the so-called “crack epidemic” of the age. Although statistics suggest that cocaine-related deaths in that span were never even close to tobacco or alcohol-related deaths in terms of numbers, the media nonetheless embarked on a feeding frenzy about a “generation” lost to crack.  President Bush and his wife, Barbara, both mentioned holding “crack babies” during important, televised speeches. The media push was so strong that Americans, when polled, believed the war on drugs was more important than the specter of nuclear war.

The overall impression was that the “crack plague,” as it was known, had infiltrated every aspect of American society, when the truth was far different.  RoboCop 2 takes aim at this crack “epidemic” by focusing on a new narcotic, “nuke,” and making one of its’ key villains, a child; not a crack baby, per se, but a nuke (baby) or dealer, named Hob.  And Hob, of course, is a nickname for the Devil. 

Many critics, including Roger Ebert, were infuriated that RoboCop 2 featured a child as a drug dealer and villain, but again, good sci-fi is about extrapolating from the present.  If the late 1980s gave us crack babies, why not imagine that generation a little older, even more addicted and more dangerous to the fabric of America?  That’s exactly what RoboCop 2 proposes.  And though the child is himself an immoral bastard, RoboCop 2 treats the subplot, and the character with humanity and dignity.  

When Hob -- just a child -- is mortally wounded, RoboCop soothes him, and stays with him. Hob may be a “nuke baby” but he is still a human being, and still a child, and he is very afraid of dying.  RoboCop acts appropriately sympathetic towards him, perhaps because he remembers his own son; perhaps because his “humanity” is still a powerful force dictating his actions.

The second aspect of the culture tackled by RoboCop 2 is political correctness. 

Again, this phrase came into common usage during the first Bush presidency, and concerned the idea that people had to watch their tongues, or “the PC police” would come get them.  

In RoboCop 2, our friendly neighborhood cyborg is outfitted with 200 plus confusing and contradictory directives, the vast majority of which seem to be PC in nature. Now, he must lecture kids about staying in school, or about not smoking.  He is, literally, a manifestation of the PC police. One of his prime directives to avoid "premature value judgement."  Another is "to discourage feelings of negativity and hostility." Imagine operating under such dictates and dealing with hardened criminals at the same time!

If RoboCop 2 can be said to be prophetic in a fashion, it is for its central debate, however, about privatization. It imagines a Detroit that goes bankrupt (and hey, that happened in 2013!), but raises questions about how and why. In this case, OCP tells the same old story of City Hall, a place of “mismanagement and corruption,” while positioning itself as “a responsible private enterprise.

What a nice big -- and real-life -- lie!

The truth is something different. OCP puts a psychotic, stoned nuke-head in the position of protecting and serving the people of Detroit, an absolutely egregious example of mismanagement and corruption.  

But isn’t it odd how society always criticize government for being corrupt and incompetent, while letting big business off the hook for its errors, and simultaneously de-fanging regulations to watch it?  Here, as usual, OCP skates by. The Old Man finds a scapegoat for his errors -- Dr. Faxx -- and moves on trying to destroy the city from another angle. If government has any problem, it is not too many regulations, but a lack of real oversight for bad actors, like big corporations.  But again, corporate media tells us a different story.

In the years since the 1980s, Irvin Kershner’s work in film has become much more highly regarded by film scholars and fans. The Empire Strikes Back (1980) is widely considered the best of the original Star Wars films now, and I certainly prefer the humorous, human Never Say Never Again (1983) to the bloated and interminable Thunderball (1965) by a wide margin. Indeed, the most successful Bond film in history, Skyfall (2012) takes a page from Never Say Never Again’s playbook by acknowledging Bond’s advancing age and mortality. 

Kershner's approach is human in another way too: it is funny. One of Robocop 2's opening scenes depicts a crime wave in Old Detroit. A man robs an old woman of her jewels. That man is then robbed of those jewels by several (fierce) prostitutes. And then the prostitutes walk away, and a group of thieves pull up to rob a gun shop on the same street.  These incidents pile up, and so does the violence, but we can laugh at the moment because a bigger fish keeps taking the prize.  

And of course, that's the undercurrent of the entire film. The biggest criminal of all -- the biggest fish -- is OCP, and it plans to buy the entire city, the whole prize, as it were. That idea is captured visually, in microcosm, from this scene of snowballing petty crime on a street level.

Another funny sequence in the film involves the failed RoboCop 2 candidates. They malfunction egregiously and monstrously. These moments are both disgusting (for what was done to innocent human beings) and funny, because of the designs and malfunctions. Once more, Kershner explores a sense of gallows humor, much in keeping with the spirit of the original film, and the always-malfunctioning ED 209.

The Kershner approach -- to acknowledge humanity even in worlds of fantasy and adventure that don’t normally do so --  is the key to this success, and I believe one can see it at work in RoboCop 2.  The film has an abundant number of close-ups of RoboCop (or actually a kind of spfx puppet of RoboCop).  His face fills the screen many times.

Why?  Not just to showcase good special effects, but to reveal his agony, his pain.  

And in that pain, we register the character’s humanity. 

One crucial scene showcases a meeting with Murphy's wife, and throughout the scene, the two are separated by a chain-link fence.  We see both figures in close-up, but they can't touch each other. Technology (the fence...) separates them in the same way that technology has created RoboCop and separated Murphy from his family.

As was the case in RoboCop, it is the human tragedy -- the story of RoboCop himself -- that truly resonates here. Here, thanks to the Kershner aesthetic, we gain insight into his psychological pain, felt because he is separated from his family. We see how much it hurts him not to be fully human, but to anchored nonetheless to these human desires and emotions.

And we also get a scene that I (personally) found difficult to watch, and which plays, essentially, as a high-tech crucifixion. RoboCop walks into a trap, and Cain dismembers him a piece at a time.  He is ripped apart.  Literally.

The message is plain: RoboCop may be part machine, but he feels pain both emotional and physical.  

That fact, gives Murphy something in common with the rest of humanity. The film’s last scene acknowledges this fact, when Murphy notes that “we” (meaning Lewis and him) are “only human.”  

When I first saw the film, I felt the line was a pat throwaway. Screening the film this time, I registered instead that RoboCop had come to grapple in the film with something very human: his pain. 

And what did he learn? 

Not how to overcome his pain. But the mere fact of it. Since he could feel pain, he still possessed that spark of the human…a soul.

RoboCop 2 is a sequel I never thought I would champion so vociferously, but today -- with the culture moved further down that slippery slope towards corporatism -- it is easy to see how the film explored brave and ambitious directions, and also added a meaningful chapter to Murphy’s quest to reclaim his humanity.

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