Saturday, May 23, 2015

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: Valley of the Dinosaurs: "Volcano" (September 28, 1974)

The Butlers and Gorak’s cave family worry that a volcano -- known by the villagers as “Magog" -- is soon going to erupt.  

The only problem is that they can’t tell for certain, because the Tribal Council has forbidden anyone from ascending the mountain and troubling “Magog,” which it treats as a living creature, a God.

Mr. Butler realizes he must disobey orders, and go up the volcano anyway, without permission. Gorak goes with him, in defiance of the law, and the two men discover that, indeed, the volcano is ready to erupt.

Now they must return to the council whose orders they have ignored, and ask for help in diverting the lava flow away from the village and the family cave…

“Volcano,” this week’s episode of Valley of the Dinosaurs (1974), focuses again on two key series concepts: team-work and science.  

The cave-family and the Butlers join forces (eventually with the villagers, too…) to prevent lava from destroying their homes. Meanwhile, Mr. Butler -- former science teacher -- explains in detail such concepts as a compass, and how to split stone using spikes and water. 

Unlike Isis or Shazam, however, the scientific and social lessons of “Volcano” don’t hit one over the head, or become the focus of the show. Instead, action is highlighted.  This week, there’s a last minute escape from the lava using a Butler-built pedal-boat, as well as a race against time to beat the volcano. There’s also an interlude with a weird dodo-like creature.

It’s funny to think about, but “Volcano” also stresses -- on at least two occasions -- how it is sometimes necessary to break the law to achieve positive results.  

Butler notes that fact, and later, Gorok does too.  The underlying idea is good: that science and knowledge are sometimes more important than adherence to rules or dogma (especially unsubstantiated religious beliefs), but by the same token it’s weird for a kid’s show to advocate law-breaking.   I guess the appropriate idea here is: question authority; question those things that are not supported by fact, or logic.

Next week: "Pteranodon."

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: The Secrets of Isis: "The Cheerleader" (October 2, 1976)

In “The Cheerleader,” Ann (Laurette Spang) is desperate to head the school’s cheering team, and plots to steal the answer key to a chemistry test to keep her academic scores high. She lures Tut out of Ms. Thomas’s (Joanna Cameron) room, and Rennie has to find the missing raven. When Rennie returns, Ann has copied all the answers.

Then, to exacerbate her sin, Ann frames the top cheerleader on the squad, Wynn (Colleen Camp) for cheating on the test.  While the academic board debates what should happen to Wynn, however, Ms. Thomas looks into the matter and determines the truth.

When Ann is nearly caught for cheating, she flees in her car.  But after a strange turn of events, the car nearly runs her down on a hillside, necessitating a visit from Mighty Isis.

Battlestar Galactica’s (1978-1979) Cassiopeia -- Laurette Spang -- makes quite a splash in The Secrets of Isis, playing a ruthless, manipulative and scheming cheerleader.  She’s a good actress, and Spang makes one both loathe and then feel sorry for Ann, a girl who “wants everything,” according to Wynn, but who is not “willing to work for anything.”  

The result?  “She could end up with nothing.”

Despite a good guest appearance by Spang, “The Cheerleader” certainly raises some issues of continuity in terms of the series. 

 For example, the first half of the episode involves the fact that Ann frees Tut, Isis’s bird, and that the bird becomes lost, and later endangered in the great outdoors.  In her first appearance in this segment, in fact, Isis must save Tut from a wild dog.

But we already know from other episodes that Tut flies out of the lab quite a bit, and can handle himself just fine.  

He flew into a junkyard in one episode from the first season (to rescue Cindy Lee), and had to go find and recruit Captain Marvel in another episode, late in that season.  

So why is he suddenly helpless and at risk in the great outdoors?

Secondly, this episode seems to point out just how little the faculty actually does at Ms. Thomas’s school.  While Rick and Andrea walk the grounds working and fretting, they leave a student --- Rennie -- to type up the chemistry test answer key.  Isn’t this something they should be doing, rather than requiring a student to do it? (And Rennie is in the class, isn’t she?  How does that work if she prepares the exam’s answer keys?)

Isis saves the day (and Ann…) in “The Cheerleader” when she levitates the cheerleader far from the ground, and lets the runaway car go by her.  The superhero also manages to make the offending wild dog disappear, so she can retrieve Tut, and keep him safe from harm.  These powers are ones we’ve seen, in one form or another, on the series before. She used levitation in "Dreams of Flight," for example.

Next week: "Year of the Dragon."

Friday, May 22, 2015

Found Footage Friday: The Atticus Institute (2015)

(Beware of spoilers)

The new found-footage movie The Atticus Institute (2015) is just the kind of effort in this sub-genre that I really enjoy and appreciate. Specifically, it expands the definition or parameters of “found footage” a bit. 

The film is structured as a modern-day documentary that explores a strange event in the year 1976, and isn’t just an assemblage of someone’s raw footage, discovered in the immediate aftermath of a tragedy or catastrophic event.

Instead, the found footage of the bicentennial year is only a part of the visual and narrative tapestry.

The remainder of the film consists of talking head interviews with the survivors of the Atticus experiment today, in 2015, and B-roll footage of those involved, often consisting of nicely staged (and aged) photographs of the primary players.

The film’s opening credits are also played over a camera tour of the facility in modern times, abandoned, forgotten and in ruins.  This tour of the ruins -- a kind of archaeological curiosity in some weird way -- creates a powerful juxtaposition with the documentary footage we see unfold throughout the film.  

The visuals of the montage seem to mirror the progress of the experiment itself, revealing to audiences how a place of life and possibilities becomes a place of the dead, and was left forgotten.

Written and directed by Chris Sparling, The Atticus Institute is also a strong and nuanced character piece.  The various “talking heads” seen on screen -- including those played by Harry Groener and John Rubinstein -- discuss what is going on in the life of the film’s ostensible protagonist, Dr. Henry West (William Mapother). But the pictures subtly tell a different and highly intriguing story, one which the viewer must assemble and thread together with his or her own eyes.

Finally, there’s also a nice philosophical through-line in The Atticus Institute about the military mentality, and the desire to weaponize everything, even to the detriment of the human race. On one hand, it is interesting to connect this sub-plot to the events of the mid-1970s, when trust in government was at an all-time low because of the Watergate Scandal and the failures in Vietnam. 

On the other hand, the message plays as relevant today, as our military develops ever more fearsome and sophisticated ways of delivering death to our enemies.  Again, going back to the tour of the Atticus ruins that accompanies the opening credits, it’s fascinating to ponder how the two (parallel) time periods of The Atticus Institute suggest that if we don’t remember history, we are doomed to repeat it.

I’ve been on sort of a bad-streak with found footage movies of late, to my dismay. The Houses that October Built (2014), The Pyramid (2014) and the nutzo-gonzo Daylight (2013) didn’t do much to buoy my case about the sub-genre’s potential and longevity. 

So it’s a relief to report that The Atticus Institute is an intelligent and creepy addition to the found-footage canon, and one wholly worthy of recommendation.  There are a few jump scares in the film, but The Atticus Institute’s true success rests in the way it engages and galvanizes our attention and interest. 

Before long, we -- like the film’s haunted main characters -- begin to connect every event, random or not, to the horrors happening at the institute…and imagining worse ones yet to come. A strong atmosphere of dread and anticipatory anxiety is thus forged, and The Atticus Institute makes the most of it.

“We finally had the proof, not another hoax.”

A documentary about the Atticus Institute and the devastating events of late 1976 involves several affected individuals, including the children and wife of Dr. Henry West (Mapother).  Mapother was a renowned and respected scientist who in the early seventies, with his friend Dr. Henault (Groener) committed the Institute to a study of the paranormal.

It was a long, difficult slog, and the first psychic “prodigy” examined by the scientists proved to be a hoax. 

But one day, a woman named Judith Winstead (Rya Kihlstedt) arrived at the institute and promptly demonstrate incredible, and then terrifying abilities.

Over time, the scientists in the institute began to grow afraid of Judith and her always-developing powers.  

Some came to fear that her powers were not psychic, but a result of demonic possession. Another doctor, Marcus Wheeler (John Rubinstein) contacted the military in hopes of better containing and understanding Judith’s powers.

But the military proved single-minded, hoping to harness Winstead -- and the entity possessing her -- for use as a battlefield weapon. 

The documentary charts the tug of war between the military, the scientists, and the Devil, and records the only chronicled case of demonic possession in American history.

“You’re inviting bad things into your life.”

The key to an understanding of The Atticus Institute, and its final twist, involves paying close attention to the first-hand testimony of Judith’s sister, and then watching the moment-by-moment disintegration of Dr. West.  '

In particular, Judith’s sister reports that Judith became more and more disengaged from her life with the family, spending time alone in her room.  She practically disappeared from life. And it was then, after so much solitude, that she began to develop strange powers, or demonstrate the incipient stages of demonic possession, depending on what you choose to believe.

But watch The Atticus Institute with a close eye and make note of how West starts out as a galvanizing main character, calling the shots and directing the research. Then, after Judith is introduced, we see him less and less frequently, until by the third act, he seems almost invisible.  We see him a few times in his office...and he doesn't seem well.  "It's like a shadow," he says of a dark presence at one point, "but it's not me."

When you connect the two “dots” (the testimony of the sister, and West’s diminishing presence in the “documentary”) you can begin to intuit what the demon is up to, and what, precisely it wants. 

I should note, this connection is never brought out in dialogue, even once. Instead, The Atticus Institute credits its audience with intelligence, and creates a story through visualization, and loose connections. Pay close heed, and see for yourself how West's journey mirrors Judith's.

On a more concrete level, I appreciate how the film explores an aspect of the “supernatural” that is rarely discussed.  I’ll use The Amityville Horror as an example. There, the family experiences a bunch of weird things -- flies in the house, bloody walls, foul odors, cold air, disappearing cash, and more.  But the Lutzs’ overwhelming fear in that case connected all the incidents together into one cohesive terror. Everything that was slightly alarming (like the wino who showed up at the kitchen door unannounced…) became a product of demonic interference.  Leaky faucets, loose doors, and unsealed windows were the work...of the devil.

The Atticus Institute makes an interesting case here that once the scientists admit they are “scared,” they too start to willy-nilly connect every bad thing in their lives to the actions and behavior of Judith.

This is not a small thing.  

The first portion of the film is all about the way that the scientists at Atticus scrupulously avoid making unwarranted and unsupported connections.  Even when they believed they had evidence for psychic powers, they understood that they also had to contend with “lucky guesses” and “false positives.”  

There’s also a subplot early in the film about a fraud, about a man claiming to be psychic who, in fact, uses magnetic manipulation to appear gifted.  He almost succeeds too, and that’s the point.  This kind of work cannot be undertaken lightly, with wild conclusions being drawn. Every result must be checked, double checked, and triple checked.

But after Judith enters the picture and proves so frightening and so powerful, the scientists lose their sense of objectivity and rationality, and their fear begets more fear and more fear. 

Exhibit A in this kind of madness involves Henault, who in one compelling interview session tells the story of picking up a paper clip from the laboratory floor, and putting it in his pocket.  What use that paper clip comes to is bizarre and terrifying.  

But is it random? 

Or is the accident it causes a result of Judith’s deliberate efforts and manipulation? 

It’s an interesting conceit about the way the human mind works, and more than that, a splendid avenue by which to explore horror.  As I often write about in my books and on the blog, we aren’t scared of the things we know.  We’re scared of the things we don’t know; the things that we are uncertain about. 

In this case, significant tension arises from the fact that Judith’s abilities may be wildly over-estimated…or not.  We can’t be sure.  Even Henault can’t be sure, and you can see the fear and uncertainty inscribed in every crack and crevice on his expressive face.

There are other moments of pure terror in The Atticus Institute, but to feel it, you have to be engaged, you have to be thinking.  The terror is cerebral in nature, as you start to play out things in your head.

Sometimes, it is more overt too.  The military attempts to make Judith into a weapon, and conducts one experiment in which they attempt to have her, remotely, put words in the mouth of a soldier in an isolated booth.  

When those words are revealed, your skin will crawl because they change everything about the nature of the Atticus experiment, and about our understanding of who the subject of the experiment really is.

The Atticus Institute ends in a way that will provoke and alarm audiences, and I must confess, my first thought was that I wanted a sequel. That there was more story left to tell here. Even forty years after the events of '76.

You know your found-footage horror movie is hitting all the right notes if, as it ends, you’re thinking that you want to see the next chapter of its story.  

I think I know what became of Henry West, but The Atticus Institute sparked my curiosity and engaged my imagination. 

This strange and unnerving tale thus speaks to the real potential of the found footage format. One character in the documentary, late in the action, suggests that even by watching this movie, you are "inviting bad things into your life."

But The Atticus Institute's dedication to cerebral horror and subtlety suggests otherwise. So go ahead, invite this carefully-crafted, well-made horror movie into your life.

Movie Trailer: The Atticus Institute (2015)

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Cult-Movie Review: Maggie (2015)

(Beware of spoilers)

At this point, a full decade or so since the sub-genre re-ignited in a significant way, we have seen virtually every kind of zombie movie possible.  And on TV, The Walking Dead affords us our weekly dose of zombie apocalypse action too.

On one hand, it might be tempting to gaze at all these zombie productions and yell “overkill,” or some such thing.

I see it differently, however. 

The surfeit of zombie films -- in conjunction with the rise of indie/DIY horror -- has permitted the genre to expand in new and unexpected directions.  

If there weren’t approximately a hundred variations of the zombie film being made each and every year, would we have the creative space for perfect little cinematic grace notes like The Battery (2014), or this film, Maggie (2015)?

I suspect not.

By now, the parameters of the zombie plague are so well-known -- don’t get bitten, shoot the zombies in the head, etc. -- that some movies have chosen to innovate not by going big and epic, but by doing the opposite; by exploring the world of the walking dead on a small and intimate basis.

Directed by Henry Hobson, Maggie chooses this route. 

The film has received mixed reviews thus far, and I believe the negative reviews have more to do with audience expectations than any particular quality of the film itself. 

Some people think of zombies and they want another World War Z (2013) or some such effort: a gory war story told on a humongous scale. 

Maggie is pretty clearly not that thing.

On the contrary, it’s a sweet, unassuming film about a young girl who is going to die from the zombie plague, Maggie (Abigail Breslin), and her heart-broken, soul-broken father, Wade (Arnold Schwarzenegger).

In true Hamlet-like fashion, Wade is paralyzed about what to do for Maggie.  He can’t bear to kill her, or rob her of a minute of her life.

But nor can he allow her to continue suffering, or become a danger to others…including his wife and other children.

Tear off Maggie’s genre elements and what you get here is the simple story of a child with a fatal disease, a child with no possible future.  Her father wants her to experience that future, but knows it is not to be.  

But if he can give her one more day, or a day and a half of that future…isn’t that a victory?

Maggie is nothing more and nothing less than the above-description suggests. It’s a gray, grim character piece that happens to be highlighted by some surprisingly-effective acting from action star, Schwarzenegger.  He doesn’t do his standard action man shtick here: a wink and a gag, coupled with his unmatchable charisma and screen presence. 

Instead, we see the character’s crushed heart, and total incapacity to resolve Maggie’s dilemma. 

As is often the case, it behooves you, going in to a film like Maggie to know what sort of film you’re watching.  This isn’t a decapitation-a-minute gore fest.  This isn’t an action film at all. Maggie is a sensitive and at times heart-wrenching drama about a family that could be yours…or mine.

On those grounds, Maggie is beautiful effort, an elegiac father-daughter love story.

“You shouldn’t have brought me back.”

In modern America, a necro-ambulist plague infects much of the populace.  Urban areas are hardest hit, but some rural areas remain largely unscathed. The U.S. government has established a protocol for dealing with those infected; those who have been bitten by the walking dead. The suffering are allowed to go home with their loved ones for a time, and then -- when “the turn” goes into full effect -- are shipped off to quarantine camps, where they will die.

Weeks after she ran away, young Maggie Vogel (Breslin) is found by her farmer father, Wade (Schwarzenegger) in a hospital ward for the infected.  She’s been bitten on the arm, and it’s only a matter of time before she will die. 

A kindly doctor informs Wade that first Maggie will lose her appetite, and then she’ll get it back…but for human flesh.  A sign of the “turn” is an increased ability to smell…meat. Worse, Maggie’s disease is progressing more rapidly than normal.  She has very little time left…

Wade takes Maggie home to the family farm, where her step-mother, Caroline (Joely Richardson) is understandably anxious about her presence.  The Vogels’ two younger children are sent away with relatives during the duration of Maggie’s care.

Over time, Wade is forced to confront his responsibility vis-à-vis his daughter.  A neighbor has kept her daughter and husband -- both infected -- at home too, but they escape and present a danger to the Vogels.  Wade is forced to kill them outright, rather than let them attack.  He is warned by a local sheriff not to allow the same thing in his house; not to keep Maggie at home so long that she is a danger to others.

Meanwhile, Maggie confronts the idea that she has no future. She goes out for an evening with friends, including a boy who is bound for quarantine, and dreads the possibility.  Soon Caroline leaves the house, and Maggie watches as Wade agonizes over his choices.

Then, Maggie’s “turn” begins. Her eyes go black, and she begins to sense those around her not as people, but as food.

The time for action is coming, but Wade can’t bring himself to do what he must…

“Think about what you did today. And what you may have to do tomorrow.”

There are very few fireworks in Maggie.  The film is not about zombies overrunning our infrastructure, or laying siege to our cities and communities.  Instead, the film adopts a very simple premise.  Early on, a physician tells Wade what to expect, and then we follow Maggie through the stages of the plague. Remembering the doctor’s words, we understand where Maggie “is” on the plague continuum.  There is no happy ending and, indeed, no expectation of one.

One of the best scenes in the film sees that physician talking frankly with Wade about his options.  This in-mourning dad can take his daughter immediately to quarantine, a kind of hell-on-Earth death-camp.  He can give her a government-made death cocktail to kill her, but she will suffer immensely because the cocktail is painful. 

Or Wade can end it quickly, with a bullet to the head, ending Maggie’s suffering once and for all.

Not one of those options is a good one, pretty plainly. And Wade spends the majority of the film waiting, attempting to decide on his course of actions.  He waits and he waits, and Maggie grows worse. 

He waits because he can’t bear for her to die.

He waits because he can’t before her to live in her condition.  

As the father, I sympathized completely with Wade’s inaction. He knows he is going to lose his beloved child, but he doesn’t want to take one minute of life from that child.  He wants to wait till the last possible moment, till the moment when her humanity is eclipsed, and he knows she must die. 

But, moment after moment, encounter after encounter, he finds that there is some of “Maggie” still left in that “turning” zombie. Every time he sees that human quality, he -- again -- can’t act.  As viewers, we begin to doubt, frankly, that he is capable of doing what everyone tells him he must do.

I don’t know, honestly, that I could do any better, in the same situation.

My wife tells me she would choose option three for our son -- get it over with quickly and painlessly -- and then turn the gun on herself rather than live with the heart-break. Her reasoning is that it is wrong to let someone we love suffer.  I hear and understand that rationale, and perhaps I’m a coward, or simply weak.  But I don’t think I could pull the trigger on my son until I knew, 100% that there was no other option; that my child was really and truly lost. 

And even then, I don’t know if I could do it.

Maggie is the kind of film that makes you consider such questions. What would you do if your child contracted a plague, and was a danger to others?

On a more mundane level, what would you do if your child contracted, simply, a terminal illness? 

How would you talk to that child about the elephant in the room: the idea that he or she simply has run out of future? The parent-child bond is one about learning and preparing, conveying knowledge to the young.  Suddenly, that contract is broken, because the child will never grow up, never carry the responsibility to be an adult, and go through life. What’s left to talk about? To connect over?

We see in one scene, as Wade focuses on the past, and the way he and Maggie’s mother met.  Shared history is the only thing left when the future is gone.

Other characters in the film, including Caroline, periodically warn Wade that Maggie isn’t herself anymore.  And even Maggie coaches her Dad on what he must do. 

“You have to do it,” she tells him.

Yet still, Wade can’t bring himself to act.  Perhaps there is a part of him that would rather die with Maggie than live without her.  Again -- and as I think my wife was trying to express in her own way -- I sympathize with that instinct.

Overall, I appreciate how sensitively and intelligently (but not cloyingly…) the movie explores its themes. In particular, it seemed to recognize a key fact about human nature.

You are always certain how strong you are...until it is your loved ones who are in pain.  And then certainty flies out the window.  Maggie captures that notion splendidly.

Maggie presents a haunting scenario to think about, and Arnold Schwarzenegger delivers a remarkable performance here.  He prowls the film with a hang-dog expression, and an air of defeat.  I remember being none-too-impressed with his performance as a grieving husband and Dad in End of Days (1999).  I didn’t feel he had the depth, there, to nail that fallen character.  But here, he absolutely nails the essence of his character, Wade.  He carries an invisible weight on his shoulders, and there’s a sweet gentleness to his interactions with Maggie.  Wade is never disgusted, horrified or scared by her. But he is a wreck, facing what for him is the end of his universe, the death of his child.  I have never seen Schwarzenegger give such an internal performance before, and his work here is accomplished and award-worthy.

Maggie’s denouement, finds an intriguing answer for Wade’s existential dilemma.  I don’t want to give it away, but it stems from Maggie’s strength, and --as it should -- from her love for her father.  Maggie’s final act in this life is one that takes her father’s experience fully into account, and goes from there.

What finally emerges then, is a portrait of a loving family facing a horrible situation.  The love that Wade and Maggie share for one another is the thing that makes the pain so difficult to contend with, but in the final analysis it is also the quality that gives both individuals the strength to go on and do what they must.

In terms of its imagery, Maggie exists in a kind of de-saturated world of gray, where all joy and hope has been chemically extracted from the visuals.  In a world without a future, how can the sky, the landscape, or the people be anything but gray?  The film’s visuals are quite lovely at times, though for some stretches it looks like the Vogel’s live on Matthew McConaughey’s farm from Interstellar (2014)

Maggie is a sad -- nay grim -- film.  Yet it is one I wholeheartedly recommend. You’ve seen zombies of all types before – fast and slow, brain-eating or not -- but Maggie’s gift to us is worth noting.  The film takes the world of the zombie apocalypse and makes it feel personal and close in a way that few genre films have managed.

Home is where the heart -- and Hell -- is. 

Movie Trailer: Maggie (2015)

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Action Figures of the Week: Evel Knievel (Ideal Edition)

Evel Knievel Halloween Costume (Ben Cooper)

Evel Knievel Colorforms

Model Kits of the Week: Evel Knievel (Addar Edition)

Trading Cards of the Week: Evel Knievel

Lunch Box of the Week: Evel Knievel

Board Game of the Week: Evel Knievel Stunt Game (Ideal)

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Lost in Space 50th Anniversary Blogging: "War of the Robots" (February 9, 1966)

In one corner, we have Robby the Robot, famous cinematic automaton of the classic film, Forbidden Planet (1956). 

And in the other corner, we have lovable B-9, mechanical guardian of our space family Robinson and popular hero of Lost in Space.

May the best robot win!

In very silly terms, that's the set-up for this classic first season Lost in Space (1965-1968) episode, "The War of the Robots," which aired originally on CBS on February 9, 1966.

Here, the stranded Robinsons unexpectedly discover a quiescent "robotoid" in an overgrown grove near their homestead, covered in vines. 

The Robinsons' protective robot insists the alien machine (Robby...) is an "extreme danger" to the humans, in part because of Robby's very nature: he's a "robotoid" (unlike the Robot), and robotoids are advanced machines which can go beyond the bounds of their programming.

Robotoids have a "choice,” according to the Robot in the way they follow (or don't follow...) orders and instructions. 

The Robinsons and especially Dr. Smith (Jonathan Harris) believe their Robot is just jealous of the new machine, which -- when activated by Will (Bill Mumy) -- shows an affinity for repairing watches, the damaged chariot, and other crucial devices.

Dr. Smith derides the familiar family robot as a "clumsy has-been" and "obsolete" as, in short order, Robby the Robotoid becomes practically invaluable to the marooned Robinsons (save for Penny, who has mysteriously vanished from the entire episode...without it being noticed by her Mom or Dad).

Soon, Robby confronts the B-9 and tells him that the Robinsons no longer need their original robot and that "in comparison" to himself, the B-9 is "very ignorant."

Alone and abandoned, B-9 skulks away into the rocks -- having lost his family -- and soon Robby's true motives emerge. He is actually the dedicated servant to an alien scientist (a kind of dog-alien that very much resembles the Anticans from the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode "Lonely Among Us" that was produced and broadcast twenty-one years later...).

The Robotoid's mission is not to serve the Robinsons, but rather to disarm them, render them "harmless" and deliver them as experimental subjects to the aliens.

"You are weak and vulnerable creatures," Robby tells the Robinsons, "but there are others who have need of you..."

In the end, it's a battle-to-the-death between a nearly-invincible Robby, the most famous robot in film history, and a vastly-under-powered Bubble-Headed Booby, the most famous mechanical man of television...

I love the way the first season of the series is shot, and this episode is a prime example. In "The War of the Robots," for instance, a fluid camera glides in menacingly towards Robby the Robot at least twice, pushing portentously towards the inscrutable juggernaut.

A less efficient production might have used a zoom instead of taking the time and energy to move the camera, but you can tell that there was no expense spared in early Lost in Space, and generally, the series is really well-filmed. 

There's even a sense of visual ingenuity (and wit...) in the episode's final battle between clunky metal men. They flap and lumber their way through a cloud of opaque smoke, laboring to find the best kill position.

In some ways, “War of the Robots” is also like the dam breaking in Lost in Space, at least in terms of the depiction of the Robot.  He has been mainly the tool, so far, of Doctor Smith, and occasional helper of the family...but he hasn’t been sentimentalized.  

The sentimentalization of the machine begins in earnest at this juncture.  The Robot is seen as lonely, emotionally wounded, and looked over by his beloved family.  Will and Maureen, similarly, begin to express their feelings for the dutiful robot in this emotional fashion.

The "War of the Robots" narrative is one we can all identify with. The Robot feels squeezed out by his new "sibling," Robby, and becomes jealous that, well, there's somebody newer and more exciting in the room. 

The Robot begins striking out at those who love him (refusing to help Will...), becomes petulant and even self-loathing (describing the fact that he has been denied or "cheated" out of human characteristics evidenced by the Robotoid.)

Let's face it: haven't we all felt displaced like that from time to time? By a brother or a sister? By your best friend's 'new' buddy? 

It's strange that a story so plainly concerning sibling rivalry involves an ostensibly "emotion-less" robot, but again, that's the great thing about science fiction on television: it can dramatize stories in a way a regular drama can't.

"The War of the Robots" is a fable or lesson about jealousy, and every other dramatic consideration  about the episode is largely secondary.

In this way, the series conforms to its overarching idea: that of a pioneer family determining how to thrive on the frontier, with all sorts of challenges around.  

Only in this case, it is clear that the robot is part of the family, and not just an instrument or device. 

When we enter the space age, Lost in Space tells us, even our technology will be part of "us."

Next week: “The Magic Mirror”

Cult-Movie Review: Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)

(Watch out for spoilers!)

It’s been a long time since I felt physically endangered or jeopardized while watching a movie. 

That may sound silly, but the best genre movies, traditionally, have accomplished just such a feat. In these works of art, the viewer feels so immersed in the action unfolding on screen that all distance between movie and audience vanishes. 

Instead, you are there, in the thick of it, living the action moment-to-moment, holding your breath, clutching your hand-rests.

I felt that way a lot in Mad Max: Fury Road (2015).

In fact, I felt that way for two full hours. This is a movie that begins with a bang, and then never lets up till the end credits roll. In a word, the R-rated film is amazing.

There is a pervasive feeling here -- one carefully engendered and nourished by director George Miller -- that anything can happen, and anything will happen. In fact, an event that occurs about half-way through Mad Max: Fury Road -- totally unthinkable in your standard summer blockbuster fare -- shatters any illusions that you know how this film is going to turn out. 

All bets are off.

This movie is hard-core. It is dangerous, and you feel that danger in your bones and in your brain.  At one point, as some piece of cast-off metal whizzed at the screen (and therefore, at my face) I reflexively flinched.  That’s how certain I was that I was actually, physically imperiled by the film’s demolition derby action.

I’ll put this another way. 

I’m an optimist by nature, but I wasn’t entirely certain I would ever see again another film like The Road Warrior (1982); one that pushed the envelope of decorum so far that it created -- by its sheer kinetic wake -- a whole new movie genre (the post-apocalyptic wasteland movie, for lack of a better descriptor). 

But Mad Max: Fury Road has proven me wrong.  It is not only a legitimate genre masterpiece, but one that reveals just how shallow, predictable and safe this summer’s other blockbusters have been thus far.   

Mad Max runs over traditional movie decorum at 100 miles an hour, and then backs over it two or three times, just to make sure it’s really dead. The film is not only the equal of The Road Warrior, it is superior to that thirty-three year old classic in just about every way imaginable.

Again, none of this happens by accident.

Mad Max: Fury Road is, in a canny way, constructed to augment immersion and unpredictability.  Beyond the narrative/structural surprises, the vehicle/chase choreography is a thing of destructive, wild, imaginative chaos and beauty.  The film leaps from one sustained, unrelenting, gasp-provoking action scene to another and yet, miraculously, still finds time to be about the people who inhabit this world.  And on a wider terrain than that, even, this film is about humanity, or human nature, itself.

Mad Max: Fury Road spoon-feeds you nothing. There are no conversations here in which people sit down and talk about their feelings or their motivations. Some less-than-insightful folks might consider the film dumb because they aren’t specifically told how to feel, or what to think, but these individuals have given short shrift to the power of visual imagery, and director Miller’s skillful use of it.  Everything you need to know to understand the movie’s story, world, and ideas is right there, on screen, a true feast for the eyes.

And what is the film about? Nothing less than Max’s (Tom Hardy) one overriding instinct -- survival -- and the conflicts that occur when that instinct runs smack against not one, but two brick walls.

One of those brick-walls is named Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron). She is an individual who is as dedicated to her mission of “redemption” as Max is to his mission of self-preservation.

Another, even more dangerous brick wall Max encounters here is the fanaticism that too often accompanies fundamental religious belief.

In the film, this impediment to continued survival and civilization itself is named Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne). He has set up a society that worship him as a God. People live and die by his command, and that’s exactly how he desires it.

In the last instance -- the exploration of cult fanaticism -- this Mad Max entry very much reflects our age. This is an era in which some people believe it is perfectly acceptable to burn and behead those who don’t share their restrictive, draconian ideology.  It is also an era when others believe that their personal religious convictions are more important than basic human decency, courtesy, or the ties that bind a society together.

In both cases (one murderous, and one merely sanctimonious), zealous belief has replaced common sense, community, and the desire to erect a just world.  Mad Max: Fury Road’s depiction of this belief mind-set gone mad, in a place called the Citadel is -- like so much in the film -- unforgettable.
I’m not one for hyperbole. Indeed, if you scroll over to the side-bar featuring critic comments about me on the right side of this review, you’ll note that I was once called “ever the judicious critic.” 

Well, with that descriptor in mind, let me say simply that Mad Max: Fury Road has not only revealed how fake, flat and uninspired most summer movies are, it has given us the finest action film in the last several years, and perhaps of the 21st century.

Go see it as soon as you can.  And hold on tight.

“We are not things! We are not things!”

Following an apocalyptic war and the end of civilization, humanity has attempted to re-assert itself in the desert. But the twisted forms it has taken are horrifying, as a wanderer in the wasteland, former police man Max (Hardy) has discovered.

One day, Max is captured by the forces of the Citadel and Immortan Joe (Keays-Byrne). This cult does not see outsiders as possessing any value, and Max is turned into a living blood bag; one servicing Immortan’s “War Boys,” whom he sends on wasteland jihads.

In particular, Max is the blood donor for a callow youth named Nux (Nicholas Hault), who wishes for just one thing: entrance into Valhalla, the land of heroes.  To get there, he must obey Joe, and kill on his behalf. “I live. I die. I live again,” he recites, as if his words are Scripture.

When another of Joe’s people, Imperator Furiosa (Theron) leaves the Citadel in a war rig, events take a strange turn.  Furiosa has taken with her on her journey Joe’s five wives, whom he keeps locked in a vault, and is making a run for freedom. Some of the young women are pregnant.

Joe, who also keeps his people starving and thirsty, rallies all his forces to get the women back. Max becomes an unwitting part of the war party when Nux refuses to leave his blood supply behind.

After several dangerous, destructive encounters, Max and Lux end up on the war rig with Furiosa and must re-evaluate their allegiances and belief systems. 

With Joe hot on their trail, the group must decide if it can reach the mythical “Green” lands (and land of “Many Mothers”) or if it should choose a different course.

“Who Killed the World?”

At a few key junctures in Mad Max: Fury Road, we see the legend written or spoken, “who killed the world?” 

The answer, as enunciated by the film, is religious zealotry. 

What killed the world is the perverse, destructive desire of the devout to force their belief system on those who simply wish to leave in peace and freedom.

In the real world, we have ISIS, of course, as an example of just such zealotry. Indeed, the atrocities committed by ISIS remind us that Fury Road isn’t so fantastic as to be unbelievable.  The world in the film is only a single step removed from reality, and grounded very much in the truths of today.

Historically speaking, we know that the Mad Max movies feature an apocalypse caused by demand for oil.  And we have now waged two wars in Iraq and the wider Middle East, with different ideologies clashing, and oil fields as the coveted prize. Thus, Miller’s sci-fi world even looks more plausible today than it did thirty years ago, during the Cold War.

In the Citadel of Fury Road, those who don’t profess devout belief in Immortan Joe are literally nothing except spare parts…blood to be used by the War Boys. Their beliefs are wrong, so they are worthless as human beings.

In the same culture, women are treated as property, and there are no families.  Some women are designated breeders, while others are nurse-maids, but all the boys are raised to be murderous warriors, never knowing the milk of human kindness that a mother (and father) can provide.  We see some women in the film, pumping breast milk, but it is just a commodity, not something to be shared in a family.  The women and the War Boys don’t mingle.

The boys exist not to be human, but to kill and conquer, and convert more followers to Joe’s holy cause.  The Citadel, then, is a theocracy, a metropolis where religious belief dictates all decisions.  If you believe, you fight for Joe without question.  If you believe, you breed for Joe without question. 

But if you don’t believe, you are worthless except that your precious blood may of value to one war boy or another.

This dynamic reflects the religious world view that God has chosen a particular people, and the belief that those people are above all others in terms of value and worth.   

We see in the film how Nux -- in many ways the film’s most intriguing character -- longs to die in service of his God. He wants to die and be reborn, and then die again.  He wants to enter Valhalla as a proud, heroic warrior. He wants the blessings of his God, and will do anything to achieve that goal, even if it means snuffing out human life. This world and such matters as humanity or family matter very little to Nux.  He has been indoctrinated not to want or desire those things, only to “believe” in Joe’s divinity and to serve without question.

It is therefore, in authentic terms, heart-wrenching when Nux fails in direct eyesight of Immortan Joe. Nux slips and fails in his mission, and he sees with his own eyes Joe’s utter disdain for him.  He has disappointed his God.  He has lost all value and self-worth, and knows it cannot be retrieved. 

At this point, Nux’s journey to become a human being and not a religious slave begins in earnest. Isolated and lonely, he reaches out, a little at a time, and starts to see how belief has imprisoned him, given him only the narrowest of visions of life. 

In the end, Nux makes a choice that one might think is, ironically, in keeping with his religious beliefs (and the desire to die), but he does so because -- for the first time -- he actually cares about someone other than himself and his “God.”  He makes his final choice because he wants someone else to live, not glory in some fictional afterlife.

As I’ve written before, that’s what civilization really is. 

It isn’t taking care of your own, or sticking to a tradition you know and practice.  That’s simply self-preservation. 

Civilization is what comes into being when you think of other people, and their survival, and take steps to preserve those things.

Max undertakes a kind of parallel journey in the film. 

Here, he has forsaken so much of his humanity to survive in the wasteland. In part, this may be because of his extreme self-loathing. We know from the events of Mad Max (1979) that he undertook vengeance -- an anti-social endeavor -- even knowing the consequences of that vengeance.  He murdered those who killed his wife and son, and in the process sacrificed his humanity and civilization itself. 

When we meet him again in Fury Road (which I believe, chronologically, precedes Thunderdome, but I could be wrong…) Max is still a barbarous “thing,” a man driven only by the desire to see the next minute alive.  He is unable to trust, unable to do much of anything, in fact, save for react to attacks.

Over the course of the film, he too starts to reach out, and sees that if man’s civilization is ever to return, that return must occur where civilization has the best chance. And for all its monstrosities and terrors, the Citadel is that place. There is green grass there.  There is water there.  There are children there.  Accordingly, Max convinces Furiosa to return there. They leads the war rig back to take on Joe, and reclaim the Citadel for humanity.

Furiosa is an intriguing character, but unlike either Nux or Max (and notice the similarity, please, in the names of those two male characters) she is in touch with her feelings; with her guilt and shame.  

She says she is out for “redemption,” because she has seen Joe for what he is and was still a part of his corrupt regime. She wants to escape him, and run away.  She wants to run away and not look back.

Ultimately, however, as Max proves, you can’t achieve redemption by running away.  You can only achieve it by reckoning with it at the place where the shame and guilt began.  And for Furiosa that is the home of her captors, the Citadel. As Max informs her, from personal experience: “If you can’t fix what’s broken, you’ll go insane.” 

In a very compelling way, Mad Max: Fury Road concerns three flawed characters who must open their eyes to the fact that they have been living in a destructive, anti-human way, and who therefore decide to address it by joining forces to take down the anti-human God, Joe.  Not a one of the three is perfect alone, but together…what a team they make. As dangerous as it is, they tall take one final shot at fixing what’s broken.

Some viewers have also picked up on the male/female conflicts in Mad Max: Fury Road, and attempted to state that the film is somehow anti-male, or that Furiosa assumes Max’s role as primary hero. 

I don’t believe either accusation is true. 

Furiosa and Max make a great team. She helps Max escape from danger, so that survival is not so important to him.  And he makes Furiosa return home, so that she can achieve the redemption she desires.  It is true that Furiosa, not Max, deals the death blow in the film to a significant villain, but if you look at Mad Max history, that is not entirely out of the norm.  If I remember correctly, Max never kills Auntie Entity in Thunderdome (1985), either.

Furiosa is not better or stronger than Max, and Max is not stronger or better than Furiosa.  That’s sort of the point.  They each possess different strengths and so can work together beautifully and effectively.  Max and Nux are “reliable,” as Furiosa notes, and Max sees for himself how committed Furiosa is to saving Joe’s brides from a life of enslavement, as property.

I don’t see why it has to be a competition between Max and Furiosa, frankly.  The film provides us several great characters, especially once you factor in Nux. They are all memorable, and they all serve the story well.

The other quality that serves the story well is, as I noted in my introduction, Miller’s structuring of the screenplay. 

The most independent and head-strong of the brides, The Splendid Angharad (Rosie Huntington-Whiteley) is very pregnant in the film, and she demonstrates all the qualities that would make her the movie’s perfect hero. She is smart, brave and resourceful. She is a leader. She knows that her baby must live free, and that she must do so as well.

But what happens to noble Angharad is unexpected and terrible, and totally outside the confines of Hollywood movie convention. 

Again, I repeat: she is a pregnant, mother-to-be, and a person who wants only one thing. to be free.  But fate is so cruel to her and her dreams.  Once Angharad meets her fate, Miller demonstrates that he is committed to his hardcore cause.  He will not play Hollywood B.S. games and will not back away from taboo material. Instead, he makes his point about a world in which “believers” treat non-believers as “things” to be used, not as people.

It is a cliché, often spattered on newspaper banners, to claim that a film consists of “non-stop” action.  I shit you not when I say that Mad Max: Fury Road is non-stop action.  The film never stops moving, either literally or philosophically.  And visually, the film not only accelerates to the point of madness, it reveals, along the way, a splendid imagination in terms of characters and art design.  The war rig is a miraculous design, for instance, but it is just one such imaginative creation.  Max and Furiosa encounter a war party that drives around in giant spiked cars -- an homage to The Cars that Ate Paris (1976), perhaps? -- with wicked buzz-saw attachments. At another juncture, we see mysterious nomads on stilts navigating a swamp environment by night, and the imagery is evocative of a larger, unseen, unexplored world.   The action is spectacular on a whole new level, but the imaginative visuals go far beyond the action, and also lend support to the depiction of a (believable) world gone mad.

I don’t know how much money Mad Max: Fury Road (2015) will ultimately make, but I do know that we will be extremely lucky if any other genre film this summer – or in 2015 -- gets even close to Miller’s masterpiece in terms of wild ingenuity, excitement, and philosophical meaning.  It’s already made road-kill of Avengers: Age of Ultron on those fronts, and I hope Hollywood takes note.

In future years, I hope when people ask who killed the world of safe CGI summer blockbusters, we can all answer in unison…Mad Max: Fury Road.