Saturday, November 21, 2015

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: Jason of Star Command: "Chapter 8: Attack of the Dragons" (October 28, 1978)

In “Attack of the Dragons,” Jason (Craig Littler’s) star fire is buffeted by Dragos’ (Sid Haig) electron storm.  He determines that the ship can return to normal space only after the storm is struck by laser cannons.

But as Commander Canarvin (James Doohan) reports, Star Command is a sitting duck, coming under attack by Dragos’ drone interceptors. Still, the Commander manages to fire the lasers and free Jason. 

Jason returns the favor, launching a suicide run against Dragos’ Dragon ship and forcing the villain to withdraw. He succeeds, and Dragos retreats.

For Jason, Nicole (Susan O’Hanlon) and Professor Parsafoot (Charlie Dell) is a home-coming long awaited.

But Star Command has not yet heard the last of Dragos.

This fifteen minute segment of Jason of Star Command (1978-1980) is dominated by very strong Star Wars era visual effects. A Star Fire escapes from an electron storm, and meanwhile, Star Command is buffeted by an enemy squadron.

The effects hold up nicely, with only one caveat.  There’s a lot of model incongruities or dis-connects, largely because of one fact. Some episodes back, Princess Allegra returned to Star Command in a pod, so Jason’s Star Fire is now pod-less, so-to-speak.  However, many effects shots in this installment show confusion over that fact. Some shots feature the pod; some don’t.

Speaking of Princess Allegra (Roseanne Katon), she and Captain Kidd (Brendan Dillon) share the same fate after this show. They are not seen, heard from, or referred to again.  They are written out of the story, going forward.  Perhaps Princess Allegra decided to return home, but what about Captain Kidd?  He’s a man out of another time period all together. Where will he go? How will he get there? What will he do?

Jason of Star Command doesn’t answer any of those questions. Still, Captain Kidd has a nice moment in this episode when he navigates Jason’s Star Fire using nautical tools of a bygone era. 

“Attack of the Dragons” might be considered a kind of section break or pivot point in the sixteen episode first season saga. Dragos is vanquished (temporarily), and all the main characters -- Jason, Nicole, Canarvin, Parsafoot and Wiki -- are back home.

Next week, a regular character from Space Academy returns: Peepo!  That’s in Chapter 9, “Peepo’s Last Chance.”

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: Space Academy: "The Phantom Planet" (October 29, 1977)

“The Phantom Planet” opens with Space Academy on high alert. 

"Chris, have you ever seen a ghost?" Commander Gampu (Jonathan Harris) urgently asks, before revealing on the main view screen how a strange world keeps materializing and de-materializing in space near the unstable asteroid, Proteus 9B.

Gampu sends the Blue Team in a Seeker to demolish the asteroid, despite the presence of the 'phantom planet' and Peepo is afraid. However, Loki is excited. "If you see a ghost," he tells Gentry, "let me know right away."

While Chris, Tee-Gar, and Paul set "tech-nite" charges to destroy the unstable asteroid, Laura, Adrian and Peepo are confronted by a strange ghost in a gray cloak. He beckons them to a cave, but the entrance is sealed.

Adrian blasts the cave open with a laser gun that looks like an office water dispenser jug, and inside the it, she and Laura discover a jeweled cavern. A group of golden eggs are ensconced there, and the ghost appears to be protective of them. Laura and Adrian take one at the ghost's urging, and return to the Academy with the others, beginning the countdown to the destruction of Proteus.

Back at the Academy, however, the alien contacts the cadets again.  It is decided that a séance should be held to determine what it wants.  The team soon learns that the eggs are memory "vessels” containing the ancient the wisdom of an alien civilization. They will "one day open and enrich the lives of people yet to be born," Gampu declares.

Since the asteroid is due to explode in any minute, the only way to safely retrieve the other golden eggs from it is for Laura and Chris to use their newly honed powers of "astro-portation." Thus they astral project themselves to the planet and retrieve all the eggs before the asteroid goes up in flames. Pleased, the Guardian now vanishes for all time, his mission accomplished.

“The Phantom Planet” is either a golden egg or a rotten one, depending on how you choose to look at it, I suppose.

Negatively, the alien guardian or ghost is a cheap, ridiculous-looking creation, like a refugee from a stage production of A Christmas Carol. Furthermore, his "howls" are obviously some actor standing off-stage bellowing like a kid trying to be "spooky" on Halloween night. The ghost sounds like something out of a Scooby Doo episode.

And then -- out of the blue -- Laura and Chris develop the power to astral project? It’s pretty convenient, right?

The story raises other questions too.  Why is the Academy intent on destroying the asteroid (even if it is unstable) once it's known a civilization once thrived there? Seems an archaeology professor somewhere would object to the demolition.  And why would the Academy – a school – be assigned a job in demolitions, especially a dangerous job in demolitions?

On the positive side, I must admit this kind of storytelling.  It has been done well on Star Trek many times, and can work in a science fiction setting. Basically, in plots of this type, space men (cadets or officers) encounters something apparently frightening -- at least on first blush -- only to learn that (to quote Space: 1999), we’re only aliens until we get to know one another. No shots are fired in anger.  

No one is killed.  Understanding is forged.  And a better future is made.

A story like this is about discovery, and overcoming the differences in people. The conflict comes not from anger, revenge, or malice, but from the unknown.

On that foundation, I would argue that “The Phantom Planet” is an entertaining and worthwhile story.  It just happens to be seriously hampered by that bad costume, and bad vocalizations of the “ghost.”

Also, I love the weird, unwieldly laser gun/drill that Adrian (Maggie Cooper) uses to blast open the cave entrance.

Friday, November 20, 2015

Found Footage Friday: Lake Mungo (2008)

Lake Mungo (2008) is a heart-wrenching, and frightening mock-documentary horror film, and thus, I suppose, “found footage” in nature. It’s a first person-styled film, with the camera serving as a key actor, recording life as it unfolds. The film also features talking-head interviews, recovered footage (off a cell phone), and more.

The film dramatizes -- without sensationalizing -- the story of an Australian family, the Palmers, grieving after the drowning death of an adolescent daughter, Alice (Talia Zucker).

But strangely, Alice’s death is only the beginning of a bizarre and terrifying odyssey that involves, in no particular order: the human desire for closure, the inescapable fact that death brings separation, and even the idea that we can never really “know” another person, even those we love.

Crafted with a high-degree of restraint, Lake Mungo grows continuously more intriguing the longer it runs, peeling open, like the layers of an onion, before our eyes. 

One scene -- set at Lake Mungo during blackest night -- is incredibly eerie in execution, and the film’s denouement, a radical reconstruction of reality to accommodate our desire to believe that “death is not the bitter end” serves as an emotional catharsis; a reckoning that even if ghosts exist in our plane of existence, they remain worlds apart from those they loved in this mortal coil.  The film’s valedictory images are shocking too -- because we wonder how our eyes could have missed such evidence of the supernatural -- but they also feel haunting, strangely elegiac.

Loneliness can be forever, the film seems to warn us.

The mock-documentary format served The Atticus Institute (2015) quite well, and here’s another example where that format achieves a sense of cerebral, and occasionally, visceral terror. Lake Mungo provides the viewers no easy answers about its mystery, but the film’s final images tell us everything we need to know about what happened to Alice, and where she is…right now.

I know that some readers aren’t fans of the found-footage milieu, but Lake Mungo is a film that will pique their interest too. The film isn’t just about shaky-cams running through the woods. Contrarily, the documentary approach asks us to keep our cold, dispassionate distance from the subject matter, even as the evidence of the supernatural grows ever closer, and ever more disturbing.

“This is like the end of hope for all of us.”

A documentary records the story of the Palmer family.

Alice Palmer, a young woman, drowned in a lake on December 21, 2005, while out swimming with her family.  Her friends, parents, and brother Matthew (Martin Sharpe) grapple with Alice’s death, and her mother desperately seeks closure. To help her achieve that, Matthew creates hoax videos suggesting that Alice’s ghost is nearby, and still interacting with the family.

After Matthew’s hoax is exposed, however new footage comes to light, involving Alice’s sexual dalliances with neighbors, and her attempts, months before her death, to contact a psychic about something terrifying she witnessed at Lake Mungo, where she buried her cellphone.

Determined to know the truth, the Palmers head to Lake Mungo, and excavate the phone. 

On it, they watch a video of an encounter seemingly impossible, one that made the sensitive Alice realize her days here on Earth were numbered…

“There is absolutely no rational explanation for what we saw on that phone.”

Lake Mungo is found footage in nature, utilizing several components of that (oft-derided) format. 

For example, we get many talking head “confessional” interviews with the main and subordinate characters, an excuse for an omnipresent camera (the making of a documentary), and then a number of other video sources that propel the narrative forward. In this case, there is a video of Alice in her dalliance with (the mysterious neighbors), and the shocking, inexplicable cell phone footage, revealed at the film’s denouement.  From the documentary format, Lake Mungo get a lot of good B-Roll footage that adds to our understanding of the characters, such as family photos and films from Alice in her childhood.

There are no real special effects to speak of though some gruesome make-up is featured at one point, and also, clearly, some photos get doctored for the aforementioned climatic montage. 

One of the film’s most interesting moments involves Matthew explaining -- and showing us -- how he staged his ghost hoax videos with trick photography. This explanation is so good that it feels like a gut punch when, at the end of the film, the photos he used in his quest to provide his mother “closure” reveal something wholly unexpected, and counter-intuitive.

He thought he was tricking his family. But he wasn’t seeing the whole picture. When is a hoax not a hoax? When a ghost is right there, in front of your eyes, and yet you still don’t see it.

Lake Mungo does not concern light or easy topics. The film is deadly serious, in that regard. Alice’s mom feels guilt and loss, and at one point recalls a conversation with Alice about a dream in which her daughter came to her for help, and wasn’t heard. Late in the film, in a creepy but lyrical scene, that moment--– actually a premonition -- is played out not between living daughter and mother, but ghost and mother.

The film concerns the idea of closure; something we humans often don’t get.  In some circumstances, it can be impossible to achieve. Mrs. Palmer arrives at some sense of closure, one might assume, but the film suggest that Alice does not. That her prison of loneliness is far more lasting than Mrs. Palmer’s grief or mourning.

If one seeks metaphor or subtext in horror films, there is one here, for certain.  Often, those who have acted in a way not accepted by society or family -- especially in the sexual realm -- are ostracized by their loved ones. Or worse, they carry feelings of guilt and shame that makes it impossible for them to meaningfully interact with their loved ones.  Alice – a ghost in the film – realizes a very similar fate.  Her secrets become known, and she fades away, present but invisible; but a ghost on the periphery of the family.

The phenomenon at the heart of Lake Mungo -- seen in the cell phone video -- is one that has been reported anecdotally and in parapsychological literature for years, even decades: the doppelganger. It might be defined as an “astral” or “etheric” counterpart of the physical body.  

The lake -- a body of water -- may be crucial to Alice’s experience with this apparition too.  She encounters the doppelganger when she is at Lake Mungo and she dies, also, near a body of water; near a dam, in Ararat. Is the water the conduit for her terrifying vision? 

The movie doesn’t tell us, and that’s another reason I so admire the film. Lake Mungo spoon-feeds us nothing, but asks us to assemble the pieces for ourselves.

In short, Lake Mungo provides no real explanations for why this has happened to Alice, but rather focuses on how her death adversely affects the family. Even if ghosts don’t linger when we lose loved ones, memories certainly do. That’s a key truth presented in the film. The presence of memories – like spirits – prevent closure, make family members hold onto hope, and in this case, treat Alice’s bedroom like a shrine.  They keep it untouched.  The Dad imagines encounters with her in the house. Matthew becomes obsessed with Alice, putting her in his videotapes so as to keep her “memory alive.”

But why? To deny the truth that she’s gone? To assuage some sense of guilt that they couldn’t save her?  To feel comfort that some part of her continues?  Lake Mungo is about the irrational impulses we feel when we lose those we love. We would be comforted, oddly enough, by a ghost, because its presence means that death is not the bitter end.

There’s a creepy paradox at work in the film, regarding this point. Alice’s family keeps looking for an “omen” that she is still with them, in some spectral sense. But Alice learned she would die -- and gave up living -- precisely because she saw just such an omen.

Lake Mungo explores what the “end of hope” is really like -- for ghosts and people alike -- and in the process gives genre fans a masterpiece of understated, cerebral horror.

Movie Trailer: Lake Mungo (2008)

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Cult-Movie Review: The Frame (2015)

[Watch out for Spoilers]

The Frame (2015), from director Jamin Winans, is a beautifully-realized science fiction picture with a powerful spiritual component. In short, the movie is a mind-bender about the nature of human life, and one strongly in the spirit of Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone (1959 – 1964).

The Frame is genuinely affecting in terms of its imagery, often cryptic in terms of its meaning, and at some points even terrifying, particularly in its depiction of a tatty, top-hatted Devil.

Good, original, non-franchise science fiction movies are few and far between these days, so The Frame – with its meditations on the nature of reality, and God -- is a special treat for the cerebral-minded fan. While, the film is a bit slow-paced at points, particularly near the denouement, The Frame is absolutely worth your investment in time and energy.

“We’re tested, so we can look through the eyes of God and see what he sees.”

Alex (David Carranza), a lonely orphan looking to escape a life of crime, plans to participate in one last heist before his escape.  

At the same time, a beautiful but isolated EMT, Samantha (Tiffany Mualem), attempts to deal with violence on the job, and a parasitic mother.

These two lost individuals encounter each other, but in an odd and unexpected way. Samantha watches a TV series, now in its fourth season, Thieves and Saints, featuring Alex as its main character.  Alex watches Samantha on her own TV show, Urban Hope.

One day, Alex and Samantha connect -- across their television sets -- and realize that they exist in parallel realities, but that they can nonetheless help and support one another.

Unfortunately, another “actor” seems to exist in their worlds too, a tatty: mysterious figure bent on “melting” reality and bringing it to an end.

When Alex is injured on his final caper, Sam attempts to rescue him, and must evade the Devil (Christopher Soren Kelly) and unmask the true “author” of reality.

“It was then that man realized he was no man, but a thing. Written by a malevolent God.”

In The Frame, something magical and unexpected happens: two lost, lonely people discover that characters on TV shows are not mere fictions, but characters leading their own lives in their own version of reality.  The TV “frame” is a window into that other-world.

This unique concept brings up several ideas that recur through the film. The first is that, perhaps, when we are lonely, we can feel a bond with someone who isn’t real.  

Consider, for example, the uproar over Glen’s fate on The Walking Dead.  Nobody who watches the show really knows Glen in reality, and yet audiences love him, and fear that he could die.  These fans have connected to a person who, simply, doesn’t exist.  There’s nothing wrong or unhealthy about this.  This is the glory of television and film as art forms; they allow audiences to experience empathy with those we have never met; with those confined to the world inside the TV frame.

But what happens when you fantasize a relationship with a TV character, and that fantasy talks back to you?  That is but one question raised by The Frame.

But The Frame’s core idea goes even deeper than this theme might imply.  The movie suggests that our lives are but TV programs that God watches, sometimes with avid interest; sometimes not so much.  

Like Alex, we could each face cancellation -- or a series finale -- at any point.  We might be destined to last, like Thieves and Saints, for just “four seasons” before God cancels our story line.  As audience members watching television, we don’t control the fates of characters we love.  They might unwittingly attend the Red Wedding, or get eaten by Walkers.  In their universe, God chooses their end, and we but have to watch, and then mourn.

Our universe -- our reality -- is quite similar, after a fashion, The Frame suggests. God chooses our story arc, and even our ending too.  Alex rebels against this idea in the film.  “This is chaos. This is not a story,” he observes.  

Sam answers his charge well:. “I don’t think this is chaos. I think you have to believe everything is chaos, or everything is a miracle.

Her answer suggests that an order exists to our lives, but that we can't necessarily see or understand that order. Nonetheless, we should try to accept that the order is there. It is present.  Sam chooses that course; that belief system.

Throughout the film, we get hints of this notion as The Frame’s primary leitmotif, of our lives as God’s TV programming.  Early on, for example, there is a shot of Sam looking into a fish bowl, watching her pet fish swim about.  The fish is contained within a frame too, and a force outside it -- Sam, herself -- holds the key to its survival or death. She is the "God" in its reality, or universe.

Several times throughout the film, Winan’s camera pushes in towards Alex (sometimes sleeping, sometimes just standing, observing a metropolitan skyline…) and then retreats.  It rocks forward; and then rocks back.  

This repetitive, unusual motion suggested to me that we can only approach knowing another human being, like Alex or Sam, and that at some point that knowledge stops. We hit an invisible wall (or the screen of a television, iPhone, laptop monitor, what-have-you.) 

We might dwell in the same world, but we gaze out at that world through different frames, different reference points and different eyes.

The film proposes two opposing forces in reality.  

One is the writer/God: the one bent on creating destinies and watching them unfold.

The second is the destroyer of worlds/Devil, the one who blots out life with bursts, literally, of black ink.  The Devil refuses to live God's destiny, and so sets out to destroy God's worlds.

If one chooses to read or interpret The Frame as a demonstration of the creative, artistic mind and its operation, the underlying idea becomes plain.  One on hand, writers create and give life to characters, locations, and ideas.  On the other hand, the writer can take away life from those things.  The writer, imitating God's reality, must act as both the divine and the diabolical.

When “God” is revealed in the film, it is shown to be a typewriter; one clacking away the final chapters of Alex’s life in his particular universe. This denouement reminded me of a Night Gallery (1969-1973) episode called “Midnight Never Ends,” in which two characters come to realize they are but words on paper; people imagined by a distant -- and not always loving -- writer.  The sound they keep hearing in the distance belongs to a typewriter too. 

The Frame discusses, at one point, a “malevolent” God, and that description is apt if you consider creation, life and death.  The divine might be said to thread all those elements together. Philosophically, it might be termed a life-giver and a life-taker.

None of us lasts forever. We are victimized by what seem, from our limited perspective, random and uncaring forces. We don’t know when -- or how -- our end will come.

We rage against these ambiguities, these unknowns, and attempt to push out the boundaries of our worlds, seeking answers in philosophy, or religion, or even life-prolongation. In the film, such attempts are visualized, cunningly, as Alex trying to push his way out of a rectangular film frame. 

The film frame keeps pushing back.

He can only be what he is supposed to be; only live the life that the writer -- or God? -- has selected for him.  He can push at the edges, but he is what he is: a being trapped by the Physics of the writer’s world, or perhaps, the writer’s imagination.

The Frame is a clever film, and one that is beautifully-made.  Some of the compositions practically ache with feelings of loneliness and isolation. Others are filled with portents of dread. Watch in several shots -- virtually unnoticed by the characters -- as skyscrapers, ceilings, and cars begin to melt away, unwritten from reality. They are symptoms of a dying world.

And when we die in real life, don’t our individual worlds, our individual “series” die with us? Lost forever when our eyes close for the final time?

I commend The Frame for its beauty, its intelligence, its high concept, and its imagination. I love how it equates God with the act of writing: a bloody act of willing something, or someone, into creation. 

However, I would also point out that The Twilight Zone, or Night Gallery, even, tells stories that last twenty-two minutes, tops.  Why? It is really, really tough to keep a high-concept going for much longer than that 30 minute mark without the audience beginning to ask questions about matters of logic and internal consistency.

The last act of The Frame could move with a bit more alacrity, and yet, in this case, I recommend that you indulge the film’s creators. The destiny they have “written” for their characters and unique world is one worth sticking around for.

Movie Trailer: The Frame (2015)

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

From the Archive: Mars Attacks (1996)

I distinctly recall reading a review of Mars Attacks! which stated unequivocally that the act of directing the bio-pic Ed Wood (1994) had finally caught up with director Tim Burton. After all, here he was - making an absolutely terrible 1950s-styled sci-fi movie all his own.

Something about that particular comment struck a chord with me at the time (though I don't remember the reviewer...). And yet the uncharitable remark doesn't tell the entire story of this 1996 Burton film, either.

Sure, Mars Attacks! might be considered a bad movie from a certain perspective. The actors, especially Jack Nicholson, go way over the top, and the first thirty-five minutes of Mars Attacks! -- before the Martians arrive -- are pretty dire.  It's a mystery too why certain actors and their characters are present in the film at all, save for marquee value (Danny DeVito, j'accuse). The film feels burdened with subplots that go nowhere, and characters who serve no narrative purpose.  The entire Art Land (Jack Nicholson) interlude is poorly-acted and contributes little. It just dies on-screen.

Yet despite such apparent flaws, Mars Attacks! works effectively as a diabolical subversion of the Hollywood blockbuster format (see: Independence Day [1996]), and simultaneously as a commentary on American political life, circa 1996. Specifically, the alien Martians as depicted by Burton are a kind of joyful physical representation of Loki or Chaos. They happily rip to shreds both the pillars of contemporary American political thinking (and PC thinking, specifically...) and the conventional pillars of Hollywood decorum. 

Simply stated, these cinematic aliens are a politically-incorrect, gleefully monstrous lot: a walking, quacking embodiment of the philosophy that to save a village (or planet...) you must destroy that village (or planet). Everything from the Martian's bizarre croaking language to their byzantine technology and unhealthy obsession with Earth women (!) is thus fodder for outrageous laughs. 

For instance, these alien creatures go (far...) out of their way to murder boy scouts, or to sneak up on an unsuspecting granny with an over sized laser canon. In toto, their wanton behavior makes tolerance of them an absolute impossibility. And that's what's so funny. 

The Martians reveal absolutely nothing of themselves beyond unloosed Id; beyond the devilish inclination to destroy everything, everywhere.  And yet the world-at-large keeps attempting to treat these invaders as if they're just poor, misunderstood foreigners. Earth men give the Martians second chance after second chance, and every time the Martians revert to bloody, rapacious form.

This is a notable inversion or up-ending of the typical Burton aesthetic about sympathy for misfits and outsiders. Mars Attacks! is not a heartfelt plea for tolerance (like Edward Scissorhands) but rather a pointed suggestion that tolerance can absolutely be taken too far in some instances.

As you may guess by the tenor of my comments thus far, my thoughts on this Burton film are decidedly mixed.  Mars Attacks! drags and sputters throughout its running time, often falling flat.  And yet it occasionally rises to the occasion too, with Burton's trademark, brilliant visual invention.  I also love how the picture looks for instance; how it successfully and gorgeously evokes its unusual source material from the 1960s.

In the end, I must respectfully refuse to dismiss outright any film that ends with crooner Tom Jones breaking into a rendition of "It's Not Unusual" (accompanied by alighting birds...) as a re-assertion of order and nature, I suppose.   This just isn't something you see every day, especially coming from mainstream, conformist Tinsel Town.

Accordingly, Mars Attacks! is one of those rare cult movies that entertains me just about every time I choose to watch it. I always enjoy it on some ridiculous, fun level, even while openly acknowledging that parts of the enterprise flatly don't work.

"Why destroy when you can create?"

Mars Attacks! is based on Topps' popular trading card line from 1962, a perennial collector's item which featured some fifty colorful cards depicting Earth's invasion by nefarious, big-brained Martians. 

The Topps cards were a source of major controversy in their time for depicting Martians capturing and torturing human females. Much of the Mars Attack imagery also revealed brave American servicemen being burned alive ("Saucers Blast Our Jets"), frozen to death ("The Frost Ray"), bloodied, and otherwise abused by the sadistic Martians.

In Tim Burton's version of Mars Attacks! the imagery is arguably just as violent, but played in a much lighter vein. 

As the film's story commences, the world is taken by surprise when Martians land on Earth and prove not to be good-will ambassadors, but a wholly malevolent and destructive force. 

Although the President of the United States, James Dale (Jack Nicholson) again and again attempts to forge a peace with the alien invaders over the objections of his top General, Decker (Rod Steiger), the Martians persist in their all-out war on humanity. 

Finally, it is up to a shy teenage boy in Kansas, Richie (Lukas Haas), to locate the unlikely key to destroying the aliens: his grandmother's Slim Whitman records!

Once broadcast across the air-waves, the strange Slim Whitman performances pulp Martian brains and end the invasion of Earth once and for all.

If one boasts any familiarity with the Mars Attacks card set, the first significant thing to note about the Burton film is that the handsomely-mounted production goes to great lengths to accurately capture the pulpy, 1950s/early-1960s vibe of the set.  It does so by visually aping a few of the more notable, specific cards. 

Cards such as "Burning Cattle," (pictured above)  "The Shrink Ray" and "Robot Terror" are all staged directly as action sequences in the film. "Burning Cattle" actually opens the film, in a memorable scene set in Lockjaw, Kentucky). 

Meanwhile, another Topps card "Panic in Parliament" seems to be the direct inspiration for the Martian attack on both houses of Congress seen in the film.

Likewise, the card "Burning Flesh" reveals the full (disgusting) impact of advanced Martian weaponry on the human body; a perspective which is repeated (on Jack Black) in the film during the Martians' first landing in Nevada. 

Some of the more spectacular and bizarre card imagery is left deliberately unvetted ("Saucers blast our jets," "Terror in Times Square,") and the film also wisely avoids staging several Topps cards which shifted the focus from the Martian invaders to giant, overgrown hazards to mankind's domination of Earth (giant flies, giant spiders, giant tidal waves, etc.).  

The film incarnation of Mars Attacks! also features a different denouement than the card set.  In the cards,  the last act saw Earth man take his fight back to Mars, smash the Martian cities, and ultimately destroy the red planet.

Despite such notable differences, the movie version of Mars Attacks! does a fine job of bringing the imagery of the card set to vivid life, particularly in regards to the Martians, their colorful biology, their space age costumes and their wanton acts of violence.  These aspects of the film are delightfully and memorably rendered.

Some amusing scenes aboard the Martian saucer in the film even find the aliens in a surprising state of undress (wearing just tiny little underpants!) in much the same mode of trading card examples such as "Watching from Mars," which similarly saw Martian citizens luxuriating (but in their Martian homes) while watching the destruction of Washington D.C. on wall-sized television screens.

After the distinctive and impressive look of the film, however, Burton's Mars Attacks! plays an entirely different game.  Where the cards were gory and bloody, and sought to present a truly terrifying invasion of Earth by nightmarish monstrous creatures, the movie is played entirely for laughs, both as a satire of disaster movies and of Washington politics.  The Martians, though evil, are cinematic figures of fun and jokes, not of surreal, outer space terror.

"This could be a cultural misunderstanding."

In impressive fashion, Mars Attacks! knowingly adopts the familiar cliches and traditions  of 1950s era science fiction alien invasion film and then gazes at them through the prism of 1990s political correctness. 

The film is not overtly partisan in its targets, but rather casts blame across the entire spectrum of Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives. 

The film rather definitively does not find hope in politics (in Nicholson's president), in the military (as represented by Steiger's character), in big business (in Nicholson's Art Land), in the media (in Sarah Jessica Parker and Michael J. Fox's attention-seeking but vapid reporters), in parental authority (represented by -- shudder -- Joe Don Baker), or in science (as represented by Pierce Brosnan's egghead character, Dr. Kessler). 

To one extent or the other, each human character in every one of those above-listed "categories" seems blinded by agendas which don't fit the pertinent debate (about how to handle the Martian invasion). In other words, nobody really seems to address the pressing problem effectively. There is never a compromise between the scientists and the military, for instance, just an "either/or," binary approach. 

And again, in real life this was the era of  hyper partisanship as exemplified by opponents President Clinton and Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich. It was the era of government shutdowns because successful compromise could not be broached and diverse viewpoints were not accommodated.

Here, Nicholson's Commander-in-Cief must deal with Steiger's jingoistic general, who rabidly wants to use nuclear weapons despite the fact that such weapons would render Earth largely uninhabitable for the human population.  That's a non-starter.

On the opposite side, the same President must also deal with Brosnan's bleeding-heart scientist, who can't seem to accept overt hostility for what it is, and keeps foolishly preaching peace in the face of definitive Martian malevolence.

Both sides of the debate are blinded by pre-existing belief systems.

Meanwhile, the mass media merely views the Martian invasion as another ratings-grabbing circus to cover endlessly, and redneck Joe Don Baker and his wife decide quickly that -- in times of war -- it's okay to write off Grandma (Sylvia Sidney) first.  That's the patriotic thing to do. 

Again, not a pretty picture in either case.

In the middle of all this turmoil stands an irresolute U.S. President who seems terrified to act one way or another, and keeps trying to contain the situation in decidedly milquetoast, half-measure terms.  Delightfully, this President isn't a jab at any specific Chief Executive in American history, but rather a lethal combination of at least three of 'em.  Nicholson's character boasts the cluelessness and affability of Reagan, the wimp factor of the first Bush, and Clinton's love of polls (to help him decide which way the wind was blowing.)

As I noted above, the president's unfortunate character traits represent a lethal combination for the Earth in this situation. This President just won't stand up and fight, stating in PC-terms instead that the Martian bad behavior could be but a "cultural misunderstanding." 

Later, he invokes that famous plea for tolerance from another 1990s celebrity, Rodney King: "can't we all just get along?"   That's an interrogative later Burton revived, also jokingly, in his 2001 Planet of the Apes

Regardless, the overall effect of such ineffectual presidential leadership is the wholesale destruction of the Earth, and a kind of "Pox on Both Your Houses" message of principle from the film itself.

To wit, in Mars Attacks! last act, it is the next generation by necessity that takes the helm after the destruction of the military, scientists, parents and the ruling political class. 

With the establishment wiped out by its own dottering, indecisive ways, it's up to the president's resourceful  young daughter (Natalie Portman) and likable, common-sense Richie to lead the planet to a better future.

And again, the film's last scenes -- notably post-Martian and post-establishment -- re-assert visually a sense of natural order. Even the cute little animals of the Earth can finally come out of hiding because both the Martians and human nincompoops are finally gone.

On the ash heap of history, as I wrote above, are the politicians, businessmen, generals, scientists, parents, and the mainstream media.  And ensconced among the survivors, notably, are recovering alcoholics (Annette Benning), blue collar African-American folks (Pam Grier, Jim Brown), and idealistic kids (Portman, Haas).  

In other words, the disenfranchised of America.  A new world order? 

Regardless, the Martians thus function in Mars Attacks! as a kind of wicked (but necessary?) "clean-up" crew, one malevolently destroying Earth and yet also taking out the very players that seem to keep our culture from ever truly moving forward: politicians, businessmen and even lawyers, in the case of DeVito's character.

Burton doesn't reserve all his satirical jabs for politics, either. His film comments on generic Hollywood blockbusters too.  Mars Attacks! thus concerns an in-vogue American  obsession of the 1990s  (alien invasions), one featured on TV in the X-Files and in theatrical productions such as Species (1995), The Arrival (1996) and Independence Day (1996). He also revives the Irwin Allen template for disaster films.  In other words, big, expensive casts, and lots of destruction. Only in this case, he plays both aspects not for spectacle...but for humor.

Alas, one gets the impression that Burton is overwhelmed by the colossal cast (Nicholson, Glenn Close, Steiger, Martin Short, Lisa Marie, Christina Applegate, Jack Black, Paul Winfield, Haas, Jim Brown, Danny De Vito, Michael J. Fox, Natalie Portman, Pierce Brosnan, Sarah Jessica Parker, Pam Grier, and on and on...). 

Contrarily, the director seems to have a good time demolishing national monuments. In Mars Attacks! Mount Rushmore gets re-painted with a Martian (not Martin) sheen, and the Washington Monument gets tipped over upon a squad of helpless Boy Scouts.  These moments are emblematic of a diabolical vicious streak, and accordingly, Mars Attacks! comes across as Tim Burton's nastiest picture. 

And yet, simultaneously, by the end of the movie, Mars Attacks! writes itself off as a lark, breaking into song with Tom Jones and lunging full-bore into tongue-in-cheek laughs. This is a daring and wicked, if precarious, creative combination. I can't  really say it's a very commercial one, either.  

Think about it: Tim Burton spent over eighty million dollars to create a schlocky, big budget satire of a 1960s trading card franchise in the same summer that Independence Day premiered. Talk about brass balls.  But his film is schizophrenic too. It's a little too gory to go over as easy comedy, and much too comedic to be taken as a serious sci-fi epic.

Instead, Mars Attacks! occupies a weird terrain in the Burton canon. It's a box office disappointment of tremendous invention but also scatter-shot execution.  Really, Mars Attacks! is the Cannonball Run of alien invasion movies. The movie is girded with recognizable stars and top-notch production values, occasionally uproarious, and yet strangely self-indulgent all at the same time.

But damn if those Martians aren't completely awesome creations. Someone should give them their own TV series. The time is ripe for another mean-spirited, gory alien invasion, if you ask me...

Pop Art: Mars Attacks (IDW Edition)

Board Game of the Week: Mars Attacks: The Miniatures Game (Mantic)

Model Kit of the Week: Mars Attack (Screamin' Edition)

Trading Card Close-Up of the Week: Mars Attacks

Movie Trailer: Mars Attacks (1996)

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Lost in Space 50th Anniversary Blogging: "The Wreck of the Robot" (December 14, 1966)

In “The Wreck of the Robot, Will (Bill Mumy), Dr. Smith (Jonathan Harris) and the Robot encounter strange, sinister aliens in a cave.

These dark, curious beings want to take the Robot, and offer to pay for it, but Will refuses their ffer.
Later, the aliens make the same demand for the “mechanical man,” and Professor Robinson (Guy Williams) also refuses.   The Robot begins to feel fearful that his “number is up,” and that his days with his “family” are numbered.

When the macabre aliens act again, they board the Jupiter 2 by darkest night, take the robot and dismantle him.  They offer to return him -- though in pieces -- when their examination is through.

The Robot is returned, but soon all the mechanical devices in the Robinsons’ camp begin to act strangely…out of control. 

The family soon realizes that these aliens of “evil ambition” plan to conquer Earth.  And they will do so by turning man’s machines against him!

I won’t pull punches in my review today. 

"The Wreck of the Robot” is the best episode of Lost in Space’s (1965-1968) second season, at least so far.  It vies for this title with “Prisoners in Space,” but I would seat it just a bit higher than that fine, and entertaining entry.

Why such regard for this episode?

Although the episode is shot in color, “The Wreck of the Robot” strongly recalls the expressionist nightmares of season one installments such as “Wish Upon a Star,” and the child-like innocence (but also terror…) of such stories as “The Magic Mirror,” or “Attack of the Plant Monsters.”

This story involves strange, faceless aliens in cloaks and hats who are genuinely terrifying in image and movement. Yet their image is further enhanced by the compositions and shots chosen by the director, Nathan Juran. 

For example, these extraterrestrial creatures -- kind of early versions of Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s fearsome Gentlemen -- are sometimes seen only as shadows reflected on the hull of the Jupiter 2. And by pitch-black night, no less.

And in one thoroughly unnerving scene, these beings steal inside the safe haven of the Jupiter 2, and peek in on the children, Penny and Will, sleeping soundly.  They stand there and watch, before moving on, and the impression is one of real malevolence; real danger.  

On a series that so often feels silly, this invasion of “home” does not feel silly at all.

The fear being expressed in “The Wreck of the Robot,” quite simply, is something akin to “Stranger Danger.”  All children, I believe, understand this fear instinctively; that some malevolent adult stranger has set their sights on us, and wants to take us away from our family.

If one analyzes the images in “The Wreck of the Robot,” one begins to understand that’s exactly the story featured here. The alien strangers are, in terms of symbolism, depicted as strange “adults” in their formal hat and capes.  

Secondly, they arrive to steal one of the family -- the Robot -- who is deathly afraid of them.

And then, worst of all, these alien stranger come by night, as the children sleep, and invade the safety of the home (the Jupiter 2), while the parents are totally unaware, oblivious of the danger posed.  

The Robot is taken, metaphorically, from his home, at night and then “dismantled,” a kind of body image attack that is not far, idea-wise, from physical or sexual assault. After being returned and re-assembled, the Robot readily admits he feels uneasy; that he is not himself yet.  For lack of a better word, he is traumatized.

Given the metaphorical meaning of the tale, “The Wreck of the Robot” plays as something much like a child’s nightmare. The sinister aliens are both grotesque (for being faceless) and representative of adults (in their choice attire), yet also -- in some way -- whimsical or childish. They are the kind of monster a child might be afraid of. They are simultaneously repellent and impossible to stop watching.

“The Wreck of the Robot” also succeeds for two other reasons. First, it features a remarkable and heart-felt scene between John and Will Robinson. 

John wants to tell Will that he will be okay, even if he loses the robot, and one cannot help but think of a parent comforting a child over the loss or injury of a pet.  John tries to tell Will that he will be all right, no matter what happens to his friend.   Also in this scene, there’s a great moment about how fathers love their sons.  For them, John says, it is like reliving their own childhood; like he gets to grow up all over again.  This is, frankly, how I feel almost every day with my son.  I get to relive childhood through his eyes; his experiences. 

“The Wreck of the Robot” also seems to understand that a little Dr. Smith goes a long way.  He is not the center of the story, he does not attempt to deceitfully sell the Robot to the aliens, and his comic antics are not allowed to detract from the narrative’s sense of developing fear or terror.  The worst scene in the episode, in fact, is one in which Don and Judy tease Smith with the Robot’s severed head. But even that doesn’t ruin the episode, overall.

In terms of character development, “The Wreck of the Robot” certainly does a lot for the “Bubble Headed Booby.”  The Robot survives his abduction in the end, and destroys the alien machine -- when no man or machine can -- because of his unique nature.  As he suggests, the Robot is not a man and not a machine, either, but something in between.  He has a soul, perhaps one might conclude.

But even the Robot’s strange journey -- and sense of self-discovery in this episode -- is secondary to what I feel is a deeply psychological story about childhood, or adolescence; the fear of the adult world and its strange rules (again, represented by the aliens’ formal hats, I would suggests), as well as its murky, unspoken dangers.

I absolutely love Lost in Space when it plays on this terrain, as a kind of futuristic fairy tale for kids 
(think “The Magic Mirror” or “My Friend, Mr. Nobody.”) 

I readily confess that I have found some previous episodes of the second season not only tiresome, but actually atrocious.  “

"The Wreck of the Robot” rights the ship, at least for a moment.

Next week: “The Dream Monster.”