Saturday, October 24, 2015

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: Jason of Star Command: "Chapter 5: Wiki to the Rescue" (October 7, 1978)

In Jason of Star Command (1978-1980) Chapter 5, “Wiki to the Rescue,” the tiny aforementioned robot proves his worth yet again.

While Jason (Craig Littler) and Princess Allegra (Roseanne Katon) are trapped on a crumbling planetoid, the droid finds Nicole (Susan Pratt) on a Star Fire and alerts her to the situation.

Meanwhile, Star Command is still facing the crisis that Dragos (Sid Haig) initiated. The base is falling into an alien star.

Accordingly, Professor Parsafoot (Charlie Dell) must either surrender to Dragos or die.  

Demonstrating courage, Parsafoot rebuffs Dragos and decides that Star Command will take its chances.

Jason, realizing that he must break Dragos’ hold on Star Command, initiates a self-destruct sequence on his Star Fire and rams it into the sinister and imposing Dragon Ship. 

Jason and Allegra escape in a pod, having achieved their mission.

Meanwhile, Dragos’ drones close in on Wiki, ready to destroy him.

Each fifteen minute segment of Jason of Star Command’s first season is really only a small piece of a big puzzle.  Not all the segments stand up well as stand-alone adventures, as they start with a cliffhanger and end with another. 

That said, the strong special effects, dynamic costumes, and space adventuring all call back the heyday of Star Wars.  

Jason of Star Command is space swashbuckling pure and simple, and enjoyable on that basis, even if woefully shallow or superficial. Princess Allegra adds some much needed spice to the proceedings, and the visuals are, as usual, unimpeachable. 

Here, on that front, we get the Star Command falling into a star, and Wiki caaught in a dangerous pursuit by drone interceptors.

This segment also features a fantastic and uncommon view of the Dragon Ship from beneath.  The miniature remains impressive to this day, even though we are now decidedly in the age of CGI. Just look at the detail's a whole city we've never even seen before!

Finally, it's nice to report that Parsafoot shows some real backbone this week, and doesn't serve only as wimpy comic relief.

Next week, one of the first season episodes that is often considered the best of the bunch: “Planet of the Lost.”

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: Space Academy (1977): "There's No Place Like Home" (October 8, 1977)

In this installment of Filmation's live-action Saturday morning outer space series, Space Academy (1977), young orphan Loki (Eric Greene) is despondent because he still doesn't know where his home is; from which planet in all the expansive universe he hails from.

"If only I could wish upon a star," muses Commander Gampu (Jonathan Harris), while secretly ruling out systems like Sirius and others.

Meanwhile, something strange occurs in Bay 3, a hydroponics-type dome in the Academy. 

A strange man has "transphased" there. At first he appears as a giant, inhuman alien. Then he transforms into a bunny rabbit, which Adrian (Maggie Cooper) adopts and names Jumping Jupiter

But when the alien morphs into a man, Vicron, we start to understand his strategy. He finds Loki and promptly informs the orphan that he is from Loki's home planet. Furthermore, he seems to have information to back-up that assertion. He notes that Loki wears an amulet which features a holographic coat of arms. The alien promises to take Loki home, but only after the boy has stolen an unstable compound called MX-5 from the Academy science labs.

At first, Loki refuses to steal from his friends, but then the alien, Vicron (now garbed in a green cape and hood, and played by Larry Dobkin), reveals his power to alter molecular structure. 

He threatens Loki by turning a table in the boy's quarters to stone. 

Suitably frightened, Loki steals the compound (in a giant glass beaker...), and the alien flees the Academy, a Seeker in hot pursuit. 

When the Seeker with the MX-5 aboard blows out its main battery, the Academy students and Gampu save the alien, and take his problems to the Federation for negotiation...

"There's No Place Home" is a Space Academy episode that raises a few important questions of plausibility. For instance, if the alien needs to steal a Seeker to leave the Academy and return to his home planet (or "universe," according to the dialogue), how does he "transphase" successfully to the Academy in the first place? 

It might have been nice to use that technology to make quick his escape. Of course, there's an easy answer. Perhaps MX-5 becomes even more unstable when teleported or "transphased."  But this is something the episode might have noted. Or perhaps, even, transphase technology can be used on humanoid tissue only once.  Again, virtually any explanation would suffice, it's just that the episode needs to offer it.

Secondly, a rabbit appears out of the blue in an Academy dome, and nobody thinks that' this turn of events is suspicious. Rabbits don't just grow on trees...especially in deepest space. Maybe the presence of a rabbit in the dome should have been a sign of warning to someone about, at the very least, Academy scecurity procedures.

It's also quite bizarre that during the rescue operation aboard the damaged Seeker, Chris and Tee-Gar wear no protective gear at all, even though the cabin is filled with gas and smoke and vapour...and Loki has warned them about it.  I may have missed it, but I don't they mentioned their life support devices. Perhaps they are wearing them.

I do think, however, that "There's No Place Like Home" also features some good ideas, to go along with the (perhaps) faulty writing.  The alien, Vicron, is very realistic in some sense; in a human sense. He would rather steal the MX-5 than ask for help.  

Why?  He might be told "no."   

As I grow older, I realize just how many people (and indeed, governments...) think in precisely this way.  It is better to adopt a stance of strength than admit that you need something, or that help is required.  Yet asking for help can bridge cultures, at least under the right circumstances. That's sort of the lesson of the week

In terms of series development, I also admire this episode because it shows us Commander Gampu's quarters for what I believe is the first time.  And these quarters reflect on the man.  His "home" is a place of antiques and rare objects; a place of history and learning, like a museum.

We also get to see the hydroponic dome on Space Academy, and it looks much like agricultural domes as seen in diverse productions of the 1970s such as Silent Running (1972), The Starlost (1973) and Battlestar Galactica (1978-1979).

Also, I got a real kick out of the moment at the end of this Space Academy episode when the little robot Peepo began flailing his arms and declaring "Danger! Danger!" 

This HAS to be a deliberate reference to Lost in Space, star Jonathan Harris's (Gampu) previous series.

Next week: "The Rocks of Janus."

Friday, October 23, 2015

From the Archive: The Keep (1983)

One of the glories of film as an art form involves its capacity to forge a powerful mood or “feeling” outside or beyond strict narrative parameters.  This sense of atmosphere can be created through a combination of editing montage, musical soundtrack, and even pacing.

In other words, if the resultant overall mood of a film is potent enough, the moment-to-moment specifics of a movie’s plot don’t matter that much.  Viewers can get carried away not in specific details, but in strong emotional resonances.

This is especially so in the horror genre, in which a well-realized vision or “atmosphere” can, eerily, mirror our universal sense of dreaming, or our experience of a nightmare. 

In 1983 -- when I was thirteen -- I first saw in theaters a new horror film that, on a purely plot level, indeed seemed ludicrous and poorly constructed.  But the visuals were so charged with spiky energy, the editing and music so utterly mesmerizing, that the film became something of a favorite with me.  If my mind reeled at the silliness of the story and the banality of the dialogue, it also responded enthusiastically to the deft, unconventional visualization of the tale.

That film is Michael Mann’s The Keep, based ever so loosely on the popular novel by F. Paul Wilson.  That author, I suspect, has ample reason to complain about how his literary work was translated to the silver screen. 

And yet for all its notable flaws in terms of narrative clarity, dialogue, and character development, the film version of The Keep is inarguably hypnotic, even mesmerizing.  Supported by a stunning electronic score from Tangerine Dream, and an almost early-MTV music-video sensibility in some key action sequences, this film plays like a surreal dream turned into a wild, epic opera.

Again, The Keep is not without faults, notably including the design and make-up for the central monster, Molasar.  Instead of appearing fearsome and frightening, he looks like a man in a bad rubber suit, with red glowing eyes.  So there is ample reason to criticize The Keep, if that’s the game. 

But if one chooses to engage with The Keep on its own strange, unconventional terms, the film casts a remarkable trance-like power that I find, well, irresistible.  In the film, those individuals who take refuge and sanctuary in the remote, titular Keep  are swept away by bizarre, frightening dreams that seem to reshape reality itself. 

Mann’s film actually expresses that very idea in its DNA, revealing in all its idiosyncratic glory a dream world of dark and light, good and evil, right and wrong.  The film casts a spell that sweeps you away, even if you don’t always understand the story, what motivates the characters, or why things are happening.

One can certainly argue that a more straightforward approach might have made for a better or perhaps more easily digestible film, but Mann’s oddball, emotional approach here certainly gets at the true nature of the story he vets.  We experience “the dream” of the Keep as the characters in the play do the same. And as I like to write frequently, there’s something to be said for a film’s form mirroring its content.

During World War II, a Nazi caravan led by Captain Woermann (Jurgen Prochnow) arrives in a small town in Romania’s Carpathian Mountains. There, Woermann reluctantly takes command of his new headquarters:  an ancient Keep decorated with one-hundred-and-eight small crosses made of nickel.

The caretaker of the Keep (Morgan Sheppard) warns Woermann and his soldiers not to remain in the Keep, because they will suffer horrible nightmares if they sleep within the walls of the mountain fortress.

His warnings go ignored, however, and soldiers instead attempt to loot the Keep, removing a thick rock from an underlying structure and finding a passageway into the heart of the mountain itself, into a vast, seemly empty chamber.

In truth, the Nazis have actually released a ferocious and ancient evil force.  When five soldiers are murdered under mysterious circumstances in the Keep following the breach of the mountain, a new, harsher Nazi commander, Koempferr (Gabriel Byrne) arrives and imposes draconian law on the nearby village.

But meanwhile, far away in Athens, a mysterious stranger called Glaeken (Scott Glenn) heads for the Keep, even as a Jewish scientist, Dr. Duza (Ian McKellen) and his daughter Eva (Albert Watson) are transported there from a death camp to translate a message scrawled on the wall of the fortress. 

It reads: “I Will Be Free.”

Suffering from a debilitating disease and knowing that the end of his life is near, Dr. Cuza comes to realize that the monster in the Keep -- Molasar -- can strike a blow against Nazi power around the world if only he can be released from this ancient structure, his prison.

But is Cuza’s plan to release True Evil actually worse than the evil unleashed by the Nazis?

From a visual standpoint, The Keep is an incredibly dynamic film, even when viewed in 2012.  The most impressive and memorable shot, in my opinion, involves the initial breaching of the mountain interior. 

A Nazi soldier pushes away a rock, and Mann treats the audience to what could be the longest, most dramatic pull-back in film movie history, at least pre-CGI.  Star Trek: First Contact (1996) boasted a corollary, although digitally-rendered, in its opening scene on a Borg cube. 

But here, we pull back and back and back…for a seeming eternity, through impenetrable shades of darkness, until we reach a distant cave floor.  And then the shot extends further yet, escorting audiences through what appears to be an ancient rock-hewn temple.  In the far, upper right corner of the frame, we can see where we began the shot: a Nazi soldier gazing out upon a stone precipice, and an open interior space of terror yawning before him.

It’s a gorgeous, masterfully-created composition that expresses beautifully the nature and setting of Molasar’s imprisonment.  The shot suggests a scale beyond our human ability to conceive, as if we are opening up into another realm of Hell itself. 

The film’s opening sequence is equally masterful, and it adroitly sets the tenor for the dream-like quality of the film’s remainder.  The Nazi caravan drives through mist-enshrouded mountains on a small, winding road, and the local figures move through the fairy tale landscape in slow-motion.

Extreme close-ups of Prochnow’s wide-eyes also suggest the idea of a percipient awakening (or perhaps falling asleep…), and piercing a barrier into a new, unexpected realm.  It’s as though the caravan has breached the wall separating reality and nightmare, real-scape and dream-scape.

When I reviewed The Keep in Horror Films of the 1980s, I noted that these misty, expressive visualizations, augmented by Tangerine Dream’s compositions, can make enraptured viewers feel as though they’ve tumbled down the rabbit hole into a universe of the strange and surreal.  That observation is just as true today. 

The first time we meet Molasar, the visuals are impressive too. We don’t see the (inferior) costume/make-up, but rather a roiling, tornado or storm moving purposefully through the stone corridors of the Keep.  Smoke rises and falls, billows and rolls, coruscating and affording us only glimpses of the monster’s true nature.  Once more this scene suggests a kind of dream-like quality, of monsters perceived but not quite seen or understood.

 The novel upon which The Keep is based was more overtly a vampire story than the movie is, but one can detect the outer edges of a vampire story in this weird and wonderful film.  Yet Mann has escaped and avoided silver screen vampire clichés by positioning his “monster” inside the world of dreams and half-understood visions.  The unexpected use of neon lasers, slow-motion photography, and music-video-style cutting also subverts expectation about what a “vampire movie” can be, or how it should look.

If the film boasts any specific disappointment beyond the revelation of Molasar’s true character, it arises from a lack of exposition about Glaeken, the immortal vampire killer who has waited a seeming eternity for Molasar to awake so he can fulfill his duty as slayer.   

Memorably, Glaeken makes love to a human woman, Eva, in a beautiful but patently weird sequence that is as much as about religious apotheosis (notice the lovers in the form of the cross…) as it is about sexual fulfillment. 

But beyond his capacity to love Eva and destroy Evil, we know almost nothing about Glaeken, or what he “is,” human or otherwise.  That established, Scott Glenn looks absolutely stunning in the role: a glowing-eyed, perfectly-muscled physical embodiment of the divine in man’s body.

The most satisfying thematic element in The Keep perhaps involves Dr. Cuza.  He’s a man who hates the Nazis so much that he releases a monster several magnitudes worse to destroy them.  His hatred has thus blinded him in a very significant way.  The lesson there is that hate doesn’t make one strong, but rather weak…and that wanting to see your enemy destroyed so badly may in fact only perpetuate a greater evil.

Ultimately, how much you enjoy The Keep may be determined by how much reality,  you demand of your horror movies.

If you desire to see expressed a strict, Euclidian “sense” of reality, I suppose the film is something of a bust. 

But if you are willing to be swept away -- like Eva in Molasar’s arms, carried through the ancient corridors of the stone castle  -- by Michael Mann’s unconventional “dream sense,” The Keep is a singular and stunning viewing experience.  It remains one of the most bizarre and memorable films of 1983.  Furthermore, The Keep is one of those movies I can return to again and again, and always see something new -- and beautiful -- in.  

Movie Trailer: The Keep (1983)

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Cult-Movie Review: Knock Knock (2015)

[Watch out for spoilers!])

Knock Knock (2015) is Eli Roth’s remake of director Peter Traynor’s Death Game (1977), a disturbing and provocative (if relatively obscure) horror film of the disco decade. 

That film, as you may recall, involves two young woman who seduce and then torture a mild-mannered married man in American suburbia. 

That description, however, likely makes the women sound like the villains of the piece. 

Yet the key thing to understand about the original film is that Death Game’s assignments of blame and villainy are not so clear cut, or obvious.

The apparent protagonist -- the symbolically-named George Manning (Seymour Cassel) -- invites the women into his home, and while his wife is away, indulges in sexual intercourse with them.  He does so without a thought to his family, or his future.

Manning doesn’t ask why the women they have selected him, or much of anything, really, before having sex with them.

And furthermore, one of the two women has also been psychologically and sexually abused by her own father, and begins to call George “Daddy,” thus transferring blame to her new lover.

George becomes the recipient, then, of her murderous impulses; a vehicle for her feelings of revenge and injustice.

By the end of the film, one understands that Death Game is not about two murderous women, but about the easy, unthinking way that some men will put down their obligations and responsibilities for a meaningless dalliance.

As the women in the film point out, they could have visited any house in the neighborhood and the result would have been the same. The problem is widespread, and pervasive, the film seems to state.
Certainly, this is an absolutely cynical and stereotyped view of men, but Death Game remains a bold, controversial, flamboyant work of art; one made in an epoch when the Equal Rights Amendment went down in flames and one could readily (and effectively) make a case regarding systemic injustice towards women.

In terms of the genre I always found Death Game refreshing because -- for a change -- women effectively victimize and terrorize a man, rather than male killers victimizing women.

Turnabout is fair play, right?

With all the dialogue in the 21st century culture of late about the “war on the women,” it seems an appropriate time to remake Death Game and re-consider all these points.

And director Eli Roth has always possessed an edgy visual style, and a willingness (even glee…) to follow controversial stories to their logical end points.

He uses those qualities to good effect here, and yet somehow -- at least a little --- Knock Knock’s messaging seems muddled in a way that it wasn’t in the original film.

The remake seems to be more ambiguous (though not more nuanced) in terms of assigning responsibility for the sad state of affairs at Evan’s house. This quality changes the fundamental nature of the narrative. 


The polemical nature of the material loses some of its (outrageous) potency. Instead we have to weigh sides very, very carefully. And doing so, ultimately, serves no purpose. The conflict, as presented, is not resolvable.

For example, one walks away from a viewing of Knock Knock with enhanced sympathy for the lead character, Evan Webber (Keanu Reeves), instead of understanding that, in some crucial way, there is no excuse for his actions.

In the final analysis, we aren’t asked to consider that society has made Evan’s behavior acceptable (and the women’s behavior deranged), but merely that Evan was unlucky or unfortunate to have answered that knock on his door on the ill-fated night in question.  

Still, there are moments of authentic subversion and perversion in Knock Knock, and for that I credit the always-clever Roth. He takes the material in unsavory directions without blinking an eye, and the purpose of a horror movie, is, ultimately, to trample lines of decorum.  

So Knock Knock? Mission accomplished

Yet I can make the following comparison, which I hope is illuminating, or helpful.

I left a screening of Death Game with a deep understanding of what the film was about, and what it was attempting to convey about our society, and systemic sexism.

I left Knock Knock with no such certainty, or even clarity. My emotions were mixed, and so were my sympathies.  The movie feels like it is talking out of both sides of its mouth.

“I’m an architect, so obviously I believe things happen by your own design.”

A wealthy architect living in Hollywood, Evan Webber (Reeves), recovers from a shoulder injury and remembers his glory days as a DJ on the party scene. 

On Father’s Day, he and his wife, an artist named Karen (Ignacia Allamand), almost have sex, but he is left frustrated when his children interrupt to give him his gifts. Evan’s wife tells him he’ll just have to wait a few days for sex.

Karen and the children leave for the weekend so Evan can complete an important project. But late one night – during a rain storm -- two young women show up at his door, claiming to be lost.  They are Genesis (Lorenza Izzo), and Bel (Ana de Armas). Evan lets them in, gives them towels to dry off with, makes them tea, and calls them a cab.

But, Bel and Genesis seduce him, and they have a threesome in the shower.

The next day, Evan finds that his guests won’t leave. 

Genesis and Bel make a mess of the kitchen, deface his wife’s art work, and their behavior escalates from there. 

When Evan attempts to get them to leave his home by calling the police, the women reveal that they are under-age and that Evan is guilty of statutory rape.  Then, they play a game called To Catch a Predator, in which they ask Evan what should happen to rapists of children.

Should they go to jail? Be castrated? Or be murdered?

Which fate would Evan prefer?

Evan fights for his life, even as Bel rapes him -- calling him Daddy all through intercourse -- and Genesis films the event for posterity, only to upload it to his Facebook account later…

“I’m a good person. I made a mistake. Haven’t you ever made a mistake?”

I suppose the crux of the issue in Knock Knock is Evan’s character. 

Is he, as he believes -- because of his vocation as an architect -- a creator of his own destiny?  If so, then he is guilty, by his own definition, for straying from his marriage and jeopardizing his family for a really exciting lay. He is responsible for his own actions.

Or, by contrast, is Evan a good man who simply made a mistake?

And, as human beings, can’t we offer sympathy and forgiveness, since we all make mistakes?  Forgiveness is not needed, after all, for those who don’t stray.

The opening scenes of the film seem to go out of the way to explain why Evan is not really responsible for his actions. His shoulder injury isn’t healing well, for example, and the painful injury reminds him that he is getting old; that life is short.

The responsibilities of being a parent, similarly, take precedence for his wife, Karen, over Evan’s desire to have sexual intercourse with her.  He can’t get laid, in other words, because his children are always underfoot and always first on the list of responsibilities. Evan has to shame down his arousal and instantly shift to being an approachable, irrepressible, gentle father figure.

And then there’s Evan’s former career as a DJ, wherein he was hot stuff, and in demand. He was…sexy.

Those were his glory days!

So when two desirable, sexually available and receptive young women show up -- soaking wet, no less -- at Evan’s front door, what does he do?

He chooses to have sex with them, and in doing so rage against his mortality and aging. He wants an affirmation that he is still a desirable male, an affirmation we see that his wife has trouble giving him when he discusses his beard and whether or not she still finds him attractive.

In pursuing his vanity, however, Evan throws away his marriage and family life…but the movie makes us understand Evan’s conflict, nonetheless. We are asked to sympathize with him.

And, in a sense, the movie also demonstrates his Herculean restraint.  Evan resists the advances of the women until they are on their knees, naked before him, basically groping his penis. He would have to physically do them harm to reject their advances at that point.

But that’s what he should do, right?

I’m not excusing Evan’s behavior or choice of action, but I should be clear that the film -- rightly or wrongly -- sets up a series of events that help us to understand why Evan might “stray” from his responsibilities. 

But then, as soon as he does, the women decide to teach Evan a lesson. 

With just a little fondling and attention, they got him to throw away everything…for sex. 

What does that say about Evan’s priorities? About his self-discipline?  They even make a joke that they are both carrying his future children too, so it is plain that not only has he strayed from his family responsibilities, he has not used a condom during the liaison.

This makes it possible that Evan has contracted an STD (as a bit of graffiti in the film notes), and also that he has impregnated both of his tormentors.

So by his own admission, Evan is an architect of his destiny, right? He’s made a series of choices that lead him to a particular destiny.  For a while, that destiny is spelled out explicitly as statutory rape.

I think we can agree that these are not good choices.

But we are also asked to consider the idea of entrapment. Do the women shoulder any responsibility for making Evan stray? Or did only his actions and insecurities lead him to stray?  Is he in charge of his choices, and his penis, or did he make a terrible mistake, brought on by extreme circumstances?

The way that Knock Knock navigates that crucible, I think, is what renders the film a bit less than entirely successful.

Evan is responsible for letting the two women into his house, and for fucking them. No question.

But is he responsible for his own rape, which occurs when he is tied up?  Isn’t that the very thing our society argues isn’t true of women in similar situations?  In this case, doesn’t “no” still mean “no?”

Similarly, is Evan responsible for the fact that Genesis and Bel destroy his wife’s life work (her art)?  

How could he have reasonably known they would go on a path of destruction aimed at his wife, not him? 

I get the movie’s metaphor, of course. 

Evan, by having sex with Genesis and Bel, has destroyed his wife’s life; everything she has spent a life-time creating.  Her art represents their family life; their children; their home and hearth.

But again, I don’t think anybody could have guessed that murder (of the family pet, and one of his wife’s employees…) and the defacement of art was reasonably part of the “contract” around a sexual dalliance that Evan tacitly accepted.

I suppose the message here is that once you break the rules to get what you desire, all the rules are off-the-table. 

Nothing is sacred. 

If Evan is willing to sacrifice his family for a meaningless dalliance, then his lovers are justified in treating the family with a similar disregard.

Long story short: I applaud Knock Knock for taking on modern sexual politics (in regards not just to families, but the impact of social media too…) with brazen open-ness and not a small amount of courage.

I just wish it picked a side and cogently argued it, much like the original Death Game did.

At the end of Knock Knock, you may be endlessly-conflicted about the movie’s point, and the responsibilities of the various players.

And that's a "knock," the film can't escape. It doesn't really know, or articulate successfully, what it wishes to be about.

Movie Trailer: Knock Knock (2015)

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Lost in Space 50th Anniversary Blogging: "West of Mars" (November 30, 1966)

In “West of Mars,” Dr. Smith (Jonathan Harris) is mistaken for the “super swift” interstellar gunslinger Zeno (also Jonathan Harris) by a space enforcement officer, Claudio (Allan Melvin).

While Zeno masquerades as Smith on the Robinsons’ planet, Smith and Will are transported by jail-spaceship to the criminal’s home world. There, Smith -- as Zeno -- must overcome a challenge by another swift.

Meanwhile, the Robinsons begin to suspect that the man in their midst isn’t Dr. Smith at all, but an impostor.

Although reputedly one of Jonathan Harris’s favorite episodes, “West of Mars” is merely more evidence of Lost in Space’s (1965-1968) atrocious transition from attempt at real space adventure/sci-fi to campy, Batman-like fantasy comedy.

First, the production values stink.  We get a studio-bound planet set in which only parts of the store fronts have been built (think Star Trek’s: “Spectre of the Gun,” though at least in that story there was dramatic motivation for the threadbare sets.)

Here, we get a spaceship that is a traveling jail cell. 

Here, we see Smith and Will (Bill Mumy) ride around on stuffed animal transportation systems (a giraffe and a tiger, respectively).

The episode also relentlessly re-cycles story ideas. Another episode “His Majesty Smith,” similarly contends with a Smith double (the kindly “Daddy Zack,”) and a case of mistaken identity.

Continuity is again a stumbling block too.  For example, the Robot notes in this episode that he has “been programmed with the galactic legal code.”  Really?  By whom?  When? 

It is actually logical that this might have occurred in the episode “The Prisoners of Space,” but no such background or context is provided. 

In fact, the Robot’s behavior is entirely baffling in this episode, since he doesn’t protect the Robinsons from the criminal (Zeno) in the family’s camp.  Would he really be bullied by a western-style fire-arm?

Also, the Robot states that Dr. Smith never carries a weapon, apparently having forgotten the events of stories such as “The Sky is Falling,” wherein Smith is clearly depicted as carrying a gun.

I guess the big question about a story like “West of Mars” is, simply: does it entertain?  Does it work as what it is (a silly fantasy romp), not as what it isn’t (a decent hour of science fiction TV).

Well, in a sense, yes, the episode entertains.  Harris delivers a strong performance as Zeno, a character quite unlike Smith. The role is devoid of Smith’s affectations, and is quite different from what we usually see from Harris. At some points, we see only his eyes (under his cowboy hat), and Harris actually looks malevolent.

Beyond that, however, “West of Mars” doesn’t hold up.

Why can’t the space enforcer (who wears a space suit from Destination Moon [1950]), determine which being is Zeno, and which is Smith?

They may look identical, but they don’t have identical DNA, one must assume.  If the enforcer comes from an advanced culture, technologically-speaking, why can’t he run a blood test, a DNA pattern check, a brain-wave scan, or even run fingerprints to get at the truth?

On a pure logical basis, then, the story fails.

Secondly, Smith and Will return to the Robinsons’ planet in the stolen jail spaceship. 

What becomes of that ship after their return? 

How can Will fly it, almost instantly? 

Why doesn’t Smith ask Will to drop him off on Earth on the return trip to the Robinsons? 

For that matter, why doesn’t Will gather his family, and bring it back to Earth, or take them to Alpha Centauri?

Watching an episode like this, I’m just left thinking “the pain…the pain.”

Next episode: “A Visit to Hades”

Cult-Movie Review: Tomorrowland (2015)

(Watch out for spoilers!)

When I was just a student in kindergarten -- way back in 1975 and 1976 -- I read (or perhaps saw) an interview with Jimmy Carter, who was running for President at the time.

In this interview, he discussed the (distant) year 2000, and the possibility that no cars would be needed; that in the future we’d all be riding in monorails from destination to destination. 

The exact details are difficult to conjure today, but I’ve always remembered connecting (at least in my mind) Carter and futuristic mass transit. I imagined a future of glittering cities, zooming monorails, and spires that stretched to the heavens themselves.

At roughly the same time, Gerry and Sylvia Anderson’s Space: 1999 (1975 -1977) also envisioned an amazing future with reusable spaceships called Eagles, and a fully-functional, self-sufficient moon base, named Alpha.

My younger self was certain, absolutely certain, that the near future was -- to coin a phrase -- going to be fantastic.

Looking back, perhaps it has been fantastic, in a way, with the development of the Internet, iPhones, and so on. 

But the “real future” simply hasn’t been the Space Age Wonder that I imagined as a kid, either. Not even close.

The span encompassing the mid-1970s-through-today hasn’t been some glorious ascent into that Tomorrow, but rather a period embodied by series of crises, storms, sputters, and hiccups. 

Three Mile Island.

The Challenger Disaster.

The Gulf War.

The Impeachment of a President.

September 11th.  

The Second Iraq War

Hurricane Katrina.

The Great Recession.

On and on it goes: a depressing litany of disasters and set-backs.

Meanwhile, our politicians endlessly pander to the lowest common denominator and score “gotcha” points wherever they can rather than taking steps to actually invest in a better tomorrow. The politicians investigate each other, and they launch ad hominem attacks on their opponents…and the result?

That future of monorails and moon bases looks further distant now -- in 2015 -- than it did when I was six years old. So I bequeath to my nine year old son, Joel, a future that looks more hopeless, more dangerous, than the one I grew up in.

Heckuva job, humanity.  Heckuva job.

To my delight, the Brad Bird science fiction movie Tomorrowland (2015) is all about the malaise or dissatisfaction that many of my generation feel with the “future” that we’ve endured since we were kids.  

In fact, Tomorrowland speaks trenchantly to two generations about this idea of the future, and what it can still be, if only we help it to bloom.

The first is the generation that is young now.

The film reminds young kids of today (like my son), to keep dreaming good, bold dreams, because before that future can become real, someone must first envision it.

In ways captivating and energetic, Tomorrowland is about recruiting the architects of tomorrow in the realms of both science and art, and allowing them a space to let their dreams take flight.

And the second focus of the picture is my generation, which -- let’s face it -- is largely disillusioned by modern mankind’s lack of progress since we set foot on the moon for the first time, in 1969.  

George Clooney plays a character in the film named Frank Walker who was a kid in the sixties (a decade or so before I came up…), and imagined a Space Age Tomorrow.

But he saw those idealistic dreams wiped away by a dark reality, replaced by the promise of impending doomsday. He has lost faith in the possibilities of tomorrow.

In Tomorrowland, the character representing my generation, Frank, must finally get over his disappointments and failures so that he can perform one crucial act: gift a better future to the first generation I described above, my son’s. 

But Frank is cynical, caustic, and guarded -- at least at first -- unwilling to believe in the dream again, until the right dreamer awakens those old, buried feelings of hope within his psyche.

This person, Casey Newton (Britt Richardson) also reminds him that he’s done what -- as a child -- he would have considered unforgivable: he’s given up.

In calling-out the hopeless feelings of my generation -- while simultaneously tasking it to care-take the next generation -- Tomorrowland weaves an optimistic tale about what, even now, can still be our reality: a better future than the one we see routinely promised in the dystopian fiction and visual entertainments of the 2010s. 

Tomorrowland reminds us that we don’t have to resign ourselves to a future like the one in The Day After Tomorrow (2004), or to an endless series of “Hunger Games.” 

Instead, Tomorrowland is that rare bird: an inspiring science fiction film that is joyous, so alive with the possibilities of the future that it refills the half-empty well of your hopes and dreams, and reminds audiences that the world is still worth saving. If not for your own personal future, then at least for those who come after you. 

By my reckoning, we need a film like Tomorrowland at least once in a while to remind people that fixing the world’s problems is just one dream -- or one invention -- away. 

In the film’s lingo, we just need to feed the right wolf; not the one representing despair and destruction, but the one representing hope and light.

On a much more grounded scale, Tomorrowland is also fascinating as a kind of summation or Master’s thesis on Walt Disney science fiction movie history, featuring clever nods to The Black Hole (1979) and The Rocketeer (1991), among other films. So this is movie that not only imagines what the future could be, but remembers, faithfully, our past dreams of the future too.

Those old movies provide us a kind of continuity, in a way. They remind us that we, as a species, must always dream about the next tomorrow (land). Those older dreams may fade, or be exposed as silly, but the act of dreaming about a better tomorrow must remain a constant.

“The world is ending. It is certain. It is unavoidable.”

After being arrested for trying to prevent the demolition of Cape Canaveral, American teenager Casey Newton (Britt Richardson) is gifted with a mysterious pin, one apparently given out only at the World’s Fair in 1964. The pin is emblazoned with the letter “T” for the attraction, Tomorrowland.

Casey learns that when she touches the pin, she travels, at least momentarily, to an alternate world where the problems of population, technology, starvation, obesity, and even star travel have been resolved.  Trains fly around Tomorrowland, as do commuters…on rocket packs.

Casey investigates the history of the Tomorrowland pin at a nostalgia store called “Blast from the Past,” and is attacked by two robots in human form there.  She is unexpectedly rescued by Tomorrowland’s recruiter, Athena (Rafey Cassidy), a robot in the form of a little girl.

Athena takes Casey to meet disillusioned Frank Walker (Clooney), a man who has given up on the positive vision of Tomorrowland because of prediction that the world will be destroyed in 58 days. 

After meeting Casey, Frank believes that she may be the one to “fix” the world, and sets about getting her to Tomorrowland in a new way, since her pin is no longer operative.

That new way to Tomorrowland, however, involves a rocket embedded in the Eiffel Tower, one dreamed up by Eiffel, Tesla, Edison and Jules Verne…

“It’s hard to have ideas. It’s easy to give up.”

There’s an intriguing scene, early in Tomorrowland, wherein Casey and Athena visit a sci-fi collectible/comic-book store called Blast from the Past. 

There, we see toy robots from yesteryear such as Tomy’s Omnibot, toy spaceships such as The U.S.S. Enterprise and Kenner’s Millennium Falcon, as well as posters for Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), and even a Planet of the Apes board game. 

The sound-track for The Black Hole (1979) -- with artwork featuring the robots V.I.N.Cent and Maximillian -- is also visible in several shots, placed prominently on a counter. 

The Black Hole, as readers may remember, was Walt Disney’s first PG science fiction film, and Tomorrowland mirrors it with two intriguing allusions. The first involves a giant robot which, like Maximillian in The Black Hole, possesses propellers for hands. 

In the second case, Tomorrowland’s key nemesis, Governor Nix (Hugh Laurie), suffers the same accident as the earlier film’s villain: Hans Reinhardt (Maximillian Schell). Specifically, a wall-sized control panel of sorts falls on him, pinning him down.  Two different eras; two villains aided by propeller-wielding robots and almost killed by the technology that they covet. That must be more than coincidence.

Another scene, set in the miraculous Tomorrowland, features a character flying about on a kind of fly-by-night rocket or jet pack, and the soaring imagery will remind any genre fan of Disney’s ill-fated (but delightful) entry in the superhero cinema sweepstakes of yesteryear: The Rocketeer (1991).

Why bring up, or reference, two films that are not regarded as hits (and yet are beloved)?  

Perhaps to remind us, at least a little that not all visions of the future -- visions of sentient robots or high-flying superheroes -- succeed, prove popular, or can even be considered prophetic.

Nonetheless, we don’t stop dreaming about those futures, or the possibilities suggested by such films.  Indeed, Tomorrowland -- a commercial failure -- likely finds itself in the same boat as those aforementioned Disney films. It is a film, like those, that seems out of step with other visions of “tomorrow,” but which, like The Black Hole and The Rocketeer will come to be appreciated, in years to come, as a film that is beloved by science fiction fans and may even inspire the next generation of inventors and engineers.

In terms of real, not imagined history, Tomorrowland also gives the end of hope -- embodied in the villain, -- a name: Nix. 

I submit that this name, Nix not only means to veto or forbid, describing the governor’s function in the film, and his refusal to save the Earth for the future. 

The name is also an abbreviation, of sorts, for a former American leader: Nixon.  No discredit or antagonism is intended towards the man, or the President, but I would suggest that it was during his presidency that the tide of public opinion turned away from the Space Age. We landed on the moon in 1969, only months after he took office. But from there, the downhill slide began. We were locked in Vietnam. We had oil shocks due to OPEC rationing. And Watergate made so many of our fellow citizens lose faith in government as a force for good in the world.

Nix in Tomorrowland is a leader who similarly takes the dimension of creativity and wonder from its zenith or apex -- in 1964 -- to its abandonment and ruin in 2015. He’s a figure who shepherds over the collapse of idealism and dreams.

I have read that some people wish Tomorrowland featured more time in that dimension of creativity (a dimension that is away from politics, greed, and bureaucracy, where dreamers can dream without limits) Yet I would argue that the film’s judicious use of that space is just right.  Dreamers can’t access the future on a regular or consistent basis, in real life, either. They can do it in the imagination, and in dreams, and I feel we would lose some of Tomorrowland’s wonder if the whole film took place there.  As it is now, Tomorrowland is a destination, a place that is attainable, but not always or continuously accessible.  I submit Tomorrowland would lose its sense of wonder and majesty if the film was entirely set there, as some critics apparently demanded or desired.  Then the movie would be Fantasyland, not Tomorrowland.

I write frequently here about the social meaning of films, and even their political leanings.  I realize this angers and alienates some readers.  That is not my intent or desire, but I find it impossible to consider a film fully outside its social or political context. Films are created, after all, in a specific time and place, with specific influences. 

And so I do believe that Tomorrowland is about today, 2015, and the fact that our politics have grown so small, so unimportant, even though major challenges loom around every corner. 

And I do believe that a future like Tomorrowland -- like the one I dreamed of, with so many countless others, in my childhood -- is within reach, but that it will cost a lot of money. We have to do controversial, expensive things right now, like invest money in NASA, in education, in research projects, even in local or community libraries. 

But many modern politicians want to do exactly the opposite, cutting back everything -- including school art programs -- until our society is entirely hollowed out, gutted. But we can’t get to Tomorrowland on the cheap, with gutted infrastructure.  If that’s the future we want, we have to start paying for it, and soon.

And that too is one of Tomorrowland’s messages.

The film notes that a future of doomsday, dystopia and apocalypse requires nothing of us today.  We don’t have to change our behaviors, our predilections, or put up money for it to happen.  So, in a sense, that’s the easy path: dystopia. 

To build Tomorrowland, we must change our behaviors now; we have to invest in a better tomorrow starting, approximately, this minute. 

I also believe this sentiment to be true.  It is easy to complain about how bad things are right now -- how our politicians suck eggs -- but such disillusionment, ultimately, gets us nowhere. We can’t change the present, but we can make the future better if we choose to invest in its creation.  Too many of us live in a world where we think we can’t change anything for the better.  But what if Casey is right, and even “the tiniest of actions can change the future” for the better?  I believe this message is directed right at me and my generation, right where I live in breathe.  It’s a reminder to me every time I lament that the world isn’t where I want it to be.  Well, why don’t I act?

Tomorrowland will make you consider all of these ideas and leave you breathless, entertained and engaged at the same time.  The film shows us a golden age of endless wheat fields and monorails and spires, and reminds us that such a world need not be a fantasy (or even an alternate dimension). Instead it’s the logical result of action taken right now, right here, to improve our lot on this Earth, and in the universe at large.

It’s a crying shame that Tomorrowland failed to connect with audiences at the box office, but the ideas it puts forward possess great currency, and can have great impact, even if that impact is created one viewer – one dreamer – at a time.

The future begins with you.