Saturday, February 28, 2015

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: Secrets of Isis: "Bigfoot"

On a school field trip to the forest, Mrs. Thomas (Joanna Cameron) is shocked when students Cindy Lee (Joanna Pang) and Lee (Scott Columby) think they have caught sight of Bigfoot, the mythical Sasquatch.

Lee decides to stay in the woods and attempt to catch a photo of the legendary beast, but encounters instead a giant stranger named Richard (Bill Engresser).

When Lee loses his footing and nearly falls off a mountain, the strange, silent Richard comes to his rescue and is revealed to be a gentle giant. 

“Bigfoot” was all the rage in the 1970s pop culture, so it was only a matter of time, perhaps, before The Secrets of Isis (1975 – 1976) tackled the subject too. 

As is the case with the series’ installment about UFOs (“The Lights of Mystery Mountain,”) the paranormal subject matter is ultimately debunked. Isis sees over-sized footprints in the dirt at one point, but they belong to a reclusive, gentle human being of unusual size…named Richard.  The problem is, after you see Richard, you realize that he could not have made those footprints.  He's tall, but not THAT tall.

Anyway, Richard doesn’t much care for human company, which is why he hangs out in the woods, I suppose.  “I can’t live with people. I never could,” he declares.  Isis tells Lee that “Sometimes people are very cruel to those who seem different.”

Although it is rewarding that Secrets of Isis preaches tolerance and acceptance for those who are different, imagine for a second the extreme disappointment of a child watching this episode, anticipating an appearance by Bigfoot and getting, instead, a colossal bearded recluse.  

It would be nice to report that Isis and Bigfoot go a few rounds in battle (like Steve Austin and Sasquatch) but the episode concludes that Bigfoot is “only a fable.”

Bummer, right?

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: Bigfoot and Wildboy (1976 - 1979): "The Abominable Snowman"

The production team of Sid and Marty Krofft, and creators Joe Ruby and Ken Spears bring us our next Saturday morning series here on the blog: Bigfoot and Wildboy (1976 – 1979).  

This unusual series aired on ABC, first as part of the 90-minute The Krofft Supershow and then in its own time slot for a season in 1979.

Originally, The Krofft Supershow was a kind of compendium or anthology of series. Each week, Captain Kool (Michael Lembeck) and the Kongs would introduce episodes of Dr. Shrinker, Electra-Woman and Dyna-Girl and Wonderbug.

In the second season, Dr. Shrinker was dropped in favor of Magic Mongo and Electra-Woman and Dyna-Girl was traded for Bigfoot and Wildboy.

As I’ve written here and in other venues, Bigfoot was a major “thing” in the 1970s, explored in documentaries, and imagined on such series as The Six Million Dollar Man (1973 – 1978) and The Bionic Woman (1976 – 1978).  So, a Saturday morning series about Sasquatch must have seemed like a slam dunk.

In Bigfoot and Wildboy, Ray Butcher stars as Bigfoot, an intelligent (if hairy…) creature who, eight years before the start of the series, befriends a child and raises him in the forests of the Pacific Northwest. 

This child becomes Wildboy, Bigfoot's sidekick and friend. In the first year of the series, Wildboy is often accompanied by a Native American girl, Susie (Monika Ramirez), on their adventures.

It is plain from a screening of a few episodes that The Six Million Dollar Man’s Bigfoot is a significant and important inspiration for this series. We see several shots, for example, in each episode, of Bigfoot running and jumping in slow-motion, to strange “whooshing” sounds.

In fact, “The Abominable Snowman,” an episode aired in two fifteen minute parts, features a lot of filler, and that filler consists of Bigfoot running through the countryside, and jumping.  

The special effects look impressive in a seventies kind of way, in the same way as the effects do on the aforementioned bionic series.  But too much of anything -- even Bigfoot running and jumping -- gets old quick.  These scenes are repetitive and sort of dull, today.

In “The Abominable Snowman,” an evil scientist, Dr. Porthos (David Hurst), plans to intercept an important U.S. weather satellite from his base in a ghost town in the Pacific Northwest. He deploys his robotic Abominable Snowman to keep strangers at bay.

A young man named Toby (Christopher Braun) returns to the town to visit his father, but is accosted by the Yeti robot.  Before long, Wild-Boy, Bigfoot and Susie come to his aid, and attempt to stop the robot, and prevent Dr. Porthos from interfering in the launch.

During the course of the episode, Bigfoot gets locked in a vault, but fights his way out, and ultimately saves the weather rocket/satellite. He also defeats the shaggy-looking Abominable Snowbot.

This isn’t a Filmation series, so Bigfoot and Wildboy goes light -- at least here -- on the preachy moralizing. Instead, this is a straight-up adventure show, with an unusual set of superheroes.  It’s a little strange watching the first episode because nobody considers it strange to see Bigfoot for the first time. Instead, characters just accept that he’s there, and committed to helping out.

I’d have to stop and think for a minute.  Wow, Bigfoot is real.  And he can talk. And he can raise human children….

The writing is pretty shallow here, truth be told, and Dr. Porthos boasts no real motive for wanting to control the government’s new weather satellite.  

Also, it isn’t clear why he would not build a Bigfoot robot, rather than a Yeti-bot, given the part of the world where his HQ is located.

In short, “Abominable Snowman” -- and indeed Bigfoot and Wildboy itself -- helps to explain why the seventies were so weird.  How do you explain a show like this today?  A leaping, racing (in slow mo) Sasquatch and his teenage ward fight criminals in the Pacific Northwest, and nobody thinks that’s weird?

Yup, it was the seventies all right.  I loved growing up there.

Friday, February 27, 2015

Tribute: Leonard Nimoy (1931 - 2015)

I can't believe this news is true. 

I don't want it to be true.

But The New York Time is now reporting the death of Leonard Nimoy, the talented actor who played Mr. Spock in the original Star Trek.

It is impossible for me -- in this moment of disbelief and sadness -- to report fully or in any sense cogently about what Mr. Nimoy meant to my life, or to Star Trek fans, or to science fiction in general.  

In his many performances as the half-Vulcan Spock, Mr. Nimoy showed audiences how they could love, appreciate, and respect someone who holds different beliefs than they do. 

Spock had pointed ears, pointed eye-brows, green blood and no emotions, but he was, nonetheless, the dearest of friends.

And playing a (noble) alien, Mr. Nimoy's Spock showed us also what it means to be human. Spock exposed the contradictions of humanity in a way that was not threatening to hear, or to see.  

He could make us see ourselves in ways we couldn't, or didn't want to. And again, we loved him for it. In his alien eyes, we recognized ourselves.

One might think that Spock was an easy or simple role to play...simply cut yourself off from your emotions, right? Be stoic!

But Leonard Nimoy persistently brought dignity, humor, intelligence, and sensitivity to the role. He could masterfully express how deeply Spock "cares" about his friends, or his parents, or his belief system without demonstrating anger or any other overt emotion.  

In short, Mr. Nimoy took a character that could have been wooden or two-dimensional and transformed him into a magical, beloved icon of American pop culture.

I know it is wrong to write about Mr. Nimoy simply as Spock, since he had a rich career beyond that role, in productions such as Mission: Impossible, Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978), and beyond,  

But Spock is the character with whom Mr. Nimoy will forever be associated.  

He made that character his own, and offered the world a cool, intellectual, reasoned voice just when it was needed most -- at the height of the Civil Rights Movement, the Vietnam War, and other frissons of the late 1960s.

I don't think I can bear to say much else at this particular moment.  

Not because Leonard Nimoy's life was unimportant, but because for so many of us, it was incredibly important.  

Like so many of you, I grew up with Nimoy's Spock -- the lonely outsider who found a home on the starship Enterprise -- and so to lose Mr. Nimoy is a terrible thing.

We all knew the day was coming.  And it is not logical to be taken by surprise by mortality, Spock might remind us at this juncture. 

 And yet still, Leonard Nimoy's passing is devastating.

At Flashbak: Here’s the Story: The Brady Kids Do Horror and Sci-Fi!

My latest piece at Flashbak looks at the post-Brady Bunch sci-fi/horror TV career of the Brady Kids. It's a list that includes Isis, Bigfoot and Wildboy, A Vacation in Hell and...Megapiranha.

"After the cancellation of The Brady Bunch (1969 – 1973), the actors who played the Brady kids got their own (short-lived) variety show, and at least two additional prime time spin offs: 1981’s The Brady Brides and 1990’s The Bradys.

But between such gigs, the actors (all except Susan Olsen -- Cindy) turned to guest appearances on science fiction and horror television, some on Saturday mornings, and some in prime-time.

Here’s a look back at the highlights..." (cont. at Flashbak).

From the Archive: Predators (2010)

Given the nature of Hollywood product in 2015, many of my efforts in daily film criticism here involve the assessment of sequels, remakes, prequels and even re-imaginations. 

These are the three most important benchmarks, in considering the worth of a sequel film, in my estimation.

1. Is there a sufficient measure of fidelity and respect for the original material?  In other words, does the sequel appear to honor what was positive and beloved about the movie that spawned it?

Bad sequels, by contrast, tend often to undercut the very qualities that were good about the original, usually in a cynical attempt to cash in quickly and bring in a strong first-weekend haul.

2. Does the sequel add to the franchise mythos in some significant or valuable way?

Is the world established by the original film enlarged and opened-up by the efforts of the sequel, or reduced by them? 

Again, this is vitally important. If we are treading deeper into a particular fantasy world, are the discoveries there worth excavating? Or, in some fashion, do the new discoveries ruin and conflict with what we already now?  Do they sour the brand?

3. Finally -- and this may be the most important criterion -- does the sequel also function as a stand-alone work of art in some significant way? 

What concerns me here is this idea: if you were to see the sequel in question alone, with no pre-conceived notions, and with no knowledge of the original, would the film make you want to see the previous entry? 

This third criterion is vital to a judgment of the film not merely as sequel; but as an independent example of cinematic art.  Can the sequel stand  proudly on its own two feet?

If you consider a few great sequels in film history, like The Godfather Part II (1974), The Empire Strikes Back (1980), The Road Warrior (1982), and Aliens (1986), for instance, each film fulfills all three of the above-listed criteria. 

So it is a relief to report that 2010's Predators is both a good sequel and a good film in its own right, if perhaps not in the class of the four high-watermark sequels I tagged above.

Let's weigh each of these sequel benchmarks one-at-a-time, vis-a-vis Predators. 

First, has this sequel been crafted with a sense of both seriousness and fidelity to its beloved source material (the 1987 McTiernan film, Predator)?

The answer is undeniably "yes." 

Predators lands us back in the modern warfare/soldier milieu of the 1987 Predator, and also re-introduces the familiar alien hunter and his preferred territory: a steamy, overgrown jungle. 

Furthermore, the design of the titular monster is abundantly faithful to what came before; and the Predators act in a fashion audiences understand and recognize.  To wit, the film remembers how a Predator can tricks its prey with a cloak of invisibility, and also with vocal mimicry (a duck call...), for instance. 

Attentive audiences will also note a reprise of Alan Silvestri's accomplished Predator scores, and a climactic nod to Little Richard's "Long Tall Sally," which was featured in the Schwarzenegger edition from  the Reagan Era.

Much more importantly, however, in terms of seeming  faithful and honoring the Predator legacy, Predators avoids a dramatic structural mistake I have seen cropping up in more and more sequels and re-imaginations of late. 

This mistake is simply to assume that because a modern audience boasts some familiarity with the film's central monster or villain, it is permissible and  even desirable to simply cut to the chase (cue the CGI...) and forgo suspense and atmospheric build-up.  It's like the filmmakers can't be bothered or patient enough to make the old monster seem fresh -- and scary -- again.

This is an arena where Predators really thrives. Director Nimrod Antal opens with a bravura action sequence involving soldiers in atmospheric free-fall, but then lands the confused human protagonists in a jungle of mystery and ambiguity. 

Of course, we immediately understand that they are being hunted by Predators, but the characters do not know this important fact; at least not initially.  Commendably, the movie takes its time to build character recognition of the grim situation, and also develop ably the alien landscape of a Predator "game preserve." On the latter front, there's a fantastic, visually-stunning ,and truly epic reveal early in the film, when the "hunted" soldiers realize they aren't in Kansas anymore.

It's a trap with no escape, and this film makes you feel the terror of the soldiers at being outmatched, marooned on unfamiliar, unfriendly turf.

The Predators don't actually appear on-screen until approximately the half-hour point of the film, and Antal uses his first-act duration wisely.  He builds up an atmosphere of fear and uncertainty that lasts throughout the film. In this case, he is a patient director, and doesn't show us the monster in extreme close-up in the first minute of the film...the way that we saw New Freddy in the remake of A Nightmare on Elm Street, by contrast.

Also, Laurence Fishburne appears in the film as a kind of hybrid version of Quint from Jaws (1975) and Kurtz from Apocalypse Now (1979).  His purpose is to function as the film's "voice of fear."  He has survived who-knows-how-many encounters with the Predators and remains abundantly terrified of them. 

This is a powerful, unsettling fact, because we associate Laurence Fishburne with the messianic, nearly invincible Morpheus from The Matrix Trilogy, a character of great heroism and presence.  Here, that same towering man is reduced to blubbering insanity. 

As I wrote in my review of Jaws, sometimes fear can be generated in considerable doses by a technique I term information overload; by storytelling.  Consider the famous U.S.S. Indianapolis story that Quint told his shipmates aboard the Orca.  It's the scariest damn thing in the movie because it's personal; because it is intimate.  Quint was there, he saw it happen...and he survived.

Fishburne's character, Nolan, serves the same function in Predators; not merely acting as the voice of fear...but as the voice of personal experience

Again, Predators is nowhere near as good or powerful a film as Jaws, obviously, but the narrative approach here is commendable. Rather than using overt flashbacks of the confrontations Nolan describes so apprehensively, Antal maintains the mystery and power of the film's alien creatures by focusing on the frightened storyteller; on his voice; on his words.  This approach allows the audience to experience this man's terror and madness. An action scene would have been spectacular, but a strong man's sense of personal fear can be even more powerful.

This is what honoring a franchise is all about. 

By contrast, a negative example might help explain this point better. In AVP: Requiem (2007), Aliens and Predators landed on modern-day Earth...and mid-west small-town folks basically defeated them and survived. Children were among the survivors. This victory in our day and age made two breeds of fearsome aliens look weak and inconsequential. 

In previous Alien films, colonial marines and androids were decimated, ship's crews were killed, and Ripley sacrificed her life to assure that an alien could not get to Mother Earth, where it would run rampant and destroy all this "bullshit"  that we think is so important. 

Requiem retroactively shat on all of Ripley's amazing accomplishments by having a 21st century town-sheriff with a shotgun outsmart and survive an encounter with not one kind of alien menace, but two. What's the big deal Ripley, huh?

That's dishonoring a franchise.

That's dishonoring two, actually.

Predators makes no similar mistakes.  It develops at a good pace and plays fair with an alien race we have seen in previous films. It maintains the dignity of a beloved screen monster. And even the creature design is better too. By AVP: Requiem, the Predators looked like squat, overweight wrestlers rather than lean, seven-foot-tall hunters from another world.

Okay, benchmark two.   Does the film add to the mythos of the franchise?  When the fantasy world of the franchise is opened up, does it add to our knowledge, or contradict it?

Again, Predators is successful. 

The film reveals that Predators train and control monstrous alien hunting dogs (with a whistle, no less), and clearly this revelation fits into the hunting milieu we associate with the previous films, so that's to the good. 

And secondly, the film's inventive setting -- a planetary game preserve -- also fits in with what we understand about the Predators; that hunting is their primary sport, and that they entertain themselves with a variety of game, in a variety of settings.

Another facet of the film I felt was successful involved the introduction of warring breeds of Predators.  Apparently, this society features some pretty serious racial divisions. In other words, we get a look at a Predator we know...and also a fearsome one that we do not know.  

The new breed of aliens does not feel overtly out-of-place (like the Newcomer in Alien Resurrection, for instance), but rather a natural extension of what we know of the Predators: that they are warlike and highly-competitive

The film also picks up on one of the few good ideas of AVP (2004):  that Predators can, on occasion, work with their prey if the situation demands it.

Finally, we get to the third benchmark: does the film stand on its own two feet?

Again, I believe it does.

The script is highly literate, finding time to quote that great hunter, Ernest Hemingway.  But more importantly, the movie strikes on a worthwhile theme: that the Predators -- the monsters of another world -- are battling the monsters of our world.  Here, the Predators test their mettle against guns-for- hire, death squad murderers, drug runners sociopaths, snipers, Yakuza and other individuals who have turned murder into a profitable art. They truly are the predators of our civilization.

This is not really an idea enunciated in any previous Predator movie, and it comments on the world we live in today, in 2015.  We've had almost fifteen years of non-stop war now.  Murder is big business on Earth at the moment and so Predators (written over a decade ago) feels not just smart, but actually relevant to current events. 

For all these reasons, this is the best Predator movie since the original in 1987.  That's not to say the film doesn't have some flaws. For one thing, you can guess right off the bat who the last three survivors of the film will be. It's easy...and a bit too predictable, even if the film attempts valiantly to throw in two inventive, climactic curve-balls.

Yet, that quibble almost doesn't matter when you get a sturdy sequel that demonstrates respect for its source material, opens up the universe of that source material, and tells a solid, standalone story at the same time.

The Predators featured in this film are involved in a process of evolution; making themselves better killersI was pleasantly surprised that the filmmakers sought an evolution of sorts too.  In sequels. 

The end result?  They made a good one. 

Movie Trailer: Predators (2010)

Thursday, February 26, 2015

The Films of 1987: Predator

Back in 1987, the conventional wisdom about John McTiernan’s Predator (1987) was that it started out like Rambo: First Blood Part II (1985) and ended up like Alien (1979) or, perhaps, James Cameron’s Aliens (1986).

By framing the film in this simplistic fashion, Predator could be viewed as a simple or derivative swipe at two separate genre inspirations. 

It was part action movie and part sci-fi/horror movie. 

And that, the critics declared, passed for originality in Hollywood.

That’s a left-handed compliment if I ever read one!

The truth about Predator, contrarily, is that it is all of a piece, and thematically consistent throughout. 

Indeed, the intense film forges a debate about warriors or soldiers, and asks, specifically, what the best soldiers are made of. 

Do soldiers succeed because of their technology? 

Or do the best soldiers succeed because of some combination of instinct, experience, and a tactical understanding of their enemy?

McTiernan’s film sets up this debate in the film's visualizations.

Specifically, a squad of American soldiers, led by Arnold Schwarzenegger's Dutch, rain down death and destruction on Third World, Central American soldiers, literally coming down to a village from a point on high to do so. 

This action occurs in the first act, and establishes, per the dialogue that Schwarzenegger’s team is “the best.” We see that adjective vividly demonstrated in a siege set-piece of extreme violence and bloodshed.

The next act of the film, however, deliberately reverses that equation. It positions Schwarzenegger’s team on the ground, and puts an alien hunter at an even higher position -- in the tree-tops -- to rain down death on his “primitive” Earthbound counter-parts. 

The soldiers who were the predators are now the prey.

In both cases, the technologically-superior force wins, and the perceived primitive or lesser opponent is knocked down and defeated. 

In both cases, McTiernan vividly and explicitly associates that sense of superiority with a sense of geographical height; a high physical vantage point, captured by the camera's position.

The winner can, literally, reach heights that the loser can’t, and this is one important reason for his victory.

However, in the third and final act of Predator, Arnold and the alien hunter go head to head -- on equal footing -- and it is only on that terrain, one not involving technology, but rather instincts and know-how, that the best soldier is identified, and a victor is crowned.

So where many 1987 critics choose to see a film that is half Rambo and half Alien, I see a film that develops logically and consistently act to act. You can’t get to that final, almost primordial reckoning in the jungle between the Predator and Dutch unless you frame the debate in precisely the way the screenplay does, and in the way McTiernan does. 

In short, the film depicts the best soldiers in the world demonstrating their ability to defeat all comers, only to be defeated by an enemy better than them; one not of this world.  

The first and second act are two sides of the same coin, the idea -- with apologies to Star Wars Episode I (1999) -- that there is always a bigger fish out there waiting to demonstrate superior technology.

Predator’s third act -- a glorious back-to-basics conflict that looks like it was authentically staged in a prehistoric setting -- makes the point that the greatest hunter or soldier is actually the one who understands his enemy, and trusts his instincts. 

Why make a movie in this fashion? 

Well, in a sense, Predator might be read as a subversive response to the militarization of action films in the mid-1980s, and the kind of shallow, rah-rah patriotism that gave rise to efforts like Heartbreak Ridge (1986), which celebrated an American military victory over…Grenada.


Was Grenada really a challenge to American domination, given our military budget and might? 

Contrarily, Predator takes a group of tough-talking “ultimate warriors” and puts them in a situation where they aren’t merely shooting fish in a barrel. 

They are the fish in the barrel.

In reckoning with this sudden and total change in fortunes, we begin to glean a true idea of courage and heroism.

All of the Earthly politics in the movie -- illegal border crossings, a false cover story, documentation about a possible invasion, and so forth -- add up to precisely nothing here, and there's a reason why. Those details are immaterial to the real story of soldiers who reckon with an enemy that goes beyond the limits of Earthly knowledge.

Ironically, to be the best soldier in a situation like that, it isn’t the big Gatling gun that matters. It’s the ability to adapt to and understand the kind of menace encountered.

Predator features a lot of macho talk and clichés about war (“I ain’t got time to bleed,”) but it succeeds because it cuts right through this surface, hackneyed vision of military might and suggests a different truth underneath.

There’s always a bigger fish.

“You got us here to do your dirty work!”

An elite squad of American soldiers, led by Dutch Schaefer (Schwarzenegger), is dropped into a Central American jungle to rescue a cabinet minister being held by enemy rebels. 

Going along with Dutch’s team is the mission commander, the not-entirely trustworthy Dillon (Carl Weathers).

Once in the jungle, Dutch and his men launch an attack on a rebel village, and find that Dillon has manipulated his team so as to acquire military intelligence about a possible Russian invasion. The group soon takes a captive, Anna, (Elipidia Carillo).

But before the soldiers can be air-lifted out of the jungle, an extra-terrestrial hunter -- a Predator – sets his sights on the group, killing Dutch’s team one man at a time. 

Anna reports a local legend: about a demon who makes trophies of humans and is often reported in the hottest summers.

And this year, it grows very, very hot…

Losing his men rapidly, Dutch must come to understand his enemy’s weaknesses and strengths, and makes a final stand in the jungle, using every resource available…

“Payback time!”

John McTiernan’s camera in Predator rarely stops moving. It tracks, it pans, and it tilts, but is seldom quiescent. 

The constantly-on-the-move camera conveys a few important qualities about the film. The first idea it transmits is that the soldiers inhabit a changing and changeable world, one that only instinct and experience can help them navigate.  

The always-in-motion camera reveals the soldiers -- sometimes violently -- intruding into new space, new frames, and new aspects of their world.  The camera’s movement -- a kind of visual aggression -- suggests the force that the soldiers carry with them.  

This movement, this force, is then balanced by McTiernan against the still-ness of the Predator’s vision or perspective. A contrast is quickly developed and then sustained.

Throughout the film, we see through the Predator’s eyes, or in Predator-vision. These shots, from high above the landscape (in the tree-tops) tend to be still, un-moving. They thereby capture a sense of the whole world unfolding before the Predator, a complete panorama or landscape.

This is an important conceit. The soldiers are  always moving through a changing, shifting world that they, through their actions, impact.  

But they don’t get the whole picture, so-to-speak.  

By contrast, the Predator vision gives us long-shots, and shows the entire jungle terrain around the soldiers.  This viewpoint suggests omnipotence and power.  

The Predator, quite simply, is able to see more of the world, and see it better. He is able to strike from the tree tops with his shoulder-mounted laser cannon, and target with laser sighting his distant foes.  

His sight is superior, until -- importantly -- Dutch manages to “see” through it; recognizing the flaw in the Predator’s infrared vision.

Again, this is an argument against relying too heavily on technology. Dutch’s soldiers rely on big guns, and get decimated.  

The Predator relies on his mask’s vision system (infrared), and Dutch -- smearing himself in mud -- negates the advantage it provides.  

But again, what’s important is the way that all this material is visualized.

The soldiers, on ground level, cut through and move through the frame, violently interacting with the world on a tactile, aggressive level.  

The Predator, like some great vulture, sits still in the trees (until he strikes), silently hanging back and taking in the lay of the land. He has the luxury to operate from a distance, from up on high, unobserved.

The film sets up a battle between these two perspectives, and one might even argue that the Predator ultimately loses because he abandons his best perspective -- the tree tops -- in order to get down to (and enjoy combat on…) Dutch’s level.

Over and over again, however, McTiernan’s gorgeous, moving compositions suggest that the soldiers don’t have the full picture. Not only is the Predator cloaked, but he has access to the world above the soldiers, the world that they can’t see. A brilliantly-orchestrated shot mid-way through the film sees Dutch hunting for Hawkin’s missing body. He can’t find it. After capturing imagery of Dutch trudging through the brush, McTiernan’s camera suddenly moves upwards, and keeps doing so.

It goes up and up, past a bloody fern frond, and then continues its ascent, until we see Hawkins’ naked, bloodied corpse dangling from the tree top.  The Predator is operating in, metaphorically a more fully three dimensional environment, this shot reveals. 

Dwight and the other soldiers can’t compete on that level. They literally can't even see to that level. 

Those who don’t appreciate Predator tend to watch the film, listen to the macho tough talk, and consider the film a kind of stupid, macho action/horror movie. 

Yet in its own way, Predator glides right past such clichéd dialogue and situations. In doing so, it comments on them.  These cliches are not points of strength, the movie informs us, but points of weakness.  When the Predator uses his duck call device, for example, he apes the men at their most verbally simplistic.  “Any time…”  Or “Over here.”  

Then he is able to trick them using their own words. Their mode of expression becomes a tool to use against them.

As a whole, Predator sort of tricks the audience with its appearance too -- as a macho war movie -- and then treads deeper to examine our conceits about the military, and military might. 

When Arnold finally defeats the Predator, he does so not as a twentieth century soldier with high-tech weapons, but as a mud-camouflaged cave-man, relying on his instinct, his knowledge of the land, and hard-gleaned information about his enemy.

Even then, Arnold barely wins.  

The Predator sacrifices his superior technology, comes to the ground, and takes off his mask because he wants to fight like Arnie; he wants to experience battle like a human would. That desire proves to be the alien's undoing, a sense of vanity about himself, and an unearned sense of superiority to his nemesis.  

And again, this quality reflects dynamically on the first act of the film. Everyone keeps calling Dutch's team "the best,: and the team itself wipes out the Central American rebels while hardly breaking a sweat.

The bigger they are, the harder they fall, right?

Dutch, by contrast, demonstrates qualities that our culture doesn’t always value, especially in terms of our military men. He shows compassion and decency with Anna, a prisoner.  He trusts her when the situation changes instead of continuing to treat her like a foe.  

He also rejects Dillon’s approach to war (that the ends justify the means), and does his best to get his men out of a situation in which they are not really fighting for their country, but acting as pawns in someone’s illegal agenda.  

Finally, Dutch is curious -- intensely curious -- and flexible enough to understand that he is being hunted by something inhuman. He doesn’t reject the possibility that this could be true, and instead contends with the facts. 

 “If it bleeds, we can kill it” Dutch concludes, and that is a perfectly logical and sensible argument in the face of what seems an irrational conflict: a battle with an invisible alien.

Dutch is lucky, of course, too. He discovers the secret of defeating Predator-vision by accident, by ending up in the mud. But he also makes the most of his opportunities by demonstrating flexibility rather than rigidity. He changes his very identity to win.  He goes from 20th century high-tech soldier to primitive cave man, to carry the day.

Predator still dazzles, in part because of McTiernan’s often-moving camera and approach to visuals, but also because of that incredible final sequence in the jungle.  

Arnold and the colossal, frightening alien duke it out on a little parcel of land, surrounded by water.  The setting is picturesque, but more than that, it seems to evoke some kind of genetic memory, a feeling for the day when humans didn’t understand the world and were prey to saber tooth tigers or bears, or anything else that might find us when we ventured out of our caves. 

The film’s final battle -- shorn of high-tech military hardware -- gets down to the bloody basics and is incredibly satisfying on a human level.

Today, we have military drones, smart-bombs, and other incredible technology to help us win when we wage war, but Predator is a remarkable reminder from another movie age that the biggest, best guns don’t necessarily make great soldiers.   

If they did, the Predator would have won his battle with Arnie, right?

Movie Trailer: Predator (1987)

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Korg 70,000 B.C.: "The Hill People"

In “The Hill People,” Korg (Jim Malinda) and his brother, Bok (Bill Ewing) watch the funeral rites of another tribe.  A man has died while hunting, leaving behind his widowed wife, Sala (Eileen Dietz). 

Bok very much wants to marry Sala, but Korg suggests the time isn’t right for such a move. Bok presses his case, and they learn that Sala is promised to the brother of her dead husband.

Unfortunately, Sala’s would be husband is mean (“he thinks only of himself”) and Sala runs off into the forest.  Bok tracks her and finds her, and explains his feelings for her. Bok brings her back to the Korg tribe, planning to marry her. “You will not be alone again," he promises.

Korg, however, is concerned. The Hill People are allies, and if they learn about Bok and Sala, the alliance could be threatened and all-out war could commence…

“The Hill People” is actually the finest episode of Korg 70,000 B.C. that I’ve watched so far. This happens to be so because the segment doesn’t concern an outside threat, necessarily, but a personal dilemma and social dilemma. Bok and Sala are in love, but because of the mores of the time, cannot be together.  Worse, every moment they are together, they endanger both of their tribes.

In the end, Sala chooses to return to her tribe, but it is not a happy ending. Sala returns to a man she hates, and who is bad to her. And Bok is left without the woman he loves.  The episode ends with a dramatic pull-back of Bok standing alone on the landscape, shattered by the loss of Sala.

The story succeeds not just as a love story, but as a demonstration of how a situation can spiral, suddenly, out of control. Here, both Korg and the leader of the Hill People are powerless, essentially, to stop the situation from snow-balling. By episode’s end, they have spears pointed at one another, despite alliances, despite protestations of friendship.  

In a way, the story aksi reminded me a little of the Helen of Troy myth, with Sala as Helen, the woman caught between two states (Troy/Korg’s tribe) and (Greece/The Hill People).  Bok substitutes for Paris, and Sala's would-be husband (who demands ten spears, ten spears, ten bearskins and ten cutting tools for her…), is Menelaus.

Also, the story makes a point of describing how for women -- who are viewed as property of men in the Neanderthal culture -- there is almost no freedom of choice. Sala cannot choose to spurn her brother's husband, and she cannot choose to marry whom she loves.

Buttressed by an unhappy ending, and the fact that the story doesn’t tie-up neatly or cleanly for everyone, “The Hill People” demonstrates how Korg 70,000 BC attempted daring and adult story-telling, even in a time-slot programmed for kids.

The Road Warrior (1982)

I first viewed  The Road Warrior  on a double bill with  Superman III  at the Castle Theater in Irvington, New Jersey. I was thirteen or fou...